‘Timeless’ Meets ‘Hidden Figures’ In “Space Race”

A review of tonight’s Timeless coming up just as soon as I’m Agent Mulder…

As both an Apollo program nerd and a NASA movie nerd (to the point where I could easily recognize a snippet of The Martian score used as temp music on the screener for the scene where Mission Control reconnects with Neil and Buzz), “Space Race” should have been catnip to me. But perhaps because of my obsessiveness, it felt skimpier than some of the show’s other recent historical adventures that didn’t travel to eras about which I’ve read a couple of dozen books, seen as many movies — and will be there opening weekend to see Hidden Figures, the Oscar buzzworthy movie(*) starring Taraji P. Henson as NASA math genius Katherine Johnson, played here by Nadine Ellis — and rewatched From the Earth to the Moon over and over and over again. The design of Timeless means that every Mission of the Week is going to offer a Cliff’s Notes of a particular historical event or figure; it was just more glaring this week for me, though your mileage will obviously vary depending on how many Grumman engineers you can name who worked on the lunar module.

(*) Hidden Figures, like any other major studio release, didn’t appear out of thin air, so at some point in the development of this episode, the creative team had to know that the line about how Rufus and Lucy’s adventure resulted in a movie being made about Johnson would play as an in-joke. And I imagine Johnson’s story will be told far more exhaustively there than it could have been here.

“Space Race” also felt like an episode where the meddling in the past would have had more far-reaching consequences than previous missions. A near-tragic moon mission would have either scuttled the rest of Apollo altogether (under the heading of, “We won — barely — so let’s not risk any more lives going back there”) or, given the cover story about Soviet spies interfering, could just as easily have redoubled our efforts in space, with even more lunar missions and other plans more ambitious than what NASA began doing by the mid-70s — which, given how many incidental technologies were developed by the program, means Team Lifeboat would have returned to a far more futuristic world. For that matter, the Cold War could have very easily turned hot if Nixon believed the Soviets had committed so brazen and potentially devastating an act of sabotage.

And it’s hard to imagine Garcia Flynn having the exact same life — or even being born at all(*) — if his mother hadn’t lost her son from her first marriage to fatally allergic bee sting reaction, especially given how significantly Lucy’s life was altered as a result of the Hindenburg mission, which was a few generations removed from her birth.

(*) Near the end of Back to the Future, Doc Brown seems concerned when Marty suggests the more confident George might go to college; the novelization expands on this (possibly incorporating material cut from the original script) by having Doc point out that George and Lorraine could well elect to have kids later in life if he goes to college first, which could result in them having a different combination of kids in the present. In the end, the movie doesn’t want to make the butterfly effect of it all too headache-inducing for the audience, and leaves Marty and his siblings intact and the right age, even if their circumstances are all much better.

It’s a fine line Timeless has to walk, showing how these trips to the past change things even when our heroes are able to stop Flynn from his main objective, yet not making the new reality completely unrecognizable to Lucy and to us. But having invited its audience to think about the ways that small changes decades or centuries in the past can have big impacts in the present, it’s hard not to notice when the genie seems to be perfectly placed back in its bottle.

What did everybody else think? Was the Apollo 11 of it all fun for you? Do you buy Anthony’s desire to prevent Rittenhouse from getting its hands on a time machine sufficient motivation for him to team up with Flynn, or did it make you wonder why he didn’t just destroy the tech?