Reviews

LOCKE & KEY – Season 1 (spoiler-free review) – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

Even with a lot of time on one’s hands – and recently we all have more of it than we thought possible – it’s not easy to find interesting shows or movies on the various streaming services: partly because the so-called algorithms that should learn from the users’ choices are far from perfect, and partly because the blurbs for any given offering are rarely worded in an appealing way. For these reasons I might have missed this show, based on a series of graphic novels created by Gabriel Rodriguez and Joe Hill, if not for the mention of a fellow blogger (thanks Lashaan!!), which prompted me to learn more and to take a look at this intriguing and entertaining series.

In short, after the murder of Rendell Locke his widow Nina and their three children – Tyler, Kinsey and Bode – move back to Rendell’s old hometown of Matheson and relocate in the family home, an old mansion called Keyhouse.  If younger Bode is entranced by the big house and the possibility to explore it, the teenaged Tyler and Kinsey are far less sanguine about being uprooted from everything familiar: on top of the trauma for their father’s death they are starting over in a new school and have to deal with the dynamics of a small town and the gossipy hints of a past involving Rendell and his friends – events that no one seems inclined to openly talk about.  Still, these problems go on the back burner once Bode starts finding some strangely-shaped keys all over the house, keys that exhibit weird properties and set in motion unsettling and even scary events that will require all of their wits to be handled.

Where at first this show looked like your classic teen drama, something that almost drove me to stop watching there and then, it soon became clear that there was much more to it and that’s when I became invested in the story and was able to sit down and enjoy the ride. The first element that drew my attention was the house itself and I have to compliment the show’s creators for bestowing on the Keyhouse set a fascinating blend of haunted house and treasure trove and giving it its own personality, almost turning it into a character. I was fascinated by the mystery of the appearing keys that seemed to become visible only when it was the time to manifest themselves and I was strongly reminded of those online “hidden object” games where you have to find a certain number of items, some of them plainly visible while others are disguised in the background and require a sort of… viewing gymnastics to be found.

The keys that the Locke siblings find are hidden in a similar way, and they reveal themselves slowly, masked by other items of furniture or decoration, which gives the story its game-like quality, where each new level brings the players closer to the goal.  These keys also offer the first elements of dread in the story, because where some of them are used in the conventional way, others are inserted in the body of the person wielding them, and if there is no evidence of pain in such act, it does nonetheless elicit a shiver of apprehension in the watchers: you don’t need blood and gore to experience body horror, after all…  Visuals – eerie, disturbing and sometimes downright ghastly visuals – are one of the best elements of this series, establishing its overall tone that goes from the purely magical to the dreamlike, and to the totally chilling as well.

The characters form an interesting mix, starting from the two older kids, Tyler and Kelsey, who have to deal with many difficult emotions on top of the natural transition toward adulthood: they are often at odds with each other but at the same time it’s easy to see the bonds of love and care underlying the surface animosity; I like the way they have to be more adult and responsible than their age warrants because their mother seems absent at times (and along the way we see the reason why), and they feel the need to protect her from further worries. Nina is indeed a character that annoyed me at times: if I could sympathize with her pain for the tragic loss of her husband, I could not condone her obliviousness to what was going on literally under her nose, or the fact that she often left her children to fend for themselves while she was out searching for clues on her late husbands’ past.  Bode is portrayed as a smart child, and I liked the mix of innocence and wisdom he projects, but at times he’s too… perfect, for want of a better word – not “childlike” enough, and that seems contrived rather than natural, but I want to reserve my judgement for now. And then there is Dodge, the supernatural villain of the story, trying with every means to gather all the keys in the house for some as-yet-unrevealed purpose: the actress portraying her possesses a great interpretative range and moves from friendly to deadly with terrifying speed, while appearing to have the time of her life as she’s doing it.

The story alternates between the present and the flashbacks to the past, slowly uncovering the events that changed the life of Rendell Locke – and ultimately must have driven him to leave his home – and that brought on his early demise: in the end I thought I saw some sort of parallel between what happened to him and his circle of friends and what the three siblings, and their newfound friends, are facing in the present, which lays the foundations for what will probably be the continuation of the story. Still, the mystery and the uncanny situations that involve the Locke family, while important, don’t overshadow the themes of coming-of-age and dealing with loss that are at the roots of the story, together with the strengthening under pressure of the family bonds that acts as its core subject.

This first season of Locke & Key might not be perfect, but it’s an intriguing beginning which will surely drive me to see how the story progresses in the next seasons.

 

 

My Rating:

 

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com
Reviews

THE WITCHER – Season 1 (spoiler-free review) – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com

 

It took me some time to unravel my feelings about the first season of this Netflix series, because they are as complicated as the story shown on screen. Certainly it did not help that my attempt at reading what is considered the prequel book, The Last Wish, ended in a DNF since I found this collection of stories to be somewhat oblivious of the “show, don’t tell” rule I prefer to encounter in my reading material, and leaning heavily on long-winded, exhausting exposition –  not to mention what I perceived as the strong whiff of sexism that is apparent from the very beginning of the first story…

Still, I was curious about this saga, and the enthusiasm of an acquaintance, who read the books, played the games based on them and encouraged me to give the series a chance, fueled that curiosity: after all, I reasoned, it would not be the first time in which a failed reading experience turned into an entertaining visual one. Now that I’ve watched the first season I can see the potential in this story, while being still on the fence about the way it will turn out: only time will tell, of course, but that initial curiosity is still driving me to keep watching.

 

 

In short, and trying to avoid any kind of spoiler, the saga revolves around Geralt of Rivia, the titular Witcher – a cross between a bounty hunter for monsters and a wizard, a man of gruff disposition, long silences and a distinctive moral code. Other main players are the sorceress Yennefer, who is introduced as a deformed pariah whose unforeseen magical skills will gain her access to the magical academy of Aretuza and the fullness of her powers; and young princess Cirilla, last survivor of the ruling dynasty of Cintra, who is on the run from the invaders who ravaged her realm and looking for Geralt on the strength of her grandmother’s dying plea.

