All of the Ways TV Has Tackled Time Travel, From Doctor Who to Outlander

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

Time travel is having quite a moment on TV right now. Though it’s been around TV since the Twilight Zone days, it seems like every network is suddenly trying to get in on the fourth dimension, with NBC’s Timeless, Hulu’s 11.22.63, the CW’s Legends of Tomorrow, Comedy Central’s Time Traveling Bong, Starz’s Outlander, and Syfy’s 12 Monkeys — not to mention the recent debuts of Making History and Time After Time, on Fox and ABC respectively. With so many recent shows mining laughs, violence, or romance from the past and/or future, we decided to take our own trip through the ages to look at the notable time-travel shows from yesteryear and today — but not the future. We don’t have that technology yet.

Like any good trip through time, there are a few rules. One, visiting parallel universes that look like the future or past don’t count as time travel. Two, the characters need to physically travel through time; it doesn’t count if they can see the past or future with some sort of third eye or a mysterious newspaper. Three, time travel must be part of the show from the get-go — if a series decides halfway through its run to explain confusing story arcs or give itself a do-over (looking at you, Lost), then it didn’t make the cut.

Doctor Who (1963–89)

One of the earliest and most enduring examples of time travel on television. If you have somehow avoided this British program’s feverish cult following, then, in the simplest terms, it’s a show about an alien named Doctor Who who travels through space and time looking for adventures.

Method of travel: A TARDIS, which resembles a blue police box. It’s a British thing.

Verdict: In the ’60s, the show alternated between trips through history and voyages to outer space. The doctor and his companions would hang out with Marco Polo and then they’d be off on another planet fighting Nazi R2D2-like cyborg aliens called Daleks. By the ’70s, it was mainly just extraterrestrials, robots, and monsters.

Is it fun? The alien costumes are beyond silly — look up the “Time Monster” for proof — and the quality is uneven, but there’s a reason it stayed on the air for more than three decades and got a reboot in the mid-aughts.

The Time Tunnel (1966–67)

The Cold War is in full force and it’s up to America’s government to prove our scientific might by running a top-secret, time-travel operation. After the time machine breaks because of too much blue mist — or “radioactive malfunctions” — during the first mission, two scientists, who look like bland Don Drapers, are stuck bouncing around to different conflicts in history. Their adventures take them to the Titanic, the first mission to Mars (which happens in the late ’70s), and the Battle of Troy.

Method of travel: A long tunnel — the interior painted a black-and-white spiral — owned by the Army. When the scientists travel through time, we see them rolling around on a kaleidoscope background.

Verdict: The scientists land almost exclusively on the days before a major tragedy (Pearl Harbor, the War of 1812, etc.), so the time period is captured mainly by men wearing different Halloween-store soldier uniforms as they stand on soundstages.

Is it fun? The actors take it seriously, but if you’re willing to sit back and enjoy inaccuracies like Odysseus calling Greek gods by their Roman god names (or, you know, Odysseus being a real English-speaking person), it’s not a terrible afternoon binge.

Planet of the Apes (1974)

As you probably guessed, this series was based on the original 1968 movie: Two astronauts crash land near San Francisco, 1,100 years in the future, where humanlike chimpanzees on horseback rule the world. The few remaining humans live as second-class citizens.

Method of travel: A regular old space shuttle that goes through a pesky time warp.

Verdict: The show successfully expands on the film’s universe — the rules and hierarchy of the society make sense and it is consistent in its vision of a semi-medieval world ruled by apes.

Is it fun? Full disclosure: I have never met a piece of the Planet of Apes franchise that I liked. (A bunch of human men and monkey men presented as a humorless, thinly veiled political allegory? No, thanks.) But if you’re into the franchise, it’s one of the more interesting installments.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979–81)

Another case of an American astronaut from the ’80s stuck in the future. Buck Rogers is frozen in space for 500 years and when he wakes up, everyone is wearing either plunging necklines or turtlenecks with capes and intense helmets. The future people don’t recognize his 20th-century turns of phrase like “don’t count your chickens” and so misunderstandings ensue among laser battles.

Method of travel: A 1987 shuttle is frozen due to a “space phenomenon.”

Verdict: Most of the props and sets were clearly stolen from Battlestar Galactica, which was also airing on TV at the time. The space battles look like action figures a child controlled by a string, which, in a way, they were.

