I’m a sucker for a good time travel story.
Back to the Future, The Time Machine, Time Bandits, Quantum Leap, Timeless, even the odd time travel episode of Star Trek… I love ’em all. There’s just something so fascinating about the concept of traveling to the past to change or preserve the timeline, or going into the future to see how things turn out.
I’ve mentioned my affection for Nicholas Meyer’s work here before. The two Star Trek movies he directed, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country are my favorites of the Trek film series, and I thoroughly enjoyed all three of his Sherlock Holmes novels, The Seven Per-Cent Solution, The West End Horror, and The Canary Trainer, as well as the 1976 movie version of The Seven Per-Cent Solution. I also highly recommend Meyer’s memoir about his experiences in Hollywood, The View From The Bridge. And I look forward to seeing his return to the Star Trek Universe in Star Trek: Discovery this fall.
But today I’m going to talk about the first movie that Meyer directed, 1979’s Time After Time.
Time After Time started out as a book by Karl Alexander, an old acquaintance of Meyer’s from a playwright’s workshop at the University of Iowa. Inspired by Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes-meets-Sigmund Freud novel The Seven Per-Cent Solution, Alexander invited Meyer to take a look at the first 65 pages of his story about a time-traveling H.G. Wells and Jack the Ripper.
Meyer liked it. He liked it so much that he ended up optioning the book and writing a screenplay adapting Alexander’s story. Since Alexander and Meyer were working on the book and movie at the same time, they freely exchanged ideas throughout the process. Meyer managed to sell the movie to Warner Bros. and Orion, and it became his directorial debut.
Time After Time opens in 1893, as Jack the Ripper (David Warner) is once again butchering his way through London’s prostitutes. Meanwhile, in a sequence nicely reminiscent of George Pal’s 1960 version of The Time Machine, newspaper columnist and social crusader H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) is showing off his new invention to his friends — a working Time Machine, with which Wells intends to journey into the future to see his socialist ideals come to pass.
But before Wells can make his trip, Scotland Yard arrives and reveals that his best friend, St. Barts surgeon Dr. John Leslie Stevenson, is secretly Jack the Ripper. And of course, the Ripper uses Wells’ Time Machine to make his escape.
Horrified that he’s let Jack the Ripper loose on a future Utopia, Wells follows Stevenson to 1979, where he discovers that his Time Machine is now part of an H.G. Wells exhibition in San Francisco. Wandering around the city, Wells is alternately fascinated and shocked to find that the world of 1979 is nothing like he imagined. It’s fun to see the modern world through the eyes of someone from the Victorian era, as Wells tries to blend in as best he can without looking too foolish.
Reasoning that his opponent would have to exchange his 1893 British sovereigns for present-day American money, Wells goes to every bank he can find, asking if they’ve seen another British gentleman asking to exchange currency. It’s there that Wells meets Amy Robbins, played by Mary Steenburgen.
Amy is immediately smitten with the charming stranger, but Wells is too focused on finding Stevenson to pursue her.
A standout scene occurs when Wells tracks his former friend to his hotel room. The Ripper refuses to leave the 20th century, and makes his case simply by turning on his television set. Every channel carries violent imagery — wars, terrorism, assassinations, Jimi Hendrix smashing his guitar, Yosemite Sam blowing himself up in an old cartoon. As Wells watches in mute horror, Stevenson declares, “I belong here completely and utterly. I’m home. The world has caught up with me and surpassed me. Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today, I’m an amateur.”
It’s an affecting scene because it carries a certain truth. The modern world generates horrors that 1893 could only dream of, and Stevenson has already adapted to them. The point is made all the more clear by the fact that the Ripper is dressed in modern clothes while Wells is still puttering around in a Victorian-era suit.
A chase ensues, one that ends abruptly when Stevenson is hit by a car (men from the Victorian England aren’t used to the concept of “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs at intersections). With the Ripper seemingly dead, Wells returns to the bank to get better acquainted with the pretty cashier at the foreign exchange desk.
This is one of the things I like about Time After Time — The characters operate at the top of their intelligence. Most other movies would try to awkwardly shoehorn in a love story at the same time Wells was trying to track down the Ripper. Time After Time finds a sensible reason for a romance to occur in the middle of the film — Wells thinks that the danger has passed. There are other examples throughout the film. When Amy doesn’t believe that her new love interest Herbert Wells is really a time-traveling H.G. Wells, he doesn’t waste much time trying to convince her — he just takes her back to the museum for a quick trip forward in time. Once she believes Wells is telling the truth, Amy makes the very sensible suggestion of just using the Time Machine to escape into the past or the future. Even the Ripper displays a cunning intelligence, quickly realizing how Wells tracked him down when he’s reminded that it was Amy who recommended a hotel to him.
So everyone in this movie is smart. What really trips up Wells is his naïveté — despite seeing ample evidence that the Ripper is an utter madman and 1979 San Francisco is not the Utopia of his dreams, Wells still expects the world to operate by Victorian England’s rules.
Malcolm McDowell is excellent as H.G. Wells. He’s honestly so good that every time I watch the film I have to remind himself that it’s him. I don’t ever see McDowell in the part. I just see H.G. Wells.
Mary Steenburgen is utterly charming as Amy Robbins. She and McDowell fell in love for real during the shooting of the film, and married soon after. They had two children and stayed together until 1990. You can really feel the spark between them, and it lends some extra frisson to the love story.
This must be a neat movie for their kids to watch. How many of us get the chance to actually see their parents fall in love?
David Warner makes for a wonderful Ripper. Charismatic, intelligent, but utterly threatening throughout. You fear for Wells and Amy whenever he’s onscreen (Thank God Meyer refused to cast the studio’s suggestion, Mick Jagger).
Meyer wisely never gives us a backstory for the Ripper, realizing that he’s all the scarier if you don’t know much about him. Stevenson carries a musical pocket watch with a portrait of a woman inside, and makes a tantalizing reference to his mother at one point, but neither is ever explained any further. It’s a trick that Meyer would use on some of his future villains — Why does Khan have that one glove he never removes? How did General Chang lose that eye? And the truth is that the answers don’t matter. It’s enough just to get you wondering about them.
Part of the charm of Time After Time is that, much like Back to the Future, it successfully incorporates multiple genres. As Meyer declared in a recent interview, “It’s a romance, it’s a thriller, it’s a comedy, it’s science fiction, and it’s a social commentary.”
And now, it’s a TV series. Kevin Williamson, of Scream, Dawson’s Creek, and The Vampire Diaries fame, has adapted the movie into a new show on ABC that had a 2-hour premiere last night. I watched it out of curiosity, and well… it’s not very good.
The first hour apes the movie loosely, with a few differences. The Ripper escapes to 2017 Manhattan instead of 1979 San Francisco. Wells’ love interest is an assistant museum curator named Jane Walker instead of a bank teller named Amy Robbins. And there’s a mysterious woman named Vanessa Anders who claims to be a descendant of H.G. Wells’, because you can’t have a TV show these days without some shadowy conspiracy behind everything, apparently.
The show misses most of the charm of the movie. There’s hardly any of Wells’ culture shock at finding himself in the future, and certainly none of the social commentary. The pilot’s version of the hotel room scene I talked about above runs through the Ripper’s monologue about belonging in today’s more violent society like it’s just an item on a checklist. You wonder if the creators were on a mission to make Time After Time as generic as possible. The Ripper adjusts to the modern world way too quickly. Before the end of the show, he’s making calls on a cell phone and looking himself up online. They even have Wells shave off his mustache and start dressing in contemporary clothing halfway through the pilot, after which he seems less like H.G. Wells and more like… some guy.
After the first two episodes, it’s still not very clear where the show is going as a series. Apparently, there’s going to be some time travel in future episodes, but there wasn’t much build up to that at the end of the pilot. Going by what they showed us last night, it seems like the show will mostly be about Wells and the Ripper fighting over the key to the Time Machine across modern day New York City, a premise which has “Why bother?” written all over it. You get the feeling that if Mick Jagger was suggested to these producers, they would’ve gone, “Wow, great idea! Why didn’t we think of it?”
My advice? Skip the TV show and watch the movie instead. Or if you want an really entertaining time travel show, check out NBC’s Timeless On Demand or BluRay.
See you next week!