Time travel in storytelling

In Back to the Future Marty McFly’s friend Doc owns a customised car that can travel in time. Fleeing from terrorists, Marty inadvertently travels from 1985 back to 1955. He enters the strange world of small town 50s America, with its quaint customs and retro-technologies — a huge leap back for this cheeky 80s teenager. He quickly realises the reciprocity between his experience in 1955 and his life in 1985: if his parents don’t get together at the prom he will literally be erased from history. It’s a classic time travel story: entering a strange world, understanding an alien culture, and presenting the hero with the paradoxes of travelling in time.

Back to the Future
Back to the Future

Time travel commonly involves people in the present going forward or back in time, or people from the past or future coming to our time. This is explained through: a pseudo-scientific justification (a portal, a ‘wormhole’, or a tear in the ‘space time continuum’); magic and the paranormal (a spell or an act of evil); a freak accident or occurrence (an injury to the head, going to sleep and walking up in a different time). It can involve travel to parallel worlds with a separate ‘time continuum’. These additional choices give the storyteller an opportunity to combine a contemporary story (and references) with a historic, future or parallel world culture and environment.

Entering the past allows the storyteller to reveal — or poke fun — at a particular moment in history, and in a future world to speculate on what life may be like. The time traveler provides a point of entry for the contemporary audience, often contrasting his or her morality with that of a past or future culture. The circumstance and paradox of travelling in time forces the hero to make moral choices, which accentuates the drama, comedy, and can provide a moral lesson.

The impact of the time travel theme may focus on a specific event, the life of an individual or a longer timespan: the changing effect of passing time on family generations, or friendship groups, social and cultural change, or technological change. In other cases time travel is a pretext for an exotic adventure romp, one without real ethical or philosophical implications. Some time travel stories involve a protagonist who ‘wakes up’ in the future, after having been in suspended animation — time has passed by as normal so, one can argue, it’s not, strictly speaking, ‘time travel’ (although the outcome is much the same).

Early examples of storytellers using the device of a character who travels in time include: Memoirs of the Twentieth Century (1733) an angel travels from 1997 back to 1728; Anno 7603 (1781) a fairy sends people’s to the future, where gender roles are reversed; Rip Van Winkle (1819), a man wakes twenty years in the future, his wife having passed away (this echoes an ancient Jewish story of a man who sleeps for 70 years); A Christmas Carol (1843) a man witnesses his past and future self as a warning about his selfish behaviour; The Clock that Went Backward (1881) which created the idea of a physical device imbued with time traveling properties.

The Doctor character in the Dr Who television series travels in time, giving the storyteller the opportunity of putting him and his companion in a series of different environments; generating fresh worlds with different problems to solve (much like transporting down to a planet in Star Trek). While the worlds around the Doctor change, his morality and character remain constant; the challenging situations he is placed in test his ingenuity and ethics.

In The Time Machine the hero travels far into the future and witnesses a nuclear Armageddon, and the two societies that evolve after that horror: the passive people who live on the surface, and the bestial underground dwellers who feed off those above. This is time travel as a warning, as an act of faith — because mankind will rectify his mistakes himself, without divine intervention, through his own ingenuity.

Groundhog Day
Groundhog Day

Here are some examples of time travel in storytelling. The morality play: Click fast forwarding your life misses both the good and bad moments; in an episode of the Twilight zone a racist finds himself hunted down in Nazi Germany. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1921), and The Final Countdown are examples of time travel as adventure and wish fulfilment. Adventure turns to horror in Planet of the Apes and Terminator. And Planet of the Apes is also an example of the time travel paradox (when an alternate world turns out to be Earth, but set in its distant future), and an alien spaceship in The Sphere turns out to be a human spacecraft that’s travelled back in time. The development of family and relationships, over an extended period, is explored in Interstellar, The Lake House, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Benjamin button. While a single day is endlessly repeated in Groundhog Day, Source Code, and Edge of tomorrow.

Planet of the Apes
Planet of the Apes

A common device used by storytellers is to give a place or a thing special powers; a ‘portal’ to another dimension, or a magical doorway. Sometimes portals have rules applied to them: they function at a specific time, during a particular astrological event, or by deciphering an activation ‘code’. ‘Fantastic’ travels to other worlds are time travel of a kind, although not to our past or future, they include: Alice in Wonderland (down a rabbit hole), The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (through a wardrobe), Stargate (through an ancient alien gateway), and Midnight in Paris (down a Parisian street). Examples of the sleeper who awakes in the future are: Rip Van Winkle, Idiocracy, Sex Mission, and the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25 Century. The plot device of time travel has been used in literary fiction, like Slaughter House Five (to illustrate the shock of surreal disconnection), and as the central theme for comedies like: Hot Tub Time Machine, Land of the Lost, and — of course — Back to the Future. Time travel comedies, like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, subvert highbrow associations of time travel (the grand moral messages, and desire to improve the world) by emphasising selfish pleasure-seeking, buffoonery, and overriding iconic historical references with ‘low brow’ pop culture.

Stories themselves are a form of virtual time travel, allowing us to repeatedly enter into an experience. In Memento there is no time travel as such, but the narrative creates the feeling of time travel by taking the audience through the plot in a non-linear fashion, and mostly back-to-front. Adding time travel to a story adds a further dimension for the storyteller; it allows them to contextualise one time period with another, exposing cultural change, and differences in technology and ethics — giving the audience an exciting and thought-provoking alternative to the all-too-mundane familiarity of the present.