Friday, August 31, 2012

Continuum: The New Politics of Time Travel

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on August 31, 2012. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Rachel Nichols stars in Continuum on Showcase

I’m a sucker for time travel stories. My first favourite film was Terry Gilliam’s wildly surreal Time Bandits: I was taken to see it for my 11th birthday, and can still vividly recall the delight I felt leaving the theatre that afternoon.  And I’m certainly not alone in my enthusiasm. There is something uniquely compelling about the time travel conceit, and there’s a good reason why it remains one of the more popular subjects in science fiction literature, film, and television. Time travel plots are eminently adaptable – they can be ridiculous or grave, simplistic or painfully complex. They can be camp (Time Bandits), philosophical (La Jetée), juvenile (Hot Tub Time Machine), geeky (Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel), or can just plain mess with your head (Primer). From the giddy fun of the Back to the Future trilogy, to the patently movie-of-the-week quality of The Philadelphia Experiment, to the smash and grab Snipes/Stallone vehicle Demolition Man, I have eagerly consumed them all. The Harlan Ellison-authored original Star Trek classic “City on the Edge of Forever” set the standard for me at an early age – somehow covering many of the light and heavy aspects of time travel in one brief hour of television. But when it comes to series television, the results have been more hit and miss. From the Time Bandits-inspired, delightfully cheesy, perhaps rightfully short-lived Voyagers!, to the more human-centred (and often sublime) Quantum Leap almost a decade later,  the too-quickly-cancelled Journeyman on NBC, and the BBC’s magnificent Life on Mars, time travel is a challenging format for a continuing series. And so when Showcase premiered its new science fiction/police drama Continuum in late May 2012, I made sure to tune in.

Rachel Nichols and Victor Webster in a scene from Continuum
Continuum tells the story of Protector Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols, the green-skinned and fleeting love interest of a young Captain Kirk in 2009’s Star Trek), a police officer from Vancouver 2077 who is thrown back in time to 2012 when a group of future terrorist/rebels orchestrate a complicated escape plan from prison. In 2012, Kiera meets up with young genius Alec Sadler (Erik Knudsen) and together they work to prevent those criminals from changing the future, and try to figure out how to get Kiera back home to her family in 2077. The future that Kiera is fighting to maintain from criminal interference is an oddly dystopian place: a technologically advanced, post-democratic corporate state which covers most of North America. Some years before 2077, the governments had failed and the corporations stepped in – giving whole new meaning to the phrase “corporate bailout.” The rebel group, Liber8, sees it as a dictatorial hell in which all freedom and democracy has been destroyed. Lead by Edouard Kagame (charismatically portrayed by Tony Amendola from the Vancouver-produced Stargate SG-1), the group is committed to toppling the corporations in charge. Now set loose in the past, they are determined to win a war that hasn’t even begun yet.

On the surface, this broad plot isn’t altogether original, and indeed was initially reminiscent of the recently cancelled Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles for its time travel element, its kickass female lead, and her capable-beyond-his-years male teen sidekick. And at first these commonalities didn’t bode well for me. As much as I enjoyed The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it never quite transcended its pulp sensibilities, nor took full advantage of the time travel elements of its format. At first, Continuum seemed similarly cut-and-dried. Its opening scenes too quickly painted Liber8 with a wide, post-9/11 brush, and I initially began to suspect that the series didn’t have any real sense of how its choice of political players would resonate in our actual 2012 world. While the series’ choices were clearly inspired by the recent Occupy movement, and the on-going debate in the U.S. over individual versus corporate rights, I found it hard to identify with Kiera’s mission to protect the corporations from a populist, albeit rather violent, revolution – all of which had the ironic result of making those first episodes feel simultaneously current and out of touch. When we first meet the denizens of 2077, it is difficult to make out what Continuum believes about this not-so-distant future, or really how Kiera herself feels about it. Was Kiera just a patsy, a true believer in a system which hardly seems worth fighting for? Since we couldn’t root for Liber8 – who, as the opening credits repeatedly remind us, are “terrorists who killed thousands of innocents” – I wasn’t entirely sure where I was supposed to stand.

