My friend Rebekkah Niles sent me a link to this post on paranormal romance writing site. It’s a quick overview of the different ways time-travel might change or not change the past, something I’ve of course blogged about myself (such as here and here). This time I want to focus on the first section on the article: Reasons time travel can’t change the past,
The writer, Angela Quarles includes, for example, the time traveler who’s part of his own history, such as the first Terminator. And stories in which the laws of temporal physics resist changes to the time stream. In Fritz Leiber’s “Try and Change the Past,” for instance, a man plucked out of time tries to avert his own death, but against all odds, the universe adjusts to keep events constant.
As I’ve mentioned before, screen time travel doesn’t do much with the idea the time stream is fixed. I haven’t run into many inherent strength stories either, where the natural course of events just can’t change the way you want—you shoot Hitler, for instance, but someone takes his place and nothing changes (I’m inclined to agree with author Ron Rosenbaum that it’s more “no Hitler, no Holocaust,” but I wouldn’t be totally surprised to be wrong.
What I do see quite a bit of is talk about destiny. The idea that something or someone has decreed the way things should be and that you just can’t change. Or if you did, it’d get worse. You’re tampering, as Ed Woods once put it, with God’s domain.
Case in point, REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947), a do-over film (all rights to image with current holder) which starts seconds after Joan Leslie (playing a stage actress) guns down her husband in self-defense (unusually for a do-over, there’s no time spent on set-up, nor is it needed). Best friend and escaped lunatic Richard Basehart walks her to a friend’s apartment to report the tragedy, and Leslie tells him she just wishes she could have the year back to rewrite it like a bad third act. And when she arrives at the apartment, it’s a year ago, New Year’s Day 1946. She has her change.
It doesn’t seem too difficult. The attack on her resulted from drunken shit-bag playwright husband Louis Hayward’s affair with a female playwright (Virginia Field) while Hayward and Leslie were in London. So Leslie moves to California instead, then back to New York to star in a play, after the producer assures her Field won’t be back from London for months. Only she turns up, and soon Hayward’s having the affair again … Leslie also fails to talk Basehart out of becoming the boy-toy for socialite Natalie Shafer, who had him committed on the first go-round (the reasons why are a bit blurry, the weakest point).
But then Shafer catches Hayward and Field in a balcony embrace and the drunken Hayward falls off, putting him in a wheelchair (he shamelessly uses this to manipulate Leslie into quitting the show to care for him). Leslie tells Basehart that this didn’t happen the first time and her friend quips that “Destiny slipped …maybe we can escape while she’s picking herself up.”
Ultimately, they can’t. Hayward snaps when Fields dumps him, convinced she’ll take him back once Leslie is dead. Only this time when he attacks her, Basehart shoots him (saving Leslie the trauma and the scandal). He tells Leslie that destiny doesn’t care about the details, just the outcome.
There’s no real explanation of what destiny is, but then there doesn’t have to be. Whether or not we believe in it, we all know the word and the concept; it’s simpler and maybe more dramatic than discussing how the laws of temporal cause-and-effect apply. And it works here, though Hayward is such a complete dick it’s hard not to think Leslie should have blown him off sooner and solved everything.
Another example is ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES, which I’ll be reviewing this weekend. When two chimps who escaped the cataclysm in the previous film land on Earth, it eventually leaks out that humanity’s time as ruler is doomed. The president’s chief adviser argues we should kill or sterilize them to avert them passing their intelligent genes to present-day apes, but admits he’s not sure “which future has God chosen for man’s destiny?” By contrast Ricardo Montalban, who helps the apes, asserts that if God wants humanity replaced, he will not defy God’s will. Three guesses which one is the good guy.
It’s a useful concept for a film, not necessarily for a hard SF story. But of course, few time-travel films are that.