Saturday, February 14, 2009

Saturday Afternoon Sci Fi

What is it with TV scheduling?  It was bad enough that something like half of the shows I follow air new episodes on Monday, but now Friday's become a hot spot as well.  On the other hand, maybe it was a good idea to suddenly supersize the quantity of shows I watch on this night, because quality-wise nobody brought their A-game this week.
  • Battlestar Galactica, "No Exit": This episode was trying to be one part "Downloaded" and one part "quick!  There's only six episodes left in the series and we still haven't tied our wildly self-contradictory backstory in a satisfying bow!"  It's kind of a dud on both counts.  I liked seeing Ellen again, and liked even more that in her present incarnation she has both a spine and self-respect, since in the past it's seemed like she could only muster up one at a time.  I also liked that the episode made some vague gestures towards some of the issues I raised in my most recent Galactica post, including the question of ultimate guilt in the ongoing Cylon/human dispute, and one possible reason for the most recent chapter--by which I mean not Cavil's moaning about how horrible it is to be human or how horrible humans are in general, but confirmation, if any was needed, that he's a raging psycho.  Sometimes, 'the guy in charge is a raging psycho' is the most satisfying explanation you can give for atrocious acts.

    On the other hand, it was an absurdly talky episode in both its halves--Ellen trying to justify herself to Cavil and Sam recalling his and the other four Earth Cylons' history.  Like the architect scene in The Matrix Reloaded, it smacked of the writers' inability to organically set up their backstory in the body of their ongoing plot, and not a little bit of desperation--of their realization that they had too little time to pay off too many debts of their audience's indulgence, while hastily laying the groundwork for the next chapter in the story.  I was too concerned with the very real possibility that Sam is going to be killed off to make way for a Kara/Lee finale (especially given the rather blatant scene-setting for a Boomer/Tyrol reunion) to pay too much attention to the potted history he was spewing, but what I caught had none of the sizzle of genuinely clever writing.  It was convoluted and obviously straining to tie together too many disparate elements for me to expend much energy trying to follow it.  I'm mostly annoyed by the revelation that there's yet another final Cylon (he's Starbuck's father.  The timeline doesn't work at all but he's Starbuck's father, and for the record we were saying it right after "Maelstrom" aired) though thankfully the number of episodes the writers can draw out the mystery of his identity is severely limited.

  • The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "The Good Wound": Once again, the show goes for contemplative and moody rather than plotty, and we're long past the point where it can skate by on strong performances and appealing guest characters (especially considering that this episode's empowered-woman-of-the-week was quite flat).  There's constantly a sense on this series that something huge is about to go down--Sarah (or John, or Derek) will find out about Riley and Jesse, Jesse will make an overt move against Cameron, Weaver will tip her hand to either Sarah or Ellison--but every week turns out to be just more buildup.  I sort of liked the use of head!Kyle, and most especially the irony of him being Sarah's voice of reason and compassion when the real Kyle was a violent, damaged fighting machine who made Derek seem well-adjusted in comparison.  It was a nice way of drawing attention to the kind of person Sarah was when she met Kyle and acted as his voice of reason, and how much she's changed (though once again we got this point ten or fifteen episodes ago and it is seriously time to move on to new things).

    On the other hand, I'm not sure how I feel about the episode's deliberate (and rather ham-fisted, since Sarah's never called either Kyle or Derek 'Reese') attempts to merge Kyle and Derek into a single person.  If the point was to get to the final scene where the doctor spills the beans about Kyle being John's father, then it was sadly misjudged, since Derek's known about John for months and we've known that he knows since the end of the first season (in fact until this week I had assumed that Sarah knew that he knew).  What I'm really afraid of, though, is that Derek is being groomed to take Kyle's place emotionally and perhaps even romantically, especially once Jesse is out of the way as she surely will be by the end of the season.  One of the things I've most liked about his character is that there's been zero romantic tension between him and Sarah, and I would hate for that to change.

  • Dollhouse, "Ghost": As Niall points out, what's most notable about this episode is its tone, and that tone's departure from the more punchy, more funny kind of writing we've been used to seeing from Joss Whedon.  Unlike Niall, though, I find the tone less successful.  Though "Ghost" is effectively creepy in certain scenes, most of the time it just feels slack.  None of Whedon's series have had especially good pilots, but all of them have been more distinctive than this episode.  I'm hoping that we're seeing another "Train Job" scenario, where a more interesting, better written pilot episode was yanked in exchange for something the network felt would have a better chance of pulling in viewers.  If that's the case then it was, once again, a really stupid move, and also highlights what seems to me like Dollhouse's core conceptual problem (besides, as Niall says, having a main character with no consistent personality).

    "Ghost" is a pilot episode for an adventure of the week series about a person who becomes something new and exciting every week, but the creepiness of its premise demands that there be more to the series than that, and I don't doubt that the story Whedon is interested in is more complicated.  The question is, which show will dominate--is Dollhouse a formula series with an overarching mystery storyline, in which case I probably won't bother watching (for one thing, because it'll mean that for all the blatant negative commentary about what's going on in the dollhouse, the chief appeal of the series will be the very thing it sanctimoniously shakes its head at), or is it a creepy, novelistic mystery/thriller that rewards audience loyalty and patience, in which case it'll quickly shed just those viewers this pilot was trying to capture and die a quick death?  Either way, it's frankly a relief to get past the hysteria that's surrounded this series since its announcement--it's misogynistic!  It's being screwed over by Fox!  Let's start a letter-writing campaign before the pilot's even aired!--and talk about the actual series, for however long it lasts.

19 comments:

Raz Greenberg said...

I found Dollhouse enjoyable, though the dialogue was far below Whedon's level - and I don't think it was an attempt to do something different, I think he was just sloppy this time around. Hopefully he'll get his act together in the next installments.
Generally speaking, I felt the pilot was trying to pull in two opposite directions. Roughly the first half of it was aiming very high in terms of concept and ambition, but it fell flat when it came to story and characters. Things just didn't come together (the editing job emphasized this). The second part was far more conventional when it comes to storytelling - it was basically a "procedural" (was it just me who had flashbacks of Tim Minear's short-lived show "The Inside" throughout the second part of the pilot?), but it was done and told well. It appears as though Whedon was aiming for "The Prisoner" but ended up with an upgraded version of Dushku's previous TV show, "Tru Calling".
So, the show has enough potential, and could go either way. But I think it's time we stop cutting Whedon a slack about his shows' need to improve along the way - after so much time in the business, a good pilot is something he should have learned how to do.

Kyle said...

I didn't feel like it was a Whedon show. No humor at all. At least "The Train Job" had some moments. Not many, but some. If it was a botched job because of studio/network problems (here's hoping), then I'll stick with it, but it has to come together quite quickly. I'm not looking for Buffy II or Firefly II, but I am looking for it's author. This seemed more like that (eech) show about the super secret super illegal cross country race. Sad, I can't remember it's name, but remember it's tag.

ianras said...

Drive?

Dollhouse definitely had a touch of Drive's 'strangely generic for something so high concept' approach but only a touch. I suspect that it'll get better technically and more maddening generally which is something I wouldn't have predicted for Drive.

Therem said...

Kyle: I didn't feel like it was a Whedon show. No humor at all.

I laughed when Tahmoh Penikett told the Russian guy, "[Do what I tell you to], and you'll never see me again," and the guy said, "I haven't seen you yet!" (He's been facing a urinal the whole time.)

There were a few other lines that made me chuckle as well. But the other moment that makes me want to check out further episodes was the quick montage edit of Echo-as-hostage-negotiator remembering the other active being shocked in the treatment chair. It really made me feel for her as an exploited individual who is starting to identify the machinery of the power structure and connect to her fellow slaves.

Re: Drive... you know that was a Tim Minear show, right? He has collaborated with Whedon on several shows, including Dollhouse, so the similarities are not accidental.

Kyle said...

Therem: Yeah, I knew that Drive was Tim Minear, and he was a collaborator, and he even got a producing credit on Dollhouse. Which made me both happy and shudder, happy, because he was a co-conspirator in Firefly, which I loved, and shudder because he was the show runner for Drive, – it left no impression on me except for the fact that Nathan Fillion should get more parts, and better ones than that one. Drive died a quick death, I think, because it needed to.

