beccaelizabeth: my Watcher tattoo in blue, plus Be in red Buffy style font (Default)
[personal profile] beccaelizabeth
I watch time travel shows. From my first and longest fandom, Doctor Who, up to the latest I may be falling out with, Legends of Tomorrow, I have watched a whole bunch of time travel shows. And a thing that bothers me is that somewhere in their decisions about the physics they make a whole lot of ethical decisions, often without meaning to, and the ethics of time travel is then held up as an entirely distinct thing from everyday ethics.

Time travel is the ultimate in the ends justifying the means.

Someone who knows The Future from a particular point, someone who knows who lives and dies, who by the conceit of this fiction is absolutely sure of the outcome because they've walked around in it, has two distinct categories of choice ahead of them.

Compliance and defiance.

They can either go along with what is, or say fuck it and try for what should be.

And yeah, my phrasing makes a choice right there, but I mean, your classic hero is not the one who looks at the world and thinks they need to sit back and go with the flow. Time's River doesn't just carry them. They're somewhere in the mucky edges carving out a new course.

Except, then they're making choices for everyone, or at least discarding everyone's choices.

So time travel is a matter of life and death, but it's also a matter of freedom versus slavery.

Or order versus chaos, for them as see it a bit different.

... I think we know which of those teams I'm perpetually more interested in.

Your classic good guy though, they're usually about choosing life. To varying degrees, obviously, since they tend to be a bit keen on hitting their opponents until they stay down. But a good guy will run in to a burning building every single time, even if the person inside set himself on fire. And in any given moment there's only so many houses on fire, but time? Is the fire in which we burn. Anyone looking at history sees endless need. So how do they even cope with that?

The problem is that time travel in the backwards direction is impossible, so story reflexively inclines to consoling us and helping us accept time's arrow and move on from loss. And the problem with that? Bad guys choose life. Good guys, somehow, have to be talked into choosing death.

... are we really expected to go along with that particular moral inversion?

On Doctor Who we almost always aren't, and the dodge is the rules of time travel. If the Doctor knows something in advance he can't change it, more or less, give or take. The First Doctor was adamant about this, the Tenth discarded it entirely, and it all gets... complicated. But simplest version is, almost everywhere he goes is not where he set out to go. He's broadly knowledgeable of the places he lands, but not specifically. He's not there to right a wrong, so there's no question of paradox, and he doesn't know the fate of this one specific person, so he can reach out and save them from the ashes. It maximises chaos to allow him to mostly choose life. It doesn't dip in to free will very much, explicitly, but he's usually there to stop outsiders from taking over all the choices, so local free will trumps temporal predestination made of billions of years of other people's choices. Choice and life are maximised. Yaay Doctor.

But it means very seldom using time travel *as* time travel. It's scenery, most of the time. He can't set out to right a wrong explicitly, without bumping into the usually ignored rules. And he's not run into Barry's problem, of having changed anyone he knows, as far as we know.

The Flash has been pushing a very different set of rules. And while they're a fascinating bit of drama and a way to explore roads not taken, they come down pretty heavily on predestination and choosing death. If any change to the past, any time he saves someone, means re-rolling everything from that point on, means some people never getting born and others existing instead, then the scale of his consequences is huge. And he cannot predict them except in the crudest of large scales. Saving a city from a tsunami probably works out to more lives saved in the time traveller's long term. Saving one person at a time? You can't know for sure in advance, but to fuel Barry's drama, it didn't. And then there's no way to restore the original, however hard you try. There's just more and more chaos to pour onto your bonfire. You can never know how something will turn out, so you can never evaluate the ethics of your actions.

Maximising chaos to minimise choice, whole different problem.

If time wants to happen, as the time masters say, then you can have time masters, blithely confident they personally can stride around history even if only to make sure no one else does. They might tweak things locally but it would take something huge to make a real difference. See Legends of Tomorrow season one and how everything they did only set themselves up, closed loop. Maximised order. In the same universe. And the difference? Was the Oculus, a technology which could be blown up.

The Oculus maximised freedom of time traveller choice in a very local way, but concentrated the real effective choices into the hands of those who controlled the Oculus. Time travellers didn't have to worry so much about fucking up time, though they certainly could manage it on some scales, see Stein nearly losing Clarissa. But their choices could always be rewritten by those who had the actual guidebook. The only real free will in that system belong to the Time Masters.

