Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
“Save Hitler? That’s not what you do with a time machine!” — SyFy’s 12 Monkeys

“Save Hitler? That’s not what you do with a time machine!” — SyFy’s 12 Monkeys

Late last year I discovered that Hulu was finally streaming the fourth and final season of SyFy’s 12 Monkeys TV series. In the lag between Christmas and the second half of the current TV season, I took the opportunity to binge watch. Happily the series stayed good all the way through (and if you’re planning to watch it, be warned, this post includes spoilers).

The roots of 12 Monkeys are in Chris Marker’s 1962 French short La Jetée. In a post-WW III future, scientists discover protagonist “The Man” (Davos Hanich) has such an intense fixation on a woman (Helene Chatelain) he saw in childhood, sobbing at an airport, that he can project himself into the past. They send him back, hoping he can find help for their decaying civilization. In the past, the Man meets the Woman, falls for her and decides not to return to his present. As they’re preparing to board a plane, a time-traveling executioner kills the Man, and his childhood self watches the woman cry over his body. It’s a sad, sweet film, told entirely in still photos.

Terry Gilliam took this short and expanded on it to create 1995’s 12 Monkeys. Like many short stories expanded to film length, the results, while certainly watchable, are also something of a mess. Instead of the gentle romance of the short, we have Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) falling for Cole (Bruce Willis) despite the fact he’s a)apparently barking-dog insane and b)kidnaps her. As a colleague of Railly suggests, it’s more like Stockholm syndrome than love, but apparently Cole being sooo full of sooo much manpain touches Dr. Railly’s heart. When I rewatched this for my book on time-travel films, I was unconvinced.

As most of you probably know, Cole’s future stems from a terrorist incident in which the Army of the 12 Monkeys unleashed a viral pandemic that wiped out 99 percent of the population. Cole’s mission is to stop the terrorists, later shifted to finding a virus sample so his era’s scientists can engineer a vaccine. Cole discovers the 12 Monkeys’ leader, Goines (Brad Pitt), is the insane son of famous virologist (Christopher Plummer) but he becomes more interested in spending a romantic idyll with Railly before the plague begins. It turns out the Army doesn’t exist — Goines made them up — and the real terrorist is virologist Peters (David Morse). Trying to stop Morse at the airport, Cole winds up dying in Railly’s arms as his younger self watches.

The TV series starts out with the same set-up: the world of 2043 is collapsing due to a pandemic that erupted in 2015, and constantly mutates to kill more people. In one of the last outposts of science, chain-smoking Katrina Jones (Barbara Sukowa) has adapted her late husband’s research into Project Splinter, which can theoretically splinter someone across time. The first volunteers die, but a captured scavenger, James Cole (Aaron Stanford) survives. In the past he enlists a virologist, Cassandra Reilly (Amanda Schull) to figure out the source of the virus and help stop it, even though she initially finds his time-travel claims hard to swallow.

In this version, the Army of the 12 Monkeys is a thing with agents including the ominously smiling Pallid Man (Tom Noonan) and possibly the deranged Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire). As Cole and Cass bounce through time, setting paradoxes rippling, it becomes clear that the threat is greater than a pandemic. The Army of the 12 Monkeys are out to destroy time itself.

The Army’s endgame is the Red Forest, a new reality in which time is no more (“Every day of existence will be the last day on Earth.”). Everyone will be able to live in their perfect moment, with no fear of loss or end … and of, course, no opportunity for change, growth, newer better moments. The plan involves a city, Titan, that’s a gigantic time machine, and the murder of the Primaries, humans who provide anchors for Time’s consciousness. Oh yes, Time is conscious, didn’t I mention that?

I really love this show. The time paradoxes get insanely complicated but not so much the show sinks under them. The visuals, such as Titan and Project Splinter’s base are good. And the cast and the characters they play are fantastic.

Like a lot of fans, I’m particularly fond of Hampshire’s Jennifer. Admittedly I’m biased — seeing a slightly crazy dark-haired genius with a potty mouth is like watching my wife on TV — but she really is a delight. Her performance ranges from tortured to giggly to elderly (an older Jennifer leads the Amazonian group known as the Daughters) to just funny. In one episode she’s trapped in 1920s Paris. To draw the attention of her friends in the future she becomes a stage star doing one-woman shows based on Jaws and other modern blockbusters (I looked for a clip, but I couldn’t find it). And in the episode Die Glocke (which gave me the quote in the post title) she gets to sing Pink’s U + Ur Hand to Adolf Hitler.

The final episode’s happy ending worked despite using a cliche I normally despise (“We can’t change the timeline even slightly — but we’ll make one little exception because you’re such a nice person.”) but they pulled it off.

The whole thing’s streaming on Hulu if you want to try it.


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