ALIAS – ‘Recruited’ (Book Prequel #1 – Review)

Though written after Alias aired, ABC launched a 12-book series of tie-in novels set before the pilot episode, ‘Truth Be Told’, which explore Sydney Bristow’s life before the series. I’ll be looking at them one by one as we move through exploring the series itself…

There are several reasons why developing a tie-in book series for Alias aimed at the young adult market makes a lot of sense. For a start, with Sydney Bristow, you have a defined heroine for, specifically, a female market who will find the struggles of a nineteen year old girl on the one hand being a dork around boys, and on the other obsessing whether she is capable enough to become a CIA super-spy, fairly relatable – which is precisely what author Lynn Mason puts her through in Recruited. Secondly, there is a very clear narrative black spot in the Alias backstory open for further exploration.

When we first meet Syd, in the Alias pilot episode ‘Truth Be Told’, she is a fully-fledged super-spy. She is still young, around her early-mid twenties, but we get the impression of a woman who has been working for SD-6 for quite some time. She’s travelled the world, fought bad guys. She has friends, a fiancee and is thinking of marriage. She has grown into a persona where she can become someone else at the drop of a hat. We will see the origin story of that on screen with the Rachel Gibson character in Season 5 much much later on, but Alias’ tale begins with Syd already there. The conflict that drives her in the series, which the pilot establishes, is in learning SD-6 is, in reality, a sinister crime syndicate pretending to *be* the CIA. The show, therefore, skips Syd’s origin story.

Late on in Season 1, several episodes peer behind that curtain and give Mason the tools she needs, alongside dialogue from ‘Truth Be Told’, in order to start crafting the world we see in Recruited. The episode ‘Q&A’ sees Sydney, for reasons we’ll explore later, being questioned by who she believes to be the FBI over her loyalties as a double agent for the US government. In production terms, ‘Q&A’ is a bottle show – the term for an episode intentionally devised to save money with minimal sets and production costs, which such as in this case often rely on clips from previous episodes to pad out the running time. Bottle shows are much less common now on prestige TV, given all the money is on the screen, but in this instance Alias gives us a little more of how Syd was recruited into SD-6 beyond the pilot episode.

Shortly afterwards, a pair of connected episodes named ‘Masquerade’ and ‘Snowman’ introduce the character of Noah Hicks, a seasoned SD-6 agent who, it turns out, was Syd’s first true love when she joined the agency. Noah is revealed in those episodes to be an international contract killer, much to Syd’s distress as they begin to reconnect, but again we don’t get much detail as to how they met, in what circumstances, and the beats of that relationship. Much like how Syd ended up an agent of SD-6, her relationship with Noah, and how that further developed her from a meek college student into a capable, strong young woman, is tantalising ground for a tie-in writer to explore. Mason takes both of these opportunities in crafting Recruited.

Tie-in fiction can often be overlooked when it comes to storytelling, which is a crying shame. There is some fantastic tie-in fiction out there, connected to some of the best and brightest franchises. Tie-in fiction for movies such as Star Wars or TV shows such as Star Trek or Doctor Who are legion, and they take great delight in fleshing out and exploring corners of these universes the shows or movies will never get the opportunity to do. Many are ignored because they don’t conform to ‘canon’, the established continuity of that franchise, and therefore are seen as invalid by many viewers, especially if they are contradicted at some point by a future movie or TV series. 

A good example is the Season 10/11 comic series of The X-Files most recently, by Joe Harris; that had show creator Chris Carter developing the story, helping shepherd what for a while was the canonical continuation of a show nobody thought was coming back… and then it did come back, forcing the comics into an alternate universe, essentially. Recruited doesn’t have that problem on the whole in terms of Alias, but there are moments which the eventual series finale ‘All the Time in the World’ contradicts; there is no sign of Francie’s temporary boyfriend Baxter, for example, when we see more of the scene before Syd is approached at college to join the CIA. Do those details make this origin story invalid? Only if you let it.

Let’s choose to assume Recruited is roughly how it happened, because Alias on the whole doesn’t end up sweating many of the details of Syd’s life before the show begins, unless it connects to the myriad, conspiratorial murkiness of her parents life when she was a child. College-age Syd is fair game for a tie-in story and Mason makes the most of it, managing to set up a tie-in novel series here very well for the brief, pocket-sized nature of a story which is a touch episodic and fragmented. This book covers Syd before she was recruited, her recruitment process, her first meeting with the sinister Arvin Sloane, and the first flickers of her future romance with Noah. Yet knowing what’s to come ends up only really adding to what is already a solid, if short, YA piece.

What Mason does well is get into the mind of Sydney. You can hear Jennifer Garner in the dialogue, indeed you can hear Merrin Dungey when you read Francie, who plays much more of a significant role here than she ever will in the TV show. This makes sense, given a great many of the complications in Syd’s life don’t yet exist. For half of this book, she spends as much time worrying about whether she can hold down a basic job or not look like a geek in front of boys than she does on any secret missions. Honestly, this makes sense. While they are, to an extent, cliched teenage girl problems—and given this was written in 2002, Recruited certainly lacks the dystopian propensity in YA novels that will hit the big time to come—Sydney almost needs to go through these issues to get her where she needs to be.

Recruited does a good job of tapping into her youthful psychology, setting up the key beats of the TV series to come. Syd has a fractious relationship with her father Jack Bristow, who she still believes sells airplane parts – the book doesn’t even hint that Jack might also be SD-6, given how much through Syd’s central perspective the story is written. She proxies the character of Wilson, her recruiter, into being almost the father figure she wishes Jack was, even though by the end Wilson manipulates her into what will be her first mission (and first kill) through actions which seem fatherly. 

It’s interesting how Wilson is never characterised in the TV show, beyond a man in a suit handing Syd a card, because Recruited turns him into an important figure in Syd’s early life as a spy. The show largely suggests the man responsible for recruiting Sydney was Sloane himself, and while that is true in Recruited, Wilson ends up being the totem Syd hangs onto whenever she questions whether being recruited is real, and all the stages of uncertainly Mason puts her through about whether she is good enough to be a spy. These feel like natural, teenage girl reactions, and Mason nicely takes Syd on a journey from quiet, bookish geek to much more of a confident, controlled woman about to embark on an exciting, double-life adventure. Her journey works.

Where the novel falls down is in trying to cram in a final act bit of action suspense, which you suspect was only included because Mason was told “put in some stuff that feels like Alias on TV, will you?”. While making the bad guy an Enrique Iglesias-style pop legend who is secretly providing information to a post-Cold War group of Russian agents, does give the whole story a teenage girl angle and inverts the idea of the pop idol to be adored and looked up to, the character of Raul Sandoval is beyond ridiculous, even for Alias and even for a YA novel. The best thing to come out of the final act is Syd meeting Noah and establishing that dynamic for future exploration, otherwise it would have been laughably pointless compared to everything that came before.

For any fan of Alias, and of the character of Sydney Bristow, Recruited adds some neat depth to the origin story of our heroine, beyond the few episodes and beats of dialogue which refer to it across particularly the first season, and final episode, of the show. I’ll be exploring all of the tie-in novels that tell Syd’s journey toward ‘Truth Be Told’, essentially, so it’ll be interesting to see if they match Recruited’s largely successful young adult chutzpah.

Check out more reviews of Season 1 of Alias here:

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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