Syfy’s new drama Alphas puts a fresh spin on the “people with abilities” concept, grounding the series in real-world science. It’s an aspect that co-creator Zak Penn, showrunner Ira Steven Behr and star David Strathairn underscored when they met with the press at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
"I have to say that Zak and Michael [Karnow, his co-creator] from the very beginning really believed that, yes, it could come back in five years, if the show is lucky enough, and they'll say you're a liar because by Season 4 they were shooting laser beams out of their eyes,” Behr said. “And maybe that'll happen because we ran out of, whatever. But certainly to start out with the idea is to keep the abilities contained [and] at least in some way related to neurochemistry. … You're not going to see people flying or levitating, and I think ultimately that's good for the show."
The series follows five people with extraordinary mental and physical abilities – the “Alphas” of the title -- who, under the direction of Dr. Lee Rosen (Strathairn), investigate cases that suggest the involvement of other Alphas and uncover what the CIA, FBI and Pentagon have been unable to solve.
A great deal of scientific research went into the development of the series to ensure there’s a real-world basis for each of the abilities demonstrated by the characters. For instance, one Alpha can consciously activate his body’s “fight or flight” response, while another can influence a person by disrupting specific neural pathways in the cerebral cortex, leaving the brain vulnerable to suggestion. The producers went so far as to enlist scientific advisers and to put some of the actors through special training for their roles.
Behr revealed the production staff and advisory team have also worked on an intriguing new character that will be introduced later in the series.
"We're doing this character that involves the blind spot. […] There's a spot in your brain that does not process information,” he said. “Sight is actually not the best sense, the most valid sense. We did a thing about someone who could live within the blind spots of people. It pushes the envelope a little bit."
The massive amount of research also extended to fleshing out the relationship between the Alpha team and the United States government.
"You're going to see various bureaucratic types throughout the show,” said Penn, co-writer of The Incredible Hulk. “One of the things that we really wanted to capture is that normally the government isn't run like Charlie's Angels, where there's one guy behind [everything]. One of the things we wanted to do is show that there's a bureaucracy at work here, and Rosen has had to navigate that bureaucracy."
Penn added that fans will see several different "bureaucratic types" throughout the series, including some guest stars like Summer Glau (Firefly, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles).
With all the hard work going into accuracy and realism, the producers still had to rely on the actors to bring the characters to live. Penn talked primarily about Alphas’ central character Dr. Rosen, played by Strathairn.
"What we promised David is, he [Rosen] cannot be black and white,” Penn said. “He has multiple different motivations, he does not always make the right decisions and he has put himself in a pretty uncomfortable situation. His goal is to be a therapist to these people, but then he has to send them into danger. And for some of them, Gary in particular, it's totally inappropriate, and Rosen knows that.”
"There's this constant struggle between what he'd like to be doing, and what he's being forced to do,” Penn added. “I can assure you … that is going to play a significant part in the mythology of the show.”
Strathairn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for Good Night, and Good Luck, revealed that for his portrayal of Rosen, he drew from figures like Richard Feyman, Oliver Sacks and Werner Herzog. "If I could honor any one of them in this performance, I’d be happy," he said.
Asked about his experience with the new character, Strathairn said, "It's a lot different than doing a play or even a film. … It's unnerving, but it's also exciting and it's challenging to be able to hold on to everything you've established and created for the character."
Alphas airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.