In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by E4
The biggest problem with the first episode of NBC’s new sci-fi show Timeless was that it just wasn’t fun. A time travel adventure in which a historian, an engineer and a soldier gamely head off each week into the past to stop Goran Višnjić from changing history for the better (he claims) should have been a laugh, particularly with our very own Paterson Joseph being the owner of said time machine.
But it wasn’t. It was dreary. It had a dreary choice of destination – the Hindenburg disaster. Thanks to the presence of her dying mum, its heroine (Abigail Spencer) was more a tragic figure than a fangirl let loose in a comic shop when all the boys have been sent packing. Ex-Delta soldier (Matt Lanter) was more male model than special forces operative, and he was just as tragic as Spencer thanks to his pining for his dead wife.
The one potential comic piece of comic relief, engineer/time travel pilot Malcolm Barrett, basically had to endure being black in the American past, something he quite rightly pointed out before they went was never going to be fun whenever they ended up, but in actuality meant he wasn’t just the token black guy – he was the token black guy representing all black people ever. That’s gotta suck.
Worst of all was the fact that Team Spencer were busily trying to preserve history as recorded, right down to making sure everyone who died stays dead, even if that means burning to death horribly in a fiery balloon accident. Bit of a downer, no?
As always, though, there’s a reason why TMINE always waits for at least three episodes before passing final verdict: shows can evolve and get better as producers work out what’s wrong and fix it. And while Timeless still isn’t the new Doctor Who or even the new Quantum Leap, it’s certainly becoming a lot more entertaining. Episode two took us to see the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, episode three took us to Las Vegas in the 60s to watch atomic bomb tests and I can see from the schedule that episode four is going to involve the plucky Americans teaming up with Ian Fleming to fight the Nazis during World War Two. Now that’s a bit more fun than the Hindenburg Disaster, now isn’t it?
The producers – Eric Kripke (Supernatural) and Shawn Ryan (The Unit, The Shield), in case you were wondering – are also making the central team themselves a bit more fun, although they’ve haven’t bothered giving Barrett and Lanter any real character traits or background other than “comic black history spokesperson” and “inept soldier widower”. Time changes, Spencer’s life changes, but theirs seem to stay resolutely the same and butterfly effect-proof.
Barrett may continually get the short end of the stick for being black wherever he ends up, albeit in different ways each time, but he now sometimes manages to use his second class status for the better. Lanter seems to have trouble even holding a gun, but he’s now getting some occasionally amusing lines.
Perhaps the show’s main selling point is that just like Doctor Who when that started, Timeless is trying its level best to make history come alive – through history’s own supporting cast. You already know Lincoln, you’ve seen Daniel Day Lewis do a good performance as Lincoln, so yet another Lincoln wouldn’t have much impact. But what must it have been like to have been Lincoln’s son? Or JFK’s mistress? Or a black soldier from the North during the Civil War? While the fact Timeless actually allows its time travellers to change history, even quite significantly, means that the narrative can never be trusted to tell historical fact, it’s still fun to have Spencer sit down and essentially interview this supporting cast like a GCSE History empathy essay come to life.
After three episodes Timeless has crafted a formula for itself that’s popcorn-tastic but enjoyable nonsense. Its action scenes are weak, its historical detail weak, its story arc weak and its humour – you guessed it – weak. But it’s now getting a certain confidence up that makes it a reasonably entertaining view. It might even make the kiddies who watch it start to enjoy history.
If you need to waste an hour a week on amiable, people-centred, historical sci-fi nonsense, Timeless is worth a try.
Barrometer rating: 3
Would it be better with a female lead? N/A
TMINE’s prediction: Will probably last about as long as Revolution