Saturday, August 29, 2015

Defiance And Dark Matter: And Now We Wait

SyFy Friday, a now relative staple and highlight of the SyFy channel, concluded its summer run with two of its headlining original series.

Both the season finale of Defiance (2013-present) and Dark Matter (2015-present) come to a close. And now the ever-pressing and much anticipated question of renewals arrives that haunts many a television fanatic.

If I was a betting man---and I'm not really, nor a very good one---based on the channel's recent track record and renewed interest and general commitment to putting the sci-fi back in SyFy, I believe both Dark Matter and Defiance will likely return. These are two impressively built, richly detailed, handsome series which clearly have more stories to tell.

Most exciting is how visually unique and different both Defiance and Dark Matter are from one another. They are also striking and refreshingly different on the basis of their science fiction story concepts. Taken together, SyFy Friday is essentially a winning combination at the moment with room to grow.

The Season Three finale of Defiance brings back an allusion to Johnny Cash and Jackson in the final minutes. It's also a pleasure to see Defiance moving from strength to strength not only in its wildly bizarre reality but in layering those stories with more original pop songs as noted in a post on the music of Defiance here. The Season Three finale closes beautifully with some of the most original, wondrous and vivid imagery of outer space ever committed to science fiction television to date. It's going to look amazing on Blu-Ray. The closing track is a stunning beauty offering a rendition of David Bowie's Everyone Says Hi from Heathen (2002), an album which ironically includes a song called I Took A Trip On A Gemini Spaceship. You'll understand the allusion to Grant Bowler and the Omec spaceship if you watched the Defiance Season Three finale, Upon The March We Fittest Die.

Meanwhile, elsewhere and later that evening, we relish the dark delights of Dark Matter. While this is yet another interesting sci-fi project, the series space-based setting reminds me of Stargate Universe (2009-2011) minus the flawless production design. It also makes me realize how spoiled we were by the beauty and elegance of SGU.

Nevertheless, Dark Matter stands on its own as another fine entry into sci-fi genre television with even a touch of a nod to Glen Morgan and James Wong's ephemeral Space: Above And Beyond (1995-1996). Like that latter series, Dark Matter is grittier and much less precious in its production values. Though they may not be up to the SGU standard they are still mighty damn good. SGU was technically perfect in its cinematography and effects work. Dark Matter simply just isn't THAT good. It has its moments but is a much nastier, leaner, meaner beast. Though not SGU in its visual acuity and sophistication it is nevertheless quite exceptional and of clear vision in its mission for SyFy and far superior to a show like Caprica (2010) and more in step with the kind of qualities that defined the reimagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009) as a successful, epic space saga. But I've been truly spoiled by SGU of late. While I adore Defiance for defiantly and successfully delivering a science fiction story like no other in recent memory, Dark Matter has great potential. These are two series with winning production values and quality writing.

But why the comparisons between Dark Matter and SGU? That seems a little unfair. And you wouldn't be wrong to think that. But, the truth is the two aforementioned space yarns share the Stargate DNA if you will. The lure to both series by fans of the Stargate franchise would be only natural.

Stargate SG-1 (1997-2007) ran for ten seasons, the brain child of writers/producers Brad Wright (Seasons 1-10), Jonathan Glassner (Seasons 1-3) and Robert C. Cooper (Seasons 5-10; though he was a writer for all ten seasons). Producers/writers Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie (Seasons 8-10) teamed up for the equally intelligent and strong final years of that first franchise that added Farscape (1999-2003) alum Claudia Black and Ben Browder to the mix.

Cooper and Wright created Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009) and ran concurrently at the time with Moore's Battlestar Galactica, again two noteworthy series with unique science fiction visions for their respective mythologies and worlds. Both Wright and Cooper teamed with Mullie and Mallozzi as well as Carl Binder and Martin Gero for production chores on Stargate Atlantis for its five season run.

When SGU was born as yet another brain child of Cooper and Wright, Mullie and Mallozzi were on board for the Destiny's run and penned eleven remarkable episodes of that series. Gero, Binder and others also contributed. Sadly, SGU ended prematurely after just two seasons.

