Tag Archives: SF

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?

¤

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.

¤

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.

¤

SFimage12813

Back to the Present of the Future: Continuum and the War on Terror

By Jonathan Alexander

I’LL BEGIN WITH A DISCLAIMER: as much as I love SF, time-travel stories are my least favorite.  Granted, notable exceptions abound: H. G. Well’s Time Machine, which arguably launches the genre of SF as a whole, and Greg Benford’s Timescape are both brilliantly executed fables that use time travel to meditate on social and ecological injustices.  In the hands of many SF TV writers, however, time travel seems largely an excuse to create impenetrable plot twists, a lazy narrative device leaving viewers scratching their heads and propelled to watch the next episode for some sense of resolution.  I love the Star Trek franchises, but their time travel episodes are amongst the worst offenders in this category of sloppy story-telling.

And then there’s Continuum.  The Canadian channel Showcase first broadcast this series in May 2012, and its third season is currently in production.  And despite my bias against time travel narratives, I think Continuum might be about the best SF TV I’ve seen in the last decade.  If you’ve missed it, you need to catch up before the next season airs.

Continuum’s plot primarily revolves around a future cop, Kiera (played by Rachel Nichols), who works in 2077 for the corporate state, federal governments having been taken over and run, in a rather fascist fashion, by profit-mongering corporations.  Kiera accidentally (maybe, maybe not) gets sucked into a time vortex that a group of condemned future terrorists open up shortly before their execution for having blown up corporate headquarters and killing thousands of people.  (Think 9/11 and the attacks on the WTC.)  The terrorists want to come back to the present to change things for the better (or at least their version of the better).  Kiera and the terrorists have to insinuate themselves into present day Vancouver–Kiera as a law enforcement agent, the terrorists as various activists, moguls, and present-day terrorists.  Along the way, Kiera and the terrorists run into a young Alec Sadler (played by Erik Knudsen), who, in the future, becomes one of the prime architects of the future corporate state, as well as the person who may be trying to sabotage the corporate state he’s created.  Kiera reveals who she is to Alec, who, a computer genius, is maybe not so stunned to learn that he will become the leading figure in creating the technologies that become the complete surveillance state of 2077.  Alec and Kiera help each other, for the time being, and are assisted and antagonized by a strong cast of characters, including Kiera’s police partner Carlos (played by Victor Webster) and former terrorist and now sketchy present-day entrepreneur Matthew Kellog (Stephen Lobo).

This sketch doesn’t even begin to do Continuum justice.  The plot increases in complexity with nearly every episode, leading you to a spectacular season two cliffhanger and leaving you wondering what the master plot really is: who really knows what’s going on, who’s pulling the strings, and what’s the end game?  Continuum offers us lots of loops, and at its best it’s reminiscent of Kage Baker’s delightful Company novels, which keep you guessing about what designs the future really has on the present. In less capable hands, such stories would be a mess.  But what salvages Continuum are the risks the show is willing to take with the viewers’ sympathies and identifications with different characters.

Let me explain.  When watching the first few episodes of Continuum, I have to admit I was kind of appalled.  Vancouver, where the story is set in both the present and the future, becomes a pretty but nasty place in 2077, a place where the trains run on time—or else.  Think corporate fascism–a timely trope given that, in the US at least, corporations are essentially given the same rights as people but also have access to incredible resources to enforce their will and manipulate the legal system.  The SF extrapolation is totally believable.  While we don’t get a complex sense of how corporations rule, we see many examples of their brutal and total control, complete surveillance, and limited protection of civil liberties; desirable commodities are only accessible to the bureaucratic class that keeps the companies running and profitable. The “smoking man” (William B. Davis) from X-Files plays the elder and future Alec Sadler, who seems to be in control of everything as head of the surveillance company running the state.  That casting choice alone signals that these are the bad guys.  Kiera is one of their hired guns, and we see her in multiple episodes, flashing back and forth between the present and the future, as a brutal enforcer, hurting those who defy the corporate police state.

