For his latest sci-fi thriller Travelers, creator Brad Wright ditches the rubber-faced aliens of the Stargate franchise for a team of future spies led by an FBI agent who looks a lot like Eric McCormack.
But in the world of “Travelers,” few people are who they seem to be. While McCormack begins the 12-episode season playing FBI Agent Grant MacLaren, it’s not long until he’s really starring as traveler 3468. It just so happens that 3468 has taken over MacLaren’s body—and his life.
“Travelers” debuted in October on Showcase in Canada, but premieres Dec. 23 in the U.S. on Netflix.
Wright, co-creator of all three “Stargate” spin-off series, tells the story of a group of people from Earth’s rather bleak future who travel back to the present to preempt humanity’s extinction.
These travelers don’t hop in a time-travel vessel, however. Future humans have found a way to download their consciousness into the bodies of people in 2016. But these bodysnatchers aren’t heartless; they download into people at the time of their deaths, therefore they don’t actually kill anyone.
The travelers enter the bodies of a motley crew of soon-to-be-dead humans. Reilly Dolman plays heroin-addicted college student Philip. Jared Paul Abrahamson stars as high school quarterback Trevor. Nesta Cooper plays Carly, a single mom in an abusive relationship with a police officer. MacKenzie Porter stars as Marcy, a developmentally challenged woman who relies on her social worker, David (“Stargate Universe” alum Patrick Gilmore).
Each character brings his or her own baggage into the lives of their human hosts—and their collective mission to save Earth’s future.
I spoke with Wright and McCormack last week about the new series’ themes, how the idea was sparked by social media profiles and how, in light of the recent election, the show seems more prescient than the duo imagined while filming.
Brad, what did you hope to say with—and Eric, what did you see in—the story? I see a little bit of people getting a second chance and living a new life.
Brad Wright: Yes and no. In a way it’s a second chance, but only on the surface. The reality is that every one of those people who is supposed to die did actually die. They’ve just been taken over by someone from the future. Redemption is a much bigger theme.
So a second chance for the people from the future?
BW: There you go, yeah.
Eric McCormack: They definitely end up with a second chance in ways they didn’t necessarily see coming. This is some of my favorite stuff in the show. They’re here to do their job but they realize the second chance they are given when learn what sunshine feels like and what good food tastes like. Now they see what it’s like to not wake up and have to fight for every moment. It’s a very seductive thing, and it is a second chance.
If the three of us went into the past to when they had cholera and plague, it wouldn’t be quite the same thing. It wouldn’t be romantic for longer than about 30 seconds, but for these guys, they’re coming into a kind of utopia compared to what they’re used to, so it definitely is a second chance at something.
BW: They’re trying to give, and of course thematically you’re completely right. That’s what the whole series is about, trying to give humanity a second chance.
Eric, I didn’t even think of this until you just said it, that the show sort of says, “Hey, maybe it’s not so bad where we’re at right now.”
EM: When we shot it, we were saying that. But since Nov. 8, that’s just no longer the case. [Laughs.]
That’s true, that’s true.
BW: It’s so funny because the show seems quite prescient now. We say in the series that now is the time to come back. This was the important time to come back to save the future, because this is when it was all about to go to rat shit. [Laughs.]
EM: Every interview that I’ve done when they talk about changing the future, everybody says the same thing, “So how are you going to do it? How do you take care of him?” That’s second season.
Maybe Brad’s from the future and knew that this was coming? Another thing about this is I love that Marcy’s online profile was all made up. Are you making a statement about social media?
BW: You know what, Curt? That’s exactly where the whole idea came from. I was thinking about social media as maybe the core of something, of an idea. It struck me that for the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve been putting a version of ourselves out there, all of us, in social media that may or may not represent who we really are. It’s who we project. That kind of evolved and evolved and evolved, and became one of the assembly blocks for “Travelers,” starting with the Marcy character. It’s true. What will the future look back on? It won’t be who we really are. It’ll be what we put out there in a massive electronic media store.
And possibly without us even intending, it might paint an inaccurate picture of us, I guess.
BW: And it always will be out there.
The character Philip says in the third episode, “We’re not going to save the world.” And she says, “Why?” And he says, “Because it doesn’t want to be saved.” Are you having a bit of a crisis, Brad?
BW: No, I’m fine. [Laughs.] Thanks for caring. No, he’s going through withdrawal at that point, and depression is a symptom of it. The travelers aren’t all homogeneous. The keenest, the most driven to save the world, is MacLaren, Eric’s character. But Philip’s a bit burdened. [He might be thinking,] “Great. Thanks, Director. You sent me in the body of a heroine addict. Good job.”
EM: You were talking before about being prescient. In some ways, that’s the most prescient line of all. If the election proved anything, it’s that people don’t want to be saved—or at least the way they chose to be saved is something that to some of us looks like insanity. Like, “That’s how you think the world will get saved?” It’s a bleak picture of what people think leadership is, and a very good time for travelers to land and help out.
BW: Ultimately, thematically what this show is really about, this being a fiction, is that we have to save ourselves. Now is the time to solve the world’s problems. We cannot depend on people from the future coming back to save us.
Maybe Donald Trump will show up in Season 2?
BW: [Laughs.] I know one particular lead actor who wants me to do something about that. Not going to say who that is, but …
We’ll watch Season 1 first though.
BW: Yeah, exactly. A ton of fun stuff happens in the season, Curt. would say the back half is a ride. It just starts to build and build and build. Yeah, I’m proud of this one.
Eric, let’s talk about your character, MacLaren. He’s sort of the only person we get to meet as himself for a longer period of time before he becomes the traveler. Was it interesting to establish one character and then the traveler version of him?
EM: It was, particularly because there’s always so much pressure on that first episode to show the network and everything what everybody’s going to do in those first few dailies. It’s like whatever I’m doing will only last this long. He’s going to go through some changes. Brad and I decided that those changes would be relatively subtle, because some of the other characters have major things—piles of shit—they have to land in. What I tried to do with MacLaren was make him kind of a business-as-usual guy so that when he is taken over with a traveler, it allows 3468 to be a bit more of a leader, a bit more gung ho. We refer to him as a boy scout. I think his partner, and certainly his wife, notice a guy with a bit more drive. That’s kind of an interesting change.
Was MacLaren specifically picked because as an FBI agent, he might have access to do things that this team needed to do?
EM: I think so. Is that right, Brad?
BW: Yeah, absolutely. He’s perfectly placed to be very, very helpful, and he died on that day. If you’ve seen Episode 2, the timing was pretty good for that mission.
EM: They certainly don’t want to choose people who are 85 and in a wheelchair. They’re not going to be too helpful. They want young people, so they have to take what they can get, even if she’s a single mom or whatever. But in the case of MacLaren, it was worth waiting a day or two, I guess, for him because of where he works and the access that would give them.
Right. You just called him 3468. I was going to ask if we ever learn their real names.
BW: That’s their traveler numbers. They all have traveler numbers, and that’s how they only ever refer to each other from the future.
One thing I like in “Travelers” is you don’t belabor the idea that you can’t harm anyone because it might drastically change the future. That is the point of their mission.
EM: We’ve sort of thrown that butterfly effect thing out because the whole purpose is to come back and change things.
BW: But wait a minute, I’m more concerned that you just said that that’s the one thing you like.
No, no—one of the things!
BW: Oh good, good, good. No, you’re right. This is kind of very different from the other ones, and thank goodness because there are an awful lot.
EM: I love that this one takes place now. That now is the past, and that if you were watching the show with the sound off, you wouldn’t know it was a time travel show or a sci-fi show. It feels more like an espionage show, like we are deep undercover, and that to me is where the show lives more than in any kind of highfalutin, sci-fi stuff.
Another cool thing that I like is the messenger people. They’re very funny.
EM: This show does have a lot of humor. It does. I love Jared’s line after, I think it’s the top of Episode 3 where the girl rides up with the bike. He said, “They’re so creepy.”” MacKenzie explains why they have to be kids, and he says, “Yeah, I know. It’s still creepy.”
This seems to be more about characters than sci fi.
BW: It’s completely about characters, for us, and I think that’s what attracted Eric to the material. It’s barely sci fi. To me it’s a character drama wrapped in a sci-fi conceit that lets us tell stories. It’s far, far, far less sci fi than anything I’ve ever done before.
As we were making the season, we realized when the show is best and when the show is most entertaining is not when we’re doing missions. Those things are fun, and they’re essential to what we’re doing, but we’re going to still live in the relationships. Especially the 21st Century relationships because it’s such an interesting thing for everybody to play.
But it’s a fabulous opportunity to write scenes. Marcy and David have a great dynamic going through the whole season, and MacLaren and his wife have an equally powerful dynamic. That’s all the 21st Century stuff. It has nothing to do with the big picture missions stuff.
EM: The thing that I’ve always loved the most, in drama or in comedy, is the idea of what if the person you’re with is not the person you’re with? What if there’s someone, you could be talking about the “Bourne Identity” or you could be talking about “Tootsie.” They’re both not who they appear to be. That is a lot of work for that person, and it’s a lot of jeopardy for the audience because at any moment it’s like, “Oh shit. Will they be discovered?”
Half of Shakespeare’s comedies and a lot of his tragedies involved that very conceit. That conceit is throughout this show. It never lightens up. There’s never going to be an episode where I can just relax because my wife’s going to start to notice things. My partner’s going to start to notice. The jeopardy in fact increases the longer we try to maintain these other people’s lives, and that’s for sure where the show is most interesting for me.
Speaking of that, Eric, do you drink regular milk or soy?
EM: [Laughs.] It’s December. I drink egg nog.