Let’s Go Back to ars PARADOXICA: “17: Plasticity”

Let’s Go Back to ars PARADOXICA is a relisten and recap series for season one of ars PARADOXICA released every Tuesday and Thursday.

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.


“17: Plasticity”

An embed to RadioPublic’s direct link for the episode, which you can also find here.

Transcript
Written by: Eli Barraza


So, what happens in this episode?

One of the most infamous episodes in the entire run of ars PARADOXICA, “17: Plasticity” follows a group of children being tested on by ODAR.

The episode begins with a teacher asking the group of children what their favorite movie will be when they arrive in 1985. One child, Liam, answers his favorite will be Labyrinth, but another child, Jonah, corrects him, saying Labyrinth comes out in 1986. Jonah says his favorite will be The Goonies. The children are being observed by two ODAR agents: Agent Gibson and Van. Gibson and Van discuss that the children were all taken for an ongoing ODAR experiment from foster homes where they would have otherwise died. The process, Van says, has been traumatic, but their lessons are going well.

Later, another child, Carmen, tells Petra that she’s scared about time travelling. Petra tells Carmen to hold her hand when they travel, and Petra sings Carmen a lullaby:

Arrorró mi niño
Arrorró mi sol
Arrorró pedazo
De mi corazón

The scene transitions to Van’s audio diary on May 19th, 1985. The group has just traveled from December 13th, 1990. When they arrived, the kids underwent tests and then bought each other era-appropriate gifts for an exchange with each other. One of the children, Petra, knocks on the door. Van scolds her gently for walking around without a buddy, but Petra gives him a Rubik’s Cube from their shopping trip.

Using ads and media events showing the different years, there’s a transition as the group jumps back to 1984. Petra and Carmen are in a store, buying gifts, but Petra runs off quickly. The saleswoman tries to usher Carmen out of her store, and Carmen is confused. When Van enters the store, the saleswoman says that Carmen is being precocious, but Van sees right through this: the saleswoman is racially profiling Carmen, a Latina who’s less white-passing than Petra. Van leaves the store, passive aggressively saying they won’t be able to find anything high quality enough in her store. Just after they leave, Dr. Nikhil Sharma enters the store and buys a bag of lemon drops.

There’s another scene transition. Carmen, Petra, and Liam are whispering conspiratorially. They crypitcally talk about doing something they’re not supposed to do, Petra saying they’ll acclimate like they always do. Carmen points out that they’re very young–Carmen and Petra are about 10, Liam about 16, but they aren’t really able to keep track anymore. Their plan is to send Liam back ten minutes into the past so he can meet himself. They see someone up ahead and, lo and behold, it’s Liam. Carmen starts panicking, saying they shouldn’t be doing this, bringing up the study with Atropos and the other mice. As they send their Liam back, he starts exhibiting signs of Butterfly Syndrome rapidly–he starts coughing, and the scene transitions.

In Van’s office, Carmen is sobbing, saying it wasn’t their fault. She starts breathing heavily, and Van asks Petra to wait outside. Carmen tells Van that Liam had the idea to meet his past self, and she went along with it because Petra calls her a stick in the mud. She says that their neuroplasticity should have allowed them to withstand this–they were raised time traveling for the explicit purpose of seeing if neuroplasticity could make someome immune to the effects of Butterfly Syndrome. But it didn’t work, and now Liam is in a CAGE trying to recover.

Meanwhile, outside, Petra is approached by Dr. Sharma. He awkwardly tries to start conversation with her, but fairly quickly says that if he were in her position, he’d try to leave ODAR as soon as possible. The two bond over some dark jokes, and Petra says that ODAR saved them from foster care. She and Dr. Sharma debate the ethics of something like ODAR that does this to children, but eventually, Dr. Sharma just offers her a lemondrop for all the birthdays she missed. She points out how poorly he blends into the decade, and when he leaves, he tells her he’s always around.

Later, Petra visits Liam in the CAGE. He can’t speak, can only just mumble. Using a one-knock-if-yes-two-knocks-if-no system, she asks what’s going to happen, and can’t quite get the question out about whether or not he’s going to die. He knocks uncertainly. She suggests that they try to go back to stop themselves, but she realizes that would cause the same issue. She suggests sending an agent to do it, but Liam protests. The best he can, he mumbles, “Let me died. Let me having my death.” Petra sings him the lullaby.

Van argues with Agent Ray Vico about letting the children have some agency. Vico says that their project is a failure: Liam shows that they clearly aren’t immune to Butterfly Syndrome. Van points out that Liam may have been too old when the experiment started and asks Vico for more time.

But it’s not much later before Van wakes the kids up abruptly, ushering them all towards the timepiece, saying they’re doing an experiment on travelling as a group ahead of schedule. It’s clear that Van is making up a cover story–and an ODAR security guard sees through it. Van punches the guard and continues on with the children. Petra asks about Liam, but Van says they don’t have enough time. Jonah reaches out just as they time travel, and he’s severed in half. When they land back in the past, Van tells the ODAR agents to look them up. Petra tries to get Carmen not to look at Jonah’s horrific corpse, but it’s too late.

Another transition, and an older-sounding Carmen is giving her audio diary. She and Petra discuss how they don’t have last names, but Carmen ushers her out of the room so she can have some privacy. Carmen’s doing the audio journal because it worked for the “legendary” Dr. Sally Grissom. They’ve all convinced ODAR to keep going with the experiments, but the Tier 1 children–the older children–are starting to show symptoms of Butterfly Sydrome. Petra hasn’t exhibited any yet, but they’re still putting all of the children in the CAGE periodically regardless. Carmen says it’s even harder to keep track of their age, and Petra is constantly angry.

They travel back in time again and another child, Fatima, collapses. Van is coughing too. The group meets Esther Roberts, who thanks them for looking after Van. She says she’s surprised he’s even made it this far.

Dr. Sharma finds Petra again. She doesn’t realize it’s him until she sees the lemon drops–the same one. This time around, though, Petra is older and more callous. She doesn’t trust Dr. Sharma, and Dr. Sharma doesn’t blame her. He sincerely asks how she is–not with Butterfly Syndrome, but emotonally–and she says she can’t remember Liam’s voice, Felicity‘s handwriting, or Jonah’s face. It’s not Butterfly Syndrome; it’s just memory. She’s lost so many people, and her life keeps getting rewritten. Dr. Sharma tells her that she can stop ODAR, or at least help stop them. He gives her a piece of paper with a name on it. He tells her again that he’s always around.

In the CAGE, Van is doing worse than ever. He speaks to Carmen as much as he can, telling her not to leave ODAR. He apologizes to her, and tells her to pass his apology on to Petra. He gives Carmen a wooden Rubik’s cube from this era to bring to Petra.

At Van’s funeral, Esther apologizes to Petra. Petra leaves, and Carmen asks what the paperwork is for Petra says she’s leaving, and she and Carmen fight bout whether or not to stay with ODAR. Petra points out the ethical ramifications of everything ODAR is doing, saying she just wants to live a normal life. Carmen, meanwhile, points out that she won’t have that kind of luxury: not only is she a woman, she’s clearly not white. She’s not treated the same way as Petra, except when she’s at ODAR. Petra insists Carmen takes the spare ticket in case she can come later. Carmen tries to give Petra the wooden Rubik’s cube, but Petra doesn’t take it. Petra leaves and Carmen, crying in the car, sings the lullaby to herself.


Key facts and characters

  • The Children: The Children are placed in an experiment to see if neuroplasticity can be utilized at young ages by subjecting people to time travel in order to make them immune to Butterfly Syndrome. The known children are:
    • Petra, the only surviving child who leaves ODAR. Petra is played by Elyse Cain and Lia Peros.
    • Carmen, the only surviving child who stays at ODAR. Carmen is played by Ai-Chan and Gabriela Milo.
    • Liam, the child who dies abadoned in a CAGE after developing severe Butterfly Syndrome by meeting himself.
    • Jonah, the child who dies by being severed in half while time traveling.
    • Fatima, a child who dies assumedly via Butterfly Syndrome.
    • Felicity, a child who dies assumedly via Butterfly Syndrome.
  • Van: Van is the guardian of the children who dies via Butterfly Syndrome. Van is played by Ian McQuown.
  • Agent Ray Vico: Agent Ray Vico is an ODAR agent who tries to shut down the experiment. Vico is played by Richard Malmos.

How does it hold up?

“17: Plasticity” is infamous for a reason. Not only is it a harrowing episode, it’s also stunning. The level of emotion and complexity Eli Barraza brings to every single character in the episode is so profound–even the ones we get to know for a very short period of time. As the series progresses, Petra becomes one of the most complex and important characters, so I wasn’t surprised by how fantastic her writing was. I had forgotten how deeply I cared about Van, though.

And, of course, while a good deal of credit goes to Barraza’s writing, the performances in this episode–including, and maybe even especially, from the very young actors–were phenomenal. The cast here was largely, but they meshed together perfectly. Other than a few (very believable and understandable) stumbles around words like “neuroplasticity,” each line was given so much care. It’s one of the show’s most immersive episodes to date.

And it’s deeply memorable–not just for the pain of the episode, but for how well it displays the reality of a government program having this kind of power. It’s easy to forgive ODAR when the audience is just seeing it from Dr. Grissom’s perspective, even when she doesn’t forgive them. Petra’s perspective, though, shows how fundamentally unethical they really are.


Butterfly Syndrome

Timeline 1

  • May 19th, 1985: Petra, Carmen, the other children, and Van arrive after travelling back in time.
    • Loop 1: Liam travels back in time ten minutes to see himself.
    • Loop 2: Liam A meets Liam B from 10 minutes in the future, giving him severe Butterfly Syndrome.
  • December 13th, 1990: Petra, Carmen, the other children, and Van travel back in time to May 19th, 1985.
  • 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.
    • XXXX: Dr. Nikhil Sharma goes back in time with two conflict missions: kill Dr. Grissom or bring her back to the current year.
  • 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.
    • On Wednesday, July 16th, 1945, Dr. Grissom, Anthony Partridge, Helen Partridge, and Chet Whickman witness The Trinity Test.
    • On September on an unnamed date, Quentin Barlowe is killed by a bullet in a time loop:
      • Loop A1: Quentin Barlowe is shot by Chet Whickman from Timeline 3.
      • Loop A2: Dr. Grissom is shot by June Barlowe, which is then sent back in time to kill Quentin Barlowe, also closing the loop.
    • Quentin Barlowe’s funeral occurs on September 16th, 1945.
    • Dr. Grissom invents the TAP on September 20th, 1945.
    • The ODAR Christmas party, and subsequent mass firing, is on December 21st, 1945.
      • Loop B1: When the Polvo power grid overloads, Dr. Grissom A uses the timepiece to help save Polvo.
      • Loop B2: Dr. Grissom B goes to RAINBOW A and pulls the lever to regulate the power. RAINBOW B explodes.
      • Loop B3: Dr. Grissom C chokes out Lambert and saves RAINBOW A, saving the town in conjunction with Dr. Grissom B or Maraczek.
    • December 24th, 1945: Dr. Grissom A wakes up. Dr. Grissom B and C have been killed by Cornish and Donovan.
    • February 1946: Dr. Grissom, Roberts, Wyatt, Anthony Partridge, and Helen Partridge are moved to Point of Exile, Colorado, by Donovan and Whickman.
    • March 1st, 1946: Dr. Grissom concludes that forward time travel using the timepiece is impossible.
    • August 2nd, 1946: Dr. Grissom accidentally gets stuck in the CAGE for an hour and a half.
    • August 18th, 1946: Helen Partridge’s jazz performance.
    • September 9th, 1946: Roberts and Whickman stay in the CAGE for just over 22 hours.
    • December 23rd, 1946: Helen Partridge leaves Point of Exile.
    • December 24th, 1946: Partridge discovers Donovan’s tapes.
    • October 27th, 1949: Dr. Grissom establishes the answering machine in The Blackroom, and Esther Roberts reunites with Bridget Dreyfuss. Dr. Nikhil Sharma is brought back from XXXX.
    • Novembe 2nd, 1949: Dr. Nikhil Sharma is killed by Chet Whickman.

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.

Timeline 3

  • 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, and Dr. Grissom does not go forward with the test on the Timepiece.
  • On September on an unnamed date, Quentin Barlowe is killed by Chet Whickman after Whickman finds out that Barlowe’s records are fake. The bullet is sent through a rift in time to Timeline 1.

Fragment Timelines

Throughout the series, there are fragmented timelines that the audience is never given the full details of. Instead of trying to factor these into the main timelines, they’ll be given their own sections.

