(SPOILER ALERT: I’m talking about the new show, TIMELESS and revealing details about the pilot episode. If you have not seen, but want to, you may want to stop reading…)
Since the first promos began airing for NBC’s TIMELESS, I’ve been very interested in the show. I love time travel stories, and when they have a good does of history thrown in, well, call me hooked.
If you are not familiar with the details of the show, here are the basics…
A rogue spy breaks into a lab and steals a time machine. Homeland security gets involved and calls on a history professor, a soldier, and one of the machine’s inventors to go back in time (with a second, and much older machine) to stop the man from changing history.
An intriguing premise, right? So the other night I eagerly sat on the couch and settled in to watch the pilot. I couldn’t help but think about the longevity of a show like this. Would it be able to keep viewers’ attention? Would I fall in the love with the show, only to have it cancelled? A problem with most shows I enjoy. No matter, I kept my fingers crossed and hoped the writing and acting was decent – but then came the opening and ALL the backstory.
Just like writing an opening chapter, there has to be a general understanding of the plot, character, and stakes, but I have a huge issue with stories that begin with a large dose of “here’s what you need to know.”
Opening with the crashing of the Hindenburg felt like the writers were shoveling detail after detail at the viewer. Winking, nodding, and saying, “hey, this is important, don’t miss it.” They even set the scene with all the early foreshadowing: the beautiful female photographer, the anticipation of the press, the imminent crash.
I thought about this beginning long and hard. Could the story open in modern day with the history teacher and still work? In fact, I went back and watched the episode twice to see. And the truth is, in my opinion, that without the Hindenburg scene, the story still would have worked.
There were several times in the show where history, and the Hindenburg tragedy, were discussed. It would have been easy through dialogue, and even photos, to describe the scene. Allow the viewers to get a handle on the tragedy (if they weren’t already aware) through other methods rather than handing them a glob of backstory. In addition, it would have been much more startling (and a boon to the time travel theme) to see the goliath of an airship for the first time when the three adventurers step out of their time machine. The image would have solidified their journey, but would have also made clear the magnitude of what they were about to attempt.
When I give editing feedback, I often encourage the writer to slowly weave in backstory. Use small bits of detail to allow the reader to understand the main character’s goals and journey. If done slowly, and methodically, often times the reader does not even know they are learning important nuggets of information. By using this approach in TIMELESS, I would have slowly been enmeshed in the story and gradually learned more about the main characters.
How could this have worked? Imagine if the Hindenburg images were up on the screen when we first meet the history professor? We as viewers would have seen and understood her connection to history. What if when they were in the warehouse, and the military man assigned to the case saw the image of the photographer, he immediately had a connection to her? This would have provided great set-up for his mysterious need to save her. In both cases you still get the necessary information, yet it is delivered in a more seamless way.
When it comes to any fantasy or science-fiction story the idea of positioning backstory is a tricky concept. There has to be a conscious decision on how you as a writer will deliver information and explain how characters got to that specific place and time. I do believe with a slow delivery of information, and methodical placement of critical story details, it can be done well.
As the show moves forward, I’ll be curious to see if they begin every episode in this manner or if they’ll allow the plot to evolve naturally. It is a great premise, and I hope the writers will force the characters to take over and tell the tale, rather than presenting history in a summarized platform. In the meantime, I’ll be sitting on my couch watching and hoping for the best.