Review: 12 Monkeys 1×1-1×2 (US/UK: Syfy)

Improbably good

In the US: Fridays, 9/8c, Syfy
In the UK: Acquired by Syfy UK. Begins 9pm, 27 February 

For quite some time now, Syfy has been coasting. Gone are the halcyon days when Battlestar Galactica was the toast of the town. Indeed, with a schedule intermittently packed with wrestling, reality shows and knowingly bad B-movies, it was possible to surmise that Syfy had changed its name from the Scifi channel not just for trademarking purposes but so it could avoid having to show sci-fi, with what little it did airbeing anaemic-to-poor knock-offs (Alphas) or imports (Continuum, Being Human, Bitten). 

However, for the past couple of years, Syfy has been trying to raise its game in original programming. Sometimes, the quality’s been awful (Dominion, Z Nation), sometimes it’s been okay (Defiance, Helix), but so far, nothing’s been great.

12 Monkeys doesn’t quite change that track record, but given what’s gone before it, it’s surprisingly good. The film, 12 Monkeys, was a Terry Gilliam classic, itself based on the Chris Marker’s 1962 ‘photo-roman’ La Jetée, in which a time traveller from the future comes back to the modern day to prevent armageddon. However, time paradoxes mean that the story has more than a twist or two.

Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, as well as being a movie rather than a series of photos, adds many plots and sub-plots to Marker’s story, portraying a virus-devastated future from which Bruce Willis returns to find out the source of the virus and prevent the future from happening. Along the way, he meets a doctor (Madeleine Stowe), with whom he falls in love and convinces he’s from the future, and a psychiatric institute inmate (Brad Pitt), who is the head of ‘the Army of the 12 Monkeys’, the likely cause of the virus. And again, as with La Jetée, there are plenty of timey-wimey twists.

This new TV version moves things on slightly and straightens out some of the twists. Our new hero is Aaron Stanford – best known as Pyro in X-Men 2 but also doing serviceable secret agent turns in both Nikita and Traveler – and he’s come from 2043 to find out the source of a viral outbreak that’s set to happen in 2017. Why him? Because in the future, the few remaining survivors of the virus find not only a time machine that can ‘splinter’ someone back in time but also a message from a CDC doctor, Amanda Schull (Louis’ helper in Suits), saying that he is the one who must help stop the virus from getting out. Will he convince her of what’s going to happen? Will he be able to find who’s really behind the viral outbreak? And how many time paradoxes will he encounter along the way

Here’s a trailer.

Is it any good?
Despite lacking the poetry of both Marker and Gilliam’s works and having a somewhat sillier premise, 12 Monkeys is nevertheless a pretty decent serial thriller that should have you wanting to watch more by the end of each episode.

As with any TV adaptation that wants to run for a season or more, most of the changes to the original involve a widening of the premise and a beefed up supporting cast. Here, 12 Monkeys, rather than leading us on a merry goosechase through various Brad Pitt-shaped red herrings before revealing the true villain of the piece, makes the Army of the 12 Monkeys a real thing – personified so far by Manhunter fave Tom Noonan – with Stanford and Schull trying to pin them down, helped by the Pitt equivalent (Emily Hampshire), before they can find and unleash the virus that Hampshire’s father (the always reliable Željko Ivanek subbing for Christopher Plummer) seemingly manufactured. And while there is a romance brewing between Stanford and Schull, the idea of Stanford’s vivid mental images of the past being what makes him able to travel back in time has been dropped.

This ‘straightening’, however, is supplemented by additions. Stanford is able to affect both the future and the past, and he has a unique set of skills thanks to the technology of the future turning him into a walking ‘molecular computer’ that makes him fast and strong, and helps him to heal quickly and survive the ordeal of time travel. In the future, he has a scientist boss (Barbara Sukowa) and a comrade in a makeshift army (Kirk Acevedo from Oz, The Black Donnellys and Fringe), while Schull has a boyfriend (Noel Bean from Nikita and Damages) who dumped her once she started to believe Stanford. While they could all do with a bit more rounding off, they are reasonable additions to the storyline, and Sukowa in particular does well, especially in scenes emphasising that she remembers a time before the virus, whereas Stanford has known little else.

The show nods to the movies from time to time, be it Sukowa’s eye goggles, Stanford and Schull’s names, or the logo for the Army of the 12 Monkeys, but you never feel like you’re watching a rehash. There’s also some imaginative use of timey-wimeyness and pre-destination that hint to a well planned series arc.

While neither Stanford nor Schull are especially engaging, their characters nothing special yet, and the show a little sillier than it should be, 12 Monkeys is interesting and engrossing, is full of ideas, and keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout. Definitely the best Syfy original series for quite a long time.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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