The myth and aura of President John F. Kennedy has permeated many aspects of our culture, including the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. This is due to the circumstances of his tenure as U.S. president and his assassination. Even though the Space Age began before he took office, JFK helped invigorate the nation’s space efforts with his pledge to land a man on the moon by the end of the ’60s. His short time in office also saw the closest moment to date of a full-scale nuclear war with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then there is the tragedy of his assassination that even today is fraught with controversy.
Needless to say, almost all of these stories have to do with either time travel scenarios or alternate history. Often, the time travel yarns lead to alternate timelines where the slain president is never killed in 1963. Ironically, it turn out that JFK living past that fateful day usually leads to a disastrous timeline. It’s interesting to note this considering the admiration that many have for the slain leader. Of course, the reason is because these stories need some drama.
There are too many sci-fi and fantasy books to list here that explore JFK and altered history. Some notable entries include Alternate Kennedys, a collection of short stories that featured alternate history accounts, as well as decidedly fantasy and comedic tales of JFK and his family. Some of the better stories in that collection are “The Winterberry”, “The Kennedy Enterprise” (in this tale, the Kennedy brothers are the big stars of a famous sci-fi TV franchise), “A Fleeting Wisp Of Glory”, and “Prince Pat”.
Stanley Shapiro penned a time travel book called A Time To Remember, which was made into a TV film Running Against Time that starred Robert Hays as a professor who wants to save his brother from dying in the Vietnam War. So he goes back in time to save JFK and thus prevent that war from happening.
Another novel about JFK living past 1963 being detrimental to history is Prologue by Greg Ahlgren. In this book, JFK never died and wound up pulling out of Vietnam. This decision led to the communistic takeover of the world, causing the book’s protagonists to travel in time back to JFK’s era and rewrite history.
One recent, high-profile work is Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 where the story’s main character time travels to the past and stops Oswald. The resulting timeline leads to George Wallace, and later Hillary Clinton, into becoming presidents and the Vietnam War escalating into nuclear war.
Putting aside the fantastic novels and stories, recently many historians have written essays and books seriously exploring alternate timelines about JFK. Many of them are well worth reading for history buffs and fans of alternate history. The most recent example is If Kennedy Lived: The First And Second Terms Of John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History by Jeff Greenfield, a followup to his essay collection Then Everything Changed. In that latter collection of essays, Greenfield explored a timeline where Kennedy was killed before he was inaugurated. This terrible event led to the Cuban Missile Crisis becoming a nuclear war.
Getting back to fiction, there are novels about alternate versions of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In these accounts the crisis turned into full-scale nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, leading to terrifying results. They include Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois and When Angels Wept: A What-If History Of The Cuban Missile Crisis by Eric G. Swedin.
JFK Lives In Film & Other Media
The Kennedy assassination has also been featured in a few sci-fi movies and TV shows. Films include the aforementioned Running Against Time and Timequest, where a time traveler (Ralph Waite) convinces Kennedy not to go on the fateful motorcade. JFK’s altered decision leads to lunar colonies, Robert Kennedy becoming president and no Vietnam War. Unlike many of these stories, the timeline remains altered at the end of the film.
As for TV shows, one outstanding episode is “Profile In Silver” from the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone. It stars Andrew J. Robinson as John F. Kennedy and Nathan Lane as his descendant from the far future, who is a time historian. Assigned to witness the assassination, the historian instead intervenes and saves his ancestor. This leads to a temporal storm of sorts that tries to make up for the disrupted timeline. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushev is killed instead and the world soon finds itself on the brink of a third world war. Once he learns that he was meant to die, Kennedy decides to do what it takes to correct the timeline. In a typical Twilight Zone fashion, the ending to this episode was a true twist.
The time-travel TV show Quantum Leap aired an episode about JFK and his killer. The episode “Lee Harvey Oswald” had the time traveler Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) assume Oswald’s identity throughout his life. Things get complicated when Sam begins assimilating Oswald’s evil persona. Despite Sam’s efforts, he can’t stop Kennedy’s assassination, but succeeds in saving Jackie Kennedy as it supposedly happened in the original timeline.
Regarding alternate assassins, in the graphic novel and film Watchmen, the sociopathic and sadistic superhero, the Comedian, is actually responsible for killing Kennedy at Dealey Plaza. In the TV show, The X-Files, it’s revealed that the infamous Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) is the one who killed the president, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. A viral video has been released as a tie-in to the upcoming X-Men: Days Of Future Past. The video examines the notion that the mutant Magneto (Michael Fassbender) was actually guilty of killing the president by altering the trajectory of the fatal bullet.
In the sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf, an episode (“Tikka To Ride”) explores a time travel mishap where Kennedy is saved. This change leads to the U.S. losing the Space Race and altering the future. In an attempt to correct history, the Red Dwarf crew can’t bring themselves to kill the president, so they pick the last person expected to do the heinous crime.
While Red Dwarf was able to explore the idea of JFK being saved, the Star Trek movie franchise nearly did so as well. The original plot for Star Trek II, as written by Gene Roddenberry, involved the Klingons altering Earth’s timeline by preventing JFK’s assassination using the Guardian of Forever. This alteration somehow led to the Klingons becoming the dominant galactic power in the future. The Enterprise crew has to time travel back to JFK’s time period and correct history. Star Trek II would’ve culminated, according to some accounts, in Spock becoming the assassin.
Lost Dreams Recovered
However, not all stories about JFK living past 11/22/63 don’t necessarily lead to terrible timelines. In Stephen Baxter’s book Voyage, Kennedy surviving the assassination attempt leads to a different outcome of America’s space program. By the 1980s, the nation is able to send a manned mission to Mars.
An older John F. Kennedy briefly appears in the novel The Two Georges (by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss). In the alternate North America depicted in that novel, the U.S. never existed and the continent is still part of the British Empire. Kennedy here is a publisher with strong anti-colonial views. An image of an old JFK is momentarily seen in the parallel world featured on the TV show Fringe where he is a U.N. ambassador in the early 21st century. Also in the pilot episode of the TV show Sliders, the main character Quinn Mallory (Jerry O’Connell) overhears that JFK is still alive on his car radio when he first visits an alternate world. One of the most outlandish alternate JFKs is featured in the cult classic Bubba Ho-Tep. Kennedy is played by Ossie Davis, and his character claims that after the assassination attempt, he was turned into an African-American and forgotten about!
For anyone entranced by what-might’ve-beens and wondering “What if?”, these speculative works about John F. Kennedy are fascinating to explore. His charisma, his shocking, tragic death, and the sense that America’s hopes and dreams were lost that day are why these time travel/alternate history stories are so appealing. When one thinks about it, the subject is tailor made for this sub-genre of sci-fi. Kennedy’s alluring nature and his unrealized promises will continue to captivate many people for some time to come. More importantly, his drive to push the envelope in space exploration and other ideals is a constant source of inspiration for all of us.
The Red Dwarf example, as faintly as I can remember it, was particularly most interesting. Thank you for this article.
Saw that episode of Red Dwarf a couple of years ago and agree that it was well done.
The reason why I faintly remember it is because it was my least favorite season and so it’s not on my re-watch list. But I can certainly remember how well done it was.