The Importance of Time Distortion

One of my favorite tropes in science fiction is time distortion. This can be manifested in many different ways, be it time travel, alternate dimensions, time loops, or the basic flashback/forward.

I think a part of my fascination and love for this trope is my love of history. Context is extremely important to me. I have always found that history, the way it is told and remembered is extremely interesting. We live in a society and culture that values short-term memory rather than learning from our past, and we also tend to imagine the future as some bleak wasteland with corrupt post-apocalyptic governments and resources.

I also find the the way we think about time to be interesting. We experience time as both linear as well as isolated from itself. However, time can be extremely messy. While in the short term time runs in a linear fashion, I believe that the choices we make or the situations we are put in creates a distortion, even if we are always moving forward in time.

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect. But actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint. It’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

— The Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who, “Blink”

My love of time travel and other types of timeline distortion is why I find shows like Doctor Who or Sleepy Hollow so exciting, despite their differences. With Doctor Who, we get to travel in time and space meeting aliens, historical figures, and deal with literally universal catastrophes, sometimes all at the same time. Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand deals with a character being displaced in time and having to adjust from 18th century values and culture to that of the 21st century (while also fighting demons). While these are two different concepts, they both rely on the manipulation of time as an anchoring theme, one that comes up more often than not.

Awful things happen to wizards who meddle with time.

— Hermione Granger, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The thing with time, though is that it still has rules. It’s extremely complicated and confusing, and while it often feels malleable, this is not always the case. While Doctor Who constantly pushes the limits of how many rules of the universe the Doctor can break, he is often punished for disregarding those rules. From being caught in a time loop to having what he was trying to prevent just happen at a later time, he often has to face the fact that he does not control time, he merely protects it.

Similarly, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban when Hermione takes Harry back in time, she warns him that must not be seen by anyone, especially himself. There is the risk of his past-self going mad by seeing him, which has to create some sort of time paradox. Again, it gets confusing the more and more you think about it.

What I love about this concept of time distortion is that it is a trope not exclusive to science fiction. The use of flashbacks has been fairly frequent in storytelling and is usually just used as a creative way to tell a backstory. However, another unique tool is that of the flashforward. How To Get Away With Murder is a show that uses this technique well (though in the beginning it was a bit jarring because it wasn’t something people were used to). What I love about HTGAWM is that they tell us the end (or close to the end) and then go back and tell us how we got to that point. While it is not a science fiction show, they use a trope common in that genre to make the drama compelling.

Seeing time distortion used well in a story tends to inspire me, though it is extremely difficult to pull off. There runs the risk of plot holes, breaking of rules, and confusing story timeline, but when it’s well done it’s worth it.

I ask myself what would you do if you had more time?

— Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton, Hamilton, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”

I also think my strong interest in time in part has to do with the feeling that there isn’t enough of it. I’m sure other people have this feeling, but there are a lot of things I want to get done and sometimes I’m afraid I don’t have time to accomplish it all. On a much smaller scale, sometimes there’s way too much to do in a day, and I find myself wishing I had more hours in a day or days in a week. Sometimes I just wish I had more time to sleep.

All of time and space; everywhere and anywhere; every star that ever was. Where do you want to start?

— The Eleventh Doctor, Doctor Who, “The Eleventh Hour”

The appeal of having all of time available not only applies to large scale acts, such as meeting your favorite historical figures, meeting your descendants, or (as the Doctor did) accidentally inventing the banana daiquiri a few centuries too early. It also applies to the tiny things, like being able to go back in time to have breakfast twice (like Riley and Bing Bong in InsideOut) or to have enough time to finish writing a piece you’ve been struggling with before a deadline. While time travel distortion can be exciting and confusing, it can also be practical.

I love how it is used in stories because while it can be complicated and confusing, it also demonstrates how messy time and history are. The way we remember things now are most likely not the way they happened, and we may also forget important things that affect our lives immensely now. As I said earlier, we live in a society with a short-term memory. While we obviously can’t remember everything that ever happened, some of the things we forget are intentional, and this can be for a myriad of reasons, be they traumatic, seemingly unimportant, or manipulated for political or monetary gain. Time travel is interesting because in theory you get the unfiltered history, unrevised and unbiased. Of course when they are portrayed in stories, there is some revisionist history happening, be it complicating Richard Nixon’s presidency with the presence of the Silence, or painting Aaron Burr as a complicated and sympathetic character (obviously, there’s an argument to be had about whether this is inherently a bad thing). I guess I say this all to say that I love the idea of time and it’s distortion because it exposes the nuances of our history and our lives. It shows us how things are not as cut and dry as they seem. There are little ripples in time and space that have a hand in it.