Why Sci-Fi’s Love Affair with the Multiverse Will Never Die

It turns out that our brains are hardwired to embrace alternate realities and multiple versions of our favourite characters...

This article contains spoilers for The Twilight Zone season 4, Buffy The Vampire Slayer season 3, Fringe seasons 1-5, Legion season 2, Star Trek: Discovery season 1 and Red Dwarf.

“They say it’s great to meet yourself. Bullshit. Kind of like losing your virginity, y’know? Wait your whole life for it and then 20 seconds later you’re disappointed,” the confident and dangerous Howard Silk (J.K. Simmons) near-spits out at his lovable-but-meeker double (er, also J.K. Simmons) in Starz’s recent dark alternate dimension series, Counterpart.

How would you feel if you met a much-improved version of yourself? Or even one who was utterly rubbish in a way that made you feel a lot better about your life choices? It’s an angle repeatedly revisited in science fiction.

One of the first times a TV show dipped its toe in the water was in 1963. When The Twilight Zone was well into its fourth season, Rod Serling’s magnificent creation dished up an episode called The Parallel, where an astronaut unwittingly returns to a different Earth, soon discovering inconsistencies in his family and surroundings. He makes it back to his own world eventually, and Serling closes out the episode with a challenge to viewers: “don’t bother to ask anyone for proof that it could happen,” he says “prove that it couldn’t.”

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Well, we still can’t prove it, although scientists continue to work on the possibilities, but TV has certainly replayed variations of the fundamental plot ever since, occasionally adding in alternate versions of our lead characters for good measure. Hell, Sliders did it nearly every week, with the whole concept of the late-90s series forcing a ragtag team of unwilling travellers to visit plenty of different versions of Earth – from the one where dinosaurs were still alive, to the one where humanity had turned into flesh-eating zombies. I’d wager The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes would be your ideal companion there, but Resident Evil’s Alice might be the superior survival choice.

Loads of shows have dabbled with the idea, but like Sliders, some have made it a regular part of their narrative and mythology, and usually the writers tie it to common human priorities like family, friends, love, health, success and fulfilment, which help us identify with the more fantastical elements.

In the J.J. Abrams-created Fringe, for example, the shuffling and distant Dr. Walter Bishop, played by the consistently-fantastic John Noble, is initially brought on board the show’s Joint Federal Task Force to work with his much-more-together son Peter (Joshua Jackson), but as the story eventually reveals, it’s not the first time the pair have been reunited. It’s slowly confirmed that Walter’s own version of Peter died from a genetic disease as a boy, and in his grief, the good Doctor sought to cure a living version of his son in a parallel universe. Upon arriving there, however, this became impossible, and Bishop made a split-second choice to bring his son’s double back to his own universe, almost destroying both worlds in the process. Fringe eventually used fragments of this idea to show us multiple places and timelines where things could work out differently for its main characters.

The popular and bitchy Cordelia Chase wants a world where The Slayer never came to Sunnydale in Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s season 3 standalone episode, The Wish, but the tale becomes less about Cordelia’s dystopian nightmare (hilariously, she’s murdered half-way through the episode), and more about the sort of hard-bitten person the alternate Buffy has become without her friends.

Much more recently, Noah Hawley’s second season of Legion brought us a typically-baffling and effortlessly heart-breaking episode that showed us a handful of different versions of its lead character, David Haller, one of Marvel’s most dangerous and powerful mutants. There’s a universe where David is so heavily medicated on pills to supress his unusual powers that he can only perform menial tasks, dribbling and relying on his sister to function in everyday life; a version of David that seems to be upsettingly rich and powerful (and evil), and a David that has a happy life where he’s married with kids and doesn’t have to deal with much of anything bad, let alone one of Professor X’s mortal enemies trying to control him. Legion ponders whether a mentally ill David is the better Devil we know.

Brothers Sam and Dean are allowed to live the quiet life in Supernatural’s fourth season standalone episode, It’s A Terrible Life, until an angel called Zachariah shows them that no matter who they are, they’re destined to become hunters.

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But there’s one TV franchise that sits atop all the other players in this game; one that’s revisited a very specific alternate world over and over, and if I know you as well as I think I do, you already know I’m talking about Star Trek.

Yes, the Mirror Universe has featured in a big bag of episodes, first becoming a thing in The Original Series, popping up in Enterprise, and weighing pretty heavily on the narrative in Deep Space Nine, but it’s back and as dangerous as ever in CBS’ subscription service venture, Star Trek: Discovery. Our heroine, Michael “oopsie daisy, I accidentally done a genocide lol” Burnham unwittingly helps an evil version of her starship captain for the majority of the first season, and eventually we’re introduced to some Mirror doubles that could alter the Prime Timeline further, but even if the whole thing ultimately turns out to have just been an excuse to throw us some fantastic plot twists and to allow us to check out more of cadet Tilly’s wild haircuts, the inclusion of the Mirror Universe in Discovery won’t have been in vain.

