The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: From Radio to TV

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy BBC TV poster

British viewers may not blink twice, but it is always interesting for this Yank to note the privileged billing given to screenwriters in BBC programs. The opening credits for the 1981 serial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy prominently hail “By DOUGLAS ADAMS” directly below its dramatically rocky logo, overshadowing the cast, directors, and producers. This is certainly not the case for typical American television productions, which tend to bury the lowly writer’s credit in type so small and fleeting that it’s hard to spot even if you’re looking for it. Shows tend to be popularly known more for their cast or sometimes the corporation that produced it (exhibit A: the hard-earned prestige status enjoyed by HBO). A precious few creators may have become known commodities in their own right, such as the rare cases of Chris Carter (The X-Files), J.J. Abrams (Lost), and David Simon (The Wire), but by and large writers remain effectively anonymous on American television.

Aside from BBC standards and practice for onscreen accreditation, and the fact that the Adams name itself had become a brand, one could argue that he merited such recognition for sheer work ethic alone. Between 1978 and 1981, Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least five times: as a radio play, novel, record album, stage show, and television series (granted, some of these were collaborations, but the point still stands). All this while serving as script editor for the 17th season of Doctor Who, which entailed supplying three of his own scripts (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and Shada) in addition to heavily rewriting many others. The Doctor Who tradition of divided loyalties would continue well into the 21st century as showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat would moonlight on Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Sherlock. The only possible conclusion to draw is that doing Doctor Who is evidently easy, and provides lots of free time for extracurricular activities. I’m sure Russell and Steven will agree, right guys?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyThe opening credits of the BBC TV production of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy assert that the original radio series is the definitive article.

By all accounts, including his own, writing would not seem to have come easy for Adams. The sustained creative frenzy that produced Hitchhikers in all its forms would have burned any normal person out. That he pulled it off proves he may not have been a normal person, but it made him a more financially comfortable man that indeed never met another deadline again: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Indeed, Hitchhikers’ runaway success afforded him the wealth to buy as many Apple Macintoshes as he wanted, and to take his sweet time adapting and extending the Hitchhikers universe into more novels, audio books, an influential text-based hypertextual computer game, and a stage show.

I personally consider the books to be definitive, mostly because that’s how I happened to first experience the story. In fact, it was years until I learned that its original incarnation as a radio series so much as existed. Writer Gareth Roberts, an expert on Adams-era Doctor Who, observed that the first two Hitchhikers books aren’t technically novels, but essentially novelizations of his scripts for the radio show. Further bumping the books down the hierarchy of relative definitiveness, the opening credits of the TV series proclaim it’s “Adapted from the BBC Radio Series” even though it followed the novel, which itself roughly corresponding to the first four radio episodes. Got that?

The first episode was a (very expensive) pilot, and could very well have been all we have today. Even after a full series was commissioned, each subsequent episode begins with a cleverly done recap, typically featuring excerpts from the titular Guide that segue into a resolution of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. The integration of animation into the live action footage reflects Adams’ highly digressive writing style, now de rigueur to audiences raised in an online, hyperlinked culture. Perhaps the sole element of the TV series that everyone can agree is excellent is the faux-computer animation, which was actually created manually using traditional cel animation techniques by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyAn example of the ersatz “computer” animation created outside the BBC by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.

Neil Gaiman dedicates Chapter 13 of his book Don’t Panic, about the Hitchhikers phenomenon, to the painful production of the television series. Indeed, it seems to have managed to disappoint just about everyone: fans, critics, the BBC, and at least two warring factions on the creative team, including (and perhaps especially) Adams himself. He had wished to involve his trusted collaborators John Lloyd and Geoffrey Perkins, but all three were shut out by entrenched BBC TV lifers that looked down their noses at mere radio people. Further dooming things, production was handled by the BBC’s Light Entertainment division, despite the Drama department having all the experience and know-how anyone could ask for after having handled many years worth of Doctor Who serials.

Gaiman documents a high state of tension between producer/director Alan Bell and seemingly everyone else. Bell was reportedly skilled at bringing productions in on time and under budget, but less interested in story or directing actors. Gaiman quotes many veterans of the original radio series that felt Bell’s direction and staging was often artless and unsympathetic to the unique material. The pedestrian-looking resulting program must have stung, as the original radio team had all shown considerable technical ambition in realizing the unprecedented sound design of the radio series (Geoffrey Perkins details the extraordinary labor it took to create virtually all of the voice and sound effects from scratch in the book The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts — contrary to what one might assume, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop didn’t contribute much). A second series was commissioned, but Adams’ standoff with Bell contributed to its cancellation before it came anywhere close to beginning. Bell claims Adams missed his script deadlines as usual, and Adams counters he simply would not start writing until negotiations concluded to include Perkins and Lloyd as advisors (this is a brutally condensed version of the whole sad story, available in full circa page 84 of the first edition of Don’t Panic). I take Adams’ side on this one, as my career as a web designer has made me all too familiar with the pitfalls of beginning work before you have a contract.

The pilot episode opens on a rather decent model landscape of a quaint English village, complete with ersatz sunrise. This bucolic scene is, of course, not long for this world. We soon meet Adams’ archetypal everyman Arthur Dent, played by Simon Jones, who actually resembles Douglas Adams in stature and coiffure. Athur’s home and home planet are about to become casualties of two coincidental bureaucratic mishaps. As if Arthur didn’t have enough to deal with this dreadful morning, his pal Ford Prefect outs himself as being a roving reporter for the eponymous publication The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, hailing “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse”. Incidentally, everyone’s favorite star — once they learn how to pronounce it — is itself expected to explode “soon”. But Ford, if he’s out there, may rest easy, for in the minds of astrophysicists, “soon” means anytime between now and 1,000,000 years hence. Perhaps the exact date is available on a slip of paper in a subbasement of a Vogon planning commission office somewhere in the galaxy.

But back to the TV series. Much of the radio cast reprise their roles onscreen, and it certainly plays that way. Its prose origins are betrayed by a few recognizably overwritten scenes, such as when Arthur and Ford redundantly describe the hallucinations they suffer in episode two, as if the audience couldn’t plainly see them for themselves. The downside is that the TV series comes across like an abridged greatest hits compilation of Adams’ most quotable lines (“Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”). The upside is… well, it comes across like an abridged greatest hits of the most quotable lines (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”).

While the outdoor location work is grounded in reality, the studio-shot sequences are theatrical in presentation, with long takes staged against traditional three-walled studio sets. The non-naturalistic lighting often works against the story, especially as Ford squints by the feeble light of a match to locate a plainly visible light switch in the brightly illuminated bowels of the Vogon ship. Arthur (who had admittedly just been through a lot) is unimpressed with the “shabby” vessel. Knowing the author and context, this word choice is very likely an ironic comment on the art direction. To be fair, later sequences are staged more dramatically (such as the forced-perspective gangways surrounding the massive supercomputer Deep Thought).

If you want to argue about how Hitchhikers looks on television, I think that sci-fi on the small screen ought not to be judged in terms of what was on the big screen at the time. Doctor Who still gets a lot of grief for its dodgy production values, but recall that it premiered in 1963, long before the stylistic and technological special effects breakthroughs showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), so it’s a bit unfair to judge, isn’t it? It’s only a rather recent development that the production qualities of science fiction on television began to match the sorts of effects you can see in feature films. In this viewer’s opinion, the current best-of-breed visual effects on television haven’t yet topped Battlestar Galactica (read The Dork Report review), which featured outer space dogfights that matched or exceeded what is routinely showcased in Hollywood features — perhaps even by what is arguably the highest-profile genre series currently on the air, HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyMark Wing-Davey (and the faulty animatronic head that cost more than his fee) as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

As was (and is) the case with Doctor Who, you have to take the good with the bad. Is there any point critiquing Hitchhiker’s dodgy special effects, even considering the year (1981), medium (television), and budget (low)? Insofar was anyone could have predicted audience expectations, they likely tuned in more to savor Adams’ priceless words and ideas, not state-of-the-art spectacle. Here’s original producer Geoffrey Perkins on the topic of the paradoxical limitations and freedom of the radio drama format, and the unexpected repercussions when the serial was later adapted into other media:

“The line about [Zaphod’s] extra head was put in as a little extra throwaway joke which was to cause enormous headaches (sic) when the show was transferred to television. The extra head cost about twice as much as Mark [Wing-Davey] himself (though he thinks that was fair enough because it gave a better performance than he did!). In fact much of the time the head didn’t function properly and used to loll on his shoulder looking up at him, often ending up being operated by a man with his hand up Mark’s back.”
–Geoffrey Perkins, The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, page 50

It’s interesting, and I think significant, that he uses the word “transferred” to describe the adaptation process. At the time of the publication of the radio scripts in 1985, Perkins and Adams still viewed them as the definitive article.

Thanks for reading Part One of The Dork Report’s trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence and legacy, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.


Official BBC site: www.bbc.co.uk/cult/hitchhikers

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Lost in The Matrix

Now that the Lost fiasco finale has come and gone, and my blood pressure has dipped back down into safe levels, I am going to attempt to speak calmly about how the show let me down. Yes, I am aware that it is just a TV program, and there are a great many other things in the world worth being upset over (I’m looking at you, BP). But following a weekly TV show from the very beginning, for six years, earns you a little more than the often derogatory sobriquet Fan. We aficionados are not owed anything by anybody, but nevertheless, our investment of time and enthusiasm created an imbalance that was not satisfied in the end.

Henry Ian Cusick in LostNeo Desmond enters Deus Ex MachinaThe Source

As my frustration at being cheated subsides, another problematic pop cultural touchstone came to mind. Certain parallels between Lost and The Matrix trilogy now seem obvious, and it’s not just that both hinge on a mysterious, glowing, ill-defined “Source.”

  1. Start out strong with a very science fiction-y, mostly plot-driven narrative. The characters are marginally interesting, but the focus is on scenario and story. Viewers’ imaginations are teased, speculation abounds, and sequels are demanded.
  2. Follow up with a sequel that reveals a loose framework of philosophy supporting the science fiction conceit. Whether it genuinely inspired the original work or was bolted on after the fact is open to debate. Simultaneously amp up the soap-opera cheesiness concerning flat characters that fans aren’t really invested in. (For what it’s worth, I contend that The Matrix Reloaded – the second in the trilogy – is not only underrated, but in fact the best of the series, despite the nearly universal opinion that both sequels were failures)
  3. Contrive a violent, action-packed ending that A. strains to fit around the philosophical core (kinda sorta maybe) and B. focuses on character melodrama (tragic deaths, romantic pining, etc.). Myriad story issues are neglected and treated as merely peripheral to the creators’ primary concerns.

In short, the creative duos behind Lost and The Matrix mistakenly assumed fans were more interested in the philosophical angle and thin characters than in the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, some of us wondered why we couldn’t have it both ways: a cracking good story with a strong subtext of mysticism and philosophy. As every high school creative writing teacher must explain to students that keep turning in thinly veiled retellings of Bible stories: just because an allegory fits (kinda sorta maybe), it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any additional meaning to be construed. For The Wachowski Brothers, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. For Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it was John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. (to be fair, they also leaned heavily on writers outside the realm of philosophy, including everyone from George Lucas to Stephen Hawking).

Keanu Reeves in The MatrixDesmond Neo enters The Source Deus Ex Machina

If, in the end, Cuse and Damon Lindelof neglected their storytelling responsibilities, they had already neatly set up two excuses for them to fall back upon:

  1. That Lost’s appeal was really the characters, and fans ought to be pleased that they all lived happily ever after, after a fashion.
  2. That Lost is really an allegory for a melange of works of philosophy, and that if you don’t get it, you’re a right-brainer too hung up on Star Trek-esque hard sci-fi to have your mind expanded, dude.

I don’t think I would be so upset if Cuse and Linedlof weren’t so outrageously full of themselves and self-congratulatory in interviews (The Wachowskis are probably right to refrain from publicity). At least Lindelof seemed conscious of how their work might be received. He told Wired Magazine:

Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”

Maybe Jack and Locke were both right; the show now appears to have been a headlong hurdle into a faux-mystical conundrum, leaving behind countless abandoned plot threads as so much narrative shrapnel. There is no shortage of blog posts clogging the internet with lists of unresolved mysteries (including my own). Cuse dug himself in deeper, in conversation with the New York Times:

our goal is when we’re breaking stories, how are we going to really make each one of these commercial breaks really exciting. Those questions led to a lot of really intense scenes and cool reversals and surprises, and I guess it must have been how Dickens would cliffhanger the end of his serials in the newspaper when he was writing them to try to get people to show up the next day.

