Juha-Matti Santala
Community Builder. Dreamer. Adventurer.

Traveling through time

After I published my review for The Lazarus Project, I was followed in Mastodon by Time Travel Research Community and I learned about the Kronomoon - an annual celebration of time, timelessness and time travel which is today. That sparked an idea in my head: I could write a blog post sharing my favorite time travel stories.

What is time travel even?

I initially thought it was gonna be an easy project: I like time travel stories and surely it would be easy to compile a list of the best ones. As I sat in a pub one day creating this list, I ran into so many that I wasn’t sure if they should be in this list. Some (The Tomorrow War) had interesting time travel mechanics but were otherwise bland while others (The Adam Project) were great stories but the time travel bit wasn’t very exciting.

Then there were stories that kinda maybe were time travel but I wasn’t quite sure if I’d categorize them as such. Is actionable knowledge from the future (Early Edition, The Adjustment Bureau, Time Lapse) something that makes a story time travel if the protagonist or antagonist doesn’t actually travel in time?

Some were definitely about time travel but it felt bit more like a gimmick for a tv show than the main interest (Timeless, Quantum Leap). In both of these examples, each episode is about a different historically interesting event or time period and the overarching story with time travel is just there to explain why these seemingly separate events are in the same show.

How about the multiverse stories like Loki and Doctor Strange from Marvel Cinematic Universe? Is multiverse a distant cousin of time travel? In Loki, they actually time travel in addition to multiversal travel but it also explains multiverses as branched timelines based on decisions and occurences of things. Does that make The Back to the Future a multiverse movie?

What intrigues me in time travel is the philosophical and metaphysical pondering of what it would mean to travel through time, especially to the past and changing things.

But here we go. Some of my favorites for a reason or another.

There are some sorts of spoilers here for sure.

Doctor Who

Funny enough, Doctor Who was one of the last things I remembered to add on the list, despite it being the best in everything. Doctor Who (alongside with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) is a brilliant showcase of British sci-fi that is totally different from pretty much every other sci-fi made elsewhere.

While Doctor and his/her companions travel across the time (and space) constantly, it’s more of a vehicle to interesting stories. Very rarely in the series there’s any real correlation or consequences between actions done in the past or present. That’s probably why it doesn’t pop to my head when I think of time travel as a mechanic.

If you’ve never seen an episode of Doctor Who, you’re in luck because you have so many great adventures waiting for you!

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

A great book series that has a ton of time travel and yet, I don’t feel like it is a time travel story. It just feels like time travel is a thing in that universe and while many story elements actively revolve around that time travel, it’s always been something else for me.

I’m happy it has time travel because it lets me talk about it in this blog post. I love, absolutely love this story, in its many forms. I know the Finnish radio play nearly word-for-word in its full 25-episode glory. I have the books in multiple formats and I’ve seen the movies and listened to the BBC radio play.

In my Desert Island Discs blog post I named it as the book I’d take with me to a desert island if I could only choose one. I also love the flexibility of the canon for the story. Each version has a slightly different story: some elements added or removed, some reorganized and some told differently but all are considered canon at the same time.

After you’re finished with this blog post, go and read these books. I’m sure you’ll love them like I do. (And then you can explore the Dirk Gently series by Douglas Adams too).

Time Loops

Time loop stories are a sub-category of time travel stories where the main protagonist is stuck in a loop and need to figure out a way to change something so that the loop ends. I’m not sure if Groundhog Day was the first one in this genre but it definitely is the best known example of it.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

My favorite movie in this genre is The Map of Tiny Perfect Things. Mechanically, it’s exactly like Groundhog Day but its main character is less of an asshole. While it has the classic “boy tries to woo a girl” angle so common in time travel stories, I love the general approach of the movie.

In this movie, there are two characters who live in the same loop and together, they end up discovering all sorts of tiny things in the world around them that they (and in real life, all of us) don’t notice or ignore and thus misses the beauty of the tiny perfect things.


A very different and more technology sci-fi approach to the loop is ARQ. In this movie, a couple lives through a loop where they are attacked by hostile forces in their home and they need to figure out a way out of it.

Every iteration is slightly different as the main protagonist learns more about the situation and the people involved.

It’s not the most in-depth exploration of this mechanic but it’s an entertaining action scifi movie that I’ve watched multiple times (a loop of watching loop movie, very meta).

The Lazarus Project

A very different take on this is The Lazarus Project (tv show, 2022; not to be confused with the 2008 book or the 2008 movie) in which the loop is partially controlled by humans. In this series, the loop is not fixed to a specific person or time frame. Instead, there’s a checkpoint every July 1st and if the world experiences a world-ending catastrophy, the organization can reset to the previous checkpoint and try to prevent the problem in the next iteration.

While the mechanic is very different, the main crux could be the same: learning from past iterations and increasing the odds of escaping the loop. Unfortunately, I feel this series didn’t fully explore the opportunities in their main mechanic (at least in the first two seasons that were made at the time of writing).

The series also introduces “traditional” time travel on its second season and spends a bit of screen time contemplating the differences these two mechanics would have in society. It’s done 100% in-character though and we cannot fully know the motives of each character as they discuss these.

Edge of Tomorrow

Another modern take on the loop is Edge of Tomorrow, an action movie where aliens attack Earth and one person who has been contaminated by alien blood loops. They then try to find the solution to preventing complete loss of the war against the aliens.

