Friday, May 20, 2016

Audiobook Review: Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

Book Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars (Highest Rating)

Audiobook Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: Martin creates a unique and engaging fantasy world that comes alive through the book's well-developed characters.

I purchased this audiobook--the first in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series--a while back but kept putting off listening to it because it seemed like such a daunting tome to tackle at thirty-three plus hours.  But as Season 6 of the series approached, I finally decided to fire it up to help remind me of some of the back story prior to diving into the new year of the TV show (which actually goes beyond the completed books).  And once I started it, I found myself making excuses to go for a drive or to extend my commute so that I could keep listening to the book!

Since I am expecting that most people reading this have more than a passing familiarity with the story, I won’t spend too much time recapping it.  I’m also going to mention one of the major spoilers (which is actually pretty much common knowledge by now), so be warned.  Basically, Game of Thrones is a fantasy tale set in the land of Westeros and the main story focuses on the power struggles to sit on the Iron Throne which rules over all the lands.  The main character in this book is Ned Stark who is the lord of Winterfell in the north and he reluctantly travels to Kings Landing with part of his family to be the adviser to the king only to find himself pulled into the court intrigues and politics aimed at controlling the throne.

One of the things that I noticed while listening to the audiobook is that things do not happen quickly in this story.  There is some travel across the lands and a lot of talking and a few fights, but Martin was definitely not trying to make this an action-packed affair.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for the book to introduce a character and then digress for several pages giving backstory on that person.  But while it sounds like this approach would make this a rather dull read, especially consider the length of the book, that’s not the case at all.  Not only did I almost never find it boring (except for some of the Sansa chapters), I regularly found myself wanting more.

Personally, the bloated page lengths of books these days is something that has turned me away from many of the newer entries on the shelves.  So often these are the result of publishers pushing for a higher page count or writers lacking editorial constraints and the story ends up turning into a slogfest or completely losing focus.  Martin maneuvers past these pitfalls as he demonstrates himself a master of words who can make even the most mundane details interesting.  There’s a reason this book series is so popular: it really is that good!  At least based on the first volume and what I have seen translated to the television series.  One of the important things Martin does in this books is dump almost all the expected fantasy clichés.  This book is not packed with elves and orcs and wizards and many of the expected tropes of the genre.  Some of that is there in the background, but he doesn’t just give us another spin on the standard setting as he builds a fully fleshed out world of his own with interesting, well-developed characters.  In fact, it is the many characters with their varying degrees of moral ambiguity that makes this such a fascinating read.

(Warning, major Spoilers to follow in the next paragraph.)

The first book sets up the grander tale that Martin has planned with his Song of Ice and Fire series, but in Game of Thrones one of the major themes is the place that honor holds in this world of scheming and maneuvering.  Ned Stark is of course the primary example of that as he follows the “honorable” path throughout the story as opposed to the moral grays evidenced in many of the other characters.  He acts as the moral measuring stick, and we make the assumption that he will be our guidepost throughout all of the books.  That’s why his beheading at the end comes as that much more of a shock.  Ned is set up as our hero and then we are left without the moral fiber he represents once he is executed.  The story is told (quite effectively) from multiple points of view with Ned’s representing the closest to the typical fantasy hero.  And when he is gone we have to scramble for which point of view will be our guide from that point forward.  That’s some powerful yet risky storytelling, but Martin pulls it off perfectly.

The audiobook version is read by Roy Dotrice who does an absolute first-rate job with the material.  He makes each character stand out as a distinct presence and they come alive through his reading.  I have to admit, though, that at first I did not like the voices he used for several characters, especially Tyrion.  Having been exposed to the top-notch performances from the series, it was hard to accept the different voices he used for some of the characters.  But I can’t really fault him for not matching the performances of the actors, especially considering that this audiobook came out years before the TV series.  I did eventually accept and even learn to like his Tyrian voice, but I could never quite warm up to his Varys.  That’s probably because he played the character closer to the way he is portrayed in the books which is different than Conleth Hill’s interpretation in the series, but again, I can’t count that as a knock against Dotrice.  He delivers an excellent reading of one of the all-time great fantasy books and I highly recommend this one to anybody to enjoys masterful storytelling whether they are fantasy fans or not.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Anti-Blockbusters: Moon

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Moon2009's Moon is a rarity in modern-day cinema. It is a Science Fiction movie, yet it has little action, no explosions, no space battles, no guns, no nail-biting down-to-the-wire endings, and a cast that you can count on one hand. What it does have, though, is a strong story bolstered by magnificent performances from its sparse set of performers. In that respect, it harkens back to classic examples of hard science fiction in the cinema like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Andromeda Strain, and Silent Running. And that is exactly what director and co-writer Duncan Jones wanted.

The entire movie takes place on the Moon as we follow Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) who is the sole human in charge of running a mining operation that extracts helium-3 from the lunar surface and sends it back to Earth where it provides the primary fuel source for the planet. His only companion is the robotic GERTY 3000 (voiced by Kevin Spacey) which has a voice similar to HAL 9000 and displays emoticons on its monitor to reflect its expressions. Sam is coming to the end of his three year contract on the Moon and eagerly awaits his return home. However, he starts to hallucinate and see people and transmissions that he knows cannot be real and this eventually causes him to have a life-threatening accident on the surface of the Moon.

Early on, you may start to question several aspects of the movie’s basic set-up. Why would the company send only one person at a time to spend a rather daunting three years in isolation? Why would they not fix the malfunctioning satellite that provides Sam’s only chance to have real time transmissions from home? After the accident, how did Sam get back to the base? But everything falls into place as the tight, focused script unfolds before us.

I’ll give no more information about the movie than that, because “that would be telling”, and it’s best to go into this one without any pre-conceived notions. What I will do is complement the cast and crew on pulling off what could have turned into a very dreary, plodding film in the wrong hands. Mind you, Moon does have a very slow pace, but it never drags or meanders because of its excellent script, spot-on performances by Rockwell and Spacey, and steady direction from Jones (who, by the way, is the son of the late David Bowie).

Visually, Moon succeeds as well, as it gives us a respite from the CGI-overload that Hollywood so often throws at us. Jones relies on old-school model-work to depict the Moonbase and the vehicles that interact with it. And despite the limited budget of the film (around $5 million) his special effects team delivers a realistic, almost flawless, depiction of Moon colonization that makes viewers like myself long for the lost art of model-derived special effects. This practice of course would not work as well in a more action-oriented film, but in this setting it provides the perfect visual realization to complement the story.

Moon compares quiet well to some of the classics of Science Fiction cinema that it invokes and deserves to stand right next to them when listing accomplished movies from the genre. While it lacks the grander statements of movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running, it does give us a more modest, personal statement about what it means to be human and to be in control of your own destiny. Also, it avoids some of the inconsistencies and leaps of logic of the two previously mentioned movies (i.e, you have to read the book to understand exactly why HAL goes berserk, and just why exactly did they put the forest domes out in deep space instead of orbiting the Sun?). Most importantly, the movie places story above spectacle and also manages to maneuver past the conceits that often afflict films of this ilk.

Moon did not do big Box Office business in its theatrical run, in part because of its limited distribution and in part because of its lack of promotion. But it did gain immediate attention from critics and fans of the genre and quickly got pegged as an “instant classic”. Those who missed it in its truncated theatrical run should definitely check it out on DVD, and those that did catch it should watch it again because like most classics it stands up to multiple viewings.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Audiobook Review: Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle

Book Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This minor classic provides the springboard for the well-known franchise that would follow.

Planet of the Apes is of course the seminal science fiction book that went on to launch the long-lived franchise that spread across the theaters, television, and comics.  Boulle’s novel first came out in 1963 and he intended it to act as a social commentary on his world, not dissimilar to the films that would follow.  Of course any review of the book pretty much demands comparison to the first film based upon it, which has since become an iconic sci fi entry (and you can see my review of that at this link).

The book itself in many ways lays out the basic structure for the first film as we have astronauts from Earth landing on planet (though not crashing like in the movie), and then setting out to explore it.  They then meet humans whom they find to have minimal intelligence and who live like beasts off the land.  This is followed by apes rounding up the humans and the protagonist (Ulysse Mérou) is captured and studied by the sympathetic apes Zira and Cornelius.  The more skeptical Dr. Zaius doubts the intelligence of this wunder-human, but an eventual trip to a “forbidden zone” type area reveals that humans pre-dated apes on this planet.

One of the biggest differences from the original films, though, is that these apes have a level of technology similar to twentieth century Earth and they inherited the planet when the human culture grew stagnant and they stopped progressing.  The book also suggests what we would see later in the Escape from the Planet of the Apes film (though with role reversal between humans and apes) when Ulysse becomes a bit of a celebrity when introduced into ape society, but then sees a backlash when they find out Nova is pregnant .  It also suggests some of the events from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes when the regressive memory of the native humans is explored.

In general, Boulle’s Planet of the Apes is a good sci fi book and I would call it a minor genre classic, though not necessarily a must-read.  It is well written and he tries to bring in as many science-based principles as possible, though at times it seems to veer into pseudo-science.  But I believe he develops the characters well enough and presents an interesting setting that offers some social commentary, though I believe the first three movies actually did better with that.  One important thing that Boulle handles better here, though, is the language barrier.  Ulysse slowly learns the ape language and it eventually becomes part of the proof of his intelligence.  In the movies, the apes spoke English and the astronauts never wondered why despite the fact that they were allegedly on a planet thousands of light-years from Earth.  Something that the book does not handle as well is the twist that comes at the end.  Boulle’s ending seems kind of forced and is much less satisfying than the final scene from the first movie.

The audiobook version is narrated by Greg Wise and he does a very good job with the material.  Interestingly, he gives the apes what sounds like a mid-west accent that seems a bit out of place at first, but I eventually got used to it and never found it distracting.  Overall, his voice-work carries the book along quite well, and makes this an enjoyable listen.  This book is definitely worth seeking out in audio format or in print for all Planet of the Apes fans that have never encountered the original source material and also for sci fi fans looking for a decent representation of the genre.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Anti-Blockbusters: Battle for Terra

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Battle for TerraAs blockbusters like Star Trek, Transformers, and Harry Potter were preparing to assault the theaters at the beginning of the 2009 Summer season, a rather unassuming little animated movie appeared and disappeared within about two weeks time. This movie, Battle for Terra, had been made back in 2007 at a very economical price for a CGI film (around $4 million originally though increased to $8 million with 3-D effects added), and had received some acclaim as it toured the film festival circuit and won the Grand Prize for Best Animated Feature at the 2008 Ottawa International Animation Festival.

The movie opens on a distant planet where a race of peaceful beings, who have the ability to fly, live an idyllic existence mostly at harmony with their world. However, an enormous space ship arrives carrying the last inhabitants of a destroyed Earth who plan to settle on this planet. The humans must terraform the planet to make the atmosphere breathable which in turn will make it poisonous to the natives. An initial confrontation with the humans and natives leads to one of the humans crashing on the planet and coming face to face with the people he would help destroy. This plants the seeds which eventually lead to the beginning of a mutual understanding between the two races.

Battle for Terra is a beautifully illustrated CGI-animated movie that mixes science fiction with fantasy (though still sufficiently rooted in science) and even throws in a bit of steam-punk tech. And while the substance does not always match up to the style, Battle for Terra still delivers a more satisfying tale than the similarly themed Avatar from James Cameron which would follow this one at the Box Office with much more fanfare (and BoT had a much lower price tag than Avatar’s $240 million budget) . But while Terra’s story verges into the derivative at times with a hodgepodge of genre elements and some copy-and-paste dialogue, it presents a more genuine take on its subject matter than the much more calculated Avatar. And while it may not fully develop its characters and ideas, in part because of its rather brief 85 minute run-time, in the end the movie manages to overcome most of its deficiencies and stand out as a notable genre entry.

And sparse though the plot may be, the writers resist the temptation to give us a simple tale of idealistic, pacifist aliens vs. imperialist, invading humans. Sure, it ventures in that direction with the central villain General Hemmer, but we see that the humans are primarily driven more by their desperation than anything else and we also see that the natives of Terra have the ability to defend themselves if necessary. This is where the movie diverges from the Disney-style kids-fare as it chooses not to present a conflict followed by a tidy wrap-up and happy ending. And this is probably what doomed the movie in the theaters.

Battle for Terra has the look of a fantasy movie aimed at the younger crowd, much like the Star Wars: The Clone Wars film and subsequent TV series. In fact, it seems quite merchandise friendly, with its cute aliens, adorable robots, sleek space ships and steam-punk alien airships. But the movie does not give us the simple tale of good vs. evil that you would expect from a film of this type. In fact, the apparent youthful target audience may have difficulty figuring out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. The movie delivers more mature themes wrapped up in moral dilemmas, and in the final battle children may struggle with who exactly to route for and the film ends with the heart-rending sacrifice of one of the lead characters. For me, that makes for great story-telling. But since they decided to market the movie mostly toward children (surely as an afterthought, though), that may have severely hampered its Box Office viability. Ultimately, it’s hard to really pin down this movie as it presents an exercise in contrast with its cute aliens and invading humans facing some very difficult moral decisions. But science fiction and fantasy fans should appreciate it as a well done movie that rises above the expected family-friendly animated flick and delivers a superior genre tale.  If you missed this one in the theaters, do yourself a favor and seek it out on DVD.  You should be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Walking Dead Needs to Discard the Stunts and Stay Focused on the First-Rate Drama it is Known For

The Walking Dead has been taking quite a drubbing in its sixth season, especially after its finale on Sunday, and in all fairness it has brought some of that on itself.  But don't get too caught up in the anti-TWD hype getting whipped up by the naysayers because, despite some stumbles, this show continues to deliver first-rate, challenging drama in a post-apocalyptic setting.  Needless to say, be warned before proceeding as plenty of spoilers from this season (and the comics) will follow below.

the-walking-dead-neganFor those who may not be up to speed, this season has teased the introduction of the big bad Negan from the comics and it has been a slow build up to his first appearance in the season finale.  And in the comics, he kills off a major character by brutally beating them with his barbed-wire wrapped baseball bat which he has named Lucille.  The TV series follows that relatively closely, but we are given a first person view of the attack followed by a fade to black which means that we will not find out the identity of Negan's victim until the show returns in October (though dedicated fans have already started scouring for clues).  The decision to leave the audience hanging has enraged many fans (myself included), made worse by the fact that the show teased the death of Glen earlier in the year only to reveal that he miraculously escaped from a hoard of zombies that had him trapped in an alley (and not to pile on, but the later killing of a gay character seemed unnecessary as well).

As to these stunts, I will flat out say that they represent poor choices on the part of the producers and the creative team.  Making us think that Glen had perished and then dragging out the reveal for several weeks was just a malicious trolling of the audience that added nothing to the dramatic structure of the show.  The cliffhanger ending for the finale was even worse because it detracted from the dramatic intensity of the final scene.  As the most-watched (by far) scripted show on television, TWD does not need to bait its audience to come back for the next season, and many seem to have taken that ending as more of a back-slap than anything else.  How much more dramatic would it have been if we knew who met their demise at the end of Negan's bat and the season ended with a demoralized Rick being forced to lead the Saviors into to Alexandria to plunder it as they wished?  Instead, the tease of a major character death with no resolution just left too many of us feeling cheated and angry after the episode ended.

I put the blame on showrunner Scott Gimple for these unnecessary tricks, though I wouldn't be surprised if an AMC executive wasn't whispering in his ear (or reminding him who signs the paychecks) because that sort of manipulative TV seems like the type of thing that would spring from a boardroom rather than the mind of a writer.  But trolling like this is just not necessary for the most popular show on television.  It needs to stick to the good drama it has been delivering for years because that's where it excels.  And many of the people currently slamming the show across the net the last few days have actually forgotten about that.

One of the most common complaints I have heard directed toward The Walking Dead of late is that the buildup to the introduction of Negan was far too slow.  But then those people read ahead and knew what was coming based on events in the comics and became impatient waiting for the introduction of the villain.  Well, if you skip ahead several chapters, don't go complaining about the story you have to read back through to catch up.  It is true that the sixth season of TWD was slow at times, but I rarely felt like it dragged.

Think of all the important moments that were covered in this season: The Alexandrians realizing just how unprepared they were for a violent world that was ready to beat down their doors.  Daryl's encounter with Dwight in which he later regretted helping him.  The Morgan flashback that revealed how he came back from the edge.  The introduction of another community like Alexandria, Hilltop.  Carol's breakdown as she pays the price for her cold-blooded behavior.  Rick's arrogance about his people's ability to deal with the Saviors and the near lack of strategy used in the preemptive attack, which ultimately puts them at Negan's mercy.  And those are only some of the highlights, with plenty of good story linking them altogether.

Could that all have been fit into less than sixteen episodes?  Possibly.  But this is a television series, and the sixteen episode count is what AMC wants out of the deal to make it worth their while.  It's less than the twenty two that the networks demand (and there is plenty of padding amongst those shows) and more than the ten to thirteen eps that cable nets typically ask for (which I think allows TWD more opportunities for story development ).  Did the season finale really need to be ninety minutes?  Maybe not, but it sure raced by pretty quick for me.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire episode and only became irritated with the show when it left us hanging at the very end.

But we need to remember that The Walking Dead is still delivering first-rate drama rife with moral quandaries and engaging stories as opposed to the copy and paste retreads we find too often on television.  It has done that quite well for six seasons now, and even though it has slipped from time to time, I'll take its worst episodes any day over more than half of what television has to offer of late.  But at the same time, the creative team and the network need to remember that the quality of the show is what has kept it on top, not the stunts like unnecessary cliffhangers and fake-out deaths (or pointless real deaths) of major characters.  That sort of thing is actually an insult to the audience that has supported the show throughout the years.  TWD needs to keep its focus on the challenging story-telling it does so well and leave the manipulative TV tricks to the lesser fare that airs on the broadcast nets and some of the cable channels.  If not, its audience will certainly start to dwindle in the ever-fractured television viewing landscape.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Must-Watch Sci Fi Movies: Plant of the Apes (1968)

Directed By: Franklin J. Schaffner
Produced By: Arthur P. Jacobs
Written By: Michael Wilson, Rod Serling
Starring: Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, Linda Harrison
Original Release: 1968

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Synopsis: A deep space mission from Earth traveling at near light speed crashes on a distant planet and three of the four crew members manage to escape before the ship sinks into the sea. The survivors, led by George Taylor (Charlton Heston), begin to explore what looks like a barren, desolate planet, but they eventually discover plentiful forests and a lower order of humans who do not have the ability to speak. But then the astronauts find that these are not the dominate species on the planet as they come face to face with intelligent, talking apes. Taylor is captured and at first studied by the chimpanzee Zira (Kim Hunter), but the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) considers this talking human to be an abomination and wants to have him destroyed. Taylor, on the other hand, has plans to show them who the dominant species should be, but first he must face the truth of an unexpected secret this planet of apes holds.

Why It’s a Must-Watch Movie: This film provided another step in the maturation of science fiction cinema as it offered an engaging tale of evolution apparently gone awry that had high production values and that also offered some biting social commentary.

Review/Commentary: 1968’s Planet of the Apes is an important milestone for science fiction movies for several reasons. For one, the producers (much like Kubrick did with 2001: A Space Odyssey) approached the movie with the intent of making a serious film with broad appeal unlike the exploitive B-Movie cheapies typical of the genre at that time. It also had high production values (for its day) and succeeded in creating believable human-like apes that never looked like just actors in gorilla suits. Because of this, the movie proved a huge success at the Box Office, giving sci fi one of its highest grossing films up to that point. In addition, it laid the groundwork for the blockbuster franchise as it would have four sequels, spin-off two TV series, and go through two reboots in the 21st century.

Jaded movie-goers of today--over-gorged on the CGI-bloated outpouring from the big studios--may find Planet of the Apes a bit quaint, but the fact is that movie was very much the science fiction blockbuster of its time. It may not have relied heavily on sfx scenes, but it’s production values were first rate for the 60’s and it manages to seamlessly bring to life its world run by the apes. That’s partly attributed to the magnificent sets of “ape city” (really more of a village), but mostly to the first class make-up work on the apes. True, the CGI of the recent/y rebooted Planet of the Apes films delivers simians that look more ape-like, but personally I much prefer the ones from the original movie series. They represented more of a cross between humans and apes and a logical next evolutionary step. And the makeup was perfectly executed and has since become iconic among movie creatures. Give me the real thing over CGI any day.

The movie itself has worked its way into our popular culture, and that’s because it managed to hit a nerve at the time it came out, and its message still resonates today. The movie didn’t just give us a simplistic “apes vs. humans” scenario, it used its premise to explore some driving social issues of its day (that still remain relevant today). Not only do we get the fall of humans as another species leap-frogs us on the evolutionary scale, the script uses the conflicts within the ape society to address issues that we ourselves struggle with. It looks at the conflicts between religion and science and the attempts of society’s leaders to manipulate the truth to maintain the status quo. Planet of the Apes does what the best examples of science fiction do by using its fantastic elements to offer a mirror to our own world and struggles. Not surprisingly (especially considered that gut-wrenching twist ending), the original script was penned by Rod Serling. The final version made many changes to what he originally wrote, but mostly to keep costs down (he had the apes living in a technological society similar to Pierre Boulle’s original novel). But most importantly, the ending from Serling’s script (which hearkened back to the Twilight Zone style twist-endings) still survived into the final version that was filmed.

Planet of the Apes also benefitted from outstanding performances from its rather talented cast of actors. Performing through that makeup would be difficult for any actor, but the main ape characters all came alive with first-rate acting from the likes of Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans. It’s almost as if the makeup liberated them and energized their performances. And then there’s Charlton Heston with the lead delivering his usual bravado. His Taylor displays a palpable arrogance and almost dismissive attitude toward the apes whom he considers an example of evolution gone wrong. But this makes the ending of the film all the more poignant as he is faced with a grim reality that delivers an Earth-shattering wakeup call (literally).

I should note, though, that this movie has one glaring flaw to it that some may not be able to overlook and that could impact how highly they rank it compared to other sci fi films: How is it that Taylor never questions the fact that these apes speak English, even though--from his perspective--they are living on a planet allegedly light years from Earth? The fact that they could speak alone was definitely shock enough, but shouldn’t he have made some connection when they were speaking the same language as him with practically no variation in dialect? Perhaps we can extend some artistic license here and just appreciate that Hollywood produced an otherwise well-made science fiction film at that time. But it would have been nice if they had addressed that better (in the novel, the human character learns the language of the apes), and I’m guessing there are some fans out there that dock this movie one or two stars on that fact alone.

Despite this flaw, Planet of the Apes is an important science fiction movie and one of the absolute best examples of the genre on film. Its production values were top-notch at the time it came out and still stand up pretty well today. And its story is timeless and will continue to resonate with coming generations for its many messages and its shocking ending.

So many science fiction and fantasy movies and so little time. Metropolis, King Kong, War of the Worlds, Fantastic Voyage, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Inception . . . Plan 9 From Outer Space . . . and so many, many more. Where to start and which ones to watch? Well that's what this book is here to help you with. It may not cover all science fiction movies, and not even all of those mentioned above, but it gives you a heck of a good start starting point. This book begins with 1927’s Metropolis and then treks through 24 more genre films ending with 2009's Moon to give you an extensive look at some of the best of the best of science fiction and fantasy cinema. Each entry includes a synopsis, review/commentary, cast and crew information, as well as a few nuggets of tidbits and trivia relating to the films. Whether you are new to the genre and trying to figure out where to get started or a grizzled veteran who has logged many hours in the cinema watching sci fi, 25 Must Watch Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies is sure to entertain. And even if you have already seen the movies covered in the book, there's a good chance you could walk away knowing a little bit (or maybe even a lot) more about these films than you did previously.

A great primer for science fiction and fantasy cinema and a fun read as well!

Available now on Kindle from 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Sci Fi TV Quick Hits: Damien Isn't Scary Yet, 11.22.63 Needs to Work Out Its Time Travel Implications, The Walking Dead is Back to Top Form, and More

Quick Takes on some of the sci fi / fantasy TV shows currently airing.

damien-AEDamien (A&) – This show actually has a very good idea: carrying on the story from The Omen when Damien is an adult (and ignoring the subpar theatrical sequels), though the first couple of episodes really fumbled around and didn’t accomplish much. Damien doesn’t remember much from his childhood and doesn’t know that he is destined to be the Antichrist. Interesting enough and they can do plenty with that, especially if they take a destiny vs. free will approach. But the Damien we are presented with is such a mopey character that we quickly lose interest in his story. They need to work on that as the show progresses and also amp up the creepiness, otherwise the audience will quickly lose interest and move on to the next thing that the Too-Much-TV era has to offer.

11.22.63 (Hulu) – This mini-series adapts the Stephen King novel of the same name about a man that travels back in time to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I've watched the two-hour first episode thus far, and while it presents a premise which didn’t quite grab me, the creepy, Twilight Zone-ish atmosphere of the production did. Time travel stories always annoy me because it seems that they never fully work the logic of how changing the past impacts the subsequent timeline (hello Heroes and Legends of Tomorrow). In this one, the lead character is convinced that stopping the assassination of JFK will also stop the assassination of Robert Kennedy and keep the U.S. out of Vietnam. Okay great, but how many other changes will come from that and do two men really have the right to make such monumental decisions? They rushed through all of that too quickly for my liking. But once Jake gets back in the past, the “you shouldn’t be here" man definitely and the idea that the past resists change offer plenty of creepiness and the show did a good job of establishing an eerie mood. I’ll catch a few more eps to see how it progresses.

Legends of Tomorrow (CW) – Speaking of messy time travel tales, I really want to like this show, and it can be a ton of fun at times in a braindead sort of way. But it slips into copy and paste all too often, and don't even try to follow their (lack of) logic on how they are impacting the timeline.  To make matters worse, almost all the actors spend way too much time mugging at the camera and over-exaggerating their performances, even for a comic book show. I’ll stick with this one because I’m half way through now, but I’m hoping the writing improves in the second season (and they bring Constantine onboard as well).

Lucifer (FOX) – I’m still enjoying this one, though it is getting on my nerves more with each episode. Why did they have to go with the procedural route with this show? (That’s a rhetorical question as I already know the answer: because it’s on broadcast television.) This would have worked so much better in a semi-anthology format where Lucifer gets involved with people who come to his bar because he knows that they are due some punishment. Plus, they could focus on the story of the sinner-of-the-week character and not cram Lucifer in every scene. Tom Ellis does a first-rate job portraying the Dark One, but having him onscreen almost constantly is definitely too much of a good thing. I believe the continued ratings declines reflect this and also that people are growing tired of the show’s formulaic approach with Lucifer constantly butting into the detective’s investigations. If this one does survive into a second season, they should consider shaking things up a bit with the format.

The Walking Dead (AMC) – After a somewhat shaky start to its sixth season (though not as disastrous as some claim), this show has hit its stride once again since returning from hiatus. It’s right back to dealing with the moral quandaries of survival in the zombie-pocalypse and doing what it does best by putting the actions of the show’s heroes out there for us to question. The initial attack on the Saviors’ compound as well as the hostage situation that followed was grueling and gut-wrenching and not easy to watch. But it was also engaging, challenging television and exactly what we expect from this show (and the reason I enjoy braindead shows like Legends of Tomorrow as a counterbalance). Sure, TWD has had its rough patches over the years, but it soars much more often that it craters and it is definitely in top form at the moment.

You, Me, and The Apocalypse (NBC) – I love this show and it is just behind The Walking Dead on my current must-watch list. And I am going to keep beating the drum for it while it is still on the air. Watch it, you will be glad you did. You can read more about it at this link.