Alphas: The New Heroes
by David Staples
I remember the first time I ever heard about the show Heroes. I couldn’t believe there was going to be a weekly live-action television show about superheroes. Heroes was, in some ways, going to be a small screen version of X-Men. It was about people who, through a mysterious benevolent mutation, have developed skills and abilities greater than the average human. When Heroes premiered, it was great. An eclipse caused some people to suddenly develop crazy powers. They could fly, heal themselves, or freeze time. There was an evil government agency that was tracking these individuals. I remember actually writing this at one point early on in the season: “Heroes has officially surpassed Lost as the best show on television.” And I believed it. It was one of our can’t miss shows.
Then something went wrong. Characters began to behave in inconsistent ways. The twists became hard to follow. Popular bad guys became tragic heroes. The season started to drag. It wasn’t fun and became extremely violent. Massive story arcs amounted to nothing. But I stuck with it, hoping the finale was going to be epic. The whole season was building to an inevitable massive showdown. In the last scene in the penultimate episode, Sylar basically became a human bomb and stood there looking at the city. He just said, “Boom!” It gave me chills. Then the massive fight never happened. It was the least-satisfying climactic battle scene I can remember. It was the exact opposite of how Lost handled their seasons. Sure, Lost meandered and had some clunkers. But they always delivered the goods in the season finale. Heroes just flopped and never recovered. Such a disappointment.
Fast forward a few years. SyFy Channel introduced a new show, Alphas. I like a lot of SyFy’s original series (Eureka, Warehouse 13), so I went ahead and watched it. The synopsis sounded familiar. A group of people have started to be discovered that have powers greater than normal humans. There is a government agency involved. Mystery surrounds the “alphas” and how they came to be. Psychiatrist Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) and his team of “alphas” is responsible for investigating “alpha-related crimes.” Each of them has a superpower – but it comes with a twist.
It is often hard to accept superheroes whose powers have no logical origin. Take Superman. I can accept the yellow sun giving him enhanced strength, super speed, and maybe even the laser eyes. But how does it give him x-ray vision or super freezing breath. And how can he fly and completely ignore laws of physics? His body isn’t more streamlined than other people. He doesn’t have wings. So how can he manipulate air currents when an average person can’t? The Hulk jumps insane distances to where you might think he was flying. But that isn’t what Superman does. He doesn’t push off the ground hard enough to overcome gravity (or the concrete would crack). He doesn’t jump off a building and catch a current. Heroes had the same problem with Nathan. How did he fly? If someone is going to have a mutation, it should take the form of an enhancement of a normal ability. Claws shooting out of your hand? Doesn’t qualify. Neither does turning your skin into diamonds or metal, teleporting, or growing wings.
With Alphas, they take a normal human function and ramp it up. A normal person may be able to run faster in a “fight or flight” situation. Team leader, Bill, is able to run ultra-fast and hit very hard, but it doesn’t last long. He, along with all the others, has a negative side effect. His heart is wearing out from the pressure of overusing it. It is a brilliant and “more realistic” concept. Rachel can amplify her hearing, smell, and sight to identify things far beyond a normal person, but that ability brings with it crushing fear. Even a whiff of cologne can give her a headache. She can see bacteria and germs, so she hates eating out. Gary is an autistic young man who has the ability to “see” electronic communications, but is almost unable to communicate with others.
Every “alpha” we meet fits into this pattern. One guy can rub his hands together with the resulting friction causing sparks. Another’s metabolism runs so fast that he can move super fast – only he ages at a ridiculous rate. Another can use acid reflux to spit acid at people. One girl can learn virtually anything in a short period of time at the expense of her long term memory. One of the more fascinating recurring characters is played by Summer Glau. She can see the patterns of how objects piece together, giving her mastery of machinery, but she has no order in her life. She keeps moving around, has trouble working with others, and seems destined for chaos.
The government is aware of these “alphas” and is terrified. They usually banish them to a shady mental institution and try to keep them under control. Last season ended with Dr. Rosen going public with the existence of these “alphas.” He ended up in trouble for it and the government kicked into overdrive with controlling them. A new big bad arose this season, Stanton Parish – an “alpha” with enhanced healing abilities. He sees the rise of the “alphas” as inevitable and is trying to bring it about. Rosen is trying to get them to live in harmony with the humans and has struck an uneasy peace with the government. What? You say that sounds familiar? You’re right. Parish = Magneto. Rosen = Professor Xavier. It is almost like we have that realistic version of the X-Men that Heroes was supposed to be. Some of that could be attributed to the fact that Alphas was created by Zak Penn, writer of Avengers, X-Men 2, and X-Men 3 (maybe that isn’t the best example). Like with X-Men, you can tell a war is coming. This time, though, there is a slow burn. It isn’t accelerated like in the first season of Heroes. There is a story-of-the-week format, with them all fitting into the larger Stanton Parish problem.
Overall, I have been very pleased with Alphas. I like the creativity of the different characters and how they keep coming up with different powers. I am invested in the recurring characters and their story. I also want to see where the show goes with everything. It looks like a war is coming soon, and I can’t wait to see how that looks. Will they be able to come up with the action necessary to reflect a big war? How do you stop a person who can’t be killed? Also, how can the “good guys” battle Parish’s recruitment campaign? It will be a big challenge to get people to side with them. The government has already proven they can’t be trusted. We’ll see.
Alphas returns with new episodes on Monday, September 10th at 8/7c on SyFy.