By Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett.
Something you’ll find with science fiction is that it works better serialised. The most successful self-contained sci-fis are those that take place in the real world, but feature an element of the strange. With a television series, there’s more room for development of the genre. To begin 12 Monkeys, Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett use the first episode, Splinter, not so much to begin a plot or series of events, but to show us how this world works. But that itself turns into a plot, with how far the time-travel model can be pushed.
First, we see how that time travel happens – a special kind of chair is used, which transmits the occupant to a preset destination, with great pain neccessary. Then, they splinter back to that point to report on their findings, while a team of historians track changes made in that room. That’s an ingenious concept for science fiction, with a time travel system that works simply, but effectively.
Once that’s been established, there needs to be a demonstration of how time can be affected. This is demonstrated perfectly with a watch, which when scratched visibly changes the state of a future version of it. This makes it perfectly clear: this is a universe in-which the future can be changed by actions of people with foreknowledge of it. What this gives us is an investable mechanic for James Cole, who’s attempting to alter his own future-present. Because we know time works in that way for that universe, we know there’s a change he can succeed.
Which is also what makes the ending work. This is an episode which assumes it’s a self-contained story, as with other sci-fi, but the ending leads to it becoming a much longer process. In that way, this pilot is a microcosm for the series’ synopsis: the other Monkeys have to be located and eliminated. Had this simply been episode one of a commissioned series, there might have been less self-containedness, but at the time, this stood alone and needed to work as a proof of concept.
It certainly did.
12 Monkeys: Splinter — effective establishment of time-travel rules 7/10.