The second season of time-travelling cop show Continuum has raised my opinion of the show considerably. During its first season, it was uneven, somewhat predictable, and rather coy about the time-travel aspect of the show. Kiera Cameron was a stiff, wooden character who was reluctant to become attached to anyone or anything from the present day, because she was interested in getting back to her future of 2077. I was intrigued by the premise, but I found the show’s unwavering anti-capitalist/anti-corporate message a bitter pill to swallow. Though I agree with the message and find the future portrayed in Continuum terrifying, I prefer my science-fiction a little more subtle, thank you very much.
That’s all changed this season. Though the first few episodes were nothing to write home about, it has been steadily improving. What began as another ho-hum example of the paucity of good science-fiction storytelling on television has instead shown its true colours. Plenty of shows struggle for their first (and even second and third) seasons only to find their stride and become something memorable—Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably a poster-child for this. It looks like that’s the kind of show Continuum is turning out to be, and I am so relieved.
Warning: Spoilers for season two, up until and including the finale.
Where Did All the Good SF Go?
The state of science fiction in television has been somewhat lacklustre in the past decade. Enterprise became Star Trek: Enterprise (despite the producers’ insistence it didn’t need the brand to propel it to glory), and that still didn’t save it from mediocre writing. Battlestar Galactica was gripping for the first two seasons before becoming increasingly bizarre and going off the rails. Following that, Ron Moore managed to get Fox to commission a pilot for Virtuality, but that never took off.
Since then, most “science fiction” on TV has been grounded, confined to urban settings where there are less risks with the fickle audience that drools in front of the television most evenings. Superheroes and mutants have become the order of the day, and fairy tale–fuelled fantasies have particularly been successful. The Sci-Fi Channel rebranded itself SyFy and looked towards reality television and wrestling to fill the yawning chasm in its schedule. (Somewhere along the way, an executive realized they could sink a minimum amount of cash into the slushpile of disaster movie scripts lying around the office and get cheap summer movies in return.)
Continuum … is Actually Good
Continuum is also a very urban show mostly set in the present day. In fact, it is set in Vancouver. That’s right, not just filmed there, but actually set there. On purpose! Continuum is a Canadian production, and for once we get to see a show first and the Americans have to wait a few weeks. All those characters? Canadian. We’re taking over.
The show departs from most of the other science fiction on offer right now by embracing time travel as its key plot point. This is no Doctor Who, though, where time-travel is a device for immersing us in a different world every episode. Stranded in her past (our present) by time travel gone wrong (or right), Kiera is burdened by her knowledge of the possible future as she works with the Vancouver Police Department against Liber8, terrorists who escaped a death sentence in the future to come back here and change the past. The first season mostly comprised a series of fish-out-of-water moments for Kiera while it set up the terrorists as credible bad guys (led by the formidable Tony Amendola). As I said before, it was rather coy in that it teased us about the possibilities for how time travel worked in this universe: is the timeline mutable? Are Kiera and Liber8 part of some vast time loop, a predestination paradox that results in Kiera’s future no matter what they do in the past? Or can they change things?
The second season has revealed that the future is, indeed, mutable. Kiera successfully curtails a budding serial killer’s career, changing her future as she knows it. (She retains her memories of the now-obsolete future, though, suggesting she is present as the remnant of an altered, parallel timeline in a many-worlds style multiverse.) This reifies a host of moral dilemmas that, until now, were present but still hypothetical:
- Item: it is possible for Liber8 to change the future so that corporations do not dominate society, but they will likely resort to a violence.
- Item: if Kiera does not stop Liber8, she will not be able to return to the future and the family she left there.
- Item: the more Kiera acts, the more she changes the future. Moreover, through her interactions with the younger version of Alec Sadler, she has made Alec aware of how dismal her future really is, and he is determined to change it.
- Item: finally, near the end of the season, the possibility of returning to the future rears its head. But if Kiera leaves, there is no one to stop Liber8 from achieving their agenda.
Time travel. So many headaches. So many storytelling possibilities. The writers have been busy this season, and to good effect. We’ve met the mysterious Mr. Escher, who last season was only a name whispered by good and bad guys alike. Kellog has invested in present!Alec, who is haunted by the message he received from his future self. Sonya and Travis, once lovers, have split over how to carry-on with Kagame’s legacy, splintering Liber8 into two groups revolving around, and courting, Theseus, Alec’s half-brother, who in the future is supposed to lead the revolution. Oh, and Kiera must contend with freelancers, who seem to be time travellers operating on their own nefarious agenda. (The show has not addressed whether future!Alec invents time travel or whether he acquires it from somewhere else. For all we know, time travel capability comes from even farther downstream, and the freelancers could have even more advanced technology than Kiera.)
I’m happy that Kiera finally came clean and told Carlos about her future origins. It can get tiresome when a show’s protagonist must continue to hide their secret identity from the people close to them even when such cover has been stretched beyond all credulity (I’m looking at you, Smallville). Continuum milked it for as long as it worked and then turned it around. Now Carlos is a lot more invested in what’s happening to Kiera, and he has become an able audience avatar for our discomfort over both the semi-privatization of the police precinct by Escher’s Pyron Corporation and Kiera’s gradual abandonment of ethics in favour of results. This season has been very tough and traumatic for all the main characters, and the cracks are starting to show.
Admitting I Was Wrong
It’s funny; earlier this season, I was going to write a very different blog post about Continuum. One thing I’ve noticed about the show is how every episode has at least one extended action sequence. On one hand, I find this impressive and refreshing: the writers always manage to make the action organic and relevant to the story; it isn’t simply shoehorned in there for the sake of having a shoot-up. And the action sequences are varied and well-choreographed. On the other hand, I found them very anticlimactic, because I kind of knew that the characters would be fine. But what intrigued me was that I discovered that if a character weren’t fine, then I would be angry with the show for violating that implicit promise of safety. Angry, mind, not sad. I found this intriguing, because I have no problem with Game of Thrones killing off its main characters left and right.
Great shows break down your resistance to seeing characters getting hurt and killed, because you trust that the show is doing this to a purpose (sorry, Tasha Yar). The quality of the show means you have faith in the writers’ ability to make the character’s injury or death meaningful. Mediocre shows, in contrast, do not receive such faith. I am not as willing to let a mediocre show damage a character, because I don’t trust the show to understand when it is appropriate or useful to do so.
Up until the middle of this season of Continuum, my feelings towards it were closer to the latter reaction. The show was entertaining enough, but I wasn’t willing to see Kiera or Carlos get seriously hurt. Yet as the season has continued, that’s exactly what has happened—Kiera has been psychologically traumatized by her experiences and her own choices, and I am a terrible person for enjoying this delicious tragedy. Kiera’s obsession with returning to the future puts the lives of present!Alec and his girlfriend in jeopardy, causing present!Alec to do something completely reckless.
Continuum is by no means a perfect show. I’m not even willing to say it’s awesome. My dad does not share my enthusiasm for this season, though he’s still watching. Indeed, the dialogue can still be clunky, and its delivery might not be much better. Some of the storylines are snarled within this complicated tangle of time travel and deceit. I didn’t like how abruptly Inspector Dillon returned to head up the precinct, for instance—his replacement promised to be a formidable adversary for Kiera, and when she was written off with no reason, I was very disappointed. Similarly, Dillon has transformed quite abruptly from capable cop to corporate crony. Still, better shows than this have had similar problems with plotting, and I would prefer that Continuum continue to have multi-faceted plots like this rather than becoming simpler and more reductive. We don’t need to challenge audiences any less, thank you very much.
I admit I’m also captivated by the bleary and dark corporate-dominated future that has become even more apparent in this season. It’s hard, at least for me, not to read the news every day and get a little pessimistic about what the world will be like in sixty years. The economic recession is making people more cautious, and governments in the West are becoming increasingly paternalistic and conservative. Only the deepest pockets and afford to buy politicians these days, so power is in fewer but more corrupt hands. With each passing day, it is becoming more difficult to defend the proposition that we are living in a functional democracy.
Which is not to say that Continuum is some kind of voice for our generation’s sociopolitical angst. Nevertheless, the show has embraced some very topical themes and is using them to very good effect. I enjoy it not because it explores these themes but because it does so with a very science-fiction lens. In one episode, we see people convicted of defaulting on debts being “chipped”, their personalities overwritten completely and their bodies controlled by a machine—the ultimate slave labour. It’s easy to reject this simply as “crazy science fiction” that could never happen in real life. Except it could. Brain–computer interfaces are becoming more powerful by the day; controlling the autonomic nervous system is a lot simpler than rewriting memories, and we’re well on the path to that as well.
The future is coming. It’s not evenly distributed. And, for better or worse, it’s going to be a hell of a lot scarier than we can possibly imagine.
Fuelled by this zeitgeist, Continuum is providing entertainment even as it encourages us to think about the direction we’re taking society. With the juxtaposition of Liber8 and the corporations of the future, it poses the dilemma: will you side with Liber8, or the potentially corrupt enforcers of the law? Neither seems very palatable, I admit, and I hope there is a third option. Until we find it, though, I’m going to continue watching this show (which was renewed for a third season way back near the beginning of this one). It has surprised me. I love being wrong about things. I hope that Continuum continues to surprise me, and that it is the harbinger of more good Canadian science fiction coming our way.
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