Monday, 21 January 2008

Sci-Fi Season Premiere Face/Off! (Results)

As anyone who has read both of my Sci-Fi Season Premiere Face/Off! posts will realise, I've pretty much given away the results already thanks to my extended Torchwood post, but there's a couple of other things I need to get off my chest about the two shows and the genre they represent, and besides, what's a Face/Off! without an arbitrary and complicated scoring system?

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Lena Headey: +2
Thomas Dekker: +2
Summer Glau: +6
Dean Winters: +4
Richard T. Lewis: +2
Owain Yeoman: 0
Total: 14

I feel a little guilty about awarding a low score to Owain Yeoman, mostly for indulging in some very silly posing and chewing of lines. He's not actually bad. Perhaps he had little to work with. Still, it turns out he won't be in the rest of the series, and the main antagonist is going to none other than future character acting legend Garret Dillahunt. This blog supports that decision wholeheartedly. As for Headey, Dekker and Lewis, it's early days yet, and those scores might be rendered defunct soon.

Plot elements specific to these shows:
Convincing reactions to getting shot: -5
Tight plot: +5
The Sexxy: +1
Potential: +5
Badassery: +4
Conviction: +5
Total: 15

Having Lena Headey take a bullet to the shoulder for very little narrative reason and then have her miraculously heal by the next scene drops the score way down. It's slowly becoming a bugbear of mine, seeing people get shot (usually in the shoulder) and then moving on as if nothing has just happened. The Sexxy relates to the show's ambition in furthering the mainstream acceptance of sexual relationships that are not usually accepted by the masses, and as a primetime network there is certainly nothing as daring as this Not Safe For Work Flickr demonstration of
Terminator - on - Terminator lovemaking, but John Connor has obviously got the hots for his robotic bodyguard, which shows a progressive attitude to human/cyborg relationships, and there is some uncomfortable nudity at the end, so I'll give it a point for that. Even though, you know, eww.

Conviction refers to whether the show has a seriousness of purpose, which is something I think is important in sci-fi. I'm not talking about humourlessness, something T:TSCC has in spades. It's more that the show takes the genre seriously and isn't sticking two fingers up at the fanbase. While it's easy to say that WB and Fox are cynically resurrecting an old sci-fi franchise and exploiting the fans by knocking out a cheap version of a fan favourite, Friedman has certainly given the show a lot of thought, and for the most part the cast play it straight. Points deducted for Chromey's "Class dismissed" line, which is both a nice nod to Arnie's catchphrase habit while being really lame joke at the same time. Badassery? Trying to kill yourself to make it slightly harder for Chromey to find your son is pretty convincing. Kudos also for using gun play to further the plot, and not just to be used as a pose. The action here, which is constantly life or death, is much more convincing than having the entire cast pretending they're on a YouTube homage to T.J. Hooker. In short, it wasn't ubiquitous, and it was exciting, as it should be.

Originality: +2
Liveliness: +4
Enthusiasm for project: +4
Avoidance of cliche: -3
Unique Selling Points: +4
Production values: +5
Total: 16

While the show occasionally lapses into cliche, and borrows heavily from the movies, it still brings new ideas to the format. The time travel moment came from nowhere but even though it stretches credibility, it is still a great way to expand the format. Technically it's got a lot going for it, and looks like time and effort was spent getting it right. Though seriously, an FBI agent hunting them down? In future episodes will he be doing a hard-target search of gas stations, residences, warehouses, farmhouses, henhouses, outhouses and doghouses? Maybe FBI Agent James Ellison will come alive in future episodes when he has more to do (I'm sure I read somewhere he becomes a kind of charming comedy relief, improbably enough), but for now, it's pretty hackneyed.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles overall total = 45

The highest score in any Face/Off to date! Okay, so the score is out of 180, but still, that's something to be proud of. In a way I feel kind of bad for getting so excited about Terminator: TSCC, because in the scheme of things it's not the best TV show around. It's not even the best premiere of the season. It doesn't spend too long in each scene (which could be construed as a lack of faith in viewer attention spans), the performances and cast chemistry have yet to settle, light moments with Summer Glau learning human responses come off all wrong, and the current surprising level of invention might dwindle quickly.

But if it doesn't hang around to smell the televisual roses, that's because it's keeping up the pace. It's not necessarily a bad thing that it moves at a clip. This is an action show about fugitives, and the pacing serves the plot perfectly. The first two episodes contain more action than your average episode of 24, and more action than the entire run of Heroes so far, a show that could stand to learn a lesson from T:TSCC and pick up the pace.

