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Posts tagged ‘battlestar galactica’

I feel all kind of violated . . .

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Concept art by Nathan Schroeder for Bryan Singer's 2001 Battlestar Galactica remake

After a week of rumours, Universal have announced that Bryan Singer is to produce and direct a cinematic adaptation of Battlestar Galactica.

It’s not the first time Singer (director of The Usual Suspects, the first two X-Men movies and most recently Valkyrie) has been attached to a remake of Glenn A. Larson’s 1970s television cheesetacular. In 2000 Singer developed a mini-series based on the original series for Fox, but despite being scheduled to go into production in November 2001, the project came unravelled in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the aftermath of the collapse of Singer’s remake Ronald D. Moore and David Eick were commissioned to reimagine the franchise yet again, leading initially to the 2003 mini-series, starring Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, and subsequently the recently concluded television series.

For those struggling to understand where a remake would fit in the Battlestar Galactica universe created by Moore and Eick, which ended (satisfactorily or not) with the remnants of the Human and Cylon civilizations finding Earth, they need struggle no longer, because it is clear Singer’s version, which is being produced in collaboration with Larson himself, will not be a continuation of Moore and Eick’s show, but a wholly new interpretation of the material.

Superficially at least it’s difficult to imagine why Universal, and more particularly Singer, would want to make a Battlestar Galactica without Edward James Olmos’ Adama, or Mary McDonnell’s President Roslin, or Katee Sackhoff’s Starbuck, to say nothing of their extraordinary vision of Cylon society, particularly given that, with at least one television movie, The Plan, still to screen, and the prequel spinoff, Caprica, scheduled to begin on SyFy next year, Moore and Eick’s version isn’t even cold in its grave yet. With what is now widely regarded as one of the most audacious and powerful television shows ever made so fresh in the memory, why make a movie the very existence of which seems certain to alienate much of the show’s fan base? And what, given the sheer complexity and metaphorical power of Moore and Eick’s version, does Singer think he can bring that is fresh to the material?

Of course there’s nothing new about the cannibalistic nature of science fiction, and science fiction film and television in particular. Like horror and fantasy, science fiction has a long tradition of freely borrowing, adapting and just straight appropriating tropes, devices and ideas. Remakes abound, as do thinly-disguised copies. Indeed the original Battlestar Galactica owes its existence to the success of Star Wars, and was the subject of a lawsuit by George Lucas for copyright infringement, a lawsuit which is itself ironic given the fact that it is difficult to imagine a film more aware of cinematic history, and more laden with appropriations than Star Wars itself.

As I’ve observed before, Moore and Eick’s version makes powerful, and often amusing use of this same history. Intended as a reboot rather than a sequel of Larson’s original 1970s version of the show, it incorporates elements of the original version without ever quite accepting the original series as prehistory. The basic premise, of a catastrophic attack on the Twelve Colonies, and the desperate search of the survivors for the lost Thirteenth Colony, Earth, is retained, as are the names and identities of many of the original characters, but simultaneously the now-dated futuristic technology of the original show is utilized as the technology extant in the Cylon Wars 40 years earlier, transforming the original series into something like mythological prehistory.

In places this prehistory is given playful, or ironic effect, as in the Cylon helmet on display in the museum in the mini-series, the chainsmoking Dr Cottle, or the antiquated computers of the ageing Galactica. And in this sense it is only one of a number of echoes of other science fiction texts within the fabric of Moore and Eick’s version of the show, in particular the appropriation of the term “skinjob” from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (itself, of course, an adaptation of Phillp K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep?) or the use of Minority Report’s dreaming precogs (again themselves inspired by a Dick story) as the model for Battlestar Galactica’s Delphic Cylon Hybrids.

But more importantly, Moore and Eick’s play with the original series allows their reimagined version to incorporate the original series into their version’s already somewhat overdetermined mythic structure, joining texts as disparate as Virgil’s Aenied, Exodus, Paradise Lost, The Book of Mormon, more potent, contemporary anxieties about terrorism and the War on Terror, and the Classical, zodiacal associations invoked by the names of the Colonies and the characters as part of the dense web of allusion within which the show operates.

But the cannibalistic nature of the genre – and indeed the show itself – aside, it’s still difficult not to feel there’s something peculiar in the notion of rebooting the show again, so soon. Why, one wants to ask, what can a reboot do that Moore and Eick’s version didn’t?

