Such is the latent tragic power of 19th century genius Nikola Tesla that he remains an enigmatic figure of fascination, as Michael Almereyda’s offbeat biopic suggests.
In 2003, a group of founders including the now infamous billionaire Elon Musk launched Tesla Motors Inc, what would later become Tesla, and emerge as the world’s foremost provider of electric vehicles and clean energy in the modern world. Musk’s well known aspirations as one of this centuries technological pioneers, not to mention his eccentric reputation, all stem from the influence of the original Tesla, the tentacles of his unique, imaginative and ultimately rejected scientific concepts stretching across more than a century. Almereyda’s take on the man’s life, the first dramatic biopic after a recent 2016 documentary (and indeed an appearance by him in Doctor Who), is designed to remind us of his genius.
Inevitably, however, this being an Almereyda picture, Tesla refuses to be a straight down the line, traditional historical portrait, and rather an avant garde, often wilfully navel-gazing depiction of lost greatness.
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…
If we can consider Phase One to be a second pilot for Alias, then Double Agent faces an even trickier job than following up the biggest episode of the series to date. It also has to reset the board and establish the kind of series Alias will be in future.
Or, at least, in theory. Double Agent kind of doesn’t do that. It is a strange episode in some respects. Originally designed to slot in after The Getaway, Double Agent is without question the most standalone episode Alias has ever done to date. If it wasn’t for the key MacGuffin of Project Helix being crucial to the denouement of the season, it could be considered fairly disposable, focusing primarily as it does on the guest character of CIA agent James Lennox and his entanglement with the facial and bodily reconstruction technology that causes such problems for our CIA heroes in this story. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine just how writers Alex Kurtzman-Counter & Roberto Orci could have penned this episode in the same way were it *before* Phase One.
For one thing, there seems no logical way SD-6 or the Alliance could have functioned in this story and for it to have made sense, and one wonders if Kurtzman-Counter & Orci had to re-write and re-structure the story to eliminate the traditional constructs of the pre-Phase One storytelling style – SD-6 mission, Sydney’s counter-mission, and multiple narratives balancing alongside that central thrust. As it turns out, Double Agent operates in a strange nether space between Phase One and A Free Agent. Double Agent has the briefest of cameos from Sloane. No Sark. No Irina. No Marshall or especially Dixon, in limbo as they transition into their new CIA roles. “They’ll be in debrief for a while. Meanwhile, Sloane’s been put on Interpol’s most wanted list” Vaughn claims, allowing the story to continue unabated.
Nevertheless, Double Agent is too awkwardly placed, despite spinning a good yarn, to really answer the question of what kind of show Alias will be. Perhaps in step with the world of Alias, it’s almost deliberately a sleight of hand.
Treadstone feels like a show that somebody made in 2008 and forgot about for over ten years.
There is something a little strange about Tim Kring’s series set in the Jason Bourne universe. For one thing, it seems utterly determined to never mention the ‘B word’ at any point. Not Blackbriar, the second secret CIA project to recruit, train and brainwash super-spies. That gets a mention, having collapsed during The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Legacy. The events of those films, particularly Ultimatum, are expressly referenced or at least heavily hinted at. Bourne *himself* is referred to (as “the asset”, or something deliberately wink wink nudge nudge), but his name? Nope. It could be a rights issue. The credits do after all say “based on an organisation from the Bourne series of novels by Robert Ludlum” which is about as thin a tether as you can mine in order to put together a TV show. You can have the name Treadstone, and that’s it.
Yet at the same time, Kring goes out of his way to make this show, effectively, a lower-budget tribute act to the Bourne franchise, predominately the Paul Greengrass films which really established the tone and style of that saga – all shaky cam, pass the sick bag Krav Maga fight sequences, a global travelogue, lots of shady government intelligence agents in rooms trying to outfox assassins working as much with raw instinct as intellect. You’ve all seen a Bourne film, right? This doesn’t just inhabit the same narrative world but also the same visual and iconographic one. The music has John Powell’s percussive style. The fighting is close combat, no quarter, balletic hand to hand. The intrigue is post-Cold War (and mid-Cold War, actually) spycraft. It works to place itself as a side-story to the Bourne saga in the same manner as The Bourne Legacy from Tony Gilroy. That worked to distance from Greengrass in many ways. Treadstone works to revel in the comparisons.
The biggest surprise of all is that Treadstone, well… it’s actually not that bad, for what it is, even as a show caught between two worlds and two eras.
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 fromTruth 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.