Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Series Premiere: Terra Nova – “Genesis”

“Genesis”

September 26th, 2011

Considering that I haven’t written about a single fall pilot, it might seem unfortunate that I’m choosing Terra Nova. It isn’t the best network pilot I’ve seen, or my favorite: I those crowns would probably go to ABC’s Pan Am, a show that I thought understood its purpose and communicated it more effectively (if not necessarily more subtly) than any other series. I’d also suggest that Terra Nova is not the worst network pilot by a sizable margin, as regardless of its many flaws it is definitely going out of its way to make a major impact (which is more than we can say for a show like Charlie’s Angels).

What draws me to Terra Nova, then, is simply that until tonight I had not seen it. Having screened so many of the pilots earlier in the summer, the sense of “instant reaction” was missing over the course of the past week, which was something that Terra Nova was able to deliver. There’s a thrill in seeing the snarky tweets piling up in Tweetdeck, or finally piecing together what critics who had seen the pilot (in multiple different iterations) have been talking about for weeks. Premiere week is all about first impressions, and the absence of real first impressions has led me to largely focus on a few tweet reviews and a lot of time following the ratings and waiting to see how second episodes fare.

However, there are a few things about Terra Nova that need to be discussed. Most broadly, and what will I guess prove the basic thesis of the post to follow, is that Terra Nova is a classic example of a series being trapped between more and less. It’s like a television magic trick at this point, in which producers have to provide more exposition and explanation in order to keep viewers from being confused, but then they need to include enough mystery that they build anticipation and excitement. As a result, both the exposition and the exclusion end up feeling forced, resulting in a pilot that bears the fingerprints of producer/network manipulation.

It’s also, honestly, not that bad if you just consider it as your run of the mill drama series; of course, that’s the last thing the show wants us to think.

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Fringe – “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

“Lysergic Acid Diethylamide”

April 15th, 2011

“I can see it in your eyes – it’s not you.”

Well, that was quite the experiment.

Part of what has made the third season of Fringe so compelling is the degree to which the other universe has been fully realized. It is a place we can journey to, a place with a heartbeat and which moves us beyond the imaginary. Olivia being trapped in that world wasn’t a problem that needed to be solved, it was a situation that begged to be explored. It was an instance of science fiction storytelling that had room to breathe, that could be revealed gradually rather than being defined immediately.

By comparison, the Inception-esque journey that Walter, Peter and William Bell’s consciousness take into Olivia’s mind is pure imaginary. While I do not want to discount the value of the imaginary, and would applaud the show for testing the boundaries of its visual storytelling with its use of animation, the fact remains that “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide” just absolutely failed to resonate for me. As the episode came to its emotional conclusion, I felt one level removed from the action, and I don’t think it was simply because of the fact that the characters in question were cel-shaded.

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The End of the Beginning: Thoughts on Caprica’s Cancellation

Brief Thoughts on Caprica’s Cancellation

October 27th, 2010

Battlestar Galactica was so novel because it merged the world of the space opera with the special effects-laden battles that we expect from blockbuster cinema. If the series was only one of these things, I think that it would have been half as popular as it was: the former kept you engaged, while the former punctuated key moments (“Exodus: Part Two” immediately comes to mind).

Caprica ultimately failed – having been canceled earlier today – because it was entirely the former. It was more soap than space, and its heavier science fiction elements were peddling complex identity politics – that Battlestar framed in terms of relationships or terrorism – at face value. In reality, this made for a decently engaging television program that deserved a larger audience, but it’s nearly impossible to recommend the series to someone. With Battlestar there was that sense of surprise, wonder over the notion of a mature, intelligent series featuring aliens and space battles – people tuned in because it seemed like a novelty, the same kind of audience which has allowed Friday Night Lights to become a cult hit as opposed to a forgotten gem. Caprica, meanwhile, is what it is: there’s no surprise, and there’s certainly no punctuation, and so the show was almost destined to fail.

It doesn’t help, of course, that SyFy is moving on with a new project that takes the other half of Battlestar and spins it off. BSG: Blood and Chrome is, as Jeremy Mongeau puts it, “demo-friendly”: it’s going to have plenty of action, deal with younger characters who may be more appealing to audiences, and its effect-heavy production elements are likely to appeal to those who found Caprica slow or “boring.” It’s unfortunate that they couldn’t have found a way to make both spinoffs work, or to build one spin-off that could appeal to both sides of Battlestar’s appeal, but this is the situation that we’ve found ourselves in.

I’ll watch Blood and Chrome out of curiousity, don’t get me wrong, but I am really uncomfortable with the message being sent here. I will not necessarily miss Caprica: some great performances, sure, but the show was uneven and I am not desperate to see how it resolves its first and only season (or even to see the remaining episodes). However, I mourn the idea of Caprica, the notion that a complex science fiction drama series can survive on cable – I don’t blame SyFy for making this decision, but I do anticipate that they will be producing nothing even close to Caprica in the future. It’s all going to be science fiction procedurals like Warehouse 13, science fiction action series like Blood and Chrome (which is the network’s answer to Spartacus), and B-Movies like Sharktopus.

SyFy was the last home for shows like this one: unless someone can convince HBO or Showtime that science fiction is an area they need to investigate, it seems as if we are at a point where smart, complex science fiction truly has no home but in our imaginations and on our DVD shelves.

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Series Premiere: Haven – “Welcome to Haven”

“Welcome to Haven”

July 9th, 2010

Haven was filmed about a half hour away from my current location in the suburbs of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and so there is a certain novelty to watching the premiere and seeing familiar locales. I worked for three summers driving around the province putting out traffic counters, and so I not only recognized Lunenburg (which doubles as Haven) but also the roads which they drive to get to the town, or the intersection where the main action seems to be located. As a result, Haven came to life for me in a way which kept me engaged – it’s too bad, though, that I’m not sure many other viewers could say the same.

The title of the pilot seems to imply that the series is coming from the perspective of the town, that there exists a fully-formed community which we are being welcomed into. However, the structure of the series is such that Haven is only what Emily Rose’s workaholic FBI Agent needs to see, and what the pilot is forced to establish to suggest that there exists a series about this town. While there are plenty of hints that there is something deeper afoot, and that this place holds a history which could hold meaning for our protagonist, there are no small moments which help define Haven and its residents, no local colour beyond archetypal newspaper men and supernaturally-motivated residents.

We are only shown what they have decided we should see – the result is a functional pilot which fails to excite me in any fashion than the sheer novelty of seeing familiar locations on my television screen, although that novelty and my appreciation for Rose will likely keep me watching for a while.

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Season Premiere: Warehouse 13 – “Time Will Tell”

“Time Will Tell”

July 6th, 2010

Warehouse 13 ended its first season on one of those cliffhangers that I generally despise – like White Collar’s mid-season finale late last year (where it seemed like Peter was the series’ big bad), the show ended on a note which implied a huge change in direction (in this case that Artie had been killed in the explosion at the Warehouse’s entrance, and that Leena was in league with MacPherson) but which in reality was entirely inconsequential. Any uncertainty you have about Artie being legitimately dead is ended within a few minutes, and any concerns about Leena are erased when she continues to appear in the main credits.

I’m fine with the fact that a sci-fi procedural isn’t going to make these sorts of huge changes, but my response to the second season was very much dependent on how they used the uncertainty surrounding the finale to its advantage. While it may be cheap storytelling in a lot of ways, Warehouse 13 has the unique ability to explain away sudden twists under the guise of expanding its catalogue of artifacts with inexplicable powers – while I thought White Collar took a few episodes to recover from the bait and switch, Warehouse 13 uses its pre-existing rules in order to leap frog over the initial uncertainty to confidently map out the season to come. “Time Will Tell” is a strong premiere, although in a different way than I had expected, giving viewers one last glimpse at the first season’s highly personal conflict between Artie and MacPherson before replacing it with a more generic, but also more inventive, narrative.

It’s a decision I think works in the show’s favour, going against the common logic of these types of procedurals by through simplification rather than complication while continuing to embrace the quirky, charming potential within the series’ premise.

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Doctor Who – “Flesh and Stone”

“Flesh and Stone”

May 1st, 2010

As I expected after last week’s extremely engaging “The Time of Angels,” philosophizing about the meaning of said episode was sort of impossible: I spent most of my review last week talking about the Weeping Angels and River Song in general (especially since I had just gone back and watched the earlier Moffat entries introducing them), but you could tell that this creepy thrill ride was not just leading to a simple resolution.

“Flesh and Stone” confirms these suspicions, delivering a continuation of last week’s action which communicates a very different sort of message. There are a lot of pretty substantial ideas at play here, and I think I’m probably a bit too new to the Doctor Who universe to grasp their meaning, but the hour managed to integrate them into the story without seeming out of place amidst the simpler pleasures (or terrors) of the Weeping Angels. The contrast between Moffat’s interest in finding fear in the ordinary and the extraordinary circumstances ends up serving the series extremely well, as despite a very forward-reaching focus “Flesh and Stone” remains incredibly engaging television, even when I don’t know what half of it means.

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Fringe – “Peter”

“Peter”

April 1st, 2010

In its promotions for the show, FOX sells Fringe based on the tagline “New Cases. Endless Possibilities.” But what’s interesting, and ultimately enormously compelling, about “Peter” is that the possibilities aren’t endless at all: we know what happened to Peter at the age of 7, and we know the key parties involved, so the show isn’t interested in endless possibilities so much as it is interested in interpreting what we already know.

There’s a challenge in this type of episode, especially for a show that has created such a strong dichotomy between its standalone episodes and its mythology-driven stories; fans may go in expecting answers to big questions, and while “Peter” offers a couple of interesting tidbits and some neat connections it is first and foremost a story about the limits of humanity as opposed to the potential of technology. It is a starkly human story, largely taking for granted its science fiction premise in favour of a fantastic depiction of a man struggling against the inevitable and risking everything to save a life that wasn’t his to save, to right a wrong that was not his fault.

In the process he changed the course of time and space, and this show became both possible and extremely compelling, but for this hour none of that mattered compared to the love shared between parents and their children. “Peter” is a stellar negotiation of Walter Bishop and his dances with the dark side of morality, and in the hands of John Noble and with some nice stylistic flourishes, it is certainly one of the show’s strongest hours, if one that they’ll never be able to duplicate again.

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Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket: Consistency and Balance in FOX’s Fringe

Moving into a Higher Genre Bracket

April 1st, 2010

There are some shows that I can honestly say I’ve given up on: I stopped watching shows like Desperate Housewives because it was clearly not going in an interesting direction, and it had long gone past the point where the strength of the performances could carry my attention. However, there are other shows that I stop watching where there isn’t that moment of decision, where I don’t consciously make some sort of decree about it. I didn’t give up on The Mentalist or Grey’s Anatomy so much as I gave up on finding the time to watch them, which is a completely different situation and one that is particularly common on Thursday nights.

And so when I stopped watching Fringe, it wasn’t some sort of judgment on the show’s standalone episodes, or any sort of disappointment with its serialized development. Rather, Thursdays are busy, and the NBC comedy block having become four-strong this year (at least in theory) has made Thursdays busier than ever. Sure, it says something that Fringe was the first show I dropped, but I don’t want to make that out to be some sort of judgment when it wasn’t one.

I’ve spend the past few days catching up on Fringe’s second season, which I dropped after the second episode, and it’s been quite an illuminating experience. When you step away from a show like Fringe for so long, and end up watching it in this sort of condensed fashion, you see a lot of things that you might not have seen before: your perception, in other words, becomes more important (or at least more noteworthy) than reality, fitting considering the role that played in the episodes I had a chance to watch this week.

