TV Reviews Archive

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The Expanse Will Fail if it Emulates Battlestar Galactica: A Mathematical Proof

Let’s talk about The Expanse.

Despite what you might think from the title of this post, I enjoyed the pilot episode of The Expanse. I’m happy to see contemporary science fiction trying to repatriate the interplanetary empire trope from the pie-eyed and often crackpot notions established during the Heinlein-era. The Expanse shows humanity’s colonization of Mars, Ceres, and presumably the Jovian moons, coming at the cost of our baseline humanity. Being a belter is not some romantic callback to the Jeffersonian frontier; it is a fundamental rejection of terrestrial humanity as a genetically engineered post-human.

Likewise, The Expanse comes by things like gravity in an honest way. Gravity is either the product of celestial mass, simulated through rotation, or a product of constant acceleration. There’s a bit of handwavium in terms of how humanity engineered itself to endure high/low gravity, but I’m content to let it slide. Magic gravity juice helps spacers endure 30G emergency accelerations? Okay, sure. I’ll bite. It’s an easier sell for the near-future than gravity plating a la Star Trek or inertial dampeners a la figuratively every space opera ever.

Cut to, space battles.

The Expanse’s first episode gets space battles completely, utterly, and miserably wrong. It gets space battles so wrong I might as well have been watching Star Wars. The likes of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda gets space battles better than The Expanse. Here comes the math.

In the pilot episode, a shuttle called “Knight” is 50,000km from its parent ship, the Canterbury. When a pirate ship appears, it is at a range of 12,00km from Knight. Put the two together and we have space battle occurring at a maximum range of 62,000km. The opening, and only, fusillade of the battle sees the pirate launch four nuclear-armed torpedoes at the Canterbury. Those torpedoes connect with the Canterbury a mere 60 seconds after launch. And this is the exact moment where I call bullshit.

Do you know how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to connect with a target 62,000km away after only 60 seconds? Very goddamn fast. Almost impossibly fast. Fast enough that the fuel they expend getting up to speed would make directed energy weapons a more cost-effective choice. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I have no idea about the acceleration and maximum velocity of a torpedo on The Expanse. So let’s take an Earth example and do a little extrapolation. The fastest contemporary anti-ship cruise missile I could find on the internet is the experimental BrahMos-II missile. It has a maximum velocity of 2.382km/s or 2382m/s.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume the space torpedoes of the 23rd century can accelerate to 10x the speed of the BrahMos-II. In this case, that’s 23,820m/s, which is a little more than double the Earth’s escape velocity. Frankly, this seems a bit over-powered, but it’s 200 years in the future; I’m inclined to be generous.

Bearing this in mind, a torpedo launched from a ship at a velocity of 23,820m/s, assuming it launches at maximum speed – likely not possible but I don’t want to over-complicate this by factoring in an acceleration curve – would require 43.38 minutes of flight time before contacting a target 62,000,000m distant. This is also assuming the torpedo flies in a straight line, free of interference from gravity wells. It’s also not withstanding any Delta V bonus the torpedo might get from the pirate ship already being in motion. However, such a bonus would be negligible to this problem for reasons that will soon make themselves evident.

So now that science has killed the action buzz on the 60 second torpedo run, we can ask ourselves how fast those torpedoes would have to be going to have a 60 second time on target.

To cover 62,000,000 meters in 60 seconds the torpedoes would need to be travelling at approximately 1,033,333m/s. For context, the speed of light is 299,792,458m/s. Thus, The Expanses‘ torpedoes would need to be travelling at roughly 0.35% of the speed of light (C) to make the scene congruent to the laws of physics. And before you say that .35% of C is no big deal, consider that the fastest man-made thing ever was NASA’s Juno mission that hit 40,233m/s after executing a slingshot around Jupiter. Quite a ways to go before hitting 1,033,333m/s.

Given this ludicrously impossible speed, there’s really no need for a nuclear warhead on The Expanses’ torpedoes; a suitably dense piece of dog crap travelling at such speeds would have more than enough concussive force to blow up something as flimsy as a pressurized spaceship.

Now to answer the big question: what does all of this have to do with Battlestar Galactica? BSG has many strengths, but it’s depiction of warfare in space is cartoonish, at best – yes, I am talking about Ron Moore’s BSG. Vipers and Raiders engaged in dogfights driven by Newtonian physics look unbelievably cool. Likewise, fighter pilots make for accessible character archetypes. Both of these elements help make BSG an exciting and engaging piece of television (at least in the first two seasons). As a point of practicality, Vipers and Raiders are a brain dead way to wage space warfare. Recall your Douglas Adams: space is very big. Battlestars and Baseships using kinetic weapons and missiles would inevitably do better to wage war at long-range using math and thrust equations to generate shooting solutions. The ranges depicted in BSG (e.g. single digit kilometers) would result in little more than mutually assured destruction. As an audience, we forgive these things because BSG was concerned with providing spectacular looking space battles amid big political/philosophical questions. If BSG kept it real, then Adama ordering the ship to condition one would instantly cut to a team of junior officers pulling out their scientific calculators.

Unlike BSG, The Expanse is selling itself on the strength of its serious, thoughtful, and practical(ish) approach to telling a story in space. Yet in its inaugural space battle, it is very much taking the Battlestar approach. Such a choice subverts the very aesthetic the series is trying to cultivate. And frankly, I might be willing to give this utter physics fail a pass were it not for the fact that the 60 second battle becomes a setup for a broader plot arc.

The Canterbury’s navigator is about to tell something seemingly important to the ship’s XO, in command of the Knight, only to have the phone call interrupted when the Canterbury is nuked. Shenanigans!

Even if Knight and Canterbury were right next to each other when the pirate fired her torpedoes at a range of 12,000km, there should have been – working within the model explored in this post – 8.3 minutes of flight time before impact. This would be more than enough time for the navigator to say her piece and for the XO send her a final dick pic. What? He seems the type.

In no uncertain terms, the math of The Expanse’s first space battle is a joke. If the series wants to dedicate itself to showing the complexities of life in space, then it needs to abandon the Wing Commander elements of Battlestar Galactica and channel a lot more of The Martian. While I might be content to let the space battle faux pas slide once, frequent occurrences will take the shine off the series’ “hard” SF hull plating. Once that happens, they might as well give their starships FTL drives and inertial dampeners.


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First Impressions: The Last Man on Earth Season 2

The first season of Will Forte’s apocalypse comedy, The Last Man on Earth, fell flat with me. Other than the occasional sight gag, I found the show to be painfully unfunny and a salute to the worst parts of the human experience. To wit, Forte’s character, Phil Miller, was an asshole. Granted, two years of being alone might turn anybody into a bit of a self-involved narcissist. Yet the more I tried to give Phil Miller the benefit of the doubt, the more the writing let me down. On Sunday night, the season two premiere of The Last Man on Earth gave me a reason to think the series might have grown up a bit.

There’s a substantial change in town between the first and second season. Though some might chalk it up to a long arc of emotional growth for the Phil character, I’m more inclined to think that the writers realized they had reached the limit of what they could do with an emotionally stunted prick as the main character. The first episode of season two sees Phil and Carol (Kristen Schaal) remarried and looking for a new home in the ruins of America. True to form, this is no somber road trip. In fact, the light hearted, “I can do anything I want” gimmicks actually land as something other than tone deaf slapstick.

Sure, it’s supremely goofy watching Phil and Carol use an F-117 stealth fighter as a pickup truck, but now the whimsy isn’t poisoned by Phil being an asshole. The kiddie pool margarita is as gross (or genius, I can’t really tell) a concept as ever, but seeing Carol in it with Phil gives the show the warmth it was otherwise missing. And weird as it is to invoke two adults bathing in a party drink as a symbol for the rest of the show, I can think of no better tableau for the episode. Phil and Carol are now, finally, both in it together.

Phil is still a bit irascible. Carol is still a bit of a nitpicking weirdo, but now both characters are in on the joke. Carol isn’t simply the wet blanket half of the odd couple. The duo might revel in congressional themed puns while having sex in the White House, but the weird coitus is no longer a tool for laughing at Carol. The Last Man on Earth is finally letting me care about Phil and Carol as equals.

What’s really remarkable is how effortlessly the writing is able to sell me on Phil and Carol as actual people in a somewhat unconventional marriage. Carol’s art book is mobilized as an effortless tool to fill in the missing parts of the couple’s story. It catches the audience up on their past, while also injecting some much needed humanity into both characters.

From where I left it last season, The Last Man on Earth seems almost unrecognizable. No longer will I be tuning in to hate watch the show. Twenty-two near flawless minutes of comedy has me wanting to see Phil and Carol reunited in the next episode. Likewise, my trust is restored that Phil, though still a bit of a jerk, isn’t going to jump at the first chance he gets to abandon Carol for someone more physically attractive.

Now the only question remains what role Jason Sudeikis will play as Phil’s astronaut brother. He’s not bad as the cut-away joke guy, but that gimmick will play itself out sooner rather than later.


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TV Review: Sense8 Season One

The first three episodes of Sense8, the latest creative entry from the Wachowskis and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, were a pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t sure where the series was going, but I liked what it was doing. This from past-Adam.

“What I have seen so far is a series interested in both people and the clash of collectives – in this case the gestalt of the Sensates (a cluster of eight individuals who can share memories, experiences, and consciousness) versus the institutions of humanity, particularly the medical establishment.”

It’s nothing new to see a science fiction story exploring alternative definitions of humanity. X-Men has been doing that for the last forty years. What sets Sense8 apart from so many superhero-style stories is an odd sort of optimism. Perhaps I’m getting soft in my old age, but this tonal shift away from matters dreary and morally ambiguous is a welcome change of pace.

Make no mistake, there are some profoundly dark elements to Sense8. This is to be expected when human evolution is at odds with state authority and an invasive medical establishment. I’m sure, somewhere, there are grad students frothing at the mouth to apply a Foucauldian discourse to the ways Sense8 explores biopolitics – particularly with respect to transgender issues – the panopticon embodied in an antagonist who hunts “deviants” after locking eyes upon them, and a stream of studies into power relationships. Fortunately for you lot, I’m not such a grad student. I’ll content myself with saying that the Wachwoski penchant for philosophy seems to have grown up a bit since the clumsy applications of Plato and Nietzsche in the Matrix movies.

The optimism in Sense8 is largely due to its subversion of the origin story. Evolutionary differences between humans and sensates may catalyze the series’ conflict, but the emotional core of the story is that of a deep and meaningful engagement with sensates as people. Not super powered people, not even “special” people, despite their talents. Just people.

Focusing on the sensates as complete beings slows the series’ pace from what one might otherwise expect to find on television. The first six episodes deal almost exclusively with individual character conflicts. Only in the season’s second half do the stakes escalate to something that threatens the sensates as a cluster. Even then, so much of the show’s richness is in its introspection. This will probably challenge the attention span of an audience accustomed to things moving at break neck speeds.

Yet the style pays dividends in dialing up the intensity of the character-viewer relationship, ultimately increasing the tension when bad things threaten the sensates. Likewise, the highly-functional interpersonal relationships the sensates bring into their interconnected stories develops even the secondary characters into robust beings. Whatever the series might lose from not explaining things to the satisfaction of every slack-jawed, CSI Miami fan, it more than gains in making the audience give a damn about its players.

Underwriting all of this engagement is a very simple message: we’re better together than we are divided. The sensates demonstrate what can happen when people are stripped of their secrets but given a way to truly understand each other. While this might result in the occasional psychic, pansexual orgy, it also drives home a message of universal understanding as the key to a better world. Again, this is not what audiences have come to expect from television. Narratives powered by genuine optimism are few and far between. Scruffy white men burdened with angst have become the new definition of hero. Sense8, with its incredibly diverse cast and emphasis on cooperation over competition, turns this formula on its head. And somehow it manages to do so without engaging my hair-trigger cynicism; this is no small feat.

I ended my first impressions review of Sense8 with a question: will the denouement of the first season prove worthy of the time invested? I’ll conclude this review by answering my own question. Yes, yes it did. Sense8 is the embodiment of the slow burn. It never wants for story or substance, but it doesn’t rely on singularly action to achieve either end. However, the action sequences are glorious in true Wachowski fashion. More than anything else, Sense8 wants the audience to care about its characters, and in doing so care about people in general – even if some people are assholes. This is a good message, and it’s one that science fiction from time to time. Collective angst and catharsis in form of The Dark Knight is a necessary outlet, but it should not be the end all and be all of popular expression. Sense8 is at its best when reminding the audience that hard times need not produce singularly hard works of escapism.


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Slaughtering the Sacred Cow: Adam Rewatches Neon Genesis Evangelion, Part 3

Thank god, I’ve finally come to the end of Evangelion, not The End of Evangelion, mind you. I don’t think there’s a force in the universe that could compel me to watch the movies that allegedly make sense of the series. And on that note, I think I owe my younger self an apology.

ICYMI: Here’s the link to part 1, part 2, and part 2.5 of this review.

When I started this mad adventure, I assumed Adam in the summer of 2003 wasn’t quite swift enough to figure out what was going on in Evangelion. I remember my confusion mounting through the final few episodes. I stared at my computer monitor, wondering why my friends thought I would like this series. Was something wrong with me? Was something wrong with them? Now I’ve come to see the truth of it.

Evangelion is a pointless exercise in wanking.

There, I’ve said it. The bell cannot be unrung. After twenty-six episodes, I find this series to be one of the most narratively dysfunctional things I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why people like it. I don’t know what there is to like save for something so pretentiously pointless that it serves as a convenient vehicle for supporting whatever bullshit interpretation people choose to foist upon it. I expect this is the sort of thing English majors fantasize about as they lay awake at night; the kind of story where any reading, no matter how pants-on-head stupid, can work.

NERV, the anti-theme

Science fiction often uses organizations as mechanisms for promoting a certain world view. The likes of the United Federation of Planets, X-Com, the UNSC, or the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, to name a few, all speak to a certain higher ideal, or at the very least a means to justify an end. A secondary feature is humanity coming together to achieve something separate nations would find necessary but impossible. So too does NERV, initially, seem like a grand venture in its mandate to protect the planet from the angels. In actuality, I’m not sure what NERV represents beyond a venue for Gendo Ikari to bang every woman while making teenage clones of his dead wife – presumably to bang – all the while marching down a delusional(?) path to godhood.

In other words, I spent the better part of nine hours of my life watching NGE, and I still don’t know why the ostensible good guys exist. By the end of the series we’re led to believe the angels only attack the Earth because humanity created EVA-00. If all of this is supposed to be an exercise in the hubris of mankind, I’d rather watch Godzilla.

Kick them while they are down

The only thing the series does well is heap abuse on its characters. The gamut of human misery covers a wide arc, from outwardly abusive characters to those whose entire modus operandi is self-flagellation. Was a side effect of the Second Impact to make everybody on Earth an irritable, irascible, asshole? Let’s have a quick recap.

Gendo Ikari: wants to become a god and have sex with his co-worker, his co-worker’s daughter, and the teenage clone of his dead ex-wife.

Misato Katsuragi: a self-loathing drunk with daddy issues who fell in love with a man like her father. Later, after having sex with the guy who reminds her of her father, and thus carving out a moment of personal happiness, the series slut shames her for wanting to feel a human connection.

Ritsuko Akagi: caricature of a scientist. Also hates/loves her mother for putting work before everything else. Naturally, Ritsuko puts work before everything else for…reasons. Additionally, gives it up for free to Gendo, who also banged her mom, for…reasons.

Kouzou Fuyutsuki: Deputy Commander of NERV and full-on Wayland Smithers to Gendo Ikari’s Mr. Burns. Fuyutsuki knows that Gendo is up to something monstrous but does absolutely nothing to stop him.

Ryoji Kaji: sex pest. Reminds me of Jian Ghomeshi. ‘Nuff said.

Again, I’m not sure what the series is playing at with this rogue’s gallery other than a commentary on how people are bastards. Sometimes people are self-destructive bastards, like Asuka; other times people have self-destruction foisted upon them. Which brings me to Shinji Ikari and the final “conflict” of the series: Shinji’s battle with his own personal demons.

Beating Up Teenagers for Fun and Profit

After defeating the final angel, who somehow got cleared to be an EVA pilot, Shinji is a pretty messed up kid. It’s either that or Gendo Ikari is trying to forcibly evolve humanity into a being of collective consciousness. Frankly, it’s hard to tell what the hell is happening in the last two episodes. Either way we see Shinji’s life reduced to a protracted flashback sequence.

From the outset Shinji is led to believe 1) he’s an idiot 2) he’s only useful to NERV and his father so long as he pilots EVA-01 3) he needs to be better, stronger, and tougher to save the world. Shinji embraces all of this negativity to the point of killing the only person who was ever nice to him. Never mind this person was an angel. Burdened with guilt and shame, Shinji concludes he is worthless. This is when the rest of the cast shows up in Ikari the Younger’s head to tell him he only feels worthless because he’s convinced himself that he is worthless.

Victim Blaming for the Win

What drugs was Hideaki Anno on when he wrote this ending? The series spends its entire narrative making Shinji feel worthless. His father and surrogate mother use him for his piloting abilities independent of his well-being. When Shinji defies his father’s authority, particularly when Gendo assumes control of his EVA and almost kills another pilot, Shinji is all but thrown out of Tokyo-3. If Evangelion were made today, the internet would be up in arms about how it champions a narrative of victim blaming via pop psychology.

Remember when the internet got its dander up because Pacific Rim cribbed too much from Evangelion? Well here’s something to piss off the fanboys; I say Del Toro improved on the source material. How’s that? Think about the driving force behind a Jaeger? It’s not the ability of its pilot to meld with a machine. Rather, Jaegers work because two people can come together as one. The movie called it drift compatibility; some other people might call it empathy.

In comparison, Anno’s message is that we’re only as alone as we make ourselves and we should toughen up and stop feeling sorry for ourselves. But don’t self-medicate or seek out physical company like Misato; that’s weak and slutty. And don’t try to power through and deny your existential sadness like Asuka; because that’s self-deceptive as well. Since the Second Impact seems to have killed all mental health professionals on Earth, why not just tell Shinji – and the audience by extension – to pull themselves up by their bootstraps when they feel worthless. After all, a person’s internalized self-worth isn’t really important compared to some great sense of capital-T Truth.

What is Your Exit Strategy?

In the end everything about NGE, to borrow a phrase, is all talk and no trousers. The series sets up a vast and sweeping conspiracy involving gods, aliens, and supra-national government organizations. Prior to the final two episodes, it seems like Misato is Scully on the verge of a great revelation – unbelievably with Kaji’s help. One might assume the final showdown will be between Misato and Gendo: the surrogate mother versus the deadbeat dad. Then, as if painted into a corner, the series does an about face. This delve into the frailties of the main characters reduces them to screaming, sobbing, messes. It’s poetic justice for Asuka, but for Shinji and Misato, who represent the only emotional attachment I had to the series, it’s a disappointing turn of events.

Thus, Neon Genesis Evangelion is not something so impenetrable that a young undergraduate version of myself couldn’t figure it out. The series is the product of a director writing through his feelings without any concern for telling a coherent story. Some call NGE revolutionary and a commentary on the mecha genre. I fail to grasp the value of said commentary when the likes of Gundam and Macross mobilize the mecha genre as a more effective explorations of the human condition. How those series were in need of deconstruction at the hands of a story so manic in its tone and purpose, I’ll never know.

Goodbye, NGE, I hope to never watch you again, at least not without somebody paying me for my time.


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Slaughtering the Sacred Cow: Adam Rewatches Neon Genesis Evangelion, Part 2.5

Last week I managed to annoy one of my readers. Words like “lackluster interpretation” were tossed my way with respect to part two of this series. Here I thought my intentions, and the level of my discourse, were clear with the subtitle, “Evangelion Characters Who Should Be Hit By a Bus.” Instead, I was directed to some tumblrs on why Kaji and Asuka are important characters to the story.

Rest assured, this is not the start of an internet slap fight. I respect that the authors of those posts put considerable effort into their analysis. They’ve probably thought more about these characters than I have. However, there is a world of difference between somebody stripping a series down to its component parts, and someone else reviewing it with the purpose of evaluating it’s merit as a piece of popular culture. I do the latter.

Allow me to use episode twenty-two of Evangelion to illustrate the point. Twenty-two is supposed to be an apologia for Asuka. With Unit-00 damaged and Unit-01 on lockdown, on account of becoming a super weapon capable of doing…things, Asuka and Unit-02 are left to defend the world from the fifteenth angel. Rather than trying to blow up the world, this angel takes an interest in brain hacking Unit-02′s pilot. The audience’s journey into Asuka’s memories illustrates why I think this series fails as a piece of popular narrative.

Leaving aside the notion that Asuka considers the angel’s mental probe a “rape of her mind” – because I wouldn’t touch that with the Lance of Longinus (Evangelion isn’t the only one capable of shoehorning in relogous claptrap) – the trip through Asuka’s personal demons is opaque, at best, and impenetrable at worst. Part of this problem is a linguistic one. Things happening in Asuka’s mind are happening in both German and Japanese. While my version of Evangelion translates the Japanese dialogue, it does not translate the flashes of Kanji and written German appearing during Asuka’s descent into madness. Likewise, there’s also some spoken German that doesn’t make its way into the subtitles.

I am almost certain I’m missing some important visual cues for my inability to read Kanji or German; otherwise, what’s the fucking point of including them? I’d also be willing to bet those cues connect with some of the religious symbolism happening within the episode, such as Rei pulling the aforementioned “spear of destiny” from the crucified half-corpse of the first angel. Dare I hazard a guess on what it all means? Not on your life.

It’s one thing for a series to be deep enough as to merit an autopsy’s worth of deconstruction. I, however, am a critic, not a coroner. At the end of the day, my job is to tell my audience, mostly made up of smart people by my estimation, if they should bother with something. When Evangelion’s deeper narrative (assuming there is one) requires learning German, Kanji, and at least a few undergraduate level courses in theology and semiotics, I submit it is so impenetrable as to write off much of its popular appeal.

Setting aside any potential value in the deep thoughts/implicit wanking, the balance of the episode presents to this critic as a half-hearted apology for why Asuka is so insufferable. Given it took twenty-two episodes for the series to get here, I reject said explanation as a weak rationalization in the face of her endlessly abusing Shinji.

Sorry, Evangelion, I suspect I don’t like you for the same reason most people in the world  don’t like/get Community. Writing which is encoded in such a way as to require extensive foreknowledge, be it of Judeo-Christian mythology or the darkest bowels of TV and film, is alienating to the outsider. Evangelion makes this worse because its surface-level story is about people being terrible to each other. If the series evoked anything in me other than boredom and pity, I might be more inclined to mine Evangelion for its deep layers of symbolism (probably not, I have a day job and no interest in a PhD in anime). So on the issue of the series nuance and depth, I’m content to dust of this old chestnut…


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Slaughtering the Sacred Cow: Adam Rewatches Neon Genesis Evangelion, Part 2

There are any number of ways to attack the second act (episodes 8 through to 16) of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Personally, I think I’ll go at it with a drink in one hand and a club in the other. Wait, please, don’t go. I promise, no more stupid jokes.

Tempting as it is to resume my thematic, Mr. Plinkett-inspired approach to the series, I want to change gears. Save for adding, “Gendo is a terrible father,” which dovetails pretty closely with, “NERV needs a therapist on staff,” to my list of the series’ thematic crimes, episodes 8-16 are largely more of the same. The biggest change comes with the introduction of two new characters: Ryoji Kaji, who is totally not a spy, and Asuka Langley Soryu, pilot of Evangelion Unit-02. Behold, my subtitle for this post.

Evangelion Characters Who Should Be Hit By A Bus

Ryoji Kaji

Kaji’s introduction to the story is as a secondary character elevated to the level of recurring pain in the ass. We meet him as an escort for EVA-02 and Asuka. Once they arrive in Japan, he decides to “stick around for a while.” I don’t mind new characters, except for when they are unrepentant sex pests. Is it too soon for a Jian Ghomeshi joke?

If the 1990s could imagine smart phones, and the associated rise in homemade porn, Kaji would be the guy who sends endless dick pics and jerk off videos to Misato and Ritsuko. His first line in almost every scene presumes either Misato or Ritsuko want to have sex with him. When Kaji and Misato get stuck in an elevator, he invites her to take off her top to keep from getting too warm. The leering smarm in his voice transcends barriers of language – a credit to his voice actor, which is the only kind thing I have to say about this character.

I don’t care if Evangelion is the product of the 90s; I’m an evolved North American in the year 2015, and Kaji makes no god damned sense. Try as I might, I can’t fathom how Evangelion can style itself as clever and metaphoric while working through such utter tactless garbage. Am I to believe that as a deconstruction of the mecha genre, Evangelion can include people in Tokyo-3 filing insurance claims against NERV, but NERV itself opted out of an HR department?

Kaji doesn’t even have the decency to be circumspect with his propositions. He regularly walks into a room full of people and invites any woman within his line of sight to touch his penis. How are all the engineers, technicians, and computer programmers at NERV cool with this guy? He does nothing on the job save for trying to score. Kaji might be accurate to the time period and cultural norms of the production’s point in history – I honestly don’t think he is, though – but that doesn’t mean it’s entertaining to watch by modern standards.

Also, Kaji’s not a spy. Don’t let the foreshadowing fool you. Kaji is totally not a spy.

All this said, I would rather spend a night hanging out with Kaji and his bros than spend ten minutes with this next character.

Asuka Langley Soryu

Again, all glory to the character’s voice actor for her ability to evoke such unmitigated rage in me. Whenever Asuka goes into battle, I’m cheering for the angels. Never have I come across a character so shrill, abrasive, and utterly insufferable that I would celebrate her death with a glass of fifteen-year-old single malt.

The real problem with Asuka manifests in the gap between her intended purpose to the story and the execution, therein. In short, Asuka is the masculine ”ideal” that Shinji can never be. Shinji spends his days hating himself, being afraid of other people, and constantly bowing and scraping for things that are not his fault. If there’s a single phrase of Japanese you will learn from Shinji, it’s gomennasai – I’m sorry.

Asuka is an aloof, alpha who finds Shinji, and most other people, weak and pathetic. She’s toxic mix of teenage gung-ho confidence supported by textbook genius. At age fourteen, we’re supposed to believe Asuka has already completed university. This being the case, I’m not sure why she is enrolled at the local Tokyo-3 high school.

In this light, I understand how Asuka is supposed to be a foil for Shinji. In practice, I see her as little more than a bullying asshole. Whatever flashes of insecurity/humanity Asuka might offer, particularly when it comes to the series stripping her naked – because anime – are completely overshadowed by the endless verbal abuse she lays on Shinji’s doorstep. Worse still, she moves into Misato and Shinji’s apartment, turfing the lad from his bedroom in the process. Shinji had one safe space in the world, other than inside EVA-01, and it is denied to him by an unwelcome roommate who offers him nothing but scorn and shame.

All of the feels…

I understand and sympathize – despite my critical venom – with the director’s desire to share his depression and sense of perpetual isolation through Evangelion’s writing. My sympathy, however, only extends so far. It’s one thing to write about feeling worthless as a person. It’s another to create a series of contrivances designed to pointlessly torture the protagonist into a protracted state of self-reflection in the third act. Sixteen episodes into the series and my suspension of disbelief isn’t shattered by Judeo-Christian mecha so much as it’s stomped into a fine, pink, pulp by the gimmicks the series uses to create character conflict. It feels forced and dishonest.

I was a bullied kid who had to find his steel. I was a depressed kid who needed to get help. The unending psychological torture the series heaps on Shinji isn’t my story nor is it the story of anybody I know who walked a similar path. If anything, the drama of Evangelion cheapens the torment of depression and isolation, as these things are made terrible by their banality and routine.

Now I’m left to wonder how the “highly cerebral” and “psychological” third act will land given I have very little emotional buy-in to the characters. If things feel ham fisted now, how will they feel when the story goes off the rails? I’ve had a sample of this during Shinji’s battle with the 12th angel, and it was weird. Five minutes of an anti-action sequence are devoted to Shinji having an existential conversation between his id and super ego…or maybe it is the angel trying to hack his brain. I don’t fucking know.

To be continued…


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Sense8: First Impressions

Whenever the chatter orbiting a TV show follows a path of, “this is stupid and doesn’t make sense,” my knee jerk reaction is usually, “are you sure the show is stupid? Perhaps you are the problem.”

Likewise, I think we can all admit it is incredibly fashionable to bag on the post-Matrix Wachowskis. Don’t believe me? Read some of the reviews for Cloud Atlas or Jupiter Ascending. Hell, you can read my review of Cloud Atlas to see I have no love for Andy and Lana’s recent work. But after three episodes of Sense8, I have to admit I rather like what they and Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski are doing here.

So let us begin by addressing the loudest, and usually simplest, complaint I’ve heard about the series: Sense8 is hard to follow/confusing. Remember when Kevin Spacy yelled “wrong” at Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns? Such is my reaction when I see people bemoaning Sense8 for being too impenetrable. I don’t know what show these people are watching. The “why” of Sense8 might be hidden from plain sight, but the “what” requires at most one or two mental push-ups to comprehend.

I will admit Sense8 deviates pretty far from the mainstream in terms of telling a story. In fact, I suspect the “kindness is sexy” sign flashed in the opening titles encapsulates the series’ ethos. Sense8 is like a Voight-Kampff test. It’s a tale about the ultimate form of empathy: a story where eight people can literally step into each other’s shoes. The concept is, admittedly, unusual, and a far cry from the wholesome cornball shenanigans of Quantum Leap – the closest comparison I can muster. I’ll even admit the whole concept might be a little too meta for some people. All this said, Sense8 isn’t expecting it’s audience to have a PhD in metaphysics to get what’s going on.

In fact, Sense8’s character focused approach to storytelling shows it is trying to meet the audience half way. This is no small challenge for a series working with eight distinct character arcs. With that many plot threads in play, it would be easy to turn the show into a jumbled mess a la season three of Heroes. From my point of view, J. Michael Straczynski’s writing and the Wachowskis’ tendency toward highly nuanced visuals (which are often a liability) do a fantastic job with building a story around the characters. I’ll prove the strength of this approach through an application of the Mr. Plinkett character test (i.e. describing a character to a person who has never seen the show without describing what they look like, their costume, their profession, or role in the story.)

I’ll use Aml Ameen’s character, Capheus, as the subject of this test. Assuming each episode runs for 60 minutes and all eight of the Sensates get equal time, I’ve spent about 22.5 minutes getting to know Capheus. During this time I’ve come to see him as someone who is loyal to the people he cares about, perhaps even loyal to a fault. These bonds blind him to some realities of life, but this is the mark of most idealists; they see the world as it could be, not necessarily as it is. He’s also someone who has grown-up in a world rife with poverty, but he doesn’t appear to have been made cynical because of it. At the very least, he gives no indication of resenting his lot in life. All this said, there’s still a frailty to Capheus. Of all the Sensates, I think he will find the most inner strength in his connection with the others.

The point, I trust, is made.

If Sense8’s narrative objective is an exploration of empathy through human evolution into creatures of group consciousness, then its creative direction must, as an antecedent, take us to a place where we care about the Sensates as real people. They need to be as complicated as anybody who might be watching the show. Setting up this kind of depth requires time. Where I would be unwilling to extend this kind of leeway to most television shows, Sense8 is intriguing enough, and the characters are human enough, to make me want to give Uncle Joe and the Wachowskis the time they need to get the job done.

After three episodes, I can’t say I know what Sense8 is building toward. Nor can I be certain season one’s denouement will prove worthy of the time invested. What I have seen so far is a series interested in both people and the clash of collectives – in this case the gestalt of the Sensates versus the institutions of humanity, particularly the medical establishment.  On those grounds, I’m more than happy to see things through to completion.


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Slaughtering the Sacred Cow: Adam Rewatches Neon Genesis Evangelion, Part 1

First, and for the record, I would like to say this post and all those that follow in this series can be blamed on Leah Bobet. Her tweets about Evangelion inspired/inceptioned me into rewatching the series.

For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to break this diatribe up into parts. Part one focuses on the first seven episodes of the series. There’s no particular reason behind the number, beyond Evangelion’s wack-a-doodle story reaching a saturation point in my head.

I should also be very honest about the fact that I hold no special love for Evangelion. Despite Wikipedia calling it “one of the most successful and critically acclaimed anime television series of the 1990s,” and “a critique and deconstruction of the mecha genre,” it’s always managed to confuse me more than it has impressed me. My reaction to the series when I was twenty-two was mostly along the lines of, “what the fuck did I just watch?” Eleven years and seven episodes later, little has changed.

On that note, let’s get into it in the finest fashion of Mr. Plinket.

Number 1: Space Jesus

Evangelion is a show about robots, religion, and Space Jesus aka Shinji Ikari. There’s hardly a scene that goes by where somebody isn’t saying something, doing something, or blowing something up in a way that references religion. Shinji’s first fight with an “angel” features multiple explosions where the blast patterns are in the shape of a cross. As for Shinji, who resents the pain he feels at the hands of an aloof, all seeing, father, well I don’t have to draw you a picture on that one. But if I did, it would look like this.

Though there’s no shortage of pillaging from Christianity, the series doesn’t limit itself to the Abrahamic faiths. Shinji, Rei, and Asuka (a trinity) were all augured to be Eva pilots from something called the “Marduk Report.” For everybody without a degree in classical studies, you made a good life choice.

Wocka Wocka.

For everybody else, Marduk was the patron god of the city of Babylon and head of the Babylonian pantheon. Don’t say you never learnt something on my website.

The problem is the aesthetic is seemingly absent message. As such, it wears thin very quickly. A person can abide only so many nuclear cross explosions before the “deconstruction” of religion feels more like shoe-horning so much ephemera into an ark.

*taps mic* I said ark. It’s a religion thing. Get it?

Maybe as an uppity undergrad I was content to bask in the symbolism and feel clever for picking up on its presence. Now, it’s tedious and makes me feel like I should have done a useful minor, like business.

We get it, Hideaki Anno, you either love religion or hate religion – I honestly can’t tell.

Number 2: The Plot Is Flimsy

The addition of one qualified therapist or mental health professional on the NERV staff would break the entire series. If Shinji didn’t have to single-handedly deal with critical incident stress while working in an office with his asshole father, insufficient professional development, indifferent coworkers – looking at you Ritsuko – and then go home to living with a high-functioning alcoholic, he might not end up a giant hot mess of self-loathing. Nor should we forget he’s doing all of the above while going to high school. High school: literally, the worst place on Earth for gawky introverted teenagers.

On that point, Evangelion might best be seen as an historical artefact. It shows the audience how far we’ve come from a time that would imagine an agency like NERV spending billions of dollars building over-engineered kill bots without considering the fallout of sending a manic depressive teenager into battle. Now such an omission would likely be seen as the creators being a little too on the nose with writing their feelings into the story. Either that, or some snarky bastard like yours truly would come along and write off the entire story for not having considered its giant plot holes.

Number 3: This Song

Want to convince me the world is in constant peril from a cosmic threat beyond my comprehension? Don’t play this song four times in an episode where Shinji and a Penguin practice eating synchronized breakfast for the 2016 Tokyo-3 Olympics.

 

Number 4: Misato’s Creepy Hot for Teacher Thing

This one goes hand-in-hand with why NERV should have a staff therapist. If there were even a single responsible adult running Earth’s last line of defence against a Third Impact, they would have realized letting Shinji live with his boss is a terrible idea.

As a sideshow to Shinji saving the world, there might be some room to channel The Odd Couple into his home life. Except as odd couples go, Misato’s part in things is almost perpetually creepy. She’s alternatively Shinji’s disastrous but well-meaning surrogate mother or his step-sister, who gives the poor confused lad some odd feelings. What the hell message is this relationship supposed to be sending to the audience? Teenage boys alternate between depressed and awkwardly horny? Brilliant, Holmes, how do you do it?

It’s also clear Misato is only outwardly put together when she’s working. All things being equal, she’s one of the most capable characters on the show. At least until she gets home and we see her life through the lens of a messy apartment, morning beers, and weird relationships with teenage boys. Am I missing something? Does anybody else see the series reducing the woman who should be running NERV into a punchline/object of fapping for teenage boys?

Okay, that’s enough for now.

To be continued…


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TV Review: Knights of Sidonia Season 2

As prophesied, I tore through the second season of Knights of Sidona over the Canada Day long weekend. It was something of a bizarre experience. While Sidonia’s first season is a good, if occasionally weird, piece of hard science fiction, the second season is a different type of monster. On paper, the series is still a space opera about mecha pilots protecting humanity from an enemy that destroyed the earth. In practice, Sidonia’s second season opens the door for a lot more slice-of-life story telling, placing any military drama firmly on the back burner.

NB: I’m not going to explain season one in this review. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you go watch it. As for watching season two…whelp…

The second season begins shortly after Sidona’s battle with the Guana cluster. Unlike the first season, which took an episode or two to introduce the audience to the seed ship and the bio-hacked humans who dwell within her, season two, subtitled “The Battle for Planet Nine” opens with intrigue, plotting, and a looming sense of bad things about to happen to the last remnants of humanity. All this culminates in the early introduction of a new character, Tsumugi, a Guana-Human hybrid.

This addition hints that the series will dig into the idea of Sidona’s human population, particularly its civilians, rejecting the hybrid and the captain’s turn toward heretical science. As it happens, Sidona’s hatred for Tsumugi lasts but a single episode. When Tsumugi’s capacity for killing Guana proves even greater than Nagate’s, the ever feckless citizens of Sidonia put away their protest placards and conveniently forget that the last Gauna-Human hybrid experiment nearly destroyed the ship. In the span of twenty minutes, the plot goes from an angry mob ready to lynch the hybrid, Kunato – her “father”, and Captain Kobyashi, to accepting Tsumugi as their personal savior. Sorry, Nagate.

From those good vibrations stem a decided change of focus for the middle episodes of the season. Though there are still a few battles here and there, the protracted second act is largely devoted to exploring teenage angst. Ever the typical anime protagonist, Nagate is utterly oblivious to the fact that Izana, his gender neutral best friend, is in love with him. In fact, Izana’s feelings are so powerful she transitions from “middle gender” to female. Given the way Izana is introduced in the first season, and some of the shit she takes from people just for being herself, this transformation is, rightly, a profound moment of change for the character. Yet in true anime fashion, Izana’s transition is handled with all the dignity of a drunk Bostonian yelling “Baba Booey” at a wedding. At one point she literally explodes out of her space suit because – wait for it – her newly formed boobs caused her space suit to explode. Boobs = space suit explosions. I guess I missed that scene in Gravity.

