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Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, The Witness, And The Shadow Of The Torturer

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.

The Witness from the Syfy show, 12 MonkeysThe Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, book cover illustration by Don Maitz

6 comments on “Syfy’s 12 Monkeys, The Witness, And The Shadow Of The Torturer

  1. Too much good TV! Been watching 1983 on Netflix and thinking it’s pretty interesting.

    On a slightly different topic got to thank you ASF for your site and thanks for posting on such a wide and interesting range of topics across the year and looking forward to next year.


    • I’m a big fan of Scandi-noir so I’m hoping that Slavic-noir(?) is kinda similar. One of my favourite movies is the underrated Gorky Park.

      Same to yourself. I dunno how you keep up the rate of postings on the CLR. It amazes and the depth of knowledge and analysis too. ASF is more of a hit-and-run affair due to time restraints. CLR is the real thing!


      • That’s very good of you to say but tbh I think you’ve got a better balance – far too often the CLR feels like trying to catch up with the latest headlines. No bad thing in itself but not a lot of original piece on it.

        Re slavic noir, yeah, that’s an interesting one, there’s a hint of The Bridge etc. But it’s a real alt-history one too.


  2. Francesco Vitellini

    Besides Jennifer I liked Ramse a lot. For me he was very well portrayed.
    I liked the series, except the “Initiate Splinter Sequence” phrase, which I started to hate around the third time I heard it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Ramse was excellent. Even though the actor Kirk Acevedo sounded like he was doing an Al Pacino impression in most scenes 😉 I laughed when the characters suddenly started swearing in the third and final seasons as Syfy realised that they weren’t hitting the kid/teen demographic they wanted and just decided, to hell with it, lets go for the adult audience. No swearing initially yet shooting people in the head? No problem.

      The last couple of episodes, though logic-busting and soppy, were great. They paid off emotionally, which is no bad thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. To me The Witness looks like he’s wearing the mask based on the ones used by doctors to supposedly protect them from Bubonic Plague.

    As for the 90’s film with Bruce Willis. It wasn’t perfect. But I felt the story was better suited to being a single movie or maybe a very short miniseries, than a multi-season.

    Liked by 1 person

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