cast: Jacqueline McKenzie, Joel Gretsch, Bill Campbell, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Chad Faust
creators: Scott Peters and Rene Echevarria
540 minutes (12) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Paramount DVD Region 2 retail
reviewed by J.C. Hartley
One difference between British and American TV series, apart from the budgets and the adventurous creativity, which are stacked in favour of the USA, is the perception of what is an adequate length for a series to be. I cannot pretend to be au fait with the conditions that dictate that a British TV series runs for about six shows while an American one occupies a season of anything up to a couple of dozen episodes. I imagine there are commercial reasons related to advertising, creative reasons relating to writing and performance, and possibly even an historical precedent in the UK that acknowledges that a half dozen episodes are sufficient to tell most stories and as much as a British viewer will tolerate. Famously, Patrick McGoohan had expected the narrative arc of The Prisoner to be completed in seven episodes, it was Lew Grade’s expectation to sell the series to an American network that dictated it should be longer.
This cultural division exists even in the realm of comedy. John Cleese and Connie Booth felt that they had exhausted the possibilities of Fawlty Towers in a dozen shows over two series, as did Ricky Gervais with The Office, although he probably overstayed his welcome with Extras; incredibly the US version of The Office has announced plans for a sixth season.
Obviously, British TV has its share of long-running shows, soap operas, and the interminable Last Of The Summer Wine. The short-sharp drama season is also suspended for the likes of Doctor Who, Robin Hood and Merlin, but as these shows occupy the Saturday-night family-drama slot they are probably exempt. Urban fantasy shows like Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes and the recent excellent Being Human largely conform to the half dozen episode series standard.
Within a serial drama, where the intention is to tell a story with some momentum and the acknowledgement of an eventual resolution, where that drama is strung out over more than a dozen episodes it seems inevitable that some of those episodes will feature standalone storylines and a certain amount of padding. Arguably all the episodes of The Prisoner stood alone as self-contained parables within the paranoid environment McGoohan had created, until falling audiences urged some resolution. While fans may pick over hidden clues in individual episodes of that series, there is little forward momentum except a suspicion that The Prisoner is being held by his own side, a suspicion implicit from the very beginning. Nevertheless, The Prisoner, with its innovation and its spy-fi ambience, its beginning and its sort-of ending, is a definite harbinger of the kind of open-ended fantasy series coming out of America now. The X-Files merged standalone horror and mystery stories, and an ongoing alien invasion plot, around a recurring stable of characters to great effect, Lost and Heroes focus on a core of characters and a central mystery or conspiracy in a similar format. The 4400 is in this vein with a brilliant central premise but a tendency to padding in order to fulfil the scheduling requirements of the network.
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Briefly, 4400 people abducted from 1946 up to almost the present day, are returned to Earth unharmed but with no recollection of where they have been or what has been done to them. Some of the returnees manifest new abilities, demonstrably super-powers. The first season ended with the revelation that they had been taken by humans in the Earth’s future and restored to the present to avert a catastrophe.
Season two revealed that the 4400’s paranormal abilities are due to the presence of a neurotransmitter, dubbed promicin, which a paranoid government seeks to control by a vaccination programme administering an inhibitor. This inhibitor led to the development of an immune-deficiency until its effects were reversed by re-administering promicin drawn from the blood of Isabelle Tyler (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a child conceived by one of the 4400. Isabelle ages to adulthood at the end of season two.
In season three, a radical separatist group of 4400 called the Nova Group carry out terrorist attacks against the government, and NTAC – the Homeland Security department assigned to ‘police’ the 4400. It was revealed that Isabelle Tyler is a weapon created in the future to destroy the 4400 and avert some disaster. In the meantime one of the returnees, the apparently venal Jordan Collier (Bill Campbell), appears to have experienced a Damascene conversion after mysteriously surviving an assassination attempt. Instead of pursuing power for its own sake he seems determined to extend the influence of the 4400 by stealing and supplying promicin to all who want it.
Season four begins with a celebration attended by most of the central characters from the previous seasons. Jordan Collier is being feted as a saviour of mankind. During the acclaim, Collier enters a fugue state in which he has a vision of disaster. This opening is revealed to be a nightmare, Jordan wakes to the reality that his distribution of promicin has resulted in a 50 percent fatally rate with injection of the drug.
In the extras package, writers Scott Peters and Rene Echevarria claim that in season four all will be revealed and all questions answered. This is not quite the case, but it is relatively easy for a 4400 virgin to pick up the threads of the series so far. This catch-up is greatly aided by the ‘previously on The 4400′ intros to individual episodes which not only show highlights of the immediately preceding storyline, but also clips from the previous seasons, featuring crucial moments relevant to an understanding of particular character’s story-arcs.
In season four, the wholesale distribution of promicin has shown that injection carries a 50-50 chance of death or the development of paranormal abilities. Injection is illegal and punished by imprisonment. The use of abilities by the 4400 or promicin-positives is also curtailed by law. Jordan Collier is in hiding and acting as a magnet for 4400s and promicin-positives. NTAC agents Tom Collier (Joel Gretsch) and Diana Skouris (Jacqueline McKenzie), with their new boss Meghan Doyle, attempt to deal with individual cases of promicin abuse while investigating a major conspiracy involving the 4400. Tom’s son Kyle has injected promicin and manifested a sort of spirit-guide as his ability, and she directs him to a book, written nearly a hundred years previously, which appears to predict the 4400 and how, under Jordan’s leadership, a heaven on earth can be achieved. After his death experience, Jordan claims to have re-visited the future and witnessed a ravaged Earth ruled by a city-bound elite. It is revealed that two factions exist in the future, one which created the 4400 in an attempt to forestall this disaster, and the other which are content to maintain the status quo. The presence of agents of this latter faction is revealed by independent filmmaker Curtis Peck, but these future agents inject the consciousness of one of their own into Tom Baldwin and he in turn re-activates Isabelle Tyler’s powers to destroy the 4400.
The first four episodes of the season play catch-up with the narrative and the characters. The stories revolve around some of the people who have taken promicin and what it means to their lives; as such the stories are firmly in soap opera territory, heavy on relationships, with a seasoning of police-procedural and SF. A newcomer to the series might be put off by the slow pace and dribs and drabs of plot development. The pace picks up by episode five, and episode six, The Marked, is a paranoid gem although heavily reminiscent of the conspiracy subtexts in The X-Files. Things fairly rattle along from there with Jordan Collier’s super-powered community occupying part of Seattle and declaring a city-state within the city. Episode eight No Exit marks time but then Tom Collier’s possession by a future consciousness kicks in and he utilises Isabelle Tyler as a weapon against Collier as well as his colleagues in NTAC. For the final episode, a viral promicin event results in wholesale deaths and, equally, survivors with the potential to develop abilities. Collier’s group at the expanding promicin-positive colony named Promise City are the only people able to restore and maintain order and, by involving them, NTAC effectively cedes control of Seattle.
The Writers Guild strike, rising budgets and falling viewing figures, effectively killed off The 4400 despite fan lobbying. Final episode, The Great Leap Forward, also seems a little rushed as if to resolve the current scenario and set up a dynamic for a possible return. There is something slightly ridiculous in the sight of the slender and attractive Megalyn Echikunwoke as Isabelle Tyler stalking between Promise City and the Marked’s hideout, in heels and T-shirt and cut-off pants, swinging her hips and swatting henchmen aside with her telekinetic powers, like a Robert Crumb fantasy for the size-zero generation.
There are some inconsistencies and gaps in plotting. One never really understands how Seattle and The 4400 as a whole relate to the wider USA. Skouris’ adopted daughter Maia has visions of a totalitarian America with punitive laws against promicin-positives but there is little sense of a national response. NTAC’s remit is often vague; while Tom Baldwin at one point refers to an investigation being for the civil or criminal law enforcement agencies some of the work they become involved with seems like straightforward police work. The Marked ‘buy off’ filmmaker Curtis Peck by setting him up to direct a low-budget indie superhero movie, presumably to discredit his revelations about their existence without drawing suspicion by eliminating him, however the possessed Tom Baldwin does later shoot him. And finally, having secured the city, a graffiti artist modifies the ‘Welcome to Seattle’ sign by painting over it with ‘Promise City’; I would have thought that among the weird and wondrous abilities of the 4400 and the new promicin-positives there was someone who could have done a better job without recourse to a can of paint.
Discs one to three have deleted scenes; disc four has the director’s cut of the final episode, a blooper reel, and a couple of featurettes, Factions At War – in which the writers and crew review the season and the cast promote their own characters, and Jordan Collier: The Grey Man, a look at the messianic leader.