RSS

Category Archives: Television

Star Wars: Rebels, and Clone Wars a Little Bit

As much as I’ve said in the past that I’m a Trekkie first, there’s no doubt that Star Wars is firmly in the ascendant these days. I would have thought that both franchises were destined to stagnate and fade quietly away. Whether or not Star Trek: Discovery proves me wrong I won’t know for a while, but Star Wars has unexpectedly risen again with the release of the exhilarating the Force Awakens and gut-punch intense Rogue One.

Still, I can only re-watch them so many times. It was out of curiosity, and some unexpectedly good reviews that I ended up trying out the animated spinoff series: Clone Wars a while back on Netflix, and then, more recently, Star Wars: Rebels.

starwarsrebelsseason20003

Left to right: Hera Syndulla, Kanan Jarrus, Ezra Bridger, Zeb Orellios, Sabine Wren

Rebels‘ third season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve found myself quite enjoying it. Moreso than Clone Wars, although that didn’t stop me watching four fifths of it, too. I assumed that it would be very kid-oriented and shallow. A little unfairly, it turned out…

Star Wars: Rebels features Ezra Bridger, a street kid in the capital of the planet Lothal. The Galactic Empire is squeezing the planet for labour and resources and cracking down on dissent. Ezra is pickpocketing his way to survival when he gets caught up in a more ambitious Robin Hood-style action by the crew of a smuggler ship, the Ghost. One of them, Kanan, recognizes Ezra’s uncanny intuition and skill for what it is: he’s a Force-sensitive. Kanan was a Jedi student during the Clone Wars, and takes the brash Ezra under his wing. As they cause mayhem for the Empire on Lothal, they attract they attention of Imperial authorities, including the cunning intelligence officer Agent Kallus, his boss, the formidable Grand Moff Tarkin, and the Imperial Inquisitors, Force-sensitives tasked to hunt down surviving Jedi. Eventually, even the Inquisitors have to give way to their boss, Darth Vader. As the spark of the Lothal rebellion grows, inspiring others and drawing in other rebel cells, they become part of a larger movement that openly confronts the Empire, under the insidious and erudite Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Ezra becomes a member of a closely-knit crew of misfits: Kanan, the half-trained Jedi veteran, the exiled warrior-artist Sabine, sour ex-soldier Zeb, recalcitrant droid Chopper, and their feisty yet cunning captain, Hera Syndulla. Each of them brings their own skills and personal history and issues that drive them to oppose the Empire and stand by each other, however difficult that sometimes proves. Ezra struggles to fit into a crew, and family, and all of them try to cope with the growing scope of their role in the galactic conflict, as Ezra also begins to learn the ways of the Force and the perils of the Dark Side.

If that seems like a busy schedule, it’s because Rebels is built to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model of a new Big Bad every season, although Thrawn isn’t out of the picture as of the end of Season 3. That can be a dodgy approach, as it was on Buffy or Legend of Korra because it can be hard to keep ramping up the drama from scratch. However, Rebels takes an in-between approach, where the story arc of gradually escalating the scope of the rebellion, and the Empire escalating its response in line with it by bringing in a succession of heavy hitters.

By and large, the escalation coincides with the show finding its feet. Personally, I didn’t find the Inquisitors, with their creepy eyes and overdesigned light sabres, all that scary. But you’d have to be nuts not to find Tarkin or Vader scary – especially after the latter’s exploits in Rogue One, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is chilling, although his sinister wait-and-watch habit arguably went on just long enough to seem silly before he finally brought the hammer down, but boy did he ever!

That said, I have to say that I still find the series somewhat toothless. A lot of shows listed on the TV Tropes wiki have a section called ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar.’ It usually lists things like dirty jokes or heavy content slipped into kid shows for the benefit of the more mature-minded. Batman: the Animated Series and Avatar: the Last Airbender have quite a lot of entries in theirs. It says a lot about Rebels by comparison that it doesn’t have one at all.

Rebels sort of resembles Firefly in that it features a created-family scenario scrunched into a slightly run-down spaceship doing crosses between covert ops and odd jobs. But somehow it still maintains a certain plastic unreality. The ship seems awfully clean and well-lit. Their food never seems to run low, enemy weapons only ever hurt them if the plot needs them to, they only have one or two episodes where fuel or money troubles vex them. And, like that old joke about the Enterprise, the Ghost doesn’t seem to have any bathrooms.

The characters themselves, meanwhile, are each interesting in their own right but the chemistry between them is a little weak. The show isn’t willing to do anything so brazen as have even subtextual romance subplots. Ezra seems to be trying catch Sabine’s eye for a while but nothing ever comes of it one way or the other. She doesn’t even just say ‘no,’ the subplot just trails off after a while. Kanan and Hera seem to have a thing for each other – she calls Kanan ‘love’ a lot – but it’s not clear what the story is there. And even during the tough times, very rarely do any of them break character in a shocking way.

The show is about war – it’s right there in the name and all – but like Clone Wars before it, the subject matter doesn’t really seem to be taken seriously. Not least because there’s a double standard about how shocking death is. In Clone Wars, the fact that the bad guys were bumbling battle robots made mowing them down seem unremarkable, notwithstanding some philosophical considerations concerning droid sapience. But now the Imperial stormtroopers are the enemy mooks, their bumbling and bad aim clash with the knowledge that there are actual human beings in that armour – although they very carefully avoid letting you see their faces whenever their armour gets stolen. It makes the death of any stormtrooper, especially one with a speaking role, or one who perishes with particular irony, quietly disturbing. And yet when death or maiming happens to someone with a face, then it gets regarded with shock by the heroes, even if it’s a bad guy, like the defector Tua or the Inquisitor who commits suicide in season 1 – presumably preferring that to having to report in to Darth Vader.

In general I think what makes me uncomfortable about Rebels is that it doesn’t consistently treat war as something bad but necessary, but as something awesome and cool. It makes for compelling battles and raids, though. Kanan is pretty good about speaking up for a more pacifistic angle, as well. And some episodes deal with the costs of war, like when Kanan gets blinded in season 2, Sabine’s schism with her clan, and the hideously costly battle at the end of season 3. Avatar had to pull punches as well, of course, but was somehow more consistent about it, and was more convincing about treating war as something you have to do but rather wouldn’t. The priority of action over character development also means that characters come through the fires of war but it doesn’t seem to cost them that much emotionally – they bounce back too easily.

That said, the toothlessness of the action is markedly diminishing, with characters unambiguously dying and the rebels getting set back big time in season 3. Given the Ghost and Hera’s very brief cameos in Rogue One, the bar for how far we can take this is promisingly high. And I do like the characters a lot. Ezra’s got rather more emotional range than average for the spunky young hero. Kanan has fascinating internal conflicts, and I like the way he subverts the standard Old Master character by being himself half-trained. Zeb has something of the shell-shocked veteran going on – he kind of reminds me of D’Argo in Farscape. Sabine doesn’t get as much character development as I’d like, but the premise of the scion of a martial tradition with the soul of an artist is quite charming. The level of sophisticated thinking displayed by Thrawn is well above average for a cartoon villain. My favourites are Hera herself, and Agent Kallus. Kallus has perhaps the most pronounced character arc of them all, keeping me guessing throughout. Hera’s interesting on a few levels. Arguably, she has the greatest emotional range and deepest backstory of any of the characters, especially since her father’s character carried over from the Clone Wars. But as a Star Wars fan, the coolest thing about her is that she’s a Twi’lek.

If you don’t know, Twi’leks are an alien species in Star Wars, almost invariably found in the context of exotic dancers and slave girls in the thrall of people like Jabba the Hutt. So to get one promoted to lead character is really cool. Besides that, she’s no one’s sex object. She makes those who assume she is one pay dearly in one early episode where she has to pose as a slave, and she dresses eminently practically, in something like Kaylee in Firefly’s work clothes. On a bigger scale, almost all of the human characters are discernibly non-white, so we’ve got actual representation and metaphorical representation as a garnish.

