A Babylon 5 Reboot?

b5rebootThat picture above is almost enough to drive me to tears. So many of those wonderful people gathered for a fun publicity shot, so clearly enjoying themselves, are gone now; Richard Briggs, Andreas Katsulas, Stephen Furst, Jerry Doyle, Mira Furlan, Jeff Conaway (and of course, not pictured here, Michael O’Hare). Its the sadness and loss that permeates the memory of Babylon 5.

I expected the chief Babylon 5 event of 2021 would have been a remastered release of the complete series on Blu-ray- alas, that hasn’t transpired, the remaster limited to a digital-only release and streaming on HBO Max over in the States. Regrettable, if not surprising, the way physical formats become increasingly marginalised: possibly the new interest/HD remaster was just two or three years too late for the disc boxsets I had hoped for.

But it seems there was a hidden reason for that HD remaster, as it appears to have been a way of gauging interest in the Babylon 5 franchise- and somebody likes how it turned out. It has been announced by Warner Bros that the show is being rebooted, some totally unexpected news that is part exciting, part intriguing, part absolutely horrible. I suppose in a world in which Blade Runner got both a sequel and an anime series spin-off, anything is possible, but Babylon 5 coming back? Beyond weird. About the only thing that possibly makes any sense at this point is the news that original creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski is involved- on Twitter he has announced that he is currently writing the new show’s pilot. 

Straczynski has revealed that it won’t be a continuation or sequel, if only because of the simple, inescapable fact that we have lost the actors who played the major characters of Delenn, G’Kar, Franklin, Vir and Zack… its impossible to go back again, to the Babylon 5 we used to know and love. Instead he seems to be going back to the original idea for the show, a “from-the-ground-up reboot” retelling the story with what I assume will be a fresh, contemporary spin. Horrible as it might sound. I just find it rather unnerving, reading about kicking off with the season two storyline of John Sheridan (played by Bruce Boxleitner originally) being assigned to Babylon 5, a five-mile long space station positioned in neutral space attempting to maintain an uneasy peace between rival planetary empires. 

It could be brilliant. Imagine Babylon 5 with a considerable budget, in 4K, with cutting-edge visual effects enabling the scale and scope of the galactic space-opera. But it could be terrible. I suppose there’s no reason why they shouldn’t, but it could turn out to be about Earthforce commander Jane Sheridan and all sorts of new characters, a new G’Kar and a new Londo, or a new Delenn, switching sexes etc and just.. well, I suppose that’s the whole point of a reboot, and there’s likely no good sticking too close to the original anyway. But as a fan of the original, who took that shows ups and lows to heart, all those cliff-hangers within the show and outside (would we get a third season? would we get a fourth season?), it feels so difficult even considering going back. Can you go back? Those of us who grew up with the original Star Wars trilogy have already found its impossible to bring some things back. Maybe original B5 fans should stick with our DVDs (damn it, I still want my HD remastered discs!) while Straczynski makes the new show for an entirely different audience.

I can only hope that somehow Straczynski finds the formula to reboot it in the same way as Ronald D Moore managed to do it with his Battlestar Galactica; you know, different and better: but its a different thing, turning Glen Larson’s cheesy Star Wars-knockoff/homage into a gritty and adult show, compared to rebooting something that was perfectly fine first time around. Good luck JMS capturing lightning twice. 

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Last Week: Battlestar’s coming back

bsgThe relentless shift towards streaming and the rush for new content has seen providers looking at their IP portfolios. News broke last week that NBC Universal, launching a streaming service (titled Peacock) in April 2020, has decided to reboot Battlestar Galactica for what will be a second time. Glen Larson’s original was a pretty blatant Star Wars knock-off in 1978, that is most interesting today for indicating what was the wall of what television could manage back then, and Moore’s 2003 – 2008 reboot was an indication of how sophisticated tv sci-fi had become. Maybe a 2020 reboot will indicate how creatively bereft everything has become, or how general quality has to be diluted by so much content being made now for so many networks/streams- how is anybody in Hollywood out of work anymore?

I must confess I was pretty horrified at the news- I love Ron Moore’s incarnation of BSG, its possibly my favourite sci-fi show. The idea of someone (apparently the guy behind the new show is Mr Robot‘s creator Sam Esmail) going back  to Battlestar and relaunching it in some way is depressing but not surprising. Everyone seems averse to new properties and sees obvious advantages to going back to old stuff, either for nostalgia’s sake or ease of marketing something already familiar or established. I can’t really highlight the creative apathy in this because Moore’s BSG was itself a reboot, and it was great, so I’m sort of championing the very thing I find so disheartening.

But why BSG? Alas, its simply because its something that NBC Universal owns, simple as that. A property that would probably actually benefit from a modern reboot would be something like Babylon 5, but as that is a Warner property, that is only likely to come if the WarnerMedia streaming platform (itself launching next year) deems it a IP worthy of a second try. The caveat I have about B5 is replacing any of its cast, most of whom were pretty amazing- it’s akin to trying to find someone to fill Leonard Nimoy’s shoes casting Spock, which has been troublesome indeed for Paramount and CBS in various later Treks- and of course that’s also a sticking point for any ‘new’ BSG.  Sam Esmail has actually tweeted to disgruntled fans that his project is not a reboot of the Moore series and possibly sounds like something in the BSG ‘universe’ in a similar way to HBO’s upcoming Watchmen series is a spin-off from both graphic novel and movie.

