Literature / Timeline

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Timeline is a 1999 novel by author Michael Crichton. It involves quantum physics effectively applied as time travel (though it is more complicated than that), set in The Hundred Years War.

An old man has been found in the midst of the New Mexico desert, and is soon discovered to have strange deformities and to be an employee of a company named ITC. He is dead within a day of his discovery, and is quickly cremated by request of the company. One of the items found in his possessions is a architectural drawing of a long-destroyed French monastery. Meanwhile, a group of researchers in the Dordogne region of France, exploring a medieval archaeological dig at the ruins of that same monastery, make an astounding discovery. Their financial patron, ITC, contacts them and reveals its greatest secret - tapping quantum technology to effectively travel through time...

A film adaptation was released in 2003 directed by Richard Donner and starring Paul Walker, Gerard Butler, Frances O'Connor, Billy Connolly, Anna Friel and David Thewlis, among others.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-universe example; historical records paint Lord Oliver as a heroic character and Arnaut de Cervole as the villain, yet the differences are blurred when the characters meet them.
  • Asshole Victim: Doniger.
  • As You Know: This is used frequently, with the exact words, all throughout the book.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Due to Doniger's marketing plan, which is using the time travel technology just to create historically-accurate historical restorations, instead of, you know, obtaining stock prices from the future.
    • In the book this was a lie, and he planned to steal future technology.
  • Ax-Crazy: Robert de Kere/Deckard. At first sight, a typical bloodthirsty medieval warrior, yet in fact a traveler gone mad due to transcription errors.
  • Badass Normal: Andre Marek who can hold his own against battle-expierenced knights in a joust due to being a fanatic historical reenactor.
  • Big Bad: Lord Oliver.
  • Blood Knight: De Kere.
  • Black Widow: Lady Claire, in the novel. This aspect is entirely stripped out in the film.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: André. He later effectively rectifies the situation by choosing to stay behind.
    • Robert Deckard too, arguably.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Each researcher is introduced to us in certain scenes that make sense later. Also has elements of Plot Tailored to the Party.
    • Justified: the reason the protagonists are sent to the past is that they are experts on exactly that time period.
  • Cloning Blues: How "time travel" works is by disintegrating a person in one universe and essentially making the target universe replicate that body down to the subatomic level - you're no longer you, the person in the "past" isn't you, and the person who come back isn't you, technically. Any error in the system will cause trauma, which is why Robert de Kere is such a psychopath - he accumulated one too many errors, warping his brain.
  • Co-Dragons: De Kere and Sir Guy are this to Lord Oliver.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check / Reed Richards Is Useless: A lot of the technologies that had to be developed to make this time travel system work, like quantum computers that ran millions of calculations in parallel and down-to-the-atom body scanners, would have probably made more money than the actual plan ever could if they had just sold those.
    • Justified in that Doniger didn't care about the money (he's already a billionaire), but rather the applications of the technology.
  • Disguised in Drag: Kate and no-one else because guards were looking for three foreigners; two males and one female. Guess what they did to fool them?
    • Lady Claire also cross-dresses around the countryside.
  • Disney Villain Death: Sir Guy.
  • Dung Ages: Subverted and mocked. The protagonist walks around, expecting horribly disgusting conditions, but is surprised to learn everyone is reasonably well kept. In the afterward, Crichton notes this was mostly an invention of the Renaissance, during which many scholars romanticized the Classical period above their own era. Personal hygiene declined significantly only once the Black Plague became epidemic (which started around the time the book is set), when the public baths that were common in most Medieval towns and cities became disease vectors. This made frequent bathing a hazard, and it was denounced as sinful, which became part of the culture. Sanitation in most of Europe was already poor, though-people threw refuse right onto the streets. Unfortunately the cultural attitude went too far in the other direction, and monarchs after this like Isabella I of Spain boasted of only bathing a few times in their entire lives. A servant insists that Chris is not clean enough after he washes himself, to his surprise, and scrubs him quite thoroughly.
  • Evil Genius: Doniger is this, in a Bill Gates vein.
