News · TV

Steven Moffat to Adapt ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ for HBO

The former ‘Doctor Who’ showrunner can’t seem to leave his old stomping grounds, even though it’s high-time that he should.
The Time Travelers Wife
By  · Published on August 1st, 2018

The former ‘Doctor Who’ showrunner can’t seem to leave his old stomping grounds, even though it’s high time that he should.

What’s the one thing television shows can’t seem to go without? Think about multiple seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – just to name a few. Clearly, the main source of drama across the long-form televisual medium spawns from interpersonal relationships. Specifically, some form of tortured love.

This happens regardless of genre. Finding true love only to have it snatched away by bad timing or a copious amount of horrible decisions sustains the TV format beyond basic plot progression. It’s an accessible way to make audiences care about a group of characters because when done right, relationships in their will-they-or-won’t-they glory can tap into raw, relatable emotions.

And the quest to unpack the mysteries of the human condition through love can actually be powerful. After all, motivation and drive can boil down to the validity and strength of personal connection. Relationships, or a lack thereof, can figure into characters’ conceptions of humanity and morality.

Audrey Niffenegger’s highly popular debut novel, “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” deals with this very notion in a sprawling metaphorical way. The premise of the book is simple enough, but also holds an undeniable hook: the combination of the inexplicability of love and the impossible nature of time travel makes for a striking concept.

As reported by Deadline, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” will get the TV treatment courtesy of HBO. The novel’s plot follows the plight of Henry, a man genetically predisposed to unpredictable bouts of time travel. Henry’s eponymous wife Clare loves him dearly. Still, his absenteeism due to his condition as well as the danger he puts her in raises the stakes of their relationship.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was once realized on the big screen in the 2009 film of the same name starring Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana, has been given a straight-to-series order. The new adaptation will be spearheaded by Steven Moffat of BBC’s Doctor Who and Sherlock fame. Moffat will write the show, as well as work on it in an executive producorial capacity alongside regular collaborators Sue Vertue (Sherlock) and Brian Minchin (Doctor Who).

Nothing else is known about the production thus far, as details about episode count, premiere date, and even cast and director choices are yet to be confirmed. Before HBO, ABC had initially developed a series based on Niffenegger’s book back in 2009.

Admittedly, this news generates a whole lot of mixed feelings. There are, of course, some silver linings to consider. Firstly, HBO’s track record continues to be on fire. The network keeps putting out commendable, culturally relevant shows. The Time Traveler’s Wife wouldn’t be among the worst company considering all the stuff that’s currently in production at the network anyway. It will join the likes of Jordan Peele’s Lovecraft Country and J. J. Abrams’ Demimonde. (The jury is still out on whether Joss Whedon’s The Nevers is a good idea.)

Furthermore – in theory – The Time Traveler’s Wife sounds like something Moffat would be able to tackle with ease after spending years crafting one of the UK’s sturdiest cultural artifacts.

Doctor Who centers entirely on the eponymous Doctor, a Time Lord who traverses time and space with one or more human companions in order to save the universe from numerous intergalactic threats. Sometimes, the show gets bittersweet in its handling of relationships and how they can affect character development, which lends a layer of authenticity to the blatantly fantastical nature of the series.

And although Sherlock is much more earthbound, it actually indulges in the flexibility of time and perspective a fair amount. The Benedict Cumberbatch headliner constructs most of its twists and turns out of multiple points of view in order to flesh out somebody as curiously unreadable as Sherlock Holmes. (Too bad it got too big for its britches.)

Moffat himself has even expressed a particular keenness to develop The Time Traveler’s Wife in serial form. Deadline quotes him saying:

“I read Audrey Niffenegger’s ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ many years ago, and I fell in love with it. In fact, I wrote a ‘Doctor Who’ episode called ‘The Girl in The Fireplace’ as a direct response to it. When, in her next novel, Audrey had a character watching that very episode, I realized she was probably on to me. All these years later, the chance to adapt the novel itself, is a dream come true. The brave new world of long form television is now ready for this kind of depth and complexity. It’s a story of happy ever after – but not necessarily in that order.”

Regardless of all that, my Pavlovian response to seeing Moffat’s name tacked onto The Time Traveler’s Wife is not especially positive for various reasons.

First off, it must be said that Niffenegger’s book itself is far from perfect. The novel has a brilliant conceit, but the pedestrian quality of the author’s writing style just doesn’t fully develop either protagonist. While both Henry and Clare have fates that are intertwined and bound to each other, the book doesn’t lend the latter a lot of agency either. It’s easy to feel detached from and even annoyed by the melodrama in the book, and any adaptation requires a more in-depth and balanced understanding of Henry and Clare.

Things aren’t much better on Moffat’s end. He has proven a penchant for developing this exact story in unsatisfying ways. Per his own admission, Moffat presents different versions of Niffenegger’s novel in the revived Doctor Who. It doesn’t just stop at “The Girl in The Fireplace” – an episode from the show’s second season. The archetype eventually morphs into the character of River Song (played by Alex Kingston), who props up a huge portion of Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner.

The expansive River storyline doesn’t actually start out all bad. She is introduced in the Season 4 episode “Silence in the Library,” when Russell T. Davies was still showrunner and Moffat was merely penning a few episodes per season.

The audience meets River as someone who the Doctor supposedly trusts, no questions asked. But she is also set up to perish in that episode, which creates a wholly effective arc due to its mystery and heartrending drama. River would have felt more like a throwaway character in this era too if not for Kingston’s impeccable acting and her chemistry with David Tennant, who was playing the Doctor at the time.

Moffat then brought River back after taking up showrunning duties during Season 5. There’s a new Doctor (Matt Smith), and new companions. Nevertheless, River’s story is still unfinished. As the definitive tether between a past and present era, it would have hypothetically been a good idea to explore where she would fit in to complete this love story.

Time is flexible for River and the Doctor, and there is no telling exactly which version of either will meet and interact next. It’s the ideal premise for both the comedic and tragic elements of Doctor Who, and the suspense should keep tensions high. Unfortunately, Moffat’s tendency to branch random interconnected plot points out from this single conceit – making almost every major element of Doctor Who about River and the Doctor’s relationship – only made the storyline tedious to watch.

River and the Doctor end up being better characters when they’re apart or interacting with other people. We learn more about their motivations and desires when they get to talk about things other than each other. Thus, it’s hard to focus on the grandness of their love story at all when they seem so incongruous with one another.

Hence, I have my reservations about HBO’s version of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Remembering that Moffat has put his foot in his mouth one too many times regarding anyone who isn’t white or male in one of his shows further reinforces his limitations as a writer, too. We’ll have to see who else hops on board for the production, but as of right now, interest is decidedly not piqued.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)