All time-travel stories, despite their history-hopping and timey-wimey madness, have a beginning. And in Timeless, the time traveling starts when a terrorist with a mysterious plan (Goran Visnjic) steals a time machine and heads to the past, with a trio of heroes — played by Abigail Spencer, Matt Lanter, and Malcolm Barrett — hot on his tail.
Of course, the NBC adventure drama’s origin story goes further back than that. Below, executive producers Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Revolution) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield) think back to the beginning, sharing the reasons behind their pursuit of a historical time-travel show and previewing what to expect from the series.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the idea for Timeless come about? What made you want to do a time-travel show?
ERIC KRIPKE: For me, the impulse behind doing a time-travel show was searching for an efficient story engine. When you do 22 episodes of a network show, it’s incredibly useful to have a format that gives you a jumping-off point for a story. I have had success with Supernatural in that it kicked off of existing folklore, and we just had to find a ghost story and make an episode out of it. Similarly, here, the story engine, that every week there is a different historical period, seemed really intriguing. Shawn and I both are fascinated by history, and so every week, we just sit down with the writers and begin with the exact same question every time, which is, “Which historical period are you interested in and how can we explore it?” It’s a fun way to run a show.
SHAWN RYAN: Yeah, I was really intrigued by the idea of having a story engine that would allow us to tell different kinds of stories. Our pilot deals with the Hindenburg as kind of a disaster movie, when we go to World War II in Germany, that’s a spy story, when we go to Watergate in the ’70s, that’s a conspiracy story along the lines of All the President’s Men, and the Vegas Rat Pack era episode is kind of an Ocean’s Eleven kind of thing. It allows us to explore these different genres all within the same show. As I’ve learned from Eric, genre allows you to use these time periods and these places to tell interesting stories that reflect on today’s events in ways that would be harder to swallow if you were in present day.
How did you go about choosing which time periods to tackle?
RYAN: We considered everything, a lot. When you’re breaking one of these stories, you have to just start by, “Will this story work? Will it be a proper delivery system for good character work?” And then we start thinking about how, you know, there’s the saying that history repeats itself, so we’re always looking for parallels. We actually have a history expert who lives in the writers’ room with us, who’s always feeding us little-known facts and nuggets of information on these time periods [we’ve chosen] that we’re always fascinated with. We think about that, along with basic things every show worries about. You know, is the drama we’re telling going to be interesting? Does it give us a good delivery system for emotion with our characters?
KRIPKE: We definitely think about present-day commentary. The thing we probably think about the most before we pick a historical period is what’s going on emotionally with our characters and how we make the storyline reflect that, because no matter how big or visual or epic this show is, it’s still a TV show about characters and their emotions and relationships. The reason we picked Watergate [for an episode] was because that was the point in the story beat when we had a lot of secrets among our team, and it was time for all those secrets to be exposed.
Why did you guys choose to start the show off with the Hindenburg disaster?
KRIPKE: I will give you a very frank answer to that question. We said, “Well, s—, we’re going to have twice as much money with the pilot, so let’s do the biggest possible historical event we can think of to do.” [Laughs] That was honestly one of the main drivers. The other [reason] is, in a weird way, because pilots are so different. What you’re really thinking about is, “How do you blow people away? How do you plant your flag as something unique and something you’ve never seen before?” Frankly, you’re not thinking as much about season-wide or series-long arcs as you are about kicking it off with a bang. So for us, we said, “Well, the Hindenburg’s huge, so it’ll sell the size we’re selling to. It’ll sell the epic sweep we’re trying to do.” We were planting a flag to say that we were going to explore either historical periods that you may not know that much about or at least find really new angles on famous events that you may have heard of.
Aside from the trio not being able to travel to time periods they’ve been to before, what are the time-travel rules we should know going into the series? And why these rules?
KRIPKE: The ship has the ability to travel through time and space, and it’s based on a real-life theory called a closed timelike curve, in which, if you had enough power and strong enough pull of gravity, you could bend the fabric of space and time and loop it back on itself. As we said, they can’t go back to any time where they already existed, which is basically a way for us to keep our time travel simple and fun, with propulsive forward momentum, because then we can’t do episodes over and over and over again. And we are definitely living in the butterfly effect theory, where any change that is made in the past is going to have a very logical cause-and-effect ramification of the present. The stakes are really high, because basically they’re trying to chase after and fight a dangerous and violent terrorist in the middle of a museum, where you can’t knock over anything.
Will they ever be able to move into the future?
KRIPKE: They’re not going to… but you know, I think Shawn and I are both experienced enough showrunners to never say never, and there can always be adjustments and improvements made to the time machine, but we consider this a historical adventure show more than we do a science-fiction show. We’re not making the show for a hardcore sci-fi audience.
Timeless premieres Monday, Oct. 3 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.