Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #3: 'Black Science: Part 3: Sorted'

This issue features one of my favorite covers of the whole series, a really iconic image of Ragged Robin draping herself on King Mob, both of them posing for the camera. The thing I love about this cover, and the one for issue one, is that it feels like a photoshoot, like the characters are aware of being looked, and taking advantage of that fact. Most comic covers take a snippet of the action, with the characters unaware they’re being watched. It adds a nice meta level to have the characters posing for the camera, looking right back at the reader....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Babylon 5: Thirdspace

Going into Thirdspace, I wasn’t expecting too much. The world wasn’t crying out for the lost standalone episode of season four, but after watching it, I was pleasantly surprised. The movie has a different, more cinematic feel, than your average B5 episode, and the story tied nicely into the mythology.

One of the major issues I have watching these movies is that nothing particularly major can happen to the characters. Particularly with this one, we know what happened in the fourth season, if a huge event did happen, it would feel strange that they never mentioned it. So, we’re left in an odd narrative place, telling a story that has to fit into our pre-existing knowledge of the series, perhaps deepen it, but not fundamentally alter it. That’s why ‘In the Beginning’ was the ideal use of the TV movie format, doing something that would feel out of place in the series, but fit well into the series mythology. This movie was made while the show was still on, so they were constrained by having to slip into the existing continuity. I was pleasantly surprised by the way this fills in some additional backstory and gives us some nice character payoffs.

The most notable example of this was the stuff with Lyta. I always wanted more of her on the series, and here we get the backstory of her journey to Vorlon space, previously unexplained territory. We also get the great scene with her and Zack in the elevator. He always seemed to have feelings for her, but he never acted on them, this scene is great because it gives us some payoff on that, and fits well into the continuity. It’s tough to watch him squirm like that, but it’s also really funny in an Office kind of way. That scene was the highlight of the movie for me, and perhaps the most important scene in the whole piece for overall character development.

The other thing I really liked was the general surreal, dreamy atmosphere. Particularly during the middle section of the movie, we drifted from Lyta’s madness, to Ivanova’s dream, and that great moment with Vir. There was a lot of atmosphere here, aided by the music. B5 doesn’t usually stand out for its visual style, but this movie did a great job of creating weird environments and moods for the characters to move through. The CG was also generally solid, the city was great, though the creature at the end didn’t quite work.

Much of the last two seasons are spent dealing with the legacy of the Shadows and Vorlons, so this fits right in thematically. This gate is the same kind of threat as the Drakh or the telepaths, an example of the hubris of the old ones haunting our characters in the future.

The ending was pretty exciting, particularly Sheridan’s flight into the artifact. But, it felt more like empty flash than the typical B5 battle. Not since the first season have we seen this much fighting for the sake of fighting. Not only was there the big battle outside, there was all the random violence within the station. It was justified by the narrative, but having all the characters attacking each other just didn’t work. I don’t get in that many fistfights, but apparently it happens all the time to the B5 characters. That makes it feel more like a show, less real.

But, I enjoyed the movie on the whole. There were some cool bits that tie into the overall continuity, but mainly it’s just a fun standalone story. If the fourth season wasn’t compressed, I could easily see this being thrown in as a standalone. I think it works better this way though, as a bonus for viewers who’ve watched the series. Then, I would have just been waiting to get to the more significant stuff, here’s it’s a treat, a chance to return and see the characters as they were. Even if it didn’t have much overall impact, it was good to see Lyta and Ivanova one last time.

Battlestar Galactica: 'Crossroads: Part II' (3x20)

It's taken me a little while to figure out my feelings about this episode. I watched it yesterday and really liked parts of it, but also had some big issues. A just completed second viewing made me feel better about it, andperhaps even come to terms with my issues surrounding the series in general. If nothing else, the issue left us with countless issues to ponder durng the series' nine month hiatus.

I'll start with the big revelation, that four of our long running characters are actually cylons. Much like Kara's 'death' a couple of weeks ago, this revelation is what you're left pondering after the epiode, the center of most online discussion and controversy. It's a bold move, one that fundamentally changes the series' status quo. With last season's finale, Moore created a scenario that seemed to change the show forever, then spent the better part of this season limping back to the old setup. Yes, the scars of New Caprica haunted the rest of the season, but I still feel it was a mistake to retreat from the bold setup we had in the first four episodes of the season. More on that later.

What this revelation does is essentially destroy the line that exists between cylons and humans. The show had always flirted with the idea that there was little difference between the two groups, but if Tigh is a Cylon, and has been with the humans for forty years, and aged, the line is completely destroyed. Now, Moore has already said that these four are a different kind of cylons. This is where we get the opportunity to backtrack, it's possible that the four, and whoever the fifth is, are emissaries from the thirteenth tribe, sent to show us the way to Earth, or something like that. As far as we know, they're not doing the projecting that the other cylons do, and have little connection to the other seven. They must be older because the human style cylon models didn't even exist when Tigh was born.

Much like Kara's death, I find it hard to judge this revelation at the moment. It opens up a lot of interesting storytelling possibilities, and in that respect it's a good decision. But if Moore opens those doors and then retreats back to the old status quo, it could cripple the series. It's not enough to limp through a lot of the season then sprint to a fabulous finish. A truly great series shouldn't have as big a disparity between episodes as Battlestar does. Considering all the elements of the mythology, and the huge cast, there's no reason that any episodes should feel as throwaway as some of the midseason stuff this year.

A lot of it comes down to the writing, those episodes could have worked, and they were well produced, but the stories just never quite click. The introduction of random standalone episodes gave me the impression that this episode was important. If Helo's time as refugee leader was really going to mean something, it wouldn't have just suddenly cropped up in that episode, and then disappeared just as rapidly. There's so many issues available to the show now that these four are cylons, there needs to be a tighter focus and more philosophical exploration next season. Basically, I want more consistency and focus.

A more expected revelation is the fact that Kara is in fact alive, and apparently her destiny is to lead the fleet to Earth. I'm really glad she's back, and am curious to see how whatever she experienced on Earth has changed her. The character has always been so combative and full of rage, will she carry these qualities with her in her new capacity as prophet? She seemed more mellow in her Viper, but she did seem herself. And is it a coincidence that she showed up with the cylon fleet? The obvious interpretation is that Kara is the fifth of the five, but that remains to be seen. If the five are connected to the thirteenth tribe, that would make sense, if they aren't, then she's likely working with another force.

Elsewhere, the end of the Baltar trial was solid, but overshadowed by everything else in the episode. Lee's speech was a bit too long, but paid off some nice continuity points. I was glad to see him use some of the same defenses I had for Baltar, though a speech like that seems just as targetted at the writers as it is at the characters. Baltar himself has been taken away by his followers, and it would be interesting to see him take on the role of a strong oppositional voice within the fleet next year. The stuff with his book worked well, and I have been saying that we really need someone to oppose Roslin and Adama, perhaps Baltar is the man to do it.

But this episode wasn't really about the story, it was all about the execution, the shooting, editing and music were truly something special. Throughout the season, I've had my issues, but on a moment to moment basis, the show is consistently dazzling. With the possible exception of The Sopranos, I've never seen a show that's as well shot as this one. Throughout the series, the handheld photography has given the show energy and a feeling of realism that's rarely present in science fiction. I love the way the camera flew through space at an odd speed, careening towards characters' faces like an invisible predator. We saw this used for the characters who turned out to be cylons, and at one point on Laura Roslin. If Kara isn't the fifth, Roslin is the likely candidate. That would also provide an explanation for why the cylon blood cured her cancer, and get them out of the dilemma of having her be sick and have to find a cure again. Plus, we already saw the connection between her, Sharon and Six in the wonderfully filmed opera house scene. The moment where Six looks up at the Five was just one of countless visual highlights in this episode.

The final twenty minutes or so of this episode were one of the most overwhelmingly moody and odd things I've seen from a TV episode outside of a dream sequence. The 'All Along the Watchtower' singalong was a little goofy, but I'm going to let it go because it was so over the top and weird. I love the shots tracking in on the four as they sing the lines, particularly the crazy rotation around Tori before she collapses and vomits in the toilet. There were a lot of astonishing shots in this episode, but that was the highlight for me. I also loved the crazy push in on Anders and Tori as they were having sex. When the four finally meet, there's this crushing sense of fate destroying them. None of them want to admit it, but they all know. That's why I love it when Tigh says screw fate, I am Saul Tigh, same as I was, it's not a lie if I believe in it.

