Against Time Travel In Science Fiction Shows

I’ve been watching my screeners for the second half of Eureka’s fourth season (thanks, Syfy!), and I think it’s crystallized something I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of weeks. While I know that science fiction inevitably contains elements of magic and fantasy when it ventures ahead of things we can reasonably extrapolate or predict from existing scientific knowledge, I think it’s time we do away with — or at least take a break from — time travel stories in science fiction with an exception for Doctor Who.

My irritation stemmed from my attempt to get through all of Torchwood before Miracle Day launches on July 8 (I’m almost done with season two and on my way to Children of Earth). The show’s tagline, in all of its variations, lays out an interesting premise: “Torchwood: outside the government, beyond the police. Tracking down alien life on Earth, arming the human race against the future. The twenty-first century is when everything changes. And you’ve got to be ready.” The problem is, despite that stated premise, Torchwood’s theoretically located over a rift in time, which means that the show spends at least as much time dealing with time travel stories as it does with any major changes in human society as a result of contact with aliens. And frankly, those time travel stories are exhaustingly repetitive.

Often, they’re a way to reinforce the general angst of the series, whether it’s Jack going back to meet the man he stole his name from and making out with him in an act of sexual repentance and charity; Owen learning to love a woman who will inevitably leave him as payback for his aversion to attachment; Tosh falling for yet another person who is unavailable to her because he has to return to his own time. For a show that’s supposed to be more adult-oriented, in that the characters actually have sex and tell each other to fuck off on a fairly regular basis, there’s a general melancholia and pessimism about sex and relationships that has an oddly puritan streak to it.

And the focus on the time rift means the show doesn’t really grapple with a theoretical new order in the 21st century. Sure, there are episodes about whether an alien mist might cause someone to get promiscuous, or about whether a woman you start dating in a bar might turn out to be an alien with problematic intentions (more with the anxiety about sex), or about whether disaffected urban men might start a fight club pitting themselves against vicious aliens, or whether men might make a business out of harvesting alien meat. But there’s not a coherent analysis of a shift here, a sense of why the aliens are showing up — is Earth a convenient waystation? is there something uniquely attractive about humanity? something destabilizing happening elsewhere in the universe? — or whether humanity’s developing in a way that makes it more receptive to accepting the idea of a populated universe.Eureka at least has a less-flimsy excuse for its time-travel, an actualization of some of Einstein’s theories. And in a town where the descendants of scientific geniuses have been sequestered to protect the rest of humanity from their experiments and accidental discoveries, sure, maybe some crazy leap forward is possible. But the trip to 1947 that happened in the first half of the fourth season seemed like a convenient way to reset relationships, push characters together faster, and I’m really not sure how I feel about the fact that it appears to magically cure one character’s autism.

Fortunately, the second half of the fourth season (I’ve seen the first three episodes) is back to a more scientific problem: who in the town’s going to go on a space mission to Titan. And the subplots, particularly one about contact lenses that give Sheriff Carter and Detective Lupo perhaps more information than it’s actually good for them to have about Eureka’s inhabitants and the risks they face to themselves and others, are nice little distillations of larger problems.

Which really ought to be the point. As my colleague Jonathan Moreno writes in his forthcoming book The Body Politic, which I highly recommend, “no particular group, left or right or somewhere else, is immune from the sense that change is accelerating at an ever faster pace with each passing year. The experience of too-rapid change, whether trivial or profound, is a characteristic of modernity.” The 21st century is really the moment when everything changes, but Torchwood and other shows aren’t actually doing anything to get us ready or to help us think through those changes when they get stuck in the past.