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Delayed Ripple Effect

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Marty: Listen, if things don't work out at the dance tonight and my folks don't get back together, when do you think I'll start to fade out?
Doc: Beats the shit out of me.
Back to the Future, deleted scene

Oh, no! After leaving your Time Machine, you stepped on the Butterfly of Doom. This can only mean it's The End of the World as We Know It! But wait... it takes a while for the changes to "catch up" with the present. Looks like it's going to be a Race Against the Clock to Set Right What Once Went Wrong!

In some Time Travel stories it takes a certain amount of San Dimas Time for history to change. Normally, this will be done so that the protagonists can prevent irreversible changes from making it to the present. Or maybe the story is set in a universe where people don't have Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory. Or the filmmakers just didn't have the time or money to create an Alternate Universe. Whatever. The point is that there's a time limit for "fixing" history and you better not pass it! A Ripple Effect Indicator is frequently used to show the Delayed Ripple Effect is happening.

This doesn't make intuitive sense, but then again, time travel generally doesn't. It is fairly common, though, for changes to Travel at the Speed of Plot — for example, some "bad" change that sets up a crisis takes days or hours to hit the heroes, while the "good" change that resolves it propagates instantly. Sometimes, the ripple is portrayed as propagating through time. For example, the wave hits a certain time. Ten minutes later, the wave hits ten years in the past.note 

The Trope Namer is from the Back to the Future films.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Happens in Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life. After Ash & Co. return from the past, they find that Arceus is still wrecking the place with its Judgment. Only after a delay does Arceus recognize them as the people that helped it in the past and settle out of Unstoppable Rage.
  • This occurs in Episode 117 of Yu-Gi-Oh! 5Ds when the Three Emperors of Yliaster decide to have Clark Smith and his company, Momentum Express, erased for attempting to kill Yusei (whom they still have use for), and for revealing to him information regarding the Infinity device, which they've been using to alter history. Clark begs them not to do it when Placido returns from the past, having made the changes. Placido tells Clark to disappear and he has a short amount of time to panic before the temporal shockwave reaches him.
  • In Kinnikuman Nisei, the evil Time Choujin Lightning and Thunder appears before the 21st Century Justice Choujin and pulls off their Devil Time Horns so they can travel back in time to 1983 where the Dream Choujin Tag Tournament ended with Kinnikuman and Terryman winning the whole thing. Before they pull the trophy, they appear to cause havoc and decimate the champions. Then Robin Mask took the bullet for Kinnikuman and ends up being killed by their finishing tag move... which eventually causes his son Kevin Mask to start fading from existence. When the 21st Choujin Justice Choujin travel back to that moment to stop them from killing Robin, Manataro saves him but instead accidentally pushes his wife Alisa who bounces from the trophy which leads to her struck by the same attack that killed Robin Mask and now puts Kevin back to square one but now puts the New Generation at odds with the 20th Century who sees them as bad as the invading Time Choujin. Kevin's fate is now tied to Alisa's survival in the fate of the doctors taking care of her and thanks to the intervention of 21st Century's Warsman, Alisa is able to recover and Kevin Mask is also safe along with being ready to be Mantaro's tag partner to replace the deceased Chaos Avenir and stop Lightning and Thunder from winning the next Tag Tournament for the trophy and the Completion Bulbs underneath.
  • Tenchi Muyo!: This is the main plot of the first movie. Tenchi's mother is somehow killed in the past, and to keep Tenchi from vanishing in a week (when Washuu's technology can't protect him any more), he and the gang travel back to figure out what happened and prevent it.

    Comic Books 
  • Avengers: Back to Basics: In the final arc, after Kamala's mother dies before she can be born, Kang explains that she will not vanish quite yet — she will only disappear once history reaches the moment when she should have been born.
  • Strontium Dog: In the "Max Bubba" story, as Bubba alters the timeline, scientists 1400 years in the future actually measure the rate and degree at which time is changing. It doesn't make any sense.
  • Fantastic Four: In one arc, Franklin and Valeria Richards (Reed and Sue's kids) come back from a Bad Future where all of reality is collapsing to try changing things so that won't happen. Upon their return, they don't know if it worked. Something changed, but the new future is "still 250 years away" and won't get there before Franklin can't keep control any more and everything implodes.
  • Paperinik New Adventures: In one particular instance, an event in the future will cause a Time Crash if not stopped.
  • Last Days of the Justice Society: The destruction of the universe in 1945 due to Hitler linking the fate of the Norse gods' Ragnarok to that of the universe also takes time for it to have the full effect on future history, as just after Dr. Fate shows the Justice Society of America what the Spectre witnessed had happened in 1945, the same "rip in the sky" effect also appears in the present time (1985). Since the event also happens after Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Golden Age versions of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman still appear in the past, as changes in the Post-Crisis timeline have not yet taken effect and wouldn't take effect until All-Star Squadron issue 60.
  • Happens in a weird way in All-Star Comics #35, when Per Degaton travels back from 1947 to change the Battle of Arbela, causing technology to regress back centuries, except for technology which he has shielded and with which he intends to conquer the world. As a result technology starts moving backwards, a modern plane turns into an older plane then disappears, a modern train turns into a steam train, guns becoming flintlocks etc. When Green Lantern is accidentally sent forward in time ten years he arrives in a Bad Future where Degaton is ruler of the world and only the Justice Society is free of him. Later when the Justice Society travels back to 331 BC and stop Degaton's forces changing the outcome of the battle, Degaton in the future (likely 1957) sees an old-fashioned phone appearing and then modern tech appearing around him.
  • In The Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, Brainstorm's briefcase is a time machine that works this way to prevent paradoxes.

  • In Back I Go Harry does several things which alter the present but instead of people's memories changing all at once, they get an "update" after certain significant past interactions with Harry.
  • Discussed in the Angel fic “Impact”, when an attack by a time-manipulating demon causes Cordelia (from a point just before Darla gives birth) to swap places with her younger self from just before Doyle's death. Angel and Wesley each acknowledge that the Cordelia in the past can't avoid changing history as her first reaction will be to ask Angel and Doyle of that time period for help, but Angel in particular is struck by the notion that he doesn't remember anything changing. Wesley speculates that this is because the displacement has basically "blocked" any changes to history from settling (he compares it to the idea of a piece of rope preventing a door from closing), but concedes that this is all speculation given their lack of documented knowledge of time travel.
  • In The Necromancer, after Sauron departs back to Middle-Earth with crates full of guns, the subsequent changes to history are delayed long enough for Gold to realise what must have happened and take a small group after Sauron (himself, Emma, Jones, David, and Robin) to put the world back to normal.
  • The Victorious fic "Second Chance, Second Choice" features a future version of Tori travelling into the past through Mental Time Travel. As she starts to change her future by breaking off her first date with Jade before it can happen, the future versions of Jade and Robbie start to remember things differently, but it takes a few days before the consequences of Tori's actions outright change the future. Future Jade is able to travel back and warn Future Tori what will happen before the timeline changes to such an extent that Future Tori "now" remembers a timeline where Jade became a porn star and killed herself in her twenties, erasing the consciousness of Future Jade but giving Future Tori enough warning to start correcting her mistakes.
  • A time-travelling akuma heads through a portal to the past in Baby Boom, causing Louis and Keva to disappear, but as long as his portal is open, people's memories are unchanged, allowing the Rabbit holder to follow him and try to undo his changes.

