I’ve written some blog posts for the wonderful Fleet Science Center in San Diego, California about how science and scientists are portrayed on screen. Check them out!
This post doesn’t get into the science of time loops, this is more of an appreciation post of the genre. The movie Palm Springs is a wonderful addition to the time loop genre. A scientist was consulted, read an interview with him here!
I love science fiction, either straight up (Star Trek) or when it’s just a dash in an otherwise normal project (Groundhog Day). I refer to the premise as a whole as “Groundhog Day,” somehow that’s the most popular or universal example. This got me wondering though – who did it first?
I’ve listed the movies and TV episodes that I know of in the order that they came out. Each new project brings something new to the genre, but each is also a product of its time. This is part of why I love Palm Springs so much – as with Lonely Island’s other projects, I feel seen and represented because I grew up in the same time and place as Andy, Jorma, and Akiva so appreciate their jokes and references.
Spoilers abound below!
Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect” season 5, episode 18 (1992). This is almost certainly my introduction to time loops, as I was a faithful viewer. What’s interesting about the re-watch now is that rather than any one character knowing about the time loop, they all have increasing deja vu or weird experiences and decide to investigate. The writers even manage an explanation for why Data wouldn’t remember things, though he is able to pass a message to himself that ends up saving them. The crew of the Enterprise manages to save not only themselves but another Starfleet ship, the USS Bozeman, which has been stuck in the loop for over 90 years. Though it’s only a brief scene (with Kelsey Grammer as captain!), there’s no indication that Bozeman’s crew have noticed anything going on, once again proving the Enterprise crew is the best of the best. Jonathan Frakes directed and while he is now a prolific and accomplished director, this was only his 4th episode. It must have been a monumental task. The subtle changes in camera angles in each loop does a great job of unnerving the audience.
Awesome addition to the genre: No special, untouched character who keeps their memory and has to convince the others to help them.
Groundhog Day (1993): The classic, and what most people reference when it comes to talking about time loops. Bill Murray at his best, in my opinion. The writer’s did a great job coming up with the moods Phil Conners would scroll through under such circumstances. There’s the harrowing idea that this is happening to Phil as a way to make him a better person, though in the end he helps nearly everyone in town. No scientific explanation for how it started or ended, just a touch of magic or religion or whatever you want to call it in a setting that otherwise could be the real world.
Awesome addition to the genre: Montages. As a child of the 80s, I love a montage. This movie has one for every mood. As much screen time is dedicated to Phil learning piano as is spent coming up with new ways for him to kill himself, and I appreciate that balance. See the Broadway show (2017) below for its wonderful updates.
The X-Files episode “Monday” season 6, episode 14 (1999). I watched The X-Files once or twice and it terrified me so I missed this one, I learned about it when a character in the Buffy episode mentions it. There’s no real explanation for how we got in or out of the time loop, which fits the mythology of the show as I understand it. The timing ripples in this episode are fascinating. Also, the audience is given almost no time with the character (Pam) who knows the time loop is happening. It’s clear she feels powerless, but we don’t get to see her going through the process to know whether she had more active or hopeful loops. As with the TNG episode, this one must have had a great trailer, being able to show Mulder dying or the Enterprise blowing up is great for ratings.
Awesome addition to the genre: I really like that there are changes that happen without any prompting. There are so many unimportant decisions people make in the course of a day so characters not making the same action or saying the same thing over and over is a thoughtful addition to the genre. Though it’s always satisfying to keep track of the repeated background moments, it was exciting to see a time loop where we acknowledge that if we had it to do over, even without the knowledge that we were doing it over, little things would change. This is most evident in Mulder tripping over his shoes from various angles and the fact that Mulder and Scully’s dialogue is different each loop.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Life Serial” season 6, episode 5 (2001). This one comes about from a magic spell, not a timey-wimey space paradox or karma. A spell is cast on Buffy, by the season’s “big bad” – The Trio, a group of mediocre white dudes with a grudge. To mess with her, they declared she had to satisfy a customer at The Magic Box, so there was a clear beginning and end point. Buffy knows she’s repeating time, but not the goal, so it’s too bad we didn’t get loops of her doing other things. It’s only part of the episode but I would have watched it for much longer.
Awesome addition to the genre: The characters acknowledge the time loop genre exists even while having their characters live through it. I love that meta knowledge, and it’s how I learned of the existence of the X-Files episode. The Librarians and Legends of Tomorrow (see below) follow this lead and I love it every time.
Source Code (2011). This one is a time loop with a purpose, there’s a set mystery to solve. I love a whodunnit, so enjoy the premise. I’m still not sure how I feel about the twist, that solving the mystery actually keeps it from happening in the first place. Instead of just continuing time (finally) a whole different day happens. And instead of hundreds of people dying, the only casualty is one man’s consciousness that gets overwritten – but I get the impression the writer’s don’t want us to think too hard about that.
Awesome addition to the genre: It’s a simulation, essentially really good VR. This is the most logical explanation for a time loop (according to the world we actually live in) and I like that there’s no magic involved, it’s more of an engineering feat. It’s also a bit spooky as a commentary on taking the war on terror too far, personal liberties, and what the government may be up to without us knowing.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014, based on the 2004 “light novel” “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka). I love this movie and recommend it to everyone, pitching it as “Groundhog Day with aliens.” I like that this one gives a “scientific” reason for the loop, even if it’s an easy out because, once aliens are involved, the writers can decide anything is true and we just have to accept it. It’s enjoyable not to root for Tom Cruise at the beginning – his character (like Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day) sucks and we get to go on the hero’s journey. Unlike Groundhog Day, it’s an action movie with a raging war so the character has less choices in terms of what to do with his day. Honestly, there’s something pleasing about watching Tom Cruise die over and over again, especially when Emily Blunt just shoots him to restart the time loop.
Awesome addition to the genre: Emily Blunt’s arms. No, really. But the real answer is the idea of having a guide. Emily Blunt’s character has been in the time loop before but isn’t now. He has to find her every time, convince her to help him. Sadly, we don’t get to see any of her loops. But her attitude at their first meeting (every time) is fantastic.
The Librarians episode “And the Point of Salvation” season 2, episode 8 (2015). Also directed by Jonathan Frakes! This time a mixture of magic and science create the time loop. I thoroughly enjoy this campy, wholesome show and rewatch this episode often. The character who is aware of the time loop was long overdue for some character development and he got it. Bonus: We don’t know whether he’s telling the truth about not remembering the whole incident, in which case all that personal growth he went through has been erased. My guess is that he remembers but prefers to keep his reputation as is.
Awesome addition to the genre: It’s actually a computer game the characters are stuck in! This doesn’t change the premise at all, but is a great update and helps the characters, even the ones with no memory of the loop, figure out how to escape. It also leads to fun video game tropes, like save points, med packs, and physics not working properly.
Groundhog Day, the Broadway Musical (2017). Obviously an adaptation of the movie, I saw this in New York and, as if trapped in a time loop myself, went to see it again the very next night. Though nominated for multiple Tony awards (in a year when Dear Evan Hanson won most), it sadly had a short run and the promised traveling version hasn’t come to be yet. See it if you get a chance. It gets some 2017 updates including inner thoughts from the female lead (Barrett Doss, swoon) and gay characters (Phil even tries it out). Also, the staging was impressive. The montages and car chase are still there, but done live by actors on a stage. Remarkable. Also, Andy Karl has more charisma than Bill Murray.
Awesome addition to the genre: The songs, written by Tim Minchin, are wonderful and get stuck in my head often.
Happy Death Day (2017): Finally, a time loop through the eyes of a female! I know the Buffy episode came first but the circumstances didn’t really provide time (unintentional pun, I swear) for the whole range of emotions and reactions to occur. This one is a horror movie, which I generally never see, but I heard about it and decided to give it a try, in broad daylight with a blanket ready to throw over my head if necessary. The actress is incredible and it’s a solid mystery despite the silly premise about a sorority girl with a lot of enemies. I love the pseudo-science explanation for the time loop. Though there are jump scares and a creepy mask, I will watch this movie again.
Awesome addition to the genre: There’s a set number of times she can go through the time loop! Her health is fading on each try, so it’s clear she doesn’t have endless loops and thus has to stay focused. I love to see a woman on screen face slim odds and just commit herself to getting through it.
Legends of Tomorrow episode “Here I Go Again” season 3, episode 11 (2018). Like TNG, the time loop ends with the ship exploding, which must have made for a good “next time on…” Like The Librarians, it’s an arc for an as of yet under-explored character. Zari has only just been introduced and this is a short cut for her to get to know the team and for the audience to get to know her. We get more than homages, as Zari finally connects with Nate, who of course believes her (they live on a time ship after all) and tells her to simply say “Groundhog Day” to him on the next loop and he’ll help her. There are twists though, the writers set up that Zari keeps her memory because of some time sludge, but that doesn’t end up being the case. Like Source Code, it’s actually a simulation.
Awesome addition to the genre: The same things that make this my absolute favorite show (even before it did a time loop episode). I love how meta it is, the writers get to use their characters to say what the audience is thinking, like “It’s about time we did one of these.” They also put the characters in the most ridiculous outfits (an ABBA / Napoleon crossover mission we sadly never get to see) so that one of the repeated moments is Brandon Routh falling in his platform shoes. The LoT writers don’t just do a montage, they also talk about doing a montage. *chef’s kiss* This is also the episode that introduces Rory’s writing career, which is one of my favorite character beats ever.
Happy Death Day 2 U (2019). A decent sequel, we end up back in a time loop but a different character is stuck in it. The way he gets out throws our main character into an alternate reality, what I refer to as a “Sliding Doors” storyline. What’s billed as a horror movie is closer to a thought experiment. What would you do if you could choose which reality to stay in? There is still the mystery of who the killer is and the only downside of the alternate dimension element is that it’s hard to keep track of the characters and their various motivations.
Awesome addition to the genre: Science montage! The characters use their repeated days to try different experiments. Love it, so nerdy.
The Magicians episode “Oops…I Did It Again” season 5, episode 6 (2020). I’m still a season behind! Can’t wait to see this!! First impression, I love the Britney Spears-inspired title.
Awesome addition to the genre: It’s a safe bet to assume Hale Appleman crushes it.
Palm Springs (2020). Apparently, my husband had told me this was a time loop movie but I have a terrible memory and am so pleased that I forgot and went into it just thinking it was a Lonely Island movie. Though Andy Samberg is allegedly the main character, it’s actually Cristin Milioti’s character Sarah who we get to follow from her first day in the time loop to her last. We get her emotional rollercoaster and her montages. And she’s the one who sciences the shit out of the problem and gets them out. As with the Groundhog Day musical, there’s at least one version where the male character decides to give gay sex a try. I also really enjoyed that certain characters actively or accidentally kill someone, it’s humorous and feels like what would happen in real life.
Awesome addition to the genre: Joining the action part way through. Nyles has already been in the loop for ages, we never get to see his “first day” or even how he ends up in the loop (Does Nana lure him to the cave?). Other characters join the loop partway through and get their own journey.
Agents of SHIELD episode “As I Have Always Been” season 7, episode 9. This week’s episode so I haven’t seen it yet (loved the trailer!). The actress who plays Jemma Simmons, Elizabeth Henstridge, is making her directorial debut with this time loop episode. This is already one of the best shows ever (and one that gets the representation of science and scientists better than most) and I’m stoked to see their take on a time loop episode.
Awesome addition to the genre: Fitz (please please please).
In researching this post, I found that the writer of The X-Files episode credits the idea to an episode of The Twilight Zone called “Shadow Play” (season 2, episode 26, 1961). Wikipedia adds that “the episode is likely adapted from writer Charles Beaumont’s short story “Traumerei” which originally appeared in the February, 1956 issue of Infinity Science Fiction.” So I guess there’s more research to do!
Next up: time to explore the genre of alternate / divergent timelines.
Other great articles about Palm Springs and the time loop genre:
Collider: The Best Time Loops of Film, TV, and Video Games (some movies I’ve never heard of, bonus!)
Everyone is an expert in something. And when they see misrepresentation in movies or on TV shows, I’ll bet it drives them crazy. For me, that’s the scientific method.
Especially when characters who work in a laboratory setting misuse PPE (personal protective equipment). Like not wearing lab coats correctly or wearing them outside of the lab, sometimes even into areas with food (this happened on an episode of Veronica Mars)!
So I decided to start this site to talk about those little moments that drive me crazy. But it’s not all negative, there are some shows that represent science and scientists well – and we’ll talk about those too.
It’s also important to understand that it takes an entire team to do most scientific experiments, which is also not represented well onscreen. The belief that just one or two people should be able to fix every problem is detrimental to science as a whole.
Scientists are extremely specialized and it often takes multi-disciplinary teams to get results.