Series showrunner Terry Matalas opens up about the inspiration behind his cult favorite Syfy drama and how that played a role in how the series ultimately ended.
In this era of endless adaptations of popular IP, it might seem strange to be fearful of having such a massive advantage. But properties like 12 Monkeys are simply tethered to their filmmakers, held in such high regard by their fans that accepting the challenge means tossing oneself to the wolves. After all, for every Noah Hawley who bravely, boldly takes a swing at the Coens [with FX’s Fargo], one could argue there’s a me chucking rocks at the Goliath of Terry Gilliam and the genius of David and Janet Peoples.
Eyebrows were raised — rightfully so. After all, 12 Monkeys never began as 12 Monkeys. It started as a spec pilot called Splinter, a love letter to 12 Monkeys that never presumed in a million years to be able to call itself that. I was a young writer at the time, part of a duo, just hoping to get staffed. If you knew me at all, you knew about a certain DeLorean in my garage. My love of time travel in many ways exemplified time travel. It’s about recapturing a piece of my childhood, watching Back to the Future in a darkened theater with my father. Or, some years later, returning to a strange art film by a madman filmmaker inspired by another madman filmmaker.
Splinter grew from that, “Hey, what if …” into a sample that caught the attention of Atlas – then Universal Cable Productions and Syfy — whose blessing rang the dinner bell for the wolves. Thankfully, the wolves never came — granted, neither did copious Emmys or a sea-swell of ratings — but we discovered a passionate, loyal fan base that became truly invested in what we had to say.
The best adaptations of IP aren’t in slavish service to their source material but are inspired by that material to say something new — something personal, something genuine. I’ve come to learn that adapting doesn’t have to be an act of re-creation. Just gratitude. We wanted to take our love of Gilliam’s film and with the advantage of a longer form narrative, more deeply explore what it made us hope and believe about the nature of time.
We’ve seen dozens of time-travel stories about the past and future — robot apocalypses, swash-buckling adventures through history — but we wanted to explore the present. The now. The constant struggle to maintain a moment that only has value because it passes. It’s the beautiful, unfair, messed-up truth about time. Our villains want to hold on to the moment with both hands, devaluing its meaning — our heroes fight to set it straight and allow it to pass, knowing that all they love will one day pass with it. But it’s only in the passing that makes any of it real.
Pretty heavy, right? Not always. If you’ve seen the show, you know we told all this not only through drama, but comedy as well. Through history, time-loops, alt futures — Philosophical Monologues 101, and even a slapstick musical sequences featuring the artist, Pink and Adolph Hitler. Yes, you read that right.
Of course, it wasn’t until the end while standing in our dark, time-stream lit set, watching our actors deliver their goodbyes, watching our crew pack up their gear, that I understood: We were also the subjects of the story we were telling.
Time had passed and I failed to notice. In those four seasons, I’d become a father and lost my own. I found family and friends in this amazing cast and crew. And I’d never once looked up to watch the clock tick. OK, fine, maybe it is kinda heavy.
A series is a lot like life itself. With all of its ups and down, its cast of characters, its successes and failures, and a smattering of small, miraculous moments that slip away all too quickly. You just want to stop time and say, “Hold on, not so fast.” But it’s only in passing that the story has value — that you can get to the next chapter. After all, a story isn’t a story with meaning unless it has an ending. Forget the past. Don’t worry about the future. Enjoy now.
So here I am today — the last day of this, the first of something yet unknown — but grateful for all of it. Like the final words I ever wrote for the series: “Happily ever now.”
Terry Matalas is the showrunner for Syfy’s 12 Monkeys.