The 1990s are Doctor Who‘s lost decade. Although the eponymous Timelord found a brief home with Paul McGann’s American pilot in 1996, the revival was never picked up. So began an even longer winter on the long road to 2005’s regeneration under Russell T. Davies with Christopher Eccleston. The rest, as they say, is history.
What is seldom remembered, however, is that while the failed reboot had proven the franchise hadn’t recovered from 33 years worth of plot, nor had there been any marked improvement on the ambitiose sed ineptum quality of the production, the entire exercise had given a solid indication that the proud tradition of mad British eccentrics and their wild inventions still had an appeal.
The answer from the BBC was the ambitious, if slightly sideways, restoration of time travel to a Saturday night slot with science fiction detective series Crime Traveller.
Produced by the BBC and Carnival Films (famous for producing Downton Abbey), the show follows Detective Jeff Slade (Michael French) and Science Officer Holly Turner (Chloë Annett) as they solve crimes with the benefit of time travel. Turner owns a time machine which operates from a room in her home to the benefit of maverick Slade’s detective career. Plot lines usually revolved around the duo solving a crime by travelling back before it occurred with the complication that they occasionally paradox themselves and become involved in the event. Other episodes are more clichéd and entail Slade trying to win the lottery, Holly preventing Slade from getting shot and a case of mistaken identities.
The eight-week run was a huge success, joining the ranks of Bugs, Noel’s House Party, The Generation Game and The New Adventures of Superman as being an unmissable fixture of weekend TV. Eastenders veteran Michael French was at this stage a household name, as was Sue Johnston as superintendent Grisham. The premise was both unusual in that it didn’t belong to Doctor Who and that it starred actors whose credibility lent an unknown seriousness to science-fiction on prime time television.
Despite its popularity with an on average eight million people audience share, series creator Anthony Horowitz has said the series wasn’t renewed because:
“The show wasn’t exactly cut. There was a chasm at the BBC, created by the arrival of a new Head of Drama and our run ended at that time. There was no-one around to commission a new series…and so it just didn’t happen.”
More’s the pity, for there was a compelling one season plot development that would most likely have guaranteed Crime Traveller several seasons at least on the seemingly endless pantheon of shows in today’s streaming era.
The series was generally inventive with its premise and regularly indulged it. In one episode, Turner accidentally positions herself as the prime suspect in the murder of her aunt. In another, her attempts to prevent Slade from being shot actually causes the event itself. The complex and often multi-layered time travel scripts are all the more surprising given that Horowitz has penned episodes for teatime treats like Poirot, Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders. The final episode of Crime Traveller, in particular, features not only the appearance of a second time machine but a memorable villain with a disturbing demise that still holds up twenty years later.
In addition to the sci-fi side, the detective element of the show was not only interesting but answered nicely the clarion call for a more off-beat interpretation of the standard time travel formula. Doctor Who had been cancelled precisely because it became too predictable; Crime Traveller, by contrast, offered time travel as a plot device, rather than the plot in itself, which was very refreshing.
Rewatching the show and the intricacies of most of the plots bear an uncanny resemblance to what immediately succeeded the series when it was cancelled. Jonathan Creek, a show which has survived, albeit sporadically to the present day, essentially replaced the time travel premise with magic and illusion. Murder-mystery storylines are not only resolved in relation to both each show’s respective premise, but both feature a male-female combo with one playing the neophyte muse and the other the expert.
Crime Traveller, like Doctor Who too, benefited from the strong chemistry between central protagonists Jeff Slade and Holly Turner. French and Annett play the parts with that adroit self-awareness required to play the seemingly farcical with strait-laced seriousness. With this it’s a shame both actors never had the opportunity to develop their relationship; the roguish cavalier of Slade versus the unflinching positivism of Turner had the great potential to establish a British equivalent of Mulder and Scully in the show’s American contemporary, The X-Files. Creek ultimately has both made a longer lasting household name of Alan Davies than French and has also aged better, in large part due to its simple premise which more matched the BBC’s production capabilities.
For all its strengths, the biggest turn off of Crime Traveller is that it was analogous to the heavy plot burden of Doctor Who which wore most old fans down and intimated most newcomers. The ‘rules of time’ are an arbitrary and a cumbersome equivalent of the much-derided BBC health and safety policies. Boundaries are rarely pushed in the episodes and it tends to spend too much time within its own logic. Classic Who, even in all its fastidiousness, never laboured the conditions of time travel to such a point that made watching the show a game of legalese.
Knowing that the show had one season, however, and the parochial nature of the plots can actually serve to its benefit. In one episode, Slade attempted to place a bet and win on a horse race. Every avenue for moot plot points is cornered and there is a satisfactory resolution in Slade opening the betting slip and finding it blank. An interesting, albeit terse logic, that would likely have become weary after multiple seasons. The show ultimately never had a chance to establish a sense of joy de vievre that Doctor Who brought back in 2005 which canonically crushed the notion that the show’s past must, ironically, define its future.
While Crime Traveller may be considered a 20-year old flop by some, it’s real legacy is influencing how mainstream science-fiction on the BBC has been handled since. Doctor Who of course returned, but Life on Mars (2006-2007) and its sequel Ashes to Ashes (2007-2010) made national discussion with their intricate, time travelling nature all while never engulfing the concurrent, solid episode detective stories. Both are the natural heirs to Crime Traveller in so much as they felt like someone wanted to set an old wrong right and unleash its potential.
The unsung third main character in the show, like with Doctor Who, is the time machine itself. While the series is undeniably low-budget, the time-machine is a fantastic nod to 1990s technology with its retro sound effects and cobbled together hardware. Time travel in a small space was hardly a new concept for the BBC, yet here the tawdry nature of the machine itself distracts away from the more compelling plot moments, particularly when contemporary American shows – including the Star Trek series – were being produced with more spectacle and effort. The small scale nature of the device requires that the show avoids the universe ending paradoxes that may well have been required to make future series more interesting later on, but if there is a plus then the deterrence away from big budget effects inspired even more creative and detailed stories as was the case with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
What merits there are to Crime Traveller are largely memorable because of its realism and commitment to an everyday experience of time travel. All of this is made tangible and emotive because of Anne Dudley’s spine tingling and eerie opening credits and her understated but punchy score for the season. Dudley not only went on to win an Oscar for her work on the Full Monty but also worked on American History X and the stunning 2012 adaption of Les Misérables.
Parallels to modern BBC science-fiction are no more prescient than in the remarkably similar opening of Crime Traveller the Twelfth Doctor’s opening season. The strange music and shifting clock face are a very elemental statement of what they’re both about, most likely why they stay in the mind.
Watching Crime Traveller with the benefit of hindsight is a clue to what Doctor Who on the BBC in the 1990s might have looked like. Nevertheless, in its own right as a series, it’s something of a tragedy that Crime Traveller never gets remembered as fondly or as often as other staples of Saturday night television in the 90s. It’s a sad indictment that the series doesn’t even appear as a credit on Anthony Horowitz’s home page. Buoyed by strong central performances, complex narratives and an underplayed sense of humour, it was everything right about British science-fiction before the idea became fashionable.