Friday, July 31, 2009

"Caroline"

This little review of Echo, the original pilot for Dollhouse, contains spoilers. Back away now and nobody gets spoiled.

I never read the script for the original pilot that was floating around out there. I guess it's part of my own spoiler-averse nature to avoid reading a script like that. Besides, what-might-have-been is profitless when it comes to TV. We have what the creator ultimately gave us, network bungling or not. So when I sat down to watch Echo last night, it was with the view that I was seeing an experiment, an early draft put down on film, an alternate world version of the characters.

Boy, I was not wrong about the alternate world part.

The basic plot sysnopsis is this: we get a whole big chunk of exposition right up front, with DeWitt narrating as we see Echo go through several missions: a pro bono drying out a young woman, a jealousy-inducing date at a wedding, and as a negotiator in a million dollar drug deal. Once that's out of the way – and we're talking a good long part of the episode here – we get into the main plot, which is once again Ballard's search for the Dollhouse and its attempts to throw him off.

They're not exactly subtle on this first draft of the plan. They have Victor/Lubov send him astray, and when the Caroline photo draws him right back in, they try to use Echo for the same project. When that fails, she tries to kill him, twice. Meanwhile, Topher is worried about the actives already, especially Echo. Apparently she's already developing somehow, and he has several talks about the issue with Boyd, and an awkward confrontation with Dr. Saunders.

DeWitt and Mr. Dominic, however, are notable mostly by their near total absence. DeWitt seems in control when dealing with the client and serving up spoonfuls of exposition near the opening of the show, but when we see her later she's being yelled at by her superiors over the phone (re: Ballard) or ordering his failed killing. She's less of a mighty and mysterious ice queen here.

In fact, while DeWitt is one of the major ensemble cast members by the latter part of the first season, in this pilot I'd have to say there are two protagonists: Ballard and Topher. Yeah, Topher. He gets a lot of screen time, and he's actively moving a chunk of plot forward. Echo/Caroline, on the other hand, feels sidelined.

A lot of things feel rushed, including the Doll/handler relationship, the imprinting process itself, and the question about where they get their "volunteers."

After watching Echo, my girlfriend, she who is both wise and beautiful, said that Ghost, the in-continuity pilot, was better structured. In many ways, I have to agree. There was more show and less tell, we saw the original Caroline before she was wiped, and we saw Alpha rather than simply hearing him mentioned. Of course, Ghost is saddled with a boring procedural kidnapping plot weighing it down.

I'm going to say that Echo is not a great pilot, not in the way that Serenity was for Firefly for example. It's flawed in more interesting ways than Ghost, however.

Ghost gives viewers a straightforward explanation of the show's central idea, and introduces the characters and their traits fairly well. Echo is all over the place. It's like an excited puppy, fun and cute and really packed with energy, but scattered. It feels like Joss Whedon had been sitting on his cool ideas for so long he couldn't not let them out all at once. Fly, my monkeys, fly! He takes the show almost to the place it was at the end of the first season in less than sixty minutes, but the ride is a little rough.

So I'm going to say something weird here: I understand why Fox ordered a second pilot. This pilot would have snagged me, but it is weird and frenetic and talky. Ghost is not a better pilot, but it's a much more conventional one. It has the kind of flaws that networks seem to think make for good TV. Echo has the kind of flaws that might signal greatness if the writer can rein him or herself in.

And having seen Whedon's other work, and the latter half of the season, I'd say greatness is still possible.

Oh, season two, where are you when I need you?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"I hope we find me alive"

Warning: for the purists out there who have not yet put their money down for the Dollhouse DVD set, this contains spoilers for the final episode, Epitaph One. Reading any further will sour your enjoyment not only of the episode, but of life itself. Food will be as ashes in your mouth, and your lamentations will drive nearby squirrels to commit seppuku.

Okay, the lightweights are gone? Good.

Like everyone else, I heard the basic plot outline of Epitaph One months ago: Felicia Day (Mag) and an intrepid band of survivors whose names I never quite picked up, are trying to survive in the far-off future of 2019 after Dollhouse technology has made everything go kerblooey.

The basic plot is this: the survivors stumble into the Dollhouse while taking a shortcut through the sewers, trying to avoid the signals that can turn you into a reaver killer angry person. Realizing it is the origin point for "the tech" that's driven the world into its current zombie apocalypse/rise of the machines state, they use a mindwiped refugee they're dragging around as a template for a series of memories they find programmed into the chair. So we get a series of sequential flashbacks, showing events both before the first episodes of Dollhouse, and later, possibly up to just a year or two before 2019. Meanwhile, someone is killing off the survivors one by one, and a spooky, Dollish Whiskey, sans facial scars, shows up to offer them some help.

This is another Dollhouse episode that feels far, far longer than its actual running time (in a good way). There's a lot going on here, and each flashback is crammed with both exposition and character development. In general, it's extremely well done, and if it were just a vehicle for a "Days of Future Past" style storyline, it would get an A+ just on that score. But the main plot thread isn't bad either, even if it does revolve around the "and then there were none" contrivance of having the survivors killed off one by one. This is another way the show is good: who is killing the characters should be an obvious twist, but I didn't have even five minutes when the show slowed down to let me actually try to puzzle it out.

So this brings the number of really good Dollhouse episodes up to seven, meaning the first season was more than 50 per cent awesome after all! Hooray!

Up next, a review of the original pilot, and some of the special features.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Underworld: Why did I rent this movie?

Well, mostly because I thought there must be a Rifftrack for it. Sadly, there is not. I had to make up my own jokes, and after a while mocking the ridiculous gothy/bondage outfits of the vampires, the endless blue-black darkness of every shot, and the repeated script failures grew difficult. At two hours long, Underworld is a movie that will make you believe in immortality, because it seems to go on for three or four hundred years.

This is a movie about vampires in which we never see them feeding. It's a movie about werewolves in which we never see them mauling innocent townsfolk. We're told about both of these things, but considering how much money they spent on a half dozen FX-laden battles, you'd think they could have fit that in.

This is a film in which the most important distinction is between vampires and werewolves, and yet they're almost impossible to tell apart. It's all long sweeping dark coloured coats. You can tell the costumer took a shot at making them distinct, only to have the directed call for more darkness, more rain, more shadows, making it a moot issue.

This is a film in which characters have only two modes: lack of affect and snarling scenery chewing.

This is a movie in which werewolves claw their way along walls and ceilings, rather than running faster on the floors. Even though Spider-Manning their way through the world means they are easier to shoot.

This is a movie in which six hundred-year-old vampires get up and say, "Hmmmm... what to wear... leather fetish gear again? Uncomfortable corset? Something with a stiff, high collar? Maybe something that seems both highly weird looking and is impractical if I'm attacked by giant hairy monsters." Nobody wears jammies and bunny slippers.

This is a movie in which the action seems to continue for three or four days, but it is never daylight.

This is a film which Bill Nighy cannot save. No Bill, you tried, but nobody can spit out that dialogue and not look like a total headcase.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

But what does it all mean?

Thomas Harlan's House of Reeds is in no way a bad book. But it is not a book that made me want to jump up and down in glee, either.

House of Reeds is apparently the sequel to Wasteland of Flint, and the story of its protagonists will continue in Land of the Dead (which, according to Wikipedia, is out next month). I haven't read Wasteland of Flint, because my library doesn't have it, and neither do my local used book stores. With that disclaimer out of the way, on to the meat of the book.

Harlan is a good goddamn worldbuilder. He's apparently written a whole whack of alternate history/fantasy epics for Tor, as well as working as a game designer, and it shows. In this series, he's merged alternate history with space opera and military SF, creating a weirdass background that sucked me right in. The basic story is this: sometime around the 1500s, the Aztecs conquered the world. They could do this because a few hundred years earlier, a big fleet of Japanese refugees, fleeing the Mongol invasion of Japan, washed up on the shores of North America. So Aztecs got to learn all about things like steel and horses and gunpowder, and then they went and beat the crap out of most of Europe. Take that, Columbus! Flashforward a few hundred years, and the joint Aztec-Nipponese space navy is still kicking ass and taking names. Our heroes are all either members of the Aztec-Nipponese empire, or they're on its fringes trying to survive.

The story takes place almost entirely on the planet Jagan, where the Aztec secret police/priesthood is planning to deliberately incite a small brushfire war, a flowery war. They want to throw one of the younger sons of the Aztec emperor into the mess. He's a drunken idiot, so he'll either man up and cover himself in glory, or die and please the gods that way. His Scottish bodyguards will have to try and make sure it's the former. Meanwhile, Gretchen Anderssen, the xenoarcheologist and hero of the first book, has been ordered to Jagen to study a possible ancient and powerful artifact, and Captain Mitsuhara Hadeishi of the Imperial Navy has just come into orbit after a long patrol, looking to resupply and refit his battered ship.

The elements of a great epic story are there, but Harlan never quite makes them gel. Characters are defined well to start with, but we don't get below the surface of most, probably because there are so many conflicting plot threads – there are at least four viewpoint characters that I can recall just from Hadeishi's ship. Then there are Anderssen and her team, the bodyguards, the wicked old spy pulling everyone else's strings, diplomats, the various alien locals, and so on.

A word on those aliens: Harlan can't do original alien critters. We get a cat-alien, a whole bunch of lizard aliens, and a brief cameo by bug aliens and a super shapeshifer alien. They all fall into categories such as fierce predator, wise old mystic, or barbarian warrior. The fact that they come off like the clich├ęs of how other races were portrayed in Victorian fiction isn't a good thing.

Just when it seems things are settling down in the plot, Harlan suddenly pulls out the big guns, ignites the war, and turns the last third into one long chase scene/gun battle. It's not that I don't like action sequences, but these go on and on and on. They're also disturbingly colonial. Almost every fight involves small numbers of well armed humans holding off hordes of less-well-armed local lizard people. It's like Rorke's Drift, one of the battles of the Sepoy Revolt. Or maybe I'm going too far back, and it's just a Black Hawk Down homage. Harlan lovingly describes how the massively overpowered weapons of the humans chew up hundreds of lizard guys at a time.

The plot about the alien device of great power also never comes together. I'm not actually sure what it did, in fact. I think it did something, and there was some attempt to explain exactly what near the end of the book, but it seemed sort of inconsequential by then. Another key plot, a thread involving a hidden alien and the prince's bodyguards, seemed to be deliberately leading into the next book in the series, and was left dangling.

For fans of well-written military SF or space opera, I'd say give it a try, especially if you can find the first book in the series for background. But it just never quite came together for me.