Ten great sitcom time-travel episodes
James and Seb talk us through ten of the best sitcoms to feature that sci-fi staple, time-travel. Here's their selection...
This feature contains mild spoilers.
Time travel is great for stories. You can use it to explore the past, reflect on the future, to make people happy or to make them sad. But what about using it to make people laugh? To celebrate the rare fusion of time travel and comedy, James and Seb have counted down ten of the best time-travel sitcom episodes of all time.
Goodnight Sweetheart: Rites of Passage
Okay, we know Goodnight Sweetheart isn’t exactly the most fondly-remembered of British sitcoms – but it would be churlish to do a list of time-travel sitcom episodes and not include an effort from one of the few actual bona fide time-travel sitcoms. And as it happens, the first episode of Marks and Gran’s series – already somewhat old-fashioned when it appeared in the early nineties, and now almost in need of carbon dating – actually sets up its premise quite well. The ennui of TV repairman Gary Sparrow’s nineties life is well established before his unexplained trip through a mysterious time-travelling alleyway to a London-in-the-Blitz pub. And after a slow start, the 'fish out of water' material raises the odd chuckle. Plus, of course, this was the BBC in the nineties – at least they had the expertise in convincing period settings…
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy: Fit the Eighth
It’s still a crime in our book that the BBC never got around to following up their TV adaptation of the first Hitchhiker’s Guide radio series by filming the Secondary Phase as well – so we’re looking to the original radio version for a brilliant piece of brain-bending time-travel narrative from Douglas Adams. At the start of the second series, Ford and Arthur are stranded on prehistoric Earth, while back in the future, Zaphod is captured by shadowy unknown forces and taken to the dreaded Total Perspective Vortex. The manner by which the trio are reunited is a superb piece of cross-millennial messaging that puts even Steven Moffat to shame: after accidentally leaving Arthur’s towel in the midst of a volcanic eruption, the ensuing fossilised rock is blown out into space by the later destruction of the earth, eventually bouncing off the windscreen of the spaceship Heart of Gold, alerting Zaphod to their need to be rescued.
Or, in other words: Arthur flags down a spaceship thousands of years in the future by waving his towel at it.
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
Okay, so there was actually a Blackadder special that dealt far more obviously with technology-based time-travel: 2000’s Blackadder Back and Forth. Unfortunately, it… well, it wasn’t very good. However, Curtis, Atkinson and Elton’s centuries-spanning lineage had already dabbled with time travel once before, albeit of a slightly more nebulous form, courtesy of the Dickens-spoofing Christmas Carol in 1988. Taking a trip through the various past eras of Blackadder, in order to show Victorian-era Ebeneezer that the key to happiness is being an utter bastard, the episode also made an uncharacteristic trip into the far future, with the incredibly 1980s-BBC-sci-fi-looking – but also highly amusing – “Star Adder” segment. At the time, this was actually rumoured to be a trial run for a planned, future-set fifth series, although nearly twenty-five years later we’re still waiting to see if it’ll ever happen.
The Adventures of Pete and Pete: Time Tunnel
The hugely inventive and idiosyncratic Nickelodeon kids’ sitcom – which, incidentally, was never seen by anywhere near as many people as it should have been – presented its own twist on the subject of time travel with this classic episode, in which the younger of the two Pete brothers insists that, thanks to the clocks going back for Daylight Savings Time, it’s a once-a-year opportunity to “go back in time and live the same hour twice”. Big Pete, meanwhile, is preoccupied with a burgeoning potential romance with long-time best friend Ellen – the only time the series would properly touch upon this plot point. All of this, plus the addition of Little Shop of Horrors’ Ellen Greene to the show’s brilliant and eclectic roster of guest appearances.
The Simpsons: Lisa’s Wedding
The Simpsons dealt more explicitly with time travel in the season six Treehouse of Horror segment Time and Punishment – but as we’re looking at whole episodes, we’re going to cheat a little and turn to an episode that showed us the characters’ future without actually being a time 'travel' story. Instead, Lisa is told the story of her first love, fifteen years in the future – and it’s the cue for a succession of fantastic futurist jokes (“Oh, an English boy, eh? You know, we saved your ass in World War II.” “Yeah, well we saved YOUR arse in World War III!”), with particular emphasis on zingers about the media and technology.
More than that, however, the episode does something that any good time travel story should – which is to use its hook to tell us plenty about the 'present' versions of the characters we know and love. In this case, it presents one of the most satisfying emotional conclusions that the show ever managed, as an older and wiser Lisa finally reconciles with the notion of loving her family, and Homer in particular, despite their myriad differences.
Incidentally, though, if you want to be terrified, we’re obligated to point out that the 'future' year in which this episode is set is none other than… 2010. Shudder.
Harvey Birdman: Back to the Present
The gleefully manic sitcom about a former Hanna Barbera superhero turned lawyer hit a high note when it brought in the Jetsons for an episode. Having travelled from the "magnificent far-off year" of 2002 (the episode originally aired in 2004) the Jetsons want to sue the society of today for the damage we'll cause to the future, revealing that the reason you never saw the ground in the Jetsons is because the entire planet is flooded. Some of the episode's humour comes from fairly easy targets (such as how wildly inaccurate a vision of the future The Jetsons presented) but it's not at all sneering – indeed, as many jokes are about how many of their inventions actually did come to pass. It's hard not to laugh at Jane enquiring after George Jetson's hard day at work pushing buttons, given how many of us spend our entire days on computers. The most brutal satires are the ones that need least work.
Futurama: Bender’s Big Score
It’s ironic, given Futurama creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen’s original intention not to include time travel storylines in the show, that time-hopping episodes would ultimately number among the show’s finest hours. The likes of Time Keeps On Slippin' and The Why of Fry feature narrative-twisting to differing extents – but there are two episodes in particular that are full-on time travel stories, and which are truly, outstandingly fantastic.
We contemplated featuring Roswell That Ends Well – the tale of Fry accidentally becoming his own grandfather – in this list, and if we had done it might even have made the top spot. But as brilliant and clever as that episode is, there’s an even brillianter and cleverer story in Futurama’s own canon: Bender’s Big Score.
The first of the four feature-length stories that make up the show’s fifth season, Bender’s Big Score is an intricately-constructed time-travel masterpiece, whose true nature and narrative thread remain a mystery almost until the very closing minutes. It’s a mind-meltingly brilliant plot that would take about as long to explain as it does to watch the film – but what makes it truly superb is how a number of disparate threads revolving around time travel all ultimately end up tying together, not only with each other, but with Futurama’s own very first episode. It’s daring, hilarious, ridiculously clever, and even – in the way the Fry/Lars plot unfolds – a little bit moving.
Family Guy: Back to the Pilot
Seth Macfarlane's nerd credentials have never been in doubt (although his sense of humour sometimes is) but the Back to the Future-referencing title of this time-travel episode of Family Guy tells you all you need to know about how nerdy Family Guy can get if left unchecked – even about itself. In the episode, Stewie and Brian time-travel back to the heady days of 1999, visiting Family Guy's very first episode and meeting the past incarnations of themselves from that era. From the meta-textual gags of the "past" being poorly-drawn and animated (and featuring Lacey Chabert as the original voice of Meg), to the typically-edgy humour (Brian warns people about the September Eleventh attacks, massively changing the future), to the hilarious temporal knot-tying of the pair attempting to stop themselves from time-travelling (by repeatedly time-travelling), it's an episode that really makes the most of its premise and medium.
Brave Young Men
This sadly-overlooked BBC3 sitcom pilot from 2009 starred Tom Basden and Marc Wootton as a pair of going-nowhere twentysomethings who are recruited to stop global disasters by Melvin, a time-travelling civil servant from the future (who might just be a mad tramp – they're not entirely sure).
Appointed Caretakers of the World (Brighton and Hove Division), Owen and Jamie set off to confiscate some home-made beer which Melvin needs to "process" in order to save the future. Will they prevent a global pandemic, as Melvin claims? Or are they just stealing beer for a tramp? The introduction of time travel into a typical sitcom is a clever device, giving a pair of loveable losers some direction in life and forcing them to think, for the first time ever, that their actions in the present might have consequences in the future. Sadly, a series was never produced, but it remains one of the best BBC3 pilots that never made it. How this got canned and Lunch Monkeys had two series, we'll never know.
Red Dwarf: Stasis Leak
As the world’s foremost sci-fi sitcom, it’s no surprise that time travel has cropped up frequently throughout Red Dwarf’s history. A number of classic types of time travel story have been experimented with, in episodes as diverse as Timeslides, Tikka to Ride and even Series X’s Lemons. Indeed, as early as the second ever episode – Future Echoes – the show was playing with time-travel-based narrative trickery.
It was in series II’s Stasis Leak, however, that a trip back in time yielded the most satisfying comedic set pieces. Finally taking the crew back to a pre-accident Red Dwarf courtesy of a “stasis leak” (memorably described as “A leak, right, in stasis, hence the name a stasis leak” – or alternately, a “magic door”) that whisks them back three million years previously, the episode sees Rimmer attempting to warn his past self of his impending doom (“In three million years you’ll be dead!” “Will I really?”) while Lister tries to hook up with his lost love Kochanski.
Featuring brilliant split-screen work by director Ed Bye (there’s one instance of a door being closed that’s still impossible to spot the join in, no mean feat for a late eighties BBC production), the episode builds to a pants-wettingly funny climax of pure farce, as no fewer than three Listers, two future Rimmers and “a strange man with large teeth” converge on the bunk room of an increasingly deranged Past Rimmer…
To promote the launch of their Kickstarter-funded sitcom, Den of Geek writers James and Seb have produced a pair of time travel-based articles celebrating their influences. Come back next week to read their ten best Star Trek Time Travel episodes article, and have a look at their Kickstarter Project Page, accepting donations until November 30th!