• Overanalyze This: Time Travel in My Little Pony

    This fandom, like any other fandom, has a burning desire to know more about the show that we love.  Any tidbit, any little snippet we can latch onto that helps us to understand and speculate about the world is instantly seized upon and scrutinized into oblivion.  Like the good little fanboys and fangirls that we are, we've taken everything this show has to offer and shoved it under the microscope, analyzing it and determining how pretty much everything in this universe works.  Mostly.

    There is one glaring exception:  For as long as it's been a part of the lore of the show, I don't recall seeing anyone ever taking the time to suss out exactly how time travel functions in Friendship is Magic.  Let's fix that.  Let's buckle down and figure out exactly how this sci-fi staple works in this fantasy world.

    Let's do the time warp again after the break!

    When you introduce time travel into any story, you have to do so very, very carefully.  Not only does it change the future of the story and what is possible going forward from that point, if it's not introduced until way later in the canon it can even potentially retroactively affect the meaning and implications of what was already established before time travel was A Thing.  So, it's important that your time travel have a clear conception of exactly how it affects your world, and what it can and cannot do.  If not handled carefully, time travel can turn a perfectly good story into an impenetrable mesh of continuity paradoxes.

    Looking at you, "Daring Do and the Quantum Quest of Quetzacoatl."

    So what are the rules for FiM's version of time travel?  There's never been any definitive answer from the showrunners on this as far as I know, but based on what we've seen in the show we can work it out.  Let's start by looking at the earliest instance of time travel in FiM, It's About Time.

    It's About Time introduces time travel to the lore by way of what's known as the Bootstrap Paradox.  Simply put, a bootstrap paradox is a paradox in which an object or information exists without ever having been created.  In this case, that information is Twilight's knowledge of where to find the time travel spell.  Observe this poorly photoshopped visual aid:

    I warned you it was bad.  Don't blame me.

    The time loop goes like this:

    1) Twilight learns the location of the time travel spell from her future self.

    2) Twilight uses this knowledge to find the spell.

    3)  Twilight travels back in time, and tells her past self where to find the spell.

    Now, here's the question:  How did Twilight know where to look for that spell?  Past Twilight learned it from Future Twilight, but Future Twilight only knew because she learned it from her own future self when she was Past Twilight.  At no point does Twilight independently obtain that information.  So where did it come from?

    I asked Twilight, and she's still freaking out about it.

    The initial impression that this leaves us with is that the past and the future can interact with one another, but the past can't be altered because any meddling done by a traveler from the future would have already formed the events that created the future that the traveler came from and oh no, I've gone cross-eyed.

    Here, I'll just let Discord in Friendship is Magic #24 explain it:

    Yeah, that works.

    Which brings us to the next and biggest example of time travel in FiM:  Starlight Glimmer's revenge scheme in The Cutie Re-Mark.

    Good or bad, Glimmy is still the best.

    This instance of time travel does seem to contradict the precedent set by It's About Time, as Starlight does successfully change the past and create a new future.  Quite a few of them, in fact.  But what is it that's actually happening when she does that?

    The most common theory I've seen spun out of this episode is that time travel in FiM functions the same way that it does in Marvel comics, where any attempt at time travel results in the creation of an entire parallel universe, with one continuing to follow the timeline the traveler came from, while the "prime" universe is affected by the changes that are made to the past.  This would imply that every alternate future we see in the episode is actually its own separate universe, and will continue on its own history even after Twilight "fixes" things.

    Fear the power of my poorly photoshopped visual aids!

    It's an argument I've seen been made against Starlight Glimmer by some fans who still don't like her redemption.  Some fans argue that even though she reformed by the end of the episode, she still ended up creating all of those doomed offshoot timelines.  Some fans say she should be held responsible for the suffering experienced by the ponies living in them.

    Some fans are wrong.

    Anyone who survived X-Men in the '90s will tell you that Marvel comics time travel is confusing as all get-out.  You could write entire books about how pointlessly convoluted it is.  But one of the things that is perfectly clear is that you cannot change your own future.  If you travel back in time, you'll create a new "prime" timeline where your future didn't happen, but when you go back to the future you'll still be exactly where (when?) you started, with no perceivable difference.

    Bad news, Commander Rainbow Dash action figure with Authentic Battle Damage.  This is always going to happen to you.

    That isn't what we're seeing here.  Every time Twilight gets Marty McFly'd, it's different.  And every time she goes back to try again, events are changed in a different way, leading to a different future.  This would indicate that FiM time travel does not work on Marvel-like rules, and that we're not dealing with the creation of alternate universes or timelines.

    No, based on everything that we've seen I'd say that the most likely explanation is that FiM's time travel works in the same way that it does in one of my other favorite shows, Doctor Who.  And not just because Time Lords in My Little Pony are definitely for sure 100% canon.

    He said centuries.  You cannot take this away from me.

    Even if you've never watched Doctor Who, you've no doubt heard the explanation that time is like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.  But the actual explanation is a little bit more complex than that.  Basically (and bear with me because it's going to be weird) it's like this:

    Picture time as existing in the same way that space does:  All of it exists simultaneously, and if you have the means to do so you could theoretically travel from any one point in it to any another.  And just like how moving or altering physical objects affects the space those objects occupy and the space surrounding it, changing events at specific points in time also affects the time that surrounds them.  Changes in what's perceived as the past can lead to an entirely new version of what's perceived as the future, but changing the past back to its original state can also restore the original future.

    In other words, in this version of time travel there's no such thing as a "timeline."  There's just time, which can be changed, manipulated, broken, and fixed like anything else.

    If nothing else, I think we've figured out how Derpy's eyes got that way.

    This explanation would reconcile every instance of time travel we've seen in FiM.  In It's About Time Twilight did alter the past by giving her past self knowledge she shouldn't have, but by creating a stable, paradoxical loop she didn't actually change anything in her future.  As for Discord's explanation of time travel in the comics, he thought he was unable to change the past because he had inserted himself into history, inadvertently becoming a part of the "original" events that formed the future he came from.

    This is why you leave it to the professionals, Discord.

    Now that we have a plausible theory on how time travel functions in this universe, we can use it to understand exactly what is happening in The Cutie Re-Mark.  Let's take it step by step:

    The somatic components for this spell call for a jump the left, and then a step to the right.

    We know how Starlight's spell worked.  When it's cast, it transports both the caster and Starlight to a particular point in space and time.  Specifically Cloudsdale, right before Rainbow Dash's first sonic rainboom.  Then, after a certain amount of time passes, the caster is returned to their original time and location.

    So we know that Twilight is always returning to the same point she left from.  And every time she returns, her relative present is different, altered by the changes Starlight makes in the past.  Well, most of them were Starlight's fault, anyway.

    Nice job breaking it, hero.

    Once she finally convinces Starlight to stop and the events of the past are left unchanged, she's returned to the original present like nothing ever happened.  Because it didn't.  Due to the way time and time travel works in this world, none of the alternate futures ended up ever having happened.

    Good news, Commander Rainbow Dash action figure with Authentic Battle Damage!  You no longer ever existed!

    So there we have it.  The definitive (for now) explanation of how time travel works in and affects the universe of Friendship is Magic. Much like in Doctor Who, time is a big ball of wibbly wobbly, pony wony stuff that can be traversed, altered, and restored.  There are no such things as alternate timelines, only potential futures whose existence are dependent on the arrangement of events in the overall web of time.

    Basically I guess what I'm saying is that Starlight Glimmer did nothing wrong.

    ~ The Skullivan