Nowhere Man: The Complete Series Review
My name is Thomas Veil… or at least it was. I'm a photographer. I had it all: a wife, Alyson… friends… a career. And in one moment it was all taken away, all because of a single photograph. I have it. They want it. And they will do anything to get the negative. I'm keeping this diary as proof that these events are real. I know they are. They… have to be.
This is the core premise upon which Nowhere Man, a 25-part sci-fi thriller which was originally broadcast in the US from late August 1995 to early June 1996, operates. Because of its conspiracy underpinnings, it's often compared with the archetypal series of that sub-genre (and one that was not only contemporary to Nowhere Man, but actually very proximate to it in filming location as well), The X-Files. However, whilst there are obvious (and probably unavoidable) parallels between those two shows, the true spiritual ancestor of Nowhere Man is without question 1967's astounding The Prisoner; there are so many episode concepts in this series that seem to have been lifted wholesale from McGoohan's masterpiece that at times it feels as if the writers may as well have set Nowhere Man in The Village and been done with it.
But a fundamental question remains for fans: why was Lawrence Hertzog's (La Femme Nikita) creation such a colossal ratings failure when Chris Carter's (equally paranoid) magnum opus achieved widespread success and ran solidly for nine years? Well, there's a slew of reasons, actually. First and most evidently, Nowhere Man was aired by the new and relatively-unknown (at the time) UPN network. More importantly, it was very much as if the UPN execs didn't have a clue what to do with the show; despite early critical acclaim, they continued to give it very short shrift schedule-wise… slotting it on Monday nights in conflict with American football broadcasts and never hesitating to randomly pre-empt it, which resulted in it being hard for viewers to be sure each week when they'd actually get to see the next episode. Moving beyond this, the series premise was not quite as straightforward as that of The X-Files and was deliberately muddied at regular intervals throughout the show's run in what to a modern eye comes across as a rather forced and artificial way of keeping the audience guessing.
Also, let us not forget that Nowhere Man was carried on the back of just one actor alone. The X-Files benefited from the ongoing dynamic between a pair of lead characters and a generously-sized supporting cast of regulars… whilst Bruce Greenwood (albeit extremely talented, and handing us a superb performance as Thomas Veil) had no such luxury to fall back on. Sure, there were plenty of 'guest stars' from week to week and a handful of these were even seen on more than one occasion in the course of the series, but there's no doubt that the stark, isolationist feel of Nowhere Man may have been a bit difficult for the average American viewer to fully enjoy.
But, as usual, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself here, having opened this review with the show's iconic opening quote and then pretended that it explained enough for me to dive right into the production details. Perhaps a bit more detail is in order. The pilot for Nowhere Man introduces the character of Thomas Veil, a photographer/photojournalist (it's never made entirely clear which) whose work has received favourable mention in the press and who is about to do his first gallery exhibition (somewhat unusually, held at the building which also serves as his working studio). Stereotypically, he has all the trappings of success, including a nice house, a pretty wife (played by Megan Gallagher, who wasn't typecast at all in her next role as the, erm, wife of Frank Black in Millennium), and the usual assortment of yuppie friends.
However, unbeknownst to him, a sinister secret agency (later referred to as 'the Organisation') has taken notice of one of the highlight pieces of his exhibition: a black and white photo entitled 'Hidden Agenda' that appears to depict US military forces summarily hanging four men in a jungle in Nicaragua. When he and his wife duck out of the gallery to go have a celebratory dinner, plans are set into motion to turn Thomas Veil into an Orwellian 'nonperson'. At one point, he goes off to the washroom and when he returns to the table, not only has his wife vanished, but there's an entirely different set of people dining there. The maitre d' (who had greeted them warmly when they came in, because they are regulars) doesn't seem to recognise him at all and in the end has him thrown out of the restaurant for causing a scene. None of his credit cards work anymore and his car is missing, so he has to get a cab home. And when he finally arrives, his key no longer fits the lock, and - worse yet - when Alyson opens the door she evinces no recognition of him either… and there's another 'Thomas Veil' there with her, a man who looks nothing like him but which she seems to think is her husband.
