Dave Davenport Has Come Unstuck in Time: December 22-28, 2003

When I got to the end of “Unstuck in Time,” I was two strips over. Rather than cut two of the final strips, I decided to run a daily strip on the each of the last Sundays of the storyline. And here we are. I have no regrets.

In addition to being touching, this strip is great because Dave wears his jaunty little cap.

Man, Mell’s always concerned about hair. Helen’s observation ends up being important way, way down the line.

The thing in the background of the second panel appears to be a map of the world with little hearts and flowers drawn on it. That’s Helen for you.

Sorry for being so late getting the commentary up for today and yesterday. My Internet went down on Sunday night and I only just got it back. It has been HELL, I tell you. HELL. In return, here’s Wednesday’s strip early. Whew.

Anyway… this only gets brought up occasionally in the strip, but it’s got to be uncomfortable for Artie to live around lots of ordinary, non-superintelligent gerbils, many of which Helen dissects in front of him. Artie hasn’t been out of the lab much, so whatever goes on there is his idea of normal. It’s a wonder he’s as stable as he is.

SPOILERS: Artie’s absence from the future Dave sees becomes more of a plot point later on. Helen’s brain has already hinted that his death was not from natural causes.

This twist would’ve been better if I’d established earlier that Dave wanted to quit smoking. I did have a storyline like that planned at one point, but I never fleshed it out. Oh well; it’s still pretty good.

[SPOILERS] This will be Dave’s character design for most of the rest of Narbonic: shaggy hair, no cigarette. The other change I wanted to make to his appearance was to make his eyes visible through his glasses. For a while I planned to do this in a mundane way, by simply having him get new glasses. Then I came up with an idea: making his glasses go transparent at a crucial revelation to represent the scales falling from his eyes. Unfortunately, this meant continuing to draw him without visible eyes until near the very end of the strip’s run. Sometimes I outfox myself.

I was really hoping people would notice and comment on Dave’s lack of cigarette before this, but I don’t think anyone did. I probably should’ve dragged it out longer.

I probably spent way too much time figuring out what kind of lighter Dave would carry.

Incidentally, I had this plot twist planned from the very beginning, so these are all really, really early scripts. They hold up pretty well, though.

As Dave will realize later, the larger implication of this is that history can be changed, making it possible to avoid the crapsack future he experienced. This will, of course, leave the past cluttered with paradoxical bric-a-brac, but that’s always a danger with time travel. Untidiness.


I never really spelled this out in the strip, so here, for reference, is the timeline of events in Narbonic as we, the readers, see them. I had this charted out at one point.

1983: Six-year-old Dave, inhabited by his future consciousness, meets Dr. Narbon and nine-year-old Helen. He leaves his Yak-Face action figure with Dr. Narbon.

2000: Helen goes mad and starts her laboratory. She takes on Mell as an intern, then hires Dave.

At around the same time, the Dave Conspiracy receives a package from the future containing a videotape message from President Mell Kelly and plans for several high-tech futuristic devices, including a teleporter. On the video, President Kelly begs the Conspiracy to kill Dave before it’s too late.

2001: The Dave Conspiracy hires Helen’s mother to construct the designs sent from the future and to assassinate Dave, thinking she’s the “Dr. Narbon” mentioned by President Kelly in the video (in fact, it’s Helen). Dr. Narbon carries out the job, but Helen later revives him. Dr. Narbon continues to work for the Dave Conspiracy as their mad-science liaison until she betrays them several years later.

Before killing him, Dr. Narbon tempts Dave by showing him that she has his long-lost Yak-Face action figure.

2002: Stranded on the Dave Conspiracy’s prison island, Helen notices that the Conspiracy’s teleporter seems to have been designed by her Dave.

Dave escapes the prison island. The Conspiracy revokes his membership but gives up trying to kill him because it’s hard.

2003: Dave comes unstuck in time.

2004: The staff of Narbonics Labs resolves a demonic invasion by teleporting Mell to a Dave Conspiracy base so she can kidnap the leaders of the Conspiracy (it’s a long story). Mell gets back to the lab by stealing one of the Conspiracy’s portable teleporters. Examining the teleporter remote afterwards, Helen becomes convinced that it’s a Dave Davenport design.