Is it fun? Eh. The show attempted to ride on the coattails of Star Wars. Every episode, it gives a different reason for why Buck Rogers is “the special one” (Luke Skywalker, much?) and the space battles are much more static versions of X-Wing/TIE Fighter battles, but without the charm of our boys in Red Squadron.

Voyagers! (1982)

Phineas Bogg (Jon-Erik Hexum), dressed as a knockoff Han Solo, is part of a society of time travelers called Voyagers who go back in time to fix problems in history. Bogg is a lunkhead who seems much more interested in chasing history’s babes, but he’s partnered on his journeys with a precocious orphan boy so he has to stick to punching baddies and learn such illuminating moral lessons as: slavery is bad, religious fanaticism leads to witch hunts, and if Babe Ruth never played for the Boston Red Sox then Yankee Stadium would never be built. Both Bogg and the kid have gloriously feathered hair.

Method of travel: An “Omni,” which is a weird pocket watch/miniature traffic light that glows red when history is off course and green when they fix it.

Verdict: Unlike any of the other shows on this list, Voyagers! manages to pack in at least two different time periods in almost every episode. Sometimes they’re tied together thematically, but other times it’s just a hodgepodge, like when they go from Harry Houdini at a seance to giving Francis Scott Key his lost copy of the national anthem.

Is it fun? It’s goofy, and clearly meant to appeal to the whole family with a lot of “aw shucks” moments. You’re more likely to roll your eyes than chuckle at the jokes, though.

Quantum Leap (1989–92)

Scott Bakula plays a quantum physicist who travels through time by temporarily taking over the bodies (and lives) of unsuspecting Americans during the mid-20th century. He can only travel to events within his own lifetime, because science. His sidekick is a cigar-smoking, womanizing hologram only he can see.

Method of travel: The Quantum Leap Accelerator, an invention that mainly seems to be magic blue mist.

Verdict: The show did itself a favor by limiting the eras possible to visit. As a result, the clothes seem legit — bought from vintage stores or found in costume storage closets, probably — while the lingo and cultural references line up just fine.

Is it fun? Super-hokey, but delightful. A flustered Scott Bakula in drag is a treat.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures (1992)

If you missed the seminal cinematic masterpiece that inspired this show, the plot is put into motion by Rufus, a man from the year 2692, who goes back in time to ensure the Great Ones — two teens named Bill and Ted — will write the rock music that inspires his future utopian society. Bill and Ted take his time machine to other eras to learn from historic figures, and, in turn, teach these legends terms like “bogus” and “right on.”

Method of travel: The Circuits of Time Phone Booth — a phone booth that is totally not a TARDIS rip off, dude.

Verdict: The time travel is basically one, long extended joke, historic accuracy and concerns about altering the time continuum be damned.

Is it fun? The joke was over before the first of the seven episodes aired and it didn’t star Keanu Reeves. Safe to say that it’s a heinous travesty.

Time Trax (1993)

In the year 2193, an evil scientist builds a time-travel machine that criminals use to escape the law by traveling to the 20th century. A cop and his computer companion (she’s more like a hologram, but whatever), go back in time to 1993 to capture these fugitives. The cop tries to blend into our society while fighting criminals with future weapons and powers.

Method of travel: An evil scientist’s cylindrical metal room called “TRAX.”

Verdict: The series is generally set in the present, but the future landscape is pretty hilarious with early CGI spaceships flying around dark industrial buildings. The future cop has a pretty nifty laser gun that fires off blasts as fake-looking as those in the original Star Trek.

Is it fun? The pilot is a bit boring, but the lead actor (Dale Midkiff) is charming enough to make it pretty fun in later episodes.

Samurai Jack (2001–2004, 2017)

This is the story of a warrior prince from feudal Japan who nearly killed an evil shape-shifting demon, Aku. Unfortunately, he was just a moment too slow in his final swing of the sword, which creates a dystopian future where Aku has ruled for eons. Now, Jack must find a way back to his time to save his family and the universe.

Method of travel: A dastardly, shape-shifting demon.

Verdict: There are few worlds as imaginative and captivating as this animated one created by Genndy Tartakovsky — even when the characters living in that world are cartoon mutant animals and monstrous aliens.

Is it fun? Simply put, yes. If you’ve never seen this exemplary piece of visual storytelling, now’s the time to jump onboard. After 13 years without new episodes, the series just returned. It’s easy to follow, just dive right in.

The 4400 (2004–07)

It’s hard to believe anybody but a die-hard sci-fi fan would know this show, and yet it lasted for four seasons. Anyway, 4,400 people from five different decades are abducted by aliens, then placed in the present day with no memory of what happened — and they start developing supernatural abilities like telekinesis or underwater breathing. It’s up to two Homeland Security agents to investigate in a freak-of-the-week formula.

Method of travel: Mass alien abduction.

Verdict: The flashbacks to the characters’ prior lives are done pretty well — they move the plot forward and aren’t used gratuitously. The characters’ attempts to assimilate into today’s world are surprisingly nuanced, too.

Is it fun? Yes, but to say that it borrows from the X-Files would be an understatement. The government agent team investigating the 4,400 is made up of a handsome guy who has a personal stake in the abductions while the woman agent is a rational, red-haired fox.

Doctor Who (2005–)

See the description of the original Doctor Who, except now it has modern British actors like David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi playing the part of the Doctor and the mythology behind the Time Lord has become ten times more convoluted.

Method of travel: Same old TARDIS.

Verdict: The Doctor still travels in time with his companions, but in recent seasons, those visits to Victorian England are used to justify some great costumes and set pieces for dinosaurs and lizard ladies to wander around in.

Is it fun? Oof, tough question! Not even the biggest Whovians can agree on the current state of the show’s quality or humor. Let’s just say this: Certain arcs and seasons are much better than others.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008–2009)

If you’re not already a fan of the Terminator movies, the plot might sound intimidating — the series takes place after the second film in the franchise (Terminator 2: Judgement Day) and is heavy on the mythology. Basically, a future robot who looks like a normal woman (Summer Glau) travels back in time to help Sarah Connor (Lena Headey, pre–Game of Thrones) and the creator of said future robot, Sarah’s son (Thomas Dekker), and prevent the apocalypse. In the process, all three of them travel across time from 1999 to 2007.

Method of travel: Supercomputers that shoot lightning.

Verdict: They’re mainly living in the present, but the fact that Sarah and her son have missed eight years of American culture and wars does play a part in the story. Also, evil future robots abound.

Is it fun? You get to see Cersei Lannister kicking ass on the regular, what more could you want?

Life on Mars (2008–2009)

Based on a British drama of the same name, a police detective (Jason O’Mara) in 2008 is hit by a car and wakes up in New York in 1973. What follows is a police procedural where the cop uses his 21st-century smarts, enlightened attitudes toward women, and non-crooked, bare-knuckle police work to solve crimes.

Method of travel: Being hit by a car.

Verdict: The ’70s details are all great — the detective’s hippie neighbor is far out with her marijuana lasagna. Also, the soundtrack is killer.

Is it fun? It is so fun that if I were a time-traveling detective, I’d go back to 2009 and solve the mystery of how this show got canceled after just one season.

FlashForward (2009–10)

You might remember seeing commercials for this show, which ABC assumed would be a huge success in the vein of Lost. Everyone on Earth simultaneously loses consciousness for two minutes and sees snippets of their life six months into the future. The main action follows an FBI agent who saw a vision of himself investigating the occurrence, and uses this flash-forward to lead a team to solve the mystery.

Method of travel: A global blackout caused by an evil conspiracy.

Verdict: It’s pretty intriguing to piece together the puzzle of what each character saw.

Is it fun? At first, the plot is original enough and the plot twists crazy enough to make it a binge-worthy watch, but the gimmick doesn’t hold up through its first and only season.

Terra Nova (2011)

Poor Jason O’Mara. Once again he plays a cop who goes back in time, and once again he stars in a promising series that only gets one season. Unlike Life on Mars, though, he begins Terra Nova in a polluted, dystopian Chicago circa 2149 — and when he goes back in time, it’s all the way to the prehistoric era when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. His character’s whole family is in tow and they live in a colony with other future humans.

Method of travel: A temporal rift (a.k.a. a wormhole) that looks like a blue circular time port. At the start of the series, people can only travel back in time, but the technology gets massively upgraded before the finale.

