CASTALIA: Even “Rick and Morty” has a heart under its hideous, Cronenberged exterior

This is the show in a nutshell, actually

Apologies for the long title; it seemed appropriate for what, as tends to be my wont, is a long post. Also, by the way, prepare yourself for spoilers. It’s unavoidable, so I’ll just get the warning out of the way now. Nothing from here on out is going to be marked, so if you don’t want endings spoiled for you, stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

Ah, “Rick and Morty”. For those who don’t know, “Rick and Morty” is an adult sci-fi cartoon about a drunk, cynical mad scientist and his young teenage grandson (fourteen?) going on adventures throughout the multiverse. It is probably the most non-Superversive show on TV right now, and quite possibly the most non-superversive show ever made. It is grim, it is nihilistic, it is mean, it takes every chance it gets to emphasize the pointlessness of existence, and it’s also absolutely, hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny. It is one of the funniest TV shows I’ve ever seen, and one of the cleverest to boot. It confirms something I’ve noted for awhile now: Nihilism can only work in the contexts of comedy or horror. You either laugh in the face of the void or you scream at it, but one thing you aren’t is happy about it.

“Rick and Morty” is what “Futurama” turns into after the writers all survive their suicide attempts. The biggest difference is in emotional emphasis: “Rick and Morty” emphasizes the cynicism and chaos of it all, while “Futurama” tends to focus on the beating heart it wears very much on its sleeve. Continue reading

Pokemon, Go!

poka - pokemon_go_logo

At Boy Scout camp, we had no reception. To use the Internet, we had to go to a narrow span of space inside the staff lounge and stand on one foot while leaning to the north, which was the only place the WIFI worked. I did this once a day to check my email, and, occasionally, I looked at a newsfeed to see if the outer world was still there. It was here, while balanced precariously in a northerly direction, that I saw the headline:

Pokemon Go More Popular Than Porn.

This was my introduction to Pokemon Go.

At first, I confused this with Pokemon Sun and Moon, the new DS game my kids have been waiting for. It took a little while before I realized that this was, actually, something new. Very new.

This was like nothing that had ever been done before.


Ash Ketchum gets off to a rocky start

but almost two decades later, he’s still going strong!

A bit of history:

My first encounter with Pokemon was, well, probably before you heard of  it.

Back in the late 90s, I wrote for a briefly-existent magazine called Animefantastique. It was put out by the folks that publish Cimemafantastique magazine. They wanted to cover anime for the American audience, but maybe they started too soon, as it was not yet as big as it would be a few years later. So the magazine did not last long. My last article for them did not even get published.

My last article was on this new-fangled thing called Pokemon.

Poka - pika

A scene from the very episode my sister-in-law translated for me

So early in the Pokemon phenomena was this that, in order to review the TV show, I had to get my Japanese sister-in-law to translate an episode. It had not yet been released in English. This was before the release of the first movie, which came out in 1999, I believe.

Poka - Pokemon_the_First_Movie

This movie introduced Mewtwo.

Mew is cuter.

As part of my article, I interviewed the head of 4Kids Entertainment, the company that was bringing Pokemon to American. In the conversation, I asked him if he thought that Pokemon might make a big splash and be popular for a year or two. He told me that a year or two was nothing. Shows like Power Rangers and Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles had maintained their popularity for four or five years. 4Kids had high hopes.

Turns out, they were right! More right than any of us could have foreseen!

(Including them. Apparently, in 2005, 4Kids did not renew their contract to be the American distributor of Pokemon. Maybe they thought the fad was over. Poor guys.)

Then, when my eldest son was three, his godfather lent him 72 episodes of Pokemon. Almost the first two seasons, I think.

It was love at first view!

poka friends

Love at first sight–unlike Ash and Pikachu,

who did not get along at first.

I remember the day I heard pitiful wailing coming from downstairs. I ran down. My three-year-old was in tears. Rushing to his side, I could find no injury. Eventually, the mainly-pre-lingual boy (he learned to talk quite late) was able to communicate to me:

Butterfree had gone away.

Poka caterpie


Ash’s first catch.

In the TV show Pokemon, ten-year-old Ash Ketchum’s first Pokemon catch, after he and Pikachu set out on their Poka-journey, was a Caterpie. Caterpie evolved into Metapod, who has the ultimate technique of harden, as in hardening its cocoon-like outer shell.


“Harden, Metapod! Harden!”

Metapod then evolved into Butterfree, a cool butterfly pokamon who could do actually effective attacks, like put people to sleep. Eventually, however, the day came when Butterfree was mature enough that it was its time to go off with a flock of other Butterfrees, to do whatever Butterfrees do that lead to little Caterpies.

So Ash had to let his very first catch go.

poka - butterfree

And my three-year-old son cried.

It was the first time he had ever been upset by something that was not a concrete problem. I was impressed that he was able to comprehend the sadness of the scene enough to be upset by it. It showed he was growing up.

What followed was a childhood steeped in Pokemon.

poka riolu

According to some…this is the best Pokemon of all

My sons watched the show. They hummed the song. They played the card game.   (I won’t even tell you how much I spent on cards one summer. Or about the time that the neighbor’s kid tricked my four year old out of the most expensive card we owned. I stormed right over there and got it back.) They played with toys (many of which they inherited from their cousins, so they were straight from Japan.)

Poka toys

Not our house…but it could be.

Eventually, they even played the video game.

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Iced poka ice cream cake.

We even had Pokemon birthday parties. In the Pokemon TV world, kids leave on their poka-journeys at ten. So both of the talking boys got a Pokemon party for their tenth birthday. I planned Orville’s for a whole year, buying cute plushy pokamon dolls, so that every kid got to unwrap one from pokaball colored paper and take it home. I even made a pokaball ice cream cake.

orvillesbirthday 135

Holding a pokaball — maybe not my best picture.

By Juss’s tenth birthday, I had even found plastic clear and red spheres, that looked like pokaballs to put the plushies into. We went out hiking through the local forests, pretending to spot pokemon, and running off to catch them.

You could say that we played Pokemon Go before it was cool

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Catching Pokemon before it was cool.

Note the riolu in hand.

They lived and breathed Pokemon.

It changed our life.

Orville even invented his own world (Eddaria) with his own version of Pokemon (W-Beasts, short for War Beasts), which he still works on, even today.

Orville 9th birthday

Young magician and his assistant, Turtwig

So, when I read that they had come up with a way to make it so that kids could go outside and catch Pokemon on their own, by combining a video game with GPS geocaching, I thought:

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

Then, the stories started pouring in.

First the horror stories: Two people walked off a cliff and were badly injured trying to catch a Pokemon. Someone got pulled over by the cops for speeding—trying to catch the Pokemon you could only catch at 88 miles per hour. People walking into traffic without paying attention.

But then came the good stories.

People getting out of the house. People going to seminaries and churches. One seminary had a Pokemon Go event and reported six conversions.

Bestselling author John Ringo wrote a very touching piece about the way that getting out and hunting Pokemon changed his health and his life.

There are even dog shelters that that will let your walk their dogs while you play (so you don’t look too stupid out there on your own. Helps the dogs, too.)

But the people who are the happiest are young men, a bit like my sons, who grew up with Pokemon, watching it, playing the card game or the video game—watching someone else journeying around to capture pokamon.

And now, they can do it themselves.

The joy on the faces of young men in their twenties who I have spoken to about this game…I’ve almost never seen anything like it.

And to hear modern young geeks talking about the hours spent hiking or the distant they have biked.

poka exercise

Exercising geeks. Almost a miracle, in and of itself.

The first thing my kids discussed when they heard about the game was how long you could keep it interesting. Pokemon Go has about 150 pokamon, but currently there are something like 721 pokemon in the game/TV background.

That promises a lot of later releases.

“And then they could introduce breeding,” said my younger son, who has spent serious amounts of time trying to breed Pokemon on his DS to get just the one he wanted.

Being able to both walk out and catch pokamon…and get new varieties by breeding the ones you catch with people you meet on the street…that has potential.

And then, there is Team Rocket. Who would not want virtual spies stealign their hard-won Pokemon. Not to mention that Giovanni could easily use Pokemon Go to carry out his plan of world domination!

poka - israeli

Pokamon are everywhere. The president of Isreal had to call for security when this member of Team Rocket showed up in his office.

Giovanni even cries out “Go! Go!” in his theme song. Clearly he forsaw Pokemon Go over a decade ago!


Giovanni of Team Rocket.  

His theme song is one of my favorite songs. Cool lyrics:

“I was born to rule the world.

“There’ll be world domination, complete obliteration

“of all who now defy me!

“It will all be mine, power so divine

I will tell the sun to shine

On only me!”

Oddly, my kids are not interested in Pokemon Go. Probably because they don’t have smart phones. But I suspect it is just a matter of time. Sooner or later, someone in the house will get a hold of the game, and a new chapter of Pokmeon adventures will enter our lives.


Gotta Catch Them All!


