Groundhog Day and the Time Loop Legacy


A lasting impact of the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day is that it changed the entire vocabulary of the day. Instead of being the sort of minor holiday that you forget about until your co-worker mentions it, a “Groundhog Day” has become a symbol for the day that must be lived over and over and over again—supposedly until you get it right. In science fiction, it’s known as a time loop. The time loop plot existed on television long before the film (some date it back to the 1961 Twilight Zone episode “Shadow Play,” although technically that is a repeated dream, not a repeated reality), however, the success of the film certainly influenced the popularity of the “time loop” plot, to the point where it has become a standard in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. Some are more successful than others.

Let’s review a few examples to see which shows nailed the Groundhog Day tribute, and who needs to start the loop over again.

Spoilers below.

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Ep 6.14: “Monday”


We start out with a strong entry in the genre.  In most time loop plots, there is one person who is considered “stuck”—the person who remembers, time after time, that the day is repeating itself. In the X-Files, it’s Pam, a young woman who has already lived the day countless times by the time the episode begins, and has grown so hopeless that she watches unfolding events with dead-eyed horror. “We’re all in hell,” she explains dully, “I’m the only one who knows it.” Pam’s boyfriend Bernard (Darren Burrows, unrecognizable from his Northern Exposure days) has decided to solve their money problems by robbing a bank, something she seems helpless to prevent, no matter how many times the day repeats itself. Skittish and wearing a bomb strapped to his chest, Bernard is poised to fail, and every day ends with the bank exploding… only to begin again.

Peripheral to Pam’s agony are, naturally, paranormal investigators Mulder and Scully. Mulder enters the bank every day, and dies every day. Unlike most of the people who are around the rapidly-deteriorating Pam, however, he begins to have vague memories of the prior loops and slowly becomes conscious of the situation.

The episode is well-written and tense. As an audience, we become increasingly frustrated that the two people that we know can solve the problem are unaware that it exists, which makes the payoff when they finally find a way out much more satisfying. There are a few leaps in logic, especially towards the end, but overall it’s solid and enjoyable.

Grade: A-


Ep 3.4: “I Do Over”


Unlike X-Files, Eureka gives us an explanation both for why there is a time loop, and why our hero is exempt from it. At the secret science facility Global Dynamics, layoffs are hitting the resident geniuses hard. One sad sack named Weinbrenner decides to attempt a controlled time loop in an effort not to lose his job… and accidentally involves Sheriff Jack Carter in his “neutral field,” protecting him from the general amnesia of the repeated day. Unfortunately, the time loop is unstable and elements begin to bleed through from one loop to the next and become stronger, threatening to collapse the normal flow of time forever.

Jack has other problems to deal with on this particular day. The woman he has a crush on, Allison, is remarrying her handsome rogue ex-husband Nathan (lending the title of the episode an eye-rolling pun). Also, Jack’s free-spirited sister shows up unexpectedly pregnant, needing his advice.

After a few farcical reiterations of the same day, Carter finally isolates the source of problem (Weinbrenner) and attempts to fix it, only to have the scientist die attempting to close the loop.  Desperate, Jack confides in Nathan, who manages to close the loop, but at the cost of his own life, leaving Jack in the unenviable position of having to tell the woman he loves that her husband-to-be has died, only moments before the wedding.

The majority of the episode is good fun, balancing the humor at the absurdity of the situation with increasing anxiety of impending disaster. Where it falls apart is the end, where Nathan’s death is treated rather lightly, considering that he was a major character and extremely likeable. It feels a little bit like a cheap attempt to get rid of a romantic rival so that Jack and Allison can finally be together. Overall, though, this is a fairly strong entry. 

Grade: B-


Ep 3.2: “Been There, Done That”


As per usual, Xena and her diminutive sidekick Gabrielle are wandering the countryside, seeking injustices to rectify, accompanied by their occasional companion Joxer. This time, they end up in a town in the midst of a Montague-and-Capulet type feud, who all wear either green or purple to handily differentiate between teams. Tensions high enough that duels and slap-fights are breaking out all over.

Naturally, it turns out that a green man and a purple woman are in love and trying to find a way to be together (even involving a draught of poison… could it be any more derivative?) They have enlisted the help of Cupid, who has set the day on permanent repeat until the couple can find a way to live happily ever after, and then he locks Xena into the loop, hoping that she will be able to solve the problem.

After a few false starts, sometimes involving the deaths of her companions, Xena figures out that the day is repeating, but becomes increasingly frustrated as she cannot figure out what she needs to do in order to close the loop.

After going through cycles of anger and frustration, Xena eventually goes goofy, killing everything from the rooster that awakens her in the morning, to poor Joxer, who she carelessly murders and then goes back to sleep. This is both funny and slightly disturbing. Obviously, the day will reset itself and Joxer will resurrect, but that amount of aggression towards a friend is creepy, and Gabrielle (who is not aware of the loop) is shattered and traumatized by the violence.

Eventually, of course, Xena saves the lovers and ends the families’ feud, as well as keeping her friends (and her horse) alive through the final day. It’s sort of fun, but deeply silly and occasionally mean-spirited. 

Grade: C+


Ep 4.11: “Twas the Night Before Mxymas”


Set at least two years after Lois & Clark drifted from bad-but-enjoyable into just-bad, they came out with this incomprehensible Christmas episode. Mr. Mxyzptlk is a villain from the fifth dimension, where people apparently dress like pirates, explode puppies for no reason, write with feather pens, and look like Howie Mandel.

Mr. Mxyzptlk’s plan is to place Christmas Eve on a time loop. Having “no tomorrow” will cause the human race to lose hope, which will… destroy Superman. I’m not joking. That’s his plan.

The day is repeating four hours at a time, starting from the beginning of the Christmas party at the Daily Planet. Only Clark Kent is aware of the loop, which proceeds fairly normally the first time through, but becomes progressively worse as the people “lose hope.” Recovering alcoholics relapse, couples fight, and women wear skimpier and skimpier outfits, since that’s what happens when women lose hope.  Apparently.

Clark fights the hope-losing with… hope, by saving suicidal billionaires, averting bank robberies, and spreading as much Christmas cheer as possible. Eventually, everyone defeats Mxyzptlk through strategic use of platitudes.

Grade: D+


Ep 5.16 “Déjà Vu”


An odd but intriguing entry in the genre is this episode of The Outer Limits. Kevin Nealon plays Dr. Crest, a physicist who has used government contacts to create an controlled wormhole. Naturally, the experiment fails badly, due to sabotage. In an effort to abort the disaster, Crest manages to electrify himself, which is apparently the reason that, when time starts looping, he is the only one who remembers the previous days.

The unusual element in this incarnation is that the time loop created by the wormhole is unstable, and every time it loops, it goes back to later in the day. The loop is self-correcting, and will eventually work itself out, like a kink in a piece of string. The urgency of the situation is that the meltdown of the wormhole experiment causes a major ecological disaster, so Dr. Crest has to figure out who sabotaged the experiement and prevent it. There are plenty of suspects: environmental terrorists, a bitter ex-girlfriend, an ambitious and trigger-happy general, and so on.

Overall, fairly solid. 

Grade: B



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