Timeless, not Harmless

Do teachers, chefs, doctors and lawyers cringe at television depictions of their vocation?  Add this to the things I never thought I’d give more than a passing thought until I watched and then wrote about a show new to NBC this year called Timeless.  I wrote a semi-agonized piece that Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s magazine, published earlier this week.  When I started watching and then writing about the show, I was sort of amused by Lucy Preston, the weirdly Wikipedia-light version of a historian who is one of the main characters.  She seemed dopey, but the show’s out of step take on academia (Lucy’s tenure case was put on hold because her department didn’t think she was ready), historians and, well, history, seemed sadly like timeless as well as harmless caricatures.

By the second week in November, though, there wasn’t much left to be amused about.  I’ve never found history a refuge from the contemporary world or politics; like every human production, historical work is embedded in structures of power.  And I’ve always thought that historical research and writing is urgent civic work.  But the counterpoint of Lucy’s only mildly useful –or even informed– historical perspective and global situations so unmoored from critical historical contexts left me semi-paralyzed.  It took weeks before I could finish the essay, and a second full rewrite before I could figure out how to begin to articulate my discomfort with this character.

The basic premise of scholarship–the relationship between evidence and argument and how one assesses the constitution of each and their relationship– is utterly missing from this character’s work on the show.  Lucy mostly offers up dates or other details. Not that in the right moment those aren’t useful, but they’ve got to work in the service of a deeper analysis and larger conclusions.  At first it seemed weird to me that Lucy seemed so detached, except in what struck me as a superficial way, from the moral complexity both of her time traveling and the periods in which she found herself.  Then it started to seem pretty terrifying.

The good news:  I have a better sense of what I’d do if I could time travel.  That means I have a better purchase on the here and now, too.

From “Tempting Fate:  The Historian as Time Traveler” (Perspectives on History, February 2017):  “If you could time travel, would you? As a historian voyaging into history, would you soak up the atmosphere and interact with as many people as possible? Would you consciously fact-check, harvest sources, meditate on the interpretive potential of what you’d experienced, make radical change based on events you knew wouldn’t end well—all of the above? Or maybe you’d devote yourself to the mission of preventing change: “protecting” the history you have learned and taught. These are propositions, each with profound implications, that NBC’s hour-long drama Timeless treats so casually as to be sometimes funny and often painful.”  More

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