Finished: “Stranger Things”

My thoughts:

The logo feels very “Spielburg-y” too.

This show is way better than it has any right to be, meaning, it’s AWESOME.

If I had to describe it, I’d say “Basically every 80’s genre movie ever made rolled into one”. You can see shades of “E.T.”, “The Goonies”, “Poltergeist”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, “Alien”, “Predator”, the John Carpenter oeuvre, and even “Half-Life”, of all things (which isn’t eighties, but hey, whatever). You can even sprinkle some John Hughes type stuff in there thanks to a subplot involving the dating drama of one of the main characters.

But two things make this really shine:

1) It isn’t just a homage to 80’s movies. I think a lot of reviewers get this sort of wrong. I came into this series not having seen too many of its influences (I’ve never even seen “Alien” or “Close Encounters”), and I was still highly entertained and impressed.There are no near quotes followed by a wink. Nobody says something cheesy like “What, you think this is some sort of movie”? Nobody says “We’ll be just like the Goonies!” This IS an 80’s movie that just so happened to be made in 2016.

2) More importantly, it’s incredibly well executed.

“Stranger Things” is eight episodes long, and let me tell you, “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” – especially the latter – would have benefited greatly from the narrative focus. There isn’t a wasted moment. Pacing is arguably the most difficult part of writing. Even great authors struggle with it. Tolkien struggled with it. As the saying goes, even good Homer nods.

“Stranger Things” never nods. The pacing is flawless. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a show or movie this good at heightening suspense or tension since “Jaws” (Hey, another movie I forgot!). Each new twist and turn tightens the screws, sometimes subtly, sometimes more overtly. There isn’t a wasted moment – everything that happens not only furthers the development of characters but also the overall plot.

Awwww. Admit it, he’s adorable.

And the characters! “Stranger Things” is an eight hour movie, and where that extra time is most apparent is in the character development. All of the main characters are three-dimensional people with flaws and virtues, and all of them have full character arcs. They’re recognizable as real people. Of particular note are the exceptional performances by the child actors. They take four characters that can easily have been simple stereotypes or archetypes and turn them into complex human beings with unique roles on their team that go a step beyond “The Leader”, “The Skeptic”, “The Comic Relief” and “The Psychic”. The character of Dustin in particular (who, let’s face it, is adorable) impressed me; he looked to be a standard comic relief “third wheel” type character, like Chunk in “The Goonies”, and instead ended up being something more: The smartest, the most level-headed, the most mature, and the most self-aware of the four man child band, without ever losing his endearing goofiness.

Don’t make El angry.

Actually, let’s talk about the number four in that band: Eleven, also known as El, played by Millie Bobby Brown. What an amazing performance, for any age. El is given a limited vocabulary, but it’s a marvel to see how much Brown manages to communicate with an expression. El’s attempts to communicate with the other characters from such an alien mindset is practically an acting masterclass. Brown’s facial expressions and body language communicate more than pages of dialogue often could, and she is the surprising dark horse winner for the coveted award of best performance on the show. She was so good that I hope she gets some awards love come nominating season (she won’t, though).

Of the teen characters, the stand out was Steve, who started out as the typical douchebag boyfriend of one of the other main characters but as the season progressed developed into something more, and without ever betraying what made his character unique in the first place. The end result of his character arc is one of the show’s biggest and most impressive surprises, yet another case of taking a character who could easily have been a two-dimensional archetype and turning him into a complex three-dimensional human being.

Her face for the majority of the show.

As for the adults, Winona Rider gets a lot of billing because she’s Winona Rider and the biggest star in the whole cast, but of everyone there she probably gives the worst performance, which is saying something. Rider is engaging but starts off as a very one note “hysterical mother”. By the end of the season she’s showed off more of her acting chops, but due to the hyper-focused nature of her plot arc she’s probably the least interesting of the main characters. The star here is Hopper, played to absolute perfection by David Harbour. Hopper is the Chief of Police, who starts off his odyssey looking like a drunken, possibly drug-addicted loser but who in time is revealed to be a competent investigator motivated by personal tragedy and guilt. The disappearance of Will at the start of the series sparks Hopper into working harder than it is clear he’s worked in years. Hopper’s backstory is revealed in pieces throughout the season, and by the time the credits roll in the finale it becomes completely clear why, exactly, Hopper is so invested in the fate of Will.

And, yes, I was very moved by the climax. Were I the type of person to do such things, I would say that during one particularly emotional moment I might have shed a single, manly tear. For a show to have that sort of effect on me is very, very rare. I need to be really, REALLY invested in the characters for that sort of blatant emotional manipulation to work, and I was.

Oh yeah, before I forget: The show is EXTREMELY superversive, and not only that, it’s superversive while working in genres known to be precisely the opposite. As I mentioned previously there’s this wonderful, subtle theme about the importance of personal, human connections as opposed to cold government statistics. The selflessness and bravery of the main characters, particularly the kids, is a breath of fresh air in a world of anti-heroes and gray morality. These are people that we’re not only supposed to root for because the plot tells us to but who we WANT to root for because they’re people we want to see succeed. How’s that for a change?

So, is the show flawless? Well, what do you think? Nothing is flawless. I criticized “Watership Down”. Heck, in this thread I criticized “The Lord of the Rings” and Homer. If I was to nitpick “Stranger Things” I’d say that the ending of El’s character arc was telegraphed a little too loudly, and Winona Rider’s performance didn’t really come together until maybe halfway into the series. For all of its nuanced characters, the villains are very “cardboard cutout”, government agents who torture young children and drive people insane for shadowy, insidious reasons. Of that four man child band the “Skeptic”, a black child named Lucas, doesn’t do as much to distinguish himself as the other three and ends up falling back the most into his archetype. The kids in general come off as a little bit too competent.

Nothing uncomfortable going on here.

But honestly, that’s pretty much it. In the comments of the previous thread I criticized the actions of one of the main characters, but in the context of the story they made perfect sense, so it’s not really a criticism of the show so much as a testament to the fact that I was invested enough in the character to be disappointed in his decisions. I can’t think of anything else about it that bothered me. For what it was – an eight hour sci-fi/horror movie done in the style of an 80’s pulp film – it was almost perfectly executed. Practically immediately became one of my all-time favorite shows. I can’t recommend it enough.

Robotech – The Masters

This is part 2 of 5 dealing with the Robotech novelizations. Part 1 is here.

Final NightmareI mentioned last week that Robotech, for all its vilification in anime circles, began life as an attempt to bring anime to the US without hacking it up into oblivion. (I haven’t ever actually watched Science Ninja Team Gatchaman/Battle for the Planets, but apparently what was done to that was pretty atrocious.) The mandates of TV syndication in the 1980s meant that Super Dimensional Fortress Macross didn’t have enough episodes to air in the US, and so Carl Macek of Harmony Gold brought two other series and rewrote the three to be a single story. TV wise, Macross made it through with the fewest changes; the other two series received the bulk of the changes.

This is doubly true in the novelizations. The second generation of Robotech, called “The Masters” or “The Southern Cross” depending on who you ask, started life as an rewrite of a relatively unsuccessful series (Super Dimensional Calvary Southern Cross. Man, I love 1980s anime names.) from the people that made Macross originally.  On TV, it always felt to me a little aimless; in the books, McKinney (A hive mind made up of James Luceno and Brian Daley) significantly fleshes out the story and pretty deftly uses a weaker entry to set up the third generation of Robotech.

The Masters begins a little less than two decades after Macross ends. The war with the Zentraedi is over, and victory has been had a terrible cost. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers for Macross here, but trust me, humanity pays for its victory.) In order to avoid another war, it’s been determined that a diplomatic mission will be sent to to Tyrol, the homeworld of the Robotech Masters, creators of the Zentraedi and of the Protoculture Matrix, the near-infinite source of energy that powered Tyrolian civilization, remains undiscovered in the sealed engines of the SDF-1. The Robotech Defense Force has reorganized itself into two bodies, the Robotech Expeditionary Force and the Armies of the Southern Cross. The REF’s was tasked with taking the newly constructed SDF-3 making peace with the Robotech Masters; unfortunately, Tyrol is a long way away and by the time Rick, Lisa, and the other members of the REF arrive in Tyrol’s space, they find that the Masters have been long gone. (The REF’s story is told in The Sentinels novels.)

Back on Earth, the Armies of the Southern Cross (Tyrol is located in the Southern Cross constellation) have been left to hold down the fort. The Masters saga follows the 15th Tactical Corps, a misfit squadron of veritech hovertank pilots commanded by Dana Sterling. Dana, is, frankly, an obnoxious wench, both to the reader and to the characters she interacts with, but she’s the daughter of two heroes of the first Robotech War (Ace veritech pilot Max Sterling and Zentraedi ace Miriya Parino, the first defector from the Zentraedi.) and a relatively talented squadron leader,  so the ASC felt it necessary to keep her around. And it’s a good thing, ultimately; as the only child of a human and Zentraedi, Dana Sterling is somehow special. The Zentraedi are a largely artificial race, engineered and altered by the Robotech Masters through the use of Protoculture, and Dana’s human-Zentraedi heritage means she has a connection a shadowy quasi-intelligence lurking in the depths of the Protoculture Matrix.

