How Time Travel Works in Star Wars
We examine how Rebels' "A World Between Worlds" changes what's possible in Star Wars.
This Star Wars article contains spoilers.
Once hyperspace is conquered, the next step is to explore the timeline. Star Wars Rebels recently opened up a new dimension with the starry sky of the World Between Worlds, a mystical place where all times happen at once. By unlocking the Jedi Temple on Lothal and finely attuning himself to the Force, Ezra Bridger enters this strange space and finds himself able to visit doors into the past and future.
The temple has one last lesson for Ezra, and with it comes a slew of new possibilities for the saga. The voices of Rey, Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, and many others from different eras of Star Wars can be heard as Ezra explores the World Between Worlds.
So what are the rules here, and what happens if someone tries to break them? Each doorway indicates a potential space for Ezra to walk into, a potential chance for him to change the course already set in stone … perhaps.
There’s actually a precedent for time travel in the galaxy far, far away. Here’s how the sci-fi concept has worked in Star Wars in the past:
How Time Travel Works in Rebels
The reveal of the World Between Worlds, the place where a Force user can access doorways to other times, is visually linked to the Mortis gods from The Clone Wars. The three aspects of the Force represented by the Mortis gods (light, dark, and balance) are all symbolically connected to the ability to travel in time. Time works a bit differently in the World Between Worlds as it did in the realm of the Force wielders, which I’ll talk about in a minute, but their presence in the painting at the entrance to the chamber indicates that the Jedi Temple on Lothal taps into aspects of the Force more strange, more powerful, and more embodied than the telepathy and telekinesis Ezra has already learned.
His Force abilities and connection to Lothal enable him to enter the World Between Worlds and find a portal to the time in which Ahsoka dueled Darth Vader in the Sith Temple on Malachor in season two. There, voices from the past and future drift through the black-and-white dreamscape. One could imagine that it was the will of the Force which led him to the particular portal behind which Ahsoka is fighting, since the Force has been connecting Ahsoka and Ezra for a long time. Or, it was the will of the plot: Ahsoka later helps rescue Ezra from Emperor Palpatine, who also has access to the in-between plane.
Although Palpatine can threaten their lives within the World Between Worlds, the Force seems very particular about making sure that no one can change anything while inside. Ahsoka returns to the time from which she was pulled, dropping right back into the scene where she disappeared. Or is this non-interference policy a moral choice rather than a physical law?
Ezra almost tests it out himself. He wants to rescue Kanan, and the Force allows him to see a doorway to the time and place where he could do so. Ultimately, the World Between Worlds is a place of emotional catharsis for Ezra. He’s forced to not only relive the traumatic death of his father figure, but also to realize that he has the control and the authority to stop it — and then come to terms with the fact that Kanan’s death was meant to be all along. If Ezra had rescued Kanan, the rest of their found family would have died, possibly trapping Ezra in a time paradox where he himself is both alive and dead.
Ahsoka doesn’t use this scientific argument with Ezra, though. Instead, she focuses on his emotional needs. He should not trade several lives to save one, and he should learn that a Jedi can accept loss without being consumed by grief.
Palpatine seems to have known about the World Between Worlds for a while, since he accessed it himself and sent an Imperial researcher to oversee the ruins. Along with the planet’s ore, it’s one of the reasons the planet Lothal is so important. Darth Sidious’ knowledge of time travel might be the best proof that the Force does not allow the time stream to be manipulated. If it could be, the Emperor would have changed certain things in the timeline by now.
How Time Travel Works in The Clone Wars
Although time travel was not explicitly used or even introduced into the realm of possibility as much as it recently was in Rebels, the Mortis gods – Father, Daughter, and Son – are shown to exist outside of time in The Clone Wars as well. Their planet exists in an invisible pocket of time and space, technically undetectable even when viewed from a starship nearby. When Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Ahsoka return from the Mortis realm to the natural world, no time seems to have passed at all since they arrived at the anomalous region of space.
Seasons and days are also distorted on the planet where the Force wielders live. Time passes quickly. With night comes a cold and barren winter and the morning brings an impossibly vibrant spring. The Jedi cannot control this passage of time at all. The Mortis gods do not weaponize it either, inasmuch as their knowledge of the past and future is not a threat.
The veil between different times also seems thin here, allowing Obi-Wan and Ahsoka to have visions of the past and future respectively. However, Anakin’s similar vision turns out to be a trick of the Son, the aspect of the dark side, so it’s hard to say what was the direct influence of the Mortis gods and what was the veil in the time-stream fluttering in that space.
How Time Travel Worked in the Old Expanded Universe (Legends)
Time travel also appeared in the old Expanded Universe (now known as Legends canon) in several different forms, often in the realm of rumor or the unexplained.
In the Ewoks comic book series, a hyperdrive malfunction leads to R2-D2 and C-3PO traveling into the future. In the ancient Sith Order, an artifact called the Darkstaff could create a Force storm that transported its bearer to the future. A few other examples could be found in comic books, including “Tilotny Throws a Shape” by Alan Moore. This story features creatures with godlike powers, reminiscent of the Mortis trio only in that they were similarly powerful.
In the Legacy era, “Flow-walking,” a skill learned by a select few Jedi decades after the events of the Original Trilogy, enabled a person to appear as a disembodied perspective in the past, like a view through a camera into another world. Jacen Solo uses this to visit the Jedi Temple during Order 66. He wants to find out what drove Anakin Skywalker to the dark side in order to justify his own dark side actions and inner turmoil. He is tempted to step into the past and make a change, but such manipulation is impossible. Flow-walking allows for only small changes, which are inevitably caught up in the continuous flow of time and do not change history.
While the effect is similar, the nature of flow-walking is different from the time portals in Rebels. It is described as a Jedi’s ability to access a stream of Force energy, instead of a physical location where the past and future can be opened like doors along a hallway. In both instances, events can’t actually be manipulated or changed.
Flow-walking is used as a way to connect Jacen’s story to the story of the Prequel Trilogy, as well as to show the similarities between Anakin’s fall and Jacen’s own. Does the dark side run in the Skywalker family blood, the scene indirectly asks? Since Jacen’s sister, mother, and uncle remain in the light side of the Force, it doesn’t seem to. Instead, the flow-walking shows the way cycles of peace and war turn and turn — in the Star Wars universe as well as our own.