As Solo and Rogue One were to Star Wars, The Many Saints of Newark is to The Sopranos: mere fanfic dressed up as a prequel. We did not need to learn how Uncle Junior hurt his back.
Unpopular pop culture opinion: The Sopranos is overrated. Yes, it opened the floodgates for what came to be called “prestige TV”, but so much of what followed is better. Tony Soprano may be the archetypal male sociopath character that rationalizes his behavior to himself and to his TV audience, but I would argue that Walter White, Al Swearengen, Jimmy McNulty, and Don Draper are all more complex and interesting figures.
It’s a more common problem for a movie to fail from not having enough substance, but if anything, Alan Taylor’s The Many Saints of Newark has too much material for a two-hour movie. It’s been so long since I’ve seen The Sopranos that it took me ages to untangle the complex family tree in my head. I couldn’t remember which characters we were expected to remember from the series, and which were new.
Some intriguing coloration is given to Tony’s mother, one of the series’ biggest unalloyed villains (not to mention the most Freudian), but she is barely a footnote in this overstuffed mess. I can’t help but think it would have been a better movie if it had focused on her, and perhaps also Janice and Carmela, both of whom merely cameo.
I finally, finally, finally had the opportunity to cross L.A. Takedown off my movie watchlist — a largely unavailable holy grail that I’ve been desperately curious to see for years.
If director Michael Mann had not reworked this material into the masterpiece Heat, L.A. Takedown would probably be pushed so far down his IMDB or Letterboxd listings that it would get lost behind his more readily available TV work like Crime Story and Miami Vice. But for students of his work, L.A. Takedown is an incredibly fascinating relic; like reading a rough first draft of a well-known novel.
It’s amazing to see how virtually the same material (plot, structure, character, and even exact dialogue) in the same order — including the deafening downtown LA shootout — can comprise the ingredients to both this and the polished near-perfection of Heat. There can’t be many precedents for this; maybe Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own The Man Who Knew Too Much?
Aside from everything it shares with Heat, it’s just as interesting to consider what L.A. Takedown lacks:
100% less Henry Rollins & Tone Loc, and it’s the poorer for it.
What I consider one of the key moments in Heat: Hanna (Al Pacino) spotting a sad woman alone in a car, and deducing that Neil (Robert De Niro) has seen the heat around the corner.
Acting. I know, ouch, right? The main cast is pretty blah (and hard to tell apart, to be honest), but in supporting roles: Michael Rooker! Xander Berkeley (who’s also in Heat)!
Another of Heat‘s unfair advantages: a killer soundtrack. But this does have the then-contemporary Jane’s Addiction live on stage, and an exclusive Billy Idol song, which isn’t too shabby for a TV movie.
It’s also difficult to imagine a time when US TV networks would finance and produce a violent, handheld, and hard boiled movie like this — any movie at all, really, even if it was originally intended as a backdoor series pilot episode. I’m not even sure what the hook or selling point would be for a casual 1980s TV audience, but I’m sure it’s no accident that L.A. Takedown has more of a “just deserts” moralistic ending than Heat.
What an improbable treat, in an age of unasked-for sequels, that one of pop culture’s most notorious cliffhangers would receive resolution.
The HBO series Deadwood is not only one of their most acclaimed productions, but also the most lamentably unfinished. Its abrupt cancellation in 2006 was followed by persistent but vague promises of one or more movies. But as year after year passed, and practically the entire cast went on to higher asking prices, the practical matters of financing and scheduling a remount passed through the realm of the unlikely into the impossible. And yet, here it is, and we are all obligated to make some variation of a “crack open a can of peaches, hoopleheads” joke as we sit down to watch Deadwood: The Movie.
Time has found some characters grown stronger, such as a thriving Sofia (Lily Keene) and Charlie Utter (Dayton Callie) become a successful businessman and landowner. But many are stagnating: Jane (Robin Weigert) may be a minor celebrity but still an alcoholic wreck, and Joanie (Kim Dickens) remains trapped in the Bella Union. Others are greatly diminished: Harry (Brent Sexton) is corrupted, and Al’s (Ian McShane) health is rapidly declining. As Al loses his faculties and Charlie’s lifelong righteous sense of justice blossoms to a quiet but heroic act of resistance, it’s easy to see that this is clearly deeply personal for writer/creator David Milch — the movie is all the more poignant now that he is ailing, and this may be his final work.
There are a few instances of outright fan service (flashbacks remind us of a key moments, Garret Dillahunt has a fleeting cameo as his third character, and it’s very satisfying to see Dan & Jewel bicker over canned peaches one last time), but the movie thankfully does not wallow in nostalgia. The Pinkertons are not mentioned once, and unless I’m mistaken, nobody calls anybody a hooplehead. Milch’s characteristically convoluted diction truly deserves the modifier “Shakespearean”, and is something to savor.
The original TV series was always a little — shall we say — loosely plotted, which worked mostly to its benefit. Whereas later HBO efforts like Game of Thrones were predominantly plot-driven (who lives, who dies, one battle more spectacular than the next), Deadwood was always about character and dialog, and the greater theme of modern America being born out of lawlessness and chaos.
But it would be fair to criticize Milch for frequently abandoning promising storylines if he got bored or distracted. The third season in particular has numerous threads that go nowhere: the character of Joanie suffers from a lack of material, and everything involving the traveling theater troupe is superfluous, despite how delightful Brian Cox’s performance is.
The concise two-hour movie format has the benefit of focusing Milch’s attention, but there is still room for a little narrative meandering. One such seemingly extraneous subplot that at first seems to be going nowhere in Milch-ean fashion is that of a young woman coming to town with the aim of working in a brothel, turning a few heads but failing to land a job. We’ve seen her story before, from the very first episode: Deadwood was a hard place, populated by hard people. You could group its denizens into roughly two categories: those desperate to escape something (Al: wanted for murder; the Garrets: escaping bankruptcy and sexual abuse; Seth: arguably running from his own violent nature), and those there unwillingly (mostly women, as Trixie and Joanie were both sold into indentured servitude).
The girl attracts the notice of the latter, who always struck me as one of the show’s most tragic characters: Trixie (Paula Malcomson) grew into adulthood with a deep sense of self-loathing, unable to accept that she might deserve love or kindness. Even when Al, her abusive pimp, tried to push her into a legitimate free life in society (such as it was in Deadwood at the time), she rejected it. The original series ended with Trixie still caught in this conundrum, and as we see her 10 years later, she still feels unworthy, compelled to sneak around through backdoors, and resisting Sol’s (John Hawkes) unconditional love. Thankfully, the movie finally grants her a breakthrough: she accepts Sol and receives a gift from Al, and finds herself with a trade and a place in society.
When Trixie recognizes the psychology of the broken girl who came to Deadwood as a last resort, she is equipped to show her a bit of kindness, and laments that she should believe that this is all she deserves. It’s not only a breakthrough for Trixie, but a crack in the lawless, dead-end history of Deadwood: now no longer only a place for the criminal or the desperate, but now with opportunities for people to better themselves.
One other touching moment of resolution I want to highlight, conveyed perfectly without exposition. The other great dangling thread of the series was that Alma (Molly Parker) and Seth (Timothy Olyphant) never closed the door on their love affair. As they smolder one last time, face to face at Trixie and Sol’s wedding, they are interrupted by one of Seth’s children. He scoops her up, beaming with pride and love, and rejoins the party. Like Trixie, they are both also finally freed.
“You get an E for effort and an F for fracking it up.”
That just about sums it up. I was a big fan of the mid-2000s Battlestar Galactica reboot and its sister series Caprica, but had somehow overlooked this pilot for a second prequel spinoff. Belatedly seeing it now, the plot seems too slight and insubstantial to possibly set the stage for an ongoing series.
Not only were BSG and Caprica thematically complex (grappling with war, terror, fanaticism, politics, ethics, artificial intelligence, etc.), it was also blessed with a knockout cast (especially the volcanic Edward James Olmos), but everyone in Blood & Chrome is as flat and affectless as the greenscreen virtual sets and digital lens flare.
Worse, Blood & Chrome is near-devoid of the big ideas that drove Caprica, which was probably too smart for its own good. The pop culture hill I will die on: Caprica was a smarter show than the similarly-themed Westworld will ever be. Discuss.
Is the Doctor Who episode “The Rings of Akhaten” already one of the series’ most misunderstood? Almost two years ago, the Doctor urged his companions Amy & Rory not to live up to the title of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, for the vaguely-explained sci-fi reasons that changing history doesn’t always work out for the best. The Doctor defeated the devil before, in “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit” from Series 2. Here he has no compunctions in also killing god.
I’ve now listened to three fan podcasts debating the merits of “The Rings of Akhaten”, and was frankly surprised to discover the episode has been met by Doctor Who fandom with ambivalence at best, and outright derision from the rest. I would certainly not try to defend it as an instant classic, but it certainly does not deserve to be counted among the abysmal failures like “Fear Her” and “Last of the Time Lords”. In fact, I would argue it’s worthy of praise for daring to say something potentially very controversial. Perhaps it doesn’t say it very well (as evidenced by the fact that none of the participants in those three podcasts so much as broach the topic), but at least it’s a story that strives to be more than the usual Doctor-defeats-an-alien-invasion routine (not that there’s anything wrong with that routine — as a lifelong fan I love that routine!).
Out of all the various opinions voiced by the hosts of Radio Free Skaro, Verity, and Two Minute Time Lord, I align most with Chip of the latter, who was pleased the show still has the potential to be surprising. But everyone, even Chip, failed to even address what I took to be the major takeaway from the episode: the Doctor essentially rescued a civilization from a parasite they worshipped as a god. He freed a society from their self-defeating religion, and they thanked him for it.
Writer Neil Cross is famous for the grim BBC series Luther, and his script for Doctor Who was generally much lighter. But “The Rings of Akhaten” was about something very important, in a way that the series does not often attempt. I would classify it broadly in the same league as “Vincent and the Doctor”, where science fiction tropes were employed for a thinly-veiled metaphor of a particular aspect of human existence. Just as “Vincent and the Doctor” used time travel and invisible monsters to explore the topic of depression and suicide, “The Rings of Akhaten” used asteroids, interstellar mopeds, and angry space mummies to make a point about the detrimental effects of religion.
After watching the episode, I fully expected the fan conversation to be about how the show overstepped by taking on the negative affects of faith and religion. I expected many to take offense for daring to go there. But instead, it got called “dumb” and “stupid”, and Radio Free Skaro even dubbed it “The Borings of Akhenaten”. I suppose it raises the questions of what people want or expect from Doctor Who, which would seem to be plot, story, and character development. Anything beyond that (such as allegorical explorations of deeper themes like faith and religion) might as well be invisible. A good piece of science fiction ought to excel in both areas, so it seems “The Borings of Akhenaten” falls down on both fronts: none of the podcast hosts thought to mention the topic of religion (imagine talking about “Vincent and the Doctor” without mentioning depression!), and on the practical side, the plot particulars might not hold up to much scrutiny. But since when has Doctor Who ever been about hard sci-fi and airtight plotting? Any fan that demands that stuff probably ought to be watching Star Trek.
I don’t think I’m reaching at all in my interpretation here. This has to be one of the most thinly-veiled metaphors in Doctor Who history. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) begin their adventure explicitly discussing the society’s religion. He briefly explains how their belief system works: a giant orb in the sky, known as Grandfather, is worshipped as a vengeful god. A priesthood has long placated it via song, until today.
Clara wondrously asks, “Is it true?” For of course, she just rode across space and time to her first alien world, so it would’t be much more of a stretch to ask if, yes, the giant ball of gas in the sky (which the hosts of Verity memorably compared to Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin) might actually be a god that demands offerings of precious memories. The Doctor pauses, smiles, and then replies “It’s a nice story”. Again, it’s not subtle: the Doctor is saying that what these people believe is a god is actually just a thing. Many, many times before he’s unmasked the supernatural: the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” were robots, the ghosts in “The Unquiet Dead” and the devil in “The Satan Pit” were aliens, etc. There is no real supernatural in the Doctor Who universe.
I’ve put all of this very broadly to try and keep this post short, but my point is that the episode was far from “dumb”, “stupid” or “boring”. For better or for worse, it took on some complicated questions about religion. It also made me wonder about what it is the Doctor does to the civilizations he rescues. He has a long history of freeing groups from oppression, often leaving at the end of the story having totally and utterly upended the status quo. Here, the Doctor frees a people from their self-destructive religion. It’s not a perfect metaphor for atheism, for in a sense this god is real — not actually a god, but real. Atheists would point to the tyranny of organized religion, which is the work of fellow humans.
John Lennon asked in “Imagine” that we consider a world without countries or possessions, and heaven or religion. The alien civilization in “The Rings of Akhaten” has an economy that derives directly from their religion: just as their ersatz god feeds upon emotional memories, they pay for goods and services with objects imbued with sentimental value. The Doctor destroys both of these things: not only their god but also the very meaning behind their currency.
This alien culture, as far as we see it in this episode, is defined by only two things: its religion and its commerce. All we see of them is a marketplace and a religious order. So, in rescuing them, the Doctor takes away everything that we know about them. And they’re happy for it. Surely that’s the interesting thing about this episode, right?
British viewers may not blink twice, but it is always interesting for this Yank to note the privileged billing given to screenwriters in BBC programs. The opening credits for the 1981 serial The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy prominently hail “By DOUGLAS ADAMS” directly below its dramatically rocky logo, overshadowing the cast, directors, and producers. This is certainly not the case for typical American television productions, which tend to bury the lowly writer’s credit in type so small and fleeting that it’s hard to spot even if you’re looking for it. Shows tend to be popularly known more for their cast or sometimes the corporation that produced it (exhibit A: the hard-earned prestige status enjoyed by HBO). A precious few creators may have become known commodities in their own right, such as the rare cases of Chris Carter (The X-Files), J.J. Abrams (Lost), and David Simon (The Wire), but by and large writers remain effectively anonymous on American television.
You’re reading part one of our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence & legacy, and Part Three, on the friendly topic of atheism.
Aside from BBC standards and practice for onscreen accreditation, and the fact that the Adams name itself had become a brand, one could argue that he merited such recognition for sheer work ethic alone. Between 1978 and 1981, Adams wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least five times: as a radio play, novel, record album, stage show, and television series (granted, some of these were collaborations, but the point still stands). All this while serving as script editor for the 17th season of Doctor Who, which entailed supplying three of his own scripts (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and Shada) in addition to heavily rewriting many others. The Doctor Who tradition of divided loyalties would continue well into the 21st century as showrunners Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat would moonlight on Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, and Sherlock. The only possible conclusion to draw is that doing Doctor Who is evidently easy, and provides lots of free time for extracurricular activities. I’m sure Russell and Steven will agree, right guys?
By all accounts, including his own, writing would not seem to have come easy for Adams. The sustained creative frenzy that produced Hitchhikers in all its forms would have burned any normal person out. That he pulled it off proves he may not have been a normal person, but it made him a more financially comfortable man that indeed never met another deadline again: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Indeed, Hitchhikers’ runaway success afforded him the wealth to buy as many Apple Macintoshes as he wanted, and to take his sweet time adapting and extending the Hitchhikers universe into more novels, audio books, an influential text-based hypertextual computer game, and a stage show.
I personally consider the books to be definitive, mostly because that’s how I happened to first experience the story. In fact, it was years until I learned that its original incarnation as a radio series so much as existed. Writer Gareth Roberts, an expert on Adams-era Doctor Who, observed that the first two Hitchhikers books aren’t technically novels, but essentially novelizations of his scripts for the radio show. Further bumping the books down the hierarchy of relative definitiveness, the opening credits of the TV series proclaim it’s “Adapted from the BBC Radio Series” even though it followed the novel, which itself roughly corresponding to the first four radio episodes. Got that?
The first episode was a (very expensive) pilot, and could very well have been all we have today. Even after a full series was commissioned, each subsequent episode begins with a cleverly done recap, typically featuring excerpts from the titular Guide that segue into a resolution of the previous episode’s cliffhanger. The integration of animation into the live action footage reflects Adams’ highly digressive writing style, now de rigueur to audiences raised in an online, hyperlinked culture. Perhaps the sole element of the TV series that everyone can agree is excellent is the faux-computer animation, which was actually created manually using traditional cel animation techniques by Rod Lord of Pearce Studios.
Neil Gaiman dedicates Chapter 13 of his book Don’t Panic, about the Hitchhikers phenomenon, to the painful production of the television series. Indeed, it seems to have managed to disappoint just about everyone: fans, critics, the BBC, and at least two warring factions on the creative team, including (and perhaps especially) Adams himself. He had wished to involve his trusted collaborators John Lloyd and Geoffrey Perkins, but all three were shut out by entrenched BBC TV lifers that looked down their noses at mere radio people. Further dooming things, production was handled by the BBC’s Light Entertainment division, despite the Drama department having all the experience and know-how anyone could ask for after having handled many years worth of Doctor Who serials.
Gaiman documents a high state of tension between producer/director Alan Bell and seemingly everyone else. Bell was reportedly skilled at bringing productions in on time and under budget, but less interested in story or directing actors. Gaiman quotes many veterans of the original radio series that felt Bell’s direction and staging was often artless and unsympathetic to the unique material. The pedestrian-looking resulting program must have stung, as the original radio team had all shown considerable technical ambition in realizing the unprecedented sound design of the radio series (Geoffrey Perkins details the extraordinary labor it took to create virtually all of the voice and sound effects from scratch in the book The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts — contrary to what one might assume, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop didn’t contribute much). A second series was commissioned, but Adams’ standoff with Bell contributed to its cancellation before it came anywhere close to beginning. Bell claims Adams missed his script deadlines as usual, and Adams counters he simply would not start writing until negotiations concluded to include Perkins and Lloyd as advisors (this is a brutally condensed version of the whole sad story, available in full circa page 84 of the first edition of Don’t Panic). I take Adams’ side on this one, as my career as a web designer has made me all too familiar with the pitfalls of beginning work before you have a contract.
