The Current State Of Time Travel

January 26, 2018
11 mins read

Witchdoctor’s sci-fi specialist ANDREW JOHNSTONE charts his own trip through the cosmic history of time travel on film and television.


John Rowles was blessed with an exceptional voice. Born in Kawerau, he left for greener shores as soon as he could and thanks to a savvy Aussie management team scored big in 1968 with If I Only Had Time. It managed a solid 18 weeks in the British charts, peaking at number 3. He had two more substantial hits, Hush Not A Word To Mary (1968) and Cheryl Moana Marie (1970), an Australasian smash that went top 60 in the USA.

He could have been as big as Tom Jones or Humperdinck but ignoring the guidance of his manager, who had done him so well thus far, he frittered away his formative years living the high life at the Hawaiian resort he purchased with his recording profits.

When he awoke from his tropical dream too much time had passed, his international career was over and he was reduced to the ‘groundhog day’ of the Aussie cabaret circuit.

In 2004, a renewed interest in Rowles flared briefly when hip British electronica duo Lemon Jelly sampled ‘If I Only Had Time.’ While he appreciated the attention, he admitted, “it’s not my kind of thing”.

Rowles’ song is all about the joy of living and not having enough time to fulfil all of life’s promise, while the Lemon Jelly’s rehash is an existential treatise on regret and time squandered. Clearly, John had a grand ole time for awhile, but given the outcomes, would he go back and change the past? It’s here that three of the hottest time travel shows on television find their muse, but more on that later.


We might be forgiven for thinking that time travel is a modern phenomenon given the all-pervasive influence of HG Welles’ 1895 story The Time Machine, but it is not that way at all. His story was just the latest incarnation of an ancient narrative device.

Until Welles and his machine, potions and enchantment and sometimes a bang to the head were the main method of navigating time – bonk, unconscious, wake up hundreds of years in the future.

As late as 1889 Mark Twain used this method to send a Yankee back to the Court of King Arthur (A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court). Twain’s morality fable is a critical examination of the social mores of his time, and the time displacement is but a handy narrative device that gives the story novelty value.

An earlier time travel narrative is out of 7th century Japan. Urashima the Fisherman rescues a turtle and as a reward is ferried off to a magical city of wonders for a few days R&R. Trouble is it’s in another dimension and back in Urashima’s world 300 years have passed.

His life and family gone, he loses his equilibrium and the result is tragic. What’s the subtext at play here? That it is better to do good things without reward or recognition? In Urashima’s defence he didn’t actually want the reward. The Japanese have a unique way of viewing the world and I wonder if I am missing the point.

The future turns out better for American Rip Van Winkle. Washington Irving’s 1819 story is about a ‘put-upon man’ (a nagging wife is the central point here) who falls into an enchanted sleep after a drinking session with mysterious strangers in a forest. He sleeps for 20 years and when he awakes most everyone he knew is either dead or very old, and after some initial confusion Rip adapts, and free of his unsatisfactory marriage, ends up living the life.

The future as escape from a disappointing present is explored to its fullest potential in Robert Heinlein’s classic 1957 novel The Door Into Summer. Now in the modern age and firmly in the footsteps of HG  Welles, instead of enchantment we have technology, which in this case is cryogenic suspension.

Betrayed and bewildered, Daniel Boone Davis takes the long sleep and is awakened 30 years into the future where he meets a man who has made a time machine. Using the technology, he returns to the past determined to set right wrongs made against him by his treacherous fiancé Belle and his equally treacherous business partner, Miles.

Returning to the past to set right the future is the theme of three current time travel TV shows, 12 Monkeys, 11.22.63 and Travelers. In all these series’ time travel is being used to alter the timeline in the aim of a more satisfactory future outcome. Yeah, the future is grim but changing the past in aid of a better future is not as straightforward as everyone involved had hoped.

12 Monkeys is based on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film of the same name, which is in turn based on Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jette, which tells this now classic post-apocalyptic story through a series of still photographs with a voice-over narration. Sounds dull but it is actually quite effecting. The TV series draws from both its predecessor’s vision while adding some suitable flourishes of its own.

In 12 Monkeys, an operative called Cole mounts a seat set in the path of a giant laser. There is an injection of serum and lots of writhing about then ‘bam’, gone and thrust into the past. Obsessive scientist Dr Katarina Jones (played by Barbara Sukawa, a former Reiner Werner Fassbinder acolyte) is determined to stop the release of a deadly virus that took the life of her daughter and most everyone else. Cole is her tool, a battered survivor sent back to the past to prevent the release of the virus. The job turns out to be barrel of confusion for the hapless Cole.

Meanwhile, over on Travellers (there is an earlier short lived incarnation from 2007 drifting about so be aware), a similar scenario is playing out. Deep into the future a small remnant of humanity clings precariously to life under the guidance and protection of an all-wise AI called The Director (think ‘god’ and yes, there are plenty of provocative religious allusions). The Director has a plan to alter the catastrophic events that have sent humanity into freefall.

The minds of highly trained operatives are sent back in time and placed into the bodies of the about-to-be-deceased’. Our particular team of Travelers ends up in the bodies of an overdose victim, a young mother battered to death by her boyfriend, a sociopathic sports star killed by a punch, a retarded girl beaten to death on the street and an FBI agent about to die from a fall down a lift shaft.

To the shock of all those around him the jock gives up sport and his old wicked ways and turns into a reasonable if not saintly sort, while the battered mother (this Traveler is a trained combat expert) hefts it to her abusive man and as for the FBI agent, this steakaholic workaholic is suddenly vegan.

Yeah… it’s true, there is no meat in the future. In fact, there is barely any food at all and the lighter moments involve Travelers having mouth orgasms over things like fries, burgers and chocolate. Otherwise, it turns out that the ‘past’ is an ever-shifting game of numbers made all the more difficult by a war with Travelers who have broken ranks with The Director’s grand plan.

Conceptually solid ideas, good writing and a charismatic cast make for a superior sci-fi series. A massive hit for Netflix, Season Two is down with Season Three in production.

Back over in deranged 12 Monkeys land (yes, the TV series stays true to Gilliam’s vision) it turns out that time itself is sentient and does not take kindly to tinkering, leading us into an increasingly bizarre labyrinth of realities as Cole and company wrestle with time’s obtuse methods and the terrorists responsible for the release of the deadly virus.

Like Gilliam, I had severe doubts about this show, imagining a dumb smash, bash, crash set of American clichés. Boy, was I ever wrong. A critically acclaimed third season is all wrapped up and a fourth and final season is now in production.

Recent Stephen King adaptation 11.22.63 – like 12 Monkeys and Travelers – is all about changing the past in aid of the future, in this case preventing the assassination of US President JFK in the hope of averting the horrors of the Vietnamese war. James Franco does a fair job as a high school teacher thrown in deep, but it is mostly dullsville.

I lost interest after Episode Four but the reviews tell me I should have held on, because the series really starts to fire towards the end. As for the time travel, this takes place via a portal in the back of a diner. It’s an inter-dimensional thing with time guardians and the usual King flip-flappery.

In German series Dark, the time travelling has no higher purpose – in fact, it’s just an unfortunate accident set upon the unwitting inhabitants of the small German town of Winden. An ‘event’ at the local nuclear power plant creates a series of time traversing wormholes that suck unwitting locals into a nightmare of endlessly repeating cycles linking decades and generations.

At its heart this a psychological thriller that is not afraid to taste the dark meat of human experience. The result is uncomfortable, emotionally dense and riveting. Dark has been compared to Twin Peaks and Stranger Things, but it’s a flimsy comparison. Dark has a tone and reality all its own, though their might be some comparison to German filmmaker Reiner Werner Fassbinder’s triumphant 1973 TV series World On A Wire, a similarly bold speculative sci-fi entertainment.

And do yourself a favour: turn off the clumsy American voice-over and listen to it in German with subtitles. It serves the series and the actors so much better. Season One ends on a cliffhanger with oodles of unanswered questions still sitting in the in-tray. Season Two is currently in production.

A side note: 2009 German film The Door is all kinds of similar. Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen stars in this strange time travel thriller that like Dark, uses a cave as a doorway through time. Mads is supposed to be watching his young daughter while his wife is out, but instead he is seeing to his sexy neighbour’s needs. The daughter is killed in an accident and Mads is inconsolable. It turns out a cave at the end of the street is a portal through time, so he sets about rectifying his big mistake, but it turns out to be more difficult than he first imagines (of course it is). If you can find it, it is worth a look.

American TV series The Time Tunnel (1966) comes from the same era that gave us camp Batman (1966), Star Trek (1966), The Prisoner (1967) and Land Of The Giants (1968). The Time Tunnel has not endured as well as its cousins but was smart enough to influence a generation or two to come. Timeless (2016) is drawn from this stock.

Bad guys steal top-secret time machine and start changing the timeline. Good guys are in pursuit. It’s standard wholesome action and adventure with conspiracies galore and a solid cast lead by Abigail Spencer. You’ll know her from Suits, Madmen and Rectify. As watchable as cool water on a hot day, Ms Spencer is an asset to any show and without her this operation would be 25 percent less than it is. If I were a kid, I would be drinking it up. Solid B-grade schlock: fun if predictable.

Time travel is a notable sub plot in Gene Roddenberry’s iconic Star Trek franchise; so much so that the Federation of Planets has a whole philosophy devoted to maintaining the sanctity of the timeline. It’s called the Temporal Prime Directive.

Time travel is the featured device of two of the franchise’s best films, The Voyage Home (1986) and First Contact (1996) and as for the numerous series’, just about the best time travel concepts to be found anywhere on TV lie scattered about this vast cannon.

Among my favourites are: Times Arrow (The Next Generation – 1992), Futures End featuring Sarah Silverman and Ed Begley Jnr (Voyager – 1996), Year Of Hell (Voyager – 1997) and the various time travel scenarios involved in the triumphant Xindi story arc that tied up Season Three of Enterprise from 2003-2004. You’ll find them all and more on Netflix.

In short-lived 2016 series Time After Time HG Wells invents a time machine. He shows it to his friend John who steals it. John, it turns out, is Jack the Ripper. Wells makes another one and goes after him. Seriously? This is the kind of idea that probably sounds awesome when you’re 15 and stoned and thinking up shit. Based on the classic 1979 film, the TV version is dull, dull, dull and cancelled.

Making History (2017) is time travel comedy, a sub-genre that includes classics like Time Travel Bong and Time Travel Hot Tub. Funny man goes back in time and stuffs up the timeline so ropes in straight man historian to help to sort it all out. It is about as amusing as a cup of day-old coffee and was cancelled after nine episodes.

There are some 60 odd time travel series’ available for viewing somewhere, including the granddaddy of them all, the incomparable Dr Who, which first hit the small screen back in 1963 and is still doing their shtick today. Among the current crop of international shows is The Ministry Of Time (El Ministerio del Tempo – 2016) out of Spain, which some critics are referring to as the Spanish Dr Who, though the makers consider it closer to Timeless, a show they are suing for ‘stealing their ideas’. Apparently it is coming to Netflix.

While we are in Spain I should mention 2007 time travel thriller Timecrimes, which must rank among the smartest time travel films ever made. A scientist is caught up in an ever-tightening time loop after an experiment with a time machine throws up some unexpected results. If time travel is your thing and you haven’t seen this then Happy Almost New Year, you have a treat in store.

In 1889 Mark Twain sent his Yankee back to King Arthur’s Court with a blow to the head, but a revolution was just around the corner. In 1894 Englishman HG Wells imagines a machine that can traverse time and opens the genre up to a whole new order of possibility. The Time Travel genre has come a long way since, but perhaps its most progressive forward step is by way of Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel The Time Traveller’s Wife.

Offering something utterly new and unique, the time travel device here is a rare genetic condition that causes a man to randomly move through time. Charting the course of an unconventional life, Niffenegger’s story is deeply affecting and utterly compelling. Given the phenomenal success of the book a clunky sentimental film adaptation was sadly inevitable.

If I were to pick one time travel film and say it was the ‘best ever’ it would be this. Using the cryogenic suspension first touted in Robert Heinlein’s novel The Door Into Summer, the original Planet Of The Apes (1968) sees ‘golden age of Hollywood’ star Charlton Heston thrust into the far future, and the result is audacious and ground-breaking. Echoing the existential fears of a world teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation, this film hits every mark (including the magnificent score by Jerry Goldsmith).

Side note: as with 12 Monkeys, the ape’s franchise originated from the work of a Frenchman. This time, by way of one Pierre Boulle whose 1963 novel La Planete des Singes kicked it all off.

There is more, so much more, but like John Rowles, I have run out of time. Bon voyage.




Andrew Johnstone is Witchdoctor's Film & TV Editor. He also writes and produces music (with creative partner, legendary Waikato music producer Zed Brookes), is an avid gardener, former dairy farmer and food industry sales person. When he isn't making up stories he writes about the stories he sees on television and at the cinema. He is also fascinated by politics (the social democratic sort) and describes The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his religion.

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