The first of the four “time travel” network TV dramas for the 2016-17 television season, the NBC series Timeless, premiered last night. This is the time travel show where a criminal goes back in time to change our present history, and three other time travelers try to go back to undo the damage.
I watched the pilot last night – well, actually this morning, thanks to the NBC app on my BlackBerry PRIV – and although there were plenty of interesting points about the show, both good and bad, there were also some moments where I just sat there and said, “Really? You’re going to go there?”
Let’s start with the opening moments. A rogue military operative group, led by criminal Gabriel Flynn (Goran Višnjić, Dr. Luka from e/r), steals a time machine and travels to the past – specifically, to 1937, when the Hindenburg airship was to dock in New Jersey and eventually go boom. The government quickly recruits a stock trio – Lucy, a comely-yet-disillusioned history professor (Abigail Spencer), Wyatt, a Delta Force soldier (Matt Lanter) and a scientist / coder / everyman (Malcolm Barrett) – and sends them in a prototype time machine to find Flynn and stop whatever damage he may have caused.
Now with any “time travel” series, there has to be some ground rules, or else the show just disintegrates into crap. In Quantum Leap, Sam could only travel to time periods that existed when he was alive, for example. And in Doctor Who, there are fixed moments in time that cannot be changed – for example, the Doctor can’t go back in time and save Adric / Clara / the Brigadier from death, simply because those moments are fixed points. Once we know the “time rules” in these TV shows, as long as our show follows them, we can watch the show and not gripe about inaccuracies or any deus ex machina situations.
In Timeless, one of the “time rules” is that the time travelers cannot visit a time period in which they existed; apparently they cannot “meet” themselves, or the results would be destructive. And they may only visit a specific period of history once – whatever they do cannot be undone, and the present will be affected by the changes in the timestream. So would someone please contact the estate of Ray Bradbury and send them a royalty check for “A Sound of Thunder.”
Sure enough, the team travels back in time to 1937, to find out what Flynn’s notorious plan might be regarding the Hindenburg. Of course, there’s the usual time-travel jokes and tropes – characters gripe about the inaccuracies of their wardrobe for the time period before they travel back in time (Lucy complains that women didn’t wear underwire brassieres in the 1930’s); characters use modern-day character names as aliases (“He’s Doctor Dre, I’m Nurse Jackie, and we’re from General Hospital” – seriously?), and of course the time travelers end up in jail – where the convenient use of Lucy’s underwire from her brassiere helps them pick the lock and escape. So would someone please contact the estate of Anton Chekhov and send them a royalty check for the use of his gun.
Then we have the sub-plotline involving a Hearst newspaper reporter, Kate Drummond, whom Wyatt immediately sees as a reminder of his lost love. And even though she’s supposed to die when the Hindenburg originally crashed, Wyatt rescues her – and in doing so, we notice that the Hindenburg didn’t crash, causing the timeline to change. Of course, later in the episode, Kate dies from something else, thus not causing some unexpected ripple in the time-space continuum. So would someone please contact Harlan Ellison and send him a check for essentially copying the best Star Trek episode ever, “The City on the Edge of Forever.”
And as the show progresses, we see the other plotlines that will become their own season-length arcs. Why is Rufus the engineer secretly recording Lucy’s and Wyatt’s communications during their trips through time? Why is Flynn carrying a notebook and claiming that the notebook contains Lucy’s handwritten notes? What is this mysterious MacGuffin called “Rittenhouse” and what does it entail? Why not Schuylkill or Conshohocken or Neshaminy?
And of course, the Ray Bradbury “butterfly effect” does take place in this episode – most notably to Lucy’s family, as they are foreshadowed in the beginning of the show – and then we get the twist ending at the end of the program. Yeah, send more money to Bradbury and to Chekhov, and send another check to Harlan Ellison just in case.
Am I going to enjoy Timeless? Maybe. The next episode will take us back to the year 1865 and Lincoln’s assassination, and there are other episodes that will take our intrepid time repair team to other historic hotspots. And honestly, if this show can get past its initial time-travel tropes and build something substantial, I’ll be very interested in seeing more episodes. But if it’s going to crib from every other time-travel and fantasy show out there …
A few more episodes. I’ll give it at least that.