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Bastille Day in Beverly Hills: The Revolution, Televised

Photo: Ernest and Celestine, New Video Group, 2014

Today’s post was originally published by LARB Channel Marginalia. 

By Ted Scheinman

We were both light in the head from a five-mile hike that had verged on a vision quest — too many miles with too little water under a cloudless sky at Calabasas Peak. It therefore took me a moment to adjust when we found ourselves later that evening strolling through rings of bunting-balloons, a grand promenade of red, white, and blue arches that slipped into the distance, suggesting a Homeric archery contest produced by Marvel. Continue reading

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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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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West Park Asylum, Epsom, Surrey, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

Life Hacks and the Undead: On Urban Exploration, “The Walking Dead” and “Revolution”

By Brigette Brown

A deserted prison sits in the middle of an open field, fenced in with gates several feet high, and topped with barbed wire for good measure. Padlocks keep possible trespassers from opening the gates but they don’t keep them from climbing the fences and dropping down on the other side. Infiltration is possible despite the walls, locks and fences that say otherwise. It’s easy to get in if you really want to.

Embedded social norms keep everyone in their place because of the fear of what could happen. Boundaries often go untested.

River Tyburn, City of London, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

River Tyburn, City of London, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

That is hardly the case for Bradley L. Garrett and the dozens of urban explorers he chronicled in his book, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City. Garrett, an ethnographer who spent three years on place-hacking missions in Europe and America, describes urban explorers in his book this way: “Urban explorers, much like computer hackers in virtual space, exploit fractures in the architecture of the city. Their goal is to find deeper meaning in the spaces we pass through every day.” They go to the places they’re not supposed to be, places that are normally off-limits, to photograph and share their experiences. The point is to show that nothing is impenetrable, that beyond the walls set up to keep it out of reach, a secret city exists.

Our experience of the city is more or less dictated by the rules of a capitalist society, and the choices we make to move through these spaces everyday are therefore not our own, but those already laid out for us. Urban explorers choose to do as they please. They challenge the “underlying message of constant and immanent threat promised by neo-liberalism that is used to codify the urban environment for our ‘safety,’” ultimately calling the bluff of that threat.

Decaying structures and ruins hold a special promise for explorers who love to document disused spaces for their aesthetic value, for the image of the post-apocalyptic future and the liberation from the fast-paced urban environment. It’s about the exploration of urban space as much as it is about exploring a period of time; the now, the past and the future locked in an environment that is largely ignored. These confrontations with urban space also include infiltration. Urban explorers enjoy breeching the security apparatus at corporate and state sites and networks, not to damage the property or exploit the system, but to show that there are chinks in every suit of armor. The illusion of security is just that.

But urban explorers don’t necessarily care if the general population engages in these exploits.

Gartloch Hospital, Gartcosh, Scotland, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

Gartloch Hospital, Gartcosh, Scotland, United Kingdom. © Bradley Garrett

The excitement and the possible danger of exploration often exist in the phantasm of our dreams, as fleeting moments of rebellion — boundaries, in actuality, go untested. The adventure comes to us. Our aspirations are played out on our televisions.

Take the mass appeal of The Walking Dead (2010–) or Revolution (2012–), for example. Both television shows run with our fascination with a post-apocalyptic future (something urban explorers are also driven by) and transform our views of the city today into something at once more magical, more dangerous and more exciting. We hold our breath as we watch the stories unfold.

Walking Dead season 3, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Walking Dead season 3, Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs) and Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). Photo by Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

In The Walking Dead, zombies infest our cities, laws and accepted social practices go out the door, and we are free to roam…anywhere. That prison which had previously been secure, guarded and untouchable is now home to anyone who wishes to take it over. The prison becomes not a place of exclusion, oppression and punishment, but a shelter that functions more like an apartment building, an urban garden and a soup kitchen all in one. The meaning of space has been altered.

The lights were turned off in Revolution, and though the city tries to function as it once did, citizens are more daring and fearless than ever before. They take what they feel is theirs and don’t give it back without a fight. Rather than enslaving people with the imposed practices and boundaries of city life, the post-apocalyptic city works for the people. It’s free.

Revolution season 2, Sebastian "Bass" Monroe (David Lyons) and Charlotte "Charlie" Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos). NBC

Revolution season 2, Sebastian “Bass” Monroe (David Lyons) and Charlotte “Charlie” Matheson (Tracy Spiridakos). NBC

It’s freedom at its most pure and we fantasize about liberating ourselves from the holds of the present. We dream of a world where we can take our own risks, solve our own problems, and do all the things we were told not to. Still, most of us aren’t bold enough to take those risks in real life. We can’t give up our nine-to-five jobs or risk our lives or spend years paying legal fees and avoiding jail just to explore. Boundaries and exclusionary practices are in place to keep us safely tucked away on our couches, not causing problems for anyone, oblivious of the fact that we aren’t really free.

But as Garrett and his fellow explorers tackle boundary after boundary, skyscraper after skyscraper, and tunnel after tunnel, they demonstrate to us what freedom can feel like. Though we can hardly imagine a world where freedom of exploration, discovery and risk are the norm, it is possible to take back our urban spaces by exploring one “new” place in our backyards every now and then, with or without fear, with or without the zombies.