Saturday, February 14, 2009

Battlestar Galactica: 'No Exit' (4x15)

On this busy TV night, I jumped right from the premiere of Dollhouse, a show in its infancy to Battlestar Galactica, a show on the slow path towards death, though death may be the wrong word. No show ever dies, that would imply the total extinction of the universe and the people within it. As we saw on The Sopranos, a show simply chooses a moment to cut to black, the world and its people go on. Even after Six Feet Under’s parade of death finale, we’ve seen a new generation that will live on and carry the legacy of our main characters forward.

This is particularly apt in an episode that’s largely concerned with past lives and an unending cycle of war and violence that will continue as long as humanity pushes out of that primordial swamp and reaches for the stars. It’s an episode that reveals much of the central mysteries that were set up with the introduction of the Final Five, mysteries that trace all the way back to the miniseries. It’s a very intellectual hour, one that juxtaposes the rambling narrative of Anders with flashbacks to Ellen Tigh and “John”’s discussions about the creation and future of the cylon race.

After a few clunkers, this episode brought the series right back to the place that I love, pondering questions of identity and humanity in really fascinating ways. It was interesting to watch this right after the Dollhouse pilot, since both series deal with core sci-fi questions about how much of our identity is our own and what elements go in to the construction of a human. Is someone like Echo still human? Is Cavil more human than machine? At what point does a construct personality become something real? How can creators maintain control over their creations?

The issues all have a very Blade Runner feel, and the Cavil/Ellen confrontation feels like an echo of Roy’s interrogation of Tyrell. Both are asking why they had to be the way that they were. Most people like to think that they’re the architects of their own identity, even as they blame specific inadequacies on the way they’re raised or genetics. But, what would it mean to know that you were created for a specific purpose, with all your flaws and personality traits decided by a group of five people. The reason the cylons have such reverence for the five is that the five made them. What does it feel like to meet your maker? There’s an element of awe in it, but there’s also a blame as you recognize that they built you flawed.

To some extent, we all have met our makers, our own parents. The Cylons’ desire to meet the five feels a bit like an adopted child’s desire to meet their birth parents, there’s this belief that meeting your creator will explain what you are. But, aren’t we more than the sum of our parts? I don’t see myself as a random combination of traits from my parents, I think there is something new and different that emerges out of that combination, in the same way that blue and yellow make green, a color that has a resemblance to what it came from, but at the same time is something completely new and different. In philosophy/religion, that’s what you’d call a soul, that essential thing that makes you you. We are built out of the parts of our parents, but we can become something more and transcend those origins.

But, let me briefly interrupt this philosophical line of thinking to discuss the most bizarre element of an episode that featured a lot of bizarre things, and that’s the inexplicable cameo of Daily Show correspondent/PC John Hogman as “the brain guy.” It felt like he had won some kind of contest that gave him this part on the show since he felt totally out of place in the world of the series. This wasn’t even a case where it’s a guy legitimately trying to act, but laboring in the shadow of a past famous role. He wasn’t acting, he was just there reading the lines, and doing everything short of winking to the audience to remind us that yes, this was John Hodgman. I don’t understand what happened with that casting. It felt almost like a comedy sketch, that’s how off he was in this universe.

Anyway, back to the substance of the episode. The basic idea of the Final Five, as I see it, is that they started out as essentially human on Earth, perhaps a future version of the society we currently live in. Sensing the imminent destruction of the planet in a nuclear holocaust, they brought back the technology to transfer consciousness to other bodies, rather than reproduce organically, and used this to preserve themselves after the planet was destroyed. Then, they jetted across the galaxy and created the human looking cylons in an attempt to stop the cycle of human/cylon violence that has waged for an eternity.

They attempted to do this by creating what is essentially a human/cylon hybrid in the existing seven, or perhaps eight, models that we know. But, Cavil is not happy with this form, and sees only the limitations of human perception. He wants to feel more, but is unable to do so inside the “cage” that his creators built for him. As he says, he has more in common with the centurion side of the family than the human one. He wants that mechanical certainty, but is stuck with the burden of being a human.

It’s interesting that Ellen designed John/Cavil after her father, particularly considering the fact that she had sex with him to save Tigh on New Caprica. The choice of who will be the Final Five was essentially random, and I don’t think that the Ellen we saw previously has much in common with the character here. I suppose that’s part of the point, that Cavil and the Cylons chose to punish these characters by forcing them to experience the humanity that the five forced on their creations. Wouldn’t Cavil’s ultimate revenge be to turn Ellen, the creator/god of their race into a lush, a woman who falls prey to all the vices and flaws that humans can deal with?

This background information also explains why the cylons were so interested in creating a cylon/human hybrid. The goal of the Final Five is to bridge the gap between humans and cylons, so Hera would serve as a literal representation of that alliance. The reason that Tigh and Six can have a child is presumably because Tigh isn’t like the cylons he knew, he came from a place where people could reproduce regularly, not just through the resurrection ships.

The other notable fusion in this episode is Adama’s decision to let the Galactica be fixed with Cylon technology. This is a literal representation of the gap bridging process that the Five exist to do. They are designed to end the endless cycle of human/cylon war, and integrating the two cultures via the Galactica is a perfect way to do that.

I love the episode and all the philosophical points it raises, but I’m curious about how this new information will be integrated into the story, and how the mission of the Final Five relates to the overall direction of the series. This episode implies that the whole point of the series is to overcome the differences between the two races and come to an alliance, the point that we reached when they reached Earth. But, what does that mean for our characters, and where will they all end up when the series reaches its close?

To some extent, I wish this cyclical war stuff had come in a bit earlier. We’ve always had the cryptic “this has happened before and will happen again,” but it was so vague that it didn’t have emotional traction. It was an interesting question to ponder, but not until now do we really understand the full scope of what it’s referencing. Perhaps they’ll be able to knit it all together in the other Final Five, the last five episodes of the series, we’ll see. Even if it doesn’t all quite hang together, if the episodes are as dense and challenging as this one, I’ll be satisfied.

The episode ends with the question of what’s happened to Anders. I’m guessing that he suffered a brief “death” during his surgery, and has been resurrected with Cavil’s people. That would lead into a final war with Cavil, and an attempt to break the cycle of violence. At the beginning of the series, the Cylons functioned largely as a metaphor for terrorism, and the cycles of violence that rage between the Western world and the Muslim world. In that respect, this story is a perfect allegory for the conflict that’s happened before and will happen again here in our world. What will it take for us to end the cycles of violence that have raged in the Middle East for years? It’s probably precisely the kind of cultural hybridization we see here, a breaking down of borders until the differences between us are so minimal as to not matter at all. But, that process will not be easy, and there will always be the hardliners. We saw the human hardliners dealt with last week, now they will have to deal with the cylon hardliners.

I’ll just add that even though the episode was largely dialogue based, there were still some awesome visuals. I still love the look of the Cylon baseships, the water droplet lights and eerie neon strips of red. There were also some awesome starburst explosion effects during the flashbacks. While the show is largely about gritty, “realistic” visuals, they still manage to get some of the most beautiful images ever seen on TV in there from time to time.

So, the show is back running strong. I’m eager to see where it goes next, and after all the darkness, there’s a new feeling of hope that this all might turn out okay in the end.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dollhouse: 'Ghost' (1x01)

After nearly five years without a Joss Whedon TV show on the air, he finally returned tonight with the first episode of Dollhouse. As with most Whedon series, it’s a problematic pilot, one with some great moments, but also a lot of flaws. The greatest flaw is the premise itself as presented now, one that seems destined to run up against a wall of irreconcilable elements unless some major changes happen.

Let me start with the flaw, then delve into what I liked about the show. The basic flaw is that I just didn’t care about the standalone plot. I had no stake in the characters involved, and the entire situation was clichéd with nothing to distinguish it from movies we’ve seen countless times before. I was reminded of Man on Fire, which turned a similar situation into an over the top hallucinogenic haze of insanity. The reason it had to do that was because we’ve seen this story many times before. And, because the show has to split its time between the various ongoing subplots, the time at the Dollhouse and the standalone of the week, all of the standalone stories will probably draw from archetypal elements we’re already familiar with.

Typically, our interest in the situation would stem from seeing how our main character engages with that story. But, in this case, the actual identity of our main character is the central question of the series. So, to see a “Miss Penn” succeed at her job every week just doesn’t seem like something that will be particularly interesting, particularly because she’s always going to mess up the mission in some way than manage to pull it off in the end.

Why did they program her to have asthma here? That question is addressed by Topher the programmer when he claims that having the human flaws gives them a drive to acheieve their mission that they wouldn’t have if they were “perfect.” He says that they’re not the “greatest hits” versions of people, but wouldn’t have the “greatest hits” model be precisely the reason you’d use this service? They’re offering the service of someone who’s beyond human, so why not play that up? In the case of this episode, wouldn’t it be more interesting to create the ultimate infiltrator agent, and have Echo get at them that way, rather than going through the typical channels.

The problem is that the show is built on a premise that should be all about exploring the sleaziest, dirtiest side of humanity. Each week should be a wallow in an activity so criminal and heinous that the people involved don’t want anyone to know about it. But, the network standards, and our rooting interest in the show hinge on putting the characters in essentially “heroic” situations.

But, I think the most interesting aspect of the show was the juxtaposition of these childlike, sheltered characters with the immoral behavior of their “parents” who run the dollhouse. The actives are commodities, they are designed to be used, and the most interesting standalone missions would be ones that put the characters in situations that stretch the boundaries of societal acceptability. As we’ve seen from the Elliot Spitzer scandal and countless others, people in power are willing to risk all they have for thrills, sexual and otherwise. So, a lot of the missions should involve Echo being built out as someone’s idealized girl, the one who will do things that no one else will. But, I don’t think we’re going to see a show that sends our hero on a variety of prostitution missions, so that’s not likely to happen.

But, there’s other ways that we can have her transgress societal rules. My mind flashes back to Salo, a film that I disliked, but raises essentially the same questions we’re addressing here, what would you do if you could use people with no consequences? I don’t think the guys from Salo had hostage negotiator anywhere near the top of their list.

But, I shouldn’t judge the show on what I want it to be, let me address more what is actually there. As I said before, I didn’t care much for the standalone story at all, and my fear is that this show will be one where you’re forced to sit through a half hour of fat to get to what’s really interesting about the story every week. It’s definitely reminiscent of Angel season one, where the show went through a variety of different scenarios trying to find its voice. Joss just isn’t great at writing standalone stories like this, and I’m not particularly interested in watching them. The only really cool moment in that section of the story was when Sierra burst in all business at the end to retrieve Echo and the girl.

That said, there was a lot that was great about this episode. I love the atmosphere in the Dollhouse, the slightly stilted way that everyone speaks, and the dreamlike way they move around. I also loved the final shot of them all going to sleep in their little cocoons, juxtaposed with a more hopeful ‘Caroline’ in the past. That video brought back memories of a similar juxtaposition in Cowboy Bebop’s classic “Sleep Like a Child,” which juxtaposed Faye’s videotape message to her school friends with her in the present day trying to sleep in the hollowed out ruin of the home where she grew up.

I liked Amy Acker’s character, and the uncertain way that all the higher ups treated the actives. There’s a lot of questions of identity and morality involved, and I’m sure they’ll be explored in more depth down the line. I want to see more of the actives’ world, and understand better how they interact with each other and view themselves. Is it an idyllic existence for them? Would they want to leave if they could? Those are the questions lingering now.

I also liked the setup of a couple of subplots, with Helo’s (he’s still Helo to me…) search for the Dollhouse, and the mysterious Alpha. But, I feel a conflict between what feels like the core of the story, breaking down the Dollhouse and trying to find an identity outside of it, and the long term future of the show which hinges on the Dollhouse existing. It feels like The Prisoner if Number 6 never tried to escape and instead just went along doing his thing every week. It was that need to escape that drove him, and that’s what needs to build in Echo. The case of the week is quite literally irrelevant to her character, as it’s erased every week. I’m sure there will be some lingering consequences occasionally, but it feels like those stories by definition will cease to matter after they happen.

So, I’m uncertain about the show’s future after seeing this first episode. I just didn’t care at all about this standalone story, and it’ll take a really good one to make me care about them in the future. I think most of the interesting stories that stem from this premise lie in places that will be difficult to fully explore. But, I’m hopeful that all the random pieces will knit together as time passes and we’ll see more of the world and get to the more long term character development that is Joss’s forte. Joss knows what he’s doing, and I’m sure once this show gets through its first few episodes of growing pains, it’ll be something great.

Big Love: 3x01-3x04

Big Love is a show I’ve always had mixed feelings about. That cast is full of actors I love, and the premise raises a lot of potentially interesting issues. In its first two seasons, the show had some really strong episodes, but never made the jump to great TV. The ‘Golden Age’ HBO series, like The Sopranos or The Wire or even Six Feet Under, all did things that you didn’t see anywhere else. They were full of incredibly rich characters and explored huge issues within their continous, novelistic plots.

In short, those shows justified the “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” tagline because they are like virtually nothing else in the history of TV. When I see people call Showtime the new HBO, I cringe because all the Showtime shows I’ve seen are essentially edgier versions of classic network shows, and like a lot of FX shows, they’re more interested in being edgy for edginess’s sake than in building compelling stories and world. Weeds is a particular offender in this respect, but Dexter also suffers from the fact that at its core, it’s a CBS style procedural. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being like a TV show, Buffy is very much a TV show in style and presentation, but the writing kept the characters evolving and that’s what made it such a great series.

In the post Sopranos era, there’s a lot of highly serialized shows, but there’s very few shows that enact real change in their universes. Shows like Rescue Me, 24 or Alias are full of ongoing plots that make them seemingly incomprehensible to new viewers, but really what they’re doing is variations on a theme. 24 will always spin back to the mole, the nuclear bomb, Jack going rogue, just as Alias perpetually wound its way back to Sydney working for Sloane. Rescue Me has extended stories, but after the stories resolve themselves, the characters are essentially the same as they were before. The problem with this is that you wind up with a merry go round of couplings and scenarios such that by the fifth or sixth season, everyone has fucked everyone, and there’s nowhere left to go.

But, the best shows only get better as time goes on. To some extent, The Sopranos repeated itself narratively. The structural plot of all the middle seasons can be summed up as a new family member comes into town and causes problems for Tony until he crosses the line and has to be whacked at the end of the season. It happens to Richie, Jackie, Ralphie, Tony B, and to some extent, Vito. But, within the repetition, there’s an evolution of Tony’s character, and a deepening of our understanding of his world and what’s going on around him. The weight of what’s happened weighs on the character in believable ways. You can’t honestly believe that Jack Bauer has been through all he’s been through on the series, but Tony’s continuity seems plausible.

All of this is a way of saying that what separates good shows from great shows is the capacity for real change, to deepen and expand the universe as time passes. Big Love’s third season is doing just that, telling its best stories yet in a really focused, intense opening run.

Part of what makes the season work so far is the way that Roman’s trial has served as a structural centerpiece for the whole show. One of the things that’s hurt the show in the past is that the stakes are smaller than we’re used to on TV. At their core, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are just about a family and their struggles to deal with the world, but the backdrop of the mob and the gravty of the funeral home helped make those shows feel deeper and more significant. In the case of Big Love, the stories at home can sometimes feel frivolous or soapy without that sort of heavy grounding. I hate to say that on some level, because that sort of if it’s not life or death, it doesn’t matter logic is what contributes to our glut of doctor and lawyer shows, but that’s the way it feels.

But, the presence of Roman’s trial as this looming threat for the family makes it easier to appreciate the less dramatic b plots. It also alleviates the disconnect between the compound and Bill’s family that has caused problems for the show in the past. The family’s courtship of Ana is a great story, but is it a strong enough centerpiece to unite all the show’s disparate characters? Perhaps not, but now it doesn’t have to carry that load, it was able to simmer in the background, amidst a variety of other stories.

That’s not to say that the Roman trial was even the most compelling story on the show. What’s interesting is how it’s forced the other characters in to different and challenging positions. Nikki in particular has gotten stronger material this year than ever before. I find it a little implausible that Roman Grant’s daughter could so easily infiltrate the D.A’s office under an assumed name, but once you get past that, her story there is great. For one, it’s always interesting to see her drop the Compound style and try to fit in with regular society. But, it also forces her to explicitly confront the outside world’s view of the compound without being able to instantly snap back with her usual defenses. The condemnation simmers there, and by the end, she’s forced to confront the fact that she is a victim of the abuse that Roman is being tried for, and no matter how much she may love him, her father is guilty of the crime. And, her own feelings about the marriage she was forced in to prevent her from spouting the party line defense.

The high point of this is her tearful collapse on to the D.A’s shoulder after she sees the photos of her in the Joy Book. But, her loyalty to her family is such that she still assists in sabotaging the case. I like the way the arc played out, the way her inevitable assistance to Roman is juxtaposed against our desire for her to speak out against him. I want her to move into our world more and leave those old values behind, but she can’t do that so easily. The Sopranos was brilliant at juxtaposing our hopes for what would happen against the characters’ inevitable moral weakness and this story pulls off something similar. And, Sevigny thankfully gets to explore new dimensions of the character as time passes. The revelation that she was married once before is the perfect retcon, something that adds new depth to a character without contradicting anything that’s come before. In act, it goes a good way to explaining why she’d be willing to move off the compound in the first place.

Our moral alignment with respect to the various characters is one of the most complex things about the series. Watching it, I can’t relate at all to Bill and his family’s belief that the reason they’re on the Earth is to churn out kids and have more and more wives. The revelation that Nikki’s on birth control made her even more sympathetic to me because I think it’s perfectly understandable that she would want to have more control over her own life. Her work at the D.A’s office may have began as espionage, but I think by the end she legitimately enjoys it.

So, the question arises, are we supposed to believe in what Bill and his family are trying to achieve? Because they’re the main characters of the series, ostensibly we’re behind them in their quest to woo Ana. Certainly it was tough to watch Nikki and Margene squabbling during their “date” with Ana because I wanted Ana to like them. And yet, at the same time, the values of their world are so distorted and incompatible with how I see things that my attachment and general positive feelings towards the characters are juxtaposed with this dislike of their value system.

That’s why I like that the show has confronted this head on, both with Sarah’s total rejection of her parents’ lifestyle, and with Nancy and Lois’s shock at Bill’s plan to take on a fourth wife. Sarah is one of the most interesting characters in this season, clearly just biding her time before she can get out and move on. She started out growing up in a ‘normal’ family, how would she feel when all of a sudden she winds up in a zoo of children and a messy hierarchy of three “mothers” looking out for her? What control does she have when they seek to add another wife. She’s got none, and that makes her want to get as far away from that world as possible.

Throughout the series, I’ve found the kids’ storylines among the most interesting, and the addition of the bizarre compound people gone wild flophouse adds another layer. Frankie and his fellow Compounders seem to have a kind of “what happens outside the compound stays outside the compound” mentality and are living it up. I’m not sure how that jives with one of the girls chastising Sarah for dressing in a way that pleases Satan, but I suppose that’s the bizarre moral world they live in.

The central question of the season seems to be how much can you compromise on the road to salvation? Roman and his crew use coercion, threats of violence and bribery to ensure that he goes free. Bill’s entire casino business is a way to preserve his lifestyle and protect him from risk. But, is he morally compromising the very sanctity he’s hoping to preserve? If he sacrifices those morals, does that mean he’s just a guy with a bunch of wives because he can? That’s the question raised by Nancy in the last episode, the idea that he’s dabbling in this and is adding another wife because he can.

There’s no easy answers there, but this season’s first four episodes have been stronger than any in the show’s prior history. I’m hoping they can keep that up without Roman’s trial around to act as a structuring element. At least there’s a bunch of other interesting plots in development that will be able to pick up the slack.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Batman #686: "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" (Part 1)

Picking up where Grant Morrison left off, Neil Gaiman’s Batman #686 presents yet another spin on the death of Batman. This one also appears to be taking the “It’s all true” approach to Batman, mixing elements of pre-Crisis Catwoman with post-crisis Barbara Gordon and a reincarnated Joe Chill for a pretty mysterious opening. Is this a dream like trip through hypertime that Batman takes on his journey between worlds? Are the various deaths he experiences a piece of his journey through Darkseid’s Omega Sanction? Or is it just an excuse for Gaiman to get a bunch of characters he likes together and tell some fun stories about Batman.

I haven’t written that much about Gaiman on this blog, but I do love his work. Sandman was the first long form comics series I read, and I still think it’s one of the high points of the medium. I was debating at the New York Comicon who the fourth best writer in comics is, with everyone having the foregone conclusion that Moore, Gaiman and Morrison are the top three. I can’t argue with that, Gaiman doesn’t write that many comics, but what he writes is usually really strong. 1602 didn’t work so well, but I’ve liked pretty much everything else I read by him in comics.

I’d still love to see Gaiman get to conclude his Miracleman run. I’ve only read “The Golden Age,” and there he did the near impossible of following up on Alan Moore’s legendary run in a way that didn’t step on what Moore had created, and only served to deepen and expand the universe. It’s a shame the series has been trapped in legal limbo for so long, one day, hopefully Gaiman will be able to finish the story.

When reading a Grant Morrison comic, the thing that overwhelms you is the amount of ideas. In Final Crisis, there’s a dozen cool concepts littered on every page and you can’t believe that he has this vast store in his mind to draw from. With Gaiman’s work, what has always amazed me is the huge amount of stories. Sandman knitted together its larger story with countless standalone stories. Where do they all come from? This issue is similar to a lot of Sandman arcs in that it uses a gathering of a bunch of people as a framing device for various smaller tales, each from a notable member of Batman’s supporting cast.

I’m not sure what the end result of all this will be. How can all these different incarnations of the characters be there together? I think it’s the perfect thing to tie in with the Omega Sanction, that this is Bruce’s hallucinatory journey through a series of different lives and deaths, watching all his friends betray him and leaving him utterly alone. Selina, particularly this Earth 2 version, and Alfred have always been allies of Bruce, why would they kill him?

The Selina story covers a piece of the Batman mythology that I love, but hasn’t really been touched on in either of my two favorite comics Batman stories, Morrison’s Batman RIP or Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again. The uncertain flirtatious relationship between Selina and Bruce, Batman and Catwoman, can be great because it explores the thin line between Batman and the criminals he hunts. If Catwoman can so easily switch sides from good to bad, why can’t Bruce do the same thing, and, could he find himself on the other side without even meaning to be there?

The relationship is most brilliantly explored in what is still the finest Batman film, Batman Returns. There, we see Bruce go one step further than he does in this comic and offer to throw away the Batman persona and settle down with Selina, only to have his image of an idyllic homelife rejected. The two of them need that fire to be together, they aren’t normal, and can only really be together as Batman and Catwoman. One of the things I love about the film is Selina’s defiant rejection of his offer of a classic heteronormative dream life, marriage to the most eligible bachelor in Gotham, a good looking guy who’s also incredibly rich. She has moved beyond that world now, and doesn’t play by their rules.

Wonder Woman is so messed up in a history of bondage and power/subservience, I’d argue that Catwoman is DC’s real feminist hero. Sure, she may be a villain some of the time, but the character argues for a rejection of traditional feminine roles, and the embrace of a new kind of independent lifestyle. I’d really like to see Morrison’s take on the character in his next batch of issues.

Catwoman’s story here is largely about the impossibility of being together with Batman, primarily because he has his way of doing things, and doesn’t see much room for someone with her own approach. He is attracted to her when she’s a criminal, but when she tries to fight crime, he just chastises her for doing it “wrong.”

Here, Selina does achieve the kind of domestic dream that she rejected in Batman Returns, but she gradually loses the fire that drove her as time goes on. In letting Batman die on the couch, she is making it possible for her to kill herself. As long as he was out there, there was always the hope he’d come back to her, and things could be like they were. When he comes back and she finds out that he knew she was there all the time, but never chose to see her, she decides that it would be best to let them both die together. Only, she’s too scared to do herself, and instead she just watches the man she loved, a piece of herself, die.

The Alfred story is also extremely interesting. It works fine as a straight up elseworlds type story, but I’d argue it functions more as Alfred exercising his guilt for enabling Bruce’s delusions over the years. In letting Bruce become Batman, Alfred indirectly upped the ante in the crime stakes, and paved the way for supercriminals like The Joker. We see that dramatized here with the story of Alfred literally creating supervillains as a way to make Bruce feel better.

The whole story feels a bit like the portions of Watchmen that discussed how much better it felt to go out in costume when the villains were wearing costumes too. If Alfred hadn’t created ‘The Riddler,’ Bruce might have gotten over his depression naturally and given up the illusion of being Batman. But, Alfred kept raising the stakes to keep him happy, and eventually the illusion he’d constructed spun out of control.

And, as time went on, the illusion became real, which is discussed in the scene with Bruce and Alfred at the window. The fight against evil is real, therefore the evil itself must be real as well. The whole story is interesting in light of the rampant speculation that Alfred was the force behind the Black Glove, and also in light of the idea that Bruce was his own worst enemy, another possible candidate for Black Glove status. Batman RIP was largely concerned with the idea that only Batman himself could come up with a villain powerful enough to defeat him. This story would take place early in Batman’s career and play off the idea of Batman and The Joker as symbiotic entities, each becoming more violent and powerful in response to each other, riding together on an inextricable path towards destruction.

I’m still not sure what the overall setup for the story is, but this was a great, really dense issue that brought back memories of just how good a comics writer Gaiman can be. This is stronger than 1602 or Eternals, and it made me wish that he’d jump back on an ongoing, or just do some more work in the DCU or anything. I want more Gaiman comics. But, for now, this two parter will do.

Monday, February 09, 2009

New York Comicon 2009: Day 2 and 3

Besides seeing the Joss Whedon panel yesterday, I saw a bunch of other stuff at the comicon. On Saturday, I went to the Torchwood panel. Eve Myles and director Euros Lyn were there. They screened a trailer/EPK type promo piece for the season. To be honest, it looks okay, but not that impressive.

I’m not that big a fan of Torchwood in general. It feels stuck in that Angel season one mode of heavy, way too serious and self consciously dark standalone episodes that never really add together. The second season had some good episodes, but the finale was botched by condensing what should have been a two or three episode arc into one episode. Angel found its voice by going more operatic and over the top, which huge, sweeping arcs and sustained character development. This season is one big story, which could work. But, the trailer looks like more of the same.

Still, it was nice see Eve Myles there, and she was pretty funny throughout. There wasn’t any huge news out of the panel. PC Andy will be in the season, and Rhys will have a bigger role. No Mickey or Martha though, disappointing after the tease in the Who finale. I’ll definitely be watching, but Torchwood just isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.

