Conference Paper: “Mother Nature doesn’t like it when you rearrange her furniture”: Time Travel and Ethics in 12 Monkeys.

Status: Delivered in December at a conference in Melbourne, hosted by Monash university. It’s taken me a whole to update this one as I am very conflicted about how the paper went. Honestly, I think I missed the mark. There were certainly a lot of confused faces in the audience. That’s okay though, at the end of the day it is good to look like a fool sometimes. It is character building for us to get something wrong. I have a few things in the pipeline that are concerned with this series at the moment, so I figure that this failure will make the future projects better.

Conference Paper Abstract:

What if you could take it back? All of it? A reset switch? You’d hit it right? You’d have to.

  • James Cole ‘Splinter (Pilot)’


12 Monkeys (2015 -) is not the first science fiction text to explore the idea that the dystopian future can be prevented by changing events in the past. The series supposes that future survivors of the biological apocalypse can avert the fate of human kind by travelling back in time to change the present. As the narrative progresses though, the ethical cost of this assumption becomes the forefront of the dramatic conflict which sustains the narrative.

This paper considers the ethical dilemmas faced by the characters in 12 Monkeys. Attention will be given to the ethical reasoning behind ‘unmaking the self’ and the way in which the series uses time to illustrate and question the value of human life. For the series protagonist, Cole, there is a drive to do “whatever needs to be done” to save the future, with the assumption that acting unethically will eventually lead to reward (a reset on life for him individually and the world at large). Driven by this belief, Cole progresses through early seasons of the series with little concern over the dilemma he is in. As his relationships with people in the present (2043) and past (2014) develop however, he is forced to confront the ethics of his mission and, in doing so, begins to consider the cost and meaning of his actions in a more profound way.

This discussion aims to begin a conversation on the ethical problems presented in the series and, by extension, to discuss how television’s use of dystopian narratives makes comment on the ethical questions relevant to the current era – specifically the value we place on human life and the risk of biological warfare on civilization as we know it.

Link to CFP.

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