"Timeless" Finds Historical Truths Via Time Travel
With these words, so ends the pilot episode of Timeless, the NBC time travel drama that follows a historian, a scientist, and a soldier as they chase a suspected villain (and a mysterious organization) through history.
The closing words demonstrate something more, however—that time travel isn’t just about time, but also about place. Where you go is every bit as important as when.
Perhaps this is what makes time travel appealing to those of us in preservation, because it gives us the opportunity to see places we love, albeit fictionalized versions, in their historical context. But how does a show decide on where to go? And which stories from the past to tell?
Last week, my colleague Priya Chhaya and I had an opportunity to find out when we spoke to the creators of Timeless, along with the three lead actors, while they were in D.C. for a panel at the History Film Forum, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and National Endowment for the Humanities.
Getting the “where” right is a priority for the show runners, Eric Kripke and Shawn Ryan. Because the show films in Vancouver, they depend heavily on designers for historical accuracy.
“We have an amazing production design team, amazing art direction team, that really dives into the research once we say this is where we’re going,” Ryan told us.
As an example, he mentioned the episode being screened that night, centered on the assassination of President Lincoln, and talked about the elaborate Ford’s Theatre set built by the production team.
“I wasn’t aware of how theaters were lit for performances back pre-electricity,” Ryan noted. “It wasn’t until I saw our episode, and saw the little candles with the curved things directing the light that I was ‘Oh that makes perfect sense that that’s how they would have lit the theater. I didn’t know that!’ But obviously, we have a whole production team that did the research and figured out how Ford’s Theatre was lit.”
The hard work paid off—this long-time D.C. resident was tricked into believing they had shot on location.
Other episodes, such as one involving Vietnam-era protests at the White House, take a higher-tech approach, employing CGI and a visual effects team. The same level of detail is used to determine which moments in time the team travels to.
Says Kripke, “We very specifically and consciously wanted to tell underrepresented stories. We very much spoke about how everyone thinks of history as the history of rich white dudes, when there’s a completely vibrant and very real and very moving history that exists that not a lot of people know about.”
As an example, Kripke—and later, the show’s actors—talked about the season’s twelfth episode, “The Murder of Jesse James,” which included an appearance by Bass Reeves, an African-American U.S. Marshall thought to be one of the inspirations for the Lone Ranger. Kripke said that after one of his writers pitched the story, “I remember being in the room and the more I heard, I was like who IS this guy, and how does not everybody know who he is?”
Abigail Spencer, who plays historian Lucy Preston, noted that the character of scientist and reluctant time traveler Rufus Carlin (played by Malcolm Barrett) speaks for everyone learning Reeves’ story for the first time: “At the end Rufus can’t hold in and is like “tell your story, because if you don’t…”
We also talked with the actors about empathy for the characters and situations they encounter, because modern and historic sensibilities often clash. Spencer talked about a scene in episode eight, “Space Race,” where her character—after an episode of being ordered around like a stereotypical mid-1960s office ‘girl’—very much snaps, “having a moment where she just kind of goes off on this guy, while also seeing that he doesn’t know any better.”
While Lucy, as a woman, and Rufus, as an African-American, are challenged by an unwelcoming past (Barrett noted that while his character doesn’t have a deep knowledge of history, “he just knows that [life] sucks for black folks”), the third member of the core time travel team, Delta Force member Wyatt Logan (played by Matt Lanter), faces different challenges.
“I think for Wyatt for obvious reasons it’s a little different, a little easier," Lanter said. "He’s a mission-oriented guy because that’s his job… but [what the team experiences] creates a shift in Wyatt as well in trying to do the right thing, not necessarily what the mission mandate says to do."
This attention to the unique ways the characters move through both their historic adventures and modern lives is not accidental; show creators Kripke and Ryan intentionally created a diverse writers’ room to reflect varied experiences.
"Whether it’s the actual historical facts or whether the perspective of how those facts are viewed, we want to be as accurate as possible," Ryan said. "To surround ourselves with similar types [to ourselves] would be doing a disservice to the show."
NBC has not yet determined if Timeless will be coming back for a second season, but as someone who appreciates a nuanced look at the past, I hope it does. Sometimes, it takes a farfetched sci-fi premise like time travel to help history come alive.
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