While some may argue that Fringe is “inconsistent,” I would argue that it is our perception which varies as opposed to the show itself: depending on where we place our expectations, Fringe is either a compelling procedural with a (relatively) complex serialized mythology or a blasé procedural with intermittent signs of serialized intrigue. I don’t think either of these perspectives are wrong, or unfair to the show, but I would argue that it has been pretty consistent in its ambitions in its second season.

And while I don’t necessarily perceive the show as one of television’s finest, I had a lot of “fun” catching up on the show…in fact, I had more fun than I had expected.

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Spring Premiere: V – “Welcome to the War”

“Welcome to the War”

March 30th, 2010

I was tweeting earlier this week, in response to some questions from Chris Becker about why we start or stop watching shows, as it relates to what I’d call “Replacement Theory.” For ABC, they are desperately searching for a show to replace their hit Lost, which is still pulling top notch demo numbers that any network would kill for. And so next year, when Lost will be over and ABC won’t have that viewership, they’re looking for a replacement show, something that will pick up those viewers and keep the momentum going.

However, with FlashForward having bottomed out on Thursday nights, V is the last great hope and ABC knows it: they’re airing it after Lost, they heavily promoted its return (including during nearly every second of tonight’s episode of Lost), and they’re doing everything in their power to sell this show as the future of science fiction at ABC. But, for every advantage there is a disadvantage: no show has ever done well after Lost, that heavy promotion pissed off many Lost viewers angry that it was obscuring the screen, and the network has failed to launch a single science fiction series other than Lost successfully, proving that perhaps science fiction doesn’t actually have a place at the network.

Or perhaps the problem is just that “Replacement Theory” requires a certain degree of separation: V might pale in comparison to Lost now, but perhaps judged on its own merits the show could prove a refuge to fans in the post-Lost era. “Welcome to the War” is unable to live down the problems which plagued the series in its opening four episodes, but Scott Rosenbaum does an admirable job of reminding us that this premise is actually compelling and that there is the potential for its characters to become more interesting as time goes on.

We’re just not quite there yet.

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Battlestar Baggage: Why SyFy’s Caprica Deserves to be Judged On its Own Merits

Battlestar Baggage: SyFy’s Caprica

February 23rd, 2010

Early on in a show’s run, there is always room for improvement. Every show will take time to find its feet, and whether it’s a rough pilot or a case of pilot repetition or a character that feels underdeveloped, all freshman series will have points of contention.

This doesn’t mean that, from a critical perspective, we forgive the show these problems, but it also means that we don’t rake a series over the coals for them. The critic’s job becomes almost like a meteorologist’s, analyzing the storm patterns (the cast, the plot’s general direction, the world-building, etc.) that could eventually develop into a great series or fizzle out quickly. It’s still very much a personal analysis of the situation: Starz’ Spartacus: Blood and Sand was written off by many critics (myself included) as something which would never evolve into anything worthwhile, but I’m hearing from a lot of fans that the show (so long as you lowered your expectations based on the quality of the pilot) is surprising them, so this (like meteorology) is not a precise science in the least.

It’s not often that I’ll outright question negative responses to particular series I enjoy, but I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t get the tepid response to SyFy’s Caprica. Judged as a new series, Caprica has overcome a weak pilot with a series of episodes that demonstrate a clear sense of the world being depicted, offer a complicated moral tightrope for the characters to walk, and take their time in order to let the show’s fantastic sense of atmosphere sink in rather than be thrown in our faces. While it is not perfect in any way, it is subtle when it needs to be subtle, and doesn’t allow its more large-scale developments to deliver only large-scale consequences, making significant progress from its pilot even while taking the time to ruminate on key themes and ideas.

In short, it’s in pretty fantastic shape for a new series, so I really wish that everyone would start judging it as one.

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