I Got Timelines to Kill

This is the second half of the big Alternate Timelines discussion! Part one is here, and you might want to read it just to figure out what I mean by some of the terms I’m throwing around. They came right off the top of my head not from reputable sources like TV Tropes and might not be familiar.

So today let’s ask a simple question: Are alternate timelines a good thing?

Any answer to this is going to be very subjective so for a moment I’ll speak just for myself and say: As a general rule I like them but only when there’s just one or, at most, two.

See, when we’re dealing with Baileiesque or Narnian timelines they’re really strong. Each serves a distinct purpose in the story and presents the answer to that powerful “what if?” question. Baileiesque stories keep the audience’s attention by highlighting one or two sudden, important changes to things the audience knew and had probably become complacent with. Narnian stories throw new wonders a the audience in rapid succession and keep the interest high, doing their best when each new element is distinct, both from everyday life and what the reader has seen previously.

In all, these two brands of alternate timelines are very effective narrative devices and their nature ensures they don’t get out of hand.

Since a Baileiesque world is a narrative device to spur character development it only exists as long as it’s needed – most of these kinds of timelines only exist as dreams or as a result of supernatural intervention anyway. I mentioned Star Trek’s Mirror, Mirror in my last post and that’s a great example of how even “permanent” alternate timelines can, for all practical intents and purposes, only be temporary narrative devices. The episode was great, gave good insight into Kirk and Spock and never had to be discussed again after it was over. That’s significant because the greatest problem with alternate timelines is that they present so many memory issues. With all the major characters and locations (and sometimes minor ones) duplicated keeping them all straight for a long period of time would be taxing. But Baileiesque narratives don’t require that so their value isn’t impacted by the complexity they could introduce.

Narnian timelines work because they assume one of the worlds is basically identical to our own. Usually, little time is spent exploring the mundane world in a broad sense. Instead the story spends the majority of its time in the Narnian world, letting the exotic and unusual work its magic on the mundane protagonists. In this way the potential complexity isn’t really that much greater than any other fantasy work.

Things start getting trickier with Ultimate timelines. Re-imagining an existing property comes with a lot of issues related to fanbase, expectations and changing cultures. Adding the idea of continuity with a previous timeline to the mix is frequently more liability than benefit. Remember the example of Star Trek: Into Darkness? Perfect case study.

One of the things I found most frustrating about that film was the complete recreation of Spock’s death sequence from Wrath of Kahn, except with Kirk and Spock switching roles. A lot of people loved it just because it was Wrath of Kahn with new special effects and the roles reversed but that ignores the larger context of the story. Consider just a few problems this created:

  • Both characters wind up speaking dialog that is out of character for them. Kirk’s speech is overly precise and slightly stilted, Spock’s is inappropriately emotional and comforting.
  • Where Spock repairing the engine in Wrath of Kahn made sense because Spock was a scientist doing precise technical work on precise technical equipment, Kirk fixing that same precise technical equipment by drop-kicking it is laughably absurd. Engines do not work that way.
  • Kirk is revived by Kahn blood. Science in Star Trek is rarely that shakey.
  • Spock goes on a rampage. On a rampage. Spock. COME. ON.

A weakness of Ultimate timelines is the feeling that the creators need to homage the past incarnation of the story somehow. When a crossover with the actual past timeline is slipped into the story it warps the story even worse. I’m not sure leaving Leonard Nimoy out of the J.J. Abrams reboots would have changed them for the better but I’m not sure the huge impact Wrath of Kahn had on Into Darkness would have been quite so jarring if the writers hadn’t been worried about making two Spocks work in that world.

Ultimate reboots can kind of work as a force to be reckoned with in and of themselves. They’re sort of a genre, sort of a framing device, and sometimes they can become really successful. Look at Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Naoki Urosawa’s Pluto. But those stories never tried to be anything other than updates of their source material. Connecting them narratively to the source material would have needlessly muddled the waters.

That leaves us with quantum timelines. And it’s time for complete honesty:

I only like the idea of a quantum multiverse in a story when that’s the heart of the story. Just throwing out the idea of alternate timelines that sometimes show up but aren’t always involved in the story is adding a huge, huge burden on the audience. They need to keep track of what characters exist in both universes and what characters dont, not to mention whatever all the other differences between the two worlds are. They need to keep track of what characters exist in only one universe or the other. They need to do both of those things for each and every quantum timeline that exists, because there inevitably wind up being lots of them. And they need to keep track of how and why people are getting around in this complex quantum multiverse. It’s a huge amount of information to keep track of and you can’t expect them to juggle it all if it’s not of constant relevance to the plot. On top of all of that, you have to find a solid status quo you can keep returning to, if the audience is constantly being shoved into the new and weird/wacky/fantastic worlds then sooner or later they get jaded. An occasional dose of “normalcy” as your worldbuilding defines normal is an important part of keeping audiences hungry for new stories.

You have to be a good author to do all this and make it work. (Surprise!)

Now when a quantum multiverse is the foundation for a plot and properly executed with the right amount of help for the audience, so they can keep track of what’s going on, quantum multiverses make for great storytelling. But not everyone uses them that way. In fact, they’re used that way only occasionally.

This whole discussion started because I was asked what I thought of comic books using alternate timelines as plot devices. Marvel and DC both use quantum multiverses to give them access to Baileiesque, Ultimate and regular old quantum alternate timelines. And they expect their audiences to keep track of all of that even though they only use the plot threads occasionally.

That’s bad writing.

Sure, you can cross over into a negaverse on occasion, so long as it’s the same one every time, or go exploring totally different, unique universes on occasion. But expecting your audience to track with five, ten, or fifty different timelines? No. That’s bad form. I’ve noticed that DC, at least, tries to do it less these days and that’s good. In general, that’s a trend I’d like to see continue. Maybe they could let some of the publishing space that frees up go to bringing the Blue Beetle back…

But anyway. That’s what I think of the alternate timeline plot device: It’s good when it’s used properly and not overdone to a confusing extent. Like all potent narrative devices, let the aspiring author handle with care.


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