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The Return of Time Travel?

By: Callie Prince (History ’17)
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Like many other history nerds, I am fascinated with the idea of time travel. Whether in books, movies or my imagination, there always seems to be an endless number of possibilities of places in different times that I would love to visit. Whether it is ancient Egypt during the time of Nefertiti or simply San Francisco the year my parents met, even with the knowledge we have, the past will always be something of a mystery. I think that my love for documentaries, especially those by Ken Burns, is apart of what makes me so curious about the past. Well-done documentaries or even mainstream movies can transport the audience to another time and even make them feel as if they better understand life for people who lived during that time. Allowing others to write or visualize the imagined time traveling can also change the perspectives through which the past can be viewed. What would it have been like to be a woman during the turn of the 20th century, versus a young boy? TV and other versions of imagined time travel allow for this kind of speculation based on the information available. Historians are using more and more innovative ways to look at life in the past. Even studying historiography, the history of how people study history, can provide other insights into the past.

While my friends are quick to remind me that a love of Ken Burns and wishing to visit other times are both slightly uncommon for people my age, three new popular televisions shows might prove something different. This past year three new shows Timeless, Making History, and Frequency have joined the long list of time traveling dramas that have aired on TV. I instantly became a fan of Timeless, a show about three people: a computer genius, a historian and a soldier, who visit different times in history. They are chasing another time traveler who is changing the course of history to fight an evil organization they believe secretly runs the modern world. A little bit of a stretch, but a good conspiracy theory always makes for good television. With light humor, exciting drama and some very real characters in history, I found Timeless to be a fun watch in between the long hours of writing my thesis. Making History appears to be more of a comedy as the way the characters travel through time is through an oversized gym bag. Frequency has to do with a woman talking to her father decades ago through a radio.

These two new TV shows, however, sparked my interest about the role of time travel in TV. Everyone thinks of the huge hit Doctor Who, but how many other shows are there that deal with time travel? A quick search provided me with a long list of shows dealing with the topic of time travel or communicating with people in the past or future. Interestingly enough, the shows fell into different genres as well like crime, comedy or drama. Time travel did not limit how the show could be constructed. The concept of time travel did provide an interesting background to addressing other pertinent issues that transcend time.

What made Timeless even more interesting was that the plot of the show constantly grapples with the concept of changing history in order to remove an evil person or stop a horrific event. However, the characters often decide to preserve history, as they knew it, rather than changing it even if given the opportunity. I was surprised by this theme of changing history. Never in my thoughts about time travel did I consider what changes I could make if I were able to also interact with characters in history. They face chance to stop events such as the Hindenburg disaster, Lincoln’s assassination and more. These events and people became personal for the time travelers, making sad or awful events even more difficult not to interfere with.

What makes these TV shows so successful, and for the plot of time travel to be repeated so often, are the countless ways that history can be construed. One event could have hundreds of different interpretations. Gender, social status, religion, class, ethnicity are all defining factors that would change a person’s view of an incidence. In this way, time travel TV allows for history to be rewritten countless times. Simply changing the time that the characters leave and return to changes the story. Back to the Future would be a completely different story if Marty and Doc were traveling back and forth from 2017 rather than the mid 1980’s.

The larger point this makes, is that the themes that make history interesting, exciting and relatable do not change. Social challenges, familial relationships, revolutions, politics, even war; while the rules and science may change, the patterns and motivations that spur individuals can be relatable even centuries apart. Wanting to study the time periods and better understand what it meant to live during another time is at the center of my love for history. I believe these time traveling TV shows make a similar claim that history becomes removed, but there were real people involved in many of the events we accept as facts. This was something I learned during my time at Trinity, to remember the people in the events, so it was exciting to see how TV could help to teach a similar lesson. Understanding how things progressed to affect our current day makes the past even more relevant. So my response to the creators of these shows would be to keep the time travel coming, and to continue to ask questions about the past while including small instances of humor about some ridiculous habits of the past. I’m sure a century from now, new entertainment will be reflecting on the early 2000’s and doing the same.

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