Friday, February 27, 2015

Sci Fi Genre Gems: Jeremiah (2002 TV Series)

What Is It?  This 2002 post-apocalyptic series which aired on Showtime came to us from Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski and was loosely based on the Belgian comic strip of the same name.   The basic premise of the series is that a virus (known as “the Big Death”) wiped out almost everybody above the age of puberty leaving only the youth behind to pick of the pieces of a shattered world.  The series starts fifteen years after the plague and focuses on one of the survivors named Jeremiah (Luke Perry) who is traveling across the remains of the United States looking for Valhalla Sector where his father had told him there might be survivors who can help rebuild the world.  Along the way he teams up with another drifter, Kurdy (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), and these two also join up with a group of survivors who have taken over the Cheyenne Mountain complex (“Thunder Mountain”) which used to house NORAD.  This group plans to use their resources to eventually begin rebuilding the world and they use Jeremiah and Kurdy as well as other groups to scout out the country and find bands of survivors that will eventually unite with them.

Why It Stands Out: Jeremiah never received the acclaim of Straczynski’s Babylon 5, but it had many of the same strengths as that show and delivered a well-made, post-apocalyptic series with strong characters, interesting arcs, and some first-rate stories.

The Skinny:  In the early 00’s sci fi was still mostly anathema on the Big Four broadcast networks while it was finding much more success in the syndication market and on cable (when, believe it or not, the Sci Fi Channel was actually the champion for the genre).  During this time, the premium cable channels did some experimenting with genre shows and Jeremiah was one of the ones that landed on Showtime (that network also produced one season of Odyssey 5 in 2002 and had produced the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1 which began in 1997).  This venue allowed these shows to expand into more adult themes than what the broadcast networks or basic cable channels would explore, and Jeremiah definitely took advantage of the freedom allowed to it.  Not just by amping up the sex and violence (though it did do that), but also by presenting challenging tales that didn’t necessarily lead to the nice, tidy sort of wrap up that Prime Time television typically prefers.

J. Michael Straczynski was of course no stranger to these type of stories as he had already explored some of the same territory with his five plus year run on the Babylon 5 franchise, and he continued very much in the same vein with Jeremiah.  The series began with more of an episodic feel (similar to the first season of B5) as it followed Jeremiah and Kurdy travelling across post-apocalyptic America, and it was in these episodes that Straczynski (as well as some of the other writers who contributed to the show) managed to deliver some hard-hitting tales rife with moral quandaries and challenging ideas (similar to the path that show's like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones are currently trailblazing).

The second season of Jeremiah changed the format up some as it became much less episodic, and the overall feel of the show seemed to shift as well.  It became more story arc driven, but also less intense and less focused on the moral quandaries presented during year one.  The show's studio MGM had started tinkering with it which led to frictions between them and Straczynski, and that—along with less than spectacular ratings—led to the series getting cancelled after its second season.  JMS had plenty of advance notice on the cancellation, though, so the series does resolve most of its ongoing arcs.  But there was still plenty more story there to tell that we will probably unfortunately never get to see.  Still, the show’s two seasons managed to accomplish a lot and it deserves much more recognition than it has received over the past ten plus years.

Notable Stars: Luke Perry, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Sean Astin, Peter Stebbings, Joanne Kelly

Did You Know:  According to IMDb.com, J. Michael Straczynski was so displeased with his experience working with MGM on the series because of the tight grip they maintained over the production that he claimed that he would never work with them again under that administration.

Buy Jeremiah on DVD from Amazon.com or Stream it for Free with your Amazon Prime Membership:

Friday, February 20, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Book Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 5 out of 5 Star (Highest Rating)

Andy Weir's The Martian chronicles a mission to Mars in the near future that goes wrong causing the astronauts to make a quick exit after a treacherous dust storm descends upon them.  However, one member of the team--botanist/engineer Mark Watney--is left behind when the others believe that he perished in the evacuation.  He returns to their base, which survived the storm, but with his crewmates on their way back to Earth and no ship scheduled to return to Mars in several years, his prospects for survival look bleak with only limited supplies available to him.  He then puts his mind to working out a means to stay alive until a rescue mission can arrive, and thousands back on Earth work around the clock to assist him.

This book from newcomer Andy Weir has an interesting publishing history.  He set out to write a story about a rescue mission for an astronaut stranded on Mars, and his goal was to make it as realistic as possible.  Weir committed himself to painstaking research on space exploration and tried to make the events of his story as realistic as possible based on current technology.  However, he could not interest any literary agents or publishers in picking up the book so he decided to serialize it one chapter at a time on his website.  He eventually published the entire story as a Kindle book and it became a bestseller in that format.  That led to Podium Publishing picking it up as an audiobook followed by Crown picking up the print rights.  And now it is heading to the big screen with Ridley Scott rumored to direct and Matt Damon attached to play Mark Watney (and I'm sure after reading this that all of us working on our own self-published books will start doubling up our efforts).

The book itself is quite well written and an engaging piece of speculative fiction.  It shifts from Watney's personal log entries to a third person account of Mission Control monitoring the situation back on Earth and Watney's crewmates in space who find themselves unable to help at first.  Interestingly, much of what Watney recounts in his logs are the mundane details of the steps he is taking to ensure his survival (i.e., he decides he must plant a crop to provide himself with food, so he walks us through the planting and growing of potatoes).  It seems like that would be incredibly dull to read about, but it definitely kept my attention throughout.  I do have to admit that the constant setbacks he experiences start to get tiresome, but then these were believable and not contrived and ultimately paid off in the end.  I consider this an excellent book about space exploration that never compromises its science and also never dulls the reader with it.

As for the audiobook adaptation, I don't believe that they could have picked a better reader than R.C. Bray.  He lends just the right amount of snarkiness to Watney's log entries which really helps bring out the character.  He also delivers a near flawless job with the voices of the other characters, shifting in an out of various, well-articulated accents.  It is rare that I give a five star rating for an audiobook based on the narrator alone (it usually goes to well done "enhanced productions" that add sound effects and music like Audio Realms' adaptation of Elric of Melnibone), but Bray definitely deserves it for his reading of this book.  I will be searching out more books that he has narrated based on his performance here alone.

The Martian is definitely an excellent science fiction novel and one that I believe fans of the genre should seek out.  And the audiobook version is most certainly a great way to experience it.  The print and Kindle edition of the book is available from Amazon.com and the audiobook is available from Audible.com as well as iTunes, Barnes and Noble and other sources.


Friday, February 13, 2015

CW's Tales from the Darkside Reboot Needs to Happen, Plus an Idea of What that Network Can Do with its Burgeoning Cast of DC Superheros

The CW has picked up a pilot for a reboot of George R. Romero's classic 80's horror anthology series Tales from the Darkside meaning that they are considering that as an addition to their 2015-16 Prime Time schedule.  And that is something in my opinion that needs to happen.  Mind you, I don't consider myself a huge fan of the original series, though I remember tuning in to watch it and enjoying the episodes that I saw.  And I know several horror fans who consider it one of the better entries for that genre on television (though I'm sure they are cringing at the thought of The CW's trademark young and uber-hot faces picking up the baton for the franchise).  The main reason I want to see it happen, though, is that the anthology series needs to come back to television and this network is a good one to lead that charge.  With all of the science fiction and fantasy shows they currently have on their schedule (including upcoming mid-season entries iZombie and The Messengers), The CW has essentially become the broadcast network sci fi channel (as it continues to out sci fi Syfy even though that cable net keeps claiming it is getting back to its roots).  And despite the preponderance of young, pretty faces on the fifth place network, they have still managed to do pretty good with the genre the last couple of years, far outpacing the other broadcast networks (and Syfy) in this area.  They are willing to take some chances and I can see them doing that with an updating on Tales from the Darkside.

And we really need to get an anthology show or two back on television as they have less focus on extended arcs and more on telling a good, short and simple story.  This would even be a good one to air when other shows are on hiatus because it does not require viewers to watch every episode in order.  It gives The CW a good way to pad out the schedule and run less repeats (which we are about to get assaulted with over the next few months).  A good sci fi anthology would be much welcome as well.  They could reboot The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, or just come up with a new title.  It doesn't really matter if the stories are good.  Anthologies offer writers/directors the opportunity to take some chances and push the boundaries of television,  They also offer the chance to tryout some new ideas that may carry on into their own shows.  But mostly, they can--if done right--give us some damn good genre tales.  Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside and more all did that in their prime and its about time we get that back on television. It's been a while since we have had a really good genre anthology series (Masters of Horror?  The Outer Limits reboot?), and I'm hoping that The CW will succeed in bringing one back starting next season.

And speaking of anthologies, there's another one that network should think long and hard about for next season as it is planning its schedule.  Currently, they are looking at doing an Atom spin-off from Arrow and there are plenty more characters from the DC milieu that have been introduced on that series and its recent spin-off The Flash.  All of these have the potential to jump to shows of their own, But with the network only programming ten Prime Time hours a week, how many can they realistically get onto the schedule?  And how long before this leads to a superhero burn-out?

So the obvious answer to the question?  A superhero anthology series that can accommodate all of those characters and more.

Call it The Brave and the Bold, DC All-Stars, Showcase, or something like that.  You could run a multi-episode Atom or Birds of Prey or Suicide Squad arc then throw in a onesy for Firestorm or Ra's al Ghul or any of number of other characters they have introduced or have waiting in the wings.  And there are currently rumors floating around that Arrow's Diggle could become Green Lantern.  This anthology could handle all of that and more.  And as I mentioned above, it could air when the other shows (particularly Arrow and The Flash) are on hiatus to ensure less repeats throughout the year.  This seems like the best way to cover all DC characters they currently have plans for as well as future additions.  They could even take a page from the comics and have something like an Atom lead story and maybe a ten minute segment featuring another character.  Or pick one main character and have him/her team up with other superheros, similar to Batman's long run in the Brave and the Bold comics where he fought next to a revolving door of DC characters.

Seems like a great way to go about it and also gives the creative talent the opportunity to take some chances and try things that may be too daring for an established show like Arrow or The Flash.  And the network has already done an excellent job with those two characters so I would trust them to continue that streak having an expanded cast of DC superheros to work with.

As the other broadcast networks have seen their audiences dwindle notably the last few years, The CW has actually seen some gains as it has revitalized its schedule and reached out to the genre audience.  And I believe that the Tales from the Darkside reboot as well as a DC superhero anthology (and possibly a sci fi anthology) can help them to increase their momentum and possibly overtake one of the lagging Big Four broadcast networks.   

Friday, February 6, 2015

Sci Fi Trifles: Lost in Space was the End of Guy Williams' Acting Career

Actor Guy Williams is well known by fans of classic sci fi television for his portrayal of Professor John Robinson on all three seasons of Lost in Space.  But did you know that series (often ranked among the Top 10 worst sci fi shows ever) was effectively the end of his career as an actor?

Guy Williams (born Armando Joseph Catalano to Italian parents) began acting in the late 1940's and had mostly bit roles for the first ten years of his career (including an appearance as a cop in the B-Movie "classic" I Was a Teenage Werewolf).  His career jumped up to the next level, though, when he was offered the lead role for Walt Disney's Zorro in the late 50's and he would continue with that series until the early 60's.  After that show had ended, he had starring roles in two minor movies as well as a short stint on TV's Bonanza before he was offered the lead in Irwin Allen's Lost in Space.   He played Professor John Robinson who was the patriarch of the spacebound Robinson family and he was originally supposed to be one of the focal characters of the series.  However, Jonathan Harris' Dr. Smith character proved more popular with the younger-skewing audience and the show started to focus more on the trio of Smith, the Robot, and the young Will Robinson as the scripts became more and more outlandish throughout the show's three season run.  Lost in Space was cancelled at the end of its third year and after sharing screen time with such absurd antagonists as space hillbillies, space ghosts, space werewolves, and a giant talking carrot, apparently Williams decided to call it a career.  He had done well in the stock market and with business investments and decided by the mid-70's to retire to Argentina, a country he had fallen in love with and which received him warmly because of his well-respected portrayal of Zorro. Williams has no acting credits to his name on IMDb.com after Lost in Space except for a 1980's German translation of The Prince and the Pauper which he had starred in on The Wonderful World of Disney in the early 60's.  And that was likely a very good move for him seeing the troubles that other well-known TV actors from the 60's had in finding roles after being typecast from the earlier shows they starred in.

One additional note: Williams actually came close to never playing the role of John Robinson in LiS.  He joined the cast of Bonanza in 1964 when Pernell Roberts wanted to leave the role of Adam Cartwright.  Williams played Will Cartwright and was set to become one of the co-leads on the show, but producers lured Roberts back and Williams' character was written off.  Had he stayed with the show, he likely would have never been considered for the Lost in Space lead as Bonanza remained on the air until 1973.  And if had followed that course, it would be interesting to ponder whether he would have retired at that the same point in his career.

Buy Lost in Space on DVD from Amazon.com:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

TV Review: Agent Carter

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars (after 4 episodes)

Bottom Line:  A fun show that delivers plenty of pulp action as well as a strong female lead character.

ABC is doing some schedule experimenting this season and bringing in the Captain America spin-off series Agent Carter to fill in the gap while Agents of SHIELD is on hiatus and it means less repeats during the regular season.  I like the idea and Agent Carter is the perfect series to timeshare with AoS because both exist in the same universe as the Marvel Avengers big screen entries.  This show takes place in 1946 as Agent Carter finds herself working for SSR (Strategic Scientific Reserve) on the home front after the war.  However, she is looked upon by the other male agents that she works with more as a secretary and is not appreciated for her true skills.  Howard Stark contacts her and asks her to help clear his name because he is on the run, accused of treason.  She then teams with his butler Jarvis and works on the sly to try and uncover who has framed Stark.  The series has a retro, pulp feel to it with a bit of noir thrown in for good measure.  And it has that same sense of fun that we have seen in most of the Avengers movies (something that Agents of SHIELD unfortunately has mostly dispensed with this season).  Hayley Atwell delivers a commanding performance as Carter with James D’Arcy proving himself quite capable as her partner/side-kick.  I would have preferred if they had avoided the angle of Carter having to skirt around (pun unintended but accepted) the chauvinistic attitudes of the day because it just acts as a plot anchor dragging down the stories from time to time.  It would have been much better it they just let her reputation from her war days carry over into her new assignment and have her step up as the kick-ass agent she really is.  Sure, the sexist attitudes might be a more realistic touch for the period, but then how much of this really depends on realism?  It’s not a deal-breaker, though, just a minor annoyance and does not keep me from enjoying the show.  But the show has definitely kept my attention across its first four episodes, and it has quickly found itself on my must-watch list.  And next week's episode brings in some of the Howling Commandoes, so hopefully they will set the record straight on what Agent Carter can do. Unfortunately, the ratings for the show have not been great thus far, though not terrible either.  But if ABC does not see fit to bring the show back for a second round next year, maybe Marvel will consider one or more direct-to-video films like the one that hit in 2013 to continue her story (or perhaps Netflix could pick the show up).  I, for one, am enjoying this entry and would definitely like to see more.

Monday, January 19, 2015

TV Review: The Man in the High Castle

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: The pilot can be muddled at times, but there is plenty of potential here if this one were to jump to an ongoing series.

Based on the Phillip K. Dick novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle is one of the latest entries from Amazon's "Pilot Season" where viewers can watch it for free online (at this link) and vote whether they want it to continue as a series.  The story takes place in an alternate version of 1950's where the Axis powers won World War II and ended up dividing the United States between them with Germany getting the eastern states and Japan getting the western side with a "neutral zone" in between.  In the pilot, we learn that an aging Hitler is in failing health and a power struggle amongst the German leadership is expected to follow once he dies with the repercussions that will impact the political divisions in the United States.  San Francisco resident Juliana Crain is pulled into the resistance movement by her sister and she watches film footage that shows the Allies winning the war, cluing her in to an alternate reality.  In search of further answers, she heads to the neutral zone where she then encounters a member of the resistance from the west.

The pilot episode runs about an hour and does a good job of setting up the premise and establishing the look and feel of this alternate American past.  Ridley Scott executive produced The Man in the High Castle, so the strong visual appeal is to be expected and it adds much to the experience.  The story itself tends to be rather muddled and confusing at times, but that appears to be more about trying to cram as much as possible into the show's first hour to set up the story.  Surprisingly, though, despite delivering a packed episode, it can be slow at times.  Still, I never found it boring and it stays mostly on track as its sets up a concept with plenty of potential.  I have never read the book it was based on, so I can't speak to how faithful it is to the source material (I would expect that it takes many liberties as most Philip K. Dick adaptations do), but I would definitely like to see more from this one.  X-Files veteran Frank Spotnitz wrote the pilot and is onboard as showrunner, and I believe that he could do a good job with this as a series.  I will be giving this one a thumbs up in Amazon's Pilot Season ballot and I believe that it has a good chance of getting the greenlight if enough sci fi fans show their support.  So give it a look and cast your vote, as this time around it is us and not the network executives making the decisions on what sci fi we want to watch. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

TV Review: Galavant

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars (after 4 episodes)

Bottom Line:  It strives to be a Monty Python/Mel Brooks type spoof, but falls short because it plays its humor too safe.

When I first heard about ABC’s plans to do a musical fantasy comedy called Galavant, I have to confess that the idea did not excite me and I had pretty much decided that I would pass on that one.  But then I saw the previews and it looked like it would be much more Monty Python than Broadway, and I decided it was worth giving a look.  And after having watched four episodes of the show (they are thirty minutes each and air back-to-back in the Once Upon A Time timeslot while that one is on hiatus), I can see that this show really would like to be a Python-esque comedy (or Mel Brooks or The Princess Bride), but it appears that a heavy hand from the networks is keeping it from going too far in that direction.  Galavant has been enjoyable thus far and has delivered a few good lines and even a few catchy tunes.  It also has an impeccable (and quite attractive cast) who seem up to the task of delivering on expectations.  But the show seems to lack that anarchic spark or raucous inspiration that you used get from the Pythons or Mel Brooks (when he was hitting on all cylinders).  Galavant seems all too safe and inoffensive as opposed to the edgy, irreverent attitude that it promised.  Oh sure, it has its share of “adult” humor (almost ad nauseum at times), but too much of the innuendo comes off like something your crazy aunt might say or that young preacher in your church trying to fit in with the hip crowd.  Too often you think that the humor should be funny, but doesn’t quite hit the mark.  It doesn’t help that the directing seems rather bland as it misses many chances to drive home its punchlines.  It seems certain that ABC reigned in too much boisterousness because the show airs in the “family friendly” 8 PM EST hour, and that keeps it from rising to that next level.  Ultimately, Galavant is not a bad show, but it’s no standout either.  And with the ratings numbers it has delivered thus far, this “limited run” entry will almost certainly not be invited back for a second round of episodes.  And likely it will not be missed as it falls short of the comedy classic it could have been.