Season Two Of Westworld Journeys Beyond Its Borders

Westworld season 2 poster

The second season of the HBO sci-fi series, Westworld, will conclude this coming Sunday and what a ride it has been. Based on the old Michael Crichton film that starred Yul Brynner, Westworld was a thought-provoking surprise for viewers when it premiered in 2016. Fans had to wait over a year for its second season and frankly it was worth the wait.

Maeve and company

Westworld takes place in a futuristic theme resort where visitors can act out their violent and sexual fantasies within recreated historical places. Most of the series takes place in a land that is a perfect recreation of the Old West but other locales have been introduced this season, notably one based on feudal Japan complete with shogun warriors and ninjas. Guests interact with lifelike automatons called hosts that were once androids but are now printed biologically by the resort’s engineers and programmed to cater to the guests’ desires. What happened over the course of the story is that the hosts have gained sentience and no longer want to play along.

Dolores Abernathy

Season one of Westworld ended with a literal bloody bang as the hosts rose up in unison and started their violent revolution. Season two starts with the rebellion underway as the resort’s security tries to take back the property and there are many intertwining subplots featuring returning and new characters. These storylines jump back and forth in time and you have to pay attention to what is going on but you’ll be rewarded with captivating stories and character development. Many of them are well fleshed out and nuanced. We see the growth and descent of many like the host Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), who was once a sympathetic farm girl that is now the bloodthirsty head of the uprising. Her goal is to wipe out humanity for the continued pain humans have inflicted on her. It has gotten to the point that she is on the border of becoming the show’s villain thanks to her merciless demeanor. Meanwhile, Westworld’s main human villain, the Man in Black (Ed Harris), is seen in a not quite sympathetic light but his behavior is more understandable. We see that his obsession with Westworld and desire to revel in his violent fantasy has completely warped him and is shattering his grip on reality.

Two hosts who have risen above their programming and are the show’s hearts and souls are Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Maeve (Thandie Newton). The reveal that he was a host in the previous season was quite a shock and this season just went full out to explore the impact of that revelation as he struggles with his identity. He was always someone we could relate to and a very decent person. In this season we continue to root for him as he grapples with his memories and his choices. Meanwhile, Maeve has a compelling arc where she evolves to control other hosts mentally as she searches the vast landscape for her daughter. Along the way she inspires other hosts and humans with her humanity and intellect.

Thankfully this season took time to explore many concepts and dramas about the hosts and their inner struggle. Questions and explorations about the nature of reality, reincarnation and free choice are there for us to consider in between violent clashes between hosts and humans and even among hosts themselves. A couple of episodes were genuinely heart touching such as episode eight “Kiksuya” which is about a Ghost Nation warrior (Zahn MacClarnon) who becomes self aware and strives to spread the word about the truth of the hosts’ existence. Another one was “Akane no Mai” and “Phase Space”, which feature some terrific performances from Rinko Kikuchi and Hiroyuki Sanada as a geisha and ronin who love each other.

The second season of Westworld succeeds because of the other above reasons and the way it keeps you guessing. Plus, it lets you see both sides of the conflict and divides your loyalties. As we rejoice in all the bloody confrontations we can’t help wondering if we are cheering for the right side. Or if we should be pleading for both species to find a way to co-exist, if it is even possible. As the season concludes with “The Passenger” we’ll find out how these stories conclude and set up the third season.

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Save The Expanse

expanse season 3 poster

Not too long ago, devoted fans of the Syfy series The Expanse were heartbroken when the cable channel announced that the third season of the show would be its last. Cancelling favorite TV shows isn’t anything new, nor are the efforts to save shows. The original Star Trek is the best example. Sadly, most attempts to save cancelled TV shows are doomed, however, there are the rare occasions where the shows find new life. This happened last year when NBC un-cancelled the time-travel show Timeless and renewed it for a second season. And now it seems as if the beloved sci-fi show may get a reprieve elsewhere. But let’s not celebrate yet.

For anyone who has not watched it yet (and shame on you if you haven’t even sampled it), The Expanse is based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey about a divided humanity two hundred years from now in the settled solar system. Humans still haven’t discovered FTL yet, but space travel tech has advanced enough to allow humans to settle on Mars, several moons and on space stations. A delicate balance of power exists as Earth, Mars and the Belt (the inhabited regions of the asteroid belt, the gas giant moons and orbital stations) as each side vies for dominance.

The Expanse follows the lives of several characters from all levels of life either throughout the system and how they are impacted by a conspiracy that threatens everyone. An extra-solar substance called protomolecule is discovered and it is able to alter all life. What is worse is that devious government and business leaders are trying to weaponize it. As this goes on, unlikely heroes from diverse paths cross paths and try to prevent the spread of the protomolecule and war itself.

hybrid protomolecule

In the third season of The Expanse, these efforts are failing as not only is the protomolecule spreading and appears to be sentient, but war breaks out between Earth and Mars. During the fog of war, many of the heroes do their best to contain the protomolecule and end the war.

This TV show is a true gem in a network supposedly dedicated to science fiction. It is smart, well produced, has wonderful production values, and is captivating thanks to its engaging stories and characters. Ever since its debut three years ago, The Expanse has lived up to its promise of being an intelligent, hard sci-fi show, scoring huge with critics. It even won the Hugo Award in 2017 for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. At the same time, it takes great pains to keep a balance between story and character. In the past two seasons, the show explored what life is like for the downtrodden in the Belt. This season, however, focused more on the ragtag crew of the stolen Martian ship Rocinante and rescued passengers as they’re targeted by both warring sides. The Rocinante crew have to struggle between helping the passengers put an end to the war, stopping the protomolecule infestation, and a personal mission to rescue a young girl threatened by the alien substance. What made this season unique is that it had many diverse characters featured separately in the past meeting each other and uniting under common causes.

All this sounds great but remember this series is based on several books and there are many tales left to present. Sadly, The Expanse will not have the chance to finish telling all the stories from Corey’s books. Citing low ratings and complicated distribution issues with other parties like Netflix and Amazon Prime, Syfy pulled the plug. However, it turns out that the show has a devoted fan base. To date an online petition garnered over 100,000 signatures, and high profile fans like George R. R. Martin, Patton Oswalt and Wil Wheaton are throwing their support to the campaign. #SaveTheExpanse

save the expanse

Alcon Television Group, the studio that produces the show, is actively shopping it around. Currently, there are talks between Alcon and Amazon Studios to distribute a fourth season. The main contention in the talks has to do with Streaming or Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) rights. One thing the show has going for it is that it is popular on streaming/digital demand, and Amazon is looking to add more original content for its subscribers. Streaming and digital services are becoming a haven not just for original programs but for cancelled shows that are given new life in their services. Let’s hope that The Expanse will find new life there or elsewhere because it deserves to be reprieved.

UPDATE: Amazon has saved The Expanse and the fourth season will stream on Amazon Prime. Sometimes our beloved shows have a secind chance. 😀

One Reason Why Fear The Walking Dead Failed

The bloom is off the rose for The Walking Dead as a franchise while ratings continue to slide. But the franchise is in even more dire straits when considering its spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, which is a failure. The fourth season begins this weekend and the marketing is hyping up that it will feature a crossover with the addition of Morgan (Lennie James) from The Walking Dead. Ages ago, that would have created intense online activity among fans, but there is hardly any buzz going on about the show and its latest developments. The ratings are anemic, especially when compared to its sister series.

There are many reasons for why the spinoff has been poorly received and they are valid. They include unlikeable characters, uninteresting scripts and a failure to reproduce the tension and thrills of the classic seasons of The Walking Dead. Keeping that in mind, there is one main reason why Fear the Walking Dead does not work and it is because it fails as a proper prequel.

The justification for prequels is that they are supposed to help explain the story and characters of the main source. They go into the background of established characters and embellish them and their world.  Like them or not, the Star Wars prequels are excellent examples. Sure they’re derided but they accomplished the goal of delving into the history of Darth Vader and the fall of the Galactic Republic, which were events not shown in the original trilogy.

When it was first announced, it was accepted that Fear the Walking Dead would not examine the backgrounds of the famous characters in The Walking Dead. So Daryl Dixon’s mysterious backstory would remain obscure and any insights into the main characters would only exist as flashback sequences. Instead the prequel would focus on all-new characters in a different locale in a different time.

When Fear the Walking Dead first premiered, there was hope that an explanation would be given for why the dead were reanimating into mindless flesheaters. People wanted to see how civilization actually collapsed, which had already occurred by the time Rick Grimes woke up from his coma and met Morgan in the pilot of The Walking Dead.

But that did not happen with this prequel series. After some dull early episodes that did not give us any answers about the walkers, the show took a time jump to a point where society already disappeared. This left the show looking too much like The Walking Dead as it copied its premise: a bunch of survivors in a post-apocalyptic world full of the undead, only badly done.

Frankly, we get that already in The Walking Dead. Why bother watching Fear the Walking Dead if it only offers the same thing, but less compelling? The prequel is not different enough to justify its existence, which is why it has largely been abandoned by the dwindling fans. Thinking about it, the prequel’s existence can be thought of when the original show started its decline. It could have gone another route if creator Robert Kirkman allowed some kind of explanation for the walker outbreak. But that is not going to happen and despite Morgan’s addition to the castt, it is probably too late to salvage it and the showrunners should concentrate on the original show.

 

The Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV

In the previous post, a review of Altered Carbon, it was stated that we are living through the Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV. That may be a bit of hyperbole to some, but with all the quality science fiction TV shows out now or coming soon, it cannot be denied.

Not too long ago, sci-fi TV shows were the laughing stock of television land. Of course, there were the few classic nuggets like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone, which showed the potential of high-quality science fiction tales in the TV medium. However, most sci-fi TV shows were at best pedestrian or at worst embarrassing. Galactica 1980, anyone? Most of these shows had zero budgets, which made them look cheap and amateurish. Having a high budget is critical for many sci-fi programs, but not vital. What crippled many of these shows were the lack of faith from networks and the showrunners themselves who treated their shows like children’s fare and did not take them seriously.

Whenever a science fiction TV show that showed promise debuted, TV networks living by the ratings dogma were too quick to cancel them. The television graveyard of stillborn TV shows is littered with diamonds-in-the-rough like the original Battlestar Galactica, Alien Nation, and Space: Above and Beyond. It was an anomaly to see a genuinely good sci-fi TV show thrive in the competitive television landscape.

alien nationEven with the Sci-Fi Channel (now known as Syfy), high-quality science fiction TV shows could barely be found. Think about that, a cable network supposedly dedicated to this genre had a spotty record for airing good, original sci-fi television. Yes, the channel did air re-runs of past classics, but when it came to original programming, Syfy usually failed. In short, the genre was not respected by studios and the general public.

Thankfully, all that has changed. It didn’t happen overnight and it was a series of baby steps, but now science fiction is a viable and respected genre in television. This turnaround came with the success of the Star Trek spinoffs. Then in the 1990s, The X-Files, the paranormal thriller about aliens and other ghoulies became a bonafide hit and a cultural phenomenon. Other shows in the 1990s and the 2000s made their impact like Babylon 5, Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica reboot, Farscape, Doctor Who (which came back after being cancelled in the 1980s), Fringe and Lost (which won an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series).Battlestar-Galactica-2003-Cast-PictureToday, there are more and more science fiction TV shows competing for our attention and ratings. There are still the goofy TV shows and guilty pleasures but it has gotten to the point that we can pick and choose what to watch as the threshold for quality has increased tenfold. Just look at what is coming out next month: The Expanse (in its third season), the critically acclaimed Westworld, a new version of Lost in Space that looks stunning, and The Handmaid’s Tale. The latter show also won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, and as much as we complain about science fiction films not ever winning an Oscar for Best Picture (though The Shape of Water can be arguably science fiction), it is refreshing to see the genre recognized for excellence. What has brought about this reverence has been the stellar quality of the scripts, production design, directing, FX and acting.Handmaid's TaleThe success and acclaim for Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, among others, shows how respected science fiction has become on TV. These TV shows like The Handmaid’s Tale are resonating with viewers who can relate to the themes and characters that shine through the fantastical trappings. This is why we fans are living through a Golden Age of Sci-Fi TV , let’s hope it lasts for a long time.

Lewis T. Grove

 

Altered Carbon: TV’s Newest Hard-Edged Sci-Fi Tale

Altered Carbon is the latest example that we are living during the Golden Age of sci-fi television shows. It premiered last month on Netflix. but was mostly dismissed by mainstream critics who probably only sample one or two episodes before rendering their verdicts. However, Altered Carbon, much like its characters, is much more than it seems.

Both Kovacs Altered Carbon

Based on Richard K. Morgan’s novel, Altered Carbon takes place hundreds of years in the future where humanity has essentially become immortal. This was accomplished with the introduction of alien technology that allowed human consciousness to be downloaded into “stacks”, devices that are implanted on the base of one’s neck. Everytime a body is near death, the stack transfers the consciousness into another body, called sleeves, with its own stack. This has a profound effect on humanity as people live hundreds of years and casually transfer onto new bodies as swiftly as we change our clothing. But this has not created a paradise. Constantly switching to new sleeves has a profound affect on the mind, soul and even society itself. This process has created a class of super-rich hedonists called meths who consider themselves to be above humankind and its morals.

The show focuses on Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnamen and Will Yun Lee), a revolutionary soldier who was captured and placed into a new sleeve hundreds of years later. This new sleeve was activated by Lauren Bancroft (James Purefoy), one of the wealthiest men in the known universe, to solve his own murder. That is the recent murder of one of Bancroft’s previous sleeves. Kovacs was activated because of his reputation as an Envoy, a rebellious group that wanted to end the use of stacks. Envoys are renowned for their tough mental resilience and discipline. which is what Bancroft needs to solve his murder.

 Kovacs grudgingly accepts Bancroft’s offer of indentured servitude in exchange for his freedom. During his investigations, Kovacs travels the seedy underworld of Bay City and the decadent and hedonistic lifestyles of the mega rich, while meeting an interesting cast of characters. There is Kristin Ortega (Martha Higareda), a working-class police detective with an unusual interest in Kovacs, and Edgar Poe (Chris Conner), an AI manifested as a holographic hotel manager. The show also features extensive flashbacks of Takeshi Kovacs’ previous life with people important to him, such as his sister Reileen (Dichen Lachman) and Envoy leader Quellcrist Falconer (Renée Elise Goldsberry).

Due to the nature of his job, Kovacs runs into a lot of trouble, from criminal elements out to settle scores to sadistic hitmen to unsavory VR experiences. Luckily his honed skills as an Envoy allows Takeshi Kovacs to endure his ordeals. As he tries to solve the murder, Kovacs also has to grapple with his lost, previous life and finding his way in the new life.

altered carbon cityscape

Altered Carbon is entrancing, exciting and quite gripping at times thanks to its stylistic and noirish, cyberpunk elements that are similar to Blade Runner and intensely violent scenes that are reminiscent of John Wick or The Raid. Each shot is captivating with rich cinematography, not to mention special effects and production design that completely sell the notion this story takes place in the distant future.

Unlike other current TV shows, while Altered Carbon can be binged watched but is not dependent on this. Most episodes seem more self-contained while servicing the main plot of the Lauren Bancroft murder case. It is something of a relief since it allows the episodes to be enjoyed individually. However, its plots can be quite dense, though in a good way, with its usage of unusual words, exposition, and plot twists that may confuse casual viewers and calls for more focused viewing.

A word of caution is warranted, Altered Carbon is extremely violent and has graphic nudity. If this was a film it would be a hard R, so it is not for the more squeamish viewer.

Getting past its grimy nature and lurid violence, it is clear that the intense scenes underline the show’s theme: that humanity is not ready for immortality. By using stacks, most of humanity takes life and their bodies for granted as seen with the way many are too quick to jump into new sleeves after injuries or to take on new identities.  In essence, they have become desensitized to violence and by being so cavalier about the sanctity of the physical body these people are losing their humanity.

Altered Carbon is a stylistic, hard-edged sci-fi yarn that engrosses you with eye-popping visuals, intense fight scenes, and captivating and tortured characters. But more than that, Altered Carbon does what a a true sci-fi tale sets out to do: to extrapolate where humanity may go.

José Soto