I’ve always been a huge fan of time travel, and especially time loop stories. One of the very first episodes I wrote for Stargate, with my former writing partner Paul Mullie, was Window of Opportunity, a time loop episode that consistently ranks as Stargate fandom’s all-time favorite episode (a huge achievement when you consider the franchise produced close to 350 episodes of television). Almost two decades later, in the final season of Dark Matter, I wrote a time loop episode that now ranks as that fandom’s favorite Dark Matter episode of all time.
I believe that the huge appeal of the time loop story is the notion of cyclical familiarity – and the ways these familiar elements can be altered or reset. In a macro sense, this parallels the successful formula of most procedurals. Take House, for example. Every episode, the team is presented with a mysterious ailment. As the various story and character elements play out over the course of the episode, the medical issue is investigated and various potential treatments proposed. Inevitably, late in the episode, the team has a breakthrough and the actual solution to the problem becomes evident. Except – they’re wrong. And this is something House realizes late in the final act, coming up with the REAL actual solution in the show’s closing minutes, saving the day. A lot of other shit happens over the course of the episode of course, much of it unrelated to that medical issue, but that medical issue forms the foundational structure of the narrative. It’s what everything else hangs off of.
So, for starters, let’s look at structure. What is the issue at the heart of the story that can be explored? In Run Lola Run, one of the greatest time loop movies, the issue is her attempt to reach her boyfriend before he gets himself killed in a robbery. In the X-Files time loop episode, Monday, it’s Mulder’s attempt to thwart a bank robber from setting off a bomb, killing him and Scully in the process. In Star Trek: Next Gen’s Cause and Effect, it’s the crew’s attempts to avoid a deadly encounter that results in a core shutdown and the destruction of the Enterprise. The stakes are BIG and in order to sustain a time loop episode through its 45(ish) minute runtime (to say nothing of a multi-episode season), you’re going to need BIG STAKES.
There’s always a mystery at the heart of the loop. Ultimately, by discovering the reason for or means to the time loop, one is able to send the action spiraling off in a delightfully unexpected direction. In Supernatural’s Mystery Spot, the Winchester brothers are caught in a time loop and, after numerous attempts, eventually discover that a trickster is behind their predicament. This realization, and the ensuing conflict, sends the story off in a totally different direction. In Dark Matter, the crew discovers the device responsible for the loop but, in attempting to end the loop, the Android is propelled through time and experiences glimpses of potential futures. My point is you want to seed a mystery related to the time loop early, spend the bulk of your episode developing that mystery and progressing an investigation, then pay off the eventual revelation in satisfactory time-themed fashion.
The time loop-themed series Day Break focused on a detective who is framed for murder. He exploits the time loop to uncover the identity of the real murderer and find out why someone set him up. More recently, in Russian Doll, our protagonist is caught in a time loop that always ends in her death. She uses the loop to figure out what the hell is going on. I think that, in a perfect world (and episode) you want to exploit both – the BIG STAKES issue as well as the BIG MYSTERY related to the loop. When done right, those two seemingly unconnected tracks will intersect multiple times before ultimately dovetailing at the end of hour story.
One of the reasons time loop episodes are the most popular of most genre shows is their inherent potential for humor. Even amidst the continuous death, there’s that undercurrent of dark humor that permeates the whole (Happy Death Day is a good example in the feature world). While I’m not saying it should be a comedy like Groundhog Day, there should be opportunities for humor.
One of the first BIG episodes of one hour live action television I ever wrote was that Stargate time loop episode. Some 17 years later, when it came time to write the Dark Matter time loop episode, I prepared myself by watching two dozen time loop episodes of various t.v. shows, a half dozen time loop movies, and assorted time loop stories and books. The aim was to distill the formula but, in so doing, come up with a unique spin on what has become a beloved sci-fi chestnut. You have to ask yourself: What makes THIS time loop episode unique?
In distilling the formula of a time loop story, you can readily identify key elements that appear in almost every version, tropes that can – in some instances – be subverted to the delight of most genre-savvy viewers :
In television, the opening tease always concludes with a colossal Holy Shit moment (the Enterprise is destroyed, Mulder and Scully are shot and killed) or the completion of an initial loop, establishing the story conceit from the get-go.
Our protagonist lives the loops long enough to realize what is happening (while establishing a string of repetitive beats for the viewer which can be twisted and turned in future loops).
Our protagonist must attempt to convince others what is happening to them (as they are ALL caught in the loop but, for some reason, only our protagonist is aware). These attempts at an explanation build, as does our protagonist’s frustration with his inability to convince the others until – by some some stroke of unexpected brilliance – the solution presents itself.
Inevitably, multiple characters become cognizant of the fact that they are trapped in the loop.
The means by which the loop is initiated should never feel cumbersome. Ideally, the device (and I don’t necessarily mean a literal device or instrument) that initiates the loop shouldn’t be readily obvious or, if it is, should be hidden in plain sight. Don’t front load exposition. Make the discovery a natural progression of the story, part of the investigative pursuit that sees our characters putting the pieces together with each subsequent loop. It’s always more rewarding for viewers to be on the journey with our characters rather than one or two steps ahead, waiting for them to catch up.
A fairly obvious rule but if your characters loop, they go back to Step 1, Day 1. They may have the memories of their experience, but they wouldn’t carry over any physical consequences of their actions because they are, in essence, rebooting. This is a fundamental law of theoretical time looping. I remember having someone pitch me an idea for a time loop series that involved our protagonist ending one loop by shooting himself in the head. He awakens at the start of yet another loop, but his mind has been damaged by the bullet that killed him in the previous loop. “What bullet?”I asked. “The bullet from before,”I was told. I explained the theoretical impossibility given that time had reset and that when time resets, EVERYTHING resets, including your physical form. There would be no residual damage from a bullet wound that never happened. To which he replied: “I always felt rules were meant to be broken.”
In most time loop stories, time – “in general” – loops. At the end of Groundhog Day, our characters leave and return to the big city where they presumably pick up their lives, uninterrupted, because the rest of the world was caught in the loop as well. But there are rare exceptions where the time loops within a temporal bubble (ie Stargate’s Window of Opportunity is an example).
Progression is made on various levels. In a practical sense, this could be a skill. In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character learns to play the piano. In Dark Matter, THREE learns to speak French (which becomes his means of convincing the others that what he is telling them about the time loop is true). In Stargate, O’Neil and Teal’c learn science in order to solve the loop. In a best case scenario, whatever skill your trapped protagonist learns pays off in some (preferably unexpected) way. In a more emotional sense, this progression could be related to character and relationship. Again, back to Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character finds a way to make Andie McDowell’s character fall in love with him, first by exploiting the time loop, but ultimately coming to a personal revelation about himself which culminates in the establishment of a sincere bond between the two characters. This emotional epiphany is at the heart of most any well-executed time loop episode. The beauty of the time loop is that, on the surface, it may seem like endless repetition but, in reality, it offers our characters the means by which to grow, personally and in their relationships.
So concludes my Time Loop Episode Masterclass. Thanks for attending.