Is Time Traveling an Effective Means of Storytelling?

The crew of the Enterprise look on as the “Guardian of Forever”, a portal to any time and place, depicts the past as a destination of travel.

Stories about time travel have been told through television and cinematic history with a range of different examples. One of the first examples of time travel in a T.V. series dates back to Star Trek. The 1967 episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” involves the crew of the Starship Enterprise encountering a portal to the past. The Guardian of Forever, a portal to any time, is used to change the past.

The ship’s medical officer, Leonard McCoy, travels back into the 1930s using the portal and changes the past to entail a changed future for the crew of the Enterprise. Star Fleet and the Enterprise suddenly disappear and no longer exist. Captain Kirk and Spock are forced to follow McCoy into the portal and correct the changes McCoy has made to the past.

The episode raises interesting questions about cause and effect, as the episode focuses on Kirk and Spock trying to figure out exactly what they need to do to prevent McCoy from changing the future and correct the timeline. Bringing the Enterprise back into existence in their original time is their focus.

From left, Agent Skully, played by Gillian Anderson, and Agent Mulder, played by David Duchovny, in the television series The X-Files.

Time Travel was also used in the television series The X-Files, where the 1998 episode “Triangle” involved a ship from 1939 appearing in the future off the coast of the United States. Agent Mulder investigates only to find himself back in 1939, in a conflict between Nazi soldiers and the crew of The Queen Anne.

The ship disappeared in 1939 and Agent Mulder quickly realizes that his actions will determine whether the Nazi soldiers capture a scientist on board the ship with important knowledge about a weapon called “Thor’s Hammer”. The episode explores the simultaneous events of two timelines as Agent Skully rushes to rescue her colleague back on the mainland of the United States at the J. Edgar Hoover Building.

It concludes with the audience left pondering whether Agent Mulder’s encounter with The Queen Anne was real or dreamed. One could say that time travel is often used within series like these as a means of getting a bit more blood out of the stone, with little to no real pay off for audiences concerned with how the plot of the entire series will unfold.

Episodes like these often stand alone. As a result, writers of science fiction might convince themselves that they are better off leaving time travel unexplored given the trickiness that comes with using it. Whether this is always the case, however, is something I think should be disputed.

Effective Time Traveling Episodes?

The Enterprise entering a temporal vortex, the cause of time travel within the Star Trek universe.

A 1990 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation entitled “Yesterday’s Enterprise” is a good use of time traveling in a story for a number of reasons. We can see the concept of time traveling has grown up for starters. One of the episode’s merits is not falling into the trap that the 1967 episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” did where things disappear, and characters change events without regard for their own existence being disturbed by them.

The episode is not consistent with past events in that season of The Next Generation which makes the audience suspicious of what has caused these changes. The Enterprise is now a warship rather than a ship of peace. A long war with the Klingons has brought Star Fleet close to surrender. What makes this a good time traveling story is how the episode uses the concept of time traveling to explore the possibility. This is set up by an Enterprise from the past meeting the Enterprise of the future through a temporal portal.

When the connection between the past Enterprise’s disappearance and the beginning of the war with the Klingons is established, the crew is forced to ask whether they should send the ship back through the portal or keep it in their current timeline. This brings to the surface deep questions about sacrifice and the worthiness of war without having to create one within the season and rupturing the nature of Star Trek: The Next Generation with it.

The episode added an extra layer when this was explored against the possibility. If we knew we were on the brink, would changing the past be justified given the bleakness of the future? The episode suggests that one is, which is a fresh take on time travel.

O’Neill, and Carter, two members of the team SG-1 in the television series Stargate.

Another example of a television series that explored time travel in a number of cases was Stargate. One of the best was “Window of Opportunity” and involved a Groundhog-Day-type scenario, where Colonel O’Neill and Teal’c end up re-living the same day. All this is brought about when SG-1 travel to P4X-639, where they meet an archeologist experimenting with a time-traveling device he plans to use to spend time with his deceased wife. O’Neil and Teal’c find themselves back re-living the previous day, encouraging their colleagues to figure out how to stop the time loop.

