Here’s a confession: I’ve spent a healthy percentage of my writing life wrestling with an aversion to time travel fiction. For a while I felt the trope was too often deployed to look backward, in opposition to SF’s unique opportunity to imagine, confront, and shape the future. At best, younger me argued, time travel was an entertaining indulgence in nostalgia, the SF creative’s wistful method of reliving the past. At worst, it was a shirking of science fiction’s duty.
Perhaps it’s because I’m older, or that I’ve committed my own time travel fiction, or perhaps it’s just that I’m trying not to be so bloody serious and dogmatic about things these days, but lately I’ve come to see time travel as another valuable tool in SF’s arsenal. Sure, it’s often leveraged to nostalgic ends. But like most SF tropes, it’s a versatile one, and even its backward-peering examples can provide insights into the present, and the future. This month’s offerings are great examples: a pair of inventive shows involving time travel that, had they been around in my formative years, might have steered me off my early bias.
Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy
Produced by Amazon Studios, Minnow Mountain, Submarine, and Tornante Company
Season One released September 2019
From BoJack Horseman scribes Raphael-Bob Waksberg and Kate Purdy comes Amazon’s Undone, a trippy animated series hybridizing prestige drama rhythms with thought-provoking science fictional concepts. Rosa Salazar stars as Alma Winograd-Diaz, a young woman with a hearing disability, a dysfunctional family, and a history of mental illness. Alma’s on autopilot, going through the motions. She has a pleasant but unenthralling relationship with Sam (Siddharth Dhananjay), and a job working with children at a daycare center. She’s also the family ne’er-do-well, overshadowed by sister Becca (Angelique Cabral) and haunted by the loss of her father Jacob (Bob Odenkirk), a theoretical physicist whose death during Alma’s childhood scarred the family. While driving home from a fight with Becca, Alma has a vision of her father reaching out to her from the side of the road, which leads to a car accident. Her injuries play havoc with her memory, leading to more vivid hallucinations—or are they? Her father begins to appear more frequently in Alma’s waking dreams. He works to convince her that he’s not just “unstuck” in time, but can actively control it. Gradually, he convinces Alma that she too possesses this power, and helps her learn to manipulate her position in the timescape. But even as her powers grow, her father’s lessons remain elusive and ambiguous. In an effort to figure everything out, she uses her new abilities to investigate the mystery of her father’s death. Her risky, emotionally charged time-travel experiments wreak havoc on her personal life, however, threatening to make her tenuous grip on reality even weaker.
Unfolding over eight speedy episodes, Undone is a moving, fascinating watch that utilizes rotoscoped animation to add a layer of unreality to its live-action performers. The style is similar to that used by Richard Linklater in the film adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, an appropriate project to invoke here; Undone is definitely a descendant of Dick’s nature-of-reality school of science fiction. The way the show mixes realistic human expression and motion with wavery, colorful visual effects contributes to an “interstitial” feel. This is a show that comfortably exists between reality and fantasy, between genres, and yes, across past, present, and future.
Is Alma crazy, or does she actually possess the power to see through mundane reality and navigate through time? Yes, there’s a problematic aspect to this common cinematic trope—the neuroatypical superhero—but I think Undone is self-aware about what it’s doing, and generally it’s sensitive to the mental health issues it’s exploring. Like BoJack Horseman, it leverages science fictional thinking in its exploration of a broken, flawed, but also relatable protagonist. Time travel is the easel on which it paints these themes, using the trope to examine Alma’s regrets about the past and anxiety about the future. Lately, a lot of great speculative TV has examined the challenges of living ethically in a complicated, punishing world, and delving into the emotional and psychological toll of that struggle. Undone is a worthy addition to the trend: heart-felt, clever, sad, visually striking, and ultimately quite winning.
Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese
Produced by Netflix and W&B Television
Season Two released June 2019
In contrast, Netflix’s Dark is more conventional genre fare, perhaps more interested in time travel itself than in the human stories informed by the concept. If Undone provides tight, close-in perspective, Dark widens the scope for the cosmic big picture. Ultimately, though, I think this German series leverages time travel to similar ends. Rather than zeroing in on one person over a lifetime, it focuses on a community of people over the course of a much longer period of history. The struggles of its characters are the same as Alma’s—issues of regret and anxiety, worries about living in the past, in the moment, or for the future. In both shows the existence of time travel throws these inner struggles into sharp relief. In Dark’s case, the vantage is higher, but the human element is still very present.
I looked at the show’s first season in my round-up review of international genre TV (bit.ly/Aug18MediaReview), but it’s worth re-summarizing the set-up here: Based in a remote German village called Winden, the show features a handful of interconnected families who become embroiled in a grand, time-bending mystery. Winden is centered on a nuclear power plant that, as the story begins in 2019, is about to be decommissioned. When children go missing in the woods one night, a police investigation is launched to find them. But as the crisis unfolds, our viewpoint heroes gradually learn the truth: Miraculously, the disappearances are related to a time portal located underneath the plant. A young man named Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hofmann) uses the portal to journey through time in search of his missing neighbor, but his simple search quickly reveals itself to be part of a far more complex tapestry of actions across the timescape, spanning from Germany’s post-World War I days to a post-apocalyptic future in the 2050s.
Structurally, Dark may be one of the most ambitious shows ever produced. While initially I wasn’t sure if it had a firm grip on its temporal intricacies, I stopped worrying about that in season two. If nothing else, it’s an incredible feat of logistics, spinning interconnected narratives across five time periods, with multiple characters portrayed by different actors to account for age differences. The physical casting is impeccable, though, and the performers in each role keep their guises clear and the situations coherent. It weaves a dazzling web.
It can also be very difficult to follow. With its alinear storytelling and baffling universal mysteries, Dark is reminiscent of David Lynch at his most elliptical. While similarly unsettling and effective, the comparison doesn’t always work in the show’s favor. Indeed, one of the off-putting aspects of the first season was its coyness about genre content, and sometimes it seemed to be deliberately impenetrable. It still pushed enough thought-provoking buttons to keep me interested, but did it actually know what it was doing? Or was it just trying to look profound?
Season two doesn’t entirely answer those questions for me, but it evolves the show into something more entertaining. While it takes a few episodes to ramp up, eventually it brings the season home with gusto, silencing my inner critic for the ride. After all, while untangling the timelines and the complex web of characters is part of the fun here, it’s only a part; what’s more interesting is the sum—the compelling atmosphere of cosmic mystery that is ultimately more engrossing than the mechanics.
Mercifully, season two also leans into its science fictional nature. The coyness falls away, the veil of mystery drops, and the truth is revealed, bringing more major characters into the fold. Not only do they learn of the existence of time travel, but in some cases they become capable of using it, making their behavior more active than reactive. Also helping things along is the introduction of ticking-clock momentum, as the characters learn of an imminent apocalypse crucial to the broader tangle of events across Winden’s storied history. The notion of “travelers”—multiple iterations of the same person journeying across time to interact with one another—is introduced, as is a growing good-versus-evil conflict between those trying to remake history and those determined to see it through for their own selfish ends. This all makes the show feel more honest about its science fictional roots, rendering it a more satisfying ride for the seasoned SF fan.
Skiffy flash and dazzle aside, Dark still keeps its finger on the emotional pulse. At its heart, it’s a story of people wrestling with tough life choices, struggling to make sense of their pasts, chart their futures, and escape stultifying cycles of behavior. The questions of causality and free will central to time travel fiction greatly inform these themes. Watching its appealing roster of characters negotiate the time maze can be challenging, but it’s also diverting and thought-provoking.
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Undone and Dark are quite different shows, but they’re both exceptional examples of time travel fiction. Watching them back-to-back hammers home one more reason the concept may finally be winning me over: They’re both about inflection points in history, moments of crisis where past ways are stressed to the breaking point, and dangerous new futures seem imminent. As such, they’re both unsettling shows with dark undertones, but still embedded with powerful touches of hope. Perhaps this is the kind of story today’s world needs.
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