And yes, it might not be a huge step forward for the genre, and it might smack of cynical exploitation of James Cameron's loss of Terminator franchise rights, but the showrunners seem to like the concept enough to do it justice and do it right. With regards to the source material, it's not too reverent, but it's in the right spirit, and I love it for that. It probably won't be as fondly remembered as the originals, and it won't enter the mass consciousness to such a large extent, nor will it make sniffy critics think twice about treating the genre with such contempt, but for an hour a week, we'll get some exciting, smart, competent sci-fi, and anyone even vaguely receptive to good TV will be rewarded. I wish the production team, cast, and writing staff (now including Veronica Mars ace John Enbom!) the best of luck.


John Barrowman: +3
Eve Myles: -5
Burn Gorman: -5
Naoki Mori: 0
Gareth David-Lloyd: -3
James Marsters: +5

Total: -5

Boy, does the presence of Barrowman and Marsters help. Neither of them are great actors by any stretch of the imagination, but they pull this kind of stuff off with aplomb. Barrowman in particular is so likeable that I'm more than happy to ignore some really shaky choices. As for Marsters, the guy sure has charisma. I was lucky enough to see him and his band, Ghost of the Robot, in Highbury a few years back, and I've never seen a roomful of women react like that before. It was carnal carnage, half scary, half exhilarating. Plus, I've missed Spike. As for the rest of the cast, they fail, though I will give Naoki Mori a partial break. Her sorely underwritten character never gets to do enough to register onscreen. Hopefully soon she will be allowed to come into her own and show some acting chops.

As for the others, no mercy. Masticator has shaken his finger at me for dissing Burn Gorman in the past, maintaining he was excellent in Bleak House, and perhaps he was. He's a man of good taste. Here, though, he's not given a solid enough character to work with. His character arcs, in fact the arcs for everyone in the show, are randomly generated and inconsistent, so it's not wonder the performances are shoddy. The woeful twitchy direction doesn't help. I hope to see these guys in another context one day, to properly assess their abilities. Blame the show, not the actors, I say.

Plot elements specific to these shows:
Convincing reactions to getting shot: -5
Tight plot: -8
The Sexxy: +3
Potential: -3
Badassery: -8
Total = -21

Again with the speedy recovery from a GSW. I'm not expecting the show to replicate the actual bodily response to getting shot (vomiting, shock, unconsciousness), but having Owen operating as normal ten minutes after being wounded doesn't make him look bad ass, it makes the show look like it's not treating the event of getting shot as a serious event. And no, looped comments from him about needing some more painkillers are not good enough. As Torchwood borrows so liberally from Angel, perhaps it could rip off the season two episode by Shaun "The Shield" Ryan, where Wesley gets shot by a zombie policeman. He was off his feet for a few episodes, and was obviously emotionally affected by it. That was convincing. Owen's (and Sarah Connor's) quick recovery might be convenient in keeping the show moving, but if the episode cannot function without being derailed by the incapacitation of a major character, then they shouldn't get shot. It's a lazy way to create drama, and it drives me crazy.

The Sexxy is the most interesting, and most frustrating, aspect of the show. While homophobes the world over rail against the engayening of Doctor Who, I fall over myself to applaud it, and bless Russell T. Davies for putting gay characters and themes in a primetime family TV show. You hear bigoted cretins like Garry Bushell frothing at the mouth about it pushing the shady-sounding Gay Agenda down our kid's throats (usually in emotive and knee-jerk language like that), but it's a commendable effort to normalise something sidelined and treated with such fear and hatred. Look at DC and Marvel's terror over the idea of gay superheroes, and Marvel Editor-In-Chief's edict that every Marvel comic starring a gay character has to be labelled For Mature Readers Only. The message that sends out horrifies me, and Doctor Who is a great way to redress that kind of sexual censorship. If it was porn spread all over the TV then the terror would make more sense, but we're talking about people in relationships talking about said relationships and getting some kissing done, and not even that much of it, just a little here and there. That's all. Get over it! It's not some kind of evil force, or shadowy bunch of plotters trying to destroy the heterosexual tribe. It's just people doing what comes naturally to them and trying to get on in the world. Embrace it, haters.

