Month: November 2019

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Salvation’ (2×06)

If there is a disposable episode of Alias Season Two, it is probably Salvation. It struggles to follow in the dramatic wake of Dead Drop and the personal revelations of The Indicator as much more than an epilogue to episodes which cut to the very core of Sydney and Jack Bristow’s relationship, and the central themes of the show itself.

Salvation to an extent also misses a golden opportunity to fully tether the post-Cold War politics of Alias with the post-9/11 reality of America at the time. Irina Derevko, again unseen in this episode, is tried for treason by the US government and (off screen) pleads guilty, having been interrogated at the ominous Camp Harris—Alias’ version of Guantanamo Bay which we would eventually see in Season Three’s Breaking Point. Irina is sentenced to die by lethal injection in an extremely short time frame, which adds some level of ticking clock to the events of Salvation, as Syd’s moral conscience compels her to try and expose Jack’s crime in framing her to try and save a mother she, otherwise, distrusts and is telling herself she despises.

This has been the crux of this entire mini-arc that has dominated Season Two so far – Sydney being manipulated in different ways by both of her highly dysfunctional parents to choose which one she is loyal to. Jack still believes Irina is manipulating her in accepting her guilt. “She plead guilty to stop you witnessing her trial, Sydney” he assures her, reeling off a reminder of the lives she took as part of the eighty-six counts of espionage levelled at her. Jack considers Syd to be naive in not seeing her manipulation and whether right or wrong about that, Salvation does depict Syd’s naiveté in how she believes exposing the misdemeanours of one parent would save another. Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci’s script does her a disservice in how little she understands the actions and motives of a hawkish US government responding, in the wake of 9/11, to an unspoken societal trauma. Had the episode depicted Irina on trial, answering for her crimes, we might have felt the same core level of dramatic weight as we experienced in Dead Drop or Trust Me.

Salvation, sadly, wants to race through character arcs and plot beats of significance, while still servicing the natural structure of Alias as a show, rather than focusing more heavily on the meatier drama at the heart of Irina’s possible execution as a terrorist. It makes for a frustrating hour of television.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VIII – ‘By the Book’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

One of the key aspects to the character arc of James T. Kirk across The Wrath of Khan is how he, as Dr. McCoy puts it toward the beginning, hides behind rules and regulations as a way of insulating himself from his own lack of inertia. Following the Reliant’s ambush, and the death of young a Starfleet crewmen who represent the next generation, Kirk has nowhere else to hide.

It has been oft-discussed in analysing Star Trek about how frequently the Captain of the ship puts himself in unnecessary risk. Jean-Luc Picard jokes in Star Trek: Nemesis how his first officer, Will Riker, is a “tyrannical martinet” for never allowing him on away missions. By that point, Star Trek can laugh at its own history, across multiple series and Captains, of the figurehead throwing themselves into the fray – and this is precisely what Kirk does once the Enterprise reaches space station Regula 1, upon hearing no word from Carol Marcus or her people.

Across The Wrath of Khan, Kirk has been challenged by regulations, or he has enforced them with company drills or refusing to take command from Spock upon joining them for the training cruise, and the green, curious Lieutenant Saavik has been there repeatedly to query any attempts to not go “by the book”, as Spock later describes it. Saavik here quotes General Order Fifteen: “No flag officer shall beam into a hazardous area without armed escort” as a justification for joining the away mission, and Kirk knows in this case she is not going by the book herself.

You sense in Nicholas Meyer’s writing a clear distrust of extreme, enforced regulation. Once Kirk throws those self-enforced shackles off, he starts to rediscover the swagger and humour he displayed in The Original Series. He begins to embrace that deeper humanity, even in the face of the kind of chilling horror he encounters on Regula 1.

TV Review: THE CROWN (Season 3)

Roughly halfway into Peter Morgan’s sprawling potted history of Queen Elizabeth II, you realise The Crown has reached a point of security. After two seasons which made a star out of Claire Foy and gave Netflix perhaps it’s most prestige original property, Season 3 has the self-assured confidence we see Elizabeth, now middle-aged, begin to imbue.

The unique central gimmick of Morgan’s drama was announced at the very beginning – that every two seasons of a projected six, the actors portraying Her Majesty and family would age-up alongside the characters themselves, and Season 3 marks the first instance of this change. Foy truly made Elizabeth her own, essaying with grace a young woman thrust into a role unlike any other on the planet while having to balance her own youth and sexuality with the rigours of her position. Olivia Colman, despite freshly minted with a Best Actress Oscar for portraying another British Queen in The Favourite, always had some big shoes to fill. As you might imagine with an actor of Colman’s character, she does just that. Nor does she attempt to simply replicate Foy’s performance.

To do so in the first place would have been a tactical error as Season 3, which takes place over a 13 year span from 1964 through to Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, presents a different Queen. The season premiere is called Olding and that forms part of the central theme in Morgan’s show this year: change. The opening scenes of the season nicely mark the actor transition as Elizabeth sees proposals for a new set of stamps, with her face replacing Foy’s; indeed Morgan bookends this nicely in finale Cri de Coeur when she is presented with a photograph from the late 40’s showing Foy and Matt Smith as Prince Philip. “How young we were” Elizabeth wistfully remarks. How young too, in a sense, was her country.

Season 3 is driven by not just Elizabeth’s and her family’s transition into different ages, roles, responsibilities and desires, but that of her country; a United Kingdom weathering economic downturn, socialist revolution, and the ripples of class war which continues the break down of the colonial Establishment on which her family was built. The Crown, halfway in, questions the state of monarchy itself in the modern age.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘The Indicator’ (2×05)

One of the key thematic ideas running through the genre output of Bad Robot as a company, and particularly JJ Abrams as a producer, is that of destiny. Alias, for the first time head on, truly confronts this concept in The Indicator.

This is an episode more important to the broader direction and thematic core of Alias than it may first been given credit for. It exposes a huge personal secret from Sydney Bristow’s past which casts her relationship with her father Jack—one I’ve argued since the very beginning is what Alias is really all about—in a striking and devastating new light. It ends up directly connecting to season finale The Telling, in how it reveals Project Christmas as a spy children training program, and consequently manages to establish the parameters for Syd’s amnesiac assassin arc across the first half of Season Three. It even connects to the series finale, All the Time in the World, which returns to the idea of an innate intelligence within the Bristow/Derevko line that is pre-disposed to espionage, but the message is that such conditioning can ultimately be broken. The Indicator re-frames Syd’s entire life as pre-disposed by some level of spy destiny, and questions whether or not this was inevitable, or she is entirely a product of what her parents made her.

A key skill of Alias, and why to my mind it is one of the great, underrated American television genre series, in how well it actualises parental ideas and tropes. The nature vs nurture debate continues to rage; are serial killers who came from loving family homes a product of their parents, or is there a genetic or psychological basis for their crimes? Alias literalises the idea of nurture by having Jack explicitly manipulate Syd as a young girl into exploiting what a CIA psychologist describes as “proficiency with numbers, three dimensional thinking, problem solving”, and coding into her subconscious the aptitude that allowed her, when SD-6 came calling, to sail through training with the highest scores and commendations. It is hard to say whether Abrams and his team of writers planned this revelation in advance, despite a mention of Project Christmas in Season One’s Masquerade, but it retroactively fits as a causal explanation for Syd’s super-spy abilities.

The Indicator does not necessarily linger in the memory as a classic or iconic individual episode of television, but without doubt it changes the entire context of Syd’s life as a spy, her childhood and her relationship with Jack. In that sense, it’s a game changer.

Film Review: LE MANS ‘66 (2019)

Akin to most movies about sport, Le Mans ‘66 aka Ford vs Ferrari is not really about the field in question, motor racing. It is about men. James Mangold’s movie is almost obnoxiously masculine in an era where, and not without good reason, it is far from cache to be so. It is, quite deliberately, a throwback.

Mangold’s film, which tells the real-life story of the British driver who helped an American racing firm win the famed Le Mans race in 1966 for the Ford Motor Company, is a muscular slice of high octane drama. Following the sun-dappled haze of 1969 in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Mangold gives us a hot, bleached Los Angeles slick with oil and tarmac; a mid-60’s in the throes of a culture war. Ford, headed by Tracy Letts’ iron clad descendant Henry Ford II, are bastions of pure-blooded American conservatism, a Stateside corporate aristocracy who consider modern pop-culture icons such as James Bond “a degenerate”. Christian Bale’s British-born mechanic and driver, Ken Miles, is an unashamed team player. “He’s a beatnik” a Ford executive describes him as but, in truth, the family man Ken simply isn’t on brand.

Le Mans ’66 is, therefore, about masculine individuality. In some sense, David works for Goliath in this story, and the conflict isn’t really Ford vs Ferrari at all. That’s not the beating heart of Mangold’s film, and is only being sold as the title in the US because of the lack of modern associations with the name Le Mans. Framing the film as a conflict between the most famous American car company and legendary European racing firm in the world is an easy read, but the real battle is between individual American exceptionalism and a growing corporate hegemony in a post-war, pre-neoliberal space. Henry Ford represents a world people are still battling against in the Western hemisphere and, oddly enough, Mangold’s film doesn’t necessarily reflect a universe in which the little man can win.

If Le Mans’ 66 is a David v Goliath story, make no mistake… Goliath wins.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Dead Drop’ (2×04)

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.

Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt VII – ‘The Word is Given’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

In a very real sense, the space battle that cuts right into the end of Act One, and roughly the mid-section, of The Wrath of Khan is the first true example in Star Trek of the kind of space combat we would witness in subsequent TV series and movies even up to the present day, as of writing, with the huge space combat sequence in Star Trek: Discovery’s Season Two finale.

The Wrath of Khan, as we have discussed, defined itself visually and formally on the British nautical structure, given Nicholas Meyer’s love of the Horatio Hornblower series. Yet before this, Gene Roddenberry’s Original Series had framed the Enterprise’s encounters with dangerous alien life forms often more as a camera-shaking face off as opposed to a true battle of wits.

James T. Kirk most often fought the bad guy in close quarter combat, as indeed he did Khan Noonien Singh in Space Seed, and the Enterprise rarely felt the consequences of space combat. The Wrath of Khan changed that when Meyer pitched the central encounter between the Enterprise and the hijacked USS Reliant as a World War Two submarine battle in space, particularly come the battle later in the Mutara Nebula. Their first skirmish ends up as an ambush, the lawless pirates taking on the nation-sailing frigate, and it’s one the Enterprise barely manages to escape from.

Crucially, Meyer ensures Kirk’s first encounter with Khan is not an anaemic one. As befits the overarching themes of loss and discovery, death and rebirth, the Reliant’s ambush takes its personal as well as metaphorical toll. People die. And for once, defying the classic Star Trek trope of the ‘redshirt’, we *feel* it.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Cipher’ (2×03)

If Trust Me worked to establish Sydney Bristow’s psychology toward her mother, Cipher begins the same process with Jack Bristow as regards the woman who used to be his wife.

Understandably across the first two episodes of Season Two, Alias didn’t really devote a lot of time to Jack and where he stands with all of this. The Enemy Walks In saw him mainly putting Will Tippin back into the world, while in Trust Me he voices brief notes of caution about Irina Derevko which are entirely to be expected. Jack was the man she betrayed in the most personal and soul-destroying way, and Season One established very clearly just how much Irina’s ‘death’ and the betrayal about her origins he kept from Syd all her life had turned him into an emotional shell of a man, one unable to truly connect with the daughter he loved dearly from such a tragic relationship. Jack was always going to react badly to Irina’s reappearance on the scene but Cipher establishes the terror underneath the anger and caution: that Syd might be bewitched by her mother.

This fear forms the core basis of Cipher, an episode which otherwise is a fairly formulaic outing for Alias. It feels the most ‘Season One’ of the three Season Two episodes to date; that sounds like a rebuke, but please don’t read it as such. Season One, which I’ve talked about in depth, is an extremely confident and accomplished first year of television but many of the early initial episodes lack the same nuance and depth of the middle and later half of the season as they work to establish plot points and character arcs that will pay off down the road. Cipher suffers from the same problem, as writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci (in their first script this season) seed storylines that will bloom: Jack’s secret about Syd’s childhood, Will’s CIA interactions, Sloane being ‘haunted’ by Emily. Around this, they strive to stick to the spinal mission structure employed by the first season as Syd pursues a MacGuffin, but there is less weight and heft than the previous hour.

In truth, Cipher is probably the first of the five weakest episodes of Alias Season Two, running from here through to The Counteragent. Fine episodes on their own terms, and necessary ones, but hours which lack the dramatic payoff Season Two later provides in droves.

Book Review: THUNDERBOOK (John Rain)

What is there left to say about James Bond 007? The world’s most legendary spy has been written about for almost sixty years since Ian Fleming’s 1950’s/60’s novels exploded onto the cinema screen in 1962’s Dr. No, analysing every facet of the character’s escapades, his place in the wider scope of history, through to the technique behind his many movies. 

Thunderbook, however, might be the first text to freely take the piss out of each and every one of Bond’s (to date) 24 missions.

TV Review: ALIAS – ‘Trust Me’ (2×02)

On some level, Trust Me is really where Season Two of Alias begins.

The Enemy Walks In did everything required of a premiere episode of a new season, re-establishing the key characters and plot-lines while dealing with the dangling narrative threads from the previous season finale, but it also operated much like an epilogue to the climactic revelations and twists of Season One finale Almost Thirty Years. JJ Abrams had to remind audiences of the central mission statement of the show while getting the ensemble collection of characters back into their traditional roles but at the same time he added in new characters, new complications, and introduced the major new character of Irina Derevko who would drive the primary character arc for Sydney Bristow across the season.

Trust Me is more about establishing not just a sense of place but a central, driving theme that will permeate across the entire season: the titular trust. Immediately, in the previously discussed introductory segment reminding us of the series’ concept, Alias is keen to remind us that we may not be able to trust Irina, whose surrender to the CIA at the end of The Enemy Walks In tags onto the end of the introduction. “The true loyalty of Agent Bristow’s mother… remains unknown” Greg Grunberg ominously warns, as the word ‘UNKNOWN’ flashes on the screen across Irina’s moment of surrender. Alias is very much labouring the point that Season Two will be about answer this question – who is Irina and what does she want? Can she be trusted? And just how does that effect our main characters, particularly Syd?

Trust Me asks those questions right from the get go and packs a huge amount, from primarily a character perspective, into a short running time. We are left far more grounded concretely by the end in what Season Two is looking to achieve than we were at the end of the premiere.