So let’s get down to it: why are multiple universes, timelines and alternate versions of characters so bloody timeless and irresistible? Neuropsychologist Dr. Jens Foell had some fascinating info for us. According to Dr. Foell, it’s likely all down to an evolutionary development in our brains called ‘counterfactual thinking’.

“The short version is: car speeds past you and you think ‘whoa, a second earlier and I’d be dead’ which is a natural reaction, of course (it helps us avoid bad outcomes), but there’s evidence that our brains are sort of obsessed with these counterfactuals,” he explains, adding that our love affair with well-worn tales of doubles and alternate timelines “could be understood as an extreme of this effect: not only thinking ‘whoa, this almost hit me’ but going through the mental effort of imagining the world without oneself, or with an altered version of oneself.”

Dr. Foell goes on to cite a specific study on Olympic athletes. “Here’s the thing — if you win bronze, you’re more likely to be happy than if you won silver. With silver, you can get hung up in the idea that you could’ve had gold if just x y z hadn’t happened.”

But those of us who are always overthinking everything and are often in the grip of ‘worst case scenario’-ness aren’t any more likely to become enamoured with the multiverse.

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“My assumption would be that this thought process is more basic than that — i.e. that anxiety would not even factor into this as much, since we’re all prone to this type of thinking. I would expect that certain situations would have more influence on this type of thinking than someone’s personality — i.e. if you missed out on the gold medal, you’ll be creating scenarios in your mind either way, whether you’re an anxious person or not.”

Indeed, it turns out that brain scan results have supported the idea of a more basic process – that counterfactual thinking appears to work similarly to memory – but Dr. Foell admits that our memories are often affected by motivations and anxieties, too. Every time we make a choice in our lives – the outcome of our decision to go down a right or left path, for example – we create unknown scenarios that psychologically exploit our brain’s reliance on counterfactual thinking.

“If you marry that person or not,” Dr. Foell says, “your brain will work on an alternate reality where you did the other thing.”

So when we get to know our sci-fi TV characters and as they make their own decisions, we’re almost immediately eager and prepared to get a look at all the paths not taken.

Counterfactual thinking doesn’t just explain science fiction’s alternate reality kink, though. Dr. Foell says it influences our love lives too, so watch out.

“I assume that if you’re unhappy with a situation, your thoughts about the fictional alternative would be more intrusive — after all, that mechanism is supposed to help us, so it might ramp up in cases where we want to leave a situation,” he explained. “This reminds me of another effect that may or may not fit here: the idea that breakups or revolutions don’t happen when our suffering is largest, but when we see an alternative.”

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Picturing a fictional version of ourselves is sometimes what motivates us to change our situation, he adds. “It’s something that’s only natural. You don’t run away when something doesn’t work well — you leave when you’re convinced that something different will work better.”

There’s something oddly comforting (and disheartening) about the suggestion that, if you’re in a bad situation, you’ll have to scrap with your own brain to let you move on unless you’ve got some place better to be.

But to leave our examination of why the multiverse is just so damn enticing in a happier place, I feel it’s only right to address a character who has arguably become the most extreme poster boy for it: Red Dwarf’s technician (second class) Arnold Judas Rimmer. A man so petty and small minded, he would while away his evenings sewing name labels onto his ship issue condoms. A man of such awesome stupidity, he even objects to his own defence counsel. An over-zealous, trumped up little squirt, an incompetent vending machine repairman with a Napoleon complex, who commanded as much respect and affection from his fellow crew members as Long John Silver’s parrot.

Rimmer is one of the most pathetic and yet obscenely lovable characters ever created for genre television, but it’s only when his parallel universe double, Ace Rimmer, pops up in series four of the rightly-beloved show, that we really start to get a grip on how bad an obsession with counterfactual thinking can get. Ace is everything that Rimmer isn’t. He’s confident, brave, successful, quick with worthy ideas and a hit with the ladies, so when he meets the version of himself we’re familiar with – see above for a nowhere-near-comprehensive list of the character’s faults – much like J.K. Simmons’ Howard Silk, he inevitably finds the whole thing a bit of a let-down.

What’s interesting about the juxtaposition of Arnold and Ace’s timelines, for our purposes, is that Arnold presumes that Ace has had advantages in his life that he was denied. That he was given opportunities Arnold was never allowed, and so he gets bogged down in his own predilection for counterfactual thinking. But it turns out that Ace is at least partly great because he was held back at school and ridiculed. He had to try harder than Arnold, and it built character, whereas our boy was far too ahead of himself, and could never excel, or live up to expectations.

Wherever you are in life, you can give yourself a break from counterfactual thinking today, because at least you’re not Arnold J. Rimmer.

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Nah, in this universe, we remain fundamentally ourselves. That is our reward, our crime, and also our punishment.

Until next time.