You have to watch the most underrated time travel show ever
Start the burst sequence! If that phrase doesn’t make sense to you, chances are you haven’t seen the best time travel show of the 21st century – or maybe ever.
For some, this 2010s SyFy Channel series lives in the shadow of Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film. But for science fiction fans, the TV series 12 monkeys is actually much more satisfying than its previous incarnation. 12 monkeys reinvents the time travel genre by embracing its oldest tropes, and in doing so, the sci-fi series is more than worth your time, now that all four seasons are streaming on Hulu.
Watching 12 monkeys in 2022 can certainly be triggering. The whole premise hinges on James Cole (Aaron Stanford) being sent back in time from 2043 to prevent a global plague from decimating the planet in 2017. Watching the show in 2015 was certainly a grim experience, but after 2020 it’s is even darker. And yet, as the series progresses, it’s less about a plan to prevent a pandemic and more about time travel itself.
Although Season 1 deals a lot with the paradoxes of predestination (we were still meant to be here) and closed loops (time travel technology exists because it always has), nearly every permutation of the time travel tropes is represented, re-examined, and feels like new by the time you cross the four seasons.
Sometimes events are permanently tied to causation, and sometimes they are not. Although a few alternate timelines are created, they don’t always replace the previous ones. In Doctor Who, you can imagine the Doctor saying that some things are “fixed points in time” and others can be changed. In this series, rules like that are wonky; audience dependent Told the rule exists. But in 12 monkeysthe why and how of these rules are part of the real story.
THE RULES OF TIME TRAVEL is a Reverse special issue exploring the evolution of science fiction’s most imaginative subgenre. From Marty McFly to Avengers: Endgame.
Thus, when the program presents a Back to the future trope or a remix of a Philip K. Dick story, 12 monkeys emphasizes how hyper aware he is of his influences without resorting to garish fan service. Yes, there are stunts, including memorable recurring roles from James Callis, original 12 monkeys star Madeleine Stowe and, of course, sci-fi royalty, Christopher Lloyd, who essentially plays an outright villain.
Based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name, the series has a lot in common with that film such as the reboot of Battlestar Galactica had with its 1978 predecessor. The show was created by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett who are currently working on Star Trek: Picard Season 2 and Season 3. In fact, if you’ve never seen SyFy 12 monkeys but i recently watched picardyou’ll be more than a little surprised at how many references now exist in Star Trek canon that tie directly into the 12 monkeys-verse.
Apart from any pollination between franchises, the orientation and philosophy of 12 monkeys not only pay homage to the Gilliam film, but also honor the original ancestor of both versions: the 1962 French film The Pier by Chris Marker. In a sense, 12 monkeys feels closer to The Pier insofar as he is less interested in being a confusing fucking mind (like the Gilliam movie) and more interested in telling a moving, romantic human story.
Without any specific spoiler, part of what makes 12 monkeys such a joyous series is how much the plot twists can surprise you, and how – just as often – those twists are utterly uplifting. The way the characters are presented in the first season drastically changes by Season 4, but each of those changes is justified by meticulous character development, not time travel reboots and alternate universe revisions. This also happens, but the characters change despite, not because of these events.
A good microcosm for the show’s multi-dimensional nature is the character of Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), who is initially cast as a new version of Brad Pitt’s quirky Jeffrey Goines from the original film. At first, we think of Jennifer as a mental patient with a sadistic, mean side — like a time-traveling version of Harley Quinn. But by the end of the series, Jennifer’s characterization becomes far more complex than any cookie-cutter cliché.
In 2017, Hampshire declared Reverse she felt she had hit the “jackpot” with the role of Jennifer saying, “When as an actor on a show, in a part, do you get to play yourself at 65, get to you like to be in your 80s?”
Again, this character detail is a simple synecdoche of why. 12 monkeys is such a rewarding and wonderful science fiction television series. You come for the cool, twisted time travel narrative, but you stay for the characters. Another character, Deacon (Todd Stashwick) adopts the famous Simple Minds hit “Don’t You Forget About Me”, as his personal anthem. It’s also an appropriate war cry for the whole series. Don’t forget this one.
12 monkeys Seasons 1-4 are streaming on Hulu.