I’ve been a fan of Terry Gilliam ever since the first time I watched Monty Python & the Holy Grail—which of course, was before I saw any of his post-Monty Python films. And of those wonderful, wonderful movies that he’s made in the intervening years, 12 Monkeys has always ranked at the top of my list of personal favorites. I’m a sucker for a good time travel flick, and the bleak determinism of 12 Monkeys has always appealed; how the film creates a complete and concise circle of cause and effect.
As such, upon hearing the news of the 12 Monkeys television adaptation on SyFy Channel, I found myself torn: on one hand, I love that story and universe so so so so so much that I was eager to see it explored in a new and modern context. On the other hand, my adoration of the original film (to say nothing of La Jetee) has a lot to do with the perfectness of its cyclical paradox. Going into the SyFy series, I couldn’t help but wonder: how is it even possible to extend such a perfectly structured time travel story into an ongoing series?
But then I watched the pilot episode and leaned back in my seat and thought, “Damn. All right. I’m in.”
The opening scenes of the television series might seem familiar to fans of the film, which I suppose makes sense, given the nature of the story. We’re introduced to the ash-as-snow-laden wasteland of the future in 2043, just like in the movie, then jump back to 2013 (rather than 1996), where Dr. Cassandra Railly is giving a lecture in a museum about plagues and epidemics and the futurism of preparedness. After her lecture, she is kidnapped by Cole, who is seemingly crazy and talks a lot about trying to prevent some horrible apocalyptic future and then disappears right before Railly’s eyes.
For those who are not familiar with the source film, this is a pretty exciting and gripping opening sequence. And if you’ve seen the original film, it’s an interesting twist on the story, because we are no longer following Cole’s personal linear journey, but rather the audience is experiencing things just as Dr. Railly has in “our” present. There’s a brief glimpse of Cole in prison in 2043, and a flash of his interactions with the scientist cabal in the future, but other than that, Dr. Railly serves as the audiences’ entrance point into the series. While this is certainly more reminiscent of the Terminator setup, I do think that it works dramatically for hooking the viewer.
Before he disappears, Cole tells Railly to meet him at a hotel in Philadelphia in 2015, which she does. We quickly learn that Railly has sacrificed not only her career but her personal relationship with her fiancé, all because of her mysterious disappearing kidnapper from 2013, and we feel her tension as she awaits Cole’s arrival. But sure enough, he arrives, moments after having left her behind in 2013, and delivers all of the necessary exposition about the coming plague caused by the Army of the 12 Monkeys which wipes out 7 billion people and how he’s been sent back in time to stop Leland Goynes, et cetera et cetera.
From there, the pilot episode follows much of the plot of the film, albeit in an expanded version: Railly and Cole infiltrate a political fundraiser event hosted by Leland Goynes, the alleged perpetrator of the apocalypse-to-come, and attempt to kill him before he can release the virus into the air. The assassination is thwarted, But Leland recognized Cole as someone who had come to him 28 years earlier, in 1987—which makes the opportunistic Goynes feel even more pompous, as he now knows that his role in the future-to-come is clearly of the utmost importance. Cole ultimately kills Leland Goynes, but finds that his future has not been averted; and the mentally unstable Jennifer Goynes (a gender-swapped version of Brad Pitt’s character from the film) learns of her father’s death and sets into motion the events that will eventually lead to the future from which Cole hails.
It’s an intriguing setup to a television series that both honors and expands upon the source film (although admittedly, it probably feels more like a pale imitation of The Terminator series, which is undeniably more popular). In particular, this series seems to have found a way to expand the premise of the film without veering too far from its philosophical center.
To clarify (because we’re talking time travel here and things are bound to get confusing): in the film version of 12 Monkeys, Cole is sent back in time to help prevent a plague from destroying the future, but he is unable to prevent his own future because it turns out that the evidence on which his mission was based was all a red herring, caused by his presence in the past. That is to say: the Future believed the Army of the 12 Monkeys to be responsible for their plague, when in fact their extant proof of the existence of the Army of the 12 Monkeys was a direct by-product of Cole being sent back in time and telling Goynes about the Army of the 12 Monkeys—which still had nothing to do with the plague.
Yes, I realize that that didn’t actually clarify anything. Again: it’s time travel. What else do you expect?
As far as setting up a series, it appears that the 12 Monkeys television show is going to work each episode as an expanded exploration of the red herring evidence that appears in Cole’s future. With Railly’s help, Cole will continue to try to stop the plague from happening, but each attempt to stop it will end up contributing to the future mythology around the plague which leads Cole to being sent back in the first place.
But even knowing what’s to come, I found myself feeling quite excited by the possibilities of the series (and of course, there is plenty of room for surprise as well). I was particularly intrigued by some of the rules of time travel as presented in the episode—most specifically, the watches. In order to prove to Railly that he is indeed from the future, Cole presents her with a future iteration of the watch that she is wearing at that precise moment. Cole then puts a scratch in the surface of her watch in 2013, and both Railly and the audience are able to see that same scratch suddenly appear in the version of her watch from 2043 that Cole had previously recovered. This creates an expectation that Cole’s future—that is to say, “the present,” as far as he’s concerned—is malleable, which opens up the show to even more possibilities.
Later in the pilot, in perhaps one of my favorite scenes of the entire hour, Cole takes his 2043 version of Railly’s watch and touches it to Railly’s 2015 version of her own watch, which essentially creates a centralized paradox bomb. I don’t care that this probably defied the established laws of physics in numerous ways, because it was both visually and narratively thrilling.
As much as I love the perfect circle of Terry Gilliam’s film, I can’t help but feel both charmed and intrigued by SyFy’s adaptation of Twelve Monkeys. If this all sounds like a re-hash of Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles, well, you might not be wrong (minus the robots), but for my part anyway, I’m still on board.
Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. Thom enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.