Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Best of Sci-Fi

So I thought I'd start things off by listing my favorite sci-fi shows as of late. They're not really in any particular hierarchy, except that I do have the greatest emotional attachment to Firefly. (Don't expect too much brilliant articulation--I'm mostly just rambling here.)

1. Stargate SG-1: (And to a lesser extent, I would include Stargate Atlantis.) Ultimately, I think Stargate's greatest strength is it's mythos--and what is has is fabulous. I cite the episode Reckoning specifically in regards to this because the brilliant way it brought everything together, and then conceived of a beautiful conclusion to the conflict with the Goa'uld. We got Daniel and his ascension-arc (with roots that trace all the way back to the movie), more Ancient technology, the continuing back-and-forth struggle in the Jaffa Rebellion, RepliCarter, the Asgard, Ba'al working for Anubis with the Kull warriors (Anubis now having to change people every once in a while on account of Lost City), the Tok'Ra...Part One of Reckoning is officially the only episode of the series to have Bra'tac, Thor, and Jacob Carter. I think, more than any other show I've ever watched, SG1 has done the absolute best job of building up history and development and interlocking threads of plots and continuation of those threads and plots...when I watched the episode Reckoning a year ago, I knew that it was one of the absolute best of the series. Because, it would be a terrible episode to introduce non-fans of the show with, but it was the ultimate payoff for the most hardcore and loyal of followers. And Reckoning was the episode that made me realize just how much I love that aspect of the series, and that I really think it's the series greatest strength.

I also absolutely love the continuing mentality with development within the series (if that sentence even makes any sense). For example, when they find new technology, not only is that then incorporated, but it's then used in future technology as everything develops; we meet the Asgard, who give us hyperdrive and beaming technology to be incorporated into the F-302s, the Prometheus, and even the Daedalus on Atlantis. And the all-important discovery of the zat weapons in second season...which is essential because they needed an equivalent of stunning effect from phasers on Star Trek.

And while I initially dreaded the drastic changes to be made to the series this season (what with the defeat of the Goa'uld and the departure of RDA) I've actually been pleasantly surprised. While the interaction between Jack and Daniel remains one of the core strengths and relationships of the series ("Why don't you just hold your breath--you haven't done that in a while.") I've found Mitchell to be a pleasant surprise. And of course, I love Vala, and any interaction she has with Daniel ("Let's make babies!") and am thrilled she's going to be main in 10th season. And even the Ori have proved to be an intriguing new villain--it certainly plays on what the fans seem to want most: to know more about the Ancients. (Too bad we've never gotten to see anything of the Furlings...)

I say Atlantis, to a lesser extent, though more as a sub-favorite, alongside SG1. Part of that is because I think second season so far has been pretty weak, and I've had to watch the character assassination of Rodney McKay (my favorite character) degrading to little more than comic relief. (Oh that Martin Gero will write more McKay episodes--but no more like Duet.) The series does have it's moments, and despite constant cliche, still has potential to be as good as its predecessor. Though I'm hoping that the writers will wise up and realize that Sheppard-McKay interaction is just about the part of the entire series, and will showcase it more. ("This is why parents get someone else to teach their kids how to drive.") I hope Peter DeLuise pulls himself away from SG1 more in the future, because I think The Defiant One may be just about the best episode of the entire series, thusfar.

2. Battlestar Galactica: I've been trying to put my finger on just why I think this series is so great, and the closest I can come to proper identification is in the very tight plotting and pacing. It does have it's down moments, and it's down episodes, but when this series gets caught up in moving fast, it's fabulous. And I think it's second only to Firefly in the central role character plays to the vitality of the series. Things become complicated, and fascinating, and move at such a brisk pace because the relationships are so endlessly complicated. So much so that I enjoy reading all the various, detailed speculations and analyses of each character ("I think Starbuck and Tigh hate each other because they both lean on Adama for emotional dependence and see the other as competition." "Starbuck and Apollo will get together eventually, but they're both too screwed up to deal with each other right now--best that Apollo has a fling with Dualla, and Starbuck continue her obsession with Anders." etc.)

One of the things I love most about the series is that it is literally the only one (in recent memory, anyhow) that could literally draw out such emotional reactions from me--especially in the vein of shock and intensity. I would cite specifically Cally shooting the Galactica Boomer at the end of Resistance. The build up to that was very well structured, as we watched Cally become more and more frustrated on behalf of Tyrol, and come to the conclusion that Boomer needed to be eliminated. Plus, I was semi-spoiled and knew she (Boomer) was going to die, but certainly not like that. And when I watched Ressurection Ship a few weeks ago...I love that you can totally read that Cain knew Starbuck had been tasked by Adama to assassinate her, even though it was never said out loud; and the entire juxtaposition of watching the destruction of the Ressurection Ship from the p.o.v. of Apollo floating in space, with Baltar essentially dismissing the Number Six hallucination from his mind, with Starbuck waiting to kill Cain and Fisk waiting to kill Adama...was genius.

Also, how refreshing is it to see a Sci-Fi series where not only do the main female characters outnumber the male (I'm talking just the opening-credits people) but the creators have made a conscious effort to make this a very egalitarian society. Granted, the series also has an abudance of supporting characters that appear in nearly every episode, but where we have Tigh and Helo, we also have Cally and Dualla.

Further, I find the incorporation of religion fascinating. The humans believe in multiple gods (Artemis, Aprohdite, etc.) while the Cylons believe in only one god--along with somewhat of a deterministic, repeating cycle in the universe (if I understood things correctly from the Leoben interrogation by Kara in Flesh and Bones). And I've stumbled across more than one online article comparing the mythos of the show to Mormonism--the 12 tribes that are wandering, and the fact that you only have to switch two letters in "Kobol" to get "Kolob" and so forth.

3. Firefly: I've been involved with the series less than 6 months, and I can already easily say that it's my favorite sci-fi series ever (which, in my history, is a title not easily given). Also even more significant when taken into account the fact that it's 14 episodes and one movie long. Granted, I was a Joss Whedon fan before I got into Firefly, but I easily think that it's the best of his three series. And while I do usually get somewhat involved with the technobabble of other sci-fi series, I get a kick out of the fact that he is so determined to steer clear of that with this series. (One of my favorite quotes from Whedon is from a Q&A where someone asks about how far apart the different moons and planets are in the solar system, to which he replied along the lines of,"They're really close together, like a little planet village. If you ask me science questions, I'm going to cry.")

Granted, anyone who's a fan knows that Serenity if Firefly-class, and I'm sure there are even some people out there that could recite the class code and all that fun stuff rambled off by River at the beginning of Train Job. But if you think back to episodes, with every single one it's more along the lines of,"It's the one where the characters did this" rather than "It's the one where this part of the engine broke down so they had to travel through time to discover another wormhole to a whole nother reality of existence." And how cool was it that just in 14 episodes, we got to see repeat of supporting characters. (This is going by watching the episodes in actual order, as opposed to how Fox originally aired them.) We got to see Badger again in Shindig after Serenity, we got to see Niska again in War Stories after Train Job, and we got to see Yo-Saf-Bridge again in Trash after Our Mrs. Reynolds.

And while I do love all the characters (a rarity for any show), I do hold such a special place in my heart for Mal (as evidenced by the framed picture of Mal I have above my desk--courtesty of Melyngoch). But it's not even just lust. I get such a kick out of the fact that he likes to appear the bastard, and becomes frustrated by his conscience, and the fact that he ultimately can't help being a good person. And I love that each other member of the crew demonstrates different aspects of his personality (if you like to read it that way, which I do): Zoe is the soldier, Jayne is the ruthless mercenary, Wash is the sense of humor, Kaylee is optimism, Book is spirituality, Inara is compassion, Simon is intelligence, and River is the physical manifestation of the evils of the Alliance.

When discussing Firefly, one also can't ignore the sense of humor. I've enjoyed Whedon humor in the past with Buffy and Angel, but it really hit its peak with this show. I love, love the way they like to take the obvious cliche and slap it in the face. ("Mercy is the mark of a great man. *stab* Guess I'm just a good man. *stab* Well, I'm all right." "Jayne, this is something the Captain has to do for himself." "No, no it's not!" "Oh!") Plus Our Mrs. Reynolds and Jaynestown, between them, have too many great moments to cite many specifics; I've read that Whedon considers OMR to be his best script--and while I don't know whether or not it's true, I could definitely understand why he might that think that; it is fabulous. I absolutely adore the scene in the cargo bay when Zoe calls the entire crew down to meet Mal's new "wife" ("We always hoped you two kids would get together. Who is she?") And everything about the concept of Jayne being seen as a Robin Hood-character, with his own song included, is absolutely brilliant.