Its really not so much creatively cannibalising an old property but using its IP, and its mythology, as a shortcut- and of course being able to use its title as a recognisable marketing tool. Its still a fairly lousy way of making ostensibly ‘new’ content, but its something we are pretty used to, as Hollywood has been doing it for years, decades, in all manner of movies.  I would much prefer something genuinely new, something none of us have ever seen before, but as the streaming giants bring us ‘new’ shows like Westworld, Watchmen, Star Trek: Discovery, Lost in Space, Star Wars: The Mandalorian, Lord of the Rings etc, I guess I should just appreciate shows like The Expanse, Altered Carbon, The Man in the High Castle, Outlander, Carnival Row, The Boys, Umbrella Academy etc all the more. It clearly isn’t all about reboots and remakes and sequels.

God knows there is such a lot of content out there. Time is the one thing these streaming channels seem to be ignoring- just how much time do they think Joe Public has to actually watch all this stuff? I cannot keep up with it as it is, and the idea that I’m somehow expected to subscribe to more in order to watch more… well, surely everyone has a limit. Especially for those of us who would appreciate the time just to rewatch some of our old faves; I tried a few years ago to rewatch Moore’s BSG throughout and gave up somewhere in season two, and have other Blu-ray box-sets (Chuck, Fringe etc) that I would love to go back to but haven’t even tried.

It will be interesting to see how the various television platforms, new and old, fair in the coming years. I’m sure some will be lost along the way, and its pretty hard to see Disney+ floundering so I suppose it may be a case of the old networks and satellite/cable platforms going the way of the dodo. Along the way we will be getting so much to watch, including a new Battlestar Galactica, as long, I assume, that we will be willing to pay extra for it, and that’s the big question. Its not enough to read that new shows are coming- alongside the news of everything coming I have to keep an eye out for where its coming from, to know if I will even be able to watch it. I’ve ‘missed’ so many shows not because I’m not interested or haven’t the time- rather just because I either haven’t access to it or am not willing to pay for it. The cynic in me assumes that the various torrents will all be busy next year. Maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same.

 

Last Week: Tears in Rain

Last week I picked up my old hardback of Frank Herbert’s Dune for a reread. Continued reading the frankly miraculous and perfect Vol.4 Amazing Spider Man Omnibus (it’s like I’m ten all over again), watched quite a bit of new stuff on tv and was saddened to read the news of Rutger Hauer’s death at the age of 75. We’re all getting older and 1982 seems such a long time ago, even more so with Rutger’s passing.

rutgerAs anyone familiar with this blog over the years will know, Blade Runner is my favourite movie- it remains the most intense cinematic experience of my life. Its a dark irony that we are now living in 2019, the year in which the film is set, which back in 1982 was still a lifetime away. To paraphrase Rutger, all those years lost in time like tears in rain. I have watched that film so many times, over 200 most likely (I used to keep count but gave up at around 100) and I have always been fascinated by Rutger’s performance as Roy Batty. Mercurial, bewitching, childlike, feral… one of the biggest achievements of the film was transforming a one-note and frankly incidental character from the book into possibly the true star of the film. Watching Blade Runner, there is always the sense that Rutger knew he was playing the part of a lifetime and seized every opportunity to maximise the performance and every magical cinematic moment. So many things came right for the film- the perfect director, the perfect composer, the perfect cinematographer, visual effects artists, editor, production designers and futurist… and Rutger was the perfect actor to play Roy Batty. He seems to know that in every single scene he is in.

Over the years I would be a bit of a Rutger fanboy, fascinated to see him in other roles (although somehow I never saw him in The Hitcher, must rectify that), from Flesh & Blood to Dark Knight and of course those Guinness ads. Nothing really approached the greatness of Roy Batty, and in particular the Tears in Rain speech that became one of the most famous and quoted scenes in film history. Nothing could ever equal it, I guess, and I marvel that Rutger evidently handled this fact well over the years. I imagine it might have haunted some actors to be in the shadow of something like that forever: thank goodness his biography wasn’t titled ‘I Am Not Roy!’

another1Katee Sackhoff  of course has a famous genre character of her own, as Battlestar Galactica‘s reimagined Starbuck. She’s continued a very successful career since and seems at peace with Starbuck being her defining role, but goodness me she’s backed a turkey with Another Life, the new sci-fi show on Netflix. Since my post the other day I’ve watched a few more episodes and Good Lord it’s just gotten worse. Its abominable, frankly, and I’ve not been cheered up by discovering that what I mistakenly thought was an eight-part show is in fact ten episodes. Its really becoming hard work to get through. The last episode was what I like to call the ‘Space:1999 episode’ which means it was so bad it’s like the last forty years of sci-fi television never happened. Shows are rarely that bad, although Nightflyers pulled it off too. Two episodes after the crew was nearly all killed by an alien infection from a rogue moon, they now land on an Earth-like planet and sample the native fruit etc by, er, just going ahead and eating it, breath the local air and don’t even wear gloves. One character gets a scratch off a thorn and nearly loses his leg in mere seconds from a deadly infection, and another two walk into a colourful forest glade from the Annihilation set and get intoxicated  by hallucinogenic drugs given off by the flora. In another episode, an alien hunts and kills the crew on the spaceship one by one until it turns out it’s all a hypersleep dream. In the last episode I watched, an alien bug brought onboard from that Earth-like planet fraks up some wiring which nearly wipes out the ship, everyone only saved by the obnoxious always-bitching communications woman who has continuously failed to get communications up and running, who sacrifices herself and ends the show as a bloody puddle. So I guess they’ll never get communications up. Maybe the show will amaze me with an amazing finale twist, but I doubt it.

The next season of The Expanse, not arriving until December, seems so long away.

While I dedicate far too much time here writing about Another Life, and also Star Trek: Discovery prior to that, I just feel I need to point out really bad scripts and creative choices. Another Life is truly abominable and should never have gotten filmed in the state its in. Sackhoff is actually a producer on the show so probably sees it as a career progression, but that only reinforces her guilt for the whole thing being so bad, it’s not as if she’s just an actor trying to make the best of the scripts she’s given. It is very true that some parts of the creative business in Hollywood and beyond are taking the streaming giants of Netflix and Amazon for a ride. There is no quality control, it seems, when the main objective is just to get access to that streaming pot of gold. I’ve ranted about this before and I’m certain I will do so again. Of course the streaming giants are party to the guilt themselves because they just seem to be throwing money at everything in the hope something sticks, but genre shows really are taking steps backwards of late and it’s a worrying development. I’m certainly no professional and have no story in print anywhere, but I could write a better show than Another Life – there should, surely, be a quality distinction between what passes for professional script writing and what is often dismissively termed ‘fan fiction’ but of late I have to wonder. Maybe us amateurs deserve a shot, doubt we could do any worse.

Except maybe that’s the point. Maybe, as I have noted before, the geeks finally have inherited the Earth (or Hollywood, certainly) and all this mess is simply because too many geeks/amateurs think they can write scripts or be showrunners. It does seem curious that Another Life seems to be ripping off a different tv show/movie every episode, and that Star Trek: Discovery was riddled with nods to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Inception etc.  so much so that it seldom seemed like Star Trek at all.

 

 

 

Starting Another Life

anotherKatee Sackhoff, hell of an actor. Her turn as Starbuck in the Battlestar Galactica reboot was quite brilliant; searingly well done in fact, the kind of role that has endeared her to genre fans forever. While she’s had a fairly successful career post-BSG, I don’t think she’s been involved in anything as memorable or impressive (although one might well argue her turn in 24 was certainly a more high-profile turn in the wider public consciousness). She’s a strong and physically capable actor and how she’s never gotten a big role in a Marvel movie is beyond me, with her fanbase and genre credentials you’d think it would be a sure thing and she’d become some kind of superstar.

So anyway, a few weeks ago when I learned that Netflix were shortly dropping a new sci-fi series starring Sackhoff, well, it was at the top of my watchlist: Another Life, a ten-part thriller about First Contact and a spaceship sent to another star system to investigate the origin of a strange alien artifact recently arrived on Earth- literally Arrival meets 2001 and… Nightflyers.

Oh dear. I have a bad feeling about this.

Well, three episodes in and it’s pretty dire. To be brutally honest, it doesn’t work. Its car-crash television and its painful to see someone like Sackhoff wasted in it. Sure there’s seven more episodes to watch and like a masochist I’m sure I’ll be watching all of it (hell, I’m a veteran of that Nightflyers junk, afterall), and will have a review proper when it’s all done. But really, it doesn’t look good.

Possibly its a lack of budget, but the sets are limited (characters walking/running up and down the same corridor etc, and engine room that looks like a Chinese laundry) and the CGI functional at best, but really, the real handicap is the script, a regular refrain here on this blog. The script is awful, and the creative choices frankly appalling. At the moment I have no idea if its the script making the actors look bad, or just bad actors being bad, but it’s so dire its a struggle. Did the showrunners or any of the writers ever work on a sci-fi show before? I have to wonder. It really looks like the writers room had a DVD collection of sci-fi shows/movies from the last few decades and they assembled Another Life from what they thought were the best bits.

Alien artifact arrives/crashlands/sprouts mysterious crystalline structure. It has conveniently landed near the home of Niko Breckenridge (Sackhoff), a space commander, and her husband Erik (Justin Chatwin) who is a scientist tasked with looking handsome while communicating with the artifact. I mean, literally, it lands near their house. He is given the job of communicating with it (and in the tradition of CE3K, he finds music works) and she is given the job to travel to the artifacts original star system to find out why it was sent (not sure of the logic, it figures you’d be best figuring that out by communicating with the artifact). So you’ve got this husband and wife team (sci-fi’s answer to Hart to Hart or McMillan and Wife?) in charge of saving humanity. Oh, and they have an annoying daughter.

Niko’s job is made worse by being put in charge of the craziest, most dysfunctional crew of any spaceship I have ever seen. I mean, they are absolutely bloody nuts. And they dress in civvies because no-one wears uniforms on spaceships anymore. Its as if they picked a bunch of civilians at random and put them on Love Island in Space or I’m (Not A Celebrity) Lost in Space Get Me Out of Here. Its utterly bizarre. They are a bunch of utter nutters that make the crew of Star Trek: Discovery look competent.  They don’t work for NASA, there is no Government or Mission Control that I can tell- they are let loose on a FTL spaceship and get lost in the first episode after nearly plunging into a star. Niko replaced the ships original Captain, Ian, when she is put in command and he promptly tries to kill her. Twice. So she fries him in an electrical field, which pisses off the crew and… yeah, we’re still in the first episode. By the second episode they are wandering around on a rogue moon looking for caves of oxygen crystals (?) because they’ve lost all the oxygen from their ship and one of the crewmembers goes wandering off and does something even stupider than those alien-goo obsessed scientists in Prometheus. Its absolutely bloody nuts.

Oh Katee. The heights of Battlestar must seem so far, far away. You deserve better. Viewers deserve better. How come no-one can write decent sci-fi shows anymore?

 

 

The Expanse – Season Two

exp2b

I’m almost lost in it. Haven’t felt like this since the heady heights of season three of Babylon 5 or BSG in its prime – only this time around, I’ve not been limited by weekly airdates, watching this season on Blu-ray. Basically, I’d be watching an episode late in the evening, be so swept up by the story and curious to see what happened next that I’d ignore common-sense (and the clock on the wall) and be unable to resist starting the next episode and then… yeah, sneak up to bed around midnight or later and suffer at work the next day… and then repeat again the following evening. Somehow I was beyond hooked, and The Expanse had become all-consuming and irresistable. How had I managed to leave it two years between season one and two on disc when now I struggled to leave it be for several hours? I’m seriously considering buying the books and giving them a go, just to soak it all up again and perhaps find extra details.

I was very impressed with season one of The Expanse, and a frankly embarrassing, all things considered, lengthy hiatus between watching seasons enabled me to rewatch the first season again a few weeks ago just prior to finally giving season two a go. This rewatch probably helped me get the most of season two, as it literally follows immediately on from the events depicted in the first season’s final episode, and as I’m not familiar with the source material it helped to keep track of all the characters/factions. The first season of the show depicts about 65% of the first book, Leviathan Wakes, the remainder left for the first five or so episodes of season two- which seemed a bit odd to me, in my ignorance, when I first saw season one.  Suffice to say spreading the story out properly, beyond the restrictions of the first seasons ten-episode limit, was a very smart move. While it makes it hard/impossible for newbies to join the show cold, the second season really gets up and running very quickly, and the finale of that first book gives the second season a blistering mid-term crescendo that is breathtaking in the sheer audacity of its scope and it is to the show’s credit that it doesn’t go downhill from there, but actually maintains that level and manages a gobsmacking finale.

To be clear, while the first season was very good, this sophomore season is just simply amazing. Really, I was so blown away at just how brilliant this show had become in this very confident and assured second season. Its almost faultless; a refreshingly hard-sci fi series that tells a huge and involving, at times surprising and extraordinary space-opera tale that’s up there with Babylon 5 in its epic scale of politics and space-battles, balanced by a gritty and realistic approach that is clearly indebted to the BSG reboot of several years ago. Many times I would be watching the show thinking ‘this is how Babylon 5 might have looked with a bigger budget/modern tech’ and while we’ll never see the likes of B5 again with its brilliant, unique (and sadly lost, over the intervening years) cast, The Expanse has taken on the achievements of that show and taken it forward to the next level. Not coincidentally, it also seems to have carried the torch of being the next anti-Star Trek. Seriously, I have no idea when I’ll be in the mood to watching the new Discovery episodes now.

exp2You’ll have possibly noticed that I haven’t actually mentioned anything about plot or actual events etc. That’s because I don’t want to spoil this show for anyone- it needs to be experienced blind, full of those twists and surprises that I have found so enthralling. Which likely seems funny to some readers, particularly those in the US as season two is already a few years back for them.

Of course, there is one particular commonality between Babylon 5 and The Expanse– and that is cancelation. B5 always teetered on the brink each season and The Expanse actually did get canceled as its third season aired. Thankfully Amazon saved the day and I can now turn to season three confident I’ll see the story continue in 2019. It’ll be a bitch having to wait, mind. Having three seasons to watch like this spoils you. I’ve read that Amazon will have the three seasons of The Expanse up on Prime next month and hopefully that will ensure the possibility of a new wider audience prior to season four arriving later this year. The Expanse deserves bigger success.

Now if you will excuse me, I have that third season box waiting for me…

 

 

 

Person Of Interest Reaches End-Program

poi52017.20: Person Of Interest Season 5 (Blu-ray)

So Person Of Interest ends as strong as it’s ever been; indeed, there is a confidence in evidence here in its final run of thirteen episodes that is almost joyous. Confidence enough to ensure plenty of fan-service to give the show, its characters and fans some wonderful moments of comedy and catharsis after five long seasons of adventures (my personal favourite the sequence in the image above, allowing the actors to mimic each other to comedic effect which must have been a scream onset). Such things are important, because the one major advantage that tv shows have over films – more character time, more involved character arcs and audience bonds with those characters – means that they simply mean more to viewers, particularly over several years of viewing. Season five affords the return of some faces from earlier seasons and some surprises as various arcs reach their resolutions.

I have mixed feelings regards whether thirteen episodes was enough to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion; no doubt a full twenty-two episode run would have allowed more time for Harold to run amok with his Machine- there’s a feeling that the series has been building up to the inevitable moment when Harold lets his Machine loose but it then only has a few episodes to go with it. A subtle thread running through several episodes, in which Shaw thinks she is actually stuck in an elaborate simulation, could have reached some major Philip K Dick-levels of doubts about reality, but it isn’t fully as explored as it might have been. There is also an interesting subtext that casts doubts on who the good guys really are, with some telling arguments for the ‘good’ that the Samaritan AI can do, and the benefits of losing Freewill for the ‘greater good’.  Its interesting stuff that, as flawed an argument it might be, might have benefitted from more time to weave its subtle charge. Likewise some of the bad-guys that have hounded our heroes for so long seem to suffer ends that feel too abrupt.

poi5bBut at least they get their ends and fans get the conclusion to the series they deserve. It may not be perfect but it is pretty strong- possibly even superior to that which Fringe got. The cautionary tale of Artificial Intelligence in a  technological society with hidden surveillance seems to have gotten only more timely and in some ways I suspect had the show started in 2017 it might have gotten more attention and success. Ahead of its time? Maybe so. In anycase, the comparative brevity of thirteen episodes ensures that the pace rarely lets up as the many character arcs reach their conclusions. Not only the bad guys reach their ends – there are some genuine surprises and twists and turns, with some sadness adding poignancy to some of the happier outcomes.

On the whole, I’m really happy with how Person Of Interest ended. Its possibly one of the last great genre shows on Network TV and I’m grateful it managed to survive long enough to tell its story. Not all shows get that, and when they do –Fringe, Chuck, Battlestar Galactica etc- it is something to savour. It feels like a Christmas present. Which brings me to-

poi5c

Ahhh, bless ’em.

The Fall of Apollo

hatch1God, I’m really getting a bit peeved at having to write these memoriam posts. The news yesterday that Richard Hatch, the actor likely most famous for his role as Apollo in the 1970’s Battlestar Galactica tv series, died on Tuesday was another of those sobering moments that is becoming all too frequent these days. Must definitely be a sign of growing old and the cultural icons of my generation inevitably getting older- it was almost a shock to learn that Hatch was 71. I thought he was younger than that, but now that I think about it, it just makes sense, considering that BSG dates back to 1978.

So thats Carrie Fisher, Miguel Ferrer, John Hurt… and now Richard Hatch, in the space of just two months. I know other celebrities and authors etc have passed away in that timespan too, but on this blog I’m just noting the passing of those cultural icons that made some impact on me growing up. And I’m doing so all too frequently.

While he will be best remembered for playing Apollo in the original BSG, I much preferred him in Ron Moore’s BSG reboot, in which he played the terrorist/politician Tom Zarek, a  very complicated role which he gave a very nuanced and impressive performance in a recurring part through the series. Compared to the frankly one-dimensional part of Apollo, Zarek was a dark and conflicted character that you couldn’t really trust but you really wanted to be able to like. Maybe a part of that latter was his Apollo personna bleeding through. In anycase, I always enjoyed seeing him turn up in the BSG reboot and it always signalled an interesting episode.

I recently started a re-run of the BSG reboot, and not long ago watched the first season episode that featured the introduction of his Tom Zarek character. Yeah, he was just fascinating to watch in that, and of course he just got better in the role as he returned during the series. I must say he surprised me; I thought his casting was a bit of an obvious publicity gimmick at the time, and a clever one at that as the reboot struggled to gain a reputation and justification in the eyes of fans of the original show. But beyond that publicity thing I didn’t see much point, but I was proved wrong. I really didn’t expect to see him so good in such a different role, but he pulled it off and yes, I was always glad to see him turn up again later in the series. He certainly went up in my estimation as an actor.

 

Outlander Season Two

outs2a2016.86: Outlander Season Two (Amazon VOD)

The first season of Outlander was something of a surprise. I struggled with its initial episodes but the recommendation of a friend got me to stay with it and the show bloomed into something very different to what I had expected, much more dramatic and controversial. Season 2 expands on the scale of the show even more and by seasons end its up there approaching Game of Thrones in my book- indeed, it could be argued that it has become a much more emotionally invested and focused show than the sprawling and labyrinthine GOT.

The weird thing about this series is that, well, is like so many other television experiences these days, it feels like an isolated experience, because of it being on a streaming site (in this case, Amazon). In the old days, had something like this been on BBC 1 or ITV, and the viewing shared by all viewers when it was transmitted, it would feel more of a communal experience. Other than on forums, watching and experiencing shows like this seems very solitary. I cannot, for instance, share my thoughts on this series and exchange views with colleagues at work or freinds and neighbours because either a) no-one else I know has watched it or b) they have little knowledge it exists or have no access to Amazon or c) because of its minor exposure, they feel little interest in ever watching it.  That later point is something very sad, as this is a great show and deserves wider exposure/attention.

But Outlander isn’t alone  in this. So much great television seems to suffer from this, and we seem to have lost ‘event’ television and the sharing of the viewing experience. I would love to watch Netflix’s Daredevil, but haven’t bothered getting access to it yet (either by streaming or the Blu-ray disc release). Or Stranger Things or Jessica Jones. I have been watching HBO’s Westworld but no-one else seems to have so I can’t discuss it with anyone I know. Had shows like these been shown on BBC, say, the viewing figures would be in millions rather than the thousands that they probably actually are. Even a ‘popular’ channel like Sky One, stuck on as a satellite/cable delivery service, only has viewing figures in the hundreds of thousands. Television has become so fragmented it doesn’t feel like the social force it used to be.

Sometimes shows manage to ‘break out’, like Game of Thrones, likely because it is heavily pirated, and later bought in box-sets, rather than watched by millions of subscribers to Sky Atlantic over here. Its an irony that we live in a Golden Age of television, in which television dramas have a quality and intellectual sophistication largely missing from theatrical films, at a time when the transmission and access of them is so fragmented that, by and large, the social impact inevitably diminished by that.

So Outlander is great, if anyone out there is interested. The second series begins, curiously, actually at its end, the series almost a ‘loop within a loop’-  Claire is back in her ‘present’ of 1948, frenziedly asking puzzled people how the battle of Culloden fared centuries before. Naturally, they tell her the Clans were routed by the English. Claire learns that the same amount of time has passed in her ‘present’ as she spent back in the 18th Century- she has been missing for two years and is something of a local mystery. Claire realises with some despair that Jamie and all the people she knew are all long dead.

But of course, this isn’t how we left the story back at the end of season one, with Jamie and Claire fleeing from Scotland and the Battle of Culloden still ahead of them. Its quite disorientating and unexpected, and yes, rather daring storytelling.

This being a Ron Moore show it should be expected- after all, he loved to pull the rug from under the viewers feet with his Battlestar Galactica reboot. Its obvious a lot passed by in the 18th Century we are not yet aware of, but now she is back in 1948 with no way of returning to the past, Claire has to attempt a reconciliation with her husband Frank and he in turn has to somehow deal with the fact she is now pregnant with someone else’s child. After much soul-searching they decide to make a fresh start in America where Frank takes a new job. So much episode time and development happens that one might almost wonder if we have left the 18th century behind forever, but then as they disembark from the plane to their new life in a foreign land, there is a wonderful dissolve and we are transported back to 1745, and Jamie is helping Claire disembark from the boat we saw them in at series one’s conclusion, to step into a new life in a foreign land- only this land is France as opposed to America. Events in 1948 being mirrored by the cut to 1745, her adventure there resumes, eventually leading us to the events that opened the seasons first episode. I know it sounds complicated; its a time travel story after all, but its brilliantly executed and kept more simple than it sounds.

Eventually we will learn what transpires to bring Claire returning to 1948 worrying about the outcome at Culloden and grimly learning that she has left Jamie and the clans to perish there. Its quite a story with many surprising twists and turns. Indeed, in much the same way as season one did, the series sets up all sorts of preconceptions and then undermines them completely.

Outlander Season 2 2016Season two is spread in two halves; the first half spent in the high society of 18th century France, with all sorts of court intrigue as Jamie and Claire attempt to change history and avert the disaster awaiting the clans at Culloden. These episodes are like a breath of fresh air, as if we have stepped out of Braveheart into Barry Lyndon, with France and all its colours and flavours brought vividly to life. The series suddenly transformed into a political tale of the machinations of aristocracy and royalty, as well as a very real tragedy that befalls Jamie and Claire to powerful effect. Their efforts to suitably change events in France unravel and they find themselves pulled back to Scotland for the latter half of the series, the inexorable weight of history bearing down on them as the doom of Culloden awaits and we are back in Braveheart territory. While the return to Scotland is welcome I think I’ll rather miss the intrigues and passions of France.

Certainly there is an added depth to the series by the time the second series ends, with the story returning to the ‘present day.’  Years have passed since Claire and Frank arrived in America, and it is now 1968, Frank has died and  Claire is returning to Scotland with her daughter now a young woman. Herself now middle-aged, Claire revisits some of the places she experienced in the 18th century, haunted by those old ghosts. By the time the last double-length episode closes, the plot takes another leap forwards (and backwards in time) promising a whole new adventure in season three.As someone who has never read the original books, its all quite remarkable stuff and it really benefits from binge-watching. I guess that’s the irony of fragmented portals for television viewing, in that my experience of this show is largely indebted to being able to watch a whole season inside of a week or so of binge-watching. Its like watching a very long movie.

Ron Moore is certainly making another television classic here, but I do wish it were more widely available or the ‘event’ television over here that it deserves to be. Oh well. SIgn of the times, as the Prince song goes.

 

 

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

clov12016.59: 10 Cloverfield Lane (Amazon VOD)

10 Cloverfield Lane is a very effective thriller, with a taut script and an excellent cast. As its title suggests, it is loosely connected to the original monster movie Cloverfield (just how loosely I won’t go into). Thankfully however this film drops the found-footage stuff and is a wholly more traditional film, and much the better for it.

It also boasts an absolutely wonderful score by Bear McCreary. There is a lot of the feeling of The Twilight Zone watching this film, and much of it stems from McCreary’s Herrmann-esque, evocative score. It immediately places us into a particular sense of mood and place, of a 1950s, 1960s tonal quality, quite non-contemporary. It’s so refreshing to watch a modern film that isn’t saddled with a Hans Zimmer-like score, and it is interesting that this is from McCreary, one of the most exciting talents in television scoring over the past ten years (Battlestar Galactica, Da Vinci’s Demons, The Walking Dead, Outlander etc.).

So anyway, this review is old-hat for many since it’s months since the films theatrical release, so I guess spoilers are ok. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is literally driving away from some unspecified relationship woes when she is run of the road in an accident. She awakens in a strange, spartan room – an IV attached to her arm and a brace on her knee that is, alarmingly, chained to the wall. She’s greeted by her captor, a man named Howard (John Goodman), who claims he’s saved her life. He tells her there has been an apocalyptic event, and that he has brought her to his survival bunker. Immediately there is something ‘off’ about Howard. He describes the event on the surface as an attack; maybe by the Russians, but casually also suggesting it was maybe by the Martians. At any rate, the surface has been rendered uninhabitable, and Howard, MIchelle and his other guest, Emmett (John Gallagher) have no choice but to wait it out – maybe a year or two.

As time passes, Michelle begins to doubt Howard’s version of events, but various things seem to corroborate it- Emmett himself witnessed the beginning of the attack and fought for entry to the shelter, and when Michelle gets a glimpse of the outside world she sees a bloodied, poisoned woman desperately trying to gain entrance herself. Howard is evidently unhinged and his story is crazy, but this is afterall a Cloverfield movie- should Michelle really risk everything to get outside and what will she find if she gets out there?

clov2Winstead is terrific in this. She really deserves better and more substantial roles in future genre films- she’s vulnerable but strong too, with a great physicality to her role that really brings to mind Weaver’s Ripley in Alien. Winstead is that good (but then again, I also thought she was the best thing in that The Thing prequel some years back). Goodman is naturally as dependable as ever, and it’s nice to see some of that old disarming charm of his (remember Always?) with the hints of deranged darkness he brings to his role here.

By the time the film ends and (most) of its secrets revealed in a final twenty-minute flourish, I was left with a desire to see more of these Cloverfield films. They could become a great little franchise of Twilight Zone-like stories. That does however come with one caveat- yet again we see here a JJ Abrams project that really harkens back to older originals than really doing something new and unique. He did it with Super 8, Star Trek, The Force Awakens and here The Twilight Zone- he seems adept at reinventing or reinterpreting old material or classic pieces of mainstream culture for new audiences (the Herrmann-like score by McCreary is surely no accident here, and the claustrophobic setting of the shelter has all the hallmarks of The Twilights Zone‘s adept use of working within its limited television budgets) but where is the really new stuff? Is there really nothing new under the Bad Robot sun?

 

 

The Expanse: Season One (2016)

ex32016.46:  The Expanse – Season One (Blu-ray)

Blade Runner was originally not intended to have a post-credits crawl-up setting up its scenario- indeed at one point it wasn’t going to be set in any particular place or have any particular date. Instead it was going to drop the audience into its world and leave them working to make sense of it all, but the studio and/or film-makers got cold feet, so we got the crawl up and the ‘Los Angeles, November 2019’ legend that doesn’t really work at all (indeed, it never really did even back in 1982). Maybe they were right to do it, but even in 1982 I missed that brave conceit of letting the audience do some work. The fact that they maintained that crawl-up and setting for the Final Cut version of 2007 quite mystifies me and is the one negative about that otherwise definitive version of the film.

So why do I mention that film again, in a post talking about a new sci-fi tv show? Well, The Expanse does have a short text intro, but otherwise it bravely throws the audience into its remarkable future world and simply leaves the audience to it. It’s a bold gambit for a new series and one that, for me, pays off handsomely. This show refuses to hold your hand; you are thrown into the 23rd Century and its likely four episodes before you really ‘get’ what the show is and the story it is telling. Before that, you are left to it, trying to make sense of the societies and rival factions and who might be good, who might be bad, and whats really going on with the derelict Scopuli.

Bizarrely still not picked up by any broadcaster here in the UK, even now, several months after it aired in the States, The Expanse is the  best science fiction show I have seen in years. With all the channels we have over here now, it is a complete mystery that this show hasn’t found a broadcaster yet. Weary of waiting for the world to make some sense, a few weeks ago I caved in and imported the Blu-ray, surely a sign that some broadcaster was about to announce UK airdates (typically as soon as I got it through the letterbox). And yet no, not even my purchase of the blu-ray set has mystically triggered anything, but you can’t say I haven’t tried. What gives?

ex3My all-time favourite science fiction series is the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series from awhile back. Which at the time surprised me no end, as I wasn’t a fan of the original, am weary of reboots in general and didn’t expect anything special at all. Of course I was completely wrong  -this was one reboot that was a total success. It was gritty and realistic, had brilliant production design, great writing, a fantastic cast and likely the most thematically complex score of any television series, ever. It ran for five great years and actually managed a deeply satisfying end (for me, anyway, although I know some fans were put off by it).

