By Jeff Jensen
Updated August 10, 2009 at 03:00 PM EDT

Welcome to the first class of Jeff “Doc” Jensen’s EW University course on time travel as a time-honored sci-fi trope. Coming up this week: additional posts that take a look at memorable movies and TV shows where this favorite conceit plays a starring role, plus a trivia quiz “final exam” and a gallery of our favorite time travelers.

As you may have noticed from a summer filled with starcruisers, giant robots, and adamantium-boned mutants, the genre commonly (if imprecisely) called science-fiction is big business, invading and filling the culture’s escapist landscape like tribbles, replicants, bunches of alien-hatching pods — you get the idea. This week’s EW University course is devoted to one of the most popular sci-fi tropes: time travel. And there’s been a lot if it lately. One of the year’s biggest films, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, hinges on a time-travel plot twist. The forthcoming The Time Traveler’s Wife — adapted from the best-selling novel by Audrey Niffenegger and starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana — promises to be one of the year’s biggest date flicks. Other recent examples of time travel pop: Deja Vu, The Lake House, Heroes, Journeyman, Doctor Who, Life On Mars, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and, of course, Lost.

“Time travel stories are a great type of wish fulfillment,” says Lost exec producer Carlton Cuse. “The ability to enter a world otherwise closed to us with knowledge no one in that world possesses is always rich in story telling possibilities. But beware: Time travel is very alluring when you start out. Sort of like having an affair with the girlfriend of [a] South American narco trafficker; it’s exotic and exciting and adrenaline-pumping for a while, but extricating yourself with all your limbs intact is very, very hard.”

(We shall have to take the esteemed Professor Cuse’s word for this.)

Historical overview

The first time-travel stories to be considered time-travel stories probably don’t strike modern audiences as time-travel stories, let alone sci-fi stories. In English author Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the Twentieth Century: Being original letters of state under George the Sixth (1733), an angel provides the 18th century narrator letters written by British ambassadors about the future of the Empire — a conceit that could have been swiped from any number of Bible stories about prophets being granted future visions. (And England did see itself as the God-blessed expression of modern Christendom. Bloody narcissists.)

Similarly, the French author Louis-Sebastien Mercier’s The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Were One (1771) has its protagonist falling asleep in Paris and waking up nearly 700 years later. (Those ye olde European wordsmiths were pretty lousy at cobbling cool titles.) Both writers used the device of peeking into the future in order to critique their present and promote polemical worldviews — soon to be a chief characteristic of the entire sci-fi genre. Mercier’s work painted a picture of France made glorious by the Enlightenment ideals of science, radical democracy, and religious liberation (or more pointedly, atheism) that would fool the ill-fated French Revolution.

Of course, Mercier’s conceit of a sleeper power-napping his way forward in history sounds a lot like Rip Van Winkle (1819), written by American author Washington Irving, whose own fable drew from different, obscure mythic tales. Yes: These are not new ideas. But Irving’s satirical classic skewered idle, lazy living (a truly puritan American concern), but also embodied another theme that would become common in time-travel fiction: regret. That’s the subject of perhaps the best known time-travel-story-that-isn’t-necessarily-considered-a-time-travel-story, one that gets told and televised and performed ad nauseum every December: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Says Lost exec producer Damon Lindelof: “Every one of us spends thousands of hours of our lives regretting mistakes that we’ve made and wondering what would have happened had we not made them. The opportunity to go back and prevent those mistakes is a level of wish fulfillment only transcended by the desire to fly. And maybe shoot lasers out of your eyes.”

Note Lindelof’s use of the word change. The idea of traveling through time to influence or alter events — and therefore all of history — is certainly the predominant theme of today’s time-travel stories, though not so much the earliest ones. But it’s there in “The Clock That Went Backward,” an 1881 short story written by Edward Page Mitchell, a progenitor of serious sci-fi. It’s also present in HG Wells’ blockbuster novel The Time Machine (1895), which would coin the phrase “time machine” and inspire a boom in time-travel tales. Mitchell’s tale reads more like a Poe-esque horror yarn, spliced with some seriously heady philosophical ideas and proto-Relativistic notions of time. In his story, a mysterious, most likely mystical clock transports a pair of 19th century academics to the 16th century. Did they merely observe events during their interaction with the past — or did they help create them? “We hear so much … of the sixteenth century’s influence upon the nineteenth,” the story concludes. “No philosopher, as far as I am aware, has studied the influence of the nineteenth century upon the sixteenth. If cause produces, does effect never induce cause?”

Yep, that hurt your head, didn’t it? But Mitchell’s noodle-cooking would set the stage for the very brainy approach to time travel to come, as the sci-fi genre started grappling with — and becoming defined by — the new physics. We’ll talk more about when we tackle the subject of time-travel technology, as well as the dilemma of — and fascination with — paradox that marks so many time travel stories. In the meantime, check out this very entertaining time-travel primer I found on YouYube, credited to one “brutzelpretzel.”

Extra Credit Viewing: The Time Machine (both the 1960 and 2002 version, the latter being directed by H.G. Wells’ great-grandson, Simon Wells); Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenbergen (adapted from the novel by Karl Alexander); Somewhere In Time, starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour; and my favorite sleeper-as-time traveler story, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, the 1979-1981 TV series starring Gil Gerard. (“Bee-dee-dee-dee: Hello, Buck!”)

For Discussion: What are your favorite time-travel stories? Do you prefer your time-travel stories to be “hard sci-fi,” or are you cool with a more fantastical approach to time travel? What’s the appeal of time-travel stories, especially today? Share your thoughts in our Comments section.

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