Monday, January 25, 2016

A Sneak Peek at The Magicians

Over the weekend, I found that the first episode of The Magicians, which starts with the first two parts tonight, was available on demand, so I gave it a shot.

I wasn't crazy about the book. I liked the idea of it because I wanted more contemporary fantasy that was about wizards and magic rather than vampires and werewolves, but the book itself struck me as cynical and derivative. It seemed to me more a case of "fantasy" about fantasy fans rather than a book written for fans of fantasy. It seemed to be trying too hard to be "edgy" in the sense of "Harry Potter, but with drinking, sex, smoking, and drugs!" and that made me dislike the characters. I never bothered reading beyond the first book, especially because the way the characters were at the end of the first book made me really intensely dislike them. It seemed to me that the fantasy tropes were all obviously taken directly from well-known works, and in some cases from a superficial understanding of those works.

However, I kind of liked the first episode of the series, though there's still a chance that I'll turn against it (since I was still okay with the book that far into it). In a nutshell, (VERY MINOR SPOILERS) the series (the book is slightly different) is about a young man who's getting ready for graduate school but who is still obsessed with a series of fantasy novels (basically Not!Narnia) that provide his escape when the real world is too intense. He goes to a grad school interview in Brooklyn and finds himself at a school in upstate New York, where he's being tested on magical aptitude. He gets into the school for magical training, but he starts having strange visions of that fantasy world from his favorite books, with one of the characters giving him cryptic warnings. Meanwhile, his best friend also ended up at the aptitude test, but she failed and was sent home, supposedly with her memory wiped. But she does remember and becomes obsessed with the idea of magic and wanting to learn to use it.

They seem to be aging it up from college to grad school in the series, and on the one hand that's good because it avoids making it a teen thing (see the Shannara series) and it makes some of the goings on at school a little less sketchy if these are all 20-something adults. On the other hand, a guy in his early 20s who gets annoyed that his friends aren't as into the series of kids' books they were obsessed with in their teens does sound a little weird. Mostly, I like the imagery in the series. I like the world they've created, and I think they've done a good job of making it its own distinct place rather than Not!Hogwarts and Not!Narnia. I could never get the originals out of my head while reading the book, but the series creates its own world. I still feel like they're trying way too hard to be edgy, but that's just my personal taste.

Bottom line: I'll check out the next part and then see if I want to keep up with it.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Expanse

I was a little late getting around to watching The Expanse because it premiered in the middle of the holiday busy season, but then after the new year I watched the first three episodes OnDemand, then had to wait until they had a marathon earlier this week to catch #4 on the DVR since that one wasn't available OnDemand and they just skipped to #5. I haven't yet caught last night's episode because I was a few minutes late getting to it and for some odd reason my DVR wasn't letting me watch it while the recording was in progress (which I thought was what the DVR was supposed to be for, but I digress) and I didn't want to stay up to watch after it finished recording. So, these thoughts are based on the first five episodes and for all I know, they've blown it all up since then.

This is a new SyFy show that's sort of space opera meets film noir detective story. There are two parallel plot lines that seem to be converging and that turn out to be about more or less the same basic issue. In the space opera side of things, there's the crew of a ship that answers a distress call and finds something very unexpected that pretty much turns their lives upside down, so that they lurch from dangerous situation and crisis to dangerous situation and crisis. In the film noir side of things, we're on a base in the asteroid belt, where the workers who provide resources to the planets aren't too happy about not getting a share of the resources, and on these mean streets/station corridors, a jaded cop in a fedora makes a halfhearted effort to keep the peace -- until he gets an off-the-books assignment to track down a missing heiress.

I'll admit that I'm not overly keen on the very dystopian look at the future, with all the "rich people are evil and oppress poor people" (as written, produced, and performed by people who probably make more per episode than much of their audience makes in a year) and "we're all going to die of global warming" messages that seem mandatory in any vision of the future produced by current Hollywood. But it's a science fiction show taking place primarily in space, on space ships and space stations, on the SyFy channel, which is kind of exciting. They went through a phase of veering more toward paranormal, which I like, but with two summer shows (Killjoys and Dark Matter) and now this show taking place in space, they seem to have returned to their roots.

I also haven't yet really latched on to any particular character. In the first few episodes they've done a good job with the "no one is safe" concept, so it's not entirely clear who the regular cast of characters is going to end up being. That makes for a lot of shocks and surprises, but it also means I started pulling back emotionally and not wanting to get attached to anyone. They're going for gritty, which means there's no one who's entirely a truly "good guy." That means I'm mostly watching for plot because I'm curious about how all these things are coming together and what it all means. I don't think I'm going to end up really obsessed with this show, but it's interesting, and they're doing some good stuff with worldbuilding (being based on a series of novels probably helps there). The acting is pretty good. I'm just not finding any real heart to it, even as I'm eager for the next episode to find out what happens. We'll see how long that curiosity about what's going on will sustain me in the absence of any characters I actually care about.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Star Wars is Back!

I've been putting off writing a review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens for a while now, not because I didn't like it but because I'm having a hard time focusing enough for any kind of detailed analysis rather than just going "SQUEEEEEE!!!! STAR WARS IS BACK!!!!!" I thought I needed to see it again to process it beyond just the excitement, especially since I came down with a cold about halfway through the movie (seriously, suddenly I couldn't stop sneezing and someone turned on a faucet in my nose, and I ran out of tissues). So I saw it again, and I may have had more detailed things to say, but I still pretty much felt like I did back in 1977 when my mind was blown and I sat in the back seat shooting down TIE fighters with the window crank handle as my family drove home from the movie. Though I did refrain from rushing out to tell the entire story to all my friends the next day this time around, and I forgot to help my mom look for the Star Wars sheet set she says she still has (yes, I had Star Wars sheets on my very princessy canopy bed, which I think sums up my personality and interests quite nicely).

So that's pretty much my non-spoiler review. I didn't hate the prequels as much as a lot of people did (not that they were great movies, but they didn't ruin my childhood, or anything like that), but this movie actually really felt like Star Wars. It felt like a real world instead of a computer graphic, and the characters talked and acted like people rather than robots (and that includes the robots). I actually think these new characters are more three-dimensional and fleshed-out than their original trilogy counterparts were at this point in that trilogy. Those characters were essentially archetypes. There wasn't a lot of depth or detail to them, and to some extent that helped because it made them so universal. These characters all feel more real. They have more defined goals and motivations. I also think that this movie works as an entry point in the series, with the previous generation characters functioning a lot like Vader and Kenobi did in the first trilogy, where we knew there was a history there but we hadn't seen it play out yet. If this was your first Star Wars movie, you might not get the impact of all the moments and references, but you could still follow the story and figure out the older characters from context, like we had to do with the original. The difference now is that if you're intrigued, you can go watch the backstory right away instead of having to wait to see what further hints are dropped in subsequent movies or a trio of prequels.

And now for the spoilers. Go away now if you haven't yet seen the movie. Really. Trust me on this one, it's better unspoiled.

Friday, September 25, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship with Once Upon a Time: The Hate Begins

In season 2 of Once Upon a Time, my love started to tilt toward love/hate. The end of season one had left me excited. I couldn't wait to see what life in Storybrooke was like now that the people had their memories back and knew who they really were. How would they react to what Regina had done to them? How would they cope with life in modern America? And what about the Charming family -- Emma finally believed that Snow White and Prince Charming were her parents, and they finally knew who they were and knew who she was, and had the weird, bittersweet awareness that they'd missed their daughter's entire childhood, and now, thanks to the time freeze of the curse, they had gone seemingly in an instant from having a newborn to having an adult daughter who was the same age as them.

And then the show barely dealt with any of that. In the season premiere, Emma and Snow were sent away through a portal. There was one angry mob scene, but after that everyone seemed to have forgotten about Regina tormenting them. There were mentions of Missing posters and an attempt to register the various fairy tale people to help them find their loved ones in this new world, and there was one episode in which most of the people considered leaving the town so their memories would be re-set to their cursed selves so they wouldn't have to cope with basically having two identities stuck in their head. And that was it. As a fantasy writer, this drove me insane. How could they create this incredible situation and then do absolutely no worldbuilding with it and not mine it for all its potential? There's a whole town full of people with two identities in their heads, a fairy tale persona and a person who grew up in modern America. We know of at least one married couple who were split up and put with other partners by the curse, and at least one child put with a different family. Were there more? How would they cope with this? There's someone you spent 28 years married to -- though without the sense of time passing -- and then there's the person you were married to before that. Did people try to go back to their fairy tale occupations or stick with what the curse gave them? There was potential for so much fun here -- did fairy tale elements start creeping into the town and come up against the modern American elements now that people had their fairy tale memories? How would these fairy tale characters incorporate modern American stuff? The town should have ended up as an odd hodge-podge as people chose various things to keep or discard from their lives.

