Two-Fisted Historians

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I love time travel stories. Possibly even more than Toni. My favorite episodes of the original Star Trek are probably “City on the Edge of Forever” and “Assignment: Earth,” I always thought “Little Green Men” was one of Deep Space Nine‘s finest hours, and I even have a soft spot for Voyager‘s trip to 1990s Los Angeles in “Future’s End.”

I’m a little fussy about these stories, though, because they are really, really hard to pull off. Especially when you start seriously thinking paradoxes all the way through. No one did this better than Robert Heinlein in “By His Bootstraps,” at least not until David Gerrold wrote The Man Who Folded Himself.

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Between those two, the paradox thing is done. Against those labyrinthine extrapolations of cause and effect and possibility, movies like The Butterfly Effect are strictly amateur night.

As much as there is to admire in the structure of those tales, though… honestly, that’s not my thing. I like the more traditional adventure story of the heroes traveling back through history, interacting with the past… particularly those stories that attempt to incorporate real history. I blame Irwin Allen for this, I suppose. His Time Tunnel warped me at a very early age.

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Time Tunnel only ran one season, but those of us who were there remember it very fondly; at least, until it started going off the rails in the later episodes with the recycled tinfoil aliens from Lost In Space and so on. But when it was about trying to retrieve scientists Doug Phillips and Tony Newman from this or that historical event, trying to preserve the timeline while still rescuing our guys, it was great fun. The show’s available for home video for not very much money and we treated ourselves a while back. My wife Julie had never heard of it before and enjoyed it a lot, though she was irked that the show ended without ever letting us know if Doug and Tony made it home.

Except it sort of did let us know, very backhandedly. This amused me when I discovered it a couple of years ago.

See, Time Tunnel was actually the name of a 1964 novel by Murray Leinster.

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Irwin Allen must have liked the name, but he didn’t take anything else from Leinster’s book. So there was no real copyright infringement going on (you can’t copyright a title alone.) Nevertheless, Leinster somehow managed to leverage this into getting the gig to write the licensed novels for the show. The first edition plagued collectors for years because it uses the exact same Jack Gaughan cover illustration that Leinster’s original novel used…. and of course both books are by Murray Leinster. So you just have to know which book is which if you want to read about Irwin Allen’s heroes.

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They remedied this for the second edition, as you can see above. (Same back cover for both versions is in the center.)

Leinster followed this up with another one, Timeslip!

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But here’s the thing. I am pretty sure Murray Leinster never SAW the show. Everything about these books is way, way off– most importantly, the fact that Doug and Tony can travel through the tunnel AT WILL, they’re not being flung helplessly from one time period to another. Characterizations are off too– his Ann MacGregor is nothing like the compassionate thoughtful scientist Lee Meriwether was playing on television. Nevertheless, if you are a strict continuity nerd you have to accept that Doug and Tony did make it home safely because by golly, here they are in these novels back in the present as full-fledged members of Project Tic-Toc.

Irwin Allen took another swing at the idea in 1976, with Time Travelers. It’s a mildly entertaining movie but I wouldn’t bother with it unless you have a bright nine-year-old to watch it with.

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It’s one of those movies where you think, they’ll never do that, it’s too obvious, and then the script does that very obvious thing. It plays like it was put together from some sort of Junior’s First Time Travel Script Kit. Sam Groom and Tom Hallick are blandly, generically heroic. But it’s nice to see Richard Basehart doing his gruff old guy thing.

There was a full-on remake of Time Tunnel done in 2002, long after Irwin Allen was gone.

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This was actually the most interesting take on the idea, because– unlike the earlier versions– the 2002 Time Tunnel does not treat the flow of history as an inexorable tide. In this story, it’s fragile and mutable, making time travel incredibly risky. It was a good pilot and it’s a pity Fox passed on it. Both this pilot and the Time Travelers made-for-TV movie are included as extras on the DVD set of the original Time Tunnel volume two, if you are curious.

Anyway, it was Time Tunnel that really gave me a taste for this sort of thing. From there on I always had one eye out for interesting variations on the idea of a hero or a team of heroes tasked with fixing history.

If I had known about DC’s Rip Hunter Time Master back when I was a kid watching Time Tunnel I would have been all over that action. (I did check out the collection when it came out and had much the same reaction I had to Time Travelers: I wished I knew a bright kid to give it to for Christmas, but I’m afraid I’ve aged out of the time when I would have really appreciated it.)

