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Unstuck in Time

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"All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I've said before, bugs in amber."
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (the Trope Namer)

This is a character who possesses Mental Time Travel, but is unable to control it, resulting in them skipping around to random time periods. Without any knowledge of where they will wake up... or when. They may end up in someone else's body when they travel to another period.

Compare Anachronic Order, Non-Linear Character.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Something like this happens to Dark King Ixpellia in the Lyrical Nanoha series, except that she can only take The Slow Path: the unique condition of her body makes her fall asleep for a random period of time between 1 and 1000 years. During this time, she is completely unaware of her surroundings, so she has no way of knowing beforehand when and where (or rather, in whose hands) she will awaken next time.

    Comic Books 
  • Captain America during the Captain America Reborn miniseries.
  • In Those Annoying Post Brothers by Matt Howarth, this happens to Ron Post once as a result of a bad drug trip, and he keeps popping back and forth to a future in which he's fighting a computer virus taking over Bugtown. He gets one of the people he's fighting with to tell him how it all started so he can solve the problem before it happens. Noteworthy in that this is one of the few times we get to see Ron actually making plans rather than just doing what seemed like a good idea at the time...
  • Happens twice to Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. As a result of the accident that creates him, he's able to perceive the entirety of his life at once. In the climax, the Big Bad bombards him with Tachyons, rendering him unable to see present events. Since the character can exist in multiple places and times simultaneously, this is confusing, even for him. As he describes it (before the tachyon surge), it's like a barrier he can't see past from his current position. But then, once the event takes place, he doesn't seem to have any problem still seeing/remembering the past...
  • The Flash: Hunter Zolomon's powers do this to him, which is reflected by his Verbal Tic of alternating between drawing out his words and speaking incredibly fast without any spaces or breaks.
  • Venom (2021): After getting his body destroyed, Eddie bounces up and down the timeline, until an encounter with Kang helps stabilize him. However, Kang's only doing it to help the Big Bad, not out of the kindness of his heart.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Monster a-Go Go seemed to imply that this happened to Frank Douglas, or maybe not. The film is so poorly made that it's completely incomprehensible. The only thing that happened was they ran out of budget for the final confrontation, and only spent about 15 seconds thinking of an alternate ending.
  • The 2007 American movie Premonition revolves around this concept.
  • Happens in 12 Monkeys in that the time machine used is very unreliable and unpredictable.
  • The protagonist's mental condition near the beginning of Girl, Interrupted make her feel as if this is happening, illustrated by a skillful composition of flashbacks. "Checks!"
  • The main character in Shuffle experiences this.
  • In Russian Ark, the narrator and his companion wander around the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, bouncing around 300 years of Russian history pretty much at random.
  • Near the climax of Arrival, it's revealed that comprehending the alien language causes one to experience one's entire life holistically. Accordingly, Louise uses information she will receive in a conversation the next year.
  • The Testament of Orpheus: Jean Cocteau, playing himself, has come unstuck in time and is flitting around different eras at random. It's a metaphor for the timelessness of poetry and art. When he meets a scientist in 1959, Cocteau says he had to invent cigarettes in 1770 because he needed a smoke.

