The Machines, Portals and Windows of the Time Tale

time cogs type 6

“There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time”

H.G. Wells

In 1934, H.G. Wells wrote in the preface to a collection of his Scientific Romances, which included THE TIME MACHINE, “These stories of mine collected here do not pretend to deal with possible things; they are exercises of the imagination … they are all fantasies; they do not aim to project a serious possibility; they aim indeed only at the same amount of conviction as one gets in a good gripping dream.” Maybe so, but what a dream and what a fantasy.

It should be explained that ‘Scientific Romance’ was the term first given to what we now call Science Fiction. Romance as it is used here comes from the type of story that has at its centre quest and adventure. A typical Romance would also often include some sort of spiritual development, often resulting from misfortune, plus sometimes an element of magic. It could also include a love story component, but not necessarily so. The blueprint of the classic Romance would be Homer’s Odyssey, but it’s also there in some of later plays of Shakespeare such as Pericles.

But it’s the addition of Science that changed this genre into something completely new and even revolutionary. H.G. Wells published his seminal novel THE TIME MACHINE in 1895 and it has since set the bar high for everyone who followed. Of course, it wasn’t the first Time Travel story in literature. The early Victorian period already had its fair share of Time Travel fiction, notably Washington Irving’s RIP VAN WINKLE and Edgar Allan Poe’s THE TALE OF THE RAGGED MOUNTAINS, though these are more ‘Time Sleep’ tales. MEMORIES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY by Samuel Madden is an eighteenth century Swiftian satire centring on diplomatic letters supposedly sent back in time from the 1990s that was published in 1733, over 250 years before H.G. Wells’s tale. And then there is a play called ANNO 7603 by the Norwegian playwright Johan Herman Wessel in which Julie and Leander are taken into the future by a fairy to see how gender roles have changed (only women now fight in wars). But letters aren’t people, falling asleep isn’t travel and a fairy isn’t science.

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It is true that in Wells’ own lifetime there had been a story published that featured a mechanical device of sorts, namely a clock, in THE CLOCK THAT WENT BACKWARDS by Edward Page Mitchell published in 1881, yet that was not a Time Machine as such, for it wasn’t a specially designed contraption that you could sit in or had levers. Yes, the first tale to have a machine was arguably EL ANACRONÓPETLE by the Spanish writer Enrique Gaspar y Rimban in 188, but that’s just a metal box. Besides, it’s the scientific theory behind the design that makes Wells’ Time Machine so important in the history of Science Fiction.

But there are other aspects of the story too. With its unique combination of the explained over the unexplained, social commentary instead of cheap thrills, and, of course, reasoned science rather than magic, it is these together that make THE TIME MACHINE the seminal Time Tale. Wells was living in the Industrial Age, an era of unbelievable technological advancement. Trains were running at speeds never seen before. Perhaps it was these great changes that helped to make time travel more credible. It was a time too when Darwinian selection was still being discussed, when there were questions being asked about social equality. Not surprisingly then THE TIME MACHINE became a talking point not only for its ability to fascinate and entertain but also its capacity to raise issues around an industrial sub-class in late Victorian England who, like the Morlocks of the tale, lived most lives mainly underground. It is perhaps for these reasons that it is Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE which is remembered rather than the novel THE BRITISH BARBARIANS by Canadian writer Grant Allen, a romantic melodrama about a twenty-fifth century anthropologist who travels back to the past to study the British barbarians of the nineteen century. Both were published in 1895, but only one has remained in print to the present day. THE TIME MACHINE has indeed stood the test of Time.


These stories have many of the same ingredients, but they’re never quite baked the same way. Each storyteller has their own singular take on Time, its rules, its contradictions, its exceptions and its consequences. Some tales are adventures and romps, others are more philosophical and contemplative.

Time Tales can occasionally take you into a maze of mindboggling logic and conundrums that have long and winding paths with unexpected twists and turns. When you leave the maze you’ll remember it as a fabulous journey – though you may not always be sure exactly how it happened. On the other hand, a Time Tale can also be the simplest of stories, as in PETITE MAMAN where there is a chance meeting in a wood.

Time Tales have many styles and forms. What follows is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, nor is it meant to be an assessment of the merit of one Time Tale over another, though some observations are made on what works well and what does not. The aim simply is to offer a flavour of the creative, dramatic and philosophical areas that can be explored when Telling the Tales of Time.

“The fact is, the Time Traveller was one of those men who are too clever to be believed: you never felt that you saw all round him; you always suspected some subtle reserve, some ingenuity in ambush, behind his lucid frankness.”


long line of time cogs type 5

‘It’s called The Tardis… it can travel anywhere in time… and it’s mine!’

The Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith, in DOCTOR WHO

Time Machine Technology

Most Time Travel stories use a specific machine or device to achieve temporal transportation. These are pure science fiction stories in the sense that they are using science, in that a machine is specially built to achieve Time Travel. The first tale to do this was arguably EL ANACRONÓPETLE by the Spanish writer Enrique Gaspar y Rimban in 1887 (the title is a neologism meaning roughly ‘One Who Flies Against Time’). The machine in the story is a large cast iron box propelled by electricity. Conveniently, the mechanics in this box also produce a fluid that stops travellers growing younger as they move backwards through time. Preventing people looking younger would hardly be commercial in today’s world, but it’s an interesting aspect of Time Travel that is now rarely considered.

