Time Travel TV Comparison: Dark vs 12 Monkeys vs Travelers

A reader requested that we write up a compare and contrast review between 12 Monkeys and Dark. Now that all of the Dark recaps are done, we thought we’d do that, and add in Travelers, the other fan favorite time travel show around here.

All 3 shows premiered and completed their runs between 2015 and 2020. They are all anchored in the present day, but also take place in the future and the past. They all deal with dystopian futures which the main characters want to prevent using time travel and the knowledge of events they’ve gained through time travel and advanced technology. All 3 also have ensemble casts that include time travelers, their handlers and mad scientists, though the groups tend to be fluid- almost everyone will time travel or have a good idea eventually.

12 Monkeys aired on the Syfy network for 4 seasons from 2015-2018 for a total of 47 episodes. It was created by Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett, based on the 1995 Terry Gilliam film of the same name, which was, in turn, based on the 1962 short film La Jetée by Chris Marker. It stars Aaron Stanford, Amanda Schull, Kirk Acevedo, Todd Stashwick, Emily Hampshire, Barbara Sukowa and Alisen Down.

After most of the world’s population dies in a plague, Dr Katarina Jones invents time travel, then sends James Cole back to the decade before the plague is released by the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Before she dies of the plague in 2017, CDC epidemiologist Dr Cassandra Railly leaves a message about the start of the plague that is eventually found by Dr Jones’ team. Dr Jones sends Cole to find Dr Railly, and together they work to solve the mystery of the plague and the shadow organization which wants to end the world. The series visits times hundreds of years in the past and future, but spends most of its time within a hundred years of the present in either direction.

Despite its dark subject matter, 12 Monkeys is a fun ride. It has the most humor and is the most fast paced of the 3 series. The universe and world building are well thought out and consistent. The mythology is complex, requiring close attention, and the storyline is brought to a satisfying conclusion, with all of the major questions answered. The characters are fully explored, but this is the most plot-oriented of the 3 shows, rather than a slow, character driven show. They cover all of the usual time travel questions, such as how time works and whether events can be changed or not.

This show is particularly driven by morality and ethics, as the characters battle over changes in time and who will be erased or saved by them. Some want to bring back a loved one who was lost to the plague, while others want to save a child who is born later or maintain other changes from after the end of the world, which sets up nearly unbearable conflicts between characters. It asks the question, what would you do for the people you love? Save the world? End it?

Because Cassandra is an epidemiologist, the show is able to examine plagues throughout history and in modern times and the implications for society when governments take care of their people and when they give up. And when society breaks down completely, and post apocalypse communities form, it examines what holds those groups together and why they break down.

12 Monkeys is hands down the best of the 3 shows for featuring women in front of and behind the camera. 3 of the 4 leads are women and 2 are scientists. The other is a wealthy genius eccentric, a character who is gender flipped from the original film. Many of the recurring characters are also female and from all walks of life.

12 Monkeys falls in the middle of the 3 shows on ethnic and racial diversity. One person of color was a regular for 3 seasons and recurring for season 4, and a black man was a frequently recurring character for all 4 seasons. Other recurring characters of color come and go. Mental illness, chronic illness and disabilities are explored, especially in the dystopian future. Travelers does better with racial diversity, but 12 Monkeys makes disability a normal part of the landscape.

The show won acclaim for its cinematography for all 4 seasons and Emily Hampshire also won recognition for her portrayal of Jennifer Goines.

Watch 12 Monkeys if you’re looking for a fast-paced, timely story with vivid characters and mythology, award-winning visuals and a sense of humor.

Dark is a Netflix Original from Germany, created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, which ran from 2017-2020, for a total of 3 seasons and 26 episodes. Its stars a huge cast, led by Louis Hofmann, Lisa Vicari, Paul Lux, Andreas Pietschmann, Maja Schöne, Oliver Masucci, Jördis Triebel, Julika Jenkins, Lisa Kreuzer and Mark Waschke.

Dark is the story of the small German town of Winden and four families who have lived there for generations. The town is dominated by a nuclear power plant, where most of the townspeople work. In 1986, an accident at the power plant made time travel possible through an underground passage in the caves which run beneath most of the town. The accident, the passage and the possibility of time travel have all remained secret from the public, since the power plant director at the time covered up the accident and has kept the radioactive and time reactive tar that was created by the accident stored in barrels and hidden in the caves ever since.

The story opens in November, 2019. Young Jonas Kahnwald has just returned home after spending an extended period of time in a mental hospital. His father committed suicide in June, 2019, which led to Jonas’ breakdown. While Jonas was away, one of his friends went missing. After he returns, another boy, his young friend, Mikkel, also goes missing in the caves. The adults in the town are slowly unraveling, as they realize that this mirrors the disappearance of another boy in 1986, Mikkel’s uncle Mads.

