Lost's Time Travel Pedigree

Whatever happened is fixed - or we rule our fates? Over 5 years, Lost has developed its philosophy of time-travel, influenced by works that came before. Here are 6 time-travel stories that are part of Lost's time travel pedigree.

Lost's Time Travel Pedigree

Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut

The Gist:

In this World War 2 story, Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. This soldier finds that his brain is traveling wildly between different points in his life. His consciousness is wildly swinging from moments as distant as his death, his childhood, and his days as a confused soldier during the firebombing of Dresden. But all of these moments add up to a picture of Billy Pilgrim as a person.

The Lost Connection:

The first connection is obvious. In the 4th season of Lost, Desmond starts experiencing exactly this effect. In fact, his first bout with his unstuck mind brings him to his days in the military, an obvious nod to the Vonnegut novel.

But more generally, the whole experience of watching Lost is a lot like reading Slaughterhouse 5. We, the viewers, are traveling back and forth between different moments in a character's life throughout each episode, which also gives us a fuller picture of who these characters are.

Lost's Time Travel Pedigree

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

The Gist:

An inventor stumbles on a way to travel throughout time, so he decides to pay a visit to the distant future and see what happens to mankind. The vision that greets him is not entirely pleasant: humanity is docile and submissive, living in fear of a tribe of underground-dwelling monsters.

The Lost Connection:

To say that this story has influenced Lost seems really obvious. The Time Machine basically invented the genre of time travel story. But the parallels run a little deeper. On Lost, we get glimpses of a large arc of humanity. We get the sense that the island's inhabitants used to be great and mighty, but their statues are crumbling, their numbers are dwindling, and their woman can no longer give birth. It's a similar decay that the future of humanity is apparently going through in the novel.

Another parallel: at one point, the hostile native population on the island steals people from the weaker new-coming tribe, in a dynamic that echos the one between the Morlocks and the Eloi.

Lost's Time Travel Pedigree

Primer

The Gist:

This gritty tale recounts the descent into mistrust and destruction of two friends, co-inventors of a time machine. The two realize that they can use their time machine for their own benefit, but they soon find that every past-changing action they take comes with consequences. For one, time travel is physically destroying their bodies. For another, each jump creates a new copy of the traveling individual, to the point that there might be as many as 5 copies of one man running around at one point in the movie.

The Lost Connection:

While it's not certain that this particular work influenced the Lost creators, there are still a ton of apparent connections between the two works. For one, as we see in season 4 and early season 5, time travel really does have a detrimental physical effect on the travelers. For another, we also see multiple versions of people on the island at the same time. For example, Sawyer sees Kate in the jungle and has a chance to try to contact her, but chooses not to take it. For another, we know a parallel version of Locke was sending mysterious messages through Richard Alpert to the past-Locke.

"By His Bootstraps," by Robert Heinlein

The Gist:

While studying one night, a young man is confronted by another man who comes through a weird time portal into his room. The young student eventually makes his own way through the portal, and he realizes that it's a sophisticated time travel device. He sees a future commanded by an old man, a dictator. He decides to use the time machine to try to usurp the power of the dictator before he can even rise to power, but he soon discovers that he might have been destined to become the dictator, as well as everyone else that has influenced his path to that point, all along.

It sounds a lot more complex than it is, and if you haven't read this story, it is a must-read.

The Lost Connection:

In "By His Bootstraps," we very literally see a man that conspires against himself to set himself up as the mystical and powerful leader of a society. Lost seems equally fascinated by the question of what makes a leader, to the point that we get to see John Locke's similar transition.

He starts as just some guy, but he slowly grows to understand the island, eventually using the time travel effects of the island to send himself the message that elevates him to leadership. The whole reason Richard Alpert is following Locke's progress is, it seems, because in the past, Locke gave him a compass, a symbol of Locke's self-elevation to the position of leader. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that Locke might no longer be the same man he always was...

Lost's Time Travel Pedigree

Groundhog Day

The Gist:

In this movie, it's February 2nd, and it seems like it always will be. A news anchor (Bill Murray) is trapped in a loop that makes him re-live the same day over and over again. At first, this is torture, since he's covering an inane groundhog-seeing-his-shadow ceremony. But he learns to use his looped time more wisely, eventually learning some new skills, helping some people, and wooing the woman he loves.

The Lost Connection:

For a long time, fans have speculated that Lost might include some time-looping. But the more direct connection is that, as in Groundhog Day, the time jumping and repeating is entirely out of the control of the victims. In most time travel stories, someone uses technology to meddle in the past or the future. On Lost, the time travel does more to mess with the traveler than to mess with time itself. Groundhog Day is certainly a lighter take on these themes, but the parallel is clear.

Lost's Time Travel Pedigree

Doctor Who

The Gist:

A man with ultimate power to travel throughout time is confronted very often by the fact that not all of history can be manipulated to his own will. The Doctor is faced with a fabric of time that is often changeable, but that has a few fixed moments that he can't meddle with.

The Lost Connection:

The philosophy on Lost seems to be the opposite: most events are fixed, but a big enough change in the past can unsettle fixed events. We haven't seen if this is true yet (and what the consequences of a change might be), but this idea of events needing to be fixed to hold together the flow of time is a bedrock principle on Lost. It's the basis of the show's original "whatever happened, happened" mantra.

This isn't everything, by far. These six examples are an overview of the kinds of time travel stories that influence Lost, but other shows, books, and movies have done their own versions of these types of time travel stories. What are some others that jump out?