With The Expanse, the SyFy channel is trying to repeat the success and critical clout  that it managed with BSG. The odd thing is, The Expanse doesn’t really resemble BSG much at all- instead, it really harkens back to Warner Bros classic space opera Babylon 5.

I was a B5 nut back when it was first aired. It consumed my life for the five years it was on, right up to a series finale that, yes, brought tears to my eyes. B5 was an underdog right from the start- a low-budget, indie-sci fi epic at a time that Star Trek dominated the tv science fiction landscape.

B5 had cutting-edge CG effects that opened up the scale of what a genre tv series could be, gaining a huge canvas for its space opera of alien politics, ancient evil and intergalactic war. Writer/producer J. Michael Straczynski had a five-year plan, a vision for each season and the arc of an overall story, and barring a few detours he managed to tell the story he wanted to tell. The ambition of the thing is pretty amazing to this day and it remains a remarkable achievement, and it is only the troubles involving some cast departures and a poor season five (precipitated by JMS being told he had to complete the saga by close of season four and then actually getting a season five he hadn’t planned for) that weakens it compared to BSG. But B5 had moments the equal of anything before or since; moments of edge of your seat, WTF brilliance, from great character arcs to plot twists and awesome cliffhangers.

ex2Watching The Expanse, I frequently thought about B5. Its in the realistic sets, the costume design, the multi-cultural feel, the politics, the machinations of rival planets. The Expanse is everything a ‘new’ B5 would be- it’s really how B5 would look if it were made with the technology of today, albeit The Expanse doesn’t actually have any alien empires in it (as yet anyway- who knows where it is finally headed, certainly not me, as I’ve not read the books).

The simplest way to describe The Expanse, particularly as it has adopted the ten-episode series format so popular now, is that it’s a sci-fi Game of Thrones by way of Babylon 5. If that sounds interesting and worthy of your time, then you’d be right. Based on a series of books by James S.A.Corey (actually a pen name for two writers, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) the series benefits from having a solid story with a well thought-out background perhaps richer than you might expect on television. And yes, as it’s based on a series of books, there is evidently some overall masterplan for the story and where it’s going. The first season of the show is based on the first book, Leviathan Wakes, and I’m told it manages to adapt about three-quarters of it, leaving the remainder for the start of season two. It sounds odd, but people who’ve read the books seem to think the break before the end of the first book makes sense. All I know is that the end of season one left me slightly frustrated in a kind of good, “wtf happens next?!!” kind of way that has me itching to turn to the books, but I can see how it works. It leaves viewers curious and eager for more (and thank goodness there is a season two) but manages a rather neat way to close out the season that perhaps the remainder of the book lacks.

So anyway, whats it about? The Expanse is set in the 23rd Century. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but is not united like in, say, Star Trek -this is a more fractured humanity. The United Nations controls Earth, Mars is ruled by an independent military power, and the asteroid belt, home to vast resources that are vital to both Earth and Mars, is populated by working-class grunts eager to break free of what they see are their Terran/Martian oppressors. Tensions are running high as the series opens, with the three factions – “Earthers,” “Dusters,” and “Belters” – on the brink of war.

ex4The Expanse is part space opera, part detective-noir mystery, part political thriller. A young woman named Julie has disappeared, and a run-down/washout Belter detective, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane in terrific form), is assigned to the case. Miller gets drawn into a web of intrigue that spans the solar system and a conspiracy that could threaten all humanity.  The same conspiracy entangles a deep-space officer of a mining ship, James Holden (Steven Strait) whose encounter with a distress signal out at the rings of Saturn drags him and several of his crew into a chaotic series of events culminating in the deaths of hundreds, maybe thousands, and possibly igniting all-out war. As Holden tries to makes sense of it all, his fate becomes entwined with that of Miller, and the two men find themselves working together to find out what happened to Julie and why her fate is central to the entire mystery.

After an initial number of episodes that stumble a little as the show establishes its rather complex web of political machinations and rival power-groups, the series really gets going and proves to be a thrilling and fascinating watch. Indeed, that stumble at the start is actually rather welcome, as the show deliberately drops the viewer into its future-world complete with odd languages and unspoken agendas leaving the viewer having to work at making sense of it all. It is an approach I found quite refreshing, and I have stated earlier its a great move and something that immediately warmed me to the series. Indeed it’s left me keen to rewatch the show now that it all makes more sense to me.

Anyway, I’ll say no more as that would reduce ones enjoyment of the show. I only hope it gets a UK airdate sometime soon/eventually. It really deserves it and it really is strange that it hasn’t been aired here already- maybe when season two nears early in 2017 in the States something will happen. In the meantime, there is always the Blu-ray set from the States (great picture naturally but alas woefully devoid of any extras) to get your fix if the show seems interesting to you. As for me? Those books seem awfully tempting…