by Caitlin Keefe Moran
In “Women Who Have Gone Back in Time: An Annotated Ranking,” The Toast’s Abbey Fenbert minces no words describing how she feels about time-traveling: “The past is not your friend.” Fenbert has many grievances against the past: “What’s the Past got?” she asks. “Plague, feudalism, no Netflix. Medicine is bugs eating you and/or ‘the robed man frowns.’ Birth control options that range from ‘convent’ to ‘death.’ Some Johnny Rufflesleeves mansplaining the luminiferous aether.”
And yet, despite this compellingly awful list, time travel has been a mainstay of literature and popular culture since it popped into the zeitgeist in the late nineteenth century. Think A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and “The Sound of Thunder.” Think Back to the Future and its assorted progeny, Pleasantville, The Time Traveler’s Wife. Or even think Hot Tub Time Machine.
There is an entire cottage industry of what can only be termed I Hate Tinder So Much I’ll Give Up All My Rights to Find a Man media surrounding Jane Austen’s novels (Lost in Austen, Project Darcy, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict), in which twenty-first century women, reeling from break-ups or betrayals, find themselves thrust back in time to the Regency era, where they can find true romance with men who bathe once a month and have never heard the term “sexual harassment.”
The archetype of the time traveler in Western literature comes from H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, written in 1895. Throughout the book, the time traveler is called, fittingly, the Time Traveler; the learned men (and only men) to whom the Time Traveler shows his machine and imparts the tale of his travels are also given monikers of respect according to their professions: the Medical Man, the Psychologist, and the Philosopher. They are rational men, in a rational empire at the height of its powers, who engage in a rational debate about the possibility of time travel over fine mutton at an elegant house in Richmond. When they jokingly discuss the idea of traveling backward in time (though the Time Traveler ends up in the future on his journey), they wonder whether it would be better to drop in at the Battle of Hastings or hit up Ancient Greece to hear Homer speak Greek—a pleasure cruise of Great Moments in the Western Canon.
The “time traveler as mad inventor” trope appears again and again throughout the genre: Back to the Future’s Doc, Bradbury’s execrable Time Safari Inc., and the First through Twelfth Doctors on Doctor Who. After all, until recently, the only people who could devote long hours to studying the theoretical physics behind time travel or who had the resources to tinker with a time machine were white men.
More recently, time travel narratives have expanded to include historically marginalized voices, people who also deserve the chance to meet their history face to face. And there are a lot more time travel stories to tell.
In the April 7, 2007 episode of Doctor Who, “The Shakespeare Code,” the Doctor and his companion Martha Jones travel back in time to Shakespearean England. Walking through the streets of seventeenth-century London, Martha, a twenty-first century physician and a Black woman, stops short. She suddenly realizes that she should be concerned for her safety. “Am I all right?” she asks. “I’m not going to get carted off as a slave or anything?” The Doctor, an alien who can ostensibly appear as a man or woman of any nationality or race but has thus far in the series appeared only as a white British man, wonders why she would ever worry about such a thing. When Martha explains to him that she’s “not exactly white, in case you hadn’t noticed,” he is befuddled. “Well, I’m not exactly human,” he says. “Just walk round like you own the place. Always works for me.”
So her adventures free of concern of her status as a Black woman ensue, with no carting off as a slave for Martha. Martha is flattered and flirted with by a saucy bisexual Shakespeare, threatened by a coven of witches, and imperiled by supernatural powers until she quotes the right words from Harry Potter at them. But it’s bizarre to imply that her confidence alone protected her from danger; if only, the episode seems to say, generations of enslaved people suffering across the Middle Passage for hundreds of years had just had a little more swagger. If only Black people, in particular Black women, had Leaned In more.
Oddly, Martha’s adventures aren’t in any way different than that of the Doctor’s previous and future white companions in the past, despite her concern as a Black woman at a time when those two elements, especially in combination, were legitimately dangerous.
What really protects Martha isn’t her attitude or the Doctor cleverness but the fact that English involvement in the transatlantic slave trade didn’t begin in earnest until after the 1640s—forty years after Shakespeare’s time (though the first English slave trader, John Hawkins, sailed as early as 1563, so Martha isn’t necessarily wrong to feel uneasy). Talking about historical context would have been a more helpful thing for the Doctor to say. This is important considering the status of other visible minorities such as Jewish people who during Martha’s stay were still within their over 350 year legal expulsion and then ban from England. Instead, Martha is framed as a killjoy in the episode for introducing slavery to the discussion, but the Doctor, a longtime observer of the weaknesses and cruelties of the human race should have done better —considering during a later season would show much greater indignation at dinosaurs being left unattended on a spaceship than he did at this moment regarding the slave trade.
The Doctor Who writers tried again later in the season, with the two-parter “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” in which the Doctor and Martha are hiding from a mysterious alien family that wants to steal the Doctor’s powers. In order to effectively thwart them, the Doctor hides even from himself, enclosing his Time Lord nature in a pocket watch and assuming the identity of John Smith, a headmaster at a boy’s school in England on the eve of the First World War. Martha, as his dutiful maid, endures a markedly less warm welcome than she did in Shakespearean London; as the only person of color at the school and in the surrounding region, she is routinely ridiculed by the students and patronized by the staff, including John Smith. When Martha attempts to explain her knowledge of medicine to the school matron, she is scoffed at. “Women might train to be doctors,” the matron says, “but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color.”
