Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×21: ‘Legacy’ (TV Review)

For all of the jigsaw pieces that make up the Rambaldi puzzle, Legacy works to boil the mythology down into a simplistic revelation.

Once again, Rambaldi’s endgame is about a message rather than a physical gain. Il Dire at the end of Season Two, though we didn’t know it at the time, was designed to reveal a simple truth to Sloane, and all we had in The Telling was Irina’s assertion that he believed he was supposed to realise the ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Words. Knowledge. Sacred information.

Legacy repeats this but rather than Sloane assembling a machine, his conduit is now a person in his daughter, Nadia, injected here with a magical elixir designed to ‘remotely’ channel that ‘word’ of Rambaldi. Again, the answer leads to another question, in the boon they later search for in Resurrection and later The Descent, but the legacy of Rambaldi appears to be coming, appropriately, full circle. Once the puzzle pieces are assembled, all roads seem to lead back to the prophet himself.

This is quite appropriate for Alias in how, from the very beginning of the Rambaldi mythology in Parity, he has been positioned as the series’ God-figure; an unknowable creation, off stage, influencing everything the main characters do. Sloane’s faith, Irina’s past, Sark’s extremism, and on and on – everything traces back to the ‘search’ for Rambaldi, the search for a secular God who holds information, knowledge and great power.

Legacy, however, suggests said power does not just come from within, but from the very bloodline associated with Sydney herself. Season Three concludes the transmogrification in this episode of Alias’ mythology from an outward quest for truth into an internal search for knowledge, as Nadia’s channeling and the continued revelations about Irina’s history regarding her birth unfurl to connect the extended family at the heart of the drama to these mythological stakes.

Legacy, like many of these late Season Three episodes, still has way too much happening for its own good as a compelling piece of drama, but it does contextualise the snowballing effect of the Rambaldi quest.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 3×19: ‘Hourglass’ (TV Review)

Hourglass is a good example of the tricky balance Alias is having to pull off, at the end of this season, between mythological revelation and soap-opera theatrics.

Ostensibly, the reveal of Jack’s betrayal by Sloane, and Irina’s added betrayal of him, underpins the central thematic idea coursing through the entirety of the latter half of this season in the ongoing Vaughn/Lauren narrative. Everything is about betrayal, and how the ‘alias’ at the heart of the concept is utilised. It began for the show with Sydney operating as a double agent, evolved into her being kidnapped and corrupted into living with one of the aliases she pretended to be, and has now developed into replaying the core backstory on which the Bristow family saga has played out – Syd’s virtuous all-American mother revealed as the Other, a Russian spy, and how she grew up within a shattered nuclear family as a result, representing the growing dysfunction of American family life at the end of, and in the wake of, the ideological Cold War conflict.

Alias has never really found an idea that works as cleanly as Jack’s betrayal by Laura or Irina to represent what the ‘alias’ means, or the central family values Alias strives for.

The whole point of the show, through the espionage framework, is for Syd to find that happiness and balance and security that Jack was robbed of. It has become more challenging in the post-9/11 sphere Alias was forced to inhabit, a world of uncertain alliances and geopolitical realities—Julia Thorne arc was very much a response to that—for Syd to achieve that balance. Lauren’s intrusion into that security was a pointed challenge to that ongoing story arc and in that sense, her own betrayal—her becoming Irina to Vaughn’s Jack—does make sense, but Hourglass displays how the show has moved from many of these betrayals and revelations operating on a subconscious or opaque level to scenes where Jack and Sloane openly talk about how he had it away with Irina. It removes a lot of the historical mystique from Alias’ deepest themes.

Hourglass also confirms what we have already suspected and throws a classic soap opera drama trope into the mix of the series: the secret sister.

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Film, Writing

What’s Your Pleasure? Experiencing the HELLRAISER franchise

You might be surprised at the amount of legendary horror franchises I have not yet seen. Hellraiser, until the past week, was one of them.
Halloween, for example, I have only watched digested in its entirety over the past year. Franchises such as Friday the 13th or A Nightmare on Elm St still elude me. As much as I do enjoy horror, being married to someone who abjectly refuses to watch the majority of the genre means, frequently, I end up in another cinematic space. This isn’t to blame my wife entirely – horror has never been my number one genre. Yet, I remain committed to working my way through the entire canon of these long-running, fear-providing staples, as they are key texts in understanding horror as an overarching genre. Hellraiser, if not perhaps the most critically lauded of these examples, has been a pivotal part of the horror experience since the late 1980s.

Pinhead always scared me, even despite not watching the films. The looming visage of Doug Bradley’s sadomasochistic demon appears on the cover of every Hellraiser movie, bar the final two he didn’t take part in, and I remember as a teenager browsing in the ‘90s Blockbuster near home wondering what sights Pinhead might show me. The VHS cover was unsettling enough. As a child with an overactive imagination, I chose rarely to indulge in horror; besides I would no doubt have had to watch in secret from my parents. This was pre-internet and the days anything could be watched at a click of a button. Hellraiser, and Pinhead’s terrifying, come hither dark glare, has fascinated me since. Action movies were mainly my pleasure then but I always suspected Pinhead would catch up with me one day.
Last week, it happened. I opened the box (or in this case the PLEX server) and he came. And what I found was, I’ll admit, at times unexpected…
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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 2×19: ‘Endgame’ (TV Review)

In 2018, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. This year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

You might not think it, but ‘Endgame’ is a surprisingly common episode title in genre fiction, and not just for the final episodes of seasons or even series.

Star Trek: Voyager memorably uses ‘Endgame’ as the title of its series finale, of course, and Highlander manages to squeeze a film subtitle out of it (although we know that story never really ends…), as recently has the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its epic Avengers finale. Numerous films, however, share the title, and Alias is by no means is the first series to deploy it. The seventeenth episode of The X-Files Season Two has the title End Game, and it crops up in shows as varied as Kyle XY, the BBC’s Holby City, The Equaliser, Babylon-5, Law and Order: SVU, Stargate SG-1 and on and on and on. It suggests finality and is described, frequently, as analogous to chess or games along similar lines. The endgame is the final stage of a game in which few of the cards remain.

That feels fairly appropriate to Alias at this stage because as we enter the last few episodes of Season Two, particularly after the shattering events of Truth Takes Time, a sense of tragic finality is falling across the series. Emily is dead and Sloane, consequently, has suffered a powerful loss at the very point he was on a high – he had facilitated Irina’s escape, he was assembling Rambaldi’s work, and Emily was even prepared to forgive him his trespasses out of her love for him. Her death sends him down a path of no return. Sydney, at the same time, has lost another mother in her life. Dixon has killed an innocent woman and is struggling to come to terms with his role in that. An ending feels in sight for these characters, even if Alias uses this point to pivot many of them again in a direction we didn’t, earlier in the season, see coming. Endgame also, along the way, manages to make a literal use of the title and weave it into the plot.

Endgame, while doing so, also manages to pick up and return to more of a stand-alone story thread that Alias didn’t necessarily need to focus on again, but serves as a key thematic point to explore that is resonating right now across the entire series: the security and fallibility of the American nuclear family.

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Essays, Star Trek: Voyager, TV

We need to talk about STAR TREK: VOYAGER

So I have a confession to make about Star Trek: Voyager. I have never sat down and watched, in its entirety, the last two seasons of the show. I didn’t watch them back when they aired around 20 years ago. I haven’t watched them since. I’ve watched some, here and there, but not all.

Technically, as a result, despite being a self-professed Trekkie and fan since I was a child, I’m not a Star Trek completist. This isn’t the case with any other show, either. I’ve seen all of Enterprise, for example. I’m up to date with Discovery. So why Voyager? Those episodes have been around for decades yet I have never felt the urge to revisit them. I think it goes back to my problematic relationship with the third spin-off series to Gene Roddenberry’s initial vision, one I’ve had ever since 1995.

I’m discussing this now as Voyager is, this week, a princely quarter of a century old which a) is fantastic and b) is terrifying for someone who grew up with it. Voyager first debuted when I was 12, almost 13 years old. I had discovered Star Trek on TV probably around a year earlier, having wore out VHS copies of The Search for Spock and The Wrath of Khan while in single digits. I liked The Next Generation. I already loved Deep Space NineVoyager, therefore, I greeted with enormous excitement. This was back in the days when in the UK they would release two episodes of a season in VHS tapes for DS9 & VOY every few weeks (these would cost more than a monthly Netflix subscription does now) and I bought them religiously up until, I would say, probably about the end of Season 4. Then something happened.

Well, two things happened. Firstly, this was around 1998 and as a sixteen year old leaving school, I was beginning to discover that being a Star Trek fan openly wasn’t doing me any good if I ever wanted to cop off with a girl. Secondly, I realised that I didn’t actually like Voyager all that much, and maybe I never had. Not in comparison to DS9, which aside from The X-Files and Babylon-5 around this point was the show I had lived and breathed during the 90’s. I started to realise that, a few episodes aside, I never found Voyager at all compelling.

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Essays, Game of Thrones, TV

Attachment Theory: GAME OF THRONES, Characters and Expectations

We are going to look back on the final season of Game of Thrones as one, six-part series finale because, essentially, that’s precisely what it is, riven with concluding arcs and beats for its huge ensemble of characters.

If the third episode, The Long Night, was accused of skimping out on the savagery and brutality meted out to particularly the primary core of lead characters, the fifth episode The Bells proves they were just saving up most of the horror for the battle that, in this incarnation of Game of Thrones, really mattered: the fiery, brutal sack of King’s Landing by Daenerys, now the ‘Mad Queen’, Targaryen. Over a dozen characters of significance saw their journeys end in this terrifying penultimate episode, filled with fire and blood. The reaction has, inevitably, polarised opinion online. Not just at certain deaths at this stage of the show but the narrative direction of one character in particular, which has completely changed the game for the series finale.

This was always going to happen but it displays the significant level of attachment Game of Thrones fans have placed in characters and storylines they have followed for ten years. This is prevalent in many such fandoms today and, to an extent, always has been.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×12: ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (TV Review)

If The Confession was the point of no return, The Box is the tale which catapults Alias into what is, barring one or two exceptions, a season and a half of dynamic, top drawer storytelling.

Alias was a high concept TV series from the outset. The ‘high concept’ in Hollywood vernacular defines an idea which can be distilled into a pure, accessible, often blockbuster form. ‘What if we could clone dinosaurs?’ for example with Jurassic Park, or to use another Michael Crichton example, ‘What if theme park robots became sentient and took control?’. Alias itself flaunts the high concept in its DNA, pitched essentially as ‘What if a spy found out she was working for the enemy?’. Even from Truth Be Told, Alias perhaps throws a few extras caveats into that pitch but in basic terms, that’s the point JJ Abrams’ show starts from. The Box, however, is the first episode to truly deliver on a high concept idea.

If you look at Alias across the first half of its first season, we haven’t seen an episode anything like The Box. Right from the get go, Alias engaged in a level of serialised storytelling through which it broke the 90’s mould of stand-alone, easy to syndicate episodes of television to depict a compelling, ongoing narrative journey for Sydney Bristow as she becomes more embroiled in her double-agent life with SD-6 and the CIA. Each episode, even those which carried heavily over to each other such as Reckoning and Color-Blind, tells an espionage tale on a scale which never overwhelms the broader character and narrative arcs in play: Syd & Jack’s relationship, Syd & Vaughn’s relationship, the Rambaldi mythology etc… Thus far, the spy stories have been fairly incidental and the weekly bad guys relatively disposable.

All of that changes, immediately, with The Box. The first genuine two-part story in Alias’ lifespan, labelled indeed as such, it delivers on the high concept idea with the pitch: ‘What if terrorists seize control of SD-6?’. Alias does Die Hard, basically, and without a shred of embarrassment. Writers John Eisendrath and Jesse Alexander immediately understand their reference point and the fact they are riffing, broadly, off one of the greatest examples of a high concept in Hollywood history. It only adds to the joy of The Box which exemplifies the remarkable level of confidence Alias had in its storytelling from the very beginning.

Many other series wouldn’t have the balls to make The Box until maybe its third, even fourth, seasons. Alias gets it out the way as a midpoint to its debut year.

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Alias, Episode Reviews, TV

ALIAS 1×04: ‘A Broken Heart’ (TV Review)

As we emerge from the initial phase of establishing the central concept of Alias, A Broken Heart continues developing the relationships between Sydney Bristow and our central collection of characters.

While the least important and arguably most throwaway episode of the first season so far, Vanessa Taylor’s script nonetheless has several key interactions and narrative points which give the episode a purpose, and further suggest that Alias’ approach to ongoing, serialised storytelling means this won’t be a traditional 22-episodes marked by too many points of ‘filler’.

Not every episode of Alias has too deep a clear emotional or thematic through line, but A Broken Heart quite clearly is all about broken relationships, or relationships which are in danger of shattering. The title itself is a rather pointed pun with a double-meaning; ostensibly it suggests the climactic beat of the episode, in which Syd witnesses a bunch of Euro-terrorists place a small but hugely powerful bomb in the pacemaker of a UN diplomat, but it also rather directly refers to Sydney’s emotional state, and to some degree that of her father Jack Bristow. Both of them have suffered the trauma of losing the people they loved to sudden and rather violent deaths, and both of them have had their hearts ‘broken’ in the process.

It becomes clearer that while Syd is trying to repair her damage, Jack’s may well be irreparable.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×09: ‘Baelor’ (TV Review)

Numerous precedents are set by Game of Thrones with Baelor. It is the first episode to be directed by Alan Taylor, who would make his name as one of the key, signature directors of the first two seasons. It is the first penultimate episode of the series to establish the show’s unique narrative style of delivering a blockbuster climactic tale just before the season finale. And it is the episode which killed off not only the biggest name actor in the series, but the character everyone began watching Game of Thrones convinced was the protagonist. By now we knew Game of Thrones had its own set of rules. Baelor confirms it.

As I’ve discussed in my breakdowns of the previous episodes this season, Ned Stark has been heading for the chopping block since the moment he arrived in Kings Landing, and there has always been a sense in Sean Bean’s weight-of-the-world performance that Ned knew it. This was a noble character in a world without nobility, a feudal system which may ostensibly be ridden with stories of dashing, daring, brave heroes, but is shot through with a realistic, cynical modern day sensibility in George R.R. Martin’s world-building which often heaps scorn on the kind of characters who would try and live by rules of courtly, honourable behaviour.

Cersei Lannister told Ned just a few episodes that you either win at “the game” or you die, but Ned never really knew how to play that game at all. He was a character straight out of a different world, which was precisely the point; the moment he concedes he may have to start playing, not to win but rather to survive, his life is quite ceremoniously cut short. It’s just one of the stark (pun intended) ironies of Game of Thrones.

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Episode Reviews, Game of Thrones, TV

GAME OF THRONES 1×02: ‘The Kingsroad’ (TV Review)

Game of Thrones, in many respects, has more than one pilot episode. There is an argument the entirety of its first season, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, constitutes the introductory beginning. The Kingsroad very much continues layering in themes, concepts, symbols, ideas and character arcs which will pay off across the next half a dozen seasons.

This is where, of course, serialised television differs significantly from traditional storytelling, particularly when adapting literary source material. Game of Thrones isn’t the first serialised show to be described as a ‘novel for television’ (you can go back, at least, to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 in the 90’s which considered itself such), but never before had a TV show attempted to adapt such a grand, complex series of novels as George R.R. Martin’s. Unlike plenty of serialised series before it, and indeed which launched afterwards, Game of Thrones from the beginning knew in broad strokes the beginning, middle and at least part of the end, given the majority of A Song of Ice & Fire has long been written. This gives the beginning of the series a confidence many other shows struggle to find or maintain.

Game of Thrones in later series has been accused, not unfairly, of racing through plot beats. Seasons 6 and particularly 7-8 are almost certainly guilty of this, for better or worse. Season 1, however, is already taking its time. The Kingsroad merely builds on what was established in Winter Is Coming, which essentially was not much, in the grand scope of Westeros. It gave us our primary characters around which the entire show would orbit (given if you look at the pilot, the majority of key players are still with us in the final episode). It set up the principal antagonists of the series, and the main narrative through-line of Season 1, being the conspiracy at the heart of King’s Landing.

Foundations. Good foundations but with a huge amount of scope to add more scaffolding to.

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