Things only go from bad to worse. With no home left to go to, Tom returns to his studio (where his keys don't work either), breaks in through an upstairs window, and tries to figure out what could possibly be happening. Then he notices that only 'Hidden Agenda' is missing, and has an aha! moment. Despite his best efforts to make sense of the situation, he only seems to be able to dig himself in deeper. Trying to get a word with Alyson on her own the next day only gets him arrested for attempted carjacking, and soon enough he's incarcerated at the Calaway Psychiatric Hospital. Naturally he's treated like a madman, but Tom soon comes to the conclusion that his psychiatrist (Dr Bellamy) is in league with whomever has seen fit to take his life away from him, and eventually escapes from the facility and goes on the lam.
So you have the general idea. After the pilot the series moves into a highly-episodic format, with Tom travelling across the country, evading the clutches of both the Organisation and more mundane local government and law enforcement branches, working odd jobs under assumed identities in a bid to discover just why 'Hidden Agenda' is so bloody important. Oh, and on a regular basis he's confronted by various people working for his persecutors, all of which are desperate to get their hands on the negatives from which the print of 'Hidden Agenda' was made. In fact, Prisoner fans can simply substitute 'We want the negatives, Tom…' for 'We want information… information… information…' and feel right at home. It's a fair trade of one McGuffin for another, after all.
Which does kind of bring us to the question of the show's strengths and weaknesses. A lot of people absolutely fell in love with this series, and I - not being entirely heartless - can certainly understand why. Bruce Greenwood is a very strong lead and whilst the actual character of Thomas Veil isn't particularly interesting, he carries it off with aplomb and really conveys the 'everyman' sensibility that is necessary for this premise… especially as later in the show he comes across other 'normal people' whose identities have been similarly erased. It's interesting to point out that the actual core concept works more or less in reverse to this, however: whereas Thomas Veil is an example of a fairly ordinary individual thrust into completely outlandish circumstances, the premise of Nowhere Man is one that sounds really intriguing at first blush but which plays out as considerably more mundane in actual execution. And that's my first real gripe with this cult classic - I felt slightly cheated by how pedestrian it turned out to be in comparison to the promise of the pilot episode.
Without delving into spoiler land, let it suffice to say that wherever Nowhere Man is presented with a choice between taking a genuine narrative risk or simply handling the story in a way that obeys established TV conventions, it generally opts for the latter. In my opinion, it is a competently-crafted but very 'safe' show which does not go on to break new ground… and one which, while sufficiently sustained for its 25-episode length by its opening conceit, doesn't really deliver a denouement worthy of the viewer's journey. (In fact, I was bitterly disappointed by the extremely clichéd Big Reveal in the final instalment, which not just I but I suspect half of the show's original audience saw coming a mile off.)
There's also the matter of originality (or lack thereof) to factor in. Although there's much to be said for the Kafkaesque theme of a world where the protagonist has little control over his own life, is painfully aware of the presence of powerful and impassive forces aligning against him, and is faced at every turn with the very real possibility of his identity, freedom, or life being summarily taken away from him, the truth is that this has all been done before in one way or another. Despite Thomas Veil's ongoing nightmare of identity theft and surreal personal circumstances, this is no Philip K Dick story. And while it appears that every effort was made to evoke The Prisoner in Nowhere Man (from episode titles like 'Gemini Man', to tongue-in-cheek jokes in the script - as in 'Heart of Darkness', where Tom becomes 'Number Six' for a time, to meta-references like the setting of 'Paradise on Your Doorstep' being essentially The Village), this merely has the unintended side effect of highlighting how much more adept Nowhere Man's predecessor was at all these sorts of mind games.
More to the point, any true fan of the The Prisoner can't help but be a little affronted by how often the writers seem to dip their pens into Patrick McGoohan's inkwell. Before people shout me down on this one, I'm not accusing Lawrence Hertzog's team of actual plagiarism. But just as an exercise for my own amusement, as I was taking notes for this review, I jotted down some of the places where Nowhere Man 'borrows' heavily from The Prisoner:
- 'Turnabout' and particularly 'Doppelganger' draw heavily on 'The Schizoid Man'
- 'Something About Her' and 'Through a Lens Darkly' are more or less carbon copies of 'A, B, & C'
- 'It's Not Such a Wonderful Life' and 'Zero Minus Ten' are structurally analogous to 'The Chimes of Big Ben' and (to a lesser extent) 'Many Happy Returns'
- 'Stay Tuned' bears strong similarities to 'The General' (and to a well-known X-Files episode, for that matter)
Later in the series, Nowhere Man seems to move slightly away from using The Prisoner as its core template and begins to adopt a look and feel more recognisably X-Files in tone. Pretty much from episode 13 ('Contact') onwards, the show starts focusing less on mind games and more on the 'big conspiracy' of it all. Further instalments that reinforce this include 'Shine a Light on You', 'Stay Tuned', 'Hidden Agenda', 'Calaway', 'Marathon', and of course 'Gemini Man'.
Anyway, I don't wish to give the impression that Nowhere Man has nothing fresh to offer viewers. For all of the recycled storylines and downright cheesy plots (e.g., 'A Rough Whimper of Insanity', 'The Alpha Spike', 'Forever Jung'), there are still many excellent episodes to be enjoyed here. For example, 'The Spider Webb' does something I've never seen before in a TV series (and has the added bonus of guest star Richard Kind as Veil's antagonist). And speaking of guest stars, some truly steal the episodes they're in; look out for Dean Stockwell in 'You Really Got a Hold of Me'. And even though the production team must have been given the heads-up on the show's cancellation not too long before the end (which shows in the somewhat hastily-presented pair of conclusory episodes), there is still enough of a sense of closure for the series to stand on its own. I may personally think the ending is rubbish, but at least there is a proper ending.
It doesn't help Nowhere Man that its own writers seem to have been confused as to what they were trying to achieve from week to week (something that is more or less admitted in the various special features on these DVDs). More problematic for me was the lack of consistency in more or less everything about the Organisation… its motivations, technology, operant sophistication, the lot. What the 'bad guys' want (not, mind you, what Thomas Veil thinks they want) in episode 1 isn't what they want in episode 6, 12, or 24. What they are actually capable of doing randomly fluctuates from near omnipotence to near impotence apparently at the drop of a hat. Often they do completely contradictory things (sometimes in the very same episode!) or inexplicably stupid things, such as when after their elaborate gambit fails in one episode, they deliberately leave behind both a videocassette showing Tom just how a fake news broadcast was constructed by them as well as a damning letter from a key character admitting complicity where they could easily have kept him guessing.
On the plus side, though, there's Bruce Greenwood. I may not be too taken with 'in theory cagey but in reality gullible' Tom Veil always falling for the same obvious ploys by his antagonists, but Mr Greenwood is an impressive actor and his ability to convey subtle emotional nuances with just the slightest shift of facial expression has served him well in numerous roles before and after Nowhere Man. Be it Dr Seth Griffin in St Elsewhere, Billy Ansel in The Sweet Hereafter, William Sokal in Rules of Engagement, John F Kennedy in Thirteen Days, or even Lawrence Robertson in the more recent I, Robot, he's a recognisable presence in any production. I doubt strongly that Nowhere Man would have been half as entertaining with another actor in the lead role.
Which leads me at last to a ratings dilemma. Nowhere Man, taken in isolation and ignoring the various aspects of the show which now appear rather dated, is a reasonably strong TV series with an interesting premise and a decent plot. From this perspective, it might deserve an 8 or a 9 out of 10. However, considered in light of groundbreaking shows both of the same period (The X-Files, etc.) and of earlier vintage (e.g., The Prisoner, The Fugitive), it suffers notably… and in my opinion anyone who's appreciated The Prisoner is unlikely to give Nowhere Man higher than a 6 or 7.
Clearly only some rare strain of madness would compel me to write detailed summaries of all 25 episodes in this series unless I wanted to go spoiler-happy, so these are all going to be quite short. 'Snapshots,' if you will.
1: 'Absolute Zero'
As described above, Tom Veil loses his identity, has a bad time of it, gets locked away as a nutter, and escapes.
Masquerading as Dr Bellamy (Tom's 'doctor' at Calaway Psychiatric Hospital), he is picked up by the Organisation and assigned the task of breaking another one of their 'identity erasure' subjects.
3: 'The Incredible Derek'
He runs across a travelling side show where a child psychic reveals sinister details about Tom's enemies.
4: 'Something About Her'
Tom is subjected to an advanced chemically-induced hypnotic/hallucinogenic state where he's tricked into believing he's in a relationship with another woman he can actually trust. Look out for a guest appearance by Carrie-Anne Moss.
5: 'Paradise on Your Doorstep'
Tom uncovers New Phoenix, a community of people who have all apparently suffered a fate similar to his own.
6: 'The Spider Webb'
In a bizarre twist, Tom catches a chance broadcast of a public-access TV programme that seems to depict precisely what has been happening to him, down to verbatim dialogue and uncannily accurate character portrayals of him, Alyson, and others.
7: 'A Rough Whimper of Sanity'
Whilst laying low (and, erm, delivering pizzas), Tom meets a reclusive computer genius who proceeds to help him hack into the Organisation's secure server in an attempt to recover Tom's files. Steel yourself for extremely hackneyed ideas about 'ye olde virtual reality'.
8: 'The Alpha Spike'
Tracking down the past employment of Dr Bellamy, Tom secures a job as groundskeeper for the Sterling Academy, a private school for children of the wealthy and influential. It soon transpires that the staff are brainwashing the kids with nightly subliminal messages. Cringeworthy and has been done about a million times before.
9: 'You Really Got a Hold On Me'
Tom meets Gus Shepard, an older man who has been in precisely the same situation as Tom now is.
In the usual 'return to the ranch' episode, we get to explore a bit of Tom's backstory as he pays a visit to his long-estranged father, but even here, things aren't quite as they seem.
11: 'An Enemy Within'
In a well-told but somewhat unnecessary story, Tom is accidentally shot by a guard working for a powerful food conglomerate that is trying to force all the small family-owned farms in the area to sell out to them.
12: 'It's Not Such a Wonderful Life'
As Christmas approaches, Tom is at first relieved to be captured by federal agents who inform him that he is needed as a key witness against members of the Organisation, which has not only ruined his life but has been caught manipulating the American government… but of course, for his testimony to be worth anything, they'll need the negatives.
In a nod to The X-Files, Tom is finally approached by a high-ranking member of the opposition… an apparent defector who seeks to undermine the efforts of the agency and wishes to use Tom as his tool to help him do just that.
14: 'Heart of Darkness'
With information provided by his contact, Tom has to infiltrate a radical militia group called the American Guard in order to get at a retired military officer who had a hand in the execution pictured in 'Hidden Agenda'.
15: 'Forever Jung'
Served with more cheese than a jumbo platter of nachos, this episode finds Tom uncovering the secret behind a number of recent unexpected deaths at a nursing home. Whenever bed-ridden OAPs, advanced biogenetics laboratories, and a tip of the hat to the Manchurian Candidate converge in a single storyline, it's time to run for the hills, my friend.
16: 'Shine a Light On You'
Argh. The (apparently) inevitable UFO abduction episode. Of course it isn't really… but it's almost that annoying.
17: 'Stay Tuned'
When Tom's contact directs him to the seemingly-idyllic town of Darby, NY, at first blush it looks like one of the time-lost 'perfect' communities where the streets are magically clean, everyone knows everyone else, and people don't have to bother locking their doors at night. Of course, that might have something to do with the populace's curious obsession with catching broadcasts of the special local-run TV channel…
18: 'Hidden Agenda'
Whilst told mostly in flashback to Tom's time in Nicaragua (and the events, as he recalls them, surrounding the photo he took that caused all this trouble in the first place), what really makes this episode stand out is the guest appearance of Dwight Schultz (an incredibly talented voice actor in more animated productions and videogames than you can count, but probably better known as Lt Reginald Barclay III in Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Tom's journalist chum Harrison Barton.
You must have seen this one coming. Ever since the pilot, where our hero comes face-to-face with another Thomas Veil at his own home, we've just known the writers would get around to doing a whole episode about Tom needing to prove that he's the 'real' Thomas Veil against the claims made by another bloke pretending to be him. Of course, to spice things up, this time the other bloke actually looks just like him…
20: 'Through a Lens Darkly'
In this surreal episode, Tom is trapped inside an old house where he is forced to relive painful memories unless he complies with the wishes of the Organisation.
21: 'The Dark Side of the Moon'
After a slew of very predictable episodes, the writers finally hand us one that breaks the mould a little. Here, whilst trying to avoid one of the Organisation's operatives who has been chasing him, Tom gets mugged by a street gang and for the first time in Nowhere Man the negatives are entirely out of his possession. Knowing that his life isn't worth beans without them, Tom frantically tries to get them back… but doesn't realise that one of the gang members has been killed by the operative and that they all think Tom's the killer.
Believe it or not, Tom returns to Calaway Psychiatric Hospital in search of more info. Bizarrely, one of inmates he remembers from his previous time there is now working on the staff as a psychiatrist, so Tom tries to get to the bottom of this unexplained identity shift.
23: 'Zero Minus Ten'
In another standard story archetype for this genre, Tom wakes up to discover… no, not that 'it was all a dream', but pretty close. He's told he's been in a coma after a bad car accident several months back, and he's but imagined all of this business with the Organisation trying to wipe his identity.
Despite the fact that in watching this episode you can just about see the smoke pouring out of the writers' ears as they tried to wrap everything up before the axe fell, it actually comes out rather well and certainly better than average for Nowhere Man. Tom locates another piece of the puzzle which leads him to an altercation not only with the Organisation, but with the FBI (both agencies having, it seems, been spying on each other) as well.
25: 'Gemini Man'
What can I say about the final episode that won't be a spoiler? Basically this is the conclusion of the de facto two-part series finale of Nowhere Man, and the events set in motion in 'Marathon' come to a head here. It's a rushed job and it's not very good, to be honest.
Nowhere Man is presented here in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, and frankly it looks like a 10 year-old TV show. I'm not saying the video quality is bad, because it isn't… but neither is it top shelf. Overall we're talking bog-standard analogue video source material, filmed in a fairly gritty, naturalistic style. The print's a bit on the soft side and of course lacks the digital crispness of more recent shows, but doesn't evince any actual print damage (e.g., nicks, scratches, etc.). The encode shows quite a bit of background grain, but only slightly more than you'd see on some of the early X-Files DVD boxset releases. I suppose that I was initially surprised that this show, released on 9 dual-layer DVDs, didn't look more flash than other similar-length TV series that have come out in 6- or 7-disc boxsets… but of course, much of this extra 'elbow room' goes to the truly generous selection of extras provided, so that's OK.
Likewise, the audio presentation here is somewhat on the utilitarian side - a Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtrack that doesn't really roll out the bells and whistles. Even allowing for the moment that this was never intended to be an expansive, surround track, there's not even much in the way of stereo separation or left/right directionality to speak of. The whole soundfield is relatively flat, and whilst this makes it very easy to follow the dialogue, it doesn't really imbue the whole presentation with much in the way of atmosphere, as ambient music and sound effects don't really stand out here.
Nowhere Man is presented in chunky and rather imposing 'book' style packaging, where all 9 DVDs fit into a series of double-sided plastic 'leaves' with the usual tension hubs on either side, and the lot bound by front and rear cardboard covers adorned with glossy artwork on both sides. There's also a handy liner notes booklet that provides episode indexing and special features for each disc. Finally, you have a slipcase to store it all in.
Whilst the actual menus are not particularly exciting (after an initial studio ident and brief transition, everything is static and silent), what is impressive is the sheer quantity of special features Image Entertainment has compiled for this DVD release. In addition to full-length audio commentaries on no less than 9 of the 25 episodes (1 per disc), there's an additional 4 hours of other video extras are packed into this boxset. These are spread across the various DVDs and explain why a standard US season-length series would require so many discs.
Frankly, this mountain of added material is somewhat daunting, and it's taken me some time to wade through it all. The good news is, it's generally of high quality… not the 'filler' you sometimes see studios padding their releases with.
Starting off with the ever-popular audio commentaries selection, almost every one seems to be helmed (unsurprisingly) by series creator Lawrence Hertzog and star Bruce Greenwood, usually accompanied by the episode writers (e.g., Peter Dunne, Art Monterastelli) and directors (Ian Toynton, Steven Robman, Michael Levine, etc.). For the curious, the episodes which receive the full commentary treatment include (in order) 'Absolute Zero', 'Paradise on Your Doorstep', 'The Alpha Spike', 'An Enemy Within', 'Contact', 'Hidden Agenda', 'Through a Lens Darkly', 'Zero Minus Ten' and 'Gemini Man'. Overall, I'd have to say that no one on the team over-aggrandises the production… which makes for a refreshing contrast after all the self-congratulation and backslapping that seems to go on in the episode commentaries of other popular TV shows. Greenwood remains quite charismatic behind the microphone, and whilst he's merely chiming in with various minor anecdotes here and there, Hertzog and the others are more than happy to compensate with as much in the way of technical details and the nuances of the story's direction at that point in the production schedule. Still, after 9 of these audio commentaries I think I had pretty much had my fill.
In an interesting move, Image have also provided three abridged video commentaries for selected episodes, where a left/right split-screen approach allows you to view both the show itself and the commentators' reactions to it simultaneously. Even though these generally only run for about half of each episode length, there's something unexpectedly endearing about being able to watch their facial expressions and body language as they themselves screen this 10 year-old series of theirs. And in another episode-centric special feature, a selection of four rough cut to final cut comparisons are on offer for fans, which give an insight into the editing process by presenting a 'before' and 'after' contrast of synched clips from the show, this time with the screen split top-to-bottom. These are generally much shorter, clocking in at between 3 and 11 minutes each in length.
From here we move into the realms of the many video interviews that run through this boxset (again, in parity with the audio commentaries, 1 per disc). Clearly filmed in precisely the same set where the video commentaries were recorded, these interviews range broadly in length from small ones of about 5 minutes running time to massive instalments like the 25-minute interview segment on disc 3. These are also reasonably interesting, although they do tend to cover almost the same ground as the other extras. I guess this isn't particularly shocking seeing as it's the same group of people speaking… with the solitary additions of director Guy Magar and guest star Megan Gallagher.
From here on out the special features begin to rein themselves in a bit, and certainly the most intriguing of the remaining offerings are the 'Fact or Fiction?' featurette and the 'Networking' featurette. The former (running for about 16 minutes total) wheels on someone who is allegedly an ex-CIA operative and who speaks anonymously in silhouette about the plausibility of various aspects of the conspiracy and identity-wipe themes of Nowhere Man. Whilst certainly a unique extra - and an account that I suspect most viewers will find quite chilling to listen to - true conspiracy theorists either: 1, will already be aware of the points this person flags up; or 2, will automatically doubt the authenticity of any person brought on to record a segment like this for a DVD TV series release. Less contentious, then, is the 'Networking' featurette, which spends about 13 minutes having a fairly frank discussion about Nowhere Man's precarious position on the UPN network… and even brings in UPN exec Mike Sullivan for this purpose.
After this, we're into 'small fry' extras, but ones people generally expect to find on such boxsets. There's the usual collection of TV spots/teasers and a brief set of promotional out-takes. As I mentioned before, there's also a liner notes booklet, although it's more or less just an index for the customer's convenience… so don't expect a lot of additional printed content.
Obviously for die-hard fans the purchase of this boxset is a no-brainer; whilst the video and audio technically are nothing to sing about, they're perfectly adequate, and Image Entertainment deserves serious kudos for the wealth of special features they've provided for such an old, cancelled series. However, it's a slightly tougher call for those who haven't seen Nowhere Man before. If you're into conspiracy shows or the thrillers sub-genre in general, there's a lot to like here. And if you've never watched The Prisoner, then I'd wholeheartedly recommend giving Nowhere Man a try. On the other hand, if you're, say, a member of Six of One, you're going to have to be extremely forgiving of the many 'homages' Hertzog's series pays to McGoohan's, and will certainly find that Nowhere Man pales in comparison. So my 'Film' score here endeavours to strike a balance between my own personal opinion of the show and how I suspect the average viewer might perceive it.
7 out of 10
6 out of 10
6 out of 10
10 out of 10