Science Fiction and Fantasy allow us to play out ethical scenarios in different contexts which often give us new perspectives on the ethics of our own lives. Truly impossible scenarios in real life are instead created to allow us to figure out a new meaning of our own lives. Here’s one such element dealing with time.
Agents of SHIELD’s Time Loop
In the final season of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD (previous geek gospel coverage 1, 2, 3, 4), the 2020 episode “As I Have Always Been” depicts the heroes with a time travel device which allows them to travel back in time. In this episode, the time travel drive is damaged, and so we see them loop through the same few hours, each one ending in tragedy and then repeating over and over again as the time travel drive sends them back to the same scene again and again.
However, Daisy and Coulson somehow aren’t affected by the time loop, so they remember enough to piece together that they keep changing things each time to try to find the cause of the loop. But along the way, they see each beloved friend die a horrific death, which surely leaves an imprint on them as they scramble to find a way out of the loop.
It’s truly one of the best episodes of the final season, but it isn’t unique. A time loop element has been used before in myriad science fiction and fantasy series, each one with similar elements. Let’s look at one more, then we can see what we can learn from this uniquely sci-fi storyline.
Haven’s Time Loop episode
Watching the episode of Agents of SHIELD reminded me of another Science Fiction serial: SyFy’s Haven, a niche 2010-2015 series about a quaint Maine town where people are afflicted with “the troubles” which are supernatural abilities. The heroine, FBI agent Audrey Parker, is troubled as well, but her trouble is unique in that it makes her immune to other people’s troubles, which allows her to play the “fixer” to this town’s problems.
In Season 2, the episode “Audrey Parker’s Day Off” Audrey wakes up at the exact same time and has the same elements of her day that each end in tragedy, and then she wakes up to experience it again. She realizes this must be someone’s trouble (supernatural ability) that is causing the whole town to relive the same hour ala Groundhog Day. Since she is immune to troubles, she notices and can remember previous iterations, but that means she remembers what it feels like to have each beloved person in her life die in front of her.
Audrey has to find the troubled Haven resident who is doing this and get them to stop in order to break the time loop for everyone.
Pandemic Time Loops
Both of these episodes deal with time, feeling stuck in a loop unable to figure out what will break it. As of this writing, the world is on shifting weeks of lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with many memes indicating that we can lose our sense of time in the pandemic. Days and weeks can swirl into each other until it feels like we are just treading water, without a definite travel date to look forward to, or gatherings with family.
Each of us seems to be living less or at least doing fewer things that bring us joy. We feel trapped in a similar time loop. Bill Murray’s comedic film Groundhog Day feels like every day as we have no mountaintop moments to look forward to, and feel stuck in the valleys.
And yet these science fiction and fantasy shows have a lesson for us in this pandemic: what will break us from these loops are not trying to do each day better, it is about something else entirely to break these cycles of monotony and fear.
The rough way out?
In the sci-fi series, disturbingly, the only way out of both time loops requires sacrifice that breaks the pattern but also leaves the characters with an unfixable death.
- In Agents of SHIELD, the immortal Chronicom Enoch sacrifices a part of his body to fix the time drive, which saves the team, but he dies after 30,000 years of existence.
- In Haven, the guy whose “trouble” is causing the time loop ends up killing himself to save his daughter.
What works for TV doesn’t work for us: sacrifice of ourselves doesn’t fix problems, it exacerbates the pain for those left behind. Sacrifice of our bodies and minds each mind-numbing day doesn’t redeem the pain, it makes us less able and agile to handle the next day (or time loop).
So sacrifice can’t be the answer, can it? Is there a better lesson here than that?
Thankfully, there’s an expanded corpus of content to draw from. Other science fiction and fantasy series also use this time loop (or “recursive time” plot device) for an episode’s lessons. For example:
- Star Trek: The Next Generation “Cause and Effect”
- X-Files “Monday”
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Life Serial”
- The Twilight Zone “Shadow Play”
- Stargate SG-1 “Window of Opportunity”
- Yes, yes: Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day
- What other series have used this time loop plot element? Leave a comment below!
We see that a time loop is a Phlebotium plot device that asks an accessible question: “what breaks us out of the cycles and patterns we feel stuck in?”
Glimpsing through the plots of each of these, there are certainly more parallels beyond sacrifice, and when we draw them together we can see two distinct lessons that can guide us through this time of a pandemic.
Breaking the loops takes help
With the exception of Agents of SHIELD, each time loop begins in grief: the death of a child in Haven, the death of a wife in Stargate SG-1, being sent to prison in The Twilight Zone. For us, we certainly know the feeling of grief, the overwhelming emotions affiliated with those moments. And part of our grieving is to replay the past over and over, kicking ourselves when we did not see something that we “should have known.”