So what would be next for these creative, fertile minds?

For Mullie and Mallozzi the two struck out on their own beginning with a comic book called Dark Matter (2012). Though intended for TV all along Mullie and Mallozzi penned a four issue limited series for Dark Horse Comics to lay a foundation as a selling point.

Dark Matter was ultimately picked up by SyFy for a thirteen episode Season One order, but this time Mullie and Mallozzi were the creators of their very own series instead of Cooper and Wright. Again, in some ways Mallozzi and Mullie echoed the pioneering sci-fi spirit Morgan and Wong pursued with Space: Above And Beyond following many years of writing, production and show runner work on The X-Files (1993-2002). When Space: Above And Beyond dissolved the two returned to Chris Carter's intelligent and familiar world with Millennium (996-1999).

Though Dark Matter shares many of the same faces and creative people behind the genius of the Stargate franchise this thing is very much a wholly original series. Dark Matter is something of a win-win for both fans of new science fiction and fans of the Stargate franchise. Dark Matter, while not as seemingly painstakingly detailed in execution as the seemingly flawless SGU (emphasized by the mesmerizing score of Joel Goldsmith), is still akin to something like a handsome, but dangerous little brother. Dark Matter is underscored more appropriately by the more driving style of composer Benjamin Pinkerton.

Obvious writing chores for Dark Matter fall to Mallozzi and Mullie, but there are others. Gero and Cooper both deliver scripts. And not only does Dark Matter star Jodelle Ferland who featured in an episode of Stargate SG-1 (Flesh And Blood) and then later in an adorably devilish role for Stargate Atlantis (Harmony), but even Amanda Tapping steps in behind the camera on directing chores along with Stargate mainstay Martin Wood who had a significant directorial role on both Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Not sure where he was for SGU. Andy Mikita brings his massive Stargate resume (all three versions of the franchise) to the Dark Matter finale.

Meanwhile on Dark Matter there are genre-related appearances by David Hewlett (Stargate Atlantis), Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and even Torri Higginson (Stargate Atlantis) who was viciously sidelined to Replicator heaven on SGA.

While all very interesting, admittedly, for me (I'm a geek that way), known faces from previous franchises, while perhaps great geek stuff (and I would never vote against it), tends to take me out of the moment. It almost works as a distraction against a series establishing its own original atmosphere and mood. I'm living in that world I don't need to be reminded of the other franchises. While I would never want to begrudge a job to Wil Wheaton, I should think other options could be better for Dark Matter.

The appearance of Stargate veterans on SGU, while a delight and nice mind you, rarely added that much for me. I was happily lost in space with this new crew. Richard Dean Anderson---I love you like a brother---but not necessary. It's always the original casting and unfamiliar faces that serve the work best in science fiction stories. Unknowns tend to make the material more credible. It's like Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) and its casting of Brad Davis. Without a star you can believe the story unraveling before your eyes is authentic and real. The moment a face as familiar as Tom Cruise arrives, or in sci-fi TV like Wheaton or Hewlett, it can be jarring and genuinely remove me from the moment. At least, regardless of science fiction street cred or respect to those that have come before, a villain other than Wheaton may have been welcomed. Think the late Leonard Nimoy on Fringe (2008-2013). Still, these are minor and generally insignificant tribbles, rather quibbles.

But the cast for Dark Matter is as uniformly good and appropriately appealing for that story as the cast is for Defiance. The production qualities on both series are generally exceptional at credibly bringing to life the vision and worlds of both Mullie and Mallozzi and Kevin Murphy and Rockne S. O'Bannon respectively.

And Dark Matter's ship, the Raza, is no Destiny, but it is generally impressive with interesting jump technology and tech in general.

And now Friday nights are clear. With Dark Matter Season One over and Defiance Season Three concluded we sit, we wait and we wonder what will be.

It's easy to see where science fiction fans might like one show over the other too. They are very different, but both should be embraced for their differences and supported to endorse SyFy for its efforts in bringing quality science fiction back to the TV table. These are both special shows generated for original science fiction programming. I'm on board to support them both. Hopefully you are and hopefully SyFy will be too.

