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I have been watching Alphas for only a couple of weeks now, and I have to say it took me by surprise. Like everyone who has been exposed to comic book superheroes and the sleuth of recent years’ summer blockbusters, I thought I knew what to expect. I turned out to be wrong on many things, but what really struck me was the series’ take on superpowers. Indulge me for a while and allow me to show you why to me it’s been — so far at least — so refreshing.
First let’s discuss the mechanics of Alpha abilities. They derive from cerebral anomalies allowing the subjects to “stretch the capabilities” of the human mind. What this means is that the brain, and to some extent the nervous system, are the only parts of the body involved, which neatly restricts the array of powers. In practice, it means that when interacting with the outside world, the Alpha needs a sensory organ to “wield” his or her power, which rules out things like telekinesis, telepathy (as we know it) or flying to name just a few…
With that clarification, we can understand Bill’s strength as the result of some sort of autosuggestion, which explains why he is strong, but not “that” strong and cannot fool himself forever. It also allows us to understand why Nina’s ability requires eye contact, or why the grieving mother in “Never Let Me Go” needed to touch her victims initially and then later needed to be close to them to “sever” the link.
There is obviously a fair amount of pseudo-science involved, but only a little leap is required from the viewer because the Alpha mutation (if we consider that as such) only happens around the nervous system. It also helps that so far the show has kept powers very close to that system (or its sensory subsystem). Plus, Dr. Rosen (David Strathairn) as a neurologist and psychiatrist is there to smooth things out for the wary.
Now let’s discuss the “powers” in question. Human qualities and defects tend to be generously spread among the species, so there is no reason why people with superhuman abilities would all be the nice and responsible ones among us. The existence of supervillains is, therefore, logical and inevitable — we understand that quite well. However, the truth is probably that the very first supervillain was written in because the storyteller needed a worthy foe for his hero. Something obviously necessary given that in the world of superheroes, normal human beings are quickly overpowered.
In Alphas, superpowers don’t set heroes or villains well above normal people as much. They give them a clear advantage, but not one that would make the rest of humanity irrelevant. Rachel’s heightened sensory abilities are nifty for an investigation but they would be hardly helpful when facing a bad guy. Gary’s readings of electromagnetic waves is amazing but in front of a criminal they would be close to useless. Nina’s powers of suggestion are limited because of the way they work. Bill’s strength can’t go on for too long and although it makes him strong it’s nowhere near the basic strength we are used to from superheroes. Finally, Cameron’s agility might be good for visuals but they don’t set him above the rest of us in a way that would make him unbeatable by normal people (well, preferably more than one). All this is why Dr. Rosen’s Alphas can be used in storylines that don’t necessarily involve other Alphas. In fact, their abilities are more suited for an investigative team than for a fighting squad.
It is also a nice touch — which is not uncommon in superhero settings — to have the abilities be the source of some drama. Rachel, understandably, has some issues with (intimate) human contact and it will be interesting to see how the show deals with it. Bill seems “drained” by his short spikes of strength, which might be less dramatic, but adds a sort of Achilles’ heel dimension to his ability. It is also worth mentioning that Nina’s way of life is, if nothing else, “interesting,” and finally that Gary’s amazing skills are somewhat limited by autism.
The above seems to point to the fact that the show designers have laid out some ground rules and are sticking to them. It is not only good for consistency, but it also allows for a new breed of superhero stories which is of course very refreshing. Let’s hope it lasts and that creativity issues don’t make them give up and join the fray…