The idea of time travel is not a new concept in science fiction, and neither is the idea of someone or someones from the future coming back to the present to change fate. Travelers was already walking well-worn ground long before it was a glimmer in the eye of creator Brad Wright, let alone seeing it premiere in the same TV year as 11.22.63, 12 Monkeys, and the new NBC series Timeless. If Travelers is to succeed, it has a couple of key things going for it, one is Wright who more or less created the Stargate TV empire, and the other is the conceit that our titular time travelers are forced to lead double lives as they try to save their future.
Travelers’ set-up is very simply: the future hundreds of years hence is utterly terrible. The surviving humans looking down the barrel at their own extinction have found a way to send a person’s consciousness back in time where it can override the mind of someone living in the year 2016. Basically, the new OS of the future consciousness writes over the old OS of the person in the present thus allowing future people to take over our bodies here and now, but there’s a moral conundrum because time travel basically means killing someone in the past, so how do you choose?
The show resolves that neatly by having the future humans do their homework and download into someone mere moments before they die. The point is made inelegantly in the pilot as we meet our main characters, and we see them in the minutes leading up to their death with a convenient countdown clock showing us when this person is about to kick it exactly. Then, as if my magic, that person avoids their fall, drug overdose, or ill-timed blow to the head just in the knick of time. The way the arrival scenes are shot, I think the average sci-fi fan would have picked up on what was going on just fine without the whole countdown clock, which seemed superfluous and dorky, especially give that Travelers wants to been seen as a serious science fiction show.
The beginning of the first episode though was really its clunkiest part as the script grinds out how each of the four-member team of Travelers arrive in the present. There’s high school athlete Trever (Jared Abrahamson), library janitor Marcy (MacKenzie Porter), recreational drug user Philip (Reilly Dolman), and stay at home mom Carly (Nesta Cooper). We never see the future they come from, but the actors are allowed these subtle cues to indicate just how foreign the present Earth must be as compared to what’s assumed to be the charbroiled hellscape they come from. An apple is a delicious delicacy, to be outside in the sunlight is a tropical vacation.
For added difficulty, the nature of the time travel in Travelers means our heroes have to lead double lives: the one where they work towards a better future, and their lives as people in the present, working jobs, looking after children, and interacting with friends and family they’re supposed to have known for years. How do they know what to say and do? Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and all your favourite social media distractions. Apparently, in the centuries to come, all our little jokes and pictures will paint a picture for a spy from the future to take over our lives, and as you might expect, that’s as precarious as it sounds. Fake profiles, secret problems, and missing information all plague the Travelers immediate arrival in the present, and gives the series a fascinating new subtext to explore over the long haul.
We don’t get too deep into the mission in this first hour, or how this ragtag group and their covers are supposed to change the wheel of fate, and, in that way, Travelers is kind of refreshing. Wright, as a writer, as always seemed more interested in world-building than character building; the pilots of SG-1, Atlantis, and even Universe seemed far more concerned about the whys and hows and whatfors, and Universe was supposedly built to be more character-centric in the first place. All we really know after episode one in terms of mythology is that the future sucks and our gaggle of time travelers is meant to change that.
Another holdover from Wright’s Stargate days is building a cast of unknowns around a well-known and established veteran, and in this case that’s Eric McCormack as FBI Agent Grant MacLaren. Perhaps it’s a spoiler to say that MacLaren is the final member of the group to arrive seeing as how McCormack spends most of the hour playing original OS agent, but the advertising’s been pretty clear that MacLaren is himself a Traveler. It’s problematic and interesting at the same time, because while we don’t get much of a sense of the character McCormack will be playing in the other 11 episodes of the first season and (maybe) beyond, it might be fun to see first hand how well future MacLaren plays the present day FBI agent.
What the pilot doesn’t do is explain why the characters wouldn’t just ditch their normal lives and commit themselves fully to the cause. Sure, having an FBI agent on the payroll would come in handy, as would a paycheque from a day job, but you mean to tell me that the tech wizards of the future couldn’t come up with an idea for a bottomless debit card or something. It’s not a huge deal, but the people they take over were supposed to have died anyway, so why keep going about life as normal, when normally life would have ended?
Another hiccup in the show’s DNA is the rather cliched things some of the characters encounter. For instance, Carly’s alpha-male abusive husband, as it turns out, is actually a policeman. I wonder if he’s going to learn too much about the Travelers and become an annoyance? Another annoyance, is the typically excellent Ian Tracey, who appears as Phillip’s lawyer who instantaneously becomes a thorn in his client’s side when Philip pulls a Biff Tannen and gives the degenerate gambler that day’s pony race results as a way to raise bail money. It seems weird to give the Travelers such prosaic problems when saving the future is a big enough mission on it’s own, but maybe these developments will play out in unexpected ways.
Despite those reservations, Travelers might be one of the most ambitious and down to earth time travel shows on television, and there’s virtually no chance that the heroes will be asked to stop and see the destruction of the Hindenberg, or go to Washington on the day of Lincoln’s assassination. There’s a strong chance for social commentary too, and more than a little intrigue as the Travelers discover that social media ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. And maybe there’s a lesson in there for us too. The real lesson from episode one of Travelers though is that there’s potential here, and it also has the pedigree to be a great, new fan sensation.
Travelers premieres October 17 on Showcase in Canada, and around the world on Netflix later this year.