Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Glittering Futuristic Landscape of 1999

Do you understand the joy of discovering that a term exists to describe an concept of which you were vaguely aware? For me, the reaction sounds something like this: “Oh my god that thing! It’s like what was in my head but it’s better and its words make whole sentences. Look at it! Look at thing, you!”

It had occurred to me before that The Simpsons and the James Bond universes have something in common that most other longstanding fictional universes don’t. Both have continuity, to an extent — Simpsons more so, Bond less so, some plot points get discarded along the way, but there’s a general sense of accumulation from one installment to the next. However, the featured characters’ sense of the past changes depending on what installment you’re watching. What I mean is this: James Bond doesn’t get old, but at least until the reboot of Casino Royale the movies could be viewed as consecutive episodes in a single character’s life, and some of the movies even explicitly referenced events from earlier ones. The Simpsons will sometimes “forget” about certain developments — not that it matters, but at this point, I’m not sure whether Principal Skinner is supposed to be his mom’s biological son or the imposter Armin Tamzarian — but there’s generally a tendency to impose permanent changes on characters, like Ned Flanders being a widower, Patty being a lesbian, Apu marrying Manjula and having octuplets.

But in ether case, even when continuity holds up, the starting point has to move forward because the characters don’t age. Thus, the pre-Daniel Craig James Bone timeline went from the Cold War being the present to the past, and the concept of “futuristic” technology changes radically depending on whether you’re watching a Sean Connery film or a Pierce Brosnan one. And with The Simpsons, the family’s static ages meant that flashbacks to Homer and Marge’s days before Bart was born had to shift from the late 70s and early 80s to the mid-90s. (And, awkwardly, wonderfully, that the vision of the future in the 1995 episode “Lisa’s Wedding” came and went in real life on August 1, 2010. Lisa didn’t get married, and though I was twelve at the time the episode aired and twenty-eight on the wedding date, Lisa herself is still eight and unmarried.)

Yet everything that happened in the past still happened, even if it wouldn’t make sense time-wise. Get it?

Well, this is a thing. It’s called a floating timeline. And it’s a weird line-up of pop cultural works that employ this device. Tintin? Archie comics? Doctor Who? South Park? Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels? The Nero Wolfe mysteries? The Babysitters Club? Nancy Drew? I mean, these have little else in common, aside from being long-running, though I suppose many are produced specifically for children and therefore can’t let their protagonists grow up and lose their appeal. Technically, Wikipedia lumps superhero comics and syndicated comic strips in this group, but I’m not sure these make for as neat of a fit. Most superhero shorelines are retconned and rebooted to hell — sometimes even using a trans-dimensional apocalypse as a literary device to straighten out the convolutions — to the point that shaving off a few years here and there doesn’t seem that so remarkable. (Fun note: The iconic murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is so tied to the 30s and 40s style in which it was originally depicted that a 2010 flashback to this event has to note that “retro [was] big this year” in order to make sense of the timeline.) And comic strips create less of a “universe.” Calvin & Hobbes is more timeless than anything, and Garfield doesn’t really date itself, though I’ll say now that that fucking cat should be long dead, if not from old age then by a massive coronary.

Now I’m wondering if anything else has a floating timeline, but I can’t think of a single thing. Could this be it? Could this random-as-all-hell bunch be the only works that gauge time on a sliding scale?


  1. You could also look at characters that continue to pop up after long absences between appearances. There's Wayne and Garth, Clark Griswold, John McClane, the T-800 Terminator, Jack Ryan, Doctor Who, the Power Rangers, and Snake (Metal Gear).

    I'm particularly concerned about its effect on shows like "Community" because gaps between episodes are in real time. If the show is successful enough to last 4-5 seasons, then they'll need to start applying the sliding timeline or make up crappy reasons why their still students at a community college. Like in the case of "The Office," who in their right mind would make a six year long documentary about a paper company?

  2. I'm with you on Wayne & Garth (esp. after the their reappearance on SNL last month), McClane, the Griswolds, Jack Ryan and Doctor Who. But the Terminator? Aren't there more than one of the Arnie model? Or is this more a comment about how the predicted apocalypse didn't happen? And don't the Power Rangers get replaced by new members, a la Menudo?

    I'm worried about Community too, and to a much less extent Glee, because I hate it but I'm curious to know how it will deal with the graduation of its entire cast. As for the mockumentary shows, I'm past the point that I wonder why a camera crew would be filming these people on The Office or Arrested Development or Modern Family. It's a genre. It's a style. You go with it. It's no stranger than any other family's personal lives being mysteriously taped and broadcast to the world. Right?

  3. Anonymous1:33 AM

    You shouldn't have asked -- find a million and one examples at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ComicBookTime :)

    Well, their definition is a little looser so not everything includes the phenomenon you're discussing, but quite a bit of it does.

  4. Blondie's an example of a partially floating timeline. The series started with a flapper who married the son of a wealthy industrialist to a generic family strip, or as Wikipedia puts it, a strip about "a well-endowed blonde and her sandwich-loving husband." I guess the kid characters started out as babies, but stopped growing when they became teenagers to maintain the comic's structure. Cell phones and laptops are occasionally added to keep the strip "fresh."

  5. I'm not sure why Doctor Who is in that list. The Doctor does age, and since the whole show is about time travel, this floating timeline thing doesn't seem relevant.

  6. Anonymous5:33 AM

    @goofy because, during all of that time travel, some of the "future time periods" it's depicted are now in the past — but we're expected to gloss over the fact that the 1990s on our very own Earth, as depicted in Doctor Who episodes from the 60s and 70s, doesn't look anything like the 1990s we remember.

  7. @hobbs I see that, but that's not what a floating timeline is, is it? A floating timeline is a device where the characters don't age.

  8. Well, the "Blondie" kids did age, to an extent, and so did Apu's kids on "The Simpsons." It's not cut-and-dry. But I would say that any series in which perceptions of the past and the future have to be revised for the sake of continuity could arguably have a floating timeline.

  9. I mention the T-800 Terminator because each movie release in the series is separated by at least 5 years. Arnold is obviously getting older even though the T-800s don't. It's partially related to why the story's Judgment Day got pushed back from 1997 (T2 came out in 1991)to 2004 (T3 in 2003).

    As for the Power Rangers, they get replaced over time but cast alumni continue to show up from time to time as allies with no real explanation as to how much time has passed since these characters were last seen. It was simply assumed that they came from different dimensions, as is the case with the Japanese source material. But then the Dino Thunder series came along and pretty much addressed that the 10 or so Power Rangers series preceding it, along with all future series, all happen within the same singular timeline.