  • The Trope Namer is the opening line note  to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, referring to main character Billy Pilgrim. It may be worth noting that there is a common Alternative Character Interpretation that he is not in fact an actual example of this trope, and is instead experiencing PTSD flashbacks (and also hallucinating aliens as a coping measure).
  • Philip K. Dick's Now Wait For Last Year is an example of this. The main character's wife obtains an illegal drug from an alien society. The aliens supposedly use the drug to hallucinate, re-living past happy experiences. When she takes the drug she finds out that the drug works as described, except that you aren't hallucinating... You should probably stop taking the drug so that you don't mess with the timeline, but the drug is highly addictive so no matter how hard you try to stop you'll keep feeling compelled to go back to further mess up your own past.
  • Old Mother Dismass in the Discworld books has "a detached retina in her second sight." From the perspective of the other characters she's on the correct timeline and seems fine apart from a tendency to talk in non sequiturs. From her perspective however, she's experiencing exactly what the trope describes.
    • Some Discworld characters specialize in time manipulation and have become briefly Unstuck In Time as a result of stressful situations. Involuntary time travel has been seen in characters plummeting to their death or giving birth, for example.
  • The Clayr in the Old Kingdom series have this as a form of clairvoyance. As they grow older their visions become smaller and more frequent until they are unable to function independently. All Clayr have a fragment of the sight but at any given time 49 of them are on duty as the "Nine Day Watch". When trying see somethng that eludes them, they will call a gathering of up to 1538, almost all the Awakened Clayr.
  • The short story "Searching for January," from W.P. Kinsella's book The Dixon Cornbelt League, is about a man who finds baseball star Roberto Clemente rowing up to a beach in 1987, 14 years after he was lost in a plane crash. At the end Roberto decides to keep rowing on, to search for January 2, 1973
    "I watch him drift, trapped. Or am I trapped, here in 1987, while he, through some malfunction of the universe is borne into timelessness?"
  • Henry from The Time Traveler's Wife, who gets it worse than a lot of other people mentioned here. Henry suffers from a genetic disease which is eventually named Chrono Displacement Disorder. Like epilepsy, it can initially manifest as a seizure, and be brought on by things like flashing lights, television images, or stress. Unlike epilepsy, the end result is Henry finding himself completely naked in an unknown time in a place he's likely (but not guaranteed) to have been before. And since it's a genetic disease, Henry manages to pass it to his daughter Alba. Fortunately for her, she seems to have developed a bit more control about where and when she ends up.
  • Happens in a more limited form to several characters in The Illuminatus! Trilogy; due to the effects of heavy use of psychoactive drugs, combined with the multiple enlightenment-inducing Mind Screws and Batman Gambits perpetrated by the leaders of the various competing factions.
  • In John Dies at the End, upon taking the soy sauce for the first time, both John and David become unstuck.
  • The Great Zambini is the physical version in Jasper Fforde's Dragonslayer trilogy.
  • The Dechronization of Sam Macgruder is about a professor who gets hit with a random timewarp and permanently stuck 80 million years in the past. Most of the book is his journals, recently uncovered by the university paleontology team.
  • The Tais Teng duology The Wolves of Rome and The Pharaoh's Gold centers on a man who has been traveling through time randomly, and is accidentally followed by a brother and sister who become his companions. Somehow, people from different periods also react with hostility towards any time travelers since they're foreign to that time.
  • The Courtship of Princess Leia: Mother Rell, a 300-year old witch of Dathomir with prophetic dreams, often forgets which decade it is when she wakes up. When Luke first meets her she greets him as if he was an old acquaintance and asks how Yoda is doing.
  • The titular character of Oona Out of Order jumps to a different random year of her life each birthday, starting with her 19th birthday in 1982 jumping to her 51st. Among other things she invests heavily in Apple.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Illyria in the Angel episode "Time Bomb" is like this. Her human vessel proves unable to contain her full godlike powers and will eventually explode. This also causes her time travel abilities to go haywire, repeatedly shifting her back and forth throughout the timeline leading up to her death. In the After the Fall comics, whenever Angel gets near Illyria, he gets like this, going back and forth in his own life.
  • Samuel Beckett in Quantum Leap, as the whole premise. Part of the journey was trying to figure out what was controlling his leaps, sending him to Set Right What Once Went Wrong. Is it God? Time itself? Fate? In the Grand Finale, it turns out it's Sam's own Chronic Hero Syndrome.
  • A frequent occurrence in Star Trek.
    • Captain Picard in the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. A variation happens to Worf in "Parallels": instead of being Unstuck in Time, he keeps traveling between parallel universes. (Unstuck in timelines?)
    • Miles O'Brien in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Visionary". It's not random — he always jumps 6 hours ahead, every 6 hours, landing a short distance from his future self.
    • In the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Visitor", a weird accident involving the Defiant's warp core and the wormhole results in Sisko getting caught in subspace, experiencing minutes where the outside experiences decades. The episode revolves around Jake's efforts to figure out what happened and get him back.
    • Kes, in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Before and After", except she's traveling backwards in time from the end of her life, and the timeline that is shown never actually comes to be, since Kes gets off the ship long before then. It does, however, provide some foreshadowing for the upcoming "Year of Hell" storyline.
    • The beginning of the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Coda" appears to involve this, with Janeway and Chakotay reliving a conversation and shuttle crash more than once... but by mid-season 3, they're old hands at this and just start scanning for the tachyons. It's actually an elaborate illusion by a creature that feeds on life force.
  • Another unstuck-in-timelines character like Worf that one time? Sliders has the villainous Dr. Oberon Geiger. Also, Colin was Put on a Bus by suffering the same fate as Geiger; the show ends on a cliffhanger so we'll never know if he can be rescued.
  • Variation: In the Lost episode "The Constant", Desmond jumps back and forth between two points, but he doesn't know how long he has in each time period before he will jump again.
    • In the beginning of the fifth season, the survivors left on the island begin to jump through time.
    • Most time travel here is physical teleportation, but Desmond's is mental.
    • Side effects of being Unstuck In Time is probably what Daniel was suffering before coming to the Island. He seems to improve once arriving, either due to the Island's healing properties, or because Desmond is his constant.
  • Happens to Crichton in Farscape after he accidentally touched the containment shield on a homemade quantum singularity, allowing him to pick out the only timeline that didn't end with him dead, Moya disintegrated, or the singularity's power in the hands of the Scorvians.
  • Babylon 5:
    • Captain Sheridan, as explained by Zathras in War Without End. He even says "unstuck in time" to explain Sheridan's condition.
    • In the earlier episode Babylon Squared, it is revealed that this was the fate of Babylon 4. War Without End would reveal that the heroes actually went back in time to steal it.
  • In season 5 of Person of Interest, the Machine loses her ability to perceive time. The results are every bit as disastrous as you'd expect, since she can no longer place people's actions in context. Thankfully, Harold fixes the problem by the end of the episode.
  • Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Robin, an Inhuman with the ability to see the future, perceives all of time at once. This results in oddities like desperately warning Daisy that the man she's fighting has a knife... eighty years before she will even meet him.
  • In The Haunting of Hill House, it turns out that the Bent-Neck Lady was actually Nell's hanging body after Hill House forces her into "suicide", falling through time and space.
  • On Haven an old man has the power to do this to other people when he gets upset. He accidentally sends Duke and Nathan to 1955 by looking at them. There, they find out that while fighting in World War II he sent his whole platoon several years into the future, when the war had ended.
  • The Outer Limits (1995): Discussed in "Abduction". Jason speculates that he, Cody Phillips, Ray, Brianna and Danielle may have become unstuck in time.

