12 MONKEYS -- "Bodies of Water" Episode 205 -- Pictured: Amanda Schull as Cassandra Railly -- (Photo by: Ken Woroner/Syfy)

Seven Things You Need When Time Traveling


What do you really need when you go time traveling? I asked this question of a few friends, and the most common answer was a survival kit or books about the time period. However, there are a few things that are always an issue and aren’t made a priority when they should be.

1. An Extra Navigational System

Whether your navigational system is part of your time traveling machine, or is simply a handheld device like the Omni on Voyagers, it’s at risk of being lost or destroyed. And while you might see a show where a trajectory to Earth is plotted on a slide rule, or an ocean voyage is navigated with a compass and maps, I’ve never seen a time traveler sit down and plot their course by laying out a bunch of calendars.

TIMELESS -- "Stranded" Episode 106 -- Pictured: Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)
If only I had thought to pack some spare parts. (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

Recently on Timeless, the bad guys planted C-4 on the outside of the time machine, which blew a hole in it. Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) managed to repair it except for the navigational system. Their home base had to catch them in time and lead them home. A circuit board, a flexible tube and a square of sheet metal and they would have been fine.

On Voyagers, many years ago, it took Thomas Edison to fix the Omni. You don’t always have Thomas Edison available to you. Why not bring a spare Omni with you? Why not two or three? They’re small.

On many shows, the lack of ability to navigate is part of the premise. In Time Tunnel, a precursor for modern shows like Timeless, Doug (Robert Colbert) and Tony (James Darren) are thrown hither and yon, always landing at some random historical event. Doctor Who relies on the TARDIS bringing the Doctor to where he needs to be, rather than where he is aiming to be. Quantum Leap is the same way. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is sent to where he is needed. You might think that it would be better to go where fate sends you but it’s worth it to be able to control your own destination. The writers will just have to work harder to get you into trouble.

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until: 03/07/2015 - Programme Name: Doctor Who - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: supply on request only from 05:00hrs 3rd July 2015 Doctor Who (PETER CAPALDI), The TARDIS - (C) BBC - Photographer: Simon Ridgway
Why do we need to be in the middle of nowhere?  (BBC – Photographer: Simon Ridgway)
2. Birth Control

It is said that there are two things a woman must always have and one of them is a passport. In most eras, birth control is not easily available or effective and could be downright gross. There are reasons related to time travel that make birth control a necessity for both genders.

One is the “I am my own grandfather” paradox. It is similar to the Grandfather Paradox, which says that you create a paradox if you go back in time and kill your own grandfather. It never explains what your motivation for such a convoluted method of suicide is. But if you do go back in time and succeed in killing your own grandfather, you will then not exist to go back in time to kill your own grandfather and therefore your grandfather will be alive to beget your parent and you will then be alive to go back in time to kill your own grandfather.

You have a similar paradox if you go back in time and inadvertently sleep with your own grandmother or great-great-great-grandmother or distant ancestor. You then become your own grandfather and must have always been fated to go back in time to bring yourself into being. Packing birth control can keep that icky paradox from happening. And if it doesn’t happen, you’ll still be there because you were before and someone was your grandfather.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote a story in which the time traveler, through virtue of having an intersex condition and then a sex change, becomes their own mother and father. In fact, all of the characters in the story are the same person. To have everyone actually be the protagonist is a device he’s used in more than one story.

Birth control can also mean that you don’t give birth to a child out of time who becomes the time traveling Witness who then gives a lethal virus to the world and causes an apocalypse. Oh, and tries to kill time itself. And very probably has abilities you’ve never heard of because of his ancestry and the experimental drugs the parents were subjected to. It’s quite possible that with a long term form of birth control, like an IUD or implant, the apocalypse on 12 Monkeys would never have happened.

Time travelers are always scattering children across time that they never see. Sam Beckett had a daughter who grew up without him. The Doctor had a daughter and has had children before. The Doctor also had a granddaughter whom he left behind in our future, the 22nd century, and her fate is still unknown. It’s possible that he will have more children in the future or the past.

An exception can be made for John Connor (Edward Furlong), since he grows up to save humanity.

Please don’t let your children grow up to be older than you. Or be you. Bring birth control.

