Character Skill Sets in Action
By Robin Matheson
In scientific terms, the word alpha is used to denote the top-ranking wolf within the hierarchy of the pack. Generally a wolf/dog pack is led by a dominant alpha male because of its superior strength. [Daniel Wood. Wolves, 1994]
In human fictional terms…“People fear what they do not understand.” (Dr. Lee Rosen)
Within the Alphas television show universe, alphas, humans with highly evolved brain structures that give them superhuman physical and mental abilities, do not lead any pack. They are led by the all too human neurologist and psychologist Dr. Lee Rosen (David Strathairn) and are, in fact, viewed with extreme caution by the government.
Part of the internal tension within these ‘alpha’ characters is derived from the very fact that they themselves do not always understand their skill set—that is their innate but uniquely enhanced ability, either.
Bill Harkin (Malik Yoba) is a ‘hyperadrenal’ alpha—able to switch on his “fight or flight” response allowing him to acquire exceptional strength for short periods of time. Sounds great being able to morph into a superman, right? Wrong. The adrenaline rushes have an unwelcome side-affect. Harkin has anger issues that cost him his job; he’s a former FBI agent, and his family.
A ‘transducer’, Gary Bell’s (Ryan Cartwright) brain is attuned to the electromagnetic field, allowing him to collect and process all types of electronic signals. Cool as this may sound, the constant barrage of information makes Gary overly sensitive to stimuli around him and he’s withdrawn into a world of rigid regime.
These examples suggest that choosing a skill set doesn’t necessarily mean choosing separate abilities to denote strengths and weaknesses within our characters. In the case of the alphas on Alphas, their super-powered skill contains both a positive and a negative side that adds dramatic depth to their character.
But what if your alpha character doesn’t possess a paranormal ability? Is it still possible to choose a trait that embraces that duality of strength and weakness? The simple answer is, yes. All alpha characters share the same core skill set and any one of those traits comes with a positive and a negative side.
Consider Harriet Jones (Penelope Wilton) from Doctor Who.
Audiences first meet Harriet Jones in Aliens in London and World War Three [Season 1: Episodes 4 + 5, 2005]. A backbench MP with a forthright grasp of personal promotion (alpha trait alert!), her encounter with the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) and Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) immediately establishes her, dare I say dominant, alpha traits. Trapped inside 10 Downing Street, Harriet Jones doesn’t hesitate to assume Executive command as the only elected representative. She is the one who orders the Doctor to initiate the launch of the (non-nuclear) missile that destroys 10 Downing Street and the family Slitheen, calcium-based aliens bent on initiating a world war so that they can exploit the Earth’s resources. Fortunately, the Doctor, Rose and Harriet all survive and Harriet’s reputation as a Protector of Earth is firmly established.
Little wonder then that the Doctor predicts Harriet Jones’s rise to The executive position, that of Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Alphas are, by nature, goal oriented, often to the point of stubbornness (another excellent alpha trait). In the 2005 Christmas special, The Christmas Invasion, the Earth is once again under invasion, this time by the Sycorax. The newly regenerated Doctor (David Tennant) engages the Sycorax leader in a sword fight. He wins despite the leader’s duplicity and compels the Sycorax to leave Earth and never return. But this “deal” does not satisfy Harriet Jones. Determined to protect the Earth, because she believes there will come a time when the Doctor cannot do so, she orders the destruction of the retreating Sycorax ship.
Harriet Jones stands behind her decision, despite the Doctor’s anger at being challenged. Alphas don’t always play well together! With six words, “Don’t you think she looks tired?” he begins the rumor that will bring down her government.
But that stubborn protective streak that led to her downfall becomes her greatest strength in The Stolen Earth [Season 4: Episode 12, 2008]. In the opening scene the Doctor and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) discover that the Earth has disappeared and set off to investigate. The Earth, along with twenty-six other planets have been teleported within the Medusa Cascade by the Daleks, a cyborg race intent on universal domination and the greatest enemy of the Doctor. Their plan is to detonate a ‘reality bomb’ that can, potentially, destroy all matter in every universe.
The Doctor’s former companions, who have each met the Daleks before, scramble to hide from the Dalek invasion. In the midst of the chaos, each is contacted by now former Prime Minster, Harriet Jones via an undetectable sub-wave network. She instantly assumes Executive command, forbidding Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) from using the ‘Osterhagen Key’, a last resort nuclear option in favor of her own plan:
Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen): “Oh, excuse me, Harriet, but— Well, the thing is, if you are looking for the Doctor, didn’t he depose you?”
Harriet Jones: “He did. And I’ve wondered about that for a long time, whether I was wrong. But I stand by my actions to this day because I knew…I knew that one day the earth would be in danger and the Doctor would fail to appear. I told him so myself, and he didn’t listen.”
She proceeds to explain her plan to use a combined force to boost the sub-wave signal so it can reach the Doctor. This will, of course, render the network detectible by the Daleks.
Harriet Jones: “Yes, and they’ll trace it back to me, but my life doesn’t matter. Not if it saves the Earth.”
Despite being deposed from office, Harriet Jones refuses to leave her post as Protector of the Earth. Even in exile in a little cottage, she is ready with the technology and plan to defend against alien invasion, even at the cost of her own life. (I believe I mentioned that alpha characters are stubborn and goal oriented.)
Part of the fun of working with alpha characters is this ability to use their core skills—those traits alphas rely on to define who they are—both for and against the characters themselves. Harriet Jones’s three-episode character arc provides a perfect example of an established alpha skill set that becomes a vulnerability during the Crisis point of her story arc and yet becomes her most powerful tool toward achieving her goal at the Climax.
Award winning author Robin Matheson holds an honors specialist degree in Classical Civilization and English and a Master of Education. She's taught numerous courses at college, overseas and, more recently, online courses on writing. One of Robin's greatest passions is traveling. In addition to their home base, she and her family have also lived in South East Asia and South Africa.
Visit her at www.robiemadison.com.
Visit her at www.robiemadison.com.
I hope you will join my class
ALPHAS: LEADERS OF THE PACK
Fantasy-Futuristic & Paranormal
This 3 WEEK class starts Sept. 3rd
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