Tales of Time Travels: Looper and Doctor Who (“The Angels Take Manhattan”) double review
This post may contain spoilers about Looper. I’ve done my best to keep it somewhat vague, but perceptive readers might be able to figure it out. As for Doctor Who, I’m less vague. Why? Because I think the accessibility of television shows allows us to tiptoe far less.
Time travel stories are simultaneously some of the most intriguing and frustrating science fiction tales out there. They offer glimpses of possibilities that we will likely never, and should never, know while being burdened with the fact that they must tell a compelling narrative. If most individuals were provided the means to travel through time, the stories would be uninteresting and/or disastrous. Meeting idols and family members do not necessarily make for compelling fiction. Nor does the likely scenario of someone simply breaking time and space for doing something stupid. (“Well, they’re going to learn how to make fire eventually, so what the hell?”)
io9, likely directly inspired by watching Looper, recently posted an article about how messy time travel stories, those with uncertain rules and no desire to adhere to a stable loop and timeline, are some of the most interesting. I cannot say that I agree, but I can understand Charlie Jane Anders’ point of view. After all, when the end is the beginning is the end of a story, where’s the fun of it? Everything seems boxed into place in a manner that seems to hit the border between OCD and OCPD. But that doesn’t mean time travel stories should eschew rules. Otherwise it becomes far too convenient.
Which is why I enjoyed Looper. The way time is handled in the film is extremely messy. Early in the film, a character named Seth fails to close his loop – which means he let his future self get away without killing him. His bosses take exception to this and, in order to kill the future version of him, slowly start maiming him until the future Seth gives himself up. The problem with this? Well, even if present Seth survives on the operating table, future Seth is hobbled and cannot run away. If he cannot run away, then Seth would not have much trouble closing his loop. If he closes his loop, then he doesn’t become hobbled…and you just see it’s a mess of a paradox.
The film explains this and uses this to explain that time itself isn’t a fix looped. Time travel introduces parallel timelines. The present day becomes an intersection of all possibilities for these timelines, enabling multiple versions to exist. When the future version of Joe, the lead character, comes back in time and meets with his past self, he starts seeing his memories as a cloud of events. When present Joe experiences time, future Joe can remember it clearly because it has now happened. The past is updated for him in real time, and it was extremely interesting to watch a significant thing happen to present Joe and future Joe fight with all his might to remember things his way. But by that point it becomes very clear that, despite being the same character, they are no longer the same person.
And this version of time travel is used effectively to explore a scenario many people ponder when it comes to time travel – would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler?
Future Joe wants to fix his life by tracking down the young version of the Rainmaker – a super terrorist/crime boss/mythological figure who has been forcing all loops closed and has taken away the most precious thing in Joe’s life. The Rainmaker is extremely young in the present day. Not only that, but the Rainmaker’s identity is uncertain. It’s one of three children. Future Joe walks around like the T-800, killing children who were born on the same day in the same hospital. And he is doing it to make a better world.
When present Joe figures out that the present is where all possibilities come together, he makes a critical decision that is difficult to come by in most other movies with this level of marketing exposure. It was also the most logical conclusion, given the information Joe had. The best part, though? It’s hard to know for sure if it was the right or wrong thing to do. The movie just kind of ends, which makes it all the more impactful.
And then we have Doctor Who, with which I clearly have a complicated relationship. My biggest issue with the series is that nothing seems all that important or impactful due to the messy and incoherent time travel rules. The series has gone out of its way to show that the Doctor can and cannot change the past, mostly at the whim of the writer. Many deaths are so significant that they are fixed points in time, the most unchangeable things. However, the Doctor’s death was a fixed point in time that crippled the universe when it was averted – until it was unaverted by substituting a replica controlled by the Doctor. So now that the Doctor knows how to cheat death, by literally ignoring the rules set in place, I do not understand why he does not go out of his way to cheat the deaths of the friends he supposedly loves.
“The Angels Take Manhattan” was advertised as the last story for Amy and Rory, the only companions the 11th Doctor has had since his regeneration. Right there the episode loses some of its impact because, well, we know what to expect. But they could have done something more to make this seem like a great loss.
Apparently, reading a book fixes time. The more they read ahead in the book, the more they doom themselves to the inevitable. Same for anything in the past that someone perceives in their present. So it was interesting that, after finding a door marked “Rory Arthur Williams” and watching a Rory die of old age, the Doctor’s trusty companions were able to fix the thing by killing themselves and creating a paradox. That is until they found a headstone for a Rory Williams who died in New York and just happened to be tracked by a remaining Wheeping Angel. Of course, Amy forced herself into the past to spend her remaining years with him.
But here’s where it gets timey-whimey in a bad way. Because of the paradox they created, the Doctor is now somehow unable to travel to New York of the 1920’s ever again – despite still having been able to travel there in the 1930’s. Because the Doctor explained it, we as an audience are supposed to take it as a fact. So I assume the Doctor is only able to visit pre-1920’s or post-1980’s New York now, which is pretty ridiculous. But River Song can still visit and get her book published by her mother. Seems to me that Steven Moffat went out of his way to create a tragic situation rather than trying to piece together a more organic one.
I also thought to myself, why can’t the Doctor just travel to New Jersey (or somewhere else nearby, for those who hate Jersey) and then travel via more conventional means to New York? Sometimes I think that the Doctor pays more lip service than necessary to express how much he cares about people. Otherwise, why let them die?
It has been stated by many writers and critics that characters should lead the plot, not the other way around. Similarly, I think, the rules set forth by time travel or whatever else is introduced in a story should also lead the plot instead of being slaves to it. Every time a weird time travel thing comes up on Doctor Who, it sounds like it was made up just for that episode as a plot device. This series about time travel has been around for nearly 50 years, yet somehow time travel is still this murky thing that is best understood as a plot device? I cannot be the only person disappointed by this realization.
I had the pleasure of watching Looper first, followed by Doctor Who in the morning. Looper got me excited for further tales of time travel because I knew that there were still intriguing stories left to tell. Then Who showed me a dark future of time travel, in which people have told so many tales that they have gotten lazy about it. At least the great stories make it a little easier to trudge through the not so great ones.
Posted on October 1, 2012, in Bechdel failure, Doctor Who, movies, review, science fiction, scifi, sf, television and tagged Doctor Who, Looper, movies, review, science fiction, television, time travel. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.