I’m not sure when it happened but, sometime after the 90s when shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena left our screens, television had a lot fewer female action heroines to offer. It’s arguably gotten a lot better since the lull that came directly after those much celebrated series ended, but there’s one show that has flown the flag while, at the same time, making almost zero impact on the minds of most television fans. The CW’s Nikita, which finished its own run a couple of weeks ago, will be remembered by its fans as being one of the bravest, solidly entertaining and ignored shows in recent memory.
It was a CW show, which accounts in some part for its lack of a wide audience since, as good as many shows on the network are and have been, the only one to really break into mainstream acceptance has been Arrow, airing after Nikita’s peak. Beginning in the 2010/11 season when the network was still dealing almost exclusively in teen dramas, Nikita was a kind of experiment in which the high school/fantasy formula that had worked so well for The Vampire Diaries was transposed onto a more adult setting. It was a remake of 90s show La Femme Nikita (itself a remake of Luc Besson’s film), but it would strive to do things a little differently.
The series may have shot itself in the foot from the beginning, however, as the marketing for its first season was far from honest or indicative of what the series itself would try to do. Massive billboards of Maggie Q’s semi-naked, gun-toting image were released in the months leading up to its premiere, giving many people the impression that this would yet another remake, with all of the hollow sheen and vapidness that non-fans had come to associate with all CW series. When these people saw the pilot, the same assumptions were made but, as is often the case with people who have already made their minds up, they were missing the bigger picture.
For what Nikita tried to do throughout its run (with a few forgivable missteps) was turn the idea of a sexualised, bad-ass female spy looking good and kicking butt entirely on its head. The show centred on a protagonist who, rather than being stuck inside Division as previous versions of her character had been, was already free and seeking revenge. With the addition of Alex, her mole inside the organisation posing as a fresh recruit, the show could tell two stories at once, with two intriguing, damaged and co-dependent female protagonists to follow through the course of the show.
This way, we got to see the values of Division – teaching its recruits to be proper bikini-clad babes while at the same time teaching them to be ruthless assassins – being passed on to Alex at the same time as we saw Nikita reject them. In the series itself, we rarely actually saw the characters wearing anything inappropriate unless they were being forced to for the job, and that’s a distinction many initial viewers failed to see. Do any internet search on the show and you’ll find endless damning reviews and commentary calling it un-feminist, but recent insights in light of its quiet, peaceful death in 2013 told a very different story.
For Nikita might actually have been the most daringly feminist series we’ve seen since Buffy, and with its lack of success came a certain amount of freedom for it to stick to its guns. People stopped talking about it and, slowly, its small pocket of viewers began to abandon it also. Once initial problems were sorted out, however, continual support (at least in terms of season renewals) from its network meant that it could tell its story in television’s background, never showing obvious signs of executive meddling or viewer-grabbing tactics. This is massively rare in a low-rated show, and is sadly something usually only seen in shows no one watches.
What emerged from all of these different circumstances was a hugely compelling action series which won both male and female fans on merit alone. Nikita was never a cool or trendy show, but the people who stuck by it from the beginning were always fiercely loyal and protective. The fact that it lasted three (and a bit) years is amazing in itself and, while shows like Community and Chuck won a lot of attention for their continuous cheating of death year after year, it felt as if Nikita was always existing on life support. There’s a reason its last two episodes were titled Bubble and Cancelled, because those two words had plagued it for years.
The last decade is littered with examples of female-centric action shows that have failed – Bionic Woman, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, The Sarah Connor Chronicles – and that could simply be attributed to changing tastes. Viewers were happy to watch a female Star Trek captain, a vampire slayer and a warrior princess back in the 90s, but the 00s have changed that slightly. We arguably have more women in central roles than ever before, but viewers weren’t buying what Nikita was selling. It’s probably something that will never be explored or explained in its wake, but that doesn’t mean the show itself isn’t worth celebrating.
For it did something pretty much unheard of by having not one, not two, but three central female characters who drove every single second of the narrative. What’s more, these weren’t flawless, gorgeous and unflappable superwomen like so many we’ve seen over the years – they were supremely damaged women who brought with them a lot of issues the show never failed to properly and sensitively explore. Where else on network television could you see issues like human sex trafficking, prostitution, abuse and drug addiction dealt with not as a detached case that needed to be solved, but as something directly affecting the main cast? These things were never brushed under the carpet, and were a part of the story until its end.
And for the first two seasons it did with Division what Dollhouse had attempted to do, but better thought out. The muddled message behind Joss Whedon’s show rubbed me (and I’d assume a lot of other people) up the wrong way with its pitching of the dolls’ captors as the eventual heroes of the story and the failure to follow through on the ramifications of the show’s central concept, but Nikita had an admirable clarity with a similar storyline. The simplicity of the early episodes and seasons meant that we were completely sure we were watching a Team Nikita vs. Dangerous Patriarchy, but it’s this precision that made it such an enjoyable ride. When you compare the two for how they dealt with the same issues, I think Nikita got a bad rap.
But even disregarding the external circumstances of the show or the real-world matters it attempted to shine a light on, Nikita was as good a spy-fi show as we’ve had in years. Initial comparisons to Alias were supposed to be unkind and, while the show did have to shed its tween-spy aspects at the very beginning, it ended up being a pretty worthy successor. Rather than being cancelled outright, it was granted a six-part farewell season at the end of 2013 and, as it had been for most of its run, it faded to black over the Christmas period without many people really noticing. That’s a shame, especially since those six-episodes were all examples of top-notch television that should really have been appointment viewing.
This wasn’t paint-by-numbers television, nor was it a throwaway spy-light show as many have dismissed it as. Some series just aren’t blessed with wide-spread appeal and huge viewing figures, and that unfortunately means that they’re cancelled before their time. Nikita defied those odds by cheating death as many times as it needed to in order to tell a complete story and, now that it’s over, the pain of its departure is much less that it could have been. For those of us who watched it, it’ll be remembered as a brave, complicated and entertaining series that always went deeper and further than it needed to.
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