Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2

I was unsettled by the first season of Discovery, unable to quite decide whether I liked it or not. I even watched it a second time before watching the second season and I’m STILL not sure whether it was good or not. I think if I can’t decide, it probably wasn’t; but the cast, spectacle and nostalgia for the franchise make it watchable. What did give me a bit more confidence was the series of shorts that were released between the seasons, which were not only very well written, but are eventually revealed to be quite important backstory for season 2.

Thankfully, that trend was continued and I’m a lot more confident in saying that season 2 was Good. It felt more like Star Trek, both in terms of the stories and the way the characters behaved. The crew actually felt like they were all pulling in the same direction and wanted to be there, that’s not a requirement for all series, but for me it’s a crucial part of Star Trek. Anson Mount as Captain Pike was the Captain that the crew and the show desperately needed – charismatic, leaderly, and fun. Trying to have the series without the Captain as the main character can work, but the Captain still sets the tone for the show. The set up for the first season didn’t work because Burnham was not only not in charge, but she was disconnected from everyone else. There was no one leading and bringing the ensemble together, they were just disparate people, few of whom really wanted to be there. In one of Pike’s first scenes he actually asked the names of the bridge crew and immediately the show became more about an ensemble of people. The ship was actually a real place.

Michael Burnham also finally felt settled in, she has found the crew and the position that she needs – she has responsibilities, respect and connections. From there she starts to come to terms with her family and her past. It felt a bit of a cheap trick at first to make her Spock’s never-before-referenced sister, but the complex relationship between Sarek, Amanda and Spock was interesting to see revealed. It also gave an emotional thread to the early episodes which were otherwise a bit random chasing mysterious red lights. Sonequa Martin-Green had some great scenes throughout the series and she’s a powerful leading lady creating a fascinating character. The setup for next season should provide plenty more interesting opportunities.

I’m still not convinced about whether the series really fits in with wider canon, even with the get out of jail free card that’s played at the end. To be honest, I’m not going to bother to look up what fandom thinks, I’m sure there’s a lot of well thought through analysis (and a lot that isn’t so coherent) but I don’t care that much. I guess that’s part of the problem with Discovery, I still don’t care that much. I look forward to the episodes each week, but I don’t feel particularly invested. I think that may be because of the way it sits in the middle of all the canon that makes it feel slightly irrelevant to the bigger picture. Future characters never mentioned Discovery, so it’s like the series is in a bubble. Making me care more about the crew as a whole is a good start though and the set up for next year looks like it has lots of potential for continued improvement.

Advertisements

The Umbrella Academy: Season 1

I un-enthusiastically loaded up netflix on Saturday morning with the intention to watch a documentary film that had been recommended to me. There was a big splashy advert for The Umbrella Company, and I thought that was probably a better choice to watch while consuming breakfast and the first cup of tea of the day, and I’d come to the documentary when I was a bit more awake. Spoiler alert – I never made it to the documentary, and instead just spent the whole day watching the 10 episodes of The Umbrella Academy with only a couple of pauses to seek food and fresh air.

Even though I’m not too keen on reading comic books/graphic novels, I’ve always been drawn to the superhero genre, and X-Men were my entry point. The Umbrella Academy is clearly a close relation of the X-Men (or a rip off if you’re feeling uncharitable) and therefore plays to similar themes of normal/other, identity, destiny and found families. The tone of Umbrella Academy is slightly more grungy though, a little bit steampunk, a bit more sweary and a lot less spandex.

The series is mostly set in ‘present day’, I think there was a specific reference to it being 2019, but there are no mobile phones, a slightly clunky fudge to prevent some of the problems being solved too easily. A diverse group of children, born under unusual circumstances and with a random set of powers, were purchased by an eccentric white rich guy, and trained in the titular academy to be a team of superheroes. Now they’re in their late 20’s, disillusioned and separated until the death of their adoptive father brings them back together. There are also a lot of flashbacks to them as children to gradually see how their upbringing made them who they are, and then there’s time travel, so we also get to see the future. The different threads can get a bit messy and hard to track at times, but if you let it wash over you, it actually hangs together very well. There are a few clunky transitions to flashback, but for the most part we never stay anywhere long enough to get bored or be put to sleep with exposition. It’s very much show, don’t tell.

The group of characters are well developed, both individually and with a complex network of relationships both past and present. I expected Ellen Page to be excellent, but the rest of the cast were unknown (until I imdb’ed and spotted that Klaus was actually Nathan in Misfits and I hadn’t recognised him at all!) and they all delivered nuanced performances as characters who’ve grown up under weird circumstances. I loved the family relationships and all the baggage bubbling barely under the surface and exploding at inevitably the worst times.

The plot is twisty and satisfying; I did guess the main twists quite a way in advance but it was still interesting to watch how they came through. The 10 episode format works well and I’m glad they went that route rather than a film which wouldn’t have given all the characters enough room to breath. There were a couple of episodes that dragged a bit in terms of plot, but there were still enough character moments to make them worthwhile. Not all the plot ideas really went anywhere and some big questions that were left unanswered, but hopefully that was deliberate to leave plenty of material for another season.

There’s creativity to the style as well that I liked. The direction and design, when at its best, was clearly drawing heavily from the comic book style. So much of the story and character in graphic novels has to be driven by the images, and that is carried over to the television series. There were scenes that I ended up rewinding just to fully appreciate the style, or to focus on a different part of the screen to see what other characters were doing, I must have watched the above scene half a dozen times, in just two and a half minutes it perfectly expresses every character, establishes the style and even gives you the layout of the house. It’s funny and sad and just perfect.

I went into this series expecting absolutely nothing and emerged 10 hours later completely obsessed with it.

Handmaid’s Tale: Season 2

I let the whole season of Handmaid’s Tale build up and sit on my Sky box for ages before actually watching it. It’s one of those shows that you really want to have watched, but actually wanting to sit down and start it is another matter entirely. You know it’s going to be good, really really good, but it’s not going to be easy and not necessarily much fun. There’s enough spark and flashes of humour to make it bearable, but only just.

Season 2 is completely beyond the source novel’s timeframe and plot, not that season 1 was exactly constrained as it was already expanding on the bones of the world and characters Atwood created. Season 2 moves further into backstories – broadening out the world and that may be the problem that I had with this season. I’m not sure that it hung together when looked at in that depth. The novel created a world without explanation, it didn’t try to work out how the world that we were reading about came to be, just that it existed and the reader and characters were in it whether they liked it or not. The first season of the television show started to add some backstory and it seemed just about plausible. But the second season really pushes the boundaries of the world out – looking at the transformation of our near-present day into Gilead and also the wider world of both ‘the colonies’ and more of Canada where the refugees flee.

The issue is, I don’t think it makes sense. I know we live in a world today where things happen that seem to defy belief, but I struggle to see how things could change so dramatically, so fast. This is the kind of tectonic shift that should take generations to gradually erode freedoms. But it is evident that it’s only a couple of years between ‘normal’ existence with recognisable technology, jobs and laws, and people being enslaved, tortured, raped and murdered. The problem is not only time, it’s geography, Showing ‘normal’ Canada really emphasises that, just a drive away from this horror, everything is fairly normal.

Everything else about the series remains absolutely superb. Every shot is beautifully and creatively framed, lit, and designed; there are scenes that could be considered works of art they are so stunning to look at. The script is cut back to the very minimum as all the characters mind what they say, while never lacking clarity or meaning. The performances are of course wonderful, and there is not a single weak link or boring character, everyone has so many levels to them. Even when characters are making frustrating choices, or their arcs don’t seem to make sense as a whole, the acting in the moment cannot be faulted.

But I could not get past that nagging feeling that the core of the series is rotten. That all the beautiful acting and exceptional production values could never quite make me ignore that nagging doubt and annoyance that fundamentally, the series doesn’t make sense.

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.

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.