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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Travelers: David Wasn't The Mary Sue He Appeared To Be

David was my favorite character from the Canadian-migrated-to-Netflix science-fiction TV show Travelers. He begins the show as Marcy's social worker. Then she overnight changes from a brain-damaged but sweet thirty-something barely capable of re-shelving books at a library to an articulate woman with a vast knowledge of medicine. Despite David's confusion, he remains her helpmate and that to his many other clients, all troubled, most homeless. To him, they are "his friends." In one particularly character-defining moment, David wins $30,000 in the lottery by taking Marcy's numbers when he first suspects she may have come from the future. He spends it on tangible items that would help each of his friends. After spending it all, he remarks that this was the best day of his life. The sheer joy on his face makes you fall in love with the character.

It takes the full day for David to notice that he no longer has a means of transportation because he has also given his bicycle to a homeless "friend" who has a job delivering pizza. Marcy, now living with him, now his lover, assures him she will buy him one. Indeed, much of why I loved David was having learned about him through Marcy's eyes. She is genuinely astonished to have met such an extraordinary, giving, loving human being. For me, this show's joy was rooting for their relationship, challenged as it was by unconventional obstacles—the dark moment in most romance novels is not replacement of a woman's conscious mind by a reboot from the future.

Up to the show's last moments, David was indeed a Mary Sue, a character who is too perfect to be real. "Give your character flaws," says every how-to book about characterization ever written. In the last episodes, David saves 50,000 people by destroying a nuclear weapon with his own hands moments before it detonates. Despite future tech, he dies a gruesome, horrible death, the worst of any of the principal characters.

So, Mary Sue—right? No: in the last moments of the show, the team leader, Grant, played by the guy who played Will in Will & Grace, has his consciousness transferred to his then-current host, but seventeen years earlier, in time to send an email to the "Director" in the future, telling him not to begin the Traveler program in the first place. Every moment of these characters' struggles is then erased.

And the last scene is David meeting Marcy on the bus, a Marcy who has never been brain-damaged by an experiment done by the first-traveler-turned-evil or had her consciousness replaced by a traveler from the future. But this scene was not the touching moment the show-runners likely intended. Sure, they have a chance to be two wonderful people in a marvelous romance.

But not if the universe continues as expected. In a one-minute monologue, Grant describes the future as climate change leading to colossal population migrations and famine and pandemics caused by new diseases unearthed from former Arctic ice and fights over what resources are left that lead to nuclear war and nuclear winter. The Earth becomes uninhabitable, with the remnants of humanity living in contained domes under impoverished conditions, and one of these domes collapses, killing millions.

In other words, if they don't get busy working to solve the initial crisis that sparks all the others—climate change—it really doesn't matter what sort of people they are. David isn't a Mary Sue because he has the fault of focusing on the local—his "friends" among his caseload—at the expense of the big issue: the politics of saving the world from the climate catastrophe. The future failed to fix our mistakes. If we go on to make them, we are all terrible people.

Let's examine this premise in the real world. Noam Chomsky has said there are only two existential threats to humanity: climate change and nuclear war. Reader, if you disagree these crises are existential, you might as well stop reading because if you can ignore the sheer volume of science supporting his statement, you aren't living in reality. However, I think the point that there are only two existential crises is open to debate. What of pandemics, for example? The current one won't end humanity, but the Black Death killed 1/3 of Europe. The Spanish flu was close to as bad. There may be pathogens under the ice, but the movement of pathogens (or their insect vectors) into zones where they've never been seen—caused by climate change, by the global movement of people, by collapsed health care systems—is already happening. Let's at least say that a pandemic can be an existential threat to certain areas or particular classes of people at some times. Issues in food production will be at least that serious. Right now, in India, millions of farmers are on strike because the right-wing government wants to end price supports that guarantee subsistence. If this political dispute leads to famine, that's undoubtedly existential, at least in those parts of India. And pests and diseases could wipe out food production, especially with our monoculture-dominated production systems. Back in the US, it's hard to argue that out-of-control police violence isn't an existential issue for Black teenagers.

What type of person are you if you are not actively working to mitigate/prevent some of these threats? For those of us with the intellectual, social, and/or financial capital to have choices in life, if you aren't in an occupation where you get to work on these issues, why not? Could it possibly be okay to be apolitical, earning enough to live at the standard of living you find comfortable and looking out for your family?

This science-fiction show would say no. You are an awful person, guilty of mass murder, even if the murders won't occur in your lifetime.

What of the opposite case? The main traveler team were all decent people who cared about each other and those around them. "The Faction" traveled to pursue an alternative plan: killing off enough people that the Earth would survive, avoiding the catastrophes. It might have been a better plan. But those who worked for it were willing to murder (even killing children), rationalizing that it was all part of the bigger plan.

The show seemed to argue that these were terrible people, too. None redeemed themselves.

I've seen that type of person in real life. I overlapped in graduate school with a Chinese student who had been considered one of the five most important leaders in the pro-democracy movement. He came to the US to study biochemistry only when it was patently clear that staying in China would get him killed. Good person, right? What if I told you that he left his wife behind in China, shacked up with an American, and when his wife traveled to the US to "reclaim" him, beat her to the point of near-death, and landed in jail for assault?

Okay, maybe not such a wonderful person.

To me, Travelers makes a profound point: to be a decent human being, you must not only care about those around you and your family but also choose employment and act politically in ways that will help avert/mitigate our coming crises. You cannot be a decent human being without being decent at both levels. Fail at the higher level, and you are a murderer. Fail at the lower level, and you are a thug.

I think there are many people in the world who would benefit from consuming some science fiction. Good stuff, the stuff that makes you think. The stuff that prods you into action.

Because the planet requires our actions. Now.

Don't expect time travelers to solve our problems for us.

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