Timeless—a show about a stolen time machine and the historian, soldier, and pilot chosen to travel through American history to stop history as they know it from being destroyed. It sounded like something I’d really like, and so I was extremely disappointed when its pilot episode was, well, not great. However, I decided to review the first two episodes instead of only the pilot, and I’m glad I waited. Even though it doesn’t handle all of its issues well, Timeless has the potential to be a compelling, thought-provoking sci-fi show if it succeeds at building on its current mythology.
Minor spoilers below the jump.
To be honest, the pilot episode was a mess. It focused so much on introducing the characters, their motivations, and how the time traveling worked that the writers seemed to forget writing skills like subtlety and nuance. Many of the characters delivered clichéd, melodramatic lines and had character moments which made them seem ridiculously incompetent. As Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt travel back to the Hindenburg disaster, Lucy is overcome by living in history, Wyatt abandons his soldierly training to save a pretty journalist who reminds him of his fridged wife, and Rufus doesn’t have anything to do aside from Being Black, as I feared in my review of the trailer. I didn’t want to give the show a second chance, but then I saw that the next episode was about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and since I love anything Lincoln-related, I thought, well, what’s the harm in watching one more?
Fortunately for me, the second episode of Timeless was miles ahead of its predecessor. Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt go back to the day of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 to try and stop the show’s villain, Garcia Flynn, from helping John Wilkes Booth to kill not only Lincoln but also Secretary of State Seward, General Ulysses S. Grant, and Vice President Johnson. While Lincoln is ultimately still assassinated, the others are saved, and the gang heads back to the future. But because the pilot episode had laid all its clichéd worldbuilding blocks, this episode was really allowed to dig into our future character and plot conflicts.
Lucy wasn’t particularly interesting in the pilot, but at the end of it, she learned that because some of the Hindenburg passengers lived and one of their descendants married into her family, her younger sister Amy no longer existed. This throws her into a difficult character arc: she’s devastated by the loss of her sister and wants to try and bring her back, but refuses to use the time machine to help Wyatt’s dead wife or even to stop Lincoln’s assassination. She’s torn between saving history exactly as we know it or changing things possibly for the worse. After all, the team saved some of the Hindenburg passengers, but that resulted in her losing a family member. What else could they inadvertently affect, and would changing the past for the better actually affect the future in worse ways? It’s a meaty role that immediately makes her much more compelling than Wyatt, who so far is just a soldier shooting at people in all time periods.
I was thrilled to see that the show so far takes full advantage of having an African-American team member to talk about racism through American history, but I find myself questioning the ways in which they’re doing it. The writers seem to be aware that racial inequality existed, yet at the same time seem completely unaware of how race relations worked. For example, in the pilot episode, Rufus is extremely concerned about being Black in 1937, pre-Civil Rights-era America, but when he comments about being seated at the back of the bus, Lucy’s extremely tone-deaf response is about how incredible and exciting it is to see and live in the past. In the second episode, Wyatt tells Rufus to talk to Vice President Johnson’s bodyguards about the assassin coming to kill him, but doesn’t seem to realize that Rufus, a Black “soldier” at the tail end of the Civil War, might not be allowed to just waltz on up to the hotel and be listened to by the white bodyguards there. In both episodes, Wyatt and Lucy often leave Rufus to fend for himself while they do other things, even though Lucy, a historian, should know that a Black man loitering suspiciously outside buildings is never going to be seen as a good thing in any era of American history. Instead of utilizing Rufus’s status as a Black man in historical America and asking him to play the part of a spy or even telling him about how to act as a Black soldier, the white characters come off as completely clueless, even if the writing staff is trying their best to be accurate.
There are some good parts of Rufus’s existence as a Black man in the past, though, particularly in the second episode. When Lucy and Wyatt have again run off to do things, Rufus encounters a group of African-American infantrymen from the 2nd Regiment Colored Infantry who are looking for someone to help them find their families. Rufus is not a historian, and he doesn’t know how to react to the clear evidence of how bad slavery was for African-Americans. One of the soldiers, Nicholas, strikes up a conversation with him in which he reveals that he used to be a slave, doesn’t know how to read or write, and still has family who are slaves. Rufus clearly doesn’t know what to say, and so gives his name as “Denzel Washington”, says he was born free, and helps him write a notice for him to find his wife and children, whom Nicholas left in bondage in the South. Nicholas tells him that he intends to go back to the South now that the war is over because he believes President Lincoln will make his old master give him land to farm.
When Rufus reunites with Lucy and Wyatt, he insists that they have to save Lincoln, because if Lincoln’s Reconstruction policies had succeeded, it would have led to fewer lynchings and more freedoms more quickly for African-Americans. Lucy insists that they can’t change history, and Rufus retorts that apparently they’re only interested in saving old rich white guys’ history, not the history that would have helped his great-great-grandparents. And when Lincoln does get assassinated, Rufus makes sure to find Nicholas and tell him not to go South and not to work on his old master’s plantation. We don’t find out if Nicholas followed Rufus’s advice or not, but seeing the acknowledgement of the many wrongs of slavery as well as two African-Americans attempting to help each other through it was something that I never thought I would see on a network television show.
There’s a lot of plot that hasn’t yet been revealed—we don’t know how Flynn knows Lucy, or who/what the often-mentioned Rittenhouse is, or why project head Connor Mason is having Rufus secretly record the gang’s journeys through history. However, those aren’t really the questions I want answered. I hope Timeless has room to delve a little more deeply into the historical and ethical aspects of its show. In a world where the Hindenburg didn’t explode on its own, would the airship era have continued and would Lucy and co. have come back to a 2016 with airships and zeppelins instead of airplanes? Why is the only change that Lucy doesn’t have a sister—there are so many things that can happen in history that it seems absurd that everyone working at Mason’s lab would be the same, too. Why is Lucy apparently an expert on all eras of American history and not just one or two as most professors are? Still, the solid second episode gives me a little hope for the rest of the show—at the very least, Timeless is a compelling reason to dig out your old history books and brush up on some interesting American times. I only hope that the plot’s mysteries will move quickly along so that we have room to discuss the ethical implications of having a time machine, as well.
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Sounds a lot like the pilot of Supernatural – could stand the first episode, but got sucked in by the second one. I may wait for season 1 of this to be over, than binge it. I’m glad to see another Cripkey work actually be good, for a change.
I haven’t seen the show (yet), and may have a look, since I teach U.S. History…
But, to address one of your other questions: academia is entirely misunderstood in almost all films and television. Indiana Jones wouldn’t have been very likely to know all of the things mentioned in those films just as “an archaeologist”; disciplinary specializations get more specific than that in almost all cases, as you’re right to point out. And then there’s things that are as ridiculous as “symbologists” in the whole Da Vinci
LoadCode series that are nonsensical and would be laughed at in even a department of semiotics…!?! 😉