Tonight, the very highly anticipated new series 12 Monkeys begins on Syfy and Showcase. I’m going ahead and saying this now — THIS is the great sci-fi series that we have been waiting for Syfy to deliver since Battlestar Galactica ended in 2009! The writing is brilliant, the story’s intriguing and the performances are stellar. Most importantly, it doesn’t spoonfeed us; it treats the sci-fi audience like the intelligent, discerning viewers that we are while giving us characters that we feel a connection with. Before diving into this world, here’s what we learned about 12 Monkeys from a conversation with the cast and producers during a visit to their Toronto set.
Executive Producers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett shared that this was always planned as a sophisticated, smart show that recognizes the intelligence of viewers, and respects that we already understand the fundamentals of time travel from other shows and movies.
Fickett said, “Even when we were pitching the show, we knew that we were giving the audience a complex and intelligent show that’s not going to talk down to them and not going to wait for them either. I think audiences love that, but when you do that narratively and play with those mechanics, you have to anchor them in something. The one thing we were able to do is get a cast that can play the emotions as truly as possible, and you’re always anchored in what they’re feeling and what’s happening emotionally on screen. You don’t have to understand how time travel works as a science to watch the show.”
“We tell a lot of stories kind of out of order,” Matalas added, “but I think nowadays people have grown up with Back to the Future and Doctor Who, so it’s the perfect time for a serialized time travel show. We’re starting to look at all of our episodes now cut together in chunks of eight episodes at a time. It really does feel like a great binge-watching show, because it’s told out of order. Something is set up in a different timeline that’s paid off in the next episode.”
Starring in 12 Monkeys is Aaron Stanford, whom many of you may remember as Birkhoff on Nikita (where he worked previously with Matalas and Fickett). He gave us some information on his character, Cole, and how he approached the role.
“My character primarily lives in 2043. That’s where he’s originally from so a lot of his action takes place there and he travels back in time to 2015,” Stanford told us. “So primarily, what I wanted to focus on was giving myself some sort of an idea of what it would be like to be a person from a post-apocalypse. I read a lot of World War II stuff and testimonials of Vietnam vets, having returned just to try and get in the mindset of someone being from this incredibly ravaged place and having gone through all of these traumas. You have this person coming from this place of unimaginable horror, and then landing back to a time like this where basically you can get anything that you want at any time you want.”
There are bound to be comparisons to the 1995 film, but the series has one major distinguishing factor that Stanford filled us in on. “In the film, they had this through line of ‘is this happening in the mind of this character or is it happening in reality,’ and there was an internal struggle of who’s sane and who’s insane. In this, pretty much you know right off the bat that time travel is real, it’s happening.”
Matalas interjected, “But that doesn’t mean he’s is not physiologically damaged,” “[Cole]’s got his own brand of crazy.”
“He’s emotionally fragile,” Stanford continued, “but in terms of ‘what is reality’ and is my idea of me being from the future just a psychotic break or is it real, that doesn’t exist in this [series].”
The rules for time travel aren’t clear from the beginning, and they’re being learned as the characters go along. Matalas explained, “It’s very much like the movie in that they don’t entirely know how this works. They’re not good at it. It’s a challenge to them. It’s sort of like the Apollo program of time travel. It’s trial and error. There are consequences.”
“It’s helpful for the audience, too, because our characters don’t know it, and neither does the audience, and they go on this journey together,” Fickett added.
Fickett later said, “We have two shows we’re doing here. There’s the 2043 reality, and then you have the 2015 reality. And then gradually, the walls between those two realities start to break down because [Cole] is travelling between the two.” He went on to say, “We have an apocalypse, but we also have the present day that we’re trying to save, and we’ll see the nightmare that they’re trying to prevent.”
In preparing for the series, Amanda Schull — who is playing Dr. Cassandra Railly — intentionally didn’t watch the film again. “I know that this is based on the film, but this is not the film, and we’re not trying to be the film,” Schull said. “We’re expanding ideas that are touched upon in it and creating a totally different experience for the audience, and I wanted to make sure the character was independent of the character that Madeleine Stowe so beautifully portrayed.”
Another difference is that Schull’s character is named Cassandra — not Kathryn like Stowe’s character in the film — and it’s no coincidence that she shares a name with the infamous prophet from Greek legend.
Schull explained, “We actually have en episode called ‘The Cassandra Effect’ which is exactly because of that. In the pilot, she meets Cole, and she’s the only person who understands and has experienced what he’s trying to remedy, which is this plague that has ravaged the world in just a matter of years in the time after they first meet. And of course, as any sane person would, she questions that and doesn’t believe it, and [Cole] gives her reason to believe that it is real. Then she accepts it as a reality, and is the only person who understands this. So it is a bit of a ‘Cassandra’ reality and they chose that name very intentionally.”
Another familiar face from Nikita is Noah Bean, who plays Aaron Marker, a political insider and Cassandra’s beau. In the session, he gave us a bit of color on the skeptical Aaron Marker.
”My character, Aaron, is definitely the skeptic,” said Bean. “Cassandra is telling the truth and he’s the one that’s basically saying that’s bullshit, that’s bologna, that doesn’t exist, there’s no time travel. But eventually, Aaron can’t deny it and he’s aware of the situation.”
Much like the aforementioned Battlestar Galactica, a key male role from the film has been developed into a female role for the TV series: Brad Pitt’s character, Jeffrey Goines. Matalas disclosed the genesis of this decision to turn Jeffrey Goines into Jennifer Goines. “We were sitting in my office one day and we were like no one is going to want to play what Brad Pitt did again. We were racking our brains, and said what if we give it to a woman? And [we] found a woman to bring her own unique brand of eccentricities and crazy to it.”
Stepping into the role of Jennifer Goines is Emily Hampshire, and she revealed that never having seen the film before her audition worked to her benefit.
“I think I was kind of fortunate in retrospect because when I first auditioned for the show I didn’t have much time to prepare,” Hampshire shared, “and I hadn’t seen the film yet, which I know is a terrible thing. But I hadn’t seen the film and I auditioned, so my first introduction to Jennifer Goines was [this] script, this girl on the page. I got to make up my own kind of idea of who this woman is. Then I saw the movie after everybody was like, ‘Oh, it’s the Brad Pitt character!’ I think that was really, really good for me to do because I think if I’d seen the movie first, I would have been too overwhelmed and under the weight of this fantastic performance to have any of my own creativity come through.”
A series as complex and thought-provoking as 12 Monkeys seems like the perfect match for water cooler chat, theorizing, and supplemental content; before the announcement of the cool Syfy Sync app that turns the show into a two-screen experience, Matalas confirmed that there would online extras. “There will be a lot of online content,” Matalas said. “We’re doing some with Jennifer, and a lot of our villain characters, and with our scientists talking about time travel.”
12 Monkeys debuts tonight at 9/8c on Syfy and 10pm ET/PT on Showcase.