Reviews

INTERGALACTIC – Season 1 (spoiler-free review)

When the Sky platform announced the arrival of this new SF series, to be released starting from May 31st, I was very intrigued by the details revealed in the promotional trailers, particularly by the protagonists, a group of women convicts who steal a ship and make a run for the planet Arcadia, possibly the last place in the known universe where Earth’s oppressive regime does not reach.  The echoes of Farscape and Firefly in the plot represented the main attraction for me, and I was eager to see where this new SF adventure would take my imagination.

In the year 2143 Earth has undergone some devastating changes of an unspecified nature, although it would be easy to imagine something related to climate: political power now resides with the Commonworld, whose goal to preserve what’s left of our planet is pursued with an iron fist and a totalitarian bent that add a dystopic layer to the overall background. The first sequences of the pilot episode show us a new and futuristic city of London built on the crumbling ruins of the old one, where the destitute and the criminals still eke out a life of sorts.  Ash Harper, a young and on-the-rise pilot/police officer and the daughter of a powerful woman, just concluded the chase of an elusive thief and is celebrating her future prospects when she is suddenly arrested on the charge of having stolen some precious substance: summarily tried, she is placed on a transport ship, the Hemlock, together with other convicts destined to off-world deportation – including the one she caught just a few hours prior.  Once Ash’s mother manages to discover that the evidence against her was forged, it’s too late: the Hemlock is underway and the prisoners have staged a rebellion that left them in control of the ship and of a very useful hostage…

What follows is a madcap chase through the galaxy, with stopovers on various alien planets, as the group searches for the coordinates to Arcadia, where they will be free: for Ash, who finds herself in a very dangerous situation given her company, the adventure will also turn into an eye-opening journey where she will learn about the Commonworld’s dark side and will get to know her traveling companions, some of whom are not truly criminals but rather victims of the government’s ruthless strategies.

With such intriguing premises I frankly expected something more, but was somewhat disappointed: this first season is mildly enjoyable and each episode holds enough twists and character reveals to prove engaging, but I could not shake the feeling that both creators and cast did not give their best here.  More than once, moving from one episode to the next, I wondered if I had not missed some other narrative segment, because the story felt uneven, missing some vital connection that would make the current situation more clear: while I don’t enjoy long, drawn-out info dumps – in any medium – much of what was presented on screen seemed to suggest a kind of background knowledge that was never offered to the viewers, which gave the narrative flow an uneven quality that inflicted a serious handicap to the show’s overall quality.

Characterization suffers its own troubles as well: what could have been a refreshing, all-female crew (there are also two men on board, but they mostly remain on the margins of the story), squandered its potential by turning these women into merely aggressive stereotypes, once again reinforcing the notion that strength in a woman has to express itself into belligerence and outright hostility.  This less than original choice was compounded in some instances by over-the-top acting that felt far too excessive to be credible, and by several lines of dialogue that went from unsubtle to cringe-worthy.  Feeling a connection with these characters proved quite difficult, if not impossible, and even when some revelations about their individual pasts hinted at the possibility of seeing the real person behind the mask, their return to the previous, wildly hostile behavior obliterated any chance for real character growth.

Still, there is some potential in this story, whose short run of only 8 episodes probably penalized its possibilities for a more organic development: from the middle of the season, several elements seem to point out toward a wider narrative scope, and for this reason I will give the next season of this series a chance, to see if it possesses the “courage” to evolve beyond the stereotypes it leans on and to find a better-defined identity. First seasons tend to suffer from growing pains, and I’m curious to see if Intergalactic can go beyond these pains and turn into a story worth following.

My Rating:

Reviews

SHADOW AND BONE SEASON 1 (Netflix series) – #Wyrdandwonder

Before embarking in the review for the first season of the series inspired by Leigh Bardugo’s trilogy I need to state that I have not read her books, so I came to this story in total ignorance of its background and characters, which makes me unable to compare the two mediums – although, from what I was able to gather on various comments online, it would seem that the translation from books to screen was reasonably faithful to the source material.  I also learned that the script is a mix between the Shadow and Bone trilogy proper and the story portrayed in the Six of Crows duology, which for me added a nice counterpoint to the core narrative (and compelled me to finally add Six of Crows to my reading queue, after leaving it to languish on my TBR for far too long).

The story, in a nutshell: the kingdom of Ravka (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Tsarist Russia from the 19th Century) is split in two by a phenomenon called the Fold, an area of turbulent darkness inhabited by the Volcra, ravenous and nightmarish creatures. The kingdom is further divided by the separation between its mundane inhabitants and the Grisha, people with the ability to manipulate elemental forces, and for this reason both feared and despised. Young Alina Starkov, an orphan serving in the military, discovers that she holds a unique power, that of summoning light – a power that might vanquish the Fold and its terrible creatures forever: for this reason Alina finds herself at the center of a power struggle whose main strings are connected to General Kirigan, also a powerful Grisha, whose goals might not be completely straightforward…

As I said, I came to this series with no previous background, and at first I was a little lost in trying to connect all the dots, particularly because there are three main narrative lines in the story: the one focused on Alina, the one following the Crows (a band of thieves looking for the heist that will make their fortune) and the one about a Grisha who’s been kidnapped by enemies of Ravka.  Once I got my bearings however, I was able to enjoy the story and get invested in it, although I have to admit that sometimes it felt as if the viewers were forced to bite off more than they could chew: my lack of knowledge of the books series played a part in this, of course, but I had the impression that a couple more episodes, besides the eight slated for this first season, might have given the narrative more room to breathe.  The crowded storylines, while offering the possibility of moving across Ravka with the change of POW and therefore exploring the setting in its different locations, left little room to truly grow attached to the characters who seemed to me more like archetypes than living and breathing creations with which to establish the necessary emotional connection.

And indeed the archetypes abound in this first segment of the story: Alina is the classic orphan, shunned and underrated, who is later discovered as the holder of a vital power that will turn her into the proverbial Chosen One. She moves through all the required stages of… chosenhood (is that a word? 😀 ), from denial to wonder to acceptance and for most of the time she lets herself go with the flow, sometimes making ill-advised choices or trusting the wrong people, in what are the established canons of YA literature. There is also the hint of a love triangle that – to my enormous relief – did not last long, momentarily shifting Alina’s affections from her childhood friend Mal to the enigmatic General Kirigan, the Shadow Summoner.  This latter represents another YA firm staple, that of the darkly brooding character who serves as the antithesis to the shining wholesomeness of Mal, who in turn is not exempt from the expected mix of courage and willing sacrifice.

The three Crows, while following some of the genre’s criteria, appear more intriguing, mostly because we are shown only the surface of their personality and perceive that there is much more in their backgrounds worth exploring: Kaz, their leader, clearly suffered some tragedy in his past, which forced him to don a cynical protective armor; Inej is a former slave with the skills of a ninja and a powerful drive for freedom; and Jesper (my absolute favorite) is a sharp-shooter and a lovable maverick.  I liked very much how their narrative threads intersected with Alina’s and even more the fact that they might feature more prominently in the seasons to come: nothing like a good crew ready to launch into a daring heist to keep my attention focused, even more than the main events did, at times.

If the characters still need more room to grow and expand, the series’ settings are its best feature so far: from the hints about the social and racial divides at the roots of Ravkan society to the gorgeous costumes to the amazing visuals, all contribute to paint this world quite vividly and turn it into a believable reality.  The scenes alternate between the bright light of some interior settings to the outside panoramas of chilly, snowbound vistas that give way to the fearsome darkness of the Fold, in my opinion one of the best CGI creations of the series: when the characters travel through this area where thunder rumbles constantly, you are instantly assailed by the ominous sensation that something terrible is about to happen, and the choice of not fully showing the predatory Volcra, but rather offering only swift, almost subliminal glimpses of their appearance, makes them even more terrifying than a full manifestation and intensifies the sense of fear they must inspire. 

This first season of Shadow and Bone might not have been perfect, and was certainly too brief for the huge amount of information it had to deliver, but when all is said and done it shows great promise that I hope to see fulfilled in the seasons yet to come, and I’m looking forward to them with great interest.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com
Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 5 (Spoiler Free)

There was a number of reasons I was looking forward to this fifth season for the screen version of my favorite space opera series, The Expanse: first, it’s one of the most dramatic segments in the narrative arc, the point of convergence of several threads that include the violent reaction of some extremist fringes in Belter society to the decades-long exploitation by Earth and Mars; the never ending struggle to use the alien protomolecule for power leverage; and the profound changes – political and economical – brought on by the discovery of the ring system and its portals to many habitable worlds. And then there is the character development enjoyed by some members of the Rocinante crew, who are cut off from each other by circumstances, so that they enjoy their own separate arc, therefore gaining much more depth and a better definition of their past and of the way they became the people they are in the present. Much as it’s hard to see them so scattered, because time and hardships have built the four of them into a family, the separation does not only achieve the goal of adding compelling layers to their psychological makeup, it also offers the opportunity to follow the various narrative components of the story through their eyes and experiences.

James Holden, who until now has been the fulcrum of the events and the front-and-center character, is left a little on the sidelines in this fifth season, allowing the spotlight to shine on his crew-mates, particularly Naomi and Amos, and we see him feeling somewhat adrift now that the rest of his found family has departed from the Roci to meet their personal needs that, although in different ways, are all centered around family matters. Avasarala is suffering under similar circumstances since losing her position as Secretary General of the UN, and her tight focus on politics and power has cost her the estrangement from her husband as well, so that her initial story arc follows a similar path to Holden’s, that of someone in search of direction – not that I doubted for a single minute that she would find it…

The common factor for Naomi, Amos and Alex, as they depart from the Roci, is their need to deal with the past and for all of them this journey will have quite unexpected consequences: Alex goes back to Mars to try and reconnect with his estranged family, but time and his previous attitude have made this impossible. Of the three this felt to me as the less compelling thread and it became more interesting only once Alex met with Bobbie Draper, now engaged in the investigation about the strange goings-on apparently implicating the Martian Navy in smuggling operations.  As the two team up to shed some light on the mystery of the diverted equipment and the ramifications that seem to involve some of the higher echelons in the Martian military, we see how the discovery of the ring gate, and the number of habitable planets beyond it, has impacted on the Martian dream of terraforming the planet and turning it into an Earth-like world – after all, why toil for decades, if not centuries, when there are countless worlds out there ready to be colonized? What once was a tight society united by a common goal has now lost its inner cohesion and is rapidly turning into a despondent civilization ready to crumble: Bobbie’s sorrow as she observes the death of the ideals that fueled her world is saddening, but at the same time her resolve in getting to the roots of the puzzle shows that she is the same fighter we have come to know and love.

Amos’ travels bring him back to Earth instead, and more precisely to Baltimore, the city he had run from at a young age to carve his life in space: Lydia, the woman who cared for him like a mother, died recently and he wants to pay his respects. When I read the book, this was the story section that helped me focus better on Amos’ character: back then I had not yet read the novella The Churn, which opens a huge window on Amos’ past, so that the events  depicted in Nemesis Games finally gave me a perfect grasp on his personality. The TV series has been able to flesh this character in a more organic way, and I enjoyed the way the actor has been able, in this season, to seamlessly blend Amos’ outward fierceness with his unexpected softer side, particularly when he decides to visit Clarissa “Peaches” Mao in the maximum security prison where she has been sent. The unspoken reason for such a visit is that he somehow feels connected to the young woman through their shared violent past and that he probably wants to offer her the hope that there might be a form of redemption down the road, as was the case for Amos thanks to his ties with the Roci’s family.  Which might indeed be the kind of opportunity “Peaches” is given at the end of the season…

From my point of view, though, the most important, most intense thread is the one focused on Naomi: we already learned that she has a son she had to abandon to escape from involvement with the most radical fringes of the OPA. Now that she knows her former lover Marco Inaros, the father of that child, has become a dangerous terrorist, she wants to save her son Filip from the same fate she escaped long ago – if that is still possible.  When I started watching The Expanse  in Season 1, I felt that Dominique Tipper was the perfect Naomi as I pictured her from reading the books: here, in this fifth season, she gives her absolute best performance so far, one that is both physically and emotionally heartbreaking as she deals with the choices of the past and their consequences. I was able to perceive Naomi’s pain and regret as she seeks to connect with a son who does not know her – apart from what he’s been told by a manipulative father – and tries desperately to drag him away from Inaros’ toxic influence; and I felt just as physically ill during the long, painful sequences where she attempts a desperate gamble to undermine the terrorist leader’s callous plan to destroy her friends. If you saw the episodes I’m referring to, you will not be surprised if I tell you that I needed to remind myself to breathe, because Naomi’s struggles with the situation on the derelict ship were so vivid and intense that for a while I could not remember it was just a TV show.

And speaking of Naomi, I’d like to point out how many other amazing female characters people this series – both in the books and on screen: I’ve spoken often of Avasarala and her aggressive but effective approach to power, but she’s not alone. Bobbie Draper is another amazing character, and the way she faces challenges – either with or without a powered armor – has always been one of my favorite elements in the story; and in this season we see more of journalist Monica Stuart, whose courage and persistence in following leads elevates her above the professional norm. But the one I want to talk about more extensively is Drummer, portrayed by the very talented Cara Gee: this character has been fleshed out more in the TV series, and I’ve been always looking forward to her appearances, where her determination and strength of character manage to hide a form of vulnerability that becomes more apparent in this season where she has to deal with many painful losses and very hard decisions.  From her famous speech on the bridge of the Behemoth in the previous season to the present interactions with her crew, struggling to find a way between the Belter ideals and Inaros’ violent approach, she emerges as a compelling figure where strength and gallows humor combine to create a fascinating personality that is so easy to connect to and enjoy watching.

Given how much further depth this show has managed to achieve with this fifth season I’m saddened at the thought that the sixth will be the last one, leaving the last three books in the series (the ninth of which should be out toward the end of the year) out of the screened story. Still, this continues to be a brilliant, deeply engaging series that fully deserves all the praise that it rightfully receives.

My Rating:

Reviews

BEHIND HER EYES: Netflix miniseries

When I saw the announcement for this miniseries inspired by the novel written by Sarah Pinborough I was very curious about it: I read the book in 2019 and, unlike previous Pinborough works I encountered, I was somewhat mystified by it, or rather by the double twist in its ending. With the help of hindsight I can now understand that the main factor in my reaction was the unexpected turn of the story from psychological to supernatural thriller which at the time had seemed too abrupt and… well, over the top.

Now “armed” with full knowledge of the plot, I was able not only to enjoy the Netflix miniseries, but to look back at the written story with different eyes and to better appreciate it with hindsight: if this experience taught me anything it would be that I must expect the unexpected – and more – from Sarah Pinborough’s works I still have to read, because read them I certainly will.

Back to Behind Her Eyes: on the surface it’s the story of a convoluted triangle between Louise, a single mother; David, a psychiatrist and Louise’s employer, and Adele, David’s wife. Louise meets David in a bar and at the end of the evening the two share a kiss; the following day, Louise discovers that the handsome stranger she just met is her employer and she vows to avoid any further entanglement – that is, until she accidentally meets Adele, his wife, and strikes a friendship with the woman, who seems very lonely and tormented.  Torn between her growing attraction toward David and the deepening friendship with Adele, Louise becomes entangled in the troubles of their difficult marriage, one where it’s hard to understand whether Adele is the victim of an abusive husband or the subtle manipulator in a toxic relationship. Louise’s situation is further complicated by the night terrors she suffers from and to which Adele offers a solution in the form of lucid dreaming, the learned ability to control one’s dreams instead of being controlled by them – an ability that will later manifest an unexpected side effect…

While I usually find that books portray stories much better than their screen versions, there are exceptions, and Behind Her Eyes is one of them: in this specific case, where the book had to keep the cards close to its proverbial chest to prevent readers from seeing too soon where it was headed, the visual clues of the miniseries were more subtle and allowed the events to build up in a more organic way, so that the final revelation was of course a huge surprise but it did not feel as extravagant as was the case for the book – although I have to admit that foreknowledge might have played a part here.  It would be interesting to hear the reactions of people who did not read the book, how they dealt with the lineup of cues and how the final revelation affected them, but from my point of view the screen version made the ending more believable, even taking into account the sheer weirdness of it.

Book and screen version are however similar in the portrayal of the main characters: all three of them are depicted in shades of gray, and all of them exhibit some unpleasant trait, although I must admit that screen-Louise comes across as far more sympathetic than book-Louise, since she is far less self-centered and feels more real in her attachment to her child, one of the details that did not convince me completely in the book.  For once, however, I don’t feel it necessary to truly compare book and screen version, because I’ve rather come to see them as complementary to each other: of course, in both cases you have to accept the uncanny, metaphysical elements in the story to truly appreciate it, but I believe that with the foreknowledge of their presence in both versions of events your enjoyment of the book or the miniseries will be enhanced.

My Rating:

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ALONE TOGETHER: A DS9 COMPANION

Sometimes it’s the unlooked-for finds that turn out to be the best: a few weeks ago, while surfing on YouTube, I found the link to this online four-part story, a sort of continuation of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine.  Further investigation revealed that it’s part of a much larger collection of videos on the YouTube channel of actor Alexander Siddig, best known as Doctor Julian Bashir in the series.

On this channel, the actor keeps in touch with his fans, and at some point he thought he would cheer them up, helping them forget the… Pandemic Blues, by asking a few of his co-stars on DS9 to read online this script, penned by Canadian author Matthew Campbell.

Each one of the participating actors contributed from his or her home (via the ubiquitous Zoom, I presume), giving life to a story that’s both fascinating and actual, since it also deals with a pandemic, in this case hitting hard on the Cardassian homeworld. Besides Alexander Sidding, reprising his role of Dr. Bashir, you will see and hear Andrew Robinson as Garak, and enjoy the cameo contributions by Cirroc Lofton (Jake Sisko), Nana Visitor (Kira) and Armin Shimerman (Quark).

Don’t expect props, CGI or even makeup (although at some point a delightfully funny set of dentures makes its appearance…), but if you listen without looking at the screen, it’s like being back once again on the station and watching the characters we know so well come back to life.  I enjoyed this four-part online story so much that I started a complete rewatch of Deep Space Nine (thank you, Netflix! 😀 ), discovering that, unlike some of its Trek brethren, it has not only withstood time very well, but it feels as actual and fresh as if it were created today.

So, here are the links to the four chapters of the story: enjoy!

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 4 (2008/2009) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

While still narratively intriguing, the fourth and final season of BSG looks somewhat uncertain of the direction it wants to take and that translates into an uneven pacing that on my first viewing, due to the weekly distance between episodes, resulted in some confusion on my part: the series’ trademark sentence about the Cylons having a plan made me often wonder whether the creators truly had one, as well… However, this rewatch fared better in this instance, but that did not save the season from feeling less focused than its predecessors.

Season 3 ended with momentous revelations, like the identity of four out of the Final Five Cylons and the return of Kara Thrace, previously believed dead and now declaring she knows the way to fabled Earth: here is where the narrative arc stumbles a little, devoting a considerable space to her mission to retrace that path, apparently buried in hard-to-retrieve memories. It’s clear from the start that this might turn out to be a wild goose chase, and the microcosm present on the ship tasked with the search mirrors perfectly the strain and discord that are running rampant in the fleet, while Kara’s disconnect from reality tarnishes the image of a character that until this moment had generally been depicted as a resolute, if headstrong, one.

A little more interesting is the narrative thread concerning the four newly-aware Cylons and their stress in grappling with this revelation and their past as members of the Fleet: just imagine having hated someone all your life, only to discover that you’re one of them… This theme becomes all the more disturbing once the internal conflict dividing the Cylons brings a rebel group to offer an alliance to the humans and help in finding Earth: as I often say, strife it the motivator that carries the best character development, and this is no exception. Humans, already divided and frayed at the edges after years on the run, now find themselves on the cusp of a momentous decision: accept the help of their former enemies, of the creatures that decimated their numbers, or bow to the law of diminishing returns and know that their journey might end in death.

This struggle – moral, political, practical – brings on one of the best, most adrenaline-laden narrative arcs of the season, as an attempted coup shakes the Fleet to its core and brings mutiny to the very heart of Galactica, with its accompanying trail of fighting and bloodshed. Hard as it is to witness, this grim segment moves the story back toward its human (in the wider sense of the word) dimension and portrays both sides of the dilemma from an emotional standpoint, using characters we have learned to know well and showing us different (if not always palatable) sides of their personality.

The final episodes of the season are certainly satisfying in that they give a closure to the long arc of the survivors looking for a new home where to rebuild a civilization, but at the same time they are imbued with more of the spiritual material scattered throughout the story, and I’m not sure that these elements work here as seamlessly as they previously did: where the survivors’ polytheistic faith, and the Cylons’ monotheistic credo, were threaded into the tissue of the epic, giving both groups a spiritual basis to draw from, toward the end of the season we are also treated with “angelic” figures sent to oversee the travelers’ path and to keep observing them as their history develops through the ages of the new world, and I’m still struggling to figure how they fit into the overall narrative.

Where the ending worked for me, however, was in its emotional content, particularly in the series of goodbyes fueling the last portion of the story: Adama’s parting with his beloved Galactica, whose structure finally gives up after long years in service and the beatings it took during the long run; the last journey of the Fleet’s ships, headed toward the sun so as not to leave traces of more advanced technology on a new, primitive world; the breaking of the crew into separate groups, to better insure the survival of the new settlements. Above all shines the final goodbye between Adama and a dying Roslin (which I chose to celebrate with the soundtrack fragment linked at the end of the review): for someone who’s not very romantically-inclined like me, the slow-burn relationship between these two individuals was one of the highlights of the series, portraying two mature people who move toward each other first in mutual understanding, then in shared goals and finally acknowledging the bond that ties them. I find it easy to admit that I felt for them as I did not for other characters, and that their last scenes together moved me to tears: in my opinion that would have been a more fitting conclusion than the one chosen by the authors because this one, despite its emotional content, still offered a ray of hope for the future.

All things considered, the mild disappointment I experienced after my first watch of this final season was greatly mitigated, and I can better understand now why many label Battlestar Galactica as one of the best space opera epics to ever hit television: it’s not perfect, granted, but it shows a willingness to get out of previously established molds in the genre that is well worth of the praise it collected.

My Rating:

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TOP TEN TUESDAY SciFi Month Edition: MyTop Ten Sci-Fi tv series – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point, ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday (created and hosted by  The Broke and Bookish) is now being hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future week’s topics can be found here. 

When TV series dealing with SF are mentioned everyone, even people who are not interested in the genre, thinks about Star Trek, which is understandable since it’s the longest-running SF television show and the most known. But there are many other past and present TV shows that are just as good and this is my opportunity to shine the spotlights on them.

Here we go – click on the titles to be directed to the respective Wikipedia pages:

BABYLON 5

This is for me THE science fiction show, the one that set my standards for the genre and the one I will always mention when asked which is my favorite. Some might consider it dated – it ran from 1994 to 1998 – and yet it has weathered time very well: the CGI shows its age, granted, but B5 is not so much about space battles or weird aliens, but rather about people and the way they react to extraordinary events. Its main attraction to me, what keeps it fresh and enjoyable, no matter how many times I rewatch it, comes from the characters’ journeys and the depth of the dialogues. Here is an example, one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite characters:

FARSCAPE

I like to say that where Babylon5 appeals to my mind, Farscape appeals to my emotions: it is the often harrowing journey of a man thrown all the way across the galaxy who finds himself in the company of weird aliens that, slowly but surely, morph from uneasy traveling companions to friends and family.  Farscape is colorful and outlandish, crazy and deep at the same time, and it holds an added bonus: through its fandom I made many friends – some online, some in real life – who have become, like the crew of the living ship Moya, family. And it’s no mean thing…

THE EXPANSE

I came to know this series through the books that inspired it, one of the best space opera sagas I ever encountered: it translated very well to the screen and despite some “growing pains” (yes, SyFy, I’m pointing my accusing finger at you!) is has found a steady following and, hopefully, a spreading audience.  There are some very talented performers giving life to the books’ characters, and here is one amazing example, portraying a character who is not in the books but was created by combining the personalities of several – with great results…

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA

I’m doing a series of rewatch posts for this one, so you might want to see what it’s about in my SciFi Month Sunday posts…

FIREFLY

Here is a sad example of the short-sightedness of network executives, who pulled the plug on this show before it had the barest chance of getting its feet wet. Since then, its fandom has remained steady, and the core story has become something of a well-loved theme in the genre, that of a crew of misfits trying to survive in a hostile galaxy. Here is the video for its famous intro theme…

STARGATE UNIVERSE

Another SyFy big mistake in my opinion: this offshoot of the Stargate franchise was darker and more moody than its “big brother” but I liked the theme of this group of people finding themselves on an ancient, but very advanced, ship on a mystery journey across the galaxy,  as personal problems and hidden agendas mingled with their efforts at survival. It also had one of the best soundtracks in the genre, one that was never offered for sale – the latest big oversight in a long series of them 😦   Here is the main theme:

