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:

Reviews

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…

Reviews

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:

Reviews

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA REWATCH: Miniseries (2003) – #SciFiMonth

ARTWORK by Tithi Luadthong from 123RF.com

When this re-imagining of an older SF tv series from the late ‘70s aired, it set an interesting model for serialized shows in the genre and it brought a definite change from its unapologetically cheesy predecessor’s standards: from the very miniseries that introduced setting and characters, it asserted its dramatic tone and the overall darkness that would become its trademark.

I remember that at the time of my first viewing I was enthralled by this grimdark vision of the future and I followed the evolution of the story with great interest, but as the seasons rolled on some of that “magic”  was lost and the last season left me thoroughly baffled, if not disappointed. Still, many times I encountered viewers’ comments that defined the new Battlestar Galactica series as one of the best contemporary genre products, so I often wondered if I had not missed something along the way…

When the entire series became available on Amazon Prime I decided to refresh my memory and – more important – to see if the possibility of watching more than one episode per week, as was the case when I first saw the series, would alter my perspective of the overall story, and on this subject I can confirm that even a limited binge-watching of two or three episodes per viewing does change substantially the perception of the story-arc and of the characters’ evolution.

The miniseries, with a runtime equal to that of four average TV episodes, introduces a human spacefaring civilization distributed over 12 planets, or colonies: in the past they had created laborer automatons – the Cylons – that had at some point rebelled and started a bloody war that ultimately ended in an uneasy truce. Long decades of peace brought humans to the decision of dismantling their military, not knowing that the Cylons were preparing a brutal, multi-point attack on the colony worlds with the intention of obliterating their creators.  On the day of the assault, a small number of ships, led by the only surviving Battlestar – the space equivalent of a contemporary aircraft carrier – flee from the Cylon attackers in search of shelter for what remains of the human race, less than 50 thousand individuals.

The drama of the hunted survivors, packed on ships that are often obsolete and where the more sophisticated tech must be kept inoperative to avoid hacking by the Cylons, is compounded by the discovery that there is a new breed of automatons besides the mechanical models they know of: these new Cylons look completely human and an unknown number of them has infiltrated the fleeing masses, adding suspicion and paranoia to the terror for the sudden attack and the constant threat of total obliteration.

The introductory miniseries does indeed start with a bang, and it takes the pressure to almost unbearable levels, the strain of the situation underscored by the amazing soundtrack from Richard Gibbs, where the main title “Are You Alive?” (linked below) is an obsessive presence from beginning to end and never fails to signal that something momentous is going to happen. At the same time the story lays down some of the topics that will become its leading themes: humanity became complacent in its conviction of having mastered the universe, unable to learn the lesson that the hubris of becoming creators themselves would turn against them, just as their “children” had done in the past, and now they are facing total annihilation while still seeming unable to lay down their pettiness and spoiled-child attitude, even when facing the end of the world as they knew it.  On the other hand, we see the humanlike Cylons willing to turn against their former “parents” but at the same time trying to understand what it means to be human, organic, vulnerable, and building their own religious credo as a form of rationale for their actions.  It becomes practically impossible for the viewer to side with either contender, because they are both flawed and both deserving of survival, right and wrong at the same time and at some point one could say they are two sides of the same coin – but in perpetual conflict with each other. 

Where the core concept of the series is very intriguing, the main characters peopling it are quite fascinating – more for their flaws than for their qualities – but I will leave their detailed examination for my review of the following seasons: here I prefer to focus on the background of the story that’s so very different from what other space opera shows have accustomed us to.  Forget the high-tech sets of Star Trek’s starship Enterprise and its brethren, Galactica and the other ships in the refugee fleet all share the look of well-used vessels past their prime while, for example, the need to keep even existing technology safe from the Cylons’ cyber attacks forces officers to renounce more modern systems in favor of the outdated, safer ones: for example people communicate through what look like old telephone handsets, which adds an interesting old-fashioned note to the overall appearance. The darkened, seedy corridors, the metal bulkhead doors reminiscent of submarine design, the constantly patched fighters, all contribute to the appearance of an utilitarian vessel rather than that of a glamorous spaceship, and reinforce the sensation of precariousness that is the leitmotif of this story of constant strife for survival.

And it’s clear that the authors wanted viewers to concentrate on this rather than on visual eye-candy: well, they have my attention, indeed…

My Rating:

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: