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Fish out of Temporal Water

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"Greetings. Do kids still say 'greetings'? I haven't been in this dimension for a really long time."
Stanford Pines, Gravity Falls, "A Tale of Two Stans"

A Fish out of Water situation that results from characters being placed in an unfamiliar time period. This may be caused by:

  • Time Travel (and quite possibly a Time Travel Escape)
  • Being Trapped in TV Land (if the show they enter is reasonably old or not set in the present)
  • Being a Refugee from TV Land
  • Being a Human Popsicle
  • Being a Rip Van Winkle
  • Being canned
  • Surviving an apocalypse as a Living Relic
  • Traveling to another world whose culture is somehow similar to that in a different time period of their own.
  • Having just been released from prison after a long sentence.
  • Waking up from a Convenient Coma
  • Going into the future without aging through Time Dilation
  • Being away from Earth for a longer time.
  • Living in a poor rural village in a very poor country, without or with very limited modern media access.
  • Travelling the wildernesses for many years, with no or little contact with settled civilization.
  • Being kidnapped and held locked up by the kidnappers for many years.

In addition, the story will most likely follow one of these scenarios:

Someone from The Present Day ends up in The Future: In this case, the "fish" will be awed by an incredibly wonderful future, be horrified by a dystopian future, enjoy the benefits of a mostly positive future or be surprised by a future that's strange in an unexpected way. Whichever version it is, the future depicted will inevitably end up being completely inaccurate when the year given actually rolls around.

If the story is a comedy, the time-traveller is likely to discover that Ridiculous Future Inflation has occurred. Then there will be the pop culture references that no one understands ("Elvis Presley? Who's that?"). There will also probably be humorous references to how the celebrities of The Present Day have ended up by then. An amusingly and horrifyingly dated one of these appeared in Back to the Future Part II, which had a newspaper in 2015 make reference to "Queen Diana." (On the amusing side, Elizabeth II was still Queen in 2015... and on the horrifying side, Princess Diana never lived to see the 21st century as she died in 1997, eight years after the film came out.)

If the story is not a comedy (or is a Black Comedy) you get Cold Sleep, Cold Future.

Someone from The Present Day ends up in The Past: This past is usually sometime before the "fish" was born, ranging from about twenty years ago to The Middle Ages. Not that their form of English would be the least bit intelligible to modern-day time-travellers, but hey.

The "fish" will probably make little effort to fit in, awing the locals with A Little Something We Call "Rock and Roll", telling them that This Is My Boomstick and possibly becoming a Blithe Spirit. Apparently it's the sworn duty of all time-travelers to show the people of the past how to be hip in The Present Day. If they get anywhere near a military installation, they'll probably be mistaken for a spy. The "fish" may also describe the future in an ironic way or tell people about things which would have seemed impossible or ridiculous in that era:

Doc: Who's President of the United States in 1985?
Marty: Ronald Reagan.
Doc: Ronald Reagan! The actor? Who's vice president, Jerry Lewis?!

The savvy time traveller (or the one who thinks they are) in the past might also decide to be the one who invents velcro only to find that when he return to the future, the fact that they now aren't wealthy like they thought they would be is the least of their problems.

If a Trapped in TV Land situation fits this trope, it will fall into this scenario.

Someone from The Future ends up in The Present Day: In this case, the "fish" will be confused by the simplest things, which are, of course, completely obvious to the audience. They will also likely refer to the newest and most advanced technologies as "quaint". Fortunately, they will have brought back lots of Applied Phlebotinum, just in case there was any doubt that they really were from The Future. They may have a flawed view of The Present Day reality influenced by idealizing revisionism of the historians of The Future, sometimes disenchanted that they lied. The traveler, unless downright awesome at all times, will almost inevitably be dangerously Genre Blind and equally likely to nearly get killed almost as much as the next type. They will also be horrified and disgusted by some of the mundane tropes and conventions until they are carefully explained. "Hot dog? You mean I just ate a..."

Someone from The Past ends up in The Present Day: The humor will result from the "fish" attempting to relate to The Present Day with only the knowledge of a previous time. Naturally, they will make mistakes and/or be awed by things which the audience has come to take for granted. The Values Dissonance between the two eras may come up. This is now its own subtrope — The Future Is Shocking.

