Posts Tagged ‘time travel’

Something notable happened to the perception of SF and fantasy in the UK in the middle of the 1980s: when I was very young, SF programmes like Star Trek were on in prime time on one of the main channels – this is the main reason why original Trek acquired its cultural traction in the UK. On the BBC at least, there seemed to be relatively little stigma attached to the science fiction genre prior to the late 80s – the network produced Survivors, Blake’s 7, and Star Cops all in the preceding ten years or so.

After this, however, the BBC largely stopped making SF, and the imported programmes that it did broadcast usually turned up on its minority network in an early-evening slot. This happened to re-runs of The Invaders and the Gerry Anderson programmes throughout the 1990s, and also to every episode of Star Trek the BBC has broadcast since about 1986. (The Beeb has never had the rights to Enterprise, but at one point in 1997 they were showing Voyager on Sundays, Next Generation on Wednesdays, Deep Space Nine on Thursdays, and the original series on Fridays.)

As you can see, in the UK all Star Trek was treated equally – as disposable cult-fodder – and so we never got the sense that some iterations of the show might be more popular or successful than others. Certainly, I was a little surprised last year to discover that most general-audience histories of the franchise focus primarily on the original series and TNG, treating the last three shows as being rather obscure and only of minority interest. Still, at least it explains why there was never serious talk of doing DS9 or Voyager movies, and also the slightly odd, semi-detached relationship between the Next Gen movies and the TV shows that were in production simultaneously with them.

This is most noticeable in Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes and released in 1996, when there were two other TV series running which were ostensibly set contemporaneously with the movie. I remember going to see this movie on its opening night with a group of other people, some of whom knew their Trek, some of whom didn’t, and I seem to recall we all had a pretty good time: we concluded it worked well as both a Trek film and an SF action movie. These days – well, sitting down and watching the movie more thoughtfully, I’m inclined to be just a little more critical.

I suppose some of this is simply down to my unreasonable fondness for sprawling fictional universes and my expectation that they try to stay coherent and plausible, on their own terms at least. Certainly there are very sound real-world reasons why the Enterprise has retained the virtually the exact same senior staff for nine years, but from an in-universe perspective one is forced to wonder why the Federation flagship is crewed by people whose careers seem to have ground to a halt. (At least Worf (Michael Dorn) seems to be getting on with his life, although this does require the movie to ‘spring’ him from Deep Space Nine in rather the same way the rest of the A-Team were frequently required to extract Murdock from a mental hospital.)

In the same way, the opening of the movie does feel a little peculiar. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang are safely ensconced aboard the shiny new Enterprise-E, when alarming news comes in of a new attack by the Borg (an implacable cyborg menace to civilisation as we know it, who may or may not be knock-offs of the Cybermen from Doctor Who). Picard has history with the Borg, which forms the basis of his arc in the movie – but this also means Starfleet consider him a bit suspect, so the ship is packed off to the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the havoc wreaked by the Borg incursion.

Quite apart from the very rum decision-making on the part of the Admiralty – if Picard is considered likely to go fuzzy round the edges in a pressure situation, what is he doing commanding the flagship of the fleet? – and the fact that this bit of script is obviously just here to give the captain a big hero moment where he decides to disobey orders and go to the aid of the fleet, doesn’t the Federation have more pressing concerns than the Romulans at this point in time? Pointedly not mentioned at all is the ongoing cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, which was the basis of DS9 episodes around this time. Which in turn leads one to wonder what the Enterprise-E was doing throughout the Dominion War. It is almost as if the movies and TV shows operated in slightly parallel universes, rather in the same way as Marvel’s movies and TV shows do at the moment.

Well, anyway. Picard and the Enterprise, along with the rest of the fleet, manage to destroy the invading Borg cube by cunningly, um, shooting at it a lot, but not before it disgorges a Borg sphere (big on geometrical designs, these Borg) which promptly disappears back in time. Realising the Borg are planning on conquering Earth in the past (no respecters of temporal integrity, either), it’s up to Picard and the others to follow them and save history.

