Why Time Travel Is Suddenly All the Rage on TV (Again)

With 'Timeless,' 'Time After Time,' 'Frequency' and 'Making History' due this season, THR examines why time travel has always been a hot genre on the small screen.
Joe Lederer/NBC
"Timeless"

When you think about it, time is a pretty amazing concept. It can heal all wounds before running out. It’s also in our hands and on our side, sometimes even in a bottle. Meanwhile, it’s been known to warp just as some of us strive to get ahead of it. Perhaps most impressive of all, though, time has become one of TV’s most trusted tropes.

Time travel has been a primetime plot staple for decades, from The Time Tunnel to Doctor Who to Quantum Leap to Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. These days, it’s also a central theme in several critically acclaimed shows on broadcast, basic and premium cable including The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Outlander, Once Upon a Time and 12 Monkeys. Meanwhile, it’s become one of the hottest trends in new network series, with NBC's Timeless, ABC's Time After Time, The CW's Frequency and Fox's Making History set to debut this season.

“I’ve always been interested in making a time travel show because it uniquely lends itself to the network format,” Timeless creator Eric Kripke says. “So much of coming up with a good network series is creating a really smart, clean, humming engine. And the idea of going to a different historical period each week and having an action story set against iconic moments of history is just that.”

Adds fellow Timeless executive producer Shawn Ryan, “I haven’t done a genre show before, but I loved movies like Back to the Future and shows like Quantum Leap. So when I met with Eric and talked about this idea, I loved the adventurous and filmic quality of a time travel show.”

Both admit to being history buffs, which is why Kripke says the show is a tribute to one his history teachers — Bill Hill — who inspired his interest in exploring important events from the past. Timeless’ second episode even goes back to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, a topic Hill was particularly obsessed by.

The NBC drama follows a time-honored time-travel tradition, where a team of scientists and historians discover interrupting the past will mess up the future. However, every series seems to develop its own concept of time travel. ABC’s Time After Time, from exec producer Kevin Williamson, is based on the 1979 movie of the same name, about writer H.G. Wells’ trip to modern times to stop Jack the Ripper. The Flash and Legends make time travel seem less romantic by focusing on the personal tribulations it can cause. Meanwhile, Frequency — based on the feature film of the same name — is more like a cop show that unfolds in two different time periods simultaneously.

In real life, our odds of moving from one historical period to another are as astronomical as, say, finding Al Sharpton waiving a “Make America Great Again” sign at a Trump rally. Which is precisely why series that involve time travel have always been so popular.  They give viewers the chance to, according to Outlander executive producer Ron Moore, “go to another era and lose yourself in that world. One of the great puzzles you debate in the writers’ room is the idea of alternate histories, about what it might be like to be stuck in the past or the future.”

That’s exactly what happens to the heroine of Moore's Starz drama, Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe). She’s a World War II nurse in England who suddenly finds herself transported to Scotland in 1743. Audiences love “the fantasy of being in the past,” says Moore, but he strives to make sure that “time travel is a conceit and a catalyst, but not so much ‘I have to save the world’.”

Think of time travel shows as the ultimate expression of the phrase “If I knew then what I know now… .” There’s a tremendous amount of comfort in nostalgia and nothing caters to that sentiment more than setting your series in a time-flexible universe. Says Flash EP Aaron Helbing, “we all have that desire for what was. We always have experiences like driving down the street and hearing a song takes you back to an earlier time. People look backwards all the time because our present is defined by our past.”

For Time After Time executive producer Williamson, his show and the others appeal to viewers’ unrequited desire to “create a new identity, to go back and fix something that went wrong in your life, to meet someone you lost.” Time travel is the combination of both wistfulness and science, which can be a tricky thing to pull off in less than 60 minutes every week. Too much of one or the other and the show becomes either too sappy or too confusing.

You could take the Terminator approach of alternate timelines colliding. Or there’s the Back to the Future notion, where things happen in the past and change the present.  According to Helbing, the science of time traveling “has to be palatable and yet emotionally satisfying to the audience. Luckily, our characters are scientists so that makes it easier to explain how time travel works."

Still, says Moore, “there are ways to play it but you have to ground the audience in which theory you’re using right away. Lock into the rules so they can relax. You don’t want them spending a lot of time trying to figure out those rules.”

“We put in just enough science to make sense because we’re talking about H.G. Wells as our main character,” Williamson says. “And we try to do it in a fun way because we don’t want to be about the science of time travel. We’re much more of a romantic show, so we’re dealing with fate and destiny.”

In other words, make sure more time is spent exploring the lives of the travelers and less is expended on the travel itself. That’s the operative philosophy behind Frequency, inspired by the 2000 Dennis Quaid film about a ham radio operator who ends up contacting the past to try to save his dad’s life. The series uses the same device to connect a present-day New York cop with her father, a fellow officer whose life is unfolding simultaneously but 20 years earlier.

“We’re attempting something we haven’t quite seen before, people communicating across time instead of using a ghost or traveling back,” says executive producer Jeremy Carver. “We’re coming from an un-fun place – the death of a parent – but this represents an opportunity for a second chance to say something to someone that you didn’t say before. Even though we’re a genre show, the goal is to make it feel grounded and authentic because of the emotional connection between father and child.”

When there’s a good balance between emotion and fantasy, a time travel show can become, well, timeless. That’s what helped Quantum Leap, about Dr. Sam Beckett’s (Scott Bakula) never-ending journey from one time to another, become the gold standard for the genre. Bakula says that even 23 years after the show was canceled, he regularly hears from people around the world who say the show was the one series that brought all generations of their families together.

“The enduring part is the consistency of the idea, which is different from most shows and movies and time travel,” he says. “I jumped into other people’s lives, experiencing what they were from the inside. And fans could appreciate our optimism. When times are not necessarily great around the planet, it’s nice to have time travel as escapism. Which is why there’s something cyclical about these kind of shows.”

When done right, they can also be more educational than other genre series. Which is why ultimately, Kripke and Ryan both hope Timeless will promote the study of history in the same CSI did for science. That’s why NBC is having a historian blog about the facts behind every episode.

“I hope this creates a real interest about history,” explains Ryan. “I would love nothing more than for young people watch and the study of history becomes something they want to dig deeper into. We’re definitely trying to entertain people here but who says you can’t be entertained and educated at the same time?”

Adds Kripke, “CSI got people into science but nobody ever considered it a science show. So it would be great to have people interested in history even though we’re not a show about history. My secret hope? That high school and junior high teachers will show Timeless episodes to demonstrate to them that history is a very exciting world.”

Timeless debuts Monday, Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. on NBC; Frequency is set for Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m. on The CW; while ABC's Time After Time and Fox's Making History are both set for dates to be determined come midseason.

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