“Man alone suffers a paralyzing fear that no other creature endures.” ~ Mitch Albom, The Time Keeper
As promised, even if not on time, is a list of my five favorite TV episodes involving time travel. As I did last week, I’ll list them first, then tell you why I like each one, this time in reverse ascending order (there’s probably a word for that, but I’m too lazy to think what it is).
- The City on the Edge of Forever
- Trials and Tribble-ations
- The Constant
- A Hundred Yards Over the Rim
Number 5 on my list is “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” the classic from The Twilight Zone. It tells the very human tale of Christian Horn, a pioneer from 1847 who goes on a quest to find water for his sick and dying son. When he climbs over the top of a ridge, Horn finds himself near a highway diner in the year 1961. His character displays a dramatically inspiring mix of confusion and conviction. During his encounter with a kind but confused couple at the diner, and a thoroughly bewildered doctor, Horn discovers an encyclopedia that shows the fate his family’s going to meet. This last bit of foreshadowing, coupled with growing suspicion from the 1961 residents, propel Horn into action. Amazing action. And the results are simultaneously thrilling and moving. The wonder of this episode is its simple “realism,” a hard device for a fantasy to pull off. The story resonates because of character. Yes, there are time paradoxes, but rather than being a distraction, these actually add additional dimensions to Horn’s character, mysterious dimensions of the kind so typical of Rod Serling.
Number 4 on my list is the episode “The Constant” from LOST. Here we where find Desmond Hume hopping between modern day events on the island/freighter and his days in the Royal Scots Military Regiment. This is the first episode of LOST that does not employ flashback per se. Instead, it cranks up drama by seesawing poor Desmond across two key periods of his life. Details of his romance with Penny are revealed, as is the meaning of the episode’s title. Simultaneously playing games with free will versus determinism, which LOST did with aplomb, this is perhaps the best episode LOST produced. And that’s quite a statement considering it’s one of the best TV series in history. What I think I love most, though, is this episode touches on something deeply personal: The notion of dualism, that our consciousness/soul can separate itself from our physical body. Call me old-fashioned or just plain delusional, but this is something I really, really want to believe in. And, despite my training as a scientist – or perhaps because of it – I do believe in the separation of body and spirit. I have no idea how, or why. I just do.
Number 3 on my list is “Blink,” an episode from the 2007 season of the never-ending British series Doctor Who. This show grabbed me by the nape of the neck a few days back and it hasn’t let go. Are you scared of cemetery angels? I wasn’t … until now. When Sally Sparrow’s roommate is bolted back in time to become a grandmother, I knew I was watching a potential classic. But as the show unfolded with a combination of every known horror meme and the ever-fascinating grandfather paradox (as it were), I knew I’d stumbled upon a masterpiece! The episode uses time hopping in a way that’d make Vonnegut drool while producing a damn creepy video experience at the same time. With jolting imagery, an attractive protagonist, and a little philosophizing on the nature of time itself (like I did in my short story “Some Seconds Last Longer than Others”) you’ll never think of Easter eggs the same way again. Watch it in the dark … during a thunderstorm. I dare ya. I double-dog dare ya.
Number 2 on my list is a sentimental tribute to an earlier era: The episode is “Trials and Tribble-ations” of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. For various reasons that only Trek fans truly understand “Trials and Tribble-ations” rises above its home series and elevates itself into Trek mythology. The crew from the space station travels back in time to the USS Enterprise that we all know and love, to the very day the tribbles infested Captain Kirk’s beloved vessel. The beauty of this episode is not that it’s any more or less effective than a regular ol’ time-travel story; this story resonates because it takes you “behind the scenes” of the Tribble story, letting you see what else happened aboard the starship that day. And, nontrivially, it lets us revisit the innocence and optimism that we loved in the original Trek. That’s why this episode is a favorite. Whatever era our youth might’ve been (the 1920s/30s for my parents, the 1960s/70s for me), the allure of time travel is its temptation to return us to innocence. We may be grownups now (or, in my case, pretending to be), but what if we traveled back and realized that our innocent youth really was innocent? What if our memories of our first ballgame, our first day of summer vacation, our first roller coaster, our first kiss, really were as fun as we remember them to be? This episode creates that sense of wonder for me.
Number 1 on my list is, of course, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” While technically an episode of Star Trek, in reality this is one of the best dramas ever aired on the small screen. The story involves a gateway to the past, controlled by a seemingly omniscient being called “The Guardian of Forever.” When Dr. McCoy, suffering from delirium, jumps through the gateway into the 1930s, Kirk and Spock suddenly and immediately realize McCoy changed history. What unfolds is a heart-crushing tale of love and sacrifice, against the backdrop of Depression-era America, with the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance. On the extreme off-chance you’ve never seen this episode, I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that Harlan Ellison’s final line of dialog for Kirk still resonates with me: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Next time I’ll explore some thoughts on time travel in general, dipping a little bit into the science within the science fiction while, hopefully, keeping it lighthearted and keeping it real.
Until next time … so to speak …