December 18th, 2007


Time Travel, Morality, and Parallel Universes: Thoughts on Journeyman [with spoilers]

Nomi and I have been watching the TV show Journeyman, and last night we saw what will possibly be the penultimate episode of the series. Although the original reviews of the show were weak, because of our lowered expectations we found the show worth watching, and we'll be sorry to see it come to an end. It's all about time travel and parallel universes, and it's quite well done. Furthermore, last night's episode got me thinking about the moral dilemmas inherent in time travel.

For those of you who don't watch the show, the premise is that a San Francisco newspaper reporter named Dan Vasser starts finding himself warped into the past with no real explanation of what's going on. His guide on this journey is Al Olivia, a woman he once was engaged to until she died in a plane crash...or so he thought. It turns out that Olivia is also a time traveler, and she knows that whenever Dan finds himself in the past, he's on a mission to make something better for someone. When Dan returns to the present, he always finds that he has changed someone else's life, usually for the better, but sometimes with a little worse thrown in. Over the course of the series, Dan's wife Katie and his son Zack have come to terms with Dan's random travels.

The show has toyed with what might happen if Dan interacted with his own past and changed his own timeline, but for the most part he's managed to leave his own life alone...until last night.

In last night's episode, "The Hanged Man," Dan Vasser accidentally leaves a digital camera behind in the 1980s. When he returns to 2007, he finds that instead of computers on their desks, people have "nanotechs," which use holographic displays and not the flat screens we all know and love. Digital paper comes over fax machines, complete with moving pictures, like a photograph in the Harry Potter universe.

And Dan's son Zack is gone, replaced by a daughter named Caroline. Apparently, the existence of new technology in the timeline altered the date and time of the conception of Dan and Katie's child. And to the show's credit, they do give a reasonable explanation for why this happened.

And Dan panics. His son Zack has vanished into the multiverse, replaced by a daughter he doesn't remember but whom Katie loves. Dan becomes determined to retrieve his camera, and to restore his son to existence. Even if it's at the cost of wiping out his daughter – which freaks out his wife, who doesn't want to lose Caroline. But of course, if Dan succeeds, she won't remember Caroline. And yet...this is still bothersome.

Let's look at the new timeline Dan created. What makes it any less valid than the previous timeline? Why does Zack have any more right to exist than Caroline? The show's answer to this is, to my mind, unsatisfactory. Basically, the other timeline is the "real" one because that's the one that Dan remembers and wants to return to.

But then, what about all the changes Dan has already wrought unto history? The entire point of this show, like Quantum Leap, appears to be that one man can travel into the past to make the present better. I think most of us would tend to agree that a 2007 with more advanced technology would probably be a better thing. And even if you want to argue the case, note that in the episode we saw, there was no evidence given that 2007-prime had any worse problems because of the advanced technology. If Dan feels it's wrong to change history so that Zack is replaced with Caroline, why doesn't he feel that everything else he has been doing is wrong too?

Also, how can he be so sure that he can fix the timeline? Even if Dan does recover the camera, we all know that the conception of any one individual person is unique. How can Dan be so sure that getting the camera back will restore the Zack he knows and loves? Or, in his agitated state, does this just not occur to him?

Journeyman has opened up the classic moral question inherent in time travel, a question that has been dealt with time and time again. It's too bad the show is probably doomed; I would have liked to see how they dealt with the issue.