Television is the ultimate time machine, it would seem; the chance not only to visit moments of the past through re-runs, but also to change the past, remould it, shift the events to a more appealing outcome, in effect rewriting history. La Jetée is a twenty eight minute long black and white film by Chris Marker, released in 1962. 12 Monkeys is a hugely successful motion picture made by Terry Gilliam from a screenplay by David and Janet Peoples, released in 1995. 12 Monkeys is also a new television series created by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, first broadcast in 2015. And they are all echoes of the same story.
The year is 2043: in a wintry wasteland, an armed patrol stalks through the ruins of civilisation. “What if you could take it back, all of it. A reset switch. You’d hit it, right? You’d have to.” The year is 2013: virologist Cassandra Railly hosts a symposium on the dangers of epidemic, of pandemic, the threats of typhoid, bubonic plague, even whooping cough. Returning to her car, she is assaulted, taken captive by a distressed man armed with a hunting knife who has been hiding in the back seat, awaiting. She offers him money, but he doesn’t want it; he wants her, reciting her biography to her, her history and achievements including an involvement with the Centre for Disease Control which she denies, causing him to become angry, demanding that she lead him to a man she has never heard of, Leland Frost.
Pursued by the police, he drags Cassandra into a derelict building where he shows her a wristwatch matching her own; when he scratches the face of hers, the other watch mirrors the damage. “Break the past the future falls,” he explains, but the police are closing in. Identifying himself as Cole, her assailant is shot and wounded, but begs Cassandra to find him in two years time then vanishes before her eyes.
Understandable on a television budget, the brief glimpses of the future are more Max Headroom than Gilliam dystopia, yet in keeping with the more direct approach to the subject matter not only are Cole’s transits shown onscreen, so are the other side effects of time travel. In addition to the ripples when Cole damages the wristwatch there is a more explosive reaction when two versions of the same object are brought together, similar to the occasion when Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart of 1983 met his 1977 counterpart in Mawdryn Undead, only rendered considerably more convincingly, the reason pithily summarised by Cole’s line “mother nature doesn’t like it when you rearrange her furniture.”
Unlike Gilliam’s cinematic puzzle box, the demands of the modern small screen are utterly different and the premise of the television iteration is spelled out in bold within the urgent first ten minutes before slowing to a more pensive second act, the most specific change being the need for Doctor Railly (Pretty Little Liars‘ Amanda Schull) to become convinced much more rapidly than Madeleine Stowe’s equivalent psychiatrist Kathryn Railly, so much so that her ex-boyfriend expresses concern she is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome after her brief but intense abduction.
Taking over the complicated role of James Cole, previously played by Bruce Willis, is Aaron Stanford, former X-Man James “Pyro” Allardyce and most recently seen in Nikita upon which Matalas and Fickett served as story editors, itself the third iteration of a story which started life as a French film. Utterly different from Willis in personality and physical presence, Stanford is an unexpected choice for Cole and seems to be awkward in the role, but that is intentional because Cole himself may be the wrong choice.
As in Gilliam’s version, it is a garbled voicemail from the past which has initiated the attempt to alter history, but unlike Willis’ time traveller, Stanford’s Cole was called for by name, charged with the impossible task by Railly herself. He has not been trained, equipped or conditioned for his solo mission upon which depend billions of lives in a strange land of which he has no understanding: the past.
Impulsive and impatient, he has no consideration of the larger consequences, no thought beyond his immediate goal nor plan how he will achieve it. He has been charged to kill a man named Leland Frost, and that is what he will do at his earliest opportunity, and if that occurs in a crowded room when Frost is surrounded by armed bodyguards he will take it rather than let it pass lest another chance not present itself, despite Cassandra’s argument that Frost may only be one man in a project which will carry on regardless under the guidance of another.
Whereas Gilliam took inspiration from Marker’s experimental film, so have Matalas and Fickett taken only the initial conditions of Gilliam’s work and thrown the pieces in the air to land however they will, though inevitably they will loop around on themselves in paradoxes. Confronting his quarry, True Blood‘s Zeljko Ivanek in a chillingly detached supporting role, Cole is asked “What do I do that is so monumental that the laws of physics are broken to send you chasing after me?”
Informed by Frost that they have met years before in 1987 where Cole was mumbling about “the army of the twelve monkeys,” this will form the next step of Cole’s quest which will tell a very different story than Gilliam’s; while before that was a false lead, no presumption can be made this time around based on foreknowledge, and when so many shows are slavish cookie-cutter clones that element of the unexpected will be the greatest asset here, on the proviso that the producers can maintain the quality of the opening episode.
A key feature of the film was the time Cole spent in the mental asylum where he met Jeffrey Goines, a role for which Brad Pitt was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor; while the question of whether Cole himself is insane and delusional has already been answered by the accelerated needs of the story, it is indicated that this setting will become important in the near future through the presence of Jennifer Goines (The Returned‘s Emily Hampshire), a brilliant but unstable mathematical genius.
Cole is also changed; demonstrating heightened brain activity, unusual strength and powers of rapid healing, it has not been addressed whether this is a consequence of his “splintering” through time or whether he was bioengineered to withstand such, but a side effect is that he is apparently less affected by the time dilation effects of the time rupture he creates, either through an immunity or faster reflexes which allow him to compensate.
Certainly, given the state of the future, with seven billion dead and the virus mutating so even the few survivors who carried immunity now threatened, the human race likely having only one generation left before extinction, it is unlikely that there are resources devoted to such research, or for that matter, time travel, but with a further twelve episodes guaranteed, one for each monkey, that may yet be addressed.
No UK transmission date has been confirmed for 12 Monkeys