The Problem with the Multiverse
The latest craze in Science Fiction and Fantasy is the multiverse. We’re seeing it in multiple franchises: Stranger Things, The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Trek, and some major films like “Us.” The big idea is that each decision or alternative that exists creates alternate universes. So, there are infinitely many alternate universes (the Multiverse) and one can “cross over” from one universe to another. You can find your alternate self, or even people who’ve died. If you don’t like the way things worked out in your universe, you can just switch to another one with a different outcome.
The Multiverse is not New
Certainly not the first incarnation of the alternate universe, but an early popular multiverse, was the mirror universe from Star Trek’s Original Series episode “Mirror, Mirror.” In it, the away team attempts to beam down to a planet but a storm disrupts the transporter and Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura end up in a mirror universe where the Federation is an evil empire, rather than benevolent force for good in the universe.
We meet an evil Mr. Spock, replete with goatee. Kirk and the others must behave like barbarians in order to fit in. They are able to trick the “evil” alternate folks and Kirk convinces “evil” Spock to create a revolution that will change the Empire into a better, more Federation-like entity.
And subsequent iterations of the Star Trek franchise keep returning to the “mirror universe,” finding different (evil) versions of themselves.
The “big problem” with this concept of the multiverse is that, if you believe in the “butterfly effect“, then there is no way for the “mirror universe” to be coherent from one visit to the next. In fact, it is virtually impossible that Evil Spock and Evil Kirk both end up on the same Evil Enterprise in any other universe.
It’s not “Your” Loved One
Another flavor of the Multiverse has characters leaping from one universe to another looking for someone they lost. In “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” the Red Witch wants to harness America Chaviz’s ability to easily travel between universes. Because Red Witch wants to reunite with BIlly and Tommy, the children she created during her time in Westview.
In the process, we encounter many other versions of Earth and versions of the Avengers, including alternate Dr. Stranges (some who were good, some who died). Strange tries to convince Red Witch that these aren’t “her” children, but someone else’s. But she doesn’t care.
Anything Can Happen
The second biggest problem with the Multiverse is that, quite literally, anything can happen. There are no bounds to the magical solutions our heroes can select from. Without limits, characters can reach into the Multiverse and pluck out a solution to whatever problem they run in to.
In “Dr. Strange,” we see “alternate Christine Palmer” (Strange’s estranged fiance) fight off demons by – literally – plucking a chalice from a case and throw some fire in front ot it – thusly creating a canon that destroys demons Strange is not able to fight off.
Without limits to storytelling, there can be no true stakes. There can be no drama. And without drama, stories cannot reach a climax where failure is a possibility. And in storytelling, failure must always be an option.
Nobody is Truly Dead
Finally, in the Multiverse – nobody is truly dead. This is a corollary to “Anything Can Happen.” The ultimate stakes in any story are life or death. Multitudes of stories are based on rescuing someone whose death is imminent. If a person can be resurrected by magic, or by walking in from an adjacent multiverse, then death is not permanent. And if death is not permanent, then there is no death.
We saw this in “Game of Thrones.” When John Snow died, it was exciting – but everyone tuned in the next week knowing that it had to be temporary. It had been established multiple times that the dead could be risen. And as exciting as that death event was, it was not conclusive. Readers and viewers knew he’d be back, because there were more pages in the book, and more episodes in the series.
We’re witness to a similar problem in the latest incarnation of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Captain Christopher Pike has seen his future. He knows that in ten years he will be horribly disfigured while rescuing cadets from a terrible accident. But that creates a new problem – Pike cannot die. There are no episodes where Pike’s death is imminent, because we know he lives to save those cadets in the future. As long as this thread is maintained, there will never be life or death consequences for Pike.
In the Star Trek and Star Wars universes, there is a shit-ton of “retconning” going on (the practice of retroactively fixing canon). The modern solution to errors in canon in the franchises is to say we’re in a different “timeline.” This is true of JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek which is referred to as the “Kelvin” timeline.
This technique explains away differences in character actions, differences in technological advances, and alliances among species in both “Star Franchises.” When in fact the answer is abundantly simple: either the writers made a mistake, or they took liberties with canon. Both of which are just fine. When universes are as expansive as Star Trek, Star Wars, or Game of Thrones, errors are going to occur – or creative departures from the past are necessary. In these massive universes, canon becomes a straight jacket that stifles creativity.
The Solution to the Multiverse
The simplest solution – don’t allow a multiverse. Once you acknowledge infinitely possible universes you release the constraints on storytelling. Stories require constraints. One of the unwritten rules of Science Fiction is that the story must conform to known science. HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” would not hold water today because we are quite certain there are no advanced life forms on Mars. (In fact, that is the reason Spielberg’s version of the movie had dormant Martians rise from beneath the Earth’s surface).
And, if you can’t avoid a Multiverse, make death permanent. There is nothing more “deus ex machina” than a dead character who is resurrected. At the bare minimum, dead must mean dead. Something in your universe must be certain. Make it death. To quote Stephen King’s Jud Crandall character: “Sometimes, dead is bettah.”