3. A Futuristic Device

There comes a time in many time traveler’s adventures in which you have to convince those around you that time travel is possible so that they will believe that you know the future. Unless you have a sporting event or a solar eclipse handy, a futuristic device can do the trick.

A sonic screwdriver is the perfect thing that says time traveler, or perhaps space alien. It’s mysterious in how it works and does things that just aren’t possible. Your futuristic device should carry its own power source. A blow dryer isn’t very impressive if it’s not plugged in. Your cell phone won’t do much if the battery is dead and won’t be able to contact the internet anyway.

Courtesy of the BBC

Futuristic money or a driver’s license with your time’s date on it could be convincing. Just remember that you could be found out if the wrong people find those items.

Your anachronistic device could save your life. Something that you carry in your pockets, like matches, could save the day. It did in Crusade in Jeans by Thea Beckman.

It’s up to you whether to bring a book of sports history. You could make a lot of money off of betting on sure things, but if you forget and leave the book behind, the town bully could change history in his favor.

4. An Artifact

An artifact is similar to but not the same as a futuristic device. An artifact is something personal, such as a diary, watch, locket or family photograph. Or a locket containing a family photograph. An artifact can have many uses. It can be proof of identity to your younger self, especially if they still own the artifact. It can show the danger of having an item or a person next to their former selves, if it causes a temporal paradox under the rules of time travel that you are traveling under.

It can show changes in the timeline, such as Marty McFly’s siblings disappearing from a photo while the chances of his parents getting together were also disappearing. It can be used to prove that the timeline has changed and someone has disappeared who exists only in the photograph, which is the way the artifact is used in Timeless. The time travelers in that show do not remember the changed timeline and the people left behind do not remember the original one. Objects that time travel with them are also unchanged by a change in history. Obviously artifacts can’t be used for both of those purposes in the same story, since that would be contradictory.

Artifacts can be used to provide a clue as to something that will happen in future, or trigger a memory of past events from an alternate timeline. Both were plot devices used to good effect on 12 Monkeys.

Don’t forget your own personal, sentimental item, preferably inscribed with names and dates for maximum impact.

5. A Historian

It may seem like a clever idea to bring an expert with you. However, it’s not like they picture it on Timeless. Historians usually study a particular time period. Unless you are visiting their specialty, they are unlikely to be much help. They spend their time doing experiments to figure out how Native Americans used buffalo dung to make baby powder.

TIMELESS -- "The Capture of Benedict Arnold" Episode 109 -- Pictured: Abigail Spencer as Lucy Preston -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)
But I’m prettier than a history text. (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

Bring a solar powered Kindle and load it with all of humanity’s knowledge. It should have the ability to plug into your time machine, of course, if you have one. It should be lockable. You will have to guard it with your life. It could do a lot more damage than a list of winning lottery tickets. But your historian could also be stolen, or lost, or get killed.

A solar powered Kindle can also double as a futuristic device.

6. A Hazmat Suit

You can’t really wear a hazmat suit because then you would be mistaken for an alien and on a TV show no one would be able to see your face, which is the reason surgeons don’t wear masks on medical dramas. However, the risks of catching a disease in the past or spreading a disease from the future are greatly underestimated.

Recently, on Timeless, the female lead was worried that they were present during a smallpox epidemic in 1754. Unless they were vaccinated because they were going to the past, none of the three time travelers were old enough to have been vaccinated against smallpox. Wyatt (Matt Lanter), who was in the military, may have been vaccinated as a precaution against biological warfare.

Bringing smallpox back to the present with them would endanger everyone young enough to have remained unvaccinated since the virus was considered eradicated in 1979. Sure, the world would bring vaccinations back quickly, but many lives would be lost.

Bringing a new version of a flu virus could decimate the past. All type A influenzas are related to the deadly outbreak of Spanish flu in 1918. Carrying a relatively harmless type A flu to a time before 1918 could cause a global pandemic to those whose ancestors weren’t survivors of the Spanish flu.

There are bacteria and parasites that are rarely seen in the developed world that would be more easily found in the past. Cholera and typhoid would be concerns, since they’re found in drinking water and food that’s not sanitary. Up until the last century, people died of gastrointestinal problems far more often than they do now, many with no idea what made them ill.

