At Last! Time Travel Done Right!

27zajo7

It was purely on a whim that I started watching  Nine: Nine Time Travels  (나인: 아홉번의 시간여행), and all I can say is YES! As in, FINALLY! — a time travel story that spends most of its energy broaching topics closely pertinent to the question of time and also near and dear to my heart — namely: Free Will vs. Predestination; Counterfactuals and Causality; the simultaneity of the present in all instances; and the progressive/sequential nature of the experience of perception. In the end, the subtle idea that the passage of time is merely a perceptual illusion; that every moment of our lives presents us the challenge and opportunity to make choices; and that the choice we make now shapes every subsequent now that we experience; it is an idea I find intriguing and very appealing, and this story presents and handles it beautifully with considerable pathos and humor.

Nine‘s  greatest strength is that it anchors its story on a fundamental reality of the human experience: because we can experience regret which makes us sometimes wish we could get a do-over, the fantasy of time travel can have real meaning for us. For in that fantasy resides the dream that we might actually get to make a different choice, or guide others into making better, wiser choices. In fact, I cannot think of a single instance in my life when I have wanted to relive a happy and satisfying moment. There are many, however, when I have wanted to change a moment that brought fear, pain and sadness. If I could not change it materially, I at least wanted to alter how I experienced it after the fact – i.e. eradicate my memory of it to make it seem as if it never happened…

munstertreeofknowledge-1The story’s foundational allegory is rooted in the recurring metaphor of  the ‘fruit of knowledge’ which comes up in the protagonist’s conversations with his friend, as well as in his narrations. This allusion to the “fruit of knowledge of good and evil” from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis plays on the danger inherent to the ability to travel back in time and change the nature or outcome of events. In the biblical story, God places Adam and Eve in Paradise and gives them everything. They may have whatever they desire except the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Well, we know how that turns out. So in Nine the “fruit of knowledge” functions as a metaphor for the paradox that is both human hubris (the presumption to pursue and attain god-like understanding) and human frailty when faced with temptation. It’s a fantastic metaphor: you are given an object that promises to allow you to play God, but you know you cannot use it without unleashing some gnarly consequences – both for yourself and for others. What do you do? Show me the man who would resist entirely and I will be looking at a truly enlightened soul.

The storytellers here have the wisdom to not treat time travel as an ex machina gimmick and they don’t get bogged down on the logistics of the how and why (and ever so rightly!); they are not here to sell the idea that time travel is possible. Rather, the story focuses its resources on exploring ethical conundrums concerning what motivates our choices and how we deal with the consequences of those choices; how much our investment in the choices we make inform subsequent decisions; and what all these together signify in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. I especially love that because the hero fails to change the central, horrific event that drove his brother’s quest for the ‘Time Machine’, the story can become primarily about how people choose to respond to terrible occurrences, the degree to which they will exercise their own will to take responsibility and whether they will choose to see that responsibility-taking as an opportunity for atonement or simply resist it as punishment.

incence

I think that an additional secret to Nine‘s success is that it keeps the ripple effects of each interference with the past within fairly modest, and therefore manageable, bounds. I have often seen, especially in American sci-fi stories whose spiel is that maintaining the desired universal normal — i.e. the normal that we know, defined in primarily material terms — all hinges upon a single event – a fork in the road, as it were. The stakes in these cases are often of a planetary – even galactic – scale, putting them beyond the scope of an ordinary individual’s threshold of empathy. At the foundation of this premise is the idea that time is basically a series of vector trajectories – its progress forward comparable to that of a bowling ball rolling down an infinite incline full of bumps, indents and obstacles that represent possible points of deviation. The time traveller’s mission in stories like these is usually to identify the moment of unwanted deviation and return to a preceding instant in the ball’s itinerary where he can redirect its trajectory as desired. But with the stakes so far beyond our capacity to contain psychologically, we in the audience can usually only observe the proceedings from a safe, uninvested distance.

originaldandyNine, on the other hand, has the sophistication to conceive of all presents as simultaneous from a common vector – a bit like the seeds on a mature dandelion head; and all these presents are possible and in fact real. The time traveller is simply able to move between them, retaining his memories and awareness of each alternate present he has visited in his past, all within the narrow confines of our normal myopic view of what we perceive as real. Furthermore, the cataclysms in Nine that result from our time traveller changing something in his past or in the past of those close to him are constrained to the lives of a very few people, making it much easier to empathize with a particular individual’s fate and thus grow invested in the unfolding drama.

The reason for this is that Nine interprets the concept of a ripple effect quite differently than conventional sci-fi does. In both cases, the defining event is like a pebble dropped in a pond which then creates a series of ripples that propagate outward in a circular (or spherical) pattern, the outer circumference growing larger (i.e. its period augmenting) over time even as the wave amplitude (or depth) diminishes. In essence, the wave is deepest and strongest at its smallest circumference immediately adjacent to the propagating event and shallowest at its widest circumference farthest away from the center.

Water drops with ripples

In conventional sci-fi, it is the breath of this outer edge that matters: the bigger its circumference, the farther reaching (and usually dramatically devastating) the effects of the narrative event pebble. In Nine, however, it is the effect of the wave’s changes in amplitude (depth) and period (frequency) that is taken into consideration. So, closest to the event pebble where the amplitude is greatest (and the period is smallest), the effects of the pebble event are most significantly felt; farther away – both in distance and time – from the event pebble, the more diminished the amplitude (and the more augmented the period) and the less consequential the effects. This reading of the ripple effect is more consistent with the empirically verifiable behavior of fluid dynamics than the conventional sci-fi reading otherwise known as the Butterfly Effect.

It therefore so happens in Nine that there are eventually five individuals who become aware of the alterations in reality wrought by the time traveller; and they happen to be the five people most directly connected to our narrative event propagator, the time traveller. I think it very clever of the storyteller that for at least one of them — the best friend — nothing concrete in his life changes: he has the same wife and children through each alternate reality and he continues quite constantly in his career as surgeon and in his life as best friend. But this is true for him because neither he nor the time traveller make any decisions that lead to different outcomes in his life. Our hero, picking up where his damaged brother had left off, and given his sustained awareness of the alternate realities of the present, is the most affected and also the most troubled, followed by his beloved and then eventually by his nemesis. The rest of the world undergoes the large and small reality alterations without even noticing that anything has changed. This dynamic underscores the idea of how much perception is informed by awareness: those who know that there exists a mechanism that makes it possible to alter their lived reality are also able to discern these alterations when they occur by experiencing the changes in their memories.

And of course, I love the ending. Ultimately, the drama’s greatest strength is that it is structurally consistent and the logic of the “time travel” bears out throughout the story. This meticulous consistency offers some reassurance that even those elements that may not seem to make sense at first viewing are nevertheless  meaningful and that their significance can become apparent to the viewer in retrospect or with repeated viewing.

There’s a really good discussion doing on over at dramababble about the finale and particularly the final scene. The discussion is all the more engaging because both Maybee and Jamok’s observations about the drama’s closing underscore the entire story’s structural integrity. I will go ahead and publish this post as is, reserving the privilege of editing and altering it as my ideas develop and mature with time. For the moment, I just have to register my delight with this fantastic bit of ethical fiction starring Lee Jin Wook, last seen, with great enjoyment, in the quirky and kinda fantastic Someday, and the refreshingly bright Yo Joon Hee who – sadly, I think – only really gets to shine in the final episode.

 

* See also : Playing Favorites… the KDrama and Film ‘Must See’ List

This entry was posted in KDrama, narrative, physics, query, travel and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to At Last! Time Travel Done Right!

  1. Pingback: Playing Favorites… the KDrama and Film ‘Must See’ List | SPQ&R

  2. Maybee says:

    So glad you liked it!

  3. Jamok99 says:

    I love your post and I can say that it is a smart and intellectual review.

  4. Maybee says:

    Oh I don’t mind you going on for a bit. heh. If you go on and on, I’ll keep you in check. 😛

    “In fact, I cannot think of a single instance in my life when I have wanted to relive a happy and satisfying moment. There are many, however, when I have wanted to change a moment that brought fear, pain and sadness.”

    That’s somehow sad and also true.

    “Nine, on the other hand, has the sophistication to conceive of all presents as simultaneous – kinda like the seeds on a mature dandelion seed head; all these presents are possible and in fact real. The time traveller is simply able to move between them, maintaining his memories of being aware of their existence within the narrow confines of our normal myopic view of the real.”

    I so agree with you on this. Love the dandelion seed head analogy.

    Also agree on how the story keeps the effects personal so we are always engaged; and the results are somehow manageable.

    I never imagined I’d get so much fun out of Nine when I first decided to write about it. 🙂

    • I never imagined I’d get so much fun out of Nine when I first decided to write about it.

      I know what you mean! I actually was not really expecting much when I started to watch it – what with that crazy title(!) – but I was happy to be surprisingly intrigued by and engaged with it.

  5. Betsy Hp says:

    I can finally read and comment now that I’ve seen the drama — yay! I loved it toooo!! I love seeing the different ways time-travel is handled (one reality that changes, multiple realities, time pushing back, etc.) and I loved the consistency within the story.

    (Not surprised by that though — the writer’s last time-travel story, “Queen In-hyun’s Man” — was also strongly consistent. It also touched on some of the issues time-travel raises and I can see why the writer had more to say about it. Lucky us that she did!)

    It made logistical sense — keeping it simple for the viewer, but also adding the tension of a ticking clock that time-travel can otherwise destroy — to have the two times travel forward from the same linked point of the original leap backwards. And I adored that the father died anyway. …erm… that sounds weird written out… I mean that it showed that there were things Sun-woo could not change. He couldn’t save his father — that wasn’t his story. His story was tangled up with his brother and Min-young. Again, drawing a nice strong line of ability around a power that could be too open and undefined.

    • I adored that the father died anyway. …erm… that sounds weird written out… I mean that it showed that there were things Sun-woo could not change.

      Same here! I find it very dramatically powerful when a story’s hero tries to play God and fails, especially when it has to do with something that concerns him most nearly. It has that hard-to-dramatize effect of grounding even the strongest, wisest, most brilliant characters and anchoring the story is every human being’s experience.

      I do, however, read the father’s death as an integral part of Sun Woo’s story… For even though it is initially just the instigating even for his brother’s failed quest for the ‘Time Machine’ in the hopes of changing the past, it becomes – to a secondary degree, Sun Woo’s instigating event as well. His original ignorance of the event’s true nature notwithstanding, its occurrence shapes him deeply, making him the man that he grows up to become in both the pristine timeline and the altered timelines affected by his attempts to “correct” history.

      My takeaway from the father’s inevitable violent death is that the individual’s perception of reality really shapes how they choose to react to it. I find it especially intriguing that even after he discovered both his brother’s and his mother’s roles in the father’s death, our hero did not vilify either – if anything, he seems to have grown more compassionate of them. It’s as if knowing the whole truth allowed Sun Woo to exorcise his original demons of guilt for not having saved his father from the fire. It also empowered him to guide his brother to making a more ethically conscientious choice about taking responsibility for the accident and thus expiating his own soul of the guilt that tormented him in the realities where he had not owned up to his part in his father’s death.

      In the end, I see the father’s death as being central to each of its surviving members’ identity. And without it, there is no story anyway because without it, Jung Woo lives a blithely serene life as a successful physician, Sun Woo grows up insouciantly, and possibly not even a newsman, and their mother grows old doting on them and her grandchildren to a vibrant ripe old age with her husband by her side, all of them having happily forgotten the ignominious Choi Jin Chul….

  6. More thoughts on Nine: what does it all mean…?
    ————————————————————————————————————–
    Reposted from comment to dramababble’s post “Nine Time Travels: A Discussion”:

    Hey Maybee, I rather enjoyed reading this after happening upon it this afternoon. I saw the drama and I saw all the same things you saw, especially that there is a lot of room for interpretation in this drama. If you don’t mind my doing so, I’d like to join your discussion with the caveat that my interpretation of the drama and its various components do differ somewhat.

    One phrase in particular caught my eye, revealing just how ripe for interpretation the story is:

    but the drama at the heart of it is really cliched and makjang. So we have Amnesia, Birth Secret, Murder, Rape

    So I got to thinking and I realized that the reason I did not see the patently makjang-y stuff listed above as defining the show “at the heart of it” is because the players themselves are aware of them. In fact the protagonist, in particular, comments on it, making cracks about the drama-cliché nature of his increasingly complicated life, what with the girlfriend’s ‘amnesia’ post time-travel tinkering, the resulting family relationship and faux-cest dynamic, the double-birth secret etc. I thought it particularly clever that the writer does not stop the meta-narrative there: we get the hero giving his lady-love the 411 on what men really want and how they appeal to women’s desires to get what they want by resorting to drama fantasy clichés about love and fidelity etc.

    What to make of all of this? In the end, I think the beauty of the drama is that we can both see the same thing and it will mean something different to each of us. We both see the dramatization of “second chances and redemption, regret and guilt… Pre-/Destiny and the human Will.” To me, these are at the core of the story and the makjang-y stuff is just the vehicle through which they are teased out in extreme circumstances. Where you may see “simplistic moral undertones: do good and reap rewards, be bad and be punished,” I see the dramatization of fundamental tenets of Confucianism – a philosophy that provides models of good citizenship and good governance by emphasizing the causal relationship between actions and consequences.

    I’d like to think that in the end, the storytellers were quite successful with this one because they tell a tale that kept you engaged even though you had significant (and rather well-founded) misgivings, and the same story had me ignoring all the reasons for these misgivings (from the crazy over-acting to the interpersonal dynamics) and focusing on where I imagined the real heart of the drama to be… Or it could just be a case of wish-fulfillment on my part. 😉

  7. More thoughts on Nine: would I recommend it?
    ————————————————————————————————————–
    Reposted from comment to dramababble’s post “Nine: Finale”:

    I liked. Liked. Liked. I agree with the whole “different strokes for different folks” take so I would not know whether to recommend this drama to others or not. I’m a nerd — from my hippocampus to the last byzantine fold of my cerebral cortex (I even wear horn-rimmed glasses) — and I love that the story is woven around an internally consistent structure – what you called the drama’s internal logic. Whenever I see that sort of meticulous consistency in a story, I am reassured that even the things that did not make sense to me at first viewing must in someway be significant and that that significance might become apparent to me in retrospect or with repeated viewing (if I ever have the time).

    Anyway, you asked about the ‘fruit of knowledge’: it comes up a few times in the protagonist’s conversations with his friend, as well as in his narrations and from the way it was used, I believe it is an allusion to the “fruit of knowledge of good and evil” from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis. In that story, God placed Adam and Eve in Paradise and gave them everything. They could have whatever they desired except the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Well, we know how that turned out. So the “fruit of knowledge” is a metaphor for the paradox that is both human hubris (the presumption to pursue and attain god-like understanding) and human frailty when faced with temptation. It’s a fantastic metaphor: you are given an object that promises to allow you to play God, but you know you cannot use it without unleashing some gnarly consequences – both for yourself and for others. What do you do? Show me the man who would resist entirely and I will be looking at a truly enlightened soul.

  8. Curio Serand says:

    Just got around to finding out that the same team that brought us 나인: 아홉 번의 시간여행 ( Nine: Nine Times Time Travel) also created 인현왕후의 남자 (Queen In-Hyun’s Man) and now 삼총사 (The Three Musketeers).

    Director: Kim Byung-Soo
    Writer: Song Jae-Jung, Kim Yoon-Joo
    Network: tvN

    I loved both 나인: 아홉 번의 시간여행 (Nine: Nine Times Time Travel) also created 인현왕후의 남자 (Queen In-Hyun’s Man). The way they treated time travel served the story beautifully so I have faith in their talent for using tropes well. I guess I will be getting the DVD box sets for these after all!

    The Three Musketeers is apparently designed to run for three 12-episode seasons and features Lee Jin-Wook as Crown Prince Sohyeon. Yay, tvN! Right now I’m in the middle of Cruel Palace which is full of all sorts of foreboding for the fate that awaits the Crown Prince. Chuno also told his story briefly and then continued to allude to it so I an filled with sorrow for his plight. After finishing Cruel Palace, I’m definitely watching The Three Musketeers. Injo’s reign is getting a lot of play in my living room these days! Hopefully The Three Musketeers will give my heavy heart some respite over the unhappy Crown Prince’s unjustly cruel fate.

  9. Curio Serand says:

    Hmm… I wonder whether I should get the DVD box set for Nine? The temptation is great and I feel like it will be a great addition to the library…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *