Apocalypto now, redux

Survivalypto

Maybe it’s the low grade fever I’m feeling, but it seems like now would be a great time to rebroadcast my love for the BBC’s Survivors, since every day Mexico City feels more and more like a location shoot for 28 months laterApparently season two begins filming in Birmingham next month, too, which is timely.  For those who missed it in December, season one is set to air on BBC America at some undisclosed point later this year.

So, Survivors is another remake of a post-apocalyptic drama originally hailing from the 1970s.  The trend, I think, prompts some questions: is there something in the current global political climate that has anglophones reshuffling old Cold War apocalypse fantasies?  What about science fiction as a genre makes it so ripe for geopolitical allegory?  Is the new Star trek movie going to be a lionization the Bush family or what?  Is David Simon the only homeboy out there with the chops to tell a political story sans allegory?

My general anglophilia aside, the British series is much more restrained (not to mention more satisfying) than its bombastic American cousin. Whereas Americans tend to disguise our fears as genocidal robots and rocket them off into deep space, Survivors orbits a bit closer to home, suggesting deadly viruses and greedy transnational corporations as more proximate harbingers of the apocalypse.  Although the first season makes explicit reference to a vaguely Abramsian (and hopefully not Prison-breakian) conspiracy responsible for the outbreak of the virus, the science fiction element of the British series (at least in its 2008 incarnation) seems to have been confined to that first episode.  And, as I mentioned, even that particular plot point isn’t so far-fetched.

"Por culpa de este pinche esqüincle!"
"Por culpa de este pinche esqüincle!"

The main appeal of the series for me — and I felt the same way about the first season of Lost — is its escapist fantasy of re-building society ex nihilo.  By way of comparison, there were admittedly some rocky moments for the post-Caprican military dictatorship on BSG, even a failed revolution or two, but never any good faith consideration of, say, a socialist model of rule, or even a proper democracy.  I haven’t seen any of Adrian Hodges’s earlier projects, but I have to assume — especially given the Samantha Willis subplot — that Survivors will lean more toward the dystopia of Lord of the flies than the triumphant militarism of BSG.

– J.C. Freñán

Redemption revisited: In space!

Broadening TubaTV’s recent focus on themes of redemption, I’ll go ahead and muse publicly that Caprica may indeed offer Ronald D. Moore the opportunity to live up to the hype that surrounded his version of Battlestar Galactica.  My expectations are actually higher than one might think, given my unfavorable review of the BSG finale.  I have the sense that Moore didn’t really have a clear idea of what he was doing when he went about dragging BSG through four muddy seasons, but I’d hope he’s learned a thing or two from the experience.  Either that, or we’ll have Remi Aubuchon to thank for upping the Sci-Fi channel’s game.

The straight-to-DVD pilot shows some marked improvements in production value.  I watched it on my laptop, but (what looked to me like) the blue-heavy color palette suited the somberness of the story well enough.  The acting, too, struck me as much subtler than its predecessor’s.  (I’ve never been terribly convinced by Olmos the elder, chicano politics aside.  Olmos the younger was wise to have focused on improving his physical appeal for the final season of BSG, because nepotism can only get you so far.)  Eric Stoltz puts in a solid performance as a far more palatable preincarnation of Gaius Baltar, and this despite a truly unfortunate ginger-flavored soul patch.  Polly Walker may have ripened a bit since her stint as the ur-MILF Atia of the Julii on Rome, but her character seems infinitely more promising than Laura Roslin’s facile, conflicted-woman-in-power schtick, or Starbuck’s drunken tomboy antics.  And Deadwood‘s least attractive lady of the night, Trixie, finds a much more subdued character here.  (An improvement over her brief run on Lost, I might also add.)  Even the teens weren’t entirely unwatchable.  That Zöe’s gonna be a firecracker.

Polly Walker, through the ages.
Polly Walker, through the ages.

BSG‘s familiar themes find themselves more grounded this time around, since we’re no longer floating aimlessly through space.  The abstract poly- v. monotheism conflict has been planted firmly in a universe populated by distinct planetary cultures (ie, the body art and subtitled language of the ethnicized Taurons) and fundamentalist terrorism.  Most satisfying, however, is the show’s introduction of “holoband” technology (ie, the Internet) as the metaphorical terrain on which to explore the human/non-human conflict that made Boomer’s character so obliquely interesting for the first couple of seasons of BSG.

For my money, the sci-fi of BSG was too heavily reliant on bland, overcooked fantasies about technological progress: its allegorical conflicts only have traction in an imaginary future when artificial intelligence frighteningly palpates the limits of human subjectivity.  Caprica (so far) seems invested in relatively more mundane questions about the radical distinction between physis and techne, for instance, or about what constitutes human subjectivity, or the limits of the corporeal, perception, presence.  It also offers some fresh, accessible reflection on the re/production and fragmentation of identity in the age of digital reproduction.  Its fantasy of digitization carried to its limit — ie, the perfect reproducibility of bio-electric processes — poses some provocative questions about the structures of human subjectivity and affect.  (I’m thinking of the scenes between Stoltz and Zöe in the second half of the pilot.  The scene when Stoltz is testing the downloaded MCP doesn’t make much sense in this regard, though: digital transfer as we know it is never strictly transfer, but a process of copying.  If bro had been using a Mac, he wouldn’t have had any problems.)

So far my complaints are relatively few.  The refrain that “there is truth in the world, there is a right and there is a wrong” will get tiresome very quickly, and the Adama reveal didn’t feel especially necessary.  Otherwise, though, I think the Caprica pilot is very, very successful: the stale imagination that animated the human-robot conflict in BSG has been recontextualized and made much more relevant.  It strikes me that the pseudo-etymological link between Caprica and Capricorn offers us an organizing metaphor for the show: in its half-goat, half-fish version, Capricorn posits a fantastical hybrid in the evolutionary transition from water to land.  (Mythologically, I gather, it went the other way around.  Whatever.)  I hope the series doesn’t get lost in its more operatic elements, but continues developing the bridge between the technological movement of late capitalism and its potential for apocalypse.

– J.C. Freñán

Dichen Lachman looks like a half-Asian Barbie doll.

Hot DAMN. Eliza Dushku’s not so hard on the eyes, either.  Too bad both of them are well nigh impossible to watch on Joss Whedon’s new, post-Firefly disasterpiece, Dollhouse.  (I wonder if Tahmoh Penikett would rather bump uglies with Lachman or former BSG castmate Grace Park?)

Beyond his eye for exceptionally good-looking young ladies, I never really understood Whedon’s appeal.  If Buffy was a campy, allegorical exploration of the microdrama of suburban teen life, and Angel wrestled with the demons of post-adolescence — like, say, unwanted and “unresolved” pregnancies [EN: that second link is absolutely lousy with spoilers] — what the fuck was up with FireflyThirysomethings in space?  And now why is Dollhouse — a less campy allegorical exploration of America’s Hollywood complex? — SO UNREDEEMABLY BAD?  My best guess: it’s too hard to suspend disbelief at the model of value it’s proposing — ie, the “exuberant” [sic] price tag for watching Dushku try to act her way out of a wet paper bag.  At least the worst actor ever to tarnish a David Simon production, Mike Kellerman, P.I., has found work again.

(And for anyone keeping score, It’s always sunny in Philadelphia‘s version of “The most dangerous game” TOTALLY schools Whedon’s.)

– J.C. Freñán