Tag Archives: scifi

Awake!

This week saw the start of a new series, Awake, which has a bit of an odd concept and isn’t a completely formulaic procedural.  It also sees the welcome return of Laura Allen (4400, Terriers), and also stars Jason Isaacs (Hello to Jason Isaacs!), and Dylan Minnette (Saving Grace).

The concept is relatively simple… Family is involved in a car crash, but for some reason the father experiences two realities; one, where his wife died and one where his son died in the accident.  But which is real and which one a dream?  It isn’t the most original of concepts, which has elements of several other shows and films in it (Journeyman, Sliders, Quantum Leap, Inception, Fringe, Premonition), and has been done in individual episodes of many shows, but it could springboard into something unique, just like Fringe did from it’s early ‘X-Files esque’ roots.

The cast is filled with quality actors, from the main cast listed above to all the supporting cast: Laura Innes, BD Wong, Cherry Jones, Steve Harris… and even Wilmer Valderrama.

So far, the pilot has shown some promise and has some good ideas, which means it will definitely be worth following.  With any luck they will find a good way of expanding the concept, as I can see it becoming very formulaic if imagination isn’t used in developing the possible explanations.  It bodes well for the quality of the show that the creator, Kyle Killen was also the creator of ‘Lonestar’, but in Lonestar’s case it got cancelled far too soon; let’s hope that this time round he gets treated a little better!

As a random aside, the pilot was directed by David Slade, who also directed Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night and ….*cough* the ‘Eat my Goal’ video…

Advertisements

The Middleman – The lost gem…

Each season a slew of new tv shows are unleashed, all of them vying for your attention.  Some flourish and grow, while others are ignored, while a few are even abandoned by the network.  This article is not about an ugly duckling that failed to grow into a Swan, it’s about a Swan that was raised by a mouse and wasn’t given the chance of growing into an even better Swan…

The Middleman was supposed to be a TV series, but after initial disinterest from the networks, creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach turned his ideas into a comic, where he could fully realise the concept without the budgetary restrictions of television.

Clearly, this incarnation of The Middleman was enough to entice the networks into having another look and it then became a tv series as originally intended.

Strangely though, it became a TV show on ABC Family, which is not known for  sci-fi or anything that is odd.  Tyically, ABC Family has family oriented (as you’d expect) programming consisting mostly of comedies and general teen fare; not the home you’d expect of an odd, surreal idea such as The Middleman.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself!  Just what is The Middleman?

Set in the present day, the main premise is relatively straightforward, with the titular ‘Middleman’ being an agent for an unknown organisation, that is “fighting evil, so you don’t have to”.  After a chance meeting with Wendy Watson (nicknamed ‘DubDub’), a struggling artist, The Middleman recruits her to train as the next Middleman.  Assisted by Ida, a grumpy robot, the duo tackle world problems that others can’t handle.  Aside from the main characters there are some other significant characters that really add depth and colour to the show, such as Lacey Thornfield, Wendy Watson’s artist roommate, and Noser, the bohemian  neighbour and many aspects of The Middleman that stood out and became fan favourites involved these characters.

As with most new shows, the cast was a mixture of old faces and some relatively unknown actors (at the time).  The Middleman, was played by Matt Keeslar, who has an extensive film history,  and Ida by Mary Pat Gleason, whose filmography goes on for ever!  In contrast,  Wendy Watson and Lacey Thornfield were played by Natalie Morales and Brit Morgan respectively, two relative newcomers who are now more well known: Natalie Morales for Parks and Recreation and White Collar (as well as escaping the nightmare that is the new Chelsea Handler show), and Brit Morgan for True Blood.   This cast gelled immediately though and all gave performances that let the show start extremely well straight out of the box; performances so good that Natalie Morales and Brit Morgan will always be DubDub and Lacey Thornfield to me, no matter what they do…  (to a certain extent!)

With the show coming out of ABC family, there were doubts as to what depth or merit it would have though, but what set the Middleman concept apart from what could have been a disastrously dull kids show, is the intelligence and cultural references that run throughout the episodes.

Each episode has a central theme that is mined for numerous geeky references and there are many throwaway and surreal moments that just add further depth and wit to the proceedings, which all add up to a great mixture of fun and intelligence, preventing it being just shallow nonsense or an idiotic  piece of slapstick for kids.

While imbued with an adult feel, the tone of the show is campy & playful, and everything has a fun, retro feel that harks back to Batman, Get Smart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and any number of 1950s & 60s sci-fi films and tv shows.  All through the show, this is seen in many ways, such as all technology is futuristic, yet seemingly designed in the 1930s, and all the villains are criminal masterminds or twisted geniuses of the type seen in Bond films.  The cases they dealt with tended to be of the remarkably world threatening variety, with bizarre and complex elements that really played with that 60s cold war spy drama aesthetic, while also bringing in and playing with sci-fi tropes.

There was something about this mixture of retro sci-fi and surreal banter than captured my imagination and I was won over quite quickly.  The show could be enjoyed on several levels, both quite simply as a fun action show, or more properly with all the depth from the references and homages and it really rewarded the viewer who spent time engaging with the material.

Ultimately, The Middleman wasn’t a great fit for ABC Family and arguably was too adult and intelligent for the network, and it probably would have fared better at another network.  It is possible that other options existed, such as dumbing down the show to a tween level, or making it more serious, but either option would have upset the balance of what made the show great and been pointless.

Originally set for 13 episodes, the order was cut down to 12 after poor ratings, (with the 13th ending up being released in comic book form) and we were all denied the future development of a great idea with the cancellation at the end of those 12 episodes.  In many ways, The Middleman was a greater success creatively than many now lauded shows were at the same point.  Take for example Buffy or Star Trek: TNG at the end of their first season:  Buffy had yet to become a great show and was very much standard teen fare, while Star Trek: TNG was appalling in many ways, which wouldn’t get fixed and turned around until it’s third season.  It is in that context that it is unknown how more surreal and inventive The Middleman could have become had it been given time to grow and really spread it’s wings.  Unfortunately, this was not to be and we’ll have to just savour the 12 episodes we do have and dream of what could have been…

If there is a silver lining to be found, it is that The Middleman showcased some exceptional talent and I’ve followed the work of Natalie Morales, Brit Morgan and Javier Grillo-Marxuach especially, ever since.  If only they could work together again at some point!

Links:

Episode Guides:
http://www.epguides.com/middleman/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_The_Middleman_episodes

DVD:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Middleman-Complete-DVD-Region-NTSC/dp/B001XW7ICW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1311543547&sr=8-1

Comics :
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Middleman-Collected-Indispensability-Javier-Grillo-Marxuach/dp/0980238544/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_b

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Middleman-Doomsday-Armageddon-Apocalypse/dp/0980238587/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1311543547&sr=8-2

Javier Grillo-Marxuach:
http://web.mac.com/chaodai/Grillo_Marxuach_Design_Bureau/main.html


Where is all the TV Sci-fi?

Preface/Caveat: It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, so this might be nonsense…

Every so often I get excited as a new sci-fi show gets announced and there is the possibility that the genre will be well catered for once again.  What normally happens though, is that the show is either a huge disappointment immediately (Flash Gordon(2007), Space Precinct – not even Simone Bendix could save that one), becomes a sucking wound of pish after early promising form (Sliders, Heroes, Lost), drifts along in a ‘nearly state’ of unfulfilled potential (Doctor Who), or gets cancelled after one or two seasons despite being either amazing or growing. (Firefly, Dollhouse, Caprica, Stargate: Universe)

There are exceptions to this, such as the continuing to be great show that is Fringe, or the shows that start shakily and then grow to be powerhouses. (ST: TNG)

Most of the time however, Sci-fi isn’t as well catered for as other genres and the lack of hard Sci-fi is especially notable.

Generally, of the non-standard cop shows and other procedurals, it is the Fantasy shows that survive the TV culling, and somehow they survive in great number, whether they are light or heavy in tone.  Some of these are excellent, such as True Blood or Game of Thrones, but others are just execrable (Vampire Diaries).

When it comes to Sci-fi however, the ‘fluffier’, softer variety is what tends to hold onto its place in the schedule and it is from these shows we have to glean our weekly Sci-fi fix…

So with the last year or so seeing shows such as Caprica, No Ordinary Family, Stargate: Universe, FlashForward, Dollhouse, Heroes, Lost, The Event, Defying Gravity and V all cancelled/ended, what actually is there that survives to be watched at the moment?

Falling Skies – A new show, focussing on a group of survivors after an alien invasion, which is actually more about the people, than the Sci-fi environment.  That the people are the main focus is quite common in Sci-fi, but it is especially true in this case that the format would work with any invading army, not just an extraterrestrial one.  It’s early days, but has a good cast and could well develop nicely; or it could just go up itself… we shall have to see.

Fringe – One of the best shows on TV, regardless of genre, and has more hard Sci-fi elements than most.  Quality is kept up throughout and it cannot be recommended enough.  Has a serious tone, but doesn’t lack for humour, where appropriate, or even where it is a little subversive.  Started out a bit like an X-Files rip off, which concerned at first, but has now eased ahead of the X-Files in my preferences.

Doctor Who – Where to start?  I think I ultimately like Doctor Who, but always feel that it could be so much better.  I suspect that I watch each week, hoping it will be spectacular and then am sadly let down.  Too often the plot and characterisation is weak, with poor denouements and laughable dialogue.  One day this will be great!  Flashes of brilliance and solid acting keep me coming back, hopeful for a great episode…

Torchwood – Despite being a Doctor Who spin off, it began as a complete disaster, but has now grown in strength to a point where it has a reasonable reputation.  Consensus appears to be that Season 3 is the current high point, with the soon to start Season 4, relocated to LA and with US funding, being much stronger.  Aimed at an older audience than the core Doctor Who following, it in theory has more potential to develop in some interesting and more challenging directions.

Primeval – Not too bad an effort, all things considered.  This has been better than expected, but does suffer from the UK problem of trying to do big adventure stuff with FX and not quite pulling it off like US TV.  In addition, the short series length limits character arcs, making it lack depth in each character; a common problem for UK shows.  It also suffers from shaky narrative/plot problems like Doctor Who.  I gave up with this after Season 2 (? – maybe part way through S3)

Eureka – The feel of this is more like a kids show, but has genuine charm.  Good cast with some geek favourites as guests.  (Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day).  The show quite often spends time doing quite silly ‘science gone wrong’ plots, but is played in such a way as to not be a problem if you just go with the flow; this isn’t hard sci-fi by any stretch!

Sanctuary – At times this has been a bit of a ‘monster of the week’ show, but over the seasons has evolved into something with more of a mythology and more depth.  Unsurprisingly, as Amanda Tapping is in it, as well as Exec. Producing, this has a bit of a Stargate feel to it, but this isn’t always a bad thing!  Lots of shots are ‘Green Screen’ CGI, mostly for financial reasons, but this doesn’t detract.  Core actors are good, but has a tendency to hire massive ‘hams’ for guest roles. (Callum Blue…)

Warehouse 13 – Oozing all the conspiracy theories and science in-jokes you can think of, with a vaguely mystical or steampunk angle, Warehouse 13 is a show that tries to mix ‘big adventure’ with conspiracy and Machiavellian agendas.  Mostly, the adventure stuff works, with the conspiracy/big agenda stuff taking a back seat or being a little more ‘clunky’.  Quite jokey and sometimes downright silly, this is generally entertaining, with a good chemistry within the ensemble of actors.  The new season starts without Joanna Kelly, so we’ll have to see how they carry that off…

So what can we conclude from this list?

It seems that hard Sci-fi is still frowned upon for series TV and that the lighter or more humorous the tone, the better, as far as the networks are concerned.  The only way more serious, harder Sci-fi will be made is if the general populace become more welcoming, but this leads us to a problem for the UK audience:  scheduling.  Quite often, US shows will be shown in the UK long after the US broadcast, and after the decision has been made whether to cancel or renew.  Therefore, the audience here is reliant on the US audience to embrace a good show for us.  It has been seen before though, that a show can find new life in DVD sales or foreign financing, bringing it back after the US market has rejected it, so the tendency to rely on the reaction of the mainstream US market alone when making decisions could be seen to be flawed in certain genres.  Need I mention Firefly?  😉

What’s coming up though?  Syfy has a new show about to start called ‘Alphas’, which could be promising and there is the upcoming ‘Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome’.

One final thought…  Maybe the future is not on TV at all.  Several Web series have been getting plaudits, such as ‘After Judgement’ and are more likely to include harder Sci-fi elements, so are definitely an area to watch…


%d bloggers like this: