Archive for the ‘ Science Fiction ’ Category

Luke Cage: Season 1

One of the strengths of the Marvel Universe is that each sub-franchise, be it film or TV, has entirely its own style. Even when characters cross between things (as Luke Cage does from Jessica Jones) they somehow manage to bring their own tone. It means you can like one thing but not another, or you can like them for very different reasons. You could probably put together a pretty complete map of genres just within the Marvel Universe which is impressive really.

As its central theme, Jessica Jones was about individual control – what it does to the people involved when one person takes someone else’s control away. Luke Cage is still about individuals, but individuals as the components of a community – how each person contributes towards that community, and how individual actions impact that community. The community of Harlem is an important character, but one that has no voice of its own for much of the series. Everyone thinks they know what ‘the community’ needs and wants and the best way to realise that vision; they seek to control it and mould it to their vision, not allow it to evolve and change organically. Luke Cage is almost the apathetic hero, he isn’t really part of the community, he’s just hiding within it and is brought into the struggles against his will.

You could talk about all of this without really talking about superpowers. As with most superhero stuff, it’s not about the superpowers themselves, it about what it lets people do. For Luke Cage, the fact that he is nearly invulnerable means that he can take actions that others couldn’t. If you take away the fear of death, what does that mean? As with Superman of course, it means that your weakness is now other people, the people you care about, so those relationships become even more powerful. And the ‘victims’ you need to protect are those that have less power than you. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a cliché, but it’s also true.

The characters and casting is (mostly) all you’d expect from the Marvel universe, with a lot of familiar names and faces playing to their strengths. All the characters are rich and interesting, imbued with their own history and credible reasons for their actions. There’s an unfortunate weak link in the second half with Claire Temple’s character who is always in the right place, at the right time, and magically able to solve all problems which is really unfortunate as the character (nothing to do with the performance) dragged the series down rather.

I must admit, in writing this review I’ve put more thought into the series than I did while I was watching it. I enjoyed watching it, and the 13 episodes rattled along always leaving me wanting to just let the auto-play carry me onto the next. But it didn’t have the impact that Jessica Jones did, it’s only when I thought about it afterwards that I started seeing the complexity and themes that you could find. Sometimes analysing shows to death kills them stone dead, other times though it really elevates them into something greater.

Westworld – Season 1

There was a lot of buzz around this. The trailer looked stunning and the ideas were fascinating, clearly HBO and Sky in the UK were hoping that this would be the next Game of Thrones, particularly given that we’re heading towards the end of that series. So why was I just not bothered with it? I let a few episodes back up and then watched the first couple and my response was distinctly… meh. It just didn’t grab me. I watched with a couple of friends and they seemed to feel the same, so our meh-ness somewhat reinforced each other and we agreed that there was something that just didn’t quite work about the delivery of the concept.

Westworld (the setting) is basically an evolved computer game. The people who built the park are running a real life massively multiplayer role playing game, one that’s been running for decades and is hugely successful. The hosts (non-player characters, robots) have all been crafted and written in order to support either specific narratives that the guests can participate in, or just to flesh out the background so the guests can immerse themselves in the period setting. Now, my friends and I have played a lot of games between us, and we could quickly predict how some things were going to go, leaving us a little bored waiting for it to play out slowly. Plus we could spot various flaws in the ‘game’, either deliberate ones necessary to get the show’s narrative to work, or accidental ones that were just mediocre writing by people who hadn’t really thought about how this sort of game would work in reality.

So after watching a couple of episodes, I just wasn’t grabbed by it, and let it flounder on my sky box for a while. Eventually though I exhausted most other options (I still can’t be bothered with The Walking Dead!) and figured I might as well finish it off, not least as I’d heard there were a few twists later on that were interesting (although sadly I was spoiled on them which rather reduced their impact). At that point I managed to power through the rest of the 10 episodes, gathering momentum until I watched the last 4 episodes back to back last night (sadly the final episode was double length leading to a rather late night).

It did get better, or maybe more accurately the good bits expanded and made the not-so-good bits tolerable. There are characters in the first couple of episodes that are almost background, but really develop into something interesting and start to actually explore the issues around consciousness, manipulation and desire. Once it starts getting into the mystery elements more fully, and the characters and audience realise that not everything is what it seems it starts gaining momentum. Bits of the story make very little sense and at best require characters to take particularly convoluted routes towards their aims, but it does finally give the show some momentum that made me want to watch the new episode.