The problem is that this is exactly the wrong question to ask. Universal aren’t interested in finding something new in the material, any more than the creators of Transformers or GI Joe were interested in the ideas behind them (such as they were). What they want is a property that will allow them to unleash the machinery of the contemporary Hollywood spectacular, together with the associated merchandizing and marketing campaign. The precise nature of the property is relatively unimportant in the whole equation. What matters is that it provides a canvas upon which the digital wizardry of contemporary filmmaking can be unleashed.

Looked at this way a number of the more puzzling revivals of recent years seem a little less peculiar. Land of the Lost didn’t come into being because someone had a burning desire to tell the story of the Sleestak on the big screen. It came into being because the studios knew they had the technology and the promotional machinery to create a summer blockbuster, and Land of the Lost provided a convenient tentpole for them to deploy them. And, by using an extant property, they didn’t even have to go to the trouble of creating something new.

With this in mind it’s not difficult to imagine what Singer’s Battlestar Galactica will be like. Say goodbye to Moore and Eick’s handheld camera work and silent, spinning space battles; say hello to digital explosions and monster robots. Say goodbye as well to the complex political subtexts: no doubt there will be gestures in that direction but the nature of the beast (and indeed the somewhat lugubrious nature of Singer’s filmmaking) almost ensures they will be little more than gestures; what Universal will want is Transformers in space, and that, presumably, is what Singer will give them.

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Screw the Emmys

AdamaAfter my little spit about the Emmy nominations a week or two back, it’s nice to see something like justice prevail at the Television Critics’ Association Awards, where the final season of Battlestar Galactica was named Program of the Year. The members of the Association, which is made up of approximately 200 American and Canadian journalists and critics covering television, followed in the footsteps of the Emmys in recognizing Mad Men, which took out the award for Outstanding Achievement in Drama, and Bryan Cranston, who took out the award for Individual Achievement in Drama for his work in Breaking Bad. True Blood took out the award for Outstanding New Program.

The full list of awards is available here.

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And the winners are . . .

bsgbloodscalesThe nominations for the 2009 Emmys have just been announced. Unsurprisingly (and deservedly) Mad Men has done exceptionally well, taking four of the five nominations for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series, one of the Directing nominations, and a number of other, smaller nominations (including Outstanding Hairstyling – woo-hoo!) as well as a nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.

The other standout drama of the year, Breaking Bad, does less well (how its amazing pilot didn’t get nominations for Outstanding Writing and Outstanding Directing is beyond me) but does pick up a nomination for Outstanding Drama (along with the neglected but brilliant Big Love) and a couple of smaller nominations.

At the other end of the spectrum, Battlestar Galactica has been almost completely ignored once again, picking up only one major nomination, for Michael Rymer’s direction of ‘Daybreak Part 2′. The take-home message? That even when a science fiction show produces episodes of the calibre of ‘Revelations’, ‘The Oath’ or ‘Blood on the Scales’, all of which are, quite simply, some of the best television produced in the last ten years, it’s still not enough to find mainstream recognition.

Not, it must be said, that the literary world is much better.

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The future begins now: first Caprica reviews

capricaAlthough I’m still waiting for my copy to arrive, the first reviews of the DVD-release version of the Battlestar Galactica spin-off/prequel, Caprica, have begun to pop up around the traps.

Created by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, the driving forces behind the revisioned Battlestar Galactica, Caprica looks like being a very different creature from its parent, even as it explores similar – and similarly troubling – territory. Set 60 years before the events of Battlestar Galactica, and starring the man with the charisma bypass, Eric Stoltz and Polly Walker, who lit up the screen as Rome’s scheming Atia, it focuses on the creation of the first Cylons (or the first non-Final Five, Earth that wasn’t Earth Cylons, but we won’t go there) and the lives of two families, the Greystones and the Adamas. Like the troubled Ian McShane vehicle, Kings (which has already been shifted to Saturday nights in the US, usually the prelude to a show being taken round the back and put out of its misery) it depicts a science fictional version of contemporary America, a place of almost unbridled wealth and decadence riven by religious extremism and the perils of technology. These are of course questions explored with great power and suggestiveness in Battlestar Galactica, but as the trailer below suggests, Caprica has ambitions to be more than a simple companion piece to its parent series, even as it draws on its aesthetic and mythology.

I’m sure more reviews will appear in coming days, but thus far the word is broadly positive, if not actually ecstatic. Wired’s Underwire gives it a 8 out of 10, suggesting it’s a little on the slow side but praising its intelligence and preparedness to tackle difficult issues. Wired‘s Geekdad is similarly positive, saying that while “it’s not the kind of action-packed, thrilling, anyone-really-could-die-at-any-moment kind of show Battlestar Galactica fans have been, well, fanatic about these past four seasons,” it is “a very good drama, with good science fiction thrown in”. Slashfilm goes further, saying it asks “some deep questions about the morality of creating artificial life,” adding that while “[i]t’s rare for a sci-fi show to attempt drama with very little action . . . it manages stay compelling without much reliance on ’splosions”. And io9’s resident smart cookie, Annalee Newitz, thinks it “works incredibly well, despite a few hiccups, helped along by some brilliant worldbuilding and terrific acting from stars Esai Morales and Eric Stoltz”.

Perhaps almost as interesting as the release itself is its nature. The version just released is not a pilot, but a special DVD-only movie release, complete with R-rating. And while the series itself is already in production, and is currently scheduled to screen in 2010, the version available now will not be seen on television. Instead the producers will reshape the television pilot (and presumably the series) on the basis of responses to the DVD version. Whether you see its release as a cynical cashing in on the gaping hole left in many fans’ lives by the end of Battlestar Galactica or an interesting use of the different delivery technologies is proably a matter of perspective.

Caprica is available from Amazon.

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Obama depressed, distant since Battlestar Galactica series finale

obama1This is priceless . . .

Obama depressed, distant since Battlestar Galactica series finale

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I couldn’t have said it better myself . . .

Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Adama (Edward Lee Olmos), SCI FI Channel Photo: Carole Segal

Tigh (Michael Hogan) and Adama (Edward Lee Olmos), SCI FI Channel Photo: Carole Segal

There’s a terrific piece by Laura Miller about the Battlestar Galactica finale over at Salon, which pretty much nails a lot of what went wrong in the final ten episodes, and most particularly the mess of the finale. Most tellingly, I think, she points to the contrast between the (admittedly controversial) non-ending of The Sopranos and the desperate and misguided desire to tie up all of Battlestar Galactica’s loose ends which so muddied ‘Daybreak’.

That said, she also argues that:

“Adama was always the series’ most conventional figure, the old-fashioned, admirable leader-hero that American popular culture typically insists upon. This also made him the least interesting character psychologically, but he was essential all the same; the rest of the survivors needed him as a fixed point, a star to steer by.”

At one level she’s right; Adama is one of Battlestar Galactica’s more conventional figures. Certainly without the strength of Edward James Olmos’ performance he would be little more than a cardboard cut-out. But the strength of Olmos’ performance also grounds one of the less conventional aspects of Adama, namely his violence and anger. The role he is playing, that of the leader-hero, is generally constructed in such a way as to allow the character to be an essentially decent, honest man, who only turns to violence when provoked. It is, in many ways, a peculiarly American fantasy of the soldier-farmer, the man of the earth who takes up arms to defend his rights and those of others.

Adama, by contrast, is a much darker creation. More Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven than Gary Cooper, his outward semblance of control is largely a facade, designed to keep a check on the anger and violence that seethe at his core. As we are reminded on a number of occasions, his impulses are authoritarian, even despotic, his first loyalty to his uniform. He is a soldier, and a good one, but soldiering is not, as we are often reminded, a profession which tends to make nice people out of those who excel at it.

This is of course of a piece with Battlestar Galactica’s deeper interest in the brutalizing nature of war, and its ambiguous attitude to the nature and exercise of power in general. Indeed Adama is in large part interesting precisely because his nature belies his conventional facade, so much so that the term of respect the crew bestow upon him, “the Old Man”, can often seem oddly ambivalent, conjuring associations of control, and violence as much as paternal affection.

(For those anxious to fill the hole left by Battlestar Galactica’s passing, SciFi have released seven clips from the upcoming prequel/spinoff, Caprica, all of which are available over at io9).

