Bid Time Return: Time-Travel Romance on Film and TV

timeWe are indebted to H. G. Wells not only for the notion of voluntary time travel but also for the image by which we conceive it: a sunny, Edwardian gentleman perched on an ornate steam-age contraption that moves through time in much the same manner that a streetcar moves across town.  This linear view of time, along with its Newtonian catechism, has increasingly gone the way of bowler hats and high button shoes in the new world of Einstein and quantum physics, making it ever more difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality, let alone fantasy and science fiction.  Unlike pure fantasy, science fiction always tosses some sort of lifeline to the shore of reality.  It may be thin as a spider’s strand but it enables us to ask, “Is this possible?  Could this ever happen?”  To qualify as science fiction, the time-travel film should explore the implications of the theme itself as a major aspect of plot and character.  The present analysis is confined to what I call the time-travel romance, a form dating at least from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, written in 1889 and filmed five times to date.  

Of the two obvious categories, travel to the past and travel to the future—which can have very different psychological appeal—the successful time-travel romance on film and television almost always involves a male time traveler in the present who encounters a female inhabitant of the past.1  The male time traveler is a lonely, isolated individual, alienated in his own time.  Typically he travels back to an Edenic setting—a simpler, more innocent past, like Teddy Roosevelt’s America.  He is an active, out-in-the-world doer who defeats time by building a time machine or by willing himself through time; or he is simply drawn back out of discontent with the present.  If the male time traveler is typically active, the female he encounters in the past is typically passive.  Yet she is passive in a way that suggests she is attuned to a transcendent reality― beyond even time travel, outside of time itself.  There is an aura of mystery underlying her wistful, surface innocence, an omniscient mystique that seems attuned to the time-traveler’s inner being.

The limited knowledge and provinciality of past society reinforces the girl’s aura of childlike innocence, as do the films’ pastoral emphases.  The ravishing beauty who has never heard of a kiss has always been a science fiction staple; but pristine naiveté is particularly common to time-travel romance.  “Where is this Con-nec-ti-cut?” asks Alisande in Connecticut Yankee (1948), eyes blinking childlike.  “I do not understand you, but I believe you,” says Weena to Wells’s time traveler, speaking always in short, simple sentences. 

Yet the heroine’s innocence, Edenic milieu, and empathetic mystique also evoke an archetypal image of Motherhood.  There is a feeling of unconditional love—the soul mate, the total stranger to whom one is linked by forces beyond space and time.  In Berkeley Square (1933), Helen empathizes with the time traveler’s apparent confusion and defends him against the others, who fear his strange manner.  Allusions to Helen’s psychic ability are borne out when she views twentieth-century images by looking into Peter’s eyes.  In Brigadoon (1954), it is Fiona who finally welcomes Tommy to the mysterious village after all the others have shunned him.  And when the Connecticut Yankee is condemned as an ogre, Alisande protests, sensing innocence in his eyes, while Edith Keeler, in Star Trek’s “City On the Edge of Forever” (1967), functions like a Reverend Mother serving free meals in her mission, preaching world peace, sheltering Kirk and Spock, and treating them like mischievous boys.

There is often a sense that the heroine’s deeper self (perhaps Nature, the Great Mother, the archetypal Feminine, the communal oneness of all2)somehow knows that he is a time traveler without being conscious that she knows.  Alisande has “a strange foreboding” that she will not see the Connecticut Yankee again.  In Twilight Zone’s “No Time Like the Past” (1963), Abby says, “Why do I get this feeling that you are on the outside looking in, or just passing by. . . .  Who are you, Paul Driscoll, and where are you from?”  And Elise’s soliloquy on stage in Somewhere in Time (1980) implies a suspicion that Richard is not really there.   Some films go a step beyond psychic awareness and suggest that the girl’s vision encompasses worlds beyond the reach of even the time traveler.  For the first half of the film, Fiona harbors the secret of Brigadoon, the village that materializes for one day every 100 years.  In Somewhere in Time, when the girl meets the hero by the lake in 1912, having triggered his time trip as an old woman in 1972, she whispers, “Is it you?”  Similarly, in “Poor Butterfly,” a segment of Journey into Midnight (1969), the time traveler finds himself at a mysterious costume party, circa 1929, where he is approached by a girl who says, “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”  The girl in Portrait of Jennie, who hears the stars come out, is herself the mystery from the first moment she appears out of the mist in Central Park, singing her mystic rhyme: “Where I come from nobody knows, and where I’m going everything goes.”

But the classic tale of a time traveler encountering a girl whose reality transcends his own is Twilight Zone’s “The Trouble With Templeton” (1960), about a disillusioned man, Booth Templeton, whose only happy memories are of his wife, Laura, who died in her youth.  Finding himself suddenly back in 1927, he encounters her in a speakeasy but finds her different: flirtatious, vulgar, and self-centered.  At one point she slaps him and says, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?  We don’t want you here!”  His idyllic memories destroyed, he rushes out the door.  The moment he exits, the raucous music, conversation, and laughter suddenly cease, and all is silent and still.  The smoke which had suggested gaiety a moment before now seems ghostly, while Laura’s expression reflects her true nature: intelligent, full of sorrow and longing.  Back in the present, Booth discovers that he has inadvertently pocketed some papers he had angrily grabbed from Laura as she fanned herself.  It is a script entitled “What To Do When Booth Comes Back.”3  Laura had chosen the ultimate maternal sacrifice, risking all that remained of herself—her image in his memory—to destroy his obsession with the past.  He thus picks up his life with new commitment.  There is a childlike aspect to this vision.  Not only Laura but everyone seems centered on his life.  All those in the speakeasy had apparently performed with an unquestioned sense of duty toward his well-being.  The nostalgia inherent in that autocentric perspective also consumes the time traveler in La Jetée (1962).  Searching for his childhood memory of the girl on the jetty, he at first gets only fleeting glimpses of her—like small-child memories of mother; and in the end he asks to be returned “to the world of his childhood, and the woman who perhaps awaited him.”

Also important to the maternal aura is the benevolent, Edenic setting into which the time traveler arrives.  Often an idyllic, pastoral landscape or some timeless structure, the setting suggests the lost insulation of childhood, or the static perfection of a world without conflict.  It may be Twain’s Camelot, Brigadoon’s Highland village untouched by modernity, Wells’ lush, new Eden in the year 802,701, or the grand old hotel in Somewhere in Time, sprawled across a manicured hill like a great white mausoleum.  Rural, small-town America is a favorite: a bandstand, the old school house, laughing children, parasols, horsedrawn carriages, and high-wheeled bicycles—Homeville Indiana, 1881, in “No Time Like the Past.”  The post-holocaust present of La Jetée is particularly well chosen because it allows any past an association with paradise.  But the first images of the past received by the film’s protagonist are subtitled “a morning in peacetime,” a pastoral landscape dotted with trees, goats, and horses, rolling into the distance; then come images of children, birds taking flight, a boat and oarsman reflected in still water.  He walks with the girl down tree-lined paths, while the narrator adds, “He remembers that there were once gardens.”  The deliberateness with which these films seek to convey the static and eternal is evident from the Seurat-like settings in Somewhere in Time, for which director Jeannot Szwarc made an extensive study of French Impressionists.

As opposed to the innocent Daughter/Mother/Mistress, attuned to a transcendent, communal reality, the male time traveler is the isolated individual ego par excellence.  Alienated from his own time, he is the ultimate masculine principle, subduing time itself, but sacrificing all connectedness in the process.  None of the time travelers in my sample of some 30 films have families.  Four of them forsake fiancées and girl friends in the present.  Five are disillusioned with their occupations.  Almost all the protagonists are in some way lonely victims of the depersonlized technological society—like the struggling New York artist who paints the portrait of Jennie, or the post-holocaust prisoner in La Jetée.

Alienation from modern culture ranges from the deliberate harangue in “No Time Like the Past” to the subtler din of domestic and corporate complaints in Brigadoon’s posh New York bar, to the ubiquitous radio in Somewhere in Time’s present, blaring jazz from Collier’s Fiat convertible as he banks amid Chicago’s skyscrapers, then muted in the background during his traumatic awakening from the past, singing its call letters and cheerfully jabbering the traffic report.  Images of a desolate present contrast with the personal warmth of the past, as when Collier returns to wander the present-day lakeshore, empty and gray, strewn with windblown garbage.  More extreme is the bombed-out Paris of La Jetée, or the barren, wind-howling planet where Captain Kirk encounters the Guardian of Forever.

In all cases the male is the isolated, questing, rational man confronting the irrational, while the female, who carries the mystique of somehow “knowing” the truth, is caught up by great and incomprehensible forces, with no clear control of events.  The male is aggressive master of the material world, while the female is essentially passive but attuned to a larger reality.  The traveler is the powerful but alienated modern, awaited by the transcendent innocent, the Good Mother/Daughter, in the Garden of Eden before the fall—be it the fall of society into the abstract, impersonal world of modernity, or the fall of the individual from the enchanted world of childhood.  And though the longing to return to Paradise lies at the core of time-travel romance, the message of most is that you can’t go home again.

A frequent spokesmen for this edict was Rod Serling.  Of the 156 Twilight Zone episodes, 39 (25%) manipulate time in some way, 21 of which qualify as solid time-travel tales.  Of the 10 scripts centering on the question of going home again, six answer in the negative, four of which were written by Serling.4  One of these, “Walking Distance” (1959), generally considered the best of all the Twilight Zone episodes, differs from the time-travel romance only in its substitution of the protagonist’s actual parents and childhood for the mistress/ Mother in the Garden.  Martin Sloan, a world-weary advertising executive encounters his hometown, Homewood, exactly as it was during his carefree summers as a boy.  He confronts his parents who only perceive him as a lunatic; and when he approaches himself as a child, wanting only to tell the young Martin to savor his youth, the frightened boy falls off a merry-go-round and breaks his leg.  As evening falls, his father, who has realized the truth, finds the man and tells him with quiet feeling that he must leave, that there is “only one summer to every customer.”  Reluctantly, Martin returns to the present—with a limp he got from falling off a merry-go-round when he was a boy.5

Most authors seem to agree with Serling.  The typical time traveler is forced out of Eden with the same inevitable finality that we sense in Somewhere in Time when Collier watches Elise recede, as if she were at the entrance to a tunnel through which he suddenly plunges backward.  “One cannot escape time,” concludes the narrator of La Jetée as the prisoner-hero, running toward the girl on the jetty, is shot down by an agent from the present.  Again, the strongest statement is made in “The Trouble With Templeton,” when Laura slaps and repels her husband.  E. J. Neuman, who did the script, explains, “I’ve often toyed with the notion of ‘you can’t go home again,’ and it should have been ‘you shouldn’t go home again, ever,’ which is what I was trying to say here.”6

So the paradox of the time-travel romance, as with nostalgia itself, is a quest for Home that must prove impossible in the end.  To go home again—to seek unconditional love— is to deny the reality of  conflict, compromise, and self-limits.  The dilemma, of course, is that individual identity depends on confrontations and boundaries.  To return to Paradise, in other words, is to annihilate self-definition; it is the very image by which we conceive of death.  As with Twilight Zone, the Star Trek episode usually considered the best is a time-travel story (“City on the Edge of Forever”) that rejects the longing for Home.7  McCoy’s dive through the time portal results in the annihilation not only of his own present but the present of the entire universe as the crew knows it.  To restore the world, the mother figure (from whom the individual separates to achieve identity) must be destroyed; that is, Kirk must permit the woman he loves to be killed in order to escape the nostalgic world of the 1930s and restore the isolated individuality of the Enterprise, adrift in the void of space.

This association of the idyllic past with death is evident in the static, eternal mood of the pastoral settings.  Not only does the past in Somewhere in Time suggest a French Impressionist painting, but the great white Grand Hotel itself sits on a rise like an “elegant, neoclassical crypt,” as one reviewer described it.  With its lights ablaze, and the dance music of 1912 floating down to the lake, it is reminiscent of films depicting the Titanic in the North Atlantic night.  The sense of death is certainly enhanced by the fact that the people encountered by the time traveler, especially the girl herself, have long been rotting in the ground.  In Portrait of Jennie, the girl’s death is communicated more strongly by the fact that it is she who materializes ghostlike in the present, first appearing in the dead of winter amid the bare trees of Central Park.  The implications are even more direct in The Time Machine, where it is the time traveler’s own world that is deceased, its accumulated book knowledge crumbling to dust in his hands.  Its true survivors, moreover, are the zombie-like creatures who live in darkness deep underground.8

