Recommendation: ‘Travelers’

A cautionary note: ‘Travelers’ features storylines about domestic abuse, drug addiction, mental disability, fertility and consent. And whilst I really like the show, I am not qualified to assess how well it handles any of these topics, so whilst I think it’s well worth a watch for anyone, it’s worth proceeding with caution if you think you may be upset by any of those subjects.

‘Travelers’ is a TV series about a group of socially progressive vegans from the future travelling back in time and taking over the bodies of soon-to-be-dead people so that they can save the world. It’s a bit like ‘Quantum Leap’ but with less Dean Stockwell.

Really, that ought to be all the recommendation you damn well need, but just in case that doesn’t tickle your fancy, ‘Travelers’ is also a really nicely written show with lots of charming dialogue, self-awareness and nerdily accurate time travel tropes.

One of my favourite aspects of the show was the number of times I would pick out a plot hole, or ask “well why don’t they just solve the problem by doing that,” only for the characters to then do that or for them to explain why they can’t, which is incredibly refreshing for a sci-fi series.

The characters have to balance the need to maintain their bodies’ former lives without raising suspicion, whilst trying to save the world from a cataclysm that will end civilisation as we know it. This means that as they try to prevent (or occasionally ensure) political assassinations and terrorist attacks, they also have to deal with things like heroin withdrawal, abusive ex-partners, or just trying not to give their identity away to a spouse they inherited.

It’s very tricky to do a time travel story well, but I think ‘Travelers’ succeeds where many others have failed. It sets limits, both on the time travel mechanic itself and on the characters, meaning that the solution is never to just “go a bit further back in time.” The rules, roughly, are as follows:

  • A traveler has to inhabit the body of someone who was about to die – otherwise, the damage to the timeline is too great.
  • They can only inhabit the body of someone whose death was recorded at a precise time and location. Hence, the ability to travel back only became a possibility in the age of social media.
    • Which means that if you want to hide from the people of the future, you need to avoid all interaction with social media.
    • Which is also why one of our team ends up with a heroin addiction. Out of embarrassment, his parents lied about the cause of his death (an overdose), and so nobody realised he would end up in the body of someone with a chemical dependency.
  • A traveler can only be sent as far back in time as the last traveler’s arrival (for complicated reasons to do with quantum physics, apparently), so you don’t get to mulligan the outcome.
    • This is played with horrifically in one episode from the second season, in which the same poor skydiver is taken over nearly a dozen times in succession until her body’s brain finally gives in to the repeated trauma of it. And, to prove how serious her mission is, it’s a different traveler who gets agonisingly overwritten each time.

There are also plenty of rules, or Protocols, for the travelers themselves to follow once they reach the 21st century. Protocols such as “The mission always comes first,” “never procreate,” and, a bit chillingly, “never take a life, and never save a life.” And these aren’t just guidelines – if you stray from the protocols, you can and you will face a very horrible death.

There’s a lot to the show, and I personally feel it just bears watching through, as it’s only two seasons so far, each of twelve episodes. The second season dips a little in quality in the middle, but I personally feel it remained excellent overall. What I find particularly engaging about it is that it never deviates from exploring its own premise, and it always keeps the plot moving along; every episode, we learn something new and the narrative progresses.

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For a similar premise, you could also see ‘Continuum’, which is a show about a future police officer chasing a bunch of future terrorists into the past. Sadly, for me, ‘Continuum’ starts with a cool premise but turns quite quickly into what felt like a fairly typical weirdo-and-cop-buddies formula, in the vein of ‘Castle’, ‘Lucifer’ (which seems to be literally just a re-skin of ‘Castle’) and, of course, the magnificent ‘Due South’. That being said, I quit ‘Continuum’ a short time after I started it for exactly that reason: if you can stick with it, it may turn out better than my initial assessment.

I’ll round off this recommendation for ‘Travelers’ with a handful of my favourite moments from the series:

  • When Ellis, a high ranking traveler, arrives in the 21st century in the body of a farmer who still seems to be living in the 20th. He’s giddy like a child to find out that he now owns pigs, since in the future, animals are a thing of the past.
  • Later, he explains that he found a load of tubs labeled “bacon” in the freezer, and that he cried for an hour when he realised it was dead pig. I will always love a show which bigs up animal rights.
  • MacLaren, the team’s leader, and his host’s wife are going through a personal tragedy. In one episode, she breaks down, and leans into him, crying. A couple of episodes later, he breaks down, and she comforts him, with the words “It’s alright, we can take turns being the strong one.” I… I just love that so much.
  • Literally any part of the second season that features Grace. You’ll find out why.
  • The kids. Normally I get annoyed when children feature in a film or show, but in this case, kids are used to deliver messages from the future in creepy, artificial voices, and it’s just disturbing enough to be brilliant.

Recommendation: ‘Timeless’

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.

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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.