However, when I got the DVDs after the third season aired, I found that I quite enjoyed the first half of the second season. It wasn't what I wanted it to be, and there were so many missed opportunities, but there was still some good stuff there. I like Emma and Snow White's chance to bond as they tried to make their way back home, and Emma getting to see her mother in her own element and not as the mousy schoolteacher the curse had made her. Regina's mother, Cora, made for a fun villain. And then there was Captain Hook. If you've read my books, you've probably figured that I have a type, and while he wasn't immediately obvious as my type (I don't do bad boys, and the black leather does little for me), we soon started seeing something beneath his facade, and yeah, he was my type. In season two, he fit the Shapeshifter archetype, as you never were sure exactly where he stood. He could lie with a straight face, but was also the character most likely to cut through the nonsense and speak the truth. He had a laser-like focus on his own agenda, which meant he switched sides often, teaming up with whomever he thought was most likely to help his cause. He had an odd mix of swagger and vulnerability. You never knew for sure what he would do or how he would react. He was a villain, but his cause was actually somewhat sympathetic, and they kept his karma in balance because every time he did something wrong, he immediately got smacked down.

But then the second part of the season hit. When I look back at this series, I suspect that I'll still believe that the show's Jump the Shark moment came in mid-season 2, when the narrative focus seemed to make an abrupt shift and the morality got massively wonky. That was when Emma and Snow returned home and the family was finally reunited, and the camera focused on Regina looking sad as her former victims all went off together for their first family dinner, ever. The way it was framed made it look like they were just a bunch of meanies excluding poor, sad Regina, the victim, and in interviews the writers are actually proud of this scene because they think they've created a complex, sympathetic villain. And that was when everything shifted. From that point, poor Regina was the biggest victim who ever victimed. She never took any responsibility for her past crimes. The good guys were made to grovel at her feet for any perceived wrongs done to her, but she's yet to really apologize for what she's done to them or even indicate that she knows she was wrong to do what she did to them. Even after that point in the story, she went on to set things in motion to kill all of them, so this wasn't even a real turning point for her. She didn't change, but the tone of the narrative around her did. 

They talk about how there's not just black and white, there are shades of gray, and it's all more complex and nuanced than in the fairy tales, but in this case they actually made it more black than in the tale. In the fairy tale, the Evil Queen was only shown to do bad things to Snow White. There was no indication that she had her husband murdered, slaughtered entire villages, or destroyed a civilization with a curse. That's what Regina has done. She's actually worse than the fairy tale character, and yet we're supposed to see her as more complex and sympathetic. In the writing for this show, that "there are shades of gray and it's more complex" only seems to apply to villains. If the heroes put one foot wrong, they're terrible, horrible people -- and things like telling a secret are seen as equal to mass murder. That's why I say this show's morality makes A Game of Thrones look like Sunday school because even though that show depicts evil in graphic detail, it never tries to make evil look sympathetic, never tears down people for being good (for being stupid, maybe, but not just for being good).

Somewhat related to this is the way that around this period in the show, they quit letting most of the characters have realistic emotional reactions. Regina got to cry and look sad over every little thing, but the good guys weren't allowed to be upset at all. Their lives had been totally disrupted over a misplaced vengeance quest, people they love have been murdered, there have been murder attempts made against them, and they don't act like any normal person would in response. When they do respond realistically to news of a betrayal, it's shown as a sign of darkness. This gets increasingly frustrating as the series continues and the characters start looking like plot devices instead of like people. They're so seldom allowed to react to things and have real feelings. We have to lurch onward to the next big twist.

And there are some other warped things, like their attempt at the Beauty and the Beast relationship. I'm okay with them conflating some fairy tale elements -- I think making Red Riding Hood also be the wolf was brilliant -- but they made Rumpelstiltskin, the overall villain of the piece, also be the Beast, as in Beauty and the Beast, and as in the story, Belle sees the goodness beneath his fearsome exterior. Except we never really see any goodness in him. He's utterly selfish and driven by a need for power at all costs. He doesn't want his curse broken because he wants to keep his power. When Belle first showed up in season one, she realized that he chose power over love and left him, essentially saying "call me when you're not evil." But in season two, she's back with him, and nothing seems to change her mind about him, not seeing him do evil things, not learning that he was deliberately keeping her away from her father, not learning that he murdered his first wife for leaving him, not watching him beat people nearly to death. She still constantly bleats about his good heart, which makes her look like one of those women who write love letters to serial killers.

I almost rage quit the show when Snow White had a crowning moment of awesome in taking out the villain in a creative way that was loaded with poetic justice, and the show (and all the characters) told us that was wrong, and she ended up groveling in apology and wallowing in guilt about it. The only thing that kept me hanging on for season 3 was Hook's big turnaround -- actually admitting that his entire revenge scheme had been wrong and that he'd been wasting his life -- and the voyage to Neverland that ended the season.

From there, things got better for a time, and then we got to the point where I no longer fast forward past the scenes I don't like. I have to fast forward to find the scenes I do like.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship with Once Upon a Time -- the Love

The series Once Upon a Time in many ways seems like it was created just for me. It's a fun mash-up of fairy tales that juxtaposes these elements with the real, modern world, which is right up the alley of someone who writes contemporary fantasy that plays with fairy tale elements. I actually have a love/hate relationship with this series. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. Sometimes I hate to love it. Sometimes I love to hate it. When it's good, it's outstanding. When it's bad, it's so absolutely atrocious that I can't believe people aren't being fired for writing that crap (and the failures are about 95 percent the writing -- the casting and acting are responsible for a lot of what's good about the series).

I was recently rewatching some of the earlier episodes to prepare for this weekend's premiere, and while the series later goes off a cliff, develops one of the worst Mary Sues ever created by supposedly professional writers, and has a moral sensibility that makes A Game of Thrones look like Sunday school, the pilot is one of the most wonderful bits of television ever, and the first season, for the most part, is fun and full of potential.

Spoilers for the whole series may lie ahead

The concept alone is so brilliant and unique that it would be impossible to file the serial numbers off and use it as a jumping-off point for a story that fixes the later faults. The residents of the fairy tale world have been brought to a modern small town in Maine by a curse, where time hasn't moved for 28 years and they have no memory or awareness of their true selves. Enter the one person to escape the curse: the infant daughter of Snow White, who's grown up in our world, entirely unaware of her real heritage. So we have a tough, cynical Disney princess who doesn't know she's a princess and isn't ready to accept her identity, surrounded by fairy tale characters who don't know they're fairy tale characters -- except for the Evil Queen, who's not at all happy that the one person who can break her curse is in town. And then there's the backstory of how all this came to be, told in flashbacks in the fairy tale realm, bringing the old tales to life with some twists, and not necessarily told chronologically, so it's like fitting together pieces of a puzzle.

The concept has so many of my personal "yes, please!" story elements it's not even funny. We have fleshed-out fairy tales, where the archetypes are turned into actual characters and there's a lot more plot. We have fun twists on fairy tales -- the story isn't quite what you thought it was, while it still respects the spirit of the original tales. We have juxtapositions between the magical and the ordinary. We have fairy tale elements moved into the real world. We have secret/hidden identities. And there's non-linear storytelling (something I'd love to try but don't yet have a good idea for).

Not that the season is entirely perfect. There are a few obvious filler episodes. There are some incidents of Idiot Plotting, where the plot only works because some of the characters act like total idiots in a very out-of-character way. We get the first hints of the later moral wonkiness when Regina, the Evil Queen, is shown to be forcing the Huntsman to basically be her sex toy, since she ripped out his heart and can control him through it, and she's ordering him into her bedroom. I can't think of a way that isn't rape, and yet the writers don't see it that way and still don't understand the fuss about it. And when the reason the Evil Queen really hates Snow White is revealed, it's a big case of "Seriously? That's it?" I suppose that the very concept of the curse is mostly plot device because it makes no sense if you think about it. It has to be one of the dumbest revenge schemes ever (until the fourth season, when we see an even dumber one). We didn't know it at the time, but these minor flaws were harbingers of what lay ahead.

Of the good: I absolutely loved the twist about Prince Charming's true identity and the way it was revealed. The show has become dependent on Big!Shocking!Twists! (sometimes in lieu of actual pacing and development), but that was a twist and a shock that worked. In a flashback, we saw our Prince Charming acting like a total jerk. I figured that we were probably going to see him learn A Valuable Lesson that would show how he came to be the good man we know, but then a second later he was killed. And then we met the guy we know of as Prince Charming and learned that the prince was really a poor farmer's son who was adopted by the king. Now his twin, the one the farmer kept, has to step into the role of the prince in order for the kingdom to fulfill a treaty. The death of the prince was a huge shock, but then the revelation that our prince wasn't really a prince was a fun twist on the story.

Another fun bit of fairy tale fleshing out was the way Snow White became a badass bandit after being driven out of the palace by the Evil Queen. She didn't run into the dwarfs until later, so instead of immediately becoming a housekeeper, like in the story, she learned to survive in the woods, became an expert tracker and archer, and robbed the Evil Queen's carriages (is it robbery if all that stuff is rightfully hers?). She was good friends with Red Riding Hood, who turned out to be a werewolf, so she was also the Big, Bad Wolf, and Granny was a tough old broad good with a crossbow (or knitting needles). There were a lot of strong female characters who weren't the usual "strong female characters" (who are usually more like Rambo in drag).

I also enjoyed seeing the parallels between the fairy tale stories and the way these people's lives were going in our world. Hansel and Gretel were homeless kids hiding out in an abandoned house and shoplifting candy from the drugstore. Jiminy Cricket is the town psychiatrist. Cinderella is a hotel maid.

The season finale was another one of those near-perfect hours of television. After a whole season of Emma, our heroine, going toe-to-toe with the Evil Queen, with the deck heavily stacked against her, everything came to a head, and it was all about faith, love, belief, and just desserts.

And then season two happened, but that's another story ...

Monday, September 21, 2015

Doctor Who Returns

I suppose as a good geek (even if I am stealthy about it), I need to talk about the Doctor Who season premiere. Oddly, though, I don't have a lot to say. I haven't really been feeling it for the past year, and I can't tell you why. There's nothing I can point to and say I dislike. I just don't care quite as much as I used to.

Then again, there is the possibility that what I have is a more normal state of caring, downgraded slightly from a state of rabid obsession.

I wonder if it has something to do with easier access making it feel less special. Before last season, I didn't get BBCAmerica on my cable service. The episodes were available OnDemand, usually the next day, but if I wanted to see it live, I had to depend on other people, who sometimes used other means to obtain the episodes. I frequently got together with friends to watch, and premieres and finales were usually special occasions. Now that I can just turn on the TV when it comes on, maybe there's less of a sense of anticipation and excitement.

Anyway, it's hard to talk about a two-parter after seeing only the first part. It feels like the whole episode was setup for a big conclusion.

But there were fun things. Making an entrance on a tank while playing electric guitar in medieval England gets bonus style points. There was lots of continuity. And I think we're going to get some fun with time travel in the way this plays out. I'm a big fan of time travel as a real story element rather than just being a means of getting to the location where the story will take place -- all that wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. And I do love the fact that they based an entire episode (or more) on a hypothetical question asked in the classic series.

Hmm, now maybe I have talked myself into getting excited. I ought to rewatch the episode OnDemand.

For the rest of the week, be prepared for some ranting about Once Upon a Time. I've been rewatching previous seasons and veering wildly between swooning and wanting to throw things at the writers.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Return of Continuum

The new (and final) season of Continuum starts tonight, in the post-prime time slot on SyFy (10 Central).

For those who haven't seen it, this is a series about the ramifications of time travel -- can you change the future by changing the past, and what are the ramifications of that? It's about a cop in a dystopian, corporate-controlled future who gets caught in the wave when a group of terrorist sets off a device to send them back in time so they can change the past and create a different future. She just wants to get home to her husband and son, but doing that will require finding a way to travel in time, and that requires catching the terrorists. The other issue is that if anything is changed, it might change the future so she might not have a husband or son to go back to, so she has to be very, very careful how she goes about things.

And it gets more complicated from there.

Her primary ally in all this is the genius kid she knows will grow up to be the architect of their future -- a kind of unholy mix of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who runs the corporation that seems to control all technology. He's certainly good now (though with some issues), but whether or not his future self is good is rather ambiguous. It's also ambiguous whether his future actions suggest that he remembers these events, so that they've already happened.

It's kind of headspinning, but in a good way. I'm a sucker for time travel stories that actually play with the nature of time and traveling in time as a plot device (as opposed to the "travel to a place/time where our adventure will happen" stories). The original Terminator film is one of my all-time favorite movies. I'm less enamored of the sequels, though I did like the TV series. I love Connie Willis's time travel novels, which get into chaos theory and whether the timeline is self-correcting so that it's impossible to mess things up without something else happening to set everything right. The SyFy web site has a decent Continuum 101 page to refresh yourself, though I'm not sure this is a series you could just dive into at this point.

I'll be watching tonight because my future self sent me a reminder, which means she watched it, which means if I don't watch it I could be creating a paradoxical split timestream, and that never works out well.

Incidentally, I'm sure this series will come up at FenCon this year, since our theme is time travel, and there are lots of panels about time travel books, movies, and TV.