If you were asked to come up with the most topical idea possible for a science fiction series in 2020, you couldn’t do better than “time travellers from the future return to the present to prevent a nightmarish plague from devastating humanity”. Which is to say, 12 Monkeys is the most topical show on television right now. Not bad for a series that started in 2015. Those time travellers must have picked up a few ideas on their way back through 2020.
You might think being based on Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie – which itself was based on Chris Marker’s brilliant 1962 short film La Jetée – might tarnish 12 Monkeys’ topical crown, what with Gilliam’s movie doing the whole “killer plague” thing more than two decades ago. But there’s one big difference between the movie’s idea of time travel and the series’.
In the movie, time is a closed loop: everything that will happen has happened, and all you can do is figure out your place in it. In the series, if you work at it hard enough, you can – just maybe – change things. And when you’re in the middle of a pandemic, that’s exactly what you want to hear.
Not that change seems like an option at first for 12 Monkeys’ central character James Cole (Aaron Stanford). In the year 2043 he’s a scavenger, making a living (such as it is in the post-viral wasteland) picking over the remains of civilisation. Twenty-five years earlier, seven billion people died, and with the virus still mutating, humanity’s days are numbered. Well, they are if you’re moving forward in time one day at a time; Cole might just have found a way around that.
A team of scientists led by physicist Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa) have built a time machine as part of Project Splinter, hoping to go back and stop the virus at its source. Problem is, they don’t know much about what that source might actually be, thanks to society falling apart pretty much right afterwards. The only real lead they have is a 2017 recording of virologist Dr. Cassandra ‘Cassie’ Railly (Amanda Schull) in which she mentions James Cole. That makes him the ideal subject for Katarina’s time machine: if they know about him in the past, then he must manage to get back there.
It turns out things are never quite that simple when time travel is involved. Cole successfully makes contact with Cassie, and even gets her to believe he’s from the future. But his initial target – the man the future thinks is responsible for the virus – turns out to be the wrong lead. Possibly the person he’s after is mentally unbalanced math genius Jennifer Goines (Emily Hampshire), but already it’s starting to get tricky.
Katarina’s time machine isn’t as accurate as it could be, sending Cole back where he doesn’t belong. And while moving around in time might give you some advantages, it also means you run into people you’ve never met who’ve already met a future version of you. And if that wasn’t head scratching enough, there’s a mysterious group called The Army of the 12 Monkeys out there that seem to be involved in everything. Good thing there are no ill effects from repeatedly travelling back and forth through time… oh wait.
There’s plenty of action and shock developments and betrayals in 12 Monkeys. People meet alternative versions of themselves (but don’t get too close; this series follows Timecop rules where when two people or objects from different times meet, things go boom), jump back in time to fix their own mistakes, and pretend to be their own parents. It basically dials the usual time travel paradoxes and puzzles up to 11, then returns from the future with a bunch more dials and turns them to 11 as well. But what helps ground it – and makes it even more topical for 2020 – is that it’s a show about scientists using their brains to try and save the world.
Cole’s a man of action; he’s had to be to survive. But without Katarina in the future and Cassie in the past to guide him, he’s never going to get anywhere. In a struggle across centuries with fanatics committed to causing endless harm, it’s science that’s humanity’s best hope of survival. It’s a message that’s timely whatever timeline you’re in.
And if that’s not enough, at one stage Jennifer does a great version of ‘99 Luftballons’. That song never goes out of style.
Seasons 1–4 of 12 Monkeys are now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Follow the author here: @morrbeat
Fiona gives us the highlights of this year’s curfewed Melbourne International Film Festival - MIFF 68 1/2 - and talks with Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn, the creators of the real life drama 'The Salisbury Poisonings', we talk Netflix's 'Indian Matchmaking' and click play on 'Guerrilla' and 'Burning' on SBS On Demand.