In 1979, writer/director Nicholas Meyer (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”), working from a story by Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes, brought “Time After Time” to the big screen. No, it’s not a 2 hour video of the Cyndi Lauper ’80s tune, but rather a fanciful science fiction fantasy that sees real-life author/legend Herbert George Wells (played with owlish, bookish charm by Malcolm McDowell) pursue his former friend, Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, whom he learns is the infamous Jack the Ripper (a blood-freezing David Warner).
Using Wells’ own time machine (!), the whimsical pursuit goes from 1893 London to 1979 San Francisco. A befuddled H.G. Wells marvels at the ‘brave new world’ of late ’70s Americana (jet planes, revolving restaurants, ‘motor-cars,’ fast food, television, movies and ‘women’s lib’). Along the way, Wells falls in love with a ditzy but spunky Bank of London currency exchange officer named Amy Robbins; played by McDowell’s then-real life paramour Mary Steenburgen. They fell in love during production of the movie, and their chemistry is palpable.
In short, this movie has it all; adventure, suspense, romance, literary smarts (with references to the works of Wells and even Aldous Huxley), a tiny pinch of biographical reality (Wells did marry the real-life Amy Catherine Robbins in 1895, though I’m fairly sure she wasn’t a time-traveling 1979 American bank officer), and there is enough charm for ten movies.
Historically, the movie is about as accurate regarding the life of H.G. Wells as 1984’s “Amadeus” was with the life of Wolfgang Mozart. The idea of Wells creating a literal time machine is fairly ridiculous (he was NOT a scientist). And having Wells chase of the most infamous serial killers through time is just purely wonderful, cinematic madness.
Meyer, as he did with “The Wrath of Khan” (arguably the best of the Star Trek movies), keeps the tone bouncy, but with enough intelligence & reverence for Wells’ legacy to give it some gravitas. And given that no less than Jack the Ripper is the antagonist, there are a few genuine chills as well; the opening scene where the Ripper kills a slovenly, earthy prostitute is both terrifying and tragic; especially the lingering shot of her own blood spattering the Ripper’s tiny music box…
Sadly I didn’t see “Time After Time” in its original theatrical release (it never seemed to play locally when I was a kid), but I did see it on TV in the 1980s in my teens, and immediately fell in love with this witty, charming time travel adventure. I later rented it on Laserdisc (I’m carbon dating myself with that sentence) and I currently own the DVD. I’ve frankly lost count how many times I’ve seen this movie; whole chunks of it are permanently committed to memory (if only I’d used that available brain space for the betterment of mankind… oh, the regrets! Hehe)
The movie does have a few logistical flaws, as does ANY movie dealing with time travel; even the best ones (why don’t they ever use time travel to go back before the trouble started??). Luckily, the movie elegantly glosses over such flaws with that aforementioned bouncy charm that rewards its audience for not dwelling too much on nerdy details. And given the utter impossibility of time travel in the first place? I’d say that’s good advice… always.
I actually met “Time After Time” star Malcolm McDowell at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, and when I sought his autograph, it wasn’t a photo from “A Clockwork Orange” that I wanted; but a photo of McDowell in character as HG Wells from “Time After Time.” He smiled when I chose that photo. Maybe because it wasn’t “A Clockwork Orange” photo (which he’d been signing all day long. See: above), but I also sensed that “Time After Time” was (perhaps?) a special memory for him. It certainly was for me as a fan.
Time traveling ahead to the present…
Last summer at Comic Con 2016, I and a friend of mine sat through several TV pilots being screened at the convention: there was “Riverdale” (the dark Archies’ revamp… and it sucked), “Frequency” (based on the 2000 movie; didn’t hold my interest), and “Time After Time”; a new TV series based on Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 movie.
The pilot was promising; it followed the 1979 movie fairly faithfully; almost line-for-line in many scenes. Not too surprising since Nicholas Meyer wrote the teleplay, based on the original story from writers Karl Alexander and Steve Hayes. So this ‘reboot’ comes largely from the source. That doesn’t happen too often. Changes from film to pilot were mainly cosmetic; 2017 New York City instead of 1979 San Francisco, the new love interest for Wells is a museum co-curator named Jane Walker instead of a bank officer named Amy Robbins (a wise truncation, given the pilot’s 43 min. running time; Jane meets Wells right after his arrival into the present day).
At the end of the pilot was an interesting twist involving Wells’ descendent who knows all about him and why he is in our present. Hmm. Intriguing…
My friend who attended the screening with had not seen the 1979 original, but enjoyed the 2017 rebooted pilot very much. Her opinion reinforced my own positive vibe from it.
My only personal nit was that the new actor playing Wells was slightly less charming and more generically ‘hunky’ than the wonderfully owlish McDowell. On the plus side, Jane is a bit less ditzy than scatterbrained Amy in the 1979 movie. And the new actor playing Dr. John Leslie Stevenson (John Bowman) plays his Jack the Ripper with a wolfishly predatory relish, instead of Warner’s creepier mother issue-induced psychosis; a different choice, but no less valid. So overall, it was promising.
^ Jack the Ripper threatens Wells’ love interests in both versions.
After the Comic Con screening, the cast and crew showed up for a Q&A panel. In attendance were producer Kevin Williamson (“Scream,” “Dawson’s Creek”), series’ stars Freddie Stroma (H.G. Wells) and Genesis Rodriguez (Jane Walker) and director Marcos Siega.
The panel itself wasn’t terribly informative, but all involved seemed enthused.
Well, as of March 5th the series has officially debuted, and the ratings were less than stellar. Just a smidgen over 3 million viewers, equalling a .9 share… not exactly a runaway hit. Typically science fiction on regular network TV doesn’t tend to last long (with the rare exception of “The X-Files” and a handful of others) so this isn’t entirely unexpected.
The 2 hour premiere was comprised of both the pilot that I saw at Comic Con and a second hour titled “I Will Catch You” (spoiler alert: he doesn’t… not yet, anyway).
The second hour shed more light on the intrigue involving Wells’ great-great granddaughter; a powerful woman named Vanessa Anders, played by Nicole Ari Parker (Jane: “I hear she’s richer than Oprah.” Wells: “What’s an Oprah?”) who seemed to have already met Wells in her past, which will take place in his future (very timey wimey), during which he presented her with proof that she could use to convince his younger self of her own authenticity. Taking a cue from “Back to the Future” parts 2 and 3, Wells writes a brief note for himself; to be presented when his descendent encounters him after his arrival at her museum exhibit (she found the time machine, and now owns it; waiting for her ancestor’s return). This new twist to the story was one of the more interesting ideas presented in this reboot.
The one thing that really soured the second hour for me: Jack the Ripper seems to slip through everybody’s fingers, to the point where you literally want to shout at the screen:
At one point, the Ripper is unconscious on the floor of Jane’s apartment after she succeeds in clocking him with a candy dish. Does she hit him again, to make SURE he’s out cold? No, of course not. She decides to just LEAVE him on the floor, able to awaken at ANY second… which he does of course; just in time to foil Jane’s escape and the escape of another woman taken hostage by the Ripper. * facepalm *
Has Jane NEVER heard of the basic “Zombieland” survival rule of the double-tap? No, of course not; she just leaves an infamous serial killer to nap comfortably on her floor as she attempts to TIPTOE over him, knowing he could awaken at ANY SECOND (!). This was a move so stupid and poorly realized that it made me question Jane’s basic survival instincts (she packs a pistol and boasts that she is from Texas, so you know… she’s tough, right?).
Stevenson also slips through the grip of Vanessa Anders’ own supposedly crack team of security guys, who literally have the killer in their arms and he just… gets away (!). No tranquilizer darts, no rubber bullets. Nothing.
I realize that if they caught him in the second hour there’d be no series, but this was a bit much. Plausibility was already stretched fairly thin at that point, even for a time travel show about H.G. Wells chasing Jack the Ripper through NYC in a time machine that he created (Okay, that last sentence sounded a bit like Kirk and Spock fighting alongside Abraham Lincoln in Star Trek…).
At the end of the 2nd hour, there was a preview of future episodes of the coming season and there seems to be more time travel in store. And in each new time period, Wells is still doggedly pursuing Stevenson (there also seems to be a weird conspiracy plot about someone harvesting the Ripper’s DNA). The addition of more time travel beyond the present day could liven up the series, or it could quickly become a gimmick. We’ll see.
I can’t say “Time After Time” is must-see TV at this point, but my affection for the original compels me to keep watching. At this point, it’s an interesting extrapolation of what could’ve happened, using the 1979 movie’s premise. It’s also the closest we’ll ever get to a bona fide sequel. So yes, I’ll continue to watch; even if I know well in advance that it probably won’t last beyond a single season. I mean, it’s broadcast network TV science fiction… you can practically hear the death knells already.
And even today, network TV ratings are the real “Ripper” here; they’ve certainly killed many a young and promising science fiction series.
So, is this the time for a new “Time After Time”? Maybe it’s less of a question of time than of place. If this series had premiered on Netflix or even as a lower budget series on SyFy network, it might’ve guaranteed it a slightly longer run.
But even if the new series fails (ratings-wise and/or creatively), it won’t take away from the charm, wit and originality of the 1979 movie. We’ll always have San Francisco…
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