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Can we change time?


Is there any 'going back'...?

It can all be fixed. Or can it...?

Since H.G. Wells released his novel The Time Machine in 1895, the idea of time travel has continued to be a mainstay in science fiction. In fact, it is such a popular idea that it has transcended the masses and has been used as a plot device in films, books and television programs of every genre, from comedy to horror to romance. It is a tantalizing idea to be able to go forward or backward in time to see how things are different. Some look at it as a chance to investigate history and discover all that we think we already know. Some might use it to go forward, be it to see how mankind will evolve, or for ill-gotten gains (I have to admit, getting next week’s lottery numbers would be awfully tempting). Some would go back into their own past to either put something right, or to change their fate.

And it’s this idea that intrigues me, because no one seems to agree on whether or not we can actually change the path that time has set before us. Sci-fi writers have given their own takes on how or if it could happen, and physicists and philosophers have debated as to if it could actually be changed, and if it were, what would be the consequences.

The Terminator (1984)James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator is one of the most popular films to tackle the idea. In it, a young woman named Sarah Connor is attacked by an unknown assailant who has been murdering women with her name. She is rescued by a man named Kyle Reese, who explains that he has been sent back from the future to save her. The would-be assassin is a cyborg called a Terminator. They are produced by Skynet, a self-aware computer that took over the weapons systems of the world and started a nuclear holocaust in order to rid the world of humans. The resistance is led by Sarah’s not yet conceived child, John, who sent Kyle back to save her so that he might live. It just so happens that John knows something that Kyle doesn’t: Kyle’s his father. In order for him to exist, he has to send Kyle back in time, not only for his mother, but for the sake of humanity.

The film series is pretty vague as to whether or not the future can be changed, only that no matter the outcome, John has to survive in order to send his father back in time. In the end, Judgment Day (the day of the nuclear apocalypse) had to happen, but it was pushed back a few years. What it did show is that without Sarah having John, we are left with a paradox. No one would be sending Kyle back, hence, no John, and mankind would have no leader against the machines (and at least he didn’t have to be his own father like Dave Lister).

But is that really the case? Some have postulated that timelines can 'fix' themselves. Hugh Everett put forth the many-world interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, which states that every action can cause a whole new timeline, and that there are multiple worlds out there with every possible outcome happening (he’s the one to blame if you hate DC’s 'Crisis' stories). This has been argued against, of course, and by none other than Stephen Hawking, who says that even if MWI were possible, a time traveler would experience a single, self-consistent timeline, and would remain in his own world. So does this mean that even small changes couldn’t occur?

Jean-Claude Van Damme in 'Timecop' (1994)In 1994’s Timecop, Jean-Claude Van Damme plays U.S. Federal agent Max Walker. He is part of the Time Enforcement Commission, which regulates changes in the timelines. His wife was killed ten years before, when he was just a police officer and was offered the job. He has spent the years alone, focusing only on work, when he winds up investigating a former partner of his. His partner has been buying up cheap stock just after the stock market crash of 1929, and being cashed out in the future by a corrupt Senator with ideas of the Presidency. In the end, he realizes that the explosion that killed his wife in the past was due to the actions of this Senator, and instead of her dying, he kills the Senator and saves her life. He returns to the future with a head full of memories that are no longer correct, but will eventually adapt, as he arrives at his home, welcomed by his wife and children.

If one were to look at this in the strictest sense, they might argue that his wife shouldn’t have been able to survive, nor should the Senator have been killed. Or, if you looked at it in a more philosophical way, you might argue that one life was traded for another. Is fate keeping the timelines in order, or is there an allowance for slight changes? And just how 'slight' can those changes be?

