JMT’s Take: How Time Traveling Almost Ruined Heroes

With the third season of Heroes just concluding, Andy B thought it might a good time to take a critical look at the series. I thought it was a good way to examine a terrible plot device that seems to pop in all manner of fiction, from Newhart to Star Trek to Superman to Lost.

Superhero fiction requires the willful suspension of disbelief, but the fiction depends on readers being able to recognize the underlying rules that govern the respective superhero universes. Suspending disbelief mostly amounts to ignoring some high school level science. When Superman flies down to save a person who is falling from a building he does not fly along side them, gradually decelerating. Instead he swoops beneath these potential casualties and catches them in his arms like a football. A rudimentary knowledge of physics would lead one to conclude that landing on Superman from that height would have a similar splattering effect as landing on concrete. Ignoring inconvenient pebbles of physics knowledge like this one establishes a pact between the reader and the writer. The reader suspends their disbelief in exchange for a more compelling allegory.

As a conceit, time traveling operates very differently than, say, ignoring one the laws of Newtonian physics, because time traveling renders all events and all action meaningless. When any discrete event can be undone by simply traveling through time, that event loses its consequences. These stories do not follow a trajectory toward a climax and resolution, rather they progress until one character time travels. Because there is no stable linear continuum, characters can not grow. There are no mistakes only inconvenient errors to be corrected. When events can be undone easily, the reader invests time without any payoff. Conflicts are as engaging as a hamster on an exercise wheel.

The success of any television series is measured by its ratings. Heroes tries to sustain its audience from week to week using cliffhangers and teasers at the end of each episode. The lures work better when the audience is emotionally invested in the characters and engaged in learning the outcomes. Time traveling undermines this connection because success and failure are removed from the equation. There is no success or failure, only action followed by more action, all of which can be undone at moment by traveling back in time.

In the first season of Heroes, Hiro is learning to control his abilities to manipulate space and time. His imprecise powers meant that he couldn’t pin point precise moments in time to travel between. Sometimes his powers failed him completely. Although these limitations were not clearly defined, they provided a restriction whereby actions could not be undone reliably. This imperfect time traveling power operates more like a minor suspension of disbelief, as it allows for consequences within that universe.

Eventually Hiro mastered his powers, which clarifies the central problem with time travel as a dramatic device: when pursued to its logical conclusion time traveling leads to an endless recursive loop. Take the Diner episode in season one. Hiro spends an episode trapped in an earlier time and falls in love with a waitress. He experiences life in that time at the normal rate ‘waiting’ for the present. In spite of his powers Hiro cannot prevent the waitress from being killed. While this makes for an interesting episode in the development of Hiro as a heroic figure, it begs the question why didn’t he go back in time and save her once he had mastered his power? He could have gone back as many times as it took to get it right (like in Groundhog Day).

In a world where only one character has the power to time travel, a story could logically work toward a resolution. The hero can repeat the process until they get it right, or until the consequences of their time traveling renders further attempts impossible (say Marty blew up the Delorean in one trip). In a world where more than one person can time travel, this type of thinking results in an endless loop, where characters keep traveling through time to change events in order to achieve a particular outcome, undoing changes others have made. There is no escape from the loop. There can be no possible resolution, only modifications piled on modifications. Heroes hints at this eventuality in the first season with the ‘time map’ constructed by Dr. Suresh out of colored yarn.

After garnering strong ratings and critical acclaim for season one, the second season was not well received. While part of that may be attributed to the writers strike that forced the fall story arcs to be abruptly ended, I posit that the second season of Heroes was such a disappointment to audiences and critics alike because of the increased focus on time traveling. The season-long arcs of the first season coalesced around an impending explosion in New York, with a clearly defined objective for the characters: “save the cheerleader, save the world”. The second season had only a vague idea of a terrible future where people with abilities would be hunted by the government at its center.

In the first season, episodes unfolded to reveal a clearer picture of the events that would transpire in New York, and how the characters could prevent the impending explosion. In the second season, it was nearly impossible to understand how a character’s actions would alter the course of events to prevent the vaguely terrible future from unfolding. Further, even if a character could explain how changing an event in the ‘present’ would operate to change the future, other characters could and did travel through time to undermine the other character. The audience tuned out because it implicitly understood there could never be any resolution to this type of story.

Time traveling almost ruined Heroes. The series avoided cancellation and the third season moved away from all the time traveling plots. Volume 4, which began in Januray 2009, ignored almost everything that had transpired in the series. The ramifications of time traveling were undone: Sylar was again recognizable as a sociopath hungry for new power, Nathan was trying to further his political ambitions, and Peter was trying to find meaning in his life. The only change retained from the time traveling arcs was that Hiro remained mostly powerless and could not travel through time.

Volume 4 also presents a new villain in ‘the Hunter’ (the excellently creepy Željko Ivanek) who leads an operation to capture and imprison anyone with abilities. The operation, particularly the Hunter’s ruthless methods, brings a new set of challenges to the characters the audience has come to identify with. Instead of acting for the good of humanity (“save the cheerleader, save the world”) the characters are struggling to preserve their freedom. The large existential questions have been put aside, at least temporarily, until the immediate threat to their personal security has been overcome.

As is evident from Volume 4, there is no shortage of interesting story lines for the characters in the ‘present’. When the plot demands it, history can be revisited with flashbacks and exposition rather than time traveling. Hopefully, future volumes of Heroes will confine the struggle between good and evil forces to the immediate ‘present’ and avoid the pitfalls of logic inherent in time traveling.

Note 1: ‘Present’ is used to mean the time period in which the characters exist when we first encountered them in season one. The period is roughly the date when those episodes aired. ‘Present’ is not used in reference to any particular moment.

Note 2: Stories involving parallel universes or extended dream sequences suffer from a similar dearth of consequences and a lack of individual personal growth (although it could be argued that they universes are just different sides of the same coin).

You can follow JMT’s exploits on a linear time continuum on twitter:

One Reply to “JMT’s Take: How Time Traveling Almost Ruined Heroes”

  1. I disagree. The time travel wasn’t the issue that bothered me about season 2 and 3. What got me was the lack-luster effort to develop Sylar, or tie the characters together. There were no real “whoa” moments. Also, the waitress couldn’t be saved as she was dying from natural causes. Time travel can and does provide a suitable plot device IF the characters are stuck in time. The point of season 1 was that they were trapped by events, and all connected. Hiro had all sorts of power, but he was powerless. Ditto Peter, really. The most powerful person was “the man with glasses”, Claire’s dad, and he didn’t have powers.

    also there wasn’t the same mystery or depth, such as surrounding Linderman, and it didn’t feel real. Side characters were dumb (New Orleans, the brother and sister from Mexico (despite massive hotness)), etc.


Leave a Reply