#185: Notes on Time Travel in The Flash

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #185, on the subject of Notes on Time Travel in The Flash.

Let me first say that I do like the current television incarnation of The Flash–not as much as I enjoyed the 1990 version, but more than some superhero efforts I’ve seen.  I have small complaints, such as that this Barry Allen seems a lot younger, and a lot less capable at his day job, than the one I remember from comics in the nineteen sixties, but a lot of what is different from what I remember is good–and hey, it’s been half a century since I was reading comic books, so I have no idea what it’s like now.  It’s an entertaining show, and I look forward to more episodes appearing.

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It’s the time travel elements that irk me.

I really hope that doesn’t surprise anyone.

Let me also say that the totally bogus notion of how to travel through time, by traveling fast enough, does not particularly bother me either.  Maybe it’s because I remember Superman doing it when I was in grade school, and I remember realizing that it didn’t really make sense that flying around the earth fast enough in one direction would take you to the past, and doing it in the other direction would bring you back to the present, but it made for a good story.  Peter Davison’s Doctor (Who?) once said not to trust anyone who thought he was going to go back in time by exceeding the speed of light, because it really didn’t work that way, but since no one knows how it works I usually give a pass on method.  This speed trick is popular–even Star Trek used it in the original series and in Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home.  You can’t do it that way, but it’s only a story, and in that world apparently you can.

At this point I have seen all the episodes in what is, I think, the first two seasons, and there has been an inordinate amount of time travel.  I have elsewhere explained why I do not do detailed analyses of time travel television shows, and a lot of those reasons apply here–Barry frequently travels to the same point in the past, and so do his enemies, and thus we are faced with the fact that what happens in later episodes is going to alter what happened in earlier ones.  So I am not dealing with those kinds of details here; I am just looking at two concepts that can be abstracted from the story, and the problems I have with these.

The big one is the time remnant.

The concept here is that you can duplicate yourself by traveling to the past–and that much is certainly true.  It is a kind of a joke skill in Multiverser, that a character who can time travel to the past fights for one minute, then in the next minute uses his time travel skill to go back two minutes to the beginning of the fight so that there are two of him, and does this at the end of every minute until he manages, by sheer numbers, to win the fight in one minute.  Then, since every duplicate version of himself has to travel back to become the next duplicate version of himself, a minute later all vanish but the last, who does not make the trip to the past but continues living into the future.

The problem with the skill is that you absolutely have to survive those first two minutes without any assistance, because until you get to the point in the future where you can travel to the past, you have not yet arrived in the past.  Your arrival in the past changes history, but in order to change history there must have been an original history to change, a history in which you did not arrive.

The problem with the time remnant is that he becomes disconnected from his own linear history, and thus he cannot exist.

Let us create a hypothetical.  Barry is supposed to meet his boss to discuss a case over lattes at that coffee shop, but as he is on his way he learns that Killer Frost is robbing a jewelry store downtown.  He quickly dresses as The Flash, manages to nab her and deliver her to holding back at the collider, and then realizes that he has missed his meeting with his boss, who is going to be unhappy and does not know that his not entirely competent lab technician is secretly The Flash.  The boss has been fuming over this incompetence, pays for his latte, and heads back to the office.  Barry decides this is important, so he travels fast enough to go back in time.  Now as his one-hour-younger self is headed downtown to stop Killer Frost, he dresses as Barry and meets his boss, who has no memory of the original history and so does not know that Barry did not show.  They have their meeting while Killer Frost is being captured and taken to holding, and at this moment there are two Barry Allens in the world–one of whom just captured Killer Frost, the other of whom did that an hour ago and has since had a meeting with his boss.

However, the Barry Allen who just captured Killer Frost still has to travel to the past to become the Barry Allen who meets with his boss.  If he does not do so, that Barry Allen will never come into existence.  However, when he does so, he ceases to exist in the future–because for him, he lives through that hour twice, but there is only one of him before that hour, and there is only one of him after that hour.

If the first Barry is killed before he travels to the past, then he never makes the trip and there is no duplicate–no “time remnant”.  However, if the second Barry is killed, then it becomes inevitable that the first Barry will travel to the past and be killed–or if not, that time will become caught in an infinity loop, in which two different histories are vying for reality.

This also means you cannot create a temporal duplicate of yourself “before the fact”–that is, Barry can’t say, “I have to stop Killer Frost, but I have to meet with my boss, so I’m going to travel back in time a minute so that there are two of me, and then one of me will go stop Killer Frost while the other meets with my boss.”  He can create two of himself for that minute, but at the end of that minute either the one of him that did not just arrive from the future a minute ago has to go back and become the other, or the other will cease ever to have existed and no one will ever do anything again.

So Barry could create a temporal duplicate of himself, but it would not work the way we see it in the show.  His duplicate self would be dependent on him making that trip back at the moment in the future when he did so, at which point the “original” becomes the “duplicate” in the past, and the “duplicate” continues into the future.

Of course, the show allows that there are consequences to playing with time:  if you duplicate yourself, you become the target of time wraiths.

What the heck?

I’m afraid that D. C. Comics, or at least their television production affiliate, has now stepped into the realm of theology.

They probably want us to think that the Speed Force exists in, or as, some para-natural parallel dimension, but it does not act like a parallel dimension.  It acts like a supernatural being.  It might not be God, but it certainly has the qualities of a god.  Those Speed Wraiths are its minions, its “angels”, if you will.  Sure, they look more demonic than angelic–but it’s no accident that they recall scenes from Ghost, taking the spirits of the wicked departed wherever it is that they go.  They really have nothing to do with time travel itself, except that since they work as supernatural enforcers for a supernatural being involved with time and temporal distortion, they punish those who cause severe temporal problems by grossly violating the rules.

The part I don’t like about them is that they are a poor replacement for what really happens when you mess with time.  There’s no particular reason why such supernatural beings could not exist in the service of a temporal god connected to the power of super speed.  They are not, however, a logical consequence of breaking the rules of time.  They are a supernatural intervention.

I am sometimes asked whether I think God would intervene to prevent a temporal disaster.  I do not know, but this is not that.  Grabbing the time traveler and removing him for punishment after he has caused the damage does not undo the damage.  Of course, in theory temporal agents could, as in Minority Report, capture the time traveler before he causes the disaster–but then, he would not know for what he is being punished, and has a reasonable justice-based defense to the effect that he cannot be punished for what he was going to do but never did.  God might know that he would have done it, but he himself does not know that he would not have changed his mind.  It is certainly not impossible for God to prevent the effects of a time traveler’s stupidity, even to prevent an intentionally-created grandfather paradox–but His intervention would be unseen, because the cause of the problem would be prevented (in exactly the way fixed time theorists would expect) rather than the effect undone.

So I’ll accept time wraiths as supernatural minions of a god overseeing time and velocity, while recognizing that they have never done anything to protect time except punish those who have done the damage.  There are still major problems with time travel in the series, but they would require so much more work to address even at this point, and are likely to be altered significantly as the series continues, so we will ignore them.

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