The Power of a Paradox: A Lesson About Time Travel from SyFy's 12 Monkeys (Part I)

A mysterious cult-like group releases a devastating super virus. The resulting plague decimates the population, ending the world as we know it. It’s a story you’ve heard before and are likely to hear again and again, at least in science fiction. How to fix it? Go back in time and stop it from ever happening, of course.


Such is the premise of SyFy’s 12 Monkeys: a 21st century show, based on a 1990s movie, based on a 1960s short film. With a concept heavily rooted in the iconic classic bearing the same name and the French avant-garde short La Jetée, one has to ask, how do you reinvent the wheel, or in this case, time travel? The answer: turn everything you thought you knew on its head. Co-creators Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett did just that. Not only have they artfully re-imagined how time travel could work, they’ve gone a step further, weaving time-travel into an intricate plot about time, causality, and the human condition. As much as 12 Monkeys is a drama, it’s also a show that knows how to have fun. The 12 Monkeys universe is filled with a collection of characters that take us on a mind-bending, wild ride through time. Scientists, time travelers, and the aforementioned 12 Monkeys have unique and powerful relationships with perhaps the most important character of all, time itself. Got your attention yet?


We recently had the opportunity to chat with showrunner Terry Matalas about how time and time travel work in the 12 Monkeys, a show that's not as far removed from science as you might think. Without further ado, “Initiate splinter sequence…”

Original artwork by Jennifer Lovick.

 “Time travel isn't magic. It has to have monumental weight and consequence.” 

Jennifer Lovick: On 12 Monkeys the way time is presented is that it isn’t linear. Time can bend to form a closed loop, a circular timeline which ultimately has immense implications on cause and effect. How do scientific ideas establish the groundwork for how we should think about time and time travel in the 12 Monkeys universe?


Terry Matalas: The great, infuriating, liberating thing about time travel is that no two models of thought completely complement each other. It’s the ultimate, unanswerable what-if. So science gives us this great sandbox of diverging, conflicting theories to play around with. That’s the twisty, sci-fi fun of the show. But we do try to establish at least some loose set of rules – to help ground the series and root the audience, to guarantee that there are real stakes for our characters. Time travel isn’t magic. It has to have monumental weight and consequence. So when those rules change or evolve, it comes from a place of story and character. It can’t just be a roomful of writers joy-riding around in a DeLorean.


[In] Season One, for example, there’s a much more linear exploration of time: cause and effect, what can and can’t be changed. In Season Two, we’re discovering that time isn’t just a process, but something else. Something we don't have the science to understand at the moment. But it seems as though it has a will. It’s more thoughtful and reactive than we realized in the first season. And it’s rapidly breaking down. So now we’re able to play with causality in a way that we – and our characters – hadn’t really grasped a season earlier.


In the end, the most inventive, clever, mind-blowing time travel twists don’t mean anything if they don’t evolve the characters. “Character” always comes before “cool” on 12 Monkeys. And that includes Time itself. So when you ask me how people should think about time on the show, I’d say, think of it first as a character. Something that evolves and reacts and challenges the other characters the same way they do for each other.

“When you ask me how people should think about time on the show, I’d say, think of it first as a character.”

JL: The concept of predestination is a dominant theme in both the original 12 Monkeys film and La Jetée. How does this differ on the TV show?


TM: Ultimately, our version of predestination – and where it diverges from La Jetée or the original film – is that it’s a basically a bullfight, a ballet, against Time. That Time is something to be wrestled with and fought against – and after you’ve bled and been beaten and gotten your ass thoroughly kicked, maybe you’ve moved it an inch.


The idea of a closed loop works beautifully in a film, but for the story and the emotion of a TV series to really resonate, the characters and the audience have to believe that change is possible. It’s hard-fought and not without causalities along the way, but we’ve already seen that time can be affected. Whether it can be changed enough – or how Time might account for those changes – are some of the central questions of the show. It's also possible that all of this is a closed loop with several loops inside that loop.

“We want to be in the ballpark of believability. Somewhere between magic potion and actually inventing time travel.”

JL: On the show, the actual process of time travel plays a huge role. How is one able to travel through time and how does the time machine do this?


TM: From the beginning, we established that there’s a biological incompatibility with time. You can’t just take a regular person and toss them into the time-stream. Not unless you’ve got a really strong stomach. It’s why [Katarina] Jones [the physicist responsible for making time travel possible] was seen early on as Mother Frankenstein, literally feeding Scavs [ruthless scavengers that will do anything to survive] to her machine. So her injections essentially allow time to move around you, through you. They make you both compatible with the machine and immune to the effects of time.


How the machine actually functions is really an amalgam of different time travel theories – certainly the Einstein-Rosen Bridge was a jumping-off point – but we’re careful not to over-explain something that’s fundamentally inexplicable. We want to be in the ballpark of believability. Somewhere between “magic potion” and actually inventing time travel. We always aim to sound more science than fiction.

Dr. Cassandra Railly (played by Amanda Schull), one of the time travelers preparing to splinter to the past on 12 Monkeys. (Photo Credit: NBC-Universal)

JL: The show refers to time-travel as “splintering.” What exactly is splintering?


TM: It's honestly just the word that came to mind when I sat down to write that very first scene its mentioned. But it’s absolutely a word with multiple meanings. On one level, you’re cracking the skin of Time itself, right? You’re splintering the outer, candy shell to climb inside. On another level, you’re changing history, splintering timelines. On another level, the traveler themselves is being splintered – torn apart and put back together in a completely different era.


And if you wanted to go even deeper, the consequence of traveling through time almost always splinters the relationships between our characters. It causes disagreements and dissension between these people we care about – and who care about each other.


JL: When a person travels through time, they remain “tethered” to the machine. What does tethering do both in terms of affecting the mechanics of time travel and the story?


TM: Think of the tether as a kind of temporal homing beacon. It’s the signal, the connection between the traveler in the past and the machine in 2044. For the most part – though not always – that tether is treated in real-time. If it takes Cole an hour in the past to achieve some goal, it’ll take an hour in the future before there’s any observable change. If time is a river, the water takes a bit to reach its destination miles and miles away. So it may take a moment for change to ripple through.


It’s a logic that allows us to play stories in both the past and the future simultaneously. Because you could make a logical argument that however long it took Cole to do something in the past – a day, a year – the second you sent him back, the future would change instantly. But what fun is that? So to maximize the drama and the storytelling potential, we try to sync up the past and the future in real(ish) time.


12 Monkeys Season Two airs Mondays at 9/8c on the SyFy Channel.

Need to catch up? Watch episodes of Season Two here. Season One is available now on Hulu. 12 Monkeys will return for a third season in 2017.


Stay tuned for Part II, coming Tuesday 7/5, to learn about the science of sci-fi, 12 Monkeys-style.

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Jennifer Lovick (@drjkyl)
Senior Editor, Science in Entertainment, Signal to Noise Magazine
PhD, Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology