Monday, 16 May 2016

Time Travellers and Time Machines

Men and Women in the Chrono-nautical Universe

The Time Machine (2002)
Ever since H. G. Wells invented the time machine as a plot device in 1895, time has been the fourth dimensional highway to adventures and redemption. While such excursions are dominated by men and female protagonists in time travel stories are few and far in between, there have been several outstanding exceptions.

Here, we will look at some of the recent examples of time travellers in TV and movies and explore the reasons behind the bias towards men for these roles. More importantly, we will highlight the heroines who deftly defy the norm and the unique ways women have enriched the chrono-nautical universe.

The Twelfth Doctor, Clara and the TARDIS
When portraying male time travellers, physical strength and mental dexterity seem paramount. A famous example is Doctor Who (currently played by Peter Capaldi). The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet of Gallifrey who travels in a stolen temporal spaceship called a TARDIS, which is stuck looking like a British Police Box (essentially a phone booth) from the 1950’s due to its broken chameleon circuit. He may not be the most muscular, but he is always the smartest man in the room. His wit and his ability to run have contributed to his longevity.

Unfortunately, adventures through time and space can be so dangerous that every now and then they cost the Doctor his life. As a Time Lord, he can regenerate and return as a completely different person while retaining the memories of his former lives. Since the television show first appeared in UK in 1963, the Doctor has regenerated eleven times. He has been old, he has been young, but he has never been a woman.

Dr. Brown, Marty McFly and the DeLorean
Across the pond in the United States, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is the renowned teenager in “Back to the Future” (1985) who travels back to the 1950’s in a DeLorean upgraded for wormhole navigation. While saving his future father George from getting hit by a car, Marty has inadvertently prevented him from meeting his future mother Lorraine. With his existence at stake, Marty finds a way for George to not only meet Lorraine, but to save her from the bully Biff. George’s newfound confidence is key to his ability to change his family’s fortunes for the better, a result made possible by Marty’s intervention.

Time travels offer second chances, but they don’t guarantee fairy-tale endings. While the heroic traveller changes history for the better, the tragic ones end up being the origin of the disaster they seek to prevent in the first place. Bruce Willis’s characters seem to have a knack for getting into such sticky conundrums. In “12 Monkeys” (1995), Willis plays James Cole who is sent from the future to the 1990’s to collect information about a deadly virus and the terrorist group that unleashes it. Due to technical malfunction, Cole arrives several years too early and is captured and sent to an asylum. In there, he tells fellow patient Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) about the virus outbreak and the terrorist group in the future. In turn, Goines is inspired by what he learns from Cole and forms the said terrorist group, Army of the Twelve Monkeys.

James Cole and Jeffrey Goines in the asylum
More recently, Bruce’s character (old) Joe makes a similar mistake in “Looper” (2012) where he goes back in time to kill the child who would grow up to be the Rainmaker, a singularly powerful crime boss with telekinetic powers who eliminates job contracts for people like Joe’s younger self. In his prime, (young) Joe was an assassin of victims sent back in time to be killed so their bodies would be untraceable in the future where they came from. Having travelled back in time, (old) Joe meets (young) Joe played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and reveals his plan to locate his target.

Old Joe meets Young Joe
In the final scene, when (old) Joe is about the kill the child, the boy’s mother positions herself to block the shot. (Young) Joe realizes that the trauma of witnessing his mother’s death will turn the boy into the Rainmaker. To prevent this future disaster, (young) Joe pulls the trigger on himself, thus removing (old) Joe from existence as well.

Not only are men the majority of time travellers, they are often chosen for the task even when both men and women are available to carry out the mission. In “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (2014), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is chosen to travel back in time to halt the creation of invincible robots called Sentinels. Female mutants including Storm (Halle Berry) and Blink (Fan BingBing) are available, but Wolverine, being one of the most popular characters, is a safer bet for ticket sales.

Kitty Pride sends Wolverine’s consciousness back in time
In another instance, creators for “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014) take a step further in establishing men as the preferred choice for time travelling. Tom Cruise’s character Major William Cage gains the ability to travel back in time after he has killed an alien Alpha and is doused with its blood, but he is not the first person to have done so.

An alien Alpha
Before Cage, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) had killed an Alpha, but she later lost her temporal manipulating capability after a blood transfusion. The woman’s time travelling ability is removed so a man can take her place in saving the world. Instead of being the heroine, she is reduced to being the object of the hero’s desire. The movie, albeit set in the future, is tragically old-fashioned in its portrayal of gender roles.

