Tag: television (page 1 of 5)

A Return To Television

Courtesy Fox
“A ten percent levy on BAKED GOODS??”

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, particularly Hulu and Netflix, I’ve been able to start getting some television back in my life. I was already using Hulu for Supernatural and Law & Order: SVU, but I’ve started using it to watch newer shows, as well.

Agents of SHIELD

The first new show I broke into was the one I was looking forward to the most. Clark Gregg the actor and Phil Coulson the character are both draws to the show, as well as its promised tie-ins with the cinematic arm of the Marvel Universe. Joss Whedon got his start with television, and knowing his penchant for balanced group dynamics and tightly-plotted stories. All of these things had me set to tune in week to week from the outset.

Unfortunately, it’s also the one that’s taken the most time to get up and running. I like the characters and the premise, but the pacing and quality of stories has been somewhat inconsistent during the first season. It’s taken a couple episodes for the actors to get comfortable with their characters. It’s got plenty of potential and it’s improving with every episode, so I’m still on board.

Sleepy Hollow

This is not the Disney version of the classic tale of the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane. Nor is it anything like Tim Burton’s sumptuous adaptation. This time around, Ichabod Crane is a soldier fighting in America’s war against the British. He meets a particularly nasty Hessian mercenary on the battlefield, and the two come to blows. The Hessian deals a mortal wound to Ichabod, who responds by cutting off the hired gun’s head. Both of them fall, and that would be the end of it… except 250 years later, the Hessian rises from the dead, as does Ichabod. He’s picked up by the local police, and meets Lieutenant Abbie Mills, who’s lost her mentor to a redcoat on horseback minus his head. The question is, can she trust this seemingly insane Englishman who claims to have been a soldier under George Washington?

I’ve heard the premise of this show called ‘a bit silly’. And it is. The whole thing is a bit silly. But it’s no sillier than your standard set-up for an episode of Supernatural, and I watch the hell out of that show. What Sleepy Hollow has going for it is smart writing, deliciously old-school production values with practical effects and some wicked monster designs, and an excellent cast. I also like that Tom Mison, who plays the intelligent and determined but somewhat hapless Ichabod, is the only white male in the hero cast. Nicole Beharie and Orlando Jones are both phenomenal, portraying strong, smart, and interesting characters that don’t get relegated to spouting colloquialisms or falling into stereotypes. The pilot hits the ground running and it’s kept up a good pace since then. It’s definitely a new favorite.

Almost Human

The year is 2048. Technology has kind of exploded, and lead to all sorts of open and black market nastiness. To keep up, police have started using military-grade androids to supplement their human detectives. During a raid, Detective John Kennex is seriously injured, and spends a couple years in a coma, waking up to find his leg has been replaced with an advanced prosthesis. He doesn’t acclimate to work too well after that, and he keeps going through synthetic partners. Rudy, the lab technician and local android guru, pairs Kennex up with a DRN model, instead of the usual MX one. While MX models are designed to be purely logical and coldly calculating, ‘Dorian’ was created to be as close to human as possible, with all of the emotional unpredictability that entails. Everybody’s just crossing their fingers that Kennex doesn’t push this one into traffic.

From the start, the show gave me a very pleasant Blade Runner/Deus Ex vibe. I’m a fan of Karl Urban in most of his roles, and casting him as a law enforcement officer keeps reminding me of how good he is as Judge Dredd. Pairing him with Michael Ealy’s Dorian works extremely well. Dorian reminds me a bit of Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, but where Data was perplexed by the concept of emotions, Dorian struggles to deal with his while making observations on Kennex’s condition and behavior. The two have fantastic chemistry and, like Sleepy Hollow, the show has hit the ground running. The concepts and visuals of the near future have almost an ‘uncanny valley’ feel to them, as it feels like our world and yet is totally different. It’s well-realized, well-shot, and I’m eager to see more of it.

What TV have you been tuning into lately? Will you check out these shows?

Characters vs. Icons

Courtesy Marvel Studios

There’s another Marvel movie due out before the end of the summer. I’m cautiously optimistic about The Wolverine. Many (some might say all) of Logan’s most interesting stories come from his time in Japan, a time that has not happened in the films until now. I can understand why some might be trepidatious given the abyssmal misfire that was X-Men: Origins – Wolverine. But I keep coming back to Marvel’s track record, and the overall good quality of their recent films, and the more I see of the new film, the more I think they’re keeping with the mentality of better titles such as The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The key, I think, is the focus on characters, rather than events.

I’ve said in the past that Marvel’s heroes are characters, while DC’s heroes are icons. Other examples of the difference exist, but this one comes to mind most easily. Icons are mythological creatures, as much as gorgons and pegasi and kraken are, fulfilling their roles in epic tales and illustrating ideals to whatever audience happens to be handy. The tradition of using such constructs as a vehicle to move a story from beginning to middle to end is ancient and, for the most part, respectable, even if it is a bit simplistic at times.

It’s entirely possible to make your tale with icons. I’ve watched the Justice League animated series in both of its incarnations, and they were enjoyable, for the most part. But even as I watched Batman being generally awesome, Superman act upstanding and unstoppable, and applauded the valiant efforts to characterize and flesh out so-called second stringers like Hawkgirl and Green Arrow, I was bothered in that I was never really surprised by any character turns or plot points. It always felt like the characters were reacting to the plots involved and moving forward at the pace of the storyline rather than taking much time to be their own people. While a good story can still be told in this way, I find a lot more investment, enjoyment, and fulfillment comes from a tale that studies its characters rather than its outline.

Courtesy the WB. Or CW. I don't even know.

Take the television show Supernatural. The original plan was to create a “monster of the week” series involving all sorts of creatures born from folklore, myth, legend, and nightmares. But the creators quickly realized they had a much better resource for storytelling in the characters of Sam and Dean Winchester. Between the natural chemistry and charisma of the leads, the depth of the issues in the characters’ psyches and histories, and their connections to the world in which they operate, many more interesting developments have occurred over the course of eight seasons that might have been possible with the otherwise simplistic original intent of the series. Creatures like ghosts, vampires, and demons are, after all, iconic. Breaking them free of their iconic or stereotypical natures can be difficult. Even so, I doubt that the show would still be going if it focused on the iconic creatures and not the interesting, flawed, fascinating, hysterical, and very human characters at the center of it.

Do you prefer characters, or icons? Can a story function well with both? What examples do you reach for of either? Or both?

Who Review: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Okay, this one may be a bit odd. It happens on account of me running out of time to fit in a selection from Netflix or finish any of the games I have going on at the moment. However, a few weeks ago I made the decision to check out some of the earlier incarnations of Doctor Who. I grew up with Tom Baker as my Doctor, but never really looked that hard at the others. I definitely have an interest in seeing more of Sylvester McCoy (because Radagast!) and more of Jon Pertwee’s run, but perhaps the most challenging Doctor to see in action is the 2nd, Patrick Troughton. Many of his stories are incomplete or missing. But one is complete, and available on the Internet to watch, and that’s “Tomb of the Cybermen.”

Courtesy BBC

In this black and white adventure, the Doctor and his companions, Jamie and Victoria, arrive on the planet Telos and come across a human expedition trying to excavate one of the last known locations of the Cybermen, who apparently had died out many years before. They do find the tomb, but it’s covered in traps and pitfalls. Thankfully, the Doctor is willing to help the humans overcome these obstacles, seemingly out of curiosity but also dreading what they will find. His fears are not unfounded; deep within the structure, the Cybermen are anything but dead. They slumber, and at least one of the humans along for this ride is probably going to get it in their head that waking up the slumbering vestiges of an utterly single-minded precursor to Star Trek’s Borg is a great idea.

“Tomb of the Cybermen” was filmed back in 1967, so to call some aspects of the production “kitsch” would be stating the obvious. More than a couple of the extras go for a bit of camp or bombast in their delivery, and the captain of the rocket ultimately fails in delivering his lines with a passable American accent. The sets feel more like stage pieces than anything, but I have to appreciate the use of practical effects like the electrocution trap on the front door of the tomb and the various “ray guns” used during the production. It feels delightfully retro to watch an earnest sci-fi production of 60s British television in the 21st century, which is a horrifically hipster way of saying I didn’t mind the kitsch.

Courtesy BBC
Also, the Cybermats are adorable. I just can’t find them menacing. Look at it!

There’s also the fact that the Cybermen, in this form, are creepy as hell. Restrained by time and budget, these Cybermen do not have the glistening, full metal bodies of the Cybus models seen in modern Doctor Who, nor even the battle-ready chassis seen in later stories like “Earthshock” or “The Invasion.” One could even extrapolate that, to conserve resources, outer armor and implants were stripped from these slumbering Cybermen before they were put into hibernation. Metal bits are secured to men appearing to be covered in gauze, and while at first this might seem comical, one realizes that our intrepid Time Lord and a handful of squishy humans are quickly surrounded by individuals each ten times the equal of several of the intruders put together. And when the Cyber Controller speaks, you see his jaw move, once, to open his mouth, from which comes a very effective monotone that makes him sound like a diabolical Stephen Hawking. Put it all together, and you have villains that, 40 years or more after the fact, still work.

To top it all off, we have the Second Doctor. I find it very difficult to believe that people wouldn’t find him endearing or at least hilarious. A counterpoint to the First Doctor’s somewhat cranky persona of an old professor of physics, the Second Doctor seems more carefree and flippant, but his odd affectations and penchant for playing the recorder (which sadly does not appear in this story) conceal a master of manipulation and the same staggering intellect Who fans expect. He plays with expectations, verbally lures foes into revealing their true natures, is unafraid to admonish other so-called geniuses, and all but laughs in the face of danger. What more could you ask from the Doctor?

Courtesy BBC
Not pictured: Jamie and his amazing kilt

“Tomb of the Cybermen” may not be the best Doctor Who tale I’ve ever seen – that prize still goes to “Genesis of the Daleks” from the classic run and “Blink” from the new run – but it’s still good. While its effects and set dressings have not exactly aged well, its story and characters have, and I found myself wanting to spend more time with the Doctor, his Scottish friend Jamie, and what feels like a more innocent and experimental time for sci-fi storytelling. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, many of his tales remain lost or incomplete. However, I would like to start building up a collection of classic Who tales, because if you want to understand why this character remains so pertinent and endearing despite long hiatuses and changing actors, you need to know Who he is.

Trek Through Trek: The Next Generation

Trek

It’s coming up on two years since I last wrote in-depth about a Star Trek series. And it was even longer between our last discussion, on The Animated Series, and the return of Star Trek in the late 80s. I was 8 when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, and sitting down with my parents to see the 24th century come to life pretty much blew my fool mind. Looking back, there’s still a lot to love about the show, but it had more than its share of growing pains.

Courtesy Memory Alpha

The starship was still named Enterprise, but this vessel and crew were a far cry from the rickety Wagon Train to the Stars we saw back in the 60s. No, this was a more advanced time, when mankind went to space in floating shopping malls. But don’t use that word, because the United Federation of Planets (or Earth at least) has evolved past the necessity for things like money and material goods! When you can replicate or reproduce via holodeck just about anything you’d want, I guess money sort of becomes obsolete. Not that it stops other races from using money, like the Ferengi.

We can’t talk about antagonists without protagonists, though, so let’s start with the man in charge. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is not a two-fisted adventurer like Kirk. He’s a diplomat, strategist and history nut charged with exploring the edges of the galaxy on one of the best ships in Starfleet. Most of the adventuring, lady-bedding and quipping is done by first officer Will Riker, from whom we learned the power of growing the beard. Once he let that chin curtain set in around season 2, the show began to improve.

Good thing, too, because for a while things floundered a bit. It took the show a few years to figure out what to do with Worf, and even longer to finally write Wesley Crusher off of the show. Creative differences required them to replace the chief medical officer in season 2, which caused such an outcry that they all but begged Wesley’s mom to come back. And the ship’s counselor had to find things to do during episodes outside of pouting her lips and moaning about how much pain the crew was in. Seriously, go back and watch a few season 1 episodes. You’ll either laugh or cry.

Courtesy Memory Alpha

Season 1 also floundered a bit with the character of Q. Introduced in the pilot, the writers seemed to have difficulty deciding if he would be a distant, authoritarian judge with omnipotent powers, or a trickster spirit in the vein of Coyote, Loki or Mister Mxyzptlk. It would be a few seasons before he settled into something of an odd mix, but developing a relationship with Picard I’ve discussed at length previously.