The pilot episode opens on a rather decent model landscape of a quaint English village, complete with ersatz sunrise. This bucolic scene is, of course, not long for this world. We soon meet Adams’ archetypal everyman Arthur Dent, played by Simon Jones, who actually resembles Douglas Adams in stature and coiffure. Athur’s home and home planet are about to become casualties of two coincidental bureaucratic mishaps. As if Arthur didn’t have enough to deal with this dreadful morning, his pal Ford Prefect outs himself as being a roving reporter for the eponymous publication The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, hailing “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse”. Incidentally, everyone’s favorite star — once they learn how to pronounce it — is itself expected to explode “soon”. But Ford, if he’s out there, may rest easy, for in the minds of astrophysicists, “soon” means anytime between now and 1,000,000 years hence. Perhaps the exact date is available on a slip of paper in a subbasement of a Vogon planning commission office somewhere in the galaxy.
But back to the TV series. Much of the radio cast reprise their roles onscreen, and it certainly plays that way. Its prose origins are betrayed by a few recognizably overwritten scenes, such as when Arthur and Ford redundantly describe the hallucinations they suffer in episode two, as if the audience couldn’t plainly see them for themselves. The downside is that the TV series comes across like an abridged greatest hits compilation of Adams’ most quotable lines (“Time is an illusion; lunchtime doubly so”). The upside is… well, it comes across like an abridged greatest hits of the most quotable lines (“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”).
While the outdoor location work is grounded in reality, the studio-shot sequences are theatrical in presentation, with long takes staged against traditional three-walled studio sets. The non-naturalistic lighting often works against the story, especially as Ford squints by the feeble light of a match to locate a plainly visible light switch in the brightly illuminated bowels of the Vogon ship. Arthur (who had admittedly just been through a lot) is unimpressed with the “shabby” vessel. Knowing the author and context, this word choice is very likely an ironic comment on the art direction. To be fair, later sequences are staged more dramatically (such as the forced-perspective gangways surrounding the massive supercomputer Deep Thought).
If you want to argue about how Hitchhikers looks on television, I think that sci-fi on the small screen ought not to be judged in terms of what was on the big screen at the time. Doctor Who still gets a lot of grief for its dodgy production values, but recall that it premiered in 1963, long before the stylistic and technological special effects breakthroughs showcased in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Alien (1979), so it’s a bit unfair to judge, isn’t it? It’s only a rather recent development that the production qualities of science fiction on television began to match the sorts of effects you can see in feature films. In this viewer’s opinion, the current best-of-breed visual effects on television haven’t yet topped Battlestar Galactica, which featured outer space dogfights that matched or exceeded what is routinely showcased in Hollywood features — perhaps even by what is arguably the highest-profile genre series currently on the air, HBO’s Game of Thrones.
As was (and is) the case with Doctor Who, you have to take the good with the bad. Is there any point critiquing Hitchhiker’s dodgy special effects, even considering the year (1981), medium (television), and budget (low)? Insofar was anyone could have predicted audience expectations, they likely tuned in more to savor Adams’ priceless words and ideas, not state-of-the-art spectacle. Here’s original producer Geoffrey Perkins on the topic of the paradoxical limitations and freedom of the radio drama format, and the unexpected repercussions when the serial was later adapted into other media:
“The line about [Zaphod’s] extra head was put in as a little extra throwaway joke which was to cause enormous headaches (sic) when the show was transferred to television. The extra head cost about twice as much as Mark [Wing-Davey] himself (though he thinks that was fair enough because it gave a better performance than he did!). In fact much of the time the head didn’t function properly and used to loll on his shoulder looking up at him, often ending up being operated by a man with his hand up Mark’s back.”
Geoffrey Perkins, The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts, page 50
It’s interesting, and I think significant, that he uses the word “transferred” to describe the adaptation process. At the time of the publication of the radio scripts in 1985, Perkins and Adams still viewed them as the definitive article.
Thanks for reading Part One of our trilogy (in three parts… so far) on Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Don’t miss Part Two, on its influence and legacy, and Part Three, on its status as gateway drug for many future atheists.
Now that the Lostfiasco finale has come and gone, and my blood pressure has dipped back down into safe levels, I am going to attempt to speak calmly about how the show let me down. Yes, I am aware that it is just a TV program, and there are a great many other things in the world worth being upset over (I’m looking at you, British Petroleum). But following a weekly TV show from the very beginning, for six years, earns you a little more than the often derogatory sobriquet “fan”. We aficionados are not owed anything by anybody, but nevertheless, our investment of time and enthusiasm created an imbalance that was not satisfied in the end.
As my frustration at being cheated subsides, another problematic pop cultural touchstone came to mind. Certain parallels between Lost and the Matrix trilogy now seem obvious, and it’s not just that both hinge on a mysterious, glowing, ill-defined “Source.”
Start out strong with a very science fiction-y, mostly plot-driven narrative. The characters are marginally interesting, but the focus is on scenario and story. Viewers’ imaginations are teased, speculation abounds, and sequels are demanded.
Follow up with a sequel that reveals a loose framework of philosophy supporting the science fiction conceit. Whether it genuinely inspired the original work or was bolted on after the fact is open to debate. Simultaneously amp up the soap-opera cheesiness concerning flat characters that fans aren’t really invested in. (For what it’s worth, I contend that The Matrix Reloaded – the second in the trilogy – is not only underrated, but in fact the best of the series, despite the nearly universal opinion that both sequels were failures)
Contrive a violent, action-packed ending that A) strains to fit around the philosophical core (kinda sorta maybe) and B) focuses on character melodrama (tragic deaths, romantic pining, etc.). Myriad story issues are neglected and treated as merely peripheral to the creators’ primary concerns.
In short, the creative duos behind Lost and The Matrix mistakenly assumed fans were more interested in the philosophical angle and thin characters than in the narrative. And maybe, just maybe, some of us wondered why we couldn’t have it both ways: a cracking good story with a strong subtext of mysticism and philosophy.
As every high school creative writing teacher must explain to students that keep turning in thinly veiled retellings of Bible stories: just because an allegory fits (kinda sorta maybe), it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any additional meaning to be construed. For The Wachowskis, it was Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. For Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, it was John Locke, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, etc. (to be fair, they also leaned heavily on writers outside the realm of philosophy, including everyone from George Lucas to Stephen Hawking).
