I don’t usually write reviews of television shows. I try to stick to film and sports because even though I watch more TV than most, I find it difficult to put into words why I like certain shows. Recently, however, I watched a show that is forcing me to break this trend. I thought it was so great and loved it so much that the only thing I hyped up more to my friends was the film Arrival. So, dearest readers, I present to you the Netflix series, Travelers. (NOTE: there are some spoilers throughout, but none are major plot points or shocking revelations to the show.)
Before I dive in to the show itself, here are the basics you need to know about this show and this past year in television at large: NBC’s Timeless, a show about three people hired by a corporation to go back in time and save history from a time-traveling terrorist, led a rebirth in the genre for major networks. Since the debut of Timeless in the fall of 2016, ABC and FOX have announced shows based on the same cornerstone subject: time travel. By the same token, Netflix, in cooperation with Showcase, a Canadian channel, released its own twist on the genre in October, only weeks after Timeless.
The show, aptly named Travelers, is the story of a team of five people who travel back in time from a post-apocalyptic Earth in order to save humanity from the path it is currently taking. The team consists of a doctor, historian, tactician, engineer, and group leader. Instead of using a time machine, the show creates an innovative new way to time travel. The consciousness of a person from the future is sent back in time into a host body at the exact moment of his/her recorded time of death. The viable hosts are chosen by the mysterious Director, who uses algorithms to decide who the best candidates are based on the social media, work history, and any other electronically recorded information about the person from the past.
Unfortunately, we immediately get a glimpse of what could possibly go wrong with relying solely on electronic information. In the first episode, one of the travelers inhabits the body of a mentally challenged woman who works as a custodian at a library. This is contradictory to her historical social media profile, the only electronic record of who she was as a person, which said she was a librarian. It is revealed that she and her social worker created that profile merely as an exercise. It also comes out that the travelers can override the consciousness of the host, but not their biology. In the case of another traveler, he inherits the heroin addiction of his host, and he feels the effects of withdrawal as well as the desire to inject himself every so often.
Unlike most other time travel shows, this one comes complete with a logical set of rules, known as protocols. The most contentious of these is Protocol 3, which dictates that no one can save or end lives outside of their assigned missions. Eventually, this becomes a problem for the group, but one of the travelers more than the rest, as he begins to develop a conscience about the whole experience, and begins fighting with the rest of the team over whether or not the Director is right to tell them who they can and cannot save. Funding for their lives in the past, something that usually goes unanswered in this type of show, is explained clearly: the group’s historian has memorized results of horse races, and bets exorbitant amounts of money on the winning horses.
The acting, needless to say, is flawless. Eric McCormack, in particular, shines. McCormack, who won an Emmy for his role in Will & Grace, shows his range in his part as Traveler 3468 (Agent Grant MacLaren). The role he plays is a particularly intricate one: his real self is in a relationship with one of the other travelers in the future; the host he inhabits is a married FBI agent with a delicate past. While dealing with the role of both his consciousness and his host, he must also act as the team leader of the group, keeping them on mission, and dealing with the everyday bumps in the road life, and time, throws at him. The balancing act his character must employ is outrageous, and McCormack has deftly mastered this role.
Aside from the acting and general storyline, both of which deserve immense praise for their skill, it is the intricacies of the writing that truly elevate this show to the top of the Netflix Originals peak. What I mean by this is that the missions the team faces, while well-crafted within the scripts, pales in comparison to the underlying story: people who traveled from the future, one of devastation and death, to the past, and are experiencing ordinary things for the first time. In the second episode, MacLaren looks out his glass door and up at the sky. Ordinarily, this is a mundane action done by everyone on Earth. However, this is just the first in a series of related events. Shortly afterwards, the team engineer, Trevor, suggests that MacLaren take a walk in the park because “it really is lovely.” In another episode, travelers stop a bus they are driving to take a picture of either a dog or a bear; they then argue about what it was because they have never seen either. There is also much discussion of Shelter 41 in the future and the people who lived there. Not only does this mean that there are at least forty other shelters and that these shelters are the only places people are able to live, but it is also implied that the shelters are located underground. All of these events together mean that it was not a passing glance at the skies overhead; instead, it was MacLaren staring in wonder at the clear blue sky, basking in something that he has never been able to experience.
The final, and perhaps most wondrous aspect of the show, is its ability to get you emotionally involved with the characters in a totally different way. When we are watching the show, we see the actors portraying someone who is alive but technically in a dead person’s body. In most shows, we love characters for how they look, act, and interact, and we can describe them accordingly. Here, however, the characters we love are hidden behind the faces of the host bodies. So, in effect, we like the characters for how they act and interact with one another, but we never actually meet the real people who are exhibiting these characteristics. A perfect example is when one of the 21stcentury inhabitants dies and is turned into a host body. The person who died was an incredible person and a great character on the show. The traveler that took over the body, however, is immediately unlikeable. So the audience mourns the loss of a character without actually losing the character. It is the same face and body that has been on the show up to that point, yet it is a familiar face and body behaving like a completely different person. Here, the creators of Travelers have truly changed the game. When you watch the full season, and experience all of the other little things that work together, it is a master work of underlying tragedy and pain, yet overt and unrelenting hope and faith that things will get better.