Happy New Year the Science Fiction Way

Science/Fantasy Monday: Happy New Year the Science Fiction Way

Happy New Year to everyone!

On Saturday night, as I was waiting to welcome the new year, I kept thinking about my two favorite science fiction new year’s events: The pilot episode of Futurama, and the Doctor Who made-for-tv movie from 1996.  And I suddenly I found myself trying desperately to remember what other tv shows featured an important New Year’s Eve related episode.  I could only come up with a couple more.  Here’s what I came up with:

Doctor Who (made-for-tv movie, 1996):

In this movie, the only on-air portrayal of the 8th Doctor by Paul McGann (though he is featured in many radio dramas and in the comics and tie-in books), the 7th Doctor is killed while attempting to bring the remains of the (supposedly executed) Master back home to Gallifrey, and the 8th Doctor awakens in a hospital on New Year’s Eve in 1999.  While the Master (in the form of a strange ooze) takes over the body of an EMT with plans to eventually take over the Doctor’s body instead, the Doctor finds himself working with a medical doctor, Grace Holloway to stop the Master and save the world (again)… just in time to ring in the New Millennium.

Futurama – “Space Pilot 3000” (Season 1, Ep 1, 1999):

This, the pilot episode of Futurama, began us on one of the greatest animated televisions shows of all time, as Philip J. Fry, hapless pizza delivery boy, falls into a cryogenic chamber on New Year’s Eve 1999 and awakens on New Year’s Eve 2999.  Having found himself alone in the future, Fry quickly befriends the smart-ass robot Bender and the tough one-eyed woman Leela, and finds a new job of a delivery boy working for his Great-great-great(ad infinitum)-nephew Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth.  And thus, a legend was born.

Babylon 5 – “Chrysalis” (Season 1, Ep 22, 1994):

This was a BIG episode, folks.  It was the finale of the first season of Babylon 5, and almost every single scene in this relentlessly paced episode was vitally important to the complex main story arc.  This is the episode the kicks off all the major events that will comprise the main conflicts of season 2 and onward.  Mollari makes his infamous devil’s deal with Morden, leading to the deaths of 10,000 Narns, and leading G’kar to leave the station to investigate.  The President of Earth is assassinated, making the corrupt Vice President Morgan Clark President.  And Delenn enters the cocoon that will eventually lead to her transformation from a pure Minbari to a Minbari-human hybrid.  Like I said, folks: this was a BIG episode.

X-Files – “Millennium” (Season 7, Ep 4, 1999):

And speaking of big episodes: this episode of X-Files was big for a couple reasons.  First, it was a cross-over episode with Millennium, Chris Carter’s other big conspiracy theory mystery tv show, which followed ex-FBI agent Frank Black as he investigated the mysterious criminal actions of the shadowy Millennium Group.  This cross-over was important because Millennium had been unceremoniously canceled and Chris Carter wanted to give the show some kind of closure.  But the REAL importance of this episode, as all true fans know, comes from the ending of the episode.  After the events have been wrapped up, with Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve playing on a television in the background, Mulder and Scully share their first on-screen kiss.  The thing we’d been waiting for practically since the pilot episode in 1993.

I keep thinking there have to be more science fiction episodes that feature New Year’s Eve, but I just can’t remember anymore!  If you can think of any I’m missing, please let me know!

In other New Year’s news:

2011 was an interesting year for me.  After graduating with my Master’s degree in 2010, failing to get into a PhD program that year, and going through a bad depression cycle in the second half of 2010, I entered 2011 with very few expectations and quite a lot of bitterness and cynicism.  But 2011 proved an important year for me.  I traveled a lot to visit friends one of whom I had not seen in 3 years!  I went to Disneyland for the first time! I got my footing in blog-writing, and was even featured on WordPress’s front page “Freshly Pressed.”  I was FINALLY accepting into a PhD program in the Spring, and then began the coursework for that PhD program in the Fall.  Two of my papers were published in a brand new small academic journal at University of Houston.  And over the summer, I did something I had begun to fear I would never do I finished a whole draft a novel.