Likewise, Izana and Nagate can’t have a relationship unfold along honest lines because this is anime, and there has to be a jealous third party. In this case, Sidona’s acting first officer plays the role of petty envy monger. Yuhata pulls rank to move in with Izana and Nagate, despite never making a move for Nagate’s attention. When did Nagate change his name to Jack Tripper? That’s right, I made a Three’s Company reference. That’s how fucking shameless KoS has got with things.

I remember when this used to be a show about fighter pilots. Back when Izana would give Nagate a telling off not because he is oblivious to her feelings, but because his ace pilot skills preclude him from seeing how much she, and every other pilot, fears dying alone in the cockpit of a garde. Those were the days when Nagate’s obsession with the Hoshijro-ena was a by-product of the guilt he felt for not being able to protect Hoshijiro in battle against the Guana. There was a Battlestar Galactica meets 2001 A Space Odyssey feeling to the way the series blended the staples of mecha anime with actual physics. Now space battles and the novelty of Sidonian civilization, a place where resource scarcity required genetically engineering humans to photosynthesize, take a back seat to feelings.

Also, tentacles. Holy shit, so many tentacles. Not in the hentai sort of way, mind you. Even though the Guana are weird pink blob monsters whose primary means of attack are tentacles, those images never seemed particularly weird in season one. I am, however, acutely aware of it in season two. Perhaps it has something to do with Tsumugi, who is the size of a Sidonian Garde, stretching out a face tentacle whenever she interacts with Nagate or Izana. If it feels odd for you to imagine a Guana-Human hybrid stretching a face tentacle through Sidonia’s endless labyrinth of pipes so it can have a slumber party at Nagate’s house, imagine how it feels watching it happen. And if that’s not enough to make you go, “Umm, what?” the season’s final battle sequence includes a Guana’s human ena sliding her tongue tentacles (plural!) into Nagate’s mouth while choking him. What in the actual fuck?

All of this is happening while a mad scientist – the one who nearly destroyed Sidonia with his hybrid experiments – is using brain parasites to assimilate Sidona’s crew with the memories of his past associates. Between the Guana and this human threat, there should be no shortage of material to make for a solid second season. Instead, we end up with two distinct moods for Sidonia’s second chapter. One is distinctly juvenile and flighty yet weird and off-putting. The other wants to be a hard scrabble science fiction series, but it’s markedly toned down from its roots.

While I won’t go so far as to write off  the second season, I will say the series doesn’t feel anywhere near as unique  as when it started. Tonally, KoS might as well be Gundam Seed/Gundam Seed Destiny. If that sort of thing works for you, and you’re good with mouth and face tentacles, then you’ll probably enjoy the second season. However, if you’re expecting the second season to be more of the thoughtful anime meets Battlestar Galactica of the first season, I’d brace for some disappointment.

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First Impressions: Dark Matter

My week in review of middling TV science fiction continues with some first impressions of Dark Matter.

Watching the first episode of Dark Matter is a bit like going to the gym for a hard cardio workout. At some point I always ask myself, “Why am I doing this? Where is this going? Surely there must be better ways to get what I want out of life?” But by the end of the workout my tone changes to, “you know, that wasn’t quite so bad. I don’t really want to do it again right now, but maybe I will in a day or two.”

Even though Dark Matter offers a few interesting narrative tidbits, watching its first hour felt like work. Specifically, the work of not rushing off to rewatch Deepwater Black, a little known show from the mid 90s which, as far as I recall, did a better job working with the “crew wakes up in a space ship and doesn’t know who they are” gimmick.

Dark Matter is also exhausting for its attempt to be racially diverse while still catering to the stereotypes of racialized characters e.g. the Asian guy is a master of the Japanese sword.

And lo, the writers, lost for ideas on how to build a cast, did turn their eye upon the Big Book of Character Clichés. From within the pages of this most sacred text did they find the following…

The can-do lady boss

The rogue with a heart of gold

The weird teenager girl with brain powers

The asshole American

The Asian character who is an expert of every martial art ever

The black guy in a science fiction show played by Roger Cross

As it was in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, so too shall it be today. Blessed be the Book.

Even in the face of these issues, I remain somewhat interested in seeing where the story goes. As lazy as it is to give the primary cast amnesia, it does create some potential for a dialogue on who the characters are supposed to be versus who they want to be. The big plot twist (what a twist) revealed at the end of the first episode finds our crew of brain scrambled sleeping beauties as a gang of vicious murderers and thieves.

Despite hooking me for a few episodes – unlike Killjoys, which I now watch only out of a sense of critical noblesse oblige – I see Dark Matter’s greatest challenge in proving it is capable of finding its own direction. Rugged miner-folk trying to survive on the raggity edge of space with the threat of an evil corporation looming large in the background is about as well trodden as it comes. Moreover, I’m tired of science fiction setting up “the company” as the go to bad guy. It’s too easy and too much of an effort to pander to “main street.” At least the likes of Continuum took corporations as antagonists to an interesting place with corporations-as-government. If Dark Matter can humanize “the corporation” into something that seems even half legitimate, I think it will find some success.

Ultimately, I see Dark Matter as something that is either going to get much better or much worse in very short order. There’s a lot of promise, but the writing needs to get to a place where it can tell a story without all the foreplay. I’ll let forty minutes of hand wringing followed by five minutes of forward motion slide for the first episode, but the series had best lock its shit down.

Also, I’d be thrilled if the writing would ease off on the hackneyed depictions of people of colour.