With the third season of Cinemax's Strike Back having just wrapped, the network seamlessly launched into the series that started it all by bringing the original British-only season to America, and calling it Strike Back: Origins. The idea being a combination of appeasing fans eager to see the Sky television episodes for the first time (or again, as the case may be), and to clear up the lingering confusion of people reading the series' IMDB page and seeing a mysterious fourth season being listed. Either way, as far as Cinemax is concerned, Strike Back: Origins, although having originally aired in 2010 is now considered a prequel to its higher-octane, buddy-centric series featuring Scott, Stonebridge and the rest of Section 20.
Because it was intended to be more of an ongoing series before its star Richard Armitage jumped ship to join Peter Jackson on The Hobbit trilogy, Origins acts as kind of a template for the American version of the series. In that regard, the partnership between Sky and Cinemax saw them picking over all the parts that they liked, and changing the character dynamics around, so that the end product better suited both networks' sensibilities (if you're a longtime viewer of Cinemax, you know what that entails). This swapping out of parts to create something similar, but altogether different, encourages an inevitable comparison between the two, but it also begs that the original version be evaluated on its own merits, as well.
If you've been introduced to the internationally co-financed version first, the switch to Origins is likely as jarring a sensation as it was for fans of the Armitage-led series when they first heard Sullivan Stapleton pulling off an American accent and engaging in a Lethal Weapon-style back-and-forth with Philip Winchester, all while mowing down endless rows of bad guys like they were in some elaborate computer simulation.
The most drastic difference between the two series is really what defines them. Cinemax is very much a buddy show that is as eager to examine the promising camaraderie between Scott and Stonebridge, as it is to see them leap from vans in heavy traffic while shooting bad guys. Origins, however, is centered far more on Armitage's physically and psychologically wounded solider, John Porter, and his tenuous relationship with Section 20 intelligence officer Hugh Collinson (played by a pre-The Walking Dead Andrew Lincoln). In addition to Porter and Collinson not being future best buds, the two are rarely seen in action together; Collinson is generally heading up the mission back at Section 20 HQ (along with Colin Salmon, a.k.a. Walter Steele on Arrow), while Porter is sent out into the field to handle the various villains and terrorists, along with a seemingly disposable group of fellow soldiers and/or locals who serve as his counterparts on the mission he happens to be on.
That means a greater amount of the story in Origins is dedicated to the inner workings of Porter, and the emotional and physical toll that he has endured while being an elite soldier in the War on Terror. The examination of Porter's psyche begins early on, as the show opens up with a mission to extract a hostage from a military compound on the eve of the invasion of Iraq. Naturally, the extraction doesn’t go as planned, and while the hostage is returned to safety, Porter is haunted by a decision not to kill a very young suicide bomber, a choice that appears to result in two of his men being killed and leaving another one essentially brain dead. The event is staged in such a way it leaves considerable doubt as to who is actually responsible for the deaths of Porter's men, making the consequent shambles his life is in several years later seem all the more tragic.
The first episode goes a long way in detailing Porter's attempt to reclaim what was lost to him, and Origins doesn’t exactly make it easy. Porter is persona non grata amongst his fellow soldiers, as history continues to follow him wherever he goes. This leads to a several shots of Armitage hanging out by himself, or preparing to undertake a dangerous – and likely unsanctioned – leg of the mission on his own. Porter's inner conflict is somewhat reminiscent of what Stonebridge was put through in season 2, after his wife was murdered by an assassin's bullet. But while that event rears its ugly head from time to time – resulting mostly in an ongoing joke of Stonebridge's seemingly monk-like existence, in comparison to Scott's contractually mandated episodic flings – the effect on Porter appears to be one of different (and perhaps greater) psychological impact on the character. It becomes an unwelcome facet of the man he is now, a shadow of his former self; rather than being condensed to a thing that happened that one time.
And that's not a criticism of Cinemax's current Strike Back. While that series is very good at what it does, devoting precious minutes to the psychological struggle of its characters is generally done while taking a deep breath in between elaborate and explosive actions sequences. Essentially, the show's structure is such that development of any kind is generally handled with broader strokes – which is, perhaps, the greatest difference between the two series.
All of this boils down to two different takes on the same show. It's difficult to call one superior to the other, as each series has its own plusses and minuses that become more readily apparent when compared to what came before (which has a different meaning depending on which side of the Atlantic you live on). Origins is probably the more reflective and earnest of the two series, while Cinemax's Strike Back takes a lighter, more energetically rambunctious approach to the material. In the words of Eric Stoltz' Lance from Pulp Fiction, it's "different, but equally good."
Whatever your preference, it's just good to see Strike Back: Origins finally getting some airtime in the U.S.
Strike Back: Origins continues next Friday @10pm on Cinemax. Check out a preview below: