Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Prefect Slog
Here’s one I watched earlier. It’s been canned now, of course, TV execs always keen to prove that old adage that ‘all good things come to an end’, so its another of those shows with a disappointingly short lifespan – and one of those where, once you know it’s been curtailed before its time, you wonder if it’s actually worth following through to what now suffices as the end. But hey, I gave others – Firefly, Dark Angel, Tru Calling – a whirl, so I can certainly accord this one the same courtesy. Some while ago I was lucky enough to have a friend send me Series Two on disc (thanks mate - you know who you are) but haven’t yet seen any of that second and concluding (sniff) season – other things like, oh, getting married and such obliged TV to take a back seat – but I was also lucky enough to have another friend give me Series One on DVD for a birthday present (thanks, mate – you know who you are). So I figured, given the lengthy interval, I’d best take advantage of my good luck and rewatch the first series before continuing into the second and – we hope – finding out what it’s all about.
So, what is it all about? If you’re anticipating any clear and definitive answers, I don’t have the foggiest. For all I know, I may not even have them when I get to the premature finale. But for the purposes of this blog, I should be all right if I just limit myself to what I do know…
It’s a traditional tale of Good vs. Evil. Okay, it’s set in 1930s America, in the heart of the Great Depression, a land additionally blasted by dust storms of Biblical proportions. This kid escapes a chain gang, and he’s come home to an Oklahoma dirt farm just in time to see his mother die and his shack about to be torn down, but he’s ‘fortunate’ enough to be taken in by a passing carnival. Dark and if not actively sinister then definitely very moody forces are at work behind the Carnivale’s curtains, where a deep mystery lurks that holds the secret to the kid’s past and will have a profound impact on his future, and - what do you know! - all the best freaks are here!
It’s slow. There is no rollercoaster at this carney and it is never going to conjure the same excitement of a Doctor Who opening as we hurtle through the vortex to that theme tune. Then again, it’s never going to produce the same level of disappointment either. It’s slow – that bears repeating – but it’s my belief it rewards patience. Subtlety takes time. Care and attention has been paid to every frame, every detail, and it deserves the same attention from its audience – it commanded mine. In place of the rollercoaster, what it offers is a meandering (and dusty) truck ride through a bleak and unnerving (not to say disturbing) Twilight Zone – there’s the sign post up ahead! – that takes its tone from its setting and is presented with such a complete and absolute sense of its period that you might be forgiven for thinking the production design crew had to have mastered time travel.
For the duration of the episode, you are there – whether you want to be or not. And you just know they went to phenomenal expense creating something this desolate.
Sadly, probably one of the key reasons it got canned and now that I’m on the brink of embarking on Series Two there is that inevitable nervousness as to whether or not things will be sufficiently wrapped up to satisfy. But against that there’s an instinctive feeling that, no matter what, the journey will have been worthwhile.
In essence, it’s a fairly simple story. The idea is that with every generation there’s born one agent for Good and one for Evil – and through the course of Series One those two agents are each waking up to their birthright, their lives only (so far) brushing in nightmares – although they are of course fated to do battle. Fair enough. I expect there’s a bit more to it than that, but even if – come the ‘end’ – the revelations turn out to be as impoverished as my cynical side suspects Lost will ultimately, eventually prove, the richness of the Carnivale story is in the telling. It’s got Bradbury’s love of detail as well as his fascination with spooky fairgrounds. It’s Something Really Wicked This Way Comes.
Aside from the landscape through which we travel, the show invites us to take this journey in the company of characters who are at least as compelling as the underlying mystery of it all, every single one of them played with a conviction befitting the production.
I can’t say I like many of them. But I like that I don’t like them – it’s that kind of show. Ben Hawkins is the, um, ‘hero’, rejecting powers that come with a heavy price and he’s one of the more sympathetic characters as a result. But I can’t say I especially like the fellow. Justin, the priest and Ben’s opposite number, is a truly horrific creation, and Clancy Brown delivers such a powerful performance I genuinely fear him and what he might do next. And his sister, Iris, is this deceptively meek and mild Lady Macbeth who scares me just as much in her own quiet way. While the Carnivale itself is populated by a motley crew of freaks and failures, a collection of characters all vividly drawn in different shades of black. Samson is a shyster and a half, brilliantly played by Michael J Anderson, and last seen - by me - in Humbug, the similarly ‘freaky’ but tongue in cheek X Files episode from Season 3. Jonesy is a knee-capped ex-baseball player, and something of an emotional cripple to boot. Sophie’s the young old maid, desperate and trapped in her trailer and her life with her telepathic relationship with her mute, motionless mum who manages to give me the creeps while lying perfectly still. Lodz is the exquisitely creepy blind man who sees far more than can be good for anyone, who’s dangerously manipulative when it comes to the matter of Ben Hawkins and uses and abuses his bearded girlfriend, Lila. Felix, aka Stumpy, is the sleazy entertainer who fronts the strip show and pimps for his wife and daughters. Add to that Adrienne Barbeau as the snake charmer, a gay lizard man and the playful Siamese twins and you begin to get the idea. And that’s without going into some of the sordid ways of some of the irregular characters we have the displeasure of meeting along the way. Most episodes I don’t know whether to watch from the edge of my seat or behind the sofa and against the apparent ‘play-it-safe’ policy of New Who, there could probably be no starker contrast. But don’t mistake me – this doesn’t belong in Doctor Who, although it’s the sort of thing that might have worked in a DW novel, albeit a controversial one, back when they used to cater for grown-ups.
To say it’s brave TV is an understatement – it’s a huge risk, and on standard network TV it would have failed probably somewhere in the development or pitching stage. But as one studio exec said on one of my ER DVD extras, it’s often the things that seem risky that are the biggest successes. Commercially, that’s not going to be the case for Carnivale – and realistically, it was never going to be. The fact that it got prematurely dropped from the HBO schedules though is no reflection of its quality. Some canned goods have class.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Prefect Slog(Warning: There's a definite danger of SPOILERS up to the end of Season 2 – I’ll try to keep them to a minimum, but you know how it is.)
Imagine what it must be like for fans of the original series. Somebody resurrects their favourite show – and they’ve gone and ruined it. It’s just not the same any more.
Well, thank the gods, I say, but then, I am in the happy position of never having been a fan – and I don’t know anyone who’d admit to being a fan of the original. I mean, I quite enjoyed the movie, but I was like 10 or something, it was shortly after Star Wars and my Dad took me to the cinema. But, unlike Brideshead, it’s best not revisited. If anything the title acted as a deterrent and the new Battlestar Galactica was a series I approached with a great deal of caution and a cynical eye.
Luckily, the producers realized that the thing to do with a show like Battlestar, apparently, was to resurrect it umpteen years later and give it a massive makeover. Render it largely unrecognisable. Of course, it is still marginally recognisable (the Vipers are merely a MkII), but it’s like one of those bizarre casting decisions where they pick an actor to play the same character at a different point in his life – and there’s just no way they are the same person. Battlestar is a whole new character and in this case the change works very much in its favour. this new incarnation has such a brooding intensity, it soon became a compulsion.
It owes some of its weight to the exceptional production design. Clearly when they knew they were tackling military sf, they took words like ‘military’ and ‘hardware’ seriously. The space battles are all very CNN and the ground actions all very Blackhawk Down. And they went retro – this is a Russian-built Battlestar – and even built in a convincing plot basis for that aesthetic, with the older hardware securely incompatible with the latest Cylon viruses. So it’s all Bakelite phones, no smooth surfaces, thank you very much, and no holodeck. The crew of this starship take their duties seriously and off-duty they play hard. Actually, a lot of them get drunk and play cards, but a good brawl is also good for relieving the tension.
They’re soldiers. Worse, many of them are pilots and are cocky with it. The problem, as always with military types, is crafting some individual character into the person-in-uniform (and the uniforms, by the way, look the business). This they manage, successfully engaging me with the majority of the regulars and throwing in some interesting semi-regulars along the way. The dialogue is not snappy or excessively lively (in the least), but that would seem like an affectation and thoroughly out of place here. This is not The West Wing in space (although in some respects it clearly is!) The humour arises naturally, unforced, if it arises at all – chiefly but not exclusively from Gaius Baltar’s neuroses, psychoses and generally unbalanced attempts to walk a very fine tightrope - and real character surfaces in the performances as much as the writing.
