Thirty-eight years ago, the movie Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, and Mary Steenburgen, captivated audiences with its fantastical tale about British sci-fi writer H.G. Wells, his time machine, and notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper who uses it to escape to the future. The story is the inspiration for the new ABC series Time After Time, in which Wells’ era-jumping contraption catapults a capture-eluding Jack from 1893 London to 2017 New York, with Wells in pursuit.
Premiering Mar. 5 with two back-to-back episodes, the series stars British actors Freddie Stroma (UnReal, Game of Thrones, Pitch Perfect) as Wells and Josh Bowman (Revenge) as his friend Dr. John Stevenson, a.k.a. Jack the Ripper.
“It's fantasy. It's escapism. It opens up a lot of possibilities for storytelling,” says executive producer and director Marcos Siega. “To be able to jump around, go back in time is a great jumping off point for storytelling. It’s just a fun genre.”
Other television creators apparently agree, because time travel is a popular theme this season, with Timeless underway on NBC and Making History, Fox’s comedy twist on it, launching this month.
“What sets us apart is we use time travel as an element to tell a story about H.G. Wells,” points out executive producer and writer Kevin Williamson. “We get into Wells’ other books—The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The War of the Worlds—and we show the inspiration for those books that he is going to write. It’s as if you took these themes and some of Wells’ plot elements in a blender and pressed ‘mix.’”
He cites one ongoing theme: “Wells often wrote about the good and bad in human nature and how it relates to technology. We live in a world where we are ruled by technology, and it inspires the good and bad in us. Wells believed in utopia. He wanted that perfect society, so when he comes to modern day New York he’s profoundly disappointed.”
In contrast, Jack the Ripper is delighted to discover that in modern America, he fits right in. The story posits that Stevenson, a Victorian-era heart surgeon, was the man responsible for a series of sensational, grisly murders, and the evil, narcissistic psychopath finds that the violence and easy morals of modern society suit him to a T. “We see Wells stumble, whereas Jack the Ripper thrives,” says Williamson.
“He shaves, gets a nice suit and really meshes into the world. He goes to the nightclubs and is in awe of everything and the violence and everything around him is like a drug,” elaborates Josh Bowman. “He’s a very charming person on the face of things, but he has impulses that lead him to do very bad things. He’s smart, friendly, sociable. He has to be because he's a friend of H.G. Wells, so when H.G. finds out that he's a serial killer, it's a big shock to him. He’s an interesting person to try to get your head around. I don't condone violence in any way, shape, or form, but there is something that makes me want to at least try and understand a little bit of why these people do what they do."
Bowman researched his role by reading about Jack the Ripper and Stevenson. “There’s quite a bit of information out there and I enjoyed going through the numerous news clippings and books. It’s fascinating to try to understand the motivations—that’s mostly why I jumped onto this project,” he says.
Freddie Stroma wasn’t that familiar with Wells’ books before he was cast, “But once I got on board I read The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Invisible Man and I thoroughly enjoyed all three of them,” he says. Kevin Williamson, however, is a huge H.G. Wells devotee and fan of the 1979 movie, and eagerly took on the challenge of adapting the Wells universe for the series.
“The first episode is very faithful to the movie, and in the second and third hours, you'll see we start laying the seeds for a large mythology,” he explains.
“We take John Stevenson--Jack the Ripper--and send him on a character arc of redemption, but along the way, it gets even worse for him. I don't want to spoil it, but his character figures prominently into the fabric of this show right down to his DNA.”
“Wells is trying to stop me so it’s a cat and mouse thriller for the first few episodes, then halfway through our goals align when other people get brought into the story and we team up for a few episodes,” Josh Bowman reveals.
The characters time travel just four times in the 12-episode first season, and it planning that was tricky, necessitating a set of rules to plot by. “We have a rule about the ripples in time and how when you travel to one place repeatedly, you start pricking the fabric of time. And if you do it too closely together and you travel within a day or a minute or a second of each other, you create a hole that will ultimately destroy the world, destroy time, destroy everything,” Williamson explains. “So they have to plot out where they're going, who they are going to be encountering, and so forth. It’s science fiction, but we try to keep it honest and emotional and grounded via our characters and the love story. But it's a fun, fun show, and it's a total escape.”
The romance he’s referring to involves Wells and Jane Walker, the assistant curator of the New York museum that happens to be holding an exhibition about Wells, where the time machine is the prized artifact. Jane doesn’t believe Wells’ story at first, but her grasp of the situation—and her feelings for Wells—quickly deepen.
“Kevin wrote such a strong, fun character to play. It was easy just to do my own take on it,” says Genesis Rodriguez (Entourage, Run all Night, Big Hero 6). “Jane uses her words and her mind to get out of situations and get H.G. out of situations.”
Freddie Stroma enjoyed playing the surprise of a Victorian man encountering a 21st century woman. “He's just thoroughly impressed by Jane, the fact that she's got a few decades of feminism behind her, and he likes that. He was very much into equality and feminism and human rights. That and the fact that she is the first person in the modern world to show him kindness hints at the utopia that he was hoping to see in the future.”
“Wells has never had to deal with anyone like Jane before. She's a really strong character. She ends up being his savior on a weekly basis,” adds Williamson, raising questions about the future of their relationship. “Will they end up together? Will she travel back and be with him or not? Will he have to say goodbye to her in the future? Will he have to break the timeline? We’re going to create the mystery of the love story and how it will all end.”
Stroma’s own love life has had a happy ending. On Dec. 30 he married Johanna Braddy, who plays Shelby Wyatt on Quantico. They met and became friends on the set of Lifetime’s dating show satire the UnReal, which cast Stroma as the first season’s bachelor suitor and Braddy as a contestant. “We got to know each other and started dating after the show in LA., and just spent the last five months shooting in New York. We were so lucky to be working in the same place,” he says.
Often asked these days where he’d travel to in a time machine, Stroma thinks 1950s America would be interesting to visit. “There was the economic boom, innovation. It was a pretty cool place in time.” He’d also like to go back to his childhood as an adult “and see the world I used to live in and see the struggles my parents went through raising three children.”
Genesis Rodriguez has a much more practical—and potentially lucrative—time travel fantasy. “I'd probably go back right before Apple blew up and get some stock, and then make that Apple money,” she says.
Time After Time premieres March 5 at 9:00 pm ET, 8:00 pm ET on ABC