Consider this more than a coincidence: a year that clearly overstayed its welcome, 2016, was also a year in which time travel could be found everywhere in popular culture.
From the year’s most popular book and play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, to the hit movie Arrival, to a plethora of books and TV shows, mainstream entertainment seemed to decide its audience could handle some brain-busting twists in time.
Suddenly, the fourth dimension was broken more often than the fourth wall.
That makes a lot of sense. When democracies go haywire and the dark forces of ignorance and populism are on the rise everywhere, when beloved celebrities drop like ninepins, it seems we would all like to step into a machine that will take us anywhere but here. Nostalgia is in vogue.
Either that, or we would like reassurance that the past was worse than 2016 and that the future could be worse too.
So we’d better enjoy what time we have.
The small screen
Time travelers are invading your TV to an unprecedented degree. We’ve had successful shows that play with the concept before, from Time Tunnel to Quantum Leap, and of course the BBC legend Doctor Who which has only been gaining in global popularity over the years.
But never have we seen this kind of traffic jam: so many televisual temporal tourists at once! While the Doctor and his TARDIS were off our screens nearly all year, showing up only in a lackluster Christmas special about superheroes, other networks more than made up for his absence. A plethora of pilots explored every conceivable chronological concept.
This started in the superhero realm, with the CW premiering DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in January. Its premise: a team is recruited in 2016 to guard our timeline against the actions of a terrorist from 2166. It was swiftly renewed for a second season, around the time the plot of its sister show The Flash got pretty timey-wimey as well.
In the fall came NBC’s Timeless, which seemed familiar(its heroes are on the trail of a terrorist who wants to change our timeline, chasing him to a new historical location each week).
More original, even if it was based on a 2000 movie, was Frequency on the CW (in which a police officer tackles unsolved crimes with help from a ghostly radio connection with her late father, 20 years in the past).
At Comic-Con in San Diego, ABC announced it would be starting Time After Time (based on the 1979 movie in which H.G. Wells pursues Jack the Ripper to the present day) at the midseason.
We saw the pilot, and it brings what Doctor Who has always known was necessary in fourth-dimensional fiction: a healthy dose of fish-out-of-water humor.
Fox knows all about that. Its sitcom Making History, about a couple of nerdy college professors who travel back to the American revolution and keep messing with the course of human events, will also debut midseason in early 2017.
Some of the year’s buzziest hits on Netflix and Amazon Prime dipped their toes in the temporal stream; Stranger Things, The OA and The Man in the High Castle all played with the notion of spacetime and alternate timelines.
But Hulu really kickstarted the time-travel-on-streaming-media trend. 11/22/63, which premiered in February, starred James Franco as a man who finds a wormhole in a diner that takes him back to 1960; naturally he works hard to prevent the Kennedy assassination.
Then over the holidays, Netflix came out with Travelers, a taut and deeply mysterious thriller that may well have more longevity than those other shows. The premise: time-travelers from the future are able to come back and take over the bodies of people just before their moment of death.
Thus installed, they carry out missions coordinated by a mysterious “director” in the future all with the intention of preventing what appears to be a very nasty apocalypse.
In their downtime our body-hopping heroes enjoy all the things the 21st century has to offer tourists from the future, such as parks and meat made from actual animals. Call it 12 Monkeys meets Sense8.
Speaking of 12 Monkeys, the movie-based TV drama in which a man from 2043 tries to stop a virus that wipes out all of humanity continues to do yeoman’s work over on SyFy. This year it was renewed for new seasons not once, but twice.
In the Trump era, the outlook for TV shows about future people trying to stop a present-day disaster seems bright.
Science fiction genres usually say more about the present than the future, after all, and time travel anxiety is no exception.
The Big Screen
A movie of the year in many critics’ lists, the Amy Adams hit Arrival ticked so many boxes for science fiction fans. It felt a lot like Interstellar, in the way it revealed the mysteries of the universe at a sad, slow, dreamy pace, presupposes a smart audience and hinges entirely on a time-twisting resolution.
On its surface, the story was about a first contact incident with a mysterious alien race. At the next level down, it was about interpreting alien language, and the problems we feeble, fearful humans have with communication in general.
Arrival is actually the finest time travel movie ever made
But what the story was really about and look away if you still haven’t seen this November release is Adams’ ability to manipulate the fourth dimension like the aliens do.
From the start, there’s something odd about the alien language; it’s animated, but seems to read the same no matter which direction the letters travel in.
Once she’s met the aliens, Adams is able to save the world by skipping around in time. (This is a lot more satisfying of a resolution than it sounds). Her memories about family members seem to be skipping around in both directions, too.
In short, by the end you’ll be considering whether Arrival is actually the finest time travel movie ever made.
It joins a shortlist for that title that has been getting a lot longer in the last decade or so: Looper, Predestination, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Midnight in Paris, the beloved indie hit Primer and, of course, the mighty Interstellar itself.
And because every year now also seems to have its time-travel clunker, step forward Alice Through the Looking Glass. The makers of this critical bomb thought they could overrule Lewis Carroll, and wrote a new and painful plot for the title with a character called Time and an object called the Chronosphere.
And it committed the greatest sin of time travel stories: everything was simply reset at the end, as if it were all a dream. Time travelers are just more satisfying entertainment when they leave some sort of mark, or make some sort of irreversible mistake, big or small.
Arrival which was based on a short story by science-fiction sensation Ted Chiang has overperformed its budget by about 200% and counting. Alice will likely cost Disney a $65 million write-down.
Memo to Hollywood hacks: if you’re going to try your hand at sci-fi’s hottest genre, there is plenty more successful literature you could base yours on. Which brings us to …
Books, Plays & Graphic Novels
The biggest book of the year by sales could have been predicted before it happened: it’s the script for the London stage hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I & II. The bigger surprise was that the play, by Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling, was entirely about time travel and the passage of time.
Potter fans had been introduced to the Time-Turner back in Prisoner of Azkaban, but its implications and outer limits have never been fully explored. Hermione used it to take more classes; she and Harry used it to save Sirius Black.
But there are a lot more implications to such a device, and there are so many dramatic things that can go wrong with it. That’s surely one of the reasons why Rowling, like many of us in 2016, felt drawn to the rich seam of stories inherent in time travel.
Returning to characters after a nearly decade-long gap, when the characters themselves have aged nearly 30 years and are struggling with raising kids that grow up too fast well, that’ll put wistful thoughts of the fourth dimension firmly in your head too.
The Harry Potter series is at its best when characters swear they’re up to no good with magical items; it was about time someone (in this case, Harry’s son Albus) got up to no good with a Time-Turner.
Though much about the script divided fans, it’s hard to deny that delicious chill you get from seeing the alternate world where Voldemort won. Particularly, seeing Hogwarts under Death-Eater control.
Just as we have a perverse fascination with fictional dystopias, we like to see the darkest timeline in comparison to our own. Especially in 2016, when it seems there could be no darker timeline.
Elsewhere in book world, we should note Patience by Daniel Clowes, easily the best graphic novel of the year. Its protagonist expresses his love for his late fianc by traveling throughout her timeline, trying to protect her, hoping to save her life, almost losing track of himself in the process.
Time travel will do that to you, and no one has better rendered what a drag it can be than Clowes.
Another critical hit of the year was Version Control by Dexter Palmer. With two halves telling the story of the same family in two different timelines, it successfully blurred the line between literary fiction, romantic fiction and time-travel fiction. But more importantly it successfully explained why you should never drink and operate a time machine.
I’d be remiss for not mentioning the punk-rock novel Every Anxious Wave, which I described as like Back to the Future meets High Fidelity: A man discovers a portal in his closet that will take him to any concert in history, and falls in love with a fellow alternate music fan.
But my favorite time-travel novel of 2016 was Last Year by the perpetually underrated Canadian science fiction author Robert Charles Wilson.
Set in 1876, it follows Victorian-era Americans who are shocked to discover a bunch of early 21st century people have popped out of nowhere and built a secretive steel-and-glass complex Futurity City in the middle of Ohio.
This is probably the most inventive concept I’ve seen all year. It takes the classic fish-out-of-water time travel trope and reverses it. Here the chronological natives, not the travelers, are the fishes out of water. They can barely handle each small hint of the future.
They are wowed by Futurity’s helicopter, lust after its Oakley sunglasses and its lurid entertainment (a stolen copy of Stephen King’s The Shining becomes a 19th century bestseller), and not a little unnerved by reports that America will one day have a two-term black president.
Futurity puts some of the lucky ones to work, mostly manning its internal franchises (they have a Starbucks and a Taco Bell). Gradually it dawns on both sides that the natives are being manipulated and their wallets bled dry and that playing with the time stream doesn’t matter to the future people, who are actually descended from a different universe’s past.
In short it’s a devilishly subtle satire of colonialism, in which white racist Americans are the ones being colonized. If Last Year doesn’t get turned into a movie in the next four years, then Wilson has been criminally overlooked again.
I love almost everything I’ve read by acclaimed science historian James Gleick. When I learned his first new book in five years was called Time Travel: A History, I couldn’t have been more beside myself if I’d accidentally landed a TARDIS inside a TARDIS.
Sadly, Gleick’s book was a slog. It gets very deep in the philosophical, linguistic and mathematical weeds of what time travel is. Gleick seems to want to spend much of his time raining on various parades. (One chapter is devoted to trashing time capsules. When did burying the silly things we like to represent ourselves with, hoping in vain for requited love from the future, harm anyone?)
There are plenty of fascinating takeaways, however; the biggest being just how new a genre this is. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, published in 1895, really was something new in the world.
Before that, technology and culture had been moving so slowly, no one had thought to imagine a device that could skip around in it. Why bother traveling in time, when society is so static that your parents’ lives and your children’s lives are basically the same?
In 2016, of course, we had the opposite problem. Technology and culture are accelerating, and we’re feeling more future shock than ever. Traditional norms are crumbling. When we look into the future, whether we’re optimists or pessimists, the one thing we don’t see is more of the same.
No wonder we seek refuge in the past, in a more direct way than can ever be found in historical fiction. No wonder we dream of going there ourselves.
And no wonder we want to resolve our anxieties about what’s next by taking a good close-up look at the future in a way that lets us hop back into our machine if we don’t like what we see.
No doubt most of us would prefer to experience 2017 that way, rather than the alternative: one slow, agonizing day at a time.