2005: In Dr. Narbon’s lair in the Lost Diamond Mines of Brazil, Mell and Artie find the video from President Kelly to the Conspiracy. Mell suggests that the message was really intended for her. They also find the Yak-Face action figure and return it to Dave.

2006: Dave goes mad. In the course of his initial rampage, Helen and Artie are knocked off a flying island and crash into Madblood’s Arctic base (again, long story). Artie, shielding Helen’s body, is killed; Helen survives as a disembodied brain. Taking over computer networks worldwide, Dave wreaks global havoc, including setting off a nuclear war.

2007-2022: Eventually, Dave settles down and takes over the Arctic base, turning it into the new Narbonics Labs. He keeps Helen’s brain alive because he needs her knowledge of biochemistry to build himself a new physical body. Madblood is employed by the lab in some humiliating capacity. Mell leaves to pursue a political career.

This version of Mad!Dave is capable of transferring his consciousness between his human body and the Lovelace supercomputer. It’s possible that the “holographic recording” Dave saw on his trip to the future was actually a VR copy of the future Dave’s consciousness.

Mell becomes a ruthless politician and is ultimately elected Vice-President of the United States. Although she seems to pursue power for power’s sake, her ultimate goal is to get into a position where she can reverse the events of 2006. Dave, who continues to design weapons for her, is unaware of her plans.

2023: Regretting the way things have turned out, Dave creates a message for his past self. Mell visits the Arctic base on the same day, picking up a weapon she plans to use to assassinate the President.

With the President’s death, Mell becomes President of the United States. Working in secret with Helen’s brain, she has a time machine constructed that can send physical objects back in time. Unfortunately, doing so consumes an amount of energy equal to all known energy in the universe. Mell sends back a videotape message (Why a video? Probably because she wasn’t sure if most people had DVD players in 2000) and blueprints for some of Dave’s inventions, destroying the universe in her own time. TIMELINE ENDS.


I really like this ending. Dave is now ready to move on from the past and on to a new phase in his life, a phase where he acts with greater self-confidence and takes his fate into his own hands. It doesn’t work very well, at least at first, but give the guy points for trying.

Dave Davenport Has Come Unstuck in Time: Previous

71 thoughts on “Dave Davenport Has Come Unstuck in Time: December 22-28, 2003

  1. And there we have it. Isn’t it nice when you find out what your friends really think of you?

  2. Sunday:

    “You’re a good man” sounds like a not-unintentional choice of words.

    This entire storyline (or at least, the parts set in The Present) takes place one day after the conclusion of the events of Doppelganger Gambit. And in a small victory for continuity, the first episode of Doppelganger Gambit is also a wintry scene. (Now that I think about it, more than a good deal of these story arcs end with some stoic skygazing in crisp air.)

  3. I like how it’s so cold we can actually see Dave and Helen breathing. It’s the little details like that which give us a greater context of events.

  4. (TUNE: “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown”, Clark Gesner)

    You’re a good man, Davenport!
    You’re a hench whose inventions are fine!
    Yes, you are steadfast!  You’re brainy!
    And you’re not complain-y!
    And your blood type matches mine!

    You’re a good man, Davenport!
    And you’d make any mad mistress proud!
    You are kind at heart,
    Loyal, gullible, and smart!
    Oops, I said that … out loud!

  5. @ed: Sorry, Ed, but the only tune I could hear in my head after your opening line was “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch” as sung by Thurl Ravenscroft….

  6. Huh. I always wondered why these weeks didn’t have Sunday filler. It never occurred to me to count the strips in each week…

  7. Have I mentioned how much I love Helen’s mittens with the hearts on the backs?  Because I love ’em.

  8. Um, I only see 6 strips from last week. Going by the archives, I believe it is the strip from Saturday, December 20, 2003 that I am not seeing. Is this a cache glitch on my end, or is that what everybody’s seeing?

  9. Daniel, I’ve got the same result. Last week, the December 20 strip appears to have been skipped.

  10. Moesday:

    No big surprises there, really.” Oh, Helen, what great burden of knowledge you silently carry.

    Given Dave’s description, Artie should be glad that he’s unwound his mortal coil in a disused sewer.

