Nearly every “Timeless” episode begins with a dramatized, iconic moment in American history. This week’s opens with the NASA control room at the moment of the Apollo 11 landing, the rows of identically clad white men familiar from “The Right Stuff,” “Apollo 13” and countless other versions of this time and place…
And then a figure walks by an elevated, glassed-in corridor: A black woman eyeing the events with curiosity and undisguised pride. She is, of course, Katherine Johnson (played here by Nadine Ellis and, to be played in 2017’s “Hidden Figures” by Taraji P. Henson).
The episode is bookended — following Johnson’s adventure with Rufus (Malcolm Bennett) and Lucy (Abigail Spencer) — with how the show’s universe will recall the same moment. Following a heroic computer programming sequence (on par for delightful unexpectedness with last week’s blacksmithing montage), Johnson brings the astronauts safely home to Earth, winning the titular Space Race for America and — in the show’s flexible historical narrative — turning her into as much a celebrity as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.
But to Rufus, Johnson has always been just as much a hero as the white men who became the names and faces of the 1960’s Space Race. When it becomes clear that this mission will entail sophistical computer programming on extremely old devices, Lucy and Wyatt (Matt Lanter) instantly shift to become supporting players in Rufus’s game.