All posts by Sherryl Vint

Infinity

Technology, Entertainment, Design: SyFy’s Helix

DESPITE SOME B-grade acting and melodramatic character back stories which do not inspire me to take their emotional depths seriously (i.e. Alan’s (Billy Campbell) childhood and his dull flirtation with Sarah (Jordan Hayes), whose secret cancer seems another tired cliché), SyFy’s Helix continues to fascinate me with its world building. This week we saw some significant changes in alliances and a deepening of the mystery about just exactly what Ilaria Corporation is up to in its arctic research station. New clues to this mystery include the abduction of children, the cryo-preserved head of a missing scientist, and information that suggests Julia (Kyra Zagorsky) was herself the object of Dr. Hatake’s (Hiroyuki Sanada) research when a child. Although Julia’s back-story sounds tediously like a reboot of Olivia’s (Anna Torv) story on Fringe (2008-2013), more promising are the introduction of Intuit police officer Anana (Luciana Carro) and her missing brother Miksa, whose twin just happens to be played by Meegwun Fairbrother, who also plays Daniel, Hatake’s adopted son/feudal vassal. While sinister corporations who treat people as expendable are a familiar theme from cyberpunk fiction and film, and form the basis of a number of cyberpunk digital games such as Deus Ex and Resident Evil, we’ve lacked a good SF television series working in this mode, although James Cameron’s briefly lived Dark Angel (2000-2002) gave it the college try.

Part of what makes Helix work for me are its ancillary texts on their Access Granted website, which provide additional clues and documents that committed fans can review as they try to unravel the show’s mystery. Such multi-media storytelling is nothing new in science fiction, or indeed in television broadly, as stations compete to generate the committed and engaged fan base that made shows such as Lost (2004-2010) and Breaking Bad (2008-2013) such phenomenal successes. It also seems natural for a show like Helix to have such an involved website, for it is designed to appeal equally to science fiction fans and those accustomed to the puzzle solving of digital games, two communities known for their committed engagement with the worlds of chosen texts. So, Helix is very much a text of our age.

Yet as I visited the Helix website, I was struck by a contradiction between its presence as a marketable commodity (television show), the use of the show’s narrative to market other commodities (a Verizon advertisement branding the company as about “powerful solutions” to contemporary challenges), and the show’s narrative, which casts Ilaria Corporation in a sinister light.

Here are some of the intriguing things you can find in the Access Granted documents. First is a calendar for an Ilaria executive named Philip Duchamp. Among his activities are: a “pharma competitive intelligence conference,” an event that raises questions for those thinking about science and social justice as well as the role of pharmaceutical corporations in what Vandana Shiva has called the continued colonial exploitation of biopiracy; second, Duchamp is scheduled to give a TED talk, a genre that promises to help us imagine and build better futures, but whose emphasis on entertainment often substitutes inspiring visions for viable research, as Benjamin Bratton brilliantly skewered last year in the best TED talk I’ve ever heard. One of the things Bratton calls for is “design as immunization,” using imaginative power to prevent certain dystopic futures from materializing. Science fiction has a long history of performing this kind of cultural critique, and the cyberpunk-inflected future Helix channels is widely regarded as a key expression of this more cynical attitude toward the future produced by technological innovation. In Neuromancer (1982), for example, William Gibson describes the dangerous urban Night City as “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button” (7). Technology displaces people in such futures, and Helix explores this terrain in its new story arcs about missing children, evidence of which is expanded considerably on the Access Granted site that includes a list of some 30 missing children, mainly from the global south, and most with Inuit-sounding names.

In his essay “SF Capital,” Mark Fisher critiques the conflation of narrative, advertising and commodity product in much science fiction, in which the power to imagine the future and to inspire readers to invest in such visions is channeled into the purchase of products that simulate this future and take the place of real social critique and political change. The advertising rhetoric of this sf is much like the futurist rhetoric of TED talks, and the relationship between such visions of the future and corporate market-share is much like the relationship between Star Wars as text and the sale of Hasbro action figures.

These systems collide on the Helix website. To enter the website at all, you first must click through a page noting that Arctic Biosystems is a division of Ilaria Corporation, whose slogan is “stop existing, start living.” One of the ancillary texts you can access on this website is the advertisement above for Ilaria Infinity lenses. The aesthetics of this poster conveys all the promise of the future as entertaining design embodied by TED talks, and Ilaria evokes the usual inflationary rhetoric of living better: “See clearly. See freely. See the world through different eyes.” Yet the larger type on this poster asks, “Do your contact lenses make you feel like you’re dying?” Presumably Ilaria lenses will solve this problem in the usual way of corporate futurism, yet the fine print of the poster suggests instead that this corporatized future is the problem – side effects of seeing the world through Ilaria’s eyes include “feelings of yearning” and, in rare cases, “general disinterest in living.”

Through these supplementary texts then, Helix continues its narrative vision of a critique of corporations that sacrifice people, the same vision we see in Gibson’s sardonic description of Night City, the same vision expressed through more hyperbolic sarcasm in Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and the same future we presumably will see in its remake by José Padilha opening this week. Padilha’s Robocop, however, is already inevitably bound up in the economics of contemporary Hollywood that make it half narrative film and half vehicle for product placement and advertising for future action films.

What of Helix’s corporate critique? One of SyFy’s sponsors is Verizon, and as soon as one visits the Helix website a video advertisement launches. In the mode of contemporary infotainment, this short video at first seems to be yet another ancillary text (an Ilaria advert for an antidepressant is remarkably similar in tone). Only gradually does it become clear that this “discover innovation” campaign to solve “the world’s biggest challenges” through “even bigger solutions” is a slogan for Verizon, not Ilaria. Clicking through to Verizon’s website, one discovers a Powerful Answers web series with episodes about the various ways Verizon is working to make a better future of sustainability, public safety, improved healthcare, and access to education. The series shows the work of “innovators” who competed to partner with Verizon to bring their ideas to life, a contest that required these “empowering solutions” to emerge from “Verizon’s unique combination of technologies.” This website, merging science fiction with corporate advertising with the production of material futures that direct the flows of venture capital seems the apotheosis of the process of commodifying the future diagnosed by Fisher more than a decade ago.

Helix is thus a fascinating science fiction text, as much for its context as for its content. Inside and outside blur, as Ilaria and Verizon overlap as antagonist and sponsor. The website lets one preview the first five minutes of the next episode, “Survivor Zero,” which show the arrival of Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan), CEO of Ilaria Corporation at the research base. Within these five minutes she metamorphoses from a smooth and overtly helpful resource in public, to a violent attack on Hatake’s failures in private. Is her public face a version of Verizon, whose polished futurism hides its complicity in Ilaria-like conspiracy?

Or am I just “reading too much” into science fiction?

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Vint_SF

Journal of the Plague Season

ALTHOUGH THIS MAY seem counterintuitive, science fiction is often one of the most realistic of genres. It may set its stories in future times or among weird alien species, but the best science fiction can often express political and social anxieties more openly than can realist drama. Sometimes this is a matter of escaping the notice of censors who don’t take the genre seriously, but it can also be an example of what television critic John Ellis describes as the capacity of the medium to help us “work through” the slings and arrows of contemporary life. Working through, a concept Ellis takes from psychoanalysis, allows us to analyze, repeat, interpret and otherwise engage with difficult experience in the displaced form of fiction, facilitating the process of coming to terms with disturbing thoughts and experiences.

A repeated pattern in this year’s science fiction television is plotlines about epidemics, suggesting that we are culturally working through some anxieties about our biological vulnerability. As early as 1995 Laurie Garrett published The Coming Plague, arguing that things such as overuse of antibiotics, lack of access to clean drinking water for much of the world’s population, the overcrowded conditions of urban poverty in the Global South, and massive refugee migration caused by warfare were producing conditions in which viruses and microbes would thrive. She anticipated that in the near future we would see new and devastating disease outbreaks as the microbial world travelled and mutated as never before. Recent outbreaks of diseases such as Sars and H1N1 have made us aware of the looming threat of a viral pandemic, and indeed it now seems as if we are sufficiently educated about such matters that this week’s episode of Helix could drop the term “zoonotic transfer” into the dialogue without even pausing to gloss. Dracula, too, includes an outbreak of sorts – although it is a deliberately caused by those evil oil barons – and even The Walking Dead supplemented their zombie infection with an outbreak of quotidian cholera for part of this season, a hint that contagion anxiety is about more than biological health. In our harsh economic times, zombies emerge more and more as our possible selves, expelled parts of the body politic – just as labor is expendable to global capital and migrant laborers are unwanted by many nation states. Indeed, this pattern is so prevalent that in 2009 Lev Grossman declared zombies “the official monster of the recession” in Time.

Revolution has added a viral contagion to its exploration of the sinister machinations of the Patriots in the post-electricity world. As one might expect, this is not a naturally occurring contagion – although, of course, by this I mean “expect in the conspiracy-thriller narrative,” because of course one might expect reasonably expect biological outbreaks in this frontier setting. The Patriots are using their engineered strain of typhus as a method for culling populations, deliberating infecting those who are physically or mentally ill and thus eliminating their non-productive drain on the community. There are no zombies on Revolution and its infected do not become zombie-like – they merely sicken and die. And yet there is something in this plot of viral eugenics that is reminiscent of the recent zombie theme about lives that matter vs. those that do not.

Helix is premised on a viral outbreak with its CDC characters, remote research station setting, and plotlines that are something of a cross between Steven Soderberg’s Contagion and The Walking Dead. Now in its fourth episode, Helix remains compelling, although not without its frustrations. The mysterious back-story is unfolding at a respectable pace and enough happens within an episode to avoid boredom, and yet the full picture is still only dimly lit and out of focus. Yet, while I understand the need to have secrets and competing agendas to keep some tension in the plot, I am finding the fact that a core CDC team member would hide both her own illness and that another person is infected (to protect this secret) strains credulity, particularly because the series went to so much trouble to make its CDC protocols seems “real” and not science fictional.

While I was initially impressed with the diversity represented by casting in Helix, such diversity is being stripped away as the season unfolds: their non-stereotypically-attractive female character is dead, the Asian scientist is becoming more straightforwardly evil, it seems, and the remaining person of color is an infected, animal-like “vector,” which is basically Helix’s term for the zombie-like dangerous infected. When asked if he is just going to “abandon the sick and the dying” in order to restore order to the facility, the sinister Dr. Hatake says “yes” without pause, but he later also peremptorily executes some inconvenient non-infected, and so I hope that Helix is avoiding the binary logic of “humans” and “infected” that animates the zombie genre.

Despite these quibbles, I still find Helix to be among the best science fiction shows I have seen in a while. I acknowledge the appropriateness of the zombie as the monster of choice to express contemporary anxieties: zombies are hungry, relentless, flesh that we no longer want to consider human, that we see only ever as a threatening mass, and that serve no purpose other than to consume. As many critics have argued, zombies exemplify the poor as seen by the logic of neoliberalism. Yet I’ve become tired of the ubiquity of zombies and the quite literal dead end they seem to offer for thinking about global crisis. Helix promises to transform its vector-zombies into something else, posthumans made by the virus inserting new DNA into their genome, a new species simultaneously human and animal and other. This new strand of DNA, we are told, will force the infected to “express a new trait.” This is an apt metaphor for the hope I hold out for series overall, that it might enable science fiction television to express a new metaphor for anxieties about viral contagion and precarious human health, and thus we finally might escape the ubiquity of zombies.

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Revolution

The Future, As Seen on TV

In 1982, cultural critic Fredric Jameson published “Progress verses Utopia: or, Can We Imagine the Future” which argued against the commonplace belief that science fiction was about the future. Instead, he suggested, the role of science fiction is “not to give us ‘images’ of the future” but “rather to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present.” Moreover, he suggested, what science fiction frequently demonstrated was “our incapacity to imagine the future,” or rather, a future that was very different from the present, a future of radical alternatives and utopian promise. So how do we see this dialectic between future and present play out in this week’s science fiction television?

Fox’s new cop drama Almost Human opens with a voiceover explaining its premise (all humans cops are now teamed with a MRX android cop) and announces that this is because “evolving technologies can no longer be regulated.” Hence, they can only be policed. Hence, a science fiction police drama. The technologies investigated in each episode are futuristic (this week it is bullets that can target you by the tracking devices we all carry around with us), but they are also obviously clear extensions of existing social practices and the crimes that go with them.

SyFy’s new Helix introduces its key characters not in the Biosystems Arctic research base but rather in the CDC, taking great pains to establish continuity between business-as-usual for the CDC and the world of this series, in which research on a pan-viral vaccine has resulted in a medical catastrophe with hints of posthuman genome manipulation. Such care with establishing plausible premises is reminiscent of publicity surrounding Ron Moore’s acclaimed Battlestar Galactica and claims that it was more political drama than science fiction.

CBS’s Person of Interest has only gradually moved into clear science fiction territory in this, its third season, with the open discussion of The Machine as artificial intelligence, building on previous seasons whose plots seemed closer to the thriller genre. Since the Patriot Act, Wikileaks and more, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan to believe that the government is spying on you all the time, or to accept the fantasies of ubiquitous information via surveillance technology. The network’s short-lived Hostages (2013) had a similar computer system lurking in the background, and its conspiracy to kill the president was in part motivated by the military’s desire to unleash more of this machine’s potential.

And finally ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. reorients this super-hero universe away from otherworldly heroes and toward the ordinary agents trained in special ops and high tech that are able to battle threats to national security, natural and supernatural. This week’s “Seeds” featured a visit to the science division of SHIELD’s training academy, which has its roots in the post-WWI Strategic Scientific Reserve, in which science and technology are imagined as key weapons in the fight against evil.

What all of these series seem to have in common is a vision of the power of science and technology in daily life, its ability to change the world we live in, and even ourselves, and a clear sense that the future – as once presented in the ‘images’ of science fiction – is already here. Do these shows defamiliarize and restructure our experience of the present? I suspect they no longer do so in the ways that Jameson had in mind, in which science fiction encouraged us to experience our present as the history of a possible future and thus perhaps to think more critically about what this future might be as we actively make it.

Yet the new temporality of the science-fiction-present seems more likely to familiarize than defamiliarize our experience of technoscientific modernity. Almost Human concedes that new and sinister technologies will inevitably emerge and the best we can do is react to them. Person of Interest and Hostages barely seem science fictional at all, and instead ask us to question the very real fact that information technology monitors and shapes us in often invisible ways.

Partway through watching “Seeds” I had the excited anticipation that now, finally, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was finding its stride, that it had quelled network exec anxieties sufficiently that an authentic Joss Whedon vision – suspicious of centralized authority – was about to emerge. Following revelations that Coulson was revived despite begging SHIELD doctors to let him die, and that at least one of these doctors felt medical ethics were violated in this resurrection, the institutions of SHIELD began to look more like those of its enemies this week. For example, a lecture at the Academy by Agents Fitz and Simmons to the next crop of scientific geniuses – about how important it is to use their intellectual powers for good, since others were using them for bad and putting untested biology and technology in the wrong hands – was interrupted by an attack emerging from within these hallowed halls. Later, when details of Skye’s past emerge (spoiler: she is a 0-8-4, more to follow), Coulson decides to tell her the bloody history of the village destroyed to protect her rather than continue lying to her about her connection to SHIELD. Commenting on the venture capitalist who funded the technology used to attack the Academy, Coulson observes, “Quinn is not the only one who’s been manipulating people. We do it all the time. … We teach it at the Academy.”

Yet the conclusion of the episode was disappointing. Despite these hints that even those with “good” agendas manipulate and mislead, that SHIELD perhaps has no more right to be creating and controlling these technologies than do their antagonists, the episode’s conclusion shies away from these insights and returns to a reiteration of SHIELD as family and their vision of the future of technology as both non-democratic but also just. Praising Skye’s response to his revelations, Coulson insists she showed strength of character by refusing to be devastated by the knowledge that many people died to protect her, and instead to feel embraced by and fully a part of SHIELD, the family that was “always there” even when she thought she had none. John Reece’s recent return to the fold on Person of Interest – after a couple of episodes of cynicism during which he held The Machine did as much harm as good – follows a similar logic.