'Father's Day' - Doctor WhoIn the brilliant Doctor Who episode 'Father’s Day', Rose takes advantage of The Doctor’s trust, and talks him into letting her see her father. He explains in detail that she can’t interfere, but in the end, she succumbs to temptation, and saves her father’s life. Unfortunately, time doesn’t like to be messed with, and soon they are under attack from a group of winged monsters known as Reapers, who intend on tearing existence apart until the wrong has been righted. Before long, Rose’s father realizes what he has to do, and he sacrifices himself for all of existence. And in the episode 'The Fires of Pompeii', Donna is shocked to find that The Doctor won’t save the people of the town from the oncoming volcano. He states that certain events can’t be changed, and this is one of them. Unfortunately, it winds up being The Doctor that causes the explosion, as he must choose to save a race of aliens or save the entire planet. To save Earth, Pompeii must be sacrificed, as much as it hurts The Doctor to do so.

And here is where it gets tricky. Because in the episode 'The Waters of Mars', The Doctor accepts that he can’t change the past by saving the human colonists, until the very end, when he realizes/decides that time can be changed, and he whisks the remaining colonists back to Earth. He claims that he is the 'Time Lord Victorious', and time bows before him. However, Adelaide, one of those saved, has learned about her granddaughter’s future, and that she would go on to bring about a new era of space travel, having been inspired by the mystery of her grandmother’s death. She is furious with The Doctor, and walks into her house and kills herself. The timeline is righted, and her granddaughter still went on to achieve her own destiny. It is in this episode that The Doctor first makes mention not of timelines, but of rules set forth by the Time Lords. Without their rules and watchful eyes, he is now the true lord of time.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in 'Back to the Future' (1985)Of course, no discussion of the random effects of time travel and human tinkering would be complete without bringing up the Back to the Future series. In the first movie, Marty goes back in time to when his parents first met. Unfortunately, he intervenes, and nearly negates his own existence when his own mother falls in love with him. His attempts to get his parents together keep failing, and soon, Marty is being erased – literally – from existence, until his father stands up for himself, and his parents indeed get together. When he returns to the future, he finds that his humdrum family life is changed for the better, as his father had the confidence to be successful and not be pushed around by others.

The second film starts right where the first one left off, with Doc Brown taking Marty and Jennifer into the future to deal with their future children. But human greed takes over, and Marty buys a book of sports history with the intention of making a fortune in gambling. Doc finds the book and disposes of it, only to be found by Biff, who gives it to his younger self. Biff makes a fortune, and ends up owning the town and married to Marty’s mother, and it is up to Marty to go back in time to get the book and set things right.

So can we make even the smallest changes to our timelines without negating the future? Or is there a 'Butterfly Effect' in place and will even small changes make for big catastrophes? Will time and space rip open if I go back in time and tell myself to pawn everything and invest in Microsoft? I don’t have those answers. But it’s an interesting idea, and a problem that will have to be dealt with when and if mankind can ever break the time barrier. I only hope someone would be good enough to bring me next week’s lottery numbers if they are able.


See also:

The Terminator's many plot holes... and why we love them


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#1 Senior SysAdmin Old Man Sedgwick 2011-01-12 00:35
If you're interested in seriously considering these ideas, why restrict yourself to movies and TV? Literature has some very good approaches, too. It's my opinion that no one should be allowed to discuss this topic until they've read 'Thrice Upon a Time', by James P. Hogan. An excellent examination of a theoretical model of a universe that allowed information (not matter) to be sent backwards and forwards in time, with the most solid science you're likely to see in a Sci-Fi time travel tale, wrapped up in a fine story. The physicists' evolution of their model, while conducting experiments (that cause changes to their own pasts), makes for a very interesting read...
#2 Thanks Caleb Leland 2011-01-12 03:31
I'll check that book out, it sounds interesting. Thanks for the suggestion.
#3 RE: Can we change time? Old Man Sedgwick 2011-01-12 06:16
You're welcome. Hogan for some reason tends to fly under the radar. His hard SF had some of the best science to be found in stuff from the 80's to the early 2000's. Always had a way of finding a new and interesting wrinkle on the most abstruse physics. He started working for the old DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.), then went and sold insurance "to learn something about people". He had another really excellent time-travel novel - 'The Proteus Operation'. Did a number of excellent anthologies mixing non-fiction science essays with short fiction. A real champion of pure, honest scientific inquiry.

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