I cannot begin to explain how grateful I am to the Powers That Be that 2011 ended up being a much better year than I thought it would be.

And now I have big plans to make 2012 just as good, or even better.  the Spring 2012 semester will be the first big sign of whether I can actually survive the PhD program or not.  One of my papers will be published in a larger, fairly-well-known academic journal in Summer 2012.  And I plan to finish revisions on the second draft of the novel I finished writing last year.  And that’s all for starters.

Now, if only I get a date on occasion, I’d be all set… ^__^

In any case, I have high hopes for 2012, and I hope you all to do.  Hope can be difficult, and sometimes silly, but sometimes it makes all the difference, and sometimes it’s the only thing we have.  So here’s hoping!

If you’d like to share some of your hopes/plans for 2012, please feel free! I’d love to hear about them!

We Want to Believe in X-Files 3

Science/Fantasy Monday: We Want to Believe in X-Files 3

Calling on Science Fiction fans and X-Philes! There’s a new Twitter campaign to get an X-Files 3 movie greenlit.  Admittedly, even I don’t really believe that trending on Twitter is going to directly cause 20th Century Fox to make a new movie, BUT if we can get this hashtag: #XF3 to Trend on Twitter perhaps the producers will realize that there are enough of us fans out there still who are willing to pay money to see another X-Files movie, making it worthwhile for them to at least consider it.

The organization of this campaign is thanks to the folks at X-Files News.com, and you can go here for an explanation of how the campaign is working (it started last night), and here for the latest “Twitter Power Window” schedules, during which they are trying to get everyone in the world to Tweet in the same 2-hour window.

However, the hope is that people will continue to Tweet using the #XF3 hashtag from now until Hawaii hits midnight on Nov 22nd.

So come on folks! Come join the fun! Flood @20thcenturyfox with more #XF3 tweets than they know what to do with, and show them that the Philes are still alive and well.  We’re ready and willing to spend money on a new movie if the producers are.  You know we haven’t had enough Mulder and Scully yet! So make sure Twitter knows it!

We want to come back!

Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2

Science/Fantasy Monday: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2

Last Monday, I started my personal  SciFi Top 10 list with Part 1, which included numbers 10-7.  This Monday I present Part 2, with numbers 6-3.  And next Monday, I will finish off the list with the first and second places.  If you missed the beginning of the list, I suggest you dash back real quick and skim that.  You can find it here: Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 1.

Now, before I get into it, I feel I should warn some people about something.  I am about to incur the wrath of many people, but I’d like a chance to preemptively defend myself.  Battlestar Galactica is NOT on this list.  This is not an intentional insult to any fans.  I simply have NOT seen it, and so can’t legitimately make any claims about it one way or the other (when I say I have it seen it, I mean the new version; I watched the original and enjoyed it as a kid, but still wouldn’t put it in a top 10).  I have heard it is very good, and I believe it.  But folks, I’m in grad school, and I simply have not had the time to watch it.  I’ll get around to it one of these days, at which point I might have to change my Top 10 list.  Until then, however, please do not be insulted, okay?  Okay.

Moving on.  Here is my Top 10 SciFi Television Shows, Pt 2:

#6: Firefly

Speaking of incurring the wrath of fans… some people are going to pissed that Firefly is not higher up the list.  As I was working on the list, I wrestled with this show; it was both higher and lower on the list at various points.  I finally settled on #6 because it is an fantastic show, and it definitely deserved to be higher than the bottom 3, but I cannot make the argument (as some people have tried) that it is the best scifi ever.  That is not to say, however, that it isn’t completely awesome.  Because it is.

