The Five Best (and Worse) Time Travellers.

Doesn’t Looper look like an interesting film? As a sci-fi buff, I try to keep my cynicism far away from any upcoming film releases and just enjoy the hype for a bit. Fingers crossed for more interesting, mainstream sci-fi in the future, though Bruce Willis’ last attempt didn’t exactly inspire people.

Still, to celebrate my growing enthusiasm for this flick, I’ve compiled a lot of my 5 best, and worst, time travellers.

Enjoy.

 

Best

The Time Traveller

TimeTravellerTimeMachineIt’s only fair to kick things of with the Time Traveller from H.G Wells’ classic work The Time Machine. Unnamed in the book, the Time Traveller is an eccentric English inventor who calls together a group of colleagues at his home to demonstrate his latest invention. His device, as you might have guessed from the title, is a time machine. He uses the device in the hope of discovering an idyllic society, however things don’t work out quite as he imagined. The further forward the Time Traveller ventures, the more complications seem to crop up in mankind’s search for peace.

The Time Machine is a seminal work of literature, and is not only one of the first books to really explore time travel as a narrative device, but also one of the first to really examine the consequences. However, the Time Traveller earns his place on this list on his own merits. Not only is the character a scientific genius, but his is driven not by personal gain, but an insatiable dream of seeing mankind achieve true peace.

Kyle Reese

Kyle ReeseYou could be forgiven for forgetting about Kyle Reese. After all, that’s what the Terminator franchise did until the lousy Terminator Salvation. However, for those who still enjoy the first entry in the series, Kyle is a pivotal character that carries the film exceptionally well. Sent back in time to protect Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese always strikes me as something of a tragic figure. Raised in a war torn world, it becomes his sole responsibility to save mankind’s greatest leader. He must do this while navigating a world he doesn’t understand, for a future that nobody else can see. This character driven element is the start of the narrative that would bind the various elements of the first two Terminator films together so strongly and make them as successful as they were.

The Doctor

The Doctor with Rose and Captain JackWhat can you say about the Doctor that hasn’t already been said? Star of the longest running science fiction series in the world, The Doctor is one of the few characters on TV that is grounded is strong ethical principles. The motivating force of the character is the desire to do good, not for personal gain or for the future success of mankind, but because it is the right thing to do. Part of the show’s character has been, until recently, a decision to not minimise or gloss over death. Perhaps the finest thing about the Doctor’s character has been the BBC’s unwillingness to show killing as part of the job. Couple that with a fine brain, two hearts and the ability to change actor frequently and you have one of the most compelling characters in TV history.

Part of me wanted to put The Doctor right at the top of the list but I had to stop myself. While the Doctor is  definitely the finest adventurer and hero on the list, I’m not so sure about Time Traveller. While Time Travel is his prime mode of transport, it very rarely features in his stories as a plot point and so it’s little more than a storytelling device. For this reason the Doctor got bumped down a bit.

Henry DeTamble

Book CoverThe Time Traveler’s Wife is probably my favourite book. That’s a hard category to narrow down, but Audrey Nieffenegger’s novel is an exceptional work. The story of a married couple whose lives are panning out in slightly the wrong order, Henry DeTamble is the cause of all this drama.

Born with a rare genetic condition that makes he leap forwards or backwards to significant places in his life, Henry is a survivor. He knows how to pick a lock, steal clothes (he can’t bring them with him) and talk his way out of a bad situation, until he bounces back to the present. The novel presents a growing conflict between Henry’s erratic leaps through time and his knowledge that one day he won’t be fast enough or strong enough to keep it up. The Time Traveler’s Wife is a gripping read, from the first page to the last, and Henry is a big part of that.

 

Marty McFly

Marty McFly and DocPredictable, I know. But Back to the Future is one of those films that is so popular for a reason. It is one of the most well constructed, entertaining films ever made. A perfect balance of comedy, family drama and science fiction with one of the most exciting climaxes ever filmed.

Marty himself starts of as something of a blank slate. A typical 80s teen, he rides a skateboard and plays the guitar, until he is sent back in time to the year 1955 and accidentally stops his parents from meeting. On paper, the role seems flat and lifeless, but Michael J. Fox brings it to life with a warmth that is hard to resist. Perhaps his biggest strength as an actor is in taking the relationship between Marty and Doc, and making it completely believable despite the age gap. This relationship would serve as the foundation for three films and never once did it seem unrealistic thanks to two actors with such great chemistry.

The Back to the Future trilogy is so great because it’s about how Time Travel can tell use more about people and Marty McFly is the perfect vehicle to explore these themes with.

 

So, those are the Time Travellers that make sci-fi worthwhile. Now what about the duds. 

 

Worst

George and Gracie

George and Gracie the WhalesI feel terrible including George and Gracie on this list because, well, they’re Whales and it’s not really their fault. Sadly their inclusion in Star Trek IV, the most overrated of the Trek flicks, necessitates their inclusion.

There’s a lot to like about Star Trek IV, I know. After two very serious films, the chance to put familiar characters in the present day and explore a little comic relief can be very fun. The problem is that the film takes about a half hour’s worth of plot and builds an entire film around the Enterprise crew wandering around 1980s San Francisco. The cherry on top, however, is the purpose for their visit. An alien probe (in a plotline very similar to Star Trek: The Motion Picture) is approaching Earth with a message for the humpback whales, and will destroy the planet if it doesn’t get an answer. The only solution is, apparently, to travel back in time and find some. Enter George and Gracie.

Every time I see this film, I wonder how much technology has decline in the 23rd century. I mean, we could probably knock up a fake humpback whale soundboard right now if we needed to. Perhaps that sort of deception is just not allowed at Federation HQ.

Henry DeTamble

Eric Bana as Henry DeTambleYes, I know someone named Henry DeTamble appeared on the other list, but this is about a completely different Henry DeTamble who appeared in a recent film that was also called The Time Traveler’s Wife. This Henry DeTamble was not a particularly interesting Time Traveller and his only character trait seemed to immitate Eric Bana contemplating firing his agent.

Professor John Robinson

Professor John RobinsonOf all the things wrong with the Lost in Space movie, one of the worst is its sudden transformation into a completely different film in the last half hour. A sudden leap into the future finds a young Will Robinson is being looked after by a mutate Dr. Smith that has eaten all his family. In this desolate future, he has constructed a massive time machine that is destroying the universe. His father, Professor John Robinson, finds him via some kind of rift in the space-time continuum and attempts to convince him that Monster-Dr Smith probably doesn’t have his best interest at heart. He then uses Will Robinson’s doomsday time machine to go back and stop the whole last half hour from happening. If only we could do the same.

Superman

Superman Christopher ReevesNow don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with Superman’s credentials as a superhero. Rather, I take issue with the hideously bad, cop-out ending to Superman: The Movie.

The film plays out pretty well for the most part. At the end of the 70s, Superman had matured somewhat from his goofy 50s persona and it wouldn’t be long before John Byrne would write the Man of Steel miniseries sealed the deal and established the modern Superman continuity. Superman: The Movie has some of the weaknesses of the old era, a goofy Clark Kent, a “criminal mastermind” Lex Luthor instead of the industrialist, it’s quite a modern take on the character. Luthor isn’t quite a mad scientist, but has an elaborate property scam, and the atmosphere at the Daily Planet is more of an authentic newsroom than a comic book office. The culmination of the film shows Lex Luthor’s plan succeed, Lois Lane buried during a deliberately triggered Earthquake and Superman facing real loss and pain for the first time.

Then Superman flies round the world backwards until it starts spinning the other way and time turns backwards with it.

Suddenly we’re back with the Superman that keeps cities in bottles and opens his Fortress of Solitude with a giant key.

Now I know that technically this isn’t Time Travel, Superman stays where he is and everything else goes back in time, but I’m counting it because the effect is the same and if the movie can use such a stupid cheat then so can I. You know what bugs me the most about this? It’s so far from how science works, it’s impossible to actually suspend your disbelief. Every time the globe starts to slow, I wonder where all of human civilisation doesn’t get flung off into space.

I could continue but if I don’t stop now I’ll burst a blood vessel.

Tempus

Tempus from Lois and ClarkAnother Superman related one, but a bit different. Fans of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman will probably know this character, but most people probably had enough sense to stop watching by this point. It is my fondest hope that Lois and Clark will go down in history as the show with the fastest decline in quality from the first series to the second. Never has a great show divebombed like this one, and with the nightmare that was Series 2-4 came Tempus.

To be fair, Tempus’ first episode isn’t bad. Well, relatively speaking when you consider the dross that the show was usually doling out by this point. H.G Wells turns up and tells Clark Kent that he knows his secret identity and he needs his help. Apparently Wells is the Time Traveller that he wrote of in the Time Machine, he did go forward in time and find a Utopia, established by Superman. Unfortunately, he brought a master criminal named Tempus from the future back with him for reasons that probably seemed better at the time and then lost him.

Unfortunately, once Superman retrieves Tempus and H.G Wells takes him back to the future, he returns. More than once. Each time the Tempus episodes became more and more embarrassing and loyal viewers could only dream of a show that once brought us the finest screen incarnation of Superman in years.

 

So, that’s it, my five best and worst time travellers. Feel free to argue it out in the comments.

Moving Your Own Goalposts: Why Writers Need Deadlines.

Alarm Clock

Procrastinators beware, I’m about to talk about deadlines.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that when I’m not discussing important topics like the best movie robots or the worst science fiction sitcoms, I write stories. Recently I’ve even taken to calling myself a writer in conversation and selling my work on Amazon. This has been my goal for a long time, but there was a lot of dithering on the way because I could never stop moving my own goalposts.

Let me give you an example.

About three years ago I found myself in something of a rut. I was a year out of University, I was working at a supermarket and I lived in the most overpriced rental house in existence. Writing began as a necessity. I didn’t have the confidence to go for a more rewarding job, I didn’t have the money to move to a better house and I didn’t have the sanity to keep going with things as they were. I sat down with a pen and paper, and made a list of roads I could take out of the personal hell I had found myself in. I settled on writing for a few good reasons. Firstly, I knew I was a competent writer. Secondly, I enjoyed reading fiction which helps. And finally, the eBook self publishing boom was just beginning.

I set my first goal. I would write a series of science fiction novels.

Unfortunately, problems started to seep in soon after. While I knew I was a competent writer, I’d also been hoping to discover I was a very good writer. A natural, with oodles of instinctive talent just waiting to bubble to the surface. I discovered my first painful truth in the very first week. Writing is hard work and it takes a lot of practice to get good, and here I was trying to plan out five or six of the things with barely an idea of how to write the first. So, I suffered a crisis of confidence and moved my goalposts. I set myself a new goal to write a single novel.

I started from scratch. I planned a completely new novel and hit the first page running. I wrote every day for weeks before I discovered I had written myself into a corner and I couldn’t find a way out. Still, I thought, I had all the time in the world. I set myself a new goal. I went right back to the beginning, but this time I planned out the novel beginning, middle and end. Only then did I realise just how much writing one has to do to write a novel. I changed my goal again.

And again, and again, and again…

Three years later, I have a much better handle on my writing. My current project is the third short story in my Timewasters series. Each one was written with a clear goal, a plan and a deadline, but the latest looks like it’s going to be late. It got me thinking about all those false starts and dead-ends in the last three years, and I realised that if I’d just kept to my first goal, I would probably be further along the road now. While it’s true that I started my writing career ill-prepared and totally ignorant to the challenges involved, part of my problem has been continually changing my targets. That first novel, of a series of novels, might not have been great had I pushed it out three years ago, but the experience to be gained from sticking with it would have benefited me hugely two years ago.

Becoming a writer is not easy. Like any art, ultimately you answer only to yourself. Being a writer is unlike a day job. There is no contract, no clocking in machine telling you when you start and when to leave. You must set your hours, and you must set your goals. If you ever want to have your work finished and packaged up into a product you can sell, you need to have deadlines and targets that should not be exceeded. This is essential because without them you could spend an eternity seeking the literary perfection that you can never, and will never achieve. If you’re anything like me, you might find yourself investing large amounts of time in over ambitious  projects only to shift your targets when the scope of the task becomes obvious. It might feel like you’re moving closer when you aim yourself at something more manageable, but every time you change tracks you are sent right back to the beginning.

I have learned a few valuable nuggets of writing wisdom in the last few years. The most useful has been that writers need deadlines, particularly when they’re just setting out. You can take all the time in the world to make a book perfect, but you need experience and encouragement too, and this can only be gained by completing your work and putting it out there. Take time to think out your goals, set realistic deadlines and then stick to them come hell or high water. You might find yourself in over your head, the results might not be what you expected, but you will have results.

My upcoming story Hybrid will be missing it’s Sep 30th deadline, I’m sure, but I will be sure to set another immediately.

Doctor Who: Aslyum of the Daleks Review.

Doctor Who AsylumYes, I know I’m a little late for a review of Asylum of the Daleks with the next episode of Season 7 going out tomorrow, but it’s taken me this long to get my thoughts in order. However, I’m a massive Doctor Who fan and a science fiction blogger, so I can hardly let it pass without comment.

I should probably begin by saying that my hopes were not high for this episode. I have been a big supporter of the revamped Doctor Who right up until the end of Season 5. Unfortunately last year really disagreed with me. I found Season 6 to be high on spectacle and melodrama, but beneath the surface there was no real substance to it. As we were pulled along what must be TV’s most convoluted story arc in recent years, all the sense of adventure and exploration that made to show what it was seemed to be left behind. Since 2005 Doctor Who has had its ups and downs, there have been decisions I didn’t like and developments I thought were poor, but I always firmly believed it was a fundamentally good show. For me, and I know I’m at odds with fandom here, last year’s run sacrificed solid foundations in favour of short term spectacle, and I don’t think it paid off.

All is not lost, however. While fandom might shout the loudest, clearly there are deeper concerns within the BBC about the direction the show is travelling in. Showrunner Steven Moffat announced that Season 7 would not be driven by a running story arc. This can only be an improvement, but it did not put my mind at ease. The damage caused last year springs from a fundamental misunderstanding in why people watch the show, and while soap opera style drama elicits a powerful response from fandom, it loses the general audience. This goes beyond the story arc to the way that the show’s writers view both the show and the audience.

Aslyum of the Daleks went some way to easing my concerns, though not all the way. Spoilers following.

Opening the episode with my least favourite trope of the current era, the bizarre idolatry of the Doctor, wasn’t a good sign, but things did get better. Soon we were treated to the knowledge that the least believable marriage in screen history has come to an end (though not for long, I’m guessing) and a hit and miss story about a giant Dalek nuthouse. Credit to Moffat for opening with a Dalek story because the sooner we get them out of the way, the sooner we can stop worrying about them coming along and ruining the fun. The Daleks can be great villains, but they haven’t been since the Tom Baker years, so it’s hard to get the enthusiasm up. Asylum is a fairly original story at least, in which the Daleks are discovered to keep all the Daleks that had gone insane. Trouble is brewing, however, and the Daleks are too scared to visit the planet themselves. They recruit the Doctor and his part-time companions, the Ponds, to form a strike team that will beam down to the planet and shut if it’s defences so the Daleks can nuke the planet from orbit.

It’s not a bad story, there are good ideas throughout, but the plot itself is little more than a monster movie chase piece as soon as they land on the planet. There’s a few twists, some small and one big, and by the time we get to the end there’s a nice little conclusion that bodes well for the future. At the same time, it’s one of those mundane filler scripts that seems better suited for a videogame tie in than a full episode. It’s like Curse of the Black Spot or Vampires in Venice without the period charm on either. It’s certainly the least interesting series opener we’ve seen for a while, despite the feeling that it’s trying very hard. Moffat seems to be toning back the aggressive overuse of “clever” character banter that cursed last year, but nobody really seems to do anything. Bit by bit, things happen and the characters just sort of react. The Doctor never actually contributes much to the story and there are few moments where he does anything that only he could do. His purpose just seems to be to explain things that the audience aren’t trusted to work out for themselves, and of course he’s seen it all before.

So what about the positives? Right of that bat I have to say how nice it was to watch an episode that began, had a bit in the middle and then ended. The problem with overly complicated story arcs is not, as Moffat seems to believe, that people can’t follow them, but that they lack satisfaction. Becoming invested in 45 minutes of television only to find out that the majority of plotlines aren’t going to be resolved for months does not provide narrative satisfaction. This is particularly bad when the story is not, strictly speaking, a serial as the supposedly self contained elements of the plot become sidelined and devalued. This is why Curse of the Black Spot fails so completely, the entire episode reeks of a sort of condescending gesture. A half-assed bone thrown to those old biddies who can’t follow the arc. Asylum of the Daleks wins so many brownie points from me simply because it’s the first Doctor Who story in over a year that really feels like it’s trying to entertain me on its own merits.

Also, the Doctor is better here than he has been for a while. Despite his general uselessness in the plot, they’ve toned down the corny gags a lot. Part of the problem with Matt Smith’s Doctor has been that he plays the role with a ramped up eccentricity. This worked in Season 5 because nobody knew how Matt Smith would play the Doctor and so the scripts will have been written for “The Doctor” rather than “Matt’s Doctor.” Chances are, whenever you watch Season 5, you’re seeing dialogue written with David Tennant in mind, being performed by a very different actor. The results are wonderful. By the time of Season 6 however, everyone starts writing for the more eccentric Doctor, and presumably, Matt Smith continues to put his eccentric spin on the character and he becomes completely unbearable. That combined with the show’s tendency to clown the Doctor up now, and you get a character who is being played solely for laughs. The climax of this was surely last year’s Christmas Special, in which the Doctor rigs up a kitchen with a tap that pours lemonade and enters wearing a spacesuit backwards. This is toned down dramatically in Asylum and you get the sense of the Doctor as a believable explorer for a bit.

Asylum isn’t great. It’s not the worst Dalek story in recent years, that still goes to Victory of the Daleks, which is probably the most awful episode of Doctor Who I’ve ever seen. If it had arrived in the middle of Season 5, I’d probably be looking on it very differently, but the truth is that despite its many, many flaws it represents a step in the right direction for the series as a whole and that’s so reassuring, I can’t bring myself to dislike it.