Archive | December, 2012

The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy TV Shows on Netflix Streaming

30 Dec

I have this need to not only make people watch the shows I like, but to sit down and watch them at the same time. Something about recapturing the magic vicariously through the coerced enjoyment of others. Sadly, I can’t do that for the internet, but I can make you all watch what I want you to watch. Don’t worry, it’s not shitty Buffy the Vampire Slayer porn (although the acting is probably on par with early Sarah Michelle Gellar.)

Hey! I said no BTVS porn! Get back here!

No. Instead I’m going to give you the top 5 sci-fi/fantasy shows that you could start watching right now. Provided you have Netflix, or know someone who has Netflix, or are an unscrupulous person who pretends to have Netflix that you’re actually stealing from an aged relative. These are all viable lifestyle choices. Just watch these damn shows.

(By the way, I’m going to list them in order of how easy they are to get into, not on how much I like them. Because I love them all.)

5. Doctor Who

If Doctor Who was just this all the time, it would be #1

Doctor Who gets #5 on this list because Season 1 is EXTREMELY hard to get into if you’re not a fan of the old series, cheesy plots, bad CGI, farting monsters, Chris Eccleston’s ears, Rose Tyler’s cat mouth or Russell Davies’ use of extreme closeups on people’s faces.

I think Jackie’s actively embodying four of the things I just mentioned in this picture alone.

That was a really good pitch. Let me start over.

Doctor Who is the story of a 900-1100 year old alien (who looks like an attractive British man) who can travel through time and space in a police box that is bigger on the inside (or smaller on the outside, depending on which companion you are.) The Doctor and his (usually) young and pretty companion travel around solving mysteries that always link back to malevolent alien species. Sometimes there are bowties. Sometimes the Doctor loses his friends or the people he’s trying to save. But he almost always saves the world.

And when he’s not attractive enough, they change actors so he can look like this!

Doctor Who is an amazing series, and you don’t have to know anything about the 1960s version to get into it. Unfortunately, Season 1 (2005) starts off a little shaky. A trash can eats a dude and burps. It’s that kind of show. However, it rapidly gains something that very few sci-fi shows attain: heart. It gives mere lip service to science, but whatever. More than being a show about aliens and time travel (which is often very cool,) Doctor Who is mostly about how terrible it is to be in charge of other people’s safety and happiness, and how lonely it is to be a god.

“Too many beautiful women love me.”

All of the actors who play the Doctor have been brilliant, and each manages to portray a quirky, adventurous, excitable man who really wants to show off his knowledge and impress people. They also manage to show a man who tries to repress his loneliness, his bitterness, his guilt and his shame and can’t quite pull it off.

Watch Doctor Who for the relationships and the acting. Watch it for Steven Moffat’s clever writing or scary bad guys, but mostly watch it to piece together the beautiful, powerful mess of a man who wants to save everyone and never quite manages it.

Total Seasons Available: 6 available on Netflix, but the show is midway through Season 7.
Total Episodes: There are about 87 45-minute episodes, although you have to search through Netflix for a few of the specials.
Best Episode: “Blink” is one of the greatest episodes of television. This award is not up for debate.

4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Six reasons right here why you should watch this show. (Count ’em.)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is technically the story of an extremely annoying cheerleader who doesn’t want the superpowers that she’s given. Then she gradually learns to slay vampires, kill demons, and solve mysteries, always with a terrible pun and some witty banter. Actually, though, this show is the brilliant deconstruction of almost every trope, genre and pop culture phenomenon ever. And it’s funny as hell.

Buffy is another one of my favorite shows that takes a bit of effort to get into. This is Joss Whedon, whose writer’s block probably cures cancer, but he starts off a little slow. Like Doctor Who, you must be patient with Season 1. Your patience will be rewarded. Buffy has everything you could ever want.

Except when she opens her mouth.

It’s a feminist text set in a campy horror setting. It’s a show that stars powerful women that is not just watched by women and that doesn’t just focus on romance. It delights in classic tropes that you didn’t realize were cliches, and then it inverts them.

