"Dark Angel Pilot"
Original airdate: October 3, 2000
by Michelle Erica Green

A Mad Max in a Post-Nuclear World

Plot Summary:

A preternaturally fast young girl with a shaved head flees in the snow, along with many other children, pursued by helicopters and tanks. With sign language, the young leader Zack tells them to separate. They're in Gillette, Wyoming in 2009, and all of them are genetic experiments -- the result of gene-splicing that has given them unusual powers. The girl survives by hiding underwater beneath a sheet of ice as armed guards predict the children will freeze to death if they're not shot. The head of the project, Lydecker, is not convinced. About a decade later, the girl, Max, wonders whether she might be the only survivor.

Max must take drugs to control her seizures, but that's the least of her problems. She lives in Seattle following the pulse, a limited nuclear exchange that destroyed most computer data and plunged America into a depression. Now the government is corrupt and the cops are on the take, while corrupt businessmen make fortunes taking advantage of desperate citizens. Max works as a courier, riding a bicycle to deliver packages. She lives in an apartment with roommate Kendra, next door to the family of Theo -- a co-worker who is dying of Balkan War Syndrome. Calvin, Max's best male friend from work, has nearly wrecked his relationship with his girlfriend Natalie through infidelity; Cindy, Max's best female friend from work, would love to console Natalie if she gives up on men.

During a delivery, Max spies a valuable Egyptian cat statue in a private apartment, which she steals at night to make extra money to hire an investigator so she can track down other runaway children from the institute in Wyoming. But as she's escaping, Max discovers that she has broken into the apartment of the anonymous journalist who produces Streaming Freedom videos denouncing the government and corrupt businesses. At first the journalist, Logan Cale, is relieved that Max is not there to arrest him, but when he sees her supernatural strength as she escapes from his guards, he becomes intrigued by her and tracks her down.

Max isn't impressed by the wealthy insurgent, though she's surprised that he would risk his life and fortune just to expose the black-market sale of medicine needed to treat Balkan War Syndrome. Logan is protecting Lauren, a woman with information on Edgar Sonrisa, the businessman selling the medicine on the black market. He wants Max to help protect Lauren's daughter, but Max wants to remain beneath the radar of the police network, even after he sees the bar code tattooed on the back of her neck and promises to help her find the other escaped children. He knows that twelve other children escaped from Wyoming, and that they are all dependent on a neurotransmitter pharmaceutical to stop their seizures. Max is still counting on her investigator finding them, though he tells her his office is bugged -- Lydecker is curious about who is looking for Wyoming records.

Max learns at home that Theo has died of Balkan War Syndrome, then sees on the news that Sonrisa's men have kidnapped Lauren's daughter Sophie and shot Logan. When she visits him at the hospital, Max discovers another assassination attempt in progress and rescues him. Promising to get the daughter back, Max infiltrates Sonrisa's estate, then pretends to be a call girl to get inside his private rooms. When she promises to deliver Lauren to him, Sonrisa agrees to pay cash for her help, permitting Max to connect Lauren and Sophie by telephone so the mother will know the girl is safe. Max memorizes the number of Sophie's location from the touch tones. After antagonizing Sonrisa's henchman Bruno by claiming his boss hired her to do a job he couldn't, Max allows Bruno to think he has killed her. Then she has her investigator trace the phone number for her so she can rescue the child.

But Lydecker is listening, and sends hundreds of troops to the house. When Max goes in to get Sophie, the guards surround all the exits. She escapes by stealing an environmental suit from one of the soldiers, walking right past Lydecker with the girl in her arms. After returning Sophie to Lauren, Max leaves without waiting for a thank-you, wanting to get back to her protected life. On the news she learns that Bruno has killed Sonrisa.

Three months later, Logan is back on the air with covert Streaming Freedom broadcasts, though he is paralyzed from having been shot. He wants Max's help trapping a smuggler who makes money offering to help people cross to Canada, then allowing them to die, but she doesn't want to get involved. "By being alive, you're involved," Logan tells her, pulling out some mug shots of Michael Hanover, a blond young man with a tattoo on the back of his neck. Max recognizes him as Zack, the leader of the children from Wyoming. Though she always suspected Zack was alive, she knows she owes Logan for the information, and wonders what good deeds he'll ask of her next.


Fox's Dark Angel isn't as dark as it could have been -- in some ways it's not even as dark as its competition, WB's moody, pessimistic Angel. Max lives in a world where a few evil people have made life difficult for everyone else, and, as Logan keeps insisting, the apathy of the majority allow their crimes to go unpunished. But despite their selfishness and shallow pursuits, most of the people Max knows are decent folk. As she says, "Why do they call it a Depression?" Everyone's broke, but no one's all that depressed; life goes on.

Seattle in 2009 isn't anyplace you'd want to live, but it's not much worse than Blade Runner's world and considerably better than The Road Warrior's. Max's life has a lot of advantages over Mad Max. Phones still work, cars and motorcycles still travel the streets, and the internet seems to have survived the EM pulses even if most of the saved data did not. The Space Needle is still standing, though it looks rather the worse for wear. We hear clips of news stories about food riots, but everyone looks reasonably well-fed except the rail-thin women who obviously have time to work out. There's quite a bit of profanity, and some nasty sequences like the one in which Max is searched thoroughly, then snaps, "Now that the pelvic exam is out of the way..."

Max can move in real-time like the folk in The Matrix. With the help of her cat-burglar equipment, she can even fly. The visuals in this pilot episode are stunning despite a few choppy flashback sequences, and the pace never lets down; it feels like a feature film, and a good one at that, if one overlooks some basic logical questions like why the kids don't have their tattoos removed. Occasionally Max herself is shot at comic-book angles that emphasize her breasts and her tight leather clothes, but the show makes fewer overt overtures at the young male demographic than one might expect, while offering several strong female characters in addition to the obligatory hookers.

Thus, Max's most interesting battle is not with Sonrisa's minions or Lydecker's soldiers, but with Lydia, her friend Calvin's neurotic mistress. Pretending to be Calvin's true love Natalie, Max tells Lydia that her man is through cheating. When Lydia gets nasty, Max drop-kicks her, then threatens to drop her off a high-rise balcony, telling Lydia to take her threats and her cheesy acrylic nails away. "I understand," Lydia chokes out at Max's insistence. Better yet, when she confronts Calvin, Max replays the scene, telling him that he's disgusting and he should know that he's the villain in the story...and if he ever cheats on Natalie again, it'll be him hanging by his boots. "I understand," Calvin gasps. With quirky irony on several levels, Max notes to her lesbian friend that men are unfortunately victims of their genes.

Fox took a risk pitting Dark Angel against Angel in the Tuesday time slot, but it's a risk that may pay off. Max has a lot in common with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but her show's mood is closer to that of its spin-off. None of the men on Dark Angel have the brooding intensity of David Boreanaz, but none of the women on Angel have the wit or subtlety of Jessica Alba. WB may see some defectors from Angel looking for a woman who might be Buffy's equal.

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