Take a Look at the Lawman, or, The Trouble with Time Travel

Seems to me we need a break from our exhausting (to me, anyway) discussion of civility, one in which I find myself engaged deeply in discussion with some of the blog’s worst offenders (Lee, “Mike Toreno”) because I feel like I have to consider them thoroughly, give them every chance, before tossing them out, if that’s what I’m to do to keep order. Oh, the fundamental fecklessness of liberal democracy! Perhaps I should just conjure a virtual Gitmo for them, and to hell with due process! One of my friends, a liberal Democrat (in the big D sense) through and through, says I’m guilty of WASPish diffidence, and perhaps I am…

We need some escapism. Let’s talk time travel.

Yes, I know Stephen Hawking says there’s no such thing (his proof: that there are no time tourists from the future — that we know of, I would add), and I figure he’s probably right. That doesn’t keep me from being a sucker for it as a plot device — “Back to the Future,” the H.G. Wells original, variations on the H.G. Wells original (such as the enjoyable thriller/romance “Time After Time,” which starred Malcolm McDowell as H.G. himself), and on and on. Not that it’s always satisfying: “The Final Countdown,” aside from having one of the least relevant titles ever, is probably the most disappointing movie I’ve ever seen. For two hours you build up to the 80s-era USS Nimitz getting ready to go up against the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and then the battle is prevented by a plot evasion as cheesy as, “… and then he woke up.” All because the producers lacked the budget to stage the battle, I suppose. The earlier scenes, such as when the F-14s splash the two Zeroes and the confrontation between the Japanese pilot and the historian, are pretty decent though…

I’m always a little embarrassed to admit this, but one of my favorite novels to reread when I want to relax my mind is Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South. Why embarrassing? Well, when you explain the plot — “It imagines what would have happened if the Confederacy had had AK-47s” — you sound like an idiot. But it really is GOOD.

Let me hasten to add that I like the more reputable A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court much better, and have ever since my first reading as a kid. But the Turtledove book is still enjoyable.

In real life, we all engage in a bit of time travel to the best of our means. We all think back to moments in our past when we might have done something differently. This ranges from bitter recrimination (“What I should have told him was…”) to tantalizing wistfulness. I suspect most guys have experienced in their heads some version of Steppenwolf’s “All Girls Are Yours” fantasy.

You run into trouble with such imaginings when you try to make them believable. First, there’s the device — time machine? bump on the head? For that matter, if it’s a machine, how does it work? It’s generally best not to explain it in too much detail. Michael Crichton made that mistake in Timeline. His characters explain that what they have discovered is actually travel between universes in the multiverse, which somehow magically ACTS like time travel in that if you leave a note for yourself in one universe, you can read it 600 years later (or what SEEMS later) in the other. I could explain further, but it gets more ridiculous the more it tries to be serious. Doc Brown’s “flux capacitor” is much more believable, and more fun.

Then, what are the rules — is history mutable, or not? And if not, why not? And let’s not even get into the grandfather paradox. And if you go back to a point within your own life, can you see your younger self as a separate individual (in which case you might have a lot of explaining to do to yourself) or are you back inside that earlier version of yourself, only with what you now know in your mind, like the Steppenwolf back with all his past loves?:

At the sour and aromatically bitter taste I knew at once and exactly what it was that I was living over again. It all came back. I was living again an hour of the last years of my boyhood, a Sunday afternoon in early Spring, the day that on a lonely walk I met Rosa Kreisler and greeted her so shyly and fell in love with her so madly…

Anyway, I’m thinking of all this this week because I rented the first two episodes of “Life on Mars” from Netflix. Premise: Cop in Manchester, England, in 2006 gets hit by a car, wakes up as a cop in 1973.

Promising. You’ll recognize it as the “Connecticut Yankee” device — physical trauma, followed by the time dislocation, which the protagonist can’t explain and at least at first doesn’t believe in, but has to come to terms with. In this case, the hero keeps hearing voices and other sounds that persuade him that he’s in a coma in 2006, but then he is beguiled by the richness of irrelevant detail in his 1973 existence. He keeps thinking, Why would I have imagined that?

I’ve enjoyed it so far, but ultimately it falls down on an important measure for time-travel fiction — the evocation of the visited era. The writers of the show seem unable to go beyond bell-bottoms and vintage cars. Their notion of the difference between being a cop in 2006 and 1973 is that back then the office was a lot grungier, and the cops liked to slap subjects around and disregard proper procedure. Oh, and it took longer to get stuff back from the lab.

Which, I’m sorry, is pretty inadequate… I was in college in 1973, and people were just as insistent upon rules and standards then as now (despite their really, REALLY bad taste). And ultimately, watching this show, I don’t really FEEL like I’m back in that era. And I realized why when I watched a bit of the “making of” video — the writers and others who made this flick were too young to remember that date, which still seems pretty recent to me. The protagonist would have been 4 years old in 73, and the writers and producers seem to be his contemporaries.

Not only that, but they get their idea of what the 70s were like from watching cop shows of the period. In other words, since Starsky and Hutch bent the rules, that’s what real-life policing was like. Sheesh.

The soundtrack’s pretty good, though. The sequence in which the cop is hit by the car and goes back happens to the strains of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” (hence the title):

Take a look at the Lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know
He’s in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

… first on an iPod, then on an 8-track.

I’m going to watch the next disc; I’ve got it ordered. To see if he wakes up or whatever. But I’ve seen time travel done better…

14 thoughts on “Take a Look at the Lawman, or, The Trouble with Time Travel

  1. Brad Warthen

    I’m smiling now because I’m thinking, what would BillC’s reaction be if I posted something REALLY weird? Like, say that dream I had a couple of weeks ago. It was extremely vivid and detailed, and I remembered so much of it that the next day, trying to make sense of it, I wrote it out. I had intended to post it, but once it was in front of me I thought NO WAY. People think I’m nuts enough as it is.

    I made the mistake of posting a strange and vivid dream once before, and it was not well received…

  2. martin

    I love time travel, too.
    Is anyone watching “Fast Forward”?
    It doesn’t appear to be real time travel (yet), but it’s close. The FBI characters are trying so hard to make sure the “visions” of the future from their blackouts come true, you just know they have to be interfering with the real time line. That’s always a no-no.
    Or, maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with it.
    I coudn’t get into the US version of Life on Mars despite the presence of Harvey Keitel, who I find interesting even though I can’t figure out why.
    My interest in time travel began when I was a little kid with “Connecticut Yankee”, too… the movie version with Bing Crosby and some stunning redhead, Arlene Dahl?… Rhonda Fleming?

  3. Brad Warthen

    Martin, I’m glad you enjoyed my attempt to have a little fun…

    I haven’t seen “Fast Forward” yet, but maybe I should check it out.

    I thought I would watch the U.S. version of “Life on Mars” if I enjoyed the British original. Who is Keitel in it — the protagonist’s boss in 1973? Seems that would fit.

    The Bing Crosby movie was a disappointment to me (Rhonda Fleming, by the way). I didn’t see Hank Morgan as a guy who would break into song spontaneously.
    I’d love to see somebody do something with it that would be faithful to the book. Maybe a series on HBO or PBS could do justice to it.

    Meanwhile, I might see if I can rent the Will Rogers version…

    The thing about “Yankee” though is that while there are plenty of laughs, there was a lot of stuff in it about Twain’s ideas regarding modernity and romantic literature and other things, just presented in an entertaining frame…

  4. Burl Burlingame

    Hey, read “Black Ocean”!! It’s right down your alley.

    “Flash Forward” is pretty cool, but it’s still unproven. One must take notes.

    I rather enjoyed the U.S. version of “Life on Mars.” It was cheekier, and looked gear-fab on HD.

    Harry Turtledove can sure crank them out. He had an alternate history-version of Pearl Harbor that lost me when the Japanese invasion came at Waimea Bay during the winter swell. No way. But he’s often good at expositing on the ground-level changes of alternate history — like the efforts of just getting a bite to eat.

