Time after time – why time travel dramas keep materialising on TV

There seems to be no limit to the number of time travel-themed series cropping up on the small screen these days – but are they just copying Doctor Who, or is there a more complex explanation?


In January, the creators of US time travel series Timeless made an unusual legal argument. Accused by Spanish series El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time) of ripping off their format, Sony told a judge that the case should be thrown out – in part, because the very concept of a time travel TV series was now such an unoriginal idea.


“Time travel is a well-established genre in all forms of media,” Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Television and NBCUniversal said in a motion to dismiss the copyright infringement and breach of implied contract lawsuit.

“Moreover, in many examples of the genre, the generic story line involves characters whose time travel alters the course of history, often preventing bad things from happening.”

In other words, Sony said that the very concept was so generic that they couldn’t be accused of stealing the idea – and looking around the TV schedules and roster of recently commissioned shows, you’d have to conclude they have a point.

Timeless. Making History. Legends of Tomorrow. 11.22.63. Time after Time. Frequency. Outlander. Er, Time-travelling Bong. All series involving time travel ideas that have sprung up or been announced in the last couple of years, joining long-running sci-fi show Doctor Who in the genre that it used to inhabit more or less on its own.

“We sold this show… it would have been a year and a half ago, and within a couple of weeks of selling it, we saw in the press a couple of other time-travelling shows sold,” Timeless co-creator Shawn Ryan tells me.

“I was aware that there was something in the water.”

When you also consider the appearance of time travel elements in other areas, such as fantasy blockbuster series Game of Thrones and the Harry Potter stage play last year, it begins to look like an epidemic – and short of some real-life interfering time-travellers, nobody’s sure exactly why it’s happening.

One man who you’d think might know is John Barrowman, a star of time travel staple Doctor Who (and its spin-off Torchwood) who’s now returning to the genre in Legends of Tomorrow, a DC comics mash-up series.

“There’s a way when you can escape to a simpler time or rewrite the past,” Barrowman tells me. “But also you can play upon what’s happening at that present moment, and comment on it to a certain extent.”

“I think that’s what the appeal of time travel shows are – that you can visit the past and have the nostalgia of looking back at the past, while also having a commentary at the same time,” agrees Simon Guerrier, co-author of The Scientific Secrets of Doctor Who. “That’s the appeal of it.”

This presents the fundamental attraction of time travel, a genre that allows people to tell allegorical, emotional stories with crowd-pleasing sci-fi elements. But it doesn’t explain why such stories are only crowding the schedules now, rather than decades ago when series like Doctor Who and Star Trek showed the rich storytelling potential of the idea.

“I think people who love that kind of genre – I mean in general, that science fiction, fantasy, even history, adventure, drama type of thing – always love that kinda show,” Timeless star Goran Višnjić suggests. “So I think they were always popular, the question is, you know, were they always made?”

In other words, what’s different about TV commissioning at this point in time?


John Barrowman as his Legends of Tomorrow character Malcolm Merlyn

Well, advancements in special effects technology are cited by several of the people I speak to as one potential reason for the increase in TV series featuring time travel elements, with the kind of VFX available to those making television now surpassing that which was available to feature films a matter of years ago.

“We could not have done it maybe five, ten years ago with special effects the way they were then,” Timeless’s Ryan tells me, while Višnjić suggests that the technology increase means that “people are not cutting themselves in the beginning when they’re making the scripts”. That is, they have more confidence that their big ideas can make it to the screen through computer trickery.

Still, while this may explain a rise in sci-fi programming, it doesn’t explain why so much has focused on time travel specifically – which is why some think the change may stem from a different and more prosaic production reason.

“What happens is every few years some producer is sitting around going ‘Boy, we have a lot of costumes. How could we use them all in one show and thus save money?’” suggests cultural historian and anthropologist Matthew Kapell. “It’s totally practicality on the part of a producer slash accountant.

“This is what happened to Star Trek in the 1960s. It was people walking across sets, going ‘Oh we could pretend this is 1933, so let’s make an episode for 1933.’ And I think it’s exactly that. It’s a way to attract a certain demographic that wants to see sci-fi/fantasy, without spending a lot of money on it.”

Not everyone agrees with this – Ryan says that his own series has been “by far the most difficult show I’ve ever been involved with to produce” – but even if it is true, it still doesn’t explain why all these shows have started to appear at this particular point in time as opposed to any other. Appropriately, then, we might have to travel into the past to find out more.


Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future

Considering that most of these TV series sprung up around the same time, it’s tempting to try and extrapolate their development from one key point, a cultural, social or political event that inspired a varied set of people to all near-simultaneously start creating shows that involved time travel.

“Maybe there was a Back to the Future marathon on one of the cable channels a year and a half ago,” Ryan jokes, though I can’t help but more seriously wonder whether the tail-end of Matt Smith’s tenure on Doctor Who in 2012-13 (when the series made a more concerted effort to break America) might have first sparked the synapses of the people who would go on to write various time travel TV treatments in the months and years to come.

“That seems like a perfect timeline,” Kapell agrees. “I imagine Doctor Who could be very influential in terms of people going ‘Oh, time travel works! Let’s do time travel.’”

Alternatively, there’s an argument that a generation raised on Back to the Future, Quantum Leap and even non-time-travel sci-fi are coming of age in the entertainment world. Sci-fi and fantasy are dominating the multiplexes thanks to directors who grew up watching these kind of projects, like JJ Abrams, James Gunn, Colin Trevorrow and others, and in the same way middle-aged TV execs raised on such fare could be much more likely to approve sci-fi time travel series than their counterparts 20 or even just ten years ago.

“Obviously Doctor Who is a staple of the genre, and [Timeless co-creator] Eric Kripke and I, we go back to Back to the Future, Quantum Leap, all sorts of things that play with that stuff,” Ryan says. “I don’t know the people behind making the other shows. But yeah, there might be something there.”


Timeless creators Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke in 2016

Then again, the trend could be a product of our own time, rather than decades past. Looking at the last year or so an armchair psychologist could argue that time travel would be more appealing at a time when the Western political order is reshaping itself and the world seems a more chaotic place. Nostalgia and the idealisation of a past version of society also abound in political discourse, and it’s hard not to see the relevant themes when watching a story that deals with time travel.

Sadly for thinkpiece writers everywhere, however, the production schedule of TV means that most if not all of these time travel series were in the works long before Brexit or the US Presidential election. Still, the coincidence has not gone unnoticed by those involved in the series, who are used to life imitating art.

“Things are getting more chaotic in our country right now! If people were now telling stories about going back in time, it would have made more sense,” Ryan says, before recalling how in similar circumstances his hard-edged cop drama The Shield had preceded the 9/11 terrorist attacks but become much more thematically relevant afterwards.

“Certainly the show carried more weight in the environment that existed post-9/11 than it had before. 24 was another show in a similar situation.

“I’m always surprised that there always seem to be things like that. Things seem to appear at exactly the moment you need them to appear.”

So overall no, this one isn’t Trump’s fault.


HG Wells

Instead, we’re going to have to travel even further back through history to seek the truth, and it’s there that the rise of these TV shows becomes all the more surprising – because, not too long ago, time travel stories didn’t even exist as a concept.

“Time travel narratives are only like what, 120 years old maybe? It’s a relatively new invention, as is the relativistic concept of time,” Kapell tells me, and he’s mostly right – early time travel narratives do exist, but they’re pretty unrecognisable from the concept as we understand it now. For example, in Hindu mythology the Mahabharata describes a King who went to meet Brahma and returned from heaven to find that many ages had passed on Earth in his absence.

Backwards time travel ideas came later, like Samuel Maddens’ 1733 work Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, which imagined diplomats of 1997 and 1998 sending letters back to their counterparts in the author’s own time via the help of a solicitous guardian angel.

