Wednesday, July 25, 2007 by Stuart Ian Burns
It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about the broadcast of a new US import – but then it’s been a while since a series has been trailed by this much critical acclaim from professionals and bloggers and professional bloggers and people with access to broadband all chanting quietly, “Watch … Watch … Watch…”. But thankfully, Heroes, lives up to the hype providing enough gob-smacking moments in its opening two episodes to turn me into an instant fan.
Superhero fantasies have had a chequered history on television, with straight comic book adaptations either throwing out the mythology that inspired the character or misjudging it to the point of irrelevancy. Those series, like Heroes, laying their own path often misunderstand the ingredients fans of these things are looking for, bringing special powers and big explosions to the fore rather than characterisation. For every Smallville or Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, there’s been Superboy or Mutant X … and let’s not even get me started on the ’60s Batman which like many of these series decided costumes means camp and comedy, and how can any of this stuff be taken seriously? About the only show which didn’t featured teenagers but got everything completely correct is the little known version of The Flash which ran through the schedules for one series in the ’90s.
Luckily, Heroes doesn’t fall into these any of these traps because, as the pre-publicity highlighted, the spandex and outrageous powers are dropped in favour of running the concept of humans developing special powers within the real world (or the version of it that appears on US television). Some of the characters introduced across these opening episodes – such as an indestructible cheerleader who saves a worker from fire – find themselves wanting to do good from the off, while others are rendered impotent and bewildered by their power to the point we’re not even sure if they’re going to be a force for good. The pointed non inclusion of the word “super” from the title of the series indicates these characters are not meant to be paragons.
Only a very broad idea of where the story will be heading was presented in these episode which rightly spent their time introducing the characters and concepts, not falling into the other nefarious trap of also shoe-horning in a representative plot. In these opening stages, all of the characters are living in their own little words, each discovering their new powers in separate ways and – as far they’re concerned – in isolation.
As well as the aforementioned cheerleader Claire , there’s Nathan a politician who can fly, Isaac an artist with drug induced premonitions, Matt a telepathic cop, Hiro a Japanese office worker who can bend space and time and Niki a stripper with a split personality.
Series creator and writer of these opening two episodes Tim Kring (whose previous credits include Knight Rider and Crossing Jordon) relies on a sheer sense of wonder that such amazing things are possible – the look that Peter Parker gives in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film when he realises he can climb walls rendered across whole episodes. And for every tragic moment such as the brutal solution to the mob problems of the stripper, are those of utter joy , as Hiro transports himself from a subway carriage in Tokyo to Times Square in New York before discovering a bookstore selling a comic book which describes his life right up to that instant.
Cleverly, most of these powers can be rendered on screen with fairly minimal special effects and never in a gratuitous fashion. Telepathy is conveyed by voices on the soundtrack, transportation created by a screen wipe or transition (which is why they were so popular on Star Trek), the stripper’s apparent Hyde appears in her reflection with the invincibility created through the ingenious use of prosthetics and CGI, and the flying scenes (as far as I could tell) a mix of wire work and minimal green screen.
Also in these early stages, Kring imports the quirks of such recent hyperlink dramas as Syriana, Love Actually and Fast Food Nation by slowly revealing these characters scattered across the US nation and further afield are tangentially linked, with Claire’s father potentially being the brain-sucking villain of the piece tailing Mohinder – the son of a geneticist – who’s visiting New York to investigate his father’s death and, who in one scene, taxis a nurse (Nathan’s brother) … who it turns out may also be able to fly (although there’s a hint his power might be far more expansive than that).
Slowly, as the heroes are drawn together, such surprise links may become less important, but Kring is already layering in signs and portents – or as the BBC2 announcer beforehand gamely described “apocalyptic visions”. As is customary in these series, not everything can be taken at face value and – as if the many new characters and situations weren’t enough – we were presented with a gob-smacking finale, in which one of those visions comes true. That naturally makes us question what has gone before and shows the series will not be averse to experimenting with the language of television drama, at least in terms of direction and editing.
Heroes is still resolutely of comic books and fantasy though; with the exception of Doctor Who, it’s been a while since a show has seemingly been specifically designed to stir the inner geek. It’s obviously created by someone who’s consumed cult media and has the an obvious love for it. Where other series have shied away from inserting in-jokes which only a small proportion of the audience might understand, Heroes confronts them head on, referencing everything from Star Trek to a particular issue of The X-Men, to the surnames of characters from The Matrix. Elements such as the episode titles as captions which slip through the very opening of each instalment and a portentous philosophical voiceover from source unknown also give the impression of a comic, without going the whole hog as seen in Ang Lee’s film version of Hulk which actually had frames and thought bubbles appearing on screen.
All of this would be for naught were it not for the characters, and for once there’s not a single principle you’re not happy to spend time with. Of the multitude, Hiro is the stand-out, exuberantly played by Masi Oka, his bursts of excitement being some of the best moments on television this year. A more intriguing figure is the Time Lord-esque Mohinder, whose real power we’re yet to see – but actor Sendhil Ramamurthy is carrying the burden of explaining what might be causing these abilities to emerge with aplomb. If Hayden Panettiere’s cheerleader stands a little too much in a certain vampire slayer’s shadow for now, there’s Alias and Lost creator JJ Abrams stalwart Greg Grunberg playing another sturdy but reliable figure in Matt.
While I agree with some commentators that the first episode is a bit sluggish, something which is inherent in the nature of all of these things – there aren’t many opening episodes which work completely simply because of everything they have to do – taken together this marks one of the most promising television launches of the year, combining fun, intrigue and suspense. BBC2 obviously has enough confidence that they’ve paid through the nose to buy the second series – which means it’ll have plenty of time to bed in before Sky inevitably steals the license.
About the only gatecrasher to spoil the party was their presentation of the episodes. Repeating the experiment which greeted the opening instalments of Torchwood last year, the credits of the pilot were clipped and replaced with a reminder that episode two was to follow (over a specially designed ident) and a bunch of trailers for the channel’s opening line-up spoiling the effect of the cliffhanger somewhat as the viewer had Louis Theroux’s incredulous face glaring at them while they considered the implications of the nurse’s jump from the building – surely a voiceover the first set of credits would have been enough.
More damaging was the introduction of the BBC’s long term policy of clipping out the fades in and out of US imports. More than ever, the lead in to advertising has become a punctuation to the action, with a series of mini-cliffhangers throughout the episode, which in Heroes, at least in these early stages with the action criss-crossing across stories, creates a pacing which helps to orientate the viewer. Losing them in this case left the episodes looking a bit disjointed.
But, not to the point that I won’t be tuning in for episode three …