Time travel remains an alluring concept, as do titles with name recognition, even if they’re of the cultish variety. So Syfy has reached 20 years into the historical grab bag for “12 Monkeys,” reprising the Terry Gilliam film that was as intriguing as it was at times incomprehensible. Aaron Stanford slides into the Bruce Willis role as James Cole, a man sent back from 2043 to prevent the outbreak of a 2017 plague that decimated the Earth’s population. That gives him a couple years to accomplish his mission — more time than the series might have to find its creative equilibrium.
Obviously, “The Terminator” franchise (also transformed into a series) sort of set the popular standard in terms of permutations on the idea of trying to alter a dystopian future, and as always, the less serious thought one gives to the existential intricacies, the better.
Suffice it to say Cole visits what amounts to approximately the present, enlisting a scientist, Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), who he must labor to convince he’s not a lunatic.
Adapted from the original screenplay by David Webb Peoples and Janet Peoples (they get a mental hospital named after them as thanks), writers Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett have kept the tone dark and tense, with a shadowy threat embodied by Tom Noonan (good casting, that) and mysterious clues pointing to an elaborate conspiracy going far beyond what Cole was sent back to change.
The problem, as always, is that the time-travel element can be disorienting from a narrative standpoint, especially with Cole popping back and forth between his reality and ours, squabbling with the physicist who dispatched him (Barbara Sukowa), who is understandably frustrated by her inability to fully control him, given the stakes.
“I’ve learned enough about time to fear it. And so should you,” he’s told in the second hour — a very good line, albeit one which might apply equally to the challenge of trying to maintain this sort of exercise on an episodic basis.
Stanford is solid in the lead, which requires him to sport a fairly constipated demeanor throughout, while Emily Hampshire has one of the showier roles (in a gender switch from the part played originally by Brad Pitt) as a mental patient who might not be as insane as everyone thinks.
The series premieres alongside the second-season opener of the equally murky “Helix,” which also hinges on the relationship between science, epidemiology and microbial peril to humankind on a global scale, continuing the first season’s trajectory while pivoting and dividing its focus to face a new threat.
The two programs are compatible, certainly, in bringing sci-fi-level horrors into a contemporary space already on edge about pandemics, but they also seem inherently limited in their prospects. Because even if “12 Monkeys” does well enough ratings-wise to hang on, with this sort of premise, maintaining that grip could easily mean just spending a lot of time chasing its own tail.