Archive for the ‘ Science Fiction ’ Category

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.

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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.

Dark Matter: Seasons 1-3

I’m in a bit of a TV funk at the moment (well, an all-round funk really but let’s keep on subject) and all I’m really in the mood for is easy to watch stuff. I don’t really want to be overly challenged, or have it pointed out how awful the world can be. Friends recommended Dark Matter to me on those criteria and it did a pretty good job of filling the need.

What you don’t have here is anything revelatory. It’s not science fiction that’s pushing boundaries at all, it takes every single trope and basic idea ever seen in Star Trek or Stargate and applies them without a huge amount of creativity. And to be honest, often without a huge amount of talent or quality either. It’s resoundingly second rate in budget, set, cast and innovation. It’s also notably lacking in visual style beyond “how can we redecorate this warehouse this week?”.

So, how come I watched all three seasons (39 episodes) in just a couple of weeks? Well it has two things going for it, the first is a simple and easy trick which is that the last 2 minutes of each episode form a teaser for the next episode. So every episode has a cliffhanger and sucks you into the next. Cheap, but effective.

The second reason is that it always manages to do just enough to keep you engaged, getting itself microscopically across the boundary where any lower and you’d give up on it. The ideas it plays with are interesting enough, and could have been very interesting if they’d been better developed. The cast mostly lacks in experience and depth, but The Android and Three manage to standout and develop interesting and complex characters beyond what the script is offering them. And every now and then there’s a flash of real charm or the beginnings of a great little idea that sucks you in again before gradually decaying away.

This series worked for me because I went in with low expectations and low requirements. It’s a shame because with a couple of bigger actors to headline it, a bigger budget to play with and a bit more polish to the script it could have been a real gem.

Altered Carbon

I didn’t know anything about Altered Carbon going in, nothing about the characters, the story or the setting, nothing beyond what was being shown in the very expensive looking trailers – i.e. mostly that it looked expensive and a bit like Bladerunner. After watching all ten episodes in just a few days, I’m not sure about the characters or the story, the setting was fascinating and it definitely looked like Bladerunner.

The universe of the story is a tremendously rich one, and the series introduces the audience to it very elegantly. The exposition is relatively limited and there were times I was on the very edge of not knowing what was going on; but either through incredible design, or lucky accident I always stayed just the right side of lost. The central character is in the odd situation of knowing all the foundations of the society, but being a couple of hundred years out of date, so there’s a good excuse for some exposition, while still plenty left to the audience to work out. I’m often frustrated by this kind of thing, so I’m very happy to award praise when it’s done this well.

The story and characters I’m not so sure about. I was engrossed in it as it went ,following the twists and turns, but as threads start resolving and mysteries are explained, I didn’t quite feel settled. Even as episodes were still playing, I had more questions than were being answered about whether motivations were really solid, characters would really act that way, and emotional responses were really appropriate. I wasn’t screaming at the TV in frustration or anything, it was 80% good enough, but the 20% niggled.

The characters are also a bit spotty. There are a lot of good characters, and some borderline exceptional character moments. Detective Ortega is beautifully developed and rounded character. She manages to both be a character where her gender and race are irrelevant, but are also completely ingrained in her character. It’s a wonderfully diverse cast and the response to characters in the show is inclusive but not blind in a very aware way. At one point a woman’s mind is placed in a man’s body; and while everyone is briefly discombobulated by that, it is quickly adapted to and subtle changes of costume, makeup and body language gradually build. I was really impressed by that kind of attention. It was therefore a shame that there was some quite needless nudity in places. Some of it was reasonable for the plot (and reasonably gender balanced) but there was slightly too much leering at women in showers.

I’m not sure their decisions and attitudes of the characters were always consistent and logical. Some of that is about the context they live in and the range of social strata. With the technology available to the wealthiest of characters they seem closer to gods than humans (and see how that worked out for the Greek/Roman gods). For everyone else though the changes from our own lives aren’t so epic, yet they are more than aware of the ‘gods’ living just out of reach. So there’s a huge range of personal contexts to keep track of. I’m almost tempted to watch the series again, because it’s possible that the things that I thought of as inconsistent may actually be a more rich response to the varied contexts. However I’m more inclined to believe that certain jumps and stretches were made to make the story fit regardless of what characters would reasonably do.

