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Necessary Fail
"There are many parts of my youth that I'm not proud of. There were loose threads - untidy parts of me that I would like to remove. But when I pulled on one of those threads, it unraveled the tapestry of my life."
Jean-Luc Picard, "Tapestry", Star Trek: The Next Generation

A subtrope of the Butterfly of Doom; this trope is sometimes used to "prove" not why You Can't Fight Fate, but why you shouldn't want to.

Whereas the Butterfly of Doom trope shows you everything that goes horribly wrong when you try to Set Right What Once Went Wrong; this trope demonstrates that what was once wrong was actually needed to make the present (or future) better.

Perhaps that the whole village getting nuked caused folks to denounce war. Maybe losing his wife caused The Hero to launch into his crusade to save others. Or maybe being used by the villain gives the hero knowledge and experience that will come in handy later. This is almost certainly the case if the wrong involved Hitler.

Note, this is not strictly a Time Travel Trope; sometimes the characters or narrator may simply reference the Necessary Fail as a part of backstory. But it can indeed be used in time travel stories to demonstrate how removing that downer event can lead to things being much worse.

See also My Greatest Failure, Misery Builds Character, and It's a Wonderful Plot.

Examples:

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     Comic Books 

     Film 
  • Pretty much the whole point of Slumdog Millionaire. If Jamal's life had sucked any less then he never would have been on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? let alone win the million and his happily ever after with Latika.
  • Everything bad that happens to the main characters in Kangaroo Jack turns out to be saving them from a hitman hired to kill them. Go Jackie Legs!
  • In Star Trek, it is implied that the Kelvin's destruction at the hands of the Narada led to Starfleet developed a beefed up and tough brand new Enterprise.
    • Also Subverted (And therefore ultimately zigzagged), in that one of the themes is regardless of how their starting points had changed (Particularly Kirk and Spock, whose circumstances had changed most significantly over the original universe), the entire main cast still wound up on the Enterprise in the same configuration as in the original universe
  • In the most recent film adaptation of The Time Machine the protagonist invents the machine so he could save his fiancée's life. So, since if not for her death, he wouldn't have invented it, she has to die in every timeline in which he and his machine appear.
  • Terminator: It seems that no matter how many Time Travel trips Skynet or The Resistance does, Judgement Day is doomed to happen. On a more positive note John Connor seems to be always fated to survive the event.

     Literature 
  • In the Discworld novel Night Watch, Sam Vimes considers and rejects this idea. Even if it costs him his future happiness and success, he consciously chooses to change events and saves many lives. The ones he wanted to save the most still don't make it, but he does make a difference.
  • In The End of Eternity, the protagonist works for an organisation that tinkers with history in an attempt to create and maintain a perfect timeline. His realisation of the existence of Necessary Fail is an important part of the story.
  • Played dead straight in Animorphs when Visser Four goes back in time to change history and make Earth easier to conquer. However, he screws himself when he gets to D-Day and realizes that Hitler is a nobody and there aren't Allies or Axis the way we usually think of them. When our heroes get the Time Matrix back, they struggle with changing things back so there was a Holocaust and think that maybe they should check out the current future and see if things are better. Eventually they come to the realization that some things are Necessary Fails and they shouldn't mess around with the past.
  • In Time Scout, this is why paradox never happens. It's never explained, it's just there.
  • In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency , a mistake in the Earth's distant past caused an alien ship to explode and provided the energy that kick-started the evolution of life the planet. Douglas Adams, who wrote the book, also wrote the Doctor Who serial City of Death which shared the same scenario.