Verdict: With Steven Spielberg executive producing, the CGI in Terra Nova is certainly good (for television), meaning its world of giant lizards looks just as good as Jurassic Park.

Is it fun? The series started off pretty promising, but tried too hard to be a family show. (The dialogue is particularly cheesy.) Still, the action-packed finale was enough to make you wonder what might’ve been if it got another season.

Alcatraz (2012)

Another one with an interesting plot, but poor follow-through. When Alcatraz closed in 1963, the guards and prisoners weren’t transferred out — instead, they disappeared into the present day. The prisoners and guards, over 300 of them, appear in the future randomly and they’re up to their old ways. The San Francisco cops are on the case.

Method of travel: The show was canceled before it revealed anything.

Verdict: The more notorious the criminal, the better the episode.

Is it fun? Despite the fact that J.J. Abrams produced it — and a winning cast that included Jorge Garcia (Lost’s Hurley) — it’s totally unmemorable.

Continuum (2012–2015)

In the not-so-distant future of 2077, a group of unhinged terrorists out to destroy the evil corporations that rule the government escape execution by traveling to 2012, where they quickly begin to blow up things and wreak havoc. Our hero is a police officer from their time, who also got transported back. She has the help of a future Steve Jobs type to navigate our boring world without computer clothes.

Method of travel: A big scientific explosion.

Verdict: They’re mainly hanging out in Vancouver in 2012, but they got some sweet future weapons and they’re comically confused by a lot considering they’re only from 65 years into the future.

Is it fun? Continuum is pretty dark and perhaps takes itself a bit too seriously, but it is engrossing.

Outlander (2015–)

After World War II, a British nurse named Claire and her husband try to forget the war with a trip to Scotland, where the husband can research his ancestor who fought for the British army in the Jacobite Uprising. While there, Claire is transported to 1743, where she joins a Scottish clan and tries to warn them that they’re on the losing side of history. She wants to get back to her own time and all, but there’s also this swoon-worthy farmer in a kilt who she’s got the hots for.

Method of travel: Touching a giant stone that druid witches like to hang out near.

Verdict: It’s the perfect trio: Celts, kilts, and castles.

Is it fun? The period drama within a period drama premise is done so well. It’s like when a drag queen takes off a fabulous wig to reveal an even better wig.

12 Monkeys (2015–)

Another film-to-TV adaptation. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bruce Willis–Brad Pitt ’90s vehicle: In the year 2043, the world has been devastated by a terrible plague. The survivors’ only hope is to send a guy back in time to stop the man-made virus from ever getting out.

Method of travel: He lies down on this hospital bed and computers do the rest. His wristwatch also plays a part.

Verdict: The apocalyptic future is reminiscent of many zombie films — small clusters living in well-stocked buildings in the woods. It’s pretty thrilling to try and solve the mystery with the clues from different time periods.

Is it fun? It’s not exactly “fun.” It’s a bit depressing with all the disease and death. That said, you’ll want to binge it all in one day (and then feel even more bummed).

Legends of Tomorrow (2016–)

In the year 2166, supervillain Vandal Savage has placed the world in peril and it’s up to Time Master Rip Hunter to go back to the past and assemble a team of various minor DC superheroes from their guest spots on fellow CW shows Arrow and The Flash. Then, with the help of a journal written by a Vandal Savage expert, they embark on a game of Where in Time Is the Immortal Ancient Baddie.

Method of time travel: A big spaceship-like vessel called the Waverider. It’s conveniently invisible when parked and includes a super-robot named Gideon.

Verdict: It’s shaky. Legends of Tomorrow sometimes commits more to the costumes and trying to fit into specific eras, but it’s not always successful. Plus, the team is rarely worried about changing the course of history, humankind, and/or superhuman-kind.

Is it fun? If you like watching attractive people fly around and fight while wearing skin-tight armor, this is the show for you.

Time Traveling Bong (2016)

Broad City’s Ilana Glazer and Paul Dowds play cousins who travel to any time period they want via a bong … until the glass pipe breaks and they’re at the weed’s mercy as they go to dinosaur days, an ancient Greek orgy, and a dystopian future.

Method of travel: Smoking out of a future bong.

Verdict: A stoner comedy through and through, but it does spell out why so few time-travel shows star women: Historically, life sucked for ladies. Well, except for caveman times, when Glazer’s character finds a particularly adept lover.

