When his uncle and guardian, Ian, is killed in a car crash, teenager Alex Rider (Otto Farrant) starts to doubt the story he’s given by the police. He investigates the accident himself… and what he discovers turns his world upside down. The crash has been faked; Ian’s death has been at the hands of an unknown assassin. What’s more, far from working in an investment bank as Alex has always believed, it becomes clear that his uncle was in fact an agent for the British Secret Service. Everything Alex has believed about his family and his past is a lie.
With a concept as impressively high as this, it’s no surprise that Amazon Prime Video and Eleventh Hour Films have crafted a series with an impressively cinematic production. We’ve been lucky enough to witness the first four of Alex Rider‘s eight-episode first season and I was immediately struck by how lush the production is.
Guy Burt’s interpretation of London and its underground network of spies and espionage is easily on par with Spooks or contemporary series like Call of Duty. Familiar landscapes are bathed in dark blue hues, murky shadows and lusciously inky blacks. One could be forgiven for thinking this was a Scandi-Noir and I don’t doubt that it is on purpose.
Impressively, Burt and his production staff don’t seem to have shied away from pitching Alex Rider somewhere between the young adult readers of the books and the adult audiences of any of the aforementioned shows.
But herein lies a potential issue the young series may have. When Alex is knocked off his bike, kidnapped and wakes up bloodied and bruised, I can see some parents may feel that the show veers too much towards the darkness and not enough towards lighthearted teen-spy drama.
It creates a unique mix of tones when the show transitions from high school drama to deep espionage action. Alex’s high school is populated with plenty of recognisable characters, there’s Alex’s best friend Tom (Brenock O’Connor) a bit of an outsider figure: like Alex, he’s often in trouble, but unlike Alex he doesn’t have the innate smarts or physicality to excel.
The two share a great bond and it’s clear that Tom will eventually find himself entwined in Alex’s after school activities. The chemistry between Farrant and O’Connor feels like they’ve been school friends for years and certainly anchors early episodes of the series.
But Tom also represents a potential issue for the tone of Alex Rider. On the whole these four episodes feel quite serious and grounded, once again replicating the feel of series like Spooks, so when Tom is seen crafting a YouTube video entitled “Alex Rider: The Life of a Spy” it feels a little disingenuous. It becomes evident that Rider is attempting to strike a chord with audience members young and old but doesn’t quite fully land with either.
Alex’s high school life is also populated with potential love interests and bullies alike. It will be interesting to see if the series will have the opportunity to explore this further in the future or if the spy-life will overtake school-life.
All of the key players from Anthony Horowtiz’s books are here: Jack Starbright (Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo), the live-in housekeeper and constant support in Alex’s life; Mrs Jones (Vicky McClure) the straight-laced but warm hearted handler assigned to Alex and Alan Blunt (Stephen Dillane) the spider at the centre of the web.
Though it’s Alex’s name on the title card, the supporting cast certainly get plenty of story to sink their teeth in to across the four episodes which we have seen. Vicky McClure is easily the standout here, at times it feels like she’s channeling Gillian Anderson and that is no bad thing. In particular, Mrs Jones feels the most fleshed out of all the supporting character in the episodes we saw.
This first series focusses on the second book in Horowitz’s series, Point Blanc. These four episodes are an incredibly slow burn, taking time to painstakingly set the scenes and sift through the origin of Alex’s introduction to espionage. At times it feels a little cumbersome and some younger viewers will certainly find it too slow. But persevering certainly pays off when the plot begins to pick up the pace in episodes three and four.
The jumping off point at the end of episode four certainly sets the series up to go in interesting directions in the back-half of the season. Ultimately Alex Rider has some tonal issues which may alienate some audience members but remains a satisfying experience regardless.