Friday, September 26, 2008

Review: Merlin (Pilot)

This review contains no plot spoilers.

British mythical history is a rich resource that television loves to mine. Doctor Who is arguably a new vein; the adventures of Robin Hood an old one. None, though, is quite so old as King Arthur of Camelot. Merlin delves into Camelot from, obviously, Merlin's point of view- through the eyes of a young man with rather astonishing skills.

I think that the makers would have had to try very hard to leave nothing worth watching, but there is more than just competence here.

First, some parametres. Merlin is a light ahistorical 'family' show- more so than Robin Hood or especially the new Doctor Who ever were. The pilot, at least, has a relatively simple story and the magical aspects usually lean towards the humorous/corny, a fact not due to the special effects themselves, but to the way they are included. However, the show is well written, well-acted, well-produced, interesting, funny and entertaining.

A few things stand out for me in this first episode of what promises to be an excellent show. The first was the dialogue: it is good. For a show that delves into high fantasy (an area avoided by most television due to the difficulties of pulling off the word 'destiny'), having solid dialogue is of the utmost importance. Merlin has managed to do this and it gives the entire production- the acting especially- something solid to stand on.

Or perhaps it is the actors that can make the dialogue sound convincing. This is not a deep drama, but the cast is one that could easily handle something far more complex. We have Buffy's Anthony Stewart Head playing a rather more believable-and-interesting-than-normal 'bad' character. I was delighted to see Eve Miles (Torchwood, Doctor Who) also being highly convincing, and Richard Wilson, who I didn't recognize but has an extensive, high-quality and wide-ranging repertoire of television and film experience that is clear in the first few minutes of his appearance.

Merlin himself, the keystone of the show, is another Doctor Who actor, Colin Morgan. He's got little beyond Doctor Who in his imdb profile but the choice was precisely the right one. He's captured a youth delighted with a new city, over his head in a number of ways but intelligent and confident to act as he sees fit. He brings humor and believability to the role of Merlin and tightly ties the show together.

I can see how this show could disappoint some. It pays no little to other Arthur myths or timelines, or to the real history of Britain. It is not as dark as it could be, nor as complex.

And yet this first episode is solidly written and acted, highly entertaining and hints at greater things to come. It is an apologetically modern, fantastical take on a tale rich with detail to pick and choose from. I hope it continues to develop into its own version of the King Arthur legend, to draw on complex themes alongside the childlike glee it has begun with.

I'm looking forward greatly to the next episode, and what more can you ask for?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Extraordinary People

Canada’s role on the world stage stands on the brink of a knife. We have all that it takes to say, “Here we are, world; this is the future; Canada is the future.”

Canada is the second largest country in the world. It touches the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. It is hugely rich in all vital basic resources: water, energy, food, minerals. It is not militaristic. It has a reasonably stable economy when its closest ally flounders in economic confusion. It is successfully multicultural and increasingly so. It values education, intelligence, tolerance, ideas. It prospers.

It seems to have everything required to take the future in our grip. We do not have to merely be competent; we do not have to copy everyone else's methods.

So what should we do to turn that corner and set along that path of being the country of the twenty first century? Should we imprison our youth for their entire lives, increasing the prison population and achieving little else in the process? Should we eschew those who value creativity and invention as if there is some real distinction between us (‘ordinary people’) and them? Should we subvert environmental issues in lieu of economic ones and lose out on a chance to promote Canada as one of the first truly environmentally conscious nations?

I do not think that these ideas will help Canada very much.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Canada, with all its wonderful wildlife and landscape that has historically been so integral to the development of this modern nation, became known world wide as a country that successfully combined energy, mineral and food production with stringent environmentally-conscious efforts? Canada has that chance.

Wouldn’t it equally be amazing if Canadian arts- no, not only Canadian arts, but Canadian invention, Canadian science, Canadian engineering, Canadian creativity- became not only renowned and respected worldwide but also sought after, inviting in droves of budding intelligences to learn and then return to their home nations taking their Canadian values of tolerance and education with them? Canada has that chance.

Wouldn’t it also be great to demonstrate to the world that a multicultural nation can work and work very well? That it can be richer in every area for being tolerant, accepting and even forgiving. That it can be environmentally conscious without sacrificing economic stability. That it can be tough and seek justice without becoming militaristic. That ‘ordinary people’ excludes no single group.

