The future is fucked. A sentient AI comes up with a scheme to fix it by changing the past. This AI is called “The Director.” The Director sends the consciousness of volunteers back in time to occupy the bodies of people who history records as dying at a specific time and place. Those people form teams who undertake missions that shift individual historical incidents in order to, hopefully, improve the future.
Season 3 and “The Faction”
That’s the premise behind the Netflix original Travelers. But the reality of this fictional approach to fixing history and creating a better future is much more complicated than it would appear. Season 1 set up the story, the characters, and the conflict. Season 2 chewed through any preconceptions that the hinted at post-apocalypse has blossomed into a nirvana. A faction, named, “The Faction” has invaded the past in an attempt to free the future from the Director.
By Season 3 covers get blown despite sophisticated drugs, subterfuge, and some pretty good acting. Relationships among those who love each other, who have shared intimacies and special moments can’t fake histories through reconstructions based on social media and digital breadcrumbs. For the entire team, the data left out of their profiles proves more profound for day-to-day life than all of the data they do manage to incorporate.
Philip Pearson (Reilly Dolman) is a drug addict and the addiction of his body lives beyond the overwriting of this consciousness. Team leader and FBI Agent Grant McLaren (Eric McCormack) can’t remember the details his wife treasures. Marcy Warton (MacKenzie Porter) is brain damaged and must overcome both mental incapacities and eventually a rebooting of her new life. Future histories are as interrupted as those that take place in the new timelines.
As it turns out, time is short. The future is not getting any better. Traveler-aware FBI Agent and season 3 McLaren partner Joanna Yates (Kimberley Sustad) comments that it’s the travelers who seem to be making the future failures accelerate.
Travelers concentrates primarily on the day-to-day activities of the team and the implications of their work. The show’s best direction come from keeping the future at a distance. Occasional veil-lifts do allow glimpses, but the show never dwells on the climate change and food shortages. It establishes enough context to substantiate the contemporary action. And there is plenty of action, not to mention consistenly good performances from the entire cast.
Faith and AI
As a piece of cultural commentary, Travelers most prophetic impact comes from the show’s exploration of AI and its limitations, even that of a seemingly omniscient AI. The present gets sent back through nanites in the blood of family lines who the AI knows live into the future. The AI has constructed an elaborate network of archivists and historians who transmit information and retain the various timelines for use by their teams when needed. But despite all of this knowledge the AI can only fix individual events with high-impact, and while these do change the timeline, revise the future, the outcome over the long term remains constant.
It is pretty clear the showrunners, writers, and directors understand what they are doing with Travelers. Through the trope of time travel, they create a vehicle for exposing the soft underbelly of AI, of predictive analytics and the entire stream of technologies meant to apply machine intelligence to make our lives better. Today’s AIs perceive broad strokes, the highest-level patterns, but the future is made of millions of individual choices that coalesce into global warming, failure to cooperate and war. Some tout that AI can help solve those problems.
The showrunners and this critic doubt that future AIs will ever be the all-knowing superintelligences some predict. And if they do evolve, they will, because of their human origins, reflect the flaws of their creators. Flaws like overambition and hubris. All of those little moments of intervention conducted by our current AIs prove meaningless in the grand scheme of things. What we choose to buy and from whom, doesn’t change the supply chain, the delivery routes, the manufacturing processes or the inability to recycle the packaging and materials. Efficiency speeds tactics, it does not inspire innovation or strategy. The world is too big to fix by one consciousness trying to repair the intricacies history.
Travelers informs its viewers that it is us, now and in the future, individual humans, that make the difference in each other’s lives—and it is those choices that create the future. Ultimately the accumulation of individual decisions is a bigger driver of change than any one event. Even as timelines go off the rails, it is people trying to help other people that make the difference—not gods and not AIs. Personal responsibility and individual ethics is the message—we each need to act and avoid playing into the false hope that the future will fix our mistakes later.
- Free on Netflix