Doing the Time Warp: 8 Great Time Travel Episodes
In honor of leap day, those extra 24 hours we get every four years, a time travel list seemed in order. One of the most consistent and popular tropes of genre fiction, time travel opens up worlds of possibility and, when used in well, can allow writers avenues to explore character and story in creative and interesting ways. With the caveats that shows specifically centered on time travel (Doctor Who, Journeyman, Quantum Leap, etc.) are excluded, as are time loop episodes, here are eight of the best time travel episodes TV has to offer:
“The City on the Edge of Forever”, Star Trek (1967)
Conceived by Harlan Ellison and generally considered one of the best episodes of Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever” sees the main trio of Kirk, McCoy, and Spock travel back to 1930s Earth through a temporal disturbance. After McCoy accidentally alters the past, erasing the future the series is set in, Kirk and Spock must restore the timeline. Unfortunately, restoring the timeline, they discover, means allowing the beautiful and kind Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), whom Kirk has fallen in love with, to die. Handled with taste and an appropriate dash of bitterness, this memorable episode succeeds due to its strong performances and excellent final scene.
Homer tries to fix a broken toaster and ends up making a time machine. Or, more accurately, a machine to briefly travel to prehistoric times. One mosquito, walking fish, cold, and, eventually, massive baseball bat attack, later, and Homer’s back in his original timeline. Or one that’s “close enough”. This short is creative, fun, and an interesting exercise- time travel episodes rarely examine how a simpleton approaches the phenomenon. It’s clear the writers and animators had a blast with this story, and their enjoyment is infectious.
In the 30th anniversary year of Star Trek, the producers at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine decided to do something special to mark the occasion. The result was “Trials and Tribble-ations”, perhaps one of the best episodes in the entire series. The concept is simple- due to a timey-wimey, spacey-wacey thing, a few members of the DS9 crew travel back in time and interact with the crew of Star Trek during one of their most memorable episodes, ”The Trouble with Tribbles”. While it’s a fun conceit, what puts it on this list is the execution and sheer style of the episode. It’s fun, knowing, and full of panache. From sets and costuming to the hilarious way the writers deal with the discrepancy between the original and later incarnations of the Klingons, this episode is a love letter to Trek fans that also works separately for those unfamiliar with the original.
Few non-time travel series play with the conceit as consistently as Red Dwarf. While the majority of these jaunts take place within the character’s timelines, this episode stands out, and earns its place on the list, by going outside of this and bringing the gang to the Texas School Book Depository on Nov. 22, 1963. What begins as a curry run from the far future escalates into lunacy, until the audience discovers the surprising identity of the second gunman on the grassy knoll. Far more interested in humor than historical or even fake-scientific accuracy, this episode thrives on the group dynamics at play and may be hard for some viewers to swallow. If you buy in and are willing to go for the ride, however, the payoff is well worth it.
Futurama only plays with time every now and again, but when it does, it’s memorable. The best of these arcs is the one precipitated by Fry travelling back in time and becoming his own grandfather, thereby making himself a genetic mutant able to singlehandedly save the Earth from alien invasion. In this episode, however, we see the crew sent back in time to 1947 Roswell, New Mexico, where Fry meets his then-young grandparents and nearly goes crazy trying to keep his grandfather from dying before he can conceive Fry’s father. This episode is fun, chock full of genre references, and the launchpad for one of the series’ best arcs. Plus we find out that there really was a flying saucer at Roswell- Bender.
John Crichton spent most of the run of Farscape trying to get home to Earth. When he finally did, it was in 1985. Spacey-wacey or, in this series, wormholey-… wormholey. Even without the personal element of this episode, which features John having to restore the timeline such that his father won’t command the Challenger, this would make the list for its fun factor. Dargo only speaks 4 words of English- yes, no, and bite me, and Rygel is introduced to candy and chocolate, to which he quickly becomes addicted. The crew’s jaunt to ‘80s Earth luckily includes Halloween, which allows for some great sight gags, but the twist of finding out that Chiana actually gave a teenaged John his first kiss, and, more significantly, John’s emotional reunion with his no-longer dead mother, puts this episode on the list.
In a series that toyed with time travel relatively successfully, “The Constant” stands out for its beautiful rendering of the romance of Desmond and Penny. Lost hardly shied away from romantic entanglements, but none of the other couples ever inspired the passion from fans and critics alike that this one did, due almost exclusively to this episode. After an incident on (well, around) the island, Desmond’s consciousness travels back and forth within his timeline, showing viewers the couple at their most distant and, in the final moments, their most determined. Throw in some seizures and near death, along with excellent performances from Henry Ian Cusick and Sonya Walger, as well as Jeremy Davies, and it’s a recipe for great drama and epic romance.
Over its run, Supernatural has had more than its fair share of time travel episodes, almost all of which rank among the best of the series. This one stands out as one of the few examples of a successful future time travel episode. After a particularly tense split in the bromance, Dean goes to sleep and wakes up five years in the future. The Apocalypse has come, Lucifer is walking the Earth, and the Supernatural equivalent of a zombie outbreak has been going strong for years. Dean meets up with his future self, an incredibly changed future Cas, and learns the less-than-happy fate of Sam. The episode has plenty of humor, mostly thanks to Chuck and Cas (Mischa Collins is having a ball), but more than anything, it serves to raise the stakes for the entire season, giving both Dean and the audience a hard look at what will come should Sam and Dean fail.
What are your favorite time travel episodes? Post your list in the comments below!