Each week on Seven Days (which has finally made it
on to British terrestrial TV screens), a top-secret intelligence
unit sends ex-CIA agent Frank Parker back in time to undo
a disaster of national or global consequence. Sounds simple
enough. Richard McGinlay explores the complex issues arising
from this time-travel series...
hero of Seven Days, Frank Parker (Jonathan LaPaglia),
is tough, resourceful and headstrong. It was his resilience
and strength of purpose that earned him the challenging
job of piloting the BackStep sphere into the past. But Frank
is no scientist, which is good news for the writers of the
TV series, because otherwise he might voice some awkward
questions, such as: "How come I never meet my past self
when I go back in time?"
time he travels back a maximum of seven days into the past,
it is a one-way trip for Frank. That is, he never travels
forward in time to return to his temporal point of origin.
Instead, events simply catch up with him, and Frank ends
up experiencing those however-many days all over again.
The experienced sci-fi viewer will immediately recognise
that, if it were possible for Frank to co-exist with his
own past self (i.e. the Frank that already existed in the
period that he travels back to), the consequences would
be appalling. Each time Frank went back to avert a catastrophe,
he would effectively create a duplicate of himself. After,
say, twenty such jaunts through time, there could be as
many as twenty Frank Parkers, and the American countryside
would be littered with used BackStep spheres!
only possible explanation for why such duplication does
not occur is that when the sphere takes Frank back in time,
the previous versions of both craft and pilot are somehow
cancelled out of existence, rather like an old video recording
being erased by new material. One must assume that the old
Frank instantaneously vanishes as soon as the Frank from
the future materialises, and the same must go for the sphere.
This theory is backed up by instances on the TV show (in
the episode Come Again, for example) in which Frank
manages to pilot the sphere back to its spatial point of
origin within its hangar. It is plain to see that the sphere
could not possibly co-exist with its former self under such
those more frequent occasions when Frank sets the sphere
down somewhere outside of the hangar, the rest of the BackStep
team would presumably notice the simultaneous disappearance
of both the sphere and - depending on his whereabouts at
the time - its pilot. One can imagine how disconcerting
this could be if Frank happened to be in the middle of a
conversation (or, indeed, anything else) with another person
at the time! Frank's colleagues probably got used to the
inconvenience of these disappearances fairly quickly, although
the show's producers have steered clear of depicting this
process actually taking place. Admittedly, it would be difficult
to pull off such a scene without running the risk of confusing
as many viewers as it enlightened. It is probably for this
reason that the sequence of events within any given episode
is always based upon Frank's own temporal whereabouts (or
perhaps that should be when-abouts), thus avoiding the need
to show the process of erasure.
confusing aspect of Seven Days, if you pause to think
about it for a moment, arises from the fact that when Frank
invariably succeeds in preventing the catastrophe of the
week, the BackStep team in the revised timeline consequently
have no need to send him back to prevent it. This is a paradox:
Frank is sent back in time to avert a disaster, but in averting
it he negates the very circumstance that caused him to be
sent back in the first place. The time-travelling Frank
effectively arrives from a future that will no longer happen.
standard explanation for such paradoxes is that the time-traveller,
by altering the course of events, does not actually change
the established timeline, but instead enters or creates
a new, alternate or parallel timeline. Whenever a decision
is made, by anyone at all, that could affect the course
of history to even the slightest degree, a potential alternate
timeline splits off like one of a myriad number of branches
on some infinite tree. Whenever Frank undoes an event, he
is diverted into yet another of these alternatives.
is no reason to suppose that the previous timeline - the
one from which Frank departs whenever he travels in the
sphere - should cease to exist. Each alternative timeline
would in all probability continue to run its course. Imagine
all those other worlds, abandoned to their respective unfortunate
fates whenever Frank goes back in time. In each of them,
a disappointed BackStep team will never see or hear from
Frank or the sphere again.
Frank travels to a new branch of history, he enters a world
in which none of the calamities that have prompted his missions
have ever actually come to pass. From the point of view
of the BackStep team in each successive timeline, Frank
is this guy who has repeatedly materialised with the sphere,
either within the hangar or out in the middle of nowhere,
and uttered the fateful code word, "Conundrum". But the
team with which he deals in each amended timeline has never
actually had cause to send the sphere back through time
before. So whenever a national emergency forces the scientists
to send Frank back to prevent it, it's the first time as
far as they are concerned. Does this mean that the scientists
can never learn from each successful deployment of the sphere,
and that they are unable to refine any of the processes
involved in its operation?
this need not be the case. We know that Frank always carries
a microchip containing data pertinent to his mission whenever
he enters the sphere. Episodes such as Doppelganger
have suggested that refinements to the BackStep technique
could also be encoded on this chip, which would seem to
be an eminently logical way to experiment with the procedure.
Each time Frank arrives back in the past, he could report
on how smoothly or otherwise his journey went, and so the
scientific team could learn which settings work best.
quite enough chronological confusion for now, I think, so
I'll leave you with just one more vexing conundrum... Is
Frank paid a regular salary, or does he get overtime?