Battlestar Galactica 4×11 — Sometimes a Great Notion

Battlestar is back, and the WTF? factor is high.  Here’s my breakdown of the episode, Spoilers Galore.

Big things:

  1. Starbuck finds her own wreckage, with her fin #, and a corpse with her dog tags.
  2. The Final Four all have memories of living on Earth.
  3. Dee breaks down and commits suicide after one last happy memory with Lee.
  4. Tigh flashes back to Earth and sees Ellen, leading him to identify her as the Fifth Cylon.
  5. Earth is uninhabitable, and the remains discovered there are all genetically Cylon, accompanied by Centurion-style Cylons unlike those made by the humans of the 12 colonies or the Cylons they made.

Analysis:

1. This fits in with the fact that the Raptor that Starbuck arrived with after her dissapearance was fresh-off-the-line clean.  This leads us to believe that Starbuck is a Cylon, or that she was somehow cloned by the Cylons, based off of the tissue samples they could have taken during the time she was held at the farm during “The Farm.”  This is of course all interpolation.  Leoban is shocked by the revelation, as it disproves/disagrees with his visions.  His religious certainty is shaken, and the connection between him and Starbuck is now in question again.

2.  From Tyroll walking the marketplace to Anders remembering playing “All Along the Watchtower,” this fits in line with my reading that that the humans of Earth are descended from the intermarriage of Cylons and humans who settle on Kobol and then leave for the thirteen colonies, as a part of the cycle (hence “all of this has happened before, all of this will happen again”) — This would allow for our civilization as is now to be a part of this cycle, between when the 13th tribe reaches Earth and when nuclear war destroys civilization on the planet.

The Final Five would then be the people who remember their previous incarnations elsewhen in the cycle, who are ‘Cylons’ in that they are the descendents of the re-connected species.

3. Dee’s suicide is used as the personalization of the collective despair expressed by the fleet after being let down by Earth.  The people had held up hope for years and years, thinking ‘if we make it to Earth, it will all be ok.’ — and now that Earth has been removed as the great hope, people’s defenses are down and they’re crashing.  Everyone of the survivors have PTSD, first from the destruction of the colonies, likely again from the events on New Caprica, and many things in between and after.

Dee had already lost her connection to Lee, before that she lost Billy, on top of the destruction of the colonies.  She showed signs of breaking down throughout the episode, from the return trip from Earth to speaking to Hera to the musing about the picture from when she was five.  And then, after one more happy moment with Lee, she takes her own life.  This is the personalized version of the despair rampant throughout the fleet that we can see on Galactica with people breaking down in the hallways and from the graffiti.

4.  Ellen was originally suspected as being a Cylon because of her mysterious appearance in the fleet, then discounted because she was too human-ly screwed up.  And by the time she let Saul kill her as they departerd New Caprica, she had achieved a measure of redeption.  And now by revealing her as the fifth Cylon (confirmed in the ‘next episode’ preview), they open up the question of another instance of her being alive or able to be activated.  It also makes for more of a reason to stay on Earth for archaeological excavation to uncover more information and/or unlock more memories of the Four that remain.

5.  This supports my ideas from 2, positing that once humans and Cylons intermingle, they will just distinct enough from humans now so as to register as ‘Cylon’ (ie. ‘Other’) — But I imagine that Hera and Nicholas, our two known human-Cylon crossbreeds would register as ‘Cylon’ under the same analyses.

Next episode — Vice President Zarek makes another power play, looking to divide the fleet.  Meanwhile, people try to figure out what the hell to do now that Earth is no longer the safe End Point.  Cavill’s fleet is still out there, meaning that there will be more chances for explosions and dogfights and such.

On the Horizon — Mid-season

Here are three speculative and/or genre-inclined shows coming up soon in TV-land. Dollhouse, Castle, and Kings.

Dollhouse

Joss Whedon’s anticipated new tv drama, starring Eliza “Faith” Dushku as Echo, one of a number of ‘Dolls’ — people who have had their memories wiped, live in an idyllic but infantile ‘Dollhouse’ facility, and who, when they become ‘Active,’ are implanted with memories and skills to serve as whatever the Dollhouse’s clients want them to be. This will allow Whedon and the show to explore Dushku’s range as a leading lady, explore the theme of memory vs. spirit/soul, exploitation, human experimentation/human trafficing, etc. The show also stars Tamoh “Helo” Penikett as James Ballard, the FBI agent who investigates the urban legend of the Dollhouse. Dollhouse has been troubled by production delays, disagreements about creative direction, and other issues, but it is on track for at least a nine-episode initial order.

Dollhouse premiers February 13th on Fox.

Castle
Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, of Firefly and Dr. Horrible fame) is a famous best-selling mystery novelist who is tapped by the NYPD as a consultant when a copycat killer starts committing murders in the same manner as Castle’s books. This creates what seems to be a very promising meta-genre component for the series, since we’ll have Castle interpreting everything through the filter of a crime/mystery writer, and provides a variation on the ‘expert consultant protected by bad-ass detective/agent’ dynamic of shows like Fringe, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Bones, etc.

Stana Katic (Heroes, 24, Quantum of Solace) plays Castle’s detective handler/inspiration for the protagonist for a new series of books. The show is likely to make good use of Fillion’s range, injecting comedy (From the video preview — “Did you see that? That was so cool!”) and romance (Castle asking the detective out, and her brushing him off while acknowledging the chemistry) into what seems to default to a prime-time hour-long crime procedural drama.

Castlepremiers March 9th on ABC.

Kings
An alternate-present America re-telling of the story of King David, Kings gives us David Shepherd (Christopher Egan) rescuing the son of King Silas (Ian McShane), ruler of Shiloh, a city in the Kingdom of Gilboa, David is welcomed into the court and turned into a hero of the people, wrapped up in politics and power. NBC’s promotion has highlighted the alternate-history aspects of the world, focusing on the monarchic nature of the Kingdom of Gilboa (Shiloh, the center of the story, appears similar/evocative of a New York City or the like).

UNN Breaking News

This show appears to be high-production value, since there will not have to be much in the way of SF special effects, focusing on costuming, graphic and set design to highlight the subtle but fundamental differences between our world and that of Kings. The story of King David should provide enough material for several seasons, depending on how close of a re-telling is planned and how quickly the story is to unfold. Early responses to the pilot script paint it as “bold, bizzare, fun”.

Kings premiers March 19th on NBC.

4-Dimensional Chess

Having recently watched the Doctor Who episode called “Blink,” its tight writing and 4-dimensional chess made me think of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and narratives of time-travel where 4-th-dimensional warfare/thinking is integral to the plot.  This advanced use of time-travel allows creators to move past the excitement of possibilities like Bruce Campbell vs. The Army of Darkness and craft narratives that push the dramatic potential of time-travel to its extremes.

Spoilers follow for Doctor Who 3×11 “Blink” and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

“Blink”

In the Hugo-award winning Doctor Who episode “Blink,” The Doctor and Martha are stranded in 1969 after investigating a house connected to a number of dissapearances.  The episode’s protagonist is not The Doctor or his companion Martha, but a woman by the name of Sally Sparrow.  Sally pieces together clues left under wallpaper, letters delivered by hand, messages given in person, and DVD easter eggs to solve the mystery and rescue The Doctor and Martha from being stranded in time.  The Doctor speaks to Sally through DVD extras thanks to a transcript of their conversation made by Sally’s roommate’s brother, who was there as the conversation happened, which then allowed a transcript to exist to be given to the Doctor to refer to when (later for him, earlier for Sally), he would have to record the DVD easter eggs.

This non-linear strategizing/correspondence allows for the Doctor’s presence to be felt throughout the episode, but all interpreted and acted upon by another character.  Sally must piece together the puzzle pieces left by her time-displaced roommate, a handsome police detective catapaulted back in time to 1969 (to meet up with the Doctor and Martha), and to engage in a two-way discussion with the seemingly-one-sided ramblings of the Doctor on the DVDs.  The Doctor and Sally collaborate across time to solve the case of the Weeping Angels, with critical information held by specific individuals allowing the whole picture to be assembled.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Terminator uses 4th-dimensional thinking, but on a larger scale.  John Connor of the future, the Connors of the ‘present’ timeline, Skynet of the future, Terminators in the ‘present’, and other independent agents are all fighting a war across time over the fate of the future, the inevitability or prevention of Judgement Day, when a singularity-derived Machine uprising destroys human civilization.

The show’s opening gambits of 4-dimensional chess are Future John sending “Cameron” back in time to be his protector/aide-de-camp, and the attacks of the Terminator known as “Cromartie”

Cameron and the Connors go to a bank and use a time machine built in the past to allow the group to escape Cromartie as well as possibly delay/prevent Sarah’s death by cancer.

During the series, further characters return from a divergent future time-line where the Future John Connor is increasingly reliant on reprogrammed Terminators, which is easily read as being a result of his reliance on and attachment to Cameron in the series.  Jesse brings Riley back from that future to use Riley to drive a wedge between John and Cameron (which Jesse presumably thinks will lead to a better version of Post-Judgement day, where John’s use of reprogrammed terminators is not a liability).

4-dimensional chess runs throughout the show, and even in one-off episodes such as “Self Made Man,” where Cameron discovers the history of a Terminator who was sent too far back in time, accidentally disrupts the timeline in a way that would cause its mission to fail, then proceeds to change the timeline in order to ensure that the timeline shifts back in a way so that it can complete its mission.

Characters such as Catherine Weaver are unknown quantities in the 4-dimensional war, as she acts with an agenda, but has not clearly been revealed as being on either the Connor’s or Skynet’s side.

Concluding Thoughts

Stories that play with time-travel as not just a plot device, but use the non-linearity of time as a multi-use narrative tool gain the advantage of being able to layer decisions, put together characters who know one another but from different timelines or parts of their individual time-lives which would normally be impossible (Sally meeting Billy the detective on his deathbed as an elderly man, having just earlier that day met him for the first time as a young detective).  These tools allow for writers and creators to utilize the nostalgic mode of storytelling in compelling ways, and to provoke thought about choices, causality, opportunities past and those that yet remain.

Battlestar Galactica — The End is Near

After another long hiatus, Battlestar Galactica will be returning to TV for its last half-season on January 16th.  10 episodes (of varying length) remain, as well as a TV-movie called The Plan, which is set immediately following the Cylon attacks on the 12 colonies.

In this remaining narrative space, there are a lot of loose ends to tie up.  The first section of Season 4 had already adopted an elegiac tone, trying together threads, ‘resolving’ character arcs (of course, resolution in Battlestar often comes at the end of a barrel or at the opening of a airlock).

We’ve still got one last Cylon to reveal, a Cylon civil war to finish up, and in my viewing, the most important task is to create an ending which will cause the series to resonate with one of its catch-phrases — All of this has happened before, all of this will happen again.  The show’s coda needs to suggest a teleology that will either lead to a re-playing of its story, or prove itself as the repetition that breaks the cycle.

Just as at the end of Season Three we got to see Earth, at the end of Season 4.0 we got to see the home of the 13th tribe from the ground level, ruins and all.  The Season 4.0 finale seems to make the Flying Motorcycle ending less likely, but we shall see.  The truce between Humans and Cylons is an uneasy one, and I’m sure things will get much worse before they get better, if they do.  I’d feel cheated if the show didn’t end with some kind of equilibrium for the humans, whose entire arc has been about finding Earth and completing their Exodus.  New Caprica was an interruption,

The progress of Ron Moore’s prequel project Caprica means that the Battlestarverse may continue on past the series proper, but I’ll be much happier with the series if it has its own proper ending.

I feel comfortable in calling Battlestar Galactica the iconic Bush Era Science Fiction series (at least, of those produced during his presidency).  It’s fitting that Battlestar will be ending before we get too far into Obama’s tenure as president, as the show is very distinctly a response to the 9/11 political landscape and the Bush administration.  Obama will still of course be dealing with a post-9/11 world, but it makes me wonder what the great Science Fiction epic of his presidency will be.

A Critique of Pure Whedon

On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.

I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut.  I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run).  The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run).  I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through.  But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love.  One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).

In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.

Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.

In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.

Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:

Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers.  A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic.  And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him.  Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show.  Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.

Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.

Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting.  Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.

Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.

Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.

Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel.  Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.

Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.

Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives.  What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.

Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance.  In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.

The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.

It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be.  Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.

So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life.  And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.

I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong.  I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.

Review: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Young Reader fiction has the distinct advantage of trending towards short.  This facilitates marathon-style reading, which is one of the great literary pleasures.  The speed at which I breezed through the novel is also a testament to the book’s readability.

The Lightning Thief arrived in 2005, and is the first in an ongoing series (three books in the series are available already, with the fourth arriving in May of 2009.

The series’ hero is Perseus “Percy” Jackson, a 12-year old son of an Olympian God (the identity of said god is revealed in the book, but does constitute a notable spoiler) who joins other Half-God children at a camp/training ground for demigod children.  His heroic companions (because that’s how heroes roll) are Grover Underwood (no relation), an earnest but clumsy satyr, and Annabeth Chase, brainiac daughter of Athena.  Percy is impetuous (a good plot device, and explained as being part of his divine heritage), but he is also fiercely loyal to his mother, which provides much of the other motivation for Percy’s actions in the book.

Riordan shows a great faculty for bringing the Greek myths to life in new ways, re-casting the Furies, Medusa, Procrustes, and more into a contemporary context.  He has a decent excuse for moving the pantheon to America, and provides the best sourcebooks/inspiration for White Wolf’s Scion that I’ve seen so far.

The whole book has the feel of Bronze Age, 21st century-style.  Young readers coming to the book with only a vague background in classics will be able to learn the history through an accessible lens, as Riordan gives various mythological figures’ original stories to contrast their contemporary incarnations.  Riordan’s re-interpretations are clever, if not brilliant, and there’s a great sense of fun to the whole book which goes hand-in-hand with Percy’s age and the old saying that the real Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve.

It’s a quick read, and if you’re a Classics Geek at all, it’s certainly worth your (short) time.  I’m looking forward to the later books, but there’s a Mieville ARC on my counter that demands my attention.

Return to Leverage

Leverage has arrived on TNT, and we’ve now had four episodes (the pilot which I discussed earlier and three more).

As the show settles into its digs, we can see what the series is likely to look and feel like in an ongoing fashion.  Leverage is clearly over-the-top, trading mimetic realism for the joyous fun of heist and con-man action where Awesomeness is a clear and present aesthetic agenda.

In “The Two-Horse Job” and in “The Miracle Job,” the characters’ backstory is central both to the reason for the team taking each case and also plays out in the interpersonal drama between the leads and the guest-star clients.   Other characters’ investment in the individual jobs waxes and wanes based on their personal beliefs regarding the lines which the team has to cross along the way, which keeps the procedural formula from growing stale.

Leverage plays like a 21st century A-team, but instead of being a group of ex-special forces soldiers, the show draws more upon the caper, heist, and do-gooder fixer traditions of series including Mission: Impossible, Burn Notice and films like Ocean’s Eleven, among many others. The characters are a WASP-y ex-insurance claims investigator, a black geek-chic computer hacker, an Autism-spectrum super-thief, an actress who is abysmal in productions but inspired in confidence games, and a wise-cracking thug.  The actors bring enthusiasm and oddity to their characters, making sure that each character is just a couple degrees off-center for their archetype.

We’ve also been introduced to an ongoing antagonist for the characters in Jim Sterling, played by Mark “Badger” Sheppard.  Sterling is a worthy opponent for our team, having taken over in the job formerly held by Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton), the team’s leader.

One of the main reasons the show is compelling is that for all the heroes’ schemes and plotting, things keep going wrong.  They have a good idea which goes much further than intended, and then they need to come up with a new scam to un-do the earlier scam.  This scrambling and reversal forces the characters to go out of their comfort zones, improvise, and get into more trouble.

Table Talk and The Joy of Planning

The show also plays like a tabletop RPG game, unsurprising since the show and certain traditions of tabletop play draw influence from the same sources.  Each character is an expert in their niche, they have diverse and intriguing backgrounds, and most of all, they bicker and banter over planning in a way that is highly reminiscent of any number of gaming sessions where characters spend more time thinking of the plan than actually executing those plans.

And here’s the thing — in a caper/confidence game situation, the planning is one of the most fun/exciting things.  The architecture of a scam, the construction and unfolding of a human Rube Goldberg machine provides one of the main aesthetic thrills of the narrative mode which Leverage makes its home territory.

Where shows like LOST have used extended flashbacks to provide B-plots for episodes, portraying characters at different stages of their life to show character growth or lack therof, Leverage often goes for quick flashbacks to provide punchlines to jokes our to counter-point/undermine what a character is saying in the present.  Leverage‘s flashbacks are more mad-cap, and provide a fair amount of the sjow’s Over-The-Topness.

Leverage is a show to watch, and has the benefit of Prime-time cable-drama ratings expectations rather than Network Prime-Time expectations.  I doubt Leverage will ever be a big hit, but it may be able to achieve a strong following based on its quirky and compelling over-the-top caper action.

Legend of the Seeker

Disclaimer — I have not read any of the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind.  I have heard a variety of opinions from friends and colleagues about the series, and have not put them on my reading list as of yet.  My reactions are almost entirely to the TV series independent of the books on which it is based.

There’s not much new action-adventure fantasy on TV right now, and even less of it syndicated.  This is a lack which Sam Raimi and fellow Executive Producers Robert Tapert, Joshua Donen, Ned Nalle and Kenneth Biller realized and decided to capitalize upon.  In adapting Terry Goodkind’s best-selling Sword of Truth series, Raimi and Co. have sought to re-capture Raimi’s cult success of Hercules: The Legendary Journies and Xena: Warrior Princess (among others like Cleopatra 2525 and Jack of All Trades).

First-run syndication has not been in the spotlight of late, such that Legend of the Seeker was notable to media critics as the series approached for the syndication as well as its media-tie-in nature.  The series broadcasts on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, outside of the Weekday Primetime paradigm, but with TiVo and DVR, the specific broadcast time of weekly television is far less relevant to technologically empowered viewers.  Ratings expectations are lower for syndicated shows, allowing for shows that might not survive in the current TV world.

And now to the show itself:

As mentioned above, I’ve not read Goodkind’s books.  The TV series is very familiar from the beginning.  A prophesied hero is found by a beautiful female magic-user, who join with a powerful but cranky old wizard to overthrow an evil tyrant.  There’s not really anything fresh being done from the perspective of the fantasy genre as a dialogue.  The show thusfar seems mostly bereft of the BDSM and Objectivist elements identified in the novel series.  This goes a long way towards making The Legend of the Seeker more palatable to a mainstream audience, but perhaps also removes most of the originality and freshness which the novels had to offer as source material.

Now well into the first season, the show centers around Richard Cypher (played by Craig Horner), who has been identified as a True Seeker (the first in a thousand years), and his travels with Kahlan Amnell (Bridget Regan), a Confessor (capable of making people fall in love with her so as to do her bidding — there’s some BDSM, so it’s not all gone), and wizard Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander (Bruce Spence).  They face evil-of-the-week in villages and towns across the Midlands, and Richard grows into his role as the Seeker, while developing a forbidden love for Confessor Kahlan.  Slow-motion beats in combat are prominent in the series, as the fighting slows down for notable choreagraphies, then returns to normal pace, then slows again.

The series could be spoken of as pursuing the aesthetic of awesome over others, but it is also clearly trying to return to the well of The Lord of the Rings and other popular adventure fantasies over the history of the genre.  Individual episodes like “Elixer” and “Identity” have provided interesting narrative hooks, like a town where people have become addicted to using magic to solve their problems, and the ever-present body-swap episode.

Legend of the Seeker is far from the level of Most Repeatable Programming along the lines of shows such as Lost or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but if you’re feeling a lack of fantasy adventure in your TV life, then Legend of the Seeker may be worth your time.  Bring popcorn, and leave your high standards somewhere else.