Time After Time May Be Your New Bad TV Obsession

Freddie Stroma as H.G. Wells, makes this face for approximately 60% of the two-hour premiere. Image: ABC.
Freddie Stroma as H.G. Wells, makes this face for approximately 60% of the two-hour premiere. Image: ABC.

Guys, I like bad things. I grew up on bad movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and now, in this new Golden Age of TV, somehow I still find time to get obsessed with certain terrible TV shows. After last night, I’m happy to report a new favorite: Time After Time.

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My interest in Time After Time exists because I’m a fan of its source material, the 1979 movie starring Malcolm MacDowell as H.G. Wells and David Warner as Jack the Ripper. The TV show has almost exactly the same premise: Jack flees to the future to escape the law in Wells’ time machine, Wells follows. In the movie Wells hooks up with a bank teller played by Mary Steenburgen and chases Jack through 1970s San Francisco, while in the show Wells meets an assistant museum curator named Jane Walker and chases Jack through 2017 New York City.

The movie isn’t bad as much as it is deeply goofy, while Time After Time the TV show manages to be both. As Wells, actor Freddie Stroma is both guileless and clueless, looking at every aspect of the modern age with childlike delight or childlike dismay. Josh Bowman’s Jack the Ripper has nothing that ties his character to 19th century England, which is actually supported by the story—he figures out not only how to use a burner phone, but why a serial killer would want to use one, within 24 hours of his arrival 120 years in the future. Wells, meanwhile, is hit by a taxi.

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Honestly, between Wells as a scientifically-minded simpleton and Jack’s preternatural ability to adapt to the future, Time After Time could almost be an action-comedy, except, you know, for Jack graphically murdering people. Given that Jane Walker is literally the first person he meets upon arriving in the future, Wells’ immediate infatuation with her is more embarrassing that adorable. Jane’s decision to let a confused stranger sleep over at her house is a spectacularly bizarre, terrible decision. Jack seems to kidnap Jane and hold her hostage several dozen times over the two-hour premiere, although Wells’ great grand-daughter shows up to help him—as ordered by an older Wells himself, who visited her back in college—but is still as baffled as everyone else at what’s happening.

You have to be a peculiar person to find characters making a series of bad and inexplicable decisions entertaining, but between my affinity for entertainingly bad things and the original movie, I’m going to keep watching. It helps that the show has promised a great deal more insanity—time travel through various timelines; the possibility that Jane may be able to convince Jack the Ripper that maybe he doesn’t want to murder all those women; some kind of shadowy organization that Wells feels is more evil than Jack the Ripper, perhaps necessitating that they team up—that I am genuinely eager to see what nonsense lies in store.

I suppose time will tell! Yes, it’s a bad joke, but it’s one I expect Time After Time to use repeatedly. And this is something I’m absolutely fine with.

Assorted Musing:

• One thing the show also kept from the movie was Wells’ belief that the future would be some kind of socialist utopia. Both were very disappointed to discover the reality, but only Time After Time the TV series had a scene with Wells sitting at a bar, watching the news on four TV screens at once—each discussing a terrorist attack, a school shooting, the threat of nuclear apocalypse, and then general murder—with a single tear rolling down his cheek. It was hilarious.

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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

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DISCUSSION

I wouldn’t describe the original movie as “goofy”. A product of its time, maybe, with its commentary on the late ‘70s and the gap between Wells’ Utopianism and the shithole that America in the late 1970s basically was, but definitely not “goofy.”

Despite having no interest in watching this series, I was prepared to nevertheless be irate that they changed the name of Wells’ romantic interest: the real-world H.G. Wells’ second wife was Amy Catherine Robbins, a progressive and feminist (as was her husband), and a wonderful in-joke (if you want to call it that) was that Mary Steenburgen’s character was Amy Robbins, the implication (when she goes back with Wells to his own era) being that his second wife was literally and not merely figuratively ahead of her time. The Internet tells me, however, that the real Amy Catherine Wells née Robbins went by “Jane” for some reason, so I guess the real question is where the TV show is getting their last name from. Assuming they’re calling her Jane on purpose and not by some lucky coincidence.

Amy Robbins seducing H.G. Wells in the film was a nice little joke at Wells’ expense, making a gag out of the difference between what a 19th Century feminist might say versus what a liberated woman in the 20th Century might do. While he goes along with it, he’s also a little taken aback by it, which is cute somehow.

If the show is suggesting that Jack the Ripper has a “preternatural ability to adapt to the future,” they really missed the point of the film, which had it the other way around: the 20th Century was horribly adapted to Jack the Ripper. Nicholas Meyer’s film suggests that the most infamous serial killer of the 19th Century would be right at home in an ugly, violent America—that, if anything, he’d be a rank amateur.

I need to re-watch that movie, actually. It’s kind of great, and it’s been a while since I last saw it.