TIME AFTER TIME, the bizarro genre mash-up wherein H.G. Wells accidentally lets his pal Dr. John Stevenson, aka Jack the Ripper, hop aboard his time machine and travel into the present day to wreak havoc finally aired, and here’s the thing, it’s actually pretty great. Don’t get me wrong, I have numerous complaints and concerns about the show going forward which I’ll get to, but I came away from the two part pilot caring about the characters and having had a considerable amount of fun, which is a pretty rare experience for me and my significant other, TV, lately.
Time travel is having a moment, and Time After Time managed to do what so very few time travel shows get a grip on off the bat — they gave us rules. Timeless is also fairly fun, but at no point does anybody stop to explain to you what’s happening, and what the limits of it are (how are the officials running the program to catch Flynn holding anybody accountable if they forget what happens any time a timeline changes? Why don’t Lucy et al use the time machine to land before Flynn, since they know when he is? Why don’t they use any modern technology, other than the time machine? I have so, so many questions, but that’s another article entirely.) In the pilot of Time After Time, you get the lay of the land quickly and efficiently: there is one time machine that will always return to the date it left unless you have the key that allows you to control it. Traveling in time punches small holes in the time-space continuum, and so it’s not advised to, say, jump back and prevent Jack the Ripper from getting on board the time machine, because the more often you visit a time, the more holes there are, and the more likely the world is to end. I don’t know about you, but that’s pretty much all I need — how it works, and what the limitations of it are — to be like “okay, cool, there’s time travel, now let’s move on to plot and character.”
H.G. Wells is played by Freddy Stroma, aka Adam from Unreal, aka Cormac Maclaggen from Harry Potter, aka certifiable dreamboat charmmonster. Honestly, he could read the dictionary and I’d be like, yeah, this is quality entertainment. As such, he’s predictably charming, genuine, and just a little naive, as a Victorian traipsing through 21st century New York ought to be. Within the first ten minutes of the pilot, H.G. has introduced his pretentious Victorian friends to the time machine he built to better understand time travel for the book he’s writing. He takes his eyes off of his friend, Dr. John Stevenson, just long enough for the party to be alerted that a woman has been stabbed and killed in an alleyway. In that tense moment, one of the partygoers grabs John’s bag, and finds a bloody knife. That’s when H.G. goes to look for the good doctor, and finds that the time machine is missing… but since H.G. has the key, the time machine immediately snaps back to his time and place, without Jack the Ripper.
H.G. pursues him, and ends up in 2017 New York City, in the museum that’s exhibiting H.G.’s time machine. (Why is it in New York? Surprise, there’s actual a reasonable answer that comes along later. There are questions I have about Time After Time that I’ll get to, but it was nice to watch a genre show that actually seemed to think through its plot and mythology, and provides you answers to questions in a timely fashion.) He’s taken aside by Jane Walker, an assistant museum curator who thinks he’s an actor pulling a publicity stunt, and here’s the most important part of the pilot, in my humble opinion: Jane is incredibly endearing. Génesis Rodríguez plays Jane with a relatable self-awareness, and inhabits the razor-thin edge between delightfully quirky and “we know you’re tripping as a publicity stunt, can you please stop now” incredibly well. Weary as I am of the contrived shoving of the main man and main woman together for some tropey lovin’, Jane and H.G. are actually fun to watch. I say that so grudgingly, but man. Have I mentioned how charming Jane is?
Jane decides not to press charges in an effort not to give H.G. the publicity she thinks he’s seeking, and gives H.G. confirmation that Jack the Ripper came through the time machine before him. H.G. takes off after Jack, who in the mean time has sold his now-antique pocket watch to a thrift shop and is having his own 90s high school rom com movie makeover sequence to become a 2017 beefcake. He and H.G. have a brief confrontation, but H.G. manages to escape with the key, only to get hit by a car. He ends up in the hospital, and without any identification, the hospital can only call the number on the business card they found in his pocket — Jane’s.
Meanwhile, Jane has been charged with tracking down the two men who came out of the Time Machine by the owner of the exhibit, Vanessa Anders. After getting H.G. to admit he’s just an actor, she tells Anders that there’s nothing to worry about, and ends up inviting H.G. to stay over with her after seeing him limp, still wounded, out of the hospital without a place to go. There’s the typical TV show tension as they banter and H.G. showers at her place, but the predictability of it is, if not absolved, somewhat mitigated by the fact that they’re both so gosh darn fun to watch. There’s an especially delightful moment where H.G. thanks Jane for her hospitality as she’s going to bed, and she grabs a gun from her dresser, showing him that she’s armed should he try anything untoward, and telling him she’s from Texas.
The next morning, H.G. sees that Jack the Ripper has killed a woman at a nightclub called Utopia, and she was found with keys in her mouth. Knowing it’s a message to him, he tells Jane, and then we have to go through the Doctor Who-esque “you can’t possibly have a time machine” exchange, and so he proves it to her, taking her three days into the future. They have a moment where she finally accepts that he is the real. And as mentioned, I’m very jaded of the default “well he’s a man and she’s a woman so obviously they’re gonna be a thing”, but yo, it’s a good moment. There’s a beat where it looks like they’re going to kiss, but instead they just look at each other like human heart eye emojis and I’m not proud of it, but I smiled like an idiot. It’s cute. It’s really cute and I hate it. The cuteness is interrupted when Jane sees a newspaper that says she’s been murdered, and that’s where the pilot really lost me for the first time — turning H.G.’s motivation from stopping Jack the Ripper to saving the girl.
When they return to their time, they try to confront Jack the Ripper and prevent him from killing his second victim, the one before Jane, to disrupt the timeline, but Jane ends up getting captured (that’s another no from me, dawg) by him. H.G. is swept up by Vanessa Anders, who reveals that her desire to track him down had nothing to do with pressing charges — she wants to help him. She says that when she was in college, H.G. came to her and told her that he was her great great grandfather, and gave her a basic idea of what was to come. He also gave Anders a letter to give to H.G., which she passes on. The letter says basically nothing (which will probably be brought up again later) and has a mysterious symbol on the bottom (which will definitely be brought up again later).
Meanwhile, Jack the Ripper has Jane tied up in another woman’s apartment, whom he’s also holding hostage. They have some interactions that start to dig into Jack the Ripper as a person and his motivations. He denies that his killings stem from misogyny, and instead claims that he targeted hookers because of easy access. Jane shows him that he’s famous as Jack the Ripper, but that his actual identity is anonymous — he seems perturbed that H.G. achieved fame where he did not, and Jane starts to feel like he doesn’t want to actually be Jack the Ripper any more. When John agrees to meet with H.G. to get the key in exchange for Jane’s whereabouts, Jane tries to convince him that once he gets the key, he could use it to start over, and stop killing people. I imagine Jane was just trying to save her skin, but there’s nothing that makes me dry heave like redemption arcs for objectively and voluntarily irredeemable men, so seeing them start to plant the seeds that he’s not all bad is a little concerning.
H.G.’s plan gets ruined when, despite his wishes, Anders sends along reinforcements, and John escapes. It all comes to a head in the museum, where John manages to get the key, but the time machine sputters out. In the end, the time machine is broken, H.G. has the key, Jane is surprised to find that John didn’t kill his other hostage, John is out finding his next victim despite musing on the possibility for people to change, and Jane is staying with Vanessa for her own safety. She and H.G. have another adorable exchange which contains the most relatable moment in the whole piece: Jane being genuinely shocked and delighted when H.G. remembers her mentioning she’s from Texas, as all women have been shocked upon learning a man was actually listening to what they were saying.
We’re also introduced to a nameless, dodgy man who we saw earlier following H.G., who we at the end see is also following John, and has a serial killer wall with all sorts of info on H.G. and John and the time machine in his apartment. The pilot sets up a lot fairly effectively. Despite the fact that there’s quite a lot going on, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or confused, and it ended by both wrapping things up and leaving some lingering questions. But I have a core problem with the pilot going back to the literal first scene, which I didn’t mention.
The whole show opens on Jack the Ripper brutally murdering a woman in an alley. Before literally anything else, that’s what we see — a large, intimidating man gutting a nameless woman, who’s then never mentioned again. I’m a genre and sci-fi junkie, personally. Soon as I see a series has been picked up that involves time travel or space or monsters or demons or anything like that, I’m on board, but with some shining exceptions, it’s really hard when I also continually feel like I’m being immediately told by the writers that this isn’t a show for me. That they found it important to introduce this show with violence against a woman, and more importantly sexualized violence against a woman, felt like a big middle finger and Keep Out sign all at once, despite how much I liked the rest of the pilot. I also have a lingering question about the decision to make Jack the Ripper a man because, let’s be real, the most interesting and least explored theory about Jack the Ripper is that he was a she, and she was a midwife — who else could wander around London covered in blood and never get caught?
There’s some effort put in to addressing the inherent misogyny in Jack the Ripper’s murders in his conversations with Jane, but the fact that John denies that’s the case and instead points out the he kills because there’s opportunity, saying he doesn’t just kill prostitutes but vagrants and such, just seems like a half-hearted attempt to de-politicize, which doesn’t work not only because you can’t just opt to remove the larger context, but because we only ever see Jack the Ripper go after women at bars and clubs in the present. It’s early, obviously — this could be something that gets deconstructed and addressed, but while I am utterly delighted by the concept of H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through time, and on a whole really enjoyed the pilot, I’m left cold by the implication that this series is going to continually perpetrate violence against nameless women and damsel Jane to give H.G. something to do. I hope that’s not what happens, but I’ve had that hope about many shows and very, very seldom for good reason.
Season 1, Episode 1-2 (S01E01-02)
Time After Time airs Sundays at 9PM on ABC
Alyssa Thorne | Contributor