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12 Monkeys - Pilot - Review

12 Monkeys premiered this week with the “Pilot” written by series creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett and directed by Jeffrey Reiner. Fickett and Matalas also worked together on Nikita and Terra Nova. The series is loosely based on the 1995 movie of the same name by Terry Gilliam, starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, and the movie was based on Chris Marker’s 1962 short film La Jetee. Natalie Chaidez will be the series showrunner, and her credits include In Plain Sight, V, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Heroes. Reiner also directed Pilots for Helix, Trauma, and Caprica. A lot of experience was brought to bear on this episode and it shows.

        This first episode contained a lot of necessarily exposition, but still kept the action moving, establishing a gritty universe and characters we want to root for. Stars Aaron Stanford (James Cole) and Amanda Schull (Dr Cassandra Railly) deliver excellent performances. My only regret is that guest star Zeljko Ivanek isn’t likely to be back anytime soon. As usual, Ivanek delivers a fabulous performance as Leland Goines.

The show is interestingly and intricately structured, yet it’s easy to follow. The entire cast is good, including the guest cast. The special effects are well done. I especially like the lighting effects. I am curious to see how they are going to maintain the separate timeline story arcs though. Due to the amount of exposition this episode, I thought a rather re-cappy review might be helpful.

As you might expect with a time travel series, there are quite a few jumps even in this first episode. We begin in 2043 with Cole’s voiceover. He and Ramses (Kirk Acevedo) are moving through an empty, desolate landscape. They take a watch off a skeleton in a destroyed CDC Headquarters as we’re told that he’s lost everything and done terrible things. He tells us they are trying to hit a re-set switch. Later in the episode, we learn that a plague in 2017 wiped out 7 billion people and that the virus has continued to mutate, meaning that in another generation, humans will be wiped out entirely. We also learn that after the initial plague, civilization essentially broke down and a lot of people went underground. When things settled down, the scientists reemerged and came up with a plan to travel back in time and stop the plague before it started.

Dr Jones (Barbara Sukowa) finds Cole in jail – we don’t know what he did to end up in a cell – and offers him a mission. She chooses him because of a recording that Cassandra left in the past when holed up in the CDC, looking for a cure. The message is degraded and garbled, but she named Leland Frost as the one who started the plague and the message ends with her saying Cole’s name. Jones injects Cole to alter his cellular structure to allow him to “splinter” or time travel. We’re told it’s very painful. Jones tells him, “Time is different for you now. Everyone else is bound by time. Not you. Not even the paradox can hold you back.”

They have a wall of clues but don’t know what they mean. Cassandra’s picture is on the wall, but Jones cautions Cole: “She’s not your mission. She’s just a puzzle piece. Remember your mission. Everything else is secondary. Everyone you see is already dead.” And then they send him back in time. Unfortunately, it’s not a terribly precise process.

We first see Cole in 2013. He kidnaps Cassandra just after she’s made a presentation to a group of other virologists. She’s in a relationship with Aaron Marker (Noah Bean) who’s in politics. It’s taken Cole almost all the time allotted to him in his jump to find her. How much time he gets and what determines that is not addressed in the episode, but I’m sure they’ll get around to telling us eventually. By coming too early, she doesn’t work at the CDC, and she has no idea who Leland Frost is.

The watch we see in the very first scene is pregnant with importance. It’s symbolic of the shortage of time – in Cole’s jumps, to the end of the world. It’s also an important touchstone between times – past, present, and future. It’s how Cole is able to begin to convince Cassandra that he is from another time. I thought the effect when he scratched the present watch and it showed up simultaneously on the future watch was really well done. And of course, the watch ends up at the center of the paradox in the climactic scene.

When Cole places the two watches close together, they create a paradox – which Jones has already said won’t affect Cole. When Cassandra wants Cole to jump back to stop them coming to the party where they’re captured, Cole tells her it’s dangerous for more than one version of yourself to be in the same place – it creates a paradox. Cole tells her a paradox happens “when something comes back in time and comes in contact with itself. Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you rearrange her furniture.” Given the explosion caused by the watches, I shudder to think what would happen with people! This is also a pretty common trope of time travel – one person can’t have two versions of him or herself at the same time.

When Cole returns in 2015, Cassandra’s life has fallen apart. No one, including Aaron, believed her story that Cole was a time traveler – or that he just disappeared. She’s lost her job and her boyfriend. But she doesn’t locate Leland Frost until she goes to see her father’s friend Jeremy (Robert Wisdom) who used to work for the NSA. I love Wisdom, so I hope we’ll see him again in future episodes. He’s discovered a Leland Goines who is CEO of the Markridge Corporation, who are publicly working on a malaria vaccine, but who are really working on bioweapons and other less savory and more secret projects. Goines security designation is Frost.

Cole and Cassandra crash a fundraiser. Cole is determined to kill Frost before he can unleash the virus. Cole justifies it to both himself and Cassandra by repeating that everyone is dead already anyway. A convenient excuse from anyone coming back from the furture! Cassandra asks how they’ll know when the future is changed and Cole tells her they’ll know because he’ll be erased. She’s worried that means he’ll be dead, but he tells her it just means he’ll be a different person. Of course, this all has to be speculation because he’s never done this before!

Cassandra is introduced to Leland and his protégé Oliver (Ramon De Ocampo) who he tells her is a “rock star” scientist. We learn that Oliver studies viruses and their bio-chemical applications. When Cole enters the room, Leland clearly recognizes him. Cassandra gets cold feet and blows their cover to prevent Cole from killing Leland. Of course, after meeting Oliver, she’s got to be concerned that it might not be Leland who starts the plague after all.

Leland takes them from the police. He did recognize Cole from having met him in 1987 – a trip to the past that Cole hasn’t taken yet! Love the way the show plays with time. Leland has Cole sedated and Oliver examines him, discovering that Cole’s brains activity looks like a grand mal seizure without the chaos or damage to the brain and his adrenal gland is working in overdrive. Oliver tells Leland that Cole is a flesh and blood molecular computer – he’s the product of scientific advancements that are 20 years ahead of them – thus providing further proof of time travel. I have to wonder what all this is doing to Cole’s actual body though. Or is he, in fact, just a computer?

Leland decides he’s going to cut Cole up to figure out what makes him tick. Ivanek is simply fantastic. He’s so good at being evil, even while also being curious and seemingly reasonable! He wants to know “What did I do that was so monumental that the laws of physics were broke?” Hopefully, we’ll be getting that flashback to 1987, but from 2015 onward, we know he’s dead. I loved his long monologue. He does still provide Cole with the next clue that he needs, however. Leland tells Cole that in 1987 he was asking about the army of the 12 monkeys.

The episode ends with Cole splintering back to 2043 and telling Cassandra to go into hiding. We also see that Leland had a daughter Jennifer (Emily Hampshire), who would appear to be a patient at JD Peoples Psychiatric Treatment Center. Leland has left his fortune and company to her for her to continue his work. As the camera pans out from her, we see that she’s been drawing a giant monkey’s head on the wall – the monkey’s head seen in the graffiti in the clippings on the clue wall in 2043.
I wanted to recap the episode because it was so heavy on exposition. There’s a really nice contrast between the scenes in the present – which seem quite ordinary in lighting etc and the scenes in the future which are much darker and colder. Cole complains about having a hard time finding Cassandra in 2013 because there are too many people. These elements also come up in the character interactions. Cole is clearly ravenous and is really quite lacking in any social graces. There is very little food in the future and no time for social niceties. I loved him eyeing the nuts at Jeremy’s and asking Cassandra if he could eat some and then the relish with which he ate his cheeseburger in the car.

When they get to the party, Cassandra tells Cole that he looks nice. He’s not sure how he’s supposed to respond to that, but he tells her that she looks like one of the women in an old magazine. Clearly, in the future, they don’t have much occasion, opportunity or ability to dress up. She teases him about what “kind” of magazines. Tellingly, however, when he does come up with a compliment, it’s that she looks “clean.” Clean would be a luxury not afforded many in the future. In contrast, Aaron tells Cassandra that she looks good and then amends it to great.

I loved when Aaron asked them how they met and they are both like deer in the headlights of an oncoming car. Finally, Cole simply bursts out that Cassandra bought him a cheeseburger. Stanford does a great job with the subtle and understated humor. He also does a great job straddling the line with Cole of someone who is clearly hardened from his life experiences in a harsh environment, but who can still find some wonder in the past.

I’m curious to see how they are going to get Cassandra back on track. Schull does a great job showing how Cole has impacted on Cassandra. Even though her life has clearly taken a bad turn, she’s still a strong, smart and competent doctor.

I loved the paradox sequence. Cole bests Leland by appealing to Leland’s obvious curiosity. He gets him mesmerized by the watches freaking out. Then just as Jones said, while everyone else is caught in the paradox, it can’t hold Cole and he grabs Cassandra and runs out of the room, leaving the others apparently caught in slow motion and the blast from the watches. It was a nice touch – however far-fetched for Cole to find Cassandra’s watch in the rubble and give it back to her.

I thought this was a great start to the series. I’m still really curious to see how they continue to weave both timelines together. What did you think of the episode? Are you hooked? Were you a fan of the movie, and if so, did the “Pilot” live up to your expectations? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

About the Author - Lisa Macklem
I do interviews and write articles for the site in addition to reviewing a number of shows, including Supernatural, Arrow, Agents of Shield, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Forever, Defiance, Bitten, Glee, and a few others! Highlights of this past year include covering San Diego Comic Con as press and a set visit to Bitten. When I'm not writing about television shows, I'm often writing about entertainment and media law in my capacity as a legal scholar. I also work in theatre when the opportunity arises. I'm an avid runner and rider, currently training in dressage.