Monday, August 26, 2013

it's like yesterday never happened

Groundhog Day wasn’t the first exploration of the day-on-repeat phenomena, or its technical term per Star Trek: a temporal causality loop. Though, we shouldn’t confuse this with the causality loop of a “predestination paradox.”

And, now that we’ve lost the non sci-fi fans, let’s discuss these loops as represented in a handful of relatively recent (one of these actually predates the release of, though not the writing of, Groundhog Day) television shows. And, they are all genre shows.

And, I watched all seven of these yesterday, declaring on Twitter that it was time loop day. Just to get the list out of the way (and there are more episodes like this left from other shows (and movies) so I may have to do this again sometime), the seven episodes are:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer - “Life Serial”
  • Angel - “Time Bomb”
  • Stargate SG-1 - “Window of Opportunity”
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation - “Cause and Effect”
  • The X-Files - “Monday”
  • Supernatural - “Mystery Spot”
  • Fringe - “White Tulip”

    Let’s start from the beginning. “Life Serial” only involves a time loop in one segment of the episode. Buffy is being tested by the nerd Trio bent on becoming supervillains, and Jonathan’s test is a time loop. Simply put, Buffy is trying to get herself a day job, and in this segment she’s working at the Magic Box. She’s got to deal with Giles rambling about how he deals with customers and two customers, one a guy who wants a scented candle, the other a woman who wants a mummy hand. Thing is, that mummy hand is alive and that makes getting it from the basement storage rather difficult. She inevitably kills the hand or just can’t get it. Finally—SPOILERS, not that I should have to warn you about an episode that aired in 2001—she manages to get out of the loop by special ordering the woman a mummy hand instead of going for the one in the basement.

    What’s remarkable about this segment (only one piece of this episode, mind you) is that in a very short time we get a good montage of the kind of stuff we see in Groundhog Day. Buffy lashes out at Giles for his rambling at one point, smashing his glasses on the floor. She learns from day to day to speed things up—tossing a candle to the first customer before he even asks for one, for example—and she cries over all this repetition. There’s no time for the “adolescent” phase or any serious depression, but you get the idea in a brief series of cuts that Buffy’s stuck for a while (I didn’t count the cuts because this is not the Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Life Serial” Project).

    Also of note: Andrew mentions the Star Trek episode I’ll get to below and Warren mentions the X-Files one.

    Angel’s “Time Bomb” episode doesn’t necessarily revolve around a time loop. In fact, for most of the episode we don’t follow the loop. While Illyria is experiencing one, we are following events in mostly sequential order for a while, until the big climax in which Illyria proceeds to kill most of our usual main players—again, if I can’t SPOIL a show from 2004, what can I spoil?—but the time loop yanks her back. See, one of Illyria’s powers is that she can slow down time and, well, that and all the rest of her power, it turns out, is too big to fit in Fred’s body. Ultimately, to stop the loop and save Illyria from exploding and potentially destroying the fabric of reality in the process, Wesley’s got to vent her power into another dimension… it’s complicated.

    What’s remarkable about this episode, in terms of the whole time loop thing is two details: 1) For a good portion of the episode, we don’t follow the loop. Illyria’s already odd behavior—she’s a former god stuck in the body of a former physics major—has a few moments of extra oddness, but we only get glimpses of the jumps in time she’s inadvertently making… until we get to jump along with her. 2) And, so does Angel. Proximity to Illyria as one of her jumps happens drags him along in her wake and so the time loop gets some exposition and Angel, with a better idea of what’s happening, stops Illyria from killing everyone long enough for Wesley to explain he’s not there to kill her.

    Also of note: This loop is not played for humor, so there’s no time for Illyria’s version of the “adolescent” phase… well, maybe lashing out and killing everyone could qualify. In a separate subplot in this episode, the ending is actually a bit dark—the heroes of the show are working for the bad guys at this point, and they are still dealing with Fred’s death, so this isn’t lighthearted at all.

    In “Window of Opportunity,” Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c get stuck in a time loop because an alien scientist, Malikai, is trying to use a time loop to figure out how to reverse time and see his dead wife again (similar reason to the Fringe episode below). To get out of the loop, they must, among other things, try to learn Latin and translate some alien ruins—usually Dr. Jackson’s job, but given the time loop, O’Neill and Teal’c actually do a better job of it (building on Jackson’s repeated efforts, of course), but ultimately—and reminding me how well Stargate could deal with emotional stuff sometimes—it comes down to talking Malikai out of activating the loop.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that since it’s two people stuck in the loop, and they’re dealing with others who are used to weird goings on, it’s easier for them to explain what’s going on. And, they even reference Groundhog Day specifically. When Malikai says, “I need more time. Once I've correctly deciphered the symbols on the altar I will be able to master the time device,” O'Neill responds, "Why? So you can be king of Groundhog Day?"

    Also of note: Like many a Stargate episode, they aren’t afraid to have fun with it. There’s a definite “adolescent” phase here, with O’Neill riding a bike around the base, O’Neill and Teal’c driving golf balls into the Stargate for what’s “got to be a record” length drive, and at one point, O’Neill resigning his position just so he can kiss Major Carter. And, the start of the loop gives us a couple running jokes: 1) Teal’c is just getting hit by a door opening every time, and eventually he lashes out at the guy who opened the door. 2) O’Neill has just been asked a question by Jackson and has no idea how to answer (in fact, he reveals at one point that he wasn’t even listening the first time). The extra joke here is O’Neill’s food (which was glued to his spoon to make sure it was exactly the same every time the loop repeated): Froot Loops.

    The people on the U.S.S. Enterprise don’t watch 20th century television and movies much, or they would have probably referenced Groundhog Day even though it hadn’t come out yet—“Cause and Effect” aired in 1992. Starting with a great teaser—the Enterprise, already hit by another starship (though we won’t find this out until the next loop) is damaged, already at red alert, and then boom, it explodes. And, the episode has only just begun. Turns out that this unexplored region of space includes a temporal distortion, into which flew the U.S.S. Bozeman 90 years earlier, now emerging only to collide with the Enterprise. Gradually, characters start to get a sense of déjà vu and echoes of voices from previous loops can be heard during the night. Long story short, they figure out what’s going on—and the notion that they’re caught in a temporal causality loop is discussed as casually as sailors might discuss a rainstorm—and figure out how to send a message into the next loop to get out.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that no one is consciously experiencing the loop, but gradually everyone starts to get a sense of the repetition. Dr. Crusher (then Worf and Riker) predicts the cards dealt in their weekly poker game. Picard has the sense that he’s already read the book he’s reading before bed. And, LaForge is having trouble with his visor because it’s picking up some echoed images from earlier loops.

    Also of note: Brannon Braga wanted to do a time travel episode without the usual clichés. In Captains’ Logs: The Unauthorized Complete Trek Voyages, he’s quoted as saying: “I love time travel stories and I don't know who doesn't. We wanted to do a time travel story that had never been done before. Being trapped in a time loop is one I've never seen before.” Now, the time loop is just another time travel cliché. Braga also explains something interesting about filming (and I haven’t even gotten to some of the interesting behind-the-scenes stuff in Groundhog Day in this blog yet, have I?):

    In a way, doing the same scenes over was comforting; it was fun to come up with different takes and to think how I could get that glass to break each time. It wasn't until I got to the final draft that I thought to have the glass break over the intercom on that final loop through. So it was finding those little nuggets and pathways and weave through as we were structuring it. That was a terrific challenge.

    “Monday” is not a good day for Fox Mulder. He wakes up to a waterbed leak—with a running joke being that he never tells Scully when he got a waterbed (until this episode, there was no evidence he even had a bedroom)—that has shorted out his alarm clock and killed his cell phone. He intends to write a check for the damages since he’s not supposed to have a waterbed in his building and it’s leaking through the floor below, but the check will bounce if he doesn’t deposit his paycheck, so he has to go to the bank, and that’s the day a guy with a gun and a bomb is at the bank. Nothing supernatural, just a fantastic day for Mulder… except the teaser has already shown us Mulder dying from a gunshot wound, and after Mulder dies again, he wakes up to a waterbed leak and so on.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that while eventually Mulder does experience some déjà vu from the loop, it is a guest star, playing the bank robber’s girlfriend, who is actually experiencing the loop itself (or Mulder probably would have made a Groundhog Day reference). And, she’s been doing it for a while, and she has learned to notice when something is different, just like Phil Connors.

    Also of note: There are some awesome exchanges in this episode, like this one:

    Mulder: Scully, did you ever have one of those days you wish you could rewind and start all over again from the beginning?
    Scully: Yes. Frequently. But, I mean, who's... who's to say that if you did rewind it and start over again that it wouldn't end up exactly the same way?
    Mulder: So you think it's all just fate? We have no free will?
    Scully: No, I think that we're free to be the people that we are - good, bad or indifferent. I think that it's our character that determines our fate.
    Mulder: And all the rest is just preordained? I don't buy that. There's too many variables. Too many forks in the road. I meant to be on time to work this morning but my waterbed springs a leak flooding my apartment (Scully looks surprised) and the apartment below me so that makes me late for the meeting. Then I realize I got to write a check to cover the damages to my landlord but, as I'm walking to work, I realize that that's gonna bounce unless I deposit my pay. So now I got to go to the bank, which makes me even later.
    Scully: (curious) Since when did you get a waterbed?
    Mulder: I might just as easily not have a waterbed then I'd be on time for this meeting. You might just as easily have stayed in medicine and not gone into the FBI, and then we would never have met. Blah, blah, blah...
    Scully: Fate.
    Mulder: Free will. With every choice, you change your fate.

    (This reminds me of something from Rubin’s first version of Groundhog Day with the implication that there are other people who might be insane or just might be experiencing the same time loop as Phil. I imagine some of their conversations might be like this.)

    “Mystery Spot” is probably the funniest of these time loop episodes—though, really, only Stargate’s played its stuff for laughs, so maybe it isn’t fair to compare; still, the one-two punch of this hilarious Supernatural episode followed by the rather sad Fringe episode I’ll get to next was a great ending to a long day. There are some simple gags, like Sam catching the hot sauce falling from the waitress’ tray, and room for a lot of unseen elements—Sam knows the waitress is bad at archery, he takes the keys from the old drunk guy...

    What’s remarkable about this episode is how it fits (like the Angel episode) into ongoing continuity. Aside from the Trickster’s involvement, the driving force in the time loop is that Dean keeps dying and Sam tries to stop it. In the ongoing story at the time, Dean’s days were numbered because of a deal he’d made. The Trickster is proving a point to Sam (though I’m not sure Sam gets it); he tells him:

    This obsession to save Dean? The way you two keep sacrificing yourselves for each other? Nothing good comes out of it. Just blood and pain. Dean's your weakness. The bad guys know it, too. It's gonna be the death of you, Sam. Sometimes, you just gotta let people go.

    Sam and Dean have never been good at letting people go, of course. And, the initial end to the loop (like Star Trek: Voyager’s “Year of Hell”) gets nice and dark as Sam is let out of the loop only to have Dean murdered the next morning anyway, and we get a nice glimpse into his future—Jared Padalecki probably could have brooded a little more here, but it still plays well.

    Also of note: This episode specifically references Groundhog Day and the waitress’ name is Doris. And, just like Phil Connors, Sam wakes up to the same song every morning—Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” (though that changes later to Huey Lewis’ “Back in Time” featured in Back to the Future).

    And, there is an awesome exchange regarding déjà vu:

    Sam: You don't remember any of this?
    Dean: Any of what?
    Sam: This. Like it's - happened before?
    Dean: You mean like deja vu?
    Sam: No, like it's - like it's really happened before.
    Dean: Yeah, like deja vu.
    Sam: Forget about deja vu! I'm asking you if it feels like we're living yesterday all over again?
    Dean: Okay, how is that not...
    Sam: Don't say it!

    Finally, yesterday’s time loop day ended with Fringe’s “White Tulip.” As Walter deals with issues of guilt (which makes for an amazing, emotional ending for this episode), the Fringe team must deal with a subway train car full of dead bodies and dead batteries. Turns out, a scientist is using a time loop to work on a bigger jump back in time. Like Stargate the climax comes down to conversation and some of the usual great character work by John Noble as Walter.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that none of the stars experience the time loop. They do eventually figure out it’s happening but only the guest star, Peter Weller’s scientist, Alistair Peck, who, like Malikai in Stargate is trying to time travel to see—or maybe save—his dead wife.

    Also of note: If you know Fringe, you know that the white tulip drawing will return much later, of course. But, I think, in terms of time loops and déjà vu, the interesting thing here is Peter’s take on déjà vu. While this is countered by a more scientific explanation (which I’ve covered), Peter says,

    I read that deja vu is Fate's way of telling you that you're exactly where you're supposed to be. That's why you feel like you've been there before. You are right in line with your own destiny.

    He claims he doesn’t buy into this explanation—“a bit mystical for my taste”—but I think it’s an interesting addition to approaches to Groundhog Day. I haven’t really dealt with free will or destiny yet, but there are certainly arguments to be made about both of these things and how they relate to Phil Connors’ journey. In fiction, we can safely believe in such things, fate and destiny, and our quest to reach or avoid them can make great fodder for drama. In real life, though, I think they might just get in the way.

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to rewatch not just individual episode from all these shows but every episode. One of the great things we’ve got with Hulu and Netflix and the like is the ability to binge-watch whole series. And, all seven of these series were great and still hold up pretty well.

  • 3 comments:

    1. Ah, Walter in Fringe. He was so good...I miss him. And I loved that episode.

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    2. The funniest Stargate episode and one of the funnier X files episodes.

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    3. O'niel and phill are both authority figures going rogue

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