Writer: Jed Mercurio
Director: Daniel Percival
Somehow, I doubt that the creative team of “Strike Back: Origins” (or anyone, really) could have predicted that Andrew Lincoln would be the breakout star from this cast. “Strike Back: Origins” is very much Richard Armitage’s show and he’s done quite well in the three years since the original season of “Chris Ryan’s Strike Back” aired on Sky1 in the United Kingdom. Lincoln just happens to be headlining “The Walking Dead,” which is currently one of the biggest shows on TV.
I suspect that it was Lincoln’s popularity that partially influenced Cinemax’s decision to rebrand the first season of “Strike Back” as a prequel miniseries for its long awaited American premiere. There was also a hole in the Cinemax fall schedule following the absence of “Hunted” and Cinemax needed something to fill up these closing weeks of 2013. The six episodes of “Strike Back: Origins” should fill that gap nicely.
However, this is definitely not the “Strike Back” that we’ve become accustomed to. “Strike Back: Origins” has a much more serious tone and a very deliberate pace. It also has a very British sensibility and none of the Cinemax moments. When John Porter (Armitage) seduces Danni Prendiville (Shelley Conn), the camera can’t seem to cut away fast enough. Whereas the Cinemax incarnation of the show would have stayed with them for a much longer sex scene.
It’s no coincidence that most of the supporting cast for “Strike Back: Origins” were subsequently swooped up for roles in “Fringe,” “Arrow,” “Terra Nova” and yes, “The Walking Dead.” From top to bottom, this lineup of performers is very strong. Some viewers may not take to the accents, but everyone here brings a certain level of reality to their roles. There’s a small moment that I loved early in the episode, when Hugh Collinson (Lincoln) spots Porter working as a security guard and he goes out of his way to avoid engaging with his former comrade-in-arms. Nor was that moment missed by Porter himself.
Through an extended flashback to 2003, we see the mission in Iraq that destroyed Porter’s life. In a moment of mercy, Porter spared a scarred boy with a suicide vest and prevented him from killing himself. However, that boy seemingly killed two of Porter’s men and severely injured a third man because Porter couldn’t bring himself to shoot him. Although it is strange that we never actually see the boy pull the trigger. But he does pick up one of the assault rifles before the fateful shots are fired.
In the following years, Collinson rises to become the head of Section 20, the secret British paramilitary unit that employs Scott and Stonebridge on the Cinemax version of this show. It’s a tenuous connection at best. “Strike Back: Origins” actually makes Section 20 seem much bigger and more fully staffed than the subsequent seasons have. The action may be better now, but Section 20 was more believable here.
Armitage is particularly good at playing up Porter’s vulnerability. At this stage of the story, Porter is just a man who has been beaten down by his postwar life. Porter’s estranged daughter, Alexandra (Laura Greenwood) is barely interested in speaking with her father and she hangs up on him when he tries to schedule a time to see her. Even after Porter is reactivated for service in Section 20, the primary unit dismisses him when he tries to sit in on a strategy meeting.
To top everything off, Layla Thompson (Jodhi May) shoots down Porter’s one moment of triumph from the episode. Porter didn’t seduce Danni, she was assigned to seduce him because he “needed a shag.” The episode also makes a point of telling us that Porter is no longer the soldier that he used to be, thanks in part to injuries that he received in his last mission.
The only reason that Porter is even allowed back into service is the sheer desperation of Collinson after journalist Katie Dartmouth (Orla Brady) is brutally kidnapped in Iraq. One of Dartmouth’s abductors is As'ad (Fenar Mohammed Ali ), the young man whom Porter spared an explosive death during that fateful mission in Iraq. Porter is convinced that he can use As’ad to find and save Dartmouth, but Collinson isn’t convinced that Porter is looking for anything other than his redemption or his own demise.
Complicating matters is the fact that Dartmouth is the daughter of one of Britain's former ministers. Her abductors are well aware of Dartmouth’s identity when they commit a shockingly violent act against her just to prove that they will kill her if their demands are not met. Thanks to the political pressure back home, Collinson authorizes a raid to rescue Dartmouth that turns out to be a deadly trap. Out of an elite squad, only Thompson returns from that mission.
This leads to Porter’s Jack Bauer moment, as he goes off on his own to find Dartmouth. It’s an interesting scene to leave us on, because nothing we’ve seen so far suggests that Porter is anywhere near ready for active duty, let alone something this dangerous. But that’s part of the fun. Porter is so out of his depth that I want to see how he can possibly pull off this rescue.
I’m curious to hear how the American “Strike Back” fans will react to “Strike Back: Origins.” It’s clearly not the same show anymore. But it is entertaining and that’s all that matters.