I’d like to call this the 10 best time travel stories, but come on, can I really make such an identification? How do I tell the difference between a great “time travel story” and a great story that just happens to include time travel? Does every good episode of Doctor Who or the Legion of Super-Heroes count just because the Doctor gets to the adventure in the Tardis or Superboy by breaking the time barrier? And what about all those time travel stories that I have never seen or read? What, indeed, about all those time travel stories that I have read, but simply cannot remember?
So, what is this then? It’s going to be Ten Great Time Travel Stories, counting down from 10 to 1, reflecting my general preference for these 10 stories, as determined by the complex scoring rubric of my imagination at a particular moment. For clarity, I’m limiting myself to stories that appeared originally as movies, TV shows, or comic books.
10. The Return of Barry Allen (1993)
Format: Comic book story arc (The Flash #’s 74-79)
Tone: Superhero Adventure
Time Travelers: Eobard Thawne, aka the Reverse-Flash
Time Travel Methodology: Super-Speed, plus a Cosmic Treadmill
Travel Range: About 500 years
Time Travel Theory: It’s not discussed in any detail until toward the end, when Wally assumes that history hasn’t been changed and no temporal paradox created simply on the basis of the fact that the universe hasn’t unraveled around them. Whether this is because such an event is impossible, or simply hasn’t happened in this case, is unclear.
Comments: The Return of Barry Allen (as it is known in trade paperback) is one of the best character-driven superhero comic arcs I have ever read. At this point in DC Comics history, Barry Allen (the Flash of the Silver & Bronze age) was long dead, and his former protege, Wally West, was the Flash instead. Wally had gone through a series of “personality problems” (selfishness, womanizing, general idiocy) since he’d taken on the mantle, something which was implied to be caused in part by his insecurity in the role. Then suddenly, in this storyline, his beloved friend and mentor, Barry Allen, turns up alive and well. The plot follows Wally’s responses to this event: first suspicion, then joy, then despair as Barry turns out to be not the man that Wally remembers, but rather someone full of bitterness, resentment and rage. As things progress, the resurrected Flash turns out to actually be one of Barry Allen’s arch enemies – Eobard Thawne, aka the Reverse-Flash – who was also thought dead. But this Eobard Thawne comes from a time in the future before he ever met Barry Allen. His appearance has been altered, and in his confusion, he’s actually believed himself to be Barry Allen. This all leads to the climax of the saga, where we see one of the most awesome “manning up” stories ever, when Wally realizes he can no longer hold back as he faces the enemy who has tarnished and trampled on his most cherished memories. He had become an under-achiever as the Flash, for fear of replacing Barry Allen in the hearts of the public. As he pours on speed he didn’t know he was capable of, he thinks something like, “Maybe I was afraid of replacing Barry Allen, but I’m certainly not going to stand by and let this creep do it!” And with one double-paged image of Wally backhanding his enemy into the dirt, creators Mark Waid and Greg Larocque help Wally cement his reputation as the fastest man alive for a generation of comic readers.
9. All Good Things… (1994)
Format: Special double-length TV episode (Star Trek: The Next Generation)
Tone: Space Opera Adventure
Time Travelers: Jean-Luc Picard. And Q as well, I suppose.
Time Travel Methodology: Intervention by Q, the near-omnipotent alien being
Travel Range: About 31 years all together (the present, around 6 years in the past, and about 25 years in the future)
Time Travel Theory: This episode features time travel of a different sort than what we usually see in Star Trek. Since what is happening to Picard is a result of Q’s intervention, Star Trek‘s normal rules don’t apply, and actions taken by Picard in the past have no bearing on what happens in the future (except for what Picard himself learns in each time period).
Comments: The concept of All Good Things… is that Picard finds himself bouncing uncontrollably and seemingly randomly between three time periods in his own life – in each drawn toward a mysterious anomaly that he eventually discovers was created by his own investigation. It doesn’t quite make sense (something the show sort of acknowledges), but the end result is one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, perhaps the best series-finale of any Star Trek series, and perhaps one of the best finales for any TV show in general. The time travel elements are not only kind of trippy, but they are also used to tell story that serves as an impressive (and in fact, superior) bookend to the show’s opening installment.
