“Frequency” is Time Travel Without the Travel

We’ve already talked about 2 new TV series based on movies in our reviews of Lethal Weapon and The Exorcist. This time we look at a somewhat lesser known 2000 film Frequency starring Dennis Quaid and its TV reboot on the CW network also called Frequency. In the film Quaid uses an old HAM radio and some strange atmospheric phenomena to be able to talk to his father 30 years in the past. His father was a New York City firefighter and Quaid was able to warn him of his impending death in a warehouse fire. He manages to save his father’s life but it changes the future in a way that leads to the murder of his mother. They spend the rest of the film working together to try to prevent that murder before it happens.

In this TV adaptation the main character is female. Payton List stars as NYPD detective Raimy Sullivan who also connects via an old HAM radio with her father Frank Sullivan who was also an NYPD detective 20 years ago. He was killed in the line of duty but was believed to be a dirty cop. In the opening episode they figure out that they are actually father and daughter communicating across time. As in the film version, she warns him of his impending death and it is prevented. Also as in the film there are disastrous unforeseen consequences of changing the past.

Peyton List has had a number of television roles including over 300 episodes of the daytime soap As the World Turns however I recognize her from her guest starring roles on The Flash as Lisa Snart/Golden Glider.

These two time periods 20 years apart remain fixed relative to one another by those exact 20 years. As events unfold in 2016, events unfold in 1996 in lockstep parallel fashion. You get some of the typical time travel clichés such as the ability to predict the events of a baseball game across time. But you also get a rather spooky way in which events in the past sort of magically manifest themselves in the present. For example Frank and his daughter are communicating using the same radio. When Frank lays his cigar on the radio it begins to scorch a burnt place in the wood cabinet. That burn mark appears and smolders 20 years later. He later uses a soldering iron to scratch a drawing of a flag on the cabinet and the daughter witnesses it appearing in real time “simultaneously” 20 years later.

All science fiction stories struggle with what I call “plot driven technology”. That means that the author sets up the rules of how the technology works in such a way that it helps the plot of the story telling move forward. This is the opposite of what I would like to see which is “technology driven plot” in which the author designed some sort of sci-fi technology be it time travel or spaceflight or whatever… and then the plot is driven by the circumstances and consequences of that technology. The premise behind Frequency does a reasonably good job of being technology driven plot which in my opinion is the way it ought to be.

Any time travel story wrestles with the problem of developing the rules as to how time travel works. Some time travel stories draw the drama out of asking the question “Can we change the past or the future?” Some stories take the approach that our fates are inevitable and no matter what we do, it is what was destined to happen anyway. Others wrestle with the idea of “Should we change the past or the future? Will there be unexpected consequences?”

Someone always asks “If we fail to change things, why can’t we just go back and do it over again. If we could travel anywhere in time why don’t we continually do things over until we get it right?” Some time travel stories explore that possibility and usually end up concluding that it is futile to do so. Typically the author cops out and artificially put the some sort of limitation. In Doctor Who there are so-called “fixed points in time” which cannot be changed. Another new time travel TV series called Timeless which we will review later have already reviewed here had something similar. They artificially impose the idea that once you have visited a past event from the future you could no longer revisit it. To do so would violate some made up mumbo-jumbo about disturbing the fabric of the space-time continuum especially if you meet yourself coming and going. Those are examples of plot driven technology where you manufacture the rules of time travel to avoid dealing with paradoxes and other storytelling impairments.

The premise behind Frequency cleverly avoids many of these issues. Because events in the past and present remain linked by a fixed length of time and events unfold in the two time periods in lockstep parallel fashion, there is no opportunity for a second do over. You get one chance to fix it and if you fail there is no further recourse. The limits on the technology seem to flow naturally out of the circumstances. We don’t need to know why the two time periods are linked. We don’t need some sort of technobabble explanation of why we can or cannot do certain things. While it is true that this particular model of time travel does serve our storytelling purposes, it doesn’t have the same artificial feel that you usually get when such rules of time travel are explained. To me this makes for a more intelligent and thoughtful storytelling premise than you often get in these situations.

Because time continues to flow unceasingly at both ends of the story, it allows for dramatic tension that you’re facing particular deadlines. If you don’t solve the problem in enough time, all is lost. Cutting back and forth between the two time periods adds to the drama. Overall it is a very well done and very satisfying experience for the audience.

I mentioned the other new time travel series Timeless which I will review in my next installment and while I will recommend it to hard science fiction fans, this one is a little bit more accessible to a wider audience. Is more of a typical action-adventure police procedural type of show was a little sci-fi thrown in on the side. The father daughter relationship is also compelling and adds an extra something to make the show even better. We want to feel for our characters and in this instance we really do. The show has a lot of heart.

I’m giving this one a rating of “I like it” and strongly recommend it unless you really hate sci-fi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *