With the time travelling shenanigans of Men In Black 3 arriving in cinemas today, we look back at some classic former time travel devices
18 A Toaster
From: The Simpsons
After Homer gets his stuck in a toaster in the fifth “Treehouse Of Horror” segment “Time And Punishment”, his attempts to repair the appliance turn it instead into a time machine. He finds himself in prehistoric times where he kills a mosquito, thus altering the timeline in a domino effect, turning Ned Flanders into an evil dictator in the present (well, he has the moustache for it). In trying to correct his mistake, he only makes matters worse, creating ever more Hellish futures – in one, donuts cease to exist!
It’s all, of course, a skit on Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound Of Thunder”, the film version of which presumably also has a time machine that could have been part of this list. But having seen the film once, we weren’t subjecting ourselves to that nightmare again just for something as silly as research.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Toast is off the menu.
17 A Clothes Shredding Glowing Ball
From: The Terminator Franchise
The TDE (Time Displacement Equipment) was created by Skynet so that it could send a Terminator back in time and kill a resistance leader before he grew up to become a trouble maker.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: It’s a one-way trip; it leaves a circular burn mark on your carpet; and you arrive at your temporal destination naked, because it cannot transport anything other than organic material or mimetic polyalloy (the material the T-1000 is made out of). Though since T-800s does that mean you could take a kangaroo back in time with you and store some spare clothes and a gun in its pouch?
16 An American Diner
From: 11.22.63 by Stephen King
There’s something quintessentially Stephen King about sticking a time portal in something as iconically American as a diner. The reason why there’s a time portal in the diner is never really explained, though the green-hatted tramp that the protagonist, Jake Epping, keeps coming across in the past may have something to do with it. Instead, it’s just a plot device to set up a classic “what if?” scenario. What if you could travel back in time and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? Would you do it? How would you do it? Unfortunately, the unique way this time machine works (see below) makes the task even more difficult…
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: The portal always sends the traveller back to exactly the same time and place – just outside the diner in 1958. You’d think this might end up with multiple versions of the same person running around 1958 if they make a number of journeys back in time (and wouldn’t they all cause a log jam at the exit of the portal?) but no. Each time you travel back, it’s like the first time again. But what you do in the past does affect the future you return to, in the classic “Sound Of Thunder” mode.
The other problem, as Jake finds out, is that because the portal always takes you to 1958, if you do want to stop JFK’s assassination, you have to hang around waiting for five years.
15 A Pendant
From: Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Professor McGonagall gives swotty Hermione a Time Turner in The Prisoner Of Azkaban so that she can attend multiple lessons at the same time – which would be some idea of hell for most teenagers. Hermione’s Time Turner takes the form of an hourglass pendant on a necklace. The more you turn the hourglass, the further back you go.
Oddly, while the wizarding heroes are canny enough to use time travel to save Sirius Black and Buckbeat in that book, nobody is bright enough to suggest travelling back to when Harry was a baby and saving his parents from Voldemort. Instead, Hermione gives her Time Turner back to McGonagall, complaining about her workload.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: It could solve every single mystery and problem in the entire seven books (or eight films) with a flick of the hourglass, so it’s best quietly forgotten.
From: Red Dwarf
In the third season episode “Timeslides” Kryten creates some mutated developing fluid that brings photographs to life. Then Lister discovers he can walk into the photos!
In case you’re thinking, “But they’re just interacting with photos, not really time travelling,” hold your horses. Lister and Rimmer discover that they can have an effect on the time line; interacting with the past of the photos can change the present. They even inadvertently prevent the assassination of the “leader of the runners-up in World War II,” – Hitler. Lister uses this knowledge to attempt to convince his younger self to take a different path in life (one that doesn’t lead to him being on Red Dwarf), but Rimmer soon throws a spanner in the works.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Seeing old pics of yourself when you were younger can be embarrassing enough already, but actually meeting yourself when you had that mullet… urgh! There’s also the problem that you can’t walk further than the area shown in the boundaries of the photos… though as Rimmer points out, “Believe me, there’s a beach shot in Acapulco you wouldn’t want to movie out of.”