If, in the end, Cuse and Lindelof neglected their storytelling responsibilities, they had already neatly set up two excuses for themselves to fall back upon:
That Lost‘s appeal was really the characters, and fans ought to be pleased that they all lived happily ever after, after a fashion.
That Lost is really an allegory for a melange of works of philosophy, and that if you don’t get it, you’re a right-brainer too hung up on Star Trek-esque hard sci-fi to have your mind expanded, dude.
I don’t think I would be so upset if Cuse and Linedlof weren’t so outrageously full of themselves and self-congratulatory in interviews (The Wachowskis are probably right to refrain from publicity). At least Lindelof seemed conscious of how their work might be received. He told Wired Magazine:
Locke is now the voice of a very large subset of the audience who believes that when Lost is all said and done, we will have wasted six years of our lives, that we were making it up as we went along, and that there’s really no purpose. And Jack is now saying, “the only thing I have left to cling to is that there’s got to be something really cool that’s going to happen, because I have really, really fucking suffered.”
Maybe Jack and Locke were both right; the show now appears to have been a headlong hurdle into a faux-mystical conundrum, leaving behind countless abandoned plot threads as so much narrative shrapnel. There is no shortage of blog posts clogging the internet with lists of unresolved mysteries (including my own). Cuse dug himself in deeper, in conversation with The New York Times:
our goal is when we’re breaking stories, how are we going to really make each one of these commercial breaks really exciting. Those questions led to a lot of really intense scenes and cool reversals and surprises, and I guess it must have been how Dickens would cliffhanger the end of his serials in the newspaper when he was writing them to try to get people to show up the next day.
Cool like Dickens, eh? Wait, it gets better. In the recap special “The Final Journey” that preceded the final episode “The End,” they actually had the nerve to call their series “Shakespearean,” which I think automatically disqualifies them from being taken seriously.
As for The Matrix, I think it’s telling that there’s literally a character in the third film named “Deus Ex Machina.”
I’ve always been a Lost apologist, at least liking the show even during its weak points. Six years of goodwill very nearly went out the window along with my television, thanks to its extremely frustrating final run of episodes. Close to the end, I attempted to resolve myself to the likely event that the finale would not answer every little niggling mystery. I hoped to shield myself from disappointment, and let the creators finish the story how they wished. Yet “The End” still failed to tell a simple story. A story is not a string of dei ex machina, and every character arc need not end with a sudden, brutal, arbitrary death.
Carlton Cuse told Wired Magazine:
The great mysteries of life fundamentally can’t be addressed. We just have to tell a good story and let the chips fall where they may. We don’t know whether the resolution between the two timelines is going to make people say, “Oh, that’s cool” or “Oh, fuck those guys, they belly-flopped at the end.”
The latter, pretty much. What follows is just a taste of my catalogue of complaints, with no concern for spoilers.
Spinning (Donkey) Wheels
For a show built atop a perpetually compounding series of mysteries and conundrums, it failed to legitimately advance or resolve much of anything in the run-up to the polarizing finale. With so little time left, the penultimate episodes wasted time spinning wheels in classic Lost fashion. People getting locked in cages, escaping, getting locked up again. Groups splitting up, hiking to opposite ends of the island(s), splitting up into different groups and hiking back. Boarding watercraft and disembarking again. Meanwhile, the sheer number of abandoned mysteries filled its own wiki. As usual, CollegeHumor said it best:
From the very beginning, one of Lost‘s favorite conceits was the sudden death of characters. To be generous, death is rarely “meaningful” in real life, but these plot twists also laid bare the practicalities of serial television (actors quit, get fired, or age unconvincingly). After the tenth or twentieth fatality, I became sick of characters getting suddenly and arbitrarily killed off for cheap shock.
Past victims included Eko, Libby, and Danielle, all violently exiting the show before their storylines reached any kind of resolution. In the final episodes, it happened to Ilyana, Widmore, Zoe, and (it seemed at first) Frank and Richard. We saw just enough of Zoe that I assumed she must be significant as something more than just cannon fodder, but apparently not. Sayid’s season-long arc (was he mystically reincarnated as a soulless killing machine, or was he merely convinced that he was essentially evil?) is short-circuited by his abrupt choice of self-sacrifice. How did he defeat his mystical brainwashing? Killing off a character isn’t any kind of a resolution to a storyline.
A positive example from the show’s past would be Charlie, a character whose death figured into the mythology in a big way. It had ramifications, as opposed to: BOOM! Look, somebody just suddenly blew themselves up with dynamite, isn’t that HILARIOUS? Aren’t you SHOCKED? No? Well, let’s kill another character the same way!
I was never so sentimental for Lost that I felt the need for every character to live happily ever after. But didn’t these creations deserve a little better?
Across the Sea
Little of the mythology Jacob finally revealed in the episode “Across the Sea” made any sense, and often directly contradicted my memories of what went before. He tells Kate he scratched her off the list because she became a mother, but the job could still be hers if she wanted it. Does that mean his list is arbitrary? It doesn’t matter which of these last few surviving candidates will do it? And, for whatever reason Jacob disqualifies moms, is it related to why all women on the island die? Were all the other mothers also candidates, for whom disqualification means death? If so, why didn’t he kill Kate? Because she assumed custody of Claire’s baby rather than having her own biological child, I suppose. But if the audience is asked to make too many strained suppositions like this, based on little evidence in the text of the show, we’ll begin to wonder if the writers have any idea themselves.
In the earlier episode “Ab Aeterno”, Jacob told the Man in Black that he brings people to the island to prove a point to him about humanity. But now he tells Jack & co. that he simply wants to find a replacement. Which is it? Both?
Jacob’s list of several hundred names eventually narrowed to a mere handful of survivors. Did he know he had to rule them all out until he got to the last name? And that the Man in Black would happen to be very near escape at that point in time? If so, why didn’t he just scratch all but one name off the list? And now that Jack has volunteered, does that mean that the other few have to die?
