The Grandfather Paradox From The Umbrella Academy Is a Real Thought Experiment
Rick and Morty creators Dan Harmon & Justin Roiland have long stated their aversion to time travel, despite their series’ often cynical copulation with sci-fi concepts found in literature and philosophy, saying simply, it’s “a real shark-jumper. Once you introduce [time travel] to the canon of your show—it’s just a dangerous toy to pull out.”
Those series that have pulled out time travel in recent years often find the toy a little cumbersome. (See: Russian Doll and Loki). The Umbrella Academy, which spent Season 2 in the 1960s, returns with an even more ambitious use of time travel in Season 3. And like both Russian Dolls and Loki, the series wants to change the timeline; it wants to go back in time to remake the future. The result is equally disastrous.
Unlike those other shows, however, The Umbrella Academy is perfectly fine explaining why its own time travel is so funky—why it’s confusing and stupid and nonsensical.
Episode 3 opens with an instructional video for a well-known paradox, titled “Paradox Protocols: The Complete Commission Guide to Temporal Anomalies–Chapter Sixty-Eight: The Grandfather Paradox.”
The video shows a boy, Elmer, who invents a time machine in order to go back in time and kill his grandfather, ridding the family of his current wrath. Of course, killing his maternal grandfather means that Elmer’s mother would not have been born. (In the dramatization, Elmer kills his grandfather before his mother’s conception). This would be impossible, however, because if Elmer’s mother is never born, then Elmer is also never born—meaning Elmer couldn’t have gone back in time to kill his grandfather, because Elmer would never have existed.
This contradiction is called the “Grandfather Paradox.”
The Commission implies that it is possible to violate the paradox (or rather, it is possible to actually kill one’s grandfather), concluding the video with a warning: “This story is not true, but if it were, Elmer would have placed time, space, and every living thing in grave peril.”
When Five and Lila manage to find their way back to the Commission, they discover the paradox handbook. Inside, are the steps to take should the paradox occur. Again, this book assumes that the time traveler can in fact kill his grandfather. (An actual paradox has no solution; that’s why it is a paradox.)
This possibility is never explained in the series, and the fact of the continued-existence of each of the characters given their mothers’ premature deaths is also never really explained.
In some ways, the entire concept of Season 3 is impossible—even on sci-fi terms. The series, however, doesn’t seem to care.
If it did care, how might it have answered the paradox?
Is the Grandfather Paradox a Real Thing?
The temporal paradox described in The Umbrella Academy has been discussed in literature as early as the 1920s, when science fiction magazines debated the possibility of going back in time and committing suicide by killing your younger self.
This thought experiment eventually used the example of a grandfather, becoming known colloquially as the “Grandfather Paradox.”
The paradox is meant to prove that backwards time travel is impossible.
If such time travel were possible, the time traveler would be put in a position to make changes that would cause his own time travel to become impossible (such as going back in time, destroying the time machine, and killing his younger self or a grandparent.) In other words: the time traveler is doing something impossible. Therefore: time travel must not allow this situation to be possible. Therefore: backwards time travel is impossible.
Another way to think about the argument is to consider the truth of two statements.
(1) The time traveler can kill Grandfather.
(2) The time traveler cannot kill Grandfather.
Both statements seem true. (1) is true because if he was facing his grandfather with a gun, he could (in that he has the physical ability to pull the trigger) kill him. (2) is true, because killing his Grandfather would make his own existence impossible.
If both statements are true, then there is a contradiction. If backwards time travel leads to a contradiction, then it is impossible.
One can respond to this argument by saying that (1) is not true. It appears as if the time traveler can kill Grandfather, but perhaps the time traveler fails. The gun jams. He only wounds Grandfather. And so on. If one of these events occurs, then the time traveler is prevented from doing the impossible: killing his Grandfather. If he’s prevented from doing the impossible, then there is no contradiction. Therefore: backwards time travel is possible.
(If you’re interested in even more arguments, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s time travel entry.)
To depict time travel without showing a contradiction (and, therefore, an impossibility), most fictional accounts show that (1) is false; they prevent the time traveler from changing events. In many cases, the time traveler is in fact making those future events possible (In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter is the one who summons the Patronus by the lake, helping his past self escape death, for instance.)
The Umbrella Academy, however, says screw it, we’re changing time. How they’re able to do this without making time travel itself impossible … well, that’s the paradox. And they seem uninterested in exploring it farther.
Maybe Season 4 will give some answers. Or maybe the writers will take a note from Rick and Morty and treat all such changes in timelines as consequences of multiple universes instead. No need to keep playing with such a dangerous toy.
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