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Stewie: "Now we just got to figure out where we are."
Damnation, you've traveled through time and have no clue when you've ended up! How are you to ascertain what time period you're in, or where you are? Surely you can't just ask a random passer-by—they would think you mad!
Of course, that's what most people do. In Speculative Fiction you would be surprised just how helpful random passers-by are. Asking them suddenly "What Year Is This?!?" or "Where am I?", rather than scaring them and convincing them of your lunacy, elicits, "Why, sir, it's the year 30025; we are in the heart of the Great Space Empire. And did you notice that massive explosion the other day, and how strange everyone's been acting since?"
Perhaps surprisingly, in Real Life, people will generally give a straightforward and honest answer if you ask this question. This is either because people are too polite to not answer the question, or because some people forget the year frequently. (It could also have something to do with the fact that as far as we know, time travel doesn't exist in real life.)
This is usually very useful for our time traveler: he now knows not only where he is, but also what his random task for this week's episode is.
One variation on this trope is for the character to ask for "the date", then clarify, once given the day or the month and day, that the character needs the year.
More subtle travelers seek out a newspaper, if such thing exists during the time he traveled to.
If the time traveller had a specific purpose in mind, this may be followed up with a line describing how they feel about their destination; examples include "That can't be right!" and of course "Then it's not too late!"
Note that time travel is not always necessary to invoke this trope. A long and agonizing prison sentence in the dungeons of the Evil Empire, the end of the world as we know it, or just plain old amnesia can do it.
Sometimes the trope namer question is used to indicate that something (or someone) is behind the times, clinging to the past, or suddenly popular again. See also Fan of the Past and Born in the Wrong Century.
Anime and Manga
- Haruhi Suzumiya example: While fixing the FUBAR Yuki created due to emotions, Kyon uses her Emergency Escape Program to get out. He lands in summer, feeling extremely warm in his sweater (it was winter then), and he realizes he has travelled through time. His first instinct is to find out where he is, followed by when is it. And since nobody would feel happy about being assaulted by an apparently delusional guy in a winter coat, he decides on Newspaper Dating instead.
- In a Marvel UK Transformers Generation 1 story, when Galvatron travels back in time to 1986, he asks this question of a passing human. The human answers before running off in terror.
- In The Mighty Thor #371, a time-travelling lawman appears out of thin air and asks a bystander "What's the date, citizen?" He has to ask a second time, less politely, before the bystander pulls himself together enough to reply.
- In the Firefly/Doctor Who crossover fanfic The Man with No Name, the Doctor spends much of the story confused about where/when he is and eventually simply asks. It does nothing to help get the Serenity crew to think he isn't completely bonkers.
- Played with in the Drunkard's Walk "Steplet" The Melancholy of Douglas Sangnoir: When asked by Haruhi Suzumiya if he is a time traveler, Doug replies, "That depends on what year it is."
- Appears in Terminator, although questioning under gunpoint is required to receive the (incomplete) answer.
- The questioned police officer, whom Kyle Reese has just disarmed, gives him the date and day of the week, but balks and looks confused when Kyle demands to know the year.
- A variation appears in the movie Jumanji. Finally released after spending twenty six years trapped in a board game, Alan jumps on the hood of Carl's police car and demands, "What year is it?". Carl replies, "It was brand new", referring to the make of the car.
- Parodied in the film of The Spirit; when asked what year it is in the Anachronism Stew setting, the title character replies "This year!"
- The Romulans ask "What is the Stardate?" to Captain Robau at the beginning of the Star Trek prequel/reboot.
- Modified from the norm: He was not uncertain of the date - he was certain of an incorrect date. He was just asking that question because he figured Captain Robau was screwing with him.
- Asked by Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) in Contact after traveling through time and space. Going with Einstein's Theory of Relativity, she assumed that it was many years after her departure. As it turns out her journey took approximately two seconds in Earth time, while to everyone she didn't go anywhere.
- Averted in the film Time After Time. H. G. Wells travels through time to 20th century Los Angeles. He runs down the street and asks random people what year it is, but they all think he's some kind of kook and don't answer. Eventually he finds a newspaper with the date on it.
- Marty McFly also uses newspapers as his way of determining the year he's in during Back to The Future Parts I and II.
- A clever variation appears in Hot Tub Time Machine - instead of directly asking the year, Nick asks, "What color is Michael Jackson?" (The answer "black" confirms he has traveled into the past).
- In The Black Knight, Martin Lawrence's character Jamal finds himself in The Middle Ages in England. When he finally realizes that it's not a theme park, he asks a servant girl if it is a certain date. She confirms that it is. He then, just to make sure, asks if the certain year is correct. She is a little confused that his year starts with a 2 and replies something that starts with "It is the year of our Lord..." Needless to say, Jamal is a little freaked out, especially since he'd just witnessed a beheading.
- In The Sorcerers Apprentice, the bad guy (Alfred Molina) comes out of his can, and immediately asks David, "When am I?" David misunderstands, tells him where he is, and he has to repeat the question.
- In the Dark Shadows movie:
Barnabas Collins: What is the year?
- In the Discworld novel Night Watch, Vimes averts this—mostly because he doesn't know he time-traveled until later.
- Later in the story Dibbler (who is not a time traveller) asks him what year it is.
- The main character of the novel The Time Traveler's Wife time-travels involuntarily, and ends up disoriented in other times so often that friends and family close enough to know about his condition will sometimes tell him the year before he has a chance to ask.
- Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World. After traveling back through time about 33,000 years, Slippery Jim De Griz captures a man and asks him what year it is. He's told it's 1975.
- Happens in Connie Willis' novel Doomsday Book. Slightly inverted, because the character had purposely gone back in time, and had been in the past for several weeks in what she thought was 1320, but turned out to be 1348, when the Black Death reached England.
- A non-time travel example that may also be the Ur Example occurs in The Count of Monte Cristo: during his time in prison, Dantes has lost track of the time passed, and so when he escapes he needs to ask What Year Is This? to the sailors who pick him up from the sea.
- The Animorphs ask a French knight this question in Elfangor's Secret. He looks at them like they're mad before humoring them. Later, they get smarter and use the newspaper trick, but since Rachel had already morphed an elephant in front of them, subtlety was pretty much a moot point.
- Occurs and played with in the Warhammer 40,000 Night Lords novel Lord of the Night. Commander Zso Sahaal crashes on an Imperial Hive World after being waylaid by the Eldar. He knows he's been gone for some time and is unwilling to risk exposure by seeking a public outlet. So, he kidnaps a man to tell him what year it is. The terrified man simply tells that the year is 986, making Sahall think he's been gone for 600 years. While pondering the implications, he gets a nagging afterthought and asks the man if he meant 31,986. Cue BSOD after the man tells him that the year is, in fact, 40,986.
- In Lest Darkness Fall, Martin Padway finds himself transported to Rome in 535 AD. He tries to ask people the date in his shaky Latin, and at first gets the year in the old Roman calendar then has to ask how many years since Christ was born to get the proper year.
- A version where it's not the year, but with the same "How could anyone not know that?" factor - Ebeneezer Scrooge asking an urchin what day it is. "Why, it's Christmas Day, sir!"
- In Robert E. Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel" Pelias asks Conan the Barbarian this, and realizes it's been ten years, which explains his lack of coherency.
- Inverted in Lawrence Block's Tanner on Ice, when Evan Tanner is perfectly sure of what year it is—1972—except that thanks to a Swedish agent (long story) who turned him into a Human Popsicle, he's wrong by a quarter of a century.
- The Eyre Affair: Thursday and Bowden stop a temporal rift by driving into it, and after re-emerging they ask mission control what year it is. Doubly subverted: not only does Chrono-Guard understand the question exactly (because dealing with temporal anomalies is their job), they are so jaded that they tell Thursday a ridiculously exaggerated date, just to mess with her head.
- Averted in book seven of The Pendragon Adventure. When Bobby asks passers-by on Quillan about things absolutely anyone would know, their response is to back away slowly.
Live Action TV
- Doctor Who: The Doctor did this in far too many episodes to count. Answers like the one given above usually pointed him in the direction of his latest adventure in the process.
- Once the Fifth Doctor asked an English medieval peasant this question, and in an amusing nod to the times, the man's reply was something along the lines of "Wait, wait, I know this.."
- Less common in the new series: the Doctor and his companions prefer to determine the year by picking up newspapers or otherwise deducing it from the environment. When he tries this trick straight (in "The Long Game"), he is mocked. Luckily to him, he happens to be talking to news reporters, who, after his insistence, have him Mistaken for Special Guest and thus provide all the exposition he requires.
- Subverted in the 4th season finale:
The Doctor: (After travelling in the TARDIS) Excuse me, what day is it?
- Played straight in The Next Doctor
The Doctor: "You there boy what day is this?"
- What happens a few hours later that year is absolutely not dull.
- Quantum Leap, though Sam tries to be subtler about it.
- Spoofed in The Fast Show, with a space-suited character who runs into ordinary rooms and frantically shouts "What year is it? Who's the President?" and then runs out before he gets a reply.
- The series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation opened with Captain Picard asking this
- Also in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the last episode of season one "The Neutral Zone" had a guest character (who had just been woken from cryonic freeze) ask it; Data replied that it was 2364—the Trek universe's first mention of the actual year.
- Somewhat different in that, since they were in cryonic suspension, everyone would expect them not to know the year, so it wouldn't be seen as a strange question.
- This also happened at the end of this series's Groundhog Day Loop episode. The Enterprise asked the ship it had been crashing into what year it was. Subverted somewhat because the Enterprise already knew, from a time-base beacon, how long they'd been trapped; they wanted to know how long the other ship (which was painfully obsolete) had been in Groundhog Day.
- And in the final episode, Picard bounces between his past, present, and future self via Q, and the first scene(repeated towards the end) has him approaching Worf and Troi and asking for the date. A confused Worf gives the stardate.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, "Past Tense, Part I".[context?]
- Gotten around in Sliders, where the Professor would ask people to settle a bet, in a tone that sounded like he already knew the incredibly obvious answer.
- Used in two episodes of Journeyman.
- Subverted in an episode of Seven Days. The hero finds himself in a civil war battle, which is far further back than the one week the time machine can go. He grabs someone and asks, "What year is this? 1861?" The guy responds, "Dude, what are you talking about?" The hero realizes he just landed in the middle of a reenactment.
- Desmond on Lost starts down this road because of his time jumping.
- And when Ben arrives in Tunisia, apparently by a jump in both space and time from the island in early January 2005, he asks for the date. When told it's October 24th, he says, "200...5?" and is told, with only a slightly baffled stare, that yes, it's 2005.
- Locke is later forced to ask Richard the same question, in 1954.
- Sam Tyler to Gene Hunt in Life On Mars. (Answer: 1973. Almost dinnertime. He's 'aving 'oops.)
- The American version: ("1973, or, as our Chinese Brethren call it, the Year of the Fist!")
- A fellow in a Brazilian show had a variation of this—he'd ask what the current composition of the national soccer team was.
- Used in an early episode of Power Rangers Time Force by the villains. Being villains, they chose to ask the guy by grabbing him by the throat and being threatening. (The heroes are able to have their Robot Buddy just tell them when they are.)
- Caroline asks DeWitt this question in Dollhouse for entirely non-time-travel related reasons: at the time, she's both amnesiac and being confronted with the implausibly futuristic mind-altering technology that's the premise of the show.
- Various other characters, upon being wakened with their "real" personalities, have asked what year it is because they knew time would have passed while they were dolls.
- Faith, on awaking from her coma in Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
Faith: What day is it?
- Amusingly, Faith and Caroline are both played by the same actress.
- Played completely straight in the 1991 Dark Shadows in the 1790 segment.
- Subverted on Touched By an Angel, when a man wakes up from a coma. The first thing he says after "I sure could use a cheeseburger" is to ask the nurse how long he was asleep. "Counting today...twelve years."
- Mocked in a Fry & Laurie sketch about time travel, in which Hugh Laurie, dressed in a deerstalker and cape, reveals he has travelled forward in time *five minutes*, then asks who the Prime Minister is, and if Noel Edmonds is still alive. (To which Stephen Fry replies "Not that I'm aware of.")
- Babylon 5: Asked by The commander of Babylon 4 as soon as he is told where Sinclair and Garibaldi came from.
- Played for laughs in the episode of Monk where Sharona, his original assistant, came back. When she arrived, Adrian was rinsing his eyes with water to get the dust out following a vacuum-cleaner accident. When he saw her instead of his current assistant, he rinsed his eyes again and then asked her what year it was.
- The Edutainment Game Amazon Trail II (in which you Time Travel by passing through "the blue mist") includes a version of this line in its Dialogue Trees. When asked this question, NPCs helpfully reply with the whole date. One can only assume they think you've been traveling through the rainforest for a long time.
- Some people you talk to aren't that helpful - for example, one native responds to the question with "the end of the rainy season".
- A recurring situation in the Infinity series:
- In Ever 17, The Kid asks this not due to being a time traveler, but because he has amnesia. Of course, in some routes the person he asks lies to him, because even if he's not asking because he's a displaced time traveler doesn't mean he isn't one.
- In Remember 11, Kokoro is told by Satoru that she is time-traveling, and asks this of people to confirm or disprove it. She gets conflicting results. The conflict is due to the fact that several of the characters are unknowingly time traveling (or have time-traveled), so the people she asks aren't necessarily all from the same time period
- This exact phrase is used by Nigel in The Lost Crown, because so much of Saxton's architecture, technology, and even its people seem to date from an earlier time. And not even the same time, at that.
- Final Fantasy XIII-2, in which the playable characters Serah and Noel travel throughout time, but the question often isn't unexpected, because people know that there are strange things going on with time and in some cases also know of the fact that they're time travelers. Serah, however, gives the exact line in a dream version of New Bodhum in The Void Beyond and only earns an insinuation that's she's gone loopy, because it's a fantasy world in which she never started a time travel journey.
- In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's Portable: The Gears of Destiny, Vivio was Genre Savvy enough to ask this to an unusually young-looking Yuuno who seemed perplexed when Vivio called him Head Librarian, confirming her fears that she had somehow landed in a Time Travel story.
- In The Cloak, the disembodied head of Robert Mitchum uses this phrase, despite not actually having traveled through time.
- Used bluntly in this Casey and Andy strip.
- Used in this Irregular Webcomic strip.
- And again here, with link to this page.
- Goes a bit wrong in this Sailor Sun strip.
- Surprisingly done with the subtle method in The Adventures of Dr. McNinja.
- Bob and George parodies this here.
- What is the darwinfisting date?!
- In the South Park episode "My Future Self and Me", the phony news tape used to try and convince Stan that his future self has been brought into the past by a freak accident references this trope.
- Parodied in Family Guy. When Stewie and Brian are teleported in time, Brian wonders aloud 'when' they are, Stewie replies with "That is such a douche time-traveler question."
- Parodied in one sketch on Robot Chicken. A (we assume) time traveller leans out of a portal that appears in some kid's back yard.
Time Traveller: Hey! What year is it?
- One piece of 4chan copy pasta advice for Instant Seduction involves disappearing for a week, growing a beard, getting a tan (including wedding ring tan line), and being found "semi-conscious" in the target's house, naked and injured, demanding to know the answer to this question. Somehow, Coitus Ensues.
- Played straight when Team One in Suburban Knights released Chuck Jaffers from a magic book. When he asked what year it was, it turns out that he had been trapped in 30 years.
- Used in Nan Quest when it's discovered that people entered the hotel at vastly different times.
- Real Life (sort of): Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day (bottom of the page) got casual results to questions like this. The bystander may think you're crazy, but they'll still answer your questions.
- Back when people used to write checks (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) this kind of thing happened in early January.
- Huh? I wrote a check yesterday... what year is this again?
- Or when those TPS reports have to be faxed.