Of interest to probably only about two people on my friends list, but hey, reviews and essays.
At almost the same time that Buffy the Vampire Slayer bowed on television, another chick action show had just started on USA cable network. Also based on a movie of the same name, La Femme Nikita started life an hour after Buffy did on Monday nights, and I remember a friend of mine saying “Suddenly, Monday nights rock.” Though radically different in concept, they were essentially about two women who’d been forced, through no choice in the matter, to descend into, and live in, hell. I remember that at about the time Buffy was breaking my heart by crying, “I’m only sixteen. I don’t want to die,” Nikita was being duped by her mentor and trainer, Michael, into falling even harder for him than she already had, only to have her heart ripped out when she found out he’d deliberately seduced and lied to her to circumvent her escape plan. Buffy had humor and romance and parody, while LFN did not, but they both also had about two tons of angst per episode, and I couldn’t have been happier.
LFN was made for the digital world — the cinematography was incredible, the colors richly saturated, the fashions totally boundary-pushing, the gadgets and spy toys bleeding edge. The music soundtrack was incredible, with little-known techno and ambient providing an even cooler feel to the show. But Warner Home Video has yanked the chains of the fans now for a couple years in terms of putting this most high-tech of shows on disc; they even had the nerve at one point to tell us that unless we bought the Columbia House tapes, we’d never get DVDs. Finally, last week, the first season set came out, and as much as I loathe the bastards for their treatment of this show, I have to give them props for the discs. The prints are fabulous, the sound is outstanding, the menus function just right (unlike Buffy’s, which I hate, because you have to keep going through menu after menu to get anywhere and listen to the same snatch of music over and over if you don’t menu jump fast enough), even their proprietary paperboard packaging isn’t as annoying as it usually is (WHV will never give that up, since they own the system and the plant). Though they spell Birkoff’s name three different ways, even the booklet isn’t half bad. I found only one technical error, where the (still just gut-wrenching use of) Love Thieves by Depeche Mode glitches out as the train comes through the tunnel in the final scene of the season, in Mercy.
I’ve been just boggled by some of the episodes. My first season tapes are all incredibly sharp and pristine (the show, after its second season, began filming in a more subdued style and went for less color saturation in the scene design, which I always thought was a mistake), but these just leap off the screen on a high-def TV. Even though they weren’t shot in hi-def and my DVD player isn’t progressive scan so I often get that digital dragging effect, there’s virtually no artifacting, no edge effects, and absolutely no bleed on colors, especially the blue they use so heavily. At times I just froze the screen to look at the incredible visual backgrounds they abandoned after S1, where they had high-tech maps and grids and information processing systems on full-wall screens throughout the Section One interior. Rocco Mateo’s set design was vastly superior to almost any other TV show at the time, and these discs highlight his work in a magnificent way. Being able to see all the details of a screen on the Section computers, too, is really cool — I can finally read Nikita’s dossier that comes up on the credits each ep.
The clothes were always cutting edge, but what’s interesting is being able to see the detail of Michael’s black jackets, for instance, or Madeline’s Armani suits, or Nikita’s incredible wardrobe. And there are other details I’ve never seen before, including one in the episode War, right after Nikita was tortured with rats (did I mention I love this show? When they tortured people, they did not screw around. Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, who went on to do 24, never pussy-footed around: if they threatened someone with cutting their finger off, and the person didn’t comply, they promptly cut the finger off) and Michael shows up and is thrown in the cage. Nikita can’t look at him, and she is crying. I never knew she was crying there as she huddled in the corner, as I have never been able to see the tears on her cheeks, even with my outstanding off-air copies.
But there’s more to the show than stunning visuals and cool clothes and music. What I responded to initially, somewhat negatively, was that they’d taken a story I loved — of this horrible, worthless, murdering girl who gained humanity by being made into an assassin — and changed it significantly. I had liked both the movie versions of LFN and Buffy, and was dubious about both of them being translated to weekly stories, and LFN especially seemed to have chosen a weird direction: Nikita was no longer subhuman, she was a street kid framed for murder, and put into this place that week after week intended to strip her of her humanity. Between that and Peta Wilson’s big, Amazonian blond gorgeousness, I thought it was going to be bad. But they were right in what they did, I realized quickly — it would be hard to want to watch this subhuman monster week after week, and there’d be little struggle for personal redemption in that. Once you’ve gained your humanity, where do you go in an organization that imprisons you and makes you its slave? And that was the core of the show — her constant struggle against becoming like the inhuman monsters who were her superiors as they fought terrorists with terrorist tactics. She’d never killed, but no one believed her, and they wanted to use her up and throw her away as long as it served their ends. Nikita’s struggle was the audience’s struggle, to find some kind of happiness or redemption or just make it through another day, and Peta was very touching in how she created that character. It is interesting, though, that they’ve completely dispensed with the voiceover intro that used to start each episode (“One night I was taken from my cell to a place called Section One, the most covert anti-terrorist organization on the planet... if I don’t play by their rules, I die”); I’d never noticed till now that the repeats on Oxygen running currently don’t use it either. I would have thought they might throw it on at least one ep, just for good measure, though I haven’t yet watched all the extras on the set (not many, sadly).
