Perfectly paced, smartly adapted and studded with moments of philosophy and emotion, “12 Monkeys” is a capable and addictive addition to television’s doomsday Weltanschauung and SyFy’s still-struggling lineup.
Although deviating in tone and plot from Terry Gilliam’s 1995 steam punk classic, the series begins with the same event — an international plague that decimates the world’s population — and offers the same solution: time travel.
Here, the apocalypse begins in 2017. In the aftermath, some seek shelter underground, but many remain on the surface, where, instead of hitting an agrarian restart, survivors go hungry and turn on each other.
The action opens in the year 2043, with a group of scientists who have figured out a way to go back in time. Or rather, they’ve discovered a way to send the strangely resilient James Cole (Aaron Stanford) back, turning the former above-ground scavenger into a man with a mission: Stop the plague before it starts.
If science fiction creators agree on one thing, it’s that changing the course of human events is tricky. In creating what they hope will be a long-running television series, writers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett have made things trickier still: No one, not even time-machine designer Dr. Jones (Barbara Sukowa) knows how the plague started or where. All they have to go on is a corrupted voice memo left in 2017 by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull).
So Cole starts with her.
But what seems to be a straightforward mission — find the scientist, save the world — soon becomes a time-leaping hunt for clues. As in the film, the time machine is imperfect and Cole often arrives on the timeline too early or too late. The people he assumes will know things do not, some of them are dead and at least one of them is deliciously crazy. (In the film, crazy was played by a wonderful Brad Pitt, here by an equally wonderful Emily Hampshire.)
Cassandra becomes part of Cole’s quest, which involves keeping one step ahead of the plague and at least two sets of bad guys: Cole’s former band of murderous scavengers in 2043 and the much more evil and inspired “Pallid Man” (a wonderfully creepy Tom Noonan) in the past.
Oh, and as they say in “Ghostbusters,” important safety tip: Don’t cross the streams. Bad things can happen if the wrong events are influenced by those traveling through time.
In early episodes Cassandra may be a bit too pretty, Cole unnecessarily primitive, but these things smooth out in the requisite team-building. Quest tales always have built-in expiration dates — at some point the hero must succeed or fail — and time travel degrades more quickly than most.
But for as long as it has, “12 Monkeys” works beautifully as a fast-paced sci-fi thriller that is actually far more complex. Time travel, scavenging and the morality of survival; scientific brilliance and crazy-laugh-insanity; people ravaged by knowledge and those oblivious to it are bound together with the cool cleverness of backtracking, leapfrogging and crisscrossing timelines — all of which have, thankfully, a larger purpose.
If you want to go truly geek-meta, the series is also a symbolic embodiment of its own theme. The film on which it is based was itself adapted from a 1962 short film called “La Jetee,” making the narrative essentials of this time-travel tale time-travelers themselves.
And that’s cool to think about too.
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)