Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Heroes Five Years Gone: Triumph of Time-Travel and Comics (no spoilers)

For some reason, people who are supposed to know about fiction and narrative and what makes good storytelling have trouble taking comic books seriously. As recently as 1999, when I was President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, comic book writing was not deemed a satisfactory qualification for membership. That's still the case. I never understood the problem - do pictures along with text somehow render the text invalid?

Heroes comes from the comic book tradition. In fact, a comic book, based on the visions of a character who can paint the future, animates the series. Monday night's episode - "Five Years Gone" - is about as fine a time-travel story as I've ever seen on television. Well, ok, maybe it's not quite as good as Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever" in the original Star Trek series, or "Yesterday's Enterprise" from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But it's pretty close, and unlike those standalone episodes, it weaves in elements of Heroes we have been seeing almost from the beginning of the series.

Time travel's no easy cookie. If you do it right - if you respect the paradoxes of time travel as really happening - you're asking your readers or audience almost immediately to enter a realm in which headaches come along with the thrills, as people in your story meet their future selves, and your audience must struggle to understand how the future self isn't changed by the very meeting with the past self...

And that's just the beginning - especially for Heroes, which not only has a time-travelling Hiro, but Heroes with all kinds of other fantastic powers, like adopting the looks of others, reading minds, and, the most powerful of all, adopting all the powers of the other super heroes.

"Five Years Gone" dished out then dealt with these problems with style and pretty rigorous logic, positing a world gone wrong, and all-too-humanly flawed heroes struggling against all odds to pull time and the world inside-out and perhaps back on track again.

If there were one or two tin notes - like a thread of this story a little too close to X-Men - that's ok, because the overall effect, and so many characters and plot twists, were so good.

And Heroes made good on some of its crucial implications from earlier in the year. That's not only good television, and all too rare in a TV world in which series come close to veering irredeemably beyond control, but good time-travel telling - in books, short stories, movies, comic books, or any realm.

Useful links:

short essay: The Enjoyable Trouble with Time Travel

my time travel novel: The Plot to Save Socrates

my radioplay, performed live at the Museum of Television and Radio, starring Mark Shanahan

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The Chronology Protection Case, Edgar nominee 2002, best radioplay

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