Time travel is my favorite genre of fiction. It allows us to examine the consequences of our choices and the questions of free will. From the silly to the complex, I find myself invested in how storytellers interpret the concept. How does time travel work? And does the story adhere to the established rules? The answers are always fascinating.
Because I love time travel so much and because this is my website and I can do what I want, I decided to create a series of articles looking at the various types of time travel fiction. Each article will focus on a specific “genre” of time travel and the film/television/literature set within. Some stories will fall into various genres, so I’ll do my best to make the most sense of them.
In Let’s Do The Time Warp Again, we examined the basic time travel genre of “mission in the past.” Then, we looked at paradoxes in Paradoxes Just Are. Now we will take a quick detour into a genre not often thought of as time travel, but very much falls within the same rules. I present to you…
The Broken Record
The Broken Record genre consists of stories where one or more characters are forced to repeat the same series of events over and over. Usually this is some sort of time loop (or equivalent) in which the main characters must solve a problem to escape. It is also common for the main characters to know they are stuck looping. My final example has an interesting twist on this concept.
Personally, I love Broken Record stories. In many ways, watching the story unfold is like solving a puzzle. What is going on and how do the characters get out? The stories also raise some deep existential questions about fate and free will. Are we always doomed to repeat our mistakes or can we change the course of our lives?
We’ll begin today by looking at the most famous example of the Broken Record: Groundhog Day.
The Broken Record: Phil Connors reliving the aforementioned Groundhog Day.
What Is Causing the Broken Record?: Unexplained.
How Do You Escape?: Becoming a better person and/or true love.
How can you not love Groundhog Day? The film is a downright classic. Disgruntled weatherman Phil Connors is stuck reliving his nightmarish Groundhog Day while struggling with his existential existence. It’s hilarious and thought provoking at the same time.
The film casts aside any scientific explanations to focus on the simple question: What would you do if you were forced to repeat the same day over and over? Through Phil, we watch as he experiences the entire range of human emotions. From disbelief to freedom of consequences to ultimate despair. The film touches on many philosophical questions without ever getting too heady.
At one point in the film, Phil declares that he is a god (“I’m a god. I’m not the God… I don’t think.”). And if you were in his shoes, it’s easy to see why. Phil has become essentially immortal. His actions have no consequences, he can do anything he wants, and he knows everything (about Punxsutawney anyways). That takes a toll on a man!
Of course, the story is truly about becoming a better person and learning to care about others. We watch Phil ride the roller-coaster of emotions before finally deciding to use his “powers” for good. When he finally sees another sunrise, it’s because he helped as many others as possible and learned to love. Awww.
Because the film doesn’t even attempt to address the “why” of what is happening, there are really no flaws. The rules are so simple that they cannot be broken. Groundhog Day is the perfect example of a Broken Record story.
Edge of Tomorrow
The Broken Record: William Cage is stuck in a time loop in which he repeatedly battles the evil aliens.
What Is Causing the Broken Record?: The Omega alien.
How Do You Escape?: Killing the Omega alien.
It’s Groundhog Day, but with aliens! Edge of Tomorrow is a sci-fi film that flew under the radar for the general audience, but is loved by those who discovered it. Tom Cruise’s William Cage relives the same eventful battle, slowly getting better at fighting aliens.
Unlike Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow has a very defined end goal: stop the alien invasion. There is a reason that Cage is stuck in a time loop. Sure, it’s a little bit of a stretch (alien blood and stuff) but it works. And since we know the aliens are the cause of the loop, we can deduce that stopping them (yay) will also stop the looping (yay again). It all ties together pretty well.
One thing the film really excels at is showing Cage’s progress. Because the time loop resets every time he dies, the film feels almost like a video game. The character goes through the level, dies, then tries again with his new knowledge. Sometimes new strategies fail and other times they work. You’re basically playing Mario Bros. with infinite lives.
Edge of Tomorrow also isn’t afraid to use humor. Similar to Groundhog Day, the main character dying is sometimes played for laughs. It’s downright hilarious when Emily Blunt’s Vrataski shoots Cage in the head every time he fails in his training. It’s morbid humor but it works when the execution is essentially a reset button.
Whereas Groundhog Day uses the Broken Record to explore philosophical questions, Edge of Tomorrow takes an incredibly logistical approach. The time loop is a tool, a way to train and get better. There is a defined end goal and the film is about how you get there (and not so much the consequences in-between).
If you haven’t seen the film, do yourself a favor and watch it.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – Cause and Effect
The Broken Record: The crew of the Enterprise is stuck in a time loop that ultimately ends in their destruction.
What Is Causing the Broken Record?: A temporal anomaly combined with the Enterprise’s explosion.
How Do You Escape?: Avoid a catastrophic collision with the U.S.S. Bozeman.
Cause and Effect is one of my favorite Star Trek episodes and the cold open is best of the series. Less than a minute long, the opening cuts to the Enterprise mid-disaster and ends with the ship exploding. Roll opening credits. Now that is how you hook an audience.
We come to find out that the crew is stuck in a time loop that ends in their destruction. Unlike Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, no one in the crew is actually aware of the time loop. Instead, they simply experience odd side effects, like Geordi having headaches and Crusher experiencing deja vu. As they experience more and more loops, the effects become more pronounced and the crew realizes something is going on. But the whys and hows are still a mystery.
Eventually, the crew learns they are stuck in a time loop. But that doesn’t really help anything, because they are missing so many pieces to the puzzle. Why are they stuck? What causes it? How do you avoid it? The genius of the episode is that the crew devises a way to send a short message into the next loop. Sure, the science is made up technobabble, but structurally it works well. Before the Enterprise explodes, Data manages to send a brief message to themselves in the next loop.
As the next loop begins, the crew is positive they know what is going to happen. As the audience, we are too. We’ve seen the poker cards dealt numerous times. We’ve even seen Crusher predict the deal. So, when the poker cards come up all 3’s, we are confused together. We assume that “3” is the message Data sent, but just like the crew, we are left to deduce what it means. Even during the final loop, tension remains.
Considering The Next Generation only has 44 minutes to tell a story, I think that Cause and Effect nailed the Broken Record genre. It’s a fun episode that requires no previous Star Trek knowledge. It also provides a unique take on the genre by having none of the crew aware of the phenomenon. Also, random Kelsey Grammer!
That’s all for this edition of Time for Time Travel. I hope you’re enjoying this semi-in-depth look at time travel genres. Until next time!