    It’s a little bit sad and noble that Artie, even possessing a mind outclassing his fellow humans, still thinks of himself as a gerbil, no more entitled to or justly deserving a human span than his scurrying biological antecedents. It is not from his own want (or even any generousity on the part of Helen) that he is later given a more longevous form – and in fact the realisation that he has become, not just the mental equal, but the complete equal to his human fellows, leaves him truly bewildered.

    Off-panel Head Pokes and Overtaxed Necks: 20.

  11. Artie has a lot of ethnic pride about being a gerbil. He’s not inclined to admit that any aspect of it presents a handicap.

  12. (TUNE: “Dead Flowers”, The Rolling Stones)

    Well, when you’re sitting there,
    In your subterranean lair,
    Talking to some nerdy software geek,
    You’re aware that, for your sort,
    That you’re lifespan’s rather short,
    And it’s no big that you’re future’s rather bleak!

    Small and brown, little Artie, small and brown!
    Your life is hell when you dwell in the underground!
    And then when …
    You find dead gerbils in the lunch room …
    Dead gerbils underneath the sink …
    Dead gerbils stuck behind the toilet …
    Then it’s Dave who has to discard them when they stink!

  13. Actually. lnick, Dave’s been never having smoked for almost a week now (my time travel syntax needs work).

  14. One way to look at it is that Dave has changed history so that he never smoked. Another way to look at it is that the Dave that this Helen and Mell got back is not the Dave they sent out… instead, their Dave’s nicotine-free body was hijacked by an interloper from a doomed timeline, while his consciousness ended up who-knows-where…

  15. Oddly I was reminded of the movie Timecop throughout this storyline.

    It amused me to think that Dave’s inadvertant meddling through time would force Jean Claude Van Damme to travel back in time, kick Dave’s Teenager incarnation, and force him to smoke to preserve the timestream.

  16. I’m glad that Dave managed to retcon his smoking habit before The Battle for the Lost Diamond Mines of Brazil.

  17. Thursday:

    In all honesty, this is a brilliant twist, given how effectively you’d established the immutability of this strip’s status quo, and especially in establishing smoking as an immutable, indelible aspect of Dave’s character. I heartily commend you for it. (It is also especially clever in that this was one aspect of Dave’s self which he did not even intend to change, or regard as even possible to change.)

    My only suggestion, in fact, is that the tiny light above Dave’s head in panel 4 is far too small for so immense and heaven-quaking a revelation – it should be an immense blast of smoke and light, never before seen. This man has literally entered a new world.

    Extinguished cigarette total: NaN.

  18. this really was awesome. generally you either have one extreame or the other with time travel storylines. either nothing (or basicaly nothing) has changed, or radical shifts happen (such as back to the future).

    some would say the differences dave made in the past are none too large, but it is a major change for him. i can think of a few “minor” changes to history, that would leave me at pretty much the same place i am today, that i would be quite happy to have.

    and one could argue, that comming out of a “horrible” mad science experament AT ALL in the green, is a ground shaking concept for dave. planting the seed in his mind perhaps, that sometimes good can come of madness, and trying to take hold of his own destiny.

  19. I don’t know any smokers who don’t want to quit. So I don’t think it would have been necessary to establish that Dave wanted to quit.

  20. I disagree with Leon; the little “poit” of revelation is just right.  Plus, this plot twist gives Shaenon an excuse to draw Andrew into a Sunday strip (one of the “Plot Holes Explained” episodes).

    @Owl:  For another story when time travel makes only minor changes, try “Johnny And The Bomb” by Terry Pratchett.  Then again, saving the lives of twenty-odd people is hardly minor.

  21. This would have been a perfect time to make the glasses go transparent, since Dave has just realized that not only has he never smoked, but also that the future is not immutable….

  22. Now what’s bugging me is that if time *isn’t* a closed system in the Narbonicverse, then how the heck did Dr. Narbon get Yak-Face in the first place if Dave hadn’t given it to her in the original, non-altered version of his childhood?

  23. @N B: The universe has time-paradox crumple zone buffers. Somewhere out there, a whole civilization has been destroyed thanks to Dave.

