"We have to go back!"
That certainly seems to be the theme of TV lately, with time travel shows and storylines popping up left and right.
Legends of Tomorrow, The Flash, Outlander, 12 Monkeys, and Doctor Who are all currently on the air. Hulu's 11.22.63 is about to premiere in February, and four different pilots—all including the word "time" in their titles—have been ordered for the current pilot season. In 2017, we could have 10 time travel shows on TV, with no actual time manipulation to give us the time to watch them.
While shows about time travel aren't anything new, the fact that there could be upwards of 10 shows about it on TV at the same time definitely is. ABC just picked up a new Kevin Williamson show about a young H.G. Wells and his time machine, and Comedy Central is working on a show about a time traveling bong. The possibilities when it comes to time travel are pretty much endless.
The newest time-bending series, Legends of Tomorrow, concluded its two-hour series premiere last night with quite the Game of Thrones-ian shocker by killing off Hawkman (Falk Hentschel).
Of course, Hawkman will be reincarnated at some point, but it appears that the current version of him, Carter, is dead for real. It was a ballsy move, but it made sense as a way to illustrate that this show might be willing to have a lot of fun and play fast and loose with physics, but it is not messing around with the emotional stakes.
Carter's death does play into how this show has sort of combined various versions of time travel that we've seen before in order to create its own set of restrictions, according to executive producer Marc Guggenheim.
"We do establish certain rules for time travel, but our characters are in the process of discovering those rules as well," he told E! News. "To be totally honest, the show doesn't live in the rules. When we've been in the writers' room and we've been given a choice to tell a good story or tell a story about a particular paradox, we choose to tell a good story."
Basically, this is not a show for anyone who's here for a rigid, scientific exploration of how time travel would actually work, if it did.
"We're more on the Doctor Who side of the spectrum," Guggenheim explained. "Do you want to be entertained, or do you want the math of this fake thing that doesn't really exist to line up perfectly?"
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Doctor Who, which is probably the most famous and definitely the longest-running time travel show on TV, likes to throw around the phrase "wibbly wobbly, timey wimey" as a way of explaining how it all works. There are absolutely rules when it serves the story, but on a day-to-day, year-to-year, century-to-century basis, pretty much anything goes.
While Doctor Who exists in its own world with its own rules, or lack of rules, Legends is actually using a mix of rules from other franchises to suit its many varied stories.
"We tend to speak in terms of, oh, this is a Back to the Future shape, this is a Terminator shape," Guggenheim told us, referring to the complicated timelines of those two classic movies.
For example, Terminator operates entirely on a paradox with one timeline: If the Terminator never goes back to stop Sarah Connor from giving birth to John Connor, she never meets Kyle Reese, and John Connor is never born in the first place. Back to the Future, on the other hand, essentially creates a new timeline with Marty's way-cooler life and erases the one where his life kind of sucked.
Legends does have one steadfast rule, however, that Doctor Who generally shares: once a moment has been affected by time travel, that moment is fixed. Once the Doctor or the Legends team has changed something, they can never return to that moment, and whatever change they caused is now permanent.
That explains why the deaths of both Carter and Aldus, the son of one of his former incarnations, cannot be changed, and why death and other show-changing events can still resonate in the Legends of Tomorrow universe. Deaths caused by outside events can be erased, but deaths caused or at least affected by this band of time travelers are permanent.
"We wanted to give away our get-out-of-jail-free card so that it didn't turn into Groundhog Day when we made a horrible mistake, or, for instance, if somebody dies," executive producer Phil Klemmer explained to reporters during the CW's winter press tour. "It's important to have real stakes and real consequences and real deaths on the show, and we didn't want to make it easy for ourselves by just using time travel as a chance to get things perfect."
Legends of Tomorrow's sister show, The Flash, also uses time travel, and even though the two shows exist in the same universe, the way they do it could not be more different.
Time travel is much more of an event on The Flash, which means that each time it happens, it packs a lot more of an emotional punch than it probably will on a show that does it in nearly every episode. The Flash also doesn't have a time machine or a similar device. Instead, Barry just has to run so fast that he basically outruns time itself (or the speed of light, or something to that effect).
Once, Flash saved a life and prevented the destruction of the entire city. Later, he prevented the Green Arrow from being magically burned to death. Both of those instances have had and will continue to have consequences down the line, but there doesn't seem to be any rule against the Flash going back and continuing to change things he has already changed, unlike on Legends of Tomorrow.
Starz's Outlander is one of the other biggest shows on TV right now and deals with time travel in a totally different way. The series follows Claire (Caitriona Balfe), who is accidentally transported from 1945 to 1743, where/when she proceeds to fall in love, get pregnant, and attempt to change history by preventing a war (or at least changing the outcome of said war).
There's no time machine, no buttons, levers, or physics of any kind to deal with. Claire simply has to touch an old rock before she's whisked two hundred years into the past. It's about as un-technical as you can get, but it gets more complicated than you could even imagine when Claire comes up against the totally evil ancestor of her 1900s husband, or starts trying to change historical events that could have international consequences.
The effects of her actions haven't been seen yet, and probably won't be seen for a season or two at least, but the show was not even about that in season one. Since Claire had no control over her time travel, season one was more about adjusting to her new world and almost completely ignoring the time travel aspect after a while. Season two, meanwhile, looks to be the opposite, with Claire taking control and specifically working to change the future.
Probably the best thing about time travel for a TV show is the fact that it isn't real, and that it can work any way we want it to. These shows are all wildly different despite starting with the same general concept, and then branching out in a way that allows for literally anything to happen.
So just how crazy could Legends of Tomorrow get?
"That's the thing," Guggenheim said when we asked him that very question. "My barometer's completely broken. Once you've had Victor Garber getting stoned with his younger self, what is too crazy? I don't know. I think that's the fun, beautiful part of the show, is that each week, you don't know what you're going to get. I think today's audiences are going to embrace that."
Whether it's because people are tired of quirky/grumpy/old/young/magical cop shows or because we're all just looking to escape how awful this current timeline often is, it certainly seems like audiences are embracing this sci-fi trope.
Who knows? Maybe time travel is the melodramatic doctor of TV's future. Only time will tell.
Legends of Tomorrow airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on the CW.