2019 in TV and Cinema

By Gary Couzens.

As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.

If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament. 

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Russian Doll

Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way. Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”

Humans (C4 2015-2018)

By Tony Jones

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Channel 4’s Humans was one of the big successes of the 2010s. It won many accolades across its three seasons, including a BAFTA. Based on a Swedish drama, Real Humans, it provided a timely reflection on the changes we are actually experiencing due to the rise of AI, but framed as a thriller set in a world of robots. In Humans, the robots look human but are machines with very Asimovian constraints on behaviours, constraints that sentience removes. Enter one group of robots who have moved beyond the programmed and are fully aware.

The essential story of season 1 is where I’d like to focus. The ingredients are a family strained by tensions, husband about to lose his job to a robot, a wife who is a busy, successful lawyer, and their three kids. Into their lives comes a robot with a buried sentience.  

The first series inspires moral and legal questions. How fast does an artificial sentience grow relative to how we think of maturity in humans and when does it become responsible for its actions? Is there an equivalent period of ‘childhood’ for AI that should be reflected in the laws governing sexual consent? Who is developing a legal framework applicable to AI?

If this wasn’t ethically challenging enough, further themes explored in the series include whether it’s possible to love a robot (the conclusion being very much a ‘yes’) and an even deeper one: ‘is there a right to sentience?’.

Humans holds up a mirror to make us aware of how driven we are by appearances. The show is very deliberate with the blurring of boundaries when the robots look and behave as we think people do. While the cast went to synth school to learn how to not move like people, the plot depended on robots being able to pass for humans, sometimes in order to harm them. 

The episode where Niska – one of the sentient robots – is on the run having murdered an abusive human, is a riff on the film Fight Club. She passes for human and is allowed to join in with a group (largely men) whose evening’s pleasure consists of beaten and destroying other robots. The robots look like people and are helpless. To all intents and purposes, the baying crowd were killing people they’d relabelled as objects. Sometimes it’s easy to despair of humanity. 

It’s not clear we are anywhere close to answering any of the ethical questions raised by this show, while the rise of AI in the actual workplaces continues apace. Let’s hope we do a better job than Humans suggests we might.

Gary’s 2018 Picks in SFF Movies and TV

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Gary Couzens takes a look at some screen highlights.

As with last year, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the SF and fantasy films of 2018,  but a highlighting of some titles worth seeking out, leaving out the obvious ones. Everything here, however, received a commercial release or a festival premiere in the the UK in 2018.

Continue reading “Gary’s 2018 Picks in SFF Movies and TV”

Tony’s 2018 Pick: Lost in Space

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Tony Jones gets just a little misplaced in space …

Fans of a certain vintage will have grown up following the adventures of the Space Family Robinson who were very much Lost in Space … though this involved being (mostly) trapped on a strange alien world, which happened to be prone to eccentric visitors. Child prodigy Will Robinson often took centre stage, trying to find the best in the conflicted villain Dr Zachary Smith, and often relying on the protection of The Robot.

Lost in Space Original 2

The original Lost in Space was first aired between 1965 and 1968. If we skip quickly past the 1998 film, in 2018 it was the turn of the Netflix behemoth to reboot the show over ten expensively made episodes. Is it worth a watch, and – perhaps more importantly – is it still really Lost in Space?

The Robinson family persist, though it’s a more complex setup with Maureen and John now somewhat estranged and Judy being Maureen’s daughter by an earlier relationship. Maureen is very much a central heroic figure, scientist and leader, but she also has flaws – as shown by how far she is prepared to go to ensure Will can accompany the family into space.

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If the family are updated, so too is the character of Don West, now a smuggling engineer rather than a Major who pilots the Jupiter 2. We still have the Jupiter 2, but now it’s a very well-equipped ship carried aboard a huge colony ship, The Resolute. As the show opens it’s not long before alien robots attack and the colonists must flee The Resolute to an unknown planet.

So far, so similar, and there’s even a Dr Smith – though this is a female psychopath played with dark chill by Parker Posey, and she’s really June Harris, who has taken Dr Smith’s identity for her own reasons. If that wasn’t enough to follow, the real Dr Smith is played by Bull Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the original TV series.

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Once on the planet Will finds and befriends an all-powerful Robot who is a great piece of CGI but not quite in the spirit of the original. Will himself though is very well written and performed, and very much a real Will Robinson, if that means anything.

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So, this reboot has the main ingredients, and sets them on a threatening alien world with a problem – it isn’t viable in the long term. There’s lots of shenanigans about fuel supplies, treachery and angst and one major difference from the original: the Robinsons aren’t alone!

Yes, the planet is temporary home to dozens of other Jupiter ships and their crews. This gives the central cast plenty of other characters to interact with, without resorting to the original show’s device of random aliens just arriving every week. There’s also a bigger story hidden in the background as we slowly learn why The Resolute was attacked, who the Robot is, and how far Dr Smith will go in her deceptions and her lust for power. Her character is consistently well written, and is one of the show’s real strengths.

The Robinsons’ interactions drive a lot of the episodes, either reacting to Dr Smith’s machinations, or attempting to escape from the planet, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore backstory, and for Maureen and John to build some bridges. If some of the main characters are updated, this feels less of a departure from the spirit of the original than the failure to leave the Robinsons isolated. But. Yes, there’s a but in the form of a (spoilers) new attack by super alien robots, some narrow escapes and – just as a happy ending looks possible – a surprise turn of events which does indeed leave the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 truly lost in space.

Tony Jones has dined with royalty, supped slings in Singapore and been taught by several Nobel prize winners (though he could have paid more attention). He is a writer and blogger based in the early 21st century.

Ali’s 2018 Pick: The Dragon Prince

As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Ali Baker shines a light on The Dragon Prince.

Dragon Princes 0The Dragon Prince (Netflix Original, 2018), Dir: Villads Spangsberg, Giancarlo Volpe

The Dragon Prince – written by Avatar: The Last Airbender head writer and executive producer Aaron Erhatz and co-director of computer game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception Justin Richards – is a high-fantasy animated Netflix series about step-brother princes Callum and Ezran, who team up with a would-be assassin, the moon elf Rayla, after the three of them discover that the last dragon egg, believed to have been destroyed, has in fact been hidden away as a dangerous weapon by their father’s adviser, the power-hungry mage Viren.

Callum, Ezran, and Rayla escape from the castle just before the other moon-elves attack and King Harrow is killed. Viren attempts to declare the princes dead and seize the throne, but is stopped after their aunt, General Amaya, reports seeing the princes alive. Viren’s children, Claudia the Mage and Crown Guard Soren, are sent to follow them, but each is given a secret mission on top of returning with the princes and the egg. Rayla, Callum and Ezran encounter other characters along the way, some helpful and some hindering, and they develop skills, talents and inner strength as they overcome dangers and difficulties.

The story is an exciting adventure with a fantasy setting written for pre-teen children. In the land of Xadia, where the elves and dragons reside, magic comes from natural sources. However, humans have been driven from Xadia to the Human Kingdoms after a Mage discovered Dark Magic, which exploits the powers of magical creatures, leading humans to enslave them. The war between the two countries has been going on since that time, although the egg could end it, as it would provide a guarantee of ongoing magical powers. It is clear that Viren has his own reasons for not wanting magic to continue.

This is not a perfect show by a long way. At nine episodes it rushes through the story, and Callum and Ezran’s characters are not given much chance to develop and remain rather stereotypical. Callum is the artistic older brother, who is not much good at princely arts of swordplay and horse-riding, but discovers he is a mage. Ezran is the fun-loving, rather greedy younger brother, who has a humorous pet, the glow-toad Bait. However, the conflicted elf assassin Rayla is a truly intriguing character, and I hope that we learn more about her in the next series.

I did particularly enjoy the very visible inclusion in the series. In an era where only 1% of children’s books published in Britain in 2017 had a protagonist of colour, according to research carried out for the Centre for Primary Literacy, it is wonderful to see a Black King, a mixed-race child protagonist, a stepchild who is not neglected and abused; the children’s aunt, their late mother’s sister Amalya, is a general in the King’s army who uses American Sign Language and has a translator. Giancarlo Volpe has said that the girl Ellis who joins the dragon’s egg protectors with her wolf Ava is based on Tibetan heritage. None of these inclusive depictions are plot points: they are just there for children to notice, or not. My stepson and I look forward to the second series.