     Live Action TV 
  • The quote above comes from the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Captain Picard expresses regret for his hot-headed ways which led to him getting stabbed in a bar fight. Of course, he learns that if not for that bar fight, he wouldn't have become The Captain that everybody came to know and love.
    • Next Generation also played with this again in the episode "Yesterday's Enterprise" where it is discovered that the destruction of an earlier Enterprisenote  helped lead to peace between the Klingons and the Federation.
      • In a non-time-travel example, Star Trek VI shows that it was the destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis that caused the Klingons to even consider peace with the Federation.
    • In Star Trek: Enterprise the faction from the future specifically state while they could've warned Earth about the initial Xindi attack that kills 7 million people, they figured it only be after the sneak attack that Starfleet would heed the greater danger. Notably it is the attack that leads to the Enterprise being retrofitted into a warship and the introduction of the famous photon torpedoes.
  • In the famous Doctor Who serial "Genesis of the Daleks", the Doctor states that although the creation of his archenemies the Daleks will have horrific consequences for the universe, there is good that will come of it, namely the many species that will join forces out of necessity to defeat them.
    • Of course, it also lead to the extinction of the Time Lords. Way to go, Doctor.
      • On the other hand, maybe that was the good. Particularly since it's revealed in "The End Of Time" that they're planning on committing genocide on an unthinkable scale by destroying time itself, in order that they can win the Time War and ascend to godhood.
      • The Time War would not have happened had the Daleks never come into existence.
      • The Doctor also says that the war showed who they really were, so even without the Daleks they may have planned on destroying time anyway. The Daleks just pushed the plan forward
    • In "The Waters Of Mars", the destruction of the first station on Mars and all of its crew inspired the mission leader's granddaughter to explore space, leading to a long family line of people who would eventually help Earth make peaceful contact with other alien races and eventually become an intergalactic power. Still doesn't make it any easier to tell the people on the Mars station that they're all about to die.
      • The mission leader was also inspired by a Dalek not exterminating her during the events of "Journey's End."
    • Don't forget the Doctor not only letting but causing the Vesuvius eruption that destroyed the city of Pompeii. The alternative was to let the Pyroviles take over the world.
  • Non-time-travel example that is both subversion and lampshading: in Chuck we learn that Chuck flunking out of Stanford was part of an attempt by his friend/rival to keep him from joining spy work. Of course, it didn't quite work out that way.
  • In Miami Vice, the two detectives come together over the loss of their partner/brother.
  • The difference between Ace Rimmer (what a guy!) and the loser Rimmer in Red Dwarf is that Ace was held back in school one year. It made him determined to succeed.
    • Also, Tikka To Ride speculates on what would have happened had Oswald's attempt to assassinate John F. Kennedy been unsuccessful. The answer is not pretty.
  • In the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The City on the Edge of Forever", Kirk realizes he must allow his Love Interest Edith Keeler to die in order to prevent a nuclear war—and the triumph of Nazi Germany in World War II.
  • In the LOST episode "The Little Prince," the time-flashing characters discover they've jumped to the night Boone died and Aaron was born. Locke sees the light from the hatch, and knows the earlier version of himself is nearby, but walks away.
    Sawyer: So why'd you turn us around then? Don't you wanna go back there?
    Locke: Why would I wanna do that?
    Sawyer: So you could tell yourself to do things different, save yourself a world of pain.
    Locke: No, I needed that pain to get to where I am now.
    • The sixth season seems to be going for a hefty helping of this in its Alternate Universe.
  • The first season of Heroes demonstrates how this can overlap with Well-Intentioned Extremist. The episode explaining Linderman's motivations is titled ".07%" after the percent of the world's population he's going to wipe out as part of his plan for world peace. (Incidentally, in the scenes set in the future, it didn't work.)
  • How I Met Your Mother goes into this occasionally: for example, "Lucky Penny" shows how Ted needed to miss out on his dream job because it would have moved him to Chicago, meaning that he would not have met his future wife.
  • In Misfits, former Olympic-standard athlete Curtis re-winds time to prevent himself getting arrested for cocaine possession (an event that ruined his career) but after he does this, it becomes apparent that he was meant to get caught in order to save the lives of his girlfriend Alisha and their friends Kelly and Simon, all of whom he met while on community service.
  • One Sabrina the Teenage Witch episode had Sabrina go back to the past to try to stop the event that made her and Harvey had a fallout. She is unsuccesful in it but eventually learns that the event was necessary for her and Harvey to understand each other better, so she just apologizes and they make out.
  • In Stargate SG-1 (and its movie), Jack O'Neill's son's death (he shot himself with Jack's own gun) is a major angst point, and it's clear that Jack blames himself for what's happened. However, it was because of Jack's suicidal depression in the movie that he was selected to go through the Stargate, and his history with the Stargate is what brings him back in the series. If his son hadn't died, SG-1 as we know it wouldn't have existed. And let's not even speculate what would have happened in episodes like Lost City, without the easy availability of, say, Jack's Ancient Technology Activation gene.
    • Also John Sheppard in Stargate Atlantis, whose reputation was ruined by his ill-fated attempt to rescue his friends in Afghanistan against direct orders. Had this not happened, he would've likely not been found to have an ATA gene and a natural knack at using it (on par with O'Neill) and wouldn't have ended up as part of the Atlantis mission. It would've likely failed without him. Ditto for Eli Wallace in Stargate Universe, who was forced to drop out of MIT when his mother contracted HIV from a patient of hers. He probably wouldn't have spent his time playing MMORPGs and solving puzzles that the government had secretly planted there. He wouldn't have ended up on the Destiny and saved their hides multiple times.
  • On Deep Space Nine it is the defeat Starfleet suffered at the hands of the Borg that directly led to the design and construction of the Defiant class of ships. These came in handy when the war with the Dominion broke out.
    • This seems to be part of the Origin Story for many of the major races. After the Vulcans nearly warred themselves to extinction, they embraced logic and became a major starfaring power in the quadrant. So too, the brutal third world war humanity survived caused humans to embrace peace and turn their science from war and violence to space exploration and other peaceful goals. The Klingons even get in on the act, as their history states that it was Klingons overthrowing an alien race that enslaved them that led to them becoming the Proud Warrior Race.
  • On 30 Rock, Liz called Jack a "Class A Moron" in front of a reporter. After she was quoted anonymously in print, Jack told Liz that as a child he was, coincidentally enough, labeled a "Class A Moron" by the Massachusetts Public School System and subsequently put in a weird special education class. Liz invokes this trope by telling him that having to overcome that made him the man he is today. Subverted at the end of the episode when it's revealed Jack knew it was Liz all along and made up the whole story to guilt trip her into confessing.
  • Despite the stigma of the "cursed jacket" from an episode of Better with You, the characters realize that the horrible failures they suffered while wearing it actually led to something better. In one story, if his jacket hadn't fallen, interfering with the game and causing the Yankees to lose, giving him the stigma of "that guy who screwed the Yankees," he would have fallen to his death instead.
  • In the Charmed episode 'There's Something About Leo,' Leo, who had recently become an Avatar, wanted to be able to convince Piper that the Avatars were not a threat (or at least not as far as he was aware at the time) by revealing to her that he had become one. Though the other Avatars did not agree with this decision (on the grounds that it would be better for her and her sisters to discover on their own), they allowed him to try. This all led to a chain of events that resulted in Leo nearly being killed by a potion designed to kill Avatars. And, so, when Alpha and Beta used some of their gathered power to reverse time to just before Leo had told Piper about his alliegence, he kept quiet about it this time.
  • The 'freak mishap' Ranger 3 suffers is the only reason Captain Rogers survives the oncoming nuclear war that wipes out much of civilization and is able to return to help a newly united Earth battle it's foes in the future.
  • In "Profile in Silver," an episode of the 1980's revival of The Twilight Zone, a 22nd-century Harvard history professor time-travels to observe the assassination of his ancestor John F. Kennedy. Unable to just stand by and watch, he intervenes and prevents the assassination, only to learn that his act will lead to nuclear war and the destruction of humanity. He finds a way to save JFK and prevent the war.

     Music 
  • The opera Beethoven's Last Night revolves around Fate giving Beethoven the chance to erase miserable moments from his life. In each instance, Beethoven discovers his misery, heartbreak, and eventual deafness all contributed to his incredible music. In the end, Beethoven refuses to erase even a single moment.

     Religion 
  • The Christian concept of felix culpa (blessed fault) considers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to have been ultimately good, as it allowed for Jesus' birth.
    • Milton, in Paradise Lost, suggests that an act of disobedience was necessary to give humanity free will, saving it from a meaningless existence. Jesus' birth is more of a way to fix the problems that went along with it, and apparently, he already existed anyway... It's complicated.
    • This is also one of the arguments in theodicy (the defense of the power and goodness of God despite the existence of evil): that sometimes suffering produces good consequences which could not have occurred any other way.
    • And finally, Jesus would not have been resurrected (and fulfilled whole Bible of prophecies) if he hadn't died in the first place.

     Video Games 
  • In Final Fantasy VI, Locke's failure to save his first love in his Backstory gave him his hatred of The Empire and his protective nature towards women in trouble, causing him to rescue two pivotal characters throughout the plotline.
  • In Chrono Trigger Lucca fails to rescue her mother from being maimed by a machine. Her failure drives her to become a mechanical genius, so that she will never fail again. If the player manages to save the mother through time travel, she still studies science and machinery and becomes a mechanical genius - according to Young!Lucca's diary, it's in order to make sure close calls like that never happen again, ultimately averting the trope.
    • Interestingly explored in the webcomic Captain SNES: The Game Masta, where averting the accident proves detrimental to Lucca's parents' emotional growth.
  • In Dragon Age: Origins, Teyrn Loghain decides it's necessary for the battle of Ostagar to be lost, so that the King could be killed in the battle and he could begin his struggle for power.
    • Alternative Character Interpretation in that Loghain knew the battle was lost and knew that sending more troops to die was futile. In all fairness, he tried to keep the king away from the battle (Cailan was his best friend's son, after all), but Cailan's head was filled with glorious stories of brave Grey Wardens defeating hordes of darkspawn. That and the fact that the whole battle plan at Ostagar was stupid in the first place.
  • In World of Warcraft, this is half of the point behind the Caverns of Time. The Infinite Dragonflight is trying to manipulate the past to prevent Medivh from opening the portal for the Orcs to invade Azeroth, and your job is to guarantee the invasion is successful because it will later cause various races to put aside their differences and band together against the Burning Legion. One expansion later, they go into the past to prevent Prince Arthas from crossing the Moral Event Horizon by slaughtering the innocent people of Stratholme before it becomes a Zombie Apocalypse, and your job is to keep him alive so he can kill them all. The villains claim they are trying to help, but it is obvious they want a temporal paradox.
    • Some quest lines require the player to be fooled by a villain into helping him before they can proceed to bash his head in.
      • Including one that starts around level 10, and ends at level 80ish involving Grand Apothecary Putress betraying Sylvanas and the Horde.
  • Command & Conquer: Red Alert essentially invokes this, by having the plot of the games be the huge global conflict and Timey-Wimey Ball repercussions that results when Einstein prevents World War II.
  • Shirou tries to convince Saber this in the Fate arc of Fate/stay night, and in doing so comes to an epiphany about his own Survivors Guilt. The necessity of destroying the Grail makes this moot.
  • Star Trek: Borg: When you're part of an Away Team beamed aboard a Borg cube, you have to take the option to disregard what your fandom sense tells you, and start a fight with a few Borg drones who would have ignored you otherwise, even though you inevitably lose and get assimilated. This means you get the access codes to the cube's systems, and once Q sends you back in time to try again you use them to your advantage.
  • In Katawa Shoujo, Hisao's condition revealing itself at the worst possible time costs him any chance of a relationship with Iwanako, but if the player makes the right choices, he gets a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with a Yamaku schoolmate he most likely otherwise would not have met.

     Web Comics 

     Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko spends most of the show angsting about his banishment, scar and what a disappointment he's been to his father. Finally, at his Heel-Face Turn, he tells his father that the banishment was the greatest thing he ever could have done. It allowed Zuko to see the evil the war inflicted and realize that he could make his own honour.
  • In the Gravity Falls episode "The Time Traveler's Pig", Dipper uses a time machine to go back in time and undo a mistake he made. Unfortunately, the only way to accomplish this would result in Mabel being beaten to winning her pet pig Waddles in a carnival game... by her Sitcom Arch-Nemesis Pacifica.
  • An episode of Lilo & Stitch: The Series had Lilo being embarrassed in front of her crush while trying to catch one of Stitch's cousins. She uses a time machine invented by Jumba to try and get a do-over, but each attempt ends with increasingly disastrous consequences that end with her and Stitch having to be saved from being stranded in another timeline by a Bad Future version of Jumba.

     Real Life 
  • Tyler Perry, creator of the popular stage plays and movies featuring Mable "Madea" Simmons, used his abusive childhood and depression to help form the basis of his movies which often feature people overcoming similar ordeals through faith in God, hope, and love.
    • A great many writers/creators have a similar backstory. For example, J. K. Rowling has stated that dealing with the loss of her own mother as well as coping with being an unemployed single mother led to many of themes that would become famous in Harry Potter.
    • Self-publishing phenom Amanda Hocking says that it was her childhood depression that spurred her writing career.
  • James Cameron's career had stalled out with a failed attempt to direct the B-horror movie Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. This career bust and his subsequent bout with food poisoning resulted in a delirious episode and hospital stay in Italy. During this time he crafted another B-movie about a killer cyborg on a rampage. That was pretty much the last time fail and James Cameron appeared in the same sentence.
    • YMMV on some of Cameron's post-True Lies work.
    • George Lucas wanted to be a race-car driver, but a crash pre-empted that career path. He turned is attention to making movies instead.
  • This is commonly referenced in many religions as an explanation/justification/excuse when bad things occur to followers, typically expressed as "God works in mysterious ways."
  • The investigation into the pad fire which took the lives of the Apollo 1 crew revealed a number of major design flaws in the spacecraft which might otherwise have gone undetected until later in the program and could have resulted in the United States missing the end-of-decade deadline for a manned lunar landing set by President Kennedy.
  • Robert Downey, Jr. almost destroyed an acting career that seemed destined for greatness through heavy drug use, but thankfully he sought help and was able to overcome his drug addictions. The experience probably made him the perfect fit to play a rich genius who cares little for the consequences of his lifestyle, hits rock bottom, and finds redemption as a superhero.
  • Walt Disney's firstnote  live-action musical, Babes in Toyland, failed to make a splash at the box office. Consequently, Walt looked for some elements that he could improve on next time he would do a fantasy musical, such as production values, substance, and casting. By managing not to repeat the same mistakes of Babes in Toyland, his next foray into this genre became one of the most beloved movies of his career-Mary Poppins.
    • Additionally, Julie Andrews wouldn't have starred in Mary Poppins if she didn't lose the leading role of the My Fair Lady movie adaptation to Audrey Hepburn, as Warner was filming it at the same time Disney was filming Poppins. Andrews went on to beat Hepburn in the Best Actress category of both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, and play another singing nanny in The Sound of Music, the highest-grossing movie of its time.
  • For many people who had fought with drug or alcohol addiction, they noted that it wasn't until they hit rock bottom that they started seek help and ultimately changed for the better.

Misery Builds CharacterSour Grapes TropesNo Good Deed Goes Unpunished
Butterfly of DoomTime Travel TropesCan't Take Anything With You
NarmIndex FailureNo Dead Body Poops
Near Death ExperienceNarrative DevicesNeedle in a Stack of Needles

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