Good time travel TV is something of a rarity. Of course we have Dr. Who, a show that’s had over 50 years to get the formula right (which is to make the notion of time-travel so complex that you just write it off as almost “magic”, AKA wibbley-wobbley timey-wimey), instead focusing on intense one-on-one relationships a la Doctor/Companion and Doctor/Master/Time Lords. Then you have shows like Quantum Leap, in which the time travel is less a part of the plot and more of just a set up for good ol’ fashioned cheezy 80’s drama and comedy. Then you have something more recent, like the first season of Timeless on NBC, involving a trio of time travelers that chase down a history-altering and history-spanning conglomerate and the renegade who fights them. And while it’s mildly entertaining, the complexity of the plot and bombastic period set designs override much character development (Rufus, played by Malcom Barret, is the only real interesting and well portrayed and developed character) and ends up making the show passable but nothing great.
That’s where Netflix’s totally binge-worthy first season of Travelers is different. It balances out plot, character development, and group versus individual dynamic into a near perfect Tri-force. Its genius lies is that its scientific premise for time-travel sets up AMAZING struggle for its characters, giving them so much to deal with on top of an already complex mission. In the future, an AI is created to send back special operatives’ consciousness into the minds of people in our time that are about to die according to the historical record. The “travelers” whose IDs are given as 3 or 4 digit numbers, then resume their hosts lives, but have no memory of what came before! So they have to figure out their hosts’s lives and relationships and negotiate them the best that they can. The travelers are sent back in disconnected cells, and find each other using crazy hacking in the deep web. They then meet their teams and perform missions the AI of the future sends back to them via computer and “kid messenger” in an effort to avoid the multiple apocalyptic calamities that befall humanity in the future.
The problems arise when missions interfere with their new lives or vice-versa, or previous relationships with other travelers complicate the ones belonging to their new personas. Instant drama! And of course nothing ever goes according to plan, and time travel complications arise (as they always do when you start messing with the timeline.) As consequences to their meddling with history, they don’t even know if their traveler allies can be trusted, if they are taking orders from the right side of the future anymore, or even what the right side is! And as their own memories of the future begin to differ from what is being recounted to them by messages out of the future, can they really keep fighting for a totally different world?
The show headlines Eric McCormck of Will and Grace fame as a Mulder-esque FBI agent Grant MacLaren, the team leader, whose dry wit, strong will and struggle between caring for his host’s wife and his love for fellow traveler Carly Shannon (Nesta Cooper) causes him to be quite the compelling lead role. Carly is a stay-at-home mom whose policeman boyfriend is a drunken abuser. She, being the tactician and weapon specialist of the group, quickly puts an end to their domestic co-habitation, but child custody and her boyfriend’s jealousy cause her problems throughout the season, as does the fact that she has no idea how to raise an infant!
The team’s engineer is Trevor Holden (Jared Abrahamson) who inhabits the body of a 17 year old football jock, and is cause for concern to his family and friends because the concussion that would have killed him instead allows his traveler to change him from a pubescent, arrogant prick into a calm, intelligent, compassionate, old soul. (Literally! This traveler is over 100 years old!) The dichotomy of old age and experience thrust back into a young body causes all sorts of problems, but also is a kind of reawakening and journey inward for this character. His relationship with his parents, counselor and girlfriend are interesting, not to mention the sort of comic relief aspect he plays for the team.
One of the more philosophically interesting characters is Marcy Warton (MacKenzie Porter from Hell on Wheels), whose is a developmentally disabled adult, that is, until her traveler arrives at the moment of death and she reawakens as a hyper-intelligent, physically able, well-adjusted doctor from the future. This confuses the hell out of her social worker David Mailer (Patrick Gilmore of the various SyFy Stargate TV shows) whose innocent befuddlement and delicate feelings play well with Marcy’s new assertive attitude. He actually becomes one of the best parts of the show as he finds out more and more about Marcy’s new secret life fighting for the future. Marcy’s struggle with her body, however, is not completely done, as though her mind sharp, her frail form is still on the path to death. This causes an urgency to everything she does, and increases the intensity of the relationships between her and her team and her and David.
Perhaps the most visceral portrayal and most interesting character is that of Phillip Pearson (amazingly portrayed by Reilly Dolman), the team’s historian. The historian is an altered human capable of remembering perfectly myriads of historical facts in order to aid the team in finding targets and assets. He knows the dates, times, locations and events of many candidate travelers’ deaths, of all events that can be used for monetary gain, assassination targets and major contemporary historical events. The problem that he runs into is that no one knew when they sent him back into his host that his host is a heroin addict! He must therefore combat his addiction and deal with cravings and withdrawl constantly while trying to perform his role on the team. And as they change the timeline by accomplishing missions, his knowledge of the present becomes inaccurate as the timeline changes around them. He’s got so many problems and issues I don’t know where to begin!
Aside from the amazing lead actors and their performances, there are great supporting roles as well, especially that of the research scientist Delaney (played by Kyra Zagorsky of SyFy’s Helix) and school counselor Grace (Jennifer Spence of Continuum and Stargate Universe). They really add to the solid lead cast and fill the show out with gripping sub-plots. The cinematography and special effects in the show are the best that Netflix has yet produced, mixing crazy action and slow, panning shots with great editing and care. The show’s 12 episodes are gripping and paced extremely well, balancing out screen time among the leads and never getting the viewer bored. Of course this results in binge-watching! The writing is tight with a reign in on the exposition and ne’er a wasted word, (sometimes moments can drag out a bit too long, but these are few and far between) and the dialogue feels meaningful and organic. The only weak point might be where the show actually tries to explain its mechanics in too much detail. Number one, logic falls apart if you over analyze crazy time travel stuff anyway, and number two, the characters are so good you really just don’t care about any of that. The plot of thwarting the threat in the future becomes second tier to the struggle of the characters. In fact, another flaw might be that they almost forgot about the main plot, getting so wrapped up in character development, that in the last few episodes they had to hurry up and figure out a way to end the season (which is usually the opposite problem that shows have).
If you have a weekend to binge-watch Travelers, you will come out the other end of it feeling entertained, enriched, thought-provoked, paranoid that people you know might be secret time travelers, and happy for all of it!