On Saturday, I also had the chance to speak to Chris Claremont for a little bit. He was promoting his new series, X-Men Forever. He said that the series would explore the question of why no mutants ever get old. The promo material looked pretty nice, I’ve got a signed poster on my wall now, and it’s got the best X-costumes since Quitely’s. These outfits find a nice balance between the superhero style of the past and the civilian style Morrison had. They look like regular clothes versions of the characters’ old style spandex outfits. So, Gambit’s got a black coat, a suit and a pink shirt instead of the pink body armor thing. Rogue wears a green vest over a black shirt, that sort of thing. I wish the poster was online, but I can’t find it anywhere.

He also had pages from an upcoming series called X-Women with Milo Manara. It’s supposed to be out in the summer, and the preview art looked gorgeous. I read Manara’s story in Sandman: Endless Nights, and this story has the same really detailed line work as he had there. Claremont’s worked with a lot of journeyman artists, but he’s also had some great collaborations with people like Art Adams or Paul Smith. It’s nice to see him get to work with a real topline talent on this one.

I also spoke briefly with Louise Simonson and heard a few stories about working on X-Men back in the day. Since I was there ostensibly to work with Sequart and promote my Invisibles book, I didn’t go for any sketches or anything like that. Trying to keep it professional now, y’know?

Anyway, part of that is the next book that I’m working on. Expanding significantly on my blog posts from a while back, I’m going to be doing an analytical look at the Chris Claremont X-Men from Giant Size to X-Men #3, with side looks at relevant sections of X-Factor and New Mutants, and the various minis. It’s a huge project, but I think it’s a hugely important piece of comics history that hasn’t been thoroughly covered, so I’m taking on the task. I’m planning on interviewing Claremont and Simonson, and hopefully other relevant people, as part of the process, and possibly doing a companion documentary as well. We’ll see what develops, but I’m hoping to have that book completed and available for purchase at the next New York Comicon in 2010.

As for The Invisibles book, the title is now going to be Our Sentence is Up: Seeing The Invisibles, it’ll be in the August previews, and available in stores in October. So, look for that.

So, this weekend, I picked up a ton of X-Factor and New Mutants issues to fill in the gaps, and I’m pretty close to having all the books I need to cover for this era. I also got two volumes of Frank Miller Daredevil, which I’ve never read, and am excited to check out.

The con was certainly missing something without Morrison, but it was fun nonetheless, and just zipped by. I was really tired at the end of it, but it was a great three days.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dollhouse: The Ten Minute Preview

I’ll cover more general stuff about the New York Comicon later today, but I first wanted to write up the Joss Whedon panel, and in particular, the ten minute opening act of the Dollhouse pilot that was screened.

It’s been a long time since Joss had a show on TV. I didn’t watch Buffy until after the series had ended, but I did catch up to Angel in the last season, and I remember how awesome it was to be able to see new Joss every week. That feeling will be back this Friday, a night that will feature one of the best blocks of TV of all time, with Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles segueing in to either a rejuvenated Friday Night Lights or Dollhouse, then on to Battlestar Galactica. That’s a lot of TV for one night.

I think expectations are very high for Dollhouse. The longer someone’s away, the more you forget about their flaws. Buffy and Angel, great as they became, all had very shaky and uneven first seasons. Watching on a weekly basis, I doubt I would have made it through the first year of Buffy, but seen as part one of a much larger narrative, it’s easier to accept the flaws and move along. But, with Dollhouse, we don’t know what it will become, and people will be judging it against the heights and depth of Buffy or Angel right from the beginning.

That said, it does start very strong. The series begins with a slightly stilted scene that shows us a brief glimpse of the pre Dollhouse Echo, then plunges us right into the world of her missions. I really like the energy and immediacy of the pilot. Eliza Dushku, as Faith, had an energy and reckless abandon that no other character in the Buffyverse did. She was all action, not introspection, and that quality comes across in the first few minutes, where we condense an action packed weekend into one scene that shows us the kind of life she leads.

From there, we delve into the Dollhouse itself and see the process of wiping her memory. The scenes do have some flaws. There’s some obviously expositiony dialogue, the kind of “As you know” style of characters telling each other things they should all know already. There’s also a few forced Whedonisms, like when Echo talks about the flaw of the clean slate metaphor, the fact that no slates actually are clean. And, a reference to a carriage turning into a pumpkin that bothers me since I feel like it’s an overused cliché.

That said, the thing that jumped out to me about the series was the ambience and aura surrounding everything. The premise is full of interesting philosophical questions, and I think that the first ten minutes bring these to the fore in an interesting way. There’s a line where one guy says that they wipe their minds, and the ‘dolls’ can live a worry free life, everyone’s dream. Is it better to just forget the bad parts of your life and exist in a happy haze? Probably not for everyone, but for some people, most definitely.

A lot of my favorite works of fiction combine heavy philosophical questions with over the top pop action. The Invisibles or The Matrix: Reloaded both walk that line, the former more skillfully than the latter. I’m more interested in characters and ideas than imposed narratives, and if this show can manage to work the way these first ten minutes do and downplay traditional narrative in favor of compressed hyperpop moments that raise questions to think about, it could be amazing. I’m guessing that the main show will have a more normalized feel, and according to promo material, at least the first seven episodes are standalone stories. But, with Whedon, I’m sure they have building consequences and purpose beyond simply the need to fill an hour.

When I say narrative doesn’t interest me, I mean that I don’t want to see a story of the week that raises some questions and then answers them. I hate procedural shows and most mysteries because they’re all about a constant character interacting with elements that change over the course of the episode and then disappear. To some extent, that sort of storytelling is intrinsic to this series. The character that Eliza plays will always disappear at the end of an episode, and she won’t remember what happened. How is it possible to make us care about her then, outside of an abstract interest in her as a philosophical object? That’s the trick of the show, and I’m sure a lot of her arc will involve her gradually rediscovering her own humanity, and having to deal with the consequences of that.

Speaking after the clip, Joss and Tahmoh Penikett did a bunch of joking around, and fielded the usual “I love your work…oh my god I’m so nervous…you’re awesome, ok, um, I’m a screenwriter, what should I do to make good scripts?” type questions, but along the way Joss talked quite a bit about the inherently contradictory nature of the material, how it can simultaneously be perceived as a feminist critique of a culture that objectifies women, and an objectification of women. Certainly, the promotional material plays off of this, using a naked Eliza in the context of what looks almost like in universe advertising for the Dollhouse itself, but also sells the show as a similar experience to what the Dollhouse itself offers, an hour with this beautiful woman who can be anything you want.

The concept is full of contradictions like that, and you could easily read the real Dollhouse as Joss himself, putting people through their paces in roles created by him to play out what are to some extent his own fantasies. I’ve talked a lot before about the similarities between Chris Claremont and Whedon, and this premise feels right out of that dirty recess of Claremont’s mind that keeps going back to mind control and submissive/dominant role playing type scenarios. Whedon is a bit more upfront about his feminist intentions, and exploring the contradictions, but he’s in that same place as Claremont, simultaneously creating strong female characters and then putting them in situations where they’re made utterly powerless.

I also think that there’s nothing wrong with exploring those things in fiction, or real life if it’s between consenting adults. Our identities are all constructs, created to fit the mold of what’s acceptable in society, and what happens when our desires conflict with society? In the case of Dollhouse, it seems that the rich and powerful will be able to play out their fantasies through these people, and in that sense, the clients are just as interesting, if not more so, than the dolls themselves. In reality, you’d probably wind up with a bunch of old, ugly, rich men hiring these people, but in TV, it seems that you’ve got more eccentric, wealthy young men doing the hiring.

So, I’m a lot more excited for the show than I was before seeing it. The first ten minutes were far superior to any Whedon pilot to date. It almost feels like an entire episode is compressed into that first act, and I think by that first commercial, the major ideas and narrative drive is laid out, so we can then segue into something like the second episode when we presumably see more of the characters and they go on another mission. The show is already begging for analytical treatment, and even more than Whedon’s other works, it’s got a complex philosophical question at its center. He said that his other shows were about conveying messages and he was clearly behind those messages, but here, he’s a lot more uncertain about the central mission, and the show doesn’t exist as a polemic to convince you of anything.

Other highlights from the Q&A included him and Tahmoh riffing on some Battlestar stuff, a promise of more Doctor Horrible in the future and the advice that if you want to make a movie or write for TV, don’t wait for someone to hire you, just make it. Very sage words. He also mentioned that the retooling process happened partially because he didn't know the show yet. But, elements of the original pilot are sprinkled throughout other episodes, and that by the end of the season, they sync back up with the original plans, and that the season apparently ends on a really high note. It sounded to some extent like the first few episodes are a network concession, and that the real core of the show comes out at the end of the season, when the storytelling becomes more serialized. He also said that, much like with Buffy, the end of the season brings things to a solid resting place, so if the show doesn't continue, it doesn't sound like we'll be stuck with an awful cliffhanger. Well, I’m eager to see the rest of the Dollhouse pilot on Friday, look for a full review then. If the ten minutes raised this many questions, I’m sure the full episode will raise even more.