Even a small cut could get infected and turn septic. It’s more likely to happen without clean water or sterile first aid supplies. Without antibiotics, that could kill you.

There are also contaminants that people were not aware were harmful in a previous age. The Roman Empire may have been brought down by lead in drinking vessels. Civil war soldiers were embalmed in arsenic. Asbestos was used as a flame retardant.

Since hazmat suits are not practical, time travelers should be vaccinated against everything that they can be, including very rare diseases. They should boil water and use chemicals to treat it, and eat all food well cooked. They should also go into quarantine when they get back, although I can’t really see anyone putting that in a story. They need to take antibiotics and a first aid kit with them. What the heck, bring your own surgeon, one who is versed in battlefield conditions. Much more useful than a historian.

7. A Survival/Time Travel Kit

Yes, all the people I talked to are right. A survival kit is necessary. From items like iodine tablets to a flashlight and fishing line and a hook, it’s good to be prepared for surviving on your own.

Because you are time traveling, you also need current and local currency. You can have some printed if you are part of a government agency. You can bring with you something that is desirable in all periods of time, like gold, and exchange it for money. On 12 Monkeys, they used jewelry that was useless after the apocalypse to finance their needs in the past. In this day and age, though, you could forge your own money. Most time periods that you would travel back to would lack the ability to detect forgeries. The same goes for identification, although psychic paper is always best if you can get it. Don’t age your identification, papers, or money, though. Remember it’s new in the time you are using it in.

Dressing for the time period is also an issue. If your time traveling machine is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, you can carry a full wardrobe closet. You can also have a costume closet at home, a la Timeless. You could purchase what you need when you get there. Not all times and places have clothes off the rack, though. You could brazen your way through with your own style, but that’s risky unless you’re a Time Lord.

If you wear very simple clothes in natural fabrics — a tunic or loose shirt with baggy pants for men, and a peasant blouse and long skirt for women — you could fit into the vast majority of time periods. However, you will never be upper class in those time periods, as clothing was much more an indication of wealth and position in most time periods than it is now. Don’t pretend to be a soldier unless you have the uniform exactly right and carry yourself like one. Like Rufus on Timeless, you will be found out as  a fraud.

TIMELESS -- "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln" Episode 101 -- Pictured: Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin -- (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)
Don’t I look like a soldier?- Pictured: Malcolm Barrett as Rufus Carlin — (Photo by: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC)

Don’t try to match weapons to the time period. Bring a gun that is practical, effective and that you can carry or get enough ammunition for. Just don’t lose it! It would be helpful to carry a sword and learn to use it.

Most of these suggestions are more useful for traveling to the past than the future, since it’s hard to predict what the future will be like. What else do you think is a necessity for successful time travel? What would help the time traveler succeed on his quest?



Teresa Wickersham

Teresa Wickersham has dabbled in fanfic, gone to a few conventions, created some award-winning (and not so award winning) masquerade costumes, worked on the Save Farscape campaign, and occasionally presents herself as a fluffy bunny or a Krampus.

4 thoughts on “Seven Things You Need When Time Traveling

  • Legends of Tomorrow has a historian this year, too. I do think it’s a bad idea because, as you say, historians tend to specialize, but hey, it gives you someone to turn to besides Ziggy.

    I know it’s a pain to work into your plot, but the hazmat suit (or at least decontamination when coming back!) strikes me as a really, really good idea!

    And Time Tunnel was one of my very favorite shows as a kid. My favorite episode was when they ended up at Pearl Harbor, because Tony had been there as a child and there was all that “don’t mess with the timeline to save your father” stuff. 😉

  • Oh! I was going to mention Ziggy! I loved TIme Tunnel, too, but I think it might have been because I was madly in love with Moondoggy. I was also very impressed with Lee Merriweather’s character.

  • This is actually more practical and sensible than the lighthearted, comic article I was expecting – and that’s no complaint! I’m always a little annoyed when the plot a show completely misses something commonsensical – frankly it’s distracting and gets in the way of my enjoyment. This article would make a great checklist to put in any sci fi writer’s room!

  • Well, thank you! I think the hard part for writers would be keeping track. I imagine their rooms as looking like that one scene in Heroes, where there are pages on clothesline everywhere.


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