13 A Room Full Of Junk
From: Crime Traveller
In this thankfully forgotten 1997 BBC show, that guy who was in EastEnders and is now in Holby City plays a cop – Jeff Slade – who discovers that his colleague just happens to have a time machine invented by her dad stored at home. They decide to use it to solve crime, but because there are so many “rules” involved in this version of time travel, any fun they (or the viewer) might have had rapidly vanishes down a temporal plug hole.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Too many to mention, to be honest, leading to endless, repetitive scenes with the stars telling each other, “No we can’t do that because…” But here are a few:
• The time machine never travels into the future because, “You can’t travel into something that doesn’t exist.”
• The machine sends the travellers back a random amount of time, usually around a day, but maybe just a few minutes or as much as a week. But once you’ve been sent back, you have to live that amount of time again. And when that time is up, you have to be back at the machine, or you get stuck in a time loop.
• You must not meet yourself in the past or change the past. It’s never clear what’ll happen if you do. Create a more interesting programme presumably.
• Also never explained is why, if you need to be back at the machine at the same time you first travelled back, the characters never meet themselves using the machine to go back in time. The answer may be as simple as: because the show was bollox.
12 A Groovy Foreshortening Effect
From: The Time Tunnel
Trust the ’60s to come up with the grooviest-looking time machine. You can’t help thinking that if Irwin Allen’s The Time Tunnel TV show had been made another decade, it would have aesthetically reflected those times instead – a psychedelic tunnel for the ’70s, a neon one for the ’80s or an art deco one for the ’30s (hey, maybe there’s an art challenge for you…)
The tunnel itself was clearly the star of the show, a massive, eye-catching, black-and-white icon that remains in the memory long after the stories have faded from your mind (which was about two seconds after the end credits started).
The Time Tunnel, aka Project Tic-Toc, was a secret government project buried in a vast complex under the Arizona desert. Unfortunately, it was about as reliable as First Bus, and in the pilot the government want it shut down as a waste of money. To prevent this, a scientist throws himself into the tunnel, but becomes lost in time. Another scientist enters the tunnel as well to try to save the first, but he becomes lost as well. At which point the government official presumably went, “Told you so,” and asked the bean counters to work out how much money was being wasted on electricity trying to get these two selfish prats back to the present.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: It doesn’t work, and the actual time travelling looks like a very bumpy affair.
The other problem with the time travel in this show is that the travellers don’t seem to be able to affect the timeline. They arrive at major points in Earth’s history – the Titanic sinking, Krakatoa erupting, etc – but their main mission usually seem to be making sure they’re outta there before they get killed. Oh, sure, they would try to warn people, but it never seemed to do much good.
They also go to the future occasionally – when the budget would allow – but they never seemed to have much affect there either.
The Time Tunnel did translate everything handily into English, though, no matter when or where they arrived.
11 A Hot Tub
From: Hot Tub Time Machine
It’s a hot tub, that’s also a time machine. Or is it a time machine that’s almost a hot tub? Who knows? Who cares! Because logic and the laws of time travel aren’t paramount to understanding Hot Tub Time Machine ’s inspired time-bending device. Travelling backwards (and forwards) in time involves the simple act of getting drunk, stripping off, getting the hot tub and spilling illegal Russian energy drink Chernobly all over the controls. It may also have something to do with mysterious hot tub repairman Chevy Chase, but we’re no wiser having watched the movie half a dozen times.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: It’s the type of time machine that puts you back in the body of your younger self, but keeps all your memories intact. Which is fine if you yearn for the past, but not if you were a pimple-plagued teen with no self-confidence. You’re also likely to get a nasty case of wrinkly toes from extended periods in this machine.
10 A Car On Rails
Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) is a cop for the TEC (Time Enforcement Division) and his beat is all of history (blimey, we should write the blurb lines for these things). The TEC combats timecrimes following the discovery of time travel, but it’s a miracle anyone got as far as discovering it considering how risky this version of time travel is.
To get back into the past, you have to sit in a rocket-fuelled, rail-mounted jet car that has to achieve high speed before breaking through the temporal barrier. There’s a countdown, high tension and a scary launch which makes it all seem very dramatic.
Oddly, however, the car vanishes once you reach you temporal destination; you just fall out of what looks like a giant puddle. And getting back to the present is as simple as stepping back in the puddle… at which point you’re suddenly back in the car again, whizzing back up the rails. Where’s it been? In some sort of temporal car park?
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: For some bizarre reason, although the jet car needs to reach high speed to travel back in time, it’s launched on some rails that look about 10 metres long with a brick wall at the far end. We’re told if that if the car doesn’t reach a high enough speed to break through the time barrier it’ll crash into the wall. Um, longer rails, anyone? A sandpit, maybe?
9 A Big Glowing Thing
From: Galaxy Quest
The Omega 13 is the mythical device the evil aliens want to get their hands on, believing it could be a doomsday device that could destroy the universe in 13 seconds.
What it actually is, though, is a machine capable of reversing time 13 seconds. So though it looks very impressive, it certainly deserves its place in a “bizarre” time machines list.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Limited range. Not good for the superstitious.
8 A Diary
From: The Butterfly Effect
Okay, a diary is not exactly a machine, but it’s the device Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) uses to, ahem, rewrite history and try to confront memories of being abused as a child.
Let this entry instead, then, represent some other bizarre methods of time travel that aren’t really machines, such as holes in the universe ( Time Bandits ); a James Taylor song ( The Callahan Touch by Spider Robinson); stone angels ( Doctor Who ’s “Blink”); masturbation (Ray Nelson’s short story “Time Travel For Pedestrians”); a portrait ( Somewhere In Time ).
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: In Evan’s case, when he travels back in time, it’s only his conscience that does the travelling, he’s only limited to travelling within his own life up to that point. It’s a bit like he’s Quantum Leaping into has past self.
7 A Liquid-Filled Vat
If you haven’t seen director Nacho Vigalondo’s ingenious, low budget time travel movie yet, do yourself a favour and rectify that situation as soon as possible. We won’t give too much away here, because we don’t want to spoil it for you, but we will mention that the scientist who invents the time machine (played by Vigalondo himself) draws a diagram to explain time travel that’s a darn sight simpler and less nonsensical than the one Doc Brown comes up with in Back To The Future 2 .
The time machine itself is a big vat full of goo. We think it may have later developed into the Hot Tub Time Machine.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: It’s not the driest experience. And when the lid comes down, there’s no airspace left, so pray the journey’s quick or you’ll drown.
6 A Giant Plastic Syringe
From: 12 Monkeys
When pen-pushers from a ravaged future want to change the past to try to prevent a catastrophe, they send Bruce Willis back as their very own pseudo-Terminator (he even has to travel naked). And they get him there in a typically Terry Gilliam-esque combination of steam-punk, plastic, goo and unsettling sound effects, injecting him from a giant plastic syringe into a hole in the wall.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Not only do you arrive nakled, disorientated, dribbling and dripping goo, there’s a good chance you won’t even be when you need to be, because the scientists controlling the time travel are a bit hopeless, to be honest.
5 A Breezy, Well-Lit Room
From: Quantum Leap
Conceptually, Quantum Leap ’s Quantum accelerator is certainly the most bizarre method of time travel in the list. Sam Becket would swap places with somebody from the past; he got get to live as them while they hang about in a waiting room in their future. Some people assume only Sam’s conscience leapt into the past, and he inhabited the host’s body, but that wasn’t the case; he was there physically, exerting "the illusion of the host’s physical aura”. Hence when he leapt into a man with no legs, he was able to walk (although to onlookers it appeared as if he was floating).
It was never made quite clear, either, if the people Sam leapt into recalled their time in the Waiting Room; were they even conscious when they were there, or did someone sedate them? And were they never suspicious, on return, about those hours and days they couldn’t recall, or, indeed, the fact that their lives seemed to have changed completely? (“Hang on… my career’s not going down the drain? How’d I do that?”)
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Somebody called God seems to be a backseat driver. And the time travel can leave you with “Swiss cheese” memory.
4 A Phone Booth
From: Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure
26 years after the Doctor popularised time travelling in a police box – and approximately 25 years and 364 days after somebody thought it was funny to do a Doctor Who skit involving a phone box instead – Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure featured a time travelling phone booth. And to this day no-one is 100 per cent sure if it was coincidence, homage or rip-off. Originally they were to travel in a Chevrolet van, but that was deemed to close to Back To The Future ’s preferred method of temporal transport. Nicking ideas off obscure British TV shows was obviously less open to accusations of plagiarism at the time.
