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!"