Time travel has been a television mainstay for at least fifty years and has, appropriately enough, gone through the decades (sometimes) growing more sophisticated along the way. There have been at least fifty such shows, but Empire has distilled them to a sampling of fifteen that span from 1963 (Doctor Who) to 2017 (Time After Time).
1963-1989, 2005-08, 2010-15, Specials Airing between 2005 and 2016
If you’re thinking of traveling through time, best utilize a TARDIS, the safest way to move through the ages, and certainly a lot more reliable than, say, a souped-up DeLorean. After all, the Doctor and his various companions have been using it for over half a century, much to the delight of generations of viewers. And part of the genius of the show is the fact that the Doctor can regenerate, so when an actor decides he wants to move on (or even if he demands too much of a raise), it’s easy enough to explain why someone else is playing the role. Doctor Who remains the longest-running time travel series, initially spanning twenty-six straight seasons between 1963 and 1989, and resurrected in 2005 for an all-new ten-plus-year run. Additionally, it’s spawned almost as many series spin-offs as Star Trek: Torchwood (2006-2011), The Sarah Jane Adventures (2007-2011), K-9 (2009-2010) and this year’s Class.
It’s About Time
Gilligan’s Island creator Sherwood Schwartz came up with this little “gem” about a pair of astronauts whose space capsule travels back to prehistoric times, where they begin interacting with a cave family, getting involved in one wacky adventure after another (some involving stop motion dinosaurs). The premise quickly ran out of steam and was retooled mid-season to have the astronauts return to the 20th Century, cave family in tow, thus thrusting them into their own wacky adventures. Trust us when we say the theme song (below) was more entertaining than the show.
The Time Tunnel
Producer Irwin Allen ruled much of the sci-fi airwaves throughout the 1960s with shows like Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants and this show, The Time Tunnel. The premise is kind of cool: Project Tic-Toc (okay, that part definitely diminishes much of the cool) has developed an experimental time machine (which remains a great visual) in which Dr. Douglas Philips (Robert Colbert) and Dr. Anthony Newman (James Darren — hey, Vic Fontaine from Deep Space Nine!) enter, and are plunged through time. The Tic-Toc team (okay, it’s sounding sillier by the minute) are able to communicate with them in the different eras they arrive in, and attempts to pull them back to the present but send them instead to different periods in history. But, hey, these guys with knowledge of the future can actually influence history, can’t they? Unfortunately, they frequently get this close before being yanked back into the time stream. The pilot for a new series was produced in 2002, but never went forward.
Oh go ahead, bitch and complain that Scott Bakula wasn’t your idea of a starship captain on Star Trek: Enterprise, but there’s a reason the actor was chosen for the part, and much of it had to do with what he brought to Quantum Leap. The premise for the series is that physicist Sam Beckett (Bakula) is performing experiments in time travel when he finds himself traveling backwards in time where he “leaps” into the bodies of different people and takes their place to, as the opening narration proclaims, “make right what once went wrong.” To the audience, those people look like Bakula, but to everyone else — as revealed whenever he looks into a mirror — he looks like the person whose body he is in control of. This was not a big effects show, but instead a more intimate drama with plenty of humor, and a genuine opportunity for Bakula to showcase his acting skills as he became different men, women, a mentally challenged youth and even a chimpanzee. Dean Stockwell co-stars as Admiral Al Calavicci, who appears to Sam as a hologram.
Having had her fill of slaying vampires, and actually turning down the potential to star in a spin-off series featuring her Buffy character of Faith, Eliza Dushku moved on to this show, which had a unique procedural time-travel twist. She plays Tru Davies, a medical student by day who, following the collapse of her internship, takes a job at the city morgue where bodies that are brought in start to open their eyes, look in her direction and utter the words, “Help me.” This projects her back to the beginning of the day (which sucks if you're having a particularly good day), providing the opportunity for her to either stop or solve the crime. The show’s mythology expanded to include another time traveler (Jason Priestley) who is determined to put the timeline back on its natural course and stop Tru. Zack Galifianakis co-stars as Davis, her employer at the morgue. Definitely underrated.
Life On Mars
You’ve got to applaud any time travel shows that bring with them a unique twist (no, seriously, you have to applaud. Thank you). After being struck by a car in 2006, policeman Sam Tyler (John Simm) awakens in 1973, working for the Manchester And Sealford Police in the same building where he works for the Greater Manchester Police in the future. What follows is Sam’s attempts to use his expertise in crimefighting from the future to apply to crimes of the era, and the conflicts that arise from interactions with commanding officer Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister),who obviously feels that Sam doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. The big question hanging over the show is whether all of this is real, or if Sam is actually lying in a coma in 2006. Impressively, the show spawned the spin-off Ashes To Ashes, focusing on the Hunt character; a 2006 American version with Jason O’Mara as Sam, a Spanish version named La Chicade Ayer, which translates to The Girl From Yesterday; and a Russian version under the title The Dark Side Of The Moon.
Rachel Nichols (she was the green Orion Starfleet cadet, and Uhura’s promiscuous roommate, in 2009’s Star Trek) is City Protective Services officer Kiera Cameron, who is inadvertently brought back in time from 2077 to the present with a group of “terrorists”. Their goal: to stop future corporations from taking the place of the government, and hers is to prevent them from changing history and potentially wiping her family in 2077 out of existence. A well crafted series bringing together action and sci-fi concepts with intelligence.
Quite literally a love that spans the ages, married World War II nurse Clare Randall (Caitriona Balfe) is mysteriously transported from 1945 to 1743 Scotland. There she is forced to start a whole new life, and connects with Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), a Highland warrior. What follows is their growing relationship as Clare struggles to survive in a far harsher time than her own, as the two of them become a part in, and try to influence, the Jacobite risings. The show is based on the bestsellers by Diana Galbaldon, and the showrunner is Battlestar Galactica’s Ron Moore.
What’s it’s not is a gathering of a dozen denizens of the Planet Of The Apes. What it is, is the television version of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film, utilizing the strength of the medium to expand and elaborate on the premise. Aaron Stanford is James Cole, who has traveled to the present from 2043 to try and stop The Army Of The Twelve Monkeys from unleashing a virus that is destined to wipe out nearly ninety-four percent of humanity. Things begin with him collaborating with virologist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull) and psychologically challenged math genius Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire) and expand from there, with the team moving on to different eras in their efforts to save the human race.
One of the fun time travel games to play is to ponder what you would change if you could actually go back to the past. Preventing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy ranks high on that list (though, personally, we’d show George Lucas reviews of the Prequel Trilogy before they went into production, but that’s us). That notion certainly intrigued Stephen King, the resulting novel of which was adapted into the Hulu series 11.22.63. James Franco is English teacher Jake Epping, who is shown a portal in a diner that leads to Dallas, Texas circa 1960. Jake is begged by a close friend to use the portal to prevent the assassination of Kennedy, and is gradually convinced of the validity of the plan. What he does’t expect is to fall in love back in time, or the ramifications that saving Kennedy could have on history. Produced by King and J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot.
DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow
Born out of the success of Arrow and The Flash, this spinoff series focuses on a group of characters that travel through time, initially to stop immortal Vandal Savage from taking over the world in the future, and then to serve as time cops (no relation to Jean Claude van Damme) to police the space-time continuum. Characters include The Atom (Brandon Routh), Firestorm (Victor Garber and Franz Drameh), White Canary (Caity Lotz) and Heat Wave (Dominic Purcell), among others. A sporadically successful first season has led to far more solid footing in season two.
Ah, nothing like a good old-fashioned pursuit through time! There’s the bad guy who’s stolen the time machine “mothership” (Goran Visnjic’s Garcia Flynn), intent on destroying history; and the team (Abigail Spencer’s Lucy Preston, a history professor; Matt Lanter’s Master Sergeant Wyatt Logan, a soldier; and Malcolm Barrett’s Rufus Carlin, an engineer) determined to stop him in a prototype device. So far they’ve dealt with the Hindenburg, the assassination of President Lincoln, Nazis (what’s a time travel series without Nazis?) and the Alamo, among others. Creators are Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan.
Based on the 2000 film, this story has gone through a sex change with Jim Caviezel’s John Sullivan being replaced by Peyton List’s Raimy Sullivan. Coming across the old ham radio of her deceased father (Dennis Quaid then, Riley Smith now), Raimy finds that she can actually communicate with him before he died some twenty years earlier. Seeing this as an opportunity to save his life — he was an undercover New York detective killed in the line of duty — she inadvertently triggers a butterfly effect, they key to which seems to be within an unsolved murder case that they have to work together over time to solve.
In what seems like a throwback silly time travel show (see It’s About Time above — okay, maybe not that silly), a college professor (Adam Pally) creates a time machine that he hopes can be used to improve both his life and that of a fellow teacher (Yassir Lester). But things go awry when one of them starts dating Paul Revere’s daughter, Deborah (Leighton Meester), threatening all of American history. Exec producers are Lego Movie maestros Phil Lord and Chris Miller. The series has not been given a 2017 debut date yet.
Time After Time
Based on the 1979 Karl Alexander novel and Nicholas Meyer film, this show, debuting in 2017, begins in Victorian England when John Stevenson/Jack The Ripper (Josh Bowman) steals a time machine created by author H.G. Wells (Freddie Stroma) and travels to the present. Wells follows him there intent on returning him to justice, and gets involved in a series of adventures that will reportedly prove inspiring to Wells in the writing of his other novels. The series is developed by Kevin Williamson (The Vampire Diaries, The Following).
Bonus (Not Really)