    Films — Animation 
  • Kim Possible: A Sitch In Time features a delayed ripple effect, complete with a visual effect and characters retaining their memories of the original timeline.
  • Meet the Robinsons: The changes made by the bowler-hatted man visibly ripple across the future, ditto for when Lewis reversed those changes. In fact, a scene is devoted to Lewis giving the Bowler Hat Guy a tour of the restored timeline, repairing itself at an extraordinarily slow rate. On the other hand, Lewis's decision to never make Doris should have reversed things then and there, but it didn't happen until he faced Doris and told it so. Doris vanishes instantly.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Back to the Future seems to have an imbalanced Delayed Ripple Effect; it's stronger in the past than in the present. This leads to some interesting ontological results:
    • In the first movie, Marty arrives in 1955 and almost immediately interferes with his parents' first meeting, meaning he will be erased from existence. Except it doesn't happen immediately; he's still got a week to convince them to get back together. The weird thing is that he's got a photo of himself and his siblings from 1985, and his siblings start to fade out before he does, suggesting he's got more protection from his time travel shenanigans than others thirty years later. Then, once Marty succeeds, he and his siblings return to the photo instantaneously. (The filmmakers admitted that this makes very little sense, but they don't have the benefit of our massive Wild Mass Guessing exercises.)
    • Marty's success in the first film doesn't fully restore the timeline, but creates a Close-Enough Timeline in which his parents are more assertive and successful. Marty's got Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory and is totally confused, but in the next two movies he not only seems to consider the "new" timeline the definitive one, he's also changed his personality ever so slightly (e.g. suddenly flying into a rage if he's called a chicken). It's unclear whether the ripple effect caught up with his memory or whether his personality just changed as a result of his time travel experience, but if the former is the case, the ripple effect seems to catch up only hours after he returns to 1985.
    • In Back to the Future Part II, there's a Deleted Scene in which Old Biff, having returned from the past and set up the Bad Future, emerges from the DeLorean and suddenly fades out of existence. This is because in the bad future, Lorraine gets fed up and shoots him in the 1990s. The scene was deleted mostly because it was unclear what was happening and no one was around to explain why, but that's what the filmmakers said they were aiming for. It's interesting because in the film, we see Old Biff hang around in 1955 with no ill effects, but once he jumps 60 years later, the ripple effect catches up with him faster than Young Biff actually makes use of Old Biff's plan in San Dimas Time. But we also see Old Biff break off the top of his cane as he leaves the DeLorean, and the cane doesn't fade out because it's still in the DeLorean when Doc and Marty return to it — that's how they know what Old Biff did. It suggests the DeLorean has a sort of capsule effect that protects anything in it from time ripples, and that Old Biff faded out as soon as he stepped out of the car.
  • A Sound of Thunder: Giant translucent waves, which they called timewaves, came out of nowhere and knocked people around Matrix-style, altering groups of species with every passing, over and over. Apparently, stepping on a butterfly in the past causes drastic changes in evolution. Fair enough. However, with the use of this trope, apparently simplistic animals species are more prone to having their evolutionary histories altered, and with each wave the environment gets more and more altered. Which means the metropolis got claimed by a fierce jungle, despite the fact that the residents are all still there, and the parks are filled with baboon monsters that are completely bulletproof, unless shot in the throat, and after X number of waves grow wings. The protagonists must hurry to a working time machine to save the butterfly, as they themselves will be altered by the final wave.
  • Stargate: Continuum includes a Delayed Ripple Effect which Mitchell, Carter and Daniel escape by using the Stargate. Carter later presumes that being in transit between two gates makes you Ripple Effect-Proof. That's all the explanation you're going to get it, by the way. This is demonstrated in a visual effect. The normal traveling effects are tinted reddish-purple as the "ripple" is passing them by. This is purely for the audience, as wormhole travel is instantaneous for travelers (what with them being disassembled into molecules and all).
  • In Hot Tub Time Machine, obviously as an homage to Back to the Future, Jacob starts to flicker and disappear as his parents' mating session is interrupted.
  • Thrill Seekers: Hand Waved in that the time agency is said to possess Applied Phlebotinum that allows for some degree of shielding to changes in the timeline, which is how they can go back and stop the hero from altering the future in the first place.

