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Three Episode Thoughts: “Timeless”

Time Travel stories have been a staple in science fiction going back to the days of H.G. Wells. What could be accomplished on a time travel mission? Who would you interact with? Would you change history? Now with advent of more scientific and critical thought, time travel stories have in many ways become more scrutinized by the audience, as well as written with a greater emphasis to scientific thought in regards to the ramifications of time travel itself. It is here that we have a fresh look with the NBC series Timeless.

With past time travel movies and shows that treated the subject seriously there was already some established fact that some, if not all, of the primary players involved had experience with time travel, either from a practical or highly advanced theoretical standpoint. This allowed for a more “hard science” approach regarding time travel itself and the potential paradoxical problems that could arise. Timeless is doing something incredibly different.

Set in present day, a scientific installation is broken into and a group of what appear to be terrorists steal a highly advanced machine that causes them to suddenly disappear. It is here that the government calls upon two special individuals to take part in a top-secret mission. First there is Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer). She is a history expert and appears to be able to recall any special historical moment just from the mention of a date. Second, there is a soldier named Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter). Not much is initially known about him except he was awarded a medal for a very critical military operation in Syria. It is here that they learn, including the government liaison that has been assigned to the lab, that this scientific group was studying time travel, and that one of the members of this “terrorist” group is a criminal known as Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic). They know that he has stolen their advanced time travel machine probably with the intent to change history, and this is why Lucy and Wyatt have been recruited so that they can put a stop to his time travel meddling.

From here Lucy and Wyatt are joined by a technician from this scientific group named Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) as he is the only one skilled to pilot their prototype ship, which has been kept in storage in the event a “life boat” was needed to rescue any stranded time travelers. It is from here that they journey back in time to some key moments in American history, starting off with the arrival of the Hindenburg, followed by a second mission that takes them to the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, as well as the time when nuclear bombs were being detonated just outside of Las Vegas. Why these points in time indicate a possible grander scheme, as throughout the first few episodes Lucy actually has face to face encounters with Garcia Flynn, who speaks in riddles and very obscure hints suggesting to the TV audience that he firmly believes he is operating for the greater good (What complex “bad guy” doesn’t?), and he believes that Lucy needs to open her eyes and sees the truth for what it is, which also points to a much greater story arc for this series than just the standalone procedural episodes of using time travel to save the day. This is emphasized when right after Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus come back from their first mission with the Hindenburg (which was for the most part a success) that Lucy returns to her home and immediately everything in her life has changed. Her younger sister no longer exists, she now is engaged to a man she doesn’t know, and her mother who was previously dying of cancer is now the picture of health, and only our travelers have any memories of the time that was before.

With this series Keith and I initially went into it with the same level of expectations that we had with TV shows like Continuum and even to some degree Doctor Who (which has tried to treat the subject of time travel with some degree of seriousness despite its cavalier story telling). For those reasons we found the first episode to be somewhat disappointing, but we were willing to give this show another try as we did feel that there was some potential there to be found. When it came to the second episode we approached it with this single idea; what would you do if today you could travel back in time to a key point in history? How would you react? It was from this point of view that the series took on a completely new light. We are dealing with contemporary people who have been thrust into extraordinary circumstances and with barely any preparation as to what they were about to face. That’s when the series very subtly asks questions like, what would you do if you met Lincoln prior to his assassination? What would you do if you were present at the destruction of the Hindenburg, and more recently, what would you do if you were present at the Battle of the Alamo? I know that this last one is a bit of a cheat because this is supposed to be a three-episode review, and the story with the Alamo occurs in episode 5, but it is this building of humanizing time travel that makes this series so incredibly strong. I concede that the overall story arc is highly compelling and makes me yearn for episodes that do more “universe building” than simply serve as a procedural because I want to know more about this implied conspiracy going on, but at the same time the writers (and show creators), Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield) deliver some truly heartfelt episodes that help you to forget the greater story and cause the viewer to focus on the players involved, as well as give the viewer something to relate to enabling the episode to have a certain resonance that may not have been there before. How would YOU feel if you had met Lincoln, only to be present the night he was shot? How would YOU feel if you were at the Alamo amongst the men, women, and children whose lives were in danger from the fort’s impending fall? Despite being sci-fi dramas, these stories put faces on the people we read and discuss in history classes, where there is a certain dispassionate depiction as to what happened at those times. Timeless tells us that these are still humans, and despite whatever time they live in, they deal with the same emotions that we do. Whether you are a time traveler witnessing these events first hand, or you are that historical figure who is about to meet his or her demise, this series tells their story in a way that perhaps the originators of Doctor Who had originally intended for that show to me.

Timeless brings these stories to the present, and still manage to wrap it in a very multi-layered conspiracy laden story arc to help keep the viewer on the hook. For a series to be able to deliver both procedural episodes that stand out, as well as present a long-term story thread is a mark of excellence for any show. After having watched the first few episodes of this remarkable series, I can only say that we here at TG2 Studios will definitely be making time to watch Timeless.
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Have you been watching Timeless? What are some of the strong points of this series that you like? Are there any weaknesses? Where would you like to see this series actually go in direction?
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