When we are stuck in grief, there’s a reason why professional help is necessary. Part of therapy and counseling is to play back those times of trauma, but often counselors will put us in other people’s shoes, ask us to see from other characters perspectives, often trying to break the mental and emotional pattern that makes us feel stuck in it. If we are professionally guided to to a new perspective, we often can find a breakthrough through our grief instead of avoiding it or being stuck in it.
Only when we find a way out of the loop can we move forward with our lives. Otherwise, we are stuck, unable to grow or move past a time of trauma in our life, to accept it as part of our story instead of desperately trying to avoid it or relive it to “fix” it. That help is often best found with a professional who can recommend courses of therapy or medication that can find a new story for you.
It does take sacrifice, but instead of sacrificing our bodies or minds, we are letting go of a known storyline that does us and others harm and living into a new storyline that helps us begin to repair that harm anew.
Breaking the loops takes Sacred Story
In these time loop episodes, the ”fix“ is the character who knows the story and keeps their memory through the loops. Star Trek: TNG’s Data inserting a message to his future (past?) self, X-Files’ Mulder repeating “he has a bomb” to tell his next iteration to be looking for it, or Agents of SHIELD’s Coulson trying 90 different times to find the most succinct way to tell Daisy of their time loop predicament. The only way out of a time loop is a memory that endures and eventually shows the next loop how to break free.
To me, sacred story is that memory, that story, that “way out” of the time loops of our lives. Sacred stories remind us that “our people” were also stuck in similar situations in our past, and God was with them. That when we read about Jesus feeling abandoned at Gethsemane, we also know that feeling of abandonment. And look: there was a way through it! That when we dig deeper and read obscure stories about the daughters of Zelophehad, we also know the value of speaking up against society’s norms and asserting what is ours, even in very uncertain times.
Like playtime as practice, sacred story, either Judeo-Christian sacred scriptures or whatever is sacred story in your tradition, allows us to see that there were people before us who lived our life moments, and they either found a way to through it or their story is a cautionary tale of what not to do. The critical thing is to remember that we are not stuck in those cautionary tales, and we can break free through outside help and sacred story.
One final comment: in the Agents of SHIELD loop, Daisy and Coulson had each other that both knew the story, and that made their incredibly difficult trauma easier to handle. Likewise, reading and studying Sacred Scripture in a community helps with pandemic time loops and with swirling cycles of grief and depression.
May we all put ourselves out there and get help, find a community to read sacred stories together, and return again and again not to the trauma in our past and present, but instead to the God who has been alongside us before and is alongside us now, coaxing us through story and grace to something new.
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I know you don’t want to mention Star Trek …but there is a Discovery (I think s1 – 7) with Harry Mudd having the ability to reset time. Again it is knowing the truth that must be proven over and over again until enough of the crew know the truth to break the chain.
Recently watched Palm Springs which offers a not specifically sci-fi perspective on the time loop concept – https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/palm_springs_2020
Yeeesssss. I should have known Sci Fi was the answer.
Thanks for the inspiration!
Interesting to compare this to two other examples I can think of (warning: spoilers ahead). In “Edge of Tomorrow,” the protagonist learns to improve through expert help and through repeating the cycle, showing the same hard mental toll you describe of living through deaths of comrades multiple times. In particular, one other character had lived experience of what he was going through that he relied on. In the climax, everyone involved dies in sacrifice to the greater good, but the plot continues: a final iteration of the time loop resets everything (except for his memory) and no one who died in the climactic scene remains dead.
In the TV show “The Librarians,” S2.Ep8 has a fun variation on a time loop: a video game level that keeps resetting when the “player” dies. The character who is the “player” in the episode is generally considered shallow, and he shows incredible growth in the episode as he goes through each cycle, having to watch his comrades die over and over. Interestingly, what is “sacrificed” in the end is that personal growth: When the level is finished, his memory of playing the game is wiped and he’s back to his usual shallow self.
Doctor Strange . . . “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain.”
What doesn’t seem to be mentioned in the original article is who actually experiences the time loop. My argument, taken from the classic OG, “Groundhogs Day”, I would argue that only the one experiencing the time loop, Bill Murray’s character, is the only one stuck in the loop. Every one else only experiences Groundhog’s Day only once, or doesn’t remember experiencing Groundhog’s Day again and again(feelings of deja vu may occur though…) In comparing this to the idea of cycles of grief, the one who experiences grief is the same one, the only one, who can break the cycle of grief.