What struck me from the beginning was the feeling of disconnect between these narrative threads, not to mention my lack of understanding about how they were linked, and it was only through some web search that I understood they happen in different timelines that manage to merge only at the end of the last episode. I’m never bothered by the need to “work” through a complex story, gathering the various pieces of the puzzle, but The Witcher requires the keenest concentration from its viewers and gives the distinct impression that it does not care for stragglers: one either manages to go with the flow, or is left behind.  Well, if that’s a challenge, I’m more than ready to accept it  😉

Once understanding about the different timelines dawned on me, the progress became easier, and I could concentrate more on the characters, which are always the strongest element in any story, no matter the medium they live in. Geralt is indeed an intriguing character, especially because he’s introduced in medias res, with almost no background offered: he’s taciturn, blunt, uncaring of the scorn mixed with fear that follows him – on the contrary he seems to welcome being spurned by the rest of humanity because he does not look very keen on company. As a monster killer for hire, he should be callous and unscrupulous, but he soon reveals a personal form of integrity that compensates for the ferocity and brusqueness he wears as a coat of armor.

Princess Cirilla, on the other hand, looks like a piece of floatsam at the mercy of the tides, spending the good part of this first season being hunted and running away in fright, which does not help much in forming a connection to her – much of it is due to her youth, inexperience and the chain of events that destroyed her somewhat sheltered life, so I have great hopes that she might come into her own and turn into a character to root for. The few hints about something special about her, something that might place her on a different path than that of the victim, make me look forward to her future development.

Still, it’s Yennefer the one that most intrigued me and who holds the highest promise of turning into the kind of character I enjoy watching or reading about: when first she appears she is deformed, mistreated, shunned by her own family and even the enrollment in the magical academy of Aretuza does not seem to greatly change her status – that is, until she comes into the fullness of her talents and the transformation, mental and physical, begins. There is an intriguing duality in Yennefer, a powerless and unloved creature who comes into amazing, unearthly skills but at her core still retains part of that wretch who only wanted to be loved: the later Yennefer is not an entirely likable person, but when glimpses of her heartbreak become visible it’s impossibile not to feel for her and to forget that she can be a villain as well.

Where these characters drive the story, especially once it appears that they are fated to meet and – probably – to form some sort of alliance, the story itself could have been a little clearer, a little more… viewer-friendly in my opinion: granted, going into it with no previous notions gained either from books or video games might have made my journey more difficult in terms of understanding, but also much easier since I had no expectations of any sort.  What I can see, so far, is that this TV series calls out to viewers who are not afraid of making an effort in concentration and attention, promising to lay the whole picture along the way and doing it with a leisurely but steady pace.

I can’t say that I liked this first handful of episodes, but on the other hand I did not dislike it: I’m intrigued, and this might be enough to carry me forward to the next seasons.

 

My Rating for Season 1:

Reviews

PICARD – Season 1 (spoiler-free review)

 

There is no doubt that the fans’ hopes for this new production in the long-running Trek franchise were high, partly because of its focus on one of the most iconic characters for this universe, and partly because the more recent offerings did not exactly meet viewers’ expectations, maybe (and this is only my personal opinion) due to the fact that they chose to look at the past of this universe rather than envision its possible futures, and therefore had to deal with issues of canon and continuity that provoked displeasure from some hard-core fans.

Did the first season of Picard meet those expectations? I would largely say yes, although it was not exempt from pacing and narrative problems.  The story is set some twenty years after the events of the last TNG movie, Nemesis, and starts from the premise that a supernova threatened the obliteration of a good portion of the Romulan Empire: the Federation and Starfleet mounted a huge operation of rescue and relocation of the affected population and gave Picard, promoted to the rank of admiral, the task of coordinating the effort. Despite the technical difficulties and the political problems – not everyone in the Federation was happy with the idea of investing so many resources in aiding a long-standing enemy –  the operation proceeded competently until it was wrecked by an unforeseeable disaster: the androids designed to increment the workforce suddenly and inexplicably turned on their creators, destroying the shipbuilding facilities on Mars and killing tens of thousands.  Faced with Starfleet’s decision to stop the rescue mission in the aftermath of the tragedy, Picard threatened to resign in the hope of waking up their conscience, but his resignation was accepted with no qualms and he retired to his family home, angered and defeated.

As the series opens, it’s been fourteen years since that day and the Picard we meet is a disaffected, reclusive man who nevertheless rises to the occasion when a young woman comes to seek his help after having been the victim of a brutal murder attempt… I will leave the rest of this complex, many layered story for you to discover, and concentrate instead on the first season’s characterization and storytelling.

There is no question that characters are the backbone of this show, both the old and the new. Jean Luc Picard is of course the one who enjoys the most screen time, but he’s very different from the person we knew (or thought we knew…) from the seven seasons and four movies of TNG: he’s older, disillusioned and quite bitter about the way his career ended – the rescue and relocation effort could have been its crowning achievement, not just for the amount of lives saved, but for the opportunity of turning the Federation’s ideals of diplomacy and cooperation into tangible fact, of showing that even long-standing differences can be overcome in the name of a worthy goal.

Present-day Picard is not the man we remember anymore: he has turned inwards, almost forgotten to look up at the stars and see the promise they offer; there is no more hope in him and at some point he understands that for all this time he has been vegetating, waiting to die as he claims in a moment of merciless introspection. The long years spent in this self-inflicted isolation have left their mark on him, and it’s not a welcome sight: even once he embarks on the “adventure” that’s the focus of this story, he has moments when he seems unaware, or worse dismissive of other people’s feelings, when it appears as if he’s using them as convenient tools to fulfill his goal. And yet, where these moments should make us think less of him, they help instead to make him look far more approachable than he was in the past, as if, shedding that mantle of unshakable authority that made him one of the most celebrated Starfleet captains, he gained in humanity.

This less-than-flattering view of Picard is only the mirror for what happened with the Federation, which has turned into an insular entity, more concerned with its own problems than with the expansion of knowledge and the betterment of its members that were its founding principles. It’s often been one of the mandates of science fiction to examine our present and to reflect it back at us through some imaginary filter, so we could take a good look at what we are, and the image that we see in this mirror is far from flattering: the hope and optimism that were at the roots of the earlier incarnations of Star Trek are present in name only, replaced by an unprecedented wariness toward the other that denies those lofty ideals. The prequel novel The Last Best Hope does a good job of showing how this kind of mindset came to be, and it’s indeed a useful key to decipher the atmosphere we breathe in this first season of the series, to understand the kind of inner journey Picard has to take in the TV series to rise up again from the depths of disillusionment he had fallen in and regain the armor of moral authority that was the main component of his personality.

Back to the characters, there are some new faces here who end up forming the crew Picard needs for this unexpected mission, and while they are all interesting, they are not given sufficient space to really grow into fully-featured personalities: ten episodes and a story that needs to explain enough of the past to help us understand the present are hardly enough to show all the facets that would deepen our understanding of them. Still, it’s a good start and my hope is that they will be given room to expand with the second season: if I choose to see this first run of the series as a prologue, there might be a good chance they will be allowed to mature fully and to create a new “family” for the old captain.  On the other hand, the appearance of a few familiar faces from the past is more than welcome, either the cameo roles of Riker and Troi or the more substantial presence of Data and of 7of 9 from Voyager – and in this respect I look forward to her return in Season 2 because the metamorphosis from her former aloof personality to the present ass-kicking awesomeness represents one of the highlights of this series.  In this respect, I would like to address some of the accusations of “fan service” I read online, and while I admit that the show was at times guilty of it, I’m also aware that it needed to build on the ties of the past to better establish its footing in this “present” – and I’m also certain that no one, not even those detractors, was able to remain unmoved when Picard finally uttered his trademark “Engage!” at the end of a certain episode…

The first season of Picard, while promising, is not immune from some narrative issues, particularly in the pacing that feels too slow in some instances and far too swift in others, blithely skipping over some details that would have helped make sense of the progression of events –  and yet it all comes together in the final episode, one whose emotional content was enough to make me forget all previous doubts and criticisms. Not perfect, no, but promising enough to encourage me to wait for next season with great anticipation.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

PICARD: THE LAST BEST HOPE, by Una McCormack

 

My record with tie-in novels has not been exactly stellar, so far: most of the stories I read gave me the impression that the authors were not overly familiar with the universe and the characters they were dealing with, or that they were doing a paint-by-the-numbers job with little motivation to deliver a gratifying story.  For this reason I approached this novel, that acts as a prequel to the new Trek series Picard, with some hesitation, but to my great relief and appreciation I encountered a solid story whose characters – especially the central one – felt both substantial, well-researched and consistent with their on-screen versions.

The core premise in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of his future was that of a utopian society where greed, bias and bigotry had been erased; a post-scarcity civilization that had relegated poverty and hunger to its remote past; a political association where dialogue and diplomacy could solve the most bitter conflicts.  As every utopian vision it was a worthy, inspiring one – even a model to strive for – but as such it did not take into account the darker side of our nature. The original Trek, and TNG, were the product of times when optimism made us think we could start reaching for that goal, but as society and politics changed over time, the following series started incorporating more and more or this transitioning reality into their background, showing a not-so-perfect Federation, one prone to very human (and I’m using this term broadly speaking) flaws.

This prequel novel moves from the discovery that the greater part of the Romulan Star Empire is destined to be obliterated by a supernova and that Starfleet launches a massive rescue mission to relocate the endangered population to safety. The huge effort is fraught with technical and political difficulties from the very start, and when an act of sabotage destroys the Mars shipyard, Starfleet choses to pull out of the mission, causing Picard to resign his commission in anger and frustration.   This less than flattering view of Starfleet and the Federation has been at the root of many objections moved by a number of fans, so I will start by addressing this narrative angle first.

Roddenberry’s perception of the Federation as a cohesive whole in which everyone worked for the common good always looked more like wishful thinking, and while remaining as a basic guideline for the shaping of mankind’s future society it was not free from exceptions even in the original series, so that we saw several examples of humanity’s worst at play. In this novel, this kind of reality check is brought to the fore on several levels: the widespread reaction at the announcement of the rescue mission for example, with people wondering why so many resources need to be employed to the benefit of a long-standing adversary; scientists dragging their feet at having to put their projects on hold to work on new and more efficient ways to relocate, house and feed so many refugees; politicians using the emergency as a leverage for their own agendas, and so forth.  Does all of this sound quite familiar? Of course it does, because science fiction is often – if not always – a mirror of our present times and issues and it reflects them back at us through the lens of an imagined future. This might not look like the Federation his creator envisioned, but it’s a possible look into what we might become one day, and a prediction that our present “baggages” might still follow us into the centuries to come.

In this rude awakening from the dream of a perfect future, the most excellent victim is Jean-Luc Picard, the very symbol of Roddenberry’s vision: from the very start he’s forced to walk an uphill road, battling against short-sightedness, reluctance to fully commit to the task and political expediency, and despite these difficulties, added to the monumental task of moving 900 million people out of harm’s way, he struggles to keep the optimistic outlook that drove his past missions so far, although day by day that optimism is corroded by the mounting awareness of the hopelessness of it all. Many chapters of this novel start with excerpts from his log, and we can see the slow, inexorable way in which that hope keeps dwindling and is ultimately ground into dust by what he perceives as the ultimate betrayal from the organization he gave his life to.  The ominous quality of the storytelling goes hand in hand with the deconstruction of Picard’s noble, dignified figure as he comes face to face with his powerlessness and starts to turn into the bitter, discouraged person we meet at the start of the TV series, someone whose gaze has turned inward where once he used to look out to the stars.

Picard’s second in command, Raffi Musiker, suffers a similar fate even though she comes from a different outlook: she holds little faith in humanity’s virtue and yet her cynical approach to the obstacles on their path does not save her from the crushing disillusionment they are destined to endure. More than that, she pays a terrible personal price for her dedication to the mission (something we see more clearly on screen), and what we see of her in this novel explains a great deal her attitude in the TV series, because she is forsaken both by Starfleet and by a commanding officer who choses to sever all ties with his past in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Picard: The Last Best Hope is not an easy read, because it will subvert many of the beliefs we held about Starfleet and the Federation; it will lead us to confront some unpleasant realities under the utopian surface we thought we knew; and it will force us to see how complete failure can affect even the most steadfast of personalities. There is a grimness of perspective in this novel that we are not used to seeing in Star Trek, and yet this story is a compelling one – not just because of the background it builds for the TV series, but because it makes us understand that sometimes we need to reach bottom before starting to swim back up to the surface.  Grimdark might have reached its proverbial tentacles into one of the most optimistic franchises in speculative fiction, but I am convinced that redemption will not be out of the characters’ grasp, and I’m waiting to see if I’m right.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: CHERNOBYL (HBO miniseries – 2019)

 

This time I’m not going to write a review on a work of imagination but rather on the visual conceptualization of an historical fact, one that shows how reality can surpass any kind of speculative effort: the disaster that occurred at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in April 1986. 

On hindsight, that incident might very well have been the premise of a devastating post-apocalyptic scenario like the ones we often read in books, and learning about the details at the root of the Chernobyl tragedy made me realize how close we came to turning those speculations into a frightening reality.

Back then, as the events were unfolding, we observed them through the images of the news services and as it so often happens, they took on that patina of unreality we have come to associate with filmed reports – present yet distant, observed but not factually grasped. I remember that, besides the concern for what was an unprecedented occurrence, the only negative consequences suffered (at least where I live) were limited to the precautionary exclusion of some foodstuffs. More an annoyance than anything else.  And yet there was this definite awareness of something momentous happening, even at that safe (?) distance, so that once this miniseries was announced I was eager to fill all the blank spaces left by that perceptual remoteness: what I found was much more, not only the detailed, unembellished report of a terrible disaster, but also a connection with the suffering humanity who lived through those events and bore the brunt of their aftermath.

As history reminds us, on the night of April 26th, 1986, the reactor nr. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, leaving a gaping maw that discharged massive amounts of radiation into the air and left an equally massive fire in its wake, a conflagration that the intervening firemen struggled to put out. And that was just the beginning, as the consequences of an incident that should not have happened carried forward in the following weeks and months, and are still markedly present now, 33 years later.

There has been a strong negative reaction to HBO’s Chernobyl from official Russian sources, which did not hide their profound irritation at the events’ portrayal: I can understand how this series might have reopened old wounds, particularly when considering that the cover-up attempted at the time turned up to be image-tarnishing, but in truth this series strove to maintain a documentary approach, and what’s more important it chose to focus more on the human side of the tragedy rather than on the political one.  That human side is indeed the most touching, most heart-wrenching element of the narrative, and here is where I will concentrate my review, because apart from all technical considerations, or the need to assign blame, human beings were the most disastrously affected by what happened that day.

Chernobyl portrays both the victims and the heroes of the tragedy: the former are primarily represented by the firemen, the first responders after the reactor blew – sent to the plant without the barest knowledge of what had really happened and performing their duty in an extremely hazardous environment, one that was bound to kill them in the space of a few weeks. And then there are the citizens of the adjacent city of Pripyat, where the families of the plant’s workers lived: the scene that most struck me, for what I knew would be the consequences, is the one where a group of people stands on a bridge looking at the spectacle of the burning reactor, marveling at the weird colors displayed, totally unaware of the reason for the unusual phenomenon. The choice of the scene’s director was to show it in slow motion, as the night wind carries the ashes from the fire toward the bridge and showers the people – adults and children both – with a deadly fall: the emotional impact of such obliviousness to an invisible and merciless enemy is something that requires no words.

Alongside the unwitting victims of nuclear contamination, there were those – and they were many, indeed – who willingly chose to go toward the peril, knowing the full extent of the consequences but at the same time aware that their intervention would save many more lives and avoid a bigger catastrophe. Among them, the shinier example comes from the three engineers who volunteered to swim through highly contaminated water to open the valves of a drainage system: the whole sequence – like many in this series – moves in total silence, broken only by the labored breath of the three men behind their protective masks and the frenzied ticking of the Geiger counters, and I dare anyone watching it not to cringe in empathy while following the men’s progress in the darkness, or not to be overwhelmed by emotion as they emerge, jubilant for the success of their hazardous endeavor, with smiles on their faces that belie the ordeal they just endured.

Those three men were not the only ones, however: the critical situation of the reactor required the building of a cooling system underneath it, and that job was handled by miners who worked tirelessly in extreme conditions so that worse consequences could be averted. Or again, the thousands – literally thousands – of people who went on the reactor’s roof to shovel away the radioactive debris, working in 90 second shifts to try and keep the irradiation as contained as possible: this is another one of those emotionally tense scenes shot without dialogue, where the men’s need for speed and fear translate into jerking motions that convey their turmoil more than anything else.

Sequences like the ones I mentioned are the reason for my deep involvement in the story being told, and my admiration for the work of both scriptwriter and director: it would have been all too easy to fall into a sentimentalist trap and imbue the narrative with maudlin feelings, but Chernobyl choose a different path, that of a stark, restrained report of the facts, sustained by a minimalist photography using de-saturated colors and a barely perceptible soundtrack that nonetheless strongly suggested the mounting feeling of dread engendered by the events.

This review would not be complete without mentioning the excellent portrayal of the two main characters – Stellan Skarsgard in the role of Boris Shcherbina, the highly-placed politician sent to oversee the investigative commission, and Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, the nuclear physicist expert on the plant model employed at Chernobyl.  At first the two men are at odds with each other, their points of view poles apart as Shcherbina is intent on toeing the official line and highly ignorant of the short- and long-range consequences of what just happened, while Legasov is quietly determined to uncover the truth no matter what. With time the two of them slightly shift toward each other’s stance, as their mutual respect grows toward a tentative, if unexpressed, friendship cemented by the gloomy realization that their very presence in the disaster area might have curtailed their life expectancy.

It’s apparent that Chernobyl is not an easy story to follow, imbued as it is with the painfully emotional baggage it carries – still, I strongly advise you to watch it, if nothing else for its historical value: for us who were there at the time it will mean better understanding of what happened; for those who were too young or as yet unborn, because it’s a piece of our past that should be known and remembered.  It’s a hard, harsh road to travel, but I don’t regret having been a witness to it all, even from the comfort and safety of my home, and I hope many will join me in celebrating the memory of all those who suffered because of that tragedy.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: BIG DAMN HERO (Firefly #1), by Nancy Holder & James Lovegrove

 

Every time I think about the ill-fated TV show Firefly, or hear it mentioned, I can’t avoid a combined feeling of sadness and irritation, the former for the untimely demise of a very promising story, and the latter for the short-sightedness of the network executives responsible for that decision – a situation all too common in the unfathomable world of television, and whose lack of wisdom is stressed by the huge success that the short run of 14 episodes and the 2005 feature movie Serenity are still enjoying today, a long time after the cancellation.

For this reason, any opportunity to enjoy new stories focused on the crew of the ship Serenity is still welcome, so that when I learned of the publication of this book (thank you Tammy!!!) I made it a point to check it out as soon as I could, despite a few misgivings: over the years I had tried some fan-written stories, but I was never lucky enough to find any that truly could bring the old ‘magic’ back, so I approached Big Damn Hero with some trepidation.  Well, as it turned out I should not have worried, because this novel is the closest I ever came to the true spirit of the TV show and its characters.

Shiny! 🙂

The story starts more or less where the last episode of Firefly left off, which is a double bonus, since it works as a continuation of the show and allows me to avoid dealing with the painful losses suffered by the crew in the movie Serenity: the old gang’s all here, and they are a sight for sore eyes… Of course they are in trouble, but that’s nothing new: with finances at an all-time low, and with the ship needing constant repairs, Captain Reynolds must accept a cargo from the disreputable Badger, the crafty boss of Persephone’s criminal underworld.  This time the shipment carries an added problem, since it consists of several crates of highly volatile explosives, destined to a mining operation, which must be delivered in a short time frame, or they might blow up in transit.  In an attempt to kill two birds with a stone, Mal also takes on another commission, an apparently easy task whose destination lies on the same course as the main job – and since in this part of the ‘verse “easy” often equates with “tricky”, the meeting with the mysterious client ends up with Reynolds being attacked, kidnapped, and taken off-planet for destination unknown.

What follows is a fast story running on parallel tracks: the crew must deal with the dangerous shipment and take it to destination before it – and Serenity – are blown to smithereens, while trying to find out what happened to their Captain, the only certainty being that he’s in danger and that time is of the essence. Meanwhile, the Alliance is on their tracks, again, searching for their two most-wanted passengers, Simon and his disturbed sister River, and tempers aboard ship are becoming as volatile as the explosives in the cargo bay. As these threads develop, we discover some interesting details about Malcom Reynolds’ past and that of Shepherd Book, one of the most mysterious members of Serenity’s crew, while we renew our acquaintance with each one of the characters we learned to appreciate and love in the past, as every one of them enjoys some screen time.

Zöe gets indeed the lion’s share of the focus here, and it’s a narrative choice I greatly appreciated since she’s always been my favorite character: if on the show she distinguished herself for her no-nonsense attitude and short, caustic utterances, here we are able to get into her mind and see what makes her tick. Her unfailing loyalty to Mal plays as a nice counterpoint to Jayne’s selfishness and matter-of-fact acceptance of the possible loss of their captain, and it’s in the interactions between the two of them that I found the true spirit of Firefly in this book.  The brisk pace of the novel does not permit the same level of depth for the other members of the crew, although there are a few moments in which River’s uncanny powers play a significant role and we can perceive the hidden layers of her formidable but deranged mind, and in those moments I could very easily hear her voice and its peculiar cadence.  The true discovery in Big Damn Hero is reserved for Shepherd Book however, and the hints (too few, granted, but better than the continuing mystery) about his more… energetic past: it’s interesting to see him in a more active role and I liked how he was able to balance the compassion required by his calling with the ability to meet physical threats.

The “meat” of the story, though, comes from Reynolds’ abduction and the reasons at the root of it: these reach far into his past and focus on his youth and the later war experiences, giving the readers a chance to witness some of the events that molded him into the present individual. This thread also takes a closer look at what it means to be a former Browncoat in a world now firmly ruled by the victorious Alliance, and how the bitterness of that defeat can still prey on the minds of those who lost the fight – sometimes with toxic effects.  Another interesting side of this narrative theme comes from the fact that the crew is forced to scatter in different directions, as some of them try to fulfill their job and others need to stay and investigate Mal’s disappearance: the main strength of Serenity’s complement comes from their being an actual family, and the lack of one member – especially the pivotal Captain Reynolds who is their glue – deeply unsettles them, besides being a source of deep worry for his safety.  I was reminded in several instances of one of my favorite episodes, Out of Gas, where a life support malfunction forced them to abandon ship leaving Mal alone aboard as he tried to restore the systems: as it happened in that episode, the crew’s separation mines their confidence and for a while makes them unable to effectively react to the situation at hand.  But once they do, their synergy is a joy to behold…

Big Damn Hero might not be a perfect novel, since it sports some quirks and weaknesses, but they are negligible when compared with the sheer joy of being immersed once again in this ‘verse and meeting again these beloved characters.  A joy I expect to renew with the next book in this welcome revival series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

TV Review: THE EXPANSE, Season 3 (spoiler free)

 

The on-screen translation of one of the best space opera book series to see the light in recent times has now reached its third season – one that for some harrowing days also seemed destined to be the final one, a subject to which I will return in a short while.

What never ceases to amaze me, in this visual version of James S.A. Corey’s epic, is the fact that even as a book reader I never experienced any dull moment, never took anything for granted, because the pace of the story is such that expectations always run high, even for those who know how the narrative journey develops.  This has become particularly true with this third season, where actions and characters have been shifted in unexpected ways, or changed completely, so that the viewing experience has become fraught with uncertainty for book readers as well as newcomers to The Expanse’s storyline.  If, with the previous two seasons, I was merely eager to see how certain events would be portrayed on screen – and still found myself enthralled by the way the creators managed that – now I am often speculating, together with non-book-readers, about how the story will move forward, what will happen to the characters, and so on.  The joy of seeing this amazing epic brought to the small screen is now combined with the deep sense of wonder and expectation that should always be part and parcel of any such experience.

The actors’ portrayal of the characters keeps being very enjoyable, and the characters themselves continue to gather new facets and offer deeper insights on their psychology and what makes them tick: we are given, for example, an important revelation about Naomi’s past (one that in the books happens much, much later than the point reached by the TV series), one that explains many of her past and present actions, and from my point of view gives some subtext to Dominique Tipper’s choice to always add a veil of wistfulness to her interpretation of Naomi, one that might have been a subtle form of foreshadowing.   Another delightful surprise came from Amos and the friendship he creates with distraught scientist Prax, who is desperately trying to find his missing daughter: actor Wes Chatam managed to keep his Amos the strong-armed, borderline psychopathic character we all know and love, but at the same time showed his gentler streak in his support of Prax, all without once changing Amos’ basic ruthlessness – not a mean feat indeed, and one that reached its peak in the famous (if you saw the show) “I am that guy” scene.

Fans of both Bobbie Draper, the Martian marine, and of Chrisjen Avasarala, the consummate, foul-mouthed politician, will certainly have enjoyed as I did their exchanges and how the balance of power shifts between the two of them according to the situation: where politics and the handling of people is concerned, Avasarala holds the upper hand, applying all her skills and craftiness to the manipulation of anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on her path, and at the same time she acts as a teacher to Bobby, who is indeed an amazing warrior, but suffers from a form of innocence where interpersonal talents are required.  On the other hand, when they are in danger and fighting for their lives, the roles become reversed, and it’s Bobbie’s turn to impart vital knowledge that can make the difference between life and death: the shared dangers they faced and are still facing have created a bond of mutual trust and respect between them, so that they know that any advice coming from the other is based on sound experience and can be heeded without reservations.

And these are only a handful of examples of what one can expect from this set of remarkable characters…

Story-wise, the third season looks more articulated and far-reaching: the mystery about the origins of the alien protomolecule now encompasses the questions about its goals (especially after the creation of the huge space ring), and intersects in a dramatic, breath-stealing way with the conspiracy to weaponize the alien substance and use it to affect the already precarious political balance of the Solar System. We spend more time on Earth, witnessing the power play between contrasting political forces, but we are also afforded a much closer look at Belter society and interactions as the Belters ask for a front seat on the general playing field thanks to their retrieval of the Mormon ship Nauvoo, now renamed Behemoth.   And speaking of space, it’s worth mentioning how well The Expanse shows the mechanics of life in vacuum, be it on a ship or a station, and the effects of microgravity on day-to-day existence or on the human body: space is vast and dangerous, we are all aware of this fact in one way or another, but it’s through some details of this show that the full impact of this reality hits home. One of the most striking scenes I can remember is that of the corridors of a damaged ship, where the bodies of the dead keep floating in an upright position because their magnetic boots keep them anchored to the deck; or the information about the effects of microgravity on a wound, because blood clotting cannot happen in gravity’s absence.

This attention to detail is one of the series’ distinguishing marks, and one of the aspects that many commentators have touched on, together with the excellent writing and the high-quality of character portrayal, so that it is unanimously acknowledged that The Expanse is one of the best genre shows on air at present.  Which leads me to the inevitable discussion about the proverbial elephant in the room, i.e. SyFy’s decision not to carry the show after its third season, a piece of news that came as a very cold shower around the middle of Season 3’s run.

When I wrote my review for Season 1 of The Expanse, I commended SyFy’s choice to commit to a quality story (and as a book reader I knew it had quality to spare), taking a step into the right direction for the network’s own chosen field, that had been neglected for some time in favor of other kinds of entertainment that had little or nothing to do with science fiction. You can therefore imagine my dismay when I learned of the decision to take The Expanse off their schedule, because of insufficient ratings due to SyFy’s distribution contract, which provided only for live viewing, a choice that apparently was not enough for the network’s goals.

Now, I have no idea about the workings of such contracts, so I might be barking up the wrong tree here, but it would seem to me that SyFy did not take into account the huge changes in the way TV viewing is approached now: live, direct viewing has dwindled in favor of streaming services or the more mundane recording of a show – not everyone can be in front of their TV on a given day and hour, our lives just make that difficult if not impossible, so that it’s far easier to record something we are interested in, to watch it later. So, basing the ratings of a show just on live viewing seems like a very narrow-minded interpretation, or an imperfect understanding of the modern dynamics of viewership, or both. Which leads to what, in my opinion, was a short-sighted and unfortunate decision that, despite the words of praise for the show expressed in the official announcement, immediately recalled other equally unfortunate and short-sighted decisions taken by SyFy in the past, as titles like Stargate: Universe or Farscape, just to name two, come to mind.

Luckily for The Expanse, though, the show is not produced by SyFy themselves but by Alcon Entertainment, and they immediately set to work in search of a new home for the series, backed up by a huge, really huge, fan involvement that included the signing of a petition to save The Expanse, and which brought on the involvement of Amazon and its owner Jeff Bezos – a fan of the book series even before the show aired – with the result that Season 4 (and the next ones, we hope…) will see the light on Amazon Video.  While I am relieved to know that the Rocinante and its crew will keep on traveling through space, I am also sad to have witnessed this further misstep from SyFy, one that – in my opinion – once again undermines their reliability as a network dedicated to quality science fiction.  And quality is always something one should strive for, especially in this genre…

That said, I am happy to close on the positive note of The Expanse’s new – and certainly more trustworthy – home and look forward to what Season 4 will bring.  Please, keep the Roci flying!

 

My Rating: 

Reviews

TV Review: STAR TREK DISCOVERY – first (spoiler free) impressions

 

There is no doubt that Star Trek: Discovery was one of the most anticipated TV series for this year, with curiosity reaching higher levels at each delay in the release date, and expectations running the whole spectrum from eagerness to dread, the latter more easily found in the group of old-time fans who were sorely disappointed by latest productions like Enterprise on the small screen or the J.J. Abrams movies on the big one.

I believe these are mostly people whose first significant contact with televised science fiction started with Star Trek (either the original series or one of the later ones) and who found themselves profoundly inspired by the ideal of a galaxy-spanning Federation whose main goals were the exploration of the unknown and the creation of peaceful relations with other species, so that Star Trek incarnated their benchmark for the future of humanity.  This utopian standard was maintained all throughout the various incarnations of the show (with one exception – I’ll come back to this in a while) upon the mandate of creator Gene Roddenberry, who stipulated early on that the spacefaring crews, and the societies they originated from, had found a way to settle their conflicts and to live in harmony.

While this directive gave Star Trek its distinctive outlook, one that offered a hope for the future – particularly when the show aired in troubled times – it also represented, in my opinion, a set of shackles that on occasion hampered the writers’ creative range and probably robbed the stories of that pinch of “courage and daring” that would have elevated many of them from the simply good to the outstanding.  One of the many examples of this phenomenon could be observed with Voyager: the mixed crew of Federation officers and Maquis rebels offered a huge potential for cultural and ideological clash, and therefore interesting stories and character studies, but this potential was soon disposed of by having the two halves of the crew merge and combine seamlessly just a few episodes into the first season.

By that same rule, the Federation and its representatives had to be irreproachable, perfect in their selfless pursuit of the common good, so that when Deep Space 9 “dared” to show the flaws in this impossibly perfect exterior (high-ranking officers giving in to their dark side; the shady Section 31, and so on) many fans protested at this dismal turn of the story – a turn that generated, when allowed to run its course, some of the most interesting and compelling narrative threads.  Because, let’s face it, conflict – be it a strife between contrasting personalities or an outright fight between opposing factions – is what can fuel a multi-faceted story whose outcome needs to be unpredictable to hold our continuing interest.

Back to Star Trek: Discovery, it’s my belief – after seeing the first four episodes – that the main point of contention from the viewers who did not like what they saw is exactly this: they might feel “betrayed” by the fact that the Federation finds itself engaged in a war.  I will not linger on other complaints that I consider purely… cosmetic: yes, the Klingons’ appearance has been changed, again, and while I see no reason for that change (I liked their look from TNG onwards, thank you very much), I can take that in stride; yes, the time-frame for the show is set several years before that of the original series, and yet there is ample evidence of more advanced technology, but I believe that trying to compare what we can do with CGI today with what was available 50 years ago (not to mention the improvements in our present technology) is something of a futile exercise: maintaining the continuity with a show that aired so long ago, with so little means at its disposal, would prove counterproductive, in the end.  What I would like to really focus on is the story, and the characters: from my point of view, they are all that truly matters.

The biggest complaint I’ve read about the new series, and its characters in particular, is that they “have no soul”: in my opinion it might be a premature judgment, because we hardly had time to get to know these people, and many of us might be falling prey to the modern bad habit of wanting to be instantly wooed from the very start.  Remember the times when a tv show took at least one season, if not more, to find its footing? TNG took three to really get into gear, mostly thanks to the Borg, and DS9’s true potential started to come out in season 4, when the Dominion raised its ugly head.  Yet viewers, despite some unavoidable complaints, stayed for the duration and in the end came to enjoy and love those shows.   So why are so many of us not ready to give this show a chance?  It might fizzle out into boredom or predictability, I’ll grant you that, but for now we should give it the benefit of the doubt, and time to get used to its… new shoes.

Personally, I’m quite happy to see a good number of strong female figures that are not relegated in the role of caregivers – doctors, counselors, teachers for the kids living on board: the story opens with two women, a captain and her first officer, engaged in a mission on an inhospitable planet.  I liked immediately Captain Georgiou, the mix of experience, wisdom and humor that came to the fore from the very start: she gave the impression of a person who’s quite comfortable in her role and in her own skin, and if a certain scene with the Federation symbol drawn in the sand felt a little over the top, the overall effect was more than positive.  I’m still trying to get a grip on Commander Michael Burnham instead (including the reason she goes by a male name…), but she looks promising: having been raised on Vulcan she is an interesting mix between human passion and Vulcan logic and that could be the main reason she looks so hard to pin down. And again, on board Discovery we meet a woman at the head of the security section: her appearance has been brief, so far, but her air of strong, no-nonsense competence made an impact on me and I hope she will not remain an exception.

As for the story, or what little I saw until this point, it looks darker, far more serious than the usual Star Trek offerings, and that’s mirrored by the dimmer ambient lighting, quite a departure from the bright lights and colors of the various Enterprises or of Voyager.  The Federation finds itself at war with the Klingons, and if some might feel inclined to disagree with this narrative choice, I’d like to remind them that in the times of the original series, relations with the Klingons were quite strained and always on the verge of an all-out conflict: if this turns out to be the story of how that uneasy truce came to be, I will be very interested in following its progress.  This war, one that was not actively sought but still needs to be fought, might very well represent the catalyst (or one of them anyway) for the process that led the Federation to the reasoned adherence to its founding principles as we came to know and appreciate them.  And it might also be the background for the thought-provoking character and narrative arcs I’m looking for: there is a scene in which a crewman asks how it could have happened, how could the Federation find itself waging war when their goals are exploration and learning, and in this dichotomy – a hard, painful dichotomy that hopefully will engage many characters’ moral compass – we might find a multi-layered story worth watching.

All we need to do is indeed give Discovery some time to grow, and to grant ourselves a little patience and faith…

Reviews

TV Review: DARK MATTER Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When last year I wrote reviews for the two “summer shows” from SyFy, KillJoys and Dark Matter, I sensed a stronger potential for growth in the former, while the latter seemed headed toward a more conventional, if still entertaining, path. Season 2 however overturned my predictions for both shows: if Killjoys did not exactly disappoint, it did not prove to be equal to its promises, while Dark Matter showed a solidity of stories and characterization that was a very welcome surprise.

In the first season we met six people (plus and android) who wake up from suspended animation on a strange ship, without memory of their identities and past.  As they try to come to terms with the situation and what little information they can glean about themselves – apparently a band of criminals hired for dirty operations, with the exception of the young stowaway girl who’s not part of the original crew – they also face the problems created by the dichotomy between their former selves and the people the are now, thanks to the clean slate created by amnesia.

In this second season, the crew of the Raza faces a different set of challenges: they have acknowledged their violent past, but feel more comfortable with the personalities they have developed since waking up, and prefer to proceed from there (with one notable exception, but that’s something of a spoiler, so I will not say more about it).  Having accepted both their shady past and the somewhat uncertain present, the group chooses to look forward, to plan for the future rather than delve into the past, even when parts of it come back to bite their proverbial behind.

Shared dangers have coalesced the crew into a team – almost the embryo of a family, I’m tempted to say – and they have learned to look out for each other, while at the same time maintaining their individual quirks and, on occasion, less savory personality traits: as I said in the review for Season 1, there must be something in one’s personality makeup that is similar to “muscle memory”, something that comes into play through the unconscious, like an autonomous reflex.  This time, however, those reflexes come into play for the good of the team, and not for an individual’s egotistical drives and even if it doesn’t mean that the former “bad guys” have turned into angels, still there is a huge difference between who they are now and who they used to be, and they seem to prefer putting some distance between their present and past selves.

The background that was sketched in the first season of the show takes more substance, and presents a galaxy that’s quite far from the standards of more idealistic future shows: there are far too many struggling colonies or mining outposts that try to eke out a living despite the pressure of the corporations that seem the real ruling power here, and the corporations themselves are at war with each other using mercenaries like the team on the Raza to undermine their rivals’ powers.  Even the Galactic Authority, the entity that acts as a police force, is not immune from power plays, to the point that they are far too easily corrupted and even when one of their officers doggedly pursues the crew of the Raza, he appears motivated more by personal drives than simple love of justice, making me often think about inspector Javert from Les Miserables in the blind pursuit of his quarry.  This last element is quite dramatically evident in the last episode of the season, where he apparently throws away the chance of stopping a terrorist operation in favor of capturing his elusive prey.

If character development and well-timed action are the main components of this series, and even more so in this second season, the plot is equally capable of evolution, branching off from the main theme that was at the root of the story and developing into several individual narrative threads that still remain firmly grounded in the main arc, giving it a multiplicity of points of view that keeps the story itself always interesting.  What’s more, Dark Matter is not afraid of taking extreme measures with its set of characters: in the very first episode, one of the original six is removed from the equation in a very surprising game change that’s not at all usual in serialized television. The addition of new figures to the crew, and their non-permanent status, reinforces the awareness that no one might be safe here, that we should not take for granted the survival of any individual character.

For this reason (or should I call it warning?) when the final episode of the season closes on a very difficult situation, with the members of the crew separated from each other and facing potential annihilation on a doomed space station, the ending cliffhanger takes on a further layer of uncertainty and makes us wonder about the changes that we might witness in Season 3.

In short, Dark Matter might still not shine for originality of plots or narrative devices, but it does move forward with a form of enthusiasm that’s quite refreshing, making us care about the characters and involving us with the narrative threads: I’ll say it again, and this time with even more conviction – it might not be a revelation, but it’s a solid story that deserves more than one chance.

 

My Rating for Season 2: 

Reviews

TV Review: KILLJOYS Season 2 (no spoilers)

 

When I reviewed the first season of this science fiction series, I was full of enthusiasm for the potential shown by its brief 10-episode run. And how could it be otherwise, when the story focused on a small team of bounty hunters, working in a remote area of space?  The overall feel of the setting reminded me a little of Firefly, thanks to its definite frontier flavor and the complex social and political threads running in the background, and what’s more the main characters were quite promising: Dutch, an ass-kicking heroine with a brutal past, who managed to overcome the trauma of her upbringing as an assassin and to remake herself into a whole, independent and self-sufficient person; Johnny, her tech-wiz team-mate and the “softer side” of their working equation, one that created a strong, family-like bond between them that is one of the series’ stronger points; and D’Avin, Johnny’s brother and former soldier, traumatized by his military experiences (and probably some dark experiments), trying to move past his PTSD.

The overall tone, in that first season, was lively and irreverent, with the episodic nature of the show paving the way for a more complex narrative arc that Season 2 was bound to develop further – and the premises were indeed there, from the brief appearances of Dutch’s devious mentor Khlyen, still stalking his former pupil and trying to bring her back  into the fold, to D’Avin’s flashbacks to some traumatic event, that caused him to lash out quite dangerously in the most unexpected of circumstances; from the monopoly exerted by the system’s wealthy families on the available resources, to the exploitative activities of the Corporation managing the workforce.  All these elements promised some fascinating developments, and an expanding scope for the story, but unfortunately some of those promises went unfulfilled…

The very fist sign that something had changed – and not exactly for the better – was in the new opening credits: both the chosen music and the appearance of the characters as graphic novel versions of themselves represented a puzzling, and somehow jarring surprise, and to me they did not look at all in sync with the series’ previous “mood”.  That Killjoys did not take itself very seriously was a given, and it was part and parcel of its charm, but this new introduction seemed… cheap, for want of a better word, and at odds with what had gone on before.

But these purely aestethical considerations would have been forgotten if the story had moved forward in the direction hinted at in the first season: sadly, it fell prey to its own need for excessive complexity that was potentially interesting, yes, but also needed something more than the season’s scant 10 episodes so the various threads could have the time to grow into an organic and well-defined story. The compression of so many components into such a short time span worked against the story, making it appear at times slipshod and confusing, and it also worked against the characters – the strongest element of the series so far – robbing them of many chances for growth and expansion, and forcing them to almost become caricatures of themselves.  This last is particularly evident with D’Avin: where he started as a mentally scarred veteran, he becomes almost a parody of himself in Season 2 – having been subjected to further experiments, he’s now a sort of invulnerable soldier, thanks to the green fluid running through his veins. The circumstance in which this is revealed (the seduction of bartender Sabine) fails to be as dramatic as it was intended, and remains the most cringe-worthy segment of the whole season.

Dutch fares a little better, but not much: the series of circumstances that puts an unwelcome distance between her and Johnny seems to make her lose some focus, and Dutch appears to be reacting to, more than acting on, the problems that the group has to face. What’s worse, Khlyen’s increased presence on screen does not reinforce Dutch’s sense of self-assurance and independence, but instead seems to weaken it when he’s given a personal story and a non-selfish motivation for his actions: by somehow bringing them together, instead of keeping him as a form of evil manifestation, Dutch’s inner strength appears diminished, and unfocused – and given how she literally exploded on the scene in the first season, this is not something viewers completely appreciate…

Johnny is the only one given an interesting – and evolving – arc: it was clear from the start that his nature was not completely suited to his work as a Killjoy, and through his association with Pawter, the slum doctor who used to be a scion of a ruling family, he finds a… mission, a purpose that appeals to his need to make a difference, to change things for the better.  When the relationship with Pawter takes on romantic overtones, we see Johnny dealing with some inner conflict as he chooses a divergent path that takes him away from Dutch and the team: on one side he knows he’s working toward a noble goal, on the other he feels that the need for secrecy upsets the team’s dynamics and often causes him to lie to his long-time partner, and that’s a price that weighs heavily on him.  If the rhythm of the events had not been so frantic, Johnny’s turmoil could have been explored in greater depth than it was, and that’s another regret I came away with at the end of the season.

Despite these disappointments, I will keep an eye on the show (I know that the third season is airing now, so I might be able to see it in the near future), in the hope that the creative team manages to overcome the hurdles of season 2 and finds a much firmer footing for both story and characters.  It would be a pity to see Killjoys’ promises fizzle into nothing…

 

My Rating for Season 2: