Time After Time (1979) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

If you’re lost you can look and you will find me, time after time.

Time After Time evokes a philosophical love story wrapped within an exciting time travel premise where a famous novelist chases Jack the Ripper through time. It opened up a host of possibilities for future time travel stories while not getting bogged down in the minutia of “how” things happen.

First Impressions

The trailer opens like a bizarre comedy, but quickly shows that it’s a serious film. Author H.G. Wells has really invented a time machine and uses it to follow Jack The Ripper from 18th Century London to late 20th Century San Francisco. There Jack feels that he’s an amateur killer, given all the death and destruction he sees on TV, while Herbert falls for a pretty, modern girl. Action, suspense, love, and time travel are all here in Time After Time!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Time After Time

Time After Time title card.

The Fiction of The Film

The film opens November 5, 1893 in London, as a woman leaving a tavern is attacked by an unseen Jack the Ripper. At the home of Herbert George Wells (Malcolm McDowell), several friends have gathered to hear a proclamation by H.G. When Herbert’s last friend Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (David Warner) arrives, Wells shows them his latest invention, a time machine with which he plans to visit the future. Wells’ housekeeper alerts the men that the police have shown up to search the house due to there being another Ripper murder nearby. They discover Dr. Stevenson’s bag with a bloody glove inside, but no Doctor. As Herbert fears, John has taken the time machine.

Luckily the machine returns “home” due to John not having the “non-return key,” a special key that keeps the machine with the traveller. Herbert, finally finding the courage to use the machine, gathers what he needs, and departs. He arrives on November 5, 1979, but is surprised that his watch is 8 hours off from a clock on the wall. This quickly answers itself as his machine is part of a travelling H.G. Wells exhibit that happens to be in San Francisco, California. Alone in San Francisco, Herbert is very much a fish out of water. He exchanges some of his money and tries to pawn his jewelry. The busy pace and motorcars startle him, but he finds comfort in a McDonalds, learning that french fries are just pomme frites.

After sleeping his first night in a park, he continues visiting countless banks hoping to find the one that John used to exchange his money. He stumbles across a Bank of London and immediately knows this is the place. The exchange officer Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen), a liberated and modern woman, tells Herbert she directed John to the Hyatt Regency. H.G. takes a cab to the hotel and confronts John, telling him it’s time to go home. John however is ecstatic living in the late 20th Century. He’s finally “at home” with all the violence and wars. It’s not anything like the utopia Herbert thought it would be. John attacks Herbert to get the non-return key, but they are interrupted and John escapes, but is hit by a car. Wells visits the hospital where he was taken but a nurse tells him that his friend has died.

Not knowing what to do, Herbert returns to the bank to have lunch with Amy. She was coming on very strong to him earlier and figures it’s a good enough way to spend his time. They have lunch and spend the rest of the day getting to know each other. But Herbert never reveals the truth, only that he’s a detective that came searching for his acquaintance. They visit Muir Woods, see a movie, and she takes him back to her place for dinner. She then invites him to spend the night and they make love. The next morning he hears a report on the radio that there have been killings in the North Beach area, and he knows that John is very much alive.

Time After Time

H.G. Wells shows off his time machine, The “Argo,” to his friends including one John Leslie Stephenson, aka Jack the Ripper.

Amy has already left for work, and there’s nothing for Herbert to do. John comes into the bank to exchange more money and realizes that it must have been Amy that turned Herbert onto him. He warns her to leave him alone. She calls H.G. at her apartment and warns him, so he goes to the police to tell them. But they don’t believe him, partly for lack of evidence and partially because he uses the alias of “Sherlock Holmes.” Herbert then comes clean with Amy and takes her to the museum, using the time machine with her to go three days into the future. The newspaper they find on Saturday says she was murdered on Friday night.

Herbert believes he can use this to their advantage, knowing when and where John will strike. Returning to Thursday, Wells goes and buys a gun, while Amy takes a valium and lays down for a nap. On his return he is picked up by the police since another woman has been murdered. Amy oversleeps and when she awakens John is in her apartment so she hides. Herbert admits to the killings if the police will send a squad car to check on Amy. The officers find only a severed hand, and release Herbert knowing he’s not the killer. He wanders back by the Palace of the Arts and sees Amy with the killer. John is bargaining; her life for the key. Herbert agrees, but John, ungentlemanly as ever, still takes Amy with him.

At the museum Herbert pleads for John to spare Amy’s life. John doesn’t think he will. Amy manages to slip out of his grasp as John’s pocket watch gets caught on the handle to the machine. He gets inside and as he’s about to leap away forever, Herbert pulls out the vaporizing equalizer, which forces the traveller to travel without the machine, dooming John to infinity. Wells vows to return home and destroy the machine. He also has a number of books to write. Amy jumps into the time machine with him as they leap back to 1893. The afterward states that he soon married Amy Robbins and anticipated socialism, global war, space travel, and women’s liberation.

It’s catching isn’t it, violence.” – John Leslie Stevenson

Time After Time

In the San Francisco museum where the H.G. Wells exhibit is visiting is a cameo by young Corey Feldman in his first film role.

History in the Making

Time After Time was not the next film about time travel following the very popular 1960 film The Time Machine, but it’s the next most prominent one. In the 19 years between the adaptation of H.G. Wells’ story about a time traveller, and this story about a time travelling H.G. Wells, there were at least a dozen or more films that relied on time travel. Sci-Fi Saturdays has looked at a few of them including La Jetee and Planet of the Apes (which involves time travel, but is not really about time travel in the same way other films are). There was also The Time Travellers (about a group of scientists that create a portal which takes them to the year 2071), several Dr. Who films (based on the television series about a time travelling adventurer), the semi-time travel film Slaughterhouse Five (based on the novel by Kurt Vonnegut of a man who is unstuck in time), and the Disney film from earlier in 1979 Unidentified Flying Oddball (a modern riff on the Mark Twain story A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court).

Time After Time was the product of first time director Nicholas Meyer based on the premise from Karl Alexander’s unfinished (at that time) novel. Meyer had made an impression with his 1974 novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and his 1976 screenplay of the same. It was on that merit that he was picked to write the screenplay and direct this particular film. Apparently the fact that he had also written Invasion of the Bee Girls was not held against him. Meyer’s time travel adventures were far from over as he would write the screenplay for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, arguably one of the best received Star Trek films, and one where the crew of the Enterprise visits present day San Francisco. What makes Meyer’s story so much more intriguing than any other time travel film is his use of historic characters interacting in the fish out of water storyline. His story also provides a number of philosophical conundrums related to the characters as well as creating some time travel tropes which would become more of a staple in future stories involving time travellers.

Time After Time

San Francisco is a character in the film as well, providing wondrous locations like The Palace of Fine Arts.


To audiences of 1979, time travel was nothing new. Besides the time travel films listed above, the subject of time travel was also the basis of a number of genre based television shows in the 60s and 70s. Dr. Who is a primary example, but also The Time Tunnel, and various episodes of Star Trek, such as “The City on the Edge of Forever” or “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” So what makes Time After Time so unique and endearing? Time travel stories of this era usually revolve around the main characters travelling from their time (either our present or our future) into a historical past event. Star Trek had a unique advantage in that the “present” for the characters was our future. They were able to travel into their past, being the audiences present, allowing for interesting parallels or confusion to occur. Time After Time was the first major time travel film to travel from the past to the audiences present, which creates a number of great moments for the characters, providing the same wonder and amazement without filming a period piece.

This is also the first time travel story (for film or television) based on the life of a real historical person doing the travelling. As a bonus it was the author of the original, and most well known story about time travel, Herbert George Wells. The film introduced a number of situations that are common in stories of temporal displacement, specifically people moving into the future. These include the characters being out of place and unfamiliar with social conventions, technology, and missed historical context. Humorous moments include Wells visiting McDonalds (a Scottish restaurant), his learning how to drive a car, and his very out of place look in 70s San Francisco. Luckily in this sort of time travel story where the character visits the future, he doesn’t have to worry about killing his grandparents, or changing something that would alter his present.

Time After Time is able to use the attitudes and conventions of the late 19th Century and compare and contrast them to the attitudes and conventions of the late 20th Century. It uses a strong–and forward thinking–gentlemen from 1893 meeting an equally strong and forward thinking woman from 1979. Amy is a feminist and “free woman” of the 70s who serves as a strange version of the future Wells predicted. In the opening sequence in London, Wells is teased by his companions about a paper he was writing on Free Love. This shocked and amused them, but also led to Wells’ proclamation that socialism was the way forward to an inevitable utopia.  But it’s his hopes for a utopian society within the next “three decades” (from his perspective) that must come as the biggest shock to Wells. Once in 1979 he quickly learns that there have been two World Wars plus numerous other upheavals that change his outlook on his own future and would, presumably, alter his writings upon his return.

Time After Time

Herbert sits nervously next to John (who has shaved off his excellent mutton chops) watching news reports of violence and death on television.

Societal Commentary

Another endearing quality of Time After Time is its divided philosophical perspectives. The main philosophical issues with this film do not involve changing the past or the discussions of time travel as one might expect, but rather using 19th Century idealism to examine the notions of “modern” violence and its effect on society. Both Wells and Stevenson represent two sides of the equation, with Wells being the nebbish, pacifistic idealist, and Stevenson being the outgoing, violent realist. Wells believes that a utopia is due within decades of the turn of the Century and that “men will live like brothers and on terms of perfect equality with women.” Stevenson counters this argument with the fact that “mankind has not changed for 2,000 years,” which is to say that there’s no way that society will be able to unify itself in 30 years. And Stevenson knows a thing or two about the darker side of society to boot.

There may even be a deeper discussion to be had, with both characters representing the Id and the Ego. It seems painfully obvious that the use of the surname Stevenson draws parallels to author Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, arguably the most famous story on the duality of man. Dr. Stevenson is a respected city surgeon by day and a deadly killer by night. His basal urges for sex and death are manifest unfiltered in his Ripper persona. A strong Id-like representation of mankind’s primary urges. Wells on the other hand is a philosopher and a dreamer. A man that chooses to see the best aspects of society and strives to repress the lower urges. He maintains a gentlemanly attitude, even in the most stressful situations.

The crux of the film attempts to show Wells’ internal conflict about the contagion of violence. At his lowest point, on the run from Stevenson and attempting to save Amy from a fated death, Wells tells her that “the first man to raise a fist is the man who’s run out of ideas.” He attempts to maintain his idealism in the face of overwhelming odds. Yet when push comes to shove and Amy is captured by Stevenson, Wells can think of no better idea than to visit a local pawn shop and purchase a gun. He never uses it, but the act takes him down a road making him as guilty as those he condemns. His change, and his enlightenment, were all for the love of a woman. A woman that is 86 years ahead of him chronologically, but on par with his idealism of what women should be. His time travelling has allowed him to meet the woman of his dreams who is out of his reach if not for the events that led him to 1979.

Time After Time

John confronts Amy and warns her to leave him alone.

The Science in The Fiction

Time travel is a staple of science fiction, but it’s also very much a real thing. Every day we are time travelling, increments at a time, slowly towards an unknown future. It’s not the classical time travel usually associated with fiction due to the fact that it’s boring. The act of time travelling should be more exciting and defy the laws of physics. But neither fictional nor non-fictional time travel matters too much to this story, as it’s only the method to bring the characters into a conflict to drive the story to its conclusion.

However, looking at the mode of time travel, many elements adhere to conventionally understood methods of time travel and help to redefine the rules set forth in The Time Machine. Travelling through time is not the same thing as travelling through space. A time machine–this time machine specifically–is not like a car. It cannot translocate itself from one longitude to another, but only through temporal space. It makes the revelation that Wells ends up in San Francisco all the more interesting. The time machine can apparently only travel to wherever the time machine is in that era, and in 1979 it’s been moved from London to California!

Wells also notes that his machine, which is shown as being called the Argo, runs on solar power. That’s a different concept than a lot of other time machine power supplies, and unfortunately one that is not explored more. The machine starts in Wells basement in foggy London (at night even) yet manages to provide three trips before ending up in a San Franciscan museum. Maybe the Victorian Wells was able to invent  a solar array that worked differently than the way we understand solar cells today? He did invent a time machine after all!

Time After Time

Wells offers a ride to Amy to prove to her that he’s not crazy. They discover news of Amy’s demise in the brief trip to the future.

The Final Frontier

Nicholas Meyer sets a great story in a great location, drawing parallels to the Zodiac killer, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, as well as using Wells’ own history to shape the story. In Wells’ true writings he predicted among other things a great war in 1940, and his second wife was indeed Amy Robbins! The parallels of this film to his story “The Time Machine” both in literature and cinema cannot be overlooked as important, such as the opening scene which is very much like the opening of the 1960 film, with Malcolm McDowell performing a convincing version of Wells. Nor can the inclusion of the work of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes.” The super-sleuth is not only referenced in the film by Wells, but can be seen in Wells’ actions as a detective searching for Stevenson, and in the look of the character’s deerstalker cap he wears throughout.

San Francisco is beautifully captured in this film, from North Beach, to the Palace of the Fine Arts and many other locations. Much as in Star Trek IV, San Francisco acts as a character in the film, adding a great vibe to the proceedings. The parallels don’t stop there. The park that Wells and Amy walk across near the water (Marina Green), is the same location where Dr. Gillian Taylor picks up Spock and Kirk in the Star Trek film. Any coincidence that they were both penned by Meyers?

Time After Time also contains three leads that all have prominence in other sci-fi films, most notably other time travel films. Malcolm McDowell was already familiar to genre fans for A Clockwork Orange, arguably a sci-fi film as I contend in my previous article. He would return to the genre to play the time traveling sociopath Soran in Star Trek Generations. David Warner would often play the bad guy in films, such as TRON, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (also written by Nicholas Meyer), or the time travel comedy Time Bandits where he plays the ultimate evil. And of course Mary Steenburgen, who here plays a 20th Century woman falling for a man from the 19th Century, would portray a woman from 1885 that falls for a man from 1985 in Back to the Future III.

The influence of this film is not subtle, with a similar Victorian era love story played out the following year when Christopher Reeve travels back to 1912 to fall in love with Jane Seymour in Somewhere in Time, with many more time travel films to come in the following decade. As the 1970s wind down, Sci-Fi Saturdays will be looking at two more space epics that try to recapture the adventure and wonderment of Star Wars, as well as a piece of the box office as well.

Coming Next

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

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