This Sunday, ABC will premiere Time After Time,a TV show based on a movie based on a book based on a real-life author. H.G. Wells was his name and, in addition to writing such classics as The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Island of Doctor Moreau, he inspired a 1979 romance-science fiction book and movie.
The premise? H.G. Wells (played here by UnReal‘s Freddie Stroma) has just completed his time machine in Victorian England only to have his friend Dr. John Stevenson (Revenge‘s Josh Bowman) use it to escape the clutches of the law. You see, John is none other than Jack the Ripper and he now has a whole new world of women to terrorize. H.G. travels after him, in hopes of stopping his friend before it is too late.
The two both end up in 2017 New York City — a locale that is bright, loud, and filled with new, modern curiosities to their Victorian sensibilities. Once there, H.G. garners help from museum curator Jane (Entourage‘s Genesis Rodriguez), already seeming to fall in love with the charming Texan-turned-Manhattanite over the course of the two-hour pilot. As a modern recurring character with no outside investment in H.G.’s plight, Jane is a important edition to the plot, and one who also often holds her own past the all-too-common Damsel in Distress trope.
That being said, the romance itself falls a bit flat, at least in the first two episodes. It feels a bit like the show felt like it had to include the love story because it was part of the movie and book. Time After Timeis much more interested in the central relationship between idealist H.G. Wells and realist Dr. John Stevenson, and this is where the show truly shines. Time After Time is at its best in these first two hours when the two characters are engaged in the examination of their expectations — dashed, fulfilled, and exceeded — of what the future (our present) would be, especially when that examination comes in conversations they have with one another.
For H.G., the present is both a wonder and a catastrophe. He has come into a 2017 that is wrife with war, conflict, and chaos. For John, 2017 is better than he could ever imagined. The pilot includes a memorable line from the film’s script: “Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.” / “Back there, I was a freak. Now, I’m an amateur.” Not something you want to hear Jack the Ripper say about your home present.
It’s an endlessly topical theme these days: the idea of our present as the alien one, as the one that needs to be stepped back and examined through the eyes of a trustworthy other. It’s the same narrative distance that made Elan Mastai’s recent time travel novel All Our Wrong Todays work so well. Perhaps our present should be challenged rather than revered as the pinnacle of human progress? What if modernity is a process rather than a destination? What can we learn from the past?
Though these questions represent the best of what Time After Timecould be, the network show isn’t confident enough to lean into its central dynamic and themes — at least in these first two episodes. As is the wont of the modern network thriller, the show throws in a rich lady benefactor (played by Rosewood‘s Nicole Ari Parker) and a mysterious man with a crazy wall, creating a 24-esque conspiracy vibe that leaves the viewer with some intriguing questions in the premiere’s final moments, but also makes Time After Timefeel too much like other dramas we have on TV.
All in all, Time After Timeis an entertaining, yet forgettable jaunt through time. This plot and these characters were enough to sustain a book and feature film, but feel too thin here to sustain a series-long arc. That being said, it’s hard to tell in these first few hours where the plot will go next, but, in talking to star Freddie Stroma and director Marcos Siega, it sounds like it will be highly-serialized and include some (not that many) jumps through time.
Ultimately, Time After Time‘s potential strengths lie not in its central mystery or romance, but in its loose narrative framework: adventures that will inspire H.G. Wells to write his most iconic stories. Considering that these Wells stories include such fascinating and rich topics as alien invasion, invisibility, and genetic engineering, I am willing to stick around to see how Time After Timeplans to lean into those… at least for a little while.
Frankly, I think the crazier this show goes, the better. Otherwise, I fear it will fade into the mediocrity of middling network TV drama, like an irreversibly invisible man.
Time After Time premieres its first two episodes on Sunday, March 5 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.