So it seems that something really, really bad is going to go down in the future. How do we know? Because the future sent something or someone back into the past telling us it's going to.
Sometimes the message (or item, person, etc.) is intentionally sent, often as a plea for the people in the past to kindly do something to prevent the Bad Future or as a warning to prepare for it. In those cases it's more likely to be acted on and serve as the reason the rest of the story happens.
Other times it's accidentally sent, in which case it's more of a tossup as to whether or not it'll be seen by anyone other than the audience and whether or not anyone in the story will act upon it. If it isn't and/or they don't, it's used a form of creepy Foreshadowing by the writer.
The trope is distinguished from prophecies and precognitive visions of the future in that is usually clear—or at least intended to be—and is depicted as originating from the future using some form of Time Travel, rather than being glimpsed by someone in the present with mystical or psychic powers.
As with many Time Travel tropes, the classic Grandfather Paradox may be invoked with this one, since if any message or what-have-you is sent back to the past to prevent something from happening, and that something is precisely WHY said message was sent back to the past in the first place, then logically a successful prevention of the future events would mean that the future that the message came from never existed, and thus there was no message sent from the future, which would mean that the future events WOULD take place, so on and so forth.
Fling a Light into the Future is the trope for any inversion with the past sending an ominous message into the future. Also see Conqueror from the Future if the "message" is someone from the future coming back to the past to take it over. For the reverse, see Write Back to the Future.
- This idea forms the key link in Destiny of the Doctor, a series of audio plays released by Big Finish in the run-up to the show's fiftieth anniversary; each audio sees the first ten Doctors (omitting the War Doctor) receiving brief messages from the Eleventh Doctor, asking them to ensure that a particular person or object survives what threat the Doctor is about to deal with, which allows the Eleventh Doctor to set up a complex plan that saves the universe from a race of pan-dimensional insects that sought to destroy history.
- In Dragon Ball Z, Trunks is Vegeta and Bulma's son from 20 years in the future and goes back in time to warn the Z Fighters that they have three years until a pair of androids built by Dr. Gero-a mad scientist with a grudge against Goku and his friends-are unleashed, and begin their killing spree by murdering all of Goku's friends and family (With the exception of Bulma, Trunks, Gohan, and Goku, the latter of whom was killed by a heart virus that Future Trunks also came with a warning about).
- In Orange, Naho (and as it later turns out, her other friends) get mysterious letters that were written by their future selves, sent back to them to tell them about Kakeru, a new transfer student. The letters explain things about Kakeru, about what happens on certain days and implore them to change how things went down on that day as their future selves are full of regret, thinking that if they can change those days, Kakeru will not die, like he did in their time.
- In one episode of Noein, after things start getting strange, Haruka asks her mother if she's ever encountered anything paranormal, and her mother mentions that her old house phone once rang, even though it was unplugged. At the end of the episode, the same unplugged phone rings again when Haruka's alone, so she picks it up, and realizes the person on the other side is her mother in the past. Haruka's mother is puzzled, while Haruka is very amused by the situation... and then her mother gets disconnected, and Haruka finds herself talking to herself from an alternate future. Her future self sounds so sad, and combined with the advice she offers, our Haruka is left quite shaken up by a vague hint at something terrible.
- In Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, a message is sent back by an unknown person full of warnings about things the Lost Light should not do or else Bad Things will happen. Unfortunately nobody hears it and the Lost Light crew merrily goes about unwittingly doing more and more of them over the course of the series.
"Don't open the coffin. Don't let them take Skids. Don't go to Delphi. And do notóI repeat, do notólook in the basement. And for the sake of the Cybertronian race itself, please don'tkzzzzzzzk"
- The source of the message is eventually shown to be a subversion, as it is actually being sent from the distant past by a time-travelling group of Lost Lighters, after having done all the things that the message was trying to warn them about.
- In Return To Hinamizawa, Miaka finds a newspaper dated five days in the future, predicting her own death. She then has to decide whether it's a real example or an elaborate fake — and one problem is that she refuses to believe that Time Travel is real.
- A Shadow of the Titans: After Starfire's trip into a Bad Future (as depicted in the episode "How Long Is Forever?"), Nightwing sends her back with a letter to the present-day Robin, warning of some unspecified incident involving Jade that caused the Titans (already unstable following Starfire's disappearance) to fall apart completely. While the letter doesn't give details, Nightwing does imply that there's a moral quandary involved, and implores Robin to do the right thing.
- In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a time-travelling Barry Allen briefly appears in the Batcave to deliver a dire warning to Bruce Wayne.
- In Prince of Darkness (which takes place in 1987), scientists from the year 1999 use a tachyon signal to warn everyone who sleeps in the church of the disaster awaiting them.
- Wolverine serves as this of sorts in X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he makes past Xavier and Magneto aware of the Bad Future, and to prevent Mystique from assassinating Dr. Trask. He also actively helps them in this mission.
- In the Babylon 5 episode "War Without End", the eponymous station receives a distress call from a temporal rift in Sector 14. It turns out to be a version of Ivanova from eight days in the future, sending out a mayday about how the station is under attack by the Shadows. The message ends right as the future station explodes, and the rest of the two-part episode is spent trying to keep that future from happening.
- One episode of Castle has a man who claims to be an agent from the future sent back to stop an assassination, probably a homage to The Terminator. He comments on an upcoming 'energy war', though assures the two leads that the good guys win. Obvously, he's labeled as delusional, though the ending of the episode leaves it ambiguous.
- Doctor Who: Many seasons of the new series have ArcWords/ArcSymbols that are this, unless the relevant event is in the past/present/other:
- Series 1 has "Bad Wolf", in various forms, following Rose and the Doctor around space and time. They're the name of the corporation running the Game Station in the year 200,100, scattered across the universe by Bad Wolf!Rose.
- Series 3 has something of an inversion (by the show's standards; anywhere else it would be a lot more than something) with the references to "Mr. Saxon" and the "Vote Saxon" messages in various places; the relevant "future" could be considered the year 100,000,000,000,000, where the Master is revealed to be hiding, but the mentions of "Saxon" are actually referring to the Master's new identity after escaping the end of the universe: prime ministerial candidate Harold Saxon, since a year and a half before the events of the season.
- Series 5 has the cracks in time, appearing approximately Once an Episode, across space and time. After discovering that they contain "the end of the universe" and are capable of erasing people from history, the Doctor stipulates that they must have been caused by an incredibly powerful event in the "future". The event in question, the TARDIS explosion, ends up ripping the universe apart.
- Series 7 has a different flavour: Clara Oswin Oswald appears three times throughout the season in different times and places. It's revealed at the end of the season that this is because she dispersed herself throughout the Doctor's timeline to save him from the Great Intelligence, who had done the same. The difference is that the fact that she's there means that the relevant catastrophe has already been averted, meaning it's less an ominous message than a comforting affirmation, but then the Doctor was shown "dying" in the Season Finale, which is a new level of temporal confusion, even for this show.
- Some of the characters in FlashForward didn't like the implications of their glimpses of the future: Mark had fallen off the wagon, Olivia was apparently having an affair, etc.
- This is a plot point in Heroes. In the first season, Future-Hiro travels back in time to warn Peter about the Bad Future in hopes of averting it.
- In the two part episode of Power Rangers S.P.D. called "Messenger", the heroes pick up a radio transmission from the future that claims that Space Patrol Delta fell on the day the transmission was received. As revealed, it's because they encountered Devastation, their most powerful enemy yet. They would've lost as predicted, but thanks to the timely arrival of the Sixth Ranger, they defeated Devastation and changed the future.
- In The Revolting World Of Stanley Brown, one of Stanley's future relatives makes sure Stanley keeps on inventing so that he will be born.
- While the main premise of Seven Days is using Time Travel in order to Set Right What Once Went Wrong, the limited time frame of a week slightly limits this. Also, it's usually Frank, the chrononaut, who ends up saving the day anyway. Usually, though, it's the other characters who get this whenever he contacts them with the code word "Conundrum", which indicates that something really bad will have happened within the next week, necessitating the use of the Sphere. Two episodes involve other time travelers arriving from even farther in the future to warn of an upcoming disaster. The first one tries to prevent a global pandemic, resulting from a mutated cure for cancer. The second warns of a nuclear war resulting from the actions of a charismatic Muslim leader (this turns out to be a case of Make Wrong What Once Went Right, though, and the time traveler may not even be human).
