[SPOILERS FOR THE TRAVELERS PILOT FOLLOW]
I’m not going to lie: The only reason I watched Travelers, a Canadian TV series which premiered on the Showcase channel in October and has now landed on Netflix just in time for Christmas break binge-addicts, is because a TV Guide writer referenced Quantum Leap in their description of the show. I can’t even find the specific TV Guide issue this was in anymore, but in their now regular section running down the latest and greatest in streaming TV there was a brief blurb about Travelers, described as being about a group of people from a post-apocalyptic future who Quantum Leap their way into the minds and bodies of people in the past as part of a plot to save humanity.
Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the quantum leap accelerator and vanished. He woke to find himself trapped in the past facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.
Hold on. I blacked out for a second there. Did I just regurgitate the opening lines of Quantum Leap’s saga sell? I can’t help it. Whenever I hear the name of that show, one of my all-time favorites, I involuntarily play back that iconic opening credits sequence in my head.
His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see or hear.
I just did it again, didn’t I?
And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.
Pull it together, man. Quantum Leap was canceled over 20 years ago. It’s time to move on.
And move on I have to Travelers, sampling the show’s first 3 episodes last night and eager to jump back in for the remaining 9 soon. However, this is not some Quantum Leap clone. It’s more like Quantum Leap mixed with, oddly enough, 3rd Rock from the Sun mixed with with Continuum, another Canadian time travel series about people from a scary future traveling to the past to set things right, except there they were hounded by a cop (series lead Rachel Nichols) who unwittingly traveled back in time with them.
Not that you’d pick up on any of this from the Travelers pilot, which admirably and quite effectively holds back on revealing its premise until its final seconds. Instead, we drop in, almost Sense8 style, on the lives of seemingly random people, on-screen text counting down to the moment of their death. A cage fighting teenager named Trevor (Jared Abrahamson) takes too many punches. A sweet natured, learning disabled janitor named Marcy (MacKenzie Porter) breaks up an attempted rape of a co-worker before becoming the new target of the attack. A heroin addict named Philip (Reilly Dolman) shoots up one last time. A young mother named Carly (Nesta Cooper) falls at the hands of her abusive ex.
One by one, they all suffer a seizure seconds before their death, causing the on-screen clock to suddenly start ticking in the opposite direction and gradually disappear altogether. They emerge from their seizures as if they were suddenly different people, more mentally and physically capable than they had been moments earlier. As they resume their lives from that point forward, the slight-to-significant changes in their personality are noticeable to everyone around them, and their subsequent interest in internet hacking draws the attention of a FBI Special Agent (Eric McCormack).
Once the “we’re from the future, and we’ve taken over these people’s bodies” cat is out of the bag the show really gets going. These seemingly random people are revealed to be a team on a mission with McCormack (who is taken over by a traveler in a nicely executed twist in the pilot’s final act,) as their team leader. Marcy is their doctor, Carly their tactical expert and technician, Philip their historian and Trevor their…actually, at this point I still don’t know which specific function Trevor serves. Science officer?
The Quantum Leap they’ve made is a one-time jump meaning they are stuck in their new bodies for the long haul, and there are always variables they didn’t account for due to holes in the historical record. For example, history failed to record that Philip was an addict (and not just a one-time user) or that Marcy had a learning disability. As a result, the traveler inside of Philip must either suffer through withdrawal or continue to self-medicate to remain functional, and Marcy accidentally sets off red flags with her case worker and doctor when she suddenly has no sign of any disability.
The 3rd Rock from the Sun comparison I made earlier is due to the military-like unit this group forms, and how they struggle to pretend to be normal when they are away from that unit, e.g., Trevor failing to act like a convincing teenage boy, Carly having to type “how to raise an infant” into a search engine to learn how to be a mom. Unlike 3rd Rock, these struggles are typically played for drama instead of comedy.
It’s too early in the season to have a complete sense of every character, but it’s clear that they are each responding to the moral and ethical conundrums of their predicament in different ways while also displaying varied levels of interest in how they wish to engage with the past. Some want to stay on mission and not deviate whatsoever whereas others can’t help but rejoice in a time when they could easily walk in a park or eat a hamburger, both long since things of the past where they come from.
Of course, time travel tropes, such as using knowledge of sporting event outcomes to win big on gambling, inevitably abound, but Travelers is always refreshingly clever and non-meta about it (e.g., No one says, “What, do you have the Sports Almanac from Back to the Future II?”). Moreover, the first three episodes effectively establish and expand the universe, touching on the existence of other time traveling teams and the rules they are all duty bound to follow. By the end of the third episode, our team has started to question why exactly they can’t interfere and save more people, and a whole bag of time travel ethics is about to be unleashed.
It’s all more than enough to have hooked me on the season, and I’ll soon dig back in, fully expecting the season to continue its drip feed approach to dishing out the exact details of their mission or what exactly ruined humanity in the future.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In a different time, this would probably be a SyFy show, potentially lost in that network’s increasingly crowded roster. However, now it’s on Netflix, and while it’s nowhere near as buzzy as The OA it is a worthy option for any sci-fi fan’s binge-watching time this Christmas break.
NEITHER HERE NOR THERE
The Canada of Travelers is so, so pretty.