Top Ten lists are always two things simultaneously: lame and fun. Lame because their innate subjectivity renders the exercise supremely pointless. Fun because… well, because we are hierarchical beings who suffer from a pathological need to rank everything from shoes to past Presidents to TV shows to excretory experiences. Continue reading The Top 10 Greatest American Science Fiction TV Shows
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Review: Wolverine & The X-Men, Season 1
Television cartoons are a funny business. Most people still think of them as children’s fare. When the topic of such cartoons is a team of superheroes, the threat of juvenility rises considerably. Somehow, Marvel’s X-Men has always managed to sustain a high level of both adult characterization and storytelling in all three of its TV incarnations. Continue reading Review: Wolverine & The X-Men, Season 1
The Best TV Series Finales
It’s a great time to be a fan of TV science fiction. Easily, the two finest dramas on American television are Lost and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, both so-called “genre” shows, which means that they are best enjoyed by science fiction fans.
Galactica, a preternatural philosophical powerhouse of a show is nearly done. As I write this, a mere three episodes remain, at the end of which all of the show’s intriguing questions are supposed to be answered. Lost, meanwhile, has another season or two to go, I believe, but is also well over half over.
This got me thinking about finales. In particular, what are the finest series finales in the history of televised English-language science fiction?
First, a word about terminology. In Britain, a “series” is what we in North America call a “season”. Our “series” refers to the full run of the TV show, throughout all its seasons. I am using the American terminology. By series finale, I mean the last episode of that show that was ever shown.
Here is my list of the top five best television SF series finales. Be warned that this list is ridden with spoilers:
5. Blake’s Seven
Pretty much unknown to North American viewers, Blake’s 7 was one of Britain’s finest skiffy offerings. Airing in the magnificent 1970s, it told the tale of average citizen Roj Blake, who found himself caught up in a rebellion against the evil galactic federation and falsely accused of paedophilia. Blake gathers a team of compatriots who chance upon an advanced alien spaceship, and commences a series of adventures that sees them edge closer to finding a way to bring down the federation, all the while bickering amongst themselves the way that only Brits know how to do.
Blake himself departed the show after only 2 seasons, but the adventure continued for a total of four legendary years. The brilliance of its finale saw the return of Blake in a promise of impending and unexpected triumph for the surviving team members…. all dashed in a moment of distrust that resulted in all the members murdered by the evil federation. The bad guys win, and no one saw it coming, even in this darkest of dark shows.
4. Quantum Leap
QL employed a very simple plot: Dr Samuel Beckett is “leaping” across the years of his lifespan, inhabiting or possessing the bodies of seemingly random individuals in the process. With him is a holographic projection of his friend Al Calavicci, who informs him at every leap about his mission, usually involving the “setting right” of the inhabited body’s life.
The show began as light, comedic drama with both a skiffy and quasi-religious twist. But its finale was unexpectedly a profound tear jerker. In it, Sam leaps into a paranormal bar where everyone appears to be “leaping”. The bartender is a godlike figure who informs Sam that he will never stop leaping, and that the missions will only get more difficult. It is never said outright, but I think a suggestion is made that Sam is actually an angelic figure of some sort.
In Sam’s last mission shown, he leaps back into the life of his friend Al and fixes his failed marriage. The final text shown before the credits rolled: “Dr. Samuel Beckett never returned home.” A very sad ending for an otherwise uplifting show.
3. Classic Battlestar Galactica / Galactica 1980
Including this steaming turd of a show may shock some people. Yes, the original BSG was third rate shlock at best, which nonetheless captured the imagination of a skiffy-starved generation. Its atrocious follow-up, the impoverised Galatica 1980 was an insult to anyone who gave this show a lingering chance. It really is a wonder that the series’ “re-imagining” managed to render one of the finest dramatic TV shows in history, the current BSG incarnation.
Nevertheless, the final episode of Galactica 1980 (and therefore of the original BSG) was a little something called “The Return of Starbuck.” In it, Dirk Benedict’s original version of the gun-slinging, cigar-smoking fighter pilot crashes on a desert planet and is all alone with a crashed Cylon ship filled with three broken Cylons.
A space age Robinson Crusoe, he reassembles one of the robots to be his companion, and sets out to build an escape ship to rejoin the Galactica. Then, weirdly, a mysterious pregnant woman arrives and convinces Starbuck that he must protect her and “his” child. Evil Cylons arrive, there’s a fight, Starbuck’s robot companion is seemingly destroyed, Starbuck himself appears to suffer a very serious –probably fatal– wound, and the woman escapes in his makeshift pod and manages to find the Galactica. But she is not in it when the ship is opened; only her child is. The grows to become “Dr Zee”, the creepy genius child who would lead the Galactica to Earth, and who narrates the opening segments of this episode.
