Time travel is not my favorite storytelling trope, if only because if not done well it can leave a narrative more than a little confusing and hard to follow. This can especially be a problem when a narrative jumps around in time completely out of order and without warning, which is something that both Final Fantasy XIII and The Grudge did. This trope’s big crime, however, is that it all too often results in plot holes or creates events that either cannot happen or that nullify the importance of other events. Worse yet is when the time travel in question has no actual impact on the rest of the story and ends up being a pointless waste of time. A good example of this would be Star Ocean: The Last Hope, where Edge goes back in time to an alternate reality of Earth, blows it up, and the entire subplot serves no purpose other than to turn an otherwise generic protagonist into a detestable murderer.
That is not to say that time travel itself cannot be used well. Plenty of stories have utilized it in ways that improve their narrative and add to the plot and worldbuilding. There is, however, a wide chasm between creative and cliché, and for every good use of time travel, there’s a dozen or so bad uses.
I started thinking about time travel more in depth after playing the first Assassin’s Creed game. Assassin’s Creed has a more unique form of time travel than what we generally see, and what’s so great about it is that its use doesn’t easily allow for the plot holes other stories find themselves falling into. While the game doesn’t specifically use time travel in how we tend to think of it, it does make use of genetic memories to show us the past. As genetic memories most likely don’t work the way the game presents them, and seeing as the player can control the actions of Desmond’s ancestors, I’m just going to call this a form of time travel. After all, the longer Desmond stays in the Animus machine to view his ancestors, the more he and they blend. This is called the Bleeding Effect. Desmond’s body slowly gains his ancestors’ abilities, and after a while, he also stops needing the Animus to view events that happened.
While from Desmond’s point of view, this is not time travel because he’s simply seeing memories, it is time travel from an audience standpoint. The games mostly take place in the past, and the player gets to explore Syria/Italy/France/etc. over hundreds of years ago, while still being connected to the present. Your own actions can desynchronize Desmond with his ancestors and cause the Animus to shut down, which makes it feel as though he’s not just viewing the past, but living it. The Bleeding Effect is also a consequence that I don’t often see—even though it works as a nifty way for Desmond to gain some much needed Assassin skills in a short period of time, it can easily screw with Desmond’s sense of self. He starts hallucinating past events, ends up in his ancestor’s memories without warning, and we even learn that another Assassin was driven to suicide because his Bleeding Effect was so bad.
The whole premise of the game is that the characters use the past to understand the future and help aid their currently losing battle against the Templars. It works well in Assassin’s Creed because it’s not just some neat thing that the characters can do, nor is it consequence free. It allows the games to build on the overall narrative over the course of centuries while still keeping the audience grounded in the present.
Sadly, not all uses of time travel can be as unique as Assassin’s Creed. Other stories like Stargate SG-1 are much more generic in its use, and it doesn’t take a lot of thought to notice all the inconsistencies. Stargate made use of time travel in accordance with multi-dimensional theory—for every decision a character makes, there’s another dimension where they make a different choice. In some ways, this works, because it allows the narrative to show us the consequences of the characters’ actions. We see multiple versions of our characters in a variety of jobs, positions, and relationships (sadly, all heterosexual though), and when they make the wrong choices, it can have dire consequences. The first time we see an alternate Earth takes place in a timeline where Daniel Jackson never joined the Stargate program, and as a result, the Earth was overtaken by the Goa’uld.
While there were certainly times Stargate utilized time travel well, there were other times when the show could have spent longer figuring out what it wanted from an episode. We have our main characters, and over the course of the series and its spinoffs, they meet other versions of themselves who are clearly different people. They have different hobbies, interests, and even personalities. This tells me that every time the characters alter time and end up in a different time stream, the people they meet there are not the same people they know and love, no matter how similar they may appear. I’m honestly not sure if the show writers realized this or not, because it’s not just the main characters’ alternate selves who are killed over the course of the story—the main characters die as well.
In one episode, the characters travel back in time to ancient Egypt, end up stuck there, and make a video for their future selves to find, warning them not to do the same thing. Our main characters grow old and die in Egypt, and then back in the future, we see alternate versions of them watching the video, which thankfully didn’t get destroyed over the past couple thousand years. These alternate versions become our new set of main characters, and while we are supposed to see them as the same people, given everything we know about how dimensions and alternate realities work in their universe, this cannot be the case.
There were also a few times when the use of time travel created massive plot holes. The series ends on a movie called Stargate: Continuum, where the Goa’uld Ba’al goes back in time and uses his knowledge of the future to take over Earth. While this works as a good plot in theory, the movie was awful. To start, I’m not sure what he did with his past self when he went back in time. Did he kill him? That would probably make sense, since Ba’al’s actions would have created an alternate timeline the very second he decided to travel back, but his actions here are rather vague, and I spent a good long while wondering how he didn’t accidentally write himself out of existence.
The movie also makes me question whether or not the writers ever wrote out a timeline for their story. Considering it jumps time so often, it probably would have been beneficial. At this point, I have no idea how old the character Vala is. Ba’al goes back nearly half a century into the past—and we know he lived back then because he’s a Goa’uld and they can live for thousands of years. Vala, though, is not a Goa’uld, and though she was possessed by one in the past, it couldn’t have been for very long. We meet her father over the course of the series, and he’s not some ancient long-lived creature. He’s just a regular old human. In the past that Ba’al goes to, though, Vala’s alternate possessed self is there. This leads me to conclude one of two things: she is either older than her own father, or the writers didn’t think things through.
Time travel can be an interesting and fun way of expanding on a story when it is done well and when it has a reason to exist. Time travel and alternate realities work in Stargate when it’s used to teach the characters about the consequences of their actions—but for other episodes, it is just a random scifi-y thing that happens because science, and while that would simply be boring on its own, it’s unforgivable when it results in cliché and plot holes.
There are many unique ways of using time travel to get across a message to an audience or serve a purpose in a story. As Rin pointed out a while ago, time travel can teach us something about responsibly and our inherent selfishness. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Bran discovers that he has the ability to see the past through weirwood trees, and as he continues exploring this ability, he also discovers that he can speak to other characters and influence their actions. Bran serves as a means to inform the audience of important events while also allowing him to play an active role in those events. In the Daughters of the Moon books, the character Catty has the ability to time travel while the character Jimena can see the future. Over the course of the series, we are told that time is not like a river, but a lake. It exists all at once and it cannot be influenced. Catty cannot use her ability to change events—if she time travels, it’s because it was meant to happen—any more than Jimena can change the future. Events are set in stone, though they can happen in a different context than the characters expect them to.
Unfortunately, when not done well, time travel can be pointless and convoluted. I’m still not sure what Stargate truly gained by using time travel as much as it did outside plot holes any more than I’m sure why Edge from Star Ocean had to murder everyone on 1950s Earth. At best, when done poorly, time travel can be a useless addition that adds nothing. At worst, it can leave a narrative filled with confusing plot holes and make the audience wonder what the hell is happening.