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Monday, February 27, 2017

Reading/Watching Log #14

Wow, I churned through a lot of stuff this month. I'm not even sure where I found the time for it all, yet here we are. Angels, robots, zombies, space travel, time travel, period dramas – and of course, lots more Star Wars. It was a good month for variety, though firmly within the speculative fiction genre. It's not a coincidence there are so many sci-fi films below, as my father put in a request and I ended up watching most of them myself.
There was also an attempt to familiarize myself with Wonder Woman before her big screen debut, and revisit A Wrinkle in Time (which I first read years ago) as filming kicks off in New Zealand.
As it happens, I've just gotten my hands on the Rogue One novelisation and prequel (yes, there's a prequel to the prequel) so I'll probably devote a separate post to the added light each one shines on the film.

Vader's Little Princess by Jeffrey Brown
You've probably seen panels from this book on Tumblr, and you can't deny Jeffrey Brown found a comedy goldmine: these are scenes from Vader's life if he'd had the chance to be a father to Princess Leia. As a little girl he has to deal with tantrums and potty training, once she hits puberty he's dealing with her rebellious phase and forbidding her to go outside in a slave-girl outfit. It's pretty fun stuff, and clearly written by a guy with a lasting appreciation for Star Wars given the amount of detail and in-jokes strewn throughout each panel.

The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox
I saw New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox speak at a writer's festival a couple of years ago, and was impressed enough to put some of her books on my TBR list. Finally I've gotten around to what is perhaps her best-known work (it having been adapted into a feature film in 2009) in which a lovelorn young vintner goes for a walk one night and finds an angel called Xas resting in his vineyard.
The two strike up a conversation – quickly followed by a friendship – and come to an agreement to meet in the same place every year. This leads to a unique structure for the story that follows, with each chapter (for the most part) taking place a year after the one before it. In all, the novel spans from 1808 to 1863, detailing Sobran Jodeau's growing family, his philosophical conversations with Xas, their complex relationship with each other and a highborn lady in a nearby estate, and the inevitable approach of Sobran's old age and what it means for the immortal Xas. Knox even manages to squeeze in a murder mystery threaded across the years.  
Heavily seeped in magical realism, the book is a little slow to start, but pretty engrossing once the ball gets rolling. I particularly loved the backstory to Xas himself – why he's there, what he wants, his relationship to God and Lucifer – I'm only sorry there wasn't more of it, though his metaphysical existence is deliberately contrasted with the earthiness of viticulture and domesticity.
Forgive the analogy, but it's like a fine wine: not to everyone's taste, but something you have to savour.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline d'Engle
Production on the movie is happening right now in Wanaka, New Zealand (where I've been on several camping trips with my family) so I figured it was time to refresh my memory of the book upon which it's based. I read A Wrinkle in Time several years ago, but had no recollection of it whatsoever beyond it's opening line: "it was a dark and stormy night."
Meg Murray's scientist father has been missing for some time, though none of her family believes the rumour that he's deliberately abandoned them. Then one day three mysterious women give Meg the chance to rescue her father, sending her (along with her gifted brother Charles Wallace and school friend Calvin) on an interdimensional mission to find Mr Murray and bring him home again.
To be honest, I didn't really enjoy it that much. It's a creative fusion of fantasy and science-fiction, and bearing in mind that it was published back in the 1960s, contains a lot of prescient aspects involving multiple dimensions, artificial intelligence and astrophysics. But it can also be infuriatingly twee at times. Let's just say that the Big Bad is the personification of communism and the climax requires invoking The Power of Love in the tritest way possible and leave it at that.
There's also the presence of d'Engle's religious convictions. I enjoy plenty of stories that are infused with the author's belief systems (C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman spring to mind, despite speaking from drastically different pulpits) but there's something very jarring about a character abruptly invoking the name of Jesus Christ in the middle of a conversation with a couple of aliens.
World Without End by Ken Follett
I read and enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth a while ago, so getting to the sequel was always just a matter of time. Set about a hundred or so years after the first book, we're introduced to a new range of characters whose lives are backlit by historical upheaval (in this case, King Edward III's ongoing wars in France).
Of most significance are craftsman Merthin and his odious brother Ralph, merchant's daughter Caris, and pickpocket Gwenda, who are all children when they sneak away into the forest one Halloween and see a fight take place between a mysterious knight and two pursuers. Though they're sworn to secrecy, none of them ever forget the events of that day...
