Alex Rider is a surprisingly deft adaptation, full of smart choices

alex rider otto farrant anthony horowitz brennock o connor guy burt marli sui alana boden

It wasn’t unreasonable to approach Alex Rider with a degree of scepticism; one only has to look at the recent Artemis Fowl film, by coincidence released alongside Alex Rider, to see how easily things might’ve gone wrong. Such scepticism was also, however, unnecessary – because Amazon’s new Alex Rider television series is in fact a surprisingly deft adaption of Anthony Horowitz’s books. It’s a slick, stylish piece of television, Horowitz’s source material buoyed by a series of smart choices on part of screenwriter Guy Burt – choices that will, no doubt, see Alex Rider remembered as one of the more successful adaptations of its kind.

Immediately remarkable is that the series begins with an adaptation of Point Blanc, the second of Horowitz’s novels. No doubt motivated by a desire to distance this adaptation from the 2006 film Stormbreaker, the last attempt to turn Alex Rider into a franchise, it’s a canny choice even beyond the marketing concerns. Point Blanc, for a start, is simply a better book, with a better sense of how to make the teenage spy premise work than its predecessor. It also offers a far more visually arresting story with its French Alps setting – and with it a chance for the Alex Rider television series to demonstrate quite how much money has gone into it, almost every penny visible on screen. More than just that, though, what represented an escalation in the books is established as the baseline here: it’s not, of course, that either book was especially grounded, but Point Blanc is grander in scale, and commits more wholeheartedly to its most outlandish aspects. Indeed, it’s arguably something of an outlier amongst Horowitz’s original books – meaning that even as Alex Rider offers a patina of realism, it’s already positioned quite firmly in a more heightened genre than it might have been otherwise.

The series is similarly well-served by its format: Alex Rider is made up of eight forty-five minute episodes, presumably a legacy of ITV’s early involvement in the project. A television adaptation offers wider scope for an adaptation than a movie might, yes, but there’s an accompanying risk that it might find itself bloated and poorly paced – however Alex Rider smartly keeps each episode to strict runtime, avoiding the meandering, overlong instalments that define many television shows made for streaming services. As a result, the series is taut and well-paced, never feeling as though it’s overstayed its welcome; the recently-commissioned second series would do well to mimic this same structure again, embracing the limitations imposed by its original home rather than indulging in the flexibility Amazon Prime offers.

Alex Rider also benefits from strong casting, too – a series of smart choices on part of casting director Gary Devy, if you like. Otto Farrant impresses, obviously, as he must; it’s true of any show that it lives and dies and on the strength of its lead, but that’s perhaps especially true of adaptations like this, where an actor has to bear a far greater weight of expectation than they might otherwise. In any case, Farrant is a strong anchor for the show, performing an impressive balancing act throughout; Alex Rider’s premise could well be a difficult needle for an actor to thread, especially as it demands depth be brought to a ridiculous concept, but Farrant acquits himself with aplomb. He’s not alone in that either, as Alex Rider’s world is fleshed out by other, more familiar names: Andrew Buchan and Stephen Dillane each make strong impressions, as does Vicky McClure – she’s plainly miscast as Mrs Jones if the intent was to maintain a strict fealty to the original books, but McClure is a talented enough performer that the opportunity to cast her is case enough against such loyalty.

Knowing when close fidelity to the text is worthwhile and when it should be abandoned is, of course, why Alex Rider is such a deft adaptation of its source material. That’s why Andrew Buchan gets the chance to make an impression, for example, Guy Burt smartly opting to introduce Ian Rider as a character before his murder rather than, as Stormbreaker does, starting with his funeral. It’s why Point Blanc’s early drug bust – which, put politely, was very clearly written by a Conservative twenty years ago – is quietly shelved, and disparate elements of books on either side of it are drawn together into something new. It’s also where Burt’s own creation, Kyra, comes from: a new female lead for the historically very boy-centric series. Described as “a young version of Lisbeth Salander”, Burt is… perhaps flattering himself a little when he says Kyra is “not just a love interest, not just a sort of side character, but somebody central” – Kyra is a genuinely charming addition to the story, but much of that charm comes from Marli Siu’s irreverent performance (and her chemistry with Farrant) rather than anything on the page particularly. Reading what Burt has to say about the character, one wishes he’d found a bit more space for her in the series as is – her near-certain return will be a welcome one.

There’s more Alex Rider could have done, certainly; it gestures towards ideas of fascism, but never quite manages to make those ideas cohere into something resembling a theme. It’s not entirely unlike the book in that regard, where the villain’s affection for authoritarian dictators is just another Bond-esque idiosyncrasy, but it’s hard not to wish the series had pushed those ideas a little further. One of the benefits, surely, of adapting a work nearly twenty years later is the opportunity to re-examine its contents in a new light; a fascist literally replacing children with likeminded clones could have proven quite a potent metaphor, if handled well. As it is, Alex Rider largely elides grappling with these ideas in any real depth – it’s understandable enough, but hopefully future instalments will make a bit more effort. (You might ask if that’s a reasonable expectation to have of what is essentially one step up from a children’s show; given Horowitz seemed to think the books were a commentary on New Labour and the Iraq war, yes, it is a reasonable expectation.)

Though that raises an interesting question in and of itself, actually. Where will Alex Rider go next? The television series, obviously, cannot adapt the eleven-and-counting novels it was inspired by, not least because Otto Farrant would age out of the role sooner rather than later (and any effort to recast him would be a deeply unwelcome one). Similarly limiting is the fact that, like most streaming shows, Alex Rider is unlikely to run for more than three or four seasons; the show will presumably adapt only three or four of the books at most. (Eagle Strike, the fourth book, and Scorpia, the fifth, would make a neat trilogy alongside Point Blanc.) More curious, though, is the tone the adaptation will take. One of the more striking aspects of Horowitz’s books is how grim and dour they eventually became, as though the author no longer quite believed in his own premise: they were always firmly YA fiction, yes, but Horowitz fast abandoned the idea that being a teenage spy was a fun adventure, seemingly delighting in destroying his protagonists life bit by bit with each passing novel. It was a curious quirk, eventually ironed out of the books – despite drawing Alex Rider to particularly bleak close in 2011, Horowitz subsequently revised that ending with a new novel six years later – and it’ll be interesting to see whether that particular compulsion reappears on television.

Ultimately, then, Alex Rider is clearly a success. It’s a well-made piece of television – confident in its choices, and stylish in their execution, the latest in a long line of television adaptations of YA novels to dispel the memory of a disappointing movie. Anthony Horowitz will likely finally have his wishes for a successful Alex Rider franchise realised; perhaps a decade down the line, Eoin Colfer might be similarly lucky with Artemis Fowl.

Related:

We’ve seen I Am Not Okay With This before, but that’s the point

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Television Index

Cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again

brooklyn nine nine 99 cancel again black lives matter police abolition defund season 8 terry crews moo moo the funeral

Brooklyn Nine-Nine was, in fairness, a very good idea. Cop shows are one of the most enduring dramatic engines on television: taking the police procedural and crossing it with the workplace sitcom was, if not inspired, certainly a clever conceit, offering a premise that could easily sustain ninety-nine episodes and then some. Really, it’s no wonder that Brooklyn Nine-Nine is as popular as it is. It’s smart and it’s funny, the cast are fantastic, and it’s reliably charming in a way that makes for perfect comfort-food television. It’s better than a lot of the shows it most clearly resembles, too – better than Parks and Recreation, better than The Good Place – and better than a lot of shows it doesn’t resemble too.

It’s also a lie. In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the police are sweet and silly and basically harmless; the actual New York Police Department is plainly anything but.

Cop shows are essentially image control for police departments. They always have been: Dragnet, one of the earliest examples of what we understand now as the modern police procedural, was strictly fact checked by the LAPD’s Public Information Division, and many of its contemporaries were written by former policemen. Decades later, with crime dramas spinning off into one franchise after the next, that perspective has calcified and become ubiquitous: the police are always the protagonists. The supposed need for police and policing is always being reinforced, even if individual officers are singled out or structures are criticised – cop shows don’t have, and can’t have, a frame of reference beyond the police. There will never be a meaningful critique of the police within the confines of a cop show, because cop shows fundamentally believe in the need for the police.

Those inclined to defend Brooklyn Nine-Nine would point to those episodes where it engaged more directly with a complicated reality. But that too serves to exculpate the police, whether intentionally or not. Sometimes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine critiques the past, but in doing so it comments on the present, and the implication of progress whitewashes the very real problems that still endure. In contrast, when Brooklyn Nine-Nine has made efforts to address contemporary failings on part of the police, it’s always been in terms of individuals rather than structures, positing that it’s just a case of ‘one bad apple’ rather than anything wider. Its widely-celebrated fourth season episode Moo-Moo is deft and sensitive, but it’s so focused on the actions of one individual it misses the point of the systemic criticism levelled at the police; if anything, Moo-Moo is more of an argument as to why ‘good’ cops might choose to stay silent, portraying them as sympathetic rather than complicit.

In eliding those systemic issues, Brooklyn Nine-Nine sanitises the police. The idea that there are individual good and bad police officers is an unhelpful one, belying the reality that the problem isn’t the individuals at all, but the wider structures and unjust laws they uphold. (Although it’s also worth just digressing briefly to point out that they aren’t even good cops in Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Jake makes arrests on intuition rather than evidence; Rosa is quick to use excessive force; so on, so forth.) Arguably, it’s not a million miles away from sharing staged pictures of police officers kneeling at protests: at best it’s a distraction from the real issues, and at worst it actively encourages complacency and ignorance.

Terry Crews has said that Season 8 of Brooklyn Nine-Nine will touch on recent protests, the cast and crew having had “eye-opening conversations about how to handle this new season”. The idea of an lazily caricatured activist finding a heartwarming compromise with the ‘good cops’ at the 99th Precinct is repugnant, but there’s something about it that seems almost unavoidable – Brooklyn Nine-Nine won’t be able to ignore the protests entirely, nor will they be able to meaningfully critique the police while still holding to their original premise.

Perhaps the show could be salvaged through total reinvention – if, when season 8 started, the characters were all teachers, or journalists, or postal workers, refuting the cop show premise entirely and tacitly admitting to its flaws. Arguably it’d be the strongest textual statement they could make about police brutality, far more meaningful that any ‘very special episode’ could hope to be: such a reinvention would be a genuine acknowledgement that, yes, the narrative Brooklyn Nine-Nine advanced as a goofy show about lovable police was and is a harmful one that need be abandoned.

Short of that? It’s time for the show to end. At this point, it’d be no great loss: it’s nearing its conclusion anyway – the ninth episode of the ninth season no doubt an attractive stopping point – and these are all talented enough performers that they’ll easily find work elsewhere. (Stephanie Beatriz can be the new Batwoman, for one thing.) As it is, though, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is tantamount to propaganda – a slick, well-made comedy that tacitly argues that the solution to police brutality is simply a nicer and more diverse police force. It whitewashes real issues and obscures real solutions, to the point of being actively harmful – so it’s time, surely, to cancel Brooklyn Nine-Nine again.

For more, A World Without Police, by the organisation of the same name, is a useful starting point. Meanwhile, Alex S. Vitale’s The End of Policing is currently available as a free eBook, and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete? can be found here.

You may also want to donate to Black Lives Matter UK or to the Black Visions Collective in America.

Related:

Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Television Index

Space Force is too deferential to be satirical

space force netflix trump tweet uniform aoc steve carrell greg daniels satire comedy series 2

It’s odd to think of Space Force as a satire, exactly, even though that’s presumably how you’re meant to understand it. Few recent comedies have responded so directly, and so literally, to the Trump era; most have been more oblique in their commentary, and others faltered when all they had to offer was the dim thrill of recognition. (Veep in its final season struggled particularly on that front.) Yet Space Force is altogether more upfront about its inspiration, advertising its real-world premise right from the start.

To recap: in the summer of 2018, Trump announced the creation of a sixth branch of the American Military, the Space Force. It was met with exactly the jokes you’d expect – bad ones – and then it was largely forgotten about, meriting the occasional mention whenever it was in the news again. (The logo looks a lot like the Star Trek logo! Why are the uniforms in a camouflage pattern, what is there to hide from in space?) Everyone moved on, apart from Netflix; looking to capitalise on sub-SNL level twitter memes, they pitched “Space Force” to Steve Carrell, who brought Greg Daniels onboard in turn. The show was announced in January 2019, and that long-awaited reunion was key to its appeal: Netflix’s first trailer boasted “created by the guys who brought you The Office” and “starring Steve Carrell” and little else. Production was quick, and a little over a year later, here it is – the TV show launching before a single rocket got off the ground.

On the face of it, then, it seems obvious what Space Force was meant to be: a satire. Not necessarily a high-minded one, no – it wouldn’t be, the premise is riffing on “President Drumpf is so orange” style twitter jokes – but that’s hardly a problem in and of itself. A workplace comedy that leans into the absurdity of the Trump administration to lambaste its wider failings certainly could work, even if being quite so literal-minded in its approach brings obvious risks with it (is this the moment to debut a comedy about the institutional incompetence of the US government, given everything?).

But Space Force is hardly that at all. If anything, it seems to aspire to be to Trump’s military what Brooklyn Nine-Nine is to the police – it’s far more celebratory than it is critical, and much too deferential in its outlook to broach even the softest satire. At its heart, Space Force fundamentally believes in the value of the actual United States Space Force. That assumed merit underlines the entire programme, preventing the Space Force from ever truly being an object of ridicule – the moral at the end of every half hour quite clear that, no matter how many costly mistakes they might make, or animals they might kill, everyone in the Space Force has a heart of gold. It’s telling, actually, that Carrell, Daniels, and Lisa Kudrow (wasted throughout in a baffling role) each seemed to have convinced themselves that a branch of the army dedicated to space warfare isn’t just a good idea, but a necessary one –  “if we didn’t have one,” Daniels explained in an interview, “we would still need one because of other countries doing the same thing”.

space force netflix steve carrell series 2 tawny newsome general mark r naird greg daniels office satire

Quickly, then, it starts to become clear why Space Force’s satire isn’t quite as sharp as one might expect. The viral jokes that inspired Netflix in the first place didn’t, on any level, treat Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force seriously; Space Force, however, takes it (mostly) at face value. There’s something a little strange about how it hedges its bets, actually: Space Force the comedy is quite plainly an effort to capitalise on the widespread mockery the real project received, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the show would follow broadly the same tone. Perhaps in the rush to get the show finished while it was still relevant – it was obviously a speedy production, with Ben Schwartz clearly not in the same room as everyone else for the first two episodes – they forgot why the premise was supposed to be funny in the first place?

But, no, because there is an obvious reason why Space Force is altogether more hesitant in execution than in concept, and it’s likely why Daniels et al convinced themselves of the need for a real Space Force: because ridiculous or not, they’re still the army. “It’s not our intention to go all-out and poke fun at the military. Steve and I both have relatives in the military. We have a lot of respect for all the positives that our relatives have,” said Daniels in one interview, and explained in another that “our goal was to make somebody in the military enjoy the show and not feel like some snotty Hollywood person was making fun of them”.

What should have been the target of Space Force’s satire instead became its target audience – and it never shakes that belief that the military can do nothing wrong. In a smarter show, Steve Carrell’s character would almost be the villain of the piece, with John Malkovich’s Chief Scientist Dr Mallory the lead; more often than not though, Space Force is about learned experts being proven wrong by the infallible instinct of military men. Far from deflating Trump’s supposedly absurd scheme, Space Force buys into the hype and then some.

With that in mind, then, it’s especially striking who Space Force does position as an antagonist. Not Trump; he’s curiously absent. Nor Carrell’s General Naird either, as we’ve established – though there are moments when it seems he might almost be the villain of the piece, likely the lingering remnants of otherwise discarded drafts. Instead, “Anabela Ysidro-Campos” – a lazy caricature of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – is Space Force’s adversary of choice in the first half of its run. (Although that’s a slight misrepresentation: she’s actually “the angry young congresswoman” for most of the time she’s onscreen, only named relatively late in the day.) It’s notable that, for all that Carrell et al maintained this was a non-partisan show, it’s a left-wing politician who comes under most criticism from the show: most of her scenes play as though someone saw the viral clips of Ocasio-Cortez tearing Mark Zuckerberg apart and thought “wouldn’t it be great if he won the argument, and also he was Steve Carrell?”

That Space Force found Ocasio-Cortez an easier target than Trump is unsurprising – and it’s not her politics, in a straightforward sense at least, that come under attack. Rather, their Ocasio-Cortez analogue is worthy of disdain because she dares question the military, instead of accepting it as a simple unassailable good. It’s borne of that obsequious deference to the army that sees Space Force pull its punches time after time. There’s an inclination perhaps to chalk that up to a Netflix executive somewhere, worried about the response if they were perceived to mock the troops – more likely, though, it was just an immediate, instinctive reluctance on the part of those involved.

Whether satire can sustain in an increasingly absurd world is an oft-repeated talking point – probably, to be frank, too often. Space Force, in its attempt to tackle that absurdity head on, illustrates a far more fundamental problem: stripped of any actual critique, lacking any meaningful target, its comedy is inert and impotent. It’s hard not to look at the time and money – especially the money – that went into Space Force and wonder what, exactly, the point of it all was.

Related:

We’ve seen I Am Not Okay With This before, but that’s the point

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Television Index

Segun Akinola on scoring Doctor Who, composing music during lockdown, and more

doctor who segun akinola series 13 theme music score composer lockdown chibnall silva screen soundtrack revolution daleks

Series 11 was all about having its own sound. It’s a completely different sound and a very different approach. It’s moving around musically, but also there is a series sound to it. With Series 12, it was not about changing the overall direction, but making sure that just as the story was developing and the characters were developing, the music was also developing. You could look back on Series 11 and hear something and think “That’s Series 11, not Series 12”, but [the new music] doesn’t sound out of place or like the direction is completely changed.

Here’s my interview with Segun Akinola, Doctor Who‘s current MVP – even as I’ve been frustrated with other aspects of the show, I’m never not impressed by his music. Some of the most memorable moments of Series 12 are down to his score, to my mind: his James Bond-esque motif does a lot of heavy lifting for Spyfall, the score for Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror is brilliant from start to finish, and I did really love that arrangement of the theme tune in The Timeless Children

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Interviews Index