This episode is establishes the weakness of the Doctor as a protector, apart from any dubious idea of “historical accuracy,” which is often trotted out to defend gratuitous rape subplots on historical dramas but ignored when women have smoothly shaven armpits during the Middle Ages. He couldn’t have picked a historical era to decamp in that would have been more hospitable to Martha? The implication of this oversight is clear: it wasn’t something he even thought about. The time-bending power of the Doctor and the TARDIS can’t wipe away the sometimes casual and often virulent racism of a small-town school nurse, or of her charges; no amount of Martha walking around like she owned the place would have helped, either. But because she was Martha, she kept her head high anyway.
All of the Doctor’s human companions receive monikers, and Martha’s is arguably the most badass: she is The Woman Who Walked the Earth, the woman who single-handedly organized a worldwide rebellion against the Doctor’s Timelord nemesis, the Master, following the Doctor’s capture and the subjugation of the Earth.
Despite possibly being the most badass of all the Doctor’s companions, Martha’s arc on Doctor Who ended because of course being in love with the Doctor, like so many companions. Martha left companion-ing after she realized she was in love with the Doctor and could never expect reciprocation; she left him, chin up, and returned intermittently over the next couple of seasons, eventually marrying another recurring character, Mickey, the former boyfriend of previous companion and fan favorite, Rose. That Martha was Doctor Who’s first Black companion and Mickey was the only other major Black character on the show indicates another act of laziness on behalf of the writers, who could see nothing to do with these characters other than throw them together after about twenty seconds of shared screen time. Poor Martha. Love is tough for the modern lady, even without the possibility of time travel mucking it up.
If only Martha could have sat down with Amanda Price, the heroine of Love in Austen, and talked her through the complexities of inter-era romance. After Amanda’s lout of a boyfriend cheats on her and only then attempts loutishly to propose, she takes solace in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The gist of Lost in Austen is that Amanda, through some metaphysical jiggery-pokery that is never explained, trades places with P&P’s heroine Elizabeth Bennet, and attempts (and utterly fails) to keep the plot of the book on track without Elizabeth. Hijinks and misunderstandings ensue, tears are shed, hearts are captured and broken. The surprise isn’t that Amanda and Darcy fall in love at the end; it’s that Amanda chooses to stay in the eighteenth century, with Darcy, while Lizzie Bennet stays in twenty-first century London, working as a nanny and wearing pants and presumably enjoying quality healthcare. To quote Fenbert again: “This yikes of a choice is mitigated by the fact that original Lizzie has the good sense to stay in the 2000s and Amanda marries rich. Remember when I gave up voting for you, babe? This egg cup needs encrusting, rubies should do.”
Perhaps this outcome shouldn’t have been so surprising. Women have been falling in love across the centuries in all types of literature, from Claire in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander who faces, among other things, puerperal fever, poisoning, and burning at the stake as the wife of eighteenth-century Scottish hottie Jamie Fraser to the peculiarly named heiress Dougless Montgomery in Jude Devereux’s A Knight in Shining Armor who of course gets a knight in shining armor. The “Best Time-Travel Romance” list on Goodreads is over six hundred books long.
But the viewer could be forgiven for wondering at how cavalierly Amanda made the decision to go back in time with Darcy, to an era that her modern-day party-girl roommate (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who would go on to star in Amma Asante’s Belle, a rare period piece headlined by a woman of color) couldn’t have easily followed. Mbatha-Raw’s Pirhana somehow doesn’t have the privilege of yearning for the “language, the manners, the courtesy” of the Regency period that Amanda does. Coincidentally, Mbatha-Raw also had a recurring role on Doctor Who, playing Martha Jones’s sister Tish. The Bennet’s home at Longbourn would have been no more welcoming to her than the boys’ school was to Martha Jones, but Amanda, like the Doctor, has the privilege of not thinking too hard about that. She found her true love, after all.
Louis CK has a famous bit about time travel in his show Chewed Up. “I love being white,” he says, and elaborates:
Here’s how great it is to be white: if I would have a time machine I could go to any time and it would be awesome when I get there! That is exclusively a white privilege! Black people can’t fuck with time machines! A black guy in a time machine is like, “Hey anything before 1980, no thank you, I don’t wanna go.
Octavia Butler’s Edana Franklin, heroine and narrator of Kindred, doesn’t fuck with time machines. It isn’t clear, to her or to the reader, what mechanism keeps pulling her back into the past, and Butler doesn’t try to explain. In writing about Kindred for the book’s 25th anniversary, Robert Crossley sets the book in direct opposition to the typical time travel narrative:
None of this reads like the classic time-travel stories of science fiction. In The Time Machine (1895) H.G. Wells has his traveler display the shiny vehicle on which he rode into the future to verify the strangeness of the truth of his journey; in Kindred the method of transport remains a fantastic given. An irresistible psycho-historical force, not a feat of engineering, motivates Butler’s plot.