The first Time Machine in the movies is said to be in SZIRIUSZ (1942) directed by Dezso Akos Hamza and based on the novel written in 1894 by the Hungarian writer Ferenc Herczeg. In the film, Professor Sergius (Elemér Baló) claims he has built a machine that can fly faster than the speed of the Earth’s rotation and so is able to fly back into the past. Britain had its first home grown movie time machine in TIME FLIES, a film made by Gainsborough Pictures in 1944 and which featured Tommy Handley. The machine was a spherical metal ball. A sphere, albeit one with what looks like big metal tyres that spin round inordinately fast, later also became the shape of the time travelling ‘Lifeboat’ and ‘Mothership’ in the television series TIMELESS.

The design of time machines in an aesthetic sense range from the steampunk look in Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS and the iconic DeLorean car in BACK TO THE FUTURE to the homemade box of PRIMER and the bubbling hot tub in HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. However, how Time Machines are dramatically designed is far more crucial. Yes of course they are designed to travel in time, and how this is to be achieved may be detailed, but from a plot point of view, Time Machines are often written to go wrong in some way, be it breaking down or easy to steal or whatever. Which brings us, not surprisingly to DOCTOR WHO.

Dr Who Tardis with lightning hitting multiple Tardis

The most famous Time Machine in Time Tales is arguably that bizarre looking police box in DOCTOR WHO. And what a brilliant ‘character’ it is in the drama. The implication in the show is that this Time Machine is almost alive, or at least certainly sentient. It takes The Doctor not where he wants to go, but where there is greatest need for him to go. And it’s always breaking down at the worst possible moment (or best possible moment in dramatic terms). And of course the name of this Time Machine is The Tardis (or T.A.R.D.I.S), which, as everybody is aware, stands for ‘Time and Relative Dimensions in Space’. And it comes in the form of that now iconic (and BBC trademarked) blue police box. The Master’s Tardis can change its shape, but Doctor Who’s is stuck as a telephone box. In a neat nod to DOCTOR WHO, the time travelling machine in BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE is also a telephone box, albeit a modern one made of metal a glass. Of course, it works very well, better than most, but it ain’t the Tardis.

The Doctor’s Time and Relative Dimensions in Space machine is famously bigger on the inside than it is on the out. The Forth Doctor, Tom Baker, explained this once. He said that if you took a very small box and brought it up close, it would obviously look much bigger. And if that box could exist in the simultaneous dimension as a larger box further, then indeed it would be bigger on the inside. If all this sounds too complicated, simply put a small matchbox in front of  your eye and then look with the other eye at skyscraper a mile away and so see, from a perspective point of view, how that very tall building could easily fit inside the tiny matchbox. In fact, the Tardis goes even further than that for, according to Doctor Who, the interior is in its own infinite dimension, with an infinite number of rooms. The Doctor refers to all this as Transdimensional Engineering, the key discovery of the Time Lords. And the Tardis has other tricks up its sleeves in that it can also move between atoms and in doing so it is moving outside of Space and Time and so is able to circumnavigate along both. Essentially, the Tardis leaves one dimension of space-time and enters another at a different point in space-time. And then the adventures really begin…

Ever since Einstein, Minkowski and Gödel there has been much discussion about whether time travel is theoretically possible or could even be achieved. Well, let’s just say everything is provable with the right mathematical equations and enough pen and paper, plus, if you have then handy, some cosmic string, a few anti-gravity-fields and a bit of negative-energy (all items actually discussed in the construction of theoretical time machines by actual physicists). The physicists Ben Tippett and Dave Tsang went even further and even wrote a paper called Traversable Achronal Retrograde Domains in Space-time, (oh yes, look it spells T.A.R.D.I.S) that actually uses Einstein’s theories to show how breaching the boundaries of space-time is mathematically possible. And you thought it was all just a BBC prop built in Cardiff Bay.

“Very simple was my explanation, and plausible enough – as most wrong theories are.”


long line of time cogs type 2

“Caffeine. The gateway drug.”

Eddie Vedder

Time Portals and Passageways

Many Time Tales feature Time Gateways or Time Vortexes that people just stumble across, but there are those specially created in the scientific laboratory and this was the case for the 1960s classic series THE TIME TUNNEL. In fact, the disappearing black and white swirls of that time tunnel has now become one of the icon images of time travel and there’s a homage to it in the AUSTIN POWERS series of films. Of course, when such machines or contraptions are used we are in the territory of pure science fiction for the simple reason these are stories that utilise science, albeit of a fictional or speculative variety. And this is the point about Wells’ Time Machine in THE TIME MACHINE, in that it was not only a specially designed mechanical device, a technological apparatus with levers and so, but also based on scientific theory. Exactly how the time machine mechanism goes about its purpose is left vague, but it is most definitely a machine and what’s more there is a long and in its own way logical and credible justification put forward for its capacity to function:

“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, they taught you at school is founded on a misconception.”
“Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?” said Filby, an argumentative person with red hair.
“I do not mean to ask you to accept anything without reasonable ground for it. You will soon admit as much as I need from you. You know of course that a mathematical line, a line of thickness nil, has no real existence. They taught you that? Neither has a mathematical plane. These things are mere abstractions.”
“That is all right,” said the Psychologist.
“Nor, having only length, breadth, and thickness, can a cube have a real existence.”
“There I object,” said Filby. “Of course a solid body may exist. All real things—”
“So most people think. But wait a moment. Can an instantaneous cube exist?”
“Don’t follow you,” said Filby.
“Can a cube that does not last for any time at all, have a real existence?”
Filby became pensive. “Clearly,” the Time Traveller proceeded, “any real body must have extension in four directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and—Duration. But through a natural infirmity of the flesh, which I will explain to you in a moment, we incline to overlook this fact. There are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of Space, and a fourth, Time. There is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives.”
“That,” said a very young man, making spasmodic efforts to relight his cigar over the lamp; “that . . . very clear indeed.”
“Now, it is very remarkable that this is so extensively overlooked,” continued the Time Traveller, with a slight accession of cheerfulness. “Really this is what is meant by the Fourth Dimension, though some people who talk about the Fourth Dimension do not know they mean it. It is only another way of looking at Time. There is no difference between time and any of the three dimensions of space except that our consciousness moves along it. But some foolish people have got hold of the wrong side of that idea. You have all heard what they have to say about this Fourth Dimension?”
“I have not,” said the Provincial Mayor.
“It is simply this. That Space, as our mathematicians have it, is spoken of as having three dimensions, which one may call Length, Breadth, and Thickness, and is always definable by reference to three planes, each at right angles to the others. But some philosophical people have been asking why three dimensions particularly—why not another direction at right angles to the other three?—and have even tried to construct a Four-Dimension geometry. Professor Simon Newcomb was expounding this to the New York Mathematical Society only a month or so ago. You know how on a flat surface, which has only two dimensions, we can represent a figure of a three-dimensional solid, and similarly they think that by models of thee dimensions they could represent one of four — if they could master the perspective of the thing. See?”
“I think so,” murmured the Provincial Mayor; and, knitting his brows, he lapsed into an introspective state, his lips moving as one who repeats mystic words. “Yes, I think I see it now,” he said after some time, brightening in a quite transitory manner.
“Well, I do not mind telling you I have been at work upon this geometry of Four Dimensions for some time. Some of my results are curious. For instance, here is a portrait of a man at eight years old, another at fifteen, another at seventeen, another at twenty-three, and so on. All these are evidently sections, as it were, Three-Dimensional representations of his Four-Dimensioned being, which is a fixed and unalterable thing.
“Scientific people,” proceeded the Time Traveller, after the pause required for the proper assimilation of this, “know very well that Time is only a kind of Space. Here is a popular scientific diagram, a weather record. This line I trace with my finger shows the movement of the barometer. Yesterday it was so high, yesterday night it fell, then this morning it rose again, and so gently upward to here. Surely the mercury did not trace this line in any of the dimensions of Space generally recognized? But certainly it traced such a line, and that line, therefore, we must conclude was along the Time-Dimension.”
“But,” said the Medical Man, staring hard at a coal in the fire, “if Time is really only a fourth dimension of Space, why is it, and why has it always been, regarded as something different? And why cannot we move in Time as we move about in the other dimensions of Space?”
The Time Traveller smiled. “Are you sure we can move freely in Space? Right and left we can go, backward and forward freely enough, and men always have done so. I admit we move freely in two dimensions. But how about up and down? Gravitation limits us there.”
“Not exactly,” said the Medical Man. “There are balloons.”
“But before the balloons, save for spasmodic jumping and the inequalities of the surface, man had no freedom of vertical movement.” “Still they could move a little up and down,” said the Medical Man.
“Easier, far easier down than up.”
“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”
“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present movement. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”
“But the great difficulty is this,” interrupted the Psychologist. “You can move about in all directions of Space, but you cannot move about in Time.”
“That is the germ of my great discovery. But you are wrong to say that we cannot move about in Time. For instance, if I am recalling an incident very vividly I go back to the instant of its occurrence: I become absent-minded, as you say. I jump back for a moment. Of course we have no means of staying back for any length of Time, any more than a savage or an animal has of staying six feet above the ground. But a civilized man is better off than the savage in this respect. He can go up against gravitation in a balloon, and why should he not hope that ultimately he may be able to stop or accelerate his drift along the Time-Dimension, or even turn about and travel the other way?”

You might suppose an obvious means of travelling in time would be some sort of magical clock. In fact, THE CLOCK THAT WENT BACKWARDS, a short story by Edward Page Mitchell, was the first to use this method and it was published as early as 1881, fifteen years before H.G. Wells’s THE TIME MACHINE. In this story, it is a Dutch clock from 1572 which takes the person standing near it back in time to 1574 and the Siege of Leiden. A more up-to-date timepiece could be said to be The Watchmaker’s apparatus in DARK. This uses unstable Cesium contained in a small brass sphere. DARK also makes use of doors hidden in underground caves beneath the Winden nuclear power plant to take characters into alternate Time worlds.

In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS), the Korean time adventure series written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, the development of the time machine comes about after the invention of a quantum transmission. Han Tae-sul (Cho Seung-woo) is a genius Mark Zuckerberg like figure who has written the computer code that allows for teleportation. In a demonstration in front of an audience at the Quantum Time conference, Han Tae-sul puts a sugar lump in his machine and quickly we see it disappear only to reappear moments later floating above Han Tae-sul’s coffee cup. Gravity then does its job and the sugar lump drops in. It’s then that Han Tae-sul says, “For the first time in mankind’s history we succeeded in teleporting a polymer compound using quantum transmission.” However, Tae-sul says that the human body has too much data for teleportal transmission. But as said In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) is ultimately a Time Tale and it seems that as a result of research further exploring “topological changes of space-time and the inflection points” the Han Tae-sul of the future does come up with coding that is able to transmit huge amounts of data across both space and time and it is this device that will lead to you being ‘copied’ and ‘sent to the other side’ via the ‘uploader’.

Like many Time Portals the Uploader has problems. Or at least its apparent problems. It seems the chances of getting through are put at less than ten percent and many time travellers arrive misshaped and malformed. This is the reason, it is explained, that people arrive in their underwear. They believe that being semi-naked will create little static and so it will be safer for them when they are transmitted. However, all is not what it seems. At ‘the other side’, that is the past, there exists the Control Bureau, a kind of unofficial unit that polices illegal time migrants, and the head of the group explains to the captured Gang Seo-hae that a person’s actual biological body clock can be tampered with and in truth it’s this that alters the feasibility and safety of travelling in time via the ‘uploader’. “Only ten percent of those who cross over will make it here in one piece,” says Hwang Hyun-seung, the boss of Unit 7 of the Control Bureau. “Right? You folks think it’s because the machine breaks down on your way here, but that’s not why. Behind your eyes, there’s the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus, which controls the biological clock. It enables the FOS proteins to accept the 24-hour circadian rhythm, which gives has our perception of time. A gene mutation is what determines the success of your time travel. (Holding an injection gun) This shot causes mutations to those genes, which breaks down those proteins. Let me put it in layman’s terms: if you’re injected, all your downloaded entrants break down into atoms. You’ll end up floating around in that state. Get it?” SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (SISYPHUS) is imaginative in its plotting and this use of the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus, which is biologically correct, is typical of the series’ inventiveness and originality.

And there are many stories, of course, where Time Travel is achieved simply by walking through doorways or backs of wardrobes (GOODNIGHT SWEETHEART, TIME BANDITS) or strange mirrors (THE TWILIGHT ZONE The Painted Mirror episode) or unusual houses (FROM TIME TO TIME) or falling out of a hayloft (SPLIT INFINITY) or a hole in the floor of a motel (41) or even a visit to a Gents toilet (FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT TIME TRAVEL). The children’s series CLASS, from the BBC Doctor Who stable, uses the fairly standard ‘tear in space and time’ scenario which, in the story, allows aliens to cross over inside the Coal Hill Academy. As the Doctor himself says, “There’s been so much Artron energy around good old Coal Hill that Time itself has worn thin.” This tear leads to the presence of the Shadow Kin, shadows that can kill, and all this results in some creepy and frightening scenes in and around the school.

An important point to make about time portals and passageways is that dramatically they should act as a sort of decompression chamber that transitions the time traveller – and in a way the reader or viewer – from one world to another. The narrative bridge from the real to the fantastical. The rules of our lived in world and the passageway, whatever it may be, should help prepare that. The master of this narrative device was Lewis Carroll, not of course a writer of Time Tales but his transitional portals, especially the rabbit hole, are often referenced in modern Time Tales.



In book one of the SWIDGERS, THE TIME THAT NEVER WAS, there is a passageway from to another time world through an old disused railway tunnel (in fact, it is not that railway tunnel itself that allows for this, but rather the wood of the sleepers, but this is not revealed until later in the series). William as he walks along the railway tunnel draws attention to the strange sense of dark and cold he feels as he steps towards the world of the Old Coach Inn:

I’ve never been afraid of the dark but this tunnel was one of ever-growing blackness. Beyond my experience. What was it that Echo had said? ‘The Universe is far stranger than you can ever know.’
As I walked, I didn’t just notice light disappear, I somehow felt it go out inside me. Fading away in my very being. I wanted to turn round to see Granny. But I did as she had told me and looked only ahead.
I had to trust the dark. One step, then another until I felt a sudden death-like chill. The day had been warm and sunny but now my world was oh so very cold.
I took off all my school clothes and put on the others. They were smelly, scratchy and made me itch. Granny said to leave my old things where I stood, but I checked my pockets first. Nothing much, an old hankie and some keys. Well, I won’t be needing those anymore. There was also that envelope Candice had given me with her scribbled notes. That, I decided, I would keep.
I let out a sigh. I expected an echo but heard only a deep, empty silence. No sound. No warmth. No light.
I needn’t have closed my eyes but I did. And then I strode on. I cannot say for how long I walked but at last I felt a glimmer of shadowy sunshine and I opened my eyes. Ahead of me was a figure. Granny. Already waiting at the tunnel’s exit.
‘Oh good, glad you made it. We’re here.’

In book two of SWIDGERS, THE TIME THEY SAVE TOMORROW, it is revealed that Time in Swidger philosophy is not just an Energy such as heat or light, but a conscious Sentient Entity. For a Swidger then Time is the Soul of Nature and for William to Travel in Time he must find that Soul. In book two William is given a book, a journal really, that is aimed at helping William find that Time Soul. And once William has found and become one with this Soul of Time he will have reached his true potential as a Time Being and it’s then he will be capable of Time Travel. But becoming capable of doing something doesn’t mean you can do it without help. And the plot of the second half of THE TIME THEY SAVED TOMORROW William discovers what he will need to make his Time Journey.

“Buzz quoth the blue fly, hum quoth the bee. Buzz and hum they cry, and so do we!”

Catweazle in the television series CATWEAZLE created by Richard Carpenter

Potions, Magic, Geniis, Artefacts, Lightning and Chronesthesia

Time machines and time portals are the most popular means of time travel but there are other methods, including potions, magic and geniis. And, of course, artefacts can also be a Time Ticket to another era. A STORY OF THE AMULET, by Edith Nesbit, uses an Egyptian talisman to transport British children back to ancient Gaul and Babylon, and in THE GAUNTLET by Ronald Welsh, a boy finds an iron gauntlet in the Brecon Beacons which allows him to jump back in time to Wales in 1326. In PREDESTINATION a violin case proves useful, in THE TWO WORLDS OF JENNIE LOGAN it is an antique dress in an attic that makes the journey to the past possible and in PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME a magic dagger comes in handy. More recently in CLICK, a workaholic architect finds a universal remote that allows him to fast-forward or rewind to different parts of his life.

Potions or drugs have also been a popular way of leaping around in Time. In FUTURE TIMES THREE (LE VOYAGEUR IMPRUDENT), by French writer René Barjavel, a scientist invents a substance which, if swallowed, allows anyone to time travel and a designer drug does very otherworldly time travelling things in SYNCHRONIC and TRANCERS. In Daphne du Maurier’s THE HOUSE ON THE STRAND, a biochemist invents a drug that when taken enables him to enter the landscape of the early fourteenth century. In the 1965 novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME features a school girl who, through an accidental meeting with a time traveller and exposure to a time-travelling drug, is able to time leap and relive the same day. This novel was later turned into an animated television series and later still, into a live action movie.

A woodland potion is the magic method used in THE AMAZING MR BLUNDEN (based on the novel THE GHOSTS by Antonia Barber) and the combination of an illegal Russian energy drink and a hotel hot tub are the means of the temporal leap in HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. In EXTINCT (2021), Op and Ed are flummels, fluffy rabbit-like creature from the age of Darwin, who falls into a large flower and find themselves in the future in modern day Shanghai where they discover that their species is now extinct.

Magic is also a possibility, as with Hermione’s Time-Turner in HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN. In 13 GOING ON 30 (2004), the time change is achieved through magic wishing and in of THE KNIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS it is an Old Crone or witch who sends the medieval Knight forward in time and space to the Ohio of the present day. However, not everyone can be a wizard at magic and in the children’s series CATWEAZLE, created by Richard Carpenter, when a spell goes wrong, an eleventh century wizard called Catweazle finds that he has jumped 900 years into the future to 1969. In WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE (1945), a film musical composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and written by Morrie Ryskind and Sig Herzig, it is The Genie of the Strange Brass Bottle who sends the hero Bill Morgan (Fred MacMurray) across time. Magic, as is often said, is the science of the gods. Not that many of us come across that sort of thing every day. But we do have the weather.

Lightning proved an important plot point in BACK TO THE FUTURE. There’s the strike that stopped the Court House clock, plus the hit that essentially sends Doc Brown back to 1885. Oddly enough, THE CLOCK THAT WENT BACKWARDS, that early time travel story from 1881, also has it that the clock was once struck by lightning, causing its apparent demise. LEST DARKNESS FALL is an early alternate history novel written in 1933 by L. Sprague de Camp where the hero is struck by lightning and taken back in time to ancient Rome. In THAT WAS THEN, an American television series made in 2002, Travis Glass is struck by lightning and sent back in time to his High Schools year and in OUTLAWS, a television series that ran from 1986 to 1987, five cowboys from the 1880s find themselves in 1986, again a result of a lightning. Flicking lights when the time tourists move on in TIMESCAPE suggests some sort of electrical power surge when time travel occurs and something similar happens with the electrical appliances in THE DAY TIME ENDED when a supernova opens up a rift in space-time.

Lightning also proved an important plot event in the classic Frankenstein story. In MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENHOLE, in a different take on this story, Doctor Victor Frankenstein has created ‘Frankenholes’ to every time period past and future and these allow historical figures to visit Frankenstein and seek his advice. Other stories have it that Time Gateways or Wormholes just happen to exist, for example, Craigh na Dun, the fictional stone circle in the novel series OUTLANDER by Diana Gabalon that open around the summer and winter solstice or the ‘anomalies’ as they are called in PRIMEVAL that allow dangerous and hungry creatures of the past entry onto the streets of modern Britain. In TIME TRAP a cave is a Gateway to time moving at a different pace to the outside world, though it is established it was especially created as a kind of snare. Sometimes Time Gateways are more or less stumbled on by accident, for example, Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. In these cases the phenomena itself, or the reason or science behind it, often remains unexplained.

Electricity, or rather more specifically static electricity, is part of the almost accidentally opening up of some sort of Time Portal in an early episode of DOCTOR WHO. The stuff about mirrors and reflections, like many scientific explanations about time travel, is ultimately gobbledegook but it does have a certain feasibility about it, if said quickly:

MAXTIBLE: I have always been fascinated by the concept of travelling through time. Waterfield here is an expert in certain technical matters and I have the money to indulge my whims. Everything you see about you here was constructed by us two.
DOCTOR: To try to find a way of exploring time?
MAXTIBLE: Yes, now this is my theory: a mirror reflects an image, does it not?
MAXTIBLE: So, you may be standing there, yet appear to be standing fifty feet away. Well, following the new investigations twelve years ago by J. Clark Maxwell into electromagnetism and the experiments by Faraday into static electricity…
DOCTOR: Static?
MAXTIBLE: Correct! Waterfield and I attempted to refine the image in the mirror, and then to project it. In here, Doctor, there are one hundred and forty-four separate mirrors.
(MAXTIBLE shows the doctor a wood-panelled double door which leads to the time machine.)
WATERFIELD: And each is of polished metal. Each is subjected to electrical charges – all positive.
MAXTIBLE: Like repels like in electricity, Doctor, and so next, Waterfield and I attempted to repel the image in the mirror, wherever we directed.
DOCTOR: You mentioned static electricity?
WATERFIELD: Uh… that was our last experiment. Negative and positive electricity had failed, so we tried static. If only we could have known the powers we were going to unleash.
DOCTOR: Powers?
WATERFIELD: In the middle of our final test with static, creatures burst out of the cabinet, invaded the house, took away my daughter.
MAXTIBLE: Oh, my dear fellow. My dear, dear fellow. But we shall win through, now that the Doctor is here.
DOCTOR: These creatures…?
WATERFIELD: We had opened the way for them with our experiments. They forced me into the horror of time travel, Doctor. They ordered me to steal a box belonging to you and thus lure you into a trap and transport you here, with your colleague Mr McCrimmon.
DOCTOR: They know about me, these creatures…?
MAXTIBLE: They gave us likenesses.

Indeed they did, the ‘they’ being the Daleks.

In TURN BACK THE CLOCK (1933), it is a car accident that sends Joe Gimlet (Lee Tracy) back in time and in Mark Twain’s A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (sometimes just called A YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT) it is a dream brought about by a knock to the head that sends Hank Morgan into the past. In D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE too, dreaming is the means of transportation from one time period to another for the waif called Dagover.

In ARMY OF DARKNESS what is required is an incantation, namely, ‘Klaatu Barab Nikto’, which movie fans will recognise from the film THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. In BERKELEY SQUARE reading an old diary is the way back into the past and in SOMEWHERE IN TIME (1980), Richard Collier, a Chicago playwright, somehow wishes himself, by self-hypnosis, back in time to meet once again an actress whose vintage portrait hangs in a grand hotel where he is staying. This premise is similar to TIME AND AGAIN (1970), an illustrated novel by Jack Finney, where an advertising sketch artist becomes part of a Government project where living images of the past are induced by self-hypnosis. In fact, this phenomenon is now officially referred to as Chronesthesia and was in 2002 tentatively defined by Endel Tulving as “a form of consciousness that allows individuals to think about the subjective time in which they live and that makes it possible for them to ‘mentally travel’ in such time.” This concept itself is there in a monograph by Thomas Suddendorf and Michael Corballis called Mental Time Travel and the Evolution of the Human Mind (May 1997). You see, nothing’s impossible. Convince yourself you’re in the past and you can make it so. Chronesthesia also in a way works telelogically in that it’s a technique that sport gurus suggest for athletes, that is making athletes picture themselves in the future kicking the ball into the net or soaring over the bar. Wishful thinking is the old name for it.

“‘The man of my dreams has almost faded now. The one I have created in my mind. The sort of man each woman dreams of, in the deepest and most secret part of her heart. I can almost see him before me. What would I say to him if her were really here?’”


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“‘Secrets aren’t always things we try to hide. There’s just no one to tell them to.’”

Nell to Marion in PETITE MAMAN

Just One of Those Things

There are of course those Time Tales where time travel – or something like it – just happens. PETITE MAMAN (2021), written and directed by Céline Sciamma, tells the story of a young girl who meets her mother as a child in the woods. Time travel is mentioned but the movie has more the feel of a fairytale with a visitation from a friendly ghost. In the tale, the young girl’s grandmother has just died and her mother is clearing out the grandmother’s house. When the girl goes playing in the woods she meets a girl of about her own age and they quickly become friends. Slowly, though, the young girl comes to realise that this girl is her own mother who is also going through a painful loss. As with many Time Tales, PETITE MAMAN is about grief, yet this beautiful fairytale is also about a young girl coming to the understanding that her mother too was once a child. And where better to do that than in a magical time travelling wood.

