My Favorite Trope — Time Travel, Pt. 1

We’ve all fallen down the bottomless pit that is TV Tropes (WARNING: Following this link will result in loss of time ranging from several minutes to several days or longer). Even if you don’t know what a trope is, you know what tropes are. For the purposes of this series, I’m not talking about the very broad literary definition of tropes that covers everything from irony and metaphor to plot elements and characters, but rather the narrower folkloric definition that refers to recurring motifs across stories. Done poorly, tropes can feel like the enemy of the original, merely warmed-over cliché. But done well? Yeah, I’m a sucker for a well-executed trope. I’m a folklorist. It comes with the territory.

It will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody who knows me that one of my favorite tropes is time travel. Due to a recent viewing of Avengers: Endgame, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I love about time travel stories and why. This ended up being a much longer exercise than I thought it would be because there is so much, so I’ve broken them down into five main story types, from easiest to hardest to execute (and, not coincidentally, my least to most liked): Time Tourism, Alternate Timelines, Open-System, Groundhog Day, Closed-Loop.

My original intent was to cover all of these in one post, but… it turns out I had a lot more to say than I realized, so I broke it down into six posts, one for each type listed above, and then a bonus deep dive post into Avengers: Endgame, the time travel story that inspired this post.

Note: For spoiler reasons, except for the Endgame post, I’m deliberately going to use examples from either really well-known properties (Back to the Future, Doctor Who, etc.) or else things that it’s very unlikely anyone will watch unless my discussion of them stirs their interest (i.e., mostly kdramas!)

Time Tourism, aka “The Past is Another Country” 

The past is another country; they do things differently there. But you can visit, hang with some famous locals, eat strange food, get involved in a history-defining event, and go on your merry way without having to worry about any damage you might leave behind. Time tourists don’t really worry about damaging the timeline because the stories they live in aren’t interested in the physics or limitations of time travel. They are pebbles that leave few-to-no ripples.

I like these stories for the tourist element rather than the way they handle time travel — I love a good fish-out-of-water story. It can be fun to watch people from our future fumble through an imagined past, using anachronistic terms or technology, imposing contemporary moral and ethical expectations on the people they meet. It’s similarly fun to watch someone from an imagined past interacting with contemporary technology that seems like magic, or encountering beliefs and behaviors that are shocking or emancipating (or both) for them.

The darker underbelly of time tourism is that it’s a safe sort of imaginative tourism in the same way that killing robot or zombie armies is safe – characters and audiences are rarely encouraged to consider the colonial or imperialistic assumptions underpinning these encounters. Time tourists aren’t held to the same standards of cultural sensitivity that spatial tourists might be, especially in this day and age. Time tourists going into the past are allowed to look down unquestioningly on other cultures they/we perceive as ‘less advanced’ (technologically-speaking) than ours. Stories about time tourists from the past to our present often dwell on a sort of uncomplicated nostalgia for a simpler past that never was – these stories often end up being a shallow and untethered critique of modernity.

Doctor Who is, with a few story arc exceptions, an example of time tourism that I enjoy. Because it is a long-running, open ended series with multiple writers, it has little choice but to take a ‘time travel physics HAH! What’s that?’ approach. The audience is almost always experiencing the past from the Companion’s perspective rather than the Doctor’s. This allows the show to sidestep a lot of potential cultural insensitivity or problematic nostalgia pitfalls through framing them as limitations of the Companion’s perspective that the Doctor can then respond to (even if it ends up creating inconsistencies in the Doctor’s own ethical palimpsest over time).

Many of my favorite time tourist stories are about doctors – of the medical rather than the Time Lord variety. I’m not the only one, as it seems like medical professional is the occupation most likely to time travel into the past. The crossroads where science collides with superstition – a place where people with an advanced skillset have to adapt to hostile conditions to save lives – is a breeding ground for competence porn. In your usual medical drama, you have to get to House levels of medical obscurity to get that sort of effect, but in a time tourist drama, any rando doctor can be a god. 

The k-drama The Great Doctor (aka, Faith) plays with this in an amusing way when a soldier from Goryeo (pre-Joseon Korea) kidnaps a present-day doctor to save the life of his queen (the co-founder of what would become Joseon) who has been stabbinated in the neck. Unfortunately, Eun-Soo (the doctor he kidnaps) is a plastic surgeon. The show plays with the increasing limitations of her skillset as she runs out of supplies she brought with her, and it also shows her learning from doctors in the past as well as teaching them what she knows. It also has a fairly decent closed-loop time travel execution, so it gets double marks from me. 

Another example with great medical competence porn is Time Slip Dr. Jin. During Dr. Jin’s jaunt back to the late Joseon era, he trepans people multiple times, makes penicillin to treat syphilis, and struggles through a dysentery outbreak, all in gloriously gory medical and scientific detail that gives me joy. The time travel framework of the show is… better if you just don’t think about it. But the doctor-out-of-water competence porn is A++.

You don’t have to be a doctor from the present to engage in competence porn to bring me to the yard, though. I love stories that let people from the past be competent in the present. Although Sleepy Hollow had a lot of problems, one of the places it worked for me was when it juxtaposed Ichabod Crane flailing with modernity against him being a smart and adaptable fish-out-of-water. I wish they would have delved more into him flailing and then figuring things out. 

A similar example that worked better for me in executing that element was Queen In-Hyun’s Man. Although he’s a Joseon scholar plopped onto the film set of an historical k-drama, Kim Boong Do doesn’t stay a fish-out-of-water for long. He has the transferable skill of being smart and crafty. He quickly adapts and figures out how to use his jaunts to present-day South Korea to defeat his enemies in the past.

What are your favorite time-tourist stories, and why do they work for you?

Next up – The ‘have your cake and eat it too’ of time travel stories: Alternate Timelines!

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