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"I will never employ any device with a digital countdown. If I find that such a device is absolutely unavoidable, I will set it to activate when the counter reaches 1:17 and the hero is just putting his plan into operation."
—Evil Overlord List, #15
In many cases, for whatever reason -- be it the alignment of planets, a scheduled public event to sabotage, a "you have one hour to comply or..." threat, or just a plain old Time Bomb -- the villain's plot is time sensitive: It will succeed at a given moment and not one second sooner. The hero has until that moment to stop the villain.
Naturally, things will go down to the wire and the hero will foil the evil scheme at the last possible second. It's especially powerful when combined with Real Time... even if it takes a Magic Countdown to line things up properly. This is a frequently used but still effective method of adding more tension to the story. Compare When the Clock Strikes Twelve and Right on the Tick.
One variant is that a specific time isn't the point of success; the villain must instead be stopped before he collects all the Plot Coupons or kills all of his intended victims. In this case, the hero will stop the last, and only the last, step in the evil plan. This sucks in the case of victims, since all but the last victim are still dead, but hey, at least the villain didn't win...
In other cases, time itself is the foe with the help of some random coincidences that impede the hero's progress. Interestingly, the audience will probably buy these coincidences since they come off, if done well, as an application of Finagle's Law. Usually, such a sequence will serve as a dramatic finale.
The video game equivalent is the Timed Mission. The video game subversion is Take Your Time, where they TELL you that it's a Race Against the Clock, but you're not penalized for going at your own pace.
A rather specific subtrope is You Have 48 Hours.
Anime and Manga
- The whole Saint Seiya series is based on this for every single one of its arcs. In the first one the heroes have to reach the Pope after having to go through 12 temples protected by fierce warriors in less than 12 hours or else their Goddess would die. In the second arc of the anime, the heroes have to gather 7 saphirs to break the spell on the filler's baddy before dusk or else their Goddess would die. In the third arc, they need to break the pillars of the 7 seas before the world gets completely flooded and before their Goddess turned human pillar drowns or else their Goddess would die (and the world would be turned into Waterworld). In the final arc, they need to defeat Hades and rescue their Goddess before the alignment of the planets or else their Goddess would die. Notice a regular pattern? Finally, in the new manga Next Dimension, they have 3 days to go to the past and break Hades' sword or else... the hero would die (but their Goddess too just for good measure).
- A subplot in Captain Tsubasa has Ken "Karate Keeper" Wakashimazu defying his parents because he wants to play soccer and not become the Heir to the Dojo. In the original manga and old series, his father gives him one year to reach the championship with the Toho team; if not, he'll have to come back home and inherit the dojo. When Ken fulfills his word, Mr. Wakashimazu gives him his blessings.
- In Glass Mask, Tsukikage gives her pupil Maya Kitajima two years to win an award as prestigious as one that her rival Ayumi Himekawa has just won, or else Ayumi gets the Crimson Goddess role without further contest.
- In the Digimon Movie Our War Game, a virus called Diablomon has caused a nuclear missile to launch, somewhere in the world. Diablomon sends a menacing but childish email to them, asking, "which one has the clock?". They then have ten minutes to destroy the various copies he's making of himself, finding the one with the clock that controls the missile. Could be considered a Time Bomb.
- In Future War 198X Wataru has only one hour of oxygen left up in outer space and must find some way to stop the Communists from pressing the Big Red Button and destroying the world with nukes.
- In Oto x Maho, Kanata imposes a race against the clock on HIMSELF, transforming to start fighting, then telling the student council president on the other side of the door to the roof to count to 10, then open the door. If he does not kill the enemy in 10 seconds, then transform back to his normal form, his job as a Magical Girl will be exposed.
- Yugi, Judai and Yusei in Yu-Gi-Oh Tenth Anniversary Movie need to defeat Paradox before Pegasus arrives at Domino City for his event after the Crimson Dragon gave them another chance to stop Paradox from destroying Domino City and killing Pegasus and everyone else in the city. Not to mention stopping Paradox from destroying reality as they know it.
- The second half of Steins;Gate features Okabe trying to get enough clues as to how to undo the changes he previously did to the past before Mayuri dies, always at 8 PM. Every time he succeeds, the deadline gets delayed for 24 more hours.
- In the Yu-Gi-Oh Card Game, there is a card called Final Countdown that will end the game making the user the winner in 20 turns after being used, it can even be sped up by 1 turn by using the Pyro Clock of Destiny Trap Card. So it turns out to be a Race Against the Clock to defeat the opponent before the 20th turn is reached.
- The Magic: The Gathering card Darksteel Reactor has the exact same effect. Since it uses charge counters to mark how many turns have passed and comes from a block in which charge counters are a major mechanic, there are many ways to speed it up. (For example, Energy Chamber puts a charge counter on any of your artifacts once each turn, thus functionally cutting the Reactor's "clock" in half.)
- In Final Crisis, the Guardians of the Universe tell Hal Jordan and his fellow Green Lanterns that: "You have 24 hours to save the universe."
- Calvin and Hobbes: The Series has a non-lethal variation in "Eggs for Calvin": the titular protagonist has to find five eggs hidden throughout town or else Hobbes and resident prankster Socrates will prank him. He manages to unwittingly jail two crooks in the process.
- A more serious example would be much later, in "Our Solemn Hour"; Holographic Retro sets up an extremely hazardous maze that Calvin and Hobbes must escape from within an hour, or else they'll be crushed by the ceiling. They just barely make it, and then Calvin and Retro have their showdown...
- In Aliens the "Big Computer That Controls Everything" announces that the coolant system has shut down and the reactors will overheat and explode. Bishop estimates that they have approximately four hours before that, and later on the computer inside the reactor starts giving them a precise countdown.
- The latter type of Race Against the Clock happens in Back to The Future, which is often described as being a chase scene despite its lack of pursuers. (The film's villain had already been defeated by that point.)
- Part III has one as well, set up very similarly to the first movie, with at least three elements working against the heroes.
- Most versions of "Cinderella". The Disney version adds an actual chase for good measure.
- Lampshaded in Galaxy Quest when Tim Allen and Sigourney Weaver fight their way through numerous obstacles to the "Big Red Button" which stops the explosion and press it with 17 seconds left ... only to see it continue to count down, eventually to stop with one second left ... because that was a requirement of this trope.
- The ending of Ferris Bueller's Day Off involves Ferris running through a series of obstacles as he tries to beat his family back to his house.
- Outland. In the space-mining colony on Io, a large digital clock is in the bar showing the exact time-till-arrival of the weekly supply shuttle. When word gets out that two hitmen are arriving on the 12:00 shuttle to kill the protagonist, the clock takes on the role of the Ticking Countdown of Doom. The protagonist has actually completed his preparations hours before; the deadline only serves to rack up his (and the audience's) tension.
- "You have thirteen hours in which to solve the Labyrinth before your baby brother...becomes one of us forever. Such a pity..."
- A variation is used in the film Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. In the film, Godzilla himself becomes something of a ticking nuclear time bomb as he's quickly going to explode/meltdown as soon as his heart reaches critical mass. The human characters even measure how high his body temperature is before he goes critical.
- Of course, it's partially subverted in a sense that the human protagonists FAIL in stopping Godzilla from reaching critical mass. Luckily, Godzilla Jr. absorbs the majority of radiation his "father" gives off and is brought back to life, growing into an adult Godzilla.
- Too many romantic comedies to count end with a Race to the Church Before Your True Love Marries Someone Wrong scene.
- Or a Race to the Airport before the plane leaves.
- Both often subverted these days, in that the deadline is missed but the Love Interest decided not to go through with it.
- Or a Race to the Airport before the plane leaves.
- Run Lola Run. Lola's boyfriend Manny has a meeting with some mobsters, and he just lost the money he was supposed to hand off to them. The meeting's in twenty minutes, so Lola and Manny have that long to get the money back.
- Used in numerous James Bond films - the Connery films often had the counter finishing at 0-0-7; by the Moore era the producers pushed it to the limit by having Bond disable the weapon right on 0-0-0.
- Seven Days in May. The US President believes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is plotting a military coup under cover of a mobilisation exercise to be held in seven days. Because the general is highly popular, the President can't dismiss him without proof, so his staff have that long to find evidence of the conspiracy.
- Bill and Ted only have a day to travel back in time to get various historical figures for their history report, or Ted will be shipped off to military school in Alaska.
- In Midnight Run, bounty hunter Robert De Niro has to get fugitive Charles Grodin back to Los Angeles by midnight on Friday or bondsman Joe Pantoliano loses the bond.
- In a twist it is the heroes' unfortunate actions in L: Change the World that are time sensitive. Maki is the one who injected herself with a lethal virus to begin with, and it has to be cured before it becomes active or she could kill innocent bystanders. L likewise has one more week to live after writing his own name in the Death Note to catch Kira and has to get the new problem solved before he dies.
- Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. The original novel, the multiple film adaptations, the Michael Palin travelogue in which Palin attempts to duplicate Phileas Fogg's trip.
- Brewster's Millions, a novel twice adapted into films, in which the protagonist will inherit a large sum of money, but only if he can completely waste a smaller amount of money in thirty days (spend thirty million to inherit three hundred million in the later Richard Pryor film adaptation).
- In Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Voldemort gives Harry an hour to turn himself in so as to stop the fighting, during the Final Battle at Hogwarts.
- Whereas in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Harry is told he only has an hour to complete the Second Task of the tournament--and afterward, everyone laughs at him for having taken that part of the instructions seriously.
- In Gone , Sam and Caine have eleven days to figure out how to not disappear when they turn fifteen.
Live Action TV
- 24. Always.
- Inverted in Star Trek TOS where the good guys essentially gave the bad guys an ultimatum; "Back off or we blow ourselves -- and you -- to smithereens" and then start the clock ticking.
- Lampshaded in an episode on NCIS where a group of marines in a training exercise find an armed bomb with about 3 minutes left on the clock. 10 seconds later the bomb goes off and the Gunnery Sgt. reminds them of Evil Overlord Rule #15: Never assume a bomb's timer is accurate.
- Robin Hood features an episode where the Sheriff goes missing, and must be found by sunset or Nottingham will be destroyed.
- The Real Time episode of MASH, "Life Time": the surgeons have to perform a critical operation in the time frame of the episode. This is further dramatized by a ticking clock counter superposed on the lower right corner of the screen.
- Used very often in MacGyver. Of course, the timer is sometimes set by our hero himself.
- In Lost, according to Ms. Hawking, Ben has only 70 hours to reunite the Oceanic 6 and (presumably) return to the island or "God help us all."
- Happens in an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica Classic. Strangely, the writers got confused and the meaning of the timer changed mid-plot.
- The first episode (post-miniseries-pilot) of the new series featured a recurring countdown of exactly 33 minutes between Cylon attacks on the colonial fleet.
- In the episode "Endgame" of Babylon 5 the liberation fleet must destroy the Earth orbital defense system redirected at the planet's surface by the insane governor before it opens fire.
- This is a key aspect of the premise of Stargate Universe - the main cast does not have full control of the Destiny, and it only stops at a given location for a few hours at a time before jumping back into FTL. Anyone not on board the ship at this time is left behind.
- On Prison Break, they're usually racing against a season-long clock and a tinier clock in a number of episodes.
- In the episode 'Ability' in season 1 of Fringe, Olivia disarms a timed bomb on the top of a skyscraper by turning out a set of small lights only by staring at them, succeeding with two seconds left on the timer.
- Lampshaded in the troperiffic 200th episode of Stargate SG-1 when the Cloudcuckoolander movie producer takes a sarcastic comment about having a ticking clock on the screen seriously.
- Game Shows: Although game shows don't have actual villains -- unless you count the producers who may deny a contestant a prize -- many give contestants very short time limits (usually 30 seconds or less) to complete a task. Other game shows require a contestant to complete a task in less time than the shortest time posted by a previous contestant. Some examples:
- Whew actually did have a Gauntlet of Villains for it's end game against the clock.
- Beat the Clock (duh!)
- Jeopardy! (The light bars above the contestants' podiums, and that annoying music they play during Final Jeopardy)
- The Price Is Right has several games with actual ticking clocks.
- Truth or Consequences also had many ticking clock games and contests.
- Reality TV (aka, game shows on steroids): A few reality TV shows have contestants (or teams of contestants) race against the times of their competitors:
- A rare music example - Madonna's recent hit "4 Minutes", and its accompanying video, both center around having "4 minutes to save the world"-- with the video even having a countdown clock as a backdrop. (Never mind, of course, that the song lasts four seconds too long...)
- A number of video games, particularly the Grand Theft Auto games or Wide Open Sandbox Racing games, feature missions that are little more than pretty decorations for "get from Point A to Point B fast".
- The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask: You have three days to save the world! At least you have the ability to go back in time, but at expense of some of your achievements.
- Dead Rising - Although it's self-imposed by the main character, who requests his pilot to come for him in 72 hours.
- Metroid: Almost every game. Prime starts out with a seven minute evacuation deadline after the first boss is killed (and falls into the power generator, which goes KABOOM!). Zero Mission has two, after killing Mother Brain and Mecha Ridley. Fusion has 3 (a lot for a game that can be completed in 4 hours or less), when the Core-X holding the Wide Beam appears (you only have to get there and kill it PLUS stop an overheat in the boiler room... in 6 minutes. Later, when you send a section of the station plummeting to the planet, you have a minute or so to escape... through a rather long path and finally, when you throw the station to the ground, you have approximately 3 minutes to get to the hangar, kill the final boss, wait for your ship, board it and fly away... which can easily take more time than given (killing the final boss can take a long time...)
- In Touhou Imperishable Night, the heroines all, by some unique means, stop the sun from rising, and race to find the cause of the corrupted moon before 5:00 AM.
- In the Mass Effect 2 DLC mission "The Arrival", you have only 2 days, and later 2 hours, to destroy a gateway that will let the Eldritch Abomination / Starfish Aliens known as the Reapers reach the galaxy. Unlike a lot of time sensitive video game plots, you have a live timer for this, and you get a special game over if it reaches zero.
- The Gigantic in Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors sinks after the nominal 9 hours expires. Except it turns out that the characters weren't on the Gigantic at all.
- Actually, a lot of video games from the golden and silver ages in general had a countdown timer. It was seen as strange in 1995 when Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island came out that there was no timer counting down from 400 or 300, which gamers were used to by this point.
- Automated Simulations/Epyx's Rescue at Rigel. "Sudden" Smith has 60 minutes to rescue 10 captives from an asteroid. The current time (counting up from 1) is always on the screen.
- You carry a watch throughout Assault On Vampire Island and aim to finish the game before the night finishes.
- Homestuck: Nearly every time you see a countdown clock, you can be sure that a meteor is heading towards that clock, which is a pretty big impetus to get the hell out of wherever you are by whatever means necessary. The game seems to like throwing meteors at things.
- Oh, and there's that one countdown to the destruction of an entire universe and the creation of a sun the size of two of them.
- Identified explicitly in South Park as "the ticking clock" by the candy store owner, who notes that it "works great in the movies". Another Trey Parker / Matt Stone production, Team America: World Police uses and calls attention to it (by Kim Jong Il, the Genre Savvy Big Bad of the film).
- Lampshaded in the South Park movie when the Mole looks at his watch when they arrive at the USO show. Under the time is the label "Act Three: The Ticking Clock."
- Freakshow in Danny Phantom gives the Power Trio three days to get all the gems for his Infinity Gauntlet or their family dies. Why three days? Because it's dramatic.
- Played with on The Simpsons. Fat Tony gives Marge twenty-four hours to get the money she owes him. To prove that he's serious, she only has 12 hours.
- Or this little exchange:
Mr. Burns [after having a conversation about something totally different]: Oh, and Simpson? You must find the Jade Monkey before the next full moon.
- In The Simpsons Movie, a bomb is lowered into the giant glass dome, which will blow up in exactly 15 minutes.
- In the same movie, Homer kicks the bomb on the ground, making it fall over and causing the remaining time to halve.
- In The Simpsons Movie, a bomb is lowered into the giant glass dome, which will blow up in exactly 15 minutes.
- Parodied on Futurama, in "Roswell That Ends Well".
Leela: No problem. The ship's fixed except for the cup holder and I think I can have that operational within 10 hours.
- Family Guy. "Three days? That's tomorrow!"
- In the Real Adventures of Jonny Quest episode "Escape to Questworld," Jonny, Jessie and Hadji have to get Surd to deactivate the release of his nerve gas, because their parents' protective suits will lose their effectiveness in exactly 22 hours.
- In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we see an example of one of the longer races against time. There's a comet coming at the end of the summer- that will give the Fire Benders incredible powers, enough to completely burn down the Earth Kingdom. So, yeah, Aang, you got till then to defeat the Fire Nation. Good luck!
- He loses the race, though he and his friends end up defeating the Fire Nation at the zenith of their power anyway.
- In an unfinished episode of Invader Zim, appropriately named "Ten Minutes 'Till Doom", Dib manages to knock Zim's PAK off of him. This triggers a ten minute coutndown which would have appeared in the top left corner of the screen for the rest of the episode. What's it for? Well, apparently Zim can't live for longer than ten minutes without his PAK.