Time travel. It’s a fun sub-genre of science fiction when it’s done right. NBC and the CW have dueling sci-fi series entering the Primetime line-up beginning this month. On Mondays, NBC airs Timeless, a story about a historian, a computer expert and a soldier acting as timecops as they try to correct changes in history via a time machine in pursuit of another–stolen–time machine. On Wednesdays the CW airs Frequency, based on the 2000 sci-fi sleeper and cult movie starring Dennis Quaid. Both are from the creative minds of Supernatural showrunners, and both series began this week with powerful openers. We think both are worth adding to your weekly watch list. The challenge will be maintaining their respective concepts for a full season.
Timeless hails from Supernatural creator Eric Kripke and The Shield creator Shawn Ryan. Abigail Spencer leads the cast as a historian much like you’d find in a Connie Willis novel, pulled into a secret time travel project. Someone (Goran Visnjic) kidnapped a scientist played by genre favorite Matt Frewer, and Homeland Security, including a smartly cast agent played by Sakina Jaffrey (Sleepy Hollow, Mr. Robot), enlists Spencer’s character, an insider IT guy (Malcolm Barrett) and soldier/protector (Matt Lanter) to find them–in the past. Compared to Star Trek and Doctor Who this show is Time Travel Lite–no complex knowledge or thought required. The time travel prime directive seems to be that the timecops cannot travel into a time in which they previously existed. So no do-overs.
You can’t beat a nicely done re-creation of the Hindenburg disaster. Even better, a re-imagining revealing the disaster never occurred. Timeless didn’t waste any time, starting off with a single episode story focused on a historic event and it appears that will be the draw of each episode. We saw elements of TimeCop, Timeline, Continuum, Quantum Leap, Doctor Who, Terminator, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow in the first episode alone. It works and it’s fun. There’s something adventuresome about Timeless in a Young Indiana Jones vein. Timeless did miss one opportunity here: Why not begin with the Hindenburg crashing on a false historic date and then land on the real date of the disaster for the ending? That would have been a heck of a trick, but it shows much more can be threaded into this series. We know from Star Trek and Doctor Who that time travel is twisty and full of possibilities. Timeless needs to embrace what its savvy audience already knows–and keep the focus on the fun.
Where Timeless is lighter, action-oriented and fun, Frequency is a darker crime drama more grounded in procedural Primetime TV. Both series have consequences. Timeless is about changing major events in history, while Frequency runs on a more personal level: the impact of changing seemingly small events in the past on a woman and her parents. The entire series for Frequency seems to be about an unsolved series of murders that coincide with a freak event involving a cop, the show’s lead, played by Peyton List, who turns on her deceased father’s ham radio and miraculously is able to speak with him (courtesy of an electric storm on her birthday). Co-star Riley Smith plays her father, an undercover cop who was killed under questionable circumstances back in 1996.
We don’t see much new from the film version in the pilot, as the setup parallels the plot of the film. So where will they go from here? Another Supernatural familiar, executive producer and writer Jeremy Carter, is behind Frequency. Director Brad Anderson nailed the series opener. No wonder for someone who has been at the helm of episodes of great television including Forever, The Man in the High Castle, Fringe, and Almost Human.
The beauty of Frequency is twofold. First, like the original, it’s a solid examination of the relationship between an estranged father and daughter. The story also allows for a buddy cop show across time, with detective work needing to be performed together but separately across the decades, without the two leads ever being actually together. The feel is similar to the excellent but short-lived Jason Isaacs series Awake, where Isaacs was a cop solving cases in two parallel timelines.
Timeless and Frequency have their own parallels. You could swap out the main cast members between the series and not change much. The stories are very different yet they have the same vibe. The choices of the lead in Frequency results in the elimination in the timeline of her relationship with her fiance, while the choices of the lead in Timeless results in her gaining a fiance she never had in the previous timeline. It’s all clever and fun.
Watch Timeless Monday nights on NBC at 9 p.m. Central and Frequency Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. Central on the CW Network.
I like Timeless, but am less enamored of Frequency. The former offers more opportunities for creative individual episodes involving travel to different historic periods. And the overarching storyline makes us wonder who are the villains and who are the heroes. Each episode offers clues to answer that question.
Frequency seems less interesting as a time travel (via radio) program but more interesting as story about reuniting father and daughter. It will be more difficult to find past mysteries (father) that are solved with contemporary assistance (daughter) in order to keep this series plausible. Because father and daughter spend lots of time talking to each other make the difference in time disappears and undercuts the credibility of the production.
BTW The fact that the character played by Mekhi Phifer is a police officer both past and present actually weakens the show rather than strengthens it. I understand why the writers want him as a bridge. But it doesn’t work for me.