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The new Marvel series sees Tom Hiddleston’s Norse god getting into trouble over his Tesseract-abusing post-Avengers: Endgame. But for SG fans, dealing with the fallout from time travel and messed-up alternate timelines is one of the many things we love about the show.
Who is in charge of Time? Who gets to decide who does what when? Well, if it’s Brad Wright’s super-bingeable post-Stargate series Travelers, then the job of overseeing the fourth dimension is left to The Director. Not a suit-wearing management type, but an all-powerful (or so we think) AI whose goal is to protect the future by sending people’s consciousness into the past – or present we guess – to right major events and decisions that ultimately turn Earth into an unliveable apocalyptic wasteland.
The Director’s choices don’t go unchallenged, however. Not everyone thinks a super-computer should be the one deciding the planet’s fate. Even the good guys don’t always keep the faith. Without getting too spoiler-y, the Director’s near-omnipotence means it can take quick action when a person it deems crucial to the future gets injured, sending back medical teams with highly advanced nanotechnology tools to save them. When it chooses not to make that happen for one particular character towards the end of the final season, you wouldn’t be surprised that they don’t take it very well.
[See also: Loki | How Tom Hiddleston’s Trickster Became the MCU’s Best Enemy by Chris Hallam]
Time is at the center of the new Marvel series Loki, which follows Tom Hiddleston’s mischief-maker after he stole the Tesseract in Avengers: Endgame and spirited himself out of custody. He finds himself on the wrong side of the Time Variance Authority (TVA), an MCU staple that first appeared in a 1986 Thor comic. The organization’s chronomonitors, along with its higher-ranked staff, are tasked with keeping the various timelines in check (surely one of the hardest jobs in the multiverse), especially unwelcome occupants who have strayed from another reality. We have to wait and see how the series turns out, but we can guess that it will lead quite nicely into the forthcoming She-Hulk show starring Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black).
She-Hulk’s alter ego, the lawyer Jennifer Walters, also annoyed the TVA and had to stand trial before them to prove her actions in trying to alert Hawkeye about his impending death didn’t mean she should be erased from history. Little detail has emerged regarding She-Hulk, but with Marvel’s penchant for universe-building, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this storyline crop up at some point (or maybe Loki will take the opportunity to give Maslany a cameo?).
Clean Your Clock
Time travel can be a tricky proposition in sci-fi. Some hate it, mainly because the science of it is so complicated (if you, er, accept that it’s possible in the first place) and it’s easy to break your own rules. Stargate explored the so-called Grandfather Paradox in Continuum, though some theoretical physicists would argue the GP is moot because even if you did go back in time and kill your own grandpa, you are already in an alternate timeline, or ‘copy’ of your own history and therefore murdering gramps wouldn’t make any difference to your own existence. Others like the freedom of it and even the complexity of adhering to its ‘guidelines’. And a bureaucracy dedicated to protecting these rules is a frequent fictional trope – from Star Trek’s Department of Temporal Investigations and the Time Enforcement Commission in Timecop (1994), to DC’s Linear Men.
Stargate eschews this formalization of time travel for the most part, but it’s clear the franchise’s creators love to have fun with it. The much loved ‘Window of Opportunity’ (SG-1 – S4, Ep6) is a take on Groundhog Day (1993), while in ‘1969’ (SG-1 – S2, Ep21) there’s more than a nod to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) as well as an interesting spin on the Cold War (we also, let’s not forget, witness a truly spectacular Teal’c hairdo).
In fact, time travel has featured in some of the most enjoyable episodes of the Stargate franchise. Not least Continuum (2008) of course, which was all about the rebuilding of messed-up timelines. It’s a testament to Brad Wright’s love of time-bending that he chose to base a $7m movie around it.
[See also: Brad Wright Conversations in Sci-Fi with Ben Browder – Full Podcast]
Then there’s ‘Moebius, Part 1′ and ‘Part 2’ (SG-1 – S8, Ep19-20) which I would suggest is the directest possible comparison to the TVA. In Marvel Comics, Mobius M. Mobius is one of the Authority’s most recognizable members (it is he who prevents She-Hulk from being retroactively cannoned out of existence), and the famous strip after which the SG-1 episode and the Marvel character is named can be spelled either way. Mobius is played in Loki by Owen Wilson, not someone who looks that much like artist Mark Gruenwald, after whom the character was modeled. But according to producer Kevin Feige in an interview with Entertainment Weekly; “Mobius is not unlike Owen Wilson in that he’s sort of nonplussed by the MCU.”
Alternative timelines were also done effectively twice in Stargate Universe, with Dr. Rush flying back from the future to rewrite a failed mission in ‘Twin Destinies’ (SGU – S2, Ep12) and the simply-titled ‘Time’ (SGU – S1, Ep8) in which the team finds video footage of them on a planet shot before they even arrived there.
