Rubber-Band History

Everything is right with the world! The birds are singing, the zeppelins are zoomin', and Adolf Hitler has finally defeated the last pockets of resistance in Australia.

...wait, what?!

It seems that the history we, the viewers on Earth 616, have grown familiar with is slightly... or hugely different. It can be an Alternate History where the Nazis won WWII, or even a complete reversal Mirror Universe where the characters we know and love have changed into Jerkasses.

Rest assured though! Like a stretched rubber band, history may bend but will always spring back to its original form, and the more radical the change the nastier the Snap Back will be.

Our heroes in this strange and disturbing timeline will likewise undo it with Time Travel and reset it back into our history with a hearty "twang"! (Watch your fingers, and make sure you aim at the butterfly).

Sometimes, the resident Alternate Badass of said timeline will come back if the alternate timeline threatens to become dominant again. Don't expect them to stick around, though.

This trope is easiest to grasp in the context of a series, where an episode starts with a radically different version of reality that sooner or later snaps back into the version established in earlier episodes. But it can also be seen in standalone works, where it's the timeline snapping back to "real" history — ie. the version of reality familiar to the author and the audience. (In the latter case, it's often implied that in-universe the unfamiliar timeline is the original one and the change to our reality is a new alteration and not a reversion to a previous state; that still counts.)

If history can't be brought back to its original form without some major differences, it's a Close Enough Timeline — like when Alice escapes death, but our heroes make sure she gets run over by a truck a few minutes later anyway. If Alice's tomb is instead filled by Bob just to preserve the timeline, it's Tricked Out Time. Not related to the "rubberband" timeline for Long Runners where characters don't age, that's Comic-Book Time you're looking for.


Examples:

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    Comic Books 
  • Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602, in which the heroes and villains of the Marvel Comics Universe begin to appear 400 years early, qualifies, although it manages to avert the typical ending a bit: things are altered so that events are put on track to occur at their proper time, but the 1602 universe survives in a pocket universe.
    • Which is pretty much how this kind of thing tends to work with Marvel. They have to populate the multi-verse somehow!

    Literature 
  • K.A. Applegate's Animorphs did this a couple times. Elfangor's Secret opens with a normal day for our heroes: this great new game called Pong just came out, the extermination of the population of South America is going nicely, and even the slaves seem to be having a good time... wait, what?! (Since they don't have Ripple Effect-Proof Memory until the Sufficiently Advanced Alien steps in, the first couple of lines on this page are pretty much exactly how it goes.)
    • And that's not even getting into the fact that one of the characters has been sent off for "reeducation" and there's someone else in that character's place.
  • Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity ends with our history being created by a change in the past, when the time-traveling protagonists derail the sequence of events that would have led to the founding of Eternity.
  • In Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams, Samuel Taylor Coleridge finished writing "Kubla Khan" and nobody's ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach's music. It turns out that the music was obtained by the time-traveling main characters from an alien spaceship and given to Bach.
    • Coleridge had to be interrupted (by a time traveler) because the last part of his poem would have started a chain of events leading to the retroactive destruction of the world. The Bach thing, though, was just because the traveler liked the music he heard and wanted to save it before destroying the ship.
  • The Thursday Next books are set in an alternative history where, amongst other things, the novel Jane Eyre initially has a different ending from the one in 'our' world. However, due to the exploits of the heroine and the events of the final climax taking place within the novel's original manuscript, the ending gets changed to the ending it does have in our world - something which everyone greatly approves of, since in that history the novel's 'original' ending was widely accepted to be depressing and dramatically unsatisfying.
    • For added Mind Screw, the fifth book, First Amongst Sequels does the same thing with the Thursday Next books.
    • This is also played with regarding the "real world" history. Thursday's father, a rogue Time Police officer, spends much of the first four books bouncing around history and setting events right, and events after his intervention more closely resemble Real Life history. However, eventually time travel itself is retroactively never invented, and that still leaves the Thursday Next world with a past, present, and future wildly different from our own.
  • James P. Hogan's The Proteus Operation. Some 21st century aristocrats from a peaceful world where World War II never happened go back to the 1920s and give Those Wacky Nazis (who faded to obscurity after the Beer Hall Putsch) funding and technology with the intent of moving in and taking over after Hitler conquers the world for them. He takes what they offer, gives them the finger, and proceeds to take over just about the entire planet. An American team from that world's 1970s are able to go back to 1939 and sabotage the Nazis' time gate, and the uptime information they bring back is used by the Allied leaders to launch Operation Overlord and create our world.
  • Ward Moore's novel Bring the Jubilee begins in a timeline where the Confederacy won the American Civil War; the main character goes back in time to observe Gettysburg and accidentally changes history to our version.
  • Mathematicians in Love by Rudy Rucker (though it's always obvious that the starting world isn't our own; e.g., the university across the bay from San Francisco with all the hippies is called Humelocke, not Berkeley).
  • The short story "Wikihistory" by Desmond Warzel reveals that history is vulnerable to the whims of, of all things, an amateur time traveling society embroiled in a massive, history-changing Edit War.
  • Lawrence Watt-Evans' short story "One-Shot" has a guy go back in time to save Kennedy from being killed by a love-sick Marilyn Monroe. He drugs her and makes it look like a suicide. The Secret Service agent he confesses and proves his story to says he'll tell JFK about it after he gets back from Dallas.
  • Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America" features a timeline in which Lindbergh becomes President in 1936, leading to a pro-Nazi America which oppresses Jews. However, by about 1946, world and US history alike are inexplicably back to the ones we know.
  • In Will of Heaven, our version of history is the changed version, and the main character sacrifices himself to make sure it doesn't snap back.
  • Times Without Number by John Brunner is a collection of short stories set in an alternate history where the Spanish Armada conquered England and the resultant European superpower went on to invent time travel. In the final story, an extremist travels back in time to sabotage the Armada; despite the hero's efforts, he succeeds, creating the history we're familiar with.

    Live Action TV 
  • The 4400 has an episode where Maya and other child 4400's were sent to the past and created the technology for non-polluting cars, moon bases, and biodegradable plastics. Despite things being better, Diana and Tom manage to convince the people in the future to undo their quite positive changes to reunite Maya and Diana, in return for a favor...
  • Andromeda: "The Unconquerable Man" was actually set in our universe at first, but when an additional scar was found on Rhade, we got a "Last Time In Another Universe".
  • Eureka's Season 1 Finale essentially pulls a Donnie Darko-style plot, but over the course of four years instead of a couple of weeks. Considering how much the fabric of the universe hated the fact that one person's life had been saved, we can only imagine how bad the snap-back would have been if they'd killed Hitler instead.
  • The Quantum Leap episode "Lee Harvey Oswald" leaps Sam into the title character, and Sam and Al have to decide whether the purpose of the leap is to shoot Kennedy, not shoot Kennedy, or something else entirely, since Oswald might not have been the assassin at all. It turns out that Oswald was the only shooter, no grassy knoll; the mission is to save Kennedy. Jackie Kennedy, who "originally" died in the shooting.
    • A few episodes were like that. The Marilyn Monroe episode ended with Sam preventing her death from a drug overdose, keeping her alive long enough to make The Misfits.
  • In Stargate SG-1, after a hearty two-part alternate-history travel adventure, they come home to apparently their normal present. In a twist, however, now Jack's pond has fish in it when it's not supposed to. Jack declares the current universe is "close enough".
    • It's not "they come back to" so much as "the narrative goes back to". The two-parter began when the characters in the main timeline decided to go back in time to find a piece of valuable Applied Phlebotinum; historical records showed where it was in the past but by the present day it could have been anywhere in the galaxy. They succeeded, but at the cost of getting stuck back there and creating a very different alternate timeline Well, sort of very different. The alternate timeline's version of the heroes had to go back to restore the original timeline. All things considered, the series' true main characters only appeared in the first quarter of the two-part episode and the last five minutes.
      • Actually thinking about it, since seasons 1-8 are clearly in the 'no fish' timeline, the main characters of the show to that point died in Egypt and the last five minutes (and every episode or film in the 'verse since then) feature an entirely new, identical SG-1 as the protagonists.
  • One episode of Farscape has Crichton accidentally traveling to Earth in the 1980s, a result of which is his father now being slated to fly the Challenger's last mission. John and the crew of Moya eventually manage to get things right though, since as the alien "Einstein" had explained, history is literally like a rubber band and tends to snap back into place if enough things about the timeline are similar.
    • Subverted in another accidental time travel episode. After a long episode trying to help time right itself, they finally seem to have set things back on course. Only their presence in the timeline and the ensuing disruption it caused transformed a peaceful surrender into a horrible massacre.
  • Doctor Who: A subversion occurs in the 2005 season, when the Doctor fixes something wrong in "The Long Game" and assumes that the humans will sort everything out and get their development back on track. They don't, because, as it turns out in "Bad Wolf", he only fixed the superficial problem, not the underlying one. Doing that requires the equivalent of a Physical God.
  • Red Dwarf played this one for laughs in Tikka To Ride, involving the Oswald/Kennedy assassination. First time, the crew accidentally foils it and realizes they need to make it a stable time loop, so go through absurd lengths to try and get it back on track. After a few goes of it, they decide to skip to the future, only to find out that Kennedy has been impeached due to his numerous affairs, one of which with a woman that may have been a Soviet spy. They then convince the disgraced President to come with them and assassinate himself in order to avert the bad future.
    Lister: It'll drive the conspiracy nuts crazy - they'll never work it out!

    Web Comics 
  • Oddball variation: In Irregular Webcomic!, the Indiana Jones parody strips feature Hitler as a Brain in a Jar - to circumvent the fact that the LEGO Group doesn't produce Hitler figures. This is later explained as the result of a change from yet another alternate history where Hitler died in the Reichstag fire. He was brought back in the jar by Adam Savage of the MythBusters as part of Chess with Death (specifically, a bet that Adam couldn't confirm the myth that Hitler's brain was saved in a jar... hey.)

    Western Animation 
  • Dog City: Baron goes back to the time the pilgrims purchased the new world from the natives and made a better offer: squeak toys. This created a Bad Future where he rules. Somehow, Ace and Eddie had Ripple Effect-Proof Memory and, after visiting a timeline where Eddie ruled, went back to the past and made an even better offer: a technologically advanced (even for present time standards) fire hydrant the heroes took from the Eddie-ruled timeline.