The fabric of space-time is fraying this season, as three TV networks send characters backward and forward in time to solve mysteries, alter history, glimpse romance and generally keep things surprising from week to week.
Characters will beam into climactic moments in world and American history, experiencing time travel in both comedy and drama scripts. They’ll find and lose love across the ages, self-consciously note their period wardrobes and explain in chirpy dialog the quantum physics behind their time-traveling powers.
Not least, they’ll provide commentary on the present by sampling the past.
- On Oct. 3, NBC will offer “Timeless, ” about mysterious villains trying to change history and a time-traveling trio who must stop them. (The first episode features the Hindenburg.) The historian in the group is excited to go back in time and experience 1937, but the time machine’s operator is wary, saying, “I am black. There is literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me.” In many ways, “Timeless” addresses current issues of race and gender by placing them in stark relief in a different era.
- At midseason Fox will debut “Making History, ” a comedy about pals who time-travel via a mystical/magical duffel bag. (The first episode involves the American Revolution. “The past smells like doody. There’s poop everywhere.”) The network styles it as “two shows in one, ” bouncing between current day and 1700s Colonial America.
- Also in early 2017, ABC will unveil “Time After Time, ” a sci-fi drama based on the book/movie about H.G. Wells darting through time to stop Jack the Ripper. (In the pilot, Wells beams from 1893 London to present-day Times Square in search of the Ripper.)
Time-travel is a long-honored premise in pop culture. If it’s not wormholes and general relativity theory, it’s crazy scientists stumbling on accidental time machines. In television, where imitation is the sincerest form of programming, it’s no wonder this season is long on era-hopping: Starz’s popular “Outlander, ” which jumps back and forth in time, may provide the best current model. Millennials also have embraced the classic “Dr. Who, ” yet another business reason for this trend. “Legends of Tomorrow” on the CW, and “The Man in the High Castle” on Amazon likewise have proven the continuing popularity of time-travel stories in TV programmer’s terms. (Season 2 of “Man in the High Castle” will debut in 2017.)
We know what TV execs are after, but how would historians or anthropologists explain this cultural itch that Hollywood aims to scratch? What are the deeper reasons we want to escape the current moment?
“Time-travel stories serve a few key purposes, ” said Ingrid Tague, University of Denver associate dean of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences. “For one, many Americans today feel buffeted by larger social forces that they can’t control; there’s a sense that politics, the media, and the economy are all being controlled by “the one percent” or institutions/corporations run by a few individuals that aren’t accessible to ordinary people.”
“Historical events can seem easier to understand and therefore to change than the world we’re currently living in—hence, the old trope of going back in time to kill Hitler, as if World War II and all its horrors were reducible to the existence of that one person, ” Tague said.
“In a world that seems incredibly, depressingly complex, the apparent simplicity of the past is appealing, ” Tague said.
Jodie Krieder, in the DU History Department, said, “for a generation facing an inability to move out of their parents homes, burdened with student loan debt and facing a volatile and frightening political scene, escapism of this sort could be appealing. She thinks it has less to do with an interest in history than with the popularity of fantasy worlds like “Game of Thrones.”
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