Timeless appeal

Of all the current TV shows about time travel, the last one I imagined would be in trouble is Timeless. But apparently while it’s doing fine in streaming video, iTunes, downloads, catch up and every other way you can watch television now, it’s struggling to find viewers who tune in to NBC on Monday nights.

I can’t watch NBC, I’m in the UK. It’s airing here on E4 but even if it got record-breaking ratings everywhere else in the world, NBC would at the very most say that’s nice before they cancelled it. What counts for them and therefore for the show is eyeballs on NBC. So if you’re in the States and especially if you happen to be one of the households that the Nielsen ratings counts, do take a look at it.

It’s just good. I’ve been a professional TV critic and that’s all I can usefully say. I’ve also been obsessed with time all my writing life and Timeless is the time travel show that isn’t about time travel. I’m not interested in time machines, I’m obsessed with regret and with experiencing events from different angles. Timeless has plenty of regret but it’s also a deep-dive into an adventure series which specifically avoids Doctor Who-style timey-wimey stories.

In this show created by Shawn Ryan and Eric Kripke, our three heroes continue their pursuit of a baddie. Calling them the heroes is reasonable: they are the protagonists and while we’re seeing widening gulfs in whether they’re good or not, they are doing what they do with the best of intentions. Calling their antagonist the baddie is more of a stretch, though, as unusually this fella has good reason for what he does.

So there he is doing something foul yet there’s a part of you that can’t help but at least understand why, maybe even agree.

I’m compelled by that but I’m also just relishing how each week is broadly similar in shape but totally different in tone and location. There was an episode set during the Alamo which really felt like movie. Ian Fleming pops up in a Bond-like adventure fighting the Nazis. The good guys got stranded in the 1700s. The good guys kill people and they don’t exactly shrug about it afterwards.

I also relish how since the show is set in different historical periods, the research is excellent and there’s always something true yet completely unexpected. I heard that some history classes are using the show for that and I don’t know if it’s true, especially so soon into its run, but I can understand it.

Only, as a time obsessive, the thing that feels fresh and fun to me is that the show goes into history and messes it up. It has been such a rule of time travel stories that you do not do this: Back to the Future centres on putting right something that got changed. Even Doctor Who, right back in the William Hartnell days, maintained that “You can’t rewrite history… Not one line!”

So here’s Timeless where – sorry, spoiler – the baddie has gone back to the day the Hindenburg exploded and he saves it. You know from the start that he’s going to do something bad but, grief, hats off to Timeless: the bad thing he does is save it. And then we learn why that’s such a bad thing: it’s fascinating.

It’s also fascinating back in the present day of the show as people who died on the Hindenburg now didn’t so there are ramifications and repercussions. Throughout the series, the baddie and eventually the goodies kill people and it’s necessary, you can see it, you kind of root for them, but there are repercussions.

Well, there are and there aren’t. There’s not yet been a repercussion where the goodies’ time machine wasn’t ever invented, for instance.

What this willingness of the show to let history change gives me is the impact on the characters. They’re not required to be some model citizens protecting the fabric of the spacetime continuum, they are scared people trying everything they can to stop very, very bad things happening.

So Timeless is a show about time travel, sure, but it’s about characters who travel in time and what that is like for them. It’s action adventure, it’s not as astonishingly deep into time as 12 Monkeys is, it’s not using a TARDIS as just a way to drop the Doctor into trouble.

It’s something new and that seems especially gratifying in a season where even I think there are too many time travel dramas.

I’ve forgotten the count now but I remember learning that there would be something more than ten, possible fifteen shows about time during this year and there’s no way they’ll all survive. But the one I’d miss is Timeless.

So if you can watch NBC on Monday nights, please do. And while I’m in the UK where E4 is now screening the show, I’ve got a US iTunes account so I’m watching each week as soon as it’s available.

It’s about Time

For some reason, 2015 is replete with time travel tales from the continuing Doctor Who through multiple movies and new TV shows. This could be good: I am obsessed with time, it’s something somehow personal to me, and I’m excited enough by all these that I want to talk to you about them.

Unfortunately, every one of these new tales is about time travel and that’s not actually what interests me. I’m really more into things like regret – you can’t go back in time to undo things – and it’s also a kind of practical obsession. I produce a lot of events now and your mind splits when you do that, it splits into planning out the time of the event itself with what must happen when, and it also has you working out what time you’ve got left to prepare it.


I do have a fondness for time travel stories because alongside the TARDIS or the DeLorean, their stories at least touch on these time issues that so occupy me. Going back in time and seeing something from a new perspective, cor. Going forward in time and seeing the consequences of your actions, fantastic.

As a writer, time is a tool to examine characters and to truly test them. I think it is a woefully underused dramatic device. Mind you, it is also a bleedin’ complicated dramatic device and so prone to leaving you unsure what’s happening that even I haven’t pulled it off well yet.

I am trying. So I will watch all of 2015’s spate of time travel movies and TV. Unfortunately, I’m not looking forward to it. Not to all of it.

There are some good ones. I’ve seen the pilot to 12 Monkeys, the TV version of the film, and that is good enough that I’m definitely coming back for the series. (In the UK, it’s begun airing this week on SyFy.)

Similarly, I’ve seen the pilot to Outlander and it’s a bugger that this series will only air on Amazon Prime instead of proper telly. It’s a rather beautiful series that looks gorgeous and has a compelling tale of a 20th century woman in battle in the 17th century. Lots of utterly wonderful scenery in Scotland, also rather a lot of voiceover narration.

