Do you ever notice time travel stories being criticized or picked apart more than other sci-fi? There have been numerous classics with all kinds of different interpretations and theories. Perhaps because it is a particularly nebulous concept among sci-fi subject matter that it inspires more analysis and thus is more prone to criticism.
But that is the point of science fiction, is it not? To explore out-of-this-world ideas. Still, the task of formulating a satisfying and logically sound time travel story adds considerably more work to the already lofty task posed by the standards of fiction writing.
From a creative standpoint, why risk it? Even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has continually prided itself on its thorough construction decided to muck things up by introducing time travel in Avengers: Endgame. Plot holes resulting from stories like this could be explained away after the fact just as easily as they could be things the writers never considered.
Is it a fault of the discussion or the writers? Well, it can be a bit of both. When I hear of a time travel story that has been widely praised even years after its release, I get that much more intrigued. Time travel is hard to do and no show does time travel quite like Steins;Gate, which I finally watched just last month.
Released in 2011, Steins;Gate tells the story of Rintaro Okabe, a self-proclaimed mad scientist and otaku. Along with his friends Mayuri and Itaru, they call themselves the Future Gadget Laboratory and make a hobby of inventing weird gadgets.
One perplexing day, Okabe crosses paths with Kurisu Makise… on the day she is murdered. Yet after sending a message to Itaru about it, it is as if the entire changes in an instant and miraculously, Kurisu is okay. Okabe realizes something great and horrifying. He and his friends have just invented a time machine.
To be precise, this show’s use of time travel is at first limited to sending data like text messages through time. It’s a smaller approach to the concept, but in scaling back the mechanics of time travel, it almost feels more grounded. The numerous mechanics are explained in detail through the series. The first half greatly indulges in small arcs of experimentation, addressing the limitations while expanding the understanding.
I would compare this show’s structure to that of another sci-fi masterwork, Psycho-Pass. In that show, the first half was dedicated mostly to world building, whereas the last half sought to deconstruct that world. Steins;Gate doesn’t have a set objective for the characters once they have concluded that they have a time machine. They pursue it out of curiosity and to further a study of this invention for the sake of scientific discovery.
The catch here is that Okabe is an incredibly rare individual who can perceive the changes between timelines. Everyone else’s memory adjusts to the new reality, making Okabe the only one who knows what happened in previous realities. Careful thought needs to be put into disclosing what changes between the timelines when pushing his cohorts onward.
As the exact circumstances allowing for time travel are explored, the plot ropes in more characters, each one a part of an experiment. Basically, by sending messages back in time, Okabe is seeing what kinds of factors can be changed. Each character is made a new member of the lab and each change is something about their lives they’d rather be different.
Without a concrete direction, chemistry plays a big role in keeping the viewers’ attention and the writing produces some great banter. With the characters all steeped in otaku culture, they are relatable without being reduced to stereotypes. They are entertaining for how quirky they are, but the reasons they act that way are believable and heartfelt.
Okabe acts like a mad scientist and is often lost in his own head, but it is all a product of social awkwardness. This is an act we see him begin to abandon as the events of the story force him to take the gravity of things more seriously. Mayuri’s own social hang-ups and head-in-the-clouds mentality may be the result of a social disorder, but just as likely her past trauma. The two of them share a relationship that puts into perspective how such obtuse personalities come about out of a place of love.
Kurisu Makise’s relationship with Okabe was by far one of the most engaging and consistently amusing. He’s constantly putting on the avant-garde facade and teasing her. She is snappy and well-read but emotionally reserved and hiding her softer side. They are more alike than they would care to admit and what seems to be tension is chemistry in motion.
The show doesn’t shy from unveiling the beating heart behind the character is some dramatic ways. At one point, Kurisu’s frightened reaction to a seemingly standard rant by Okabe implied a lot of her relationship with past men in her life. A lot is learned about the cast not only through their own interactions but also by what changes and specifically what they choose to change about time.
By the midpoint of Steins;Gate it is made abundantly clear that the characters have gone too far. A conspiracy involving SERN (based on the real-world organization CERN) begins to unravel, pulling the Lab members into the web. Small changes in the past begin to compound on top of each other, setting in motion a seemingly fixed fate.
At this point, the pacing and direction of the series shift dramatically, as Okabe makes it his mission to revert what has occurred. It is here that the show begins to make a “point” with its story. At first, it appears as logical as most time travel stories, namely “don’t do it, it fucks up EVERYTHING.” Rather, Steins;Gate puts the onus on its characters to consciously choose futures that may not benefit them.
