At this point, seasoned Netflix viewers may feel like they’ve seen it all when it comes to imaginative storytelling, whether it be science fiction, supernatural, fantasy or whatever “The OA” is. The streaming platform’s latest foreign acquisition, Canada’s “Travelers,” is a much simpler type of project, almost a throwback, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Released on the same day as Guillermo Del Toro’s family-friendly “Trollhunters” and the “Sense8” Christmas special, it appears that “Travelers” is meant to be the third leg in the triumvirate of holiday-binge programming. And in that vein, it fits. It contains just enough intrigue for continuous viewing, but is light enough to not over-tax one’s spirits during such a hectic season.
“Travelers” is a time travel show that is very light on science. Hundreds of years in our future, humanity is endangered and the survivors have learned to send their consciousness into their past, the 21st century. They then take over people’s bodies in order to carry out missions that will hopefully prevent humankind’s tragic fate.
This is where it gets a bit tricky. Without spoiling exactly how taking over bodies plays out, let’s just say that these aren’t exactly random people, and the whole transfer-of-consciousness process is pretty fun and freaky. These scenes make up the bulk of the first episode and are fascinating to think about —but are also fun to watch thanks to some onscreen graphics. That’s about the limit of the special effects on this show, which is a shame, but perhaps that’s because it’s mainly set in our present, where flying cars are still not a thing, alas. In the first three episodes given to critics for review, we never do see or learn that much about that future society, what threatens our future or even the scientific explanation of how consciousness is supposedly shunted through time.
Fortunately, the appeal of “Travelers” lies not in its futuristic know-how but in how the core group of five travelers adjust to life in our present. The de facto leader of the group is Eric McCormack, who plays a traveler who has taken over the life of FBI Agent Grant MacLaren (so handy for circumventing the law and red tape). He’s joined by travelers who’ve taken over the bodies of library employee Marcy Warton (MacKenzie Porter), high school student Trevor Holden (Jared Abrahamsson), heroin addict Philip Pearson (Reilly Dolman) and single mom Carly Shannon (Nesta Cooper). At this point, we thank “Travelers” for very helpfully setting up the rule that all travelers call themselves by their host body’s name instead of their numbered designations, e.g. “Traveler 347.”
At its core, “Travelers” champions the good side of humanity, and this is emphasized in how the travelers experience certain pleasures in life for the first time. Played for light laughs, these “fish out of water” moments sweetly remind us of what we may take for granted. At one point, Grant used the phrase, “It’s no walk in the park,” and Trevor replied, “Actually, you should try walking in the park sometime. It’s lovely.” It’s Trevor who seems the most tuned into living in the moment and has raptures when eating a fast-food burger or cafeteria-grade corn, since food is apparently less plentiful or varied in the bleak future. These scenes are like those “try eating something for the first time” Buzzfeed videos, except instead of highlighting diverse ethnic foods, it’s everyday American fare. Time travelers, they’re just like us!
This is not to say that “Travelers” is silly, although it is a bit of a romp at times with the missions of the week giving it an action-y vibe. What it does well is take into account human nature in the travelers. Our world would be seductive to those who have lesser options, and that’s why the travelers wrestle with less straightforward choices than just saving the world once they’re actually in the 21st century. Succeeding in their mission comes with more immediate costs, which doesn’t sit well with some of the travelers. Losing focus and embedding oneself in a new life is the classic conundrum of going undercover.
Despite the end of the world subject matter, “Travelers” leans towards hope and action. It’s possible the show could grow heavier tonally in the later episodes, but judging from what we’ve seen so far, it’s just the kind of escapist fare that we need right now during the holidays but also in the current political climate. Time travel has often played with the fantasy of changing the past, but it’s a nice change to see it used to appreciate what we have now.
“Travelers” Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix.