Wednesday, November 21, 2007


There’s not much on TV that I care about anymore, but NBC’s Journeyman has quickly become a favorite. Airing on Mondays at 10pm, the show is vaguely reminiscent of Quantum Leap, but with a number of twists (and no body-snatching). It tells the story of San Francisco reporter Dan Vassar (well played by Kevin McKidd), who suddenly and uncontrollably finds himself jumping back in time. With no more warning than a headache, he is repeatedly transported to some earlier time, stays for a short while, and then returns to the present.

Dan has no more idea why this is happening than we do, but he quickly discovers that his jumps are anything but random. Each time, he finds himself at some significant (often tragic) moment in another person’s life, and he usually follows that same person through several such events before moving on to a new “mark.” No one tells him who, how or why to help, but as he follows his “intuition,” things usually work out better than “the first time around.”

Besides the obvious drama these trips engender, additional tensions arise from the curious fact that Dan does not return to exactly the same time and place that he left, which means he is routinely missing for hours or even days at a time. This, of course, leads to all sorts of awkward questions and frustrations (not to mention, fortuitous escapes), especially when he discovers that his ex-fiancée Olivia, whom he thought had died in a plane crash, also travels through time with him.

These things keep the show exciting, but the real fascination lies in the mystery surrounding these “trips.” What or who causes them? How is it that Dan always shows up at just the right time and place to do the most good? How is such travel possible at all? What role does Livia play in all of this, and why does she so often come to the same places as Dan? Though we’ve been given some vague hints – particularly from a certain eccentric astrophysicist who occasionally drops in on Dan's life – most of these questions are as yet unanswered, leaving my wife and I with plenty to speculate about as we go to bed every Monday.

In all of this, Journeyman proves to be a surprisingly wholesome addition to prime-time television. Despite the relational tensions explored, there is no question of the importance of faithfulness, and Dan remains deeply committed to his wife and son. Perhaps more significantly, Dan’s selfless assistance of the people he tracks is central to the show. He occasionally (and understandably) grows frustrated with whatever “cosmic power” is making him “do its dirty work,” but even so, he routinely sacrifices his own safety to save these strangers. Indeed, in a few episodes he has even tried to save people he wasn’t sent to help, at great personal cost and despite Olivia’s warnings about the dangers of such a course.

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspects of the show, given the generally atheistic assumptions of most television, are the metaphysical questions it raises. All time travel stories are mind-bending in one way or another, but by leaving the means of travel undisclosed, Journeman adds a further level of interest. For even if Dan’s trips are so far unexplained, that doesn’t mean that just any explanation would fit. His jumps are not random, and the fact that he always goes back to precisely those times and places necessary to save people, points to some sort of conscious will behind the process. Though Dan does not control these jumps, it seems clear that someone does, and that someone is not only exceedingly intelligent and powerful, but also very concerned with saving the lives of even the lowliest of people.

Of course, this is only science fiction, but that sounds a lot like the Christian God. Yet the form of the argument is oddly familiar: Though we don’t know how this unnamed power sends Dan back in time, we can be certain they are doing so intentionally, because the “coincidences” are just too numerous to be accidental. This, it turns out, is precisely what Intelligent Design proponents claim about life on earth: that the purposeful nature of life points to design even while such evidence alone is not enough to prove who or how. In the history of life, as in Journeyman, we cannot help but ask how such things are possible (a fact that ID theorists too often forget), but in both cases the evident purposefulness of the process requires that any valid explanation must also involve a who.

Assuming the show survives long enough to raise the issue, you can bet that the only way we will ever know the true identity of the one behind the scenes is if they choose to reveal it. The argument from design can only go so far; apart from some form of revelation, all that remains is speculation. Though perhaps that's half the fun.

UPDATE: Corrected 11/23 to fix a couple typos an a factual error pointed out by my brother.

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