Back in Beginner Computing class in junior high, we learned the BASIC computer language on Commodore VIC 20s. The first program you learn to write is this:
10 PRINT HELLO
20 GOTO 10
The end result is a loop, printing the word HELLO over and over again infinitely like this:
It’s an easy way to illustrate a temporal loop or time loop, a recurring story element in science fiction and fantasy works.
In 1905 Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He didn’t mean this literally. As science and science fiction would later speculate, repeating the past may be a possibility one day.
It is difficult to determine who first put the literal repeat of history into story form, but it is a recurring science fiction device that is often used to great effect. Classic sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick used the time loop in his 1975 short story “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.” The best and most well known example of this is the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day, where for for some unknown reason a weatherman’s day is repeated until something happens that is supposed to happen–he gets the day exactly right.
Unlike later uses of this device, in his short story Philip K. Dick did not express the element as a repeat of the actual narrative story, but an explanation of cause and effect. In his story, time traveling astronauts go on a mission, where destruction of the mission results in a time loop that may or may not result in the preservation of an eternal life for everyone. We don’t see the result, but hear from the tempunauts they have been there, done that, before. Over and over.
Usually use of a time loop on sci-fi/fantasy genre tales involves at least one person being able to realize the existence of the repetition. Bill Murray’s weatherman knows the day is repeating in Groundhog Day. Yet the other characters are not aware at all. In other uses, characters get to experience deja vu or even fatigue from living time over and over.
This week’s episode of the Syfy Channel’s Haven, the series based on a Stephen King story, is titled “Audrey Parker’s Day Off,” and is one of the best of the series so far. The main character Audrey Parker, played by Emily Rose, wakes up to repeat a day after she comes upon a death at a crime scene. She is in bed with friend Chris, played by Jason Priestley, to whom she must explain a different plan for each new day. In each new day she tries to figure out how to not cause any death, by changing the variables of each day. In the context of the mystic “troubles” the town of Haven is dealing with, Audrey as the only person person unaffected by the troubles. With Audrey the show uses this story device quite well. The parallels to Groundhog Day are unmistakable, but viewers can’t help but like it when it is adapted in a new way as was done here.
Jason Priestley may be strangely tied to time loops, as he also appeared in a television series entirely about time loops, called Tru Calling, one of borg.com’s favorite series. In Tru Calling, a graduate student and morgue worker named Tru played by Eliza Dushku is able to relive days in the hope of saving the life of someone who died on that day. Usually she has several opportunities to do this. Priestley’s character later in the series comes along as an agent of death to undo the seemingly good that Tru has been doing. His view is that Tru is interfering with the proper course of events, as if only one timeline is correct, and with him it is the first timeline.
Early Edition was another series focusing on the ability to “do over.” The loop also occurs in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Life Serial,” on the series Eureka in the episode “I Do Over,” the X-Files episode “Monday,” and the Xena, Warrier Princess episode “Been There, Done That.”
In theaters now is the fifth film in the Final Destination franchise. This series presents a variant on going back to change the past, without the ability to try again via repeats, although with the character of Clear played by Ali Larter in the first two movies, the repeat effort seems to be there all the same. In the world of the Final Destination films, an individual lives out a horrible accident, then snaps back in sort of a deja vu state, with only seconds to try to prevent the course of events from happening. However, like Priestley’s character in Tru Calling, an unseen power, like his agent of death, is set about to return the normal and proper timeline, even if it means the death of dozens.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s hero Billy Pilgrim similarly becomes what Vonnegut calls “unstuck in time”. He has no choice, he appears in various stages of his own life, but with the choice of changing events. This also happens in the episode of Angel called “Time Bomb.”
Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) experienced the same problem a few times in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the episode “Tapestry,” John de Lancie’s omnipotent character Q plunges Picard into the past to allow Picard to not only revisit his past, but to change it if he wishes. With no regrets, Picard changes nothing, even when that means a Nausicaan will again put a pool cue through his heart, resulting in Picard again needing an artificial heart for the rest of his life. But whereas revisiting the past in story form has been around for centuries–think Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol–a temporal loop requires repeated visits to the past. Luckily Scrooge gets it right after merely watching his past, and Q is just fine with Picard’s choices the second time around.
Actually the best Star Trek representation of the temporal loop is the Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect,” which might as well be an essay on how time loops work. The episode starts with a poker game between the bridge officers. The ship then experiences a temporal distortion and a ship comes out of nowhere to collide with the USS Enterprise, resulting in the destruction of both ships. Then we have a commercial break, and the show appears to repeat again. I know of at least one person who almost turned off the show, thinking there was something wrong with the network feed. Brilliantly, the audience must be confused. What did we miss? In this story, characters are impacted by the repetition, they feel tired, and they experience deja vu. Luckily Lt. Commander Data figures out how to leave a subtle clue for the next repeat, allowing him to save the ship before the end of the hour of the episode. His crew had been repeating the event for mere days, but the other ship caught in the anomaly, the USS Bozeman helmed by a captain played by Kelsey Grammer, has unknowingly re-lived the same day for decades, and the show ends with Picard informing the other captain of some pretty bad news about his lost time. Breaking a time loop is also the focus of the Charmed episode “The Good, The Bad, and The Cursed.”
Writers use time loops again and again because they are fun, and modern audiences understand them, mostly because of the success of Groundhog Day. In fact in this week’s episode of Haven, “Audrey Parker’s Day Off,” when Audrey explains all this to Interim Chief of Police Nathan Wournos, his response is “you’re stuck in my second favorite Bill Murray movie.” When on the following day Audrey has to explain the recurring events yet again, she cuts him off when he is about to repeat the line and finishes it for him.