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The Media Man Reviews: Alex Rider Season 3

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I consider it criminal I've been running this blog for two years and have yet to talk about Alex Rider in any capacity.


If you don't know what Alex Rider is then chances are you've never read a book in your entire life. Alex Rider is a series of teen spy novels written by children's author and television writer, Anthony Horowitz, and is by far his most successful series to date. With 14 novels released, the books have enjoyed worldwide acclaim and success with millions of copies sold and praise going for their suspenseful plots, creative use of the spy genre, many homages to James Bond and a compelling protagonist that kids of all ages can relate to. The series has also had audiobooks released with narrations by Oliver Chris, Dan Stevens and Rupert Degas respectively, graphic novel adaptations of the first six books, some short story collections and the first book was adapted into a movie titled Stormbreaker in 2006. It wasn't very good and bombed heavily at the box office.


I myself am a major Alex Rider fan. I got the entire collection of the first nine books released at the time from Stormbreaker to Scorpia Rising for Christmas one year and after I began reading them, I was hooked from beginning to end and enjoyed the books immensely. They were some of the most enjoyable books I'd ever read and I'd say Alex Rider is my favourite book series as a whole. If I had to pick a favourite novel, I'd probably say Scorpia, the fourth novel. Sadly, Anthony Horowitz made the confusing decision to bring back the series after Scorpia Rising was meant to be the last book with Never Say Die pretty much retconning the former so the series could continue. I hated that so much that I've since refused to read any more Alex Rider books. The series had a perfect ending, it didn't need to continue and Anthony should've left well enough alone. Oh and before you ask, yes, I did see the Stormbreaker movie and thought it was hot garbage. Way to make the series look embarrassing filmmakers. =P


Anyway, back in 2020, the books were given a new chance at a screen adaptation with a streaming series exclusive to Amazon Prime. This adaptation of Alex Rider is closer in tone to the books and takes a more grounded approach with how it brings the books to life. Season 1 released in 2020 and adapted Point Blanc while Season 2 released in 2021 and adapted Eagle Strike. This year, we have the third (and final) season which is adapting Scorpia. I've watched the previous two seasons and while this is a FAR superior adaptation compared to the Stormbreaker movie, I still find the books to be superior. The show, I feel, loses the charm and spirit of the books by going too much for realism and there are some changes I can't stand like the need to give Alex a team and this new character Kyra who feels like someone's fanfic OC just shoved in there because...we need a girl on the team I guess? I don't know why she's here.


Still, it has been interesting to see these new takes on these old books and with Season 3 adapting my favourite book of the series, does it end the show on a high note? Or should we let Scorpia assassinate this thing? Let's review it and find out...


Section 1: The Story


Following on from Season 2, Alex Rider journeys to Malta with his friends Tom Harris and Kyra Vashenko-Chao as he searches for Scorpia. What he'll find is not just a criminal organization that has had a looming shadow over so much of his life, but answers to questions he's had about his past that will change everything for him. Meanwhile, the Department is desperately racing against the clock to stop the villainous Scorpia from bringing terror to the UK as they plan to plunge an Invisible Sword into the hearts of many...


As a fan of the books, expect this review to feature a lot of comparisons between the books and the show, but I will try to look at it as its own thing as well. So first of all, how is it as an adaptation of the Scorpia novel? Well...it's complicated. On the one hand, it IS a pretty faithful adaptation of the book with much of the original story still intact and it doesn't deviate too far from the source material. We get a plot of Alex searching for Scorpia with their plot of Invisible Sword threatening to doom all of the UK and the major revelations that made Scorpia such a game-changing book in the series like with Alex's dad turning out to be a spy for MI6 who worked as an undercover agent infiltrating Scorpia before he was killed by them. The core of the story is still there and it's great to see it as it is. And tonally, it's very true to the original too. Scorpia was one of the darker stories in the Alex Rider franchise and this season reflects that by having the darkest story of the show. The villains are more ruthless and menacing than those that came before, Alex is tempted to the Dark Side and things feel a lot more serious this time around. As is, we still have that trademark Alex Rider wit that also made the books enjoyable with some snappy dialogue and one-liners that can crack a smile or two. So in spirit, it's very faithful to the book and somewhat has the feel of Alex Rider.

On the other hand, the same problems with the last two seasons plague this season too. It makes some unnecessary changes to the story, namely how some of Alex's achievements are given to other characters so they've got something to do, Tom Harris and Jack Starbright having increased roles and the whole subplot of the Department (speaking of, why are they just called "The Department" instead of MI6? That's so boring!) trying to deal with Laura Kellner as she keeps breathing down their necks. The biggest problem I have with the show as a whole, not just this season, is how it misses the point of Alex Rider. The appeal of the books was that Alex was this teenage superspy who more often than not had to succeed and carry out missions with little help from everybody else and he often had only his wits and a collection of gadgets to carry him through. Here, they make him part of a power trio with Tom and Kyra and it just isn't interesting or fun, it just feels so forced and as a result, they have to change the stories in order to accommodate this. As a result, we have extraneous stuff with Tom and Kyra that isn't necessary and as mentioned before, some of Alex's achievements are given to the supporting cast in order to give them something to do, which only takes away from Alex's part in the story. It just doesn't feel quite as impressive whenever Alex defeats the bad guys in this show because he's constantly having help from other characters and they're taking away scenes that should be his. I wish Tom was as minor as he was in the books and Kyra just didn't exist because they're more problematic than anything else here.


Also, as an adaptation of Scorpia, the season feels weirdly rushed to me. It feels like we reach certain plot-points too early most of the time, like how Episode 1 opens up immediately with our heroes in Malta instead of building up to it, or how the Department finds out how Socrpia's plan works in Episode 5 (and only because Scorpia were uncharacteristically sloppy by leaving stuff behind that they were able to find. Scorpia in the novels would NEVER have done that!) or how the truth about John Rider is revealed in Episode 7, the PENULTIMATE episode. That scene should've been saved for last, NOT second-to-last! It was just too early to have this reveal. Also, once again, the show misunderstands the source material by making some of these unnecessary changes. For context, Alex was told the truth about John Rider AFTER he defeated Scorpia and Mrs. Jones explained that the reason they told him sooner rather than later was because she didn't want him to be motivated by revenge and would've been using him for the wrong reasons. Having him find this out BEFORE he defeats Scorpia just misses the point colossally and I don't understand why they paced it so badly. Now yes, Alex isn't motivated by revenge in the climax but it still felt so wrong to me.


And if there's one change that bugs me...it was the confusing decision to make Alex and Kyra become a couple. Because this show wants us to forget that Sabina Pleasure exists for some reason, despite the fact she literally debuted LAST SEASON. What is this, a crappy Alex Rider fanfic or something? Alex has a love interest in the books so why did they give him a new one for this show? And given Anthony Horowitz is an executive producer on this show, why was he (presumably) OK with this dumb change? Given Tom was given such an expanded role in the show, why not do the same for Sabina instead of having this random fan character steal her spotlight?


And I'll forever be mystified how the Department fell for such an obvious trap in Episode 2. That really stretched credibility and I have to wonder how these morons got their jobs when they fell for a trap so obvious that even I, a guy who is NOT a spy, could see it was a trap. That was the dumbest moment of the show for me and a big example of how the best parts of the show are those that come from the books. When you have the new stuff added to the show, you get this kind of crap.


OK, so as an adaptation of the book, it seems pretty messy. Are there any changes I DO like? Why yes actually! The show made the incredibly smart decision not to kill off Yassen Gregorovich when they adapted Eagle Strike in the previous season and as a result, we get to see some of the missed potential of the books realized here. I ALWAYS hated how Anthony killed him off too soon in the books so I'm glad the show fixed that problem. With Yassen alive, he gets to appear in this version of Scorpia and his role was expertly handled, making him a somewhat evil mentor to Alex but still keeping true to his honourable side with his loyalty to John Rider still strong even when he learns the truth about him. I especially loved the bait-and-switch we got where it looked like the show was going to end the way the book did with Alex getting shot by an assassin only for Yassen to stop it from happening. That was perfect. XD Keeping him alive was by far the best deviation from the source material for this show so I'll always appreciate it for that.


Also, if you look at it as its own thing and not an adaptation of the book, it is still a decent watch. The story is very suspenseful at times and has you on the edge of your seat, especially during the climax when Invisible Sword is activated, and I imagine even non-fans will find Alex's character arc of wrestling with the truth behind his father, his loyalty to either the Department or Scorpia being tested and becoming who he was meant to be very compelling TV all-in-all. I feel the show adapted that aspect of the story so well. If you look at it as just another spy thriller show that just happens to bear the Alex Rider name, it's easier to enjoy it that way.


Season 3 can be summed up as such: when it adapts the books faithfully, it's very good. But when it adds anything new, it's not so good. That kinda applies to the show as a whole but for now, I'm talking about Season 3. If they didn't make some of these unnecessary changes, then it could've been a perfect adaptation. As is, it's far from terrible and I'll forever be grateful for the one good change made with Yassen's survival so I can never resent the show for that. Also it's still interesting to see another Alex Rider story told in a new way, even if I don't like most of the changes. For a fan, you may or may not enjoy this take whereas non-fans, I'd be curious to know how they feel about this story...


Section 2: The Characters


The main appeal for me with this show was ALWAYS seeing how they would adapt these classic Alex Rider characters and the actors they would choose to play them and this season was no exception.


Let's start with our titular reluctant superspy, Alex Rider (played by Otto Farrant). Alex really gets put through the mangle in this season. No I don't mean that as in the writers screwed up his character or anything, I mean what the story puts him through. The poor guy is told things about his dad left and right and is left questioning who he can really trust as he's swayed to join Scorpia's side for revenge against the ones who seemingly killed his father. At the same time, he doesn't have the killer instinct in him and so Scorpia really put him to the test when they try sending him to kill Mrs. Jones, the one whom supposedly killed his father. While I mentioned some of his achievements were given to other characters and so he feels less independent because of it, he is still very true to his novel counterpart and his arc is very solid from beginning to end. You will really feel for this poor kid after everything he goes through and what he's manipulated into almost doing, whether you're a fan or not. And even if this Alex isn't as independent as before, I still like how he's the one who saves the day in the end. They didn't take that away from him thank goodness.


And now we have our secondary protagonists, Tom Harris (played by Brenock O'Connor) and Kyra Vashenko-Chao (played by Marli Su). These two are Alex's sidekicks essentially and as mentioned before, I hate how the show gave us this team dynamic with Alex and these two because it just misses the point of the originals. All Tom and Kyra do is take away the focus from Alex whenever they show up and achieve things or coin up plans that Alex should be doing instead. While they are great moral support for him and very useful with Tom's outside-the-box thinking and Kyra's super hacking skills, I just wish the show didn't make them main characters at Alex's expense. Kyra especially has no business being here as she's not even from the books and her existence makes her feel like somebody's fan character being snuck into the show, complete with her being shipped with Alex despite him having a love interest already in the source material. The show would've benefitted so much from not giving Tom more screentime and not creating Kyra at all. This is "Alex Rider", not "Alex and Friends" everybody!


For the supporting cast, we have Alan Blunt (played by Stephen Dillane), Mrs. Jones (played by Vicky McClure), Smithers (played by Nyasha Hatendi), Crawley (played by Ace Bhatti) and Jack Starbright (played by Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo). Alan is the usual head of MI6 (or the Department in this case) who cares more about completing the mission than anything else, Smithers and Crawley are the agents who help to figure out Scorpia's plan and Jack is Alex's legal guardian who will do whatever it takes to keep him safe. Thankfully they didn't give her some forced subplot like they did in Season 2 and she was used more sparingly here. Out of all the characters, Mrs. Jones has the most confusing development to me. Episode 1 seems to set up that she wants to leave and Pritchard's death in Episode 2 seems to further justify her decision...and then by the end she's instead made the new head of the Department and she doesn't leave. So what happened to leaving her spy work behind? Why did she completely change her mind on all that and become Alan Blunt's successor in the end? That was so weird! It'd be like if in Pokémon X and Y, they established Serena doesn't want to be a Ryhorn racer and then by the end of the show, she suddenly changes her mind and decides to become one, that's not how character development works!


And now let's cover our villains. We have the main antagonist of the original book, Julia Rothman (played by Sofia Helin) making her onscreen debut here. While Dr. Grief was a downgrade from his book counterpart and Damian Cray was an upgrade from his book counterpart, Julia Rothman feels the truest to the book in terms of how she's written and executed here. She has the same ruthless and manipulative personality that made her a chilling villain in the books and it was great to see her depicted so faithfully here. Sofia gave a wonderfully dark and chilling performance as Julia and I like how this version of the character is more motivated by revenge than anything else, as that too feels true to the book. She was the best thing about this season for me and I'm glad that for the final season, they were able to do one of Alex Rider's best villains justice.


Unfortunately, her assistant Nile (played by Jason Wong) got a huge downgrade. Nile was this badass assassin who was Number 2 in his class and is held back by his one weakness, that being his fear of heights. Here, Nile isn't as badass as he should be with Alex somehow managing to fight back and get away from him in Episode 1 when Book Nile would've floored him in seconds and the show makes the incredibly confusing decision to make him more of a jerk when he was really friendly towards Alex in the book when he was willing to join Scorpia. Why? Was it so Yassen could look better by comparison? Nile was so badly-handled here and he didn't have to be. He may as well have been a completely different character with how little he resembled his book counterpart.


