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If you have seen any classic time travel flick, you know that time travelers have to adhere a specific set of rules. Whenever someone goes back in time, they can't do as much as kill a housefly without changing the future that they know. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but the problem with time travel is that there is no possible way to foresee what you will change. We've been taught that leaving any imprint on the past will completely destroy our future. However, is that truly accurate? Does changing the past in an attempt to better the future really create a world similar to that of Mad Max? I would like to make a close examination of why I think the rules of time travelers are actually just selfish, and I hope this changes the way you look at the next time travel movie you watch.
The 'Back to the Future' Clause
When deciphering the dos and don'ts of time travel, people often refer to Back to the Future, as it is the most well-known film in the genre. In one of the most iconic trilogies of all time, we learned that what you do in the past will affect the future. If Marty's parents never meet, then Marty is never born. That much is simple. But it's a little odd how Marty slowly fades away as opposed to disappearing altogether when his parents drift apart.
And of course, bad people gaining knowledge of the future will likely lead to a chaotic world, as exemplified by Biff using the Grays Sports Almanac in order to essentially become Donald Trump and take over Hill Valley (isn't that scary?). So what can we learn from this? My main takeaway is that letting knowledge of the future get into the wrong hands could be devastating for our collective future. But is that the case every single time?
While it may not be as prestigious of a film as Back to the Future, I feel like some of the circumstances from Hot Tub Time Machine could help to make my case as to why the rules of time travelers are selfish. In the movie, three best friends and John Cusack's nephew go back in time to the 80s with the help of a literal hot tub time machine, and they all end up bettering their futures because of it. Craig Robinson's character becomes a successful music producer, John Cusack's character finds the love of his life, and Clark Duke's character ends up with the family he never had. It seems like everything works out for everybody, and all because they changed our collective future, with no harm done at all.
The reason this is interesting is because not only do all of our protagonists get better lives, but Rob Corddry's Lou does as well. An alcoholic, drug and sex addict, and all around scumbag of a person becomes rich by rewriting history and creating Lougle (Google) and Mötley Lüe (Mötley Crüe). One of the worst people you could ever imagine exploits his knowledge of the future to gain an unimaginable amount of wealth, and what does he do? He lives his life. He enjoys his immaculate house and array of sports cars, and he accidentally betters the world by giving birth to Google before anyone else thought of it. So, if such a horrible person doesn't do anything to hurt the world, then why shouldn't he be able to have all of those nice things?
Please, Help Yourself
Not only is Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure one of my personal favorite movies of all time, but it's also a film that had no regard for the normal laws that every time traveler adheres to. When going back in time, the most popular theory is that if you see yourself the space time continuum will collapse. However, as exemplified by the above picture, Bill and Ted ran into themselves several times during their adventure. They didn't only see themselves though, they went back in time to help themselves during their quest. This means that not only is the universe perfectly fine, but Bill and Ted assisting their past and future selves just creates a simple loop that they have to connect. It's so easy that even Bill and Ted can do it!
So what does this mean for my argument? Bill and Ted using a time traveling phone booth (sound familiar?) to make sure that they pass their history class is a completely selfish venture, yet in doing that they don't cause anyone any harm. As a matter of fact, they bettered the lives of the famous historical figures they kidnapped, as well as teaching future generations how to be excellent to each other. So I leave you with this: is it more selfish to use time travel for your own benefit, or to tell someone that they can't use time travel to better the future?
The Timeless Method of Time Travel
So far all I have provided you with is an examination of some famous time travel movies and a slew of open-ended questions, but here is where I make my case. The fan favorite TV show Timeless is not only the most recent entry into the genre of time travel epics, but it has provided a completely different take on what you can and can't do whilst going back in time. At first their rules were strict, with our trio of main characters going out of their way to make sure history happens as we remember it, but as the show wears on the rules change. No matter what they do, it's impossible to not change something. Somebody dies that isn't supposed to, somebody gains knowledge that they shouldn't have or Rufus just decides that it's better to do the right thing as opposed to following the mission. This holistic method of changing the past hasn't always worked out for all of our protagonists, however.
Lucy's sister was erased from existence, Wyatt's wife came back to life as an evil Rittenhouse agent and Rufus was given a premonition of his own demise. So it seems like changing the past sucks for everybody, right? Well, that's where I disagree. All of those horrible occurrences happened to these characters on a personal level. They successfully managed to improve their future, and all it cost them was a few personal grievances. This isn't an easy trade off to make, but is it one that will be worth it in the long run? Let's refer that question to another sciences fiction goliath. "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few."- Mr. Spock.
What I gather from all of the information that I've laid out is that the rules of time travelers are designed with self-preservation in mind. It is in the best interest of someone from the 20th century to make sure iPhones are still invented when they get back, no matter how selfish that is. My personal opinion is that if you want to have your Inglourious Basterds moment and shoot Hitler in the face a bunch of times, you should go for it. At the cost of returning to a future that is completely foreign from what you know, you would have successfully saved at least six million lives, not including all of the American, British and German soldiers that were lost in World War II. So why doesn't anyone do this?
Well, it could be that the first thing everyone would do when given a time machine is kill Hitler, or it could be because no one wants their lives to change. Sacrificing yourself and the world you know for the greater good sounds easy, but when it comes time to show Adolf who's boss, our fateful time travelers can't help but to think about their homes. The simple rule of not changing anything, for the better or for the worse, is created with the needs of the time traveler in mind, not the future. However, this is all just speculation. Who am I to say that these time honored traditions are selfish? I just hope that the next time you watch an episode of Doctor Who or Quantum Leap you ask yourself one question: Would I have the guts to do that?