Timeless, Clueless, Senseless
Time travel and alternate timelines have a long history in science fiction. TheyÕve also become staples of movies and TV series. They can be comic, like the Back to the Future series; or tragic, like 12 Monkeys. But such classic examples, however fanciful, have an internal logic to them.
That canÕt be said of the latest ventures on TV, Frequency and Timeless. Frequency has been mentioned previously at The Bright Empire, in ŅVintage Soap Meets Vintage SF.Ó Both the 2000 film and the 2001 soap opera story line inspired by it deal with the unanticipated consequences of changing the past.
The new TV series makes several changes from the movie. Instead of the son (John) of a firefighter killed in a fire, the daughter (Raimy) of a cop killed in a mob hit while working undercover comes into contact with the father – Frank –through a ham radio, and is able to warn him in time to save his life. Just as in the original movie, a serial killer who would otherwise have died turns out to have killed her mother Julie as a result. There are other changes to the reality of the present on both versions.
But one thing that is not changed is the use of a ham radio. That idea was quaint in 2000; 16 years later, it is so unbelievable that we canÕt take it seriously. Not only that, but RaimyÕs parents divorced when she was a child; she grew up with her mother and still lives in that childhood home – like, was she going to have the radio moved somewhere else? Only her father isnÕt always at home; only after his life is saved are he and Julie reconciled – to save Julie, Raimy has to help Frank convince her that the ham radio actually does communicate across time – but first she has to convince Frank himself, whoÕs afraid Julie will think heÕs crazy and dump him. She succeeds in that, but when Frank contacts her with Julie present so she can confirm the story, she clams up.
ThatÕs where Velvet and I gave up on the series. Recaps of subsequent episodes show they have to do with the search for the serial killer – which will doubtless be stretched out interminably, Still, itÕs at least a story line that people can follow, if they find it intriguing. The same canÕt be said for Timeless.
The fate of America itself rather than one family is at stake in this series, which starts off with the invention of a time machine by a high-tech company, Mason Industries. Just what Connor Mason planned to do with it is unclear, but before he can do anything with it, itÕs stolen by Garcia Flynn, a madman who wants to change history.
Ah, but thereÕs a backup prototype with room for three – pilot Rufus Carlin, history professor Lucy Preston and Delta Force operative Wyatt Logan. For some reason, they are able to learn when but not where Flynn is headed, In the first episode itÕs the Hindenburg disaster, and the story itself is a disaster: Flynn manages to prevent the original fate of the Hindenburg, but only because he wants to destroy it on its return trip to England carrying a number of Very Important Americans who will play key roles in history, Yet when the airship is blown up, somehow nobody gets killed. The only changes in the present are that Lucy has gained a fiancˇe but is missing a sister because her mother broke up with her father before Amy could be born and married another man.
One thing that seems silly from the get-go in Timeless is Lucy figuring out that there's a Master Plan behind Flynn's operation. His goal, she theorizes, is to "kill America in its crib.Ó
Was America in its crib in 1937? If he wants to destroy the country, why not kill George Washington? Well, 1865, in the second episode, is more like it -- but was Lincoln being assassinated actually a good thing for the country? The episode doesnÕt really address that; itÕs more like a game of musical chairs. When John Wilkes Booth chickens out, Flynn himself shoots Lincoln, with Lucy crying out a warning too late. As for Carlin and Logan, they manage to save Vice President Johnson, Secretary of State Seward and General Grant – targets of a conspiracy by Booth and others. Only, the plot against them had already failed in our original timeline.
ŅAtomic City,Ó the third episode, the last we saw, is plain silly. This time the date in 1962 doesnÕt mean anything to our time travelers, but fear not; somehow they can figure out that Flynn has landed in the general vicinity of Las Vegas – which in establishing shots seems to be just a few miles from atomic bomb tests (It was actually 65 miles). But the uptake is that Flynn is trying to get hold of the plutonium core of a bomb (which is unguarded and which people seem to be able to hande with their hands), and that he has blackmailed Judith Campbell, already the mistress of President Kennedy, into seducing a general at the test site so that he can gain access to it, using an old-fashioned skeleton type key. For some reason, Campbell is treated as an admirable character, but in real life she was also mistress of mobster Sam Giancana,to whom she was introduced by Frank Sinatra (heard but not seen singing in the episode), and changed her story a number of times as to whether the Mob was involved in the Kennedy assassination, Of course, the whole story depends on coincidence and perfect timing for the time travelers and key players to even meet, let alone develop the plot,
ThatÕs where we gave up, but a recap reveals that the next episode, ŅParty at Castle Varlar,Ó is set in 1944 – with Flynn supposedly about to give the Bomb to the Nazis, but really planning to kidnap Wernher von Braun and turn him over to the Soviets (It seems he needs the plutonium to power the Mothership). Ian Fleming, who in real life was an operations planner rather than serving in the field, helps our time travelers thwart Flynn – and in the next episode itÕs on to the Alamo, which turns on the trivial matter of whether Colonel William Travis will live long enough to write a letter than supposedly becomes a rallying cry for American Patriots.
A series like Timeless calls for a master plan, but the people writing it seem to be as clueless as Flynn and the heroes balking him. TheyÕre just making it up as they go along. There are hints of a hidden agenda involving somebody or something called Rittenhouse and the defection of one of ConnorÕs scientists to Flynn, but itÕs hard to believe the upshot will make any more sense than the rest. By the way, coming up the week after the election: ŅThe Watergate Tape.Ó Right, weÕll finally find out about the eighteen and a half minutes?
-- Brantley Thompson Elkins, with Velvet Belle Tree