Episode 78 – “Once Upon A Time”

Time travel might be of interest not only to those who might wish to change the past, or revisit it, but to those who just don’t like the circumstances in which they find themselves, and hope to find something better in another time, just as someone might, more prosaically, look to move from one city to another, in search of a change of scene. Like The Rip Van Winkle Caper, where the principal characters seek refuge in the future, here we find Mulligan, a small time janitor, at his wit’s end with the frenetic pace of the New York City of the 1890s. He lucks into a way out – a time-travel helmet.

This episode is a comedy, featuring Buster Keaton doing silent slap-stick comedy in the style of the old silent films in which he was featured. If there’s a philosophical point in this light-hearted episode, it is that one shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of the strangeness of cultural displacement that one would experience by relatively modest time-displacements. In this episode, one character is displaced 7o years into the future, and another, met by the first during his time travel, is displace 70 years into the past, when the first character returns to his temporal origin. Both characters long to time travel, the first to the future, and the second to the past. But both discover that where they time travel to is not what they hoped for, and each longs to return to their present time.

So what is surprisingly different and uncomfortable about these two time shifts? For Mulligan (Keaton), the future, the 1960s is, surprisingly to him, more frenetic than the 1890s. This is largely due to technology. It was hard to cross the street when there were horses and buggies, but now there are cars – lots of them – and it’s even harder. For the second character, the 1890s may be quaint, which is what he hoped for, but the limits of technology in 1890s will make it impossible for him to carry out his scientific work.

The pace of technological change in the 20th century, and its significance for the cultural context in United States and many other countries, is clearly represented here, in the slap-stick gags that display the ways in which a time traveler would reveal their inability to cope with those changes.

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