Category Archives: 20 Minutes into the Future

Weekly rundowns on the latest science fiction television series by Sherryl Vint

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Civil Wars: Reinventing America in Science Fiction Television

NEW GENRE TELEVISION this week included the return of CW’s Arrow, an adaptation of DC’s character Green Arrow, the alter ego of Oliver Queen, a billionaire turned vigilante, like Bruce Wayne’s Batman. Green Arrow, visually associated with Robin Hood, tends toward a leftish defense of the working class and poor, whereas Batman, particularly in his Frank Miller incarnation popularized by Nolan’s films, is further to the right and focuses more on punishing the guilty. Last season saw the rebirth of irresponsible playboy Oliver Queen (Stephen Arnell) as a vigilante called The Hood, returned to Starling City from mysterious and arduous exile to condemn various industrialists who have “failed this city,” predominately through acts of economic corruption. Oliver worked from a list given to him by his about-to-die father, and he is motivated as much by a desire to avenge his father’s betrayal by these former allies as by a sense of responsibility to other economic classes. A grim character, Oliver/Arrow is willing to kill in pursuit of his agenda, and the season concluded with his failure to prevent the destruction of the city’s poorest neighborhood, the Glades, by a device invented by another wealthy industrialist who blames his wife’s death in a street crime on the entire underclass from which her assailants came. Although the depredations of the single-minded pursuit of profit were the target of most weekly stories, in its first season Arrow tended to validate Oliver’s vigilantism and to ignore the contradictions of his own privileged position.

Season two opened with some intriguing changes that emphasize the entwined questions of economic and social justice, but also suggest that CW’s Arrow might covertly be as much a defender of class hierarchy as Nolan’s Batman in the controversial The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Following his failure to prevent the destruction of The Glades, Oliver returned to his island exile between seasons, and in his absence a group of the disenfranchised have taken up the Hood identity and begun to attack the elite, again blaming an entire class for the death of loved ones because they (rightfully) associated the destruction of The Glades with the wealthy (Oliver’s mother, Moira (Susanna Thompson) is on trial for her part in the conspiracy). In the first episode, this group attacks Oliver, as head of Queen Industries, using his own slogan, and kidnaps his sister, Thea (Willa Holland), reasoning that they can make Moira suffer loss just as they have by killing her daughter. Needless to say, Oliver arrives to save the day, capturing rather than killing the vigilantes, whom he leaves for police who are surprised by the new capture rather than kill method. Oliver no longer wants to be The Hood, he tells his allies. This reinvention is intriguing and bodes well for Arrow to remain fresh rather than just repeat with variation the same stories and themes each week. A new arc about control of Queen Industries, threatened by hostile takeover, and the addition of Summer Glau to the cast as Isabel Rochev, Oliver’s corporate adversary, is also promising. Yet it is concerning that the series quickly castigate vigilantism as soon as the underclasses take justice into their own hands, and I worry that too much of this season’s energy might be spent defending Oliver’s wealth rather than Glades’ denizens. The episode concludes, after all, with Thea reconciling with her mother, no longer the vocal defendant of The Glades she was when it began.

The polarization of Arrow’s world into wealthy vs. working classes is part of a prevalent theme in contemporary sf television, the reinvention of America via struggle between competing agendas. In Starling City it is corporate restructuring (Rochev) vs. corporate responsibility (Oliver); in the CW’s new show this week, The Tomorrow People, it is an X-Men-esque struggle between those with genetic mutations, “homo superior,” vs. regular homo sapiens, defended by geneticist Jedikiah Price (Mark Pelligrino), who plans to suppress and wipe out these mutants. A grittier reboot of an 1970s British show1(973-1979), The Tomorrow People got off to a rather banal start in its origin-story tale of Stephen Jameson (Robbie Arnell, cousin to Arrow’s Stephen Arnell) learning that his strange sleepwalking is not a sign of emergent psychosis but instead the “breaking out” of his powers of telekinesis, telepathy and teleportation. He chooses to go undercover as an agent of government organization Ultra, dedicated to containing the Tomorrow People, secretly working for the mutant underground resistance. Most of the concepts in the series are taken from the original, but they seem even more derivative because in the interim both The X-Men franchise and Jumper (2008) have thoroughly worked over the idea of a marginalized yet super-powered minority being persecuted by a fearful majority. As The X-Men have shown, this motif can be put to powerful effect to explore the discriminations of racism and homophobia, but thus far The Tomorrow People has failed to understand this metaphor’s potential. It is challenging to take seriously the idea of handsome and athletic Stephen as a victim of any schoolyard bullying, although the episode stages one such confrontation with all the cliché it deserves. The original Tomorrow People hid their abilities fearing the reaction of normal humans, and used their powers to fight evil, local and extra-terrestrial alike. Ultra is an invention of the reboot, another sign of the palpable contemporary sensibility that America has fragmented into irreconcilably different groups, whether the fault lines be economic, embodied ability, or ideological. It is always a delight to see Mark Pellegrino on the screen, and he is particularly compelling as a villain, and so I hope The Tomorrow People can raise its game next week.

Fractures based on ideological difference are evident in the other series as well, all of which in one way or another stage a civil war between competing visions of America. On Sleepy Hollow, renewed this week for a full season run, Judeo-Christian good vs. evil continues to reinterpret the American Revolution, and this week we learned that the Boston Tea Party was merely a “diversion.” I continue to enjoy the series’ moody atmosphere, charismatic leads, and da Vinci code gadgets, but its retreat from politics into mysticism is frustrating. Person of Interest advances its narrative arc about Root’s ideal of machine intelligence producing a utopia elusive to fallible humanity. Agents of S.H.I.E.D., also renews for a full run, marking the first Whedon series to get such network support since Angel, struggles with questions about whether government containment of technology is really less sinister than leaving it in the hands of individuals, and included a wonderful opening sequence featuring a working-class instead of dark-suited agent.

But the most interesting sf television this week was the latest episode of Revolution. I was delighted to discover, against my expectations, that the series did not play out some version of The Walking Dead siege but instead quickly dispatched with sinister cult figure Titus Andover and moved on to the much more disturbing image of US forces arriving to rescue our protagonists from Andover’s berserker hordes. This final sequence was effectively staged and filmed, ensuring that although we are grateful that the troops intervened just as Miles (Billy Burke) was about to be defeated by superior numbers, and undoubtedly in time to save Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) from dying of her wounds, we nonetheless feel more dread than relief as the episode ends. The newly introduced Patriot forces both manipulated Andover to attack the town and as swiftly executed him when he proved more liability than opportunity. The other story lines similarly paint Patriot forces in cynical yet credible hues, positioning Revolution to use science fiction as effective political allegory for contemporary distrust of government and social fragmentation, following in the footsteps of Ronald Moore’s reinvented Battlestar Galactica, which helped audiences navigate a post 9/11 landscape. I’m now excited to see how far the series will take its villainous US this season, and apologize to Kripke et al. for my doubts last week.

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Return of the Living Series: Season Premieres

IN RECENT DISCUSSIONS among scholars of speculative fictions, the science fictionalization of contemporary life is a frequent point of reference. No longer confined to a small, recognizable, and generally low-rent neighborhood, images and ideas drawn from sf are central to today’s media landscape. At their best, speculative genres provide compelling metaphors for contemporary experiences of alienation and potent images of what our future might be that both dissuade and inspire. As television comes into its maturity as a medium, its contributions to these meditations merit our attention.

Last week I evaluated the new series that have premièred to date. This week, we discuss developments in returning series.

NBC’s Revolution, a series once ranked among the most highly watched on television, saw its numbers steadily drop over Season 1 and its Season 2 debut dropped even more. Last season concluded the struggle between rebel forces loyal to the US and two new political entities that emerged after electrical power was lost by turning the power back on just long enough to launch nuclear missiles, enabling an exiled US president to return from Guantanamo Bay. Revolution seem to be exploring our new distrust of government in the wake of ongoing wars prompted by 9/11 (as did Moore’s Battlestar Galactica). This season also tries to replicate the success of Lost (2004-2010) with emerging narrative arcs about nanotech fireflies and nature being changed. Creator Eric Kripke had success with the main-character-driven chemistry of Supernatural (2005–), and such emotional investment seems too diffuse in this ensemble series. Audiences have also lost faith in series with evolving mythology since the smug conclusion of Lost.

This season’s revamped environment’s most promising storylines involves the return of exiled US Patriot forces that reorient and continue to explore themes about what new America might be built on the ashes of the old. Although the first episode, “Born in the U.S.A.” short-circuited any tension from last season’s cliffhanger in its opening minutes – yes, the nukes do fall – it seems clear that the brief shot of the exiled president in last season’s conclusion was more sinister than the missile countdown. Flexible opportunist Tom Neville, played by Giancarlo Esposito, who also played the cagey Gustavo Fring on Breaking Bad, coldly sees through the Patriot’s inflationary rhetoric and acerbically punctures the tattered optimism of loyalists as he notes, in this week’s “There Will Be Blood,” that the new order shares nothing with the “Pollyanna, flowers-up-your-ass America” they idolize.

The illuminati seal on Patriot correspondence and the general Western ethos of a world without electricity or electronics allows Revolution to return visually as well as imaginatively to the founding of America. This arc has potential to mine sf’s considerable history examining the heritage and consequences of colonialism and to provide an unromanticized exploration of the American mythos that Richard Slotkin evocatively labeled “regeneration through violence.” There are propitious hints as well that Revolution will take a fresh look at the discourse of the past ten years now that 9/11 fever has begun to wane, perhaps marking a new turn in narrative drama distinct from series of the past decade explored in books such as Stacy Takacs’s Terrorism TV (2012). Neville’s claim that Patriots used the nuke not merely to eliminate their rivals but also to manufacture an image of themselves as “solution” augur well for this theme.

Revolution is trying to be too many things to too many audiences, however, combining this arc with Lost-inspired mysteries and another plot that basically reworked “The Walking Dead season three” at least thus far, with its beleaguered, gated and wholesome townspeople fighting off a predatory tribe lead by a charismatic sociopath, former boys’ school master and uncharged pedophile Titus Andover, played by Matt Ross with all the sinister creepiness he brought to his role as cult leader in Big Love (2006-2011). Revolution has a strong cast and the potential to equal the reinvented Battlestar Galactica in its exploration of political themes, but it remains to be seen how well it can weave together its many threads into a cogent picture.

Syfy’s Haven offers a satisfying example of how to combine unfolding mythology with weekly narrative satisfaction to intrigue rather than alienate viewers. Last year’s offered closures on some of the mysteries as it introduced others. Like many of the successful genre shows – a pattern modeled by many of this season’s new contenders – Haven mixes its otherworldly mysteries with the steady closure of the police procedural, solving each episode’s case as it deepens the mystery of the source of the troubles themselves and Audrey’s (Emily Rose) role in their end. The fact that some mysteries have been answered in a satisfying way, and without the theological dodges that so annoyed fans of Lost and Battlestar Galactica, buys Haven goodwill and thus the leeway to expand its mythology in each season, fans trusting that revelation will both emerge and be consistent with stories and characters in which we have invested time and emotional energy.

This season involves more radical shifts following a Season Three cliffhanger in which both Audrey and Duke (Eric Balflour) disappeared into an other-dimensional space related to the cycle of troubles and Audrey’s pattern of disappearance and return. Duke re-emerges almost instantaneously from his and our point of view, but six months have passed so Haven is a different town. Ongoing mythology seems to dominate over ordinary crime-solving this season, and this roboot neatly sidesteps an issue that has doomed other television, resolving a love triangle, since Audrey forgets her former existence. Like Whedon series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Haven refuses to pit its troubled characters against its “normal” ones, and thus has the potential for nuanced themes about discrimination and stereotypes symbolized via supernatural difference.

CBS’s Person of Interest similarly fell from last year’s ratings, although its similarity to popular procedural drama such as NCIS (2003–) suggests a wide audience base and a strong chance at longevity via established formula. Part secret-agent conspiracy thriller, part origin story of AI, and part meditation upon the realities – and paranoias – of ubiquitous surveillance, Person of Interest has thus far failed to move much beyond a formulaic, episode-of-the-week drama. A new intro voiceover used in the premiere episode, “Liberty,” that offers antagonist Root’s (Angel’s Amy Acker) version of the world, in addition to the established intro by protagonist Harold Finch (Lost’s Michael Emerson), hints that it may venture further now that it’s renewed for a third season. The addition of Sarah Shahi as another former government agent now in hiding – whose cynicism, quickness to resort to violence, and cold pragmatism make Jim Caviezel’s badass John Reese look positively domesticated – is a welcome change.

Person of Interest most clearly aligns with the science fictionalization of everyday life, on its surface indistinct from non-genre political thrillers and procedurals, particularly in an environment in which series such as Bones (2005–) or the various CSI series emphasize forensic detail and scientific paradigms. Premised on the idea that the government secretly operates an information-collating AI, the Machine, created by Finch, to predict and prevent terrorist activities, Person of Interest chronicles our fantasies and fears in an age of widespread social media, online activity, and surveillance. As the intro tells us, the Machine “hears everything” and thus can predict impending violence against individuals as well as against states, but these victims are considered “irrelevant” by government forces. Finch and his team investigate and rescue private individuals whose stories form the episodic backbone of the series.

Although the fantasy that ubiquitous surveillance equals infinite security animates the series’ heroics, from the beginning this vision has chaffed uncomfortably against knowledge of a concomitant loss of privacy, embodied in the fact that the main characters live off the grid. As each episode begins we don’t know if the person identified by the Machine is victim or perpetrator of the crime they set out to prevent, and the series sustains a pleasing complexity of moral vision by rescuing some “victims” who are not remotely admirable people and whom a more black-and-white moral vision would have condemned as deserving targets of poetic justice. This season promises to more fully explore competing ideological visions of our wired world. In “Nothing to Hide” the CEO of a data-gathering company is targeted by both a lawsuit filed on behalf of those whose lives were ruined by his snooping software and by a mysterious collective committed to wresting privacy back from the hands of surveillance entities (that range from “harmless” purchasing-information-bots to identity thieves). In a rare unhappy conclusion to an episode, Finch and crew fail to save this weekly Person of Interest. This season’s larger narrative arc, then, may provoke us to rethink our social media ways as Person of Interest enters more fully into science-fictional territory.

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Science Fiction Television: Still Lost in Space?

WE LIVE IN A GOLDEN AGE of television, as the recent Emmy Awards broadcast never failed to remind us. Although the Emmys have been mocked for taking this message a bit too earnestly, it’s hard to deny that many recent scripted shows are among the best in the television’s history, and that the combination of niche channels, on-demand programming, and (for some) lack of dependence upon advertisers have pushed television in compelling new directions in the past 10 years. Although HBO deserves – and takes – much of the credit for such “quality tv,” praise is also due to cable networks such as FX and AMC, as well as to broadcast television, particularly the WB and UPN (now merged as the CW) who early on took risks with expected formats in their struggle to establish brand identity. These youth-oriented channels were important particularly in demonstrating an interest in genre programming that has only more recently been taken up by the Big Four. The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002), long a darling of academics for its feminist themes, innovatively experienced with the medium, such as the silent episode “Hush.” On UPN, teenage detective Veronica Mars (2004-2007) similarly offered a pretty blonde who was also powerful and smart, and now has made television history by being the first series brought to the big screen (next year) via direct funding by its fans through Kickstarter.

These and other genre series have nurtured some of the biggest talents in Hollywood today, including Joss Whedon, followed as auteur by his many fans and recently propelled into greater renown with The Avengers (2004); Shawn Ryan, who began as a series writer on Buffy spin-off Angel (1991-2004) and went on to create The Shield (2002-2008), a critically acclaimed police drama; J.J. Abrams, whose sf-flavored Lost (2004-2010) sparked the most intensive discussion of a series as it aired until the phenomenon of Breaking Bad (2008-2013); and Vince Gilligan himself, who got his start on The X-Files (1993-2002). Genre series such as Buffy were among the first to experiment with the story arcs now central to premium cable series, and often offered central and powerful roles for women, in contrast to the masculine anti-hero dominant in the “quality tv” lineage from Tony Soprano through Don Draper to Walter White. Emmy Awards seldom recognize genre television except for technical achievements, however, and preconceptions prompt many never to tune in at all. Yet the widespread popularity of Lost and the massive success of genre franchises in film such as The Avengers and Twilight have encouraged networks – cable and broadcast alike – to add genre shows to their lineups.

So has science fiction (sf) television been unjustly maligned? Although I’d be the first to agree that many sf series fail to inspire the hope that “science fiction” and “quality” would together, I also strongly believe in the potentials of both genre and medium. Despite glib (if also campy and fun) series like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) or Mann & Machine (1992), Ron Moore’s gritty and 9/11-inflected reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) demonstrated to genre and non-genre aficionados alike that the key criterion is execution, not concept. Long before Moore reminded us to take the genre seriously, Rod Serling, whose provocative writing for other series had met with resistance, effectively used sf’s estranged perspective on reality to offer pointed commentary on contemporary political and social issues in The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) without ruffling advertisers’ feathers, turning stigmatization into opportunity.

So, has sf television’s moment finally arrived? Mainstreaming of genre tropes in film and digital games has removed – or at least reconfigured – the geek stereotype. Salman Rushdie is rumored to be writing an sf pilot; Steven Spielberg has financed a live-action series based on the game Halo. A series adapted from a Stephen King story by comic writer Brian Vaughn, Under the Dome (2013), tilted the scales in CBS’s fight with Time Warner Cable, and Chris Carter is developing new series for both of AMC and Amazon Studio. Perhaps we are about to enter a period of quality sf television. At the very least, its conditions of possibility exist.

So, let’s review the season’s new contenders.

Fox makes a strong attempt to capture the American Horror Story audience with Sleepy Hollow, a mash-up of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip van Winkle,” in which our jilted schoolteacher, Ichabod Crane (Tom Misson), is transformed into a displaced Oxford History professor, sent by the British to fight American rebels but ideologically converted to Revolution’s side. As in Irving’s story, the Headless Horseman is a Hessian soldier fighting for the British but in this case also a horseman of the apocalypse, enlisted on the side of empire and fought by a George Washington whose Revolutionary War is thoroughly entwined with struggles between white and black magic.

The series joins other recent sf series Revolution (2012–) and Falling Skies (2011–) in placing a debate about “true” American identity at the centre of its narrative, working through the tensions of a nation founded in discourses of freedom now infamous for policies such as “torture memos.” In Sleepy Hollow, the Revolutionary War is fought not just for the freedom of “this” country but to prevent the apocalypse itself. It’s most impressive innovation, however, is casting African American actor Nicole Beharie as Abby Mills, the police officer who becomes Crane’s partner. Genre television has a poor track record for casting non-white actors, and an embarrassing history of killing off their non-white characters after only a season or two. I’m thus hopeful this series will last, but wish it were more refreshing in other choices as well. Sure to attract fans of paranormal investigative series such as The X-Files (1993-2002) and Fringe (2008-2013), Sleepy Hollow also seems poised to draw viewers of supernatural series, but its polarized vision of good and evil suggests that it could quickly become bland. The most recent episode’s vision of Crane’s astonishment that his former allies, Native Americans, are a repressed and impoverished minority in the new country implies a worrisome tendency toward self-congratulatory revisionism.

The most highly anticipated series was, of course, ABC’s new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., benefactor of build-in audiences drawn from Avengers franchise films and from devoted followers of all projects involving Joss Whedon. The heavy promotion of soon-to-be-released film Thor: The Dark World during commercial breaks capitalizes on these connections, and suggests that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is best poised to benefit from industry shifts toward transmedia storytelling. The pilot episode delivered on the hype, combining sufficient references to ongoing mythology to satisfy devoted fans without alienating other viewers. Joss Whedon is not the showrunner for this series – a role filled by his co-creators Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen – but his distinctive humor and ability to play with genre tropes are evident: Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), mysteriously resurrected from his apparent death in The Avengers (2012) to serve as team leader and connective tissue between film and series, emerges on cue just as someone reminds viewers he is dead, but playfully acknowledges that the scene is conventional by quipping, “Sorry. That corner was really dark and I couldn’t help myself.”

The pilot strives to have something for everyone – the super-trained but not super-powered Agent Ward (Brett Dalton) for those who like their action-adventure straight; the tech-geeks Agent Fitz (Iain de Catestecker) and Agent Simmons (Elizabeth Henstridge), who combine a CSI-esque love of forensic detail with the pure Whedonverse charm of nerdy experts; a powerful and attractive female lead in Skype (Chloe Bennet), whose back story is sure to appeal to social media enthusiasts; and Agent May (Ming-na Wen), who has enough hint of a mysterious past to create interest in longer story arcs and (another Whedon trademark) reverses gender expectations by being female and really good with military tech. Of course we also get that famed Whedon dialogue of memorable insider one-liners such as “with great power comes ….. a whole ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with.”

This series seems poised to live up to Whedon’s track record for using both genre and medium to tell socially and politically engaged stories. In the pilot, working class Mike Peterson (J. August Richards) gains superpowers due to an illegal experiment with super-soldier “extremis” serum, providing a link to franchise stories. Although this is a typical “origin story” for super-hero or super-villain (see further Spider-Man (2003), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), etc.), and the plot plays out along expected paths, more or less, there are a couple of key exceptions. First, in an emotionally satisfying if also somewhat trite twist, Peterson does not either loss his humanity (and thus authorize his death at superhero hands) or sacrifice himself drawing on the last dregs of vanishing humanity: instead, he is cured. More interesting, however, are the comments on the plight of the working classes that motivate his rage and outbursts of super-villain petulance. Before his breakdown we see him search the job listings in vain, and he snaps when his former supervisor refuses to give him his old job back, insinuating that taking sick leave when injured makes him an unreliable employee. Although the angry Peterson shouts that assigning blame is easy, “like the stories we used to read: you’re the bad guy and I’m the hero,” Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D refuses to neatly tie up loose ends.

Peterson in his outrage, however justifiable, unfortunately falls into the stereotype of the angry-black-man, dangerously out of control. I have faith in the writers, however, to see beyond such reductionism, and the details about Peterson’s struggles to find work are key here. Like Robert Morales and Kyle Baker’s revision of the Captain America origin story in Truth: Red, White & Black (2003), which details the experiences of many black men who suffered as subjects of early experiments before the military perfected their protocol in Captain America, Peterson reminds us “all over people are being pushed down, being robbed” by systemic discrimination and enslavement to debt, that heroes are needed to fight structural oppressions as much as charismatic big bads.

It remains to be seen if Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D can balance its many competing fan bases and priorities and deliver even more innovative uses of genre motifs. The second episode stressed team building and characterization – key to making us want to spend time each week with these characters – and although it was less socially engaged that the pilot, Skype nonetheless managed to link her crowdsourcing ideal not only to the cooperative work that allows them to save the day in this episode but also to a social media as a method for political organization against corruption in Peru, the country where they found this week’s mysterious artifact. Yet the cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, as well as the firefights and fast-paced chase scenes, suggest that in the short term Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is more concerned with translating big screen aesthetics onto the small screen. In this the series runs the risk of becoming reduced to some new iteration of viral advertising for Thor: The Dark World and next spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so let’s hope future episodes shift the balance away from the films and toward the promising possibilities for reinventing the super hero team.

As we head into week two of premiere season, more new sf hopefuls are to come, including many offerings from youth-oriented CW. We’ll also check-in with returning series. Nothing yet achieves the promise of what I know sf television could be, but the 2013-2014 season has come a long way from your grandfather’s science fiction tv.

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