TV Review: Alex Rider (Season 1)

Alex Rider (Season 1) Artwork

Alex Rider is a British Spy Thriller TV series which aired on Amazon Prime Video, and is based on the book series of the same name by Anthony Horowitz, who also authored The Diamond Brothers series, The Groosham Grange series, The Power of Five series, and the unique honour of writing canon material for inclusion to the works of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. I was lucky enough to interview Anthony Horowitz a few years ago while at college, and you can check that out here if you are interested.

Alex Rider, the TV series, was adapted for television by Guy Burt, an English author and screenwriter whose debut novel ‘After the Hole’ won a Betty Trask Award and who worked on The Borgias, and also one of my favourite TV shows, Wire in the Blood which was adapted from the works of another author, in this case Val McDermid, and starred the incredibly Robson Green as Dr. Tony Hill.

Anyway, returning to Alex Rider it stars Otto Farrant (noted for his roles in Clash of the Titans, The White Queen and War & Peace) as Alex Rider, Stephen Dillane (noted for his roles in The Hours, Game of Thrones and John Adams) as Alan Blunt, Vicky McClure (noted for her roles in Line of Duty, This is England and Broadchurch) as Mrs Jones, Brenock O’Connor (noted for his roles in Game of Thrones, Dickensian and Living the Dream) as Tom Harris, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo (noted for her roles in Christopher Robin and Doctor Who) as Jack Starbright, Liam Garrigan (noted for his roles in Holby City, Raw and Strike Back), Thomas Levin (noted for his roles in Smother, Strike Back and Sthlm Rekviem) as Yassen Gregorovitch, Haluk Bilginer (noted for his roles in Eastenders and Masumiyet) as Dr Hugo Greif, Howard Charles (noted for his role in The Musketeers) as Wolf, Ana Ularu (noted for her roles in Emerald City and Tribes of Europa) as Eva Stellenbosch and Marli Siu (noted for her roles in Dixi) as Kyra Vashenko-Chao.

So anyway, now that we’ve got all of that out of the way let’s move on. I recently re-watched Stormbreaker, the first attempt at bringing Alex Rider to the screen, and you can check out that review here. It obviously had its issues which meant we didn’t see a continuation or in this case a reboot for over a decade but final Alex Rider rises from the ashes of its spiritual forefather quite well.

The first thing that’s different is tone, Alex Rider, the series is much darker, it tries less to be upbeat and instead goes for something gritty and realistic, although not to the painfully off putting way on the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) nor the tragic and sexy teenager route of shows like MTV’s Teen Wolf or the CW’s Riverdale or Nancy Drew. Instead it finds a nice middle ground where it feels almost organic. We as the audience feel the immense weight and pressure that Alex faces and yet it still has real human conflict like how Alex balances his new life with his old one. 

Moving on to casting and I have to say compared to Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Alan Blunt in the movie, Stephen Dillane fell short. In honesty, even with the weird mannerisms, I felt Nighy’s Blunt aligned far more with how I imagined him in the book, both physically and in terms of personality. This TV version of the character, while well acted and genuinely engaging, felt shrewder, more explicit and had entirely too much personality, even if it was masked under a veil of stoicism. Blunt in the books and to me a grey man, almost detached from his job, calculating but in the same way a spider is calculating, whereas Dillane felt too human by contrast.

A casting choice however that was spot on was Vicky McClure as Mrs Jones, the movie casting for Mrs Jones, namely Sophie Okonedo, might have been more on the money in terms of appearance but she didn’t have the right balance to her character, far too plain and unemotional, whereas the book Mrs Jones showed great depth, she compulsively chewed mints as if her sweet breath would take the sting off sending people off to die. She was complex and sympathetic to Alex’s struggles. The movie Jones had none of that, whereas you can see the emotional range and depth to McClure’s performance. Also to be clear, my comments above about Okonedo’s performance isn’t a slight on her acting skill, I imagine she acted just as she was supposed to and it’s just that for whatever reason the movie direction went for a slightly offbeat vibe, particularly from the MI6 operatives.

I can’t talk about casting without talking about Alex himself, played by Otto Farrant, he didn’t quite look as much like the Alex I imagined in my mind when reading the books as Alex Pettyfer did but he produced a performance that was spot on. He had his ingenuity, wit, his charm, his inner conflicts and he just really pulled it off. I couldn’t compare the two because they embodied different aspects of the character so well but Farrant certainly cemented in my mind that he’s Alex Rider now and I had no issue accepting him as such.

I won’t get too bogged down on portrayals though because frankly I’ve been waiting for this since 2006 and I didn’t even really get it then.

A few last thoughts though before I break down the episodes a little. Even though I’m sad we didn’t get a better recreation of Stormbreaker than the movie, I’m glad that they skipped it and went for Point Blanc, firstly because it would have obviously drawn even more inevitable comparisons to the movie but also because they, for better or worse, they’d already done it. On a more personal note Point Blanc was by far my favourite book and I was excited to see it fully realised on screen. I also liked that since they omitted the first book, they did borrow and merge events from it as well as adding their own new details to create something that’s for the most part faithful to the source material but also isn’t afraid to bring something surprising to the table. It also didn’t struggle too much to create something that felt fresh and new while still remaining faithful to the source material, an issue faced by another 2020 project, Artemis Fowl, which I actually reviewed recently and you can check that out here if you like. Oh and the the 2006 adaptation of Eragon which you can check out here.

Oh, I am a huge music fan, I love most anything, but some songs just resonate with me, take ‘Radar Love‘ by Golden Earring, I first heard it on ‘Reaper’ during the episode Love, Bullets and Blacktop and fell in love. And occasionally, I’ll discover a show which has a theme song which I just vibe to, another good example being ‘Faith of the Heart’ performed by Russell Watson which opened every episode of Star Trek: Enterprise and without fail I would crank up the volume to full and just let this song just happen. Alex Rider has joined those coveted ranks, with ‘The World Is Mine’ by Samm Henshaw which is just a truly phenomenal song and really added a lot to what was already a pretty great show. 

Episode 1
This episode had one of my favourite parts from Point Blanc, where Michael Roscoe is assassinated under the orders of Hugo Grief, via an elevator mishap. Although in the movie, I imagine to tie things more closely together and introduce the character, since the show skips straight to Point Blanc, meaning he didn’t debut already, they give the kill to Yassen Gregorovich rather than The Gentleman. Speaking of which, while I don’t know if Yassen Gregorovich in the TV show really lines up with how I always pictured the character but he was certainly imposing and intriguing as a character. Overall though, the episode was quite engaging, it stumbled a little, mainly because they were within a 45 minute long episode trying to push things forward, so Ian’s death for example, which is the inciting incident for the rest of the series, was anticlimactic and felt rushed. But it was enjoyable overall and I think I’ll give it a 3/5.

Episode 2
I enjoyed the first episode but I still wasn’t sure about the show, this episode changed that, again because they skipped Stormbreaker we missed out on the training segment with the SAS in the Brecon Beacons which honestly was a highlight of both the book and movie, so we still get a nice training session in this episode which shows Alex’s strength and determination, which serves to make the rest of it more believable. I really enjoyed the whole segment where he is being interrogated, it really set the tone and hammered it firmly in place, the movie was to light in comparison and it never quite lived up to the vibe of the book either, which really held true to the this quote: “You’re never too young to die.” from Stormbreaker. This show isn’t just hijinks and choreographed fight scenes, speaking of which referring back to the first episode for a moment the fight scene where Alex is discovering Ian’s car, obviously parallels the part from the first book and the movie where he pursues a van to a scrapyard, but the scene in question isn’t polished, it’s brutal, he really hurts the other guy, whereas the movie which more spectacular had the staged feel of wrestling. That difference alone shows this is more unsanitized, rougher around the edges and more real. So I think, all things considered, I will give this episode a 4/5.

Episode 3
This episode also contains another favourite from the books, the whole sequence with Alex and the Friend family was exactly how I wanted it to be. We also start to see the struggles, and realistic ones too of Alex living this double life. I’ve seen elsewhere that people really responded well to Brenock O’Connor’s portrayal of Tom Harris, one reviewer even called him charming, but for some reason his character didn’t really land with me. I mean I’m glad the character got fleshed out more and introduced early, to humanise and ground Alex, and he made some great points about the X-Men in the first episode during the party, but there was just something about him that didn’t work for me. I felt like he was at odds with the tone of the show and was kind of unsupportive of his best friend, for example making a video about how his friend is a spy despite the fact that he must know how dangerous that could be for Alex and those close to him. That being said I enjoyed the actor on Game of Thrones so at least I can be sure it’s the character and not the actor I dislike. Overall though this episode earns a 3/5.

Episode 4
I was so excited for Alex finally getting to the school, and while it wasn’t exactly as I pictured it, I really enjoyed this episode, it blended fun like the washing up incident with darker undertones like Alex’s bags being searched and being slapped in the face by Eva Stellenbosch. I also liked the subplot of Ian’s death being investigated and the mole in MI6 discovered. It is completely unique to the TV show as Ian’s death is different in the TV show, although I guess he’s still killed by Yassen, or Yassen the assassin as I’ve just decided to call him so I guess fate, or the writers I guess, have a way of returning things to how they are supposed to be. I feel like the subplot was well executed and fleshed out the MI6 operatives in a way that the movie and even the books never quite did. I think this episode earns a 3/5.

Episode 5
As a fan of the movies, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I always like the unsettling vibe as people are replaced, and this episode captures that uncertainty, suspicion and fear perfectly, coupled with Alex being off centre after the ‘dream’ he had in the previous episode about being operated on. I also like the continued subplots that tell you that while the show may be called Alex Rider, it’s not all about him. We continue the investigation on MI6’s part which ties together Alex’s experiences at the school with the broader plan being orchestrated by Hugo Grief which includes the now ‘different’ Parker Roscoe taking over his father’s media empire. I actually like the balance between the two, because the books largely focus on things from Alex’s point of view, so we forget that there are full agencies theoretically behind him. So with all of that in mind, Episode 5 earns a solid 4/5.

Episode 6
I like the continued us and them dynamic in this episode, the doppelgangers now outnumber them, only Alex and Kyra are left. The episode has genuine tension, and while I didn’t mention it before but I really enjoyed the interactions and chemistry between Alex and Kyra in this and the previous episode. She didn’t exist in the books as all of the other students were male, for reasons I will not spoil here the TV show changes things up and I found myself really liking her character, she wasn’t user friendly, but to be honest she wouldn’t be, the type of kid to be sent to a last chance boarding school wouldn’t necessarily be friendly to anyone. While I mentioned up top I didn’t really care for Tom, I did like that the story looped him back in during this episode, he came to the attention of Parker Roscoe and thus Alex’s identity and his real life were under threat, providing more tension and personal drama as we come to the last two episode. It also ends with Alex getting away from school only to encounter a bigger issue. I think with all things considered I will give this episode a 5/5.

Episode 7
This continues from the cliffhanger of the previous episode, the punch of which was only slightly dulled by the fact that if you’ve read the books you know what’s going to happen and being honest even though they don’t really do anything to subvert these expectations it’s still really enjoyable. You can kind of feel things already beginning to wrap up though and the episode works through the whole plan and Hugo Grief’s Gemini Project quite succinctly and Alex returns home, and you almost wonder how there’s still another episode. Despite doing a lot in a brief space of time, this never felt rushed, it was very organic, and it’s like all the threads tied together quite nicely and progressed so naturally that even though everything really culminated in this episode you left satisfied. So I think this also deserves a 5/5 for being a truly standout episode. 

Episode 8
So like I said, especially if you don’t know the books, you might not have really been anticipating the last doppelganger, but he appears right at the end of the last episode and plays a vital role in this episode, he causes some havoc in Alex’s life, kidnaps Tom and tries to kill Alex. It’s exciting, and brings Yassen back, and through him introduces Scorpia, which opens up a wider criminal element which will presumably be covered in a future season. Overall it’s a really strong episode and a great conclusion to the season which opens a door to season two without leaving us hanging on a cliffhanger. I think this episode earns a 4/5.

 

So that’s what I thought of the first season of Alex Rider, and you can expect the second season some time either in late 2021 or early to mid 2022. It might have been out earlier but filming was halted due to COVID-19 and only recommenced in February 2021. If you would like to watch Alex Rider season 1 for yourself then you can check it out either on Amazon Prime Video or on Amazon’s IMDb TV (if you are based in America). Why not follow the show on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date with the show.

 

First Published on: https://offtherecordblog.org/


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