Sunday, November 6, 2016

Unexpected Destinations: Showcase's Travelers

The cast of Travelers, now airing on Showcase in Canada and available soon on Netflix worldwide.

This review contains spoilers for the first episode of Travelers.
Time travel seems to be the genre that keeps on giving this year, with Timeless and Frequency already premiering and Kevin Williamson's new series adaptation of Time After Time still waiting in the wings. And three weeks ago, Canada's Showcase specialty channel (which, well ahead of the current curve, already gave us four strong seasons of Continuum) returns to the time travel trough with Travelers, created by Stargate television franchise co-creator Brad Wright and starring Eric McCormack ( Will & Grace). Like Continuum, Travelers is Canadian through and through. Filmed in Vancouver (though, unlike Continuum, set in an unnamed American city), the main cast is exclusively Canadian – in addition to the Toronto-born McCormack, it includes Medicine Hat's MacKenzie Porter, Mississauga's Nesta Cooper, Flin Flon's mixed-material-artist-turned-actor Jared Abrahamson, Edmonton's Patrick Gilmore, Vancouver's Reilly Dolman, and notably former star of CBC's Da Vinci's Inquest Ian Tracey – with the behind-the-scenes talent drawing from the deep well of similarly Canuck writers and directors.

Travelers premiered on Showcase on October 17 and has aired three episodes so far. Once its 12-episode first season concludes, the show will launch internationally on Netflix, which co-produces the new series. In addition to its exclusive "Netflix originals" – like Stranger Things, House of Cards, Lady Dynamite, Sense8, and its growing catalogue of Marvel shows – Netflix has been venturing more deeply into international co-productions of late, a model whereby the series first airs locally and the streaming service holds all international distribution rights (the same model that gave us the French-produced A Very Secret Service this past summer). Travelers, like CBC's recently-announced Anne of Green Gables adaptation Anne, will air week by week north of the 49th parallel before gracing the small screens of Netflix subscribers worldwide, which means we Canadians have a kind of exclusive preview of the new series.

Set exclusively in our own era, Travelers centres on the experiences of five "travelers" (the story is set in the U.S., so I will forgive, grudgingly, this misspelling), agents sent from a distant future where "humanity has been all but wiped out." They arrive in mind but not in body, using a Quantum Leap-style technology that allows them to send their consciousnesses into host bodies. (Though, unlike in QL, their trips seems both permanent and one-directional.) The hosts are chosen from among those the time and place of whose deaths have been recorded by history, with the traveller arriving just in time to avert their demise. (It is still unclear whether they need an imminent death for the transfer to work, or whether – more likely – it is a moral imperative to avoid hijacking an innocent with more life to lead.) It is implied that there are thousands such travellers all over the world, each group with its own specific missions to perform. The action of Travelers follows this one small cell as they go about their own part in the larger task of saving the world from destruction.

Nesta Cooper  and Eric McCormack in Travelers.

As melodramatic as that might sound, Travelers is refreshingly restrained in its storytelling, focusing just as often on the everyday joys, pains, and minor frustrations of having to live unfamiliar lives, in unfamiliar times. Though they completely take over their host's bodies, they retain none of their host's memories and are forced to depend upon the questionable accuracy of information gathered from news sources and social media in the future, which leads to unanticipated moments of drama and comedy. In between their missions to avert global disaster, Carly (Cooper) struggles as the single mother of an infant, compelled to negotiate soiled diapers and a jealous, often abusive ex-boyfriend, and Trevor (Abrahamson, almost – but not quite – believable as a high school senior) is a teenager caught between disdainful upper-middle-class parents and the socials perils of high school. For all its high-concept conceit, Travelers is at its most compelling when it keeps its focus on the characters and their interactions with one another and with the 21st-century locals.

So far Travelers has offered tantalizingly little about the nature of their mission (and even refreshingly fewer details about the post-apocalyptic future they come from), and it seems even our crew – in true, compartmentalized sleeper-cell fashion – knows only the broad strokes. This not only avoids the Gilligan's Island problem that 12 Monkeys faced in its first season (trying, and inevitably failing, to do "that one big thing that will definitely set things right"); it also gives the series permission to slowly develop the lives that each of our newcomers is living as they build new (to them) friendships and relationships within their respective hosts' lives. Of these relationships, the budding intimacy between MacKenzie Porter's character and David, her caregiver-turned-friend/confidant played by Stargate Universe alum Patrick Gilmore, might in itself make Travelers worth watching.

Time travel stories can sometimes lose themselves among the ouroboric intricacies of temporal mechanics, but Travelers seems more than happy to forgo all the fun of mind-bending paradoxes in order to tell smaller, character-driven stories. McCormack brings his trademarked easy charm into his role as FBI Agent Grant MacLaren – or, more accurately, his role as a consciousness inhabiting the body of Agent MacLaren. McCormack's last TV gig, as the star of TNT's cookie-cutter crime drama Perception, did not do the actor justice – but here, playing the group's de facto leader, he brings all the right levels of good humour and competence. In fact, for body-snatching soldiers from the future, all of our heroes are often surprisingly decent folk, albeit in decidedly exceptional circumstances. One warning: Travelers only really comes into its own with its second episode. The first hour, though intriguing, is also uncharacteristically dour and humourless – though it does establish the show's plot with style and drama, it is less successful in signalling the more nuanced tone of the series as a whole.

The fourth episode of Travelers airs tomorrow night on Showcase in Canada.

– Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture. Mark has been writing for Critics at Large since 2010.

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