Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lost - 'The Last Recruit' (6x13)

It's amazing to watch an episode like “The Last Recruit” and see the show all of a sudden jump from meandering hit and miss episodes to an urgent, action packed, but emotionally focused hour that serviced all the characters well and was wall to wall great scenes and excitement. It's great to see that the creators finally decided that things happening and people doing stuff can result in an interesting episode of the show!

A big part of what made the episode great was the show once again abandoning the extremely constrictive one person flashback structure that prevented the first three seasons and the first chunk of this season from achieving consistent greatness. The alt-verse scenes are converging in interesting ways, and cutting from story to story gives it all a lot more momentum than the drawn out vignettes from the early part of the season. Any alternate universe story is interesting not because of something inherent to what's going on, but in the difference between the expected norm and what we're seeing. Now, we get a lot of difference, and also the excitement of seeing Desmond's plan in motion and all the characters coming together.

In general, the episode benefitted greatly from cross cutting and the multiple fronts of action. There was a sense of events converging and colliding that gave each scene an added meaning. Cross cutting, when it's used best, makes each individual scene more than the sum of its parts. The big example for me is the end of Return of the Jedi, which is as perfectly structured a climax as anything out there, with each set piece building and informing what's next. Magnolia is another great example, where nine interesting stories become one riveting whole thanks to their combination. Ultimately, cross cutting should result in something more than the sum of its parts, and that's what this episode had.

On a visual level, it was a lot more exciting than the rather sedate season to date. The boat stuff looked great, and I particularly liked the image of Jack leaping off the boat, deciding to stick with the island and not return. That scene was great for a number of reasons, most notably for finally acknowledging the mistake that leaving the island would be for most of the characters. A lot of the season five going back to the island arc has been sort of muddied this year, as leaving the island again becomes a key motivation. Why would Hurley want to leave the island, when going back was so terrible for him? Why would Jack? So, it's nice to see the show address that.

Jack knows how bad things were, how without purpose or direction he felt. In that sense, it was similar to the alt-verse, where the characters live in a world without love, color or light. Only in this case, Jack knew what he was missing and suffered all the more because of it. Sawyer has never had the luxury of leaving the island, and for him, it's now the sight of so much pain. I like when he tells Kate he's done going back. He decided to stay twice before, once during his first day in the 70s, when he convinced Juliet to stay behind, and later in “The Incident,” where Juliet and Kate forced him to go after Jack. He doesn't want to do that anymore, he just wants to go, and is working to ensure that happens.

I prefer the idea that the show is about people finding their destiny and actualizing themselves through adventure and extraordinary events, not through retreating into domesticity. An ending where everyone goes home wouldn't satisfy me. I could understand it for characters like Sun and Jin, but not for everyone. This episode complicates the moral axis a bit, Jack has finally done something that made me like the character, but in the process he seems to have allied himself with Locke, who's clearly got malevolent intentions.

One of the big events of this week was the show finally bringing Claire seriously into the mix. The big problem with the dark/crazy Claire arc has been that the character was never that strong or compelling to begin with. She and Charlie were sweet together, but other than that, she just sort of sat around the whole series, and then wandered off into the woods with Christian Shephard. So, it's hard to emotionally engage with Claire, or be that shocked by the change in her. She's still a wild card, and it's unclear whether she's going with the group to turn on them, or if she's really betrayed Locke. I'm also not that interested in the whole Aaron arc, it's unfortunate that every single female character left alive on the show has become defined by having children or taking care of them. But that's always been a problem, Juliet was the only great female character the show ever produced.

And speaking of Juliet, she remains one of the great enigmas of the alternate universe. You've got to assume at this point that she's Jack's wife, and I'm curious to see what that means should she remember the prime-verse and her relationship with Sawyer. I hope that the teased relationship with Sawyer and Kate in the alt-verse isn't meant to imply that they're actually each others' 'soul mates.' At least the main-verse, Sawyer still seems driven by his rage at Juliet's death, but it's unclear if she or Kate is his true love. That was the issue that led to the nuke going off, and it looks to be central again as we move towards the end of the series.

It's actually smart writing in a genre series to combine a relationship base with an out there plot element. It gives things an emotional ground, and in the case of the nuke story, did tie a bizarre plot element to character stuff. The problem in that case was that the character motivations didn't seem to quite justify wiping out all of reality, so we'll have to see if it plays better here.

Also notable this week was the seeming confirmation of the alt-verse as a world where everyone gets their wishes granted, but in a twisty way through Desmond's conversation with Sayid. Sayid does indeed get Nadia back, but she's with his brother, and he'll be forced to do terrible things to protect her, just as he did in the prime-verse. The question of wish fulfillment is more complicated for the other characters. Some people have that sort of be careful what you wish for thing going on, but others just have a straight up good life. It seems to be mostly the candidates who had things go well, perhaps tempting them to go to the alt-verse, even though it deprives others of love. They would get a paradise, but the rest of the world would be in hell.

That interpretation would fit with what we've seen from Sun and Jin, Jack, Sawyer and Locke to some extent. It seems clear that alt-verse Locke will have to make some kind of choice and play a part in defeating Smoke Locke. In his own episode, he chose to accept 'what he can't do' and be happy in his domestic life. Will he have to make that choice again? There's still some mysteries surrounding the alt-verse, but things are becoming a bit clearer. My guess at this point is that everyone will have to make a choice between their lives on the island and their lives in the alt-verse, and that choice will determine whether the Smoke Monster escapes the island.

This episode was in some respects largely a moving the pieces episode, but it did a great job of giving all the characters interesting stuff to do, and thanks to effective cross cutting across multiple stories, it had a lot of momentum and was riveting throughout. This is how you build to the end of a story, and it's a shame it took twelve episodes of meandering to get here. But, if they keep up this momentum to the end of the show, it's going to be a great finale.

Doctor Who - "Victory of the Daleks" (5x03)

I'm a bit behind on this week's Doctor Who, thanks to my trip to C2E2, but I'm caught up on it now, and it was quite an enjoyable episode, but as with seemingly every TV review I've been writing recently, I've got a couple of overarching concerns.

My major concern has nothing to do with the quality of the episode itself, so much as the use of the daleks, who have always been positioned as the ultimate foe for the Doctor, and were treated perhaps a bit too casually in this episode. The big concern with any arch foe is that the more times you use them where neither side actually wins the less potent the relationship is. This is a big problem in comics, where it's tough to find a new spin for the latest Batman/Joker or X-Men/Magneto fight. But, it's equally a problem here.

In the Davies era, apart from the dire “Daleks in Manhattan,” the way to keep things fresh was to raise the stakes every time they appeared, starting with one Dalek in “Dalek” to the galaxy spanning battle in “Journey's End.” It generally worked, and unlike a lot of internet critics, those epic Dalek finales were among my favorite episodes of the series. “Parting of the Ways” in particular was absolutely dazzling, and “Journey's End” was the hardest hitting emotional moment of the series to date.

So, I was happy to see the Daleks, and I think this episode did a generally strong job of keeping them menacing and interesting. My concern is that once again it was about the Doctor trying to eliminate the Daleks forever, something we know is not going to happen. Why not do a story where he just accepts that the Daleks are there and fights them one battle at a time. No one out there thinks that the Doctor is going to win the final Dalek battle in a one parter that's the third episode of the season. Similarly, the whole blowing up the Tardis gambit didn't work, since we know that wouldn't happen. The episode ultimately was about setting up future Dalek stories, so I would have preferred an approach a bit closer to “Dalek,” where the menace is more in theory than in practice.

That said, my concerns here were primarily about the use of the Daleks themselves. The episode itself was pretty strong. The Daleks versus WWII era bombers space battle was my favorite moment of the new series to date, and captured that manic pulp excitement that the show does so well. The Star Wars parallel jumped out to me, and it worked there.

I also really liked the beats surrounding the scientist struggling to find his humanity, and the way that Amy helped him rediscover the person he was. It was a really satisfying moment in the story, and a great moment for her as a character. This Doctor seems harsher than Tennant, and Amy is bringing a softer approach. It's a dynamic reminiscent of the Eccleston era, when Rose was helping the Doctor find his heart again. But, this Doctor seems even more full of anger, and I'm curious to see how that's going to develop over the course of the season. So far, the emotions this series have been more hidden than in the Davies era, which is partially why I haven't responded to it as much, but I'm eager to see how they develop the character.

This was actually my favorite episode of the season to date. It was the most consistently strong and had some great character bits. I particularly liked the tease of the crack in spacetime at the end, and how that's been playing into the overall season arc. And, next week looks like it should be full of great stuff, as Moffat revisits two of his classic episodes on the series.