What is it with films and televisions shows travelling backwards and forwards in time? No matter how vaguely science fiction or fantasy-themed our favourite shows, they often have time travelling themes lying below the surface (for better or worse). Here are just some of the not especially great reasons for the Time Travel theme:
Padding Out The Show
Some of our favourite time travelling epics actually use time-travel as a device simply to generate content. This is especially true of those franchises that just run and run. Doctor Who springs instantly to mind: at the beginning, its use of historical and science fiction settings was only really an excuse to show educational programming with a dramatic skew. As the audience showed themselves receptive to the Science-Fiction theme, the ability to pick absolutely any time period kept Doctor Who fresh. Sick of visiting Romans? Visit the Egyptians. Sick of the Daleks? Create a new villain, add a hundred years or a billion miles and visit whatever creature you fancy creating.
Star Trek has always been a particularly guilty party. Across the six main series’ about 45 of the episodes included time travel. True, the franchise had about 703 Episodes, but the number doesn’t include those episodes that used the ‘holodeck’ device to visit historical settings. And then there’s the eleven films, four of which feature time travel (and to be fair, three of them are the most refreshing things the franchise has ever done).
Nevertheless, time travel is often an imperfect device. Lest we forget, it’s the main plot point in disney’s cynical budget production Cinderella III. Time travel starts looking ugly when overused: Futurama probably went back and forth one time too many with straight to DVD movie Bender’s Big Score, offering extra detail on things we’d all forgotten to care about. We all knew New York was destroyed at some point. Now we know why. Will we ever know why we know why?
Some of our earliest examples of time travel in entertainment actually play on a quite noble theme. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol may not involve wormholes, or complex time machines, but the visions of the past and future that the three spirits show Ebenezer Scrooge have a greater emotional impact than cold science. Through them, Scrooge is reminded of the joy that Christmas once brought him, allowed him a glimpse of people’s low opinions of him, and showed a future in which he dies unappreciated.
One of the main reasons for our love of time-travel then, is that it allows us to rewrite all our regrets. It’s a Wonderful Life plays with this when suicidal George claims to regret his birth, and is shown just how his absence would have effected everybody. Whereas A Christmas Carol changes a bad man into a good man, It’s a Wonderful Life shows how regret can be misplaced, because George is already a deeply good man who has earned the love of his friends and family.
Regret is a natural part of the magic of film-making, as is recalling the past and wondering what we would have done differently. Audiences react well to this type of time travel because it engages them directly, and makes them think about the actions they’ve taken in their own lives.
A Fish Out Of Water
The truth about the past is that it’s pretty much hilarious. Everything from the way people dressed to the hack and slash way they cured major illnesses deserves a good belly laugh, despite the fact that people at the time would have found amputation funny. Many films have specifically tried to play with this by sending someone from the modern day to the past (The Back to the Future series was always the best example, strangely always having little to do with ‘the future’). Or sending someone from the past to the present (The sixties nostalgia of Austin Powers was a good opportunity to laugh at mini-skirts and psychedelic as well as the spy movie genre). Or even sending people from the future to the present (Star Trek IV famously played on having a Russian crew-member Chekov walking around asking Cold War era Los Angeles where their ‘Nuclear Wessels’ were).
In this way, time travel is no different a device to having Bill Murray bemused by the culture of Tokyo in Lost in Translation (though this is perhaps an unfortunate example, since Tokyo has often been considered a futuristic city). And this is no coincidence: ultimately, film has always been about revisiting the past, taking a long look at the present, and dreaming of the future.
I guess time machines are everywhere in TV and film, because TV and film are actually both time machines. So over to you guys: what are your favourite time travel shows and movies?
- Time Travel or Something Didn’t Happen = 0 (shsolutions.wordpress.com)
- I’ve Invented Time Travel So You Won’t Rob My House (thelaughinghousewife.wordpress.com)
If you enjoyed reading this post, then please remember to post a comment, Subscribe to my RSS feed.