Home > TV and anime > Alcatraz (2012) — the set-up

Alcatraz (2012) — the set-up

In theory, Alcatraz (2012) has the genetic pedigree to be a major hit so its cancellation after thirteen episodes deserves consideration. Has the television audience suddenly tired of the J J Abrams signature dishes or is this one of the sad turkeys that any production team can inadvertently bring to fruition? Since millions of dollars depend on whether this is an aberration or the first slip down the slope to consistently ignominious failures, this article will consider the set-up. We’ll then think about the few episodes that were broadcast, and finish with a review of the conclusion (if not explanation) transmitted earlier this year. It’s perhaps appropriate to clarify the creators credited are Elizabeth Sarnoff, Steven Lilien and Bryan Wynbrandt, but the names on the masthead designed to capture our attention are J J Abrams and Bad Robot Productions. Whatever went wrong, went wrong on their watch and has damaged their brand names. It debuted on Fox as a mid-season replacement with more than ten million viewers but, when it was terminated, the audience had halved.

Sam Neill beautifully lit to look spooky


We start off with the revealing of a mystery on a slightly more impressive scale than the Marie Céleste. Alcatraz has somehow managed to penetrate the international consciousness as the quintessentially American prison. Standing some one-and-a-half miles off the city of San Francisco, it was a federal prison from 1933 to 1963. Because of the currents around it, no-one is ever supposed to have escaped. Two are definitely known to have drowned. Five are missing, presumed drowned. It therefore came as something of a surprise to the government to find the complement of 302 prisoners and guards disappeared in 1963. There was no sign or explanation of how this mass disappearance was achieved. However it now appears some or all of those on the rock at the critical moment are travelling in time.


Hmmm. Let’s pause at this moment. Since we definitely didn’t have time travel technology in 1963 and still don’t have the technology today, whoever is responsible must come from our future. So for this mass kidnapping or migration to be engineered, one of two things must have happened.

Sarah Jones not exactly inspiring confidence


(a) One or more people must have travelled back and infiltrated the prison. This would enable them to approach all the prisoners and guards over weeks and months, explaining the options and making individual agreements. Once all those needed for the list of tasks were recruited, the necessary steps and actions could be taken to send everyone forward. The problem with this is how convincing our future recruiters could be. Thanks to the progression of science fiction through our culture, opening the discussion with today’s sophisticates might be easier. You can imagine it, “Ah, time travel? Sure would be interesting to do that. First prove you can do it and then explain what’s in it for me to go forward to 2042 and start killing people for you.” My sticking point would be why this time traveller isn’t stopping off in 2042 to do the killings himself. Why does he need to move us forward when, presumably, he could recruit a covert team of assassins from his own time and get everything done without ever having to involve me? Equally important would be evidence that I do whatever is asked of me and survive to live out a comfortable life of freedom. Since our recruiter comes from the far future, he can not only tell us specifically what we’re to do, e.g. steal a key that will be in a particular safe, but also show us news reports of unsolved crimes and our death certificates confirming old age as the cause of death. Admittedly this evidence could be fabricated, but I wouldn’t even think about agreeing unless whatever I was shown was very convincing. But back in 1963, no-one’s going to understand what time travel is all about and someone, somewhere would have opened his mouth to the governor about this nutter trying to get him to agree to go forward in time. You can’t possibly keep all 302 people from talking.


(b) Time travellers arrive with massive force in their Tardis and load everyone onboard at gunpoint. This keeps security and proves superior technology in operation. Now you have all the time you need to convince enough people to do what you want. Those who are uncooperative must, by definition be known. The advantage of time travelling is you can look to see what happened to everyone. With everyone fully briefed, you can begin dropping them off at your preselected moments in time, and go back to your own time to await confirmation of all the known results.


For these purposes, I’m discounting the idea of someone having discovered the means of time travel back in the 1960s. That would be placing us in an alternate universe and, although Alias had Milo Rambaldi producing anachronistic technology hundreds of years ago, I can’t see the point of repeating the same idea in a new show so soon after the last. More importantly, how would people in 1963 know who was still alive in 2012 and what property was going to be in position waiting to be stolen? Are we supposed to believe the planners had time travel and could go forward to plan exactly what would need to be done in 2012?

Jorge Garcia reappearing in an Abrams production


Now to what actually happens. The series opens with the arrival of the second prisoner. What makes this fascinating is that the US government special unit, led by Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) is expecting him, but apparently doesn’t know when he will arrive nor what he will do. Keeping this real, if the government knew all the prisoners were going to reappear in the prison, they would quarantine it and shoot whoever magically appeared in it. Yet the prison site is open to visitors. To complete the confusion, the government is confident the prisoners will all reappear because it has built a major underground prison facility to house them when recaptured. This is not the kind of facility that would be built on a whim. The government must know something of what happened otherwise such preparations would never be authorised. This is a central paradox. It would suggest there was enough evidence left behind when the government investigated the disappearances, or evidence must subsequently have surfaced. This is really strange because just as there are guards recruited to staff the new prison, there would be a dedicated team to chase down the prisoners. It’s a complete nonsense for Emerson Hauser to recruit on an ad hoc basis. Ah, so this must be built into the determinism of the time travel plot. The recruiters from our future must know who will track their agents. That’s why the first prisoner to return provokes Detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and, in turn, she recruits Dr. Diego Soto (Jorge Garcia). So who told Emerson Hauser not to handpick experienced agents and further train them over the years? Picking two people off the streets at the last minute for such a major government investigation makes no sense.


Indeed, nothing about the set-up in the first episode suggests anything intelligent is happening. It simply looks like a vehicle for a random number of people to appear around America and for our three heroes to run after them, hoping against hope, they can work out what’s happening before the script-writing team runs out of ideas for what silly things each returning criminal or guard will do. We’ll then have a fudge ending when little or nothing is explained and everyone will walk away discontented. Put another way, nothing about the first episode of Alcatraz inspires confidence there’s a coherent plot in play.


  1. August 20, 2012 at 12:28 am

    This is why I modeled time and time-travel the way I did in Wearing the Cape, and its aftermath in Villains Inc. While I’ve loved the idea of time-travel (both one-way and round trip) since reading Door Into Summer and seeing City on the Edge of Forever as a lad, in fiction it really works best as a vehicle for delivering your protagonist to a “foreign land” and having fun with the culture shock. It is conceivable that we may someday discover real time-travel, and if we do then the universe will almost definitely turn out to be non-linear–but it is very difficult to model this in storytelling, where our poor human minds insist on causality. Given the challenge, I wonder how I’d fix Alcatraz

    • August 20, 2012 at 1:06 am

      For the record, I think my favourite time travel novel is The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. It beautifully captures the anarchic possibilities. As to Alcatraz, I’ve only watched the first “hour” so have no idea how it develops but the fact it was cancelled so quickly suggests the basic plot mechanics are fundamentally flawed. Indeed, the only recent television time travel episode I can remember coming anywhere near being a success was White Tulip, Episode 18 in Fringe Season 2. It was completely illogical but a brave try.

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