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The X-Files

Tony Talks #24: A. J. Black – Published Author!

So it has finally happened guys… I am a published author!

Myth-Building in Modern Media: The Role of the Mytharc in Imagined Worlds is finally now available to purchase via Amazon and all good bookshops. It won’t necessarily be on all shelves but you can order online. I’ll provide links at the bottom should you wish to be very kind and purchase. The paperback isn’t cheap but the price point is a bit more agreeable via Kindle, and I recommend asking your library to stock it so then you can read it for free. If you do spend your hard earned money on this, my eternal thanks. Please do let me know what you think too, ideally via an Amazon/Goodreads rating/review, or by messaging me via this blog or my social media pages. I’d love to hear what you make of it.

Here’s the blurb once again if you remain on the fence:

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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.

ALIAS – ‘Endgame’ (2×19 – 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.

ALIAS – ‘Truth Takes Time’ (2×18 – 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…

Truth Takes Time could have, and perhaps should have, become the catchphrase for Alias in the same manner ‘The Truth is Out There’ did for The X-Files. It certainly speaks to the ongoing reality of the series’ mystery box storytelling.

It was a phrase used by Irina Derevko back in The Enemy Walks In, after she saves Sydney’s life by shooting dead her confederate Alexander Khasinau. As if to underscore her words, she immediately turns herself into the CIA, confounding Syd, Jack and everyone involved in the hunt for her organisation. Truth, in this instance, is knowledge as fundamentally sacred as the Rambaldi mystery Irina is dedicated to solving. Irina’s message is that the search for truth is an ongoing process, that it exists itself as a quest, but one for Sydney. Irina could tell her an enormous amount of secrets, as there is the constant suggestion that she knows much more about the mythology behind Alias than she lets on, but she never does. This is, admittedly, partly for dramatic purposes, but there is something else going on.

Truth underscores this entire episode, beyond even the title, as Truth Takes Time is probably the most *personal* story certainly in Season Two of Alias, and perhaps at any point in the mythology. Most episodes across the first and second seasons, and in subsequent years, see Sydney & her colleagues facing threats that existentially represent old blocs or emerging enemies – SD-6, the Alliance, K-Directorate, even the Covenant or Prophet Five to come in future seasons. They are all impersonal structures, however, and while they contain characters who provide personal connections to our heroes, they are never functionally enemies we come to know or truly understand. In Truth Takes Time, our enemies are Sloane, Irina and Sark. Every interaction, every challenge, every reveal and every loss is deeply felt by everyone involved.

Every episode of Alias right now feels like a point of no return as the series quite masterfully reconceives itself as, this week, an espionage melodrama, and Truth Takes Time is no exception. Nothing is quite the same again by the end of this one.

ALIAS – ‘Firebomb’ (2×16 – 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…

Though a series born in the wake of the devastating attack on New York in September 2001, Alias was always a series that glanced the other way from that existential trauma. Firebomb begins to see a turn back toward that direction.

A Free Agent worked to establish the new status quo for the show and its characters in the post-Phase One world, placing Sydney Bristow on a new quest not as a double agent but rather a reluctant operative in the CIA dedicated to bringing to justice the man who killed her fiancé, her former SD-6 boss Arvin Sloane. The episode ends with her coming close, facing off inside a Swiss bank Sloane is robbing—himself utilising an alias—as a way of marking how Season Two will, despite shooting off into a variety of different directions in the final third, arc itself around the CIA’s hunt for Sloane, and their determination to prevent him completing his quest to understand the work of prophet Milo Rambaldi.

In that sense, Alias immediately gets the opportunity to streamline the concept that ABC has, in time, become weary of, with the show costing almost 2 million dollars an episode without the ratings improving to show for it. Not even a post-Super Bowl slot for arguably one of the best crafted episodes the show would ever do in Phase One was enough to justify the series’ existence. The network would remain committed to being in business with JJ Abrams, but the show needed to adjust direction. A Free Agent gives a taster of what that new direction could be – less tangled in terms of narrative structure but filled with character complications and ongoing storylines. Firebomb is, essentially, the second part of establishing this new template for how Alias will operate this season, picking up on Sydney cornering Sloane and playing out the first cat and mouse chase between them.

Where Firebomb stands out, despite being an episode of transition and establishment, still working in fixing the new paradigm of Sloane in opposition to Sydney and our heroes, it fully begins to embrace Alias’ position as a post-9/11 series, acknowledging the wider geopolitical landscape around it.

ALIAS – ‘A Free Agent’ (2×15 – 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…

There is a strong argument to be made that A Free Agent is the episode in which the second era of Alias truly begins.

Phase One, in a direct attempt to reconceptualise the series, destroyed in one episode the entire conceptual framework of how Alias worked in order to eradicate the complexity of the double-agent spy narrative Sydney Bristow found herself within, collapsing SD-6 and the Alliance beyond them like a house of cards in swift, stylish fashion. Double Agent, succeeding it, was originally meant to air ahead of it, and serves as an unlikely breakwater, geared around a major A-list guest star and while it introduces a key part of the series’ mythology in the Helix doubling technology, it feels strangely divorced from what came before and what follows after. A Free Agent is the direct follow-up to Phase One. It is the episode that deals with the fallout and consequences of SD-6’s collapse, on multiple levels, and kickstarts the new threat Season Two will deal with.

Namely: the threat of Arvin Sloane as a super-villain, freed from the restrictions of his role in SD-6, and allowed to blossom into the character Ron Rifkin has steadily, through the nature of his ambiguous and deadly performance, steered the character toward. A Free Agent also, directly, even up to the nature of its title, deals head on with the reality of Sydney’s existence in the espionage world. She has always been a reluctant hero, dragged into the CIA’s mission to destroy the Alliance after the loss of her fiancee. All she wanted, upon learning the truth about SD-6 and Sloane, was to escape. “I did everything for the CIA I said I would, and I’m done” she claims, determinedly, planning to quit the CIA. A Free Agent does something the audience, even without realising it, needed: it provides a new mission statement for Syd, at least for the time being. A reason for her to continue being a spy and for Alias, logically, to exist.

That reason, interestingly, turns out to be the realisation that Sydney, existentially, is trapped. A Free Agent establishes Sloane as a personal and ideological opponent she needs to, logically, overcome in order to escape this life. The title becomes an ironic one.

ALIAS – ‘Double Agent (2×14 – 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…

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.

ALIAS – ‘Phase One’ (2×13 – 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…

Every television show has that one, signature episode which stands out as the series at its best and often its most iconic. Phase One, for Alias, is very much that episode.

It has passed into the cultural lexicon in American TV as “the Super Bowl episode” of Alias, in that it was chosen by ABC for the very prestigious honour of airing directly after the Super Bowl, America’s biggest watch sports event in mid-February by some distance, and in the days where network television ruled the roost, many shows would save major two-part episodes or important narratives to air in the slipstream of the Super Bowl, aware that they had a larger guarantee of attracting a major audience. Phase One was originally designed, structurally, to air *after* Double Agent, but once J.J. Abrams—with some advice from his wife—realised the powerful potential of Phase One, and quite how much of a game changer it was, the running order was adjusted and Phase One aired after the 2003 Super Bowl…

…to the lowest audience numbers in that spot since 1975! Though perversely it was still the highest rated episode for reviewing figures the series ever achieved. This is a reflection on how Alias, despite being supported well by ABC who believed in it and Abrams enough to consistently renew the series, even when the numbers were eclipsed substantially by Abrams’ next series Lost from Season 4 onwards, would consistently struggle to find an audience, even in the wake of the most watched television event of the year and the fact that Phase One ends up being, for all intents and purposes, a second pilot for Alias. It is structured and designed entirely to close the book on the knotty espionage premise introduced in Truth Be Told, do away with SD-6, the Alliance and Sydney Bristow as a double agent, and reboot the series with a streamlined, if not simplistic and uncomplicated, premise going forward.

As a result, Phase One is not only the best episode of Alias since Abrams’ pilot, it is also arguably the show at the peak of what it was capable of. It is the closest Alias ever comes to true TV greatness and a motion picture scope and gravitas.

ALIAS – ‘A Higher Echelon’ (2×11 – 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…

A Higher Echelon might be the last traditional episode of Alias ever produced.

In the sense that we are rapidly on approach to the point of no return that is Phase One, and The Getaway works as much to bridge viewers into the developments and revelations of that episode as it does to tell the kind of story Alias has been telling since Truth Be Told, specifically with the balance of espionage mission set-pieces balanced alongside continuing, ongoing narrative arcs. A Higher Echelon has that structure finely tuned now, even though Alias was always a show that raced out of the gate remarkably confident in how it presented itself. The irony is that an episode like A Higher Echelon, which is fun, well-paced and filled with an array of interesting plotlines, proves beyond a doubt that Alias could have continued in the same vein for at least another season beyond this one.

John Eisendrath, arguably one of Alias’ strongest writers, quite expertly balances a number of different storylines in A Higher Echelon, while simultaneously maintaining a level of cohesion which belies the sheer volume of stuff going on: Marshall abducted and tortured, Syd admitting her feelings for Vaughn, Irina being allowed out of her cell, Sloane’s Alliance investigation, Will becoming a CIA analyst, Francie’s suspicion of Will & Syd’s new dynamic, Ariana Kane’s witch-hunt against Jack, and this is even before the plot revolving around the Echelon operating system and the underlying ideas of civil rights and Big Brother that Eisendrath manages to touch upon. Many other shows would collapse under the weight of these threads but Alias thrives on the fast-paced energy of these escalating narratives. Perhaps it’s because the show no longer has to spin any wheels and is racing, tout suite, toward Phase One.

Whatever the reason, A Higher Echelon is the last episode quite of its kind, and it’s gratifying to realise that it turns out to be one of the most assured.

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?