  24. One way to look at things is that there are an infinite number of fixed past, present, and future states of the universe, making it essentially immutable. But the myriad decision branches that determine how the universe (and one’s place within it) transitions from one state to another, ah, now that’s a different story! Especially once recursive branching becomes involved.

  25. Why would anyone comment on Dave’s lack of cigarette? Dave never smoked…

    And the part I like best about yesterday’s reveal is how the reader is complicit in this new universe by not noticing for over a week that there’s anything out of the ordinary when Dave hasn’t been smoking. For crying out loud, we’ve seen Dave’s breath on a cold day and talked about the weather. Obviously, if Dave had ever smoked, we’d have noticed the lack of continuity.

    Of course, the way to get people to notice and comment would have been to have Mell not be there for Dave’s line yesterday, so that smoking is salient at some point before anyone in the strip points out that he isn’t smoking and hasn’t been.




    The only surprise to me here is that the video was received in both timelines, but that kind of makes sense in hindsight. It’d be weird to randomly send a video to someone else’s past.

    It looks like the divergense point is really Dave’s jaunt into the future, and seeing Helen as a brain, and the swimming pool.

    My headcanon has always been that blowing up the universe restarted it in a Big Bang, and that Mell effectively _created_ the new timeline. There’s no in-comic evidence for this, but it’s funny.

  27. Guys, this still makes me miserable.  If Dave changed the timeline so he never smoked while traveling through time, and the past can be changed, awesome.  But the Yak-Face doll was in Dr. Narbon’s possession even when Dave still smoked, right?  How did it get there in the timeline where Dave’s consciousness was not bouncing around and he was going to start smoking?

    I don’t think this was addressed in the “comic geeks explain plotholes” Sunday.  AND IT MAKES ME MISERABLE THIS IS SERIOUS GUYS.

  28. In either event, Dave gave Yak-Face to Dr. Narbon before he did or did not start smoking.  The time change occurred at least 10 years later, with 16 year old Dave.

  29. Jonathan’s right. He bounces in every timeline, and Yak-Face exists in both. From what the strip suggests, the timeline in which he didn’t smoke is a wholly separate thing from the one in which he did smoke (as none of the other characters remember him smoking, in the one that he ‘resticks’ to). It isn’t that he never smoked, it’s that he never smoked in the timeline that he winds up in — which is different from the timeline in which he did. Most popular science fiction leans on this alternate universe explanation in circumstances were mutable timelines occur. You could even say that there’s a third timeline that cuts diagonally across the two — the one where he does smoke, and the one where he never did — because it would be the timeline in which Dave travels through time and both does and then doesn’t smoke.


    Not that wikipedia is always the most reliable source of information, but there’s some decent stuff in there on this account.

  30. Saturday:

    Let’s assume two things: that each change to the timeline creates a new timeline, and that whenever Dave stops being unstuck in time, he creates a new timeline that he returns to instead of his original timeline. That being accepted, here’s yet another of the Internet’s very popular Time Travel Explanation Diagrams:
    This is similar but slightly different to a theory I crafted in this comment box a few years back. Successive timelines accrue more and more changes. As noted, only the pear-green Dave-line is followed by the Narbonic webcomic.

  31. Do you imagine for an instant that George Lucas would not sell Yak-Face figures in every timeline he could get his hands on? Or that, failing to get sales in one timeline, he would resist the temptation to maintain brand presence on those timelines by selling wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey Yak-Faces that projected into the timelines he couldn’t reach?

  32. Okay, so if I undrstand this right, we’re assuming that multiple timelines exist in which Dave got unstuck.  I suppose that explains why Future!Dave in the storyline we see clearly remembers getting unstuck in time, and yet still smoked.  That might infer that pre-quitting smoking was the trigger that led to Dave breaking this chain of events.

    So remember, kids.  Quitting smoking can save the universe!




    It makes me cry that Mell had a generous reason to assassinate her way to power, and then to end her own universe.  In that original timeline, Mell had been following an omnisuicidal plan for up to 16 years.  By 2023, her unhinged mind had an MadLawyer-size angst load.  That may show in the video – she’s pretty solid gone, there.

    The purpose of the video was ultimately fulfilled, despite the dire confusion of identities that derailed it at first.  But not by the video alone – the video alone still allows the pool to be empty.  As John Wells points out today – it takes something else for Dave to fill up the pool.  It’s not that Dave may not love Helen enough.  It is that he has to know that filling up the pool matters.  Dave needs the message coming from a future in which Helen already fell – disastrously or not.  And he needs to love Helen enough.  Enough for the message to the past to be prepared – even if it is a message that cancels his own timeline.  No one we know in that timeline seems to like it enough to want it to continue.  Agreeing with Dave’s daughter words about the conditions needed to siphon energy out of a universe “almost ethically”… “they probably don’t want to exist as much”…

    Kudos.  The timeline details close quite well.

    Hmmm… what about Valerie Kaplan remarks about the doctorate…  I can guess that Mell uses it in a honorific sense – I do not imagine brain-in-jar-Helen going back to grad school.  I can imagine her getting a Honoris Causa, though.

  34. We should know that Mell had a generous reason – she expected that sending the video would save Artie, and said so.  *I* had not figured out until now what her original plan with the video was … and the subtle way in which it failed at first to fulfill its original intent – the video itself was not enough to save Artie.

    One thing to point out – the video, if successful as intended, would’ve fulfilled Niven’s Law about time travel.  However, this Law is not the only equilibrium solution the the conundrum of time travel paradoxes – a more complex solution exists, one in which time trave affirms itself instead of destroying itself.  Thus the Narboniverse is born, as a higher-order Moravec equilibrium.  Perhaps this time it is an equilibrium stable against both classical and quantum perturbations.

  35. Incidentally:

    I want to confess that but one detail of our host’s posted series of events seems to have eluded me all these years: that in the Bad Future the end of most of the world was brought about by conventional nuclear weapons rather than by or with contribution from Dana’s, I mean, Girl Artie’s legacy superweapon. Considering how successfully said superweapon had been hyped up throughout 2006, I have to say this news gives me a slight twang of disappointment.

  36. I repeat my original theory that, in order to maintain the current timeline, FutureDave and FutureHelen from the “how Narbonic actually ended” 2023 staged an elaborate re-enactment of the future Dave saw so that the warning might continue to have the same effect.  In at least one timeline, Unstuck Dave is actually talking to an animatronic brain controlled by happy FutureHelen as she reads the script off-stage, barely restraining her giggles.

  37. I should add there there must also be an original timeline before the time machine started messing things up, but I don’t know what that looks like.


      It is possible that the time machine always existed, as the timeline in “All You Zombies” by Heinlein suggested. That being so, the Narbonic universe appears to have some branch points – to smoke or not plus to fill the pool or not.

      Just another possible view of the comic.

  38. There is one weird interruption during VR-Dave speech.  A hint that Emily could up to something… that could be FutureHelen’s idea of a joke.

    There is one alternative theory, which I do not like or want to accept, but here it is, for me and all to hate: that the universe is oscillating between crapsack and happy.  While that could be a valid mathematical solution of the time-travel Novikov equations, I do not accept it, not only because it’s unspeakably sad, but because it requires assuming HappyFutureHelen and HappyFutureDave to be at less than their brilliant mad-genius level, with years of time to polish up their plans.  Sad, foolish, oscillatory solution rejected.

  39. @Shaenon: So we may speculate on the content of the previous timelines.  The very first one would have the first invention of the time machine, and the transporter, by Dave: in that timeline, none of those machines would appear before invented.  No video received from the future – perhaps Dave is not killed (!)  No Unstuck in Time.  No message about the pool ever received, so this first timeline could be doomed to end up in crapsack 🙁   Maybe the crapsack we know, or close enough.  But maybe a *different* crapsack.  In this very first timeline, Dave is less battered by a Tinasky study in slower motion (not killed by Mom – not unstuck in time).  And so he  is slightly early for breakthrough at the time of the Battle for the North Pole, and the the day ends up in the horrifying victory of the Hamsters. But Dave and Helen, inside some secret lab, deploy the time machine to stop the Hamsters… but with the sad result that in the *next* iteration, Dave crazes up so early as to end up in the death of Artie and crippling of Helen.

  40. Wow. I really needed that. Now one question remains (spoilers for Lil’Mell and Sergio): What about Sergio? He has a reality where he’s lonely and succesful, but then he makes his own twitches with time and changes the timeline. How does those timelines and time changes relate to Narbonic’s? (I generally assume his final timeline is the same a Narbonic’s or one similar enough). Also it’s not to far, but where is Sergio in Mell’s life throughout Narbonic? Are they still in contact? Is this comic before Sergio changes the timeline to stay friends with Mell? I mean what happened there?

  41. Leon: I see nothing in that write-up that implies that the nuclear weapons were conventional.

  42. This is certainly one of the happiest strips there is for Dave. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that.

  43. Though I suppose Artie is caught in a liminal state. Shouldn’t he be familiar with the Dave who doesn’t smoke and can have healthy relationships? Or am I overselling the man?

  44. No, Arty probably knows about all that stuff, but he doesn’t have a clue why Dave is bringing them up.  Hence his comment about drunken coherent explanations.

    Somebody really needs to come up with a term like LASER for coherent thought.

  45. Artie is only surprised because Dave is both surprised “Married. Kids. Imagine.” and happy today. Obviously these emails come every few weeks, why should Dave be surprised at business as usual?

    As for being in unusually high spirits, well. Just because Dave is more grown-up in this timeline doesn’t mean he’s suddenly a lady’s man.

  46. Rockphed  said, “Somebody really needs to come up with a term like LASER for coherent thought.”

    “Logic Amplification by Stimulating Existential Reasoning”?

  47. Sunday:

    Finally, Dave’s actual intended mission of self-betterment has, against all odds, borne fruit. Now he’s a little bit healthier in body and spirit.

    Yanno, this story arc really is a very high peak in the Narbonic story, such that it greatly overshadows the next two story arcs in the queue. The next two story arcs, of course, being… um….
    Hang on…
    Demons? Really? I could’ve sworn on a stack of copies of C++ Made Difficult that it came after the next Zeta arc…

  48. Re: Time paradoxes:

    My impression has always been that the Narbonic universe is capable of sustaining both stable time loops AND paradoxical timeline shifts. The majority of the time travel in Narbonic is self-consistent with itself; the people Dave, Helen, and Mell are are immutable enough that their paths are largely carved into causality, and it’s the package future Mell sends back in time that enables the time machine and teleporter designs to be created and accessible to her. Helen and Dave always make their mistakes and end up miserable, in part BECAUSE of the events that led to that moment, and Dave most likely always gives his past self his warning.

    However, his past self has no reason to heed it. As far as he knows, time is immutable; what should it matter whether he fills the pool or not, when time itself will ensure the same things happen over again?

    The one little blip is that this time around, Dave happens to luck into never having smoked, and so suddenly he has that little niggling glimmer of hope. He has evidence that something in time CAN be changed, and so that provides that slight little bit of uncertainty he needs to follow his future self’s advice and fill the pool.

  49. I suspect Future Dave may have started the original time jaunts and unstuckenings. In an original timeline in which he may or may not die (but just because Helen the Elder feels like it), and in which a non teleporter solution is found to escape Dave Island, and he never gets unstuck in time, he still goes mad, still destroys everything, and regrets. Maybe he tries to change time, by sending his mind back and trying to make changes like giving Yak Face to Mom Helen in the past to give him a clue something’s hinky with the family ahead of time.After doing so he he created a new timeline without realizing it. He is now in a timeline where he did give Yak Face to Old Helen but did not understand his own warning. He then invents a true time machine and destroys his universe, using it to send back his mental time machine in the past, creating a timeline where Helen B (2) builds the machine and Dave becomes unstuck in time. He might also send back teleporter schematics to the dave conspiracy so he has an easier out from the Island, waiting to be delivered at the right time. However, Dave (2), despite meeting with Dave (1) does not comprehend his warning either, and the cycle continues. Dave 2 tries to adjust the past again, but gets beaten to the punch by Mell, and she sends back her messages and Dave’s teleporter tech this time. This may have been a stable loop for awhile, if not for Dave creating a new timeline wherein he never smoked and also had some major personal revelations, leading to him finally understanding and heeding one of his past warnings.

    Or something like that anyways. Maybe I should draw a chart.

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