Why I hate time travel

Posted by Dan February 10th, 2009 at 11:28am In Lost


I hate time travel.

Not that I’ve really done it myself (unless you count my trips to visit my extended family in small midwestern towns — which is basically like stepping back into the fifties). But on the large and small screen, I find that time travel is often one the most confusing, ridiculous and uninteresting ways to structure a story. Which is why I’m so disappointed that Lost has so heavily incorporated it into this season and, if you ask me (which you didn’t), completely lost its footing. Especially after it unexpectedly got awesome again last season.

I am, admittedly, one episode behind, but I find this whole conceit that the castaways are ping ponging through time a bit tedious. The time travel aspect has added so many layers of possibility to an already-dauntingly detailed story — it makes me less interested in keeping up with what’s going on on the show. It’s like the latter seasons of The X-Files, when everything got so mixed up with government conspiracy that I finally stopped caring what was happening. And then I gave up.

I think there are two reasons I hate time travel stories.

First, they sacrifice story for flash. It’s a dramatic, but hollow, construct that muddles character development. If the Lost story progressed in a linear way, not only would the story make a hell of a lot more sense, but we’d get to see the characters develop naturally. But now the characters are constantly reeling from the shifts in time and hardly have time to regain their orientation to their surroundings before they’re thrown into another crazy situation.

But the second, more important, reason is that time travel stories inevitably invite the viewer to poke holes in the story. In the end, it’s all about suspension of disbelief — and a special kind of suspension at that. You’re not trying to overlook how unlikely a situation is, you’re trying to overlook the glaring inconsistencies and questions about why things went down the way they did.

Let me explain. Remember that movie Speed with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock? Specifically, the scene where they have to make the bus jump the gap in an incomplete bridge? They did it, flawlessly of course, and even chubby, sweatpantted, 14-year-old Dan knew how ridiculous it was. But, at the same time, it was an action movie with Keanu effing Reeves and even though I didn’t really know it at the time, I was willing to forgive them in the name of fantasy.

With time-travel, though, it’s a different kind of suspension of disbelief. You’re basically forced to overlook all of the reasons why certain things wouldn’t make sense. These stories (which have played out in Heroes, Sarah Connor, etc.) always invite people to ask “If this happened, then wouldn’t that have happened.”

At this point, I’m worried that there’s no turning back for Lost and that everything’s grown too sprawling and grandiose. But I’ll still watch.  Hell, I’ve sunk enough time into the show — may as well ride it out.


  • 1. Mikey  |  February 10th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    I agree. Heroes started really going down hill once they had “rogue Peter” and Hiro travelling through time doing various things that require huge suspensions of disbelief. After being a huge fan of Heroes even through many rough patches after season 1, I no longer watch the show.

    Despite this, I credit the makers of Lost as being “smarter” than the makers of Heroes, and if anyone can make the time travel bit work, I’d say they can. I’m holding out hope at least.

  • 2. Sarah  |  February 10th, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Actually, I think anyway, Lost seems to be taking a pretty reasonable line in terms of time traveling – that time is set. So the question Lost is posing isn’t so much, “If this happened, wouldn’t that have happened?” as “What happened, and how do our characters play into its happening?” My hope is that as the time traveling goes on, the actual function will become more mundane and character moments like Locke giving Alpert the compass from Cabin Fever, answering how Alpert knew to creepily stalk baby Locke, will be the focus. Lost knows how to do time travel that’s tied to character: The Constant proved that.

    Course, I totally understand the criticism about character development, and Lost’s characters have been on loops long before they started looping in time. It only makes it more frustrating when Kate decides to run, or Locke turns out to be a loser again.

  • 3. Jen  |  February 10th, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    I have to agree that the problems with character development on Lost have nothing to do with the time jumping aspect; that has always been a problem on this show. I don’t think that the incredibly creative minds behind this show would use time travel as a cheap device. They have done some amazing things over the years, so I don’t think they are copping out now. Heroes, on the other hand, did that exactly: they used time travel as a plot device to get from one plot point to another. Comparing these two shows isn’t really fair because of that and many other reasons (writing and acting come to mind). 😉

  • 4. Dan  |  February 11th, 2009 at 11:09 am

    Sarah’s right. I think I’ll have to rescind some of my criticisms of Lost and how it does time travel. I kind of kicked this post out of the nest before it was ready to fly.

    I still do hate time travel and I wish Lost hadn’t resorted to it, but they do it better than most.


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