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Ali Baker is a lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of East London and a researcher in children’s fantasy literature. She is the Programme Chair of Eastercon 2019, Ytterbiumcon.

Vector 287: Best of 2017

Coming soon to BSFA members!

 

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Cover image: Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind, from ‘In the Future, They Ate from the Finest Porcelain’

 

Inside Vector 287:

An interview with Larissa Sansour by Polina Levontin and Jo Lindsay Walton, plus a review of Larissa Sansour’s work.

TV in 2017 by Molly Cobb and So Mayer.

Film in 2017 by Nick Lowe, Andrew Wallace, Dilman Dila, Cheryl Morgan, Ali Baker, Paul March-Russell, Amy C. Chambers, Lyle Skains, Gary Couzens, and Dev Agarwal. 

Ricardo Suazo reflects on SF inspired trends in fashion, and Martin McGrath takes a close look at three panels from Avengers #8.

Games and AR are covered by Erin Horáková, Susan Gray, and Jon Garrad.

With also have an extensive section on audio and podcasts in 2017 with Peter Morrison, Erin Roberts, Laura Pearlman, Victoria Hooper and Tony Jones.

And of course three Recurrent columns with Paul Kincaid, Andy Sawyer and Stephen Baxter, plus the Torque Control editorial by Jo Lindsay Walton.

This one’s a bumper issue — 80 pages! If you’re not a BSFA member yet, why not sign up now?

Westworld Then and Now

By Dev Agarwal

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Westworld (2017), HBO

Westworld landed on TV in 2017 and set genre cognoscenti’s tongues wagging. The consensus is that in ten episodes it has sealed its place in our current Golden Age of Television, and surpassed the original film from which it jumps off.

The current HBO-produced series had a long gestation period. It began with the original film by Michael Crichton in 1973, followed by fits and starts that may be better forgotten – the misfiring 1976 sequel Futureworld, plus a TV series, Beyond Westworld, that appeared in 1980 and was quickly cancelled – and the long haul of dormancy for the concept until 2016, when the first season of the contemporary reboot appeared. Season two is awaited this spring.

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Westworld (1973) by Michael Crichton

Overall, the 1973 Westworld was more a monster chase movie than a meditation on what it means to be human – the central theme of the current re-incarnation of the story. The Westworld reboot series so far has focused on just one park, the West, largely ignoring the film’s orgiastic Romanworld and castle-based Medievalworld (albeit there have been some allusions to samurais). However, fans of the original film should find that the rebooted series remains faithful to the original concept.

In both incarnations, 70s film and modern TV series, Westworld is squarely a science fiction idea (our genre gave the film nominations for the Hugo and Nebula). It’s hard SF in that technology is central to the premise: advanced AIs engage with people as “hosts” in a theme park. But it’s certainly also soft SF, in that the drama unfolds by exploring the social implications of technological change rather than by examining how the science works. Continue reading “Westworld Then and Now”

Robotics, science fiction and the search for the perfect artificial woman

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Ociacia/Shutterstock.com

Irena Hayter, University of Leeds

Three photographs have been shortlisted for 2017’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, hosted by the National Portrait Gallery in London. But there is something out of the ordinary about one of this year’s contenders for the prize. One of the portraits – by the Finnish artist Maija Tammi – is not of a human, but a female android.

The android in the photograph is Erica, described by her creator, Osaka University professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, as “the most beautiful and intelligent” robot in the world. The hardware beneath her silicone skin helps her achieve facial and mouth movements, but these can be rather unnatural, out of sync with her synthesised voice. She is cognitively sophisticated, though still unable to work out answers to complex questions from first principles, and she cannot move her arms and legs.

If this seems like something out of science fiction, you’re not far off. One of Ishiguro’s first female robots was named Repliee Q1 and he himself has said that the name derives from the French for “replicate” and from the “replicants” in Blade Runner: science fiction and robotics have always been entwined. Indeed, in a documentary made by the Guardian about Erica, Ishiguro reveals that he wanted to be an oil painter and insists on the similarities between his work and artistic creation.

