The Expanse: Season 1 (Mini-Review)

A “Spaceship Show” for the Grimdark set

So, The Expanse is a “Syfy” TV show that has been billed as “Game of Thrones in Space” (it isn’t really, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have similarities.  The story is supposed to be a more mature, “realistic” look at Science Fiction.  The show is based on a series novels by James S. A. Corey, which according to a quick check on GoodReads, is up to Book 8 in the “mainline” series, although based on GR, it looks like the author has several “gap” novels that fill in various parts of the story and that exist “between” the time-period of the main story.

I’ve not read the novels, but the show is fairly standard.  It weaves three main stories together: a sci-fi noir detective story about a cop trying to find a missing young woman, a political thriller between a potential war between Earth, Mars and “Belters” (those who live & work in the Asteroid Belt), and a “spaceship show” about the survivors of The Canterbury (aka The Cant) who later become the crew of a new ship: The Rocinante (The Roci).  Each of these tales gets woven with the others, although it doesn’t happen until the later episodes (season 1 is 10 episodes long).

Too Dark, Literally & Figuratively.

Is the show any good.  Not really, not unless you like poorly explained character motivations, trite dialogue that is supposed to be edgy, and character deaths just for the sake of “shock” value (the whole “no one is safe–anyone can die at any time” motif).  The problem is that is a fairly conventional TV show masquerading as edgy.  While a few characters do die, it is nothing like what I’ve heard happens on shows like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, and the few deaths that occur, like most in the genre of “Grimdark,” seem mean-spirited and in poor taste.

Also, in order to go for that grimy, noir vibe, they made the filter really dark.  No, I mean really dark–the color pallet is so desaturated that, after 2-3 episodes, you’ll be reaching for your brightness controls to turn them up just to see the action.  It’s a stylistic choice, sure, but a poor one–they do it to emphasize the deficit that Belters and Mars citizens feel that they have to Earth with its open skies and open water, but it just makes the show seem really bland to me–Bladerunner (the original) did the whole “dystopian” vibe better and with more vibrancy and that was 30-40 years ago.

Oh, and as was suggested by an online review on Amazon Prime where I watched it, be sure to turn on Captions.  Not only is some of the dialogue hard to hear/understand, but the “Belters” speak (sometimes) in their own made-up dialect.  Sometimes this dialect sounds like creole and can be understood and sometimes it is completely alien words that are more like a foreign language.  Good idea in theory, but again, in practice, a poor choice.

Good actors, Poor Story

About the only things that I liked in this first season was the “spaceship scenes” and the female characters.  Anytime anyone was in a spaceship, the show was at least watchable.  Somehow, the producers, directors, and writers seem to “get” the whole spaceship, crew interactions, and space drama of the show (except for the intro “sex” scene not 5 mins into the first episode which turned me off initially–again their attempt to be “edgy,” but it just made it feel sophomoric–especially since this follows the noir section which itself seems like a pastiche of other, better dystopias).  All the other times, the show seems forced, pretentious, and decidedly not fun to watch.

really liked the female characters, however, on the show.  For some reason, these seemed like the only real characters on the show.  All of them, from the political diplomat on Earth, to the “Captain” of The Rocinante, to the “former” girlfriend/lover/partner to the noir detective, even down to the “mother” of one of the main characters (who is only in one episode for a few minutes) feel fully realized where the men seem like caricatures is many instances (for the most part–of course, there are exceptions).

Overall Score: C (73-77)

The only reason I didn’t score it lower was because I really like the female characters in the story and the acting overall by the cast.  Had I been grading just the actual material (writing, dialogue, style, plot, etc.), then it would have earned a D (63-67).

Look, I don’t like “Grimdark.”  So any story that features grimdark elements has an uphill battle for me to enjoy it, no matter its success in the mainstream.  It just isn’t what I like–not to read, not to watch, not to consume in any medium.  Will I watch Season 2 which is available on Prime right now?  Yes, probably.  Will I watch it immediately?  No, I’m good for now.  I might pick it back up later this summer, but I think I’ll move on to another “spaceship show” if I can find one.   Will I read the books?  Most assuredly not.  Like Game of Thrones, this one is for a different audience than me–and that’s okay.

As a writer myself, however, I just wished it worked the other way around.  Fair’s fair, after all.

 

Sidney




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Mini-Review: Netflix’s Lost in Space

lost-in-space-stream-netflix-1_filmdaily

Image of Netflix’s Lost in Space, Robot and Will Robinson, Penny and Judy Robinson.  Image Source: Film Daily

A Great Start

So, last week I finished watching Season 1 of Netflix’s Lost in Space, a 10 Episode Science Fiction show reboot of the original 1960s show and the 1990s movie version and I have to say that I really enjoyed it!  I watched it a 2nd time over this weekend in lieu of Avengers Infinity War in order to help take my mind off the car trouble that I had over the weekend and it held up over a 2nd viewing.  It is classic science fiction, but unlike most modern shows (this includes pretty all genres), the science is fairly crucial to the story.  While not overblown or overbearing, the fact that the new show portrays the Robinsons as mostly a family of scientists and doctors (the father is now a marine vet. who is better at combat than at pure science–but even he has his moments), they actually use the skills and knowledge that they are supposed to have in much the same way the detectives and lawyers on Law and Order use their skills find the perpetrator of the crime and use the law to get a conviction.  This makes the show feel grounded and more realistic than other recent sci-fi shows that I like and watch.

Danger, Will Robinson

I won’t go into spoilers, but a certain robot with a certain “catch-phrase” is back and the origin is pretty unique.  The robot is central to the plot, however, so if you’re not a robot person, then you’re not going to like the show because the robot is as much the main character in the show as is Will Robinson.  Sometimes the robot is CGI and sometimes the robot is some sort of “suit.”  While the robot didn’t bother me particularly, I know from at least one YouTube review of the show that one reviewer said that when it was the “suit,” it brought her out of the experience.  I didn’t really notice it myself, so I’ll just say Your Mileage May Vary depending on your tolerance for special effects.  I know it makes a difference as, while I wasn’t born yet when the original show came on, I could never go back and watch reruns of the original show because of the dated nature of the special effects after having seen the special effects in the Star Wars and Star Trek movies.  I really liked all of the characters in the Robinson family–each was made wildly different from one another and it was easy to differentiate between them, but their skill set and knowledge-base complemented each other.  Well done to the writers on clear and effective characterization.

Dr. Smith, I Presume

So, the chief antagonist is Dr. Smith, played by Parker Posey.  Now her character is polarizing: one reviewer loves the character while another reviewer called her character a major problem for the show.  I personally liked the way she played the character.  The way the character was written and the way the story unfolded, I felt like I understood her every motivation.  Again, no spoilers, but they update Dr. Smith’s character into a “modern day” conception of a bad guy.  If there’s a problem with the character, this is where I think it lies.  I’ve said time and again that being the anti-hero doesn’t really work because at some point, the anti-hero/villain is only out for number one and will work against you when their purposes no longer align with yours, and Dr. Smith is the epitome of this philosophy.  What I think is happening is that the dislike/distaste that people feel toward the Dr. Smith character is actually their distaste for the notion that someone would be selfish enough to work against the group for their own ends so ruthlessly (which is what a villain actually does) and their transposing that distaste onto the character/actor.  Again, Your Mileage May Vary, but the “flashbacks” that show Dr. Smith’s earlier actions before crashing with the Robinson’s sufficiently explained why she acted the way she did and I always felt that I understood her motivations even if I didn’t agree with them.

Overall Score: A- (91-92)

Look, I’m not going to lie, I really liked this story.  I like that there’s a lot of science and science-based concepts in it while also retaining quite a few “science fiction” tropes that really make it interesting.  I really like that it isn’t “grim dark” and is more of a family show that kids and adults can enjoy.  I like the characters and felt that all of them (even Dr. Smith) had interesting and sufficient characterization for me to understand why they were doing what they were doing.  The only reason that I didn’t give it a solid was the fact that it did slow down in a couple of places where they were establishing the robot as a “friend” to Will and Will’s decision not to tell his father (originally) about the robot.  Not telling his father was something that seemed like the writers needing it for the plot and not organically from Will’s character because it sets up a situation later on that could have been avoided had Will told his father about it sooner.  Other than that, however, I found the story to be a fun, and interesting ride.  I’m looking forward to Season 2 (fingers crossed as I haven’t heard if it will get another season yet).

Sidney




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Mini-Review: Alien Legion #6

Mind Blown

Although I’ve featured other Alien Legion (AL) issues before, this is the very first AL comic that I ever owned and read.  The others I just happened to have found around town, but this one was so great, that as soon as my eyes spotted anything with the AL logo on it, I immediately went to it and picked it up–and if I had the money, purchased it.  With an Aug. 1988 cover date, I probably would have bought it May/June of 1988 at (the now defunct) Waldenbooks in downtown Chattanooga and it would have been something that I read over the summer of 1988 before school started.  I probably would have been beginning my sophomore year in high-school at that time as well.

