From the incessant ads for it, NBC’s new time travel adventure ‘Timeless’ looked like it would be either one of the most promising new TV series of the fall or one of the cheesiest. Do these two things have to be mutually exclusive?
The show has some notable talent behind-the-scenes, including creators Eric Kripke (‘Supernatural’) and Shawn Ryan (‘The Shield’). Of course, both men have also produced some duds, such as ‘Revolution’ and ‘Last Resort’ respectively, so that isn’t a guarantee of anything. The pilot episode is directed by Neil Marshall, who has episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘Black Sails’ and ‘Constantine’ under his belt and knows his way around fantasy TV.
The opening scene sets the stage for both the episode’s plot and its tone. On May 6th, 1937, the German airship Hindenburg arrives in New Jersey prepared to dock at its intended landing site. In short order, we witness the chain of events that leads the blimp to explode in the air, crashing to the ground and killing dozens. The CGI visual effects for this recreation of a famous historical disaster are a little cartoony, but the scene moves so quickly that it barely gives you time to complain.
We immediately cut to the present day and are introduced to college history professor Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer from ‘Suits’ and ‘Rectify’). The bullet-point facts you need to know about her are that she’s rather pissed about being denied tenure at her university, her mother is dying of an unspecified illness, and she has a sister named Amy.
Next, armed gunmen break into a science lab called Mason Industries, hop into a weird eyeball-shaped machine, and vanish into thin air. Gee, I wonder what that lab could have been working on…
Homeland Security agents come knocking at Lucy’s door, insist that she come with them immediately, and whisk her off to the lab. Lucy has no idea what’s going on or why they want her. She’s dropped in a waiting room with hunky Delta Force master sergeant Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter, who voiced Anakin in the ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ cartoon). He doesn’t have any answers to give. The two are quickly brought up to speed by the head agent. She tells them that dashingly handsome international criminal Garcia Flynn (Goran Visnjic) has stolen a time machine… Yes, a time machine. That can’t be good.
Fortunately, the billionaire owner of the lab has a backup time machine. Even better, its computer is conveniently linked to the mothership and can tell exactly when it has gone to (though not where). Lucy recognizes the date: May 6th, 1937 – the day the Hindenburg crashed.
Homeland Security wants to send a team back in time to find and stop Flynn from messing with history. Inconveniently, the second time machine will only fit three people. One will be the soldier for obvious reasons. One will be an engineer from the lab named Rufus Carlin. (Most righteous ‘Bill & Ted’ joke there, writers!) The third person will have to be a historian to help them navigate the era and blend in with the appropriate customs so as not to call attention to themselves. Apparently, Lucy is the best historian in the world – or, at least the best historian who happened to be in the area and that they could get on short notice.
Before Lucy even has a chance to process what’s happening, she’s dressed up in vintage clothes, shuffled into the time machine, and suddenly finds herself in 1937, where she walks around agog at all the amazing history on display. Rufus, a black man, is less thrilled. American history has never been the friendliest place for people of color.
Rules of time travel are explained. Lucy asks why they didn’t just go back five minutes before Flynn stole the first time machine to stop him from taking it. You can’t go back to a time where you already are or you’ll create a paradox and bad things will happen. I feel like there are loopholes around this, but nobody questions it further.
Searching for Flynn, the team runs into plucky reporter Kate Drummond (Shantel VanSanten from ‘The Flash’). Viewers will remember her as the photographer in the opening scene who made the unfortunate mistake of standing directly beneath the Hindenburg and was crushed by debris. Logan is instantly smitten; she reminds him of his dead wife. He’s heartbroken when Lucy tells him that Kate has only hours to live and doesn’t know it.
With time running out, the team heads to the airfield to hopefully catch Flynn there. Logan spots reporter Kate again and impulsively tries to save her… except that, there’s no need. The blimp doesn’t explode. It never catches fire. It never crashes. The ship lands safely. Our heroes are dumbfounded. Why would Flynn save the Hindenburg?
One of Flynn’s men grabs Lucy but Logan guns him down. (Lucy chastises him for bringing a modern gun to the past.) They find a bomb detonator on the body, and piece together that Flynn saved the Hindenburg so that he could blow it up during its next trip, when it will have some very important people aboard including Nelson Rockefeller and Igor Sikorsky. Delaying the Hindenburg disaster by one day will significantly change the course of world events.
Plot machinations happen. The team get arrested but break out of jail. They eventually wind up on board the Hindenburg trying to stop Flynn from planting the bomb. They run into Kate again. Before Logan can defuse the bomb, one of Flynn’s henchmen causes a scene and stupidly fires a gun, which of course detonates the hydrogen in the blimp. The Hindenburg bursts into flames, but this time most everyone is able to get to safety. Sadly, more shooting happens and Kate is hit in the crossfire. She dies in Logan’s arms.
In the confusion of the scene, Flynn confronts Lucy. He not only knows her name, he knows all about her. He shows her a journal in her own handwriting that she hasn’t written yet, all about her time-traveling adventures. He tells her that she doesn’t know the whole story and is being used. She should ask her Homeland Security bosses why she was really chosen for this mission. Specifically, she should ask what something called “Writtenhouse” is.
Flynn slips away. Having failed their mission, Lucy, Logan and Rufus get back in their time machine and return to the present day. They have to explain to everyone how history was altered, because from everybody else’s perspective, the Hindenburg disaster always played out like this.
At first, it isn’t clear what other consequences altering the timeline has had, until Lucy returns home and finds her mother perfectly healthy and active. Lucy is puzzled as to how the Hindenburg could have possibly affected her mother’s health, but she’s happy about it… for a moment. Things take a dark turn when she asks where her sister Amy is, and her mother has no idea what she’s talking about. Lucy doesn’t have a sister.
Oh no! Damn you, Butterfly Effect! It’s going to take some more time-traveling escapades to fix this mess, isn’t it?
Episode Verdict / Grade: B
‘Timeless’ is a little bit ‘Quantum Leap’ and a little bit ‘Timecop’. It’s pretty ridiculous and kind of cheesy. The VFX aren’t great. All the actors in the history scenes look like they’re playing costume dress-up. Main character Lucy is an absurdly contrived font of knowledge with instantaneous recall of every detail of every event that has ever happened in all of history. Not only does she recognize a newspaper reporter from 1937, she has of course read all of the woman’s articles.
If I felt like it, I could poke a thousand holes in the logic of the plot. (For one thing, if Lucy knows that Flynn is going to steal a journal she hasn’t written yet, maybe she should consider not writing a journal.) Ultimately, however, the show is breezy and briskly paced and fairly entertaining. It’s no television masterpiece, but there are a lot worse ways to waste an hour. I’ll watch again.