Yet the message of this association with death is actually an affirmation.  Like cemetery landscapes, it is meant to counter and transcend the disharmony and strife of mortal life, bookended not only by the eternal peace of immortality, but also, in time-travel’s nostalgia for Home, by the benevolent world of idealized childhood.  Like the awareness of death itself, the better time-travel romances remind us of the big picture—the whole nostalgic sweep of one’s life and the inescapability of real time and mortality—which is what any good art form does, prodding us out of our immediate agendas and everyday conflicts.  It is interesting that among the second Star Trek series, Star Trek: The next Generation, the episode generally considered to be the best is, again, a time-travel romance, “The Inner Light” (1992), which depicts an entire lifespan lived within a span of minutes.  Captain Picard beams down to a planet where the inhabitants lead him to believe that he is Kamin, a native of their world, and that his starship has been a dream.  He lives out the rest of his life there, with a family and deep involvement in the community, dying of old age, only to find himself back on the spaceship just 20 minutes from when he had left, reflecting on a whole life lived in some parallel world out of time, mourning his remembered family and friendships.  More recently, The Time Traveler’s Wife offers a similar perspective, though its violations of the archetypal structure leave it less successful.9  

While the pastoral scenes in time-travel films may suggest the stasis and perfection of death, they are also lush, often green, filled with children, and set by fountains, streams, lakes, and oceans—symbols of renewal and rebirth.  The series of grainy, still photographs that make up La Jetée may have the archival quality of a dead past, yet these halted images of the lovers—beautiful, spare moments of fragile happiness—seem always on the point of movement, so that when one of the pictures comes alive during the seven seconds of actual movement in the film, and the girl awakens at dawn to the sound of birds and simply blinks and smiles, there is a feeling of arrival, of new beginnings and infinite potential.  “To awaken in another age,” says the narrator, “is to be born again fully grown.”  In Somewhere in Time, the dissonant minor chords that accompany the ordeal of Collier’s night-long attempt to escape the present resolve to a sustained, multi-octave major as he awakes in the soft sunlight of 1912, detecting a distant whinny and the clip-clop of hooves.

Reinforcing this vision of a transcendent Home is the sense of infinite promise radiated by the awaiting female.  The mood is captured by Edith’s optimism about man’s future in “City On the Edge of Forever,” the singing and dancing in Brigadoon, or Jennie Appleton’s energetic love of life in Portrait of Jennie.  “Everything is possible!  Everything!” exclaims Abby to the despairing hero of “No Time Like the Past.”  The most common affirmation is that love itself—unconditional love—makes all things possible.  In many cases the time trip itself succeeds through the power of love. In the last line of Brigadoon, the village sage explains to the returned hero why the town reappeared before its time: “If y’ love someone deeply enough, anything is possible!”

This unconditional love is prerequisite to the maternal aura.  In spite of her love, the heroine of Berkeley Square convinces the time traveler that he must return to the future for the sake of his own happiness; when he does, she herself dies.  The same altruism is present in Edith’s Christian mission in “City On the Edge of Forever,” Elise’s life-long seclusion in Somewhere in Time, and Laura’s self-sacrifice in “The Trouble With Templeton.”  The search for such love is a quest for the soul mate, what James Hollis called the Magical Other.10  The time-travel romance enables the hero to literally fulfill this quest.  “The strands of our lives are woven together and neither the world nor time can tear them apart,” Jennie tells the painter.  “Of all the people who’ve lived from world’s end to world’s end, there’s just one you must love, one you must seek until you find him.”  Less wordy is the encounter by the lake in Somewhere in Time, when Elise whispers to the time-traveling stranger, “Is it you?”11  A variation on the theme is the discovery of the girl’s “counterpart” in the present, as in Quest For Love, or Connecticut Yankee, where Alisande’s contemporary counterpart winks at Bing Crosby, signifying that the lyric he crooned in Camelot, “love once, but always and forever,” is literally true.  The omnipotent, all-pervasive power of such love is demonstrated in “Poor Butterfly,” where the girl’s longing for her lost fiancé is so intense that even the present day owner of his car is drawn into the past.