You’re right, the “I haven’t seen you yet,” was a moderately funny line, I’ll give you that, but from Whedon, I would have expected more of them. There were more clever lines and laughs in any first act of Buffy, or Firefly, than there were in all of Dollhouse. I know that the subject matter is supposed to be different, but still, it was like the author hadn’t bothered to show up. Maybe it’ll get better, and I’m certainly willing to stick with it.

Niall said...

It was convoluted and obviously straining to tie together too many disparate elements for me to expend much energy trying to follow it.

Heh, whereas I thought it was basically pretty clear and coherent. There's a valiant attempt to clear up the details going on over here.

For the rest of the episode: yeah, it was talky, but I really didn't mind that much because while it was exposition it was also, as you say, linked to some of the ongoing issues, and it was just so refreshing to have the characters actually talking and thinking about those issues.

Nic immediately suggested that Daniel is Starbuck herself, based on the meta reason that she was "meant to be" a man but got genetically corrupted -- she's the one we've seen in multiple bodies, after all, and we know she has artistic urgings. I would simultaneously be amused by this and find it problematic, I think.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I thought it was basically pretty clear and coherent. There's a valiant attempt to clear up the details going on over here.

You do see that these two sentences contradict one another?

I think what bothered me most was the obvious patchiness of the backstory, the way Sam kept piling on more and more explanations to cover the holes he'd just torn open (such as the reason for the time lag between the destruction of Earth and the five's arrival in the colonies being travel at near-light speeds), and mostly the writers' obvious disinterest in trying to conceal that patchiness or the fact that they were clearly scrambling to clean up their own mess. I can't help but feel that to waste brain cells trying to puzzle this story out would be to grant this pitiful excuse for plotting far more dignity than it deserves.

I really didn't mind that much because while it was exposition it was also, as you say, linked to some of the ongoing issues

One of the episode reactions I read made the important point that one possible effect of this episode would be to make Cavil the chief bad guy, and thus implicitly absolve all the other Cylons of just the responsibility I was insisting they all share for the destruction of humanity. It's not obvious to me that the show is planning to go in this direction, but it's not as if the writers have a history of avoiding easy outs.

Starbuck as Daniel is kind of interesting on a meta level because the original Starbuck was a man, but in just about every other way it would be the ultimate epic fail. Which is not to say that I don't think the show would do it, though I still think Daniel being Starbuck's father is much, much more likely.

Niall said...

You do see that these two sentences contradict one another?

No; I think the outline of the timeline is now clear, but an outline is all the episode provided.

I am confused as to why sublight travel is evidence of patchiness as opposed to a thought-out technological history.

Kyle said...

Did I hear it wrong, or did some Cylon say there was a colony? A colony of Cylons? Who can't reporduce? And a fading population of humans, that apparently can impregnate the Cylons. This sounds an awful lot like an episode of Star Trek: TNG where there was a planet of clones, that had basically run out of good genetic material, so the Enterprise dropped them a gaggle of stranded Irish refugees to help restock the coffers as it were.

I can't remember the name of the episode, but I have a sinking feeling that Ron Moore had a hand in it.

Niall said...

There was a colony mentioned, yes, and it did seem to have a big sign saying ENDING -- THIS WAY! hanging on it. I'm not sure that we've had confirmation of human/cylon interbreeding yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if we get some in the next few episodes.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Niall:

I think the outline of the timeline is now clear, but an outline is all the episode provided.

But the page you linked to wasn't trying to fill in that outline but untangle it, thus implying that its presentation in the episode itself was too confusing.

I am confused as to why sublight travel is evidence of patchiness as opposed to a thought-out technological history.

Because of the manner of its presentation. Watching the episode, you can clearly picture the brainstorming session that gave birth to it.

WRITER 1: The final five downloaded after the attack on Earth and arrived at the colonies at the beginning of the first Cylon war.

WRITER 2: But thousands of years passed between these two events.

WRITER 1: What if they travelled to the Colonies at light speed?

WRITER 2: Brilliant!

The episode itself might as well be this exchange word for word. There's no showmanship here. No craft. No attempt at storytelling. It's just the writers spewing for 45 minutes, tossing ideas as quickly as the actors can mouth them. After three and a half seasons and endless promises of a 'plan', this is what we get - the television equivalent of writing your entire term paper the night before it's due.

Niall said...

But the page you linked to wasn't trying to fill in that outline but untangle it, thus implying that its presentation in the episode itself was too confusing.

Well, it wasn't presented as a straight "this happened, and then this happened," I grant you. But the idea I had in my head after the episode ended pretty much exactly matches that post -- give or take a few questions (were the thirteenth tribe actually monotheistic, and similar).

There's no showmanship here. No craft. No attempt at storytelling.

Oh, I disagree. The device by which Anders can suddenly access his memories is transparently a device, but it's also really quite brilliant -- perfectly in keeping with what we understand of how the download process works. Likewise the constraints imposed on how that information must be conveyed are a great excuse for what is essentially just flat exposition.

I don't think they had the timeline worked out from the start, but I'm quite willing to believe they had the idea of how the final five went from Earth to the colonies worked out before they told us how long ago the final five were living on Earth. (They would more or less have to have done, given TV production times and the small number of episodes between the two pieces of information.)

Kyle said...

Because of the manner of its presentation. Watching the episode, you can clearly picture the brainstorming session that gave birth to it.

I agree. Anders remembered things because of the plot hole in his head. Watching the entire explanation, I thought, Lame! Why couldn't they do a "Lost" type flashback? Or a couple of them. They tried that in the past to more or less decent success. It just all smaks of "Quick, we've got to end this thing. Where did you put your notes?"

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The device by which Anders can suddenly access his memories is transparently a device, but it's also really quite brilliant -- perfectly in keeping with what we understand of how the download process works.

Huh? Firstly, we don't understand anything about how the download process works beyond the fact that it does - that a biological brain so similar to the human one that the two species can share a neurosurgeon can, at the moment of death, somehow achieve an instantaneous, lossless transmission of its personality and memories to another such biological brain. Beyond the fact that one needs to be in some vicinity to a resurrection ship, the show has laid out no rules or explanations for how this magic works. Secondly, I fail to see any similarity between downloading and what happens to Sam - he simply has, as Kyle puts it, a plot hole in his head.

Not, to be honest, that this bothers me very much, but once the McGuffin that causes Sam to spout infodumps is established you know exactly how the episode is going to play out - Sam will insist on revealing what he knows at ever-increasing risk to himself, but will be forced into surgery before the last, vital piece of information is revealed, which will cause him (or in this case, us) to lose access to it - if only because we've seen the exact same story play out before.

Niall said...

Well, exactly -- does it not make intuitive sense that a cylon in a near-death state, essentially paused at the moment Download starts, would have full access to their memories in the way that Anders does?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't see that leap as intuitive, sorry, and I'm not convinced that that's what the episode was going for either - the emphasis on broken blood vessels in Sam's brain seemed to me to suggest a physiological glitch (or some subversion of Cavil's previous meddling in the five's brains) rather than the download process starting up. Which, anyway, might not be happening seeing as the resurrection hub is no more. It's not an unreasonable conclusion, but it hardly seems obvious either.

Niall said...

Fair enough. The fact that downloading recovered Ellen's memories and original personality is what made it seem clear to me that Anders was stuck between the two states.

As for resurrection -- I missed the last flashback cue, how long ago is it (relative to the fleet's present) that Ellen escaped from Cavil? It seems likely that we're meant to think that's more or less in the present, and that she's going to turn up back at the fleet in the next couple of episodes with Cavil hard on her heels, but I wonder whether she might not be heading for the mysterious colony, only to be recaptured by Cavil and forced to restart resurrection -- because the line about Anders not being here any more sounds awfully like setup for him to have Downloaded somewhere.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

The business with Ellen's memories, I assumed, had to do with her new brain not having been tampered with by Cavil. But once again, it's not as if the writers are bound by consistency or internal logic - Boomer, who was more or less in the same boat as Ellen, downloaded as exactly the same person she was on Galactica.

The last flashback was set, I think, two days ago, so it seems likely that we'll be seeing Boomer, Ellen, and Cavil pretty soon.

Raz Greenberg said...

Not sure if there's gonna be a new post, so I'll only say that the second Dollhouse ep was a HUGE improvement. Still not up there with the best Whedon can do, but much better than the pilot.

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