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Untitled (series epilogue)
Let's see, where did things leave off? Issue 26, cover-dated December 06, had wrapped with the defeat of The Four. Snow had just quit smoking. Jakita was disappointed she hadn't hit anything. Snow was anxious to get started showing the world the marvels that have been kept from them. And Snow mentioned, "Just one loose thread to take care of. One last thing to take from the soil of the 20th century." At the time, we hoped he had meant saving Ambrose Chase.
We knew there was an "epilogue" issue, but didn't know when to expect it.
And the years ticked by.
Three years later, Issue 27, cover dated December 09, was released, wrapped in a gorgeous gatefold cover featuring characters and scenes from the entire series. We quickly find that it's only been a year in Wildstorm time. The Planetary organization has sifted through 20% of Dowling's database, and the media is buzzing with the huge changes already wrought by the information Planetary has shared with the world: an anti-cancer treatment; cheap levitation; the "supper-fabber" that creates temporary shelters; "life stations" that deliver water, basic protein, heat, and light for free; the "qunet" device that allows instantaneous communication across space; and a carbon fabric called "hyper-collimation" that serves as bombproof shielding.
This is not enough for Elijah Snow, of course. We see Drummer talking to the Planetary organization, telling them that Snow is "going insane" over the lack of progress. Snow himself is shown getting counseled in patience from Jakita Wagner, Anna Hark and Axel Brass, in turn.
The the scene turns to the field team sitting around something no less mundane than a kitchen table, discussing the mission where Ambrose Chase was lost. Drummer explains that Chase was a natural description-theory engine, and could exert a non-physics bubble around himself where he could decide how physics would work. Drummer claims he saw this power turn on jut before Chase vanished. Snow believes that Chase turned off time to save himself and may still be alive, frozen in time, within a bubble of his own creation. (Snow first advanced this belief back in Issue 19.) Drummer addresses the problems presented if the theory is correct: no way to help Chase within the bubble (where time is stopped) and no known way to control or change the bubble from the outside.
Drummer then brings up the discovery of a working theory of time travel in Dowling's files. Unlike so many time travel theories and machines made popular in television and movies, this one has a novel limitation: you can't go bak in time to a point before the time machine was invented. This creates a scary possibility. Drummer explains that there's a possibility that the moment you complete the machine and turn it on, everyone who will ever use it in the future to go back to this earliest point will immediately appear. He cites the famous Schrödinger's cat problem (which, oversimplified, simply holds that the cat is both in alive and dead states until it is observed; at that point, the probabilities of the cat being in one state or another collapse and the actual state of the cat becomes fixed). The time machine makes something similar possible, but on a large scale, as future probabilities become locked certainties. "The whole of the future can be said to have happened at once," says Drummer, since the appearance of everyone using the time machine means that all of the uncertain decisions that may or may not have made future actions possible have happened. The future is set; all other possibilities vanish.
Despite the fact that Chase vanished several years back, and time travel can't go back further than the point at which the machine is created and turned on, Snow tells Drummer to get it built. Snow goes off to read up on quantum physics. (As he indicated back in Issue 19, he hasn't the science learning to understand these things well.)
The scene shifts to the secret base Dowling used to create and explore a fictional reality. Snow and Jakita briefly discuss the fictional being that came back from the inaugural mission, but was never found. Drummer enters with a "hunting team," saying he won't build the time machine until he actually verifies that Chase is still there. He goes on to explain that there will be an energy signature coming off of Chase's bubble and, what's more, a different type of energy coming off of the bubble would deliver the power needed to meet the considerable energy needs of the time machine.
Jakita loves the science talk.
Not letting up, Drummer outlines Snow's theory of how the time machine itself can be used to impact Chase's bubble. In the same way massive, rotating objects (like planets) pull the spacetime around them, the power of the closed-energy-loop time machine will have a similar localized effect. The impact to Chase's bubble will be to change the conditions in which it was designed to operate, disrupting the bubble and bringing Chase back into our point in space and time.
Drummer's explanation is interrupted, as some of the technicians from the team have found evidence of Chase's descriptor field. The mission is changed from a hunt to a rescue. Drummer powers up his imaging gear on the spot where the energy signature was detected. The Chase's bubble becomes visible, and within it is the outline of Chase, in the exact position Drummer remembers last seeing him. Construction of the time machine commences.
At this point there is a brief interlude between Snow and Drummer, where Drummer suggests that the risk of turning on the time machine is outweighed by the risk to Chase, who is still frozen in time inside his bubble. Drummer suggests caution, saying there's more time to find a less risky way to save Chase. Snow responds that saving Chase's life means returning him to his life as soon as possible, not waiting until too much time has passed. Snow concludes the discussion by telling drummer to just do his job, and let Snow worry about the future.
An indeterminate amount of time passes, and the machine is built. As if a continuation of their last discussion, Snow insists that Drummer allow him to push the button to turn on the time machine, letting Snow be responsible for the outcome. As the machine powers up, glowing portals in the shape of the machine begin to open up. Planetary field teams, future versions of Snow, Jakita, and Drummer, begin stepping out of them. (But no Ambrose Chase is part of any of the teams.) "We're just here to watch," one of the Snows states. As no non-Planetary teams step out of the portals, Drummer realizes that Snow had somehow determined that the time machine would not result in the possible catastrophe Drummer had environed. Without explaining how, Snow affirms this.
As the machine continues to power up, it begins to tear itself apart--before Chase's bubble has been disrupted. Jakita leaps to the central hub of the machine, high above the lab floor, and holds it together for the final few seconds. Chase's bubble breaks, just before the machine collapses (its power source no longer present).
After a pregnant pause, Chase re-appears. Planetary's medical staff, pre-briefed on the injuries of the patient, spring into action to try to save his life. As the moments tick by, Snow looks to one of the Planetary teams visiting from the future. As if sensing Snow's question, one of the future Drummers claims not to know if Chase survives, saying that just switching the time machine on may have created alternate futures.
Then, just as a member of the medical team says that they've done all they can do, and as Snow turns to confront the future field teams by demanding, "That's it? You came back to see this?, a future Ambrose Chase steps out of another portal and says, "We thought it'd be funnier if I waited. Sorry." The Chase of the present is stable, and can be removed from the lab and taken to surgery. As the future field teams step back into their portals, Snow tells the present-day Chase that there's a long future ahead of them, and that they're just getting started.
The team is together again.
This issue received some mixed reviews around the web. There was sometimes-nostalgia-fueled glowing praise, there were complaints that it was anticlimactic and "too talk-y," and a few opinions inbetween. But after several reads, I've concluded that this was anything but an afterthought or a throw-away. Rather, it was the logical conclusion to the series, and something that had been building for a long time. Look at the threads and themes at work here that were all developed in less than the first third of the series:
- Introduced description theory (integral design theory), which we find out is what Chase uses for his physics-warping powers.
- Big science: our first introduction to Ellis' sometimes migrane-inducing ability to pull together big scientific concepts and frame them for use in a story. This would persist throughout the series, all the way through the final issue.
- (Did anyone else think it was fitting that a series that debuted as a back-of-the-issue preview in another title would go on, itself, to feature a back-of-the-issue preview for another title in its final issue? I have no idea whether or not it was intentional, but it was an interesting way to bookend the series.)
- We get the first reference to the Third Man (Chase), and Jakita indicates they haven't yet worked out what happened to him. (They finally do, of course, in this final issue.)
- Brass described, via flashback, the quantum computer that his group built. (More Big Science!) Here in 27, Snow asks Brass to look into "transuniversal computing," which is along those same lines.
- Jakita makes her first reference to being with Planetary to avoid boredom, a theme revisited here.
- A small point: we finally get to see Brass' legs have recovered fromt he damage shown in the first issue
- Brass and Snow have a long discussion that concludes with Brass sharing what we later find out (in Issue 21) is part of Snow's real mission: "The secret of the world... is this: Save it, and it'll repay you, every second of every day." Snow saves things. And we get to see him save the last really important thing to him from the series here.
- Brass first takes up position on the hill we have seen him on ever since, including here in the final issue.
- The memory-impeded Snow learns for the "first time" about the things The Four have kept from the world, and expresses his outrage at The Four having cost millions of lives and making the world "mediocre." Here in 27, he's outraged that only 20% of the wonders in The Four's database have been explored in the year since their defeat, despite some of the marvels the Planetary organization has managed to derrive from the database and give to the world.
- We see vividly, for the first time, Jakita's love of fighting as she joyfully takes on the giant ants living around Science City Zero. It will not be the last. But it is recalled here in 27 as Jakita is shown struggling with the absence of things to fight, and hear her fear of the possibility that all the wars are over, and the need for fighting has passed.
- This is the issue that set up so much of what was resolved here at the series conclusion: the introduction, and disappearance, of Ambrose chase. (The setting of Dowling's lab was beautifully recalled here in 27, with both art and colors creating a spot-on reproduction of this setting from nine years back.)
- The fictional being introduced in 9, though not physically present, was discussed in 27. No other character from the series had created so much interest, or reader demand for a return visit. It almost felt as though Ellis felt compelled to address this on some level. And in so doing, he still managed to pull in other themes developed in the series, specifically that of the 3D universe we perceive existing as an illusion of a 2D plane of information (discussed at great length in Issue 19.) (More Big Science!)
- It goes with out saying that we see the fateful moment where Chase is shot and freezes time to protect himself (though we didn't know what we weree seeing at the time).
The lab where Chase vanished, just as we left it, right
down to the shattered window where Chase was shot.
By the end of the series, the big, strange ideas of the past that were always the theme of the book had given way to Ellis' big, strange ideas of today, based on the Big Science he seems to immerse himself in. (Actually, even though he's tackled the nature of the entire universe/multiverse, a lot of the science Ellis tackles is about quantum mechanics, which deals with things on the impossibly small scale where classical physics, and things like gravity and electromagnetism, break down. So technically it's Big Small Science. But I digress.) And the more the Big Science comes to the fore, and the more things are saved, the less need there is for some of the violence that gone before. So the series really had plenty of momentum for this kind of finish: saving someone, Big Science, and no hitting.
And it's hard to not be impressed with the way Ellis weaves Big Science things together. Marrying the concept of time travel as something limited by the existence of the time travel device to the quantum physics concept of superposition by asserting that time travel would collapse all future possibility down to a single predetermined outcome is mind-blowing. I know he didn't invent it on his own, but he brought it to bear in a medium that has long held very different and varied views on time travel, which I think deserves a certain amount of credit for guts.
Ambrose Chase in his bubble, surrounded by quantum foam.
Not done yet, Ellis adds vacuum energy (or zero point energy). Another product of quantum physics, it asserts that there is energy even in a vacuum due to the various harmonic oscillators that exist at all points (a harmonic oscillator is a system which, when displaced from its equilibrium position, experiences a restoring force proportional to the displacement). The term zero point reflects that there is a minimum level of energy that must exist, though it's never truly zero. Given infinite space, then, you have an infinite accumulation of energy that's non-zero. Infinite times anything is a very, very big number, of course. For the purpose of the story, Ellis seems to assert that the disruption caused by Chase's field will generate massive amounts of so called vacuum or zero point energy (much more than the kind of tiny-but-nonzero amounts the theory seems to suggest).
Ellis blends in the oft-overlooked energy requirements of all the superscience we love to read about and so often take for granted in comics. Time machines take energy, massive amounts of it, and Chase's field amazingly generates massive amounts, though not in a form most of us are used to considering. (Or in a form that real-world science has been able to meaningfully harness. Yet.)
Finally, Ellis folds in "supermassive frame-dragging," a very non-quantum idea that holds that massive rotating objects pull at the fabric of spacetime. Substituting massive amounts of energy for massive amounts of matter allows frame-dragging on a very localized area, as opposed to the much greater area you'd associate with a planetary or stellar body. (I also think of the actually-unrelated concept of sitting in an office chair that spins, starting it spinning while you're sitting in it, and pulling in your arms and legs to make the spinning pick up speed. I almost generated a supermassive frame-dragging event on my lunch once with this technique. But I digress again.) All of it is then tied together by the fact that the frame-dragging will disrupt Chase's field and cause it to fail, dropping chase back into normal time and allowing the team to save him--something they couldn't do while he was outside of time.
Chase thrown out of his bubble and back into normal spacetime.
Knitting all of these concepts together effectively? Are you kidding me? Great stuff, and one of the reasons this title is a cut above so many others.
As for the time machine itself, it was of course a callback to the one used by Dr. Erdel in the Planetary/JLA: Terra Occulta crossover. One of the best inside bits of the issue was Jakita observing that the design was "weirdly familiar," even though her analogue character from the crossover never saw it. It was also a nice callback, as the Ambrose Chase in that story tried to use his powers to avoid being thrown into the time machine and thus defeated, while the Chase in this story would be saved by the device. There are differences between the devices in the two stories: one could go back beyond its own origin, the other could not; they are cosmetically a bit different. But an altogether nice bit of concept re-use by Ellis.
One of the open questions of this issue was how Snow could have known that the time machine was safe to turn on, despite Drummmer's dire warnings over the collapse of all future probability the moment it became active. I mention the Big Science above, and this is definitely one of those moments.
I think the most likely answer probably rests somewhere in the odd outcome of the famous Double Slit experiment. Briefly, physicists noted that electrons shot at a barrier with two slits creates a interference pattern on the backstop (which is wave behavior), instead of a concentration of impacts along two strips (which would be particle behavior). To put this another way, the interference pattern seemed to represent all possible outcomes of the electrons being fired through the slits, instead of the outcome that would have been expected (by traditional physics). When the physicists came up with a way to measure/observe the electrons passing through the slits, the wave pattern was replaced with the particle behavior... as though the electrons changed their behavior in repsponse to the observation. All possible outcomes were collapsed to a single outcome due to the observation.
To apply this to the time machine matter at hand, Snow probably deduced that since Drummer's position as the observer would favor the cataclysmic outcome of all future porbability collapsing, he opted to make himself the primary observer by setting the time machine in motion. By replacing Drummer as the key observer, he gambled that the outcomes would collapse in a way that would not be cataclysmic, since that was his desire or intent. (If this sounds flimsy or odd, it barely scratches the surface of the oddness of quantum physics!)
Some reviewers around the internet felt that the actual moment of Chase's rescue was a forgone conclusion. I disagree. Ellis is not afraid to abuse his creations. A happy ending, as readers of some of Ellis' other works are aware, was far from a gaurantee. (This site still displays a short essay on Ellis and the creation of finer worlds, and how that often ended badly.) And, as Ellis revealed on his website around the time the final issue came out WarrenEllis.com, this series is not one he associates with happy times. So were things a bit staged to generate some tension around the outcome of the rescue mission? Yes. But Ellis makes it at least somewhat plausible, since he might just let his characters die. Where there's a doubt, there's plausible tension.
All in all, this was a fitting end to the series. History will determine where it stands in the pantheon of great comic series, but it's hard to image it won't have some kind of seat at that table.
Chase, back from the future to witness his own rescue.
This space is usually reserved for questions left unanswered by the latest issue. As this was the last issue, open questions about the characters or the science or the plot are now moot.
So I'd like to briefly address a question I found myself considering as I read things around the internet after people read the series: why was the final story so disappointing? I personally really enjoyed the story, but I felt a little like something was missing. I didn't get everything I wanted from the story... or the series, for that matter.
But how could it have been any other way? I didn't enjoy this series because of all of the questions it answered. I enjoyed it because of all of the great questions it raised, or the concepts explored, or the things it made me think of, or the the things it made me feel. And it always--ALWAYS--left me wanting more. When the point of a series is to explore 100 years of superhero history, to take a fresh look at the mad, fantastic concepts that fueled the birth of so many great characters over the decades... how could you ask for more than that? The point is not to explain everything and tie it up with a neat bow. (Though that's what this site has often tried to do. The irony is not lost on me.) The point is that there are incredible things out there to be discovered, or re-discovered. If this issue, or this series, left you wanting more, then I'd argue it was successful. Because as long as someone is entranced by the strange, there will always be a new story to write.
"We're in a strange relationship with our fiction, you see. Sometimes we fear it's taking us over, sometimes we beg to be taken over by it... sometimes we want to see what's inside it." --Planet Fiction, Planetary Issue 9
Planetary is over. But there are other stories being told, and other stories yet to be written. And none of us can wait.