But it’s her viewpoint we are asked to identify with primarily, and the story is largely given to us through her eyes.  And that’s our dilemma as viewers.  She represents an icky future, and you’re invited to sympathize with her desire to protect it.  Granted, she’s tracking down terrorists, who battle that state through 9/11-style attacks.  But wait: even that is complicated, because, well, you might not agree with their tactics, but you also don’t want to defend the fascist corporate state either.  And, as the series progresses, you are given no easy answers here about whom to like, or even whom you should be identifying with.  On one hand, we watch the corporate police state being born, particularly through the use of digitally collected information to keep tabs on the lives of citizens and arrest them even for sympathies that are anti-corporate; think of the Patriot Act as it might be administered by Wall Street.  One character from the future, Escher, represents a “corporation” that fully funds the Vancouver police force to stop the terrorists by any means necessary, especially after they blow up a building in 2012.  At one point, Kiera herself resorts to torturing Julian, Alec’s estranged step-brother who is helping the future terrorists in the present.  On the other hand, however, the show spares no love for the terrorists either.  Julian is made to look like a young Osama bin Laden, and his tactics seem especially sketchy; remember that blown up building I mentioned?  To complicate matters further, we also see how the present-day “terrorists” increasingly seem to want to fight with ideas, not force, and Kiera herself starts to doubt the justness of the future corporate state she’s trying to protect in the present.

You can probably tell that the show is steadily pitching itself as a complex reading of the war on terror at a time of economic crisis—a heady but smart conflation.    Early in the second season, we see Julian, in prison, reading The White Guard, an early book by Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov.  It’s a throwaway scene, but maybe a signal nonetheless if you’re paying close attention. Bulgakov, whose most famous work is The Master and Margarita, wrote The White Guard to depict the many factions (socialist, monarchist, etc.) fighting over Kiev during the 1917 October Revolution.  Bulgakov’s own sympathies were mixed, and he became a critic of Soviet policies, especially under Stalin.  So, Julian, the revolutionary, reading Bulgakov might be a clue that the show’s “take” on the war on terror, corporate malfeasance, and the economic downturn will not be simple.  At the very least, it’s hard to know who the good guys are, and your sympathies for one might have to change over the course of time as you weigh tactics, values, and endgames.

Such steady confusion of sympathies makes for heady, engaging viewing as your identifications with different characters form—and are then challenged.  The plots within plots call to mind Fringe, that rip-off of The X-Files.  But while Fringe and X-Files were willing to play with their main characters’ foibles, neither risked identifications as strongly as Continuum, which, at its best, makes you question your loyalties to characters as a way to make you question what you really think about terrorism, as well as how far we should–and should not–go in defending an unjust economic status quo.  Tricky stuff here.  You wonder, does the repression of terrorism in the 21st century actually result in the corporate take over?  And might the terrorists have a point in organizing against the nascent corporate state?

What begin as extreme poles–fascism and terrorism–steadily become more nuanced over 23 episodes.  Ultimately, Continuum might really be about the re-education of Kiera, who seems led to question who bad the bad guys really are, and if she herself might be a bad guy.  As such, in asking you to identify with her, the show might play to our re-education as viewers, or at least prompt us to question our sympathies in the war on terror and the desirability of having corporations call so many political shots.  Early in the second season, one of the more brutal future terrorists asks Carlos, the present-day police detective, if he’s ever bothered by the injustices he sees, the ways corporations seem to manipulate the law and citizens to turn a profit.  Carlos replies, “Guess I’m just used to it.”  Travis answers: “They need your complacency.”  The exchange seems pitched not just to Carlos but to us, sitting comfortably (for now) in front of our televisions.

In figuring a war on terror and the rise of corporate interests, Continuum pulls no punches.  Given its subject matter, it shouldn’t.  This is complex stuff, deserving of complex treatment.  You should catch up before the third season airs—or before the corporate state bans such provocative viewing.

¤

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.

¤

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.

¤

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?

¤

revolution flag

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.

¤

SFimage1

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.

¤