The latest Doctor Who episode and Looper took very, very different approaches to time travel. But they both included one temporal cliche that needs to be taken to the time-machine scrapyard. It's an idea that's been done to death, and it needs to stop. Seriously.
Click through for maximum spoilers for Looper and "The Angels Take Manhattan." You have been warned.
Last chance to avoid spoilers. Are you sure? Okay then. Scroll past this picture of Joseph Gordon-Levitt to read the spoilers...
I am referring, of course, to people committing suicide as the solution to a time paradox. In Looper, Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) shoots himself in the chest to keep his older self from perpetuating the cycle of violence. This probably actually kills Joe, although I suppose there's a chance he wakes up miles away, because the timeline has changed and his older self never got sent back. But he's probably dead for real.
And in Doctor Who's "Angels Take Manhattan," Rory and Amy are faced with a no-win situation, because Rory's just watched his future self die after decades trapped in a bedroom by the Weeping Angels. Rory figures out that if he kills himself as a young man, he'll create a paradox that will destroy the Angels — so he and Amy jump off a very tall building, to their deaths. And then they wake up, safe and sound, in 2012.
Obviously, these are very different cases — the Looper example is not quite as much of a get-out-of-jail-free card as the Doctor Who example. But they're both cases of something that happens a lot in science fiction — when a temporal blorp is causing you headaches, just kill yourself. It's the magical solution to everything involving time travel and temporal anomalies.
Star Trek basically owns this trope. In "Yesterday's Enterprise," Picard sacrifices his ship, the Enterprise-D, to allow the Enterprise-C to go back in time and fix the temporal anomaly that created an alternate timeline where the Federation and the Klingons are at war. The Enterprise-D crew all dies, but the timeline is restored. In "The Visitor," Jake Sisko gives himself a lethal injection so his father can escape from a time distortion and return to his proper timeline. In "Year of Hell, Part 2," Captain Janeway destroys her ship and gives her life, to destroy a big time-manipulating ship and restore the timeline. And you could argue a similar sort of thing happens in the Voyager episode "Deadlock."
Doctor Who's done it a lot in the past too. Most notably, in "Day of the Daleks," Shura blows himself up to end a temporal paradox that led to him creating the holocaust he was trying to prevent. In "Father's Day," Pete Tyler has to go get run over by a car, to stop the temporal disaster that's consumed the whole world. In "Turn Left," Donna goes back in time and gets herself run over by a truck, to distract her past self into turning right, thus restoring the proper timeline. Basically, getting run over by a car or truck is the solution to any time problem.
In Terminator 2, the T-800 throws himself into a container full of molten steel in order to destroy himself utterly — thus ensuring that nobody can study him and reverse-engineer him, bringing about the Skynet future that he came from.
Groundhog Day somewhat subverts this trope — Bill Murray tries to break out of his time loop by killing himself, but it doesn't work.
I feel like the above examples are just scratching the surface. There are lots and lots of examples in science fiction of people trapped in time loops or time paradoxes, where the solution turns out to be self-destruction. Feel free to pipe up with more examples in the comments.
So what's so bad about killing yourself to escape a time blorp anyway? It's dramatic, after all — and television and movies kind of depend on dramatic, visual actions rather than someone saying, "You know what? I'm going to just escape from this time loop by really trying to be a different person." And it fits in with the personal nature of a lot of time travel stories, where one person is unstuck in time or confronting a younger or older self — suicide is one of the most personal things you can do, after all.
And yet. This is a trope that, at its root, is about finding a way to cut through the Gordian Knot — a time paradox is an insoluble tangle, literally a knot you can't untie, and you have to take a radical solution. Very literally, these stories present suicide as a kind of shortcut to get to someplace you need to go, or to get out of an impossible situation. It's the radical solution that fixes everything.
And I worry about presenting suicide that way — since in real life, people commit suicide for similar reasons. Because they are faced with a knot they can't untie. (Full disclosure: I just went to the memorial the other day for a friend who committed suicide, so this is currently a bit of a hot button issue for me.) Dealing with horrible depression, chronic pain, money problems and heartbreak can feel exactly like your past and future are colliding in a way that makes your present unbearable. Your days repeat endlessly and nothing gets better, and it's a time loop you can't break out of. So I do worry about science fiction's habit of presenting death as the easy escape route from every insoluble paradox.
(I also think a lot about "Year of Hell," and how much better it would have been if Captain Janeway and her crew had faced a year of unbearable misery and gotten through it by being strong and brilliant, instead of having a "get out of Hell" free card. Which I think, in a different but related way, would be a way to inspire people who are struggling with their own personal Year of Hell.)
Suicide is about destroying the future, in a very real sense. It's not a reset button. It doesn't fix the time vortex or end any cycles, of violence or otherwise. In fact, suicide creates a still point in time, for those who survive and can't move forward, and it closes off all possibilities for the people who exercise that option. Let's maybe give it a rest in our time travel stories. Okay?
Thanks to Susan Jane Bigelow, Jay Tomio, Rose Fox, Zack Stentz, Mathilda Gregory, Matt Adams, Race Daniels, Gall, Gwen Smith, Richard Pachter, Zem and everyone else who suggested examples of this trope.