Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Teen spy drama Alex Rider effectively riffs on Cold War-era James Bond

Otto Farrant in Alex Rider
Otto Farrant in Alex Rider
Photo: Des Willies/Amazon Studios
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James Bond has undergone many makeovers and reimaginings since he first appeared in Ian Fleming’s novels, but the British intelligence agent remains the template for the cool spy. Bond’s inspired imitators, parodies, and sincere homage; he’s even received the young adult treatment on multiple occasions. Author Anthony Horowitz has been a double agent of sorts, writing both authorized Bond novels as well as putting his spin on the super-spy in the Alex Rider book series. Now it’s Horowitz’s turn to have his work adapted, as Guy Burt’s Alex Rider series comes to IMDb TV. The series has the spirit of Horowitz’s books, which offer a heightened take on the coming-of-age story, though Burt has left the more outlandish gadgets, like exploding diamond ear studs, from the source material behind. The Tutankhamun writer also borrows from Cold War-era Bond stories, updating their politics and taking a cue from their more taciturn leading man.

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War & Peace’s Otto Farrant stars as the titular teen with a knack for getting in and out of trouble, but who, at first glance, doesn’t seem all that different from his peers. He struggles to summon the courage to talk to his crush, Ayisha (Shalisha James-Davis), despite being egged on by his best friend, Tom (Game Of ThronesBrenock O’Connor). Alex is well adjusted, but it’s clear that he and Tom form their own group outside of any of the other big cliques at school. His devotion to his best friend lands Alex in some hot water in the premiere, but being grounded becomes the least of his troubles when his uncle Ian (Andrew Buchan) is killed in a car crash. But Alex doesn’t buy the story of the fatal collision; he insists his banker uncle was way too uptight and conscientious to break the speed limit. He immediately starts retracing Ian’s steps to learn the truth, parkouring his way around industrial sites and grappling with grown men (it’s cool, Alex knows krav maga). Basically, he starts acting like a spy, because, as it turns out, he’d been trained surreptitiously by his uncle, who was also a spy.

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Things move quickly in the first four episodes, and rarely ever let up throughout the eight-episode first season. Soon, Alex has been enlisted by a shadowy intelligence organization led by Alan Blunt (Stephen Dillane), a man who multiple people claim has an agenda independent of keeping England and her secrets safe. The recruitment scenes are some of the clunkiest early on, as seasoned agents, including the gruff Wolf (The Red Line’s Howard Charles), look on in admiration as Alex easily passes all of their tests. Aside from a stray crack from Tom about Alex’s ability to get into places, there’s no foundation for all his spy know-how. Alex Rider is the rare show that doesn’t indulge in flashbacks, but a few glimpses into Alex’s past would have actually been beneficial here. Because while it’s not that hard to believe Uncle Ian might have been passing along some useful bits of spy knowledge, it’s impossible to imagine how he trained his nephew to withstand noise torture and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” without Alex catching on. But what’s a spy show without a few—okay, more like a dozen—sequences that beggar belief?

Despite a handful of twists, Alex Rider tells a straightforward story, one that draws from the second novel in Horowitz’s series. Blunt’s eagerness to put a teenager in the field appalls most of his subordinates, including Mrs. Jones (Vicky McClure), but Alex is the only one who can infiltrate Point Blanc, a reform school tucked away in the French Alps. Point Blanc is one of the last things Ian Rider looked into before his death, and with several of the school’s “graduates” suddenly finding themselves at the heads of global empires following the untimely deaths of their parents, Blunt needs someone on the inside. But it doesn’t take special training to know something is up at the institute, which was once a sanitarium and later, a repository for chemicals. Students are locked into their rooms at night, mysterious figures wander the halls, and the headmaster, Dr. Grief (Haluk Bilginer), reverently quotes Adolf Hitler.

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Stephen Dillane
Stephen Dillane
Photo: Des Willies/Amazon Studios

This mission dominates the first season, setting Alex on a course to some painful revelations while reviving decades-old anxieties about what’s behind the Iron Curtain. Though Alex Rider is definitely a teen show, it’s much less zippy than its promotional materials might suggest. There’s banter, especially between Alex and Point Blanc classmate Kyra (Marli Siu), and some nerve-racking snowboarding. But the nefarious plot at the center of the show isn’t just a backdrop for its high-flying action; Burt’s scripts tap into modern-day xenophobia in England, as much a riff on Cold War fiction as a classic tale of teen rebellion. The multicultural cast, including Ace Bhatti, Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, and Nyasha Hatendi, is instrumental to developing those themes. There’s a compelling tension between the series’ broader story and that of its protagonist: Alex Rider explores the perceived threat of outsiders, while Alex Rider struggles to feel at home anywhere.

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What ultimately works against the series is the fact its biggest mystery is actually its lead character. Farrant’s is an agreeable presence, and the actor ably vacillates from conflicted teen to clever budding spy. But Alex Rider raises so many questions about its eponymous secret agent, only to defer them for answering at a future date (which we know will arrive at some point, thanks to a recent renewal). We know what drives him to take Blunt’s deal, but the source of his mental fortitude—not to mention other qualities typically gained after years of lived experience—remains up in the air. The tone of the show is often more serious than most YA thrillers; at times, it borders on dour. Yes, there are potentially cataclysmic consequences here, but that’s never stopped 007 from having fun. It’s possible that Burt was overcorrecting for the last Alex Rider adaptation, the ridiculous Stormbreaker. To ensure a more successful second mission, Alex Rider will have to remember just who is at the center of its spy narrative.

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