I’m not targeting a sole party leader here, although I am using one particular party’s ideology to illustrate my concerns. Canada has such potential the air in this massive, incredible nation should be palpable with possibility and yet people would rather vote south of the border. We have so much going for us and yet we flounder.

Somebody, please think firmly of that future- one of intelligence, education, environmental consciousness, arts, science, invention, tolerance, multiculturalism, peace, justice, cities and great empty landscapes, imagination and reality- and at least try, at least try, to grab a hold of it and hold on with all your might.

Because we can be that country.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Review: The Mentalist (Pilot)

Concept-related spoilers. It would be difficult to discuss the show without these spoilers but I highly recommend watching it without preconceptions, as I did.

The Mentalist, according to imdb, is a show about a ' A mentalist turned private investigator [who] uses his skills to help the police.' However, this show isn't the science fiction show I thought it was going to be. Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), uses- gasp!- his mind and his astonishing eye for detail in order to help the FBI. It's incredible that the show comes across as refreshing given its obviousness.

The show is good. Simon Baker plays a sly, frank, deadpan, impersonal character that seems to manage to dominate every scene in a very understated way. The character invites comparisons to Sherlock Holmes but manages just to sidestep being an updated version of the character along the lines of Gregory House. This gives the show its surprisingly refreshing feel.

The writing is very sharp and slick, going straight to the point, or keeping back from its audience unimportant information until it sees fit to let us know. Like its main character, the whole tone of the show is understated, although not particularly always surprising. This is not a show where the audience is kept guessing for very long at all. The Mentalist is nevertheless interesting enough too keep us watching throughout, using instead wit and intelligence to capture and hold its audience enthralled. It's not a whodunnit or a howdunnit, but a how-will-he-get-them and perhaps that's another reason it doesn't feel like just another crime show (which it in very many ways entirely is.)

The supporting cast is somewhat standard but promises good things- looks like we might be delving into subjects that don't come up very often in a serious fashion in North American TV. Religion and the supernatural are skirted around, ignored and often complicated by the presence of fantastical elements, but here the characters met them head on- and rather uncomfortably. More particularly, Robin Tunney (you may recognize her as the deathly ill kindergarten teacher from the very first episode of House) was especially convincing and likeable in her role.

There were a quite a few moments of delight, especially at the beginning of the show. There is certainly enough sly humour on the part of the main character to bring us safely through the darkness, which there promises to be plenty of. Overall, this was a very solid pilot which is most notable for its powerful, fascinating main character.

I'm interested to see how well this premise holds up over time. Can The Mentalist's brand of magic tricks pull out a new show every week?

The pilot reaches television on September 27th.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dramatic Times

Some of the metaphors used to describe the troublesome economic situation in one edition of the CBC News:

"necrotizing flesh"



Monday, September 8, 2008

Review: The Middleman (2008)

This review contains only very general spoilers for the show The Middleman.

There's a new television superhero on the block. His name is The Middleman and he is very silly and a little bizarre, but highly entertaining.

The Middleman is a new American television show based on the graphic novels of Javier Grillo-Marxuach (a writer I was surprised to find on the other end of that link worked on the first two seasons of Lost, among other things) and Les McClaine (the artist). Grillo-Marxuach is the writer and producer for the show, which I suppose makes him show runner.

We've had rather a lot (too many?) superhero shows and films lately. Most put traditional superheroes in the 'real' modern world. Smallville is still puttering along, tracing the tumultuous life of a young Superman. Tobey Maguire has just signed up for two more Spiderman movies. Batman has of course recently hit the big screen for another of the darkest re-imagining of a superhero's story ever.

Among all these, The Middleman might seem like a rehash, capitalizing on the popularity of the genre. 2007's embarrassingly bad Flash Gordon is an example of a superhero show gone horribly wrong. And yet, The Middleman manages to sidestep both the pitfalls of being yet another superhero-in-the-real-world show as well as all the problems in being what it is-- a show that makes fun of the traditional and modern superhero genre. The result is bizarre and silly, but ultimately a fun, cheerful romp through a familiar landscape.

IMDB characterizes The Middleman as a drama, but it's not. It's a comedy. It's one large, constant joke. If there was a laugh track, there wouldn't be anywhere to put it in. The funny is in the characters, in the dialogue, in the situations, in the monsters, aliens and arch-nemesii that populate each episode, and even in the onscreen place labels.

The characters, especially The Middleman (Matt Keeslar) himself, are deliberate stereotypes of the genre. However, this very fact sets them apart. The Middleman is so stereotypical, he is unusual. Wendy Watson (Natalie Morales), the young artist who becomes The Middleman's sidekick has her own stereotype crosses to bear but again the stereotype becomes part of the character, rather than the other way around. The result is undeniably quirky but (of course) loveable characters.

The whole show coasts on this principle. Instead of avoiding cliche, The Middleman embraces it wholeheartedly and unashamedly. Dialogue, the monster of the week, jokes, scenes, plot elements, music, forth-wall-breaking-comments... all manage to avoid the horrible wincing of cliche by being entirely cliche.

There are moments, yes, especially early on, when this principle doesn't always work. This is the case with almost all pilots of shows, however. The first episode or two, the actors haven't quite figured out how to deliver lines writers haven't quite figured out how to write. The Middleman is no exception to this. However, the pilot moves with such lightening speed that there's little time to wince, and once it truly gets going, there's no stopping it.

It's not the dark superhero show brooding in a pile of gore and angst we've all come to know and love. It's lighthearted and sustains a low hum of hilarity throughout. The Middleman does what every TV show yearns to do: It pulls it off.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Reoccuring Plotline: The Deadly Antarctica/Arctic Virus

Due to its nature this post contains general spoilers for a number of episodes of a couple of shows, but not specific ones unless you follow the links and read in detail.

I'm sure you've noticed. There are certainly plotlines that occur again and again in science fiction shows. Writers seemingly can't seem to avoid doing their own version of these reoccurring plotlines. I like to play snap with plotlines and I thought that when I come across three shows that contain the same plot I would share it with you.

One that occurs quite often and is strikingly similar in its basic plot elements is The Deadly Antarctica Virus story.

The story goes like this:

A team of Gentle Bearded Scientists (never the main characters) on remote research base in Antarctica or the Arctic make a biological discovery. It can be botanic, zoological, bacteria or 'unknown', but it is always dormant in its frozen state. However, this biological always has the same effect: almost immediately, this biological turns out to have a disease or have disease-like qualities. Gentle Bearded Scientists start acting strangely and/or fall sick.

The Main Characters arrive at the base either because of the discovery or because of the reported strangely-acting Gentle Bearded Scientists. They always arrive before the infection is truly apparent or taken hold and so never take precautions against infection.

However, once the Main Characters are on site, the situation rapidly goes downhill. One Gentle Bearded Scientist likely dies. As the plot progresses, one or more main characters might become infected. The Main Characters must battle against not only an infection that not only kills its carriers, but often turns them into murdering maniacs. The virus often has the added danger of destroying the world should it escape from the remote base (due to its ancient or alien nature).

The situation is remedied by the Main Characters and the few remaining Gentle Bearded Scientists, who in this story are the Red Shirts (for the uninitiated, a term originating in the original series of Star Trek that means they are expendable characters used to raise the stakes of the story by dying.) As always, the world is saved. The biological is never preserved, whatever it is.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you've seen this plotline in Stargate SG-1? Or maybe you've seen it in The X-Files? (If you count the movie, twice). If you're like me, and have a fondness for rather old science fiction, you may have seen it in Doctor Who (those are my three examples). Perhaps there are other shows that I've overlooked that also contain the Deadly Antarctica Virus in one form or another.

It is of course the remoteness and unusual conditions of the Earth's poles that make it an attractive target for writers, and not only in Science Fiction. House, for example, once diagnosed a patient in Antarctica. The first season of ReGenesis revolves around a Deadly Arctic Virus (although not an ancient or alien one). Antarctica is the only continent that is mysterious to us temperate creatures. The age of the ice and its preservation properties, the concentration of small groups of humans living in tiny restricted communities on the edge of the world, the ease with which bad weather can cut off communications and travel... all contribute to an exciting alienness that makes Antarctica ideal for a Science Fiction show setting.

And so the Deadly Antarctica Virus is born.