For those of us turned on by cosplay and the phrase “temporal paradox,” and who will always have a special place in our hearts for Scott Bakula and absurdly long striped wool scarves, this is a golden age of television.
There are three new time-travel shows on broadcast networks this season: ABC’s thriller Time After Time and Fox’s comedy Making History, both debuting Sunday, March 5, joining NBC’s Timeless, which just wrapped its first season, not to mention The CW’s DC's Legends of Tomorrow, Starz’ Outlander, SyFy’s 12 Monkeys, and, of course, the immortal Doctor Who on BBC America. There has never been a better time to be a history nerd. But let’s not forget all those failed experiments in time travel that litter the vacuum tubes of yesteryear like roadkill.
Step into the Quantum Leap Accelerator for a trip back through TV time-travel history. All you have to do is smack the side of your remote control a few times and yell the magic word: Ziggy!
It’s About Time, 1966-1967
Flying high after Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz sold CBS this new sitcom about two astronauts who break the sound barrier and land in the Stone Age, albeit one also occupied by dinosaurs — and, if you look closely, littered with borrowed props and sets from Gilligan’s Island. When the ratings quickly began to tank, Schwartz had his astronauts fix their spaceship and return to 1960s America with their new Neanderthal friends in tow. That went about as well as CBS’s Cavemen in 2007.
The Time Tunnel, 1966-1967
In this ABC adventure series, a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time time machine built in secret by the American government sends two scientists hurtling through the millennia, where they land at pivotal moments in history—the sinking of the Titanic, the attack on Pearl Harbor—and try to rewrite history. Spoiler alert: They don’t. Though it performed well over a 30-episode run, ABC dropped it favor of The Legend of Custer, which, it turned out, was the opposite of legendary.
Starring Meeno Peluce as the whip-smart orphaned son of a history professor, Jon-Erik Hexum as a dashing time traveler and, crucially, Hexum’s snug-fitting pants and perpetually unbuttoned white shirt, NBC’s charming and family-friendly Voyagers! entangled historical figures from various eras — Cleopatra, Babe Ruth and Isaac Newton in one episode, for example — in an effort to fix glitches in the historical record. Despite effectively goosing the libido of moms tuning in, Voyagers! was axed to make way for a news magazine expected to challenge the primacy of CBS' 60 Minutes. Wonder how that turned out.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures, 1992
If the small screen adaptation of the 1989 surprise hit about two metal-god wannabes traveling through time in a phone booth had been done even more cheaply, and if a little more effort had gone in to making it even more lame, Bill & Ted might have worked—as a parody. (We pause for the obligatory air guitar squeal.) This utterly bogus Fox starring poor dudes' version of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter lasted a mere seven episodes.
Based on the Dark Horse comic and the 1994 Jean-Claude Van Damme film, Timecop starred relative unknown (and martial arts deficient) Ted King as an officer with the Time Enforcement Commission. He travels into the past to stop rogue criminals, including a recurring madman, from changing the future. Though ABC initially invested heavily in the show, network turnover marginalized the series, and it was canceled after 13 episodes, only nine of which ever aired.
Kevin McKidd, fresh off HBO’s Rome, played a San Francisco newspaper reporter — yes! in this century! — who suddenly starts warping through time to help those whose destinies need a little nudging. Unlike its brethren, Journeyman dealt with the nitty-gritty realities of time travel: “You missed dinner, honey? Where were you?” “Oh, 1975.” “…” Hobbled by the writer’s strike, Journeyman was cancelled by NBC after its first season.
New Amsterdam, 2008
Not strictly a time travel show, Fox’s short-lived supernatural-tinged mystery starred the future Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) as an early Dutch settler of New York City blessed/cursed with immortality who now works as homicide detective and uses his encyclopedic knowledge of the city to solve crimes, with flashbacks to his earlier guises. And yes, that was basically the plot of ABC’s recent Forever, too. Help us, Sam Beckett! We’re stuck in a time loop!