Television has the tendency to be cyclical and very self-referential. Looking through TV history, we see periods of popularity for the domestic sitcom, say, or anthology series, or just straight-up cop shows and medical dramas.
Lately, we couldn’t help but notice that there’s a previously unforeseen genre that currently threatens to overtake TV: the time-travel show. Given the current state of the world, you might wonder if these shows started while someone was pondering how great it would be to go back in time and dismantle the electoral college, but many of these shows premiered before the election. 12 Monkeys started in 2015 and was soon followed by 11.22.63, DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow, Timeless, and Frequency (we would also be inclined to include The Flash here, since Barry is fond of going back in time and mucking things up). On Sunday, March 5, two more will enter the fray: Time After Time and Making History, the first time-travel comedy entry. Even without including The Flash, and 11.22.63—which was a miniseries—that’s still six time-travel series this TV season. This seems like a lot.
Some of this, honestly, just feels like the networks’ typical practice of feeding off of and copying each other. DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow dawned at the beginning of 2016 on The CW with an elaborate talking spaceship, which even contains a costume-creating machine, enabling the heroes to fit into whichever era they might be sent to in order to track future civilization-ruiner Vandal Savage. When NBC’s Timeless jumped on board this fall, it had its own time machine and carefully curated period wardrobes so that its “Time Team” can chase the similarly destructive Garcia Flynn. Timeless and CW’s Frequency both have characters who lose family members due to the butterfly effect of time travel. Now Time After Time appears to be little more than ABC saying, “Hey, we need a time travel series, too!” as inventor and author H.G. Wells chases Jack The Ripper through modern-day Manhattan. Not to be outdone, Fox chimes in, “And ours will be funny!” with The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller on board to help that effort as Adam Pally and his friends hang out in colonial Massachusetts via a magical duffle bag in Making History.
ABC’s Time After Time at least has the advantage of some excellent source material (the 1979 movie with Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen) as well as an experienced showrunner: Kevin Williamson of Scream, Dawson’s Creek, and The Vampire Diaries (as well as the less-successful The Following). Unsurprisingly, the question regarding the prevalence of time travel came up frequently at this year’s Television Critics Association conference. When Williamson was asked the inevitable question, he pled ignorance: “You know, when you start to develop a show, you never think someone else is developing another time-travel show. And we just sort of have to look at what sets us apart, I guess, which is we have time travel as an element in the show, but it’s really conceived to be about the young H.G. Wells.” Williamson cites the author as a huge influence as well as Wells’ novel The Time Machine.
Asked again about the popularity of the genre, Time After Time executive producer Marcos Siega said this:
It’s fantasy. It’s escapism. The more we got into it, we started to realize that it opens up a lot of possibilities for storytelling. So in what we’re doing, it’s sort of a great jumping-off point to be able to jump around, go back in time. It does kind of sometimes put us in a position where it boxes us in because you start asking questions [about] the rules of time travel, but it’s just a fun genre.
Like Siega says, the time-travel rules are prevalent, and all of these shows have very particular goals and constraints. Most of them are using the time machine in question to track a specific villain, like the Nightingale Killer, Vandal Savage, the Army Of The 12 Monkeys, and Garcia Flynn—and even real-life characters like Jack The Ripper and Lee Harvey Oswald. Most pound into the ground every week the danger of changing anything in their respective timelines, due to possible butterfly-effect damage in the future (this is why The Flash’s Barry Allen has been barred from going back in time ever again). In 11.22.63, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, the forces of the existing timeline become their own kind of villain, as they fight the protagonist’s efforts to change fate by stopping the Kennedy assassination. Making History’s time travelers journey in a duffel bag, but must stay in the same spot in Massachusetts. The show also changes things up by bringing people from the past into the present day, Bill And Ted-style.
It’s not as if time travel hasn’t been explored in a TV series before, most notably on Doctor Who and in the classic Quantum Leap, which also had the very specific goal each episode “to set right what once went wrong.” More recently, Kevin McKidd’s 2007 series Journeyman offered a Time Traveler’s Wife scenario as its hero kept getting thrust through time inadvertently. This latest round of time travel is much more high-tech and fantasy-based, what with the talking spaceships and period wear. It also seems like a fun way to draft adventure episodes: Superhero shows like Legends Of Tomorrow can be run of the mill, but not if you’re in 1920s Chicago one week and Camelot the next. Timeless similarly swings toward noteworthy time periods and events like Rat Pack-era Vegas or the Lincoln assassination. The aforementioned costumes, sets, and even the cars offer a higher production value than a typical series limited to the same timeframe each week.
These plot progressions become their own brand of entertaining, though the saturated field is making what could be inspired excursions a bit rote (many of these shows visit the same notable eras: Timeless has also visited gangland Chicago and the Revolutionary War, for example, and Making History will journey to that same Chicago time period as well as 1940s Germany). They also offer a badly needed dose of escapism and fantasy. Let’s remember that superheroes like Superman and Wonder Women were created around World War II. Lots of us can think of things that we would like to fix with a time machine, or pray for a superhero who could save us from a global confrontation should the worst occur, which helps explain why this particular kind of fantasy is seeing a current resurgence.
But there might be another reason, more helpful than fantasy: education. It’s said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. What easier way to visit these various annals from world history than to explore them every week in adventure-themed TV shows? Making History’s Adam Pally defended his show’s focus on colonial America at the Television Critics Association conference like this:
I think that probably with what’s going on in America right now, people are looking for a little bit of escapism. And we were lucky enough to be making this show at a time politically where we were able to look back at the way America was formed, as a lot of the rights that we hold so dear now are kind of being taken away from us. So that was a really fun way to approach it comedically.
As Pally points out, even though this trend started pre-Trump, its current surge reflects the value in exploring history right now. Even as time travelers like Timeless’ “Time Team” are able to tweak specific circumstances to affect the future with the smallest of tasks, seemingly inconsequential actions have a tendency to have an exponential effect on the days that come after them. As we look at these series with a wider scope—even as we’re being entertained—they offer a sobering reminder of how much power we still have to affect the future.