Friendships, romances, ambitions and grudges which last through time and generations are slowly revealed and explored. The four main families are more closely connected than anyone expects. Jonas learns how to use the passage from a mysterious Stranger and searches out Mikkel, but that leads to even more complex discoveries which take Jonas far from home. I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling major plot points. It’s much more fun to go in unspoiled.

Dark is a richly philosophical and symbolic show. It’s time mythology includes time loops and predetermination, with the characters feeling trapped in their situations. It’s, you know, Dark. There is some humor, but much of it is ultra-dry references to Back to the Future, Nietzsche and the like, that are easy to miss. I think that makes the humor even funnier, but I’m sure I missed half of it and may have made the other half up.

I think of Dark as a beautiful, brilliant mess. If you love deep thoughts, rich mythology, character studies, 18th and 19th century German philosophy, ancient Greek philosophy and mythology, time travel that involves quantum physics and a complex storyline, this is the show for you. The show does a deep dive into the psychology of its central characters while also exploring several mysteries and existential questions at the same time. Dark has an amazing cast, a fantastic soundtrack (by Ben Frost) and gorgeous cinematography (by Nikolaus Summerer) that all come together beautifully to tell the story. If only the writing kept up, it would be perfect.

But that’s the issue. It can be overly complex while also being mind-numbingly repetitive, and many of the subplots are left hanging with no resolution or only a cursory ending. The viewing experience might go better if you look at each season/cycle as a separate entity, and assume there are many slowly changing cycles between them. Dark has a lot going for it, but consistency and a satisfying ending aren’t necessarily two of those things. If you can enjoy it for what it offers, there’s some thought-provoking and enjoyable viewing to be had.

Dark does have a good balance of female and male characters, though the male characters have more agency and are the protagonists. Every episode was written or co-written by a woman, Jantje Friese, who was also the co-showrunner. There were women in several other key positions behind the scenes, notably casting director Simone Bear and costume designer Anette Guther. There are a few queer characters, but they don’t get a lot of screen time together. There are characters with chronic/terminal illnesses, mental illnesses and physical disabilities, but the show either ignores or is negative about these conditions and treatment for them. At times characters mock each other about mental illnesses. There’s basically no ethnic diversity and the ultimate message sent by season 3 comes off as confusingly ableist and Utopian.

Dark and 12 Monkeys are almosts polar opposites as shows. Dark packs a lot into some episodes, others move at a glacial pace. 12 Monkeys gets a little rambly in season 4, when it seems they decided to do some fan service, but other than that it’s a tight but complex story. Dark is complex, but it’s not really about the story, so much as the situation and ideas. The complexity is there to enliven the discussion rather than to tell the story.

Dark is a walk through a haunted house with Einstein quotes written on the wall in fake blood that will leave you working your way through what you saw and what it meant for a long time and might require multiple visits. Especially since everything is in German and various old German philosophers can jump out at you with knives at any time. (“You might run into a Chopenhauer or a Knifetzsche.”-TM my corny family.) 12 Monkeys is a well-written, but quirky, classic novel that becomes an old favorite you want to periodically revisit and wish would become a Harry Potter length, long running series. Travelers is the mansplaining Bernie Bro down at the coffee shop who knows he’s cute and won’t leave you alone. He might be dating material if he’d stop telling you how to order your coffee in excruciating detail.

Travelers is another Netflix Original, which was originally made in cooperation with the Canadian network Showcase. It ran for 3 seasons and 34 episodes, from 2016 to 2018. Travelers was created by Brad Wright, who also created the Stargate TV universe. It starred Eric McCormack (Will and Grace), Mackenzie Porter, Jared Abrahamson, Nesta Cooper, Reilly Dolman, Patrick Gilmore, J. Alex Brinson, Leah Cairns, Enrico Colantoni, Arnold Pinnock and Jennifer Spence.

Travelers follows a team of time travelers from hundreds of years in the post apocalyptic future, led by MacCormack’s FBI Agent Grant MacLaren/Traveler 3468, whose consciousnesses are sent to our present day to inhabit host bodies of people who are otherwise about to die. Team members live double lives, publicly taking on the lives of their hosts while secretly acting as agents of change. The team’s mission, shared by similar operatives from the future all over the world, is to prevent the hopeless future that the travelers come from, in which humans are nearing extinction.

Travelers are guided by the Director, a shadowy, nearly omniscient artificial intelligence which sends cryptic messages using modern technology or by briefly taking over children’s brains. Missions instruct the travelers to prevent natural disasters, stop destructive technology from taking hold and ensure the most beneficial course of events occurs. The Director has access to records and archives from the period between our present day and the travelers’ present day and constantly monitors the changes, along with all potential timelines, in order to choose which timelines to encourage.

One of the team members, Philip Pearson/Traveler 3326, the team’s historian, was raised for his position from early childhood. His brain has been altered to accept information about multiple timelines and to enhance his memory storage capacity. The history he stores is our potential future but the team’s past. As the team makes changes to the timeline, conflicts arise between what the historians know and what are seen by people living in the future as the historical course of events, which must then be reconciled. Various divisions arise, based on the various beliefs about their history and how much it’s possible to change their past and future.

Travelers is the most overtly political of the 3 shows, with a clear message that’s at the heart of the show. Travelers has a particular worldview, that the world is headed for disaster because of climate change, late stage capitalist corporate policies and conservative politics, and it doesn’t waver from those views. But it puts the emphasis on storytelling and on being a science fiction show, rather on debating political or philosophical opinions.

Travelers has the feel of a harder edged Stargate: SG1 or Original Star Trek. There’s humor, as would be expected with Erik MacCormack starring, but the subject matter is serious. The team’s new personal lives are explored extensively and vaguely compared to the lives they’ve left, but travelers aren’t allowed to speak about the future they left behind.

Viewers are given only a few brief glimpses of the future over the course of the entire series, mainly through drawings made by one of the characters. Eventually more is revealed through verbal stories, but, unlike 12 Monkeys, which spends a significant amount of time in the future, we never get a full picture. Much of the technology is eventually explained. Travelers is probably the most technology based of the 3 shows, though 12 Monkeys is also science based, just more focused on plagues and biology. Dark covers quite a bit of physics, in its own way.

Of the 3 shows, this is the one with the most self-contained, procedural episodes, but it also has season and series long arcs. The series ending is reasonably satisfying, though a bit hand wavy. In my opinion, season 3 goes somewhat off the rails, but that’s a common problem these days when showrunners suddenly have to fit the rest of their story into 1 season instead of 3 more seasons, like they’d hoped for.

Two of the 5 or 6 main cast members are women, one them a black woman. A significant number of frequently recurring characters were also women and/or people of color. Travelers has the most diverse cast of the 3 shows, by far, though it’s still overwhelmingly white. One of the female regulars had a disability in S1 and occasionally in flashbacks after that. One of the male characters is a social worker who works with a homeless and disabled population who are miraculously shown in a sympathetic light. Most of his clients are men, except for the female regular.

There is a significant amount of misogyny in Travelers, especially S3. Mac/Traveler 3468 psychologically abuses his wife and almost argues for Men’s Rights at certain points in the last season. Travelers is one of those shows that tries to have it both ways, by showcasing women in front of and behind the camera, but also showing how hard the poor domineering men have it and how mean women are to them, like by not consenting to sex and physically fighting back against a drunken ex husband who then tries to rape and murder them or expecting their cold, distant, gaslighting husband to show up for their marriage counseling sessions.

It was tolerable in the first two seasons, but S3 was toxic. And it’s the sort of misogyny that you have to sit down and pick apart, then explain at length why it’s misogyny. It’s not blatant name calling- it’s the quiet, insidious tearing down of women’s self images and confidence. It’s the use of psychological abuse tactics on the female characters and the audience.

Because of the abusive misogyny, which is never called out within the show, I can only give Travelers a qualified recommendation. The lead character is the most abusive character in the show and is seen as a savior by the end of the series.

I am sick to death of seeing “antiheroes”, which has come to mean disgustingly violent, oppressive men who would not, in fact, be heroes who ever helped anyone in real life unless there was something in it for them, turned into saviors. The “heroes” of the Cold War are the men who brought us to the edge of disaster that we live on today. They could have done things differently. It didn’t have to be this way. It’s time to bring restraint and kindness back into style.

The only one of these three shows that truly believes people are capable of kindness, restraint and goodness and pushes its characters to keep trying until they get it right, not for selfish reasons, but for the collective good, is 12 Monkeys. It’s not overly optimistic about people. It has a clear sense of morality and understands how difficult it is to do the right thing, and to keep doing it.

But I believe that if we are going to find our way out of the mess we currently live in, we need our entertainment to go back to giving us more positive role models and not a–holes who profit from purposely doing the wrong thing at every turn. We need to go back to seeing good people getting rewarded and criminals, because that’s what they are, being punished for their crimes. 12 Monkeys shows that good stories that feature good people who are trying to do the right thing can still be complex, contain ongoing relationships of all types and have enough conflict and intellectual debate to keep viewers who pay attention happy.

Images courtesy of Netflix and Syfy.