As it happens, this plot-thread isn't resolved in a particularly satisfying way, and instead the book's interest lies with each one's struggle to thrive in 12th century England. Follett's gift is his accuracy not only in the details, but the mindsets of those living in the Middle Ages: the likes of Gwenda and Caris can chafe against the confines their sex and class affords them, but are still forced to better their own lives within those confines.  
The thing about Ken Follett is that he writes so smoothly. As I said to a woman at the bookstore, I was reading shorter books at the same time I was tackling World Without End, and yet found myself churning more quickly through its pages due to Follett's straightforward style – which is impressive considering the book is about the size of a brick.
World War Z by Max Brooks
There was a point in which almost everyone seemed to be talking about this book – it doesn't feel that long ago, but a look at the inside cover informed me that it was published in 2006. Yikes. In any case, World War Z is about a zombie apocalypse that threatens the extinction of humankind, only for survivors to push back from the brink and start reclaiming the Earth.
What makes it unique is that it's told through the format of several in-depth interviews amassed by a journalist in the war's aftermath. This includes military generals, civilians, soldiers, doctors, propaganda engineers – all of whom discuss their experiences in the global crisis. It makes for a rather piecemeal narrative, though there are certain events referenced by different participants across the course of the story.  
It also doesn't shy away from the psychological toll that such a horrific worldwide event would have on the population: things like post-traumatic stress disorder and the suicide rate are discussed extensively – heck, they're woven so deeply into the fabric of the story that it's practically a theme.
The Terminator (1984)
For the record, I've seen The Terminator before, but it was in a room full of people and I couldn't give it my full attention. So for all intents and purposes, this was my first time watching.
And it's weird to think that when people first saw this movie (in the year I was born!) they had no idea what the premise was. It feels like everyone knows what The Terminator is about, even if they haven't seen it. I was saying "I'll be back" in a low monotone in primary school before I had an inkling of its context, and there have been so many spoofs and knock-offs that the story itself has become a trope in the same way A Christmas Carol or It's a Wonderful Life have.
At the same time it's interesting to see what false impressions I went in with: these days Arnold's character is remembered as one of the good guys, though in the first movie he's wholly bad. Likewise poor Kyle is regarded as the least memorable character despite being an intrinsic part of the story – though I guess that's the point since he serves the role of Decoy Protagonist before Sarah takes over.
Yet there are several reasons as to why The Terminator has stood the test of time: the love story that transcends and makes possible the Stable Time Loop, the development of Sarah from waitress to badass, the implication that John (never seen, only discussed) knew all along that Kyle was his father and so deliberately gave him Sarah's picture to awaken his feelings before sending him back in time to conceive him (seriously, I've always felt that if there was a worthwhile third movie, it should have jettisoned the time-travelling assassination angle and dealt with the relationship between Kyle/John, with the two of them becoming friends and the latter grappling with the fact he would have to send his own father back in time to his death).
Even the little things work well: like the way the deaths of Ginger and her boyfriend aren't just negligible but really hurt, or that only the audience knows the person Sarah was thinking about when her photo is taken (the one that leaves Kyle wondering what she was thinking about) was Kyle himself.
Terminator 2 (1991)
Terminator is the franchise that Hollywood just can't leave alone, even though the story is told to perfection with just two movies. Why would you meddle with that? Yet there have been three more films and a television series since the first sequel: the recent one with Emilia Clarke, the one with Claire Danes, the one with Lena Headey and ... wasn't there one with Christian Bale? I've never seen any of them and I don't plan to either: despite being a trilogy-minded person, there was really nowhere left for the story to go after Terminator 2 without running into a logistical roadblock. As such, all the sequels seem to do is recycle old material and contradict each other's continuity.
But James Cameron knew what he was doing when he planned this sequel: though it regurgitates the premise of time travellers from a post-apocalyptic future (one to kill John Connor and the other to protect him) it comes with a twist – and I again had to remind myself that viewers back in the Nineties would have had no idea that Arnie was now playing the good guy while Robert Patrick assumed the role of villain.
(It's actually handled pretty cleverly: most audience members would be conditioned to trust the police officer over the biker, but Cameron is careful that neither one actually kills anyone in their acquisition of clothing and weapons, which would give away the evil one. Then it puts Kyle's words: "come with me if you want to live" in Arnie's mouth, and the distinction is clear).
