12 Monkeys: "Atari" (Season 1, Episode 4)

Flabbergasted

This week we get an engaging enough little "ship in a bottle" episode. It's trying  to be clever and more or less is, though weighed down by some questionable pacing choices and the relative thinness of its future world building. Nonetheless, this show is actually trying to interesting stuff. That's better than average for SyFy fare.  

I'll acknowledge up front that the episode could be a little off putting to the casual viewer based on the time shifts alone. By my count, we moved in four separate time periods. The bookends are 2015 with Cassandra, and I don't think they were necessary. The end sequence at least tees up next week's episode, but the beginning one is a complete waste of time. In fact, the whole sequence of events to open this episode is needlessly slow.

We start with Cole and Cassandra in 2015. Zilch, as I noted. Hop to Cole and Ramse in 2032 as a pair of Scavengers who run into Deacon's West Seven tribe. Then a bunch of talking before Deacon attacks the time travel facility in 2043. Cumulatively, that's what writers call "clearing your throat." The profession advises against it.

The meat of this story is a two day time loop in 2043. That structure does need a couple flashbacks to Cole and Ramse with Deacon's group, though not at the start of the episode. It doesn't need Cassandra at all. She's not part of the 2043 dynamic. All this time shift clutter obscures the cleverness of the basic conceit in play, so I'll ignore it to concentrate on that two-day time loop.

The story should open where it is 5 or so minutes in. That's when Deacon and the West Seven attack the time travel facility. Cole and Ramse head off what turns out to be a diversion, becoming stunned when they realize Deacon has somehow penetrated the tunnels at the heart of the facility. How could he have even known about them?

The chief scientist rushes Cole to the Splinter machine while saying they're about to be overrun; she must send him back to 2015 for good, where he'll be on his own. Cole's trying to keep up a commlink with Ramse all the while. Ramse is suddenly surrounded. He tells says Cole that they're screwed, after which all Cole hears over the link is machine gun fire. It's a well-done hopeless moment. My only complaint is that we've seen so little of the facility that the overall sequence of events feels a bit hollow. Is it really that easy to overrun the place?

Cole vanishes in time as the invaders break into the Splinter machine room. The machine is damaged, with the net result being that Cole only travels back in time two days. There he gets captured by Deacon. Turns out Cole is the one who revealed the existence of the tunnels after he was drugged. That's an effective twist.                 

This is where a couple flashbacks to Cole and Ramse's days as scavengers with the West Seven are needed. Said flashbacks establish the pair's disenchantment with Deacon's casual brutality, the fact of a relationship between Cole and Max (the lady from last week), and the reason why Max felt betrayed when they fled. Good enough. As noted, the placement and intercuts of these elements is inefficient.

Of course Max eventually frees Cole in the present of 2043. That machine gun fire Cole heard in the beginning over the commlink with Ramse? That's the Cole displaced in time rescuing Ramse. And all that shooting Cole witnessed from the Splinter machine as he vanished? That was Max saving the chief scientist after turning on Deacon. The story thus twists in on itself. That's reasonably clever as TV goes. The viewer doesn't suspect it at all when they first see the attack sequence at the star of the episode. Better focus on that would have made a good episode excellent.

Oh, in the last scene, Cassandra thinks she's found "The Night Room" in 2015. Can "The Pallid Man" be very far behind? I think not.

Unlike Helix last year, after four episodes I'd say the creative aspects of 12 Monkeys deserve another season. Now if only the ratings aspect would cooperate.       

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