Oh, Science fiction - you and your attachment to the big moral questions. You keep trying to bring sexy back with your explosions and your space ships but in the end you're just an earnest Ethics student who sits in the front row at every lecture. Four beers on a Saturday night and you're starting arguments about the nature of humanity. And, bless you, don't fans like me just love you for that nerdy, honest commitment to investigating big issues! It's just a shame that sometimes when these conversations get "too real" you cheat and use 'the future' as a convenient escape hatch.
The creators of 12 Monkeys revisit a classic ethical question made much of by other science fiction visual media, including Looper, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and even Dr Who. Is it OK to do anything in order to save the future? 12 Monkeys may be a brand new SFF series for 2015 but its central question is an oldie but a goodie; do the ends really justify the means?
12 Monkeys time travelling protagonist, James Cole, has some very decided opinions about this issue. And no wonder - Cole lives in an apocalyptic future plagued by an aggressive virus. Humanity is close to extinction and just a few people, blessed with a rare genetic immunity, have survived. These remaining people are hunted by scabs and gangs like the violent West VII; a group Cole ran with for a while. "Saved" from the outside world by a mysterious scientist, Katarina Jones, Cole is given the opportunity to retcon this broken future and travel back in time to find and destroy the source of the virus. Living in such a dystopian pit of a world it's unsurprising that he believes in the primary importance of resetting the world at the cost of all else. Do you enjoy gun shot wounds? Well I suggest you go right ahead and have a philosophical disagreement with him on this point.
Cole will do anything that is required to change the future. In fact, he's so desperate to make sure humanity is restored that he's willing to sacrifice not just his own life but his own existence. Cole repeatedly travels back in time to try to change the future. If he succeeds, his timeline will cease to exist and time will take a completely different path. He and everyone he knows, including his best friend Ramse, will be erased from history. Do the ends justify the means? Cole is willing to stake the whole of his world on the idea that they do.
In some ways, Cole's willingness to sacrifice so much stems from his need to atone for the terrible acts he committed while with The West VII. In "Atari" the show provides flashbacks to his life with the gang and shows that he made brutal decisions in order to fit in and live safely. In these flashbacks, Cole choses individual survival at all costs and is criticised for making that choice by Ramse. When he is with the West VII, Cole believes 'the ends justify the means' argument means that any violent act is justified because it keeps him safe. The pain he causes others doesn't matter because he lives in a world where life is meaningless. The world is so brutal that the people he kills are sure to die anyway and so Cole sees no problem with killing and robbing to better his own circumstances. To the viewer, especially with Ramses prompting, this looks like a cowardly justification of the argument that 'the ends justifies the means'. And at the end of "Atari" Cole rejects that version of the argument by refusing to kill his best friend, dooming them both to return to an exceptionally unsafe life scavenging outside the gang.
When he choses to time travel, Cole abandons the importance of his individual survival altogether. He actively aims for his own destruction - by changing the future he will remove himself. He also knows that if he doesn't complete his mission fast enough the time travel or 'splintering' will rip him apart. Perhaps most impressively, in an cultural landscape much preoccupied with the importance of male ego, Cole is also willing to sacrifice his historic place as a hero. His part in saving the world will be wiped out if he succeeds. Even Dr Cassandra Railly, a figure from the past who he works with to find the virus, won't remember his contribution once time changes.
12 Monkeys was partly inspired by 2013's time travel film Looper. Cole's willingness to sacrifice so much sets him up as the very opposite of Looper's self-preserving Old Joe, as played by Bruce Willis. Instead, he is much more similar to self-sacrificing Young Joe, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt; Looper's eventual hero. It's difficult not to fall for such a selfless hero and to become enamoured with Cole's idea that in this one case the ends truly do justify the means.
However, Old Joe and Cole also have plenty in common. Cole may be willing to sacrifice himself and his world for the sake of a better future but he also has little compunction about sacrificing others for his cause. Believing that everyone in the past is expendable, because in his timeline they're already dead, he shoots his way through Cassie's timeline in an attempt to save and change the future. In this way he is similar to big action heroes who see their own ability to sacrifice as qualification for making tough decisions about 'the many or the few'. It's interesting how these kind of decisions never turn out to be that tough; it's always the many unless the plot can provide a clever cheat. Some might see this as a triumph of left wing collective politics over right wing individualism, but I have a difficult time seeing these plotlines as anything other than a broken narrative explaining why individual people are worthless if they get in the way of the many.
Cole, armed with the knowledge that none of the people he shoots will not survive in the virus ridden future, is even more trigger happy than most action heroes. He isn't required to make any kind of concessions because he's driven by a positive version of nihilism fueled by the science fiction device of 12 Monkeys. If he kills people and this helps to save the future then all the people he kills get another go around. If he kills and the mission fails they're all dead anyway. There's no need for empathy when everyone you kill is already somehow dead. Mechanics merges with ethics And with that idea in play, SFF mechanics determine the program's ethical and philosophical direction. This is the point where 12 Monkeys uses SFF to allow it to depart from really engaging in a conversation about ethics. Hey, it's just television right? Science fiction doesn't need to be relevant...
Society is often frustrated by ethics. When confronted with the ethical problems behind good deeds the conversation turns again and again to the false dichotomy that 'doing something' is better than 'doing nothing'. Short term goals vs. long term goals - it's a battle and you better pick your side. In fact, engaging in conversations about ethics and results shows us that the choice is not between doing something or nothing but between doing something that helps rather than doing something that makes us feel better. Short term goals can be helpful but can't be the endpoint of our ambition and we need to avoid using the 'good intentions' line to justify partial actions and to stop calling them 'our only option'.
Popular science fiction, with its investment in big questions, is the perfect place to play out these conversations about ethics and expand our understanding of the conversation. However, while science fiction is great at outlining the different oppositions within ethical conversations, it's sometimes not so great at moving past the idea that there are ethical sides and that whichever one you choose determines the entire fate of the universe. Instead of expanding the discussion and showing how we can move to ethical and active positive endeavours, SFF stories sometimes settle for following common story patterns set out by action dramas and letting plot drive the ethical stance of the story. And this is the way 12 Monkeys goes with its SFF hope at a chance of rebirth and Cole's last roll attempt to save the world.
As the viewer isn't given much chance to make a personal connection with the characters Cole kills, his attitude can largely go unchallenged. However Cassie, the female lead of 12 Monkeys, isn't so convinced by Cole's 'shoot to save' approach. One of their biggest ethical conflicts comes in "The Cassandra Complex" when Cassie discovers that Cole killed her colleague Henri Toussant. Toussant knows the location of the secret Night Room which Cole believes holds the key to the origin of the virus. So, following typical Cole logic, he shoots Toussant to prevent him from telling the villains, the Army of the Twelve Monkeys, where to find the Night Room. To Cole, Toussant is 'a ghost'. To Cassie he is both a human being and a guilty stain on her conscience, as she believed she sent him to his death. Cassie's opposition asks if it's important to preserve the life of a man who, in another timeline, is already dead.
Cole and Cassie are very similar to Derek Reese and Sarah Connor in the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Cole, like Derek, has seen humanity destroyed and comes from a gray, broken apart future with little of value. Sarah, like Cassie, lives in a timeline where the ethics of a decision still matter and where the people around her still seem flesh and blood.
In The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it would be easy for Sarah's vision to be undercut by Derek's or vice versa but for a big action show about killer robots The Sarah Connor Chronicles is exceptionally good at delicate shading. The program presents Sarah as the valued protagonist and Derek as the rather shady side character.However, viewers still understand Derek's actions when they look at the world from his futuristic point of view. Derek looking on with fear as he watches Cameron learn dance. Andy telling Derek to destroy him. It's difficult to ignore these scenes because they are so poignant. Still, who can forget the simple horror at learning that Derek went and shot Andy when Sarah had spared him? The Sarah Connor Chronicles doesn't pick one side - it picks both and values both. And it does so without endorsing a false equality of views and without excusing the actions of its characters by promising dead characters a new future.
In 12 Monkeys, Cole is the protagonist and the apocalyptic future, returned to at the end of each episode, is much more present than in The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Cassie's perspective often holds much more weight with the viewer than Derek's ever did (it's just easier to like Cassie and agree with her than Derek). However, it's hard to say that the show gives equal space to each side of its central argument about whether the ends justify the means or that it really comes up with an argument that goes beyond 'Science fiction can fix everything'. 12 Monkeys also allows Cole to be a reasonable, even empathetic, killer because SFF can retcon all his harm. It's an interesting TV development considered in the history of stories about conscience, killing and survival. The twist I'd enjoy the most at this point - A Very Special Episode: Twelve Monkeys meets Hannibal.
Essentially the program cheats; pulling on viewers feelings and pretending it's engaged in a srs discussion about ethics when really it's just strumming a familiar SFF line - we do what we want because we've got time travel. Don't get me wrong, I love time travel. I like 12 Monkeys because I like science fiction, time travel, dark stories and, bizarrely, Aaron Stanford's face (how did that happen?). I'm just not sure it has anything much interesting to say or much desire to use science fiction to connect with reality. Which is a shame because initially it looked like the kind of trashy but awesome TV that might actually have a unique voice. It looked like a good companion to The 100, albeit with less female characters (boo). I guess sometimes the Ethics student is just a screenwriter sneaking into class to gather material for their next big blockbuster series. Never mind, at least there's plenty of explosions. I really like explosions.
Series one of 12 Monkeys originally aired on SyFy. Episodes are available via the channel's website and Amazon Instant video.