Created and produced by Brad Wright, part of the team that brought the SG-1/Atlantis/SG:U franchise to the screens, Travelers arrived on Netflix just before Christmas. Its first season is 12-episodes long and continues Netflix’s increasingly epic streak of producing deeply odd, very intelligent and very good genre fiction.
The basic idea is this: in the relatively near future, there is total environmental collapse. The few survivors live in squalor in sealed dome cities and the planet is functionally uninhabitable. In a desperate attempt to prevent this from happening, “travelers” are sent back in time to the present day to alter the course of history.
So far so Kyle Reese. But the show marks out its own territory almost from the first frame you see. The travellers don’t move physically, but mentally. The consciousness of each traveller is fired into the brain of someone in the present day a few seconds before their historically-recorded death. The traveller prevents that death, changes the future and takes over their lives. It’s an inventive, and nasty, premise and the show puts it front and centre in a way that means character and plot are constantly moving in lockstep,
The show also takes full advantage of the Netflix model. There’s a real sense of this as a novel, plots and characters slowly rising to the fore and consequences echoing down the season. The world-building is just brilliant, the show throwing you in at the deep end and trusting you to put it together. There’s no big monologues here, no cheesy speeches about non-interference. Instead there’s the mission and the complicated, and often dangerous, challenges of living someone else’s life.
That’s a big remit for any show and Travelers succeeds thanks to the fiercely strong writing and cast. The team we follow is led by Eric McCormack (Will & Grace) as Traveler 3468, who downloads into an FBI agent named Grant MacLaren. Backing him up are MacKenzie Porter as Marcy, the team’s medic, Nesta Cooper as Carly, their tactician, Jared Abrahamson as Trevor their engineer and Reilly Dolman as Philip, their historian.
Oh and Marcy is intellectually disabled, Carly is a single mom with an abusive ex, Trevor is an asshole football jock and Philip is a heroin addict. The team know about half of this jumping in and dealing with the consequences of their new lives gives the show many of its best moments. Philip’s near breakdown at realising they can’t save everyone is a highlight but it’s Trevor and Marcy who provide many of the real standouts. Abrahamson is incredibly good as an old man in a young man’s body and Trevor’s polite, direct and forthright approach is completely charming especially in episode five, “Room 101”.
MacKenzie Porter’s Marcy is the heart of the show, though. Much of the first season is powered by the consequences of the bad information that leads to Marcy being a candidate and the massive changes in her life following the download. Porter has remarkable natural presence and the honesty with which the show deals with Marcy’s disability, and what happens when it goes away, is one of its very best qualities. Patrick Gilmore, one of several Stargate alumni in the cast, also excels as David, Marcy’s social worker and eventual boyfriend. Gilmore has brilliant comic timing but also immense inherent compassion. His David is a good, normal, honest guy in a situation where those qualities are not going to do him any favours and yet he doesn’t back down for a second.
While the entire cast, and premise, are impressive, the show does stumble from time to time. Episode 10 “Kathryn” is a misfire that manages to take the biggest event in the season and turn it into an all-too-familiar “It’s a Wonderful Life”-style story. Worse still, it feels like an acknowledgement, eight or so episodes late that Leah Cairns as MacLaren’s wife Kat has been horribly under-served. The attempt to cram backstory in for her is the one time the show feels stereotypical and clumsy made all the worse by just how interesting the plot that leads to that moment is. Likewise, the season finale, “Grace” piles so many revelations on top of one another that you’re almost as confused as the characters are about what’s going.
That aside, Travelers has a lot to recommend it. It’s a little po-faced in spots but the subject matter calls for it and the cast wear it very well. It’s complex, chewy stuff that deals with the issues of time travel in a fresh and interesting way and does some massively interesting things with its characters. Clever, subtle, involving stuff and another hit for Netflix at the end of a massively successful year.
Directed by Nick Hurran
Written by Brad Wright
An excellent pilot episode that introduces the team as they all arrive in a wide variety of terrible circumstances. Marcy is about to be assaulted, Trevor is about to be beaten to death in an MMA contest, Carly is about to be murdered by her ex-husband and Philip is about to OD.
And MacLaren? MacLaren is the agent investigating their arrivals. Until they change history so he isn’t killed in the line of duty and becomes their team leader…
Wright’s script neatly upends your expectations twice, first with what’s going on and secondly with MacLaren’s roll in it. It’s taut, bleak, funny and gives everyone, especially MacKenzie Porter, a chance to shine. A great kick off.
Directed by Andy Mikita
Written by Gillian Muller
The second episode digs into the world-building with a vengeance. On the team’s first mission, they prevent the accidental detonation of an anti-matter device that would kill thousands in the present and lead to an arms race that would kill millions.
The team they’re supposed to hand the device off to… doesn’t.
Now, Mac and his team have an antimatter bomb in their garage that will detonate in 30 hours and nowhere to put it.
This is where the show really digs into its world and there’s some gripping, surprising stuff here. Mac frantically reaching out to the only other team they’ve encountered gives you a chance to see just how secure the operation is and how on their own the travellers are. While there are thousands of them in the past, the teams are designed like terrorist cells, keeping to themselves unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Elsewhere the episode does a neat job of putting some major players on the board including Major Gleason, the arrogant Special Forces operator whose original choices led to the newly averted disaster. He’s played by David Lewis, who you last saw in Dirk Gently. Kyra Zagorsky also makes her first appearance this episode, the Helix alum doing wonderfully snarly work as Doctor Delaney. Both of whom we’ll see again…
Directed by Andy Mikita
Written by Tara Armstrong & Mika Collins
Philip takes the spotlight in an episode that explores the consequences of his addiction and his role in the past. Philip is the team historian, essentially a living textbook whose brain has been altered to hold every single piece of information they’ll need. Need money? Philip knows the winner of every sporting event for a century. Need a host? Philip knows who is going to die, when and where, for years.
And he can’t save them all.
Riley Dolman’s laconic, focused presence powers this episode towards a conclusion that won’t surprise you but which does an excellent job of humanising the travelers. The ending demonstrates just how focused they are and just how much they rail against the limitations of their mission. It also provides early, chilling hints of just what the director is. The bleakest episode yet but one of the best.
Directed by Martin Wood
Written by Pat Smith
It’s Stargate Alumni time! Louis Ferreira of Stargate: Universe makes a memorable cameo here as the leader of a more experienced team of travelers. When a traveler op intersects with an FBI bust, his team are badly injured and Mac is forced to not only help him out but prove he’s up to the task of leading his own unit.
It’s a smart move, bringing Ferreira in so early and he’s on typically good form here. What’s smarter is the show’s continuing willingness to show not only how numerous the travelers are but how fractious. This is not the united front of Stargate Command but something closer to 12 Monkeys’ frantic, scrabbling groups of time travelers or the complex futures of The Sarah Conner Chronicles. It’s also as impressive as those two shows and the episode continues to nicely deepen the mythos of the show.
Directed by Martin Wood
Written by Brad Wright
After a fantastic, and chilling, open sequence, the episode sets you up and knocks you DOWN. A bottle show taking place almost entirely in one set, it gives Mac’s team a chance to shine as they’re captured by an unknown force. The vast majority of the episode is nothing but them being questioned by a sinister set of TV recordings. It is, flat out, the most chilling hour of TV you’ll see in months. The 12 Monkeys comparison in particular really digs in and you get a real sense of just how alien, and dangerous, these people are. Also Abrahamson gets to really cut loose as Trevor this episode and he’s brilliant. The contradiction between this formal, wry and completely disciplined old man and the young Jock whose life he’s taken over is fascinating and Abrahamson sells it every single moment he’s on screen.
Directed by Helen Shaver
Written by Rebecca Hales
The season finale! Kind of! We discover that the team’s primary mission in the 21st is to convert Delaney’s antimatter reactor into a laser that will knock an asteroid off course. If they fail, millions die. If they succeed, they save the world.
The world they are now trapped in…
The episode does an excellent job of continuing the show’s two strongest threads; the more than slightly disturbing manner in which the travelers arrive and the team’s own personal lives. Marcy and David are especially good fun as is Trevor’s new-found Zen and decency. These people could make lives here. They don’t have much choice about it though and that bothers them more than they’re letting on.
This all dovetails into a running gun battle with Gleason’s forces that sees a whole bunch of special forces OAPs get killed (this is an ODD show by the way) and an ending that has to be seen to be believed. It’s a slow build and when you realise what’s going on it is genuinely terrifying. You will never look at polite old ladies who like turning keys the same way again.
Directed by Helen Shaver
Written by SB Edwards & Ashley Park & Pat Smith & Jason Whiting
The team all struggle to deal with the side effects of a drug they needed to take for the previous mission. Or, to put it another way, Mac Is The WORST, Part 6. McCormack does a great job as the series lead precisely because he shows us just what a hot mess Mac is. Here he screws up a surprise party, makes his wife believe he’s having an affair (he kind of is), hallucinates his wife from upstream (who may be Carly) and generally is a liability. With a gun. And powers of arrest.
Meanwhile, Carly flashes back to the interrogation from “Room 101”, Trevor finds out just how much of an asshole he used to be and Philip has the best day he’s had since he got back. Canadian TV frequent flyer Ian Tracey is wonderful as Philip’s cheerfully scuzzy lawyer and he’s on top, crumpled form here. The ending, which has him, Philip and Trevor all individually make quietly important choice is really sweet and a series highlight. Also we would watch a “Philip and Trevor room together” sitcom.
Directed by Will Waring
Written by Ashley Park & Pat Smith
Jason Grey-Stanford is this week’s guest Traveler, although anyone expecting his cheerful turn from Monk again is going to be horribly traumatised. Opening with a fun, if somewhat gratuitous sequence with the team all talking to camgirls, the episode reveals they were all scheduled to be killed by a stalker with a pipebomb. The new team will download into them and the stalker who will diffuse the bomb.
As Mac and the others scramble to track him down and work out what went wrong, the episode neatly explores the pressures of this impossible job. The final payoff; that he simply chose this over the future and let his team die, is brilliant and disturbing. It’s made even more so by the reveal on just what’s going on in another of the show’s clever, and chilling, sequences. It seems likely almost all the thousands of travellers are in this one particular city and Mac and the others may know far more of them than they think… A smart episode with a strong guest cast and a great turn from Grey-Stanford in particular. It’s much smarter than it first looks, sets up future plotlines and revisits old ones. Really great stuff.
Directed by Will Waring
Written by Amanda Smith
Carly struggles to defend her child and her visiting rights and Mac is given a very odd assignment. The first half of the episode continues the focus on the domestic plotlines and does a good job of it. Nesta Cooper is great as Carly and the way the two versions of her, her future self and her present reality, combine is very nicely handled.
However, the episode is dominated by the horrific situation Mac finds himself in. As does Kat because remember, Mac Is The WORST. The final sequence is the most tense the show has been so far, a frantic scrabble of invention combined with the real horror of a disaster they can’t avert but that has already gone wrong. The ending in particular is a fantastic cliffhanger.
Directed by Andy Mikita
Written by Jason Whiting & SB Edwards
Aaaaand this episode throws it all away for a pat medical solution and a lot of what looks like budget-saving running around a warehouse. After nearly dying in the plane crash, Mac is cared for by a team of dedicated medical travelers. This involves a huge amount of disappointingly off-the-peg character development for Kat and Mac and the rest of the team having very little to do besides sit around and look worried. McCormack and Cairns do their best but this feels like it’s running in place and loses pretty much all the momentum from the previous episode.
Directed by Andy Mikita
Written by Jason Whiting
Thankfully this is MUCH better. It’s Trevor’s turn to go off book as he realises that his school counsellor is about to be killed and tries to save her life. It goes very very badly.
Elsewhere, we learn that numbers equate to seniority here and meet Traveler 0014 who has been sent back to help Marcy by essentially rebooting her. This will wipe everything she’s experienced, including her burgeoning relationship with David.
A lesser show would spend the episode with the pair of them debating the issue. Travelers is crueller than that and the issue is resolved in a way that’s as fast as it is horrific. MacKenzie Porter and Patrick Gilmore turn in their best work of the season here, with Gilmore in particular doing a great job of showing a decent man pushed far past his limits.
Their plot demonstrates the human cost of the project, but it’s Jennifer Spence who gets to have the fun. Ms Day’s transformation into the duplicitous and fast-talking 0014 is glorious and she gets all the best lines this time out. Plus, as we find out next episode, Mac and his team have been having quite an effect on the future…
Directed by Amanda Tapping
Written by Ashley Park
David and Marcy do their best to deal with the reboot, while Carly’s attempts to reconcile with Jeff take a very odd turn when someone tries to kill her…
There is a lot here that’s brilliant. We get some really solid answers as to what’s going on, evidence that the team have changed the future, answers for who kidnapped them and Mac finally gets called on being The Worst. Which he is.
But there’s so much going on that the episode sprints to fit it all in. The divisions in the team in the closing sequence seem forced and Ellis, who was weird and charming last episode, is little more than a plot point here. Worse, he’s one that gets in the way of much more interesting elements. Carly’s slow-burn plot pays off here in a way that’s completely horrifying and absolutely justified and we really wanted to see more of it. Instead, we get shouting in a barn.
That being said, this is going to be a very different show next season because there is no way that Mac (who is, remember The Worst) can talk his people out of the bust. Everything is going to be out in the open and everyone who’s still alive is going to be in the doghouse. So while the episode feels a little crammed, we have to admit it’s a hell of a way to close the season.
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