Superman on Television
Lois & Clark: Episode Reviews
Season 2 - Episode 18: "Tempus Fugitive"Reviewed by: Rob Ó Conchúir
Originally Aired: March 26, 1995
Directed by James R. Bagdonas
Written by Lee Hudson & Jack Weinstein
Lane Davies as Tempus
Terry Kiser as H.G. Wells
Robert Costanzo as Gun Shop Owner
Josh Devane as Frank James (as Joshua Devane)
Adam Grupper as Man in Alley Being Mugged
Don Swayze as Jesse James
The morning of Perry's birthday, Lois and Clark receive a visit from a strange man claiming to be H.G. Wells. Initially skeptical, Clark grows worried when the man takes him aside and reveals that he knows Clark to be Superman and that he needs his help. Clark accompanies the man to Centennial Park where he says he has a time machine and a visitor from the future. Lois follows much to Clark's dismay. Wells explains that Superman and his descendants ushered in an era of total peace called Utopia.
Tempus, Wells' man from the future wanders away from the Park and discovers a man being mugged and becomes very excited by the prospect of crime. He goes in to a gun store and manages to take an automatic pistol from the owner. He then returns to the time machine and explains that he is going to kill Superman and prevent Utopia from ever happening as he finds the bliss of Utopia to be devastatingly boring. He takes Wells with him in the time machine and they go back in time.
Wells leaves behind the blueprints for a time machine which Lois and Clark find. Clark ducks off and returns as Superman, who builds the machine. They then travel back in time to Smallville 1966 where they find a '1866 Centennial Celebration' is taking place of a Smallville bank robbery. Clark explains that there never was a Smallville bank robbery and Lois realizes that Tempus must have altered history a hundred years too early.
Sure enough, back in 1866 Tempus arrives a century early thanks to Wells' trickery. Needing more gold to power the time machine, he goes to a saloon where he meets Jesse James and shows off his superior firepower. The two criminals fight each other and end up wrecking the saloon.
Lois and Clark arrive in 1866 and discover the wrecked saloon and meet the ancestors of Jonathan and Martha Kent. When Tempus robs the bank, Superman is forced to save Marshall Kent rather than stop the time-travelers.
Lois sneaks into the barn where Tempus is keeping the time machine and he finds her. She asks him why he's going to Smallville and he reveals that Clark Kent is Superman and condemns her for being 'the most galactically stupid woman in history' for not recognizing that the two were one and the same.
Tempus and H.G. Wells go to 1966 leaving a distraught Lois. When Clark finally arrives, she is very angry with him for keeping the secret from her for all of this time. They head to 1966 as well, where she continues to condemn Clark. Clark explains that Superman is what he can do and that Clark is who he really is.
Tempus and H.G. Wells arrive at Shuster's Field and discover the alien ship already landed and torture the baby Kal-El with Kryptonite, which affects the future-Clark. Lois and Clark go to the Kent Home and discover Jonathan and Martha in their youth. Martha notices that Clark looks very ill. Jonathan tells them of 'strange city-folk' he noticed up in Shuster's Field.
Clark's hands begin to turn opaque as he is slowly erased from history. The two reporters arrive at the Field just in time for Lois to stop Tempus from hurting the baby. Clark becomes Superman and saves the day. Superman picks the ship up and flies over Shuster's Field just in time for Jonathan and Martha to see the ship and find the baby Kal-El.
H.G. Wells explains that he cannot let Lois and Clark return to their own time with the information they now have. He drops them back a day early so that they won't remember anything. Beforehand, Lois writes a note to herself stating that Clark is Superman.
The morning of Perry White's birthday, events transpire as they originally did, although both Lois and Clark have a strange sense of déjà vu about everything that occurs. Clark spots the envelope and manages to rip it to pieces before Lois can read it.
Review Rating - 5 (out of 5): "Tempus Fugitive" is one of the greatest Superman stories ever told.
It features an adventurous, high-concept plot that is both exciting, clever and vaguely educational (think of how many interested children might read 'The Time Machine' or 'The War of the Worlds' after seeing this episode) and definitive characterizations of Lois Lane and a modern Clark Kent.
It also features the series' trademark original villain in Tempus, a man whose plots tend to revolve around time-travel, but whose characterization actually embraces a more three-dimensional modernism - his entire dialogue teeters upon the verge of breaking the fourth wall in its considerations. Tempus represents the smarmy, cynical insulting bully who doesn't 'get' Superman and loves to make fun of the character and his collection of tropes. Throughout the episode, Tempus makes insulting remarks regarding the ridiculousness of the Superman concept and the Clark Kent disguise/alter-ego/actual identity. Each step of the way, the episode proves him wrong by providing legitimate arguments as to why Superman is effective and relevant and why his methods stand up. In the close of the episode, Tempus asks Superman why he wears tights and a cape and if he feels ridiculous. Superman quotes himself from the first episode of "Lois & Clark," simply replying "My mother made it for me." This is all the information Tempus needs to have his argument rendered defunct. Lane Davies does a great job with Tempus - just the right level of over-the-top acting. He's certainly not one of the grittier villains the series ever had, but it's easy to see why he's such a fan-favorite.
"Weekend at Bernie's" star Terry Kiser is wonderful as H.G. Wells, even if he does occasionally struggle with an effective English accent (although it's faaar better than most American attempts at an English accent). I'm not really in a position to remark as to whether his performance had any relevance to what Wells was really like, but to do so would be obviously ridiculous. He plays a lovable eccentric very well and I'm delighted that he returns later in the series. He also provides my favorite line of dialogue in the entire series (alongside Cat Grant's "Finally, LITERALLY swept off of her feet." line from the pilot):
Wells: What's the matter, my dear?
Lois: Oh, you've been to the future, Mr. Wells. Is it true what Tempus said about me?
Wells: Oh, yes. You're as highly revered as any woman in history.
Lois: Oh, no, I'm meant about being galactically stupid.
H.G. Wells: No, no, no, Miss Lane, not stupid, blind. It is one of the many things that makes your story so timeless. Why children never tire of hearing it at bedtime. Why parents never outgrow it. Generation after generation, we are all blinded by love, Miss Lane. Especially that one great love that changes us forever.
Tempus: Excuse me, but I'm in danger of choking on my own vomit.
'Tempus Fugitive' also has the definitive line of dialogue of the Post-Crisis John Byrne version of Superman: "Superman is what I can do. Clark is who I am." There it is, right there. No longer 'disguised as a mild-mannered news reporter'.
This wonderful exchange (including its reality-check from Tempus at the end) is why "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" needs to be preserved as well as the Superman movies and the other television series. When it got it right, it REALLY got it right. People need to look past the frog-eating clones, the giant-headed villains and the many other flaws the series had and just examine the brilliance of episodes like this, because they too often go completely unnoticed.
Having past-Martha and past-Jonathan Kent portrayed by their actual regulars (rather than other youthful actors, as had been done in 'Strange Visitor' if I'm not mistaken), was a no-brainer but a wise move nonetheless. The excellence of their performances while explaining to Lois that they are unable to have children helps the viewer look past the fact that they are obviously considerably older than the young couple they are supposed to look like. I'm a firm advocate of keeping original actors as often as possible rather than recasting younger alternates (see Jeff East in "Superman: The Movie" for a prime example). I really love how Martha can sense that there's something seriously wrong with Clark, and she can't tell why. It adds another layer of magic and destiny to Kal-El's bond with the Kents, something that reverberates throughout the series.
Now to go past the unfiltered praise and examine some of the things I specifically loved about this episode. A great job is done of creating Smallville of the 1960s and the 1860s on a TV budget, I have to say. While it's a trifle convenient, the 'Centennial Celebration of the 1866 Smallville Bank Robbery' was a clever way of allowing Lois and Clark to realize that something was rotten in the timestream and it showed that the writers were thinking fourth-dimensionally. The same must be said of the beautiful 'faux-landing' Superman/Clark creates at the end in order for the Kents to see the ship landing. Given that the ship actually landed EARLIER than Clark had previously known (without any temporal interference from Tempus) it stands to reason that this is they way it had ALWAYS been and that some intervention had transpired prior to this, in order to ensure the Kents found Clark. This kind of temporal paradox is what makes or breaks Time-Travel stories, and personally I love it. There's an untold story to be told there.
Unfortunately, like many other Time-Travel stories, this is one is not without huge flaws, and prior to rewatching the episode I was ready and raring to give this episode a 4/5 because of them.
Here we go:
- Superman builds a TIME MACHINE (offscreen) in 'a few hours' (a simple scene-progression is all it takes for us viewers). Prior to this we've seen a Superman/Clark of fluctuating intelligence (completely oblivious to how Dr. Light's tech works in one episode; able to understand the complexities of high-frequency radio-transmitters in another). As I mentioned in a previous episode, I'll buy that Clark hides from Lois how massively intelligent and technologically savvy he is, but even still this is hardcore Silver Age-levels of competency for our Modern Superman.
- The time machine not only allows the user to traverse over the temporal plane, but the physical one as well. This isn't really a plot hole, just an observation of sorta-kinda-laziness. This probably wouldn't even bother me, except that for 'Back to the Future' Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis specifically designed the time machine as a DeLorean because they didn't like how time machines in other media were able to teleport to different locations as well as different time periods. They saw it as lazy, an opinion with which I agree.
- This is more of a nitpick, but if the time machine CAN teleport to different areas on the physical plane - does the user specify where (and how is that possible)? Otherwise how come the time machines keep teleporting to such convenient locations? I realize literally no one has ever cared about this before, but it's a criticism nonetheless.
- Finally, there's the great big ball-drop of the final act. H.G. Wells tells Lois and Clark that he cannot allow them to return to the future with the knowledge they now have as Time has been altered enough. In order to ensure their collective amnesia, he 'simply' drops them back before they ever left, so this way it'll be as if they never left. This obviously makes no sense whatsoever. Essentially what he's proposing is landing the Time Machine back in Metropolis and inserting Lois and Clark into a timeline where they already exist.
Hardcore Fan-Theory Time: The only way I can think of this working is if within the universe of "Lois & Clark", the universe works in a way where if time-travelers travel to a time where they already exist within a certain age-bracket of a few weeks, days, minutes or hours (Clark did exist in the same time as the infant version of himself), then the universe re-aligns and amalgamates the two people into one in order to prevent Time Paradoxes (see Back to the Future - Part II). This also explains Lois and Clark's déjà vu during their 'second' run-through of Perry's birthday morning. It's a shaky theory that isn't explained in the episode, but it's the only thing I can think of.
It's a pity though that H.G. Wells didn't just take out a memory-erase-ray and return the two reporters to the very moment they did leave (like in the Back to the Future films)... but that way the writers couldn't go back and do the 'déjà vu' scene, which was probably the original reasoning behind the shabby explanation. Altogether a disappointing finale to such an amazing episode.
Aside from all of the temporal inconsistencies, one thing I didn't like was how Robert Costanzo returned, playing a different character than the one in 'Foundling' (in which he was great). I generally don't appreciate how much this season disregards the last in terms of casting-continuity and this is just another example of it. A minor complaint, though.
Special-effects wise, there's some great moments in this episode. The time travel effects all look splendid for a television show in 1996, as does the Kryptonite and the shot of Superman zooming through the air with his own spaceship in his hands. My favorite effect in the episode is Clark transforming into Superman by performing 'the Spin Thing' for the first official time in "Lois & Clark" (he did it in 'Lucky Leon' when he was picking an outfit to wear on his date, but it was more of a cartoony homage to "The Mask" than anything else).
My One-More-Thing for this week: Following his humiliation at the hands of Tempus (who uses an automatic weapon to appear as though he is a more skilled marksman), Jesse James has a conversation filled with double-entendre with lines such as 'it happens to every guy', 'his was just bigger', 'it'll never get any better if you don't get past it' and of course 'I'm just worried about my performance'. Perhaps it was a bit cringeworthy, but I thought it was a bit of less-than-subtle fun in an otherwise completely family-friendly episode.
"Tempus Fugitive" is undoubtedly one of the greatest contributions "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman" ever made to the Superman mythology and certainly the most original. It's exciting, romantic, adventurous and some of its dialogue borders on profound. It's also just damn fun with a delicious Silver Age vibe to it (Superman meeting H.G. Wells and Jesse James as well as his own adoptive ancestors, etc). While it has a number of awkward flaws, it nonetheless holds up as the definitive episode you could show anyone, not just because of its instantly accessible continuity-free story, but also because of Tempus specifically highlighting all of the issues most non-fans have with Superman in general (with Lois and Clark knocking them out of the park the whole time). I showed my completely non-initiated girlfriend and even she thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm still of the mind that perhaps "All Shook Up" is a slightly more complete episode, but "Tempus Fugitive" is more ambitious (and not adapted from a previous story). The series never really reached the heights of this episode ever again.
Next week we have to come crashing back down to Earth for the mediocre doldrums of "Target: Jimmy Olsen".
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