Sunday, May 04, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: 'The Road Less Traveled' (4x05)

A lot of people seem to be frustrated by this episode, and I’ll admit I was not happy to see that ‘To Be Continued’ up on screen, but, I thought it was a fantastic piece of television, and entirely satisfying in what we got. I love the way this season is developing, the precision thematic development and overarching serial narrative in place of standalone stories. It’s by far the most consistent season of the show to date, and will hopefully get even better as it goes on.

The major thing I liked about this episode was the return of the Kara Thrace I love. The character felt a bit off in the first couple of episodes of the season, her constant screams of “We’re going the wrong way” didn’t feel like the character we’ve come to know over the course of the series, the character who sat calmly and rationally while Leoben imprisoned her, then abruptly stabbed him with a fork.

Kara’s definitely changed by whatever happened to her in the nebula, but I think the steely focus and efficiency has returned. She knows that people don’t believe her, but she doesn’t care. I love how twitchy she is throughout the episode, her eyes alone tell the story in a lot of scenes. Kara’s not one to start a fight, she’d just provoke the guy until he attacks her, but that psychological approach might not work so well as the captain of a ship. She’s lost touch with her crew, and is only able to feel connected when she’s with Leoben.

The Kara/Leoben relationship has been a source of mystery since the show’s earliest days, as we saw in ‘Maelstrom,’ he is her spiritual guide, the only one who knows about her destiny, in many ways he is to her what the Head Six is to Baltar, a voice that promises she’ll be something special if she can only actualize her destiny. But, at the same time, he abused her horribly on New Caprica. This brings us back to one of the central themes of Kara’s character arc, and the series as a whole, the thin line between pain and love. For so many of these characters, the only way to express their feelings is through violence. Because of Kara’s abuse as a child, it’s quite possible she only considers it real love if she’s being hurt. That’s why she’s so drawn to Leoben, he’s the only one who can make her feel like her mother did, and maybe if she can win his approval, it’ll be like getting the approval her mother never gave her.

And, Leoben provides a fine vessel for her to express her own physicality, she can kill him as many times as she wants, but he’ll always be back. Here, she attacks him again, it’s the only way to show she cares. Anders’ newfound cylon status has him on that same violence/love slippery slope, he attacks Leoben both to react against his own nature, and to show Kara that he still cares. But, he can never get through to her in the way that Leoben does.

The episode sets up the tantalizing prospect of a human/cylon alliance. I’m assuming this will happen in some way. It would seem to be the perfect opportunity to set up a schism in the fleet, and make Baltar an even bigger splinter group. He could take his one god crew over to the cylon ship and set out for Earth with Kara. I really like the splinter cylon plot, and I feel like a d├ętente between cylon and human is an essential part of the series’ arc. We’ve seen again and again how similar the two groups are, it’s only language and culture that separate them. Those differences can be bridged.

One thing that bothers me about the Demetrius arc so far is that we have no insight into Sharon’s feelings on the situation. You’d think people would at least question her loyalties, she is a cylon. But, it’s not played that way, and we also get very little feel for her and Helo’s relationship. They seem like co-workers only, not a couple. Sharon was one of my favorite characters in the first couple years of the show, but they’ve given her very little to do last season and this season.

Elsewhere, we get some more good stuff with Baltar and his gang. The major new development is the cementing of the connection between the new cylons and Baltar. I love the way they shot the scene with Baltar and Tori in bed, it feels very intimate, and real in a way most TV sex scenes don’t. It didn’t feel like the staging existed only to cover up the naughty bits.

I love the questions these stories are raising, and I love the in depth character investigation we’ve been getting this season. Kara and Baltar are the two most complex and interesting to watch characters on the show, any episode that spotlights them is going to be a good one.

Doctor Who: 'Fires of Pompeii' (4x02)

“Fires of Pompeii” is one of my favorite Doctor Who historical episodes, a much stronger episode than its counterparts in the second and third season. Part of that is the fact that, as far I recall, we’ve never seen them go back this far in history yet on the series. This society feels alien in a way Victorian or even the Shakespearean era stuff didn’t. Part of that is the presence of aliens, but it’s also an aesthetic and cultural division between our world and theirs. On top of the intrinsically interesting surroundings, we get a really dramatic story that gets to the core of the Doctor’s internal conflict, and does a great job of cementing the relationship between him and Donna. It’s one of my favorite standalones of the series so far.

