Dax

As I mentioned in the comments of a recent post, I’m in the process of rewatching the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the great Babylon 5 vs. DS9 rivalry, I started out firmly in the B5 camp, and ended up firmly in the DS9 camp — despite the fact that I missed large chunks of the later seasons. As a result, collecting the DVD sets and rewatching the whole show from start to finish has been a vague ambition of mine for some time. I was finally spurred into action by the confluence of (a) being bought the first season for my birthday and (b) the desert that is the summer tv schedule.

Given that it’s received wisdom that DS9 didn’t get good until the Defiant turned up (which in turn created the received wisdom that it takes three seasons for Trek shows to find their feet), my expectations for the season weren’t particularly high, and so far — with the exception of the pilot, “Emissary”, which turned out to be really quite good — they’ve been met. Abigail made reference to Trek‘s “overpowering squareness“, and it’s certainly something the early DS9 struggles, not very successfully, to avoid. The most interesting characters are almost all the outsiders — the acerbic, abrasive Odo, of course, but also weaselly Quark (I haven’t had to sit through any Ferengi comedy yet), and the rather wonderful Major Kira. I’m enjoying Avery Brooks’ performances as Ben Sisko more than I did first time around, probably because I can see the roots of what he becomes in later seasons, but you can see that neither writers nor actor have really got the hang of how best to deploy the character’s mix of iron authority, explosive anger, and occasional ebullience.

Although there are glimpses. In the episode I’ve just watched, “Dax” — in which Jadzia Dax is put on trial for treason and murder originally committed in the symbiote’s previous life, as Curzon Dax — there’s a marvellous little scene in which Sisko and Kira double-team the man trying to extradite Jadzia, Ilon Tandro (played by President Logan Gregory Itzin). Tandro’s people have a treaty with the Federation that allows “unilateral extradition” (God knows how that one got signed), which they invoke when their initial attempt to kidnap Jadzia Dax is thwarted; but of course, Deep Space Nine is technically a Bajoran station:

TANDRO:
That’s absurd. No Bajoran interests are even involved here.

KIRA:
How did you people know your way around this station so well?

TANDRO (with disdain):
My conversation is with the Commander.

SISKO (stepping back):
No, I think your conversation is with my First Officer now.

KIRA:
You Klaestrons are allies of the Cardassians. Your knowledge of this station confirms that. They must have given you the layout, which not only comprises Bajoran security but also … [beat, then with a certain amount of relish] annoys us.

SISKO (faux-apologetic):
I’m afraid it means Bajoran interests are involved. And Bajor is adamant that — [courteous, directed at Kira] At least, I believe it’s adamant —

KIRA (definite relish now):
Oh yes, adamant.

SISKO:
You see. There will have to be an extradition hearing before I can lawfully release Lieutenant Dax.

I never thought I’d say find myself watching an incarnation of Star Trek for the characters, but here I am. Every episode so far has featured one or two wonderful nuggets of interaction like this — or a great guest star; “Dax” features Anne Haney as the fabulously crotchety arbitrator of the extradition hearing (“I’ll start with some informal advice to all: I’m one hundred years old. I’ve no time to squander listening to superfluous language. In short, I intend being here until supper, not senility. Understood?”). Which is just as well, since the plots have been almost uniformly lame. “Dax” is a transparent excuse to explain Trills to the viewers; the exploration of the putative issue at hand is somewhat half-hearted (certainly in comparison to The Next Generation‘s Data-on-trial episode, “The Measure of a Man”), and in the end the question is dodged entirely by having Dax’s innocence revealed just as Dax is finally asked, directly, whether she considers herself responsible for Curzon’s crimes. The secondary theme — the exploration of Dax and Sisko’s friendship; after all, Sisko is in the position of having to prove that Jadzia Dax is not his friend, when he’s spent the previous six episodes trying to convince himself that she is — is also underdeveloped. More evidence of Trek‘s squareness, perhaps; a lingering unwillingness to really delve into interpersonal conflicts between members of the Federation.

Of course DS9 improves, until it becomes the show of later seasons, a show both bolder and more subtle than the one I’m watching at the moment, probably peaking in the sixth season with episodes like “Far Beyond the Stars” and “In the Pale Moonlight”. The high-point of B5, at least for me, is the station’s declaration of independence from Earth. It strikes me now that DS9 made a more gradual declaration of independence of its own, one that I’m still eager, if a little impatient, to revisit.

John From Cincinnati Revisited

Four episodes and three days of storytime in, and I think I’m warming to John From Cincinnati. It remains a low-key, unflashy, methodical affair; although the fantastic events surrounding John are driving the story, they never dominate it, and the style throughout is determinedly naturalistic. Episode four is the day after Shaun Yost got his neck broken by a bad wave, then ended up walking out of hospital a few hours later without a scratch on him. The press, of course, got wind of the story, and staked out the Yost homestead; meanwhile, John told Kai to “see God”, which resulted in a grainy vision sequence that strongly implied that John has a kind of omniscience. Today, the papers are running “Miracle Boy” headlines, Dr. Smith (who treated Shaun) has resigned to save his hospital a wrongful diagnosis lawsuit, but is convinced there’s something more going on, Mitch Yost (sent into a philosophical tailspin by the combined effect of Shaun’s accident and recovery, and his own floating) has shacked up with Cass, Kai is wondering what John did to her, and John himself has been picked up by some Mexican gangsters. They stab him and leave him for dead a few minutes into the episode.

John is in some ways the best thing about John From Cincinnati, despite having almost no identity or agency of his own. He’s not even on-screen that much, but whenever he is there’s a dissonance about his presence, like he’s wandered in from the wrong story. This despite the fact that there’s nothing overtly magical or spiritual about him, and in fact (religious overtones notwithstanding) he acts more like an alien than an angel (although there’s no reason why an angel shouldn’t be treated as an alien). Alternatively, he behaves almost exactly like Alice, or some other algorithm imperfectly imitating humanity. His dialogue consists entirely of (a) phrases he’s heard other people use or variations thereon (“I’ve got my eye on you!”), (b) things he’s been told to say, often imperfectly (“I don’t know Butchie instead”), and (c) cliches and platitudes (“Tomorrow is another day”). He doesn’t appear to have caused any miracles through conscious intent, and it’s not even clear whether he could: he doesn’t seem to be able to heal his own stab wounds, for example, although he can enable other people to heal him.

It’s at times frustrating that none of the characters seem to be trying very hard to find out anything about John. Every so often, someone will ask him what he means, get a typically cryptic answer, and let the issue drop. To be fair, however, this is because they have their own issues to attend to, many of which have been caused directly or indirectly by John’s presence: and, satisfyingly, John is not a show that wastes much time on characters denying or ignoring or panicking about experiencing a miracle. Instead, almost without exception, they trust their senses, and try to integrate what they’ve experienced into their self-image and their understanding of the world. Mitch is wondering what his floating means, Kai is trying to decode her vision, Dr Smith is investigating Shaun, Butchie is getting suspicious about the fact that he’s gone three days without drugs but isn’t going through withdrawal. All those are eventually paths that will lead back to John, if the press don’t get there first, which means the characters will get around to asking the interesting questions, even if I doubt whether they’ll get any clear-cut answers. Or as John might put it: some things we’ll know, and some things we won’t.

You may have heard this one before

The trouble with having a Doctor Who finale that was less than stellar is that then you get pieces like this one in the Telegraph, which assume it represents the show’s best and reacts accordingly.

And indeed the show did transport me to another place. At the critical point, possibly where the Master was attempting to establish a new Gallifrey at the heart of a billion-year inter-galactic empire, or where the Doctor was interrupting the Archangel network’s telepathic signal by aligning his black-hole converter, I drifted off to the land of nod, dozing happily on the sofa as a load of old cosmic screwdrivers washed over me.

No, wait: the trouble is that these pieces extrapolate from one datapoint to a sweeping conclusion. Jim White, author of the article, seems unfamiliar with the concept of “science fiction” (cf Gareth McLean’s Guardian piece last week), and places Who in the same box as fantasy (though you could argue that’s really where it belongs), a box not to his taste:

But then, had Davies been in possession of the annual expenditure of the Ministry of Defence and had his denouement featured a set the size of Torquay and enough pyrotechnics to match the Northern Lights, plus a script written by Tom Stoppard in collaboration with the team behind The Simpsons, I still wouldn’t have been much moved. […] For some people such a confession is the cultural equivalent of heresy. But the fact is, you either get fantasy or you don’t. It either sets your imagination soaring or leaves you earthbound. There is no such thing as someone who quite likes The Lord of the Rings, or thinks His Dark Materials is all right to pass the time of day. With fantasy, you either take it, fully formed and in its entirety, or leave it, and get on with your life unencumbered by Orcs and cosmic dust.

You know, I’m pretty sure (a) there are plenty of people lukewarm about The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials, and (b) that liking one fantasy doesn’t oblige you to like all other fantasy. Of course, given White’s parting shot —

There is, though, one easy shorthand for working out where someone stands across the fantasy gap: if she is a woman, she can generally manage without it. Which is maybe what was happening as I snoozed through the Doctor: I was being put in touch with my feminine side.

— it’s hard not to conclude that his generalisations about taste are, shall we say, a load of Torchwood.

Last of the Time Lords

1. Martha. Iain credited me with calling Martha’s leaving, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch, since I didn’t guess either the circumstances or the reason, and I’m pretty sure I was wrong about what the follow-up will be, too. Despite that, it worked for me. I particularly liked (a) that it wasn’t due to any one factor — it wasn’t “because I spent four years training to be a doctor”, it wasn’t “because I have to look after my family”, it wasn’t “because I need to get out”, it was all of the above; and (b) that she has enough sense of her own value to be able to tell the Doctor all those reasons, to his face, in so many words. I originally thought that this turn of events would be followed by the Doctor realising what he’s lost, but now I’m not sure that’s the case; I think he does realise what he’s lost, but also on some level realises what he did to Martha and realises that there’s no way he can invite her back permanently. Essentially, Martha’s arc was that she fell down, emotionally, and spent the season getting back up again; in fact my one reservation is that in retrospect, it looks like they decided the Doctor was going to have this kind of rebound, and then came up with a companion who could plausibly leave without collapsing in on herself — who had enough to go back to. Which would explain why the aspects of her character that enabled that choice — her presence of mind, self-awareness, self-reliance — never seemed to be in the foreground; Martha as means to an end, rather than as a character in her own right. Still, I’m sure that phone will ring at some point and that we’ll see her again.

2. … and then there was the rest of the episode. Somewhat bizarrely, I find myself in the position of liking the finale more than almost anyone else I’ve spoken to or seen a writeup from. Martha got to be awesome (I don’t think the Doctor telling her what to do diminishes her awesomenosity; she still had to go out and do it), within the limitations of the budget the dystopian Earth was quite claustrophobic and dark (some good dialogue helped with that), the Toclaphane being the humans from “Utopia” was perfect, and I didn’t even mind Incredibly Aged Doctor. Floating Telepathic Jesus Doctor, on the other hand … well, even in concept it’s ridiculous, not least because two literal gods out of three season finales just looks lazy, and the execution only made things worse. And, of course, the total bollocks overdrive was only just getting going: suddenly, the paradox machine that could blow up the solar system if you tampered with it can be taken out by a machine gun. I could, perhaps, even forgive that reset if it wasn’t for the fact that everyone who remembers what happened has been shuffled off-screen (except the Doctor, of course, but I doubt he’s going to be dwelling on it much).

3. In spite of this, I find myself looking favourably on season three as a whole. For the first time, I’ve found myself watching out of interest and enjoyment, rather than out of some peverse desire to be able to call my Who-loving friends wrongheads from an informed position. “Smith and Jones” was a good start; the next four episodes (“The Shakespeare Code” through “Evolution of the Daleks”) were mediocre to dire; the next two (“The Lazarus Experiment” and “42”) were competent, entertaining runarounds and the run from “Human Nature” to the end of the season was, until the final fumble, either good or very good. Actually, I’m inclined to go so far as to say that “The Last of the Time Lords”, flawed as it is, was the best season finale Who has managed since it came back; if nothing else, it’s moved the Doctor on to a new and interesting place, since I can easily imagine a season 4 without a permanent companion — a few episodes with Martha, a few with Jack, perhaps someone else towards the end of the season, but essentially a season with the Doctor alone, perhaps undergoing some self-examination, perhaps trying to overcompensate for his alone-ness with some vast, hubristic scheme, such as bringing the time lords. And if nothing else, there’ll be another Steven Moffatt two-parter.

“Science fiction has never been more now”

Well, TV science fiction, that is. According to the Guardian, that is.

This is science fiction for the 21st century. What’s more, it’s sci-fi about the 21st century. Fans of the genre have long known that quality sci-fi and its sister genre fantasy hold up a mirror to the times in which they were created, but never before have the TV shows involved seemed so resonant or indeed so influential. Science fiction has never been more now, fantasy never more real.

Discuss. My thoughts:

1. I always considered the ’90s to be something of a golden age, personally — Babylon 5, Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Deep Space Nine, Buffy, Angel, Farscape, plenty of others — and have felt we’ve been in the doldrums somewhat for the past five years.

2. Still, it’s true that Lost and Doctor Who have spawned a new wave of US and UK sf shows. Unfortunately, to date most of them have been rubbish. We’ll see if this autumn’s crop is any different.

3. I would object to the assertion that “the event that has made sci-fi and fantasy palatable, and indeed positively appealing, to a mainstream audience is 9/11”, except that I have this horrible feeling it’s a little bit true, at least for the types of sf the article focuses on.

4. The article concludes, “Why gaze at navels when you can gaze at the stars?” But is there really anything that goes after that sense of wonder? Doctor Who may aspire to it occasionally, but the current incarnation is primarily Earthbound. The end of time was notably uninspiring. Meanwhile, Battlestar Galactica is arguably a perfect example of a show set among the stars that chooses to gaze at its navel. The new shows seem to be following the same paths. There’s nothing as expansive as Farscape, or even the best of Trek.

5. And of course, as MKS points out, it is a discussion utterly divorced from written sf. But that’s pretty much par for the course.

6. That said, ITV is planning “Lost in Austen, in which a woman finds a gateway to the Regency era in her bathroom.” Cheap attempt at crossover cash-in, or inspired concept based on knowing full well that Jane Austen is incredibly popular among sf fans? You decide!

The Sound of Drums

(Again, the Doctor Who episode.)

Three thoughts:

1. I still can’t decide how much I like John Simm’s Master. On the one hand, he’s often very funny (the double-thumbs up during the gassing, “Ooh, you public menace!”, “Oh all right — it’s me!”), on the other hand he’s utterly unthreatening. Someone, in a comment I now can’t place, said that they thought we were meant to view the Master’s insanity as on some level tragic. That makes a lot of sense, not least because in principle it makes the Doctor’s conviction that he’s going to save the Master, not kill him, more powerful. But as acted in the episode, there’s nobody there for the Doctor to save; Simm is just an evil cartoon. I think part of the problem is that Simm’s Master is so clearly Evil Tennant, with all the flightiness that implies; I think one character needed some weight to ground the serious exchanges the characters have, like that telephone call. (Can you imagine what Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi would have done with that exchange?)

2. I’m finding Doctor Who‘s treatment of its present-day timeline increasingly fascinating — specifically, the fact that it is now so radically different to our own timeline. It’s still set now, but it’s got alien invasions and giant flying airbases and all sorts, and the extravagance doesn’t quite seem to square with the show’s reticence to go to other planets. One of my favourite scenes from the new show’s run is the end of “The End of the World”, when the Doctor and Rose step from the death of the sun to the utter normality of a crowded London street. I don’t think that scene would work any more, because there is no normal for the show to return to. I mean, as of “The Sound of Drums”, Earth has just had a tenth of its population massacred, and unless “paradox machine” is code for “big reset button” (which I’m not ruling out; when Martha teleported at the end of the episode, I was actually surprised that she was still in the present, rather than having jumped back to a point at which she could change events), that’s got to have serious knock-on consequences for future episodes.

3. Last week I hazarded a guess that Martha was being set up to do something that would force the Doctor to notice her, setting up a more equal partnership for season 4. I still think that’s more-or-less where they’re going, although Martha has been forced into a situation where she has to act, rather than (as I would have preferred) seizing a moment. But now I’m wondering what the set-up for the Christmas special is going to be. The previous two specials have been transitional: the first dealt with the Doctor’s regeneration, the second with his post-Rose trauma. But we’re not expecting either Tennant or Agyeman to leave the series in the next episode, which suggests a more straightforward standalone episode. However: assuming they don’t do a big reset on the timeline, what if, given (a) the evident devastation on Earth and (b) Martha’s gradual facing-up to the fact that the Doctor has absolutely no interest in her — what if Martha decides to stay behind and help out, rather than continue travelling? Thus setting up a Christmas episode in which the Doctor, realising what he’s lost, has to win back her friendship? I think I’d like that.

Utopia

(Saturday’s Doctor Who episode, that is.)

Not bad, in parts, but I can’t help feeling that doing an end-of-time episode and not getting Stephen Baxter to write it is rather missing an opportunity.

EDIT: I have to admit, this is not an objection I’ve seen about new Who before.

it seems like the premise has always been about someone who is, by choice or by chance, the perpetual outsider. Now that seems like a superficial aspect of the show, a way to increase a character’s social status rather than increase understanding. It seems to no longer be an inclusive universe; certainly it feels like one where I’m not particularly welcome, simply for being female.

John From Cincinnati

The short version? I thought it was interesting. The critical reception of John From Cincinnati has not been kind. A cynic might point out that since almost every review can’t help measuring it against either Deadwood (David Milch’s previous show, cut down in its prime if you believe its supporters) or The Sopranos (the finale of which was the lead-in to John‘s premiere), or both, despite the fact that John From Cincinnati is plainly ploughing a different furrow, this is not entirely surprising. And some of the objections do seem odd: I didn’t feel the least bit assaulted by bombast; neither did I find it maddeningly uneventful and cryptic. A better comparison, which some of the reviews do make, would be with Carnivale (an even better comparison is tickling the back of my brain, and I’ll let you know if I manage to pin it down), although for my money what makes John is actually the ways in which it’s different to Carnivale. The atmosphere is less overwhelming and certainly less exotic, while the characters, principally the three generations of Yost men (surfers or ex-surfers all, from wearily angry Mitch through his son, washed-up Butchie, to his son, prodigy Shaun), cast smaller shadows; all of which means that the small miracles that attend mysterious John’s arrival seem somehow sharper, more out-of-place. John’s pockets seem to contain whatever the person talking to him wants them to contain (money, ID, a phone); Mitch briefly floats a few inches off the ground for no apparent reason; and when a series of improbable coincidences bring most of the cast together for the episode’s dramatic high-point, one of them comments on how “circumstances have intervened”. He doesn’t seriously mean it, but we’re left wondering. Some of the criticisms, though, are fair. The claim that the series needs a compelling antihero to center the drama and bring it to life may be daft, but it’s heading in the direction of the most obvious absence, which is the absence of a story. My guess is that this is intentional, that John will catalyse events (he has, literally, no personality of his own, bouncing back almost exclusively learned phrases at those he speaks to, plus a couple of others — “the end is near” and “some things I know and some things I don’t” — that he may have learned before we met him, so it’s hard to imagine him being involved in or changed by events directly), that the point of the show will turn out to be its characters finding a story to live. But a lot hinges on how far Milch wants to go with his fantasy.

Standalone vs. Serial

So it seems that Heroes is killing Lou Anders’ love of episodic television:

What [Heroes is] doing that is making it for me is that it seems to be leaving the episodic nature of television behind completely. Sometimes they’ll run a “To be continued” and this just blows my mind, because in a show where everything seems to be carried forward and thru, I can’t figure out when they decide something is “to be continued” and something isn’t. I think it’s just to give us a break from the horrid voice overs, since the TBC episodes don’t have one at the end and start. What Heroes is doing to me and my wife is showing us the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.

I am actually very disturbed by this.

Because that’s how most television has been written since the medium’s inception.

I always prided myself on not being one of those people who can’t watch black and white film or refuse to watch things because they are old or the special effects aren’t up to today’s standards. My excuse was always that it’s the story that matters, not the set dressings. But Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story. I know this began with St Elsewhere and Babylon 5 and a dozen other shows over the last decade, but the level of inter-connectivity, non-episodic format is to an entirely new degree. Rome does this too — they are really neck and neck for my affection and it’s probably just that I’m more into comics than history that puts Heroes ahead — but Rome feels just a touch more episodic.

What I’m realizing is that changes in the sophistication of narrative may forever remove me from the garden and I’m not sure I can go back.

To put it mildly, I have some problems with the value judgements being made in this argument. Before I get to them, though, a quick defining of terms: by “episodic”, I am assuming Lou is talking about series in which installments can be treated independently, even if they are embedded in a larger continuity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was an episodic show, although it became less so as it went on (to its detriment). I’m going to call the non-episodic format “serial”, by which I mean series like 24. You can watch, say, “Band Candy” with minimal knowledge of previous Buffy, and it’ll work fine. You can’t do the same with episode 13 of the fifth season of 24. The term “arc”, I would argue, is somewhat meaningless when applied to a serial show, because in a serial show there is only arc — there’s no “non-arc” for contrast.

Next up, areas of agreement. Television drama — or at least US television drama; British tv has certainly had short self-contained serials for as long as I can remember — evolved primarily as an episodic medium. More recently — again, particularly in the US — there has been a shift away from episodic storytelling and towards serial storytelling, although I don’t agree that Heroes represents anything more than, at most, an incremental advance in this trend. (And believe me, I like Heroes a lot.) I don’t know how long the current absurd practice of an October-to-May “season” punctuated by sweeps months and periods of hiatus has been operating, but you only have to look at the way shows like Buffy would “save up” showpiece episodes and/or big plot developments for November, February and May to see how it’s affected the structure of US shows, to the point where the decision a few years ago to start the season of 24 in January and run straight through — without breaks! — to May felt genuinely radical.

This, not unnaturally, leads to the assumption that a given number of episodes in a season are filler, just there to make up the numbers. I think this is a deeply suspect assumption, but I also get the impression it may be one of the factors that leads to Lou talking about Heroes as an example of narrative sophistication: a series where every episode is essential is obviously superior, right? But that’s not the part that really gets me: what I object to most are the assumptions in the idea that Heroes is an argument against “the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.”

On any given day, my list of favourite Buffy episodes — which of course I’d argue is representative of the best episodes — would include “Lie to Me” or “Earshot”, possibly both; my list of favourite Angel episodes would include “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been”; my list of favourite Farscape episodes would include “…Different Destinations”. My list of favourite West Wing episodes would probably be comprised almost entirely of standalones, because with a couple of exceptions (end of season two) that show didn’t do much serial storytelling. All of the episodes I’ve named start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end. But “Lie to Me” is the finest articulation of Buffy‘s core morality the show ever produced, “Earshot” possibly the finest articulation of the high-school-is-hell theme; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is a devastatingly powerful story about, among other things, race in 1950s America; “…Different Destinations” is arguably the best televisual time travel story of the past decade; and The West Wing never failed to deal with whatever issue it chose in a thoughtful and engaging way. Put bluntly, the point is this: an hour (or rather, 45 minutes) is plenty of time to tell an interesting, powerful, self-contained story.

Nor is the difference between the individual episode and the serial one of sophistication, any more than the difference between a short story and a novel is one of sophistication. That’s an imperfect comparison, but the basic point is easily demonstrated: probably my favourite Firefly episode is “Out of Gas”, which has a narrative that weaves between three time-frames with an almost breathtaking economy and grace. It is, by any measure, a sophisticated narrative. Heroes hasn’t produced an episode to match it yet — even “Company Man”. I would go so far as to say that Heroes taken as a whole doesn’t match it yet. Certainly serial storytelling has qualities that episodic storytelling can’t replicate: an accumulation of detail, a more sustained period of engagement with the tale. But consider Battlestar Galactica, which has been alternating unevenly between periods of serial storytelling and periods of episodic storytelling since its inception. The serial episodes are, almost without exception, the better episodes of the show (the creative peak is probably the start of season two), but — though I’ve seen the suggestion made several times — the disparity has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the two types of storytelling. Serial is no easier or harder to get right than episodic; they’re different skill sets. So the problem with Galactica is not that it’s turning out standalone episodes, it’s that it’s turning out bad standalone episodes — ones that do offer too-easy answers, that rely heavily on melodrama, convenience and cliche. Serial storytelling is just as easy to do badly: look at Lost. If I wanted to, in fact, I’m pretty sure I could construct an argument that the pleasures of serials are often ultimately simplistic, familiar, consolatory pleasures — but I don’t want to, because that would be just as much a misrepresentation as the idea that a serial is more “sophisticated” than a standalone.

I feel a little weary typing all this, because I’ve been coming across variations of Lou’s argument more or less since I came online. One of the most succinct rebuttals I’ve seen in that time is, perhaps not surprisingly, by David Hines, from his review of the Angel episode “Through the Looking Glass” (the penultimate episode of the second season, while they’re in Pylea). As it happens, I think “Through the Looking Glass” is an odd choice to use as a defence of the principle, since it’s part of a mini-serial, just a mini-serial that appeared less related to the show’s larger continuity than many people would have liked. But on that principle, I think Hines is dead right.

Did I enjoy the Darla/Dru arc? You betcha. Have the writers stepped away from that a bit for more standalone-ish episodes? Yeah. Is there anything wrong with that? Nope. I enjoy story arcs as much as the next guy. But there’s something more important than story arcs — and that’s telling *good stories.* I don’t care what ANGEL tells stories about, as long as the show tells good stories. If the writers felt inclined to make season three an all-standalone year, that would be fine by me; many of ANGEL’s very best episodes (even this season) have been standalones, and I’ll take a story like “Untouched” over one like “Redefinition” any day of the week. Other shows, including one from Mutant Enemy, have gone story-arc crazy and suffered. Give me a good tale well-told any day.