Where the episode becomes most memorable is when O’Neill realizes they can do whatever they want with no consequence. This entails a number of humorous acts, including O’Neill playing golf into the Stargate with his colleague Teal’c (and complaining at General Hammond when their backswings are interrupted). All these charades are not only comical, but they give the audience the opportunity to view familiar characters in a different light. Through these charades, a potential relationship between O’Neill and Carter is teased. Teal’c is also depicted as a less serious character.

The producers of the episode later revealed during an interview how refreshing it was to give O’Neill and Teal’c the intellectual task of stopping the time loop. Carter and Dr. Daniel Jackson, who often figure out that kind of stuff, are not experiencing the time loop. The time loop ends up giving O’Neill and Teal’c plenty of time to figure out how to stop the day from repeating once more on their own.

Plot holes caused by complexity?

Some of the characters featured in the Avengers: Endgame.

Time-traveling can be done effectively when it gives a fresh take on characters and time travel. However, one of the key ways that writing a time-traveling story fails to captures an audience, particularly of well-known characters, is due to plot holes. For this reason, and in spite of its obviously cinematic success, Avengers: Endgame is a good example of this.

A plot hole is when the writers disregard obvious things the audience knows about the plot. When it comes to Hawkeye and Black Widow retrieving the Soul Stone, for example, the fact that this will involve sacrifice is not made clear by Nebula who knows that Thanos killed Gamora to get the Soul Stone originally. These affect the audience as they reduce the believability of the story. One could look at Avengers: Endgame to bolster the claim that writing a time-traveling story involves inevitable plot holes.

One of the biggest plot holes beings that once Thanos from the past is destroyed the past is changed in a number of different ways which will not connect it to the present with Spiderman, Black Panther and so on are with the Avengers once more. All this, however, is kind of brushed to the side as fans become more concerned with novel moments like Captain America wielding Thor’s hammer. However, plot holes still take away from the movie as a stand-alone piece.

The two colleagues in the film Primer, Aaron, and Abe, who invent time traveling.

A case where complexity in a time-traveling story did not leave a trail of plot holes in the 2004 low-budget movie Primer. The movie is one of the most complex time-traveling stories in a film. It focuses on the invention of time travel by two business colleagues. They decide to use it to make money on the stock market. So, they turn on their time traveling boxes, hideaway for the day in a hotel only to return to their boxes later in the day where they enter their boxes to arrive back when their boxes were originally turned on.

The plot trails back on itself a number of different times as the two men travel back in time crossing over with their previous selves. I think what makes this a good example of the use of time traveling is how the concept of time travel was explored in a new way. The movie discusses potential harms resulting from time travel to those who time travel. One of the men ends up hiding a former self captive in the attic, and it becomes apparent that things have gone wrong to the point where one character leaves the country to let a former self who was held captive take his place.

Not only does this entail that plot holes can be navigated but that plot holes and complexity do not always go hand in hand. The film depends on the audience being willing to watch it more than once due to the complexity of the story and is refreshing for its unwillingness to dumb itself down.

Good writers always know that exploring the previously explored concept entails adding some new rather than dusting off an old take. Using time travel does not mean that plot holes are inevitable, instead, plot holes are a result of poor writing rather than using a specific concept like time travel.

Writers who want to incorporate time travel in their science fiction television or film should be vigilant about adding something new. We can see this in 1990 Star Trek, Stargate and more recently Primer. A movie like Source Code back in 2011 needed to do something new with the ground-hog-day loop rather than just going over a concept already explored. A movie like Avengers: Endgame needed to navigate plot holes better.

Episodes that fail to add something new or change the way we view time travelers are destined to not age well. I think that where a character is given a new angle and new light shone on time travel, future audiences will be invigorated. Should a writer, producer or director fail with the audience, time-traveling is not to blame. Good examples of time traveling in television and cinema support this conclusion.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I think these types of shows serve to tell us something about where we are now.

  2. Time travel as a concept has fascinated many on various levels for decades, in print and in film. The paradoxical scenarios are sometimes handled well (12 Monkeys) or completely ruined (Terminator after the 2nd instalment).

  3. If people enjoy light Time Travel, I strongly recommend Jodi Taylor’s The Chronicles of St Mary’s series.

    • I quite by chance, while surfing the net in ’02, found a time travel/alternative history franchise by Eric Flint called Ring of Fire series.

      It’s set in a West Virginia mining town called Grantville, which on one unusual day, goes through a time slip, (just some aliens playing a practical joke folks) and the citizens find themselves in Germany in 1632, at the height of The Thirty Years War.

      The author also invited people to contribute short stories, which were condensed into books called The Grantville Gazette, and I do recommend the excellent stories posted by Virginia De Marche & Andrew Pelly.

      There is now so many volumes out there, that I’ve become snow under by them. I’m not complaining. They’re given me hours of real pleasure, and come highly recommended.

    • Fantastic series, the audiobooks are even better!

  4. Ann Morgan

    If there were time travellers, we’d probably have noticed them by now. Records of historical events would be full of unexplained appearances of strange craft and people in weird clothes watching what went down (and as often as not trying to change things).

    So the fact that we haven’t encountered any time travellers either means (a) there aren’t any and never will be, or (b) they’re extremely good at remaining inconspicuous, or (c) the whole of human history is like a crap town, and all the time travellers have gone elsewhere.

    • Russell

      The only semi-serious proposal I know of for a theoretical time machine is the one made by Kip Thorne. It may or may not be possible – and even if it is, the technical requirements ludicrously far beyond our capabilities for the foreseeable future – but it wouldn’t enable time travel to earlier than the moment of the machine’s creation. So if some 25th century engineers manage to create such a device, they’ll be able to travel forward and bring people back from their future, but they won’t be able to go back to our time to let us know about it.

      (It involves wormholes, which are allowed by general relativity, but no-one even knows if they exist. Even if they do exist, stretching one to the size required and preventing it from disappearing in a tiny fraction of a second would require an absolutely ludicrous amount of energy. Someone would have to travel with one end of the wormhole at near light-speed; to reach this speed within a human life span would require acceleration too great for any living being to withstand. And even if all these obstacles could be surmounted, Stephen Hawking points out that there’s a good chance the wormhole would create a feedback loop from quantum fluctuations making it impossible for anyone to survive passing through it. Even so, I find it interesting to read such speculation. Brian Greene explains it very well in his wonderful Fabric Of The Cosmos Book – while still emphasizing that his gut feeling is that such time travel ins’t allowed by the laws of physics.)

      • Ann Morgan

        I suppose it could be that it’s possible, but that there’s no reason to do it that could possibly justify the enormous amount of effort involved.

        Presumably when they say that time travel isn’t allowed, they’re referring to travelling into the past. Travelling into the future is uncomplicated, as long as you can travel fast enough for long enough.

  5. From my perspective, one of the biggest pitfalls that a writer can fall into while depicting time travel (besides the plot holes, like you mention) is to use it as a “get-out-of-jail-free” card for its characters. I’ve encountered a couple of stories where characters discover the ability to go back in time to fix problems or “undo” previous time loops, and it kills the tension stone dead because there doesn’t seem to be any real consequences to anything they do.

    • Very true! Deus ex machina is not really a satisfying narrative conclusion under any circumstances. The things that were presented as “problems” beforehand are somehow magically wiped clean and “solved,” which lends little to no depth to the story or the characters involved.

    • This was my thought process when I suggested the topic. Though if writers approach time travel as the article writer says is proper, they won’t be looking for a cheap way out.

  6. I once wrote a novel about a bloke and his scruffy Teesside flat being transported 100 years into the future to a space station being attacked by cosmic zombies.

  7. Reminds me of the short sci-Fi film, Tomorrow Calling, made in the ’90s. Adapted from William Gobson’s short story, the Gernsback Continuum. A man is trapped in the modern world as imagined in the early 20th Century. The man, played by Colin Salmon, is black. His problem is, the sci-fi imaginings of the ’20s, ’30s and ’50s all envisioned mono-cultural futures where black people didn’t exist. ‘Things To Come’ posits an essentially fascistic future. He was trapped in a ‘hideously white’ world. There is nothing new under the Sun. Although, Tomorrow Calling was new and, as far as I know, the first film to engage with this cool concept.

  8. The past. They do things so differently there.

  9. I want to highlight “Goodnight Sweetheart”, the BBC comedy which starred Nicholas Lyndhurst of “Only Fools and Horses” fame. This sitcom ran for six series from 1993 to 1999 with a one-off special. Lyndhurst’s character Gary Sparrow is an accidental time traveller who leads a double life after discovering a time portal.

  10. Kenneth

    Quantum Leap was my favorite time travel show.

  11. Primer is in a completely different league to other films. This film will genuinely blow your mind! Highly recommended for any time travel/sci-fi fans!

  12. Source Code is I think not a “Time Travel” movie. It’s rather a “Brain code/ memory” kinda movie.

  13. My favorite ones are:
    1. Predestination
    2. Arrival
    3. Primer
    4. Source Code
    But the best Time Travel movies of all time – Back to the Future.

  14. Primer was brilliant but I’d highly recommend ‘Time Crimes’ it’s a Spanish time-travel movie that’s got a simple premise but the overall ending is outstanding.

  15. I’m not so annoyed by the small plot holes created by time travel in certain films like Endgame as the writing does attempt to address certain concerns while still providing for an enjoyable experience. After all, movies without time travel often can still have glaring plot holes when you analyse them close enough.

    I do think the time travel needs to be used wisely though. Bringing back major characters that have died ruins the meaningfulness of their story, particularly if a character has a great journey or sacrifice. It basically removes the previous story and a big middle finger to people who loved the originals (e.g. X-Men).

  16. Interesting read!

  17. I loved the concept of “Source Code”, but felt that the ending was a little stretch of the imagination!

  18. I liked Time traveller’s wife.

  19. Nicole Bell

    Nice read. Everyone should try the series ‘Dark’ on Netflix. The most complex time travel story I’ve ever seen, and beautifully told. Makes Primer seem simple by comparison.

  20. I’ve been watching Primer periodically since it was released and it still yields something new every single time!

  21. Edwards

    There is a lot of time traveling in anime, comics, and literature.

    • Steins;Gate is the greatest time travel story I’ve ever seen. The plot and the writing are both phenomenal. The 2nd half of that Anime feels like an emotional roller coaster ride. Whether you’re an Anime fan or not, everybody needs to check it out.

  22. Susan Adams

    Who would choose to be in the NOW?

    This is one of the most divisive yet compliant and boring periods in modern history.

    • A decent writer can find an interesting story in even the dullest subject matter, and therein lies the problem with television.

    • hilleyes

      It’s pure escapism. Many people feel threatened by the present, and are more than happy to retreat into the past. Interestingly enough, escapist films were also popular during the Second World War…

  23. I wonder if we travel in time in our dreams where the past, present and future collide.

  24. With TT, LOST will always be my favourite tv show ever, but I also loved Heroes and Doctor Who.

    • Kelly Powell

      Lost has one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen. Waterworks everytime.

  25. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    An enjoyable essay, I’m just a fan of basically any movie with time travel. “World Without End” (1956) is still a favorite.

  26. nocolah

    Predestination was my favorite time travel movie by far the twist was really good.

  27. Sean Gadus

    This is a very interesting article and it connects to some many past and present films! Time travel has been used for so many years with varying degrees of success and failure! Great article!

  28. A J. Black

    Time travel is notoriously tricky to get right. Back to the Future remains one of the sturdiest examples of temporal plotting that clicks. When done well, though, it is one of the most thrilling science-fiction sub-genres.

  29. I liked the Fringe TV show. I understand that it’s based on other the time travel concept (well not only on time travel)). Anyway, thanks for a good story, enjoyed it!

  30. This is even more prevalent in politics where we are bringing the past into today’s standards. context is so important in understanding, but sadly we are unable to shake from our own ego-driven view of the world centered around our singular perspective.

  31. sophiatarin

    The plot hole and butterfly effect are the tricky part of writing about time travel. I’m way too scared to try it.

