NBC’s “Timeless” and Time Travel on TV: Learning From the Past to Depict the Future



If any of us could time-travel back to earlier TV eras, some of us would probably bring back forgotten documented proof of how many time travel shows networks attempted in the last six decades. You have to wonder how many programming executives at NBC know that they’ve had more time travel shows than any other network in history. This might place their latest time travel venture (“Timeless”) under a new scrutinizing light.

In the movies, it seems every time travel plot has to try and outdo what’s already been done. On TV, it’s never been quite as competitive with plenty of nods and borrowings from previous shows. With almost 60 years worth of time travel stories on TV, it’s left behind a long trail of mostly accessible time travel plots rather than blowing our minds with complex paradoxes.

While “Timeless” is going to attempt to make time travel emotionally connectable, the movies continue being brazen in taking on complicated paradoxes. Perhaps we’ll soon see the paradox fascination peak while the 30-year-old “Back to the Future” trilogy continues being the greatest ever standard on time travel accessibility and theoretical complexity.

This isn’t to say we should discount the sci-fi standard TV once set. Many producers put forth numerous time travel tropes still in use now, including in “Timeless.” Before you watch it, however, you need to know what TV analysts sometimes forget.

Where Did Time Travel Start on TV?

Those who grew up in the earliest days of TV saw very little in the way of time travel stories. It was the same in the movies until the early 1950s. If ‘50s TV classics like “The Adventures of Superman” touched on time travel lightly, it wasn’t until “The Twilight Zone” began when TV watchers started seeing thoughtful views of time travel in a sociological context.

Even though the 1960 film adaptation of “The Time Machine” set up later films of visiting the future, ‘60s TV was mostly all about traveling to the past. The public saw this in various emotional tales from the astute pen of Rod Serling. Not long after, TV watchers saw the first live-action TV series about time travel to the past: ABC’s “The Time Tunnel.”

You don’t see many television historians talk about this 1966-67 series lately, but it sometimes shows up in syndication. It set up a time travel concept that was copiously copied where two or more people travel together to visit past events. The minds behind “The Time Tunnel” likely wouldn’t admit they subtly took inspiration from animated “Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History”, which began on TV seven years earlier.

Concurrently with “The Time Tunnel”, we all know “Star Trek” took on time travel occasionally, and made it more intellectual than the public was used to. Regardless, it was still all about traveling to the past, making it all the more convenient to re-create notable past events rather than take chances prognosticating the further future.

It’s safe to say “Back to the Future Part II” came the closest to predicting our real future than any other time-travel product ever made. On TV, all time travel depictions of the future were (and still are) made tongue-in-cheek so nobody could completely deride the vision years later in reruns.

While Great Britain was already onto more advanced time travel with “Dr. Who”, American TV stayed anchored in exploring and understanding world history. By the early 1980s, America saw the first NBC series about time travel: “Voyagers!” It reached back to the old trope of two friends time-traveling together to right wrongs from specific points in history.

Yes, almost all similar shows had to go back to the Titanic at least once. The doomed ship must have had more time-travelers potentially running into one another on deck than any other notables on board.

By 1989, NBC delved into time-travel again with “Quantum Leap”, this time with a new twist through soul (or mind) transfer. Still, it essentially had two people time-traveling together again if you include Al as Sam’s assistant.

Arguably, “Quantum Leap” had some of the most astute takes on history than any other time-travel series, and some fans still wish for a follow-up or revival.

Now with “Timeless”, you see why we can call NBC the true time-travel network. The series intends to take from past time-travel shows and have near-future people traveling to our past to prevent a rogue traveler from altering events. It’s credible enough where we could almost blame them for why world history turned out so flawed and bloody.

Looking at TV’s next decade, though, what about time-traveling to the future and depicting it without being outrageous?

TV’s Future of Traveling to the Future

“Dr. Who” still manages to visit the future effectively, though mainly in the context of other galaxies, planets, and realities. With “Star Trek: Discovery” arriving next year, we’ll likely get more time-travel episodes as we’ve seen in all other “Star Trek” properties. The “Trek” future is also one seeming most plausible (or maybe cathartic) without going in the direction of post-apocalypse.

Although we’ve seen a few TV shows depicting an apocalyptic view of the future, they aren’t told through a time-traveler’s perspective. Let’s see networks get braver and depict an American future being visited by someone from the past or 2016. Perhaps these visitations should occur over different points in future time to depict how we evolve down the road.

The arbitrary visits to the past might give some insight into history, yet how many times will we see time-travelers visiting the Hindenburg disaster or other pivotal historical moments?

“Timeless” may still work within this context if it gives some twists on how history shaped us into what we are now. Regardless, let’s see a time-travel show that depicts a future reflecting what’s happening today, with conscientious time-travelers attempting to change it from its destructive curve.