The Army of the 12 Monkey was just the start
Terry Gilliam’s 1995 movie, 12 Monkeys, starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, was a looping time travel romp of causality and predestiny, ultimately ending in tragedy (sorry if that’s a spoiler of a nearly 30-year-old movie). But it also felt rushed and incomplete, like there was a lot more going on that ended up confusing for lack of time to explain.
Enter the 2015 SyFy television series by the same name.
The new series took the movie version of events, make a few tweaks that all seemed to gel (Pitt’s character Jeffrey Goines was replaced by Emily Hampshire as Jennifer Goines, for example). The lead role of James Cole took on a larger significance. The Army of the 12 Monkeys remains a mystery throughout most of the series’ run. The basic events of the movie spread out over the first season, and that’s merely a warmup for things to come.
First off, the time travel. Dr. Katarina Jones is the creator of a machine that can launch a person back into the past. They need an injection to immunize them from the negative effects of the passage and to track them for retrieval back to the present. It also allows them to keep memories of their timeline of origin as they make alterations.
The reason they’re tinkering with time at all is that the world has been devastated. A virus wipes out most of humanity starting somewhere around 2017, leading only pockets of survivors who were immune but live under constant threat of a mutation that might finish them off.
But the scientists of 2041 have pieced together a timeline of events that led to the release of the virus, and James Cole is the operative they choose to venture back in time to first investigate the root cause, then to assassinate the mastermind.
As seasons go on, the team realizes that the virus wasn’t a fragile plan to be disrupted by a single missed connection, but a vast conspiracy involving rival time travelers with their own sinister objective.
Without getting into spoilers, the show does an excellent job of maintaining disparate timelines, developing interesting characters, and exploring fascinating sci-fi premises that most shows are afraid to touch. It also pays loving tribute to pretty much every time travel movie or show that came before, down to scifi shows with single time travel episodes, and does so with no apologies given or necessary.
Knowledge of the movie isn’t required going in, but it can be fun noticing the shared elements and little differences as they pop up. Definitely worth checking out both.