The concept of time-travel pre-dates modern science fiction by centuries. Often in antiquity there were stories and fables of people who slept for decades, or even centuries and awoke in a strange new world which had changed around them.
The concept of time-travel as being achieved via science was popularised by H.G Wells in his 1895 novel The Time Machine. With the advent of the 21st century, and the theory of relativity, science fiction stories often included an element of time travel as a narrative device. This “Distancing Effect” allows for the audience to address contemporary issues in a metaphorical way.
Here are the 15 Greatest Time Travellers in Movies and Television.
15. Max Walker (Timecop – 1994)
Timecop is largely forgettable fare, mainly only notable as being the highest-grossing movie of Jean-Claude Van-Damme’s career, taking over a hundred million dollars (which was a lot back then).
The concept is pretty smart, if simplistic. A corrupt senator assigned to watch over the time enforcement division (the timecops) uses time-travel technology to invest heavily in the past using knowledge of the future. Becoming vastly wealthy, he uses his money, power, and influence to run for president, presumably to abuse that position also – not that anyone would ever do that in the real world, of course. He’s defeated by Max Walker, a timecop who is tortured by the mystery of his wife’s unexplained murder ten years previously. Through time-travel trickery, Max’s wife survives her own murder. When he returns to his proper place in the time stream, the two are reunited.
Timecop is pretty clumsy and the use of paradoxes, and the over-played “Two Jean-Claudes” trick seen in several of his movies (one is more than enough), make it a fun, if forgettable ‘90s action flick. What makes it great is the concept. Cops chasing through time in order to maintain the time stream is pretty cool, even if it’s wildly underdeveloped here. If there’s one movie on this list crying out for a reboot, it’s Timecop.
14. Hank Morgan (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – 1949)
Bing Crosby may be an unlikely time-traveller, but in this 1949 musical comedy he’s just that. Based on the 1889 novel of the same name, the movie is about a mechanic (Crosby) who bang his head and finds himself in Arthurian Britain in the year 528AD.
Befriending a knight, Hank uses his knowledge of futuristic technology to become a knight and prevents Merlin and Morgan LeFay from usurping Arthur’s throne. He returns to his own time, heartbroken that he had to leave behind the woman he had fallen in love with in the past, Alisandre La Carteloise.
13. Hiro Nakamura (Heroes – 2006)
“Save the cheerleader, save the world.”
While later series are generally considered to be of much poorer quality, there’s no denying the phenomenon that was the first season of Heroes. Central to the success of the series was the time-travelling antics of Hiro Nakamura, the office worker-turned master of time and space.
At the beginning of the first season Hiro believes he can manipulate spacetime, but is having trouble proving it. When he finds himself six months in the future, halfway around the world, he witnesses a nuclear blast destroying New York, teleporting back to his own time and place at the last instant.
With only a comic book from the future, depicting his own journey, to guide him. He seeks out clues to his destiny, eventually not only mastering his powers, but being instrumental in defeating the supervillain Sylar by impaling him with a Katana he comes into the possession of along the way.
12. The Observers (Fringe 2008)
The observers were a race from the far future that had evolved from present-day humanity. In early seasons they seemed content to merely observe moments of historical importance and record their findings. As the show progressed, they seemed to have a vested interest in preserving the lives of people who ensured the timeline would play out in the manner they needed.
Eventually, it was discovered that the Observers were planning to invade the Earth, having destroyed the ecology of their native time. One of their number, known as September, opposed their plans, feeling that humanity deserved to live.
Convoluted, and sometimes confusing, Fringe had one of the richest mythologies in modern television. The observers were key to the early mystery of the show, and by the final season had become the primary antagonist.
11. The Enterprise Crew (Star Trek: The Voyage Home – 1987)
Easily the funniest of the original run of Star Trek movies, and one of the few that didn’t have a primary antagonist. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home sees the original crew of the Enterprise using a commandeered Klingon ship to travel back in time hundreds of years to 1987 San Francisco in order to bring two humpback whales to their time in order for he humpbacks to communicate with a probe which is inadvertently destroying the planet. Despite the urgency of the mission, the movie is very light-hearted and plays out almost like a comedy. The cast shot many scenes on location and ad-libbed with regular people who were unaware they were being filmed.
Most of the humour revolved around the customs of the era seeming to be more alien to the crew than the aliens they encountered in their usual adventures. Many of the jokes revolve around their misinterpretations of the era, contemporary peoples’ reactions to the crew, and frequent misuse of slang.
10. Rip Hunter (DC Comics – since 1959 and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow – 2016)
In the original DC comics storylines, Rip Hunter is an ordinary man who uses his invention, the Time Sphere, to travel through time. Due to numerous revisions of the time stream, usually due to the various “Crisis” events, his history has changed many times. He is currently written as the son of fellow time traveller, and superhero, Booster Gold. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths event, Rip retains his memories from the previous timeline, unlike the rest of the universe. There also exists another version of Rip, native to this timeline, making him a literal man out of time.
In the TV series Legends of Tomorrow, Rip Hunter (played by Arthur Darvill) is portrayed as a Time Master, sworn to protect the time-line from alteration, who goes rogue in order to prevent the rise of the immortal villain Vandal Savage. As the show progresses, it becomes apparent that Savage has killed Rip’s son and their enmity is deeply personal.
9. Doc Brown and Marty McFly (Back to the Future – 1985)
Probably the most famous franchise involving time-travel, the adventures of Doc Brown and Marty McFly take them from their original time in 1985 to 1955, 2015, and 1885. In each of these timelines they find numerous cases of history repeating itself, with the McFly family being central to the events in each era.
Initially Marty uses the DeLorean time machine to evade Libyan terrorists and accidentally jumps thirty years into the past. He inadvertently alters the circumstances of his parents falling in love and has to restore the time-line quickly before he erases himself from history and causes a paradox.
In the sequel, he travels to the future to prevent his childrens’ lives going off the rails. In doing so, he allows his nemesis Biff Tannen to use the time machine to change the events of his life. Marty then chases through time to an alternate 1985, then 1955 to restore events to their natural state.
The third installment finds Marty in 1885, to recover Doc after they had been separated. Once again finding that the time machine cannot function properly, the two devise a plan involving a stolen steam locomotive to transport them back to the future once more.
8. The Time Traveller (The Time Machine – 1960)
Following the novel of the same name, the time traveller (given the name H. George Wells here after the author, unnamed in the novel) invites several friends to his home in January of 1900. He shows them his miniature time machine which disappears into the time stream. They remain unconvinced by this parlour trick, and leave. He bids them farewell, and heads to his basement where he enters his full-sized time-machine, which sends him 17 years into the future.
In 1917, he meets the son of his friend, Filby, and learns of the beginning of The Great War. He then travels to 1940 and discovers that the world is once again at war, this time World War 2. He then travels to 1966 (the future of the 1960 audience) to discover his neighbourhood is a futuristic metropolis but is under threat of nuclear war.
Escaping a nuclear blast, The Time Traveller finds himself in 802,701 AD when the nuclear winter is finally over and mankind has become two separate species, the docile Eloi, and the cannibalistic subterranean Morlocks. George explores this strange new world before it becomes too dangerous and returns to his home in 1900.
His friends, still dubious of his claims, examine a flower from the future which does not exist in their time. Filby believes him, and upon returning discovers both George and the machine missing, seemingly having gone back to the future timeline of the Eloi.
7. Kyle Reece (The Terminator- 1984)
While the Terminator franchise has seen many time-travellers attempt to change the course of history, none have been able to measure up to the originals. Kyle Reese is a young soldier who grew up after a nuclear bombardment who knows nothing but war with the machines, sent to protect the mother (Sarah Connor) of the future human resistance leader (John Connor). A terminator robot is sent to the past with orders to kill Connor, guaranteeing the machine victory in the future.
Kyle is traumatised by his life, he rarely sleeps and when he does his dreams are filled with nightmares of a never-ending war. Despite his doubts over whether the technology exists in the 1980s to destroy a Terminator, he travels naked and alone to protect a woman he has never met, prepared to give his life to save her. It is revealed that in the future the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, had given Kyle a photograph of Sarah many years before. Kyle had fallen in love with the woman in the photograph, and volunteered to save her.
Kyle dies trying to stop The Terminator, but it is Sarah who delivers the final blow to the machine. Kyle’s bravery, and warnings of the future, inspire Sarah to raise the son she has created with Kyle to be the leader he needs to be.
The Terminator is notable for being a paradox. The future war cannot take place without two key elements, the rise of the machines, and the birth of John Connor. Neither of these things can happen without the use of time travel as the machines cannot rise without Skynet being developed from tech harvested from the destroyed Terminator, and John cannot be sired unless Kyle travels in time. Future movies muddy the waters even further, but what remains is the story of Kyle Reese who is willing to cross time for the woman he loves.
6. Bill and Ted (Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – 1989)
Bill S. Preston, Esquire, and Ted “Theodore” Logan are two high school metalhead slackers with dreams of one day being rock stars (despite being terrible musicians). In the future of 2688, they have become legendary figures whose music has become the inspiration for a utopian society. The leaders of this utopian world send their agent, Rufus, to 1989 to ensure Bill and Ted pass high school so that they may take their place in history. Should they fail, Ted’s father plans to send Ted to a military academy ending their plans for their band and changing the future. Rufus arrives in a time machine (disguised as a phone booth) and sends them on a mission through time to learn about history, thereby passing their history final, and therefore high school.
Bill and Ted travel throughout the past, recruiting historical figures such as Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Sigmund Freud, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, and Joan of Ark among others. They also meet and fall in love with a pair of medieval princesses. Escaping from the princess’ angry father, the booth is damaged and the pair briefly end up in the utopian future they help to forge through their music.
5. Ash (Army of Darkness – 1992)
Army of Darkness picks up from where the previous movie (Evil Dead II) leaves off, with series protagonist and deadite-destroyer, Ash, being transported back in time through a mystical portal to 1300AD where he must battle an army of the dead before he can return home. Ash also has to confront and destroy an evil version of himself “Bad Ash” that represents his dark side. Having lost his right hand in the previous movie, Ash replaced it with a chainsaw. In this movie, he builds a gauntlet to use in place of it when not in combat.
Unlike the previous two entries in the series, this one has an element of time-travel. It also has two very different endings. The first, and intended ending, has Ash defeat the Army of Darkness and drink a potion which will allow him to sleep until his own time. He drinks too much and awakens in a post-apocalyptic future instead. In the alternate ending, and the ending most familiar to US audiences, Ash simply rides off into the sunset before reappearing in the present. He is seen back at work, boasting about his success in defeating the Army of Darkness, but is suddenly interrupted when a co-worker also becomes corrupted by an evil spirit and becomes a deadite.
4. James Cole (12 Monkeys – 1995)
*This article refers to the 1995 film, not the ongoing television series of the same name*
In an alternate 1996, a mysterious virus has wiped out most of humanity, leaving the few survivors to flee into underground tunnels for survival. In 2035, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is a prisoner selected to go back in time to 1996 to search for clues as to the virus’ origins and the mysterious organization known as the 12 Monkeys, who are believed to have been the cause of the outbreak.
Due to time travel being an inexact science, Cole arrives in 1990 instead of 1996. He is sent to a mental institute as his prophesies about the impending apocalypse are seen as delusions. While he is there, he encounters Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) a fellow inmate with fanatical views, but a possible insight to the impending outbreak. Due to Cole shifting back and forth across time, he not only witnesses the true source of the outbreak and is unable to stop it, but his child self witnesses his death as an adult, a moment that haunts Cole his entire life and shows that despite trying to change destiny, events play out exactly as they were always going to.
