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.

Dragon Princes 2

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.

Fezzes are Cool

Abigail Nussbaum did not like this year’s Who:

So, when I come to assess my disappointment with Steven Moffat’s first season at the series’s helm, the first question that must be asked is, has the show actually gotten worse (worse, that is, from a series that wasn’t trying to achieve, and was in fact actively avoiding, many of commonly accepted definitions of good TV) or have I simply had enough? Has the switch to a new Doctor and a new companion simply been the shock I needed to lose all investment with a series that had long ago relinquished any claim on my interest, or has something actually gone wrong? The answer, I think, is yes, in that Moffat has kept many of the series’s most exasperating attributes, and jettisoned much of what allowed me to enjoy it regardless. At some point, I stopped caring about Davies’s stories except as delivery methods for the characters and some agreeably zany moments, and though Moffat and his writing room have delivered better writing, it’s not so much better, or so different in its essence, from the kind of stories Davies delivered to make me care again. Meanwhile the characters, main, recurring, and one-offs, which were often the show’s saving grace under Davies’s reign, have been allowed to fester.

I find myself in previously unexplored territory with respect to this year’s Doctor Who: I really enjoyed it. As someone who never had a strong relationship with old Who, who admired RTD’s pre-Who work but was mortally disappointed with the actuality right from the word “Rose”, and who watched partly out of a desire to see the good episode of any given season, and partly out of a desire to keep up with a genuine sf cultural phenomenon, this is something of a surprise. In fact, my situation is almost precisely the opposite of Abigail’s; instead of wondering whether the change in production team has made glaring previously forgivable flaws, I find myself wondering whether it’s papered over previously unforgivable flaws. I find myself wondering whether, essentially, Doctor Who has just worn me down, so that I accept it for what it’s been all along.

I find myself wondering this, in part, because at this point I think I could happily watch Matt Smith read the proverbial telephone book. I could disagree with much of Abigail’s assessment of the Eleventh Doctor’s inconstancy pretty much assertion by assertion — the key difference between the Saturnynians and the Silurians, for instance, is that the latter have a valid claim to the Earth and the former do not — but she’s obviously right that he is “a mass of mannerisms”. Where we differ is that I don’t find this a bug, but a joyous feature. I don’t care that he’s not someone to identify with; I care about him because I’m fascinated by his mercurial nature. I don’t care that he overshadows the other characters, because as far as I’m concerned Who‘s characterisation has never risen above the cartoonish anyway, and the Eleventh Doctor is, so far, a cartoon that’s proven to be enduringly watchable. So I’m sure I do forgive this incarnation of the show failings that I wouldn’t have accepted in Russell T Davies.

At the same time, however, I’m not sure I can agree with Abigail’s take on Moffat’s plots:

What I discovered was that Moffat actually wasn’t very good at plotting, possibly because he didn’t tend to do it very often. “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” have only the barest hint of a plot, and it’s the same one for both of them–the non-linear relationship between a human and the Doctor. What makes them special is their structure (which was also one of strong points of Moffat’s previous series, Coupling), and the fact that they use time travel as more than a means of delivering the Doctor into the story and taking him out again at its end.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t agree with her definition of plot. My understanding of plot is the one that crops up on this website about writing, among others: that it concerns the organization of the events in a work of fiction, as opposed to the story, which is how those events would proceed in raw, unembellished form. So I’d turn Moffat’s strength and weakness around, compared to Abigail. He clearly does return to the same set of ideas quite frequently, and work to find new ways to iterate them, and sometimes this is more successful, and sometimes less so. But I’d also argue that saying Moffat is good at structure is the same as saying he’s good at plotting, at the mechanics of putting a story together. And I’d argue that whichever word you use, this season bears out that Moffat is good at it; it feels to me a much more cohesive work than any of Davies’ seasons did, and than a lot of other TV series in general. True, under Moffat Who has shifted even further into fantasy — if I have a reservation about the season, this is it; that, like Alastair Reynolds, I might wish for a show that placed a bit more emphasis on the brilliance of rational enquiry — but it does a reasonable job of being coherent on its own terms. The biggest of the authorial fiats are established early on. The Doctor is a spacetime event complicated enough to close the cracks in the universe. Anything that can be remembered can be recovered. There’s no reason these things should be true, but because they’re established in episodes where it’s not essential that they’re true, by the time they’re needed in the season finale I’m happy to allow them.

It’s not just plot that I feel binds this year’s episodes together, though. There’s an overarching concern with how stories get told and what they signify, for instance. I can feel enough loose threads nagging at me there that I might even rewatch this season, at some point, and see if something can be woven from them. But more than that, even, what this season of Who has conveyed to me, for the first time, is what the joyously seductive confusion that is the Doctor’s life, or the life of this travelling with the Doctor, might feel like. I think the purest sense-of-wonder moment Russell T Davies managed came at the end of his second episode, in the juxtaposition of the death of the sun several billion years in the future with a crowded London street in the present day. To say that Moffat’s Who actually makes use of time travel is, for me, to say that it’s built around those juxtapositions, the repetition and magnification of them; and so it seems somehow right that Moffat’s Doctor himself is a continual stream of unexpected incongruities, who lives by them and is bored to tears, as in “Vincent and the Doctor”, when they cease. Where Abigail and I agree, in the end, is that I also think Moffat has written the Doctor he wanted to write: one for whom anything is possible, and everything must be fun.

Dollhouse: “The Hollow Men”

In another world, Dollhouse is one of the best and most significant TV sf series ever made. In our world … well, we got what we got. It’s still Whedon’s most ambitious and provocative metaphoric construct, but rather deeply flawed; something of a stitched-together monster shambling towards the finish line. The second half of the show’s second season is, though only “fast” by the glacial standards of most American serial television, rather inelegant; as with Serenity, you can see where they’d have stretched things out, given more time (that “three months later” was a dead giveaway), and where compression has prevented them from dotting every narrative i and crossing every t. And, perhaps most damaging, there’s a lack of attentiveness to the givens of the original premise, the pervasive, corrosive suffering that comes from treating identity as a commodity, in favour of Excitement. (Of course the show was never all that attentive to such things; but less and less as time has gone on, I feel.)

So we come to “The Hollow Men”, which wraps up the present-day thread of the story with Our Heroes taking out Rossum’s HQ, and at this point if you don’t buy into the underlying argument being developed, things really have become somewhat incoherent. But thematically it’s all there. The story we have been watching, the story about the creation of stories, about the creation of personal identity as a kind of story that we tell (a story that can change or be changed more than we like to allow), turns out to be a story told by the villain, all the characters – dolls like Whiskey and originals like Topher alike – dancing to his tune, as they have had dolls dancing to theirs. And said villain himself isn’t exactly a free agent, rather running scared of the brainpocalypse, trying on the one hand to bridle the technology he’s brought into the world, to delay the inevitable, and on the other to create an escape route. It’s for the latter that he tells his story, constructing the “specialness” of Caroline and of Echo out of his own obsession, which of course makes it meaningless – hollow – a closed loop. So the confirmation that the genie is out of the bottle is predictable, but worthwhile, the last nail in the coffin of Echo-as-saviour. Nobody in Dollhouse is free; society is the shambling beast, working out its death knells through the characters. The slingshot of the last two minutes takes us ten years into the chaotic, dystopian future, the setting for “Epitaph Two” which will (presumably) provide some mitigation of all this bleakness; although I for one hope that it calibrates the amount of consolation it provides very carefully.