Created by Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, Firefly takes place in a future where humans have colonized many planets.  The “core” planets are high-tech, wealthy, and governed by the Alliance (a mix of American and Chinese culture), but the out-lying planets are reminiscent of the pioneer culture of the American West.  Before the show starts, there was a war between the Alliance and the rebel “Browncoats,” who tried to halt the Alliance’s power over the outlying planets.  The Browncoats lost.  As the show opens, former Browncoat Mal Reynolds captains the firefly-class spaceship Serenity, with a crew: fellow Browncoat Zoe, Zoe’s husband and the pilot, Wash, engineer Kaylee, gun-hand Jayne, the Companion Inara, the preacher Book, and Simon and River – a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance.  Firefly only lasted 13 episodes, plus an awesome movie.  The mixture of spaghetti western with space opera was a brilliant marriage of styles/themes that led to a fascinating and detailed world construction, and some truly entertaining characters.  The dialogue, as always with Whedon, was sharp, snappy, fast, and often hilarious.  The production values especially the more movie-like camera work were highly impressive. And this little show led to a huge fan following and a reimagining of what could be done with scifi.

#5: The Twilight Zone

I honestly don’t know how any list of the best scifi tv shows could NOT include The Twilight ZoneThe Twilight Zone was created by Rod Serling, one of the most influential people in early television, who had serious love for science fiction and horror, and strongly believed in the power of scifi to reveal social problems and promote social change.  The Twilight Zone, as I assume most people know, was a series of individual, self-contained episodes with scifi, fantasy, and horror themes, which usually ended with a surprising, ironic, or macabre twist.  The original series ran from 1959 to 1964, and spawned two revivals, one from 1985-1989, and one from 2002-2003.

As a sign of how impressive and hard-working Serling was, he wrote a full two-thirds of the 156 episodes of the original series.  As a sign of how impressive and serious the show itself was, the other writers including some of the biggest names in scifi and horror, including Charles Beaumont, Earl Hamner, Jr., George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Reginald Rose, Jerry Sohl, and two of the most brilliant prolific scifi writers ever: Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.  These writers often used scifi as a vehicle for social commentary, using plot devices, styles, and implicit argument to get past the censors of the time who often removed any hint of social commentary from mainstream dramas.  Some of the most popular themes were nuclear war, McCarthyism, prejudice, mass hysteria, the dangers of scientific advancement, etc.  The Twilight Zone gave birth to some of the most iconic and most-parodied scenes in scifi tv, including but not limited to the infamous scene of William Shatner spotting a gremlin on the wing of a plane in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”  However, I think my all-time favorite episodes, and two of the most famous are: “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” which shows the lengths humans are willing to go to when they think they are in danger (and asks whether the rumored aliens are the residents of Maple Street are the real monsters), and “It’s a Good Life” in which Billy Mumy (Will Robinson on Lost in Space and Lennier on Babylon 5) plays a child who terrorizes a community with his psychic powers.

This show gave necessary space for some of the biggest writers of the time to try new things and make important social critiques.  It was new and original and provocative.  It is simply impossible to over-estimate the importance and influence that The Twilight Zone had on scifi.

#4: X-Files

Yes, the X-Files.  It HAD to make the Top 5, don’t you think?  Everyone (I think) knows the story.  FBI agent Fox Mulder is obsessed with the X-Files, a group of unsolved cases involved unexplained or paranormal phenomena, which are largely ignored by the rest of the FBI.  Mulder believes in aliens and conspiracy theories and a variety of other paranormal events.  His partner, Dana Scully, who is originally sent to monitor Mulder and report back to her superiors on his behavior, is a medical doctor, a scientist, and the quintessential skeptic. Some of the overarching plot-lines of the series include: an enormous conspiracy to cover-up impending alien colonization and experiments to create human-alien hybrids, clones, and super-soldiers (among other things), as well as Mulder’s continuing search to find his sister, whom he believes to have been abducted by aliens as a child.  At the same time, the show also held to the new-monster-every-week format.

This show had some of the fastest, wordiest, most intelligent dialogue of any show ever.  Though some people (my mother included) complained that it was almost nothing BUT talking, it also had intricate plot-lines, some very intense, exciting, action-oriented episodes, and one of the most complex tv mythologies ever thought up (though Fringe is trying to give it a run for its money).  It ran for 9 seasons (the last of which was, admittedly, a bit weak in parts), produced two movies, and created an enormous cult following that comes close to rivaling that of Star Wars and Star Trek.  It made the phrases “I want to believe” and “The truth is out there” and “Trust no on” cultural touchstones, it gave us some of the most recognizable scifi (or drama) characters ever: Mulder, Scully, The Smoking (or Cancer) Man.  It touched a powerful cultural nerve, an obsession with the supernatural, with UFOs, and most especially with government conspiracies.  It became one of the biggest cultural icons of the 90s, and its legacy, I think, will endure for quite a long time.

#3: Babylon 5

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love this show. I could go on for pages and pages about how much I love this show and why.  But this post is getting ridiculously long already, so I’m going to try to keep it short.  Babylon 5 was a scifi series that was created by J. Michael Straczynski and ran for five seasons, from 1993 to 1998 (the pilot episode having aired in 1993, but the first regular season not beginning until a year later).  Babylon 5 focuses on a deep space station called Babylon 5, which is neutral space and used an a hub for alien diplomatic relations with humans and each other, as well center of commerce, culture, and science.  The main characters include the Captain and command crew of the station, as well as several of the more important ambassadors who live on the station.  While many of the episodes follow the general “new adventure every week” format, the vast majority build a heavily connected story arc that deals with the corruption of Earth’s government and an imminent attack from an alien species with enough destructive power to effectively wipe out the entire universe.

J. Michael Straczynski envisioned this series as something vastly different from the only other serious scifi series around: Star Trek.  Whereas Star Trek is eminently optimistic with a fairly “pure” working government, a claim to the near-eradication of sickness and poverty, etc Babylon 5 is very much a reflection of all the problems humans have always had: corruption, oppression, war, prejudice, poverty, addiction, etc.  Straczynski made several promises: the show would have a reasonable budget (and indeed, always managed to go under budget), it would take a serious adult approach to scifi (and would therefore have no children or “cute” robots), and it would have a thoroughly planned well-written and executed overarching plot (that would not leave any loose ends).  To that end, Straczynski wrote 92 of the 110 episodes himself, and when he brought in other writers, they were told about the overarching plot-lines so that everything could be tied together effectively (incidentally, Harlan Ellison was a creative consultant on the show and is credited with 2 episodes).

And Straczynski succeeded.  Babylon 5 contains some of the most human, complex, fully-realized characters in television to date including but not limited to Susan Ivanova, Delenn, John Sheridan, and probably the two most complex and dynamic: G’Kar and Londo Mollari.  The plot is intricate, vast, intense, entertaining, and ultimately concluding with all the wrapped up satisfaction of a well-plotted novel.  One friend of mine has argued that Bablyon 5 is the most epic (in terms of scale and the consequences of the conflicts) of any story ever.  I’m not sure I would go that far, but with alien races capable of bringing about total oblivion, and a collaborative force of something like a hundred difference alien species trying to fight them (and looking like ants swarming a tiger), I can certainly see how someone might think so.  I might at least be the most epic scifi around.  Possibly.

So there, Ladies and Gentlemen are numbers 6-3 of my Top 10 Scifi TV Shows Ever.  I’d like to take a second to name a few honorable mentions: V: the Series, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda (both series created by Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek fame, and produced by his wife Majel Baret after his death – both of these series had a lot of potential, but for a variety of reasons just could not be as good as Star Trek).

I’m assuming everyone can guess what first and second place will be, yes?  If not (and even if you can guess), please come back next Monday to see how I wrap things up!  And in the meantime, sound off! What do you think of the list so far?  Which of your favorites am I missing?  (If one of them is Battlestar Galactica, I refer to the explanation at the top, and beg that you don’t get too vitriolic.)

Dialogue in TV: Deal-Maker, Deal-Breaker

I would like to start my month-long discussion (or perhaps obsessed fan-girl gushing would be the better term) about tv shows with a focus on dialogue.  Obviously, dialogue is important in any story-telling medium.  Obviously.  That goes without saying (even though I just said it).  But I would make the argument (and perhaps I’m wrong, please let me know) that dialogue is at least marginally MORE important in television shows than it is in movies or in novels.  Dialogue in tv is the deal-maker or the deal-breaker.

Playwright and Screenwriter David Mamet was once quoted as saying: “A good film script should be able to do completely without dialogue,” (despite the fact that his ability to write sharp dialogue has led to the phrase ‘Mamet-speak’).  Dialogue in films is obviously still important as far as specific plots and characters are concerned, however, I would agree with Mamet’s general sentiment.  Many very good films rely so heavily on the visual: character movement, sweeping landscapes, brilliantly shot action sequences or surrealist techniques, etc, that in certain cases dialogue becomes merely a minor detail.  One such film is Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin), a German film by Wim Wenders.  This film is almost entirely visual and internal most of the spoken lines are voice-overs that indicate a person’s thoughts. There is little-to-no dialogue until the last half-hour of the film.

Similarly, while many novels rely heavily on dialogue, some novels can employ visual description and an internal focus so effectively that dialogue becomes almost superfluous.  That is not to say, of course, that there are many novels that don’t use any dialogue (though I can think of one: Western by Christine Montalbetti).  Obviously, novels still NEED dialogue, but some novels have a more internal focus that make the external dialogue between characters somewhat less important.  For instance, Sunshine by Robin McKinley focuses fare more on the first-person narrator’s internal monologue, going sometimes 8-12 pages between snippets of any dialogue at all.  It’s the narrator’s voice that makes that novel as amazing as it is.

The point of all of this is to say that unlike these other two media, television lives and dies by its dialogue.  Yes, character development and plot are highly important, but the dialogue carries a tv show more completely than it does in just about any other medium.  I cannot begin to list the number of tv shows I’ve heard praised based almost entirely on the intelligent, wit, humanity, and rapidity of the dialogue.

Case in point: Gilmore GirlsGilmore Girls took some very common teenage-focused dramedy tropes focused around the main character Rory Gilmore (all the usual first love drama, family conflicts, school bullies, etc), added some unique details the unconventional single mother, the quirky small town and gave us an entertaining tv show.  The show gave in to quite a few cliché plot elements that often put me off for awhile, especially later in the series.  But throughout, the most appealing element remained the same and kept me coming back: the sharp, pop-culture-filled, rapid-fire dialogue.  This show was built around the pitch-perfect dialogue, and execution thereof, between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and the crazy people in their lives.  It was difficult to pick a representative scene, but this one’s good:

This heavy reliance on dialogue is, unsurprisingly, usually most obvious in comedies.  Another great example is Psych, which is a comedy and crime show in one, about Shawn Spencer who uses his Holmesian abilities to pretend to be a psychic working for the police.  Like Gilmore Girls, much of the dialogue is filled with pop culture references (especially 80’s references) and is spoken very quickly.  The dialogue between Sean and his partner Gus, as well as the other characters including several police officers and Sean’s ex-cop father, is by the far the highlight of the show (with the random slapstick moments coming in a close second).

Some other shows that rely heavily on good dialogue are: X-Files (my mother used to complain that ALL they did was talk), Law & Order (seriously!), and In Plain Sight (the word battles between the two main characters is FANTASTIC), just to name a few.

Sharp, witty, (and often quick) dialogue can make or break a show.  It’s not the only important thing, obviously, but it’s definitely near the top of the list probably tied for first with the characters themselves.  And, of course, the characters and the way those characters are portrayed through dialogue are so intertwined that I don’t think you could really have good, well-developed, likable characters without the right dialogue.  You could say that the opposite is true too, but I think in the case of tv, the dialogue often MAKES the character — especially in the beginning of a show as both the actor and the viewers are getting to know a new character.  Stilted, awkward dialogue that makes it difficult for the actor to fill out the character, or for the viewers to understand or like the character, can completely destroy a show — no matter how interesting the plot is, or how cool the character might otherwise become.

(I spent WAY too much time last night digging around on youtube trying to find some decent dialogue clips.  The two videos here don’t do the shows justice, but they’re a start.  I highly recommend simply watching the shows.)

What do you think of the importance of dialogue in tv shows?  Is it far up on your list?  What other elements do you find just as or more important for an entertaining successful tv show?  Any other good examples of strong dialogue in television?

Tune in next Wednesday for a discussion of one of my favorite shows of all time: Star Trek.