Time travel is difficult storytelling territory — both for a television show’s characters and on a more practical writing level. Although the Starz drama Outlander and Fox’s comedy Making History approach the subject with vastly different tones, their similarities reveal the most crucial aspect of nailing the genre. In order for the story to contain tension or stakes, the viewer cannot know the future along with the characters.
Outlander revolves around Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe), who accidentally time travels from the 1940s to the 1740s. She ends up marrying Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), who lives in the 1700s. Over the course of Season 1, she acclimates to life there. Once she tells Jaime that she’s a time traveler, Season 2 revolves around the couple conspiring to prevent the Battle of Culloden, which devastated the Scottish Highlands. Unfortunately, Season 2 lacks any sense of tension because right from the opening scene, the show reveals that the battle happened. As the season unfolds, watching Jaime and Claire attempt to stop an event the viewer knows has happened feels dramatically inert.
Making History shows the right way to broach this subject. In its pilot, Adam Pally’s time-traveling character, Dan, discovers that the American Revolution somehow did not proceed as planned. As he works to put the timeline back in order, there is genuine tension because the viewer is in the dark about whether his mission will succeed. Further, the pilot ends with immediate stakes, as he travels back to the present and learns his friend in the past is bound to die.
All time travel stories are fundamentally about one of two questions: Will the character stop this event, or will they ever return to their own time? If the viewer knows ahead of time, there’s little incentive to go along for the ride.
More than any other genre form, tension is of the utmost importance in time travel narratives. Consider this: If Marty McFly did not possess literal photographic evidence of his fading existence in Back to The Future, the plot to get his teenage parents together would simply be cute whimsy. Any sense of urgency would deflate like a day-old balloon.
Luckily for Outlander, Season 3 will regain this sense of tension by shifting its focus. Instead of Jamie and Claire conspiring to stop an event the viewer knows they won’t stop, they’ll be reuniting and going on a rescue mission against the backdrop of pirates and voodoo zombies.
Making History is currently airing on Fox, and Outlander returns to Starz in September 2017.