We all have those genres in which we’ll watch anything just because it’s that genre, and my particular generic addiction is time travel stories, of which there are some great movies and novels and some utterly cheesy ones. I don’t care. I consume them all like a crackhead, even when they fail miserably.
My obsession with this genre has led me to start writing my own time travel novel series, Touchstone, and my novella, The Very Thought of You, is a timeslip ghost story, so to research the genre I’ve watched a lot of old movies and delved into a great many novels, just to see how other writers handle it.
So here’s my list of favourites.
Andy’s Anachronisms (nothing to do with me) is an interesting site that attempts to categorise the different types of time travel story, so I’ll use his labels (even though some of the stories are very slippery and could belong in more than one).
Standard Time Travel (where characters are transported into the future/past instantaneously)
The Time Tunnel (1966-7)
No one who grew up watching TV in the 70s can forget this Irwin Allen produced drama in which two scientists who look like catalogue models are ‘lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages’ when Project Tic-Toc goes terribly wrong… which means they end up in history’s most exciting places just before imminent disaster: the Titanic, the Alamo, Krakatoa, Pearl Harbour, Little Bighorn… you get the idea. [ Titles + Trailer ]
I also grew up on this children’s TV series from the 70s, with its bewildering criss-crossing between past, present and future via a force field in an abandoned military base. I watched it all again on DVD recently and it hasn’t aged well, but its concepts were years ahead of its time (longevity drugs, global warming, cloning) and I can still remember the terror I felt when that woman in the ice station prematurely aged.
Time and Again (1970)
Jack Finney’s novel has a disillusioned illustrator recruited for a secret government project training subjects to hypnotise themselves into the past. Si Morley starts to successfully visit 1882 New York and becomes involved in a squalid blackmail plot and the Great Park Row Fire. The wealth of detail is overwhelming and sometimes too much, but it’s gripping and the illustrations are a nice, if unusual, touch.
Time After Time (1979)
HG Wells (Malcolm McDowell) has built a real working time machine in his cellar and is about to demonstrate it when Jack the Ripper, one of his dinner guests, uses it to escape the police. If only my dinner parties were that exciting. Thinking he’s unleashed a monster on ‘utopia’, Wells travels to 1979 New York in order to track down the Whitechapel murderer… and fall in love with Mary Steenburgen in the process. Who wouldn’t? She’s gorgeous! [ Trailer ]
Somewhere in Time (1980)
There are so many reasons to hate this: I’m not a Christopher Reeve fan, I hate everything Jane Seymour’s ever been in, and it’s absolutely corny and should be a disaster on so many levels. But it works and it’s beautiful. Reeve is convincing as the playwright willing himself back in time to romance the actress whose aged self urged him to ‘Come back to me’. And Jane Seymour gives the performance of her life without ever once acting. Her face is glacial and we’re as hynotised by it as Reeve is. [ Awful trailer ]
The Black and Blue Lamp (1988)
A single drama by Arthur Ellis that I caught one night on BBC2, not expecting much, and after an hour thought I’d seen the best black comedy in TV history. Tom Riley, the villain who murders PC George Dixon in classic 40s film The Blue Lamp, is arrested and, due to some unexplained temporal error, ends up in an episode of The Filth, a gritty 1990s cop show. At the same time the 1990s Riley, a foul-mouthed modern killer, ends up in the 1940s police cell being offered a cup of tea and a bun. What ensues is comedy genius. You can’t get it on DVD or VHS so it only exists as part of a Listener review and a lengthy article from the Illustrated Gazette.
Goodnight Sweetheart (1993-9)
Marks and Gran’s time travel bigamist sitcom, in which Nicholas Lyndhurst discovers a portal back to wartime London and flits between then and 90s Britain, was always hugely popular but critically underrated. Its 58 episodes were endlessly inventive and pushed the boundaries of the genre (there was even a multiple selves outbreak at one point) but were always funny.
Gary: My wives exist in different temporal aspects of a four-dimensional space-time continuum.
Ron: Typical bigamist’s excuse.
[ Pilot ]
The Terminator (1984 – 2003)
A killer robot from the future is sent back to murder the mother of our future rebel leader. The first movie is faultless. The second made it look amateurish. The third and fourth parts remain entertaining as long as they keep John Connor’s emotions to the fore, but were largely outclassed by the brilliant TV series: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Utterly brilliant on every level.
Back to the Future (1985 – 1990)
It’s impossible to talk about time travel movies without mentioning this trilogy, even though it doesn’t excite me like most others. But it’s fun and clever and the second one is far and away the best, whatever anyone says, purely because it stretches the imagination so much and involves Marty going back in time to avoid himself going back in time from the previous movie.
12 Monkeys (1995)
It’s fashionable to slag this off and I have no idea why. Bruce Willis is great as the future convict sent back to gather information on the virus that wiped out humanity. Right from the start there is no hope of anything ever being changed for the better and the denouement plays out with a terrible inevitability.
[ Trailer ]
Deja Vu (2006)
A nice twist on the genre as boffins devise an Einstein-Rosen bridge that can view anything in New Orleans precisely four days and six hours ago, and draft in ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) to prevent a terrorist attack. Naturally, he falls in love with the dead girl he’s tracking and, naturally, sends himself back in time to rescue her. The sequence where he drives through daylight streets chasing the suspect who’s driving home at night four days ago has got to be the most mind-bending car chase ever filmed. [ Trailer ]
Life on Mars (2006 – 2007)
Rejected by almost every drama commissioning editor in British TV over a nine year period and an instant hit once it aired, this time-travel-meets-police-procedural genre mash-up got it so right. British drama is afraid of sci-fi. British drama is afraid of high-concept. But this story of a modern by-the-book policeman who is suddenly transported to 1973 and the squad of a tough, rule-bending, old school copper managed to be everything that its more left field ‘serious’ competition aspired to be: gritty, moving and relevant. [ Pilot ]
PAH (Personal Alternate History)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
The grandaddy of all PAH adventures. Anyone who dismisses this as sentimental goo clearly has never bothered to watch the Pottersville sequence, where the dark heart of America is laid bare and George Bailey sees how catastrophic a world in which he’d never been born really is. And if you don’t care about Zuzu’s petals, your life has no meaning.
Sliding Doors (1998)
Gwyneth Paltrow’s life takes two radically different paths based on whether she does or doesn’t catch her tube and get home early to discover her boyfriend shagging another woman. It’s rare to find a British movie that’s this confident with genre, particularly a double genre hybrid like this, and it’s a great script by Peter Howitt that resolves both alternate realities with a neat twist.
Run Lola Run (1998)
The three alternate realities don’t quite make sense if you look closely, as the distractions and obstacles on Lola’s runs don’t actually seem to affect things, but it’s hard not to love the sheer energy of a film that delivered a defibrillating shock of energy to a German cinema that had flatlined years before. [ Trailer]
The Butterfly Effect (2004)
Or ‘Dude. Where’s My Arms?’ as I prefer to call it. Ashton Kutcher finds that his adolescent journals propel him back in time to his childhood blackouts (if only teenage diaries were really that useful), where he tries to fix the effects of his meddling, each time with some disastrous result for him or his friends. The ‘Manhattan’ ending (rather than the alternate ‘embryo’ ending) is a piece of fucking poetry.
A Life Interrupted, from The 4400 season 2 (2005)
This little known TV series about returned alien abductees with special powers was blown out of the water by the first season of Heroes, but carried on for four quietly impressive seasons like the little engine that could. In this Emmy-worthy episode, written by Ira Steven Behr, NTAC investigator Tom wakes up to a world where the 4400 never happened, his troubled son is happy and he’s also married to a rocket-fit Italian chick called Alana. As personal alternate histories go, he’s landed a beaut. It takes him eight years to find out how to get back to his old crappy life. But wouldn’t you just stay?
Rip Van Winkel (a person frozen in time awakes to find themself in the future)
In truth, this particular sub-genre doesn’t really interest me. Idiocracy (2006) was a recent example, and a decent comedy, and we have Enchanted in cinemas this Xmas, but they don’t really possess the same emotional power as the other examples.
Alternate Universe (multiple universes or multiple selves from parallel worlds)
The Man Who Folded Himself (1973)
There aren’t many of these around, but this novel by David Gerrold, although it starts off with the most crass of premises (a time travelling belt?), evolves into a bewildering meditation on time and identity as Daniel’s increasingly narcissistic selves multiply and cross-cut. Sex with yourself? How about an orgy? Don’t tell me you wouldn’t as well.
Robert Harris’s bestselling thriller wonders what 1964 Berlin would look like if Hitler had won the war. But it’s not merely skillful alternate universe-rendering, as impressive as that is here; it’s a tense thriller about Xavier March, a low level detective investigating the death of a high-ranking war hero (or old nazi in our world) and a political scandal that concerns Nazi officials who attended a meeting at Wannsee in 1942. What could have been on the agenda?
Temporal Phenomenom (anomolies such as time loops and other storytelling devices that involve some manipulation of time)
This is the most interesting area of time travel drama for me. These tend to concern individuals who experience timeslips. It’s obvious that the whole idea of involuntary time travel as some kind of medical abnormality (Chrono-Displacement, if you will) is fast becoming a modern preoccupation.
Time and the Conways (1937)
One of several stage plays by JB Priestley that explored his fascination with theories of time (An Inspector Calls is the most famous). This play explores JW Dunne‘s theory of simultaneous time, and concerns the bitter future awaiting the Conway family, as glimpsed in premonition by the heroine Kay during a fateful birthday party. There was a BBC adaptation in 1985 but it has never been released on DVD. As a consolation, here are some clips from the 1954 film (no longer available on DVD) An Inspector Calls, starring Alastair Sim.
In this novel by Ken Grimwood, Jeff Winston dies of a heart attack and finds himself catapulted back into his teenage body with all his adult memories intact, to live his life again with the ability to avoid all his previous mistakes. Each ‘replay’ manages to be engrossing in its own way, but he re-emerges into life always at a later date than before (so his lives are getting worryingly shorter), until the novel’s mid-point, when he discovers a woman who is experiencing the exact same phenomenon. They become lovers desperately trying to find each other through the years, both aware, ironically, that time is running out for them. A cult classic that transcends the genre. Beautiful.
Groundhog Day (1993)
Bill Murray’s finest hour as the cynical TV reporter who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. The premise is fantastic and deftly handled, and it’s so right that no explanation for the time glitch is given. A great comedy that raises profound philosophical questions, which is what Hollywood is supposed to be incapable of. The script is so good even Andie McDowall can’t ruin it.
A TV movie that came out the same year as Groundhog Day and disappeared without a trace. There are many similarities, even though the cause of the time loop is explained rationally. It’s not quite as genius as Groundhog Day, but it’s charming and funny and even moving in places. Criminally underrated. [ Trailer ]
The Fermata (1994)
Nicholson Baker’s sci-fi-meets-posh-porn novel is about a lowly office temp, Arno Strine, who has the ability to stop time with a click of his fingers, during which pause (or fermata) he can get work done or, more often, remove women’s underwear and write lengthy pieces of erotica for them. His descriptions of life in the ‘Fold’ are beautifully tender.
The Time-Traveler’s Wife (2004)
Published 17 years after Replay and very similar in tone, if not form, Audrey Niffenegger’s novel hit the best sellers list in 2004. An unconventional love story about a Chicago librarian with a genetic disorder (Chrono-Displacement) that causes him to time travel when he is stressed. This one crossed over because it’s just as much romance as it is sci-fi. [see my article on the film and the Tragic Love Story genre].
The Lake House (2006)
Adapted from the South Korean film, Il Mare (2000), this is a mindbender with a heart, as the chronologically-crossed lovers romance each other through a gap of two years by way of letters left in a shared mail box. Sandra Bullock invests the film with an overwhelming air of melancholy with a career best performance and David Auburn’s script is a Gordian knot of near misses and half chances. It really is quite special.
Ironic that the Greatest Dr Who Episode Ever hardly features the titular time traveller. Steven Moffat’s ‘Dr lite’ episode is all about creepy ‘quantum locked’ statues that feed off our energy and can catapult us back in time with a touch. Moffat plays the time travel game like an expert and there are some head spinning moebius strip moments, not least of which is the superb DVD easter eggs contrivance. A modern masterpiece and the best thing on UK telly all year. Just don’t fucking blink. Ever. [ Trailer ]
Yet another example of Chrono-Displacement. Kevin McKidd stars as a journalist in San Francisco who finds himself flung back to earlier parts of his life (luckily, he can arrive wearing his clothes and any objects he has about his person, unlike Henry in The Time-Traveler’s Wife who has to go naked and minus the fillings in his teeth). His jaunts seem to centre around a person he needs to help, Quantum Leap style, so they aren’t merely random. This promising series was dropped by NBC after 13 episodes despite a fan campaign to save it. They haven’t even put it out on DVD, although it is available to view on Hulu. See my longer review here… [ Trailer ]
For an exhaustive listing of time travel movies and TV shows, have a look at The Big List.
And if you’ve enjoyed this look at all things time travel, check out my timeslip ghost story, The Very Thought of You, available to download now for Kindle. It’s a moving, evocative meditation on love and betrayal and the persistence of memory, and this edition also features an exclusive 5-chapter preview of Touchstone.
I’ve now published the first two ‘episodes’ of Touchstone, set in 1912 and 1939, and they’re both available as Kindle editions.
In the first part, Touchstone (1. The Sins of the Fathers) , a pair of mismatched History students, Rachel and Danny, find themselves catapulted back to 1912 Birmingham and become involved in a dangerous mission to prevent the murder of teenage girl, Amy Parker. They quickly discover that their city’s dark past is a gritty world of real danger where every action has an unforeseen consequence that can ripple through generations.
In the second part of the adventure, Touchstone (2. Family at War), Rachel and Danny race against time, and each other, to deal with the appalling fallout of their last encounter with Amy Parker, now a mother and struggling against local prejudice and the nightly terrors of the Blitz.