  • For the Evulz: Robert de Kere. It's also stated that both French and English soldiers, when storming a castle, will massacre every civilian inside for kicks-and, as much as the team would like to save them all, stopping a massacre would have far-reaching consequences in the future.
  • Grandfather Paradox: When one of the travelers asks this exact question, Doninger explains that one person couldn't make the Mets beat the Yankees: i.e. a single person can't significantly change the course of history. But when the questioner presses the point, we get a Hand Wave.
  • Happily Ever After: Andre and Claire.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade / Historical Villain Upgrade: In-universe, English leader Lord Oliver is regarded by modern historians as "almost a saint," while French leader Arnaut is remembered as The Caligula. In truth the two's personalities are somewhat reversed: Oliver is a massive, gluttonous, sadistic jerkass and Arnaut, while being indeed as ugly as history remembers him and capable of great cruelty, is a far more Reasonable Authority Figure.
  • Humans Are Bastards: The horrible reality of medieval warfare is painted in full. One of the team plainly states that when castles finally fell after sieges, everyone inside them was massacred, and talks of pregnant women being disemboweled (Truth in Television, unfortunately).
  • Jerkass: Robert Doniger, big time.
  • Law of Conservation of Detail: Averted, as several pages are devoted to explaining the concepts of quantum mechanics and parallel universes even though they really are not central to the plot. It is Michael Crichton, after all.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Female time travelers with short hair must use wigs because people in the 1300s strongly held this view. The only women with short hair had it due to a disgrace, or punishment for heresy. Passing as a man by cutting your hair short was also punishable by death at the time.
  • Mohs Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness: Pretty hard, but for an obvious lack of quantum transfer machines on a large scale in real life.
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: Averted, the first character to be killed is female, and also an ethnic minority.
  • Parrot Exposition: While Robert Doniger is having his one-on-one rants with ITC's vice president Diane Kramer, Diane often repeats small snippets of Doniger's speech back to him. Diane does this because she knows Doniger is really only talking to himself, and Doniger hearing his own words helps him to sort out his thoughts whenever he and his company are facing problems.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: A problem that ITC encounters when it tries to market the time travel technology. Who wants to witness the Gettysburg Address when all you're getting is watching an ugly man with an incredibly high-pitched voice speak quickly to a group of morose people in the rain? Who wants to see George Washington seasick and huddling with his men from a stormy, cold night during the famous crossing of the Delaware River?
  • Relocating the Explosion: In a bad way, the grenade, which kicks off the entire plot.
  • Sleep Learning: How ITC prepares its travelers to speak the proper dialects and such. It doesn't work too well, as in real life. Apart from picking up a few words and phrases while they're there, only André and the Professor can really communicate properly since they already knew the basics. Chris manages to scrape by with a bit of Latin.
  • Shown Their Work: In typical Crichtonian fashion.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: Adapted, effectively, on Doniger. In the book, he is tossed into the time machine and sent back a year after the rest, when the Black Death arrives in Europe.
  • Too Dumb to Live: The book version of Chris is pretty stupid, mostly not listening to André regarding anything for the first half. After which they're separated and he becomes marginally more intelligent.
  • Time Is Dangerous: Travel is accomplished by copying the information required to rebuild a perfect copy (at the atomic level) of the traveler and beaming this information into the past. Errors in copying are possible (in fact, inevitable if the machine isn't properly shielded) leading to Clone Degeneration.
  • Time Travellers Are Spies: Subverted. De Kere is a time traveler himself and he identifies the other time travelers as spies For the Evulz.
  • Universal Translator: The travelers use a hearing aid-like device so that they can understand Old English and French. It doesn't translate their speech, though-and they quickly begin picking up words by themselves.
  • Unreliable Expositor: The explanation for how time travel works (it's an alternate universe functionally identical to that time, not earlier in the same timeline) turns out to be simply wrong. It is, in fact, time travel-just... odd.
    • Justified in that the expositors in question, when pressed on several issues, admit that they don't really understand how the technology works... just that it does. This is not uncommon in quantum mechanics.
  • Would Hurt a Child: It's explained that knights and soldiers kill everyone when a castle falls-even if it means tearing babies out of their mothers' wombs.

The film features the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: There are no universal translators. The Medieval characters just speak modern English and French and the contemporary characters understand them just fine.
    • Somewhat justified because in the novel, the Medieval people COULD understand the time travelers to some extent, though they had difficulty understanding many of the modern grammatical rules they used (such as contractions). However, Middle English and Middle French were still pretty different, such that modern people wouldn't understand much of them. See The Canterbury Tales for an example of Middle English from the period in the book.
    • The film does not explain how ITC intended to profit off of time travel, leaving it a mystery. As they change it to being a wormhole locked on the region of Dordogne France in 1357, with them only going there, it can't be the idea of their viewing many great historical moments as in the book.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Arnaud is changed from a cruel, ruthless warlord into a noble warrior who fights for justice.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Andre Marek who is Dutch in the novel is changed to being a Scot on account of being played by Scottish actor Gerald Butler.
  • Arrows on Fire: Used in the siege scene.
  • Artistic License History: The film has the English treat a Frenchman as suspicious just for being French, and kill him as a spy. At the time however, most of the English nobles were themselves Norman-French, spoke French, and had French allies.
  • Black and White Morality: The historical conflict in the movies is presented as evil English forces versus noble French forces, as opposed to the conflict of two ruthless and ultimately selfish sides in the novel.
  • Cardboard Prison: Instead of putting them in a dungeon, which would be far harder to get out of, Lord Oliver's men instead put the group in the top room of a thatched house. This means they can just push through a hole in the roof to escape. Similarly Claire and Merek escape by breaking through a thin wall.
  • Composite Character: Steve Kramer combines the roles of the book's Diane Kramer and John Gordon, who are both high ranking corporate officers in ITC who later turn on Doniger. Robert de Kere's role also includes elements from another of Oliver's lieutenants in the book, Guy de Malegant.
  • Decomposite Character: The book's Andre Marek was split into three characters in the film: the movie's own Andre Marek, Frank Gordon, and Francois Dontelle. Movie Marek keeps the Born in the Wrong Century aspect of the book's character, Frank Gordon gets his role of the team's "muscle" (as well as the surname of another book character), and Francois his role as period translator (which, given the movie's use of Modern English and French instead means that his character doesn't stick around long).
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Despite its poor reception, the film has one of the most accurate depictions of medieval values in modern fiction.
    • It's rather well summed up in the scene where the main party is escaping and the Scotsman standing a few feet from the guard, with an arrow pointed at his chest says something to the effect of "Stay quiet if you value your life." The guard picks up his sword and yells "Traitors!" running at him. Before promptly being shot in the chest.
    • Lord de Vannes's casual murder of François after forcing him to say "I am a spy" is seen as nothing more than a mild diversion for the English. After all, they're at war with the French, so anything is allowed, right?
  • Eternal English: In contrast to the book, the film has this, with medieval French and English soldiers speaking the early 21st century version of their languages perfectly so that the English troops have no problems communicating with the modern-day heroes. This was handwaved by Translator Microbes in the book, which made a specific plot point of the fact that the medieval people spoke contemporary dialects of those languages (as well as Occitan and Latin), and having the time travelers struggle to be understood by them (because they naturally lacked the hidden earpiece translators the time travelers wore).
  • Gender Flip: Minor character Jimmy Gomez, one of ITC's security experts, is Sandra Gomez in the book. Steve Kramer is also this to the book's Diane Kramer, combined with Composite Character (see above).
  • Medieval Morons: Discussed when the group is trying to escape and Chris claims their modern knowledge is enough that they can surely outthink medieval people. It's quickly subverted however, since those people are no dumber than them and (being from the era) have a lot of advantages regarding knowledge. They only barely manage to escape.
  • Morton's Fork: Lord Oliver orders François to translate "I am a spy" from French into English to prove that he is an interpreter and not a spy. If he refuses or translates it wrongly, he'll be declared a spy and killed. If he complies... it will be considered a confession and he will be killed as well. Which he is.
  • Noodle Incident: Decker says the last time he'd seen Gordon, he had three arrows in him as the former escaped by time travel, leaving him behind.
  • Related in the Adaptation: Chris is turned into Professor Johnston's son, whereas in the book the latter is only a father figure for him. Claire becomes Arnaud's sister.
  • Separated by a Common Language: Marek tries to ask Claire if she's "with anyone", or "seeing anyone", but both times she takes him literally, and doesn't get it, as these aren't English expressions in the period.
  • The Big Damn Kiss: In the film, Andre Marek and Lady Claire, when Marek chooses to stay in the past at the Battle of Laroque.
  • Thrown Out the Airlock: Doniger is thrown into the final battle using the time machine, where a knight instantly decapitates him.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Taking François back with them. Did no one understand that taking a Frenchman back in time to a period where the English and French were at war would be an incredibly bad idea? Sure enough, shortly after arriving, he is forced to translate the phrase "Je suis un espion" into English ("I am a spy") and gets run through.
    • François himself as well. He translates the phrase as "I am a spy". Not, say, "You've asked me to translate 'I am a spy' M'lord." or "The phrase you said means you are referring to yourself as a spy, M'lord" or basically any other phrase that would work as a verbal loophole rather than a confession.
  • Tragic Villain: Decker was abandoned in the past by Gordon, with too many transcription errors to ever safely return. It's no wonder he became a ruthless knight to survive, or kills Gordon after seeing him. Gordon's plea about having a family enrages Decker, since he had a family too. His last words are "Take me home".
  • Ye Goode Olde Days: Marek has this view of life in the medieval era, saying people's lives had honor and purpose. The actual period shown is pretty brutal though, with little of honor. Nonetheless, he chooses to stay in the end.

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