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Monthly Archives: January 2013

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Fringe vs The X-Files

Good bye Fringe.

It’s amazing that Fringe lasted as long as it did. And now that it’s over, it’s as hard to know what to make of it now as it was when Fringe-Torvit first aired.

Oddball is the first word that comes to mind. Fringe never really worked as anything. It had interesting elements that never came together.

What the X-Files did effortlessly, Fringe struggled and sweated to do and couldn’t. Fringe brought interesting ideas and characters to the table, but somehow when everything was done, none of it felt like anything.

In its final season the series took a risk by taking us to the future and a war against inhuman human invaders from the distant future. It’s a great concept undermined by the execution. The dystopian world of the future is a place where you can wander around, plot conspiracies on cell phones, escape on trains and do most other things, even when facing an enemy that can move through walls and uses technology from hundreds of years in the future.

The resistance fighters that we meet are surprisingly blase about it. Even the old Walter who fought back with a bomb gives way to the new Walter who putters around the lab and has a plan on a bunch of cassettes to save the world with an uninteresting scavenger hunt.

The last season, like the rest of Fringe, had its moments, but not nearly enough of them. The characters are soggy. Peter’s revenge quest was the closest the last season came to coming alive. Olivia never holds the screen. She’s a weak main character. Walter is comic relief, and except for Black Blotter, is even soggier.

Fringe never got its characters right. And its stories are toned down versions of the X-Files. Where the X-Files would go for the throat, where it made the world seem like a dark and darkly funny place, Fringe always felt like a procedural, like a knockoff that didn’t know what it really wanted to be.

The X-Files was paranoid. Fringe wasn’t. The X-Files was like one of those conspiracy 1998 conspiracy websites in garish colors on a black background ranting, ranting and ranting about the end of the world. Fringe is like one of those cable conspiracy specials that wants the same audience but doesn’t have the guts to commit and instead spends its time studying goofy characters and interviewing professors.

Fringe was a show that never came together but lasted a surprisingly long time.

The Trainwreck Live Action Star Wars TV Series

About the only good thing that you can say about the live action Star TV series is that with the House of George selling out the House of Mouse, this thing will probably never see the light of day.

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What do most people think of when they think of Star Wars? Spaceships and guys with laser swords slashing at each other. Even George Lucas figured out that you couldn’t really get rid of those things and still expect anyone to show up in theaters. He made them hard to come by and drowned them in a load of other crap, but he didn’t get rid of them.

Sources say the live-action series centers on the story of rival families struggling over the control of the seedy underside of the Star Wars universe and the people who live within the subterranean level and air shafts of the metropolis planet Coruscant (the Empire’s urban-sprawl-covered home planet). A bounty hunter may be the main character.

That has some potential if you’re making a syndicated low budget series that’s trying to be the DS9 of Star Wars. Maybe.

But this was a $5 million per episode series that Lucasfilm wanted to retain ownership to and that they ordered 50 scripts for without an actual deal.

The best part is that they ordered some of those scripts from Ron Moore. So we not only have a SciFi Noir crime drama without Jedis or spaceships, but we also have the most overhyped TV SF writer, after Joss Whedon, who trashed Battlestar Galactica, on board to do it.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero by John Barnes book review

Most of what sits on the Science Fiction section bookshelf these days is fairly predictable. There are categories. Urban fantasy. Steampunk. Heinlein teen novels for adults. Dystopian space operas. Space Cop sagas. But John Barnes is an offbeat writer whose work is usually hard to categorize. How do you categorize Kaleidoscope Century, Finity or A Million Open Doors? But that lack of categorization has probably held Barnes back from also being a successful writer.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero look a lot more successful because they’re easy to categorize in the glancing way that a genre plot daybreakzerousually is. We all know what’s going to be in an end of the world novel or a teenage girl in love with a vampire novel. The contents are the details of a known quantity. And that is and isn’t true of the Daybreak series.

Directive 51 and Daybreak Zero are part political thriller, end of the world survivalist tale and speculative futuristic semiotics. In terms of interest level, it goes something like 3, 1 and 2, but in terms of content, it’s more like 2, 1, 3 so that there’s a whole lot of scenes about people trying to maintain and rebuild civilization after its collapse, a lot of political wrangling and not a lot about the emergence of a meme.

The story is simple enough. A group calling itself Daybreak operates out of an online community (Barnes calls it an online game at one point but never describes it) and then uses everything from nanotechnology to nuclear bombs to wipe out civilization and then forms into stone age tribes to wipe out the human race. But the group is really run by a meme.

The concept of a meme war trilogy would have been a lot more interesting and plausible set in a framework of modern tech, but instead the Daybreak series follows its usual bunch of characters from these types of novels (the plucky female FBI agent, the nerdy programmer, the stiff government official, the creative journalist) through the end of the technological world and the beginning of a 19th Century broken America.

Barnes has never done characters well. They always fall into the category of being almost, but not quite there, and the Daybreak novels are no different. The civilization story has been done too many times and Barnes doesn’t have much new to offer there, especially since he’s covering a lot of the ground that S.M. Stirling just covered. It’s Daybreak that’s interesting and it’s what we see the least of.

The politics are occasionally interesting, because while Barnes never really makes his heroes come to life, he does better with the secondary characters who populate the political background. They’re still types, but they’re also flawed ambitious people with good and bad instincts trying to do the right thing, which makes them more real and more interesting than his main characters.

There’s some politics of the current kind, but Barnes balances out both sides so it never turns into a preaching contest, and after taking the requisite amount of shots at tree-huggers and bible-thumpers, spends more of it looking at the political system and the consequences of handing out that kind of power to people. Unlike his main characters, the presidents and players behave with human unpredictably. They’re born out of stereotypes, but occasionally transcend them. The naive Liberal Vice-President dies foiling a terrorist attack and the fanatical Christian candidate turns into a moderate leader in the middle of a crisis.

Still that’s not a show that really is worth showing up for. Daybreak however is and while Directive 51 doesn’t provide enough Daybreak, Daybreak Zero does begin showing the bigger picture and some of the bigger ideas that we would expect in this kind of story.

An end of the world story is only as good as its apocalypse and the Daybreak Zero has a very human and inhuman apocalypse at its center as the online community becomes a global terrorist network and then a genocidal stone age cult that turns its old online programming into a tribal play and replaces instant message flash mobs with spirit stick barbarians. It’s a compelling concept that is never developed all the way, but that the success of the first two novels will hopefully enable Barnes to more fully execute in The Last President.

Watching Movies: Steven Spielberg’s 1941

1941 is a six year old’s idea of a movie, all punchlines and no setups, a gargantuan Three Stooges skit that goes on for two hours of houses collapsing, things falling on people, people punching someone and accidentally punching someone else, vehicles ramming into each other and comic actors mugging for the camera for three seconds before the camera cuts to the next bang and swoosh.

Characters and story are left behind. Even the jokes rarely have setups. Most things just begin exploding, falling, collapsing or 1941_movieburning. The few setups for the gags involve girls and they’re just there to get the ball rolling on the Three Stooges routines. It’s too many gags and not enough story even for a cartoon. It’s way too much for a live action movie, especially one set around WWII.

1941 was a bad idea and in bad taste, beautifully photographed, framed and timed, but with no script to go with all that effort. There is the occasional funny moment during the extended dance sequence, but that, like the entire movie, goes on much too long and there is nothing to follow it up with.

Too adult for kids and too immature even for teenagers, 1941 is stuck just being dumb. It’s a manic sequence of gags, where every second another one is being thrown at the screen tiring you out in the first ten minutes. And there’s another 108 minutes to go. By the time an exhausted General Stillwell says “It’s going to be a long war”; it feels like it’s already been the longest movie ever.

1941 is repetitive. Its small repertoire of gags rolls on, getting bigger, but not any better. Things just happen because they’re supposed to. Bullets always hit gas tanks or live wires. A trip always leads to a dozen people falling over each other. A fight always leads to punches being thrown at the wrong people. Cars and planes always begin crashing into each or through buildings. Fires always start when you aren’t looking at them. A movie can get away with one or two of these but not the same few gags rolled out so many times that they’re stale 10 minutes in.

The story about a Japanese sub looking to redeem its honor by blowing up Hollywood colliding with domestic panic over a Japanese invasion has as much substance as the latest adventure of the Alfalfa Gang or the Three Stooges. It’s just there so that the insane machine can begin bopping people over the head or splattering them with paint or setting them on fire. Everyone is an idiot. Wally’s quest to dance with his girlfriend at the USO is the closest thing to a main story, but by the end he’s rattling on in a tank to the end of a pier to shoot at a sub, while leaving her behind for no other reason than that the next gag demands it. Just as his crew are throwing things at each other for no other reason.

Imagine a pie thrown in the face for 118 minutes and that’s 1941. Sometimes the pie is a little bigger. Sometimes it’s got motor oil inside. Sometimes it’s on fire. Sometimes there’s a naked girl in it. But it’s still the same pie for 118 minutes.

Watching Star Trek: DS9 The Emissary

It’s rare that a series does its best work in its first episode and then never equals it again. DS9 The Emissary isn’t an extraordinary ride, but it’s a glimpse of what Deep Space Nine might have been.

The Emissary’s opening tells us that we’re going to a dark place. So does the fight sight of DS9. But then the Bajorans show up Emissary - 3and the show begins to die.

The Bajorans are Ds9’s true nemesis. They drag the show down with displays of self-righteousness and magic superstition. Like the Kazon, they’re a race that would ordinarily show up in an episode and be forgotten, that takes up entire seasons. Voyager was able to fly away from the Kazon, but Deep Space Nine could never leave the Bajorans behind.

There are stunning elements in The Emissary. A Borg attack that devastates a starship transitions to a devastated space station and a quest for communication and understanding with an alien race. There’s all that, and there’s the magic Bajoran priests and Kira delivering her “I’m just a Bajoran” speech.

The Emissary shows us how close to a powerful series DS9 could have been. It had the Wild West elements. A distant trading post under siege. The exploration of alien life in a distant part of the galaxy. There were other reasons that DS9 never came together, but the Bajorans took the wind out of its sails. Instead of the Wild West, DS9 became a Neo-Tibetan retreat. It could never be the show it should have been because it was too busy getting its ears felt up.

The producers might not have been able to predict that the Bajorans wouldn’t work on screen, but they could have hedged their bets. Turned Bajor into a concentration camp planet for the Cardassian Order where a dozen slave races were housed. And then focused on the race that works best. That mix of races and complicated problems would have made for a much better series.

Bajor as we know it was surplus to requirements. It was there because the producers wanted to leave Star Trek behind, but they could have done it much better with a genuinely interstellar trading post, than a Bajoran station.

But the Bajorans aren’t all of it. The Emissary had one of DS9’s few bold and big ideas, but within a few episodes, the series that gave us a captain communicating with aliens by using his personal experiences (a concept that Voyager tried and failed to pull off) was giving us magic alien hopscotch and a crude evolution debate.

Captive Pursuit was the closest that first season DS9 came to matching its potential. And it did that because it left the Bajorans at home and told a story about the weird and wild galaxy out there passing through the station.

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