Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beginnings and Endings - This Season's Sci-Fi

Warning: Spoilers (spoilage factor: about the same as the contents of your refrigerator after you’ve been away on vacation for three weeks – some items will be more spoiled than others)

It’s been about three weeks since the start of the new TV season here in North America, and while I haven’t made a point of watching every new or returning sci-fi show, I figured it was time to weigh-in on the few I have managed to catch.

HEROES (second season)
Overall, I enjoyed the first season of “Heroes”. It was nice to see a serious attempt to create a TV series based on a comic book-style premise (instead of the outright camp of “Batman” or “Wonder Woman” or “The Greatest American Hero”) and some of the characters and storylines were engaging. That being said, I was a bit ambivalent about last season’s finale. There was too much that didn’t make sense and I thought the writers didn’t need to leave all the potential plot lines dangling with the teasing possibilities that some characters might just come sneaking back (especially if the show needed a hook in the future to keep the viewers). Now, at the start of season two, the disappointment factor for me is sadly increasing. The season premier didn’t really feel like an episode at all – it was a rushed mish-mash of teasers designed to set the stage for plots that will come later. Poor writing in my opinion. The brains behind the show should have focused on a couple of key storylines (such as Hiro’s samurai adventures) and taken the time to actually develop them, instead of taking snapshots of nearly everyone – they made the mistake of trying to please all of the people and wound up with something so thin as to have no substance. And it hasn’t changed much with the subsequent episodes. There has been a little plot development with Claire, Suresh and Hiro, but their segments are so short they’re about as satisfying as a premature orgasm. I’m also getting tired with the writers’ obsession with dangling mysteries in front of the audience. Why did Peter lose his memory? How did he get from exploding in the upper atmosphere to a container in Ireland? Has Sylar really lost his powers? What will happen to Claire’s relationship with her father as she learns more about what he did to her new boyfriend when he was a company man? What about Suresh’s new job with the company – who’s playing who? What’s the deal with the disease afflicting some of the metahumans? Who’s stalking and killing Hiro’s father and the rest of the gaggle of geezers and leaving behind Kenzo’s mark? Who’s the new badguy haunting the little girl’s nightmares? While it is effective to set up mysteries once in a while to keep the audience guessing (and in these days, communicating with each other online about their guesses, thereby increasing the show’s hype), too many at once can make the show as flimsy as a house of cards. Granted, mystery creates tension in a show, but sometimes greater levels of tension can be achieved when the audience knows what’s going on and is on the edge of their seats waiting to see if the protagonist will figure things out in time to save himself. To keep dangling teaser after teaser also makes me wonder if the writers are afraid their plots aren’t strong enough or their characters aren’t interesting enough to hold the loyalty of the audience past the close of a limited story arc. The constant hints of things to come are starting to look like an inability to focus on writing quality episodes. Yes, episodes can be part of season or series-long story arcs, but if an episode can’t stand on its own, then the writers have failed at the craft of good storytelling. Shows like “Babylon 5” and the new “Battlestar Galactica” understand this – individual episodes may be key moments in larger stories, but those single moments make for powerful stories unto themselves. The writers behind “Heroes” really need to learn this. They need to learn the benefits of completeness. That being said, I’m not writing off “Heroes” yet. Some of the segments (short as they are) are still enjoyable. It’s hard not to get a kick out of Hiro’s attempt to build a hero out of a wayward, indestructible Englishman in feudal Japan. There is some potential to the new Parkman detective/surrogate daddy storyline. But if the writers can’t learn the art of focus, even these two heroes might not be able to save this show.

REAPER (new series)
This show about a young slacker who finds out he’s obliged to be the devil’s bounty hunter has been pretty entertaining so far. The concept is nothing new (“The Collector” had the devil dispatching the hero to, well, dispatch with a different soul every episode – though the protagonist was more of the Hollywood stereotypical dark hero), but the strength of this show is the hilarious dialogue. Kevin Smith of “Clerks” fame is associated with the show (he gets a creative consulting credit and I seem to recall he might have directed the pilot) and you can hear his vulger stamp on nearly every sentence from the sidekick “Sock” (played with gleeful confidence by Tyler Labine) – who’s essentially the teleplay bastard child of Jay and Silent Bob. The problem is this very strength in writing is the show’s weakness. Because there is nothing interesting or new enough about a guy rooked into being the devil’s bagman, or a guy pining for a girl he’s too afraid to ask out, and because the sight gags of the new spirit-trapping device (and accompanying impromptu fighting equipment and outfits the heros construct out of garden shed and garage tools) of the week are one-trick ponies, the show relies entirely on the dialogue and the performances. If there are just one or two episodes where the writing isn’t as sharp as it should be, or if the actors’ delivery is a little too flat, then the show is sunk – it wouldn’t take more than that to make the show boring enough that viewers wouldn’t return. For this reason, I’ve always got a bit of trepidation during the first 5 minutes or so of each episode – I always wonder if the other shoe is finally going to drop. To date though, “Reaper” is definitely worth watching.

THE BIONIC WOMAN (new series)
I’d initially had cautious hope for this reincarnation of the 70’s cyborg series. I wanted to like this show, I really did. I mean, come-on, with this project being helmed by Eick from the new Battlestar, there had to be quality assurance. Sadly, that quality doesn’t seem to be there and I think I’m done with the show. The pilot about Jamie Summers’ transformation from bartender (as opposed to tennis pro in the original series) to high-tech hero was mildly interesting. But in the quest to prove they can develop characters, the writers have made the mistake of spending too much time on bionic angst. This Jamie spends more time whining to her new boss and fighting with her little sister than actually battling the forces of evil. What’s worse, the sibling fights and make-ups feel stilted and phoney, like someone was trying to write what a sister-sister relationship is like without ever actually having had a sister or without even knowing someone who had a sister. One would also think that for all the intelligence and mental flexibility the so-called tests indicate Jamie has, she’d have an easier time adapting to her new life and would be more likely to see a future in the use of her new abilities. Then there’s Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar’s Starbuck), playing a psychotic bionic prototype. I think Sackhoff is generally a good actress, but this is definitely not the role for her. You can see she’s trying, she really is, to play the sultry femme fatale who can whisper enticingly into your ear one minute, then turn on a dime and rip your head off the next. The problem is that it just doesn’t seem to work for her. What comes naturally to Battlestar co-star Tricia Helfer (who isn’t just eye candy – she can clearly act and act well) playing various incarnations of the Cylon Number 6 looks painfully forced and fake when Sackhoff makes the attempt. This is a character who isn’t suited to Sackhoff’s face, body type or acting ability. Really, does she think that pursing her heavily lipsticked lips and gazing vacantly into the middle distance half the time makes for sexiness of the potentially lethal variety? Watching Sackhoff try to do Helfer is like watching a 12-year-old tom-boy dress up in her 18-year-old prom-queen sister’s gown and makeup to try to impress the paperboy. It just doesn’t cut it. And, beyond all that, I just haven’t found the storylines all that engaging. Last night, faced with a couple of choices on TV, I decided not to bother with the Bionic Woman. I probably won’t bother with it again.

EUREKA (season two)
Although my wife’s a fan of this show and I find it amusing enough myself, we don’t tend to watch it consistently. Not sure why. The premise is kind of a cross between “Northern Exposure” and “The X-Files”, which I don’t mind, and the writing, while solid, doesn’t take itself too seriously. For some reason, we’re just not tuning in on a regular basis or taping it. I suspect we’ll probably continue to watch it on an occasional basis, but I don’t know if we’ll be buying the DVD set sometime down the road.

I’m an occasional viewer of “The Family Guy” – I’m not ashamed to admit that sometimes the pronouncements of Brian the dog or the outbursts from Stewie crack me up, even though, as “South Park” has accurately observed, the show is formulaic in the extreme and the asides rarely have anything to do with the plot. The “Star Wars” episode, on the other hand, was tightly focused and a brutally funny take on Episode IV – in some ways, dare I say it, it was better than Mel Brooks’ “Spaceballs”. In addition to the writing, I have to give the animators a huge amount of credit for their attention to detail – many of the exterior shots (such as the opening battle between the Rebel blockade runner and the Star Destroyer) seemed lifted almost exactly from the original footage – so much so that I wondered if it was exacting attention to copying all of the angles and movement or if it was a modern example of shadow animation. In any case, this special easily lived up to all of the hype that was going around since the producers first announced they’d be tackling Lucas’ baby. I only wish I’d taped it.

And on to an ending…

I simply can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this episode (or three-part episode, if you want to get technical). The BBC team behind Dr. Who was at its best this time. Martha’s departure was painful but liberating. I think she’s easily the best Companion the Doctor’s had, but as she walked out of the TARDIS (for the second or third time), I found myself thinking, yeah, you had to do it. It was also fun to see the Master reveal how diverse events from episodes across the season that were seemingly unrelated were part of his evil machinations. Other plot tie-ins, like Captain Jack turning out to be The Face of Bo(Bow/Beau?) were fun to watch too. But best of all was The Master’s revenge. What better way to strike one last painful blow against the Doctor in defeat than for the Master to allow himself to die, thereby leaving the Doctor completely alone once and for all. That’s a villain who knows how to do the most damage to his adversary – I don’t think killing a Companion could have wounded the Doctor as much as that did, and it showed. The only part of the episode that seemed too corny for me was the Doctor’s reboot when the whole world thought about him at once – it smacked a little too much of readers being asked to clap their hands if they wanted Tinkerbell to live in “Peter Pan”. At least though, the writers seemed to be aware of this and acknowledged it with a snide comment to that effect from The Master at the time (though for the life of me, I can’t remember the exact wording). The new Doctor Who has become one of my favourite shows because of its sharp writing, frenetic pacing and great characters and acting. However, in other Dr-related news, I am kicking myself for missing the premier of the spinoff series “Torchwood” on CBC last Friday (we were babysitting my one-and-a-half-year-old nephew and got too distracted to turn on the TV or set the VCR. Toddlers will do that). I’ll have to hunt around for it on the net before the next episode hits the air tomorrow night. I’ve got a buddy who’s already downloaded the whole series and has been dropping teasers for a week now. Why isn’t he writing this blog posting?

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