    Video Games 
  • According to one of the noncorporeal time travelers in The Very Definitely Final Dungeon of Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. the Soulless Army, corporeal time travelers run the risk of precisely this happening to them. This is what happens to the Big Bad, who due to mucking with the timeline, apparently destroys the timeline that leads to the events of Shin Megami Tensei I and Shin Megami Tensei II, negating his own existence and only remaining extant due to his possession of his ancestress, Kaya Daidouji. When the bond is severed, he's thrown into a Time Abyss.
  • In Guilty Gear Axl Low keeps travelling back in time, apparently due to there being another version of him, so the universe tries to force the two from existing at the same time.
    • Jossed. Axl keeps travelling in time because has a parallel self, Raven (who is actually a sadomasochistic viking of some kind). Raven willingly moves through dimensions, and this has the side-effect of causing Axl to slip through time. We don't fully understand it, either.
  • In the Interactive Fiction game Shrapnel, the player is left Unstuck In Time as the result of a Time Crash caused by the accidental destruction of a time traveler's time machine.
  • Viki from the Suikoden series is well known for this: each time she sneezes (typically during a victory banquet), she ends up teleporting herself somewhere else, at a different time. It makes extremely confusing to guess if the Viki of one game jumped from the preceding one or the following one into the current game you are playing.
  • Zilean, one of the champions in League of Legends, suffers from this as a side effect of his time-manipulation powers.
  • Rosalind and Robert Lutece from Bioshock Infinite are implied to have become this as a result of Jeremiah Fink sabotaging their equipment under the orders of Comstock. It would explain how they keep showing up everywhere.
  • A major plot point in Second Sight, with the protagonist lurching back and forth between being part of a Special Forces mission Gone Horribly Wrong, and the aftermath of waking up in a mental hospital with Identity Amnesia and Psychic Powers. The twist comes when you find out which scenario is actually the present.
  • In Destiny, you find yourself entering the Vault of Glass, an entire cave system that is Unstuck In Time, to rescue a Guardian from it. Unfortunately, there was nothing you could have done; because of the Vault and the strange things it does to time, even though the Guardian you're looking for is speaking to you in real time, he's also been dead for centuries and all you find is his bones.
  • Tracer, the mascot character of Overwatch, suffers from this. Due to a failed experiment with an teleporting jet, she became unstuck, shifting forward in time semi-randomly. It is only with a special chronal accelerator built into her armor that she was able to become a functioning human again. This is the source of her in-game abilities, which include the ability to briefly reverse time and teleport short distances.

