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Get Back to the Future

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An accident involving time travel strands someone in the past and has to figure out how to get back to their own time. The accident can take at least three forms:

  • The traveler didn't mean to time travel at all, and has to figure out what was going on in the first place in order to replicate it.
  • The traveler breaks or loses a crucial component of the time machine in the journey, and has to find it or improvise a replacement.
  • The traveler accidentally screws up the past, and the time machine won't work properly until the traveler Sets Right What Once Went Wrong.

Often the eventual plan for getting back requires the traveler to have foreknowledge of events, Write Back to the Future, or otherwise exploit his/her out-of-time status.

Compare Trapped in the Past, where the character simply lives in the past instead of trying to return, and The Slow Path, where the character simply waits out the intervening time.


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    Comic Books 
  • Wonder Woman Vol 1: After Diana, Etta, Steve, and the air pirates they were fighting get tossed back in time by a combination of Clock Roach and Paula's Space Transformer they work to fight their way back to the present, with those that arrived via Paula's machine having gone back specifically to try and help Diana make her way back to her own time.
  • In Green Valley, Douglas Christy's main goal is to collect enough metal in order to repair his Time Machine so he can return to the future.
  • In Mighty Avengers, Iron Man, Doom and the Sentry are sent back in time a few years, Stark noting that he and Doom can't recreate the time machine they built when they were sent back to the Arthurian era as their armour designs have changed since then. However, he realises that the mass-memory-wipe the Sentry subjected the world to means that he can infiltrate the Baxter Building and steal the FF's time machine, as nobody will remember anything he did now in a manner that would change the future.
  • Superman:
    • In Two for the Death of One, the Man of Steel gets dragged to the fourteenth century by his enemy Satanis. During a magic duel between Satanis and villainess Syrene, the Man of Steel gets split into two duplicates. Since their enemies only need one Superman to carry out their plans, one "twin" is hurled back to the present day. The remaining Superman remains trapped in the fourteenth century until his duplicate self manages to go back to the past and merging back together with him.
    • A Mind-Switch in Time: As time-travelling, Superman gets stuck fifteen years in the past, and he cannot go back to his own time because something is blocking the time-stream.

    Fan Works 
  • The Code Geass fanfiction My Mirror, Sword and Shield, which is based on Back to the Future. Suzaku goes back to the time of Emperor Lelouch, the supposed demonic tyrant who was assassinated before Suzaku was born.
  • This is the basic plot of "Time Terror" from Calvin & Hobbes: The Series, though Sherman ends up in the future instead.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • The Back to the Future trilogy:
    • This is the plot of Back to the Future (also the Trope Namer), where Marty is stranded without plutonium in 1955 and needs to harness lightning in order to get home. The 3rd point makes several appearances in the series as well, including Marty messing up his parents relationship in the first movie and the Timeline-Altering MacGuffin scenario in the second.
    • The second point is varied in the third film: the actual time machine part isn't broken — no need to harness lightning — but the car is broken in a way that can't be fixed in the time they are in, and since the time travel requires reaching a specific high speed...
  • Inverted in Idiocracy, where Joe travels to the future in suspended animation and tries to find a time machine to return to the past. Turns out said "Time Machine" was a simple ride, going through a horribly incorrect history.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has this as a complication — the strain on the dilithium crystals during the time warp makes them start to decay, meaning the crew have to figure out a way to either replace the crystals or somehow regenerate them to have the energy to get back (or even keep up the cloak for more than a few days), in particular if they plan to get back with the cargo they went back for in the first place. They do implement a solution and with a fair bit of the movie left over, but in the process find themselves with other complications...
  • Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann. The title character is accidentally sent back to the Wild West by a time travel experiment. He's eventually rescued by the scientists who sent him back.

  • Isaac Asimov and Janet Asimov's Norby and the Queen's Necklace: By chapter two, Jeff has figured out that he's traveled back in time, and now they have to return to their time (and the right timeline) and on stage to finish their re-enactment.
  • Robert Asprin and Linda Evans's Time Scout: Uptimers occasionally get into scrapes downtime and have to work hard to get back to the future. This usually involves escaping from angry downtimers and their prisons, and getting past the hidden security that's been set up around the gate. Oh, and the gates go at intervals, so you have to get there at the right time.
  • Jack Lovejoy's Magus Rex: A central element to the plot involves the asymmetry in magic-based time travel: in the very distant future generations of mages have spent millennia cultivating the world to generate massive matrices of ambient power. While time travel does require a basic technical mastery of magic, with that it's easy enough to tap enough power to go back to any place and time within human history. But once there in a mana-starved Earth going back again would require a level of strength and experience few have ever attained... or a willingness to take The Slow Path and spend months setting up hops of a decade at a time. And as halting human aging also requires considerable amounts of power at hand, the explanation for the scarcity of time travelers becomes evident.
  • Terry Pratchett's Johnny and the Bomb: Wobbler finds himself unable to travel forward in time from the Second World War after he inadvertently causes the death of his own grandfather, leading to a timeline where he stays in the past and uses his foreknowledge to become the richest man in the world. His friends go back to save Wobbler's grandfather and restore the timeline.
  • Angie Sage's Septimus Heap: Physik: The main plot involves him trying to find back to his time after having been kidnapped 500 years in the past.
  • Connie Willis:
    • Blackout/All Clear: Michael, Merope, and Polly are time-travelers from the year 2060 who are participating in World War II. When they find their contacts to the future have stopped working, they become worried that they might be Trapped in the Past.
    • Doomsday Book: Kivrin Engle, who studies medieval history, convinces history professor Dunworthy to send her back to the 14th century. Unfortunately, something goes (very) wrong, and Kivrin finds herself in the middle of the 1348 Black Death epidemic. Meanwhile, an equally severe influenza epidemic ravages Oxford, preventing Dunworthy from rescuing Kivrin from the Middle Ages.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who:
    • A great many stories from the the First Doctor era pretty much live on Rule 2. In the second story, the Daleks take a vital component to the TARDIS (rendering the ship immobile); the TARDIS is trapped behind a one-way wall in an Aztec temple; the TARDIS is buried under a pile of debris during the Dalek invasion of Earth; and so on. This was necessary as the Doctor started out as a quite selfish character. Later he became a more straight-up hero, so didn't need to be trapped outside the TARDIS.
    • In "Blink", the Weeping Angels strand the Doctor and Martha in 1969 and they have to get Sally Sparrow to send the TARDIS back to them, so from their perspective the plot follows this trope. (The episode isn't written from their perspective.)
  • Most of the main cast of Eureka is sent back to 1947 in "Founder's Day". Interestingly, this specifically averts the third variant; they do screw up the timeline, and they manage to get back to a version of 2010 anyway...
  • The Farscape episode "...Different Destinations" has the third variant, though they explicitly only have to get close to the correct events in order for the timeline to correct itself. Unfortunately, the "close" version into which they stumble is the one where a peace conference turns into a massacre, and they can't go back again to correct it.
  • It's About Time starts out being about two astronauts Trapped in the Past, and passes through this trope on the way to a Retool into a show about cavemen adjusting to the present.
  • Lost in Space episode "Visit to a Hostile Planet". The Jupiter 2 goes through a time warp and ends up orbiting Earth in the year 1947.
  • Stargate:
    • A solar flare in the Stargate SG-1 episode "1969" strands SG-1 in the year 1969; they need to make a cross-continental road trip and use their foreknowledge of some other solar flares in order to get back.
    • The Stargate Atlantis episode "Before I Sleep" is a cross between this trope and Trapped in the Past; an alternate-universe version of Weir ends up returning to the present by putting herself in stasis and taking The Slow Path.
  • The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Little Green Men" has a starship accident which puts Quark, Nog, and Rom in Roswell in 1947; they need get back to their ship and figure out how to reproduce the accident.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series
    • "Tomorrow Is Yesterday": While breaking away from a black hole, the Enterprise is flung back in time to the year 1969. They must find a way to reverse the effect to return to their own time.
    • "All Our Yesterdays": Kirk, Spock and McCoy are sent back in time to earlier eras of the planet Sarpeidon and must find the doorway(s) that will take them back.
  • The Twilight Zone (1959): In "The Odyssey of Flight 33", Flight 33 is sent millions of years back in time after breaking the sound barrier. The crew try to return it to 1961 by reversing the process. However, they do not travel far enough forward in time as they arrive over New York City in 1939. Another attempt is made but Flight 33 is running low on fuel so there is no guarantee of success.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Each of the players in Chrononauts is a time traveler from an alternate history, stranded in our timeline. One of the three ways a player can win is to restore his specific timeline and return home.

    Video Games 
  • Downplayed in the Soviet campaign of Command & Conquer: Yuri's Revenge, in which the time machine gets too much power and takes the player and all nearby Soviet units to Prehistoria; to return to the recent past like Zofia had originally intended, you only have to survive against the dinosaurs for a couple of minutes while the time machine recharges. Averted in the end where Yuri hijacks the time machine, only for Zofia to deliberately overload it again to make sure Yuri won't be able to pull this trope once he arrives.
  • In Chrono Trigger when the heroes go back to 65,000,000 B.C. for the first time, the reptites steal their time gate key, trapping them in the stone age and needing to find a way back to their time.

  • In The Packrat, the titular character invents a keytar with a built-in flux capacitor. What Packrat doesn't know at first is that it does work as a time machine. It promptly sends him to 1939. When he tries to travel back, he ends up in 1955 where it is discovered that the keytar burns up one voltage-controlled oscillator per year jumped, now all 88 VCOs are fried, and Packrat has to get new oscillators to Get Back To The Future. As it's impossible to obtain 56 VCOs in a time where the synthesizer is just being invented, Packrat has to jump smaller amounts of years through the history of synthesizers. He meets a lot of famous people on his way, not all of whom are actually helpful.

    Western Animation 
  • Inverted in the 3-2-1 Penguins! episode "Wise Guys", where Jason, Michelle, and the Penguins end up in the future and try to find a way to travel back to their own time.
  • DuckTales (1987): "Time is Money" and "The Duck Who Would Be King": Scrooge and co. must claim Scrooge's diamond mine, fix the time machine, and head back to the future - all before their bombastium (the time-travel element!) melts.
  • Futurama, "Roswell That Ends Well": Supernova radiation collides with radiation from a microwave oven with metal inside to create a wormhole that sends the Planet Express ship back in time, accidentally creating the Roswell Incident and making Fry his own grandfather. They need a microwave oven in order to go back through the wormhole before it closes in, oh, say... EXACTLY 24 HOURS!
  • Jackie Chan Adventures: Jade accidentally went back to the 1970's and had no means to return until the Enforcers followed her with a magical object given to them by Shendu that allowed time travel the other way.
  • On Phineas and Ferb:
    • In "It's About Time!", Phineas, Ferb and Candace are stranded in the age of dinosaurs after their time machine is destroyed, and Phineas has to Write Back to the Future telling the Fireside Girls to build a second time machine and come rescue them. When the rescue party arrives, it looks like they're still going to be stranded, because the time machine has to be plugged in. Fortunately, a convenient bolt of lightning gives them the power they need to get home.
    • In "Phineas And Ferb's Quantum Boogaloo", Future!Candace goes back in time and busts her brothers on the day they made that Rollercoaster. She goes to the future and finds it's now a dystopia. Then she goes back again, stops her other previous self before she can bust her brothers, succeeds, but they both get trapped in the past. So they track down Phineas and Ferb so they can repair the time-machine and take them back to the future. (Or one of them, at least. Or maybe it never happened at all. Timey-Wimey Ball means that this episode is something of a Mind Screw.)
  • The beginning of Season 9 of The Smurfs (1981) cartoon show has seventeen Smurfs accidentally traveling to the prehistoric era to deliver a baby dinosaur back home, but as they attempt to create the temporal whirlwind that takes them back home, the ruby key that controls the time crystals is lost within a boiling lava crater, and the Smurfs end up spending an additional episode in the past with Papa Smurf trying to arrange the crystals so that they can possibly travel back to their own time. Unfortunately, Failure Is the Only Option as the time crystals instead carry the Smurfs from one time period (and/or geographical location) to another through that season's episodes, and that's how the series ended.
  • Almost every episode of Time Warp Trio. The only exceptions being the few times the Trio actually MEANT to go to the past (and didn't loose their time travel device The Book in the process) and the time they were trying to get back to the past from 2105.
  • Wunschpunsch: The wizards went back in time to prevent their supervisor's parents from ever meeting each other and ended up stranded in the past. They didn't mind but their pets had a different opinion and soon learned that, in order to return to their own time, they had to make Maledictus Maggot's parents meet since it was to prevent that the wizards started the time travel in the first place.