A Sub-Trope of For Want of a Nail, when the changes between two versions of history seem unlikely (even by chaos theory), or even outright impossible, from the particular change in the past. Even if the timeline is set right, there might be some changes that just don't make sense, even by how things were set right.
The key is that you cannot see any direct explanation for the changes. If you cut down a tree in the past and come back to the present to see the stump just sitting there (or maybe replaced with a new, smaller tree), that is not this trope. That's just continuity. This trope is if you knocked a tree down in the past, and upon returning to the present day, the world has devolved into The Apunkalypse, your parents are now otters, and some nearby bench was repainted. Just knocking down a random tree shouldn't have resulted in any of that... except maybe the repainted bench. Maybe it was done in honor of the tree.
This used to be played straight, but as you can tell from our example, you're now far more likely to see it Played for Laughs. By the Turn of the Millennium, most serious time travel stories began making an effort to have any timeline changes be the result of logical, explainable cause-and-effect to avoid making the Timey-Wimey Ball even worse than it is. That isn't to say this trope isn't still done seriously on occasion, but unless the rest of the story is good enough to keep that much needed Suspension of Disbelief in place, you can fully expect audiences to raise an eyebrow if a writer attempts to do so.
Compare Butterfly of Doom, where an innocuous action done in the past results in major negative changes to the present. Contrast In Spite of a Nail, where certain things remain constant no matter what changes are made. Alternate History Wank may be particularly vulnerable to this, as the author often starts out with an implausible world they want to create and work backward from there.
- Many issues of Marvel's What If? fall into this trap, especially "What If Captain America had formed the Avengers?", which despite being the direct sequel to a much more coherent issue, asks you to make a lot of leaps in logic to make sense of it all. "What If the Hulk killed Wolverine" where the death of Wolverine creates a cosmic imbalance favoring chaos and thus the super villain the Adversary is free to imprison Roma and go on to kill many other X-Men, something he never did even when he fought them in the mainstream continuity. In "What If Professor X became the Juggernaut" the Fantastic Four decide to randomly attack Xavier and the X-Men after the latter trashed the Sentinels that first attacked them, handwaving that Reed Richards was friends with Bolvier Trask, the maker of the Sentinels, resulting in them all losing their powers due to a device that Xavier makes. In "What if The Marvel Super Heroes had Lost Atlantis Attacks," Set contaminates the world's water supply turning nearly everyone into serpent people (including most of the remaining super heroes and villains), except for about eight random superheroes and villains. No reason is given why these particular eight never drank the water, and why others did, other than for the purposes of the story. Drinking water even transformed Warlock of the New Mutants into a serpent man, even though he's a techno-organic being that doesn't know what liquid water is! You'd think Warlock would be one of those immune, if anything!
- Flashpoint has this problem as various individuals are dead and things have led to a pretty big Bad Present. Possibly justified since time was not "changed", but rather broken, meaning things were not meant to be this way.
- The resolution of the storyline, which reboots the universe as the New 52, introduces still more examples of this problem. However, Rebirth reveals that reason why and it's a doozy. Dr. Manhatten of Watchman fame interfered with the DC Universe and among other things, removed from existence the Justice Society of America, starting with Alan Scott.
- In one issue of PS238, Tyler is shown glimpses of alternate timelines in which he was born with different superpowers. In most, the visible changes make sense as consequences of that Tyler's powers, but there's one where everybody is in the middle of a crisis that starts up ten issues later in the main storyline, and there's no obvious reason why it should happen sooner in the other timeline just because Tyler has gravity-manipulating powers.
- In Robert Silverberg's short story "Needle In A Timestack", time travel is common for holidays, so minor changes (your car was a grey Toyota, now it's a silver BMW) are just "the little annoyances of modern life". Unless your wife's first husband is trying to undo his divorce.
- The Power of Un uses this as well - the carnival is subtly different (paint colors and such) even though the timeline started changing just that morning.
- In The Science of Discworld II the mages' meddling with time (trying to make sure William Shakespeare is born and becomes the great poet he is supposed to be) accidentally results in the first potato being brought to Europe.
- Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency has a perfectly lampshaded use of the trope. Early in the book, it turns out that in bringing the coelacanth from prehistory to the early 20th century to be rediscovered, the dodo went extinct, and that was the end of a short chain of similar changes. At the end of the book, after the main characters go back to the dawn of life on earth, Dirk finds out that his secretary was still working for him, and a cat that he'd spent the last eleven years searching for had never gotten lost in the first place.
- Dragonlance's The War of Souls trilogy.
- In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy using the Infinite Improbability Drive on the starship Heart of Gold tended to cause this throughout the universe. That being one reason why it was replaced with the Bistromathic drive.
- Red Dwarf uses this in "Timeslides", when the last change to the timeline puts everything back how it was except that Rimmer is alive. He dies seconds later and the change in his backstory is apparently forgotten.
- Stargate SG-1: After SG-1 is sent back in time they start a revolution against the Goa'uld, the problem is that the Goa'uld take away the stargate and the alternative SG-1 has to go back in time and put things as they were. When the timeline is corrected, the only difference is that Jack's lake now has fish.
- Many small changes to the barracks and a few minor discrepancies in continuity in Lost have been theorized to be because the time-travelling survivors altered some minute details of the past when the island was shifting through time. These include Rousseau forgetting Jin and Aaron's birth being slightly different.
- Season 4 of Eureka: Despite removing one of the town's founders from the timeline in 1947, the biggest changes that occur in the resulting future are that a few people have different jobs, Henry's married, and Jo's not dating Zane anymore.
- And Allison's kid is no longer autistic.
- And a statue has changed materials.
- Strangely, nothing has changed for Beverly, even though her father was jailed because Grant wasn't there to back him up.
- Near the end of the series, another change is shown. Apparently, Henry is a Consortium agent in this timeline.
- And Allison's kid is no longer autistic.
- In Primeval, leaving a couple of Future Predators in the past somehow changes Claudia Brown into Jenny Lewis, gives the team a new HQ, and alters Connor's dress sense.
- It also added a minor Big Bad named Leek.
- Interestingly, killing an entire tribe of proto-hominids in the distant past did absolutely nothing.
- Winning the game in Dark Fall: The Journal undoes something unnatural that'd happened at the Station Hotel in the 1940s. In the sequel, Dark Fall: Lost Souls, the same hotel has suffered severe bomb damage from WWII, which hadn't been evident in the previous game. Unless writer Jonathan Boakes is implying that the unbound Dark entity had somehow deflected a bomb in the first game's timeline, and did so several years before this Ultimate Evil actually broke loose...
- Misfile has an example that starts out being completely impenetrable though the connection is eventually revealed: When main character Ash wakes up one morning having been retroactively turned into a girl: not only is he now female, as far as most of the universe is concerned he always WAS, with resulting changes in his wardrobe, photo-albums, relationships... and, strangely enough, the car he'd stashed in his garage because he couldn't afford an engine for it suddenly has exactly the engine it needs. Eventually it's revealed that his estranged mother — whom he'd lost touch with in original timeline but had already reconnected with as a girl — had not only provided her with tons of clothes; she'd also bought her "daughter" a new engine for her racecar, perhaps to assuage the guilt she felt over abandoning her in childhood.
- Many of the timelines seen in The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror V" (e.g. donut rain as a result of killing dinosaurs). The story ends with everything normal, except for people having long, forked, prehensile tongues.
- The Fairly OddParents!:
- In a Wonderful Life episode, it turns out that if Timmy had never been born, AJ would have hair, Elmer wouldn't have a boil and a non-braceface Chester would have Timmy's fairy godparents. It turns out to actually be a test by Jorgen to see if Timmy was selfish enough to wish himself back after seeing this.
- In another episode, Timmy went back to help his Dad win the trophy he accidentally melted. He comes back to find that the Internet is called "the Timmy" because Cosmo told someone to call it that. Somehow, this also resulted in "Internet" being Timmy's name.
- In one episode Timmy's Dad asks Cosmo, who was suffering from amnesia and thinking he was a genie, to wish his neighbor Dinkleberg never existed. Despite Cosmo's objection that it could result in this trope, he goes through with it, and they enter a post-apocalyptic world where somehow Timmy's Mom is a two-headed dragon.
- On Family Guy, Peter went back in time to relive his teenage years and as a result, Lois ends up married to Quagmire and Peter is married to Molly Ringwald. Also, Al Gore is the President, we have universal health care, no crime or poverty, non-polluting flying cars that run on vegetable oil, and Dick Cheney, Antonin Scalia, Karl Rove and Tucker Carlson are all dead. But worst of all, Chevy Chase is hosting The Tonight Show. Peter manages to fix everything, but Roger Smith is now a member of the Griffin household.
- Inverted in the Futurama episode "The Late Philip J. Fry". Professor Farnsworth assassinates Hitler in the early 1930's in one timeline and accidentally assassinates Eleanor Roosevelt in another, but in both cases the year 3010 they return to appears to be exactly the same, except for being ten feet lower and five feet to the right.
- In the T.U.F.F. Puppy episode "Watch Dog" Dudley uses a time travel watch to go back and beat Kitty to the last donut in the break room. This somehow changes the present so Snaptrap has taken over the world. At the end, Dudley uses it again when he misses the ice cream truck and changes the present again so he's wearing pants.
- In the Freakazoid! episode "Freakazoid is History," Freakazoid is accidentally sent back in time to Pearl Harbor. He averts Japan's surprise attack and returns to the present. Much of the world seems the same, but Rush Limbaugh is a bleeding heart liberal, Sharon Stone can act, no Chevy Chase movies exist, cold fusion works, and Brain is the president (with Pinky as the Air Force One pilot).
- Downplayed in the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic episodes "The Cutie Re-Mark", Part 1 and Part 2. Starlight Glimmer travels back in time and prevents Rainbow Dash from performing her first Sonic Rainboom, which prevents the Mane Six from becoming friends—and allows several villains to conquer Equestria since the Mane Six were the ones to defeat those villains in the first place. That makes sense. Where it gets weird is when changes in how Starlight prevented that first Sonic Rainboom somehow result in a completely different villain triumphing each time, and wildly different alternate timelines as a result. So when Starlight casts a freezing spell on young Rainbow Dash, that causes a timeline where Equestria is in a drawn-out war with King Sombra and the Crystal Empire. But when Starlight talks Rainbow out of holding the race in the first place, that creates a timeline where changelings have overrun Equestria. And so on.
- In the American Dad! episode "The Unincludeds", Steve's various attempts to make Snot popular turn Snot into various bizarre future selves, ranging from a homeless guy, to a prisoner who is blind in one eye, to a male-to-female transsexual, to a half-human half-turtle mutant, to just a giant turtle.
- In one episode of Cow and Chicken, they go to the arcade and get on a ride that takes them back to the dawn of creation. Cow drops a nickel in the primordial soup, resulting in mankind having nickels for heads.