Archive for the ‘ Science Fiction ’ Category

Killjoys: Season 1-4

Canada has always done an extremely solid line in excellent, character driven science fiction. My understanding is that it’s thanks to generous tax breaks and a wide variety of different landscapes in a relatively small geographical area, making it perfect for any series where the characters are travelling a lot. So X-Files, Warehouse 13 and Supernatural could tour the US while the Stargate franchise, Dark Matter and Battlestar Galactica can tour the universe. It can get a little incestuous with the same names and faces appearing in cast and crew and the same forests and mountains subbing for different cities, planets, spaceships and whatever else the imagination can summon. But they all know how to make the money go a long way – making the most of minimal set dressing, effective stunts and special effects rather than flashy but insubstantial CGI, and writers and actors who can deliver meaningful scenes in a bare corridor, or the small standing set that they use every week.

Killjoys is a very worthy entry into this great pantheon. The building blocks of the plot can be taken from any role-playing adventure – the characters fall into their assigned roles neatly (warrior princess, thief, soldier, cleric, medic, gay bartender) and head off on requisite quests and heists. But the universe behind it is half science fiction exploration of a class based society gone mad, and half like a bad trip (shared memories stored in “the green”, bodysnatcher goo and unkillable zombie like opponents) with conspiracy theories and wars being fought across the millennia. As I try to write it down, I realise that I don’t really understand the plot. It doesn’t matter though because it’s not about any of that. It’s about characters.

The three main characters (the warrior princess, the thief and the soldier) form an incredibly strong core to the series. They are beautifully written, and wonderfully acted. Killjoys could be used to teach what good character and relationship writing looks like. The thief (Johnny) and the warrior (Dutch) are bounty hunters (known as killjoys), the soldier (D’Avin) is Johny’s estranged brother, suddenly landing in the middle of their lives. The relationships between the trio, and the individual pairings are all wonderfully nuanced, but it’s the relationship between Johnny and Dutch that is my absolute favourite. They are soulmates, they are codependent, rely on each other, bicker away and call each other on their crap. But they are not in love. They freely admit they love each other, but they are family not romance. The openness and trust between the two is beautiful; while the worlds shift around them, they are bedrock.

The other thing is, the series is FUNNY. Proper laugh out loud, spit out your tea, rewind to hear it again, funny. There’s a realness to both language and delivery that has me smiling just thinking about it. It’s not elegant in terms of creativity of language or delivering complex set ups; it’s the hilarity of a perfectly timed swear word, a shared sigh, a heartfelt insult, an acknowledgement of insanity, a well timed pratfall. It’s the private jokes of family members, that are somehow feel inclusive rather than exclusive.

I love this series. I powered through it, and then went back and re-watched many of the episodes to obsessively seek out key moments and lines. Yeah, the plot goes a bit nuts and there are holes that you could drive an asteroid through should you chose to look for them, but it’s such a fun ride that I just don’t care.

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Westworld: Season 2

I allowed the whole of season 2 of Westworld to stack up so I could box set through it (yes, I’m embracing ‘to box set’ as a verb). Within about 15 seconds of starting to watch I realised that I had utterly no memory of what happened in season 1. After a bit of reading wikipedia and a couple of youtube catchup videos I settled in feeling a bit more confident that I was caught up. I wasn’t, and I pretty much never caught up during the whole of the season, having little understanding of where we’d been, where we were going and why I was on the journey at all. The only thing I really liked about the series was the technical beauty of it. The cinematography and design of the sets and settings are absolutely stunning. I also want to call out the music which beautifully references both modern and period.

Sadly though, neither story nor characters grabbed me. I am still undecided about whether I didn’t enjoy the story because I couldn’t follow it, or whether I didn’t follow the story because I wasn’t enjoying it. Re-reading my review of season 1 I remember how the first season gradually drew me in as it revealed some clever tricks with the timelines, it even tempted me to re-watch the season to unpick how it all hung together. The second season tried to repeat the trick while everyone was watching for it, and it felt smug and confused and left me absolutely no desire to see how it worked.

Many of the characters (both host and human) felt even more one dimensional and their single minded motivations just felt contrived (even for those that weren’t programmed that way). There are only a handful of characters that felt more rounded and they were often relegated frustratingly to the background (Teddy the host, Elsie the engineer, Lee the plot writer and Ashley the security officer), they felt like people complete with mixed motivations, conflicting emotions and a sense of both bafflement and wonder. I would have liked to say Bernard is an interesting character, but he spent so much of the season confused and confusing, central to the shenanigans with timelines that made it impossible to actually follow his thread. It’s no criticism of any of the actors involved, all of whom do very fine work.

As with the first season, I’m sure a lot of the elements that I complain about, could be considered The Point of the whole thing – the lack of humanity of the humans, born vs programmed etc etc etc. But the elements of message absolutely must be entwined with the story so elegantly that you can’t see the join. The narrative needs to flow (even if it’s not told in order). This felt overly constructed, with elements put in just to pad the series out (the whole Japanese park bit), and bits fast-forwarded through because they didn’t deliver Message (there’s little sense of location and space and the timelines are so tangled I never felt grounded).

I think in some ways this is a series that’s a victim of the current success of television. I think back to something like Babylon 5 which had a giant story to tell, and it spent well over hundred episodes to tell it, giving the audience space and time to settle into the universe and each time it changed. It took its time, there were entertaining diversions and dead ends (accidental or deliberate). Westworld is trying to build, destroy and rebuild the entire universe in (from the looks of it) 30 episodes over 3 seasons. It’s just too fast and I’m afraid it’s left me behind.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 5

There are shows that I love the big stories but get a little bored in the actual watching, and then there are shows like Agents of SHIELD where I adore the little moments and am bored by the big stuff. There are few shows out there at the moment that I find charming, where I love the characters and their interactions and genuinely want to spend time with them. I would cheerfully watch these characters build IKEA furniture together. In fact a lot of the time I’d rather watch them undertake a simple task like that than watch them get bogged down in clumsy attempts to save the world.

This season had some big STUFF going on – time travel, the destruction of the world, aliens and complicated theories about the nature of time and destiny. The problem is that I’m not sure any of it actually hung together. Every time I tried to work it out, it felt like it was heading in an incoherent direction so I stopped. Maybe if I’d kept trying to work it out, I would have got through it to something that made sense, but I couldn’t be bothered. I always thought it was a shame that the series tried to do these big stories, thereby trying and failing to compete with the Marvel movies it spun off from, or the various other hero shows. I wanted it to be about the more day-to-day, the daily grind of the agents behind the heroes, tidying up their mess or dealing with the stuff it wasn’t worth calling them for. I like stories about the little people, heroes are all well and good, but the little people deserve some love too.

The writing for the characters and the performances remain superb. The dialogue isn’t quite up there with Joss Whedon’s best, even after 5 seasons it still feels a little like Whedon-lite, but it still has that underlying sparkle. Characters snip and snark, make pop culture references, and most importantly have strong senses of self and their own history. They all remember how ridiculous their lives are, how they’ve all made mistakes and all lost things. They talk like normal people, and when one of them occasionally slips into hero speak, the others aren’t afraid to call them on it. It’s laugh out loud funny, and heartbreakingly emotional.

It’s a long wait to the next season which is only set to be 13 episodes long and doesn’t start until next year. I think there’s a good chance it will be the last season as the ratings have never been very good, but I will miss these characters.

Marvel’s Runaways: Season 1

I don’t know how to write this review. I watched this series last week, I’d let them build up on my Sky box until they were all there then worked my way through the 10 episodes in a few days. I know I enjoyed watching it enough to watch 2 or 3 back to back, but a week later and I can’t really explain why, because all the things I can think to talk about are more on the complaint end of the spectrum.

Even just describing it makes it sound pretty poor. A group of privileged teenagers see their parents go into a secret basement room, don red robes and seemingly murder a girl. Some of the kids then seem to reveal super powers, there’s a scientology-esque church, a magic staff, advanced technology and a dinosaur. Yup, a dinosaur. I really can’t explain it any way that doesn’t make it sound ridiculous. Oh, and of course because it’s teenagers there’s also a complex array of relationship statuses between the teenagers which they seem more than happy to pursue while also dealing with the discovery that their parents are murderers. It’s a mess.

But, it does sort of work. You have to go with it and let it wash over you a bit, but if you engage at just the right level, it’s entertaining. It’s not going to be for everyone because if you want too much from it (ie coherence) then you’re going to be very frustrated. The young actors are pretty good, feeling like teenagers and responding appropriately to the craziness. The adults aren’t quite so well balanced, some playing it for laughs a bit more, others trying to take it seriously and failing.

A brief read of wikipedia and it seems that it’s reasonably close substantively to the comic strip and maybe this kind of chaos just feels a bit more acceptable in comic form. The series feels a bit like they’ve thrown everything together desperately hoping someone interesting will come from it. I’m not entirely sure that it succeeds, but there’s enough there to keep me watching for the 10 episodes of the first season. The season sets up for a somewhat different second season that has me intrigued enough that I’ll be back.

The Rain

The Rain is effectively a Danish, post-apocalyptic young adult novel, there was really no way I wasn’t going to watch it. It ticked all of the boxes for the type of things I gravitate towards, but then have no idea why I’m really watching it. I guess Britain and America can make any amount of shows that are fairly mediocre and yet still get audiences, why shouldn’t Denmark.

Don’t go in expecting a plot that really makes any sense. The setup is that the rain makes people get sick, one drop and you’re a foaming gibbering dead person walking. Simone and Rasmus are just children when they find themselves all alone in a bunker as the world outside disappears. 6 years later they emerge, join a passing group of other young adults and set off on a slightly incoherent quest.

The eight episodes play out pretty much as you’d expect, hitting as many tropes as they can along the way. Most of the characters get little flashbacks to show you who they were before the disaster, and there are some glimpses of interesting ideas there, but none of them go anywhere. How any of them survived any length of time is a bit of a mystery as their decision making is dubious at best and they are very easily distracted by a whole network of love triangles and secret crushes. The acting is all solid and Alba August as Simone is particularly interesting to watch doing a really good job portraying someone who is still a child, but also has to be the adult for everyone. Netflix offers an option of a dubbed version, but you lose too much of the characters and I lasted less than 5 minutes before it drove me to distraction and I reverted to subtitles.

The setting is at least something different from the usual America, and some of the scenery and even rundown city settings are really stunning, definitely making a change from the usual filming locations of warehouses in Vancouver. At eight episodes long, it’s a short sharp burst that doesn’t really set the world alight, but it is passingly entertaining. N

Star Trek: Discovery – Season 1

I’ve been percolating this review for a while, and even a couple of months after the season finished, I’m still not entirely certain whether the show is any good, and whether I enjoyed it. It’s going to be hard to review this without spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I’m a Star Trek fan of old, but I’m not blind to the fact that previous series have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not holding Discovery to any gold standards. Star Trek has always had phases of dark and powerful drama, and phases of cringe-worthy cheesiness. I’m not sure I remember any of the previous incarnations swinging quite back and forwards as widely or as quickly as Discovery does, but I could easily be miss-remembering that.

The set up for Discovery is tricky. It’s set in the television timeline (not the alternate one the new films are in) and chronologically between Enterprise and the original series. That placement is immediately tricky because they’re constrained by existing ‘history’. Except they’re not. I never really worked out how it’s supposed to fit because it seemed to me that there technologies and events that just didn’t fit into the chronology. I did try not to get distracted by things like why the magic instant-travel thing had never been mentioned, but I found it very hard, I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop the whole time.

Beyond that, the series had a few other problems too.

Star Trek is always about characters, about a crew that’s working together to make things better. That’s Roddenberry’s vision and whether it’s realistic or not, I do believe that it’s a fundamental criteria for being a Star Trek series. The crew of Discovery struggled to jell. Just as the tone of episodes swung across the spectrum of gruesome to daft, so did the characters, each of whom was playing a different tone, making it hard for them to bond. Particularly given (VAGUE SPOILER ALERT) so many of the characters ended up being deceptive or fundamentally changing over the 14 episodes. The whole “what’s going on with Lorca” thing got a old quite quick and fundamentally left the series feeling a bit rudderless. Michael’s mixture of human and vulcan felt muddled and frankly a bit of a low budget Spock. Stamets wandered all over the place thanks to the ridiculous mushrooms. Tilly was almost exclusively played for comedy (although she did it very well) and Saru was sorely under-developed. Then there was a revolving door of other characters where I was never sure if they were supposed to be important or not, having set you up for that failure in the pilot episode.

There were moments and episodes that could easily be classic Star Trek episodes (Mudd and the timeloop was absolutely outstanding), but there were also too many episodes that left me rolling my eyes and wondering what the writers were thinking (space mushrooms? Really?!).

Fundamentally I think the series moved too quickly. Jumping to the mirror universe was done too soon, we’d barely got used to this universe. Nothing ever felt settled, so no ‘change’ ever felt earned or impactful to the audience. There was a lot of good potential here, and things could improve if the second season takes it a bit more gently, although they need a strong presence to replace the captain (Hello, to Jason Isaacs). I remain almost as mystified and intrigued about where this series is going to go as I was before it came out.

Lost in Space: Season 1

There are some concepts that just sort of stick with me, and it doesn’t matter how many times they’re done I will always tune in and be interested to see what new spin has been brought to it. Lost in Space is one of those concepts, well really it’s Swiss Family Robinson at its core, just the variation of setting it in space. There’s something about that core concept of a family of capable people pretty much on their own. I don’t even mind the film version.

I watched the whole 10 episodes on Netflix over just a couple of days. That shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a sign that it was good, I also had a jigsaw I wanted to do and it seemed to rain every time I ventured out of the house. It was a step above background entertainment, but it’s certainly not going to be winning any awards.

The biggest thing to get over is that some of the core stuff of Lost in Space was kind of ignored. Firstly, they weren’t in space at all but crash landed on a planet, and then they very quickly find a lot of people. That added some interesting dynamics, but did rather change the show. I missed the focus of just the Robinson family, Dr Smith and Major West. The larger cast just felt like it crowded things and gave too many options.

What is better handled is making the Robinson family a lot richer. They’re not the perfect family of the 60s, or even the slightly-flawed-but-not-really family of the film. There’s a lot more backstory and complexity to the relationships which makes each character stronger, more independent and more interesting. Those characters are delivered by some good casting, and the talent of the younger actors impressed me, particularly their range and ability to deliver well timed comedy alongside some subtler drama.

It’s on the cheesier end of the spectrum, for a more family audience. There are some dark things going on, but they’re skimmed over very quickly. Solutions to problems often rely on magical science and extremely timely coincidences that get a little frustrating. But the pacing of episodes and the season over all is pretty solid, certainly enough to keep me watching back to back long enough for my Netflix app to check that I was still actually alive.

It’s no great revelation of a show, but it’s good enough, and that will do quite nicely.

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