The Problems with Timeless


I’m going to talk about problems with the new NBC show, Timeless, so if you don’t want to read spoilers for the show, you probably want to run away now.

Still with me? Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been a science fiction fan pretty much my entire life. And one of my favorite tropes is Time Travel. So when NBC started heavily promoting Timeless for the fall of 2016, you could say I started to have hopes that maybe this time (no pun intended) a TV series would get it right.

First a word about what I mean when I say, “get it right.” I don’t mean to imply that there’s only one true set of rules for time travel. Far from it, though I do think that in order for the audience to suspend our disbelief about the subject (time travel!), there must be a consistent set of rules governing time travel and they must not — in general — be broken.

I don’t actually have a problem with the time travel rules that have so far been presented in the series. That’s probably because the rules are so sketchy to begin with. In fact, there’s only one rule that I can recall even being stated: You must not travel to a time where you already exist, or there will be dire (physical) consequences. This includes, I presume, within your own (normal) lifetime, not just traveling more than once to a time before you were born. So, okay, it’s a handy rule (at least for the writers) that prevents the good guys from just showing up over and over again until they “fix” whatever is wrong, or the bad guys from doing the same in order to change history. I can live with that.

The real problems have to do with sloppy writing and/or a lack of respect for the audience. Granted, some of this might be due to the ridiculously short time allotted to tell a story on network television – 41 to 43 minutes. But they seem to be able to devote enough time to make the sets and special effects shine, why not make the writing shine as well?

I said I’d accept that the *same people* cannot go back to a time they’ve already visited. But why can’t they send a different team? Because they only have one pilot (Rufus). Seriously? Why can’t they start training another pilot? In fact, how did Rufus learn to be a time pilot in the first place? Was it trial and error? Do they have a simulator? Why can’t Rufus train a backup? And don’t try to tell me there isn’t another historian and special ops guy out there who could do the job, too.

Wouldn’t you think the government would insist on having a backup team? Just in case something happened to our three intrepid heroes? Because nothing ever goes wrong when chasing a well-armed evil villain (Flynn) in the present, let alone the past, right? And while we’re talking about backup, shouldn’t they be building another time capsule? In case, you know, something happens to the only one they have.

And speaking of the villain, Flynn, I have a bone to pick with the writers about the insulting way they’re attempting to inject suspense and drama into the show by writing confrontations between Flynn and Lucy (the heroine) in which Flynn continually hints that Lucy should/will help him and (cue drama) that there’s more going on than she’s aware, but then refuses to tell her anything of substance.

I hate conversations that basically go like this: “One day you’ll agree/help me. If I could tell you now, you’d understand. But I can’t tell you now. Maybe I’ll tell you later. But you should still help me even though I’m being a dick.”

This isn’t writing dramatic tension; this is bad/sloppy writing. Stop insulting your audience. If this (whatever it is) is important to the story, figure out a better way to set Lucy on the path to discovering the information.

And then we come to the elephant in the middle of the room. The government is all concerned about Flynn changing the timeline (read: changing America as we know it). Yet when the trio return to the present, the government agent-in-charge (Agent Christopher) is adamant that she doesn’t care what changes might have occurred in the past because she believes America is “still here and still the same.” There’s never even a suggestion that serious research should be done to compare the “old” present (before the trio do their time traveling) to the “new” present (after they return from their trip to the past).

And this continues to happen over and over, even though it was clearly demonstrated in the very first episode that only the three people who travel in the time capsule remember the truth of the world they left behind, that some people who used to exist might not exist any more (eg. Lucy’s sister), and presumably that there are people who didn’t exist before, who now do exist. All of which is to say that Agent Christopher’s memories are suspect and the country she knows now as America could be significantly different from what America was like before the time traveling occurred.

If the writers keep handwaving the significance of these matters, I have to wonder what the big deal is with worrying about time travel.

There’s a statement on the Wikipedia page for the show that was purportedly made by the show’s creators:

“They claim there is no hard and fast rule that governs narrative structures for the concept of time travel – it doesn’t necessarily need to adopt a twisted, mind-boggling storyline.”

I agree that the storyline doesn’t have to be mind-boggling or twisted. However, I think they’ve taken it too far. If all the characters (except the traveling trio) treat the real changes that occur after each journey as inconsequential, then why should I care? Where’s the true urgency, except for the dangers the trio face while traveling? In which case, why do you need a bad guy and a conspiracy? Isn’t that unnecessarily making the narrative overly twisted? 


And yet. I know I will continue to watch Timeless for as long as it lives on the air (though I hold little hope that it will ultimately succeed). We get all too few science fiction shows with great production values on TV. And I do find the trio — Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus — to be engaging characters. I can live with a few flaws for their sake.