From Sherlock Holmes to Tarzan to Harry Potter, movies and TV shows have long put white heroes at the center of the universe and relegated Black characters to the sidelines (when they appeared at all). Mainstream science fiction, despite supposedly challenging the limits of the human imagination, has rarely veered from that formula.
That started to change a little over the past couple decades, with Wesley Snipes in “Blade” and Avery Brooks in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” and then even more in the past few years with films and shows like “Black Panther,” “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” In these narratives, Black protagonists get to save the world, or at least embody America.
The wonderful comedy “Timewasters” takes a different approach to subverting heroic white narratives in sci-fi: It tosses out the whole idea of vaunting protagonists.
The British comedy, which first aired exclusively in U.K. from 2017 to 2019 and is finally now available on Amazon’s IMDb TV, has schlubby, small-as-life characters designed to mock the very idea that certain people — generally self-absorbed white people — are destined to fill the screen of existence or can change the wold.
“Any time before the mid-’80s isn’t good for Black people,” he cautions.
“Timewasters” is the brainchild of comedian Daniel Lawrence Taylor, who also plays Nick; he’s the lead trumpet player of a struggling jazz quartet that practices in a run-down London apartment building. One of those sessions is interrupted by amiable vocalist Horace (Samson Kayo), who announces that “Homeless Pete” (John Stoate) has discovered that a “piss-soaked elevator” in a run-down building is actually a time machine.
Jason (Kadiff Kirwan), the saxophonist, is delighted at the chance to explore another era, or at least the chance to pursue women in another era. “People like us never get to time travel! It’s what white people do, like skiing or brunch,” he enthuses.
Nick is a lot more nervous. “Any time before the mid-’80s isn’t good for Black people,” he cautions.
But soon enough, Nick, Horace, Jason and Nick’s sister Lauren (Adelayo Adedayo), the band’s drummer, find themselves first in the elevator and then trapped in 1920s London in season one (available for review) and, in season two, in the 1950s.
As Nick predicted, the first thing that happens when the elevator doors open on the past is that a well-dressed white woman takes one look at an elevator full of Black people and screams in terror.
Everyone they meet instantly knows they don’t belong — not because they’re from the future, but because the past (like the present) is racist and they’re Black.
White time travelers, of course, can generally count on a certain level of acceptance in the past: The Connecticut Yankee was an oddity, but the people in King Arthur’s court recognized him as human at least. In “Star Trek,” Spock, an alien Vulcan (albeit a white one), merely had to cover his ears with a stocking cap to blend into Depression-era America in the original show or tie on a headband during their jaunt to the 1980s in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”
Nick and company, by comparison, are hypervisible in 1920s London, even when they change out of their “curious native trousers and spongy foot things” and into period dress. Everyone they meet instantly knows they don’t belong — not because they’re from the future, but because the past (like the present) is racist and they’re Black.
Being despised and marginalized makes it difficult for the trapped band to make money or find a place to live — much less affect the course of history. Still, Nick figures they must have been sent to the past to save the world like Kirk and Spock or that traveling Time Lord in “Doctor Who.” At the very least, you’d think a jazz band armed with hits by Amy Winehouse and Outkast should be able to invent rock and roll, the way Marty McFly did by stealing Chuck Berry’s riffs (and giving them back to him) in “Back to the Future.”
But Nick isn’t Spock or even Marty McFly. The band eventually gets a live gig playing for wealthy socialite Victoria (Liz Kingsman), who treats them as amusing novelties, adopts Jason as a boy toy and lets the band stay in her house.
Their efforts at more substantive endeavors are all abortive. This is hardly surprising; the 1920s were not a time when Black musicians in London became overnight successes. The first time an all-Black vaudeville show went from Harlem, New York, to London to perform, in 1923, it so outraged the local actors and musicians unions that they successfully appealed to authorities and forced the theater to stage the show with an all-white cast in the entire first half.
“Timewasters” knows the British past isn’t going to let Nick have a central place in its timeline if it can possibly help it.
A few years before that, in 1919, white Britons engaged in a monthslong orgy of racist violence against Black people and other people of color in a series of violent riots. In response, the government devised a “repatriation” scheme to send Black Britons to its various colonial territories (and tightened its immigration laws) in an effort to make Britain more white. The last thing the Britons would have wanted in 1920 was a sudden influx of Black people from the future.
“Timewasters” knows the British past isn’t going to let Nick have a central place in its timeline if it can possibly help it. But if the joke is on Nick, it’s also more broadly on white people, who pretty much always think they’re the most special people at the center of history, whether they’re time traveling or not.
Victoria, for example, is a vapid vortex of gleeful narcissism. When Jason tries to tell her he loves her, she can hardly be bothered to listen. “Thank you precious,” she drivels, smiling maniacally. “In other news, I’m the main reason we’re all here!” Rich white Victoria has to make everything — and every image — about herself, past, present and future.
“Timewasters” is superficially intended to put Black people into time travel and (back) into history. But it also suggests that wasting time is perhaps better than convincing yourself that you own it.