Fenzel on Dragonball #5: The Passage of Time

What don't Dragon Ball Z and Sex and the City have in common? It's not what you think...

Happy new year, everybody! If anybody knows of a calendar system in which 2011 is a year over 9,000, post in the comments!

(Just in case you need to catch up, since this series hasn’t had an update in more than a year, ON THE LAST EPISODE OF FENZEL ON DRAGON BALL…)

Let’s say I sit you in a room and give you a bouncy ball. Since this is a thought experiment, you don’t have a cell phone or anything, the room has no windows, there is no temperature variation, and I’m protected by a force field, so you can’t bum rush me with your incredible fighting skills and steal my watch – or, better yet, knock me out with an energy blast from your palms and fly out the door (which is of course the answer a lot of us would prefer for such hypothetical quandaries).

Your challenge? I’m going to come back in an unspecified “later” and ask you how long you’ve been there.

Every human being faces challenges of this nature – marking time does not come naturally to humans, despite its usefulness and, perhaps, psychological necessity. Different cultures have approached the question in different ways at different times. Goku, Vegeta and the gang from Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, Akira Toriyama’s sex farce turned kung-fu epic turned sci-fi stakes-raising extravaganza — by way of comic book turned TV show turned endless cavalcade of remakes, remastering spin-offs, and franchise video games — have some interesting things to say about marking the passage of time. Why does the passage of time matter, how do we measure it, and why that also matters.

So, let’s power up, because the barbecue is over and it’s time to find out who is trying to destroy the Earth, and, more importantly, when!

Lest We Forget

Why do I want to talk about a TV show from decades ago? Dragon Ball is one of the most popular and enduring works of fiction of the last 30 years, with unique global cultural influence and ubiquity. Its innovation in character design, structure, motif and pacing have influenced many successors can be found in many places in the popular culture. What Dragon Ball has to say about how we think matters, especially for the generation about my age, give or take, say, ten years.

Back to the bouncy ball

Let’s go back to the timekeeping thought experiment from the intro, where you’re alone in a room with just a bouncy ball trying to keep time. In this little hyperbolic time chamber, how would you mark the interval, with so few external markers — no day, no night, no stars? Maybe you’d try counting Mississippi for a while. Maybe you’d listening to your body’s internal rhythms, probably with limited success, since the environment is so disruptive and your heart rate so variable over time. My guess is you’d eventually realize a repeating external cue is easier and works a lot better. You’d count the bounces of the bouncy ball — not rolling it from one side of the room to the other at constant speed and gauging time from distance, but specifically counting repetitions.

Credit to The Drawing Empiricist

Almost all ways human beings track time involve observing periodic repetitions — things that have happened before with regularity. While I can’t speak for your own subjective experience (as again, marking time and “feeling” the passage of time are difficult things for people to do), I would wager watching the above graphic can open your mind to a cognizance of the passage of time that is much harder to achieve without external indication. “Look at that! Now, look at that again!” — we build our clocks and calendars around this stuff.

This is not just emergent from our use of units of measure either (as Dragon Ball famously teaches us, numerical units can be pretty useless if you never question the assumptions on which they are based) – nor does the desire for a repeating interval cause us to search for corresponding phenomena — the phenomena precede what we decide to do with them; the rising and setting of the sun and the cycle of seasons had schedule-like effects on our perceptions of reality before we articulated a need for such things.

“Timekeeping” isn’t just a practical concern, it’s a fundamental element of how humans relate to and frame reality — and, as many storytellers discover when they eschew repetition because they think it is boring, it is not the only way human existence and relationship with reality might play out. You can write stories in which there is not repetition in people’s lives, in which people do not keep routines that make them cognizant of time. Sometimes you have to. But they feel very different from our reality.

This is for the ladies

One TV show that always exemplified this for me is Sex and the City — part of the point of Sex and the City is the girls were always discovering new things — new men, new outfits, new feelings and thoughts about themselves and each other, new situations. If there’s an event that isn’t fresh for them, it generally either isn’t shown is glossed over or is truncated and made to look as such. While there are of course recurring characters and long-run situations, there isn’t a ton of repetition, with a result that it is very difficult to know in a given scene how much time has passed for the characters.

The relationship that embodied this for me more than any other (other than the way Miranda’s and Steve’s relationship went through a lot of off-screen development and change as they raised Brady) was Carrie and Aidan. How long were they together? How did their relationship progress on a day-to-day basis? Because the show kind of glosses over the boring parts and/or presents them 0nly when they are new or very changed, the sense of familiarity, comfort and routine in the relationship is diminished (which is probably by design, since the characters only connect so much), and you don’t get the sense that these two people spend time together.

Take this scene:

In real life, the conversation at the beginning of this scene about the dress and the closet would probably happen in shorter sub-conversations spread out over three or four weeks. This could have been shown in a montage of short cuts that would have given the sense of the passage of time, but the writers decided not to handle it this way. The dog eating the shoe, and the comparison between the boxes of stuff, the reveal of the hair tonic are a contraction of a series of arguments that would happen over the first few months of living together. The show goes through all these events on a tear, coming to huge realizations almost instantly — that’s fine, it’s efficient storytelling, it’s what the show is trying to do. But it is cutting out something essential about the human experience doing so.

Of course, any show needs to abridge the actual extent of such events. It can’t show the full duration of five weeks of people living together – the stuff it shows has to fit into the amount of time generally allotted for a TV show. But it’s important that by only showing things as new, the first time they happen, and then moving on makes it feel not just like it is happening quickly, but like it is unmoored from the passage of time – that maybe this scene is showing a day, maybe it is showing a week, maybe it is showing three months. And the timeline of the show reflects this ambiguity – there are lots of timeskips all over the place.

This Sex and the City scene is another example – in real life, this discussion would probably have started much earlier and taken place over months or years, and it certainly would not have finished over such short scenes. But maybe these scenes are standing in for months or years of backstory – just representing them in a more vivid and watchable way. Still, it feels unmoored from time – like we’re in the windowless room without a bouncy ball: