Archive for the ‘ Science Fiction ’ Category

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.

iZombie: Seasons 1-3

This had been on my list of things to watch for a while, but it didn’t have a UK distributor. I’m not sure when it appeared on Netflix but I only recently noticed it. On the plus side that meant I could pretty much binge watch straight through seasons 1, 2 and 3 over the course of a fairly short period of time.

The premise is fairly so-so. A doctor is turned into a zombie, but provided she gets a regular supply of brains to eat she’s pretty much normal. So she starts working in the morgue and dodging questions from her family and ex-fiance and just whines about here un-life a bit. Then it turns out that she gets visions from the brains she’s eaten, and if it’s a murder victim, that turns out to be very useful. She teams up with a cop who thinks she’s psychic, finds a purpose and we’re off and running with a fairly episodic “brain of the week” structure.

The first season or so plays to that pattern. The brains tend to have some over-the-top gimmick to them that is occasionally laugh out loud hilarious, and occasionally cringingly painful. That structure gets a bit trying when you’re binge watching, so it’s a good job that the background plots gather traction – seeking a cure and dealing with the various zombie groups that start to appear. There’s also a fair amount of relationship wrangling going on, which is again a bit tedious at times, but the characters are all likeable and self-aware enough that I didn’t get too bored of various makeup/breakup cycles.

Season 3 is where things really start to move pretty fast on the plot front. Throughout the season there’s a real sense of escalation building towards a satisfying game changer in the final episode that sets up for a very different 4th season. Some of the partnerships go through a couple more cycles that get a bit a tedious, but the development of the friendships are more nuanced and satisfying. Importantly for me, the humour is not lost with the increased stakes of the drama and there are plenty of hilarious set ups throughout the season that make this a show that I’m sure I will be happy to watch over again.

The reason that I’d wanted to watch iZombie (despite it’s frankly pretty awful name) was that it’s from the creator of Veronica Mars – one of my all time favourite shows. They share the same achingly smart dialogue, and take-no-crap characters but the sci-fi storyline of iZombie opens up even more opportunity for quirky situations and playing with genres and styles. The zombie cast wholeheartedly throw themselves into the different personalities, while the rest of the cast do a solid job as supporting straight men and women that the others can dance around. I don’t think iZombie will overtake Veronica Mars in my affections, but it’s certainly making a really good challenge.

Doctor Who: 2017

Did I even bother reviewing the previous Doctor Who? I’m getting so dissillusioned with it I’m not sure I bothered. Reading back my own reviews it seems I reviewed the first season with Capaldi (which I was not a fan of) and didn’t bother wittering on about second. I know I watched it, but I’ve got little recollection of it.

The problem is that something went wrong with Peter Capaldi in the role and I don’t know how or why. Capaldi is certainly more than capable of delivering both the comedy and the drama required for the role, and the older doctor should have been an interesting change, but the character just wasn’t very well written. They couldn’t get the fluidity between the comedy and drama, it just felt like abrupt switches from serious to weird with little sense of an overall character holding it together. With Clara as the companion there was also an odd hangover of the relationship with Matt Smith’s Doctor which made things slightly flirty, weird and uncomfortable.

So it was a good thing to bring in a new companion, and I liked Bill a lot. She felt like a proper modern and normal character, rather than another in the long line of ‘special’ companions who have some kind of destiny. Bill was just normal, mostly unphased by the “timey-wimey” stuff and treated the Doctor how he looks – an older professor type, all-be-it a pretty eccentric one. Removing any implication of sexual chemistry made a nice change, and the fact that she was gay was completely incidental to the rest of the story, it was very naturally handled. Bill was doing very nicely until a lazy writer undermined her and she made a stupid choice that just frustrated me and made her look naïve and weak. Then she almost got sidelined to give time to the terrible character of Missy and her ever-wandering accent.

Something I did really like this season was Matt Lucas as Nardol. I always prefer when there are more companions along, particularly ones that don’t blindly fall for the Doctor’s charms (Mickey, Rory, even River Song). Having someone who cuts through the nonsense helps ground the whole series. Nardol did exactly that when it was most desperately needed.

The problem I’ve had with the last few seasons of Doctor Who is that nothing felt earned. Characters didn’t so much develop as just teleport from one mindset to another. It’s not the actors’ faults but the writing. Too often things happened just to get from A to B, things were forgotten or remembered as the machinations of clumsy plots required, mysteries were engineered, painfully deliberate hints were hammered home, good ideas were never developed, thrown away for a cheap effect or fast resolution, and elegance just went out the window. Was Stephen Moffat tired, or just too distracted with Sherlock?

With the recent announcement of Jodi Whitaker as the thirteenth doctor, partnered with a new executive producer in Chris Chibnall (a writer on Torchwood and creator of the excellent Broadchurch, which also starred Whitaker) I have hope again for the series. It will be a completely fresh start for the series, which is the great thing about Doctor Who, it can completely reinvent itself. Fingers crossed it can either re-find some of the magic, or even better, create all its own magic.

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.