by Josie Kafka
Brad Wright’s Travelers is a character-dense, mythology-light science-fiction series that has a peculiar Canadian charm, despite being set in Seattle, and a few fun twists, despite being otherwise straightforward.
The premise sounds more complicated than it is. The future is mostly awful, but they’ve got time travel. In the future, the Director is able to send people’s consciousnesses (a word the spell-checker doesn’t think should exist) back to the present day to inhabit someone else’s body. The Director, being moral, chooses people who are about to die. So nobody in the present has their life ended—rather, their body’s existence is extended past its previous expiration date, but with a new consciousness.
Why? Because the future people want to change the past, of course, to make it less awful. That could lead to a boring procedural about doing “missions” each week after receiving directions from other Travelers (Seattle is filled with ‘em) or via the creepy temporary consciousness downloads the Director can commit upon prepubescents.
But the show quickly transcends a procedural model by focusing on the character-based conflicts. Part of the show’s delight comes from gradually understanding how the future personalities are struggling to fit into the lives of their present-day physical hosts. For instance, Marcy (played by MacKenzie Porter) was a young woman with an intellectual disability and a history of abuse. Now Traveler 3569—whom everyone still calls Marcy—is an intelligent doctor who must figure out how to deal with an observant social worker while trying to save the world.
The show’s ostensible star, Eric McCormack, plays a Traveler who inhabits the body and life of an FBI agent named Grant MacLaren: McCormack does a great job with what he’s given, but many of his struggles—with MacLaren’s wife, for instance—are less interesting than some of the subtler character moments of the secondary players. Like Philip, whose host has a heroin addiction. Or Carly, whose host has a baby and an abusive ex-boyfriend.
Or Trevor, whose host is a high-school football player. At first, the Traveler inhabiting Trevor seemed like a sycophant. Then, it gradually emerged that he was—in the future—a very old man. His politeness isn’t of the Eddie Haskell variety, but something that springs from his long, miserable experiences of life. He is kind to others because he knows that kindness is the one thing he can control in a disordered universe. (Or can he…?)
Although there are more than a few action-based episodes, creator Brad Wright manages to spin narrative gold out of the conflicts among these characters, between this team and other Travelers in Seattle, and even between the Travelers in our present-day world and the folks in the future who know how various missions are affecting the world 500 years from now. The second half of the season, in particular, begins to explore some of the consequences of changing the future at both the micro- and macro-levels.
Travelers is the sort of show that I might not stick with if individual episodes were parceled out week-by-week. Good, in other words, but not addictive on its own merits. However, since it’s streaming on Netflix—the TV equivalent of a can of Pringles—I’d recommend binging it or at least digging into a couple of episodes at once. It’ll charm you more than you think, and get you thinking more than you might expect.
Three out of four Historians.
Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)