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[The following contains spoilers.]

Get your thinking caps on, for we are about to consider Daniel Manning and Micha Stanton’s ars PARADOXICA (2015-2018), the biggest, the most canonical, the most ground-breaking, the most labour-intensive, and certainly the most problematic of all the big podcasts. Let us start, though, with a bracing plunge into the logic. If we survive the shock of this then we can be washed on into the balmier shallows of ars PARADOXICA.

Supposing that I was recruited by British intelligence and that my first mission was to journey back in time to assassinate the dictator Joseph Stalin. Let us say that M, my new boss, has estimated that humanity would have been bettered beyond all computation had Stalin been gunned down in 1946, seven years prior to his original death. My mission runs without a hitch. After a quick meeting with me, Stalin is left with more brains on the outside of his stupid fat head than the inside.

There are two models of time travel that are available in this scenario. Let us call them the 2D and 3D models. We will take the 3D one first since it is by far the most user-friendly. In this model, my intervention in 1946 effectively creates a new universe that is like a correctable and corrected photocopy of the original. It is possibly not even “my” intervention, in that the “me” that materialises in 1946 is itself an independent physical copy. Here, M commissions Stalin’s death in the hope that it will benefit millions of people in some alternative timeline that he can never obtain a word of feedback about. This is, to put it mildly, not very morally adequate. M has minted a new universe and generated billions of new lives without being able to take any responsibility for their welfare.

In the 2D model, on the other hand, my mission is only a success if M finds himself suddenly inhabiting a universe in which Stalin had died in 1946. In this refreshed chronology, M would be paradoxically left with no knowledge of the original mission or of his rationale for commissioning it. Without any feedback mechanism, this time travel would be just as morally disastrous as in the 3D model. Unless I could travel forward in time again, to tell M about the mission that he had sent me on, we would have no means of comparing the raw and cooked histories of Stalin’s death. Cut off from the normal understanding of cause and effect that determines moral decisions, M would have made history without ever knowing that he had changed it.

It is this latter model that is so fecund for paradoxes that ars PARADOXICA runs with. For somebody as commonsensical as myself, however, both models have become detached at some point from indispensable realities. We cannot travel back in time, any more than we can travel into the imagination, because the past has no physical existence. The clue is in the tense – it has only ever existed. The backwards-pointing “timepiece” that is used in ars PARADOXICA might as well be a magic wand; the “ars” of the title is nearer to “the dark arts” than to known physics. In direct opposition to the ars PARADOXICA rulebook, Einsteinian realism admits only of time travel to the future, and only as a by-product of hurtling through physical space at tremendous speeds.

I am therefore baffled whenever extremely knowledgeable physicists consent to engage with a handy riddle called “the grandfather paradox.” In this conundrum, if Stalin was my grandfather and I had assassinated him before he could sire children, I never would have existed, so he never could have been assassinated, in which case I would have been free to assassinate him after all (continues ad infinitum). Solutions to the paradox can be apparently extrapolated from quantum superposition, though the impossibility of ever travelling to the past sounds like the least onerous get-out to me.

With Dr Sally Grissom (Kristen DiMercurio), the mainstay of ars PARADOXICA, it is insinuated that the grandfather paradox might have been discreetly resolved. We know that her own grandfather, the real-life astronaut Gus Grissom, had died in a rocket fire in 1967 at the age of forty, whilst we have never heard of Sally outside of the podcast. Is this astronaut therefore the chicken that had preceded the egg?

Dr Grissom “accidentally” invents time travel when she plummets out of an unspecified point in the twenty-first century and back into 1943. She lands on the deck of the destroyer escort USS Eldridge and rather too neatly into the awaiting jaws and claws of the US military-industrial complex. Swabbed off the deck, she is forcibly recruited into a secret government agency called the Office of Developed Anomalous Resources (ODAR).

You will recognise the USS Eldridge from that fun urban legend about “the Philadelphia Experiment,” in which the battleship had magically teleported and some of its sailors had ended up becoming fused to metal bulkheads. Yet the tragedy for ODAR’s operatives is that the “grandfather paradox” effectively disables time travel, leaving them all marooned in something like an anti-adventure story. As Dr Grissom laments, “without a perspective that follows an altered timeline, an observer could never see that anything had actually changed.” Her response is to devise a contraption named “the CAGE,” which stands in null time and provides the sort of “perspective” that she is seeking.

When Dr Grissom’s team brainstorm uses for null time, these include ideas such as “you could… grow a fruit orchard on a moment’s notice” and “a computer could give you an answer as fast as you needed it to.” This brightly coloured wonderland is soon snowed over by ODAR’s mundane corporatism. Bill Donovan (Rob Slotnick), Dr Grissom’s boss, experiments secretively with the technology and mainly as a way of consolidating his bureaucratic grip. Later, ODAR’s biggest bugbear is that the Soviets will obtain the timepiece.

By season three, the disenchantment is complete – time travel is the biggest flop in history. Grissom rails at Donovan’s successor, Chet Whickman (Reyn Beeler), about the small returns on her genius: “Meddled in some court proceedings, rigged an election or two? Can you think of any other global tragedies on a slightly larger scale that ODAR could’ve maybe prevented?” Why, for example, has there been no manned mission to reverse the Holocaust?

Whickman wearily replies that “it’s logistically impossible to even try to do anything about it.” Although we might be irritated here by the inappropriate paltriness of Whickman’s ambitions, it is also worth noting that the military-industrial complex does not sound like its usual self here. If Grissom would like the US government to become the exclusive reorganiser of the planet’s history, without any constitutional constraints or democratic oversight, then we would do well to remember that this work is already thoroughly observable in microcosm, in the USA’s self-appointed role as “global policeman.” It was “logistically impossible” to hold back Communism in numerous post-colonial nations, but this did not prevent intimidation, manipulation, and outright murder on a gigantic scale. If everyone in ODAR is so conscientious and self-aware – intelligent, sympathetic people who are always trying to bargain with the realities of power – then how did most of their century ever happen?

It is hardly realistic that an agency such as ODAR could ever cultivate a responsibility equal to the immense power of time travel. Even so, the problem with denouncing the loucheness of the military-industrial complex is that you yourself begin to perceptibly shrink. US militarism had led the planet’s last serious industrial revolution, in supplying the galvanising force behind technologies such as jet propulsion, the internet, and space exploration. ODAR, on the other hand, is oddly adrift from this revolutionary culture. It is weakened by the same liberal malaise that afflicts corporate organisations in our own century. It suffers from the same inability to think big and rejoice innocently in power.

If ars PARADOXICA sometimes looks down on ODAR for being passive and unadventurous, it fails to disentangle itself from twenty-first century assumptions that are even more inauspicious. But the sympathy cuts both ways. In its own determination to go back and rectify the failings of the past, this podcast becomes just as colonialist in its outlook as any CIA policymaker.

ars PARADOXICA will not permeate the 1940s, empathise with its most representative characters or even show any imaginative knowledge about its values. It never relaxes enough to let the post-war period live and breathe. Dr Grissom resembles one of those immigrants who have erected their own mental enclave, where they still speak their own language and potter about amongst their own gods. The fascination of her story is that one of the twenty-first century’s most elite scientists is consigned to a perverse helplessness when she is plucked out of her original society. The twenty-first century is kept scrappily going, like a spluttering candle, after Dr Grissom (re)invents an answering machine for her phone. She is otherwise hardly a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court (and, yes, her story does commence in Connecticut).

Whickman’s moral universe is small and mean and barren. When tested, he isn’t even a sincere reactionary. He smokes marijuana and he eventually wanders out of the story, a lapsed militarist. He is not in the end taken anywhere by his impetus that, “the safety and livelihood of every single person in ODAR and in this country falls on my shoulders.” It is here unsettling how ars PARADOXICA seems to flirt openly with anachronism. Dr Grissom’s team comes to feel and sound more like a research and development cell at Google than an authentic workplace from the 1940s. We surely know in our heart of hearts that real scientists of the 1940s would address each other solemnly as “Dr Grissom” and “Dr Partridge.” The stiff conformism – indeed, the hive mindset and sheer self-effaciveness – of the 1940s is missing. ODAR’s operatives sound too buoyant – too relaxed – too overwhelmingly familiar.

In mitigation, Dr Grissom’s crew are all, to use her own term, “outliers.” Rather like the Bloomsbury Set, they remain cut off from the outside world of hugely organised industries and mass mobilisations. In Dr Grissom’s lab, a zeitgeist in which the height of freedom was dancing with abandon to a record by Bill Haley and the Comets is transformed into one in which everyone is striving mightily towards twenty-first century personal empowerment. A black man can be valued equally as an employee; an Asian woman can even become the forthright director of the entire agency.

My anachrometer begins to ping dementedly when who should rock up, in the second season, but Lauren Shippen, the writer and actress behind The Bright Sessions (2015-2018). In this audiodrama, we had joined postmodern superheroes on the therapist’s couch for much narcissistic anguish and very little saving of the world. Or rather, it was that for Shippen’s characters, saving the world was essentially one long personal development programme.

We may grow similarly impatient with the therapeutic clutter at the forefront of ars PARADOXICA. The show’s characterisation is seldom strong enough to fuel its own preoccupation with individual goals. The story reels from one paradox to the next, without the supporting crutch of any reliable psychological realism.

We are always worrying over whether or not we like Dr Grissom. It does not help that she is usually speaking with the affected jauntiness of a drivetime disc-jockey on a local radio station. She is both smug and needy, being one of these brittle creatures who have convinced themselves that they have no libido and now refuse to budge any further. We are always conscious of the uninteresting currents and eddies within what seem like formally stated personal motivations.

It is as though ars PARADOXICA is always bunched according to a mandatory undergraduate “creative writing” template. “A character must have a motivation. The purpose of your story is to expose this and address it. Everything else in the story should come second.” This, of course, concurs with the therapeutic method, in which people are always having to pull out their own entrails and ritualistically unravel them.

It is made perfectly plain to us how Dr Anthony Partridge (Robin Gabrielli) is motivated (e.g. by the irreconcilable tension between his job and his marriage) to strangle his boss. Nevertheless, although we can see how these building blocks are put in place, it is never remotely realistic that the squeaky clean, Tom Hanks-ish Partridge would commit such a murder. Likewise, Petra (Lia Peros) is always seeking revenge for her childhood suffering, whilst she simultaneously sounds too sensible a character to be ever realistically consumed by the obsession of revenge. These characters’ actions are so woodenly explicable that they only ever grow more unconvincing. That Petra, a human petri dish, is constantly multiplying over timelines only reiterates the defect.

We soon learn that it does not matter where in history Dr Grissom ends up. Unable to recruit lovers and typically incapable of sustaining lasting friendships, she is just as out of time whenever she is. Storylines about her loneliness at Christmas, and her farewell to a cellphone that contains voicemail from the future, admittedly explore this idea with imagination and sensitivity. As with The Bright Sessions, this is the frustration of ars PARADOXICA. If it was a bad podcast, we would be freed from the obligation of having to listen to it. That warning about “the curate’s egg” is of no use here. There really is always worthwhile meat to be picked out.

The show consistently chooses knotty plotlines over easy excitement. For an anti-adventure story, it is superbly ambitious, agile, imaginative, and hard-working. You are being constantly impressed by how swiftly events move. The story never settles down in a particular location and it is always renewing its character base. In all of these respects, it has undeniably set the bar very high for podcasting dramas very early on.

But Shippen’s tell-tale presence aboard ars PARADOXICA helps me to place this story. The inability of Dr Grissom’s time travel to harmonise the past and present elides with Dr Bright’s aim to reconcile her self-pitying clients with their circumstances. It is just that in ars PARADOXICA the whole of American history is a neurosis that cannot be easily or cheaply resolved. ODAR is a symptom of the pathology that is Manifest Destiny.

The ultimate conclusion of ars PARADOXICA is voiced by some of ODAR’s discontents when they carp that, “Makes ya wonder what the whole goddamn point of time travel is… if you can’t fix people.” Dr Grissom complains that, “The problem isn’t that we didn’t have time travel. The problem is us.” The crisis for this show is that in expressing such pessimism, the pessimism of a world that is exhausted and socially crumbling, it is not clear that it has ever left today.