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The paradox in Timeless is a feature, not a bug

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Mar 24, 2018, 4:44 PM EDT (Updated)

In the very first episode of NBC’s Timeless, our trio of unlikely heroes breaks the biggest time-traveling rule of them all: Don’t change anything.

Like Star Trek’s Prime Directive or the hard and fast rule that your freshly buttered toast will always fall butter side down, this paradox rule is one of those tenets of time travel that any self-respecting science fiction fan will hold up like the oft-joked-about East German judge at the Olympics -- a glaring 4.9 in a sea of 6.0's.

You DON’T do it.

Timeless does it.

And that’s a good thing. It’s also part of what makes Timeless work as well as it does.

If you’re not familiar with the show, Timeless follows three people who end up on a time-travel mission that only one of them actually signed up for (and none of them was actually planning on) when a time machine is stolen by a former NSA agent determined to change history for reasons we don’t yet know.

Wyatt Logan (Matt Lanter) is a U.S. Delta Force soldier who has been assigned to the top-secret project and is still dealing with PTSD and the death of his wife. Lucy Preston (Abigail Spencer) is a history professor with a passion for and encyclopedic knowledge of all things past, and Rufus Carlin (Malcolm Barrett) is an engineer who is working on the project when the Mothership is stolen by Garcia Flynn (Goran Višnjić). Once the Mothership is stolen, Rufus is unexpectedly thrust into the driver’s seat of the original prototype (aka the LifeBoat) along with Lucy and Wyatt, both to find out what Flynn’s doing and to keep it from happening.

In the pilot, Garcia Flynn goes back in time to change the events surrounding the Hindenburg disaster. As the episode unfolds, we learn Flynn wants the airship to complete its maiden flight because he plans to crash it on its return flight, thus killing key figures in history. Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus have been told their mission is to make sure Flynn doesn’t get away with it, but also have strict orders not to interfere with the original timeline.

Imagine... there you are, back in time, knowing people have to die in a horrible crash and knowing you have to help that happen, all while trying to stop someone who’s actively working against history. Every person you talk to, every action you take has the possibility to alter time and send ripples through history in any number of ways.

What would you do?

This is where the real heart of Timeless is. Not in the cool logic of science, but in the heart of fiction.

Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus successfully stop Flynn, but passengers who were fated to die have survived. History has been changed. The Hindenburg still explodes, but on the return trip to Europe. During the trio’s attempt to stop Flynn, their actions cause the ship to be grounded in time for passengers to flee. Instead of 36 people being killed, only a handful die, thus causing a butterfly effect.

Because of the mechanics of time travel and the LifeBoat itself, Lucy, Wyatt, and Rufus remember history as we do, but when they return, they return to a world that knows only the new timeline.

It’s these changes that tend to be a sticking point with science fiction fans who also like the rules science fiction usually applies. Timeless does adhere to some of those rules: They can’t go back in time and meet themselves, and if something is meant to happen, it’s likely going to find a way to happen, because time has a tendency to right itself. Even the belief that some things are fate, which is another science fiction/fantasy rule.

But the big rule, the "YOU DON’T CHANGE THE PAST" rule, the Prime Directive of time travel as many fans understand it -- that one’s been blown out of the water pretty much from the beginning.

That said, as we all know, Star Trek ignored the Prime Directive multiple times, and it was usually due to someone trying to save someone (or several someones) in one form or another.

Sometimes the Timeless trio can save people, sometimes they can’t, but they always try to be on both the right side of history and the right side of humanity. Like Quantum Leap, the real heart of Timeless is about giving people a different perspective on historic events while also teaching history and telling a compelling story.

Within that framework, Timeless can pick any time in history and any place. It can put a black man from today’s world in 1930s New Jersey, or the Civil War era, and make us keenly aware of a side of life we may have never understood before. It can put a modern woman in the past and have her meet key women in history, like Marie Curie or Hedy Lamarr, or take a modern soldier and put him on a battlefield a century before he was ever born.

We know the history of the Alamo, but do we really understand what it would have been like to be there? We know Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, but what would it have been like to be in the theater? And if you knew you had a chance to save him or let him die, what would you do?

In the pilot, Lucy is very committed to the idea that you don’t change anything. She gets it on an intellectual level, and she’s willing to make hard choices. But Wyatt, who’s dealing with the death of his wife, tries to save a woman who reminds him of his late wife. Lucy’s trying to avoid making a mess, and Wyatt reminds her that life is messy.

Messy, as we know, is where most good drama comes from, and while Timeless allows its leads to deal with events, it never forgets the costs of those actions. When Lucy returns home after the first mission, she comes home to a life she’s never actually lived. A life in which her family has changed, her life has changed, and her relationship status has changed all around her.

That change is a very real consequence for her actions in the past. How it happened and where it happened, we don’t know, but Timeless isn’t letting its characters off the hook for the actions they take, nor should it. There should be consequences. If for no other reason than it would feel less aligned to our “rules” than it does now.

So, as an experiment, let me offer this. If you haven’t watched because of the paradox issue, watch it knowing paradox is part of the show’s DNA, and watch it from a different perspective. Sticking to the “rules” of science fiction is all well and good, but the fiction side of Timeless is what makes the show special, and the messy parts of the series are where everyone shines.