My money is on renewals. I'm kind of a glass is half full guy like that. At least, I pray that glass isn't empty when I reach into the fridge and prepare to read those forthcoming announcements. Fingers crossed that my glass-is-half-full optimism supersedes my betting credentials. At least I hope to get it right this time.

Update 8/30/2015: On 8/29 Showrunner Kevin Murphy noted uncertainty for the future of Defiance and a Season Four renewal. This isn't a good sign. Though I remain optimistic, I should think there is more optimism for Dark Matter's chances. Still, it would be a shame to see Defiance cut down at just three seasons. That would place two of the very best series, Defiance and Hannibal (2013-2015), in good but unfortunate company this year.

Meanwhile, Joseph Mallozzi is still awaiting word on Dark Matter, but has assured all interested parties that he has a very vivid five year plan for the series.

Update 9/2/2015: Good news for Dark Matter fans. On Sep 1 Dark Matter was renewed for Season Two by SyFy. Killjoys was renewed for Season Two. No word on Defiance and not exactly good news on that front. We can take solace in the fact there has been no official cancellation at this point. We wait some more.

Update 9/6/2015: Still waiting. Hoping the smart men and women are at the table hammering out a way forward. I'm preparing for the worst. Defiance (2013-present) became a great solution to the sci-fi void opened by the loss of SGU (2009-2011) for many. I expect The Expanse (2015) would very much fill that void for me in 2015 if Defiance is not given the go ahead. I am extremely enthusiastic about the Thomas Jane-helmed series. I've always been a fan of the star from The Mist (2007) and Hung (2009-2011). But, if Defiance is given a green light, can you imagine a SyFy world that included Defiance, Dark Matter and The Expanse among others. It's almost too much to take. Somebody wake me.

Update 9/21/2015: Still waiting. Not encouraged. Still hopeful. Yet I marvel at the dreck on television that is renewed.

Update 10/14/2015: SyFy cancels Dominion on this date. Is that good news or bad news for Defiance? One might think it more promising for Defiance, but again, we wait. Crickets. T-t-t-today junior!

Update 10/16/2015: Defiance is cancelled by SyFy. Schtako! It's a shame to see this wonderfully colorful universe of characters come to a close. I'm sorry to see the series go.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

James Rundle: On Stargate Universe (II)

"Taking a more measured and thoughtful pace than its predecessors, Stargate Universe ... feels otherworldly, permanently tense and more grounded in the real world. The real thrill of watching Universe is, in fact, these character moments - the long periods of time taken for a single conversation filled mostly with uncomfortable pauses, the range of emotion that flickers across a character's face as they find themselves in odd situations, the developing trust and the growing division. The slower pace will not, of course, appeal to those used to the frenetic gunfights and more outwardly sci-fi flavor of the last two series in the franchise, and some will never forgive Stargate Universe for replacing Atlantis. However, the groundwork for this show has been laid in both the later seasons of SG-1 and a fair amount of Atlantis's third and fourth seasons, and this is ... a natural successor to those two venerable shows."
-James Rundle, SciFiNow #43, p.72-

Writer James Rundle remains one of the real highlights of the ongoing magazine Sci-Fi Now. Some of his commentaries are downright intuitive or insightful.

Rundle does articulate for me the success of Stargate Universe on the foundation of its approach to character as conceived in the first half of Season One of the show.

The pregnant pauses and the complexity within us emotionally as human beings is what is so inspired about the handling of characters for SGU.  It gets that aspect of the series right like Game Of Thrones. There is good and evil in all of us and while good men are just as capable of acts of evil so too are bad men capable of acts of unexpected acts of human compassion. It's not black and white.

