All this month, I’ll be blogging about time travel media (TV, film, and literature). For the past two years, I’ve been working steadily on a time travel novel, The Curiosity Killers, as my thesis project for Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. As I inch closer and closer to graduation this June, I want to celebrate some things that inspired the writing of that book.
For today, I offer my favorite time travel TV series. What are yours? What have I missed? A few I like that didn’t make the final cut include Fringe (which, while great, is really more about parallel universes than time travel as its central SF trope), Alcatraz (a very cool series but cut so short we never found out much about the time travel mechanism), and Sapphire and Steel (super fun and creepy, but limited appeal today based on its glacial pacing and relative obscurity).
1. Doctor Who, BBC, 1963-1989, 1996, 2005-present)
The quintessential time travel show. Long-running, cheesy, and ever-changing, Doctor Who is the love story of a man and his time machine/spaceship. There are essentially three kinds of Doctor Who storylines: time travel, space travel, and aliens rampaging modern-day London. Give me a dozen gimmicky time travel stories over the others any day. The best always include a historical figure (e.g. “Vincent and the Doctor,” “Tooth and Claw,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Shakespeare Code”) battling robots, aliens, or both.
2. Quantum Leap, NBC, 1989-1993
Instead of a visible time machine/spacecraft or a time traveler observing the events of the past or future, Quantum Leap rewrote time travel rules for the twentieth century. Our time traveler, Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula, later of Star Trek: Enterprise) can only travel within his own lifetime (roughly the early 1950s up through a near future in the late 1990s). Furthermore, when he “leaps,” he appears as someone else in the past, their “physical aura” replacing his own. A convoluted concept, but the series executed it much like a historical anthology series, full of period-appropriate music and fashion.
3. Lost, ABC, 2004-2010
Lost didn’t start out as a time travel show. In the beginning, it was almost a cross between Survivor and Gilligan’s Island: how will a group of plane crash survivors make a new life for themselves on a desert island? But then the smoke monster showed up, and there was a hatch, and suddenly in season 5 a group of the survivors are marooned in the 1970s for reasons that—much to the show’s rabid audience’s chagrin—are never adequately explained. If you view Lost as an allegory, with the survivors being “lost” as people even before and after their island adventures (in much the same way The Walking Dead refers a bit more to the survivors than the zombies), then this series still holds up as an interesting study into the dark spots of the soul. The video above is a set of fan-made opening credits, as the series famously had only a title card to start each episode.
4. Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, BBC One, 2006-2007 and 2008-2010
First of all, ignore the American remake, at least until you’ve finished with the original. The first series, Life on Mars, deals with twenty-first century police detective Sam Tyler being inexplicably sent back in time to the 1970s. Those around him think he’s a newly-transferred detective, but they don’t know he’s from the future. Throughout the series, Sam picks up clues that he may be hallucinating while in a coma from injuries sustained in a car accident. The spin-off series, Ashes to Ashes, features a new detective character, Alex Drake, being sent from the present back to the early 1980s and once again being stationed in the same precinct as Sam Tyler with many of his former colleagues. Like Sam, Alex thinks she might be languishing in a hospital after being shot. This sort of time travel device is more fantasy than science fiction, and the David Bowie-inspired titles, music, and imagery give both shows a trippy, post-psychedelic patina. LoM has a recurring Wizard of Oz motif threaded throughout as well, and AtA makes constant Alice in Wonderland references. In both cases, the series also serve as a kind of homage to the cop dramas of their respective eras.
5. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fox, 2008-2009
It’s easy to forget if you’re not a hardcore fan that the Terminator franchise of films and TV series is technically based on a time travel premise: in order to save humanity from what is essentially a sentient internet, freedom fighters are sent back in time to ensure the birth of humanity’s savior, John Connor. Flesh-covered AI robots called Terminators are also sent back in time, to ensure John Connor (and his mother) are instead killed, preventing the human uprising. The Sarah Connor Chronicles focuses on John’s mother and her quest to keep her son safe at any cost. They’re aided by a female Terminator model who is actually on their side. The time travel in both SCC and other Terminator properties is unique in its focus on future travelers coming back to what the audience thinks of as present day. We may not see the effects of the time travelers’ efforts as much, at least not until 2009’s Terminator Salvation film, set in the year 2018.
6. Being Erica, CBC, 2009-2011
What if you could have a second chance at all the pivotal moments of your life? That’s what happens to aptly-named Toronto book editor Erica Strange, who finds herself receiving therapy from a mysterious man named Dr. Tom. During Erica’s sessions with Dr. Tom, whenever he pinpoints something from her past that is indirectly affecting her present, she goes back in time to relive the original moment—in her previous body but with all her present memories and experiences and knowledge intact. The fun of this series comes from reliving the ‘80s and ‘90s, but at times it gets pretty deep. The underlying theme is, at its heart, understanding that even our most painful of experiences shape who we are.
7. Tru Calling, Fox, 2003-2005
From the Groundhog Day school of time travel: what if you could relive a day over again to intervene in a tragedy? To stop a crime? To save someone’s life? That’s what happens to medical student Tru Davies (Eliza Dushku) when she starts working in a city morgue. This series is notable for its premise as well as the presence of pre-Hangover Zach Galifianakis as Tru’s boss.
8. Journeyman, NBC, 2007
Journeyman was a victim of the Writers Guild of America strike of 2007; not enough episodes were produced before TV series experienced schedule-crippling hiatuses, and as no new episodes were available past the original 13-episode order, it was cancelled. This is a shame, because what started as a Time Traveler’s Wife-inspired fantasy romance gradually turned into a complex SF system of multiple time travelers from multiple eras working together to solve a large-scale problem in time.
9. Voyagers!, NBC, 1982-1983
To watch this series now is to see something almost proto-steampunk at work. Time traveler Phineas Bogg and his teen sidekick are part historical tourists, part solvers of time errors. Whenever history doesn’t unfold the way it’s supposed to, it’s up to them to correct it. Episodes usually featured famous historical figures. Bogg’s time travel device and vaguely pirate-like costume lent the series a quasi-Victorian sensibility.
10. The Time Tunnel, ABC, 1966-1967
The series that really started time travel on American TV. We see the starts of various themes that later spring up in Voyagers! (encounters with historical figures) and Quantum Leap (mysterious government program in danger of losing its funding). Though reboots were attempted in the 2000s, they have thus far been unsuccessful, perhaps because we now live in an era where time travel on TV isn’t quite so rare. A full-length pilot for a 2002 reboot attempt is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mETHT5npqOI and while it was aiming for gritty and dark, it comes off weirdly more dated than the original series at this point.
Watch this space for my top ten time travel movies and books, coming later this month!