However cagey I’m being about character arcs, they’re a decided improvement over Clone Wars, which consisted of multiple, mostly isolated adventures. That aspect of Clone Wars is handy because no more than a passing acquaintance is needed to get the significance of legacy characters like Hondo Ohnaka, Rex the retired clone trooper, or Ahsoka Tano, who has her own supporting character arc as a former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker when Darth Vader enters the narrative. It also gives the galaxy a bit more sense of scale – they don’t effortlessly go just any old where with no sense of how the larger war is going, and they’re only one, not particularly powerful independent cell of a larger resistance.

As a Star Wars fan, the references to the larger canon are charming without making the series completely inaccessible. Canon characters like Darth Vader and Lando are recognizable enough, as are locations like Dantooine and Mustafar. Others like Thrawn, Saw Gerrera and Colonel Yularren – otherwise known as one of the dudes sitting around the Death Star’s conference table – are engaging enough even if you don’t know who they are. At the same time, the writers are pretty good at making sure that the story of our main characters is served by the appearance of legacy characters like Vader, Ahsoka or Obi-wan, without them stealing the show. Likewise, they never defeat the primary villains in a way that diminished their effect or menace.

I might be being a little too harsh in some of my critiques, since I have a bad habit of putting this show on and half-watching it while I wash the dishes and such. But while I find it shallower and more by-the-numbers than Avatar, Legend of Korra, or the new live-action Star Wars productions, it still has much merit. Apart from the cool factor of Star Wars, it has cool and diverse characters, charming dialogue, and a promising story arc that’s been getting better and better. The music is superb, making effective use of the classic motifs by John Williams. The voice acting it a big part of what makes it, with Billy Dee Williams, Forrest Whitaker and James Earl Jones himself reprising their characters from the live action movies. The versatility of Dee Bradley Baker, who somehow made all the Clone Wars troopers sound like different people with the same voice, and Steve Blum, who, if you know what to listen for, is half the supporting cast, is stunning. And some big names come to the party as well: Jason Isaacs as the first Inquisitor, Freddie Prinz Jr. as Kanan – and his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar as another Inquisitor – Star Trek’s Brent Spiner as an Imperial senator, Kevin McKidd as a Mandalorian warrior, and no less a personage than Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, as the mysterious Bendu in season 3! Sherlock fans may also recognize the chilling Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn.

With such merits, the show is most promising and a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.

May the Force be with us all.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 7, 2017 in Television

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Pirates of Dark Water: A Missing Link

I’ve said before that we 80’s-90’s kids are a nostalgic bunch, and when it comes to cartoons, we have much to be nostalgic about: Gargoyles, the DC and Marvel Animated Universes, and for us unironic leftists, Captain Planet.

For the longest time, I’ve had a vague memory in the back of my head of a program from my early childhood, but I couldn’t remember what it was called; I could only recall one scene, and that it was about sailing ships and questing for a bunch of treasures. After a while, I began to wonder if a couple of unrelated childhood memories had just blurred together in my mind.

A couple of weeks ago, a passing reference on Zero Punctuation finally kicked my mental stars into alignment. I wasn’t even paying full attention to the video when I heard the title, and my eyes widened in recognition of the words: Pirates of Dark Water.

This animated series by Hanna-Barbera, running from 1991-93, takes place on an alien water world known as Mer. Young Ren is the keeper of a lighthouse on the shores of his former home, the ruined realm of Octopon. Destroyed, like much of Mer by the spreading plague of Dark Water, a vile, devouring horror of the seas.

The evil pirate Lord Bloth sails to the ruins in pusuit of a castaway prisoner, who reveals with his dying breath to Ren that he is the former King Primus of Octopon, and Ren’s father!

Prince Ren takes up his father’s broken sword and magic compass, to complete his quest: to seek the magical Thirteen Treasures of Rule. These treasures have the power to restore the ruined lands of Mer and drive back the Dark Water.

Ren brings together, to use the show’s phrase, “an unlikely but loyal crew of misfits” including the cynical pirate Ioz, the beautiful magician-warrior Tula and Lord Bloth’s former slave, the monkey-bird Niddler on the good (stolen) ship Wraith. Together they seek for the Treasures, fighting off sorcerers, sea monsters, barbarians, cultists and the unrelenting Bloth, who covets the Treasures and their power over Dark Water for himself.

The funny thing is, I don’t actually have a lot of nostalgia for Pirates of Dark Water; as I said, up until now I thought I might have imagined it. Watching it on the Internet, though, I can certainly understand why people would be.

It evokes a lot of things for me. The sleek, ornamented ships, Arabian Nights clothing and sea monsters make it look like a cartoon version of Ray Harryhausen swashbucklers like the Golden Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. The sword-and-sorcery setting evokes Krull, Dungeons and Dragons, or sci-fi/fantasy adventure writers like Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. The menace of an ancient evil sealed beneath the seas evokes H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

It also stands out in the quality of its visuals. Keep in mind that Hanna Barbera was known at the time for limited-style cartoons like Yogi Bear, the Flintstones, Scooby Doo and the Jetsons. It made for efficient and economical production, but the consequence was that their characters never moved more than the minimum necessary. This resulted in characters whose heads seem only informally attached to them, and who run like Riverdance, with upper bodies stock still above legs cycling like windmills.

Pirates of Dark Water looks startling by comparison, but at this point that really is faint praise. In fighting scenes, for example, there’s seldom a sense of impact, of force transferred from one person to the other. Although the ‘choreography’ is pretty good, it looks more like rehearsing a fight, not having one. Similar to this are things like Niddler lazily flapping his wings while carrying a person three times his size. The animation also didn’t maintain well; as the series went on it got less and less subtle. Characters’ physical ‘performace’ sometimes didn’t sync up with intense emotional dialogue. It looks way better than Transformers or Jem a few years before it, but not as good as Captain Planet or Batman: the Animated Series which followed after. The lavish watercolour backgrounds are lovely, but when compared to the bright flat colours of the characters, the effect is that they’re in front of the scenery rather than part of it.

That said, it’s really nice scenery to be in front of: the designs of buildings, ships and landscapes are marvelously variable, and brings across a sense of a huge world of widely-dispersed civilizations, a little bit like Earthsea. Whole ranges of creatures and sea monsters and ships delight the eye. Bloth’s giant ship the Maelstrom, constructed entirely of bone and transporting a pirate army with riding dragons and support craft is particularly magnificent. The show also has catapult-launched gliders, balloons, and bristles with exotic swords, boomerangs, crossbows and esoteric weaponry using venemous sea creatures as ammunition.

Character design deserves great credit; the villains are all so weird and deformed looking they may not even be human – and there are many non-human races on display – Bloth in particular is ogre-like, and Morpho, the Cthulhu-inspired Dark Water cultist genuinely unnerved me.

Better still, none of the three human leads are styled as lily-white Europeans. Ren admittedly looks like a deeply tanned Scandanavian, although a quirk of the art style makes his eyes look somewhat epicanthic, like maybe he had a Japanese grandmother or something. Tula and Ioz are definitely not Western European in appearance. Ioz looks sort of East Asian and Tula, going from her dress sense as well as her looks, could be from just about anywhere between Turkey and Thailand if those places existed on Mer.

What really stood out for me as I watched the show was that the dialogue is startlingly naturalistic and polished, with lots of banter and little character moments. For comparison I watched clips of episodes of She-Ra and Captain Planet, from opposite sides of Dark Water’s era, and their dialogue is comparatively clunky, pedantic and, as I’ve said of Captain Planet before, more like it was written by a child rather than for children. In other words, Pirates of Dark Water doesn’t talk down to kids like many of its contemporaries.

The main characters themselves are surprisingly nuanced. Ren is the Hero, always running to the rescue and doing the right thing, but in a way that brings him across as naive as much as principled. Ioz is a bit of a chauvinist and rogue who proves the line from Curse of the Black Pearl, that ‘piracy itself can be the right course.’ Tula wouldn’t be caught dead acting like a damsel in distress, and has cunning and gumption enough for the whole crew. Niddler stays consistently a step above the annoying, comic-relief team pet by having genuine traumas in his backstory. Bloth is smart, pragmatic but affable and with an honourable streak that makes for a more complex villain than, say, Megatron. The protagonists generally do develop, subtly, as time goes on, with Ren getting more savvy, Ioz more softhearted, Tula more trusting and Niddler more courageous, though the arcs are still very slight and unambitious.

This is backed up by the voice actors: Ren is voiced by George Newbern, later Superman in the DCAU’s Justice League series and beyond. Tula’s actress, Jodi Benson, had previously voiced the star of Disney’s Little Mermaid. Bloth is played by Brock Peters, known to Trekkies as Captain Sisko’s dad and Admiral Cartwright in the fourth and sixth movies, and has henchmen played by Tim Curry and Peter ‘Optimus Prime’ Cullen! Roddy MacDowell played Niddler in the pilot episodes, whereupon Frank Welker took over. Hilarious, considering Welker would much later hold the role of ‘Nibbler,’ another ravenous alien creature, in Futurama! Since, as usual, he also plays a ton of supporting characters and animals you can play ‘Spot Frank Welker’ while watching if you know what to listen for.

In general Pirates of Dark Water is working toward the state of later shows like Batman: the Animated Series, in that it’s aimed at kids but can also resonate with adults. Notably, it occasionally uses words like ‘die’ and ‘kill’ which were utterly off-limits in many contemporaries. To give the show a bit of grit, the writers created a set of fantasy-language curses. There are several blasphemies against Mer’s gods but also words that are clearly taking the place of ‘damn’ or ‘shit.’ It reminds me of one of my favourite shows: Farscape, which is famous for its alien swears. A key thing to remember though, is that Farscape’s fake swears were mainly meant to be funny; Dark Water’s were meant as a worldbuilding device and to darken up the setting, but some of them just sound goofy to adult ears. ‘Noy-Jitat’ sounds like an honest foreign language, but when Ioz exclaims ‘Chongo-Longo!’ the dramatic tension abruptly turns to dust. Not helping is that, as the show went on, these went from occasional punctuations to every second word of the dialogue. The dialogue is further undermined because, although well written, the short episode length often requires the actors to speak their lines quite quickly, making them seem rushed and halfhearted.

The worldbuilding is undisciplined. Part of what pulls you into Avatar: the Last Airbender is a clearly defined world for you to explore and learn about. In Dark Water, though, while there are one or two places revisited, we never see a world map and get a sense of the scope of things. Every island seems to have a completely different ecology and civilization, which is usually seen once and never again. There are so many one-off sapient creatures that the world seems overstuffed, vague, and less real.

But Pirates of Dark Water’s biggest drawback is that it didn’t finish. The show was cancelled with only eight treasures accounted for. Funnily, looking back, I remember now that I wasn’t sold on the show because I didn’t like the idea of a multi-episode story arc. I was too young to understand times and dates well enough to reliably keep abreast of it. With thirteen treasures to hunt down, I could have easily missed a lot and it turns out I was right to be wary. If they’d made it three treasures, or seven or some smaller, resonant number, that might have been safer. More problematically, though, the treasures became increasingly spaced out by filler episodes. It became more like the episodic one-adventure-at-a-time show that was standard back then instead of sticking to its guns.

My feeling is that Pirates of Dark Water was a show before its time. It clearly foretells the calibre of the DCAU, Gargoyles or Avatar, but it doesn’t actually reach that level itself. The animation standards weren’t equal to the story the creators were telling and there was little prior experience in mythology arcs, character development or refined worldbuilding to draw from. I also think the cast of protagonists is too small to create the kinds of complex dynamics that drive fanfiction and fan shipping. Speaking of shipping, the Wraith itself looks awesome, but characterizing your ship – the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean, Moya in Farscape or Serenity in Firefly – is, I believe, essential for this type of story. But the Wraith’s really just a mode of transport in practice. I also just think Wraith isn’t a very punchy name.

Pirates of Dark Water does not evoke nostalgia for me, but in a way I wish it did. It certainly deserves nostalgia, despite of missed opportunities. Much as I grumble about remakes, I wouldn’t mind remaking Pirates of Dark Water, because it’s a chance show all that’s been learned, from the age of Transformers to the age of Legend of Korra, and truly realize its ambitions. Regardless, I’m glad to have recovered this lost memory, and to memorialize a sign of things to come from my childhood.

Sail away, sail away.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on March 8, 2016 in Television

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday Supplemental: On the Future of Star Trek

So it’s been announced that 2017 will see the arrival a new Star Trek series. And as a lifelong fan of Star Trek, and a supporter of its original message of an idealistic vision of humanity’s future, I’m dreading it.

star_trek_facebook_page_credit

Star Trek was great, but also had singificant flaws. I think ultimate root of my problem with J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation is that Star Trek has not only abandoned its mission statement, but seems to think that several of its flaws are actually selling points. Although geek culture has become mainstream in the new millennium, Star Trek fandom, so I believe, is still regarded as a bit of a joke in some quarters, including among some of the fans themselves. I’m therefore concerned that what could be a fanstastic new progressive sci-fi series will end up, like the movies, concerned more with retro self-parody.

The Mary Sue recently compiled an excellent list of things the new Star Trek is going to have to start doing in order to maintain its relevance in this era of television. io9 has produced a couple of them. Not wishing to accentuate the negative, I nonetheless want to point out some of the things that I believe were holding Star Trek back that, if it is to be great again, it needs to stop doing.

5. Don’t Keep Falling Back on Rubber Forehead Aliens.

By the TNG-era Star Trek shows, the standard method for making a character appear alien was to glue some rubber prosthetic to their foreheads. The Klingons were the vanguard of this technique, but it was the go-to method for most alien characters. Sometimes it was relatively subtle, like the nasal ridges that mark out Bajorans. Other aliens like the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Jem’Hadar have almost their entire heads covered with prosthetic.

On the face of it (har har) this was a reasonable way to do it. It’s relatively cheap, you can crank out a zillion of them at a time, and it still leaves the actors with some ability to emote.

There are a couple of big problems, though. For one thing, it isn’t very scientific that right-on-the-money humanoids would be this ubiquitous. For another thing, some of the designs are so arbitrary and token that they just look goofy – somebody even mentioned in-universe once that Cardassians all appear to have cutlery glued to their heads.

More troublingly, looking at a lot of episodes, you start to realize that how sympathetic and relatable the aliens are is sometimes in direct proportion to how much they resemble Anglo-Saxons! This is a really unfortunate habit for Trek of all franchises to have fallen into. The good news is that, if the creators are willing to really give Star Trek a place in modern media, as opposed to making it a parody of itself, there are lots of ways around this. CGI now allows a lot more possibilities for relatively small expense, not to mention less agony for the actors. And the idea that ‘relatable’ must mean ‘human-looking’ was firmly discredited by one of Trek’s later contemporaries: Farscape. Farscape’s aliens were in many cases Jim Henson puppets, and Pilot and Rygel were principle characters with legitimately emotional performances.

That’s not to say they should go back and un-rubber-forehead the Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans or anyone else, but if they want to build something new in Star Trek and not just circle the drain a few more times, this is a good way to go.

4. Chuck out the Holodeck and Transporter Malfunction Plots

Within the fandom this has to be one of the biggest jokes going. The Holodecks go catastrophicaly wrong so often that there ought to have been a massive recall on them at some point. Futurama had a dig at this once; it’s the only joke at Star Trek’s expense that’s ever made me laugh. Some of these episodes were legitimately good, like TNG’s “Emergence” or DS9’s “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” but there were too many of them for it not to seem absurd and tiresome after a while.

The transporters don’t go wrong as often but they still did it to excess. As before, some of them were alright. Again, nothing this basic and common to the universe should go awry this badly, this often and still be in use. I’d almost be willing to see them chuck out the transporters entirely, or do what Enterprise did and only use them in emergencies. The reason the transporters were introduced at all was because it was too expensive in the 60s to do a landing sequence effect every week, and today it’s easy as pie.

There’s a bigger issue here involving excessive amounts of plot-important but meaningless technobabble, not unlike Doctor Who, but in Star Trek’s case it’s usually just a bit irritating at worst, except particularly in regards to holodecks and transporters. Deal with that, and much else can likely be forgiven.

3. No More Bridge Bunnies

This isn’t neccessarily the biggest flaw in Trek but it is the one that most gets on my nerves. Gene Roddenberry was a great and progressive person, by most accounts a very nice chap, and ahead of his time in many ways. At the same time, however, he was a massive chauvinist. And it showed.

The ubiquitous miniskirts on the Original Series are the least of it at this point. Counsellor Troi, a commissioned Starfleet officer in TNG, spends most of the series bumming around the bridge in what looks like a stripper’s pyjama onesie. I can understand Troi wanting to be approachable despite her rank to, say, a nervous newbie on the Enterprise. She’s basically a non-denominational chaplain after all. But how anyone could concentrate on her advice is beyond me. DS9 mostly kept this habit mercifully in the background with Quark’s barmaids, which at least made some kind of sense. Voyager restrained itself for a while but then gave up and introduced Seven of Nine in her boobtastic unitard. Eye candy was apparently so desperately important that it overrode such trivial considerations as the oxygen supply to Jeri Ryan’s brain.

The absolute nadir was, naturally, Enterprise and T’Pol. T’Pol had no excuse. She was an officer, with scientific and tactical specialities, from a highly formal culture and yet arses around the ship in a freaking castuit. Vulcans don’t care about sex appeal and every other non-Starfleet Vulcan ever has worn robes. That’s not even touching on the contrived situations where she strips for no good reason.

And for me, this is one of the biggest obstacles to Star Trek being respected as a social commentary platform, or even just as a show: it’s a damned hypocrite! You can’t have an all-inclusive diverse vision of humanity’s future and then plaster it with male-gaze eye candy. It makes your message look clueless, or worse, like you don’t actually mean it.

So, if Star Trek is to be regarded in the wider world as anything but a sweaty male nerd’s delusion of intellectualism, you have two choices: either get rid of the eye candy or make it equal opportunity. Not saying I want the second one, but you can either play fair or not play at all. Them’s your options.

2. Don’t Throw the Word ‘Logic’ Around

From the word ‘go,’ Star Trek has been famous for juxtaposing a highly passionate or emotional character with a cool, highly rational one. Kirk and Spock, Riker and Data, Kira and Odo, Paris and Tuvok, B’Lenna and Seven of Nine, Archer and T’Pol, to name a few possible dichotomies you could make in the casts.

The thing of it is, that the scenarios that pit passion against logic are oftentimes horribly oversimplified, and tend to be delivered in favour of the passion-driven character and very condescendingly to the rational character. Data getting lectured about chess by Troi is one instance I’ve always remembered, since playing chess illogically is basically impossible. The poker metaphor used in other episodes, like “the Corbomite Maneuver” works rather better, and when Dr. McCoy tried to call Spock out, Spock could usually throw it right back at him.

The accumulating evidence leads me to conclude that a lot of writers don’t know what ‘logical’ actually means. Because in Star Trek, it far too often translates as simpleminded, naive, or even callous.

So the writers of a new series are going to really have to up their game in writing how a strictly non-emotional thinker would see the world, and make sure that each side of the coin actually represents a legitimate point of view.

You can also subvert it sometimes. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might want to take a page from Steven Moffat. The reason “Scandal in Belgravia” is my favourite episode of Sherlock despite its very dodgy gender politics is that in the end, the cold-emotionless-rational guy wins precisely because he’s the cold-emotionless-rational guy!

It also pays to consider that Vulcans and similar races oughtn’t be all the same. There can be more than one kind of logic or perspective, something which Star Trek’s been inconsistent at demonstrating with its ‘Planet of Hats’ monolithism.

1. Don’t be Cavalier about Worldbuilding

This is a tough one because it encompasses a lot of Star Trek’s myriad little flaws, but they are so many that it becomes the key issue Trek needs to deal with. Star Trek has always suffered from chronic ‘depending on the writer’ syndrome. In an age where consistent canon and long-running story arcs are the rule, this is a vice it can’t afford anymore.

Starfleet protocol is a big one. Assume for the moment that Starfleet has a military structure, whatever else it might be, and several questions arise. Why is Riker, as ship’s executive, allowed to flirt and even have flings with personnel under his supervision? You can’t even do that in non-military hierarchies. Why do the most senior personnel always go down to the dangerous planets first? Related to that, why does Starfleet only seem to have officers and precisely one enlisted specialist: Chief O’Brien? Why do officers never salute or stand to attention? How big is Starfleet? For that matter, what is Starfleet’s exact role? They talk up exploration but they do a lot more than that.

In general, it would be nice if they would let the protocol inform the story, rather than bending protocol to serve the story. Sisko’s standing in the fleet in DS9 doesn’t make sense except on the basis that he’s the hero and therefore must be in charge. If they’d promoted him to flag rank, or the Defiant had had to play a crucial but supporting role, that would have worked. Including more enlisted types, or to borrow a phrase from TNG, more regular “Lower Deck” characters would help this one a lot, too.

Some of the rules, like the Prime Directive, are never more than summarized, so they mean whatever the writer wants them to mean. Some rules are just plain forgotten about, leading to many examples of how Star Trek started chasing its own tail in later years. TNG did a number of episodes about the rights and status of artificial intelligence, some setting legal precedent in-universe, only for Voyager to tackle the exact same ones, as if nobody in the Federation had learned a damn thing the first go round.

The society behind Starfleet is seldom shown. We know that the Federation doesn’t use money, but what do they do instead? How does day-to-day life work? How much autonomy do Federation member worlds have? This is a big problem inasmuch as we never get a clear sense of what our heroes stand for except in general, idealistic terms. They’re pretty good terms, mind, but I think Star Trek would be made much more compelling if it became a comprehensive model of a future society. Politcally high risk – the writers might fear being denounced as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ – but potentially high rewards. We also have to consider the possibility that some of them just flat-out don’t work and have to be retconned, like the replicators that by rights should render all mining, agriculture and manufacturing obsolete.

I said earlier that other races in Trek occasionally threatened to get monolithic. On the flipside, though, sometimes they were quite inconsistent. For some reason, the Klingon attitude to suicide sticks out at me; in some episodes it’s acceptable, in others it’s absolutely taboo. This isn’t differing attitudes between Klingons, it’s the same Klingon saying different things.

Another issue is scope: Star Trek is the posterboy for the Trope that science fiction writers have no sense of scale. This was actually the one thing about Into Darkness that every Trekkie seemed to catch: given the travel time from Earth, you’d think the Klingon Empire started at Pluto. The TNG two-parter “Unification” had the Romulans trying to invade Vulcan even though Vulcan is nowhere near Romulus. It’d be like if the Nazis had tried to invade just Las Vegas but no other part of the USA along the way. If they had a stronger sense of astrography, as in Honor Harrington, then it would define the Trek universe much better and open up interesting options for strategy in the stories.

The biggest one for me personally is the battles. I’ve said before that combat should not be the focus of Star Trek storytelling. The trouble is that when it did come up, it was stilted as hell and inconsistent. TNG was especially bad for this. If the plot needed the Enterprise to win, they’d usually mop the floor with the other side in three shots. If the plot required our heroes to lose, they would promptly lose fifty IQ points and the ship would magically turn into glass and cardboard. The battle in Star Trek: Generations was particularly exasperating for this reason.

Never mind being accessible to the masses, this sort of thing frustrates the most loyal Trekkies, and it’s not something they can afford in the current age if it wants to stand tall beside today’s television epics.

Of course, you have to wonder, depending on how much reworking the Trek verse needs to avoid all this, and to do the things the Mary Sue or io9 called for, would it still be Star Trek? But then that leaves me back where I started. If Star Trek can’t function beyond these parameters, then it’s gone as far as it can go, and you might as well make a new, original series. Which would be best? I don’t know, but if Star Trek is going to become a province of the nothing-but-remakes culture we live in now, it had better make it worthwhile.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday Supplemental: The Jem Trailer, or Why Am I Even Here?

I can’t quite believe I’m doing this: I’m not only about to complain about a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but I’m furthermore going so far beyond my logical range of interest as to be utter madness. But when the trailer for the live action adaptation of a cult 80’s cartoon is so bad that even William Shatner knows about it, it probably bears some examination. And besides which, the opportunity is golden for me to complain about the current state of creativity in mass media.

So this past week the trailer was released for the live-action movie Jem and the Holograms, based on the 80’s cartoon Jem by Christy Marx featuring Jerrica Benton, daughter of a record company executive who bequeaths her and her foster sisters an AI named Synergy who projects holograms, enabling Jerrica to turn into the glam rock star Jem and lead her band, the Holograms in setting off a cultural bomb against her late father’s underhanded partner and his fractious and criminally insane ‘bad-girl’ band the Misfits.

The cartoon is completely daft from first to last: Jerrica is a borderline Mary Sue – a record company owner and trustee of a private group home for girls, who also maintains the secret identity of a fashionista rock star. The secret identity produces a lot of drama with her boyfriend, the Holograms’ roadie Rio, who dallies with both Jem and Jerrica not knowing they’re the same person, and causing Jerrica angst as she tries to sort out his true feelings and maintain the secret identity. All this despite him being in the inner circle and kind of a creepy hypocrite about lying even as he thinks himself to be two-timing his girlfriend. It’s the kind of relationship drama that could only possibly work on somebody under the age of 8.

Still, its whacky premise and aesthetic and timing for the millennial generation gives it hefty nostalgia potential. But, naturally you must be wondering, how in the hell do I, a hominid of the male persuasion, know all of this?

Full disclosure, I’ve watched some of this show. And I don’t mean when I was a little kid. I mean about two years ago. I stumbled upon it partly by way of a fanvid I randomly happened upon, then I looked it up and discovered Outrage of the Zygons, a quite excellent fan webcomic crossover with Doctor Who, and then I went ahead and examined the source material, partly out of nostalgia for the crummy old animation style of the period and partly out of a quest to lose my Man Card as far behind the sofa as possible. Besides, it was more or less Christy Marx’s magnum opus, and since she also penned a number of episodes of my favourite shows – an award-winning episode of Beast Wars, in addition to episodes of Shadow Raiders, ReBoot, X-Men Evolution and even Babylon 5, I figured she deserved some further recognition on my part.

When I was a kid, my grandparents were the only ones in the family with satellite TV – back when having a satellite dish looked a like you had a Jodrell Bank franchise on your lawn – and I used to sneak next door to watch retro Cartoons at ungodly hours of the morning. Gotta hand it to them, they never seemed to mind.

From this experience I deduce that Jem is something of a missing link between three generations of cartoon.

It’s got early signs of the ‘socially responisble Aesop’ kid’s show of the 90s, exemplified by Captain Planet (and even cheesier, if you can imagine). It lives in the period of the ‘suprisingly good glorified toy commercial’ of the late 80s; it’s basically a girlie counterpart to GI Joe or Transformers. But it’s also among the last of an older subset of the mystery-solving-team genre a la Scooby Doo where the amateur detectives are also a rock band. I have no idea where this concept sprang from, but in the 70s and 80s there seemed to be scads of them: Josie and the Pussycats are the obvious one, but there’s also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw, a sci-fi variation taking place in an undersea civilization where the band’s frontman is a talking shark. No I don’t know why, shut up!

Anyway, like a lot of such properties it’s getting a bit of a reboot in film form, and the trailer almost instantly provoked universal objection from the whole freaking internet.

I was vaguely aware from the Facebooks of fangirl friends of mine who remember this show that a movie was in the offing, and red flags sprang up instantly when the creative team running the show were revealed to all be men. So, the cartoon that set itself up as being a deviation from the bunches of dudes in contemporary shows, that told stories from women’s perspectives, and you’re handing it off to a bunch of dudes? You don’t think a woman’s perspective and understanding of the characters, their dynamics and society’s pressures on them might have helped? A woman like, say, Christy Marx, who you didn’t even bother telling about this movie apparently?

Then when you actually get to the trailer itself, it bears zero resemblance to the source. Apparently in this Jerrica is a regular teen who gets discovered on YouTube, is picked up by a record label who basically turn her into Jem and make it impossible for her to be herself anymore, straining her bond with her family/bandmates and setting up the moral about the costs of fame. Jerrica Benton? More like Jerrica Bieber!

This moral played itself out about three trillion times in various teeny-bopper shows in the 90s – I seem to recall the show Kids Inc tackling it in particular. What’s striking is that it’s tonally the opposite of what I got from the cartoon. In this, Jerrica is a victim of the big monstrous machine forcing her to be Jem and ruining the really important stuff in her life. In the cartoon, being Jem is her idea, allowing her to rocket to the top of the charts at the head of her own record company. She’s in charge, and uses that power to prevent unethical business practices and do good in the world, while trying to balance that with her private life! She was basically a well-adjusted, girlie-glam-rock-Batman!

Adapting that aspect convincingly would indeed have been a challenge, if they’d actually tried, because the cartoon’s tagline of ‘glamour and glitter, fashion and fame’ would be met with cynical suspicion rather than awe in the age of the Britney Spears train wreck and corporate-engineered pop stars like Justin Bieber. But to then turn around and subvert that (kind of like what I suggested they should have done with idealism in Man of Steel) would have been a cool idea.
More bizarre still, the ‘hologram’ part of ‘Jem and the Holograms’ is absent. Back in the day it was a truly random bit of sci-fi – Synergy’s avatar always looks to me like one of the Bangles had a lovechild with Optimus Prime – but today it’s bordering on plausible! And yet they almost recoil from the idea of making this in any fantastical or even fun!

And I find this all very instructive because we’re living in an age where, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “What isn’t a sequel is a knockoff, what isn’t a knockoff is a reboot, what isn’t a reboot is a remastering.” As I wait for a reboot/sequel hybrid apiece from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, and another one from Star Trek, plus the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this trailer seems to foretell the absolute extreme of several of the problems this trend brings with it.

Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer once told me that, as a writer, it is better to be exceptional to a few people than adequate to a lot of people. And movies like this exemplify the opposite approach, as do things like the AAA video game industry (the gaming equivalent of Hollywood) regularly cranking out long series like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, part of that homogenization is also reinforcing certain tropes which end up going unchallenged. See this article on the exact gender politics of the period Jem came from, but it actually reminds me of the kerfuffle that’s been attending Marvel and Hasbro’s (also the originators of Jem) obstinate refusal to make toys for Black Widow. Despite the consumer outcry, they seem determined to keep women and girls in the marketing-safe, age-old boxes. It’s as if they’re actually defying their customer base, rather than just misunderstanding them.

Usually my big concern about reboots is that the creators will be fans whose love of the source material will get the better of their artistry. But this is closer to nostalgia reboots like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: a stereotypical twenty-something everyman protagonist, using tired old stereotypes of who the fans are to inform who they write it for, disrespecting any element of depth or daring that might have been present lest it be too niche in its appeal.

In the Jem and the Holograms trailer, we invert the setup of the cartoon, making Jem a victim and fame and success bad and to be avoided, rather than harnessed. What’s more is that she has no agency: her stage persona is forced on her, her success demanded against her will. In fact, the song that makes her famous appears to be uploaded to YouTube by her sister without her permission! The only agency she has is to ‘be herself,’ which seems to mean ‘be a quiet, unassuming hometown girl with no ambition or dreams of great artistic achievement.’ And also Black Widow has to want babies, boys don’t want girl toys, a Wonder Woman movie won’t sell, the action protagonist always has to be a youngish white American guy with brown hair and stubble, blah, blah, blah. Making everything the same is bad enough, but we’re making everything the same to a standard which is sexist, oversimplified and retrograde indeed.

I’m not one of the old-school fans of Jem, but like Captain Planet, I can see what it could have been in a different time with a different format, but the fanfiction community, combining familiarity with the material with the freedom not to have to worry about making money from it, is far better equipped to explore its potential than a committee-designed big-Hollywood production team who aren’t able to be daring, or unusual because there’s no will to test their assumptions about what people want anymore. They couldn’t even see their way to having what was clearly a pretty influential story by women, for girls, updated and retold by women! And that’s why the Jem trailer interests and infuriates me, because it summarizes what I feel is the looming threat of the big movie and video game industries: cultural stagnation, and even regression at times, not helped at all by the backlash against the slightest diversity in pop and geek culture that’s becoming so common these days.

It’s truly outrageous, is what it is.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Saturday Supplemental: Avatar: the Last Airbender

With the Legend of Korra complete, I thought a dissertation on its predecessor might be in order. Plus it gives me a golden opportunity to gush about one of my favourite shows. To wit, Avatar: the Last Airbender.

The Gaang

The Avatarverse is more formally known as the World of the Four Nations. The Four Nations are the Air Nomads, now virtually extinct, the Water Tribes at the North and South Poles, the Fire Nation, an industrialized and militaristic empire, and the large but stagnant Earth Kingdom.

Each of these countries is distinguished by a portion of their population called ‘benders;’ people with the power to telekinetically channel and control their respective elements. Traditionally, to maintain the balance between them, they were overseen by a spiritual leader called the Avatar. Able to bend all four elements, he or she reincarnates as the new Avatar after each death, following a cycle of being born in a different nation every time.

As of the beginning of the series, the Fire Nation has been waging a war of conquest against the other nations for the prior hundred years. The Air Nomads were wiped out in an attempt to kill the new Avatar, and he has been missing ever since. Large parts of the Earth Kingdom are now occupied and colonized by the Fire Nation.

The series, like Korra, is divided into three seasons, or ‘books,’ with each episode a ‘chapter.’

In the first season, we meet 14-year-old Katara and her 16-year-old brother Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe. Sokka is an aspiring warrior who tries to lead his people while their father is leading the men of the tribe aiding the war effort in the Earth Kingdom. Katara is the sole remaining waterbender in the tribe, the others having been casualties of the war. They discover a 12-year-old boy trapped in a kind of suspended animation in an iceberg. The goofy, fun-loving boy, Aang, proves to be an Airbender. He’s been trapped, along with his flying bison (yeah, yeah I know) for 100 years. And, per the title, he is indeed the long-lost Avatar.

Shortly after his (rather conspicuous) awakening, the Tribe sights a ship of the dreaded Fire Navy. The ship is commanded by Zuko, the teenaged, disgraced crown prince of the Fire Nation, who has been hunting the missing Avatar for years to try and prove himself to his estranged father, Fire Lord Ozai.

Katara is inspired by Aang’s appearance to hope for an end to the dark days the war has brought, and when he flees to draw off Zuko’s forces, she and Sokka follow him as he heads to the Northern Water Tribe to begin his training in all four elements. All the while they indulge in hijinks that spread the word of the Avatar’s return, and try to elude the single-minded Zuko and his rival for glory, Admiral Zhao (voiced unexpectedly by Jason Issacs).

Book 2 sees Aang embark on seeking a teacher to add Earthbending to his skills. He, Katara and Sokka find one in the person of Toph Bei Fong, a 12-year-old, blind Earthbending prodigy who runs away from home to fulfill her own potential as much as to help Aang (and for the chance at a good fight now and again). Zuko continues pursuing Aang, while being hunted himself by his manipulative and cruel younger sister Azula. Team Avatar travel to the Earth Kingdom capital and pit wits against Azula to decide its fortunes as the grand prize in the war.

Book Three has Team Avatar trying to catch their breath and prepare for the decisive confrontation with the Fire Lord himself. Aang has to master Firebending, and pull together all the allies he can get – no matter who they might be – to have a shot at vanquishing Ozai, restoring peace to the world.

There are a lot of things that can be said about the series. I do not think I’m overreaching to say that as a character-driven drama, a childrens’/young adults’ story and as an epic tale, it stands equal with the Harry Potter books. You really come to care about all the characters and even the villains and secondary characters you only see once in a while have remarkable depth. The series has been lauded in particular for its effective female characters. The series knocks the Bechdel Test out of the park, damsels in distress are nowhere to be found and Katara and Toph rose to almost memetic status as young female icons. It is also noted for the fact that the heroes are depicted as including people of colour –which earned it great fame when M Night Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation committed the most shocking case of whitewash casting in recent memory and so coined the term ‘Racebending.’
The animation blends anime styles with classic Disney style to create something that looks a lot like a top-flight Miyazaki film.
There is a risk of getting bored with the first season; Aang’s rather lengthy Refusal of the Call phase results in a great deal of wandering around and goofing off, some of which is important later but it’s a while before you find out how. Having said that, there are few true filler episodes and even those aren’t terrible. Without spoiling too much, it’s been said that the series finale does suffer a minor case of Deus Ex Machina, but in my judgement it’s forgiveable and doesn’t take away from the epicness and emotion involved in reaching the end of the journey.

Older audiences might also get a little frustrated with the way the series has to pull punches in battle scenes to suit a wider age range. A lot of the time, our heroes will come up against, say, some bad guys with spears, slice off the tips of the spears and then the baddies pretty much vanish. Particularly funny are the Fire Nation’s warships: armour-hulled, steam-powered, but armed with batteries of steel trebuchets instead of gun turrents. Again, this is mitigated somewhat since everything from forced conscription to genocide goes on, or is at least talked about with all due seriousness.

The scenario of four nations seems a little overly simplistic (especially given the scale – we’re talking a whole planet here) but there’s enough thought behind all this for an older viewer to bring their own imagination to bear.
The civilizations, technology and politics informing the world gives it a genuine sense of history, something which, as I’ve said before, paid off big time with Legend of Korra. All the different kinds of element-bending are based on real-life martial arts like Tai Chi, and the show actually had a Sifu (a martial arts master) on staff as a consultant. Any history or world-building geek (and I’m both) can derive a lot of satisfaction from deducing possibilities about the world this is happening in. If you know anything about the Sino-Japanese Wars, Tibet, Buddhism or martial arts then you’ll be able to discern the effort put into this world.

Plus if you check out its ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar’ page on TVTropes you’ll see how many jokes for older audiences they managed to slip in.

The fact that everyone from the intended audience to 20-somethings like myself can get into this series, much as we did with Harry Potter, is a testament to its quality of writing and characterization. I said all I could about cartoons as a broadly appealing medium in my Legend of Korra entry. Focusing on it being a cartoon is missing the point. The important thing is that this is a really good story. Thematically a classic, setting-wise breathtakingly original, and like the Legend of Korra , Avatar: the Last Airbender is part of a generation of cartoons that recaptures the quality of the early to mid 90s. Check it out!

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on February 14, 2015 in Television

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Legend of Korra: You Gotta Deal With It!

WARNING: I’ve marked where the spoilers start in this article but I can’t be responsible for the linked material!!!

I am disgraced in my tardiness. 2014 ended with one hell of a fictional bang and I’m left to play catch-up.

Of course, we remember that what’s likely to be our last adventure in Sir Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. But one that isn’t perhaps as widely-known but at least as significant occurred about the same time, and is still sending shockwaves through the fan communities: the finale of Avatar: the Legend of Korra!

To be honest, I’m not sure if this is an official poster or a piece of fanart.

If you regularly undertake to read this blog, then you’ll remember that waaay back I wrote a first impressions column on the first episode of Legend of Korra, successor of the animated series Avatar: the Last Airbender. Both are populated by four Nations, each defined by members of their society with the power of ‘bending’ the elements – able to master a telekinetic martial art over air, water, fire or earth. And into each generation is born the Avatar, able to manipulate all four elements, and bound to maintain peace and balance in the world.

As previously established, Legend of Korra takes place 70 years after the first series, with the reincarnation of Avatar Aang in the person of Korra, a teenaged tomboy, excellent in combat and passionate about justice, but inexperienced in social and political matters, sheltered and initially lacking in the spiritual serenity that defined her predecessors.

She travels to Republic City, the young nation which serves as a Geneva-like middle ground between the four ‘Bending’ Nations.

Korra confronts anarchists, revolutionaries, terrorists and fanatics, all threatening Republic City, the peace and safety of the Nations, and the very balance between the material and spirit worlds. Korra must draw on her own strength, those of her past lives and most particularly of her cadre of friends and mentors – including a beautiful young captain of Industry; Aang’s own son, Tenzin; her teammates on a competitive bending team, and the chief of police, descendant of the metal-bending master Toph, from the last series.

Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DeMartino, the showrunners, wrote the Last Airbender Series for a target audience of 10-12 or thereabouts. The Legend of Korra was written to keep pace with the advancing age of that demographic. The characters are almost all over 16 this time. The content is also a lot more intense – which is saying something as Avatar: the Last Airbender was set in the climax of a hundred-year war in which many of the characters had suffered loss. Words like ‘death’ and ‘kill,’ traditionally off-limits in kids’ shows, come up reasonably often, and depictions of aggressive hand-to-hand combat, torture and a few just-barely-offscreen violent deaths take place.

Combine that with some of the big political ideas underlying the show, and I can see why I’ve heard it described as ‘Game of Thrones for kids.’ Korra moves in the corridors of power in the city, and into the unpredictable landscapes of the spirit world to try and avert disasters of geopolitical upheaval, the release of the ultimate dark spirits, and a threat to the Avatar line itself, all the while suffering personal heartache, social setbacks and terrible trauma.

As my summary may indicate, this show was structure differently than the Last Airbender: the first series distributed one year of adventures across three seasons, working toward one endgame. Korra, meanwhile, had a different ‘Big Bad’ every season, and the time gap between seasons varied from six months to as much as three years in the space between three and four.

This affords a rather different scope for storytelling, although equally it has the same consequence as it has for other shows with that approach, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: one Big Bad is not equal to another. With the original series, one continuous dramatic arc meant that things only got better. In Legend of Korra, the quality wavers more because trying to start ramping up to a high drama level over again from scratch produces inconsistent results.

Right out of the gate the series seemed to pick up some bad habits: not least, the introduction of a love triangle for no better reason that custom and tradition for teen drama. For a show trying to be more mature and serious than its predecessor, it’s funny how the humor actually seemed to get more juvenile and goofy – Bolin’s character is the vehicle of a lot of this and it tends to spoil rather than lighten the moments.

Season two was the low point. The goofy, arguably slightly creepy comic relief and the soap-opera elements were compounded by the destroy-the-entire-world villain and a number of ‘ancient secrets’ conjured up to advance the plot.

Part of the problem is that Korra was originally intended to be a miniseries, and the seasons are shorter than the Last Airbender’s. This means that the stories, complex as they are, have to proceed rather briskly, so that the themes, as strong as they are, often feel as if they aren’t followed through, and some decisions the characters have made are never really hashed out and dealt with fully.

The focus on Korra’s romantic entanglements makes passing the Bechdel Test less of a slam-dunk than the original series, though it still does it. Beyond that, the limited time per season means that only so many encounters can be written in. This means that Korra can’t always make the most of the exceptional ensemble cast for the range of character moments of its predecessor. In addition, an opportunity (one vaguely foreshadowed in the first episode) for Korra to become a grass-roots figure in the midst of these urbane politicos was missed by the necessity of her always keeping those politicos’ company. It also cost some realism and wasted space – in particular the characters seem to spend the three-year time skip in a holding pattern when in a longer format, some wonderful stories could have filled the space.

It also means that a lot of the themes sometimes seem a bit chopped-off. They’re there but sometimes it seems like they don’t follow through clearly to the end of a season, and don’t always seem to translate directly into affecting the world or the characters’ approach to things. In particular I feel as if the question of the Avatar’s role in the ‘modern’ Avatarverse never gets a satisfactory answer. Some others are just repetitive – how many times does Tenzin have to learn a lesson about being a real mentor, anyway?

But, in truth, a lot of these flaws are so egregious partly because of the sheer dazzling number of things that this show does right!

Legend of Korra is deep, serious, but fun, action-packed and laced with the kind of emotional punch that helped mark its predecessor. It honours its legacy, and characters who have lived this long appear only when it both tickles our affections and serves the plot.

It does the things that made the old series stand out: a plethora of interesting and multifaceted characters, including women and girls, characters of colour, strong characters of all ages, complex and understandable villains and surprisingly hard-hitting stakes, meaningful suffering and emotion. Korra has the additional virtue of being a character with atypical body type: she’s exceptionally buff and masculine-looking for a heroine – not for no reason does a lot of fan art depict her with a very ‘butch’ fashion sense. And it upgrades in intensity and seriousness from the last show – and I’ll point out that that show had an episode where a concentration camp survivor goes on a vengeance spree.

The most marked thing about it is that each of the villains succeeds in being sympathetic – something the old show excelled at – but also being remarkably reasonable and persuasive. Driven by a distrust of authority, a hatred of inequality or a belief in a better world, they’re not evil, just extremist, and the moral, though handled a bit haphazardly at times is one that supports moderation, compromise, and democracy.

The Avatarverse also has a strong sense of history, and that’s been maintained. The world has advanced about as much in 70 years as you’d expect, and we’re in the equivalent of the Roaring Twenties. Cars, radio broadcasting, air travel, and the economic highs and lows that come with madcap capitalism are all in there. Moreover, strong allusions are made, not only to modern terrorism and anarchism, but also to things like the Bolshevik movement, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the advent of the Atomic Age.

The introduction of the Spirit World as a more active story element was a little worrying, since it tends to be distressingly arbitrary and twee in its design and a source of borderline Deus Ex Machinas (still not clear on the plural there), but never at the expense of its value as a counterbalance and mirror of the ‘human’ realm. Plus it’s a charming homage to Studio Ghibli movies like Princess Mononoke.

Okay, let’s catch our breaths here. It’s no small wonder, with the sheer amount of depth and creative energy DiMartino and Konietzko have poured into this that the series is beloved by everyone from its target audience to their parents to random twenty-somethings like me. It evokes the quality character-driven cartoons of the Milennial childhood like the DC Animated Universe, Gargoyles and Sailor Moon.

Now, we’ve discussed the inclusion of female characters and characters of colour, something of a specialty of this team. Now comes the point where things got really intense. Much has been written about this already, but I nevertheless caution for SPOILERS:

Things were off to a good start when my hated love triangle turned into a friendship between the two romantic rivals – Korra and Asami Sato. That actually cleared up my biggest irritation with the show pretty well. I was also pleasantly surprised that it was depicted as being okay with breaking up with your first relationship for good – as opposed to neatly pairing everybody off in the Last Airbender series. Indeed, lots of successful and well-developed single people have positive arcs in this show.

But now for the big one, the one that made the whole internet explode: after hints, foreshadowing and fan interpretation over four seasons, it is confirmed that Korra, ahem, bends both ways!

Terrible jokes aside, this was huge. Look at the reaction shots. Everybody flipped out, and overwhelmingly positively so.

When word first reached me, I was skeptical. If it was left ambiguous, up to the fans to interpret, then in mine and a lot of books it didn’t really count. I feared what I was about to see was an example of waffling and queerbaiting instead of true representation.

Well, the final scene was pretty on the nose, but to top it off the creators confirmed it flat-out shortly afterward! They made it as clear as the Standards and Practices of Nickelodeon let them. They pushed it as far as they could and then some.

Now, everything you’ve read so far might give the impression that Legend of Korra was very politically charged for a kids’ show. I suppose in a sense, but really? What the creators themselves said about it is really what it comes down to: if you’re going to tackle meaningful and demanding material, give it the respect it bloody well deserves.

And that includes representation. It baffles me when people react with indifference or hostility to this kind of thing. People of colour exist. LGBT people exist and I, as a straight, white cismale want to see them included, because they’re my friends and fellow nerds, too! I want to see their stories. And it took a kids’ show to even begin to push boundaries that few ‘grownup’ shows have the gall to do with any conviction!

So the Legend of Korra isn’t perfect. The creators freely acknowledged that they aren’t paragons of representation –  I’ve always found it a bit odd that the actors aren’t as diverse as the characters, I must say – but it was great. It does young people a great compliment by giving them something fresh, original and intelligent, and it speaks to those of us old enough to see the full extent of the subtext and imagine more – Avatar: the Last Airbender has the highest number of fanfictions under the ‘Cartoon’ listings on fanfiction.net.

The animation is gorgeous, the choreography thrilling, the music beautiful, the characters magnificently written and acted, the story is epic, the themes deep and intelligent and bold. It reaches high, and misses sometimes, but ye gods when it counts, it reaches higher than most! It is a worthy successor to Avatar: Last Airbender and well worth the attention of anyone of any age!

And, let’s face it, the star couple at the end are just so darned cute!

“Some Nickelodeon executives were worried, says Konietzko, about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.
During test screenings, though, boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.”
 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Television

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Babylon 5: An Old Story

Every now and again, you hear that little pearl of wisdom that says that the number of stories in the world is finite, and that certain archetypes repeat themselves time and again with different trappings.

That’s why you can often tell how a story ‘is supposed to go’ in some intuitive way without the story being ‘predictable’ in the sense that it’s boring and a foregone conclusion. Or more pointedly, you get a distinct sense of disjointedness when it doesn’t follow the right dynamics. For me at least, there’s a momentary mental *bzzzt does not compute* experience when that happens.

Naturally, this is subjective, although it seems more definite in some cases than in others, as with my favourite subject to complain about: the slapdash and meaningless ending of Mass Effect 3.

The extraordinary thing is that, earlier this spring, I discovered the true ending of Mass Effect 3! The culmination of a team’s bonding, the final climax of a crisis risking billions of lives, the unification of former enemies in an act of grand defiance.

Unfortunately, it was in a fourth-season episode of Babylon 5.

Image

 

 

To say the least, awkward.

Babylon 5 was already in a strange place. Created by J. Michael Straczynski and airing from 1994 to 1998, Babylon 5 features the crew of the titular human-run space station which, in the wake of a war between Earth and the Minbari civilization, has been created as a neutral port and diplomatic safe zone to encourage interstellar amity.

The human staff and the alien diplomats face down many an interstellar crisis, pirate attack and false-flag stunt, as well as crimes and injustices among the ragtag station inhabitants, especially the proud Centauri and their erstwhile subjects, the Narn. Human politics swings between interstellar cooperation and human-supremacist rabble-rousing. And the mysterious Vorlon race play their games against the ultimate threat, an ancient enemy, the Shadows, looming nearer and nearer…

Wait, hang on. An interstellar community on a commerical/diplomatic space station? Two races, one who once occupied the other, trying to resolve their differences? A threat from darkest space looming ever closer to war, throwing our heroes’ worlds into chaos to pave the way for their coming? This sounds a heck of a lot like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine!

The fact that they ran paralell to each other did raise some eyebrows, and accusations of ripoff run both ways. And I gather that, in the 90s, Trekkies and Fivers were practically at war.

Babylon 5 wasn’t really on my radar at the time, and without the pedigree of Star Trek behind it, it didn’t really escape cult status. Funnily enough, Majel Barrett (aka Mrs. Gene Roddenberry) once guest-starred and one of the recurring villains was the telepathic secret agent Bester, played by Walter Koenig, formerly Chekhov of the Original Star Trek.

First impressions of Babylon 5 were bad, I admit. This was partly because without the aesthetic tradition of Trek or the blessings of Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects look awful. They used CGI in the early days thereof, and all the spaceships appear to be made of plastic. The set design is the definition of retro-futuristic and the makeup effects – well, the first alien I met in B5 looked like this…

Image

Not a promising start, I thought. Still, in the name of giving it a fair go, I soldiered on. The acting, especially in early seasons was distinctly over-the-top and wilfully campy. B5 generally has a bigger silly streak than Star Trek. The writing also has a weakness for purple-prose speeches. And while it liked to tell stories of cooperation and peace between races, it didn’t really back it up with the kind of diverse casting – only one regular woman at first and one person of colour – that has traditionally been Star Trek’s specialty.

I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because when all’s said and done, Babylon 5 really is a fun show. The trappings may be a bit weak but it has a good heart in it, and while the dialogue – and monologue – took a while to gain some nuance, the actors rise to the occasion. The silliness quotient worked because the acting style was (slightly) more naturalistic, making the characters more likeable rather than making them look stupid. Indeed, one of the attractions of the show is that, to my taste at least, the actors aren’t flawlessly attractive all round, and their feelings and personalities take the front seat from the ‘big ideas,’ something DS9 took a while to get the hang of.

And in certain respects it’s consdiered a somewhat ‘harder’ science fiction show than Trek ever was, although it wasn’t neccessarily very consistent about it. Babylon 5 is based on a classic hypothetical design for space stations called an O’Neill Cylinder, and speculative fiction bigwig Harlan Ellison was the show’s creative consultant.

One point on which B5 and DS9 were undeniably in lockstep was that both were pioneers in the development of mythology-arc television series. Straczynski sketched out the story of the whole series and while there are a number of seemingly unrelated subplots – the Centauri/Narn conflict, the Mars independence movment, the manipulative behaviour of the Psi Corps and the Vorlons – they all end up being interconnected, but in ways that don’t become immediately obvious. Indeed, for my taste, B5 did it better than many shows that came after it. My problem with shows like Lost (with which B5 shares an actress, Mira Furlan) or the new Doctor Who or Game of Thrones is that they lead you on with constant foreshadowing until the lack of payoff just frustrates me into losing interest. Babylon 5 makes you wait but provides lots of small victories and side stories to make every episode more than just a chunk of an interminable prologue. DS9‘s Dominion War arc was similarly structured and also very effective. Babylon 5’s benefited from being about three seasons shorter, but DS9 had fewer sub-threads whereas B5 occasionally seemed to put them in as a way of making the story more complicated for complication’s sake, and one or two of them simply faded away.

The thing that really charms me about Babylon 5, though, is its sheer, unrelenting pluck. Michael O’Hare, the leading man, had to leave after season one due to serious mental illness, but he stuck it out through what, I gather, was pretty brutal suffering to see that the show got a fair shot. The new lead, Bruce Boxleitner as Michael Sheridan, managed made a distinctive character of his own. Peter Jurasik could do the venal goofball aspect of Ambassdor Mollari or make you tear up with equal skill. Mira Furlan channeled her frustration with the chaos in her home country into Ambassdor Delenn’s speech to her planet’s rulers in season 3 – she apparently read the speech and asked Straczynski ‘So when did you go to Croatia?’ – and it becomes genuinely difficult to remember that the affably psychopathic Bester and the guileless Pavel ‘nuclear wessels’ Chekhov were played by same person! Across the board, the cast gave 110%, and that makes up for a lot in my book. Having wrapped up its main arcs in Season 4, it was unexpectedly handed another season and some more cast changes, and still manages to tell a good and emotionally charged story, if a somewhat less interesting one.

I was cognizant of the rivalry between Babylon 5 and Deep Space Nine when I started. And indeed, the similar brushwork is pretty suspicious. But as the show developed, by far my strongest impression was that if I were to go check, I’d find that Drew Karpyshyn and Casey Hudson, lead writer and director of Mass Effect, were Babylon 5 fans. Replace ‘telepathy’ with ‘biotics,’ ‘Babylon 5’ with ‘the Citdael’ and ‘Shadows’ with ‘Reapers’ and there’d be little left to do before they’d be almost the same. And because the basic framework of the kind of ending lots of people agreed they’d expected Mass Effect 3 to have is in fact in the resolution of Babylon 5, I kind of wonder if Hudson deliberately derailed ME3’s plot because he was afraid of being accused of ripping off Babylon 5.

Probably not, though. To this day the bizarre bait-and-switch execution of ME3 baffles me. I think they could have gotten away with it. B5 is still a cult phenomenon, so not many people might have noticed. But consider this: Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine and Mass Effect share all of these uncanny-to-suspect similarities, so much so that there’s almost a one-to-one match in some aspects of the worldbuilding and character ensembles, and all of them are still good! They’re all dealing in themes of unity in difference, the cost and agonies of war, and the value of life in all its forms, but each one does it in a different way, builds a different world around them, has its own distinct nuances and variations and, most importantly, its own set of memorable characters. Similar stories don’t have to cancel each other out, as long as each makes the narrative its own. These three each paint on the same canvas and you get something special from all of them. If Casey Hudson had let the narrative run its natural course, Mass Effect would stand unblemished beside them, and we all might have been on the same page, as it were.

Anyway, this is supposed to be about Babylon 5. It’s certainly earned its cult status and is worth a shot if you enjoyed either of its brothers-in-narrative above. It lacks the serious-mindedness of Deep Space Nine and interactivity of Mass Effect, but it has charm – never a feature to be underestimated – solid writing, a well-planned arc and really phenomenal acting. And it heartens me that, regardless of commercial or cultural success, the story these three share can occur so many times and remain beautiful.

So, the acting is great, the characters charming, the story is classic, the special effects are rather delightfully quaint…

The name of the place is Babylon 5.

Or the Citdael.

Or Deep Space Nine.

Any of them will do.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 2, 2014 in Television, Video Game

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,