Over the holidays (Dec. 20) we saw the two-hour series finale of the time travel TV show Timeless, seasonally titled “The Miracle of Christmas.” We were there at the beginning for this two-season series; let’s take a brief look at how it ended.
An Appropriate Time
While we hate to see a good series go, sometimes closing down is the right thing to do. Not every series can go on forever; we’ve all seen shows that linger on long past when they should have died.
Timeless was built around a wide-ranging conspiracy—an evil organization called “Rittenhouse.” Such stories have a certain inherent instability. If the secret enemy simply keeps going, with the good guys never making any progress against it, then we’re stuck with a fixed situation that lacks the tension of possible resolution or serious arc development—take The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or any similar 1960s-type spy series. On the other hand, if the heroes do succeed in making headway against their opponents, they eventually win, and the show can find itself at a loss for what the heroes are going to do next (I’m looking at you, Chuck). So a struggle against a secret conspiracy is a good candidate for a limited series.
In this sense, I liked the Timeless wrap-up. The show wrapped before it could lose momentum.
The Pointless Conspiracy
This limited lifetime is particularly important here, because even the short run of the series was enough to reveal some significant weaknesses in the “Rittenhouse” idea.
You’ll recall that the principal characters are Lucy Preston, a history professor; Wyatt Logan, a U.S. Army Delta Force operative; and Rufus Carlin, the technical expert and pilot of the “Lifeboat” time ship used by the good guys—along with Jiya Marri, a programmer who isn’t initially part of the traveling team but grows into the role. They skip around from time period to time period, trying to prevent two groups of opponents from changing history for the worse.
The time travelers gradually discover that a secret organization, passed down along family lines, has been dominating American history since the Founding. A NSA renegade, Garcia Flynn, and his henchmen steal the experimental time machine in order to stop Rittenhouse by changing history. There’s an interesting ambiguity from the beginning about who is actually the villain, since we see Flynn’s machinations before we find out about Rittenhouse. But we’re never quite sure either what Rittenhouse is about or how Flynn expects to stop it.
The secret society is supposed to derive from an actual historical figure, David Rittenhouse (1732-1796). Wikipedia describes him as “an American astronomer, inventor, clockmaker, mathematician, surveyor, scientific instrument craftsman, and public official . . . a member of the American Philosophical Society and the first director of the United States Mint.” This Rittenhouse seems an odd choice for a sinister mastermind. He actually sounds more like a hero (of science) to me. So, right from the start, we’re a little at sea as to what Rittenhouse’s motives or goals are supposed to be.
TV Tropes has a hilarious discussion of what it calls the “Omniscient Council of Vagueness.” Rittenhouse is a perfect example. We don’t know what the organization wants. We don’t know why. If it’s been manipulating American society or politics, we don’t know when or where. We don’t know how it exercises its influence or what historical events can be ascribed to that influence. We know it’s bad, because its agents are ruthless. Maybe the goal has something to do with master-race breeding (a favorite go-to way to characterize villains since the Nazis): in the episode where David Rittenhouse actually appears as an old man (Season 1, episode 10), he declares that Lucy is a fine healthy specimen and orders her taken to his bedroom (a procedure which is of course timely interrupted before we can overstep the bounds of network TV). But even the idea of some eugenic program isn’t really developed.
It’s easy to postulate some vast secret organization like Marvel’s Hydra or U.N.C.L.E.’s THRUSH, and equally simple to plaster them with enough repellent traits that we’re happy to take them for granted as The Bad Guys. But given how sophisticated Timeless was in some respects, I was sort of surprised it never went further in fleshing out this premise.
On the other hand, Timeless gets points for recognizing that you can’t wipe out a technology forever just by destroying all the prototypes.
Science fiction has frequently dealt with the difficulty of putting the genie back in the bottle. If a scientific principle or technology can be discovered once, then even destroying all the existing examples won’t permanently prevent it from being used. What can be discovered can be rediscovered. (See, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 story “Solution Unsatisfactory.”)
So, at the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown soberly declares that Marty must destroy the time-traveling DeLorean once he returns to his own time, since time travel is too dangerous to be allowed. (In an appropriately comic conclusion, Doc then promptly negates his own directive by showing up with a wonderful time-traveling steam engine.) But even if we suppose that the secret of Marty and Doc’s adventures is kept quiet forever, somebody else is eventually going to come up with a flux capacitor (whether or not the idea is occasioned by falling off a toilet and hitting your head).
The characters recognize this issue at the end of the Timeless finale. Rather than destroying the “Lifeboat” prototype, they decide to hang onto it, just in case. This is not just a good way to leave a thread hanging in case anybody decides to make a sequel someday; it’s smart thinking. And, in a clever final twist, the last scene does suggest—in the innocuous setting of a science fair—that some years later, a high-school STEM student, in a program started by Rufus and Jiya themselves, is about to stumble upon the time travel principle again.
Character Development by Substitution
The most important part of the story’s end, though, is about the characters.
I was glad to see that, after a number of twists and turns, the romances worked out satisfyingly. Lucy and Wyatt, as we always suspected, do end up together. So do Rufus and Jiya—but their situation is a little more complicated. There’s more going on than meets the eye in the resolution of these relationships.
A key part of Wyatt’s motivation throughout had been his guilt and grief over the death of his wife Jessica. When Jessica turns up alive, after a particular historical change (Season 2, episode 3), this naturally throws a wrench into the budding romance between Lucy and Wyatt. But Jessica, it turns out, is alive because Rittenhouse (now in possession of a time machine) has changed history to save her, and in the new history has inculcated Jessica into Rittenhouse’s plans from the beginning. This is not, in other words, the Jessica that Wyatt originally new: this is a Rittenhouse Jessica, subverted from childhood (Season 2, episodes 7, 9).
The plot complications that ensue are one thing. But the setup produces a rather novel view of character. To what extent is this alternate version of Jessica the same person that Wyatt fell in love with? And if loving someone means loving her “for who she is,” what happens when she’s now someone else?
In a case of brainwashing or mind control or the like, one can at least imagine going back to the ‘branch point’ and recurring somehow to the original state of the person. But if (in this timeline) Jessica has always been a Rittenhouse recruit, there is no such original state to return to. (If there had never been Back to the Future sequels, one might imagine Marty similarly having some trouble coming to terms with his new, more assertive parents.)
The same issue is played out more subtly with Rufus and Jiya. In the last regular episode, Rufus is killed. Since this is a time travel story, the other characters are naturally bent on changing things to prevent that from happening. In the finale, this is achieved: but the Rufus who’s now alive is from a timeline different from the one originally inhabited by Wyatt and Lucy. He hasn’t had all the same experiences.
Meanwhile, Jiya has experienced a much more traumatic change. In the last regular episode, she is stranded in 1888 Chinatown and must survive by her wits alone for three years. The Jiya who meets the revised Rufus has gone through things Rufus has never imagined. We see that they nonetheless stay in love; but they will have to work through some major issues together.
This identity issue is not unique to time travel. We have a much longer history of stories about experiences that significantly change a person: for example, a man goes off to war and comes back “a changed man.” For example, in the movie Sommersby (1993), a Civil War veteran’s wife is not entirely sure whether the man who came back is the one who left, or a near-identical twin.
But in this normal case, continuity is still expected: the change is from an already-known branch point. Laurel Sommersby ultimately concludes the man before her cannot be her husband—“because I never loved him the way I love you!” Character development happens, if not always gradually, at least in some kind of organic way. She does not believe her husband could have become the man she now loves.
If time travel can rewrite someone’s entire history, is that still true? We’re almost back at the nature-nurture debate: to what extent is my character fated at birth, and to what extent created through life? Timeless gives us subliminally convincing evidence of continuity: a new timeline’s version of Rufus or Jiya is played by the same actor, speaks with the same voice, wears the same persona—except to the extent specifically varied for purposes of the plot. But the story of the finale raises disconcerting issues of how much continuity is necessary to remain “the one I love.”
Stories generally involve the kind of character development that comes through the accumulation of experience. But Timeless gives us kind of character development by substituting a new version of a person, with a new history of experience—a deft use of the “what-ifs” for which time travel tales are famous.
Timeless has been a cool series to follow. I don’t know that I’d have wanted it to go on indefinitely, but it sparked some stimulating thoughts in its brief run.