DeFlip Side #175: Tuning In to Time Travel

DeFlip Side #175: Tuning In to Time Travel.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.

It’s a good time to be a time travel fan. For the first time in recent memory — maybe for the first time ever — there are three shows on major networks about time travel. And they’re three good shows.

Gone are the days when time travel fanatics would have to cling to time-hopping anomalies such as Quantum Leap, like lifebuoys in sea of linear mediocrity. The 2016 TV season has seen the premiere of Timeless on NBC, Frequency on The CW, and the return of Legends of Tomorrow, also on The CW.

I spoke about Legends a few months ago, so let’s focus on Timeless and Frequency.

Of the three, Timeless is the most conventional, both in terms of network mentality and its approach to time travel. The premise is very basic: a brilliant scientist builds a secret time ship, and on the eve of its maiden voyage, villains break into the lab, kidnap the scientist, and hijack the ship for purposes unknown.

So the government puts together an unlikely team of misfits to track the thieves through time and save history. Enter the main cast — which again, smacks of network executive show notes. There’s the plucky and independent female historian Lucy Preston, the ruggedly handsome military tactician Wyatt Logan, and the brilliant but socially awkward techie of all trades Rufus Carlin.

And the show goes all Time Tunnel, with what amounts to a weekly tour of history’s greatest hits. So far the team has been to the Hindenburg disaster, the Lincoln assassination, Vegas in the swinging 60s, World War II Germany, and the Alamo.

This kind of broad historical time travel fell out of favor after Voyagers! went off the air, replaced by shows that focused on more recent history. Quantum Leap only went as far back as the early 50s; Life on Mars was stuck in the 70s; Seven Days only went back — well, you see what I mean.

So Timeless takes something old, and makes it new again. And it actually does so very well. There are a couple of reasons for that. First off, it’s now possible to portray any time period realistically, even on a TV budget. That was a huge stumbling block for shows like Time Tunnel and Voyagers!, which just looked fake — a cavalcade of bad sets intercut with grainy old stock footage. Conversely, I have no problem believing that Lucy, Wyatt and Rufus are fleeing from a flaming Hindenburg that’s falling right on top of them.

And every time the team comes back from a mission, the history that they know – and that we know – has changed. Their personal lives change in unexpected ways as well. It’s a funny thing to praise in a show about time travel, but I admire the Timeless writers for pushing against their network shackles and embracing the complexities inherent in the genre.

It’s the same with Frequency. The new CW show is based on the 2000 film, starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, where the aurora borealis somehow reaches Queens, and makes it possible for a son to talk to his dad in the past over an old ham radio.

The series has the same basic premise: After a bolt of magic lightning strikes her ham radio antenna, present day police detective Raimy Sullivan can suddenly speak to her dad Frank in 1996. Frank is a cop who got killed on the job when Raimy was a girl. So of course she saves him. But once she does, history changes and her mother Julie is murdered by a serial killer in 1997. So Raimy and Frank work together across time to try and stop the killer and save Julie.

Frequency is essentially a police procedural. But it takes that most mundane of TV genres and blows it up with mind-bending time travel. The changes mount at a furious pace, with Raimy’s reality shifting out from under her as Frank alters the past. It never stops to over-explain things. It just jumps all over the place and trusts the viewers to follow. And in addition to leaning into all this cool, geeky stuff, Frequency is extremely well-written. The characters are realistic and likable, and while it sometimes goes a bit heavy on the 90s emo soundtrack, it never devolves into a mawkish millennial nostalgia fest.

But even better than all of this, Timeless, Frequency and Legends all present different models of time travel.

Timeless uses the traditional cause and effect approach. If the team changes something in the past, it becomes the established history that everyone has always remembered. Frequency takes the complete opposite tack. Frank and Raimy are progressing through time concurrently — only 20 years removed. So if Frank changes something on November 4, 1996 at 11:42 p.m., Raimy won’t experience the effects of that change until 11:42 p.m. on November 4, 2016. And Legends of Tomorrow takes the Back to the Future approach, where changes take time to become permanent and can be averted once begun.

All of which is a long way of saying there are now three different ways to nerd out over time travel on TV every week — and that’s not even counting the show 12 Monkeys on SyFy, which I hear has its own unique approach to the genre.

In any event, I’m having such a good time watching Frequency that I’m doing a weekly podcast about it, called the Frequency TV Podcast. My co-host Jessie Neumann is as big a time travel fan as I am, so while we discuss everything about Frequency — good and bad — it’s mainly the both of us geeking out over the different ways the show manages to play with its time travel premise and compound its shifting realities. We’ve also gotten some cool cast interviews. If that sounds like something you’d like to listen to, subscribe to the Frequency TV Podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Please listen, and join us in the conversation.

Better yet, start a podcast of your own, and I’ll join your conversation. The more we talk about and support this kind of programming, the more of it we’re likely to see. It’s in our power to shape the future according to our designs; we don’t need to hijack a time ship to do it.

But that sure would make a cool TV show.