How ’12 Monkeys’ Changed How Time Travel Should Be Viewed

When I was younger, I wasn’t able to explain my love of time travel as a Black person as well as I can now, and for a long time my older family members turned up their noses at me. I can still hear one of my older cousins asking me “You wanna time travel? For what? You eager to go back and be a slave?” It never occurred to them that time travel doesn’t mean just going back.

I’ve always loved the idea of someone or a group figuring out how to break out of the one constant thing: Time. For time travel to exist there’s a lot that has to be taken into account. You need an open space where you can exist outside of time, space where you aren’t connected at all to the current timeline and therefore won’t have to abide by its rules. You can go as far back as you like, but you can also go forward. And I want to go as far forward as I possibly can.

There’s a lot of good time travel content out there, from Outlander, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and 12 Monkeys, to Back to the Future, LooperARQ, and The Time Machine. Over the years time travel has advanced, and the different possibilities about how it works continue to roll in. Of course, I have my favorites. The Time Machine both the book and the movies are classics. Back to the Future was an obsession in middle school. ARQ and Looper are two of the best time travel movies I’ve ever seen. But in the last four years, there’s been one version of time travel entertainment that has raised the bar for all others. Syfy announced in 2014 that it would be rebooting the cult classic movie 12 Monkeys — the story of a man sent to the past from the future to stop a plague that kills 7 billion people. It’s a simple story and the movie isn’t one of my favorites but the show has not only paid homage to the original movie, it has surpassed it. There is no TV show or movie that has such clear concepts of time and how it should work. On 12 Monkeys there are no plot holes, no unattended time loops. Everything circles back and is taken care of at some point in the series. With four seasons and 47 episodes, the time travel in the now completed series is the most well kept and airtight I’ve ever seen. There are consequences and not everything can be fixed by simply going back and trying again.

On 12 Monkeys, Time itself is a character. Though we never see it, the presence of Time is always around and occasionally steps in to stop the characters from ruining everything. The show uses the idea that you have to exist outside of time, which also means time must be broken for the ability to travel freely through it to work. We go back as far as 894 and as far forward as 2163, with many frequent stops in the years between. There are paradoxes and those that were born with the gift to see the timeline from above. The series had a clean-cut mythology that kept you guessing up until the very last episode. 12 Monkeys is an underrated show that deserved more recognition than it got.

I suppose I have so much love for the show because — besides its beautiful writing and fantastic actors — it doesn’t shy away from the future. The show isn’t afraid to state that sometimes it takes something or someone from the future to be able to correct the past. It also charges straight into the future with no regrets. On this show, the consequences are usually worth it and the lessons learned are always important. 12 Monkeys may not answer the question of whether time travel is really possible and it may ask you to suspend your disbelief for a few things, but it does try its best to give a clear understanding of what would happen if someone did break the time stream and was able to move freely along the timeline.

12 Monkeys has inspired me to write my own time travel stories. Where I used to just enjoy them, now I want to create them. For as amazing as 12 Monkeys is, it does have one major flaw. There are no Black women that have a prominent role. There is not one single character for me to look up to or relate to on that level. Sure there’s a background character that’s really good at fighting and following orders, but she only had maybe two or three scenes in a four-season show. It honestly, at first, broke my heart. Like so many times before, I fell in love with something that I’m not represented in. I relate to the lead woman character on the show; so much, in fact, that I even wrote an essay about how amazing she is.

However, as much as I love Cassie and can relate to her, she doesn’t look like me. The older I get, the more I realize how life-changing it would have been for me to see women who looked like me on TV and in movies when I was younger. As a child, if I would have seen a Black woman cleverly time traveling through the galaxies or creating time travel herself to try to fix her mistakes, I would be a completely different person. Now though, I know that I can create the characters I needed for little girls who need to see themselves now. I want to write about a Black woman using time travel to explore the future, I don’t want her to be stuck in the confines of the idea that time travel only means backward and never forward or that it’s only for white people. Because it doesn’t and isn’t. Not anymore.