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Time Travel on TV Today, Ranked From Least to Most Tricky

Fall TV Preview: Newcomers "Timeless," "Frequency" and more join "Doctor Who," "Outlander" and others as TV time travel booms.

TIMELESS -- "Pilot" -- Pictured: (l-r) Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin, Matt Lanter as Wyatt Logan, Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston


Joe Lederer/NBC


Time is not on our side, especially in the era of “peak TV.” Perhaps this is why networks are hopping onto the time travel bandwagon. At this year’s network upfront presentations in May, four of the five broadcast networks plugged shows that revolved around a time travel element at their core.

Taking journeys through the fourth dimension is a concept that has appeared in fiction since the late 19th century, popularized by H.G. Wells’ novel “The Time Machine.” The continued appeal of time travel boils down to wish fulfillment: the desire to visit other eras like a tourist, the yearning to relive or change the past, the curiosity about the future and the ability to squeeze more experiences into our ephemeral lives.

Although Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan disagree on whether time travel will someday be possible based on our apparent lack of visitors from the future, that hasn’t stopped us from fiddling with the concept. As it stands, time travel remains purely theoretical, and therefore ripe for creative tinkering.

No two time travel shows are alike, but they all must address two key issues: 1) How does one subvert time to do our bidding (i.e. the mechanism for time travel)? 2) And what happens when you do? Clearly, time travel can get a bit complex or tricky, as it were. To help you cut through all the noise, we’ve ranked TV’s current time traveling shows on a scale from one to 10; from easy-breezy with little to no fallout to the incredibly intricate with dire consequences.

Behold, TV’s Trickiest Time Travel:

Time Traveling Bong” (now streaming on ComedyCentral.com)

Traveling Bong Ilana Glazer

Premise: Two stoners accidentally discover a bong that allows them to travel through time.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? If you know how to use a bong — and you don’t break it — you’re all set.

Can You Change The Past? Yes, but only if you really, really want to change it. There are few (if any) ramifications for what Jeff (Paul W. Downs) and Sharee (Ilana Glazer) do in the past, and when they realize they’ve made a mistake (like kidnapping Michael Jackson) it’s easy for them to fix it.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? These two cousins are expert-level smokers, so they’re rarely hindered by traveling through time. In fact, it’s a pretty enjoyable experience all-around. You know, if you’re not a woman.

How Tricky Is It? 1

“11.22.63” (now streaming on Hulu)

James Franco and Chris Cooper in "11.22.63."

Premise: English teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? Walking into a closet and instantly being transported back to Dallas, Texas in 1960 is about as easy and non-traumatic as it gets. Too bad JFK was shot in 1963, requiring Jake to hang out in the past for three years first.

Can You Change The Past? Yes, although it takes some doing because apparently the past “pushes back” in the form of minor to downright dangerous accidents to prevent one from interfering with the established timeline. If you’re persistent, however, you eventually can change the course of events, even if the longterm outcome may not be what you expect. But hey, there’s always a reset button if you want to visit that closet again.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Physically, there’s no downside to journeying via closet. Living and creating relationships in a time that isn’t your own though can mess you up psychologically.

How Tricky Is It? 3

“Future-Worm” (now airing on Disney XD)




Premise: Twelve-year-old Danny Douglas (voice of Andy Milonakis) creates a time machine our of his lunch box, and then befriends a fearless worm from the future (voice of James Adomian) with titanium-enforced abs and a bulletproof beard.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? Danny’s lunch box seems quite simple — but not always effective. In one episode, the duo finds their favorite burrito store closed because it’s Columbus Day, and decide to go back in time a day earlier. Instead, they end up traveling all the way back to 1492 and the actual arrival of Columbus.

Can You Change The Past? Well, Danny and Future-Worm did convince Columbus to change his name to “Christopher Burrito,” which is why we now celebrate his discovery of America with “Burrito Day.” (Everyone gets a free burrito!) But creator Ryan Quincy has opted to mostly avoid the complications of most time travel stories in order to focus the show on the friendship between Danny and Future Worm (a.k.a. “Fyootch”).

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Danny and Fyootch regularly find themselves in tough predicaments, but always manage to find a solution. Of course, it helps that Danny and Future-Worm can count on Neil DeGrasse Tyson (playing himself), who occasionally pops in to offer advice.

How Tricky Is It? 3.5

Outlander” (Seasons 1-2 Available on Starz)

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in "Outlander."

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan in “Outlander.”


Premise: Claire (Caitriona Balfe) was doing just fine in 1947 Scotland until she touched the wrong magic stone and was whisked back to the 1700s. There, she’s forced to confront the complicated politics of wartorn Highlander society, but also finds Jamie (Sam Heughan), the very hot love of her life.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? The actual transportation method is relatively simple — though as we learned in the Season 2 finale, if you want to force things, you might have to get your hands a little bloody. But also, Claire so far has no real control over it. And that’s a problem.