3. Tim Lake (About Time – 2013)
What would you do if you discovered that you could effortlessly travel backwards and forwards in time? When Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson) is told by his father that all male members of his family have this power, he is sceptical. Upon discovering his father is telling the truth, his initial thoughts are that he could use the gift to become wealthy, but his father discourages this saying that his uncle is vastly wealthy but it never made him happy. Tim decides that he will dedicate his life to the highest ideal: love.
After an aborted attempt to woo his sister’s friend, Charlotte (Margot Robbie) he meets and immediately falls for Mary (Rachel McAdams). Due to altering the time-line to help an acquaintance, he realizes that he has never met Mary in this new timeline. He seeks her out once more, and using his knowledge of their previous encounter, woos her once again.
Tim travels back and forth numerous times and has an idyllic life with Mary; they marry and have a daughter. Tim’s sister hasn’t been so lucky in her life. She struggles to build any sort of career, and her drinking causes her to have a car crash. Tim tries to alter the events of her life, but realizes that should he go back to before his children are born, he risks wiping them out of existence entirely. He must simply let his sister make her own choices and accept the consequences, like everyone else.
When he discovers his father has terminal cancer, he is heartbroken. He also realizes that time-travel cannot change it. His father tells him that he has travelled back and forth numerous times himself, making the most of his life, and is content to let his life run its course. He imparts some wisdom to Tim, he tells him to live each day twice. Once with all the tensions and worries that make our lives as they are, and again, making no changes, but noticing the world for how wonderful it truly is.
After Tim’s father dies, he comes to realize that he needs to only live each day once, appreciating the beauty of the world as if he were living it for the second time. The film ends with him having given up time-travelling and living each day to the fullest.
2. Sam Beckett (Quantum Leap – 1989)
“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished… He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home…”
The opening to each episode nicely sums up the show. Doctor Sam Beckett travels to numerous places and times to correct historical mistakes, sometimes involving key moments in history, but generally just helping to put regular people on the right path.
Eventually, after years of leaping, he arrives in a strange place, at the very moment of his birth, not in the form of another person, but as himself. He meets a mysterious barkeeper who seems to be aware of Sam’s predicament. He assures Sam that Sam is in control of his leaping, and that Sam can leap home any time he wants to. Sam chooses to leap to a point when his best friend Al is missing in action, and tells Al’s wife to wait for him, thus ensuring Al’s life is much happier than it had been. Sam then leaps away once more and the closing narrative explains that Sam continues to leap, but never returns home.
1. The Doctor (Doctor Who – 1963)
The Doctor is a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through both time and space in his TARDIS, a time machine that resembles a 1950s Police Box from Britain that is bigger on the inside. The Time Lords, one of the oldest species in the universe, dedicated themselves to overseeing all of time and space. The Doctor, a rebel amongst his people, chose to leave his home and stole an obsolete TARDIS to explore the universe, usually along with human companions. His name is unknown to most, and he is only ever referred to as either “The Doctor” or simply “Doctor”. He chose this name for himself, essentially as a promise – “Never cruel nor cowardly. Never give up. Never give in.”
Very little information on The Doctor’s childhood has ever been given. The original series made some references to his time training at the academy on Gallifrey. The more recent series has given occasional insights such as in the episode “The Sound of Drums” where it is shown that at age 8 Time Lords are shown the time vortex, a gap in space and time which shows them infinity. He says that some are inspired, some go mad (such as his nemesis, The Master) and others run away. When asked, he says that he ran away and has never stopped running.
Due to The Doctor’s alien heritage, when his body dies, it regenerates into a new form (allowing the actor playing him to be replaced numerous times). The Time Lords have a limited number of lives, but The Doctor was given a new set of lives when his expired, allowing for yet more regenerations and continued adventures throughout time and space.
More of an explorer than a warrior, The Doctor has been forced to take up arms against his foes more often than he’d like. None of his adversaries have matched the horrors inflicted by the Dalek race, who have threatened all existence numerous times. These Daleks have hounded The Doctor, and the other Time Lords across time and space and remain his most persistent enemies.
Got any great time-travellers we haven’t mentioned here? Let us know about them in the comments and we may feature them in future… or even in the past!