Of course, these days, even in America, time travelling in a telephone box of any kind can be reference to only one thing…
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Unlike the TARDIS, this phone box was as big on the inside as it was on the outside, which made it very uncomfortable for travel when there was any more than one person aboard. And there frequently were more, leading to some people clinging on to the outside for dear life as they travelled through the time Vortex… which, ironically, Doctor Who copied many years later in “Utopia”.
3 A Police Box
From: Doctor Who
The TARDIS is a metaphor for everything that’s right about Doctor Who – and ingenious, quirky solution to budgetary constraints that became an icon. Back in ’63, when the show was being launched, the canny creators knew they needed a ship, but they couldn’t afford a spaceship that would require either complex model shots to be filmed, or a large-scale expensive prop that would need to be constructed week-in, week-out. Instead they came up with the barmy idea of a shapeshifting ship that could disguise itself as everyday objects, then went one step further by explaining that the mechanism that controlled the shapeshifting had broken down. Out of desperation, genius is born.
The next step was explaining how such a small object could carry four people around all time and space. Easy. The inside existed in a different dimension. Confused? The Doctor himself explains it brilliantly here:
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Very few, now that it’s not as unreliable as it used to be. It’s odd, though, that a ship which can rebuild itself after its internals were gutted – and treat itself to a makeover at the same time – still can’t work out how to fix its own chameleon circuit.
2 A Delorean DMC-12
From: Back To The Future Trilogy
“If you’re going to build a time machine into a car,” said Doc Brown, “why not do it with some style?” Fair point, Doc, and it’s difficult to deny that his DeLorean time machine – complete with gull-winged doors and brushed stainless steel exterior – is one of the best-looking bits of equipment on this list. Some people have even confused it for a spaceship.
For all its good looks, however, it’s a flawed piece of kit. That said, if it wasn’t for the many faults with Doc Brown’s creation you wouldn’t have had a plot for one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time. And had the filmmakers gone along with their original plan, Marty McFly would have time-hopped in a fridge. Which would have been rubbish.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: For starters, it’s a real hassle that you have to get your vehicle up to 88 miles per hour to travel through time. Not only do you have to break the law to see the wonders of the past and/or future (unless you’re on the German Autobahn), owners yet to hover-convert their motors can only travel to time periods with properly surfaced roads.
Meanwhile, the fact that early models require plutonium (not commercially available) to generate the1.21 Gigawatts a time-traveller needs under his/her bonnet makes this time machine particularly unfriendly to the casual user. And on a practical level, the DeLorean Motor Company went bust in 1982, making spare parts rather difficult to come by. Useless.
1 A Comfy Armchair
From: The Time Machine
It seems only fitting that the film version of HG Wells’ The Time Machine – the book that kicks-started the genre – should also give us cinema’s most memorable time machine. Although director George Pal’s wonderful film came out in 1960 (and it’s mostly set in the far future), the machine looks like so authentically Victorian you half expect to see it on show in the Victoria & Albert museum, with Holmes and Watson poking at it.
Constructed around a comfy chair, it has a look of steampunk version of those hovercraft that scout the Florida Everglades, with huge fans at their rear. With its brass fittings and velvet upholstery it’s clearly built as much for comfort as for scientific curiosity, and wouldn’t look too out of place in the drawing room. A lovely touch is the great, revolving disc at the back, which turns faster the more rapidly the machine ploughs through time. It’s such a thing of beauty, models makers have been making exquisite replicas ever since.
The open design of the craft also means the passenger gets to see time moving – backwards or forwards – at an advance rate around them. No popping into the Time Vortex for Wells’ machine; you literally get to see civilisations rise and fall (or on a more prosaic level, women’s fashions changing) in the blink of an eye.
The George Pal design for the time machine is far better than the golden walnut we got in the 2002 remake. The time machine in the brilliant Time After Time (in which HG Wells becomes the time traveller) is clearly trying emulate the Pal time machine while not being a complete rip-off, but doesn’t have anywhere near the same simple elegance.
Drawbacks with this model of time machine: Very bad at the temporal equivalent of an emergency stop, it prefers gentle deceleration. It also doesn’t move (well, not unless some passing Morlocks decide to TWOC it); this is a pure time travel machine. Also costs a fortune in Brasso.