Time-travel enthusiasts, I beg your forgiveness. Perhaps some of you were hoping the discussion of NBC’s Timeless would continue. (Perhaps only a very few of you.) Instead we will turn our attention to ABC’s mid-season replacement series Time After Time, adapted from the 1979 film of the same name. I beg your indulgence, folks, but it seemed to me that the discussion of Timeless was spinning its wheels.
My fault, I’m sure, but I couldn’t help but think that I was repeating myself. NBC’s time-travel series remains compelling yet aggravating (yes, still watching it) with many of the same strengths and weaknesses, and unending confusion about just what the heck Rittenhouse is. I’ll be interested to see what happens should NBC renew it. The fact that Lucy’s mom is a member of Rittenhouse was a very nice finale cliffhanger, but the moments suggesting that travelling as a fourth passenger in a time-machine-built-for-three imbued Jiya with a seizure disorder that gives her visions of alternate timelines…or whatever…well, blech.
So let’s talk Time After Time. I remember the original film from my childhood, long before I became a blogging time-travel snob. It’s fun, and the premise was clever: H.G. Wells, arguably the creator of the science fiction genre and author of the classic novel The Time Machine—the one that started it all—is the protagonist, and apparently the inventor of an actual time machine. And he’s also friends with a surgeon named John who turns out to be none other than the original serial killer himself, Jack the Ripper. Discovered and pursued by the police to Wells’ home, John uses the untested time machine as a last ditch escape effort, and winds up in the future…1979.
Wells then uses the machine to pursue his former friend and bring him to justice. Along the way, Wells (a pitch-perfect Malcolm McDowell) learns some hard lessons about the future (it’s not Utopia, pommes frites are now called French fries), and romances a bank employee named Amy (the delightful and talented Mary Steenburgen, doing a time-travel flick years before BttF3). In the end, Wells rescues Amy from the Ripper, who is sent into time-travel oblivion by dint of not knowing the machine as well as its clever inventor.
The series adaptation’s pilot episode adheres more or less the film’s plot, except that it ends with a whiz-bang cliffhanger. Not only has the Ripper kidnapped our hero’s romantic interest (Jane now, not Amy, a museum curator rather than a bank employee portrayed by the charming Genesis Rodriguez) but at that exact moment Wells is interrupted in his panic by the appearance of a woman claiming to be his own great-great-granddaughter. The follow-up episode is dedicated primarily to rescuing Jane, and to learning more about Wells’ descendant, Vanessa.
Oh, and it’s 2017, of course. Not 1979.
Okay, let’s get into the weeds, shall we? Remember how this works? Here’s a refresher on the two basic principles by which I judge my time-travel fare:
1. The explanation of how time-travel works in the story should have some kind of integrity, i.e. it is self-contained, consistent, and not subject to arbitrary “rules.” Without integrity of this kind, we’re less likely to suspend our disbelief. (Time travel is fiction, after all. Believe me, these past few months I wish it weren’t, but it is.)
2. The use of time-travel as a device should satisfy a particular narrative demand, i.e. it makes the story better or more interesting, or reveals something about the characters, or about us, the audience. (Otherwise it’s just genre.)
So let’s start with the big problem regarding the integrity, which we will immediately dismiss out of fairness to the series creators: It is preposterous to imagine that H.G. Wells could have invented an actual time machine. It’s not just that he lived in the wrong century for technology of that kind. (Einstein didn’t even have his job in the patent office yet.) Wells wasn’t even a scientist. He was a brilliant writer and gifted storyteller, with imagination beyond anything you can, well, imagine. He was a teacher and a historian. But he was certainly no physicist, either theoretical or applied.
There, got that out of the way. We’ll let it go. This is the story the series creators chose to adapt, so my issue is really with the source material, i.e. the film. I’m willing to accept that this is a fictional version of Wells with a gift for impossible technology. Regarding this gross breach of integrity, we’ll allow that the series starts with a clean slate.
However, this next breach shall not be dismissed so easily. Wells, in both the movie and the series, arrives in the future at the current location of his awesome, steampunkesque vintage time machine: a museum exhibit dedicated to the legacy of Wells himself, wherein the time machine is a massive centerpiece oddity. (In the movie the museum is located in San Francisco, whereas the series is set in New York City.) In the future, of course, no one knows the thing actually works, and they view the travelers tumbling out of it as trespassers or intruders.
This time-travel ‘rule’—that you arrive inside the future iteration of the machine—is fraught with problems. Can you travel to the past, to long before 1893 when no such machine existed? What if you travel with a second, smaller time machine as freight, like in Primer? What if the machine had been destroyed in, say, 1962? Could you still arrive in 2017 if that were your destination? Or would you die? Did the machine actually travel, or did it just ‘send’ you, like a fax? Wait, actually, we know that it travels because we did see Wells in his basement in 1893, empty one moment and then filled with time machine the next. So when it travels to the future, does it just occupy the same space and time as its future iteration? If yes, how is that possible?
These questions would not bother me too much if only they had been even briefly addressed in the series. And this time there’s no excusing it with, “The same thing happened in the movie, so their just being faithful to the original!” No dice. We already let go the fact that Wells is a centuries-ahead of his time physicist somehow, because that’s the premise of the story. But the time-travel device is not the premise itself. It’s an operative, a function, and it requires at least a nod to basic integrity in order for suspension of my disbelief to be supportable. The series creators could have engineered a reason for this time-travel device and mentioned it, even in passing. Or better still, they could have had Wells arrive in 2017 in the basement of his own home, and chase Jack the Ripper across an ocean. Then the story could continue as planned. Granted, the first solution is the less expensive one for production of a series pilot. But the show creators did neither, and for that I’m deducting points.
But enough complaining. Here’s some things I loved about this fun, well-paced, suspenseful, and funny reboot:
• The main characters are great. No major roles feature hopeless or boring actors, which was a problem for me with Timeless. Freddie Stroma’s performance as Wells is particularly excellent—he reminds old guys like me of the best performances of Cary Elwes, but with an ingratiating streak of old-fashioned innocence.
• So far, the writing is promising. The dialogue is fresh enough, and the plotting for series-style arcs feels stable and well-grounded in the characters.
• Lots of great twists and turns! This will be essential for the show to have “legs” and so far, the writers seem up to the task.
And, lest I forget the point of this blog, there are time-travel-related surprises and fun baked in, too. For example, when the machine activates, it ices over and the traveler’s breath fogs—and then the much-anticipated trip through time is over before it has begun, having happened seemingly instantaneously. I like these small touches: the cold may be a nod to actual theoretical physics, or to the Back to the Future franchise, but either way it works. Both Wells and Jane can be seen wondering on their respective first journeys whether they will survive the sudden frost. So that’s fun. And the anti-climactic nature of the sudden arrival in the future is a breath of fresh air after watching multiple Lifeboat trips on Timeless start with shaking and gritting of teeth and ending with panting and retching.
In episode 2, we learn a bit more about the nature of time-travel as depicted in the series, and about Wells himself as a time-traveler. The fact that he has a great-great-granddaughter (Vanessa, played by Ari Nicole Parker) who knows about him, the machine, the Ripper, and nearly everything apparently, is interesting. What is truly intriguing about this is the fact that Vanessa knows him because she has met him before. The fact that Wells doesn’t know her or remember her means that she met a future version of him, but in the past. This is verified when Vanessa brings Wells to her stately manse and hands him a letter addressed to him—and written by him. (Haven’t we all wished we could get a message from our future self, telling us what to do?)
You know what this means: there’s going to be more time-travel. Yay!
But Wells has a word of caution for Vanessa (and for us) about time-travel, and this may be the most intriguing piece of information yet, hinting at all kinds of possibilities for future episodes. It seems Wells has a theory (and since his one about a time machine has been borne out I suppose we should pay attention to this one) that each trip in the machine causes a small tear in the fabric of time. He demonstrates this concept with a pen and paper, with a line for the timeline and punching holes in the paper to mark trips in the machine. He points out that too many trips to or from points in time that are near each other could cause the small tears to become a huge, gaping hole.
Dear reader, if you know me well by now, you may have guessed how much this simple explanation means to me. One of my ongoing complaints about Timeless has been the completely arbitrary “you can’t travel to a time where you already exist” rule. If the goal is to avoid hero-meets-past-or-future-self plotlines, which can be confusing and overcomplicated for both writer and TV audience, then you have to hand it to the creators of Time After Time. Wells’ “theory” is simple, clearly illustrated for the audience, and does not feel arbitrary. In fact, the premise is compelling: we would want to avoid big gaping holes in the space-time continuum, right? And it’s not like we absolutely cannot travel to the same point in time more than once, but rather we simply should not. In Timeless, the rule was insisted upon more than once, but never tested. But Wells’ theory leaves room that we may someday need to risk a rift in the fabric of the universe. And wouldn’t that be fun!
The TT analysis:
TT Integrity: We’re letting go the fact that Wells invented an actual time-travel device (and not merely a fictive literary device), but we are not letting go the problem of a time machine that only “travels” to its own future location, wherever that may be. (Do better, show creators, please. Figure out a way to make this make sense.) But we are awarding points for an excellent explanation of the risks inherent in tearing through the fabric of time.
One note here: the original film included a reference to a part of the machine called the “vaporizing equalizer” which makes sure that the time machine and the traveler inside stay together. At the end of the movie (spoiler!) the Ripper finally gets the non-return key he wants, and just when it looks like he’ll use it to escape with the time machine to travel unimpeded wherever and whenever he desires, Wells pops the equalizer out of place, sending John into an unending trip through infinite time. I bring this up because I’ll be curious to see if the writers weave anything like this into the series. Of course I understand why they didn’t introduce it yet: we’re enjoying Josh Bowman’s Ripper too much to see him die as early as episode 2.
Determination: 7.0 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.
TT Narrative: Overall, we’re in good shape on the narrative side. The pilot episode uses what was best in the original film, such as Wells taking Jane three days into the future where they learn that she is John’s third (21st Century American) victim, or the “non-return key” in Wells’ possession that John covets—because it would allow him to travel to any time. These devices build suspense and drive characters into desperate choices. Gotta love that. And better still, the fact that we know Wells will be doing lots more traveling through time is setting us up for—well, who knows what for? My guess, though, is it’s probably going to be lots of fun.
Determination: 8.5 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.