The car, in fact, seems to function as one of those concrete objects vested with mystical powers, so often found in fantasy.  The magical swords, rings, shoes, and boxes that the heroes of fairy tale come to possess represent the same unconditional love, tokens of the ultimate benevolence of a parental cosmos.  The powers of evil may also use magic; but black magic, like Satan, must pool its forces and conduct great campaigns; white magic, like God, is the final reality and can attend to the infinite and the infinitesimal simultaneously.  In the time travel romance the mysterious objects that carry this kind of implication are often gifts or mementos from the heroine: Alisande’s locket (Connecticut Yankee), Helen’s Egyptian Crux Ansata (Berkeley Square), Laura’s script (“The Trouble With Templeton”), Jennie’s scarf (Portrait of Jennie), or Elise’s antique gold watch (Somewhere in Time).  Richard received the watch in 1972, gave it back to Elise in 1912, who gave it back to him in 1972, ad infinitum.  To ask, as many smug critics did, where the watch came from in the first place is like asking the same question about time itself.

For the same reasons that critics discard so many transcendental films like junk mail while fixating on pseudo-intellectual French contrivances, they strangled Somewhere in Time before it could benefit from word-of-mouth.  Perhaps such critics excel more at critical analysis―rational realists rather than romantic idealists, the latter wanting to be moved more than just entertained, caring more for meanings than for means, more willing to suspend disbelief in the possibility of a reality outside space and time.12  One of the more obvious findings, in fact, resulting from a content analysis of 168 reviews of Somewhere in Time, was the degree to which opinion was polarized.  The significance of this fact comes clearer with a look at the psychological context of the themes touched upon here.

The thesis is that the psychological appeal of the time-travel romance reflects the paradox that we all experience in adolescence and never really resolve—torn between dependence and independence, between the security of home and the promise of the world, innocence and power, paradise lost and paradise to be regained.  We individualize at the expense of communion with the world—the infant’s connection to the mother, the child’s identity with his personalized world, from which the adolescent tries to break away while needing somehow to retain it.  Our dilemma is that we must find some way of accepting our own nature, the individualizing thrust that tears us away from our primal experiences of the Good―mother, the intimate universe of childhood, and the collective projection of these in images of a preindustrial idyllic Garden.  In the time-travel romance, one pole of this conflict is the isolated, alienated male with the power to escape time, and the other is the innocent female residing in the past and attuned to a larger reality―the soul mate with overtones of motherhood.  The key to the appeal of the time-travel romance is that it resolves this isolation/communion, power/innocence paradox by having it both ways.

In the paradox of the life cycle, the programming of the psyche ordains an individualizing process of increasing rational consciousness, during which the boundaries of the self are established through confrontation with the world out there.  At the same time, however, this limited self finds meaning within a transcendent context—through harmonious relationships with a loved one, family, community, Nature, or God.  Both tendencies, power and innocence, achieve self-definition, one by contrast, the other by identification.  Both have a cancerous potential:  Total uniqueness suggests an omnipotence cut off from all contexts of meaning; total identification results in a loss of individuality comparable to the infant’s inability to perceive itself as distinct from its mother.  The one is pure instrumentality with no inherent meaning; the other contains all meaning with no remaining function.  The ultimate imperative, therefore, is toward an equilibrium between these two heuristic poles of the human condition.  Alone, each is the equivalent of death; together, they are the life force, the dream of infinity, the idea of God.  At the heart of all art is the nostalgic attempt to resolve this isolation/communion paradox.  The rhythmic tension between the two—like a singer’s vibrato, or the wave/particle enigma itself—may structure every aspect of our inner reality.

As noted with the western, it has been the function of the superhero to resolve this isolation/communion, power/innocence paradox by somehow embodying both polar extremes simultaneously.  Looking at The Time Machine and Shane, for example, both the Eloi and the homesteaders live in an innocent, Edenic community that is threatened by the Morlocks with their machines or by the cattlemen with their heartless hired gun.  The price of innocence (feminine, communion) is helplessness against the power of evil (masculine, individualization).13  The paradox is resolved by the time traveler (or Shane) who is innocent and powerful—the absolute perfection of both polar extremes rather than a flawed oscillation in the real world of limits.  There is always the implication that Shane, like Christ, is both man and god; and the time traveler is literally unbounded by time.  Yet they are also innocent, using their power for communal ends, gaining the unconditional love of the girl or the community.  This is God’s love before the Fall—the mother’s love before separation and alienation.  Individualizing without separating, the superhero gains the larger context of belongingness and life meaning without losing his agentic identity.14

