TV Rewind: Netflix’s Travelers Was Radical Environmentalism in Stealth Mode

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TV Rewind: Netflix’s Travelers Was Radical Environmentalism in Stealth Mode

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

“We, the last unbroken remnants, vow to undo the errors of our ascendants, to make the Earth whole, the lost unlost, at peril of our own birth.” – The Prayer of the Travelers

You don’t travel through time without a reason. Personal enrichment is a classic: Biff and the Grays Sports Almanac; Tim and his endless re-wooing of an oblivious Rachel McAdams; Nadia and the gold Krugerrands. So is figuring out your family’s past to make peace with their present: Marty and his hot-to-trot teen parents; Peggy Sue and her singing, teenaged Nic Cage; Nadia and the gold Krugerrands. Adventure, also, is a big seller—you don’t get 50 years of Doctor Who without a human drive to up and allons-y.

But if you’re to believe the majority of time travel stories Hollywood’s brought to screens large and small over the last few decades, by far the most compelling reason that might drive someone to assume the existential risks that come hand in hand with traveling through time is to protect the future from humankind’s own worst impulses. Legends of Tomorrow. 12 Monkeys. Continuum. Timeless. Star Trek: Discovery. Arguably, most of Doctor Who. (More often than not, the invitation to adventure is just the hook.) And that’s not even counting all the time-travel-as-existential-defense shows that are currently in production: NBC’s Quantum Leap is doing as much to tell a meta story about the work of protecting humanity from itself as it is reveling in Ben’s era-leaping adventure-of-the-week, while TNT’s forthcoming The Lazarus Project is set to interrogate anew that classic of ethical time travel quandaries: do you save the life of one person, if the cost is the future lives of millions more? And then, of course, there’s whatever it is Loki is doing.

Still, for all the shows we’ve gotten over the years that have effectively used the tropes of time travel to make the case that those of us watching from the present both can and should participate more actively in the project of a building a better future, not enough of them, to my mind, have pivoted on the most pressing crisis facing all 8.03 billion of us at this historical moment: climate change. And not just climate change as an environmental issue—climate change as a driver of devastating geographical, social, and political change. The climate crisis is the domino effect writ large, which—as anyone who vibes not just with time travel stories but also with television as a narrative mode will understand implicitly—makes it the perfect subject for the longform, serialized storytelling TV excels at.

And yet, barring the imaginative time travel to a climate-devastated future that didactic dramas like TNT’s Snowpiercer and Apple TV+’s Extrapolations ask their audiences to join in on (which, side note, let Daveed Diggs’ next project be set in a world filled with joy!!) the only time travel show I can think of that is explicitly about the worst case scenario facing humanity if we stay on our current profit-over-planet political path is Travelers, a canceled-before-its-time co-production of Netflix (US) and Showcase (Canada) that ran for three seasons from 2016 through 2018.

Starring Eric McCormack, MacKenzie Porter, Nesta Cooper, Jared Abrahamson, Reilly Dolman, Patrick Gilmore, J. Alex Brinson, Leah Cairns, and, eventually, Enrico Colantoni, Travelers told the story of five highly trained specialists from some 430 years in the climate-decimated future who, with the help of a wildly advanced AI program called The Director, have had their consciousnesses transmitted through time into the brains (and bodies) of “hosts” at the exact moment before the hosts’ historical time of death. An enormously risky gambit—hosts are rarely in the exact condition the historical record implies, as the team’s doctor, Marcy (Porter), and historian, Phillip (Dolman), realize the moment they land in bodies that are, respectively, developmentally disabled and addicted to heroin—this form of time travel is being practiced for a single, existentially critical purpose: to save life on Earth.

How critical is this mission? Well, not only are our five travelers just a handful of more than four thousand (and counting) Travelers to have been sent back in time to execute their small bit of The Director’s ultimate plan, but they are doing so with the explicit understanding that their success will almost certainly mean personal obliteration: “We, the last unbroken remnants, vow to undo the errors of our ascendants, to make the Earth whole, the lost unlost, at peril of our own birth,” they recite in unison, prayerlike, before what they think will be their final mission in the middle of the first season (Episode 1.06, “Helios 685”). At peril of our own birth. A mission so important that, to save the fates of billions from the post-apocalyptic half-life humanity’s current trajectory is aiming towards, thousands of Travelers would risk their own existence to see it through.

Because that, ultimately, is what’s at stake in the climate crisis: our own existence. And as activists from the climate revolutionaries of the Sunrise Movement to the water protectors of Standing Rock to the forest defenders fighting to stop Cop City in the Weelaunee Forest of Atlanta to the indigenous land defenders across the globe to the desperate individuals like photojournalist and climate activist Wynn Bruce, who set himself on fire in front of the US Capitol on Earth Day 2022, the solutions to an existential risk are radical.

Of course, as a piece of televisual entertainment, the primary goal of Travelers wasn’t as lofty as compelling its audience to radical climate action. As with any streaming media product, its goal was to keep enough viewers hooked that they’d binge their way through an entire season, then go tell their friends to subscribe and do the same. And for all but the final season, Travelers succeeded, giving a satisfying payoff to the cat-and-mouse AI thriller Season 2 and 3 really built up. But in between the sharp writing and clever, gotta-hit-play-next plotting is the driving sense that whatever humankind thinks we’re accomplishing for our descendents now, we’ve just got to do better.

Of all the creative decisions Travelers makes to accomplish this sleight of hand, possibly the most compelling is that it never truly takes the viewers to the post-apocalyptic future the Travelers themselves are fighting so desperately to prevent. We get a few stylized glimpses—McLaren (McCormack) imagining the real face of his co-Traveler lover when kissing his host’s wife at one point; a sketch of the dome-like nuclear fallout shelters is graffitied onto a sidewalk in another—but we’re never allowed to spend any meaningful time there. Instead, series creator Brad Wright and his team make the intractable bleakness of life in that future visceral by repeatedly showing us the intimate jolts of joy and astonishment the Travelers feel whenever they encounter something utterly quotidian that the poisoned fruits of human folly are on a path to render obsolete: The feeling of pounding around the high school track, breathing in lungfuls of fresh air. The sight of more trees than you could possibly count. The taste of a fresh apple. The taste of cow’s milk. The taste of water that hasn’t been recycled so many times it can’t ever really be pure. Birds.

This oblique subtlety, ultimately, is as effective as Extrapolations’ harrowingly detailed realism in making the case that we, as a global society, need to get our heads right and do whatever it takes to turn away from the environmentally catastrophic profit first, all else second path we’re still so unnecessarily on. Or at least, in making the *artistic* case for that need. And if we, as a species, can’t be moved by art, I don’t know what hope we have to move at all.

Watch on Netflix

Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.

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