Let’s Go Back to ars PARADOXICA: “02: Blackout”

Let’s Go Back to ars PARADOXICA is a relisten and recap series for season one of ars PARADOXICA released every Tuesday and Thursday. You can see the full series here.

“02: Blackout”

Written by: Daniel Manning

So, what happens in this episode?

Dr. Sally Grissom opens her audio diary entry on January 17th, 1944–2 months and 19 days from the log in the last episode–remarking on how cold her home is, and how cold everyone in Polvo has been to her. Unaware that her arrival caused the forced departure of the inessential employees Director Bill Donovan fired, Dr. Grissom expects that there’s been an order not to speak to her. She guesses this is to minimize the chances of time paradoxes due to her inadvertently causing a change in time through conversations with others.

Still, her life in Polvo has been, in her words, “decidedly miserable.” She lets herself steep in frustration only so long before demanding to speak with Donovan about his order . . . only to find that, no, no order existed. Everyone just hates her. Couple that revelation with a lack of internet or any real entertainment during her time off, and Dr. Grissom is living her own personal hell.

The only short-term goal Dr. Grissom is excited for is the test of a time travel device she’s been working on called the Timepiece. Set to be tested at 3:00PM that day, it’s going to be her first step towards helping the war efforts and, hopefully, returning home. At least her work is going right in some way. She says,

“The laws governing the universe haven’t changed, so I guess it’s all the same. Well, I’m pretty sure that they haven’t changed. Actually, the whole ‘laws governing the universe’ thing is pretty up in the air right now. I suppose we’ll find out today.”

Her plans and focus are interrupted when a burst of electromagnetic interference blasts through her house and, seemingly, throughout the entire town, sending it into a blackout.  The first thing she does when it’s passed is fix her recorder, joking away her evident loneliness, but then she notices it still has a hum of interference coming through. The director summons Dr. Grissom, and she leaves with her recorder.

Dr. Grissom is paired up with Anthony Partridge to find the cause of the electromagnetic disturbance. It’s immediately clear that Partridge couldn’t be more displeased with this arrangement, regardless of Dr. Grissom’s friendly, casual demeanor. Partridge’s sarcastic, annoyed responses quickly boil over into a confrontation between the two of them as Dr. Grissom asks why everyone has been so unkind to her, and Partridge explains how much fell apart at ODAR when Dr. Grissom came in and took all the funding. Partridge explains that not only were projects scrapped, but entire families were moved out of Polvo–and, as we know from the first episode, the only people allowed to talk to or know about citizens of Polvo are other citizens of Polvo. Dr. Grissom explains that she didn’t know, and that it isn’t fair for them to take their resentment out on her. Partridge can’t buy that she wouldn’t know, but before Dr. Grissom can explain, they’re interrupted by more static feedback from the electromagnetic interference.

Partridge explains that before Dr. Grissom showed up, his project was on predictive algorithms–that his team, for instance, used algorithms to predict that they’d have a polio vaccine within the year. When Partridge asked where she’s from, she says that she got her doctoral degree at MIT, but Partridge says he’s had his eye on attendees for recruitment. When he asks her when she graduated, she starts to say “2014,” only to cut herself off, leaving Partridge to assume she somehow graduated 19 years ago, in 1924. Again, they’re cut off by interference.

The scientific curiosity driving the two leads them to work on a device that can help boost the interference to better track it. As they collaborate, sharing ideas and experiences, they find that they actually work really well together. On a playground, they even share some of their beliefs, discussing their thoughts on the existence of ghosts. Their dynamic shifts from antagonistic to encouraging, even excited–until they realize that the interference, moving in the direction it is at the rate it is, will hit the test site of the Timepiece at, of course, 3:00PM. Dr. Grissom realizes that she’s “getting screwed by causality again.” The interference isn’t heading for her test; it’s blowing out from her test, but backwards in time.

Not one who likes being without knowledge that others have, Partridge demands that Dr. Grissom explain what’s going on, and eventually, she does. She tells him that she’s from the future, and this is why his project was shut down; her existence negates the need for anything predictive. Partridge accepts this fairly quickly, and then suggests that if her test caused the disruption, she should just not do the test.

This leads to a discussion about what will happen if she doesn’t. Dr. Grissom argues that she has to perform the test, because they’re currently doing what they’re doing, and they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if the test doesn’t happen in the future; not doing the test would result in a paradox. Partridge points out that no matter how hard she tries, she will always be, and has already been, affecting the timeline. Partridge agrees to keep her secret, and to tell the others to be kinder to her.

At the would-be test site of the Timepiece, Dr. Grissom and Partridge, somehow both over-prepared and under-prepared, await for 3:00PM to see what happens. The two drink a beer. Dr. Grissom asks if they’ll get in trouble if everything is destroyed, and Partridge explains that they’re just doing their job–the equipment is always replaced when things go wrong.

And then, things get “redder.” There’s a whoosh followed by a comedically anticlimactic pop!–a flash of blue after the red, reflective of the show’s art:


The episode shifts back to Dr. Grissom’s narration. She starts a new log for the day, saying that her old audio was destroyed in the interference–meaning that the audio the listener is hearing is’t her tapes at all. She has another migraine, and as she talks about maybe changing history, her voice goes in and out of static distortion.

Key facts and characters

  • The Timepiece: Dr. Grissom’s planned time travel device.

How does it hold up?

So well. While the first episode established the tone, plot, and some character development, this episode feels like the true introductory crux to what ars PARADOXICA is as a podcast.