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Battlestar Galactica: some predictions for the final hours

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I watched ‘Daybreak, Part 1′, the first part of Battlestar Galactica’s three hour finale after I got back from China on Thursday night. I’ve seen a lot of carping on the intertubes about how bad it was, but I actually thought it was terrific, particularly after the mess of the episodes immediately preceding it (though I probably could have done without Laura Roslin in the fountain). The pacing was beautiful, there were a lot of lovely details, and there was a wonderful, elegiac sense of ending about it. I’ve always admired ‘All Good Things’, the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which Ronald D. Moore also wrote, and ‘Daybreak, Part 1′, echoed many of the things that made that episode so moving, in particular the movement back in time to the series’ beginning, and the sense of a circle being closed that movement back to the beginning creates.

Perhaps oddly though, it was only while watching the episode that I realized how much I’m going to miss the show. For all the patchiness of this final series, Moore and Eick have created a show which has completely rewritten the rules about what science fiction television can be, both by creating a world which speaks in such complex and unpredictable ways to our own, and by giving breath to a cast of characters which live in a way television characters rarely do. Even in the first part I found myself tearing up more than once, which is testament of a sort to just how much I’ve come to care about these characters and their plight.

So, at the risk of making a fool of myself, I thought I’d make a few predictions about what will happen in tonight’s conclusion. These aren’t spoilers. I know nothing more than anyone, and I’ve actually tried really hard to avoid reading anything about these last two episodes in advance of watching them. But if you want to avoid going into tonight with preconceptions of any kind, you might want to stop reading now, and check back afterwards to see how right (or wrong) I am.

Here are my guesses for tonight:

The singularity will be important, both as a plot device, and in a deeper, narrative sense. If nothing else it will be a glimpse of the Eye of God, and of the desire for perfection and unity Anders described in ‘Daybreak, Part 1′, and which so many of the characters have been seeking since the show began. But I also think it will have a role in collapsing time and space, in making all times one, and thus bearing out the show’s oft-repeated promise, that “all of this has happened before and will happen again”.

Although I’d always assumed they’d kill poor old Starbuck in the final episode, I no longer think they will. Not only has she already died once (thus bearing out her Dionysian aspect by becoming twice-born) but having carefully removed the obstacles posed to her and Lee’s relationship by Dee and Anders, it wouldn’t make sense to go and kill her. More deeply though, she needs to live, and to end up with Lee, because by uniting the Apollonian and Dionysian in a union of opposites, we see a very literal embodiment of the show’s broader concern with the destabilizing of the boundaries between us and them, Human and Other.

That said, a number of other characters will die. Poor old Gaeta is already gone, as is Zarek and the rather dreary Dee, but I think a number more will die tonight. The most obvious is of course the President, though since she’s already dying that won’t be a surprise, but once she’s gone, Adama will die as well, both because he will no longer want to live, and because his death will symbolize the old giving way to the new, in the form of Lee and Starbuck (and indeed the broader Human/Cylon union).

Baltar will die as well, presumably in the final, selfless act we saw so laboriously set up in his conversation with Lee in the first part, thus completing the rather misjudged journey from narcissist to Messiah they’ve had him on since he was acquitted of crimes against humanity and collaboration at the end of Season Three (I’ve always thought the intrusion of the Paradise Lost/Jesus thread was a mistake, but I suppose having begun it they’ll have to play it out).

Beyond that I’m not really sure who will die. Probably Anders/Galactica, but in a way that lets Anders touch the face of God (perhaps in the singularity?). Definitely Boomer, though only after she changes sides one last time, and rescues Hera from Cavil. And Cavil, obviously. Maybe Tigh and Ellen, and perhaps the Chief. But Helo and Athena and Hera will all live, as indeed will all the characters who symbolize union.

And finally, but most importantly, I think we will hear the words which opened the first episode of the original series, “There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe,” invoked in the final moments of tonight’s episode. Somehow (possibly via the singularity) Lee and Starbuck and the surviving Cylons and Humans will turn out to be our own ancestors. I’m not sure how literal this process will be, but it makes sense for a number of reasons. The first is it allows the larger circle between the original series and the revisioned series to be closed. The second is that it means quite literally that all of this has happened before. And the third is because the show is and always has been fundamentally concerned with destabilizing the boundaries between us and them, Human and Other, and while that boundary between Human and Cylon is now completely blurred, making the characters on the show us, and us them, takes it one step further and makes us the descendants of that union, no longer Human, but a mixture of Human and Cylon.

