4-Dimensional Chess

Having recently watched the Doctor Who episode called “Blink,” its tight writing and 4-dimensional chess made me think of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and narratives of time-travel where 4-th-dimensional warfare/thinking is integral to the plot.  This advanced use of time-travel allows creators to move past the excitement of possibilities like Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness and craft narratives that push the dramatic potential of time-travel to its extremes.

Spoilers follow for Doctor Who 3×11 “Blink” and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.


In the Hugo-award winning Doctor Who episode “Blink,” The Doctor and Martha are stranded in 1969 after investigating a house connected to a number of dissapearances.  The episode’s protagonist is not The Doctor or his companion Martha, but a woman by the name of Sally Sparrow.  Sally pieces together clues left under wallpaper, letters delivered by hand, messages given in person, and DVD easter eggs to solve the mystery and rescue The Doctor and Martha from being stranded in time.  The Doctor speaks to Sally through DVD extras thanks to a transcript of their conversation made by Sally’s roommate’s brother, who was there as the conversation happened, which then allowed a transcript to exist to be given to the Doctor to refer to when (later for him, earlier for Sally), he would have to record the DVD easter eggs.

This non-linear strategizing/correspondence allows for the Doctor’s presence to be felt throughout the episode, but all interpreted and acted upon by another character.  Sally must piece together the puzzle pieces left by her time-displaced roommate, a handsome police detective catapaulted back in time to 1969 (to meet up with the Doctor and Martha), and to engage in a two-way discussion with the seemingly-one-sided ramblings of the Doctor on the DVDs.  The Doctor and Sally collaborate across time to solve the case of the Weeping Angels, with critical information held by specific individuals allowing the whole picture to be assembled.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Terminator uses 4th-dimensional thinking, but on a larger scale.  John Connor of the future, the Connors of the ‘present’ timeline, Skynet of the future, Terminators in the ‘present’, and other independent agents are all fighting a war across time over the fate of the future, the inevitability or prevention of Judgement Day, when a singularity-derived Machine uprising destroys human civilization.

The show’s opening gambits of 4-dimensional chess are Future John sending “Cameron” back in time to be his protector/aide-de-camp, and the attacks of the Terminator known as “Cromartie”

Cameron and the Connors go to a bank and use a time machine built in the past to allow the group to escape Cromartie as well as possibly delay/prevent Sarah’s death by cancer.

During the series, further characters return from a divergent future time-line where the Future John Connor is increasingly reliant on reprogrammed Terminators, which is easily read as being a result of his reliance on and attachment to Cameron in the series.  Jesse brings Riley back from that future to use Riley to drive a wedge between John and Cameron (which Jesse presumably thinks will lead to a better version of Post-Judgement day, where John’s use of reprogrammed terminators is not a liability).

4-dimensional chess runs throughout the show, and even in one-off episodes such as “Self Made Man,” where Cameron discovers the history of a Terminator who was sent too far back in time, accidentally disrupts the timeline in a way that would cause its mission to fail, then proceeds to change the timeline in order to ensure that the timeline shifts back in a way so that it can complete its mission.

Characters such as Catherine Weaver are unknown quantities in the 4-dimensional war, as she acts with an agenda, but has not clearly been revealed as being on either the Connor’s or Skynet’s side.

Concluding Thoughts

Stories that play with time-travel as not just a plot device, but use the non-linearity of time as a multi-use narrative tool gain the advantage of being able to layer decisions, put together characters who know one another but from different timelines or parts of their individual time-lives which would normally be impossible (Sally meeting Billy the detective on his deathbed as an elderly man, having just earlier that day met him for the first time as a young detective).  These tools allow for writers and creators to utilize the nostalgic mode of storytelling in compelling ways, and to provoke thought about choices, causality, opportunities past and those that yet remain.

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