We’ve finally gotten to the end of James Cameron’s AMC miniseries, and how fitting that it should end with a look at time travel.
This episode starts with what probably immediately jumped to your mind: the Back to the Future series. Stephen Spielberg admits that Stephen Hawking had told him that time travel to the past is impossible, that we would only be able to travel to the future, but the viewers are quickly reminded that we don’t have to listen to hard science in sci-fi. And thus, we’re free to have as much fun as we want: the paradoxes, the loops, that’s all an exercise in fun puzzles.
The most interesting moment in this episode for me actually came as an interlude during this Back to the Future/intro section, which is when Lisa Yaszek points out that we had time travel stories before we had time machines. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain are our two big examples, and the characters fell into the past via a dream/ghostly interference and a head injury, respectively. Eventually–much later in both time and the show–we get to HG Wells, who was the first to have a time travel story that actually had science involved, too. The only thing that disappointed me about this is that nobody really looked at the fact that HG Wells has a man enter a ruined future. The time travel discussed in this episode has man going back, messing with their own fates (even if that affects the overall fate of the world), but not that fear of going forward to a future that, instead of being rosy as we would hope, is just worse, leaps and bounds worse.
We jump into the question of free will following Back to the Future and the discussion of the grandfather paradox, alternate histories/presents, and paradoxes suggested by Marty’s photograph. We break from McFly to the Terminator franchise, which was discussed heavily in the preceding episode, and constantly questions fate versus free will throughout the entire series (I bet my mom would have allowed me to watch the Terminator movies growing up if she knew how deep they truly are, right?). There’s the presence of the Terminator in the past, but also Kyle Reese, who fathers John Conner, who was the one who sent Kyle back in time to father himself, and so on.
We then jump to Looper, which isn’t about changing the whole world, but changing the main character’s own life. Although this discussion was interesting, it does spoil the movie. I actually haven’t seen Looper, so I can’t say it’s worth watching first, I don’t know. But basically everything important in the film is spoiled in under five minutes. It does present the mother of all paradoxes, though.
Christopher Nolan is also featured, in a way that felt unusual. Of course, his film Interstellar is discussed (and partially spoiled) because although it doesn’t feature traditional time travel, it’s about how time is affected, or how it is dilated, when one leaves the earth. The astronaut leaves and his aging slows, those still on earth age “as normal.” I mentioned that in “his” episode, Nolan didn’t really seem present. Nolan actually seemed to have a much bigger place in this episode and he signs us off at the very end. It was nice that he got his due, but it nagged at me: why wasn’t this his episode? Actually, I was under the impression that this episode’s frame was supposed to be Ridley Scott, but we never really see him at all, and he’s no longer featured on the cover photo or video still on AMC’s site for this episode. It wasn’t necessarily an issue with the episode’s content, but it seemed very strange altogether.
Interstellar‘s segment ends with the conflict of the sacrifice that comes with the great power afforded and we go to Primer, which seems to center around the same basic idea. It’s two regular guys who use it as we might–playing the stocks, say. But it starts messing with the two guys’ minds and bodies.
We jump over Wells, Ray Bradbury, and to Predestination, which again, is spoiled, but that one is based on a Heinlein story, so you may luck out there. I won’t go into it because it is a crazy story simplified, but it really ups the ante of paradoxes as far as they can go, or at least pretty darn close. And we take a break from that turn with Bill and Ted and Groundhog’s Day. This section holds the interesting suggestion that time travel stories tend to resonate with people since our memories and dreams and fretting serves as a sort of time travel ability for ourselves, mentally. We can’t change anything in reality, but our memories can change over time, and as we remember things we relive them–at least the embarrassing things! It’s an intriguing theory.
And, of course, we end on Doctor Who, which is nearly perfect. It straddles comedy and deadly seriousness. It dominates the last segment of the show, and Peter Capaldi likens regeneration to death. We end with James Cameron and Christopher Nolan conversing in a similar tone, and then we have our cut on the show. It’s a surprisingly poignant ending.
This episode had the same main strength that “Intelligent Machines” had, which is that the movies and television shows that were discussed were given noticeable focus. There wasn’t a lot of hopping around, with that single exception where the literary canon appears in the middle of the Back to the Future segment. I think that focus was necessary for this episode, since time travel stories tend to be so confusing, and as they say in the show, it’s sort of a “new” form in storytelling. It doesn’t have deep roots to dissect, and it’s a difficult subgenre to handle effectively. It was probably really easy to say which specific items would be discussed because there is a much smaller pool of good and truly innovative time travel stories.
Although I mentioned spoilers a lot, in this case I would say you kind of need them for a summary of a time travel story to work out, so it seemed okay to me. Actually, time travel as a subgenre isn’t one I actively seek out, so I was impressed with the show, because it really sold these movies to me. I know the ends and the twists now, but now I want to know how we got to that point. I mention the spoilers so you can proceed with caution, but it’s spoiled in a way that makes you want to know more anyways, if that makes sense. That’s tough to pull off.
This was the last episode of James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction. Keep an eye out for our review of the companion book, which will be up on N3rdabl3 soon! And feel free to check out our reviews of the previous episodes, “Aliens,” “Space,” “Monsters,” “Dark Futures,” and “Intelligent Machines.”
Although James Cameron’s Story of Science Fiction has ended, all episodes are currently available to stream on AMC, depending on your cable provider.