Friday, August 28, 2015

Sci Fi TV Quick Hits: Fear the Walking Dead Shows Potential, Humans Disappoints, The Last Ship is Getting Quite Good

So Fear the Walking Dead has finally arrived and it looks like it could give us a decent backstory to the events that set up the world of The Walking Dead.  The premiere starts out giving us zombie-action right away as drug addict Nick wakes up from a bad trip to find his girlfriend (who we realize has turned into a Z) munching on some other unfortunate person.  Nick flees the scene and ends up getting hit by a car and taken to a hospital where his estranged family is called.  Some angsty family drama follows from that which really bogged the ninety minute premiere down, but slowly they started working their way back to the zombie origin story we are looking for and by the end of the episode things really started getting interesting.  I wouldn't be surprised if we get more of the family drama in the coming episodes because this show is not supposed to go full-zombie just yet.  Instead, we will get glimpses of the ensuing zombie-pocalypse from their perspective as it unfolds in its early days.  I'm hoping that the crew running the show will keep it from descending into Dawson's-Creek-meets-zombies, and their track record with TWD suggests that they will.  I'm definitely onboard with the show at this point, though not as excited for the next episode as I would be for a new TWD installment.  But as Fear the Walking Dead continues to grow, maybe I will find that I like this one just as much.

As for the show that just vacated the Sunday 9 PM EST on AMC, Humans, I just finished up watching that one on DVR and have to say that I am disappointed with it.  I had high hopes for this show thinking that it would explore some interesting speculative fiction ideas involving androids becoming more prevalent in society and also the rise of artificial intelligence.  But they really just skirted around those ideas and more often than not gave us Dawson's-Creek-with-robots and a bit of The Fugitive thrown in as well.  Some ideas about the androids' impact on a family's home were suggested early on (the child becoming more attached to the android than the parent, the husband having sex with the android, etc.) but never fully explored.  And instead of really delving into the AI angle, they gave us more of an "androids are people too" spin that left a lot of interesting ideas on the table.  I also had a hard time believing that the family would have risked all they did for these androids, especially after they learned that one of them was very dangerous.   I wouldn't call it a terrible show and the cast definitely did all they could with the material given them.  But Humans definitely underwhelmed and slipped too often into copy-and-paste.  And in the current sci fi overload environment I'm not sure I would make much effort to tune in to the show's second season (it will return in 2016) with so many other options available.

As for TNT's The Last Ship, that one is moving from the guilty pleasure category to becoming a damn good sci fi TV show.  It started out as basically G.I.-Joe-saves-the-world and gave us a more optimistic spin on the post-apocalyptic tale (as opposed to the grim vision of The Walking Dead and others) in which heroes emerge to give us hope for the future (go into that in more detail in the last edition of Sci Fi TV Quick Hits).  But it is now developing beyond that into a fairly well thought out story of how these heroes will help to rebuild the world and the show has also presented them with some interesting challenges to face.  The group of immunes who believe that they are the chosen ones to inherit the Earth present an intriguing set of antagonists that avoid (so far) television villain archetypes and give the crew of the Nathan James some moral dilemmas to deal with.  This show has never gone heavy on the moral quandaries, but it has thrown in its share and dealt with them pretty well.  I am still a few episodes behind on this one, but I am definitely enjoying and it appears to be developing into a well-rounded show that is realizing the potential of its premise and tackling some good stories.  Hopefully it can keep that up into its third season (which was announced just recently).

Friday, August 14, 2015

Book Review: The League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: A fun look at the less-celebrated comic book crime fighters that's hard to put-down.


Subtitled "Half-baked Heroes from Comic Book History", this fun little book takes us beyond the A-List comic book superheroes and even beyond the B and C listers.  Super-powered crime fighters have been smashing it up in comics since the late 1930's, and quite a number of costumed do-gooders have paraded across the four color pages since that time.  Plenty have stood the test of time (Superman, Batman, Captain America), but plenty more came and went with little in the way of fanfare.  And this book focuses on that latter group.

Author Jon Morris runs the blog Gone & Forgotten, which as he describes is "dedicated to the bottom of the comic book barrel".  And many of the characters in this book come from the nether regions of that very barrel; from the Golden Age all the way to more recent times.  Here's a look at just a few of characters he covers in the book:

Bozo the Iron Man: Before the clown adopted the moniker and before Tony Stark donned his iron accouterments, this character was running around in the pages of Smash Comics.  He was a (perennially smiling) robot who started out as a bad guy but was set on the path of good when crime fighter Hugh Hazzard swiped his controls.

Doctor Hormone: This aged scientist (whose real last name is apparently Hormone), turns himself young again then decides to "bring the mighty power of hormones to benefit the world".  That seems to mostly involve turning people young and old, but you do what you can to fight crime, right?

Dynamite Thor: Having apparently no relation to the Norse god, this mortal was particularly adept at using explosives to subdue the bad guys.  That of course set a great example for the children reading the comic . . .

Fatman the Human Flying Saucer: Um . . . this guy was fat (though apparently still rather athletic).  Oh, and after an encounter with aliens, they gave him the ability to turn into a human flying saucer.  Hijinks ensue . . .

Squirrel Girl: You can't have a book like this without this dubious character who appeared in the pages of Marvel in the 90's.  She had the "relative strength, speed, and talents of squirrels".  And a tail.  And she could communicate with other squirrels.  She apparently kicked Dr. Doom's butt, though.

Those are just a sampling of the characters that Norris covers in the book, and he does so with plenty of wit and also a great love for the source material he is poking fun at.  This is the type of book that you pick up and suddenly find that an hour or more has passed as you flip through the pages reading about the next crazy comic character.  Consider it a great bathroom reader and a must have for any comic book afficianado who wants to delve beyond the major players in the industry.   And at only $14 for the hard cover (the current price on Amazon as of this writing), it counts has a bargain in my book.

Buy it now in Hardcover or for the Kindle from Amazon.com:

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Anti-Blockbusters: They Live

With the recent passing of Roddy Piper, I thought it was worth re-running this Anti-Blockbusters piece.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

This movie from horror/sci fi cult icon John Carpenter has flown mostly under the radar since it first hit theaters in the late 80’s, but it delivered an excellent paranoia-drenched action-flick that still deserves attention today from genre fans. It takes place ostensibly in the 80’s, but definitely shows the underside of that decade and suggests a society at the point of severe deterioration, definitely a comment on the recession the country experienced at that time. The film focuses on a drifter who shows up in Los Angeles looking for working (we never learn his actual name, but he is referred to as Nada and is played by pro-wrestler Roddy Piper). He starts work at a construction site and hooks up with another worker (Frank Armitage played by Keith David who had previously worked with Carpenter on The Thing) who brings him to a local shantytown where he can stay for the time being. Nada notices some strange activities in the church across the street (secret meetings covered by choir singing played on a tape recorder) then watches aghast as the police raid the church then destroy the shantytown. He also comes into possession of a strange pair of sunglasses and when he puts them on he sees a different world than the one that others see. On billboards and on television screens he sees hidden messages issuing commands like “Obey”, “Consume”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “No Independent Thought”, etc. He also sees that quite a number of people on the streets are really skull-headed aliens in disguise. As he learns more, he finds out that these aliens are controlling our world by establishing a privileged class among the humans who will cooperate with them and by transmitting the subliminal signals that control the minds of the rest of the population to keep them docile. He finds out that a signal from the TV Station Cable 54 is the source of the deception (at least locally) and seeks out Frank, as well as a woman working at the station, to help him destroy the antenna and reveal the truth about the aliens.

They Live is John Carpenter’s take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers without retreading on the territory that movie already covered. He found inspiration from the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson (as well as the comic book story "Nada" from Alien Encounters), but made the final film very much his own. Whereas in the Body Snatchers people were replaced by emotionless automatons generated from alien seed pods, in this movie the aliens turn people into docile servants through manipulation and consumerism. From this angle, the movie delivers a commentary on the 80’s similar to what Body Snatchers did for the 50’s (even though the producers of that film insist it had no underlying messages). Whereas Body Snatchers keyed off the shallow conformity that the American ideal of suburban life offered in that decade, They Live takes aim (much more overtly) at the “me first” decade and the threat posed by the corporations that had come to dominate and control our way of life. And Carpenter makes no qualms about the fact that he is delivering a scathing satire on his contemporary world, even if it does not quite follow through to the end.

Because even though Carpenter overlays social commentary on They Live, he also points the film in the action-movie direction which at times make it seem a bit schizophrenic. Interspersed with Kafkaesque, Orwellian imagery of a world controlled by alien directed subliminal commands, we also get your standard action-movie scenes with the lead characters blowing away aliens and spouting off Schwarzenegger-like quips such as “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass...and I'm all out of bubblegum” (but still, you gotta love that line). Sometimes these work, sometimes they just fall flat, but at least the action-movie angle never derails the film, it just keeps it from fully exploring its more subversive themes. And it also gives you a feeling at the end of wanting more in the way of story development.

Still, They Live gives us an enjoyable sci fi/horror film that rises above its B-Movie roots (it was made on a relatively skimpy budget of $3 million) and asks you to use your brain at least a bit between the shoot-outs and explosions. It did not pull in a blockbuster tally at the Box Office when it was released (though not too shabby as it made back about four times its budget), and it has gone mostly unnoticed since then. I actually think this one would make a great premise for a television series and with the recent passing of Piper, maybe the film will get more attention and possibly go that direction. If you have never seen this one, then it’s time to give it a shot and if you have not seen it in a while then it’s time to revisit the fun.

Buy They Live and on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com:

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sci Fi TV Quick Hits: The Last Ship Holds a Steady Course in Season 2, Zoo Delivers B-Move Fun, Between Surprises

With so many sci fi / fantasy shows currently airing, it's hard to watch and/or review all of them.  In this column I will be doing short reviews on some shows and chime in with my thoughts how how others are progressing. And note that I am typically behind on these shows on my DVR.

The Last Ship (TNT, Airs Sundays 9 PM EST):  This series--now in its second season--takes place in a post-pandemic world and follows the crew of a U.S. Navy ship that has discovered the cure and is now trying to help rebuild the world.  This series touches on some of the same themes as television's other post-pandemic show, The Walking Dead, but takes a very different approach.  Whereas TWD offers gut-wrenching drama with plenty of moral quandaries, The Last Ship gives us basically G.I. Joe saves the world.  But that's not necessarily a bad thing.  TWD looks at human nature from a more cynical (and arguably realistic) perspective, while The Last Ship gives us a more hopeful look at what the human race is capable of.  It basically assures us that there will be good guys when everything falls apart, and their spirit and determination will give us a chance for a better future.  And you know what?  The show pulls its premise off pretty well.  Consider it a salve from the dark turn genre television has taken of late (sometimes to good effect, sometimes not), and just sit back and enjoy routing for the heroes for a change.  I do like that The Last Ship has changed things up a bit in its second season as its less about the lone ship trying to overcome multiple challenges.  They have found the cure and set up a base in Norfolk and now the U.S.S. Nathan James is using this as a launching point to help rebuild the country.  That's a logical progression from the first season and keeps the show from getting into a rut.  We also aren't burdened with characters having a dark and hidden past or with storylines that pile one mystery upon the next (a common misstep with genre shows these days).  Its straight forward tales of rebuilding a country (and then a world) and having to deal with the bad guys that emerge in this setting.  Put your mind on cruise control and just enjoy well-plotted stories that don't task the grey matter too much but that also don't offend it.  (Season 2 Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars after 4 episodes).

Zoo (CBS, Tuesdays 10 PM EST):  In a similar vein of not tasking the brain too much like The Last Ship is this new CBS series based on the novel of the same name by James Patterson.  The story here finds animals across the world (particularly of the feline variety so far) acting strange and turning against humans.  It hearkens back to 70's horror/disaster flicks like Swarm, The Food of the Gods, The Day of the Animals, etc., but it gives the subject matter a bit more serious treatment.  It still has that B-movie feel to it, which is a good thing, and it is treading a fine line of cheesiness that could go over the edge without too strong of a nudge.  But it's been a good, fun, end-of-the-world-is-coming romp across its first few episodes, and whether it starts to wear thin after thirteen episodes (and possibly more if it gets renewed) remains to be seen. (Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars after three episodes).

Between (Netflix):  I plan on doing a full review of this series once I have watched its full first season, but wanted to chime in early about this show that few people know about.  It's a Canadian-based Netflix original about a virus that kills everybody over the age of 22 in a small town, and among its stars is iCarly alum Jessica McCurdy.  I made the obvious mistake of assuming it would deliver the post-apocalypse meets teen angst when I first heard about it, in part because of McCurdy's involvement.  But that was a poor judgement on my part as I have found the show quite interesting after three episodes.  It's obvious that McCurdy is using this to try and step away from her teen star image and she is only one of an ensemble of players in this drama.  And even though the characters are all 21 and younger, this show takes more of a Lord of the Flies approach to their predicament than the mopey, angsty bent of so many YA genre tales these days.  This could actually be a prequel of sorts to The Walking Dead, or more appropriately the J. Michael Straczinski series Jeremiah (where a pandemic kills off everybody over the age of puberty, more on that one at this link).  I'm only three episode in so far (of a six episode season), but I like it.  And Netflix has renewed it for a second six episode season (that announcement is what brought it to my attention), so more is on the way.  It's definitely off to a promising start and I will report back with an update once I have made it through the first season.  (Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars after 3 episodes).  

Monday, July 13, 2015

Television Review: Dark Matter and Killjoys

Dark Matter Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars

Killjoys Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line:  They may not count as classic sci fi, but they are good, fun space opera and both show potential

Dark Matter and Killjoys are Syfy’s two new space-based shows and they are an important step forward for the channel in its return to more science fiction oriented scripted programming.  Dark Matter (which comes from Stargate vets Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie) involves the crew of a space ship that wakes up from suspended animation and cannot remember who they are or why they are on the ship.  They name themselves one through six based on the order they woke up before stumbling upon information in the computer’s database that they are wanted criminals.  They then decide to band together until they can find answers to their situation.  Killjoys follows a group of bounty hunters working for an organization known as the Rack which operates in a distant system known as the Quad.  There are multiple conflicts ongoing between the planets in that system, but the Killjoys that work for the Rack have pledged to remain neutral while pursuing the warrants that they receive.

Both shows are co-productions with the Canadian Space Channel and air simultaneously up north and in the States.  And thus far, both have delivered fun and entertaining space opera that currently leans closer to guilty pleasure than classic sci fi.  Each show heavily borrows its look, feel, and basic concepts from genre television shows and movies that have preceded them and they also have a propensity for copy and paste dialogue and scenes (more so with Dark Matter than Killjoys).  But they have also managed to take some steps beyond the simply derivative and have the potential to develop into very good shows if they can hit their stride.

Killjoys is the better of the two, in my opinion, even if it did get off to a bit of a shaky start.  The first episode setup where John’s brother joins the team could have been pulled from any of another of genre shows and they had to throw in the tired lines about family sticking together.  And the dark, mysterious pasts of Dutch and D’avin feel all too familiar as well.  But since then, it has veered further away from copy and paste and delivered some meaty characters and plenty of moral ambiguity.  And it avoids offering simple, television-friendly resolutions to its stories as it appears to be setting up a grander, more epic arc while also allowing for standalone episodes.

Dark Matter took me a bit longer to warm up to as it liberally borrowed from Blake’s 7, Firefly, The Starlost and more while setting up its premise.  The characters are a pastiche of genre traits and I have the same issue I had with Blake’s 7 early on in questioning why this group of asocials would agree to stay together.  The Dark Matter writers give some justification to this, but it feels more like television contrivances than believable motivations.  The show also reminds me of Stargate: Atlantis in that there is a little bit of story in each episode strung together by one predicament after the next that the main characters must overcome.  Still, the characters are starting to grow on me and I like the fact that they have acknowledged that they need money for fuel and repairs to the ship as well as food and other necessities instead of just ignoring those basics.  And the story seems to be coming together into something that could turn into a potentially standout series.

Another thing that I like about both these shows is that they revolve around strong female leads.  All too often sci fi—especially space opera—gives us the prototypical male lead as it focal point, but each of these puts the women in charge, and the actresses they have chosen are more than capable of holding their own.  This has been a trend of late from Canadian-based genre shows with other entries like Continuum, Orphan Black, Lost Girl, and Bitten turning over the lead roles to women, and I believe it has worked out rather well and has helped broaden the appeal of sci fi / fantasy television.

One buyer-beware note on these shows is that both have a somewhat cheesy feel to them as Syfy is no longer handing out the big budgets they once did with shows like Farscape, Battlestar: Galactica, and the Stargate entries.  We’re not talking old Doctor Who level cheesiness or anything, but definitely the special effects are not a strong point for either of these.  So be sure to adjust expectations appropriately.

Despite that, I have found have both enjoyable viewing thus far and they have helped fill the void of space-based shows on television that has existed since Syfy cancelled Stargate: Universe.  Unfortunately, neither of these two have delivered great ratings for Syfy (I hear their numbers are better in Canada) as genre fans appear reluctant to return to the network that turned its back on them when it rebranded in 2009.  But I do recommend checking these out if for no other reason than the fact that they deliver decent space opera that goes down easy.  And they both have the potential to take that next step toward classic sci fi.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Audiobook Review: Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey

Book Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Stars

Audiobook Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: A good space opera tale with equal parts hard sci fi and pulp adventure

Leviathan Wakes is the first book in The Expanse series written by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for the writing team of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).  It takes place in a future where humans have colonized the solar system but have not ventured out to the stars yet.  Three major political entities have emerged from this expansion into space: the Earth United Nations, Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance (primarily located in the asteroid belt).  The book starts out with two separate storylines that eventually converge.  One follows a group of crew members that survive the destruction of the ice freighter (which takes water to the outer planets) they were on, after they stumble upon some information that could break the fragile peace within the solar system.  The other storyline follows a detective on the Ceres station in the asteroid belt who is investigating the disappearance of  a girl with influential parents.  These two groups eventually meet up and find themselves at the center of an escalating conflict between the political powers of the solar system.

Leviathan Wakes is good, breezy sci fi that tries to keep its science as accurate as possible but that also throws in plenty of pulp story elements to keep it moving along.  The character development is decent, though it is the three male leads (Jim Holden, Detective Miller, and Fred Johnson) that get the most attention in this respect.  The rest of the characters are given broad strokes of characterization, but they still manage to register well enough throughout the story.  And it does pose some interesting sci fi concepts with the alien proto-molecule and the moral dilemmas that arise from its presence.  But it succeeds best at delivering a grand space opera tale that rarely comprises its science and that never bogs down as it sets up an interesting universe with plenty of potential for more stories.

Syfy is currently in the process of adapting this to a television series (to be titled The Expanse) with a ten episode order for its first season.  In my opinion these books would translate quite well to the small screen and Leviathan Wakes probably has more than enough material for that inaugural season (there are currently four more books in the series as well).  If they rely heavily on the source material, this could be quite a good series and possibly the next great sci fi show.  Syfy's two current space opera shows Dark Matter and Killjoys show some promise even if they lapse a bit too much into copy and paste sci fi.  But if the network puts a little bit more effort in The Expanse and treats the books with the respect they deserve, then they could have their next Farscape/Stargate/BSG on their hands.

As for the audiobook, Jeffrey Mays delivers a solid reading of the material.  He is not called upon to do too much in the way of accents (except the Belters speaking in their pigeon tongue), and he does a decent job of distinguishing between the characters.  He gives a clean reading that never detracts from the story and keeps it moving along at its brisk pace.  Since the book is not too dense, it translates well to audio and this a good way to experience it.

I wouldn't quite put Leviathan Wakes in the realm of classic sci fi, but it's not far off and I already have the second book in the series high on my reading list.  It's definitely worth checking out for fans of space opera and good sci fi in general.

AudiobooksNow - Digital Audiobooks for Less

Monday, June 29, 2015

Television Review: The Whispers

Rating: 2 ½ out of 5 Stars  (after 3 episodes)

Bottom Line: It's not a bad show, but it is less than engaging as it fails to take advantage of its creepy premise.

ABC's new Summer series The Whispers is based on / "inspired by" Ray Bradbury's short story "Zero Hour" and follows a silent invasion of Earth where some unseen entity is using children to do its bidding.  Impressionable children under the age of ten are selected and contacted by someone know as Drill.  He communicates with them through lights and other electrical instruments and gives them instructions that often lead to malicious acts.  There is also a mysterious person who keeps showing up in the vicinity of these kids (we find out eventually that he is pilot Sean Bennigan who's plane went missing several months earlier), and he becomes linked to the crimes that the children are committing.

The premise for this series is somewhat interesting and it has some potential to develop into a decent sci fi entry, but I have to admit that after three episodes my attention has quickly waned because of the show's rather unengaging, by-the-numbers delivery.  The premise has a definite creepiness about it and we have seen it developed rather well in other attempts such as The Children of the Corn (the first movie), Torchwood: The Children of Earth and even the Ray Bradbury Theater adaptation of "Zero Hour" (which you can watch on YouTube at this link).  But The Whispers lacks any vision to play up the horror elements at its core, or it was sufficiently scrubbed of that vision by network executives looking to appeal to the broadest audience.  Instead, it takes the procedural angle (with plenty of soap-opera assides thrown in) and it focuses on the adults trying to figure out what is going on with the kids.  And it also piles mystery upon mystery (and throws in the all-too-tired flashbacks) instead getting down to telling a story, as has become the norm with broadcast network sci fi entries in their ongoing attempt to find the next Lost.

I don't consider The Whispers a bad series, it has just failed to engage me thus far and I'm not certain how much more time (if any) I will give it.  It has a decent cast (and its nice to series Heroes alum Milo Ventimiglia back on a sci fi show, even if he does walk around with a perennial wtf look on his face), and the production values are good.  But it just seems to waste the potential of its premise by pushing the genre element to the background behind procedural and soap opera storylines (I am reminded of FlashForward, Alcatraz, No Ordinary Family, and other broadcast networks entries that similarly buried their genre elements).  And with so many options out there for original sci fi and fantasy (you can see a list of over 60 active/returning/upcoming shows at this link), is it worth investing the time in something like The Whispers that seems to be skirting around giving us the good sci fi we are looking for?

I may end up giving this one a few more episodes (and I admit that Wayward Pines finally has me hooked after it meandered about for for half its season), or it may end up just getting lost in the shuffle.