But while time traveling as a storytelling choice may divide opinion, Time and its ‘wobbliness’ is a concept full of creative possibilities. In fact, it could be said (at least we’re going to say it) that everyone on Earth already participates in forms of micro time travel. Time has been reset several times throughout history and 10 whole days were deleted when humans changed to the Gregorian calendar. Days aren’t consistent and each year is getting slower due to orbital patterns and the fluctuating strength of the Sun. And nanosecond differences that occur each year have led to several financial meltdowns since 2009 because leap seconds have to be added to correct fluctuations, but there’s no standard method of doing this.
Reaching out to friends resulted in an esteemed scientist telling me, “Relativity means that time is a function of speed and mass and knowing where you are accurately means you can’t know how fast you are moving – that’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.” However, it also meant I got a message from an award-winning novelist who decided that he’d created his own Time Paradox, based on the fact that, “as every generation of chronometer bases its original setting on the preceding generation of chronometers, we are led inexorably to conclude that it’s the wrong time, or at least the accuracy is no greater now than for a Palaeolithic mastodon hunter.”
In other words, maybe we really do need our own Time Variance Authority, to help us sort this all out and lend it a bit of order and alignment (as well as giving us the chance to erase people we don’t like from existence, yeah?)
Which brings us back to Travelers (of which, we should add, Amanda Tapping directed multiple episodes and also played a pivotal cameo). Brad Wright had sewn the seed for his AI supercomputer idea in Continuum, with Ba’al’s time-jumping possible thanks to a device monitoring satellites for solar flares which are explained as the sort of flux capacitor of Stargate. In Travelers, which first broadcast in 2016, there isn’t a TVA equivalent as such, but the Director has created specific rules for his teams – known in the show as protocols – although it gives some leeway to bend them. For example, one rule says not to take a life or save a life unless directed. But Protocol Alpha temporarily overrides everything to complete the mission at hand. And this is where it deviates in efficacy from the TVA. Travelers are future humans born into a terrible world and given the chance to go back and redeem mankind. TVA employees are for the most part cloned bureaucrats dedicated to doing their job in the simplest possible terms. As we know, human are notoriously emotional, particularly when it comes to people they know and love.
But you need to watch the series properly to see how much fun Brad Wright and his writers have with the notion of time travel, its ‘laws’ and its consequences, something that it sounds like will be at the center of Loki as well. One of the best installments is a so-called ‘bottle episode’ (a kind of standalone often featuring non-regular cast members and with limited geography) called ’17 Minutes’ (S2, Ep7), starring guest star Melissa Roxburgh as a skydiver racing desperately to stop the team being assassinated. It’s ingenious, tense, innovative, and manages to work in some of the moral ambiguity associated with an AI transferring human consciousness into a soon-to-die person, particularly when the new consciousness is likely not to survive either and the process itself involves pain and potential disaster.
The show also tackles how changes in the present affect the future in a particularly clever way. Not just that stopping an asteroid will save Earth from environmental catastrophe (‘Helios 685’, – S1, Ep6), or preventing an antimatter explosion will halt thousands of deaths (‘Protocol 6’ – S1, Ep2). But rather that by making these big and small tweaks, as well as just living their lives and doing their jobs, means that the deification of the Director in their own time (and make no mistake, it is a god) is slowly being eroded, like a religion slowly breaking down. So much so that the team is shocked by the emergence of the Faction, an anti-Director group with the power to time travel, who hatch plans like killing two billion people in the present in order to protect the future using a treatment-resistant virus (sound prescient? A glorious combination of Covid-19 and Thanos) in the second season (‘Jenny’ – S2, Ep5), before becoming the show’s over-arching bad.
By the time of Travelers’ Matrix-tinged finale (we’ll leave you to find out what we mean, but no they’re not all human batteries and it’s not a computer-generated reality), the programme-makers have messed with enough timelines to merit multiple charges from the Time Variance Authority, Time Enforcement Commission and Department of Temporal Investigations combined.
All of which is why we’re psyched for Loki. Not just because the character is a badass and the supporting cast – which includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Wunmi Mosaku – is superb. But because a time crime thriller has the potential to take the Marvel Universe in some intriguing directions and with good writing, also has the chance to address genuinely interesting moral dilemmas alongside what is sure to be some big-budget action.
As for the TVA itself? Well, we wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent fixture on the big and small screen from now on, particularly now the MCU has embraced the multiverse. We only hope they use the profanity preferred by TVA employees when something goes awry, which will no doubt happen pretty constantly. I mean, kraggit, but what the flarg, right?
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Ben Falk is an entertainment journalist and author, who’s talked to scientists about whether Skynet will eventually take over the world and to cryptozoologists about who would win in a fight between a Xenomorph and a Predator. He is the author of books about Robert Downey Jr and Professor Brian Cox and particularly enjoyed writing the parts about how the latter helped make Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.