Some have subsequently argued that this makes the angel the first real time traveller in English Literature (which may strike a chord with fans of Doctor Who episode Blink), but the simple fact is that the modern idea of forward/backward time travel didn’t exist in these stories, for the equally simple reason that that wasn’t really how people perceived time for centuries.

“Imagine actually having a Tardis and going back and explaining time travel to Napoleon,” Kapell suggests. “You couldn’t – because he wouldn’t understand the concept.”

Frankly, Napoleon wouldn’t be wrong to be sceptical, as over a century on there’s still not much scientific basis for time travel (unlike a lot of other popular sci-fi ideas like Artificial Intelligence). At best, scientists theorise you could achieve a kind of time dilation by travelling near the speed of light while approaching a black hole, but it’s not true time travel as we’ve come to expect it. Generally speaking, all the clear ideas we have about the way time travel works and how it can be used to tell stories don’t have much basis in fact – we’ve created a genre with rules that make sense to us, but they’re ultimately artificial.

“I like to joke that for a science that doesn’t actually exist at the moment, people are very adamant about what they believe the rules of time travel to be,” Ryan says.


HG Wells at his writing desk

And for that, he can probably blame the starting point for all these stories – HG Wells’ 1895 novella The Time Machine, which largely popularised the use of mechanised, linear time travel to tell a story (though the term “time travel” itself didn’t appear in the English language until a few years later). Wells’s story, which sees an unnamed time traveller explore the year 802,701 to draw allegorical conclusions about his own period, is where it all started – and now, in what could be seen as evidence for time’s circularity, Wells is soon to pop up in ABC time travel series Time after Time.

And really, this short lifespan for the idea of time travel might be a small part of the answer as to why it’s become so popular to turn into TV lately. Time travel is a narrative and scientific idea that’s still pretty new to human society, and despite its storytelling opportunities it only started to become truly popular in fiction in the mid-to late-20th century thanks to the success of specific TV shows and films.

Since then it’s waxed and waned in popularity, but modern advances have made it more viable. The recent rise of its presence on TV specifically has probably come about due to a perfect storm of different factors – advances in VFX technology, a greater familiarity with the genre, more interest from both viewers and creators and (perhaps most importantly of all) the financial success of other projects in the same mould – making what was always a brilliant storytelling device into a genre that’s more easily reproduced.

Or, you know, it could still be time travellers preparing our minds for the inevitable invention of Tardises in our near future. One or the other.


Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie in the upcoming series of Doctor Who

The next big question is whether all this means that time travel will soon dominate our TV screens, and the answer to that is a bit clearer – probably not.

Despite what the execs at Sony might have written in that legal motion, recent months have demonstrated that time travel TV shows aren’t quite generic enough to make an easy success – Timeless, for example, has struggled in the ratings and is uncertain of getting a second series – and more generally the people I speak to are confident that the current mass of time travel TV shows won’t last.

“I think it’s gonna work the same way it almost always works,” Kapell tells me. “There will be two of them that will be relatively successful. The rest will peter out.”

“My guess is that it does not reach the level of crime procedural peak television, back when you’d have 20, 30 shows each week, at least on American television, that were telling those kinds of stories,” Ryan agrees.

“I think a few, three, four, is probably the max that people would want to get into.”

But Višnjić sees things slightly differently.

“I don’t see them dying,” he tells me. “If they’re made well they’ll survive, if they are not really made well, they’re not gonna survive, simple as that. They’re not gonna be remembered.”

Soon, then, this whole discussion could be moot. Whatever the reasons behind their sudden popularity, time travel-themed TV shows could fade into the past as surely as their protagonists do.

Well, except maybe one.

“There is a high bar to be good and to be accepted, I think, by fans,” Shawn says. “And if writers and producers can’t do it, the genre could disappear.

“Although I would say that with Doctor Who it’s probably quite safe to say we have an entrant that’s gonna stick around.”

So while times change, science advances and tastes refine, the Doctor continues to reign supreme. They don’t call him a Time Lord for nothing.


Timeless continues on E4 on Wednesdays at 9:00pm