Keeping the timeline intact is hard. Just ask the Avengers. Or the Legends of Tomorrow. Or Back to the Future’s Doc Brown, Army of Darkness’ Ash, or… well, you get the idea. About the best a time-traveller can hope for is to metaphorically step on a butterfly that doesn’t have too big an effect on the future. As such, let’s take a moment to commemorate these chronal wanderers and all the butterflies they avoided killing.
11-10) Drs. Sam Beckett and Ben Song, Quantum Leap
Both Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) and Ben Song (Raymond Lee) were sent careening through time, guided by some unknown forces that wanted/wants them to fix the timeline by transferring their consciousnesses into various people. Neither of them knows why they’re stuck bouncing around other people’s lives, trying to solve their problems (hell, Ben can’t even remember why he went into the Quantum Leap machine, thanks to a touch of amnesia) but they’re pretty great at it. Whether an AI is responsible for their journeys or something more ethereal, they’re correcting abnormalities in ways both small and large, and the timeline is presumably being repaired by their efforts.
9) Max Walker, Timecop
Haunted by the death of his wife a decade ago, Max Walker (Jean-Claude Van Damme) becomes a member of the Time Enforcement Commission in 2004, basically a police officer whose beat is the timeline. When people try to alter the past or benefit from it — like, say, stealing money just before the 1929 stock market crash, when it won’t be missed — Max is assigned to stop the perps. But then an evil senator gives his younger self the next big tech start-up, Walker returns to a future where the former senator is president, and the TEC has been disbanded. Suffice it to say, Walker restores the timeline and gets a bonus in that his wife never died.
8) The Doctor, Doctor Who
Is there anyone better at time travel than the Doctor? Sure, at first glance it may seem like they run roughshod through time and space, disrupting everything by their sheer presence. But they’re also disrupting alien invasions and planetary annihilations throughout the universe and throughout time. Earth, for instance, would have been conquered several kajillion times without the Doctor’s help. Sure, you could argue that maybe they attract trouble as much as they save the day, but Doctor Who’s unique idea of time travel allows the Time Lord to thwart bad guys without ever worrying about diverging realities, time vortices, or what’s supposed to happen. And yes, in the series’ 60-year history, you can find instances where the Doctor has messed up in all these regards. But overall, their track record is incredible.
7) H.G. Wells, Time After Time
In this 1979 movie, the real-life author and science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) debuts a real-life time machine in 1893. Shortly after, he discovers it’s been stolen by his friend John Stevenson, who’s revealed to be Jack the Ripper, to elude the police. Wells travels to 1979 to pursue his former friend and stop his newest killing spree but gets a bit distracted by the strangeness of modern society, the horrors of the past century, and a pretty bank teller (Mary Steenburgen). Wells eventually stops the Ripper, returns to 1883, and rededicates himself to the betterment of humanity, but he was probably going to do that anyway.
6) James Cole, 12 Monkeys
Maybe it’s a stretch to say James Cole (Bruce Willis) is good at time travel, but I’d maintain he’s certainly competent in this 1995 Terry Gilliam movie. After a devastating plague wipes out most of humanity, a small cadre of scientists sends the imprisoned Cole back to 1996 to investigate who released the virus. Unfortunately, Cole is sent to 1990 and several other times in an attempt to figure out the mystery, but that’s hardly his fault. By the end of the movie, he’s figured out the culprit, passed on the info to the future scientists, and, uh, died in front of his childhood self. All in a day’s work, so to speak.
5-4) Bill and Ted, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Sure, they’re dumb as rocks, but look at the facts: they stole historical figures including Napoleon, Socrates, Joan of Arc, and more into their high school as part of a history presentation. It sounds wildly irresponsible, but the fact remains that Bill and Ted somehow returned everyone to their respective eras without messing up any part of the timeline, even though all these people saw modern-day (well, ‘80s) San Dimas, California. Maybe it was just dumb luck, but no matter how it happened, it’s arguably even more impressive a feat than saving the world with their music.
3) The Enterprise Crew, Star Trek: The Voyage Home
When a mysterious alien ship approaches earth and starts emitting a mysterious series of sounds, only Spock realises it’s the song of humpback whales, who have long since become extinct. Determined to solve the problem in the most Star Trek way possible, Kirk and his crewmates travel back to 1986 to track down a humpback whale to bring back to the 23rd century. Shenanigans ensue in the past, but they’re able to bring a whale to answer the aliens’ song, causing the ship to leave as mysteriously as it arrived.
2) The Enterprise-E Crew, Star Trek: First Contact
When the Borg travel back in time to prevent the Earth from making First Contact — as in Zefram Cochrane’s (James Cromwell) pioneering hyperdrive space flight, which brought Vulcans to Earth, which in turn led to the creation of the Federation — Captain Jean-Luc Picard follows to stop his most hated enemies. This does not go without a hitch. Picard is only obsessed with defeating the Borg, and delegates the future of humanity to William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Geordi LaForge (LeVar Burton), who tell Cochrane what the future holds, which doesn’t seem great. However, everything works out and the timeline is maintained, and you can’t argue with the results.
1) Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past
When giant, mutant-killing robots called Sentinels have nearly annihilated mutantkind (and all those that help them), Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Kitty Pryde (Elliot Page) cobble together a plan to send Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) mind back in time to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), in 1973. It works, and per their older selves’ instructions, Logan finds the younger versions of Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent the mutant apocalypse from happening. So in terms of the job he had to do, Wolverine nails it, thwarting the assassination of Trask. Unfortunately, Magneto is a huge arsehole who tries to kill Mystique, which restores the apocalyptic timeline, and then tries to kill the president, which would have made everything worse. The X-Men manage to save the day, but if Magneto had just listened to his future self, things would have gone a lot more smoothly.