Culture Vulture

Future perfect, tense

The vogue for time-travel plots hints at heightened anxiety in these crazy times

I'm a sucker for time-travel plots.

The Terminator, for example, is the most romantic movie I have ever seen.

When I was 17, I caught a re-run of James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi classic on Channel 5 late at night.

Young, naive and impervious to cheesiness, I blew a friend off to stay glued to my cathode ray tube TV as Linda Hamilton found time to fall for Michael Biehn while running away from a murderous cyborg. By the time he uttered the immortal lines, "I came across time for you, Sarah," soldier-from-the- future Kyle Reese had become, forever and after, my Ideal Future Boyfriend (IFB).

Years went by and the IFB faded in my mind. Occasionally, he resurfaced, such as when I clutched Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling 2003 novel The Time Traveler's Wife to my chest and sighed, as the narrative revealed itself to be heartbreak in degrees (I skipped the blah 2009 film adaptation).

But then, a couple of months ago, I caught Misfits - a Bafta-award- winning British sci-fi/horror dramedy circa 2010, now enjoying a second lease of life on Netflix - and fell hook, line and sinker again for another time-travelling boyfriend(spoilers ahead).

At first a socially-awkward computer geek, Simon Bellamy (played by Iwan Rheon, who went on to play the hated Ramsay Bolton on Game Of Thrones; a total about-face) morphs into a superhero after he gains the love of a woman he meets while doing community service.

Simon and Alisha's love story play out in a non-linear fashion and a future version of him appears to rescue her mid-way through season 2, and it is not until the end of season 3 that the viewer finds out how and why.

For weeks, I was obsessed with Simon and Alisha, watching and re-watching their scenes in a loop, picking up on every small nuance and clue, in order to puzzle out the intricacies of show creator- screenwriter Howard Overman's time-travel mechanics and plotting. Even the soundtrack held a hair-raising surprise: the swelling "leave the horror here" refrain of indie band the Foals' Spanish Sahara that played during one of Future Simon and Alisha's first few encounters took on tragic resonance after the season 3 finale.

It was as though The Terminator's 1980s love-on- steroids had given way to a haunting postmodern knowingness and the result quietly devastated me.

Eventually, the fog lifted a little from my IFB fixation and I began to see time-travel plots everywhere. I was not the only one hung up on time travel and its bitter-sweet effects.

In the cinema, I cried buckets as Amy Adams' linguistic expert grappled with a literally alien language that led to the ability to comprehend the simultaneity and circularity of time, in the Oscar-nominated Arrival. That same language and ability also led to this all-too-human question: If you could see the future, would you make the same choices you make today? Would this knowledge help us live our lives with more grace, even as it certainly gives us more pain?

More recently, I watched the Japanese anime hit, Your Name, and cried buckets at the time-travel twist - (spoiler ahead) where the male and female protagonist found themselves separated by three years and racing against time to save a town from a natural disaster.

Foresight, I realise, is something I crave, as I approach the milestone age of 40. No longer buffered from the toughness of life by the ignorance of youth and yet to acquire the true wisdom of seniority, I am stuck between nostalgia and hope.

I find myself awaiting the protection and reassurance of a future self, while looking back towards the halcyon beauty of a past air-brushed avatar.

I am of the generation that grew up with the zany optimism of Back To The Future. Yet, now that we are in that future of hover boards and garbage-fuelled self-driving cars, where do we go next? The promise of that 1980s-dreamt future hasn't exactly come to pass, the economic outlook is uncertain and there seems to be a general sense of progress being unwound - most obviously in the American administration that followed Obama's.

Many critics have observed that time-travel stories are appealing because they enable a kind of Freudian wish-fulfilment; a chance to "do over" and correct mistakes.

Last year saw the television adaptation of Stephen King's novel, 11.22.63, in which a man played by James Franco travelled back in time to prevent John F. Kennedy from being assassinated. But do-overs are often more about our personal and private desires than the altruistic ones about changing history.

In Timeless, the NBC series which was recently cancelled then un-cancelled after fans campaigned on social media, a historian, a mercenary and a technician/pilot go after some chrono-terrorists, leaping through time to fix major fiddling with history.

The trio has to make sure, among other things, that the Hindenburg airship blows up when it does, to prevent political implications and the end of the world as we know it. But it is the historian's selfish wish to bring back her sister, who was erased by time-travelling's side effects, that keeps her on the mission.

As Damien Walters put it in London's The Guardian newspaper in 2013: "Change, loss and grief are the real heart of the time-travel metaphor. It is time that takes things away from us - the places we know, the people we love, even our own selves when time brings that inevitable consequence of life - death. We're terrified of time, so it's hardly surprising we dream stories in which we have the power to change it."

Still, I cannot help but feel that there is something larger about this current vogue of time-travelling we are going through in pop culture. We have become much more sophisticated audiences, able to grasp the complexities of every knotty chrono-challenge scriptwriters throw at us.

Perhaps, we are more cynical, and time-travelling is just a way of second-guessing everything. Perhaps we thrive on the dramatic irony in time-travel plots because of this cynicism, even as it hurts that we are no longer able to take things at face value.

Or, maybe, just maybe, we are more connected and committed, confident in our ability as activists to change things even when it seems impossible.

Part of it could simply be that we are all time-travellers in pop culture now, given the ease of streaming content from anywhere and any era. Our sense of time has become jumbled up, in our roles as consumers of entertainment - I can discover a show such as Misfits on Netflix, years after it aired its last on British television and still be au courant alongside a whole demographic of new viewers.

We leapfrog through series after series, zig-zagging past network original broadcast dates with impunity. We are, all of us, memory machines. Our brains, carousels of pleasure that defy space and time.

Watching time-travel shows using time-travel-esque on-demand technology, while masking our anxieties with the control of time? How meta-narrative.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2017, with the headline 'Future perfect, tense'. Print Edition | Subscribe