- Stargate SG-1: The 2000 episode "2010" is interesting in that the whole episode builds up to sending the note, which is promptly understood and obeyed. It takes place in a seemingly idyllic future where allies the SGC met were able to single-handedly win the war with the Goa'uld, only for SG-1 to learn they secretly have made mankind sterile and plan to subjugate the world, leading SG-1 to sacrifice themselves to send a note to the past warning the SGC against going to the planet where they met the allies. Hammond obeys the note, but a year later, in "2001", the SGC unknowingly makes contact with those same aliens on a neighboring planet. Thankfully, they do notice that it's near the "forbidden" one and decide to investigate a bit.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation:
- "Time Squared" had a different take on this. Enterprise picks up a shuttle and is surprised to find it crewed by a future version of Captain Picard too incoherent to understand, while the shuttle's logs show Enterprise being destroyed. The crew then need to work out what sequence of events caused this, and avert it.
- "Cause and Effect" has another instance. The episode takes place inside a time loop involving the Enterprise's repeated destruction. At around the fifth pass, Data realizes this is because they go with his idea to avoid a ship going out of a temporal anomaly, and sends a message into the future. Through the next loop, the number "3" shows up in odd places. In the last minutes of the episode, the ship comes out of the anomaly again. Data looks at Riker's uniform collar, with three pins, and goes with his idea to depressurize the cargo bays, and the Enterprise survives.
- Star Trek: Voyager:
- "Future's End" had Captain Braxton of the time ship Aeon come back from the 29th century with information that the entire solar system has been destroyed in a cataclysmic explosion and that Voyager was somehow involved. Now he's here to destroy them before that can happen. They manage to fight him off and both ships get stuck in the late 20th century. Braxton, who arrived 30 years earlier and has been living as a homeless bum all that time, continues to try warn people of the coming disaster, but due to his position in society, and the fact that he's talking about something that won't happen for centuries, people dismiss him as just another crazy bum.
- Another episode, "Timeless", is set 15 years into a future which involves Voyager crashing into an icy planet, killing nearly everyone aboard, the survivors being Harry Kim and Chakotay. They have a plan to try and give a new set of phase correction for Voyager's run of their Quantum Slipstream Drive which ended in disaster by sending the corrections to Seven of Nine in the past. The corrections don't work, but Kim figures out how to get Voyager out of the slipstream, saving everyone aboard. Along with the corrections, the future Kim sent a message to his past self explaining what happened, but if he's seeing this all that's changed.
- In Wizards of Waverly Place Harper of the future comes back to, first, write books about the wizard adventures she has with Alex because in the future one of them will have told the World about wizards, so the books aren't all that interesting or unique, and, second, make sure that Alex has those adventures with her. In secret.
- The entirety of the Nine Inch Nails Year Zero ARG is this, with the earliest quantum computers suddenly receiving a bunch of websites from their future selves, depicting a dystopic future and the end of the world in 2025. Unfortunately, the messages sent back were partially corrupted by the future computers being damaged during the upload, either by government agents or The Presence. Nonetheless, the implication remains that having received the messages has changed the timeline and averted the events of Year Zero.
- In Timemaster, Time Corps etiquette demands that if an agent dies during a mission, someone should send a message to the earlier-him to let him know.
- DC Universe Online begins with future Lex Luthor warning Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman about the upcoming Brainiac threat.
- The events of EarthBound are set in motion by the time traveling insect Buzz Buzz from the future, who warns Ness that Giygas has destroyed the world in the future and that a boy named Ness would defeat him.
- In Final Fantasy XIII-2, one of the Memory Fragments you can uncover in New Bodhum 700 AF with Paradox Scope on is a message to Serah from Future!Serah, which pretty much tells you that Serah will die in the end. Of course, since you only acquire the Paradox Scope after beating the game, you already know that.
- In Galactic Civilizations, the Thalans claim to be from the future and say that an apocalyptic event is going to take place soon, and it's the fault of the Terran species. They've come back in time to stop it if they can. Most other civilizations, especially the Terrans, are incredulous as to these claims, as the big threat right now is the Drengin Empire threatening to conquer the whole of the galaxy.
