This spoiler-free review is based on the opening episodes of Travelers Season 1.
Time-travelling TV series. They’re so next year. In fact, they have been for decades, which means the announcement of a new one comes with a sprinkling of caution. Can another show really bring something new to the table, already laid out with its crockery of self-parenting paradoxes and condiments of cliches? Travelers, a new co-production between Canada’s Showcase and Netflix, brings just enough to the table to make it worth devouring and moves quickly enough to stop you questioning it. Slick, smart, Canadian. What’s not to love?
Our travelers are a team of agents from the future, who have been sent back to save humanity from extinction. Because nobody ever travels back in time from the future just to tell everyone how happy and lovely it all is. And so we follow a group of survivors who arrive in the 21st century hoping to make a difference. How? By completing weekly missions, of course, stopping bad guys, who might one day impact another bad guy, who might in the distant future influence some other bad thing, which might one day stop another thing from wiping out mankind. But before you can bogged down in the cause and effect of it all, Travelers makes a simple decision early on: it doesn’t explain everything. Not straight away. It’s too busy being slick for that.
The result is a cracking opening, as we see the group project their consciousness back in time to take on host bodies – something that we experience as the hosts do. It’s a neat idea, not putting us in a lab with scientists surrounded by equations and spinning metal bits, but dumping us on the pavement next to the unsuspecting meat shells. It’s not a smooth process – a countdown clock to the point of transfer, and some cries of pain, set the tone for a deceptively grim slice of sci-fi. There is gloss, yes, but there’s grit here too.
Indeed, the show doesn’t shy away from the human complications of time travel. Mercy (Mackenzie Porter) begins life as a disabled library worker, who can only speak with a stutter, but suddenly transforms into someone who can not only read and talk clearly, but stand up for herself in a fight too. People around her soon start to notice the difference.
It’s the smartest move creator Brad Wright (Stargate SG-1) could make; rather than go with the super-cool ideal of time-travelling secret agents and allow everything to fall in place around them, this version of time-hopping world-saving is genuinely awkward; our heroes stick out from the crowd and disrupt other people’s lives. You can sense them instantly spreading ripples across the space-time continuum. It makes for a more immediately gripping tale, as we see the changes they make to history first-hand. Timey-wimey isn’t the half of it.
And so the programme spends an impressively large chunk of its runtime attempting to contain that fallout. There’s Trevor (Jared Paul Abrahamson), a high-school quarterback, who, after a bout of kickboxing (and a consciousness transferral), finds himself playing up his concussion so he can find out who is girlfriend is, which locker is his and what the principal wants to question hm about. There’s Phillip (Reilly Dolman), a heroin addict who finds himself a newly possessed man just in time to see his mate overdose – something that could potentially get him, the supplier of the drugs, charged with manslaughter. And there’s Carly (Nesta Marlee Cooper), a single mum in an abusive relationship, who is unprepared for what that life entails. There’s less time running about shooting things and more time googling “how to care for a baby”.
But there is running and shooting to enjoy – and that mostly happens once FBI Special Agent Grant Maclaren (Eric McCormack) arrives. The leader, and the last to slot into place, his reveal is a superbly orchestrated finale in an intriguing first hour, but things only get more compelling from there. The cast are all excellent, at once confident – “I see we all made it,” says Eric’s boss, a world away from Will & Grace. “Let’s begin.” – yet embarrassingly out of water in their new surroundings. They bring with them baggage too; while Maclaren has a marriage he needs to keep up, he’s also got his own back-story, from being vegan to having romantic history with Carly. Their relationships cleverly complement the troubled waters they land in, with Philip facing not just withdrawal symptoms from his addiction but also guilt and shock after seeing a string of standers-by die in front of him. Add to that a rebellious streak in the face of Maclaren’s leadership and you have a cauldron of things waiting to turn sour bubbling nicely under the surface. And that’s before we deal with challenges such as basing their cover identities on social media profiles that turn out to be fake.
The supporting cast are just as key to making each of these situations believable. There’s humour in their interactions as well as emotion – Trevor apologising to his parents and principal before walking out of a meeting is so unexpected by the others that it’s laugh-out-loud funny. The show similarly keeps its technological flourishes to a minimum – their futuristic phones are embedded in their necks and ears – so everything feels as grounded as possible.
The result isn’t hugely original, but it’s intricate and quick enough to be entertaining; think Quantum Leap with guns. That balance is deftly maintained throughout the opening episodes, introducing threats as big as antimatter and as mundane as blackmail from suspicious people wanting gambling tips in exchange for silence. If we’re left wondering where all this is heading, it’s because the script does the same to the characters: instructions come at random through creepily controlled children (rather darkly, because their young brains are flexible enough to receive messages from the future without lasting damage); and an unknown number of traveler teams are scattered across time, each one compartmentalised to avoid people chatting, breaking protocol and messing up their plans.
“Shit happens,” offers one senior traveler to Maclaren. “Get it right.” That’s all the exposition we’re given, but it’s all we need to be hooked. As the show picks up even more pace, it keeps on happening – and Travelers shows no sign of getting it wrong yet.
Travelers Season 1 and 2 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.