They find the Borg have gone back to 2063 and are trying to avert Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (hence the title), which was triggered by the first flight of Zefram Cochrane’s prototype warp-drive ship. (Cochrane is played by James Cromwell, at the time most famous as the dancing farmer from Babe.) Fixing the prototype and getting a reluctant Cochrane to stay off the sauce long enough to fulfil his destiny is tricky enough, but somehow the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise, and the crew also have to battle to stop them from taking over the ship…

We shall skip over the nagging questions of why it is that the Borg don’t just travel back to 2063 near their home planet and make the whole journey to Earth in the past, thus avoiding Starfleet’s response entirely, and the convenient way in which they establish a foothold on the Enterprise so easily, and think about more general matters. You can kind of see the thinking that went into the general shape of this movie – I think everyone assumed that with the original series crossover movie done and dusted, the next one would concern itself with Round Two between the Enterprise and the Borg, while after the success of Star Trek IV and many other time-travel episodes of Trek, it’s understandable that the studio should want a film built around that sort of premise.

But having said that, this is (as far as I can remember) pretty much unique in being a mass-audience SF movie in which characters time-travel from one made-up future world to another (as opposed to something recognisable as the present day, or a point in history). This is not necessarily a terrible choice, but it is a peculiar one – I’m reminded of the current discussion of ‘incorrect’ song writing. If the concept has any validity, then I would suggest that Star Trek: First Contact has touches of incorrect scriptwriting about it. (Earlier drafts of the story went by the title Star Trek: Renaissance and saw the Borg going back in time to assimilate Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Italy, but this more ‘correct’ idea was apparently vetoed by Patrick Stewart, who refused to wear tights in a movie.)

Once you get past the byzantine complexities of Star Trek continuity and the slight oddness of the premise, this is an undeniably solid movie, and certainly the best of the Next Gen films. Alien invasion movies were back in fashion in 1996, most notably in the form of the all-conquering Independence Day, and this is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if it can’t quite match Roland Emmerich’s epic roller-coaster for thrills, scale, or sheer entertainment value – something of that slightly staid and worthy Next Gen sensibility persists throughout.

Then again, the moves away from the Hollywood SF movie formula do provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The business on Earth with Cochrane provides a good-natured change of pace when set against the rather grimmer goings-on on the ship, the obscurely kinky scenes between Data (Brent Spiner) and the Queen of the Borg (Alice Krige) are distractingly odd, and all the various space battles and ray gun fights are well-mounted. But the heft of the film comes from Patrick Stewart, and Picard’s struggle to overcome his own rage and desire for vengeance against the Borg. The moments you remember are Picard ferociously tommy-gunning Borg drones while howling in fury, accusing Worf of cowardice for not being willing to fight to the death, lashing out in anger when confronted by his own irrationality and helplessness. All credit due to Patrick Stewart, of course (and also to Michael Dorn, whose ability to create memorable character moments from the slightest material is almost miraculous) – but this is also interesting in the wider context of Star Trek as a whole.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity, inasmuch as it became a defining feature of the Star Trek he was involved in during the final years of his life, was that human beings were somehow perfectible, and that the people of the Federation had moved on beyond their recognisable human hang-ups. Writers on TNG came to call this notion ‘the Roddenberry box’ as it limited the possibilities of interpersonal drama so much – any script built around the idea of conflict between the regulars got spiked, for example. And yet First Contact seems to be commenting on this idea in a manner which I’m not at all sure the Great Bird would have been happy with – never mind the fact that Picard has clearly been left significantly damaged by his previous experiences with the Borg, the film presents Cochrane, architect of the bright future which the Federation will come to exemplify, as a rather ambiguous character – overly fond of a drink, motivated by self-interest, unwilling to face up to responsibility. Is the whole notion of perfectible humanity built on rather shaky foundations? The movie is wise enough not to go too far with this.

It adds a welcome, if subtle piece of heft to what is otherwise much more of a straightforward action movie than most of the other good Star Trek films. The tendency of Star Trek films to turn into action movies has been bewailed by others in the past, not just me, but if you’re going to turn Star Trek into an action movie it should at least be a good one, with some interesting ideas and strong characterisation still somewhere in the mix. Judged by this standard, First Contact is certainly a success, if not quite up to the standard of the very best films in the franchise.


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Before we go any further, a brief recap of this blog’s position when it comes to the Terminator franchise: The Terminator is a stone-cold all-time classic, and a practically perfect movie (possibly because it’s the only one in the series not conceived of as a blockbuster), Terminator 2 is very decent in a deafening-overblown-James-Cameron-big-budget-remake sort of way, Rise of the Machines passes the time in a not actively painful manner, and Terminator: Salvation is a pointless and puny waste of money and talent.

Given this general trajectory, the omens are not great for Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys even before we consider the silly title. This is a film the rights to which essentially went to the winners of an auction, so perhaps one’s expectation management should be even more severe than that.

Anyway, the film initially appears to be playing it safe and heading down the route of being a more polished remake of the original film, as, in the year 2029, Kyle Reese (this time: Jai Courtney) prepares to go back in time and save Sarah Connor (this time: Emilia Clarke) from cybernetic assassins. She is a target due to her being destined to give birth to John Connor (this time: Jason Clarke), the man who will lead the human race to victory following a nuclear war sparked by a rogue AI, Skynet. (Does anyone not know the Terminator backstory…? I feel obliged to recap it anyway.)

But when Kyle arrives in 1984, pursuing the Terminator already dispatched back there, he finds that time is out of joint: the Terminator has already been dealt with by another, somewhat wizened machine of the same model (I need not tell you who plays this role, I suspect), who is working with an entirely clued-up Sarah, while Kyle finds himself hunted by a T-1000 Terminator, which likewise shouldn’t be here at all.

What on Earth is going on? Kyle never actually asks this, so far as I recall, but he should clearly be thinking it, as should the audience. Well, to cut a long story short, this film takes the nuclear option when it comes to time travel as a plot device, and sticks anti-matter in its microwave (if that’s not too tortuous a metaphor). Basically, all the major characters end up in an entirely pre-apocalyptic near future, where they find out that Skynet is now an app or a mobile phone or the new version of Windows or something, and the reason this is happening is because…

I have two good reasons for not going any further. One is that it would involve heavy spoilers for the second half of the film, and the other is that I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on. To be fair, Terminator Genisys probably isn’t much more full of blinky-blonky techno-cobblers and suspect determinism than any of the other sequels, but it’s a lot more up-front about it, predicating its plot around some startling narrative developments it never properly bothers to explain: what exactly is going on with the grumpy old T-800 that was apparently sent back to the early 1970s? Not only does the film not bother to explain, it essentially says ‘we’ll get to this in the next sequel’, which I feel is relying rather too much on audience goodwill. (It may be significant that playing a small but important role in this film is one – it says here – “Matthew” Smith, an actor more experienced than most in dealing with byzantine time-travel plots that may not, in the final analysis, properly hang together.)

The first act of the film has fun re-staging and screwing around with sequences from the original Terminator (Bill Paxton doesn’t come back, by the way), and this stuff has a sort of demented energy that serves the film rather well. Once everyone decamps to the future, though, the film becomes rather more predictable and even pedestrian: you’ll never guess what, but they’ve got to stop Skynet being created! Just like in number 2. Oh, and number 3. And, I’ll hazard a guess, number 6, when it’s finally made. Hey ho.

What is perhaps surprising is what a peripheral presence Arnie is in the movie, given I doubt they’d have made it without him. When his CGI double isn’t being chucked through walls in the action scenes, he spends quite a lot of his time just standing around, occasionally waking up to deliver comic relief or bafflegab exposition. He’s still clearly up for it, however, and this is surely his best work since that odd political interlude in his career.

Much of the film is left to Courtney and the Clarkes to carry, and they do a decent enough job, supported by a script which actually manages to find decent moments of emotion and thoughtfulness between all the crash-bang-wallop and tortuous temporal wrangling. J.K. Simmons pops up as – I think – a new character who was supposedly mixed up in the events of 1984, but he’s mainly just there to do exposition and comic relief as well.

Like all the other sequels, this knows the audience it’s pitching to and sticks in all the appropriate explosions and jokes and lingering shots of heavy weaponry, as well as enough references to the original film to gratify the fanbase (though Brad Fiedel’s theme is saved for the closing credits), although I would be really very hesitant about taking anyone to see this who wasn’t already familiar with the first film (at least).

If it doesn’t have the raw energy, inventiveness, and dramatic charge of The Terminator – well, hardly anything does, and at least it’s more fun to watch than Terminators 3 or 4 (in places, certainly). But the prospect of yet more, even more convoluted sequels, kind of makes my heart sink a bit. Blowing up the existing timeline and letting the bits fall where they may is what powers this movie, but it’s not exactly a long term strategy, and I can’t imagine them managing to drag the story back to a place where it actually makes sense any more. On its own terms, this is a rather unsatisfying film, narratively at least – but I still think that any further sequels will find the law of diminishing returns biting them very hard and very fast. Enough, Arnie, enough.


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When it comes to stories about time travel, there are two main varieties: ones which are about the destination, and ones which are about the means of travel. The first type includes HG Wells’ original The Time Machine, most Doctor Who worthy of the name, that Star Trek film with the whales, and every other story where time travel is just a convenient method of getting the characters to an interesting venue for a story. The second type includes all those stories where the characters find themselves on the wrong end of a time paradox, whether intentionally or not, due to the fact they have – for whatever reason – interfered with history.

It’s very easy to write a bad Type II time travel story, and many people have done so over the years: ones that don’t make sense even on their own terms, or have to resort to outrageous and unsatisfactory plot devices just to reach some semblance of a conclusion (recently there’s been a displeasing tendency to assume that as long as the – excuse me while I clear my sinuses – ’emotional arc’ of a story hangs together, the actual coherency of the plot can go hang).

Nevertheless, people keep writing them, because the appeal of this kind of story is obvious: everyone has regrets, wishes for second chances, ponders the road untaken. Time travel stories offer a chance to amend the unhappy past, even if only fictitiously. And if you really want to write something with wide appeal, what about writing about – and fixing – a tragedy that colours everyone’s past?

European writers indulging in this kind of thing usually plump for doing a story in which the central idea is the prevention of the Second World War and/or the Holocaust. Americans aren’t averse to this sort of thing either, but they have a few other, more recent possibilities to toy with. September 11th and all that followed are still a bit too raw to be fooling around with in genre fiction, but that still leaves them with the Kennedy assassination, which is packed with potential. There have been lots of save-Kennedy time travel stories, admittedly of varying quality, and of them Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is probably towards the top of the stack.

11-22-63_uk_cover_hdThis being an orchard-massacring King doorstop of a book, the great man enjoys himself in the telling of the tale. The protagonist is a nice enough 21st century guy who stumbles upon a fissure in the space-time continuum connecting the present day to one moment in the late 1950s: you can go back as often as you like, but you always arrive at the same time and place, and each visit basically erases all trace of your previous journeys. King does a pretty good job of selling you this idea, but it remains a fairly outrageous piece of physics (there are severe conservation of energy issues, as when the lead ends up owning multiple versions of the same shirt bought on separate visits to the past) and it’s basically just there as a very specific plot device.

To cut a very long story fairly short, our hero decides to go back, live through the late 50s and early 60s and – assuming he can prove to his own satisfaction that the Kennedy assassination was indeed the work of a Lone Gunman – kill Lee Harvey Oswald long before the fateful day in November 1963.

There is, of course, much more to the story than that, as the protagonist carries out a test case in altering the past, discovers that history is resistant to being changed, finds himself going native in the 1960s, and so on. And, to King’s credit, while I’m dead certain that 700 pages is more than a story like this one really requires, I’m stumped if I can offer suggestions as to what could be cut that wouldn’t entail a major rewrite of the whole thing. There are some parts of the book I liked less than others – there’s a slightly cutesy romance that made me grimace somewhat, and a slightly self-indulgent crossover with the events of It that I could’ve done without – but very little that actually screams filler.

And, this being Stephen King, the story grabs you from the start and doesn’t really let go, even when the pace slows down (as it does for quite a long section in the middle). And when the story gets to the business end, it is properly electric, page-turning stuff, as you find yourself wondering: what’s the But… going to be?

Because there is always going to be a But… in this kind of story. Permit me to explain. Stories of this kind have at their heart the hero trying to change history in a fairly major way. You would have thought, with a good degree of rightness, that there are only two possible outcomes – Hero Succeeds and Hero Fails. Now, the problem with the history-changing story is that both of these outcomes are beset with difficulties. Hero Fails is simply not an option: nobody would want to read a 700 page book about someone who, in the end, simply doesn’t manage to do what they set out to do in the first place (what a downer!).

However, Hero Succeeds isn’t much better, but for subtler reasons to do with things like suspension of disbelief and reader identification. I’ll happily believe in a story about someone who goes back to 1920 and has various adventures before coming back to the present day, but my goodwill towards a story about someone who goes back to 1920, kills Hitler, prevents the Second World War and returns to a utopian 21st century is considerably more limited. It’s quite difficult to say why: maybe because it smacks in some way of wish fulfilment, maybe because it’s palpably not real, maybe because it’s arguably in quite poor taste.

Interestingly, when the makers of Quantum Leap did their Kennedy assassination episode, they tried to get round these problems. At the end, the hero (having failed to stop JFK being killed) is bemoaning his failure to his sidekick, distraught at his inability to change anything. But you did change something, the sidekick reveals. In the original timeline, Jackie Kennedy was murdered too.

Now, I instinctively didn’t like this plot twist, and it took me a little while to figure out why. In the end I realised that the appeal of a changing-history story is the suggestion that one can make a better world, which is a subtly different thing from a less-bad one. The ending of the JFK episode suggested that by changing history, the Quantum Leap guys were not making our world better, just making it. And I looked around me and thought, is this the best they could do?

However, their Hero Fails, But… conclusion worked better than a straight Hero Fails or Hero Succeeds ending, even if it was still flawed. To go with the Hero Fails, But… twist, there is of course the Hero Succeeds, But… twist – a formulation which is probably more common both in SF about the Kennedy assassination (popping up in the Profile in Silver episode of The Twilight Zone and the Tikka to Ride episode of Red Dwarf) and that about the Second World war (for example, Stephen Fry’s Making History).

So, as I say, there’s always a But… in this kind of story – at least, there is when it’s written by someone halfway competent. When it’s written by someone of the calibre of Stephen King, what you get is actually a whole series of Buts, nested very elegantly inside one another. We’re getting quite close to the point where I can’t say more without spoiling the ending of 11.22.63, so I must be careful.

In the end, King’s resolution isn’t as original as you might hope for, in plot terms at least – but in the context of this particular book it is fit for purpose, and does a decent job of explaining some of the more way-out elements of the story (the protagonist finds himself bedevilled by a sort of hostile synchronicity at several points, which makes for convenient plotting, and which I thought King was just going to dodge explaining or pass off as something usefully abstract like Destiny). Not all of it completely worked for me, but enough did.

As I said, it’s very difficult to talk in even general terms about the ending of 11.22.63 without spoiling it, for obvious reasons. Suffice to say that I found the conclusion surprising and quietly rather moving, and somehow not at all what I would’ve expected. This isn’t my favourite King book, but it’s a good one, more disciplined than Under the Dome and less cheerfully lurid than many of his earlier works – the work of a master still in prime condition. I’m not sure if this quite qualifies as a classic treatment of a classic genre trope, but it’s a very effective piece of entertainment.

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