Large and in Charge

While the other two AL stories that I’ve review have featured Sarigar, the commander of Nomad Squad, this issue is pretty much a character study on one of Nomad’s toughest characters–Jugger Grimrod.  Jugger is given his own command and while I won’t spoil it–it proves to be pretty memorable.  We get to see Grimrod command soldiers on what appears to be a routine mission, but is anything but and we get to see his reactions–sometimes hilarious–in the face of extreme danger.

Characterization

Jugger Grimrod is very much a character cut from the Logan/Wolverine mythos.  Very much a loner and a hard-talking, fast-living, remorseless killing machine willing to do anything to get the job done.  I’ve always likened Grimrod as a Wolverine in space.  While you don’t learn his back story until later in the comics’ run (my next mini-review will actually focus on a pivotal part of his back story), you don’t really need it.  One thing that the writers actually do for this story is that they give him an advantage and a flaw.  While he is one of the best soldiers out there, he is an enlisted man who hates officers.  In this story, he is promoted to an officer–in essence, he becomes the very thing he hates.  And now he must deal with it.  How he deals with it and the ultimate resolution, I’ll leave you to read, but this small detail causes conflict–both external as he has people whom he’s now responsible for and internal–he has to overcome/deal with being the very thing that he despises (or not overcome/deal with it).

Overall Score: A+

The writing (Carl Potts–Creator/Chuck Dixon–Writer) and the art team (Larry Stroman and Mark Farmer) created a story that really set my imagination on fire as a child.  It was inventive, clever, and fun.  The hero was larger than life and while I couldn’t agree with the character’s ultimate decision at the end of the story, I did understand it.  If you happen across this at a “Flea Market” or “Yard Sale” or “Book Sale” of some kind, and if it is inexpensive, you might consider picking it up for an afternoon of fun reading.

Have a great day!

Sidney



Mini-Review: Alien Legion #1 (Vol. 2)

A New Beginning

Alien Legion #1 (Vol. 2) marks a new beginning for the team.  I’m not sure, but I think I purchased this issue from a spinner in Waldenbooks well before they went of business (when they were still a thriving store).  The cover date is Oct. 1987 and since comics usually went on sale about a month or two prior to their cover date (the date was “fiction” to show how “new”/”fresh” it was), I probably got it in Aug/Sept of 1987, so please forgive me if my memory is a little off.

The basic gist of the comic is that the commander of the Alien Legion squadron, Sarigar, “lost” is squad on what appeared to be a suicide mission and he was the only one to make it out alive . . . or so it seems.  This issue marks the beginning of a new storyline with a new formulation of new team members (I think it also marks a new art team, but don’t quote me on that).

Sarigar For the Win

The focus is squarely on Sarigar in this issue.  There are very few other characters–and they are mostly secondary characters by which the commander gets to show off his characterization as being someone who loves the Legion, but who loved his squad more, and is willing to risk his life to get them back.

Duty and Honor

This issue very much focuses on the idea of “duty” to one’s fallen friends, especially when they might not be as . . . fallen as first supposed.  It also has the idea of “honor” in that Sarigar is too much of a “true” Legionnaire to allow the uniform that he wears be sullied with disgrace by engaging in a bar fight with three bar room bullies.  However, when he takes off the uniform, we get to see just what a complete warrior Sarigar really is–the fight scene is only 2-3 pages long, but Sarigar wipes the floor with them easily.

The only thing I wished was that there was more interaction/story about finding the team than there is currently.  Still, its a really good read and holds up pretty well even after all these years.

Overall Grade: B+

Sidney



Mini-Review: Alien Legion, Vol 1, Issue 14

So, as I try to come to grips with the Ship of Shadows graphic novel that I am writing, I am trying to relearn many of the lessons about graphic storytelling by rereading my comic book collection that I amassed as a teen.  Unfortunately, I weeded the collection down back in the late 90s/early 2000s and lost quite a few issues that would have been good to have.  I kept what I considered were the essentials, however.  So, I decided what better way to wrap my head around writing a graphic novel than by revisiting the comics that I so loved (yes, I know there are books like Scott McCloud’s seminal work on graphic novels–and I even own a couple–but what better way than to actually read the works that I’m trying to write and breakdown what those successful creators have done to really learn the form).

I’ve always liked the concept of Alien Legion ever since I first discovered it in a comic book spinner at Waldenbooks.  The idea of a galactic Foreign Legion spoke to my inner child just coming off the high that was Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  The characters are extremely captivating.  I guess the parallel that I could make would be to have intergalactic Fast and Furious.  Wait, I take that back–that’s not interesting at all, forget I said anything like that–that’s actually a very bad comparison (I say, as I hurriedly scribble down the idea to get it written before someone else does).

In all seriousness, it really is sort of like a “Dirty Dozen” in space.  You have a group of alien soldiers, mostly humanoid, who go on missions.  Being that this is an “Epic” imprint from Marvel (a “darker” imprint than normal Marvel comics published at the time), this allowed them to go into more adult territory.  This particular issue is really unique as it deals with domestic violence and   the effects that it has.  Yes, this is told in such a way that it can be digested in a YA comic, but for 1986 and for a medium that was often marketed to children, this one deals with some pretty revolutionary issues for the time.

While the artwork is a little rough, it is still easy to read and follow the action.  The actual dialogue and story is also well done–I like how it establishes each on of the main characters through action and dialogue.  Captain Sarigar, a snake-like alien, is obviously the protagonist of the story, but I like how he involves two of the more hard-bitten Legionnaires in what is obviously a personal mission based on their reputations for being hard cases.  The story is very well done (for all of the “heavy” themes) and illustrates the dangers of domestic violence, both physically and emotionally to the victim.  For a comic book, it handles the subject matter surprisingly well and still manages to tell a strong story about a brother who, despite his obligations as a Captain in the Legion and a fierce warrior, only wants to protect his sister from an abusive boyfriend.

Overall Grade: B+

Sidney




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Mini-Review: Dark Matter, Season 3 (No Spoilers)

Without realizing it, I finished Dark Matter (DM) Season 3 (S3) last night, and overall, I liked it.  In my mind, it was a little more uneven than the previous two seasons were, but I think it is because they are trying to set-up multiple story threads to touch on in upcoming seasons (if the show has been renew–need to check as I haven’t looked to see if Syfy has renewed it yet).  Otherwise, the season had some ups and downs–more so than in the previous two seasons.

Permadeath & Exit Stage Right
They used death in S3 much as they had done in S2 to emphasize the (I guess) the capriciousness of the universe and to illustrate that they universe that the characters inhabit is a dangerous place.  The problem is, they used the deaths throughout the series, rather than at the traditional places where one might expect it, in order (again, guessing here) to keep viewers on there toes and to emphasize that no character is safe in this narrative.  However, they also had a fairly robust cast of “side characters” who existed in the world for a few episodes (or played a major part), who often left the ship for whatever reason, while others (new ones) would come on-board.  So this gave the episodes a less stable feel and very few characters on the ship were actually stable.  This contributed very much to the uneven feel of the episodes.

No Single Narrative Thread
There were many different plot lines running through DM: S3.  One such plot line (an important one that I won’t spoil) literally got introduced two episodes before the finale.  I think it (and another related “prophecy” plot line) should have placed earlier in the season, perhaps even in the first or second episode, and I think that would have gone a long way to giving the show a consistent plot “through line” to build on throughout the season.  As it was, there were many different elements going on–from double and triple crosses, to colonists rights vs corporate rights, to the idea of a good ruler vs a bad ruler, to searching for vengeance, to surviving, and et. cetera, that it all just came off just a bit jumbled.  A good kind of jumbled (for me, at least, as I love it when plots get convoluted), but still jumbled when compared to something that has a full season long arc that all the episodes have been building to (say, the final season of Star Trek Enterprise or Deep Space Nine).

Humor and Characters
One of the things that I really like about the show is that while DM can be a “dark” show (i.e., perma-death and all that), it isn’t all about blah, blah, world is such a bad place, blah, blah, blah, “Red Wedding,” blah, blah, blah, “hate all my characters, let me kill them all of in horrible ways,” blah, blah, blah.  (Yes, I know that this is a very unsubtle dig at Game of Thrones, but I’ll take any shot I can to restore a more “balanced” view of Fantasy that is more in line with tradition High Fantasy a la Tolkien, than the dreary, grim dark muck that we mostly have right now, even if that includes cheap shots).  DM allows its characters, particularly the character of the Android, but other characters as well, to inhabit an almost comedic space that one might find in a sitcom, rather than a drama.  Make no mistake, this is a sci-fi action show with the requisite space battles, warping, light speed, AI vs human conflict, etc., show that you might expect, but there are some truly hilarious moments that all characters get to participate in.  However, the Android gets to have some of the funniest lines, reminiscent of Data from Star Trek The Next Generation.  The actor’s deadpan delivery makes some of the lines truly laugh out loud funny.

Overall Rating: B (Above Average): Okay, so I was going to give it a B-, but then I got to thinking about all the fun that I had with the characters, especially the Android and I raised the grade slightly.  All it needs is a single through line for the season and less of a “revolving door” secondary character policy–let them stay on for an entire season.

Edit: Just discovered that Syfy has cancelled Dark Matter.  There will be no Season 4.  To be honest, I’m not really surprised, although it has more to do with Syfy than it does with DM.  To me, Syfy is just the television equivalent of EA at this point, with executives who care more about their investors and share prices that their audience.  I learned this the hard way when Syfy cancelled Star Gate: Universe just as it was finding its footing.  It put on the show Alphas as a replacement (only to cancel it after just two seasons).  Too bad, I really liked DM and thought it had room really grow.  I should let anyone know who might be interested in starting it though (a potential minor spoiler, but I don’t really guess it matters now): S3 ends on a cliffhanger (that is now likely to go unresolved).  Just thought you should know.

Mini-Review: Spider-man Homecoming (No Spoilers)

Over the Thanksgiving Break, my family and I watched Spider-man Homecoming (SMH) and we liked it.  It wasn’t our favorite Marvel movie, but it was still fun and exciting.  I thought I’d do a Mini-Review for the blog based on my love of comic book movies, Marvel movies, and Spider-man movies.  This one was very good–not the best–but still very good.

Action AND Humor
One thing that SPH really gets right is the action sequences as well as the humor of the character.  One of the crucial things that filmmakers don’t really get about the character is that Peter Parker is a “sincere” human being having to react to some of the scummiest situations (both in terms of everyday life and over-the-top villainy) that are out there.  His defense mechanism is his ability to turn every situation into a joke or a wise-crack.  Yes, as Spider-man, Peter is insanely powerful and gifted, but it is the humor that helps him deflect much of the trials and tribulations that he goes through.  While not nearly as funny as say, Guardians of the Galaxy, there’s still a bit of that irrepressible mixture of deft humor along with very strong action scenes that help to sell the movie and Tom Holland’s performance of the character.  As much as I disliked the high school stuff (see below), I think that Tom Holland’s performance of Peter Parker might be my favorite so far (I’ll have to reflect more on that as the year ends and I see it more times to be sure).

Straight Outta’ High School
So why isn’t this my favorite of all the Spider-man movies?  In two words: high school.  The filmmakers decided to “reset” Peter as it were, and placed a significant portion of it in Peter’s high school life/activities.  Now, don’t get me wrong, this is where quite a bit of both the tension and the humor comes in, but I’m just not one who really likes (for the most part), high school narratives in movies.  In this case, while well done, these were (again, for the most part) some of the least interesting parts of the movie.  Yes, they were well acted and all the rest, but having collected Spider-man comics during my high school and early college years (freshman & sophomore years), I really think that the true strength of the Peter Parker narrative comes from his struggle to support himself as a young photographer at the Daily Bugle with J. Jonah Jameson.  Yes, I know Peter originally started in high school, but I personally don’t feel that the stories came into their own until his college/work years, and this perception colored my feelings towards the movie.  I liked it, but I would have liked it even more had the filmmakers chosen to “age-up” Peter’s character (as I assume they will in future movies).

Marvel Movie Genres (This would be the YA Movie)
The Marvel movies have been good with mixing different genres into the standard comic book movie formula (well, with the exception of “horror” movies which they don’t seem to want to do even when it is the most appropriate genre–Age of Ultron).  However, this one would be the YA movie, if that’s the case.  Much like movies like The Hunger GamesThe Spiderwick Chronicles, etc., the reliance on such a young cast and the focus on quite a bit of high school drama/activities makes this feel more in line with a YA movie than it does with a typical Marvel movie–not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but something to be aware of.  I should note, however, that the performances by the cast, both younger members and older members, were excellent and well done.  I look forward to their next outing whenever Marvel and Sony team-up again to produce another one.  My only hope is that we move past the high school setting into college and work-life and that they can make that as compelling in the movies as it was in the comics.

Overall Grade: B (Solid performances, action, and humor, dragged down by an over-reliance on high school drama and a bit (not too much, but a definitely bit) of teen angst/drama).

Implications for my Writing: I have to understand that I don’t really like certain genres/things: the “heist” movie, “crime” movies, and apparently “high school” movies.  If I don’t like them, it’s probably not a good idea for me to try to write them in that I probably won’t be able to create a story that is credible and true to the genre because I can’t see past the “flaws” of the genre to do it justice.  There are probably genres that I won’t be successful writing, and the “high school drama” might be one of those genres.

Sidney




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