I often divide series between those that are good and those that are enjoyable, it’s rare to get something that excels in both areas and I think Altered Carbon would probably get an A- for enjoyability and a B for goodness. Both still pretty good grades, but I think it’s more successful if you approach it as a show to look at the pretty design work and enjoy the detective story. That means that you’ll then be pleasantly surprised at just how good it is as well.

Iron Fist: Season 1

I wasn’t going to bother watching this entry into the Netflix Defenders franchise. Nothing about the concept appealed to me – kung fu movies leave me utterly bored at the action and chuckling at the cheesily delivered philosophy. But I decided to at least watch the pilot so I’d been introduced to the character before moving on to The Defenders. No one is more surprised than me that I made it through all 13 episodes in just two days.

I will say that I think this says more about me than it does the series. I had very little enthusiasm this weekend for doing anything more challenging than slumping on the sofa and doing a jigsaw and it was more by luck than planning that the first thing I picked to watch was Iron Fist and I was just too lazy to stop Netflix auto-playing the next episode.

The show isn’t anything special in the slightest. It has all the things about kung fu movies that I don’t like. There are lots of action sequences, which I’m sure took a lot of skill and talent to do, but almost always left me reaching for my phone to play with, or focusing on a particularly boring bit of sky in the jigsaw. I glazed over an equal amount whenever a character started talking about Chi and K’un L’un, The Hand, and the mystical destiny of whatever. Maybe I’m being incredibly disrespectful, but it just sounded silly. I did the same thing with any of the inhumans philosophy on Agents of SHIELD and a huge amount of Doctor Strange. Once you’ve taken all that out, you’re left with a fairly run of the mill story, missing heir comes back, tries to reclaim his father’s business and runs into scheming former friends/relations and an overly convoluted investigation into what the mystical Hand are doing in New York.

The more I write, the more I’m not sure why I watched the whole thing. Finn Jones is likeable enough as Danny Rand, but I’m not sure the character makes any sense. He’s sometimes completely at home in New York (where did he learn to drive a sports car in K’un L’un?) and other times completely out of touch with the reality of running a business or understanding people. Similarly his temper and zen flip flop depending on what the mood of the episode needs rather than necessarily with any relation to the circumstances he’s in. Other characters are pretty one dimensional until they too flip flop because everything needs to be dragged out to 13 episodes so it should appear that the bad guy has a heart after all, or the childhood friend may be a bit of a bitch. The plot relied on far too many cases of characters not being what they seemed so that after a while I just became immune to it all.

This is definitely the weakest of the series in the franchise I’ve seen. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage were both much more carefully built series, both made me actually care about the characters and challenged me to think about the issues. Iron Fist was just pure background noise. Still, I did finish my jigsaw.

Orphan Black: Season 5

I’ve written a lot of superlatives about Orphan Black over the years and it’s been one of the first things I mention whenever asked for recommendations of what to watch. Now that it’s finally (belatedly) found a home on Netflix, that recommendation is easier than ever. My only concern with the show was whether it could stick the landing or not. While the final season is far from the series’ best, and a way off a 10/10, it’s certainly a solid 8 and certainly enough to keep the show right up there in the medals.

I actually went back and re-watched the series from the start in preparation for the final season. I was trying to time it so that I would be able to watch straight through without having to wait for a weekly episode release. I got it wrong because I was completely unable to stop watching and got through all four season in about 10 days. That meant that I had to wait for each new episode like some kind of historical relic and that did hurt the pacing a bit, so I heartily advise putting aside a bunch of time to binge watch through it.

Part of the reason I wanted to re-watch was because I’d lost track of the story the twists and turns of the various plots, missions, conspiracies and… frankly what any of the ‘bad guys’ were actually trying to accomplish. To be honest I’m not sure that a second watch really helped much and I was a bit vague about things when season 5 started and by the end of the season I’d lost a lot of the strands altogether.

That should be a bad sign, possibly even a deal breaker. But the reason to watch Orphan Black isn’t the stories; it’s the characters. The final season has some wonderful character moments that build beautifully from all that has gone before. The problem I had with the season was that it was made up of moments, rather than sustained satisfaction. I don’t understand why some characters were sent away for multiple episodes – Helena, Felix and Alison were all completely absent for several episodes and they were missed PAINFULLY. Each got their big moment eventually, but I missed their presence in the background and the smaller moments of casual character and relationship development.

The production values of the show remain outstanding, there are more locations I think than ever and they all feel so deeply real. Of course the performances are all that we’ve come to expect. Tatiana Maslany’s performance still boggles me, I completely forget that it’s the same actress; Cosima, Alison, Helena and Sarah (not to mention all the other passing clones) are such distinct characters I have to remind myself it’s the same actress. The flawless editing that brings them together on screen is a phenomena. The supporting characters who surround the sisters help ground them enormously, having different relationships with each of them but embracing everyone as family.

Season 5 is not the best of the series and there were times early on that I was incredibly frustrated at the writers’ choices. But it rallied when it brought all its chickens home to roost and the last few episodes were perfect. I can understand that some might criticise that it was all wrapped up a bit too neatly in the end, and from a critical point of view I can sympathise with that. But from an emotional point of view, the ending was all I’d hoped for. I will miss this series and I’m sure it’s one I’ll come back to again and again in the future.

The Handmaid’s Tale: Season 1

I am a big fan of the book. I know a lot of people studied it at school and that may have spoiled it for them in some ways, but I didn’t read it until my late twenties and I think I could understand and appreciate it a lot better. Most importantly to me it was a good story, with an intricate universe, well developed characters, and a carefully paced plot. It doesn’t matter how strong your message is if it’s not a book that I want to keep picking up. I never felt like I was being overwhelmed with the message at the heart of the book, I wasn’t being lectured at or told off, just calmly shown a way that things can go which was terrifyingly believable.

In praising the book, I praise the TV series, because it has captured everything that I thought great about the book and made the most of all the opportunities that television offers. I can’t remember enough details from the book to know if the story is exactly recreated, but it gets all the big things right – the message and the feel. It’s certainly not an easy show to watch, but I still enjoyed it – there’s enough character and humour in it to make it something that you want to watch, not just something you should watch.

What the medium of television adds is the visual. I’m not someone who reads a book deliberately visualizing what I’m reading, I couldn’t describe what I think people look like or what the light is like, even when the book describes that explicitly I tend to skim it or forget it. The Handmaid’s Tale is beautiful to watch though, the style of the world so complex but simple – the future and the past, austere but luxurious. The framing and the grand spectacles could feel contrived for the sake of an eye catching shot, but they fit right in with the controlled nature of Gilead.

The other visual that you get of course is the body language and facial expressions of the actors, and so much is said without words by this incredible ensemble. Elisabeth Moss (who will forever be President Bartlett’s daughter to me) is phenomenal. Aided by an occasionally unnecessary (but often laugh out loud funny) voice over, there is never a moment of doubt as to how she’s trying to pretend to the world around her and what she’s really feeling. But the rest of the cast is also fabulously nuanced, Joseph Fiennes as Fred is charmingly creepy (or creepily charming) but it’s Yvonne Strahovski as Serena that I actually actually found the most interesting character – trapped yet in control, powerless yet proud. As with any great film making, it’s often the moments and scenes without words that have the most effect and that’s down to everyone involved – actors, directors, lighting, music and sound; some of those moments have remained with me for a long time (the circle of handmaids with stones, the march on the bridge, Ofglen’s face, the letters, the walk in the last episode).

The level of sexual and emotional violence makes it a very hard watch. The horror of the situations are not often clearly spoken aloud and that could be taken as an excuse to ‘not see’ what is really happening – as of course many of the characters are choosing. When it is spoken, and people finally use the word rape, it is devastatingly powerful, but there are other, more intimate and emotional tortures that are not verbally acknowledged, words that even this programme shies away from which nags in the back of my brain somewhat. It’s a show that cries out to be discussed, but at the same time you don’t want to talk about it because it’s so awful. This hits on all levels – the emotional connection to the individual characters, the depressing impact on the society and the how believable it is that small deviations from our own world (increasingly small sometimes) could credibly lead to their world.

There are miss-steps in the series. The pacing doesn’t always work, sometimes spending too long in flashbacks, or too long with other characters. It feels a little like Walking Dead sometimes when you spend too long away from one group of characters and find yourself disconnected from everything. However overall, The Handmaid’s Tale is stunning. Both in the sense that it’s a beautiful piece of film making craft; and the sense that the emotional punch leaves you stunned. One of the best television series I have seen in years.

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