Lately, I’ve started to think about some of the movies, TV shows and books about time travel, that I’ve read over the years. Some of them were exceptional, some were good, and some, unfortunately, were only mediocre (nicely saying, of course). I’m no expert on time travel, don’t get me wrong, and I never traveled through time myself (though I want to), but my vast experience with this sub-genre of science fiction allows me to go through what’s good and what’s bad. Can a time travel story be perfect? I think it can.
Writing a coherent story about time travel is no easy task, at all. I mean, sure, you can try and go chronologically as much as possible, and add a twist here and there, but it’s not enough. It maybe was enough 150 years ago, when the first stories about journeys through time were conceived, but in this time and age, we want more. We want to be able to awe and gasp, to say to ourselves, “how come I didn’t see that coming?”.
Going over some of the arts about time travel that I’ve “experienced”, can think about several elements that can enrich a story and enhance it, and I also can think about methods that can weaken the story.
- Plan ahead, way ahead. While it can be applied to every TV show, movie or book with sequels, it is a big requirement here. Some of the strongest seasons of Doctor Who in the revival years, were when there was a strong several-seasons-long story arc (the David Tennant years). When there was a weak arc, in the Matt Smith years, the story suffered, and we weren’t able to be amazed. It can be fixed, like what Steven Moffat did with the 50th special when he didn’t have Eccleston, but still was able to shift some 20 year old stories to fit his needs. But most of the time, mistakes can’t be “fixed” with late weak explanations.
Being Erica used the time travel element to tell a story of growing up and taking control of your life, by learning from the past. As such, there was plenty of material to use in an infinite number of seasons, because the Erica’s past was infinite. Slowly, we also learned the mystery of Dr. Tom and his “profession”, we met other time travelers, even from the future, and Erica’s upgrade in the 4th season was an awesome culmination of 4 invested years.
Perhaps, the perfect example is 12 Monkeys. It builds its story on the 1995 movie by the same name (starring Will Smith), but it expands and explores its reality 10 times deeper. Having a mystery woman (Jennifer Goines) in the first season, who is partly good and partly bad, becoming such a strong and necessary (and explained) character in the 2nd season, is genius writing. Also, from what the 2nd season’s finale tells us about the 3rd season, it’s is about to get huge.
Failing to plan forward is a common mistake in a lot of other science fiction series, where the story is very important (the story is important also in dramas and comedies, but you have a lot more room there). Agents of Shield had probably the first 3 seasons arc planned, and it was great. Stargate Universe failed to do that, and by the time it became interesting, later in season 2, the series was already cancelled. Lost was a big riddle, and though the creators admitted that the didn’t plan ahead, the did have some good seasons, especially season 4, in the past. Killjoys, on the other hand, seems to have its mythology planned, and we see it layer by layer every season.
- Use strong, established time travel ideas. One of the great examples is a Time Loop, which is a closed time period, usually a day or a few hours, that some of the characters have to live over and over. First, it takes them time to figure out the loop. Then, they try to solve it and get out of the loop, but since it’s so exhausting to tell everyone around what happens (or hiding it, as it’s sometimes required), there comes the time when they start goofing around, and it’s awesome. Later, they return to the mission, and solve it.
We had great time loops in Groundhog Day, in Being Erica, and in Stargate SG-1. We had time loops without goofing around in 12 Monkeys and in Doctor Who. We had a mediocre time loop in the movie ARQ.
Another established idea is whether you can or can’t meet yourself in the past/future. In The Time Travelers Wife (the book. I didn’t see the movie yet), Henry travels randomly through time, ever since he was very young. His targets are usually connected to him or his life, and as such, he meets himself a lot of times, and manages to help himself. It would have been weird if he couldn’t meet himself. In 12 Monkeys, people can meet themselves, but must keep a distance, otherwise, a paradox happens. Fair enough. In Doctor Who, however, one must not meet himself, until it is okay for the story (Amy met her old self, The Doctor met himself in the 50th special, Rose interfered with her own past). When you establish an idea, you also have to keep it constant. Don’t change every time you feel like it.
- Never forget the humor. Science Fiction and humor work perfectly, and so are time travel and humor: Legends of Tomorrow, Timeless, Doctor Who, Being Erica, Rick and Mort, Stargate, and so on. Sometimes, the humor does not fit in, i.e. 12 Monkeys, but is still in there, in some small parts of the story. Journeyman had no humor, and it was one of its weaknesses. Traveling through time creates funny situations and interesting meetups between people who otherwise wouldn’t meet. Taking advantage of it and spraying some jokes and one-liners improves the story magically.
- Use the future. After all, you have a time machine. Why would you use it only to go to the past? There are infinite reasons to go to the future, and though it is difficult, both creatively and financially, a time travel series must visit the future at least once every season. As a viewer, I wish to see how the creative minds behind the series envision the future, what tech they think will be there, will it be utopia or dystopia (or both), and how can the future be used to our character’s advantage. Legends of Tomorrow based their first season on preventing a disastrous future, and visited several points in the near and distant future. It was fun, there were a lot of connections to the present, and turned the story interesting. Erica (Being Erica) visited the near future, and Kai, a dominant character, was from that future. 12 Monkeys started from 2044 and preventing the plague, and next season will go further into the future. Doctor Who visits the future all the time. Richard (The Time Traveler’s Wife) was also in his own future several times. Journeyman never went forward, and it was a mistake.
I really hope Timeless will go to the future, even if it will be by mistake. It will greatly improve the already great series.
- Invent new ideas. It’s okay to build upon established ideas, but if you really want to succeed and have the audience love, make some bold moves. Do something that was never done before, use the never ending realm of time to your advantage. Being Erica used the time travel amazingly for a psychological drama-comedy, but didn’t forget to have fun with it. 12 Monkeys had some established story from season 1, but they weren’t afraid to shatter it and walk further ahead (and back) in the 2nd season. Predestination (the 2014 movie) have done an amazing job turning a very short story from the 50s to a full feature, with one of the most mind blowing time travel stories (if you haven’t seen it, this one is a must!). Lake House (2006) is another great movie, with a simple idea: a time traveling mailbox. The two protagonists use it to communicate through time, and its delicacy is also its most powerful feature. The question whether they could change the preset/future was simple, yet strong.
Outlander, unfortunately, only threw a 1945 nurse 200 years back, and from there, it turns into a standard “Game of Thrones”-ish story with sex and murder. Continuum started from the evil corporations future, but most of the series too place in the present, and involved too much standard police-type drama. Though it had some amazing ideas, even me, a time travel addict, didn’t care to watch the later seasons. Maybe one day.
- Have a time machine. Do I really have to say it? Yes. Because lately premiered a show named Travelers, about a group of people from the future who manage to send their minds to the present, to dead people’s bodies, in order to save the future. It is a weak premise with minimum creativity and maximum disappointment.
Be it a police box, a complex machine, a spaceship that travels through time, a gun, a wristwatch (Captain Jack Harkness), or even a Bong (Time Traveling Bong), a time machine must be there. The only exception is if the story is enclosed, usually a film, and there in no need for it, i.e. The Time Traveler’s Wife or Groundhog Day.
All in all, a complex, shiny, funny, diverse and established time travel show can succeed. But like every other show, it needs time to expand and widen, to have its story explained and to have its heroes grow on us. Some cable networks are short in time, and cancel way too soon, but hopefully the time travel trend that “peaked” this year will stay for a while.
Note: There are some more notable time travel works from recent years that are worth mentioning but didn’t get into my post: Star Trek: (2009), Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), 11.22.63, Early Edition, Eureka, The Flash, The X-Files, Frequency.
Hope you enjoyed reading, and as always, feel free to comment and share!