I think it’s safe to say that time travel as a concept will never get old, no matter how many times it’s employed. All the same, it doesn’t take much snooping to realize that most time travel stories use very similar ideas. There are, one would think, only so many ways such a feat might be achieved, at least when it comes to narrative. You’ve seen one engine of temporal transcendence, you’ve seen them all, right? If I were to say to you “Draw a time machine,” you could probably come up with some general summation of what one would like. It might have wheels, or a sled, or an incredibly subtle giant clock attached to the back of it, but the point is that the idea is pretty widespread. If it’s not a machine, it’s a mysterious portal, or a time rip, or a Biblical gateway covered in hieroglyphics, or Ashton Kutcher’s creepy-ass diary. Most of the time it doesn’t really matter. Narratively speaking, time travel is usually just a tool for the story, a way to get the characters into fantastical situations, and not the story itself. In that sense, it often behooves an author to keep it simple and recognizable so the audience isn’t too hung up on questions of plausibility.
Fortunately, this doesn’t mean we’ve burnt through all the good ideas. The subject is so vast and has been explored so many times that a few relatively odd variants on the trope have emerged, and odd in different ways. Some of the items on this list are well-known ridiculous spoofs, some employ scientific concepts, but they are all creative twists on a well-worn notion for those bored with souped-up phone booths and the like. And until the aliens or the Yaqui Indians or whoever decide to show us the real way it’s done, we have these options to mull over.
11) Homer’s Toaster, The Simpsons
We begin with a beloved bit from The Simpsons‘ fifth Treehouse of Horror episode. “Time and Punishment,” a spoof of Ray Bradbury’s “The Sound of Thunder,” among other things, opens with Homer praising his life and the country that makes it possible. Then he gets his hand stuck in a toaster. In the process of repairing it, he accidentally creates a time machine and becomes, in his own immortal words, “the first non-Brazilian person to travel backwards through time.” (this supposedly being a reference to Carlos Castaneda and one of those great esoteric jokes The Simpsons excelled at in its prime). His romp through the past of course has disastrous results, and he ends up zinging back and forth in order to try and restore the present time to the normalcy he remembers. Unfortunately this means he misses out on even better alternate realities, especially the one where it rains donuts.
10) Hot Tub Time Machine
I know not how this idea came about, but I applaud it for a) not using a humor-killing definite article and b) sounding like the title was pulled out of Drew Carey’s Uncle Sam hat during a Whose Line is it Anyway? episode. The rest of the world may have forgotten this silly, throwaway sex comedy, but I will never forget any movie that gets Craig Robinson to sing “Jessie’s Girl”, for many reasons. Both a goofy retro-fantasy farce and a parody of such, it follows the exploits of four dudes transported back to the ’80s, three of whom lived through them already. Their means of conveyance? Take a wild guess. It turns out that splashing a can of an energy drink called “Chernobly” causes the otherwise normal Jacuzzi to open up onto a quantum vortex. The comedic palette of the film can be considered complex in that in encompasses jokes of both the vomit and blowjob variety. There’s even a role for my beloved Lizzy Caplan as John Cusack’s spunky love interest. And what sagacious figure guides our heroes on their journey? Chevy Chase. HTTM may not quite be comedic perfection, but in some ways that makes it better.
9) Mario’s Time Machine
The Tubeterwebs are practically choking with videos of would-be James Rolfes spitting bile at this poor educational game from the ’90s. Not only did I actually own it for the SNES back in the day, I played it all the way through (this was back before I had learned the concept that a game could be “bad” or “good”). The premise attempts to loosely appropriate Carmen Sandiego into the ill-defined Mario world with infamously disastrous results. Gameplay involves you selecting historical artifacts one at a time from Bowser’s museum, filling out a form regarding the history surrounding said artifact, and returning it back to its proper time via the titular conveyance. The machine itself is ugly but not particularly strange at least at first. The weird part is that after you activate it, you suddenly start surfing. Time Surfing. You have to pick up 10 mushrooms and then crash into a whirlpool before traveling to your destination (provided you correctly adjusted the controls earlier). Then, after you’ve returned the artifact and are ready to leave, you push a button that appears to be imbedded in Mario’s palm and get a bunch of points (or don’t). Return to the museum, get a new artifact, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s hard to say that anything feels out of place in a mythos as random as Mario’s, but there’s something seriously odd about seeing a 4-foot cartoon plumber interact with painterly depictions of Joan of Arc and Beethoven. This came out around the same time as Mario is Missing!, but at least that one had Yoshi in it, as well as a few boss fights, neither of which can be said for Mario’s Time Machine. Instead, this game stands as the only time Mario has met Plato (so far, anyway: fingers crossed for a Mario Teaches Classical Dualism in 2013!). It should be noted that this game exists for multiple platforms, and that the NES version is radically different and much more Mario-like, although probably not good.