This season has been one of the strongest out of the gate, and strangely enough, it’s largely due to Donna. I like Rose and Martha more as characters, but Donna forces the Doctor to examine himself in a way we didn’t see earlier. Eccleston Doctor had a lot of internal conflict, but Tennant Doctor seemed fairly carefree for much of season two. After Rose is taken, we see some internal conflict, but he seems to be running from it the whole season, unable to really talk about what he went through. And, Martha is so in awe of him, she doesn’t really question it.

Even though the Master arc ended with a reset button for the world, it’s made a huge impact on the Doctor himself. I don’t think it’s so much the trauma of aging, it’s really the knowledge that he will always be alone. The only other timelord in the world turned out to be a psychotic world conqueror who violated every ethic the Doctor lives by. And, thanks to her involvement with him, Martha’s whole family spent a year kidnapped in the service of the Master. And, perhaps the greatest wound of all is the fact that, in the end, she abandoned him. He has to realize just how alone he is.

What Donna does is force him to examine himself in a way he hasn’t before. He’s adrift in the world, no longer with a fawning Rose surrogate, he’s got a grown woman who still shares his wonder at the world, but won’t just go along with whatever he tells her. She questions him in ways he doesn’t really want to be questioned. The best moment of the episode is Donna asking the Doctor why he can’t save them, why he has to play by this seemingly arbitrary set of rules. The confrontation in the Tardis was a scene with so much power, both characters pushed to the edge of their emotions. Follow that up with the gorgeous, tragic burning of Pompeii and it’s a really amazing episode ending.

I’ve said it before, but a large part of what makes the show so powerful is the sheer scope of events. 20,000 lives are at stake, and it’s the Doctor who has to pull the trigger and execute them. He triggers the volcano and has to deal with the emotional consequences of that. Yes, he is given the out that it’s either Pompeii or the world, but he still makes the choice to kill them.

And, aiding all this are the fantastic visuals. The BBC Rome sets are a good foundation, but it’s the visual effects team that takes things up a notch, first with the cool underground fire alien world, and then with the episode capping eruption sequence. I wish we hadn’t gotten that “The power of Vulcan, I shall call this…a volcano” speech, but I could ignore that since the rest of the moment worked so well.

Where does this leave us? The Doctor and Donna are closer than before, but she’s also aware that it’s not all fun and games on the road, they will watch people die, unable to do anything about it. We saw Rose learn that lesson in ‘Father’s Day,’ and now Donna learns it.

This is one of my favorite ‘regular’ episodes in the whole run of the series. It’s got virtually everything that makes the show work. There’s some good comedy at the beginning, some interesting time disparity stuff and world building, and in the end, some really dramatic, emotional stuff. It doesn’t have the plot significance of a season finale, it’s just a really great standalone story that develops the characters. That’s not to say elements of the plot don’t work, but enough does that the bad stuff gets overwhelmed.

So far, the fourth season has been stronger out of the gate than any prior year. It’ll be tough to match that run of episodes that closed out season three, but if they keep up this momentum, it should be doable.

Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

Thanks to the Japanese DVD release, I was finally able to find a decent torrent of Rebuild of Evangelion, and last night I watched the film. As a side note, normally I don’t like to torrent stuff, but I made an exception in this case because it will surely take many years for the film to be released over here. With a work like this, with a clear built in audience, would it really be that tough to get it released over here within six months of the Japanese release? Who benefits from the hold up? I’d much rather see the film in the theater as intended than check it out on a bootleg video file, but if I want to see the film now, that’s the price I must pay.

Anyway, onto the film itself. When I heard about the project, I wondered why it existed. It seems weird that Anno would want to revisit his masterwork and create a slightly different version of it. After watching it, I’m not really sold on the reasoning for this project. It’s clearer than the TV series, and features some better visuals, but I don’t know that it adds anything to the universe that wasn’t already in the series. But, I feel like my perspective on this film is really hazy because I’ve only seen the series once. I remember what happened in the first few episodes, but not so clearly that I can say exactly what’s different between this film and the series.

My impression of the film is that it’s much clearer than the series. When I watched the series, I didn’t really understand a lot of what was up with the angels, and why these kids were chosen to pilot the Evas. Shinji asks what he’s doing there, and I get a much better sense of him finding it odd that he’s chosen to pilot the ship. But, maybe that was there before and I just didn’t understand the answer. The end of the show insinuates that the Evas are actually elements of their pilot’s mothers, so Shinji is the only one who can pilot Unit 01. Once you know that, it’s a lot easier to understand why things happen the way they do.

What worked undeniably well in the film was the atmosphere. It took me a little bit to get into it, but by the time Shinji runs away, we’ve got that omnipresent mental darkness back. I found Shinji much more relatable as a protagonist here than in the series, and the film felt very focused on the conflict of him dealing with his loneliness. The subtitle of the film is “You Are (Not) Alone,” and it sums up the question Shinji faces. He believes that his only worth is in piloting Eva, he gets praise and reinforcement from Misato and the others, but it feels meaningless. Would they still love him if he didn’t pilot Eva?

And, the real brilliance and tragedy of the series, is they probably would not. So, maybe he’d be more alone if he didn’t pilot the Eva, he’d never have met back up with his father for starters. However, as the alternate world sequence in the series finale shows, maybe it’s piloting Eva that screwed him up in the first place, in another time and place, he could have had a normal childhood, a normal family. It is the Eva that gives him purpose, it is the Eva that destroys the life he could have had.

I think the show, and this film’s greatest strength, is its ability to depict its protagonist’s internal life. Most films have external conflicts, a hero vs. a villain, or a hero pursuing a relationship, external goals that are achieved by the end of the narrative and seem to solve all the characters’ problems. Complexity is added by giving the protagonist some kind of problem, alcoholism or something like that, but that kind of story doesn’t really deal with the issues I face, and I’m assuming most people face. In reality, most people don’t face enemies, they face ever shifting internal difficulties, like the kind that Shinji faces.

Shinji succeeds in saving the world and killing the angel, but he feels worse than ever because in this story, the internal conflict is not telegraphed one to one onto an external foe. The show has kind of a Trojan Horse narrative, we start out thinking it’s about battling angels, but there’s no real end in sight to these battles, the real foe is out own internal doubt and distance. Shinji wants other people to love him, but we won’t open himself up to them, that’s the essence of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, the problem that nearly all the characters in the series face.

All around him, Shinji sees people who have shut themselves off from the world, and committed themselves to doing a job. That’s Rei, the perfect soldier. He wants her to react in some way, he wants someone to relate to, but she won’t give him anything. It’s the same with his father, those two are the ones he wants to recognize him, and it kills him when he sees Rei and Gendo speaking. His father will give her affection, but not him.

The whole thing is a mess of bizarre Oedipal issues when you view it in light of the fact that Rei is at least partially a clone of Shinji’s mother, but at the same time was raised by Gendo so she’s both Shinji’s mother/sister, and yet, he’s still attracted to her. Shinji watches Rei and Gendo from afar, jealous, he wants to kill his father and fuck Rei, quite literally he would be Oedipus. And, the craziest thing is he’s watching all this inside Unit 01, which is essentially his mother’s womb.

The film makes more of an issue of Misato’s feelings towards Shinji. We spend less time at their home, but Ritsuko questions Misato’s motivations in taking Shinji in more. The whole Ritsuko/Misato past is unclear to me. I felt that Ritsuko was attracted to Misato, and that’s why she seems to hate everyone Misato gets involved with, that’s why she would be so worried that Misato is attracted to Shinji. If that’s the case, why is Ritsuko having sex with Gendo? I’d argue it’s a kind of Elektra complex, she both hates and wants to be her mother, if her mother had an affair with Gendo, she will too.

That’s an element of the story I’d actually like to see explored more. I think Rebuild might have been more interesting if it focused primarily on the adults, and their complicated relationships, basically switching the perspective so this works better as an addition to the series, not a replacement. As it is, this feels like a musician covering their own song ten years later, there’s some interest in seeing the differences, but I’d rather see a completely new story.