  • In the Isaac Asimov short story "The Red Queen's Race" its Hand Waved away that for every hundred years someone travels into the past, it takes a day for the changes to impact on the present (e.g. if someone left on a Monday and travelled 200 years into the past, any changes they made wouldn't be felt until Wednesday).
    • In that story, it turned out that the attempt to change history resulted in a Stable Time Loop instead.
  • And something similar happens in Asimov's "The End of Eternity", when the protagonist tries to disrupt a planned Stable Time Loop by not doing what the script says he should. He expects this to alter his present and for everything to wink out of existence, but it turns out the effects won't be felt until he's made the decision not to reverse what he did, and that decision becomes irrevocable. By then, he's trapped in 1939 and can't see the effects anyway.
    • He does see one effect - his time capsule vanishes.
  • A variation of this occurs in Mort, with the universe attempting to right itself with a continuously-shrinking dome converging on the princess that was supposed to die. Outside of the dome was the reality in which she had died. Inside she was still alive, though people tended to forget this until she started shouting at them.
  • In the second book in the Feline Wizards spin-off of the Young Wizards series, a book on modern-day engineering gets sent back in time to Victorian England, causing drastic changes in the past which haven't yet caught up to the protagonists in the present.
  • In the 1983 novel Millennium by John Varley (and the movie based on the book), it takes time for the temporal paradox and catastrophic breakdown of the fabric of time to reach the present (our future), thus giving the hero time to try to avert it. These waves can even be detected, giving the future a chance to buckle down.
  • In Sonic the Hedgehog in the Fourth Dimension, after failing to stop some baddies from contaminating the Big Bang with the Chaos Emeralds so the whole of history will be infected by evil, Sonic and Tails have to outrun the ripple effect on their treadmill-based time machine in order to change recent history to prevent the villains from getting hold of the Chaos Emeralds in the first place. Which instantly undoes the change at the beginning of time. Mind Screw much?
  • Averted in Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, in which temporal changes are revealed to be made the instant something (or someone) travels to the past. While, at first, they aren't sure if this will result in the creation of multiple realities, mathematicians eventually prove that, once the time travelers make their trip, their own timeline will cease to exist. That is the reason why the original "interventionists" sent a holo-recording instead of a streaming message; they'd only be able to get a single syllable out, if that, before the transmission would be cut off by the transmitter no longer existing. They were smart enough to cause the holo-projector to thoroughly self-destruct after delivering the message.
  • A common occurrence in the TimeRiders series. First a few small changes ripple through, then larger ones follow. The farther back the change happens, the longer the ripple will take to arrive.
  • In Miss Switch to the Resuce, after one of the young friends of good witch Ms. Switch, Amelia, disappears after the release of an imprisoned warlock leads to a timeline change where he turns one of her ancestors into a troll that is unable to have children, Miss Switch is able to make Amelia reappear by rewinding time back to the morning hours. However, Amelia is still slated to completely vanish if the change in the timeline isn't undone by sunset, with Miss Switch only having a few hours to create a potion that can turn Amelia's ancestor back into a human and have him drink the potion.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In the Sci-Fi Channel mini-series 5ive Days to Midnight, the protagonist is sent a briefcase from the future containing a police file on his murder to happen five days later. An insane physics student thinks that a Time Crash will occur if events don't play out as they should. So when the would-be killer is caught, he decides to commit the murder himself, until he's convinced to look at the file which now details the investigation into the murder attempt.
  • Arrowverse:
    • After a change has been made to history, it takes time for the change to be 'cemented', as is seen frequently on Legends of Tomorrow. On The Flash (2014) it works a little differently - in the Season 3 premiere, when Barry creates an Alternate Timeline he initially has Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory, but his memory starts to get affected by the Delayed Ripple Effect when he uses his super-speed.
    • In the third season finale of The Flash, the key event that led to the time-travelling Savitar's creation is undone. This gives Savitar a vague amount of time - less than a day - before the paradox catches up with him and he ceases to exist. This seems to be entirely opposite of what happened at the first season finale, where having the Reverse Flash's ancestor be killed makes the former start vanishing from existence almost instantly, even though Reverse Flash comes from the far future, unlike Savitar, who'll only be created a few years later.
    • In general, changes to history affect the future in three distinct waves: First, there are "time quakes", disturbances in the fabric of space-time that can alert specialized computers to historical changes, but which otherwise have no effect on the present. Next, physical objects will change to match the altered timeline; people killed in the past will suddenly wink out of existence, and works of art or science inspired by the time travelers will suddenly appear. Last to be affected are people's memories; even the Time Masters can't predict how long it will take for people to forget the old timeline, and some subconscious memories never entirely disappear.
  • Doctor Who: In "The Big Bang", the entire universe has been destroyed retroactively, except for the Earth, which persists at least another 2,000 years. Later on, specific characters start disappearing whenever it's convenient to the story. It's a Justified Trope in this case, since the TARDIS was actively protecting the Earth, even as it was blowing up and destroying the universe.
  • An episode of Farscape is particularly odd. John's past self is dying...and he turns ghostly and he goes to his mother, who does things like Tarot and believes in the mystic, and pretends to be himself, dying, and asks for her to get help. The "particularly" comes into play in that John almost did die in such an incident at that age, so why would said occurrence cause him to fade? (They end up creating a Stable Time Loop.)
  • Red Dwarf was a big fan of this trope. Usually when changes were made in the past, it took time for the timeline to rearrange itself. e.g. White Hole, Timeslides, The Inquisitor.
  • An episode of Star Trek: Enterprise involved aliens traveling back to wipe out Earth in the 21st century with Captain Archer and T'Pol being sent back by Daniels to stop them. When they ask why their time hasn't changed, Daniels responds with something that amounts to "It takes time for time to change."
    • It also contradicts a previous episode in which Daniels pulls Archer from a turbolift into his own time in order to protect him from the Suliban. As soon as Archer is transported to the future, they look around and see total devastation around them. Apparently, The Federation would never exist without Archer being in the right place at the right time.
  • Practically invoked in Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego, where ACME TimeNet has 28 minutes to recover and restore the object of Carmen's latest theft before history changes permanently, with the implication TimeNet is causing the delay. This is a generous time frame considering the time between an episode's start and the loot being restored is roughly 20-23 minutes.
    The Chief: Time Pilots, <Carmen's Henchman> just stole something from the past! You've got 28 minutes to get it back, or history will change forever!

    Tabletop Games 
  • In the original Timemaster game, temporal changes were immediate, but the Timetricks supplement added delayed changes (described as a wave of events moving forward through time).
  • Somewhat averted in the card game Chrononauts. Changing a temporal Lynchpin causes an immediate ripple across future events, but these events become paradoxes until patched up somehow. Restoring the affected Ripplepoints immediately removes and discards any Patches played on them.

    Video Games 
  • The Journeyman Project
    • Shortly after you report for work (as a glorified Timecop), a series of alterations to history occur, and you have five minutes upon their detection to go back to 100 million B.C. before the temporal ripple hits your point in time. Once there, you retrieve a disc containing a record of unchanged history, in order to determine the points in time that have been changed.
    • The Updated Re-release The Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime partly fixes the Fridge Logic inherent in this scenario: if history was altered so drastically, then how come there's still a Temporal Security Agency to return to? It turns out that while the TSA still exists in the alternate timeline, it's a much different organization with a militaristic bent and a mandate to actively research history instead of simply protecting it. This is averted entirely in the sequels, where changes to the timeline can be detected from the future without the use of the Journeyman Disc.
  • In Chrono Trigger, Marle ends up taking the place of her kidnapped ancestor after being sent back in time. It takes a couple hours (or days... or weeks...) before her existence is negated due to the kidnapped ancestor never being actually found because everyone assumed Marle was her and stopped looking (her own disappearance as a result only looked like someone already killed her, so nobody went looking again). Her revival similarly has a delayed ripple effect, with Marle appearing out of thin air some amount of time after the actual Queen's rescue.
  • In the Chzo Mythos, two of these are critical to the Big Bad's plot.
  • Achron is a real-time strategy game that features the time ripple. You can go back in time and order your units around, but the effects won't catch up with you until after some time. The kicker — your enemy can do the same. This delayed ripple provides a solution to the Grandfather Paradox — each "time wave" that passes switches the timeline between the killer and killee surviving. Since you can only travel back about eight minutes (relative to The Present), once the act of killing "falls off" the eight-minute timeline, it can't be changed in any way, and the paradox stabilises in its current state.
  • In Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2: Yuri's Revenge, the changes to the timeline only occur AFTER the game is finished (as Einstein shouts "The timelines, zey are MERGING!"). The explanation was that going back in time spun off an alternate timeline, but once the alternate timeline reached the inital departure point, the two timelines recombined and the "new" one took precedence over the "old" one - more or less. To paraphrase Carville, a man can get his head real messed up with all this time travel stuff...
  • In JumpStart Adventures 3rd Grade: Mystery Mountain, you have to travel through time and Set Right What Once Went Wrong before the Delayed Ripple Effect sets in. Naturally, you can Take Your Time. One of the best examples of this trope displayed in this game involved the first human paintings. Naturally, the first human paintings were cave paintings, but the game's villain chose to change history and turn the first painting into that of a sad clown on black velvet. Your Exposition Fairy complains that this would destroy art history and frets that sad clowns on velvet would fill museums. However, this game does feature a small virtual art collection containing 30 unique art pieces, and take a guess what one of them is. That's right, a simple cave painting of a horse. This option never changes into a sad clown painting at any point during gameplay, even before this mission is solved.
  • Final Fantasy XIII-2 has this during the ending. Firstly, after finally killing Caius, the protagonists have a good few minutes to make an emotional speech before leaving Valhalla. Then, it takes another good few minutes before the effect of killing Caius catches up with Serah, resulting in her final vision — which kills her. After that even more undetermined time passes (about five minutes at most) before Noel realizes what's about to happen because of their actions — (killing Caius also killed Etro, screwing time beyond repair) and then time ends abruptly.
  • Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers uses this to provide the hero with enough time to give a parting speech before they finally cease to exist. In one of Sky's special episodes, Primal Dialga tries to take advantage of this by attempting to go back in time in order to ensure that the Bad Future comes to pass, but is ultimately thwarted.
  • In Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time, Ratchet travels a couple of years back in time to attempt to rescue Orvus from Dr. Nefarious. In the process, he smacks Nefarious in the face with his wrench, damaging the right-hand side of Nefarious' face and dislocating his eye. Cut back to the present, and, while speaking with one of the Valkyries, the damage instantly appears on him, as though it was being done right then and there.
  • Millennia: Altered Destinies is all about time travel. Every time you make a change in the history of one of the four races, the on-board computer ANGUS will warn you "temporal storm approaching", resulting in your ship shaking (how much depends on the severity of the change). If you're watching the historical timeline of the given race when this happens, you will see it suddenly update with the new history. The ship itself is shielded against any effects, meaning you have Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory.

  • Used quite beautifully in the Doctor Who fan comic The 10 Doctors. When Six believes Four is dead, he accepts that he will at some point cease to exist, and chooses to devote what time he has left to stopping the bad guys at any cost.
  • Bob and George uses this occasionally. This strip was later given commentary by the author questions how that could really work.
    • The comic also featured an inversion, with a Time Crash being propagated into the past - the Real Life past. As the characters tried to fix the problem, the strip's archives became progressively "corrupted", with both images and strip commentary being first degraded, then deleted. By the time the problem was solved, the archives were entirely gone, only reappearing after (real-time) the strip that solved the problem.
  • Discussed in El Goonish Shive: Grace expresses confusion about how in Back to the Future Marty is affected by the Delayed Ripple Effect and while at the same time possessing Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory. Justin tells her that the sequels don't make sense of this inconsistency and further that time travel is not allowed to make sense.
  • Happens in a strip of Sluggy Freelance, along with another delayed time ripple that comes along and reverses the previous one.

    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): Ripple Effect