Is Continuum the Greatest Science Fiction Show Ever?

Two or three months ago a miracle occurred. I didn’t inform the press, or even the Vatican, because it wasn’t the kind of miracle that would have meant much to them, but it meant a lot to me. I was surfing TV shows on Netflix Streaming using the app on my Xbox 360 and came across the TV series Continuum. I’d heard about the show, knew that it was Canadian, that it was science fiction, that it ran on Syfy in the U.S., and had a vague recollection that I’d read good things about it, probably on io9 (a terrific Web site that you should be following if you have any interest at all in science or science fiction). I clicked and began watching the first episode.


Some of the better-looking members of the massive cast of Continuum

At that moment Amy got home from work and I figured I’d have to turn the show off, because she has no particular interest in science fiction unless it’s really well done and I assumed there wasn’t much chance that Continuum would be on that level. But she didn’t ask me to turn it off and sat on the sofa with me for a few minutes surfing the Web on her MacBook Air preparing to head off to the bedroom to continue her marathon viewing of all seven seasons of The West Wing. (I’d done my own marathon viewing of The West Wing four years earlier, just before I moved in with Amy, and wasn’t quite ready to do it again.)

That’s when the miracle happened.

At some point during the first episode Amy put down the MacBook and started watching the show. When the first episode was over we simply let Netflix flow through to the second and watched that one too. When the second one ended we went back and watched the opening of the first episode again.

“Yeah,” Amy said. “I could watch this.”

Okay, that might not sound like much of a miracle to you, but trust me — it was. I have enough trouble getting Amy to watch really major science fiction TV shows and movies (though I did get her to watch Firefly followed by Serenity); getting her to watch a relatively little known Canadian science fiction series that runs on cable in the U.S. was something I wouldn’t have thought was possible until it happened. Over the next week we binge-watched Continuum’s first season and as soon as Syfy began running Season Two we starting watching that too. We were completely hooked and we plan to rewatch both seasons before the third one begins, just to refresh our memory of all the details. And the amazing part about that is that it was Amy who suggested it!

Yeah, Continuum’s that good. If you’re a science fiction fan or even just a fan of good serial TV shows who isn’t watching it, drop everything you’re doing now (except reading this blog post, which you really should finish) and find a way to watch it. Stream it on Netflix, rent the first season DVDs, or find a fan who’ll let you watch all the episodes on his/her DVR.

What’s so good about Continuum? Let’s start with the minor things first. It’s a good-looking show with a good-looking cast, and they can act. (There were a few moments in the first episode where I wasn’t entirely sure about the acting part, but by the second episode they’d found their range and were nailing their roles to the wall.) It has William B. Davis and Nicholas Lea, who played the cigarette-smoking man and Agent Krycek, respectively, on The X-Files. And if you have fond memories of The X-Files, they’ll rub off on this show. At least it’s also made in Vancouver.) I should add that not only is the cast good-looking and talented but the special effects, primarily in the flashbacks (flashforwards?) to the future, are stunning. (It’s a time travel show, so terms like “flashback” don’t necessarily apply in the way they usually do.)

The main thing that makes it good, though, is the writing. The plot is complex, inventive and — here’s where it really sucks me in — surprisingly morally ambiguous. I have a thing for moral ambiguity in TV shows; it was one of the things that drew me in to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and is certainly one of the major selling points of the superb Breaking Bad. On this show, the moral ambiguity initially revolved around its protagonist Kiera, a protector, i.e., police officer, from the year 2077 who somehow found herself transported back to the year 2011 along with a gang of terrorists she had helped capture and was preparing to see executed. It was obvious almost from the beginning that Kiera, who seemed to be a good person, was working for a dystopian government and the initial question in my own head concerned how long it was going to take her to figure out that she might be on the wrong side. But things rapidly became more complicated as it became clear that there really weren’t good guys and bad guys on this show, just good people, selfish people and idealistic people doing the wrong thing for what they often see as the right reason.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is watching the present grow into the future, gradually spotting the connections between 2077 and 2011 (which by the second season had evolved into 2013). Figuring which young person in the present will become which old person in the future is one of the show’s main joys, especially because their future iterations are often quite different from their present versions, for reasons that are only gradually becoming apparent. And guessing the personal and political allegiances of the various characters as well as their familial relationships provides, if nothing else, a magnificent guessing game, largely because the characters themselves are so interesting and well played.

If the series has a problem, it’s one that io9 pointed out in a recent article, which is that they’ve introduced so many characters, factions and subplots that it may be in danger of falling apart under the weight of its own complexity. I like a good, complex serial TV series as much as the next couch potato, mind you, but a lot of us also remember what happened to shows like The X-Files and Lost, which started out exploring unexpected and exciting depths only to wind up wandering aimlessly through the pointless mazes created by their own writers. I’m choosing for the moment to believe that the showrunners/writers at Continuum know where they’re headed. Indeed, there have been hints in recent episodes that there may be a very large and startling backstory (or would that be frontstory?) underlying all the events in Continuum that so far we’ve only had glimpses of. But pulling off this kind of long-running serial without eventually letting the plot become a confused and confusing mess seems to be difficult. If Continuum can pull it off, though, I’ll happily vote for it, even against candidates like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, as the greatest science fiction series ever.

2 comments on “Is Continuum the Greatest Science Fiction Show Ever?

  1. In my Netflix queue…but only based on your love of Goldman. Not sure from the plot description if it will beat Firefly or Galactica for me…heck, it doesn’t even have Nathan!

  2. It’s really a close call as to whether it’s better than those other shows, which is why I put a question mark on the blog title. Firefly and Galactica had better casts, but the complexity of Continuum, both morally and plotwise, makes up for any deficiencies, at least for me.

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