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'The City on the Edge of Forever' and why '12 Monkeys' works

If you’re gonna do time travel, you might as well do time travel

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SyFy

“One person that you love? Isn’t that all that matters?”

“No.”

12 Monkeys

“Spock, I believe I’m in love with Edith Keeler.”

“Jim, Edith Keeler must die.”

Star Trek

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the great episodes of television. Watch it right now on Netflix; let it break your heart, in 50 minutes or less.

“The City on the Edge of Forever” is also a complete crock of pseudo-scientific claptrap. It’s wacky like only old science-fiction is wacky—and it’s slow like only old television is slow. The 28th episode of Star Trek‘s first season first aired April 6, 1967—48 years ago this week. Movies age like wine: Even the bad stuff gives you a buzz. TV shows age like ex-boyfriends: You don’t remember them being so cheap.

Here are the leaps of narrative logic you will be asked to accept if you—a regular modern-day person with fair-to-spectacular cultural taste—watch “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

1. That Dr. Leonard McCoy, an experienced medical officer from a far-future space organization defined by rigid professionalism, could accidentally inject himself with an overdose of dangerous space-adrenaline because the spaceship he lives on briefly shakes back and forth.

2. That a giant rock—which looks like a doughnut some young lover tried pressing into a heart shape—can speak, in English, in a voice that sounds like your high school principal imitating The Wizard of Oz.

3. That said giant rock is, quote, “The Guardian of Forever,” endquote, and that the Guardian of Forever is a doorway to anywhere and anytime—an incredible power which the Guardian demonstrates by projecting black-and-white 8mm footage of Old Hollywood historical epics.

4. That Dr. McCoy, driven crazy by space-adrenaline, could escape a spaceship filled with Starfleet officers, beam himself down to the surface of a dangerous planet—which has oxygen, because pretty much every planet in this universe has oxygen—and could then run through the doorway to anywhere and anytime, in the process rupturing the space-time continuum and destroying his entire universe.

5. That Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock could run after McCoy, landing in a time and place where everyone speaks their language—New York City, the Great Depression—and where they can fit in without any trouble, as long as they keep Spock’s pointy ears covered.

6. That Mr. Spock could, in the Great Depression, create futuristic technology allowing him to compare the normal course of history with the rewritten post-McCoy timeline—and that he could do this in, like, a few weeks.

7. That Captain Kirk could fall in love with a woman from the Great Depression, after about 15 minutes of screentime.

8. That the aforementioned woman could go on to start a national pacifist movement preventing the US from entering World War II—which means the Germans invented a nuclear bomb and won the war.

9. That the aforementioned woman, Edith Keeler, needs to die so that the entire future can live.

Half a century after the original Star Trek, science-fiction television and its trendier sibling, fantasy, are everywhere—even more so if you factor in the sudden vogue for superhero television, which is rooted in the same mid-century imagination: radiation and lasers and aliens, time travel and space travel. But modern mainstream science-fiction trends more down-to-earth, more character-centric. That’s partially a reflection of our relationship to technological advancement: Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek while science was working hard to take man to the Moon. JJ Abrams rebooted Star Trek when science was working hard to make the iPhone thinner.

That’s a rampant generalization, and it might obscure a deeper truth about mainstream science-fiction. A decade ago, Lost established a new model for genre television that pretended it wasn’t genre television. Lost took an idea that would’ve been a one-and-done Twilight zone episode—The Smoke Monster is Due on Maple Street—and converted it into a character-centric drama. The macrocosmic questions that defined mid-century science-fiction were refracted into microcosmic portraits of characters’ psychology. (“There’s a mysterious hatch; how does that make you feel?”) It’s a kind of narrative decompression, similar to what has happened in mainstream comic books over the last couple of decades. An easy way to understand “decompression”: Compare this comic book page featuring Kitty Pryde from 1981 to this comic book page featuring Kitty Pryde from 2005.

In the right hands, this was magical. In the wrong hands, it became TV shows like FlashForward, which constantly backburnered intriguing science-fiction concepts in favor of lame dramatics. (“There’s a guy who has sent his brain forward into so many alternate versions of the future that he has a map of all possible realities—but will Mark Benford save his marriage?”) There’s a weird aspect of narrative hand-holding to the shows that followed Lost, a sense that you can’t immediately freak the audience out with too much weird stuff. (The Event never even got to the Event.)

So when you watch something like “The City on the Edge of Forever,” you’re struck by its fearlessness. The first half hour of the show throws one far-out concept at you, and then another, and then another. There are none of the safety nets of postmillennial sci-fi: no jokes, no self-awareness, no lovable Hurley archetype to bring things down to earth. To a modern eye, it can feel a bit goofy.

But it’s goofy with purpose. “The City on the Edge of Forever” builds up to one of the all-time great moments in Star Trek history. Not the climax, although that’s good. (Spoiler alert: They save the universe.) It’s the epilogue, with an emotionally wrecked Captain Kirk back in the future. He did the right thing, and it destroyed him. All that pseudo-scientific babble had a point; it lets the episode skip straight to the part where the characters experience something no other human being has ever experienced before. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he says.

The Starfleet officers disappear. The camera stays behind. Roll credits.

Syfy’s12 Monkeys takes its name, its lead characters, its initial conceit, and assorted visual cues from the 1995 Terry Gilliam film. Gilliam’s Monkeys starred Bruce Willis in that shining mid-’90s moment when he still cared, Brad Pitt when Brad Pitt badly didn’t want to be Brad Pitt, and Madeleine Stowe in her last big role before Revenge rescued her from Actress Of A Certain Age purgatory. They’re all great in impossible roles; Pitt has to play miles over-the-top, Willis looks comatose, and Stowe has to be the sane one who makes everything believable. (The Stowe-Willis dynamic is a Freud-Gilliam cocktail of maternal sensuality, and Stowe sells it completely, right up to the Hitchcock-blonde wig.)

Gilliam’s name isn’t anywhere on the new 12 Monkeys. But every episode’s opening credits the film’s screenplay by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples. (Besides co-writing Monkeys, David also wrote Blade Runner and Unforgiven: How’s that for a hat trick?) If you watch the end-credits, you’ll also see a reference to Chris Marker, the experimental filmmaker who made La Jetee, the 1962 half-hour black-and-white short film. The movie 12 Monkeys was “inspired by” La Jetee, in the Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness or There Will Be Blood/Oil sense of the word “inspiration”: They’re clearly the same and entirely different. La Jetee was, in turn, abstractly inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—complete with a direct homage to Vertigo‘s tree-trunk-of-infinity scene.

Vertigo is constantly in the conversation for Best Movie Ever. The film 12 Monkeys is a classic of ’90s grunge cinema. (I am an acolyte; I’d put it ahead of even Brazil in Gilliam’s filmography.) And La Jetee is one of the transcendent works of human artistry. This is a lot to live up to, especially if you’re TV show produced by a network that essentially had to apologize for its last five years of lighthearted claptrap.

In TV form, 12 Monkeys starts where the movie starts. In a broken-down post-apocalyptic future, a team of scientists invents a process of time travel. They send a lone weirdo backwards to our glorious past-present: James Cole, played by Aaron Stanford with a rueful frown. But TV-Cole’s mission is a bit different from Movie-Cole. Bruce Willis didn’t go back in time to change the past; from the movie’s perspective, when a man from the future travels back in time, he’s surrounded by dead people. On the other hand, TV-Cole is explicitly trying to stop the viral outbreak and save the world. He’s on a strange kind of suicide mission: “It’s not death. It’s something else. This me will never have been from that moment forward. It’s complicated.”

Cole’s entire mission in 12 Monkeys is a heroic journey into oblivion; imagine Marty McFly in opposite-land, doing everything he can to erase that photograph. And whereas Madeleine Stowe’s Dr. Railly was a gradual convert to the cause, Amanda Schull’s Railly commits pretty much immediately to his mission. The show constantly skips over any moment of characters onscreen doubting that time travel is possible. At the start of the pilot, Cole proves that the future can change: He carves a scratch into Railly’s watch, holds up the future version of that watch, and lets her see that scrape appear. Does it make sense? No; time travel’s impossible; shut up. But that image resonates forward throughout the season that follows: Is Cole saving history, or just carving a nasty gash in the space-time continuum?

Monkeys hasn’t done great in the ratings, but viewership has increased over the first season. (Friday’s finale explicitly sets up a cliffhanger or three—and Syfy has granted the show at least one more season.) The first few episodes might feel awkward, especially if you’re somebody who cherishes the movie. Besides the characters and the set-up, the show remixes certain elements from the film—a big mansion in the woods, a trip to the crazyhouse, someone important having a portentous conversation on an airplane—to the point that the pilot feels like a bizarro-recreation of the movie.

From there, the show sets up its two main time periods—present-day 2015 and apocalyptic 2043. It’s two flavors of contempo sci-fi in the same series. The present day is rife with conspiracies focusing on the Big Pharma-military-industrial scary-government complex. The future initially looks like your typical Walking DeadRevolution post-apocalypse, complete with costumed marauders and god-crazy military dictators.

But the TV show is up to something much trickier. TV-Monkeys was developed by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett. Both men worked as staff writers on 2011’s Terra Nova, a fascinatingly misbegotten huge-budget attempt to do Lost with more dinosaurs. The most interesting thing about Terra Nova was its initial concept: A far-future breakdown dystopia invents time travel, and goes back in time to build a better world. It was a time-trippy notion, but the show could never quite figure out how to integrate that big idea into its human-sized narrative. (A typical Wikipedia plot summary, from a Matalas-Fickett episode: “While on their first date, Maddy and Reynolds become stranded outside the fence and, unable to make it back to Terra Nova on foot before nightfall, must evade predators.“)

Matalas and Fickett also scripted the Terra Nova finale, which EW’s James Hibberd called the best of the season. The finale leaned in hard on the time travel; one recalls how Fringe went from pretty-good to stupendous when they finally went to the alternate universe. In a weird way, 12 Monkeys kind of picks up where Terra Nova left off, and then goes further. This is not a TV show that is worried about the paradoxes caused by time travel. By the end of episode 5, Cole has rebooted the future. By episode 8, one main character has died twice, or thrice.

And if you stick with the show through episode 11, you’ll get to experience one of the best deployments of time travel on television. Suffice it to say: This is the kind of time travel series where you begin to assume that anyone onscreen could be anyone else onscreen. Hell, one of the key mysteries of the show involves a millennia-old corpse that could very well be the time-tossed future self of one of the main characters.

Lost could indulge its cosmic heart when it wanted to. One of the show’s best episodes, “The Constant,” used Billy Pilgrim-esque mental time travel to tell a time-hopping Christmastime love story. But the show preferred to build its mythology gradually, with a careful approach to continuity. TV-Monkeys arguably takes more cues from the rebooted Doctor Who, which plays around with the space-time continuum on the general assumption that everything will sort itself out—except for those times when the entire history of the universe depends on one human being.

That’s a concept that season 1 of Monkeys keeps cycling back to, in a very explicit way that directly recalls Edith Keeler and “City on the Edge of Forever.” Dr. Jones, the future-scientist who sends Cole back in time, wants to erase the future, partially because she thinks there’s no cure for the virus, but mainly because she wants to bring her daughter back to life. Midway through the season, Cole’s best friend Ramse discovers that he has a son—a little kid born long after the virus. Isn’t stopping the virus the equivalent of killing that little boy? (Ramse’s played by the great Kirk Acevedo, an actor who’s uniquely capable of playing nice-guy friendly and brutish monstrosity; 12 Monkeys is the showcase he’s been waiting for.)

So 12 Monkeys is a post-apocalyptic show that keeps on complicating our understanding of the post-apocalypse. Should we learn to accept it? Would the world be better if we stopped looking back to a nostalgic past, and started working towards a better future? 12 Monkeys works because it lets its characters actually have these conversations. It always grounds everything in one-on-one relationships: the Cole-Railly will-they/won’t-they/have-they-already; Dr. Jones and her daughter; Ramse and his son; Ramse and Cole’s friendship; Railly’s relationship with ex-boyfriend Aaron, a completely great guy who looks like a cardboard cutout of Superman and whose main problem is that he cares too much.

Between Terra Nova and this, Fickett and Matalas also worked on Nikita, and 12 Monkeys can feel a bit like a mash-up of those two very different shows. It has Nikita‘s soapy propulsion, its conspiracy overload, that funny quality where everyone onscreen has some kind of governmental security clearance. The first season’s showrunner was Natalie Chaidez, who worked on the great first season of Heroes—which also featured a timeline-rebooting central arc—and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, a show which had a lunatic cocktail of intriguing time travel concepts.

But just like Terra Nova had to find time for dinosaurs, Terminator always needed to circle back to the Terminators. Maybe that explains the weird unfiltered quality of 12 Monkeys‘ first season, the sense that everyone involved can finally get to the good stuff. The Monkeys mythology feels lived-in, concrete enough that the producers can already start riffing; this week’s finale flips the central conceit on its head in all kinds of intriguing ways.

The show’s not perfect; it’s constantly in danger of Mythology Overdose; there are way too many definite-article people and places, “The Pallid Man” and “The Witness” and “The Night Room” and “The Red Forest.” But there’s a playfulness to the show’s myth-mystery world-building: One season deep, I’m still not sure I could tell you definitely which mysterious group is the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. (Maybe they all are? Maybe none of them are?) And some of the most fun parts of the show are its sharp edges. As the feminized reboot of Brad Pitt’s character, Emily Hampshire is a kookbat live wire; we’ve seen at least four radically different versions of her character (including one that wore a Raiden’s Mortal Kombat hat!) and the fact that she’s been promoted to a season-2 regular promises more crazy in the future.

But Monkeys works most of all because it reinvigorates genre television with a throwback-pulpy sensibility: Big Ideas thrown out with soapy aplomb. It’s the man from the future falling in love with the perfect Joan Collins angel from the past and then watching her die; it’s the man from the future falling in love with the chick from Center Stage and then watching her die, and knowing that he would do anything to save her, even if that means killing himself. In a pleasant way, the story of 12 Monkeys is the experience of watching the show: A time-traveling trip from a bleak present to a more hopeful past.

Unless the past is bleak and the present is hopeful. As Cole might say, it’s complicated.

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