Archives for category: science fiction

In my latest spate of catching up on things, I am finally getting round to season two if Timeless. Season one was a hodgepodge affair, with what started out as just a bit of sci-fi and alt-history silliness trying to become darker in ways that didn’t really pay off for the viewer.

Season two is shorter and designed purely to finish the story, which will at least satisfy the audience. But in doing so, it has now raised a big question. And I hate big questions.

The question is what exactly do Rittenhouse represent? It is never made clear how they are the enemy or what their idea of a ‘tidy’ American history is. Why kill car manufacturing giants if that is what made America so prosperous? Why try to hang Ben Franklin’s mum as a witch if she is to bring to life one of the nation’s great heroes?

Indeed, many of their missions are looking similar to so-called terrorist Garcia Flynn’s aims. He too attempted to assassinate car supremoes and overthrow/prevent Kennedy’s presidency. So who is the bad guy then? What could be an interesting dialogue of ideas as to what we class as terrorism and what is ‘correcting’ a power imbalance is suspiciously blank.

There seems to be a fear of defining whether the ideologies of the competing groups is far left or far right lest someone gets offended. Instead, we have this void that, for me at least, detracts from the show. Yes, Rittenhouse are the baddies, but what is their end vision that makes them so evil? Is it racial purity? Religious intolerance? Social inequality far beyond what it is now? Perhaps it’s the other way – an extreme socialist society? Maybe these questions get answered later in the series, but it is still a source of angst for me.

My other issue is that the formula has bored me, as I feared it would. The team go back to an historical event, meet a famous figure who helps them prevent a bad thing from happening, some minor detail in history gets altered, some other revelation that was revealed on the trip sinks in, everyone stares at each other dreamily or suspiciously.

So, after all this, why do I still watch it, you may ask. Because I like the idea of alternative histories. Looking back at flashpoints that make or break a nation is fascinating. I want more of this, more understanding of why this moment matters, and less love triangles. More importantly, it could be asking us questions of who gets to tell history. But it doesn’t. It happily sinks into just being a conspiracy show. Maybe if it had challenged itself more, it wouldn’t have been cancelled.

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A big challenge facing TV wonks is how to make a potentially dry genre funny without it being a spoof, or at least not make it a spoof if you don’t intend it to be one. When you parody something, you potentially mock the very audience you intend to win over by making fun of the hallmarks of something they love, which leaves you with no-one watching.

One solution is to go for more of a pastiche – makes jokes about the genre, but do so gently. The other is to simply make something funny whilst using the genre as a setting. The Orville does a bit of both, and in doing so has made a genuinely funny yet also genre friendly show.

The Orville is a sci-fi comedy about a crew of a star ship. It is obviously designed to be a Star Trek with gags. There is the mocking of the diversity of the crew – a super-strong female alien security guard, a robot that is slightly sociopathic, two frat boy helmsman, etc. It could easily descend into something farcical.

What saves it is that Seth MacFarlane (yes, it is he) has actually invested in the plots. The opening episode introduced us to the evil Krill trying to steal a new technology that can speed up time. Whilst there were jokes, the plot was never forgotten about, even if it was a bit simple. Then again, early episodes of a show tend to be as the priority is to build cast dynamics. Again, this has been well done. There is a nice undercurrent of tension with Captain Ed Mercer (MacFarlane) having to work with his ex-wife, who actually secured him the job without his knowledge.

The fact this show is happy to also be a more of a drama than a comedy is also, for me, a positive. It allows light and dark to balance each other, and stops you being whacked over by MacFarlane’s juvenile humour. It also allows more a commentary of society to be offered without being either flippant or sanctimonious.

The critics have panned this show. Interestingly, some have found it too silly and frivolous to be worth their time. Others have wondered where the jokes are for this to be a comedy. The fact it is pleased viewers a lot more though suggests that the critics have missed the point: it is simply an hour of enjoyable television. It has heart to it, a rare thing at times. And I’m not going to lie, for an average viewer like me, it is fun to see the critics get it so wrong.

One of the signs you are getting old is the fact that the decade you were born in can be classed as ‘period drama’. How you define this genre is debatable – I personally would argue that anything sans bonnet and breaches is modern – but it appears that the 80’s are now a valid historical setting.

Perhaps there is a need for a string whiff of nostalgia for a past time that qualifies an era for that term. It is certainly nostalgia that drives Stranger Things 2. The detail it employs is beautiful if a little clichéd. The mullets, the double denim, the perms, the knitwear – all mockable yet slightly revered. And then there’s the pop culture references, with the excitement of electronic music and a new wave of sci-fi.

Anybody over 35 could spend the show simply ticking off things from their childhood and not pay any attention to the plot. Which is possibly a good thing as, let’s be honest, it feels very slow. Bar a few hallucinations it has taken four episodes to give us anything approaching chills, and that came from breaking the golden rule of ‘Don’t Kill the Cat’.

If anything, it is proving its strength as a coming of age story meets social drama. The introduction of Max as someone mixing up the fraternity of teenage boys is a good example of this. She also comes with her own mini-mystery, which I find more enthralling than the ones that are supposed to be taking centre stage. Ditto, the pseudo father-daughter relationship between Hopper and El is more honest when it isn’t enthralled to El’s telekinesis.

The comedy also appears to be stronger this time round and is very much appreciated. It comes as a relief to what would otherwise be a very bleak landscape of decaying pumpkins, small-town claustrophobia and paranoia.

Which brings me back to the central problem I have – I don’t know if I care too much about the mysteries being solved or the tension/horror heightened. What are the vines that the scientists are killing about? Why are the pumpkins decaying? Who is number 008 and are there others? None of these matter to me personally as a viewer, bar maybe the last puzzle.

It’s a sign the Duffer Brothers were relying on our binge watch habits to put 008 in at the start of the season and not mention her again for at least four episodes. As a non-binge watcher I have spotted this flaw. Not all of us want to digest all nine episodes in one go and we deserve a reward for our more episodic viewing habits.

Yet, despite these many issues, I am compelled to watch on, not least because this is the show everyone is talking about, be it good or bad. Next month it will be The Crown. Perhaps that is the secret of Netflix’s success – it doesn’t matter how good the show actually is, so long as it gets enough mentions on social media to draw more moths to the flame. You can only hope that quality is going to be a second thought.

One of the biggest challenges facing any science fiction or fantasy series is to get the balance between creating excellent adventures and encouraging long-term emotional investment. Ignore the latter and when you want to create a big hefty scene where a lead character dies or leaves you find yourself with an audience not that bothered and just wanting to you to move on to the next big showdown. Ignore the former, and you don’t really have a sci-fi/fantasy show at all, just a drama with a few weird references.

Doctor Who tackles this problem with varying degrees of success. In the Russel T. Davis era, it did this very well, bar the odd episode. The plots wrapped you in nicely and had a zing to them, but you still cared about the characters. One of the times I’ve cried at the TV was when the hologram of The Doctor cut out before he could say ‘I love you’ to Rose.

I feel, in my personal opinion, that the Steven Moffat era has been less successful. For a start, I have never fully understood why the loss of Clara Oswald is felt by The Doctor with the pain that Amy Pond or any others were not. So that’s the emotional investment side not hitting the right note. Then we have the adventure side, which I also feel is sometimes lacking. Too many episodes seem to end with The Doctor knowing what he was doing all along, which makes you wonder why someone so keen to save the world lets so many people get harmed in the process.

There are some bright moments though. I have always liked Peter Capaldi as The Doctor, playing him both that bit darker but also with stronger vein of humour than some of the other recent incarnations. I also think Matt Lucas as Nordole becoming a semi-regular character is a smart move, as I feel the Tardis actually needs a trinity of people. I’m undecided on Pearl Mackie as Bill – her mouthiness is welcomed but I feel we were spoilt in our early days with the near perfect Rose Tyler, with only Amy Pond so far coming close. I think the best solution is to give Bill time to grow.

Best of all though is we still have Michelle Gomez as Missy. Like Capaldi, she is bowing out this series, and could actually end up being the greater loss. There is a fizz from her that cannot be replicated. Her voice is an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove. Like all the best villains, she makes being evil look fun.

There have been some genuinely strong individual episodes in this run. Thin Ice felt like a Tennant-era classic – evil human bad guy thwarted and some good done to the world in the process. Extremis has set up some interesting concepts and given us a decent story arc to get our teeth into. When the stars align, Doctor Who can still pull out a corker of an episode. But it needs to do this more often. The show is having a reboot next year – new Doctor, new showrunner. A perfect opportunity to audit it and gives us the best the show can be.

Some shows attract such levels of fandom that making any comment about them, be it praise or criticism, draws ire from those who disagree with you. As someone who avoids discussion boards and the like (I literally upload my post and then go) I generally don’t get caught in the crossfire. Having said that, my geekiness towards most programmes is actually very low-key: I enjoy a lot of shows, but get whipped up into a frenzy about very few. In fact, Great British Bake Off is probably the only one that falls into this category.

Doctor Who is one that tends to excite a number of my friends. They pick over episodes, rabidly discuss theories, and speculate over the next casting change. Personally, I enjoy the show, but tend to find myself unmotivated to pursue my interest in it any further. There are some thoughts I have been having about the new series, which I feel in the absence of anything else grabbing my attention, I should share.

Firstly, the structure of the series. This time around two-part stories dominate. I inwardly groaned when this was first revealed, as I find many of them in the past to have been slow and clunky with disappointing pay-offs. However, this time around there seems to have been a general tightening. The first two-parter in particular was a joy, a clever tale of who the Doctor is. I must admit his outwitting of Davros felt slightly derivative – how many times can you play the ‘I knew what you were doing all along card’- but other than that it was near-perfect.

A great deal of this lies in the character of Missy, who is probably one of my favourite characters to be created for any show ever. Michelle Gomez plays sociopath’s disturbingly well, and the lines zing out of her mouth. It has got to the stage now where I long for a spin-off just of her, causing chaos around the galaxies. I’m not sure if this idea has legs or not, but it would be damn fun to try!

I also am warming to Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. The dryness of his humour is fitting the rest of the character quite well now, and it’s a pleasant change to have his social awkwardness to actually border on being slightly insensitive rather than it being just a zany affectation. I do feel as if he is a Time Lord carrying the weight of the universe on his shoulders near permanently though, one that is that little wearier of everything. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a shock to the system after the hyperactive puppy energy of Tennant and Smith. It will make it harder for Capaldi to play lighter episodes as well.

Finally, Clara. Bless her, no matter what they try I just can’t take to her. I actually think this is no fault of Jenna Coleman, or the writers, or Stephen Moffat. It’s like those relationships where you can see that the other person is wonderful, and they could be good for you, but your heart isn’t in it. Still, at least she isn’t mooning after her late boyfriend constantly. And her interactions with Missy were a joy. If Clara does survive, maybe put her in the spin-off as well. Missy could do with someone to be her moral compass, just to level out things a little bit. Because they will do a Missy spin-off, won’t they? Please?

The past two weeks have seen three topics dominating my Twitter feed: Gaza, The Great British Bake Off, and Doctor Who. Each has come attached with its own controversies. The first two I hardly need to expand upon, but the last I feel as if I do. For those unaware, there is a tangible anger amongst some social media commentators on the misogyny of the show. The argument is that under Steven Moffat’s reign the show has become a show where the heterosexual, white male is dominant and anything else be it sexuality, gender or race is under-represented and under-developed.

Do I agree? Well, yes. A little. Certainly compared to Russell T. Davies at least Moffat seems a cultural conservative. Clara Oswold is no Rose Tyler; she is far too needy and quick to revert to ‘helpless damsel’ mode, compared to Tyler who seemed to be almost on a level with The Doctor in many scenarios. Amy Pond started out promisingly, before everything revolved around her being a wife and a mother, utterly dependent on the men around her.

The case for the defence is weak, but not non-existent. Madame Vastra and Jenny certainly break the hetero-normative stranglehold but it all feels a bit token. Likewise the introduction of Danny Pink, who now we have an ‘older’ Doctor seems to be filling the role of eye-candy, as if the show doesn’t trust female viewers to stay with it unless there is someone to ogle.