The result is added weight for the series, and all credit to the actors for filling out their uniforms so admirably (special mention to Grace Park as Boomer, heheh). The combination of Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell is a particularly potent one and with such commanding screen presence between them, it seems as though the rest of the cast (relative unknowns, although if you care to IMDB them you’ll find they all share similar CVs – supporting roles in Stargate SG-1, Dark Angel and other Canadian-based series) raise their game to act at their level, Commander Adama is a Caesar – an old-school general who has had to play the political game – and he, like his ship, is a relic rescued from retirement and handed a purpose – and a desperate one at that. He’s fair, compassionate and ruthless, charismatic and contemplative. Alongside him – or even pitted against him – is Laura Roslin, the schoolteacher obliged to become president. Greatness is thrust upon her and her journey from education minister to fully-fledged President of the last of the human race is, in Mary McDonnell’s expert care, fascinating to watch. Both she and Adama bend and break the rules – even when we’d like to think they wouldn’t. Desperate times, desperate measures – which is what you would expect, This is not Captain Janeway (blech!) holding on to her prime directive despite being light years from Starfleet Command, out in the back-ass-of-beyond quadrant with precious little hope of getting home (yeah, right) to file a report.
In a similar bucking of the too-good-to-be-true-or-remotely-exciting Trek trend, there are episodes like Water, which explores the question of limited resources – and the most basic resource at that – which is just the kind of concern you would expect to confront a starfaring fleet out on its own, not to mention on the run. The best of its drama arises, like the humour, naturally out of the central premise and the responses to the developing situation are, in much the same way, ‘what you might expect’ – and yet, along the way, the series still manages to surprise. Episodes like 33 demonstrate an outstanding grasp of drama and the tense intervals of suspense are expertly judged. SF elements are sprinkled throughout like seasoning, but they are not the principal driving force. It’s one of those humano-centric SF universes – no aliens with distracting crinkle-cut chips on their noses – and the story is very much centred on the humans – as well as, of course, their Cylon enemies.
There are, as with all series, poorer episodes and, shall we say, less effective aspects as a whole. Richard Hatch as Tom Zarek is unconvincing, in part because I find him a wooden actor, but mostly I think because he’s like the occasional bursts of the original Battlestar Galactica theme music (although for the record, I have nothing against the music itself) – an intrusive and unnecessary tribute. Reminders of the original series that simply don’t belong, because this is a much better series than that. There are contrivances too – particularly when it comes to maintaining Baltar’s precarious position – and his eventual progression – in the fleet hierarchy. A smarter person than I observed that he obtained a nuclear warhead far too easily and I recognize that it certainly raises doubts and questions in retrospect. But the point for me is that I was hoodwinked – the drama was sufficiently involving that I didn’t question it at the time. My reasoning plugged the gaps – I sort of assumed additional security measures were implicit – and I’m tempted to add (at the risk of repeating myself) that I could wish New Who might be as proficient at suspending my disbelief. But let’s leave Doctor Who out of this, shall we – we were talking about the less effective aspects of Battlestar.
The least of them, to my mind, to varying degrees, have been as follows:
1) The robotic Cylons, where I think the CGI is fine but they suffer, I think, from a curious psychological effect which I should call the Tumness Syndrome, in that, while watching The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, I had a similar problem with Mr Tumness. As a fawn, walking along on digital digitigrade legs, I couldn’t quite overcome the sense that he should be constantly falling over. Likewise, the robotic Cylons look none too stable, but in the first place this is such a small quibble and only included out of my fair-minded effort to be picky and in the second place they are effective war machines in any shot where you can’t see them full-length.
2) The background mythology, lifted from the original series, and the idea that we Earthbound humans are in fact descended from the BSG colonies. There’s archaeological evidence to the contrary and it’s all a bit like fundamentalists who claim humanity’s only been around for a few thousand years. But in the end, it’s no greater a conceit than Doctor Who’s (damn, there it is again) theory that Adric wiped out the dinosaurs (much as we celebrate it – although we mourn the dinosaurs) and I can certainly get on board with it for the purposes of enjoying the series.
3) Laura Roslin’s miracle recovery from cancer – about which I am strangely ambivalent. On the one hand, it strikes me as a bit of a cop out and dramatically speaking the preferred option would have been to have her die. There was a bigger, bolder turn of story to be had from he death. (And in fairness to the series, it is a show that at least strays outside of its comfort zone frequently enough that I did believe they might kill her off.) But on the other hand, I love the character and Mary McDonnell’s portrayal and I would have been sorry to lose her from the series. Hmm.
4) The One-Year-Later jump in the Season 2 finale, where the leap is a shade too sudden and we are forced to adjust to seeing our favourite characters in civvies – and it's a big adjustment. Starbuck with long hair! No! I was a while bridging that gap, when I should have been focusing on the events unfolding. Worst of all these though was Commander Adama’s moustache. What were you thinking, Bill? Hopefully his first act in the wake of the Cylon attack will be an emergency shave. Defcon Wilkinson Sword.
So far in all of this, I have ignored the impossible-to-ignore post-9/11 theme. It’s a massive issue, of course, and it was always bound to be contentious. It is worth noting, I think, that I know it can be disregarded – I know someone who does just that and enjoys the series on its own merits, free of all that War On Terror subtext. (Where, by ‘sub’, I mean ‘in plain sight’.) Without going into the huge depth it ideally deserves, I’ll just say that I’ve managed to embrace the series with and/or without all that. For me, it’s integral and unobtrusive: I’m aware of the analogy, but it doesn’t get in the way in the slightest. It’s worth bearing in mind that the ‘analogy’ is an exaggeration: BSG’s premise is far removed from our worldly woes in that it deals with the very near extinction of the human race and, frankly, if anyone expects humanity to go ‘gentle into that good night’ then they could do worse than consider a career in Starfleet. You can expect people to rage against the dying of that light, and boy will they rage. Maybe – quite probably – we won’t like what many of us might become in the face of such a threat. Maybe – if we can’t, or choose not to – ignore the ‘9/11 stuff’ we don’t like what we’re becoming. But I can only speak from experience as a viewer, and BSG has, to its credit, explored numerous sides of its own arguments – probably with more sides still to explore - even-handedly and without the enforced artificiality of black and white. I don’t like some of the characters’ actions, but I like that I don’t like them. The characters are presented in pseudo-Anna Karenina-fashion: i.e., not only do they inhabit a doom-and-gloom epic, but this is how they are and it's not for the narrative to judge them. I’ve found it thought-provoking, entertaining, gripping, compelling and somewhere along humanity’s flight from certain destruction (I also like the way the population count varies at the head of each episode) it became must-see TV. Which is quite an achievement for a remake of some old series I never cared for.
Of course, every show has its detractors and I gather that some folks see BSG as rather one-note. Someone else smarter than me (there are a lot of them) gave the opinion that it was one-note but played skillfully on a range of instruments. Or words to that effect – it was a while ago and I don’t have the original quote to hand – which is a damn shame, because it sums it up pretty darn well. I also gather that the show has garnered critical acclaim and even hailed as ‘genius’. Genius, I don’t know about – it’s one of those words that tend to be bandied about a little too casually – heck, it’s even thrown at New Doctor Who in the hope that it might stick. Ha. Genius, to my mind, is where everything works brilliantly and, that being the assumption, Battlestar Galactica might be said to demonstrate that from time to time, and New Who too with less frequency. It’s not remotely important. What’s important, by my reckoning, is that Battlestar Galactica produced a three-parter midway through the second season that had me absolutely compelled to watch all three episodes in succession in one evening. The experience was, to be honest, exhausting, but only in a way that the best edge-of-your seat TV can be. And because of the format, I had to watch it on a computer screen, which I generally hate having to do. That’s a true measure of quality right there.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Prefect Slog
Beginning a series of odes to TV shows that, for one reason and several others, afford me greater viewing pleasure than Doctor Who. By which, of course, I mean New Who. Doctor Who in toto (and now I have images of the TARDIS materialising in Dorothy's faithful little dog) will always command a special affection by virtue of my having grown up on a weekly diet of its peculiar brand of Saturday night sf adventure and horror. But there are many areas in which New Who, like several eras of the Classic Series, fails to come up to scratch, areas which are only highlighted when it comes to appreciating some of the other treats on offer. Comparisons of chalk and cheese are something of a fruitless exercise, but make no mistake, New Who is invariably the chalk and I know which I'd rather be consuming. More to the point, the shows under discussion are ones I've been enjoying or have enjoyed relatively recently and it's fun to sit back and reflect on what it is about them that appeals. So, I come not to bash New Who, but not to praise it either. This is about said other shows.
And we'll kick off with Farscape, both because that's the show my wife and I are currently watching through from the beginning and because it's the show more than any other that I think is everything new Doctor Who should be. Okay, it lacks the Doctor and a TARDIS, but it has pretty much everything else. This is not something that's just occurred to me either; this is an impression that struck back when I first followed the series avidly, back when New Who wasn't even a glimmer on the TV horizon. Farscape filled the hole and, like a sci-fi Snickers, really satisfied.
In rewatching, the impression hasn't gone away and the thing that most surprises - and mystifies - me is that it took me as long as it did to get hooked on the series first time round. I can't recall exactly how long, but safe to say it was 'several' episodes before I had warmed to it. Now, I discover that everything was there right from the beginning, but my wife - who is seeing it all for the first time - offered a helpfully fresh perspective and came up with an answer: it was a while before she properly engaged with the characters. And that's fair enough - they're a strange and diverse bunch, and only two of them are sufficiently human to immediately identify with - and perhaps that's true of my own experience on the first watch.
Small wonder, I was about to say, except that's a phrase that just doesn't apply to Farscape. It's absolutely bubbling over with wonder. It's colourful, vibrant, fearlessly inventive and, especially considering just how colourful it is, remarkably dark. It's occasionally wacky and sometimes completely bonkers. It does start out by playing entirely familiar sci-fi riffs, but you can tell right away it's playing them with such flair and creativity that it's like seeing a tribute band that has managed to outclass its role models.
The role models in this case are fairly clear and the show's detractors will be heard deriding it as Buck Rogers or Blake's Seven with Muppets. In fact, that's about all they apparently have to say. The truth is, it's easy of course to encapsulate any series in like manner, and yes, it has a very similar opening premise to Buck Rogers, but it steers a wildly different and frequently courageous course through incredible new territory. Yes, it boasts a surprising number of elements in common with Blake's - criminals on the run in an advanced alien ship, villains in bondage and even its very own Servalan a bit later on - but it carries it off with a vitality that leaves Blake and his RADA-trained chums looking all stilted and stage-struck. Yes, it has (gasp) Muppets - or rather, creatures from the Jim Henson Creature Workshop - but (gasp) so does Star Wars and they enable this show to field a wonderful array of aliens and critters as standard that series like New Who can only long for. Their ability to invest latex with character is astounding and I have no trouble accepting - even embracing (figuratively!) - them as real characters. They put the creat in creature.
The whole production is on a creativity high, in fact, and the 'Muppets' are just one of the resources to hand to bring this universe to life. The design is consistently rich and innovative - that's like a minimum requirement here - and there is a similar energy in the writing, with the scripts lively and dynamic as a rule and the actors so immersed and enthusiastic in their roles that some life is always breathed into even the most average stories. There are duff episodes - every show has them (I'm looking at you, Taking The Stone) - but they're kept afloat by the cast and crew and sheer creative drive, and they're thankfully rare, pretty sure to soon be followed by an outstanding piece of sf adventure TV (The Way We Weren't. Wow.). A lot seems to happen in each 45-minute instalment, the pacing frequently spot-on for any given story and it doesn't lapse into any weekly formula. There's generally a fair share of action for each of the characters, and because this is a show that understands character conflict - and is never afraid to use it! - it's invariably invested with real emotion and drama, with a canny ability to surprise.
