Time travel is having quite the moment on the small screen. Whether it’s James Franco attempting to save JFK in Hulu’s polished 11/22/63 or the crime fighting exploits of DC’s minor characters in Legends of Tomorrow, TV is littered with heroic attempts to reshape history to create a better, brighter present that trumps our own reality. And that’s before we even get to the multiple Earth-hoping antics of The Flash or whatever the heck is happening time-wise in The Man in the High Castle.
But what’s behind the genre’s unexpected resurgence? Could it be that 2016 has been such a thoroughly depressing year that we all secretly want to believe we can go back and stop it all from ever happening? Is this new trend for revisionist storytelling just a global exercise in wish fulfilment? Whatever the reasoning, there seems to be no end to the number of new shows hopping onto the time-twisting band wagon. Timeless is just the latest to zip through space time, landing on E4 last night.
Created by Shawn Ryan (The Shield) and Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Revolution), the show shares similarities with Legends of Tomorrow and Quantum Leap in that it follows a mismatch team of time travellers jumping into the past in a desperate bid to preserve the present. Abigail Spencer plays Lucy Preston, a world-renowned historian and anthropologist who is recruited by the Department of Homeland Security when rogue NSA asset Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) steals a tech company’s time machine, which looks like a giant Big Brother eye, and escapes into the past to meddle with history. Of course, a university professor can’t be expected to take down a terrorist mastermind alone so Lucy is teamed with Matt Lanter’s special ops lunkhead and Malcolm Barrett’s reluctant pilot of their rust bucket prototype time machine.
There’s no hiding the lack of depth to any of these characters. Although they’re each given a troubled personal life, relayed to us via impressively clunky exposition dumps, they are essentially defined by the skill they bring to the team. Lucy reels off historical facts. Wyatt (Lanter) punches people in the face. And Rufus (Barrett) reminds everyone that he’s black (“There’s no time in American history that will be fun for me.”). That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker for a show like this, but what’s more troubling is the lack of fizzy camaraderie between the crew. Shows like Firefly thrived on the snarky back-and-forth between it’s crew, which is not only funny but helps to create an endearing, dysfunctional family dynamic between the cast; team Timeless, by contrast, act like strangers who have no interest in interacting and that just makes them rather hard to warm towards.
Not that Timeless is overly concerned with exploring the inner workings of its characters’ motivations; the show works best as a frothy period crime caper. The neat premise allows our heroes to visit a new time period each week – the first episode sees the team travel back to 1937 to watch the Hindenburg disaster – and experience new environments and wear all new ornate costumes. Cue a flurry of explosions, deadly chases, bomb disposals and anachronistic jokes delivered at a whiplash pace indicative of a show that’s happy to be entertainingly bonkers. It’s also incredibly stylish with the Neil Marshall-directed first episode adding a heightened, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow-esque vibe to its detailed recreation of the Hindenburg explosion that’s exhilaratingly evocative.
As with all time travel shows, there are rules to guard against the concept spiraling out of control. The most important of which is that the crew cannot travel back to a time in which a version of themselves already exists. Not only does this smartly sidestep the obvious narrative flaw of why the team doesn’t just travel back to a time before Flynn steals the machine and “shoot him in the face”; it also presents darker consequences when the timeline inevitably alters despite Lucy’s best efforts. When our heroes arrive back in the present, they discover their lives have changed beyond what they could possibly imagine, forcing them to live with the painful knowledge of what once was while knowing they can never go back to put things right.
Yes, the dialogue is awful, the characters are thinner than tracing paper and the twists are eye-gougingly obvious – there’s a hint at the end of episode one that Flynn might not be as bad as he first seems – but as a fast-paced romp through America’s historical landmarks, Timeless is a fun ride, stunningly designed and gamely played by its cast. It might not make television history, but Timeless certainly makes the present a bit more enjoyable.