What would happen to the present if we could travel back in time and change the past? This has been the speculation behind many a science fiction story. It rarely comes up in theater, but it does drive the plot of Communicating Doors, playing at Scripps Ranch Theatre until October 7. In the play, a pair of female characters travel back in time attempting to prevent a sequence of murders, including their own.
How problematic such time travel can be was illustrated in the plot of Back to the Future, where changing history even a little bit was shown to have drastic repercussions. In that film, main character Marty McFly’s actions in the past create an alternate timeline so different, it nearly prevents him from being born. While he successfully returns to the present, everyone in his life remembers an entirely different course of history. Only McFly can remember how things were — rather, how they might have been if he’d never changed the past. Yes, at the end of the film, McFly has the successful, confident father figure and Xtra Cab pick-up truck he’s long coveted. But personally, he still can only remember a disappointing, truckless childhood.
It would seem lonely and frustrating to be the only one who remembers a version of history. Imagine knowing for a fact that the kinks of time travel have rendered everything you ever experienced a hypothetical reality. All of your understanding of history would be suspect, including your knowledge of yourself. How difficult would it be to maintain your identity, or your sanity, knowing that formative events of your life likely never took place as you recall them?
While we can’t physically time travel, our minds do it all the time. Our imaginations conjure potential futures, and we take actions to manifest or avoid imagined outcomes. Conversely, our memories allow us to revisit the past. We do this fondly, and sometimes traumatically, but in our mind’s eye we can see, perhaps almost smell how something was.
At least, how we think it was. There’s a flimsy line between a weak memory and a strong imagination. They both exist in that mind’s eye, so that the only means we may have of telling them apart is a conviction of what has been real versus imagined. And that conviction can be fragile, as experienced by anyone who’s ever woken from a vivid dream, and faced that moment of uncertainty: Did that really happen, or did I just dream it?
When Marty McFly is the only time traveler altering a timeline, his conflicting account of history may be easily refuted, his account of history corrected, and he must be accepting of the flaws in his memory. But what if all the characters in Back to the Future were time travelers? Who could say what came before with any certainty, if no one’s experience of events can be trusted? Are we really going to believe Biff’s version of reality?