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TV Review: STRANGER THINGS (Season 1)

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I encountered a great deal of online praise for this series, so that when I had the opportunity to watch it I jumped in eagerly, and with no expectations of any kind, since I knew very little about it. What I found is a small jewel of a story, one that ensnared me completely and led to a quick, compulsive watch.

The story and background have something of a nostalgic feel, thanks to the opening titles that are a clear call-back to the ‘80s – the time period in which the events are set – and to the soundtrack through which we revisit a few hits from those years. Moreover, there is a definite Stephen King vibe to the plot itself, a faint reminiscence of “IT” and “Firestarter”, with some “Carrie” overtones thrown in: which does not mean that the story is derivative, not at all, but rather that it wants to pay homage to the undiscussed master of the genre. And this is just one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.

In the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, young Will Byers disappears without a trace while returning home after a day spent with his friends Mike, Dustin and Lucas. Local police start the search for the boy, but it’s clear that they are not putting all their hearts and energies into it, so that his three friends decide to start looking on their own.  Meanwhile, a  frightened girl with weird powers manages to escape from a nearby secret government installation and connects with the three friends, who believe she might be able to help them find Will.   Something else escaped from the secret facility, however, some formless creature from an alternate dimension, and the missing people’s count starts to go up…

The undeniable truth that characters are everything comes to the fore here in Stranger Things, because each and every one of them gets the chance to shine and to add his or her own contribution to a very satisfying whole: to my surprise, the young kids were the ones who worked best in the economy of the story.  From my point of view, television rarely fares well with younger characters, either making them too “old” and adult for their age, or excessively playing on the cuteness factor; here, though, kids are kids, and in a delightful, naïve way that portrays them with accuracy, showing at the same time a richness of imagination that’s typical of that age and that is able to navigate the thin border between reality and fantasy with ease and profound belief.

When we first see them, before Will’s disappearance, they are playing at some board game, dealing with dangerous traps and terrifying fictional monsters with gleeful abandon. Once their friend vanishes and the mysterious Eleven literally lands on their doorstep, they are ready to acknowledge her weird powers with the same easy acceptance of gamers who are being offered a special card to play. This does not mean they walk into danger blindfolded, on the contrary their game-playing seems to have prepared them, both mentally and on a practical level, to face the hazards from unbelievable monsters, and uncomprehending adults, with enviable clarity.

Among the adults, the best performance comes from Joyce, Will’s mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder: the distraught desperation of a mother, ready to believe the unbelievable for the sake of her son, is depicted with amazing craft, never going over the top despite the truly crazy paths she chooses to travel. Close second comes Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour), a man marked by a tragic past and walking the very thin line between duty and the need to do the right thing.

Stranger Things, before the tale of weird horror it is on the surface, is above all a tale about marginalized people having to face extraordinary events: Will and his friends are smaller kids, not exactly geared for physicality, and therefore the butt of cruel jokes and constant hazing from the school bullies; Joyce is a single mother, struggling to make ends meet and therefore looked on with suspicion by the closed society of a small town; Sheriff Hopper has a history of drinking as a coping mechanism against his loss, and does not enjoy the full respect of his deputies – the two best (or rather worst) examples of small-minded members of an inward-facing community. And finally Eleven, a child who was taken from her mother at birth because of her peculiar powers, raised and trained by Doctor Brenner (a very disturbing Matthew Modine) with a cold, practical efficiency that to me represents the true horror of the story, even beyond that of the blood-thirsty monster from the parallel reality.

The eight episodes of the first season of Stranger Things manage to concentrate a great deal of story and character development in such a small time frame, and to make the most of that time with a judicious use of pacing and the levels of tension. While the main events do reach a sort of conclusion, the door is left open for further developments – either in the same setting or a different one – and not all mysteries are solved: a choice I greatly appreciated and one that will keep me on the alert for the arrival of Season Two.

My Rating:


Waiting for The Expanse…

Season 2 of the SyFy show inspired by the amazing space opera series by James S.A. Corey is about to begin, and as I was looking for some news and trailers (by the way, the few snippets we were afforded about Martian marine Bobbie Draper are more than promising…) I found this quite funny Season 1 recap – or rather, re-cat, since it’s all done with cats in the roles of the main characters.

It’s too delightful not to be shared 🙂

WARNING

If you have not seen Season 1 of The Expanse, or read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, the video will be full of spoilers: watch at your own risk!

 

TOP FIVE WEDNESDAY #12

This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.

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This week’s theme: SERIES THAT GOT WORSE WITH EACH BOOK/SEASON

This week’s topic is an interesting one, since it allows us to mix book and Tv series: we all had one or more experiences of quite promising series that started with the proverbial bang and then tapered out with the equally proverbial whimper. There is no malicious glee in pointing them out, because disappointments burn both ways…

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I will start with Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle: the first book, The Warded Man, was an amazing, exciting discovery – imagine a world where the fall of darkness means that demonic creatures emerge from the very ground, bent on destroying the hapless humans they find on their way, unless people shelter behind wards, powerful symbols capable of keeping these hellish creatures at bay. I literally consumed the book, and went looking for more, although the second volume, The Desert Spear, suffered from a little repetition and a few instances of… characterization hiccups, for want of a better word. Still, the story managed to make me forget these small disturbances and move on to book 3 – and that’s where the trouble started in earnest: The Daylight War not only managed to retread old narrative paths (in some cases for the third time) but degraded toward a soap-opera-like style of storytelling that completely alienated me from what had started as a very promising tale. Not the kind of journey I had hoped to make…

I know that my next choice will prove highly unpopular, but I have to mention Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: I received the first volume of this saga, The Eye of the World, as a birthday gift a couple of years after its initial publication and I remember enjoying this epic tale of the struggle between Good and Evil and its vast cast of characters.  Yes, there were a few similarities with Tolkien I had perceived, namely those creatures (I can’t remember their name, it’s been a few years…) whose mere presence caused paralyzing fear in their victims, and that strongly reminded me of the Ringwraiths; or the journey through The Ways, that seemed like a combination between Moria and the Paths of the Dead.    Sadly, with the following books, the narrative appeared more and more bloated with long, excruciating descriptions that left little room for plot advancement; there were constant repetitions of annoying characters’ behavior (after a few hundred braid-chewings by a particular character I was ready to scream in frustration), and what’s worse, those annoying similarities kept cropping up and waving at me: just as an example, I will mention the Aes Sedai, a women-only powerful order bent on shaping humanity through age-long intervention; and the Aiel, a desert-dwelling people whose combat skills are known and feared, waiting for the proverbial Chosen One to lead them to victory.  Dune fans, do they both remind you of something?
If the novels had been leaner, the pace swifter, I might have overlooked it all, but the combination of what I perceived like derivative elements with the glacial progression of the story made me abandon the saga midway through book 4.

Some time ago I read, and enjoyed, Ann Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax SF series, so when I learned she had started a new one, Razorland, I wasted no time in acquiring book 1, Enclave.  It possessed many of the elements I appreciate in a post-apocalyptic tale: humanity has been decimated by a plague whose surviving victims turn into feral creatures called Freaks.  What remains of humankind had to take shelter into underground tunnels, where life is short and brutal, and where most knowledge of the outside world has been lost or transformed into a myth. Young Deuce, a huntress for her clan, will have to face a dangerous journey on the surface in search of the hope for a better life.  So far, so good, despite the clear YA bent of this story: the first volume being more focused on the changed world outside of the tunnels, it made for a fascinating reading, and equally interesting were the changes in society and mentality brought on by the need to live in darkness.  But unfortunately with book 2, Outpost, the unavoidable (?) YA tropes kept cropping up at an alarming rate: love triangles, pouting teenagers who know better than more experienced adults, and so on.  Book 2 ended in the DNF pile, with my deep regrets for the many lost opportunities.

Moving from books to TV I’m going to express another unpopular opinion by mentioning the show Battlestar Galactica, the reboot that aired between 2004 and 2009 after a successful return with a short miniseries in 2003.

