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

 

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Star Trek: Discovery – A First Season Review

Ordinarily, when reviewing TV shows, I would watch 4 to 6 episodes to get a good feel for the program. With Star Trek: Discovery, I decided to wait until it concluded its first season before doing a review because I honestly could not decide how I felt about it. This latest Star Trek spinoff has been the most difficult to form an opinion about. It has many commendable features, yet there are so many aspects about it that misfires so badly, that we have to wonder if the creators behind this spinoff understand Star Trek at all. Major spoilers will follow.

Star Trek: Discovery takes place in the 2250s, which makes it a prequel to the original Star Trek. Then again it does not feel like a prequel but more like a remake. Naturally, it does not recreate the mood and production of the original because it would have been laughed off and this is part of the reason why it is so controversial with fans. Overall, this show has to be accepted as a remake rather than a reboot because there are many attempts to stick to canon and some elements established in the original Prime timeline, such as numerous Easter eggs, references and sound effects. On the other hand, they’re not always consistent with sticking to canon, which can be irritating. But once you put aside these feelings about this latest Star Trek spinoff, it becomes easier to watch.

Star Trek: Discovery is updated to today’s standards in terms of special effects, set design and writing. The entire show is beautifully executed and each episode feels more like a feature-length film than a TV show. While this is welcome, at times the creators went too far in reimagining Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic universe. A case in point is the unnecessary re-do of the Klingons, the show’s main enemy race. The poor actors portraying the Klingons seem to be drowning under all the heavy makeup and wardrobe and we have to wonder why the showrunners thought this was an improvement over the perfected Klingon look seen in the other spinoffs and films. Be that as it may, the subtle updating of other alien races like the Andorians and the Tellarites are executed well.

The Star Trek spinoff follows the story of Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), a former first officer who mutinied against her captain and was jailed. Her actions helped spark a war between the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets and most of the first season is devoted to this storyline and her redemption. Burnham is freed by the captain of the U.S.S. Discovery, Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs), and enlists her to his crew for some ulterior motive. He assigns her to aid the ship’s science officer Lt. Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) and find a way to utilize an experimental spore drive being tested on the Discovery to win the war against the Klingons. Eventually this results in Stamets using himself as a conduit for the spore drive, which allows the ship to instantaneously travel anywhere.Even though Burnham is the main protagonist, Lorca has emerged as the most fascinating character thanks in part to Isaacs’ exemplary acting and the way he is written. Lorca was introduced as a mysterious, and unusually brutal commander who was obsessed with winning the war. He was not above tossing aside ethics to get the job done, and pushing people beyond their limit, yet he was a capable commander. But in the second half of the season, the Discovery wound up in the Mirror Universe where humans are evil and it was revealed that Lorca himself came from this reality. This confirmed many suspicions that fans had but in the end, this development was a disservice to Lorca who became a moustache-twirling villain and unremarkable. Hopefully, some way can be found to return some version of Lorca in the second season.Therein lies the fault and strength of Star Trek: Discovery and this is typical of its conflicting nature. Some characters are compelling and well developed like First Officer Saru (Doug Jones), a lanky and fastidious alien, Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman), a bubbly young cadet, and Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif), a Starfleet officer who is actually a Klingon that was surgically altered into a human in order to infiltrate Starfleet. While others are interesting background bridge crewmembers  that  the show largely ignores. I’m not even sure what their names are, I just know them as the cyborg lady, or the woman with the metal implant on her skull. They barely have any dialogue and are begging to be examined more closely.

The stories themselves are also just as uneven. Some episodes are genuine classics and belong up there with the great Star Trek episodes. These include “The Wolf Inside”, “Despite Yourself” (two fantastic Mirror Universe tales), “Lethe”, “Choose Your Pain”, and “Into the Forest I Go”. As great as those were, Star Trek: Discovery is also weighed down with some downright clunkers that are poorly plotted and clumsily executed. One example is the first episode that aired for free on CBS, “The Vulcan Hello”, which needed to be great to entice people to subscribe to the CBS All Access app that streamed the rest of the episodes. Unfortunately, the season also ended on a less-than-thrilling note with a two-episode storyline that ended the war too quickly and unsatisfactory. However, the final shot of the last episode “Will You Take My Hand?” brought a thrill when a sparkling and graceful Enterprise appeared on the screen.Despite these faults, I have to admit that I genuinely enjoy Star Trek: Discovery. As far as first season Star Trek shows go, this is the best one since the original Star Trek. Unlike some other Star Trek spinoffs that first started out, this show is rarely dull and takes some genuine risks, even if they do not pay off. Of course, the criticism is valid that unlike its predecessors there isn’t any exploring done. This is something that is a vital essence of Star Trek, but it does push the envelope, chiefly with its characters and focus. The captain is not the main hero but a broken and disgraced former officer. Many of the characters are out to prove themselves and most of them do, which is why they are so easy to watch and root for.Another thing to note is that putting aside all the action and eye-popping visuals (seeing the Discovery spin its saucer while it goes into spore drive never gets dull), certain elemental truths about Star Trek are still there. We just have to recognize them: accepting diversity, seeking diplomatic solutions, and bettering yourself. As Alexander Courage’s iconic theme played during the end credits of the season finale, I found myself eagerly waiting to see more from Star Trek: Discovery, and for that reason the show is a success.

José Soto

 

 

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Boldly Went Where No Trek Had Gone Before

Twenty-five years ago, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) premiered on syndicated TV and right from the start this Star Trek spinoff charted its own unique direction. Unlike other Star Trek TV shows, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stood out beginning with its premise and later by taking advantage of it. The show did not take place onboard a starship that traveled to different planets each week. The main character was not even a captain and was deeply troubled. More than any other Star Trek show, this one truly focused on its ensemble cast to create a rich tapestry of characters who actually grew throughout the run of the series.

When executive producer Rick Berman and writer/producer Michael Piller set out to create a new spinoff after the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation they did not take the easy route. Instead of just recycling the elements of Star Trek that made it so phenomenal they tried something different. The result was a show based on a space station with fallible characters that did not always get along with each other. Instead of having the cast explore other planets, other races came to the station, some coming from a nearby wormhole, and often the consequences of meeting the aliens were explored.  Showrunners like Ira Steven Behr took over and ran with the premise. Simmering political, social and religious situations were explored. Tensions boiled over into a long-running arc where the Federation went to war with the formidable Dominion and the impact of the war was fully examined in the program. For the first time, Star Trek became more serialized as season-long arcs were introduced, a rarity in ’90s television.

Unlike the more safe Star Trek shows running at that time, DS9 was edgier, took more risks, and went where no Trek had gone before by exploring volatile issues like social injustice, ethnic and racial tensions, taboo relationships and more. In fact, for all the noise made about Star Trek: Discovery with its non-white lead, homosexual relationships and hot-button issues, it has to be mentioned that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine covered all of this twenty five years ago.

To say that DS9 was ahead of its time is an understatement, but it can help explain why it was not a huge hit back in its day. More attention was paid to Star Trek: The Next Generation and later to Star Trek: Voyager since the latter show featured Trek’s first female lead. Yet both shows played it safe with its storylines and characters. After a while fans noticed that their familiar premise of spaceships exploring the unknown was becoming too pedestrian and predictable. DS9 on the other hand, took chances and the result was some of the richest and most memorable Star Trek stories.

Unlike many programs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has aged well and is as relevant today as ever. Many are discovering the show and appreciate what it set out to do, which is why its reputation has grown over the years. While most will claim that the original Star Trek is still the best, a valid argument can be made that DS9 is actually the best Star Trek ever. If you haven’t seen the show, I highly recommend you sample it, even though the earlier episodes are the show’s weakest. However, DS9 comes into its own and before long, you will be binge watching it.

 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is the most groundbreaking Star Trek show ever made because it boldly went where no Trek had gone before with its unique premise and rich characters and stories.

Lewis T. Grove

The Negativity Towards Modern Star Trek & Star Wars

The two big live-action sci-fi franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars, are undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. Or rather the crisis is about how their fans are reacting to the latest incarnations of both franchises.

The properties are several decades old by now and although so much of what made them popular still resonates with people, they have to remain fresh. In other words, Star Trek and Star Wars have to keep up with the times. This meant that the recent incarnations are distinctly different from the original versions, which has sharply divided fandom.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek returned to home screens with Star Trek: Discovery, a show that is in many ways a radical departure from the 1960s TV show. The lead is not a white male captain, but a black female science officer who committed mutiny. That’s not all. Star Trek: Discovery features an openly homosexual couple, a starship captain with questionable morals, and a much darker tone where adult language and violence are commonplace.

The premise of Star Trek is about a starship exploring new worlds and meeting new races. There is very little of that in Star Trek: Discovery as it takes place during a war with the alien species, the Klingons. This was something that Star Trek’s original creator, Gene Roddenberry, would not approve. He presented a futuristic show about an enlightened humanity.

While Star Trek: Discovery explores issues like its predecessor, the characters, not the guest aliens, are the ones undergoing their own ethical crisis. An early subplot of the show dealt with the morality of the ship’s crew forcibly using an alien creature as a means of propulsion. This brought up the problem of animal abuse and later the characters’ ethics were heightened when it was revealed that the creature was sentient. The captain’s justification for the abuse was that he was trying to win a war. Another main character is actually a Klingon disguised as a human, who suffers from PTSD and is grappling over his sanity. Then the main character, Michael Burnham, committed treasonous acts that ignited a war with the Klingons and agonizes over her past. These characters are not exactly clear cut heroes.

The Ambiguous Star Wars

The new Star Wars trilogy films have featured women as the lead characters, as well as non-whites. Unlike the original films that concentrated on a young, white male savior, the new films have strong women who are the central characters.

The films are also more ambiguous than the original ones with their simplistic good vs. evil plotlines. For example, in the latest film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the issues of war profiteering, class inequality, and animal abuse were brought up. The film’s villain had a more ambivalent nature as Kylo Ren was genuinely conflicted about embracing his dark nature. Actually, his descent into evil was more interesting than the film’s other one-dimensional foes, who were little more than cackling caricatures.

One of the heroes featured in Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Luke Skywalker, the main protagonist from the earlier films. In this film, he was a fallen man, full of defeat and bore little resemblance to the optimistic savior of the original trilogy. This arc gave Luke more dimension and provided a vehicle to explore his spiritual reawakening and redemption.  In the film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the main characters were also spiritually murky as they carried out dubious actions in the spirit of winning the war. For example, one of the leads, Cassian Andor, cold bloodedly murdered an accomplice in order to escape the bad guys. The overall tone of that film was harsher as it dealt with the brutality and ambiguity of war.

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Top 10 Films and TV Shows of 2017

The many memorable films and TV shows that came out in 2017 proved why the sci-fi, fantasy and horror genre dominated our minds. These modern-day gems stood out thanks to many factors like production values, f/x and acting. But more importantly due to smartly written scripts that allowed these productions to stand out and excel. These are the best films and TV shows of 2017 along with some honorable mentions.

Films

10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Episode 8 of the main Star Wars saga is its most controversial and divisive film. Despite its script and pacing flaws, the film had many merits and took the saga into unexpected directions.

9. TIE: Justice League/Thor: Ragnarok

This year’s final superhero flicks were great in their own ways. Justice League is a true guilty pleasure and wildly underrated. The epic team-up of DC’s greatest heroes was sloppy and erratic but deep down was a lot of fun. Meanwhile, Thor: Ragnarok was the most vibrant and fast-paced Thor film that put the heroic demigod through the wringer and teamed him up with the Hulk.

8. Get Out

Suspenseful and tense, Get Out exposed our current society’s racial fears in a groundbreaking way. The intelligent script kept us guessing about the plot’s many twists, while playing on racial misconceptions.

7. Blade Runner 2049

A brilliantly filmed sequel to the sci-fi masterpiece isn’t quite as good as Ridley Scott’s original, but it comes so close. Astonishing visuals and thoughtful themes stayed with you long after the film was over.

blade runner 2049 poster

6. Coco

Pixar did it again with this original (finally, enough of the sequels!) and beautifully animated tale about a colorful afterlife, family and remembrance that tugged our heartstrings so powerfully.

5. It

One of the best Stephen King adaptations ever is harrowing and downright frightening. But what made It so popular was its young character studies, as well as the performances from the film’s actors, including Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the clown from hell.

4. War For the Planet of the Apes

This thought-provoking final film in one of the best film trilogies thoroughly examined the haunted and tortured soul of its main character, Caesar, the super intelligent ape. He was an eerily realistic CG and mo-cap creation, who carried the film with his moving personal battle to salvage his soul.

war for planet of the apes poster

3. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The sequel packed more emotional punches than its heartfelt predecessor. Many characters went through intense personal arcs while the film itself was as charming, funny and thrilling as the first Guardians of the Galaxy.

GOTGV2 poster

2. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Smart, funny and exciting, Spider-Man: Homecoming is an amazing (corny pun intended) film comeback for the world’s greatest superhero. The first Spider-Man film in the MCU expertly captured the essence of Spider-Man, while modernizing the hero for today’s audiences.

spider-man homecoming posters

1. Logan

This masterful deconstruction of the superhero is a poignant and powerful swan song for Hugh Jackman in his role of Wolverine/Logan. More than a superhero film, Logan is also a dystopian, neo Western that displayed many motifs from the both genres to tell this heartwrenching tale of Logan’s final days. The film was so beautifully crafted thanks to career-defining performances by Jackman and Patrick Stewart as the wizened Charles Xavier. Part of the reason why Logan resonated with so many is because of its universal and relatable message about growing old and facing your end. Logan is a fitting finale for Fox’s X-Men Cinematic Universe.

Honorable Mentions: Alien: Covenant, Bright, Downsizing, It Comes At Night, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Kong: Skull Island, The Lego Batman Movie, Life, The Shape of Water, Split, Wonder Woman

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