2013 is a great time to be a science-fiction fan.
Not only is the genre of sci-fi dominating at the box office, but sci-fi television shows has had a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, serving to attract major name talent to new sci-fi projects.
HBO is developing a sci-fi series called ‘The Spark.’ ‘Orphan Black’ is making waves over on BBC America. ‘Defiance’ has already been renewed for a second season. Many small science-fiction programs keep finding a voracious audience, sometimes with little fanfare or advertising support behind them. As most sci-fi fans will tell you, what separates good science-fiction from bad is the existence of a larger world for the drama and characters to play within... a universe of rules and guidelines, exaggerated from our own, that the fans can follow and call their own.
One favorite sci-fi trope that can either make or break any television series is the enduring concept of time travel. Many television shows have followed time travellers, or created a world where time travel is possible, in order to tell stories that span history and push the limits of our imaginations. So as a celebration of this renaissance of science-fiction--and to hype the fact that the regular TVRage feature Television Time Machine is returning this week--let’s check out the very best time-travelling television shows of all time!
The following are not in any particular order; they’re on this list because they handled time-travel in a novel and exciting fashion.
‘Quantum Leap,’ NBC, 1989-1993
This is likely the show that first “leaps” to people’s minds when you begin talking about time-travel on television. ‘Quantum Leap’ created a brilliant, episodic concept: Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) leaps throughout time, embodying people of that era and location, trying to fix mistakes in the space-time continuum. Sam was accompanied by Al Calavicci, Sam’s best friend, who can appear to Sam as a hologram, as he is not actually time-travelling along with his lost buddy.
What this meant was that almost every episode, ‘Quantum Leap’ took you to a new location, a new time, with a brand new problem for Sam to attempt to solve. Sometimes he was an athlete, sometimes a criminal--hey, he even had to embody beautiful women and seduce unsuspecting men. ‘Quantum Leap’ blended the fun of time-travel with the intrigue of secret identities and made one of the best sci-fi shows in American history.
‘Doctor Who,’ BBC, 1963-Present
I admit that I’m not as knowledgeable about ‘Doctor Who’ as other writers here at TVRage, but to have a list like this and leave ‘Doctor Who’ off completely would be tantamount to blasphemy! ‘Doctor Who’ isn’t just a television show that features time-travel, the main character is called a Time Lord; they are an ancient extraterrestrial race of humanoids that have a non-linear perception of time. What this means is, unlike in ‘Quantum Leap’ where history has happened and Sam is transported back, to a Time Lord, all of time sits in front of them, ready to be visited at anytime, anywhere.
Think of riding a rollercoaster: if you are in the front seat, watching the twists and turns as they happen, you see time the way we humans do. If you stood back from the ride and perceived the entire track at once, you’d be seeing it like a Time Lord.
The Doctor from ‘Doctor Who’ explores the space-time continuum in his TARDIS--part spaceship, part time-machine. The Doctor travels the Universe rescuing civilizations and righting wrongs, along with a variety of human companions. Beyond merely time-travel, ‘Doctor Who’ is universe-travel, and the series’ fans cannot get enough of it.
‘Being Erica,’ CBC, 2009-2011
Chances are many of you haven’t heard of ‘Being Erica,’ but it offers a very interesting look at time-travel, causing its inclusion on our list.
‘Being Erica’ is a Canadian series that garnered a cult following elsewhere around the world. The show is about Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk), a woman who meets a therapist and begins undergoing treatment. Erica is seeing her therapist in order to deal with all of the regrets she has in her life... only to learn that this therapist has the ability to send her back in time in order to actively correct them.
In the show's reality, the therapist typically shows up at a time when the patient has reached their lowest point, usually shortly after the patient has faced a risk of death. Dr. Tom first shows up in Erica's hospital room after she's gone into anaphylactic shock, having consumed hazelnut, which she is severely allergic to. Appointments with the therapist are not scheduled normally, nor does the therapist have a conventional office in a fixed location. Instead, when a therapy session is set to begin, the patient can walk through absolutely any door and end up in the therapist's office. Quite a daydream for the neurotic, such as myself!
‘Being Erica’ lasted four seasons and chronicled Erica attempting to deal with the life she has in the present while working out the mistakes of her past. A more localized form of time-travel, ‘Being Erica’ taps into that part of us that wishes for a second chance.
‘Continuum,’ Showcase, 2012-Present
Sticking with Canadian series for a moment, ‘Continuum’ is a new sci-fi series that delves deeply into the theories behind the actual physics of time-travel. The plotline follows a group of rebels from the year 2077 who time-travel to Vancouver, British Columbia in 2012. There’s only one problem: 2012 is far too early for the mission the rebels intended to carry out.
Here’s where ‘Continuum’ gets fun for geeks like me: the show itself presents various theories regarding time-travel and its effects. Mostly, these debates range around the question of whether it would be possible to alter the past, or if any change to the past would irrevocably delete the previous future timeline. For instance: if you went back in time and talked to your ten-year-old self, your adult self should have always remembered that conversation, no?
For its willingness to ask the difficult questions about time-travel, ‘Continuum’ is one of the most fascinating shows about the subject.
‘Fringe,’ FOX, 2008-2013
Whereas ‘Doctor Who’ combined time-travel with the ability to travel to other worlds throughout the universe, ‘Fringe’ combines time-travel with parallel dimensions of Earth.
‘Fringe’ is a strange case-study as a television series, as the show that drew fans to it in the first season became all but unrecognizable by the third season. It is rare that a series depart from its beginnings as completely as occurred during the run of ‘Fringe.’ The first season depicted what seemed like a thematic successor to ‘The X-Files,’ where scientists and FBI agents explored the unexplained, as it occurred around America. But by season three, the series was about superheroes, alternate universes, and eventually time-travel as well.
The establishment of alternate dimensions in ‘Fringe’ allows the show to skirt the problems raised by ‘Continuum;’ if something is altered, a new dimension shoots off from that point and both timelines exist simultaneously. This leads to an infinite number of dimensions, shooting out of an infinite number of happenstances... yes, it’s this confusing in the series, as well. But given the interesting way that ‘Fringe’ solved the problem of changing the past, it needed to be considered on our list.
‘Life on Mars,’ BBC One, 2006-2007
This short-lived British series earned such a cult following that a US adaptation was made shortly after. Despite a very misleading title, ‘Life on Mars’ is a terrific series with a very interesting take on the time-travel trope.
John Simm stars as Sam Tyler, a Manchester police officer who is struck by a car... and wakes up in Manchester in 1973. The strange part is, Sam is still an adult--he has seemingly been transported back in time as a result of the accident. But is this real, or is Sam in a coma, creating 1973 in his head?
‘Life on Mars’ does a wonderful job of teasing its viewers with the mystery of just how and why Sam has arrived in 1973. At the risk of spoiling anything, I’m going to keep this description brief... head to Netflix and check out the series for yourself!
‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,’ FOX, 2008-2009
This spin-off from the popular ‘Terminator’ franchise of feature films only lasted two seasons on FOX but there is a rabid fanbase for the series, all the same.
Following from the plotline at the end of the film ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ features a T-888 terminator being sent back in time to murder John Connor. Another terminator sent by John to protect him elects to leap forward in time with Sarah and John Connor, to the year 2007; this bypasses the year when Sarah Connor would have died of cancer, in the previous timeline.
‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ has the benefit of a lengthy storyline that preexisted the series, however the way the show handles that timeline is very interesting. Picking up from the end of ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day,’ the show solves the problem of the gap between the series’ production schedules by simply transporting their characters to the time when the show was made. This sort of meta-time-travel makes a lot of sense for a franchise that endures as much as the ‘Terminator’ series has. ‘Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles’ uses information from the film ‘Terminator 3’ but is set before the events of that film, making a very rich intertext for sci-fi fans.
‘Futurama,’ FOX, 1999-2013
Although ‘Futurama’ uses time-travel storylines for comedic sake, the series still explores the concept in ways that other shows haven’t.
‘Futurama’s approach to time-travel is less physics and more philosophy; in fact, the series purposefully played out the classic Grandfather Paradox, with a unique twist. The old philosophical problem of the Grandfather Paradox refers to the thought experiment where a man would travel back in time and murder his own grandfather, prior to his grandfather having any offspring. This would, of course, prevent the murderer’s parents from ever being born, thus preventing the murderer from ever being born, which begs the question: then who is it that murders the grandfather, if the murderer never exists?
This is a classic paradox that has been argued about for years. ‘Futurama’ put their own spin on this problem by having the main character, Fry, fall in love and have sex with a woman while back in time--and this woman turns out to be his own grandmother. Since their love-making got his grandmother pregnant, Fry essentially becomes his own grandfather, begging the same paradox: just where did the original Fry come from, before going back in time?
A silly, lighter note to finish off with. Love these series or hate them, these are some unique, mind-bending looks at a popular sci-fi trope that has endured for decades.
What’s your favorite time-travel television show?