RogerBW's Blog

Timeless season 1 17 October 2017

2016-2017 science fiction, 16 episodes. A time machine has been invented, and stolen, by someone whose goals are unclear but probably bad; a team is assembled in haste to take the second machine to try to catch him.

This wants to be the "serious" time travel show of the three that started at about the same time, and it gets away with it for me at first because I don't know many details of early American history. But then in episode 4 they go to Germany in December 1944, and that's a time and place I do know a little about.

  • Where the initial assumption (admittedly not the thing the episode plot actually hinges on) is that if Germany gets an atom bomb (to stick on a V-2) it will win the war, or at least prolong it a lot. Even if they could build a long-range V-2 and obliterate London with it rather than just hitting eastern Belgium or France, do you really think that would slow down the Americans, or for that matter the British once they'd recovered from their shock?

  • Where "we are on our way to Antwerp" is a reasonable thing for a German civilian to say. (Antwerp was liberated back in September.) For that matter, where there are male fit German civilians of military age who aren't doing vital war work (and trying not to get drafted and sent to the front).

  • Where Ian Fleming is operating on his own behind enemy lines, and had a brother Michael who died in the Blitz, which was Werner von Braun's fault.

  • And where they actually put into the mouth of Werner von Braun the line "my concern is whether the rockets go up, not where they come down". At that point they're not even asking to be taken seriously. By comparison, a priest-hole in a German castle is trivial.

But apart from that one major mis-step the show mostly sticks with later American history, and touches on a few fairly obscure bits (at least by my standards) as well as some of the famous ones (Watergate, the Alamo, the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde). I don't know, American readers: does the name H. H. Holmes mean much to you without looking it up? Bass Reeves? Those are names I'm happy to see appear in fiction; someone actually did a little bit of research.

Of course the basic framework of "bad guy has arrived at date X, we chase him and stop him from changing history" would rapidly become formulaic, so the show needs more to run on to generate ongoing interest. Its answer after the first few episodes is a conspiracy, with the bad guy trying to destroy it and the good guys trying to stay out of its way; it's a fairly well-trodden path which the writers manage to keep just about plausible, though for me it's the weakest strand of the show, and I was disappointed to see it becoming increasingly important.

On the good side, the characters develop, including several of the support crew who in a lesser show would just be exposition dumpers. This is definitely not a series to watch out of order.

After a fan campaign protesting against the show's cancellation, a second season is expected in 2018. I get the feeling the writers just barely have a hold on this show; it could easily get away from them and become wildly inconsistent, but so far (apart from that episode 4) they've managed to pull it off and keep things interesting.

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