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Throwback Throwdown: ABC's 'Time After Time' Versus The 1979 Movie, 'Time After Time'

By Michael Salfino & Cara Salfino | TV | March 16, 2017 |

By Michael Salfino & Cara Salfino | TV | March 16, 2017 |

Publisher’s Note: This is a column where a father and daughter — from different generations, obviously — compare and contrast pop culture from their respective eras over email.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Thu, Mar 9, 2017 at 12:01 PM
Subject: Time After Time
To: “Cara Salfino

Maybe it’s age creeping up on me or the fact that we are in Peak TV with just too many shows but I had no idea that NBC was launching a series based the great 1979 film Time After Time staring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells and David Warner as a totally believable, maybe THE most believable ever Jack the Ripper.

So I was excited to watch the first two episodes, though confused about how this story could sustain a series. I figured they were going to go really slow with the plot, hopefully as deftly as Better Call Saul does. But of course, this is network TV so there isn’t going to be much character study and the emphasis is on hitting action beats. As a result, the show feels so rushed compared with the movie. I would have loved a half season of Jack the Ripper doing his grisly business while his friend H.G. Wells is obsessing over his time machine until they both come together to launch us all into the present day. I mean, they built the 1880s London sets. This could have been Hannibal-ish in both grisliness and deliberate pacing. And it could have more deliberately established a friendship between the two lead characters that slowly turns into a cat and mouse game where we don’t now who is who from moment to moment.

Maybe I am too wedded to the source material, which is definitely in my Top 5 all-time screen depictions of time travel (more on that in my next reply). Time After Time the movie wasn’t popular in release, but teenage me would have bet heavily (and incorrectly) that it would become a cult classic. I know you were a fan when we watched it together years ago. So let’s compare and contrast in the context of our moment in history when we need the help of kindly time travelers more than ever. With our luck, though, we’d get Jack the Ripper.

From: Cara Salfino
Date: Fri, Mar 10, 2017 at 4:35 PM
Subject: Re: Time After Time
To: Michael Salfino

Time After Time reminds us that a peak volume of TV shows doesn’t spell peak quality — particularly in the time travel department. The genre has always dished out novel sci-fi escapism to audiences, but the best examples are so much more. Aside from the occasional appearance of the Tetris-y Ziggy handheld computer and gimmicky holograph special effects, Quantum Leap served as a character study of the quixotic scientist Sam Beckett and the lives of those in the past he was attempting to help. For a time travel show it was often sweet, quiet, small-scale and deeply moving. It didn’t rely on flashy tech or overly elaborate plots (infrequent exceptions include Beckett encountering a femme fatale “evil leaper”).

The same, I’d argue, can be said of much of Doctor Who, especially during the golden era of the reboot that saw Russell T. Davies as head writer and David Tennant as perhaps the most iconic incarnation of the Doctor. Despite the main character being quite alien, the show is also deeply concerned with the nature of humanity in a way that manages to balance the cheesy (outdated but charmingly nostalgic set pieces, like K-9 and the TARDIS, or the fact that the Doctor literally has two hearts) with moments of great humanity (like the Doctor professing that in his travels he’s encountered “fake gods and bad gods and demigods and would be gods,” but the thing he believes in the most is his human companion).

The movie Time After Time did the same while served by a very adept cast - the portrayal of Jack the Ripper was so appropriately menacing. I just wasn’t getting that from the remake’s Ripper, Josh Bowman, who serves more as eye candy than convincing serial killer. And that’s what this show feels like so far: eye candy for viewers, with an attractive cast and the fun, fast, violent action sequences that we’ve come to be able to rely on from creator Kevin Williamson (Dawson’s Creek, The Vampire Diaries). But it’s at once rushed and hollow compared with the movie. I can’t imagine what the show is going to do when it runs out of material from the film.

From: Michael Salfino
Date: Sat, Mar 11, 2017 at 1:27 AM
Subject: Re: Time After Time
To: Cara Salfino

This is attempt 278 to get me to watch Doctor Who. But the first time you’ve played the time travel card. And time travel is one of my favorite plot devices. But Doctor Who has been on for like 50 years and that has to be, what, nearly 100 BBC episodes? See if you can make it crack my Rob Gordon-esque Time Travel Top 5.

5. City on the Edge of Forever (Star Trek, Season 1, Episode 28): Comedy, romance, Great Depression-era NYC and one of the niftiest summations of the unintended consequences of messing with the past.

4. Time After Time: Perfectly cast, smartly plotted, well-paced: All things this TV series is not. I hope everyone reading this watches it. Mary Steenburgen, who is still so beautiful I half suspect SHE has a time machine, has far more believable chemistry with H.G. Wells.

3. Groundhog’s Day: I’m sorry that this broke up the friendship between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis for 20-plus years, but Murray was 100 percent right to push the movie into deeper and sometimes darker directions.

2. Quantum Leap: I’ve had to hold back being choked up by this show more times than I care to count, thank you. I kept hoping Sam Beckett would show up before January 20th and put an end to our madness. Now I’m thinking maybe he did but we’re all still stuck here. Would we even know?

1. Back to the Future: A perfect blockbuster that probably wouldn’t even be made today because it couldn’t play in China. Sad!

You nailed it with Bowman as The Ripper. And why persist in the notion that Jack the Ripper deep down really wants to be a good person. I’m pretty sure he enjoyed being the Ripper given the escalating gore and frequency of his crimes.

I really wanted to like this. I constructed my own Jack the Ripper tour in Whitechapel back before you were born when your mother and I travelled to London. Even bought a Jack the Ripper hat at the Ten Bells, only to quickly discover upon heading back to Jersey that it’s awkward sporting a Jack the Ripper hat when you’re on line at the convenience store buying milk.

I’m also not a fan of having a totally fictitious Ripper when there are literally dozens of plausible suspects. For the record, my money is on this guy as our murderer.

From: Cara Salfino
Date: Mon, Mar 13, 2017 at 8:33 PM
Subject: Time After Time
To: Michael Salfino

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” How about a Doctor Who-only Time Travel Top 3: “Midnight” (Season 4, Episode 10); “The Satan Pit” (Season 2 Episode 9) and “Blink” (Season 3, Episode 10). In addition, they cover some of the more powerful implications of the show (especially “Midnight”).

What really halts me when it comes to Time After Time is the fact that the time travel seems to be an afterthought — something that can’t be said of Quantum Leap, Doctor Who, Back to the Future or even Bill and Ted. Like the movie, Time After Time tried for an impactful scene when they had the Wells character watching modern news coverage of violence both domestic and abroad, but it was so overplayed that it seemed more comedic than dramatic.

Ultimately, Time After Time left me disappointed. It lacked the powerful character development that McDowell and Warner managed to pull off — charming in its absurdity and yet absolutely convincing in its Ripper menace. But beyond the TV show’s lackluster performances, there’s deficiency with the core concept. It relies upon action and soap-operatic drama (let’s not forget H.G. Wells encountering his great granddaughter in a particularly absurd scene). The show seems quite content to ignore its historical cues, resting its drama on pretty faces and Aaron Spelling-esque drama.

Dad Michael Salfino is a sportswriter most frequently for The Wall Street Journal, for which he also occasionally writes about movies. Daughter Cara is a college senior and private investigator. Though separated by decades of times and hundreds of miles of Mid-Atlantic geography, they still carve out quality time to discuss pop culture. This is their virtual Coffee Table.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.