This is a genre that's undergoing a certain amount of boom, isn't it? The time opera, a temporal counterpart to the ever-beloved-but-sadly-mostly-gone-from-our-screens (although looking to be getting a resurrection, between Dark Matter, Killjoys, and Star Trek: Discovery) space opera. It makes sense: They're cheap to make, as all you really need is a few sets and a few reenactment costumes rented out and you're good to go, and like space operas, time operas make extensive use of the indoors and forests in Vancouver to keep costs down.
Timeless, created by former Supernatural showrunner Eric Kripke, is one such time opera, and you can definitely tell that it was created by a Supernatural writer. A lot of the story and character beats of early Supernatural -- heroic characters slowly shifting towards being more villainous as they increasingly lose their sense of what's right and wrong; trust-nobody conspiracies and oppressive, menacing bureaucrats; hefty dosages of angst; and so on, and so forth -- are also present here.
The main difference is that it's actually good.
Set in modern America, Timeless follows historian Lucy, scientist Rufus, and soldier Wyatt as they utilise an experimental time-ship to pursue a terrorist, former NSA analyst Garcia Flynn, through time. As they disrupt Flynn's attempts to change key events in history, they discover that Flynn's goal is to prevent the rise of a sinister cabal that controls America, called Rittenhouse. As Rittenhouse starts to intrude more and more onto Lucy, Rufus, and Wyatt's lives, and as their own desires to change the past come to the fore.
|That's a really nice hat actually.|
The show takes a typically realist approach, with the only supernatural elements as of the first series being the two timeships created by Mason Industries -- everything else is firmly grounded in reality, and even the time travel itself is fairly unglamorous, involving a simple vanishing special effect instead of any kind of light show, and being limited to the simplest possible cause-and-effect principles: Events in the past have a simple if not always predictable knock-on effect that influences the future.
This isn't a terrible idea, I think. This is a very character-focused story, so limiting the background noise is useful to allow the characters themselves to shine. No time needs to be spent explaining complicated science-fiction principles, which means that more time can be spent developing the characters and explaining the historical eras they find themselves in.
Said historical eras are predominantly parts of American history -- they go to Nazi Germany once, and to Paris once, and every other time to America -- but that seems to be more for budgetary reasons than anything. Canada (because of course it's Vancouver, it's always Vancouver) stands in for America pretty well, and stands in for Germany and France rather less well.
'Budgetary reasons' seems to be behind a lot of this show's choices. It's slick and it manages to look very good, but it is obviously, overtly made on a shoestring budget. It makes the best of that small budget, though, and the small budget even seems to have helped the show, encouraging it to be more grounded.
Kripke is often beset with actually completely justified accusations of misogyny and racism for his work on Supernatural, which has always tried very hard to appeal to right-wing sensibilities -- but whether it's just that he's developed as a person and a writer, or whether he's just out from under the thumb of oppressive executives forcing agendas on him, Timeless is much, much more egalitarian. In fact, it is striking how much of Timeless is about celebrating the impact of black people and women on history, which is not even mentioning the fact that the main protagonist is a woman and one of the two deuteragonists is a black man.
|Actually, that's also just a really nice coat.|
Maybe he's trying to prove a point to his detractors, but if he was anything less than earnestly sincere in his celebration of these groups, I couldn't tell, and that was honestly quite refreshing -- in a television environment where a lot of shows play at making political points but never actually make a stand (Arrow, looking at you), a show that plants itself firmly in the camp of 'minorities were fundamentally important to our history and people are forgetting that, and also racism was and is violent and terrible, and we're going to show you that' is pretty nice to see.
(We even get an unsubtle Trump satire in the final episode with Senator McCarthy, which was -- unsubtle, but fun nonetheless.)
Kripke even takes time to have people talk about racism, and to talk about the idea that racism in other countries does not necessarily resemble racism in the US (as comes up a few times in discussions between Connor Mason, played by Black British actor Paterson Joseph, and Rufus). It's doubtless not perfect in its treatment of minorities, not much is, but it's several steps better than its peers.
The whole thing is tied up in a surprisingly tight plotline carried by some very engaging characters. I engaged with everyone in this show, whether it was our protagonists or our antagonist, and I enjoyed watching them on-screen. Most importantly, Kripke has learned how to set up conflicts, especially moral conflicts, and then follow through on them -- Supernatural was plagued with a kind of perverse status quo where the characters were in a perpetual state of moral and personal conflict that was often remarked upon but never resolved, while Timeless introduces moral and personal conflicts, plays them out, resolves them, and then has the attitudes and behaviours the characters changed by them in ways that make sense.
It is rock solid character writing, and that is nice to see.
(Some of it, of course, is down to the change in networks. NBC lets its creative staff have a lot more freedom than the CW, which has a rigid in-house style. Sometimes NBC giving its creators more freedom is good, sometimes it's Heroes: Reborn.)
So that's Timeless, a solid show that is probably an early contender for a spot in the Fission Mailure Awards. I have no idea if it's been renewed for a second series, but I do hope so. It ended on a sequel hook, at least.