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When I was in high school I found Laser Books, the moderately entertaining attempt to do for science fiction what Harlequin did for romance. There were a couple of good time-traveler ones there: Serving In Time by Gordon Eklund, and Blake’s Progress by Ray Nelson.

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Blake’s Progress was a mind-bending exploration of the idea that visionary poet William Blake was in fact a time traveler, and if you know anything about Blake and his life the story is really a tour-de-force mashup of history and wildly imaginative fantasy. At the age of fourteen I was hardly aware of Blake and still found it hugely entertaining. Later Nelson expanded it into a new edition, Timequest. I have them both but I like the first one better.

Serving in Time was an interesting twist on the idea of changing history– here, the premise is that history needs to be changed at key points or the world becomes a terrible place, but because history wants to reassert itself, you have to go back and keep making the same changes. Our heroes are beset by agents who want to restore the true timeline for their own nefarious motives. It’s a fun book.

Film and TV was still pretty slim pickings though. There’s The Final Countdown, featuring Kirk Douglas in command of an aircraft carrier accidentally transported back to a few hours before Pearl Harbor. This has a lot of good moments in it, but the plot is about on a level with the sci-fi 101 of Irwin Allen’s Time Travelers, and though the naval officers wrestle with the dilemma of whether or not to change history, they really can’t stick the landing, so to speak; the script lets them off the hook before the genuine decision has to be made. It’s a bit of a cheat. It’s carried mostly by the great cast: along with Douglas you have Martin Sheen, James Farentino, Charles Durning, and Katharine Ross.

On TV there was Voyagers, a show I could never get all the way through when it was on, though I know it has its fans. (Although, really, in the days of the internet, I’m finding pretty much everything has its fans.) More to my taste was Millennium, the film starring Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd adapted by John Varley himself from his own novel.

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I like this movie (and the novel it’s based on) quite a bit. Especially the structure of it with the shifting narrative point-of-view: Cheryl Ladd experiences the events out of chronological order as a time traveler, and then Kris Kristoffrerson experiences the events as a normal guy would, in order, until it all collapses together at the end.

Timecop is one I wanted to like but couldn’t get past the actor. Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of those guys I can’t believe in anything, really, and his unfortunate mullet in this film is even more cringeworthy than his performance.

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There was a follow-up TV show I heard was okay, but I haven’t seen it.

And so on and so on. Quantum Leap, Seven Days, Time Trax, I tried them all and found them at best okay but still vaguely unsatisfying. Every once in a while someone would take a shot at the real thing– Michael Crichton’s Timeline, for example– but just as a one-off, and it never turned out as well as I hoped. Even the Back To The Future trilogy, as much as I enjoyed it, was not the time travel story I was truly craving to see on film.

In my heart what I really wanted was the Time Patrol.

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Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol series is more or less the same idea as Timecop…. but WAY SMARTER. Here’s the blurb: “Forget minor hazards like nuclear bombs. The discovery of time travel means that everything we know, anyone we know, might not only vanish, but never even have existed. Against that possibility stand the men and women of the Time Patrol, dedicated to preserving the history they know and protecting the future from fanatics, terrorists, and would-be dictators who would remold the shape of reality to suit their own purposes. But Manse Everard, the Patrol’s finest temporal trouble-shooter, bears a heavy burden. The fabric of history is stained with human blood and suffering which he cannot, must not do anything to alleviate, lest his tampering bring disastrous alterations in future time. Everard must leave the horrors of the past in place, lest his tampering–or that of the Patrol’s opponents, the Exaltationists–erase all hope of a better future, and instead bring about a future filled with greater horrors than any recorded by past history at its darkest and most foul.”

There are nine short stories and novelettes, available in this collection, and one full novel, The Shield of Time. Ever since I stumbled across the SF Book Club editions at a garage sale seventeen years ago, I’ve been saying someone needs to do it as a television series. But I never thought someone would. Classic, ruthlessly-extrapolated old-school science fiction? With smart people using their brains instead of brawn? I figured that went out the door years ago.

Except somebody did it. Sort of.

