Tuesday, September 24, 2013

another reason why today is especially exciting

Yesterday was Time Loop Day Part Deux: This Time I Neglected to Announce it on Twitter. Once again, I watched seven TV episodes dealing in time loops. It’s all genre shows, so if you’re not into that… well, why are you reading a blog about Groundhog Day, one of the great, classic science fiction comedies? Anyway, the episodes were:

  • The Twilight Zone – “Judgment Night”
  • Early Edition – “Run, Gary, Run”
  • Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman – “‘Twas the Night Before Mxymas”
  • Charmed – “Déjà Vu All Over Again”
  • Seven Days – “Come Again”
  • Eureka – “I Do Over”
  • Fringe – “And Those We’ve Left Behind”

    As Groundhog Day begins here on my iPad, I imagine that the time loop has a specific reason—Phil Connors, egocentric user of women is being punished. If that is the case, then The Twilight Zone’s episode “Judgment Night” is structurally much the same. Of course, there’s only one resumption shown, but for a half-hour show, there wasn’t much time to be too creative about the loop… plus, fitting all the little repeating details is something that is more easily played for laughs, and this episode is not going for laughs. Instead—and, beware SPOILERS for a show from 1959—this is about one man’s personal hell, or maybe purgatory if we choose to believe there’s an out somewhere in the future for him. See, Carl Lanser shows up on the S.S. Queen of Glasgow. He has no papers and doesn’t seem to know how or why he’s gotten onto the ship. The ship has lost its convoy and they fear attack from German U-Boats. The thing is, Lanser gradually realizes who he is—he innocently mentions that he’s German perhaps not realizing that these British folk might be suspicious of him and later finds his U-boat captain’s hat in his quarters—and that he knows they will be attacked; he even knows the exact time of the attack: 1:15. Lanser is unable to do anything about it and the freighter is attacked and sunk, though first Lanser spots the captain of the attacking U-boat through binoculars, and he sees himself. Cut to: Lanser on the U-Boat, and he has this exchange with his Lieutenant:

    Lt. Mueller: I just, I just found it difficult to...
    Lanser: To do what?
    Lieutenant: To reconcile the killing of men and women without any warning. Makes me wonder if we're not damned now.
    Lanser: In the eyes of the British admiralty, we most certainly are.
    Lieutenant: I mean, sir, in the eyes of God.
    Lanser: Oh, you're not only a fool, Lieutenant, but also a religious fool, and perhaps a mystic at that. Suppose we are damned. What will happen then?
    Lieutenant: I've had dreams about it. Perhaps there is a special kind of hell for people like us. Perhaps to be damned is to have a fate like the people on that ship, to suffer as they suffer and to die as they die.
    Lanser: You are a mystic, Lieutenant.
    Lieutenant: We'll ride the ghost of that ship every night. Every night, Der Kapitän, for eternity. They could die only once, just once, but we could die a hundred million times. We could ride the ghost of that ship every night. Every night for eternity.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that, while it clearly fits with the time loop idea, and while the ending makes it clear that Lanser will be experiencing this over and over again with the narration—

    The S.S. Queen of Glasgow, heading for New York, and the time is 1942. For one man, it is always 1942, and this man will ride the ghost of that ship every night for eternity. This is what is meant by paying the fiddler. This is the comeuppance awaiting every man when the ledger of his life is opened and examined, the tally made, and then the reward or the penalty paid. And in the case of Carl Lanser, former Kapitän Leutnant, Navy of the Third Reich, this is the penalty. This is the justice meted out. This is judgment night - in The Twilight Zone.

    —it takes its time playing up the mystery, never really explaining what’s going on until that exchange with the Lieutenant. As I said above, this is not a time loop played for any laughs, or really any fun. Like many an episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s quite serious, a morality play as mystery.