The miniseries was nothing short of amazing: after being almost wiped out by the Cylons, the cybernetic constructs they created, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies regroup aboard a handful of vessels, led by the capital ship Galactica, running away in search of a new home and relentlessly pursued by the murdering Cylons.  There was much to enjoy in this revival of an older, cheesy show of the ’80s: the Cylons were both robot-like creations and human-looking creatures, giving them the possibility of infiltrating the human survivor groups and therefore creating a constant atmosphere of suspicion on the vessels where the remnants of civilization tried to hold on day by day, with constant threat of annihilation and of the mechanical failures of old, overtaxed ships.  Older, less advanced technology had to be abandoned in favor of more primitive versions that could not be hacked or infiltrated by the Cylons, leading to a mix of space-age and WWII submarine warfare quality to the story being presented on screen, one of the most fascinating aspects of the reboot.
The first two seasons aired after the miniseries were on the same level of narrative quality and managed to keep the story flowing and the tension high, but with season 3 the first cracks started to appear: unlike the Cylons, who we were constantly told had a plan, the series’ creators seemed to meander as aimlessly as the hapless survivors (or maybe more…), and the moral and existential dilemmas that had made the beginning of this revisitation so appealing, were shifted to the side in favor of entanglements with quasi-religious myths and subplots that ended up twisting on themselves and ultimately ending nowhere.  Even though I struggled on to the very end, I had lost interest in the plight of the survivors, and kept watching only to see what it was all about: in this, as well, I was disappointed, because the ending made as little sense as what had preceded it; worse still, the sort of epilogue that rolled on the screen in the last few minutes managed to completely overshadow what I think would have been a fitting finale – that image of Admiral Adama sitting on a hill beside a grave (I’m not going to spoil whose, just in case…) and looking over the horizon of the new world, a poetic, poignant image that would at least have counterbalanced the nonsense before it.  Missed opportunities, indeed.

Vampires are one of the staunchest pillars of the horror genre, especially when they are bloody and mean – no sparklers needing to apply, thank you very much – so when I learned that Guillermo del Toro had contributed to the creation of this show, taken from a book trilogy penned by del Toro himself with Chuck Hogan, I was quite excited.  The Strain tells the tale of a vampire infestation starting in New York with the arrival of a plane with everyone on board dead; a mysterious casket from the plane’s hold is brought into the city and the horror begins, in an atmosphere and with a premise that both nod at and honor Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  At first the victims are believed to be prey to a mysterious illness, but soon it appears that something far more terrible than a mere virus is at work.
So far, so good, indeed: the vampires depicted here are quite scary, and the tension builds up to breathless levels, and if sometimes the scenes veer toward excessive levels of grossness, one could take it all in stride – after all we’re talking about blood-sucking creatures!  Where the show completely fails, though, is in characterization, especially with the protagonist Dr. Ephraim Goodweather: I can’t remember a less sympathetic, less endearing main character, one I constantly felt in need of slapping hard to try and put some sense and empathy into, or to move him to act with some sense instead of blundering around like a headless chicken.  His lines seem to be taken out of a bad B-movie and his actions make even less sense than his behavior: when I realized that I kept hoping that the “big bad guys” would remove him from the scene in a bloody, painful way, I understood there was something very wrong with the story, the writing, or both and therefore I did not go past the first season.

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #5

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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The universe speaks in many languages, but only one voice. The language is not Narn or Human or Centauri or Gaim or Minbari. It speaks in the language of hope. It speaks in the language of trust. It speaks in the language of strength and the language of compassion. It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul. But always it is the same voice. It is the voice of our ancestors speaking through us and the voice of our inheritors waiting to be born. The small, still voice that says: ‘We are one. No matter the blood, no matter the skin, no matter the world, no matter the star. We are one. No matter the pain, no matter the darkness, no matter the loss, no matter the fear. We are one.’ Here, gathered together in common cause, we begin to realize this singular truth and this singular rule that we must be kind to one another. Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us and each voice lost diminishes us. We are the voice of the universe, the soul of creation, the fire that will light our way to a better future. We are one.

(G’Kar / Declaration of Principles – The Paragon of Animals)

I spent my years in one shelter after another. But sooner or later, I was able to leave the shelter and walk out into the daylight. You do not have that luxury. You carry your shelter with you, every day. You didn’t grow up. You grew old.

(G’Kar – A View from the Gallery)

In the past we had little to do with other races. Evolution teaches us that we must fight that which is different in order secure land, food, and mates for ourselves, but we must reach a point when the nobility of intellect asserts itself and says: No. We need not be afraid of those who are different, we can embrace that difference and learn from it.

(G’Kar – The Ragged Edge)

We are all the sum of our tears. Too little and the ground is not fertile, and nothing can grow there. Too much, the best of us is washed away.

(G’Kar – Objects in Motion)

I believe that when we leave a place, part of it goes with us and part of us remains. Go anywhere in the station, when it is quiet, and just listen. After a while, you will hear the echoes of all our conversations, every thought and word we’ve exchanged. Long after we are gone, our voices will linger in these walls for as long as this place remains. But I will admit that the part of me that is going will very much miss the part of you that is staying.

(G’Kar – Objects in Motion)

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #4

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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Have you ever heard of the hour of the wolf? My father told me about it. It’s the time between three and four in the morning. You can’t sleep, and all you can see is the troubles and the problems and the ways that your life should’ve gone but didn’t. All you can hear is the sound of your own heart.  […]  In times like this, my father used to take one large glass of vodka before bed. To keep the wolf away, he said. And then he would take three very small drinks of vodka, just in case she had cubs while she was waiting outside.

(Ivanova – The Hour of the Wolf)

Fighting a war is easy. Destroying is easy. Building a new world out of what’s left of the old, that is what’s hard.

(Delenn – Lines of Communication)

The truth is fluid. The truth is subjective. Out there it doesn’t matter what time it is. In here it is lunch time, if you and I decide that it is. The truth is sometimes what you believe it to be, and other times what you decide it to be.

(The Interrogator – Intersections in Real Time)

Who am I? I’m Susan Ivanova, Commander, daughter of Andrei and Sofie Ivanov. I am the right hand of vengeance, and the boot that is gonna kick your sorry ass all the way back to Earth, sweetheart. I’m death incarnate and the last living thing that you’re ever going to see. God sent me.

(Ivanova – Between the Darkness and the Light)

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #3

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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I’ve taken the opportunity provided by my incarceration to meditate, to think. […] In here, Mr Garibaldi, you can not hide from yourself. Everything out there has only one purpose, to distract us from ourselves, from what is truly important. There are no distractions in here. We can learn much from silence.

(G’Kar – Messages from Earth)

“I believe that I have been touched. That I am meant for something greater. A greater darkness or a greater good, I can no longer say. All I have ever wanted is to serve our people. I need to see what is before me. If I should escape it, or embrace it. If there is any longer a choice.”

“There is always choice. We say there is no choice only to comfort ourselves with the decision we have already made. If you understand that, there’s hope. If not ..”

(Londo and Lady Morella – Point of No Return)

Three years. For three years I warned you this day was coming. But you would not listen. Pride, you said, presumption. And now the Shadows are on the move. The Centauri and the younger worlds are at war, the Narns have fallen. Even the Humans are fighting one another. The pride was yours, the presumption was yours. For a thousand years we have been awaiting for fulfillment of prophecy, and when it finally happens, you scorn it, you reject it. Because you no longer believe it yourselves. ‘We stand between the candle and the star, between the darkness and the light.‘ You say the words, but your hearts are empty, your ears closed to the truth. You stand for nothing but your own petty interests. ‘The problems of others are not our concern.‘ I do not blame you for standing silent in your shame. You, who knew what was coming, but refused to take up the burden of this war. If the warrior caste will not fight, then the rest of us will.

(Delenn – Severed Dreams)

Every day, here and at home, we are warned about the enemy. But who is the enemy? Is it the alien? Well, we are all alien to one another. Is it the one who believes differently than we do? No, not at all, my friends. The enemy is fear. The enemy is ignorance. The enemy is the one who tells you that you must hate that which is different. Because, in the end, that hate will turn on you. And that same hate will destroy you.

(Reverend Dexter – And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place)

All around us, it was as if the universe were holding its breath, waiting. All of life can be broken down into moments of transition or moments… of revelation. This had the feeling of both. G’Quan wrote: ‘There is a greater darkness than the one we fight. It is the darkness of the soul that has lost its way. The war we fight is not against powers and principalities, it is against chaos and despair. Greater than the death of flesh is the death of hope, the death of dreams. Against this peril we can never surrender. The future is all around us, waiting in moments of transition, to be born in moments of revelation. No one knows the shape of that future, or where it will take us. We know only that it is always born in pain’.

(G’Kar – Z’ha’dum)

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #2

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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We are dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers. We study the mysteries of laser and circuit, crystal and scanner, holographic demons and invocation of equations. These are the tools we employ, and we know many things. […] The true secrets, the important things. Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever. Seven words to make them go without pain. How to say good-bye to a friend who is dying. How to be poor. How to be rich. How to rediscover dreams when the world has stolen them.

(Elric – The Geometry of Shadows)

It has occurred to me recently that I have never chosen anything. I was born into a role that was prepared for me. I did everything I was asked to do because it never occurred to me to choose otherwise. And now, at the end of my life, I wonder what might have been.  […]  So much has been lost, so much forgotten. So much pain, so much blood. And for what, I wonder? The past tempts us, the present confuses us, and the future frightens us. And our lives slip away, moment by moment, lost in that vast terrible in-between. But there is still time to seize that one last, fragile moment. To choose something better, to make a difference, as you say.

(Emperor Turhan – The Coming of Shadows)

No one else would ever build a place like this. Humans share one unique quality, they build communities. If the Narns or the Centauri or any other race built a station like this, it would be used only by their own people. But everywhere Humans go, they create communities out of diverse and sometimes hostile populations. It is a great gift and a terrible responsibility. One that can not be abandoned.

(Delenn – And Now For a Word)

No dictator, no invader can hold an imprisoned population by force of arms forever. There is no greater power in the universe than the need for freedom. Against that power, governments and tyrants and armies cannot stand. The Centauri learned this lesson once. We will teach it to them again. Though it take a thousand years, we will be free.

(G’Kar – The Long, Twilight Struggle)

SciFi Month 2016: Babylon 5 Quotes Season #1

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Science Fiction on the small screen offers a wide variety of interesting shows, but still it seems to lack the depth and complexity we can find in books – and it stands to reason, since the TV format must adhere to rules that don’t apply to the written word. Yet there is a show that transcends these rules because it was conceived as a five-part novel in the mind of its creator, and like a novel it doesn’t only deliver action and adventure, but also great characterization with visible growth, and a gripping narrative arc.

The show I’m talking about is Babylon 5: despite its “age” (it ran from 1994 to 1998) it still feels fresh and actual because it’s not about impressive CGI or technological marvels, but it deals instead with people, with their reactions to extraordinary circumstances, with the choices that those circumstances force on them and the consequences of their actions.  I’ve often thought that it could work just as well as a theatrical production, because its strength is in the story, the thought-provoking issues it deals with and the intense dialogues spoken by the characters.

Here are some of my favorite quotes – divided by season: I hope that they will rekindle fond memories in those who watched and loved this show, and inspire the curiosity of those who have missed this complex, thoughtful and very passionate story until now.

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We Centauri live our lives for appearances, position, status, title. These are the things by which we define ourselves. But when I look beneath the mask I am forced to wear, I see only emptiness.

(Londo – Born to the Purple)

Everyone lies Michael. The innocent lie because they don’t want to be blamed for something they did not do. The guilty lie because they don’t have any other choice.

(Sinclair – And the Sky Full of Stars)

I want my people to reclaim there rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars. I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power. I want to stop running through my life, like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or to look forward. I want us to be what we used to be. I want … I want it all back, the way that it was.

(Londo – Signs and Portents)

There are things in the universe billions of years older than either of our races. They’re vast, timeless, and if they’re aware of us at all, it is as little more than ants, and we have as much chance of communicating with them as an ant has with us. We know, we’ve tried, and we’ve learned that we can either stay out from underfoot or be stepped on. […] And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe, that we have not yet explained everything.

(G’Kar – Mind War)

There comes a time when you look into the mirror, and you realize that what you see is all that you will ever be. Then you accept it, or you kill yourself. Or you stop looking into mirrors.

(Londo – Chrysalis)

STAR TREK BEYOND: a short, spoiler-free review and some longer musings

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It was impossible not to be aware of the expectations – both for good and bad – surrounding this movie, in consideration of the troubled life of its predecessors, disowned by the staunchest Star Trek fans for the perceived lack of ties with the original material, if not for the outright betrayal of the original vision.

While I enjoyed Star Trek in the past, with time it lost much of its appeal, especially once I was able to compare it with other more mature, and more daring, science fiction shows: don’t misunderstand me, Trek will always have a place in my “affections”, because I started studying English some 40 years ago through the TOS episodes’ novelizations by James Blish, and in so doing discovered the fascinating universe it depicted, and the existence of a SF show I had not been previously aware of.  Yet it’s not the one I would choose to define what I most enjoy in science fiction.

For starters, what looked like innovative premises at the time of its conception (a huge alliance of cultures working together in harmony; a society that has gone beyond the need for money or basic creature comforts; a galaxy where knowledge and mutual understanding are highly valued; and so on…) represents the kind of utopia that’s nice to see but that we know could never take shape, not with what we understand about humanity now, when we have lost many of the hopes that were the show’s backbone then.  Moreover, the need to follow this particular universe’s ground rules ended up creating several constraints for the many writers who were called to work for the franchise. In Gene Roddenberry’s vision, there should have been no conflicts, no troubles among the perfectly integrated crews of the Federation starships, or among the many races of the Federation, and in such far-reaching peace and harmony there was far too much space for predictability and boredom, and almost none for some interesting clash of characters and personalities.  Some of the most die-hard fans adhere to this vision with far more tenacity than did the series’ creator himself, and look with suspicion – or worse – on any attempt at splicing some different features into Trek’s “genome”.

It’s no secret that the Trek incarnation that attempted to get out of these rigid schemes – Deep Space 9 – is the one that those die-hard fans like less: in DS9 there was interpersonal conflict and we were shown how the Federation and Starfleet were not perfect and irreproachable entities but were instead, quite humanly, prone to flaws and areas of darkness. What others might perceive as shortcomings was, to me, the reason for a renewed interest in the saga, so that this series is the only one I can re-watch even now without feeling that time has left its inexorable mark upon it – at least for the episodes who follow a particular narrative arc, without wasting time and effort in improbable holodeck escapades or Ferengi capers that to me hold nothing of the wonder and adventure I expect to find in space opera.

After the poor results of the last TV series, Enterprise, it looked as if Star Trek had said all it had to say, so the news that a reboot would be accomplished through big-screen movies was welcomed with mixed reactions: many worried at the changes that would be introduced by story and characterization, altering forever the perceptions built over the decades. For me, the first two movies – while spectacular and entertaining – were something of a disappointment: the use of the word “reboot”, at least as I intend it, means the renewal of a story through the insertion of fresh ideas and points of view. Sadly, there was nothing of the sort in those two first movies, on the contrary they re-used old patterns and narrative threads, only presenting them in a new, more modern and glittery dress.  It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had decided to take the show’s catchphrase and to twist it into an unimaginative “where everyone has already gone before” – too many times.  For a story that took its inspiration from the exploration of the unknown, it seemed that the boldness had evaporated and the choice for time-tested secondhand material had removed any desire for expansion and evolution out of the playing field.

That said, I was nevertheless curious about this latest movie, and as I always do I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt, refusing to condemn it out of hand like many did, especially when the first trailer hit the web. True, it looked like another offer with a great deal of action, explosions and daring stunts, and little in the way of character growth or depth, but I told myself that in summertime even a loud, boisterous “popcorn movie” can be acceptable, even if it’s not on the same line of its source material. And the friends with whom I went to the theater agreed with me.

Well, sometimes going in with low expectations does pay off in the end: the movie was a pleasant surprise, overall. The story, for once, was original and not a rehash of some previous episode, or some already-used theme: granted, it was nothing world-changing, but it went over well, and the pacing was fast and at times quite breathless.  The characterization showed some improvements too, offering new facets on the main characters’ personalities and inner drive, with a few introspective moments that were rather nice to witness. There was the appropriate amount of humor, placed at the right moments, and when it was directed inwards – almost in an attempt to deconstruct some long-standing traditions of the show – it worked like a charm: there is a brief sequence, near the beginning, when Kirk comes back aboard after a not-so-successful mission, and he off-handedly comments about “another ripped shirt” that had me laughing out loud in sheer delight, since it was very effective because of its tongue-in-cheek nature, and the unspoken but clear subtext it carried.

There were some poignant moments as well, and they integrated seamlessly with the more boisterous whole: the brief, almost subliminal “for Anton”, paying homage to the recently deceased Anton Yelchin (a.k.a. Chekov); and the tribute paid to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the first, iconic Mr. Spock: this was carried out in a way that was so starkly emotional that even a true Vulcan would not have objected to it – to say how deeply spectators were affected would be redundant…

And even if the required Bad Guy’s motivations seemed a bit of a dejà vu, even if there were a few plot glitches – something that hit my awareness only after the movie ended, which means that the momentum carried them well nonetheless – the overall effect is more than positive, and for the first time since the Borg I felt that the adversaries’ might was something to be frightened of.  Look at that swarm of ships and tell me you are not scared!

If this is the new course the franchise has chosen to travel on, I can get back on board: nothing special or Earth-shattering happened, I’ll give you that, but for once I felt some substance under the glitter, and it was enough.

 

My Rating:

TV Review: THE EXPANSE – Season 1 (spoiler-free)

Every time a successful book (or series of books) is translated to the screen, readers always deal with some nagging doubts: fear that the source material will be changed too much from the original; that the actors chosen to portray the various characters will not be equal to the task; that the switch from the imagined to the visual will prove a huge disappointment.  Now that I’ve finally watched the first season of The Expanse, I can say to my extreme satisfaction that those fears were groundless: the show managed the transition from the book(s) quite successfully, and it also kept my attention riveted to the story-line even though I was familiar with it. And that’s not an easy feat.

On hindsight – and after a careful re-watch – I understand that the show had an uphill road to travel, and one that was charged with a doubly difficult task: on one side there were the book readers, like myself, who expected to see a faithful rendition of a compelling story (or as faithful as the medium allows, of course), while on the other there were the viewers with no prior knowledge of the facts and who needed to be guided into the story, to become invested in the characters and in their journey.  And in the meantime it needed to deliver a product with good enough ratings as to be eligible for renewal.  Enough to give anyone nightmares…

Despite this intimidating prospects, The Expanse‘s screenwriters were not afraid to take their time to develop the story, the background and the characters: it’s a proof of both courage and confidence at a time when viewers rarely possess the patience to wait for a slow buildup, and can decree the premature end of a promising show by killing it with poor ratings. Because, for some reason, while people at large can accept and even welcome a slowly-developing story in a book, they want to cut to the quick when watching a tv show, as if they thought that the visual medium should be pared down to a minimum.   So I was surprised when I discovered that the pace of this first season was quite leisurely, but after a while I understood how the “big picture” was being painted in incremental brush strokes that expanded (no pun intended…) a viewer’s understanding of the playing field and the characters, while raising the stakes little by little – it was something akin to Sherazade’s game: keep the listeners interested, grab their attention, but don’t reveal too much, so they will be back for more (and possibly decide NOT to kill you in the morning…)

This narrative choice also avoided another danger, that of long exposition that can slow a story’s momentum. There was a great deal of information to impart here: the reach of human exploration in space, the living conditions in various environments, the technological level and the politics of it all. Through those little brush strokes, and the almost subliminal clues offered by visuals or by small bits of dialog, the show kept building that information in a satisfying way that nonetheless never interfered with the story-flow.  One of the best examples is given with the Belters: it would have been impossible (and quite costly) to show them all with the elongated bodies resulting from a life in micro-gravity, so we were given just a couple of glimpses of extreme cases, and several references were made to the fact, reinforced by the cultural and behavioral patterns that were present as visual clues. It all added up in underlining the Belters’… other-ness without need for lengthy explanations.

While our subconscious was being fed all this information, the story developed under our eyes through three main points of view: this is the only major change from the book, and one whose wisdom I understand – not to mention the fact that it brought one of my favorite characters on stage much earlier than anticipated!  Adding Chrisjen Avarasala as a point of view, besides Miller and Holden, makes for a more complete picture of the complex political currents flowing in the area of space inhabited by humanity, and for a more dynamic change of scenery between the various playing fields.  Detective Miller can be our eyes and ears in the Belt, offering a view of living conditions on the frontier and on the impact of corporate interests on the inhabitants; Jim Holden and his crew show us what it means to ply the distances between planets and outposts, and the dangers inherent in this kind of life; Avarasala, the consummate politician from Earth, helps us understand how it all comes together, how the power plays between the home planet, a proudly independent Mars and the Belt colonies can affect it all.

The show was also very successful in giving us a version of the future that is all but highly technological and glamorous: the frontier – here represented by the Belt – is dirty and drab, the living quarters cramped and grungy. Water and air are rationed, and the latter’s quality can be contaminated by sub-standard filters.  Spacers fare no better: their ships suffer from poor and careless maintenance, and traveling between worlds with cargo or equipment is as fascinating as carrying a truck-load of vegetables from one city to another.  And there are the inherent dangers of such a life, because – for example – gravity can kill you: it does so when it’s too much and you need drugs to sustain the crushing force of too many Gs of acceleration, and it also kills you, more slowly, when it’s not enough and your bones don’t fuse properly, or become too brittle to live in an Earth-like environment.

As if all of the above were not enough, there are the risks coming from human greed and the convoluted plot that the characters struggle to unravel…

This leisurely, incremental progress represents the winning strategy to lure viewers into the story, as I understood by reading various online comments about people having to pay close attention to detail in order to keep abreast of the developments. And yet it felt somewhat frustrating: part of me wanted to see certain events from the book, and as the number of remaining episodes dwindled, I knew that this first season would not cover the entirety of Leviathan Wakes. It was really my only disappointment, and I can rationally agree that it’s only a minor one, even though there’s still a small, quite childish voice insisting that she wanted it all, that what I was given was not nearly enough.  Still, it’s a measure of how much I loved this translation from book to screen, and of how it successfully engaged me: knowing that a second season is already in the works is a comfort – a small one, granted, but a comfort anyway. The journey is not over.

syfy-the-expanse

It would not be a complete review if I did not speak about the characters, and the actors who gave them life: I imagine it’s a tricky job to find the right person for any given character, especially when he or she has been fleshed out over the course of several books, and there are huge expectations from the reading crowd.  As the cast choices were announced over time, I was both happy and thrilled by learning that Shohreh Aghdashloo would play Chrisjen Avarasala: having seen this actress before, I knew that the strong personality she can project and that peculiarly husky voice she possesses would be perfect for this character – and they were, indeed. Her portrayal manages to balance the shrewd, ruthless politician with the person who still retains her humanity but knows it can be a liability in her chosen job. No casting could have been more spot-on that this one.

My uncertainties concerned instead the rest of the cast, for no other reason that I knew none of them, but again, seeing them on screen, those doubts disappeared soon. For example, I feared that Thomas Jane would not look seedy enough for detective Miller, but he played the part perfectly, showing the various sides of the man in a very believable way: the slightly corrupt, disheartened cop who suddenly finds a cause he believes in and pursues out of sheer doggedness; the cynic who is capable of unexpected acts of bravery and sacrifice; the man walking on the razor’s edge between two worlds, who knows he does not belong to either one anymore.

Cas Anvar as Alex and Wes Chatam as Amos have replaced my mental image of their book counterparts for me: they both felt right from the very start, as if they had been playing these characters for a long time and were more than comfortable in their shoes. Alex’s cockiness, so typical of ship pilots, is portrayed with flair and the right dose of humor that provides a counterpoint to that arrogance, while a few visual clues give us a glimpse of the man’s innermost turmoils.  Amos, on the other hand, required an equally difficult balance between a killer’s soul and a sort of basic innocence, a dichotomy that’s carried off with successful, and admirable, credibility.

Dominique Tipper as Naomi Nagata (a figure I’ve come to appreciate even more with the last book in the series) is the best choice from this group: she manages to bring Naomi into sharp relief with all her contradictions, the things left unsaid or buried deeply, the sense of a harsh past that nevertheless has not prevented her from becoming a strong, independent person. There is a hint of layers upon layers here, that’s conveyed by looks and silences more than words: I can’t wait to see how she will further develop the character in the future.

The jury is however still undecided about Steven Strait as Jim Holden: I admit I was a little prejudiced because he looks too young for my mental image of this character. Granted, Holden is a young person, but still in the book he carries that air of gravitas that makes him look and act as an older one. And what I saw on screen did not exactly match that mental image, but in the course of the show I saw some progress, and growth, that made me hope he might become more comfortable in this role.

With The Expanse there is no doubt that SyFy has made a grand return to the genre it used to be know for: I know I’m not the only one hoping that this will be only the beginning of a long-awaited rebirth.

My Rating:


(and a gold medal)