Alcatraz – Pilot Review


“On March 21st 1963,Alcatraz officially closed due to rising costs and decrepit facilities. All the prisoners were transferred off of the Island. Only that’s not what happened, not at all.” These are the opening words that first greet the audience, spoken by the familiar voice of Sam Neil, accompanied by a night-time shot of San Diego’s Alcatraz Island.  This is the first offering of the new sci-fi drama Alcatraz.

The pilot starts with a guard vessel docking at the Island of Alcatraz prison. We are told that it is March 20th 1963, the day before the prison’s official closure. Expecting a welcoming party, the two guards convey their alarm as they enter a completely empty Alcatraz prison.

Cut to present day San Diego 2012,Alcatraz has been reformed into a museum run by the National Parks Service. In the middle of a visitors’ tour of the prison, a man awakes on the floor of a corner cell. He is distraught at the sight of the decaying prison. He quickly exits the facility and heads for the next boat departing the island. To his own surprise, he discovers a map, a locker key and some cash when he reaches into his pocket to pay for a ticket. He is even more alarmed once he sees that his picture features in a fellow passenger’s souvenir book which lists the historical prisoners of Alcatraz.

On the mainland of San Diego, two detectives chase a suspect across an old ship yard. One of the detectives falls to his death during the pursuit, the remaining agent will be our new leading lady Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones). A few weeks later, upset and damaged from the loss of her partner, lone-wolf Madsen finds herself investigating the murder of the former Deputy Warden of Alcatraz, E.B. Tiller.

In a classic moment of jurisdictional declaration, Emerson Hauser (Sam Neil) introduces himself as a senior FBI agent and removes Madsen from the case. With a stolen photo from the crime scene, Madsen later lifts and matches a fingerprint of a potential suspect, Jack Sylvane. After many “restricted access” encounters on the police computer, Madsen finds Sylvane’s details on a historical reference webpage which lists his alleged death. Determined to get piece of mind and satisfaction, Madsen tracks down the book’s author,Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia). We first meet Soto in his comic book shop and we are informed immediately of his vast education and knowledge of Alcatraz.

Madsen’s uncle Ray Archer is presented in the form of a friendly barman who keeps a watchful eye over his niece.  She and Soto visit him in the hope he can shed some light on both the suspect and the victim of her recent case as he was an employed guard at Alcatraz in the 60s. He warns the new duo to stay away from the case for both of their sakes. Madsen also comments that her grandfather Thomas Madsen was also an Alcatraz guard. At this mention Soto and Archer share a concerning look. Elsewhere Sylvane visits a public gym and removes a gun from a seemingly prepared locker.

The episode moves back in time to a gritty flashback of Jack Sylvane’s mistreatment during his time in Alcatraz, mainly at the hands of Deputy Warden Tiller. During this brief visit to the past we see Sylvane being operated on by a creepy prison doctor who removes large quantities of selected inmates’ blood. From behind the curtain the shadowy figure of a fellow prisoner, identified as prisoner 2002, tells Sylvane that something terrible is about to happen on Alcatraz Island.

Back in the present, Soto brings Madsen to Alcatraz Island and shows her a secret storage room which he had previously discovered on a research trip for his book. Madsen quickly puts two and two together and hypothesises that these are the original possessions of the prisoners of Alcatraz. She ponders allowed the burning question of why these possessions weren’t transferred with the prisoners. Suddenly, knockout gas floods the hallway leaving Soto and Madsen unconscious. When they wake they are joined by Hauser and his colleague Dr. Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) in a secret Alcatraz-lab who, with the help of current crimes scene surveillance footage, reveals that Jack Sylvane has not aged past his thirties, when in fact he should be close to 80.  Both of the duos unite to stop Sylvane.

After murdering two police officers in the middle of the street, Sylvane visits the glamorous home of the seemingly random character of Barclay Flynn and demands that he opens his house’s safe. Flynn does so and immediately offers a large amount of cash to Sylvane. He refuses the money and says he is there for the soft black bag. The bag contains an old key.  Flynn looks alarmed that he knows of its existence. Once the key is in his possession Sylvane executes Flynn. A connection between Flynn and Sylvane is not revealed in this episode. It is assumed by Soto and Hauser that Sylvane is under instruction from an external force.

Sylvane tracks down his brother who in a flashback we learn married his now deceased wife while he was in prison. His brother is elderly and is in shock at the sight of his resurrected and non-aged sibling.  Sylvane drags his brother to his former wife’s grave and forgives her for moving on. Madsen and Soto arrive and at gunpoint Sylvane reveals that he killed the former Deputy Warden out of hate, but in the case of Flynn he was just following orders. He does not reveal where the orders originated nor does he explain where he has been in the missing years. Hauser appears on the scene and wounds Sylvane before taking him into custody.

Our four good guys gather in the Alcatraz base and discuss the possibility of the other 301 prisoners and guards returning and the importance of finding out who took them. In a quick flashback, Hauser is revealed as the younger guard who first discovered the empty Alcatraz prison in the opening scene. He shows Madsen and Soto a room full of profiles concerning the missing prisoners and guards, now dubbed “The 63s”. She discovers a file for her grandfather Thomas Madsen and learns that he was in fact a prisoner and not a guard as she previously believed. His prisoner number was 2002. Once Rebecca Madsen sees his photo, she realises that he is also the suspect she was chasing on the day her partner died.

The pilot ends with Hauser escorting Sylvane to a secret, ultra-modern prison in the woods and leaving him with the information that he won’t be alone for too much longer.

Alcatraz is the latest TV show featuring J.J. Abrams at the producer’s helm. This pilot held my interest for the hour (with ads) it was on, and I immediately picked up on a few of Abrams’ traits. The first of which is the casting of a virtually unknown leading lady, the second being the rewarding role of a loyal actor from one of his previous projects, (in this case Hurley from Lost, who is Soto in Alcatraz).

The show’s flashbacks are well done in the sense that they appear to be an authentic recreation of the 1960’s. I’m not quite sure yet if they will be able to create the intended sympathy for the prisoners in the shadow of the harsh conditions of the facility, but I’m sure they will provide small bite size solutions to the shows broader mystery and overall plot.

When the number of missing prisoners and guards was first introduced, I was terrified at the prospect of 302 back stories with each new episode dedicated to one of them. Hopefully the show will expand on the wider conspiracy and not adopt a “Monster of the Week” style progression and forget to fill in the blanks on the huge “Where have they been?” conundrum.  Judging on Abrams’ past projects, namely Lost and Alias, this new venture should have no trouble creating and holding intrigue. However if someone finds a hatch somewhere on Alcatraz I have a feeling that both myself and actor Jorge Garcia, will be racing for the first boat off of the Island.

I do have to say something about the elephant in the room, or rather the 4400 elephants in the room. Although Alcatraz will focus on a much more specific mystery, we have already seen a show about a special FBI task force solving the cases of hundreds of disappeared people from the 20th century.  A fun fact about this detail is that 4400 star Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, will star in a future episode of Alcatraz.

In the meantime I will continue to pledge my allegiance to Alcatrazin the hope that there is some massive Abrams-style twist on the horizon.

Alcatraz airs Tuesdays on Watch at 9pm.

Owen Sweeney

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