At one moment in the first episode of “Intruders,” the new supernatural thriller on BBC America, Jack Whelan (John Simm) jests, “They only have one life to live and they can’t help blowing it.” “Intruders,” which features multiple storylines about a secret cult whose souls inhabit others’ bodies in order to attain immortality, suggests he’s wrong. Sometimes there is more than one life to live.
While “Intruders” is in theory a suspense series, “She was Provisional” (Episode 1) introduces the show as a work of horror, using several motifs of the genre: The helpless girl sitting in panic, the stalker-ish point of view shots. After a birthday party in 1990, two men dressed in black (including Richard Shepard, played by James Frain) break into a girl’s bedroom to “shepherd” her, saying they want her to keep a secret and presenting her with a small, circular item that appears trivial but possesses deep meaning for all three characters. After having a panic attack and becoming sick, she kills herself; we then skip forward to the present day.
Richard Shepherd (James Frain) was present in the 1990 storyline, when he was in training. Not so subtlety named for his line of work, Shepherd shepherds souls, and the series builds on the mysteries of which ones and to where. While his limited role wouldn’t suggest it, he is quickly established as our protagonist, the character to watch. He is the lone factor present in each little chapter, even if it is in a supporting capacity, which says a lot given how much jumping around “She was Provisional” does. Within 10 minutes, there are three distinct present-day settings established, creating a scattered and choppy progression for the episode. But whether on the Oregon coast, in Seattle or in Nevada, Shepherd is there — the intersection of otherwise independent plot lines.
The first of these takes place in Washington State, not far from Seattle, where Shepherd is hunting a man named Bill Anderson. Never presented in the show, the Bill Anderson figure is “Intruders'” truest enigma. He is discussed by an off-beat podcaster named Oz Turner — under the pseudonym Professor Purdue — as a man who is going to bring down and reveal the secrets of the Qui Reverti. “Qui Reverti” translates from Latin and roughly means “that which returns,” and this society is the backbone of “Intruders.” Turner says Anderson was conducting experiments in his basement and they were the only two people who knew the truth, which turns out to be a lie — Shepherd eliminates any mystery in that regard when he bluntly admits it to Turner before assassinating him.
One of the kind touches of the episode is how crazy it paints Turner to be, but then confirms nearly everything he says to be true. Shepherd destroys the Andersons’ basement after killing Bill’s wife and son, so we know there was something significant there, and that Bill Anderson has very important knowledge putting him in grave danger.
But who is Bill Anderson? He is an acoustics professor at the University of Washington, who seems to have discovered a link between frequencies too low for the human ear to pick up, and their relation to immortality. Other than that, Bill Anderson is a name without a face. He conveniently wasn’t home the night his family was killed, but he never bothered to warn his confident Oz Turner they were being hunted.
The Anderson case is brought to the attention of former-cop turned writer Jack when he is visited by Gary Fisher, an old friend and estate lawyer who elicits Jack’s help (given his investigative experience). Fisher says the investigation is related to an estate case he is working on, raising the first of the many subtly-planted mysteries in the episode: How is a murder in Seattle related to a Southern California civil procedure? Perhaps it has something to do with Fisher and Jack’s connection to the 1990 suicide, as the girl possessed a high school yearbook with both of them in it. Understandably, Jack is uninterested and unwilling to help, but something tells me that Fisher, as a figure from Jack’s past and a connection to the girl from 1990, isn’t going away.
Jack has other things to worry about. When his wife Amy (Mira Sorvino) disappears during a trip to Seattle, Jack goes to find her. “You know I wouldn’t have made detective [in the LAPD],” says Jack when Fisher mentions his investigative experience, but this statement clearly shows the desire is there, and he jumps at the chance to live the fantasy. During his rendezvous in Seattle Jack visits Amy’s office and takes the liberty of reading through her recent cell phone activity. He goes to the office after being rushed out of a hotel by a suspiciously sassy valet.
Shepherd stays out of the story once he kills the Andersons, but he quickly appears in another featuring a mother and her little girl, Madison, who is celebrating her ninth birthday. Here are two of the key mystery motifs: birthdays and the number nine. Just like his first visit to open the episode, Shepherd turns up on the girl’s birthday. Jack’s wife Amy also has a birthday just before she shows similar physical and emotional signs to the rest and eventually goes missing the following day. The fact that Amy doesn’t like birthdays and kept the celebration private hints that she knows more than the other two. Maybe she hoped someone (Shepherd?) wouldn’t know. Among these signs is emphatic dilation of the women’s pupils. The eyes, the saying goes, are the window to the soul, and Shepherd deals in the soul-switching business. These people change when this happens. Amy becomes observably more distant (and attains a liking for smooth jazz). Madison, when Shepherd shows her a sand dollar — yet another circular object — becomes Marcus.
Contrary to his ease in killing Bill Anderson’s family, Shepherd cannot finish off Madison, even though it is clear he is there to kill her. But she isn’t really Madison anymore; at least not all the time. She begins speaking more like an adult and appearing simply uncomfortable in her skin, not quite knowing how to converse with her mother and being burdened by nightmares.
When Shepherd addresses her as Marcus, it is the pivotal moment of the pilot. Here is where the viewers are alerted to the meat of the story – that each person is inhabited by another soul, in this case the body of Madison and the presence of Marcus. Her fall is awarded devastating emphasis when she turns on a dime from gently caressing her cat, to drowning it in a bathtub, and then sobbing in distraught confusion over what she has done.
Marcus’ (now with Madison as his vehicle) relationship with Shepherd is more layered, and more promises to be revealed in the coming weeks. The way they address each other is personal, as if they know one another well. The girl from 1990 was terrified and completely surprised to see the shepherds, but Marcus/Madison is perfectly aware of what is going on. But, like Marcus, we wonder why he’s been brought back too soon, and why does he then threaten Shepherd, “What goes around, comes around”? This part of their dynamic is the next great, underhanded mystery of the episode, and if viewers don’t seek out Episode 2 for the grander puzzles (where’s Amy?, who’s Bill Anderson?), then they will for these more dramatic hooks.
With elements of horror and suspense, “Intruders” is held back by flat dialogue and silly action sequences that try too hard to excite the audience. Rather than strive to make viewers jump, “Intruders” should focus more on the interesting web trying to connect its independent characters and events. Though flawed in these ways, viewers may still be drawn to “Intruders” in order to unwrap the fascinating mysteries not only of the Qui Reverti, but of its enigmatic characters.