When it comes to NBC’s Timeless, the past is the future… With their upcoming time-travel epic, executive producers Eric Kripke (of Supernatural fame) and Shawn Ryan (of The Shield and just about every other police procedural you’ve ever loved) promise a return to the kind of ambitious network TV adventure that was once the domain of Quantum Leap, Sliders, and ’80s cult fave Voyagers. More ambitious in both the breadth of its historical settings than Syfy’s Twelve Monkeys or Outlander and volume (with twenty-two episodes per season), the show, as its execs explained today at TCA, will offer swashbuckling fun while maintaining a strict adherence to the rules it establishes for its characters; and the tragic repercussions should those rules be broken.
Today at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, Kripke and Ryan were joined by Matt Lanter (who plays military man Wyatt Logan), Abigail Spencer (who portrays historian Lucy Preston), and Malcolm Barrett (whose Rufus is the scientific genius). The trio form the crew of “The Lifeboat”, a second-rate time machine with which they are forced to chase after the villainous Garcia Flynn (played by Goran Visnjic), when he steals a sleek state-of-the-art model and takes off with the intent to rewrite U.S. history.
“Eighty percent” says Kripke of the show’s structure, “is story of the week; and at the edges – the beginnings and end of episodes — we’ll have ongoing stuff. But it’s important this doesn’t become [too] serialized. This show is more like Back to the Future than Twelve Monkeys.”
Ryan adds that the show won’t see much of its action play out in the present day, but rather explore a variety of famous historical settings — “going back to assassination of President Lincoln to World War II to the Alamo to the day we landed on the Moon.” That, he says, is “the heart and core of our show.”
Perhaps the show’s biggest challenges will be faced by Rufus, who, as an African-American, isn’t greeted warmly by Americans in many periods of U.S. history. “We have to play it realistically and not sugarcoat it,” says Kripke of the obstacles awaiting Rufus. “He’s going to face all sorts of racism… So much of history as we know it is the history of rich white dudes. There’s so much untold history from a minority perspective, and from a female perspective. We want to tell not just the history we all know but fresh history that isn’t dusty and isn’t a school lesson but is violent and exciting and allows us to make commentary on issues that are relevant today.”
“He’s this kid from the west side of Chicago who’s also a scientist,” says Barrett of Rufus. “My character doesn’t even want to leave his desk when we fist meet him. I represent the more everyman character even though I’m the genius. Whereas Lucy is the historian and Wyatt is this solider, I’m the one who doesn’t want to be there… There’s nothing more interesting than the person who doesn’t want to be there.”
As for just how far back the show’s protagonists will travel, Ryan tells us, “I don’t think we’re gonna see the building of the Pyramids. Right now the farthest we go back is the 1750s, the French-Indian War. I don’t think we want to end up in medieval castles or the Colosseum in Rome. Yet! Talk to me in season 3.”
One of the rules set forth by the show is that its heroes also cannot visit their own past…
“Certainly for any time in the foreseeable future you cannot go to any time that you exist,” says Kripke. “It’s designed to keep a certain self-enclosed simplicity to it. They also can’t go back and redo the Hindenburg… It’s like Quantum Leap — after the Hindenburg you cant go back to Hindenburg… It forces you to keep moving forward.”
“We look at our timeline as one continuous timeline,” says the showrunner. “Any change piles up. In the pilot there’s a pretty seismic change to history that’s not gonna happen with every episode to present the stakes of what would happen if they fail… It’s this seismic chance in history but it’s completely personal and completely emotional. It’s always better to go deep than to go big. The changes aren’t necessarily gonna be T-rexs with swastika armbands stepping down 5th Avenue. But it will be more about who was supposed to be born that wasn’t born. We want it to be accessible and not overly brain-twisty, [and] to have a bigger affect on our heroes because it will put them in more pain.”
“When I came into this project,” laughs Spencer, “the way they sold it to me was they said, ‘You will never be bored.’ What I’m most interested in is the mystery that’s gonna be revealed over time.”
Regarding his conflicted veteran Wyatt, Manter remarks, “We’ve talked about what motivates him. He’s lost his wife. You’re gonna see that come into play. A big part of Wyatt is what’s meant to be and what things you can change. Even though he’s mission-oriented, being military, he’s gonna struggle with that. ‘Do I follow this mission or deviate from this mission and follow what’s in my heart?’ The audience is gonna follow that with us.”
Of course time-travel connoisseurs may be most interested in the the Lifeboat’s design…
“For us it was really a tale of two time machines,” explains Kripke. “What we wanted was a really slick, modern, fantastic one that the antagonist steals, leaving our heroes with a piece of shit. We talked a lot about the difference between Wall-e and Eve in the movie Wall-E. The slick one is beautiful, but I think the Lifeboat is where my affection is. It’s like the Millennium Falcon. Because it’s the underdog, you really root for it. I think its gonna become a character in the show.”
Timeless premieres on NBC on October 3rd.
Are you a time-travel fan? What do you thing of Timeless? Let us know below!