Monday, October 3, 2016

REVIEW: 'Timeless' - Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus are Recruited to Stop a Terrorist from Changing the Past in 'Pilot'

NBC's Timeless - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

When a dangerous fugitive steals a time machine, the U.S. government asks a history professor, Lucy Preston, a soldier, Wyatt Logan, and a scientist, Rufus Carlin, to embark on the adventure of a lifetime and chase the criminal mastermind to the Hindenburg disaster of 1937. While there, Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus each have to draw on expertise to save the present and protect the past - possibly at great personal cost. 

Time travel stories are tough. It's a trend in new show development from this past season. But it's still not abundantly clear if any of the new shows have a unique approach to the genre. These premieres need to set up the rules of their version of time travel. Because no one knows how it would theoretically work, it can lead to very different approaches to the subject matter. So, it's important for any new time travel show to establish its rules in its first episode and hold consistent to them. They can't just bend and break the rules whenever it best serves the narrative for dramatic stakes. There needs to be a way to explain this unimaginable science. Timeless suggests that the past can be changed. If any traveler goes back in time, they have the potential to change the timeline and create a drastically different world for themselves once they return to their present. That's a solid approach this show takes in its first episode. But more importantly, the show needs to establish how it works as a series.

So, a team comes together to chase a terrorist throughout time as he plans on changing history during a couple of its most iconic moments. The Hindenburg disaster is certainly a unique choice to highlight this storytelling method. Every week the audience can expect Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus to travel back to some key moment in time hoping not to change anything and alter their worlds in the future. The Hindenburg is a notable moment in time. One that allows the production design of this first episode to have a lot of fun. It's perhaps not as big or momentous as the show could have gone. But it's still a solid start that shows the types of adventures this crew will face on a weekly basis. The show doesn't take a whole lot of time to actually set up this premise. "Pilot" opens with a depiction of the disaster as it really happened. That way the audience knows how it's suppose to go once Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus show up to stop Flynn from messing with it.

Every member of the team gets some kind of backstory in this first episode. That's a good and necessary thing. Lucy's is the only one that actually happens on screen though. She's a history professor trying to live up to her mother's legacy. She's been passed over for tenure and is struggling to care for her sick mother with her sister. It's not a great life. But it's certainly more stable for her than the high-stakes action she's pulled into later on. Plus, this context helps the show when it showcases just how delicate the timeline can be. After returning from the 1930s not exactly succeeding with the mission, Lucy arrives home to see her mother well and her sister non-existent. It's a completely ridiculous moment that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. But it establishes the kind of fun and crazy twists the show wants to explore moving forward. It's a story that works because it is seen on the screen. It's something the audience can see and engage with. It puts a personal context on these adventures. Lucy may be doing the right thing by trying to save time but it could come at great cost to her personal life.

Meanwhile, it's just so awkward and formulaic to watch Wyatt's story in this first episode. He's put on the team because he's a soldier. He has the skills to apprehend Flynn whenever the opportunity presents itself. He's a necessary part of the team. The government can't expect a history professor and engineer to stop this madman. Plot complications force these three together. Apparently, only three people can fit in the time machine. One needs to know how to fly and another needs to know the customs of the world they're walking into. Wyatt is the soldier who can take down Flynn. And yet, it's just so frustrating to watch as he gets distracted by needing to save Kate, a famous reporter destined to die in the explosion. It's a male superiority complex that is really off putting. He completely forgets about why he's in the 1930s just because Kate reminds him of his dead wife. It's great that the show doesn't actually show the audience the circumstances around the death of Wyatt's wife. But his entire story is defined by women dying which is such cliche and lazy writing. None of it really means anything. It's just suppose to keep him distracted so that Lucy can talk with Flynn alone and learn that there may be things the government isn't telling her about her mission.

And then, Rufus understands that a trip to the past will not be a good thing for him. He's a black man going back to eras that weren't so kind to people who looked like him. It's a legitimate concern that the show doesn't shy away from. He faces a lot of racism throughout the hour. He proves to be an important part of the team. He works well with Lucy and Wyatt. And yet, his whole motivation for joining the mission is shrouded in secrecy. His boss, Connor Mason, has some kind of ulterior motives. Rufus apparently knows what they are. While in the '30s, Rufus actually records Lucy and Wyatt. It's just an ominous tease for the future. It doesn't mean anything right now. Flynn tells Lucy that she needs to question why she was chosen for this mission. A conspiracy is already starting to form. This show's token buzzword is going to be "Rittenhouse." A phrase the government doesn't know anything about but Connor and Rufus might. Time travel stories are complicated enough. So, adding this mythology and mystery on top of it may not be the best thing for the overall season.

But the episodic adventure in the 1930s to the Hindenburg is the most important thing about this opening hour. It creates a template for the show that is much more about the adventures back in time than the need to unravel a complicated conspiracy. Flynn is such a mysterious character. He is able to steal the time machine thanks to a book filled with a ton of notes. It's later revealed that Lucy wrote that book. She hasn't done it yet but she will at some point in time. She does so because she will learn things that change her opinion of Flynn apparently. It shows that some things in the past may actually be fixed and cannot change so easily. Lucy and Flynn are locked in a destiny of sorts. The details of which probably won't be revealed for awhile. That does contrast slightly with the swooping proclamations about the ripple effects this change caused in the timeline. The team still created an explosion on the Hindenburg. It's still a notable moment in time. But now, the details have changed. Lucy, Wyatt, Rufus and Flynn are the only ones who remember how it used to be. They now exist out of time slightly. They are able to remember things from their original timeline. That means they'll need to rely on each other moving forward because they are all experiencing the same things. It's just unclear how much really changed in the world of 2016 after they made this massive change in the past.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Eric Kripke & Shawn Ryan and directed by Neil Marshall.
  • Wyatt isn't even able to save Kate in the new history of the Hindenburg explosion. She was destined to die that day because of the crash. She didn't. But she still got a bullet in the chest because of Flynn. It's just a little too unnecessary and continues to prop up violence against women to inform story for the men.
  • So, Flynn took that engineer with him in the time machine to pilot the thing, right? What happened to him after that? That's probably a mystery for the future as well.
  • Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus don't have a lot of time to rest after returning home from the 1930s. It's enough time for Lucy to return home to see how different her life is. But after that realization, she is immediately called back in for a new mission.
  • The premiere also established the rule that none of the characters can go back to a point in time where they already existed. It would lead to a paradox that wouldn't be too friendly to them. That's an important rule. Plus, it means they won't get a do over with the Hindenburg. This is now how history will remember it.
  • Rufus has a crush on another programmer in the lab. Before the mission, he's too afraid to talk to her. Afterwards, she comes up to him and he has the confidence to ask her to dinner. It's not much of a story because the woman literally does nothing at all in the entire episode.
  • Rufus is incredibly proud of a lot of black men named Michael. That's a humorous moment. Sure, he's exposing himself as a time traveler. But it's all with the purpose of distracting the guards so that Wyatt can break everyone out.
  • So who is really lying to Lucy? Is it Flynn as a way to try and manipulate her to his side? Is it the government which doesn't have much focus in this hour? Or is it Mason Industries who've secretly been running this program for awhile now?