Writing a time travel story is easy. Anybody can do it. Just think up a scenario where someone goes backwards or forwards in time, and interacts with the events there.
The tricky part is in making the time machine believable. Whether by science or magic, here are sixteen of the most memorably awesome (and memorably lame) time machines given to us by film and television.
Primer‘s time machine was little more than a big cardboard box hooked up to some quantum mechanics techno-wizardry. I hear that the theoretical principles depicted in Primer are built on solid scientific footing, though it was way over my head. It made for a remarkably realistic means of moving through time, though: the notion that you simply sit inside this box for an extended period of time while negatively-charged ions flood the box (or something like that), after which you exit the box and find that you’ve moved backwards in time while the rest of the world kept moving forwards. Primer was a low-budget indie movie that came out of nowhere to surprise a lot of people with its intelligence. “The Box,” as the movie’s time machine was called, was as low-tech as you could get, just like the movie it appeared in. But it worked.
1998 – 2000
Across three seasons and 66 episodes on UPN, Seven Days told the story of a secret NSA team that had the ability to send a man back in time up to seven days to avert any disaster. The giant Chronosphere, a very NASA-like device in which main character Frank Parker rode in a space suit, was based on alien technology recovered from the crash at Roswell.
Back to the Future
Possibly the most iconic time machine from modern film, and certainly the coolest. Doc Brown’s DeLorean was powered by the Flux Capacitor, which was essentially a MacGuffin — an all-important story device that’s never explained. And nobody in the audience cared. The movie was so well made, providing a perfect mix of comedy, thrills, and science fiction, that we just went with it. The two sequels got mixed reviews (the second was a major disappointment, though the third wasn’t bad), but the first movie is still near and dear to the hearts of geeks everywhere. Ready to hit 88 miles per hour, and generate 1.21 jigawatts of electricity? Then hop in the time machine with the most “style,” and hit the road. Oh, wait… Where we’re going, we don’t need “roads!”
2004 – 2010
An ancient wooden wheel that somehow tapped directly into the powerful electromagnetic energy at the core of the island, the Frozen Wheel was a very utilitarian device that generated wildly unpredictable results. Its time-traveling process was actually a side effect of two other operations it activated: moving the island through space and time, and serving as an “Exit” for whoever turned the wheel, essentially teleporting them to an exact spot on the other side of the world, in Tunisia. Like everything else about Lost, it was something without a definitive, scientific (or otherwise) explanation, requiring that you just go with it.
The Great Machine
1993 – 1998
During the two-part, Season 3 episode, “War Without End,” J. Michael Straczynski put his distinctive stamp on the time travel concept, vowing to use it just once during Babylon 5‘s run. The science involved a supercomputer called the “Great Machine,” built by an ancient, long-vanished civilization (likely a member of the “First Ones”). The Great Machine resided on the planet that the titular space station orbited. Its original purpose was unknown, but it featured hardcore artillery, all sorts of advanced technology, and the ability to create time vortexes big enough for an entire space station (like Babylon 4, above) to pass through. The true scope of the Great Machine was never fully explained.
Guardian of Forever
1966 – 1969
The portal from the classic Star Trek episode “The City On the Edge of Forever” wasn’t what I’d call technology. It was more of a god-like entity, sentient and self-aware, yet aloof from the concerns of mortal beings. Its true purpose was never revealed, and frustratingly, no episode of any of the many spin-offs or films has ever revisited the Guardian, aside from the animated series. (It was hardly Star Trek‘s only time machine, though it was probably the most memorable; plenty of space vessels, including the Enterprise itself, have traveled through time quite often throughout the decades of Star Trek lore.) The Guardian has been featured in numerous Star Trek novels over the years, but none of those are considered canon. Its origins and true purpose remain a mystery.
1982 – 1983
Say what you will about the cheesy kids TV show, something about the handheld stopwatch-like Omni device just made sense. What could be better than a timepiece to serve as a visual cue for time travel? This nifty trinket was the tool of Voyagers, a sort of time-travelling police force who were sent in to help history stay on track when some important event threatened to go awry, such as Edison failing to invent the light bulb. No explanation was ever given for why these pivotal events sometimes didn’t happen as they should — or how the Omni devices worked — but whenever a Voyager got a red light in the upper left corner of their Omni, it meant they had to stop and set things right before they could move on. Success was indicated by a green light, the time travel controls were the dials on the outer perimeter, and the globe in the center determined the physical location where they would stop in time. Simple and elegant. I remember wanting one as a kid.
A lot of fans are still bitter that Dr. Sam Beckett never made it home. After getting lost in time due to an experiment that went way wrong, Sam found himself “leaping” from time to time and into person after person, so that he could “put right what once went wrong.” Quantum Leap introduced a supernatural/spiritual element into its quantum physics-based science, suggesting that “God, time, fate, or whatever” took control of the Quantum Accelerator, controlling Sam’s leaps into the lives of those who needed him most throughout time. His aim throughout the series was to help enough people that he might someday earn his passage back home, but the cryptic final episode stated that he never did. Poor guy.
The Sands of Time
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
One of the most esoteric entries on this list, the Sands of Time take the notion of time travel into the realm of the mystical. Still, there is a button on the dagger that activates the Sands, so I’m calling it a machine, darn it. Disney was hoping to launch another Pirates of the Caribbean-sized franchise with Prince of Persia, but the audience just didn’t show up. And those that did (SPOILER ALERT) hated the take-it-all-back-like-none-of-it-ever-happened ending. Yours truly included. The video game was better.
1963 – Present
Easily the favorite of many a reader who’s perusing this list, the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) is the most long-lasting time machine ever dreamed up in the annals of fiction. After 48 years, it’s still in use, having logged more screen time than any other time machine ever, and has survived eleven incarnations of the Doctor (and counting). It gets extra points for being bigger on the inside.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Borrowing liberally from the last entry in this list in its design, the phone booth used by the excellent Ted “Theodore” Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esquire bounced them around through time via technology on loan from their friend-from-the-future, Rufus. It also later transported them to Heaven, Hell, and some other stops in between in a second, far less memorable film. [Image source.]
Time Displacement Equipment
We never actually got to see the technology behind the time travel depicted in the Terminator films. (The Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show gave us a look at it, but that show’s canon is wide open to debate.) All we really saw was the end result: a white hot sphere of energy that would pop into existence, blowing up like a bubble, and then dissipating to reveal the traveller inside. Terminator‘s time travel always made sense somehow, and it was a brilliant creation on the part of James Cameron. You didn’t need to understand the technology to see the logic behind clothes not surviving the trip; it just made sense somehow that a violent technology that could punch a hole through time would be designed so that only organic flesh could make it through.
The Time Machine
The Time Machine
One of the greatest time machines of all time was this sleigh-type vehicle that was used in the movie based on H.G. Wells’ classic novel. The science explaining how it worked was never provided, though we do know it was based on real science and not fantasy. The operator moved a lever forward or backward to progress through time, and in the movie, the main character went as far as 800,000 years into the future, where he learned that humans had evolved into two separate races that were at war with one another. Another film by the same name was released in 2002 and directed by Wells’ own great-grandson, Simon. It was billed as a remake, using a similar sleigh-type vehicle, though the director reportedly saw it as more of a sequel.
For a Jean Claude van Damme movie, TimeCop had decent effects for the time, and a story that almost made sense. The thing that always left me scratching my head about TimeCop is its time machine. It was this rocket-sled-on-rails thing that you ride inside of that goes supercrazyfast to shoot you through time. Or something. So if you have to sit down, strap in, and seal the cockpit before the thing blasts you through time, why was the passenger’s arrival on the other side depicted as leisurely strolling through a time portal? At what point exactly did they stand up and start walking? And why didn’t the vehicle go with them? There was no Time Sled on the other side when they arrived, yet somehow the whole process happened exactly in reverse when travelers returned. It’s got to be one of the least logical time machines ever invented.
The Time Tunnel
1966 – 1967
Two scientists get lost in time, venturing from one historical even to another, week after week. The show itself was riddled with plot holes, but its time machine put such an indelible stamp on 60s television that it was later lampooned in the second Austin Powers film.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Hermione Granger’s Time Turner was an ingenious handheld gizmo that the studious young witch was allowed to use in order to be in more than one class at one time. It was clasped to a chain that she wore around her neck — a chain that was conveniently long enough to let Harry hitch a time ride late in Prisoner of Azkaban. As for how it worked… It was magic, of course. No further explanation required.