"Consider The Villains: Why ‘Alphas’ Is the Most Interesting Sci-Fi Show on Television"
I know. There aren’t a lot of competitors for the mantle. But I’ve been catching up on SyFy’s Alphas, a show about people with remarkable abilities, the people who want to exploit them, and those in their number who want to declare independence from humanity, and I’m increasingly impressed by its political savvy. While at first blush, Alphas might seem like a rip-off of X-Men, it’s turning into a deeply thoughtful meditation on extremism, equality, and the profound difficulty of achieving political consensus.
Many science fiction or fantasy franchises have a range of villains who stand in for a series of big ideas, like Magneto’s representation of mutant superiority in the X-Men, or the Lizard’s advocacy of evolution beyond humanity in Spider-Man. Alphas has one big question—how people with abilities can live in a world where they are a minority—and a lot of people who believe they have the correct answer to it.
Dr. Rosen believes that integration, including channeling his charges’ abilities in service of law enforcement and helping them manage the manifestation of their abilities so they don’t do damage or make other people uncomfortable, is the best way to go. Red Flag, the terrorist organization the advocates for Alpha dominance, isn’t a monolithic organization. The first member of it we meet, Anna, an autistic woman with the ability to translate languages and invent them, believes that Red Flag is necessary as a way to force a truce with normal humanity. If humans had their way, she believes, they’d prevent people like her from being born, both because they’d see her autism as a defect, and because they find her gifts threatening. Later, Brent Spiner played Dr. Kern, an Alpha who went a step further, sowing active DNA in prenatal vitamins in the hope his experiments on non-consenting women would result in the birth of more of the people he sees as a miraculous improvement on humanity’s base state. And lately, the show’s been spending time with Stanton Parish, an apparently unkillable Alpha who’s murdered more moderate members of Red Flag.
It’s a fascinating approach, turning a villain-of-the-week formula into a more deeply nuanced exploration of a question that deserves that kind of sustained interrogation. Gary, an autistic member of the core team, complained in an episode in the first season “Why do we always have to fight people with abilities? It’s annoying.” It’s a question that almost anyone who cares about politics has asked themselves at some point, wishing it was easier to get it together to win an election or a legislative vote. But the answer is that the big questions aren’t resolvable quickly or easily. It takes time to reach a consensus, and even then, there will likely remain people outside of it. Alphas is the rare science fiction program smart enough to understand that, and it’s making for fascinating television.