August 12, 2010

This is a word I’ve come across recently. “Power-disking” refers to the practice of quickly watching every episode of a show over a short period of time, usually by powering through the DVDs, watching, say, an entire disk in one sitting.

I’ve done this somewhat often over the last few years. I’ve compiled a list of all the shows of which I’ve seen every episode; here it is, in roughly chronological order:

There are a few interesting things about this list.

  • The majority of these shows I watched on the collected series DVD set after the series was canceled.
  • Two (The Wire, 24) I watched on a per-series basis, watching all episodes of a season after it ended, but not waiting between seasons.
  • Only one (Jericho) did I ever watch “in real time,” so to speak, by which I mean “as it were originally shown on TV.” And ever there, I saw the first several episodes online before deciding to watch the show as it progressed, and watched the second season entirely online.

This is clearly significantly different from my television habits, say, six years ago. Mostly this is because what I now do was not technologically feasible back then. Yet the change reflects also a change in ways of thinking about television. I never watch TV regularly any more. Instead, the default is to watch no television, and occasionally to watch entire series over the course of a few weeks, just as one would a read a book over the course of a few weeks.

There is a significant difference between television and novels, however. The quantity of quality television is severely limited, compared to the quantity of quality novels. This has to do both with the economics of it — it costs more to make a TV show than to write a book — and with the fact that television is a fairly recent medium. When I discover a new author I like, say, Cormac McCarthy, I can read and have read) every book he’s written over the last twenty-five years. And then do that again for every author I find I like. The same is not true of television. I suspect I will run out of shows to watch fairly soon —  and then what? Watch nothing, or, rather, continue in the current habit of watching nothing except watching a lot at random intervals and have the size of the intervals increase? I have little interest in going back to watching shows as they air. I don’t think the medium works as well with the narrative broken up like that. It’s like reading a novel but only one chapter per week.

The number of good shows available isn’t zero, of course. Given the shows I’ve listed above, it’s clear my interest is in shows with strong narrative arcs running across seasons, and for the most part in shows with strong sci-fi or fantasy elements, such that the mythopoeic elements of the show loom large. This leaves me with a few interesting options to explore. This is what’s on my mind right now:

  • Stargate: Atlantis — I already have the DVDs, and am halfway through the first season. So this I will definitely watch.
  • Babylon 5 – I began watching this a year ago or so, but never really go into it. So I don’t know if I’ll ever end up watching it.
  • The Prisoner – This is considered one of the greatest series of all time, and I’m interested in seeing it. Of course it’s really old and I might never get around to it.

Any suggestions for other shows worth watching?


Stargate: SG-1 and What Sci-Fi Can’t Do

August 10, 2010

I noticed today that my three most recent posts have not been posts at all, in fact, and have instead just been links to other sites. I’ll attempt to rectify that now, and more so, with a rather epically long discussion of the show I’ve been watching most recently – Stargate: SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons and spun off two series, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, as well as two direct-to-DVD movies. I haven’t seen any of it but SG-1 itself and a few episodes of Atlantis, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what the Stargate universe is like.

Before I begin, though, you should read this article: Seeing the truth of the world through science fiction. It’s a good description of what some say sci-fi aspires to, and what I myself have said sci-fi is about on occasion. It reveals to us our own limitations, our inability to find the Ding-an-sich, and the necessity of the attempt to do so. It helps us to understand ourselves. Or, at the Teal’c look-alike at the end of the comical SG-1 episode “200” says,

Science fiction is an existential metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

This is what some say sci-fi tries to do. But… is this really what sci-fi is all about?

SG-1, as I said, went on for ten seasons. For the first eight of them, the central theme of the show was the struggle against an obviously evil race of technologically advanced beings who impersonated gods from ancient mythology. In the last two seasons they go up against a race of evil energy beings of arbitrarily great power who demand everyone worship them. Are they gods or not? What is a god, exactly? How do you decide what deserves worship? These are all interesting questions one would feel compelled to explore coming up against either the Goa’uld or the Ori. All of them are alluded to. None of them are ever really addressed in any meaningful way.

Instead, the show, and the characters, assume that the Goa’uld and Ori are not gods, that they do not deserve worship, that they are instead hostile forces bent on destroying human civilization as we know it. As it turns out, these assumptions are pretty much correct. The Goa’uld are evil, the Ori are evil, end of story. But this isn’t demonstrated by the fact that they’re claiming to be gods deserving worship when they’re really corporeal beings (the Ori aren’t even corporeal… kinda), it’s demonstrated by the fact that they’re mass murderers. The question of whether the claim to be a god in and of itself is ever justifiable is never addressed. This is the question that the “existential metaphor” actually raises, but for the most part it is ignored, though always in the back of the viewer’s mind.

The audience lets the show get away with ignoring this because they’re not worried about the existential questions raised; they’re more interested in the complex mythology being built up around the show. We don’t really stop to think about the nature of godhood; instead, we learn about the society of the Jaffa, and the different Goa’uld System Lords that pose a danger to the Tau’ri, and the different technologies the Ancients left behind to be discovered. The philosophical questions are never at the fore. My conversations with by brothers are never about whether humans or robots, or what it is to be a god, or even whether or not it was ethical to do what a certain character did in a certain situation; instead, we talk about whether there was really a scientific explanation for what happened, or what we think the bad guy will do next, or what a piece of technology discovered in the episode is really capable of.

In other words: if we want to say that the philosophical, existential queries being posed are the important part, and the rest just a way of communicating those queries, then the show is clearly a failure, because what we focus on is invariably the fluff, not the substance. I don’t judge SG-1 by its philosophy (if I did, it would fail) but by its characters, its plotlines, and its worldbuilding/mythopoeia — only the last of which is distinct to science fiction.

Now much of this ability to mythopoeticize comes from the long-form narrative modern television takes. SG-1, like many modern shows, has story arcs running through and even across entire seasons, with various alien civilizations introduced, fleshed out, fought with, defeated, over the course of years of in-world time and dozens of hours of on-screen material. This allows for the material to be explored in great detail, every possible factual question about the in-show universe can be asked and answered — but doing so brings us no closer to unpacking the “existential metaphor.” That metaphor is just as thoroughly explored in a single episode of The Twilight Zone. But I don’t watch The Twilight Zone nearly as much as I do SG-1, or BSG, or Buffy, or Angel. (Those last two are fantasy, but in this post I’m talking less about sci-fi specifically than speculative fiction in general.) I do truly believe that, while The Twilight Zone is in many ways brilliant, it is not as good as these others — but this judgment is clearly not based on the shows’ relative ability to metaphorically moralize.

What, then, can’t science fiction do? It cannot, except in a very limited sense, actually offer those existential metaphors that its proponents so often say is what redeems it. The fictional world sci-fi presents to us can indeed offer to us a metaphor worth considering — but after the initial presentation, it is not giving us with that metaphor, it is ornamenting the world used to create it and creating complex mythologies around it and making us care about people and civilizations that have never existed and will never exist. That activity of ornamentation is something very different, and it, not the existential metaphor itself, is what lies at the heart of sci-fi and fantasy.

To put it a different way; sci-fi is at its heart concerned not with black and white, but with color. Existential metaphors are black and white. They reveal stark truths about the nature of the human condition. They are also amazingly simple. We are reading The Road in my American Literature class right now. It’s a sublime book. Perhaps it’s a work of science fiction in some vague almost meaningless sense, but at its heart it is no different from his other work, none of which can be called sci-fi, or from even more obviously non-sci-fi fiction. Yes, I suppose it’s set in post-apocalyptic America. But it’s not at all interested in exploring the new make-up of the world, in politics or society or biology. Those are all dead. It is interested in Life and Death and Love and arriving the essence of those things. And it takes place in a world devoid of color. (The Twilight Zone, I note, was shot in black and white, and I seriously doubt a color version would have been an improvement.) It contains elements of sci-fi – primarily the descriptions of how people survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland – but apart from that there is no world-building going on, no interest in the exterior world — rather the exterior has been reduced to the interior.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is interested primarily in color. Specifically in colors never before seen. Sci-fi isn’t black and white; it tries to show us colors that don’t exist except in our imagination. Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space. A meteor crashes that is made of a material that is not red, blue, green, yellow, nor any color known to man. It sticks around for a while, causes problems, then vanishes. That, not The Road, is science fiction boiled down to its essence — an encounter with the never before seen. Though of course since part of the essence of sci-fi is its baroque density such a boiling down fails to really illustrate by example. This is not to say that works of science fiction can’t be serious, nor that sci-fi cannot reduce the world to black and white. It is rather to say that this is not the essence of sci-fi.

So what exactly is my point? Why does it matter what the essence of sci-fi truly is? Because the nature of sci-fi’s essence determines how we defend it to those who discount its true worth. I want us (“us” meaning those of us who love speculative fiction) to realize that the usual defense of it, that it functions as a metaphor for real life that can reveal things not easily seen in ordinary fiction, does not really hold up under scrutiny. Something else is going on.

What that is, I’m not sure exactly. As I said, I think it has something to do with discovering new colors. But is that really worthwhile? Is that a legitimate endeavor? It may just be ornament for ornament’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, the act of subcreation as an exploration of the power of the human imagination. That sounds to me incurably romantic, and I’m not sure it makes for a good defense. But exploring this question will have to wait for another day. I’ve already gotten too far off-topic from my original idea for this post, which was to rant about how naive SG-1 often is. Perhaps another time.

Numbering AIs

June 22, 2010

I’ve been watching Stargate: SG-1 recently, and came across something interesting halfway through season 6 (episode 12: “Natural Selection”). One of the enemy races in the Stargate universe is the “replicators,” who are basically self-replicating machines with artificial intelligence that look like legos and re-arrange themselves to form various useful shapes, often insect-like in appearance. In this episode, for assorted reasons, the replicators have created humanoid variants – still machines, mind you, but to every appearance human. And they’re numbered. There are six of them, though they’re making more; the first one is “first,” the second “second,” and so on.

What does this remind me of? Battlestar Galactica, of course. BSG has the humanoid Cylons, who go by the order in which they were created – “number one,” “number two,” etc. But wait, it gets better. In SG1, “first” is a dignified old man who is also ruthless and completely devoted to what his programming tells him to do, replicate. It’s only a later model, “fifth,” who has emotions (which has good and bad consequences). In BSG, “number one” is a dignified old man who claims to be an atheist and whose only desire is to take over the universe and eliminate all traces of his humanity. Many of the other models end up siding with the humans, but “number one” is devoted to the machine cause till the end.

I’m wondering if this was coincidence, or if the writers of BSG took a bit of inspiration from SG1; the SG1 episode came out in 2002, and the BSG miniseries was in 2003, so it’s possible. But there also seems to be just a natural impulse to make number one in a set of numbered characters be evil, and to make artificial intelligences not get names, and thus go by the order of their creation. I’m thinking of the movie 9 (not a very good movie, sadly), which has nine ragdoll-robots that go by “1,” “2,” etc. In it, “1” isn’t exactly evil (since the ragdolls are the good guys), but he is the least sympathetic character, in theory (I actually liked him more than some of the other ones), and he’s an obvious stand-in for dogmatic religion.

I wonder if TvTropes.org has anything to say about this. I didn’t see anything on the BSG page.

Review: Battlestar Galactica

July 24, 2009

So, I finished watching Battlestar Galactica earlier this week, and I’ve spent the last few days thinking about what I have to say about it. I don’t think I have anything particularly deep to offer up. I like the show; it has its flaws, but then, so does every television show. The show attempts something more interesting than most, and succeeds, for the most part, which makes it better than most in my books.

The basic premise of the show – the last remnants of the human race are trying to escape the mechanical Cylons who revolted against them and find the mythical planet Earth, home of the 13th colony – and the general flavor of the setting – a space opera with strong mystic undertones and a theme of paganism vs. quasi-Christianity – are great. The basic story arc works as well (find Kobol, find New Caprica, settle there, be forced out, find the Temple of Five, find old Earth, find it is a nuclear wasteland, find new Earth, become our ancestors).

The show does have several weaknesses, though. One of the worst is its tendency to become too much of a soap opera. I never minded that part until the fourth season, I think; the bed-side hospital scene (with Caprica Six miscarrying while Saul tries to convince her he loves her – the only way I can justify this is by saying it’s proving that Cylons are people too, even in the petty soap-opera-y ways) was just a bit much, though. As was a lot of other stuff in season 4 (like Cally’s son turning out to have been Hot Dog’s, not Tyrol’s, which I’m pretty sure they did just to get around the fact that otherwise, the child would be half Cylon, making Hera not nearly as special – that seems like a cop-out to me).

There’s also the fact that, about halfway through season 3 (after they find the Algae Planet, essentially), they give up trying to explain how they stay alive. I think the show would have benefited from being more about the day-to-day survival of the fleet, though it would be hard to work that in with all the other stuff they were doing. And the ending, while overall a good close to the series, is somewhat unbelievable (you mean to tell me everyone willingly gives up their technology, just like that? I don’t think so, not that easily. They would be on Earth for a few months, realize “hey, I like being able to easily hunt and move around and have shelter – let’s re-invent guns and cars and houses!”, and there goes the continuity with the real world).

But one think the show does really well is evoke a kind of mysticism, that everything happens for a reason. I think so, anyway. My dad doesn’t buy it – he thinks all the coincidences are just the writers’ way of getting out of corners they’ve backed themselves into – but I think it does a good job of seeming magical/mystical/destined/whatever without, for the most part, feeling contrived.

Anyway, overall, good show, you ought to watch it; just be aware that it definitely has its flaws and it’ll go smoother.

Problems of Scale

July 15, 2009

So, I’m currently watching Battlestar Galactica from start to finish. I just finished season 2. I’ll probably make a more comprehensive post when I’m done with the series – in fact, I’m considering writing a series of posts similar to my one about epic metal back in November 2007, this time about my favorite TV shows (of which BG is definitely one). But right now, I’m just going to talk about something that bugs me about BG – and almost all sci-fi, really.

That is the problem of scale. Particularly, that science fiction universes almost always completely fail at actually depicting what the stated facts imply their universe would be like. Consider:

Up through season 2 on BG, there’s been action on four planetary bodies so far by my count, these being Caprica, the unnamed moon Starbuck crashes on, Kobol, and New Caprica. All of these are presumably about as large as Earth – certainly no smaller than the moon, since they all appear to have roughly Earth-like gravity. And yet:

  • There seems to be only one city on Caprica, in which two groups of characters, separated at the beginning of the series, meet by chance even though neither of them is searching for the other, and only one forest, where a group of characters trying to rescue those left behind on Caprica are able to find them in a matter of hours.
  • When Starbuck crashes onto the moon, the Cylon raider she shoots down happens to land within walking distance of her own wreck. And it is considered plausible (though not likely) that a few dozen Vipers can fly over the surface of the moon and (not even using sensors, but rather relying on visual contact!) find Starbuck and rescue her before she runs out of air.
  • When the Raptor crashes on the surface of Kobol, it just happens to land in the middle of the ancient City of the Gods. And that’s exactly where the rescue party goes to find them, even though they had no way of knowing that’s where they’d be.
  • When they settle on New Caprica, an effort at least is made to explain why everything is so small – only a small portion of the planet is inhabitable. And that’s where they settle, and who cares about the rest? So New Caprica is the most believable of the planets.

There’s more problems, on a deeper level. There are the 12 Colonies, each with their own distinct culture (though I can only remember a few distinct characterizations – Gemenon is religious, Caprica is the capital, Saggitaron was oppressed, uh…). But these are entire planets! Does anyone think that if there were eleven other planets as densely populated as Earth, that that would mean Earth’s culture would become homogenous? Hell no. There would just be many, many more cultures out there.

Part of the problem, of course, is the very nature of the show; it wants to depict a civilization of only a few thousand people travelling across a distance of hundreds of light-years (and this is what it would take, nevermind the Cylon’s claim that they were “an entire light-year away” when they found out where New Caprica was. Gimme a break. Alpha Centauri – the nearest planet to Earth – is 4.6 light-years away). Each different planet and star system is really more on the level of a city-state in Greece in the ancient Mediterranean. Or, in what is a more apt analogy, on the level of the 12 tribes of Israel when they made the exodus from Egypt. BG never really wanted to portray what a civilization that spread across 12 planets and multiple star systems would be like.

But of course this isn’t just a problem with Battlestar Galactica. Consider Star Trek – every episode I’ve seen involving a planet treats it like there is one city on the planet, just one civilization to deal with. Star Wars is the same way; Tattoine is “small village in the desert”, Coruscant is “large city”, Naboo is “seaside city”, etc.

In other words, we achieve diversity at the interplanetary level – which is what we want, since this is space opera – at the expense of actual planets. Instead we get a bunch of city-states floating in space with blank space between in which to fight and arbitrary rules for how long it takes to get from one planet to another.

The best attempt to avoid this problem that I’ve seen is Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle (the three Books of the New Sun, Long Sun, and Short Sun). BotNS takes place on Urth, which is Earth, but not just “on Earth” – it’s in South America, in the city of Nessus, ruled by the Autarch, whose lands are bounded on the north by the Ascians. The BotLS takes place entirely within a generation starship made from a hollowed out asteroid, but it involves a number of different city-states all living inside it – Viron, Trivigaunte, Mainframe, etc. The BotSS actually involves the main character going on an Odyssey-like journey to a bunch of different cities on the planet Blue. Etc.

The question, I suppose, is whether this is a problem that needs fixing. It is an irritant, to a certain extent – I know I laughed at that line about “an entire light-year away” in Battlestar Galactica. But for the most part we manage to ignore it. Would we really be better off forcing BG to take place on a single planet, or perhaps a single star system with a few planets in it, and modifying the entire plot to deal with the rule-change?

Code Geass

March 22, 2009

I recently finished watching the anime Code Geass (only the second anime I’ve watched, after Death Note). My reaction was… mixed. I have a lot of complaints with it (I hate the anime style of animation, the school half was dumb – the series is about a high-schooler named Lelouch who is also leading a rebellion, and the parts at the school are stupid – and I found some of the events in the main plot somewhat unbelievable). But overall I thought it was good, worth watching if you have nothing better to do with 20 hours of your life (about how long it will take to watch all 50 of the 24-minute-long episodes).

The most interesting part was the ending… but I’m not sure what to make of the ending yet. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say it was well done and succeeded at surprising me. But I’m not sure I agree with the reasoning behind Lelouch’s actions. *shrug*

Anyway, if anyone reading this is really into anime, any suggestions for more anime series I would like, given that I found Death Note more interesting than Code Geass and my main problem with most animes is their immature sense of humor and poor quality of animation?

Incidentally, Wesnoth 1.6 has been released. This is the newest stable release, it has some new campaigns and much better graphics, go try it out. And download the Imperial Era and the associated campaigns as well from the add-on server – you know you want to.

No, just the Doctor

August 20, 2008

I have happened, this summer, to see a few dozen episodes of the show Doctor Who. I still can’t make up my mind about the show.

There are obvious problems with it. It isn’t particularly concerned with internal consistency, or even making sense. The main character, the Doctor, is the “last of the time-lords” – even though it makes no sense to be the “last” of a race that has the ability to time-travel. He possesses a “sonic screwdriver”, “psychic paper”, and a “TARDIS”, all of which are basically magic. None of the science in the show makes any sense.

Also, the acting is not particularly good, the writing is often silly (though these two seem to work together – the characters do seem realistic, because they act like normal people would act in these situations – i.e. really wooden and stupid and not very eloquent), and the way the Doctor gets out of danger is often completely implausible – for some reason his enemies always let him monologue for fifteen minutes and never shoot him even when they have the opportunity.

Still, the show is fascinating, despite all this. My theory is that this is because the situations and worlds it presents, implausible as they are, are extremely creative and you can’t help but watch them play out. Take the Vashta Nerada – a race of tiny gnat-like creatures that resemble shadows and disguise themselves in and as shadows and eat everything. Basically tiny flying piranhas. And they have taken over a library the size of a planet. And the Doctor has to find a way to get out of the library alive.

Anyway, I think this says something about how powerful mythopoeia is. The power of the story can make you forgive the silliness, the absurdity, and everything else – you can treat that part as if it was “so bad it’s good”, but the world-building parts are actually “good”.

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