The (Pseudo?) Science of the Red Leaves
Having recently rewatched some of the season 1 episodes, and coming from a molecular plant biology background, I couldn’t help but wonder about the red leaves and what it is that might constitute these changes. Now, this may not have much of a significance in the grand scheme of all things time travel, but still…
First, let’s look at this outside a time travel setting. We all know that in the fall, most of the tree leaves start turning yellow or red. So how does that work? Without going into too much scientific detail, it’s relatively easily explained. In order to be able to live, plants transform CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the air into oxygen. This process is called photosynthesis, and one very important component for plant leaves to be able to do that is called chlorophyll.
Chlorophyll is a molecule located (not only) in the leaf cells that helps plants absorb energy from light, which is a necessary step in the process of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll also gives most plant components their green colour. Another molecule that is also used in photosynthesis and present in plants is carotene—a pigment that’s yellow to orange in colour. You don’t usually see that colour because the green colour of the chlorophyll is more dominant.
In fall, trees start the degradation process of chlorophyll when they initiate the shedding of leaves that they don’t need during wintertime. It is then that the yellow to orange colour of the carotenes starts showing.
The red colour, however, adds another component to the mix. The red hue in fall leaves is caused by molecules called anthocyanins, which are not usually present in the tissues but are produced specifically in the fall when the leaves turn red. Scientists aren’t completely sure why, but there are theories of it being a protective antioxidant to prevent light damage, or possibly also to attract birds and insects to spread seeds or fruits for the plants to ensure their procreation.
So much for the theoretical background, so let’s go back to 12 Monkeys and recap. I believe the red forest imagery first appears in the episode of the same title, 1×06 “Red Forest”. Cassie is being drugged by Olivia, and there are images of a red forest being suggested to her.
“You’re walking through a red forest and the grass is tall. It’s just rained. Most of the blood has washed away. There’s a house in the distance. Cedar and pine. You’ve been there before. You’re not alone. There’s a man. You go to him. You see him. You know him. Like a memory of tomorrow.”
This implies that the forest and the grass is red in colour because it’s covered by blood, but later on we learn that this isn’t exactly the case.
If we go chronologically, there’s a very short allusion to leaves changing colour in episode 1×10 “Divine Move”. In the bar where Cassie tries to drown her frustration in alcohol, Cole eventually splinters back to 2043. After he’s gone, the leaves of a nearby plant turn from green to red.
In episode 1×11 “Shonin”, the colour change is prominently featured when the Pallid Man’s amulet they receive from Ramse causes the paradox and instantly transforms the surrounding vegetation from green to a deep crimson. If you look closely, this effect seems to resonate yards in every direction, because even the hedge behind the building is turning red.
In episode 1×12 “Paradox”, Jones and her team lose Cole’s tether so that he’s trapped in 2015. At the same time, red coloured Hedera helix (i.e. English ivy) starts appearing on the splinter chair, and Dr. Adler explains that the isotopic CO2 composition of the cell membrane indicates that these plants grew in an environment that had significantly higher amounts of greenhouse gases. I will practice restraint and not go into any soliloquies at this point that his statement doesn’t make a whole lot of scientific sense (first of all, CO2 isn’t stored in a plant’s cell membrane, second of all, uhm, okay… moving on).
In 1×13 “Arms of Mine”, we learn an interesting tidbit, namely that Dr. Elliot Jones (Katarina’s husband) used (green) ivy as one of the early experimental specimens to send forward in time with the splinter machine. Which might just explain the appearance of the red ivy all over Katarina’s chair in 2043, because my theory is that this is the ivy that Elliot sent there from 2015.
What we also see in the same episode is that Cassie stumbles across a room in the temporal facility where they seem to be cultivating the red ivy, which triggers a flashback for her to the red forest and the house in the distance.
So what does it all mean? I believe Terry Matalas and Travis Fickett are the only people who can give us a satisfactory answer at this point in time, but of course we can speculate.
I believe it’s safe to conclude that the time travel has some kind of physiological effect on the plants. In fact, it’s what the scientist says to Elliot Jones in the season finale, “Distortion of time and space and its effect on plants is considerable, right? Green to red. Organic matter in states of flux.” Scientifically speaking, that’s a rather vague statement, and not especially helpful to understand what might be going on at a molecular level.
So if we go back to my initial introduction of the change in leaf colour in the fall, we’d have to assume that the change from green to red occurs by the production of anthocyanins. But what is it that makes the plants produce anthocyanins when they time travel? A random freak occurrence and side effect of the molecular changes it has on organic material?
We know that the time travel has a degrading effect on the human body. Perhaps the rapid production of anthocyanins is a kind of defence mechanism in plants, if we think back to the theory of them acting as antioxidants. Or perhaps, and this is the most likely explanation, I’m just overanalysing this and it’s merely creative license TV science that should not be questioned in this level of detail.
What’s baffling me, however, is that Cassie stumbles across the lab with the red ivy plants. Why are these red if it’s not possible to retrieve objects from the future in 2015, like Katarina’s husband stated? Or are these plants that, in the past, were sent to the future which is now in the past? Okay, this is getting confusing. I hope you know what I mean.
It may make more sense to look at the bigger picture and examine the significance of the red imagery and Cassie’s visions. They might symbolize something similar to Cole’s fragmented memories of his younger self witnessing something that was changed by time travel.
The house in the distance with the masked plague doctor. A memory of tomorrow. Do we need to assume that, now that Cassie is in 2043, she will travel from there to an earlier time in the post-plague universe? Is it something that happened or happens that Cassie’s brain for some reason retained? To me, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because even if she did travel to 2017 (or later), she would not have those memories in 2015 when she is drugged by Olivia.
Or is it something that happens in Cassie’s past when she is sent to pre-2015 from 2043, something that was changed? It would explain that she can remember bits and pieces of it, but it doesn’t quite explain the plague doctor. Unless it had to do with pre-outbreak experiments. Is that house the place where some of the research on the M5-10 recreated by Dr. Peters is being done? Is TimeTravel!Cassie going to happen upon the house to complete the mission?
Which brings us back to the question of who exactly the Witness is. For about a split second we thought it was Ramse, but, no. (Phew!) Who else could have travelled back in time to have all that knowledge? I hope we get a little closer to the answer in season 2.
Who is Olivia, the Striking Woman? Why does she know so much about the future? What’s her connection to the Witness, and why would she want to drug Cassie to induce these kinds of hallucinations? A ploy to pry information hidden in her subconscious from Cassie? A way to manipulate her into subservience, or some kind of hypnotic trigger she can use in the future to have control over Cassie?
Why the colour red? There’s probably about three hundred answers to this, and it’s difficult to pick any one of them to try and interpret something that is significant to the story into it.
The fact of the matter is that there’s a whole barrage of other unanswered questions that the season finale left us with, and the nine months wait seems like an arduous dry period to us now. Still, I have all the confidence in the world that Team Matalas/Fickett have it all worked out, and that come early 2016, we’ll be back on the edge of our seats with plenty of mystery to see unravelling in front of our eyes.