Raised By Wolves (Season One)

raised1Alas, the fascination with ‘mystery boxes’ continues and becomes increasingly tiresome: its a crux used by JJ Abrams all through his career and one endlessly mimicked by other creatives, best described as being a narrative which drops viewers into the middle of a mystery-in-progress that leaves them wanting to know answers in both directions (what happened before/what happens next?). Admittedly I can trace a lot of this to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, which is one of my most revered genre shows. Not that B5 was the first, but certainly at the time when it came out, American shows were generally episodic in nature, pressing a metaphorical ‘reset’ button at the end of each episode and one episode seldom if ever referencing another.

Babylon 5 was more like a huge novel, each season being a part of a larger whole, so early seasons of B5 dropped hints and portents of mysterious ancient wars and a dark menace returning to threaten all the galaxy, and Straczynski fulfilled all the promise in later seasons, rewarded all the investment with the arcs and world building. He brought all the threads and revelations together into a grand conclusion that satisfied immensely (at least as regards the Shadow War storyline with season four, season five’s issues being largely out of his hands).

It paid off, and in spades, but that was a trick that showrunners and writers these days don’t seem to heed. 

So instead we get obtuse writing posing as complex storylines, promising grand revelations regards mysteries being scattered through plots (Westworld, Lost, Disney Star Wars etc) which ultimately fall apart, everything being built on sand. Its incredibly frustrating being taken in every time by this mystery box routine. Showrunners and writers are hooking viewers in and then largely failing to reward the viewer investment: even shows that succeed at this on some level only manage this in some compromised way that proves contentious even amongst fans (I’d cite Fringe as an example of this, and Ronald D Moore’s Battlestar Galactica reboot too).

So now we can add Raised By Wolves to this annoying list of Mystery Box Television, and already by the end of its first season its clear that a promising concept is not going to fulfil the early promise of its first few episodes. Those first two episodes in particular, directed by Ridley Scott no less, promise so much that even within the space of its ten-episode first season the crushing disappointment is palpable.

raised2Two androids (‘Mother’ and ‘Father’) arrive at a remote planet, Kepler 22b tasked with raising a group of human children in order to rebuild and save a humanity that has been destroyed by a global war between two factions: atheists and fundamentalist sun worshippers called the Mithraic. The visual design and concept is fascinatingly reminiscent of that of Scott’s troubled Prometheus, so much so that it almost seems an unofficial sequel, or at least set in the same universe. The music, too, seems directly related to that films haunting score.

On that level, I was hooked from the start, and enthralled by glimpses of this global disaster shown in flashbacks (Ridley Scott visualising The End Of The World!), scenes of survivors boarding colony ships bound for a fresh start on a new world. Vague references to the two warring factions and a subtext referencing Eden, humanity bringing its old sins to tarnish this new world – it promised much. Additionally, ‘Mother’ (Amanda Collin, who is quite excellent) is fascinating, an androgynous android that back on Earth was a weapon of mass destruction, a Necromancer that destroys with its voice, the android of Lang’s Metropolis transformed into an Angel of Death. Now mysteriously reprogrammed to nurture and protect its cargo of twelve human embryos and the children they grow into, she is aided by her companion, a lesser, servant-model android named ‘Father’ (Abubakar Salim, who possibly steals the show). ‘Mother’ is initially protective as intended, but falls back into her old destructive ways when her wards are threatened by a Mithraic colony ship arriving at this New World, her powers terrifying both children and enemies alike.

The mysteries are endless: who reprogrammed ‘mother’, what is the history of this new world and the skeletons of giant snakes that litter the landscape, what are the unnatural circular shafts that plunge into the depths, the odd voices characters begin to hear, the mysterious artefacts of alien origin that are found… yeah its all mystery box piled upon mystery box, and unwisely the series begins to unwrap some of these boxes, each one proving a confounding disappointment, increasingly riddled with inconsistencies. Why is no-one alarmed at signs of alien life or remnants of apparent alien intelligence? Are Mother’s virtual meetings with her creator truly the resurfacing of deleted memories or are they a fabricated deception created by some entity of Kepler 22b, manifested later as the giant snake? And how do Mother and Father survive plunging down into what is presumably the molten core of the planet, through and out the other side (as patently ridiculous as it sounds, it makes the Hollow Earth of Godzilla vs Kong seem almost pedantic).

Its actually alarming to see a show that begins with such promise collapse so very quickly- its like seeing all three seasons of Westworld condensed into a single season, and I cannot imagine where it will take us with season two (just finished filming, apparently). That’s if I stick around for season two, of course. I was enjoying the first half of this season but began to rapidly lose interest during the second half, the finale proving totally unsatisfying, typically dropping hints and leaving arcs for season two to attempt to resolve (or just tangle up even more). Even as a fan of Babylon 5, I am getting so tired of the teasing of revelations and answering questions with more questions: just tell the goddam story.

Be careful the endings you wish for?

fugitiveWe were over my mother-in-law’s yesterday delivering the weeks groceries (she’s shielding during the Covid 19 troubles – yes there’s another dishonourable mention for that bugger we’re all so weary of), when during a commercial break there was a spot announcing the commencement of a complete re-run of the old 1960s tv series The Fugitive, which starred David Janssen.  I asked if that series -immensely popular at the time- ever had a proper ending. Turns out, it did- a two-part finale at the end of its fourth season concluded the series with an actual ending, which was quite unusual at the time. Television shows used to come and suddenly just go, when ratings suffered enough to warrant a show’s cancellation. The crew of the Enterprise never completed their five-year mission in Star Trek,  the family Robinson never returned to Earth (or found Alpha Centauri) in Lost in Space, the two doctors trapped in time in The Time Tunnel never found their way back home either.  Fans of these shows and so many others would be just left hanging; their investment in the shows frustrated by open endings.

Its something which we thankfully are usually spared these days. Babylon 5 had an ending, the BSG reboot did, Fringe did, Lost did… Game of Thrones did. Of course, sometimes fans didn’t get the endings they wished for- Game of Thrones being the most obvious example of a show that didn’t stick the landing (and indeed in that particular case the crash proved particularly ugly). Part of the morbid pleasure of sticking with shows these days is the oddly perverse pleasure of seeing how they finally end, whether its a satisfactory conclusion or not. Partly that was why I stuck with The Walking Dead through some nine seasons, until I realised that thing is NEVER going to end, but yeah, surely one of the main reasons to stick with Westworld is to just see how they manage to wrap all that up.

Mind, the movies are catching up- just look how satisfyingly Disney concluded the Skywalker Saga with The Rise of Skywalker… Maybe those 1960s tv shows were onto something.

Seeking Westworld Fidelity

mibLast night I rewatched the last episode of Westworld season two. With season three coming in just a few weeks, I thought that as its been nearly two years now since the second season originally aired, I could do with a refresher to get me up to speed. Ideally I should watch both season one and two beforehand, and maybe I’ll still have a go at that, but with everything else going on, the odds against managing a complete rewatch are huge, so I went with the season two finale.

Silly me. Of course it was confusing. The episode tied up many of the various threads running through that season, but naturally on its own it left me floundering, clutching at what I could still remember from the series when I first watched it. As I remember, even when it first aired with the season fresh in my memory, it rather confused me. But it did manage a very good tease for the third season.

Westworld is a very good sci-fi show. Its perhaps a little too convoluted and obtuse for its own good, the play-through of several timelines concurrently often more confusing than illuminating, but I really do admire the ambition of the show. I like having to work at stuff. I find it challenging and refreshing. I have high hopes that the third season will reward my faith in it, and certainly the trailers have looked very promising. I’m reminded of Fringe, in that Westworld seems to be transforming into a different show entirely to the one it was when it began. I find that exciting.

The coda at the end of the episode was as fun and compelling as I remembered. We are in some (possibly far-distant) future, in which The Man In Black (a genuinely fantastic Ed Harris, its worth watching this show for him alone) is in some dusty ruins under the park, being interrogated by his daughter Emily, who he killed in an earlier season two episode. Death isn’t necessarily death in Westworld, as we have learned before- indeed, a secret purpose to Westworld was delivering immortality for the filthy rich who could afford it (shades of another genre curio, Altered Carbon, there). A subject’s intellect is captured and stored, and then placed into a ‘host’ simulacrum body and tested repeatedly for ‘fidelity’. The idea is that the restored individual thinks they are real and not a copy- once they begin to suspect the reality, the intellect rejects its situation and fails, breaks down, goes insane. The word ‘fidelity’ in the context used here is perfect but chilling, and the standout episode of the season (and one I really must rewatch) concerns the attempts over several decades of testing to restore James Delos, the owner of the Delos corporation whose quest for immortality was the real force behind the Westworld theme park and its research into AI. That particular episode was brilliant, and there are shades of it here. The Man In Black asks his dead daughter “How many times have you tested me?”, to which she replies “It’s been a long time, William. Longer than we thought. I have a few questions for you. The last step’s a baseline interview to allow us to verify.”

“Verify what?” he asks, no doubt suspecting, to which she answers, simply and chillingly, “Fidelity.”

Alas, this last episode of Westword is not enough for me; I haven’t sufficient fidelity to jump into season three just yet. More episodes will be necessary, no doubt, if I can find the time. Which strikes me as a little funny- time is everything in Westworld, character arcs happening in different timelines, and the mortal humans racing against time and death. Here’s me, challenged by time to re-watch this series- as many characters in the show do, I fear I have left it too late.

 

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.

Person Of Interest Nears End-Program

poi42017.16: Person Of Interest Season Four – Blu-ray

Person of Interest almost seems something of a curio in this changed landscape that is television today. It isn’t a cable blockbuster, and it isn’t a season of ten or twelve episodes. No, this is a throwback to how tv shows always used to be, a 22-episode season on Network TV, complete with scripted teases/pauses for commercial breaks. These days, that’s almost an oddity. One could be forgiven that television has moved on, what with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and MadMen and  other shows on cable, and so many other shows airing on providers such as Netflix and Amazon. In many ways, television has indeed moved on- Person of Interest seems from some other era.

Which is, to be frank, part of its appeal. While it does have a story-arc that stretches across each season, and indeed over all the seasons as a whole, many of the episodes generally work as seperate stories focusing on guest-stars and characters/storylines unique to each episode, often ending with an old-fashioned ‘reset’ that sees the regular characters ready and waiting for next week’s adventure. Its almost quaint, and yet it feels almost comforting in a tv landscape that can make so many demands on viewers. I recently tried watching episode 1 of series two of The Expanse and it had be scurrying away to my season one boxset, as I couldn’t really make any sense of this new episode. I hadn’t seen any of the show since last June/July and I could only recall a vaguest sense of the plot and the new episode utterly lost me, frankly. Its exhilerating to have such sophisticated storytelling that makes such demands on the viewer but it can frustrate too. Person of Interest is decidedly Old-School- not necessarily drop in/drop out whenever you like, but its all fairly familiar and tends to bring you up to speed easily enough.

At times that’s one of the shows problems- it isn’t really sophisticated at all. Very often the dialogue awkwardly explains what is going on or someones backstory or motivations, stuff viewers are familiar enough with if they are paying attention, but handy to keep casual viewers up to speed.Although sometimes it feels like it is filling the blanks for those who are late getting back from the commercial break. Which is ironic, as I’m binge-watching it on a box-set, so there are no breaks to commercials for cat food and recaps from a few episodes back are pretty redundant watching an episode or two every night..

poiWhile the show is inferior to Fringe, possibly the last genuinely great Network-based genre tv show, its nonetheless impressive that it maintains a pretty high quality level whilst somehow making 22 hours of television each season. Thats not easy, especially when it tries to maintain film-quality production levels each week, with plenty of location footage on the streets of New York.  Like Fringe, Person Of Interest struggled with ratings, something Network TV is notoriously rabid and ruthless about, but thankfully a truncated season five offers some kind of conclusion to the show. I’ll see soon enough, having now finished season four.

Maybe the show doesn’t really attain the heights I’d hoped for it a few years ago, but it is good fun, and it certainly has that old-school appeal that many of the new blockbuster shows, for all their complexity, often lack.  Part of the charm of the show is naturally its great cast of fairly entertaining and interesting characters, the saving grace of many such shows and why we keep on returning to them, but it also feels like the kind of television I used to watch back in the 1970s and 1980s. Sure the production values and overall quality is way higher than all that Glen Larson stuff etc but it has that old comforting feel. The tv equivalent of a comfort blanket and a handy undemanding escape from reality. That seems like faint praise, but I don’t intend it to be.

Now, where did I put that Season Five box..?