Perspectives on Culture

Tempting Fate: The Historian as Time Traveler

Karin Wulf, February 2017

Rufus (Malcolm Barrett) and Lucy (Abigail Spencer) team up with a young Ernest Hemingway (Brandon Barash) in a recent episode of Timeless. Sergei Bachlakov/NBC If you could time travel, would you? As a historian voyaging into history, would you soak up the atmosphere and interact with as many people as possible? Would you consciously fact-check, harvest sources, meditate on the interpretive potential of what you’d experienced, make radical change based on events you knew wouldn’t end well—all of the above? Or maybe you’d devote yourself to the mission of preventing change: “protecting” the history you have learned and taught. These are propositions, each with profound implications, that NBC’s hour-long drama Timeless treats so casually as to be sometimes funny and often painful.

A time machine has been stolen by a renegade figure who repeatedly escapes into the past to wreak unspecified havoc. A secret branch of the government, determined to stop him and retrieve the machine, sends a rattletrap Millennium Falcon–like prototype after him, piloted by an engineer and accompanied by a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. And for the third seat on the Timeless time ship? Of course, they’ve got to have a historian.

Enter Lucy Preston. With unspecified expertise—except “history”—she is young and white, hip and clever, the latter signified by the headset mic she wears while lecturing to a huge class (or is it an audience?), offering a wink and a nod to Lyndon Johnson’s crudeness (his “Jumbo”)—clearly the key to understanding great-man psychology and thus “history.” Once she starts working for the government, Lucy and the whole team get much spiffier gear. Off they go in successive episodes into Big Event and Great Man history: the crash of the Hindenburg, high-rolling with JFK in Las Vegas in 1962, atomic science in Nazi Germany, the Alamo, and the Watergate break-in, all with retro wardrobes to match. In the 1970s, the Afghanistan veteran, Wyatt, says the vintage threads make him “feel like Greg Brady.” For my money, the burnt orange suede trench Lucy sports is the wardrobe keeper.

As a complicated backstory develops for each of the characters, a larger conspiracy promises to knit them and perhaps all of history (at least American history) together. This potential disruption of history is the Timeless metanarrative. While many writers have explored the notion of a parallel universe or a multiverse in which events diverge and have multiple outcomes, in Timeless a singular, linear chronological development is foundational. The travelers move backward from their point of origin in our present, then return. Any changes they make in the past may be reflected, in ways large and small, in the present. Lucy returns after their first trip to find that her mother is no longer in hospice and her sister no longer exists. My favorite “uh oh, we changed history” moment is when the team returns to the present to find that Ian Fleming has made them characters in a Bond book and film hailed as “Connery’s best.” (Did wooden-­yet-campy Roger Moore get erased from time? What luck for the history voyagers.) The team measures these changes to “the timeline” according to a mere handful of sources, primarily their own memories of “what really happened.”

For the record, my 15-year-old son, an expert and my tutor on all things time travel, finds this by far the most interesting thing I’ve ever written about. When our dining room table is piled with books and strewn with research notes and my students’ dissertation chapters, he is confounded by my enthusiasm for history’s labors. But this, this is actually important. If time moves forward, why couldn’t we, in practice as well as theory, move backward? Popular depictions of theoretical physics usually gloss the particulars and move right to the potential of Einstein’s insights on the flexibility of time and space for time travel. My son doesn’t buy it any more than I do, but even more than the tourism possibilities (for him, North America’s Cretaceous period inland sea), imagining being able to avert tragedies on all scales makes the time-travel genre nearly irresistible.

It is this potential to make change that prompts every depictor of time travel to gesture at rules about how time and space are related and can be traversed, and about how timelines are generated. Arguably the greatest modern time travel epic is Doctor Who, which takes time and space both more and less seriously. More seriously in that they are considered as a single phenomenon, pace Einstein, and less so in that explanations of just what that might mean are left helpfully vague. As David Tennant (the 10th Doctor) explains: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly . . . timey wimey . . . stuff.”

The “timey wimey” is a way of capturing history’s complexity and contingency; it removes the burden of assuming that making change x in the past will lead to or disrupt outcome y, but it also liberates—or licenses?—time travelers to make decisions consonant with their own values. Alas, there just isn’t much room for contingency in Lucy’s version of history. It’s left to the pilot and engineer, Rufus, who is African American, to note when and how history might not be worth protecting. He notes that the team is intent on preserving “rich white guys’ history . . . a lot of my history sucks.” Lucy, the historian, doesn’t seem to have digested this fundamental point, that some history is so terrible that its progression ought to be disrupted. And Wyatt, the soldier, has to introduce the concept of human agency. When the team confronts the possibility of making changes in the past that might influence the future, Lucy explains why this troubles her: “My whole life I’ve believed that everything happens for a reason.” Wyatt argues from a free will perspective: “That’s what history is, right? Choices. Some small, some stupid, some monumental. But we make them.” The focus here is on individual human agency rather than a more complex view of historical contingency, an uncertain concatenation of multiple variables unforeseeable from any one vantage until . . . stuff happens. Still, why is Lucy only now reflecting on a potentially more complex formulation of historical developments?

At moments in the early episodes, she is unquestionably useful to the travelers as they find themselves embarking for an unfamiliar time. She’s able to tell them which fabrics would have been available at that time and in that place (“this skirt is all wrong”), what happened “in history” on any particular date: troop movements during the Civil War, Catholic symbols indicating escape tunnels in a German castle, and the importance of JFK’s mistress, Judith Campbell. If only there were a device they could consult that would provide similar insights.

Though this historian-as-weaker-Wiki is rarely bothered by metaphysical considerations, she is morally challenged on occasion. Does “protecting history” mean allowing Lincoln’s assassination—or safeguarding the Nazi regime? (Basically yes to both, she decides.) Making sure that the historio-mythic account of the Alamo based on Colonel William Travis’s self-apotheosizing letter makes it into historical memory or that FBI agent Mark Felt (the Watergate source known as “Deep Throat”) continues to talk to Bob Woodward (“make sure you keep talking to Bob Woodward!”) is definitely within her remit.

Perhaps in future episodes Lucy will begin to wrestle with history as a construction of the past from the politically and epistemologically available tools of the present. But my beef isn’t just that Lucy is a historian with a fate commitment, and an ability to know every leaf but no forests, but also that she is one for whom the past, despite being so real she can see, taste, touch, and smell it, exists at an emotional distance. She is interested, but she’s not that invested. Other time-traveling historians (such as Deborah Harkness’s Diana Bishop of the All Souls Trilogy) seem to have more fun exploring the past, about which they’re ostensibly incredibly curious even while conscious of the extraordinary disasters humans have wrought. Arguably, Doctor Who spends the entire arc of the series weighing the causes and consequences of genocide, and what it would mean to intervene to prevent it. It’s of almost no consequence to me whether Lucy Preston grows to understand the significance of human agency, but it’s very important indeed that as a historian she must.

Karin Wulf is director of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture.


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