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Time-travel cops are almost always big stinky jerks

The all-powerful, abusive TVA bureaucracy in Loki is just one of many

Loki endures another embarrassing and possibly lethal test in the MCU’s Loki series Photo: Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios

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In the first episode of the Disney Plus series Loki, the self-proclaimed “god of mischief” (played by Tom Hiddleston) encounters the Time Variance Authority, a sprawling bureaucracy tasked with maintaining a singular timeline for the universe. When he tries to reclaim the Tesseract, the magical McGuffin that let him flee from the Avengers in Avengers: Endgame, he finds it’s being casually stored in a desk drawer, among numerous other cross-time copies of Infinity Stones.

The most coveted objects in the galaxy have been reduced to shiny baubles to be used as paperweights for a workforce that barely even acknowledge his death threats or attempts at a brilliant escape. As he looks around his oddly mundane surroundings with dawning horror and awe, he asks, “Is this the greatest power in the universe?”

Organizations that police time travelers or maintain the sanctity of the “true” or “original” timeline have been featured in media for decades, including in 1994’s Timecop, 2014’s The Adjustment Bureau, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But Loki is part of a recent trend of delving deeper into the workings of the institutions that exercise that cosmic level of control. Portraying time-travel polities as simultaneously near-omnipotent and comically incompetent pushes protagonists to act independently, while also providing sly commentary on the nature of power, the law, and even time itself.

By the time Loki fully grasps the power the TVA wields, he’s been pretty badly abused by its agents — particularly infuriating to him, given his serious problem with authority figures. The organization is a perfect foil for him: Its tyrannical disregard for people’s free will embodies everything he claims he wants to accomplish as a ruler, and yet he finds it intolerable to be in the TVA’s hands. For someone whose primary motivation is the pursuit of power, there is no fate more terrible than being powerless. His humbling is key to the show’s plot, making a murderous god feel human as he’s faced with a flawed, intractable system. And the TVA’s mixture of strength and self-righteousness is pretty typical for fictional time-travel police across other media.

Kate Walsh as The Handler in The Umbrella Academy
The Handler in The Umbrella Academy
Photo: Christos Kalohoridis/Netflix

In aesthetics and purpose, the TVA strongly resembles the Temps Commission in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy. That organization is also fond of using dated technology like pneumatic tubes and switchboards, and it employs both an army of paper pushers and elite field agents in the quest to keep history on track.

Like Loki, the superheroes of The Umbrella Academy come into conflict with the Temps Commission for trying to escape their fates. There’s never a particularly good reason given for why the Temps Commission doesn’t believe the heroes should be allowed to stop the destruction of the moon at the end of season 1, though the organization did seem to be somewhat justified in that decision, since the protagonists’ intervention leads to a nuclear apocalypse in the 1960s. But by the end of season 2, the Umbrella Academy is able to avert that crisis, too.

The Temps Commission’s biggest problem is the same as any organization’s — it’s made up of highly fallible humans. The Handler, who deploys agents to preserve the timeline, abuses her authority to gain power within the organization and to cover up her misdeeds. In turn, she’s betrayed multiple times by agents who want to be free of her authority to pursue their own goals and dreams. The internal corruption makes it impossible to trust any of the Temps Commission’s edicts on what the proper timeline should look like, so the Umbrella Academy feels justified in deciding to effectively stage a coup within the group’s ranks, and empower leaders who will give them the future they desire.

The CW’s Legends of Tomorrow has had two different organizations monitoring the timeline over its six seasons. The first season follows Rip, a rogue Time Master who decides his bosses were wrong to allow the immortal warlord Vandal Savage to conquer Earth. The leader of the Time Masters claims Savage’s rise is necessary to prevent the Earth from an alien invasion in the distant future. That’s the same sort of utilitarianism-based logic used by the TVA and Temps Commission, and it’s never satisfying to free-thinking protagonists who demand a chance at finding a better solution.

With the Time Masters gone, Rip establishes his own Time Bureau to monitor dangers to the timeline. But Rip proves just as flawed as his former employers, prone to obsessions that got his agents killed. He also cruelly abuses his power, recruiting a director from a possible future with artificial humans because she’s easily replaceable, then creating an elaborate ruse to prevent her from learning the truth about herself. Even after Rip is killed, the Bureau continues to struggle with corruption and incompetence, leading to it being shut down.

Arthur Darvill as rogue Time Master Rip
Time Master Rip in Legends of Tomorrow
Photo: The CW

Both Loki and the members of The Umbrella Academy rebel against their time bureaucracies out of a need for self-preservation, but the Legends of Tomorrow heroes actually do believe in the mission of protecting the timeline from demons, aliens, and supervillains who would cause chaos. The show’s small group of lovable losers actually set a good example for a less-authoritarian version of temporal enforcement. Sometimes that’s because they screw up and have to accept, like Homer Simpson, that the reality they’ve settled on is “close enough” to what it was meant to be. At other times, their actions seem to make the world a better place than the status quo, like ensuring Albert Einstein’s wife Mileva Marić gets credit for contributing to her husband’s work. The crew and the show itself has come a long way over time, and much of that growth has come from their embrace of the power of agency and change.

Time-travel stories provide an entirely secular way to ask questions about free will, destiny, and justice that would traditionally be in the realm of religion. As the animated training video the TVA shows its prisoners states, time breaches can be created by things largely outside of a person’s control, like being late to work, or because they made a major choice, like leading a revolution. That implies the TVA exercises control over both small bits of bad luck and huge life decisions.

That effectively gives them godlike power to determine the fates of everyone in the universe. Mobius shows Loki how his decisions led to his adopted mother’s death, but by the TVA’s standards, that death was inevitable. Had Loki done something different, he would have become a variant and been reset. That’s possibly even part of the motivation of the Loki variant the organization is hunting.

Placing such power in the hands of humanity — or even “space lizards,” as Loki derisively calls the TVA’s leadership — means it’s used fallibly, and usually by those with a strong stake in maintaining the status quo. That makes these groups a perfect foe for flawed superheroes and repentant villains eager to buck any system, providing a novel power fantasy for anyone who’s felt infuriated by being told that’s just the way things are meant to be.

These organizations may argue that they are creating the best of all possible worlds, but the question is “Best for who?” In all three of these shows, the protagonists have reason to feel like they’re being hurt by time bureaucracies, but those organizations also can make some reasonable arguments that they’re actually in the right.

Loki’s original path through time let him find something close to redemption, by standing up to Thanos and dying in the process. When he goes off the rails into a new timeline, at least one version of him goes on a killing spree. The members of the Umbrella Academy refuse to believe they can’t save the world, but the apocalyptic events are caused by their own internal strife and out of control powers. The Legends of Tomorrow cause as many problems as they solve, releasing demons and aliens to wreak havoc on history, which they then have to try to clean up.

Yet the organizations enforcing the laws of time always come off as infuriating jerks, because no one likes to be told what they can’t do. The passage of time isn’t something anyone in the real world can control, which is especially frustrating to humans who have gotten used to defying the laws of nature, through everything from space travel to life-extending medical treatments. The TVA, Temps Commission, Time Masters, and Time Bureau represent the oppression of bureaucracy and the indifferent power of a force of nature. That’s something everyone can agree to hate.