Easily one of science fiction’s most unstable can of worms, time travel also serves as the foundation for many of the genre’s best stories – as heroes and villains attempt to alter the present by meddling in the past and (slightly less often) the future. Time travel and alternate realities have been a staple of novels, movies, and TV series for decades; however, recent years have seen the subject matter taken to new heights through the interactive video game medium – where players don’t just travel back in time, they make unique decisions that can impact future events.
Recently, Dontnod Entertainment and Square Enix partnered to release Life is Strange – in which the game’s protagonist, Max Caulfield, has the ability to travel in time and re-write her future. Of course, in spite of the benefits, Caulfield quickly realizes that even her most selfless attempts to change the past can still result in dire outcomes for the future. The game features plenty of the genre’s most interesting moral and thematic touchstones – while forcing players to live with their decisions (and subsequent future realities), whether good or bad.
That got us thinking about our favorite time travel and alternate reality stories that were told on the TV screen? Our choices lie ahead. Note: our list has been organized by date of release – not countdown-style priority.
Of course, our list is not all-inclusive, so feel free to share your favorite TV series that center on time travel and/or alternate realities in the comment section. It goes without saying, this post may contain SPOILERS for all of the TV shows we’ve included in the list.
Doctor Who (1963-Present)
The Premise: A time-traveling alien (who looks human) adventures across space and time inside his ship, the TARDIS (permanently disguised/stuck as a blue police box). Along the way The Doctor visits ancient earth civilizations and advanced future worlds, among other sci-fi locales, in order to sate his curiosity, protect innocent lives, and impress his human friends (his companions).
Why Doctor Who is Great: Doctor Who was created with an extremely flexible premise – one that, week to week, featured entirely different settings (in time and space) and, year to year, fresh faces in both the companion and lead Doctor roles. Initial episodes of the series were intended to be educational, for young viewers, but over half-a-century later the show has developed into a mind-bending adventure story that kids and adults can both enjoy. Without question, there have been plenty of silly time-travel stories over the years, along with some genuinely great ones, but the show’s sharp writing and heavy emphasis on regeneration (behind the scenes and on camera) ensure that Doctor Who can grow and evolve with the times. BBC’s recent move from hipster-like hunks in the starring role to an older, more stern, version of the Doctor exemplify what is so great about the series – it is ever-changing (and always toying with expectations).
Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
The Premise: Fearful that his experiment will be shut down, physicist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) enters his experimental time-machine, the Quantum Leap accelerator, only to become stuck in the past – inside the body of a doomed jet pilot. With the help of his friend, in the future, Rear Admiral Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), Sam determines that righting the wrongs of the past is the only way for him to get back to his own time. Every time that Sam “leaps” he is faced with a new place and time, as well as a new person to save, with the ongoing hope that his next leap will return his consciousness home.
Why Quantum Leap is Great: Similar to Doctor Who, Quantum Leap was designed with a flexible premise – one that allows the same character to explore key moments in the past (and future) as well as gently alter reality for the better. However, while the show provided straightforward procedural entertainment, the series’ greatest success was its ability to push boundaries in how viewers perceive the human condition – both good and bad – through outright showing what it is like to walk in another person’s skin. The setup was most effective and apparent in episodes that saw Sam leap into the body of a black man in the segregated south or a dock worker with down syndrome, among other estranged members of society.
The Premise: In the aftermath of a plane crash, the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 begin to explore a seemingly uninhabited island in the middle of the pacific ocean – setting up shelters and securing provisions to keep the group alive until rescue arrives However, within a few episodes of the show’s premiere, it becomes apparent that the Island is home to mysterious forces and inhabitants – capable of aiding and/or harming the survivors.
Why LOST is Great: While LOST did not center solely on time-travel or alternate reality, it dabbled heavily in both by the time the series ended. The introduction of Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) and Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies), especially, led to some genuinely high-brow sci-fi storytelling in primetime – as the LOST characters (and subsequently their audience) tried to unpack mind-bending time-travel traits and theories (course-correction and the constant, among others). The time-shifting elements came full circle when Ben Linus (Michel Emerson) “moved” the island – which not only made for an interesting story arc, it also provided the framework for LOST‘s writing team to layer new context into past events on the island. Additionally, while not outright time travel, the flashback/flashforward/flashsideways format of the program, which juxtaposed on-island character struggles with corresponding storylines that occurred in the past, present, and future, was instrumental in developing nuanced arcs within the core cast over time.
The Premise: When nearly everyone on earth blacks out for exactly 137 seconds, most (not all) are given an unexplainable glimpse six months into their future. As each person struggles to make sense of their own future, especially as it relates to their current circumstances, a Los Angeles branch of the FBI is assigned to investigate the blackout’s cause. At the center of the investigation is Mark Benford (Joseph Fiennes) whose flash-forward included out of context glimpses at a case board – which the agents attempt to reassemble piece by piece in order to solve the central question: if/when will another black out occur?
Why FlashForward is Great: Riding the wave of high concept science-fiction shows on primetime, following the success of LOST, FlashForward only lasted for one season. Yet, despite a number of shortcomings, the series presented a fascinating, and largely unexplored, concept to network TV viewers: how personal knowledge of the future could destroy present contentment or give conviction to those in need of direction. With only brief out-of-context flashes to guide them, the characters of FlashForward were challenged to chase or deter their previewed futures – providing intriguing insight into how we, often, take the present for granted in fear/hope of what is to come. The series ultimately failed in its effort to be a “must watch” primetime show but, those that stuck with FlashForward until the end were treated to an ambitious sci-fi concept that raised interesting questions – though it often struggled to turn those concepts into cohesive narrative TV viewing.
The Premise: After a massive terrorist attack, targeting the North American Union, kills thousands of innocent lives in the year 2077, the perpetrators of the attack (known as Liber8) escape capital punishment – by escaping into the past (via a time travel device). However, City Protective Services officer Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) is inadvertently caught in the device’s reach – transporting her, along with the terrorist group, back to the year 2012. With the help of Vancouver police detectives, Kiera tracks down the escaped convicts – who, led by Edouard Kagame (Tony Amendola), are actively attempting to change the future and prevent the corporatocratic control of world governments.
Why Continuum is Great: Even though Continuum riffs heavily on ideas that have been explored in numerous time travel stories across a wide variety of mediums (example: the ability to change the future by altering past events), the Canadian series also includes several thought-provoking twists and insights – along with engaging performances from the main cast. It might not be the most original time travel story ever told but Continuum successfully builds on a solid foundation laid by earlier/similar premises – while differentiating its narrative and characters in a variety of interesting ways. Those looking for a brain-twisting tale of time travel and its potential consequences may not find a ton of new ideas in the series but viewers who tuned in week after week have been rewarded with an entertaining cast, slick production, heartfelt storylines, and thought-provoking sci-fi quandaries.