Hi, remember me? I’m the one a bit obsessed with time-travel stories, especially in film and on TV. (You can see just how obsessed, here). I just watched the pilot episode of NBC’s new series Timeless, and… well, we need to talk.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts here at GGA, you know that I’m a little funny about this issue: I have rules about how time-travel (TT) needs to be portrayed, but I might really enjoy fare that fails to follow those rules. The classic example is Back to the Future and its sequels. I enjoy those flicks, but the TT stuff in them is kind of a mess. I recommend checking out my older posts to see how this works.
To recap, here are my rules:
1. The explanation of how time travel works must have integrity, i.e. it should be self-contained, consistent, and not subject to arbitrary “rules.”
2. The use of time travel as a device should enhance the narrative, i.e. make the story better or more interesting, or reveal something important about the characters
So, does the Timeless pilot episode meet these standards? No. And yes, and then no again. It’s a bit messy, but there is definite potential for future episodes. A lot about the show bugged me, but I’m excited for episode 2.
Where to begin?
I think we need to start in the early 1980s, when I was a devotee of a short-lived series called Voyagers! The show’s hero was a time-travelling adventurer—a member of a supposed league of TT adventurers—with a pocket-watch style time machine that would flash a red light if history needed “fixing” to get back on the correct track. Our hero traveled with a 12-year-old orphan sidekick, which helped establish the show as a learning adventure, a pre-Quantum Leap TT series for kids who think history class is boring. The show only lasted one full season, and I think one important reason for that is the show lacked an antagonist. Where was the dastardly villain responsible for messing up history?
The initial premise of Timeless is not too far off from Voyagers!, but with that crucial antagonist element included. But, of course, this is not the 1980’s, this is the 21st Century, baby, and that means multi-episode and full-season plot arcs.
Timeless begins with a three-part cold open. First, we watch a half-decent recreation of the events surrounding the Hindenburg disaster, though the “oh, the humanity!” guy is less than convincing. In the present day, we are introduced to Lucy Preston, a history professor with a ribald sense of humor and a professional interest in getting inside the minds of historical figures. Lucy and her sister care for their dying, bedridden mother, also a history professor and in whose footsteps Lucy is struggling to follow. Finally we see a debonair criminal portrayed by Goran Vijnic storm a (poorly guarded) compound with a small army, grab a scientist by the scruff (Matt Frewer!) and climb into a big sci-fi-looking egg thingy in a lab full of startled technicians. The egg comes alive with whirling lights and whining engine sounds, and vanishes.
The three parts are unconnected at first, until the Government Types show up at Lucy’s door. They take her to the compound. And 3, 2, 1: Commence Plot Exposition.
I’ll try to sum up quickly: the debonair villain, named Flynn, stole a time machine (the egg, which the science guys call ‘the mothership’) invented by a Musk/Branson stand-in billionaire character. He didn’t tell anyone about it, of course, until it was stolen, at which point he turned to the Government Types for help. Their solution stretches credulity a bit: they want to send a crack team back in time in a second egg to chase the terrorist, foil whatever he has planned, and maybe retrieve the mothership. The team will consist of a blue-eyed square-jawed Government Type with the rough-and-tumble name Wyatt Logan, a coder named Rufus from the billionaire’s coterie of technicians who will pilot the time machine (and who is justifiably nervous about traveling to any earlier point in America’s past while wearing a black skin), and Lucy.
Yes, Lucy, because her familiarity with American history will help them blend in. Yes, seriously. And yes, if it seems weirdly familiar, it is almost exactly the same as the satirical character trait-slash-plot device from Team America: World Police.
Together the three travel to the time and site of the Hindenburg site, after some hurried explanations about how TT is even possible, and just what is not possible (no fair doubling back to a past you’ve already visited—no backsies!), and oh yeah, please don’t change the past. Got that everybody? DO NOT change the past, under any circumstances, ever.
Spoiler: They adhere to that rule for about a New Jersey minute. Right away, Captain Jawline—er, I mean, Logan—starts crushing on a blonde reporter (who looks like his dead wife! plot point!) and from that point on won’t think twice about saving her life—even though Lucy recognizes her as a victim of the crash, and insists she must die that day, because History Said So.
They arrive to find the Hindenburg landing…safely. Yes, our dastardly villain has actually saved lives, but why? (Logan makes an idiot of himself trying to save his new crush from the crash that doesn’t happen. Ha! He’s an idiot, truly.)
Lucy does her clever improvising, employing her handy historical knowledge and I must admit that while it’s a stupid plot device, Abigail Spencer who plays Lucy is charming enough and talented enough to make it seem fun and plausible. Soon our team is in the thick of it, tracking down Flynn, and identifying his sinister plot, which involves a bomb to blow up the infamous hydrogen-laden airship after all—but his way, and for his reasons.
Our heroes get into a few scrapes and wind up in jail for a bit, but don’t worry. They get out of jail by asking Rufus to trash talk the police and goad them into opening his jail cell so they can beat him down. I don’t mind telling you, folks: that part made me REALLY uncomfortable. I know the writers are well intentioned here, but their use of the black character as literal bait feels exploitative. Here’s hoping it’s the last time, for a while at least. (11.22.63 was much more adept with handling issues of race in mid-20th-Century America.)
Timeless becomes more fun and intriguing the more loosely it plays with its own rules. Our heroes immediately start mucking about with history, having no idea how to rectify (SWIDT?) the situation that Flynn created by preventing the Hindenburg disaster. They hopelessly flounder, not entirely sure of the mission or the rules they are supposed to follow. Buck Swagger of the Mandible Brigade—er, I mean, Logan—is the biggest offender. He’s essentially a shoot-first-with-a-bazooka-ask-questions-later kind of guy. Why is he put in charge of an undercover stealth mission? The actor is terrible—by which I mean boring, zero chemistry with either Lucy or the blonde—which is too bad because Logan’s choices invariably make the plot more interesting. He creates chaos, sort of like Jack Bauer, leaving bodies and badly damaged historical timelines in his wake.
Flynn, we learn, seems to think he can predict how his plots will alter history, and so he seems less bent on creating chaos than on crafting a future he prefers to the one we are familiar with. (In the cold open, Lucy’s sister Amy tells her, “Make your own future”—seems to be the major theme here.) How is it possible for Flynn to know what will happen? The notebook. Lucy’s notebook, which she hasn’t even acquired yet, much less commenced writing in. This is probably the first truly intriguing TT element in the show: a time loop that seems to place the responsibility for Flynn’s mad-bomber exploits square in Lucy’s lap. He wouldn’t be doing this if she didn’t keep those notes. I wonder how many episodes before she starts keeping notes?
(I should add here that this time-loop plot device may have been cribbed from the Weeping Angels episode of Doctor Who. Not that I blame them for stealing/borrowing it. On the contrary, if you’re going to steal a TT device from anywhere, why not from the single greatest time-travel story ever devised for a one-hour television series episode?)
Shortly after Lucy’s confrontation with Flynn, during which the bit about the notebook is revealed, Flynn and Logan start shooting at each other, you know, like you do. The blonde reporter winds up dead from one of the bullets, of course—it’s fated, right? It’s her day to die. (Yawn, whatevs.) Flynn escapes, ostensibly to alter another part of the historical timeline, and out heroes return to the future to see what Flynn’s machinations and their own bumbling have wrought.
And this is where Timeless finally hooked me.
We find that Flynn has significantly altered the timeline in a way that furthers his goal: to completely alter or unravel America’s known history, apparently. The team at Time Travel base camp is unaware of the change—for them it always happened that way. But that’s not the good part.
No, the good part is we find that Lucy’s mom is now no longer sick and dying, but rather healthy as a horse. And, AND, the Professor’s beloved sister Amy was never born, never even existed in this altered cascade of events.
Now, we know in future episodes there’s going to be a lot more TT adventuring, with Major Machismo swinging his righteous Glock around various moments in history. Think he might learn a lesson from Lucy’s altered-timeline predicament? I’m hoping not. The more reckless our heroes are with changing the past, the more interesting Timeless is likely to be.
So I have hope for Timeless. So far there is not much story, just loads of premise. Considering the lackluster dialogue, I worry about the show’s writing, and whether they can develop and sustain the long plot arcs that will launch the series from mere Voyagers!-style premise to a compelling story in episodic form.
The TT analysis:
TT Integrity: Do the TT rules in Timeless have any consistency and integrity? I’m of two minds. There is little explanation of the TT technology. And there is an arbitrary rule stated at least twice ruling out the possibility of our heroes ever encountering themselves, or of them doubling back to a point in the past already visited to fix something they got wrong. This rule is stated, but never explained. That bugs me.
On the other hand, the near-drunken recklessness with which our trio hazards the past, flagrantly violating their own “don’t change anything” rule, is maybe the most entertaining element of a show that so far lacks any crackling dialogue and chemistry among the lead characters. And we get to see the drastic results of the Butterfly Effect, which is maybe the most fun of all. Will they ever straighten out history’s timeline? Is it even possible to fix it at this point? And are our trio of adventurers the right people for the job? (Answer: hell no. And I’m glad.)
Determination: 5.5 wormholes on my 10-wormhole scale.
TT Narrative: Usually I ask if the TT premise is used well in support of a narrative, but the dilemma here seems to be reversed. So far, there is not much narrative—the episode is a by-the-numbers sci-fi pilot that front-loads the specifics but lacks any real heart. And there’s only the suggestion of a full-season narrative that may make the show worth watching. But the TT premise itself holds a great deal of promise. It’s fun and cavalier, and is not cloyingly precious about preserving the known timeline. This time travel premise deserves a better story, better writers, better direction, and maybe a few better actors. I can’t pronounce the show DOA, because watching Lucy try to come to grips with her wildly altered present—a present that may change drastically at the end of every episode, for all we know—is very promising indeed. I’m excited for the next episode or three. Frankly, I’m hoping the altered timelines drive our heroes slowly insane. Wouldn’t that be fun?
Determination: 4.5 wormholes out of 10.
If those scores seem low, they are. But let’s not give up on Timeless just yet.
Today’s your day, lady.