Synopsis: Netflix’s latest time-travel series sees five heroes travel back in time from the future to our 21st-century present day, to undo the events which threaten mankind.
Review: Netflix is no stranger to science-fiction, notably its most recent hits Stranger Things and the slightly more brain-melting Black Mirror, both of which earned deserved cult followings for their balance of unique concept and brilliant execution, winning SAG and Emmy awards respectively.
With the precedent set by shows such as these, the new sci-fi offering from Netflix certainly has a lot to live up to, however it does benefit from viewers’ optimism. Starting watching a new show confident that it will be good is always positive. It is just as well, then, that the start of the show lives up to this expectation. We are dropped straight into the action in a series of scenes which cleverly map out the premise of Travelers. If you like a slow burner of a show that spends the entire first episode with no action, except a build-up of suspense, this is not the show for you. Instead, it is very clear what we have on our hands; five characters from the future whose consciousness has travelled back in time to inhabit the bodies of five standard 21st-century humans. Perhaps predictably, the purpose of this time travel is to save the world by “undoing the errors of our ascendants”, in the words of protagonist Grant Maclaren (played by Eric McCormack of Will and Grace).
However, despite adhering to some common standards of time-travel plots, not so predictable is the show’s approach to time travel itself. It avoids going into any depth around the technicalities of transcending time, and, unlike so many other time-travelling tales which have come before, abstains from presenting a confusing web of multiple alternative realities for the audience to try and untangle. The characters are in the 21st century for a reason, and so here we stay for the majority of the show, allowing us to enjoy the plot without interfering complexities.
The plot itself has its fair share of action, with the travellers being assigned a series of missions to stop fateful events from happening, but this part of plot serves a mainly practical function, and instead it is the continuous storylines of each character as they adjust to life in the 21st century which subtly underpin the show. The characters are well written, their emotional complexity allowing us to see these futuristic warriors as vulnerable humans, a feature which is crucial to the entertainment of the show. And entertaining it really is: don’t expect to be laughing out loud, but there are some genuinely amusing moments, especially those which make light of our 21st century society, without which the show would feel flat. Travelers is not designed to challenge, but it has enough twists and turns to hold our attention, and our investment in the characters means that you will root for them until the end. An action-packed time-travelling adventure it is not, but it does offer a lighthearted and at times touching look at our world through the eyes of outsiders (with a good few explosions thrown in for good measure).
What seems really important here is that Travelers marks the space between serious sci-fi and a more comedic approach. Time travel seems to have had its place in pop culture since, well, time began. We love the stuff. The idea of being able to see into the past or future is irresistible to our simple human curiosity, and, perhaps even more tempting, and problematic, is the prospect of being able to change events. Popular culture has seen swathes of films on the theme, the two classics which first spring to mind being of course The Terminator and Back to the Future. The games industry is another major fan of the topic, with online games such as Sun Bingo’s Treasure Time Traveller slot games allowing the player to combine a 3-reel, 3-payline slot machine with a scratchcard. Players need to line up five Treasure Chest symbols to get the jackpot and can select different time periods to travel to when they get to the bonus game. There are also tons of video games on the topic, for instance the cult hit Chrono Trigger which uses time travel as the key to the games’ storyline. In this role-playing game originally released in 1995, the main protagonist Crono goes on an epic rescue mission that takes him from the dawn of times through to the apocalypse. Beyond games, TV has had more than its fair share of the time travel bug. Just look at Doctor Who, whose seemingly neverending stream of new series has seen a whopping twelve reincarnations of the lead character.
Clearly, Travelers comes at a time when we are as obsessed with time travel as ever before, and with our fascination with the technology of the future growing by the day. It is cleverly topical in that it plays heavily on the theme of the consequences of society’s actions, with its most sophisticated feature perhaps being that the time which is being travelled to, the one which is being placed under scrutiny, is not the past or future, but the viewer’s present day. At times, yes, this prompts the audience to reflect, but more often it recognizes that this genre is often most successful when it is kept at least partly light-hearted, avoiding being bogged down by existential questions and complex science. This is where Travelers succeeds: it does not offer anything revolutionary in terms of production or plot, but it is inherently easy to watch, providing a formula which is certainly not thrilling, but is solidly entertaining.