Furthermore, the ante is upped not just by the need to keep Sarah and John (now a ten year old) alive, but their decision to go after Skynet, the company responsible for creating the technology that leads to the machine takeover, and stop Judgement Day. What initially seems like a rehash of the original actually takes off and expands in a pretty interesting way.
Of course, it also runs into a major problem when it comes to its time-travelling shenanigans. John's message from the future "you can change your fate" becomes Sarah's inspiration to try and stop Judgement Day before it ever happens by destroying all the future tech that was left behind in the present-day after the first movie (which created another stable time loop when it leads to the rise of the machines).
In this she succeeds – but you see the problem? By destroying all of Skynet, the future is changed, meaning Kyle never would have had a reason to return to the past, and John shouldn't exist at all. This is dealt with by ending the film on a rather ambiguous note, with a shot of a car driving along a darkened road – it's Cameron's way of ending the story triumphantly without having to deal with breaking the rules of time-travel.
But there are so many other elements at work that make Terminator 2 one of the bonafide Hollywood blockbusters. First of all, it manages that rare achievement of a child character who isn't horribly annoying. In this case, John has all the trappings of an obnoxious kid: bad attitude, survival skills, glee at learning the Terminator has to obey him – and yet for all of that, he has a genuinely good heart, from demanding they save his mother, to trying to warn his foster parents, to preventing Sarah from murdering Dyson. This is the reason he becomes a great military leader: because he cares about people. It's so simple, yet so effective.
On the other hand, Sarah – who went from timid to badass in the first movie – now has to go through a different kind of character development: from ice cold soldier to warm and loving mother. Even the Terminator gradually learns what it means to be human.
Other good stuff: that John answers my question from the last movie – that he does in fact know Kyle was his father, and that he'll eventually get to meet him when he's forty-five. Robert Patrick's performance: his calm, implacable, dispassionate force is genuinely scary. That Miles Dyson is a good family man instead of an evil mad scientist. Kyle's brief cameo in Sarah's dream, which underlines the fact that she's now the protagonist in a story that fridged the male hero for the sake of her development. I even love the fact they brought back the psychiatrist who had a very narrow escape from the original Terminator in the first movie.
The more I think about it, the more I realize this is a pretty damn good movie.
Wonder Woman (2009)
She'll be on the big screen this year (finally!) but I caught myself off-guard when I realized I don't actually know all that much about Wonder Woman. I was only aware of the basics: she was an Amazon Princess, she had a lasso of truth, her mother was the Queen, she lived on a women-only island, her gauntlets could deflect bullets, and she decides to explore the rest of the world after a WWII pilot crash lands on her shore. Oh, and somehow there's also an invisible jet involved.
I’d seen the character on the animated Justice League, but I never really warmed to her or understood her appeal: she was portrayed as rather haughty and cold, and the Diana-centric episodes were never particularly interesting.
So I approached this animated take on Wonder Woman as a primer on the character and her backstory – though I still don't feel particularly enlightened. This movie is ... okay. It's not bad in any respect, but at the same time all it really did was flesh out the little bits and pieces of her story I was already aware of. There's an evil plot concocted by Hades, monsters are unleashed on the world, Diana travels to America with Steve Trevor to prevent the apocalypse – you know the drill.
A story about such a famous feminist icon is unavoidably going to deal with gender issues, and that's objectively not a bad thing – but it's been my experience that any TV show that tackles either girl power or environmentalism will inevitably fall on its face. In this case, Steve Trevor comes across as a total sleazebag (and for some reason he looks like a fifty year old man with a comb-over) but despite a bunch of slimy comments, an attempt to get Diana drunk, and a tendency to dismiss all of her opinions, they're making out by the time the credits roll. Though not before Steve chews her out for being a manhater (heck, if this creep was the first and only man I'd ever met, I'd probably hate 'em too).
Let's hope that the upcoming movie will focus on Diana without any overt social commentary. Because as much as I believe in that commentary, most entertainment seems utterly unable to convey it in an elegant, meaningful way.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Yes, it's taken me this long to see the movie Tumblr went nuts over three years ago. I went in with a lot of prior knowledge about what happened, mostly from my sister who didn't actually like it that much, but on the whole I thought it was a pretty entertaining two hours and fifteen minutes.
Much like James Cameron's Avatar it has a fun premise and some great world-building, but there's definitely not much in the way of characterization and plot. As far as "why the hell not?" storylines go, you can't get more geeky than giant robots fighting kaiju monsters that emerge from beneath the Pacific Ocean, and director Guillermo del Toro runs with the idea.
My sister's issues with the film were that despite the presence of a diverse cast, it still comes down to the white guy saving the day (Mako is unconscious at a critical moment and Pentecost is heroically sacrificed). Having been pre-warned about this, I wasn't particularly bothered – instead I could enjoy the pretty life-affirming theme of humanity coming together to battle a common enemy.  
Elysium (2013)
I said above that I wasn't too fussed about a white male protagonist at the centre of a diverse cast in Pacific Rim – but in this movie? Yeah, if you're gonna write a sci-fi movie that's a pretty blatant metaphor for illegal Mexican immigration into America, then it's pretty damn insulting to have Matt Damon as your lead. It reeks of the White Saviour Complex, especially when the only two significant Hispanic roles are that of the Best Friend who Dies for the Hero and the Beautiful Distressed Damsel Love Interest and her daughter, The Littlest Cancer Patient. And the hacker dude, I guess.
But apart from that, it ain't a bad movie. The world's elite have long since left the Earth in order to live in luxury aboard an orbiting space station, leaving the have-nots to live in squalor back on the planet's surface. However, there's a booming trade in the illegal immigration business, with sick individuals (or the relatives thereof) coughing up hundreds of dollars to risk the trip to Elysium in the hopes they can reach a medical bay and cure whatever afflicts them.
Matt Damon's character is one such hopeful when he gets hit with a lethal blast of radiation and given only a few days to live. His contact promises him a ticket, but only if he partakes in a "data heist" first – this involves getting a weaponised exoskeleton that lets him download information straight from the mark's brain into his head. Lots of action sequences ensue as he dodges hired mercenaries on Earth and in Elysium.
Like I said, it's not bad, though there's a bit of a misstep when it comes to the villains. Despite Jodi Foster's weird accent, she makes for a pretty entertaining Stone Cold Bitch – only to get usurped by a mercenary dude who is more annoying than threatening due to the fact he just won't shut up. Honestly, in each and every fight he's yabbering away like a drunken parrot.
Ex Machina (2015)
As you can see, it was a month for tracking down science-fiction movies. Ex Machina isn't quite as profound as it wants to be, and works better as a psychological drama between two men and a woman than any sort of exploration of humanity and artificial intelligence, but it's still a pretty compelling setup.
A computer programmer called Caleb wins a competition to join his enigmatic employer Nathan at an isolated retreat in the middle of a beautiful forest. There he's introduced to Nathan's creation: a humanoid robot that shows every sign of consciousness. Caleb is there to participate in a Turing test: to interact with Ava and decide whether or not she's genuinely capable of self-determination.
Caleb is your standard Nice Guy, but Nathan is a grade-A asshole who seems more interested in mind games than scientific research. Anyone familiar with the signs of narcissism or sociopathy will hear warning bells go off in the way he behaves toward Caleb, and I imagine Oscar Isaac had to grow a beard and shave his head to really distance himself from his usual McDreamy roles.
Knowing the subject matter of the movie (a power play between two men over a woman with no real agency), I was a little hesitant as to where the story would go. But though are a lot of voyeuristic moments in which female bodies are ogled by the camera, Ava holds her ground pretty well on both a Doylist and Watsonian level. She's the subject of the film, but as it goes on, she also becomes its protagonist.
Clone Wars: Season 3 (2010)
I said a lot about the first two seasons last month and there's not a lot to add here, only that the show continues to explore the characters and backdrop in a way the prequels never had the time or inclination to do. It's clearly made by those well-versed in the established facts of George Lucas's narrative arc, as nothing overtly contradicts what has come before or after the titular Clone Wars.
By now the episodes aren't just standalones, but have stories that are drawn out across several episodes (usually three) that are more explicitly tied to what we know will happen further down the line. The foreshadowing for Anakin's transformation into Darth Vader is kicked up a notch, and the show is excellent at highlighting his foibles while still making him (for now) a sympathetic hero.
There's also more delving into planets, characters and concepts that make up the Star Wars universe, though sometimes the results are mixed. It's done excellently well with the surprise appearance of Tarkin as the subject of a rescue mission. His presence makes sense in the context of the story, and there are some deliciously juicy conversations between him and Anakin concerning the nature of the Jedi and their inability to bring the war to a conclusive end. When the two shakes hands on parting, the ever-so-quiet strains of the Imperial Death March on the soundtrack, I felt a shiver down my spine.
On the other hand, Chewbacca's role in another episode is the result of a massive coincidence (just how small is this universe?!) and he doesn't add anything to the story that couldn't have been achieved by an original character. 
If there's one thing that bugs me, there are still too many wins and not enough loses for the Republic – though I suppose it pays to remember that both sides are being played. The entire war is being manipulated by Palpatine and ultimately everyone is losing, though no one knows it yet.
Finally, it's no secret that the Star Wars films have something of a woman problem: every movie trilogy has precisely one significant female character: Leia in the original trilogy, Padme in the prequels, Jyn in the spin-off, and Rey in the sequel trilogy (though The Force Awakens was pretty good with its supporting cast and bit characters). But The Clone Wars has so many female characters. SO MANY. Jedi, politicians, mercenaries, bounty hunters, ambassadors, assassins – they come in all shapes and sizes, and they talk to each other extensively on all manner of subjects. There are times when there are up to three female characters in a scene together, and not a single male. It's dizzying.
One particularly interesting detail is that regardless of whether a Padawan's mentor is male or female, they're always referred to as "master", and any battlefield general (again, whether male or female) is invariably called "sir."
World Without End (2012)
While reading the book I amused myself by watching the television adaptation at the same time, occasionally overtaking my progress through the novel. Much like its predecessor The Pillars of the Earth, the screenplay makes several rather lurid changes in the details, even as it sticks to Follett's basic plot points. 
The gore and violence is ramped up, as is its sexual violence. There is rape in the novel, though it's treated with significantly more weight – in one case we actually see the difficult but ultimately just process that takes place when the victim seeks reparation, one that ends with the perpetrator sentenced to death. 
Here, rape becomes just another casual background event, with no long term effect on the characters who fall prey to it. Gwenda gets raped by her father (not in book), Caris gets raped by her first husband and molested by her cousin (not in book), and Mattie gets publicly examined by a sleazy priest when she's accused of witchcraft (not in book).
Also like The Pillars of the Earth, they go overboard with their sheer inability to let any death be natural. Godwyn and his mother are practically serial killers, poisoning and stabbing everyone in their path, including family members and people they know are innocent. It gets a bit much, as does the I Am Your Father/Mother twists that either weren't in the book (and are therefore meaningless) or were in the book and are rendered pointless by never following up on them.
The cast is pretty solid though, especially from Charlotte Riley (though they give Caris perfect hair and way too much makeup) and none other than pre-Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany!
Versailles: Season 1 (2015)
I shouldn't have watched this so soon after Victoria, as the similarities were pronounced: a young, untested monarch, surrounded by manipulative aristocrats and easily-agitated commoners, begins to flex the limits of the power they hold. In this case it's King Louis XIV of France, who wants to expand the palace of Versailles and make it his new seat of government.
Yet much like Victoria, I wasn't given a reason to root for the monarch beyond the fact they're the protagonist. This is my modern sensibilities coming to the fore: as far as I'm concerned, monarchies are obsolete – and yet on a totally shallow note, I love the trappings of period dramas (the costumes, the sets, the plotting and backstabbing and intrigue) and it's easy to see why so many of them would place a monarch at the centre of their story.
As such, the choice is either to make the monarch/protagonist largely sympathetic or have no emotional centre. To make the protagonist sympathetic, we have to buy into their worldview that they are ordained by God to rule a nation, imbued with the rights and privileges to exist in such a way. Their moments of triumph, designed to make the audience fist-pump, will inevitably involve them using their considerable power to outmanoeuvre someone that opposes them.
It's just not something that floats these days. ESPECIALLY these days. Still, it was fun seeing Mordred from Merlin again. 
Da Vinci's Demons: Season 3 (2015)
This show has always been difficult to pin down. It's not something I could recommend and there were times when I really hated it (there's a rape scene I wish I could scour from my mind, so pointless and gratuitous it is) but I've had a sort of underlying fascinating at the way it was put together. This is a show that casts a young Leonardo da Vinci as a combination of Sherlock and Batman, in a plot that's half The Da Vinci Code and half an historical/biographical epic. It's everything and nothing.
I was often more interested in Leonardo's immediate circle of friends: Nicco Machiavelli as a young, somewhat gormless youth (gradually growing into his role as a master manipulator), Vanessa, a free spirited artist's model who unexpectedly finds herself part of the di Medici court, and Zoroaster, a shameless skirt-chaser who – on facing certain death– turns to the woman next to him and says: "I'm sorry we never fucked" with complete sincerity. Heck, he manages to make it sound charming.
Most of the time, the whole thing is totally bonkers. Check out some of Lucrezia's outfits. Or recall the multi-episode arc in which Leonardo voyages to South America and invents hang gliding. Or the fact that Vlad Dracul is occasionally a guest star (believe or not, it's a fantastic rendition of the historical figure as opposed to another take on Bram Stoker's character).
I'm glad I stuck it out to the end, as they really pull out all the stops as the show winds up, but it remains one of the stranger shows I've ever watched.  
Vikings: Season 4 (2016 – 2017)
I think it's fair to say that Vikings peaked in season two, with the triumph of Ragnar's magnificent long con against King Horik being revealed in its grand finale, but I can't say that Michael Hirst isn't keeping things fresh two seasons later. For the first time a season has been split into two halves with a significant Time Skip in between, allowing for the aging up of Ragnar's sons into young adults with characterization of their own – though so far the only one to benefit from this is his youngest boy Ivar.
A lot of things were wrapped up this season, whether it be the closure of subplots in Paris and Wessex, or the deaths of several characters that have been around since the first season: Helga, Aslaug, Ecbert, and of course: Ragnar himself (the jury is still out on Torvi). To kill off the show's main character was a ballsy move, but it was done with such care and after building up such an extensive replacement cast, that the show will no doubt survive Travis Fimmel's departure (last I heard there were still two more seasons in the works).
But you want to know the strangest thing about this show?  Lagertha is one of those incredibly rare female characters who commands a 100% Adoration Rating from the audience. I've never seen anything like it. She's completely beloved. Yet almost in compensation, the fandom utterly loathes every other female character that appears on screen. Aslaug, Porunn, Siggy, Yidu, Gisla, Judith, Astrid, even Helga in her final episodes – it's bloody exhausting having to sift through all the vitriol on the Previously.TV message boards every week.
Legends of Tomorrow: Season 1 (2016)
I can't seem to quit the Arrowverse, though I'm certainly more interested in the spin-offs than the mother-show at this point. Legends of Tomorrow is a bit of a departure from Arrow considering its premise – even with all the escalating comic-book material in Arrow and The Flash, it's still a bit of a shock to suddenly be dealing with time travel and spaceships.
Assorted characters from the previous shows (Sara Lance and Ray Palmer from Arrow, Professor Martin Stein, Mick Rory and Leonard Snart from The Flash, plus original characters Kendra Saunders and Carter Hall) are brought together as a team under Time Master Rip Hunter, who wants to enlist them in the fight against an immortal tyrant named Vandal Savage.
There were a couple of gaps in the narrative based on my flagging viewing schedule. Because I haven't watched past Arrow season two and The Flash season one, I've no idea how Sara has been reincarnated, or why Firestorm is now half-comprised of a teenager called Jefferson instead of Ronnie, but hey – it just turns the episodes I haven't watched into prequels.
Working with a mixture of immortality, time travel and reincarnation gives the show a lot of opportunities to play around with the mutability of time, often to good effect. At one point three members of the team are stranded in the 1950s for three years, at another a character meets a much older version of herself in a past life, and a masked villain ends up having a surprising identity thanks to the intervention of time travel.
Yet it suffers for having weak characters in central roles: the gist of the plot is that Rip Hunter is trying to change history and destroy Vandal Savage in order to save his wife and son, each one destined to die at his hands. To do this he enlists the help of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, a pair of reunited lovers who hold the key to Vandal's demise. Problem is, all four of these characters are just awful. Rip is a terrible leader, Vandal isn't remotely intimidating, Carter is unspeakably bland, and Kendra isn't given anything more interesting to do than grapple with a love triangle.  