There were still threads that I didn’t care about and slowed everything down, the idea behind Delores’s “narrative” was interesting, but I found her an excruciatingly tedious character to actually spend time with. Some elements were uncreatively cliché which was a bit frustrating, and also slowed everything down when you know how things are going to go but they take an age to get there. There are also characters and ideas which had a lot of potential that was frustratingly ignored, some of which may be expanded in the second season, but not all of the characters will have the opportunity and that’s a real waste.

I do have some conflicted feelings towards the level of nudity and violence. The nudity in particular is incredibly gratuitous. I can see that there is a point to the nudity – the people working in the park dehumanise the hosts by having them naked when not ‘live’. It is relevant to the plot and isn’t sexualised in the same way that other shows might do. Similarly the level of violence against things that look like people but aren’t really, is again an interesting look at what people are capable of (the last episode has an interesting counter point to that too). But in both cases I wonder if there was a more elegant way of making those points.

I don’t think this is the next Game of Thrones (although I don’t really think that Game of the Thones is the pinnacle series that the masses seem to think it is), or at least it isn’t yet. I do think that it’s got a lot of potential, particularly if they continue playing with some of the ideas and storytelling techniques that come up in the last few episodes. It could be that in a couple of years this is the kind of series that you explain the first season is a bit ropey, but stick with it as things get amazing. But it could also be that they have no idea what they’re doing and it will go down as a good idea that didn’t quite materialise. Still, at least it’s something different.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: Season 1

dirk_gently_2016_logoI’ve never read the Dirk Gently books. That’s a terrible thing for a sci-fi fan to admit, but for some reason I’ve just never picked them up. I also hadn’t seen any press at all for this new Netflix series, I vaguely recall some mention that it was being made, but it appeared on Netflix with absolutely zero fanfare.

Which is a shame, because it’s great.

2016 seems to be the year of many things, but one of the more pleasant themes is a glut of quirky television series, and I’m loving it! Braindead was one of my favourite shows of the year (so of course it got cancelled) and while I don’t quite think Stranger Things was the revelation that others did, it was still entertaining to watch. Dirk Gentley sits nicely alongside them in a sort of insane trinity.

The story is… well… complicated. I’m not really sure I could explain it if I tried. I’m not entirely sure that I followed it to be honest. There’s definitely body swapping stuff, weird visions, various types of superpowers and, well, just weird stuff. There are a lot of different sets of people that we follow and watch them gradually intersect but it’s nicely spaced out, so unlike other shows I could complain about (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones) I never felt impatient spending too much time, or not enough time with any one group. If one group don’t appear in an episode I didn’t tend to notice until they appeared in the next one and I suddenly realised I’d missed them.

The cast is a mix of very famliar faces who bring reassurance, and relative unknowns who keep things fresh and interesting. They all deliver performances that are completely solid and believable in their delivery and involvement in utterly ridiculous and unbelievable situations.

I really enjoyed watching this series. It’s properly bonkers from start to finish, but it never feels out of control or as if things are being dragged our or manipulated just to make a television series. The series is renewed for a second season next year which is great news. There are plenty of ideas planted that could be developed although it might be tricky to bring some of the characters back which would be a shame, but I’m intrigued, mystified and slightly scared of the level of insanity that the series could rise to.

The Expanse: Season 1

exp-titlecard1-thumb-400x211-204818Being a science fiction fan is what made me a television fan. It was great science fiction series that turned me into someone who compulsively watches series from start to finish and then starting over again, obsessing over details and characters. I do feel that when science fiction is at its best it is in an entirely different league to even the best of “non-genre”, because it’s not only telling compelling stories about interesting characters, but it’s creating whole new universes for you to lose yourself in. When I think about the great science fiction series like Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Babylon 5, Firefly, Doctor Who, and the whole Star Trek canon (although admittedly not all Star Treks are created equal) I immediately want to throw myself back into the series at the beginning and immerse myself all over again.

The Expanse is sadly not going to be added to that list.

In conception it’s got a lot to admire and that would qualify it for consideration amongst the greats. It is certainly epic, with multiple locations across the solar system. It is immediately gratifying to see space ships, space stations and… welll just space in general on a television show. The stories span the big to the little, interplanetary politics forcing local events and changing people’s lives regardless of whether they want to get involved or not.

But while the local stories were interesting, I thought it was a mistake to try and directly tell the political story by spending time with the politicians. The strength of series like Babylon 5 and Star Trek were that we were focussed on the ‘little guy’, the people who had minimal influence and just had to deal with the situations they found themselves in, while politics happened elsewhere. You knew about the bigger stuff because of the ripples it had, not because you had it explained to you directly from the politicians mouths. I found it hard to connect the stories and events up in my head, Earth and the characters there felt a long way from the events on the stations and ships and hence every time we went to Earth, I felt it slowed everything down and felt as if we were being pushed out to a bigger picture.

I would have been able to get over that though, it would have been a minor niggle, but the bigger problem is that The Expanse just isn’t very good. The script, the direction, the cast, the effects… they all felt rather second tier. Everything feels like it’s forced and hard work, nothing really flows or feels natural. Whenever effects are involved it looks more like a computer game than the level of quality that we’ve come to expect from HD television these days. Accents and styles felt like they’d been designed to be different for no reason other than to make sure we didn’t forget we were watching science fiction.

Worst of all, and hardest to say is that I think the cast is a little disappointing, the majority of the main cast are relative newcomers and the lack of experience really showed. The series really needed a couple of heavy hitters in there to just anchor it. This was particularly evident when about half way through the series Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men) turned up and immediately elevated each scene he was in despite a ridiculous accent (ditto for The Walking Dead’s Chad Coleman). The script they were all working with wasn’t exactly giving them much help, but I think more experienced actors would have been able to elevate it to something greater, or at least made me want to watch them while they delivered the dribble.

I did make it all the way through the 10 episode season, and I’m not sure why I stuck with it really. I think it was probably the ideas behind it that I wanted to see through despite the poor execution, the glimmers of interesting characters and groups. My desperation for some proper sci-fi overcoming my disappointment at the quality. But I rather wish that I’d just gone and dusted off the Babylon 5 dvds instead.

Orphan Black: Season 4

orphanblackThis was the penultimate season of Orphan Black and I need to make a mental note to re-watch the series from the beginning as it’s increasingly evident that I’ve no idea what on earth the plot is on about. Given that condition, it’s quite impressive how much I still enjoyed the season!

There is a huge amount of plot going on, conspiracies within conspiracies, groups within groups and double crossings going around in circles. I’m not absolutely certain that the audience is actually meant to follow it at all. I think it just about manages to not be repetitive or too frustratingly going down repeated dead ends, but given that I’d very little recollection of what happened in previous seasons, and rapidly lost track of what was going on in the current episodes (despite watching them all over just three days) I can’t really guarantee that the whole thing wasn’t just a giant nest of incoherence.

But where the plot does succeed is in generating scenarios for playing with the characters. Each of the clones and the surrounding characters gets a chance to shine with their strengths and struggle outside their comfort zones. Serious characters get to let lose a little, those that are more often the light relief get to show some emotional depth and those that are usually in control get their turn at being out of the loop.

There are lots of connections between the characters that continue to delight. The relationships between the sisters themselves is lovely. These women who share a complete genetic identity, yet are so different and got thrown together. They bicker away, but they truly care for each other, worrying for Cosima, taking care of Helena even when she scares them, the flashbacks showing Beth as part of the original family, even the exasperated response to Krystal. There are some equally lovely relationships in the extended family too – straight laced Alison’s unlikely friendship with Felix, Scott’s partnership with Cosima, Art’s with Sarah, Donnie’s nervous connection with Helena, the clone’s odd relationships with Kendall, and Mrs S’s contrasting relationships with each clone. But I did think a couple of balls were dropped. There was an interesting set up for conflict between Sarah and Felix, with him looking for something for himself, but that challenge just sort of fizzled out.

I’ve said before that I watch television for the characters not so much for the plots and Orphan Black is basically the key proof of that. The fact that I can’t or don’t follow the plot doesn’t really matter as I just want to see all that extended ensemble play together (while remembering of course the incredible acting achievement of half of the ensemble being played by the same actress). The plot is of course necessary as a catalyst for those characters and relationships, but I do wish a bit that it wasn’t so convoluted and could give a bit more time for more character exploration. I’m not saying that I want it to just be a soap opera style show about the average day-to-day lives of a group of people who happen to be clones, but a bit simpler might not hurt.

Braindead: Season 1

braindeadThis is easily the most unexpected show I watched this year. It’s one of those times that I wish I could just tell people “watch this” without having to explain why, as it’s just so much better an experience if you have absolutely no idea what it is going to be. I don’t think anyone would regret watching this show, it’s one of my favourite shows of the year and one of the most original things I’ve seen in ages. Go on, give it a try. But for those of you that either won’t listen to me, or have already seen it and just want to know what I think, I guess I’d better expand a bit.

The premise of Braindead is incredibly, perfectly current – why is politics suddenly so nuts? How come everyone seems to be turning into idiots and fighting? The idea that it’s some sort of brain eating alien is really actually no more stupid then some of the things our politicians are actually coming up with. So let’s run with that and do The West Wing with… I dunno, Mars Attacks? That’s probably the closest I can think of in terms of wacky, slightly gross insanity.

There are moments in this series that are just jaw droppingly unexpected. Some of that stems from the ridiculousness of the plot, the pretty disgusting shock moments or fairly horrific implications of what’s happening. But actually, there are just as many moments of “I can’t believe you just did/said that” which are really about politics in 2016. Sharp observations of current events which are beautifully summed up in cutting lines of dialogue.

Individual lines of dialogue that perfectly cut through to the heart and true insanity of modern politics, shock moments of pretty disgusting gore,

Ok, so it does occasionally get a bit bogged down. The politics angles are definitely latter series West Wing with a lack of any real depth or teeth to it. This is by the people that brought you all the seasons of The Good Wife, and there were plenty of occasions there where complexity of arguments was abandoned just to get the plot moving along in the direction they wanted. So there are also few loops of plot that just draw things out a couple of episodes longer, while some plot threads are just abandoned or side-lined until needed. Oh and the romance elements are a bit tedious and high school and the budget was clearly underwhelming.

But, I don’t care. Do you know what I’m going to use to sum up how good this show was – the “previously on” segments. Yup, you know those bits that are really tedious on a weekly basis and even more pointless when you’re powering through a box set watching episodes back to back? The “previously on”s on Braindead should win awards. They’ve managed to make the most fast forward-able part of the show the bit that I actually rewound to watch again and again. I found one that was relatively spoiler free (don’t focus too much on the opening pictures). Seriously, Jonathan Coulton is a genius and if this is how good the “previously on” is, just go and see how great the rest of the show is.

Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD: Season 3

agentsfoshieldSeason 3 of Agents of SHIELD actually felt like a significant improvement, Looking back on the plots and action that took place. I think it’s due a much less frantic pace and far more coherent set of storylines which actually felt like they were going somewhere, rather than the endless meandering and circling around that previous seasons have had.

From a clinical point of view the writing and stories had a very good mix of big and small, the pacing worked, the interactions between the plots worked and none of them overstayed their welcome. Looking back at the season I don’t think there were any dead ends, each story wound into the overall picture and continued to effect characters. Relationships moved forward, people grew, people fought with each other and things occasionally blew up. What more do you want?

It feels like all the characters, and actors, were playing to their strengths this year. The cast expanded with new ‘inhuman’ superheroes and ‘normal’ agents and they finally seemed to gel into a coherent collection of people. That’s not to say they always agreed or worked well together, but it felt like a fully rounded group that covered off all the various attitudes and emotions. I particularly like the mixture of “grown ups” and “newbies”, each respecting each other, but also occasionally having to exert their authority and experience, or challenge and get creative. As characters rose and fell to prominence, others dropped away; allegiances and attitudes shifted and it felt like an organic whole rather than a forced structure.

There are still some weak points, or rather under-utilised characters, the cast list was very crowded at times and not everyone was well used all the time. Hunter was well used for levity, but his quest for revenge didn’t quite play as well; particularly against Adrianne Palicki’s much more nuanced performance as the recovering Bobbi. Sadly, I still think Clark Gregg’s more melodramatic moments as Coulson don’t quite land right, but his lighter delivery is still flawless and gives the series a wonderful character. Lincoln was something of a non-starter for me and I remained pretty bored of Ward, I didn’t really find his character very interesting when he was a good guy, and his switch to Hydra made him no more interesting and then when [the spoiler for the second half of the season] that was the final nail in the coffin of any interesting character options.

I enjoyed this series. It’s a long way from perfect, but it is firmly settling into the entertaining category, with a few characters and performances I really look forward to. I think it can still be better than it is though, and continue to hope it will find some real magic.