Features and Columns · Movies

A Brief History of Time Travel As An Add-On

By  · Published on May 26th, 2016

When you need that solve-everything narrative gimmick or just a change of scenery.

Remember when time travel was cool? Maybe you don’t. Maybe someone went back in time and made it lame, and so to you it’s always been that way. But then why do I recall it being cool? How do you not remember the other past and I do? Sorry, I’m going down one of those time-travel fiction rabbit holes. And speaking of rabbit holes: the point of today’s history lesson partly stems from Disney’s new sequel to the live-action Alice in Wonderland.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is a time-travel movie, which is only interesting because it’s the latest example of a property that doesn’t start out involving this sci-fi element but introduces it down the line. The same is the case with Game of Thrones, which recently added a kind of time travel to the series in the current sixth season – a device that had a particularly shocking effect in last Sunday’s episode, “The Door.”

Game of Thrones Explained: Hold The Door, Answers Are Trying to Break Through

What might be most notable about this week’s bookending time-travel add-ons is they’re both primarily utilized for showing flashbacks and character origin stories seen through the eyes of another character leaping backwards in time. Apparently it’s no longer good enough to just use intercutting of past and present, a la The Godfather Part II and the majority of Lost before that show itself accessorized with a time-travel plot.

Below is a timeline of time-travel add-ons in movies, TV, and literature going back more than 80 years, to show various ways and reasons pop culture has infused series of different genres with the increasingly less-interesting sci-fi device.

1925: Popular cartoon characters begin to have adventures in the past or future, but such animated shorts are isolated stories. They tend to go to the time of dinosaurs and cavemen – a la Felix the Cat in Felix Trifles with Time(1925), Mighty Mouse in Prehistoric Perils (1951), and Woody Woodpecker in Prehistoric Super Salesman (1969). Casper the Friendly Ghost travels to various eras of history in Red White and Boo (1955).

1954: Science fiction and fantasy TV series that aren’t necessarily all about time travel begin looping the device in on a regular or occasional basis. This is more common in space series like Star Trek, Flash Gordon, and Space Patrol but extends to superheroes with the 1955 Adventures of Superman episode “Through the Time Barrier,” which also sends characters back to the prehistoric era, and to magical characters, as in sporadic episodes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

1959: The Three Stooges, another set of popular characters whose episodes and movies are pretty independent from one another, go back to Ancient Greece and the Wild West for comedic effect in The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.

1969: Iconic luchadore El Santo invents a time machine in his 20th feature, Santo and Dracula’s Treasure, which probably could have worked just as well without the sci-fi element.

1971: Although the whole Planet of the Apes franchise had begun with what was revealed to be a time travel plot, the second sequel, Escape from the Planet of the Apes utilizes the device in a more prominent fashion to send three ape characters back to the human-dominated present day.

1973: In Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future, the third installment of one of the most popular Soviet film series, the nerdy character Shurik invents a time machine and goes back to the days of Ivan the Terrible, while that notorious Russian tsar is in turn transplanted to present day Moscow.

1980(October): Hardly an unexpected turn of events for Douglas Adams’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series, the second book, “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe” sends main characters Arthur and Ford to, yes, prehistoric Earth.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

1980(November): Rather than just throwing popular characters into a random time-travel episode, the Saturday morning cartoon The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang devotes its entire two-season series to the time-travel adventures of animated versions of beloved characters from the Happy Days sitcom. The first episode is set in the prehistoric era.

1981: Not a strange element for comic books, time travel is still a notable part of the “Uncanny X-Men” comics storyline “Days of Future Past,” which involves a mental trip back from a dystopian future. Time travel would become more and more common in this series.

1986(October): One of the more surprising cartoon series to suddenly involve time travel, G.I. Joe introduces the device in the episode “G.I. Joe and the Golden Fleece,” in which part of a U.F.O. sends good and bad guys back to Ancient Greece, where the characters are obviously mistaken for gods.

1986 (November): Time travel wasn’t uncommon for the original Star Trek TV series, but the movies don’t introduce the device until the third sequel, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, in which the crew of the USS Enterprise (now the crew of the HMS Bounty) go back to present day Earth to save the whales.

1987: In a major crossover event, the animated TV movie special The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones has everybody’s favorite cartoon family from the future going back to encounter everybody’s favorite cartoon family from prehistoric times.

1991 (August): Seeming like a remake of Master of the Universe – which is funny since the original Beastmaster plays like a more genuine He-Man movie – Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time brings Dar to present-day Los Angeles. Technically it’s more inter-dimensional travel than time-travel.

1991 (December): Nearly 40 years in, the Godzilla franchise introduces time travel with Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, in which people from the distant future make a pit stop in the present on the way to 1944 to stop the King of the Monsters from ever existing. It only gets more convoluted from there.

1992: In the third installment of the Evil Dead series, Army of Darkness, Ash enters a time portal that sends him to the 14th century to fight medieval Deadites.

1993: In their own third installment, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, the Heroes in a Half Shell and April O’Neil wind up in 17th century Japan, trading places with figures from that time now stuck in present day.

1996: In the series Mighty Morphin Alien Rangers, the Power Rangers, who have been turned into children, are each sent to a different point in time on a mission to ultimately collectively make all of Earth normal again.

1997: In an apparent effort to hook in a new generation with modern characters, the reboot of the Grizzly Adams franchise, Grizzly Mountain, involves kids from present day whisked to the 19th century via a magical cave. The same happens to other characters in a 2000 sequel.

1999 (June): Ignoring the whole temporal fish out of water point of the original Austin Powers movie, Austin Powers in the Spy Who Shagged Me has the title character and arch-nemesis Dr. Evil traveling back to their era of the 1960s, and from then on time travel is a staple of the franchise.

1999 (July): In the third “Harry Potter” novel, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (and its 2004 movie adaptation), Hermione uses a time-turner for personal academic achievements and later to save the day, but it’s never seen again in the series.

2007: Although Lost is later revealed to have involved time travel all along, it’s not until the third season of the show that the device is really introduced into the narrative. First, it’s through Desmond’s “Slaughterhouse Five”-like mental time travel, but eventually the series incorporates physical time travel of multiple characters.

2012: Already dealing with fantastical sci-fi elements, it’s not surprising that Men in Black 3 introduces time travel into the series and sends one of its heroes back to the early days of American space travel.

2014: An adaptation of the 1981 comic book storyline, X-Men: Days of Future Past gives the movie franchise its own time-travel add-on.

2016 (Early May): In the second episode of its sixth season, Game of Thrones adds time travel in what seems to be the Christmas Carol model of mere immersive visions of the past.

2016 (Late May): Hardly an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll book it’s named for, Alice Through the Looking Glass revolves around a Chronosphere, which Alice uses to visit different points in the younger days of her Underland friends.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.