Ian McEwan’s THE CHILD IN TIME is a disturbing and even menacing story. In the tale, Stephen Lewis, a children’s author, loses his three year old daughter while out shopping. The result of this apparent abduction leads to strains in his marriage and his wife, Julie, decides to take a leave of absence. While she is away Stephen stays with his publisher and his wife Thelma who is a quantum physicist with unconventional theories about time and space. To save the marriage Stephen visits his wife who is staying in a town he doesn’t know. And yet he does. He sees his parents as a young couple in a pub before they were married, an event that they themselves later confirm. Is it the pub? Has Time fragmented? Or is it that Time is simply fluid and relative? Stephen becomes the child at the window who his soon to be young mother sees and it’s the image of him that leads to her decision not to have an abortion. As often with Ian McEwan, the focus is traumatic loss and the disintegration of a marriage, but the title THE CHILD IN TIME suggests something else too and that is a man trapped in the idea of childhood itself. Indeed, Stephen, when looking in at that window, echoes that moment where Peter Pan – that eternal child – describes how he once returned to his home, only to find the window barred and his mother nursing a new infant. From then on, Peter is frozen in childhood and becomes the boy who, through choice, refuses ever to grow up.

In the movie LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, written by Edgar Wright and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, it’s not exactly clear how the modern day Eloise Turner, or ‘Ellie’, not only travels back in time to the Soho of 1960s but also, when in the past, finds herself in the body of a singer called Sandie, who, she comes to believe, was a victim of murder. Well, let’s take the time travel first. It seems that the way the jump in time is achieved is part location (via a narrow Soho alleyway), part music (the songs of the 60s), part dream (Ellie wakes up when the events of the past become too violent), part the bed or bedroom where Ellie sleeps (the girl who Ellie believes was murdered once had the same attic room) and part reflections (the visions end when mirrors in the present day are broken). All seem to play a part. However, it is then revealed that in fact Sandie was not the victim at all but rather the perpetrator and what is ultimately driving these visions are all the ghosts of her dead victims. These men, as it were, take possession of her, so that she may uncover the landlady of the house as the true villain. LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is an example of that old adage in horror that ghosts often return in order to achieve a kind of justice. And that’s definitely the case here, for what Ellie is truly witnessing are the pleas for vengeance from the many men who the now elderly Sandie murdered.

“Once confined to fantasy and science fiction, time travel is now simply an engineering problem.”


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“The future you see is the future you get.”

Robert G. Allen

The ‘Time Window’

We’re back at base in THE TIME TUNNEL television series 1966-1967. The scientists at the facility have a fix on the time period Tony and Doug have travelled to and so are now able to receive pictures of what Tony and Doug are doing but Tony and Doug are unable to see them. The people at the bases cannot communicate directly with the time travellers but occasionally the base can send messages to Tony and Doug via the F-5 in the form of a glowing red brick. Not that this always works. But the important point is, the scientists at the facility do have a ‘Time Window’ on the travellers and with their computer database they are able to fill the viewer in on all the historical details. Often this leads to dramatic irony as the watching audience now has more information about what is about to happen to the time travellers than do the time travellers themselves. The Time Window isn’t exactly stable and the facility always need a fix on Tony and Doug before they can transport them to another time period, but is usually only achieved in the nick of time due to inevitable technical problems. What’s important to note here is that the Time Window, as with a Time Machine or Time Being, is a dramatic construct. It’s part of the design of the drama and it’s there primarily to enhance and increase the dramatic potentials of the stories.

DÉJÀ VU (2006) also had a Time Window into the past, but, as with THE TIME TUNNEL, it’s one way viewing. DÉJÀ VU is a film partly about surveillance in a world where cameras are NOW everywhere. But, like films such as REAR WINDOW, AMERICAN BEAUTY, BLOW-UP, BLUE VELVET, ONE HOUR PHOTO and PEEPING TOM, DÉJÀ VU is about looking. Voyeurism, if you want to take it that far. You might add here as well the movie THE EYES OF LAURA MARS which is about a famous fashion photographer who develops the disturbing ability to see through the eyes of a killer in real time as he killing his victims. This brings us to the concept known as The Male Gaze. This term comes from Film Studies and it was coined by John Berger in 1972 but it’s a notion that goes back to Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea of le regard. In 1983, in an important essay by E. Anne Kaplan called Is the Gaze Male?, Kaplan wrote “the gaze is not necessarily male (literally), but to own and activate the gaze, given our language and the structure of the unconsciousness, is to be in the masculine position.” It’s a big subject, but film is a visual medium and it is worth mentioning in the context of the Time Window, particularly as there is an uncomfortable scene in DÉJÀ VU where the Time Window team are staring at a woman having a shower and it takes the only female member of the team to question why it is they are actually looking at something that is essentially private.

