The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Dramatic Presentation Ballots

Since I'm a Hugo voter this year, I thought I'd write about more than just the short fiction nominees, and since there's a mere two weeks left until the voting deadline, I might as well get the least time-consuming categories out of the way first. The best dramatic presentation categories get more votes than just about any other category excepting best novel, and perhaps as a result of that they tend to fall in line with popular tastes, giving nods to effects-laden blockbusters and big ratings hits. This is tolerable in the long form category, since it's a rare year that has more than a few decent genre films to choose from anyway (though for a contrasting opinion, see Jonathan McCalmont's alternative best dramatic presentation ballot. I'm frankly a little surprised that Let the Right One In didn't get a nomination, but I found Blindness underwhelming). But the short form category, which ought to act--as the best novel category does--as a counterpoint to the mainstream tendency to ignore worthwhile genre work, consistently fails in that role, and this year seems to have hit its nadir by ignoring the three best, and now all sadly defunct, genre series of 2008--The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daisies, and The Middleman--in favor of the old standbys.

Not, to be fair, that the short form nominees actually matter, as it's been plainly clear since last summer that the 2009 category might as well have been renamed The Joss Whedon Award for Best Doctor Horrible Sing-Along Blog-ness for all that there's been any doubt about the winner. Which I don't really have a problem with--there were hours of genre television I liked better than Doctor Horrible in 2008, but not many, and none of them are among the nominees. I probably like "Turn Left" best of the remaining nominees, though having seen its two followup episodes I'm less positive towards it than I was when I first watched it (and anyway, I think "Midnight" should have gotten a nod instead). My least favorite nominee is Galactica's "Revelations," not so much because it was a bad episode but because the only memorable thing about it was its scorched earth ending (which anyway has been devalued by the abysmal series finale it led up to).

Which leaves Doctor Who's "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead" and Lost's "The Constant." Both are decent enough, but I'm inclined to be harder on Who than on Lost. With three Hugos already on his mantel, I think that Stephen Moffat should be graded on a curve, and this was by far his worst story for Who, overlong and lazily plotted despite his clever lines and fun characters. I also think that "The Constant," the only one of the nominees I hadn't seen in its original airing, didn't really get a fair shake out of me when I tracked it down this morning, since by that point I'd already heard too much about it and its twists. That said, I don't really understand why this episode caused such an uproar in Lost fandom last year. It gets points for focusing on the only character I could still stand when I stopped watching the show and the only relationship I didn't find completely icky, but as a time travel story it relies mainly on handwaving, and as a piece of storytelling it uses the sweetness of its central romance as a crutch. It was very touching when Penny answered Desmond's phone call, but really, was that it?

My votes, then:
  1. Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog
  2. "Turn Left," Doctor Who
  3. "The Constant," Lost
  4. "Silence in the Library"/"Forest of the Dead," Doctor Who
  5. "Revelations," Battlestar Galactica
The long form category is similarly dominated by a single nominee. Wall-E is a great story, a great film, and great science fiction, and it was obvious to me as soon I saw it that it should win the Hugo (and though the short form category is letting down the side in this respect, at least by nominating Wall-E the long form category is picking up a tiny bit of Hollywood's slack, as the film was criminally left off the best picture ballot at the Oscars). The next best film on the ballot is clearly The Dark Knight, but I'm inclined to give it a low rating seeing as it's not actually a genre film. As The Dark Knight plainly demonstrates, superhero stories don't necessarily equal science fiction, and neither is it a fantasy or horror story. This is a film that simply doesn't belong on the Hugo ballot, and is probably only on it because of its huge popularity among genre fans. Of the remaining two films on the ballot, Hellboy II and Iron Man, I'm having trouble deciding which one I like better. Both are enjoyable but deeply flawed--Hellboy II is visually stunning and has a fun story, but the characters are non-entities; Iron Man is energized by its central performance and has some nice SFnal moments in its emphasis on technology and engineering, but its plot is entirely predictable and falls apart in the third act. Right now I'm inclined to give Iron Man the edge, but that could easily change.

Which leaves what is probably the most interesting nominee on both dramatic presentation ballots this year, the audio-anthology METAtropolis, in which editor John Scalzi and contributors Jay Lake, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, and Karl Schroeder jointly imagined the city of the future and then wrote stories set in or around it (the anthology is available for free download here, though you'll have to sign up for Audible). It should be said that I don't feel like the best judge of this nominee, since on the one hand it's difficult to compare an audiobook to a film, and on the other hand I'm not a big fan of the audiobook experience, which demands enough of my attention that I can't do anything else while listening, but doesn't monopolize it, leaving me feeling idle and restless. With that caveat, I have to say that I was rather unimpressed by METAtropolis. The stories themselves are exposition-heavy, with very little action or meaningful conversations--Farah Mendlesohn sums them up quite well in her Strange Horizons review when she says that "for too much of the time we are being given a tour of Utopia." This might have been tolerable in a written anthology, but as Farah also notes one can't skim or skip forward when one is being read to, so that what might have been slightly tedious on the page becomes stultifying in the ear. Listening to METAtropolis feels less like being told a story and more like a long lecture from a very enthusiastic Boing Boing contributor who keeps dropping buzzwords like creative commons license or open source technology as they explain how the city of the future will work. Which, obviously, is part of the project's goal, but it's pretty clear that with the exception of Scalzi none of the writers involved gave much thought to the difference between a written and performed work, or tried to tailor their stories to suit a dramatic reading (which is to say, more dialogue and action, only the bare minimum of infodumps and description). Which means that METAtropolis really doesn't work as a spoken word work, and thus gets my lowest rating on this ballot.

Once again, my votes:
  1. Wall-E
  2. Iron Man
  3. Hellboy II
  4. The Dark Knight
  5. METAtropolis
Next up, I think, will be either the Campbell or best related work nominees. I'm frankly so unenthusiastic about the best novel nominees that I'm not entirely certain I'll manage to read them all before the voting deadline, but one of the nice things about having a blog is that it gives you a reason to take on reading projects, so I may yet post about that category as well.


Anonymous said…
Boy, am I glad to read that somebody else didn't think "The Constant" was the greatest hour of television ever. I mean, did anything, y'know, HAPPEN in that episode? And Penny and Desmond love each other -- didn't we know that already?
Anonymous said…
Yeah, in retrospect the Constant is only really good by comparison with Lost's usual fare. Even watching it the first time in S4 it didn't strike me as the best episode of the season, although it may have been the most Sfnal.

With regards to other parts of the list I regard the Dark Knight as the most ambitious, complex and well-characterized story on this ballot. However you're right that it's not in any meaningful sense scifi or fantasy, and I'm not disappointed to see Wall-E get the edge (and, just recently, have won). I'm a bit more generous on Relevations than the listing here, it had some nice pace and character work, and in D'anna one of the last effective and coherent adversaries of the show. Not great fare, but a decent hour beyond the eventually negated Earth-ruin factor. In contrast I'm a fair bit harder on Silence/Forest. Personally I detested the character work in that one, from the almost fanfic-ey qualities of Riversung to the out of character awkwardness with Donna and the Doctor. And the central premise and plotting was at turns lazy, incoherent and boring. Apart from some inspired comedic moments in the second half there's very little to like about this.

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