Out of Time

I’m a writer who is obsessed with time so I thought the worst thing possible was for there to be a glut of time travel TV shows. It’d be like wanting to write a zombie series a few years ago: there were just so many, you had no chance.

Unfortunately I now suspect that there is one thing worse and it’s there no longer being a glut of time travel shows. Seriously, they came and they went. It was ridiculous how many there were and startling how fast they weren’t.

The comedy Making History, for instance, did make me laugh once during its pilot but it was gone before I noticed episode 2. I don’t think it’s a bad show, but it’s one borderline puerile gag that struggled to fill that first week. So news of its season being cut to nine episodes was both unsurprising and effectively news that it was dead. It’s now dead. No second season.

No second season for Frequency, either, though that did better and you can see it on Netflix in the UK. It was based on the film of the same name which I haven’t got around to watching, and it was well made but I didn’t get around to watching more than the pilot. It tried to use time as a way into telling detective stories yet then had to create obstacles for itself or its characters across the past and present could just tip each other off over whodunit.

Then the HG Wells/Jack the Ripper series Time After Time got knifed after, I think, five episodes. I’ve only seen the various extended trailers but I read the pilot script and shrugged. It, too, was based on a film (which was based on a book) and for the greater part of the pilot script it was trying to be that film. It was a bit dull: even though I must’ve last seen the film in the 1990s, the thing was all so familiar that I was bored reading.

Until the end when in the last few moments it remembered it was supposed to be a pilot episode and so went hurriedly into Setting Up The Series. Time After Time is about Wells having actually built a time machine and the gimmick of the series was going to be that all of his books were real. I remember some chatter from the producers about how this was a subtle thing in the first few episodes, how only real fans would pick it up.

Yeah, no, a brick to the face would’ve been more subtle.

Travellers lasted its season and I enjoyed the pilot but again didn’t get around to coming back to it. That’s also on Netflix and presumably will be there for a while as it isn’t going anywhere.

Nor is Timeless though as we speak, the makers are trying to shop it around to another network. It’s unlikely to land because the show is expensive to make and if enough people were watching then it wouldn’t have been cancelled.

And yet it is the one I’ll miss. It’s the one I watched the whole run of, it’s actually the one I looked forward to and which ended on a cliffhanger which promised much for the next run.

Timeless was just a fun kind of adventure series and the way it handled the dangers of its characters altering the past was refreshing: it didn’t. The characters routinely made gigantic changes and those did affect their futures. In one episode an important real-life person from history is killed and it is a real jolt in part because it’s done as a surprise and in most because you can’t believe they had the chutzpah to do it.

I’ll also miss something that came up in the pilot script but was left out of the aired version. As broadcast, the pilot really follows Lucy Preston (played by Abigail Spencer) as a mildly naive history professor. As written, the very end of the script shows her being watched from a car outside her house – by an older, sadder, angrier Lucy Preston.

That’s what I like about this stuff. Not time machines, not tin foil visions of the future, but personal time. That older Lucy is effectively the enemy of her younger self: talk about making your protagonist and antagonist well-matched.

There were time shows that didn’t exactly fail. The Stephen King novel 11-22-63 became a mini-series so that wasn’t ever going to have a second season. It didn’t do brilliantly in the ratings, though. And if Time Travelling Bong were ever to have been a series, it stayed as a mini.

Curiously and maybe ironically, the time shows that succeeded were all ones that began further ago in time. If your time series began in this most recent 2016/17 US TV season then it’s dead. But if it were earlier, you have a chance.

So Outlander continues, for example, and while yet again I’ve only seen the pilot from two seasons back, I’m glad because it’s gorgeously written and made. We’ve got 12 Monkeys which has been cancelled but actually sort of cancelled in advance: its third season is about to premiere in the States and a final fourth one has been announced for next year.

This is Us was the subtlest of time shows being set across different years instead of having anyone traveling between them. That’s been picked up for a second run, but initial acclaim has somewhat withered away.

Then there’s one you may have heard of called Doctor Who. I don’t know the ratings but I think this current series is doing well and you can see from it that the show has made a move to be accessible to brand-new viewers.

That’s an argument you’ll hear against all of these failed time shows: that they were too complicated for audiences to understand. No. Not one of them. You could often wonder why they bothered time travelling, but you were never in a sliver of doubt about what was going on in any of these shows. Granted, 12 Monkeys pushes that to the limit, but still it does entirely make sense.

Usually if anyone is confused by time shows it’s not the audience, it’s the makers and the commissioners. I’ll take anything, absolutely anything that a show throws at me so long as it keeps me in the story. You can tell me that it’s got ridiculous plot twists but if it fooled me as I watched, I’m fine with that. Yet I can’t even watch Richard Curtis’s About Time because the very premise has such a gigantic flaw that it’s impossible for me to give a damn about the characters.

Going further back, British TV had Crime Traveller which was a good if cheesy title slapped onto a show that I decades later I still find so personally insulting that it makes me grind teeth. And not mine.

You look for reasons why dramas fail, though, and the time shows are all going to have this notion of their being confusing. Undeniably, they must surely have all suffered from being launched at the same time. Yet look at them individually and only Timeless and This is Us had that something that makes you tune in again.

They were just the good ones and you can rationalise plots and ratings and demographics and budgets and time slots in the schedule all you like, the thing is that some shows are good and some aren’t.

Even so, we’re not going to have another year of so many time shows. But fortunately for me and my obsession, there are more TV and films coming that try to use this potent theme. I’ll be watching. Hopefully I’ll be writing.