a review by Nalini Haynes
Crime Traveller is a time travelling detective TV series from the BBC in Britain starring Chloe Annett (Kochanski from Red Dwarf) and Michael French (East Enders and Casualty).
The basic premise is that Holly Turner (Annett) is a science officer for the police. Holly’s father invented time travel then disappeared. Holly is trying to develop time travel further, but maintaining the machine is consuming all her income. That is, all her income not spent on accommodation, nice clothes, make-up, car, taxis… Jeff Slade (French) is supposed to be a charming detective who needs some help solving a crime. Holly revealed her secret time travel machine to Slade and started helping him solve crime at great personal expense, without financial assistance from Slade although he knows that time travel is expensive. There is a ‘crime of the week’ that, in order to be solved easily, necessitates Slade and Turner travelling back in time to witness events so they can catch the bad guy or guys.
Many TV series with simple premises successfully use sexual tension and character work to engage viewers. Crime Traveller hints at and almost achieves sexual tension in some episodes only to fall flat, the tension disappearing into the cracks of later episodes where Slade’s entirely selfish, manipulative and deceitful character is exposed in all its seedy glory. I’m not sure how much this was due to acting and how much was due to the dialogue and directing.
Probably the characters who annoy me most are Holly Turner and Jeff Slade. Holly is her father’s daughter, living in the shadow of her father’s work. Although she’s a respected scientist both within the police force and in broader scientific circles, viewers are constantly reminded that it’s not her work that gets the credit. It’s her father’s invention, her father’s research into time travel – even though Holly has made huge sacrifices to further this work, this is discounted in favour of male privilege. Worse still, Holly acts as Slade’s side-kick by enabling the time travel to solve crimes, never taking any credit even for honest detective work. Slade is content with this situation, never giving Holly any credit. The most he’s ever done in return is give Holly a meal and somewhere to stay when she’s needed it, which doesn’t balance out the hospitality she’s given him previously.
While there is a reasonable ensemble cast, the majority of characters are under-utilised, remaining two-dimensional caricatures serving only as back-drops for Slade and Turner. Take Detective Morris, for example. Paul Trussell was clearly cast for his overhanging eyebrows and deep-set eyes that, along with studied facial expressions, slow responses and stilted dialogue, create a stereotypical slightly evil comic relief. Although he’s a police officer and is apparently not actually bent, Morris seems antagonistic towards our hero – Jeff Slade – so he is, inherently, evil. The reason for this antagonism isn’t quite clear: perhaps professional rivalry plays a part, although it doesn’t account for the level of malice in some episodes.
Detective Inspector Kate Grisham (Sue Johnston) is the team’s boss. At first she seems to have it in for Slade. About to fire Slade for bad attitude and worse performance, Grisham inexplicably cuts him slack. Later in the series Grisham starts worrying about Slade’s unlikely success rate in solving crimes, so she entrusts Morris with an investigation of his colleague. While I would assume that a woman who had climbed to a managerial position in the police force would be reasonably intelligent and dynamic, Grisham is cast as comically stupid at times, while being portrayed fairly consistently as less than competent.
In contrast to Grisham and Morris, Nicky Robson (Richard Dempsey – Peter from the BBC series The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) is a try-hard and intelligent trainee whose intelligence is never undermined.
Each of these secondary characters is under-utilised and under-developed. It’s also interesting to note that Grisham and Morris have exchanges together in isolation from the other characters but otherwise the characters tended to relate to Slade and Turner but not to each other.
In order to distract the viewer from the improbable pairing of Turner and Slade, Crime Traveller needs sub-plots. Each episode there is one main plot but, while there might be a few intricacies in that plot, there isn’t a secondary story to counter-point the main thread. The intricacies include spotting the witness statement that reports seeing Slade and/or Turner, which becomes quite predictable towards the end of the series, largely because these sightings are repeated so many times, just in case you miss them the first time or two.
I’m not sure if the series became tired or if I just tired of the series, but by episode six I was consciously listening to the rhythm of the dialogue. There were two bloodstains at the scene of the crime, both were checked by the science officer (Holly) who confirmed two different blood types. Pause. Comment a few times about this – there were five people in the room so let’s see how long we can stretch that out for. Pause. Try-hard trainee says maybe one bloodstain is from the killer. No shit, Sherlock? No-one even slapped him down for stating the obvious. Pause. Morris pulls out a tape deck to replay an emergency call (that he just happens to have obtained before coming to the scene of the crime but hasn’t shared with anyone yet). When Morris says it’s a recording, Slade slaps him down for stating the obvious, but even this bit of banter is too slow, like a tape stretched to breaking point.
The silliness of the plot devolved from there, with Morris so distracted by a garbage bin lid rolling on the ground that he got out of the car and looked in the opposite direction so Slade could enter a building.
Crime Traveller tries to be intelligent in engaging with the paradox of time travel, with Turner and Slade discussing paradoxes. In the first episode Slade travells back in time and places a bet; when he returns to his time, the betting slip is blank. Holly said that’s because he couldn’t cause a paradox by taking information back in time to change the past, however Holly travells back in time and changed the past in other episodes. When they discuss this, Holly’s excuse is that it had already happened, therefore she wasn’t changing the past – fail. Worse still was the basic premise of the time machine. They travell back in time but can’t look themselves in the eye without causing a catastrophe (how would Holly know this?) At the end of each time travel jaunt, they also have to return to the time machine just before they left so they won’t get lost in time. Returning to the point before they left is intended to be humorous as each time they meet Holly’s caretaker who has only just seen them, but they never meet themselves. Even though they are in the room with the time machine at the same time before and after their time travel jaunt. Hello?
I think I caught a few episodes of Crime Traveller back in the 1990s when it was on TV; back then it was B grade sci fi. Even the weaker episodes of Deep Space 9, Babylon 5 and Stargate SG1 all leave Crime Traveller for dust, but Crime Traveller was – and remains – a fix for the SF-deprived. Personally I think I’d rewatch all of the above, Angel, Buffy, Dark Angel, Farscape and a number of other series before I’d be sufficiently desperate to watch Crime Traveller again.