Time Travel

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Trope · Genre
Synonyms: timeloop, groundhog day, do-over, redo, peggy sue
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Time travel is a classic science fiction subgenre that involves characters experiencing any disruption of the normal flow of time. The disruption can be real or perceived, as characters who are held in stasis without aging only to reawaken and find themselves "in the future" are just as likely to fall under the wide umbrella of this trope as characters who are transported instantaneously. Time travel can occur forwards, backwards, or in a loop. Variations of this trope are popular for both canon works and fanfiction.

Types of time travel

Time travel can largely be split up into physical time travel, mental time travel, and timeloops but (as with any trope classification) things tend to get messy and strange when one gets into the details.

Time travel might or might not involve paradoxes, usually depending on whether the has a single timeline (wherein there is only ever one future and one past, leading to problems should the traveller, say, kill their own grandfather) or many timelines (wherein the traveller is technically killing an alternate universe version of their grandfather). Some works involve both.

Physical time travel

Physical time travel is any time travel where a character's mind and body both travel through time. Extra items like clothing or technology may or may not be included. In The Time Traveler's Wife, the eponymous time traveller always arrives naked and even has to have a tooth pulled because the filling won't travel with him. Time machines and time slips are popular methods of facilitating time travel, the first usually being voluntary and the latter most often being accidental.

Mental time travel

Mental time travel involves only a character's mind traveling through time, most often but not always to take possession of their own younger body and redo their life, a trope often referred to as peggy sue (no relation to mary sue) after the movie Peggy Sue Got Married. In Stargate: Continuum, the character Ba'al travels back physically but as he is immortal and unaging he simply kills his past self and to take his own place, thus hitting most of the common mental time travel tropes instead of the physical ones. The Netflix show Travelers involves time travelers from the far future taking over the bodies of other people.


Main article: Groundhog day
A timeloop, like in Groundhog Day, is when a character repeats a period of time over and over again. This is most often mental time travel, as in the aforementioned movie, and usually a fairly short amount of time. It's common for the traveler's goal to be fixing something that went wrong, escaping the timeloop, or both.

History and canonical use

Science Fiction Citations gives the earliest use of the term "time travel" as a 1914 philosophy paper[1], but identifies the 1895 novel The Time Machine by H.G. Wells as the first use of "time traveller"[2]. This novel is also the source of the word "time machine" itself.[3]

While Star Trek TOS provides a number of the earliest examples of canonical time travel in a television series, time travel has been a recurring theme in Star Trek.[4]

Canonical time travel is also present in Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Dragon Ball Z, The Adventure Zone, and a wide variety of other works. For a more complete list see the external TV tropes wiki entry.

Use in zines

This article or section needs expansion.

Use in online fanfiction

Fandom-specific pages: The Hobbit, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman

Time travel of all kinds is popular in fanfiction, especially in fandoms with source texts that already have canonical time travel of one kind or another. Many time travel fics are fix-it fics where the traveller has a second chance and attempts to fix a mistake or tragedy of the past. Other motivations (Watsonian or Doylist) include crossovers, interaction with characters the timeline wouldn't otherwise allow them to meet, or world building.

Physical time travel

Intentional physical time travel in fics tend to be a fix-it on behalf of the time traveler, even if the traveler is the antagonist of the fic, in which case the plot revolves around fixing whatever it is they feel is wrong with the past, such as a loved one dying or the rise of an enemy they can't defeat in the future. From a Doylist perspective, the author might be looking to write interactions between the traveler and characters who, in the present, are long-dead, mortal enemies, too old to ship the character with comfortable, or some combination thereof.

Mental time travel

In peggy sue fics, where the time traveller has a long to-do list of things they're going to get right this time, the peggy sue often comes from a grimdark, quasi- or literally post-apocalyptic timelines where everyone is dead or dying, in order to justify the character giving their timeline as a lost cause and/or to provide more angst or tension. The peggy sue character sometimes has to struggle to deal with suddenly having a child's body again, encountering long-dead loved ones, and/or faded memories of their own past that make it hard to convincingly pretend to be their own past self.

As many peggy sue fics stick to the stations of the canon (TV Tropes link) conflict in a peggy sue is often not a question of "What comes next?" but instead whether the peggy sue's future knowledge and better skills will let them succeed this time. A common plot-twist is for peggy sue fics to stick with the stations of the canon right up until a very crucial moment, at which things veer wildly off course and it's revealed that one of the peggy sue's enemies came back as well.

In mental time travel fics that aren't peggy sues, the traveller might be in someone else's body, or their own future. If they're in someone else's body there might be worry about the morals of the situation. Characters who are reincarnated into the past are sometimes considered to have time traveled.


Main article: Groundhog day

If it's a fix-it, the timeloop is an excuse to get one crucial plot point right, in which case the timeloop might be self-inflicted by the character experiencing it. Usually it's more of a curse the character must overcome, sometimes without apparent cause. Characters often use timeloops to become more skilled, or at least knowledgeable, although they're held back by their bodies resetting so often.

Timeloops that repeat years, decades, or a character's entire life often have a lot in common with peggy sue time travel.


Print examples

Physical time travel

Mental time travel

  • Buffyverse:
    • Impact by shiny silver grl. Takes place in season 3. As Darla prepares to give birth, Cordelia interferes with an attempt on Angel's life, but the consequences of her actions land her two years in the past, mere days before Doyle is to die on the Quintessa.
    • Man of the World by EnigmaticBlue. Fred’s death and the return of his memories leave Wesley a desperate man. He makes a dangerous bid to make things right, only to find that he’s a stranger in a world that’s no longer familiar to him.
  • Gilmore Girls: I’ve Been Here Before by La Rose Bleue. Lorelai/Luke. After waking up at Christopher’s, Lorelai wakes up again at home in a very different era of the Gilmoreverse.
  • Harry Potter:
  • Merlin: The King And His Sorcerer by tarayith. Arthur/Merlin. Merlin wakes up in Arthur's bed five times and incidentally discovers time travel along the way.
  • Stargate Atlantis: Iterum by Keira Marcos. McKay/Sheppard. After losing Atlantis and living a miserable life on Earth, John and Rodney take a chance on an untested device for a second chance.
  • X-Men: First Class:
    • If Only Could by freckleon. Charles/Erik, Today is not the day that Charles' world came crumbling down. Today is two weeks earlier.
    • Timeline series by Unforgotten. After Magneto of an X2-ish future succeeds in the unthinkable, Charles sends his consciousness back to 1962 to guide Erik away from the path that will lead to the genocide of the human race forty years hence. Charles knows that Erik has always loved him, and intends to use this knowledge + sex to seduce Erik away from his ideals in his youth. There's no way this well-thought-out, sensible, debugged and 100% bulletproof plan can possibly go wrong.



Thematic lists and rec sets for time travel stories

Harry Potter:
Stargate SG-1/Stargate Atlantis:

External Links and Resources

At AO3

At TV Tropes



  1. Science Fiction Citations: time travel
  2. Science Fiction Citations: time traveller
  3. Science Fiction Citations: time machine
  4. See Memory Alpha for a history of Temporal Mechanics.