Jameson’s essay was written from a Marxist perspective, and a lot of social and political thinkers recently have noted the difficulty of imagining a future, any future, in these harsh economic times. No more for us the wondrous visions of World’s Fairs and Disney’s Tomorrowland. Our version of Tomorrowland would be a theme part of ecological crisis, absolute gaps between the rich and the poor along the lines of Elysium (Blomkamp 2013), and drone warfare over dwindling resources.

So, has the future become a thing of the past? Can we dream of a better tomorrow or do we simply imagine better technology to stave off the inevitable collapse of the present, but only for some?

One answer, it seems to me, is NBC’s Revolution. Revolution begins with the end of technology as we know it when the electricity goes out. Yet it quickly turns to the reinvention of technology, but a new and unanticipated kind of technology, the nanobots who are programmed but also have minds of their own. Like the rebels resisting the Patriot’s vision of faux democracy, a privileged elite, and programmed child-soldiers, the nanobots suggest the open possibilities of another future, a world that could be made completely otherwise.

The near-future sensibility of all these programs suggests a widely shared sensibility that America in its current configuration does not offer much of a future for many of its citizens. Whether science fiction can help us imagine better ones – as well as help us see more clearly the dystopian trends of our science-fictional present – remains to be seen.

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SF_column_11214 MG Original

The New Posthuman: SyFy’s Helix

THE BIG NEWS in sf television this week is the premiere of SyFy’s Helix, from producer Ronald Moore whose reboot of Battlestar Galactica did more than any other series to convince mainstream audiences that science fiction can be relevant to contemporary experience. The premiere event was organized to gain a mass audience as quickly as possible for this new series: the first two episodes aired back-to-back with “limited commercial interruption” – which translates basically to most commercials being pushed into the second episode once audiences were already hooked – and a third episode could be viewed online immediately after the first two aired. Devoted fans could thus be three “days” into the planned thirteen day-per-episode narrative of season 1. These first three episodes cover a lot of ground in terms of understanding the pathogen outbreak on the remote arctic base and also plant a lot of seeds for mysteries to unfold throught the season at the level of both conspiracy plot and interpersonal back-story. The SyFy site also contains additional short clips and “documents” that hint at more conspiracy to come involving sinister pharmaceutical company Arctic Biosystems, including an advertisement for an antidepressant that is “hacked” to show images of missing children, several redacted purchase orders, a promotional brochure for contact lenses that takes on menacing tones in this context, and – most intriguing – shadowy Board of Director members sipping scotch and watching the horror unfold via remote satellite uplink.

Helix is reminiscent of a lot of sf that has come before, but if Battlestar Galactica proved anything it was that Ron Moore knows how to revitalize familiar material by connecting it to contemporary political and social issues. The careful attention to virology and the epidemiology of outbreak is reminiscent of now-classic The Andromeda Strain (Robert Wise 1971), based on a novel by Michael Crichton, whose name has become almost synonymous with medical conspiracy thrillers. The isolated arctic setting, the test for infection that proves unreliable, and hints that the virus is not only killing but also transforming the infected into a new species reminds us of The Thing (John Carpenter 1982), a much-loved film based on John W. Campbell’s 1938 story “Who Goes There?” and adapted to screen two other times (in 1951 and 2011), although Carpenter’s remains the fan favorite. Scenes of searching for dangerous infected through narrow ventilation conduits evoke the claustrophobic tension of Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), although the series itself opts to reference John McClane’s travels through Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988). And finally the drama feels most like watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), at least for these first three episodes, marking Helix as another sf series about how much the present resembles science fiction.

Science is front and center in Helix, both the virology of the outbreak and the conspiracy plot regarding Arctic Biosystems’ real agenda. This is a welcome return to a near-future that feels convincing and real, and to science fiction rather than the supernatural as the engine of a series.  Great care is taken with the details of the CDC personnel and the team’s background, and the characters feel like complete people with complex motivations, not merely cutout figures filling specific narrative roles. The head of research, Dr. Hiroshi Hatake (Hiroyuki Sanada,) is the only somewhat disappointing character, not because he lacks interest but because he is, at least thus far, the most unambiguous character, whose motivations are entirely sinister and whose Japanese ancestry makes him thus fall uncomfortably into the “inscrutable Asian” stereotype. Yet perhaps there is hope for how his character will be developed, because other characterizations are complex and avoid clichés, such as Dr. Julia Walker (Kyra Zagorsky), previously married to the head CDC investigator Dr. Alan Farragut (Billy Campbell), who avoids being either entirely committed to reunion with her estranged husband or entirely reconciled to their split. Dedicated sf fans may welcome the return of Billy Campbell, previously seen as cult leader Jordan on The 4400 (2004-2007), to sf television, and his Alan Farragut is a compelling lead, challenged by his ambiguous feelings about his ex-wife, his infatuated intern Dr. Sarah Jordan (Jordan Hayes), and his brother Dr. Peter Farragut (Neil Napier), one of the first infected and estranged from Alan since his affair with Julia. All of this back-story allows for emotional investment in the interactions among characters, but never overwhelms the sf drama elements of the series with cloying melodrama. Like BSG, with which it will inevitably be compared, Helix gives us interesting human beings in a tense situation and has developed a sufficiently intricate set of interpersonal and corporate-conspiracy dynamics to sustain its pace for the full season.

Helix also has plenty of action that seems designed to draw in fans of The Walking Dead and similar series. Its infected are split into two kinds and those called “vectors” are compelled to try to infect others, vomiting black goo and rushing humans they encounter along the lines of the fast zombies of 28 Days Later (Boyle 2002). Yet set within a narrative that also has elements of corporate cover-up, mysterious army factions who believe the infection was intentional, and emerging posthuman characters, not all of whom are changed by the virus, the action is Helix is linked to an engrossing narrative. The Walking Dead was fun for a while, but its ongoing carnage has long since become tedious in the absence of much else going on in the series. Helix delivers a similar adrenaline rush, but promises a lot more, especially in its slowly unfolding exploration of the dark side of better living through pharmacotherapy. Perhaps this is a sign that the zombie craze is finally winding down. And perhaps this will offer some critical commentary on one of the key sites of the collapse of sf and reality into one another, the utopian fantasies of posthuman existence promoted by organizations such as humanity+ that often fail to take note of the role of corporate medicine in these brave new worlds.

If nothing else, Helix is one of the best science fiction television shows to emerge in a long time, one that offers complex narrative, absorbing characters, and reflective engagement with the science and technology of our everyday world. Really, my only complaint is that I hate its theme song, taken from “Do You Know the Way to San José” (1968), which worked well enough as ironic counterpoint to the action when used as diegetic music in the opening sequence, but is quickly growing tiresome. Helix embodies the promises of all that sf television can be, and I hope it can find the audience that will allow it to stay on the air and deliver on this promise over the multiple season arcs clearly planned for the story.

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BadRobot

Who would win in a fight between Bad Robot and Mutant Enemy?

THERE IS NO QUESTION that two of the dominant forces in genre television right now are J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon. Abrams’s Bad Robot company logo lies behind many of the science fiction programs currently on the air, including Revolution, Person of Interest, and Almost Human. Abrams himself is associated with the celebrated series Lost (2004-2010), which seemed single-handedly to reinvent notions of genre on television, and is involved as writer, producer, and director across science fiction more broadly, especially his role in rebooting both Star Trek and Star Wars. Whedon’s Mutant Enemy logo is less widely distributed, currently airing only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but his name is as widely known and more enthusiastically embraced by a loyal cadre of fans who follow his work since television’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). None of Whedon’s other series achieved quite the same success as Buffy, but its spin-off Angel (1991-2004) made a respectable showing and is regarded by some as a better, more adult treatment their shared theme, the monstrosity of everyday life as literalized metaphor. Whedon was able to complete his vision in media such as comic books, and fan enthusiasm for Firefly (2002-2003) played a significant part in that narrative’s completion in the feature film Serenity (2005).

In addition to creating popular and influential series and films that have shaped the genre through their many imitators, both Abrams and Whedon have pioneered new ways of relating texts to audiences across distribution platforms. Both were among the first to engage with fan communities’ responses to their narratives, and they therefore played key roles in shifting the relationship between industry and fan production toward what Henry Jenkins has described as Convergence Culture (2008). Additionally, in their work across media (from television to film to comics to digital games), both have played significant roles in the creation of transmedia storytelling. Abrams and Whedon have changed the nature of fantastic genres in the twenty-first century and contributed to significant shifts in the overall political economy of popular culture. Yet, despite their similar innovations at this level of form, their influence and legacy is distinct.

Abrams has achieved greater reach in marketing new fantastic modes, but Whedon is more widely praised by critics and fans. Abrams’s work as a producer enables him to create a space for innovative work in the genre beyond titles to which he directly contributes. In contrast, Whedon’s primary identity as a scriptwriter makes his contributions closer to the model of auteur theory in film studies, where his own distinctive voice and vision are central to his influence on the field. So, who would win in a fight between Bad Robot and Mutant Enemy?

MutantEnemyAnswering this question really depends on what we mean by win. Certainly in terms of volume, Bad Robot comes out ahead, with three series on television compared to Mutant Enemy’s one. In terms of quality, judging by the current television season alone, things seem fairly evenly matched.

Revolution is proving to be a much more interesting series this year than last, and its ability to reinvent and reshape itself in this way is distinctive of Abrams’s innovations, epitomized by the cult hit Lost that changed from a scripted version of Survivor, to political conspiracy thriller, to fantasized mythology, to science fiction time travel across its six seasons, sometimes mid-episode. A mysterious force is also at work in Revolution, just as Lost’s Island had its godlike beings, but Revolution seems less inclined to alter its mythology on the fly, and has a better rationale for it in the first place in nanotech AI, and so the strengths of this series are perhaps a reflection of an alchemical balance between Abrams’s whimsy and co-creator Eric Kripke’s steady hand. Kripke’s previous success was with Supernatural (2005) a huge fan favorite poised to be renewed for a 10th season, although its narrative has become rather strained in recent seasons. How many times can Sam and Dean turn on one another, then reconcile, go to hell, then come back? As many as the market will bear, it seems, and Kripke had the good sense to distance himself after the resolution of a planned five-year narrative arc that gave a satisfying shape to their story.

Almost Human, created by Abrams’s protégé J.H. Wyman, seems the most banal of current Bad Robot offerings, despite good performances from series regulars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy. There is nothing particularly wrong with Almost Human but there is nothing particularly right either. As I’ve covered before, its premise is not particularly innovative, and while it has a sleek new look, with Minority Report-esque digital IT interfaces, its plots are banal: cop drama treatments of the future tech whose legal and social consequences are explored in James Woods’s non-fictional Futurescapes (2013-) airing on the Science Channel. Almost Human is all cool surface with very little substance: it remains to be seen if such a vision will nonetheless achieve market success, but the numbers suggest that this series will go to a deserved early grave.

Person of Interest is funded by Bad Robot, but created by Jonathan Nolan, and so it is perhaps unfair to include it in this exercise since Nolan’s own distinctive vision, evident in his screenplays for the Dark Knight films directed by his brother Chris, shapes this series. Person of Interest is one of the best science fiction programs on television today, and if nothing else speaks to Bad Robot’s important role in ensuring talented people have the opportunity to bring their visions to the screen. Person of Interest loses a lot of points in my tally, however, for its mid-season finale that killed off its only person of color in the regular cast, Detective Carter, played by Taraji P. Henson. Although Henson insists, “it’s not like that,” in fact, it is: too many science fiction television programs have already followed this pattern, and Bad Robot is one of the offenders (i.e., Lost).

The only Mutant Enemy contender in the current lineup, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., has not had the strongest showing this season, but ensemble casts and long narrative arcs, Whedon’s distinctive traits, take some time. Predictions are that, despite an uneven start, this series will be renewed, and it is in second seasons that Mutant Enemy productions shine. Unlike earlier series, this one is not substantially written by Joss Whedon, whose role as creator is closer to Abrams’s in a number of his projects. This may be to the show’s detriment, but so far seems to have meant that people blame the series’ shortcoming on his distance. The mid-season finale displayed some of the distinctive Joss Whedon charm, rehabilitating J. August Richards’s character Mike Petersen from the pilot and promising further developments in the mystery of what lies behind Agent Coulson’s (Clark Gregg) otherwise too-easy resurrection. The series loses some points for Coulson and Agent Ward’s (Brett Dalton) banter about the puzzle that is woman, although it gains some back when May (Ming-Na Wen) later yells at Ward for presuming to take a punch for her. And Agent Ward seems more like a network-note character than a Whedon character in any case.

So my vote for most interesting mid-season finale and most promising series goes to Mutant Enemy. But the political economy of television may have more reasons to give the nod to Bad Robot. Whedon’s fights with network executives to make his series according to his vision are notorious and his work has been plagued by early cancellations. Abrams, in contrast, seems to have the golden touch when it comes to renewals. Yet, for all its acclaim and massive audience while on the air, Lost is already drifting into television history. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in contrast, remains a fan and convention favorite, current airs on Spike TV, and continues to be embraced by new generations of young viewers even though its series finale aired over a decade ago.

Thus, while Bad Robot comes out ahead in quantity, Mutant Enemy has the edge in longevity.

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almost human

Robot Revolutions: “Almost Human”

THE LAST OF THIS YEAR’S new science fiction programs, Fox’s Almost Human, debuted this week, a co-creation of J.H. Wyman and J.J. Abrams, who seems to have his hand in most things science fictional these days. Wyman and Abrams first teamed up for Fringe, a reinvention of The X-Files with less government conspiracy theory and more of Abrams’s distinctive Lost sensibility. Billed as the next stage of police television, Almost Human is much less innovative than it claims, reworking the well-known terrain of the cross-ethnic cop-buddy formula common in the 1980s. Graham Baker’s film Alien Nation (1988), written by Rockne S. O’Bannon and adapted to a short-lived television drama, extended this formula into science fiction by pairing its human detective Sykes with an alien “newcomer” partner in stories that directly confronted issues of racial prejudice long before Neill Blomkamp used the same conflation of aliens and racial “other” in his District 9 to similar ends. In the cross-cultural, cop-buddy drama, the “neutral” white partner’s stereotypical attitudes toward the racial other are gradually eroding so that friendship and new understanding can emerge. The police drama In the Heat of the Night, adapted to television in the 1980s along with the television Alien Nation, paired white and African American cops policing rural and overtly racist Sparta, Mississippi, and gives a sense of what is at stake in such dramas. And long before Alien Nation used the cop-buddy formula to explore issues of racial difference, ABC’s Future Cop (1976-78) explored the idea of contrast between theory and practice in its fraught relationship between veteran cop Joe Cleaver, played by Ernest Borgnine, and his letter of the law robot partner Haven, played by Michael Shannon, now well-known for his work on Boardwalk Empire, whose most recent SF appearance was a General Zod in Man of Steel.

While Alien Nation paired its crusty human cop with an alien, Almost Human pairs hard-boiled John Kennex, played by Karl Urban who plays McCoy in Abrams’s new Star Trek, with an android partner played by Michael Ealy. This, too, is hardly uncharted territory. In the 1950s Isaac Asimov’s detective Elijah Baley worked with robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw in Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, works that have been adapted to screen a number of times. The Asimov film adaptation I, Robot, (2004), directed by Alex Proyas, draws on this formula in its pairing of Will Smith’s detective Del Spooner with the robot Sonny, including the ubiquitous need for Spooner to overcome his irrational suspicious of all robot others. Mann & Machine (1992) tested the limits of this formula to interrogate gender difference when it paired its Detective Mann with a sexy robot partner Eve Edison, played by Yancy Butler, who went on to star as another sexy, supernatural detective in the live-action, comic book adaptation Witchblade (2001-2002). But it is the Canadian television series Total Recall 2070 (1999), taking its atmosphere from Blade Runner although its title from another Philip K. Dick work adapted to screen, that comes closet to the look and feel of Almost Human. Its detective David Hume (Michael Easton) is paired with android partner Ian Farve (Karl Pruner), in a cyberpunk-style future in which the corporate Consortium dominates. Like Almost Human, Total Recall 2070 investigates crimes linked to illegal research and abuses of technologies related to genomics and memory. RocoCop, returning to big screens in 2014, is another antecedent here, which its vision of the formally human Alex Murphy and its plot about a dystopian Detroit destroyed not by rising crime but by the privatization of the police service in the interests of the evil OCP, Omni Consumer Products. Once a character in a satirical film about an exaggerated dystopian future, RoboCop has now become a mascot of sorts for a contemporary Detroit economically abandoned by the rest of the country, a dark city of the science fictionalization of everyday life captured in the documentary Detropia (Ewing and Grady 2012).

