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"I'm standing at the time portal, which scientists say, follows 'Terminator' rules. That is, it's one way only and you can't go back. This is in contrast to, say, 'Back to the Future' rules, where back and forth is possible, and of course 'Timerider' rules, which are just plain silly."
Reporter, South Park

What does Time Travel look like? Well, no one knows (as far as we know anyway), but fiction has given us four models, each of which may or may not involve a Time Machine.

These concepts are not to be confused with the different fictional interpretations of Temporal Mutability. This page is purely about the visuals. See Timey-Wimey Ball for when the rules of time travel vary within the same work.

Videocassette Time Travel

According to this theory, time is like a videocassette (for those of you born after 2000, videocassettes are what we played movies on back in the dark days before DVDs). Normally, time is on "play" and traveling backwards or forwards is like pushing "rewind" or "fast-forward": you can see other people and events playing quickly forwards or backwards around you. This theory originated in H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (which obviously predated the videocassette, but it's still a good analogy).

It is, of course, presumed that you're invisible (and intangible) while traveling through time in this manner, i.e. people on the outside don't see someone standing around for years and years while moving very slowly. Modern works take this for granted, but H.G. Wells actually gave it a Hand Wave, essentially explaining that the traveler is going through time too quickly to be seen. (This doesn't quite explain how the traveler isn't solid, but never mind.)note 

If one is only going forwards, then this version resembles one of the most scientifically plausible means of time travel, namely, accelerating fast enough for Time Dilation to be noticeable. (Of course, since you're actually accelerating, you'll only be able to see the "fast-forwarding" of a very distant large object, like a galaxy, and your vision will be modified too, so it's not really anything like this model.)

    Examples of Videocassette Time Travel 
  • As mentioned, H.G. Wells' The Time Machine and all film adaptations thereof.
  • The film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (but not the book).
  • Somewhere in Time (1980 film)
  • The book The Magic School Bus in the Time of Dinosaurs. Absurdly, the TV adaptation used this theory for the trip back in time but switched to the one below for the return trip. Even stranger, the fossilized dinosaur egg became a normal egg (as in feasibly hatchable or edible), yet none of the humans on board disintegrated from aging backwards millions of years.
  • The book Sonic the Hedgehog in the Fourth Dimension (also involves time machines using the two methods described below, but quite a few pages of narrative go into describing a trip made using a time machine using this method).
  • Braid used a more efficient form than the one used in Prince of Persia Sands of Time.
  • The eponymous character of Bunny Must Die similarly uses this except she has pause and slow as well.
  • At the end of Stargate SG-1, Teal'c is sent back in time through this method, to impart the solution to the problem of the Ori's ability to track the shipment with the Asgard memory core (the Odyssey). The solution is on a memory crystal, which when inserted, performs a rapid shutdown of the core. There's no other way to prevent the Ori from tracking it.
  • The Butterfly Effect actually uses this analogy to allow the Main Character to revisit his memories; and then later change them.
  • This is how time travel works in Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next Series, but here you can also pause and loop. While Thursday only gives us an up-close view of this type of time travel, the ChronoGuard's repertoire seems much more extensive. Their office is something akin to this in reverse, and vague references are made to "The Cone", something around which Time Agents navigate... somehow... adding an element of wormhole time travel. You never even get an idea of how things like the Echo!Friday or the tech mining work, and you aren't meant to. Fforde's time travel depicts how utterly incomprehensible extensive time travel would be to the uninitiated.
  • In Futurama, Farnsworth made a time machine that acted this way, although it could only go forward in time. The machine was completely unaffected by outside events, such as explosions.

Wormhole Time Travel

The theory here seems to be that going back in time immediately puts you in another dimension. Usually, this dimension will be some kind of wormhole or "time tunnel" composed of flashing lights and cool special effects. You may even see images from famous moments in history fly by as a helpful gauge of when you're going. In less serious versions, the tunnel may be decorated with clocks and calendars or be labeled with years. Depending on the story, the wormhole links the user to a different spot on his own timeline or to a different spot on the next timeline over; the difference is largely academic.

    Examples of Wormhole Time Travel 
  • Alterien. The Alteriens generate instant wormholes with an energy technique called tranzing. They use it to travel through both time and space.
  • Doctor Who's Time Vortex.
  • Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
  • In Farscape, the Wormholes cross space and time.
  • The book version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (but not the film).
  • As the title suggests, the 1960s TV show The Time Tunnel.
  • The End of Eternity has a parallel "timeless" dimension.
  • In Stargate SG-1, the Stargates have twice been used for time travel (also seen in Atlantis and the SG-1 movie Continuum). It's unclear whether or not this counts since wormholes are a regular fixture of Stargate travel anyway.
  • Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (the latter accessing the wormhole through a gate).
  • Steins;Gate has this with Suzuha's time machine.
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Turtlesin Time had a mostly black version that they blipped through.
  • One issue of Count Duckula had a wormhole made of rings labeled with years.
  • Chrono Trigger
  • Futurama when it's as a result of combining microwaves and radiation from a supernova. They even ended up with a bunch of clocks on board.
  • Day of the Tentacle "This must be that Woodstock place Mom and Dad are always talking about!"
  • TRU-Life Adventures
  • Superman: Before 1985, Superman and Supergirl could fly fast enough to jump into the timestream, which looked like an endless multi-colored tunnel, and travel to the far-flung future or the distant past under their own power. Time-travel was an important part of story arcs like Two for the Death of One, The Unknown Supergirl, The Great Darkness Saga and A Mind-Switch in Time. The 1986 reboot, though, limited their powers so they could no longer time-travel.
  • Time Bandits used "time holes".
  • Tsubasa -RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE-, where the characters actually thought that they were going to an alternate universe (as they usually do) until The Reveal several arcs later.
  • Ecco the Dolphin. It's clearer in Defender and the special cutscenes in the CD version of Tides.
  • In Sluggy Freelance Timeless Space works like this, after a fashion. No one ever intentionally uses it for time travel, but someone who enters and then leaves Timeless Space can return to the regular universe centuries before or after they left. Mainly because leaving Timeless Space is handled by Uncle Time, who has enough power to send you anywhen he feels like.
  • Mirai Sentai Timeranger and to a lesser extent Power Rangers Time Force when summoning the Combining Mecha.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series had the Guardian of Forever.
  • Inuyasha. The well is the wormhole.
  • Doraemon.
  • In the Haruhi Suzumiya novels, Asahina's method for time-travelers and Nagato's "emergency escape program" seems to be of the "special effects" variety, but it makes Kyon much too dizzy and nauseous to actually look beyond taking quick peeks, which he doesn't understand; this arguably makes it both Wormhole Time Travel and Unseen Time Travel. Asahina and Nagato don't seem to have that problem, but we don't know for sure either.
  • Calvin and Hobbes uses this, which Calvin compares to traveling on a highway:
    Calvin: You could help me drive, you know! If we miss our exit, we could fly right into the big bang!
  • Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah uses a variant of this; when the characters time-jump everything around seems to speed up or reverse like in videocassette time-travel, but a few moments later they enter a tunnel of crazy psychedelic special effects and arrive at their destination.
  • While it also includes Instantaneous Time Travel, Yu-Gi-Oh!: Bonds Beyond Time briefly shows Paradox coming out of a portal.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! 5D's: The Infinity Device is capable of creating wormholes.
  • In Universal War One, the main cast time travels because of the opening/closure of a wormhole. Then Kalish discovered how to travel through time instantaneously.
  • 7 Days (1998) uses this one; different from others in that the protagonist needs to steer ("fly the needles") in order to land on Earth. Even with his better-than-average ability, his time machine still winds up miles away from where he left.
  • Major Bummer used the less serious version, with moments from history flying by on two-dimensional "shards" of time, one of which ends up impaling a character.
  • Septimus Heap: The time travel through the Glasses goes through an intermediary dimension that, if the paired arrival point Glass is lacking, can dump you into a place where there is no time at all.
  • Sonic CD
  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Homura seems to walk through some time portal when time traveling.
  • The Girl Who Leapt Through Time: Actually plays with both Worm Hole and Instantaneous travel. Makoto's first leap she goes through a very strange occurrence, all subsequent leaps after are instant.
  • In Dresden Codak, you can use a wormhole for time travel, but you can only go back as far as the moment the wormhole was made. To go back any further, you need to send a wormhole through another wormhole and open it at the right time.
    • This is actually one of the few examples of time travel that could be theoretically possible in the real world.
  • The Accidental Time Machine doesn't have a wormhole, but when the machine is activated it transports (along with any metal container and contents) through a bleak grayish realm for about a minute before reaching its destination.
  • Season 9 of The Smurfs has seventeen Smurfs traveling through a time whirlwind to get from one place to another.
  • Suske en Wiske: time travel with the Teletijdmachine sends people through a dimension that is either completely black or resembles outer space (with stars etc.)
  • The "Time and Punishment" segment from the The Simpsons episode "Treehouse of Horror V" sees Homer travel back in time through a dimension filled with clocks.
  • Mr Peabodyand Sherman: the WABAC travels through a wormhole whenever it goes back in time.
  • "Hacking" time in Kung Fury works a lot like this.
  • 11/22/63 features a time portal, referred to as the Rabbit Hole, which resembles a staircase, the top step of which exists in 2011 and the bottom step of which exists in 1958. Using the Rabbit Hole creates a psychedelic experience in which the time traveler perceives themselves simultaneously climbing the stairs and simply walking along the ground in the time period which they're exiting, then after a feeling like an airplane taking off, they're suddenly in the other time period. The Rabbit Hole emits some form of radiation from both ends which gives people standing near it Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory.
  • Time travel in Aeon Legion: Labyrinth involves a device called a shieldwatch that moves the user into the Edge of Time where all time overlaps. The Edge of Time appears like a grainy blue haze where people and moving objects turn into a blur of afterimages.
  • Time Squad: Robots control the ability to travel through a computer in their arm. When the coordinates are set and the device is activated, electricity bursts around the travelers, light flashes and swallows them into a purple and green tunnel. This tunnel sucks the travelers in like a raging whirlpool and then spits them back out into their destination. First-timers always come out screaming in terror.
  • Timeless uses this version. Two times machines exist: the Lifeboat (the prototype three-person pod) and the larger Mothership (a sleek iPod-looking sphere that can fit 8-10 people). The wormhole is never shown, except on a diagram. Only a few people are trained to pilot a time machine, and precise navigation (both temporal and spatial) is required.
  • Arrowverse handles time-traveling this way. When speedsters time travel, they run fast enough to resonate with the Speed Force and enter it (which looks like a wormhole), at which point they can visualize where and when they want to go and appear there. The method used by the Time Masters involves jumping into the time stream (which appears like a different wormhole) and traveling through it to their destination. Only the former method attracts Time Wraiths, though.
  • SOON: Time Traveling to a certain date resets any changes caused by Atlas from that point and on. To progress, the player had to be careful not to undo their own work this way.
    Teen!Atlas: But before you go...can you tell me about the future? Or would that cause a time paradox?
    Atlas: [thinking] Ah, kids and their time paradoxes. So adorable. [aloud] Come on Atlas, you know in your heart that the branching multiverses model is the only one that makes sense.
    Teen!Atlas: Haha, yeah, sorry older me.
  • Katsugeki/Touken Ranbu: Wormholes are usually used to transport the Touken Danshi in and out of new timelines.
  • Putt-Putt Travels Through Time features a time machine that leads the title character to an abstract junction of four individual wormholes accessing different time periods.
  • Milo Murphy's Law has a time stream like this that you need to navigate in order to reach your destination. If your time machine breaks down, you may be stranded. There are also clocks floating around in the background... which are real, because one of the protagonists accidentally dropped a bunch of them at some earlier point

Instantaneous Time Travel

Who says you need to see anything when you go back in time? Used in the Back to the Future films, this is where time travel is simply instantaneous. One second Marty McFly is in 1985. Then there's a flash of light and he's in 1955. Simple as that.

    Examples of Instantaneous Time Travel 
  • In the second Astral Dawn novel, the Keepers travel to certain points of space-time instantaneously using their incredible psychic power.
  • As mentioned, the Back to the Future series. In the DVD extras, the director tells us that they created an elaborate visual sequence for time travel, putting it under the previous version. Then they decided that time travel wouldn't have any such visuals.
  • Isaac Asimov's Pebble in the Sky: Part of the Inciting Incident causing Joseph Schwartz to be inadvertently and permanently displaced many thousands of years into the future is a local University crucible with subcritical uranium that creates a cone of destruction as it sends only things within the cone into the future. The lack of transition initially gives Schwartz the impression that he's an amnesiac.
  • Stargate SG-1 used this version with the time-traveling puddle jumper in "Moebius". Another time-traveling puddle jumper (or possibly the same one) appeared in the Stargate Atlantis episode "Before I Sleep".
  • Time leaps in Steins;Gate work this way.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages.
  • The Journeyman Project from the second game onward. The noise and purple lightning when someone departs and arrives via this sort of time travel are handwaved as a phenomenon called the "displacement effect", caused by the amount of matter in the universe being added or subtracted by the time traveller. The "time tunnel" shown in the first game more resembled a screensaver with the Playstation controller icons than anything else and was wisely removed.
  • Although Chrono Trigger uses the Wormhole method in the earlier stages of the game, once you acquire the Epoch, it switches to the instantaneous variety. And once the Epoch becomes an airship, it even accelerates to a high speed immediately before time-warping, making the way it works appear almost exactly the same as Back to the Future's flying DeLorean.
  • Lost:
    • The Mental Time Travel as well as whatever the heck happened to Ben at the end of season 4 was instantaneous.
    • Occurs in the first half of season five, albeit not by choice and causing loads and loads of painful headaches and fatal nosebleeds. And was actually seen as a cause of Mental Time Travel as seen with Charlotte before she died.
  • It's Not Like That Darling has instantaneous, no-flash (no air displacement either, for that matter) time travel.
  • In Back to the 50s, S Club travel back in time 40 years simply by driving through a shimmering thing on the road, in a car which seemed to be self-aware just after the amount of distance it has driven went over one million miles.
  • Red vs. Blue. The very first instance of time travel is the latter version since it occurs during a huge explosion that knocks all the characters out and who then wake up in the future, except for Church who's in the past. Every other instance somebody goes back in time though, it's instantaneous.
  • Times Like This uses a handheld device to cut a green glowing "time window" in front of it. Once the time window's operational, all the time traveler has to do is walk through it to get to a different time.
  • Kim Possible, A Sitch in Time
  • In Quantum Leap, Sam arrives and leaves via an impressive special effect, but the final episode points out that this version applies in reverse: Sam sees what may be another leaper depart, and isn't sure what he just saw. He later explains it to Al, who also can't be sure — neither of them has seen what a leap looks like. This implies instantaneous since Sam is conscious when he leaps.
  • The Cassiopeia in Negima! Magister Negi Magi seems to function like this.
  • Primeval has The Anomalies, big glowing balls of timey wimey stuff, step into it and find yourself in the past or future instantaneously.
  • In Wyrd Sisters, it's mentioned that people expect videotape-style time travel, but what they actually get is this.
  • In the Haruhi Suzumiya novels, there is one instance of Nagato sending Kyon and Asahina three years forward in time in what Kyon experiences as an instant.
    • Although the incident in question was Nagato freezing time in that room so that time passed normally on the outside, it seemed to pass instantly for those on the inside. So it isn't true time travel any more than what people do regularly.
