Does Time Travel Work on the Big Screen?
Mark McCullough and Connor Johnston team up to investigate.
Time Travel and the Big Screen. Are they truly a match made in heaven? Almost since the very early beginnings of cinema writers and directors have striven to make bolder, braver and better films appealing to audiences around the globe in different and popular ways. It’s a favourite cinematic device: time travel. It’s been done in comedies and dramas, sci-fi and action movies, on budgets giant and miniscule, in spaceships and in DeLoreans, found in Wizarding Worlds and Far-off Galaxies – but does time travel truly have a valid place in the cinema?
Today, we’ve chosen four of the most successful time travel films of the last decade to compare with Doctor Who’s one and only cinematic outing to date, in the form of the 50th Special “The Day of The Doctor”, and investigate if time travel really does work on the big screen and more importantly is there evidence to suggest that “Doctor Who” can successfully dive into the sea of potential and secure a presence in the world of feature films. Please have your tickets ready, your popcorn buttered (remember they can feel pain), and your mobile phones switched off…. The show is about to begin.
Spoilerphobes and time travellers from the past may relax as the two sections addressing films released this year (2014) will remain spoiler free.
The Day of the Doctor (2013)
“You’re not actually suggesting that we change our own personal history?“
“The Day of the Doctor” marked uncharted territory for Doctor Who, its first outing on the big screen. Not only did it have to deliver a satisfactory story to pay tribute to the fifty years of time travel which preceded it, but also had the pressure of being a success on the big screen. It’s safe to say that it gained the nod of approval on both counts and has gone down as one of the highlights of the shows history. Unfortunately, I (Mark) didn’t have the pleasure of witnessing the episode on the big screen, but I am reliably informed that it was a wonderful experience made better by the atmosphere generated by congregations of Whovians. It would seem that critics agree as the episode fared extremely well and despite its short duration in cinemas, managed to bring in a hefty crowd. Naturally this lead to talk of the special being designed to test the waters for potential future cinema outings for the Doctor. I’ll leave that thought there as I want to come back to it in the conclusion.
There is no denying that Day offered something new to the ever increasingly popular sci-fi genre, anything with three different versions of the protagonists (each played by a fantastic actor) is always going to be unique. The narrative itself is easy to follow for those who are not regular viewers of the series meaning that it readily accessible and required no previous investment. Perhaps one valid complaint would be that as a film, it was a little short compared to most. This isn’t a major problem to the plot which is told and paced perfectly; perhaps where more time could have been spent though was on the Zygon subplot. Perhaps it’s just me, but it feels like it was a little abandoned in favour of the Gallifrey storyline. Obviously as a Doctor Who fan I’m going to be slightly biased in my opinion of how good the episode/film was.
The focus of this article is on the ime Travel genre of films. I don’t need to explain how the Doctor travels in time, that should be a given by now. What Day does however is take past present and future and have them come together to sort out a major event within the Doctor’s life. Interestingly whilst watching the episode it was extremely easy to follow and understand who was who and what they were doing, yet afterwards the narrative and time travel aspect provided lots of food for discussion and fuel for debate, which is no bad thing.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
“Mysterious thing, time. Powerful, and when meddled with, dangerous.”
One of (if not the best) additions to one of the greatest film series of all time, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, introduced a new layer of mystery and madness to the Wizarding World in the form of time travel. The way time travelled is handled in the film can be most brilliantly defined as “basic and simple” – though this in no way takes away from the quality of the plot. By this I mean it’s easy to understand and is presented with a lot of clarity catering for the younger and older members of the audience alike in the same fashion Doctor Who prides itself for. The premise is simple – Harry and Hermione travel backwards in time under the cryptic request of Albus Dumbledore to save the lives of both Sirius Black and Buckbeak. This is made possible by a piece of magical equipment known as a Time-Turner that immediately casts a parallel to our own Vortex Manipulator. “Cheap and nasty time travel – bad for you, I’m trying to give it up”.
The main connection to ‘Day’ that Prisoner of Azkaban entails is the principle of time travel it uses. The possibility of time travel within the Harry Potter universe may seem to allow many plot holes, but characters appear to use them for trivial tasks that have no effect on existence as a whole. The one notable use of a Time-Turner in the film, obeys the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle. This theory of time-travel, stating that “Nothing can be changed because anything a traveller does merely produces the circumstances they had noted before travelling,” is used in both examples with Gallifrey appearing to the universe as being destroyed and the Doctor’s forgetting saving it due to the corruption of the timelines (therefore not ret-coning or cancelling out any of the events of Seasons 1-7), and in Prisoner by having the events such as the stones being thrown into Hagrid’s hut and the Stag patronus rescuing Harry not only in sync during both timelines à but also made possible by Harry and Hermione’s time travels. It’s the one theory that if used correctly not only rids the plot of any holes, but also (judging by its track record) ensures a success on the big screen.
Star Trek (2009)
“You know, coming back in time, changing history… that’s cheating.”
