Tuesday, March 1, 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?

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