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Alcatraz Combines Mystery, History and Sci Fi

on Mon, 02/20/2012 - 00:00

On March 21, 1963, the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz officially closed. After nearly thirty years as the source of imprisonment for some of the most notorious gangsters, murderers and thieves of the Twentieth Century, the small island off the coast of San Francisco ended its brief time as an escape proof facility with little fanfare. Media representatives were invited to witness the final twenty-seven inmates receive their last meal on The Rock before being transferred to other penal institutions. Alcatraz was in need of structural repairs after years of wear-and-tear from the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay by the 1960s, and budget cutbacks further prevented Alcatraz from being a financially viable option for the government.

“Only that’s not what happened,” FBI agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) flatly states at the beginning of the FOX drama Alcatraz. “Not at all.” In the fictional world of the sci-fi series, the closing of Alcatraz was instead necessitated after the two-hundred fifty-six inmates and forty-six guards stationed on the island suddenly disappeared without a trace. Close to fifty years later, the worst criminal elements of the Twentieth Century are suddenly reappearing in the Twenty First with no signs of aging or explanations regarding the means of their mystical time traveling. It is thus left to Hauser and his small team of SFPD detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and historian Diego “Doc” Soto (Jorge Garcia) to capture these former Alcatraz inmates before they can wreak even more damage on an unsuspecting population while likewise attempting to unravel the mystery of what actually happened on March 21, 1963.

Alcatraz operates on a variety of narrative levels. Each week, the trio of investigators face a new threat in the form of a previous Alcatraz inhabitant and must track them down by the end of the episode. In this sense, the series is a traditional crime drama with a clear storyline to its installments that reach a climax by the end of the hour. Serial killer Ernest Cobb is thus captured in the final act of the episode that bears his name before he can elicit even more harm, and the same holds true for Jack Sylvane and Cal Sweeney. With a total of three-hundred-and-two men missing from 1963, Alcatraz has plenty of standalone plots to keep it chugging along indefinitely.

The FOX drama, however, is also enshrouded in the mystery of March 21, 1963. What happened that day? How are the former inmates of Alcatraz appearing in the present day without any signs of aging? Why are they reappearing now? And who is behind these mysterious events? To confound the matter, the apparent “time travelers” themselves have little recollection of what happened to them. “They told us we were sick, contaminated, and that we couldn’t leave,” former prison guard Guy Hastings explains. “And then, it wasn’t 1963 anymore.” Even more baffling is that their reappearances come complete with new clothes, money in their pockets and even tickets for the ferry ride from Alcatraz. This is obviously not a case of simply slipping from one decade into another but a larger conspiracy involving unknown forces and entities. While many of the newly returned inmates revert back to their criminalistic behavior—like the aforementioned Ernest Cobb—they also have secret agendas implanted into their brains with no memory of how they got there.

“I have no idea,” bank robber Cal Sweeney tells Rebecca Madsen in regards to the content of a small bag stolen from a safety deposit box. When asked why he doesn’t look inside, he simply replies, “I’m not supposed to.”

Alcatraz was initially conceived by Elizabeth Sarnoff, a writer on the former ABC drama Lost. That award-winning series utilized flashbacks in each of its episodes to further explore the nature of its sprawling cast and the same technique is incorporated on Alcatraz in order to flesh out the backstory of each “criminal of the week.” The federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island is thus vividly brought to life during these sequences, making the drama an historical study even if that narration is ultimately alternative in nature. Alcatraz: A Definitive History of the Penitentiary Years (Ocean View Publishing, 2009) by Michael Esslinger is arguably the most authoritative tome on Alcatraz, and the picture that Esslinger paints of life on The Rock coincides with that which appears on the FOX drama.

In addition to offering an authentic view of Alcatraz and more fully developing the time-traveling inmates of each installment, the flashbacks also contain small snippets into the larger mystery of Alcatraz. At the center of the mythology is Tommy Madsen (David Hoflin), the grandfather of Rebecca Madsen. In numerous scenes, Madsen interacts with the central character of each episode within the confines of the prison infirmary while conjuring cryptic messages to his fellow inmates in the process. “This place is nothing compared to downstairs.” he tells grocery store robber Jack Sylvane before adding, “Something terrible’s going to happen here.”

Tommy Madsen appears to be a major component of the Alcatraz narrative, both within the ongoing investigation by Emerson Hauser and his team as well as the endgame of the masterminds behind the mystery. The “secret mission” of former prison guard Guy Hastings is to locate Madsen in the present, suggesting that he has gone rogue and no longer following orders. It is likewise apparent that the main reason for Hauser recruiting Madsen’s granddaughter to his task force has to do with her blood connection with the culprit.

Emerson Hauser has additional ulterior motives and secret agendas that he fails to share with Rebecca Madsen and Diego Soto. Although the latter two are at the forefront of each installment in regards to capturing the criminal elements that have escaped from their past imprisonment, Madsen and Soto are kept in the dark when it comes to other aspects of Hauser’s investigation. A team of scientists work behind closed doors, for instance, searching for anomalies that might explain the sudden reappearance of former Alcatraz residents, and at least two members of the team have direct connections to Alcatraz—psychologist Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra) and the penitentiary’s physician, Dr. Milton Beauregard (Leon Rippy).

Banerjee and Beauregard appear in both the modern day and flashback sequences of Alcatraz, with Banerjee in particular exhibiting the same lack of aging as the inmates who suddenly find themselves transported through time. The scientific background of each makes one ponder just how much they actually know about the events of Alcatraz, especially when it comes to Lucy Banerjee. Not only is she the second lieutenant to Emerson Hauser on the series, but also the apparent target of serial killer Ernest Cobb in his own “secret mission” on behalf of the narrative’s anonymous overlords.

Alcatraz is a sci-fi drama with elements of a traditional crime series and fictional historical narrative that create a unique blend of suspense and intrigue. With insights into life on the most notorious American island prison, the “buddy cop” chemistry of Rebecca Madsen and comic book store owner Diego Soto—the show’s equivalent of real world Alcatraz expert Michael Esslinger—and a mythology centered on a bevy of unanswered questions, Alcatraz is a series that keeps its audience guessing while likewise entertaining on a weekly basis. Although the secrets of the overarching mystery are still locked away within the figurative underground caverns of Alcatraz, the small snippets of insight offered in each installment slowly bring focus to the proceedings nonetheless, allowing viewers to become ensnared in the conspiracy just as much as the characters themselves.

Anthony Letizia (February 20, 2012)

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