By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Science fiction is essentially just that: stories told using imagined or modified scientific ideas. These are stories not just set in the future, but usually also containing new types of gizmos that allow its characters to act differently or more efficiently than modern-day characters can. But most science fiction seems old hat by now. Simply flying through the stars in a spaceship or meeting an alien from another planet doesn't do the trick anymore. Sure, you can make the spaceship go faster or give the alien more eyes or arms, but it's still the same thing.
Only one aspect of science fiction still has potential, infinite potential, and that's time travel.
Whether a character shifts through time by only an hour or centuries, it opens up endless possibilities for stories. The smallest effort can create multiple realities. New time travel movies appear on the horizon frequently, and even though they may be simply divided into categories, the variations within are endlessly fascinating.
Purists might argue that Charles Dickens first utilized time travel in the 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. In that tale, of course, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future take Ebeneezer Scrooge on a journey through time, although the images he sees are described as "shadows," and Scrooge is unable to interact with any of these figures. At the same time, there's never any doubt that he will eventually return to his own time; the time travel itself does not drive the story. (A Christmas Carol has been made into many, many films, most notably the 1951 version with Alastair Sim.)
Fictional time travel was more or less properly invented by Mark Twain a few decades later in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), even though Twain never bothers to scientifically explain his time-shift. Our hero, Hank, is transported back to the sixth century after a bonk on the head. He uses his knowledge of a coming solar eclipse to convince the locals of his great "powers," and begins setting up the modern conveniences he has grown used to in his future life. He thereby brings about hilarious and heroic changes to the time of Camelot. In the end, he is returned to his own time by Merlin, who puts him to sleep for 1300 years. This story - pretty well explained by its title - has been adapted multiple times for movies, TV shows and cartoons, but the most famous version has to be Tay Garnett's 1949 version with Bing Crosby as the Yank and Cedric Hardwicke as King Arthur. (A 1931 Will Rogers version has yet to be released on DVD, and the less said about Martin Lawrence's modern variation, Black Knight, the better.)
Six years after Twain's book, H.G. Wells' novel The Time Machine featured a scientific gizmo that could transport its occupant into the future and back again. (He never travels into the past.) Our hero begins by traveling just a few minutes, hours and days into the future, watching as small things change around him (flowers, cobwebs, etc.). Finally, to escape some kind of volcanic disaster, he must travel thousands of years, waiting for the rocks around him to erode. (This time machine can only travel through time, not space.) When he emerges, he finds himself in an Edenic society, where peaceful beings feast and relax. Only later does he learn that they are terrorized by a group of underground dwellers. As with Yankee, The Time Machine saw many filmic adaptations, but the definitive edition remains George Pal's 1960 film with Rod Taylor. It's a bit campy today, but the time-lapse visual effects are still quite stunning. Wells' grandson Simon Wells directed a remake in 2002, but the less said about that dud the better.
Interestingly, both A Connecticut Yankee and The Time Machine were intended as social commentary, but each of a different order; the former criticized right-wing megalomania and the latter left-wing passivity. Fortunately, 20th century authors and filmmakers also began to use time travel to tell stories about interesting and/or funny characters.
One more important thing to note about time travel is that, for all its possibility, one can only move two ways in time, forward or backward. This allows for four main time travel stories: Present Man in Past, Past Man in Present, Future Man in Present and Future Man in Past. And, of course, there are tinier variations within these stories: Time Jumpers and Minor Shifts.
Present Man in Past
In honor of Twain, we'll start with the first time-traveler's preferred method of travel, Present Man in Past. This subgenre allows audiences to recognize clues planted in the past that survive in the present day, and it allows for the flow of history to be changed, or improved, if necessary.
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