Julien Neaves – Editor
It’s July the 4th and a very Happy Independence Day to all our readers from the USA. Imagine taking a time machine and travelling all the way back to 1776 for the Declaration of Independence. Excitements.
And speaking of time travel, it has been a feature of science fiction writing for more than a century and has been featured in various movies from The Time Machine back in 1960 to the Terminator franchise. But it is a rare that you have a tv series with time travel as a regular plot device (as opposed to a set up as we see in shows like Continuum or Outlander) and rarer still to find a show that does it cleverly. For today’s list we will talking about five shows that made moving through the decades look good and intelligent. With a mild SPOILER ALERT it’s time to go back. Wayyyyy back. Back into time!
#5 Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
This late 80s, early 90s series was just so fun and endearing. Quantum Leap featured the adventures of former scientist Dr Sam Beckett (a very likeable Scott Bakula) travelling through time by “leaping” into (and then out of) the bodies of various people. He is aided by his friend Al Calavicci (a hilarious Dean Stockwell) from the future via a hologram.
Over five seasons we saw Sam leap into both men and women (and even a chimpanzee once), celebrities like Elvis Presley and sex therapist Dr Ruth, and experience everything from the Civil War to pre-civil rights movement. The show could be comedic one moment, action-packed the next, and then get all touching and socially relevant. And sometimes all of that happened in one episode. The time travel mechanic of leaping into people was simple and effective, did not require a lot of scientific jargon and allowed for entertaining and thoughtful adventures throughout various time periods.
#4 Doctor Who (1963 and ongoing)
Full disclosure – I am a massive Whovian. And if my fellow Whovians found out I put Doctor Who at number four they’ll throw me out of the TARDIS mid-flight. If you understood none of that let me return to regular English. This more than five decades-old British science fiction show features the titular Doctor, a centuries-old alien, travelling through time and space with various companions and battling assorted extraterrestrial menaces.
If this was a list of best time travel shows Doctor Who would be a strong contender for number one just by its sheer epic scale. But in terms of smart time travel things get a little wibbly wobbley timey wimey. With 50-plus years and multiple seasons keeping what happened and when consistent is a bit of logistical nightmare. And with different showrunners you sometimes have different approaches to how the time travel works. Can you change things? Are there fixed points in time? What about the bootstrap paradox? Thankfully the time travel is mostly consistent within any particular episode. Now let’s hope I don’t kicked out of my Whovians of Trinidad and Tobago fan group.
#3 Travelers (2016-2018)
Remember how I mentioned in Quantum Leap that Sam would leap in and out of people’s bodies? Well Travelers had a much less subtle, and much more painful, method for time travelling. These agents from the future would travel by having the consciousness of a person about to die (usually about to die) rewritten with their own. Bill and Ted’s phone booth this was not.
Of all the shows on the list this method of time travel seems the most plausible. And the central conflict of having to take over and navigate these people’s lives, while also completing missions to try and save the future, made for some compelling television.
#2 12 Monkeys (2015-2018)
The 1995 science fiction film 12 Monkeys about a man travelling from a post-apocalyptic future to prevent the release of a deadly virus was a wonderful mind-bending adventure. Then the television series came out and that was just mind-blowing. Seriously, a show based on a movie really had no right to be this good.
But we’re not here to talk about show quality. We are here to talk about smart time travel. And the time travel here is meticulous. Sure the bulky machine looks a bit generic. But the writing is just so clever and so detailed. They use a cause-and-effect approach to time travel that is intriguing, fascinating and just very well done. And it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Yes, I made that joke. And no; I don’t regret it.
#1 Dark (2017-2020)
This number one entry is what inspired this list. Now a little background. I had seen this show in passing while scrolling through my Netflix recommendations but I never paid it much mind. And then I saw in May that it won the Rotten Tomatoes poll for greatest Netflix original show. And now I was like “okay, colour me intrigued.” And then I started watching the show and I was hooked, lined and sinkered (that last one is not a real word but you get the point).
Dark is a German science fiction drama (there is an English dub but forget that and watch the compelling performances with the subtitles) set in a fictional town where the disappearance of two children near an ominous-looking cave leads into a vast, sprawling, complex, multigenerational time travel masterpiece.
Fair warning – this show is not for casual viewers. You will find yourselves paying attention to every word, every line and every moment for clues as to what the hell is going on. I even found myself perusing the title sequence for clues. Yeah, it’s that kind of show. And other times you will be trying to figure out when and where you are, and who with. I know it sounds like a lot but it is so rewarding. And the time travel aspect is just a jaw-dropping, brain-busting scientific master class. There really is no comparison here for smartest time travel show. If you haven’t yet, you really need to catch up on Dark.
So what do you think is the smartest time travel TV show? For the Top 10 Sci Fi TV Series of All Time you can click here.
Julien Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. Also loves promoting Caribbean film, creating board games and is an aspiring author. Says things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Can also be found talking about TV and movie stuff on Instagram as redmanwriter and on Facebook at Movieville