Recently in China, there have been a glut of popular time travel television shows and movies. Typically, a character from modern China goes back in time and discovers that the past was a great place to live: lots of unpolluted air and water; horseback rides instead of traffic jams; epic battles for a noble cause; and romance everywhere.
This seems like a fun idea, but the Chinese government has taken a hard line and reportedly banned the entire time travel genre until further notice, as well as historical dramas based on certain works of classical literature. (Although I’m still hoping it’s all a big April Fool’s joke.)
From the Chinese General Bureau of Radio, Film and Television (via Boing-Boing):
“The time-travel drama is becoming a hot theme for TV and films. But its content and the exaggerated performance style are questionable. Many stories are totally made-up and are made to strain for an effect of novelty. The producers and writers are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”
If the pretext is that time travel stories are frivolous and inaccurate…well, duh! Here in the United States, cartoons about Mr. Peabody and his boy, Sherman, debuted in the 1950s as part of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. Mr. Peabody was a Gallifreyan Time Lord whose botched regeneration had given him the form of a talking dog. Sherman was Mr. Peabody’s companion, whose sole purpose was to wander around asking, “Where are we, Mr. Peabody? What’s this, Mr. Peabody? And who is that, Mr. Peabody?”
According to Wikipedia, 91 segments of “Peabody’s Improbable History” were aired, with each containing a silly plot that ended in a horrible pun. Did the writers “treat serious history in a frivolous way?” Heck, yeah! But that didn’t make anyone want to ban Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine, Doc Brown’s DeLorean, the Doctor’s TARDIS, and all other depictions of time travel on TV and in the movies. There’s got to be something else going on in Beijing.
My theory: time travel stories often include a political message or cultural commentary. By making a purposeful connection with the past, or by projecting current trends into the future, an author can make a powerful statement about the present. This goes back at least to H.G. Wells’s 1885 novel, The Time Machine, which took a stab at class warfare in Victorian England by journeying to a future where the upper and lower classes had evolved into two separate species–with one literally cannibalizing the other.
Sometimes the subtext is open to interpretation, or may be an unintentional consequence of some throwaway joke in the script. Like when Robert Zemeckis gave us an alternate take on the origins of rock and roll music in the first Back to the Future movie. Did he really mean to create a scenario where African Americans stole rock & roll from white kids instead of the other way around? You be the judge!
In recent Chinese time travel stories, “the past as a primo tourist destination” is a theme that could be perceived as clashing with the party line that “things have never been better than now.” And because the subtext can be subtle and subjective, the censors might have chosen to shut down the entire genre just to be sure.
It’s a shame because this apparently now-banned series looks seriously awesome:
–Greg R. Fishbone, time after time