At its heart, the first season of Timeless was an adventure serial wherein its characters explore a new era every week. Although there was an overarching conspiracy knitting all of the plots together, most of the episodes had the formula of the team is plucked away from their life to go on another mission where they try to catch the antagonist before he can significantly alter the timeline, and inevitably narrowly miss apprehending him while nonetheless saving the day in the end. Minor changes occur in each episode, but overall, history goes as we generally expect it to.
Of course, sometimes this formula does get stale or bogged down in the greater conspiracy plot, while other times the characters’ own personal histories get in the way of the adventure. Nonetheless, the writers manage to balance all of the various plot threads so that the pacing of the series is never too slow. With only 13 episodes, it feels tight and intriguing. This is an advantage that shorter series have compared to those that have to stretch their seasons to 22 episodes. They get to trim the fat out of the season and keep only the meatiest portions.
On the other hand, Timeless is still an adventure serial – it would have worked with a longer season as well. There are always new time periods to explore!
The basic plot of the series is three unlikely team members are recruited to retrieve a stolen time machine. As the series progresses, a greater conspiracy is revealed until finally, the main characters really don’t know who to trust.
The series raises a lot of questions that merit discussion. For one, the age-old question of “is history exactly as it occurred worth preserving?” Would it be wrong to go back in time to fix a perceived problem? Would it be right for a government or corporation to have the ability to go back in time at their whim in order to benefit themselves? What about to benefit humanity overall? Or portions of it?
At what point does time travel stop being a fun toy?
Other questions that the series raises are about history itself, namely pointing out how badly women and anyone who wasn’t white was treated until very recently. The trio consists of a white female historian as the nominal lead (since she understands the time periods best), a black male technician & pilot, and a white male soldier who would once have been considered the automatic hero. In most of the eras that they visit, it is he who has to do the talking, even if he is the least qualified to do so. The series confronts these inequities immediately, starting in the first episode when the pilot has to ride in the back of the bus and wait outside while his colleagues meet a contact. The historian has to feed the soldier information so that he can hold discussions with people who don’t take the historian seriously.
However, I do take issue with how automatically everyone assumes that they need to save America and that American history is inevitably important. Whether it is winning the Mexican-American War (when the pilot outright questions why they are supporting a slave-owning society over a society where slavery was illegal, as it was in Mexico in the 1840s), or whether it is making sure the rebels win the Revolutionary War, there is little assumption that “America” is not worth saving. The pilot’s aforementioned question is met with “how can you even ask that?” Yes, the audience is assumed to be American and love America, but they do need to ask themselves if they were always right.
Because they weren’t. The United States and its Manifest Destiny cast a dark shadow over North America in the nineteenth century, along with the Caribbean and the South Pacific. It was lethal for indigenous peoples. In the twentieth century, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Americans deposed democratically-elected governments, staged coups, backed rebels, and did everything in their power to fight anything perceived to be communism – even to the point of destroying sovereign nations. In other words, nothing that their European predecessors didn’t do, but with higher-grade weapons and a greater hypocrisy, because they did so under guise of promoting democracy and freedom.
Obviously, this is not what anyone in America today wants to have discussed on a lighthearted adventure show. They get points for bringing up these questions, but they seriously cannot contemplate an alternate world without the America that it is today. It would be terrifying – a dystopia that they are supposed to fix.
Finally, the show primarily focuses on individuals. Namely, is it worth changing the past – and potentially destroying thousands of individuals’ lives – to save one person? The show never quite decides if this is a good idea or not, or if it is a selfish decision that our heroes and villains are nonetheless commended for trying.
I am glad that they are getting a second season, albeit a short one. I hope that they can resolve and explore some of these questions. But if not, at least I hope it is at least some more good fun adventure.