Ever since Phil Connors (Bill Murray) was forced to repeat the same day seemingly endlessly in 1993’s Groundhog Day, TV sci-fi and fantasy shows have jumped on the time loop (or temporal causality loop) bandwagon. Groundhog Day wasn’t the first time that a time loop story had been told, but it was the time that made time loops popular. Here at Set The Tape we love a good time loop story, so we asked our writers to pick their favourites.
The X-Files – ‘Monday’
It took The X-Files until its sixth season to do a time loop episode, but when it did the results were everything you would expect from the case files of Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson). ‘Monday’ is the type of high concept X-Files that sees the series doing what it does so well: funny and thrilling but with an underlying darkness that comes to the fore the more the titular day repeats itself, before delivering a poignant and deeply tragic ending.
All manner of recurring jokes involving leaking waterbeds, an incredibly boring FBI meeting, and a bank robbery gone wrong, coupled with some beautifully crafted philosophical musings on fate and deja vu courtesy of our heroes, help make ‘Monday’ one of the best examples of the time loop episode that many a genre series partake in. The late Carrie Hamilton as the tragic Pam at the centre of the episode drives home the episode’s tragic undercurrent, and that final image carries a subtly devastating charge. – Eamon Hennedy
Star Trek: Discovery – ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’
Star Trek: Discovery certainly got off to a controversial start, being a markedly different iteration of the franchise than we had seen up to this point in time – it was a lot darker than we were used to (and that was once a label which had at one time been applied to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and appeared to lack some of the positivity, hopefulness and humour which was seen as being a hallmark of Trek.
Coming approximately midway through the first season of Discovery, ‘Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad’ gives us a much-needed gear change, opening with the crew attempting to cut loose at a party, and giving us an insight into the regulars after hours. Classic Trek ne’er-do-well Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) interrupts the party by using an alien life form as a Trojan Horse to board the ship, and taking the opportunity to kill Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and destroy the Discovery, before we loop back to the party, and the cycle repeats all over again. And again. And again.
Chief Engineer Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) – having been cybernetically augmented in order to be able to link with the ship’s experimental Spore Drive – is the only one to realise the ship and crew are stuck in a time loop, courtesy of Mudd, and has to use each repetition to try and stop the events from unfolding. The episode is tremendous fun, having a much lighter and funnier overall tone, from the many various creative deaths of Lorca, to the way in which Stamets has to try and build in shortcuts to convince his crewmates more quickly on each successive pass. It certainly goes a long way to shifting perceptions of the show, and successfully repositions it for the second half of the season. – Lee Thacker
Supernatural – ‘Mystery Spot’
Imagine being stuck in a time loop where the trigger point was the death of someone you love. On paper that sounds like a very depressing event, but Supernatural manages to combine humour and heartache in equal measure for the third season episode, ‘Mystery Spot’. Sam Winchester (Jared Padalecki) is the one who is stuck having to watch his brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) die in all manner of ways.
The deaths range from Dean being shot, electrocuted, being accidentally killed by Sam with an axe, run over, being mauled by a dog, and – most amusingly – being poisoned by tacos. Pulling the strings behind this time loop is the recurring bad guy The Trickster (Richard Speight Jr.), trying to teach Sam that all his efforts to save Dean from going to Hell will result in failure and he will have to get used to a life without his big brother.
Jared Padalecki absolutely owns this episode, as Sam goes through the entire range of emotions dealing with the loop and then a life without Dean, as he hunts down the Trickster to make him pay. It’s Supernatural at its absolute best. – Helen Balls
Star Trek: The Next Generation – ‘Cause And Effect’
As far as Star Trek: The Next Generation pre-credits teasers go, ‘Cause And Effect’ certainly provides us with one of the most startling. As it opens, we join the crew of the Enterprise-D mid-crisis, with the ship in danger after one of the warp nacelles has been struck by something, triggering a cascade of critical failures. After trying all the crew can to recover the situation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) calls the order to abandon ship, but too late: the ship explodes. Cue titles.
After the familiar opening, we rejoin the ship and crew, still intact, with a poker game underway as the Enterprise is about to carry out a survey of an unexplored region of space, the Typhon Expanse. Dr Crusher (Gates McFadden) starts to have a feeling of deja vu, which is amplified when she gets called to Sick Bay to treat Commander la Forge (LeVar Burton) after an accident, convinced that she has done so before. She later goes on to hear voices, along with a number of the other crew, but before this can be explored, an alert is called after a spatio-temporal rift opens up, and what appears to be a historic Federation starship emerges, striking the Enterprise and causing the events we have already seen, to the same effect. And this is only Act 1.
With Act 2 opening with the same poker game, it soon becomes clear that we are seeing a temporal loop of some kind, but as events unfold, Dr Crusher ends up not being alone in her deja vu, as the feeling begins to spread to her shipmates. The story continues, albeit with some subtle differences, as the crew attempt to piece together what is happening, and how they can save themselves. The USS Enterprise is destroyed over and over, as we see them work out the clues in each iteration, and find a way out of their predicament, or else risk being stuck there forever.
You would be forgiven for thinking that this sounds a little bit like the plot of Groundhog Day, with the repeated loop, and the need to learn lessons which need to be applied in each subsequent pass. However, the surprising thing is that ‘Cause And Effect’ actually predates the movie by around a year. And if that in itself proves not to be quite enough of an incentive to want to see this episode, it only has Frasier bloody Crane himself – Kelsey Grammer – in it, as a starship captain. And that should be worth 45 minutes of anyone’s time. – Lee Thacker
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – ‘Life Serial’
I love it when a time loop gets meta! Whilst not technically a full time loop episode, Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s season six story ‘Life Serial’ does include an entertaining time loop sequence, as one of a series of challenges set up by wannabe villains The Trio, to test Buffy and compete with one another.
‘Life Serial’ sees Buffy trying to work out what she wants to do with her life after coming back from the dead and dealing with the death of her mother. Whilst trying out a role as a sales assistant in The Magic Box, Buffy gets caught in an hour long time loop that will only end when she satisfies a customer who requires a mummy hand: a hand that attacks both Buffy and the customer when she tries to retrieve it and – hand it over.
Not only does the segment succinctly sum up the frustration of working in retail, as Buffy does her best to please but fails over and over again, it also has The Trio make specific reference to The X-Files episode ‘Monday’ and Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘Cause and Effect’ – both of which are time loop episodes. Let’s watch it again! – Wendy Attwell