As ever, what Doctor Who does well, Torchwood screws up. While it has an admirably open attitude to omnisexuality, as Canyon called it this morning, it does it in an emotionally false manner. It's great that Jack would hump, snog, seduce, and flirt with everything that moves within his vicinity, but whenever the show tries to add an emotional dimension to his urges, it falls short. I'll be charitable and assume he's meant to be someone who doesn't know what he wants, and is scared of the options dwindling before him.

That's the best we're going to get out of this, but that's the most sophisticated emotional writing on a show otherwise devoid of it. The couplings on the show mostly appear random and relentless. Yay for approaching these themes, but sometimes the show is overwhelmed by it all, which means the number of possible combinations of sexual partnerships is shrinking. If all of the characters hop from bed to bed, I give plus points for being bold, and minus points for doing it without a proper emotional underpinning, something that is impossible with such ill-defined characters. Seriously, Tosh's character seems to be a mannequin with a post-it on her forehead saying, "I love Owen from afar". Even after having alien lesbian sex for an entire episode, she still registered onscreen as a blank. Poor Naoki Mori.

You know, it just occured to be what this show actually is. Hollyoaks with aliens. I can't think of a stronger criticism.

Originality: -6
Liveliness: -4
Enthusiasm for project: +4
Avoidance of cliche: -10
Unique Selling Points: +4
Production values: -2

Total = -14

Liveliness scores so low because yes, there is lots of whizzy photography and Avid fart editing, but the pace is so erratic it means nothing. You can whip the camera around as much as you like, but if the plot doesn't progress properly, with ebbs and flows and escalation towards the end, you're going to end up with a very dull and frustrating show. This episode was about 50 minutes long, but it felt like two hours, especially as it reached a natural conclusion ten minutes before the end. I'll give it better marks for enthusiasm. The showrunners obviously enjoy what they're doing, and there is some ambition here, but the relentless uses of old cliches and stock pulp sci-fi plots scupper the whole enterprise. Yes, having a group of Welsh space cops is a new one, and there is the odd touch of outside-the-box thinking, but the recycling of other, better, shows and books and films is lazy, offensive, and unforgivable. It's an insult to the other creators working in the genre. And the -2 for production values? The set designs and effects are wonderful, but the photography, editing, and sound design are amateur. What I give with one hand, I take away with the other. Okay, so they're not the most important things (which is why production values counts for only one mark out of 18), but if Doctor Who, a show on a similarly tight schedule, can appear to be made by competent professionals, why can't this?

Torchwood overall total = -40

A commenter has mentioned that I wrote so much about the last episode that I can't hate it as much as I say. While she missed the point of the Face/Off exercise (pick apart two vaguely similar thing and see where each of them succeeds or fails), there is some truth to that. We have enjoyed watching it for the sheer, "I can't believe something this FAIL has appeared on TV," value of it, but just like the hangover from a debauched night out, the aftermath is increasingly not worth the effort.

So why go on about it? Does the world need my rage? Should it care? On a cosmic level, of course not, but sci-fi fans shouldn't let Torchwood get away with its plagiarism, its amateurishness, its ignorance of narrative rules, pacing, visual style, coherence, long-term story arcs, and a million other things. I love the sci-fi genre, and on British TV right now Doctor Who, Torchwood, and Primeval (which I've managed to miss by total accident) represent the only domestic examples with a large audience. Doctor Who has been rightly embraced, and though it has fallen flat a number of times, it is mostly wonderful, ambitious, imaginative, and challenging. I have no idea what people think of Primeval, other than, "That Hannah Spearitt's no Billie Piper but she'll do," apparently.

Torchwood, on the other hand, has been derided by many UK critics, but some have defended it in a half-hearted manner usually along the lines of, "It's better than last week, honest," which gets funnier every time it's trotted out. The worst kind of defence, though, is, "It's alright for this kind of childish thing," which makes me seethe. This was meant to be an adult show, and I'd foolishly misunderstood the meaning of that. I thought it meant it would be intelligent, and thought-provoking, and populated with multi-faceted characters who act like grown-ups. Instead, we get kids in old bodies messing about with toys and playing Cowboys and Indians (or Welsh People and Weevils), rehashing other people's ideas, unable to generate an emotional response in the audience because the characters have not been created with enough thought. As an example of what the genre can do, it's an embarrassment, and thanks to all of the pre-release promises that the show would address adult themes that Doctor Who couldn't go near, it makes it seem like adult sci-fi is indistinguishable from cheap Sci-Fi Channel mid-afternoon TV movie tat, except with more LGBT content.

For crying out loud, this is the country of H.G. Wells, Brian Aldiss, Ian Watson, Peter F. Hamilton, J.G. Ballard! This is the country of Quatermass, Sapphire and Steel, The Prisoner, Edge of Darkness! The UK knows how to create groundbreaking sci-fi, and yet Torchwood represents one third of the country's visible sci-fi output. It only really succeeds as an indictment of the generally poor level of screenwriting on British TV, and the flaws of the drama commissioning process at the BBC. We get something as empty as this and yet Grant Morrison's scripts for The Invisibles were refused by the BBC thanks to, according to Morrison, "a woman... who was connected with it that doesn't even know what telepathy is and keeps complaining about the story." It makes you weep.

The UK has to begin to do better. Watching multiple episodes of The X-Files or the trio of Mutant Enemy shows and then recycling the plots is not good enough. British TV is in the doldrums compared to the amazing stuff coming out of the US right now, and while we do have some world-beating stuff popping up here and there, and while I accept that there is an awful lot of shit on American TV, the disparity between the two industries is vast. And yes, there are differences in how the shows are made and funded and sold. I know that the commissioning system is very different here, and I know that UK shows can't expect to have budgets on the scale of Lost or even Bionical Woman. I'm not saying good TV needs a big budget. Battlestar Galactica is made on the "cheap" (relatively speaking), but as much as I love the big FX blowouts, it's the smart writing, well-defined and consistently realised characters, and challenging ideas that keep me coming back. Seriously, it's not just the pretty splodey.

Torchwood lacks ideas of its own, and as a highly visible sci-fi show, it needs to have something special to show off the possibilities of the genre. Perhaps all it has going for it is being a very bold piece of queer sci-fi, but as Canyon said while we endured last week's episode, LGBT sci-fi fans deserve better than a bunch of randomly sexed-up dorks acting out plots from better shows in the middle of Cardiff. Okay, I doubt BBC writers would be able to emulate the complex, language-distorting genius of Samuel Delaney, or even the progressive, sexually bold Culture novels of Iain M. Banks, but they could at least come up with some original plots, or even just create characters that act like real people, instead of caricatures that fail to resonate with the viewers as they do nothing recognisably human.

And yet I keep watching, even though I consider the show an insult to my favourite genre and the cultural equivalent of the embarrassing family member who smells of wee. Partially because last season there was one bright spot; an episode written by Sapphire and Steel creator P.J. Hammond. More scripts from him, or established sci-fi authors, or even Doctor Who star writers Stephen Moffat and Paul Cornell, and the show would begin to crawl back into my good graces. There has been some good news recently. According to Comic Book Resources gossip columnist Rich Johnston...

Chris Chibnall, “Torchwood" showrunner, writer of “Doctor Who" episode “42", “Torchwood" episodes “Day One," “Cyberwoman," “Countrycide" and “End Of Days," has been appointed showrunner for “Law & Order: London." I don’t think “Doctor Who" fans have heard better news for a good while. There were rumours he was succeeding Russell T Davies as showrunner. I guess those rumours have now been scotched.

Hells yeah. It's not over for the show. It can do better. It must do better. I'm sure sci-fi can survive one crappy TV show (it survived years of cheap Star Wars rip-offs, after all), but that doesn't mean we should praise a show just for being British, or let such weak showmaking go without pointing it out. We TV watchers, and sci-fi fans, deserve better.

Like Lost. Which is coming back soon. More on that later this week.

1 comment:

Masticator said...

But enough beating around the bush, Admiral! What do you really think?

I would just like to qualify my defence of Burn Gorman: I was annoyed that people were initially slagging him mostly on the basis of his appearance*, something that irritates and depresses me increasingly the more time I spend on the internet; and he really was fantastic as Guppy in Bleak House, a role he might have been born to play. This in no way diminishes the fact that he is both awful and badly cast in Torchwood, or that the character of Owen is so abysmally written.

*I like to see uggos on TV sometimes, if only to reassure me that people aren't always cast just for their looks. However, Gorman has let me down somewhat by being so terrible, leading me to suspect that he actually was cast for his looks, which is frightening. Also, Friday Night Lights has the prettiest cast I have ever seen, and it doesn't suffer as a consequence. So in conclusion: down with uggos!