Travelers: why you should watch Netflix’s new time travel show

Canadian sci-fi series Travelers presents a genuinely fresh and fascinating vision of time travel, and boasts a strong cast...

Warning: contains some episode one plot details.

Television’s love affair with time travel goes back a long way. Naturally, Doctor Who was one of the early proponents of the genre and since then there have been many successful (and many less so) series bringing time travel to the small screen. Quantum Leap mixed science with humour, drama and humanity, Continuum brought some genuinely intelligent ideas and Legends Of Tomorrow has thrown a whole lot of heroes into a mainstream tale of time travel and derring-do.  

Over the past twelve months, time travel has been something of a go-to for TV schedules with Timeless, Frequency and mini-series 11.22.63 all coming up with something fresh to say. One show that seems to have slipped under the radar, however, is Travelers, a twelve-part Canadian series that first premiered in October 2016 before Netflix picked it up at the end of the year. Headed up by Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack, Travelers might not have anything particularly ground-breaking to add to the genre, but it’s a fun, absorbing series while it lasts. Presuming it is handed a second series – and there are enough loose ends to tie up come the series finale to suggest that there most likely will be – Travelers deserves a place on your Netflix to-watch list.

McCormack plays FBI agent Grant MacClaren – only, not really. MacClaren’s body is actually playing host to the consciousness of Traveler 3468, a ‘traveler’ from the future sent back to the twenty-first century in order to carry out missions by order of the mysterious ‘Director’. He’s not alone. In the opening episode we also get to meet Travelers 3569, 3465, 3326 and 0115, all with their own specific skillset. One’s a medic, one’s an engineer, another is a tactician and the final chap is the team’s historian, armed with all knowledge of events that occur in that particular timeline. Again, each of these travelers’ consciousness is actually hosted in the body of another human being and they ultimately have to assume their identity (just a small note here, I appreciate I’m also adopting the US/Canadian spelling of travelers but let’s just go with that for ease).

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Fortunately, these host bodies were specifically chosen as they were going to die anyway so no grievous murders to worry about for the travelers. This central premise, of people inhabiting other people’s bodies whose time was already up, is hammered home in the first episode when we are shown in graphic detail how each of the host bodies dies. Accompanied by a graphical device first counting down the time of death and then counting forward the time from when the host body is taken over, the actual mind-swap process is particularly well-executed. It’s replicated again and again throughout the series as other travelers appear and it never fails to have the desired impact, whether it’s a farmer in a sticky situation with a hole digger or, in a particularly standout scene, a group of elderly men and women on the brink of a mass suicide. With a nod to Cronenberg’s Scanners, the transformation from host to traveler is certainly memorable and it accounts for a good chunk of the series opener to bed you in.

Another point worth noting about the host bodies is that they are researched beforehand by the higher powers-that-be that are driving our travelers on, using social media and technology of the twenty-first century to ascertain as much knowledge about them as possible so that the traveler can carry on their life without raising suspicion. Making a point about our digital footprint is hardly cutting-edge stuff but this device does also allow the show to reveal the full scope of its ambition. Like Quantum Leap, it’s fair to say that while Travelers is clearly a science fiction show, it’s just as much a drama about the characters and how they assimilate to their new lives. Once the missions are over, what happens then?

MacClaren struggles to keep his home life together with his wife, Kat. Traveler 3465, Carly, is suddenly a mother to a young baby with an abusive husband in tow, who also happens to be a cop. Travelers 3326 and 0115, Philip and Trevor, struggle with the lives of younger men, Philip in particular saddled with the added trouble of being in the body of a heroin addict. And then there’s Marcy, traveler 3569. Clearly earmarked as the heartbeat of the show, Marcy is the character you’re most inclined to root for and it’s her who we’re first introduced to when she is brutally beaten by a group of louts outside a library. It turns out that the Director got this host wrong, with knowledge gathered on her proving wildly incorrect as it was garnered from a fake social media profile set up on her behalf as part of an experiment. In fact, Marcy’s host has learning disabilities so when she suddenly shows no signs of her former self to those close to her, her behaviour proves far harder to explain away.

And so you have the makings of a series that’s part science fiction, part human drama, part Outer Limits. When it chooses to go there, Travelers is very good at delivering on the darker side of fiction. In particular, Room 101 proves a standout episode, placing MacClaren’s team in grave, Saw-like peril while the mysteries keep piling up. Why should the team trust the faceless ‘Director’? Can they even trust each other? While the actual gore is kept to a minimum, the sense of threat is palpable. It’s little surprise to learn that creator Brad Wright worked on and wrote for The Outer Limits as well as his higher-profile fame for Stargate. The episode is also a real high-point for Jared Abrahamson’s Trevor who takes the spotlight in a pressure-cooker storyline that drips with foreboding and tension. His old-man-in-a-young-man’s-body routine doesn’t always hold together throughout the series but it’s well-served here.

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Having the whole series to binge-watch serves the show well as while individual episodes do explore different, self-contained stories, the series as a whole additionally benefits from an approach to story-telling that isn’t afraid to let an over-arching narrative be told over its twelve-episode run. Recurring themes like Philip’s heroin addiction and Marcy’s relationship with her care worker, David – a lighter, comedic role handled excellently by Patrick Gilmore, also from the Stargate Universe – are allowed to breathe and develop naturally without any need to force the issue.

The series isn’t without some misfires. Nesta Cooper’s Carly is under-written with her new-found mothering skills and testing relationship with the father never really explored as fully as it could have been and despite heading the team (and the billing), MacClaren’s own personal life problems are far less interesting than those of his team. The series finale is something of a letdown too, with so many of the mysteries that have been brewing either unanswered, expanded on or added to that you’re left slightly befuddled as to what exactly is happening. There are also a few other plot points seemingly left hanging in the air – for example, Trevor’s troubled school and home life is never truly expanded upon or resolved – and minor recurring characters seem to drop out of the show without notice.

On the whole, though, Wright should be applauded for presenting a genuinely fresh and interesting vision. The acting is excellent across the board, with particular nods to Abrahamson and Reilly Dolman (Philip) and while Travelers always has something interesting to say, it never takes itself too seriously. There is plenty of lightness among the darker undertones and by the series-end I found myself hoping that series two isn’t too far away.