While the new series did bring over the old foes of the Klingons and the Romulans, the Klingons were now allied with the Federation (as evidenced by Worf being on the bridge) and the Romulans kept to the shadows. We were, instead, introduced to the Ferengi, who thankfully were evolved beyond base, venial savagery quickly into profiteering, scheming chaotic neutral scavenger-merchants; the Cardassians, an authoritarian but charismatic people who clash with the Federation ideals of fair justice and individual freedom; and the Borg, a cybernetic hive-mind race bent on the assimilation of all technology they do not already possess.

While the Ferengi and the Cardassians don’t really come into their own in Next Generation, the groundwork is laid for later development. And on its own, Next Generation is nothing to sneeze at. The crew does have good chemistry and their performances and staying power allowed them to rise to the realm of Kirk and Spock, overcoming the walls of genre fiction to be recognized by the mainstream. It delivers powerful stories within its own universe (“Best of Both Worlds, Part I & II”, “Cause & Effect”), and plays well on themes of individuality (“I, Borg”), willpower (“Chain of Command, Part II”), the precious nature of the moments of our lives (“Tapestry”) and unique ways to explore the human condition (“The Inner Light.”).

The best of the series, I feel, emerged when it shook off the trappings of the old series and attempts at overt preaching. “The Naked Now” was a shameless callback to a weaker Original Series episode, “The Neutral Zone” had a misfired treatise on materialism competing with some more interesting things and episodes like “Justice” and “Code of Honor” were full of unfortunate implications as well as showing some of the seams in the budget of the show. Some of these things faded more quickly than others, and towards the end of the series the spectre of technobabble began to creep into the dialog of these characters we came to know and love over seven seasons.

Courtesy Memory Alpha

As I mentioned, Next Generation rose to similar heights to the original Star Trek series in the eyes of the general public. Most folks who know who Kirk and Spock are also know about Picard and Data. The success of the series paved the way for more feature films and several new series. One of which I’m in the process of watching again as I write this. And by “watching”, I mean “watching my mailbox and hoping the next disc doesn’t get lost the way those Magic cards did. CURSE YOU USPS!”

I mean. Er. “Make it so.” Or something.

Powers Cosmic

Courtesy Marvel Comics

I grew up on the old Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica TV series, at least until Star Trek: the Next Generation started. There’s a lot of good science fiction out there to be read, and while I definitely enjoy and appreciate harder sci-fi, from Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye to Moon, the more sweeping and somewhat fantastical epics always find that soft spot in my heart, the place where I’m still twelve years old and believe that I can accomplish anything. Which probably explains some of my more erratic behavior.

Take Marvel Comics’ Annihilation, for example. A series of story arcs collected into graphic novels and consumed by Yours Truly, Annihilation is a war in space involving just about every character from the Marvel Universe outside of Earth (which was undergoing the Civil War at the time). Old characters got modern revamps, hated enemies forged alliances of convenience, Thanos was a canny and manipulative bastard and “normal” folks got some of the best lines. There’s plenty of action and great alien locations, making a Halo campaign look like a day at a firing range in comparison. There’s a sequel (Annihilation:Conquest) and a follow-up series, Guardians of the Galaxy, that had my attention for that short while I was able to afford monthly comic books. I’ll always have Annihilation, though.

Recently my wife and I finished watching the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica series. It was her first time watching it, and the first time I’d watched that many episodes back to back. In retrospect, RDM modernizing the “Wagon Train to the Stars” storyline and deepening the mythologies at play was a very smart decision, as it deepened the characters and made the story more gripping. Even the much-maligned series finale plays much better by the light of what goes before it, without weeks of fanboy speculation/rage clouding the issue. However, in watching it again I noticed there were some interesting similarities between it and Annihilation that makes them and their ilk so damn appealing to me.

I’m a sucker for good characterization, and these stories tend to provide a heaping amount of characters. BSG in particular involved quite a few ascended extras. Marvel went back to the barrel and pulled out a lot of semi-forgotten cosmic characters, from Drax the Destroyer to Quasar, and brought them front and center in a variety of ways. Drax goes from a hulking green-skinned joke of a character to something resembling Riddick. It was like seeing Starbuck change from the ladykilling Dirk Benedict to the foul-mouthed insubordinate best-frakking-pilot-we’ve-got Katee Sackhoff. In both cases, the campy old version makes me smile and chuckle, while the updated version makes me smile because the character’s gone from camp to badass in the space of 5 minutes.

Doctor Who probably qualifies under this sort of science fictiony pleasure as well, but that’d be a post in and of itself.

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