ALIAS – ‘The Telling’ (2×22 – 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…

The title of the Season Two finale of Alias is something of a coy misdirect. The Telling promises much in the way of answers to a series filled with questions and, ultimately, simply piles more questions on top of the pile.

This is, however, as it should be. Alias was built on mystery box storytelling. J.J. Abrams, who returns to write and direct this episode, the first time in that double role since the series pilot Truth Be Told (and his last as show runner of the series), constructed Alias atop a house of cards in terms of narrative enigma and steadily unfurling character dynamics which, particularly in the second half of this season, have begun to fall to pieces as the series contracted and morphed into something new. The Telling serves as the conclusion of that transitory process and the beginning of an entirely new one.

Abrams’ script and story are extremely confident in not just picking up from where Second Double left off, as all of the character and story threads across the season begin coming together, but delivering a series of conclusive beats which are incredibly rewarding as a viewer. The tantalising mystery of Sloane’s Rambaldi device and the arcane mythology behind Syd’s ultimate confrontation with Irina; the climactic revelation and supremely cathartic fight between Syd and Evil Francie as the most personal truth of the season is revealed, and finally what has to rank as one of the most stunning and brazen cliffhangers, and one of the best examples of mystery box storytelling, that genre television has ever delivered.

The Telling might not quite live up to the tease of its title. It might not lay bare all of the secrets Alias has to offer. But it does reward the audience as the capstone to a remarkably successful twenty two episodes of storytelling, given how different the show looks from where we began in The Enemy Walks In.

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ALIAS – ‘The Abduction’ (2×10 – 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…

Ever since the very beginning, Alias has always neglected a key group of its contracted regular cast, among them the character who finally gets his moment in the spotlight in The Abduction: Marshall Flinkman.

Though Will had his conspiracy investigation angle in Season One to give him meat to chew on, Marshall was one of three characters particularly who week in, week out would get short shrift compared to Syd, Jack, Vaughn and Sloane principally. Dixon would only be wheeled out when Syd needed someone to go on a mission with, getting only the briefest of interesting plots when he suspects Syd of betrayal in Almost Thirty Years. Francie, Syd’s roommate, gets an unconvincing romantic sub-plot ditched from The Coup onwards, after which she barely features. It takes Dixon’s entire belief system and then family to be destroyed to give him anything of real substance, and Francie has to actually *die* before she becomes in any way interesting. Which just leaves Marshall.

Right from pilot episode Truth Be Told, Marshall is designed entirely as comic relief. He is the nerdy oddball who is tolerated purely for his technical brilliance, given how much he irritates all of the serious people in the room. There is barely an episode of Alias up to this point that doesn’t feature Marshall in a briefing awkwardly dropping one-liners or geek references that nobody in the room finds funny, or rambling too often before being cut off and falling quiet. He is, effectively, Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Q from the James Bond series by way of the Lone Gunmen in The X-Files. Marshall, as a character, runs entirely counter to everyone else in Alias and that’s precisely the point – though he may be a genius, he is also perhaps the most relatable person in the show. If we were in Alias, we’d all be a variant on Marshall, most likely.

The Abduction, and particularly A Higher Echelon after it, are designed with one question in mind: what if we throw Marshall out of his comfort zone?

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DOCTOR WHO Season 12 is Regenerating… Back into Itself

Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.

I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.

Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.

It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING REY: Star Wars’ Exceptionalism Problem

Caution: here be spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, so I suggest only reading once you have seen the film.

Upon leaving a screening of The Force Awakens in 2015, you would be forgiven for having one question on your mind: who exactly *is* Rey?

Our new heroine for the revived, sequel era of Star Wars launched by JJ Abrams through the Disney-purchased LucasFilm, Rey was deemed by that film to be ‘special’. Abandoned mysteriously on the desert planet Jakku by parents she always expected to return for her, Rey is then cosmically bound to the Skywalker saga she ends up stumbling, with escaped Imperial Stormtrooper Finn, into the middle of. She feels connected to the lightsaber of the missing Luke Skywalker, which even gives her a vision of all kinds of backstory arcanum. By the end, she is tentatively wielding the weapon of a Jedi, without truly understanding the context. The Force Awakens fully establishes Rey as *important* with a capital I.

Then comes along The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, who almost immediately rips all of that away. Luke doesn’t think all that much of the lightsaber Rey reverently holds out to him on Ahch-To island. Arch villain Kylo Ren, the only one of our main new characters to actually *be* a Skywalker by blood, tells her what he believes she already knows – her parents were nobody, that she is no one special. Ren uses that as his basis, in The Last Jedi, to encourage her to join the Dark Side as his queen. If she is nobody special, like all of the fascist goons who joylessly work for the First Order and the Empire before it, Rey will become compliant. Exceptionalism corrupts. Belief that you have cosmic significance can breed dangerous traits. Yet Johnson doesn’t truly believe that. He believes precisely the opposite. You don’t have to be exceptional, to be special, to be significant.

The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding part of the Star Wars sequel saga, challenges that. It definitely proves that Star Wars, and perhaps popular culture, has an exceptionalism problem as we enter a new decade.

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ALIAS – ‘Cipher’ (2×03 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

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.

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ALIAS (Season 1) – Overview

The first season of Alias, the show that put superstar producer-director JJ Abrams on the map, has aged remarkably well.

Airing in 2001, a matter of weeks in the wake of the traumatic September 11th attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, Alias had the unenviable task of providing overblown, B-movie, pulp escapism to an audience reeling from the most existentially terrifying attack on American soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abrams, fresh off his first TV series Felicity (starring the later-to-be-famous Keri Russell) and a career penning screenplays across the 1990’s for major Hollywood blockbusters, had to try and sell a show which captured the retro, cult aesthetics of 1960’s adventure shows and movies he had grown up with – Mission: Impossible, I Spy, the James Bond series – shot through with a stylish, slick, modern action sensibility.

It was a hard sell. Audiences gravitated far more to the intense, dour, revenge fantasy of 24 and all-American hero Jack Bauer, who steadily across a decade in which Americans and Western Europe turned their gaze toward Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of the Middle East became more of the superhero Americans wanted. If he was The Punisher, a man of dubious morals ready to compromise his soul for the greater good, then Alias’ hero Sydney Bristow was Captain America; virtuous, homely, and a reflection of wholesome American values, wrapped up inside familial and emotional angst that recalled Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Audiences never truly took Sydney to their breast, to their heart, and almost immediately Alias became a cult genre hit, never to explode fully into the global mainstream.

The sad thing about this is just how well executed Alias’ first season is, one of those rare shows that arrives almost fully formed and very quickly steps into a unique tone and rhythm, only building on that start to deliver twenty two episodes which provide a real sense of payoff.

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ALIAS – ‘The Box – Pt 1’ (1×12 – 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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A Slayer Reborn: Buffy and the Reboot Question

Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.

More specifically, the fact that Joss Whedon is overseeing, though likely not directly show running, a modern reboot of his legendary 20th Century Fox series which remains one of the bastions of 90’s pop culture, female empowerment, and genre storytelling. Note the word here that is crucial: reboot. Not revival. Not continuation. A reboot.

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ALIAS – ‘Truth Be Told’ (1×01 – Review)

It is easy to forget, for all the subsequent success with the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and now Star Wars mega-franchises, that the pilot episode of ABC’s Alias remains one of the best things producing and show-running supremo J.J. Abrams has ever done. ‘Truth Be Told’ is a blistering sixty five minute opening to a rare TV show – one which comes on the face of it fully packaged, fully formed, and with a confidence and spring in its step that belies its quiet, low-fi origins. There is more to this package, and how it was created however, than meets the eye.

Think back to 2001. Had anyone heard of Abrams at that point? He was established – a proven Hollywood screenwriter with credits such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon or Harrison Ford vehicle Regarding Henry, not to mention four seasons of teen drama Felicity as a show runner. Those movies were nonetheless famous for their stars and directors, not the glasses-wearing megamind of Abrams bashing away at the words, and Felicity was never particularly that big of a hit – I’m not sure it ever even aired in my native UK, and if it did it went largely unnoticed. Alias was the series which put Abrams, and most of his writing staff, on the map. The first season of his spy drama races out the gate with fast-paced, stylish storytelling, which crucially never forgets to place character at the heart of every beat, every scene and every plot-twist. ‘Truth Be Told’ is B-movie, pulp action with significant heart and soul.

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Alias (Series Overview + Reviews)

Alias arrived at a fascinating point when it came to television.

The year was 2001 and a lot was changing in the ether around it. JJ Abrams, at this point best known as the writer of Harrison Ford weepie Regarding Henry, Michael Bay blockbuster Armageddon and show-runner of late 90’s teen hit drama Felicity, was nowhere near the producing and directing Hollywood totem he would become. His production house, Bad Robot, had not yet become the nascent Amblin of its generation. And, just nineteen days before the pilot, ‘Truth Be Told’, aired… 9/11 happened.

Abrams’ spy series already had some interesting cache behind it. Alias was a show that emerged on ABC with the intention of riding into the 21st century with a fresh storytelling model. The most successful and important TV shows of the 1990’s had almost all built their success on an episodic, network model of storytelling; 22-26 episode seasons with plenty of stand-alone stories which would serve the show well in syndication. In everything from Quantum Leap through to The X-Files, show-runners moving from the 1980’s into more of a Golden Age of television, in which some of the most key writers in both TV and cinema of the next few decades would emerge, had cleaved to the way it had been done for years.

Not Alias.

It would immediately strive for an aesthetic which would tap into a deep reservoir of retro-futurism, both aesthetically and in terms of production. Abrams and his staff came out of the gate leaning heavily into the kind of serialisation most shows in the 1990’s just didn’t do, bar a few trend-setting exception we’ll return to. The concept was both high and complex – female super-spy Sydney Bristow would find herself learning the covert CIA branch she had been working for, SD-6, was in truth the arm of a worldwide crime syndicate, and would work as a double-agent to bring down the enemy from within. Episodes would end on a cliffhanger every week and fold into each other. A surfeit of character and narrative mysteries would propel Syd’s journey along, not to mention a curious central, underlying occult and arcane mythology which tipped the show away from action-thriller and more toward science-fiction.

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