When the Robotech Masters arrive in orbit, they are in dire straits. The creator the Protoculture Matrix, a rogue Robotech Master by the name of Zor, hid the matrix in the engines of the SDF-1 and sent it to parts unknown in order to hide it from the Masters, who were using it to fuel their empire. What reserves the Masters had left were largely spent fighting the Invid, a formerly peaceful race betrayed by the Robotech Masters. Without the Protoculture Matrix, the Masters lack the energy to turn back the Invid war machine, and unfortunately for everyone involved, the Protoculture Matrix is derived from the Flower of Life, a now-extinct plant with which the Invid once had a symbiotic relationship. Humans have the Protoculture Matrix, but don’t know it; the Masters need the Protoculture Matrix, but won’t share it; and the Invid, still on the other side of the galaxy but an ever looming threat, are drawn to it, as it is the last remnants of the Flower of Life. The Masters have come to Earth with Zor Prime, a clone of the original scientist, in the hopes of retrieving the Matrix before the Invid can locate it.

These are probably my least favorite books in the whole Robotech saga, and much of that stems from the weak source material. SDF Macross and SDC Southern Cross were part of a “trilogy” of unrelated shows (The third being Super Dimensional Century Orguss) that featured transforming mecha, and wiki mentions that Southern Cross was fairly poorly received. Dana is rebellious and annoying, and I tend to find the mechanical design fairly ugly– which, admittedly, is less of an issue in a novel. But I have an enduring fondness for giant robots, and the Southern Cross mechs leave me a little cold in concept and execution.

So why should you read this? Well, every series has a low spot. (“Spock’s Brain,” anyone?) Luceno and Daley’s machinations do a lot to pull the Masters saga up and elevate it, but ironically, it’s all through really playing up the material from the three other story arcs of Robotech in ways that just rewriting the script of a show wouldn’t allow. The SDF-1’s wreckage, with a slowly decaying Protoculture Matrix inside of it features prominently as a sort of ticking timebomb; the instant the Matrix decays, it will release the seeds of the Flower of Life, drawing the Invid, who will feature prominently in both the third generation and The Sentinels. Dana and Zor Prime give us a window into the mystical aspects of Protoculture that, again, will feature prominently in coming story arcs.

When I first discovered Robotech, my library had books #3 (the midpoint of Macross) and two of the three books of the Masters saga. (#7 and #9, I think.) I remember going from Macross to The Masters and just absolutely hating Dana Sterling, but the growing world of Robotech still swept me in. I had this sort of odd, sick to my stomach feeling when I realized that the Zentraedi and the Masters were not who our heroes really should’ve been worrying about, and that as the Southern Cross fought the Masters, time was passing and leading on to an inevitable doom….

Part of the problem, I think, is that The Masters, which is okay, comes hot on the heals of Macross, which is fantastic. You know, if George Lucas had made The Phantom Menace first, we’d remember it as kind of a stupid movie that spawned a series of movies that would be fantastic, instead of as an insult to our childhoods. The Masters most definitely is not The Phantom Menace, but I do think that some of that is going on here. It’s weaker material sandwiched in between some fantastic and pretty great stuff. Ultimately, it’s still a quick and fun read, and it’s well worth dealing with B level material for the sake of the A+ stuff coming up.

The X-Files, Season 10

The X-Files Season 10Confession time: My first childhood fear was of being abducted by aliens.

Wait, no. It was of the Blob. I saw 1958’s The Blob on a Sunday matinee program when I was probably four or five, and it scared the crap out of me. I started leaving toys all over the floor of my room so that if I got up in the middle of the night, I’d be able to tell if the Blob was in my room because, obviously, if it was, it would have eaten them. It didn’t help with the fact that I knew the Blob was hiding under my bed, but hey. I did what I could.

When I got over the fear of the Blob, I was okay for a little bit, but then stories of alien abduction were all over the place, and that was a more enduring fear. These days, I’m not scared of much beyond high places and centipedes, (because really! What needs that many legs?) but there are still moments where I’ll be laying in bed and think, “What would I do if a Gray alien was peeking through the window right now?” The whole alien abduction/UFO phenomena still hits a nerve with me, and, frankly, I think that’s part of the reason why I loved The X-Files in its hay day. The mythos was scary in a way that little else (outside of the Borg, pre-overuse) was scary.

I didn’t catch the show in its first few seasons. I didn’t actually catch it until the first film came out. But when I think back to the golden days of youth, it’s always Saturday night. I’m playing an SNES rom or MUD over a dial up connection in the living room, and usually I am the only one awake (save for my father, depending on the shift he was on.) Red Dwarf is on around midnight, Stargate SG-1 at1 AM, and The X-Files rounds it out at 2. They’re good memories.

X-Files-UFO-CrashI’m probably late in reviewing season 10 of The X-Files. For whatever reason, I didn’t set the DVR for it. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve never really gotten around to finishing season nine. But I discovered it was On Demand last week and watched all six episodes in the course of a few days. The fact that I, a married, gainfully employed seminarian working on a novel in his spare time managed to watch six episodes of anything in two or three days should probably say volumes. Usually it’s about an episode a night after my wife’s gone to bed; instead, it was several episodes while I gloried in reliving my teenage years.

Season 10 is essentially a microcosm of The X-Files at its peak. In six episodes, we get two mythos-centric episodes bookending it, a monster of the week or two that have a tenuous connection to the mythos, and a couple of monsters of the week that stand on their own. “My Struggle,” the first episode of the season, throws us right back into the mythos by taking us to a new perspective on the Roswell crash and a new perspective on the activity of both the aliens and the Cigarette Smoking Man. It’s actually kind of a Doctor Who-ish regeneration style reboot; we’re picking up where left off, but “My Struggle” changes the entire narrative by recasting the aliens as something far less hostile and the government as something far more hostile. It’s a change that’s interesting, and it’s definitely intended to play into the cultural zeitgeist, but I’m not sure that it’s a change I would have made.

the-x-files-duchovny-were-monsterThe middle of the season, as I said, is a sequence of four more or less standalone episodes. There’s still some character growth, and an arc that’s being followed– Dana’s grief over giving up their son for adoption features prominently– but the episodes are monster of the week episodes, for better or for worse. None of them are truly bad, but there was one– I believe it’s the fifth episode, “Babylon”– that falls short for me.  On the other hand, the third episode, “Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” was fantastic. It’s a light hearted romp that calls to mind season five’s “Bad Blood” and can be summed up quite nicely by Scully’s line halfway through: “I forgot how much fun these cases can be, Mulder.”

It’s all too easy to prey upon nostalgia, and in this age of reboots, it’s all too easy for people to just throw stuff on TV or a movie screen in an attempt to fleece audiences of their cash without putting any effort into it. Pleasingly, while season 10 shares the same highs and lows of the previous iteration of The X-Files, this isn’t the case with the show. It’s not exactly the same show; time has passed, and the world has changed, but we get that same sense of change and passing time from the show. Chris Carter hasn’t just gone back to the old formula without reflecting on it.

The X-Files first run came during the 1990s. We were relatively affluent and the world was relatively peaceful. This second run comes at a time when economies are shaky and the world is in turmoil in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time. If ever there was a time ripe for a pair of heroes searching for the truth through government cover-ups, it’s now, so here’s to hoping season 11 comes alone.

The Expanse: Season 1

The_Expanse_TVRemember, ages ago, when the SyFy channel was called SciFi? Before that terrible rebrand, back when they had not one, but two Stargate shows and Battlestar Galactica? Sometime last year, the SyFy channel woke up, and presumably looked at Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and thought, “Crap, guys. Those shows probably should’ve been on our channel.” I’m not a huge fan of either show, but the popularity and the quality of both is hard to argue with.

So, sometime last year, SyFy started making shows again. They started with the fantastic Killjoys and the okay-but-entertaining Dark Matter, and then they just stuck their arm in the bookshelf and started sweeping off books to adapt. I’m not complaining; I’ve got scifi and fantasy to watch like three or four nights a week right now. I really wasn’t complaining when they grabbed one of my favorite space operas and said, “We’re gonna do this one first!” I was squeeing over The Expanse for months before it aired.

If you haven’t read James S. A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes and its excellent sequels, The Expanse can probably be best described these days as Game of Thrones in space, minus the sex and nihilism, plus a more focused plot. Leviathan Wakes, the first book in the series, and the basis for the first season, follows two main characters: James Holden, the XO on the ice hauler Canterbury and Thomas Miller, a hardboiled cop on the asteroid settlement of Ceres. The solar system is locked in a cold war between Earth and Mars, while the belt and Outer Planets are too poor to be any sort of real power, and are thus roundly abused by both Earth and Mars.

Holden and MillerHolden and Miller’s stories start off separate and unrelated. Holden’s ship picks up a distress signal from a freighter, finds it abandoned, and is attacked by a stealth ship The Canterbury is destroyed, and only Holden and the four other crewmembers who were investigating the freighter survive. While neither Earth nor Mars has the kind of stealth ships that attacked, technology aboard the freighter suggests it was a Martian plot.

Julie MaoMiller is tasked with finding the heiress of a major corporation, Julie Mao. Julie’s run away from home and joined up with the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a loose group “belters” whose MO runs from legitimate politics to PLO-style terrorism. Introduced to us in the prologue of both the book and the show, Julie was onboard the freighter that got Holden and his crew in trouble, and gives us our first (and only, for a long time) at the horrible secret that starts all this trouble. (And it is horrible.)

The TV series throws in a third viewpoint, pulling in a major character from later books to show us the planetary side of the politics earlier. Chrisjen Avasarala, high level UN official, is caught up trying to manage the fallout from the Canterbury‘s destruction and unravel the who or what caused the solar system’s delicate balance of power to fall apart.

The Expanse is a complicated series in some ways. Like I said, it never meanders the way that Game of Thrones does, but it’s hard to sum up the plot in a few paragraphs and do it justice.

Avasarala and BelterAs a fan of the books, I was mostly quite pleased with the series. Avasarala’s early inclusion works, and though the dictates of TV mean they’ve had to clean up her language significantly (She has two modes of communication: sweet and grandmotherly or cold blooded and cursing like a sailor.), she’s expertly played by Shohreh Aghdashloo. Also wonderful is Thomas Jane’s Miller, who plays the hardboiled detective bit in a way that would make Bogart proud. Fringe and Mad Men‘s Jared Harris rounds out the excellent performances as OPA leader Anderson Dawes. Most everyone else does their job well, but these three are the stand outs, and in one or two cases, there are some glaringly strange choices. Amos, one of Holden’s crew, is in his late 40s or so in the books; on TV, he’s maybe late 20s? Because TV. Dawes and MillerNaomi (Another member of Holden’s crew) is also a little younger than I pictured her, but I can roll with that. In Amos’ case, the books paint the picture of a man who has a hard life and a checkered past who has since gone straight as best he can, and relies on his friends to keep on that straight path. Rob him of twenty years, and he just seems a little sociopathic. We still get glimpses of that hard life, but it’s not coming out quite right.

As long as we’re on weird decisions, the weirdest one was the decision to eschew the one-book-per-season format that Game of Thrones uses. The Expanse ends on an appropriately dramatic cliffhanger,  but it’s only about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through Leviathan Wakes. I’d spent most of the season expecting it to move faster than it was, and about three episodes from the end I’d figured they’d decided to fold certain events into the events of Caliban’s War, because you know what? That might actually make sense. Caliban’s War felt a little bit like a digression, and folding the end of Leviathan Wakes into it might make it more organic. And they still might do that, but if season 2 treats the source material the way season 1 did, with similar pacing, the climax of Leviathan Wakes is going to come at an odd moment. Something bizarre and crazy and very season finale-ish is going to happen like two to three episodes in.

So that’s the bad. The good? Besides outstanding performances (and good performances from everyone else) Syfy’s put a lot of effort into the show. There are lots of wonderful little nuances and wise production decisions. I was, for example, assuming that the show was going to be terribly violent, and probably carry a TV-MA more often than not, because the thing that starts all this off is pretty damn squicky. Squicky enough that the authors (Corey is two people) regretted some of it. But they wisely decided to pull from later imagery that’s toned down and more alien, and one particularly criticized feature of Leviathan’s Wake is absent altogether right now.

RocinanteThe books frequently touch on the consequences of living in space. Martians are taller and thinner than Earth born humans, but not terribly so, where as Belters are tall, gangly creatures that could never live on Earth and likely not on Mars. Obviously, it’d be hard to cast every Belter in the show with a tall, gangly actor, so SyFy got a few and threw in some dialogue early on about how one day, all the Belters would look like that. It’s a good compromise. The Expanse is a world without artificial gravity, and again, it would be prohibitively expensive to film a show with a ton of scenes in zero gee, but they give us enough to know it’s there, and give us thrust gravity, spin gravity (complete with coriolis!), or magnetic boots elsewhere. And spaceships. Man. It’s so nice to see spaceships in a show again. Spaceships, and torpedoes, and missiles, and point defense cannons. It does my heart good. I’m anxiously awaiting season 2, even though I know what’s going to happen for like the next five or six seasons.

Firefly’s Dark Heart of Gold

I am referring, of course, to the “Firefly” episode “Heart of Gold”, the episode that takes the TV trope “hooker with a heart of gold” to its logical extreme. If you want to know how far back the Hugo rot goes, just remember that THIS, the worst episode of the entire series, got a Hugo nomination*, but neither of its two best episodes, “Out of Gas” and “Objects in Space”, managed to snag the honor. Ugh.

The whole episode is just so, so uncomfortable. The takeaway message is that if you believe in family and traditional values you are a murderous psychopath bent on the total subjugation of women as your slaves. Oh yeah, and for it to really count you need to be a man. Women can only be blamed insofar as they ally themselves with the menfolk.

At least in “Safe”, an episode I seem to like more than most people (the one that ends with Simon sermonizing about “bigotry” and “hatred”?), the show took a little bit more care to evoke a sort of Salem-style village. The people weren’t “normal”. In “Heart of Gold” there’s nothing unusual about the planet accept that the men are all awful.

Oh, and let’s not forget the aforementioned hookers. These hookers are the exact opposite of the men of the planet. They’re not “just” hookers. They ask Shepard Book to pray for them. They look out for each other, and the head whore, Nandi, protects them. Really, they’re all just good, decent folks making a living with sex. Just like how all actual hookers do Bible readings on Sundays and form little mini-families within their harems! The hookers are really just as good or better than the rest of us. If you’re a man, definitely better.

One might note that the whole problem arises specifically because they’re hookers. Ironically, were the baby born while the mother was part of a stable monogamous family the whole problem would actually have never existed in the first place. Maybe the family is a good thing after all? Possibly?

Whedon did a mostly excellent job in “Firefly” of assuming the truth of libertarianism without pushing it (“Our Mrs. Reynolds” stands out well in that regard, actually, and as a kind of spiritual predecessor). “Heart of Gold”, along with the not-quite-as-bad-but-still-bothersome “Safe”, actively pushes its liberal message. Yes, liberal, not libertarian: There is a clear difference.

To make the message of “Heart of Gold” libertarian as opposed to liberal, the evil patriarchal men couldn’t be the villains. The villains would have to be the evil government trying to shut down a whorehouse even though that’s the only place where many of these girls can find work, and they’ll be sending them to the streets. And when the whorehouse refuses to back down they send in troops, and Mal and team rush in to defend it in the name of free enterprise. It would also help the episode generally if the whores were portrayed as less pure-hearted and good and more pathetic and in at least some cases outright manipulative.

THAT is a message of freedom vs. government takeover. Mal’s position wouldn’t necessarily be one I share in this case, but it’s at least a libertarian position. “Heart of Gold”‘s conceit is just too ridiculous for me to take seriously. The idea that babies are sometimes better off being raised by whores in a whorehouse is downright risible, as is the idea that believing in the importance of the traditional family turns you into a maniac. What the mother SHOULD have done at the end is either tried to get out of the whorehouse somewhere and into respectable work or else tried to get the baby adopted by somebody else.

I can easily imagine a scene where Mal takes mother and child onto Serenity and does like they offered to do with Saffron in “Our Mrs. Reynolds”, and drops them onto a rich planet to set them up with work. But instead it is implied that Petaline becomes the new queen of the whores after Nandi’s death, thus actively running a business that has literally threatened all of their lives and gotten one of them flat-out killed.

“Heart of Gold” isn’t exactly bad, per se. As usual the episode has superb dialogue with some characteristically memorable one-liners (“They’re whores.” “I’m in.”), and some of the later jokes land well. It’s by far the show’s weakest episode though, and an excellent example of how betraying the viewpoint of your story to preach a specific message does no good for either your story or your message. I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how “Out of Gas” or “Objects in Space” never got nominated. THOSE are absolute masterpieces.

(As for “Safe”, “Safe” is a perfectly fine episode until Whedon has the villagers literally try to burn River as a witch while Simon yells at them for their “bigotry” and “hatred”, as if we’re watching the climax of “The Crucible”. The episode could have been easily salvaged if, instead of burning River even if it meant losing Simon, the villagers simply told Simon that if he tried anything funny they would kill River. So Simon concocts an escape attempt, the villagers catch them, and a standoff ensues with somebody in the crowd getting a gun pointed at River while Simon is armed. Surrounded, it seems as if they will have no choice but to give up, when….BAM! Big Damn Heroes. No awkwardly shoehorned messages needed.)