I may find myself alienated for including “Star Trek “ in this article, but I feel it is an apt comparison to draw. In fact the time travel element is logistically similar to Day in that someone with knowledge from the future is able to go back in time and alter things so as that particular future never happened.
Something else Star Trek shares with Doctor Who is the fact that it made its name as a TV series. From that it has gone on to have two blockbuster films in the last five years, something Doctor Who could potentially follow suit with. Star Trek also managed to complement itself into the canon of the TV show establishing itself as a parallel universe to the stories fans had become accustomed to.
For Doctor Who this may be a bigger problem as any cinematic progress would not be wanted at the cost of the show, yet many would still insist that it conforms to the canon of the current series of the TV show. Therein lies the problem which is potentially the main barrier between the Doctor and the big screen. Although there are several ways around this, if the BBC were prepared to take a gamble.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
“What I am about to tell you sounds crazy but the longer I talk the more rational it’s going to appear”
Having recently seen the latest sci-fi/time travel offering, “Edge of Tomorrow”, it was clear to me again that there is a huge potential market for a Doctor Who film. The latest Tom Cruise action film features a simple yet intriguing tagline: Live. Die. Repeat. That concept becomes the focus of the film and its use of time travel; the same day repeated over and over with a different outcome. I can’t reveal anything more for risk of spoilers, but the film reminded me in many ways of Doctor Who. You can read my full thoughts on the film here.
The concept of a Time Loop is one which has yet to be properly touched upon within the revived series of Doctor Who. Given Moffat’s passion for timey-wimey stories though, I’d suspect it is only a matter of time before we see one. Personally I feel it would be an amazing potential set up for a Doctor-lite episode where he has limited interaction with someone stuck in a Time Loop. There’s a wonderful quote from the film which could so easily be applied to the Time Lords. This in turned my thoughts to the potential of a Doctor Who film set within the Time War, because as proven by Edge of Tomorrow, war and time travel can come together to produce a fantastic film.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
“The past: a new and uncertain world. A world of endless possibilities and infinite outcomes. Countless choices define our fate: each choice, each moment – a moment in the ripple of time. Enough ripple, and you change the tide… for the future is never truly set.”
Arguably, no movie involving time travel can ever actually seem right in the realm of continuity. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was a film that had all the potential to not make sense at all, the potential to completely botch-up the whole film series as well as destroy any chances of future additions to the franchise. Where did all this danger and evil potential stem from? Time travel. Ah, time travel: the ingenious storytelling (and franchise-housekeeping) device that allows these characters to seem relevant and vital long after their first generations of fans are dead. And did the film, against all odd’s present time travel in a successful way? Very much so.
(In trying to stay as spoiler-free as possible) The reason DOFP was so successful is because it used a principle of time travel that hasn’t really been used that much before. The idea that one person can go back in time, completely change history in such a drastic way “rewriting” the future totally without any consequences for the timeline. X-Men breaks the rules of time travel that Doctor Who so closely follows and in fact during one of the earliest scenes defines its own principle to follow in terms of the device:
“Whatever you do won’t change anything, not until you wake up. And then everything will be different, and you’ll be the only one who knew what happened before.”
The Doctor Who fan within me wants to scream out “Paradox!” – if Logan succeeds in changing the future how will his future self ever be in a position to know to go back and change the future *cue headache*. It’s a plot that if used in Doctor Who would summon Reapers of unknown multitude – but the crucial point is that it’s not. It’s not inDoctor Who! In setting up their own rules when it comes to time travel and taking away any chances of a paradox – It just works. It creates a film that focuses less on the timey-wimey aspects of time travel, and more on the opportunity for evolution time travel presents. It’s undoubtedly one of the greatest time travel movies of all time, if not one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.
In this case study, it’s difficult to decide if DOFP’s successful use of time travel is a point for or against Doctor Who on the big screen. Yes it shows that time travel does work well in the box office – yet it’s been this successful by breaking the rules and principles Doctor Who follows to the tee. It seems we have a production paradox on our hands.
The answer to the question posed by this is article is an obvious one. Hopefully the films we have chosen act as a true testament to the pure quality time travel films can deliver. Perhaps then a more appropriate question is; how can our beloved Doctor Who capitalise on this? Again the answer doesn’t place too much strain on the grey matter. We need Doctor Who in the cinema again, there is so much potential in terms of both finances and narrative. What’s more, there is no better time to try as recently there have been several fan bases that have witnessed/ will witness their show make a jump across visual media. We have had both Marvel and DC releasing TV series over the course of the last few years, whilst “The Inbetweeners”, and “Mrs Brown’s Boys” have made a move in the opposite direction.
As mentioned earlier there are a few barriers to this, namely the effect it would have on the televised series and the impact on continuity. However, there is a simple conclusion to this, as fans we have been crying out for a spin-off. The way I see it the best way for Doctor Who to take advantage of the big screen is to create a spin-off specifically for it. Looking again at Marvel, a similar set-up to the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” could be utilised with several spin-off films from the TV series over the course of a few years. This of course would require a considerable gamble from the BBC to either invest in these films or release enough of the rights to let someone else make them. We suspect however that it would certainly be a gamble which pays off.