Tuesday, 11 August 2009

The Machines

I was thinking about the various plot devices that allow time travel. In addition to opening the way for a time travel plot, the nature of the device can itself be a symbol, or it can add to a novel or film in other ways - it can give a film a unique style, say something about the traveller, or it can be a source of humour.

Before H.G. Wells, time travel was something spiritual - the ghosts of Christmas Past or Future in A Christmas Carol - or accidental, as in the blow to the head of the Connecticut Yankee. Wells introduced the mechanical Time Machine, bringing time travel into the realm of human control. These trends continue in more recent sci-fi - mechanical Time Machines include the garage physics experiment in Primer, while accidental time travel includes the genetic disorder described in The Time Traveller's Wife. The blow to the head method is also alive and well in Life On Mars, a series heavily inspired by the Mark Twain novel. There are less spiritual time travellers these days. However it makes perfect sense, for example, that Nick Hornby's Sam might be sent back to revisit key moments in his life by his Tony Hawk poster as it represents a kind of father figure/guardian angel.

I've mentioned Kate and Leopold before: it's not my favourite film. However it is a good example of time travel symbolising the risks that are taken in life; and this is portrayed as literally jumping off a bridge.

The bizarre series of committee meetings that led to the creation of the Tardis has been well described. However I think it's also reasonable to think of the Police Box as an authority image, which along with the Doctor's title, is consistent with Doctor Who's interventionalist themes. Another telephone box time machine features in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, perhaps as a reference to Doctor Who, but this time the process of time travel becomes a comic search through a telephone directory and network.

My final example is a classic time machine: the deLorean in Back To The Future - and as Dr. Emmett Brown says: "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?"


Tom said...

You know 'Back to the Future' also began as a Doctor Who 'Tribute'? In earlier drafts of the script, before they had the car idea, the time machine was a fridge - curiously similar in shape to the Tardis.

I don't know if Bill and Ted or Back to the Future really were influenced by the Tardis, but they ideas are very similar.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

I hadn't come across this before - thanks! Some quick net research later: definitely a fridge was planned in the original Back To The Future, although there are several variations on this including a scene where Marty hides in it while the time machine recharges from a nuclear explosion... can't find any confirmation that this is a reference to Doctor Who although you're not the only person to wonder.

I'm sure on the other hand Bill and Ted is a deliberate Doctor Who reference - why else a telephone box? and Rufus is a bit Time Lord-ish too.

Stranger still - I also read here that before the phone booth, a van time machine was rejected as it would have been too similar to Back To The Future...

Tom said...

Well I may be biased (I have a large collection of Dr Who DVDs and don't even own thr Bill and Ted or Back to the Future films), but I'm choosing to believe that both are Who rip-offs!

Anonymous said...

Well thought out post,Sci-Fi Gene, and you reminded me of a movie I saw years ago entitled "My Science Project" from 1985 in which some high school students broke into a military site and stole an alien device that opened time-space and the boys were in the past and future all at once. It is interesting how machines were used after the writings of H.G. Wells! Great post.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Hi Mish! I'd never even heard of this film but it sounds interesting, I'll look out for it.