4. Star Trek Deep Space Nine: I have to admit, this one is somewhat of an afterthought, but mostly because it's been off the air for five years. This is easily the most emotionally attached I've gotten to in a series with my sisters--and it was a very serious obsession for each of us.

I lost interest in Voyager round about the time we had Seven of Nine in a half-naked skin-tight outfit dueling with the Rock...and while one could justifiably argue that Next Generation is just as good as or better than, DS9 is ultimately the one I remember having the most long-term relationship with. (Uncoincidentally, Ron Moore, who was an executive producer for this show, is one of the show creators/runners for BSG.) I loved that this was the first Star Trek to seriously dabble its feet in religion (which I'm sure just had Gene Roddenberry rolling in his grave.) Are the creatures inside the wormhole powerful aliens? Yes. Well, are they a religious icon to the Bajoran people? Well, that would also be a yes. And the conflict of Sisko being leader of the Federation contigent and simultaneously Emissary to the Prophets was such a pivotal aspect of the series.

The series also managed to move somewhat away from the mentality in regards to women established and maintained during the first two Star Treks. (Women in knee-length cheerleading outfits; Troy in her wolf suit and acting the over-emotional ditz.) Sadly, Star Trek never moved past the idea of women making up any more than 30% of the galaxy, but Dax and Kira were vastly superior to Uhura, Troy and Crusher. I also really liked the idea of the Bajorans being more like the Celts--the women fighting alongside the men in battle.

While the Dominion were ultimately great villains, and served their purpose, one could also argue that the series also succeeded equally (if not better) in various social commentary (though I'm sure one of my sisters could elaborate on that better). I think another thing that made TNG and DS9 better than the others was knowing just when to have fun with an episode. Julian Bashir as a pseudo-James Bond while the rest of the crew has been inadvertantly transported into the holodeck in the ever-classic "Our Man Bashir"...or I remember specifically having a lot of fun going through the sheer enthusiasm and humor from "In the Cards" (which, at the time, also served as a nice counter to all the war/dominion heavy episodes that were around it). And also unlike Voyager and TOS, DS9 did know when to take itself in Duet and Hard Time.

I mean, I think it had its flaws, but ultimately I still think of DS9 and TNG as the pinnacle of the Star Trek franchise and look back on both with a considerable amount of nostalgia.


Anonymous Idahospud said...

Sheesh, more and more I get the feeling that you women are the sisters I didn't get . . . .

Excellent post, Amalthea. One of the things that I love about science fiction is the opportunity to examine what it means to be human in a context that is not Earth-bound. I too, am fascinated by the religious overtones as they unfold in Battlestar Galactica. One of the continuing themes I particularly like in that series is the idea of the idealized Earth as the ultimate destination--Home with a capital H. While the fleet's immediate focus is on survival, the utopian fantasy is key to helping them look beyond a sometimes brutish reality, toward a common goal. I've enjoyed watching Starbuck as she navigates between despair and hope--Adama privately confirms to her that Earth is a myth, yet Roslin's apparent connection to the Divine inspires Starbuck to return to Caprica to retrieve the Arrow. I suppose her struggles resonate because I, like perhaps many religious, semi-religious, and even agnostic folks, am familiar with the internal and external negotiation between evidence for a divine, loving, and involved Being and the gritty realities of everyday life that give cause to wonder if, at the end of the day, what you see is what you get. All the characters, in their way, illustrate how individual humans can be tender AND tough, sharply focused AND a quivering mess, fiercely loyal AND self-absorbed.

Good stuff. Thanks for providing a forum to talk about it!

2/04/2006 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger Lynnette said...

Idahospud, we'd be happy to adopt you. When you've already got six sisters in a family, after all, what's one or two more? ;)

Amalthea, I'm afraid I'm an unbeliever when it comes to most of the shows you mention (but out of ignorance, rather than outright rejection, so I hope you won't kick me off your thread.)

I can, however, comment on Star Trek. DS9 will be forever my favorite, if only because of the presence of Dr. Julian Bashir. :) But I also appreciated, as you mentioned, the mystical element. I particularly remember an episode in which Sisko has visions, and he's torn essentially between science and religion in dealing with them. I also liked the way they often presented two viewpoints without making one clearly the right one. And above all, I appreciated the real relationships between the characters. Where I think the series ran into trouble was in doing too much with the war, and too many instances of recurring characters taking over the plots (e.g. "Who Mourns for Morn," or an entire show about Vic Fontaine.)

I liked TNG best when it grappled with philosophical issues, such as the debate over whether Data had a soul, or when they played with things like timelines to pose interesting questions. I've always remembered the episode (was it "Tapestry?") in which Q gives Picard a chance to go back and fix a mistake he made as a young man--and it turns out that doing so puts his life on a much more negative trajectory.

Like you, I didn't make it all the way through Voyager; what I saw was a mixed bag, with some good stuff and also some really goofy stuff. I did quite like Janeway, though, and was happy to finally see a woman in command. I thought Seven of Nine was interesting, but I have to agree about the skintight outfit, and the fact that after she arrived, the series seemed to turn into Deep Space Seven.

2/04/2006 11:59:00 PM  
Blogger Tanya Spackman said...

Oooo, a scifi discussion. Yay!

I have obsessed over Stargate for quite a while - I've even been to two Stargate conventions in Vancouver (Canada) and one in Canberra (Australia) - though my love for it is waning. I think the writers are running out of ideas. I totally agree that the Jack and Daniel duo is the best. I thought I would really miss Jack, but RDA had totally been phoning in his performances that last couple of years, so it's actually been nice having the actors all seem to want to be there. I had worried that Mitchell would end up being another Jonas debaucle, but I really like Mitchell.

I hadn't really been that into Atlantis, and only watch it sometimes, but it's starting to grow on me, and I think I like it better than SG-1 right now. I'm totally with you on the McKay love, and I also agree his character is becoming more and more one-dimensional, which is unfortunate.

Battlestar Galactica is my favorite scifi show right now. The last two episodes seemed kind of weak to me, but blips happen and I'm not concerned. The level of writing on BSG is amazing, and the actors totally give rich, wonderful performances. It's just all around excellent.

I didn't watch Firefly when it was first aired, though since they aired it out of order, it's probably just as Well. I started watching it when SciFi started showing it as preparation for the movie release. I was almost instantly hooked. I love the characters, I love the humor in the writing (Joss Whedon is a god), I love the premise. Once I was hooked, I was so depressed it lasted for so short a time. Someone told me that she thinks of it as a 13-hour mini-series with an incredible 2-hour final. I've decided that thinking of it that way takes away the pain.

As for Star Trek, I used to love TNG best. When DS9 first aired, I liked it but it didn't hook me. I even drifted away from watching for a couple seasons. However, as grew older and started watching and rewatching it again, suddenly I was hooked. Now I only like watching some episodes of TNG over again, but most of DS9 still interests me. It has the most depth of all the ST family. (I never got into Voyager at all, and Enterprise was a blight upon the Star Trek name.)

2/05/2006 01:31:00 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

Wow, Amalthea. I'm afraid I don't have anything to add to the discussion--I'm a fly-by sampler of sci-fi, at best--but it's fascinating to read your analysis. You could become one of those (gasp) literary critics!

2/05/2006 04:24:00 PM  
Blogger annegb said...

I love the Alien movies. I find Stargate boring.

There hasn't been a really good science fiction TV series in a long time.


2/06/2006 08:17:00 AM  
Blogger Elbereth said...

As the one other of the member of the family who not only recognizes the names of all these shows but also watches (most) them with the same obsessions as Amalthea, I guess I would also be qualified to throw in my two cents on this discussion

I agree that Stargate has to be one of the best shows on television. (Hey, I own all eight seasons and season one of Atlantis.) I absolutely love the idea of having people today doing all of these science fictiony things. I think it brings the issues closer to home and makes them more applicable. Whereas Star Trek had the Prime Directive to guide its actions, the members of SG-1 are always struggling to find out exactly how to deal with other cultures and to what extend they can or should have an effect on them. One of my favorite episodes is Scorched Earth where there seems to be no right solution, either way a culture will have to be sacrificed.

I am also a huge fan of the Daniel Saga. Think the movie to Children of the Gods, Forever in a Day, Maternal Instinct, Absolute Power, Meridian, Fallen, even Reckoning and Threads. I really love the whole concept of ascension and I have loved watching Daniel travel a path that Jack doesn’t even believe exists. Though Daniel was “ascended” for sixth season, I think two of the best episodes, Abyss and Full Circle, stem from the fact that he is an ascended trying to help his friend despite the rules of ascended beings. (And who doesn’t laugh at the elevator scene from Full Circle. “I have this friend, never calls, never writes…”) I do wish Threads had given us more about Daniel’s time as an ascended being and I can only hope that the reason he hasn’t said anything about his ascension to any of the priors so far this season is because he is slated to use that information in a big way.

I too was afraid that this season would go downhill. In the end, I like Mitchell (“you’re nothing more than darkside intergalactic encyclopedia salesmen..”). Vala is insane and fun and brings a whole new energy to the show. (No one can push Daniel’s buttons quite like Vala.) I also like both General Landry and Dr. Lam (it’s good to finally have someone to replace Frasier) and I hope they do more with the father/daughter dynamic they have going.

When it comes to Firefly, I am a true Browncoat. I actually saw the pilot episode when it aired. (Because Fox screwed up the airing of the show, the pilot aired last and Fox hyped it as “see how it all began”) I checked out the first DVD the next summer and, let me tell you, I didn’t have to check out anymore since I went out and bought the show the next day. I love Firefly. I love the crew and the interweaving relationships. I love the humor on the show. Like Amalthea, I think there is a great deal to be said for the broken cliches. Joss Whedon is also one of the few directors I have ever seen who allows conversations to continue in the background while other characters move the camera away. (Think the opening scene of the movie.) It makes things seem so much more real and present and less staged.

I have recently become addicted to the Battlestar Galactica Universe (as in the last two weeks) and so I would have to say I am most enamored with it right now. It keeps shocking me how none of the minor (as in non-main credit) characters ever die. (Okay, so that’s a lie, a few of them have, like the Galactica Boomer or Crashdown.) In most sci-fi shows, minor characters that show up for one or two episodes either die or move on. (Think of the pilot episode of Voyager, the doctor, chief engineer, and first officer all get knocked off.) When I first watched the miniseries, I watched with the expectation that since Cally, Tigh, Tyrol, Helo, Duella, and even Billy weren’t major cast members, they would end up dying. None of them did. Tom Zarak especially keeps surprising me by his ability to survive. (I was sure it was over for him during Home part 2)

I also love the immediacy of the show. In so many sci fi shows, the events of one episode seem to have little bearing on the characters themselves. Someone gets hurt or whatever, it rarely affects them in the next episode. But in Battlestar Galactica, the timing of the show is so close together that the characters are constantly dealing with what happened to them previously. Take Starbuck. Halfway through the first season, she hurts her knee. Not only does she not fly for the rest of the season, but she has to deal with that fact when the rest of the pilots go on a major op. I think the entire first season covered less than two months of actual time (based on the number of days Helo spent on Caprica).

I could go on and on and on because I love science fiction, and I especially love these shows, but, I do have to spend some of my time doing other things.

2/06/2006 09:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Naiah Earhart said...

We went tv-free about a year and half, maybe almost two years ago at this point...This post is probably the first thing to make me whimper audibly along that score.

That said, given that I'm 2 years behind, these were my faves.

B5 all the way (with a glaring exception of a good chuck of season 5; I just couldn't stomach much of it, espceially after the telepaths' 'cult suicide...ugh)

ST:tng is, I think hands-down, the best sci-fi series to date (two years ago being the date). Given my willy-nilly upbringing, I credit this show with a good chunk of my better qualities and personality traits.

I've never seen Firefly, but I did see Serenity, and I have to say that, if you are at all sensitive to the presence/absence of teh spirit, then I'd go ahead and miss it. It's a potentially AWESOME story that, alas, is trimmed in some somewhat gratuitous violence that really left me reeling (mind you I'm no wuss on these things, and really had just come back to the church after a three-year field trip through mammom. It really was too much, in my opinion.)

Af for the other ST series...I never did get in to DS9, but I did watch a good chunk, if not all (can't remember) of Voyager. now, it's hardly great sci-fi, much more 'space opera' genre, but I totally dug it.

2/07/2006 04:03:00 PM  

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