In this story, the interesting twist comes from the main character not being (or becoming) the expert on things but rather they team up with a soldier who used to have that power but lost it.

One challenge with this type of story-telling is that often the story wants to keep the loops short but require other people than the main protagonist to also keep progressing.

That’s a nit-pick problem of this movie. Each iteration, it feels like the main character needs to do less and less work to get everyone else on board, which would hardly happen at that rate if it wasn’t for the power of editing and implying that something happened off-screen.

It’s a wonderful action movie despite its minor flaws in navigating a difficult time topic.

Fixing a relationship

A very common setup of a light-hearted time travel story is a man who has either missed out on a potential love or has been left by their love. They then use their power of time travel to manipulate people around them, especially their love interest to falling in love with them. As long as you don’t try to think about that too much, these stories can be quite enjoyable.

Groundhog Day and The Map of Tiny Perfect Things from the previous section would feel right at home here. In addition, there are two that I’ve enjoyed.

Time Freak

A genius teenager builds a time machine to travel back in time to try to avoid a breakup with his girlfriend. The casting does a lot of heavy lifting with this movie. At its core, it’s a “time travel, fix your past” movie with a teenager romantic storyline providing the reason for the mechanic to exist. The main question is the usual: why did things go wrong (in this case, wrong from the perspective of the main dude) and how it could have been changed.

About Time

About time is very much the same story as Time Freak but still very much different. In it, the main protagonist learns at the age of 21 that all the men in his bloodline have the ability to travel in time. And what else would a 21 year old, socially bit awkward man do than travel back in time to get a girl.

Future knowledge without travelling

A sub-category I mentioned in the intro that keeps me wondering if they should even be counted as time travel stories are ones where there’s information about the future that is used to affect the present (or past).

The common thread in all of these is if we can change things to prevent a specific future. The one that does this philosophical pondering the best is The Butterfly Effect (more of it below) but it doesn’t belong to this category.

Early Edition

The first of this genre that I became a fan of is Early Edition. In this tv series, the main protagonist receives the newsletter - a day early. Learning from the bad things that are to happen during that day, he then takes actions to save the day.

The Adjustment Bureau

This is an interesting one because it’s so much not-a-time-travel movie but I can’t ignore it since it shares its main question with other time travel stories: knowing the future, can we keep it from happening or make sure it happens.

In The Adjustment Bureau, there’s a group of agents who operate outside our time and space continuum whose job it is to keep certain destinies of future on their path.

In this story, the main character is a politician who falls in love with a woman in a way that wasn’t supposed to happen. What’s interesting compared to many other stories of similar mechanics, this time it’s not the protagonist with the power of time travel but rather the antagonists.

Time Lapse

An extra spoiler warning here: go watch this movie now and then come back. It’s a movie that loses a lot of its impact if you know the twist and I’m about to share it here.

A big favorite of mine is the movie Time Lapse where nobody travels in time and yet I still list it as one of my all-time favorite time travel stories. Funny how difficult this categorization is.

In Time Lapse, a group of friends move into a house and soon discover that their neighbor has a camera pointed towards their living room. After a while, they realize it’s taking photos 24 hours into the future.

This leads to a mystery and turns a bit grim but is nevertheless a fantastic setting and such a well made movie. I love how it keeps everything really simple and thus manages to focus the story on the mechanic and its consequences.

Too often I feel stories like these add too many things and twists and mechanics and it gets all muddied. Time Lapse is brilliant in keeping a tight focus (pun not intented) on the relationship between the people and the mechanics of the camera.

Other time travel stories

The Butterfly Effect

One of the best movies that leave out the scifi and focus on the fact that it’s nigh impossible to predict how our actions would have shaped a different future.

In this movie, Evan gains a power to travel back in time to specific important moments in his life. Doing so, he tries to change the path he and his friends take throughout life, eventually just making things worse all the time either for him or one of his friends.

In addition to the great time travel mechanics, it’s such a well made movie.

The Planet of the Apes

I find the original The Planet of the Apes story interesting from story-telling mechanic perspective. While often in time travel stories, there’s a lot of time travel, back and forth, in The Planet of the Apes, there’s really only one and it’s to the distant future.

So it’s a movie with time travel but is it really a time travel movie? Later on (or in some versions at least), there’s bit more time travel and in some even later versions like the origin stories there’s none.

Of course, the real focus of the movie is on how we treat other species (and other humans) so time travel is only a vehicle to get the modern day man into a different setting.

Regardless of if you count it or not, these are great stories worth watching.

A guide book and an almanac

So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler's Guide to Time Travel is not a specific time travel story but I wanted to mention it here because it’s such a fun and quirky book. It’s a book explores other stories of time travel while preparing you for the possible time travel. Whether you believe time travel to be possible or not, it’s always a good idea to prepare.

And if you’re looking for new stories to read about, The Time Traveler’s Almanac is an anthology that has 70 time travel stories from authors like Douglas Adams, Isaac Asimov and Ellen Klages

What are your favorites?

I’d love to hear which time travel stories are your favorites or if you disagree with some of my categorization or inclusions on this list. You can participate in the discussion via Fediverse by heading to the Mastodon post below and replying to it!

But remember: if you’re a time traveler sharing insights into movies that haven’t been made yet, avoid spoilers!


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