Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a character who is much loved and much hated, all while simultaneously inspiring much indifference. Created by Clancy back in the 80s during the post-Carter, Reaganite dry run at “Make America Great Again”, Ryan is an honourable spy with all-American values who defeats enemies from around the world while demonstrating why America is num-ber one, num-ber one, num-ber one. Simultaneously able to rebuke Prince Charles for not being emotional enough after saving him from terrorists (Patriot Games) while praising the SAS for being “almost as good as our marines”, he’s been the star of 16 books and moved his way up from lowly analyst to President of the United States. It’s that aspirational, conservative moral superiority that is probably the secret to his success in the books, although Clancy’s provision of lovely detailed technical information about the baffles on Hughes 500 helicopters has also helped to get the military hardware fans excited where it counts.
In movies, though, Ryan’s not fared quite as well. Arguably America’s answer to James Bond, that’s as much true because of the number of actors who have portrayed him as the cultural role he plays – Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Harrison Ford (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger), Ben Affleck (The Sum of All Fears) and Christopher Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) have all played him in one movie franchise attempt after another that has failed to come close to the impact or longevity of Bond.
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’s TV series
Now Amazon are having a go at turning him into the star of a TV franchise with the imaginatively titled Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. It sees the ‘Ryanverse’ being reset to the beginning once again, with John Krasinski (slightly beefier now than he was in The Office (US)) taking on the title character, who has now switched majors from history to become a doctor of economics turned CIA analyst. Consistent with the rest of the Ryanverse, he’s still a former marine with an injured back turned lowly, back-office guy, this time monitoring bank transactions in the Middle East. When he spots some atypical SWIFT transfers, he brings it to the attention of his new boss – The Wire‘s Wendell Pierce taking on the role of old favourite James Greer, who’s now a morally compromised field spy rather than a distinguished admiral.
Before he knows it, he’s being whisked off by helicopter from a party where he’s meeting his future wife Cathy Mueller (Limitless‘s Abbie Cornish) so he can help to track down a new bin Laden (The Looming Tower‘s Ali Suliman) using his all-American gumption – and ability to patronise other cultures.
Aleister Crowley’s one of those people who you assume must be fictional. Just take this sentence from the opening paragraph of his Wikipedia entry:
An English occultist, ceremonial magician, poet, painter, novelist, and mountaineer, he founded the religion of Thelema, identifying himself as the prophet entrusted with guiding humanity into the Æon of Horus in the early 20th century.
Bonkers, hey? Yet this Satanist-magician was real and if you’ve ever heard the phrase “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law,” you’ve heard the words of Crowley.
Also real was Jack Parsons, a US rocket scientist who helped to found the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and invented the first rocket engine to use a castable, composite rocket propellant. So far, so plausible, too. However, Parsons met Crowley in the late 30s and joined Thelema. He even ended up hanging around with L Ron Hubbard.
And now we have a biopic of Parsons that is actually all too easy to believe.
Do what thou wilt
The first episode introduces us to Parsons, who’s played with a certain glee by Sing Street‘s Jack Reynor – one of many members of an almost exclusively non-US cast. Parsons didn’t graduate college, as he needed a job during the Depression to look after his wife (Neighbours’ Bella Heathcote), so has been working in a chemicals factory instead. Nevertheless, he and buttoned-down Caltech student Peter Mark Kendall (Chicago Med, The Americans) have been working together to create a new kind of rocket that might even take man into space.
As we quickly find out, Parsons is something of a dreamer, being a reader of lurid stories that typically involve a Chinese, harem-owning, tiger-fighting king, although Heathcote isn’t quite so approving of his reading matter. Then into their lives comes furtive new neighbour Rupert Friend (Homeland). He encourages Reynor to live a little, “Do what thou wilt” being the only law that really counts. Before you know it, Reynor’s burgling houses, nearly drowning in a swimming pool, coming up with exciting new ideas for rocket propulsion, taking all kinds of risks, and nearly blowing up Caltech professors (Rade Šerbedžija) in an effort to get much-needed funding.
Then one night he follows Reynor to a local church and discovers him in a congregation, watching while Aleister Crowley (TheCrown‘s Greg Wise) is busily sacrificing a naked virgin. Soon, stabbed to his and Heathcote’s door, is a satanic symbol. Are they in danger? Might they even want to join in?
For such a potentially exciting and lurid subject matter, this sure is tame stuff. Exploding mini-rockets are the most exciting parts of something that could have been a Satanic sexfest on AMC where it was originally pitched, but here feels like it’s a group of neighbours in a gated community getting shocked by an Ann Summers party.
There is some great attention to period detail, as well as rocket science, surprisingly enough. The cast fit their parts well, even if Wise is vastly too handsome to be Crowley. But if you were expecting something a bit more exotic, the first episode avoids every opportunity presented to it and the trailer for the rest of the season suggests two women kissing is about as exciting as it’s going to get.
All of which means that this is going to be at most a vaguely interesting biopic about a probably far more interesting man. I’d give it a miss if I were you.
In the past, I’ve fretted that today’s generations aren’t being educated in the TV classics. Back in the 80s, when there were just three to four channels, no Internet, no DVDs, no games consoles, no smartphones, et al, TV networks had a captive audience. So as well as making plenty of original shows, they could air repeats from decades earlier (sometimes even in primetime) and know the audience wouldn’t change channel or even turn the TV off. It ensured that the nerdy likes of me were introduced to The Man From UNCLE, The Avengers, The Invaders, the various ITC shows of the 60s, Champion the Wonder Horse, black and white sitcoms like The Addams Family or Car 54 Where Are You? and more.
The chances that any of today’s generation are going to watch these is pretty close to zero. Even if they wanted to, no channels are airing these old shows and few if any streaming services are offering them. There’s almost no chance they’ll get seen by the youth of today unless said youth have a lot of cash and patience.
Lost in Space? Good
However, I have absolutely no concerns about the youth of today not getting to watch classic 60s sci-fi show Lost in Space. Produced by the famous TV auteur Irwin Allen (Land of the Giants, The Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) and originally titled Space Family Robinson (kids: that’s a reference to a another thing we used to call ‘books’), it sees a family called the Robinsons blasting off into space in the then-far-flung-future of 1997 to colonise a planet around Alpha Centauri that’s fit for human life. However, their ship goes off course and before you know it, they’re… lost in space.
Why do I have no concerns? Because frankly – sorry, Lost in Space fans, if there are still any of you – it was terrible. Just awful, in fact. Forcing a child to watch it today is tantamount to abuse.
That isn’t just because of its patriarchal 60s values, with father Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams) and ‘Space Corps’ Major Donald West (Mark Goddard) going off doing action things and solving problems, while mum Maureen (June Lockhart) and daughters Judy (Marta Kristen) and Penny (Angela Cartwright) basically stayed at home and did the housework. It isn’t because of its shiny 60s idea of what space travel would be, either.
No, it’s because of what was actually the show’s most iconic character: one Dr Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). He wasn’t in the original pilot, but in keeping with other Allen series and the post-Bond fever for spy shows in the 60s, the show included Dr Smith for an element of international intrigue. In the new first episode for the show, he’s introduced as a saboteur whose presence on board the Jupiter 2 is what causes it to go off course. Never intended to last more than a few episodes before being written out, Harris soon hatched a cunning plan: he started writing his own lines and playing up his character as a colossal coward and pompous oaf.
Irwin was no fool and seeing what Harris was up to, he told him: “I know what you’re doing. Do more of it!” Before you knew it, ‘special guest star’ Jonathan Harris was in every single episode and was the star of the show. Most episodes were about him, his relationship with the Robinson’s very trusting son Will (Bill Mumy) and the almost equally iconic ship’s robot voiced by Dick Tufeld, whose catchphrase “Danger, Will Robinson!” is far better known than even the show itself, despite only having been used once.
To cope with a man screaming “Oh the pain! Save me, William!” as though he was being attacked by Puss in Boots every episode, the writers naturally shifted the tone of the show’s writing, taking it from a surprisingly gritty and even dark piece in its initial episodes to one in which actors were spray-painted silver and giant carrots turned up. Watch anything more than those first few episodes and you’ll discover that if you have any actual choice in terms of what’s available to watch, you won’t be watching Lost in Space unless you also happen to be smoking something a little exotic.
And now for something completely different
For reasons unknown, people had fond memories of the original show – presumably because they hadn’t watched it since they were three years old – and producers have been keen to tap into that misplaced nostalgia. In 1998, a movie version tried to turn the TV series into something watchable, but even the acting talents of the likes of Gary Oldman (as Dr Smith), William Hurt, Matt LeBlanc, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham and Jared Harris still weren’t enough to save it. The less said about it, the better – particularly if you’re in the company of anyone who worked for a London post-production house at that time (“Oh the pain!” indeed).
An attempt to make a new TV series, The Robinsons: Lost in Space, floundered in 2004, despite John Woo directing the pilot. Apart from this YouTube video, the show’s only lasting mark were its sets, which were repurposed for the Battlestar Pegasus in Battlestar Galactica.
You’d have thought that given such a low bar to get over, any adaptation of the original could only succeed, but apparently not.
Third time lucky?
Nevertheless, here we are again, as Netflix has just given us a full 10-episode season of a show called Lost in Space that is ostensibly a reboot of the original show. It sees Toby Stephens (Black Sails, Die Another Day) playing dad John Robinson, Molly Parker (House of Cards, Deadwood) playing mum Maureen Robinson and ‘queen of the indies’ Parker Posey playing Dr Smith, who once again are ‘lost in space’.
You would, of course, be quite entitled to wonder what sort of show this new Lost in Space would be like. If it’s an adaptation of the original, is it a remake of that original darkish spy show or the camp show it ultimately became? Is it more like the movie, perhaps? And is it a show for the kids or a grimdark piece for adults?
Last of all, is it actually any good and worth watching? Unlike the original.
While you’ll have to wait until after the jump before I tell you whether it’s any good, I can at least give you one of TMINE’s trademark ‘meets’ to give you an idea of the tone of the show.
Not only is it suitable for both adults and children, Netflix’s Lost in Space is indeed Lost in Space, but it’s Lost in Space meets Interstellar meets The Martian. Have a think about that while you watch this here trailer.
In the US: Wednesdays, Hulu
In the UK: Thursdays, Amazon
How soon is too soon? 9/11 was a staggering 17 years ago, more or less, yet it still looms over daily politics. So is it too soon for the events leading up to it – and its fallout – to be dramatised on TV, even by documentary makers working from a book by a Pulitzer Prize-winner?
Possibly. To be honest, The Looming Tower feels a little brave just for trying to do what it’s doing – namely to point fingers at real people and organisations to suggest what went wrong with the US’s intelligence apparatus that allowed Osama bin Laden to fatally attack New York and Washington DC in 2001. But it does it so well and intelligently that you feel it’s earned the right.
It starts its narrative in 1998, introducing us to the two real adversaries of the piece: Jeff Daniels, the head of the FBI’s I-49 Squad counter-terrorism unit, and Peter Sarsgaard, the CIA’s corresponding head of ‘Alec Station’. Both want to catch Osama bin Laden, but disagree on methods. Daniels wants to approach it as a criminal matter, building a case against him so he can be arrested and tried in court, working his way up through the minor levels of al Qaeda until he gets to the boss. Sarsgaard on the other hand doesn’t care about the little people and is worried that using intel to catch them will let the big guy get away. He’d rather rendition, waterboard, bribe and carpet bomb his way around the Middle East until he can cut the head off the snake, even if it means thousands of civilians will be killed in the process – at least they won’t be American civilians.
Sarsgaard’s approach means that he’s not going to give Daniels any of the intel he receives, as Daniels will only end doing something stupid like using it to arrest people. What could go wrong? The Looming Tower shows us exactly what.
In most fictional shows, Sarsgaard would be the daring goodie, Daniels the by-the-book dullard who’s missing the bigger picture and needs to be sidetracked. But although it’s ultimately the CIA that gets its way, defining US tactics for years post 9-11 before it switches to Daniels’ approach, The Looking Tower instead sides with Daniels.
Saarsgaard is a brittle theoretician with zero people skills and just as little field experience. Nevertheless, he believes he’s the smartest man in the room – everyone calls him ‘the professor’ – and can’t see any flaws in his ‘perfect’ (aka insane) plans, other than the stupidity of other people.
Meanwhile, Daniels is all about feet on the ground and getting to know the enemy, using the normal skills of law enforcement. His methodical use of human intelligence is going to work best in the long-term and avoid potentially bolstering al-Qaeda’s recruitment campaigns; it’s also going to stop atrocities from happening in the short-term.
Central to this is Tahar Rahim (A Prophet, The Last Panthers), one of the FBI’s eight (read them and weep) Arabic speakers and a lapsed Lebanese-American Muslim who joined the FBI for a bet. But Bill Camp, an ageing former soldier trained in counter-intelligence techniques, also proves to be important as he uses his training to extract information peacefully from those who have been arrested.
Although the action sometimes shifts to the 2004 congressional 9/11 enquiry, the first three episodes are still largely set three years before 2001, when bin Laden’s plans for the US are still nascent. The story therefore focuses on his warning to the world in his interview with ABC on US TV, followed by his assaults in Africa, including the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi, and the subsequent FBI investigation.
Here, the show takes a leaf from Narcos‘ book by interspersing the show’s impressive recreation of events with TV footage of the time, making everything far more real than it would otherwise have been. It also does everything intelligently and no one is stupid – arrogant, maybe, but not stupid. The FBI, the Kenyan police and al Qaeda are all respectful professionals, as well as fully rounded human beings.
There’s a real air of verisimilitude to proceedings, in terms of both the FBI’s work as well as al Qaeda’s planning. If a trite cliché of the spy or police procedural genre comes anywhere near the plot, it quickly gets chewed up and spat out. There’s also some great dialogue and even moments of comedy, mainly involving national intelligence co-ordinator Michael Stuhlbarg’s rebuffs to Saarsgaard (“I know you think there’s a button under my desk that can authorise bombings at your word, but I have to tell you, no such button has been supplied to me”).
Okay, that’s not 100% true of the activities in England, with South Africa not wholly convincing as a double for both London and Manchester. But I’ve seen worse and Tony Curran’s Special Branch officer clearly comes from Northern Ireland not the Republic – the show doesn’t overlook the IRA’s activities in previous decades, either.
There is perhaps a little too much focus on Daniels’ bigamist (or should that be trigamist) private life, as well as Rahim’s dating activities. Alec Baldwin has yet to convince as CIA director George Tenet and the story’s thrust is perhaps a little too one-sided, with the CIA clearly identified by the show as the problem, with little contrasting evidence from the agency’s point of view. And while The Looming Tower is better paced and better written than its ultimate epilogue Zero Dark Thirty, it’s obviously nowhere near as well directed, even if its paced documentary style serves the narrative.
But if you like your Homeland-style spy thrillers with real-world authenticity, great acting from Sarsgaard and Rahim, and genuine stakes, The Looming Tower will be a great addition to your viewing queue.