Is That All There Is?: Whose Time is It, Anyway

On the TV Shows That, for Better or Worse, Reset Everything

Non-Exhaustive List of Television Shows Mentioned:

L Word: Generation Q (2019)
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969)
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
American Horror Story (2011-2020)

The reset button: a narrative trope of television that allows writers to fix narrative boo-boos that range from untimely deaths of favorite characters to discontinuous time jumps. The recent L Word: Generation Q reboot is a good example of such resuscitation—repairing an injurious representation of trans life, and a skew-whiff vision of lesbianism as a “white thing.” What may appear as overcompensation to some is nonetheless a welcome example of readjusting the casting dial. At one point in Episode 3, “LA Times”, three gay men of color dance together on screen at a queer club at the same time with no white, no straight people in view. The moment felt unprecedented.

But a reset isn’t a reboot. The reset button is mostly used in anthology shows from the “Golden Age of Television”, like The Twilight Zone, Masterpiece Theater, and the Philco Television Playhouse. Contemporary examples include Black Mirror, American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Room 104, and True Detective. The technique engenders a series of episodes written non-teleologically so that viewers can jump in at any episode without missing a beat. While entertaining, when looked at holistically, these shows often appear as episodic Xerox copies of earlier episodes. “Remember the one…” Each time the proverbial button is pressed, the circumstances are rubbed smoother, created into a palimpsest of past stories. In certain anthology shows, like Star Trek and The Simpsons in particular, the reset catches their characters in a static, paralyzed loop.

In “The Naked Time,” Episode 4 of the first season of Star Trek: The Original Series, Captain James T. Kirk steers the USS Enterprise to the planet Psi 2000. Their mission: record and assess the dissolution of the planet—all its inhabitants have become mysteriously frozen. While scanning a frigid rock, Lieutenant Junior Grade Joe Tormolen removes his glove and becomes infected with a furtive illness that removes inhibitions and spreads through touch; of course, he brings it on board once Scotty beams him and Mr. Spock up.

Lieutenants Sulu and Riley then observe Tormolen behaving rather strangely in the mess hall, leading to an altercation with a butter knife.

One of Sulu’s inexplicable epee attacks

Upon touch, both Sulu and Riley also contract the disease—leading to inexplicable epee attacks on unarmed crew members (Sulu) and egregious Irish brashness (Riley), which in turn causes the ship’s engines to somehow malfunction. It’s implied that there’s no return from the direction the ship and the crew onboard is heading. Until Captain Kirk orders Scottie to restart the warp engines. The engine pressure propels the Enterprise beyond the space time continuum and back in time to seventy-one hours prior. When Spock alerts Kirk to their newfound ability to manipulate time, Kirk responds, “We may risk it someday, Mr. Spock.”

And risk it they do. “The Naked Time” was meant to be a two-parter, with the crew going back in time in its second episode. But at the last minute, the second half was scrapped and reworked to be used later in the season as episode 19, “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” This meta-messing with the space time continuum exemplifies the beauty, and dangerous trap of the reset for televised eschatology. Time is, you guessed it, a circle, a repeat, an iteration, a litany of equipoised rises and falls, climaxes and set ups. The circle is also a mysterious and elusive shape, and the most capable of ensnaring us in aimless, hollow nostalgia.

In “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” the Enterprise is thrust even further into the past—the United States in the 1960s, just before the moon landing. The US Airforce spies their ship, mistakes it for a UFO, and a pilot is accidentally beamed up to the Enterprise while on a recon mission. The potential magnitude of such time chaos unfurls a layer of complicated mixing and matching of the past and the present future between the crew on earth and the crew in the stars. Ultimately, Captain Kirk decides to deploy the ingeminated time travel technique mentioned in episode four, mending this rift for their fictional lives, as well as narrative conundrum, by going back in time before the US Army saw lights in the sky. Easy. But too easy—where’s the creative finagling and finessing? Where are the stakes if the stakes can be so simply disappeared?

When time travel isn’t applicable to the show, a good old genie in a bottle can press that reset button. Aired on October 7, 1960, “The Man in the Bottle” was the Twilight Zone’s 38th episode. It portrayed Arthur Castle and his wife, struggling antiques dealers who take pity on an old woman and, unbeknownst to them, purchase her genie in a wine bottle. The genie grants the Castles four wishes. The first they use to repair a broken display case, which proves the genie’s powers; the second to receive a million dollars, which they give most of away, the rest is then subsequently garnered by the Tax Man; for the third, despite the fact that the genie warns them that all wishes come with consequences, Arthur aspires to complete, total power over a nation state. Poof, he’s Hitler. In yet another example of the embedded reset, the actor who played Arthur Castle, Luther Adler, had already played Hitler twice before: once in The Magic Face and again in The Desert Fox, both movies from 1951. Just before Arthur Castle consumes the cyanide in the Führerbunker, he makes his last wish: to be returned to his old life, status quo ante. But the Castles, after all that, have nothing to show for their wishes. Even the cabinet is broken again by Castle as he sweeps the shop—the shards go straight into the trash bin where they’re reformed into the bottle once more, waiting for their next thoughtless victim.

Unlike Star Trek resetting itself each week within its narrative through disregard for linear time; or The Twilight Zone resetting through disregard of content through episodic finitude; contemporary shows like the American Horror Story/Crime franchises allow the penalties to pile up over the course of a season, and then reset into reimaginings of the world and cast into new scenarios and characters. For example, the goddess Jessica Lange has played an AHS character mixed bag: nosy neighbor Constance Langdon, a coven mother, a twisted nun, a freak show stage manager, and once again, Constance Langdon. Her character from Season 1: Murder House, dies by suicide in Season 8: Apocalypse; she is then revivified through “Tempus Infinituum”—a spell that reverses and alters the effects of time on crumpled plots.

The ensemble of AHS is thus trapped in a time-kink, each season a Flying Dutchman that contains their own lifeless bodies, and in which, at the end, is reset so that the cast is fated to live their characters’ lives (and deaths) over and over and over and over, with variations only in the monsters, real or allegorical, that they’re fighting. And as viewers, we’re also stuck in the time-kink, trapped in this universe and unable to recognize our own desire for fresh content. It works, until it doesn’t. And just who are these resets pressed for? If L Word: Generation Q is for my generation, there isn’t enough of the old crew to assuage our appetite for wistful remembrance; if it’s for the next generation of lesbians, there’s too much of them, not to mention far too many embarrassing and flat characters. In resetting the narrative, rather than writing much-needed original queer content, the writers somehow managed to screw the crossover between the past and the present, folding time in on itself until all nuance and appeal was rubbed away.

The reset button technique allows us to skip forward and backward in time and to erase seemingly irreparable narrative damage. Like the genie-filled wine bottle with the extra wish for restoring damage done from all the example-setting, or the quick-fix time travel that expunges the effects of malignant disease spreading over the Enterprise crew, with the narrative reset there’s no acknowledgment of a past with lasting consequences. It demonstrates, as this series beats dead, the mutability and fallibility of the concept of “ending.” It’s the equivalent of New Year’s Eve resolutions, botox, the fountain of youth, the Flying Dutchman cursed to sail for all eternity, a physic eschewal of the space time continuum, a deadlock. While tempting, sometimes we need progression to our stories, gravity for ourselves and our actions beyond a quick fix. We need changes of old guard regimes and stories, or dare I say an end, with a closed door, and permanent aftermaths. That way we won’t become ships lost in space, however alluring the in-flight entertainment may be.

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