When Cinemax first announced its intention to reboot the military drama Strike Back with an entirely new cast, longtime fans of the series were hesitant; for many, it was impossible to imagine a version of the action drama without stars Sullivan Stapleton and Philip Winchester. But now, looking back at the first 10 episodes of the rebooted series, which eventually saw the actors reprise their roles for brief cameos in the final two episodes, one has to wonder if their appearance in this new version of the series did more harm than good.
Although it was thrilling to see the boys back in action -- who among us didn't rewind the finale when the two started bickering like an old married couple? -- there's something to be said about moving forward rather than constantly looking back or trying to recreate the past. When Strike Back originally signed off the air in 2015, the adrenaline-fueled action series was no longer about Section 20 and its save-the-world missions; it was about Scott and Stonebridge, the relationship they'd forged, and how their time in the field had changed them and shaped them. The series that was once as much about gratuitous nudity and sex as it was about delivering high intensity action had evolved beyond its initial premise. So when word of the planned reboot spread, the initial thought was that it wouldn't be easy to simply plug new actors into the world of Strike Back and push play. And that's more or less the truth; this new era of Strike Back has had to work very hard to prove its merit and avoiding stepping on the toes of the men who came before it. It's had to reset the story a bit and as a result, it's not the same show Scott and Stonebridge left behind when they took that (formerly) final ride into the sunset. For this reason, the show should be focusing on moving forward, not backward.
It's true this latest chapter in the series' six-season history hasn't always lived up to its predecessor -- it improved as the season progressed and viewers were able to get to know a bit more about characters like Daniel MacPherson's Sgt. Samuel Wyatt, but the show is still not operating at the same level it once did. It's lacking some of the nuance and depth of previous seasons, which might bother viewers who desire more from the show than just explosions and a good firefight. But the show is also starting over, and by the end of the season, it began to find its groove and the core cast started to feel more like a team rather than men and women thrown together by circumstance. But when Stapleton and Winchester are thrown into the mix, even briefly, it ultimately threatens to undo all the work the new season has done to separate itself from their legacy. And how can fans embrace the new class if the old guys just pop out of the shadows to save them?
On the surface, bringing popular characters back for small cameos appears to be a gesture of goodwill and gratitude to the show's fans. And to be honest, this actually did feel as much like a nod to viewers as it was a massive thank you to the two men who anchored the series for four seasons and helped to launch Cinemax's scripted programming slate. But the reason this kind of thing happens so often in television and film is because producers know fans won't be able to resist seeing their old favorites in action. It's cynical, but these cameos are not really a special treat for longtime fans, they're blatant attempts to lure in viewers who might not otherwise tune in. It's advertising.
Now, there are exceptions to the rule of course: bringing back Richard Armitage as John Porter to launch the second iteration of Strike Back all those years ago actually served to connect the two versions of the show, but his character was quickly killed off and the show was allowed to grow beyond him. Here, the cameos from Stapleton and Winchester were saved for the very end of the season. Ignoring the excitement of seeing them in action again, what narrative purpose did they actually serve? Was their presence organic? Given how busy both actors are, a lot of work likely went into getting them to the show's international set, but was it necessary to jump through all those hoops? Does Strike Back, in its current state, still need Scott and Stonebridge?
The writers used the characters sparingly in the final two episodes of the season: they arrive on the scene, save the day, rattle off some of their trademark banter, shoot the hell out of some bad guys, and then they're on their way again. Whether or not the limited use of their characters was determined by the actors' availability or writer Jack Lothian's script ultimately doesn't matter, because even though their appearance was brief, it was just enough to remind viewers that this Strike Back is not the show they once loved. It's different, it's evolved into an ensemble drama that unfortunately doesn't always serve each of its characters equally. But it has potential. And if Strike Back wants the chance to continue to improve and evolve as a new chapter of a beloved series, if it wants old fans to tune in for the new guys, it needs to stop looking to the past.
It's always tempting to want to bring back characters fans love -- Marvel's Jessica Jones recently faced a similar situation when it brought back David Tennant's charismatic villain Kilgrave for one episode in its second season. Although his appearance had a mostly valid explanation, there wasn't really a need to revisit his character. Netflix's Gilmore Girls revival brought back nearly everyone from the original run of the series, which was exciting until everything went on too long as the show tried to service side characters. As Strike Back looks ahead to next season, the writers would be wise to let the legends of Scott and Stonebridge naturally fade into the rearview mirror and focus solely on the new cast and what's coming over the horizon. It's going to be hard to say goodbye again -- for many fans, Scott and Stonebridge are still Strike Back -- but an inability to let go of the past is a fear of the future. If popular culture is determined to reboot and remake and revive everything, the very least it can do is add something new to the narrative while it does it.
Strike Back will return with new episodes at a later date.