2. Star Trek: The Next Generation
No one is going to argue that TNG is one of the best TV skiffy shows ever produced. Finally, Gene Roddenberry had the time and money to do Star Trek the way he’d always wanted. Its finale, “All Good Things“, is considered by some to be one of the best of a series of excellent shows. Entertainment Weekly listed it as #5 in the show’s top 10 episodes.
I almost ranked “All Good Things” as #1 in this list for one reason alone: unlike other finales, this one didn’t try too hard to be grand. It remained, at its core, a good TNG episode. We can watch it in reruns and appreciate the sadness of its finality, but also enjoy it as a stand-alone episode, something that can’t be said for the #1 entry in this list.
“All Good Things” tells of Captain Picard’s consciousness jumping across three temporal states: the present, the past (to the first episode of the series) and a couple of decades into the future. Throughout it all, his persistent omnipotent guide Q is there, this time with a seriousness we’d not come to expect. Q’s gravitas is what makes this episode important. His attitude suggests that consequences await the Enterprise’s crew as a result of any actions they may or may not take.
The show’s final moments are bittersweet, as Captain Picard joins his officers for a poker game for the very first time, and regrets not having done so before. It shows us that though we will not see the crew again on TV, they have nonetheless grown closer together, and have many more adventures to which to look forward.
1. Babylon 5
B5 is one of the most important skiffy TV shows in history. It was the first to challenge Star Trek for its TV throne, and its brazenness opened the door for a host of other science fiction offerings on the little screen. It was also the very first show in which an entire season of episodes was written by the same person, creator J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), and one of the first shows to be entirely arc-driven. That is, every episode was a chapter in a TV novel that would last 5 years, no more.
Today, arc shows are the norm. Lost, BSG and pretty much every top drama on TV eschew the standalone episode model. But B5 was the first to embrace the arc wholeheartedly.
Yes, its acting was atrocious at times, the dialogue ridiculously space-opera-ish, and some of the technobabble and special effects laughable. But the core story was intriguing, and its heart undeniable.
The final episode, the sublime “Sleeping In Light“, was written and filmed a full year before it was aired, because it was uncertain whether the show would be granted its 5th and final season; so the finale had to be ready to go, just in case.
Nominated for science fiction’s highest honour, the Hugo Award, “Sleeping In Light” takes place 20 years after the events of B5. All the battles have been fought and won, and all the characters have moved on to live new lives. But a lingering truth from the series was left unexplored: that the protagonist, John Sheridan, had agreed to reduce his remaining lifespan to 20 years in exchange for time to fight the war that served as B5‘s centrepiece.
“Sleeping In Light” is about the final day of John Sheridan’s life, of how he says goodbye to his world, and how his friends deal with his death. It’s a tearjerker, no matter how many times you watch it, made more so by the moving musical score, and the linking of Sheridan’s mysterious demise with the decommissioning of the Babylon station that gave the show its name.
It is clear that this finale was envisioned years in advance. As JMS himself stated about the episode, ” I always have the ending before I begin writing the beginning.”
Do you have other ideas of what constitutes a good finale? Please leave them in the comments below.
The Last Cylon
This article was originally a blog post on Deonandan.com
Obama about to take office, war in the Gaza strip, Russia freezing out Ukraine, enormous military movements in Sri Lanka, the world economy tanking…. so what will I blog about? Well, Battlestar Galactia, of course.
I have long held that the reborn (or “re-imagined”, as the Powers like to say) series is the single finest current television show in the world. I am not alone in this assessment (see here, here and here.) Few other mainstream entertainment products offer such dark assessments of the human soul, drawing fairly obvious analogies to modern American military policy, primarily the “war on terror”. It takes courage to present a universe that clearly mirrors our own, North American world, but in which the polytheists are the ostensible good guys and monotheists the bad guys. It takes further courage to miraculously get us to sympathize with the mass-murdering, robotic bad guys– and yet somehow the show manages to do this.
There are many ripe philosophical fruits to be plucked and devoured in this show. Among my favourites is the anti-heroic path of Dr. Gaius Baltar. He is demonized as a villain for having made some selfish, but very human, self-serving decisions. But if we are honest with ourselves we recognize in Baltar (in all but his genius intellect and creepy narcissism) the truth of our existence. He, unlike other impossibly and predictably heroic members of a typical TV show, behaves pretty much how a normal human being would behave, given the truly extraordinary circumstances in which he finds himself.
Baltars quest for redemption underlies, for me, the lesson of the show: that everybody is both good and evil, that everyone both deserves life and deserves death, and that only the honest among us can embrace this truth and thus seek justification for our continued existence. Dark? Of course; it’s Battlestar Galactica.
The other, more accessible philosophical plumb presented by the show is the number of models of “skin jobs”, or human-form Cylons. There are exactly 12 of them. Why? It is never expressed explicitly, but the implication is that the race of mechanic Cylons took a good, long look at humanity and saw only twelve of us. There are only 12 archetypal human beings, so simple are our motivations, so predictable our behaviours and responses.
Others have discussed this aspect of the show’s mythology. The show’s producers have encouraged this discussion, and most have landed upon a summary of the archetypes, as summarized well by a poster on nightly.net:
The regular guy
Now, as fans of the show know, while there are 12 archetypes, there are only 11 Cylon models so far identified. The lasting mystery is, of course, the identity of the final Cylon. As shown in the image below, Cylon D’Anna glimpsed the faces of the Final Five Cylons, four of whom are now known to us as occupants of the Colonial fleet.
The producers have fed the speculation, most famously by issuing the following manipulated photo, based on “The Last Supper”, with the message that none of the characters portrayed is in fact the Final Cylon:
A series of snippets were also released by the producers on a website called YouWillKnowTheTruth.com, that further fed speculation and planted clues (or, more likely, misdirections). A summary of those clues is given here.
For a lot of reasons, I believe the identity of the Final Cylon boils down to two candidates: Felix Gaeta and Anastasia Dualla.
Now, I know that I have discussed this several times in the past. And I have linked to at least one thorough analysis of the clues. But I love a good mystery. I am so satisfied that the Final Cylon is one of these two individuals that I’m even willing to put money on it.
Part of the charm of the mystery is the bizarre, almost secretive, evolution of Felix Gaeta. If you’re a fan of the show, I doubt you will ever be able to forget the haunting, creepy yet beautiful song sung by Gaeta as his leg was amputated. The composer of the song talked about it on his blog, and called it both “Gaeta’s Lament” and “The Stump Serenade”. Much analysis has surrounded the eerie song, as it supposedly contains clues to the identity of the Final Cylon, to whom God (or the gods, depending on which of the show’s faiths you subscribe to) has bestowed a special fate relating to the dispositions of both races, the humans and the Cylons.
This post has, for my money, one of the more intriguing analyses, specifically that Gaeta’s secret is his transsexualism. The theory has some appeal to me, since the nature of the hidden Cylon(s) has been something of a bridging of gaps or paradigms. Much the same way that the “skin jobs” cross the divide between men and machine, a transsexual Cylonic Gaeta would cross the divide between male and female.
Then again, for all I know, the Final Cylon is the dead cat formerly owned by Apollo’s lawyer buddy. It’s just a TV show, after all. The identity of the Final Cylon will be revealed to all in a matter of weeks.
The New Doctor Who
The following is reproduced from a blog post at Deonandan.com
We fans of the iconic Dr Who were saddened when Christopher Eccleston stepped down from the lead role in the revivified series almost four years ago. Many were disappointed when floppy-haired David Tennant stepped into Eccleston’s veteran, steeled void and re-imagined “the Doctor” as a foppish but likable hipster, eschewing his predecessor’s German submarine commander look. But Tennant grew to own the role, and I am surprised to hear myself voicing the opinion that he has been the best Doctor ever. That’s right, even better than Tom Baker and John Pertwee.
Mind you, Baker and Pertwee never benefited from the enormous budget of the new series, nor from the more thoughtful and adult-oriented writing. Nonetheless, Tenant has come to personify for an entirely new generation the physical incarnation of the most important science fiction character in British history –perhaps in television history overall.
So we were saddened again to hear that David Tennant would be stepping down some time in 2009, after a mere four performances, to make way for yet another actor to play the mighty Doctor, genius Lord of Time who vanquishes foes and defends the weak without ever taking a life or even striking a blow. Note that the evolution of Doctor Who was listed in Skiffy’s top 2008 stories in science fiction.