If they're from any time after about the midpoint of the Industrial Revolution (when people first began to take for granted that the future will be different from the present), the "surprised by a future that's strange in an unexpected way" trope will probably apply.

If they're from far enough back, their first encounter with a motor vehicle will involve the words "metal demon", or alternately "horseless carriage". They will also be completely unfamiliar with the word "computer" in spite of this being a common retooled word, which once meant someone who does calculations or 'computes' for a living. Not knowing the word "accountant" would be just as unusual.

If the character is from one of the more romanticized time periods, such as the Middle Ages, Antiquity or any age dominated by warriors, princes, kings and Old-School Chivalry, they will regard the people of the present as soft, weak, and uncultured (especially the men) and will often upstage and shame the modern men, winning the present day women over with gallant or gentlemanly behavior. In more recent works, this has however, become more subverted due to the influence of feminism and the historical fact that these time periods look better in fiction than they did in reality.

A character who isn't literally from the past, but somehow deludes himself that he's still living there anyway, is a Disco Dan. A character who neither literally from the past nor holds no delusions that he's living there, but is just more comfortable with the attitudes, mindsets and styles of the past than the present is Born in the Wrong Century

Someone from The Future ends up in The Past: Fairly common Star Trek plot (and cause of some of the best episodes and a couple of the worst). Essentially combines The Present Day to Past and The Future to The Present Day tropes. Thank you for being unusual, Data. Thank goodness he had amnesia.

Someone from The Past ends up in The Future: Also a common Star Trek plot (although not quite as common, and usually done in a more unusual way than straight out time travel. Usually.) Here's looking at you, Sam Clemens.

Someone from The Future ends up in The Future: Can involve either going forward or backwards (but generally backwards). Does your mind hurt yet? Will be generally played for laughs (like somebody complaining that the technology that would be super-advanced to somebody from The Present Day is an antique) or for Continuity-based Fanservice (Trials and Tribble-ations, anyone?)

Someone from The Past ends up in The Past: There's a LOT of Past. Can usually result in one Historical Figure or archtype meeting; befriending or fighting another. Ninjas, Pirates, Napoleon, Hitler, Genghis Khan, Neanderthals, Dinosaurs; etc. Spam with other types for time travel annoyance.

Compare Technologically Blind Elders.


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  • One series of Capital One commercials feature fur-clad barbarian warriors' attempts to navigate the modern world. They're not actually shown time-traveling, but their apparent ignorance of contemporary life is consistent with this trope. Interestingly, they best fit in at a summer camp. A rowing crew is seen competing on a lake. Then a Viking longboat overtakes it at a staggering speed, with the barbarians rowing to a drumbeat.

    Asian Animation 
  • Fruity Robo: In Season 3, Pineapplello gets sent to the Three Kingdoms era, with the basis of the plot being him trying to get back home.

    Comic Strips 
  • Alley Oop features a time-traveling cave man. By now, he's been time-hopping for so many years that he tends to get over his culture shock of whatever era he's visiting pretty quickly. When his less-experienced cave man friends occasionally accompany him though, they usually have more trouble.
  • The main hero of Buck Rogers is a modern man (mining engineer or astronaut, depending on the version) put in suspended animation who wakes up in the 25th century and becomes a space hero.

    Film — Animation 
  • Beavis And Butthead Do The Universe deals with the duo being sent from the 90s to the year 2022 after botching a space mission and being kicked into a black hole. This being Beavis and Butthead they don't exactly dwell much on the changes and simply continue to cause mayhem while ignoring the plotline happening around them.



    Professional Wrestling 
  • CHIKARA's Sidney Bakabella, the manager of the Devastation Corporation, is this. His promos are filled with references to promoters and wrestlers of the past, though he claims to be working with them or feuding with them today. At the very earliest, he is stuck in the 1980s, though he has referenced guys as far back as Toots Mondt.note 
    • Before the CHIKARA Campeones de Parejas (tag team champions) 3.0 ("Big Magic" Shane Matthews and Scott "Jagged" Parker)-The Devastation Corporation (Max Smashmaster and Blaster McMassive) match at CHIKARA Just Shadows in the Fog, held in Tampa, Florida, March 8, 2013, Bakabella cut a promo where he said that he would have brought The One Man Gang with him, which got a pop (OMG and Demolition teamed up as Team WWF at CHIKARA King of Trios 2008 Night I in a losing effort to The Fabulous Three [Larry Sweeney/Mitch Ryder/Shayne Hawke]), but said that Sir Oliver Humperdink had prevented that and proceeded to run down Humperdink. Humperdink, real name John Sutton, who did manage OMG in Florida for a time in the 1980s, passed away in 2011. It is not disrespect to the deceased, since Bakabella's timeline is so confused he probably thought Humperdink was still managing in Florida.
  • In the early 80s, Captain Lou Albano debuted a new protege named Mighty Joe Thunder. Mighty Joe was a big man who'd most recently wrestled in the 60s, and watching him work a 60s style match in the 80s was incredibly bizarre. He only stuck around for a month or two.
  • CHIKARA's Xyberhawx 2000. They're a bit of a parody of the "futuristic" tag teams from the early 90s like Tekno Team 2000 and The New Breed. Thing is, they hail from the early 2000s. One of them still uses a Myspace, and another asked in a blog why he couldn't find his Geocities page. Razerhawk's website even has "This page is best viewed with Netscape Now" and "Made With MacIntosh" logos on it, much like GeoCities pages from the early days of the Web.

  • Played for laughs with Ed, the security guard in Jack's money vault on The Jack Benny Program. He's depicted as having been stuck down there since the Revolutionary War and completely innocent of current events, let alone such "modern" contraptions as wheelbarrows. At least one episode had Jack bringing him up to the surface, and his resultant future shock.

    Tabletop Games 
  • d20 Modern: Most Shadowkinds in Urban Arcana are a special case. They don't exactly come from the past, just from an alternate dimension (the Dungeons & Dragons world) still operating with medieval technology, and where magic is a common fact of life, into the modern world where most people don't believe in magic.
  • Genius: The Transgression: Rapata, aka Mr. Shark, is a time-travelling 17th-century Maori navigator. His time machine is a canoe. He's actually adapted fairly well to modern and later times, except when he's really overworked and having a bad day (which is most of the time), in which case he skips planning for the century in question and just stomps down the main street of Seattle in a feather cape, brandishing a taiaha cudgel and screaming the name of whoever's pissed him off this time.
  • Interstitial: Our Hearts Intertwined has The Anachronism, a playbook all about being this on top of being a normal fish out of water.
  • In Nomine: Magog has been a Sealed Evil in a Can since the early days of the War, when Heaven and Hell fought directly and celestials walked openly on Earth. Should he break free, he would have considerable trouble adapting to the idea of a cover cold war and of celestial secrecy from humanity, in addition to most of the new Princes being new faces to him.
  • Visigoths vs. Mall Goths is premised upon the Visigoths being transported through time to a mall in 1990s Los Angeles and making it their new home. While the Visigoths have adapted enough to learn English and open up shops in The Mall, they still retain most of their proto-Germanic identity, including their style and religion.
  • Warhammer 40,000: Roboute Guilliman was put on ice after being mortally wounded in a duel against Daemon Primarch Fulgrim. Nine thousand years later, the Eldar and Mechanicus collaborate to resurrect Guilliman so he can lead the Imperium against the tide of Chaos. Guilliman is appalled by the theocratic nightmare that is the Imperium, even musing that it would have been better for Horus to have razed it during the Heresy rather than letting it get this far, but puts on a brave face for the rest of humanity.
  • Warhammer: Gotrek Gurnnison was one of the greatest Dwarven Slayers of the Old World, and topped his career during the End Times by charging into the Realms of Chaos to die slaughtering demons in their own world. Due to the weird nature of time in the Realms of Chaos, however, when he finally fights his way back out he finds himself in the Mortal Realms of Warhammer: Age of Sigmar, finding that not only have countless millenia past, but the world he knew was destroyed and eight new inter-connected ones were created out of the ashes. The cultures of the survivors have drastically shifted over the millenia, and he finds himself bewildered to be in a world where dark elves and necromancers are not Always Chaotic Evil, dwarves care more about gold than settling old grudges, and several people he knew as mortals, such as Teclis, have ascended to godhood. That said, there are still monsters and villains in need of slaying, and he quickly finds himself back to his adventuring ways.