While I'm not certain SGU is a natural successor to the other two franchises, it is indeed a thoroughly complex weave of science fiction that genuinely rejuvenated a rather stagnant, creatively-stilted franchise. Ultimately, it was the perceived harsh and unfair treatment of Stargate Atlantis at the end of its fifth and final season. With fans stunned to see the cast of Stargate Atlantis cut down at the knees in its perceived prime, it was always going to be an uphill battle from the start to foment and rally support around this new series, SGU.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Stargate Universe S1 Ep9: Life

"Why don't you just tell me how you're doing with life on the ship?"
-Tamara Johansen evaluating the psychological state of crewmates and life aboard the Destiny-

"It's been the worst day since yesterday."
-A Flogging Molly song played non-diegetically or extra-diegetically in the background to great application-

As evidenced in my previous episode close-ups of Stargate Universe (2009-2011), Darkness and Light for example, I have never had more fun with space flight in the Stargate world than I've had experiencing it through the visual realization of space through the story aboard the Destiny.

Wright and Cooper and the creators have genuinely generated some of the most spectacular visuals of a Stargate craft flying through space and time that we've seen to date. The Prometheus and other ships, in previous iterations of the franchise, pale in comparison and the limitations offered to the approach in filming those vessels simply don't hold a candle to the feeling of literally soaring, floating or falling through space that have been crafted for the visuals on SGU for the Destiny.  It's truly magnificent, beautiful stuff.

If I haven't made it clear, and without beating around bushes, I positively love the heck out of Stargate Universe. I can't believe certain elements of Air's first part led me astray and prevented me from giving the series a more respectful showing. SGU is by far and away my favorite of the three Stargate efforts.

Episodes like Stargate Universe, Season One, Episode 9, Life is quite frankly a big reason why. Like Earth, Life takes us back home and draws us further into life experiences aboard the Destiny and into a deeper understanding of this large ensemble cast. It is painstaking in its detail and its storytelling and offers us a rare approach to quality science fiction. This is a slice of life in the void of space. No explosions or silly aliens necessarily required.

If you haven't noticed, everyone is still very much alive following last episode's events. The wayward survivors aboard the Destiny solved the puzzle pieces to the time loop that left their lives hanging in the balance in the excellent Time.

Until Life, Cooper and Wright had a handle on the writing chores for the first eight episodes. Life is the first to be written without credited input from either of the two men as the entry defers to writer Carl Binder who co-penned Water with Wright and Cooper. Life would be the second of seven stories written for SGU. Also, Binder had a significant hand in steering Stargate Atlantis (2004-2009).

Cooper and Wright continue to deliver a series that weaves in an out of the unknown with dramatic slices of life against a dazzling space backdrop. It's nothing short of an amazing stroke of genius by two men clearly in their prime with the franchise and setting the tone for all involved. What a shame SGU wasn't given that opportunity to keep traversing those stars and get by the criticism of fans' heavy hearts.

Life begins with all of things one might expect to see people doing settling in aboard a spaceship for the long haul essentially making the best home of it one could make. Folks are exercising, laughing, fucking.  It's a microcosm of life and Life takes us deeper into that world.

Robert C. Cooper noted that fans wouldn't call it a favorite and that's unfortunate. Those same fans who loved the more adventure-based vibe of Time likely didn't care for the more deliberate pace of the character-building found in Life. It's precisely one of the key elements of the series in its first eight episodes that had me responding so favorably. Life continues that pensive take on space and takes us back into that lived-in world. And as Cooper noted accurately, "We needed an episode that talked about what is life like on this ship. ... what is normal going to be like...? You need to see ... some of the things that were happening in order for these other things to pay off" (SciFiNow #40, p.37). Without the proper character-building Time wouldn't have resonated with as much power as it does. And when Life jumps back into the drama-filled world of its like heading to another family reunion and who doesn't love that kind of drama?

In Life, Colonel Everett Young coordinates psych evaluations through Tamara Johansen.

Meanwhile, Matthew Scott and Camile Wray visit loved ones back on Earth through the communication stones.

Rush discovers new compartments aboard Destiny including an Ancients' chair like the Repository of Knowledge. New discoveries by Rush give new hope to some members of the crew or excitement to those eager for pure scientific discovery like Rush.

Rush finds a planet one year away. There is enough naquadria (an unstable variant isotope) there to power the gate and potentially get everyone home.

A semi-sullen Scott and Wray return from their trips and their bittersweet visitations. Scott learns he has retained some of Telford's memories from his connection to him via the stones.  He glimpses a scene between Colonel David Telford, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, and Young's wife on Earth.

Scott also returns following the discovery that he has an eight year old boy named Matthew. He shares the information with Chloe which impacts their previously cozy dynamic a little. It does indeed alter their new found equation.

Young is enraged to learn Telford has been seeding some kind of relationship with his wife back on Earth and he himself pays a visit.

Using the physical bodies of others as a vessel is an interesting concept especially when it comes to sexual encounters or physical altercations. The communication stones allow for this kind of transference and the sense of longing and the distance of space understandably results in folks becoming rather amorous.

Eli continues to investigate discovered information at Young's direction in secrecy learning Rush has lied. Eli knows the alleged planet that could potentially save them one year away is simply false and non-existent.

Young confronts Rush who saves face suggesting he was boosting morale and offering hope. Young has forbid anyone from sitting in the chair until more is learned for fear it could kill someone just as it nearly killed Jack O'Neill in Stargate SG-1Lost City. This offers a nice homage and good bit of mythology-connecting between series.

Rush and Young buck heads. Rush is more than happy to sacrifice anyone, but himself, for the greater good.

As SGU cruises along about the only character I've yet to find a real soft spot for would be the gorgeous but prickly Camile Wray played by Ming-Na, a representative for the International Oversight Authority (IOA). In a sense she is a bridge between the civilian and the military arm aboard Destiny and as such are never quite sure which way she leans. Though, finally, here, she has an incredibly touching moment alone on the Destiny. For once her mask reveals vulnerability and a tenderness. Wray's strong presence will likely continue to walk that fine line of tough and vulnerable rather delicately. Her character is quite complex and likely the most complex outside of Rush on the show.

So Life delves into character effortlessly as ever as we get to further know these people aboard the DestinyLife's character studies, like those in Earth, are indeed bold within the expectations of sci-fi and resonated strongly with those who loved this series. Stargate Universe takes time to deliver on tenderness. That's a rare quality in science fiction television and one reserved and often associated with the best. It handles human tenderness better than most dramas. Relationships feel real and rather moving instead of contrived. Equally fascinating, to me, is the exploration and discoveries, not only of character, but of the Destiny herself. Flying through space and aboard this Ancients' vessel are just as many mysteries that leave the viewer excited with the dynamic of those intermingling within her.

One of the aspects that resonates here in SGU in the way the so-called darker shows might not is the sense of hope that permeates the ship in small ways. For all of the heart ache and personal set backs and dark drama that is delivered in spades for SGU there is always those small victories like the tiny sprout that begins to grow in hydroponics lab for Dr. Jeremy Franklin played by Mark Burgess (who appeared in Stargate Atlantis, Season Five, Episode 19, Vegas written and directed by Cooper). This is a visual exclamation for the episode. Life itself is born! These delicious little moments offer up some joy amidst the darkness of space and the chess game between humanity of a thing called life.

"Today is the worst day since yesterday." Life is indeed tight and tense aboard the Destiny, but by implementing its usual standard of high quality cinematography, Life is also beautiful.

Sadly, the truth is, it was episodes like Life in the early going for SGU that shaped and colored fan opinion of the series accustomed to the formula of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. The tone and mood of SGU was so radically different. Ultimately it was the approach like the one envisioned for Life that essentially helped establish the fate of SGU holding it to just two seasons. But the fact is Life is a well-paced, finely crafted, character-driven, rather than simply plot-driven narrative. These are character stories in a science fiction universe.

You will note with the extreme close-ups in SGU, a real effort is made to probe the emotional depth of its characters. Sometimes the quietest moments with little to no dialogue reveal so much through sheer physicality of facial expression and emotion. The camera and the effort here captures that raw intimacy with the real beauty of an artist's touch. Space never looked this gorgeous. But for all its ups and downs on SGU, life is still beautiful and, well, that's Life.

Writer: Carl Binder. Director: Alex Chapple.