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Time is the essence of television. The fractional pulse of electrons, the flight of photons, the persistence of vision that moves the image from screen to eye... and the compression of events and space that is the cornerstone of the medium’s power.


In documentaries this is obvious, as history becomes revenant, industrial processes are telescoped and recipes made easy.


But in drama, time as a narrative device that is uniquely suited to television has in recent years become extraordinarily, endlessly fluid, manipulated by writers and visualised by directors in highly original ways which push the limits of the medium and have no parallel.


Surprisingly, British television has struggled with this idea. Despite its historically pioneering position and the presence of a pre-eminent national broadcaster in the BBC, experiments have been few.


A very recent spate of live episodes of soaps and continuing dramas – Coronation Street, EastEnders, Hollyoaks – has attracted attention, along with a Memento-style reverse-chronology storyline in the latter. Though  certainly commendable and a rarity today, these are simply a return to the early years of television production when the lack of a practical recording medium meant every programme had to be generated live, with repeats only possible by performing it again in a different timeslot.


Most British efforts have been limited to variations on the flashback, that device of literary origin which has been seized upon and thoroughly exploited within the intimacy of the small screen. Thus Life on Mars (2006-07), created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah, with its modern-day copper seemingly transported back to the 1970s, existed within a time base that constantly shifted, neatly permitting action and character to be spiced with social comment. Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective (1986) nested four realities – hospital present, imaginative fantasy, immersive literature and personal recollection – and moved deftly between them through director Jon Amiel. Writer and director Stephen Poliakoff’s work frequently explores time and our place within it, with lushly-structured flashbacks and a pensive exploration of photographs as framing device.


The best British work has emerged, perhaps unsurprisingly, from science fiction, although not through the obvious route of Doctor Who (1963-). That series does of course have time travel, that genre basic, as its raison d’etre, but has tended to employ this merely as an enabler for conventional, fairly linear, tales. It’s taken others to explore time more imaginatively.


In Sapphire and Steel (1979-82), time itself – upset, out of joint, uneasy – was the story, its principal characters tasked with investigating and repairing ripples and breaches through the ability to rewind and freeze it. Created and almost entirely scripted by Peter J Hammond, the series adopted a remarkably sophisticated look somewhat ahead of its time, using a slow pace coupled with complex and unnerving visual references. Consistently intelligent and stimulating work that toyed with time came from the great Nigel Kneale. Two brilliantly original inter-century ghost stories, The Road (1963, now lost), in which the far future intrudes on the historical past, and its mirror image, The Stone Tape (1972), where the past presses into the present, showed what was possible,


It is American television, however, that has in the past decade or so yielded some astonishingly fresh twists on time and its malleability for the small screen, across genres and styles. These are in addition to the pioneering pseudo-real time political thriller 24 (2001-10) from Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, which is of course essentially a variation on live presentation.


In 1999, Glenn Gordon Caron created the body-swap drama series Now and Again. In its remarkably powerful episode Deep in My Heart is a Song, time is essentially stopped as the lead character is rendered catatonic at a red traffic light by undiagnosed photo-sensitive epilepsy. A dual reality story then has his inner mind jumping back to a similar episode in his previous life whilst his government captor conducts a dialogue with his suddenly unresponsive charge, slipping from anger to sympathy and eventually to resignation, before the situation resolves itself.


With Triangle, a season six episode of The X-Files shown in 1998, series creator Chris Carter snapped paranormal believer Mulder into an alternate timeline where other characters appeared in new guises. The climax is an audacious and technically flawless chase sequence in which these characters cross timelines via cinematic devices such as wipes and split screens that are cleverly subverted with an ease which belies their inherent complexity.


Emergency services dramas, a particular strength of the US, have proven a rich source of time-centered scripting and imagery.


Shawn Ryan’s tough police series The Shield was characterised by fast-paced, almost kinetic, storytelling, but as early as season two (2003) Ryan and Glen Mazzara wrote a superbly original episode showing the principal characters’ lives before the events in the pilot episode. It was a rewarding venture for regular viewers and confirmed Ryan’s highly assured style. Its title? Well, what else sits alongside the pilot but the Co-Pilot ?


Demanding much from its viewers but rewarding them for the investment, long-running medical series ER from Michael Crichton was often credited with introducing to television a wholly new tempo of writing, performing and directing. Two episodes in particular, both written by Jack Orman, stand out for daringly extending this idea.


In 2001, Four Corners showed the same events of one day through the differing perspectives of four characters. Clearly inspired by Kurosawa’s Rashomon and perhaps Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, this was something of a revelation for television and had a far-reaching effect well beyond the emergency room’s walls. Two years later the 200th episode, When Night Meets Day, followed half a dozen different stories back and forth between day and night shifts twelve hours apart. Crucially, stories interweave and some are begun in reverse chronological order, building up hope before demolishing it and setting up involving contrasts. An eclipse – the point when night meets day – crowns the episode. Orman also directed, extraordinarily dynamically, with the action often appearing to pass from one timeline to the other through a single camera move.


Orman’s work on Four Corners was so well regarded that it actually inspired ER’s production company NBC to commission Graham Yost to create Boomtown, an entirely new police series applying the same multiple-viewpoint perspective principles to every episode. The most successful was Reelin’ In The Years (2002). Probing the quarter-century-old killing of a police officer by an SLA-style terrorist group during a bank robbery, Laurence Andries’ reflective story meditated on fathers and sons and rights and wrongs. Director Bobby Roth’s highly effective camerawork included an apartment shifting from present to past in one continuous tracking move and a stunning final shot in which the killer is revealed. Intriguingly it proved impossible to sustain the idea as planned and scripts were considerably simplified for season two.


What’s become known as spy-fi has given viewers two engaging and persuasive series where time has a key role. In JJ Abrams’ Alias, in which appearances, family ties and old loyalties are not what they seem, an outstanding first episode (2001) is a powerful feature-length drama in its own right. It plays in flashback with more flashbacks inside this, a presentation which complements the shaded tones of the story.


Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse (2009) covered similar ground, playing with ideas of identity and personality but also with notions of time. The series took a hugely audacious leap with Epitaph One, intended as its season one finale. A stand-alone episode, the script projected the story into the future with the principal characters seen mostly only as echoes, forcing the viewer to make the connections and fill in the gaps. It was a highly literate and convincing experience, courtesy of writers Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, working from a story by Joss Whedon. Sadly the episode was never actually broadcast in the US for contractual reasons and only made available on DVD. It was though shown in the UK, in sequence.


A period drama would appear a perfect home for tricks with time, and advertising agency drama Mad Men (2007-), created by Matthew Weiner, has embraced this. Its flashbacks alone are especially complex and nuanced and many episodes could be chosen as exemplar, but another season one finale, The Wheel (2007), directed by Weiner and co-scripted by him and Robin Veith, serves.


The key scene shows Don Draper – a man hiding his past – pitching to Kodak an idea to help them market a new, drum-shaped slide projector device they are calling the wheel.


As Draper unfolds his proposal, illustrated by slides that are scenes from his (invented) life, words and pictures begin to assume layers of emotional and textural meaning by reason of Draper’s troubled family and personal life and the fact of his stolen identity, layers which deepen yet further with the later revelation of his adoption. Providing an outlet for the mass of emotion built up during the previous dozen episodes, the scene uses the carousel, as Draper ultimately names the wheel, as literal and metaphorical time machine. It is not only the subject, but the manner by which the scene is made possible. John Hamm’s performance, other actors’ reactions and even the score combine to inject deep existential meaning into a scene already thick with etymology and psychology.


An acclaimed three minutes within an acclaimed series, the scene is essentially perfect television and is a similarly perfect end to examining its treatment of time.





Posted 12 December 2010


A scene from The Shield (FX)

TV times


One timeline in The Singing Detective (Bfi)


"Did I fall asleep?" Dollhouse's 'actives' take a trip (Fox)

The cast of Boomtown (Five Stills)

Alternate timeline in The X Files - Triangle (

Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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