The Best Female Time Travelers in TV History
Here are some of our favorite female time travelers to ever hit the small screen.
It’s been a good couple of years for women time travelers on television. Doctor Who gave us our first female Doctor, Outlander got multi-generational with its time travel lady representation, and the show Timeless existed.
Why does this matter? Well, aside from the fact that the characters listed below rock in their own rights, they also represent a relatively rich television history of fictional female time travelers that is in stark contrast to TV’s cinematic cousin. When time-travelling rom com About Time came out in 2013, critics commented on the fact that, though time travel is a popular cinematic trope, it is hardly ever women who get to do the time-traveling (especially if you are Rachel McAdams).
This is less true on television, where women have been hopping through the space-time continuum for decades. Here is a list of some of the best fictional female time travelers of the TV world. Some of them are even from TV shows other than Doctor Who…
Lucy Preston, Timeless
When we first meet Lucy Preston, she is an unassuming historian, totally in the dark about the possibility of time travel. But, as the first season progresses, we learn just how tied up in time travel Lucy’s existence truly is. Through this journey of self-discovery, Lucy manages to maintain an enthusiasm about time travel and different eras. Rectify‘s Abigail Spencer plays the charismatic, clever, and loyal Lucy, who works with a team of two other people—scientist Rufus and soldier Wyatt—to try to protect time from the machinations of vengeful revolutionary Garcia Flynn. Timeless is an addictive science fiction adventure show with heart, and Lucy is a big reason for that.
Claire Beauchamp, Outlander
When news broke that Battlestar Galactica showrunner Ronald D. Moore would be adapting the historical time travel romance book series, Outlander, into a television show for Starz, it was hard to imagine just what the series would look like. Though Moore has proven himself a showrunner adept at balancing character-driven genre TV with the exploration of nuanced theme and, you know, space wars, this story of a British World War II nurse accidentally transported back in time to 1743 Scotland seemed like a strange decision. But Outlander fascinates and much of that has to do with protagonist Claire Beauchamp.
Outlander could have been so much flatter. It could have relied completely on Claire’s love life to keep viewers interesting. And, though Outlander does romance very well, Claire is more than her relationships with the men in her life. She is a woman trying to do the right thing as her allegiances quickly become confused. A woman out of time, she relies on her skills as a nurse, common sense, and a rough recollection of Scottish (and now Colonial American) history to survive.
Rose Tyler, Doctor Who
For many, Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) was their first Doctor Who companion, but – regardless of when you jumped on the Doctor Who bandwagon – her importance in the Whovian universe is hard to deny.
In many ways, Rose was the protagonist of the first two seasons of new Who. Her character was more than just the audience proxy; this was her story arguably more so than The Doctor’s. This became less true as new Who went on, but who knows what would have happened to Doctor Who’s revival if Rose wasn’t so compelling. A working class young woman fed up with the limitations of her life as a shop girl, Rose jumped at the chance to travel aboard the T.A.R.D.I.S.
Though it is tempting for some to conflate Rose’s identity into her relationship with the Ninth or Tenth Doctors, Rose was so much more than that. She was an empathetic adventurer. She was fiercely loyal to everyone she loved, even when she wasn’t being particularly nice to them (sorry, Mickey). And she was the gateway character for so many new fans into the world of Doctor Who.
Cassie Railly & Others, 12 Monkeys
For awhile in 12 Monkeys, time travel was the domain of one man: James Cole. But once Dr. Cassandra Railly was sent to the future to save her life, the field was opened up for a whole host of great female time travelers. Oddly, Dr. Katarina Jones, the inventor of the time travel process called “splintering,” did not jump to the past herself for quite some time, and even then she only rarely repeated the process.
Jennifer Goines was perhaps the only one of the women in 12 Monkeys who enjoyed the normally painful process of splintering apart and reassembling in another period in history, but that was likely because of her intimate relationship with time itself as a Primary who could see many causality possibilities. She and Hannah, the fourth female time traveler in the series, spent the most time in the past, willingly or otherwise.
Felicity Porter, Felicity
You didn’t really think that J.J. Abrams could make it through an entire TV show without a time travel plot, did you? If so, perhaps you forgot about the five-episode arc that ended Felicity‘s final season. Necessitated by an unexpected addition to the episode order after the planned series finale had already been shot, the show’s writers went all in on a time travel storyline. In the arc, a desperate Felicity uses a time travel spell from her kooky roommate’s book of spells to go back in time and change her love life. It doesn’t work out well. There are unexpected deaths, some retreading of romantic mistakes past, and Felicity eventually ends up in the psych ward. The unexpected time travel twist was tonally jarring in a show that, for most of its four seasons, had existed as a straightforward coming-of-age college, but it was also… kind of awesome?
Besides, if The Americans has proven anything, it’s that Keri Russell is awesome in any time period. Thank you for this delightfully zany contribution to the female time traveling tradition, J.J. Abrams.
Polly, Doctor Who
Polly (Anneke Wills) appeared in nine stories (or 36 episodes) of Doctor Who during the reigns of the First and Second Doctors. However, only her first story — “The War Machines” — remains completely intact. All other Polly episodes are either partially or completely missing. This has to be the reason Polly doesn’t get more love when it comes to listing Doctor Who’s best companions.
A resident of 1966 Britain, Polly and fellow companion Ben, accidentally get carried away by the T.A.R.D.I.S. when trying to return The Doctor’s key. They are not only present for the first regeneration of The Doctor, but for the first episode featuring long-time companion Jamie McCrimmon, “The Highlanders,” which also features Polly single-handedly capturing a British lieutenant, tying him up, and stealing all of his money.
The ladies over at Verity Podcast chatted about Polly in an episode about companions from missing episodes. Check it out if you’re looking to reminisce further about this groovy time-traveling lady.
Becca Brady, Hindsight
Few could have expected such a delightful degree of drama in VH1’s Hindsight. Canceled after being renewed for a second season (a reverse Timeless, if you will), the show follows Becca (Laura Ramsey), a woman who travels back in time 20 years to 1995. Part of this show’s charm lies in its nostalgia factor (complete with a killer ’90s soundtrack, of course), but it is protagonist’s likability and determination to live a fuller life that makes it so watchable even once the novelty of listening to The Cranberries has partially worn off.
It’s hard to pull off the nuance of a character whose greatest flaw is arguably her inability to make a decision for herself, but how could you not like someone who describes her mother’s love for her only daughter as “like how Darth Vader loved Luke”?
Sarah Connor, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Before Lena Headey was raising hell in the name of her children on Game of Thrones, she was raising hell in the name of her child on The Sarah Connor Chronicles — and it made for glorious television. Time travel wasn’t a frequent plot device on this show (though it always loomed over its characters), but it was a huge catalyst in the pilot episode, which saw Sarah, John, and their new Terminator friend (played by Summer Glau) jumping forwards in time from 1999 to 2007 to avoid Skynet’s newest Terminator assassin.
We already knew Sarah Connor was a badass from her turns in The Terminator film series, but this show allowed Sarah to become the central protagonist in her own right, fleshing out both the darker and lighter sides of Sarah Connor.
Sarah Jane Smith, Doctor Who
Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) is one of the most iconic companions in Doctor Who’s long history, eventually getting her own spin-off show more than 30 years after her initial appearance on the time travel classic. She first met The Doctor when impersonating her aunt, a renowned virologist, to sneak into a top secret research facility — which is all kinds of awesome and also demonstrates that, though she sometimes fell into the problematic caricature of the obedient female companion, she often managed to break past those limits.
She was a co-star in her own right, calling out The Doctor when he needed it and, sometimes, saving the day herself. Looking back, it’s impressive to see how much Sarah Jane accomplished at a time in television history when it was even harder to be a time traveling lady.
If you haven’t checked out this Canadian time travel drama, do it. Do it now. Airing for four seasons, the show tells the story of Kira (Rachel Nichols), a cop from a dystopian future who inadvertently leaves behind her family and everything she has ever known when pursuing a group of time-hopping anarchist terrorists.
Continuum’s Kira is fascinating as a protagonist because she is often fighting to maintain a bleak version of the future, rather than trying to avert it. Politically and morally, her character motivations and actions can be hard to swallow, but, personally, it is easy to sympathize with her desperate desire to return to her husband and son.
Amanda Price, Lost in Austen
There have been so many incarnations of the Pride and Prejudice story, but few have gone so intensely meta as this miniseries about a modern-day Austenite, Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), who finds herself switching places with Elizabeth Bennet and (more or less) living out the story arc of Pride and Prejudice. It’s hard to decide if Amanda’s trip back into Pride and Prejudice is more time travel or meta travel, but, either way, Lost in Austen embraces the fish-out-of-water theme that can make time travel narratives so enjoyable.
Add in a hearty helping of dramatic irony and you have yourself the ultimate Mary Sue adventure. The TV show doesn’t quite stick its ending, but watching Amanda Price snark her way through Regency England still makes this mini-series worthwhile.
Donna Noble, Doctor Who
Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) might not have stuck around Doctor Who for long, but she is not easily forgotten (even though she frustratingly can’t remember a thing). The only main companion from new Who to break the 20-something lady parade, Donna never wanted to shag The Doctor. She did, however, want to escape from temp life in modern-day Britain to travel with her best friend through space and time. Who can’t relate to that?
Some of Donna’s best adventures include her begging The Doctor to save at least one family from the destruction of Vesuvius; living a brave, but bleak life in a world where she never met The Doctor in “Turn Left”; and any time she hung out with her grandfather.
