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.

As yet untitled, damnit

I was a judge at a Royal Television Society school day contest earlier this week and one team called their proposed TV show “Help! I’ve Lost My Dignity”. They nearly won on the title alone. Earlier this autumn, I was struggling with a title for a collection of stories. Earlier this year I was arguing over the title for another project. Instantly, after three prods, a week, two months and half a year, I immediately realised that I wanted to talk to you about titles. I just didn’t and don’t know what to call this.

Tell a lie: it was four prods.

A few days ago the script to the pilot of Timeless leaked online. I really like this show – it’s coming to E4 soonish but I have a US iTunes Store account so I’ve been watching it about a day after it airs in the States – and I envied its title. That would’ve been just right for my collection. The bastards. Only, as well as a very revealing deleted scene, the script also shows that the series was going to be called Time.

That’s it. Just Time. I felt better: they had to go through some trouble to get to a great title and they managed it.

But then that reminded me of how it seems everyone goes through the same hell and they continue to. Jeremy Clarkson and the other two who are late of Top Gear are about to start a car series called The Grand Tour but it was going to be called Gear Knobs.

When that was rejected – I can’t imagine why – they also looked at Speedbird, No Limits, Dip Sticks and The Best Car Show… in The World.

Speaking of words that might not pass muster on a broadcast channel, have a read of Elizabeth Meriwether’s pitch for the US comedy New Girl sometime. It is a gorgeous piece of writing, so alive and full of verve, and it begins with this: “The working title of the show is ‘Chicks and Dicks’. But obviously this isn’t France, so we’ll have to change it.”

New Girl is a bit of a dull title and progressively out of date as the new woman of the name has now been around for something like five seasons. Whereas The Good Wife was a great title for a brilliant series. I just hanker for one of its working titles: among an apparently 75-100 considered names there was The Whole Truth, In The Spotlight and – wait for it – Leave the Bastard.

I also love Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt but would’ve been just as happy if it had been called Tooken. That title makes its way into a single sentence of dialogue in one episode. Whereas in the UK Phil Redmond went further when he wanted to call his show Meadowcroft but legal concerns forced him to change it to Brookside. Reportedly in its early years you can see characters in Brookside watching TV – and the show they’re tuned in to is a drama called Meadowcroft.

That’s the subtlest way of airing a working title. Less subtle is actually calling your show by one name and maybe later on fixing it. So Seinfeld aired for a season as The Seinfeld Chronicles. The sitcom Ellen’s famous and excellent coming out two-parter was disguised from the network with the innocuous title The Puppy Episode and in the end aired as that.

Whereas the whole show Ellen aired for one season as These Friends of Mine. It was then reportedly renamed Ellen because of potential confusion with a new hit called Friends. Though speaking of Friends, that was going to be called Six of One or Across the Hall. It was sold to the network without a title but then went a long way with the name Friends Like Us.

Which reminds me: My So-Called Life was originally Someone Like Me. I do love and cherish MSCL from its title to its end credits but Someone Like Me was very clever for a tale of a high school teenager feeling estranged and different to everyone around her.

None of which is helping me find titles for a collection or, since I’ve now decided I loathe some of my story titles, any good story titles. I’ve been around the houses on this subject – oh, EastEnders was going to be called Round the Houses. Also East 8. I’ve got a book somewhere that talks about the terribly problems they had finding a title for them. It seemed to work out.

Everything does when you get a good title. I know that a good title catches the readers’ or the audience’s eye and attention but there’s more to it than that. When I’ve got a good title, my writing flies. Pity I haven’t found a clever title for our chat this week.