Netflix's 'Travelers' Is an Underrated Sci-Fi Jaunt
'Travelers' is a meat and potatoes style science fiction story, which is necessary.
It’s never been a better era for science fiction. High concept shows like Westworld and The OA would have been considered fringe art years ago, but they achieve mainstream popularity today. Sometimes, it can seem like it’s too good of a time to be a sci-fi fan. If you want to watch a show brimming with time travel and conspiracy — but you don’t want to spend hours surfing Reddit just to understand what’s going on — you’re almost out of luck. Enter Netflix’s Travelers.
Travelers is a meat and potatoes sci-fi story. Its dialogue is the fare you’d find on a mid-level network show; bare bones and serving the plot. (A sample exchange: “We’re not going to save the world.” “Why not?” “Because it doesn’t want to be saved.”) It’s not jam-packed with Shakespearean soliloquies or vaguely religious allusions you can comb through for “clues”. It’s not trying to confuse you, prove that it’s smarter than you, or grasp at anything particularly profound. It merely tries — and succeeds — to spin a good old fashioned yarn about a rag tag group of misfits traveling through time to save the world.
Is it vaguely derivative? Sure. Its premise borrows liberally from 12 Monkeys. In the future, humanity is fucked for unspecified reasons. Luckily, they’ve learned how to send their consciousness back in time to host bodies, where they can attempt to change the future. The usual catch-22 of changing too much applies — they must maintain a balance between following their mission and living their hosts’ lives as if nothing is amiss. Will and Grace’s Eric McCormack plays the leader, who takes over the host body of an FBI agent. His fellow group members have harder times adjusting to their host bodies and host lives, as one is a mentally impaired young woman — whose social worker can’t believe her apparent leap in cognitive ability. One is a heroin addict; another a struggling single mother. The last is a teen boy with anger issues, whose family and girlfriend are taken aback when he suddenly starts acting more mature.
There’s a sprinkling of Heroes and Misfits in its group dynamic, and save-the-world objective, though with sci-fi that leans more towards conspiracy than superpowers — it’s more subdued than both. As it proceeds, to nobody’s surprise, many of the travelers grow attached to their host lives and grow conflicted. It doesn’t say anything terribly original or fresh, but it’s hardly stale. It combines pre-existing sci-fi elements together in a pleasingly straightforward sci-fi narrative.
Because of its comparable simplicity, Travelers is overshadowed by shows like Westworld and The OA. It’s true that it doesn’t hold a candle if you prefer your sci-fi to be of the highest concept.