They’re From the Future, and Canada ‘Continuum’ on Syfy Is Latest Canadian TV Import
By NEIL GENZLINGER
SQUAMISH, British Columbia — The people behind “Continuum,” a slick Canadian science-fiction drama recently imported to the United States by Syfy, are very conscious that their growing international audience is a demanding, detail-oriented bunch. But the other day during the filming here of a Season 2 scene that had actors in a drainage tunnel with a roaring helicopter at one end, one detail was beyond anyone’s control.
“Hair continuity is a real problem with the wind tunnel,” Rachel Nichols, the show’s star, said after sprinting from the tunnel for yet another take, her long hair hopelessly askew.
Ms. Nichols plays a police officer from the future on the series, which became a hit for the Showcase cable network in Canada during its first season last year and began showing on Syfy last month. American viewers have long been accustomed to British imports — “Downton Abbey,” all those interchangeable detective shows — but “Continuum” is a reminder that Canadian series can also be competitive in the international marketplace.
“The show has now sold to 50 countries, and I think one of the reasons it has is because it looks like a quote-unquote American show,” Simon Barry, its creator, said over lunch in Vancouver the day before the Squamish shoot. “Everybody in this town knows how to make those, because a lot of them are made here. But traditionally Canadian shows haven’t really leveraged that aspect of the filmmaking process.”
It helped too that Mr. Barry’s premise for the series has sociopolitical resonance in almost any country. Ms. Nichols’s character, Kiera, is a police officer (or “protector,” as they’re called in the future) in Vancouver in 2077 who, as the show opens, is on hand for the execution of the members of Liber8, a terrorist group responsible for a devastating bomb attack on the corporations that rule the late-21st-century world. Just before the sentence is carried out the eight convicts transport themselves back in time, accidentally bringing Kiera along.
They wind up in the Vancouver of 2012, the Liber8 members trying to stop the coming of a world in which civil government has been supplanted and Kiera — still loyal to the corporate government of 2077 — doing her best to thwart them. The show’s deliberate ambiguity has fans debating on chat boards whether “Continuum” is a pro-business, right-wing series or the opposite. And Kiera, as Season 1 progresses, gradually confronts the possibility that she is fighting for the wrong side.
“We’re trying to keep the gray area gray,” Mr. Barry said. “We all know the old saying of one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Conceptually we can mine that for drama.”
He added, “Time travel and displacement of time allow for displacement of perception and perspective.”
Contributing to Kiera’s angst is concern about the husband and son she left behind in 2077, giving a personal dimension to the classic time traveler’s worry about whether intervening in the past will alter the future.
For Ms. Nichols, whose previous work includes the CBS drama “Criminal Minds,” the role is a mental as well as a physical workout, since each episode spends time in both 2077 and our present.
“It’s studying up two different characters, one from a time that I know that my character doesn’t know, and one from a time that I don’t know that my character does know,” she said. “It’s a little complex.”
The show came about almost by accident. Mr. Barry, who got his start in the business as a cameraman, spent years writing for various pilots in the American market but had never had a series make it to air. He was developing “Continuum” in hopes of pitching it to an American cable network, but he put it on the shelf when he was hired to work on still another pilot.
There it sat until October 2010, when Pat Williams, a veteran director with whom Mr. Barry had worked, was scheduled for a routine meeting with Shaw Media, a Toronto company whose properties include the Showcase channel. Mr. Williams, looking for a project to pitch at that session, asked Mr. Barry if he had anything in the works, and “Continuum” came up.
Shaw liked what it heard. Tom Rowe of Reunion Pictures became an executive producer along with Mr. Barry and Mr. Williams, adding a layer of production and financing expertise, and Jeff King, a producer on series like “White Collar,” helped Mr. Barry get up to speed on how to be a show runner. The premiere of “Continuum” last May drew 1.7 million viewers, a significant number in Canada, where the population is 35 million.
Thomas P. Vitale, Syfy’s executive vice president for programming and original movies, said he knew “Continuum” was a good fit for his network a few minutes into the first episode.
“As the world gets smaller and smaller, these international shows are more appealing, and we’ll be buying more of them,” Mr. Vitale said. “Good entertainment cuts across national lines.”
Countless American series have been shot in Canada over the years, of course, but recently shows initially made for the Canadian market, like “Flashpoint,” have been successful abroad. “Continuum” joined another Canadian show, “Lost Girl,” on Syfy’s Monday night lineup.
“These aren’t just schedule fillers,” Mr. Vitale said. “These are high-profile shows.”
And the actors can feel that they’re in a different league.
“Five years or 10 years ago a Canadian show would only be a Canadian show, ” Victor Webster, who plays Kiera’s 2012 police partner, said as he waited for the next blast of helicopter hurricane. “But the shows that are coming out of Canada now are so good.”
The scene being shot here was fairly elaborate for the series, so much so that cast members were taking cellphone pictures as if they’d never seen a helicopter before. Other high-impact visuals come courtesy of Artifex Studios, a special-effects outfit in Vancouver where the owner, Adam Stern, and his staff brought the Vancouver of 2077 to life.
Anyone who knows present-day Vancouver was given a lot to think about the first time 2077 Vancouver was unveiled. Stanley Park, the city’s equivalent of Central Park, had sprouted skyscrapers, and discerning viewers noted a dam in the background in English Bay, presumably holding back the higher water levels produced by global warming.
Not that Mr. Barry would make any of that explicit in the scripts. “Continuum” fans don’t need to be told what to draw from a given scene; they’re scrutinizing everything pretty carefully. Kiera, for instance, has digitally enhanced vision, and shots from her point of view have graphic displays imposed on them. It quickly became apparent from fan feedback that certain obsessive viewers were freeze-framing those shots and studying the graphics for information.
“I go to my guys and say, ‘That can’t be gibberish,’ ” Mr. Barry recalled. So the digital displays contain nuggets for the freeze-framers.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
And there’s the matter of the horse that 2012 Kiera encounters in a Season 1 episode coming up this month for Syfy viewers. The decision was to have Ms. Nichols play the moment as if she had never seen a horse before.
“The Internet lit up, because we never actually said why she reacted,” Mr. Barry said. “And a huge conversation was triggered about whether there were animals in 65 years, whether global climate change affected the ecosystem — all these variations of things that, by the way, we would never have thought up in the room when we were writing. The lesson there is: You don’t have to spell it out.”