Despite being a genre beset with its own trappings, clichés, and expectations, science fiction has a tendency to subsume nearly every other genre. In the annals of television, it seems that nothing is more common and consistently popular than the police procedural, so it makes good sense to mash it up with science fiction. But is sci-fi too lousy with space cops, time cops, and even dinosaur cops? With this week’s American debut on the SyFy Channel of the new time travel crime show, Continuum, the sci-fi police procedural is back. But did this series really need to be a cop show? Or is this the sci-fi cop show to end all sci-fi cop shows?
Light spoilers for the first two episodes of Continuum.
Briefly, Continuum stars Rachel Nichols as Kiera Cameron, a “protector” from the year 2077. In this future, large corporations have replaced the government, meaning the law enforcement Kiera works for is not of the people, but instead, from the companies. The first two episodes of Continuum make references to a group of revolutionaries who are performing acts of sabotage in order to disrupt the status quo. The show depicts this in a way that evokes the principles of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but without Occupy’s non-violent practices. The revolutionaries drive the initial conflict of the show and are mostly not nice people. After bombing a large corporate building they’re sentenced to be publicly executed, but right before they’re killed, they manage to zap back into from 2077 to 2012. Kiera follows them, and that’s when the interesting paradox stuff starts to heat up.
All the future cops in 2077 have nifty retracting guns, but are also outfitted with Torchwood-style implants which allow them to communicate with, presumably, their headquarters. Kiera is told by one of her cop-bosses to “rely on her tech.” Naturally, being sent back to 2012, the network she would normally interface with is unavailable. But, thanks to her brain phone, Keira accidentally taps into the network of a present-day hacker/Mark Zuckerberg-style genius named Alec Salder (Erik Knudsen). He immediately begins helping her in secret, working from a tricked-out barn outside of his parents’ house. However, it eventually dawns on Keira that Alec is actually the founder of a huge corporation in the future, one of the very corporations that controls everything. As it turns out, Keira has actually met him as an old man.
Between shoot-outs with the bad guys and a little bit of flirting with the contemporary nice guy cop, Carlos (Victor Webster), the first two episodes of Continuum feel like a sci-fi TV show with cool paradoxes and twists. But the show also occasionally feels like a boring and predictable cop show which requires lots of guns and an obligatory scene in which everyone sits around at headquarters and talks about how to outsmart the perps.
Does Continuum need to be a cop show as well as a time travel show? When you stop to think about it, it’s pretty hard to avoid genre cop shows. Got a show about an immortal vampire living among us? Yes, Forever Knight was a cop show. Time travel as a way to hide in the past from your past sins? It was called Time Trax, and it was a cop show. Super Force was a cop show. The X-Files sometimes FEELS like a cop show. Terra Nova had a cop as one of its lead characters. How about a movie featuring an alternate universe in which evolved, talking dinosaurs live side by side with Whoopi Goldberg? Even Theodore Rex was a buddy cop movie. To be fair, I've heard that Life on Mars affectionately parodies the entire genre of British police procedural, turning it on its head;( I haven't seen it), but it's clearly playing with some of the same concepts!
Still, aren’t the sci-fi premises of these shows enough? It’s not like SF literature is as over-packed with cops or cop-like characters. And yet, the more popular adaptations seem to need them. (I’m looking at you, Blade Runner.) People frequently complain that the bad episodes of Star Trek are when Captain Kirk is playing space cop. Even someone as whimsical as the Doctor from Doctor Who is always citing interstellar law and alerting the Shadow Proclamation. Is the format of television (and some films) so narrow that everything must lead to stories about rule-breakers and rule-enforcers? Even the best science fiction TV shows seem to have some thread of this theme, not matter what else they’re trying to do.
But, the nice thing about Continuum is that it seems poised to possibly invert this basic premise, simply by having its main villains possess—at least on paper—fairly reasonable motives. The rule-breakers are actually, possibly, in the right. Meanwhile the good guys are protecting big corporations. Even the most conservative among us don’t want the world to be controlled by corporations, so there’s something nicely socially relevant about the central conflict. Add to that the fact that Keira’s young hacker buddy in 2012 turns out to be a big bad corporate guy in 2077. Should we like this guy or not? Who is the cop and who is the robber, really?
These kinds of ethical and paradoxical questions alone could potentially make Continuum not only a good time travel show, but maybe, just maybe, a sci-fi cop show that intelligently critiques its own existence.
Continuum airs Mondays at 9pm EST on SyFy.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.