Very few high school shows outlast the high school years. Most of them shouldn’t. This one thrived and it stayed fresh for almost its entire run. Inside jokes, sexy-ass romance, Seth Green as a laconic werewolf, clever dialogue, real heart, and mostly this…

Don’t expect this for Seasons 1-3 or you will be disappointed by the amount of fuzzy sweaters

…Are all great reasons to start this brilliant show right now. If you’ve ever hated cliches, wanted more continuity, enjoyed witty banter or had an emotion, this show is for you. If you’ve had too many emotions, try watching Angel.

Total Seasons Available: All 7
Total Episodes: 144 45-minute episodes. It sounds like a big time commitment and it is. Yet I feel no shame in telling you that I downed this series in just over a month and I regret nothing.
Best Episode: The two episodes that embody the extremes of BtVS with the most innovation, beauty and fun are “The Body” and “Once More With Feeling.” I could write essays on “The Body” and I might, because it is the most amazing piece of film ever written or directed. “Once More With Feeling” is just an extremely catchy musical. Continue reading

Rating Doctor Who’s Companions from Worst to Best

29 Dec 10th-Doctor-and-Companions-Header-doctor-who-4463573-1024-768

10th-Doctor-and-Companions-Header-doctor-who-4463573-1024-768

There have been four official companions in the Whovian universe over the last seven years, and we just recently got to number five. Well, that’s actually not true. I would say that a companion is someone who has traveled in the TARDIS more than once at the Doctor’s request, which thankfully excludes Jackie, because, come on.

Jackie Tyler, seen here escaping from a Mary Kay testing facility.

It does, however, include some of the gentlemen that we often forget about, because in the Doctor Who universe, the Doctor is the only brother/son-in-law/lover/deity/repairman/father figure you will ever need. So let us rate our lovely companions (and Donna) on several levels and see who comes out on top.

11. Amy (Pond) Williams

“If you just stare at my beauty you’ll forget how self-centered I am.”

Continue reading

Four Things to Be Excited About: A Doctor Who “The Snowmen” Review

27 Dec

Okay, confession time. I hated this last season of Doctor Who. I hated Amy and Rory’s melodrama, mostly because I hate Amy and her egotistic, narcissistic, I’m-a-leggy-redhead ways. I hated that Rory’s dad had absolutely no use and presumably died sad, alone and confused. I hated dinosaurs on spaceships, Amy’s-a-journalist-just-‘cuz, and the Doctor going insane one what one assumes is an Adderall overdose.

“Amy! Amy, pay attention to me!”

So I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Season 7: Season Trying Harder. But I love Moffat, so I gave it a chance. And it was awesome.

Let me get this out of the way: I don’t care that the villain doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s mirroring a boy and so if he doesn’t exist the bad guy will go away except no wait it’s still alive and turned the man into Mr. Freeze?

Ignore that.

  1. Start instead with the fact that the evil snow is played by Ian McKellen.

“Ooh, I think I’ve had too much of that ‘Old Toby.'”

As the picture above clearly shows, the villain is creepy in the traditional fashion of Moffat bad guys: it’s ubiquitous, it appears from nowhere and it is tied explicitly to what you fear, and what you imagine. It gets needlessly complicated at the end, but such is the way of the The Who. Having Ian McKellen be the voice just made it that much more epic, because every word he says is music, so the nonsensical parts didn’t matter much.

Just like in Lord of the Rings.

2. Point the Second: The Doctor’s evolution of tragedy. What I love about the Doctor is that at his core, no matter his incarnation, he is always essentially the same: a lonely, excitable, adventurous, show-off.

With a predilection for sexy young ladies (and Donna.)

But if the Doctor is always the same at his core, then it’s fun to see how each incarnation deals with pain and loss differently. And Matt Smith’s Doctor is amazingly sensitive, in an almost child-like way. Eccleston’s was angry, Tennant’s was deeply romantic, but Smith’s Doctor is characterized by a deep internalization of pain. He is the most dichotomous Doctor, being the youngest actor who often appears to be the oldest in moments of stress or weariness. This is not a man who loses companions lightly, and the fact that he’s wounded by Amy’s departure is apparent. I suppose I was impressed because the only thing I liked about Amy could be witnessed with the television on mute, but whatever. I loved to see the Doctor start off as a bitter, retired old man. And I loved watching him come alive again.

3. The companion. Clara is gorgeous. She’s also attentive, competent and obviously more than what she seems (and probably more after that as well.) Companions aren’t usually complex. The plot rarely revolves around uncovering exactly who they are. They tend to be audience stand-ins, being drawn from our time and having little that makes them unusual or overtly annoying.

For the most part.

But Clara is a puzzle, from her Victorian-era origins to her accent to that ring on her left hand that never gets addressed. She has the competence of Martha Jones, the enthusiasm of Rose Tyler, and none of the qualities of Donna Noble, which endears her to me greatly. Also, did I mention how gorgeous she was?

Did I?

I am excited to find out more about her. So is the Doctor. This matters. After 7 years, you need to keep things fresh, and I would call this fairly fresh.

4. The goddamn dialogue. It’s Moffat’s greatest skill, and he does no wrong with it here. From the one-word interview to the sly references to the Holmes-and-Watson homoerotic undertones in his other masterpiece, Sherlock, Moffat gives that snappy dialogue that I just adore. You always know when he’s building up to reuse a good line in a powerful or poignant way, but he almost always surprises me with the outcome (except for “Pond.” I called that one.)

Season 6 was brilliant. Season 7 had started to slip into unbearable cheese and inexplicable sentimentality. That was what I expected from this. Hell, that’s what I expect from every Doctor Who Christmas Special. And to be fair the cloud thing was over-the-top in its glaring metaphor, the ending made no sense and the CGI is still crap, but that’s not what makes a good Doctor Who episode. A good episode is when the Doctor shows his soul a bit, and you realize it’s still intact.

And this episode delivered in spades.

Also, did I mention this?

Harry Potter vs. Avatar: The Last Airbender (Hint: Avatar Wins)

27 Dec

[MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW. Seriously. Everything from who killed whom to who didn’t kill whom to everything that ever died and everyone who ever lived. You’ve been warned. Sort of.]

There are two serial children’s stories in the past decade that have stood out to me, mostly because they understood that children do not need sheltering, coddling, rigid morality or insipid sentimentality. In both Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender, children suffer loss just like everyone else. However, I would claim that Avatar is a more nuanced and thoughtful depiction of traditional heroism than Harry Potter because it deals with the problem of destiny, violence, choice and murder in a more active and thoughtful manner.

Harry Potter and Avatar each start off with the classically elusive “oh, sure, I guess death is a thing and it’s coming for your family” references. In children’s stories there are always people who have died, it’s just that no one seems to die onscreen anymore. In Harry Potter, his parents were killed, followed by every possible positive parental figure whose acquaintance he makes. In Avatar, Katara’s mother was murdered because the Fire Nation was too stupid to make sure she was telling the truth about being a Water Bender.

 

“Dantooine. The last Water Bender is on Dantooine.”

So now we have two unsafe environments that carry fatal consequences for minor slip-ups and that desperately need a hero who can wage war against the forces of darkness. Both Harry and Aang are chosen by the fates to defeat the supreme force of evil. In Harry’s case, a prophecy says that neither he nor Voldemort can live while the other survives. Similarly, Aang is the Avatar and must bring balance to the world by defeating Fire Lord Ozai. This is where the tales diverge.

Let’s look at Harry’s trajectory: a prophecy is made before his birth saying that he must either kill or be killed. For something that huge and life-changing, though, the word “murder” only shows up in one brief thought in Harry’s head in The Order of the Phoenix, when Harry realizes that “his life must include, or end in, murder.” Here we expect to see Harry struggle with plotting the death of a crazy tyrant, and the problem of being only 15 and devoted to premeditated murder. Does Harry struggle with this enormous burden, though?  Not particularly. By the time we get to The Half-Blood Prince Harry is saying that he’d want Voldemort finished and that he’d want to be the one to do it. Notice the lack of the word “kill” “death” or “murder” now. “Finished” is the best we get.

Not like that. NOT like that.

Despite Harry’s ambivalence towards becoming a murderer (his focus being more on the “how” than any consequences,) he is the hero, and therefore must be a model to children in the audience. We can’t have Harry showing callousness or (heaven forbid) agency in the act of killing itself. So even though he goes to Hogwarts for a final showdown with the intent of killing Voldemort, we have to have two things:

1) An offer to let the supreme evil figure repent (unlikely), and
2) A guarantee that the supreme evil figure will be the cause of his own downfall.

We get both aspects easily in Harry’s final scene with Voldemort. He shows maturity, calls Voldemort “Tom” and then uses a disarming spell instead of a spell that would be remotely useful. Voldemort’s own Avada Kedavra spell rebounds on himself and kills him on the spot, and Harry’s pure and noble soul remains untarnished.

To me, this is a bit cowardly. Rowling builds up a theme of love and forgiveness that only extends to a point, when force must be used. I have no problem with that. Except that then, at the end, she takes it all back. “You only have to use force until the bad guy causes his own destruction,” she’s saying. “And you will not be damaged by the hard choices you make.” In the end, Harry was spared the ordeal of having to kill Voldemort, but he never wrestles with the fact that he was ready and willing to fight to the death. If you’re going to have Harry be willing to be a murderer, I say take that as far as it will go. Show us what kind of teenager that is, what he struggles with, and how he feels when he has to or does not have to go through with the difficult act. Don’t give me deus ex machina.

Um…Priori Incantatem doesn’t count.

In the opposite corner we have Aang, who is so amazingly different from Harry. He’s silly, goofy, sweet and good-tempered. I know a lot of Harry’s angst can be attributed to puberty, but it’s still nice to be spared from pages of dialogue in all caps. The thing about Aang, though, is that he’s thoughtful, he thinks long and hard about what it means to actually face the Fire Lord, he understands that ending the war involves killing the leader…

And he refuses.

“The Avatar state makes me inexplicably muscular. I no longer need to kill you.”

The Fire Lord tries to kill him and Aang finally has the opportunity to kill him right back. He doesn’t take it. He taps into a place of purity and light and strips Ozai’s Bending powers away entirely, rendering him ineffective.

“Oh yeah, like that.”

It would have been really easy to write Aang deciding to do something vague like “face the Fire Lord” and then have Ozai fall off a cliff accidentally or something. Or to never bring up death and pretend that killing doesn’t actually happen in real life (another common children’s story evasion tactic.) But Aang is spurred on by his friends and his own freaking past lives to kill Ozai in order to bring peace to the world.

“C’mon. Just kill him a little. For me.”

They tell him that he has to kill Ozai over and over and over again. And he says no. He finds another way and it works for him, but this is not the cop-out of Harry Potter. Aang is tenacious but he is also basically pacifist in his ideals. One comes to the understand that even if he didn’t learn to take Ozai’s Bending abilities away from him, he would have continued to abstain from killing until he found another way. Aang’s story is actually more vanilla. Ozai doesn’t even die; he is simply taken into custody. But the question of choice, agency and death are actively internalized in Aang’s character and he struggles with the question as any human probably should.

That is true morality, and an honest approach to the prophetic kill-or-be-killed trope that has been softened into mush by children show censors. Harry Potter’s soul is saved only through coincidence and his own curious unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that he plans to murder someone for 2 years straight. Aang, on the other hand, internalizes and rejects the path of a killer and finds another way to solve a complicated problem.

Maybe that’s what we should really be teaching our children.