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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 an 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, Marton Csokas, Anna Friel and David Thewlis, among others.

Provides examples of the following tropes:

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     Tropes from the 1999 Novel
  • Affably Evil: Arnaut de Cervole may be ruthless, but he's impeccably polite, keeps his word, and is far more reasonable than Lord Oliver.
  • 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.
  • Armies Are Evil: This is one of many works that presents a negative view of medieval warfare. One of the team even goes so far as to claim that when castles finally fell after sieges, everyone inside them was killed, and talks of pregnant women being disemboweled (naturally, some historians believe that this was Truth in Television, judging from the chronicles of the time, while others suspect that the chroniclers themselves were exaggerating the atrocities, making the Rape, Pillage, and Burn trope essentially the medieval equivalent to the modern Every Car Is a Pinto trope).note 
  • 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. It turns out 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.
  • Babies Ever After: Chris and Kate eventually fall for each other, and Kate is pregnant with their first child in the epilogue. They also discover that André married Lady Claire and had five sons.
  • Badass Normal: Andre Marek, who can hold his own against battle-experienced knights in a joust due to being a fanatic historical reenactor.
  • Big Bad: Lord Oliver.
  • Blood Knight: De Kere.
  • Black Box: Even the people who designed and operate it have no idea how several critical parts of the travel technology works.
  • 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.
  • The Corruption - The technology that powers the not-quite Time Travel involves scanning the entire human entity including the consciousness residing in it down to the subatomic level and then transmitting the results through the actually-what-they-call-it "quantum foam", the uneven surface structure of spacetime. When it arrives at the intended destination it is reconstructed somehow, nobody knows how, they theorize it might be another machine in a different universe that nobody in this reality has invented yet. Every step in that process can introduce tiny transcription errors. Most transcription errors result in a row of atoms just a bit out of line, but the worse the errors get the more pronounced the effects get. Particularly bad errors can cause physical mutations, duplications, or fatal internal bleeding, but even tiny, microscopic errors can have massive effects on brain tissue. And no matter how well shielded from cosmic rays (the main source of transcription errors, see the other wiki about Data degradation) at least some transcription errors will happen. And, of course, any return trip from, say, the past is not going to be shielded during the transcription process. Every trip causes some damage, and everyone who uses the technology enough either suffers the physical symptoms, possibly fatally, or goes mad.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Robert Doniger. When a man dies because of transcription errors accumulated through use of his technology, he has the death covered up; he sends the students back in time without ever warning them about de Kere, he's verbally abusive to his employees, and he acts like a Jerkass right up until he himself is sent backwards in time to the advent of the Black Death in Europe.
  • Creator Thumbprint: The stated plan for how to most effectively use Time Travel is... to make more historically accurate theme parks. Like Jurassic Park (and, to an extent, West World) the novel is often about the gulf between what is imagined to be realistic and that which is really true.
  • Cunning Linguist: De Kere is dismissed as being their rival time traveler despite being everyone's first guess because he speaks the language far too well for the short time he'd have been there. It turns out he just learns languages quickly.
  • 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: This happens to Sir Guy while chasing after Kate.
  • 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. Because of this, the post-Black Death cultural attitude towards bathing went too far in the other direction, with monarchs like Isabella I of Spain boasting 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.
  • Evil vs. Evil: Arnaut and Lord Oliver are both pretty bad, though Arnaut is A Lighter Shade of Black.
  • For the Evulz: Robert de Kere, who kills people out of simple enjoyment (although it's eventually revealed that brain damage accumulated over several trips to the past probably caused, or at least worsened, his issues.)
  • Grandfather Paradox: When one of the travelers asks this exact question, Doniger 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 (it's treated as this in-universe as well; it's implied that Doniger himself doesn't understand his own technology, and the scientist asking the question is appropriately put-off by this.)
  • Happily Ever After: Chris and Kate eventually marry, and Kate is seven months pregnant in the epilogue. Likewise, André stays in the past, marries Lady Claire, and lives a successful life as a nobleman until his death at 54.
  • Hard on Soft Science - Inverted Trope. The bleeding edge quantum science that makes the time travel possible is put to the use of a cruel technocrat, consumes those who create and operate it, its creators don't even know how it works, and generally it's a disaster for anyone who touches it. The archeologists, who did so well in a prior Crichton outing, barely escape with their lives. It's the linguist who makes it out best of the lot.
  • Hate Sink: Robert Doniger. He's a smug douchebag who is more than willing to let the team die if it meant exploiting the quantum technology for his own financial gain. He ends up being sent back in time to 1348, where he ends up dying from the Black Plague.
  • 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.
  • Kill It with Fire: Chris kills Robert de Kere this way during the final battle by spitting on quicklime covering de Kere's body.
  • 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.
  • Like a Duck Takes to Water: Two of the modern characters end up living with ease and comfort in Late Medieval France. The first is a Marine with an uncanny knack for languages. The second is a history grad student with a passion for all things from his period of study; language, clothes, culture, sports, war... The first insinuates himself into a French court. The second lives his natural span, happily married to a French noblewoman.
  • 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.
  • Medieval Morons: Averted. In this book, the time travelers are often outwitted and outmatched by the natives. A consistent theme is that while the time travelers possess modern knowledge, they do not have the skills or resources to survive in the more primitive environment. Of particular note is that Crichton specifically details the natives' sanitation practices. Lack of awareness of bacteria did not prevent them from attending to hygiene, averting the stereotype of "living in filth". On the other hand there are some pretty disgusting things, such as the tannery, that were Truth in Television.
  • 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.
  • Quantum Mechanics Can Do Anything: The book uses liberal Quantum Technobabble to explain its "Not-really-Time-Travel Time Travel". The technology started as an attempt to build a teleporter after a company built the first Quantum Computer, which was capable of storing the position and state (thus breaking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) of every atom in an object. Instead of teleporting though the machine sends objects to Alternate Universes. Things started getting really Quantum Mechanicy when it's revealed that they have no idea how to turn that data back into a real object. So every time the machine is used the person or object sent must therefore arrive from yet another different universe than the one it was originally sent from, where they have the ability to turn data back into reality.
  • 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.
  • Sanity Slippage: What happens to people who use the time machine too much and accumulate errors.
  • 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.
  • 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 tricks Lord Oliver into believing the other time travelers are spies in order to take their return markers for himself.
  • 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.
  • Trapped in the Past: It happens to several characters, for varying levels of "trapped." Deckard has insinuated himself into the court of one of the warring nobles after being left behind, becoming de Kere. Marek ultimately chooses to stay behind voluntarily. Finally, Doniger receives this treatment as a sort of temporal Thrown Out the Airlock, being sent back to the midst of the Black Death pandemic.note 
  • 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. One theory they seriously consider is that they're piggybacking on an alternate version of their project that does know how the technology works.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: By all accounts Robert Deckard/Roderick de Kere was a Nice Guy, but too many errors turned him into an Ax-Crazy Blood Knight.
  • Villains Blend in Better - Nobody suspects Roderick de Kere's true nature for a variety of reasons in-universe but, ultimately, it's this trope.

     Tropes from the 2003 Film

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the film, he's portrayed by the suave Michael Sheen. In the book, however...
    Lord Oliver de Vannes was about thirty, with small eyes set in a fleshy, dissolute face. His mouth was permanently turned down in a sneer; he tended to keep his lips tight, since he was missing several teeth.
  • 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.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Robert Deckard AKA de Kere's name in this film is changed to William Decker AKA De Kere.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Arnaud is changed from a cruel, ruthless warlord (who at best was A Lighter Shade of Grey compared to Lord Oliver) 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 Gerard Butler.
  • Adaptational Villainy: To make Doniger's demise more appropriate, he actually sabotaged and tried to cover his lacking safety protocols. Plus he accidentally murders someone.
  • Arrows on Fire: Used in the siege scene. But that's old hat, what about arrows not on fire?
    "Night arrows! A little surprise for the French."
  • 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. The French and English did not wear red or blue uniforms at the time either. In that era there were no standard uniforms at all. If any, each lord's men wore his colors/emblem, not a national one.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Marek, a major fan of the past, is this when he chooses to stay behind in 1357 becoming the mysterious soldier with the missing ear buried next to Lady Claire.
  • 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.
  • Big "NO!": Marek lets one out when De Kere stabs Frank Gordon to death.
  • 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 Marek 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. William De Kere's role also includes elements from another of Oliver's lieutenants in the book, Guy de Malegant.
  • Dead Guy Junior: One of Marek and Claire's three children is named after the slain François in his honor.
  • 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?
  • Desperate Plea for Home: Sir William De Kere is eventually revealed to be William Decker, a former ITC employee stranded in the past and unable to return to the present due to transcription errors - an experience that's left him understandably bitter. As such, after being fatally wounded in a swordfight with Marek in the climax, he is left deliriously begging to be taken home before he finally expires.
  • 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).
  • Fan of the Past: Most of the main characters are historians of the medieval era. One of them is a lifelong enthusiast who's trained himself in period-era blacksmithing and swordplay. Early on in the film, he describes the life of a knight and concludes with the mildly invokednarmy "The past is where it's at!"
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: William Decker goes from ITC employee #273 to Sir William De Kere, medieval badass and aid to Lord Oliver bent on revenge on the company that left him behind.
  • 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).
  • Hollywood Tactics: The "using arrows on fire at night" tactic is done. Subverted, though: the point of the fire arrows was so that the attackers wouldn't be prepared for the "night arrows," which were simply unlit arrows.
  • I Choose to Stay: Marek chooses to stay behind in 1357 after he realizes he's the unnamed man buried with Claire in the present. He spent the remainder of his life married to Claire with whom he had three children.
  • 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.
  • Stable Time Loop: Marek is the mysterious man he found next to Lady Claire.
  • 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. Not that it would likely have helped him...
  • 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".
  • Trapped in the Past: Several characters:
    • The impetus for the group going back in the first place is the professor not having returned.
    • Decker was previously left behind by Gordon, and has been forced to insinuate himself into Lord Oliver's graces.
    • Marek voluntarily stays behind when the rest of the group returns to the present.
    • Doniger effectively trades places with the group when they return, and explicitly states that he has no way of getting back. He's killed almost instantly.
  • 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.