There have been suggestions for why men are the more logical choices for fourth-dimensional voyaging. Time travels are essentially adventures to unchartered territories, similar to Antarctic explorations or conquering the Wild West, which require some sort of cowboy toughness to survive. The limited freedom that women had in the past to travel, let alone by herself, also makes it awkward for a female time traveller to visit historical periods. As a result, women are bound to their timeline, not unlike Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel, trapped in one place, while the male hero roams about and saves the world.

Fortunately in the last decade, we have seen several exceptions to the otherwise male-dominated domain of time travelling. Among them, River Song (Alex Kingston) from Doctor Who is a most notable example. First appeared in the television series in 2008, Song is a human conceived in the TARDIS, and as a result, has the ability to time travel and regenerate just like the Doctor.

River Song meets the Tenth Doctor (his first encounter with her)
Song was kidnapped as a baby and later trained to be the Doctor’s assassin. However, that has not stopped him from liking and even marrying her. Compared to the Doctor, she is every bit the rogue maverick that he is, and her assassin training readies her for whatever dangers that lurk around the corner. Since Song and The Doctor both time travel, their encounters are out of sync with each other’s timeline. Her earlier self has met his future self, and she has transferred her regenerative power to the Doctor to save him during one of those occasions. In contrast, the first time the Doctor sees River Song becomes her last encounter with him, and she sacrifices herself to save him (again) at the end of the episode. River Song is not a woman who sits and waits. Her diary is thick with adventure and mischief. Not only can she travel in the fourth dimension, time and again she has saved the man she loves.

River Song, being an equal to her male counterparts, is a groundbreaking character in the realm of temporal navigation. In other occasions, female protagonists have been the agencies through which new twists in time paradoxes are explored.

In “Predestination” (2014), The Unmarried Mother (Sarah Snook) was born with a particular abnormality that allows the character’s life its mind-bending, bittersweet and ultimately tragic twist as a result of time travel. Do not be fooled by the apparently mundane plot of a secret agent travelling back in time searching for a criminal called the Fizzle Bomber. That’s only a veneer of a plotline that reviewers use to write about the movie without spoiling it. The true story is about the impossible turn of events that The Unmarried Mother experiences throughout the movie, and how the main characters in the story are related to one another.

The Unmarried Mother participates in W.E.N.C.H.E.S training
The Unmarried Mother’s ability to give birth is the reason for the infinite loop of the character’s timeline. The story, based on Robert Heinlein’s All You Zombies, is a perfect demonstration of the Causal Loop, a paradox in which the otherwise linear cause and effect turn into an infinite coil as a result of time travel. You will have to watch the movie to see how this impressive, insane loop works. Many have compared the movie to “Looper”, but I see stronger similarities between “Predestination” and “Womb” (2011), starring Eva Green and Matt Smith.

Although “Womb” is not considered a time travel movie, the story has a déjà vu element similar to the one featured in “Predestination”. In “Womb”, Eva Green’s character Rebecca is a woman determined to bring her boyfriend back from the past.

When her lover, Thomas (Matt Smith) dies in a car accident, Rebecca acquires his DNA and has the embryo of his clone implanted in her womb. Nine months later, the baby is born. Is that her lover, her son, or both? More importantly, how will Rebecca reconcile with this double identity when the boy becomes a man? The tension between her maternal and romantic love for the clone only increases as the child becomes an adult. Will all her pent-up feelings lead to that unholy union that you don’t want to see coming? Watch the movie and find out for yourself.

Rebecca and Thomas on a road trip
From the above examples, it appears that male time travellers focus on moving through time and space for adventures and saving the world. Their strategies mainly involve physical intervention to change history and remove their loved ones from danger.

Female time travellers (such as River Song) possess as much wit and physical stamina as their male counterparts. In addition, having a womb enables them to bring someone back from the past or to keep a lifespan in a never-ending loop. In this respect, women may have proven themselves to be the more versatile players in the game of chrono-nautical gallivanting. Men maybe the adept time travellers, but women can double as time machines.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, female protagonists work well, and in some cases, better than men in time travel stories. If you have not seen “Predestination” or “Womb”, give these movies a try and see how women re-invent themselves as both masters and machines in the time travelling universe.





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