I haven’t seen Hot Tub Time Machine 2 which opens in UK cinemas in April. Reviews of it are so bad – and so convincingly bad – that I may have lied to you just now, I may not see all of these time stories. It’ll be on the telly some day, I’ll maybe catch it then. I did enjoy the first one, mind. If you don’t know that one or its sequel, the short summary is that they both feature a hot tub, they both feature time travel, but apparently only the first film has any jokes.

I should be nipping out today to catch Project Almanac as that’s finally in UK cinemas right now after a long delay. A year ago, I’d have gone for sure. I was intrigued by the first trailer that began circulating before the movie was pushed back twelve months. A group of teenagers discover a time travel machine and abuse it terribly – until they find that something they’ve done has gigantic consequences for the world. Usual stuff, really.

But there is a second trailer now that is so perfunctory that it feels like they knew they had to do something. Yeah, yeah, that bit looks good, use that, slap on the title, we’re done.

It also has poor reviews. I’m an ex-reviewer and my own work gets reviewed sometimes now, I should know that you don’t put too much weight on a reviewer’s opinion. Yes, when you find a reviewer who seems to share your tastes, that’s one thing. But a single bad review is unlikely to put me off anything, if I’m sufficiently interested in it.

Like Hot Tub, though, Project Almanac is getting chiefly poor reviews from everyone. I have to go see it now, don’t I?

Next, there’s a movie called Predestination that officially has opened in cinemas this week but you try finding it. It was made last year and it’s done the festival circuit, it’s had screenings all over, I’ve eventually come to accept that I’ll need to watch it on iTunes or DVD when that release happens in April.

Predestination is said to be better than Project Almanac, there is precious little doubt that it is better than Hot Tub Time Machine 2.


It’s based on Robert Heinlein’s famous time short story, “– All You Zombies –” from 1960. Fancy reading it? You can right here. It has nothing to do with zombies as we’d expect today, no walking dead, grrr, arg stuff. Instead, it is a classic of time stories.


I don’t want to spoil both Heinlein’s story and Predestination in the same breath – I like to space out my spoilings – so I can’t explain why I doubt the film is great and I am sure it won’t become a mainstream hit. Let me try anyway. Heinlein’s story is incredibly clever and it bashes through the kind of human drama that only time travel’s ability to show you the same events from different views can do. It’s just that it felt to me like a brilliant puzzle instead of a story.

Remember, I don’t care how someone travels in time, I’m interested in what this ultimate change in perspective does to them. So I’ll even ignore the odd plot hole if I care about the characters and Heinlein’s story is air-tight about plot, I’m just not especially interested in the characters.

Maybe it’s a clue that I’ve spent all this time discussing the plot and haven’t told you the story. If you see any new time travel movie this year, see Predestination, but be warned it looks iffy.

So there’s Predestination which is iffy, there’s Project Almanac which is iffy-plus, there’s Hot Tub Time Machine 2 which is grade-A iffyness incarnate. There’s Outlander which is beautiful and languid and absorbing and I want to see more but I’d appreciate it if they cut down on the amount of narration. There’s 12 Monkeys which I watched just to see how they could turn the movie into a series and they seem to have done it remarkably well so far.

There’s also a US series called The Flash which apparently features time travel. But I hadn’t even heard of The Flash until this character was mentioned on The Big Bang Theory. I’ve been told all sorts of complicated things about this guy and the versions of him in comic books, in this series and in apparently forthcoming movies, but deep within all of it was that the series is boring. It gets better, I’m insistently told, but.

Maybe I think too much about this stuff. Maybe if I were less into the issue of time, I’d better enjoy these movies that dabble in it instead of feeling they waste a potent situation.

But this is 2015 and while I don’t know why we’ve suddenly got all of these, I do know that the year was already special for time. For 2015 is both the thirtieth anniversary of Back to the Future and it is the year featured in its sequel as the far future.

Do a google search on this movie and you’ll see many articles now about how it got the future wrong. That astonishes me: time travel stories are never about the future or the past, no matter when they’re set. Back to the Future is so firmly about the 1980s and what it was like for people living then. The 2015 of Back to the Future Part II is not a prediction, it is a new perspective on how people thought and what they expected.

Plus hoverboards.

Look, I’m into this stuff – time, not hoverboards – and I’m telling you about all these things coming up because I’m interested in them and I want to share but the more I write, the more down I sound on them all.

Okay. If you see one new time travel movie this year, make it Predestination. But this is 2015, we can watch just about anything we want, whenever we want it. So have a deep dive into the very richest, very best of time movies.

There’s Looper, that’s rather good. Primer is superb and Timecrimes is brilliant. The film 12 Monkeys. Back to the Future is the easiest watch but no less good for that.

On TV right now there’s 12 Monkeys the series – it’s very different, you can watch both series and film without one spoiling the other. Doctor Who of course, though actually it is rarely about time. The episode Blink is and I defy you to not choke up at the line “It’s the same rain”.

Is that it? Or do I just feel I’ve taken up enough of your time?

Listen, one more thing. Just between us. I did call this Self Distract entry “It’s about time” because it’s about time. But Angela and I have a watch that dates back to when we finally got together, years upon years after we’d been friends and I’d been trying hard. It’s a lovely little pocket watch that hangs in a small bell jar and engraved on the back are the words “It’s about time”.

Told you it was personal.