It seemed like a totally preposterous idea: turn Terry Gilliam's weird, clever movie 12 Monkeys into an ongoing TV show. This seemed clearly doomed to suckitude. But in a totally implausible twist, the Monkeys show is actually surprisingly terrific. Spoilers ahead...
So as readers of our interview with showrunner Natalie Chaidez will already know, this TV show started its life as an unrelated pitch for a time-travel show called Splinter, and then was retrofitted as a 12 Monkeys reimagining. (Similar to the way Caprica was originally pitched as a brand new show about A.I., and then Syfy turned it into a BSG prequel.) This shouldn't work at all, shoehorning a brand new story into an existing template, but somehow it does.
In fact, enough of the DNA of Splinter seems to remain in the 12 Monkeys show that it feels fresh and not just like a retread of Terry Gilliam's film. (Which had already taken huge liberties with its own source material, the 1962 movie La Jetee.)
The basic story remains the same: A guy named Cole goes back in time from a plague-ridden future, to the present day. But Cole's objective is different: he's here to stop the plague, not simply to collect a pure sample of the virus for scientists in the future. He has to track down the guy who created the plague, a "black ops" biotech whiz named Leland Goines, and kill him, hopefully stopping the plague before it starts.
The best change the show makes to the movie is the character of Dr. Railly, who's a psychiatrist in the film but a virologist on TV. A lot of the best stuff in the first episode of 12 Monkeys goes into establishing her as a character and making her sympathetic and compelling. She's as important a character as Cole, the time-traveler, and she's got more pathos. (And her first name is now "Cassandra," which is way too on the nose for someone who knows a terrible future is coming.)
In the first episode, Cole goes back to 2013 and kidnaps Dr. Railly at knifepoint, seeking information on "Leland Frost," which is Leland Goines' first name plus his NSA designation. Railly doesn't know anything, but at least Cole convinces her he's a time traveler, so she goes to meet him two years later — where he's still sporting the fresh gunshot wound he got in 2013. They track down Leland Goines, thanks to an NSA guy who owed Railly a favor, and then go to meet him at a fancy Washington, DC party. There, Cole tries to kill Goines but it goes horribly wrong and they're arrested — but they end up being taken to Goines' facility, where Cole does succeed in killing him. But it changes nothing.
Which leads us to the other big change from the movie — the Army of the 12 Monkeys, which is basically a giant red herring in the original film, is an actual threat here. They really are the architects of the plague, and the sinister organization behind the apocalypse. Film purists will no doubt be upset — but giving the 12 Monkeys a more functional role in the storyline makes it a bit more interesting. And there's really no point in this show just trying to create a longer version of the movie.
And finally, we meet Goines' daughter, Jennifer, who's in a mental institution drawing a giant monkey mural.
In any case, this is a stylish, fun take on time travel, with clear stakes. Like a lot of TV pilots, this show covers a lot of ground in a hurry, but it manages to set up stuff with a certain panache. We get flashbacks to Cole's introduction to time travel during the scene where Railly is sewing up his gunshot wound. And later, we get a neat montage of the plague-ridden future as Cole explains to Railly what happened. Plus the repetition of the bleak notion that everybody Cole meets in the past is already dead, as far as he's concerned.
And the relationship between Cole and Railly is established over the course of an hour, turning them from abductor and abductee to partners in investigating the plague conspiracy. Finding out that Cole really is a time traveler ruins her life, because everybody thinks she's a crazy person, and ruins her relationship with her boyfriend Aaron. And then she makes the decision to go to the hotel to meet Cole, and to help him track down Goines, while trying to keep Cole from just putting a bullet in Goines' head.
There are some cute moments between them — including the scene where Cole tries to give her a compliment and winds up saying that she looks like the women in the old magazines they used to find in the ruins of the future. And then, that she looks "clean." Hah.
Oh, and it's a Nikita reunion! Cole is played by Aaron Stanford, who played "Nerd," while Aaron is played by Noah Bean, who played Ryan. (I kept wishing Maggie Q would walk in, wearing a slinky dress, and just sort the whole thing out in 15 minutes.) And it's great to see Fringe's Kirk Acevedo as Cole's buddy Ramse, too.
So what are the rules of time travel here? That's one problem I have with this show — I like the fact that you can change the past and that it's not stuck in the fatalistic predestination model of the movie, where everything already happened. (Because I prefer time-travel stories to be messy.) I like Cole's little aphorisms, like "Break the past, the future follows," and "Mother nature doesn't like it when we rearrange the furniture."
At the same time, I dunno. There seem to be two sets of rules operating simultaneously here:
1) There's the Back to the Future model. When Marty McFly prevents his parents getting together, he starts to fade away, because he was never born. Cole says the same thing will happen to him if he stops the plague. And we see a couple demonstrations of how changing the past affects the future, including the very Looper-esque bit where Cole scratches Railly's watch in the past and the future version gets the same scratch.
2) There's the River Song model, where stuff happens out of order — but that only (sort of) makes sense on Doctor Who because the Doctor and River are both time travelers. But apparently Leland Goines remembers meeting Cole in 1987, even though Cole hasn't gone to 1987 yet. And the 2017 version of Railly knew Cole's name and spoke it on a recording, before Cole had ever stepped into a time machine.
I don't quite see how those two versions of time travel are compatible — either when you jump through time, you change things instantly, or you can encounter the results of trips you haven't made yet. I don't think both of those things can be true, and I suspect this show is going to have trouble with that inconsistency down the road.
At the same time, I know why the show introduces that incongruity — because it feeds into the whole "fate vs. free will" thing that people love to play with. (Almost as much as they love the "science vs. God" thing. More on that in a sec.) Is Cole fated to travel through time? Dr. Jones, at the start of the episode, says that he is. And maybe in the end we'll find that the movie version was right, and Cole can't really change the big stuff. Or maybe we'll discover there is some grand design that Cole is a cog in.
Having watched some of the upcoming episodes of this show, I know that the writers are doing some interesting things with the ambiguity about whether Cole's time travel is changing things, or whether it's "already" happened. But I still don't like having two sets of rules.
And meanwhile, the show hits on the question of "playing God" a couple times, which is something that I would be happy never to hear a science fiction show bring up again. At the start of the episode, Railly says it's "controversial" to tell a group of doctors they're not God, and later in the episode, Goines says his rockstar molecular biologist, Oliver, plays god "quite convincingly." It's only a problem because the "playing God" thing has been pretty overplayed at this point, and seems to stand in for a lot of kneejerk unexamined debates that feel very "1990s Michael Crichton." So let's hope the Big G gets a rest on this show from here on out.
All in all, though, this is a fantastic hour of television, that does all the things a pilot needs to: establish clear stakes, set up characters and relationships you can invest in like a hedge-fund manager on speed, raise fascinating questions that we have a real hope of getting answers to, and include a few "holy crap" moments (like the watch thing I GIFed up top) into the bargain. I'm basically already hooked on this show.