Friday, January 16, 2015

REVIEW: '12 Monkeys' - Time Traveler Cole Enlists Cassandra's Help to Prevent the Destruction of the World in 'Pilot'

Syfy's 12 Monkeys - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

27 years after a virus wipes out most of humanity, scientists send James Cole back to 2015 to stop the plague from ever happening. Cole's only lead is a virologist, Dr. Cassandra Railly, who knows the dangerous source of the outbreak.

Time travel is difficult to do in any variation of the entertainment medium. It's complicated and that can often lead to viewer frustration. Syfy's 12 Monkeys - based on the film of the same name but isn't a direct copy - features several instances of time travel. And yet, it will be all the better for keeping things grounded in the present that each character feels like they are in. Good characters are what makes science fiction work. So often lately, there have been science fiction programs that are more obsessive with the plot and premise. The key to making a science fiction show that I'm engaged with is grounding it in characters I care about.

The pilot for 12 Monkeys doesn't entirely succeed in making me care about its leads - time traveler Cole and virologist Cassandra. So much time is spent on the spiraling plot. The only thing that either one of them can truly focus on is completely the mission that Cole has been sent back in time to do. The 2043 future which he comes from is a desolate one where over 7 billion people have been killed because of a lethal virus. He's hoping to change all of that by killing the man he believes is responsible for the outbreak - Leland Goines. The entire plot is done with the singularity of the mission. It's the only thing of interest to the characters and to the show.

Very little time is actually spent on the human and emotional component of the show which needs to be a driving force in this narrative. Cole was sent on this mission knowing that in doing so he would vanish from existence. That's a very big thing. And yet, he has already come to terms with it. He's sacrificing himself in order for the world's population to live. That is valiant but that quality never entirely comes across in the character. He often does read as a man out of place in time. He doesn't care about anything. That's all because he knows everyone in this time period is already dead in the future. But the present in which they live in still has consequences. He thought he could walk into the party, kill Leland and disappear from existence without any thought about what would happen to Cassandra. She was his plus one and this act could destroy any kind of future she would have. And yet, that also would be a future in which the rest of the world lives. It's that kind of recklessness that needs to be on display with the character just a little bit more. He doesn't care what happens in the moment of the times he travels to as long as it means the survival of the human race in the future.

And then, Cassandra went crazy for two years after her first meeting with Cole. She didn't want to believe him. She just thought he was crazy. And then, he disappeared right in front of her. She needed him to be telling the truth in order to convince herself she wasn't crazy and that the world really was on the path to destruction. In the process though, she destroyed her career and her relationship with Aaron. All of that is an afterthought once Cole comes back into her orbit. She needs to assist him on his journey because it's the purpose that the last two years have been building towards. And yet, that desperation never really presents itself all that well.

The plot is the most important part of 12 Monkeys - at least in its first episode. Fortunately, it spirals through it briskly and with purpose. It establishes the mission for both Cole and Cassandra well and they achieve some resolution in the end. And yet, everything they were led to believe about the apocalypse wasn't true. Killing Goines changed nothing. But everyone remains hopeful that the future can still be changed because of what Goines said before his death. Cole visited him years ago saying that the Army of the 12 Monkeys is responsible for the plague. That means they have a new target to go after. A new purpose for Cole as he returns to the future unsure if Cassandra will continue to play any part on his journey. Yes, the episode could have wallowed a bit more on how Cole completing his mission ultimately didn't change the future at all. And yet, the new call to action is a strong way to end the episode and lead into the arc of a season of television. Let's just see if the emotional character dynamic comes along the way.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Terry Matalas & Travis Fickett and directed by Jeffrey Reiner.
  • Even though I had problems with the characters, I thought both Aaron Stanford and Amanda Schull were good as the lead characters.
  • A show simply can't go wrong with casting Zeljko Ivanek as someone with nefarious plans. Yes, his time on the show was short but he made an impression.
  • The rules of time travel don't exactly seem well-defined. The people in the future can't always accurately send Cole back in the past. The travel does take a tole on his body. And yet, can he decide when he wants to return to the future or does he only have a limited amount of time?
  • Shouldn't Cole have realized that killing Goines wouldn't change the future because then he never would have been able to go back and see him in the past with the "Army of the 12 Monkeys" message? When it comes to actually changing the future, I don't think there would be any loose ends like that.
  • The two watches coming together in a paradox was a pretty epic moment. The slow motion was also pretty enjoyable.
  • Goines' daughter is locked up in a psych ward. She's not important for the majority of the episode but that tag sequence signifies that she's going to be and has a connection to the evil group.