The End of Timeless

Poster for TimelessOver 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.

While I suspect everyone who’s followed this series will by now have seen the finale, just in case I’ll issue aSpoiler Alert!

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.

Timeless character portraitsYou’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.

Omniscient Council of Vagueness illustration from TV TropesTV 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.

Suppressing Technology

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.”)

Doc Brown's time-traveling trainSo, 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.

Timeless action scene in hallwayI 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.

Rufus and Jiya, San FranciscoMeanwhile, 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.

Timeless finale scene with Christmas lights

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The Backyard Spaceship

When I was little, my father told me he had a spaceship of his own, hidden back in the woods.  As an ardent space fan, I was wildly enthusiastic.  It was when he told me it was propelled by a hamster running in a wheel that I began to suspect he was putting me on.

But I wanted to believe it.

There’s a certain SF tradition of spacecraft built, more or less, in one’s backyard.  Of course, “backyard” may not be literal.  I’m thinking of spaceships constructed on an amateur basis, privately, and usually—though not always—by young people.Cover, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet

This was the appeal of a childhood favorite of mine, Eleanor Cameron’s The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet (1954).  Two boys (“between the ages of eight and eleven”) are recruited by a newspaper ad to put together a small rocket ship for the mysterious Mr. Tyco Bass, a small wispy man who turns out to be a “spore person.”  They fly the ship to a previously unknown miniature moon, “Basidium,” inhabited by other spore-based mushroom people.

Cameron is pretty good with her scientific facts—which means she lampshades the impossibilities carefully.  A rocket built by two kids isn’t going to get off the ground without plentiful helpings of what TV Tropes calls “Applied Phlebotinum,” the unexplained stuff or device(s) necessary to make the plot work.  A classic example is the faster-than-light space drive needed by a Star Trek or Star Wars story.  If the authors could explain how it worked, they wouldn’t be writing a story; they’d be off to the patent office and rake in billions.  Instead, the author and reader tacitly agree to postulate the necessary gizmo or substance for purposes of the tale.  It might as well be magic, in the sense of Clarke’s Third Law—“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Here, Mr. Bass supplies several crucial “inventions” needed to make the boys’ ship spaceworthy.  He provides the rocket motor, the special fuel, the clear sealant that makes the hull airtight, and the “oxygen urn” that provides breathable air—not to mention the “Stroboscopic Polaroid Filter” that allows a telescope to detect the otherwise-invisible Mushroom Planet.  These “phlebotinum” features make the boys’ vessel a little more plausible than my dad’s Hamster Drive.Cover, Rocket Ship Galileo

A more believable example (once you’re out of the middle grades) is Robert A. Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo (1947).  The project here is a private enterprise, with the spacecraft modified from an existing transcontinental “freighter-rocket” by four teenage boys.  They are, however, accompanied by one adult, Dr. Donald Cargraves, an uncle of one of the boys.  Cargraves provides the engineering expertise and the atomic drive he’s just invented, which (to paraphrase Doc Brown) “makes space travel possible.”

Starting with an existing well-equipped vessel, and kids who are already experienced amateur rocket-builders, makes the setup immediately more plausible.  Realistically, it takes months of elbow grease to do the conversion.  The Galileo isn’t actually built in a backyard, but out in the desert.  Still, the idea that kids like you or me could help build the first rocket to the moon is front and center in this story, which formed part of the basis for the early SF movie “Destination Moon.”

The notion of private-sector spaceflight was a favorite of Heinlein’s.  That theme reappears in his novella The Man Who Sold the Moon (1951), which also contributed elements to “Destination Moon.”  In that tale, however, the participants were all adults, and the project was a large and highly-publicized corporate endeavor more like the work of today’s SpaceX or Blue Origin.

A fully grown-up version of the backyard spaceship can be found in the widely influential first novel by E.E. “Doc” Smith, The Skylark of Space (1928, originally written about a decade earlier).  When scientist Dick Seaton stumbles upon an unknown substance that can be used to produce immense energy, his wealthy friend Martin Crane underwrites the construction of a spherical spacecraft to harness that power.  The work is started on Crane’s extensive property—not exactly a backyard, but close—and continues secretly in an independent steel plant after skulduggery enters the picture.  No kids are involved, but the private, secret, and essentially amateur operation makes Skylark an ancestor of this space opera trope.cover, Red Thunder

We might consider this theme an artifact of the naïve early days of SF, but for its reappearance in John Varley’s 2003 novel Red Thunder.  The passage of time has made some differences.  The protagonists are young adults, though they compose a motley group that still reads like “kids” to me (or perhaps it’s just that I’m that much older myself).  Their goal is Mars, rather than the Moon.  The requisite adult supervision, or phlebotinum contribution, is supplied by Travis Broussard, a cashiered former astronaut, and his quasi-autistic genius brother Jubal, who has invented a “squeezer” force field that turns out to be a fabulous rocket drive (among other uses).  Varley’s methodical development of the funding, engineering, and planning for the homegrown spacecraft (built out of a railroad tank car) makes the amateur project believable even for a contemporary audience.  Wikipedia describes the resulting adventure as an homage to Heinlein’s juveniles—since it’s essentially a Rocket Ship Galileo for the 21st century.

 

Why are we so fond of the backyard spaceship?

This kind of plot enshrines the long American tradition of inspired tinkering, from the Wright brothers and Edison, to Tom Swift, to 1950s kids with hot rods, to space kids with hotter rods (Luke Skywalker asking to go into town for parts to soup up his landspeeder).  The clever gadgeteer is a permanent part of our mythology, right down to Bill Gates and Paul Allen in their garage.

More than that, the idea that ingenious amateurs could conquer space has a democratic, underdog quality that appeals to our mythmaking imaginations.  We love the idea that spaceflight could be easy and accessible to the ordinary person.  It’s a natural evolution of the way we root for the underdog in politics or war (the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi”).  We cheer for the underdog just as much in personal life—for Cinderella, whose story exhibits, as Chesterton says, the lesson exaltavit humiles—“he shall lift up the humble.”

The backyard spaceship promises to lift the humble right off the earth, in the ancient dream of flight.  It makes for great inspiration, if dubious engineering.  And after all, the most sophisticated aeronautical engineer starts out as a wondering child and an aspiring teenager.  Our dreams rest among the stars; but the journey begins in our own backyard.