  32. Stephanie M.

    Good piece on a thought-provoking topic. I personally love time travel plots in theory, but the complexity and holes often leave me wanting more (or less, depending on how you flip the pancake). The best personal example I can give you is, I am an avid Oncer, and the time travel episodes in Season 3 hooked me big-time. That said, they got dizzying, dense, and wacky.

    After experiencing these episodes and other time-travel-centric plots, I’ve come to the conclusion time travel may not work for individual TV episodes. I find myself much more entertained when they’re part of a whole show’s major premise, like Time or The Librarians, or a movie like Groundhog Day or the Back to the Future franchise.

  33. The best:

    Back to the future
    The Time Travellers Wife
    The Lake House

  34. Sarai Mannolini-Winwood

    Good opening discussion of a very popular trope. I think though it would have been great to include a discussion about why we keep going back to this well – what is it about the concept of timetravel that draws in not only the creators but also the viewers. I like that you acknowledged the biggest issue is when obvious plot holes are present, and I think it is done best when it is built more fully into a longer experience not just a solution or a meaningless accident.

  35. I agree on Endgame. There were so many things that were maybe cut out or that the writers did not take into consideration, all because they were trying to make a “different” time travel plot. While I do admire the gumption there, they could have done a way better job.

  36. Excellent article!

  37. Thank you for this article. It was well laid out and I truly enjoyed reading it. I don’t say this often, but I agree with everything you said!

    The most obvious plot hole before the story is told however is that time travel is impossible.

    An interview of Sean Caroll’s podcast Mindscape episode 58 with Seth MacFarlane, “Using Science Fiction to Explore Humanity”, lightly touched on the idea that for a human to time travel, their entire being would need to break down completely into his/her basic cellular parts, and then rebuilt upon arrival at the new ‘time’ destination. This essentially means we are different than we were before travel. Right away plot holes are abound and the story line now becomes more about the philosophical possibilities rather than the scientific facts.

    I think for everyone who decides to watch a time travel show they are establishing that it is going to be full of holes, and that they decide to watch because they want to see how this will be different than all of the other attempts before it?

    I’ll never stop watching time travel shows, they are fun and full of holes and cheesy sci fi porn. I love them and they have always performed well taking me out of my head space, at that time. Until they stop helping me time travel back to my own idea of what life was like during the 1930’s in Poland, or the 1300’s in England, I’ll never move on to romance novels! Not that reading isn’t fundamental, just give me some Dr. Who over “Whispers in the Autumn” with Fabio’s nipples any day! Whenever that is?

  38. Looking back on early time travel TV series, yes they were very effective at storytelling. And on refleciton often posed quite menaingful moral conundrums. However, these techniques seem rather lost today, with a focus on special effects, drama, and an almost inevitable heroic outcome. Perhaps the effectiveness of the time travel narrative has passed its time..

  39. Amelia Arrows

    Avengers endgame using time travel to reverse the snap was both satisfying and disappointing.
    Finally we could get the the ones who dusted away back but it robbed the sense of perminant death.
    Despite that, I think they did a decent job inserting something new to the MCU- the multiverse by using time travel.

    But you are right, writers should be smart when using time travel. It’s a fun device, but it must be used wisely and more creativly.

    I’m currently watching a Netflix crime K drama called the Abyss and while it doesn’t have time travel in it, it has its own device of the Abyss that that bring people wbo were wrongly killed back to life. I think just like time travel writers shoukd not only explore it but also establish rules to keep it realistic..

  40. Zahra Arshad

    I don’t think you can really talk about time travel without talking about Doctor who or back to the future

  41. Destiny Jones

    I was kinda upset to not see more tv shows talked about that are a little more recent. Doctor Who’s whole thing is time travel and I would say is one of the best examples of it working and not working. Also the Men in Black franchise has one of the biggest full circle connections that’s only reaches it’s full potential because of its use of time travel. I think it can be effective when time and effort are put in to the story and it’s my favorite television concept but even when it’s not so successful it’s still always intriguing and like the article said gives a very refreshing light of seeing familiar faces in new roles and a bit of comic relief at times.

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