After finishing Travelers’ first 3 episodes of Quantum-Leap-with-a-one-way-ticket-and-dystopian-twist earlier this week I moved on to other shows, not out of disinterest but instead because I went into this Christmas break planning to sample a bunch of different shows and report back whether they were worth your time. Travelers and Rectify definitely are, Shut Eye is not and The OA, based on the pilot at least, is…well, I don’t know what to make of that show yet. However, I kept wanting to return back to Travelers, sensing in it an heir apparent to prior genre shows like Alphas and Continuum which always made for perfect comfort food TV for sci-fi nerds. So, I finished up Travelers’ first season two nights ago, and here’s what I thought:
That’s the kind of quality, in-depth analysis we’re always proud to provide our readers here at WeMinoredInFilm.com
Fine. I should elaborate.
[Some Season 1 Spoilers Follow]
As a reminder, the premise of the show involves travelers (none of whom have names of their own but instead numeric designations) from the future having their minds sent back in time into the bodies of the soon-to-be-deceased. They use historical records to pinpoint a person’s moment of death and leap in just in time to prevent the death, and then assume their life from that point forward. They reason there’s no guilt involved with hijacking someone’s life when that person was supposed to day anyway.
These travelers all form 5-person military units acting under orders from the future as part of some larger mission to save the future from, um, something bad. The show focuses on one specific unit: a team leader who has assumed the life of FBI agent Grant MacLaren (Eric McCormack), the team medic Marcy (MacKenzie Porter) who mistakenly leapt into the life of a woman with an intellectual disability, the team tactician Carly (Nesta Cooper) who has leapt into the life of a stay-at-home mother, the team historian Philip (Reilly Dolman) who has leapt into the life of a heroin addict and the team engineer Trevor (Jared Abrahamson) who has leapt into the life of a formerly brutish high school athlete.
One of the most important things to remember about Travelers is that it is a co-production between Canadian TV network Showcase and Netflix meaning the entire 12-episode first season may have landed on Netflix last week but the episodes have been airing in weekly installments in Canada since mid-October. The season finale hasn’t even aired on Showcase yet. As such, show creator Brad Wright (creator or co-creator of the various Stargate shows) and his writers had to design something which could both work as a weekly TV show and something most people would simply binge, either all at once or in separate sittings. The result is a hybrid procedural/serialized drama.
There are also certain tendencies and gaps (e.g., an important 21st century scientist is dropped from the show halfway through with no subsequent reference to her whereabouts) which would be less noticeable if ingested in weekly installments but jump out at you while binge watching. So, it grows a tad tiresome seeing so many of the weekly conflicts and problems solved by the team leader waving his FBI badge, or how the scripts continually come back to how much it sucks for Philip/Marcy being in the body of an addict/intellectually disabled person. Marcy’s social worker David (Patrick Gilmore) is told her stunning turnaround in cognitive ability is because she was always a special operative for the FBI undercover in the social care system. She needs to stay with him without him asking too many questions, and he says of this arrangement, “I can’t keep doing this” so many times I lost count. Also, his sweet nature and quick wit is initially endearing but turns slightly annoying as he continually allows himself to be used by Marcy and the team, making him the show’s doormat.
But even with all those nitpicky criticisms Travelers remains compulsively watchable. It intriguingly builds up its universe across the season, effectively establishing the rules and then challenging the team with repeated scenarios which defy the rules. For example, what do they do when a fellow incoming team they were meant to greet partially misfires and leaves a poor little girl stuck with a mother, father and older brother overtaken by travelers? How do they respond when protocol dictates one thing but their hearts dictate something else? Why can’t they save certain people? In response to all these challenges, they end up going off script so much it’s a wonder there weren’t more repercussions from the leadership in the future.
The season as a whole drip-feeds us crucial details in such a way that the mission becomes secondary to the characters. We do gradually learn more about what it is they are there to prevent, what their lives were like in the future, who or what is sending them their orders, etc. However, the show strategically withholds much of this information so that we can focus just as much if not more on getting to know the characters, dropping in on their continued struggles to adjust to life in the 21st century. Trevor is a particular delight as the Tommy Solomon-esque very old man in a young man’s body, mystifying his gorgeous girlfriend by teaching her how to meditate, forming an emotional bond with his older guidance counselor, perplexing his parents as he suddenly sympathizes with his mother and refers to his father by his first name.
The dual stories of saving the future and of these characters becoming a family stuck in a strange land truly meets for the first time halfway through the season in episodes 6 (“Helios-685”) and 7 (“Protocol 5”), the latter of which ranks as the high point of the show thus far. In short, when the team accomplishes something they believe to have been their central mission they then spend the following week apart and adrift, suffering psychotropic visions (a side effect of an inoculation delivered in the prior episode) which illuminate just how lost they are without the certainty of purpose which the mission gave their lives. It’s a brave storytelling choice, putting what one might expect to be the season finale right in the middle of the season, and then stepping back to watch as the characters (and show itself) openly wonder, “What now?”
This is an instance of a show recognizing modern TV’s need to go out of its way to surprise audiences with high narrative IQs (i.e., we all watch so much TV we’ve become remarkably adept at predicting where storylines are going). However, the second half of the season feels comparatively formless, hopping from one intriguing scenario (what if a new traveler refused to cooperate and threatened to rat everyone out to the 21st century authorities?) to the next (what if a traveler’s brain could be reset, effectively killing the version of them which has lived in the 21st century by restoring who they were immediately before arriving?) without a larger purpose.
One later episode takes place largely inside of the team leader’s mind as a near death experience grants him access to his host’s memories. It’s fascinating to watch and certainly well acted and in keeping with the show’s increasing emphasis on the characters, but in a binge context you’re more away of how many narrative balls they have left in the air. If they’re pausing for one character study after another you start to wonder how they’re going to wrap everything up.
The answer is they don’t, wrap everything up that is. Instead, the season builds to a series of well-executed cliffhangers, culminating in one of the all-time greatest Mexican standoffs I’ve ever seen (think of a John Woo movie where all the people with guns are nerdily debating increasingly convoluted time travel logic). It’s clear they have a vision for a second season which will look very different from the first, and I hope they get the chance to pursue that.
Best Episode: “Protocol 5,” even with the insane way Grant is taken to his surprise party
Worst Episode: I liked them all, but if forced to choose I’d pick “Hall,” aka, when they encounter the other team that attempts to pull rank and seniority on them.
Favorite Character: Trevor or Marcy
Least Favorite: Again, like them all, but if forced I’d say Carly if only because her journey from soldier to mother feels the least well-developed
Biggest Questions Heading Into Next Season: What’s going on with the disgruntled travelers in prison? Who survived the finale and who didn’t? How will they possibly talk themselves out of that mess? Are they all even on the same side anymore? How will they make money if all the horse races Philip memorized keep changing due to the vagaries of time travel? And who will Marcy become after what happened to her mind?
Random Note: Travelers has the most erotic spinal tap scene I’ve ever seen, not that there’s much (if any) competition in that category.