RogerBW's Blog

12 Monkeys season 1 19 May 2015

2015 SF, 13 episodes. In the future, humanity has been nearly wiped out by a plague. James Cole is sent back in time to 2015, just before it started, to try to prevent it.

So yes, this is based on the 1995 film (which in turn is based on the 1962 short film La Jetée), though it doesn't let itself be bound by it; it's a new version of a similar story, not a sequel or slavish re-telling, even if some of the names are the same. And it's vastly better than I expected it to be.

Much of the credit for that has to go to the cast, particularly the principals, Aaron Stanford as Cole and Amanda Schull as Dr Cassandra [sic] Railly, a virologist whose dying message in 2017 is the only clue that Cole has as to how the plague is going to start. But killing the man who seemed to be to blame doesn't get the job done, and Cole finds himself making multiple jumps into the past, trying to find out where the plague came from and deal with it.

But Cole is a man with nothing to live for and only one hope for a sensible future, to complete his mission. That's relatively easy to portray. It's Schull as Railly who has the tougher job, going from disbelief to a grudging acceptance and then to a hard-nosed willingness to prevent these horrors from happening. That's a tough job for any actor, and she carries it surprisingly well, even if she doesn't always convince.

Two members of the secondary cast, on the future side of the plot, are particularly impressive: Kirk Acevedo as José Ramse is Cole's best friend and supporter, who experiences several profound changes of heart through the season and makes them all seem like things that would logically flow from his state of mind; and the veteran German actress Barbara Sukowa as Katarina Jones is the operator of the time-travel machine and the person whose drive keeps that project going when others want to fall back to bare survival until the end comes. She begins the season willing to do anything to support the project, because it'll all be erased when the plague is prevented, but by the end she has realised that "Anything we do, even if we un-do it… it happened, nonetheless".

The bad guys, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys who seem to be working to get the plague released, are enigmatic; they may turn out to have had a sensible motivation, but by the end of season 1 it hasn't become apparent.

It's not entirely clear just how consistent the time-travel theories are going to be: the main thrust seems to suggest that everything which has happened is already fixed, including the time travel itself, but there are notes round the side which suggest it's not quite that simple.

This is a fine blend of characters and ideas, what I think good science fiction ought to try to be: neither enigmas with wrenches nor soap opera with the occasional rocket-ship in the background, but a melding of disparate threads to create an interesting story. The only down-side, inevitable with the background, is that it's often rather unrelievedly grim.

The show has been renewed for a second season and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 08:28pm on 19 May 2015

    Having recently rewatched 12 Monkeys in preparation for the TV series I have to wonder if the Army of the 12 Monkeys is, as in the film, a Red Herring, or should that be Red Monkey? The film is no bundle of laughs either, but I quite enjoy the life affirming feeling I get after watching something grim, because it reminds me that things can always be worse. ;-)

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:03pm on 19 May 2015

    I think I can fairly say that in the series they're [REDACTED].

    (There is a Red Forest, but… well, you'll see.)

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 03:03pm on 21 May 2015

    We've just ordered it and it comes out soon, so I shall soon see the [REDACTED]. Looking forward to it in fact.

  4. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 04:17pm on 08 June 2015

    We have finished season one and you can colour me impressed.

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 04:23pm on 08 June 2015

    Good-oh!

    It may all go to pot, of course – it is a TV series subject to all the usual vagaries of budgets and personnel – but it's not half a bad start.

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