Friday, January 30, 2015

Time and Again: SyFy's 12 Monkeys

"She is not your mission. She’s just a puzzle piece." – Dr. Jones to Cole, in the pilot episode of SyFy's 12 Monkeys.
Adaptations of movies to television can be hit and miss, and perhaps the strongest television shows to come from the big screen aren't inspired by the most beloved films. Peter Berg's Friday Night Lights (2004) probably had its fans, but the television series (launched by NBC in 2006, also developed by Berg) made no bones that it was taking off in its own direction, unburdened by the film or book. In fact, I confess that I began watching the series without even knowing about the film, and it so confidently built its world in its extraordinary first season that I've never felt remotely inspired to check out its source material. The other great movie-to-TV adaptation is of course Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There, the series quickly outstripped the famously wrongheaded early-90s film and found its voice precisely in the broader continuing storylines so essential to television storytelling.

But adapting films beloved in their own rights, especially arguably classic films like Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys (itself inspired by a then-classic film,
in that instance, Chris Marker's incomparable La Jetée) are a different story, both literally and figuratively. When it's a movie that you love, that you've seen multiple times, and that you know backwards and forwards, that is a tough new row to hoe for a new television series. SyFy has bravely taken that on with its new time travel thriller 12 Monkeys, which premiered two weeks ago. And the results, so far, are genuinely promising.  
The challenges for the new series are only multiplied with its ambitious time travel conceit.  For one, some of the best, and most satisfying, time travel stories are also the shortest. It is a classic trope of speculative fiction and their force often comes in their simplicity. The closed and close telling of a film script short stories are themselves often far better source material for films than novels for many of the same reasons is well-suited for the evocative and tone-heavy stuff of time travel. Time travel as adventure, where the past is merely "a foreign country" (as L. P. Hartley famously wrote) is a well-trodden genre that perhaps had its modern birth with Mark Twain's 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and still has successful scions in current TV shows like BBC's Atlantis and Starz's Outlander. Purely episodic shows, like Quantum Leap, which invest in the humanity of its stories and where the more paradoxical and fascinatingly intellectual features of the genre are largely left aside (except for one or two special instances) also make the complex mechanics of time travel far easier to navigate.

But stories when time travel and its intricacies are front and centre (the Terminator and Back to the Future films, the indie hit Primer, Rian Johnson's recent Looper, to list a few) often need to paint in wider and more pointed brushstrokes than TV often does, in order to clarify the rules they are playing by (metaphysically speaking), often having the minutiae of plotting come at the expense of story and character. Television, especially television at its most powerful (where details and patient storytelling are the heart of it), can make it particularly challenging to balance these twin priorities. 

Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull in SyFy's 12 Monkeys.
To be fair to the SyFy series, its seems firmly aware of this challenge, and they immediately declare their loyalties early in the first episode of 12 Monkeys. When our time-jumping hero, James Cole (Aaron Stanford, Nikita) is warned by his 2043 overseer Dr. Jones (Barbara Sukowa, Hannah Arendt) not to get too close to Cassandra Railly in the past – saying "She is not your mission. She’s just a puzzle piece." – it is quite clear that Cole will have none of it. His story isn't a puzzle for him and neither are those who populate it, and he will consistently refuse to treat people merely as cogs in a complex machine. This more or less delineates the dominant tension between the two characters, which will no doubt develop over the season – but it also stakes out the show's priorities: more focused on story than plotting, more interesting in characters than the more subtle, potentially wonkish renderings of science and paradoxes of time travel.

The setup for the series still more or less follows the film's: we begin in a future time (in this case 2043) decades after a plague has decimated the vast majority of the world's human population. The survivors live mainly underground, and are struggling to rebuild civilization against a tide of barbarism. They possess working, but still imprecise, time travel technology, and so they send an agent named Cole back to the past. In the film, Cole's mission isn't to tamper with the timeline, but simply to gather information: to find out more about how the deadly virus began and, perhaps, to get a sample of the original so they could engineer a cure in their own time. Changing the past was not on the table, nor did anyone wish to be erased or rewritten. (In the movie, it is ironically Cole's mistaken belief that he could change the timeline that ultimately seems to lead him down the road to things occurring precisely as they always had.) The past is firmly in place throughout the film – characters' belief on the matter notwithstanding – and in many ways, the way the film begins and ends maps rather nicely onto Marker's original story and themes.

But the SyFy series is taking a decidedly different tack on the matter, which is itself the source of some of the more frustrating elements of its construction. Cole is explicitly sent back to undo the plague – to find and flip a "reset switch" that would stop the disaster from ever happening. And we are introduced, in the earliest scenes, to direct evidence that the future can be changed by time travel, albeit in a relatively minor way. But almost everything else that happens appears to follow the other trajectory, whereby Cole's actions seem to fit precisely into an already established temporal state of affairs. So early in its run, it might be unfair to say that the writers are simply unclear on their own metaphysics – after all, the later seasons of Continuum more than came into its own in this regard, and ultimately embraced a neatly, internally-consistent sense of how time travel, and alternate futures, could be understood. At this early stage however I remain consistently distracted by the overlapping, and conflicting, positions the SyFy series seems to be taking. In that way, the show's most original feature – that the story will move regularly back and forth between decades – is also its weakest one, since it will be faced just as regularly with negotiating the still wobbly rules of time travel as they are trying to establish them. (Continuum could take its time in this regard, since the future scenes are all subjective flashbacks for our lead character, and the existence or nonexistence of her original timeline can remain a dark, open question throughout.) But 12 Monkeys needs to have firmly set the rules at the outset, because Cole is basically commuting to 2015 from 2043 – living in the future and working in the past – and he returns home regularly to clock back in and get new orders from his scientist "bosses". 

Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines in 12 Monkeys.
Still, those distractions notwithstanding, the series is rather entertaining – both as a time travel story and as a thriller. The burgeoning relationship between Cole and Railly (Amanda Schull, Pretty Little Liars, Suits) is going well, and Railly's character has already evolved leaps and bounds in only these first two hours. (Her character becomes far more compelling the more desperate and isolated she becomes.) And Stanford plays Cole convincingly and with a lot of charisma. You rather believe his amazement and discomfort in a civilized world, as he stumbles through the social niceties of our time. The writers has also given him the beginnings of a suggestive back story: implying that he has borne some of the worst traumas of the planet's surviving population, growing up as a scavenger on the streets of his destroyed Philadelphia, and burdened by ugly deeds and decisions he wishes he'd never had to make. That baggage more than justifies the nihilistic mission he's agreed to pursue – one whose success would literally means his "erasure". He seems to actually welcome that possibility, and one of the most poignant moments of the series so far (at the end of the second episode) shows his frustration at his very continued existence. That is genuinely powerful stuff, and if the series can keep on that track, it will bode well for the narrative possibilities of the new series. 

The series also isn't trying to replicate the dystopian mania of Gilliam's future from the film. The show's cinematography isn't particularly ambitious in general, and when it is, it’s the 2015 scenes that feel that way. (2015 is also where the show's most unstable characters live.)  In fact, while the future – which is clearly going to have its own on-going storylines in the series – is a dark and dangerous place, it is in many ways a less frantic one than our present. The scientists in the future are neither sinister or demonic, and – despite some differences in opinion – seem to be genuine allies for Cole. Stanford's Cole, it should be noted, also has little of the manic existential instability of the character Bruce Willis played in the film. This Cole is actually much more comfortable in the future, where he gets to actually relax from his mission and even josh around with his best friend Ramse (Kirk Acevedo, Fringe). 

Acevedo and the other supporting players also more than hold their own. Canadian actress Emily Hampshire plays Jennifer Goines, a female version of the iconic character portrayed by Brad Pitt. I remember Hampshire most fondly from the classic CBC comedy Made in Canada (known internationally as The Industry). She's also, less remarkably, on CBC's new (and not nearly funny enough to justify its title) comedy Schitt's Creek. Hampshire's had a long career, and it's wonderful to see her in something ambitious, especially in a role that does her talent justice.

One might be tempted to compare 12 Monkeys to FX's Fargo, although that recent series went in a largely different direction – keeping the tone of the beloved Joel and Ethan Coen feature film and jettisoning the plot and characters – which made the first season of Fargo both easier to process and more immediately successful, even for the invested viewer. Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett's 12 Monkeys doesn't see itself as a faithful adaptation, but neither can it fall into the "inspired by" category (the producers have called it a "reimagining"). Either way, its re-telling of David & Janet Peoples' 1995 screenplay has just enough of the original story and characters to likely make it a bit of an uphill trek for the film's most enthusiastic fans. Personally, I honestly wish I wasn't so familiar with the source material, or so much in love both with both the ways Gilliam and Marker told their stories and what they were telling. Still, there's more than enough in 12 Monkeys to make it worth watching, and I'm looking forward to the time when the SyFy series stands firmly on its own feet.

The third episode of 12 Monkeys airs tonight on SyFy in the U.S., and on Showcase in Canada.

Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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