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

‘Battlestar Galactica’ left me with blue balls.

(Spoilers ahead.  Obvs.)

There’s a very simple reason why Friday night’s conclusion to the overly-acclaimed Battlestar Galactica wasn’t convincing.  It wasn’t the triteness of the notion of “breaking the cycle of violence.”  (Peace in the Middle East, y’all.)  Nor was it the anticlimactic Starbuck ex machina resolution to her story arc this season.  Nor was it the unabashed sacrifice of coherence for melodrama, as, for instance, when former Admiral Bill ‘Craterface’ Adama explains elliptically to Lee and Kara that he “[doesn’t] have much time,” thus prompting an unnecessarily tearful goodbye before he schleps moribund former President Laura Roslin off to some African hillside… so they can be alone when she dies, like, five minutes later in their Raptor?  Because dying in a Raptor was way more comfortable for her than dying on the savannah where they’d been chatting pleasantly moments earlier?

If I were being generous, I could forgive these indulgences as the adolescent sentimentality of a group of science fiction writers mourning the loss of their all-too-short-lived source of self-esteem.  What I can’t forgive, especially since generosity isn’t my strong suit, was the (increasingly inevitable, it seems) recourse to flashbacks.  Even when a flashback is used to good effect, it’s a plot device for the simple-minded.  Shakespeare never needed to flash his shit back to sustain drama, did he?  (Feel free to chime in, Thumbu.)  Worse still, the final two episodes of BSG left me feeling like the flashbacks were used both to eat up screen time, and to coat the development of the entire series with a hasty, post hoc veneer of gravity.  Part I of “Daybreak,” especially, seems to have been an exercise in frustrated masturbation.  As a result, the multiple climaxes proferred in Part II felt artificial and fundamentally empty.

Part of the problem was editing: in one scene, present-day Boomer delivers Hera to Helo and Athena, asking that they relay to Adama her message that she “owed him one.”  Only then are we shoe-horned into a totally contextless Caprica-era scene during which Adama and Tigh jointly humiliate a rookie Boomer for not being able to land her Raptor properly.  Adama, adhering faithfully to God’s plan for the future, decides to give her another chance (to land properly?), to which Boomer replies that she owes him one, an obligation she will fulfill “some day” — i.e., today — “when it really means something.”  Do you see the problem here?  Using a flashback to illuminate the words or actions of something that’s just happened in screen-time isn’t just weak, it’s wasteful.  Had that scene been part of an episode in an earlier season, it might have been legit (albeit heavy-handed) to flash back to it at this point.  But riddling a series finale with entirely novel flashbacks, especially when those flashbacks *immediately follow* the scenes they’re meant to contextualize, is just lazy storytelling.  I’d go so far as to say that it’s disrespectful.

Similarly, I derived no special insight from witnessing the prelude to and aftermath of Roslin’s unfulfilling one-night stand with her former student, even if this was the immediate precursor to her decision to continue with politics, even if this decision then put her in a position to become President of the Republic.  This level of storytelling produces precisely the same breed of banality that structured J.J. Abrams’s mercifully euthanized experiment in coincidence, Six degrees.  Adama remained as captain of the Galactica because he was too proud to take a lie detector test?  Lee and Kara almost got freaky on a kitchen table while Lee’s brother-slash-Kara’s husband Zak was passed out in the next room?  Who fucking cares, at this point?  BSG‘s writers drastically overestimated the privilege such scenes would exercise in our understanding of these characters, when really, they afforded no insight whatsoever.  We already knew that Adama was a stubborn, self-righteous prick; we already knew that Lee and Kara would find other opportunities to trespass the boundaries of fidelity, propriety, whathaveyou.

For these reasons (and a host of others) BSG was not the ground-breaking drama everyone seemed hysterically to want it to be.  It was a space opera, whether Ronald Moore realizes it or not.  Not that the genre itself can’t be groundbreaking — the fourth chapter of Star wars was, after all, an allegorical denunciation of the Viet Nam War.  The problem with uncritical praise for BSG is that it confuses middle-brow aspiration with high-brow achievement.  We here at TubaTV believe that television as a medium can be great; transcendent, even.  Battlestar Galactica was entertaining, sure.  It even had its inspired moments.  But great?

– J.C. Freñán

TV pet peeve #1: “6 months earlier…”

I can’t figure out if I should direct my ire at scriptwriters or editors for a pox that is infecting contemporary television narrative: the Totally Gratuitous Flash-Forward.  (I do think we can safely blame J.J. Abrams for popularizing chronological monkey business like this.)  An episode begins with a visually or narratively provocative scene, the viewer is presumably overwhelmed by the totally banal question “How did we get here?” and suddenly we cut to a title screen that re-directs us some hours/days/weeks earlier in the story.  The following is a running list of programs that have resorted to this lamest of storytelling devices.

Battlestar Galactica: season 1, episode 4 (no time elapse specified); season 2, episode 12 (“48 hours earlier”); season 2, episode 14 (“48 hours earlier”); season 2, episode 15 (“94 hours ago”); season 3, episode 3 (“1 hour earlier”).  BSG is the worst offender, by far.

Breaking bad: pilot (“2 weeks earlier”); season 1, episode 2 (“12 hours earlier”). I’m otherwise enamored of this show, so it was disappointing to get two consecutive flash-forwards like this.  Season 2 plays with this device a little in the pre-credits sequences, but for the most part it’s not over the top or obnoxious.

Capadocia: pilot (“16 horas antes”).  (Was I really all that surprised?  No.  Not really.)

Damages: pilot (“Six months earlier”).  They built the whole goddamn show on this device.  WEAK.

Dollhouse: season 1, episode 9 (“12 hours earlier”).

Hustle: season 1, episode 3 (“1 week earlier”); season 3, episode 3 (“2 months earlier”); season 3, episode 4 (“a week earlier”).

Prison break: season 2, episode 3 (“12 hours earlier”); season 2, episode 15 (“six hours earlier”).  (Must be Michael Scofield’s brain tumor keeping him from telling time properly.)

Shame should also be directed at the directors of Michael Clayton (“4 days earlier”) and The illusionist for resorting to the flash-forward.  What is this, your seventh-grade Creative Writing class?

*ANY* fucking story becomes provocative when you cut a slice out the middle and show it first. Writers, editors: if you can’t figure out how to make a story compelling without dangling a little taste of what’s to come at the beginning, you’re in the wrong line of work.  The flash-forward is NEVER A GOOD IDEA.

– J.C. Freñán