Time travel is big on TV this year. There are at least four series set to hit our screens in the coming months that include the classic sci-fi trope.
But the first show to get in on the action this season is NBC’s “Timeless,” which premieres Monday at 10 p.m. EST.
From showrunners Eric Kripke (“Supernatural,” “Revolution”) and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield” and briefly “The Get Down”), “Timeless” follows a trio of heroes — Wyatt (Matt Lanter), a soldier; Lucy (Abigail Spencer), an anthropologist; and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), a scientist and pilot — tasked with tracking down and stopping time-travelling villains who are intent on changing history.
Business Insider talked to Kripke and Ryan about time-travel shows, the challenges of their black character, and how another failed show helped to strengthen “Timeless.”
Jethro Nededog: There are several time-travel shows this season. What brought you guys to that?
Eric Kripke: Long before we knew of other pitches, we really explored the idea and were excited by the idea of just making a time-travel show that had a story engine that every week you went to a different historical period. It really lends itself to a network show, because every single week there’s a fascinating, exciting, visceral story somewhere in history and I think we can sort of understand where you can get 22 really great episodes out of that. It really came from not watching any trends or seeing what else is out there, but what would be a really exciting show with a lot of variety.
One thing I’d like to add is, we get this question a lot about all the time-travel shows that are out there and it reminds me of in 2005, that was the same year there was “Invasion” and “Surface” and “Nightstalker,” all of these very similar shows and I used to get this exact question, which is, “But there’s so many monster shows out there?” And my answer now is really my answer then, which is, “Yeah, but I’m gonna focus on our show and I’m going to make our show the most kicka–, amazing version of it possible and have it just be the best one and then the rest is out of my control.”
Shawn Ryan: Nobody gets too worked up if there are three medical shows on TV or three cop shows on TV. It all comes down to the individual execution. That’s what we can control and we premiere October 3 on NBC after “The Voice” and people are either going to embrace us or reject us before it ever becomes a question about these other shows.
Nededog: Did you always plan to include a black main character?
Ryan: It was written that way. You’re always looking for something new, even if it’s like a time-travel thing. And we were certainly fans of earlier time-travel things, whether it’s “Back to the Future,” “Quantum Leap.” You’re always looking for some new thing to approach it and so you talk about the idea of sending an African-American character back in time and what obstacles that creates. And when you’re a show creator, you’re looking for obstacles because that’s drama — that’s what gets you excited. OK, here’s the obstacle, how is our character going to overcome this? So that was one of the earliest things. It also seemed disingenuous in this day and age to tell a story that would lack that diversity in some way. So it seemed like a modern take on the idea of time travel.
Nededog: The premiere episode takes place in the late 1930s and Rufus is forced to explain himself to the other characters on the episode. How will each episode deal with this?
Ryan: I don’t know about that. Each historical situation will be different. Episode two, and this is something where all our research came in to help, on the specific day we go back in time, the Civil War has just ended. It’s a celebration and there was actually incredibly optimistic talk for African-American people right up until Lincoln was assassinated. So he comes back to a time that he’s expecting to be awful and finds it to actually be a little more progressive and inclusive than he anticipated. That’s true history right there. So the situations are always going to be different. He doesn’t need to give a big speech every episode about it, but there will be different ways we tackle the subject each week.
Nededog: Part of the characters’ goal is to make sure nothing in the past is altered, because that will alter something in the future. One of the characters learns that the hard way. It’s pretty heartbreaking.
Ryan: I was so frustrated, because I worked for a year for Joss Whedon but he was the one who told me a Joss Whedon quote that I had never heard. Joss always found on “Buffy” that the most successful episodes were the ones where they put their characters in pain rather than peril and that’s been a great touchstone for me. You want to really dig into the emotional life of these characters more than it is about putting them in the middle of shootouts. We will have the occasional shootout.
Kripke: Sure, lots of shootouts
Ryan: But those aren’t the emotional center of the episodes.
Kripke: The reality is it’s about stakes, right? At the end of the day, you know that your three leads are most likely not going to die. So in the back of their heads, every time the audience is watching a shootout or a death-defying situation, they deep down know that it’s going to be ok. But what you can do is have emotional stakes and you can screw a character up emotionally, so that they are going to carry that wound forever and that’s something real. And your audience can really hope that that’s not going to happen or be emotionally horrified that it does. When you’re living in the world of emotion, it really allows you to have things happen on the show that frankly are a lot more dangerous to the lives of your characters than just a shootout.
Nededog: Eric, the last time we talked was between the first and second seasons of “Revolution” [it was canceled after the second season]. Any takeaways from that experience?
Kripke: Oh yeah, in a very specific way. In certain ways for me, “Timeless” is a reaction to “Revolution.”
“Revolution” was, by a mile, the hardest show I ever worked on. One of the reasons it was so hard is because it was straight, serialized genre drama over 22 episodes of network television, which was really damn hard to maintain. So when I was toying with the idea of doing a network show again, I said to myself, “If I’m going to do this, it needs to have a humming story engine that I know I can sit in the writers’ room and get 22 episodes out of.”
And so then as Shawn and I were talking, we landed on this idea of you have a different historical period every week, with a different mystery in that historical period and meeting fascinating characters within that time, in a very genre way.
One of the reasons I think “Supernatural” is in its 12th year is because it has a humming story engine. If there’s a ghost story out in America, then “Supernatural” can make a story out of it. So there can literally be and there are hundreds of episodes. At some point during the creation of “Revolution,” I forgot that good lesson. You can do that in cable, for 10 episodes, but I think if you’re going to do a network show, it was good to re-learn that lesson and come up with a very efficient story engine, which I think “Timeless” has.
“Revolution” was such a weird, beautiful show. I have great affection for that show. But f—, man, that was a hard show to make.
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