With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch in the back of my mind, I sat down to watch the pilot of this new SyFy Channel original. It looked great, but even allowing for the usual jitters and settling in problems of a new show, the script was hokey and the characters one-dimensional. Episode 1 felt pedestrian and ordinary, happy to tell rather than show its world’s cultural and political background. To my jaded viewing eyes, Continuum fits right in with Warehouse 13 and Grimm, in relying on the audience being so desperate for an SF or Urban Fantasy kick that they’ll accept any old thing. It’s a great shame, because only a TV-generation ago, Science Fiction kicked up a show like BattleStar Galactica. Say what you like about it – and I’ve got more than a handful of problems with the show – it was compelling viewing that felt like it had something to say and had a script that didn’t prompt me to laugh at it.
I wondered whether BattleStar Galactica was as good as it was because it was a remake. Several TV-generations ago, someone else already knocked around the basic idea, leaving behind an example implementation and a swathe of raw material to refashion with modern design sensibilities. Then again, Grimm‘s got at least Beauty and the Beast to draw on, not to mention the connections I’ve already outlined between it and two very good shows, Buffy and Supernatural. Warehouse 13‘s got The X-Files at a very minimum, and Continuum‘s got a mostly forgotten show called Time Trax. As I started to think about Continuum and Time Trax, the more Continuum seemed like a virtual re-make of the earlier show, lessening my tolerance of its blandness.
The premise of both Continuum and Time Trax is the same. A group of desperate criminals has escaped from a prison in the future by travelling back into the past. On their trail, a heroic top-tier cop with technological smarts and fish-out-of-water sensibilities, aided by future-tech and looking for justice. Like Continuum, Time Trax was formulaic and pedestrian, with a basic plot that barely holds together within its own internal logic and barely deserving of remembrance. Even at the time, it was obvious that Time Trax was the last of the old-guard episodic story, as arc-television was kicking off with Twin Peaks and soon afterwards, Babylon 5. To an extent, the excuse it has for being rubbish is that TV didn’t know better. Continuum is right in the middle of TV’s golden age, and adopts a short format, 10 episodes, in line with other boutique shows. You expect a 10-episode show to hit the ground running and really kick-start its storytelling into high gear. Not everything will hit the story density of The Wire, but the pilot and first episode of Continuum feel very much like they’re settling into for a long haul. Far more interesting than either show by themselves are the differences in coloration and detail between two shows with with same premise made in 1993 and 2013.
In 1993, the criminals are more-or-less simply that. They chafe at living in a utopia, so commit crimes and are incarcerated. There is a nominal over-arching plot with a mastermind etc, but that made such a small impact on the show that it can only be regarded as purely nominal, in much the same way as The Fugitive‘s one-armed man. Once in the past, the criminals sometimes use their technological savvy and future-knowledge, but by-and-large, they lie low. Crucially, they fragment early in the story. Our hero Darren Lambert chases a single villain of the week each week, and so as you can imagine, the total number of future-refugees ends up quite large by the end of the show’s 2nd season.
In 2013, simple criminality is not sufficient! Why have thieves or murderers when you can have mass-murderers? The escapees this time style themselves as freedom fighters, working to overthrow the tyranny of corporate power that has usurped and demolished democracy in the future. To this end, the show opens with this organisation destroying a corporate headquarters, “killing 30,000” as collateral damage to hit the corporate overlords in the building. The scenes of these mass-murderers after their escape into the past reveal no depth or engagement with them as either freedom fighters or monsters. They resemble nothing so much as a generic motley of thugs with a couple of intellectuals thrown in for variation. We have a group who are apparently willing to kill tens of thousands of people, and arrange a massive conspiracy to escape from prison by fleeing through time, who can’t have a civil conversation between themselves, and who appear to decide to try and flee back to the future because they’re afraid of the single cop who came back in time with them. The cognitive dissonance of reconciling what we’re told about these people and what we’re shown is untenable.
This change from mere criminals to mass-murdering terrorists is a troubling one. In 1993, TV producers thought that we would be sufficiently engaged by criminals who committed crimes that we could imagine or observe in the world around us. In 2013, only mass-murder merits attention, only slaughter on scale rarely seen in the Western world makes for good television. This suggests a level of numbness to human suffering that’s quite concerning. Yet, this crime is treated at a huge and clinical distance – it’s a rumour of an event, not the experience of it.
The distant CGI shot of the building going down can’t help but reference both 9/11 and Fight Club and this appears to put the show on an interesting footing. That juxtaposition is itself interesting, because 9/11 has become the emblem of an all-seeing security state, making it one of the most effective terrorist acts ever. Similarly, the collapsing buildings in Fight Club are a vindication of Tyler Durden’s mad scheme to break society and reset it to a model of personal individual freedom. Positioning these references at the start of the show invites the audience to speculate on the kind of dystopic society that exists to inspires the kind of pure rage-scream expressed in detail by Fight Club and on the effects such a devastating act will have on the future society. This is a pair of speculations cut-off as soon as initiated by cutting to “6 months later”. The dramatic impetus of the opening monologue and opening scene are casually abandoned – they exist as a kind of inverse MacGuffin to make chasing these villains seem worthwhile.
Once we emerge into the wider world of 2077 it’s not all that easy to apply the word “dystopia”. There are few of the usual markers that we’re used to seeing from RoboCop, Equilibrium, Neuromancer or Bladerunner. The environment appears futuristic but pleasant, cribbed from the visual style of Star Trek. We are offered only a handful of glimpses at the world – a dinner party at the home of our future-cop, her confronting some delinquents on a train, and some discussion around the intended execution chamber for these criminals. Each of these scenes is intended to show a dystopia in operation, but I found it hard not to read them as satire because they were so ineptly put together.
At the dinner party, we see the cop relaxing with some friends. One of her friends is “defending” the terrorists, by arguing that the world needs to restore core democratic principles. His argument is framed entirely in abstract terms, there is no specific reference to any grievance or problem in the world that he thinks would be solved by a restoration of democracy. It’s a matter of interpretation, but I also found his tone more suggestive of someone being entertainingly controversial at a dinner party than a true believer in the argument he was making. Without wanting to place an over-reliance on this apparent absence, it made me wonder whether there really were grievances in need of redress. It appears to me that the writers want to put forward the appearance of utopia, but signal that there is a deeper rot, but the lack of specificity or real emotional weight makes this a missed opportunity. For me the strongest reading is a satire of the similar scenes in Equilibrium or Logan’s Run – here, everything really is perfect and the supercilious arguer is a figure of fun.
The second stab at pointing to a dystopian underbelly comes when two youths are confronted and one is “tagged” with a pain-inducer that activates if they fail to report at a police station. As police brutality goes, this is creepy in its efficiency, but hardly seems as serious as almost any other expression of a totalitarian state I can think of. This must be the gentlest “dystopia” on the books, if indeed, it is one. Once again, for me the opposite reading finds stronger support from the text – this is the perfect, humane, future of policing. Instead of beating a suspect senseless, or dragging them off in chains, you effectively put a lode-jack onto your suspect. There’s no hint of sadism in the event, nor do we get the feel that this is an extreme or over-the-top level of control of one citizen over another. I get the sense that we are supposed to be quietly discomforted by this display of policing – but you’d have to help the fiction make that point with a generous interpretation. The far more natural reading is to read this as poking fun at the excessive violence in other futuristic societies. We’re not quite at the level of gentleness of Demolition Man‘s anaemic police force, but if we’re supposed to think this is anything but a peaceful utopia, they needed to do something else.
Finally, two characters debate the morality of executing the terrorists. The debate is at the level of a child, arguing in terms of deterrence. Clearly the characters involved have completely failed to understand any of the implications of either the original crime or the effects of capital punishment. But, how could they – the conversation makes it clear there hasn’t been any execution in 40+ years. What do they do with their most serious criminals? We have no evidence, but the simple incomprehension of the characters make me wonder if crime that modern societies regard as meriting death is simply non-existant. Even so, the disconnection between the debators and the terrorists could hardly be greater. Once a group is willing to murder multiple thousands of people for their political ends, the issue has moved well and truly past the point where deterance is relevant concept. Acts on that scale speak to a deep-seated desperation and a total rejection of the status quo. The fiction offers absolutely no corroboration of that as a valid perspective, either by providing concrete facts or in the disposition of the terrorists themselves.
What it seems to me is that the creative team of Continuum have lifted the basic chasis of Time Trax and tried to impose relevance by invoking the concerns of modern corporate crony capitalism and the surveillance state. They’ve done this in a vague and unfocused way, hoping that the merest hint of such deep waters will satisfy their audience. Or maybe they were afraid that anything deeper would scare away their audience. In 1993 the producers of lightweight Science Fiction were completely content with their lot as facile entertainment, but in 2013 there is a drive for dark and edgy dramas. I think this show’s half-hearted quest for some kind of moral ambivalence is a lazy attempt to replicate the successes of mainstream non-genre TV. The difference in light levels must surely derive from the change initiated by The Sopranos. Almost all of the top-rated and critically-acclaimed TV of the last 10 years draws on the strain of moral ambivalence introduced, or at least strengthened, by Tony Soprano. Continuum is an expression of light-hearted fantasy, but hopes to satisfy those with darker tastes with these futile and short-sighted gestures toward bigger and darker issue, but all these gestures do is scratch its own thin veneer of charm. Instead, they should have looked, as Castle and The Mentalist have done, to fully embrace their happy escapist formulae. Time Trax, as a pre-Sopranos fiction, knows its place and happily stays there.
In 1993 even a fairly crap Science Fiction had only one gender to chose from for its protagonist. In 2013, the options have opened up a little, and so even if the vast bulk of leading characters remain male, a woman is at least a possibility. There is a woman in Time Trax – Lambert’s computer is represented by a holographic avatar that’s female. This was unremarkable in 1993, and probably today, but it’s hard for me not to see this as a little regressve. The single female character exists as an adjunct of the man, totally subservient to him, existing solely and explicitly for his use. Of course, we’re not supposed to think of her as a woman at all – but isn’t that always the point with these representations? A handful of years later Andromeda showed that there were more options for a character in this position. One of the things I enjoyed about that particular piece of SF fluff was that the cast was half women, and women who could more than hold their own against the male cast.
In Continuum this role is reversed. Our kick-ass female protagonist has a supporter, the youthful version of one of the world’s future corporate overlords. Having set-up the base protagonist pair that way, the show follows up by having no other significant female characters. The police she works with are all men. There are a couple of female terrotists, but virtually all the dialogue is given to the male characters. Lexa Doig does get one burst of lines – when she’s being held prisoner in an attempt to force the terrorists into a cease fire; so the only time a female terrorist speaks is when she’s a bargaining chip. What we have here then, is the classic Star Wars pitfall – it doesn’t matter how awesome your female character is if she’s the only one. I can’t help but feel like the use of a sexy female lead here isn’t so much about female empowerment as male fantasies of strong women. Our protagonist displays minimal emotion, so we never feel sorry for her even though she’s lost her whole world – instead, we’re supposed to enjoy her tight outfights and sassy talk. I think the fact I can barely recall her name one day after watching Episode 2 but can remember Lambert’s name after 20 years shows how forgettable she is as a character.
Lest we worry about her ditching her skin-tight basic outfit, it doubles as the repository for her technological arsenal. It’s a magic suit that can do everything from communicate with her adjunct to unlock cars to make her invisible. There hasn’t been a multi-function device as useful since the invention of the sonic screwdriver, and this leads to the same basically lazy approach to storytelling. When you have a magic wand, every problem looks like it’s a wish away from being solved. My favourite application of the suit was when she used it as a taser to shock someone while she was wearing handcuffs. I’m no expert, but I was under the vague impression that metal conducted electricity rather well.
Lambert in Time Trax was far more modestly equipped. While had a super-computer, she was not terribly much more powerful than a modern iPhone, and so solved relatively few of his problems. I suppose that the ubiquity of modern technology and its power for information processing means that a super-computer wouldn’t have cut it in terms of impressive SF.
Another key aspect of this technological change is in its shape. Lambert’s super-computer appears to be a credit card. The semiotics of that are obvious – money is good. But it’s also independent from Lambert physically. He can be separated from it, and he makes use of it as a distinct device. Kiera’s magic clothing is far more intimate and personal. To me, this suggests an anxiety over technological separation. Separated from his computer, Lambert’s got his nerve and savvy to rely on, but if we strip away Kiera’s technology, she’s both figuratively and literally naked, technology is an indispensable part of her operation.
Which brings us, at last, to the question of Time Travel. Time Trax had a very simplistic approach to the question. It was a concern, in a vague sort of way, but there was no real exploration of any of the classic time travel problems relating to paradox or unforeseen consequences of meddling generally. In other words, their treatment of Time Travel belongs to what I call the “Foreign Land” school. There is no functional difference between Lambert being a time traveller and being an alien. The one gimmicky use of Time Travel is that he reports back to the future by placing classified adverts in newspapers. This is one of the areas where the logic of the story barely holds together, because obviously all of Lambert’s future-messages are available simultaneously in the future as soon as the future becomes aware of the method. Thus, his boss in the future should be able to fully anticipate Lambert’s every move and hence the movements of all the criminals he captures, and short-circuit Lambert’s whole enterprise. This would point of something like the iterative approach of Deja Vu, but, of course, the show isn’t smart enough for that. In other words, it’s a show about time travel that wastes every possible use of the classic structures.
Continuum is similarly limp in its treatment, but at least it acknowledges that there is a wider philosophical landscape in one crucial scene where two characters discuss the two principal options of radical change versus hard determinism. Yet again, however, the technique employed is a somewhat cursory discussion, rather any kind of demonstration. While I think this scene was intended to prompt thought, to raise the issue as a possible thematic concern of the show, the cursory way in which it was treated and the glib tone of the conversation implies a dismissal. The discussion says, in effect, don’t worry about this topic – see, we’ve checked the box for time travel problems, you can go back to sleep now. The only interesting aspect to the time travel per se is that the criminals over-shot their mark, and so intend to travel forward in time to get where they intended to go. The discussion of this decision amongst the terrorists is as poorly structured as everything else. Neither side makes anything like a coherent or rational argument, but nor do they deploy any specific or personal reasons either. The story has reserved the time and space for a debate, and regards that placeholder as sufficient.
All things considered, both shows are terrible, but Continuum is bordering on being actually offensive to me. Now, I recognise that I’ve watched two of the ten episodes, and perhaps my concerns are more than addressed as the series wends on. Perhaps we see a clear directive on the politics of the show, revealing the biting criticism of corporate capitalism that my tree-hugging side hopes it has. Perhaps they smarten up on their use of technology so that I’m more convinced by her suit than by Hermoine’s magic wand. Maybe we get another strong female character emerging, to have something like a good gender balance. But the show was so ineptly put together on every level, that I doubt I’ll ever find out first hand.