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Pop Culture Is Obsessed With Time-Loops, Time Travel, and Alternate Worlds

Time loops and time travel in culture

Have you noticed a recurring theme on TV and the movies as of late? Recurring is indeed the word: again and again, we’re seeing variations on playing with the timeline popping up in our most popular media.

As a writer who covers Avengers: Endgame, I’ve been expecting time travel to be the key to undoing Thanos’ Snap since last spring. But if time is indeed in play, it’s likely nothing so simple as a straight-shot trip in a Delorean. It’s assumed that the Avengers will be using the trippy Quantum Realm time vortices to travel backward (or forward, and back again) to alter the galaxy-shattering event of the Snapture. We know from Doctor Strange’s use of the Time Stone in Infinity War that in over 14 million permutations of these events, there’s only one timeline where the Avengers can win. Every other conceivable world results in failure. And Doctor Strange saw them all.

While Endgame is probably going to be the biggest property to tackle manipulating realities as a central plot device, its appearance in April will be, well, timely. Because many media productions, including those less traditionally “genre,” are playing with time travel, time loops, and the alternate worlds that can be generated when things go a little differently. This is one of our primary themes of the present day.

Recently, one of my best friends (we met while working in a science fiction bookshop) posed this question to social media:

Okay, why has our pop culture gotten so fixated on many-worlds, plots replaying possible futures over and over and over? Any theories? They feel like they resonate with something but what IS it?

She went on to highlight some of the places we’re seeing these “possible futures” explored: “Marvel movies to Russian Doll to The Magicians to Star Trek Discovery to Life is Strange, from geek shows to fancy literature (Life After Life), we as a culture are OBSESSED right now.” She points out that these plots also crop up in comedies like Community and The Good Place as well—not, generally, the medium where you might expect adventures into alternate universes.

Time-skipping—and its ramifications in creating different realities—is not a new plot device to see manifesting in our culture. Popular movies have played with the concept for decades, from Back to the Future to Groundhog Day, from Twelve Monkeys to the Terminator(s). On TV, Doctor Who has been buzzing about in that police box since 1963. Shows like Quantum LeapSliders, and Fringe laid the groundwork for newer properties like OutlanderTravelersCounterpartTimeless, Continuum, Legends of Tomorrow, and many more.

We can, of course, go back much further: While H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, published in 1895, is often credited with popularizing our modern, mechanized concept of time travel, the idea of being caught up in a variant timeline dates back to some of our oldest myths and stories.

One of the looming threats of venturing into fairy territory in many a folktale was how differently time passed there: stay for seven minutes and you might emerge to find that seven years had passed at home while you were gone. Or seventy years had flown by, and everyone you loved was gone. Early literary characters used to “time travel” by means of fantastical sleep—think Sleeping Beauty or Rip Van Winkle, preserved as they were when they closed their eyes in their era but waking up far in the future.

And just as Bill Murray’s character Phil Connors learns to be a better person through the endless repetitions of his Groundhog Day, viewing how time plays out based on the decisions we make is often deployed as a moralizing lesson about the impact a single person can make—see It’s a Wonderful Life or consult with Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

Yet the sheer abundance of time-play themes in our current media is, I think, indicative of a certain mood that is dissatisfied with how our actual timeline has unspooled. In America, many of us joke that since Trump’s election we’re in “the darkest timeline,” but in that gallows humor is a real feeling that we can close our eyes and see how our lives would be drastically altered had electoral events played out differently. Every time the Trump administration pushes a terrible, dehumanizing policy, it’s all too easy to envision our country without it. It’s surreal enough to come to grips that this is, in fact, our legitimate reality. Hence our entrapment in the darkest timeline.

There were several illuminating answers to my friend’s query on Facebook about why we’re so fixated on exploring “many worlds” in recent fiction. “The hope that for some version of us out there, things are less garbage than here, I assume?” was one response.

Another person wrote, “Because we can’t imagine a future,” which is both devastating and prescient. While so many bury their heads in the sand on climate change, should we be surprised that our creative output isn’t focused on the distant future, but in finding a dramatic fix through reality-bending means in the present?

Other responders to the thread thought the prevalence of this time-manipulation theme had to do with our technology-based lives. “Video games,” one suggested. “Or like a standard popcultural understanding of how they work. Save points and extra lives.” When we’re so used to being able to “restart” a story or directly impact how events play out in-game, this ability to enact change after unsatisfactory results could indeed be affecting some of the wider cultural discourse.

An additional opinion proposed a direct correlation to the way we interact now in everyday life. “I think at least the time loop scenarios are a comment on the fact that, since connections are being formed and lost more rapidly these days, we feel like we’re meeting the same people anew over and over.”

There’s also the fact that our very realities seem more subjective these days—a sensation enhanced by our increased connectivity. It can feel like the people we see on social media—living in other parts of the country or the world, consuming different news sources, polarized by political party or affiliation—are dwelling in an entirely altered state. A mirror universe, if you would.

Is someone who still chants “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton and thinks Donald Trump is the target of deep state witch hunts actually existing in the same timeline that I am, the darkest one? Their timeline might feel quite ideal to them. What is real, whose reality is right, when we both experience events so differently? It can feel as though we’re living in the Twilight Zone; should it be any surprise that we’re bringing back a high-powered Twilight Zone to watch?

We’re alive in a time when mass false memory phenomenons—”alternate reality recollections” referred to as the Mandela Effect—are a joke and a meme and yet still give us pause and provoke discussion. Are you sure it wasn’t The Berenstein Bears? Are you positive Sinbad never starred in a movie as a genie? We’re willing to question what we know to be fact in “the real world,” so it follows that we no longer blink to see worlds so altered on TV, in the movies, in literature, in video games.

Ultimately, one of the responses to my friend’s thread hits the nail on the head:

Big picture: sci-fi has become mainstream enough that any work can add speculative elements. What-if stories are fun to write, tug at our curiosity and fit into other genres and moods in a way other sci fi elements don’t.

Immediate cause: Trump broke all our brains and we’re all low-key convinced we’re trapped in the wrong timeline.

I think we’re further drawn to the narrative of second chances—of making things right that we already did wrong, as well as the seductive dream of how much we personally matter in the timeline. If the ripple effect from one person’s decisions has the chance to make or break the universe, maybe the future doesn’t have to feel so dark after all.

(h/t Marley Alexander, images: Netflix, BBC, NBC, CBS)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.