I first heard that ABC was developing Time After Time as a TV series sometime last summer, when we at NonPro were already looking ahead to find quality genre television to discuss as part of our TV Party segments. There seemed to be a flurry of new time travel shows coming to the small screen, and as that sub-genre has always been a love of mine, I was excited! But Time After Time stood out for a reason; it was based on a cult-favorite movie from 1979.
Well actually, it was a book first, published in the same year by Karl Alexander. Nicholas Meyer’s film was co-adaptation based on early pages from the book. The two friends worked on both their projects simultaneously, and now I’m thinking about starting a fanfic story about them.
The basic plot of all three works remains the same; HG Wells, author, egalitarian, and in this case, actual genius inventor of a time-travel machine, is best buds with Jack the Ripper, a tough-on-crime healthcare enthusiast, in Victorian England. One day Jack borrows Well’s time machine without asking and escapes to “modern day” America, and Wells chases after him. Once there, there are lots of sociological observations and Wells falls in love with a phenomenally younger woman.
I’m not going to focus too much on the original cult-film (or novel), but much like a less talented version of Alexander-Meyer’s team-up, I reached out to my good friend John Trumbull of the Atomic Junk Shop who wrote an in-depth review of those works, which you might find interesting. Now, on to the show…
Rushing Through the Relationships
As I said, I love a good time travel story, but it’s important to keep in mind that like most works of fiction, you need to establish a rapport with the characters in your story. With the ironic exception of HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895), having likable and interesting protagonists is sort of an essential first step. Freddie Stroma (Wells) and Josh Bowman (Ripper/Stevenson) portray their characters with charm and forcefulness, but their relationship with each other is never really established.
It’s as if in the desire to get the audience right to the time travel parts, the show pushes us through introductions and shoves us into relationships that strain credulity more than the characters’ ability to move through time. We’re halfway through the pilot before Stevenson and Wells meet awkwardly at a bar to discuss their different worldviews made manifest in the 21st century. By then the tension is already ratcheted up; Wells is aware that Stevenson is a serial killer, and Stevenson is continuously on the verge of threatening Wells or some innocent to get at the McGuffin that keeps throwing them together – there’s no more room for the two characters to really express their relationship, no space for a “we’re not so different, you and I,” no time for us as an audience to care about them as people.
This “fast-forwarding” through relationship building haunts many aspects of the series. When Wells finds a budding romance with assistant museum curator Jane Walker (Génesis Rodríguez) we’re left feeling like this entire arc was clumsily tacked on. This is notable because the 1979 work was very much a love story; Wells had a star-crossed love affair with a woman from another time, and the drama works. Here, though, it feels stale. It feels like we as an audience were told “Listen, we all know where this is going. Let’s just get there, ok?”
And when characters aren’t given time to naturally express themselves and their relationships though action and deeds, we’re left with characters expressing their intentions through exposition. Wells announces his philosophy as if giving a lecture. Stevenson walks into a bar and spews his thoughts on the human condition and his own possible psychosis. Walker repels in through a shattered window and tells us she’s considered mediocre by modern men on Tinder. People just disclose things as if they had no internal filter – because how else is the audience to know?
First, The Ripper’s penmanship is excellent.
Second, Time After Time keeps up the now long-standing tradition of painting Jack the Ripper as a Futurist, which is something I find both disturbing and fascinating. I first really dug my teeth into the concept in Alan Moore’s amazing From Hell, but I forgot how much of the initial legwork was done by this 1979 work. It speaks volumes that so many writers have contemplated that Jack the Ripper, rather than being a relic of a more barbaric time, is actually a herald of our own. I’d love for them to give the character enough space, and well, time to develop this, but…
There seems to be some elaborate mystery-plot going on that I found completely forgettable. If getting to this mystery-plot was the real motivation for moving so quickly through the relationship building essential to get us invested in these characters, I’m going to be very disappointed.
Could this show be a good guilty pleasure / angry-watch TV series? I’m not sure. There is enough promise here to be worth a casual view, but if we can’t get past the “Wells corners Stevenson, Stevenson somehow escapes” routine of the first two episodes, I’m not sure there’s enough to like to latch on to. Maybe give the movie a watch if you haven’t already?