TIMELESS, Episode 8 “Space Race” – A Review for Time-Travel Fans (SPOILERS!!)
Episode 8 of NBC’s Timeless may be my favorite yet. But before we discuss the specifics, I think we need to review some things about how time-travel works on the show, and revisit some core TT principles at play in the show, and a question or two that have gone unanswered for a bit too long.
1) We are coming to understand that the only paradoxes possible on the show are those of memory, e.g. Lucy remembers having a sister but because of historic events having been radically altered, her sister was never actually born. But technically this is not paradox, because this type of time travel mechanic essentially results in the creation of alternate timelines or, alternatively, the movement of our heroes and their respective consciousnesses from one timeline to another. Basically, our heroes keep leaving a more or less familiar universe and returning to one that has been altered by Flynn’s meddling in the past, or by their own. (The latter notion of movement between an essentially infinite number of timelines would be indicative of a Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum theory. The Michael Crichton novel Timeline explains this idea in detail, which is the only good thing about the book.)
2) All but abandoned is the idea that the past must be preserved, that time-travelers must change as little as possible. Let’s face it: Flynn and Logan are gonna keep killing random dudes in the past and, in Flynn’s case, sometimes not-so-random dudes. Sometimes Flynn will purposefully, a historically target major historical figures, marking them for death. This has had an unintentionally inspiring effect, giving our heroes hope that the past can be changed in ways that are adverse to Flynn’s mysterious intent, or otherwise positive. Maybe Logan can save his wife from her grisly murder? Maybe Lucy can get her sister back? Maybe they can save President Lincoln from assassi—? (Oops, nope.) We also seem to have abandoned talk of “fixed points” in time, i.e. Fate. In fact, one of the only good things to come out of episode 7 was a discussion of this idea, where Logan tells Lucy that she doesn’t have to write her once-and-future-diary to help Flynn if she doesn’t want to. This is a good move for Timeless, because the show’s writing lacks the necessary stability to pull this off. You’re a decent show, Timeless, but you are no Doctor Who.
3) I can accept as a given that time-travelers in Timeless are forbidden from traveling to a point in time in which they already exist (though I’d sure like to see what would happen if they tried). But personally, I am still not satisfied that there is a decent explanation for why our heroes always must arrive in the minutes, hours, days following Flynn’s arrival in the past. Give me one good reason why Rufus can’t reprogram the Lifeboat’s nav system to put them just 2 hours ahead of Flynn. Just one, show creators, that’s all I’m asking for. You’re so fond of referencing Back to the Future, but you seem to have forgotten Marty’s revelation, that a time machine gives him “all the time in the world.”
4) Rittenhouse. Fucking RITTENHOUSE. We have hung in there for seven episodes now, and we still don’t know what the secret group does besides fight to stay super-secret and menace the show’s African-American characters. (Watching Cahill in episode 6 smile easily as he threatens Rufus, with Mason right there in the limo, seemed to have all kinds of political, social and cultural implications. I mean, even a black billionaire is afraid of this white guy. WTF? I think Rittenhouse is the German word for “white privilege.”) It’s starting to become critical that we learn more about Rittenhouse, its motivations, and why Flynn (and Anthony) are so vehement in their opposition to it—and no, it can’t just be about Flynn’s desire to avenge his murdered family, because the French-Indian War just ain’t related to that in any way. Or is it? I’d also like even the most casual explanation for why Flynn would travel back as far as the Civil War, the Alamo, and the pre-Revolutionary War colonies. How will any of those missions keep Rittenhouse from acquiring time-travel technology? Flynn’s motives are too mysterious, as are Rittenhouse’s. As a result, Flynn is not much different from my own time-traveling, history-wrecking villain, the Time Smasher. (See my write-up of Episode 2, “The Assassination of Abraham,” for an explanation.)
Thanks for bearing with me, folks. A lot of what happens in episode 8 impacts our understanding of these narrative devices, questions and conundrums, or is informed by them. Let’s dive in and see how, exactly.
“Space Race” starts with Flynn and Anthony interviewing a mild-mannered former NASA official in the present, ostensibly for a book about the Apollo missions. But there won’t be any such book, at least not with this guy in it, because Flynn’s next move is to land the Mothership on the dude’s lawn in 1969 and put two bullets in him. They take his NASA credentials and use them to create a phony badge for Anthony to infiltrate NASA Houston. Oh, and also they kill a plumber, because they need his uniform. (Not sure that was necessary, but who am I to argue with a debonair time-traveling terrorist?)
Logan, Rufus and Lucy arrive behind them (always behind them, dangit, why?) infiltrating Mission Control to varying degrees. Varying because in 1969, only Logan makes a credible addition to the vast array of white guys in charge of things. Lucy keeps getting asked to make coffee, and Rufus is assumed to be a janitor…Rufus, who has the scientific knowledge to launch and land his own lunar shuttle. But hey, he’s pretty content to just witness the greatest moment in the entire history of scientific exploration, in a room full of his heroes: daring astronauts and brilliant physicists—many of them both.
Then, of course, things go terribly wrong. Anthony uses his phony badge to access the computer mainframe—those giant consoles with reel-to-reel magnetic tapes—and install a virus that launches a denial-of-service attack. Houston loses all contact with “Eagle.” The crew (Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins) is stranded. Only a few scant hours remain to reestablish contact, otherwise the crew will be permanently stranded on the moon, where they will die. And as Lucy points out, this black mark on NASA’s record could result in an advantage for the USSR in the Space Race, tipping the balance of the Cold War irrevocably in favor of the Soviets.
The stakes are high, which is one of the reasons I like this episode. But let’s stop for a second, shall we? Because I have a question. Flynn’s actions do appear to be anti-American: expanding Booth’s conspiracy then killing Lincoln himself, assisting the Soviets whenever possible, even trying to change the history of the American West so that Texas remains a part of Mexico. But Flynn has insisted to Lucy more than once that he is a patriot, and that Rittenhouse is the real enemy, even hinting that Lucy’s diary indicates that she will eventually come to agree with him.
So my question, reiterated from the introduction, is: What could Rittenhouse possibly do that is so much worse than this? And how does damaging American history in this way hurt Rittenhouse, exactly? Just how far back does the group’s secret history extend?
More on that later. Back to the story: Logan give Rufus a gun—you know, just in case—then goes off to try to find Flynn, who is impersonating a plumber in order to stalk a secretary at a defense contracting firm. The secretary, Maria, seems to have an unappreciated talent for drawing engineering schematics—unappreciated except by Flynn, who pays her sincere compliments. It’s not clear what Logan thinks he can do other than perhaps kill Flynn, but it turns out he’s pretty darn useless at NASA. And what Flynn is doing is even less clear.
Meanwhile, Rufus is desperately trying to save the lunar mission and its crew, but is frustrated by a lack of access and by computing equipment that’s just a step or two above an abacus. Then he remembers that “the smartest person in the building works in the basement,” by which he means Katherine Johnson. Though little known at the time, Johnson was a key team member capable of computer-like mathematical ability and precision in the calculation of flight trajectories and launch windows. (Famously, John Glenn refused to fly his Mercury mission orbiting the Earth until Johnson verified the output from NASA’s nascent electronic computing department. She will be portrayed by Taraji P. Henson in the upcoming film Hidden Figures.)
Rufus manages to convince Johnson to trust him, and that she can save the Apollo 11 crew, something she very much wants to do. They head down to the computer mainframe to use Johnson’s knowledge of the equipment and Rufus’s familiarity with the denial-of-service virus (and with Lucy as an extra pair of hands) to restore Houston’s contact with the lunar capsule.
Then Anthony shows up with one of Flynn’s thugs, and things get really interesting. We know that Rufus and Anthony have been close friends. We have also heard earlier in this episode that Anthony is actually the first-ever time-traveler, the intrepid inventor who insisted on trying out his invention on himself rather than on someone else. The attempt, while successful, nearly killed the scientist, and now Rufus reminds him of the fact. How could Anthony, Rufus wants to know, murder three of the greatest heroes of modern scientific discovery? Anthony responds that what Rittenhouse plans to do (with access to time-travel technology) is much, much worse.
Before Anthony can sic Flynn’s goon on Lucy, Rufus and Katherine, Rufus pulls out Logan’s gun and takes Anthony hostage. Anthony tries to tell the goon, hey, don’t worry, it’s a bluff! and that’s when Rufus turns the gun from Anthony to the goon and pulls the trigger. “You don’t know me,” Rufus tells Anthony as the goon bleeds out. No kidding. Neither do we. We’ve got a whole new Rufus on our hands, capable of killing when necessary.
Logan, meanwhile, has tracked Flynn to a park where Maria is watching her son play, and Logan watches Flynn and Maria. Knowing what we know about Flynn, we in the viewing audience are understandably nervous for the mother and son, especially when Logan is distracted briefly by a cop (he flashes an FBI badge that apparently IDs him as “Agent Mulder”—very cute) and Flynn manages to give him the slip. Undaunted, Logan tracks down Maria at her home, where Flynn reappears suddenly to jab a needle into the arm of her son, Gabriel. Wha—? Who? What?
Yup, turns out Maria is Flynn’s mother. Gabriel, in the original timeline, died of a bee sting before Flynn was born. All Flynn knew of his half-brother is that he died, and that his mother was sad all the time. Flynn’s syringe is full of epinephrine, which saves the life of the brother he never knew. So the defense contractor Maria worked for was a red herring, and that feeling we got that Flynn was planning to hurt or trap Maria, well, that was a red herring, too. Logan is so flustered by this turn of events that he forgets for a minute that his job is to shoot Flynn. He remembers too late, natch, and Flynn gets away in his shiny black muscle car.
Back at TTHQ, Agent Christopher decides it’s time to give our heroes the complete, unredacted file on Flynn, which details his family history—including the fact that Gabriel has indeed lived to the present and now resides in Paris. Lucy is pissed, and understandably so: from her point-of-view it seems Flynn gets to go to the past to save whomever he likes, while Christopher refuses to work on bringing Lucy’s sister back until after Flynn is dealt with.
Part of me hopes that Lucy convinces Logan and Rufus to go rogue, and the three of them take the Lifeboat out to save Logan’s wife and Lucy’s sister. Not sure what would be in it for Rufus, but he seems to be a badass now, so maybe he’d have no qualms.
Speaking of which: Rufus has a short heart-to-heart with Lucy about his killing Flynn’s thug. He expresses surprise at his own lack of remorse for the act, and even more surprise at the fact that it was fairly easy to pull the trigger. He wasn’t even nervous. “What am I becoming?” he asks her. GOOD question. Logan, whom we know is obsessed with saving his long-dead wife, should ask himself the same thing. And Lucy, who fears that the diary Flynn carries might really be written by a future iteration of her, might well ask, “What will I become?”
The TT analysis:
Let’s talk TT narrative first, because this may be the best episode yet on this scale. Having done away with notions of fate and fixed points in time, Timeless is now finally embracing what it does best: depicting cavalier villains and heroes messing around with history to their own ends, consequences be damned. I love that. What’s more, we’re watching our heroes change and evolve as a result of their misadventures. Rufus’s self-exploration in this regard may be the most interesting. I mean, what do you do when you realize you’re capable of killing without regret? When you realize your old friend is a different man than you thought he was? I’d like to see Rufus continue to face even greater challenges to his idea of himself. It’s good stuff, more please.
We’re also left to wonder what the future holds, since our heroes seem determined to chart their own courses. We could certainly see a season three arc where Lucy has adopted Flynn’s attitude toward Rittenhouse and begins keeping a diary, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to see her determined not to write a single thing down? There’s no worry of paradox, the diary Flynn carries is from a defunct timeline. She could write a book of recipes instead, if she wants. And the episode carried some water for feminists, which I appreciated. Lucy got to take a male chauvinist to task for barking orders at her, Katherine Johnson got to be the hero of the Apollo 11 mission in a rewritten timeline, and Flynn showed us his love for his capable mother, whose talent as an engineer was being squandered owing to presupposed gender roles.
Downside: Still wondering about Rittenhouse, and why what’s bad for American history is bad for them, also.
Determination: 9.0 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.
TT Integrity: As Timeless settles into a procedural (albeit one with Lost-level ambitions), the time-travel rules seem to be finally settling into place as well. No messy fate nor “fixed points.” If you change the past and fuck up the future, well, that’s on you. Welcome to your new timeline. Don’t like it? Go back and try again. Find a timeline that works for you. Make your destiny.
But dammit, just once, please, try to get to the past 20 minutes (or 24 hours) ahead of the Time Smasher. You have a time machine, dammit!
Determination: 8.0 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.