There’s very little original about Netflix’s time-travel opus Travelers, but then there’s nothing original about most stories. The success is in the execution and, like expert quilters, the cast and crew make a unique piece of art out of a patchwork of material.
Lead protagonist, executive producer and former Will & Grace star Eric McCormack comes out of the closet as Canadian in this series. He plays Grant MacLaren, a perspicacious FBI agent who unaccountably says “aboot” instead of “about”. (The series was originally produced to air on Canada’s Showcase network.) He tracks down four people who have undergone sudden personality changes and are now working together on … something.
Travelers‘ premise is that, centuries from now, the last vestige of humanity is confined to a desperate colony in a plague-ravaged dystopia (just like in 12 Monkeys) that has discovered a way of transporting consciousnesses into the present (a twist on Quantum Leap). They arrive in their hosts’ minds just before their recorded time of death (Freejack) then, after five seconds of over-acting mental anguish (Star Trek, or really William Shatner in anything) they take full control. They then continue with their hosts’ regular lives as cover for their clandestine activities. Having no identifiers in the future aside from employee numbers, they quickly fall into the habit of referring to one another by their hosts’ names. It’s a one-way trip from tomorrow to today, and the Travelers who make it are advised, “Leave the future in the past.”
The series follows one of an indeterminate number of Traveler teams currently working in present-day Olympia, Washington.The gang includes a learning-disabled cleaning lady, an abused single mother and a heroin addict; the oldest soul is transferred into the body of a teenage boy with a permanent hard-on (Third Rock from the Sun). Their mission is to change the outcomes of selected events now to prevent the future from growing continuously bleaker. Using future technology and good ol’ (North) American ingenuity, they improvise ways to accomplish their objectives, minimize breaches of protocol, and soothe their moral qualms about the collateral damage they’re sure to cause. According to new Travelers who are periodically sent back to work with the team — and for whom “improvise” has no positive connotation — they mostly fail.
And their failure is the series’ failure. OK, I can see how saving the life of a congressman who’s destined to die in a plane crash the day before a key vote could change the future, and I can also see how it might not end up having the fulcrum effect that was predicted. But the team MacLaren interfaces with stops a freakin’ asteroid from hitting the freakin’ earth … to no apparent good.
Another thing that took me out of the series was the transformation of Marcy Warton into Traveler 3569. MacKenzie Porter (Dinosapien) is a solid actress who does a fine impression in her first scene of someone with Down Syndrome but she simply has no outward manifestations (stunted growth, low muscle tone) of that particular handicap. Porter, who is a blonde, bikini modeling, country-western singer, would have had a much easier time just passing herself off as a little slow and ditzy.
Which cascades into the next problem with Travelers: It flies in the face of a dictum among people who know how to write an action sequence: You can fight through pain, but you can’t fight through damage. This is Netflix, so I can suspend disbelief about a future where “consciousness” is a well-defined concept that can “travel through time” via “quantum entanglement”. But if it lands in a brain that isn’t functioning within very narrow parameters, the collected memory and awareness of a physician from the future simply can’t be contained. If the writers had explored how a mind with that level of training and academic attainment suddenly has to make due with an IQ of 65, that would’ve been more satisfying.
But those world-building issues aside, I found myself rooting for the team. I like how the series plays the cards it’s dealt. The network-caliber cast and procedural story structure are straight out of a CBS dramatic series. The production quality is comparable to anything else produced in Vancouver that finds itself airing Sunday nights on Syfy, that is, designed with economy in mind; that the bolts and rivets show adds to the verisimilitude. And, because it comes via Web stream rather than Tiffany Network standards-and-practices, the language can be just as vulgar as need be to reflect the realistic vision. It’s like a spinoff of NCIS where the team members can all say “fuck”.
There’s a strong hint — albeit no announcement yet — that we’ll have a second season of Travelers. Now that the cast is fully hashed out, maybe they can move on from character study to an actual, linear plot.