Heroes Revisited

I was pointed at this interview earlier this morning, in which Bryan Fuller explains what he wanted to achieve with his return to Heroes:

I just really wanted to get everything back to a character base. I think character was shoved aside for plot. The second year with the virus was interesting, but then it got complicated and techno-babbly. With “Villains,” it started out interesting and then became about formula. When they started talking about how we were injected with our powers and it became sci-fi ghetto storytelling, I became disconnected. Mohinder went from a noble scientist to being a mad scientist with Jeff Goldblum hair and wardrobe. Claire became so strident and unlikable because she was just whining, bitching and holding a gun. I was just concerned the wheel had been jerked so sharply in the wrong direction with what had worked about the first season, which was ordinary people with extraordinary powers. Everything ordinary about their lives went out the window, and everything was extraordinary. That was my frustration.

Funnily enough, much as I would usually object to generalizations about “sci-fi ghetto storytelling”, in this case, if I assume Fuller is using the term in the sense I would use it in — to denote lurid, sensationalist storytelling, which goes for cheap manipulation and spectacle over character consistency or logic — then I actually agree with him. “It got complicated and techno-babbly”; “Everything ordinary about their lives went out the window”; these things are true, are they not? Heroes‘ third volume, “Villains”, was bad, and those are some of the big reasons why. Not that complicated, extraordinary stories are bad in themselves, but that Heroes didn’t manage to tell those stories well, ending up with dumb and/or outright offensive stories. Now, if Fuller’s using “sci-fi ghetto” to denote all science fiction, it’s annoying, but at face value, I’m OK with it. (If he’s got previous, and has said something silly like, I don’t know, Pushing Daisies isn’t really a fantasy, it’s a human story, then don’t tell me.)

But then, I’m very nearly at the point of being won back over by Heroes, so I’m inclined to cut Fuller some slack. Yesterday evening I got myself caught up to the most recent episode, “Into Asylum”, which is the most interesting the show has been for some time; but even the early episodes of this volume, before Fuller’s re-involvement, were a step up from “Villains”. You have to accept that Heroes is not the sort of global story it once pretended to aspire to be, that it is now just about one well-off white extended family with superpowers … but at least the show is now not pretending it’s anything else, and on those terms, I’m enjoying it. More than at any time since the peak of the first season, “Fugitives” finds Heroes telling more focused, controlled stories. They’re not trying to do too much in an episode; they’re not afraid to rotate characters out for an episode; and they are, slowly, getting the characters back to comprehensible relationships.

They fixed Peter! Narratively, I mean, though I’m also finding him somewhat less annoying than he used to be. And it’s a really good fix, too, that keeps the core of the character and his ability without letting him dominate the proceedings. It’s a shame they didn’t come up with it immediately after the end of the first season; it would even have made some sense as a reaction to going all ‘splodey. Similarly, Sylar is largely enjoyable to watch again, particularly now that he’s — at last — got past his family issues. (I assume the Smallville crossover fic has already been written, yes?) I’d be concerned that the latest power they’ve had him acquire makes him too powerful, if (a) he weren’t vain enough that it’s entirely plausible he won’t use it that much, (b) it’s not actually an easy power to use, and (c) the power itself, and the mutant of the week he acquired it from, weren’t such a perfect metaphor for what I take to be the recurring arc in this volume, which is redefinition.

That is to say: they keep giving characters really quite good scenes, or at least scenes whose heart is in the right place, in which they are asked who they really are, or what they stand for, or are given an opportunity to choose. Claire in the comic book store in “Cold Snap” (though that is otherwise a very weird scene which seems out of place in the larger arc), Claire talking to Nathan in “Into Asylum”, Sylar and his dad in “Shades of Gray”, Peter and Angela in the church in “Into Asylum”, to an extent powerless Hiro. I think Claire’s arc has probably been the standout in this volume so far, in that she’s actually getting to move on in ways the other volumes promised and then reset. There could be another reset coming, of course, but it’s hard to see how, particularly when it comes to, say, her relationship with her mother as it was developed in “Exposed” (and, I have to say, Mrs Bennett really got to shine in that episode). The character conflicts also make more sense: I thought “Cold Wars” was a very solid piece of television largely because I actually believed the arguments between Peter, Matt and Mohinder.

