‘12 Monkeys’ and the Temptation to Live Only for the Present

‘12 Monkeys’ and the Temptation to Live Only for the Present

12 Monkeys

Have you ever wished you could go back in time and undo a mistake? Erase its consequences? Make a better choice? Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. But the protagonists of 12 Monkeys, one of the better sci-fi shows on TV, give us an excellent sandbox in which to explore what would happen if we did.

The bite of the show rests in how well we can identify with the struggles of the characters. 12 Monkeys isn’t so much about travel as it is about time: How it passes, heedless to our desire to harness it. How we try to manipulate it and inevitably fail. How we wish for more of it but feel like it is constantly running out. How things done at some time in the past affect the present and the future. How we’d like to turn back the clock, yet it keeps ticking inexorably forward. How, in the words of Dr. Cassandra Railly (Amanda Schull), “Time is a thief. It takes and runs.”

Living in the world that remains after a devastating plague decimates humanity, Katarina, Cole, Cassie, Ramse, and others repeatedly travel to the past to undo, first, the mistakes of others, and then their own mistakes, in order to wipe the outbreak from history and save the world. Opposing them is the Army of 12 Monkeys, a shadowy cult-like organization that not only unleashed the plague but seeks to collapse time itself—erasing the past and the future, resulting only in an eternal now.

As revealed in Season 3, the Army of 12 Monkeys got its start through several religious-styled tent meetings. “The Missionary” (Christopher Lloyd) visits towns affected by great tragedy. He preys on those mourning the deaths of loved ones, promising them a world with no tears, no pain, no death. “Join us,” he tells Cassie, who pretends to be mourning Cole’s death to get into the meeting. “We offer you a chance to live in that perfect moment forever.”

Those who join the budding Army are dedicated to The Witness, one who boasts of having seen all of time from beginning to end, one who vows to break the cycle of death, and bring all of the faithful together forever in the Red Forest. “A place where time no longer exists. A place where you can be with the one you love forever. What could be more important than that?”

The promise of The Witness is tempting. An eternal now. An infinite present. No fear of change. No more saying goodbye to loved ones. Ever-present happiness. Who wouldn’t say, “sign me up”?

In the real world, though, it seems we’re stuck here—with time and memory and dreams. We’re stuck with regrets and hope deferred. We’re stuck with death and its aftermath. We’re stuck with grief and unwanted change. We can’t go back and undo the past. When we wish to stay in the present, we’re shoved into the future with our heels skidding on the ground.

The nature of The Witness calls to mind Christ himself. Like Christ, The Witness promises a future free from tears, grief, and pain. Like Christ, The Witness appears suddenly and exacts vengeance on his enemies. Like Christ, The Witness has a city, Titan, that descends from the sky.

But, unlike Christ, The Witness only attempts to manipulate time. Christ is the Master of it. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End,” Jesus says (Revelation 22:13).

The Witness seeks to eradicate time and history so that a person’s actions and experiences don’t really matter. Christ, on the other hand, works through our pasts, our histories, our pain, and our struggles to mold us into his image and make us fit for glory. Acts 14:22 says, “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”

We live in a culture that largely lives for the moment. A culture that says, “eat, drink, and be merry,” because today is all that matters. It is tempting to adopt this mentality, which psychologists routinely recommend, because it means we can live for ourselves and seek our own happiness at every turn.

But science and the Bible indicate that we are not made to live that way. Both the past and the future are important to us. “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other,” Isaiah tells us. Deuteronomy 32:7 reads, “Remember the days of old; consider the years of many generations [past].” Our past is what makes us who we are today. Trying to live as if yesterday didn’t happen is foolish.

Likewise, the future is important as well, for it is God—the God who is not bound by time or history—who gives us that future (Jeremiah 29:11). He sees the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10). One day, the One who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” will deliver his followers from the ravages of time.

Until then, we must remember that every moment, every choice, and every action matters. As much as we might want what The Witness has to offer, there’s no escaping that what we do today affects tomorrow. And, what we did yesterday affects today.