A surprising number of episodes are shipbound, but when your ship is Moya, you have a ready alien landscape before you've even landed anywhere. She's a living ship and yes, she's the Liberator, if you're still intent on those Blake's Seven parallels, but she's a character - they actually make sure this living ship is alive - and this is a crew - a Seven, if you will - who would cut off one of Zen's limbs if the need arose - and if he had any. The relationship between the crew and 'their' ship is fascinating, as is the relationship between Moya and Pilot (Farscape's Zen, but oh so much more, and quite possibly the best screen alien creation ever). The special relationship between Pilot and Aeryn Sun is nothing short of beautiful.
Amid the focus on the sf adventure story, plenty of attention is paid to character growth and, interestingly, the show explores all the separation from home and loved ones that New Who sought to do in its more pedestrian, Eastenders sort of way, but steers us very definitely in a different direction: outward. It's tough for Crichton, all this 'strange shit' to come to terms with, but he rises to the challenge, but even as long as he is out there and as much as he adapts to this new life, he never loses that sense that the universe arond him is weird. And it still has more weird to offer. He greets it with wisecracks, certainly, but as laid back as he becomes, he can rarely afford to relax enough to quit respecting it - and it never ceases to be dangerous.
There's strong and convincing growth in evidence for all the characters, as it happens, but I'll be good and confine myself to little thumbnail sketches: Aeryn, with all her authority and command, coming to terms with losing everything she knew and having to become something other than a soldier; Dargo the warrior (every sf show should have one - but this guy is a real Aslan, for any of you who ever played the Traveller RPG) and his quest for freedom, peace and his son; the beautiful and, ulp, really quite dangerous Zhaan (who did that makeup!) with her spiritual journey (and yes, the photogasms); Chiana - aka Pip - with her exquisite puppet-like stances and gestures and her frankly brilliant ability to put something more alien than contact lenses into her gaze, and her growth from little-girl-lost, thief and, to put it bluntly, prostitute to heroine in her own right in her search for security; Rygel - aka Sparky - with his lordly airs, disgusting habits, utter selfishness and rampant kleptomania, and his voyage - well, ours really - to discover whether he has any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Not to mention their collective journey in reaching a closer understanding of Crichton and their growth as a family.
The only characters I really don't much care for are Stark, who as a regular lacks the interest he had as a one-off (as River demonstrated in Firefly, it's very tricky to incorporate a mad character without them becoming annoying), and Jules, who is essentially a parody of all those screaming companions we were used to in Doctor Who, and I would happily space them before I ejected dear old wouldn't-trust-him-as-far-as-anyone-could-throw-him Sparky.
And a discussion of Farscape's characters wouldn't be complete without mentioning the villains and the series is unusual in that it successively supplants its choicest baddies with someone/something bigger and badder, while allowing us to follow their journey, threaded - often closely intertwined - with that of the heroes. The lines are nicely fluid, and the enemy of Crichton's enemies is not his friend, but there's room for some of those uncomfortable and temporary alliances we used to get in Doctor Who between the Doctor and the Master, say. Crais, the vengeful Peacekeeper, is a nasty piece of work, but seems tame by comparison to Scorpius, and in fact improves as a character - if not altogether morally! - once forced to jump ship. Scorpius is a nastier piece of work and you can tell right away he's one of those villains of rare quality, Wayne Pygram steps wholeheartedly into the role and you just know he's relishing every minute; and he perhaps relishes it even more when his character (in a thread surely half-inched by Battlestar Galactica) is split off as a kind of Scorpius emulator, embedded as a chip in Crichton's brain - and allowed to become a distinct and separate personality in his own right, known as Harvey. Then we're subsequently introduced to the formidable Scaren, and you don't need to be told they're a force to be reckoned with - we're shown; and later on, as previously mentioned, Farscape's very own Servalan.
But at this point I'm somewhere in Season 2, and I really shouldn't start getting ahead of myself. Although I have already seen the concluding Peacekeeper Wars mini series, I have not seen any of Season 4 (yet!) and I have heard some people remark that the show's creativity spirals a little out of control, away into the realms of pretentiousness, perhaps managing to distance itself from its audience. I'll have to wait and see for myself on that. But if a series must spiral, I guess I'd rather have it spiral upwards out of control than swirling down a plug hole. So for now I'll carry on enjoying the ride and look forward to looking back on the whole journey - even though I'm already familiar with the ultimate destination.