  • In Yu-Gi-Oh!: Bonds Beyond Time, the time travelers' motorbikes glow brightly, then they speed up and disappear in a flash of light.
  • In The Time Traveler's Wife, this is how Henry and later, his daughter Alba, travels through time. Unfortunately, he can't control it.
  • This is just about how it works in Sonic CD. It would be more instantaneous except for the time required to load the next level, which uses a visual effect that suggests the Wormhole method, but when Sonic appears in the past or future, his momentum is conserved from whichever time period he left, making it clear that it's meant to be instantaneous.
  • This is how time travel works for units in Achron. For the player, in practice it is something of this and Mental Time Travel combined, though what is known of the fluff suggests it is somewhat more complicated.
  • This is how the Time Matrix works in Animorphs
  • Seems to be how time travel works in Homestuck. Both Dave and Aradia just spin their timetables/time music boxes and appear at their destination time.
  • In About Time Tim merely has to go into a dark place, close his eyes and focus, and he instantly goes back.
  • In The Impossible Stairwell, going up or down a certain hidden stairwell in a school moves people forward or backward in time so subtly they tend not to notice at first.
  • In Kung Fury, Thor can send someone back or forth through time, but unlike Hackerman's hacking, which is more of a wormhole-style time-travel method, this just requires opening a portal to the time you want to go to.
  • In Paradox Bound, there are no special effects to history travel. In fact, it happens fairly often, it's just that people usually don't realize anything has happened. For example, someone may pass through a town that looks like it came straight out of The '50s and then end up right back in his or her native time period, just figuring it's a town that needs to catch up with the times. It's all because of the so-called "slick spots", which can be found on many roads and railroads. An experienced Searcher memorizes the "slick spots" and where and when they lead, as well as how to "skid" on them in order to pass into a different period of history. It usually involves a car appearing to lose traction on a road (even if it's 90 degrees outside). Any normal drives will attempt to regain control. A Searcher will, instead, know how to properly let the car (or, in some cases, a motorcycle, or even a train) "skid" through the "slick spot". There are some requirements, such as the need that the vehicle be mostly made up of American steel (i.e. no foreign cars, no modern mostly plastic/fiberglass cars). Most Searchers use pre-1975 vehicles that are fairly easy to maintain in any period of history. Some are modified with a Garrett electrolytic carburetor, which allows them to run on water, while John Henry's Steel Bucephalus locomotive burns wood since he can always find fuel.
  • The short YouTube film "One-Minute Time Machine" has a guy (played by Brian Dietzen of NCIS) invent the titular device (shaped like a box with a Big Red Button), which throws his mind back 60 seconds, which he uses to try to hit on a woman on a park bench. Naturally, he goes through many iterations before he succeeds. She turns out to be a scientist herself and has published a book on time travel. She points out that every time he uses the machine, he dies, and a new version of him is created in a branched universe (we're treated to a montage of the girl freaking out at the guy suddenly dying multiple times in all those other universes). Unfortunately for her, this revelation means he isn't likely to get a boner anytime soon, and she's ready to go (he was very successful in his attempts to pick her up). So, she quietly tells her future double she better make it worth it and pushes the button herself in order to avoid telling him the truth, willingly killing herself in order to allow her double to get some action. It's never explained why the original has to die for the time machine to work or why the inventor himself wouldn't know about it.
  • In The Three Magi, The Three Wise Men are walking together in the desert in the First Century AD at the beginning. Then the star described in the Gospels that announced the birth of Jesus starts shining unusually bright, and they find themselves transported to 2001. They appear in bodies of water in three separate locations in the modern world — Caspar in a pond of water in an African country, Balthazar in the sea on a coast of Mexico, and Melchior in a fountain in Tibet. The gifts all three men were holding for Jesus magically disappear from their hands as they arrive in modern-day, also.