In correcting time, Okabe is trying to convince his friends to correct decisions that they made to make their lives better. The stakes range in scale, but all of them are understandably important to them. Characters like Faris have to contemplate matters of family while for Rukako, it’s a matter of personal identity.
Ultimately, the reasoning for changing time back is that altering it in the first place was just too dangerous. Living in the past makes us long for what could have been different, but that often comes at the cost of what has been gifted to us instead. The journey to reach this conclusion doesn’t always end the way the characters want. The stories stuck with me a while after watching, mostly thanks to a supporting cast that I was thankful wasn’t wasted.
Now is a good a time as ever to mention that I watched this series in English dub and the choice between the two was not easy. On one hand, you have Mamoru Miyano voicing Okabe, while on the other you have J. Michael Tatum. It wasn’t an easy choice, but I’m glad I at least got to hear Cherami Leigh as Suzuha, among other performances. It’s honestly a solid dub all around, though the sub might require its own viewing just for Mamoru Miyano speaking English.
All this leads to one of the most complete endings one could ask for. Okabe’s journey is grueling but immensely satisfying not only for how much he matures, but where we find the rest of the cast by the end. It’s the kind of end where what happens after is up to the interpretation of the viewer, but enough is hinted at to ease all worries of what might be.
Being an adaptation of a visual novel, certain routes were cut and not being a fan of visual novels I don’t have any frame of reference for (nor attachment to) what was cut. All I will say is that they did a phenomenal job of creating such a fulfilling narrative based on a work with so many diverging routes.
Not every part of the story is brilliant. Some of the later narrative revelations about the potential future and the SERN conspiracy can feel a bit silly the more you think about them. Not that a sinister corporation doing dastardly shit ain’t cool, but the idea is presented so briefly that it feels like a parody of a real plot point. A parody that – based on what I’ve heard of the VN and its sequel, Steins;Gate 0 – can get pretty ridiculous.
As perfect as the ending is, the final stretch feels as though that subplot doesn’t mean much at all. One could argue that the point of the story was never the conspiracy and that it was just framing for the character drama. I’m content with this and I would personally say that the more grounded this story is, the better.
Having watched the Blu-ray release through Funimation, I was a bit underwhelmed by the “last episode” which was just an OVA tacked on to the final disc. The ova itself isn’t that special, showing everyone going on a trip to America, but coming off the heels of the actual conclusion, it was a weird tension dispersal. So if you watch the series on Blu-ray, consider episode 24 the true end.
While the animation never really stood out to me beyond some more abstract sequences here and there, the artwork is stunning. The light blues and grays of Akihabara in midday have this dry, barren, almost dreamlike look. Okabe walking through a seemingly empty Akihabara gives this sense of intense heat on a summer’s day. The show can convey a sense of unease in its colors.
Whether warm or cool, the show is almost perpetually placing its characters settings that produce very dynamic lighting and shadows. Dawn or dusk, inside or outside, the character designs by Kyuuta Saki always find a way to look striking. If someone were concerned about losing interest in the series early on, I would say the artwork is a big draw to the experience.
I would never just give a show I enjoyed a 10/10 just because everyone else gave it one. Typically a show that I give a 10 has a strong emotional connection to me. For Stand Alone Complex it was the police sci-fi and politics, for Shirayuki it was the blissful romanticism and for Kekkai Sensen it was… everything.
I say all this despite me literally giving the series a 10 on MAL after finishing it. Given time, I might bump it down to no less than a 9 but regardless, finishing Steins;Gate gave me this moment of “oh, I get it now.” It becomes pretty clear why this show is in the top 10 on MAL. It is a meticulously constructed marvel that hopefully will leave you with memories of characters you won’t soon forget.
Steins;Gate is available for legal streaming through FunimationNow. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD through Funimation.
I hope you enjoyed the review. Leave a comment telling me what you think of Steins;Gate and tell me what other shows I should watch.
I have all of my posts planned out basically up until December when I plan to take a hiatus, and it seems I’ll be working overtime to get content out. This means I may be posting content weekly as opposed to bi-weekly, at least for a time. Not that I’m complaining, I’ve been on a roll lately.
So what can you expect? I promise I will review Dororo and Shield Hero (dear god I need to actually catch up one of these days. Much sooner you can expect my thoughts on Fire Force as it approaches its midpoint. I have a feeling not everyone will agree with me.
After that, I’ll review what I consider the best show of the summer season (can you guess what it is?). Finally, I have a review of an older show as well as a spotlight one of my favorite directors. Now is a greater time than ever to start following the blog if you don’t already. You can also follow me on twitter @MatthewLundeen. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.