FRINGE

Parallel universes, alternate realities, and a slow-evolving mystery that kept me glued to the screen from start to finish: Fringe is an intriguing mix of science fiction and crime investigation, with some (well, not so few…) touches of horror that make for a very fascinating mix, and supported by intriguing characters – on both universes… Here is a series I might not mind rewatching if I had the time 🙂

SPACE: 1999

This is an older series that ran for only two seasons from 1975 to 1977 (yes, prehistory, I know…) and while often cheesy and unsophisticated, it sported some great sets that were quite advanced for the time the series was shot, particularly where the interiors of the Moon Base were concerned. Granted, it required a huge suspension of disbelief (if, as the inciting incident shows, an explosion occurred on the hidden side of the Moon, our satellite would have been thrown toward Earth, not launched into deep space) but it was fun and, at the time I first watched it, it was the only SF show available, which makes me quite nostalgic…

DEFIANCE

This was an interesting story, showing a post-apocalyptic Earth in the wake of an alien invasion: the extra-terrestrial races looking for a new home on our planet started a terraforming project that wrought havoc on the environment and led to an uneasy coexistence between humans and aliens. The setting reminds me a little of the western frontier, and led to an interesting storyline, which was brought to a hurried close in the third season by the usual incomprehensible decision of SyFy’s executives. If this sounds like a Groundhog Day situation… well, it is, and if I sound not-so-slightly peeved, yes, I am (((SIGH)))

PERSON OF INTEREST

It might not seem that this show could be classified as SF, and the idea of an all-seeing Machine watching over humanity’s deeds is practically a reality – just look at the kind of ads you receive after your internet searches… And yet this Machine, though unseen and unheard, takes on a definite personality which becomes even more pronounced when its evil twin, called Samaritan, tries to take over the world.  Here is the chilling intro sequence where the voice-over warns us about being constantly watched…

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BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 3 (2006) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

After two riveting seasons, Battlestar Galactica loses some of its previous steam in the third one: where the first handful of episodes offers an in-depth look on life in the settlement of New Caprica under the Cylons’ domination, the rest of the season – with the exception of the three final chapters – shifts its focus to a number of episodes centered on the plight of individual characters, not always managing to offer an intriguing point of view or to be successful in the message it wanted to convey.

In the beginning, what I had previously defined as a depressing portrayal of the refugees’ conditions in the newly established settlement, turns into the dramatic representation of their struggle under the Cylons’ government, aided and abetted by president Baltar’s morally weak ineptitude. In a parallel of the ordeals suffered by European countries fallen under Nazi occupation, we witness mass incarcerations and the disappearance of many individuals and the torture and maiming of others, while the resistance movement created by the colonists tries to sabotage the Cylons as much as possible, thus exasperating an already strained situation.   The conditions aboard Galactica and the rest of the fleet, that took flight at the enemy’s approach and is monitoring New Caprica from afar, are not much better: guilt over the forced choice of abandoning the colony and the creeping sense of impotence prey on already fraying nerves, as the decision on how to proceed becomes more imperative.

This physical break between the two halves of the survivors exemplifies the leitmotif of the whole season, where we see both humans and Cylons experience profound fractures that threaten to create dangerous divisions in both groups: as far as humanity is concerned, the reunification of the fleet, achieved through a massive rescue operation that is one of the best and most breath-taking action sequences of the season, does not heal the rift and instead leads first toward a form of “us and them” mentality, where the colonists look at the spacefaring humans as having led a charmed life, and then to a string of summary executions as a clandestine tribunal hunts and sentences those accused of collaborating with the enemy.  The Cylons, for their part, differ on the methods to deal with the humans – reason with them or beat them into submission – and it looks as if prolonged contact with their former creators has “contaminated” them with the same kind of emotional instability that seems to drive them away from their preordained goal.

All these issues are very interesting, and in the course of the season they give rise to a number of stand-alone episodes that more or less successfully shed light on the survivors’ problems: from the strict class divisions enforced according to the planet of origin and hinting at something of a caste system throughout the Twelve Colonies, to the loosely related story of a Mengele-like doctor trying to wipe out the individuals from a specific planet, these episodes show how the drive for survival is not enough to unite these people into a cohesive whole, but rather it exasperates social tensions that were already in place before the Cylons’ attack and have been simmering during the long months of flight from the attackers and of occupation on New Caprica.

Where the show sadly falters is when it tries to create personal drama in the form of a love triangle – or rather quadrangle – that in my opinion takes too much narrative space that could have been devoted to better and more interesting themes. At some point we are treated by the flare-up of the romantic entanglement between Starbuck and Apollo, something we are told must have been simmering for a long time and that the two are now incapable of keeping under wraps, uncaring of the pain they are inflicting on their respective partners. I know that a good portion of my distaste for this story thread comes from my profound dislike of the trope, but there is more that works against it, starting from the total lack of on-screen chemistry between the two and moving on to the totally loathsome way they treat their spouses, guilt over the break of their marriage vows (something we already learned is frowned on in the Twelve Colonies) expressed just in a perfunctory matter. Not to mention that I could not have cared less about their oh-so-contrived on-screen passion…

Fortunately, the last three episodes mark a return to the intense examination of moral questions standing at the roots of the overall story: as the trial against Gaius Baltar for his crimes during the Cylons’ occupation starts, the focus shifts to the meaning of justice – it had been touched briefly in the earlier episode “Collaborators” I mentioned before, but here it examines in depth the differences between justice and vengeance, of the rules of law against the drive of an angry mob seeking revenge. My opinion of Lee ‘Apollo’ Adama went back a few notches after the nosedive it took during the “forbidden love” episodes, thanks to his speech in defense not so much of Baltar but of a justice system that did not take into account the changed conditions for humanity’s survivors and was driven by the unspoken need to punish one man for everyone’s dark deeds carried out after the Cylons’ attack.

If this third season sags a little in its middle, the explosive beginning and the ominous end, revealing the surprising identity of four of the remaining human-looking Cylons, more than make up for it and hopefully lead toward more revelations in the fourth and final season.

And for the usual soundtrack sample I enjoy attaching to these reviews, here is one of my favorites for this season, Bear McCreary’s, Kat’s Sacrifice from the highly emotional episode The Passage:

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 2 (2005) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

Where Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica focused mainly on the survival of the few humans who escaped the genocidal attack of the Cylons, this second season showcases in a dramatic way their inability to set aside petty concerns even in the face of imminent annihilation: once this kind of life on the run, plagued by short supplies and the dread from constant incursion, starts to become the “new normal”, the lack of hope turns people into the uglier version of themselves and seems to answer a question Commander Adama asked himself when he wondered about the human’s race worthiness of its survival. In this season, no one seems able to escape from their darker side rearing its ugly head at some point.

This new season begins where the previous one left off, after the shooting of Adama at the hands of the sleeper Cylon agent Boomer: as the Galactica’s commander battles for his life, leadership shifts to his XO Colonel Tigh – a man more comfortable with following orders than issuing them, and a drunkard to boot. As his own deep-rooted uncertainties flare up in the wake of a series of problems he’s not suited to resolve, Tigh over-reacts and only manages to make matters worse, pitching the military against the civilians in what can only result in a bloodbath.  President Roslin causes further divisions by insisting on a detour to the ancient planet of Kobol, where clues to the location of Earth might be found: her actions, and her open confrontation with Tigh, who lacks Adama’s skills at mediation, cause a split in the fleet that mines resources, defensive capabilities and, above all, morale.

Ironically enough, though, the main players orbiting around Galactica find again a common ground when the appearance of another Battlestar, the Pegasus, fills everyone with hope only to destroy it at the discovery of the true price of survival: Pegasus escaped the initial attack and under the command of Admiral Cain has been harrying the Cylons ever since, but she and her crew have sacrificed every remaining shred of humanity for their mission, and the clash between Cain and Adama threatens to become as cold-blooded as the atrocities perpetrated by the woman and her crew.  The Cylons themselves are starting to experience a very humanlike lack of cohesiveness as some of them now believe the attempted genocide unleashed on the Twelve Colonies might have been unwarranted, and are in favor of attempting a mediation. In other words, for both contenders the enemy seems to be present both on the outside and on the inside, and the recurrent theme in this season seems indeed to be the heightened danger coming from within…

The show’s creators took a bold path in portraying their “heroes” in their lowest moments, as they are ready to sacrifice integrity in the name of a higher purpose, which would of course be robbed of its ethical foundations if such acts were carried out to the bitter end: so we see Adama prepared to order the assassination of Admiral Cain to preserve the fleet from taking a dangerously inhuman direction, involving Starbuck as his hand in the plan – the moral struggle of the pilot as she wrestles loyalty to Adama, revulsion for Cain’s merciless acts and admiration for the woman’s accomplishments, is one of the finest acting feats of the series so far.  President Roslin faces a similar choice when she tries to rig the presidential elections that would otherwise see Gaius Baltar succeed, and it’s impossible not to feel dismay when she backs off and Baltar’s inevitable win looks like the first step toward the survivors’ downfall.

Ironically enough, it’s Baltar who takes a contrary journey: his brief moment of redemption, when he finds a miracle cure for Roslin who’s dying of cancer, is shortly undermined by the decision to run against her in the presidential race, not because of a higher calling but for selfish, petty reasons, thus squandering what looked like the last chance to atone for his guilt.  Baltar keeps appearing as congenitally unable to shrug off the mix of self-importance and self-loathing at the roots of his character, a combination that engenders equally opposite reactions: you pity him one moment and despise him the next, the latter feeling always being the strongest one.  So it’s not surprising that it’s under Baltar’s presidency that the survivors’ worst hour comes to be: first he endorses the decision to settle on a barely habitable planet that does not offer much in the field of resources (or pleasant environments, for that matter…), the lesser choice of people who have lost the hope of a better future; then he reveals himself as an inept leader, more concerned with idleness and debauchery than with the running of a colony; and finally, when the Cylons find them and invade the planet, he caves in far too easily, driven by his usual fear-fueled ineptitude. 

The remnants of humanity reach the proverbial bottom in this final segment of the season: living like refugees in a dismal lineup of temporary shelters separated by muddy paths, under a perpetually cloudy sky that adds a further note of misery to a depressing existence, trying to make the best out of a disheartening situation. But it’s with the arrival of the Cylons that this fragile illusion is shattered: the image of the mechanical Centurions marching through the settlement, a picture starkly reminiscent of the Nazi army entering Paris, closes the last episode with a feeling of doom and heartbreak that will certainly carry over in the next season.

And to underscore this feeling of unease, here is my usual pick from Bear McCreary’s soundtrack for the season, One Year Later

My Rating:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Season 1 (2004) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

The stage is set. The lines are drawn. Humanity – or what’s left of it – is on the run from the Cylons and in search of a safe place where to rebuild its civilization, maybe even the fabled Earth, humankind’s place of origin. Cylons, for their own part, are as determined as ever to annihilate their former creators, their strategy working both from the outside with relentless attacks and from the inside through the human-looking agents hiding among the refugees, sowing discord or operating acts of sabotage.

As promised in my review of the opening miniseries, I will now focus on the main characters – people who came on the scene fully formed, offering just the barest hints of their past or psychological makeup, and are now given more room to grow and gain new facets.  

Commander Adama is a man somewhat past his prime, and the first we saw of him showed him ready to mothball his last command, the Galactica, and turn it into a museum: called to lead the ragtag fleet of survivors he rallies to the task (and maybe he’s unconsciously happy of this chance for a “last hurrah”…) and applies an interesting leadership model made in equal parts of stern adherence to military rules and of deep-seated capacity for compassion.   Adama’s main counterpart is President Laura Roslin: the former Secretary for Education found herself pushed into the role by the obliteration of the political chain of command, and is now battling with a role that feels too big for her and with a devastating cancer that could shortly claim her life, and yet this apparently shy and unassuming woman shows herself able to tap unexpected resources of inner strength and courage that will help her in taking often soul-wrenching decisions.

Lee “Apollo” Adama, the Commander’s son, is the Galactica’s senior pilot and – from my point of view – the least sympathetic character of the show: his on-again, off-again conflict with his father often looks annoyingly childish and pointless, particularly when one considers the dire situation of the survivors.  Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, hotshot pilot and official maverick, on the other hand, is a much more layered character: brash and insubordinate, she’s also fearlessly daring, not out of a lack of self-preservation but because she faces danger as she does every aspect of life, with a hunger to experience it to the fullest. She might grate on people’s nerves at times (she did on mine too in some instances…) but there is such an irrepressible energy to her that it’s easy to forget her flaws.

One of the main antagonists is Dr. Gaius Balthar: vain and self-centered, he was entrapped by one of the human-looking Cylon agents, thus allowing them to destroy the planetary defense grid before the attack. Making his way to Galactica among the survivors, afraid that his role in humanity’s downfall will be exposed, he keeps seeing a mental image of Number Six, the voluptuous Cylon who duped him, who alternately calms his fears, providing him with white-hot mental diversions, and leads him to actions that will ultimately further the synthetics’ goals.  If Balthar is in effect a despicable individual, he’s also a victim of circumstances (and his own hormones, granted) and as such it’s difficult to completely hate him because his failings are very human and it’s not hard to see our own flaws in his psychological makeup.

Where the introductory miniseries focused on the shock of the attack and its immediate consequences, this first season looks at its aftermath and at the material and psychological attrition of a war fought from uneven positions: humans are the losers here, constantly running for their lives on ships that are, for all intents and purposes, kept together with wire and prayers as vital supplies run out and tempers become more frayed with each passing day.  It’s not just a war of attrition with the Cylons, it’s a war of attrition between humans, their contrasting needs and the ever-growing fear and suspicion engendered by the revelation that the enemy might be walking among them, unseen and undetectable. And as humans are wont to do in hard times, their worst instincts tend to surface, paranoia running rampant among them as hate flares up with racist connotations tailored to debase and dehumanize the adversary (the term “toasters” affixed to the Cylons is a prime example of this) and psychosis leads everyone to look at everyone else with increasing wariness.

The other factor that tends to gain increasing space is that of religion: of course harsh circumstances tend to breathe on the embers of a dormant faith, or to strengthen an already firm one, but what’s interesting here is that both sides show a form of mysticism that takes hold more and more as the story progresses. Humans often call on their panoply of gods (the gods of Kobol, which bear a strong resemblance to the deities of Greek myth), and end up using the old prophecies to either encourage the survivors or to gain a political foothold, as President Roslin does at some point to spur the search for long-lost Earth. But the surprise comes from the Cylons, believing in a sole God whose will they claim to be carrying out: if this assertion does hold some ominous connotation from our own history, it does on the other hand pose the question of how synthetic beings arrived at the development of the monotheistic faith of an all-seeing creator when they are bent on the total destruction of their one-time material creators…

This first season of Battlestar Galactica offers a fair mix of action – the camera work on the space battles, for example, makes for highly adrenalin-infused scenes – and of though-provoking issues, while exploring the depths of human psyche in stressful situations. It’s dark and bleak, granted, but it’s also gifted with a realistic outlook that makes it quite enthralling and dangerously binge-worthy.

As I did with the mini-series, I would like to mention the soundtrack music, from here on composed by Bear McCreary and share one of my favorite tracks, A Good Lighter, that is often reprised during the series in several variations.

My Rating: