The world of Daniel O’Malley’s 2012 novel The Rook is a weird place. The Checquy — a secret wing of British intelligence comprised of elite bureaucrats, people with supernatural powers, and at least one vampire — protects the UK from harpy attacks, excavates buried dragon eggs, and deals with neighbors complaining about loud chanting happening next door. Most of the book is dedicated to the organization’s fight against a group of Belgian mad scientists who previously invaded England with an army of monsters made by manipulating flesh and bone.
Unfortunately, none of that flavor has made it into Starz’s adaptation of The Rook, which debuts on June 30th. While it’s understandable that the network didn’t want to spend the money needed to capture the book’s “Men in Black, but fantasy” feel, they’ve lost sight of the quirky absurdity that made it a compelling read. What’s left is just another show about what the world might be like if some people had superpowers.
The show’s version of the Checquy is just devoted to monitoring people with Extreme Variant Abilities (dubbed EVAs), recruiting them into the organization, and fighting human traffickers who capture them and sell them to the highest bidder. This isn’t a new idea: the X-Men’s Weapon X project covered the same ground, Young Justice has a similar plotline, and a metahuman trafficking ring played a major role in season 4 of CW’s The Flash. The twist here is that the Checquy seems to be just as bad as the metahuman-hunting Vultures. The Vultures sell kids with powers, but the Checquy takes them from their families and uses unethical means to enhance their abilities to make them useful assets.
The “both sides are bad” approach is meant to create an impossible situation for protagonist Myfanwy Thomas (Emma Greenwell), who wakes up surrounded by dead Vultures with no memory of who she is or what happened to her. She discovers she’s a high-ranking member of the Checquy — a Rook, in accordance with their tradition of giving people chess-based titles — and she learns she can’t trust anyone. That’s a fine neo-noir setup, but The Rook lacks the sharp writing or nuanced characters needed to make that genre work.
O’Malley’s book is a power fantasy where Myfanwy’s amnesia strips her of all her doubts and trauma, and lets her unlock her true potential. Myfanwy was such an ultra-competent organizer that when she learned she was going to lose her memory, she set her new self up with all the information and resources she’d need.
But in the show, Myfanwy was and remains a neurotic, anxious mess who needs to figure most things out for herself. She’s been newly buried under extra servings of trauma and mental illness. Showrunners Lisa Zwerling and Karyn Usher might have wanted to avoid relying on voiceover narration as Myfanwy reads letters from herself, but the close-up shots of her scrolling through Google searches, reading conspiracy-theory message boards, and scanning redacted medical files are just as dull.
Almost all of O’Malley’s book follows Myfanwy’s perspective, but Zwerling and Usher have taken an ensemble approach without doing any of the character-building necessary to make that work. The Chequay’s King Linda Farrier (Joely Richardson of Nip/Tuck and Red Sparrow) and Queen Conrad Grantchester (Adrian Lester) are jockeying for power by withholding information and using the secrets they do have as leverage, but their intrigue and power-plays feel clumsy and hollow, easy to trace back to their source or refute. It’s also hard to care who comes out on top, since they seem to have no discernible character traits, besides being manipulative and dedicated to their jobs.
Zwerling and Usher have trimmed away some of the extraneous Checquy members from the book, but they’ve elevated minor character Monica Reed (Olivia Munn of X-Men: Apocalypse) to become a super-strong agent from America’s equivalent of the Checquy. When Monica comes to the UK, tracking her former partner and lover, she barges around demanding everyone respect her and give her all the resources she needs, while doing almost nothing to justify herself, besides making incredibly transparent attempts at empathy and flattery. She spends most of the first four episodes of the eight-episode series entirely disconnected from the rest of the main cast, which makes her feel even more unnecessary.
The Rook’s one standout character and performance comes from Gestalt, a Checquy agent who is one consciousness spread across the bodies of two identical twins (Jon Fletcher) and two fraternal ones (Catherine Steadman and Ronan Raftery). While the writers rely a bit too much on creepy twin tropes, like having the siblings talk in unison or finish each other’s sentences, they also provide even more unsettling moments, like Myfanwy starting a conversation with one version, walking down the hall, then continuing her chat with another sibling. A scene showing Gestalt’s morning routine provides a fascinating perversion of the visual shorthands used to show intimacy, as the siblings help each other dress and sit down at the breakfast table without speaking. They’re together, yet fundamentally alone.
Visually, The Rook is as bland as Myfanwy’s wardrobe, which ranges from beige to gray. The directors are much too fond of drone shots showing the London skyline and its busy streets. They’re attempting to establish a sense of place, but their world feels devoid of meaning, since all the characters are devoted to a singular crisis for the first half of the season, leaving it remarkably unclear what the Checquy does on a day-to-day basis. This is also a show about people with superpowers, with basically no special effects. Instead, awkward close-ups on Conrad’s eyes or Myfanwy’s hands are used to demonstrate that they’re using powers, which have no visual effect until the people they’re attacking keel over. There’s very little action, aside from some chase scenes, though one involving Gestalt’s various bodies working in unison to protect Myfanwy further establishes that character as the best part of the show.
O’Malley’s book is far from perfect. The prose skews solidly toward the male gaze, as Myfanwy regularly spends time assessing the attractiveness of the women around her, and comparing them to her own perceived shortcomings. But while the show’s lack of internal monologue has excised that element, it’s been replaced by awful attempts to use sexual innuendo to lighten the otherwise bleak script. When Monica is asked, in an otherwise emotionally tense scene, whether she has a picture of her partner, she replies “I’m guessing you mean his face?”
Overall, The Rook feels like a missed opportunity, departing so far from its source material that it’s lost its identity, while failing to build a new one that justifies its existence. Shows like Alphas and Sense8 did a much better job with stories of people with superpowers trying to find their way in the world — those series have better writing, nuanced characters, and concrete ideas about what their characters’ abilities mean for the human experience. But that still wasn’t enough to save either show from cancellation. The Rook novel has some exciting twists to draw from, but unless Starz’s show pulls one out of its pocket, it’s probably headed for the same fate.