Comic-Con: ‘Timeless’ stars on the ambitions and the guts of sending a black guy back in time

Timeless is among many time travel shows on air this year, when turn-back-the-clock TV seems to be the hottest new trend. But it”s the only series that”s daring to deal with sending a black character to eras where it was not at all fun to be black.

Malcolm Barrett (Better off Ted) plays Rufus, a scientist who pilots the time machine that goes back to the Hindenburg disaster in the first episode of Timeless, which premieres on NBC this October. Rufus is hesitant to join the small crew tasked with chasing a suspected terrorist back to May 6, 1937.

“I am black,” he tells his superior. “There is literally no place in American history that will be awesome for me.”

But he goes back anyway. There”s a reason he”s best for the job, a reason still mysterious to viewers upon the end of the pilot episode.

And he”ll keep going back in time. At San Diego Comic-Con, Timeless co-creator Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Revolution) told me that in every single episode, the show will travel to another time and place in history. Episode 2 takes Rufus, Lucy (Abigail Spencer), and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

(As Kripke told me, “Supernatural was a show that, at least in the early days, very famously had no standing sets…. I said to myself, ‘How could I make that even more impossible?” So we came up with Timeless where each [episode], it”s an entirely different time period.””)

So Timeless is setting out to be very ambitious with its era-jumping production plans, and it”s taking Rufus along for the ride each time, something Barrett says proves the writers “aren”t afraid to tackle very real things, and they”re not afraid to be challenged.”

“They”re few and far between, [shows that have] African-American characters go back in time,” Barrett added during the Timeless panel at Comic-Con. “Because I think it”s probably challenging for writers. They”re like, ‘Ehh, stuff is gonna happen. I don't wanna deal with that.”

Timeless actors Matt Lanter, Malcolm Barrett, and Goran Visnjic at San Diego Comic-Con. Photo credit: Mark Davis/NBC

Rufus having to deal with racism in the 1930s supplies both comedy and moving moments in the pilot episode. During a Saturday afternoon screening of the pilot at Comic-Con, Rufus” deadpan comedy lines got the most laughs (including “well, the back of the bus was fun”), and when Rufus talks back to a police officer about all the talented black men who will dominate sports and pop culture in the future, that rousing scene got cheers. (You can see part of that moment in the show”s trailer.)

Doctor Who is another show that”s taken a black character – the companion Martha Jones – back in time, though the Doctor and his companion don”t try to blend in and accept the customs of the time like the Timeless crew does. 2004 novel Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, notably snatched an African-American woman from the present and plopped her in antebellum South.

Rufus will almost certainly brush up against some race-specific culture shock with his journey to Ford”s Theatre on April 14, 1865. For now, the Timeless creators and stars are staying tight-lipped on where and when else they”ll take the show, but co-creator Shawn Ryan (The Shield) told me, “We”re going to go back 250, 300 years. We”re going to be not just in the United States. We”re going to be all over the world. We”re going to be up until the early 1980s. And we”re going to be all over the map, something different for people each week.”

The 1980s might be where Rufus will feel more welcome: “Black people, we don”t like to go back before ‘Thriller,”” Barrett said with a laugh on the show”s panel.

As for the longtime comedy actor”s own wish list for time traveling (on the show certainly, though in real life “maybe”), he mentioned the Harlem Renaissance, Wattstax, and Woodstock.

Timeless premieres on NBC on October 3, 2016 – hopefully around then, we”ll learn about which other eras will be host to Rufus, Lucy, and Wyatt.