I loved the score in this episode, the psychedelic middle eastern sounding music was like nothing we'd heard before in the series, but it worked really well. Those final ten minutes or so were sublime, the perfect fusion of visual and music. As the four go back out, we experience them living a lie, Tyrol watching the deck in slow motion, Tigh and Tori sharing a glance across the bridge. That shared glance was so well shot, perfectly conveying the way that they know something's going on, but the others are oblivious. I also like the way Tigh and Tori address Adama and Roslin, reassuring them that they're there, ready to serve.

While this is going on, the mellowed out 'All Along the Watchtower' cover gave a surreality to the viper battle. It's something we'd seen before, but the music made it feel like we were in a dream. Lee drifting out to find Kara just felt right in the moment, we had reached the place where it was almost pure subjectivity. And that final pullback to Earth was the capper. I was frustrated the season was over, but I was thrilled by the way it went out. I don't think the cliffhanger was as mindblowing as the wrapup to season two, but the execution was unmatched. Forget about the political relevance, this show deserves notice for the artistry it brings to television. TV has already shown it can do large scale narratives and character development better than any film, this show is demonstrating that it can also be more visually interesting and 'cinematic' than the actual cinema. Other than Miami Vice and Inland Empire, I can't think of any film in the last year that was as well shot as this finale.

So, I'm not sure about how these revelations will carry the series into the future, but I do know that this episode was fantastic in the moment, and perhaps that's all we can expect from the show. I think the New Caprica arc raised my expectations for the season too high. After the season premiere, I said "Fuck, that was an amazing piece of art. Watching these episodes, I was thankful that something so powerful and challenging and well made exists," and that's hard to live up to. I think I'm something of an anomaly in that I'd consider the miniseries the best thing the show ever did, at least up until the New Caprica stuff. Those two arcs boht had an urgency and danger the show never had in its on board Galactica status quo. I was frustrated by the return to the old ways, and other than the solid 'Eye of Jupiter' two parter, the middle of the season was devoid of any really great episodes.

But, every episode was well made, and entertaining as I watched it. So, maybe I should stop worrying about the big picture, and instead just enjoy each episode in the moment. Don't look for something that isn't there, don't complain that Baltar or Sharon aren't in the episode, instead appreciate what we do get. I hope that the show goes on an intense philosophical journey in the fourth season that perhaps redefines what it means to be human and goes to a deeper place than any previous TV show, but if it doesn't, it can still be good. And even if the stuff with the four goes horribly awry, at least they went down with a crazy blast of pop storytelling. This was an episode that wowed me, and though it doesn't quite salvage some of the season's low points, it shouldn't have to. It works on its own terms, and those final twenty minutes are as good as anything the show has ever done.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Babylon 5: In the Beginning

And so we return and begin again with the Babylon 5 prequel/sequel In the Beginning. As the reaction to the new Star Wars trilogy shows, it’s tricky to make a good prequel, how can you involve people in a story where they already know the outcome?

An ongoing TV series is different from a film in that the length of it allows you to make more realistic long term character development. A movie will generally focus on the most tumultuous period in a character’s life, and end with a return to normalcy, some kind of static status quo they’ve earned for enduring the tumult of the film. While a show may have an overall story arc, there’s always going to be periods of new drama, and moments of quiet. Those moments of quiet are really what separate an ongoing story from a film.

In a TV show, we generally start with the characters at a relatively uneventful place in their lives, and over the course of the series, they go through major changes. The problem with doing flashbacks to before the series is that there shouldn’t be too much of interest there, most of the important stuff should happen in the time that the series covers. That’s my major issue with Lost, if you’re stranded on a desert island, you’d think that would be the major trauma in your life, not some parent issues from years ago. It’s fine to do the occasional flashback, but it’s better to see your characters grow as the show moves forward.

Babylon 5 certainly does a lot of that, and considering how many episodes there were, I think it’s certainly interesting and worthwhile to take a look back on the events that led up to the world we saw at the beginning of the show. That’s what I was expecting from In the Beginning, what I wasn’t expecting was to get some followup on events near the end of the series’ chronology. What I really loved from this film was the framing device, which gave me a bit of the resolution I wanted for Londo’s story, but didn’t receive from the end of the series.

The most successful prequel of all time is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a film that hops through the series’ chronology to simultaneously illuminate the beginning of the series and give a sense of closure to the overall experience. In the Beginning functions in a similar way, with Londo reflecting on the events that led him to this moment when he knows he has to die. We’ve already seen most of his failures occur during the series, but he brings up one more here, and I’m guessing his logic is, if he hadn’t destroyed the Narn ship, the Earth/Minbari War would have ended, and he’d never have been put in the position where he could have met Mr. Morden and made his deal with the Shadows. In reality, I’d imagine the Morden meeting would be what he would reflect on at this point, but I’ll forgive it since that story hasn’t been told. And, he does elude to the Shadow meeting, so it’s still present in the story.

At one point, Londo says war isn’t glory, it’s death and pain, a summation of one of the series’ key themes. The series is concerned with destroying the mythology surrounding war. Sheridan isn’t a hero after destroying that Minbari ship, he’s a hero later on when he manages to bring the different races together and create a lasting alliance. JMS always focuses on the negative consequences of war, and in the series’ best moments, such as ‘The Long Twilight Struggle’ and ‘The Fall of Centauri Prime’ shows you the full extent of what war does to a people.

Here, we’re in an interesting moral place because we have attachment to both sides. During the series, we’re used to seeing the Minbari as a force for good, and even though the humans have some issues, this was pre Clarke, when there presumably a lawful government that was working for the peoples’ interest. Both sides are also presented with their flaws, there’s a lot of infighting going on with the Minbari, and they lack the vision required to take on the Shadows. Even though they are consistently presented as the most evolved race, both this and season four show that the caste system can easily fall into chaos without a war to center them.

It’s really interesting to watch this with the knowledge that Jeffery Sinclair is Valen. At the start, the Minbari have lost faith in the order that Valen has created, the society is reverting to the old ways, becoming more warlike. It takes the return of Valen to center them again and prepare them for the war against the Shadows. It’s particularly cool to think that Sinclair just made these prophesies as a result of hearing those prophesies that were already made. They were only created because they already existed, an interesting time travel paradox.

The further away I got from the first season, the fonder my memories of Sinclair. He got such a fantastic sendoff in ‘War Without End,’ I had almost forgotten just how bad an actor he was. But, seeing the season one footage, it all came back and I remembered why I was so happy he left. He did great as the season three Sinclair, but as a heroic captain, he just didn’t work.

I was impressed by the way they were able to incorporate that season one footage seamlessly into the new movie. There were no real issues, it all flowed together well and felt like one piece. We even got to see Michael York back, tying into that season three episode. This episode also gave us more context for the flashbacks we saw from Delenn in season four. Watching the episode that first time, I didn’t emotionally connect with just how grave an error she had made. We saw her going crazy, but we never saw just how many lives her actions cost. This movie made clear that she made a really major error with her decision to attack the human ship, almost as bad a choice as Londo did with Mr. Morden. I suppose what separates her from him is that she learned from her mistake and worked to correct it, but Londo got caught up in the spiral of his bad decision and never escaped from that.

That said, I think Delenn’s tantrum after Dukhat dies is Mira Furlan’s worst acting moment on the series. She goes so far over the top, even throwing in those weak punches on the guy next to her. It’s really out of character, and she winds up looking like a five year old, or just a bad actor. I think it might have been better to go for a quiet, burning rage. The scene as is definitely needed some more takes.

This episode seemed designed to blame everyone for the start of the Earth/Minbari War. Londo claims the blame, Delenn takes the blame, and we also see Sheridan refusing to go on the ship that would meet them, where he could have potentially stopped them from firing. It’s how they react after the mistake that defines the character.

I was really impressed by the makeup and hair work in this episode, everyone did seem much younger. It was crazy to jump from the old Londo to the really young guy meeting with the Earth officials. Sheridan seemed younger, and Ivanova looked younger too. I’m curious about the timing of this production, wouldn’t Claudia Christian have left the series by this point? If she was willing to come back for the movie, why didn’t they get her to do a cameo in the series? I would have loved to see her appear in even just one episode, letting the crew know what was up to her, and say why she decided not to return to Babylon 5, even if only to set up her return in ‘Sleeping in Light.’

The film’s strength and failures stem from its narrative structure. I liked the way we seamlessly moved between sides, picking up characters when they were important to the plot and letting them go when they were no longer needed. Because we already know what will happen to Franklin and Sheridan, we can stop in to see them do their mission, and then just let them drift out of the film. I loved the way we were made to sympathize with both sides in the war, and not given any easy answers about who was responsible. The Minbari wound up looking like villains, but that’s only because they were winning.

However, the jumping between narrative strands meant the film was lacking a strong present. It felt like I was being told a story, not experiencing it firsthand. And, I’m sort of torn the ‘continuity porn’ element of the film. Much like with the Star Wars prequels, it was great to see characters we knew, but it made it feel like a really small universe when G’Kar happens to be the one to go on a mission with Franklin and Sheridan. I suppose it’s necessary for this story, I’d rather have him there than some random other person, but it took away some of the expansiveness of the story. I suppose that’s one of the basic problems with prequels, particularly when you’re telling the story of a universe rather than one person. Fire Walk With Me, as originally envisioned, would have suffered from the same issues, jumping to random scenes of the various townsfolk. Though I’d still love to see the deleted scenes, I’m happy they weren’t in the film, and we instead got to focus on the story of Laura.

That’s not to say it was an emotionless film. The final section, where Londo describes the humans’ final stand against the Minbari, was very powerful. I was feeling a Battlestar Galactica vibe when the president talked about fleeing the planet and setting out to start a new civilization. I really understood what the Battle of the Line was, and just how remarkable it was for the Minbari to surrender there. That brought a lot of things together, and I’d imagine makes the first season a lot more emotionally relatable. In that case, watching this film means that we experienced the moment of the war, and can understand Sinclair’s struggle in a new way.

But, for all that, it was the framing device that really got me, particularly the closing revelation that this is what happened right before Londo met with Sheridan and Delenn at the end of ‘War Without End.’ It makes sense that he would look back on his life after meeting his friends again for presumably the first time since ‘Objects at Rest.’ Jurasik is so good here, making us understand exactly where the character is emotionally. His agedness is particularly evident in contrast to the enthusiasm of the kids. He used to be like them, now he’s worn down, forced to rely on getting drunk as the only way to overcome the keeper. He sees Sheridan and Delenn together in the cell, and knows that he did not spoil the chance for human/Minbari peace, and in letting them go now, he can maybe help set things right. That closing pullout is a great moment, we know what’s coming next, but are given a better understanding of who the character is at that point in time. I would have loved to see old G’Kar come out there and get a better context for where the two of them are at this point, but I guess we’ll never see that piece of the scene now.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. The past stuff was really solid, and I was particularly happy with the bonus of more old Londo. That scene gave me what the end of the series didn’t. Even though I’ve still got four movies and Crusade to go, this felt like a strong point of closure for the series, bringing it backwards to go forward.

One side note, seeing old Londo again made me hope that we get to see a Lost Tales movie focusing on the character. He’s consistently been the most compelling on the series, and I’m sure there’s another story about his life in there, perhaps a split story of him and Vir. The other lost tale I’d really like to see is one about the latter days of Valen. Even though I’m not a huge O’Hare fan, the first Shadow War would offer the most exciting material to center a movie around. Other than that, I’d really like to see one focusing on what happens to Lyta Alexander after the end of the series.

Well, that was a great movie, now it’s on to ‘Thirdspace.’ From here on out, I’ve got lowered expectations for everything in the B5verse, but who knows, maybe there’ll be a pleasant surprise along the way.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #2: 'Black Science: Part 2: Kickin'

Issue two of Volume II continues the series’ move toward a lifestyle chronicle, as much as an action narrative, and I love to see Grant taking the series this way. One of the greatest strengths of the first Volume is its tightness, the way everything integrates into the overall thematic vision of the series. But, because everything is so linked, there’s not that many moments where we can relax and just enjoy spending time with the characters. That’s why I love the first couple of issues of this volume, they give us rich character insight and are a lot of fun to read and hang out with them....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!