Is it fun? Whether they’re kidnapping a young Michael Jackson to raise him as their son or escaping the Salem witch trials, Dowds and Glazer pull off the zany antics and bring enough charm to cover the stink of any stale “the 17th century smelled like poop” joke.

11.22.63 (2016)

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, a small-town teacher (James Franco) is convinced by his friend who works at the local diner to travel back to the past and stop the Kennedy assassination, thus saving the country from decades of poor political decisions.

Method of travel: Despite being called “the rabbit hole,” the inspiration for this time portal is decidedly The Chronicles of Narnia. The back of a closet opens up to the not-so-magical world of Texas in 1960.

Verdict: The ’60s is a pretty common period for TV, so it’s no surprise that the cars, costumes, and soundtrack all add up. There’s also an intriguing spin on time-travel tropes: The universe “pushes back” when Franco tries to alter history by throwing literal fire on his plans.

Is it fun? The pilot episode packed a powerful punch, and the C.I.A conspiracy angle always makes for pulpy goodness. But as an eight-episode series, it stretched out material that could have been covered in half the time.

Travelers (2016–)

Since their own future isn’t looking so great, a group of elite special forces travel to the past by taking over other peoples’ bodies moments after death. From there, they work together to prevent looming disasters while they attempt to learn more about the lives they now inhabit. Did I mention that Eric McCormack (a.k.a., Will & Grace’s Will) is one of the travelers?

Method of travel: Each traveler’s consciousness is transmitted through time. Computers seem to play some part, though it’s unclear how.

Verdict: The characters mostly just hang out in our time, and they seem to be pretty prepared for the world in general. Crucially, they know what’s going to happen until they interfere with the timeline.

Is it fun? When Netflix kept autoplaying the episodes, I didn’t object.

Timeless (2016–)

A ragtag trio made up of a historian, a soldier, and an engineer must use a time machine built by the government and a shady organization to save history from an evil scientist who also has a time machine. While secretly investigating a long-reaching conspiracy, they meet plenty of famous figures like Houdini, Charles Lindbergh, and Davy Crockett.

Method of travel: A classic, podlike time machine.

Verdict: The costumes are great, and the show attempts to be realistic regarding different era’s prejudices toward women and African-Americans. It’s had some really entertaining portrayals of larger-than-life characters like Bonnie and Clyde and Ernest Hemingway.

Is it fun? It is far better than the initial trailers let on. Our main characters, or ” time team,” are delightful. The first season balanced the overarching plot and historical event of the week nicely, so let’s hope it gets a second season.

Making History (2017)

An unpopular slacker (Adam Pally) discovers that his father built a time machine, which he uses to woo and visit his Colonial-era girlfriend (Leighton Meester), who happens to be the daughter of Paul Revere. Meanwhile, in the present day, there’s evidence that the start of the American Revolution was delayed by time-travel antics, so he brings a history professor (Yassir Lester) along for the ride for safety’s sake. Eventually, all three jump across decades for time adventures.

Method of travel: A time machine hidden in a particularly large and sweaty duffle bag. Don’t mind the ham smell.

Verdict: With so many dependable comedians and funny actors showing up for guest roles, this show is going for laughs over accuracy. Don’t expect to learn how Sam Adams really liked to prank his friends with chamber pots.

Is it fun? Definitely. This is frat-boy humor meets wigs and fancy coats.

Time After Time (2017)

The most recent of the film-to-TV adaptations, this one is based on a 1979 film which itself is inspired — very loosely — on one of the OG time-travel stories, The Time Machine. In this version, the author of that famed story, H.G. Wells (Freddie Stroma), actually has his own 19th-century machine. Instead of going off searching for a future utopia, however, he’s in current-day America, chasing down Jack the Ripper (Josh Bowman) and trying to win the heart of a modern lady.

Method of travel: A steampunk-looking, 19th-century time machine that can run without power.

Verdict: So far, Wells has mostly stuck around New York circa 2017. He’s very confused by our modern-day contraptions. He rather suspiciously adapts quickly to wearing form-fitting jeans — even if they do look good.

Is it fun? Jury’s still out, but who knew the father of science fiction was such a dreamboat?

All of the Ways TV Shows Have Tackled Time Travel