During the Oscars, the most buzzed-about topic that did not relate to the ceremony concerned the commercials for a new Jack the Ripper time travel show called Time After Time. Based on a novel and movie of the same name, it follows the young legendary sci-fi author H.G. Wells (played by Freddie Stroma, best known as Cormac McLaggen in Harry Potter) as he takes his time machine to modern day New York City, inadvertently bringing Jack the Ripper with him. On the surface, it looks like it fits into the recently popular genre of shows established by The Young Pope and Riverdale: What if Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells were sexy and modern?
But the most surprising thing about the Time After Time is how charming and smart it is. It opens on a shadowy Victorian London street where Jack the Ripper attacks a prostitute. He then goes to visit his idealistic friend H.G. Wells, who is ignorant about his extracurricular activities and knows him as a respectable doctor named John. Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, Wells finds out that John is Jack the Ripper and both men travel separately to modern day New York. Time After Time is not screwing around.
The young Wells — who has yet to publish a single novel — emerges out of his time machine into an H.G. Wells museum exhibition, with posters of his achievements like The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. Much of the pilot involves the confused museum curators mistaking him for an actor pretending to be Wells. Wells acclimates to his new reality with wide-eyed wonder. The show is packed with easter eggs, but viewers also don’t need to be fans of his work to enjoy it.
But not only is Time After Time earnest and playful, it’s also savvy and political. Although it’s an adventurous romp in the same campy style as Once Upon a Time and Doctor Who, in 1800s London, before they travel to modern-day New York, Wells and John have a debate about human nature that sets up the rest of the show. While his friends express skepticism about his time machine, Wells explains that he would travel into the future rather than the past because “in five generations utopia will have come to pass … science and technology will advance, forcing society to perfect itself.” John sneers at his idealism, calling mankind “animals.”
But for all its lighthearted charm, the show seems to be agreeing with John. When the two men meet again in the 21st century, John points to a TV blaring the news and says, “There’s your utopia! Nothing but war and bloodshed.” He also delights over 2017 because, “You know you can walk into a shop here and purchase a rifle or revolver … these people encourage it!”
Buried inside its breakneck plot and kitschy concept is a philosophical argument between nihilism and idealism. And while it’s heavy-handed at times, the plot and concept keep it smooth, buoyant, and timelessly fun.
Time After Time premieres on March 5 on ABC.