”Huh. I kinda thought that would be a bigger deal.” —Special Agent Grant MacLaren/Traveler 3468, “Protocol 6”
Here is what Netflix’s Travelers, the second season of which dropped on December 26, is about: In a distant future decimated by the sins of the twenty-first century’s unsustainable voraciousness, technology advances to the point that human consciousnesses can be sent back in time to take up residence in the bodies of adults at the moment of their natural historic death. Volunteers from this unseen distant future train to become these metaphysical “travelers” and return to “the 21st” in tactical teams of five regular Joes (and Josies) to undertake covert missions that might course-correct, in ways small to large, humanity’s future. When they are not on a mission, they are tasked to live as unremarkable a life as possible in the body of their host—an extra challenge for those who arrived in the bodies of heroin addicts or abused partners or the mentally disabled. Travelers are often mission-less for long stretches of time, and even when they do have a mission, its context and its ultimate effect on the future are rarely communicated. They are small cogs in a vast and ever-changing machine.
There are two ways, I think, to regard a show like Travelers: as a too-aimless, overly quiet piece of anticlimactic science fiction that’s decent enough to watch when feeling equally aimless, quiet, and uninterested in bombast, but isn’t, like, good, or as a genuinely novel treatment of time travel at the most human level, whose aimless, anticlimactic quiet is the whole exhilarating, challenging point.
As someone who not only consumes stories professionally, but who has also seen or read what, until Travelers, had felt like every possible approach to time travel, I am in the latter camp. Where others might see inconsistencies or lack of measurable purpose, I see a show that, in seeking to tell a story about the time traveling of consciousnesses from a not-impossibly grim future in as realistic and human a way as possible, manifestly refuses to hold its audience’s hand. It is possible, of course, to watch the show while caring deeply that every plot point and element of phlebotinum matches up, but to approach it that way would be to have the entirely wrong experience. Details won’t always match up; entire episodes will occasionally be nearly impossible to make sense of. But that’s fine. It is, even, preferable. Making obsessive sense is not Travelers’ point.
Put in the most insufferable way I can come up with: If watching television were at all like playing video games, Travelers would be one of the shows accessible only after turning all your settings up to Expert.
This, I need to stress, is not to say that Travelers is the best example of sci-fi television currently airing (my vote for “best” would be The Expanse), or the most ambitious (also The Expanse, but I’d understand arguments for Westworld), or the most technically accurate (The Expanse, man), or the most beautiful (sorry: The Expanse), or the most rollicking (Killjoys) or the most fun (RIP, Dark Matter). It is good and ambitious and technically reasonable and beautiful and, with the help of some very dry-witted talent in the form of Jared Abrahamson, some heart-warming goofiness on the part of Patrick Gilmore, and some intensely brassy impolite genius from Jennifer Spence, both fun and funny—but it is not the most of any of those things. Clearly, The Expanse is the most of almost all of those things. What Travelers is the most of, instead, is demanding.
It is demanding of audiences who are expert in science fiction and time travel because it requires one to let go of the ideas that our protagonists are, as Firefly would put it, the “Big Damn Heroes,” that any of the discrete effects time travel has on the future’s lived reality matter at all in their specificity, and that anything technobabbly ultimately has any more importance than the simple complexities of what it means to be human in the world. It is demanding of audiences who are expert in stories of nuanced human drama, as it requires that two distinct character experiences be kept in one’s head for every actor on screen, making any scene with multiple characters an exercise in differential emotional calculus. It is demanding of audiences who are expert in serialized storytelling, as its internal logic is mysterious even to the five travelers who serve as the story’s protagonists—whatever time-traveling endgame the Director in charge of their missions is aiming for, our team doesn’t know it, and anyway is a constantly moving target. It is demanding to audiences expert in multi-screen bingeing, as a significant percentage of what matters to how the story develops is non-verbal—the way that faces are regularly framed too close, or too off-center, or too distant, or too out of focus; the technobabbly scene-setting that quietly dials in overtop oceans of unintelligible futuristic programming code; the way every scene is awash with Adam Lastiwka’s meditative, moody score (which, incidentally, he wrote much of before the scripts themselves were written, and which the writers then used a guide).
It is just, from beginning to end, demanding, and in being so demanding, is utterly, novelly, compelling.
Of course, there is some point to the series beyond rewarding Expert-level television audiences, and that is the dramatic tension inevitable between what a time traveler’s mission protocols require and what human connections are nevertheless unavoidable (“No plan survives contact with the past,” the traveler welcoming series lead Eric McCormack’s team to the 21st reminds him), but to reach the end of a very strong Season Two and have that tension pay off requires cultivating a superhuman degree of patience, and accepting that the future will come at its own pace, in its own way, and never with every dot connected and every question answered. You will just have to sit with it, and trust that your chill will be rewarded.
Thankfully, the expert traveler team at the core of Travelers will show you just how to manage that.
Seasons One and Two of Travelers are now streaming on Netflix.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.