Legends of Tomorrow has also used a lot a lot of methods of brainwashing. It puts the free will versus written for you problem right in an individual's mind. It could almost be thematic. Time Masters drained off freedom wherever possible. Even their own - they weren't free to fall in love, and they had been raised in that Refuge place together - but no Time Master was just born to the life. No heirs, no ancestors. Taken out of time to become its police. Who would they have been? Did they all of them start like the Legends crew, dropping their younger selves off for safekeeping? Time Masters built themselves an ideological trap long before they would have been given access to the Oculus. Free will was their enemy. So they chose to prop up a dictator, and thought that would 'save' the Earth, by making sure everyone made the choices they wanted them too.

Season one countered this by setting out to kill one man who should make an epic difference to history, and to save two other lives.

But we saw Savage had children, or a daughter anyways. So killing him before that point would wipe out a genetic line. Did? I don't know. The show didn't go big on showing us consequences, or there being useful ones. And it did not allow those two specific lives to be saved.

Why?

Because drama thinks it's more important to move on, rather than chase our ghosts off a cliff.

Which, in real life where time takes us away from our dead, true
but which requires ethical contortions liek woah once time travel is real.



And you can get there. You can say choice is more important. You can compare the arrogance and outright brainwashing of the various teams trying to control time and say, nope, every individual gets their choice, even if that choice kills someone.

It's just that then you have a hell of a trouble justifying the actions of any time traveller ever, heroic or otherwise. You'd have to have a Leave No Trace policy on the book of destiny. You'd have to give up all that individual's choices to allow everyone else's, until the individual was in their right linear place with only linear knowledge.

You could not, in short, make an adventure of it.

Certainly not one where they, as previously stated, solve a great many problems by hitting them until they stay down. In anything but the most comic book logic that's going to kill people sooner or later, and Arrow didn't start out with comic logic on the killing people front.



If you want to see why Leave No Trace is a horrible set of rules for drama, see the laws of time travel chosen by Crime Traveller.
This unfortunately means seeing Crime Traveller, which, you know, not... really a worthwhile use of your time, unless you happen to need a cautionary tale. They set it up so they couldn't change anything no matter how hard they tried, and strangled their story.



Heroes need choices and consequences, because There Are No Strings On Me. Heroes need to stand next to the river and say No, You Move. And heroes need from their writers the very slightest hint of a chance that their actions can in fact make things better.



In normal ethics you save a life and you haven't the slightest clue how that will work out in the world.

Time travel shows you. Save this life, this perfectly nice person, and you get that world. So you start evaluating lives not as things in themselves but as a means to an end. You start asking, what do I get out of saving them? And you start wondering, is it ethical to save this one, if it means others die?

And sometimes in strict linear chronology you have to choose trolley problems and decide who lives and dies. But time travel puts a travellers hand on the lever every single time. Who do you save?

I'm really damn uncomfortable when the answer isn't 'everyone'.

I know that's not a practical answer, but I choose to watch a genre where people in skintight spandex save the universe a lot, I want to think outside the box.

There's always a way out.



The way time travel I can live with solves it, you give that individual an informed choice. Blue Beetle or Ianto Jones, they've had their moment of seeing how the world will go without their heroic sacrifice, and they choose sacrifice all over again. ... and so did one story I can't be having with at all, that Doctor Who Waters of Mars where the woman refuses to be saved. Bollocks to that. The difference there is she just straight up killed herself, where the other two set out hopefully to do their best and try and save others. There's a very, very big difference, even if you probably know the outcome.

But the thing is, that's an assortment of heroes choosing to run into the fire.

It's a really damn different action when someone shoves them.



And what Legends of Tomorrow asks us to accept is that it's ethically necessary to shove two beloved characters into their own previous timelines, as well as a bunch of bastards. The bastards will kill more people before they die, for certain sure, and we're meant to accept that's an ethical choice. The beloved characters died to save others, but giving them the push to do so really changes the ethical complexion of that. Legends of Tomorrow started out as a time travel show about killing the bad guy and saving the good, abandoned the saving, and now asks us to follow along with an absolute inversion of priorities.


And you can only get there by time travel logic.




I'm with Terry Pratchett and Sam Vimes on this one. You do the job that's in front of you. Doesn't matter if you time travelled to get there, you save lives and stop bad guys.


