Time travel. It is something that has fascinated humans from as far back as one can remember.
From H.G Wells’ The Time Machine to the Back to the Future trilogy to Quantum Leap, that fascination has also translated itself into popular entertainment. A desire to go back and meet those no longer with us, to see what the world was like or will be like after we’re gone. Nostalgia rules the world these days and so therefore it is not surprising to me that the new 2016-2017 television season happens to hold a slew of time travel programs across all television platforms … and beyond.
I’ve always loved time travel. I don’t know if is due to my love of history, or my curiosity as to what will come after me or to what has come before. It dawned on me while writing this column that the idea of changing my past isn’t something that has ever crossed my mind.
Sure I have tons of regrets, we all do.
Sure, Back to the Future’s Marty McFly got the car he always wanted and made his parents happier (and more successful), and Somewhere in Time’s protagonists find love across a gulf in time , but there is still this unwritten & consistent rule across time travel narratives. Last year’s 11/22/63 on Hulu is a perfect example of what can happen when one messes with time too much – it pushes back.
Popular entertainment always has trends. These trends can often be linked to what is going on in society and TV, from the comedy and westerns of the 1950s to the sci-fi of the 1990s – today’s trend of reboots and revivals is no different. As I mentioned in a previous column, I believe superhero films and reboots are popular for their familiarity and fantasy fulfillment in troubled times; so it is no surprise that time travel is also getting a reboot, so to speak.
What at first seemed like a fear of losing money on unknown properties in the broken economy of the early 2000s, has grown into an industry of reboots. The reboot trend is still about fear of risk-taking (especially after the 2008 stock market crash), but – like all trends –is mostly about giving the audience what they want. As times and politics get scarier, people long for a time of comfort, of maybe even blissful ignorance, when the future seemed bright and the weight of responsibly didn’t weigh heavy … and for many people, that is childhood.
A time before 9/11 – before we were shaken into the adulthood the rest of the world had already been experiencing for generations. The same reasoning lies behind why the movement “Make America Great again” resonates with so many people. We’re scared. And so from the Star Wars franchise’s Han Solo and Princess Leia to the family from Full House, they remind us of a time of a time gone by. It is, in a way, a form of time travel – even the Duffer Brothers with their spectacular Stranger Things are using the same concept – whether you remember the 1980s or not. With shows like Outlander and Legends of Tomorrow paving the way, the 2016-2017 season is now lousy with period costumes and paradoxes.
And since Doctor Who is on hiatus this fall, let’s break down the new time travel shows you’ll be watching this year to get that fix.
NBC – Oct 3, 2017 10/9pm Central
Stars: Goran Visnjic, Malcolm Barrett, Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, Sakina Jaffrey, Paterson Joseph
“You’d think someone who loved History would want to save it.”
Timeless is the story of a time traveling terrorist who, after stealing a time machine, uses it to change the course of American history, and of the band of heroes – a history teacher, a scientist and a soldier – brought together to stop him. Created by Eric Kripke (Supernatural), Timeless is considered one of NBC’s hottest and most anticipated pilots.
The trailer does a good job at establishing the story, but also at throwing in mystery and some intrigue. For example, a haunting moment in the trailer comes when the history teacher (Abigail Spencer) is confronted by the villain (Goran Visnjic), with a notebook in her handwriting, followed by him telling her how important she is to history. A nice little nugget that hopefully will be peppered throughout the series or season. There’s also a great moment when the African American scientist (Malcolm Barrett), who has no interest in going back in time to any place in American History, confronts a racist cop in the past by telling him about the future he hopes the man lives to see.
Pros: The glossy TV ads and trailer do a good job at giving out just enough information to understand the premise without spoiling too much. I can see why Timeless could be one of NBC’s most promising pilots with the potential to be one of the most interesting offers of time travel this season.
Since Timeless is the first one out of the gate, the network’s fall season machine is already in full gear, and Timeless has had the most coverage. Also in its favor is a cast of actors who veer more towards what I would call “interesting-pretty” and farther from the model-pretty trend prevalent in television. Meaning, it isn’t just about looks – I see character in their eyes and demeanor. But I’ll let creator Kripke have the final word on what could make Timeless great:
“So much of history, as we know, is the history of rich white dudes, and yet there is so much untold history from a minority perspective and from a female perspective,” he said. “Because we’re really looking for a door in — not just telling the history that everyone has heard before but to tell exciting fresh history that isn’t dusty and isn’t a school lesson but is violent and exciting and very current … It allows us to make commentary on issues that are happening today.”
Cons: A network trend to play it safe could hurt the series; additionally, playing tentative with time travel mythology in fear of confusing the audience could weaken the choices made. Game of Thrones doesn’t have any issues with the concept of new words and ideas and does very well for itself on HBO where creators are left alone. There’s also the above-mentioned general network tendency to cast looks over talent in future supporting roles. Interesting characters become beautiful because we care about them.
CW – Oct 5, 2016 8/9pm Central
Stars: Peyton List, Riley Smith, Mekhi Phifer, Anthony Ruivivar, Lenny Jacobson, Devin Kelley
“My father wasn’t murdered. I remember it both ways. Life when he was murdered. Life when he wasn’t…”
– Raimy Sullivan
Inspired by the 2000 Gregory Hoblit film of the same name, Frequency, created by Jeremy Carver (Being Human; Supernatural), is the first of two time travel shows this year that has a film as its source material.
Frequency uses the film as a jumping-off point, making changes as the need arises. For example, changing the father/son tale into a father/daughter one. My family was always a big fan of the film about an NYPD Detective who is able to speak with his dead father, a FDNY Firefighter, through his father’s old ham radio.
In the 2016 version, the father is now a cop like his daughter Raimy (Peyton List), and much like the original, the plot revolves around the idea of the “butterfly effect” – how one small change can snowball into catastrophic changes in the future – and how, as mentioned above, changing the past almost never works out well for the heroes of the story.
Mostly a procedural drama, with a cosmic addition of a lighting strike turning a seemingly normal ham radio into a time travel vocal porter, Raimy in present and her father Frank (Riley Smith) in the past will work together to fix the past, her father’s good name, save her mother, and find a serial killer.
Pros: If done well, it could be a cross between The Following and the underpinnings of Quantum Leap. Also, the change to a female lead makes it very promising in my book. Again, loved the movie. The addition of an underlying mystery as whether her father was a bad man or a good one is a great addition to help build this as an episodic story and increase the mystery over time.
Cons: I worry the serial killer angle may grow old. An issue that happens often when a movie property is transferred to episodic is that the core mystery, which was built for a shorter format, is either played out too soon or resolved to early, leaving the story nowhere to go. Also, the old age makeup of Raimy’s mother made her look like her younger sister, and not her mother, and it really took me out of the reality.
Time After Time
ABC – Mid Season 2017
Stars: Josh Bowman, Freddie Storma, Will Chase, Genesis Rodriguez
“In our time I was a freak, today I am an amateur.”
– Jack The Ripper
Time travel in popular entertainment has a tradition that goes back even farther than Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, yet it was the novel The Time Machine, by Mr. H.G Wells, that first popularized the concept of using a machine to do so.
Therefore, in this time travel-heavy season of television, it seems only appropriate that the lead of one of these offerings is H.G Wells himself – well, a fictional version. Based on the 1979 book by Karl Alexander and film (optioned after only the first manuscript and so written in tandem), Time After Time is a series that comes to us from Kevin Williamson of The Following, Vampire Diaries & Scream franchise – a pedigree that appears perfect to take on the tale of a novelist from the 1890s who travels through time after a serial killer.
Time After Time the film holds a very nostalgic place in my heart, far more than Frequency, along with the similar 80s time travel dramas such as Somewhere in Time (due to massive reruns on cable). For this reason I’ve had high hopes about the pilot since the project was announced.
The basic plot of Time After Time is the fictionalized story of H.G Wells, who, before writing his most famous novel The Time Machine, just happened to have built one himself. But when his friend John Stevenson is discovered to be Jack The Ripper and steals the time machine, H.G travels to our “Present” to bring him to justice.
Already the story has important elements for a great episodic transfer – a mission to stop the villain, a love story, and ground work for the typical fish out of water adventures. Jane, his love interest, is no longer a bank teller but works in the museum where the time machine is on display – a smart fix, I assume to hurry the action of the pilot along. Also, the location has gone from San Francisco to New York (always positive in this New Yorker’s mind).
Pros: The story already lends itself easily to an episodic nature. First, the show adds a more obvious internal struggle for Wells to deal with – fear. In the pilot, H.G is confronted by his friend John (aka The Ripper), suggesting Wells is too fearful to live life. This gives Wells a chance for growth and the potential for an overall arc throughout the series.
In addition, Wells has yet to write The Time Machine, his most influential and popular novel – a concept that gives the story what George Lucas would call a “Time Lock” – a sense of urgency that can be easily lost when a time machine is central to a plot. H.G not only must stop John from killing again and overcome his own fears, but he must return to his own time alive or create a paradox.
This also adds the element of conflict to his future affair with his love interest Jane. After all, without conflict, a story can’t exist. And what TV romances need far more than film love is a large enough central conflict that can last more than two hours. (I won’t mention the great surprise at the end; but watch the trailer)
Cons: Based on the press release I am unsure just what exactly the format of the show is. Knowing the film so well and based on the trailer I surmise the action takes place exclusively in modern times, with a procedural layer built in. However, ABC calls it a “cat and mouse” adventure over time. My only worry is that the show could fall victim to last seasons canceled ABC show Forever.
Although not about time travel, Forever a half procedural/ half probing timeline of an immortal, dealt with a character from a bygone age dealing with and living in a modern society (and solving crimes with his potential love interest). What I liked the most about Forever wasn’t the procedural quality of the program, but the personal connection between two of the leads played by Ioan Gruffudd (The above mentioned immortal) and his much older adopted son played by Judd Hirsch. My worry is the show could suffer a similar fate as last season’s (canceled) Forever – a show that struggled to straddle two genres. If Time After Time suffers the same fate I suspect no matter how good aspects of the show are, the an audience may be left in the dark.
Netflix – Oct 17, 2016
Stars: Eric McCormack, MacKenzie Porter, Jared Abrahamson, J. Alex Brinson, Nesta Cooper
“My old friend Brad Wright has created a fantastic, complex story with some very rich and complicated characters, and I’m awfully happy to be one of them.”
– Eric McCormack
Since Netflix is known for not marketing their shows until they are already live for viewing, little is known about this Eric McCormack-led TV series co-produced by Netflix and Canadian Showcase (a joint production similar to Hulu’s deal with BBC shows like Thick of it and The Wrong Mans).
The first season will contain 12 episodes. To semi-quote Josh Lyman, You’ve been briefed. To me, Travelers almost sounds like a reboot of Quantum Leap, only instead of god or destiny, it is the last of the human race, led by an FBI agent (McCormack), who are able time travel into people’s consciousness in an effort to save humanity.
It even sounds like a possible sequel to Quantum Leap where the government finally figures out their time travel project wasn’t a dud and use Sam Beckett’s discovery to their advantage … to save the world. (note to self: write a QL reboot spec)
Pros: The idea of trading consciousness is obviously not new but if Quantum Leap proved anything, a show with this concept is a great platform to focus on more personal stories and perhaps less on high action and mythology. Netflix’s choices lately have been stellar and if Stranger Things is any indication of their genre mojo – this could be just what time travel junkies like me are looking for. And it’s Canadian, so here’s hoping it is high on the hope for humanity and less on doom and gloom.
Cons: Too little is known about this show (no trailer was available to watch) for me to have any cons really. The only con for a time travel show is being too niche, and in the 90s nothing was more niche than Quantum Leap…
PS Pro: …That being said, even if that is the case niche sounds perfect for a Netflix audience.
Fox – Mid Season 2017
Stars: Adam Pally, Leighton Meester & Yassir Lester
“It’s a time machine. I go to the past every weekend, sometimes Tuesdays.”
Stephen Hawking once said “If time travel is possible, where are the tourists from the future?’ But what if it possible, now in our own present, and one tourist has already been visiting the past … say, 1775.
Billed as two shows in one – part historical adventure, part commentary buddy comedy about fitting in, Making History features Dan (Adam Pally, Happy Endings; The Mindy Project), a computer science professor who, through a duffle bag, is able to travel back in time to colonial America. Where, unlike the present, he has a hot girlfriend (Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl) and a suave life.
Of course, again, meddling in the past – you guessed it…may mess with the future… and with America as a country. As in, GF Deborah’s daddy is Paul Revere. So Dan enlists the help of a history teacher from the college where he works, Chris (Yassir Lester, Key and Peele), to help.
Pros: Produced by Phil Lord, Chris Miller, the same people who brought you The Lego Movie and Last Man On Earth (Which I recommended in my first column) sure have a handle on spotting comedy. And also, as I mentioned in that column, an eye for spotting and mentoring those who can take what seems like a silly idea and execute it uniquely.
And the man doing that execution this time is creator and writer Julius “Goldy” Sharpe, known for late night comedy and Family Guy. Add in Pally’s talent for this kind of comedy and what from the trailer looks like great chemistry between him and Lester, I’m excited.
And although Timeless also plays with a similar idea that a modern black man is not safe in the past, since nowadays a large percentage of the population get the bulk of the political news via comedy platforms, Modern History, if successful, could have more of an impact with the zeitgeist of today that of the previous mentioned drama. (Also, I’m a sucker for good anachronistic humor)
Cons: Already in the vein of films like Hot Tub Time Machine, Making History is already on that precarious line that comedy of this nature toes. It may look easy, but comedy – even that of the surreal, satirical or silly – is carefully crafted. I don’t feel Making History will miss the mark, but this is the only possible and likely con for the show – having no purpose … and the obvious one of just not being funny. (grasping at straws here, guys, I love me some Adam Pally and the Lord and Miller)
Recommended Time Travel Movies:
- Back To The Future trilogy
- 12 Monkeys (1995)
- The Terminator (1984)
- Looper (2012)
- Time After Time
- Time Machine (1960)
- Hot Tub Time Machine
- Time Bandits
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
- Peggy Sue Got Married
- Donnie Darko
- About Time
Recommended Time Travel Television:
- Doctor Who
- Quantum Leap