I've been a fan of time travel stories since, as a second-grader, I watched Charlton Heston discover the half-sunken Statue of Liberty on a shoreline of a planet ruled by intelligent apes. Our planet. Charlton, understandably, takes the news of his whereabouts badly. "Oh my God," he says. "I'm back. I'm home. All the time, it was... We finally really did it... You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell."
Later, in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (the third of five Apes movie), three chimpanzees from the future escape the destruction of the earth by repairing the same spacecraft Heston had arrived in. The intelligent apes arrive back in 1973 where one of them gives birth to the world's first talking ape, thereby setting the stage for the rise of the apes (something which has both already happened but has still, in 1973, yet to happen). A perfect circle. Watching Escape from the Planet of the Apes for the first time my brain looped around and around, trying to get a handle on this idea.
I think the chief reason that time travel in fiction and movies has such enduring appeal is that for all our technological advancements time is still something we have no control over. Yes, theoretically time travel is possible but I don't have any friends who have actually achieved it. And there are occasions in all our lives when we could desperately use a do-over. Occasions when such intervention would have prevented terrible disasters. Then there's nostalgia, the feeling that the past is somehow closer to perfection than the present. We can hope for the future (or dread it) and miss the past, but both things are always beyond reach.
One of my favourite time travel plots occurs in Stephen Fry's Making History (1996). Time travel prevents the birth of Adolph Hitler. This deviation in history turns the United States into an ultra-conservative nation where racial segregation still occurs and homosexuality is a crime. The alternate post-WWII history of the western world is fascinating and feels credible.
Here are my some of my other favourite time travel plots, mostly from the film world:
La Jetee/12 Monkeys: I first saw Chris Marker's 1962 French sci-fi short La Jetee in film school. It's both stark and beautiful and contains only a brief moment of actual moving footage. The rest of the film is composed of still-photographs and centers on a Third World war prisoner who is sent back in time, in a series of experiments, to seek help for his world from the future. Director Terry Gilliam made an appealing full length version of the film in 1995: 12 Monkeys.
Donnie Darko: A teenage boy is haunted by visions which include a guy in a creepy rabbit costume and time lines made visible. Where the hell is all this going? Trippy as all get out but in the best possible way.
The Time Machine: First published in 1895, a movie adaptation was produced in 1960 and a second in 2002. This classic tale of humanity's downfall a collapse brought about by scientific "advancement" remains as potent as ever.
Groundhog Day: The transformation Billy Murray makes from perpetually irritated self-centered newsman to a well-rounded human being when he finally stops fighting the fact that the rest of his life might well be spent in the same winter day is hilarious, warm and wise.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey: The Black Death is sweeping 14th century England. A Cumbrian village boy's visions inspire a group of his fellow villagers to tunnel through the earth and erect a cross in an attempt to ward off infection. The journey through the earth leads the travellers to 20th century New Zealand, a place they struggle to understand as they race to fulfill their quest.
The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey
Planet of the Apes/Escape from the Planet of the Apes: The 1968 film was based on a 1963 book by Pierre Boulle. The horrifying idea that we might one day devastate the planet through human invention (atomic bombs) was much newer when these films were released than it is now. In fact, the rise of an ape civilization after a nuclear war would now appear to be the good news. There's something intriguing about watching our nearest biological relatives follow in our footsteps in these films.
Looper: In 2044, where time travel is possible but illegal, a crime syndicate has come up with a handy workaround to help them wipe out their enemies and, ultimately, the assassins themselves. When hitman Joe is sent back in time to be killed, young Joe is the one about to pull the trigger. Until he discovers who his target is. And this is just the first few minutes! A must-see for people who like their action movies smart.
Lost: "Think of the island as a record, spinning on a turntable," Daniel Faraday said. "Only now, that record is skipping." Whatever you say, Faraday! Time travel back to the 70s was only one of the treats in Lost's goody bag. I think the main reason we devoured all the weirdness (including temporal disturbances) was our fondness for the characters who remained three-dimensional no matter what was thrown at them.
Life on Mars: BBC police procedural show about a cop who wakes up in 1973 after a 2006 car accident and aims to enlighten the '73 police force while hoping for a return to the future. This show simultaneously inspires nostalgia for a less politically correct time while we also root for main character Sam Tyler in his efforts to, in effect, make the future arrive faster by putting his progressive twenty-first century ideas into action.
Being Erica: Emotional Canadian time travel drama about a woman whose temporally gifted therapist allows her to work out her various issues by travelling back to certain parts of her life and redo them. Erin Karpluk plays the likeable Erica Strange (intrepid time traveller!) and Torontonians will especially enjoy the local scenery, from Centre Island to Casa Loma.
Fringe: I've seldom been so sorry to see a series end. For five seasons Walter Bishop was the smartest man on television and Olivia its greatest hero. Fringe featured astounding plotlines hinging on parallel universes and a race of people called Watchers who have mastery over time. But it never forgot the humanity of its central characters and the importance of their relationships with each other. Love. Sacrifice. Hope. Courage. On Fringe these qualities endured across time and place proving a wonderful inspiration.