Summer Classes: Angel season 1

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, I start the first season of Joss Whedon’s spinoff series, “Angel.”  

There really was nowhere left to go with Angel. After his return in the third season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” he became a tedious extra, left to do little but brood and occasionally fight monsters. He didn’t really have much of a reason to still be there and the writers  consistently had to figure out new reasons why Buffy would still stay with him. By the time he realizes that he has to leave Sunnydale late in the season, the writing was already on the wall that we were going to be seeing much less of the character.

Let me say this immediately. Of all the Buffy characters that could possibly have merited a spinoff series, Angel was among the least worthy. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense why he was given his own show but even now, it seems like a pity that the honor didn’t go to Spike, the true breakout character of the show. Angel’s broody, quiet, reserved and suppressed. Essentially, he’s a slightly less whiny Buffy. Why would we possibly want that?

The first 5 episodes of “Angel” don’t even try to answer that point. What we have instead are a series of vastly stand alone episodes, setting some pieces together and introducing the major and minor players. Cordelia is thankfully back, giving some actual levity to the darker show and we meet Drunk-Irish McPlot-Device, also known as Doyle, and inevitable love interest, Kate. Whedon’s been long known as a creator who’s able to flesh out characters but everyone new here is little more than an archetype. Its vastly the same problems that I had with Firefly but we’re just starting out here.

What initially sets “Angel” apart from its source material is in style and tone. Moving the show to LA naturally gave the series a noir-ish feel, particularly having Angel and company setting up a detective agency. It leads the whole endeavor to have a more episodic feel. Where Buffy is always hunting and patrolling, running into threats that are intevitably connected to the season’s big bad, “Angel” so far just deals with the women who inevitably come running. Call it sexism, call it a genre homage or call it lazy writing but there sure are plenty of women who are oh so scared of the big bad men in these first few episodes.

The second issue is tone. It was clear from the series premier where Angel stops a rape attempt that rapidly becomes a vampire attack that this was going to be a considerably darker show. From there, the darker, more profane tone shines through. Cordelia thinks that a producer wants to have sex with her. A beaten woman is threatened at gunpoint by her crack addled boyfriend. A vampire torturer reveals that he’s also a pedophile. A boy is sealed inside of a wall by his insane mother. I’m not saying that “Buffy” never got mature, and the fourth season particularly made the show a much smarter more adult series, but Angel feels much more like a show aiming to shock. When its done well, particularly in the hard to remember “Rm w/a Vw,” the more mature content makes for a compelling monster of the week episode but it feels messy in the sex-murder demon worm filled “Lonely Hearts.”

My biggest issue so far is that the cast is just too damn small. Even from the first episode of Buffy, we had Giles, Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Angel and more. Nothing felt too somber just because there were more people to bounce off of. I’m sure, by the end of the season, Angel Investigations will be filled in with more employees but for now, it feels empty and bereft of the character that a full cast can bring.

On its own, I don’t know that these first few episodes would do anything for someone who isn’t already thoroughly into the Buffy-verse. Each is a fairly standard standalone adventure but do nothing to show off what Whedon’s supernatural shows can do well. Surely, its too early to really pass judgement so we’ll have to really just wait and see.

Next Class: We’ve got 6 more issues of “Angel” before the end of the week which will put me at the half way point.

Summer Classes: Firefly

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we take on the first 6 episodes of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.

For a long time, I didn’t really care to get into Joss Whedon. Of course, I knew people who really into it, who swore by “Buffy,” could quote “Angel” chapter and verse, and had opinions about a sci-fi show that I had never even heard of. I know some of my unearned distaste for Whedon was in the way he was presented by these people. No one ever talked about the worlds he created, the characters that were developed or the complex mythologies that were developed. Instead, people just mindlessly quoted the characters, making themselves out to be annoying Monty Python fans rather than people who had valid opinions about things.

A year ago, as the summer began, I started watching the first season of “Buffy,” the notoriously dull and hokey season of Whedon’s first work. I was unimpressed to say the least and abandoned it quickly. I was given no reason to keep going into the second season.

After “Cabin in the Woods,” I was given a reason to explore all of Whedon’s oeuvre. His 80’s horror homage was such a potent mix of genre defying  plot, the bitter and world weary sense of humor and the Lovecraftian conclusion showed me that the guy might deserve a second look. I started on a project (which will receive at least one additional post later) called the Summer of Whedon, and luckily, this class is helping me out.

Of all of Whedon’s cult shows, “Firefly” is the cultiest. The quickly abused and cancelled sci-fi show was treated beyond poorly by FOX and a ravenous group of fans have demanded more for the show for years. As a person who loves sci-fi, and as watched plenty of his favorite shows be trashed by FOX, I had a pretty decent chance to enjoy this one.

Ideally, yeah, I would love it but a lot of the problems that I’ve always thought Whedon has had initially held me back from getting into it. For one, he writes worlds and stories much better than he handles characters. Now, I’m not saying that he can’t do a great job defining the voice of certain characters or the way that they interact with one another but he definitely has trouble writing the initial character.

“Firefly” is a fairly obvious fusion of the western and the space opera, with a group of former rebels completing crimes for unsavory clients on the edges of civilization. The ship, the Serenity, is filled with archetypes: the cold quiet protagonist, the tough as nails deputy with morals, the sure-of-himself pilot, the shoot first-ask questions later killer, the whiz-kid, the priest with a dark past, the hooker with a heart of gold, the humanistic doctor and the survivor of atrocities.

The thing that bothers me the most about the use of these fairly obvious archetypes is the fact that Whedon doesn’t twist them at all. Granted, I’ve watched the first 6 episodes and so far, the characters remain little more than cliche. If Whedon’s purpose was to show how easily the old western cliches could be ported over to the space opera, then he’s succeeded but if he was trying to make those characters compelling in and of themselves, its a failure. I don’t care about River as a character because she’s flat, instead I’m forced to depend on the plot to make me care.

Luckily, the individual plots of the episode have been great. Where Whedon often played a very long game with episodes of “Buffy,” he’s working much better in making stand alone episodes that are loaded with world building. Watching the crew infiltrate a high class gathering looking for jobs might not feed into the long running plot of the show, but it manages to show that there is a richly developed world beyond what Whedon is showing us every episode.

That being said, the characters really grow on you. By the time I hit “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” the rhythm was working a lot better, with the characters bouncing off of each other in expected but enjoyable ways. We know that Zoe is going to bring the whole crew down to laugh at Mal’s fate, we know that Jayne is going to have a semi-romantic relationship with his favorite gun and we know that Wash isn’t going to cheat on his beloved wife with Saffron. The pleasure is watching them do just that in their own unique way.

Really, that’s kind of how I view all of Whedon’s work but I’m willing to keep going. The charm of “Firefly” is in seeing those classic plot archetypes being updated, although there might not be anything particularly new or original there. You know what you’re going to be getting in Whedon’s sci-fi show but, for the most part, that kind of works in this homage filled space opera.

Next Class: We’ve got another 6 episodes of “Firefly” before we finish the show and watch “Serenity” in two weeks.

Summer Classes: Battle Royale

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we examine the 2000 Japanese cult-smash, “Battle Royale.”

“You just have to fight for yourself. That’s just life…” – Mitsuko Souma, “Battle Royale”

On Patton Oswalt’s album “Werewolves and Lollipops,” the comedian discusses the moment where children finally realize that their parents aren’t always filled with wisdom and knowledge. Its a moment that he plays for laughs, but its also one of self discovery. Its the moment where the world’s gatekeepers are shown to be not all knowing, not all powerful and maybe, just maybe, fallible.

Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” doesn’t as much focus on that moment of self discovery as much as the fallout of such. The film, loosely adapted from the manga of the same name, takes a gory, exploitative look at children on the cusp of adulthood and what they are willing and unwilling to do when they lose the guiding force of adults.

“Battle Royale” is where the premise for the teenage blood-bath began. For a variety of poorly explained reasons, the Japanese government institutes a series of laws in an attempt to reduce teenage crime and truancy, which force a randomly determined class of 9th graders to kill each other to the last man. Thankfully, there’s a helpful video to explain the rules.

From the moment the students leave the room to begin the battle, the film takes a considerably more episodic look at the various survivors, spending much of its running time focusing on a few unique killers and pacifists. Its to the film’s benefit and detriment. A few of the side characters, the sex obsessed Kazushi, the cheerleading squad and any number of the girls Mitsuko kills, all seem to have rich personalities and motives for their choices. What we get from them is interesting but maybe deserving of more content than we receive.

That being said, the episodic nature seems to be deliberate, comparable to other violent teenage entertainment. I was consistently reminded of “The Warriors,” with its’ cartoony themed enemies and picaresque plotting but “Battle Royale” is much more united in theme.

“Battle Royale” uses the premise of high school being like life and death, something we’ve seen much more often in recent years, and takes it to the natural conclusion. Characters work out their lost loves, deal with their childhood traumas, try to take revenge on those who wronged them and try to just slip quietly by. It isn’t a particularly trenchant look at the topic, with others such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mean Girls, and Lord of the Flies offering a more insightful look at the issue, but “Battle Royale sticks with viewers. Whether its the gore, the unique style, the memorable sociopaths or the smart ending, it all ends up working.

There are a fair share of problems holding it back. The version available on Netflix Instant Stream is the remastered cut, which adds additional CGI, a handful of confusing, unnecessary and pointless flashbacks, three epilogues that try to explain said flashbacks and a somewhat comical subtitle translation. Its generally pretty good but I couldn’t help but laugh at translations like “you always hurt my ass.”

There’s a point late in the film that crystalizes everything that “Battle Royale” was going for and it doesn’t involve a drop of blood. As Nakagawa and Kawada wait at the temple for the rendezvous, Nakawaga looks back on her life before being brought to the island, remembering that she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life. As she stares into the woods, she says “I thought I was going to have children and grow old. Now, I don’t think that’s the case.” Much like so many people, myself included, think about the future as a phase of their life ends, the sense that she knew she could die, forces all of the students on the island to deal with their unfulfilled futures, the choices they’ve made and more importantly, the things that they never did. “Battle Royale” reduces those regrettable seconds into a flurry of gunfire, flying knives and an ever running river of blood.

Next Class: We board the Serenity to view the entirety of one of the most well loved cult TV shows of all time, Joss Whedon’s sci-fi epic, “Firefly.”

Episode 28- “Operation – Anihilate!” and coming full circle

Episode 28- “Operation – Annihilate!” and coming full circle

Since this project started almost a year ago, I’ve gotten into other corners of the science fiction universe. I started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, jumped into the remake of Dr. Who, nearly finished Battlestar Galactica and continue watching and rewatching The X-Files until there is quite literally nothing new left to explore. Delving into cult shows is a thrill, it’s both exciting and difficult, having to adapt to different rhythms and figure out the voice that the showrunners are trying to portray. Many cult shows, Star Trek included, get off to a rough start and that’s what we love about them. It feels like those who persevere are the only ones that are privy to the light at the end of the tunnel.

So, it’s a little fitting that we complete the journey with “Operation – Annihilate!” If the first season of Star Trek were made today, “The City on the Edge of Forever” would have almost certainly been the season finale, but instead we get a tossed off monster of the week episode, for lack of a better word. That being said, it’s kind of fun, but to me this is an episode that demonstrates perfectly what it’s like to become a devotee to a show that I would never have cared about one year ago.

The Enterprise approaches the planet of Deneva and after failing to make contact with the planet’s inhabitants, Kirk grows concerned. His brother, Sam, and his family is on the planet but before he can start with the rash decision making he enjoys so much, Spock informs him of a rash of space insanity that has been crossing through the area and seems to have the planet in it’s path. Suddenly a ship flies by and before Kirk can intercept it, the craft flies into the sun, leaving behind only cryptic words on how it’s pilot is finally free.

Kirk decides to investigate and organizes a landing party to check out the planet. After being attacked by those who are infected with the space madness, they eventually find Kirk’s brother. Because the producer’s thought we wouldn’t apparently buy into Jim’s brother not looking exactly the same, he is played by Shatner wearing a fake moustache. I wish I were joking.

Sam’s dead and Aurelan, his wife, is in great pain. She explains to Kirk that something has been trying to get into the barricaded room and has already attacked her. She explains that these creatures are ordering everyone they sting to help them to build a space ship so they can leave the planet and continue to infect other systems with their space madness. She dies and the rest of the landing party searches the area to find the creatures, eventually locating them in an abandoned hanger. Made of what appears to be coagulated Jell-O and pancake batter, the aliens hang from the ceiling, buzz, and take extremely high amounts of phaser fire before acknowledging that they feel pain. The team collects a sample and leave, but Spock is stung by one of the creatures.

Lunch meat. Maybe lunch meat.

From here, it’s a pretty typical sci-fi story that I feel like the show has done in some manner before. McCoy figures out that the sting of the creatures implants some sort of impulse in the host, making them want to help out in the building and infecting them with RAGE. Spock breaks out of the sick bay and tries to take the ship back down to Deneva and after he is denied, he tries to procure a way down in the transporter. On Kirk’s orders, he’s stopped but when the captain shows up, Spock tells him that he is going down to collect samples. Since he’s already infected, Kirk says something along the lines of “hey, what’s the worst that could happen?”

So Spock goes back down to the planet and comes to the realization that the space goops are all essentially operating as a hive mind, all serving the greater purpose of space ship building and space madness effecting. Kirk thinks it all makes sense and so that’s just how it goes. McCoy’s efforts in the lab to kill the creatures continue to fail because no one puts two and two together with the whole ship flying into the sun thing, partially because they’ve got a whole hour to fucking kill.

Really, that’s the problem with the whole episode. We’ve got a situation that seems really odd and complicated but by just throwing all the clues together, one realizes that the sun is the key. Of course, it takes the crew a hell of a lot longer to figure that out, and by the time they test it out on Spock, they end up blinding him with ultraviolet light.

It's not a great episode, but we could have had to deal with this.

This leads to the McCoy and Spock moment you may or may not be waiting for. As the Enterprise starts putting up satellites to ray ultraviolet light on the planet and kill the rest of the aliens, Bones mourns his mistakes, saying that Spock was the best first officer that the ship could have had and wishing that he would have treated the Vulcan better, especially when he realizes that the test could have been conducted without blinding his partner.

Ultimately the creatures die, everyone stands around the bridge and Spock’s sight is cured because that’s what happens on this show. There’s some bit about Spock forgetting he had another set of eyelids or something which seems really cheap, but whatever. This has never been a show that inflicts episode-to-episode pain on its characters. They all smile, joke about how McCoy cared about Spock all along and plot a course to next season.

So, it’s a decent enough episode. The threat is pretty campy and the special effects with the monsters on strings are laughable at best, but it’s a lot of fun. I’ve said before that what makes Star Trek work isn’t the monsters or even the story. It’s the earnestness with which it is delivered. No one doubts that this all looks pretty terrible or that the two emotional punches of Kirk’s nephew or Spock going blind isn’t overkill but they just go with it. At this point, you either care about the characters enough to hang on or you don’t.

For me, that’s what’s made the whole show work. There’s an infinite universe and for all the audience cares, there’s just one ship floating around it, checking out all the strangest oddities the galaxy has to offer. It’s a universe built as needed and it works. Coming into Star Trek and looking for the coherency that has built a legion of fans is folly, because it was a universe that was constantly being built in. This wasn’t a show with a bible or a built in finale, but one where the audience was discovering it as the showrunners were. It’s a rare thrill on television and it is something that still connects with a jaded television viewer like myself.

So then, this is the end of the first season. When I originally started, I figured this would be where it all came to a close. Of course, I then ended up buying the rest of the series, all the movies on Blu-Ray, and the J.J. Abrams reboot. So, well, let’s keep going. I’m going to go straight on to season 2 and maybe take a short break for The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan and try to fit the reboot in somewhere over the summer.