8. Frequency (2000)
Format: Feature Film
Tone: Drama – Thriller
Time Travelers: Technically, none although father and son Frank and John Sullivan communicate to each other through time
Time Travel Methodology: Frank and John communicate via ham radio waves bouncing off a particularly strong aurora borealis
Travel Range: Again, not actually time travel, but Frank and John speak to each other from 30 years apart
Time Travel Theory: Information given to Frank in the past leads to changes in the timeline that only John seems to be aware of. Sometimes, when changes take place in the past, it results in things changing “mid-stream” in the present, regardless of whether it makes any sense for characters to be in the same situation given the new history.
Comments: Well, this is a bit of a cheat, since as pointed out there is not actual time travel in the story–as in nobody travels through time. There is, however, communication between two time periods that results in changes to the timeline, new histories, and new status quos in the present. The movie doesn’t take a lot of time delving into explanations for any of this, instead concentrating on telling its story. My wife found the creepy serial-killer thriller elements to be a bit strong, but I thought they were nicely submitted to the heart of the movie, which is the father-son drama, which is what I remember about the movie. Both Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel give good performances which are really nice to watch.
7. Silence in the Library & Forest of the Dead (2008)
Format: Two part TV episode (Doctor Who)
Tone: Horror-Science Fiction Adventure
Time Travelers: The Doctor & Donna Noble. River Song is later revealed as a time traveler, but she doesn’t do any time traveling in this story
Time Travel Methodology: The Tardis (the Doctor’s time machine)
Travel Range: The story takes place in the 51st Century, which means that Donna has come forward in time about 3000+ years, both since she lived and since her last televised adventure.
Time Travel Theory: Doctor Who often operates according to an idea that time can be rewritten, and that is even mentioned in this story.
Comments: Another possible cheat, since nobody actually travels in time in this story (although it’s clear that the Doctor and Donna have arrived into the story via that route). However, there are several ways in which time travel plays a critical role, and they all have to do with a character who is introduced here: Professor River Song. The idea is that River is a woman deeply important in the Doctor’s life, who has shared adventures and life with him in a variety of unexpected ways, but whom the Doctor is meeting for the first time. The Doctor is initially skeptical of this, but gradually comes to realize how special this woman is to him–only to discover that this is actually their last meeting, the occasion when River meets her death. It’s a beautiful scene, when River sacrifices herself – bringing both the character arc and the plot of the story to a head together. The Doctor insists that he could save her, even if it might mean re-writing time and changing their relationship. River responds, powerfully, “Not those times! Not one line, don’t you dare! It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s not over for you. You’ll see me again. You and me. Time and space. You watch us run.” That would be enough to make it memorable, but then we get that awesome coda where the Doctor realizes that his future self has sent him back the means to save River, at least partially.
The other thing that really stands out about this story is how much is foreshadows the tenure of the 11th Doctor and Steven Moffat’s time as series showrunner. Matt Smith’s debut story was still a year and a half way, but there are so many comments in this story that set up the tone of the series at that point, the personality of 11th Doctor (who had not appeared yet), and the future relationship between the Doctor and River Song. It fits so well that it’s almost like Steven Moffat traveled back in time to write this script.
6. Funeral in Smallville (2008)
Format: Single issue comic book (All-Star Superman #6)
Tone: Superhero Adventure
Time Travelers: Superman, Kal Kent (the Superman of 853,500 AD), Klyzyzk Klzntplkz (Superman from the 5th Dimension) and another member of the Supermen Squad
Time Travel Methodology: Superman-style superpowers (usually flying faster than the speed of light and breaking the time barrier)
Travel Range: Various. For Superman, it’s just a few years. But for Kal Kent, it’s about 853,490 years.
Time Travel Theory: Time seems immutable, as it normally was during DC Comic’s classic age. The Supermen from the future are unable to change any events of the original Superman’s past
Comments: Not the best remembered issue of All-Star Superman, still Funeral in Smallville is one of the most touching. It features the story of when a brash young Superman impetuously did battle against a time-eating monster and ended up losing three minutes of his life – the three minutes where his adopted father died of a fatal heart attack. The Jonathan Kent of this story is the classic one that we’ve seen in just about ever iteration of the character – the man who more than any other inspires Clark Kent into his life of self-sacrificial heroism (wish you’d have paid attention to that, Man of Steel!)
As nice of story as this is, the time traveling element would not have been particularly noteworthy but for the reveal at the end – that the bandaged Unknown Superman from 4500 AD is in reality our Superman, from the present day, come back to an earlier point in his own time line to spend a little bit of a extra time with his father.
5. The Leap Home (1990)
Format: TV episode (Quantum Leap)
Time Travelers: Dr. Sam Beckett
Time Travel Methodology: Project Quantum Leap
Travel Range: In this episode, Sam has traveled about 28 years into the last
Time Travel Theory: The premise of Quantum Leap was that Sam would travel into the lives of other people and stay there until he had accomplished a particular task required to in some say improve that person’s life, or the life or lives of people around him. So history would change constantly, though somehow the people in Project Quantum Leap (Sam’s colleagues) would not normally be impacted by these changes.
Comments: The premier of the third season of Quantum Leap as a two parter, but only the first part is included here. The story was about time traveling Sam Beckett traveling back to his own youth and becoming himself as a teenager, at a time before a variety of family tragedies. Sam is told that the reason he is there is to help a team win a critical basketball game, but he is determined to use the opportunity to instead prevent a series of family tragedies – the death of his father and brother, and the abusive marriage of his sister. As the story continues, Sam becomes increasingly stubborn in this, refusing to listen to the input and counsel of his closest friend and confidante, Al. His efforts come to nothing, other than causing his family pain and confusion, until a distraught Sam is told that he isn’t doing anything to improve his family’s future–he’s only making their present miserable. Sam responds that it isn’t fair – it isn’t fair that he is back with his family but unable to change their destinies. To this, Al wisely but angrily responds that it’s a blessing – he’d give anything to spend a day with his father again. And at that, Sam’s perspective on his situation finally changes, and he’s able to enjoy the rare opportunity that he’s been given.
Frankly, I don’t remember much else about this story, but this moment made it worth it. It’s a little like the previous entry on this list – I guess I’m a bit of a sucker for stories like this.
4. Moebius part I & II (2005)
Format: Two part TV episode (Stargate SG-1)
Time Travelers: SG-1: Jack O’Neill, Daniel Jackson, Samantha Carter & Teal’c
Time Travel Methodology: A Puddle Jumper – technology of “The Ancients” (the alien race who built the Stargates)
Travel Range: Present day back to 3000 BC
Time Travel Theory: History can be changed, resulting in alternate timelines, the creation of which don’t seem to negate the existence of travelers from earlier timelines.
Comments: Moebius is an elegantly constructed alternate timeline story, in which the main characters go back in time and get stuck in the past, accidentally change things. So they leave a message to their alternate timeline selves in the future, prompting them to also come back in time, also getting stuck in the past, but setting the timeline right. This results in an amusing scene at the end, where the cast from the newly restored timeline realize that they no longer have to actually do anything about the message they’ve received from the past. And then there is an even more amusing coda, when we find out that things have changed after all: Jack’s previously empty fish pond now has fish in it. As he says,”Close enough.”
3. Day of the Doctor (2013)
Format: Special, extra long TV episode (Doctor Who)
Tone: Adventure / Drama
Time Travelers: The Doctor (mainly 3 of them, but ultimately 13 of them!), Clara Oswald, and I guess, The Moment
Time Travel Methodology: Primarily Tardis. Also the Moment’s special time fissures, and a Vortex Manipulator.
Travel Range: Between 2013 and 1562, plus whenever the Time War is meant to have taken place
Time Travel Theory: Usually, Doctor Who–especially modern Doctor Who–treats time as being malleable and a bit mixed up, though with the various “fixed points” peppered throughout that keep history on track. The Doctor constantly walks around creating stable time loops for the sake of convenience (and saving the universe). In The Day of the Doctor, the show goes out of its way to make sure that prior continuity about the Last Great Time War is not contradicted, even while completely changing the outcome of that conflict.
Comments: The Day of the Doctor is not the best Doctor Who story, but it is full of a lot clever and fun use of time travel. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who often involves a lot of temporal shenanigans, and often the logic behind it all is sacrificed for the sake of making the story fun. But in this case, the time travel makes a surprising amount of sense, whilst still being extremely clever. In this one story, we have three concurrent Doctors making use of the fact that they each have (essentially) the same sonic screwdriver from several hundred years apart to solve a particularly difficult equation; the Doctors escaping a trap by hiding in a painting that is in reality made of a frozen moment in time; a fez being tossed through time fissures in a fun and non-linear manner; and the Doctors gathering from both the past and the future to face the darkest moment of their life only for that moment to be transformed into their brightest. It’s a fun and full adventure with a great blend of humor, pathos, and wit, celebrating the past and looking forward to the future, all adding up to the grandest celebration of the series’ 50 years that we could have hoped for.
2. Trial and Tribble-ations (1996)
Format: TV Episode (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
Tone: Adventure / Comedy
Time Travelers: Sisko, Dax, O’Brien, Worf, Bashir, Odo, Arne Darvin, and the crew of the Defiant
Time Travel Methodology: The Orb of Time, a relic of Bajor
Travel Range: 105 years, 1 month & 12 days back in time
Time Travel Theory: Star Trek has long had adopted a general approach that when you travel through time, you change things all the time, and though you have to be concerned about changing significant events in history, you don’t have to really worry about stuff like accidentally erasing the reasons you traveled in time in the first place. Even if you do, you’ll somehow still remember everything that happened.
Comments: Star Trek had by this time long made time travel into a bit of a cliche and a joke – so much so that this episode even involves a Federation department whose job it is just to keep track of Starfleet’s time travel antics. What made this episode special was not just that the characters traveled back in time, but that they traveled back into an adventure that we had previously seen (and loved). This had been done before – in an episode of Babylon 5, as well as in Back to the Future part II, but never before had it been so fun and evoked such fond feelings of nostalgia. The story takes advantage of the situation and the available technology to deliver one delightful moment after another – from Worf’s non-reveal of why Klingons look different than they did 105 years ago, to O’Brien getting involved in the bar fight, to Sisko getting Kirk’s autograph – the episode is full of one crowd-pleasing moment after another, none of which we ever expected to be able to see.
1. Summer Time Machine Blues (2005)
Format: Feature Film
Time Travelers: Five geeky university students, and another guy who might be the son of one of the others
Time Travel Methodology: Time Machine-style time machine (a device built around a mechanized chair several simple controls), of unknown origin
Travel Range: Mostly just one day in the past, but also 99 years in the past, and 25 years in the future
Time Travel Theory: Time seems to be immutable – characters become part of history as they travel through time, in spite of their fear that they will change history
Comments: As I have mentioned elsewhere, Summer Time Travel Blues is hands-down my favorite time travel movie or story of any kind. The movie uses time travel to craft an intricate puzzle, but one in which there is a complete lack of pretentiousness. Instead of treating the fairly standard revelation (in this sort of fiction) that “it was me all along” as some sort of never before heard of of big deal, this script handles it with style and humor, but without ever losing the dramatic tension.
But of course, in reality there are lots more – many other time travel stories in TV, movies or comics that I haven’t mentioned. Maybe someday, we’ll do Ten More Great Time Travel Stories. Or maybe…we already have…