Travelers features an icky, insidiously clever form of going undercover: agents from 100 years in the future take up residence in people living in the present’s bodies. It makes things morally complicated. Like when a heroin junkie watches a man die from a heart attack and tearfully tells him that he knew it was coming.
Over the last week, I’ve watched the first five episodes of the new Netflix scifi drama and have been hooked by its depressing iteration of a well-worn genre trope. Travelers, which debuted last month, operates on a simple, familiar science-fiction premise: a team of people from the future jump back to our present to stop something terrible from happening. When FBI agent Grant McLaren (Eric McCormack) gets assigned to monitor suspicious activity on the deep web, he starts to track down people whose IP addresses are logged with the messages. Those people are a squad of Travelers and, right after he meets them, his own body gets taken over by their team leader. But the body-hopping aspect of their chronospatial displacement—moving into bodies of present-dwelling people right at the time of their deaths—is only the first morsel of a deliciously slippery moral slope.
MacLaren’s newly commandeered existence plops him into situations where he doesn’t know what the old version of him would do and other Travelers face the same dilemma. Everything about these people looks the same from the outside, but their radically altered behaviors flummox the people who’ve been their lovers, friends, co-parents, and caretakers. The Travelers are sworn to prioritize a set of Protocols designed to help them carry out missions, like Protocol 2 (“Leave the future in the past”) or Protocol 6 (“Traveler teams should stay apart unless instructed otherwise”).
However, following those guidelines forces them to do problematic things. One guy uses his time-shifted knowledge to help a crooked, gambling-addicted prosecutor win money at horse races so he can dodge jail time. The same guy later wins more than $92,000 with lottery numbers that he already knew. His female counterpart zaps into the body of a developmentally challenged woman whose sudden increase in cognitive capacity throws everyone for a loop. She lies to doctors and her social worker but also has to depend on the latter for resources in the present. Yet another Traveler lands into the body of a high-school student who dies during an underground MMA brawl, changing the kid from a sleazy bully into someone with a lot more empathy.
The future-folk come back to our time via T.E.L.L. (time, elevation, longitude, latitude) technology that lets people do the soon-to-be-deceased body-jumping thing. Thousands of Travelers already live in the present. There’s discomfiting morbid humor about host bodies that morphs into commentary about how disposable any of our lives are, in service of larger schemes and purposes. The Travelers seem to know anybody who will die on a given day in a given area, so as to coordinate rendezvous and mission objectives. At first my reaction was “wow, cool plot beat,” then it was “man, that is fucked up.” So far, the guilt of such knowledge has driven one Traveler to dark places and, even if his disobedience is wrong by lights of the Travelers’ protocols, his insubordination feels entirely believable.
Travelers finds interesting angles on time travel genre conventions, like when the characters debate about what exactly can be trusted about the historical record they’re working off of. With the distance of a century, people understood as villains may be victims or vice versa. Structurally, the first half of the 12-episode season is reminiscent of X-Files, Heroes season one, and the late, beloved Global Frequency comics written by Warren Ellis. Thus far, episodes are largely done-in-one affairs centered on specific threats, with subplots that simmer along. Complications happen, of course; agents have to deal with bodies that aren’t in good shape or in the throes of heroin withdrawal. A person doesn’t die the way history said and someone from the future can’t use the body they were supposed to. The show sprinkles little hints of a larger lore structure, too, like telling us that Travelers have been here for years and that teams operate in cells that aren’t supposed to talk to each other.
One of the things I’m enjoying most about Travelers is its great use of comedic tones, particularly in McCormack’s oft-befuddled portrayal of McLaren. He does the steely hero-man thing well enough, but it’s the juxtaposition of that gruffness with the wry, sardonic vocal affect so familiar to fans of Will & Grace that wins me over. Here, his voice squeaks happen when he needs to dissemble to his wife or smooth-talk his way past his FBI colleagues. It’s a wrinkle that folds in some disarming self-awareness as to the absurdity of his casting, his character’s predicaments, and the show’s premise. Give in to both, his voice says, and you’ll have some fun.
And Travelers is fun, which is weird given how dark the mechanics of its fiction are. The title characters push people out of their bodies before their appointed deaths. Granted, it’s only a half-minute most times, but it’s still a violation of the natural order. This is a superhero show in double disguise, offering up clever explorations of the secret identity concept that touch on the guilt and contortions that come with living a double life. If the second half is as good as the first, then it’s definitely something you should watch.