The appeal of the time-travel romance

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Nov 3, 2018, 12:01 PM EDT

While some may accuse the genre of being formulaic (fools), romance does indeed have some of the greatest tropes of any kind of story. Enemies to lovers, fake dating becoming real, the good old “oh no there’s only one bed in this hotel room I guess we have to share,” all of these tropes are at once familiar and thrilling. The building blocks may be the same, but each swoony outcome has its own sense of magic.

In particular, time travel and other time-related complications pop up again and again. Whether they’re communicating via time bending mailbox (The Lake House), kept apart by centuries as a plastic centurion (Doctor Who), or powered by genetic anomalies both charming (About Time) and devastating (The Time Traveler’s Wife), this obstacle has long been a popular stalwart in the romantic canon.

This subgenre shows no sign of slowing down either. Outlander continues to have legions of fans and Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat is adapting The Time Traveler’s Wife into a miniseries that will hopefully give more of Clare’s perspective than the woeful 2009 film. People are still drawn to these stories of love facing seemingly impossible obstacles, but why? What keeps us climbing back into time machines or touching ancient stones in search of romance?


Clear cut rules

Part of the appeal of romance novels/films/television/etc. is that it makes a complicated and often difficult aspect of life appear quite easy. Sure, there is the temporary pain, but everything is tied up in a neat bow at the end. Two people fall in love. Something forces them apart. Romantic gestures are made. Dramatic speeches are given. Kiss. Happily Ever After. The guaranteed HEA is the appeal because love in real life is not that simple. The compromise, the frustration, the heartache, those are just small obstacles in the face of true love in fiction. If you say the right thing or get to the right bridge at the right time, things will work out for you.

Due to its extreme situations, time travel usually comes with a pretty clear blueprint. Avoid paradoxes in the TARDIS. Figure out where Jamie is at a certain time and use the stones to get there. Climb into that cabinet, make a fist, and try again. Time travel always comes with rules, something that real romance cannot be boiled down to. No matter how many books you read and pep talks from your friends that you seek out, there isn’t a 1-2-3 step process for “successful” love. Sometimes we’re simply wandering in the wilderness, completely devoid of control.


A seemingly unavoidable out

While time travel can create paradoxes within their stories, it also creates seemingly conflicting outcomes. Yes, the laws that time travel require do give a semblance of control, but there is also the feeling that if a love story ends tragically when time-travel is involved, it’s not really their fault. For example, River and the Doctor were moving in opposite directions in time, so obviously they wouldn’t ever get a traditional HEA.

When things don’t work out, we always want someone to blame. Them. Their parents. Your parents. Their friends. Yourself (ugh, I guess). Instead of being faced with the reality that sometimes love isn’t meant to last and some people aren’t compatible longterm, fiction gives us the ultimate obstacle as an answer for a parting. Things are much more cinematic that way. Who wants their tragedy to be mundane on the screen?

They were fighting the laws of space and time! What love could withstand that?


Upping the stakes

But when it does withstand it, hoo baby. There is a reason why the Frasers are one of the most popular fictional couples out there, and it is more than just Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan's scorching chemistry. Love stories onscreen are usually portrayed as earth-shattering, so why not take the laws of physics and time down as well? Love conquering all is at the heart of the genre, and there isn't a bigger, more devastating mountain to climb than time.

Watching a couple fall in love is thrilling on its own, but time travel takes things to the next level. It's hard to have even the slightest amount of chill when two lovers finally find one another after being separated by such an obstacle. Escapism is an essential element of romantic fiction, so the fantastical element appeals to many fans. Anyone can make a dramatic speech at a wedding. Can your wife find you despite being separated by centuries and continents? No? Well, we have this particular fantasy for that.

It's safe to say that the inherent drama of time travel will continue to be a frequent element of romance, be it through relatively small stakes or using machines that are bigger on the inside. The idea that love can become somehow more than human would be overwhelmingly intimidating in real life, but is perfectly swoon-worthy on page and screen. 

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