Dana is called back by Rufus, a Maryland slave owner who she quickly discovers is her ancestor. Rufus, by turns earnest, wily, and bitterly cruel, has an unfortunate habit of almost getting himself killed more often than should be possible. Dana is repeatedly called back through time whenever Rufus is near death, to save him and therefore her own family line; Rufus will eventually father several children with one of his slave women, Alice, one of them being Dana’s great grandmother. As Rufus ages, Dana is called back more and more frequently, for longer and longer periods of time; by the third time she is called back (this time with her husband Kevin, a white man, in tow) she is forced to live as a slave on Rufus’s father’s plantation. She endures whippings and rape attempts and, ultimately, amputation as she navigates both life as an eighteenth-century slave and life as a time traveler constantly torn between worlds. Only mortal danger to her own life can call her back to the present, just like mortal danger to Rufus calls her out of it. Butler, unlike Wells (or Lost in Austen, or even Twain) reveals the anxiety of the historical imagination, and recognizes that Dana cannot be unmarked by her foray into the past. In an interview in 1991, she said, “I couldn’t really let her come all the way back. I couldn’t let her return to what she was, I couldn’t let her come back whole, and that [the amputation of Dana’s arm], I think, really symbolizes her not coming back whole. Antebellum slavery didn’t leave people quite whole.”
Dana agonizes over how quickly she falls into the role Rufus and his father (and every other white person she meets, and indeed the whole of antebellum Maryland society) proscribes for her as a black woman. “How easily we seemed to acclimatize,” she says of herself and Kevin. “Not that I wanted us to have trouble, but it seemed as though we should have had a harder time adjusting to this particular segment of history—adjusting to our places in the household of a slaveholder.” Butler shows us that the time between the era of slavery and the era of Dana’s present (1976, America’s bicentennial), isn’t that long after all. “In foreshortening the distance between then and now,” Crossley writes, “Butler focuses our attention on the continuity between past and present; the fantasy of traveling backwards in time becomes a lesson in historical realities. We may also be reminded that historical progress is never a sure thing.”
Hannah Stern, the heroine of Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, has no interest in lessons in historical realties. She also doesn’t have interest in her family’s Passover seder, the yearly family meal-based retelling of the story of the slavery of the early Jewish people, or in the rantings of her Grandpa Will, a Holocaust survivor. During the course of the seder, she is transported back in time to a Polish shtetl, a small Jewish town, in 1942—the day before the Nazis arrive to relocate the shtetl’s Jews to a concentration camp. Hannah, mysteriously inhabiting the body of a girl named Chaya Abramowicz, is taken, along with the rest of the villagers she has just met, to an unnamed concentration camp, where she, as Chaya, is eventually killed. Dying brings her back to her family’s seder, where she realizes she had met her aunt and Grandpa Will in the camp; Chaya was her aunt’s best friend, and had sacrificed herself so Rivka, who would become Hannah’s Aunt Eva, could survive.
Hannah’s time-traveling experience is encircled in magic—she understands Yiddish, the language spoken by her relatives and many other Jewish victims of the Holocaust, she inhabits the body of a dead girl she has never known, she loses the memory of her twentieth-century identity—in way that Dana’s is not, but the essential tug is the same. Hannah is drawn back by a name: Chaya, her Hebrew Jewish-ethnic name that does not grace her birth certificate. Dana is drawn back by a blood tie. Both are drawn back to family members or ancestors who lived through unimaginable horrors, and when Dana and Chaya live and relive these horrors, the metaphorical message is hard to miss: the cruelties and injustices of the past are inscribed on all of us, but, like Hannah and Dana, we don’t have to be cowed by them.
It could be easy to dismiss critiques of time-travel fiction as semantic hand-wringing. After all, they’re just stories. But the stories we tell about the past, especially about a past in which we, as visitors from the future, are witnesses, matter. They are just as much stories about the present moment as they are science fiction. “[F]or drop-ins from another century,” Dana says, “I thought we had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease.” Dana speaks to both the overwhelming systemic pressure of the chattel slavery system, but also, more subtly, to the fact that she and Kevin, modern though they are, are more familiar with this period of time than they would like to admit. Their own present time is a direct outgrowth of hundreds of those Maryland plantations. A direct line connects Isaac, Alice’s husband, beaten and maimed and sold south after trying to run away, to Alton Sterling and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. Smoothing over and erasing these stories from time-travel fiction does a disservice to the people who lived before us and to ourselves as witnesses.
History doesn’t belong to white men, or scientists, or wild-haired old dudes with Deloreans, any more than it belongs to anyone else. The act of engaging with history, of actually imaginatively inserting ourselves into it, is an act of claiming, an act of acknowledgement of people history has long ignored, and a sober acknowledgement that we carry the ugliest parts of our collective history with us, though we wish we could write them away with an off-handed joke or breezy remark. “I’m tired of remembering,” Hannah says in the first line of The Devil’s Arithmetic. But, as she learns, we must.