One of the reasons I’m not sure how literal the process will be is because I’m convinced it has something to do with the singularity, and that we will discover not just that the show is our prehistory, but also our future. That will allow the Earth they discovered in the middle of Season Four to be our Earth as well, and will mean that somehow the distant future gives birth to the distant past, so not only has all of this happened before, and will happen again, but in some deep sense, we are all – Human and Cylon, past, present and future – one, and bound together for all eternity.

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This ship is dead: Battlestar Galactica and the tyranny of explication

battlestargalactica-s4bLike most devotees of that most improbable of televisual phenomena, Battlestar Galactica, I’ve been blown every which way by the final episodes. With eight of the final ten down, the show has lurched from two of the most powerful and shocking hours of television I’ve ever seen (‘The Oath’ (4.15) and ‘Blood on the Scales’ (4.16)), to dot-point infodumps (‘No Exit’ (4.17)) and weird, slow car-crashes such as ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ (4.19).

At one level the sheer haphazardness of these final episodes shouldn’t be surprising. For all its power as a series, Battlestar Galactica has always been pretty variable episode to episode. In part this is a consequence of the show’s very particular aesthetic, which discards almost all of the connective tissue and explication ordinarily expected in a television show. Combined with the claustrophobic intimacy of the handheld camerawork, this paring-back lends the show its extraordinary, almost hallucinatory intensity, but it can also leave individual episodes feeling surprisingly ragged.

But it’s difficult not to suspect the haphazardness is also at least partly a function of exactly the qualities that have made the show so remarkable. Despite its complex and deeply unsettling political subtext, much of Battlestar Galactica’s fascination has lain in its suggestiveness, and the constant, teasing implication that in the end its many elements will come to form a larger whole (not for nothing do the opening credits inform us that the Cylons “have a plan”).

The problem is of course that it is difficult to picture an explanation capable of drawing the show’s many elements together. Getting echoes of The Aeneid, The Book of Mormon, Paradise Lost, Exodus and other mythic sources, as well as post-9/11 anxieties about terrorism and loss and the War on Terror into the air together is one thing, but once they’re married to the mystery of the Cylons’ origins, the show’s own mythology, questions as to Starbuck’s true nature, the President’s visions, the political subtexts and most particularly the show’s constant, haunting refrain that “All of this has happened before, and will happen again” it’s difficult to see how the show’s creators can keep them all aloft at once.

Certainly the explanations offered thus far have been pretty unsatisfying. Quite aside from the jarring note of the Final Cylon’s identity, the attempt to explain the Cylons’ origins and the nature of the Final Five have managed to be both confusing and unsatisfying, managing to simultaneously reduce the show’s complex political allegory to a squabble between a spoiled son and his parents (as io9.com’s Annalee Newitz has observed) and to make the uncanny and profoundly disturbing Cylons oddly mundane. Then there’s the slightly too literal metaphorical business of Galen repairing Galactica by grafting Cylon biotechnology into her body, and the messy process of reorganizing the Council to reflect the changed composition of Human/Cylon society. And then, for every great moment, such as last week’s funeral for the crew killed trying to repair the damage caused by Boomer’s escape, and its glimpse of three separate belief systems struggling to make sense of the same questions of mortality, and loss, there’s a bum note such as Baltar’s speech at the funeral’s conclusion (though I think this most recent incarnation of Baltar is pretty unconvincing in general).

As I’ve observed elsewhere, there’s always been something slightly unnerving about the show’s creator, Ronald D. Moore’s openness about the casual manner in which many of the crucial decisions about the show are made. We want, as viewers, for it all to connect in a meaningful way, and more importantly, in a manner which allows the explanation to be more interesting than the process of getting there. But the fact is, with a show like Battlestar Galactica, where the ambiguities its political and mythic allegories suggest are much of the point, that’s unlikely to be a desire that’s compatible with resolution, or at least conventional resolution of the sort series television usually demands.

I want to write at more length about the final season once it’s done and dusted (I’ll probably wait for the Cylon-centric Edward James Olmos-directed telemovie which is apparently going to appear as a weird sort of coda somewhere between Saturday week and the DVD release of the spinoff series, Caprica) but in the meantime, Sophie Cunningham at Meanjin has very kindly given me permission to reproduce a piece I wrote about the show, ‘All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again: Humanity, Inhumanity and Otherness in Battlestar Galactica for the magazine’s December 2008 issue, which I’ve made available via my Writing page. The piece was written in the interregnum between the first half of Season Four and the second, so parts of it have been oveertaken by the developments in recent episodes, but the bulk of it is still current, and may be worth a look if you’re a fan of the show.

