Friday, November 8, 2013

Time Will Tell: The Role of Science Fiction in Reality

Castle is a TV drama/comedy where a mystery writer named Rick Castle is paired with a NYPD detective named Kate Beckett, and together, the two of them solves murders together.  It's one of the shows I regularly watch, and as I've written before for this website, I think that the casting of the show and the importance of Castle's imagination points to a connection with science fiction and fantasy, even though the show is usually firmly grounded in reality.

Two weeks ago, though, an episode aired that changed Castle's usual approach to the supernatural.  In "Time Will Tell," Castle and Beckett are investigating a murder where someone who claims to be a time-traveler is a likely murder suspect.  Take a look:

As this trailer suggests, the time-travel elements in the show are mostly played for laughs.  Castle believes the story of the "time-traveler," and this becomes just another one of his goofy theories.  The case is solved, as usual, through Beckett's analysis of evidence and her use of sound reasoning.

But something happens at the end of the episode that shakes this up a bit (spoilers after the jump):

At the very end of the episode, two things happen that make both Castle and Beckett, as well as the viewer, think that time travel might actually be possible.  As the "time-traveler" is leaving the precinct, Castle runs after him, only to find that the man has seemingly disappeared just around the corner.  Similarly, Beckett spills her coffee on a piece of evidence from the case--a letter than the murderer also had a copy of.  While Beckett had thought the two letters were separate copies, her coffee spill makes the copy she had look almost exactly like the copy the time-traveling murderer had.  In other words, it seems that the murderer had gotten the letter after she had spilled coffee on it during the investigation, then taken it back in time so it could be evidence for the case as well.  Both of these brief scenes at the end are clearly meant to make the reader think that time travel might actually be possible after all.

I read that some fans of the show were frustrated with this turn of events, which kind of makes sense.  While time-travel is fun, changing a show's rules of reality mid-stream doesn't seem fair.  Viewers should know what they signed up for, and in the world of Castle, that has always been a world solidly rooted in reality.

Yet I think the open ending of this episode is a very valuable thing--not because it introduces the possibility of time travel, but because it reminds viewers that things very rarely end neatly.  Compared to the real world, where court cases are complicated, murder investigations often take weeks, and loose ends are left dangling, TV murder cases are often resolved in an hour.  The detectives almost always get a confession, and everyone can go home, feeling like there are no more unanswered questions.

But real life isn't like that.  There are almost always unanswered questions, and that's why the ending of "Time Will Tell" is so valuable--not because it suggests that the supernatural might exist in the world of Castle, but because it reminds viewers that the cases Castle and Beckett solve week after week have unrealistically neat endings.  The unexpected unresolved ending, brought into the show by the supernatural, comes into stark contrast with the usually neat and tidy endings of reality.  It seems like this kind of reminder is a good thing to have every once in a while.

By Jen Miller