Reviews · TV

Netflix’s New Sci-Fi Series Travelers Transports Us to Simpler Times

By  · Published on January 4th, 2017

Old-fashioned television for newfangled viewing habits.

Stranger Things was all about the ’80s. Now, the latest sci-fi series put out by Netflix reminds me of the ’90s. Travelers, which began streaming just before the holidays, is the type of show I would have been into 20 years ago when I’d watch anything science fiction and we had fewer options. It’s a time travel series like Quantum Leap but with tons of leapers all stuck in the present together, and they get messages from the future via temporarily possessed children instead of a hologram Dean Stockwell. It’s only ever as good as the later seasons of Quantum Leap, though, the ones that went for a serial format and villainous counterpart characters but were still only as bad as those of the aimless, hokey, but addictive parallel-universe show Sliders.

Travelers is also a show about nothing. Just not humorously, like Seinfeld. Created by SyFy staple Brad Wright (the Stargate franchise), it follows a team of operatives from a future apparently lacking in plant life, bacon, sunlight, football, and tea, among other dystopian shortcomings. They arrive in the present by transporting their consciousness into the bodies of people about to die anyway and take over their lives. Why they’ve come isn’t exactly clear, not even by the end of the 12 episodes that make up the first season. There is a primary objective to save the world as we know it, though most of the time they’re just hanging around waiting on orders. There’s a small-scale cliffhanger at the end of the finale, but the drive for me to return for another season is a greater curiosity about where the whole thing is going.

After enjoying the rich storytelling of Stranger Things and The OA, I was expecting something equally as satisfying with Travelers, but it’s a very different kind of show. Those and other binge-able favorites from the past year (including non sci-fi, non Netflix series Fleabag and Search Party) offer well-contained, brilliantly thought-out narratives, most of which I’d be fine with not having another season, while this show is relatively barren from episode to episode and doesn’t appear to know its trajectory ahead of time, not for the first season nor for the series as a whole, and could probably keep going and going for as long as it can afford to. And in holding back so much, even if for lack of planning, it ironically feels like something that’s more about reaching whatever destination there will be, rather than appreciating much that’s happening along the way.

Midway through the first season, there seems to finally be a point when the main team – five people inhabiting the skins of formerly unrelated strangers, including an FBI agent played by Eric McCormick, a single mom played by Nesta Cooper, and a junkie played by Reilly Dolman – are tasked with diverting a giant meteor that’s heading towards Earth. But we never see, let alone find out if the mission succeeded. They don’t seem to, either. It’s a plot point that comes and goes with barely a mention afterward. Instead, they are instructed to continue living the lives of the people they now look like, which doesn’t always make sense for the logic of the show. Then again, the show doesn’t follow any set rules for its story, its setting, or its science. Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by it. One thing that can be positively said for Travelers is that it’s never predictable.

Among the more complicated, and also bewildering, elements of the show’s desire to focus on these fish out of water character situations involves the team’s medic (MacKenzie Porter). She has mistakenly been sent into the body of a woman who is intellectually disabled and suffering from seizures. The character winds up staying with her host’s social worker (Patrick Gilmore), and there’s an uncomfortable romantic storyline that develops there. Then, just when we’re maybe getting used to that subplot, it’s literally rebooted – but where it looks like they’re going with the twist is, so far, not the idea that was expected. And that’s fine given that it means we haven’t lost Gilmore, who offers the most enjoyable performance of the regular cast despite playing a one-note character, as written.

There were a few times during the holiday break when I didn’t think I’d continue with Travelers. It’s a show that would be very easily walked away from if not on Netflix, where the next episode automatically begins immediately when the last one ends and where you’re reminded to click back in if you haven’t finished something (that can drive someone like me, who obsessively needs to finish things I’ve started, nuts). Once you realize that the episode-to-episode cliffhangers rarely pay off that substantially, particularly early on when many installments feel absolutely pointless in retrospect, you know better but likely keep going. But it’s not must-see TV. And it’s not binge-worthy TV (it should be noted that in Canada it was aired weekly rather than dropped in one piece). It is mindless, occasionally soapy sci-fi drama that can be watched while you’re wrapping presents or paying bills or folding laundry or whatever.

So I got sucked in to Travelers as my latest show to have on in the background and just slightly pay attention to – any time it seems like it’s getting headier or like you need to pay more attention, it doesn’t actually deserve it. And I can say it gets more interesting after a while, albeit while also getting more convoluted. New characters from the future are introduced, some of them not unlike the evil leaper stuff from Quantum Leap, and that’s a necessary beneficial change after so much time spent on the main five’s repetitive personal issues. Some of these new operatives take over characters we’ve known for a while, too, allowing for a few actors to stretch and deliver completely different personalities with these familiar looking but totally new roles.

Another Show With a Mystery We’ll Probably Never Get Closure On

One thing I hope Travelers never does is show us the future these characters come from. Despite all its faults and the absence of noteworthy elements, the show does have a couple appealing aspects worth sticking it out for, and among them is the fact that we just have to – or get to, as I see it – imagine that dystopia ourselves. It’s possibly the only piece of the show’s puzzle where our perspective and sense of context is less than that of the protagonists. The show could improve. It’s a scruffier production than I want from Netflix at this point, with a bunch of loose and tattered ends all over the place. I think I averaged 10 plot hole questions after every episode. But I don’t need it to be deeper or more than it is. Some people are fine staring blankly at shows like The Bachelor. I’d rather waste my time with something like this.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.