Netflix fills a sci-fi hole in its originals lineup with Altered CarbonI don’t know what to expect of Netflix’s Altered Carbon, a series based on the 2002 cyberpunk novel that’s released tomorrow. But I do know that there are already at least two great streaming sci-fi series on Netflix and Hulu. And these stories are built around the greatest science fiction concept of all: time travel.
Time travel rules. Let’s look at the evidence:
The Terminator? It rules.
Terminator 2: Judg(e)ment Day? It rules, too. The hope that time travel will eradicate any lingering memories of the other Terminator movies? That also rules.
Back to the Future? It rules in triplicate.
The best Star Trek movie? EZ. First Contact. Why? Time. Travel. Speaking of which, the greatest thing that another Enterprise captain, Scott Bakula, ever did? Quantum Leap. Which is a time travel show. QED.
With this fact firmly established, I’m truly astonished that there hasn’t been more said about two already available, already great time-travel streaming TV shows: Future Man on Hulu and Travelers on Netflix. I think every Ars reader should watch and enjoy them. Every last one of you.
Hulu’s Future Man thrusts Josh “Future Man” Futterman (Josh Hutcherson, or, “isn’t he the dude from The Hunger Games?”) into a fight for humanity’s survival. He becomes the first person to beat a video game that was sent back through time in a bid to find a warrior capable of taking on the genetically superior biotics that are winning the war against regular humans. Yes, there are shades of The Last Starfighter or even Ender’s Game to this, but Future Man knows that it’s riffing on these ideas—and many, many more. It doesn’t really care.
On defeating the video game, Hunger Games dude is joined by two soldiers sent back from the future, Tiger (Eliza Coupe) and Wolf (Derek Wilson). Yes, their names are asinine. The use of animal names is essentially a setup for a dingo-related joke late in the season. Tiger and Wolf soon discover that Future Man’s gaming skills have zero real-world value and that lazy, unambitious gamers don’t actually make good soldiers. As such, they make a Quantum Leap-style plan: go back in time and prevent the man to blame for the rise of the biotics—Josh’s boss, the STD researcher Dr. Kronish (sunglasses-averse Keith David)—from contracting herpes, prompting expeditions to the 1960s and 1980s.
Future Man is crude. There are jokes involving most of the major bodily fluids, and a particularly memorable shower-based fight scene involves no shortage of full-frontal male nudity. The show is also frequently hilarious and densely written with jokes, joke setups, and plenty of nods to other science fiction. It even proudly flaunts a slightly alarming obsession with Academy Award-winning director, editor, philanthropist, and oceanographer James Cameron. And while Future Man regularly makes dumb jokes, the show is decidedly not dumb, and its handling of time-travel is solid.
The writing staff also strikes a fine balance between telling a complete story and creating space for a second season. We don’t get one of the common-but-hated cliffhanger endings—the events of this first season are nicely resolved at the end—but there’s enough intrigue and unsolved mystery that we still want more Future Man. Luckily we’re going to get it; a second season has already been commissioned.
After Future Man, next satisfy your sci-fi sensibilities with Travelers on Netflix. In fact, maybe even start here: at the time of writing, this show is in limbo. It has had two seasons, but we still don’t know if it’ll get a third. If it doesn’t, that’ll be a travesty, because Travelers is another smart time-travel story. Like Future Man, people are sent back in time (from the future to the present day) to help avert a future crisis.
Travelers’ novelty is that only minds, not bodies, can be sent back in time. The travelers occupy the bodies of people who were originally going to die. Victims’ minds are replaced just in the nick of time to avert premature deaths, and the travelers assume their identities going forward. It’s a bit like Millennium, the terribad Kris Kristofferson movie that you should all see, but in reverse. Periodically, the mastermind of their time travel plans known only as “The Director,” sends the travelers missions that are calculated to protect humanity. You could characterize it as putting right what once went wrong, though the travelers are more willing to get their hands dirty than Sam Beckett ever was. And notably for them, there’s no prospect of a leap home—it’s a one-way journey.
Thousands of travelers have been sent back. The group we follow is led by FBI agent Grant MacLaren (Eric McCormack; those of you with lowbrow tastes will recognize him as Will from Will & Grace). But for me the standout is Trevor (Jared Abrahamson). Trevor’s traveler is hundreds of years old, his mind having been transferred between multiple bodies in the future (his carbon has been… altered, you could say). Trevor’s new body is that of a teenager, making his character an intriguing contradiction. He has the wisdom and world weariness of someone who has lived a long life, but he combines that with the joy not just of youth, but of being able to live in a world that hasn’t been ravaged by unspecified cataclysms.
Against the broader arc of the travelers working to save the planet, we see them learning to live the lives of the bodies they’ve occupied. The relationships and characters feel authentic; we care for these people and want to see them succeed. The show neatly weaves together the two sides of their existence: they steal antimatter, protect influential politicians, and hunt down Uranium while simultaneously doing their homework for school, seeing a therapist to salvage their relationship with their partner, and tackling drug addiction.
The overall handling of time travel is, again, thoughtful. We haven’t yet seen the full impact of the travelers’ actions in the present day, but we know that their deeds are being felt in the future, sometimes with significant consequences. Unlike Future Man, Travelers’ writing is more reckless in one important way: the first season ended on a cliffhanger, and the second season has also left things spectacularly unresolved. There’s a lot more story that needs telling, and if Netflix doesn’t commission a third season I may cancel my subscription in a fit of pique.
Both Future Man and Travelers came to me highly recommended, and I’m happily paying that forward. That leaves me perplexed, both about the lack of buzz and the lack of promotion of these two shows from their respective broadcasters. I only caught Future Man in an ad on YouTube a couple of months after it was released, and I’ve seen nothing from Netflix (either in-app or elsewhere) to promote Travelers. Both shows deserve more, as they’re definite highlights of their respective services for me.
So enjoy Altered Carbon this weekend, but there’s no need to rush. You can begin a smart sci-fi binge right now.
Listing image by Netflix
More Info: arstechnica.com