In an era of peak television drama and comedy, when it sometimes feels like there are almost too many good TV shows to watch, I’ve finally caught up with the fourth and final season of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, the post-apocalyptic time-travelling series based upon the 1995 movie of the same name by the American-born director Terry Gilliam. Unlike the film, which stayed true to its own internal logic despite its fantastical flair, the programme took a more relaxed approach to its basic premise, pushing the possibilities of time-travel to breaking point and beyond. The first season got off to a relatively shaky start, making it a bit of a slog for viewers, but things improved greatly in the second outing despite a few narrative missteps. However the third season was undoubtedly the most assured in terms of storylines and characters, with a cluster of standout episodes. Many of these featured the tragi-comic figure of Jennifer Goines, brought to manic life by the actress Emily Hampshire, who arguably became the real star of the show (in fact, most of the female protagonists were far more interesting than their male counterparts throughout the forty-seven episodes).
Unfortunately the end of the penultimate series and the beginning of the final one also saw some of the most tantalising ideas and themes in 12 Monkeys fall short of their potential. The wonderfully evocative imagery of a strange red-leafed forest and a collapsing and reassembling timber house, with cryptic messages appearing and disappearing on the walls, deserved a far better – and far more profound – explanation than was ultimately offered by the writers. The related in-show mythology of the Witness was similarly poorly served given the strength of the concept up to the last episodes of the third season. Likewise, and as throughout the programme’s four-year run, plot-holes, repetitions, inconsistencies and a lack of care with the details detracted from the overall arc of the stories. That said, if 12 Monkeys was sci-fi hokum, at least it was ambitious hokum, with some genuinely engaging lead characters, clever twists and lighter touches that moved it beyond the original movie and the show’s obvious genre inspirations. It’s a pity that the central mystery – or mysteries – could not have been kept in play closer to the end instead of being revealed three-quarters of the way through and in a rather disappointing form. But the overall story and the emotionally satisfying final two episodes – with some surprises – made it a deserved if rare dramatic success for Syfy and well worth a look if you haven’t done so already (just persevere through the first season and a half until the writing and acting hits its stride).
Of course, the exploration of time-travel in most science-fiction is pretty poor, with little to no acknowledgement of scientific theory. Or more specifically, the two main theories in vogue today. The first one suggests that if a person were to travel back to a point in the past, his or her actions at that point would likely create an entirely new time-line, one unrelated to their own. Thus their activities would have no effect on the future they travelled from or would return to. The second and perhaps more likely idea argues that if someone travelled into the past that person would become part of the past. Meaning that any actions they undertook in the past would have no effect on the future – from where they came – since those actions would have already happened. In both cases the famous “grandfather paradox” stemming from a man or woman travelling back in time to kill one of their own grandparents before their own father or mother could be conceived would be an impossibility. Which to my mind makes for a more interesting line of fiction to explore.
All this aside, was anyone else struck by the appearance of the sinister Witness in 12 Monkeys and the loose similarity with the cover illustration for the end-of-times classic The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, drawn by the legendary artist Don Maitz? A coincidence, no doubt, and plenty of other comparisons exist for the imagery, but the moment I saw him (her!) the old book art sprang to mind.