Yet just because Almost Human is not original does not mean that it cannot do interesting things with its established formula. Unlike Future Cop, for example, which continually emphasized the necessity of Cleaver’s ability to respond to situations contextually and intuitively over Haven’s overly rigid use of abstract laws, Almost Human in many ways presents Dorian as more human than Kennex. Kennex is the quintessential isolated and cynical outsider cop, well known from police procedurals such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, and as such doesn’t know how to play well with others. Kennex is also haunted, as such characters always are, by a past in which his human partner was killed, an incident in which he lost a leg and then spent two years in a coma, further emphasizing his isolation from the rest of the world which went on without him. As the series begins, Kennex blames androids for his partner’s death in the familiar formula of rule-based values vs. human values: the android refused to help evacuate the mortally wounded man, explaining that he needed to focus on aiding those “with a better statistical chance of surviving.” Yet as the rather clichéd melodrama over the first two episodes reveals, Kennex is projecting into blame his own guilt for leading the men into what proved to be an ambush; worse, as he discovers using an illegal technology to accessed his memories of that day, they were betrayed by his girlfriend who disappeared after the event.

Almost Human might be a really good series. Our comfort with robots interacting with us as ubiquitous parts of our daily life has increased since the 1970s Future Cop, which articulate then-contemporary fears about humans being replaced with automation. In the neoliberal era of precarious labor we have perhaps become all-too-comfortable with the idea of humans being replaced by machines, evident in our interactions in automated call-center help-lines, our companionship with Siri, and all the other ways in which we perform for ourselves, with machines, tasked once performed by humans, from bagging our own groceries to refilling our prescriptions online. Wyman has said that Ray Kurzweil’s rapture of the nerds articulated in The Singularity is Near is an influence on the show, and so if nothing else Almost Human marks a significant shift from its predecessors in the greater sympathy we have for Dorian: unlike other cross-cultural buddy shows, our identification is immediately with Dorian rather than gradually won alongside the winning over the human partner. Kennex, too, is  won over pretty easily and, contra theories of the uncanny which suggest that we find most disturbing artificial beings that are almost but not quite human, preferring a clear distinction of the evidently artificial and evidently human, Dorian is all the more sympathetic when contrasted with the inhuman coldness of the more recent android models who do not have this “flaw” of programmed emotion and empathy.

The most promising innovation of this series is that it is really Kennex rather than Dorian who is almost human: he has a synthetic leg to replace one lost in the explosion that killed his human partner, and he struggles, as his fitness-for-duty evaluation states, with “psychological rejection” of this synthetic body part. He is also fusing with machines in his memory-recall experiments, and his obsession with vengeance for the attack that killed his partner makes him considerably more rule-bound and rigid than Dorian. Yet Almost Human fails to explore the metaphor of ethnic and other prejudice rooted in this formula, as did the earlier Alien Nation and even Mann & Machine. Dorian objects several times to the term ‘synthetic,’ which Kennex clearly uses as a slur, but thus far the plots of the episodes, particularly the second one about slaughter woman women to create better quality skin for synthetic sexbots, emphasize and reinforce the difference between humans (who count) and androids (who don’t). The episode narratives are thus in tension with the thrust of the series premise, positioning Dorian as the “exceptional minority” except from a prejudice that is otherwise warranted against others of his kind, making the politics of Almost Human potentially more regressive than those of the 1970s Future Cop.

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Vint 1117

Superheroes and TV IV: Possibilities and pitfalls of contemporary television

THE TERM TVIII has been used in television studies to describe the state of television in the 21st century. This third state of television comes after TVI, the origins of the medium in a few broadcast networks whose programming was limited to certain times of day, and after TVII, the period of deregulation and expanded consumer choice in the 1980s and beyond when specialized cable channels emerged and network branding became relevant to attracting an increasingly fragmented audience. TVIII describes the era of television content dispersed across multiple platforms and available on-demand rather than on networks’ schedules.

Back in the very early days of the cultural studies of television, theorist Raymond Williams used the term “flow” to describe what he thought was the defining characteristic of the medium. For Williams, flow captured something unique about television that distinguished it from other visual culture such as film, or other sites of long-form narrative such as print. The concept has been so influential that it provides the name for one of the most influential sites for critical discussion of television. Flow describes the way that networks, in competition for the viewing audience, structure not only the individual episodes and series but seek to hold the audience’s attention for an entire evening of programming. Particular for broadcast networks dependent upon advertising revenue — the state of all television when Williams developed this concept — flow is essential to the value the networks offer to advertisers. They seek to hold your attention across the programming segment, which includes watching the commercials. The specific nature of flow changes as the conditions of production change, and broadcast networks have faced particular challenges in this era of DVRs, streaming sites such as Netflix and hulu, and competition from commercial-free cable networks. Although TVIII thus seemed to spell the end of flow, it has instead meant its reinvention as broadcast networks strive to find ways to sustain their audiences. Some of these changes are perhaps significant enough to announce an era of TV IV.

Marvel is an important player in this shifting landscape. Already dominating the big-screen with its popular superheroes films anchored around the Avengers, it has recently moved into broadcast television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Links between the series and the films strive to gain a crossover audience with frequent references to events from The Avengers film and with cameo appearances of big-screen actors on the small screen. Frequent advertisements for upcoming Marvel films aspire to keep the audience tuned to ABC even during commercial breaks, and this week the show will up the ante once again with the episode “The Well” set in the immediate aftermath of events of Thor: The Dark World. This is an intriguing experiment, capitalizing on the era of transmedia storytelling, and enabling fans to immerse themselves fully in this world with big-screen stories of the major players, and small screen stories of how the blockbuster events of the film are affecting regular people.

Even more intriguing is the recent announcement of four new superhero series to be produced by Netflix in its new deal with Marvel. Like the franchise film success that Marvel has achieved with individual superhero films leading to the Avengers team-up, and then back out again to new individual films, these Netflix series focused on Daredevil, Iron First, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage will culminate in a mini-series event about them joining together to form the Defenders. A number of things make this new enterprise intriguing: first, it suggests ways broadcast networks such as ABC and streaming services such as Netflix could reconfigure their relationship into one of mutual promotion of one another’s titles along the model of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the film franchise rather than continue a relationship of competition for viewers. Second, the heroes chosen for these series suggest promising ways that a larger shared universe of Marvel characters would enable space for something other than the white male heroes dominant in the film franchise. The ABC series already has a more ethnically diverse cast, as I’ve suggested earlier, but the possibilities for the Netflix series are even more intriguing, with one focused on Jessica Jones and another on Luke Cage. Not only would these series be anchored, respectively, around a female and an African American protagonist, but also the origin stories for each of these characters in the comics medium include back stories that comment on the casual sexism and racism of much of that medium’s history.

Another potentially TV IV strategy is the many ways that corporate culture has taken over the spaces that were once the domain of fan cultural production, what Henry Jenkins has called Convergence Culture. Examples of convergence culture include the many ways that websites, webisodes, spin-off comics, and extra-diegetic stories are now created as part of the marking of a series rather than solely created as expressions of fan enthusiasm. AMC is leading the pack in reinventing ways to capture the attention desired in the concept of flow with its use of talk-show series devoted to their most successful titles, ensuring that fans stayed tuned to their station even after an episode has aired. Once again it was a genre series that launched this shift: since its second season, new episodes of The Walking Dead are followed by a talk show devoted to analyzing the episodes as they air, Talking Dead. This year AMC successfully reproduced this format with Talking Bad, devoted to analyzing the final episodes of the most discussed television series at the time, Breaking Bad, which suggests that this relative low-cost way of gaining two hours of viewers based on one-hour of original scripted programming may be more widely reproduced. AMC further strives to keep people from changing the channel with online discussions in its “two-screen experience” — quizzes, extra images, and reminders about previous episodes that interact with the viewer as an episode airs, presumably to keep people too busy to leave the room during commercials.

The youth-oriented network CW, whose brand rapidly seems to be becoming genre television as even its historical teen drama Reign has added a supernatural element, has made the boldest move in these new strategies. Taking one step beyond product placement in an advertising campaign with Ford fiesta, the commercial feature a series of “missions” involving stunts planned using a Ford fiesta, people who aspire to work in the film and television industry brought in to do things such as style an episode or perform a stunt for one of the CW series. Actors from the shows appear in the commercials and the Ford Fiesta proves crucial to their success. The advertising campaign thus promotes both the car and the particular series that is featured in the “mission.” The car advertisement is thus transformed into another kind of entertainment, using narrative to promote self-fulfillment via products in the model of reality programs such as What Not to Where. A partnership between the CW’s superhero series Arrow and Bose takes this one step further in the “episodes” of Blood Rush that screen online and during commercial breaks. A narrative that is similar to fan fiction written to explain what happens in the interstices of a television episode, Blood Rush involves a mission between two minor characters on the series, Felicity and Roy. Like the regular series, the story is released from week to week, with each new episode of Arrow involving a new episode of Blood Rush during one of its commercial breaks. Sponsored by Bose and requiring the use of many Bose products to complete the mission, Blood Rush is not so obviously a commercial as are the Ford Fiesta “missions” but it takes us one step further in blurring the line between advertising and entertainment, product placement becoming the dominant aesthetic.

These various strategies for recapturing the viewing attention described by the concept of flow perhaps presage yet another era of television, in which our attention flows not only across segments from series to commercial to the new series on the same channel, but also across platforms as we flow between scripted drama and scripted advertising, television screen and online screen, broadcast network and streaming site. Whether we should see such developments as promising a richer experience of our chosen narrative worlds, or as a kind of personalized harassment along the lines of a Philip K. Dick story, remains an open question.

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Dracula-poster-

Steampunk Dracula

SCIENCE FICTION television this season continues to work through the anxieties of our contemporary moment in coded ways, from Revolution’s staging of another civil war in the battle between the “patriots” and the United States (although, confusingly, these patriots are those opposed to the ethos enacted by the Patriot Act); to Arrow’s defense of the 99% against the 1% (that, sadly, as I anticipated, has villainized the Latino mayoral candidate and seems to be becoming an apologia for the rich who apparently really do have the best interests for all in mind); to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s internal battle as it tries to reconcile its countercultural sensibilities with its series premise as agents of a secret, military government agency (the most tiresome of these literalized metaphors, with yet another story of on-again, off-again Skye loyalty); and finally to Sleepy Hollow’s reinvention of the Revolutionary War as Armageddon. Yet the most interesting sf television recently was the debut of the new NBC Dracula series – that reinvents Dracula as a science-fictional, steampunk hero, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, famed for his portrayal of Henry VIII on The Tudors (2007-2010). Finally we have a television series that takes vampires out of high school and puts them back in the 19th century, where they belong.

Steampunk, for those not in the know, is a science fiction subgenre and emergent DIY culture based on a reinvented version of the Victorian era. Steampunk is so-named because its earliest iteration in the early 1990s grew out of then-dominant cyberpunk fiction. Cyberpunk was a dark, noirish subgenre exploring emergent IT culture set in a dystopian future of massive urbanization, corporate rule, and the disposal and fragile human bodies. Steampunk lightened this dismal view with some Victorian technological optimism, and in one of its earliest examples, The Difference Engine (1980), written by cyberpunk writers William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, imagined an alternative Victorian era in which Charles Babbage succeeded in developing a functional computer, the analytical engine in contemporary parlance. Thematically steampunk focuses on reimagining the past so that it results in a different future, and it steers a careful path between the dystopian nihilism of cyberpunk’s vision of technology displacing humans and an equally dire anti-technological determinism that sees such oppression as the inevitable outcome of technological change. Aesthetically, steampunk has developed as a DIY culture of costumes and object making, its fan conventions serving as a site to admire the innovations of computers whose functioning is made visible in ornate brass fixtures or the costumes that evoke a romanticized version of 19th century attention to detail and ostentatious display. Steampunk celebrates the lush beauty of Victorian-era design, and attendees appear in the dress of imperialists with all the attendant pomp and excess. While not overtly racist, steampunk culture for the most part ignores the destructive colonialist activity of the Britain it invokes, although it also can serve as an imaginative resource for colonized nations to equally imagine their histories otherwise via different technological development, and to assert a critical perspective on the Western narrative of “progress.”

Which brings us to the reinvented steampunk Dracula. Bram Stoker’s original novel, published in 1897, was deeply immersed in contemporary Victorian anxieties about the threat of the exotic others from the vast empire coming home to the imperial center of London. Dracula infiltrates the highest echelons of London society and embodies the threat of miscegenation in the contagion he can spread through his blood and in the sexual power he holds over supposedly chaste women who “belong” to his male antagonists. Imperial expansion is both power and vulnerability for Stoker’s Britain – recall that it is a real estate transaction that lures Jonathan Harker away from his fiancée Mina and into the dark Carpathian Mountains that are Dracula’s home. In Stoker’s novel, upper-class men banding together are able to expel the foreign threat, destroy the contaminated women, and purify Mina of her tainted sexual bond to Dracula, restoring her to proper wifely virtue and motherhood. NBC’s new series resituates this tale in an intriguing steampunk fashion: Dracula is now the good guy, teamed up (albeit secretly) with Van Helsing, and he plans to defeat the evil, imperialist Order of the Dragon (represented by the wealthy upper-class of London) by undermining their economic base in oil with his new electrical power source rooted in geomagnetic technology. In this series, far from banding together in class solidarity to repeal foreigners, the white men of the Order of the Dragon actually created Dracula by punishing Vlad Tepes for disobedience with a cure for immorality, potentially a metaphor for the “chickens” of colonialist exploitation coming home to roost. Thus NBC brings us a steampunk Dracula for the 21st century, a reorienting of steampunk’s technological fascination away from computers and toward technologies of energy – key to the looming end of industrial life-as-we-know-it.

The Order of the Dragon is some combination of corrupt, rich industrialists and religious fanatics along the lines of the Inquisition. Both Dracula, as Vlad the Impaler, and Van Helsing have lost wives who were burned at the stake by the Order: in Dracula’s case, his wife Illona is a doppelganger for Mina Murray (Jessica de Gouw), which also introduces a love triangle that might prove tedious as the season continues, but which is intriguingly complicated by the addition of Lucy Westenra’s (Katie McGrath) attraction to Mina as well. Renfield is no longer a hapless insane asylum inmate victimized by Dracula as in the novel, but now a trusted employee and confidant, played by Nonso Anozie who is thus far the only person of color in the main cast. Dracula infiltrates London society disguised as an American industrialist, Alexander Grayson, which enables the series to comment not only on shifts from IT to oil technologies, but also from British to American empires as the site of anxiety over the past 100 years. Whether this vision of a predatory British empire now long passed will be used to exonerate a contemporary American economic empire as the series continues remains to be seen. These dual identities also allow Rhys Meyers to switch between his British accent, perfected as Henry VIII, and the American one we saw on display in his feature film From Paris with Love (2010), demonstrating his charms in both registers to full effect. Denouncing the Order of the Dragon to Renfield, he castigates them as recognizable by their “overtly grotesque sense of entitlement” and announces that they have moved on from inquisitions and public burnings to “business via private clubs and boardrooms.” The Order’s obsession with oil and politics, he proclaims, emerges from a belief that “it will fuel the next century, and if they control it they will control the future.” By subverting the economy to another power source, he believes he can defeat them.

Dracula is thus positioned to use steampunk’s techniques of critically reinventing history to comment on the last century of industrialization via oil, on our looming ecological and energy crisis, and even perhaps on the class exclusions of both the Victorian era and our own, suggested by Dracula’s rant against entitlement. The series promises a rebooted 21st century built on something other than oil and imperialism, an intriguing thought experiment. And of course it also brings all the hypnotic and sexual appeal of the vampire genre, but without the sanitized blood-bag drinking teen vampires that have recently dominated the vampire tale. Rhys Meyer’s Dracula may be fighting the good fight against imperialists, but he also uses his considerable charisma both to manipulate as Grayson and to lure other female prey – whose blood he drinks directly from the neck, as all real vampires should. This Dracula embodies all the sinister yet sexy menace of the bad boy, captured perfectly in a long shot of his brooding face as he stares down someone who threatens Mina in an absinthe bar. Coming across the two of them later conversing on the terrace, Lucy aptly sums up their sexual chemistry in her snide quip, “Heathcliff and Cathy on the moors.” The show even has a feminist edge, with Mina reinvented as a med school student whose engagement to Jonathan is derailed when he expresses the view that she should give up career for “more natural pursuits” as his wife. Dracula, who has supported Mina’s ambitions from afar, confronts Jonathan about his hypocrisy in wanting to rise above his given social status himself while denying Mina the same opportunities to defy gender roles, and the two are reconciled, although the bad-boy Dracula remains better equipped to deal with a strong female partner than the good-boy Jonathan – a pattern repeated in a number of supernatural romances from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Vampire Diaries.

The series is beautifully Gothic in atmospheric scenes of fog-obscured London streets and mysterious caped figures, and features enough balls and other upper-crust events to satisfy all the costume fetishes expressed in steampunk culture. Between its politics and its polish, Dracula is the most intriguing new series thus far this year.

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outcasts

One Season Wonders: “Outcasts” and “Terra Nova”

by Jonathan Alexander

ONE OF THE PLEASURES of TV these days is the Netflixable delight of watching entire seasons in a weekend. You might have to wait till the series is done to binge properly, but the bingeing is sometimes worth the wait. And the complexity of the long TV narrative is better appreciated, in many cases, by viewing seasons in large chunks, allowing you to trace more finely the development of story and character arcs. Battlestar Galactica makes more sense, for instance, if you see it in toto. Sort of. In some cases, with shows cancelled after only one or two seasons, you have the opportunity to catch some pretty decent television, complete albeit truncated, in only a couple of evenings — or evening, if you’re ambitious, as we tend to be in my household.

While Sherryl is away this week, she offered me the chance to share some thoughts on SF TV, and I couldn’t resist writing about two of my favorite “one season wonders,” shows cut off after just one season. Both are currently available on Netflix, and they can hold you over while you wait for next week’s episode of whatnot. Curiously, the shows — Fox’s Terra Nova and the BBC’s Outcasts, both from 2011 — are surprisingly similar. They are largely about attempts to establish human colonies that will survive post-apocalyptic earth. And both are also lessons in the pleasures of narrative cut off before resolution.

Outcasts is a BBC One show that aired in the US on BBC America and ran for eight episodes. A “president” (played by Liam Cunningham), his chief of security (Hermoine Norris), and his hired gun (Daniel Mays) lead a group of colonists on Carpathia, an earth-like planet previously scouted out for human habitation as folks flee an Earth devastated (in a hazy backstory) by nuclear fallout and ecological disaster. Outcasts is ambitious in its mixing of numerous SF tropes, pulling deliriously from the “mega-text” of science fiction. We have an adventure story of gun-toting settlers on an alien planet; characters’ pasts periodically erupt to complicate the plot; political subterfuge (often with none of the subtlety suggested by subterfuge) threatens internal security; the humans themselves are divided into two groups, the born humans and the genetically engineered “advanced cultivators” (ACs) designed to explore environments potentially hostile to people and somehow outcast from the normal humans’ settlement; and the threat of alien life lurks constantly in the background, finally coming to the fore in the final episodes. Indeed, one of the more interesting elements of Outcasts is the Stansilaw Lem-like alien race, hinted at and never really fully seen but sometimes manifesting as images from the settlers’ past lives. Very Solaris.

SF TV geeks will appreciate the appearance of Jamie Bamber in the first episode. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t survive that first episode.) And in a neat twist on the old US SF trope of making the bad guys sound British, the main villain is played by an American, a slick character with an American accent who rabble rouses the settlers with rhetorics of religious ideology and the need to protect Forthaven’s “soil.” Very American indeed.

Critics generally panned the series, and my husband frequently shouted at the television, mocking characters’ stupidity; there are some pretty obnoxious plot inconsistencies. But I must admit being pulled into the show’s moodiness. To be sure, Outcasts is a heady mix of lots of SF stuff, and it takes itself pretty seriously. But it’s well acted, if slow, and the mysterious aliens tease us all along, particularly when the settlers find a cache of hominid-like bones, buried in what looks like a family unit. Pretty cool, if heterosexist. And it’s fun as an American to watch a British TV show about the perils of colonization vilify the politics of colonization through an American actor and character. What a funhouse of crazy mirrors.

If you’re feeling really ambitious in one weekend, you might spend one day watching Outcasts (it’s only eight hours of viewing) and then compare it to the 13 episodes of Terra Nova, which, at 44 minutes each is a little more, but TN is faster paced. Producers Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga, among others, had high hopes for this Fox series and poured a lot of money into it, nearly four million dollars per episode (at least according to Wikipedia). Critics were kinder to Terra Nova than to Outcasts, but TN proved perhaps a bit too expensive; InsideTV called it one of the “nine highest-rated cancelled shows“ of its season.

Like Outcasts, the story revolves around a colony fleeing environmental devastation, a future Earth choked by pollution spewing from corporate greed. Instead of looking for the exit strategy offered by terrestrial planets, our adventurers have been specially selected to travel back in time, starting over 75 million years in the past. The result is at times very Edgar Rice Burroughs as the colonists defend themselves against dinosaurs and super toxic plants, an earlier Earth become eerily alien.

We spend most of our viewing time with the Shannon family, a mixed-race (nice touch) unit consisting of a doctor wife (played by Shelley Conn), police husband (Jason O’Mara), and adolescent kids grappling with their assorted problems. The show, perhaps to catch the attention of adolescent audiences, makes time for a little teen romance with some super hot young folks. And as with Outcasts, there’s a splinter group that lives in the wilds, the “Sixers,” who seem to be in bed with corporate interests who hope to plunder the riches of prehistoric Earth for future profit.  Note for comparison: the British series is all about the dangers of colonization; the American one about corporatization. 

Again, SF fans will appreciate seeing some favorite actors reappear, this time Stephen Lang of Avatar fame, who (spoiler alert) survives the whole season as a main character, though not without some seriously close calls. This time, Lang plays a good if still military character, Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of the colony. We see a lot of him — which is good as Lang plays the role to the hilt, even with the annoying plotline of the estranged son.  

Special effects? For both shows, pretty decent. Especially the sets. Not a lot of space shots, but keep in mind that these are both, in a sense, domestic dramas, often focused on family dynamics as people try to survive the toxic environment and their toxic relationships. Indeed, what’s particularly intriguing to me about both series is their love of ordinary objects, in particular their romance of household items and interior décor. Urban loft living rooms and kitchens are transported in space and time, with place settings, cutlery, and knick-knacks by Pottery Barn. I kept wondering to myself, how did that couch get there? And where can I get that knife set?

Housewares aren’t the only carryovers from the here and now. Both series focus a lot of dramatic attention on the leaders of the colonies, Richard Tate and Nathaniel Taylor. Note the everyman-sounding names — or at least “everyman” as embodied by the white Western most likely straight but homosocially patriarchal masculinity that we are called upon to identify with, admire, or obey.  These are our heroes. To be fair, though, both characters are compromised, having to make “tough choices.” And you question their choices, just as they do. Was that killing necessary? Do those lies need to be told? Helping them with such questions, or at least carrying out their orders, the boss’s right-hand police agents take up a lot of airtime as well.  nd it’s ultimately hard not to read into these 2011 dramas a projection — both into the past and the future — of some concern with the police state, and with its seeming necessity in times of danger. After all, Tate and Taylor, despite their rhetorics of democracy, are really dictators, with whom we are asked to sympathize. After all, desperate times call for extraordinary measures, right?

I won’t give away what happens as the seasons come to a close, but I will say that both end in cliffhangers. And that’s it. If you take a chance on Outcasts and Terra Nova, you’ll have to commit yourself to the pleasure of watching an aborted series. You don’t know what will happen. You’ll never know. And you’ll have to be ok with that. There are a lot of series out there like that, as networks and media companies try their hands at different kinds of shows. The great archives of Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV allow us the chance to sample their experiments. Perhaps this is a new kind of televisual enjoyment we can cultivate: the inconclusive narration, the unfinished arc, the never-ending cliffhanger.

Such open narratives, forever truncated into precariousness, are satisfying in that they mirror our contemporary situation so well. Such is certainly the case with Outcasts and Terra Nova, shows whose characters are as caught in precarity as the shows were themselves, wondering if they’d survive for a second season. We know the fate of the shows: too expensive, too moody — cancelled. But their characters are caught incomplete, just as we are caught in the middle of our own unfinished stories: whither our own future at a time of economic implosion, ecological disaster, political impasse, and global insecurity? No one seems to know how our story will end, so we tune into the apocalypse and enjoy the ride. 

The writers, perhaps knowing the fate of the shows, have their characters offer some comforting platitudes, even if they’re meager or hackneyed. In the final episode of Outcasts, one character, who turns out to be genetically engineered, offers hope in the belief that we can still “design ourselves,” no matter how desperate things become. And in Terra Nova, facing that desperation, the main characters trade mantras: “This is our home.” “We will survive.” “But first let’s kick some ass.” 

And they do.

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Identity

Men Behaving Badly: White Masculinity in Science Fiction Television

TELEVISION IS A PLACE where we work through our cultural anxieties and project idealized versions of our selves. Even if no one really believed that Father Knows Best, it was comforting to imagine a benevolent patriarchal authority. As male series leads became more complex, viewers nonetheless inevitably sympathized with protagonists, seeing the good heart beneath the gruff surface of characters like All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. The recent era of “quality tv” has tested the limits of our belief in righteous masculine authority, compelling us to identify with compromised figures such as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White. Such male anti-heroes are championed despite acts of violence and morally compromised decisions, it seems, because they espouse a love of family that they claim as their only motivation. Recent (semi)-ironic performances of grief over the death of Walter White, for example, suggest how much we still want to believe that father really does know best, even though Vince Gilligan did all anyone could do to show us how Walt destroyed rather than protected his family, and did so solely to feed his own ego. So why do we continue to love male protagonists no matter what they do?

None of the heroes of current sf television could properly be described as anti-heroes in this mode, but male protagonists dominate even in ensemble shows. Agent Coulson is definitely “the dad” for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and this week he really did know best in trusting that one of his wayward children/agents didn’t go rogue as everyone else believed. It remains to be seen how much this series will continue to privilege traditional masculine agency, but I’m encouraged by the ongoing hints of an arc about a sinister side to Coulson’s return from the dead, and also by the fact that they avoided criminalizing their one African American character, guest star, Pascale Armand as a former agent Akela Amador. All the same, I’d like to see greater casting diversity on the show for characters who get to stick around – instead of be sent to institutions at the end of the episode, a fate Amador shares with J. August Richards’s Mike Peterson from the pilot episode. (As an aside, it was nice to see that the episode was directed by Roxann Dawson, known to sf fans as B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager).  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is ambivalent about membership in a military organization, a discomfort that seems to be expressed largely through humor at the expense of Agent Ward, the most conventional character. I hope we’ll see the return of more of Whedon’s anti-establishment sensibilities as the series progresses, perhaps even a rejection of the patriarchal and hierarchal values of S.H.I.E.L.D, along the lines of Buffy’s reversal of the hierarchy between herself and the Watcher’s Council in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Arrow explores a similar discomfort with the premises of its character, inherited from the comic book, expressed in tension about the gap between Oliver’s identity as a rich CEO and his role defending the poor as the vigilante. The series is promising in its focus on economic crimes and this season’s emphasis on The Glades, the impoverished neighborhood destroyed at the end of last season. This week Oliver faces off against Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro of Southland fame: Blood is an Alderman speaking, he says, for the 99% who are forgotten by the city’s powerful, for the former residents of The Glades now without homes or workplaces. He challenges Oliver, in the guise of billionaire CEO of Queen Industries, to do more than pay lip service to the problems of the poor, and Blood capitalizes on Oliver’s absence from a charity event. Yet viewers know that Oliver fails to attend not because he doesn’t really care about the poor, as Blood claims, but because he is stopping criminals China White and Bronze Tiger from hijacking a FEMA truck of narcotics on its way to the hospital serving The Glades population. Arrow thus worries me in its representation of heroic white masculinity: like the fan reading of anti-heroes such as Walter White, Oliver is merely “misunderstood.” In his role as CEO, which he tellingly refers to as his “secret identity” while his crime-fighting alter-ego is his “real” one, Queen appears indifferent to those hurt by his family, but viewers know he really fights on the side of the poor. Yet, although the poor of The Glades feature frequently in Arrow as symbol, the only character from this socio-economic group to get any screen time is white Roy Harper, who it seems will give up his own vigilante activities.

Oliver in his role as masked hero, then, remains the only voice of the disenfranchised, unjustly criticized by the Latino Blood (who, I suspect, will be revealed to have a selfish agenda in later episodes, if the character returns), and fighting against further exploitation of the poor by Asian China White, played by Kelly Hu, and African American Bronze Tiger, played by Michael Jai White. The series seems to acknowledge the problems of its focus on heroic white masculinity in an argument between Oliver and his crime-fighting companions, computer-expert Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Richards) and former bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey). Oliver insists that they all need new “secret identities” as part of Queen Industries to facilitate their real work as crime fighters. Felicity vociferously objects to her demotion from the IT department to Oliver’s personal secretary, but he demurs that he has many reasons as CEO to speak to his secretary but not enough pretexts to consult IT. John merely wryly observes that he, too, has a less-than-heroic “secret” identity as Oliver’s “black driver.” Arrow thus recognizes the pitfalls of a show organized around a white, male, affluent lead speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised, but doesn’t know how to solve this problem. The fact that the other “secret identities” are defined in response to Oliver’s dominant one as CEO embodies the hierarchies they see but do not transcend.

Revolution is more promising in its gender politics because both Rachel and Charlie remain as central to the plot as male leads Miles and Aaron, and it was particularly encouraging this week that Rachel saves herself rather than requires rescue by Miles (and even more, last week she saved him, albeit with help). I’m all-the-more impressed by these strong female characters given the notoriety of creator Eric Kripke’s previous series, Supernatural, famed for killing its female characters at an unprecedented rate. Indeed, Supernatural’s misogyny is so blatant that actor Misha Collins, who plays recurring character Castiel, has criticized it.  Revolution refrains from calling women bitches as frequently and so far the body count has been fairly gender balanced. One of this season’s ongoing story arcs, however, involves the redemption of last year’s main antagonist, Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons), who is poised to take on the beloved anti-hero mantle with his talk of family. Monroe rescues Charlie from that ever-potent patriarchal threat of rape in the most recent episode – she does get her own shots in, and needs help only because she is drugged, but still – and thus the show’s gender politics remain uncertain. And while its casting is not quite as concerning as Arrow’s, it still loses points for killing off the sheriff played by Native actor Adam Beach without even trying to develop the role.

Perhaps the most intriguing show to think about in this framework is Sleepy Hollow. It is a show I continue to enjoy but also the one whose conservative reinvention of American imperialism as innocent – more, as on the side of God – is deeply troubling. The conclusion I’ve reached is that the series’ appeal has everything to do with the charisma of Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane, whose charming British accent is especially charming in this week’s episode, about the lost Roanoke colony, which requires him to speak Middle English. Mison’s Crane is a skilled fighter, keen analyst, and powerful orator. In short, he is nothing at all like Washington Irving’s Crane, who was a timid schoolteacher, excessively concerned with superstition, who longed for but never got the girl. Crane was already reinvented as a more heroic figure in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), where he was played by Johnny Depp, although that Crane remains in the 18th century. Television’s reinvention of Crane from mild-mannered victim to dashing hero whose personal appeal makes Sleepy Hollow worth watching suggests that we still have a long way to go, baby, when it comes to our desire for charismatic patriarchal authority. Will our desire to sympathize with the male hero compel us to forgive the sins of American history as much as we forgive those of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, or Walter White?

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