×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The best TV shows about time travel

If you could travel back and forth through time, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you talk to? Even better, if you were writing a book, making a movie, or working on a television show about time travel, what would you include? The best TV shows about time travel all feature characters who travel through time for various compelling (or even life-threatening) reasons. Maybe it's to prevent a coming apocalypse, maybe it's just to save one person's life. But if there's one thing they all have in common, it's that when traveling through time, small changes can have big effects. We all know the theory of the Butterfly Effect, right? How a butterfly can flap its wings at one point in time can cause a tornado days, weeks, or years later. As many of these characters learn, their time traveling changes the world. In fact, sometimes that's the point. 

Now, there are some time travel and time travel-adjacent shows that didn't make this list. A fun romp like Early Edition, for example, while utilizing a time-traveling newspaper and potentially a time-traveling cat, doesn't in and of itself feature a lot of time travel. Nevertheless, it's still a fun time travel show. Something like Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is rooted in a time travel premise, but stays mostly in one time. With all that being said, in no particular order, here's a look at our picks for the best time travel shows on TV.

Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap stars Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist who invents a way to travel through time. When the corporation funding his project threatens to shut it down, Sam uses himself as a guinea pig to test out the method. He finds himself thrown back in time, but in another person's body. The only other person aware of his 'leap" is a hologram of his colleague and best friend, Admiral Al Calavicci, played by Dean Stockwell. Al tells Sam that he must correct things that went wrong in the past before being allowed to leap back to his own time and own body and can only use the resources of the project's supercomputer, Ziggy.

With Sam leaping back and forth into different bodies at different times, the show was allowed to adopt a kind of procedural set up. New characters could guest star and Sam could save the day, have a fling, and learn something new each episode. The series ran on NBC from 1989-1993, so the most attention Quantum Leap has received in recent years is thanks to a mention in Avengers: Endgame. Despite being over 20 years old, it's still a cool time travel series worth checking out.

Doctor Who

Speaking of series that are old, this one goes all the way back to the 1960s. Doctor Who premiered on the BBC in 1963. The series follows the adventures of a Time Lord named "the Doctor," an alien being from the planet Gallifrey who travels through space and time through a craft called the Tardis, which is disguised as an old-fashioned British police call box.

The original series ran from '63 through 1989 and recast the Doctor every few years or so, using the premise that the character has multiple lives and can reincarnate himself into a number of physical bodies. The modern series was revived in 2005 and has starred Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, with Jodie Whitaker taking over in 2017 as the series' first female Doctor. Every Doctor has their own version of a companion, or companions, humans who follow the Doctor throughout space and time, solving problems, battling aliens, robots, or other science fiction, timey-wimey stuff. Now that the Doctor has regained another set of lives, who knows how long the series will go on. But fans see no problems with a never-ending stream of Doctor Who.

Timeless

If ever there was a time travel show that was canceled too soon, it's Timeless. The sci-fi series stars Abigail Spencer as Lucy, a historian, Matt Lanter as Wyatt, a soldier, and Malcolm Barrett as Rufus, a scientist who make up a team trying to prevent a mysterious organization from altering the courses of history through time travel. The "Mothership," a time travel machine invented by Connor Mason, is stolen by Garcia Flynn, who then travels throughout history changing major events. But the team soon realizes that the villain they thought they were fighting is actually much larger and infiltrates the historical timeline in ways they never imagined. The best part about the show was that, instead of focusing on the usual historical subjects, it highlighted often forgotten people of color, women, and lesser-known historical figures, giving them their due and celebrating their contributions to society.

After one season on NBC, Timeless was canceled. But the intense fans, who call themselves "Clockblockers," caused such an uproar that NBC renewed the show for a second season only three days after initially canceling. At the end of season 2, NBC pulled the plug once again, and the Clockblockers cried foul. In a kind of compromise, NBC scheduled a two-hour Christmas series finale movie that tied up loose ends and gave much-needed closure to the story.

Outlander

Based on the series of novels by Diana Gabaldon, Starz's Outlander follows the story of a World War II nurse named Claire (Caitriona Balfe) who finds herself thrown back in time after visiting a circle of mysterious Druid stones. She arrives in 18th Century Scotland and, after being taken in by a band of gruff Scots, she marries the dashing young Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) in order to avoid being taken prisoner by her real husband's evil ancestor, Black Jack Randall. Claire lives through a time of great upheaval in Scotland when tensions with the British control are rising and history-making battles loom in the near future. Despite being initially reluctant to stay, she and Jamie fall deeply in love, and their romance remains the backbone of the series.

Claire stays in the past for some time, but soon travels back to the future and is reunited with her first husband, Frank (Tobias Menzies) and gives birth to her and Jamie's daughter, Brianna, in the 1940s. But as Brianna grows, and learns the truth about her mother's past, her biological father's identity, and her own time travel abilities, Claire, Brianna, and Brianna's paramour Roger all soon travel back to the 18th century to reunite with Jamie. The Fraser family settles in North Carolina a few years before the breakout of the American Revolutionary War, and being that they know what's coming, they find themselves in a pickle.

Lost

When the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 crash land on a deserted island, wacky and scary things begin to happen. If you watched Lost back when it aired, you know that the sci-fi drama dealt with flashbacks, flash-forwards, indigenous "others," a mysterious group called the Dharma Initiative, a black smoke monster, and an ancient battle between good and evil. Lost was one of those primetime giants that aired right before streaming services became big, so it was appointment television every week, with fans talking about it and theorizing about its mysteries the next day.

This ABC drama captivated viewers for six seasons, and though time travel was referenced throughout the entire series run, it was really season 4 where time travel played a big part. As the island itself jumps from place to place and from time to time, the main group of characters jumps with it, encountering previous versions of themselves, island events that occurred in the past, and suffering from the effects of temporal displacement. The most beloved episode dealing with time travel is no doubt "The Constant," the episode in which fan favorite Desmond Hume figured out a way to stop his consciousness from jumping through time by finding his constant, his love Penny.

11.22.63

Based on the novel 11/22/63 by Stephen King, this eight-episode series follows a man named Jake Epping (James Franco), a relatively normal guy who is given the chance to change history. As a recently divorced English teacher, Jake doesn't see much excitement, but when his friend Al (Chris Cooper) tells him he's found a way to travel back in time, his life is turned upside down. Al tells Jake that the portal he's discovered goes back to the year 1960 and that he's been working on a plan to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Al's age and advancing cancer diagnosis prevent him from following through on the plan, however, and he asks Jake to take over for him. Jake agrees, though his quest is met with pushback, but from who? As Al explains, the past doesn't want to be changed, and every step he takes toward preventing JFK's assassination leads to more cracks in the timeline.

Heroes

Save the cheerleader, save the world. That's what future Hiro Nakamura told present-day Hiro Nakamura when he appeared to him from the future. This NBC series followed a group of regular old people who develop special powers, not unlike mutants in the X-Men series, after a mysterious worldwide eclipse. Each character gains their own individual abilities. Claire Bennet (Hayden Panettiere) develops the ability to heal from any injury. Senator Nathan Petrelli gains the ability to fly, while his brother Peter (Mil Ventimiglia) can temporarily absorb others' powers.

Hiro's ability to bend space and time, travel into the past and the future, and teleport basically anywhere on the planet, becomes a serious asset throughout the run of the series. But it takes a while for Hiro to perfect his own abilities. The first few times he travels through time don't go as planned, and throughout the series, things can get in the way of him ending up where he wants to go or when he wants to be. Even so, Hiro's time traveling became one of the highlights of Heroes, especially since Masi Oka was so darn charming as the character.

The 4400

In the opening scenes of The 4400, an enormous ball of light drops 4400 people at the foot of Mount Rainier in Washington. They soon realize that they were all taken from some other point in time, kidnapped from their own year, beginning in 1946, and deposited into 2004 unaged and without their memories of where they'd been. At first, the 4400 and the rest of the general population believe that they'd been abducted by aliens and all returned to a singular point in time. But the 4400 soon learn that it wasn't aliens who took them from their own times, it was humans from Earth's future who took them.

Soon after returning, the 4400 start developing powers, not unlike the heroes of Heroes. Some have telekinesis, some have telepathy, some have super-strength. The humans from the future sent them back with these abilities to prevent catastrophic events that they want to avoid in their time. The government, however, views them differently and inhibits their powers with a neurological drug. As the 4400 dissipate, some form terrorist groups, some reject their powers, and some work toward the future humans' goals. The 4400 ended abruptly after four seasons and left on a somewhat ambiguous note, but it's a fun show to revisit.

Travelers

In this Netflix show, time-traveling operatives from a post-apocalyptic future are tasked with preventing certain events that lead to the downfall of society. The series stars Eric McCormack, Mackenzie Porter, Jared Abrahamson, Nesta Cooper, Reilly Dolman, and Patrick Gilmore, though there are thousands of other Travelers in the show's current time of 2018. The travelers have their consciousness sent back in time and into the body of a person who was moments before their death. The operative then lives out the rest of that person's life though with a mission always in mind. The rules are as follows: 1. The mission comes first. 2. Leave the future in the past. 3.Don't take a life; don't save a life, unless otherwise directed. Do not interfere. 4. Do not reproduce. 5. In the absence of direction, maintain your host's life. 6. Do not communicate with other known travelers outside of your team unless sanctioned by the Director.

The Director is an unseen entity from the future who controls all missions and speaks to the Travelers through messengers in the form of children. Unlike adults, children can safely be taken over by the Director from the future for a few minutes without being harmed. But naturally, not all Travelers follow the rules, and while the crux of the series leans on a group of people trying to prevent disasters, many of them veer off course and make their own plans. 

Continuum

Continuum is best explained by the main character Keira Cameron's voiceover narration, which says: "2077. My time, my city, my family. When terrorists killed thousands of innocents, they were condemned to die. They had other plans. A time travel device sent us all back 65 years. I want to get home, but I can't be sure what I will return to if history is changed. Their plan: To corrupt and control the present in order to win the future. What they didn't plan on was me."

When Keria, a City Protective Services (CPS) law enforcement officer for the corporatocratic, oligarchic dystopia of the North American Union and its Corporate Congress, discovers that self-described freedom fighters calling themselves Liber8 have escaped execution by traveling to the year 2012, she is inadvertently sucked back in time with them. Keira must capture the eight escapees before they alter the future permanently and prevent her from returning to her own time. 

12 Monkeys

This SyFy series was based on the 1995 film of the same name that starred Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, though the series itself changed quite a bit in order to stretch the plot into a four-season sci-fi drama. The series stars Aaron Sanford as James Cole, a scavenger who, in 2043, is tasked which traveling back to the year 2015 to stop the release of a biological weapon. So far that's pretty much the premise of the movie, but here's where the show differs. In the movie, James is helped by a psychologist named Kathryn Railly played by Madeleine Stowe, but in the series, James befriends a virologist named Dr. Cassandra "Cassie" Railly (Amanda Schull). Pitt's character, Jeffrey Goines, is also gender-swapped here, with Emily Hampshire playing Jennifer Goines.

Like the movie, the series deals with the Cassandra Complex, the idea that future events can already be known to us but that we have a hard time believing them. It also deals with circular time and the idea that past events can be affected by future events, as is seen in the backward phone messages that lead to James being sent back in time in the first place in the movie. If those aspects of the film really lifted your time travel antennae, the show, which spanned four seasons, dives even deeper.

Fringe

Fringe isn't just about time travel, it's about a science-fiction conglomerate that incorporates inter-dimensional travel, wormholes, alternate realities, and Observers from the future. Anna Torv stars as FBI Agent Olivia Dunham who heads up the bureau's Fringe Division. With the help of "mad scientist" Dr. Walter Biship (John Noble), his estranged son Peter (Joshua Jackson), and their lab assistant Astrid Farnsworth (Jakisa Nicole), the team explores cases involving fringe science, be they about time travel, mind control, experiments gone wrong or any other strange and obscure criminal activity.

Like Lost, time travel is kind of a looming presence early in Fringe, particularly present in the character of "The Observer" (Michael Cerveris), a bald, pale genetically advanced human from the future. While seasons one and two deal with the battle between two dimensions and two realities, time travel really becomes an element in season 3. Seasons 4 and 5 then deal with alternate timelines and the Observers that infiltrate the world from the future, intent on wiping out humanity. The show is confusing as hell, but it sure is fun.