The 10 Greatest Historical Literary Cameos on Time-Traveling TV Shows


Time travel inevitably gets a sizable mention during an old-fashioned game of “Name That TV Trope.” There’s seemingly an endless supply — everything from screwed-up timelines that incorporate fictional elements to the unsettling discovery that you’re your own grandfather (see Futurama). But, bibliophiles that we are, one of our favorite silly pseudo-historical plot devices is when a famous dead author is revived in fictionalized form. Take a look at some of the most memorable time-traveling literary cameos from our favorite TV shows below. Can you think of more?

Mark Twain in Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Time’s Arrow” (Seasons 5 and 6, episodes 26 and 1)

Discounting instances of literary characters appearing thanks to that genius plot device, the holodeck, the two-part “Time’s Arrow” episode probably stands out as the most excellent time-traveling cameo by a fictionalized real-life author in the Star Trek canon. And what better complement to Jean-Luc Picard’s old-world sophistication than the stubborn scientific curiosity and Southern wit of Samuel Clemens?

Agatha Christie in Doctor Who, “The Unicorn and the Wasp” (Season 4, episode 7)

The Doctor might very well warrant his own post for literary cameos. Among them, our dearest Time Lord has had run-ins with the likes of Shakespeare, Cyrano de Bergerac, Charles Dickens, and H. G. Wells. In this episode, a mystery is afoot, and luckily the queen of mystery novels herself — Agatha Christie — is there to help the Doctor piece together the clues.

Jack Kerouac in Quantum Leap, “Rebel Without a Clue” (Season 3, Episode 9)

Another shoe-in for a literary cameo, in this episode Sam Beckett (himself a quasi-literary allusion) leaps into the 1950s, where he employs the help of Jack Kerouac to advise a young girl to get off the road and ditch her abusive biker boyfriend.

William Shakespeare in Blackadder, “Back and Forth”

Shakespeare gets fictionalized often enough. But seldom is he played by Colin Firth, and even more seldom is he vengefully beaten for Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour-long Hamlet adaptation. Though the half-hour “Back and Forth” special was technically a film release, it’s a time-traveling reunion staple of the Blackadder series.

H.G. Wells in Warehouse 13 (recurrent character, first appearance in Season 2)

A typical choice for a time-traveling cameo. Not so typical is Warehouse 13’s pseudo-historical twist, in which H.G. Wells, inventor of the time machine from which the novel gets its namesake, is actually Helena G. Wells, the scientifically gifted sister of novelist Charles Wells (who, the show claims, penned the book by taking inspiration from his sister’s real-life inventions).

Lord Byron in Highlander, “The Modern Prometheus” (Season 5, Episode 19)

If you count immortality as a form of time travel, this episode of the Highlander spin-off series is ripe with literary allusions. Lord Byron has, naturally, become a modern-day metalhead. All that tortured Romantic sorrow may just as easily been channeled into a noisy chord progression: “My soul is dark – Oh! quickly string / The Gibson Les Paul I yet can brook to hear.” Mary Shelley also has a cameo.

H.G. Wells in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, “Tempus Fugitive” (Season 2, Episode 18)

Yet another fictionalization of H.G. Wells. The author becomes a recurrent time-traveling character, pitted against a mischievous villain named Tempus — a fellow time traveler who has caught a serious case of ennui in the utopian future from which he hails. Watch a clip here.

Arthur Conan Doyle in Voyagers!, “Jack’s Back” (Season 1, Episode 20)

This oft-forgotten precursor to Quantum Leap pays a visit to late-19th-century England, imploring none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to adopt the persona of his own character — Sherlock Holmes — in order to catch a prowling Jack the Ripper.

Edgar Allan Poe in The Venture Bros., “Escape to the House of the Mummies Part II” (Season 2, Episode 17)

Sigmund Freud, Caligula, and Edgar Allan Poe guest star in this time-traveling episode of The Venture Bros., wherein Brock finally gets that cranially endowed, macabre poet in a headlock.

Homer in DuckTales, “Home Sweet Homer” (Season 1, Episode 30)

Admittedly, this fictionalized version of “King” Homer has little in common with the poet to whom authorship of The Odyssey and The Iliad is attributed. But they at least captured the ancient Greek spirit of merging myth and history. Plus, DuckTales was awesome.