If you decide to base a TV show around time travel, it immediately causes problems in terms of plotting. Travelling forward in time isn’t a problem, but travelling or sending information backwards through time potentially results in effect preceding cause. Small wonder that scientists argue that either such time travel impossible or it requires the existence of ‘many universes’.
TV doesn’t have many universes, but it does have script writers who can make reverse time travel happen at the stroke of a Final Draft macro. But making their plots make sense afterwards? That’s trickier.
Take Lifeline, which is YouTube Red’s time travel drama series very, very loosely based on the Robert Heinlein short story Life-Line. The premise of it sounds reasonable enough at first. The idea is that there’s a life assurance company called Lifeline that knows when its clients are going to die so sends in agents to prevent those deaths. Which is nice, obviously, but how exactly does the company know the times of death so accurately?
Ah. Glad you asked. You see, all their clients get an implant in their arms that broadcasts their vital signs back in time 33 days. As soon as those broadcasts start indicating the client is having a hard time of it, the company steps in to save the client – among whose number are Lifeline‘s exec producer Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He even appears in the company’s promotional video.
Now, already you’re thinking to yourself of some possible problems. If the insurance company can send itself messages from 33 days in the future, why is it even bothering with being an insurance company when it could just be winning the lottery every week?
This is the point where the script writer could issue some sticking plasters and say that that would change the future somehow before it happened and your Lotto numbers would never come up.
Except Lifeline says the future is fixed. That’s why there’s no point simply sticking the future deceased in a locked room for 33 days, for example. Fate will somehow find a way to off the unlucky person.
Hmm. So why bother trying to save anyone at all, if the future is fixed? Surely they’ll die no matter what, while you’re cashing in your Lotto tickets?
Now come the plasters. Lifeline argues that the future is fixed… until just before the point the information comes from, after which everything goes onto a new timeline. Whatever shall be shall be, que sera sera – at least for 32.99999997 days.
Doesn’t make any sense does it? That’s just meaningless. Why 33 days? Why not 5? If it’s that close, won’t the Lotto numbers or stock prices still be valid, and you don’t have to dick around with that assurance malarky any more?
Still, that’s the set-up and you’ll spend roughly 90% of the show’s half-hour run remembering that it makes no sense, which is a tad distracting.
But assuming you can if not accept then tolerate that nonsensical basis for the show, what do the writers do with it?
More nonsense, that’s what. Although it’s nonsense with a certain amount of imagination and intelligence all the same. A paradox? Yes. Welcome to time travel, newbie.
So, as well as the capacity to send messages back in time, said insurance company’s boss (Usman Ally) has the ability to send people forward in time, too. (He has other secret technologies, include a memory-wiper. What he’s doing in the life assurance industry, I couldn’t say).
Rather than letting agents lead a normal life and just getting them to show up in 33 days’ time, Lifeline actually sends them forward in time 33 days to just before the fatal problem emerges. Chief among the accident-averting agents is Zach Gilford (Friday Night Lights, The Family), who also happens to be married to fellow agent Amanda Crew (Silicon Valley).
Here the show does work relatively nicely as a metaphor for busy, jetsetting couples who only get to spend a few days together each month and who are missing out on life in general. Sure, everyone points out how young you stills look, but that’s because you’ve only lived a few weeks out of the past two years, while they’ve had to live through all of it. And they do seem to have a nice time at work.
But again, wouldn’t Lifeline be worried that everyone notices its agents are all the same ages as when they were recruited? How long could you be an agent for before you had to retire? How long would you want to be?
Stop asking questions. Questions won’t make you happy.
By the end of the first episode, however, everything’s gone a bit pear-shaped, someone’s breaking the rules and some people are dead. Oh no. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have had a warning about that sooner?
Anyway, that’s your free episode. After that, you’ll have to stump up another £1.89 per episode for the remaining five episodes to see what happens.
By the end of it, as well as enduring a hefty amount of nonsense, I’d realised that I had no real interest in watching any more of it. Sure, the somewhat cheap production values nostalgically reminded me of some classic straight-to-VHS 90s movies such as Megaville. Crew is actually quite good, too, and Ally is enjoyable as the benevolent (or is he?) boss.
But Gilford is a bit nondescript. Most of the other characters have no personalities at all or are dead. The one fun thing about the first episode – Crew and Gilford’s relationship – ain’t happening any more. And all that really leaves at the end is the utterly nonsensical set-up and it’s arbitrary, nonsensical rules.
So there’s just nothing there to really make me want to see how it turns out. The first episode is free and you can watch it below, after the trailer. I wouldn’t recommend it though.