In its writing, this episode blends character with concept so well. The focus weighs heavier on the characters, letting Dr. Grissom’s playful side come out more, and allowing a glimpse into Partridge besides someone who wants–and needs–to impress his boss. The two are just as much foils as they are parallels. The feel between them isn’t dissimilar to a buddy cop movie, starting with an frustration caused by a miscommunication, leading to a strong and organic friendship and collaborative mindset. They’re both cocky, insistent, stubborn, and brilliant. They bring out the best and worst in each other.

In terms of the show’s concept, this episode helps nail down the core questions of what it’s trying to ultimately ask. The question here isn’t really, “How does time travel work?” though that is, of course, part of it; instead, this episode asks questions like, “Why is time travel interesting to us? Are we important in the narrative of the universe? Could we make significant change in how events will occur in the future? What does time care about us? Why do we care about time?”

All of this is blended with the iconically gorgeous sound design of the show and two of its best performances. Kristen DiMercurio and Robin Gabrielli have vocal rhythms and timings that fit perfectly together, adding to how much the characters feel like two connected puzzle pieces. There isn’t that feeling of easing into character like there is in the first episode. At no point did I feel like I was listening to two actors in a studio; I felt like I was genuinely listening in on a conversation between Dr. Sally Grissom and Anthony Partridge.

The Butterfly Effect

Dr. Grissom might think that she changed history, or changed her own timeline, but I’m not so sure about that. In my eyes, Dr. Grissom didn’t somehow fix her own timeline. Instead, she started a new one. This means we’re going to have to start breaking them down.

The show’s main timeline–at least, as it stands right now–will be called Timeline 1. All other timelines will be given numbers as we go.

Timeline 1

  • Starting time: Dr. Grissom is from a modern-day alternate timeline (see ODAR & You! for more on that) that she is pulled out of on August 14th, 20XX.
    • 20XX is sometime after 2014, a year that has not been redacted; 2014 is when Dr. Grissom received her PhD from MIT. If she started working at the SSC directly after graduating, 20XX would be 2016.
  • Jump back: On August 14th, 20XX, Dr. Grissom lands back in October 29th, 1943.
    • On October 29th, 1943, Dr. Grissom is brought to her new home of Polvo, New Mexico.
    • On January 17th, 1944, the blackout hits, but Dr. Grissom does not move forward with the test on the Timepiece.

Timeline 2

  • Starting time: Dr. Grissom is from a modern-day alternate timeline (see ODAR & You! for more on that) that she is pulled out of on August 14th, 20XX.
    • 20XX is sometime after 2014, a year that has not been redacted; 2014 is when Dr. Grissom received her PhD from MIT. If she started working at the SSC directly after graduating, 20XX would be 2016.
  • Jump back: On August 14th, 20XX, Dr. Grissom lands back in October 29th, 1943.
    • On October 29th, 1943, Dr. Grissom is brought to her new home of Polvo, New Mexico.
    • On January 17th, 1944, the blackout hits, but Dr. Grissom moves forward with the test on the Timepiece, which then sends an electromagnetic pulse backwards in time into Timeline 1.

Well, folks, it’s the second episode, and I’m already terrified by what this section is going to look like by the end.

ODAR & You!

  • When Partridge talks about predicting the polio vaccine, Dr. Grissom says, “Yeah, too bad for FDR.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt died from polio in 1945, a year after the vaccine was discovered.
  • When Dr. Grissom lies that she received her doctoral degree from MIT in 1924, Partridge is understandably incredulous. 19 years ago, Dr. Grissom would have been 8 years old.
  • Partridge references Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon is one of the oldest and most famous comic book characters, his first comic strip debuting in 1934–4 years before Superman’s debut.
  • Dr. Grissom seems to be operating under the mindset of The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics: that events for her happen in superposition, both existing at the same time, until one event is proven accurate. The Copenhagen Interpretation is usually summed up with the example of Schrödinger’s Catars PARADOXICA as a work, however, operates more under The Many Worlds Interpretation, suggesting that each time an event happens, the possible outcomes don’t exist in superposition until observed, but instead that a new universe is created for each outcome.
  • Let’s do some linguistic tracking here. Anthony Partridge uses the following idioms, but were they around in 1944?
    • “Souped up” was first used in 1911, not to refer to any car or technology, but–apparently–injecting horses with steroids. Great!
    • “Silver spoon” is even older, dating back to 1801.
  • Each episode ends with a color, a set of numbers, and an identification of the “weather in Tulsa.” Each of these is a Vigenere cipher, all of which have been solved on the podcast’s Wikia.
    • The weather in Tulsa today is: SUNNY

On Tuesday (3/5/19), I’ll be recapping “03: Trinity, Act I” and “03: Trinity, Act II.” For all of the ars PARADOXICA recaps, start with this post, or see all of the posts in the series here.

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3 thoughts on “Let’s Go Back to ars PARADOXICA: “02: Blackout”

  1. OKAY

    so we never actually see the timeline where she does the test, right? Just the blow back from her test?

    Which… I gotta admit stumps me, because if her choosing not to do it starts a new timeline…… wouldn’t she not feel the effects from it initially?

    (I know the answer is probably “fiction” and “stop thinking so hard “ BUT


    1. I think the review got Timeline 2 slightly wrong. Timeline 2 wouldn’t have a blackout at all, so Sally did the test (she had no reason not to). That caused Timeline 1, and its blackout.


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