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Some thoughts about Lost

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Lost returns to Australian television tonight, several weeks after it resumed in the US and in the rather unfriendly timeslot of 10:30pm.

Presumably the tardy return and crappy timeslot are a reflection of the show’s waning ratings, at least here in Australia. While the loss of viewers to downloads has forced Australian networks to release popular shows in a more timely manner than they have traditionally deigned to (SciFi on Foxtel are to be commended for their decision to screen the final season of Battlestar Galactica only hours after it goes to air in the US) old habits die hard, and as soon as a show begins to fail in the ratings it’s a fair bet the commercial networks will be treating viewers with the dizzying disrespect they always have by screening them long after primetime, delaying episodes and altering their schedules without warning (a disaster for anyone trying to record programs).

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Jack (Matthew Fox) and Ben (Michael Emerson) find Locke's body

It’s a pity, in many ways, because as anyone who has stuck around through the longueurs of the second and third seasons knows, Lost went from strength to strength across its increasingly wild fourth season, and reviews from overseas suggest the fifth is even better. As Season Three ended, several of the survivors (Jack, Kate, Sayid, Hurley, Sun and Claire’s son, Aaron) are off the island, a turn of events a series of flash-forwards (mirroring the device of the flashbacks in the first few seasons) have revealed to have caused any number of problems of its own. Jack is a drunken wreck, his relationship with Kate has come unravelled, Hurley is in an asylum and talking to dead people, Sayid is an assassin employed by the perfidious Charles Widmore, Sun has taken over her father’s criminal and business empire and Locke, last seen trying to save the island, is in a coffin on the mainland. The fate of many of those back on the island, in particular Jin, is unclear, but the island itself seems to have teleported away not just through space but through time. And Ben has arrived to tell Jack and the other members of the Oceanic Six that if they want to save themselves and the other survivors they have to go back to the island.

It’s exactly as mad as it sounds, of course, and almost as incomprehensible. Like many shows which rely upon the unravelling of intricate plots, it’s almost impossible to keep track of precisely what’s going on, and indeed in many ways, keeping track of what’s going on is almost beside the point. What matters is the almost visceral thrill of the show’s twists and turns, and the sense that some new craziness lies just around the corner.

Last week I published a piece in The Australian Literary Review about the rise of what I called the new television. In it I argued that shows such as The Sopranos represent a mode of television drama unlike any we have seen before, filmic in their exploration of the medium’s visual and aural possibilities and novelistic in their preparedness to reject the generic conventions of series television and embrace the complexity and ambiguity of our inner lives.

One of the more striking aspects of this new television is the way it has been made possible by changes in television’s economic model, and by the rise of cable networks less reliant upon advertising and the growing popularity of alternative distribution models such as DVD and downloads, legal or otherwise. This shift away from reliance upon advertisers has allowed the cable networks to make more courageous choices about content and style, and to rely upon greater loyalty from their audiences over time, allowing longer and more complex storylines to be developed and explored.

The Green Goblin's first appearance; the chara...

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Lost and The Sopranos are quite different phenomena of course. If The Sopranos can be understood as the early 21st century’s answer to Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy, Lost’s antecedents are to be found in the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s, and more particularly, the Silver Age comics of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and others. Certainly Lost, like other, more obviously derivative shows such as Heroes, owes more than just its subject matter to the pulpy, four-colour world of the comic strip. Its structure, with the movement back and forwards in time from an essentially static present is reminiscent of the comic, as is its dependence upon the show’s complex and intertwined mythology. But in many ways it is its dependence upon the piecing together of the puzzles it presents, rather than the transformation of character through action and circumstance to generate narrative excitement and interest that ties it most closely to the comic. For all the intensity and vividness with which characters like Jack are drawn, it’s not their personal and existential travails we’re interested in, merely the part they play in a much larger picture, just as with Spiderman it’s the thrill of recognition we feel in discovering the Green Goblin is Harry Osborn’s father that keeps us reading.

J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams

It’s a mode of storytelling Lost’s creator, J.J. Abrams has spent much of the last decade perfecting. First in Alias (a show I never warmed to), and more recently in the drearily derivative Fringe, as well as in films like Mission Impossible III, Cloverfield and the upcoming Star Trek reboot, Abrams has demonstrated an remarkable capacity to marry a purely pop, MTV aesthetic to narrative elements which rarely find their way into mainstream television. Sean Williams, for one sees Lost, with its teleportation and time travel plots, as a trojan horse designed to smuggle science fictional tropes into the mainstream, and in many ways the same could be said of all of Abrams’ work to date.

Part of the Abrams mystique is the illusion that everything in shows such as Lost and Fringe is part of some intricate plan worked out in advance. Like many other television shows, Lost assumes many of its viewers will watch (and indeed rewatch) episodes on Tivo and DVD, allowing them to pause and rewind, and as a result every second frame has some secret unlikely to reveal itself on a casual viewing hidden in it. If a television is on during a flashback in Lost you can assume whatever’s on will pertain to the plot, if a document is glimpsed on a table it will matter, if a logo appears on a coffee cup it will be part of the larger picture.

Obviously this increasingly complex web of associations in Lost and other shows like it depends upon exactly the same transformation in delivery technologies that underpins the rise of the new television more generally. Yet they are supplemented, in Lost’s case, by the very intelligent and deliberate use of the internet. Google Lost, and you will find endless discussions and spoilers, attempts to unravel the show’s mysteries and general speculation about what every detail might mean. And it’s not idle chatter either: I suspect for many viewers this second life (if you’ll pardon the pun) is as much a part of their enjoyment of the show as its more immediate pleasures.

Evangeline Lilly as Kate

Evangeline Lilly as Kate

The illusion it’s all planned is, of course, just that. One only has to look at the description of the original pilot (which was meant to star Michael Keaton as Jack, and have him die at the end of the first episode) to be reminded of the organic manner in which any television show, even one as intricate as Lost, evolves. Perhaps to his credit Abrams seems happy to give away the sort of fascistic control over every aspect of his shows’ creation that David Chase clearly exerted over The Sopranos or Matthew Weiner now exerts over Mad Men (there’s a fascinating if appalling depiction of Weiner at work in this excellent New York Times feature about life on the Mad Men set)

It’s also interesting to contrast Abrams’ manipulation of the illusion of control with the cheerful and slightly dismaying preparedness of Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Battlestar Galactica, another show whose success depends at least in part on the complexity of its overarching narrative, to admit how many of the crucial decisions about Battlestar Galactica are made in the most casual fashion (“Who shall we make the last of the Final Five? Adama? The President? Ellen?????”).

Jack and Sayid on the island

Jack and Sayid (Naveen Andrews) on the island

Given this careful calibrated interplay between the collaborative technologies of the internet (an interplay shows like Battlestar Galactica also build on through the release of mini webisodes between seasons) it would be tempting to see Lost and shows like it as the first wave of a new, viewer-driven mode of television, a wikivision if you like, but they’re not, or not really. The shows are still driven from the top down, even if they aren’t mapped out by their creators in quite the detail they pretend they are. And it is worth asking whether viewer-driven television would be attractive anyway. In the days of yore, when Xena was one of the hottest shows on tv, its writers checked out the newsgroups, and discovered, somewhat to their dismay, that its fans were enraged by many aspects of the current season. Pleased to have an insight into what viewers did and didn’t like, they began to change storylines and finesse characters to meet the wishes of their fans. The strategy worked. Within a few episodes the chat on the newsgroups grew far more positive. But simultaneously, ratings began to slide. Pleasing the diehard fans, it turned out, was not the same as pleasing viewers more generally.

Yet there’s little doubt Lost and its relatives are part of a broader transformation of television drama, a transformation driven by related, forces to those which have allowed shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Big Love to flourish. And, like those shows, they represent a flowering of televison drama which speaks to its vitality as a form. Whether this renaissance can survive the next wave of changes to the media landscape is an interesting question, but for now, I’m just happy to have Lost back.

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A Lost Mastermind offers a crash course

A Lost Recap: On Lost, the Island Skips, Skips, Skips in Time

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The idiot box grows a brain

06467884001I’ve got a piece about the new television in today’s issue of the Australian Literary Review. The full text of the article is available online, as is Michael Wood’s excellent piece about Roberto Bolano’s 2666, but print copies are available free with today’s  Australian, and are well worth picking up, not least because only a small portion of the issue is reproduced online.

The idiot box grows a brain | The Australian.

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