It didn’t hurt, either, that her trainer was a super hottie. I fell in love at first sight with Roy Dupuis’s Michael, a duplicitous, wicked, wonderful, and sexy as hell super agent who we in the audience knew adored Nikita, but he wouldn’t admit to that for quite a few years. The discs here show something incredibly interesting — there is a deleted scene from the pilot where Michael begs Madeline, part of the operational leadership, to spare Nikita’s life from being cancelled (executed, Section’s parlance), because she messed up on her first mission. He is nearly in tears, and it’s quite clear right there that he loves her enough to risk his own life, something in his nature that was never explained to us — it was only shown, so that Nikita often misunderstood his motives for protecting her, while the audience knew what was happening. This scene, if it hadn’t been cut, would have changed the entire tenor of the show drastically. It’s fascinating that it was filmed at all, but I’m glad they cut it out, as it made his “does he or doesn’t he” feelings so much more iffy and cool.
Sometimes, too, the incredible cinematography added to the romantic storyline or as a way to punch up the emotions of the characters on screen. I was reminded of that in watching War, in one of my favorite scenes ever on the show. Michael and Nikita are prisoners of Red Cell, a terrorist group, and they’re being held in cages suspended from a ceiling in a vast warehouse type building. When Michael comes back from being interrogated and tortured, he’s thrown in the adjacent cage and curls up in a ball, while Nikita clings to the side of hers and tries to see if he’s all right. He slowly begins to rock his knees back and forth so that his cage will swing towards hers, then he grasps the sides together as they hit, and the two of them twist their fingers through the holes and talk to each other. Michael is bloody and battered, Nikita’s a mess from rat bites, and he tells her that she is the only one of them (in Section) who still has a soul, and that he is empty of feeling now — and what little is left inside him is her. It’s a gorgeous, beautiful, heartbreaking scene, and on the discs, with the background lighting making the two seem almost luminescent and the clarity now of their tear-filled eyes and the wounds, it becomes just ten times more powerful than it was even before.
Other scenes that I’ve always loved seem even more vibrant and alive: when Michael cauterizes his critical bullet wound by igniting gunpowder in Rescue (this show also has some of the most stealable plots, too — I can’t count how much I’ve ripped off from it because it makes such good fanficcy background), shirtless, you can now see every drop of sweat on his body; when Nikita wears outlandish makeup for missions, you can see every single false lash, the texture of her skin, count each individual spangle in her evening dress.
I always loved first season because the Section team worked together far more as a team — in subsequent years, there were no more scenes like in Gambit, where they sit together in the main area and throw out ideas of where and how to locate a faceless enemy, or later once they’ve found him, bring his daughter to the interrogation room to coerce his confession. I missed that in a lot of ways, as the focus of the show shifted away from Nikita trying to work within this system and still maintain her emotional core to more of a Michael and Nikita against Operations and Madeline romantic hugger-mugger. I can almost see that happening on Alias, as well, which has stolen about 99% of its style and feeling and story sense from LFN. I kind of hope they don’t make the same mistake, because the stories in S1 of LFN were probably the strongest they ever did, even if Michael and Nikita never actually consummated their relationship until the first ep of S2. It’s good to keep a focus on strong stories, even while developing the thwarted romance, I believe.
These discs are just a joy to have, but now I’m stuck about vidding. LFN is my perfect vidding fandom, you can do almost anything with it except maybe out and out comedy, but there’s no way I could mix up such fabulous visuals as we have on the discs with tapes, and there’s no clear word on when more discs will come out. I’ve waited to make some vids until I got a computer; now I have the computer but these discs make me feel spoiled for the visuals. I really hope that people who like Alias might buy or rent these discs and see what the show was like, because I really want Warner to make more available. I’ve always thought this show was a perfect companion to the two other concurrent ass-kicking chicks that were on at the time (Buffy and Scully on X-Files), and I hope that in this outstanding presentation, more people might give it a shot.