Continuum makes its United States debut tonight on Syfy at 8 p.m. Eastern.
Time travel sets in motion the story of Continuum, Syfy’s latest Canadian import, but it doesn’t drive the action in the same way that it does in Looper, the past year’s other major entry in this particular sci-fi subgenre. When police officer Kiera Cameron—played by G.I. Joe and Conan The Barbarian actress Rachel Nichols—and a bunch of escaped terrorists jump back in time from 2077 to 2012, it appears to be the first time anyone has traveled in time, and so nobody has any damn idea how this all works. Unlike Looper, which got tremendous mileage out of exploring just how time travel works, Kiera doesn’t even know how to begin figuring out the mechanics of time travel. As her lone ally in 2012 explains, there are two possibilities: Either everything she’s experiencing now has already happened and can’t be changed, or the future can be altered by the actions that she or the fugitives take. The first possibility dooms her to simply going through the motions, living out the time loop until she hopefully gets a chance to return to her time. The second possibility gives her life more meaning, as she has the chance to actively make things better, but it also carries the very real risk that the 2077 she knows will be lost forever.
Admittedly, these are fairly abstract concerns, and Continuum doesn’t dwell on them too much in the early going. This uncertainty about whether her reality even exists anymore adds some extra weight to the moments when she thinks about her son back in 2077. But Kiera is a cop, and so she isn’t inclined to spend a lot of time on philosophy or emotions. The terrorists are still on the loose, and so she insinuates herself into the present-day Vancouver Police Department to help track them down. Yes, the show assumes the familiar structure of a police procedural, but this at least is an out-there premise that is actually well-suited to the formula. Kiera has brought the very best in 2070s law enforcement technology back with her, including cybernetic implants, a multi-tool carrying various gadgets and medical supplies, and a bulletproof suit that can actually turn invisible. With the constant aid of 2012’s foremost computer expert, she can run circles around today’s cops, which allows for some interesting twists and shortcuts to the standard procedural storytelling.
Science fiction stories tend to introduce their world from the hero’s perspective, only later complicating their moral axes by exploring the antagonist’s point of view; however, Continuum does almost precisely the opposite. The show opens in Vancouver on November 5, 2076—a date rife with revolutionary significance to American, British, and Canadian viewers alike, although this isn’t explicitly acknowledged—as the leader of the terrorist organization Liber8 explains that corporations bought out the world’s failing governments 20 years previous, then instituted a dictatorship and curtailed civil liberties. This is a familiar, well-worn dystopian setup, albeit one filtered through our contemporary vocabulary of bailouts and corporatism.
Whether because of one’s politics or simply because of one’s familiarity with this strain of sci-fi, it’s not all that difficult to sympathize with Liber8, even when their grand attack involves blowing up a skyscraper that houses the Corporate Congress, killing 30,000 people just to get at their 20 intended targets. But this is a distant CGI explosion, with the death toll only noted afterwards in an awkwardly stilted exposition scene set six months later. It lacks the immediacy of a subsequent scene in which Kiera identifies a suspect with the help of 2077’s omnipresent surveillance state, brutally subdues him, and injects him with a drug that will cause unbearable pain unless he turns himself into the nearest police station—all this even though the suspect is just some punk teenager wanted for vandalism charges. And yet, this fascist cog of an evil future government is the hero of Continuum. This is either setting up one hell of an intriguing moral arc for Kiera, or it’s just a bit of painfully muddled backstory that’s better off forgotten.
In any event, all this fun in the 2070s is just a prelude to the show’s real action, as a bunch of Liber8 members escape their execution by somehow time traveling back to 2012, with Kiera inadvertently brought along for the ride. Once the future is left behind, the show soon clarifies both its structure and its moral compass. The Liber8 escapees are intent on changing history to prevent the global corporate takeover, and their methods in 2012 leave no doubt that these really are the sort of people who would unflinchingly sacrifice 30,000 people in pursuit of their larger goals. Kiera is left to orient herself in this weird, primitive time, enlisting the aid of computer genius Alec Sadler (Jericho’s Erik Knudsen) and the Vancouver Police Department, in particular Detective Carlos Fonnegra (Victor Webster). She wants to return to 2077, but when Kiera is informed that this is impossible, she directs her energies to stopping Liber8, in equal parts due to a sense of duty, a need to preserve her time as she knows it, and a straightforward desire to get revenge on the murderous bastards who stranded her 65 years in the past.
Continuum acquits itself well in its depiction of 2077 and its technology. It probably helps that the show leaves the time period in the early going, only to return for the occasional flashback, which means a decent chunk of the budget can be sunk into making the futuristic Vancouver setting as convincing as possible. Floating wireless screens are easy to pull off convincingly, and they work nicely as an extrapolation of current technology 65 years into the future. Not everything works—most of the clothing in 2077 doesn’t seem to have changed much in six decades, for instance—but the future is fleshed out enough to feel entirely plausible in small doses, and Continuum wisely doesn’t overextend its reach. Where the relatively small budget becomes more obvious is in the action scenes, which tend to be a series of darkly lit, cacophonous shootouts, although here again the insertion of Kiera and her future technology does provide a fresh element that papers over the rote nature of the sequences.
Both tonight’s series premiere and next week’s episode suggest Continuum is worth following, sidestepping the obvious clichés of its basic police procedural format and raising some thorny moral and philosophical conundrums. It’s still tricky to judge the effectiveness of the latter at this point, especially since it’s not yet clear how much Kiera will have to confront her own culpability in a corrupt, oppressive system, or whether Liber8’s legitimate grievances will be overwhelmed by their own despicable actions. But the show’s storytelling is solid, and there are no weak links in the cast—Nichols, Knudsen, and Webster all do nice work, although they aren’t called upon to do all that much in the first two of episodes—so there’s plenty here to hold viewers’ interest while the show sorts through the largers questions about time travel, the corporate future, and just how Kiera fits into it all, stranded 65 years before her time.
- We’re considering adding Continuum to the weekly rotation. If you like what you saw tonight and want us to cover it, let us know in the comments.
- While it would be good to focus the discussion on just tonight’s episode, if anyone who has already seen the show during its Canadian airing wants to discuss future events, please be so kind as to mark such comments with a "Spoilers" tag.