Thursday, December 24, 2009

Ye GODS...

I just got back from "Twilight: New Moon".

Yes. Yes, obviously I know better.

The whole thing started as an experiment: my best friend Anita insisted that if you view the work of Stephanie Meyer as a comedy, and assume the horrifically awkward and over-the-top aspects are completely intentional, you can actually enjoy it as a send-up of Anne Rice.

So we had free tickets and figured we might as well give it a try; at the very least we could provide a running commentary in the style of Waldorf and Statler. And since we checked the theatre on the day of the screening and it seemed pretty empty, the plan was set.

Ominous Portent #1: The theatre was bloody packed when we got there.

Ominous Portent #2: We were surrounded on all sides not by prepubescent girls, as I'd thought, but 20-plus-year-old women and three men who were very obviously over 40, and as later events would show, they weren't there for the same reasons Anita and I were.

So the film starts with the social exploits of Bella, and almost immediately both Ani and I agreed that if we knew this girl in real life we'd thrash the living daylights out of her. A complete shrew to anyone and everyone who shows her the slightest bit of consideration, Bella is precisely the type of person who deserves to be utterly alone.

Of course, as we said, the point was to try and recontextualize the film as a comedy, and I have to admit that we both started laughing when we interpreted Bella's desire to become a vampire as basically admitting that she didn't have a soul to begin with so it wasn't much of a change for her. That and the whole "I want to come / I don't want you to come" had us in tears ten minutes into the movie.

And then things got ugly.

A woman sitting next to Anita - thirty-five if she was a day, so help me God - leans over and asks us very pointedly to shut up so she can enjoy the movie.

A 35-year-old woman is taking this movie seriously.

Naturally, we flipped her the bird and kept going - normally we're not those types of people, but by then we couldn't help it: Bella sits in a chair for three months? Anita actually choked on popcorn at that point. Bella tries to compliment her Native American friend by telling him he's "kinda beautiful"? I'm reasonably sure I turned purple by then, tears in my eyes, whispering as quietly as I could to Anita that Cher called and she wanted her hair back (which pretty much sent her into an epileptic fit).

At which point one of those older gentlemen I'd mentioned got up, turned to face us and roared to shut the fuck up.

So we left.

I guess the moral of the story is that "Twilight" can be hilarious if you look at it from A Certain Point of View (tm Obi-Wan Kenobi), but for best effect, do not watch it with diehard fans. For some reason, they tend to take this very seriously.

And as an aside? This justifies the existence of Youtube. That is all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Postmortem (not what you think)

It's been over two months since my last post, and that was the Big Goodbye to the Savage Critics.

I've had (and am still having) a bit of a dry spell - there's loads of things to talk about but I haven't had the time, energy or inclination to just sit down and blog about it. And I'll probably drop out of sight for a few months more after this.

For right now, though...

Well, it all started when my dear friend Kazekage over at Witless Prattle called my attention to yet another firestorm breaking out over Power Girl.

Of course, my immediate reaction was along the same lines as any other news pertaining to the Big Two: "Whatever."

But I started reminiscing about a time when I was much more passionate about female representation in comics. And I remembered that I'd lost interest in that particular area of debate not because I stopped believing in the cause, but because it was becoming increasingly obvious that nothing was changing. Every time the mainstream seemed to learn its lesson, Gail Simone would applaud Brian Bendis for killing off the Wasp just so Henry Pym could finally be more interesting (that would be more convincing were it not for Bendis' little Tigra debacle earlier in the year), or you'd have that rather unfortunate incident with Spider-Man's roommate.

So I wasn't particularly surprised that the same old arguments, centered around the exact same characters, still continue. I don't much care to jump back into that.

And then I saw the season finale of "Dexter", and it got me thinking about female characters in TV... and I realized it hasn't been a great season for women. At all. To wit:


Supernatural: Ellen and Jo Harvelle

HOW: Sacrificed themselves to give the Winchester brothers a shot at Lucifer.

WHY: Anyone watching this show long enough learns two things: no matter how vocal the fanbase gets, Sam and Dean will never go horizontal (they've done everything short of having Eric Kripke come and carve that message into the camera lens to stress the point), and most supporting characters have a limited shelf life.

The problem here, though, is that as of the most recent midseason finale, there are no women left on the show. Bela died at the end of the third season; we lost Pamela, Ruby and Lilith during the fourth, with Anna locked away somewhere; and now Ellen and Jo, the only female hunters who've ever lasted more than one episode, are gone.

JUSTIFIED? Hard to say. On the one hand, the show has never shied away from making clear the fact that hunters die young and bloody - the fact that Dean and Sam have both been killed over the course of the series certainly seems to indicate as much. And Ellen already dodged one bullet at the end of season 2. But on the other hand, it wouldn't have been such a bad thing to have a mother-daughter duo hang around and serve as a counterpart to the brothers' own relationship; as it stands, they're just one more subject for the Whiny Winchesters to wangst about.


Dexter: Rita Morgan

HOW: The Trinity Killer's last victim.

WHY: Based on the hype, Rita's murder was designed to be a "game-changing" moment - something that would represent a complete break from the status quo of the first four seasons.

JUSTIFIED? Given that this was the moment that pushed me to put everything else on hold and blog, I obviously have strong feelings about Rita's death. Now, I'll admit that I was not her biggest fan this season: she was obnoxious, overbearing and seemingly incapable of doing anything by herself. Her role was pretty much the same as always, the obstacle that complicates Dexter's plans and forces him to get creative. And I'll admit that there were quite a few moments this season where I wished she'd just take the kids and leave Dexter alone.

This, though... this was absolutely brutal. The worst part is that thanks to the season's opening scene, we know exactly what Arthur Mitchell did to her. In front of her infant son. It's almost too unsettling to imagine.

The question, then, is whether changing the status quo justifies the use of such an overfamiliar cliche as Women in Refrigerators. This was a show where the alternate scenario could've played out. Instead, Rita dies as she lived: not defined on her own merits but only in terms of her importance to Dexter.


Weeds: Pilar Zuazo

HOW: After overhearing her threats against him and his brother, Shane Botwin bashes Pilar's brains in with a croquet mallet, killing her instantly.

WHY: Shane's mental instability had been building up for years, as far back as season 3; killing Pilar in cold blood was the climax.

JUSTIFIED: Yes, but with a caveat: this was actually the first time Nancy had had to deal with a female antagonist, much less the woman behind last season's Big Bad. I loved the contrast between the two, Nancy as the failed wannabe crimelord whose kids either ignore or deliberately undermine her, and Pilar as the drug baroness who effortlessly intimidates people like Esteban and Guillermo. And I was waiting for Nancy to step up - having Shane do it for her felt a bit like cheating.


Dollhouse: Madeline Costley/Mellie/November

HOW: Manipulated by the Rossum Corporation and captured by the DC Dollhouse.

WHY: Best guess? We've known since the start of season 2 that budget cuts and other considerations reduced Amy Acker and Miracle Laurie to guest-star status (Saunders still hasn't turned up after going AWOL in the premiere). Given that the series is being cancelled at the end of this season, I suppose this is just the quickest way to wrap up that particular loose end.

JUSTIFIED: Not really, no - the episode is edited in such a way that you don't see her being kidnapped and you don't know what happens to her: is she wiped clean again? Imprinted with an alternate personality? Not the most satisfying conclusion to her story, especially since said story had already had a proper ending last season.


There are a few more examples I can think of, but they're pretty much along the same lines.

Now, to be absolutely clear, I'm not advocating a position where female characters (or minority characters, for that matter) be preserved in amber and kept safe from any kind of dramatic upheaval. Far from it: Ronald D. Moore screwed the pooch in many, many ways during the fourth season of "Battlestar Galactica", but putting a bullet in Felix Gaeta after his failed mutiny wasn't one of them. Neither was Laura Roslin's death. And while I was annoyed at the loss of Ianto Jones, it wasn't because he was gay: rather, he was the most interesting of the three Torchwood survivors in terms of his backstory and whatever secrets he still kept. A lot more could've been done with him, and killing him off just so the villain can make a point? Pretty much a waste.

And that, I think, is what's been bothering me with these (and other) characters: not that they were killed or removed at all, but that their end only served to push other characters forward. To choose a more successful example, Jean Grey didn't die (the first time) to put Cyclops in the spotlight - after all, Claremont ended up reducing Scott's role in the team after that.

I guess what I'd like is for writers to exercise a bit more thought before pulling a Fridge stunt; it's far too easy, and far too common, and might cause more harm than good in the long term.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Savage Critics: The Big Goodbye


Friday, October 2, 2009

Exhaling deeply...

I just quit the Savage Critics.

Anyone who'd been keeping up with my comics-related posts (or lack thereof) over the past few months can probably guess why, and Hibbs willing I'll do a goodbye post over there that sums things up.

Even though I know it's the right thing for me to do right now, I'm still feeling the loss - I'd been following the Savage Critics back when Graeme McMillan was single-handedly terrorizing the Big Two with Fanboy Rampage, and when I got the invitation to join the group... well, I still consider it a huge honor to have been considered one of them. My feelings towards comics in general may have changed, but Brian, Jeff, Graeme, Abhay, Joe, Tucker, Dick, Chris, Sean, David and Douglas will always have my utmost respect and admiration.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Game Reviews: Iron Roses, Mata Hari

Well, if I spend all my time on thesis-related work I'll likely fuse every neuron in my brain. So today we'll be looking at two contemporary adventure games, Iron Roses and Mata Hari.

The adventure game genre has always been something of a double-edged sword. It's ideal for telling stories because adventure games typically require only a minimum amount of interaction with the player, which means you can sit back (for the most part) and let the plot unfold without being distracted by gameplay mechanisms.

Unfortunately, this also means that once the story's over you have little reason to replay the game. Even if multiple endings are possible, the narrative experience just won't change that much. Contrast this to strategy games where any tactic can change the course of a battle, or RPGs that let you develop characters a dozen different ways, resulting in a dozen different play-throughs, and so on.

In the olden days, the Sierra paradigm dealt with this problem by really making you work to complete the story. Oh, all you had to do was click the PICK UP command and then click on the fire extinguisher... but if you didn't get the insulated gloves from the shelf three hours ago, a burst of static electricity will detonate the extinguisher as soon as you touch it, and the foam will suffocate you. Sierra games were particularly brutal: you could die eighty times before leaving the first screen, or waste half an hour pixel-hunting for a coin on a beach, or get stuck in a no-win scenario because you didn't pick up a key item and you can't backtrack.

The only way to effectively cope with this (without using a walkthrough) would be to constantly save and reload, inching your way towards victory through a very lengthy series of trials and errors. This had the effect of making Sierra games seem at least three times longer than they actually were, and since the death scenes were usually humorous, you didn't mind so much when your character turned left instead of right and literally fell off the screen. Unless you forgot to save, in which case you'd be very frustrated.

With Sierra's decline, a more forgiving trend emerged, pioneered by companies such as LucasArts ("Sam & Max Hit The Road"): gamers weren't punished for making a mistake or overlooking an important inventory item. You could always go back to a previous area and search more thoroughly. This allowed the story to flow more smoothly; it also made the genre much less challenging, which in turn made them much shorter.

"Iron Roses" and "Mata Hari" are examples of the current model in the adventure genre: the gameplay is largely simplistic in that someone tells you to do something, you go to the appropriate location, you do it, you report back and receive a reward of some kind that moves you a step closer to the endgame. I'm probably generous in estimating that neither game takes more than six hours from start to finish.

To be fair, both games try to pad things out with mandatory mini-games: whether it's waiting tables or performing a dance, the plot pauses at certain points to break up the "fetch quest" routine. In theory, it's a good idea that can maintain a player's interest if the core game is too monotonous; in practice, these mini-games just aren't compelling enough.

"Iron Roses" tells the story of Alex, a sympathetic young woman who wants one last crack at fame and fortune. Her band, the Iron Roses, disbanded years ago due to the drunken antics of their faux-British lead singer; the group split up and went their separate ways. When Alex finds out about an upcoming Battle of the Bands, she is determined to reunite the band (sans lead singer) and reclaim their lost glory.

It's a solid, down-to-earth premise that works nicely with the adventure game format: to reassemble the Iron Roses, Alex has to run around town from one ex-member to another, helping them out with their problems so they'll have time to hear her out. There's even a bit of sardonic lampshade-hanging regarding the fact that Alex is expected to solve everyone else's issues before they're willing to lift a finger for her. Being a game about a rock band, it's worth noting that the game's soundtrack is quite good and helps set the mood during various scenes.

Unfortunately, as I said above, the story's dreadfully abbreviated, and leaves some awkward plot holes: Alex's roommate Lynn disappears after the second act, and there's a last-minute development with her father that seems to come out of nowhere. I would've liked to see more of the band's past rather than just be told how awesome they were and how John (the lead singer) ruined everything; I rarely encourage padding, but it might've done more good than harm here. And though the ending tries to loop back to the beginning, it actually falls short by not showing us whether the Iron Roses actually win the contest. Considering that it's the lynchpin of everything Alex does, that's a rather striking omission.

"Mata Hari" faces an entirely different problem: it's too sedate. Based on the life story of the infamous Mata Hari - now immortalized as the archetypal femme fatale - the game promises intrigue and adventure, but you'll spend most of your time either talking to people or playing some rather dull minigames. I was actually surprised at how placid this game turned out to be: granted, it's probably a more realistic depiction of Margaretha Zelle's biography, but that doesn't make it especially entertaining.

The game also features a rather poorly-constructed quasi-RPG system wherein you can perform certain acts to increase Mata's spycraft, wealth and skill, either through minigames or uncovering hidden objects. You'd be forgiven for ignoring it altogether, except that higher final scores unlock alternate endings regarding Mata Hari's ultimate fate. The bigger problem is that you'd have to spend an absurd amount of time - far more than is really necessary for the story - to get more than halfway there. And there's really only the one minigame per category: to attain wealth you have to play a minigame with a hilariously subdued recreation of Mata Hari's provocative dances, and to raise your skill you need to evade agents while running up and down train tracks across Europe (not as much fun as it sounds, believe me).

Both these games left me feeling like they hadn't achieved much with the tools they had: decent graphics, (mostly) solid voice acting, strong premises... but they fall short. And maybe the problem does have to do with challenge, or lack thereof. If the puzzles are easily solved, and the plot just isn't lengthy enough to hold the player's attention for very long, the solution isn't to throw in a bunch of tangentially-related minigames: clearly, that's not helping. Crimson Cow's "A Vampyre Story" was a much stronger game than either of these, simply by virtue of having a really good story that - while segmented across several games - still accomplishes a lot more than either of the two we've looked at today...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Apropos of absolutely nothing...

I didn't make it to "Star Trek" while it was in theatres, but I've already seen at least one way in which it's superior to the original:











Saturday, July 25, 2009

SDCC Commentary

* One of Marvel's many confounding tendencies is their occasional imitation of a DC Big Event via a Small Event. Last time it was "Identity Disc", now it's the upcoming X-Men crossover "Necrosha" which apparently involves the undead wreaking havoc. The fact that I automatically thought of "Blackest Night" even though I'm not reading "Blackest Night" is probably not a good sign. Still, if Craig Kyle and Christoper Yost are to be believed, it's one of those crossovers where each series tells a self-contained story - a fortunate choice, given how "Messiah War" turned out.

* "X-Men Noir" is coming back for a sequel miniseries. I liked the first one, might end up checking this out.

* Gerard Way has two upcoming projects coming out at Dark Horse: a third volume of "Umbrella Academy" (always welcome) and a new series called "Killjoy". Now, Way did not do himself any favors by calling it a love letter to the '90s, since the '90s are already back with their damned ugly foilograms... On the other hand, I was reserved about "Umbrella Academy" too - a comic from the lead singer of My Chemical Romance? Parents, hide your razors and black hair dye! - and it turned out to be one of the best stories Dark Horse has published in years.

* I'm expecting a hail of posts around the blogosphere titled "It's A Miracle!" Yes, Marvel has finally completed its acquisition of Marvelman/Miracleman, perhaps the greatest "lost epic" in mainstream comics. And this would be a coup worth celebrating, but there are a few caveats that bother me. For starters, I'm sorry, but this is Marvel Comics we're talking about: much as I'd love to be optimistic, this wouldn't be the first time they made a big splash at a convention and then utterly failed to come through, as I'm sure any fan of Stephen King recalls - they went from "Stephen King is writing comics" to "Stephen King is overseeing comics" to "Stephen King's assistant is co-writing comics". Here, too, any celebration may be premature: it seems Marvel's initial plan is to reprint the Mick Anglo Silver Age material, which is... well, it's Silver Age material. And not particularly good examples at that. It's the Moore/Gaiman saga everyone's waited for all these years.

Which raises another interesting question: am I to believe that Marvel, once it gains access to those specific issues, will reprint them faithfully? They're going to publish the childbirthing scene in "The Red King Syndrome"? The destruction of London in "Olympus"? Or are we going to start hearing about quiet censorship, "minor" tweaking of panels and so on? It seems unthinkable, but so does the notion that Marvel - having cowered in the face of possible controversy in the past - might balk at some of the themes Moore explored in his trilogy.

So... I don't know. Not breaking out the champagne yet. It would be wonderful if we got the whole hexalogy out there - "A Dream of Flying", "The Red King Syndrome", "Olympus", "The Golden Age", "The Silver Age" and "The Dark Age" - but I've seen Marvel drop the ball way, way too many times to get as worked up about this as I would have two or three years ago. We'll have to see what happens...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

In the beginning God created CANCELLED DUE TO LOW SALES


Okay. Decision time. I think it's becoming counter-productive to pick up new monthlies these days - I feel like a complete idiot for buying the first three issues of Jeff Parker's "Exiles" given its just-announced cancellation at issue 6. It feels like bad faith on Marvel's part: they got me to pay for a fragment of a story and they don't feel at all obligated to see it through.

I'll admit this is a personal reaction, because I did get invested in Parker's story (what little he had written so far), and that's just another dead-end now.

All of which is basically justifying the trade-waiting mindset; yes, I've heard the counterarguments that waiting for the trade lowers monthly sales and ultimately leads to cancellation... and yet for all the Big Two whine and cry about it, they're largely responsible for this situation by not supporting the lower-tier, Not Even Remotely Connected To Norman Osborn books at all.

So barring a few potential exceptions in the immediate future, I'm putting a moratorium on new series. I'm utterly sick and tired of having the rug pulled out for under my feet.

Where does this leave my position at "The Savage Critics"? Well, the webcomic reviews don't seem very popular, so I might need to think about a new approach. We'll see.

On a somewhat-related note, my pull list as of July 2009 (alphabetically):

Cable: I like the premise, but after a year I'm still not completely won over yet. This one's on thin ice, as it were.

Captain America: No complaints about Brubaker yet...

Daredevil: With a tremendous amount of hesitation, I'll stick around for the start of Andy Diggle's run, just to see how he handles it. If it works, great, I'll keep reading. If not, #500's my stop.

Fables / Jack of Fables: Running strong, no reason for me to drop either of them.

Immortal Iron Fist: Has this been cancelled? I can't seem to find any information on what comes after the Immortal Weapons mini...

The Sword: Like "Girls" before it, this latest series from the Luna Brothers has a set conclusion and we're already in the final act of the story. It's rather light, as these things go, but I'll see it through.

X-Factor: Loving what Peter David's doing with this series, as it's unpredictable and a lot of fun, rewarding both long-time readers and the guys who only know Trevor Fitzroy from Wikipedia.

X-Men Legacy: Depends entirely on what direction Carey takes after the Dark Reign tie-in - which I've duly skipped. Don't care, won't read.

And... that's it. Eight series, a third of what I was following back in the Jemas days. And I never thought I'd miss the Jemas days. Ever.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Episode in Review: Dollhouse - Epitaph One

I wrapped up my season review of Dollhouse with the following comment:

"I suppose the question of whether I'll be watching season 2 is moot, given the vultures circling over this show, but I'm going to have to chalk this up as another disappointment from Camp Whedon. And those are really starting to pile up. I do hope he comes out with something in the near future to remind me why I used to love his work..."

As it turns out, I was wrong on several counts. For starters, "Dollhouse" has been renewed for a second season. This was quite a shock to me, given that the networks have been utterly merciless with genre TV over the past year or two given the cancellations of "Pushing Daisies" (no, still not over that), "Middleman", "The Unusuals", "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles", "Reaper", et cetera ad nauseum.

And then there's "Epitaph One".

For those who aren't familiar with the background, FOX initially commissioned thirteen episodes for the series' first season, but this included the unaired pilot - which Whedon famously discarded after completion - so that, even though the cast and crew had already produced "Epitaph One" as a coda to the first season, the network refused to air it, with only vague promises that it would eventually do so at some unspecified date in the future.

It should be said that this isn't yet another case of network interference derailing a narrative: for all intents and purposes, "Omega" is the finale. "Epitaph One" is an afterword.

It's also the best thing Whedon's done since "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog".

There's a certain habit I seem to be developing with regards to Joss Whedon, where I'm continually disappointed by his work only for him to create something that utterly astounds me, seemingly out of nowhere, perpetually redeeming my opinion of him as it were. After the Noxon years of "Buffy" he regained a lot of my faith "Dr. Horrible", lost it again during the unfortunate X-Men/Runaways/Buffy Season 8 Let-Down Hat Trick, and "Dollhouse" was inconsistent to the point of utter frustration: a return to form in some respects, a bitter failure in others. But if the second season stays in the ballpark of this episode, all slights will be forgiven and forgotten.

Why is this episode so great? At its core, "Epitaph One" is an expression of Whedon's greatest strength as a creator (and, I think, the reason he's so popular): the man takes chances. He puts real risk into the creative process and isn't afraid to change gears for the sake of the story. Case in point, our coda begins a decade in the future, with an entirely new cast, in a world gone utterly mad due to public use of Dollhouse technology. We'd seen hints of the potential dangers before, but only in generalized, undefined ways: for Mag, Zone and their companions, it's reality. Use a radio and you might catch a stray signal that will wipe your mind, or imprint you with a psychotic personality.

In the midst of this chaos, the survivors accidentally discover the original Dollhouse and start piecing together the mysteries of the past. We learn a bit about what happened to various characters (Topher's fate, in particular, is heartbreaking, and that's some more Whedon magic right there: I never thought I'd feel anything but disgust for Topher, and all it took to change that was one scene). After a few twists, one of which left my jaw hanging (you'll know it when you see it), the episode ends on an open note that allows for quite a few possibilities. Will the second season continue from this point and explore the post-apocalyptic landscape, making this episode the mother of all deck-clearing exercises? Or is this the series finale and upcoming episodes will retroactively build towards it?

Either way, I'm on pins and needles for more, which certainly wasn't the case after "Omega". Good show, Mr. Whedon.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 7

Back with what may just be the most ambitious fan film to date: Lord of the Rings: The Hunt for Gollum courtesy of Chris Bouchard and Independent Online Cinema.

If we can agree that emulation is at least part of the agenda when making fan films, it stands to reason that the bigger the source material, the harder it'll be for low-budget fan work to reach even an approximation of that level. Rob Caves' "Hidden Frontier" universe used a lot of CGI and green-screen to resemble "Star Trek", visually if not ideologically, though the extent of its success is entirely debatable (as are most aspects of this particular field: YMMV is practically the First Commandment).

"The Hunt for Gollum" sets its sights much higher, as it's based on Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which remains (in my opinion) one of the most impressive cinematic spectacles in recent history. This 40-minute fan film is set during a specific ellipsis in "The Fellowship of the Ring", when Gandalf returns to the Shire for the last time and tells Frodo that Gollum - the only other person who knew the location of the Ring - was captured by Sauron's forces.

Bouchard is working with two sources here: Jackson and Tolkien (specifically Tolkien's appendices to "Lord of the Rings"). The plot of the film is dictated by the appendices, wherein Gollum escapes Mordor only to be captured by Aragorn and imprisoned by the Elves (followed by a second escape). Visually, though, it's very much derived from the Jackson films: the Orcs have Cockney accents, Adrian Webster has that whole Grimy Badass look down pat as Aragorn, and there's considerable emphasis placed on the lovely natural setting.

But there are a few problems here, primarily to do with Gollum. Lacking the resources to sustain a prolonged CGI depiction of Gollum, Bouchard uses a combination of extreme long-shots and keeping Gollum in Aragorn's sack for most of the film, screaming and howling and babbling to himself. To be honest? It's not the most creative solution. Sure, realistically speaking it'd be a bit much to expect competition with New Line Cinema, and yet I can't help thinking that it diminishes Gollum's presence. I'm also fairly certain that some split-second shots in "The Hunt for Gollum" were cut-and-pasted from "Fellowship of the Ring", though I wouldn't swear on it.

I suppose the question that came to mind when I saw this was "Why?" There's no shortage of "side-stories" to tell in Middle-Earth - why choose to fill in a blank that, on the whole, isn't that interesting? Aragorn hunts down Gollum, kills some Orcs, catches Gollum and brings him to the Elves, and that's about it. Given that the stylistic/visual recreation is spot-on, I guess I would've preferred a story with a bit more meat to it.

Still, I have to fall back on a phrase that's probably becoming familiar if you've been following this column: there's something to be said for ambition. As Carlos Pedraza once pointed out during a discussion of "Hidden Frontier", there's a case to be made that fan films are in a state of "reciprocal evolution" - creators learn from their peers' mistakes and successes, and thanks to the medium of the Internet it's a lot quicker and a lot easier than Hollywood's learning curve. Pedraza attributed at least part of James Cawley's success with "Phase II" to the earlier presence of "Hidden Frontier", specifically the fact that there was a popular rough template that could be (and needed to be) adapted and refined for better results. And if "The Hunt for Gollum" represents a new starting point for future Tolkien fan-creators... well, they could do a lot worse.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Book Review: "Star Wars - Death Star" by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry

I have to admit to being a bit skeptical when this novel came out - at first glance, it seemed like one of those "Untold Tale" types that suffer from either too many or too few continuity plugs, and which ultimately overcomplicate the original story to the point where you're really better off without it.

But Michael Reaves and Steve Perry have actually done quite a good job here by exploiting a legitimate gap in the narrative: the Death Star is already complete and operational when "A New Hope" begins, so the novel starts with the station still under construction and runs all the way through to the Battle of Yavin.

What makes this book so interesting is the fact that it omits the Rebel perspective entirely, and only occasionally focuses on familiar faces like Vader or Tarkin. Instead, Reaves and Perry assemble a cast of no less than nine protagonists, all original characters whose separate plotlines intertwine while staying just outside the scope of the film's main events. Sometimes they even influence those events in subtle ways - for example, the attempt to rescue Princess Leia succeeds in part because librarian Atour Riten secretly overrides the security locks on the detention center elevators.

This sort of thing isn't revisionism per se, but it's still an attention to minutiae that probably wouldn't justify an entire novel. However, as it turns out, the book's not really about the Death Star at all. Which is fortunate given that you probably know what happened to it. Rather, it's about a group of people either in service to the Empire or indifferent towards it, their exposure to the true monstrosity of Palpatine and his servants, and their response. Reaves and Perry stress that none of our protagonists think the Empire will ever use the Death Star (theoretically, its mere existence is enough to end the war) but of course, they're proven wrong. And in the aftermath of Alderaan's destruction - finally given due gravitas - the various clusters of characters start to come together and form a conspiracy. And while they're not the most profound bunch, our heroes are sympathetic enough that I became invested in their stories, which is more than I can say for about ninety percent of the Expanded Universe's population.

"Death Star" is a welcome alternative to the traditional depiction of the Empire as a faceless, anonymous hive-mind mass represented by singular villains like Vader or the Emperor; there have been "street-level" stories about the Empire before, but the perspective was always from the outside, someone who was victimized by Imperial aggression. This may actually be the first story in over thirty years that humanizes the Empire. And that's no small feat indeed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

VGM: Great Indeed

OverClocked Remix recently posted a vocal mix of Final Fantasy IX's "Rose of May", by katethegreat19 (AKA Kate Covington). The name is appropriate: it's a very impressive arrangement, as Covington has an excellent voice and her Celtic-esque style fits the song perfectly. Turns out she's done quite a few covers from the "Final Fantasy" series, all worth listening to:

Suteki da ne
Aeris' Theme
You're Not Alone
Hymn of the Fayth
Melodies of Life
The Place I'll Return To Someday

Saturday, May 23, 2009

More Game Reviews

I wasn't much surprised to learn that A Vampyre Story was created by a group of developers who'd previously worked at LucasArts: it's very much a part of the tradition established by adventure games like the "Monkey Island" series, "Day of the Tentacle" and "Sam & Max Hit The Road". You play the part of Mona, a French opera singer abducted by the vampire Baron von Shrowdy. Turns out Shrowdy did more than just kidnap her, as she can now turn into a bat and the sight of a crucifix sends her into convulsions; but Mona remains in denial about her situation, insisting that she's simply developed a taste for warm, salty, thick red Merlot. Along with her wisecracking sidekick, a bat named Froderick, Mona has to find a way out of Shrowdy's castle and into the nearby village, in the hopes of curing her "condition".

If it weren't for the graphics, I'd think I was playing a game from the mid-'90s. And that's not a negative comment: "A Vampyre Story" plays like something from the height of the adventure game genre. It's got an amusing script, it's comfortable to play, you can't get permanently stuck, and the puzzles range from easy to complicated without tipping over into You'd Damn Well Better Have A Walkthrough. Voice talent is a bit of column A and a bit of column B: though Mona herself is unbearably shrill, the Jersey-accented crypt rats and Shrowdy's channeling of Peter Lorre (among others) suit the comedic atmosphere perfectly.

The drawback? Length: the story stops at an arbitrary point, just as things are getting interesting. Now, this was ostensibly done to set up the sequel, and it's a tactic that seems to be getting more and more popular ("Starcraft II" will apparently have only one campaign, with expansion packs to follow), but as a result what you get here is an incomplete story with only two settings: Shrowdy's castle and the village. Granted, both locations are large enough to keep you busy, but I seriously doubt you'll get any closure once you complete the last puzzle. It might be better to hold off on playing this game for now, at least until the sequel comes out (no release date yet).

And now, a Microids marathon! Without realizing it, I ended up playing three adventure games from this French company in rapid succession.

Let's start with 2002's Syberia. As Kate Walker, an American lawyer, you must set out on a journey across Eastern Europe to find the long-lost heir of a toy factory, uncovering the legacies he left behind in the process.

Visually, "Syberia" is absolutely beautiful: designer Benoit Sokal went all-out to create stunningly detailed environments, from the pristine university of Barrockstadt to the desolate, rusted ruins of Komkolzgrad. Each location leads you to discover pre-eletronic mechanical wonders created by Hans Voralberg, the object of your quest - wonders that are often as meticulously detailed as the settings.

By the time you complete the second area, though, you'll probably figure out the game's biggest weakness: there's minimal character interaction. Kate spends most of her time alone, occasionally receiving a phone call from her friends and family back in New York (these ultimately prove to be significant to Kate's character arc, such as it is, but they're scattered at random intervals). The only other character you consistently interact with is Oscar, an automaton designed to run the train you're riding - and the whole point of his character is that he can't deviate from his programming, so... yeah. Not exactly the most engaging partner. Every other character is just a stock piece that's meant to present (or complicate) whatever objective you're working on; this becomes especially blatant in the epilogue, when Sergei does an abrupt about-face just because the game demands one last puzzle before proceeding. Despite lovely graphics, the story rings a little hollow, especially once the whole Syberia/Mammoth Island bit works its way in (wait, we're supposed to take that seriously?).

Post Mortem, released in 2003, is a step in the right direction: it's a murder mystery with an engaging protagonist straight out of the noir tradition. Gus McPherson was a private eye working in New York until something bad happened (we never learn more about his past, which is appropriate given the atmosphere). He moved to Paris and tried to become a painter, at which point Sophia Blake, a typical femme fatale, knocks on Gus' door and demands he solve the grotesque murder of her sister Ruby.

So far so good... but right at the very beginning of the game you're going to notice two very annoying flaws in the gameplay. First, there is no way to skip dialogue or cinematics. At all. This might not seem like such a big deal until you take it in conjunction with the other problem: the dialogue tree.

Like many adventure games, your interactions with the various characters of "Post Mortem" take the form of dialogue trees: you choose a line of dialogue out of several, and the conversation continues in that vein. You're usually able to go back and select other lines in the course of the talk, to get as much information out of the other character as you can.

Not so with "Post Mortem". To begin with, there's minimal causality in terms of the choices you're offered: you can actually ask Sophia about her sister's murder before she even tells you about the case. And there's no way to backtrack: if you say the wrong thing, or ask the wrong question at the wrong time, you'll have to find the information another way. (Which, I suppose, is a nice counterpoint to this problem: you can make mistakes, but the game will always offer you different opportunities to regain ground.) Since you can save anywhere, you might think that saving before any conversation would be the best way to properly navigate the dialogue tree... but since you can't skip dialogue, you'll be dooming yourself to repeating certain lines over and over again until you figure out the ideal sequence of options.

Unpleasant? Try doing all this with a first-person mouse-controlled camera. The good news is you'll never have reason to look up or down; the bad news? Try finding a pencil at a hundred paces. Not as bad as a pixel hunt, but getting there.

The plot holds its own for the first half of the game or so: as he investigates the various characters connected to the murder, Gus discovers the prime suspect is Jacques Helloin, a private detective who was working a very similar case right before Ruby's death. When you find Helloin, the game switches perspectives, allowing you to play as Helloin in an extended flashback, allowing you to basically set up the clues that Gus will later uncover. It's an interesting approach to the conventions of the mystery genre - it actually reminded me of "Fahrenheit" in that you were playing both the "criminal" and the detectives tracking him down.

The game also reminded me of "Fahrenheit" because an absurd supernatural twist comes out of nowhere shortly after the Helloin segment. Psychic visions, alchemy, an immortal who - surprise surprise - has connections to the Knights Templar (and if I never play another adventure game referencing the Knights Templar I'll be a happy woman), and a magical statue that transfers your mind into another body. Rather tellingly, the writers of "Post Mortem" try to have their cake and eat it too by providing an alternative, realistic explanation (ie: maybe the bad guy's just crazy and it's all in his head), but it's kind of late for that. Like SF, mysticism doesn't really work with the detective/noir genre (at the very least, I haven't seen it performed successfully yet), so the story just goes off the rails.

The same is emphatically not true of the sequel, Still Life. A major improvement over "Post Mortem", "Still Life" splits its story between Gus in 1920's Prague and his granddaughter Victoria in present-day Chicago, as they both seem to be investigating the same serial killer. As a protagonist, Victoria's quite entertaining, with a sharp tongue and enough wit to make you want to pursue every possible dialogue option with her. Gone is the awkward camera and the impossible-to-navigate dialogue tree: when speaking to other characters, left-clicking is for matters pertaining to the investigation (ie: what you need to hear to proceed with the game), while right-clicking (when available) will tell you a little bit more about the character - for example, Claire might mention some trouble she's having with her daughter. Not really relevant to the game plot, but it certainly gives you the option of fleshing out the cast.

The story is divided into seven chapters alternating between Victoria and Gus. I was quite happy to see that while Gus still suffers from utterly irrelevant psychic flashes, the possibility that he and Vic are chasing the same murderer is never raised. No hocus pocus here, thank you very much. A lot of supplementary exposition is relegated to the journals - in fact, Victoria can access both her own logs and Gus', which makes the growing similarities between their cases all the more evident.