That’s sort of the conundrum of the project. I’m happy it exists, it looks amazing, and in many ways is what I wanted Eva to be the first time I watched it. Much of the goofy stuff is excised, there’s fewer scenes at school and at Misato’s house and everything seems to hang together better as a singular narrative. However, once you see the whole series, the purpose of those goofy scenes becomes clear. Because we’re attached to Shinji, because we’ve seen him in a more normal situation, the awful things he goes through feel more awful. I still think they could have been handled better, but all those goofy school and home scenes are worth it for that five minute sequence in the finale when we see Shinji’s alternate world. Just hearing the wacky comedy theme come back after ten episodes of absolute horror hit me so hard.

And, I think the loss of those scenes, annoying though they were, takes away some of the scope of the story. It’s the difference between TV series storytelling and film storytelling. A film inherently has to be more focused, there has to be a beginning and ending, and everything must fit into some kind of structure. Even as the first of four films, this feels like a unified narrative in a way the series never did. On the series, new angels appeared every episode, stuff happened and we got the sense of time passing and life being lived. Here, I don’t get that same sense of time passing. If I had to guess, I’d say this whole movie takes place in about two weeks, while the series felt like it took place over the course of months.

The reason for that is, when you watch a movie, the characters don’t have time to go off and do their own thing. Episodic structure makes it easier for you to believe these characters have lives off screen. You watch an episode, go off and do some other stuff, then come back and watch another. So, it’s logical to think they’d be doing other stuff while you were gone. I think that’s why it sometimes feels weird when you have a show come back from a summer cliffhanger and all the characters are in the same place. If your life has changed, why shouldn’t theirs?

This feels much more like a filmic narrative, it’s got a tighter structure, and less room for standalone scenes with the characters other than Shinji. I’m hoping that as the films go on, we do get to spend more time with Rei, and when she’s introduced, Asuka. Asuka was by far my favorite character in the series, her internal complexity was just as exciting to watch as Shinji’s, and she functions as essentially his opposite, using a lot of external personality to mask what she’s feeling inside. I remember when I was first watching the show, her entrance coalesced the characters into a kind of family, and made it a lot easier to understand Shinji as a character.

Even though I do have issues with the film, it is pretty spectacular visually. Cutting down on the number of Angels in the story makes them feel more dangerous, and raised the stakes for the battles. It took me a while to get into the world of the story again, but by the second half of the film, it just flew by. I was really surprised the film was already over when the battle with the Diamond Angel ended, it didn’t feel like an hour and a half had passed. I did love that battle, the stakes were huge, and you could really feel how much rested on Shinji’s shoulders. That’s something that wasn’t really conveyed in the TV series. And, as I mentioned before, I love the way the triumph he should feel after destroying the Angel is undercut by the knowledge that he is still alone, and desperate for someone who can share his burden.

This film sticks pretty closely to the series until the very end, when we get the early appearance of Kaworu. Kaworu made a huge impact, despite only appearing in one episode of the series. I’m guessing his appearance will start a change of events that differentiate the films from the series. As much as I like the show, if Anno’s going to go to the trouble of remaking the whole thing, he might as well experiment and do things differently. In some sense, that’s going with the spirit of the work. I found the last two episodes of the show to be a perfectly satisfying, and thematically appropriate ending for the story, however End of Eva works in its own way too. I can’t really say which one is more ‘real,’ and whatever happens in this version of the story is just another way it could have gone.

What I’m really curious to see is the ending. Both original endings felt so raw and emotional, like they were torn directly from Anno’s subconscious and put on film. I’ve only seen End of Eva once, but that last half of the film was as close to pure subconscious experience as I’ve seen on film. The stuff with Asuka and Shinji, the fourth wall breaking live action scenes, it was almost too much to take on a single viewing. How will Anno end his story this time? What will it tell us about the world and the characters? I’m curious to see. This was a strong start, an undeniably powerful film that, for all my issues with it and the project in general, I’m very glad to see in the world. Evangelion is one of the most challenging and emotionally wrenching series I’ve ever seen, and I’m glad to get a chance to return to that world for another round of stories.