Terran Commander: You claim humanity causes the destruction of the galaxy. How can this be? Earth is surrounded by an alien armada... our allies lie in ruins, their worlds ravaged... I don't see how we could be the great threat in the universe.Thalan Ambassador: There is a crusade coming. A crusade led by humans. And with it... the end of all things.
- In Marvel: Avengers Alliance, this is delivered via a Conqueror from the Future. Kang the Conqueror, the "40th Century Man", has something to say about Hank Pym's 'Project Ultron' in Spec Ops 7.3:
Kang: You think you are on the brink of a great discovery... but I come from a future where you are vilified as the man who began the destruction of the world.Hank Pym: Well, you came to my present, where I'm going to make sure that doesn't happen. Now stand down and do not get in the way of my work.Kang: This Ultron construct is more dangerous than you imagine. You cannot control it and are a fool to try. Destroy it now...or I will.
- In Mortal Kombat 9 Raiden sends a message to himself in the past: "He must win." it's until towards the end that he realizes he has to invoke The Bad Guy Wins so that the The Gods Who Don't Do Anything actually do something.
- The Defiants in Rift send the hero from the Bad Future back into the past where the odds against Regulos were much more favorable.
- SaGa 3 has three children sent from the Future into the Present in hopes of stopping the world from being completely flooded.
- The Serious Sam series is similar, in that the last surviving human is sent back several millennia in time so he can assassinate the galactic Evil Overlord Mental before he can destroy Earth.
- A complex version from Starcraft II: The Overmind has a premonition (or, possibly, predicts based on what it knows of the present — Word of God is unclear on this point) of the known galaxy being obliterated by Amon, the "Dark Voice". Forearmed with this knowledge, it manipulates the entire course of the Great War against the terrans and protoss, including a great deal of what happened after its death. Then Zeratul is sent looking for the Overmind by following the threads of another prophecy of indeterminate origin, and it shares the vision with him. He then shares it with James Raynor and later Kerrigan. Among the apocalypse is one single fact, casually mentioned by the Big Bad, that might avert it: that Kerrigan, the Zerg Queen of Blades, can prevent Amon from using the zerg to carry out his plan.
- In the first Star Trek: Armada the USS Premonition comes back in time to warn the Enterprise of an imminent Borg attack that will eventually lead to the entire Alpha Quadrant being assimilated.
- This happens several times throughout the game. After the first time, Picard fails to stop the Borg from assimilating Earth. However, the Enterprise is able to use the Premonition's technology to go back in time and get the help of Romuland and Klingons. At the end of the game, the Borg send a Sphere to the past to destroy the Enterprise-D years prior. The Premonition follows the Sphere and blows it up before jumping back to its own time.
- In Blood Splattered Socks, Sam receives one of these signed A Darker Future.
- In The Game Overthinker, The Omega Thinker travels back to warn the Overthinker of his death and the coming of the Robo Thinker.
- One episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic had a Twilight Sparkle from the future appear with torn up clothes, an eyepatch, and scars on her face. She has an urgent message. Unfortunately, she isn't able to give it before being pulled back to her time. Twilight spends the rest of the episode freaking out trying to avert the impending disaster. She was actually trying to tell herself not to get all wound up like that.
- In Phineas and Ferb, a Candace from the future comes back to keep the boys inventing so that Dr. Doofenschmirtz can't take over the tri-state area. Different versions of her are met, but we never see more than three at once, as they're erased with their version of the Bad Future.
- Time Squad, On a mission to help Samuel Morse, the Time Squad gets unwelcome company as their decrepit selfs from 60 years into the future appear to give them an important message. The problem is, they're all senile, and don't remember what said message was and stay to annoy the present squad until finally, Older Tuddrussel remembers to tell his whippersnapper counterpart to return the book he checked out of the library, as 60 years of library fines add up.
- Wolverine and the X-Men, Professor X from 20 years in the future is able to telepathically communicate through time with the present X-men. He warns them about the future devastated by Sentinels and how the majority of the X-Men were killed.
- From 2000-2001, a man calling himself John Titor posted on various message boards, claiming to be a time traveller from the year 2036 and full of tales of the After the End future which he came from. If he is a real life example of this trope, he managed to change history and avert the civil war that takes place in the United States in 2005. Either way, he served as inspiration for Steins;Gate.