I’m not the biggest fan of time travel stories, especially badly done time travel stories. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done right, but far too often it is done very, very wrong. I think Legends of Tomorrow is one such example, where they haven’t set up any ground rules, then they keep throwing around reasons why they can’t do what clearly and obviously they ought to be able to, because… reasons. Warning, spoilers ahead.
The only way to get a consistent time travel story is to have rules. You can do X and you can’t do Y. You can go here but you can’t go there. You can change this but you can’t change that. Set out some guidelines and then operate within those guidelines. Don’t just make arbitrary exceptions to all of your rules because then they’re not really rules, they’re suggestions.
Unfortunately, Legends of Tomorrow doesn’t bother to do even that much. You have the Time Masters, who are supposed to be protecting the timeline from disruption. That part is great, or at least it would be great if the Time Masters didn’t spend all of their time completely ignoring their own rules. But once Rip Hunter and his merry gang of misfits become too much of a thorn in their side, they send out multiple assassins to kill Rip and his crew, eventually by going back in time to kill them in their childhood. But when you look at the later accomplishments of said crew, particularly Martin Stein and Ray Palmer, you see that killing them before they accomplish these great feats that directly impact the future, would cause a far larger disruption to the timeline than anything else that the crew of the Waverider could ever do on their own. Then the Time Masters not only aid Vandal Savage, they hand him a time ship of his own so that he can go around and disrupt the time stream with no limitations, the whole thing gets downright stupid.
Besides, it isn’t like the “good guys” haven’t caused their fair share of disruptions. From letting a nuke go off in Russia to interfering with their past selves on multiple occasions, they’re a huge disruptive influence. Rip is only concerned about following the Time Master rules when it’s convenient to the plot to do so.
But executive producer Phil Klemmer says the show has rules, yet they have broken every single one of them. In particular, he says “You can’t return to a time and place where you changed the chronology once.” Yet they did, several times, most notably the finale. Oops! And “Time is concrete that starts to set. The longer the consequences of that event play out, and once the events of the future are set like concrete, then it’s impossible to change them.” That’s all well and good, but you have a time machine that can go anywhere and anywhen. Consequences never play out because you can always go back to the moment the change is made and change it. That’s the whole point of the season, that Rip Hunter wants to change the murder of his wife and son. Apparently, rules only exist when they are convenient. When they get in the way of the story, they go straight out the window. All of these rules are seemingly artificial, imposed on the story when required by the plot, but not imposed on the story because they are part of unbreakable reality.
At least Doctor Who, which honestly I can’t stand of late, but at least they tried to stop the madness by declaring certain events fixed in time and unchangeable. Of course, which parts are fixed is entirely plot driven and done for convenience, but at least they tried. Nobody there and certainly not in Legends of Tomorrow has sat down and decided, on paper, how time works, what will be allowed and what will never be allowed. It’s just “we want to tell this story this week so we’ll rationalize what we want to do and not worry about the consequences to the larger narrative”. That’s exactly how the show comes off. For a show that revolves around time travel, they don’t seem to be taking their setting very seriously. If you can change literally anything at any time, then it stands to reason that someone, sometime, will. The existence of a wholly ineffective group of time cops aside, people will find a way. Therefore, the only way to stop complete chaos is to make those rules hardcoded, something that is part of reality, not part of this week’s Writer’s Bible. They didn’t do that. They didn’t set out specific rules from the outset and refused to break them. They didn’t show their audience that they were serious. Granted, it’s a comic book show and the comics don’t tend to stick to their own internal rules either, but I can be just as critical of comics as I can be here.
They should have done better. They’re catching a considerable amount of flack for failing to come up with consistent rules and sticking to them too. I can only hope that in the second season, they learned their lesson and can actually retroactively put some hard and fast rules in place. Otherwise, this is everything wrong with time travel stories, all rolled into a few short episodes. That’s not something to be proud of.