Tru Davies, Tru Calling
Before she was causing problems in The Dollhouse, Eliza Dushku was just a med student with the ability to relive the day before a wrongful death occurs. Tru Calling wasn’t the best time travel show ever made, but it was starting to do some really cool stuff right before it was canceled after two seasons. Plus, Tru was friends with Zach Galifianakis (or, more accurately, his character) before he made it big in The Hangover. If that’s not some kind of privileged time traveler knowledge, then I don’t know what is.
Martha Jones, Doctor Who
Doctor Who’s Martha Jones (Freema Agymen) didn’t have the best time traveling with the Doctor. Frankly, he spent most of their time together mourning Rose’s departure, which didn’t make for very cheery adventures. It’s not hard to see Martha Jones’ greatness, however. She was a doctor who was regularly left to her own devices to save both herself and the Doctor. (“Human Nature,” anyone?)
She is also one of the few companions who realized her relationship with The Doctor was unhealthy, and chose to extradite herself from it because she deserved better. That’s pretty cool. Furthermore, Martha is the very rare example of a time traveling woman of color — because, if there’s one thing more difficult than traveling through time as a lady, it’s traveling through time as a lady of color. For all of these reasons and more. Martha Jones gets all of the time traveling points.
Alex Drake, Ashes to Ashes
While Life on Mars tells the story of a dudely cop being sent back to the 1970s, its spinoff, Ashes to Ashes, sees a lady cop make the jump. At first, D.I. Alex Drake’s (Keeley Hawes) story arc seems all too similar to D.I. Sam Tyler’s, but there is enough nuance and divergence in this tale to eventually not only let it stand on its own, but add layers to its predecessor.
Alex’s gender also allows Ashes to Ashes to explore the treatment of women in 1981 in a more direct way than Sam’s tangential observations of how others treated police officer Annie Cartwright ever did. And what fun is time travel without some casual examination of feminist history?
Bill Potts, Doctor Who
Speaking of fierce, time-traveling ladies of color, Doctor Who featured the curious, conscientious Bill traveling through space and time with the Thirteenth Doctor. While Bill’s storyline didn’t always do her justice (I’m not even going to touch the horrific trauma of her Cyberman fate), it was incredible fun traveling through time with Bill.
Bill’s cautious enthusiasm was infinitely relatable and, with her introduction to the TARDIS, we got to see another side to the Doctor, who served as a mentor and teacher to Bill in a dynamic that harkened back to the First Doctor’s grandfather relationship with Susan. Pearl Mackie infused Bill with a deep humanity that we missed from our TV screens when Doctor Whoreturned to our screens—if only Bill could return to travel with the new Doctor…
Erica Strange, Being Erica
It seems strange that more time travel narratives haven’t used the plot device to explore mental health. Therapy and time travel go surprisingly well together, as Erica Strange (Erin Karpluk) learns on Canadian time travel drama Being Erica. In this untraditional genre mash-up, our protagonist is regularly sent back in time by her therapist to relive and/or change past events.
This show takes the standard time travel trope that There’s No Such Thing As Fixing The Past, But We Should Probably Try Anyway, and comes at it from an empowering, optimistic angle that is relatively rare in time travel TV. This dynamic should get boring, but it doesn’t. Instead, Erica continually learns from her mistakes. If only all time travelers were as emotionally intelligent as the Being Erica protagonist.
River Song, Doctor Who
While many talk of the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Whoin terms of its Doctors, River Song is somewhat of the definitive Doctor Who character for the Moffat era. He created the character before he was showrunner, in an episode he wrote for Russell T. Davies’ run, and brought her back in a more serialized manner for his own seasons. While River’s storyline didn’t always make sense, her conception as a character who is moving through time in a different order than the Doctor made for an ambitious, affecting story. Has there ever been a TV time travel character who has time travel so infused into her character arc? I don’t think so. The fierce, clever time traveler never needed the Doctor to define her story; from Day One (or the last day, depending on whose perspective you take), she had her own story to tell.
Clara Oswald, Doctor Who
While Clara’s introduction as The Impossibe Girl never really hit home on an emotional level, Clara’s arc as a Doctor Who companion really came into its own during her time with the Twelfth Doctor, culminating in what is arguably the best companion send-off in Doctor Who history in “Face the Raven” and “Hell Bent.” Doctor Whohasn’t always done its female characters justice, but Clara was one companion who the show eventually figured out, with Jenna Coleman eventually being allowed to play not an “impossible girl,” but an ordinary woman who was made extraordinary through her travels in space and time.
The Doctor, Doctor Who
I’m still not over the fact that Doctor Who has given us our first female Doctor in the show’s more than 50-year-history (and probably won’t be… ever). Jodie Whittaker’s take on the iconic character has been a joy to watch, as she and her fam—including Mandip Gill’s Yaz, Tosin Cole’s Ryan, and Bradley Walsh’s Graham—travel space and, yes, time to help anyone who needs it.
Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.