Can You Change The Past? Nope! Despite Claire’s best efforts, in fact, historical events play out as they were meant to.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Actually physically traveling doesn’t result in the usual post-trip vomit scene, but emotionally, there’s nothing like being separated from someone you love — twice over.

How Tricky Is It? 4

“Frequency” (Premieres October 5 on the CW)

Peyton List in "Frequency."

Peyton List in “Frequency.”

Bettina Strauss/The CW

Premise: When Detective Raimy Sullivan (Peyton List) digs up her father’s old ham radio, she finds herself talking to… her father (Riley Smith), who’s been dead for years. What starts out as a unique opportunity for a woman to connect with her father becomes a problem when a long-buried case gets reawakened.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? The only actual time travel that occurs is one woman’s voice, but it’s through a piece of truly archaic technology. It’s not hard to guess that a major plot twist in Episode 13 is going to involve something bad happening to the radio.

Can You Change The Past? No spoilers, but yeah, it turns out that major complications ensue when you can talk to the past.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Raimy isn’t technically traveling, but the changes she makes definitely have an impact on her.

How Tricky Is It? 4

“The Flash” (Season 3 premieres Oct. 4, The CW)

Grant Gustin in "The Flash."

Grant Gustin in “The Flash.”

Katie Yu/The CW

Premise: Here’s what we learned at the end of the CW superhero show’s Season 2: When you’re the fastest man alive, your superpowers might give you the ability to do more than just the best-ever ice cream delivery of all time. They might, in fact, give you the ability to prevent your mother’s murder.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? Do YOU like running? Well, imagine doing it so fast that you can literally change the past. That’s not fun.

Can You Change The Past? Apparently yes! Though it has major consequences.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? It will! (Spoilers.) Time travel, sometimes, is a matter of balancing the good with the bad.

How Tricky Is It? 5

“Timeless” (Premieres Oct. 3, NBC)

TIMELESS -- "Pilot" -- Pictured: (l-r) Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston, Paterson Joseph as Connor Mason, Matt Lanter as Wyatt Logan -- (Photo by: Joe Lederer/NBC)

Abigail Spencer, Paterson Joseph and Matt Lanter in “Timeless.”

Joe Lederer/NBC)

Premise: A history professor (Abigail Spencer), a soldier (Matt Lanter) and an engineer (Malcolm Barrett) are tasked with the job of stopping a man who stole a time machine to destroy America.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? When our heroes hop in their time machine to stop Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) it’s certainly not pleasant. But it seems like it will regularly get them where they want to go. (Unlike, say, the TARDIS.)

Can You Change The Past? Yup! Though you can never go back to any point you’ve previously visited, which keeps the potential for paradoxes way, way down.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Beyond the motion sickness of actually traveling through time, the fact is that changing the past doesn’t always have the best outcome for your life, especially when the rules of this particular sort of time travel mean you can never change things back.

How Tricky Is It? 6

“DC’s Legends of Tomorrow” (Season 2 premieres Oct. 12, The CW)

Arthur Darvill and Brandon Routh in "DC's Legends of Tomorrow."

Arthur Darvill and Brandon Routh in “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow.”

Bettina Strauss/The CW

Premise: A spin-off of the ever-expanding DC television universe brings together an assortment of oddball superheroes to travel through time with mysterious Time Master Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill).

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? Rip’s time ship, the Waverider, is a pretty complicated beast with an advanced AI system called Gideon and lots of bells and whistles. But it seems to be relatively functional.

Can You Change The Past? They’re certainly trying to! In fact, the whole inciting incident of the show is Rip’s decision to go rogue in an effort to keep his wife and son (who live in the year 2166) from being murdered by an immortal tyrant. Meanwhile, the Time Masters have made a vocation out of manipulating the timeline for their own purposes.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Physically, Waverider travel packs a punch, and also events prove pretty unpredictable. Over the course of the first season, at least two team members get killed, while other characters deal with all sorts of danger, including torture, brainwashing and getting marooned in time. Also, keeping track of all the different timelines isn’t a picnic. Time travel can really do your head in.

How Tricky Is It? 8

“12 Monkeys” (Season 3 returns in 2017, Syfy)

12 MONKEYS -- "Memory of Tomorrow" Episode 213 -- Pictured: (l-r) Amanda Schull as Cassandra Railly, Aaron Stanford as James Cole -- (Photo by: Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy)

Amanda Schull and Aaron Stanford in “12 Monkeys.”