8) The Time Barrier, Timeslip
At a time when people were actually trying to compete with Doctor Who, ITV created a very different children’s sci-fi program, rooted a little more in actual science and keeping the action closer to home. Consisting of 26 episodes bundled in four separate serials, Timeslip told the story of two inquisitive British kids, Simon and Liz, who discover a malleable point in the membrane of time and find they are able to pass through it to different points in the past and future. It may have been conceived with children primarily in mind, but like Who, Timeslip broached mature subject matter and themes including cloning and global warming. As a side-note, “time slips” are an actual reported paranormal phenomenon (so, “fiction”) in which people claim to have momentarily experienced life in another era, though not by breaking through a time bubble. Would that something like this were real, although given the unfortunate future worlds depicted by this series, perhaps we should be thankful it isn’t.
7) The Book, The Time Warp Trio
Time travel stories most often find themselves classified as science fiction rather than fantasy, as it’s usually some machine or pseudo-futuristic device that transports the protagonist elsewhere. But sometimes magic explicitly fills that role, and Jon Scieszka’s beloved juvenile novels gave its pre-pubescent heroes Joe, Sam and Fred an enchanted book that did the job, usually by misinterpreting some word or phrase and hurtling them somewhere. There were occasional variations to this, as when the gang attempted to use the power of numbers to pick a year to visit via “magic square.” The book was a gift from Joe’s uncle, a magician, though his mother seemed to be a little more adept at using it. Unbeknownst to me until researching this article, Scieszka’s books were apparently adapted later into a PBS show which, even though it aired in 2005, still has one of the most ’90s cartoon theme songs I’ve heard in many a moon.
6) The Map, Time Bandits
A lot of us have fond memories of this inspired bit of Gilliam craziness, and if you saw it only once at a young age, it’s likely that most of what you recall is that it contains dwarves and Robin Hood and David Warner saying “Nipples on men?”. Underneath all the spectacle, the actual plot was even more insane. The six dwarves (who may supposedly correspond to the six members of Monty Python) are former servants of the Supreme Being who used to create smaller aspects of the world like bushes and trees. Charged with fixing holes in time, they decide instead to steal a map of those holes and set off to rob history of its riches. It’s not this director’s best film (a bit repetitive, especially towards the end) but it’s up there in my book; it is also said to form the first part of the unofficial “dream trilogy” with Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In the stalwart Gilliam tradition, there is a myriad of scenes that are mind-blowing in their composition and must have been insanely expensive to produce, although Lost in La Mancha was still to come. But the central conceit is a strong and original one, and it’s definitely not everyday you see a time travel film that involves God, Sean Connery and a guy with a ship on his head.
5) Timeslides, Red Dwarf
Red Dwarf probably didn’t invent the trope of walking into a photo and interacting with its contents, but as far as I know this is one of the only examples in which this process is used to change history. In the third series episode “Timeslides,” Kryten discovers that the “mutated” developing fluid he’s been using can allow the crew a window into other places and times via projections of their photographs. Quickly they figure out the rules: you can enter the scene represented in the pictures but you’re limited to whatever space is bounded by the picture’s edges. After briefly visiting Nazi Germany (like you do), Lister uses this trick to try and get rich Biff Tannen-style so as to avoid his fate on the Dwarf, but that requires him to interact with himself back when he was a glam-punk teenager and used pretentious phrases like “crypto-fascist” all the time. Eventually it does work, though Rimmer manages to undo it and gain the upper hand, only to screw himself over faster than you can say “John Titor” and land right back where he started. Like most of the amazing technology discovered on this show, the timeslides are used in one episode and never mentioned again, although they did appear in the spin-off text adventure.
4) The Weeping Angels, Doctor Who
In recent episodes, these baddies have been portrayed as terrifying cosmic thugs that will kill you if you look away. Which is fine. But the original concept, introduced in the fan favorite third series episode “Blink,” was far more devious: these “quantum locked” creatures feed on a being’s potential energy by sending them backwards in history and drawing nourishment from the time they no longer live. The displaced person is then forced to live out the remainder of their life in a new time period. You can understand why Moffat dropped this in later stories, as it’s not exactly the most menacing fate offered by a Who villain (I can’t really see the Daleks chanting “DISPLACE! DISPLACE!”). Still, much as I love “Blink”, I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer waiting for Sally Sparrow to say something like this: “So wait. The Angels are insanely creepy and will advance the instant you look away, but if they catch you they don’t actually kill you and instead send you back in time? That’s awesome! I want to blink the fuck out of them!”
3) A James Taylor Song, The Callahan Touch
Spider Robinson’s Callahan stories are a treasure trove of kooky ideas and warm humanism, centering as they do around a bar on Long Island that attracts clientele from all points of time and space, from vampires to aliens to talking German Shepherds. At the core of it all is Mike Callahan, owner, operator and mystical time-hopping sage of the titular establishment, who shapes it into a place where gentle neo-hippies can find fellowship and lost souls may be granted absolution. The long-lived series (which also inspired a cult classic adventure game) contains almost as many different forms of temporal travel as it does unforgivable puns, but one particular throw-away moment from The Callahan Touch has always stuck with me. The regulars have moved on from the original Callahan’s to a new place, but find themselves so out of sorts with a mischievous pixie that they summon their mentor for help. While there, Mike mentions casually that he doesn’t require any special equipment to move through the timestream, and when someone asks him how, he tells them to listen to the James Taylor song “Secret O’ Life.” Not only that, he alleges that James Taylor understands time travel. Huh? Though it may seem to the untrained ear to be a simple piece of elevator jazz with pop-philosophical bumper sticker lyrics, the sudden mention of Einstein in the third verse of “Secret O’ Life” leaves the possibility that JT does indeed hold some metaphysical secret. Maybe this would explain why his voice hasn’t aged a day while the rest of him looks increasingly like Richard Jenkins with sinister eyebrows. I’m sure he’s a lovely guy.
2) Ancestor Shot, Trancers
Here’s one that got away. The cult film Trancers, a Blade Runner/Terminator ripoff from the Charles Band Dream Factory features a particularly novel means of travelling through time that was probably the best part about it. We begin in the 23rd century, a time when Los Angeles lies underwater and no-nonsense cop Jack Deth (national treasure Tim Thomerson) tracks down the zombified mind-slaves of an evil genius named Whistler. When said evil genius travels back to 1985 to kill the forefathers of his enemies, Deth goes after him by taking a special injection that displaces him into the body of an ancestor. While his body stays on life support in the present, he inhabits his great-great-etc. grandfather, journalist Phil Deth, in the ’80s, who happens to be dating Helen Hunt (he is also equipped with a Bondian gadget watch that slows down time, another neat idea). Whistler’s body is dead in the future, but he inhabits a chief of police in the 1985 and gets to work making more Trancers to do his bidding. I think it’s fair to say that this genuinely fascinating concept was wasted on such a doomed series and is ripe to be harvested again for a better movie. Sequels (there were five) did indeed see Deth inhabit other members of his bloodline (well, one other member, eventually), but not in a cool way, and he spent two whole movies trapped in a stupid alternate dimension that just happened to resemble every clich?d fantasy world ever. The fact that Deth never went on a mission back to the War of the Roses or 18th century Haiti or something is just further evidence of the many iniquities of this life. I’m not entirely sure that Assassin’s Creed didn’t “borrow” this idea from here.
1) Masturbation, “Time Travel For Pedestrians”
Really. Ray Nelson’s short story, which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s anthology Again, Dangerous Visions, follows a man who, after inducing a mystical trance and jerking himself off, bops around into different bodies throughout history. You read that right. Stops include a Germanic Pagan tribe, bohemian France, Roman-occupied Alexandria, and finally “the land of Woomtoom, beyond time and outside space.” But this is more than just a smutty version of Quantum Leap; the journey is as philosophical as it is earthy and physical. Death becomes a prevalent theme, as not only does our protagonist die several times during the narrative but he must constantly struggle with the overbearing presence of his guardian angel, and soon discovers that though you can’t duck the celestials forever, you can always try to wrestle them. It’s a radical, psychedelic classic to be sure, heady and confusing but definitely worth seeking out. Needless to say, if this particular method of time travel were an available practice, I don’t think most of us would ever get any work done…