You don’t need a time machine to know Netflix’s Travelers isn’t going to end well.
Travelers was never going to be one of those Netflix series blowing up the internet. It’s not about women in prison or cute kids fighting evil and it doesn’t have the backing of interconnected big-screen, comic-book movies. Travelers is a science fiction series. Science fiction series haven’t traditionally taken off with general audiences. One would be hard pressed to count the number of successful science fiction series on two hands. Even the series fans of the genre would think of (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Fringe) had to fight and scrape to stay on the air. X-Files, now going on its 12th season, had a long road to travel before it came back to FOX. Even Dr. Who had a long hiatus before it returned.
Travelers isn’t just a science fiction series; Travelers is a science fiction series about time travelers. If your list of successful science fiction series was short before it’s been cut at least in half with the time traveler aspect included. Time travel and science fiction are often a combination for early cancellation and non-renewal.
Season one of Travelers will be right up your alley if you’re into science-fiction with a time traveling element. The setup is pretty ingenious. When travelers are sent back into time they take over the bodies and lives of people who are moments from death. It’s a clever way to avoid the pitfalls and traps other series have found themselves in. The writers don’t have to rely on story tropes like “time loops” and not interfering with the “timeline” to move the story along.
The first season has a strong 12 Monkeys feel about it. At some point in our future a cataclysmic event occurs sending the surviving population under ground. Travelers, unlike 12 Monkeys, doesn’t show us what the future looks like. We can only infer what it is like from what the characters tell us or show us like when they eat foods no longer available in the future. The travelers are sent back to the 21st Century, or simply the “21st” as travelers call our century, by the Director.
The Director, we learn, is actually a super computer. It decides who to send back and why. Once in the 21st, the Director sends missions to the teams that have been sent back. Sometimes it even plays judge, jury and executioner. It’s the Director Grant MacLaren (Eric McCormack of Will and Grace fame) and his team have pledged allegiance. A super computer used to dictate time travel isn’t a new concept (See 12 Monkeys again, Primer), but in Travelers The Director is more of a character we never meet.
Near the end of the first season, Travelers introduces a faction among the travelers who are fighting the Director and anyone who supports it. MacLaren and his team find themselves at odds with many people they knew in the future. In season one, the faction is responsible for a divergent timeline being created in the future. It’s one of the few time travel tropes to be found in the series.
Overall, the first season of Travelers is a smart, entertaining science fiction series. The characters are believable enough. As much as the series focuses on the saving earth aspect it dedicates enough time to develop the travelers’ new lives with the friends and families of their “hosts,” the bodies they inhabit.
If the first season is solid science-fiction storytelling the second season is the complete opposite. We can forgive the nanobots the travelers use to save everybody when the story line call for it. We can even forgive the fact that after being betrayed by Faction members posing as friends MacLaren and company keep accepting new faces as allies. What we can’t forgive is the introduction of super character Vincent Ingram.
There’s no argument that Enrico Colantoni (Galaxy Quest) is one of the best character actors working today. In Travelers he plays Vincent Ingram. We learn late in the second season Ingram is the first traveler sent to the 21st. He was part of an experiment to see if time travel was possible. Ingram was meant to die in the 9/11 attacks. Instead, he walked out of the Towers and continued life in the 21st avoiding any digital record the Director could use to find him.
The Ingram character presents some interesting problems for the Director. However, characters like Ingram, Colantoni’s Carl Elias on Person of Interest, and even The Walking Dead‘s Negan are walking talking deus ex machinas. Ingram is the”unknown” enemy for much the second season, but even after MacLaren learns Igram’s identity he’s unbeatable. He knows what the team is thinking, he knows what the team is going to do even before they know what they’re going to do. It’s a storytelling trope we’ve seen a lot in television over the past couple of years. It gets old, stale, and is played out.
To make matters worse, season two ends with the travelers being exposed to the world. First we’re suppose to believe Ingram is soooo smart and can do anything that he’s basically Superman. Then we’re meant to believe the world would actually believe time travel is real. Why? Because some people uploaded confession videos to Youtube? There are more than 200,000 videos on Youtube claiming Bigfoot is real. So why aren’t news outlets reporting Bigfoot running around a forest somewhere? Because no one believes Youtube videos.
It’s always a shame when a series starts off strong and ends on a forced premise shoved down the audiences’ throat. Usually it takes more than two seasons before a series falls apart. It took Travelers one and half seasons. Maybe season three, if there is a season three, it can redeem itself by returning to the science-fiction, characters, and solid story telling.