The Lessons of Time Travel in "Dark" and "Twin Peaks"
Time travel in TV shows highlights our wish to control our lives.
Posted Dec 18, 2017
***Warning: Minor spoilers for the TV shows Dark and Twin Peaks: The Return
Time travel has long been a popular and enriching fictional subject, especially since H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, and entertaining spins in the Back to the Future Trilogy, and mindbending ones in the works of Philip K. Dick. Its latest manifestation comes in the Netflix series Dark, which is set in a small town in Germany. The show follows the threads that connect families in the fictional town of Winden after several boys disappear; the threads end up spiraling from a mysterious set of caves under the town. The caves seem to contain a triad of time portals that lead to 33-year increments of time passage from 1953, 1986, and 2019. Unfortunately, the nuances of the portals’ mechanics are mysterious to everyone, leading to dire consequences for its residents, and for the few who happen upon its quixotic properties.
The show focuses more on the existential melancholy behind the concept of time travel than other entertainment on the subject. (It does still have some geeky theory of relativity moments with an homage to Wells in its resident scientist H.G. Tannhaus.) It is part of everyday human reality that time is fixed and finite; that events happen one-way only, and circumstances that follow its given path generally cannot be changed or redone differently. There is also the ongoing spectre of death punctuating this one-way route of time; once it happens, there is no undoing it. These rules of our existence seem harsh and heartbreaking at times, particularly when unforeseen mistakes occur or twists of fate that lead to tragedies.
Accordingly, there is always the enjoyment of the fantasy that time travel provides: that somehow there is a way to change the unchangeable, to rewrite the past. Ultimately, it is a form of magical thinking, a hope that we could go back and live our best lives, even cheat death. Even as Einstein and quantum physics in the last century provided some novel theoretical basis for time’s mutability, in our day-to-day lives, there is no turning back the clock.
Dark, as its name asserts, focuses on the futility of that fantasy, and even the possibility that the fantasy is worse than what we have. There is the wrenching storyline of the child Mikkel, who adores Houdini, the famed magician who seemingly circumvents physics. Unfortunately, his disappearing trick becomes a new kind of nightmare; his mysterious travel to 1986 as a child means he doesn’t fully understand how to handle the possibilities of those circumstances. As it turns out, the adults who also time travel don’t necessarily have a better grasp on those possibilities either. Depending on their fallible human motivations, whether driven by grief, psychopathic sadism, or justice, those motivations end up spinning what seem like endless new possibilities into deeper and darker dead ends.
The show posits that if time travel could happen, the core of our very lives, tragedies and all, would become threatened even more. Our very identities and existences would end up on shaky ground, or move into more frightening and destructive paths since our own dark and misguided motives might twist and pervert the narrative of living itself. We cannot escape our own tendencies towards self-centered myopia; coupling that myopia with the power to undo our own history would mean exaggeration, not exoneration, of whatever darkness we are trying to escape.
Dark’s haunting opening theme song, "Goodbye" by Apparat, captures this paradox nicely in its lyrics: “lay down next to me, don’t listen when I scream, bury your thoughts and fall asleep, find out I was just a bad dream…for neither ever, nor never, goodbye.” Our urge to love and to connect with others and our deep sense of loss when we lose or are hurt by a loved one is tied inextricably to time. Even if time or reality is bent, as the loved one becoming “just a bad dream” or goodbyes existing “neither ever, nor never,” the human urge to love remains constant. You cannot escape the pain of loss and death, because it’s what defines the stakes of love and connection in life. To try to erase one will mean the other will also disappear. All that is left then is a nihilistic void, not unlike that of outer space itself.
The show has often been compared to the recent Netflix series Stranger Things, and also to the groundbreaking series Twin Peaks (and its recent reboot The Return). I think of those comparisons, Dark may resonate most with the Twin Peaks reboot, particularly its final episode, which also focuses on the all-too-human desire to rewrite and erase our tragedies, but in doing so, risking our own erasure, period. In the last episode, Agent Cooper tries to go back to an earlier narrative time point, the night before Laura Palmer is murdered, and take her to safety. The eerie set of time loops that result lead to a haunting sensation of self-erasure and lost identity, trapped within an infinite repetition of a fundamental story of good versus evil. Agent Cooper and his sidekick Diane transmute into new names, and their personalities change. Laura Palmer has aged in another persona but ends up wrapped in murder again. The trauma they are trying to escape cannot be undone.
The problem of evil is ultimately one that resists the cold facile pseudologic of time travel, because one cannot escape oneself, one’s origin as the author of one’s narrative. Memory is our repository of identity in the context of time, and if rebooted, all is lost, even what was at stake in the first place. All humans will always struggle with good and evil within themselves and with others. Those tensions will color even our attempts to undo the effects of good and evil via the “God angle” of time travel and changing the story. The story cannot be changed, because we cannot change. Our fundamental nature remains intact, and the good and evil sides of ourselves will recalibrate and continue their struggle ad infinitum. (Accordingly, the series shows how Agent Cooper’s own identity splits into good and evil personas and the chaotic struggles between them that leave him in limbo.)
Time travel even moves beyond the human problems of good and evil, of love and loss, into the existentialist realm of indifferent fate: that some terrible events happen without reason or morality. They are simply rolls of the dice. Going back in time to undo one set of dice rolls simply means other different dice rolls will follow, with equally absurd and damaging consequences. There is no escaping the callous apathy of fate.
So in the end, we must come to terms with the parameters that define our existence, and make peace with the nature of our narratives, that there is an end to everyone’s lifespan, that pain and loss are inevitable costs of connection, and that time will not change for anyone. Perhaps the only way to circumvent time and memory is to write our stories ourselves for others to listen and think upon, to keep our thoughts floating forward, and to come to terms with our regrets. In that sense, these time travel fictions serve as cautionary tales…to record our thoughts as stories only, but not to reinvent our realities themselves. Acceptance is the key.