Timeless Trades Paradoxes for Historical Adventure

In speaking with Eric Kripke about Timeless at NYCC, a question arises: is the spectacle of time travel better than the puzzle?

There’s no arguing that Timeless has been a hit for NBC this fall, bringing sci-fi fans to a network not necessarily known for its genre fare. However, when executive producer Eric Kripke showed up at New York Comic Con with the cast of the show to talk about what makes Timeless stand out from the sudden glut of time travel fare, he was very clear that the episodic nature of the show would be more accessible, and it has been. But to which fans does it most appeal?

As Kripke puts it, “Timeless is really different than any of the other time travel shows that are out there because we view ourselves much more as epic, romantic, historical adventure than we actually do a sci-fi show. Really, the time machine is almost literally a vehicle to get our characters into different historical adventures every week.” So if it’s not a sci-fi show, who is more likely to tune in: geeks or Muggles?

Some skeptical sci-fi viewers may have been pleasantly surprised when, in the pilot episode, the main character, Lucy, played by Abigail Spencer, found that her personal history had been changed, adding a layer of complexity to what they perhaps originally anticipated would be a “time-period-of-the-week” show not worth following. The fact that only the time travelers could remember the timeline changes and that the supposed villain was working from a journal Lucy wrote in some unknown future provided fun paradoxical twists any hardcore sci-fi fan could appreciate.

But causal loops and time complexities aren’t the thrust of Timeless, according to Kripke. “For me, growing up one of my all-time favorite shows was Quantum Leap, and one of my all-time favorite movies was Back to the Future,” says Kripke. “And so I came up in a world where time travel was actually fun.” An assertion any nerd could get behind!

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However, Kripke continues, “Then there was some civic mandate that got passed over the last decade that said time travel shows could only be the most ponderous mind-fucks ever, and I reject that notion.” Them’s fighting words for fans of timeline-heavy shows like Continuum and 12 Monkeys, but with both of those series airing on Syfy, NBC Universal’s other, geek-niche network, perhaps the thought is that the NBC audience is more likely to engage with a “time travel lite” approach.

Regardless, although episodic television may be easier to access, both for viewers and for writers, visiting a different time period each week has its own level of complexity. “It’s creatively one of the most fun shows I’ve ever done; logistically, it’s gotta be the hardest show I’ve ever produced,” says Kripke, adding “We built the Alamo in a fucking Vancouver parking lot!”

Kripke attributes Timeless’ potential to the virtually endless depths history provides. “When [co-creator Shawn Ryan] and I really started out to make this show, one of the reasons that we were drawn to it was it’s got a really great story engine,” Kripke explains. “I know what 100 episodes of this show look like. And if you can get there, as long as there’s fascinating periods in history, there’s episodes and stories to tell in this show.”

But not just any period in history will do; only the ones with untold stories the audience may be unfamiliar with will suffice. “We probably won’t go to the Titanic anytime soon,” Kripke gives as an example. “You don’t want to go to the ones that everyone knows, but you want to go to the ones that still feel very iconic. We go to the Lincoln assassination because there’s a part of that story that nobody knows: that it was part of a much grander conspiracy to wipe out all the heads of federal government within a half hour.”

It’s possible that the historical nuances along with the undeniably enjoyable character dramas are enough for the mainstream audience, with more cerebral fans getting hooked in by Lucy’s changed history and the conspiracy plot involving a journal she hasn’t written yet and the mysterious shadow organization, Rittenhouse. The serial nature of such elements, after all, keeps viewers guessing about the deeper nature of the show, if that’s what they’re interested in.

But how deep does the mythology go? Kripke says he learned plenty of lessons about serialized dramas from his last NBC show. “One of the reasons Timeless has such a clean story engine of moving to different historical periods,” he says, “is in direct reaction to my last show, Revolution, which was serialized and so insanely difficult to break. Doing 22 episodes of serialized science fiction drama is hard. There’s a reason all the really great sci-fi shows are ten episodes.”

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Perhaps the challenge of writing complex serial scripts is paralleled by the arduous building of lavish sets and fabricating of period costumes, and Kripke hopes the attention to detail is part of what appeals to viewers. “What we’re really trying to create is not the crappy, TV version of the past that’s a little too clean and a little too sanitized,” he says. “We want this one to feel very visceral and dusty and real… We’re really trying to throw the audience into these events.”

Maybe that will be enough for fans of swashbuckling adventure and historical fiction, but will it be enough for fans of time travel and the thought-provoking fare that science fiction usually provides? Says Kripke, “What I try to do is I look to see where TV is going, and I try to do something else if I can. I really just sort of focus on what’s interesting to me, and if people respond to it, then great!” So far, the response to Timeless has been positive, but it will be interesting to see if both sci-fi geeks and mainstream viewers will stick around for the long haul.

Timeless airs on NBC on Mondays at 10pm ET.