But that leaves a writer in a shared universe an insoluble problem where they'd logically be changing history out from under their peers every single week. Or, of course, the choice to make good endlessly futile, and hope someone still wants to watch that.


And it leaves someone who can deliberately chose their destination in time with an infinite task, somehow choosing the best of all possible worlds, attempting to build heaven right here.




Heaven, or the afterlife and souls and so forth, is the other ignored and entirely writer dependent variable here. Because they've established there is such a thing as a soul that survives death, so that means someone who gets born and lives and dies, even if very young indeed, is in a different position to someone flat out erased from time. In one set of possibilities, Eobard Thawne trying to outrun his grandfather paradox wasn't just running for his life. His soul is on the line. If he's never born, ne never gets eternal life, at any destination.

Of course theologically speaking souls are always on the line, but only their destination. If a soul has to get born into a particular individual then making it so that individual is never born, Eobard or baby Sara or whoever else, destroys a soul. And that isn't a capacity mortals are ever thought to have.

If reincarnation is for everyone, not just hawks, then you have a less extreme situation where someone just has to move house. Or presumably a whole string of someones, since there was a soul destined for that body anyway, and now it has one with a different history. And the different karma the different soul carries could lead to a whole different set of choices and consequences, changing time wildly.

And all this happens at an invisible to the characters level, so they don't even know for sure if it is a risk, let alone what the consequences of their actions are.



It's tempting to solve it by keeping theology out of one's science fiction, but DC very clearly does not do so. I mean they're using the Spear of Destiny, they're being religious, but I haven't seen it to know if they're doing so with clear theological underpinnings.




But a theological lens brings one set of consequences into sharp focus. It doesn't just matter who lives and how long, but how, right down to the details of their state of mind. And granted, many people are not religious, but if this whole being alive thing matters, if this thinking thing matters beyond its survival utility, if we are the universe seeking to understand itself? I choose to believe every last drop of understanding matters. Every last thought.

So a time traveller changing someone's understanding is also huge.

If you use a setup where you can pull someone from the moment of their death, by whichever set of rules, if maybe history declares them dead and you leave tissue printed remains but get to keep the original, then theologically speaking you change the moment of their judgement. Which can matter a lot. Did they have time to repent? Will they think again about it later? Big issues, especially for, just for random example, a time travelling thief and killer who has been in and out of prison since ever. Even logically, you change how their life will be evaluated, how people will think of them on balance, and you don't yet know how.

Or can intervention of time traveller be more about how they live? I mean, they just spent the end of LoT putting Leonard 'back on the right path', the one that leads to him being a 'better' man... very briefly. Can you work the math to say that works out a net positive?

... because I'm pretty much thinking 'bugger that'. And the reason is free will. His 'better' choice was to die so the rest of us can have it. The Legends sent him to die by taking his away.

... if you want to argue they only wiped parts of his memory, see Winter Soldier through Chronos. It matters. Death of personality matters. From some angles they killed a version of him by doing that. Partial mindwipes might seem more defensible than full, but how many times has a specific twenty four hours changed how you think forever? The person Legion!Len would have become is gone, because they wanted him to do a particular job for them.

Making that ethically defensible is exactly how you get Time Masters in the first place.



The time travel shows I stick with are the ones that choose life and freedom, the ones where you can make a difference, and the writers actually let it be a good difference when you do a good thing. Sure it can take you on a dance through consequences, but if the story tries to argue for choosing death and compliance with destiny, it loses me. We have to look at the world as it is right now in front of us and choose the best thing we can think of. We can't know the consequences, so we do the best we can with ethical rules we have, the ones that say free will and the time to use it are what really matters in life.

Yes that leaves time travellers in a never ending battle, but how does that differ from your average superhero?

So I want the show where the heroes are shown the book of destiny and say
No.

There's always a way out
There are no strings on me.



And then somehow when they act out of kindness and love and protect others, they work their way through the consequences to a better world.




Because the other thing, the one that says you've got to give up and let it happen?
Sucks.
A tragic hero gets ground down when they stand in the way of fate, but we don't have to only write tragedies.


A hero defies destiny to make things better.

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beccaelizabeth: my Watcher tattoo in blue, plus Be in red Buffy style font (Default)
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