I don’t quite remember how I got onto ‘Timeless’ – I think it was another Netflix suggestion. But, like ‘Mars’, it was a good suggestion.
‘Timeless’ sits in that difficult-to-define category of “Well-produced high-concept sci-fi and or action adventure series with secret plots and a unique hook.” In essence, I can see exactly how ‘Timeless’ came to be, in a meeting where a producer pitches to an executive “A story about a mysterious who villain steals a time machine to change history, and our heroes have to go back and stop him from ruining everything.”
Each episode features a jump (you might even say a “leap”…) back to a different period in America’s history, with the heroes chasing down a man, who is essentially a budget Rufus Sewell, through historical set pieces, including the crashing of the Hindenburg and the Battle of the Alamo, trying to prevent their own present from being rewritten.
Nothing is hugely surprising in the setup of the show. We get a capable but frustrated history teacher who’s struggling with the choices she’s made. We get a nerdy, skittish scientist who’s infatuated with a woman to whom he doesn’t have the courage to talk. We get a rugged, handsome, widowed special forces soldier who doesn’t play by the rules. There isn’t much that will raise your eyebrows at first.
However, ‘Timeless’ manages to pull a few unexpected turns. For one thing, rather than neglecting the inherent racism of most of history, they confront it head-on. The black, nerdy scientist explains, before their first trip, that “there is literally no place in American history that’ll be awesome for me.” And indeed, a lot of the tension in many episodes is derived from having a brilliant scientist, vital to the mission, whose skin colour is a total liability.
‘Timeless’ takes a reasonable approach to gender, as well. The show’s lead, played by Abigail Spencer, is a total history nerd, and is suitably in awe of many of the past’s most remarkable figures. But the show makes an effort to explore, where possible, the role that women have played in history, including Judith Campbell, Katherine Johnson (before ‘Hidden Figures’ was released, as well), and Josephine Baker.
Probably the best feature, though, is the fact that ‘Timeless’ features a plot about time travel, secret societies and espionage without disappearing too far up its own arse. Regular revelations and plot developments occur every couple of episodes, and we don’t have to wait until the very end of the series just to get the next advancement in the meta-arc.
Another important string to its bow is that our protagonists genuinely grow and change, even just over the course of a few episodes. The things they experience seem to actually affect and change them. And whilst that’s not unique in TV shows, for a such a high-concept premise as this, it’s unusual enough to be worth a mention.
It comes with a note of caution, however – if you are a history nerd, this series may or may not annoy the hell out of you. As far as I can tell, it does its best to remain historically accurate, but it does make concessions for the sake of narrative and pacing. It also focuses heavily on American history, which I think is pretty interesting, but you may feel frustrated by a lack of geographical diversity.
‘Timeless’ is well worth a gamble, and I think that if you enjoy the first two episodes, you’ll enjoy the rest of the series. It’s got a lot of self-aware humour, the dialogue isn’t awful, and you get to see Malcolm Barrett pretty much reprise his role of Lem from ‘Better Off Ted’.
‘Timeless’ is getting a second season in 2018, but if you can’t wait that long, or if you would just like to see some similar shows, then also on Netflix is ‘Travelers’, which is a show I love and which is about to get a second season on Boxing Day. Netflix also has ‘Continuum’, which I hated but some people adore. Both of these shows reverse the premise of ‘Timeless’, being instead about people from the future returning to this era to preserve their own time.
And, of course, probably the biggest inspiration for ‘Timeless’ is ‘Quantum Leap’, which is basically the same premise but with a holographic Dean Stockwell in place of a history professor.