Speaking of which, what to make of Capaldi? Deep Breath did not sell him to me very well at all. Bar a few in-jokes this seemed a crueller, more cynical figure, which in itself is not a bad thing (I never really brought Matt Smith as playing someone with the weight of the universe on his shoulders) until you see that bitterness directed as those he loves. In contrast Into the Dalek won me over. The cynicism of Capaldi was balanced by the frustrated optimism of Jenna Coleman, who finally got to be a little more than fodder for the plot. This was ruined though by her scenes with Samuel Anderson. This relationship better develop into something more substantial, because right now it feels like two minor characters from Glee mooning over each other in a story arc ends off camera after about three episodes.

One final note. It may be worth pointing to Zawe Ashton’s appearance in the episode. People may know that she was tipped as a more ‘left-field’ choice for The Doctor. This may be my own relentless optimism talking, but perhaps this is a sign that when the role comes up again, she could be a real contender. A female Doctor would be an excellent move for the show, not just to silence the critics, but to give a new dynamic. Let’s hope Moffat comes round to the same way of thinking.

In the world of catch-up TV, creating an event or ‘water-cooler moment’ is hard to do. Not everyone watches TV ‘live’, and invent their own schedules. Big drama series can be saved up for weeks and then binged on, soaps play out in a time frame that works for the viewer. the dull bits of reality shows fast-forwarded. TV feels like it is moving from being a communal experience to an individual one, and everyone dreads the risk of spoilers on social network sites.

There are exceptions to this though, one of which is special episodes of Doctor Who. A combination of a 50th anniversary and the regeneration of The Doctor made the show a big enough event to overcome the barriers others have faced. The Day of the Doctor was worth putting time aside for. It was a rollickingly good tale, with cameos, nods to the past and genius little touches that made the whole episode zing. A whole nation screamed ‘It’s Tom Baker’ at the final scenes and the likes of Twitter (bar a few curmudgeons) lit up with joy at the whole affair. It was close to perfect.

So a high bar was set for the Christmas episode, Matt Smith’s swansong. So many questions were to be answered. A chapter needed to be closed. A new Doctor was to be born. And in all fairness, all this was done. But to the satisfaction of the audience? Well, no. Not for me anyway. A number of things disappointed. Which is a shame when you consider what was at stake in the episode.

Firstly, there was the role of The Silence. After being so malevolent in previous story arcs, to suddenly find there were some kind of alien UN task force, charged with preventing all-out war felt disjointed. Yes, their motives and the Church’s were thoroughly explained, and the banter between Tasha Lem (the best character in the entire episode) and The Doctor was brilliantly written – “We created a psychopath to kill you” “I married her” – but still, even as essentially the good guys they seemed far scarier than the Cybermen or Dalek’s.

I also have to say, and I hate myself for doing so, but I just can’t bring myself to like Clara. The likes of Rose Tyler and Amy Pond were always going to be big shoes to fill, but it’s just not happening for me. Bar one scene with her grandmother (Sheila Reid taking second prize for best performance behind Orla Brady’s Tasha Lem), I never bought in to a connection between Clara and The Doctor. It’s telling that The Doctor in his final moments hallucinated about Amy, the dream team of the pair of them with Rory is far more beautiful and nuanced than what Clara can offer.

Finally, there was the regeneration itself. I don’t mind that the Gallifreyan’s last-minute awarding of extra-regenerations to The Doctor was a bit of a cop out. It was a passable solution, and tied in nicely with the lore of the show, with echoes of The Master receiving the same gift two decades previously. It was the length of time the regeneration took. First Smith, who had been aged with all the money the BBC make-up department could muster, was reset to a young man, then after some hallucinations and a few empty words to Clara, became Peter Capaldi. Eccleston’s transition into Tennant, was much stronger, the emotional heft was there, the sense of sacrifice for those he loved so simply yet beautifully told.

There are some good things to report. Firstly, enough of the questions have been answered to satisfy viewers at an intellectual level at least. Also, Handles the Cyberman was a nice touch. Most importantly, Capaldi looks like he is going to be a great Doctor. He has the eccentricity of Smith, with the gravitas of Hartnell. He is going to be a much spikier Doctor, and less of a geek-come-action hero attitude. I hope when he appears properly in the autumn he gets to show what he is made of. Based on the Christmas episode, the show needs a bit of a kick to get it back to the level it needs to be on.