Time Travel Agencies and Associated Paperwork
Fresh on the heels of the time-traveling and reality altering adventures of Avengers: Endgame, Marvel is back to bend minds and generally sow time-based chaos with a limited TV series, all centered on Loki. In the trailers, we see Loki grabbed and taken away by agents of The Time Variance Authority, of which he becomes an agent (in his own chaotic way, presumably).
The Time Variance Authority looks suitable, surreal, weird, and like a lot of fun, but it’s interesting to note that it is hardly the first organization trying to apply rules and paperwork-detail to time and space. Here are a few more organizations trying to do the same thing.
The Temps Commission: The Umbrella Academy
To explain the world of Netflix’s TV show The Umbrella Academy would take several articles with a lot of detail, and probably still leave someone confused about it. It’s a strange, hyper-colored, fantastical and very surreal show that moves through its weird characters and situations with such confidence, it never throws you out. Eventually as the plot moves along, we discover the Temps Commission, a group that strives to make sure events happen correctly throughout time and space, and if they’ve got to send out some truly odd assassins to make it happen, then that’s what they’re going to do.
Their style is strange, they have a great number of pneumatic tubes in their headquarters, and sooner or later you meet a gentleman who is a fish in a bowl of water. Look, we said it was surreal.
The Federal Time Bureau: Legends of Tomorrow
In DC's Legends of Tomorrow on The CW, we follow a motley crew of sort-of-heroes through time and space, saving the Earth and the universe one increasingly strange adventure at a time. It’s a show that’s found some silly and weird ideas and leaned way into them, growing and more odd and creative as its gone along. It all begins when we meet Rip Hunter (played by Arthur Darvill, who played Rory in Doctor Who, clearly an actor comfortable with time travel shows), an agent of the Time Masters, who are a mysterious and powerful council working to keep time and space functioning correctly. Eventually, though, they’re deposed and replaced by the Federal Time Bureau, which is less science fictional and more bureaucratic, with sensible suits, plenty of paperwork, nice desks, and even a Gary. It could be argued that they’re not any easier to work with or less overbearing and demanding than the Time Masters were, just that they’ve brought along a lot more forms to fill out…but they get to a useful, workable place eventually. And so does Gary. Poor Gary.
Time Agency, Time Lords (multiple), Time Lord (singular): Doctor Who
Where we do we begin with the management of time and space present in the long-running British TV show Doctor Who? Well, we work from least useful to most useful, of course. First we’ve got the Time Agency, an organization we don’t know a tremendous amount about, which deploys agents throughout space and time using “cheap and nasty time travel” wrist units. We meet Captain Jack Harkness, the major Time Agent we encounter. We also see very little beneficially done by the Time Agency that’s helping or harming anything.
But if they’re fairly benign, then here we move on to a group which is anything but benign: The Time Lords. From the planet Gallifrey, the race of Time Lords have mastered traveling time and space, and see themselves as the superior race, who should be the true arbiters of what happens and doesn’t happen throughout the universe. Given the Time Wars we encounter, which results in their annihilation (Sort of. It’s all Timey Wimey.), we can guess that the rest of the universe is less keen on them.
And then we come to the ultimate of all three groups, and that is the titular Time Lord, singular, of our show, the Doctor. Through thousands of years, the Doctor has been a gently chaotic protector of Earth and all the worlds out beyond it, forward and back through all of history. The Doctor has the Time Lords’ sense of being superior and being the ultimate authority…but also a willingness to change, or try and do better, which is perhaps why he does less harm and more good for everything than the rest of his race. He even reboots the whole universe now and then. That’s a pretty high bar, isn’t it.
Department of Temporal Affairs: Star Trek
From the wildness of the Time Lords, we come back to the tending to time and space in a boring, paperwork filled fashion. The Star Trek universe is no stranger to time travel. From the original series onward, we’ve been wandering back into earth’s past, or forward into strange futures. Sooner or later, someone has to keep track of this, and we wind up with two organizations, or perhaps one organization, we’re never quite sure. The Department of Temporal Affairs is introduced in Deep Space Nine, as a couple of put-upon agents trying to sort out a time travel adventure that saw Captain Sisko and Captain Kirk cross paths (Captain Kirk, having time traveled so much, is their greatest source of stress, clearly).
It just seems like a benign Federation organization…but interestingly, on Star Trek: Enterprise, we occasionally jump around in time with Temporal Agents, and a Starfleet that exists far in the future, fighting a Temporal War, and trying to solve it backwards and forwards through time. Is this the evolution of the Department of Temporal Affairs? If so, they traded paperwork for nifty starships, and we are fully onboard with that.
There are many more organizations working to be the traffic cops of time and space, of course. Many of them are banal, some of them are weird and surreal, a few of them are all of that mixed together. Where will the Time Variance Authority fall on that list in the show Loki? Well, judging from the decor and the gleeful weirdness of WandaVision, we are willing to bet it’s going to fall on the very, very weird end of this list, and we can’t wait.
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Peter Damien lives in the Pacific Northwest where he writes quite a lot, reads quite a lot, cooks many things, and tries to keep his cat from escaping outside. He’s been published at BookRiot, SF Signal, and a great number of magazines and anthologies. You can find him on twitter @peterdamien , or you can say his name three times in a mirror, but that won’t work and you’ll feel very silly.