Speculation was rampant in the British press about who the new actor would be. Perhaps a woman this time? Some even suggested Catherine Zeta Jones! But I was more excited by the prospect of Black actor Paterson Joseph. There is, in my belief, something innately masculine about the Doctor character, but not necessarily something innately caucasian. (Especially in the recent seasons, the Doctor’s sexual tension with his female companions –notwithstanding Captain Jack’s omnisexuality– sort of compels the Time Lord to remain male, at least so long as the various nubile female companions remain in the present literary universe; otherwise their quite touching “lost romance” vibes would be overshadowed by the lesbian overtones. )
This is Paterson Joseph:
Woman or non-White man, it would have been interesting to see the Doctor blend into scenarios throughout Earth’s history. A Black Doctor materializing during the European slave trade? A female Doctor appearing in an orthodox Muslim community? The possibilities are intriguing.
But the BBC woosed out on us. It was leaked today that the new Doctor Who will be…. Matt Smith. This is 26 year old Matt Smith:
Now, I am certain that Mr Smith is an excellent actor. (The irony here is that The Doctor often goes by the monicker, “Mr Smith”). My objection, beyond the disappointment of not seeing a woman or a Black man, is that Smith is young. Tenant was on the verge of looking too young for a world-weary 900 year old alien who’d seen it all, and he was in his late 30s when he started the role! I really dislike this trend of casting younger and younger actors to play roles of great gravitas.
Plus, as one commenter put it, he looks like the singer of a pointless emo band.
Well, the Who team gave us two excellent initial choices in Eccleston and Tennant. So I’ll give this fellow a chance. But, David Tennant…. why? Why did you leave us? WHY?
The Andromeda Strain (Part 1)
(This review is part 1 of 2)
Released as a miniseries by A&E in the spring of 2008, The Andromeda Strain is based on Michael Crichton’s classic 1969 science fiction novel of the same name. TAS-08 is written by Robert Schenkken (who played David Deaver in the 1990 film Pump up the Volume), and is directed by Denmark’s Mikael Salomon, more famously known as the cinematographer on several Oscar winning films (Far and Away, Back Draft, Arachnophobia). Continue reading The Andromeda Strain (Part 1)
Review: Charlie Jade
The idea of parallel universes is well explored in TV science fiction. Classic Star Trek had the memorable “evil empire” episode with a bearded Spock from the alternate universe. America’s longest running SF show, Stargate SG1 and its spinoff Stargate Atlantis have both plumbed the idea far too many times in far too many versions. And the show Sliders featured the “multiverse” as its core narrative, with its heroes “sliding” from universe to universe every week.
But it’s the joint Canadian-South African production, Charlie Jade, that finally brings this concept to a gritty, realistic level, without the comfortable technobabble and easy resolutions of more family-friendly shows. In the Charlie Jade narrative, there are three main parallel universes: the “Alphaverse”, which is a technologically advanced, but horrendously polluted, violent, fascistic and unpleasant world with a brutal caste system that relegates its lowest denizens to near slave status; the “Betaverse”, which is essentially our universe; and the “Gammaverse” which is comparatively paradisical, where humans have managed our natural resources and social structures responsibly.
Transcending the various ‘Verses is the Vexcor corporation, which exists in various strengths in all three worlds, and has somehow managed to organize across all three, even creating a machine that might be able to transport matter across universes. The motivation of Vexcor is unknown, but a suggestion is made that the transportation of resources from the Gammaverse to the Alphaverse may be a part of their plan.
The scion of Vexcor is “0-1” (not “Owen”) Boxer, an amoral sociopath who uniquely possesses the ability to unilaterally walk between worlds, a skill that makes him indispensable to the wary and distrusting Vexcor executives, who would just as soon keep 0-1 working in the mailroom. As the story begins, 0-1 Boxer has drugged and raped a woman from Capteown, South Africa, in the Betaverse (our world), and has transported and murdered her in the Alphaverse, where our protagonist, private detective Charlie Jade, reluctantly takes up her cause. His investigation causes him to follow Boxer, and he suddenly and mysteriously finds himself trapped in the Betaverse.
Charlie Jade is unsure of what he witnesses upon arrival in our world, but it appears as if Reena, a terrorist from the Gammaverse, destroys the Vexcor facility, and finds herself also trapped in our world. Back in the Alphaverse, a B-plot has Charlie’s girlfriend/slave (her status is left intentionally blurry) left without his protection, and subject to the torments of her society.
Charlie Jade is a standard, almost cliched two-fisted hero, ruggedly handsome and improbably brave and capable. The terrorist Reena is a figure who inspires much empathy, trapped like Jade, but hunted by the authorities and less capable of finding her footing in a strange new world that both terrifies and horrifies her.
