The full season was provided prior to broadcast.
12 Monkeys has the unfortunate reputation of being renowned as one of the best shows that no one watches. This is all too understandable, as its origami narrative is simply impenetrable to casual viewers tuning in midway through. Though it began with a straightforwardly Terminator-esque mission – go back in time to kill the man responsible for the apocalypse – it’s evolved into a dense temporal thicket including evolved human beings with direct connections to time itself, gigantic time-travelling cities, a plethora of knotty paradoxes, and time-muddled familial relations. No wonder the new series’ central motif is an ouroboros – a snake consuming its own tail.
Season 2 ended with one of our heroes, Cassie, being informed that her just-conceived baby will grow up to be series big bad The Witness, the sinister masked figure responsible for the deaths of 7 billion people whose lofty ambition is the destruction of time itself. This puts her (and the baby’s father, Cole) in an awkward position – they’re both key members of Project Splinter, whose objective is to assassinate The Witness and thus prevent the apocalypse.
Their mutual secret makes for effective slow burning tension. Cole and Cassie spend much of the season struggling with the knowledge that their child is responsible for the nightmare future and that they’re on a mission to murder their own son, not to mention their parental sense of loss arising from their time-shattered family unit. It’s juicy stuff, which eventually dovetails into a long overdue character study of The Witness.
In The Witness, the show sets itself a high bar to clear. He’s spent two seasons as an enigmatic masked figure, worshipped by his acolytes, constantly discussed by his enemies, and generally only appearing via drugged out visions and hallucinations. TV is littered with examples of mysterious figures being immediately drained of interest as we learn more about them, so when he finally makes an extended physical appearance, the show is walking a precarious tightrope.
Now, I can’t say too much without spoiling it, but The Witness more than lives up his lofty reputation. Episode 9 is almost entirely given over to him and it’s the obvious highlight of the series. The character is played by multiple actors over the course of the show, but eventually settles on Battlestar Galactica veteran James Callis, who steals the series out from under the leads with an outright magnetic performance.
That’s not to say there aren’t delights elsewhere. Barbara Sukowa’s head scientist Katarina Jones continues to impress, furiously smoking her way through endless time-travellin’ conundrums, her utilitarian outlook (“What is one life for seven billion?”) leading to actions which are… questionable. Todd Stashwick’s Deacon is also a reliably entertaining screen presence, providing a dash of sardonic yet practical amorality. In addition, this series makes the most of guest star Christopher Lloyd, whose presence adds a dollop of time-travel credibility to the show.
Sadly, series leads Amanda Schull and Aaron Stanford are somewhat less interesting. Mired in expositional dialogue and hokey ‘family is everything’ motivations, they gloomily permafrown through the season. Given their situation, it’s understandable that they’re not particularly happy-go-lucky but, in comparison to the lively supporting cast, their scenes drag and the pair have zero romantic chemistry.
The show as a whole is buoyed up by consistently above average writing, especially in the latter half of the series. 12 Monkeys exploits its time-travelling possibilities to the fullest, doling up all manner of high-concept applications of the technology. At its most disturbing, it’s used for torture by painfully ‘splintering’ someone forward in time at two-second intervals, resulting in a creepy staccato scream as the victim repeatedly flashes in and out of the scene.
The cleverest application comes in the apparently invincible guardians of the child Witness. These are four members of the 12 Monkeys cult, each equipped with a vest that allows them to travel in time at a moment’s notice. If they’re ever ambushed, or if The Witness is harmed, any surviving Guardian will instantly travel back in time and tip off their past self on what’s going to happen. To prevent explosive paradoxes, that survivor quickly (and painfully) immolates him or herself. This cycle of information and suicide effectively means the Guardians cannot be surprised, making them a fascinatingly tricky opponent, even with the heroes’ ability to travel anywhere they choose.
The show only stumbles in the smaller moments. Most egregious are the lame pop culture references, with endless quoting of iconic 80s movies – does a climactic moment really need a Shining reference (“Here’s Johnny!”) crowbarred into the middle of it? Emily Hampshire’s Jennifer bears the brunt of this, the character skating perilously close to caricature. Similarly, the series has way too many moments where the defenceless Witness is held at gunpoint. The first time it happens it’s incredibly tense (squeeze the trigger and the series’ premise is solved!). The fifth? Not so much.
Quibbling aside, 12 Monkeys is undeniably superior science fiction. It’s smart, unpredictable and explores the possibilities and consequences of time travelling with reassuring thoroughness. It’s also handsomely decked out: the show doesn’t skimp on historical settings, complete with period accurate costumes (the 1980s-set episode is particularly delightful) and impressive set design.
After 12 Monkeys‘ shaky first season, it’d have been understandable for Syfy to have pulled the plug. But they showed commendable faith and, following a hugely improved second season, the third outing is the best the show has offered to date. If this improvement continues, the fourth and final season (already confirmed) should be something really special.
Smart, boundlessly creative and with impressive production values, Syfy's sleeper hit 12 Monkeys has finally become must-watch TV.