And then there's Max Grendel (played by Kevin McNally). He's given an expanded role from his novel counterpart and like with Tom Harris, it isn't to his benefit. He doesn't really do much aside from try to play to Julia's good side and he doesn't even show up all that much. he's in only two episodes before he's killed off by Yassen as a means to show Alex what it's like to kill. What a waste of Kevin McNally's acting talents! They just shouldn't have adapted him at all if his expanded role was going to amount to nothing in the end.


As for the man who kills Max Grendel, let's cover him next. As mentioned before, Yassen Gregorovich (played by Thomas Levin), was thankfully spared in the previous season so unlike his book counterpart, he survives and plays a part in this story. And let me tell you, it was a treat to see how they fit Yassen into this story and have him interact more with Alex and Julia while also getting to see him interact with Nile, something we never got in the books. He's still the complex character he is from last time as this morally grey Russian assassin who has his own moral code, especially in regards to the Rider family, and he somewhat plays the Evil Mentor role to Alex when he joins Scorpia. Yassen really got the lion's share in this story and I'm glad this adaptation allowed us to see what we never got in the books by keeping him alive here.


And now for a character who was not in the book, Samantha Pritchard (played by Natalie Dew). I...have no idea why this character even exists. Again, she's not in the book, she was created solely for the show, and for what exactly? She just shows up out of nowhere and dies in the same episode she was introduced in, and all because the Department fell for such an obvious trap no less! What was the point of all that? If it was to further Mrs. Jones's character arc, then it didn't work because she stayed with the Department in the end and didn't leave despite saying she wanted to at first! So I ask again, WHY DOES THIS CHARACTER EXIST?! She was a literal waste of space! If this character had any reason to exist at all, then her death should've motivated Mrs. Jones to retire from espionage, but it didn't, so she was the most pointless character in the whole show, never mind this season!


The characters are overall a mixed bag. Most of them are decent depictions of their novel counterparts while some are given expanded roles at Alex's expense and some like Mrs. Jones have weird developments or have no reason to exist like Samantha Pritchard. At least Alex himself was well done and the cast were undoubtedly excellent this season with fantastic performances all around. They really gave it their all, as if they knew this was the last season and wanted to go out on a high note, and I'd say they did. If only the writing was as solid as their performances...


Section 3: The Cinematography


This show succeeds at one thing in all three seasons, and that's looking good. For a show made on a streaming show budget, it's surprisingly good looking and almost cinematic at times.


In the books, Alex Rider is set in our world but with fancy sci-fi spy-tech and gadgets to make it something of a James Bond style world. Here, it's the same thing only with the spy-tech being downplayed a little. Not saying there aren't any gadgets at all of course, just not as much as in the books. On the rare times we do get them, it's pretty neat to see and the prop-designers make them look convincing and functional too, namely the gadgets Alex uses when he and Yassen break into Max's house or the hidden gun in the Chinese takeaway meal Alex brings in to try and assassinate Mrs. Jones. The prop-designers were even able to design a cola bottle that can split open to reveal a hidden compartment inside! That was really cool and felt like something straight out of the books. I wish we got more of that in this show but hey, there wasn't supposed to be gadgets when the books were originally planned so I can understand why they were maybe downplayed in the show. But anyway, if there's one prop I especially feel was well-designed and looked cool onscreen, it was the terahertz beam emitter in the climax of Episode 8 when Scorpia launched Invisible Sword. The emitter looks very hi-tech and something out of a sci-fi film and the black colour scheme with the orange and yellow beam emitters made for a suitably villainous colour-scheme for a machine used by Scorpia. Kudos to the prop-designers for making a machine look so menacing!


In a similar vein to other streaming shows like the Netflix Daredevil and Jessica Jones shows, the series relies heavily on practical effects and make-up work with very little CGI used in the show. The only times anything looked CGI was one time a gadget emitted fake-looking smoke or when the terahertz beams were emitting from the transmitter device. Any other time, it always looked real and I couldn't tell if any CGI was used or not. Even the times a character would get shot looked real with Max looking like he has an actual bullet wound in his head after Yassen shoots him. Same for when Mrs. Jones shoots Julia Rothman in the climax. The prosthetic and make-up team manage to make all injuries the characters sustain look real whether it's a bullet wound or a stab wound and it's pretty impressive stuff. It also makes the danger and the tension feel more real as the actors actually look like they really got those injuries. If they look hurt and their wounds look convincing, then it only makes it feel more real to the viewer and it makes for more suspenseful viewing. It also helps that the fight scenes also feel real and brutal too with the acting and choreography making the blows look like they hurt.

Speaking of suspense, this show loves lingering shots that focus on a character in a tense spot as they sneak around watching someone or trying to creep around without being noticed. Those shots too add to the suspenseful tone that makes Alex Rider so gripping to engage with. The books have a lot of scenes like this too so it's great to see the show execute them here. And I also notice the show LOVES sweeping camera shots of general scenery whenever we're in a location like London or Malta. I dunno if they used drones or helicopters to get those overhead shots but whenever we see them, they look great and they capture the size and scope of the countries we're in at the time from the bustling London city to the beautiful sunny Malta. They really do make those shots look so good.


What they also manage to make look good are the sets too with the Department's headquarters looking like this dark, lonely, isolated spy base that may not look so glamorous but is clearly full of hi-tech equipment and Malagosto depicted as this dingy, uninviting prison island for training assassins with an unfriendly atmosphere and dim lighting to further make the place look unpleasant to be in while Julia Rothman's office looks considerably more comfortable and luxurious by comparison. It's a great contrast with this rich woman living in comfort above the students of Malagosto who are in anything BUT luxury. I am still curious why Consanto Enterprises from the book is instead just a boat with its own lab instead of a pharmaceutical enterprise building. Like, did that really need to be changed? It's not like it was that vital to the story that Consanto was a boat instead of an enterprise building. All that did was leave out the scene of Alex base-jumping, which is a pity as I would've loved to have seen them adapt that part.


As great as the show looks visually, I'm not keen on one little thing about how the world of Alex Rider is brought to life here, and that is Scorpia's logo. Why is it just this stylized S that if you sort of squint at it a little, it kinda resembles a scorpion instead of just being a scorpion emblem? Like, the point of Scorpia is that their logo is a scorpion because their name sounds a bit like "scorpion". So why not depict that? Why is this show so unwilling to embrace the goofier side of this franchise half the time? That's what makes Alex Rider what it is! By trying to go for a more grounded and realistic approach, they're just giving us a generic spy thriller series that somewhat resembles Alex Rider. If you're going to adapt Alex Rider, then embrace the insanity and depict that onscreen instead of trying to go for realism! That's just boring!


Oh well, the visuals are still very good looking for a streaming service and they are able to make Alex Rider visually interesting to watch most of the time. I just wish they didn't try to make it look "realistic" as it loses some of its identity by doing so...


Overall


If you look at the show on its own merits, Season 3 was a relatively solid conclusion to the series. But as an adaptation of the books, it has the same issues that plagued the previous seasons. Alex Rider Season 3 is a very so-so series that makes some questionable changes to the source material but it does have some good changes here and there, is faithful in spirit and does the title character justice so it's not entirely without merit. I just wish I could say I love the show as much as the books, but sadly I don't and it's because the show made too many baffling decisions that held it back. They shouldn't have made it more realistic and shouldn't have increased the roles of some of the cast. They should've stayed truer to the books and made them faithful adaptations with no unnecessary stuff added to them. If you're a fan of the books like me, you might be annoyed at the changes or you might be OK with them. It you're a non-fan, then give the show a watch and see if you enjoy it and if so, maybe check out the books as well. If the show ends up breeding a new generation of Alex Rider fans and gets people checking out the books for the first time, then I'll be happy. As is, it still sucks the show's over. As much as I complained about it, I still would've loved to have seen how they would've adapted the other books and maybe they would've given us a new take that would've been superior to the originals. For what we got, I don't regret checking it out and it was an interesting viewing experience to see a new take on Alex Rider, even if I may not have liked all of the new stuff. Hey, at least it was better than the Stormbreaker movie. XD


And that's it for this review. I hope you enjoyed it and I'd love to hear your thoughts down below. Do you like Alex Rider? Do you watch the show as well? Do you prefer the books or the show? Do feel free to tell me.

Next week I'll be travelling to China to review the latest installment in the Kung Fu Panda franchise. See you then media fans!

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Don't think I'll be in a hurry to watch this and the Kyra thing does indeed remind me of a fan character being invented to be the lover. I think if I was a fan of the books and watched this I'd be overly disappointed, yet still, quite the review here then.

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