Within this polarity, however, the emphasis of the time-travel romance differs from that of the western.  In the time-travel romance, the communal pole of the paradox is represented by the girl, though she is usually encountered in an innocent Edenic setting as well.  The symbolism is therefore more direct and literal: she is feminine, she could be the Mother. But more important, the aura of mystery and transcendent perception that surrounds the girl also attributes to her a deeper power, beyond that of the time traveler himself.  Her own transcendence of time is always implied, and is often overt, as in Berkeley Square and Connecticut Yankee.  In “Poor Butterfly” and “The Trouble With Templeton,” the time trip seems more in the hands of the woman; and in Brigadoon and Portrait of Jennie the mysterious woman herself is the traveler.  While mastery, power, and individualization are in the foreground of the western, the final reality transcends the hero of time-travel romance, often making him slightly ridiculous and ultimately tragic.

There is thus a temptation to conclude, within the larger context of polar resolution, that the fan of the western, like the adolescent who wants to find some way of retaining connectedness within his basic drive to power, is more concerned with separation and power, while the fan of time-travel romance is more like one in the second half of life, wanting to retain his individuality within a basic drive to reconnect with something larger than himself—to go home again to the maternal world of the soul mate.  The situation, however, is more complex.  If the polar tension we have been discussing is basic to the human condition, such that the psyche is programmed to seek an elusive equilibrium between power and innocence, isolation and communion, then an imbalance toward one pole or the other might be less fundamental in determining personality differences than the degree of polarization itself. 

The polarization would be most extreme in adolescence, when the desire to escape maternal bonds and all other limitations on individuality come into conflict with a strong, if covert and unconscious, desire to remain in Eden.  During adulthood the polarization is narrowed—the tension mitigated—with the accumulation of defeats and frustrations by which we learn our limits.  Many of us, however, reject any sense of limits and remain, in varying degrees, lifelong adolescents—pining for Eden, yet lusting for godhood.  Only the dead escape this polarization; the difference between adult and adolescent is one of degree.  One might picture the polarity as a seesaw with the fulcrum at the border of the conscious and unconscious.  When one pole is up (conscious), the other is down (unconscious).  The greater the polarization, the longer the seesaw, the more violent the swing, and the more intensely conscious or deeply unconscious the respective poles.  Deeply unconscious images tend to carry a religious power, while intensely conscious ideas become obsessive; from either source, one’s activity is bound to extremes, which have in common a desire to purify the world, to cleanse it of all conflict, compromise and complexity—of all limits on the self.  Depending on which pole is overt, one finds at one extreme a megalomaniacal drive to power with fantasies of innocence, and at the other, passive withdrawal with fantasies of power.

As an example of the latter, time travel provides an ideal model for power fantasies, for in many cases the hero’s very innocence—his own longing and love—give him the power to transcend time.  Moreover, no sacrifice of normal life is required; one need only find a hotel room on Mackinac Island (Somewhere in Time), an antique dress in an attic (The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan), the mailbox of an old house (The Lake House), or a boarding house in Homeville, Indiana (Twilight Zone’s “No Time Like the Past”).  And like Bing Crosby in Connecticut Yankee, who tells Alisande that he is no wizard but “a human being,  just one of the boys,” one’s power becomes limitless without having to alter the real self.  The time traveler’s power doesn’t lie in any innate superiority in the present—in fact things are usually working against him—but rather in the ability to enter a simpler, naïve past where his accumulated knowledge of the future simply limits everyone else relative to himself. 

The sardonic critics who called Christopher Reeve an awkward, boyish Clark Kent in Somewhere in Time failed to grasp that this is exactly the time traveler’s role; he is a Clark Kent who needs never change to Superman.  The contention, then, is that the time-travel romance appeals to the more polarized person, indulgent at both extremes, but whose power fantasies are encompassed within a larger vision of communal innocence.  In the western, a powerful hero becomes innocent by identification with nature, and by defeating the very sort of evil that his own power implies.  The western is about the salvation of power: the “powerful innocent.”  The time-travel romance, on the other hand, is about the salvation of innocence; an innocent hero proves his power as the “innocent omnipotent.”  At their extremes the two poles meet and are identical; that is the key to their resolution, one achieved only in the fantasies of the sharply polarized mind.

Is the alleged defense of the time-travel romance finally only a confession of neurosis?  Extreme polarization is indeed a maladjustment to the real world, but as the source of creativity and innovation it is also the means of transcendence in a world desperately in need of reenchantment.  The price of the linear, reductionist world view of the last half millennium, which has erased smallpox and taken us to the moon, is the fragmentation and depersonalization of an abstract society.  Like the fascination with drugs, the paranormal, fundamentalist religions, and other fantasies, the time-travel romance is a nostalgic attempt to reenchant the world, to regain a sense of belongingness, to reinstate the magical, autocentric universe of the child and the primitive while retaining the reality projected by rational, individualized consciousness.  Unlike fantasy, however, science fiction cares about the possibility of real transcendence “out there,” toying always with gaps in the paradigm, the paradoxes at the center of the atom or the edge of the universe.

In the nostalgic dreams of an ever more polarized world, science fiction fantasies become the myths and parables of our time. Just as E. T. was not just for the kids, Somewhere in Time was not intended for incurable romantics.  Nor was it finally about time travel.  Even to say that it was about the reenchantment of our watchwork world seems itself mechanical.  Best to say that it was simply about a watch—that exquisite antique, which, when opened, seemed to release the first music of the film.  Like the magical gifts of fairy tale, or the scarlet ribbons of folksong, it came we “will never know from where.”



 1.   There are variations, such as Time After Time (1979), Peggy Sue Got Married, Kate and Leopold, and The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan, which are less successful as a result.  Though the hero of The Time Machine (1960) travels into the future, much of the appeal comes from the fact that Weena is encountered in an Edenic setting associated with paradise lost.

2.   See Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1963).

3.   Parts of the plot summary borrow fragments from Marc Zicree’s outstanding reference work, The Twilight Zone Companion (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), pp. 169-71.

4.   The ten episodes are: “Walking Distance” (Serling); “The Trouble With Templeton”; “No Time Like the Past” (Serling); “The Incredible World of  Horace Ford”; “A Stop At Willoughby” (Serling); “Of Late I think of Cliffordville” (Serling); “Miniature”; “Young Man’s Fancy”; “Kick the Can”; and “Static.”  The last four suggest that you can go home again.

5.   Again, parts of the plot summary follow Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion, pp. 41-42.

6.   Quoted in Marc Scott Zicree, The Twilight Zone Companion (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), p. 170.  Actually some of the better time-travel romances append a kind of epilogue that suggests you can go home again.

7.   The best examples of the original Star Trek episodes in which not only other societies, but the Enterprise crew and Kirk himself must be saved from the deindividualizing threats of various Edenic settings are “This Side of Paradise,” “The Apple,” “The Return of the Archons,” “The Way To Eden,” “City On the Edge of Forever,” “The Paradise Syndrome,” and “The Menagerie” (the only one that suggests you can go home again). 

8.   Most literal of all, though not a romance, is Twilight Zone’s “A Stop At Willoughby,” about a man on a commuter train who keeps seeing an idyllic nineteenth-century town, the name of which turns out to be that of the home handling his funeral.

9.   The Time Traveler’s Wife meets the classic pattern in some respects―the pastoral setting where Henry encounters Claire as a little girl, the fact that she knows the younger Henry’s future when he travels forward to her, and her first encounter with him in the library in his real time when, while a stranger to him, she says “I’ve loved you all my life.”   

10. James Hollis, The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1998).

11. The archetypal presentation of the motif in time-travel literature is probably C. L. Moore’s “Tryst in Time” (1934).

12. The realists, prone to pan time-travel romances as sappy chick flicks, tend to enter adulthood making peace with the mortal limits of everyday life.  The imagination and creativity of the idealists, on the other hand, result in part from a failure to come to terms with the adolescent conflict between home and the world.  The two types may correlate somewhat with extraversion and introversion.

13. For an account of how good and evil have been perennially identified with communion and isolation, innocence and power, feminine and masculine, see David Bakan, The Duality of Human Existence: Isolation and Communion in Western Man (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966).

14. For an interesting collection of essays suggesting that the powerful innocent (though they do not use the concept as such) has long been the archetypal hero in American popular culture, see Robert Jewett and John S. Lawrence, The Myth of the American Superhero (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002).

[This appeared in altered form in Extrapolation 25 (Winter 1984), 340-59.]


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