The puzzles are much more complex here than in any predecessor of "Still Life" - lots of sliding tiles, navigating a robot through a laser maze, using fingerprints and Luminol to gather evidence... though, again, it's impossible to get yourself stuck, you might find yourself spending a lot of time trying to pick a complex lock by holding various tumblers apart at different intervals. Quite challenging.

Bad news: as with "A Vampyre Story", the conclusion of "Still Life" is quite unsatisfying, with countless loose ends left up in the air. Good news: "Still Life 2" was released a few weeks ago. I'm hoping to pick it up by next Friday so that I can continue Victoria's story...

So it looks like the adventure genre is alive and kicking! Good to know.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Dollhouse: Season in Review

I'd love to say that sticking through to the end of the season has earned me some great insight into the nature - and problems - of "Dollhouse"... but the truth is, I'm as frustrated now as I was at the end of the pilot.

It's all well and good to run a relatively bold experiment in serial narrative: can you identify with a protagonist whose basic personality changes every episode? Can you have continuity without memory? Conceptually speaking, these are certainly interesting avenues for exploration.

Unfortunately, the sum has turned out to be considerably less than its parts.

The central moral issue (if you can call it that) in "Dollhouse" has to do, unsurprisingly, with the Dollhouse itself, and the way its Actives are used. Throughout the season, we were basically given three points of view represented by Paul Ballard, Adelle DeWitt and Topher Brink. Ballard sees the Dollhouse as an evil institution enslaving and pimping helpless victims, but he's also a slightly obsessive freak with a one-track mind whose investigate skills are, shall we say, slightly less than impressive. DeWitt wants to believe she's helping people, but more often than not things go horribly wrong (and she's kind of a hypocrite too). And finally, Topher doesn't much care about the moral implications of his work: he just likes playing with shiny toys and human brains.

In other words, there probably is a moral quandary here worth exploring, but none of the characters are capable of expressing that properly. And rather than remain neutral, the show seems to vacillate between taking the Dollhouse's side (ie: the traumatic revelations about Echo, Victor, November and Sierra in "Echoes", as well as Echo's innate desire to protect the Dollhouse in "Spy in the House of Love") and condemning it (because November's fate in the finale certainly looks like liberation in a uplifting sense).

The reason this is such a problem is because the Moral Issue is really the only thing that could even remotely qualify as an ongoing storyline. There's very little plot consistency: at best, the events of an episode will have consequences in the next one, but that's about it. Alpha is introduced, built up, and then forgotten until the penultimate episode; the threat of Echo snapping seems to appear and disappear whenever it's convenient, and so on. There was no sense of structure at all; the first five episodes seemed devoted entirely to world-building, with Whedon asking viewers to stick around a bit longer until the good stuff would kick in. And yes, later episodes improved somewhat, but none of the glaring flaws in this series were corrected (or, apparently, even noticed at all).

As for the season (possibly series) finale, "Omega"... well, I will say this for Whedon - he's still very good with misdirection, as the whole Whiskey revelation proves. And I enjoyed much of the dialogue. But now, a plea to all TV networks: can we have just one science-fiction series that doesn't engage in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo?! As soon as Ballard started talking about souls (and, guess what, he seems to be proven right given what Echo becomes) I just rolled my eyes and strongly resisted the urge to stop watching. Enough with the metaphors, enough with the childish navel-gazing, enough with invoking higher powers: just once, I would like to see a story that unfolds without invoking questions of divine intervention and the human spirit (literally).

I suppose the question of whether I'll be watching season 2 is moot, given the vultures circling over this show, but I'm going to have to chalk this up as another disappointment from Camp Whedon. And those are really starting to pile up. I do hope he comes out with something in the near future to remind me why I used to love his work...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Season in Review: Heroes S3

I've probably made my feelings regarding "Heroes" rather clear by now, but it bears reiteration: this series has degenerated to such an extent that I jumped ship before the season ended. I've only ever done that once before, with "Lost"; typically, if a series jumps the shark, I hang on until the season finale on the outside chance it'll work out. If it's a show I've really enjoyed in the past, I might even hang around longer - I made it all the way to the series finale of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", despite the fact that every single week the show would leave me disappointed and frustrated at best, outraged at worst (Nathan Fillion as a misogynistic priest who won't shut up? Gee, thanks, Marti).

But "Heroes"... there's something about the way it's gone downhill that got to me. If I take a step back and look at all three seasons, a pattern seems to emerge as follows:

For the most part, the first season holds together under scrutiny both in terms of the Myth Arc and with regards to individual subplots. I'll grant that some characters' storylines were more satisfactory than others, but every plot development I can recall at the moment paid off in the end. And it was a good story, full of twists and drama and energy.

The second season still has a largely consistent Myth Arc - the story of Adam Monroe and the Elder Heroes - in that plot elements are set up, executed and followed upon. Characters still have reasonably straightforward directions. The difference here is that the story wasn't very good, especially in comparison to its predecessor: Adam wasn't as threatening as Sylar, the new characters (with the exception of Elle) were dull, and the backstory of the Primatech founders was painfully abbreviated and didn't add up to anything substantial. It was still coherent at this point, but not very engaging at all.

And then we come to the third season, in which the question I kept asking myself every week was "What's the point of this?" Because think about it: what was the point of Hiro's trip to India? What was the point of Ando getting powers? What was the point of Alex? What was the point of anything relating to Sylar whether it's Luke, his father or whatever? What was the point of Coyote Sands and Alice Shaw? I'm not even talking about the first half of the season, with Pinehearst and Arthur Petrelli and that insufferable Spider-Mohinder subplot. The reason this season was so awful - the reason I just couldn't stand to watch it anymore - is that not only were the individual elements of rather poor quality, but they didn't add up at all either. It's like a very ugly jigsaw puzzle except none of the pieces fit together anyway. Things happen, and then other things happen, and characters just go where the plot demands, and there's no apparent rhyme or reason to any of it.

If that reminds you of a certain non-reality island-related series... well, yes. And it's not a flattering comparison at all.

So I'm done with "Heroes". And I'm sorry about that, but not because of anything they've done over the last two seasons - rather, I'm sorry that it fell so far and wasted so much of its potential. Time to move on...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

In Memoriam

Goodbye, Ms. Arthur. Cliche though it may be to say this, thank you for being a friend.

Game Reviews

Ever since I had my PC upgraded last month, I've been dipping my toe in higher-end games that didn't work with my previous system (that's one reason why I've spent so much time on DOS-era material).

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows is the latest from Marvel, a third-person action game with a bit of a twist. Once a certain plot-related event is completed (fairly early in the game), you're given the ability to switch at will between Spider-Man's classic suit and the Black Symbiote. Unlike "X-Men Legends 2", where the difference in "skins" was cosmetic, your appearance has a real impact on how you play. In his original outfit, Spider-Man is fast and uses web-related attacks; the Black Suit slows you down but gives you a massive boost to strength, as well as the ability to project tentacles that can snag a target from across the street.

The graphics are astonishingly detailed, with a real sense of scale attached to the game's version of Manhattan: you get the feeling that every street and building in the city is right there, along with some famiilar fictional locations like the Daily Bugle and Stark Tower (continuity alert: it's got that bizarre Sentry-related hologram on top of it, which probably dates the game more than Marvel would like). It's the most realistic virtual representation of Manhattan that I've ever seen.

Gameplay can be a little confusing at first, but only because this is the closest emulation I've ever seen of Spider-Man as he appears in the comics: swift, agile, able to take down a dozen criminals without touching the ground, swinging between skyscrapers and bouncing off flagpoles... some battle sequences even take place entirely in midair. It's very easy to lose your sense of direction and get entirely turned around, especially since the camera changes angles every time Spidey sticks to a wall and starts climbing. But once you get the hang of it, it's a lot of fun.

Which isn't to say the system's entirely without kinks. For starters, the auto-targeting feature has an annoying habit of locking onto random objects regardless of what you're actually aiming for; in a regular fight, that's not such a big deal, but having your attacks directed at minions in the middle of a boss fight? Irritating.

Another problem has to do with the various missions you receive throughout the game. You'll initially want to complete every objective, even the optional ones, since you're rewarded with points you can use to unlock additional skills. But it doesn't take much to max out both suits' capabilities, and you don't have much incentive to follow the "side-quests" after that. It doesn't help that the objectives tend to be repetitive: save 5 civilians, save 20 civilians, save 150 civilians, etc. At some point I just decided to get on with the main assignments.

The plot's not much to write home about, though that's where you'll find the twist I mentioned: after a confusing prologue (later revealed to be a flash-forward), the game starts by pitting you against street gangs and the Kingpin. But the plot takes off in the second act, as Venom starts infecting people with symbiotes and SHIELD responds, turning Manhattan into a war zone.

Here's the interesting thing, though: at various points in the storyline, you're presented with a choice between the Red Path and the Black Path. The Red Path is typical superhero fare: subdue an enemy without excessive violence, choose your long-time girlfriend over your sexy-but-amoral partner, wielding great power with great responsibility, etc. The Black Path sees Spider-Man being corrupted by the power of the Symbiote, gradually becoming darker and darker until he finally starts killing his enemies. The story develops in rather different ways depending on your decisions. There's an alignment meter that charts your current situation, though as far as I can tell the only gameplay-related effect this has is to limit your choice of allies: as you progress through the game, you gain the ability to summon backup in the form of Luke Cage, Moon Knight and Wolverine, as well as Black Cat, Vulture, Rhino and Electro. Obviously, the heroes won't help you if you go dark, and the villains won't turn up if you stick with the good guys.

All in all, it's a fun game; not very long, even with two play-throughs to cover the different paths, but it'll definitely hold your attention while it lasts.

Lord of the Rings: Conquest is also a third-person action game, based primarily on the Peter Jackson films. The player is able to choose from four classes - Warrior, Archer, Scout and Mage - each with his own strengths and weaknesses. You must then navigate various locations seen in both the novels and the films (ie: Rivendell, the Pelennor Fields, the Shire) and follow various objectives; the challenge, of course, is figuring out which class is best suited for those goals. For example, if you have to carry an object from Point A to Point B, your best bet is the Scout, as he can maintain an invisible cloak for a certain amount of time. On the other hand, if you need to fend off waves of enemies in close quarters, you're better off with a Warrior. You can switch classes at various "safe zones" in each level.

Almost every mission unlocks a Hero character as you near its end: these range from Aragorn to Gandalf to Sauron himself. Though these heroes may seem impressive, they're actually just more powerful versions of the pre-existing classes, with largely the same abilities. And, oddly enough, they're just as vulnerable to the various "instant kill" traps as anyone else, so Sauron can get picked up and eaten by an Ent just as easily as a common Orc. Also, only Mages can heal, so if you're stuck with a Hero from another class, you have to be as cautious as you would in regular scenarios. I thought that sort of defeated the purpose of having these heroes, being able to finish various missions with style, but...

Anyway, at first you can only play through the Good campaign, which is basically a retread of the films: you go from Helm's Deep to Moria to Minas Morgul, and finally go up against the Mouth of Sauron at the Black Gate. But once you complete the Good campaign, you unlock its Evil counterpart, an alternate-history version where Frodo dies at Mount Doom and the Nazgul reclaim the One Ring. Revitalized, the forces of Mordor turn the tables on their enemies and sweep across Middle-Earth. Here's another quirk, though: both campaigns rely on cinematic cutscenes taken directly from the films, which means the Evil campaign basically consists of various clips taken out of context. Hugo Weaving's narration helps with that, but it's still kind of a stretch. CGI might've been more appropriate.

Like "Web of Shadows", little effort was put into creating real variety for the missions here: regardless of the campaign, you're pretty much tasked with slaughtering never-ending waves of enemies while moving from Point A to Point B. Again, it's certainly a lot of fun to play, but you won't find much to keep you going after that.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Season in Review: Battlestar Galactica S4

It's taken me a considerable amount of time to get my head together regarding the final season of "Battlestar Galactica"; to be honest, I'm still feeling a bit conflicted regarding the series' conclusion.

I'm always a bit sad when an amazing, well-written series goes downhill. "Heroes" has recently become so insufferable that I've finally dropped it mid-season, which I've only ever done once before ("Lost", towards the end of season 2). For perspective's sake, I stuck by "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the bitter, bitter end, long after it went from bad to offensively bad. I suppose that's my preference for modular storytelling coming to the forefront: if a serial narrative starts to go sour, I'd rather wait for a proper jumping-off point so I can get some kind of closure. This is also a useful approach for older series, because you can avoid the Jumping of the Shark altogether if you know where to stop. Going further back, the end of season 2 was the best place to quit "Party of Five", because it was the happiest ending that miserable family would ever get.

The thing about jumping the shark, though, is that most of the time - especially in television - the downward trend can't be reversed. Once you cross that line, everything just slides further and further down, or it'll move laterally: the sixth season of "Buffy" was nauseating, the seventh was just plain stupid (or maybe I'd just gotten used to the Vortex of Eww by that point, I don't know).

But there's always a measure of consistency, and if we take my most recent example again, the second season of "Heroes" was bad, sure, but it had some kind of basic structure and almost every character still maintained a measure of appeal held over from the first season. Conversely, the current storyline is a jumbled, useless mess without a single sympathetic focalizer in the entire cast.

That's the pattern I consider to be represented fairly strongly in mainstream media. And it doesn't apply to "Battlestar Galactica". Because depending on your interpretation, it either jumps the shark at the start of the fourth season and then recovers, or it jumps the shark in the last five minutes of the series finale, or it doesn't jump at all and the intense backlash is coming from somewhere else entirely.

As I've mentioned in my talks with Kazekage both here and at the Witless Prattle, I think the problem with BSG - going all the way back to the Kobol storyline of season 1 - is that the series ended up gelling into two very different (and practically antithetical) stories. On the one hand, you had "realistic" character-centric science-fiction (or Syphy as I understand it's being called now): the Pegasus, life in the Fleet, the Mutiny, Lee and Kara, Kat's redemption, Dee giving up, Roslin's hand trembling at her inauguration, Adama waiting for her in a Raptor, Baltar's trial and so on. Stories about people. About who they are, why they do what they do, about their pain and fear and love.

And then you had the pseudo-religious story. The Lords of Kobol. God's plan. Oracles. Bob Dylan music. Angels. Hybrid-speak. The living dead. A view of the universe where every single event can be (and is) attributed to one (or more) omnipotent, perpetually-unknown higher power(s) whose aims and desires are completely unknown.

Needless to say, these approaches don't co-exist comfortably, and that schism bothered me from the very beginning. But up until the aftermath of New Caprica, it was tolerable because there was no obvious preference for one or the other: Roslin might be having prophetic visions or she might be having drug-induced hallucinations that just happen to coincide with actual events. U Decide.

But once you got to the Eye of Jupiter story, the divide between religion and... hell, let's just call it realism for the sake of terminology... that divide started to filter into the actual structure of the season. Entire episodes were devoted exclusively either to God's Plan or to the women and men of the Fleet. And nowhere does this become more evident than the fourth and final season.

It began with "Razor", a feature film that leaves absolutely no room for amorphous pseudo-mythology: it's the True Story of the Pegasus as seen through the eyes of Kendra Shaw, the last survivor of Admiral Cain's inner circle. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it: we get to see the Fall from another, much darker perspective - because Cain didn't have a Roslin figure to keep her grounded - and through Shaw we can also see exactly how the crew of the Pegasus became what they were by the time they met Galactica. It's a human story.

Unfortunately, we then get ten straight episodes of people chasing visions and spouting prophecies. Baltar, Roslin, Starbuck, Caprica-Six, the Final Five, all running after cryptic half-assed riddles, following "hunches" that miraculously work out for the best... and unlike earlier seasons, there's no rational explanation that can serve as an alternative if you're not inclined to do the whole God Mode thing. How does Starbuck know where Earth is? She just does. She can feel it. Why? Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, we have the Cylon Civil War, culminating in the destruction of the Resurrection Hub. I'm torn about that particular story: it certainly diminished the threat (and unique nature) of the Cylons, but it also highlighted the central contradiction of their existence - namely, that the peak of their self-evolution is represented by human replicas with human personalities. Caprica-Six falls in love, D'Anna's a zealot, Cavil's a bitter old man, Boomer always wants something other than what she has, and so on. They're not Terminators who only look like people: take away their resurrection and there's no real difference between the Cylons and the Colonial survivors at all. And that's a really original way to resolve this sort of conflict, especially in science-fiction where wars typically end with one side obliterating the other.

Still, for the first half of the last season, the dominant arc was God's/Gods' Plan(s). And then we got to Earth, and everything snapped back into focus. No more invisible people, no more prophecies, no more Hybrid babble, just a sudden and horrible lapse into bleak depression. And it's brutally effective, dramatically speaking, because we've been with these characters for years. We've seen them suffer, we've seen them die, and we believed it'd all work out for them in the end, that they'd find Earth and it would be worth the price they paid.

Which leads to the Mutiny and its aftermath - again, a story about the people. It's about Gaeta driven by guilt and paranoia, and Zarek finally making his move, and Tyrol bleeding for his ship, and Roslin taking a stand with a voice that still gives me goosebumps (seriously, Mary McDonnell did some outstanding work on this show and I hope to see her in another central dramatic role again very soon). We also have Ellen and Sam giving us partial answers about the Final Five which surprisingly held up under scrutiny.

I think the turning point, for me, was "Someone To Watch Over Me". It's the episode that promised an answer to what was probably the biggest mystery left on the show by that point: the Question of Starbuck. Or, to be more elaborate: Kara Thrace followed a vision into a gas giant. Her Viper exploded. Months later and light-years away, she turns up again and rejoins the Fleet, having gone all the way to Earth and back in the interrim. She's not a Cylon. So how did she do it?

To understand why this episode bothers me so much, I need to go back to the exposition-heavy "No Exit", where Ellen Tigh reveals that there had been a thirteenth Cylon model, Number Seven, whom she'd named Daniel. She describes him as a sensitive artist. The Sevens had apparently been exterminated by Cavil prior to the banishment of the Final Five and the fall of the Colonies. Two episodes later, Kara has an extended hallucination of her father, and eventually ends up playing a song he taught her as a child - the Final Five recognize it as the same Music that "activated" them at the end of the previous season.

The dots practically connect themselves: a Daniel model survives, fathers Kara, teaches her the song he learned from the Five. Kara dies and gets resurrected somewhere near Earth, which explains the gap in her memories. And maybe someone helped her get back to the Fleet, et cetera.

Within the context of this fictional universe's logic, that's a reasonable explanation. And then Ron Moore, series creator, goes on a podcast and tells everyone that no, that's not it at all, there's no significance to the Daniel story except highlighting what an asshole Cavil is. Never mind that Moore never actually answers the Question of Starbuck, except to say that she's "whatever you want her to be" (THAT'S NOT AN ANSWER).

At that point, there were only three episodes to go, and it became pretty clear to me that the two parallel tracks - realism and religion - were about to collide. And one would emerge to define the series as a whole.

I want to skip ahead to the finale at this point. I've already talked about it, but I think it still warrants discussion because... well, up to a point, the finale served the characters: Racetrack gets post-mortem revenge on the Cylons, Boomer makes her last choice, Helo and Athena and Hera get to be a family at last, the Colonials find their new home... and I'll admit that I cried during Laura Roslin's last scene. It just broke my heart despite the fact that I'd known her story would end that way, prophecy or no prophecy.

And if the show had ended with that last shot of Adama at Roslin's grave, ready to build that cabin he promised her, it'd be great. I could handwave the little things that bothered me: sending the Fleet into the sun? Well, that would ensure that no one (read: the enemy Cylons) would ever find the Colonials again. Letting the Centurions go? Eh. Maybe they finally got over the whole genocide thing.

But there's a coda. And I honestly believe that coda is singularly responsible for my mixed feelings, for the very vocal post-finale backlash... all of it. The coda jumps forward 150,000 years and reveals that the Colonials' new home is, in fact, our home: that Hera is our Mitochondrial Eve, and Virtual Six and Virtual Baltar are walking among us, wondering if the cycle of violence is going to begin again, because we're experimenting with artificial "life" and we're probably going to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that Moore probably didn't intend to send the astonishingly Luddite message that the coda puts out there - an anti-technology warning set to the tune of Jimi Hendrix's "All Along The Watchtower". The larger problem, of course, is that this coda completely demolishes the realistic track of the series: the story of "Battlestar Galactica" isn't about the people after all, because if their world is our world then they were totally erased. And even if we're meant to infer that we got some traits from them, like the Olympian pantheon and monotheism, the history of Earth-born humanity doesn't quite suit the Colonials' optimstic tones in the pre-coda scenes. The cycle of violence is, sadly, very much alive and kicking. And yet the Virtuals are patting themselves on the back, praising God's Plan. Which means "Battlestar Galactica" was about God's Plan after all.

And... yeah, that's not what I was expecting. In fact, that's very much the opposite of what I wanted to see, and I can't help feeling a bit "betrayed" - as if Moore pulled a stealthy bait-and-switch to get me to swallow a religious parable while thinking I was getting character-centric realism.

I honestly wish I could just write the whole show off, because that ending is such a turn-off... but I can't. Because when it was on - and it was on for most of its run - it was probably the best drama on TV. I just wish Moore had allowed us to celebrate the conclusion in the same tradition as the rest of the story: if you want to ascribe religious machinations, you can do that, but there's also a perfectly reasonable explanation if you're so inclined.

Ah well. An excellent series with an intensely problematic ending... it is what it is. Of course, now that it's over and "The Sarah Connor Chronicles" is ending and "Dollhouse" is hanging by a thread, I seem to have run out of science-fiction series. All at the same time, more or less. I wonder whether there's a broader implication for that with regards to generic trends in American television...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Quoted for truth

From the brilliant Al Kennedy over at House to Astonish:

"Dan DiDio says in order to know about Wally West, you need to know about Barry Allen. And that's such a fanboy way of looking at it, because it presumes that everything is important, it presumes that Barry Allen is important because he was the first Flash and you need to have him involved somehow. Just give Wally West Barry Allen's origin, he gets struck by lightning next to all these chemicals, he's the Flash. Who cares?"

Monday, April 6, 2009

On the matter of Pirate(d) Wolverine...

No, I'm not going to download the leaked version of "Wolverine: Origins".

No, I'm not going to see it in theatres either.

I might pick up the DVD because I adore Hugh Jackman, and Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool is so off-the-wall it just might work. But I don't have any particularly burning need to do so - I've already seen Wolverine's origin eighty billion times, and 80,000,000,001 is not my magic number.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I don't make this kind of post very often...

... but after spending the last half-hour laughing helplessly, I figured this deserves all the hype as it can get.

The Passover Haggadah Goes To Facebook

My favorite part: "Will you guys stop running up the score?! You already won! Just stop!"


Sunday, March 29, 2009

Of The People, By The People, For The People: Part 6h

Today we'll be concluding our stay in Rob Caves' fan-series universe, with a review of the three Star Trek: Hidden Frontier spin-offs.

The first thing worth mentioning is that there's a plot superstructure in place here, which I honestly didn't expect: all three spin-offs use the same event as a launching point, though they each go in very different directions. The event in question is the invasion of Romulan space by the Archein Empire, hailing from the Andromeda Galaxy. "Odyssey" follows a Starfleet crew stranded in Archein territory; "The Helena Chronicles" is set in the former Briar Patch; and "Federation One" explores the political fallout of the invasion. In the background of the latter two, Section 31 - a black ops splinter group of Starfleet - is conspiring to do... well, something. It's not entirely clear yet.

The internal post-HF chronology is a bit tricky. While "Odyssey" stands independent of its sister series, the prequels to "Federation One" take place between episodes 2 and 3 of "The Helena Chronicles". In fact, it's been suggested that the best way to view the spin-offs is to combine them into one season - the numbers work out, as "Odyssey" has five episodes, "The Helena Chronicles" has three and "Federation One" has two (plus a pair of prequels), so it just about comes up to one of the longer seasons of "Hidden Frontier". However, the three series are so thematically different that I advise against that kind of amalgamation.

I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed that the central hub of the post-HF narrative is yet another war story. Granted, the Archein attack is much more compelling and interesting than either of the major conflicts in "Hidden Frontier", but it would've been nice to see something different. I understand that war's in the zeitgeist (just look at the Marvel Universe over the past five or six years) but it's wearing a bit thin, especially in a science-fiction setting that's always had a... complicated relationship with the concept of war.

Visually, there's been an incredible surge upward in terms of CGI quality and screen resolution; the final seasons of "Hidden Frontier" looked good, but I can honestly describe the current efforts of Caves and associates as "professional-level quality".

So let's get to it, then:

Odyssey comes first, mostly because its series premiere ("Iliad") seems to take place immediately after the "Hidden Frontier" finale: Ro and Aster are on their honeymoon, and it's implied that the Romulans are having trouble fending off the Archein due to their losses in the Briar Patch war.

The pilot episode does a great job of establishing the Archein as a very different threat than the Tholian/Breen alliance of "Hidden Frontier" - we have specific characters within this enemy organization such as the demented princess Seram, her dying mother, the honorable but determined General Morrigu and so on. Moreover, the Archein are given a strong, rational explanation for their attack: their home systems in the Andromeda galaxy are collapsing into singularities, and their only hope for survival is to seize and colonize the Beta Quadrant (specifically, Romulan territory).

Without spoiling too much, the premise of the series involves the Odyssey, a Starfleet vessel deployed to Andromeda through new (and apparently dangerous) slipstream technology, to stop the invasion at its source. Though successful, the Odyssey finds itself stranded deep within the Archein Empire, struggling to find a way home.

Well, it's "Voyager", obviously... albeit with a few correctives applied. For example, it's acknowledged rather plainly that, being three million light years away from Earth, there's no conventional way for the Odyssey to get home. The inter-character dynamics are also different, as junior officers like Ro are forced to assume command positions following the deaths of the senior staff.

The only characters imported from "Hidden Frontier" are Ro, our central protagonist, and bit character Wozniak (Rawlins' replacement from the fourth season). Everyone else is tabula rasa, though the series features many of the same actors such as Sharon Savene (Faisal/Seram), Julia Morizawa (S'Tal/Maya), John Whiting (Henglaar/Morrigu), Michelle Laurent (Tesla Mor/T'Lorra) and Adam Browne (Zen/Caecus). Some, like Morizawa, are clearly having fun playing characters so different from their previous roles; others can't help a certain level of bleed-through (Caecus is every bit the timid mouse Jorian was in his pre-Dao days).

But if we're talking actors here, the big news is that the part of Ro Nevin has been recast again - though Bobby Rice reprises the role in the first episode, he's then replaced by Brandon McConnell. It's a striking change, because McConnell is much more emotionally reserved; this is somewhat justified in that Ro should have developed some kind of stability by now, having gone through all that emotional uncertainty in the final seasons of "Hidden Frontier". On the other hand, Rice's version of the character was an open book, you could always tell what he was thinking and feeling, and I don't get that with Ro 3.0. But McConnell's new to the role... we'll have to wait and see where that goes.

Characterization has improved since "Hidden Frontier" but remains a bit off: I find myself constantly wanting to see more of these characters, to go beneath the surface and see what makes them tick, but the first season of "Odyssey" doesn't deliver much of that. Oh, there are quite a few likeable characters: Maya's fun, Gillen is just adorable, and T'Lorra's an excellent foil for Ro. But there's still something missing, that little extra bit that makes a character memorable.

The plot also gets a bit repetitive after a while; nearly every episode involves Ro getting the ship into trouble by setting off a trap, while encountering alien cultures that have inexplicably learned all about Bajorans, Romulans and Starfleet. There's a Kirk reference in there somewhere, which makes me wonder whether the whole Andromeda thing has actually been done before, but I can't seem to find any solid reference one way or another.

Still, I like the core concept and certain twists, like Seram's true connection to Caecus, were well-executed. All it really needs is a bit more depth of characterization and some new storyline ideas. Of course, what I'd really like to know is whether the writers intend to follow the broad outline of Homer's poem, because Ro succumbing to an Andromedan (male?) analogue of Circe probably wouldn't go over with viewers as smoothly as Odysseus' Old-School Mattress Marathon, but it'd certainly serve his character arc.

The Helena Chronicles picks up six months after "Iliad", in a more familiar setting (Ba'ku and what used to be Briar Patch). We're following the Helena, commanded by Theresa Faisal (former XO to Tolian Naros). Jorian Dao is first officer, Artim Ibanya is helmsman, and Corey Aster joins the crew in the series premiere (basically providing the Penelope to Ro's Odysseus). We even get to peek in on DS12 (though this comes with an unwelcome dose of Knapp - I suppose someone had to hold the Idiot Ball), and the second episode brings back Joseph Johns (the last surviving member of Admiral Cole's crew), Robin Lefler and Admiral Rand.

Which isn't to say that we don't get a bunch of entertaining new characters, such as Chief Engineer Rockney (a technophile in the creepiest sense of the word), the semi-psychotic Lt. Dais, snarky Dr. Ness or the flamboyant pirate Caeleno. As with "Odyessy", I'm left wanting to know more about these characters, but with the first season consisting of only three episodes, there isn't much room for development.

I should point out, apropos of characterization, that there's a real effort being made here to push Ro and Aster as an epic romance - they're having visions of each other, they're acting out the parts of mythological figures, but even after all this time... eh. Still not feeling 'em, dawg.

Meanwhile, if the premise of "Odyssey" remains consistent throughout its first season, "The Helena Chronicles" does an abrupt - but entirely welcome - left-field twist in the second episode, as Lefler, Aster and Dao start experimenting on ways to either follow Ro to Andromeda or bring him home. I'm not entirely clear on why the reaction to their work is so hysterical, since it's already been done in the very recent past, but if you can make the leap that Starfleet is willing to murder its own officers to prevent some kind of unexplained galactic catastrophe, you'll be okay with the new, and rather bold, direction.

And finally, we have Federation One, a very different creature altogether. The series begins with two prequels - "Orphans of War" and feature-length "Operation Beta Shield" - both of which are crossovers with Scottish fan production Star Trek: Intrepid. This isn't actually the first time these two fan series have crossed paths: the fifth-season finale of "Hidden Frontier" featured a cameo by "Intrepid" character Keran Azhan. But in the context of the episode, it was a rather superfluous appearance.

Not so here: both the Intrepid and Shelby's Excalibur are front-and-center in both prequels, and they actually mesh rather well together. Shelby has a playful rapport with Captain Hunter, and that's a side of her we've never really seen - her friendship with Lefler is, after all, offset by her status as Lefler's commanding officer.

(Speaking of Lefler, it turns out she's engaged to Ben Nordstrom, the Excelsior's new Chief Engineer. It's yet another relationship that's taken place almost entirely off-screen...)

"Orphans of War" is a short ten-minute piece about the Intrepid and the Excelsior picking through the debris of an Archein/Romulan battle and finding some surprises left behind; servicable, but the real story begins with "Operation Beta Shield". Here's where the chronology gets a bit tricky: "Orphans of War" is set before the game-changing second episode of "The Helena Chronicles", but "Operation Beta Shield" takes place afterwards - this explains Lefler's absence and Barrett's promotion to first officer of the Excelsior (which has a new and interesting look).

"Operation Beta Shield" gives us a look at the political effects of the Archein attack and the resulting rescue of the Romulan Empire by Starfleet and the Klingons. It also marks the return of my favorite "Hidden Frontier" villain, Karah Vindenpawl, who rises to the most powerful position in the Federation through a sudden and violent assassination that she may (or may not) have instigated. As in fifth-season episode "Security Counsel", Vindenpawl brings out the best in Matt McCabe, who's still determined to expose and defeat her even as her machinations take on galactic proportions.

All of which leads to "Federation One", as McCabe - now Head of Presidential Security - tries to investigate Vindenpawl while simultaneously being forced to protect her against external and internal threats. It is, in that sense, a much more subtle series than either its sister shows; McCabe is the only Starfleet officer in a cast of politicians, reporters and scientists, and the focus veers away from space battles and the physical/visual manifestations of war. This, by the way, probably explains the season 2 format switch to audio drama: that sort of thing wouldn't work with either of the other spin-offs, but I suspect it'll do nicely here.

Normally, this would be the point where I'd make a comparative assessment and try to determine which series is "best", but I don't think it's so much a case of being qualitatively better as it is that each spin-off compliments the others: "Federation One" has the best character dynamics, since it's mostly just Vindenpawl and McCabe and they've had the benefit of exposure in the parent series. The Helena's story, on the other hand, is much more kinetic and exciting, while Odyssey... well, Odyssey has the potential to do a lot of new and interesting things but that hasn't really happened yet.

One thing I can say, with a great degree of confidence, is that "Odyssey", "The Helena Chronicles" and "Federation One" continue the tradition of gradual overall improvement that their parent series demonstrated; as with the later seasons of "Hidden Frontier", my feeling is that there are certain gaps and flaws that repeat themselves (mostly to do with plot and characterization techniques), but these diminish over time.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Some thoughts about yesterday's TV

I expect I'll have more to say once I've fully digested the events of "Daybreak" and look back on the final season, but "Battlestar Galactica" is over, and... yes, I feel a loss. For all that I disagreed with the increasing pseudo-mysticism, for all that I found the finale's ultimate message problematic, for all that the unresolved questions left me deeply disappointed, the truth is I was in love with these characters, these remarkably complex and flawed and compelling people; with Adama and Roslin and Lee and Kara and Cottle and Helo, with everyone who made it to the end and everyone who didn't. Yes, even Baltar. I loved them all, and I'll miss them terribly.

Meanwhile, the sixth episode of "Dollhouse" aired yesterday. For context's sake, this was the episode Joss Whedon flagged as being of interest to those viewers who, like myself, were having mixed reactions (at best) to his newest project. According to Whedon, all we had to do was wait until episode 6 for the show to start hitting its stride.

I'll get to the actual episode in a bit, but that kind of request annoys me. I mean, isn't it unreasonable to expect your audience to just patiently hold their breath for a month while you get your act together? I'm not saying it's unheard-of for series to improve over time - even within Whedon's own filmography, the second season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" was superior to the first - and patience is certainly rewarding when it comes to the slow-burning plot.

But there has to be some kind of baseline appeal that transcends the problems, that makes you want to hang around. "Dollhouse" doesn't have that, for reasons I've already discussed, and the only reason I'm still watching is because Whedon's got a lot of goodwill stored up with me. But that won't last forever.

Especially since the much-hyped sixth episode is good, but not great. Don't get me wrong, it is a very different creature: Ballard is pushed much closer to the spotlight, there's a lot of physical action (the kitchen fight scene was rather good) and our attention is finally shifted away from the inconsequential missions (the whole conceit of the show is that nothing the Dolls do matter, so why then have we been following their "engagements" so thoroughly?). And it's somewhat amusing that this episode aired the same day as the "Battlestar Galactica" finale, because "Dollhouse" also seems to be working the whole "Sleeper Agent" bit; we now have two characters who've turned out to be Dolls hiding in plain sight. And we're only six episodes in.

I don't know... I'll admit the sixth episode is an improvement, but I still don't feel like I need to know what happens next. While I'm all for experimental, postmodern approaches to fiction, I don't think Whedon is able to circumvent the very real need for a hook, a reason to tune in next week. And so far, that hasn't turned up. At my most charitable, I'm still only mildly curious about the future of this show.