Frequency – A Show Don’t Tell Masterclass

Make no mistake – Frequency is not a perfect show. It’s not the best show airing right now. But it might be the best new show of the season. The actors are not going to win awards, although they’re solid enough, and for the most part I think the writers take the show more seriously than anyone else ever will.

But it does one thing right, and that’s – you guessed it – show don’t tell.

The basic premise of Frequency is that detective Julie Sullivan, a modern day NYPD detective, lost her father Frank Sullivan, also an NYPD detective, at an early age. Then an old HAM radio is struck by lightning, allowing it to communicate with itself 20 years in the past. More to the point, allowing Julie to speak with her father shortly before he dies. The two quickly set out to use cross-time communication to save Frank’s life and fight for justice!

The wonkiness of the plot was enough to intrigue me into watching the pilot. The ability of the pilot to pack information into a single episode convinced me to stay, at least for this season. Frequency manages incredible information density through show don’t tell in three specific areas. First, in establishing the show’s split time periods. Second, in establishing that the linked timeframes are synchronous (and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a second). Third, in showing causality and chaos there. And it does all of this without an exposition dump or unwieldy “sciency” character. Not that such characters are always bad, but putting one in this story probably wouldn’t have served the plot very well.

Let’s start with the way the show frames itself. The story has two timeframes, 2016 and 1996, both of which are established before they cross paths. The modern era is established by just showing us things that we take for granted – modern cars, smartphones and current music. The past is a little trickier, but still pretty easy to do. We see Frank watching the 1996 World Series as he’s first introduced and, a little while later, we see former President Clinton on TV at some kind of official function where the announcer introduces him as the leader of the free world – implying that he is, in fact, the president at the time. Add in little things like CRT TVs and out of date cars and it’s pretty easy to make a rough estimate of the time period. Of course, there’s also Julie herself, who we see as a young girl in this era, and who’s birthdays – eighth and twenty-eighth – are mentioned as touchstones to hammer down the exact timing shortly before the first father and daughter cross-time talk.

The second thing established is how events in 1996 and 2016 are synchronous, and until Frank does something new in his era Julie won’t see the results of it in hers. We see this in two separate incidents. The first is probably the most ingenious. When Julie and Frank first speak Frank is so weirded out he sets his cigar down and misses the ashtray. It burns a hole through the wooden top of the HAM radio – a hole Julie sees appearing in her time in real time. The hole has not always been there, as it would be in some time travel stories, it appears before Julie’s eyes as she’s watching and she asks about it, prompting Frank to pick the cigar up and put it back in the ashtray then brush the coals off the top of the radio. The hole stops growing in Julie’s time period. In much the same way, Julie labors under the impression her father is dead until the moment that history changes and her father’s life is saved.

Finally, the show demonstrates causality and the “butterfly effect” not by having someone explain it to Julie but by having her live it. After saving her father’s life she hurries to keep a date with her fiance and his parents only to find that he doesn’t have any idea who she is. Then she discovers that her mother is dead – the result of her going to the hospital to visit Frank there after he survives the shooting that should have killed him. In the process she becomes the target of a serial killer rather than the victim he had originally selected. Again, this is a sequence we see happen and it drives home that this is the consequence of what Julie and Frank did far more than just hearing about it.

With all this basic, world building exposition happening along side of the character building dialog the first episode of Frequency does an amazing job of establishing the world, it’s rules and the people who we’re going to watch play by them in the confines of the forty three minutes most network TV shows have to work with. It’s worth watching for the pure craftsmanship even if you don’t like time travel or police procedurals. What’s more, most of what the show does would only work on the screen, meaning the writers were giving careful consideration to how best they could use their medium, which many writers neglect. All together this makes the pilot alone worth watching, even if you choose to pass on the rest of the series. Don’t deprive yourself.

Genrely Speaking: The Time Travel Story

Science fiction stories are stories about human ideas. They take these ideas and examine them from a number of angles. Hard Sci-Fi is all about technology and science – what will the ideas of our greatest scientists look like as they drive civilization for another one or two hundred years? Space opera is more about the ideas of society and sociology, how will disparate cultures interact in the future?

The problem with these genres is that they can rapidly loose touch with the individual. Since readers are individuals, and they will identify best with individual characters and not abstract ideas about “science” or “society”, that means that the readers can frequently loose interest in the story (which is bad.) Sure, some readers who buy into the author’s ideas will be totally enthused, but that just means the author’s appeal will be playing to the choir. But there is one great way to solve this problem.

What if all the major ideas the sci-fi story needs to advance could somehow grow out of the decisions or actions of one person? What if the consequences of that person’s decision(s) could be explored, not just in their immediate effects on the world around them but through their effects decades or centuries into the future? What if a person could know that their thoughts and actions would change the future – and what’s more, choose what kind of a legacy they were leaving?

That “what if” is the core of the time travel story, a kind of sci-fi that lets a single person shape reality in fantastic ways by traveling through time. Time travel stories are tricky from the genre standpoint, as they are both a thing of their own and tend to be lumped into a dozen other subgenres of science fiction. They can be anywhere on the scale of sci-fi hardness and may be set in a space opera setting or confined entirely to Earth. But they will have a few things in common.

  1. Some way for a character or characters to travel through time. This sounds like it should be obvious, but hey. It’s a fact. If no one’s traveling through time, or at least seeing through time, then we’re not dealing with a time travel story. Note that the direction of the time travel doesn’t matter. People can be going backwards to meddle in the history of the Roman Empire or dashing forwards to get lotto numbers and strike it rich, they only need be traveling through time. (Going “sideways” to alternate realities doesn’t count. Slider stories and alternate history will have their own entry thank you very much.) If you want to be really generous, stories with clairvoyants who can predict the future can kind of fall into this genre too. I am not so generous, but you can be if you want.

  2. The consequences of some action taken, and the ability to alter them with time travel, are central to the conflict of the story. Watch the classic Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever for a detailed example. In the typical time travel story one of two things happens – either the protagonist meets a time traveler who has come back to avert a coming disaster, or they themselves are going back in time to avert a disaster. Things usually unfold from there. Typical permutations involve accidental time travel – to the past that disrupts the flow of history, or to the future to give a warning of things to come.

  3. An emphasis on personal responsibility. Unlike many sci-fi stories, where science or crushing impersonal forces reduces mankind to a set of preprogrammed responses, the time travel story tends to focus on a person’s ability to make broad changes with just one or two little decisions. This, in turn, places an enormous burden on the person who can travel through time, to use that power in a constructive fashion. Or, at the very least, in some way that doesn’t cause reality warping paradoxes. Conflicts with people who want to use time travel in selfish or destructive ways can also come into play, particularly in a long running series about time travel.

What are the weaknesses of a time travel story? In short, they are confusing. Like, really, really confusing. Since time travel offers the ability for characters to go back and actively alter events that the audience has already experienced once it’s only natural that at least some readers will mix up what happened the first time and what the ‘altered’ state is. Heaven help the author who meddles with the same point in time multiple times. Add in temporal paradoxes, possible explanations of how time travel works in the first place, the Hitler Time Travel Exemption Act (along with any possible corollaries you can think of), the possibility that – well, you get the picture.

Writing a time travel story that your audience can follow, without insulting your intelligence or leaving some kind of glaring plot hole, is difficult. Not all who try succeed.

What are the strengths of a time travel story? First, it lets sci-fi do something it doesn’t always do well – let individual characters come shining through. Even with advanced technology, meticulous planning and the advantage of being able to check their work, time travelers still face a great deal of difficulty in changing the past. There’s enough room for conflict, but the potential for a single person or small but dedicated group to effect significant changes and see the outcome makes for very powerful story telling.

Also, it’s a very flexible medium, as I said before. Time travel can be used to tell just about any kind of story, from a romance to a spy thriller. It can be about exploration, saving the world from a disaster or fighting against crooks who exploit people via temporal manipulation. It’s scope is much broader than many genres in that respect.

Finally, there’s a wonderful quality to the idea that the past can be rewritten. The idea that the inadequacies that we face can be made up for, if a person would just have the power, the integrity and the compassion to find what went wrong and help us fix it. Everyone has at least one thing they wish they could do over. Sometimes the moral of the story is that the outcome we got was the one we needed, not the one we wanted. Sometimes the moral is that we need a helping hand. There’s a hundred shades of the possible between the two, and there’s nothing saying you can’t have both at once.

And in the end, that’s the beauty of time travel in a nut shell, isn’t it?