Spoiler for today's Doctor Who episode feature below, read at your own peril.

Today's Christmas Doctor Who revolved around a technologically advanced civilisation from the far future travelling back in time and downloading people at the point of their death to put in a big database of dead people.

I'm sure I've come across other very similar stories or TV episodes before, but I was wondering what the earliest was. This question mentions Spider Robinson's Time Pressure from the late 80s, but I've definitely never read that so I think there must be others.

There's a wikipedia page listing various stories/films that involve uploading personality/consciousness in general, but doesn't cover the time travel aspect. A quick google turned up page after page of far-out near death experience stuff which wasn't very helplful (apparently you do actually time travel when you die, which is something to look forward to).

  • Do you count stories in which not just the personality but the whole person, body and soul, is yanked from the past to the future at the moment of death, and either replaced with a fake body (as in the Varley story mentioned in JRE's answer), or else returned to the past to die on schedule?
    – user14111
    Dec 26, 2017 at 0:27
  • @user14111 yes - that's actually a more accurate description of what happens in the Dr Who episode anyway. Time is frozen and the subject is yanked forward to the future, copied into the library, and then returned to their present to die. Seems a bit mean if you ask me. In the future, the copied person can be embodied in a machine that takes on their outward appearance (but if you want to have a chat with them or whatever. Dec 26, 2017 at 11:21
  • This wasn't even the first time Dr Who did this. The 2011 episode Let's Kill Hitler had a similar mechanic, though nothing as belign as downloading memories.
    – amflare
    Dec 26, 2017 at 14:37
  • @Bob, the Testimony doesn't take them to to the future, it records their memories in the moment before dying. There's time travel in this episode involving the subject only because the Captain was yanked out of his time because of what the two Doctors were doing, and the Testimony was following them, both for its original mission (to record his memories) and to deal with them mucking up the timestream. Dec 27, 2017 at 18:36

2 Answers 2


The earliest book I remember involves people being rescued from certain doom just before the moment of death. This was when they were easiest to rescue since the geodesic link to the future was weakest. One person was rescued from a fire just before he would have been burned alive. The book title is The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson.

I read the paperback reprint, but the earliest publication date, according to ISFDB, is a three-part serialization in Astounding Science Fiction.
Part one was published in May 1938;
Part two was published in June 1938;
Part three was published in July 1938.

The issues of Astounding Science Fiction containing the serialization of The Legion of Time are available at the Internet Archive:
Part one, in ASF May 1938;
Part two, in ASF June 1938;
Part three, in ASF July 1938.


The earliest I know of was "Air Raid" from 1977 by John Varley. That short story was expanded to the novel "Millenium" in 1983. The link goes to the wikipedia page for "Millenium" which also mentions "Air Raid."

The premise is that war and disease and pollution have nearly destroyed the human race. The ones still alive are in bad shape - mostly sick, mostly incapable of having children.

They have a way to colonize a new planet, but no people suitable as colonists.

They also have a time machine. They use the time machine to take people from the past to use as colonists.

They can only take people whose absence won't change history. So, they take people who are going to die in a catastrophe (airplane crashes) and leave fake corpses.

The corpses are identical with the original people (surgery and prosthetics to mimic the originals) usually made from the "children" of the last living generation - brainless, misshapen vegetables incapable of living without machine support.


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