'The Time Traveler's Wife': Steven Moffat's Romantic Sci-Fi Series Remake Is An Icky, Tasteless Misfire

In the 2009 adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s novel “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” the titular time traveler Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana, soulful) explains that it works like gravity, big events pull him in. Opposite him sits the love of his life Clare (Rachel McAdams, radiant), who exclaims, “I was a big event.” “So it would seem,” he replies. While the film adaptation was not well-received critically, at least both Bana and McAdams had soul, had chemistry. There was poetry to the dialogue. The cinematography was lush. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the latest iteration, developed for HBO by Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who,” “Sherlock”). 

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The story revolves around Henry (Theo James), who has unwillingly time-traveled due to a genetic disorder since he was a boy. He is somehow drawn to a woman named Clare (Rose Leslie). When they first “met” is the subject of a joke in dueling introduction videos the couple record as the first episode begins. At six years old Clare was first visited by a thirty-something-year-old Henry. Yet, Henry did not “meet” Clare until he was 28 years old, when she was twenty. 

The show attempts to guide the audience through the many ages of its protagonists by employing title cards at the bottom of the frame with their current ages. This soon feels less like a tool or even a stylistic flourish than a staid gimmick from filmmakers who do not trust their audience to be able to follow on their own. Several early episodes are bookended by these videos where Henry and Clare speak directly into the camera telling their stories. But as the show progresses they are deployed so erratically it’s unclear why they even exist – aside from forcing its cast to don incredibly cheap-looking age prosthetics. 

In fact, the entire aesthetics of the show are cheap looking, using the ugly orange and brown color grade du jour. Worldbuilding is practically non-existent, besides briefly establishing that grown-up Clare is an artist and Henry works at the Newberry Library in Chicago (a Chicago often noticeably devoid of any Black people). This dreary color palette clashes with an overly sentimental, treacly score that permeates incessantly throughout the episodes. 

Matching the tasteless aesthetics is Moffat’s tasteless tone. Where the novel was praised for its meditations on love, loss, and time, this series is weirdly youth-focused. When 20-year-old Clare meets 28-year-old Henry, she keeps calling him a “hotter” version of the man she knew. See, the man who visited Clare as a kid was in his 30s and 40s, the implication being that once you’re out of your 30s you may as well be a decrepit bag of bones.

It doesn’t help that James does not have the skills to pull off playing the same character at several different ages. He employs little physical differentiation between the various ages, either with subtle or broad changes in his performance. Instead, it’s all shown through age makeup, graying of his hair and trite dialogue wherein young him is an asshole when he speaks, and old him is suddenly more thoughtful and considerate. 

Leslie doesn’t fare much better. Clare aged twenty and Clare aged thirty look exactly the same, although she does play one version mostly angry that young Henry isn’t her dream man, and the older version as resigned and supportive of old Henry before and after his travels. Trouble comes when she’s tasked with playing teenage Clare. Prior to their meeting as adults, we’re told Henry visited her 152 times from when she was between the ages of six and eighteen. Young Clare is played by an age-appropriate actress, with Leslie stepping in to play teenage Clare. Here she is overly sexualized, a horny teenager filmed like she’s a predator as she tries to seduce Henry. When he takes her for ice cream to “cool her down,” I audibly said “gross” out loud to my screen.

The eight-year age difference between Clare and Henry when they “meet” as adults is already a little suspect on its own, but when you factor in how often this older version of Henry visited Clare as a child, grooming immediately comes to mind. At one point Clare tells Henry that she literally formed her libido around him, but by the time the word “grooming” is actually uttered on screen, the show has already gone so far down this icky road that it’s irredeemable. Yet Henry continues to manipulate Clare, including using a recording of his dead mom to convince Clare that she should stick it out with the younger asshole version of him for the sake of her marriage to the older version of him that the child version of her was groomed by. Ick is not a strong enough word.  

This younger asshole version of Henry is also shown leading the child version of himself astray. When he time travels he wakes up naked, so he has learned over the years how to fight and steal in order to get clothing and food until he time travels back to a safe place. Through some sort of Möbius strip, he teaches himself how to be tough, but also how to isolate himself from others. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere and if Moffat were more interested in the psychology or emotions of his characters than he is in the mechanics of time travel it could shine through. He’s not, so it doesn’t.

The book is told in alternating first-person perspectives, yet the series has so far had only one episode dedicated to Clare’s perspective. Even with that episode, it’s unclear who Clare is in relation to herself, and not just as she relates to this man who groomed her. This show doesn’t care enough to answer that question. We meet a few of her friends, but they are similarly so underdeveloped we don’t even know how they met, why they’re friends, or why they even like each other. The ever-so-talented Desmin Borges (“You’re The Worst”) is wasted as Clare’s friend Gomez, who is given the unfortunate task of befriending the younger, asshole Henry as a favor to Clare (and because, of course, he’s in love with her). 

Because grooming and ageism isn’t enough, there are multiple scenes of gay panic, a healthy dose of ableism, and an episode that includes implied rape that is handled so poorly that I frankly could not believe what I was watching. It’s like Moffat looked at the source material and decided there was no way to make it work in today’s world so he just made it even more problematic for kicks. 

By the final shot of the six episodes provided for review, Clare pivots towards the same treacherous manipulation that Henry has inflicted on her for the bulk of the series. Instead of showing that these two are cut from the same cloth, it just furthers the creeping feeling I had that this show not only doesn’t respect women, it actively hates them.

Not only does this adaptation stretch the story to its breaking point, but there is also nothing expanded on in a meaningful or insightful way that wasn’t done better and more succinctly in the 2009 film. Instead, what’s left is a show filled with so much hatred and ickiness it’s hard to believe anyone will find something to enjoy lurking inside all this muck. [F]