Tony Amendola as Edouard Kagame
But the series soon found a surer footing, not surprisingly by slowly shaking up Kiera’s own sense of purpose. The first episodes flashback (flashforward?) to Kiera as an eager young recruit, gleefully submitting herself to biotech upgrades and memory implants, but fortunately that sheen begins to wear off as the season progresses. The moral certitude and good conscience of that younger Kiera and her voiceover in the opening credits slowly unravels, as we witness more of the events of 2012 and more is revealed about Kiera’s world – both public and private – in 2077. Thankfully, the season also begins to complicate the lives and motivations of the Liber8 characters, whose roads to terrorism are revealed to be equally diverse: some are fanatical idealists, some are blunt opportunists, others just have poor luck or love wrongheadedly. And by midseason, and notably once Kagame is reintroduced as a central character, Continuum’s big story began to reveal itself – a rich mix of political conspiracies, temporal mechanics, and genuinely fleshed-out personalities.

Continuum is filmed on location, and set, in Vancouver and it brings with it a lot of familiar Canadian faces from sci-fi TV past, including Victor Webster (Mutant X) as Vancouver PD Detective Carlos Fonnegra, Lexa Doig (Andromeda), and William B. Davis (the Smoking Man on X-Files). I am always pleased when a Canadian-produced series owns its Canadianness (see also CTV’s long-running Flashpoint and CTV/NBC’s recent medical drama Saving Hope, both of which are filmed and set in Toronto). But there were some strange missteps early on which were especially odd for a production that boasts all-Canadian writing. While Vancouver in 2077 might be located within an expansive North American alliance, Vancouver in 2012 remains very much in Canada – yet those early episodes hint at some significant confusion of geopolitical borders, e.g. the odd obedience the local Canadian police force had to Kiera’s fraudulent American credentials, or using the word “Feds” to indicate a security agency. (True to our long history of federalism, “feds” in Canadian parlance refers to the federal government as a whole, and not to an investigative wing of the government like the FBI as it does in American TV-speak.) Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by CBC’s sublime Canadian spy drama Intelligence – another great Vancouver based series, unconscionably cancelled in 2008 – whose two seasons were almost entirely made up of interagency machinations and cross-border intrigue. Add to that the implication in one early episode of Continuum that somehow Canada had an “advanced weapons research program” in 2012 and this Canadian's disbelief was unwilling to be suspended for long.

Erik Knudsen and Rachel Nichols
But these issues too worked themselves out as the season progressed. By the end of the season the show finally brought in some real Canadian Intelligence characters, in the form of veteran genre actor and British Columbia native Nicolas Lea (his character of Krycek on X-Files has long been a favourite of mine – and I still joyously yell “Krycek!” to the TV screen whenever Lea shows up) as CSIS Agent Gardiner. (CSIS is the closest agency Canada has to something like – but importantly not really identical to – the CIA.) Continuum’s season finale promised a more central role for Lea’s character in Season 2 and I definitely hope they follow up on it!

A recurrent theme of some of the best of time travel stories is free will and fate. If the past is already determined, how can the present be otherwise?  Early in the first episode, young Alec (clever, exposition-ready, boy that he is) offers Kiera his take on the two dominant theories of time travel: “On the one hand, you have already changed the future by going back in time. The damage is done …” And the other? “That this journey is part of your own timeline from the future… all of these events actually happened before, you’re simply going through the motions, again.” As the season progresses, it seems that the creators of Continuum are offering a playful take on the second, though it is not yet clear whether it is Kiera or the Liber8 crew who are there to preserve the future timeline. By the end of the final episode, even Kiera herself has begun to question the nature of her mission, both politically and metaphysically. I am certainly going to enjoy watching her try to find the answers.

On August 25th, Showcase renewed Continuum for a second season. A couple of days later, SyFy announced that it would soon be airing the show’s first season for American audiences.  Perhaps the future isn’t quite so bleak after all?