101. "Nikita"

(#1) A young homeless woman is wrongly convicted of murdering a police officer. Her death is faked and she is taken to Section One, the most covert anti-terrorist group in the world. After two years of training under the tutelage of Michael, Section's best operative, she is given her first mission.
lfnforever briefing
Nikita is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison; Michael informs her that the world thinks she committed suicide while behind bars. She is officially buried in Row 8, Plot 30 of an unidentified cemetery. Section policy is for the "material" (as Operations calls recruits) to receive two years of training and if they don't measure up in that time they are cancelled. According to Nikita, she lived on the street after her mother's new boyfriend, who didn't like her, told her to "get out". The villain is Gideon Van Vactor, who is brokering a deal between rival terrorist groups to unite against their common enemy: Section One. Walter provides Nikita with an explosive device containing plastique that is disguised as a lipstick. On mission, Nikita wears glasses containing a comm-set and vidcam, a device often used throughout the series. Carla, Nikita's neighbor (Apt. 411) who says she's a carpenter, is introduced. For the one and only time Michael yells at Nikita. This first episode is a straight-ahead, slam-bang action thriller, effectively encapsulating Nikita's two-year training period in the first act, and providing three top-notch action sequences, too. It's enough to leave the viewer a little breathless -- and set's a high standard for subsequent episodes.

best dialogue
NIKITA: "I can't do what you want me to do."
MICHAEL: "Mistakes are not an option."
N: "I can't pull the trigger."
M: "Why not?"
N: "Because I'm not who you think I am. I'm not a killer."
M: "The moment I believe that, Nikita, you're cancelled."
Written by Cyrus Nowrasteh
Directed by Jon Cassar
Original airdate: January 13, 1997 (USA)
May 17, 1998 (France); September 12, 1997 (UK)

guest stars
Bill McDonald (Van Vactor)
Anais Granofsky (Carla)
Ric Reid (Stan)
Robbie Rox (Stokes)
Kurtys Kidd
James Vezine (Bellhop)
Kevin Connelly
Tony Curtis Blondell (Construction Worker)
Pierre Trudell (French Waiter)

"Revenge," Thrive
"Big Mistake," Chainsuck
"3 AM," Tristan Psionic
"All To Myself," Philosopher Kings
"Blood Red," Rose Chronicles

The corner of Toronto's Dundas and Yonge Streets was used in the teaser, where we see streetperson Nikita wandering at night.

German title: "Die Prufung"
Italian title: "Josephine"
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Dawn Connolly's commentary on this episode
The first episode, "Nikita," wastes no time establishing the tone and major themes of the series. The opening sequence intercuts scenes of street-kid Nikita (Nikita struts, mouths off, runs with her pals, eats pizza, panhandles, plays with a kitten in a rainy alley) with shots of her strapped to a table in a white room. Visually the sequence is arresting; the contrast between the grime of the urban streets and the sterile and overlit white room is stark in the extreme. The kitten scene is a little too cute, but it establishes Nikita's soft spot for the helpless, echoes her life as an alleycat and is redeemed in the next episode, where we see she has a pet cat.
Nikita is a survivor, trapped by circumstances first on the street (after her mother kicks her out of the house), then in prison (mistakenly jailed for the murder of a police officer), and finally in Section One (having been unwillingly "recruited"). In faking her death in prison, Section has turned her into a nonperson and stripped her of any hope of clearing her name in the civilian world.
Thus Nikita joins the ranks of such classic TV heroes as Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner, David Janssen's The Fugitive, and Bruce Greenwood's Nowhere Man, who fight to preserve their identities. Nikita's innocence is the series' principal point of departure from Luc Besson's original film. Series producer Joel Surnow and actress Peta Wilson agreed that reinventing Nikita as the innocent victim of circumstances would give the audience its point of identification. It would also serve to create the central source of dramatic conflict in the character's drive to retain her humanity -- and simply survive -- in the face of such a loss of freedom, control, and identity.
Stylistically, the show begins by breaking one of the first rules of television production design. White is a color that is never used, and its stark unfamiliarity is employed to great effect here. In later episodes the "White Room" will become identified with Madeline's ruthless interrogation techniques. The room is like a tiled, cold, windowless well with no corners and nowhere to hide; the occupant is observed, monitored, and fully exposed. This voyeurism is pervasive throughout Section. By contrast, the white hospital room exploits notions of exposure and vulnerability and becomes the scene of several truthful exchanges.
"Nikita" also features a signature element of the series: the music. Here the music of indie band Thrive creates a stylish and unfamiliar backdrop for the action, with soft dreamy vocals holding their own against harsh instrumentation. This juxtaposition finds it way into many of music supervisor Blaine Johnson's choice for musical additions, nicely complementing Sean Callery's evocative original scores. Female vocalists abound, often acting as Nikita's "voice" or underlining action or the emotional content of a scene. Johnson's selections are frequently unknown or little-known pieces by mainly small or independent bands. The music is a most important contribution to the style and feel of the series, and the fact that for most of the audience the pieces are unrecognizable creates the feeling that these pieces were written specifically for the show. The choice to forgo the use of enormously popular tunes helps to reinforce the otherness of La Femme Nikita, as does the international flavor of the cast, locations, and the five-minutes-into-the-future gadget and fashions.
La Femme Peta, pp 90-92

Ted Edwards' "behind the scenes" look at this episode
In an interview with Cinescape magazine, Joel Surnow admitted that he felt a bit hamstrung during production of the pilot episode for the series because it was an absolute necessity to recreate certain scenes from the Luc Besson feature film.
"We were sure we were going to get hits from the critics who would say, 'Yet another remake of this movie,' but we had to do it," Surnow explained. "We had to establish what the premise of the show was. Comparing it to Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, you could say, 'God, they did the kitchen scene so much better than you did....' I just felt we were stuck. There was a lot of talk of skipping the premise and going into it like six months into her training, but I felt in terms of telling the story, we had to show it. Look, the people who watch TV are probably not the people who go to foreign films, necessarily. I think it was successful in that way."
Interestingly, the pilot was the third episode shot but the first aired. The reason for this is that Surnow wanted the actors to seem comfortable with one another right from the get-go, when the first episode was broadcast.
La Femme Nikita X-Posed, pp 53-54

Joel Surnow's POV

We were trying to do two things: establish the premise as the movie premise did, and at the same time establish the what we were trying to invent, which was this new world of Section One. Which was not in the movie. We were also trying to create empathy for the character which was, again, a departure from the movie. I love the movie, but I never particularly felt empathy for her nor would I necessarily want to see her in my living room once a week. Especially the way they depicted her in the first half, which was interesting. We were also trying to see if music would work in the show the way we had worked it into Miami Vice. Miami Vice was kind of cops and rock 'n' roll, and we were spy and alternative. We were trying to establish that as a format. At the same time we were trying to be an entertaining episode.

I felt a little hamstrung in doing the premise of the pilot and setting it up as such. You had to do scenes from the movie. We were sure we were going to get hits from critics who would say, "Yet another remake of this movie," but we had to do it. We had to establish what the premise of the show was. In comparing it to Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita, they could say, "God, they did the kitchen scene so much better than you did." I just felt like we were stuck. We had an imperative to get the show on the way. There was a lot of talk of skipping the premise and going into it six months into her training. But the bottom line is that people who are sitting there watching TV are not necessarily the people who go to foreign films. I think it was successful in that way. In terms of setting up the source music, I think we overdid it in that episode. There was too much music and not enough of our own score. As the show went on, we really became careful as to when we would drop music in. I feel the show is successful in setting up what it had to. It wasn't my favorite episode, and I think it was because of all the extraneous things we had to accomplish. There was a scene we cut out of the pilot which was that Michael was doing a very heavy emotional scene with Madeline. We learned a lot about what worked and what didn't work.

The first five or six episodes were a lot rougher and a little more rock and roll, and I don't mean it literally rock and roll. They were a little more down and dirty. We got a little more elegant toward episodes eight or nine and it had to do with less music, a little less mission oriented and a little more character oriented. The look got a little bigger.

Overall, the pilot was a success.

What was amazing was the way the cast really nailed their roles. In fact, they sort of set the tone of what we started to write. At the beginning, Roy was so terse, so quiet and so understated, that we thought it was going to be problematic, until we started to love it after a couple of episodes and started writing toward it. We kept getting complaints like, "Animate him more; let him emote; let him talk louder." We thought it was working, but when enough people complain, you start to wonder if you're doing it right. But then, suddenly, the response started zooming up for [Nikita's and Michael's] relationship and the ratings followed suit. We realized that our instincts were pretty right and the actors' instincts were right. The emotions are a line we walk on many shows, and a lot of the pregnant pauses, meaningful looks and trading of glances could get really tiresome really quickly if you don't have other stuff going on. One of the things we did in year two, was that as Nikita becomes more polished as an operative, she is less animated and there is less distance between her and the Section. But she has to continue to be the splash of color against their grayness. At the same time, she can't be the girl she was at the beginning with all this anger and frustration, because she'll seem ridiculous.

La Femme Nikita Episode Guide
Edward Gross, Retrovision # 6 (1999)