The central concept in DEVS, written and directed by Alex Garland, is the creation of a Time Window which uses sophisticated computer software and code to produce visualisations from the past. There is one industry, of course, that is well known for being first out of the traps when it comes to making use of technology and that is ‘erotic entertainment’. Though there is a less flattering noun that could be used. Anyway, several characters in DEVS cannot resist their carnal curiosity. Although the ultimate aim of the software is to understand the nature of determinism, it should come as no surprise that very early in their experiments the team of boffins, scientists and programmers at DEVS choose to generate, and then voyeuristically enjoy, images of Marilyn Monroe having sex with Arthur Miller. The celebrity sex tape to top them all.

A less contentious Time Window could be said to be Scrooge’s visit to his past in A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The Ghost of Christmas Past tells Scrooge, “These are but shadows of the things that have been. They have no consciousness of us.” Here’s a brief extract from Stave Two where Scrooge seems himself as a boy left alone at Christmas:

“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: “but it’s too late now.”

“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”

Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Scrooge knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays.

As ever the theme with Dickens is the power of memory but it’s curious how the description of time passing sounds very much like a fast motion film montage of time passing, such as that seen in THE TIME MACHINE (1960). This effect is, of course, something that Charles Dickens could never have ever witnessed. As ever, Dickens was ahead of his time.

In SIJIPEUSEU: THE MYTH (also known as SISYPHUS), written by Lee Je-in and Jeon Chan-ho, there’s a moving series of scenes where the computer genius Han Tae-sul (Cho Seung-woo) and the time traveller Gang Seo-hae (Park Shin-hye) move across time as a result of temporal displacement that comes about after they are injected with a drug that alters the brain’s biological body clock. Yes, it’s that sort of plot. Essentially Han Tae-sul  and Gang Seo-hae become invisible, ghost-like entities as they wander through time and into past. In one scene, they witness the grief of the very young Han Tae-sul following the sudden death of his parents. It’s a very moving scene and perhaps the writers had in mind the journey Dickens has Scrooge take in A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

The Victorian scientist and inventor Charles Wheatstone claimed it was his designs for the Electromagnetic Chronoscope that had been stolen by scientists on the Continent, the Electromagnetic Chronoscope being an instrument to measure very precisely small units of time. Perhaps they were stolen but what we can say for sure is that the term Chronoscope pas he was certainly nicked by Science Fiction writers, only they changed its meaning and it became another term for Time Window or Time Viewer. In his short story THE DEAD PAST (1956), Isaac Asimov called the device that can see past events ‘Chronoscope’ and the term Chronoscope was also used in Malcolm Jameson’s DEAD END, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1941. The concept of a Time Viewer is there as well in Philip K. Dick’s short story PAYCHECK (1953) and in his book LE NOUVEAU MYSTÈRE DU VATICAN (2002), Father Francois Brune, a French Catholic priest, claimed that a priest had actually invented a Time Viewer and called it a ‘Chronovisor’. A curious 1947 novella E FOR EFFORT by T.L. Sherred features a Time Viewer built by a guy who uses it to create historical movies. However, a producer in Hollywood exploits this device, first to make historical films, and then political documentaries, only in doing so he exposes every crime committed in the name of patriotism, resulting in the collapse of government, closely followed by nuclear war. Well, that’s meddling for you. On a more cheerful story from Amazing Stories (December 1926) there’s a story called THE TIME ELIMINATOR, where an elderly man is able to display on a screen scenes from his courtship. Nowadays, of course, we have our ubiquitous selfies and our data-saving ‘Clouds’, but in 1926 such a device as a Time Window to see into the past would indeed have been a wonder and enough to warrant a story by itself.

In the Korean time travel series ALICE (AELLISEU) written by Kim Kyu-Won, there are drones that look like giant red electric butterflies that transmit images of what is going on in the past direct to project Alice in the future. And as with other time travel stories, the Alice project is able to draw on surveillance footage and other computer data.

Other Time Tales with some sort of Time Window include the movie THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964), the short story PRIVATE EYE (1949) by Henry Kutter and C.L. Moore writing together as Lewis Padgett),  PAYCHECK (1953) by Philip K. Dick, I SEE YOU (1976) by Damon Knight, MILLENNIUM (1983) by John Varley, ZIG ZAG (1983) by José Carlos Somoza, CHILDHOOD’S END (1953) by Arthur C. Clarke, THE BRIGHTONOMICON (2005) by Robert Rankin and in the final episode of DARK there are brief but very moving scenes where Jonas and Martha see young versions of each other through the back of a closet which is reminiscent of the Time Window in the classic DOCTOR WHO episode The Girl in the Fireplace.

Best of British book review

Seeing back in time is occasionally essential to the story. In the SWIDGERS book series, Granny takes William to see a lady called Alicia, who uses a special Zoetrope to give William a window into the past. How and why she does this would be to give away too much of the plot. However, what Alicia is ultimately offering is an appreciation of the past in order to move on into the future. In the scene, Alicia gives the example of her father, who always rowed his boat looking at where he had come from and thus he would know the best way to get where he needed to be. The past, says Alicia, is the place you must go if you want to fully understand the present and so see where the future can take you.

“The past is behind, learn from it. The future is ahead, prepare for it. The present is here, live it.”

Thomas S. Monson

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