I’m a sucker for time travel media, I always have been. From Back to the Future to Looper and from Doctor Who to Primer – it’s hard to find a time travel movie I haven’t seen. My friends know this about me and occasionally use it to their advantage. My wife tricked me into seeing Me Before You by claiming it was a time travel romance. I was half an hour in before I realised I’d been duped.
The thing about time travel stories is they often require you to see the story as a whole before it will make sense and that can be tricky. We’re used to following events as they unfold and in our daily life it’s not possible for a later cause to lead to an earlier effect. So writing a good, internally consistent time travel story is difficult and when people ask me which film I think did it best, they’re usually surprised to hear that it was the Bill & Ted franchise.
“Seriously?” they ask “But surely Bill & Ted screw up the timeline royally. They steal historical figures from all over time and generally don’t worry about the effect that might have on history”. On first glance you’re right, but not really. You see, there was never any danger of them messing up the timeline, nor was there any danger of their plan failing or their being killed.
The reason for this is that Bill S. Preston and Ted Theodore Logan live in what time travel aficionados call an ‘Immutable Timeline’. Basically, despite the fact that they can travel back and forwards in time, they can’t actually change anything. Anything they choose to do in the past, they already did before they even left. Confusing? Yes, a little.
Consider this: Near the end of the first movie they decide to go back in time and steal Ted’s dad’s keys in order to break into the prison. But Ted’s dad had already asked Ted about his missing keys earlier in the film. Even though Bill & Ted hadn’t traveled in time yet, the decision to steal the keys had already happened and the act had already taken place.
This applies to everything in the movie; they trust Rufus because their future selves told them to, then they tell their past selves to trust him. There’s no version of events where there isn’t a future Bill & Ted to tell the past Bill & Ted to go on the adventure, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t. You see? Same with the medieval babes. They only went to go meet them because Future Ted told them to. And they turn out to be members of Wyld Stallyns in the future.
In fact, the existence of Rufus at all proves that everything in the movie will turn out alright. It’s worth remembering that the big crisis in Excellent Adventure is that they’ll fail History class, which will lead to Ted being sent to military school and the band splitting up. No band, no mind blowing music that brings about world peace and a Utopian society. But they’re not going to fail because of any outside time traveling force or anything, but just because they’re stupid. Ted thought Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife for crying out loud! If Rufus hadn’t intervened then they would have failed and Rufus could only exist because they didn’t fail. He ensures his own existence. The Utopian future of 2688 has no true beginning, it created itself through time travel.
In fact, some early dialogue in the film hints at this cyclical existence;
Bill: Ted, while I agree that in time our band will be most triumphant, the truth is Wyld Stallyns will never be a super band until we have Eddie Van Halen on guitar.
Ted: Yes Bill, but I do not believe we will get Eddie Van Halen until we have a triumphant video.
Bill: Ted, it’s pointless to have a triumphant video before we even have decent instruments.
Ted: Well how can we have decent instruments when we really don’t even know how to play.
Bill: That is why we need Eddie Van Halen.
Ted: And that is why we need a triumphant video.
Both: Excellent. (Air Guitar.)
This means that, in the context of the story, Billy the Kid always had a chance to chat up girls in the food court with Socrates, Abraham Lincoln always fought with a photographer over his hat and Joan of Arc always fell in love with aerobics. In fact, the implication that she believes the whole adventure to be a spiritual experience is probably true. None of this changes history in any way.
So why is this the best time travel story if the paradoxical existence of the Utopian future makes so little sense? Because it’s consistent. The rules of time travel never change throughout the Bill & Ted franchise. Unfortunately that leads to the creation of the stupidest villain in the history of cinema.
There are two genuine attempts made to change past events in the Bill & Ted franchise. The first is when Ted realises his watch has stopped and he reminds his past self to wind it. This doesn’t work, because if he had remembered to wind his watch, he wouldn’t need to remind himself.
The other attempt is the villain of the second film, De Nomolos (whose name, side note, is a reference to writer Ed Solomon). De Nomolos grew up in the Utopian future of Wyld Stallyn’s creation and hates it, so in 2691 he decides to change things by going back in time and killing Bill & Ted to prevent them from changing the world with their music.
Rufus, who naturally understands these things, tries to warn him.
Rufus: You won’t get away with it.
De Nomolos: Time will tell.
Rufus: Time has told.
But De Nomolos tries anyway, fails horribly and in the process is humiliated live on television in front of the entire world before Bill & Ted play their music and bring about world peace.
Oh, yeah, spoilers, sorry.
But here’s the thing, the battle of the bands wasn’t supposed to be broadcast worldwide originally. De Nomolos used future tech on the cameras to force the broadcast out so that everyone would see his “victory”. And this is the part that really shows just how stupid he is. He knew they were about to get their message out to the world and that this would be the event where it happened.
De Nomolos: They’ve reached the second crucial turning point in their destiny. Their message is about to reach millions.
That wouldn’t have happened if De Nomolos hadn’t intervened. The broadcast wouldn’t have been worldwide and crucially, Bill & Ted wouldn’t have had access to the time booth and been able to hop away for 18 months to get good at guitar.
You know how they say Indiana Jones could have stayed home in Raiders and the outcome would have been the same? Well De Nomolos could have stayed home in Bogus Journey and the outcome would have been in his favour.
And it’s not like he couldn’t have known this was gonna happen because those events will always have played out this way. The battle of the bands was a historic event for these people, he must have seen the footage. Imagine growing up in a world where the moon landing featured an older version of you attempting to kill Neil Armstrong and then getting humiliated and arrested (presumably by Moon Police).
Would you grow up in that world and think “You know, if only I could kill Neil Armstrong, then my life would be better. I’ll go back in time and do that. I’m sure it’ll all work out”.