This Timeless review contains spoilers.
Timeless Season 1, Episode 1
As a huge fan of 12 Monkeys, Continuum, and time travel complexities in general, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Timeless. I honestly thought it would be watered down and insipid, and the formula that has been set up in this pilot certainly does indicate a more episodic rather than serial structure. However, when all was said and done, the pilot episode was downright entertaining! Although some storytelling moments fell a little short, the introduction of consequences for changing history added the necessary depth most sci-fi fans crave.
The promos for Timeless thankfully had already introduced the fact that the show’s supposed villain, Flynn, who stole the time machine from Mason Industries, was working from a notebook purportedly written by the reluctant hero, Lucy. The idea that something in the history professor’s future would cause her to guide someone on their path towards sabotaging the rise of America as a world power was a great way to engage fans of time travel.
On the surface, Flynn’s mission does seem horrific if what Lucy surmises is true. Although he and his team of so-called terrorists save the Hindenburg by preventing the ropes from being dragged through the mud, they instead plot to blow up the airship once it departs with such heavyweights as UN-cofounder Rockefeller, D-Day mastermind Bradley, and helicopter inventor Sikorsky. What could possibly warrant such a historical change, for ill or for good? And even though Flynn is foiled, the repercussions — at least in Lucy’s life — are still felt.
In fact, in perhaps the most successful turn of the opening episode, the world that Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus return to doesn’t remember the original version of the Hindenburg disaster. And what viewers may have initially thought was an unexpected miracle, the undoing of Lucy’s mother’s illness, was negated by the sudden erasure of Lucy’s sister, Amy, from existence altogether. For a show that creators Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan were selling as a less complex time travel tale, these wrinkles pose plenty of potential for paradoxical fun.
Such butterfly-effect stakes make it easier to accept certain glossed-over details at face value, such as the unsubstantiated rule that the time travelers can’t visit a place they have already been or the fact that Mason Industries, headed by mysterious (and perhaps devious) genius, Connor Mason, built a time machine outside of government control but which now finds itself dealing with Homeland Security. The audience is just supposed to take all that at face value, and that’s fine.
The fun ending also smooths over some bumpy narrative elements of the premiere, including Wyatt’s stereotypical military brusqueness and Rufus’ somewhat contrived reactions to problems he encounters as a black man in an unwelcoming past. Despite these stilted moments, both Wyatt and Rufus have great potential as characters: Wyatt feeling guilt over his wife’s death that he can’t undo even with time travel, and Rufus having to navigate a racially-divided past (reminding viewers all too well of their own troubled present) while clandestinely recording Lucy and Wyatt at Mason’s behest for some reason.
Whatever expectations viewers came into the premiere with, they can’t help but be pulled in by their lingering questions. Why did the changes with the Hindenburg prevent Lucy’s mother from getting sick and Amy from being born? Why was Lucy, however great a historian she might be, chosen for this mission, and what is “Rittenhouse”? Why did Flynn and his men take Matt Frewer’s character, seemingly someone integral to the time travel project, into the past with them? And who the heck is Lucy engaged to?
And of course, Timeless viewers will wonder each week, “What historical event will the show visit this week?” Flynn was seen flipping to pages in Lucy’s notebook that mentioned the moon landing — could that be a possibility? Just by posing this potential, the show has its hook. As full-blown sci-fi, Timeless might feel a bit light, but for a procedural with a twist, it succeeds nicely. As long as the characters and their circumstances get fleshed out a bit more, viewers will be back for more.