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Timeless on NBC is a wonderful cross between Anderson’s Time Patrol and Irwin Allen’s Time Tunnel and it is one of the most intelligent pieces of hard SF I’ve ever seen tried on TV. It’s co-created by Shawn Ryan, who also gave us The Shield, Terriers, and Last Resort, so I was instantly interested. Here’s the rundown:

An experimental time machine is stolen by ex-NSA asset Garcia Flynn, who mysteriously goes off the grid after allegedly killing his wife and child. A team consisting of history professor Lucy Preston, soldier Wyatt Logan, and engineer Rufus Carlin is sent back in time using an earlier prototype machine to capture him. However, they soon realize that Flynn and his associates are plotting to rewrite American history, and that each of them has a connection to his plan. Lucy’s primary concern is for her ailing mother. Wyatt is shown grieving over the death of his wife… and Rufus, who helped develop the time machine, is distressed over the fact that Flynn stole his invention and kidnapped his mentor Anthony Bruhl.

Except it’s so much better than that. In the pilot, we see Lucy the historian tending to her mother, far gone with Alzheimer’s. She is doing the best she can as caregiver with the help of her sister. She is recruited for the program because of her historical knowledge; she will accompany Wyatt and Rufus into the past to try and apprehend or kill Garcia Flynn. During the course of this trip, to the time of the Hindenburg disaster, Lucy confronts Flynn, who tells her the government agency she serves is lying to her, if she knew the truth she would be with Flynn– and shows her her own diary in her own handwriting from decades in the future to prove it. Mayhem ensues and upon their return to the present, Lucy discovers that her mother now no longer has Alzheimer’s…. and she no longer has a sister. Something was changed. Even more horrifying, she is apparently about to marry a man that, in the original timeline, she never met and has no memory of…. and Flynn is still out there. She has to continue with the time project, unable to explain herself to anyone, and somehow try to manage what her new reality has become, and secretly, against orders, determines to somehow restore her sister from non-existence.

That’s the pilot. It just gets better from there. As I write this we are nine episodes in of a projected sixteen-episode season and both Julie and I are swooningly in love with it by now. Our heroes have fought at the Alamo, hung out in 1962 Vegas with JFK and the mob, assisted with the Apollo moon landing, helped to bag Bonnie and Clyde…. it’s all done with great verve, never losing track of the larger plotline, and best of all, actions have consequences. Sometimes the team barely makes it home alive and if they’ve only made insignificant changes, that no one else knows about or notices later, they just shrug and take the win. The show is also very honest about the difficulties faced by a woman striving to take action without a man in previous, unenlightened eras, and Rufus is bluntly, bitterly vocal about how much traveling to the past basically sucks for a black guy.

Since the show’s already in an alternate timeline it’s the perfect out to take artistic license with this or that inconvenient fact that might get in the way of the fun. Like, for example, I know damn well that when Ian Fleming was with OSS during World War II he wasn’t any kind of actual operative behind German lines, but the episode was so worth it– especially when Rufus whispers to Wyatt, “Is James Bond hitting on Lucy?” and then the team returns to the present to discover that there’s a James Bond novel set during World War II that didn’t exist before. Stuff like that. I don’t want to spoil it for you because you should go find it streaming somewhere and get caught up if you haven’t already.

It took close to fifty years, but by God, I finally got the real, Heinlein-esque time-travel series I was picturing in my head when I first was watching Time Tunnel back in 1967. I just hope Timeless lasts longer than that show did.

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14 Comments

  1. tomfitz1

    I like Timeless as well.
    I’m surprised that you haven’t mentioned 4 other series that uses time travel (more or less):

    1) Frequency – not exactly time travel, but more of communication and consequences;

    2) Travelers – People who travel from the future to inhabit the bodies of people who are about to die in order to change the present to save the future;

    3) Continuum – a future cop caught in in time travel accident and is trapped in the present day. Tries to prevent other from changing the future at the same time, go back to the future;

    4) 12 Monkeys – based on the same movie by Terry Gilliam, but takes it further. The mother of all time travel.

    I’m sure that there’s more, but these are the most recent.

    1. There are MANY more, but at some point you gotta kinda let it go and post a column; and I was trying to keep it mostly to what I was talking about, the more Time Patrol-type stuff. Of the ones you name, though, I did like Continuum a lot but it kind of lost its way a little in the later seasons. I keep meaning to catch up with 12 Monkeys— I loved the movie but honestly, it was so relentlessly depressing I was kind of lukewarm about the idea of it being a series.

      1. Edo Bosnar

        There’s a 12 Monkeys TV series?! How weird. I love that movie (a lot), but I agree with Greg about it being too dark and depressing for a series.
        Timeless, though, sounds great. I’m really interested in watching that.

        By the way, that episode of Voyager you mentioned is pretty good, but I actually prefer a few later ones that also involved time travel and time paradoxes in some way: the appropriately named “Timeless” (when an alternate future Kim saves the ship) and “Relativity” (sort of a sequel to “Future’s End”) and “Shattered” (when Voyager itself is fractured between different periods).

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Quantum Leap I enjoyed a great deal, though it is less a time travel story than it is a human drama, that allows time travel to put Sam into different situations. It was a nice showcase for Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell as actors; but wasn’t that big on the sci-fi component.

    If you enjoy the Final Countdown, check out Pepe Moreno’s Zeppelin album, where a jet fighter finds itself swept into some kind of giant machine and emerges back in time, where it runs smack dab into history: The Hindenburg!

    1. John Trumbull

      Yeah, QUANTUM LEAP creator Donald Bellisario said that he created QL because he really wanted to do an anthology series, but he knew that networks would never accept one without continuing characters. The time travel thing was just his device to do that. And Bellisario decided to limit the time-travelling to the 20th century as he found stuff like people back in time with the Romans to be very unreal.

      And yeah, QL wasn’t big on the science fiction element. They mostly regarded it as a way to do things they thought might be fun, like having Al be the Leaper and Sam be the hologram for an episode. As long as you go into the show with those expectations, you’ll have a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a more hard SF show, you’ll be disappointed.

      I’m also enjoying TIMELESS. Good goofy fun.

      1. Jeff Nettleton

        The two-part “Leap Home” was one of the best of the actual time travel-themed ones, as Sam leaps into his younger self and tries to save his family from their various futures; but, most of all, his brother, who died in Vietnam. I can’t remember if the series really addresses it as the genesis for the Quantum Leap project; but, that is the motivation provided in the first tie-in novel. From a personal standpoint, I liked that his brother was a Navy SEAL, as they were still relatively unknown to the general public and the episode got their Vietnam operations correct, right down to Sam carrying the Stoner Weapons System, which many SEAL platoons used, as a support weapon.

  3. Caanan

    I’m loving Timeless too! Couple episodes behind, but man, I love how you don’t really know who the bad guys are and how each of the main characters have their own thing going on that mean any of them could do something ridiculous at any moment too. I hope it gets to a second season but I’ve heard ratings haven’t been good enough to justify its budget. Boooo.

    I also agree Continuum started strong but then lost its way.

    I will also always remember Bill and Ted for introducing the concept of, if they save the day, all they have to do is later (after the movie ends, basically) come back and plant a key for themselves to get out of jail, and voila, there it is. Loved that. Might have been used in novels or other things earlier but it was new to me at the time.

    1. Jeff Nettleton

      Check out the Doctor Who Comic Relief sketch, The Curse of the Fatal Death, with Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor and Jonathan Pryce as the Master. They do a couple of gags about going back in time and the other going back even earlier, and so on…

      It also has the Doctor regenerating into Richard E Grant, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Joanna Lumley. really funny stuff, from Stephen Moffett, before the series was revived.

  4. If you want Time Patrol only a whole lot dumber, there’s Legends of Tomorrow. Yes, the anachronisms and wildly-out-of-period dialogue will drive you batty, and every episode has plot holes you can drive a bus through, and way too much of it is tangled up in Geoff Johns’ self-referential continuity-wanking and pet characters, but if you can ignore all that, you get to see a fun cast chew major scenery. Dominic Purcell steals every scene, but he’s at his best opposite oh-so-earnest Brandon Routh.

  5. John King

    while I did watch Time Tunnel re-runs my first encounter with time travel fiction was British comic strip Adam Eterno which I started reading when I was 5.
    The plot concerned a 16th century Alchemist’s assistand who became immortal (and could only die if killed with gold) who, after reaching the age of 400, got hit by a gold-plated limousine and, for some reason, started drifting randomly through time…encountering a surprising number of gold weapons…

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