We’ll worry about those problems after we’ve caused them.
– Danger Mouse
Most of my job these days seems to take place in the space after that quote. A lot of what I spend my time doing is solving for problems that are directly related to things other people decided were a good idea earlier on. And who knows what problems I, myself, might be causing future me with the things that seem like a good idea to me now? Not me, clearly. As for the age old question, ‘what if I could go back in time and change things?’ I suspect the answer is that I could make it all so very much worse.
I’ve been watching The Flash and what seems pretty clear so far is that every time they go back to the past or traverse timelines to parallel versions of reality, it just causes more problems. Different problems. Frequently worse problems. They seem to be so busy trying to solve their current problems, though, that they don’t adequately consider whether fixing them that way might result in a situation they like even less than what they have now. I suppose it’s a gamble, really – it could be better. But usually it’s not.
The Flash is a pretty entertaining show, and aside from the part where the dudes endlessly lie to the girls about the Flash’s identity to “protect” them, it avoids some of the more cliché pitfalls of the genre. The Flash is young, and I do really get why he’d keep trying to find a way to change history so he didn’t have to watch his mother die in front of him when he was eleven. But he learns the hard way that you can never go home as an adult quite the same way you did as a kid, even if you can literally go home to the same time and place.
Preventing his mother’s death changes other things in ways he can’t live with and he realizes he has to let her go, but time is a complex system. It’s not like taking apart a clock radio, where if you remember where all the parts went you’re golden. If you change your mind about changing something in the past, it turns out you can’t put it back exactly the same. So he’s stuck not only with the memory of his mother’s death, but also the memory of what it was like when she didn’t die, and what his current life was like before he messed with it. I guess being omniscient kind of sucks.
But you don’t have to be omniscient to consider the consequences of your actions. In fact, even a small cartoon hamster might be able to point them out to you if you weren’t too wrapped up in the image of yourself as a superhero or secret agent to listen:
Penfold: Um, isn’t Squawk gonna be cross if you mess with her translator? We’re only sorting out the problems we caused by messing with her plant. How are we gonna sort out the problems we caused by messing with the translator?
Danger Mouse: Shush. We’ll worry about those problems after we’ve caused them.
When Danger Mouse and Penfold encounter a time-travelling chimp genius, they don’t consider at all what will happen if they go back in time and change things, so they end up literally tripping over alternate versions of themselves in an attempt to stop him. Each time they fail, they simply go back and arrive earlier to try something else. Like some combination of Wile E. Coyote and Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls, Isambard Kingkong Brunel uses his time machine to prevent the inventions of all other inventors and replace them with his own, which he is certain are better. As he snatches past inventions out of existence, the world around Danger Mouse changes mid-stream. The hologram of his boss, Colonel K, suddenly turns into a marionette, and his high tech nav system transforms into a pen and ink sketch of the street which blows off of his face as he runs headlong into a lamp post. In the realm of ill-considered timeline changes, Brunel replaces electricity with beelectricity, which is followed by a scene of a tv turning off as dozens of glowing bees surge out of the walls.
When I was five years old, my family was on a vacation and one night we stayed at a hotel with a balcony that was covered in ladybugs. My parents discovered me out there, carefully turning over all of the dead ladybugs one at a time. The difference between me then and now is that I know they’re dead, not much else. Actually, no – if the me of the past had been like current me, I’d have come up with an efficient way to turn them over in batches rather than one at a time, and then tried to figure out the root cause and design a system to help prevent them getting turned over to begin with.
An alternate reality RPG version of me would probably become a cleric, and at level 10 I’d get the power to resurrect them. Cause nothing could go wrong with that. It never goes well bringing anything back from the dead, and I’m pretty sure ladybugs would be no exception. For my troubles, I’d be rewarded with a plague of zombie ladybugs. And then, following the example of The Flash and Danger Mouse, I’d have to invent a time machine and go back to prevent myself from creating them. Really, at that point, what else can you do?
What I’ve learned from all the shows and comics and cartoons about time travel, magic, and zombies is that going back in time or raising things from the dead never has the desired result. The failure may not be as concrete and spectacular as Wile E Coyote’s, but like water flowing downhill, it finds a way to go wrong. No matter what you do, lost things don’t come back from the past quite the same.
alex MacFadyen suspects that the question of whether you’d rather be able to travel back in time or bring things back from the dead is equally telling, if less socially acceptable, than the famous ice-breaker question of invisibility vs. flight.