Canadian politics goes Back to the Future

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Back to the Future day this week commemorated Marty McFly's trip from 1985 to where we are now. Thirty years seemed far longer in prospect than retrospect. 2015 felt so distant then; looking back, it's been a quick hop.

The time travel trope has an enduring appeal; it predates by millennia H.G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895). My own attachment to the notion began with reading Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, where the U.S. time tourist brings bicycles and (of course) guns to Camelot; it's an early version of the disruption dilemma: Don't mess with the future, from the past.

Humans are such time-bound creatures that time travel speculation may have been as inevitable and organically rooted as the development of language. In the first Back To film, Marty went rearwards, from 1985 to 1955. I have a child's dim recall of that decade and I sometimes think about moving iconic figures from it forward.

What about Elvis? Shift him a decade up into the 1960s. Would he have become the same bloated, doomed caricature of himself -- or by then been irrelevant? It's pointless, irresistible speculation. I wonder about Peggy Lee, a brilliant '50s singer, mightily constrained by that repressive era. Or a Canadian, Anne Murray, 10 years later. Did she arrive too early, and had to adopt a folksy down-home persona? She'd have been an entirely different artist in a later decade: far darker, I imagine.

There's even something McFly about Justin Trudeau at this point, including an eerie, almost identical 30-year gap between his departure from 24 Sussex as a young teen and his return now in the very position his father held. I'd hoped to avoid mentioning the election in this column but it was evidently predestined.

What intrigues me most, though, is a recent Doctor Who episode that may have introduced a new wrinkle in the time travel nexus. The Doctor is desperate to save his beloved companion Clara, from a violent death he's learned is coming -- though he also knows she's sooner or later bound to be replaced (as is he eventually, albeit via regeneration, not death). He travels back in time, in his TARDIS, the absolute reincarnation of Wells's device, and discovers that the killer will be the Fisher King, a foul creature. But he faces the classic dilemma: if he acts, he risks altering the entire line of future development with unknown, possibly catastrophic results.

In the original Star Trek series (1966-69) this was covered under the Prime Directive: never interfere with the course of alien civilizations while visiting or studying them. It was more spatial than temporal but implied not messing with the future. This became explicit in the successor series, 20 years later: Star Trek: The Next (re?)Generation. It was called the Temporal Prime Directive and led to much fun and Hamletish agonizing.

What was bracing in the recent Doctor Who episode is the way the Doctor decided to stop vacillating over consequences and save Clara -- to hell with the timeline. In effect he said: I am a Time Lord, aren't I? So I will do this thing. After all, who even knows how often such interference happened in the past (whatever or wherever it is). Let us throw off the timidity associated with past, future and timelines; they are all unknowable, perhaps non-existent in a larger perspective, and what does it really matter if timelines alter. Why are we so prissy and solemn about history?

It felt liberating, and I'm speaking now as a citizen, not just a fan. It seems to me that politics in the modern era has been haunted by a sense that we are travelling on a route: the past is over our shoulder; the future, around the next bend.

To many, of either Marxist or Biblical faiths, it was headed for a blessed culmination. For others, apocalypse loomed. In either case, we'd been set down on a road called History and had to keep trudging, with at best some detours or rest stops. We were trapped in a narrative. So it was refreshing to be released from that cell, even by a TV show that's the longest-running narrative around.

Inescapable afterthought: if there's ever been a Canadian public figure encircled by plot lines -- and struggling not to be strangled by them -- that'd be Justin Trudeau.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Garry Knight/flickr

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