Unseen Time Travel

This covers all instances where the time travel occurs off-screen. Often a form of Mental Time Travel. For example, if you fell asleep and then woke up to find yourself in The Middle Ages. Another variation of this occurs if all the audience ever sees is the traveler leaving from and arriving at various times, i.e. the traveler's point of view is never shown. Either way, it's impossible to determine which of the above theories is in place.

    Examples of Unseen Time Travel 
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
  • George "Yankee" Longago, an obscure Golden Age superhero, had the power to travel through time while asleep, usually based on his subconscious desires.
  • In Time and Again by Jack Finney, the protagonist surrounds himself with objects from The Gay '90s while living in a Victorian Penthouse overlooking Central Park. By imagining himself to be in the 1890s he wakes up one day and is in the 1890s.
  • Robert Sheckley's Time Killer has something approaching this.
  • This is also used, sometimes as Applied Phlebotinum, but also for comedic effect, with Paradox, on Ben 10: Alien Force. Paradox has almost complete knowledge of the Timey-Wimey Ball.
  • The manga Little Jumper arguably uses this. Time machines make all kinds of fuss on-camera when they get to where they're going, but we have yet to see the travelers' perspective.
  • In Split Infinity (the movie, not the novel by Piers Anthony), the main character falls from a barn loft in 1992 and wakes up as her great aunt in 1929.
  • In Primer, the time machine is a solid box which you have to stay inside for the duration of the trip. One character mentions that he heard a sound like the ocean — it's unclear whether that was just the machine or not.
    • Presumably it's the ambient sound in the room, but backwards.
    • In this context, "for the duration of the trip" means that if you turned the machine on 12 hours ago, you have to sit in the machine for 12 hours. Staying in the machine too long, or leaving early, is implied to cause major health problems.
  • A strange example from the Nasuverse: time travel is said to be a True Magic ("impossible miracles") and is brought up by a character mentioning ways to revive from death. However, there is no character who can use Time Travel in Canon, as there are basically only five users of True Magic.
  • Used in an episode of S Club 7 in Miami (aka Miami 7), where the group went into the fog on a boat in the Bermuda Triangle and fell unconscious, waking up in the 80s with clothes from that time. They regained their original clothes when they re-entered the fog to go back to their own time, except for Hannah, who kept her 80s shoes for reasons that were never explained.
  • Mental Time Travel such as that found in Groundhog Day usually goes under this category.
  • In Haruhi Suzumiya novels, whenever Kyon is time-traveling, he has to close his eyes because it makes him so sick he could puke. The reader doesn't learn much of what is happening, but the hints sound like a version of Wormhole Time Travel.
  • A Season 4 episode of Supernatural, "In The Beginning": one second, Dean is in 2008, and then Castiel puts his fingers on Dean's forehead, knocking him out; Dean wakes up in 1973. We don't ever see how they travel there.
  • Sapphire and Steel just arrive at whatever place and time their assignment is set, usually walking in through the front door. However, at the end of Assignment 2, we see Steel jump into the air and vanish, but, like many things in this show, it's never explained if this happens all the time or even if they're time-travelling or just moving between dimensions, so...
  • Harry Turtledove's Alternate History novel The Guns of the South has time travel via square platforms that apparently dematerialize the user in a fashion similar to Star Trek transporters. We only ever see them in use once, as a Confederate soldier shoots at someone using the platform, causing it to break down and eventually explode.
  • "Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time," meaning that he lives his life out of order, but there are no discernible time-travel moments or effects.
  • Captain Picard time-travels this way in "All Good Things...", the finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • In Umineko: When They Cry, Ange is split / time travels when she jumps off the roof of the hospital, but there is no detail given as to the process by which she actually does it, since the third installment ends with her jumping off the roof, and the fourth installment begins with her already in the meta-world. Granted, of course, that the meta-world itself is outside of the time-space continuum. Of course, from an anti-fantasy perspective she isn't actually time traveling at all; she's just doing it metaphorically by investigating what happened on Rokkenjima in 1986.
  • The Planet of the Apes variety could be number 3, but as it's never shown, we can't say for sure. It's not one or two, though, based on some of the dialogue from Escape.
  • We never see Bruce Willis (or any of the other time travelers) actually go through any time travel process in 12 Monkeys... we just cut to the next scene. This is because the movie was deliberately ambiguous about the sanity of the protagonist until about halfway through.
    • Subverted by the adaptation. Cole climbs into a fancy chair with a Cool Gate at one end. Blue light comes out of the Cool Gate for a few seconds before Cole disappears.


Video Example(s):


Sir Cole and the Old Crone

A mysterious woman tells Sir Cole that today is the day he'll start the knightly quest he's been searching for, before giving him a magical amulet that sends him to the future.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / QuestGiver

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