Time travel – it should work, right? We understand time, we understand travel. It seems to be just a matter of getting the parts. Until then, we have television.
A lot of television. Along with BBC America's "Doctor Who," Starz's "Outlander" and the CW's "Legends of Tomorrow," to name just a few, the 2016-17 season will bring Fox's "Making History," ABC's "Time After Time," the CW's "Frequency" and, beginning Monday, NBC's "Timeless."
With Eric Kripke ("Revolution") and Shawn Ryan ("The Shield") as co-show runners, "Timeless" is a mostly straight-faced, frequently corny, occasionally high-minded adventure thriller — pulp that stops every once in a while to reflect on the dark marks of American history or consider its characters' deeper feelings and predicaments. Yet it works best when it remembers that there's something inherently nutty in the whole business, when it does not deny its inner "Back to the Future."
Whatever merit there is in the copyright-infringement suit just filed against the makers of "Timeless" by the makers of the Spanish series "El Ministerio del Tiempo," the elements of time traveling have been pretty well explored in the 121 years since H.G. Wells published "The Time Machine." It was not the first such story, either, but it is the reason that you say "time machine" and not time boat, or time car or time train. However the parts are arranged, the principles are familiar.
Here, three strangers are drafted by the Department of Homeland Security to chase a villain through history. Flynn (Goran Višnjić), an "ex-NSA asset from Eastern Europe," has stolen a time machine from the least-well-guarded secret complex in secret-complex history, a private enterprise run by an Elon Musk sort named Connor Mason (Paterson Joseph).
Luckily, there's a backup. In addition to the gleaming white sphere Flynn disappears in, there's the junky prototype, nicknamed "the Lifeboat," they keep around for emergencies.
And into it go Lucy (Abigail Spencer), a history professor, who knows the big dates and little details that will help the trio pass as chronological locals; Wyatt (Matt Lanter); a Special Forces soldier; and Rufus (Malcolm Barrett), who knows about computers and science and how to drive the time machine.
Each comes with special challenges and sadness. Lucy has a mother dying of cancer; Wyatt is nursing a broken heart. A sensitive nerd plucked from a bad neighborhood by Paterson, Rufus is a shy, lonely guy, in no rush to rush back in time: "I am black," he points out when pressed to accept. "There's literally no place in American history that would be awesome for me."
In any case, off they go, following the bad guys back in time to Lakehurst, N.J., May 1937, just as the Hindenburg is about to land — historically, to explode, to crash. Flynn is apparently out to change history by changing history — the classic "Terminator" opening gambit — but his larger aims remain mysterious. There are hints on both sides of wheels behind wheels.
Some of our heroes will also be tempted to monkey with the timeline, imagining a world where Abraham Lincoln sees the whole play and goes home to bed, or where tragedies closer to home have been erased. I don't have to tell you the havoc that can play with the present. (There will be havoc.) In a broad way, it's a live-action version of Mr. Peabody and Sherman traveling back in time to make sure that history happens as it's supposed to, with more fight scenes and fewer jokes.
"Timeless" profits from the jokes it does make, however, as when Rufus, informed that John Wilkes Booth was a less famous actor than his brother Edwin, observes, "So this is like Donnie Wahlberg assassinating the president." ("Pretty much, actually," says Lucy.) Or when, searching for a cover story in 1937, Lucy says, "This is Dr. Dre, I'm Nurse Jackie. We're from General Hospital." More of those, please.
The economies and conveniences of the production, the not-always-convincing digital backdrops, are in a way welcome, too — TV makes the B pictures of our day, a grade "Timeless" should wear proudly. We come to be entertained, not to be schooled.
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for violence)