Wrinkles in time – or, why didn’t Buck Rogers get grey hair?

Once upon a time in fiction, time travel was a one-way trip forward. The protagonist passed out, fell asleep, or drank something, and the next time he opened his eyes, it was the future.

Buck Rogers, Amazing Stories, March 1929

This is Rip Van Winkel territory, but it also belongs to Peter Klaus, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Ranka, and Oisin (who doesn’t fall asleep, but instead journeys to Tir Na nOg for love).

When fairies are involved, time gets trippy, or at least it goes offline. Apparently, the same thing happens in various caves around the world, and if you drink the wrong beer (college students, beware).

We all want to wake up in the future – whether it is to escape the difficulties (or boredom) of now, to get away from Those People, to experience something shiny and new, or to simply survive. At its core, traveling forward in time means that we want to wake up tomorrow, and the day after that – and beyond, 200 years or more, to the point where history should be carrying an ashbin over to our resting place and sweeping us in. We want to outlast history, and look back on our own era, from the future.

In the past, there was a price to be paid for such a feat. Our protagonists would wake up much older (though this is not clear with the Ephesian sleepers); or if their feet touched ground, they would immediately age (sorry Oisin). While they survived, their bodies were clocks that told the record of their time on earth.

Then we got Buck Rogers.

At first, in the 1930s comic, Buck passes out in a cave (much like in Ephesus) and a mysterious gas keeps him alive, and young, while centuries pass. He wakes up 500 years later, and immediately meets a pretty girl who asks if he’s married, and then they’re attacked by the Mongols.

In the 1970s, Buck is a spaceman already (because all the cool kids are), and his ship experiences a space oddity that shoots him through time. Rip van Winkel he’s not, but he does get all the prizes.

And then, forty years later, Buck’s thematic descendant, Jon Crighton joins us. He too manages to jump time without aging. His transit is quick, as are the time jumps made by Dr. Who’s Tardis passengers.

Now, almost everyone is doing it – there’s no penalty for fooling with time. Characters’ bodies have stopped keeping track, for the most part, of the temporal check they’re writing in transit. While this is very convenient for casting agents and makeup artists, I’m wondering whether the price we’re paying thematically is that time travel has become too easy on the traveller? Thereby giving us heartbreaking moments in Dr. Who’s “The Girl Who Waited,” where a young Rory is faced with an aged, but badass, Amy Pond, and a younger one, and must choose between them, even though he’s travelled into the future as much as she has, although much more instantaneously.

Arguably, it’s this instantaneous-ness that gets us around the need for aging. The protagonist-time-traveller’s body-clock didn’t experience the intervening years, it jumped over them. I can wrap my mind around that. But there’s still the original Buck Rogers problem – of him emerging from that cave without having aged a day. Somehow I think there’s a story behind that strip that hasn’t yet been told.

Because if there’s no penalty for travelling forward in time, why doesn’t everyone do it? And if everyone is doing it, well… weren’t we trying to escape all those folks in the first place?

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2 comments

  1. I can’t speak to the Buck Rogers problem, but in the case of the Doctor, at least, I think the emotional price has replaced the physical one. He’s constantly leaving people behind, or having them out-grow him. He’s very lonely and very tired sometimes. Similarly, the immortals of Highlander, or Captain Jack of Torchwood pay an emotional price for never aging. By the end of the Highlander tv series, Duncan has pretty much given up on humans, and only hangs out with other immortals (except for Joe), because he’s sick of out-living everyone he’s ever loved. Captain Jack is heart-broken by the fact that his daughter is technically older than him, and essentially wants nothing to do with him because of his nature (though maybe that’s all different now with the Miracle Day stuff).

    • Nice point A.C. – I agree that the Doctor is supposed to pay an emotional toll, and that’s replaced the physical one. But what about those who travel with him? The ones who don’t die, that is.

      Do you think time travel makes human characters less human or and non-human characters less able to understand humans? Like vampires and some high school assistant principles?

      (I’ll argue that Capt. Jack’s daughter has Children of Earth outcomes on her mind too.)

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