Television is hooked on time travel. At this spring’s TV upfronts, every major network except CBS announced that it will air a show that involves time travel during the 2016-17 television season.
NBC will debut “Timeless,” a drama about a group of people who go back in time to alter history by stopping the Hindenburg disaster. Fox has set a midseason premiere for the time-travel comedy “Making History,” executive produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, co-starring Adam Pally and Leighton Meester.
ABC will air “Time After Time,” the television adaptation of a book that speculates over what would have happened had H.G. Wells — who is widely credited for popularizing the idea of time travel with his 1895 novel “The Time Machine” — actually had the ability to travel through time. And The CW has “Frequency,” an adaptation of the 2000 thriller about a father and son communicating across time with this use of a ham radio, tweaked for the weblet’s audience to focus on a father and daughter.
With these new shows joining the ranks of an already substantial slate — “Legends of Tomorrow” and “The Flash” on The CW, “Outlander” on Starz, “12 Monkeys” on Syfy, the limited series “11.22.63” and “Time Traveling Bong” on Hulu and Comedy Central, respectively, and even Bran Stark’s storyline on the current season of “Game of Thrones” — the sci-fi concept is a booming trend in programming, rivaling the obsession with reboots.
|“[Time travel] is a really fun, delicious hook. But at the same time, it in and of itself is not
The time-travel genre has a considerable history on the small screen, dating back to cartoons in the 1950s. Then, in 1963, “Doctor Who” picked up popularity, and later achieved icon status in the U.K. and around the world.
In the 1980s a fascination with time travel grew in the U.S. between feature films “Back to the Future” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” — in the 90s, both franchises would dip into television. Since its revival in 2005, “Doctor Who” has found a newfound popularity in the U.S., and J.J. Abrams’ “Fringe” left fans wanting more when it was cancelled after the 2012-13 television season. These days, time travel has become less of a niche, sci-fi novelty and more the norm, hitting on several key trends and themes that seem to work well for serialized programming.
For one, time travel creates dramatic tension straight from the get-go and gives the protagonist motivation. “I always trusted it,” says Bridget Carpenter, showrunner of “11.22.63,” which was adapted from a Stephen King novel. “I felt like even though it was rich and different, it was not confusing. Complicated maybe, but not confusing.”
In her show, Jake Epping [James Franco], enters a closet, deemed a “rabbit hole,” that sends him back in time to 1960 where he must attempt to thwart the assassination of President John Kennedy. “Time travel was a useful kick into the story, and then the story was the story. It was an inciting incident,” Carpenter says. “It’s a really fun, delicious hook. But at the same time, it in and of itself is not the mystery.”
The same applies to “Outlander,” which thrusts 1945 Englishwoman Claire Randall [Caitriona Balfe] into 1743. Time travel gives the character a motive — in this case to get back to her present. It is a way of shaking things up, and at its root, it tosses its fish [in this case, Randall] out of the water [where she was a British Army nurse].
Time-travel stories also make effective dramas because the main character becomes an analog for the spectator. Randall, in “Outlander,” enters a new world, and as she explores it and find out its rules, so do the viewers.
“It’s a very seductive story device,” says “Outlander” showrunner Ron Moore, who adds that “they’re sharing a secret with the audience. The audience has knowledge of the future with the character, and everyone else in the show does not. So you and the central character are in a little bit of a conspiracy.”
Carpenter adds that the audience can live vicariously through the main character and ask questions central to the human experience. “It is so human to think ‘what if?’ ” she says.
|Out’ of Time: Caitriona Balfe’s “Outlander” heroine goes from 1945 to 1743.|
By giving its protagonist the chance to go back and try to rewrite history, “11.22.63” presents a case for gripping personal reflection that extends beyond the show.
Moore, who has a long career working on science fiction shows [his credits include several iterations of “Star Trek” and “Battlestar Galactica”], says that he liked the simplicity of how author Diana Gabaldon treated time travel in her book series, the source material for Moore’s television show. “I had done a lot of time-travel stories previously, so I knew the pitfalls, I knew the problems with carrying off the story like that,” he says.
To illustrate time travel, “Outlander” has Randall describe the experience in lieu of extreme CGI effects. “No matter what we did, it was going to cue the audience into, ‘Oh, guess what. It’s a science fiction piece.’ And I really didn’t want to do that,” Moore says.
In general, the visual part of time travel is presented on a spectrum, ranging from subtle to what “Time Traveling Bong” co-creator Ilana Glazer calls “being sucked up God’s [bong] shaft.” Charting new territory in the genre was also important for Glazer in creating her Comedy Central three-part miniseries.
From “Doctor Who” to “Back to the Future,” time-travel narratives are historically centered around white men, who have had the upper hand historically. “My character is obviously a woman and I’m a woman,” says Glazer.
She created “Time Traveling Bong” with her co-star, Paul W. Downs, and Lucia Aniello, who directed the series. When Glazer and Downs go back in time to the Salem witch trials, Glazer’s character is tortured, while Downs’ is championed.
Glazer says that when they were creating the show, one theme kept coming up: “It’s not going to be the same for these two traveling.”
“Time Traveling Bong” first appeared on CollegeHumor as a short sketch, and its punchline [apart from the fact that everything in the past smells bad] is that the white protagonists seize the opportunity to “free” a slave by bringing him back with them to the 21st Century — a plot point that comes back in the miniseries. “You see the slaves and it’s like, if you’re a person, [or] woman, of color it’s even harder and the hardest,” Glazer explains.
She said that time travel’s relationship with race and gender was a recurring point of inspiration for their project. “We kept laughing about ‘Looper’ [the 2012 time travel action thriller starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt], had he been black, or had he had a black friend. You just don’t see it,” Glazer says. “This guy, he can glide through space and time because he’s a handsome white dude.”
It seems likely that at least some of the ideas that Glazer and the other creators started grappling with will likely be an ongoing discussion in future programming. Already, there are indicators in the trailers for both “Making History” and “Timeless.” When ordered to join the team that will travel back in time in the NBC drama, Rufus [Malcolm Barrett], a black man, points out: “I can’t. I am black,” he says. “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”
In a socially charged present, time travel is fertile ground for commentary.