In its finest moments, 12 Monkeys, Syfy's TV reimagining of the 1995 film of the same name, evokes the interior of a cathedral.
The camera pulls back in a wide shot, taking in a strange contraption. At first blush, it seems to be a dentist's chair hovering like a dust speck in a field of blue light, emitting from two cylinders that sit on either side of it. This is a vast interior, high ceilings and soft light, with a hushed quality to it. It's not hard to imagine worshipers filing in alongside this tableau, settling into pews.
If you've watched the show, you'll know it's the time machine that drives the action forward. Time travelers sit in the chair, and a beam of radiation jets from one cylinder to the other, carrying them back in time. The series, like any sci-fi show you can think of, has explained how the machine works via the usual technobabble. It is not, at least outwardly, a show where any sort of god exists.
And yet the religious reverence the time machine seems to inspire in the camera is well-placed. Though 12 Monkeys is deeply silly, with the sort of goofy, time-stream-altering shenanigans you'd expect from a time travel show, it's also haunted and sad, riven with grief, as befits a show set in part after an apocalyptic plague wipes the world of billions of its inhabitants.
Its characters long to change the past, to save those they have lost. And they fail and again and again, but hurl themselves into new missions, because they think this time might be different. This, above all else, is a show about faith and how it is tested.
12 Monkeys is both love story and cautionary tale
12 Monkeys is ostensibly the story of James Cole (Aaron Stanford) and Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull). The former is a time traveler from the 2040s, who is sent back to the 2010s to connect with Railly, a doctor who dies in the plague but records, with her dying breaths, a message for Cole that will be found by those in the future and taken as a reason to send him back to the past. (Trust me that this makes sense.)
Naturally, they fall in love. Even more naturally, the presence of vast gulfs of time separating them — and Railly's impending death — give them a star-crossed quality. Both have connections in their own timelines that end up mattering not one whit when time itself seemingly starts pulling the doomed couple together.
But for me, 12 Monkeys is at its best when it focuses on Katarina Jones (Barbara Sukowa), the woman who invents time travel (with an assist from her future self), then uses it to try to save her daughter, who died in the plague, causing temporal anomalies everywhere she goes.
Jones, of all the characters, embraces what it would mean to be a god, and she does so with the kind of flair you'd expect. Yet she's also a terrifying person, callous with human life and willing to murder, because she believes her worst sins will eventually be undone.
The beauty here is that she is right. If she eventually has her way, the horrors she is responsible for will be wiped from her slate. She won't even remember them. And she will resurrect billions in the process. This isn't just a series about playing God — it's a series about what it means to be God. And that's appropriate.
Religious fiction evolved into fantasy, horror, and sci-fi
In one sense, all of our "genre" stories (a term used to denote stories that take place in the fantasy, science fiction, and horror genres) are religious tales, picking up where the religious pageants and allegories of centuries ago left off. What are, say, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress or Dante's Divine Comedy but fantasy epics, where travelers visit strange, far-off kingdoms not of this Earth?
So it's easy to see how fantasy and horror — two genres that intersect with the supernatural — fit as evolutions of religious fiction. That argument might seem to make less sense when it comes to sci-fi. After all, it's a genre based around technology, around things someone has built, not gifts from the gods.
Yet 12 Monkeys shows how easily sci-fi, too, falls into religious patterns. As the series continues, it evolves in a long series of causal loops, where somebody traveling into the past ensures that they will create the future they hoped to change.
The series also hints, more and more, that time travel has created itself, that people from the future inspired ideas of how time travel might work in those from the past, so they could invent the machines that would bring those future travelers back to them. Time, in other words, has godlike powers itself.
That follows naturally from the Terry Gilliam film that inspired the series (and La Jetée, the short 1962 French film that inspired that film), where time had a darkly ironic way of protecting itself from the meddling of travelers and seemed intent on those travelers creating the traumas their past selves had witnessed as children. (Again, trust me; it makes sense when you're watching it.)
Because it's a TV series, Syfy's 12 Monkeys has had to outdo even that version of time travel. Here, then, the characters are seemingly gifted with a time machine, which gives them the power of the gods — the power to grant and take life by changing the past — but as humans always do when given the power of the gods in myth and legend, they immediately start fumbling about, wreaking havoc.
And yet 12 Monkeys understands why this would happen. These people have lost everything. The children and lovers and families who were taken by the plague are open wounds, ones they would do anything to heal. Wouldn't you?
12 Monkeys pushes storytelling boundaries — sometimes until they snap
It's here I should say 12 Monkeys is the kind of show where at least once per episode, I find myself thinking, "Why the hell am I watching this?" It tries a lot of things, and some are more successful than others. I've seen the entire first season and eight episodes of a 13-episode second season and been tempted to drop the series entirely a handful of times.
In particular, the central conflict of season two is so outwardly theoretical that it takes the series several episodes to make emotional sense of it. (I don't want to directly spoil it, but let's just say it involves several characters trying to change the way certain physical properties of the universe function, with potentially disastrous results.) Plus, the show's ideas of both romantic love and male bonding are rooted in the kind of clunky dialogue that gives TV shows like this a bad name.
But then every episode includes some moment of such sweeping grandeur and philosophical heft that I remember, instantly, why I do ultimately love this series, flaws and all. That hard-to-swallow conflict ultimately reveals itself as the "no half-measures" approach of the one we've already been witnessing.
All any of these characters are doing is trying to undo death — the antagonists are just far more committed to the cause than our heroes, who want merely to rewrite the plague out of history. They want to defeat time, because they want to steal fire from the gods.
Indeed, time, if you think about it, is a sort of god. It gives birth, and it destroys. It carries us forward, and we can't resist it. We're worn down by its grip, longing for a way to reverse its hold on us. The characters of 12 Monkeys are at least more honest about it, hoping against hope that every evaporation into the past might cause the universe to put itself back together correctly.
12 Monkeys airs Mondays at 9pm Eastern on Syfy. Season one is available in its entirety on Hulu.