We enter the story in 1972, as Richard Collier, played by Christopher Reeve, gets his big break. The play he produced in college may be going to broadway. At this celebration, an elderly woman comes forward, gives him a watch, and says, "Come back to me." Then she leaves. A decade passes, and we find Richard Collier now successful, working on a play and suffering from writer's block, deciding to take a break. He winds up at a very nice hotel just up the road from his alma mater, and plans to stay the night. During the night, he discovers the picture of a woman who immediately entrances him with her beauty, and so he stays to find out who she is.
His investigations lead him to discover that the beautiful young actress on the wall, a Miss Elise McKenna (Jane Seymour), is the same woman who gave him the watch. He learns that she died the night she gave him that watch; and that she was interested in time travel, and owned a book about it by one of his professors.
A visit to the professor reveals an incredible story of a trip to the past--momentary, uncertain, but an experience that may have been time travel. The film suggests a type of time travel which would be entirely by force of will, that is, the traveler would will himself into the past by convincing himself that this is where he was. The danger is that any object whose origin had to be from the future would disrupt this and return you to your own time. Richard Collier determines to do this.
He purchases antique coins and an old suit, clears his hotel room of everything, and using a tape recorder under his bed and extreme exertion, he wills himself back to June 27th, 1912. Here he begins the rather difficult project of attempting to meet Miss McKenna, completely out of touch with the social realities of the day. But gradually he manages to win her heart.
Her manager, William F. Robinson, played by Christopher Plummer, objects. His desire is to see Miss McKenna become the most revered actress of her age. After several attempts to discourage Richard Collier he has him beaten, bound, and dumped in the stables just hours before the acting company is to depart. He has eliminated one more suitor.
But Miss McKenna won't go with them. Thus when Richard Collier manages to get back to the hotel, she is searching for him. They declare their love for each other, spend the night together, and start making plans for the future. She has his watch as he is showing what he likes about his suit. Suddenly he pulls from his pocket a penny, a coin from the future, and his stay in the past is instantly terminated. He is pulled from her into the future.
We have already learned that something happened to her at this hotel, and she never acted again. It would seem we now know what. Richard Collier tries to get back to her, but dies in the hotel.
There is a happy ending of sorts. We see him in an out-of-body experience head for the light, where she, the younger she, is awaiting him.
There will be those who say that this story only works in a fixed time concept. Richard Collier and Elise McKenna were fated to be together; they were together because they were together, and time itself bent to bring them together. But that is not the only way to solve the anomaly.
Obviously, Richard Collier goes back in time, and this causes a change in history. He eventually comes forward in time, and we find that whatever he changed has resolved into that which was known to have happened anyway. This seems perfectly reasonable. He went back in time with the sole purpose of meeting someone, and he met her; having met her, he returned to his own time--but he has not changed history in a way that would make it so that he would not have wanted to travel back in time to meet her.
But when he goes back in time, he takes with him several objects, and one of these he does not bring back. Watch the watch. It is critical to the analysis.
It would appear that we have an uncaused cause in this film, a story in which everything happens because it happens. The watch has no creation; it has always been. Richard Collier finds McKenna because she finds him; she finds him because he found her. Everything depends on everything else; nothing can be said to have happened first and so caused all else.
This type of anomaly is rather commonly used to show the absurdity of time travel; that is not its intent here. But it can be resolved by creating an original history, that which started everything but was since erased.
In the original history, there must have been another young man. He was tall, with dark hair, and a name similar to Richard Collier. He, too, had an interest in Miss McKenna, and he undoubtedly interfered with her life and made promises. We cannot fully guess what he promised, but he gave her his pocket watch, left from the hotel and never returned--and she waited a lifetime for him. Then, when she was near death, she heard of a young man producing a play just up the road whose name was Richard Collier. Could it be him? She went to see him, and he was tall, dark-haired--it could well be him. It must be him, she thought. She gave him the watch, and made her cryptic comment.
Fans of the film will object that Robinson had predicted the coming of Collier, so clearly it had to be Collier who came. But Robinson was not psychic. It is rather easy to predict to a beautiful girl that a man will come along and change her life completely. It happens to most of them. Whether he "takes her away from all this" by marrying her or just takes advantage of her naivete, he has changed her life. That is what Robinson predicted, and that is all he warned. He did not know whether Collier was that man. It was another man in the original time line; Collier had yet to be born, receive the watch, and initiate his trip to the past.
What happened to this man? No one can say. Perhaps he lied to her, and thought the watch a small price to pay for her affections. Perhaps he left to seek his fortune, and became entangled in some activity that landed him in jail; thereafter he was too ashamed to return. Perhaps he met with an accident. Whatever it was, McKenna never left the area around the hotel, hoping that he would return.
The watch is given to Collier, who does not understand it. But when he sees the image of the young McKenna, he falls in love, and determines to make the trip back in time.
Let us examine the story as it stands. Collier has become enamored of McKenna, and so makes his trip back to meet her. His presence interferes with the attentions of the other suitor; McKenna never meets that man. She falls in love with Collier. But he is tragically taken from her, back to his own time, and she, once again, lives out her life awaiting his return.
This time when she hears of the young playwright at the local college, she is correct in thinking this is the man she loved. She asks him to come back to her, but he is completely confused. Yet ten years later as he suffers from writer's block, he makes the same trip, discovers the same photo, and determines once again to travel back in time to find her. History is confirmed, and we have an N-jump termination.
Or we would, except for one small problem.
There is in the film a very important photograph. It was taken backstage in the small theatre near the hotel, and is the photo of McKenna with which Collier falls in love. She has a glow on her face and a light in her eyes, a look of love about her that is irresistible. We discover that at the moment that photo was taken, she was in fact gazing at him, as he stood near the photographer back stage.
It is a nice touch, and fans of the film will say it had to be him at whom she was gazing for that picture to be there. I regret to say that the original version of the picture had her gazing at the man he was to replace. He was not there. However, once he has made the trip, the picture is of her gazing at him--and it probably is very much the same picture, as he and the man he replaced are very similar.
There is some difficulty about the register books. These in some ways play a critical role in the story. When Collier is attempting to travel back to the past, he goes into the attic and finds his own signature in one of the old register books, along with the date, time, and room number. He rather excitedly points out the correct time to the desk clerk, who enters it on the page, and objects to the room key they give him as being the wrong room.
The lesser issue this raises is the matter of whether the name could have been there. The answer is that in the original timeline it could not have been there. When McKenna hands Collier the watch she was given by the stranger, Collier's name is not yet in the book. However, he is going back in time, and he will write his name in that book, and someone will give him a room key and enter the time, date, and room number then. He had already picked his target date before he saw the register entry (the day before) and did not change it. It has nothing whatsoever to do with his decision to make the trip. It changes only his knowledge. On that first trip, he does not know his room number until they assign it, nor the time of day nor the date on which he was to register. Time will repeat with these changes, minor though they are, once. It changes our simple N-jump to a three-segment sawtooth snap with an N-jump termination.
The more difficult issue is whether not finding his name in the register could result in his failure to make the trip at all. Our perception from the film is that finding his name in the book gave him the encouragement needed to keep trying, and so eventually to succeed. Our reaction is to think that were his name not there, he would not have succeeded.
We overreact. Collier has already determined to try, and he has already determined how to try. He has begun, and he is still working on the bugs. He wanted a bit of encouragement from the logs; but had he not gotten it, what would he have concluded? It was still entirely possible that he might have succeeded, but never registered in the hotel--that his handful of change was insufficient to pay for a room, or they were fully booked and he slept on the porch, or he succeeded in winning McKenna's heart that first day and never needed his own room. Having made the decision to make the trip, he might still have made it without that discovery.
Besides, had he not made the trip, this would not be a time travel story. Everything presupposes that he was able to travel back in time at the proper moment the first time the opportunity arose. Had he not succeeded, we wouldn't tell the story.
Unfortunately, the pocket watch which passes from McKenna to Collier and back to McKenna is fatal to the story. It throws us from a simple N-jump to a sawtooth snap with an infinity loop ending.
Let us suppose that the watch was fairly new--five years old--at the time our unknown stranger gave it to McKenna. It must then be with her for sixty years before she gives it to Collier. He then owns it for a decade, and takes it back in time to give to her. (The watch already exists in this time; it stays in the pocket of the stranger.) It is now a seventy-five year old watch. McKenna is going to keep it again for sixty years, give it to Collier to keep for decade, and then it will be taken back to her; it is now one hundred forty-five years old. Each time he takes it back to her it is seventy years older.
Eventually it will fall apart completely. The odds are about even--it might fall apart while in her care, because she owns it longer, but it might fall apart in his possession because it appears that he carries it with him, exposing it to more wear. Either way, eventually the watch must deteriorate completely. When the watch deteriorates, it breaks the chain--McKenna has nothing to give Collier, and nothing to prove he was ever there. Collier loses part of his motivation for going to her.
It is remotely possible that the watch could at that point drop out of the story, that McKenna could beg Collier to come back to her without giving him anything, and that Collier could leave her in the past with no material keepsake, but that they would still find each other. It is more likely that without the watch, Collier will not travel back to McKenna, and so McKenna will instead meet stranger, get the watch from him, and restart the entire sequence. Either way we have a sawtooth snap. If they still find each other without the watch, it is an N-jump termination; but if the watch is as important to the story as it seems, they are thrown into an infinity loop.
If, as I think, we have a sawtooth snap with an infinity loop, time ends before Collier returns--that is, the moment of his departure for the past was the last moment of history, because thereafter there can be no future. He, like everyone else, ceases to exist at that moment. But if we suppose that somehow an N-jump termination is achieved, he is back in his room.
The nagging question is, why can't he go back again? You would think that having done it before, he would find it so much easier to do again, for he now knew it to be possible from his own experience, and he knew what he had to do to get there. He could dispose of the penny and return to McKenna, waiting at the hotel. Our fixed time people would say that he was only able to make that trip because he had made it. He found his name in the register, and so proved to himself that he could do it before he did it. But if that is so, then there is no causality--that is, particularly in this case, we see that what we do is not relevant to what happens. Richard Collier put his will into carrying him back in time, and he made it. Then, knowing with certainty both that it could be done and how to do it, he tried again and failed. How hard he tried seems to have had nothing to do with it--he was certainly the more determined the second time, for he had tasted the joy he desired. In the end, we are forced to think that he was able to make the first trip because he had made it, and he was unable to make the second trip because he had not made it. Why try? Everything is fated, and the amount you try has nothing to do with the outcome.
I offer no explanation for why Collier could not make that second trip. My only guess is that he was too tired to do it and too desperate to rest.
The fans of the film are not going to be happy with me. I have said that their movie is possible, that it could have happened much as we see it (notwithstanding the rather fantastic means of time travel); yet I have taken from them the one part that matters. The story wants us to believe that Collier and McKenna were fated to be together, so time itself could not prevent it. I have suggested that they came together in a case of mistaken identity--that McKenna loved someone like Collier, and took the one for the other, leading to the replacement. It is very like offering them the wrapper in which the candy came.
I think some have not thought well about this story. Even if taken as suggested, McKenna has a few days of fearful anticipation, one night of love, and a lifetime of loneliness. Collier has it better and worse; he dies of disappointment when he realizes he's lost her. It is only through a belief in the afterlife, in a very particular anthropomorphic sort of afterlife, that any sort of happiness is found for them, and that after such misery as few can imagine. I would not want to be either of those in this story; it is a very sad tale.
Yet for all that, it is a plausible bit of time travel.
Write to me about Somewhere In Time, or questions that you have on this page. You might also wish to look at the rest of the site, and particularly Kate and Leopold, a similar story about love across time.