01 “Splinter” (12 Monkeys season 1) [SPOILERS]

12 monkeys

I love the Terry Gilliam film 12 Monkeys. I have done since I first saw it. There’s a quiet beauty to it, which is part of Gilliam’s style, but also the same sort of time-travel symmetry which has made me such a long-time fan of Robert Heinlein’s short story “All You Zombies”.

So, with this sort of an investment in the source material, a TV series based on the film is both a tough and an easy sell to me.

Easy, because why wouldn’t I want to revisit the concept in a different form? Hard, because if you f**k this up, SyFy, I’m going to be coming for you.

On a serious note, I can see many ways that this could go right, and more that it could go wrong. Remaking old entertainment media is a risky business anyway, but if Battlestar Galactica taught us anything it’s that at the right time, in the hands of the right person, you can remake something classic and beloved new and relevant again.

The pilot episode of 12 Monkeys opens in the ruins of 2043, with James Cole travelling back in time to 2013, in search of the origin of a plague which almost wiped out mankind. Meeting, and eventually teaming up with Dr Cassandra Railly, he searches for Leland Goines, the man he believes will cause the pandemic, and whose death in the past could save the future.

So the first episode is, as you might well expect, in most part a rerun of the film. Cole goes back in time, tries to figure out how the plague started and stop it. By the numbers really. Except this is more about introducing the premise, the world, and the initial batch of characters.

Cole has hair this time. And is less crazy, at least so far. He goes back in time directly to Dr Railly, guided by a broken message she apparently left before she died. There is, predictably, a lot of talking about things in the past tense that haven’t happened yet.

My first impressions were good, to be honest. In large part it’s a case of, “Well, there’s a way yet to go,” but it also makes clear that the premise can weather a longer development arc as required by a serial format.

One thing which did irk me a little was just how quickly Cassandra was convinced that Cole was indeed a time traveller. As a fan of the film, we seem to have skipped over a lot of the build up to that revelation. Though thinking on that logically, there was a two year gap between her meetings with Cole, so there’s every chance that the show will investigate what happened between.

I quite liked the idea of “splintering”, that Cole can’t remain in one bit of the past for too long, and there’s still enough left unexplained about precisely how much control he has over it. Clearly some, as he was able to tell Cassandra to meeting him in two years, but the question then remains why he can’t simply go where and whenever he needs to.

The final reveal, though, was what it was all building up to, when one of Leland Goines’ lackeys goes to tell his daughter, Jennifer, that her father is dead. Yep, they’ve pulled a Starbuck, and Jeffrey Goines (who you may remember as wearing Brad Pitt’s face on the big screen) is now Jennifer Goines. It’s a pretty radical change, but BSG has already proved that it can work. And given that Goines is already in the mental asylum, it looks like, although things are happening in the wrong order, we’re about coming up to the beginning of the film proper.

So I’m hopeful. I enjoyed the pilot episode, even if I’m not committed to liking the rest of the series. It’s going to have to justify wearing the skin of one of my favourite films, like a serial killer run amok. But it was an enjoyable start, neither drowned in technicality nor oversimplified to the point of meaninglessness.

And, hopefully, it will pick up as Jennifer Goines is properly introduced as a character and the Army of the Twelve Monkeys becomes a real presence.

Closing thoughts:

  • Someone spent a lot of money on that monkeys graphic, and they’re going to get their money’s worth, damnit!
  • I did like how understated post-apocalyptic 2043 was. No fire and brimstone, just bleak emptiness.
  • I did spot Kirk Acevedo, of Fringe fame. It’s nice to see him again, and hopefully a little of the Fringe magic will rub off on 12 Monkeys.

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