Cool like Dickens, eh? Wait, it gets better. In the recap special “The Final Journey” that preceded the final episode “The End,” they actually had the balls to call their series “Shakespearean,” which I think automatically disqualifies them from being taken seriously.

As for The Matrix, I think it’s telling that there’s literally a character in the third film named “Deus Ex Machina.”


Must read: Philosophy in Lost

Must read: The Matrix Explained

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Season 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Lost: The End

Lost Season 6 poster

 

I’ve always been a Lost apologist, at least liking the show even during its weak points. Six years of goodwill very nearly went out the window along with my television, thanks to its extremely frustrating final run of episodes. Close to the end, I attempted to resolve myself to the likely event that the finale would not answer every little niggling mystery. I hoped to shield myself from disappointment, and let the creators finish the story how they wished. Yet “The End” still failed to tell a simple story. A story is not a string of dei ex machina, and every character arc need not end with a sudden, brutal, arbitrary death.

Carlton Cuse told Wired Magazine:

The great mysteries of life fundamentally can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the resolution between the two timelines is going to make people say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end.”

The latter, pretty much. What follows is just a taste of my catalogue of complaints, with no concern for spoilers.

Matthew Fox in Lost

SPINNING (DONKEY) WHEELS

For a show built atop a perpetually compounding series of mysteries and conundrums, it failed to legitimately advance or resolve much of anything in the run-up to the polarizing finale. With so little time left, the penultimate episodes wasted time spinning wheels in classic Lost fashion. People getting locked in cages, escaping, getting locked up again. Groups splitting up, hiking to opposite ends of the island(s), splitting up into different groups and hiking back. Boarding watercraft and disembarking again. Meanwhile, the sheer number of abandoned mysteries filled its own wiki, and as usual, CollegeHumor said it best:

BOOM!

From the very beginning, one of Lost’s favorite conceits was the sudden death of characters. To be generous, death is rarely “meaningful” in real life, but these plot twists also laid bare the practicalities of serial television (actors quit, get fired, or age unconvincingly). After the tenth or twentieth fatality, I became sick of characters getting suddenly and arbitrarily killed off for cheap shock. Past victims included Eko, Libby, and Danielle, all violently exiting the show before their storylines reached any kind of resolution. In the final episodes, it happened to Ilyana, Widmore, Zoe, and (it seemed at first) Frank and Richard. We saw just enough of Zoe that I assumed she must be significant as something more than just cannon fodder, but apparently not. Sayid’s season-long arc (was he mystically reincarnated as a soulless killing machine, or was he merely convinced that he was essentially evil?) is short-circuited by his abrupt choice of self-sacrifice. How did he defeat his mystical brainwashing? Just killing off a character isn’t any kind of a resolution to a storyline.

A positive example from the show’s past would be Charlie, a character whose death figured into the mythology in a big way. It had ramifications, as opposed to: BOOM! Look, somebody just suddenly blew themselves up with dynamite, isn’t that HILARIOUS? Aren’t you SHOCKED? No? Well, let’s kill another character the same way!

I was never so sentimental for Lost that I felt the need for every character to live happily ever after. But didn’t these creations deserve a little better?

John Terry in Lost

ACROSS THE SEA

Little of the mythology Jacob finally revealed in the episode “Across the Sea” made any sense, and often directly contradicted my memories of what went before. He tells Kate he scratched her off the list because she became a mother, but the job could still be hers if she wanted it. Does that mean his list is arbitrary? It doesn’t matter which of these last few surviving candidates will do it? And, for whatever reason Jacob disqualifies moms, is it related to why all women on the island die? Were all the other mothers also candidates, for whom disqualification means death? If so, why didn’t he kill Kate? Because she assumed custody of Claire’s baby rather than having her own biological child, I suppose. But if the audience is asked to make too many strained suppositions like this, based on little evidence in the text of the show, we’ll begin to wonder if the writers have any idea themselves.

In the earlier episode “Ab Aeterno”, Jacob told the Man in Black that he brings people to the island to prove a point to him about humanity. But now he tells Jack & co. that he simply wants to find a replacement. Which is it? Both?

Jacob’s list of several hundred names eventually narrowed to a mere handful of survivors. Did he know he had to rule them all out until he got to the last name? And that the Man in Black would happen to be very near escape at that point in time? If so, why didn’t he just scratch all but one name off the list? And now that Jack has volunteered, does that mean that the other few have to die?

Allison Janney in Lost

NARRATIVE CHEATING

It’s cheap to resolve a plot thread by introducing a totally new element, like the adoptive mother of Jacob & The Man in Black (an unnamed character played by Allison Janney). Imagine a murder mystery, in which the murderer turns out to be… oh this guy right here, whom you’ve never seen before now. The answer to the mystery of Jacob and The Man in Black needed to already be there, in the form of shuffled puzzle pieces the audience hasn’t seen the solution to yet. Not in a single-episode guest star.

Which brings me to the glowing cave. If it’s really the key motivating force for Jacob and The Man in Black, it’s the ultimate MacGuffin of the entire series. To not even so much as mention it until near the very end of a six-year long series is cheating to say the least.

Let me go back even further: I’m irritated altogether by the injection of Jacob and the Man in Black into the story. I know that the Man in Black technically appeared in the very first episode (as the sound effect we would later associate with the Smoke Monster), and we’ve been hearing the name Jacob for a few years now. But it does not feel organic at all that the core mystery of the show came down to a mystical struggle between two characters that have barely featured on the show at all. It should be about the characters already on the stage from the very beginning, not two cyphers introduced so late in the game.

And the final, capping atrocity that would get any kid kicked out of high school creative writing class is, of course, the revelation that the final season’s mysterious “sideways timeline” was actually a kind of Limbo or Purgatory. That this is wildly unsatisfactory (the only thing worse could have been an ending in which it is revealed to be someone’s dream, a la St. Elsewhere or Newhart) is overshadowed by the true crime: it’s explained via exposition by a minor character we hadn’t seen for months (Jack’s father Christian). Exposition! “Show don’t tell” is a clichéd rule, and rules ought to be broken, but this case of telling not showing is evidence of contempt for the audience.

Compare and contrast with the truly mind-blowing conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its wordlessness is a sublime virtue, and its mysteries linger to provoke discussion and fascination decades later.

Michael Emmerson in Lost

BEN: A COMPLICATED GUY, OR LAZY WRITING?

I’m puzzled by Ben’s apparent boomerang switcher from defeated and sort-of redeemed, to pure evil, and then back again. We’re left to suppose he realized something in the penultimate episode that the audience just didn’t know yet. We naturally expect to share his realization in the final episode, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there to find. After the Man in Black is defeated, he’s not only forgiven for his crimes (remember, he is a mass murderer), but given a leadership role on the island. And, he gets to stay behind in Limbo and shag Rousseau (Mira Furlan, who, incidentally, cleans up good, am I right?).

It bugs me that I had to repeatedly ask this question at each plot turn: was it lazy writing, or part of the mystery?

Henry Ian Cusick in Lost

THE DESMOND ZAP

I’m very confused about how much the sideways characters remember about their alternate timelines on the island after Desmond zaps them. Locke and Ben only seem to get a vague sense of deja vu, but Hurley seems to have complete recall (for instance, he seems to know exactly who Ana Lucia is). By the finale, characters need only touch each other for complete memories to come flooding back. So why didn’t Jack & Juliet spark each other’s memories during all the years were married, and not to put to fine a point on it, had sex and conceived a son? Again, part of the mystery, or sloppy writing?

CITING SOURCES

Some of the above is derived from a morning-after rant I shared with guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait.


Must read: Jason Kottke’s Lost finale roundup

Official Lost site: abc.go.com/shows/lost

Buy the Lost Season 6 DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

Battlestar Galactica The Plan poster

 

Put simply, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is a clip show done right, in disguise as an original movie for television. Whatever else its intended purpose, it must also do double-duty as a kind of coda, appendix, or postscript to the celebrated television series (2004-2009). But is it one final cash-in, before the sets are struck and the cast scatters to the winds, or a noble attempt to address neglected aspects of the complex mythos that many fans felt weren’t justly served by the controversial final episode? Which, for the record, I loved for its audacity, while still sympathizing with the contingent of fans that felt it strained plausibility and raised more questions than it answered.

The Plan incorporates footage from across all four seasons, seamlessly melded with new material written by Jane Espenson, who wrote for the show during its fourth season, and directed by Edward James Olmos, who starred in the series as Commander Bill Adama and helmed several individual episodes. The DVD bonus features, while typically hagiographic, rightly point out that Olmos obviously had an intimate knowledge of the full story arc as well as a strong relationship with the entire cast, so he was probably the best choice to helm The Plan. Curiously, Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is missing-in-action from the credits and DVD bonus features.

Dean Stockwell in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanBrother Cavil (in hat) and Brother Cavil (not in hat) face their ends

In a narrative conceit shared with the previous Battlestar Galactica special movie Razor (2007), key portions of the show’s continuity are retold from a different perspective, in this case that of the Cylons, a fractious race of synthetic lifeforms with a (shall we say) complicated relationship with their human creators. All but one of the actors portraying the twelve Cylon models appear in new sequences here (Lucy Lawless being the sole holdout), joining some of the original human characters (missing James Callis, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jamie Bamber). Oddly, President Roslin (McDonnell) is the only major character to not even appear in archival clips, being very conspicuous in her absence. Perhaps the actress objected to the script, or demanded too much money?

I personally don’t believe the series proper necessarily needed to tell more of the story than the writers chose to before its final episode (which is off-limits anyway, taking place chronologically after the events seen in The Plan). But if the goal of The Plan was to fill in some of the perceived gaps, it’s ultimately unsatisfying for not addressing some of the truly puzzling mysteries, particularly the still-unseen thirteenth Cylon called Daniel and the true nature of Starbuck’s (Sackhoff) death, resurrection, and subsequent visions. What new plot information and character insights we do get are nice, but inessential. We see more of the Cylon surprise attack, with the human colonies destroyed one by one, but how does this expand the story beyond indulging in some CGI apocalypse porn? But to The Plan’s credit, some of the most tantalizing mysteries are probably best left up to our imaginations. Not without reason, fans spent the final season wondering how Starbuck could be anything but a Cylon, only to find she was something else entirely. I would argue the writers chose to not drag the mystery down into mundanity, like the fatal mistake George Lucas made by providing a pseudo-scientific definition of The Force in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Grace Park in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanBoomer, true to her name, is a ticking time bomb

So what is the eponymous Plan? As we saw in the first moments of the original series, the religiously-motivated Cylon race attempts to totally annihilate humanity in one fell swoop. A small fleet of human stragglers escapes, with a small number of Cylons unwillingly trapped among them (surely a frustrating situation for creatures who expected to perish in the cataclysm and be reborn in a heaven free of humans). The major revelation of The Plan is that much of the violent conflict we saw in the original series was actually a desperately improvised plan by this ragtag cell of partly-unwilling soldiers. Meet the new plan, same as the old plan: genocide. So we now understand these few Cylons to be a struggling terrorist cell.

The central characters that drive the action are a pair of Ones/Cavils (Dean Stockwell), whose pending execution provides a framing device to the entire movie. Also significantly expanded are Anders (Michael Trucco) and two very different versions of Four/Simon (Rick Worthy). We learn a little more about the hapless Five/Aaron (Matthew Bennett), the explanation for his relative insignificance in the show being that he is simply a little dim, often serving as an inept pawn of Cavil. We learn how the Eight that lived as Boomer actually functioned (she was a sleeper agent who genuinely believed she was human, but was brought in and out of this illusion by Cavil – with her human side eventually winning over). We meet an additional Six (Tricia Helfer) who worked undercover as a prostitute, contributing little to the story beyond more T&A. Speaking of, The Plan features a great deal of gratuitous full-frontal male and female nudity, not motivated by plot or character, and seemingly only there for titillation and a faux sense of realism.

Tricia Helfer in Battlestar Galactica: The PlanEven the most diehard Battlestar Galactica fan may have trouble remembering which Six this is

Most of left-behind Cylons become contaminated, or at least influenced, by proximity with humans. Another Cavil is trapped on the post-apocalyptic Caprica with Anders, simultaneously revering him as a father of the Cylon race while challenging his empathetic leadership skills. How they all survive radiation poisoning isn’t explained. The Caprica-bound Cavil’s mind rapidly evolves to the point where he becomes worlds apart from his bitter, cruel twin in the fleet, who remains the sole Cylon purely dedicated to the original plan.

Was the project misconceived? It is certainly in keeping with the classically bleak Battlestar Galactica style and tone; a new character is a helpless little orphan kid, very out of keeping for a show that continually rejects cute & cuddly stereotypes, and I should have known that his fate would not be a good one. By design, The Plan is resolutely intended for diehard Battlestar Galactica fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s mythos. I consider myself a big fan, and have seen every episode, but there was much I hadn’t memorized, and about which I remain confused. For instance, I can’t recall if it was ever explained exactly why the so-called Final Five Cylons were implanted among human society to live as humans for several decades, and why only one incarnation of Cavil knew of their existence. It seems a mistake to produce a big-budget TV movie for a very narrow audience of superfans that can remember all this stuff, months after their favorite show stops airing. The Plan certainly won’t attract virgin viewers, as anyone interested in the series would certainly start with a DVD of the original 2004 miniseries. I don’t even want to think about how The Plan must have seemed to any unfortunate viewers who had never seen Battlestar Galactica at all, let alone internalized its mythos.

It’s hard to see how The Plan can be anything other than the true end of the series. Getting this much of the cast back together for one TV movie must have been a real feat, so doing it again in the future seems unlikely. The prequel series Caprica (read The Dork Report review of the pilot episode) is set far enough in Battlestar Galactica’s past that much of the cast cannot logically guest star (although, upon reflection, it might be possible to see some of the Final Five, who might be living among humans at this point). So The Plan is most likely the end.


Official movie site: www.syfy.com/battlestar

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Caprica

Caprica poster Alessandra Toressani

 

The recently concluded series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have. Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.

In an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobies) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download in May 1999, nearly a year before the series proper. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series, including technobabble like “Cylon” (a marketing term short for, we finally learn, Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even racial epithets like “dirt eater.” The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy, and one supposes we might later even see some of the “final five” Cylons from the original series (Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Michael Trucco, Rekha Sharma, and Aaron Douglas), who ought to have been running around in some form at this point in BSG chronology. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. Even the special effects are up to par with Galactica’s groundbreaking spaceship battles, although applied to spectacularly convincing digital cityscapes.

Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaCaprica, like Battlestar Galactica, holds that there are no Surgeon General warnings in space

But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines. It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from giving Battlestar Galactica a chance, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the pilot episode: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome).

But maybe this gender inequality makes a kind of sense. The real core dynamic between the two male leads makes for classic storytelling. Industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) invented a virtual reality playground called the Holoband, and has since turned to developing weaponized robotics. Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a crooked lawyer tied to an offworld organized crime syndicate that put him through law school, and further control him with threats. A terrorist bombing claims their daughters (and Adama’s wife), and the two men later bond over mutual grief, coffee, and cigarettes (like Battlestar Galactica, doctors and nutritionists many thousands of years in our past haven’t yet warned people about the dangers of caffeine and nicotine). The two men may be of different planets, races, and religions, but become bound by complicity in an act of industrial espionage that leads to a murder of an elected official (cast and costumed in thick glasses to resemble Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) from Blade Runner).

If one of the two had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica’s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two adult female characters are solely defined by their relationships with the men and/or kids in their lives. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.

Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of annoying child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of whiney teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica’s trio of kids, two die but unfortunately come back to a kind of immortality (if you only counted one, check out the deleted scenes available on the DVD edition).

Eric Stoltz, Paula Malcomson, and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaWait, there was a woman in Caprica? Let’s hope poor Paula Malcomson actually gets some scenes in the full series

The first 10 minutes pack in a massive download of important information, especially tricky for any viewers not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators, the inciting incident that motivated the entire story arc of the parent series.

We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying this civilization’s late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, ogling hot lesbians, making simulated human sacrifice, and squaring off in a fight club knockoff. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica’s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation co-opts a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out in public too? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants to enhance their virtual appearance, say, to make themselves younger, more beautiful, covered in fur or made of diamond?

The titular Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future before it is decimated in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new prequel series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Showtime series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that this is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire. The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the sister planet Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem modeled on the immigrant Sicilian mafia of 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to Capricanize everything else is his life: changing his surname to Adams and raising his son as a Caprican, all to the consternation of his mother.

Alessandra Toressani in Battlestar Galactica CapricaZoe, genius hacker, goes clubbing in The Matrix

This society’s most truly dangerous trait appears to be its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their secret representative Sister Willow recruits teen students from her exclusive private school. Zealous Ben (Avan Jogia), in turn, drafts Zoe and her friend Magda, and later stages the suicide bombing that claims the Graystone and Adama families. Ben was presumably being manipulated by Sister Willow (Polly Walker), who also had designs on Zoe’s brilliant computer skills that didn’t necessarily hinge on her remaining alive.

The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica’s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its controversial final episode (for the record, I loved its audacity). The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet’s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human). Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called over-egging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.

Speaking of, how could a luminary in the cybernetics business not realize his own daughter was a genius-level hacker? Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with a means of preserving the 100 terabytes of human data stored in the human brain, and complement it with 300 MB of digital detritus that person has left behind on Caprica’s equivalents of Google and Facebook: medical records, playlists, email, searches, social networking, etc. Her breakthrough allows Graystone to resurrect Adama’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 100 terabytes of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.

Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientific breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.

Note: the above is a revised, expended, and corrected version of The Dork Report’s original review of the DVD edition, published on May 17, 2009.


Official movie site: syfy.com/caprica

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Generation Kill

Generation Kill poster

 

The HBO miniseries Generation Kill comes from David Simon and Ed Burns, the masterminds behind the superlative series The Wire. Simon himself is a former journalist, the state thereof being a primary preoccupation of the fifth season of the The Wire. So it makes sense that he would be drawn to a war story seen through the eyes of a fellow writer. Generation Kill is based on the nonfiction book by Evan Wright, a Rolling Stone reporter embedded in the US Marine Corps 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, the first boots on the ground during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Actor Lee Tergesen plays Wright as a wide-eyed innocent among perverse killers, delightedly scribbling the marines’ colorful boastings in his notebook, when not dodging sniper fire. The most quotable is the manic driver Corporal Josh Ray Person, well-cast as James Ransone, basically reprising his character Ziggy Sobotka from The Wire season two.

The marines’ lingo flashes back to pop culture circa 2003, which already seems so very far away. A rumor spreads that J-Lo is dead, reminding us of the brief period when Jennifer Lopez was the most desired woman on the planet. Everyone’s a “dog” or “bra” (not as in the undergarment but as in “bro”). In between harrowing battles (which the warriors long for but hate when they arrive), much of their experience is comprised of long stretches of boredom. They supply their own soundtrack, recollecting what lyrics they can and recreating every part of a song a cappella with great enthusiasm.

Generation KillCpl. Josh Ray Person: “When my band opened up for Limp Bizkit in Kansas City, we fucking sucked. But then again, so did they. The only difference is that they became famous and I became a marine.”

After exhausting the conversational value of their bowel movements and each other’s alleged sexual orientations, there’s nothing but time to talk about the origins and motivations of the war. One popular theory is that it is a nothing but another race war. As one soldier puts it, it’s “White man’s destiny to rule the world” and “White man won’t be denied.” Or is it to clear the ground for more Starbucks franchises? Or maybe it’s a war over the scarcest resource of all: virgins.

Marines are trained to depersonalize and vilify the enemy, all with the aim of being effective killers. So they are essentially ill-equipped for a 21st century war in which they are expected to request permission before engaging any target, and for situations in which they must deal diplomatically with the civilian population – some of which may be threats in disguise, but most often are just people who either need their help or would rather they just leave. When the marines do wish to offer compassion, they are thwarted by their command or by cold hard reality – oftentimes there’s nothing they can do. They’re also fatally underequipped in a literal sense: they’re issued less body armor than Wright was able to purchase on eBay, they have state-of-the-art nightvision goggles but no batteries, and as if they didn’t stand out enough, they’re clad in the wrong camouflage style. They subsist on only one M.R.E. (Meal, Ready to Eat) each day, supplemented with copious caffeine pills, Skittles, Hustler, and Skoal. But as one marine quips, “Semper Gumby – always flexible.” As characterized here, these Marines never miss an opportunity to bitch, but pride themselves on being able to “make do.”

Generation KillLt. Col. Stephen ‘Godfather’ Ferrando: “What’s foremost in Godfather’s mind? We’re still very much in the game, gentlemen.”

Aside from the frustratingly elusive Iraqi army or suicide bombers, there are few antagonists marines hate more than Reservists, the Army, and their own incompetent command. But they gradually learn that their superiors are often far wiser than they realized. Lieutenant Colonel Stephen “Godfather” Ferrando (Chance Kelly) (so nicknamed because of a hoarse voice derived from lung cancer) nearly causes a mutiny by refusing to aid a fatally injured Iraqi boy. In a rare deference from a man that has no need to explain himself to his subordinates, he explains in detail why he made his decision: it was literally impossible to save the boy. Later, he reveals to the reporter that he is always fully conscious of ineffective commanders like the grossly incompetent Captain Dave McGraw (Eric Nenninger), known to his detractors as “Captain America.” Godfather can’t always act on every single infraction, lest policing his people become his entire role in the military machine. Even the reprehensible Sergeant Major John Sixta (Neal Jones) turns out to be more canny than anyone suspected; he knows his job is to make himself into a cartoon villain against which the men can direct their frustrations. His role is part of the time-tested marine tradition: a morale-building figure. And for audiences of this series, a bit of comic relief (“That helmet is the proppity of the Yoo-Ess-of-Ay!”).

I found the series to be disappointingly fractured, no rival at all to Simon and Burns’ masterpiece the Wire. Only the sublime final scene rises to the vaulted heights The Wire regularly reached. One marine had spent weeks shooting and editing a home movie of the invasion. When the company finally reaches Baghdad, they find they literally cannot watch the completed movie. Each walks away, in silence, one by one. In the tradition of The Wire, this closing montage is set to a perfectly chosen piece of music (Johnny Cash’s apocalyptic “When the Man Comes Around”) and sends shivers down the spine.


Official site: www.hbo.com/generationkill

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Cool Britannia: State of Play

State of Play movie poster

 

The 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play is nothing less than six straight hours of intelligent drama, liberally spiced with suspense, action, and tasty plot twists. The entire epic tale is delivered by a veritable plethora of British Isles telly & movie who’s who: writer Paul Abbot, director David Yates, and actors David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy. Abbot is apparently a superstar television writer in the UK, and Yates directed the last two Harry Potter films (as well as reuniting Nighy and Macdonald in 2005 for The Girl in the Café – read The Dork Report review).

State of Play is an especially good tonic after happening to recently watch the dour The International (read The Dork Report review), which falls more or less into the same genre category. The key differential is a heathy dash of comic relief that never crosses over into farce, mostly supplied by the sublimely quirky Bill Nighy. But more importantly, the intricate tale of high-level political conspiracy feels pertinent. The International, although based on an actual banking scandal (a topic that could not be more timely), sabotaged its plausibility by limiting the protagonists to two lone wolfs that take on a crooked multinational financial conglomerate on their lonesome. Here, numerous fleshed-out cops and reporters alternately clash and collaborate as they chase down a gargantuan story. State of Play is actually both a classic newspaper story (like All the President’s Men) and a police procedural (like The French Connection). It’s worth noting that each of these genres are about the piecing together of stories, and the suspense comes from the audience follows along with them as the discover the pieces of the narrative. Granted, the luxurious six-hour running time was a luxury The International could not enjoy.

Bill Nighy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald in State of PlayThe Herald newsroom follows the money in State of Play

The details of the plot were undoubtedly timely in 2003 and continue to be now, proven by its American feature film remake in 2009. After suffering through 8 years of a Bush/Cheney administration, Americans can intimately relate to oil companies meddling in governmental operations. Although State of Play is fictional, the affair between a Member of Parliament and a staff member that winds up dead inescapably calls to mind US Representative Gary Condit’s affair intern Chandra Levy, found murdered in 2001. A subplot involving an MP’s compromised expense account now looks even more timely than Abbot could have predicted in 2003, considering the atrocious widespread abuse that currently threatens to remove Gordon Brown and possibly even the Labour Party from power.

David Morrissey & John Simm in State of PlayThe Next Doctor faces off against The Master for the first time

Apart from the sometimes overenthusiastic editing (making the series feel a bit like the satire Hot Fuzz), the only misstep is Nicholas Hooper’s percussive, bombastic score, including an incongruous didgeridoo-infused theme suddenly introduced in part six. But one of the series’ greatest pleasures is to hear Kelly Macdonald (a Dork Report crush ever since her unforgettable performance as the ultimate naughty schoolgirl in Trainspotting) pronounce “murder” with all the wonderful extra diphthongs her Scottish accent provides.


Official site: www.bbc.co.uk/stateofplay

Must read: BBC’s State of Play Left Me in a State of Awe on Pop Culture Nerd

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Battlestar Galactica: Caprica

Battlestar Galactica Caprica poster

 

UPDATE: Read our revised and expanded review of the Caprica pilot, written after the pilot aired on television.

The recently concluded series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the sexy, brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have. Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.

The series proper will not air until early 2010, but in an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobies) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series: technobabble like “Cylon” (Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even racial epithets like “dirt eater.” The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines.

Eric Stoltz and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaCaprica, like Battlestar Galactica, holds that there are no Surgeon General warnings in space

It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from checking Battlestar Galactica out, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the plot: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome). But maybe this makes a kind of sense. The core dynamic is classic storytelling: industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) and lawyer Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) become entangled in a plot, while coming from opposing philosophical points of view. If one of them had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica’s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two female characters are solely defined by their relationships to their men and kids. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.

Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica’s trio of incredibly annoying kids, at least two die but unfortunately come back.

Eric Stoltz, Paula Malcomson, and Esai Morales in Battlestar Galactica CapricaWait, there was a woman in Caprica? Let’s hope poor Paula Malcomson actually gets some scenes in the full series

The first 10 minutes pack in a huge download of information, especially for someone not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators.

We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying its late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, hot lesbians, simulated human sacrifice, and a fight club. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica’s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation creates a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants a body made of jade?

The titular Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future on Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the Showtime series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that Caprica is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire. The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the colony Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem similar to the immigrant Sicilian mafia in 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to raise his son as a Caprican, to the consternation of his grandmother.

Alessandra Toressani in Battlestar Galactica CapricaZoe, genius hacker, goes clubbing in The Matrix

This society’s most dangerous trait is its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their representative Sister Willow manipulates terrorist tot Ben (Avan Jogia) to stage a bombing.

The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica’s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its final episode. The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet’s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner’s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human). Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called overegging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.

Speaking of, how could a luminary in the robotics business not know his own daughter was a genius hacker? A particularly hard-to-swallow bit of technobabble is the repeated statistic that the amount of data encoded in a human brain comprises only 300 megabytes. Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with the solution to preserving a human mind in a computer: supplement that 300 MB of data with the digital detritus that person has left behind: medical records, playlists, email, searches, etc. Her breakthrough allows Daniel to resurrect Joseph’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 300 MB worth of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.

Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientic breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.


Official movie site: www.scifi.com/caprica

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

John Adams

John Adams

 

The Dork Report celebrates Independence Day 2008 in a New York City Starbucks, tapping out a review of the HBO miniseries John Adams. Believe it or not, the timing is accidental, but July 4th has proven to be an auspicious date in American History. On-and-off-again friends and foes Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on the same date, exactly 50 years after the ratification of what they called The Declaration of Independency. The tale sounds too good to be true, and yet it is.

HBO is back on its game at last, after a period of apparent dormancy following the natural conclusion of flagship original programs Sex and the City and The Sopranos, the premature cancellation of Deadwood and Rome, and the criminal abbreviation of the final season of The Best Television Show Ever Made (sometimes referred to as The Wire). Finely pedigreed, this lavish, over seven-hour miniseries by history buff Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone is based on the biography by David McCullough. However, it fails to reach the epic profundity of The Wire and Deadwood, which in the opinion of this Dork Reporter, possibly have more to say about the true nature of the America we have actually inherited from Adams and his contemporaries.

John AdamsAmerica’s second first couple

This Dork Reporter does not consider himself a patriot, and is not especially moved by stories of early American history. However, the dramatization of these legendary events and the characterization of dusty old American heroes were intriguing enough to make me consider picking up a copy of McCullough’s tome. The adult life of John Adams encompassed such elementary school social studies touchstones as the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. In short, Adams was not only present during many of the key points in early American history, but a crucial participant. Nevertheless, history has chosen other heroes. As Adams was a statesman and not a military man, and indeed spent most of the Revolutionary War on a frustrating mission abroad in Europe, we don’t see reenactments of such key events as the Boston Tea Party, which one might have expected of a lavish big-budget HBO production. It makes sense, but there is unintentional comedy when a character remarks “Boy, how ’bout that Boston Tea Party last night, huh?” (OK, I admit I’m paraphrasing, but the effect is the same.)

After the Revolutionary War (waged in part by “godless Hessian mercenaries,” including one of my ancestors, Johannes Schwalm), Adams returned to the States United only to be turned right back around for his appointment to the impossible, thankless job of ambassador to former mortal enemy Great Britain. There’s a brilliantly tense scene in which Adams meets the slightly odd but clearly seething King George III for the first time. When Adams finally came home for good, he suffered persistent criticism at having been safe and coddled in Europe throughout the turmoil at home (it also seems his weight was a favorite talking point of the newspapers). But the miniseries makes clear that the biggest sacrifice made for his duty was the effects of his absence on his family. He loses a son to alcoholism and a son-in-law to naive investments, but on the other hand, his son John Quincy Adams succeeded him as the sixth president.

John AdamsIf I had a dollar…

As the second president of the States United, Adams and his veep Jefferson both had the same aims: avoid war between France and England at all costs. Adams was stuck in the peculiarly ironic position of having a truce with Britain and antipathy with France, the exact opposite of the nation’s situation during the Revolutionary War. His administration grappled for the first time with many issues that still resonate today, including the concepts of freedom of speech, a deliberate national deficit (as espoused by Alexander Hamilton), and so-called “enemy combatants” (which were, at the time, specifically understood to be French refugees suspected of remaining loyal to an enemy monarchy). Adams reluctantly supported the Alien and Sedition Acts, not because he believed in them (he didn’t) but that he nobly felt it was his duty to stand behind the wishes of the people’s representatives in Congress. During his administration, he and Abigail moved into the partially completed White House, which is shown to have been built by slaves. This Dork Reporter should perhaps not have been surprised by this revelation, and yet he was.

As Dork Report first lady Snarkbait opined, John Adams is a showcase for “Hey It’s That Guy”s, providing substantial roles for a parade of familiar character actors. In many ways, Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane) is the most interesting, and surprising characterization. As portrayed here, he kept his own council and was somewhat shy, far from the loquacious and commanding personalities of many of his contemporaries. Adams, however, correctly perceived the quiet man’s powerful opinions about independence, and drafted him to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson could also be proud, and his effrontery is priceless as Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson) quickly produces a red pen to make amendments. Franklin was one of a kind, and indisputably brilliant, but a massive egotist and hedonist. He was technically correct about how to effectively operate as ambassador to France, but it didn’t stop him from selfishly enjoying his job. He gamely played the role of “rustic” in coonskin cap, took mistresses (although Wikipedia does point out he was a widower at the time), lived a life of leisure, and knew when not to discuss politics (which was: most of the time). Originally a friend and ally to Adams, Franklin became an antagonist in France, and Adams appears never to have forgiven him.

John AdamsAmerica’s First Rascal shows John around his crib

George Washington (David Morse) is portrayed as gruff and humbly diplomatic, but also quite intelligent and perceptive, not to mention physically imposing. He was such a popular hero after the Revolution that his inauguration was a forgone conclusion, but it was later alleged John Adams would have actually won the electoral college vote without a conspiracy to anoint Washington as America’s first hero. John’s cousin Samuel Adams (Danny Huston) figures significantly in the Early Continental Congress, and now we can finally see what Sam did to deserve having such a damn fine beverage named after him (I kid; actually he really was a brewer on top of all his other achievements). One interesting figure this Dork Reporter had never heard of was John Dickinson (Zelijko Ivanek). As the representative from Pennsylvania, Dickinson argued passionately against splitting from Britain, and correctly foresaw the Civil War as an inevitable result. And finally, there’s a plum role for Laura LInney as Abigail Adams, about as strong a woman as she could have been at the time. At one point, we see her scrubbing the floor with no motion to help from her husband. But clearly it was not just lip service when John Adams late in life claims Abigail was his most trusted advisor.

John AdamsI apologize for failing to mention Dork Report favorite Sarah Polley in this article

In a great scene near the end, an aged Adams dresses down John Trumbull, the painter of “The Declaration of Independence” (now residing in the Capitol building – which was also, incidentally, built by slaves), for historical inaccuracies. Ironically, the scene is an invention, according to Wikipedia, but it seems to have been consistent with Adams’ beliefs and preoccupations. In his retirement, he was concerned that the story of the American Revolution and his own reputation would (or even could) be reported accurately. He predicted a romanticized version in which future Americans would believe “Franklin smote the earth with his electrical rod and out came Washington and Jefferson.” It seems he may have been correct; Franklin and Jefferson are heroes to this day, while he remains relatively obscure. It is true that there isn’t much scandal or legend about his character and personality for schoolchildren to latch on to. Jefferson had Monticello and his inventions, and Franklin had his aphorisms and, well, inventions of his own. One other reason Adams is not exactly a popular hero is that he first made himself known for defending English soldiers accused of perpetuating an unprovoked massacre. The defense attorney was never a much-loved profession, but set an early precedent for lawyers becoming presidents.

Finally, two smaller observations: The miniseries was partially filmed in Colonial Williamsburg, but many other locations were realized with superlative special effects. Beyond the obvious recreations of old Boston and Philadelphia, the DVD bonus features reveal that certain shots I never questioned, such as Adams ascending the staircase to a impressive European mansion, were in fact part CG. Also of interest are the examples of the medicine of the day: exsanguination, inoculation, and mastectomy, all without anesthesia.


Official movie site: www.hbo.com/films/johnadams

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Andromeda Strain (2008)

The Andromeda Strain

 

Michael Crichton’s original novel The Andromeda Strain was first adapted into a feature film in 1971, and now into a television miniseries from executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott. This 2008 incarnation is part feel-bad thriller, part wish fulfillment. As we thrill to the speculative illustration of how civilization might suddenly come to an end, we also can only hope the government does in fact have such an elaborate and high-tech procedure in place for identifying and containing new contagious disease outbreaks.

The Andromeda StrainGood times, good times

The original book is only nominally about a supervirus, evidently of extraterrestrial origin, that threatens the human race. It is actually more about how intelligent, well-meaning people can make subtle errors of judgement that may cascade into catastrophe (Chrichton would also employ Chaos Theory as a key theme in his Jurassic Park novels). But the miniseries complicates this interesting theme with added government venality (a basically honorable president is undercut by a corrupt chief of staff), the media (a drug addicted reporter breaks the cover-up), and the environment (strip mining of the ocean floor leads to the crisis). To give but one example of the diminishing returns: in the book, a simple unnoticed glitch in a supposedly perfect computer system causes a dangerous communication blackout at the worst possible time. It’s both more plausible and more suspenseful than the miniseries version of events, in which General Mancheck (Andre Braugher) deliberately creates the blackout, to everyone’s mild and temporary frustration.

The book is not without its flaws, particularly an undramatic ending in which the continuously adapting virus eventually mutates into harmlessness. But the miniseries disappoints by giving the virus a definitive origin, indicating it is expressly targeted towards humans, and showing its definitive defeat.

The Andromeda StrainThe cast checks in for the long haul

Miscellaneous other thoughts:

• Mikael Salomon’s direction is very boring and staid, except for a wildly over-the-top decontamination procedure that is filmed in a stylized, almost erotic fashion.

• The miniseries is probably one of the talkiest sci-fi movies and/or TV shows I’ve ever seen. The bulk of the action is set in a single interior location, and nearly every scene comprises heated conversations in laboratories or over teleconferences.

• The miniseries is laden with even more pseudoscientific bullshit than Crichton’s original novel: wormhole-enabled time travel and nanotech buckyballs from the future are the order of the day. The whole thing ends in the kind of temporal paradox that typically makes a plot point in shows like Doctor Who and Star Trek.

• The miniseries updates the book’s euphemism of “unmarried man” into “don’t ask don’t tell” territory. It seems fabulous Major Keane (Rick Schroder) is a friend of Dorothy.

• Spot the homage to Hitchcock’s The Birds!

• Why does the underground facility begin to disintegrate during the run-up to setting off an atom bomb? Wouldn’t there just be a countdown and then an explosion?

• This Dork Reporter, a longtime fan of the TV show Lost, is happy to see Daniel Dae Kim in a starring role. But the Korean actor is unfortunately cast as a Chinese stereotype.

• Benjamin Bratt is really terrible, giving the proverbial phone-it-in performance. He delivers every line with the same intonation, whether it’s saying goodbye to his family for possibly the last time or announcing humanity’s first discovery of an alien life form.


Official movie site: www.aetv.com/the-andromeda-strain

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.