Time travel has always been a fascination of the entertainment industry and Anime is no exception. Complicated timelines and going back in time to change history are very common concepts. But portraying them properly is hard and often gets very convoluted in the finished product. Also, because information about the storyline is mixed in with the time travel concepts, many a times it can make it harder for the viewers to understand the nuances completely.
Usually, an in-depth understanding of such concepts isn’t necessary to enjoy the story. For example, many people still feel like there were only 2 timelines in the Cell saga of Dragon Ball Z. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing, but it’s also a fun exercise to decipher everything as accurately as possible. Sometimes it can also help draw out further admiration for the story writer. So, I decided to do the same for DBZ’s Cell saga.
A very brief recap of the Cell saga →
Future Trunks goes back in time because his world is being terrorized by Androids 17 & 18. There, he saves Goku from dying of a virus and helps the Z fighters fight the Androids. But another bionic Android - Cell, had also travelled back to a point 1 year before Trunks did, so that he could absorb the Androids 17 & 18 to become perfect and gain power. Z fighters destroy the baby Cell from the present and find that the Cell they would fight was actually from the future where he had killed Trunks and hijacked his time machine.
Now many people are content with contextualizing this story over just 2 timelines - the present and the future. But that is of course incorrect, because clearly the Future Trunks in the present cannot be alive if Cell killed him in the same future. Follow along to get a flow chart and explanation.
To make sure that my theory makes sense, the following concepts are essential →
- Time can be thought of as a continuous straight line.
- Any trip made to the past with the intention of changing something either at that point or in the future of that time, results in a timeline split. Think of this as the straight line breaking in 2.
- When a timeline is split, both the components are now individual timelines with unique characteristics.
- A change in one timeline does not affect any other timeline, but if an individual changes in an alternate timeline, that change is carried over when the individual traverses time.
- The Capsule Corp time machine made by Bulma can be used to travel back and forth between 2 timelines only, i.e., the two parts of the split that takes place as a result of the same travel.
- Once a timeline is split, both are completely affected by the action and neither timeline suffer from further changes irrespective of subsequent hops unless another time machine or another time traveller is involved.
Now that’s a complicated set of rules! But it was extremely engaging to think about all of this!
This diagram is a representation of time as a sequence of events for each of the timelines that were created during the Cell saga. I’ve omitted dates from it because they are unnecessary to understand what happened. The only numerical value that has some significance is
1 year, which was the difference in time between when Future Trunks and primary Cell travel back in time.
- Main Timeline → Shown in orange; this is the timeline that we follow in the original show, which goes on to the Buu saga where Majin Buu was unleashed and the Z fighters were alive.
- Future Trunks Timeline → Shown in blue; this is where the actual future Trunks is from, the one who manages to kill both the Androids and the Cell from his timeline.
- Cell’s Timeline → Shown in black; this is where the primary timeline infringement occurs. It’s also the first and the only timeline to exist since before the Cell saga.
- Overlooked Timeline → Shown in pink; this is the timeline that we have the least information on. It’s easy to determine a very plausible answer to “what could have happened?” but not so much for “how did it happen?”. But, it’s still free of a plothole and fills in all gaps to accurately depict the time travel.
- Green text shows the activities or describes what was happening during a given period.
- The pink box with pink text above the blue timeline highlights a plothole (yes, couldn’t be without one unfortunately) within the Future Trunks timeline.
All the timelines actually stem from a single unified timeline (Cell’s timeline). The sequence of the splits and who caused the splits is shown below.
There is also more proof of this in Dragon Ball Super where we see that Gowasu, the Supreme Kai of Universe 10, was asked to show his time rings by Beerus. That’s when we learnt there are 4 timelines as there as 4 rings.
Cell told Piccolo that he hijacked Trunks’ time machine because he had already disposed of the Androids and was probably headed back in time to tell the Z fighters that he had done so. Cell killed Trunks for the time machine. Ergo, perfect Cell in the present came from a timeline where Future Trunks was no longer alive. So it’s clearly not the Future Trunks timeline, otherwise the Trunks (from the show) who travelled back in time and then returned to kill the Androids and Cell in the future could not exist. So, the Trunks that Cell killed must have been a different timeline from Future Trunks’.
Now, Trunks would not have been defeated by Cell if he had undergone the training in the Hyperbolic Time Chamber. Also, since Cell didn’t interfere before Trunks (Trunks was the first to travel), the Androids wouldn’t have become stronger due to time infringement. So clearly, the timeline to which the first time travel occured is a different timeline where Trunks just saved the Z fighters i.e., the overlooked timeline.
We can actually go a step further and further increase accuracy - in the show, Cell tells Piccolo that when he killed Trunks and hijacked the time machine, the machine was already set to go back 1 year before the point when Goku was to arrive on the Earth and Trunks had done so to tell the Z fighters that the Androids were no longer alive. It doesn’t make much sense for Trunks to break the news this way, so a more plausible theory is that he figured out the location of Dr. Gero’s lab and wanted to create a new timeline where all he did was remove the Androids from existence and let time flow normally otherwise (it’s a stupid move but oh well).
The plothole I posed was as follows →
Regressed Cell remains in this timeline, but it is hard to say what he may have been doing. Was he dormant/killed?
I say this based on the fact that Cell from the initial timeline travelling back created the Future Trunks timeline. This is because the point in time where Cell travelled to was a year before when Trunks came in. So, the timeline that Trunks split would be the one where Cell (regressed larvae form) was already present. Cell’s split became the Future Trunks timeline and Trunks’ split became the main timeline (the actual show).
Now, we know that when Trunks returns to the Future Trunks timeline, he destroys the Androids and kills Cell at the same time. This Cell was actually the Cell that was growing over the past 20 years from that point and belonged originally to the Future Trunks timeline. However, there is also a regressed Cell, originally from the Cell’s timeline (Initial Time Mess Up), that should have existed since much before Trunks was born. So even if it took 4 years for the regressed Cell to transform into the imperfect Cell, he would have enough time to absorb the Androids. But he was not mentioned in the story anywhere. It is also hard to fathom that anyone could’ve defeated him because Trunks was the only Z fighter alive and he did not get the Hyperbolic Time Chamber training yet.
The reason I call the plothole I identified as a “plothole” is because it is very hard to come up with a sensible and plausible explanation. There are definitely other plotholes present throughout the Cell saga, but those can be explained with a believable story in line with what our amazing Z characters would have done. Writing such amazing stories is hard, so I don’t consider those plotholes, rather than blanks that should be filled in by the viewer based on interpretation. The plothole I highlighted is emphasized because it is not easily explained. But all of this was a very fun exercise that augmented my admiration for the show.