A superpower is as much a curse as it is a blessing. It sets its heroes apart, it sets its heroes alone.
Alphas is a new US science-fiction drama from the Syfy channel about dysfunctional folks with superpowers currently airing on Channel 5. Misfits is a British offering of a similar theme and is back for its third series on E4.
It used to be easy enough when reviewing this genre as there were only a small clique of superheroes to cast back to – Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Wonder Woman… and a few others. And then there were those who whilst not necessarily what you would call superior there difference was such as to give them an edge over their fellow men and women – The Invisible Man for example.
We can be Heroes…
This though was before 2006 and the arrival of NBC’s Heroes. Any super-power that could possibly be conceived of was it seems conceived of by the Heroes’ script-writers.
So with Alphas and Misfits you can play a game among yourselves to see which of the superpowers featured were first prototyped in Heroes. I say superpowers rather than superheroes because with both the Alpha and Misfits characters – if Misfits in particular – a number of these powers belong to those of less than heroic nature let alone super-heroic.
The Good Doctor…
The Alphas in Alphas are a motley and disparate group of men and women brought together by Doctor Lee Rosen (played by David Strathairn) working for the US Government’ Department of Defence who is seeking to harness the alphas collective powers to help in the fight of good over evil (this being the comic-book story genre with its black and white morality) – like most such tales the Super Heroes are serving in effect as Super Cops – rounding up villains – and we can suppose some super-villains too, perhaps of Alphas gone bad, Alphas whose powers are being harnessed for criminal enterprises by an Evil Doctor – surely not?!
Super-powers used in the service of your country for the common good – almost a social democratic undercurrent if not socialist! The Misfits on the other hand use their super-powers for their own ends only and are not employed in any of their government’s various departments. And more of them shortly.
The current crew of alphas on the Good Doctor’s team are explained in detail on the Channel 5 program page but briefly there is Bill Harken who has the more traditional superpower of physical strength and stamina but untraditionally unlike Superman’s unlimited supply (Kryptonite not withstanding) has to conjure up this strength himself and cannot sustain it for very long.
Don’t mess with Bill
Next up is Cameron Hicks whose superpower is one of heightened balance – seriously I am not making that up! – his aim is flawless.
Next is Rachel Pirzad who has the rather cool power of being able to heighten any one of her five senses at any given time. Though this is clearly a power as much a curse has a blessing – consider a restaurant and with your sense of smell enhanced and the over-whelming aromas of the food from the kitchen and your fellow diner’s tables – consider too the over-whelming aroma of the scent of said fellow chefs and the diners – and we must assume for health and safety there would be a bathroom on site – well let’s not go there!
Then there is Nina Theroux who has the power of suggestion – to hypnotically override your thought – quite a sinister power really. The Heads of the Republican and Democrat Party will be on her trail no doubt along with countless media barons.
Ring my bell…
Finally there is Gary Bell who has the power to view and interact with wireless communications out of thin air – this is a very particular superpower but one in this ever connected web-age whose time clearly has come! He is also described as diagnosed with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder – he is challenging for his colleagues to work with and he is challenging for this viewer to watch. Whether this is to the credit of the actor Ryan Cartwright and the Alphas scriptwriters or to the discredit of my own tolerance towards this condition I am not sure.
A strange brew of super-powers then – and the question then for Dr Rosen and we the viewers is whether it is potent enough to successfully fight crime and keep the US homeland secure.
With the Alphas it is assumed they were born with their powers and their being no standard metric tests, like IQ, for their talents it is only belatedly they have come to wider recognition and in particular the attention of Doctor Rosen. Here the Alphas can realise there are others like them, their poisoned-chalice superpower possession is not one they possess alone.
The Misfits in Misifts on the other hand were not born with their powers rather they were rudely visited upon them following a freak weather incident – and these powers have not just effected the main characters but other members of the public too. Misfits because the original quintet were all working on probation for various minor crimes and misdemeanors. Misfits has also done a clever trick of having another character as a broker of these weather-born powers allowing those so blessed, so cursed, to trade in one superpower for another superpower when they perhaps get bored with their current one or indeed find it far more of a curse than a blessing.
Joe, new Misfit in Town
For the third series, one of the original Misfits, Nathan Young, (played by Robert Sheehy) has left the show for Las Vegas but though what happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas a 7 minute mini-episode of his exploits are available to view for free on iTunes or online on Channel 4 here.
He has a replacement Rudy played by Joseph Gilgun who is as charismatic an actor as Robert Sheehy was. His is a very Freudian power as is Ego can split from his Id! Sometimes he and they are as one, other times his Id cuts loose to live a happy-free-loving, party-time existence. The ego meanwhile left at home to sadly reflect his past misfortunes!
Again as with Alpha details of the Misfits are available on the E4 program page called Meet the Misfits. Though they have yet to update it with the new Misift.
And for this series three they all back with new powers. Misfit Kelly Bailey (played by Lauren Socha) previously was able to read people’s thoughts – very much a curse as a blessing – do you want to know what someone might be thinking about you as you are talking to them?! Granted it will have some advantages – you would be a sizzling poker player, well at least until you got barred from every casino in the land, but quite an assault on ones delicate sense of self too I would think. Now she has the power of super-intelligence – she is a rocket-scientist! However though she can design elaborate plans for rocket ships her CV is of course absent the relevant educational and work experience for this particular field and thus none of her prospective employers take her seriously suspecting only that she must have stolen the plans she presents them! She is then escorted from the room before exclaiming ‘I’m a fucking rocket scientist!’. This being a killing joke. I suspect it won’t be long – I am guessing episode 2! – before this particular power is traded in for something more useable.
The other female character is Alisha (played by Antonia Thomas) who previously had the power of sexual magnetism – very darkly as much a curse as a blessing. In this third series she now has the ability to see the world through another’s eyes – think the Bob Dylan song Positively Fourth Street and the lines “I wish that for just one time,You could stand inside my shoes, And just for that one moment I could be you” – yet another mixed-blessing power - I can think of many people who I might like to inhabit for a day or two but can think of many more who I would not want to occupy for even a second!
Fellow Misfit Curtis Donovan (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarret) has gone from time-bender to gender-bender. In the first series he could turn back time – which he usually did to save the butts of the collective Misfits – in this series he can shape-shift male to female – the tantalizing talent of transient transsexuality!
Final Misfit is Simon Bailey (played by Iwan Rheon) who is the default Misfit leader, even if this is not known to those he is leading – this because there are two of him – a Future version of himself physically and socially stronger than his current awkward self – who has knowledge of the Misfits as yet revealed purpose and destiny. He also had the power of invisibility – tsssk! what a traditional superpower! He being the only one of the Misfits who is content enough with his original powers not to one to trade them in.
As noted unlike Alphas no agency whether government or private enterprise is aware let alone interested in making use of their collective powers. Neither are these misfits natural friends rather united in their common misfortune whereas otherwise would never be seen in each others company. This common misfortune as said being that they are all on community service. We might at least think with their new found powers that they might use it to break free from petty criminality but again by the end of the first episode of this new series they are re-arrested and back on probation!
It is clear that the first episode of the third series of Misfits is as much to establish the new Misfit Joe. What the rest of the series has in store for them I can but wonder but surely it must involve more than bumping of yet another of their probation officers, but maybe not.
Misfits is quite content for its Misfits to misstep from miserable mishap to miserable mishap. There is no grand goal in mind for these possessors of superpowers. Misfits has a dark humour, imaginative writing and continues to provide a platform for accomplished young British actors in the same way that Skins, Fresh Meat and The Inbetweeners do. I look forward the rest of this series irrespective of whether very much in particular gets resolved.
The last episode I saw of Alphas was Anger Management which saw its team dealing with a rogue alpha who has the power to incite rage in those people who happen to be in his close proximity due to the huge release of pheromones – an unleashed rage so strong as to cause those afflicted to kill too. It so falls to the Alpha team to track down the culprit to prevent any more carnage and general human misery from occurring. In the process the alphas will get to know and understand each other a bit better and we the audience them.
And there lies the rub. I am not sure that I want to get to know the Alphas better whereas I am more than happy to spend time among the dystopias and dysfunction’s of the Misfits.
For science fiction shows like this to work we need to suspend not just our belief but our reason. Misfits accepts this and accepts that we the audience will do so too. Alphas though cannot accept this and the plots and characterizations sigh and sag as they strive to make us the audience take them seriously.
They should instead be getting on with telling their fantastical tales and letting the characters breathe and develop.
And this is what Misfits does so effortlessly, Alphas so ponderously.