The trend for TV shows based on films – Fargo, Lethal Weapon, Westworld, Training Day, Bates Motel – seems to be endless. But how does a small screen adaptation of a movie succeed? 12 Monkeys has one answer: by not being the movie.
In 2015, SyFy broadcast the first season of Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett’s series, based on the Terry Gilliam movie of the same name. It was a bold move to choose a film entrenched in cult sci-fi grime. Using the 1995 movie as the starting point, Matalas and Fickett exit the closed loop of the time-travelling original and expand into a changeable expanded timescape. The good news for those that have not seen Gilliam’s film is that you needn’t worry, because previous knowledge is unnecessary – in short, Bruce Willis is hairier, Brad Pitt’s now a woman and Madeleine Stowe is a virologist.
The starting points are pretty much identical: in 2043, the earth is desolate. The population have been ravaged by a mutated virulent infection – 7 billion people are dead. The only survivors are underground. Society no longer exists. Most traded their humanity for survival. But a group of scientists have a plan – a reset button – involving a complicated method of time travel. Stop the virus, save the world.
Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa) plucks James Cole (Aaron Stanford) out of a prison cell and sends him chasing after a tenuous lead on the plague’s origin. He gets sent back too early and kidnaps brilliant virologist Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull). How do you quickly explain that you are a time traveller without being dismissed as a crazy person? Impossibly, Cole convinces Cassie to help. Throughout the first season, they search for the source of the virus and risk altering the future – for better or worse.
The first episode follows Dr Jones’ first lead, picking up fragments of information in the process. The series gathers up threads from Cole’s own time as well as Cassie’s search in the present. The landscape of the desolate future is gradually unfurled via Cole’s point of view, a future that has made everyone in Jones’ splinter compound desperate. Everyone has lost people to the plague and its brutal aftermath – as Jones puts it to Cole, “all the people around you are dead”, effectively giving him permission to do whatever is needed to correct the future.
The temporal mechanics of many shows incorporating time travel can get tenuous and rapidly become nonsensical. By and large, 12 Monkeys manages to adhere to its own internal logic. It does stretch it on occasion, but the writing holds the show together; the show has the feel of a well-plotted narrative that knows where it’s going.
Each character’s motives are uncovered over the season. Reveals are slow but rewarding, as clues appears as red herrings or bigger puzzles. The character development is superb; the more time Cole spends with Railly in her timeline trying to prevent the plague, the more of his humanity he gains. The prominence of exceptional female characters impresses. In place of Brad Pitt’s Jeffrey Goines, we get Emily Hampshire’s delightfully barking Jennifer Goines. The icy pragmatic Katerina Jones heading the splinter project in the 2043 time period is balanced somewhat by Kirk Acevedo’s Ramse, Cole’s long-time companion with a huge heart.
The result is an adaptation that really comes into its own when it leaves the source material behind. This is currently a fantastic era for sci-fi on TV and 12 Monkeys is at the forefront. Its dystopian vision may be bleak, but with Season 3 having just wrapped, stick with 12 Monkeys and you have a bright future to look forward to.
12 Monkeys: Season 1 to 3 is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch 12 Monkeys the TV series on pay-per-view VOD?