I recently got into a debate with a friend online about the Doctor Who Christmas special. I said something about the 9000 things in the episode that made no sense, and my friend said that a show about a two-hearted alien flying around through time and space just isn’t going to make sense. I said sure, fantasy doesn’t always make sense, but a story, no matter how fantastic, needs to have some internal logic and make sense according to its own rules. He replied,
I expect consistency in linear storytelling. Not in time travel fantasy. The *essential* plot line *begins* with deus ex machina…
Which got me thinking. Can we expect internal consistency in something as implausible as time travel fantasy? Does launching with a deus ex machina relieve writers of the need to tell a story that makes sense?
In a comment that I can’t find online right now (possibly made IRL at a con I went to), someone described how comic books and super heroes are – or should be – created. These stories start with a single impossible exception: Superman comes from a fictional planet with much higher gravity, for example. But after that initial premise, everything has to follow along logical, even scientifically accurate lines. So Superman’s genetics prepare him for life on a planet where everything is basically heavier, and here on Earth that equates to super-powered muscles that enable him to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
I would argue that this can – and should – be done in any speculative fiction. At some other convention (yes, these do start to run together in my memory) someone described the need to put limits on magic systems in fantasy novels, because if you have wizards who can do absolutely anything at any time, your society will have no need to develop technology. Why build or plow or even cook when magic is easier? One of the hallmarks of amateur writing is a failure to ask these kinds of questions from your own premise. You have to start with that single impossible exception and build what makes sense from it.
Which is why relying too much on the deus ex machinas can create a problem. The most scream-worthy moments of Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who have been the over-numerous times that he had the Doctor jump in the TARDIS and go back in time two minutes or so to give himself something that he needed to get himself out of a bind. A little too convenient – not to mention how convenient it was that the notoriously inaccurate navigation on the TARDIS was suddenly able to pinpoint an exact moment – and it feels like cheating from a story standpoint.
Mild spoilers in this paragraph. I felt the same way about all of the Blink episode. Despite its near-perfect creepy tone (and despite it being a huge fan favorite), I found myself dissatisfied within moments after watching it. Sally Sparrow only learns about the weeping angels from watching the Doctor’s DVD Easter eggs. The Doctor was only able to record those Easter eggs because of the transcripts Sally made while watching them. It’s a perfect circle – no way in and no way out. It’s like John Connor sending his father back in time to conceive him.
More mild spoilers, and big ones in the link: For a better handling of the time travel paradox, look at the film Looper. A professional assassin is assigned to kill his older self, who’s sent back through time, but the older version has different plans. The older version’s wife has been killed by a crime boss, and he’s come back in time to kill that crime boss while the boss is still a child; the younger assassin has befriended the child and his mother, and so he has a dilemma. Kill his older self and protect the child? Let the older self take out a future threat and save his future love? Can the child – already a very scary specimen – be saved? Can the future be changed? The younger assassin is challenged to find a way out of this loop, and because the storytelling here is much better than what we often see in the time travel genre, there actually is one.
This is why I tend to think that the impossible premises of speculative fiction are more interesting as problems than as solutions. In a lot of Doctor Who, time travel is used as the handy god-from-machine that saves the day. In Looper, time travel creates a dilemma for the characters and we get to see the characters struggle with that. More tension, more character development. I’ve always felt the same way about magic in fantasy – it’s more interesting as a problem than a solution, and I like to see how it messes up people’s lives rather than making them easier. My characters have to build and plow. And they can’t just rely on wibbily wobbly timey wimey stuff.