Time Travel in TV's Wayback Machine

Who would’ve thought that time travel – the province of Jay Ward’s Wayback Machine and that erudite man-dog, Mr. Peabody – would already be commonplace? Satellite TV has brought time travel to my own living room, to the screen of my 20 inch diagonal Sharp TV. Using only a 46-button remote control, I can set the Wayback Machine to the year 1973, and watch the same episode of The Match Game I watched while I was cutting my high school American History class, avoiding lectures about all those boring years before TV existed.

Charles Nelson Reilly – who’d remember him without satellite TV? Would we even check out the website to determine his living/dead status? Gene Rayburn – those were quite the sideburns. Better than a trip to the museum: I’d remembered the mullets on my own, but had quite forgotten about those all-important sideburns. Brett Somers – even then, I was never sure what she was famous for. Of course, in those days, being on a game show was its own form of celebrity. Did Paul Lynde or Charlie Weaver even have another career?

Admittedly the remote control for my satellite TV is more complicated than a Remington manual typewriter of the Match Game era, and somewhat less attractive than Gene Rayburn’s sideburns. The buttons are color- and shape-coded, but I’ve never figured out what the more arcane ones do. My brother and sister-in-law once house sat for us for over a week without ever figuring out how to turn on the TV, although they did own up to trying several times. But it’s simple: you just hit On, then TV, then DBS.SAT. This sequence works just fine as long as you want to watch Channel 3. I think there’s more to the sequence if you want to change channels. But time travel shouldn’t be easy; a visit to the past shouldn’t be taken lightly. After all, Mr. Peabody has to direct Sherman as he enters Wayback Machine settings.

I know that it’s fashionable to decry TV as a vast wasteland, and satellite TV as an even vaster wasteland, but I couldn’t disagree more with the NPR pundits and Bruce Springsteen (recall the now-dated song “57 Channels and Nothin’ On”). That fragile layabout Marcel Proust found a Madeleine evocative. Bully for him. But for me, cookie crumbs hold no sway. What brings it all back is the Professor’s bamboo Geiger counter on Gilligan’s Island and the cold war episodes that featured Soviet spies somehow transported to our favorite castaways’ splendid tropical venue.

In the not-too-distant future, we’ll marvel at how coy ElimiDate’s scantily clad hotties are. We’ll say to each other, “remember when dating didn’t involve any revealing MRIs?” It’ll seem as hopelessly quaint and too-cute as those giggling couples and the chipmunk-cheeked host of the Newlywed Game. Or we’ll watch the weather reports from important days of our lives on old episodes of the Weather Channel’s “Pain Index”. “Oh, there’s the foggy travel advisory from the day I was born. On channel 2857. Wanna watch?”

The mauve “GO BACK” button; that’s all it takes.

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copyright 2003 Catherine C. Marshall