  5. Randy E

    Brad’s longest posts are on books and movies. Brad, you should watch Keith Olbermann for a couple nights. He has tremendous recall of pop culture like you do.

    Steven Hawking stated that we know time travel is not possible because we have not witnessed anyone from the future.

  6. Brad Warthen

    We haven’t met anyone who ADMITS to being from the future… That’s what one of Heinlein’s Fair Witnesses would say.

    And Burl, give me time with the books! I’ve read the first Flashman book, and I’ve got the second. I’ve been meaning to post about it. I enjoyed it, but not NEARLY as much as the O’Brian books. The big difference? Sympathetic characters.

    I have the same problem with Mad Men. It’s very high-quality, and invites comparison to “The Sopranos.” But the characters are all so off-putting. I mean, Tony S. was a serial killer, but you actually sort of cared about his problems. Hard to explain.

    I’ve tried reading other Turtledoves, but nothing compares to Guns of the South. I read the first few of the series about the “Lizards” from outer space who attack in the middle of WWII, but they just weren’t as good.

    You know, from a quick clip I saw on YouTube, the American version of “Mars” LOOKED like it might be better. Which would be unusual. I can’t bring myself to watch the U.S. version of “The Office.” I will accept no cheap imitation David Brents…

  7. Burl Burlingame

    Once the U.S. edition of “The Office” found its footing, it became its own creature, and quite good too. Gervais and Merchant are still the producers.

    BTW, Ricky Gervais’ podcasts entertained me on a drive all the way across the U.S.

    Nobody in the Flashman series is sympathetic. He’s the archtype of an anti-hero. Brilliant work, tho, by Frasier. My favorite is “Great Game,” but then I’ve always been a Raj-aholic.

    I too gave up on Turtledove’s WWII lizards from space. You can tell when an author is typing instead of writing.

    Much in “Black Ocean” actually takes place at my newspaper, so I had an interest, but before WWII (and in an alternate universe), and so it might as well be lizards from space. It’s your basic paperback thriller.

  8. Burl Burlingame

    A friend (now deceased) who was part of the Army test team for the M-16 told me this anecdote.
    He thought the M-16 was delicate and undependable, told the Army so, he was told to shut up and buy stock in Colt.
    A few years later, he’s in command of a firebase in Vietnam, and they’re clearing a kill zone. The bulldozer uncovers a dead Viet cong who has buried for a year or so, along with his AK-47. Dave jumped down in the hole, said “now here’s a REAL weapon,” and cocked the muddy, rusty AK, pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.
    It fired.

  9. normivey

    For time travel, try Lightning by Dean Koontz. I’ve always liked the short story The Love Letter by Jack Finney (also wrote The Body Snatchers and Time and Again). Quantum Leap is my favorite time travel series–especially the Halloween episodes. There was a self-hypnosis time story movie that was pretty good that starred Christoper Reeve and Jane Seymour, but I don’t recall the title.

    Authors often address the paradox of what happens if the time traveler alters history, but never address the fact that after history is altered, it becomes the history of the time traveler, and so the time travel was never necessary in the first place.

  10. kbfenner

    I agree with Burl–check out the American The Office–it’s something different, and they should have just called it something else. It is easily one of the best shows on TV. If you like Ricky Gervais, don’t miss the underrated Ghost Town.

    Sorry you can’t get into the Mad Men characters.There is something Brechtian about Matt Weiner’s writing–a Verfremdungseffekt — but I do care about Joan and Peggy–and Ken Cosgrove was so touching about his stories.

    I loved a Lost in Space episode as a little girl where they went back to the 1930s, and there was some wistful love story with the sidekick guy….later that film Somewhere in Time, with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour touched on it, but was so cheesy–with Jane Seymour, could it be anything else? The Time Traveller’s Wife is better iterature, in this vein, but confusing. Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle, especially given his death. Wistfulness for lost time, lost opportunities, lost loves…

    Maybe a touch of Orpheus and Eurydice/ Dante and Beatrice—You can’t go back….

    Got to get some zzzs
    Night y’all!

Comments are closed.