Tuesday, January 26, 2021

12 Monkeys: Season One

"Whoever you are today is not who you have to be tomorrow."


It's no wonder the creatively gonzo, mind-tastic time travel enterprise called 12 Monkeys endures. Inspired by, yes, the French (very) short film La Jetee (1962; 28 minutes), but more importantly David and Janet Peoples' script for the Terry Gilliam classic of the same name, 12 Monkeys, the TV series quickly taps into many of the concepts and ideas that made the 1995 film such a fascinating trip to experience and in the case of the film to periodically travel back for a revisit. Peoples' source material is impressive and no wonder given David People was the man behind writing Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) as well as taking Hampton Fancher's original script and fine tuning into the now legendary Blade Runner (1982). Three classics! So 12 Monkeys the TV series has a monkey on its back of its own. Can it be as worthy successor to its source?

Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic absorbs the time travel story of the SyFy original series in all its thrilling glory on Blu-Ray and it proves to be a relatively fantastic science fiction animal on its own.

Well cast, with smart writing and just the right pacing 12 Monkeys managed to run four seasons and Season One is a generally outstanding table setter for the rest of the story.

Aaron Stanford (familiar from the X-Men film franchise as young Pyro) is particularly well cast as the series lead with terrific supporting back up from second lead Amanda Schull. Too often in series the actress casting lands flat for me especially on mainstream network television (The Blacklist), but here it shines. Performances are universally strong though I'm less enthusiastic with Kirk Acevedo having seen the actor turn up in so much genre fare (FringeOZLOST). Other notable highlights include Alisen Down and in particular German actress Barbara Sukowa.

The story beats are also strong, smart, logical and thoughtful, whereby many network shows tend to land too tidy, cliché and functional to the point of boring or preposterous story concepts and convenient episodic clean up (again The Blacklist Season One).

The script work is strong (save for a few moments of wincing) and is surprisingly adept at navigating some fairly challenging time travel concepts across the entire season.

12 Monkeys employs a terrific score utilizing the music of Trevor Rabin (rock band Yes).

The series' use of lighting, camera and effects implements an effective atmosphere for splintering or time travel throughout the series. Each jump or splinter is effectively conveyed for fans of visual effects work. These visual touches add to the sophistication of what appears to be a well thought out series bible by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett based on this introductory season. So strong is their hand in the series, their writing would remain prominent through to the end of its four season run. Matalas himself would not only script but step behind the camera beginning with Season Three. That is nothing short of impressive.

This fan of the original film was skeptical upon the series arrival but its longevity got me curious and this first season gets things running quickly with no monkeying around.

Perhaps the long list of talent involved behind the camera combined with the cast being provided some solid scripting with which to work has a lot to do with its success and execution. Take for example director John Badham who delivers on the wonderfully layered and emotional entry The Keys. Badham you'll recall was the director behind a string of 1980s classics including Blue Thunder (1983) and War Games (1983). 12 Monkeys relies on a great deal of suspense and tension and a man like Badham brings a wealth of experience to the series and it shows. It doesn't end with Badham as the season is chockful of talent (T.J. Scott, Jeffrey Reiner, Michael Waxman and David Grossman) with solid resumes to juggle this wild odyssey into time travel.

12 Monkeys becomes increasingly complex as the season wears on and one can't help but wonder how the future will be influenced by all of it, but the creators appear to have a plan.

This writer has always waded into the time travel sub genre within science fiction with some trepidation and caution. Further I'm not particularly a big fan of time travel science fiction. When it's done well (The Terminator, Predestination, Stargate Universe episode Time, Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Yesterday's Enterprise to name a few) it can be both thoughtfully engaging and thrilling and still not my favorite. 12 Monkeys mostly succeeds on that front and lands itself squarely in the successful category.

I might be hard pressed to dub 12 Monkeys essential science fiction based on this single season, but it is strong and worthwhile, particularly for those who love solid time travel plotlines or the original film on which it was inspired. Though the post-apocalyptic plague component of the series concept also sees the TV series lean toward inspiration from other science fiction sources like The Omega Man (1971) with Charlton Heston by season's end which holds additional promise.

12 Monkeys comes highly recommended to time travel fans and merely recommended for those less inclined, because they will likely be generally enthralled just the same as an entertainment. Still, it's a tough call for someone less interested in the time travel or mirror universe sub-genre, story telling conventions that are still better than the body-switching trope (ugh-kill me now). So this writer comes into the series with some biases toward the concept. It won't be the higher cinematic and dramatic art of Gilliam's original one and done film, but as modern science fiction TV goes it is smarter than most and meets the speed required for contemporary television with which young eyes and minds seem addicted and require.

It's a much more story-driven, action-based narrative and as a result character moments suffer though there are still good, solid, important moments.

As far as engagement it's comparable to science fiction series Continuum and Fringe. Continuum was a SyFy series and also enjoyed a four year run. It was also a time travel-based action series that seems to work within SyFy's niche.

This is solid B-TV entertainment, but by no means as compelling as some of the best television has to offer.

When you have finished, if disappointed by your investment of time, just splinter back in time and simply erase the season from memory. I'm not in a hurry to get back to Season Two, but will likely return to the series eventually. It truly is an expertly assembled, well-paced series likely worth your time. Non-essential but recommended.