It is difficult not to see here a masculine Pygmalionesque desire to create the perfect artificial woman. “Ishiguro-sensei is my father and he understands me entirely,” Erica pronounces in the documentary. Her vaunted autonomy seems more like a projection on the part on the roboticists who programme her thoughts, but also occasionally anthropomorphise her: the scientist who introduces himself as Erica’s “architect” also thinks that she is “really excited to interact with people”.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project).
© Maija Tammi

Continue reading “Robotics, science fiction and the search for the perfect artificial woman”

Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying

Image 20170224 22983 kskule.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Westworld: how far away is this future?
©2016 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved

Amy C. Chambers, Newcastle University

This article accompanies episode 10 of The Anthill podcast on the future.


From Humans to Westworld, from Her to Ex Machina, and from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D to Black Mirror – near future science fiction in recent years has given audiences some seriously unsettling and prophetic visions of the future. According to these alternative or imagined futures, we are facing a post-human reality where humans are either rebelled against or replaced by their own creations. These stories propose a future where our lives will be transformed by science and technology, redefining what it is to be human.

The near future science fiction sub-genre imagines a future only a short time away from the period in which it is produced. Continue reading “Why science fiction set in the near future is so terrifying”

Misfits

I’ve just finished watching the first season of E4’s Misfits, which I sought out following Richard Morgan’s recommendation a few months ago. It had, I confess, flown entirely beneath my radar, but it’s also a show whose pitch doesn’t sound terribly promising: a bunch of ASBO kids on their first day of community service get caught in a mysterious storm that gives them all superpowers. Wackiness ensues.

An obvious reference point, you might think, is Heroes, and to start with Misfits does seem a bit like a version of that show self-consciously revised to be “young”, “edgy”, “urban”; or, less kindly, crude and juvenile. Each character’s power turns out to be related to its owner’s desires: Kelly (“the chavvy one”, as the Guardian puts it) can hear other people’s thoughts, Simon (“the weird one”) can become invisible, Curtis (“the angry one”, although I’d have gone for “the guilt-stricken one”) can turn back time, and Alisha (“the slutty one”) drives people into a sexual frenzy when she touches them (or, if you prefer, Wikipedia’s chaste description: “sex pheremone manipulation”). That leaves Nathan, “the Irish one who talks too much”, whose only powers seem to be creative obscenity and an inability to ever take anything seriously. Each gets a turn in the spotlight, over the course of the season’s six episodes, during which they start to come to terms with their changed circumstances; in each episode, too, the gang have to deal with someone else who’s been affected by the storm. But there’s no deliberate heroism involved, no forming a super-team: the five of them are pretty much just trying to get by, hanging around the community centre, partly because they don’t want to attract attention, having been forced to kill their original probation worker when he went into a murderous rage after the storm, but mostly because they’re not heroic types. There is, of course, more to them than their initial cliched flaws, but with the arguable exception of Curtis they discover no great reserves of inner virtue — admirable behaviour comes in brief flashes, if at all — and those flaws remain a part of who they are in ways that suggest we’re meant to understand, but not forgive. Socially inept, lonely, bullied Simon, for instance, attracts a certain amount of sympathy, but when a woman shows some interest, it doesn’t occur to him that he shouldn’t sneak into her house at night and, in a thoroughly creepy scene, film her sleeping. All of them demonstrate a basic lack of empathy when assigned to help out at a pensioners’ social. And so on.

It’s quite refreshing, actually. The whole thing also has a low-key aesthetic that seems clearly driven, at least in part, by a lack of budget, but the casual, character-led style works for the show. (And arguably the least successful episode is the finale, which attempts to stage a more traditionally large-scale confrontation.) It helps a great deal that the writing is both reasonably clever — Curtis’ time-travel-centric episode is a lot of fun — often very funny, mature when it needs to be and all in all not nearly as Torchwood as the premise suggests. In fact, as the season wore on, much more than Heroes I was put in mind of Buffy — high praise indeed, but it becomes clear the show’s fantastical engine is the sort of metaphor-driven coming-of-age exploration that Buffy made its own, and there are moments, particularly in the Nathan-centric second episode and the Simon-centric fifth, when Misfits shifts from drama to comedy to horror and back again with a familiar agility. It’s such moments that make it less of a surprise that Misfits beat out Being Human, The Street and Spooks to win a BAFTA for Best Drama earlier this year; and it’s such moments that’ll have me tuning in for the second season later this year.