The closest any of us can come to time travel is consuming entertainment created in another time period. The clothes, makeup and hairstyles are always an obvious reminder that a film or TV show is from another time, but it’s the invisible parts that really help situate us in that other time and place: The diversity of the cast, the importance (or lack thereof) of women and minorities to the plotline, the hundred little bits of societal expectation so ingrained in this time and place they don’t need to be made textual.
When the heroes of “Sleepy Hollow” or “Outlander” find themselves in a different decade or century, it’s often these rules that flummox them — and garner the suspicion of the time-locals who must explain to them that of course this is how we treat women or why are you washing your hands, are you a witch? The 1979 film “Time After Time,” the inspiration for the new ABC series, is most obviously a product of its time — it goes unquestioned that only Malcolm McDowell’s ever-competent time traveler is able to save the day and of course Mary Steenburgen’s winsome embassy worker exists entirely to fall for him, and then into danger, in that order.
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H.G. Wells (here, Freddie Stroma), the protagonist of both film and the new TV series (as well as the 1979 Karl Alexander novel which inspired both) is a clever choice to bring to the future. Best known now as the pioneer of several subgenres of science fiction in works such as “The Time Machine,” “The Island of Dr. Moreau” and “The War of the Worlds.”
What’s less known is that Wells spent much of his time as a social advocate, using his privileged position to speak as an educator and lecturer on topics such as feminism, socialism, and non-monogamy. Above all, he was an optimist, carrying his lecturing career through to World War II spreading a message of pacifism and anti-fascism, along with an unshakeable belief in humanity. Little could he have guessed that his common-sense, progressive philosophies would still be largely controversial over a century later… Making him a fascinating choice for a time traveler.
Of course, his fish-out-of-water experiences in 2017 are only half of this show’s hook; the other half is the reason for his jaunt to the future — to catch Jack the Ripper.
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The legendarily unidentified serial killer is fictionalized in this property as Wells’s pal, the fictional surgeon Jack Stevenson: His escape to the future explains one of the most persistent questions about the murders — why did they suddenly end, despite a suspect never being arrested? And finding himself in either the 20th or 21st centuries delights him, as he states in the film, “”Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Now… I’m an amateur.”
Jack’s stumbled into a world where there are fandoms for the most gruesome of serial killers, when “My Favorite Murder” is at the top of the comedy podcast listings and series based on O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsay are topics of watercooler discussion. It’s not that modern society are inured to serial killers; they’ve become an accepted part of the world, though always something that happens to someone else… Until it doesn’t.
The Ripper murders combine social history, women’s history, and the history of forensics, as well as a whodunnit element that’s proven irresistible to countless novelists, armchair detectives, and film and TV producers. Fans of the investigation, known as “Ripperologists,” generally agree upon a shortlist of suspects, all of them upper class and each with experience to explain the surgical precision of many of the killing blows.
“Time After Time” proffers a perpetrator with a noxious blend of arrogance and misogyny, played in the film by David Warner and the show by “Revenge” hunk Joshua Bowman. His casting is especially intriguing — his innate charisma and good looks hinting, perhaps, at a “Dexter”-style sympathy for the devil.
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In a very 2017, Shondaland-era touch, other than the two white male leads the show includes a handful of diverse characters. Most notably, the female lead is a new character portrayed by “Entourage’s” Génesis Rogriguez. She has a different name and job than Steenburgen’s character and, given the societal expectations for a 2017 network drama, seems poised to take a more active role than Steenburgen was able to — though, true to the tropes of this genre, sparks seem poised to fly between her and Stroma’s Wells. Nicole Ari Parker and Jordin Sparks are also series regulars, crucially helping balance the gender scales on a show that is, after all, about a serial killer targeting vulnerable women.
How would the real Wells react to the 21st century? The terror, war, and contentious political climate would surely come as a blow to a man who envisioned a Roddenberry-esque Utopian future. The Ripper murders are of a piece with contemporary society, a place where women still fall victim to violent men with a tragic regularity. Yet somehow, improbably, both the book and film convey a sense of lightness and charm — perhaps owing to the indefatigable nature of their protagonist. The show seems poised to follow suit, conveying a breezy, romcom feel in its trailer. Who knows — perhaps a visit from the time-displaced Wells is just the balm we all need.
“Time After Time” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT, on ABC. The two-hour premiere airs Mar. 5, in its regular timeslot.
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