    Visual Novels 
  • It isn't immediately obvious, but the Pale Bride in Analogue: A Hate Story is one of these, played for an extreme in Deliberate Values Dissonance to make a point about feudal Korea.
  • Deliberately avoided in Fate/stay night: the summoning spell that brings the Heroic Spirits into modern times automatically equips them with modern knowledge. Saber aka King Arthur, for instance, is able to drive cars and motorcycles and suspects that she could fly a plane if she tried, due to her skills at horse riding being "translated" into a modern context. However, she was unfamiliar with what "going on a date" meant and had to have it explained to her. About the only Hero who ever displays real interest in the modern era is Rider aka Iskander aka Alexander the Great in Fate/Zero, who is shown enthusiastically studying modern maps and atlases in preparation for "conquering the world".
    • The Saber of Fate/strange fake, Richard the Lionheart, is a strange case in that he's an impulsive eccentric that simply doesn't care to blend in and instead acts like a British Don Quixote mostly for the fun of it.
  • In Ikemen Sengoku, the female main character is sent back in time from modern-day Japan to Sengoku-era Japan where she experiences cultural shock about how different the Sengoku warlords' viewpoints on wars and relationships are from hers. Sasuke, an astrophysicist who was sent back in time along with her, also experiences this but was sent back to a time four years earlier than her so by the time they meet again at the end of these four years, he's acclimated enough to the period to not qualify for this trope as much as her.
  • Steins;Gate naturally includes this: the Internet celebrity/laughingstock John Titor seems to be unaware that the people of @channel are making fun of him and his proclamations of future events and the nature of time travel. John Titor's real self, Amane Suzuha, very poorly tries to use slang in an attempt to fit in, and occasionally says things that betray her nature as a time traveller from a dystopian future: talking about gathering weeds and bugs for dinner, or unironically referring to herself as an accomplished warrior. The anime did this much less subtly.


    Web Original 
  • 80's Dan got pulled from 1989 to modern day when Brad Jones opened a bottle of New Coke.
  • This concept is explored in-depth in this 40 minute long video from the YouTube channel Fire Of Learning, which describes how a 8th century medieval king such as Charlemagne would see the modern world. Long story short, there would be a major case of Language Barrier, Values Dissonance, and so on.
  • Lord Valentai and Bianca Holloway from The Gungan Council were both from the ancient past. Dominique England came from the future, however.
  • The online Murdoch Mysteries Spin-Off The Murdoch Effect, has Murdoch suffer a blow to the head and wake up in 21st century Toronto, surrounded by the same people and apparently investigating the same kidnapping, only with cellphones. Since he's always had a fascination with technology, he naturally loves the creations of the modern world, while at the same time noting that it seems to have made the people more impatient. He's also baffled that there's a narcotics squad that stops people using medicines like cocaine and heroin.
  • Decidedly and massively present in The Salvation War. The forces of Heaven and Hell, perpetually consigned to command structures and levels of technology that would make the Romans look like musketeers, invade Earth...completely unprepared for humanity to be able to move as fast and strike from as far away as they do. Every human being since Adam, meanwhile, has been barred entry to Heaven and been consigned to Hell, and the armies of the 21st century continually free general after legendary general — only for them to come to the realization that they're completely out of their depth in the scheme of modern warfare.
    • In Armageddon???, Julius Caesar himself joins a cell of the infernal resistance led by a fresh casualty of modern war, and confident in his understanding of warfare as it has become tries to lead from the frontlines. After he realises that a Roman stratocrat bedecked in shining armor and accustomed to dealing in legions of rank-and-file swordsman isn't the most fit to fight among stealth-requisite soldiers with assault rifles, he reluctantly takes up a (not literally) rear-echelon position.
      • The prisoners of Hell who haven't been liberated, having died in a veritable gamut of historical eras, inadvertently feed Hell's squabbling commanders badly outdated intel. They drop volcanoes' worth of lava on the (onetime) industrial powerhouses of Sheffield and Detroit, expecting to completely reverse the disastrous direction the war is going in but in fact only angering humanity more and unknowingly changing the course of elections to, at best, a mild degree.
    • Pantheocide subverts both the idea of "states' rights" (he admits it to have been a crock in his time) and the historical fantasy of General Robert E. Lee's military skill compared to 21st-century warfarenote :
    Lee stepped inside and came to attention. "General Petraeus, Sir, I would like to withdraw my request for a combat command. I would still wish to serve my country and my flag in any other way you might find appropriate."
    Petraeus looked up. "Sit down Robert. What made you come to this conclusion?"
    "Sir, for a week, I have been attempting to understand how your army works. With the aid of a very skilled and patient tutor. Sir, I regret to say I have failed completely. I am not fit to command and I must recognize that as a fact. One day, perhaps, but not now."
    • Tragicomically, he at one point considers resigning his commission and enlisting, reasoning that being a basic rifleman couldn't have changed that much. After being proven wrong on that count again, Lee eventually ends up running a psychiatric hospital and halfway house for those afflicted with worse culture shock than him.
  • Lampshaded and discussed by Paul Twister, regarding being stranded in a fantasy world:
    I have no illusions of raising this place to a 21st century standard of living, or even a 20th century one. I'm no Connecticut Yankee, just a Seattle Geek who happens to know a few things about the way things work. ... For example, I know that spinning a magnet around inside a coil of copper wire produces an electric current. But how strong of a magnet? How big does it have to be, and how fast does it have to spin, before you get anything useful? Does the size of the coil of wire relative to the magnet matter? Does the number of loops in the coil matter? We're rediscovering all these things from first principles.
  • This piece by The Onion parodies the overused clichés associated with this trope.
  • In We Are Our Avatars, Konoe is dazzled by the modern world and its advances — especially by the fact that everything's so shiny.

    Real Life 
  • A Polish man named Jan Grzebski fell into a coma in 1988 and woke up from it in 2007, by which time Communism had long since collapsed. Of the experience, he said "When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere. Now I see people on the streets with cell phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin."
  • Charles Robert Jenkins, an American soldier, defected to North Korea in 1965 and remained cut off from the Western world. He made it out in 2004, finding that the U.S. had changed a bit since the 1960s.
  • Just about all of North Korea itself has become this thanks to its isolationism. Apart from a small handful of spots, mostly where a facade was erected to feign modernity and advancement, the country is very firmly entrenched in the 1950s from a cultural and technological perspective. Those who make it out or the rare tourist who makes it in face some serious shock at just how alien life on the inside and outside is.
    • On the flip side, North Koreans who defect to South Korea or even China are essentially travelling forward in time by 50 or 60 years, and are often bewildered by a half-century's worth of new technology and changing customs. South Korea even has a school, Hanawon, where North Korean refugees are taught how to function in South Korean society.
  • Some Japanese soldiers were stranded on some remote Pacific islands during WWII, and unaware of the fact that their side had lost until they were discovered in the '60s and '70s. For example, Lt. Hiroo Onoda continued fighting WWII for 30 years on the island of Lubang. He wrote a book entitled No Surrender: My Thirty-Year War. He was reportedly very disturbed by what he saw in changing traditional values.
  • A man named Salomon Vides fled to the jungle during the 1969 "Football War" between El Salvador and Honduras. He finally "surrendered" to a group of lumberjacks he mistook for enemy soldiers more than 30 years later, telling them he was tired of running away. The saddest part is that the actual war lasted a total of four days.
  • Prisoners who serve long jail sentences (over 15 years, usually) sometimes find themselves confounded by modern technology and culture when they leave prison. For example, there was an ex-convict who tried to steal a car shortly after getting out, having missed the invention and application of car alarms. Sadly, there are more than a few cases of released prisoners committing new crimes specifically to get caught (or outright killing themselves) as a result of this. They simply cannot cope, and there are no social services to help them adjust. Explored in The Shawshank Redemption (story and film) with Brooks and, to a lesser extent, with Red.
  • Similar to prisoners, expatriates can find themselves out of step with the culture of their home countries when they return if they've been away for a long time. Fortunately, the internet makes it easier to keep up with what's going on back home these days.
  • The Space Jam website used to be this for a long time. When Space Jam came out, this website was made for it and had been left untouched until 2021, the year when the sequel was released.
  • In the present day when people explore space and create artificial intelligence, there still are cultures that use tools made out of stone and barely controls fire. Some of them make contact and become aware of modern achievments.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Connecticut Yankee Plot


Anne Frank

This video is from the Mentors TV show. A time-displaced Anne Frank experiences freedom in modern-day Canada after months stuck in the Annex, happy to learn that in the future Jews can live their lives like everyone else.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

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Main / FishOutOfTemporalWater

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