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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.

Comments

Intellectually, I agree with you. But projecting myself into Dan's situation, and imagining returning to find my own son or daughter gone and replaced by another ... it's not a rational reaction. It's a vehement, gut-level refusal to accept it.

Even though the replacement child is every bit as valid, every bit as much a product of my genes, and even though it would tear me apart inside, I would have to try to get *my* kid back.

I haven't actually seen Journeyman, but I've been more and more interested by the reviews and commentary I'm seeing.
Of course, that's because Dan remembers the old timeline. As far as Katie is concerned, all of their recent history with Dan traveling through time has been playing out in exactly the same way... except with Caroline as their child, and not Zack. She is going to have the same atavistic reaction that Dan has, and that you mention.

And what if for some bizarre reason, she ended remembering Caroline? Imagine the wedge that would put between her and Dan. (To be fair, though, the rules of time travel that the show has presented up until this point preclude that possibility. But you never know when the rules might change.)
No argument here. Katie's reaction would be equally strong, to the point where she would probably do anything to stop Dan from changing things back. None of which would change my own gut reaction, in his place :-)

Honestly, it's a story I'd love to write. No clear-cut choices, powerful emotional investment, and no ending that's going to be happily ever after...
Thank you. I recorded last night's Journeyman, but wasn't sure if it was worth the watching. Your post (mild spoilers and all) persuaded me that it was. Now I have something to watch tonight.

I've watched Journeyman since the beginning. It avoided a lot of clichés and I liked how it built the back story. I shall miss it.
I missed the episode last night but I have to ask, didn't his digital camera have an LCD screen in the back? I'm always a little annoyed at these "drop future tech in the past and all technologies changes". Fax machines simply used existing tech (phones) to transmit data, something ARPA (or was it DARPA I can never tell the difference) was working on since the 70's. So you've got a usb device and some kind of memory card. Can they read the card? Can they take apart the card and figure out how it works? How do you get holography out of that?

I like Stargate's approach to tech. Take advanced tech and interface it with existing tech, test, find bugs, fix bugs, repeat. But if bypassing logic on device, test bypass on uninhabited planet first so you don't wind up having to beg the Asgard and their "little grey butts" for help fixing the resulting problem.
There are two other issues, both crucially important to life as we know it.

The first issue is that, in the alternate timeline created by the loss of the camera, a boy that Dan knew has died. It's Dan's mission to save that boy, and he manages to both save him and retrieve the camera. I can easily make a case that earlier advanced technology in the alternate timeline would save literally tens if not hundreds of thousands of other lives — but by the rules of the universe, Dan must focus on his one mission and ignore other lives that he might save. (The universe spent substantial time driving this point home when he and his family were almost killed when he saved a child's life on an "unauthorized" side mission.)

The second issue is a personal theory that I may or may not have made known to you before. Around the time of the loss of the camera in that alternate timeline, Bill Gates was in the process of pushing Apple's easy-to-use, easy-to-network computers out of the market and replacing them with recalcitrant, hard-to-use machines that were only marginally useful. But the side effect was that society had time to catch up with the implications of powerful computing platforms, and prevented the emergence of a 1984-style state based on ubiquitous cheap networked databases and sensors. In our day, cheap computers and networks and sensors have finally made it possible for a democracy to afford to pay for a police state; we have adapted to computers as a society and there's a good chance we might still be able to avoid that horrifying scenario.

I will claim that Dan's actions prevented the emergence of a police state... and based on the show's early dialog, you'll note that the technology could have fallen into the hands of the Chinese, which would have been truly hideous.
"I think most of us would tend to agree that a 2007 with more advanced technology would probably be a better thing."

I'm not so sure. More advanced technology doesn't necessarily equal better society in my mind. Matter of fact, some technologies can have profoundly negative impacts on certain sectors of a society and its general cohesiveness.

Of course, some might consider that a good thing. Assuming they consider "society" to exist in the first place.

---

Do watch out for that morning ice. We've got freeze/thaw cycle action locally. Hopefully most of the snow and ice will be gone before the next scheduled snow appears. :)
I think you could argue that his original timeline is more valid because it does not contain a paradox.

I've only seen one episode of the show. Would like to see more, but haven't had the time.
I watched the pilot with Amy, and was unimpressed. She watches it every week, but I generally wander about doing other things. The bits I've caught have been pretty well "seen it before" for me.

However, last night, she forgot it was on, and I turned on the set just as Dan was trying to get the camera back the first time. As soon as he leapt without it, I said to Amy, "This is the sort of thing I've been exoecting to happen. There will be consequences." So, I stayed and watched the whole episode. Again, interesting, but nothing that impressed me as any better than previous "do-gooder-goes-time-travelling" shows.
This show has grown on me, and I shall miss it.

They're broadcasting the "last" episode tonight.
That Dan retains his old memories in altered timelines is at least a small bit of evidence that his original one is "more correct". Yes, all the variants are valid to someone, and the premise wouldn't work if he forgot the other timelines, but I still think his source timeline gets extra weighting.

That said, I would like to see his trips to the past cause small changes in his timeline even when he "fixes" things. Maybe Zack's butterfly was a nod toward that; not sure.

I've been enjoying this show and will be sorry to see it go.
I didn't realize it was canceled. That's too bad.
You don't mention that someone was killed as a result of his leaving the camera. Plus seeing advanced technology can cause technology to advance, not as fast. But still advance.
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