Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Rare Misfire From Netflix Television: Why Travelers Season 1 Fails To Satisfy

The Good: Moments of performance, One or two conceptual moments
The Bad: Highly flawed initial concept, Characters who are virtually impossible to empathize with, Predictable moments, Inconsistent direction/writing
The Basics: Travelers is a conceptual mess with a middling execution that makes for one of Netflix's rare shows not worth bothering with.

Netflix clearly hates critics like me. Netflix probably does not know I exist, but at the end of the year, Netflix is dumping a whole lot of original content. The same day Netflix dropped the first season of Troll Hunters, they released the first season of Travelers, which came on the heels of the return of Sense8 and another mysterious, bingeworthy season of television just a week prior. I have no idea what next week will bring from Netflix, but today it's Travelers Season 1! Sadly, it was a complete waste of time.

Travelers Season 1 is a twelve episode science fiction/crime drama with an ambitious premise; five people's consciousnesses are sent back in time to override the bodies of individuals moments before they originally died. The five Travelers are utilizing the technology in order to change the bleak future that resulted in humanity being almost wiped out. Complications, however, ensue when their missions lead to unexpected results or the lives of the host bodies force the operatives from the future to interact with people off-mission.

Opening with Marcy (a mentally-challenged woman), Carly (an abuse victim), Trevor (a high school student who is in a fight club), and Philip (an intravenous drug user) having their bodies possessed in the second before they were about to die, the new personas inhabiting their bodies adapt to life in the past. They communicate with one another using the deep web and, in the process, raise red flags at the F.B.I. F.B.I. agent Grant MacLaren, who is monitoring a would-be shooter, is given the case of finding out what is going on with the deep web communications. In getting to the abandoned building bought by Philip for the Travelers to use, MacLaren is told the truth about the travelers moments before his body is possessed, during a blackout when his host body was set to die.

The new team is given subcutaneous communicators and sent to stop an antimatter explosion. But when the team successfully acquires the antimatter before the Traveler assigned to properly dispose of it dies from causes other than what was recorded, the team has to create a new plan to save the world. Philip, guilt-ridden over the death of a person who died during the same incident that led to his possession and drug-addled, starts to feel intensely guilty and starts to make changes outside the mission protocols. Philip's actions endanger the mission for all the right reasons, but force the Travelers to accept that they are not supposed to save or take lives that are not part of a mission. When MacLaren's team encounters a messenger who tells them to aid another team, they learn that there are other factions; Travelers who have "gone native" in the past and side projects of their own. But after MacLaren's team is abducted by an unknown faction, the Travelers come together to stop the major calamity of the era; using the antimatter to power a laser to reroute an asteroid that would otherwise begin an environmental disaster that creates the bleak future. But when the primary mission appears to be a success, MacLaren and his team are left in play in the world and receive news that the future has not gotten better, which keeps them active trying to fight the future!

The basic plot of Travelers is inherently problematic. The idea of multiple Traveler teams working in the past independent of one another makes it ridiculous that they would not alter the timeline such that their origin point in the future would no longer exist. In other words, changing historic events like defusing a massive antimatter bomb would have massive repercussions in the timeline; several such incidents would reasonably accumulate such that the future from which the consciousnesses came would no longer exist. Even Jeff Jr. being raised by his mother instead of Jeff or being a ward of the state would have a ripple effect that would reasonably resonate up into the future. The most basic temporal mechanics would indicate that in order for Travelers to work, the future operatives must be sent by an organization working within a pocket universe that would remain unaltered by the changes operatives made; the show makes no such note. Instead, operatives even after the primary mission is achieved seem to know about Helios and suggest that the work of the Travelers has made the future even worse!

The Travelers are all sent by The Director and it does not take long into the first season before viewers begin to reasonably suspect that The Director is not necessarily a good guy. The show utilizes a number of reversals to attempt to remain interesting, but most of the reveals are more predictable than truly shocking.

Beyond that, the tone never quite works in the first season of Travelers; the sense of hopelessness makes it hard to root for the protagonists and the oblique references to the horrible future are a poor substitute for actually seeing it.

But more than that, Travelers fails to work because it is both imprecise and it has failsafes built into the narrative. First, Philip is saved from injecting himself with a lethal dose of heroin at the precisely right moment, which works for the concept of Travelers, but not for any sense of realism. Coroners who create a time of death for drug overdoses are unlikely to be able to come up with such an exact time of death as they do for Philip (especially given that he and his friend are basically most likely to be found after days of being dead given how they have no one active in their lives). Second, Marcy the team's medical specialist; how could she not have known that using Marcy as a host would likely have severe medical liabilities given how severely disabled the host body was?! Finally, none of the new personalities are so different that the personas are not able to pass in the lives of their hosts?! While that could indicate that the operatives were trained exceptionally well, details like Grant not knowing the name his host calls his wife around the house seem to indicate the contrary.

The failsafes in Travelers make the entire narrative appear utterly ridiculous. Travelers are able to get messages from the future at any time in the form of temporarily-controlled hosts. These temporary hosts have no memory of their actions and basically experience blackouts while they deliver messages to the Travelers. Instead of using a whole network of would-be dead people to create devices and be in specific places at specific times to accomplish tasks, temporarily using a massive network of people who are in the right place at the right time would have eliminated all of the human error that plagues the first season of Travelers. The Director isn't a brilliant savior bent on saving the world or a mad dictator who wants to control time; he's an idiot who uses the tools at his disposal incredibly poorly and without any true understanding of human nature.

In the first season of Travelers, the essential characters are:

Grant MacLaren - The team leader and last to arrive, he suddenly finds himself with a wife of eleven years in his new present. He has a relationship with Carly and has trouble juggling his mission from the future with his suspicious and efficient FBI partner, Forbes. He begins to develop actual feelings for his wife, even though he was passionately in love with Carly (whomever she actually was!) in the future. To that end, he becomes willing to even sacrifice his own life for Kat's,

Carly Shannon - MacLaren's right hand and the security expert of the Traveler cell, she has assumed the body of a woman with a baby at home and an abusive police officer who keeps coming back home. Having survived the beating that would have killed her, she completes her first mission only to return home to find her son, Jeffrey Jr. abducted by Jeff. Her son soon becomes a liability to her as she develops feelings for him. After completing the primary mission, she becomes mired in retaining custody over her baby,

Marcy - Instantly makes David, her case worker, suspicious when she is able to speak like a normal adult when her host body was developmentally disabled her entire life. She turns to David for help during her transition to the past and shows her former caseworker a level of affection he is not comfortable with. She is a doctor who is able to diagnose the problems of her host body and to win David's trust, she shares some of her knowledge of historical events. As soon as the primary mission is over, she attempts to distance herself from her cell and she works hard to save David's job, arguably because she needs him to help manage her medical care. She turns to Philip when David pushes her away,

Trevor - A high schooler now, he is able to pass off the memory loss from his possession as the result of a concussion he suffered while fighting in his would-be death. He is much nicer than his host's persona; his girlfriend, Rene, is a bully. He has experience with being tortured and tries to keep his teammates safe and collected when they are captured. He is the philosophical core of the Traveler team, but his life is complicated by trying to squeeze his missions in around his high school experience and combating the lowered expectations people have for his host with his own impressive abilities,

Philip - Suffers from severe withdrawal given that his body was formerly occupied by an intravenous drug user. He gets out of his first jam by giving his compulsive gambler public defender information on some surprising wins. He plays the lottery in order to get the money needed to buy a base of operations for the group to meet. He has extensive knowledge of the potential Traveler candidates. He is a brilliant strategic thinker, but in getting his host body off drugs, he starts to become addicted. He is quickly manipulated by Ray, the public defender, for money,

and David - A determined and caring social worker, he tries very hard to maintain a professional boundary with Marcy when her i.q. suddenly doubles. His job is threatened when his boss learns Marcy has been staying with him, but he is bailed out by her. He is unable to live platonically with Marcy when she suddenly evolves. He is highly ethical and a devoted social worker.

The characters do not truly pop, though, and Travelers Season 1 is plagued by characters who are virtually impossible to empathize with. Who lives? Who dies? Who cares?! Such is the plague of Travelers; it is tough to actually care because there is no emotional root with the primary characters. By the time Trevor takes a stand to save someone off-book (already done long before that in the narrative with Philip!), the viewer doesn't actually care what happens to his character (or the others).

Travelers features some interesting details about the future, but they are very inconsistently executed. MacLaren is shocked by cow's milk, implying that - like Eobard Thawne's future on The Flash - cows have died out in the future. The future does not have underwear and the people who have survived are vegans. The Travelers have a hierarchy under The Director and there are protocols in place preventing Travelers from contacting other cells and MacLaren slips and references "caffeine rations" when talking about getting coffee, but none of the characters ever slip and refer to each other by the names of their pre-Traveling, future, characters. What is an even better technical detail is that Travelers have their own vernacular that slips out from time to time, though that is incredibly inconsistent as well.

By the fifth episode, Travelers works to make the characters and the future relevant when the protagonists (save MacLaren) are captured. The capture episode is beautifully-filmed, but lacks emotional resonance because the viewer does not care about the characters.

On the performance front, Travelers is presented as an Eric McCormack vehicle, but the truth is, he plays very much one note the whole season and it is an unsurprising one based on his role from the second season of Dead Like Me (reviewed here!). The two superlative performances in the first season of Travelers come from Patrick Gilmore and Reilly Dolman. I recently saw Gilmore in No Men Beyond This Point (reviewed here!) and more than just him growing a beard, his performance as David sells the viewer on his raw ability. There is not a hint of his milquetoast character from the other film in his portrayal of David, despite having some similar character traits!

Reilly Dolman was completely new to me. Dolman plays Philip and his performance is exceptional. Dolman plays drug-addled amazingly well. More than that, though, he transitions incredibly into the genius his character is supposed to be and his ability to change his entire body language makes Philip the character to watch!

But even Dolman's performance is not enough to land Travelers a recommendation. The show is sloppy and ill-conceived and it is just enough to make viewers believe that Netflix is performing an "end of the year dump" of material it could not successfully sell at other times.

For other works from the 2016 – 2017 television season, please check out my reviews of:
"A Christmas Special" - Sense8
The OA - Season 1
Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life
"Invasion!" - Arrow
"The Laws Of Inferno Dynamics" - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
"Flashpoint" - The Flash
"The Chicago Way" - Legends Of Tomorrow
"The Adventures Of Supergirl" - Supergirl
Luke Cage - Season 1
Stranger Things - Season 1


For other movie and television reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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