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El Ministerio del Tiempo (Ministry of Time) – TV Series Review

Ministry of Time - El Ministerio del Tiempo (poster)I am a sucker for costume dramas. If a show involves somebody wearing farthingales, I will give it a try, and I’ll usually hang in there even if it’s not that great. Usually on the stationary bike, I’ll pedal along, admiring fashions, upholstery, and candelabras. I’ve watched my share of mediocre historical dramas and fantasies, from the exposition-heavy Medici: Masters of Florence (in which nearly every scene was like a historical reenactment on the History Channel), to the torture porn (and regular porn) extravaganza The Tudors (at least it had Henry Cavill!), to the one-season wonder Camelot on Showtime. But give me terrific storytelling to go with the costumes, and I’m an avid fan. Game of Thrones is one of the few shows I watch when it’s broadcast (instead of catching it weeks or months later). Penny Dreadful ranks among my top 5 series of all time, and I dearly miss Marco Polo and wish Netflix would bring it back.

Fortunately, while GoT is on hiatus and Dreadful and Polo are off the air, I’ve found something to fill my costumed show hole: El Ministerio del Tiempo (The Ministry of Time, in Spanish with English subtitles on Netflix). The plot revolves around a secret Spanish ministry that controls a vast labyrinth of doorways, each of which leads to a different point in Spanish history. We’re told that the network is specific to Spanish territory, and that the characters cannot go to the future, only the past. These two points comprise the main narrative weaknesses, since the rules are rather flexible according to the needs of the show. Agents travel to eras before Spain existed (in one humorous scene, a pair of art historians touch up Paleocene cave paintings in the Cave of Altamira), yet the time doors are not restricted to the Iberian Peninsula.

El Ministerio del Tiempo - door

There are doors all over the world during the Spanish colonial period, which then disappear in later centuries—begging the question, why Spain and nowhere else? As for not being able to go to the future, ministry agents from past eras routinely come to the present day, which is of course their future. In season two, an agent asks the director about this, and he responds, “No one from the future has ever come back to us. The train stops here.” That’s equally vague and plot-convenient (although certainly something that could change as the show’s arc develops—as of this writing I’m nearly done with season two and haven’t even glanced at the show descriptions for the third season).

Yet, the loosey-goosey time travel rules haven’t lessened my enjoyment of the show any more than the infinite utility of Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver or Star Trek TNG’s all-purpose tachyon pulse diminished my adoration of those shows. I was hooked on Ministry of Time from the first episode, and my enjoyment has only increased the more I’ve watched it, because the individual episodes are fun, the season narratives engaging, and the characters fully fleshed out and emotionally complex. The tone is more light than dark, and more good guys vs bad guys than shades of gray. Usually I prefer more complexity and dramatic tension, where the stakes are higher and survival in doubt, but this show is so inventive and fun—and often funny—that I can sit back and enjoy it for what it is.

El Ministerio del Tiempo (screenshot 2)

Naturally, the characters clinch the deal. Season one opens with the recruitment of Alonso (Nacho Fresneda), a Sixteenth Century Spanish soldier, and Amelia (Aura Garrido), a Nineteenth Century university student who is the only woman in her class. They are teamed up with another fresh recruit: Julian (Rodolfo Sancho), a modern-day ambulance medic whose wife died tragically. The team’s mission is to prevent rogue time travelers from changing history, either deliberately out of a political or personal motive, or accidentally as a side effect of money-making schemes (e.g., stealing art masterworks from the period before high security museums). Some rogues use time doors that exist outside the Ministry’s known network, while others work for an American corporation that has developed its own time-traveling technology.

In between plots involving Nazis, the Inquisition, and various threats to the lives of artists, writers, and heroes from Spanish history, the team wrestles with personal issues. Appointed team leader by the Ministry, Amelia must learn to assert her authority, contend with 1880s parents who believe her only purpose is to marry well, and cope with the knowledge of her future after she stumbles across her own grave. Alonso bristles under Amelia’s command while longing for the wife he left behind in the 1500s. Julian also pines for his lost love and illicitly uses the time doors to visit her—essentially having an affair with his own wife behind his past self’s back. Amelia (a Spanish Hermione Granger) is the brains, Alonso the brawn, and Julian the heart of the operation, but each contributes equally to the team’s successes, and over time their mutual respect and affection grows. In season two, a 1980s police officer named Pacino (Hugo Silva) joins the Ministry while pursuing a time-traveling serial killer. Pacino brings more humor and a bit of a noirish edge to the action, rounding things out nicely.

The show does a fantastic job mixing suspense, pathos, and humor as well as blending low and high culture. Julian and Pacino pepper the dialogue with modern pop culture references, while Amelia provides insight into literature and history. It’s fun to watch Alonso and Amelia adapt to modern life, embracing some practices and technology while stumbling with others. Amelia easily masters modern technology, particularly computers, but she can’t get used to immodest fashions from other eras. After Alonso moves full-time to the 21st Century, he is particularly vexed by microwaves and dating rituals, but he loves motorcycles.

There are tons of Easter eggs for literature, art, and history buffs. Hemingway makes a cameo appearance during a bachelor party, and some plots revolve around Cervantes, Federico Garcia Lorca, Napoleon, and El Cid. Other historical figures are recurring characters—my favorite is the painter Diego Velázquez, who painted Las Meninas, one of the world’s most well-known paintings. Velázquez works for the Ministry as a sketch artist and occasional agent; in one of my favorite scenes, Velázquez meets Picasso, whom he admires, and anxiously asks him about his influences.

El Ministerio del Tiempo (screenshot)

Mixed in with every story are quips about bureaucracy, customs that differ over time and between nations, and the Internet. It’s also refreshing to see a workplace drama (or dramedy) where the people unabashedly love their jobs. They get excited about going to certain decades and express regret and jealousy when colleagues go places they can’t. Also, despite some internal conflicts, Ministry employees also like and support each other. They’re all on the same team, working toward the same goal, even when they don’t agree on the details or the methods. That element was something I loved about Penny Dreadful—you knew everyone in Vanessa’s circle had each other’s back. The tone of Ministry of Time is much lighter, but both Dreadful and Time share the same spirit—they’re about a crack team of unique people with special skills, all determined to do whatever it takes to save the world, and each other.

Oh, and the costumes—ranging from sleek medieval to farthingaled Baroque to flapper chic—are wonderful to look at too.

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10 Comments

  1. ScarletBea says:

    Oh, which came first, this one or the american Timeless? They seem almost identical!

    • A.M. Justice says:

      I haven’t watched the American show, but Ministry of Time began in 2015. I just started season three and it begins with a terrific homage to Hitchcock, and is set at the premiere of Vertigo in the 1950s, and has a Cold War plotline, along with nods to Psycho, Rear Window, Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and of course Vertigo.

  2. JJ says:

    Yeah, this REALLY sounds like Timeless only maybe not as good. I may still have to try it…

  3. Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

    I looked it up, apparently Ministry of Time came first. And they sued Timeless for copyright infringement.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Ministerio_del_Tiempo#Timeless_lawsuit

    • ScarletBea says:

      Ooooh, interesting!!

      • JudyRM says:

        The Ministry of Time came first and there were rumors that NBC wanted to buy it. That fell through and NBC basically created a rip-off show that I whole-heartedly refused to watch. El Ministerio del Tiempo is amazing and got me hooked right away. The history they cover is rich and intricate and they weave in great humor and character development. I highly recommend it! I was so excited when they brought it to Netflix because more people can see it now and any gain in popularity may keep it on the air longer 🙂

        • A.M. Justice says:

          Sadly, Netflix did not renew it! I have no idea why, but its rating on Netflix is in the middle 3’s, which may be why. But I totally agree with you about the rich and intricate coverage of history, with terrific humor, suspense, and character development. I’m now mid way through Season 3 and I’m going to really miss it when I’m done.

  4. Saffer says:

    I wish RTVE would bring it back for Season 4 with Amelia as the Patrol Leader!

  5. Olivia says:

    The series was made by TVE (Spanish public tv channel) and we are all waiting to hear from them if they are going to renew it. Last news I heard was that it’s not cancelled but they are going to take their time to rethink a few things about it, the length of the episodes, maybe less episodes per year, maybe a new season every two or three years… who knows.

    Netflix buy the rights of the series after its airing in Spanish tv so, even if it is renewed, it’s going to be a longer wait for the international fans.

    The series was extremely well received in Spain, the main problem was that Tv audiences are low for this kind of series, because most of their fans (like myself) prefer to watch it on TVE web. With the change of government this year in Spain and the changes they introduced to TVE’s board (giving them more independence in order to improve quality), I really hope that they will find the way to renew it, because this series is the kind of quality that a public tv channel should look for.

    Maybe there could be another good news in the future about the series, because TVE sold the rights to other TV channels around the world. Portugal made one season with his own version (I think it was cancelled after that) and I heard that Turkey and China were among the buyers, will they do their own version in the future? I don´t know but I would love to see a similar series about countries that I don´t know much about their history.

    As for the US version, after the intent of plagiarism, being spanish myself, personally, I don´t have any interest in watching it… but I hope that their fans enjoy it. 😀

    • A.M. Justice says:

      Thanks for this update. I’ve finished the full three seasons and loved what they did in the last one, with all the homages to Hitchcock and Kubrick and other filmmakers. I sincerely hope they bring it back!

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