And they’re back to having actually cool and satisfying plot twists and set-pieces, ones that feel like integrated, natural developments, rather than throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Tracy and the sprinklers was awesome. Rebel’s identity was double-awesome. Having the puppeteer turn up on Claire’s doorstep was a really good idea, and made me forgive the predictable nature of her plot in “Exposure”. Matt and Daphne’s final scenes, even, were pretty good. Hiro and Ando, sadly and frustratingly, remain the weak link. The introduction of baby touch-and-go had me rolling my eyes, because it was obvious where it was going, and yet another in a series of storylines that position Hiro and Ando as the comic relief, when all anybody wants to see is Hiro actually being a hero. But even within those scenes there were some good, solid character moments — Hiro telling Ando about his mother — and cute moments — Hiro talking to the baby won me over, particularly when he tried to teach it “Yatta!” — and I’m glad the baby’s power was only partially effective on Hiro. It’s also true that Ando’s development has been more successful than I feared; the India subplot in “Building 26” gave him some good material, and maybe eventually we’ll get something more like an equal partnership between the two of them.

There are, of course, still plenty of flaws; there’s inevitably something in each episode that I find unconvincing or poorly thought-through. It’s probably still more of a failure than a success, in fact, but at least now it’s an interesting failure again, and those fascinate me. It takes a lot to make me give up on a TV show — in recent times, only Lost has managed it that I can think of — but rarely do I feel that I’ve gained anything by sticking with a show that’s declined. Heroes may turn out to be one of the exceptions.

Thoughts on the first episode of Heroes S3

I’m interested again, but only to the extent of wanting to find out where all the balls they just threw up in the air will land, and unfortunately, I suspect I can guess. Heroes arcs are almost always structured around an effort to prevent a story from happening, which (1) is almost always less interesting than the prospect of the story happening, (2) encourages the more solipsistic and rebarbative habits of any long-running TV series, and (3) usually leaves you running in place. Especially when your enabling device is time travel, and several of your characters have a healing factor.

Recent TV

So what’s the current feeling about Battlestar Galactica? I’ve been lagging behind real-time in my viewing, so I haven’t really read any commentary on the show since they left New Caprica. I thought “Torn”/”A Measure of Salvation” did good work on the Cylons, but cheated on the humans horribly, and that “Hero” and “The Passage” were about on a level with the second half of season two, with some nice moments and some less nice. (From “The Passage”, aka the Jane Espenson episode, I’m keeping the moment where Adama and Tigh collapse in hysterics as one of the absurdities of their ration situation hits home, and I’m trying to forget the frantic handwaving necessary to make the A-plot work.) And then there was “Unfinished Business”, aka The Boxing Episode, which was just a bit of a mess, really. From the teaser — a montage of stark, semi-related images, set to a soundtrack of slow, cold strings is fast becoming one of the show’s cliches — to the resolution, there was very little in the way of surprise, which is more of a shame than it would normally be, given that this was probably our one chance to see some of what happened in the missing year on New Caprica. Compared to, say, Diane Ruggiero’s use of flashbacks in Veronica Mars‘ “A Trip to the Dentist”, or Tim Minear’s use of them in Firefly‘s “Out of Gas” — both episodes designed to provide backstory that’s been informing the present story — Michael Taylor’s structuring of this episode looks distinctly amateur-hour. Too much material is repeated to no good effect. Starbuck and Apollo remember the same events, and the meaningful glances become very old, very fast, which is probably why the single biggest structural problem I’d point to is that the episode has the wrong emotional climax. Even if you’re particularly invested in the concept of Starbuck/Apollo (and I’m not), I think you have to concede that it’s not the Epic Romance that the last few minutes of “Unfinished Business” try to sell us. On the other hand, while the Adama flashbacks are arguably just as unsatisfying as the Starbuck/Apollo ones (cute though it is to see the fleet’s leaders giggling like schoolkids), some of them do set up Adama’s fight against the Chief, which is utterly riveting. It’s not clear whether Adama was looking for an excuse to get himself beaten up, or whether he felt it was necessary to give the crew the closure they needed, or both, or something else: either way, the long beat after his defeat, before his speech, is the single most powerful moment Galactica has generated this season.

One of the things that’s marked out Galactica all along is its tendency to include episodes, like “Unfinished Business”, that have absolutely no need to be sf, and could be transplanted wholesale to a more contemporary setting. That’s not an accusation you could ever level at Heroes, to which I now freely admit I’m addicted. Of course, the foregrounding of speculative elements in Heroes isn’t why the show works, per se, although it sure doesn’t hurt; the secret of its success is largely in its plotting. The decompressed, immaculately-woven tapestry of story threads feels, at least to me, like one of the things the show has most successfully ported from its source medium (although it’s worth noting that Galactica at its best, and in particular at the start of season two, has also used such techniques, so it’s not exactly a pure comics tradition). In that and many other ways, it’s fair to say that Heroes has become exactly what I hoped it would be when I first wrote about it, and fittingly the “fall finale”, Joe Pokaski’s “Fallout”, is the strongest episode of the season to date. Somewhere on livejournal I saw someone say that “Fallout” was made up of nothing but moments that would have been the centrepiece of an entire episode on another show, and that’s not much of an overstatement There’s an utterly gobsmacking amount going on, almost all of clever and effective, and if you asked me to pick a favourite moment from, say, Eden, the closing vision, Isaac’s painting, Peter and Claire, and the Haitian, I don’t think I could do it (and could probably name another three or four contenders if I took longer to think about it). The flipside, the show’s critics will say — and I have a running debate with Abigail about this — is that the show doesn’t do dialogue, doesn’t do character, doesn’t really do depth of any kind. The first two criticisms had some merit to start with, but it seems to me the writers have come on in leaps and bounds; with the possible exception of Niki, I don’t think there’s a single character on the show I’m not interested in, which is not a small accomplishment. The lack of depth is perhaps a more serious criticism, but even there I think a lot of people underrate Heroes — and anyway, it’s an attack that shifts the goalposts. First and foremost Heroes is more consistently fun than anything else on TV, and that’s not a small accomplishment, either.

And, not before time, Heroes even appears to have lost the voiceovers. I wish I could say the same of Torchwood, since whatever his other virtues John Barrowman just cannot sell that “the 21st century is when everything changes, and you gotta be ready” line to save his life, and it’s painful to hear him try at the start of each episode. The only reason I’m still watching the show, if I’m honest, is that I lack willpower: every Sunday evening I have something better to do (most of the time, I forget about Torchwood entirely), and every Monday, or at the latest Tuesday, I’ll see a comment somewhere about how this episode wasn’t bad, or started to show promise, and I’ll think, well, I’ve come this far … Paul Tomalin and Dan McCulloch’s arc-initiating “They Keep Killing Suzie” is the most recent episode I’ve watched, and while it was far from being the most horrible episode of the season so far (that honour still goes to CYBERWOMAN VS PTERODACTYL), anyone who seriously compares it to Heroes, or even to sub-par Galactica, has got to be on something pretty strong. Where Heroes gives its viewers cool stuff rooted in character, Torchwood tries to give its viewers shocking stuff not rooted in anything. Where Galactica is always, always beautiful, the cinematography and soundtrack on Torchwood make me want to cry. “They Keep Killing Suzie” had an interesting premise — the dead hand of the rogue Torchwood member who killed herself in the show’s pilot enacts a complicated vengeance — and one scene with actual emotional impact — the one with Gwen and Suzie in the car, after the hospital, talking about death, where Suzie says that humans are “just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence” — but it was all rather spoilt by the engagement of the, as Tony put it, TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE towards the end of the episode. (There’s something about this show that just inspires the use of ALL CAPS. I can’t help myself.) So … what was this week’s episode like?

That one emotionally involving scene did have a second good line, now I come to think of it, which was the one about all these aliens only washing up on Earth because there’s life here, because they’re drawn to it like moths to a flame. It strikes me that if Torchwood ever built on moments like that, and if it was ever any good, it could potentially (don’t laugh) start telling the stories about sex and death that a 21st-century James Tiptree, Jr might have told. Admittedly, they couldn’t go as far as “The Screwfly Solution” and actually end the world, but I think there’s room for a series working in that territory — Angel gave us “Billy”, for instance, which in retrospect looks not unlike a reconfigured version of “The Screwfly Solution”. I was somewhat amused, in a despairing kind of way, to come across comments like these about the Masters of Horror adaptation of Tiptree’s story, which insist that it’s not really horror but science fiction (as though it could only be one or the other), because to me it seemed to be full of the visual grammar of horror (from lashings of blood to dark woods), and because “The Screwfly Solution” is one of the two or three scariest stories I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter whether the premise (aliens who want our land corrupt the linkage between human male sexuality and violence; men start killing women) is an actual biological possibility. The thought that it might be — or to go back to “Billy”, the idea that it might be something in men, rather than solely something done to them — is utterly terrifying on its own. Here I suspect I’m disagreeing with Abigail, again (I already know I’m against her and with Matt Cheney on the story’s last line), but arguably the scariest thing about Hamm’s adaptation is how little updating it needed to retain that air of possibility. The rhetoric about bioterrorism and fundamentalist religion fits in more than comfortably, as does the suggestion of chemical castration, and between them Sam Hamm and Joe Dante almost entirely preserve the conviction and unarguable raw force of the original story. If I had Hugo nomination rights this year, for that feat alone “The Screwfly Solution” would be on my ballot.