The first few minutes of Continuum, in which a dignified old man (Tony Amendola, known to many of us as Gepetto and, reaching further back, Master Bra'tac) righteously speechifies about his master-stroke against the massive, evil corporations that rule the future in 2077, might mislead the unwary into fearing that Syfy's latest Canadian import is a self-conscious attack on the excesses of capitalism, and that the science-fiction is liable to be weighed down, or waylaid, by earnest allegory as is sometimes the case in (say) the otherwise excellent Charlie Jade.
But Continuum (premieres on "Canada Night" -- Jan. 14, 2013 on Syfy) isn't about the diabolic designs of faceless monolithic multinationals at all. No, what we have here is that rara avis, actual honest-to-God science fiction. And science fiction isn't about the cataloging of the blessings bleeding all over the denizens of utopias or the foul vices perpetrated in the hells we make for ourselves. Science fiction is nothing more or less than the exploration of human nature faced with the unknown as extrapolated from the known, in any direction and along any axis. The future world of Continuum is not the subject, but the reference against which we study the future protagonists who are its product and those in the present whose actions reverberate toward it.
A Carefully Designed Scenario
The origin story involves the ring of terrorists/revolutionaries (delete according to preference) who, in the act alluded to at the top of the pilot, commit mass murder of innocents to strike a blow of principle against their corporate overlords who have replaced freedom and privacy with security and peace. (It goes without saying that this opening incident evokes 9/11 both in its gruesome horror and in its having been perpetrated by true believers.) They're sentenced to execution, but among them is a genius engineer who triggers a device that sends them back into the past (i.e., present-day Vancouver, for once playing itself) -- along with a security agent named Kiera Cameron (Rachel Nichols) who spotted the device and, rushing forward too late to stop them, got caught up in the time warp.
But what really matters is the setup we've now arrived at, in which these ruthless, highly trained warriors are loose in their own past, seeking a way to ensure the revolution succeeds in 2077, and Kiera knowing she must stop them. Cut off from her security force as well as her husband and young boy, at sea in a strange North America where things are uncontrolled, disordered, and uncertain, faced with a desperate crew of hardened killers, she has three distinct advantages: the technology embedded in her security uniform, which allows her to do things that are for her routine but which to us are quite surprising and way cool; her deep savvy and ability to think on her feet; and Alec.
The scrambled security radio frequency used by her futurific high-tech mentally operated embeds (which both record, all the better to ensure there's evidence of perps' actions in the future, and transmit) turns out to be in the process of being invented in the present by a shy teenage mastermind, Alec (Erik Knudsen), whose barn attic is stuffed with whizzo technology of his own design. So he can hear Kiera and quickly becomes her only ally that's privy to the secret of who she and the terrorists really are. Providing Kiera with more conventional assistance, while wondering what she's hiding, is the Vancouver detective chasing the newly arrived terrorist gang, Carlos (Victor Webster).
Driven and Conflicted
The brilliance of this framework is that all the participants are highly motivated, their every action both urgent and deeply thought out, with diversions layered with additional diversions and intense goal-driven need riding roughshod over other considerations for all concerned. It's not that the line between good and evil is conflated -- the revolutionaries are depicted as goal-driven to the point of moral degredation, as the inciting incident of the revolution showed -- but rather that creator Simon Barry has started from the too-often neglected, and heartily welcome, premise that in each episode of this overarching story the characters on all sides must act according to reasons that we understand, that derive from the subject at hand, human nature.
Kiera is at the heart of this, and struggles to push toward what must be done against constraints put in her way -- emotional, social, physical, and otherwise. Rachel Nichols does a masterful job of getting this across, and when one considers that her recent credits include Uhura's green-skinned, amorous roommate in Star Trek, Jason Momoa's love interest in Conan the Barbarian, and Scarlett in G.I. Joe, her range and underutilization prior to Continuum becomes clear.
Both the casting and the performances are thoughtful. Erik Knudsen trades on the isolated-boy-forced-to-harden motif he developed for Jericho as this tech genius whose effect on both present events involving Kiera and on the future is obviously both deep and unpredictable. Victor Webster is tall, dark, and handsome, but he also has a long history in action and action sci-fi to draw from (he was one of the stars of Mutant X, and has guested on everything from Bones to Harper's Island). The revolutionaries include industry veterans like Lexa Doig as well as scene-stealing standouts like Omari Newton from Blue Mountain State and Stephen Lobo, a veteran of stuff like Painkiller Jane.
What's really fun about the casting, though, as that certain actors are put in place to draw your eye even though their significance is being withheld for later in the series. Barry wants to indicate that a particular character is important for later and possibly of ambiguous motives, but who has hardly any lines in the pilot -- so he casts William B. Davis, who forever will be known as the Cigarette-Smoking Man from The X-Files. Likewise in the first couple of episodes Alec's stepbrother is simply one face in a crowded family kitchen scene, but they want you to notice him for later -- so they cast Richard Harmon from The Killing, whose brooding face and overhanging brow must draw double-takes from passers-by in the street.
Propitious for the Future
The intelligence of approach toward all the ingredients of Continuum makes for a remarkable result: sci-fi drama that's both well made and exciting to watch. When it debuted originally on Showcase in Canada it broke the network's viewership record for a series premiere and was easily renewed for a second season. It's easy to see why. Here's hoping Americans south of the 49th parallel demonstrate to Syfy, which ironically seems to prefer easy fantasy most of the time, that we like our smart science fiction down here just as much as they do up there.