“In our time, I’m a freak. Here, I’m an amateur.”
Maybe I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses, but my recollection of Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time is one of fondness and intrigue. Very much a product of its – well – time, both novel and movie appeared in the same year: 1979. The story, then, began in 1893, before transplanting characters and focus to San Francisco at the tail end of the 1970s. ABC’s television adaptation stays faithful to the source material for the most part in Time After Time’s double-episode series premiere. However, the main thrust of the narrative is now set in New York in the year 2017 – March 3, to be exact. The movie’s venerable trio of Malcolm McDowell in a rare good-guy role as H.G. Wells, David Warner ever the bad guy as Dr John Stevenson, AKA Jack the Ripper, and Mary Steenburgen as Amy Robbins, are replaced by Freddie Stroma (UnReal, Game of Thrones), Josh Bowman (Revenge), and Génesis Rodríguez (Entourage) respectively. The other notable difference between the two adaptations is that, unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be looking back on the show with any of the same fondness. I’ll discuss why later.
If you’re as much a sucker for the concept of time travel as I am, I think you’ll really dig the synopsis for Time After Time. In a nutshell, in 1893, H.G. Wells isn’t only working on his novel The Time Machine, but he’s building one as well. He shows a group of his skeptical friends the prototype model he’s working on, beguiling them with science and shit, when a late arrival joins the party. Dr John Stevenson is late because some time earlier, and not a block away, he was busy murdering a prostitute. Stevenson can’t help but be intrigued by Wells’ invention, and when Scotland Yard come calling to the house asking to search the place, Stevenson takes a risk and uses Wells’ unproven machine to travel into the future and escape justice.. Because only Wells has the key to his invention, the Time Machine returns to 1893 without its passenger. Wells is horrified to find out that his friend is the infamous Jack The Ripper, and he takes it upon himself to follow Stevenson to his eventual destination.
Fast forward to New York, 2017. The Time Machine is just one of many exhibits dedicated to H.G. at the American Museum of Space and Time, and because the machine has been physically moved, that’s where Stevenson and H.G. have ended up. Both men react to their temporal displacement in different ways. Stevenson fits in well with modern society. He sees it as violent and exploitative, and gets a makeover to suit his environment: a decent haircut, a beard trim, and open neck shirt and jacket. (The similarity in look to Tom Ellis’ Lucifer isn’t lost on me.) H.G. is bereft, though. He envisioned a future society as Utopic, where everyone is equal, and war is but a distant memory. What he’s faced with at a hotel bar couldn’t be further from his ideals. Staring at four big television screens behind the bar, he sees war, pestilence, death, famine and other unnamed apocalypse horsemen. Why these screens aren’t showing baseball and NFL, I have no clue; but management may want customers to drink over their despair. Anyway, this kind of ridiculous scene brings a tear to H.G.’s eye. (Just the one eye, though – let’s not get too hasty.)
Cutting to the chase, H.G. enlists the help of Jane Walker, the museum’s assistant curator, in finding out Stevenson’s whereabouts. The two men meet up over drinks and a knife to the femoral artery, with Stevenson demanding the key. He’s been busy, too, with one dead woman to his name already. H.G.’s well known pacifist ways forbid him from using brute force, and he tries in vain to talk Stevenson into coming home peacefully. The Ripper isn’t biting, however, and a chase ensues, one that leaves H.G. in hospital with a concussion. Jane takes pity on him, and takes him to her place, thereby placing herself in direct danger, because it’s not long before Stevenson uses her and another unfortunate woman as bait. Meanwhile H.G. has taken Jane on a whirlwind trip to three days into their future. They find out that Jane becomes one of Stevenson’s victims, so the stakes are truly high.
Unlike the movie, H.G. has allies in the 21st Century. Vanessa Anders (Nicole Ari Parker, Rosewood, Murder In The First) is CEO of Anders Enterprises, a biotech company that owns the Wells Exhibit at the museum, as well as – apparently – H.G.’s great-great-granddaughter. She tells H.G. that he turned up while she was still a freshman and gave her a really short note to give to himself at some point in their futures. Her boyfriend is Senator Griffin Monroe, who gives H.G. numerous side-eyes throughout. You know this guy’s got secrets of his own, and he doesn’t buy the whole “H.G. being a distant descendant of H.G.” thing, either. Vanessa’s help squanders one rescue mission, so H.G. is done with their shit and goes it alone. By this point, Jane is Stevenson’s hostage, but H.G. works out that the Time Machine is where it will all play out. Chaos ensues, and the machine is damaged, but Jane is safe. Stevenson makes his escape, promising to kill one person a day if H.G. doesn’t give him the key.
In yet another subplot, a mysterious man is tailing both H.G. and Stevenson. His apartment wall is covered with photographs and newspaper clippings about the two men. Who he is, and who he works for, we don’t know yet.
“What is an Oprah?”
Time After Time’s original concept predates similar fish-out-of-water tropes like Sleepy Hollow and Kate and Leopold by a couple of decades, but what the movie and novel did well, the show sadly doesn’t. Sleepy Hollow’s first season did a much better job, setting up the mythology more even-handedly, and boasting a stellar pairing of Tom Mison and Nicole Behairie. (We all know how this ended, though, with no blame attached to the actors it must be said.) Time After Time overloads its premiere with far too much plot and information. While the movie ended with Stevenson cast into the future for all time, and Amy (Jane) returning to H.G.’s time and marrying him (H.G. did indeed marry Amy Catherine Robbins in real life), the show understandably bypasses that for the time being, throwing in the usual shadowy corporation, conspiracy theories, and people with mysterious agendas. Not a bad thing, but we could have learned this over a few episodes rather than all at once.
I have to address the issue of violence here, particularly violence against women – in this case, women of color. We all know Jack The Ripper’s history, but I had hoped Kevin Williamson (the Scream franchise, The Following, Stalker) would be a bit more clever here. The women in this show, with the exception of Vanessa Anders, are shown as victims, and although one of them, Jules, escapes Stevenson’s murderous rages – he spares rather than butcher her – she’s still subjected to mental and physical torture. We need to get beyond this, really. I’m all for putting characters in jeopardy (why watch otherwise?), but does it always have to be women with Williamson? I hope this predictable and unpleasant trope is remedied in future episodes.
I also expect more from Freddie Stroma’s H.G. Wells. He’s shown as being perpetually confused, even when he’s acting to save Jane. I want more proactivity from my heroes. Once again, I look to Tom Mison to see how it’s done. Josh Bowman is fine as Stevenson, as is Génesis Rodríguez playing Jane Walker. I presume any character glitches present in the premiere will be ironed out pretty soon, but in a crowded television schedule, Time After Time needed to sprint out of its time machine with all guns blazing. Instead it shuffled out, took a bemused look around, and made a dart for the nearest exit. We’ll see how it goes, but it may already be running out of time.
Time After Time S1E1/S1E2
"Pilot" | "I Will Catch You"
Developed by Kevin Williamson, from the novel by Karl Alexander, and the movie by Nicholas Meyer | Starring: Freddie Stroma, Josh Bowman, Génesis Rodríguez, Nicole Ari Parker, Will Chase, Jordin Sparks | Network: ABC.