Ben Mark Holzberg/Syfy

Premise: After a deadly virus eliminates 93.6 percent of the world’s population, in the year 2043 a machine is made to send James Cole (Aaron Stanford) back in time to prevent the event, which was orchestrated but a mysterious organization known as The Army of the Twelve Monkeys.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? We’re not entirely clear on how the machine works, but it bathes the reclining time traveler in a sea of blue rays, which then apparently allows the person to “splinter” in or out of time. Knowledge on how to program the machine’s time coordinates is essential, and even then, there’s no guarantee of any accuracy.

Can You Change The Past? Boy howdy, can you! Cole actually succeeds in changing quite a few things, which has created some messed up alternate timelines. Thus far, it appears that things only seem to get worse, not better: a version of the plague still exists, your worst enemy could be someone you should love and trust, and a time anomaly is wreaking havoc by flickering between alternate realities and times. It’s a mess.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? For Cole at least, frequent use of the machine was slowly killing him as splinter after splinter he started to get ill… until he injected himself with the blood of his younger self to create an explosive paradox and presumably a cure. Also, thanks to some weird time-travel drug, those who take it can remember the realities from the original timeline, which is definitely more curse than blessing as it creates wistfulness for what actually once had been.

How Tricky Is It? 9

Doctor Who” (Returns in 2017, BBC America)

"Doctor Who"

Premise: Known only as The Doctor, an alien from the planet Gallifrey uses a time machine to travel through time and space, along with various human “Companions” for fun excursions, or sometimes to save the universe.

How Difficult Is the Mechanism? While the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) in itself is an incredibly complex piece of technology created by the race of Gallifreyans known as the Time Lords and even has some sapience (as exhibited in “The Doctor’s Wife”), using it appears to be somewhat simple. Pull some levers, push some buttons and voila! You’re elsewhere/when. (Though whether you’ve arrived where you actually meant to be is another question.)

Can You Change The Past? How much time do you have? We kid. The short answer is yes, or as Eleven put it, “Time can shift. Time can change. Time can be rewritten.” And when you change things in the Whoniverse, they can change in a big way. You can rip apart the fabric of the known universe, create new beings, destroy worlds, and hell, even undo yourself. And yes, that may sound like a paradox, but The Doctor eats paradoxes for breakfast with fish fingers and custard. Our feeble human minds cannot conceive of how time works, since as Ten says, it’s made up of “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.” Or, if you’re Steven Moffat, it’s magic that doesn’t have any rules worth following, especially when you need a handy reset button.

Does It Take a Toll on the Traveler? Psychologically, we’d say that all the Time Lords we’ve met are pretty damn messed up. Sure, they may seem quirky and occasionally avuncular or spritely, but at their core is a dark, twisted quality that is more than just careworn jadedness. Maybe you need to be an alien with two hearts to handle it, and that’s why Companions come and go. Their lives are just too short to take it on full time.

How Tricky Is It? 9.5

Note: The following upcoming series include time travel elements, but have yet to release full episodes for review. We will address these shows at a later date. Summaries provided by the networks. 

“Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” (Premieres Oct. 22, BBC America; worldwide in December, Netflix)
Premise: When the bizarre murder of a millionaire thrusts loner Todd (Elijah Wood), into the orbit of Dirk Gently (Samuel Barnett), an eccentric detective who believes they’re destined to solve the mind-bending mystery together, his life will never be the same. They’ll cross unlikely paths with a bevy of wild and dangerous characters, each episode landing them a few random steps closer to uncovering the truth. From the studio of “The Walking Dead,” the BBCA original series is an adaptation of the novels from Douglas Adams (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “Doctor Who”), with Max Landis (“Chronicle”) as writer and executive producer and Robert Cooper (“Stargate Atlantis,” “Stargate Universe”) as showrunner. Oscar-winning director Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest,” “Justified,” “Masters of Sex”) has directed the series’ first two episodes. [Courtesy of BBC America]

“Making History” (Coming in 2017, Fox)
Premise: Produced by Phil Lord and Chris Miller (“The Last Man on Earth,” “Lego Movie,” “21 Jump Street”), and written by Julius “Goldy” Sharpe (“Family Guy”), the new comedy, “Making History,” follows three friends from two different centuries as they try to balance the thrill of time travel with the mundane concerns of their everyday lives. The wildly original series stars Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project,” “Happy Endings”), Leighton Meester (“Gossip Girl”) and Yassir Lester (“Girls,” “Key and Peele”). [Courtesy of Fox]

“Time After Time” (Coming in 2017, ABC)
Premise: Based on the novel and movie “Time After Time,” executive producer/writer Kevin Williamson (“The Vampire Diaries,” “Scream” franchise, “Dawson’s Creek”) delivers a fantastical cat and mouse adventure through time when famed science fiction writer H.G. Wells is transported to modern day Manhattan in pursuit of Jack the Ripper. Once H.G. arrives in New York City, he finds a world he never thought possible and a young woman who captivates him. [Courtesy of ABC]

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