Bill Donovan’s Tapes

In the first season, Partridge finds the tapes that Donovan has been sending to himself from the future using his own Timepiece to make sure he gets his way. Only certain tapes were played in the episode, “10: Consequence, Act I.”

  • Tape 1: Recorded August 1st, 1945; sent back to July 10th, 1945. Donovan tells himself to let Partridge take the others to Las Vegas. He tells his past self that J. Edgar Hoover is gay.
  • Tape 2: Recorded July 17th 1945; sent back to July 10th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self that the intel on J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t sufficient.
  • Tape 5: Recorded July 26th, 1945; sent back to July 18th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self that Winston Churchill lost the United Kingdom general election and that they should call in a favor.
  • Tape 7: Recorded August 10th, 1945; sent back to August 4th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self that Truman still will not fund their work until he sees good evidence that it’s going towards something.
  • Tape 12: Recorded September 12th, 1945; no date listed for when it was sent back. Donovan says that he found the tape of Chet Whickman from Timeline 1, Loop A1, shooting Quentin Barlowe.
  • Tape 16: Recorded December 3rd, 1945; sent back to November 28th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self that Hank Cornish has arrived in town.
  • Tape 19: Recorded December 12th, 1945; sent back to December 11th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self how to avoid being hit by a car.
  • Tape 20: Recorded December 12th, 1945; sent back to December 11th, 1945. Donovan tries again to tell his past self how to avoid being hit by a car.
  • Tape 21: Recorded December 12th, 1945; sent back to December 11th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self to not go outside.
  • Tape 26: No dates given. Donovan tells his past self to tell “her” how much she means to him.
  • Tapes 29-33: Recorded December 21st, 1945; sent back to December 20th, 1945. Donovan tells his past self how to trigger the explosion in Polvo, make sure Dr. Grissom uses the Timepiece to create duplicates of herself, and then use those duplicates as physical proof that the timepiece is working to get their funding.
  • Donovan’s final tape: Recorded December 10th/15th/18th, 1946: Donovan tells his past self that his illness is getting worse, but he receives the tapes.

Elbourne’s experiments

  • Experiment 1: Food is sent to a mouse back through the Timepiece.
    • Loop 1: The mouse, Kronos, pushes a button, and receives his food an hour later. Food is brought back to Loop 2 through the Timepiece.
    • Loop 2: Kronos receives his food as soon as he pushes the button. The food is received from an hour into the future via the Timepiece.
  • Experiment 2: A mouse is sent back through the Timepiece many times to complete a maze.
    • Loops 1-6: The mouse, Hermes, attempts to complete the maze with quickly declining proficiency.
    • Loop 7: Hermes is dead at the start of the maze.
  • Experiment 3: Three mice are sent back to their past selves. Pushing a button, the future mice will receive food but shock their past selves.
    • Loop 1: The mice–Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos–are raised to adulthood. They are trained to receive food by pushing a button.
    • Loop 2: The adult mice are sent back through the Timepiece to adjoining cages to their past selves.
      • Future Clotho pushes the button, indifferent to the pain of Past Clotho.
      • Future Lachesis refuses to push the button, starving herself.
      • Future Atropos attempts to kill Past Atropos by abusing the button, regardless of receiving food.
  • Experiment 4: A mouse will be sent to raise itself in the past with its mother.
    • Loop 1: A mother mouse raises a child mouse in isolation.
    • Loop 2: The child mouse, now an adult, is sent back through the Timepiece to raise itself with the mother. The adult mouse attempts to kill its past self.

ODAR & You!

  • This episode was written by Eli Barraza, who would later go on to create the Whisperforge podcast The Far Meridian.
  • Van was played by Ian McQuown, who now stars in the Whisperforge podcast StarTripper!!, created by ars PARADOXICA alumn Julian Mundy.
  • The lullaby Petra sings is a Latin American lullaby. In some versions, “duérmete” (sleep) is used instead of “arrorró.” Like “rockabye” in English lullabies, “arrorró” is more a noise than a word, so the song essentially translates to:

Rockabye my baby
Rockabye my sun
Rockabye piece
of my heart.

  • Early in the episode, Gibson asks Van what his favorite movie in 1985 will be. Van is cryptic, but his answer is Back to the Future.

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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