The Time Traveler’s Wife Is Steven Moffat at His Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Best

Back when I first heard that Sherlock creator and former Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat had finally gotten the rights to adapt The Time Traveler’s Wife, I was worried that his take would veer too close to the multiple Doctor Who episodes and season arcs that had in fact been inspired by Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel. How could I not, when this writer had made clear how he imprinted on her work, not unlike child Clare imprinting on her imaginary friend slash future husband Henry?

The pilot doesn’t make the best first impression, starting out overwrought thanks to dual voiceover, a cringey home-video frame story (with unfortunate aging makeup), and the dare-we-say-twee note of recreating the book cover in its opening credits. But eventually we get to 28-year-old time traveler Henry and 20-year-old artist Clare’s first date, during which she almost immediately blurts out that she’s his future wife… and the tone shifts just enough from heavy drama about soulmates and waiting to the absolute farce of these two kids confronting the fact of their entire future together. The snappy banter is reminiscent of Coupling, with the Möbius strip of their argument less about the mechanics of time travel and more the romance premise of you mean to say I fall in love with you? It’s exactly what I wanted from this adaptation.

…OK, there is one timey wimey mystery-box element, because Moffat.

Spoilers for The Time Traveler’s Wife pilot.

In case you need a reminder, Niffenegger’s novel tracks the twisty love story between Henry (Theo James), who possesses a strange genetic disability that makes him fall through time; and Clare (Rose Leslie), to whom he first appears when she is 6 years old and he is in his 30s/40s and has long been married to an older version of her. Clare’s “imaginary friend” Henry visits her a total of 152 times until she’s 18. While the pilot jumps around enough to sketch out the general sense of their unconventional timeline, the central story takes place in 2008, when 20-year-old Clare and 28-year-old Henry have their first meeting in linear time. But because he hasn’t yet started traveling back in time to meet her, he has no idea why this hot redhead is looking at him like he’s the Holy Grail.

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Steven Moffat Audrey Niffenegger Theo James Rose Leslie Henry Clare

Photo: Macall Polay

Well, he has some idea, and being a hot-blooded 28-year-old, he is all too happy to go with the flow for what will turn out to be a comically disastrous first date.

Paradox of the Week

There’s the clear awkwardness over dinner, as she is brimming with a decade-plus of pent-up giddiness and sexual frustration, alternately flummoxed by how poorly this (young, hot, clearly commitment-phobic) Henry is handling a road map to his future being laid out on the two-top alongside their wine. Their personalities clash in little discoveries about one another, but for each misstep there’s a frisson of tension to paper that up, and it’s a foregone conclusion that they’ll be going home together.

Seeing as the show does its best to follow the dual narrative from the book, we already know that Henry’s tried to remove all evidence of a preexisting female presence from his apartment, so it’s cacklingly funny that he leaves her robe on the bathroom door and Clare comes out wearing it, dangling an incriminating (black, lacy) bra. And then the young Mr. DeTamble—who has had twenty years of experience running, fighting, and talking his way out of every dangerous time-travel situation—steps deeper into the shit by somehow blaming Clare for him having a girlfriend he just cheated on, then basically calling Clare crazy and implying that that was the more compelling reason for him to fuck her than the idea of them being soulmates. No wonder he gets a shoe to the face.

Except it’s not even him who gets the shoe! But his older self, who has dropped, naked, outside the apartment where the first of many time-crossed lovers’ quarrels will occur. Hijinks! I adore it.

For however much time we have together discussing this show, let’s refer to the present-day (that is, 2008) lovers as Henry and Clare. He’s 28, she’s 20, they’ve just met for the first time chronologically. Among their past and future selves, there are a few recurring characters, like Older Henry (anywhere from 36 to 41; sometimes this is significant, often not) and Younger Clare (starting at 6 and going all the way up to 18). I’ll mark ages where appropriate, but it should be clear from context who’s who and who’s when.

The 2009 movie starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana hardly lingers on the girlfriend complication; Henry’s breakup with Ingrid takes place off-screen, in favor of getting through the entire rest of their lives together within a two-hour runtime. In hindsight, the whole movie is rushed, sacrificing the smaller and more interesting emotional conflicts of their unusual relationship for just the big sci-fi one. What Moffat does instead is cherry-pick entry points from their story by his own whims, stretching moments, taffy-like, to inhabit every nano-moment within. (They’re bigger on the inside!) Consider that this six-episode first season is basically just about present Clare and Henry, though his future self makes enough cameos in 2008 to earn sitcom guest-star credit, and there are enough flash-forwards to future her to feel like we’re on Lost. (We have to go back!)

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Steven Moffat Audrey Niffenegger Theo James Rose Leslie Henry Clare

Photo: Sandy Morris/HBO

The loveliest thing that Moffat’s done with Niffenegger’s timeline is to show how key moments for Clare and Henry are layered atop one another. On the same day that 28-year-old Henry meets Clare for the first time (for him), he also goes back in time to start training his 7-year-old self on his (their) first bout of time travel. The future spouses’ first linear meeting in 2008 also triggers 36-year-old Henry to go back into the past so that he can start interacting with 6-year-old Clare (cementing their present), only to detour into that present on his way home so that he also ensures that 20-year-old Clare gives his asshole self a second chance. Because while so much of Niffenegger’s time travel mechanics relied on the well it’s already happened, so it’s gonna happen reasoning, Moffat plays around with but what has to happen to ensure that it does, indeed, happen?

Despite older, married Clare telling the camcorder that the hardest part of their relationship is waiting, what we’re actually witnessing is the dissonance for Clare, who has fallen in love with her idealized older Henry—just gray and just grave enough to project stability and unconditional love—only to discover that she doesn’t get to be with him. She gets what initially seems like all pluses—his hotter, younger, shaggier-haired self—but the tradeoff is that he’s an unformed man-child. The one who will form him? Clare. So someday she’ll get to open her eyes and her Henry will be standing there… but she doesn’t know when that someday is. It’s certainly not today. This Clare just made it through 14 years of waiting, only to have to wait even longer for the future she was promised.

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Steven Moffat Audrey Niffenegger Theo James Rose Leslie Henry Clare

Photo: Macall Polay

O Henrys

Much as I loved this agonizing tension between Clare and her Henrys, perhaps the best scene of the pilot is between Henry and his older self. First there’s the incredibly wry line-read of “I fucked him, too” from Older Henry to a shocked Clare, which definitely lends a particular dimension to the Henrys’ meeting outside the bar. Older Henry calling his younger self Junior is delightful (and perhaps an Indiana Jones reference?), but then he drops the bombshell on this scared kid who, he just told Clare, time travel has never done anything good for:

“Not that I’d ever offer advice, but a boring old man told me something a very long time ago. He said, ‘You have two things to do with your time on this Earth: one, find the love of your life; and two, die as slowly as possible.’ You did part one tonight, part two starts now. Playtime’s over… You’ve seen the blood, you know something’s coming.”

The Time Traveler’s Scribe

The one real Doctor Who-esque indulgence Moffat has allowed himself is the time-jumping hints from other Henrys: the puddle of blood that appears and disappears in Henry’s bathroom; his charming baby tooth briefly popping into 2008 before the tooth fairy nabs it; and the mystery note on which the pilot ends: Henry finds his own severed, frostbitten feet in an alley and whispers to himself slash the universe, “Not today. Not today.” As established with the blood, this means that somewhere else in time, another version of him is having what will no doubt be the worst time jump of them all.

The Time Traveler's Wife TV review Steven Moffat Audrey Niffenegger Theo James Rose Leslie Henry Clare

Photo: Macall Polay

If Henry saw it, that means that Older Henry did too, though he didn’t see fit to tell him five minutes prior during their conversation. And at this point, neither knows what will cause so much blood—but Clare has an idea. Yet neither Henry wants to know.

Foreknowledge (a.k.a. For the Book Readers)

These moments of foresight (or sidesight?) were not in the book; they’re Moffat’s affectation, a bit of extra tangling of the already-snarled narrative yarn. It was an interesting inclusion on the first watch but came across much cheesier and more forced on the rewatch. Clearly it’s meant to hook in people who don’t know the source material, though the romance should have more than done that after Clare and Henry’s disastrous first date. Or is it more of a wink to the book readers? I’m really not sure who it’s for, which is the mark of a puzzle-box bit that’s trying too hard.

But that fits the Time Traveler’s Wife pilot, and the big-picture of Henry and Clare’s relationship: There are plenty of moments of trying too hard, but you know it’s going somewhere good.

The Time Traveler’s Wife airs weekly on HBO Max.

Natalie Zutter can’t wait til we get to episode 4. Talk The Time Traveler’s Wife with her here and on Twitter!

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