In 2016, Netflix delivered three of its best ever TV series. One of them was Stranger Things. The other was The OA. The third? The criminally underrated Canadian sci-fi series Travelers.
From creator Brad Wright, who honed his expertise writing on three Stargate shows for 14 years, Travelers is a departure from traditional sci-fi tropes. It's the kind of modern, grounded sci-fi that funnels its wriggling ball of time travel strands through the lenses of empathetic, endearing characters.
This team of time-traveling agents, called "travelers," inhabit the bodies of people who are close to death. With the help of GPS coordinates, historical records and social media, the consciousnesses of the future travelers are inserted into the bodies of 21st century civilians. It's the cleanest way for the travelers to go back in time and complete their mission, utilizing the lives of those who were going to die anyway.
Their mission: save the world from a dire future, where things like tea and carrots no longer exist. This core concept can involve smaller missions that lend the show a procedural format. The look and feel of Travelers is moody and eerie, and occasionally the travelers speak in straight-faced technobabble, following a long list of protocols asserted by the mysterious Director.
But the real substance is in the moral dilemmas they face on a daily basis: lying, deceiving, upending their host person's lives. Sometimes they grow fond of their new existences in a relatively untainted world and are tempted to defect from the almost sacred grand mission.
You can always feel their pain and frustrations. The main team we follow is grounded and cared for by Eric McCormack's Grant MacLaren, a traveler posing in the body of an FBI agent. He's a kind, heroic leader making the tough decisions, carrying the burden of the grander mission and his team's individual welfare.
Because the travelers take over existing lives, they have to blend in, learn quickly and avoid drawing suspicion. On top of that, they have to fulfill world-saving missions, evading the police and other mysterious forces -- absolutely anyone could also reveal themselves to be a traveler, potentially from a competing future faction. They're leading triple lives; they can never let their guard down. The high-stakes tension is relentless.
But it isn't all serious life or death fare. The undercover agents often find themselves in entertainingly awkward situations: An engineer, one of the oldest of the travelers, is placed in the body of a high school athlete. His sudden switch from jock to genius is perplexing for all, not least his baffled parents.
Then there's the method by which the travelers enter their host bodies. These sequences are one of the most exciting parts of the show. A time of death appears on screen and a countdown begins. It becomes a matter of waiting to see how a new character is going to be killed -- or not. When the traveler painfully enters their new body, their immediate mission is to save themselves from the jaws of death.
Finally, Travelers tactfully conveys its deeper message about the present and future. What we do and don't do now will affect the world in years to come, and we can't expect people from the future to save us. The professionals who jump back in time are basically sacrificing themselves to save the future, but this future is secretive, illusive and ever-changing. We never actually see it; it's in flux, constantly affected by events that play out in the 21st century.
If you're still not convinced to commit to three seasons of Travelers, at least give the first episode a go. Its ingenious first scene, involving a traveler arriving in the present day, is almost guaranteed to hook you into watching the full, exhilarating ride.