    As Phil goes into the first resumption, I realize that if one didn’t know the premise of Groundhog Day you might be as confused as Phil is. This first repeat isn’t played for laughs, though some could be had. Chubby Man’s scream as Phil shoves him into the wall, for example, amuses me every time. Early Edition’s “Run, Gary, Run” doesn’t go for any deliberate laughs, either—well, maybe Gary tossing the cinnamon bun to the dog—but recognizing the time loop format, there are definite funny moments. Still, this episode (a nod to Run Lola Run, though I’m not sure how much since it’s been a while since I’ve seen that film—it’s on my list of things to rewatch for this blog) takes itself seriously. SPOILERS for 1999 TV show ahead; it’s probably not waiting on your DVR, so no big worries. Gary has been neglecting his job helping Marissa with the restaurant, and basically God or whoever it is that delivers Gary’s newspaper every morning (I like to think that cat just happened to exist outside time and wanted attention) tests Gary out with a time loop so he’ll see how important Marissa is to him… which is actually a little complicated. I think just having him save her once could have covered it but I guess he was being punished and just had to actually see her die. Anyway, newspaper headline is about the blind pedestrian being killed by a car. It’s about a mile from Gary’s place, but his car’s got a boot on it and he has to run. Along the way, in various resumptions of the loop, he fails to steal a car, he shares a taxi with someone who has a more “legitimate” emergency come up, he steals a bicycle, and eventually, he makes it in time to save Marissa. Thing is, this was 1999, so cell phones existed, and the premise of this show seems like one where regular contact would have been useful. But, I guess since Gary spent so much of his time running around saving people he probably couldn’t afford a good cell phone.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that with hardly any detail to most of the background characters, it paints a nice picture of each one’s little story. There’s the artist who in the initial loop accidentally ate a cinnamon bun with nuts and was hospitalized. There’s the bike rider on his way to the flower shop and the doctor he’s intending to propose to—ultimately, by saving the artist and stealing the bicycle, Gary sets up these two to reach each other just in time to set up their engagement for us to see; it’s a little too cute, but it works. Given the premise of the show and the rush to save Marissa, there isn’t any time to contemplate the time loop; it’s just another thing Gary has to deal with.

    Lois & Clark is a show very much of its time. It’s early 90s but it’s got a bit of a leftover 80s cheese to it. Still, “‘Twas the Night Before Mxymas” actually works quite well, even on its own. The premise of this particular episode is even a bit silly, introducing the imp Mr. Mxyzptlk into a show that—if I remember correctly—tried to ground most of its villains in real, science-driven powers. Mr. Mxyzptlk is magical, but at least he’s not as weird looking as he often is in comics. He just looks like Howie Mandel. Anyway, Mr. Mxyzptlk… and, like the script for the episode I’m now going to call him Mxy because that is so much easier to type. Mxy wants to stay in this 3-dimensional world (he’s from the 5th dimension) and he believes there’s no room for he and Superman to both be here, so he sets out to negate Superman’s greatest power: hope. I suppose he’s seen Man of Steel and knows the S stands for hope. Mxy explains:

    He's the symbol of hope. That's his whole thing. Take away hope, and he's the symbol of nothing. In a world without hope, he's powerless. Simple as that.

    Mxy plans to remove hope by taking away tomorrow. He creates a 4-hour loop that only Superman (at first) experiences. But, the thing that makes this episode stand out is how the time loop changes over time. Though other character cannot (at first) remember the loop itself, they can feel it, so as time repeats, they get less positive, less hopeful. Lois, for example, hands in her latest story early on, claiming it’s worthy of a Pulitzer. A few loops later and she’s dropping it in the trash instead of even turning it in. Jimmy’s new girlfriend, making for a nice visual joke, is introduced as a Rhodes Scholar but as each resumption goes, she’s a little more trashy until she resembles the TV version of a cheap prostitute (and it’s implied she now is a prostitute). The other detail that sets the loop apart from other loops is that Superman, symbol of hope and all, is able to share knowledge of the loop with Lois at one point so that she, too, knows what’s going on. And, then, together (because that was the reason the human names were above Superman in the title) they set a trap for Mxy.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that, as cheesy as the basic concept is—a Christmas episode about everyone finding hope—it actually works quite well. And, it’s entertaining and funny. The way it juggles a rather large cast (all the regulars (Lois, Clark, Jimmy, Clark’s parents) plus Lois’ parents, a suicidal rich guy, Mxy, Jimmy’s new girlfriend, and some drunk Daily Planet employee (who is probably at least a recurring character but I haven’t seen this show since it was on the air, so I don’t remember) and the various iterations of their mood changes as their various world views get bleaker and bleaker. And Howie Mandel sells the silliness of Mxy pretty well, also.

    Also of note: a great line the comes straight from there being a time loop: “At four o’clock it’ll be noon again and you won’t remember any of this.”

    Rita’s fighting off Phil’s advances now. If only she had magic to push him away. I say that because there’s a silly line that gets repeated in the Charmed episode “Déjà Vu All Over Again.” Prue’s talking to Andy and she wants him to stay away from their meeting with Rodriguez because Phoebe’s had a premonition of Andy’s death… and my God, out of context, that’s got to be hard to follow. Anyway, Andy says he can’t stay away, and Prue responds: “I mean it. Don’t make me use my magic on you.” It’s cute, it’s sweet, and Andy is doomed. And, I forgot to warn about SPOILERS for this episode from 1999. Anyway, Phoebe, since she can see things that aren’t going on in the present anyway, notices the loop after Rodriguez fails to kill all three sisters and hilarity ensues… well, maybe not hilarity, but there are some laughs, and ultimately, some tragedy to go with that comedy. Maybe it’s because I was watching a season finale out of context, and it’s been 14 years since I had anything invested in the character of Andy, but the tragedy doesn’t play as quite genuine. Still, the episode stands up pretty well.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that the time loop has a very specific explanation—the demon Tempus is giving Rodriguez multiple chances to kill the Halliwell sisters. Except, there’s got to be a better way to do that. I mean, you’re a demon who can manipulate time, so you find a warlock who is not powerful enough to fight the sisters, insist he attacks all three at once, and then when he fails, you figure screw Plan B, let’s just repeat Plan A? You are a stupid demon. Also remarkable, though, is that they play a few of the repetitive details for laughs and even include their own version of Ned Ryerson—Joanne Hertz, who went to school with Piper and now just happens to be the segment producer doing a piece on the restaurant Piper manages. Unlike Ned, who might be successful as an insurance salesman, but is certainly not particularly enviable for as much, Joanne followed her dreams to New York, met her “fabulous husband who had this crazy idea of starting this little cable show and putting me in charge of everything. And here we are, the Food Network's most popular show. Talk about dreams coming true.” Meanwhile, Piper, restaurant manager, dreams of being a chef and having her own restaurant. But, there is a funny exchange when Piper freezes time to have an aside with Phoebe:

    Phoebe: Why'd you do that?
    Piper: What am I suppose to say? That I'm a cash-strapped, single restaurant manager, who still lives in the same house I grew up in with my sisters?
    Phoebe: And the cat, don't forget our cat.
    Piper: Phoebe, this isn't funny.
    Phoebe: Look, I don't know why you're getting so upset. She is a freak. I'm sorry, but no one is that successful at the age 26. Besides, you are successful, you're talented, you're creative, and the Food Network is here to see you. Not me, not her, you. Feel better now?
    Piper: Very little.
    Phoebe: Good. Unfreeze that bitch in heels, you've got a segment to shoot and we've got a demon to find.

    And, now as Phil and Rita have their “science experiment” I get to Seven Days a straight science fiction show. “Come Again” involves the usual “backstep,” in this case to save Dr. Jonathan Axelrad from dying on his way to bring big news—presumed, for no particular reason, to be an advancement in cold fusion. For a show that sometimes took itself a little too seriously, this episode plays much of its drama for laughs. Axelrad is, as our hero Frank describes him, “the most annoying man” and because of a malfunction in the time machine, Frank is repeating this backstep over and over again. Axelrad is the kind of guy who, with a gun pointed at him, told to put down his sandwich, asks why and insists he’s hungry.

    What’s remarkable about this time loop is that solving the problems within it has nothing to do with fixing the loop itself. In fact—SPOILERS for 1998—when one loop ends with Olga dying, Frank makes sure the loop doesn’t get fixed so he can go back one more time. The episode is quite entertaining, and it’s probably good that this time travel show dealt with a time loop so early in its run (this was only the 4th episode). Of course, they have another one later, and I’ll get to that on the third Time Loop Day.

    Eureka often mixed it’s comedy and its drama to great effect. Despite the huge ending to its time loop episode, “I Do Over,” and how big a gamechanger it was for the show, watching it again 5 years later, the actual death scene didn’t have the weight it should have. But, the scene after, in which Carter has to break the news to Allison still works. There’s the usually silly laughs—Carter manages to squirt ketchup on his last clean work shirt every morning—and some great bits with Carter, not usually the most tech savvy, trying to explain what’s going on so the scientists will believe him; at one point, he’s memorized a song and still gets part of “the formula for breaking the light speed barrier” wrong.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is the time loop is really nothing too special for the characters given their usual interactions with insane science. Still, despite much of the episode going for laughs, the time loop (or “time wave”) itself is treated by Fargo and Stark as quite serious. And, there’s a nice touch from loop to loop as Carter actually starts getting physically injured and those injuries go through the loop with him. Hell, on the last resumption, he even still has his clothes from the previous loop (which should have meant he would have a clean shirt in his closet, but maybe I’m overthinking it, or maybe he changed and still got ketchup on the clean one). And, there’s a great bit that fits Groundhog Day as well. Carter takes the time on what may be the last loop and the end of the universe to tell his sister and his daughter he loves them. Zoe (the daughter for those who never watched the show) asks when he became so self-aware. His response—which I could totally imagine Phil Connors saying: “I can learn. It just takes me a few tries.”

    Plus, there’s this:

    Carter: I'm not crazy.
    Fargo: Says the guy with crazy eyes and a gun.

    And, I ended another Time Loop Day with Fringe because that show has some good gravitas to anchor things. “And Those We’ve Left Behind” like “White Tulip” hinges on one man’s love for his wife. In this case, Stephen Root’s Raymond Green is not the conniving scientist that Peter Weller was in that other Fringe time loop episode. Instead, he doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He’s using the time loop to keep his wife of 4 years ago working on the formula he inputs in the machine he’s put together in their basement. With each new bit of the formula, he can make his jump back in time just a little bit longer… except, he’s not really jumping back in time, exactly. Instead, he’s created a bubble of time that springs forward to him. And, the Fringe team is involved because there’s a bit of a time displacement side effect, where these jumps are happening elsewhere. Those jumps are interesting, especially, the one that starts the episode—an entire building flashes back to a time 4 years earlier when it was on fire—but the heart here is with the scientist and his wife (and to a lesser extent, between the newly returned Peter and Walter). See, in the present, Kate Green suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s and she can no longer remember her husband some of the time, let alone produce formulas that can open windows in time. The especially tragic bit in this episode—that I don’t think anyone even mentions in the episode—is that each of Raymond’s windows might be longer but they are also closer to the present. Eventually, even in the time bubbles, Kate will still diminish. But, then again, just one more moment in the happier past would be worth the effort.

    Of special note: Peter mentions Groundhog Day specifically:

    Olivia: Well, it's not just deja vu. Some of them are reporting time loops.
    Peter: I don't really know what that means. What is a time loop? Like Groundhog Day?

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that, as usual, Fringe juggles its cast and its guest starts remarkably well. The emotional core of this episode falls to Stephen Root and Romy Rosemont as Kate. Still, the implication that Peter’s return from nonexistence may have been the only reason Green’s time bubble worked (ultimately endangering many people’s lives) adds some gravity to a welcome return. And, the ending of the time loop (or “time bubble” I suppose) here makes for one of the sadder moments on a show that often ran the gamut of emotions. Kate’s note to her husband is one of the sweetest, saddest things I’ve seen on television, so I’ll end with that for today:

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to live life. Just that, however it may come.

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