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State Of The Art

January 20th, 2011

Let’s poke a dipstick into the crankcase of sci-fi pop culture! Is it time to add another quart?

Not-so-superheroes: I recently dropped ABC’s No Ordinary Family from my DVR schedule. I’d initially had misgivings about what appeared to be Heroes-light, but I enjoyed the pilot; there was fun to be had in watching Michael Chiklis stop bullets and leap buildings Hulk-style. I gave the series half a season to find its way, but to my disappointment it appears to have doubled-down on the “Heaven forbid we should use our powers” trope. Look, there are a lot of shows I can watch in which people don’t use superpowers to fight crime. Embrace the genre, or get out of the Batcave.

And then there’s NBC’s The Cape, which has not only embraced the genre, but is currently making out with it underneath the bleachers. I love that it’s not at all ashamed about putting its hero in a costume or having actual supervillains with names like Chess and Scales. There’s even a “Carnival of Crime” with stilt-walkers, a pint-sized strongman and a thieving raccoon. That’s all great; it makes me want to overlook that most of it is stolen goods. The writing is fairly dire, though, and the ratings are such that I don’t think there’s any point in getting hooked.

I do like street-level, pulp superheroes, so I should be all over the new Green Hornet film. I don’t have any great affection for the character, so I’m not particularly bothered that he’s been given a comedy spin. The real crime here seems to be the transubstantiation of humor into a humor-like substance.

Aliens: As with The Cape, I really want to love the remake of V. I have a lot of affection for the original and still-lingering frustration over its later mishandling and lack of closure. I’d love to see it done over and done right. The new V is a worthy try, but it’s missing a few things. The Nazi/Holocaust allegory of the original was heavy-handed, but at least it gave the story resonance. The War on Terror should provide plenty of symbolic fodder, but it’s largely been ignored. This week our heroes tortured, dismembered, skinned and ultimately killed one of the Visitors, and no one (even the priest) seemed to have any serious qualms about it.

Another problem is the lack of substantive action on the part of the main characters. As I previously mentioned, I presume that some of this is for budgetary reasons, and some because it’s an ongoing show rather than a mini-series event. In the original, our heroes rapidly gained a host of followers and “red shirts.” And while they may not have been the entirety of the human Resistance, there was no question that they were its most important cell. That’s not the case now, and it’s only been made worse by the introduction of a larger Fifth Column faction that, among other things, orchestrated simultaneous, worldwide bombings of Visitor installations. Don’t make me wish I was watching the show about those guys.

It’s not all bad. We’ve seen a lot more of the Visitors’ true reptilian nature–the skeletal reptile/insect to the right is apparently what they look like under the human disguises–and we finally got a rat-eating scene. Their agenda has finally been revealed, and while it’s a silly, ’50s sci-fi notion–they want to breed with us!–it’s not any goofier than using us for food or stealing our water. I could do without Anna the Visitor Queen railing on about how she’s going to locate the human soul and suffocate it in its sleep, but even that would be forgivable if the show acknowledged its foolishness.

I’m a little disappointed in the reintroduction of original V actress Jane Badler as Diana, former Visitor leader and mother of Anna. The catfight potential has been wasted; so far Badler has done nothing more than to stew in her Macramé Chair of Evil. Dear V producers: no one is going to look down on you if you have your characters actually do something.

Dinosaurs: The previously-cancelled Primeval has re-emerged from prehistory with a fourth series of dinosaur-fighting ridiculousness. It’s still stupid as a box of stone axes, but eminently watchable. The creature effects–such as that Spinosaurus to the left–continue to be astonishing. All that said, if you’d told me back when the series began that the two* surviving members of the original cast would be the dork with the pork-pie hat and the girl with no pants, I’m not sure I would’ve stuck with it.

Alexander Siddig, aka Siddig el Fadil, aka Deep Space Nine‘s Dr. Julian Bashir, has joined up as a corporate funder with what I assume will prove to be a shady side.

Vampire Slayers: Buffy “Season 8″ dragged its way across the finish line this week. When I’d heard that Buffy creator Joss Whedon would be shepherding an official continuation of the TV series in comic book form, I had mixed feelings. I was a huge fan of the show to the end, and welcomed more stories of the Scooby Gang by the original writers. Yet it was an obvious acknowledgement that there would never be a “real” reunion of the cast, most of whom (sorry, Xander!) have gone on to mainstream success.

Turns out that I should’ve been even more skeptical. After getting to the end of 40 issues–a single season spread over nearly four full years–I find myself grateful that the TV show ceased when it did. And I’m starting to speculate whether Joss Whedon–like George Lucas before him–has become a hack and a ne’er-do-well. His recent, tone-deaf choices (and I include Dollhouse here) have me second-guessing whether he was ever really all that.

As with George Lucas and his gargantuan digital toybox, Whedon’s move into the comic book realm offered him unlimited scope. He could depict things unimaginable on a TV budget. But, like Lucas, it seems that limitations suit him. Just because you can give your heroes their own army, turn Dawn into a giant (and a centaur, and a doll) or send Buffy into a dystopian future of unintelligible teen slang doesn’t mean that you should do any of these things.

And that brings us to the time Buffy and Angel had sex in outer space. That’s right, after the two of them spontaneously developed Superman-level powers (because the Universe “wanted” it), but before their mystical fucking created a paradisaical pocket dimension. Yes, these are things that happened.

Meanwhile, major developments were unexplained or ignored, presumably to be picked up in “Season 9.” That might wash on a weekly TV series set to return after a summer hiatus.** But when it takes four frickin’ years to complete a “season,” I don’t think it’s asking too much that some things are followed up. If, after 35 issues, you have Spike the vampire unexpectedly show up as the captain of a spaceship crewed by giant bugs, I think you owe the reader a panel or two to explain how in the hell that came about.

The arc concluded with the death of a beloved character the identity of whom I will not disclose.*** That’s a familiar Whedon trick: littering his stories with the corpses of loved ones, the better to make the danger “real” and/or to motivate his characters into taking action. Sure, that can work, but when you do it over and over: Jenny, Joyce, Tara, Anya, Fred, Wesley, Wash, Penny, Topher, Ballard…

This is rapidly becoming a marathon post, so I’m going to end it here. If Joss Whedon doesn’t somehow kill me, I’ll be back with more rantings in the near future.

*There’s actually a third cast member who has been around since the beginning, the suit who ostensibly runs the secret government organization charged with investigating time anomalies. Since he’s never been much of a character, I don’t count him.

**Though it’s telling that the season-long story arcs of the Buffy TV show were more or less self-contained.

***No, fuck it, it was Giles.

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