There are few time travel ideas that haven’t already been excavated by Doctor Who. But The Time Traveler’s Wife sees writer/creator Steven Moffat circling back to his own material.
Back when he was Doctor Who’s showrunner, Moffat's first episode followed the Time Lord as he meets a young girl with red hair. The Doctor reappears years later when she’s grown up… and in love with him. Something similar happens in this time-travel series, but here the traveller teleports in the nude. Sixty-year-old Moffat is in a unique position to adapt Audrey Niffenegger's original 2003 novel, as Moffat at 49 already had it covered.
But The Time Traveler's Wife is more than recycled concepts. Its traveller is more Vonnegutian: Henry DeTamble (Theo James) has been unstuck in time since childhood, uncontrollably appearing and vanishing across different years. Not only through his life, but across other timelines. He’s not a hero either. You see a lot of him at 28 when he’s a womanising, egocentric narcissist. But one of his few consistencies, despite being out of sync, is his future wife: the red-haired artist Clare Abshire (Ruth Leslie).
Henry (Theo James) and six-year-old Clare (Everleigh McDonell). Photo: Sky/HBO
Now, here’s the stickier, trickier part. Clare meets Henry when she’s six years old and he’s in his 30s, in a secluded clearing near her childhood home. They continue to meet, and he knows she’s his future wife. She becomes enamoured with him, and that crosses into adolescence and adulthood.
Moffat can’t escape the impression of a grooming narrative, and he knows how weird it looks. There are even jokes about it, as if to relieve your growing ambivalence. Thankfully, as you meet Henry and realise his decent intentions, notions of impropriety start to melt.
Since the series clashes complex fantasy with certain heart-rending realities, it's like Moffat dares you to pick a side: either consider the real-world implications or indulge the fairytale. He clearly hopes you’ll opt for the latter, which this critic does – though with some discomfort.
Regardless of that dodgy background, in which Clare has complete agency and Henry performs like a ‘gentleman’, the rest is a wondrous, crushing and entertaining experience. Their warm, wordy and occasionally antagonistic romance scatters through time but transcends linearity. A lot of it unfolds when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28, the ages calligraphically specified throughout.
Even the perplexing wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff (to quote David Tennant's Doctor) is easy to accept. Each episode is a playful What If? scenario, bound in bizarre romcom circumstances with an undergrowth of tragedy. As well as the fug of love, of course, which makes Henry's ‘disability’ both bearable and torturous at once.
Henry's philosophy focuses on the Here and Now, emphasising the importance of risk as past and present dissolve. Moffat crafts such poignancy from Henry's existential predicament, causing this critic to collapse in tears at least once. The emotional punches wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful without the intensely human performances from James and Leslie. They not only have romantic chemistry but also a BFF spark – working wonderfully with Moffat’s bouncy dialogue.
There’s a lot to absorb, but it correlates with Henry’s experiential situation. The bombardment with memories and dates and ages plunges you into sensory, emotional overload. And that’s not even grazing the depressing notion of a deterministic universe and lack of free will that pervades this story. But as soppy as it sounds, their love eases that pain. The Time Traveler's Wife is a funny, touching and mind-warping series that will hopefully regenerate its success with a second season.
The Time Traveler’s Wife airs on Monday 16 May at 9pm on Sky Atlantic, and will be available on streaming service NOW.
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16 May 22 – 16 May 23, ON SKY ATLANTIC
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