by Dr. Sam Wetherell (University of York)
Every historian, regardless of field or rank, should stop what they are doing and watch a mediocre NBC Sci-Fi drama released last year called Timeless. The hero of this show is Lucy, a young assistant professor of history at Stanford who has just been denied tenure. The same day she gets the news, government officials turn up at her house and whisk her away to a secret compound where she is told that a hubristic Elon Musk style billionaire has invented a time machine which has been stolen by “terrorists”. As an expert in the past, she is recruited to use a reserve time machine to chase them through history, catching them before they alter the past. Accompanying her is a wide-chinned military strongman (Wyatt) and a pilot-cum-scientific prodigy (Rufus). Each episode they go back to a different canonical moment in American (or occasionally European) history from the Alamo to the Moon Landing to (bizarrely) Houdini’s first performance. The show is sometimes forced into performing feats of counterfactual gymnastics to justify the historical significance of some of these heavily mythologised events (the moon landing must be completed, for example, so the Russians don’t win the Cold War).
Timeless is not necessarily great television, but it’s a wonderful compendium of information about how the wider public imagine the role of a historian. Needless to say, it is a spectacularly, gloriously inaccurate portrayal, which is part of the show’s immense entertainment. In the first episode, the trio go back to the Hindenburg disaster where Lucy reels off, from memory, the precise time and date of the explosion, as well as the weather, the wind direction and the number of turns the blimp will make in the air. When the gang go back to the Lincoln Assassination, Lucy notes that “Hundreds of books have been written about Booth’s movements today… [I] wrote one of them.” Over and over again Lucy is presented as a dispassionate chronicler of events, a walking Wikipedia article who can tell you the number of exits to the hotel where the serial killer H. H. Holmes murdered his victims or the exact time of day that Bonnie and Clyde were apprehended by the police. Just as House’s Dr. Gregory House is “the best” doctor and Sherlock is “the best” detective Lucy is “the best” historian, a flawless and patriotic empiricist who is often seen flirting in awed admiration with her flesh and blood subjects.
As the series progresses the trio learn of a shadowy organization called Rittenhouse, a secret society who have their fingerprints on all of the major events of American history. Rittenhouse is named after David Rittenhouse an eighteenth century American intellectual (who actually existed). The organisation have been a depthless and ubiquitous presence both throughout the past and in the present where they are quietly bankrolling the eccentric billionaire’s time machine project. The organization was conceived during the American revolution and shown to be led by figures such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller. Would it be reading too much into the show to see Rittenhouse an allegory for American capitalism?
Probably the most interesting character in the show is Rufus, the ship’s pilot and resident scientist who, as an African American, has a very different experience of time travel to his companions. Despite his mathematical genius Rufus is repeatedly patronized by a parade of historical figures (include an insufferably drunk Hemmingway) and often forced to keep out of sight. In one episode, he hangs out with free black soldiers at the end of the Civil War lamenting their enthusiasm for a false dawn of racial justice. In another he awkwardly infiltrates a black panther sect.
Perhaps the best reason to watch Timeless, however, is for its central dilemma: what is the historian’s relationship to the past? Lucy’s companions, particularly the trigger-happy Wyatt, want to save the Hindenburg, kill all the Nazis and make small amends to the past that will better their own lives in the future. For them, time travel is an opportunity to improve the present. For Lucy, however, American history is a precious artefact in need of preservation. Although Lincoln was her childhood hero he must die in order to preserve the script of history. As well as being the most prominent pop-cultural representation of our own profession produced in the last few years Timeless inadvertently poses an essential question about how historians work. Is the past immutable, finished and primed for dispassionate analysis? Or is history a set of ethical questions that demand answers drawn from the normative vocabulary of the present? Watch the second season of Timeless to find out.