It’s cheap to resolve a plot thread by introducing a totally new element, like the adoptive mother of Jacob & The Man in Black (an unnamed character played by Allison Janney). Imagine a murder mystery, in which the murderer turns out to be… oh this guy right here, whom you’ve never seen before now. The answer to the mystery of Jacob and The Man in Black needed to already be there, in the form of shuffled puzzle pieces the audience hasn’t seen the solution to yet. Not in a single-episode guest star.
Which brings me to the glowing cave. If it’s really the key motivating force for Jacob and The Man in Black, it’s the ultimate MacGuffin of the entire series. To not even so much as mention it until near the very end of a six-year long series is cheating to say the least.
Let me go back even further: I’m irritated altogether by the injection of Jacob and the Man in Black into the story. I know that the Man in Black technically appeared in the very first episode (as the sound effect we would later associate with the Smoke Monster), and we’ve been hearing the name Jacob for a few years now. But it does not feel organic at all that the core mystery of the show came down to a mystical struggle between two characters that have barely featured on the show at all. It should be about the characters already on the stage from the very beginning, not two cyphers introduced so late in the game.
And the final, capping atrocity that would get any kid kicked out of high school creative writing class is, of course, the revelation that the final season’s mysterious “sideways timeline” was actually a kind of Limbo or Purgatory. That this is wildly unsatisfactory (the only thing worse could have been an ending in which it is revealed to be someone’s dream, a la St. Elsewhere or Newhart) is overshadowed by the true crime: it’s explained via exposition by a minor character we hadn’t seen for months (Jack’s father Christian). Exposition! “Show don’t tell” is a cliched rule, and rules ought to be broken, but this case of telling not showing is evidence of contempt for the audience.
Compare and contrast with the truly mind-blowing conclusion to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Its wordlessness is a sublime virtue, and its mysteries linger to provoke discussion and fascination decades later.
Ben: A Complicated Guy, or Lazy Writing?
I’m puzzled by Ben’s apparent boomerang switcheroo from defeated and sort-of redeemed, to pure evil, and then back again. We’re left to suppose he realized something in the penultimate episode that the audience just didn’t know yet. We naturally expect to share his realization in the final episode, but there doesn’t seem to be anything there to find. After the Man in Black is defeated, he’s not only forgiven for his crimes (remember, he is a mass murderer), but given a leadership role on the island. And, he gets to stay behind in Limbo and shag Rousseau (Mira Furlan, who, incidentally, cleans up good, am I right?).
It bugs me that I had to repeatedly ask this question at each plot turn: was it lazy writing, or part of the mystery?
The Desmond Zap
I’m very confused about how much the sideways characters remember about their alternate timelines on the island after Desmond zaps them. Locke and Ben only seem to get a vague sense of deja vu, but Hurley seems to have complete recall (for instance, he seems to know exactly who Ana Lucia is). By the finale, characters need only touch each other for complete memories to come flooding back. So why didn’t Jack & Juliet spark each other’s memories during all the years were married, and not to put to fine a point on it, had sex and conceived a son? Again, part of the mystery, or sloppy writing?
Some of the above is derived from a morning-after rant I shared with guest blogger Snarkbait.
Put simply, Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is a clip show done right, albeit in disguise as an original movie for television.
Whatever else its intended purpose, it must also do double-duty as a kind of coda, appendix, or postscript to the celebrated television series (2004-2009). But is it one final cash-in, before the sets are struck and the cast scatters to the winds, or a noble attempt to address neglected aspects of the complex mythos that many fans felt weren’t justly served by the controversial final episode? Which, for the record, I loved for its audacity, while still sympathizing with the contingent of fans that felt it strained plausibility and raised more questions than it answered.
The Plan incorporates footage from across all four seasons, seamlessly melded with new material written by Jane Espenson, who wrote for the show during its fourth season, and directed by Edward James Olmos, who starred in the series as Commander Bill Adama and helmed several individual episodes. The DVD bonus features, while typically hagiographic, rightly point out that Olmos obviously had an intimate knowledge of the full story arc as well as a strong relationship with the entire cast, so he was probably the best choice to helm The Plan. Curiously, Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is missing-in-action from the credits and DVD bonus features.
In a narrative conceit shared with the previous Battlestar Galactica special movie Razor (2007), key portions of the show’s continuity are retold from a different perspective, in this case that of the Cylons, a fractious race of synthetic lifeforms with a (shall we say) complicated relationship with their human creators. All but one of the actors portraying the twelve Cylon models appear in new sequences here (Lucy Lawless being the sole holdout), joining some of the original human characters (missing James Callis, Mary McDonnell, Katee Sackhoff, Tahmoh Penikett, and Jamie Bamber). Oddly, President Roslin (McDonnell) is the only major character to not even appear in archival clips, being very conspicuous in her absence. Perhaps the actress objected to the script, or was her fee not met?
I personally don’t believe the series proper necessarily needed to tell more of the story than the writers chose to before its final episode (which is off-limits anyway, taking place chronologically after the events seen in The Plan). But if the goal of The Plan was to fill in some of the perceived gaps, it’s ultimately unsatisfying for not addressing some of the truly puzzling mysteries, particularly the still-unseen thirteenth Cylon called Daniel and the true nature of Starbuck’s (Sackhoff) death, resurrection, and subsequent visions.
What new plot information and character insights we do get are nice, but inessential. We see more of the Cylon surprise attack, with the human colonies destroyed one by one, but how does this expand the story beyond indulging in some CGI apocalypse porn? But to The Plan‘s credit, some of the most tantalizing mysteries are probably best left up to our imaginations. Not without reason, fans spent the final season wondering how Starbuck could be anything but a Cylon, only to find she was something else entirely. I would argue the writers chose to not drag the mystery down into mundanity, like the fatal mistake George Lucas made by providing a pseudo-scientific definition of The Force in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
So what is the eponymous Plan? As we saw in the first moments of the original series, the religiously-motivated Cylons attempt to totally annihilate humanity in one fell swoop. A small fleet of human stragglers escapes, with a small number of Cylons unwillingly trapped among them (surely a frustrating situation for creatures who expected to perish in the cataclysm and be reborn in a heaven free of humans). The major revelation of The Plan is that much of the violent conflict we saw in the original series was actually a desperately improvised plan by this ragtag cell of partly-unwilling soldiers. Meet the new plan, same as the old plan: genocide. So we now understand these few Cylons to be a struggling terrorist cell.
