Persons Unknown: Review: Ep 1

Syfy UK, October 31

Six strangers awake in an empty hotel in a seemingly-abandoned small American town: how did they get there and who brought them…?

The creator-writer of this ‘mega-mini-series’ or ‘limited series’ (meaning NBC have promised to wrap up the show and solve the mysteries within 13 episodes) is Christopher McQuarrie, the writer of The Usual Suspects who was once associated with a big screen re-invention of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner. His experience of considering recreating that 1960s classic is clear in the mysterious premise of Persons Unknown, which also has elements of Lost, the Cube movie series and even the Saw series (without the deadly traps and gore). There’s a limited environment (the movie set-like town), trapped strangers and all-pervasive surveillance.

Most recognisable to genre fans is Alan Ruck, once Captain Harriman of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: Generations. The others have appeared in various TV shows, but are not associated with major roles, so that helps with the mystery of who these people are and why they’ve been kidnapped (if that’s what’s happened). Off site, a journalist is investigating one of the missing people, and even her relatives are under observation by ‘persons unknown’.

Of course, Persons Unknown inevitably becomes a “guess the twist” show: they’re all dead (nope, been done recently); it’s a reality TV show (The Truman Show got there first, as did much of Philip K. Dick); it’s a bizarre experiment (The Twilight Zone’s 50-year-old pilot episode Where is Everybody? springs to mind; they’re being ‘stress tested’, perhaps?). Maybe the fact that ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ is playing in the hotel lobby is a clue? Maybe not.

This opening episode is all set up, and that’s always good (sometimes better than any resolution). It’s a simpler proposition than last year’sHappy Town, which was too complicated and too self-consciously trying to be Twin Peaks. There are enough elements here to bring the viewer back for episode two and maybe beyond: what is the town, what are the implants in their legs, what’s going to happen following the fortune cookie instructions?

Finally, the best thing about Persons Unknown? It is guaranteed to be concluded (whether satisfactorily or not is yet to be seen) in just 13 episodes. There’s no six-year Lost-style investment required here: just 13 winter evenings. That’s refreshing. 8/10

Brian J. Robb

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