Unstuck in Time

All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber.
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (the Trope Namer)

A form of Mental Time Travel, the person who is Unstuck In Time not only travels through time in his own body, (and possibly in others) but he does so randomly. Without any knowledge of where he will wake up... or when.

Compare Non Linear Storytelling and Random Transportation.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Something like this happens to Dark King Ixpellia in the Lyrical Nanoha series, except that she can only take The Slow Path: the unique condition of her body makes her fall asleep for a random period of time between 1 and 1000 years. During this time, she is completely unaware of her surroundings, so she has no way of knowing beforehand when and where (or rather, in whose hands) she will awaken next time.

    Comic Books 
  • Captain America during the Captain America Reborn miniseries.
  • In Those Annoying Post Brothers by Matt Howarth, this happens to Ron Post once as a result of a bad drug trip, and he keeps popping back and forth to a future in which he's fighting a computer virus taking over Bugtown. He gets one of the people he's fighting with to tell him how it all started so he can solve the problem before it happens. Noteworthy in that this is one of the few times we get to see Ron actually making plans rather than just doing what seemed like a good idea at the time...
  • Happens twice to Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. As a result of the accident that creates him, he's able to perceive the entirety of his life at once. In the climax, the Big Bad bombards him with Tachyons, rendering him unable to see present events. Since the character can exist in multiple places and times simultaneously, this is confusing, even for him.

  • Monster A-Go Go seemed to imply that this happened to Frank Douglas, or maybe not. The film is so poorly made that it's completely incomprehensible. The only thing that happened was they ran out of budget for the final confrontation, and only spent about 15 seconds thinking of an alternate ending.
  • The 2007 American movie Premonition revolves around this concept.
  • Happens in 12 Monkeys in that the time machine used is very unreliable and unpredictable.
  • The protagonist's mental condition near the beginning of Girl, Interrupted make her feel as if this is happening, illustrated by a skillful composition of flashbacks. "Checks!"
  • The main character in Shuffle experiences this.
  • In Russian Ark, the narrator and his companion wander around the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, bouncing around 300 years of Russian history pretty much at random.

  • The Trope Namer is the opening line to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, referring to main character Billy Pilgrim. It may be worth noting that there is a common Alternative Character Interpretation that he is not in fact an actual example of this trope, and is instead experiencing PTSD flashbacks (and also hallucinating aliens as a coping measure).
  • Philip K. Dick's Now Wait For Last Year is an example of this. The main character's wife obtains an illegal drug from an alien society. The aliens supposedly use the drug to hallucinate, re-living past happy experiences. When she takes the drug she finds out that the drug works as described, except that you aren't hallucinating... You should probably stop taking the drug so that you don't mess with the timeline, but the drug is highly addictive so no matter how hard you try to stop you'll keep feeling compelled to go back to further mess up your own past.
  • Old Mother Dismass in the Discworld books has "a detached retina in her second sight." From the perspective of the other characters she's on the correct timeline and seems fine apart from a tendency to talk in non sequiturs. From her perspective however, she's experiencing exactly what the trope describes.
    • Some Discworld characters specialize in time manipulation and have become briefly Unstuck In Time as a result of stressful situations. Involuntary time travel has been seen in characters plummeting to their death or giving birth, for example.
  • The Clayr in the Old Kingdom series have this as a form of clairvoyance. As they grow older their visions become smaller and more frequent until they are unable to function independently. All Clayr have a fragment of the sight but at any given time 49 of them are on duty as the "Nine Day Watch". When trying see somethng that eludes them, they will call a gathering of up to 1538, almost all the Awakened Clayr.
  • The short story "Searching for January," from W.P. Kinsella's book The Dixon Cornbelt League, is about a man who finds baseball star Roberto Clemente rowing up to a beach in 1987, 14 years after he was lost in a plane crash. At the end Roberto decides to keep rowing on, to search for January 2, 1973
    "I watch him drift, trapped. Or am I trapped, here in 1987, while he, through some malfunction of the universe is borne into timelessness?"
  • Henry from The Time Traveller's Wife, who gets it worse than a lot of other people mentioned here. Henry suffers from a genetic disease which is eventually named Chrono Displacement Disorder. Like epilepsy, it can initially manifest as a seizure, and be brought on by things like flashing lights, television images, or stress. Unlike epilepsy, the end result is Henry finding himself completely naked in an unknown time in a place he's likely (but not guaranteed) to have been before. And since it's a genetic disease, Henry manages to pass it to his daughter Alba. Fortunately for her, she seems to have developed a bit more control about where and when she ends up.
  • Happens in a more limited form to several characters in The Illuminatus! Trilogy; due to the effects of heavy use of psychoactive drugs, combined with the multiple enlightenment-inducing Mind Screws and Batman Gambits perpetrated by the leaders of the various competing factions.
  • In John Dies at the End, upon taking the soy sauce for the first time, both John and David become unstuck.
  • The Great Zambini is the physical version in Jasper Fforde's Dragonslayer trilogy.
  • The Dechronization of Sam Macgruder is about a professor who gets hit with a random timewarp and permanently stuck 80 million years in the past. Most of the book is his journals, recently uncovered by the university paleontology team.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Illyria in the Angel episode "Time Bomb" is like this. In the After The Fall comics, whenever Angel gets near Illyria, he gets like this, going back and forth in his own life.
  • Samuel Beckett in Quantum Leap, as the whole premise. Part of the journey was trying to figure out what was controlling his leaps, sending him to Set Right What Once Went Wrong. Is it God? Time itself? Fate? In the Grand Finale, it turns out it's Sam's own Chronic Hero Syndrome.
  • Captain Picard in the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Also, a variation happened to Worf in one episode, where instead of being Unstuck In Time, he keeps traveling between parallel universes.
    • Unstuck in timelines?
  • Miles O'Brien in the episode "Visionary" of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
    • His case was not random, though. It was quickly determined that he always jumped 6 hours into the future, every 6 hours, and landed a short distance from where his future self was.
  • Kes, in Star Trek: Voyager, except she was traveling backwards in time from the end of her life, and the timeline that was shown never actually came to be, since Kes got off the ship long before then. It did, however, provide some foreshadowing for the upcoming Year of Hell storyline.
  • Another unstuck-in-timelines character like Worf that one time? Sliders has the villainous Dr. Oberon Geiger. Also, Colin was Put on a Bus by suffering the same fate as Geiger; the show ends on a cliffhanger so we'll never know if he can be rescued.
  • Variation: In the Lost episode "The Constant", Desmond jumps back and forth between two points, but he doesn't know how long he has in each time period before he will jump again.
    • In the beginning of the fifth season, the survivors left on the island begin to jump through time.
    • Most time travel here is physical teleportation, but Desmond's is mental.
    • Side effects of being Unstuck In Time is probably what Daniel was suffering before coming to the Island. He seems to improve once arriving, either due to the Island's healing properties, or because Desmond is his constant.
  • Happens to Crichton in Farscape after he accidentally touched the containment shield on a homemade quantum singularity, allowing him to pick out the only timeline that didn't end with him dead, Moya disintegrated, or the singularity's power in the hands of the Scorvians.
  • Babylon 5:
    • Captain Sheridan, as explained by Zathras in War Without End.
    • In the earlier episode Babylon Squared, it is revealed that this was the fate of Babylon 4. War Without End would reveal that the heroes actually went back in time to steal it.
  • In season 5 of Person of Interest, the Machine loses her ability to perceive time. The results are every bit as disastrous as you'd expect, since she can no longer place people's actions in context. Thankfully, Harold fixes the problem by the end of the episode.

    Video Games 
  • According to one of the noncorporeal time travelers in The Very Definitely Final Dungeon of Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army, corporeal time travelers run the risk of precisely this happening to them. This is what happens to the Big Bad, who due to mucking with the timeline, apparently destroys the timeline that leads to the events of Shin Megami Tensei I and Shin Megami Tensei II, negating his own existence and only remaining extant due to his possession of his ancestress, Kaya Daidouji. When the bond is severed, he's thrown into a Time Abyss.
  • In Guilty Gear Axl Low keeps travelling back in time, apparently due to there being another version of him, so the universe tries to force the two from existing at the same time.
    • Jossed. Axl keeps travelling in time because has a parallel self, Raven (who is actually a sadomasochistic viking of some kind). Raven willingly moves through dimensions, and this has the side-effect of causing Axl to slip through time. We don't fully understand it, either.
  • In the Interactive Fiction game Shrapnel, the player is left Unstuck In Time as the result of a Time Crash caused by the accidental destruction of a time traveler's time machine.
  • Viki from the Suikoden series is well known for this: each time she sneezes (typically during a victory banquet), she ends up teleporting herself somewhere else, at a different time. It makes extremely confusing to guess if the Viki of one game jumped from the preceding one or the following one into the current game you are playing.
  • Zilean, one of the champions in League of Legends, suffers from this as a side effect of his time-manipulation powers.
  • Rosalind and Robert Lutece from Bioshock Infinite are implied to have become this as a result of Jeremiah Fink sabotaging their equipment under the orders of Comstock. It would explain how they keep showing up everywhere.
  • A major plot point in Second Sight, with the protagonist lurching back and forth between being part of a Special Forces mission Gone Horribly Wrong, and the aftermath of waking up in a mental hospital with Identity Amnesia and Psychic Powers. The twist comes when you find out which scenario is actually the present.
  • In Destiny, you find yourself entering the Vault of Glass, an entire cave system that is Unstuck In Time, to rescue a Guardian from it. Unfortunately, there was nothing you could have done; because of the Vault and the strange things it does to time, even though the Guardian you're looking for is speaking to you in real time, he's also been dead for centuries and all you find is his bones.
  • Tracer, the mascot character of Overwatch, suffers from this. Due to a failed experiment with an teleporting jet, she became unstuck, shifting forward in time semi-randomly. It is only with a special chronal accelerator built into her armor that she was able to become a functioning human again. This is the source of her in-game abilities, which include the ability to briefly reverse time and teleport short distances.

    Web Comics 
  • Dave Davenport in Narbonic. But it wasn't entirely random: he continually lurched between three key moments in his life... all of which involved women.
  • George, near the end of Bob and George, as a Whole Plot Reference to the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, this happens to any time traveler whose space-time link is destabilized (which generally involves damaging a device strapped to their chest). In a slight twist on this trope, random objects from the points in time they end up in can occasionally be thrown back and forth in time as well, though this effect seems to be temporary.
  • In Homestuck, John Egbert manages to get unstuck from the story itself, bouncing around all of time and space until they finally manage to gain some control over it.

    Western Animation 
  • One of several intended spinoffs for Gargoyles was going to have the rogue Phoenix Gate do this to Brooklyn, then return him seconds later, with him having experienced around 40 years, subjectively (Having found a mate and had kids, as well as picked up a "dog" along the way). It was going to be called Time Dancer.
    • One issue of the comic covers his first stop (still relevant to the main plot) and then skips straight to his return.
  • The Futurama episode "Time Keeps on Slippin'" was hinted to have this in a one-directional, universal scale, where random jumps in time would happen anywhere, anywhen, and to anyone. Fortunately, the regular characters were only hit by small jumps.


Alternative Title(s): Involuntary Time Travel