Season 1 Episode 1
Air Date: Friday, January 16, 2015, 9/8c on Syfy
Coming to a flat screen/laptop/smartphone near you is the new Syfy series 12 Monkeys, based on Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name. Just so you know kids, time travel is not full of fun and games like Doctor Who makes it out to be. At least that’s what we are shown when watching 12 Monkeys. It’s painful, confusing, full of rules, and death.
James Cole (Aaron Stanford), a time traveler from post-apocalyptic 2043 is sent back to 2015 to stop a plague that wipes out most of the human race. Cole recruits Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), a woman from our present to help save the future by preventing the disastrous plague started by the Army of the 12 Monkeys.
Cole is chosen by fate for a mission that is the biggest of the human race (where have I heard that before?). He follows a trail of clues that trickle throughout time so he can prevent the dismal future from ever existing. Although, time can start getting confusing for Cole. His first objective is to assassinate a person who is believed to be the cause of the plague, but during his time in 2015, he finds clues to prove he eventually goes to 1987. Since Cole hasn’t been to 1987 yet, his future is even further in the past than he knows, which shows the mystery is far bigger than he can imagine, and what’s ahead is far more complex. This concept is what sold the show for me.
I find it compelling how 12 Monkeys uses time travel; it gives the basic detective story a pleasant twist. As a person who “splinters” through time, time becomes different for you. You can go to 2006, but see ripple effects from when you eventually land in 1996. The space-time continuum for a time traveler isn’t linear in that aspect. 12 Monkeys might not have as much fun with time travel as Doctor Who does, but it still makes it intriguing, and Cole uses it to his advantage. In the show, time travel isn’t an exact science. Like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, it isn’t perfect, but it’s the vessel that helps him along his journey. Cole uses the rules of time as a tool, and more specifically, as a weapon. His understanding of time is a helpful gizmo, but it isn’t a deus ex machina. Just because he has knowledge of the future, he still doesn’t have knowledge of his future. I see a lot of interesting possibilities that can come from this approach with time traveling.
Other than the inventive writing, the acting holds up pretty strong. Stanford isn’t Bruce Willis or anything, but he pulls off his grungy, straightforward character without being completely one note. Cole is very distant but Stanford makes him likeable, which is something not all actors can pull off. Schull is convincing as a doctor who tries to keep everything together while her world is turned upside down. Like Stanford, Schull and the rest of the cast could get away with not bringing much depth to their roles, but everyone seems to have an understanding and makes for an engaging show.
Movie vs. TV Show
I’ve seen a good amount of movies transition to television shows successfully like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, M*A*S*H, and Parenthood, just to name a few. The 1995 film starring Willis, Madeleine Stowe, and Brad Pitt (who has one of his best performances) was critically acclaimed on multiple levels, but differs from the show in various ways. In the cinematic version, the focus is more on human nature and the unchangeable fate, while the show focuses on fighting to make a better tomorrow. During the film, Pitt’s character explains how we are drones, blindly going through our lives, trying to kill ourselves everyday, and deserve to be extinct. Cole, played by Willis, explains how there’s nothing we can do to change our future. In the end, when his character is forced to try and change the fate of the world, we learn Cole is right all along, and that it’s pointless to try and make a difference. The grimness of the film isn’t mirrored by the show. During the pilot, we see Cole isn’t a believer of fate, but learns he can make an impact and is willing to make any sacrifice to do so. The specific differences between the movie and TV characters could stem from the contrary ideals of time.
In “Pilot,” there are direct changes when Cole is in the past—anything he breaks or touches affects the future. The film doesn’t follow that same ideal. The film intones there is nothing anyone can do to change time; that everything falls into place where it should be. Everything Willis’ Cole does is already planned out for him, while Stanford’s Cole isn’t “bound by time.” With that in mind, Stanford’s Cole is on a mission of an ambitious nature, which gives the character more purpose. Willis’ Cole is on a mission to mend the inevitable, which makes his character the more somber of the two.
The big similarity between the film and show is the inner workings of a grand mystery. We travel with both Coles trying to figure out what causes the virus to spread and where it all begins. Unlike the movie, the show makes the mystery more of a detective story. Stanford’s Cole actively seeks the next piece of the puzzle, whereas Willis’ Cole finds his clues by circumstance. As good as the film is, I like the detective undertone a little better. The show features a man on a mission facing evil organizations, underground armies, and a web of secrets he must unveil. How can you not like that compared to a theme where humans are destined to kill themselves and they should just deal with it?
Plain and simple, I’m excited for what’s to come. Even though 12 Monkeys might have similarities to The Terminator, Time Cop, and, of course, the film it’s based on, it has its own personality. From what I’ve seen, 12 Monkeys is a good science fiction show with a captivating plot, good acting, and the potential to go down many appealing avenues. This isn’t Quantum Leap where it’s episodic or where the main character deals with the monster of the week. It has an overall arc that seems to be headed in the direction of an interesting mystery. You don’t have to be a fan of the movie to enjoy the series. But if you are a fan, I think you’ll appreciate the series just the same. Not to build it up, but get ready for a time flying, death defying, villains spying, mysteries untying show that will keep you crying…for more.
Tune in to 12 Monkeys, Fridays at 9/8c only on Syfy. For more on 12 Monkeys, go to http://www.syfy.com/12monkeys.
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Follow 12 Monkeys on Twitter at: @12MonkeysSyfy.
All photos © 2015 Syfy, a division of NBC Universal, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
© 2015, Nick Polizzi. All rights reserved.
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