But the real star of Charlie Jade is the city of Capetown. Science fiction fans are used to cityscapes of New York, London, Los Angeles, San Francisco or anonymous US cities based on those familiar archetypes. Charlie Jade shows us an unfiltered, modern South African city, complete with its racial tensions, its crime, militancy, ugliness and occasionally its staggering beauty. A favourite vista of mine is the wide shot across the city, complete with its otherworldly cliffs and mountains.
The idea of a multiverse is introduced subtly, and we learn of it at pretty much the same pace as its heroes do. Unlike more formulaic shows, like later incarnations of Star Trek, this show knows better than to dazzle us with fake science that would ultimately innoculate us against the more organic perils of its characters. Instead, it recognizes that its narrative strength is in its politics, crustiness and criminality, and in the sympathy we must feel for characters trapped in nightmarish situations which, while clearly science-fictional, are presented in a realistic enough way to feel strangely plausible.
I’m five episodes into the show’s 21 episode run. I am pleased to recommend this very smart, very gritty show to those of you thirsty for smart, realistic science fiction.
Review: Odyssey 5
Let’s say you and four associates knew that the world would end in five years. You don’t know how, or by whom; and you’re pretty sure no one would believe you if you told them. What do you do? What stresses must you undergo and persevere in your quest? This is the underlying premise of Odyssey 5, one of the smartest, most overlooked science fiction TV shows of the past 20 years.
A Canadian show starring genre gadabout Peter Weller, Odyssey 5 was the brainchild of Manny Coto, known to most as the man who rescued the final season of the atrocious Star Trek: Enterprise, finally making that particular nightmare watchable.
Odyssey 5 is the story of the five astronauts aboard the space shuttle Odyssey: commander Chuck Taggart (Weller), his son Neil (Christopher Gorham), genius asshole Kurt Mendel (Sebastian Roche), journalist Sarah Forbes (Leslie Silva), and shuttle pilot Angela Perry (Tamara Craig Thomas). While in orbit, they literally witness the destruction of the Earth. They are then contacted by an enigmatic alien intelligence who informs them that the same thing has befallen other worlds, and that they will be sent back in time 5 years in order to investigate and prevent the cataclysm. The catch is that, while they will retain their future memories, they will exist in the bodies and situations of their earlier selves.
This brilliant premise creates instant conflict and tension. Sarah Forbes’s infant son had died 5 years ago and she was in a different marriage. Neil Taggart, now a young astronaut, was then a high school student, and suddenly finds himself one again, complete with his teenage girlfriend, her childish woes and their sexual crises. As this is an adult film shown on the cable network Showtime, profane language and extreme adult situations abound.
It’s a minor spoiler that the destruction of the Earth has to do with artificial and web-based intelligences. This may sound hokey and cliche, but it’s actually done with a sense of sober maturity that brings a welcome gravity to the narrative. The seriousness, offset by a wonderful light direction, is made moreso by the recurring theme that the 5 heroes have no idea what they are doing, and may in fact be accelerating the timetable to the Earth’s destruction.
The strength of Odyssey 5, though, is in its consistent, realistic characterizations, brought to life through some excellent acting, primarily by Weller himself. There’s a particular scene that I can’ seem to forget, wherein Weller takes a pompous barista to task for calling his “large” coffee a “grande”.
It’s a mystery to me why Odyssey 5 was not picked up for a second season. This is a smart, adult, science fiction series that would be eagerly consumed by any thinking genre fan. There are rumours that Coto wishes to re-do or finish off the series in a new format, perhaps web-based. Until then, I heartily recommend that you rent or buy Odyssey 5.
I’m oficially sick of immortals. Really. They’re all over TV science fiction, and frankly it’s getting a bit stale. Continue reading Bloody Immortals
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Season 1
The Terminator is one of a few movies that, for me, defined science fiction. Released in 1984, the story revolves around a time paradox, a cyborg, a freedom fighter and a deceivingly soft looking heroine. The straightforward narrative, combined with a strong cast and the judicious use of special effects created an experience that was as gritty as it was terrifying. Two more theatrical releases – Terminator 2-Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator 3-Rise of the Machines (2003) – carried forward the story of the Connor’s and their battle against Skynet and the looming apocalypse. Fox’s Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles picks up the story of Sarah and John Connor in 1997, six years after the events depicted in T2. Continue reading Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles – Season 1