The only characters I was interested in were Sara, Leonard and eventually Mick. Everyone else somehow feels a little uncomfortable in the story, and there are some really clumsy bits when it comes to the plotting and the characters' emotional reactions to them (the ship's computer Gideon has completely arbitrary abilities, Ray is reunited with his dead fiancĂ©e but barely has a reaction to it, and the final episode has the gang deciding to kill Vandal Savage in three separate times – why bother when his first chronological death would wipe out the need for the other two?)
Yet for all of that, I've been told the second season has improved the show exponentially. So I guess I'll be tuning in eventually.  
Cleverman (2016)
This is a six-part Australian drama that focuses on the race relations inherent across the country, with a supernatural bent drawn from the myths and legends of the Aboriginal people. Two half-brothers are candidates for the role of Cleverman, best described as a conduit between the real world and the spiritual (also known as the Dreaming). With the younger brother chosen over the elder, their rivalry is heightened against the backdrop of growing tensions between humans and the Hairies, a recently-revealed species that is stronger, hardier, and more long-lived than your average human.
When the Cleverman mantle falls to Koen his older brother Waruu is shocked, and it's not difficult to see why. Koen is not only irresponsible but flat-out immoral – smuggling illegal Hairies to safe houses and then calling up the authorities to collect a reward for turning them in. It's such a despicable act that I wasn't particularly invested in his redemption arc (when will writers learn there's a line that can't be crossed when it comes to establishing characters as "morally ambiguous"?) and for the most part sided with Waruu. He's devoted his life to the betterment of his people, and though not all his choices are good ones, they're at least understandable in context (and the attempt to cast him in a bad light by having him engage in an extramarital affair doesn't really work since Koen is also screwing his friend's girlfriend).
Though the show is to be lauded for its casting diversity (which I believe is a first for Australian television), I was feeling a bit burnt-out by some of the themes it tackled. Racism, police brutality, border control, prejudice, sexual abuse, avaricious politicians – I watch this on the news every night, and though they're subjects that can and should be explored, I just wasn't in the right headspace to fully appreciate them. I was just too weary.
In the attempt to judge the show on its own merits, I gotta say that it's well acted, well-conceived, and with several twists that I didn't see coming. But at the same time it lacks any real urgency more than anything; I was never dying to know what would happen next and only invested in a handful of characters. The female characters don’t fare particularly well either, falling into the "wronged and nobly suffering wives/daughters who are always morally right though no one ever listens to them" category.

4 comments:

  1. A whole lot of stuff I haven't seen/read here! Great to read your impressions of them. I can't say that Versailles or Da Vinci's Demons move any further up my to-watch list, but Vikings is still hovering there for when I'm in the mood.

    As for the things I have seen, I agree with you pretty much entirely. I enjoyed Pacific Rim just fine but didn't think it was the revolutionary genre-exploding masterpiece many did, and S1 of Legends was indeed a dicey affair. I can back up that it's much better in S2 - I don't want to spoil too much, but a vastly better villain (or three), some strong new characters, and some tweaks to existing ones go a long way. It's still a bit patchy, but much stronger overall. (Gotta say, you're kind of at a tricky point in Arrow/Flash, in that they both dive off a cliff in terms of quality at around where you're at. Arrow is having a bit of a resurgence at the moment, though, and they're both still worth watching IMO.)

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    1. The thing I'll say for Legends of Tomorrow was that they wrote out their weak links at the end of the season, so at least they were aware of what was working and what wasn't. I'll admit I've been putting off the third season of Arrow for some time now: I hate what they do to the Lance sisters and have negative-interest in the whole Olicity thing.

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    2. They did write out their weak links, and the only one left (Rip) is significantly improved in S2. For Arrow - while each of S3 and S4 does include a Lance death (and both of those deaths are so so awful in so many ways, don't get me wrong), S3 is where they really get the hang of Laurel and what to do with her, in my view, and she is much more integrated into the main group from then out. S3 is a great season for Laurel. Still, Olicity was a drag, and this from someone who likes both of them individually a lot more than you do.

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    3. That's good to know: having lagged so far behind on Arrow, I was all "I won't bother watching since they killed off Sara", only to learn that they brought her back - and just as I was ready to start watching again, I learn that they kill off Laurel. Still, I do really want to see her development into Black Canary, so perhaps by the time I settle down to watch they'll have resurrected her as well somehow. (I think it's fair to say they weren't expecting the backlash they received).

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