Friday, February 2, 2018

The Nature of the Time Loop


As a few of you know, I have a Black Archive installment coming out this summer covering the frankly amazing Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent. I cover a lot of ground in the book, from Jungian house/psyche symbolism to a discussion of why the Confession Dial's inconsistent "resets" actually make complete sense from a programming standpoint. Of course, I have to discuss the time loop element at some point.

I'm not giving away that section, obviously. But given the holiday, I did want to touch briefly on what I discuss in my section on the literary use of time loops... hopefully to get you a little interested in what I'm up to.

Note that this contains past-expiration-date spoilers for Groundhog Day, Heaven Sent, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and the original book series of The Dark Tower.




So Groundhog Day is one weird beast of a movie. Billed as a rom-com, turning quickly into a cross between a spiritual metaphor and an almost Ellisonian horror story, and treated within our culture as completely its own animal. Which, well, it really is.

Director Harold Ramis stated that Phil lived in his February hell for approximately ten years. But famously, Simon Gallagher of WhatCulture (then Obsessed with Film) crunched the numbers and came up with just under 34 years. For an actor then in his mid-40s playing a character likely also in his mid-40s, that's nearly his entire life lived over again.

From a symbolic standpoint, though, it only matters that it was a Lot Of Years, and that nothing actually moved until Phil achieved self-awareness and sought self-improvement.


Now, Ramis is not even remotely the first person to use a time loop as a plot point in a story, and 1993 is not even remotely the earliest we've seen it happen. Stephen King, even before the final Dark Tower book dropped, believed that "hell is repetition" and used it to effect in his other stories.

However. There comes a point in the nature of a trope when it's either been used one way so much, or such a high-profile work has used it, that the trope itself becomes symbolic. Granted, forced repetition as growth and self-improvement isn't exactly novel. And it's a correlation that makes perfect sense. But we are to a point culturally where the mere mention of a time loop evokes a nearly global mental leap to the events of Groundhog Day.

Thus, even invoking the time loop trope is arguably symbolic before any action takes place.


Prior to Heaven Sent busting onto the scene, the most culturally notable new time loop was "Endless Eight," the story that spanned two-thirds of the second season of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Character development is not as much of a strong point in this series -- Haruhi is a central mystery, and most of the light novels and anime adaptations are devoted to figuring out what her world-breaking powers actually are and mean.

KyoAni took a massive risk actually throwing the viewers into the time loop: the (nearly) same episode re-scripted, re-storyboarded, re-designed, re-animated, and re-voiced eight times and showed over eight consecutive weeks with no warning that this would be happening. It got to the point that just hearing Kyon say "Something was wrong" sent fans into nearly as deep a depression as Yuki each week.

All told, the story arc of "Endless Eight" ends on recursion number 15,532 of a two-week period -- totaling up to 595 years. Still small potatoes compared to the Doctor's 4.5 billion, but when you realize it's because Haruhi subconsciously wanted to a last-day-of-summer cram session with her buds and never got it because she did her homework early... well, she always does tend to take things to extremes.

Even so, and even in this overall unremarkable story, it is a slice of character development: Haruhi, the perfect student who always knows exactly what she wants, was just longing for an average bit of irresponsible social life.


Throughout my upcoming book on Heaven Sent, I spend a great deal of time discussing what exactly this story tells us about the Doctor as a person: who the Doctor is, who the person behind the persona is, and what we can gather about a person who feels the need to create such a persona.

But, too, there's a lot to take away from the fact that the castle -- and the episode -- were built on the mechanic of a time loop. For a Western audience that's going to be decently versed in modern Western entertainment, this will immediately evoke the Groundhog Day connection. (Go peep Twitter today if you don't believe me.)

So how much does it figure in to the meaning and the potential reads of this episode that it invokes a trope already inextricably stapled to a film about growth and character development?

... I'll talk about that more in the book.

Look, I can't give everything away.

In the meantime, check out the other books available in the Black Archive series for some fantastic reading.

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