Under the Radar: Travelers

Welcome to the 21st

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Under the Radar is a column by Strange Harbors that explores hidden gems in pop culture. Whether it's a little seen film, an underappreciated television show, or a forgotten comic, there's a lot of quality stuff out there that goes relatively unnoticed. This column's job is to shine an oft-needed light on these overlooked, but ultimately worthwhile, works. This week, we'll be taking a look at the Canadian sci-fi import that's currently streaming on Netflix: Travelers.

When you open up your internet browser today in the digital streaming age, you're most likely to be inundated with thousands upon thousands of TV shows, all but a few mouse clicks away. With so many options out there, the mainstream television audience likes to be validated in its entertainment choices. Typically risk-averse, it is afraid of the unknown, afraid of the unfamiliar, and afraid of investing in things that might fall short of their lofty expectations. It's easy to see why the public jumps onto popular and critically acclaimed bandwagons like Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, and Black Mirror; chock full of "oh, shit" moments and meme-ready dialogue, and produced with massive advertising budgets for maximum social media exposure, these shows seem to be tailored specifically for consumption by the masses. There's nothing wrong with liking or loving these popular shows, and oftentimes they are incredible in their own right, but sometimes you just have to wonder what else is out there besides the pre-approved zeitgeist. This brings us to Travelers, a show developed for Canada's Showcase network by Stargate SG-1 creator Brad Wright. Even with two thrilling seasons under its belt, the series has largely flown under the radar. Outside of a few fledgling mentions here and there and an admittedly healthy subreddit, there's not much out there devoted to the show. And I'll tell you now what a shame that is, because Travelers is fantastic.

At first glance, Travelers is a straightforward time-travel story: a squad of individuals from an unspecified time in the future travels back to the past to prevent an apocalyptic dystopia. Personally, I've been burned enough times by shows like this to be wary of the potential for disappointment, as high concept series with solid premises but no followthrough are a dime a dozen (see the Lost-clones era of shows like The Event, Flashforward, Surface, Day Break). Fortunately, Travelers is the furthest thing from an empty promise. At its center is one hell of a twist on the time-travel conceit, and more importantly, a beating heart of extremely likeable characters whose development and chemistry remain the focus of the show throughout its run. The series focuses on one cell of five "travelers", sent back in time by the mysterious and unseen Director to alter events in the present in an attempt to avert catastrophe. However, instead of conventional time travel we've seen before in other stories, the method that Travelers employs involves sending consciousnesses back to permanently "possess" living people in the present. To address the ethics of essentially murdering someone in the present with the mind of an agent from the future, the Director strictly chooses individuals who are about to die - the targets are usually victims of accidents or crime. The agents then covertly carry out their missions with their team while also maintaining their "host" identities' lives. This novel concept introduces realistic and compelling conflicts for our cast as they juggle their dangerous missions with their pedestrian covers, and also introduces deliciously complex situations that arise from taking over someone else's life. Our ensemble cast includes an FBI agent (Eric McCormack, in a refreshing change of pace from his role on Will & Grace), a young mother grappling with an abusive boyfriend (Nesta Cooper), a high-school bully and delinquent (Jared Abrahamson), a heroin addict (Reilly Dolman), and a librarian (Mackenzie Porter). Interestingly enough, some of the show's most intriguing moments actually don't involve the Travelers' missions, but rather the complications that arise from maintaining their cover identities. For example, the Traveler that inhabits Marcy the librarian's body finds out that her host isn't a librarian at all, as the Director's research suggested, but a mentally challenged woman whose librarian persona was a socialization exercise conducted by her social worker (played with great empathy and impeccable comedic timing by Patrick Gilmore), complete with Facebook profiles et al. Let's just say it's a little difficult to maintain a cover when you're an intellectually disabled person who has suddenly and completely regained your mental faculties overnight.

Travelers' biggest assets are its unpredictability and its tendency to breathe new life into tired ideas. We've all seen variations of the abusive boyfriend plot, the viral pandemic trope, or the ticking bomb cliche, and the show utilizes all of them and then some; however, you'll never see more surprising or intelligent extrapolations of these oft-used devices. Travelers will surprise you, and with remarkable consistency. And speaking as someone who has spent a good amount of time on www.tvtropes.org, that's saying something. Many series these days are satisfied spinning their wheels, afraid to upset the balance, but Travelers' penchant for twists and turns also fuels its breakneck pace, and propels its reputation as a show that isn't afraid to blow up the status quo to drive momentum forward. Of course, even the world's best script doesn't mean a thing without an able cast to back it up, which brings us to Travelers' other bright spot: its stellar cast.

Every member of the show's ensemble pulls his or her own weight, without a weak link in sight. Eric McCormack flexes his no-nonsense leadership muscles as FBI agent Grant MacLaren, while also displaying some surprisingly great chemistry with his host's wife Kathryn (Leah Cairns, Battlestar Galactica). Nesta Cooper's Carly Shannon, the team's tactician, gets some great action beats as well as some poignant emotional moments taking care of her host's infant son and evading her violent alcoholic boyfriend Jeff (J. Alex Brinson, in a role that isn't as one dimensional as you would expect). Jared Abrahamson as Trevor Holden, the team's engineer, is note perfect as an old soul stuck in a teenager's body and has some of the show's funniest moments. Reilly Dolman's Phillip Pearson, the group's historian, is also great, convincingly conveying the struggles of an addiction that isn't his own and a deep internal conflict regarding the fates of people he know will die in the present. And finally, we have Mackenzie Porter as medic Marcy Warton, who is undeniably the heart of the show. Without giving too much away, Porter is fantastic in a role that is central to some of Travelers' most shocking twists, playing slightly different versions of the same character across two seasons. Her chemistry with Patrick Gilmore's sweet-natured yet conflicted social worker David Mailer is also one of the show's highlights, in a relationship that easily could have devolved into something incredibly creepy and unethical. 

The antagonists of Travelers are no slouch either. Whether its a Machiavellian splinter group of time travelers known as The Faction, or an early Traveler with a grudge against The Director played by the versatile Enrico Colantoni (Veronica MarsPerson of Interest), the villains of the story are layered and sympathetic. Moral ambiguity always adds another level of intrigue, and sci-fi fans who love a show that operates in the grey will love Travelers, as the clashes portrayed are never as simple as just good vs. evil.

As of right now, there are only two seasons of Travelers streaming on Netflix with no news of a third season on the way just yet. Hopefully, Netflix will realize the gem they have on their hands and renew the show. It's one of those rare instances where the concept, script, and execution coalesce into something truly special and imaginative, grounded by a fantastic cast, and I can't wait to revisit this world created by Brad Wright and company.