  • Dave Davenport in Narbonic "Dave Davenport Has Come Unstuck in Time" story. But it wasn't entirely random: he continually lurched between three key moments in his life... all of which involved women.
  • George, near the end of Bob and George, as a Whole-Plot Reference to the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
  • In The Adventures of Dr. McNinja, this happens to any time traveler whose space-time link is destabilized (which generally involves damaging a device strapped to their chest). In a slight twist on this trope, random objects from the points in time they end up in can occasionally be thrown back and forth in time as well, though this effect seems to be temporary.
  • In Homestuck, John Egbert manages to get unstuck from the story itself, bouncing around all of time and space until they finally manage to gain some control over it.

    Western Animation 
  • One of several intended spinoffs for Gargoyles was going to have the rogue Phoenix Gate do this to Brooklyn, then return him seconds later, with him having experienced around 40 years, subjectively (Having found a mate and had kids, as well as picked up a "dog" along the way). It was going to be called Time Dancer.
    • One issue of the comic covers his first stop (still relevant to the main plot) and then skips straight to his return.
  • The Futurama episode "Time Keeps on Slippin'" was hinted to have this in a one-directional, universal scale, where random jumps in time would happen anywhere, anywhen, and to anyone. Fortunately, the regular characters were only hit by small jumps.
  • Professor Paradox from Ben 10 is a scientist who, back in the Cold War, was working on an experiment to achieve Time Travel. The experiment went horribly wrong and he ended up unstuck in reality, randomly warping through time and space while unable to die or age, being driven completely insane. Then he got Bored with Insanity. Now he has control of his warping and has become an incredibly powerful Time Master who protects the universe by quietly making alterations to the timeline.
  • The original pilot for Adventure Time has a very silly case of this, with Pen's mind being briefly sent "back in time...and to Mars" where he meets Abraham Lincoln. No, it doesn't make any more sense in context.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: Razz initially appears to be senile, constantly calling Adora "Mara," the previous She-Ra from a thousand years ago. Then an episode from Razz's perspective reveals that she is constantly bouncing around in time, so she was constantly calling Mara "Adora," a thousand years before Adora would even be born. On their first meeting, Razz already knows Mara's name, and apologizes for forgetting that they hadn't met yet. Further complicating matters is the fact that Razz is senile, and thus has a lot of trouble remembering things that, from her perspective, she was just doing right that second, even when they were a thousand years in the future.


Alternative Title(s): Involuntary Time Travel