The central characters that drive the action are a pair of Ones/Cavils (Dean Stockwell), whose pending execution provides a framing device to the entire movie. Also significantly expanded are Anders (Michael Trucco) and two very different versions of Four/Simon (Rick Worthy). We learn a little more about the hapless Five/Aaron (Matthew Bennett), the explanation for his relative insignificance in the show being that he is simply a little dim, often serving as an inept pawn of Cavil.
We learn how the Eight that lived as Boomer actually functioned (she was a sleeper agent who genuinely believed she was human, but was brought in and out of this illusion by Cavil – with her human side eventually winning over). We meet an additional Six (Tricia Helfer) who worked undercover as a prostitute, contributing little to the story beyond more T&A. Speaking of, The Plan features a great deal of gratuitous full-frontal male and female nudity, not motivated by plot or character, and seemingly only there for titillation and a faux sense of realism.
Most of left-behind Cylons become contaminated, or at least influenced, by proximity with humans. Another Cavil is trapped on the post-apocalyptic Caprica with Anders, simultaneously revering him as a father of the Cylon race while challenging his empathetic leadership skills. How they all survive radiation poisoning isn’t explained. The Caprica-bound Cavil’s mind rapidly evolves to the point where he becomes worlds apart from his bitter, cruel twin in the fleet, who remains the sole Cylon purely dedicated to the original plan.
Was the project misconceived? It is certainly in keeping with the classically bleak Battlestar Galactica style and tone; a new character is a helpless little orphan kid, very out of keeping for a show that continually rejects cute & cuddly stereotypes, and I should have known that his fate would not be a good one.
By design, The Plan is resolutely intended for diehard Battlestar Galactica fans with encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s mythos. I consider myself a big fan, and have seen every episode, but there was much I hadn’t memorized, and about which I remain confused. For instance, I can’t recall if it was ever explained exactly why the so-called Final Five Cylons were implanted among human society to live as humans for several decades, and why only one incarnation of Cavil knew of their existence.
It seems a mistake to produce a big-budget TV movie for a very narrow audience of superfans that can remember all this stuff, months after their favorite show stops airing. The Plan certainly won’t attract virgin viewers, as anyone interested in the series would certainly start with the original 2004 miniseries. I don’t even want to think about how The Plan must have seemed to any unfortunate viewers who had never seen Battlestar Galactica at all, let alone internalized its mythos.
It’s hard to see how The Plan can be anything other than the true end of the series. Getting this much of the cast back together for one TV movie must have been a real feat, so doing it again in the future seems unlikely. The prequel series Caprica is set far enough in Battlestar Galactica‘s past that much of the cast cannot logically guest star (although, upon reflection, it might be possible to see some of the Final Five, who might be living among humans at this point). So The Plan is most likely the end.
The recently concluded television series Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) was critically acclaimed and much beloved by a relatively small group of fans and critics that appreciated the brainy show’s bleak, pessimistic view of humanity. It will certainly live forever as a classic achievement in television, but the common consensus is that it failed to reach the wide audience it could have.
Executive Producer Ron Moore told Variety “‘We had viewers say that if they were able to trick their wives or girlfriends into watching Galactica, they loved it. But with the name Battlestar Galactica screaming science fiction,’ he adds, ‘there was just such a high hurdle to get female viewers to even try it.'” So comes Caprica, a prequel ostensibly engineered from the beginning for greater appeal.
In an original move, its unrated (read: blood ‘n’ boobs) movie-length pilot episode premiered day-and-date on DVD and digital download in May 1999, nearly a year before the series proper. It preserves some of the signature vernacular of its parent series, including technobabble like “Cylon” (a marketing term short for, we finally learn, Cybernetic Lifeform Node), the trip-on-the-tongue “gods damn it,” the infamous euphemism “frak,” and even epithets like “dirt eater.”
The character of Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos in Battlestar Galactica) appears as a young boy, and one supposes we might later even see some of the “final five” Cylons from the original series (Michael Hogan, Kate Vernon, Michael Trucco, Rekha Sharma, and Aaron Douglas), who ought to have been running around in some form at this point in BSG chronology. Some of the same core themes are still present, particularly religious intolerance and families coping with catastrophic disaster. Even the special effects are up to par with Galactica‘s groundbreaking spaceship battles, although applied to spectacularly convincing digital cityscapes.
But there are significantly worrisome signs that indicate a fatal miscalculation on The SyFy Channel’s part (worse than their astonishingly stupid rechristening from “Sci-Fi”): Caprica hinges on two men and three annoying teens, relegating its only two adult female characters to the sidelines. It may very well be the case that many women were discouraged from giving Battlestar Galactica a chance, but it’s also true that the show featured a bevy of significant, complex women: self-destructive firebrand Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff), president of all humanity Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), Dick Cheney-esque war criminal Captain Cain (Michelle Forbes), and conflicted Cylons Three (Lucy Lawless), Six (Tricia Helfer), and Eight (Grace Park). So far, at least, Caprica includes only two lead female roles, neither of whom figures strongly in the pilot episode: Amanda Graystone (Paula Malcomson, from Deadwood) and Sister Clarice Willow (Polly Walker, from Rome).
But maybe this gender inequality makes a kind of sense. The real core dynamic between the two male leads makes for classic storytelling. Industrialist Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) invented a virtual reality playground called the Holoband, and has since turned to developing weaponized robotics. Joseph Adama (Esai Morales) is a crooked lawyer tied to an offworld organized crime syndicate that put him through law school, and further control him with threats.
A terrorist bombing claims their daughters (and Adama’s wife), and the two men later bond over mutual grief, coffee, and cigarettes (like Battlestar Galactica, doctors and nutritionists many thousands of years in our past haven’t yet warned people about the dangers of caffeine and nicotine). The two men may be of different planets, races, and religions, but become bound by complicity in an act of industrial espionage that leads to a murder of an elected official (cast and costumed in thick glasses to resemble Dr. Tyrell (Joe Turkel) from Blade Runner).
If one of the two had been female, the viewer might naturally expect a romantic subplot. Caprica‘s creators may have avoided this kind of distraction, but the downside is that the primary narrative conflict is between two men, and the only two adult female characters are solely defined by their relationships with the men and/or kids in their lives. Daniel and Amanda’s daughter Zoe (Alessandra Toressani) is killed in a terrorist attack, but we never see the icy Amanda mourn as we do Daniel. Her character is simply Daniel’s wife, nothing more. Sister Willow, at least, is revealed by the end to be more than she seems. Here’s hoping we see Amanda and Sister Willow significantly expanded in future episodes.
Another thing Battlestar Galactica got right was to sidestep altogether the trap of annoying child characters. It was an adult show, for intelligent adults. Caprica obviously also didn’t learn from a lesson from Jericho (2006-2008), a generally smart show whose weakest characters were a pair of whiney teens that were thankfully written out. Out of Caprica‘s trio of kids, two die but unfortunately come back to a kind of immortality (if you only counted one, check out the deleted scenes available on the DVD edition).
The first 10 minutes pack in a massive download of important information, especially tricky for any viewers not already versed in the fictional Galactica universe. Certain key points are reiterated once things slow down later, but a new viewer tuning in cold might get the sense they were supposed to be versed in all this stuff already, instead of just getting teased with a barrage of info to be unpacked later. When a title card reads “58 years before The Fall,” Galactica fans will catch the reference to the sneak attack by the Cylons that nearly eradicates their human creators, the inciting incident that motivated the entire story arc of the parent series.
We then cut directly to the decadent V Club, implying this civilization’s late-Rome-like decadence to be one of the direct causes of the coming Fall. A fully immersive virtual reality simulation not unlike The Matrix, the V Club is full of teens dancing to dated techno, ogling hot lesbians, making simulated human sacrifice, and squaring off in a fight club knockoff. Its banality betrays a failure of imagination not just on the part of Caprica‘s teens, but also on the filmmakers. A rebellious generation co-opts a virtual world in which they can do absolutely anything they want, and all they can come up with is a single nightclub that only spins techno from Earth’s 1990s? No gay boys want to make out in public too? Nobody wants to fly? Nobody wants to enhance their virtual appearance, say, to make themselves younger, more beautiful, covered in fur or made of diamond?
The titular city Caprica is the capital of twelve planets colonized by humanity. We only caught glimpses of its future before it is decimated in the first episode of Battlestar Galactica, so there is plenty of unexplored territory for a new prequel series to fill in. Its fashions resemble 1950s America, perhaps meant to capitalize on the popularity of the series Mad Men. We’re supposed to agree that this is a corrupt, decadent society on the cusp of collapse. But how, exactly? They’re playing god(s) by delving into dangerous technological areas like robotic weapons and artificial intelligence, or at least a means of recording a human individual’s consciousness into a computer. They’ve designed virtual reality systems capable of simulating any desire.
The society is racist to the core; Taurans (from the sister planet Taurus) are called “dirt eaters” and associated with organized crime (although to be fair, the latter actually is true – they seem modeled on the immigrant Sicilian mafia of 1920s America). Like Michael Corleone in the Godfather trilogy, Joseph is ostensibly an upstanding citizen forced to compromise with his heritage. Unable to completely extricate himself from the mob, he tries to Capricanize everything else is his life: changing his surname to Adams and raising his son as a Caprican, all to the consternation of his mother.
This society’s most truly dangerous trait appears to be its ingrained religious intolerance. The population is almost uniformly polytheistic, and intolerant of the minority monotheists. Underground militants have formed the Soldiers of the One, a cult that believes in a combination of monotheism and anti-science. Their secret representative Sister Willow recruits teen students from her exclusive private school. Zealous Ben (Avan Jogia), in turn, drafts Zoe and her friend Magda, and later stages the suicide bombing that claims the Graystone and Adama families. Ben was presumably being manipulated by Sister Willow (Polly Walker), who also had designs on Zoe’s brilliant computer skills that didn’t necessarily hinge on her remaining alive.
The biggest addition to the Battlestar Galactica mythos is a deeper look into artificial intelligence. Like the Terminator franchise, I appreciate Caprica‘s emphasis that developing artificial intelligence is a separate pursuit than building robots. Too many science fiction stories seem to equate the two, including Battlestar Galactica itself in its controversial final episode (for the record, I loved its audacity). The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet‘s humanoid robots have minds of its own, but what about being robots makes them so, as opposed to immobile computers? Blade Runner‘s replicants and A.I.’s boy robots look human first, and it is never asked what exactly makes them sentient beings (unless the question is how we anthropomorphize things that outwardly seem human).
Artificial intelligence is almost always automatically evil in movies such as Terminator and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is rarely inherently innocent, as in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Caprica features two disturbing scenes of a human consciousness waking up trapped in a crude robot body. That’s called over-egging your pudding. Also creepy: the advances made by Zoe lead directly to Daniel’s clumsy warrior robots becoming the effective killing machines christened Cylons.
Speaking of, how could a luminary in the cybernetics business not realize his own daughter was a genius-level hacker? Apparently working on her own, Zoe comes up with a means of preserving the 100 terabytes of human data stored in the human brain, and complement it with 300 MB of digital detritus that person has left behind on Caprica’s equivalents of Google and Facebook: medical records, playlists, email, searches, social networking, etc. Her breakthrough allows Graystone to resurrect Adama’s late daughter as well (although we don’t see how he obtained her 100 terabytes of brain matter). The resultant duplicate quickly goes insane, so Zoe is somehow special, the only digital human mind that doesn’t go mad.
Some awfully big events are revealed in the DVD edition’s deleted scenes: Adama learns early on that Zoe was involved in the bombing, adding an extra dimension to his interactions with her father. Also, boy bomber Ben’s mind was also successfully uploaded into the V Club by Sister Willow, suggesting that Zoe might not be so unique after all, and that her scientific breakthroughs may have been in part developed by the Soldiers of the One. Both of these strike me as great layers of complexity that would have only added to the story.