Friday, 9 December 2016

12 Monkeys - Season 2

Cast: Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Barbara Sukowa, and Emily Hampshire

Developed for TV by Travis Fickett and Terry Matalas

546 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton

“Do you believe in fate?” Intriguing sci-fi series 12 Monkeys wraps the timeline crises of TV shows like Continuum, and the TimeCop movie franchise, around the portable enigma of Terry Gilliam’s puzzler Twelve Monkeys (1995). Its curious pedigree includes riffs and references to Chris Marker’s experimental production, La Jetee (1962), an over-praised art-house movie with very little actually motion because it’s basically just a montage of still photos. As if the paradox of time-travel is not enough of a tangled plot, this drama weaves a layered conspiracy in the century-spanning mystery of what or who caused the apocalypse.

Dr Cassie Railly (Amanda Schull) wants to warn the world and plan for a global pandemic, especially after she is told that in the near-future a terrible plague wipes out most of the population. The origin of the virus is traced to secret experiments in bio-labs called the Night Room. The controller of time-travel in 2043, German scientist Jones (Barbara Sukowa) scours news archives for clues about suspected terrorists known only as the 12 Monkeys.

The debut episode of season one borrows the ‘long second’ time-freeze from low-budget classic Trancers (1984). Other episodes include homage scenes to Terminator movies. A cascade of wrong place and wrong time mistakes put bold traveller Cole (Aaron Standford) in North Korea, 2006. Thankfully, all the splintering and slingshots eventually get our hero exactly where and when he needs to be, or not to be. Will he do everything for nothing, so that his own life can be erased from the future?

The plot-line and main players are rightly paranoid about many paradoxical changes that might invalidate cause and effect. Tick-tock is not always progressive here. When a solution to the main monkey business is to rewrite history, “I told you so” is not an option. Conflicts arise when a time-travel mission is opposed by another group trying to find a cure with quarantine camps under martial control, instead of preventing the original outbreak. It becomes a worthy case of preserving hope versus taking radical action for salvation.

“The dark time must be sacrificed to restore a brighter one.”

Somewhat perversely, season one’s climactic sequence happens further in the past than anything else, when pivotal events affecting Cole and his buddy Ramse occur in a Tokyo nightclub in 1987. After much toing and froing the drip-feed of clues solve part of the big mystery conspiracy that unfolds in layers, just like a 24 plot. And, like Jack Bauer in 24, Cole is forced to live and re-live the worst days of his life, with irony that is occasionally reminiscent of Groundhog Day (1993).

Madhouse maiden Jennifer (Emily Hampshire) conceals her emotional fragility beneath her noisy mask of crazy-bitch banter. “Maybe your always and my always are not the same.” There are plenty more fascinating twists as timeline detailing is revealed like a top secrets plot. Or, perhaps, unravelled like a faulty scheme or a flawed master-plan. The blonde heroine’s overly possessive boyfriend Aaron Marker (the franchise’s notable name-check) keeps on promising to save Cassie from herself, whether she wants his help or not.

“You cannot run from fate.” Season Two goes back and forth again, with Cole stuck in 2016, Budapest, while Cassie is held captive in 2043, where Dr Jones fails to stop the religious cult of Messengers from taking control of her time machine. This eventually results in her shifting over to another timeline: “You were not part of my original reality,” she tells her new husband.

In New York, crazy Jennifer tries suicidal speed-dating, because ‘being single is not the end of the world,’ although it is the Chinese calendar’s new year of the monkey. Ninja gang, the Daughters, led by the aged Jennifer in 2045, demand the return of Cole to their time. On another narrative track, it’s destination 1944: where a revised scheme for the original plotters who just wanna turn the world red occurs, while taking advantage of primary victims willing, or not, to die for their mysterious cause.

Like in Sliders (1995 - 2000), a hotel is the frequently used rendezvous point in several time-zones and eras. There’s also a magical house in the red-tinged surreality of a red forest dream-scape that’s a link to an even stranger puzzle of time-stream consciousness and the much-talked-about Witness, who seems like a muse for some but is a menace to others. The time-fractured house is a building with a similar narrative function as unusual character, like the barn in TV series Haven (2010-5).

A mission to 1975 has our heroes prevent a murder they were not supposed to, and so doing something good seems just as likely to disrupt timelines as doing something nasty. This avoids the spoofy appeal of Life On Mars (2006-7), and/ or Ashes To Ashes (2008-10). With its dooms-days plot and 'Witness' antagonist, borrowings from the classic movie Timescape (aka: Grand Tour: Disaster In Time, 1992) are inevitable.

Changeable alliances and variable motivations mean that some characters act like loyal sidekicks and eccentric stereotypes, but often reveal far greater depths - and not just a revenge for any betrayal - than we imagined when they appear or re-appear in different timeline plot-twists. With prodigal sons and resurrected daughters, awkward silences and tragic shoot-outs are happening now, soon, or back then, as the plot-line extends to span a hundred years of discontinuity.

This season, Jennifer is especially good fun whenever she’s quoting (sometimes cheesy) movie dialogues to hilariously motivational effect. Prompted by Madeleine Stowe’s guest appearance, Cole quits his rural idyll with pregnant Cassie in 1959 for a trippy pilgrimage through decades (like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, 1972). Of course, there is yet another cliff-hanger ending, tantalising us with possibilities for season three. “The Witness has spoken.”

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