I’m starting to grow suspicious: Do Canadians plug into the walls at night? Last year’s Orphan Black blew up critically, but it’s far from the first noteworthy Canadian sci-fi import. Syfy, specifically, has been a genre-immigrant refuge for years. That’s a boon and a bane. Not many people linger on the channel long enough to forget its stigma, let alone seek out its quality programming. Let me make it easier on you: Continuum returns to Syfy on Friday, 10/9c.
The show follows the efforts of Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) to thwart the ambitious and destructive terrorist group Liber8. The hook: Cameron and the terrorists are accidental transplants from the year 2077, where corporations subsidized global debt with the subordination of the world’s governments. That is Kiera’s home, and she wants to get back to it. Liber8 wants to prevent it from ever existing.
That leaves a lot of logistics. But with those largely taken care of, Continuum rises above both the usual fare we find on Syfy and on network television. There are plenty of reasons to be setting your DVRs for Syfy on Fridays, 10/9c. The biggest one is that season three is likely going to double those reasons. Here’s why.
There’s a bit of a geek factor to any science-fiction show. Technology and theoretical science define the genre. How a series approaches those innate elements reveals the sort of show it wants to be. While boy-genius Alec (who has what amounts to a telepathic line to Kiera thanks to technology embedded in her by his future self) can hack into any database or reverse engineer gear sixties years away from existence, the characters constantly turn over the repercussions of a technologized world. The thing about advancement: something always gets left behind. Continuum is ultimately interested more in those ethics than the fictional progress.
The show’s rhetoric toward the Corporations vs. Freedom infrastructure is just as hammy as Liber8’s. It’s unclear if this was intentional at the start, but over the course of Continuum’s increasingly thought-provoking first two seasons, rhetoric takes a backseat to the show’s nuanced portrait of colliding worlds. Kiera comes from a police state governed by CEOs and board members. That may sound Orwellian, but she regards the politics of her time as we regard ours: simply as politics, not dystopia. The collision is not about the obliteration of one perspective, but the slow formation of compromised strengths. The political disconnect encourages us to remain impartial.
The lead role of Kiera Cameron has only gotten more complex as the series continues. Nichols has delivered nuanced performance as a futuristic super cop who is learning, little by little, how to operate inside a history book. The show’s character development can come in waves, but Nichols remains capable of carrying whatever material she’s handed to evocative, substantial places. Plus: She takes down do-badders towering over her like ogres more convincingly than any other actress on television.
Near the end of last season, the writers tasked Nichols with something that had only been a flitter of the show’s subconscious: illuminate the disparity between Kiera’s moral standards and ours. If there ever was a sense of Kiera as the wielder of an enlightened justice, it’s dismissed. She is the show’s hero and her intentions never stray, but the protocol she’s learned for achieving moral rightness can really differ from ours. Eventually, just about every character veers toward moral centrality, a willingness to murder about all that distinguishes who we root against from who we root for.
Continuum works best when its villains display three things: sympathetic motivation, high aptitude, and significant investment in consequence. An early Liber8 member has bigger eyes for luxury and hedonism than revolution. There’s no Doc telling him to return the sports almanac. He funnels his resources to both his old pals and the people working against them. For a while, Liber8 splits into two factions due to a bullet-ridden lovers’ quarrel. The dumped half is still murdering people, but suddenly his mercilessness is tragic. Now we have Freelancers, timespace sentinels whose ostensible purpose of keeping timelines unadulterated. Characters who like everyone, characters who hate each other, characters who like no one: Why does it seem like everyone’s getting yanked around?
A serial-procedural hybrid, the show has a tendency to lay character groundwork and then access it at the plot’s convenience. That’s not to downplay the eventual payoff. The show has the chops to arc out and climax long-term character arcs. Kiera spending an episode persuading her hardware to unlock itself after she loses it over missing her son is a series highlight. But Continuum also has a knack for building isolated emotion with minimal screen dedication. The way Kiera’s memories of the future, which open and are present throughout each episode, interact with the present drives many of the young series’s high marks. We know Kiera’s sister for a total of six minutes. Those last moments are nonetheless wrenching.
Serial television demands our trust. Some shows earn it, some feel entitled to it. Continuum seems glib about it. It’s like a shiny new thrill ride you realize all too late may literally kill you, ever near disaster but never providing those headlines. Isn’t this what you want, it asks. Here, the turning points are swift and many. But the characters’ common concerns—family, integrity, duty—ground the show in its people. The show mirrors their concerns with the physical minutia of the “solutions” on which the characters fixate. The piece of the time traveling machine Kiera safeguards is the size of a peach slice. The device itself is no bigger than a softball—yet it brings down a fusion reactor. In a show whose title implies infinity, the small can devastate the large.
Jon Cassar’s touch lingers. Having directed a third of 24 and half of the coming miniseries, Cassar set the tone in the first two episodes for how Continuum would break knuckles. There’s television action like The Blacklist, with its stakeless brutality and empty menace, and then there’s Continuum. Bullets fly deliberately. Helicopter chases resemble reality. Magazine reloads do occur and do not break the pace. For a show thriving on its self-made terms of reality, consequential, rigorous action keeps the show looking like something we can buy into.
Let’s be clear: Much of the mythology is yet budding. Alec and other time travel-savvy contemporaries have postulated many a possibility of the rules of time travel. Creator Simon Barry has said the writers have a method for bending time-space. That order has seemed present from the start. The show keeps the characters a safe distance away from the scientific fabric actually surrounding them. They guess and sometimes they discover, but no one—not those from the future or those geniuses in the present—seems privy to the truth. This subdues the world-building, making the show’s reality a collection of hidden truths waiting to be revealed by its characters and to its character.
Last season’s finale gave us one of the show’s best scenes. And it gave it to us right before it cut away for seven months. (To avoid spoilers and undercutting the very point of this article, I’ll avoid specific detail.) The writers twist the meaning of images they’d already shown us, implicating not only the meaning of those images, the episode, or the season, but the series as it’s been understood so far. “Second Time” achieves something rare: It disorients us both of what we’ve seen and what we expect to, yet enhances rather than damages that now untrustworthy experience.
Continuum has yet to betray our curiosity. Topsy-turvy plotting runs the risk of spinning out of control, but Berry and crew handle it well. Just when we think the season two finale has sprung its big narrative reveal, it undercuts the very reality of Continuum’s narrative. The characters have never truly known how things work. We thought we did, in pieces. Kiera’s always wanted to return to her family. Alec’s had to keep her honest: Is time travel an exercise of destiny or the butterfly effect? “Second Time” suggests neither. There may in fact be layers of repetition and change that evade any linear confines we and these characters, one way or another, place time-space into. Hello, Continuum.
If you want just one reason to watch this show, take the final frames of “Second Time.” They’re only 22.9 entertaining episodes away on Netflix. And check back in here as I keep tabs on Kiera, Alec, and the rest of the Continuum ensemble as season three gets underway.