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Gustopher said on May 27th, 2012 at 4:47 am

You’re missing The Doctor’s Ball Of Timey Whimey Stuff, which clearly states that things kind of sort of happen or something and it eventually fits together. Probably. Or you get monsters or something.

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Soylent said on May 27th, 2012 at 4:53 am

There’s also Discworld’s Elastic History: you can attempt to change as much as you want, but in the end history will broadly conform to what it has already done due to Narrative Causality. It’s shown in Thief of Time and Night Watch

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Michael said on May 27th, 2012 at 7:48 am

his makes no sense. Boris has gone back in time, but given that he hasn’t found or killed young K yet, old K ought to be alive

This makes no sense. If Boris has gone back in time and killed K, then K is dead. K has been dead for decades. Boris can’t have “not killed him yet”, because it happened before Will Smith was born.

Technically, it’s covered under Connor’s Berth (brilliant name), but even that as a law doesn’t make sense. The time travel in Terminator (at least, in The Terminator) works because Arnie fails to kill Sarah Connor. It wasn’t that he tried, succeeded, and then Kyle Reese was sent to defend her; he failed because Kyle Reese had always been there to help. It’s a stable time loop.

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Burrakooka said on May 27th, 2012 at 8:35 am

The other thing with Terminator is that Skynet probably never intended to succeed (from the point of view that the the first 2 movies are the only ones that ‘count’). It knew it’s own origins (and presumably John’s), it could just have been setting them in motion (Simpson’s Razer?), otherwise why not kill Sarah as a child or her mother. As Michael said above, a stable loop. That may not hold up, it’s been a while since i watched them but I don’t think there’s any conclusive evidence in the first two movies that Connor actually wins a future war outright. Then once you get to the third movie they show the timeline is changeable, and I think him winning the war.

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JCHandsom said on May 27th, 2012 at 11:14 am

I may be wrong but I believe that the reason Skynet sent the first Terminator back to 1984, and not to an earlier year when she was a child, was that they didn’t really know anything about her except her name. Well they knew what city, what year, and her name to be precise, but that was it. The T-1000 was a similar attempt, just at a later year as a backup plan.

Skynet sent back Terminators to those specific years not to sustain their own creation, rather they were working with the information they had.

Also, unless you discredit Reese’s account during the prison interrogation where he said basically “Connor had smashed Skynet and we won”, there is no concrete evidence for Skynet’s destruction.

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JCHandsom said on May 27th, 2012 at 11:18 am

Sorry for the double post, but I meant to type “if you discount” instead of “unless you discredit” in that last bit.

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Good analysis. I’ve long noticed Conner’s Berth–I presume it’s popular because it allows you a ticking-clock scenario.
Even though Al claims that it’s the divorce that made him who he is, I still think he’d be a lovable creep–just married, or divorced later. The first episode dealing with his marriage made it clear his marriage was doomed regardless of his POW status–it’s just that so many fans I know didn’t like that.

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You know, I’d give the writers of some of these debacles a little more slack if there weren’t some shining examples of time travel stories that work (and are really good stories to boot). Off hand, I can think of 12 Monkeys, where Terry Gilliam understood that rigid time, which can’t be changed no matter how hard you try, is a perfect setting for a classic tragedy, Primer which is at least as much about the greed and vanity of the characters as about traveling in time, Blink, the episode of Doctor Who that demonstrates how time travel can create a story based on the tension between the differences in the order of events as perceived by different characters and by the audience.

But it’s so much easier to blow things up than to think them through, so we’re not likely to see very many of those stories.

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You’ve picked up on a theme, but I daresay all your details are off the mark. You’re right that there are laws governing time travel stories, and that breaking them will make the story suck.

The first rule is the most important, from Jamie Zawinsky, “If your story is not about time travel, but it has time travel in it, then your story sucks.” — http://www.jwz.org/blog/2009/05/i-have-a-theory-about-time-travel/

The second most important rule is that there are separate and distinct ways that time travel paradox resolution may be possible — each with its own set of rules — and mixing up the resolution theories will always make a story suck. (Especially if you mix up Novikov with Multiverse!)

The best example of these two laws of storytelling is the Terminator series. The first of the movies were clearly *about* time travel, and stuck to Novikov incredibly well.

It was even kinda with Novikov that the Sarah Connor Chronicles started off — but then they switched to Multiverse rules for the second season! By the time the Christian Bale movie came out, they’d broken the cardinal rule, and that movie wasn’t *about* time travel at all.

Star Trek also had a habit of switching back and forth between the incompatible Novikov and Multiverse rules, which is why much of their time travel stories sucked.

Sure, not many people understand the details of the rules, but we’re familiar enough with them that their influence is often subconscious.

There’s a great movie that sort of addresses this quandry, Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel, where the experts in the movie assume Novikov without realizing they’re travelling based on Multiverse rules.

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William Kendall said on May 27th, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I’m just avoiding seeing this film because, well, I find Will Smith to be a complete douchebag.

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I strongly object to any article that discusses rules for time travel without addressing TimeCop rules!

:-p

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You’re missing The Doctor’s Ball Of Timey Whimey Stuff, which clearly states that things kind of sort of happen or something and it eventually fits together. Probably. Or you get monsters or something.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t miss that, I think it was called Star Trek: Voyager and I’m not too keen to see the British version.

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highlyverbal said on May 27th, 2012 at 4:16 pm

The Groundhog Day halting condition: you only escape from a repeating loop of time when you have actual character growth.

Which is the real reason why most Star Trek time travel plots suck ass. Cardboard characters trapped in a repeating loop of time leave only explosion as a way out. On the plus side, they did lead to the discovery of the Accelerated Repetition Detection effect, where each subsequent time through the loop, the existence of the time loop is detected “earlier.”

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I’m with Michael, I take issue with Conner’s Berth. You can argue about the illogic of time travel stories, but that one’s narratively illogical and unintuitive. A timeline should change the instant a time traveller vanishes from the time pod or whatever. If nothing changes, it means that the time traveller failed to change anything, full stop, not that he hasn’t gotten around to it yet. (Or you can go with the alternate-timeline theory, which is narratively rather dull, because it removes time-travel stakes. Though it does allow for, say, Doctor Who to be as careless as he is in saving lives or altering stuff, since no matter what history as we know it will be maintained.

I vaguely recall a video game (?) that suggested the idea that if the timeline was altered in the past, there’d be a “time ripple” that would give you a grace period before it caught up with and changed the present. I believe the movie adaptation of “Sound of Thunder” used a much, much stupider version of this theory. Illogical, but I’ll give it a slight pass for narrative purposes.

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most time travel stories are completely illogical poppcycock

All time travel stories are completely illogical poppycock, since they break causality and have never been observed in the our universe. They’re still fun to read.

Also, I’d include Dragonball Z style time travel (each time travel makes an alternate universe) in there somewhere as the less poppycock version.

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Julie L said on May 27th, 2012 at 8:25 pm

I personally prefer time travel as handled in Farscape, don’t do it or you will completely f things up.

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Alegretto said on May 28th, 2012 at 12:59 am

@Thok:
OR they haven’t been observed in our universe BECAUSE they break causality. Our universe’s timeline has actually been altered countless times by stray neutrinos or what have you and we just don’t notice because it is our own timeline that’s being rewritten.

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If you could come up with a clever name for the Marvel rule: travelling back in time creates a divergent timeline, separate from the one you know. So, if Ben Grimm travels back in time to stop himself from going on that rocket trip; he creates a timeline where he never became the Thing, yet still remains the Thing when he gets back to his time. (Which would make travelling back in time relatively safer, as it were; if kind of useless.)

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express said on May 28th, 2012 at 9:52 am

Jim, the Doctor’s Ball of Timey-Wimey Stuff is from Dr. Who, not Voyager, and I think you did kind of miss it.

It sort of boils down to “Time is not a rigid line that snaps and breaks if one thing is changed. Time is elastic enough to course-correct around no end of minor changes, so as long as you don’t fuck with a major pivotal historical event, everything will be fine”.

Dr Who also seems to have a rule that each time-traveller has a sort of “personal timeline”, and once time-travellers meet, their personal timelines become synchronized. So the Doctor can meet someone in present day, then travel to the year 4582 and telephone that person, and they will each feel the same amount of time has elapsed.

The exception to THAT of course being the River Song Rule, which is best summarized as “oh God my aching head, now I understand why time travel is not usually written this way”.

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>Off hand, I can think of 12 Monkeys, where Terry Gilliam understood that rigid time, which can’t be changed no matter how hard you try,

Actually, there’s still room for fun debate. “I’m in insurance.”

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OR they haven’t been observed in our universe BECAUSE they break causality. Our universe’s timeline has actually been altered countless times by stray neutrinos or what have you and we just don’t notice because it is our own timeline that’s being rewritten.

There’s no difference between this suggestion and the idea that the world was created 2000 years by God in a way that it looks billions of years old. Without any way to detect the causality violations, there’s no reason to assume them.

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@Michael:

The time travel in Terminator (at least, in The Terminator) works because Arnie fails to kill Sarah Connor. It wasn’t that he tried, succeeded, and then Kyle Reese was sent to defend her; he failed because Kyle Reese had always been there to help. It’s a stable time loop.

Fair enough, but it’s clear the time travelers in the movie don’t believe that’s how it works. I would assume Skynet thinks sending Arnold back will work or they wouldn’t have tried it, and Reese definitely doesn’t act like a guy who knows causality is on his side.

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@The Unstoppable Gravy Express:

Jim, the Doctor’s Ball of Timey-Wimey Stuff is from Dr. Who, not Voyager, and I think you did kind of miss it.

I think you’re missing my point that I’m likening Who to Voyager, and dismissing them both as shows where the default approach is “It’s magic, we don’t have to explain it.”

Look, if that works for Doctor Who, fine. But my original post is about the unwritten rules of time travel that the mainstream public now expects from all time travel stories, and why this is absurd because even those rules make no sense. My original post is not about “Jim tries to list every stated rule in every time travel story ever, especially Doctor Who because otherwise Doctor Who fans will feel left out.”

Basically I’m writing about the rules of children’s board games, and you’re asking why I forgot to mention 20-sided dice. I didn’t forget, it’s beyond the scope of the chosen topic.

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Alegretto said on May 28th, 2012 at 8:13 pm

@Thok
I know. It’s like Descartes evil genie. But choosing not to assume them is just our preferred way out of what is essentially a closed-circuit. It doesn’t mean it’s not true or that it couldn’t be true, it just means that assuming it to be true offers no value to our understanding of the universe, since by design it’s undetectable.

Doesn’t mean it’s not cool to acknowledge it’s possibilities in fiction.

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RT says MIB3 is okay but not great.

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The Unstoppable Gravy Express said on May 29th, 2012 at 10:34 am

@Jim: The mainstream public “expects” the rulebook of Quantum Leap but not Dr. Who? I didn’t think you were going for an exhaustive list, but it sort of feels like you were describing what people expect of a Rocky villain, and someone pointed out “you forgot Mr. T”, and you’re like “well I’m not going to list every single last tiny Rocky villain now am I?”

Granted, I was honestly confused that you might have thought Gustopher was referencing the Doctor character on Voyager. I mean, comparing Dr Who to the dreckfest that was Voyager? PUH-leeze. :-)

Thing is, Dr Who can be very, ruthlessly, hard-SF rigorous with time travel within a specific story (“Blink”) or possibly within a season, but trying to account for the whole vast history of the show at once pretty much necessitates at some point just giving up and going with magic.

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Jeff R. said on May 29th, 2012 at 1:41 pm

I dare you to come up with a formulation of the rule under which Sam is allowed to save his brother but not his father…

(Or, more directly to the ‘changing his own history towards the unrecognizable’ point, arrange to successfully marry his first love…)

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Great article MGK, though I should like to note that MIB 3 actually wasn’t all that bad; was, in fact, (barring the first 20 minutes or so until J jumps into the past, which are practically MIB 2 levels of cartoonishly bad) actually pretty good. Turns out Will Smith and Josh Brolin have great chemistry after all.

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highlyverbal said on May 30th, 2012 at 12:36 pm

@Rbx5: this article was by another author, btw.

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^Ah, I just noticed. My bad.

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highlyverbal said on June 1st, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Today’s xkcd has another rule on time travel.

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