Between blockbusters like Avengers: Endgame and small-screen oddballs like FX’s Legion, it’s been an interesting year for stories featuring time travel, a plot device whose potential for greatness is only overshadowed by its potential to come across as unimaginative. The key to making time travel really sing in a story, which Summer Camp Island understands, is to keep things simple.
The more a movie or television show’s take on time travel needs explaining and subsequent clarifying, the more it ends up pulling focus away from the overall narrative, and because each episode of Summer Camp Island clocks in at about 10-11 minutes, that obviously would not be ideal.
In “Midnight Quittance,” Hedgehog and a very exhausted Oscar stay up far past their bedtimes in order to attend a special gathering at the sorceress Ramona’s house. Ramona invites Oscar, Hedgehog, and number of the island’s monsters to participate in a magical potluck that’s of unique importance.
The monsters explain to the children that at one point long, long ago, Time didn’t move in a linear fashion. People would go throughout their lives randomly shifting into alternate versions of themselves from different points in their lives — infant, pile of bones, adult, infant, teen, etc. — and everyone just accepted that as their reality.
But one day, while a couple of monsters were preparing a soup for themselves, Time itself stopped by to ask if it could have a taste, and the Monsters came up with an idea. In exchange for soup from the Monsters, Time agrees to move forward only, making life less complicated for all of the world’s creatures, and creating a time-honored tradition.
Every year, the Monsters come together to recreate the Time Noodle Soup, and it’s crucial that every person invited to the ritual bring their designated ingredient. Because Hedgehog’s a budding occultist who finds all things magical fascinating, she’s entirely ready to do her part in the evening’s festivities. But because Oscar, again, is dead tired and really only up because he wants to support Hedgehog, he ends up accidentally forgetting to bring the salt he was meant to add to the Time Noodle Soup.
The problem isn’t that Oscar fully forgot to bring the salt, but rather that he left it just outside the magic perimeter he can no longer cross without ruining the ritual. Though he attempts at sneaking just outside the perimeter in order to grab the salt and prevent Time from becoming enraged, Oscar’s plan doesn’t work, and time immediately begins to behave differently. From Oscar’s perspective, he’s no longer simply existing in the present when he was physically in Ramona’s house with the Monsters and Hedgehog.
He’s also in the cafeteria with Hedgehog three years in the past discussing what they’re having for lunch. He’s also in the future with Hedgehog, the two of them grey, old, and still best friends. Oscar’s an adult with a broken leg, and he’s also a kid earlier that evening when “Midnight Quittance” began and he had the chance to carry the salt with him to the dinner table.
From Oscar’s perspective, you’re able to see how the erratic flow of time makes it difficult for people to be able to interact with the world around them in a meaningful way — because just as they become accustomed to a singular moment, time has already jumped to another point in the past or future.
But in the brief second when Oscar sees his salt shaker, he instinctively grabs it, and when Time brings him back to the scene in Ramona’s house with Hedgehog and the monsters, Oscar’s surprised to realise that he’s still got the salt in his hand. For Oscar, bringing the salt to the table is news, but Hedgehog points out that he’s been carrying it all evening, and you understand that she has no way of knowing Oscar changed the past.
Summer Camp Island’s time travel isn’t anywhere near as involved and complicated as time travel stories sometimes tend to be, meaning it doesn’t spend any time trying to logic its way through the mechanics of it all. But what it captures perfectly is how these simplified time travel stories make it easy to appreciate our relationship with time.
Truly speaking, Oscar isn’t moving “backwards” through time the way a person might assume in a fantasy story, but rather experiencing various moments as if they’re all his present. When he grabs the salt, he’s not just transporting it into the future with him, he’s making the decision to plan ahead for the evening to ensure that he’s got the salt when he needs it.
“Midnight Quittance” ends up being more of a story about understanding how planning in the present is a means of influencing the future, which isn’t always an idea that stories like these hammer home, but it’s that sort of thinking that makes Summer Camp Island the delightful series it is.