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Take Me Back: Why are we so obsessed with time travel?

Last year, the future arrived. At least, the future as predicted by Back to the Future Part II. And for the most part, it was pretty accurate. We now have video messaging, high quality pocket-sized cameras, and even hover boards, if we’re being lenient. The only thing we don’t have is a new vision of the future. In fact, quite the opposite: we’re too busy going back to the past.

The idea of time travel isn’t new, dating back to H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine in the late 19th century, but we do seem to be in the middle of a time-reversal obsession. NBC, ABC, and Fox have all picked up time-travel shows for the coming months. The latest addition to the Harry Potter universe, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, features a time travel plot that is tearing up the West End (read my review here), and last year’s time-rewinding video game Life is Strange is being adapted to a live-action web series. Is there a reason we all want to do the time warp again? By examining the similarities between these stories, we can uncover why our formerly future-looking selves are now stuck in reverse.

The initial appeal behind the reverse time travel narrative is easy to understand. We want to fix our mistakes by finding and “correcting” the points at which our lives have taken a turn for the worse. This is exactly what happens in Life is Strange, an episodic, story-driven adventure game centered around Max Caulfield, an eighteen-year-old photography student who discovers that she can reverse time.

Unlike most time traveling protagonists, Max rarely goes further than a few minutes into the past, exploring all of the options in a given scenario in order to find the most favorable outcome. Through her power, Max is able to discover what would happen if she stood a few feet to the left when a car speeds through a puddle, or if she knew the right questions to ask to get someone to share their secrets. This power becomes crucial as she becomes embroiled in a complicated whodunnit involving a missing teen.

Life is Strange encourages players to weigh their decisions carefully, as each has the potential to impact the story’s past, present, and future. In this, it serves as an exercise in wish fulfillment, allowing them to select a narrative they hopefully won’t come to regret.

On a grander scale, time travel allows us to correct the mistakes of those who have come before us. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new play from J.K. Rowling and Jack Thorne, finds the titular wizard’s youngest son, Albus Severus Potter, traveling back in time to stop an innocent man from dying. In the process, he drastically alters the course of wizarding history, sending himself, Harry, and their friends racing through multiple timelines in an attempt to foil another wizard’s malicious time-bending plot.

Herein lies another tenet of time travel stories: if you change something that occurred too long ago, it will only lead to a future you don’t recognize. Similarly, in Life is Strange, every time Max travels more than a week into the past, it leads to a catastrophic, unforeseen result, forcing her to go back once again to correct her errors.

It’s worth noting that our protagonists never take the time to question if each new timeline they create is actually preferential to the one from which they came. Every alternate future is considered “wrong,” a divergent path that must be set right, but is this correct?

Both Max and Albus are forced to question the morality of their time traveling. While both pretend to be acting in service of the greater good, this isn’t always enough to justify their actions. Albus tries to save Cedric Diggory to spite his father, and Max rewinds time to save her friends. Although they use their powers to help others, their motivations for doing so are self-serving. By judging how events are supposed to play out, they realize that they are ill-equipped to make the “correct” moral choice, leading them to reverse whatever changes they have caused.

This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of modern time-travel stories: they all come to the same conclusion. No matter how much we want to right our wrongs, we can never shape the past into a more comfortable future.

At the end of Life is Strange, Max is forced to choose between two timelines, one in which she allows her rewind power to destroy an entire town, or one in which she never uses it and loses a close friend. No matter which ending players choose, the feeling of loss is inescapable. A similar ending occurs in Cursed Child. In order to preserve his original timeline, Harry is forced to witness the death of his parents once again as an adult.

The only difference between the two is that while Max must face her decision alone, Harry weathers the ordeal with the help of his family and friends. With their support, he is not only able to confront his traumatizing past, but to find peace within it, eliminating his and his children’s desire to change the course of history.

This is what we really want when we time travel. We don’t want to change what has happened to us. We only want to make sense of it. The great contradiction of time travel stories is that after examining every possible timeline, the only one that we are satisfied with is the one we had set out to correct in the first place.

In tumultuous times, it’s easy to feel as if we are being battered around senselessly by the universe. In our era of death, destruction, and election-year politics, it’s only natural to long for a sense of control. With the modern time travel narrative, we remind ourselves that in each moment, we have as much control over the course of the history as we’re ever going to have.

Time travel stories seem like a way to escape, but in actuality, they give us something better: a way to stop worrying and love the clock, no matter what incontrovertible frustrations it throws our way.

This piece originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission. 

Photo: Chantal Kreth/Creative Commons