Time Travel in “Dark”: Embrace the Paradox

Promotional poster for the Netflix series “Dark” [1].

German Netflix series simply called “Dark” has been around since June 2017 (seasons 1 and 2) . The new season 3 has only recently become available. Watch out for the first scene in the first episode: a gruesome suicide by hanging which you might want to hit fast forward through. Very dark indeed. If you do fast forward don’t miss the short sequence in which the victim’s mother grabs the suicide note before anyone else can read it. The victim here is Michael Kahnwald and his mother is Ines. This whole scene, and the names of the characters, are pivotal to the whole story. We’ll return to the intrigue, setup by the first scene, after discussing some general comments about the time travel genre. Take the opportunity for a pause because “Dark” is a bumpy, head-spinning journey. (Edit: to be found in the continuation in Part 2).

It is sometimes said that time travel is impossible because of the paradox that you could go back in time and kill your own mother before she gave birth to you. One common theme explored in sci-fi movies, for instance in “Star Trek” franchise, is that time travel is permissible only if the time travellers don’t do anything in the past that will alter the future. You might remember the scene in Star Trek IV: The Journey Home (1986) when Kirk and crew travel back to the mid-1980’s San Francisco. They try to disguise Spock’s Vulcan ears with a beanie so he isn’t noticed. Spock, subsequently, nearly blows his cover when he applies an aggressive Vulcan nerve pinch to a punk-rocker on a bus.

By way of contrast, “Dark” is quite different in that it fully embraces the time travel paradox. It’s set in a fictional German town of “Winden” (not to be confused with the town of Winden im Elztal). “Dark” is in the tradition of the French short sci-fi classic La Jetée (The Jetty) [2] by Chris Marker (Argos Films, 1962), “Dark” is also in the tradition of the 1995 production 12 Monkeys with Bruce Willis as the time-travelling Cole, 12 Monkeys was inspired by La Jetée and shares several common themes with that short film. A TV series of 12 Monkeys, made by Syfy ran over four seasons 2015 to 2018.

The Winden of “Dark” is, unsurprisingly, a dark dismal place made up of a number of families that have lived there over several generations: in addition to the Kahnwalds mentioned above there are the Nielsens, the Tiedermans, and the Dopplers, The Wikipedia entry on the “Dark” series contains handy family trees for each season, made available under a CC license by Christianlorenz97. I recommend having the printed family trees with you when you start your binge watching of “Dark”.

The townspeople of Winden are no less dark and dismal than the town itself. As the series introduces each character you start to suspect that each of them is carrying the heavy burden of deep and dark secrets which warps their character and actions. It’s not much of a surprise when you find that they all have dark secrets (such as Michael Kahnwald and his mother in the opening scene, mentioned above). What does surprise, as the series unfolds, is just how warped of character and dark of deed some of the townspeople really are.

Just because you can time travel in Winden it doesn’t mean that you can escape the consequences of your actions.

You see, even in Winden, consequences have a way of catching up with you even through the recesses of time. Whatever else it is, Winden is still part of a moral universe. Amid all the darkness of “Dark” you won’t find it unexpected when it transpires that the world Winden occupies, is living in the prelude to an apocalypse. The apocalypse, of course, is centered upon Winden, specifically Winden’s Nuclear Reactor which also plays a crucial part in time-travel through the tunnel under the nuclear plant (depicted here in the opening poster image)..

The apocalypse is a common theme shared between La Jetée, 12 Monkeys and Dark. After all, those time traveing paradoxes have to resolve themselves somehow. One point of difference between “Dark” and the films mentioned, is that “Dark” doesn’t shy away from asking some very deep and difficult questions, in particular.

Why is it that we think, when a tragedy overcomes us, either through our fault or not: that if we could just go back in time and change this or that event, that we could resume our former life once again?

The insight that “Dark” offers is that time-travel, if it were possible isn’t an escape. If you were able to time travel and change events then you can, as “Dark” well-illustrates, set in train an even worse tragedy. One point that James Gleick offers in his book on time travel [2] is that it’s the prospect of death that makes us think of time travel. After watching “Dark” I would add: death, separation and the loss of a loved one make us look to time travel, but it’s only illusory. As much as we’d like to be able to, there are some things we just can’t change.

As it says in the promotional poster (see above): “Everything is connected.” You can’t just change one event without having unforeseen ramifications: pull on one thread and everything unravels. But is there one single thread, if you could find it, in time and space, that could undo it all? This second question is what the mysterious character Noah in “Dark” seeks to answer.

Is there are way to avoid all of this? If time travel caused all of the darkness and damage, is there a way to avoid the apocalypse; to repair relationships and overcome all that hatred?

The answer to this question is, I think, completely original in the time travel genre, it can be found in the stunning finale at the end of Season 3. Far be it from me to give away spoilers for the conclusion. I’ve tried my best to be spoiler-free so far. You’ll just need to watch all the episodes through to the very end. I promise you you’ll be glad you did.

As I mentioned, the reason why anyone looks to time travel in the first place is either death or separation or loss of a loved one. But time travel, on its own, solves nothing. The only way to prevent the apocalypse, the hurt, the pain the brokenness; is to avoid the original death and loss that’s the heart of the events at Winden. if you can stop this, you can stop the darkness in “Dark” from ever occurring. But even then, are you prepared for the sacrifice(s) required ….

May I say: I hope you’ll find yourself embracing the time-travelling paradox and celebrating the apocalypse by watching “Dark” very soon. I highly recommend it as suitable for your pandemic lock-down viewing. Though do put your younger children to bed first.

To be continued… the series has been completed: Part 2 and Part 3.

Disclaimer: I have no connection, financial or otherwise with Netflix Inc. or any of its subsidiaries.

Afterthought added 15 August, 2020.
For a series that I almost didn’t watch because of the gruesome suicide in scene 1 of episode 1, I came to find “Dark” the most consciousness expanding experience I’ve had in …. well, a very long time. For the first time, it made me take the prospect of time travel, as a scientist, seriously. It made me go back and reread much of James Gleick’s “Time Travel: A History” in a different light.

BTW: I received an email from James Gleick: “Thank you for this. I’ve never watched it, but your piece makes me want to.”

I’d be interested in your comments. What would you like me to write about in the continuation?


[1] This image from a promotional poster for “Dark” is the property of Netflix Inc. It is used here for the purpose of a review of the TV series under fair usage provisions of Copyright Law.

[2] Like many anglophones, I wasn’t aware of the classic short-film La Jetée. That was until I read about it in the book “Time Travel: A History” by James Gleick (Vintage, 2017). As Gleick points out, La Jetée is a play on the French, j’étaisI was. You can watch for yourself in the YouTube video below:

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