Tag Archives: Stranger Things

ALF vs. Sense8

You may have seen on Twitter or Facebook that I finally started watching Sense8 on Netflix a few days ago. (Once again, yes, I continue my proud tradition of being among the last sapients to see a given movie or show, or read a given book.) I’m still not quite through the first season, and I expect I’ll have a little more to say about it once I’ve seen more of the work, but there’s still one thing I wanted to touch on right now.

Because, also in the past few days, there was an announcement that a reboot or remake of the TV series ALF is underway. I, uh, have some commentary.

One of the things that the showrunners for Sense8 said about it when it came out was that people who watched would see things they had never seen before. Even after a partial viewing, I see where they were coming from. The show is unquestionably ambitious in the kind of story it is trying to tell, depicts characters that don’t often make it onto the screen, and because of the visuals they wanted to include, must have been a huge pain in the ass to shoot. I don’t know that everything they were trying to do always works perfectly, but man they’re trying something, and made something challenging and, yes, really unlike basically any other show you’ve probably seen.

And then, there’s the ALF remake, of a show that was about the most paint-by-numbers sitcom you could imagine, just with a puppet in it. Or, perhaps, a continuation of Frasier. Or we’ll bring back Roseanne. We are awash in remakes and reboots and reimaginings, and wringing every drop of whatever out of things we’ve already seen. As a re-reader of favorite stories, to some extent I sympathize, but I’d way rather see a new show as different and ambitious as Sense8 than a legion of ALFs.

Before I get accused of picking on ALF in particular, or maybe just not liking sitcoms (although..), I was equally unexcited about the idea of a Lord of the Rings TV series from earlier in the year. Why we need another big-money treatment of that story when the books were translated into film about as successfully as it is possible to do not that long ago, I cannot imagine. I’m not even all that excited about more adventures of Capt. Picard (which we’re apparently also getting), because I think I’d rather see new adventures of a new character. I love Patrick Stewart, and I’d rather see him bring a new character to life than go back to one that, yeah, was really good, but got throughly explored and fleshed out and has already been in a lot of stories (some great, many good, some, uhh).

There have been good examples of the reimagination concept, of course. I loved the retelling of Battlestar Galactica, as a prominent example. These things, though, strike me as the outliers in what is an increasingly choked field of remakes and reboots. As much affection as I have for the character, if I never see another version of the Spider-Man origin story, I will be more than content. It is more than a little baffling to see the people who make TV and movies continually go back to old wells.

Because it isn’t as though there aren’t tremendous, exciting new ideas out there. Sense8 was one. I can’t help but wonder how many equally bold concepts are out there, without the Wachowskis behind them, that never get a chance. Heck, just to pick the example that is (literally) close at hand: I’m currently reading City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty, and if you wanted to throw a lot of money at a fantasy series, do that. It would be a setting and characters that we haven’t really seen on the screen.

Ideally, of course, the answer would be ‘do all the stories’, and make the nostalgia-trip reboots as well as the wonderful new stories, but that’s not how things really work, is it? I think with the rise of Netflix and Hulu and all the other places that are now making TV, we’re in a better place than we used to be in terms of space for new ideas to get made (viz. Stranger Things, among others) but it’s still not as good as it should be, in my opinion.

There are fabulous creators out there with ideas that will blow your mind. I would be just so delighted if we could give more of them a chance rather than rehashing more things from the past, no matter how much everyone loves a puppet.

That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading.

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So, About that Top 5

The other day my friend and fellow writer Brandon Crilly and I were hanging out and, perhaps inevitably, got to talking about writing we’ve enjoyed, and that got us to talking about TV shows we’ve both enjoyed, and we both mentioned shows that ‘would be in our Top 5’. That of course got me thinking about what my actual Top 5 would be, and I didn’t have a topic for the blog this week, so here we go.

My main criteria for picking anything here was that I couldn’t pick and choose parts of a series. So, for example, much as I love the first few seasons of X-Files, it was never going to make this list because it really dies hard in the later seasons.

Bear in mind that I haven’t actually seen every show ever, so if your favourite isn’t here, that may well be why.

Bear in mind that you can also just fight me.

I think these are in order? Maybe. I guess there may be spoilers.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Series)

Right out of the gate we’re probably in trouble. I know a lot of people didn’t like where this series ended up, but I thought it was perfect. Yes, even the last episode. I can’t really think of another series that gave me so many characters that I genuinely cared about, did character development as believably and well as this did, and went to some dark and difficult places without ever quite turning the light out entirely. None of the characters were two-dimensional. Starbuck is still my favourite.

Person of Interest

I wrote about this series once before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate – this seemed as though it was going to be the most procedural procedural that ever procedured. It wasn’t. Person of Interest turned out to be really thoughtful SF about AI and a surveillance society, and the ethics of both. It also had really, really good characters, and really, really good performances again. Michael Emerson is good in everything I see him in.

Fringe

I came into this show thinking, as I think a lot of people did, that it was basically going to be an X-Files knockoff. For a couple episodes it kind of was an X-Files knockoff. Then it took a huuuuge left turn and never looked back. It ended up being nothing like any other show on TV. It was hilarious, it was disgusting, it was genuinely disturbing, and like BSG, it made you care. It had tremendous sustained performances from Anna Torv and John Noble. Even crunching the timeline of the series down by several seasons, it told its story well and ended it on just the right note. Absent everything else, ‘White Tulip’ is a fantastic SFF story. Fringe did not get nearly the attention it deserved, and it was some of the best SFF television we’ve had.

Orphan Black

I didn’t even really know what this show was going to be about, I just kept hearing ‘man you’ve gotta watch Orphan Black‘. I finally did. Holy crap this show was good. So much of it hinged on the amazing performances of Tatiana Maslany in pulling off portraying all of the various Leda clones, but the story being told was genuinely original and genuinely very well done. Again, they gave us amazing characters that you couldn’t help but get invested in. The transformation of Helena from an almost Michael Myers like threat into a beloved ally was beautifully done. The writers introduced a cold, manipulative villainess in Rachel, got you to care about her, and then got you to buy her as a villain again. Orphan Black wobbled just a little in its last season, but it was still so so good.

Doctor Who

Ok this one was a little tricky to leave on the list, because honestly, if you look at the whole immense size of the series, you’ve gotta say that the quality is more than a little uneven. There are, I will admit, some truly awful episodes in there. I’ve talked before about how sometimes the special effects, well, they reflect the budget the show had at the time. ‘Continuity’ is a very vague sort of concept for the show at all, by this point.

And yet. When I think about the TV show that probably has more to do with me being a fan of SFF today, and someone who writes fantastic stories, it’s Doctor Who and it isn’t close. I was never that into Star Trek (sorry), and my Star Wars fandom came a little bit later. I started out watching shows from before I was born on PBS Sunday afternoons, and just got terribly, terribly hooked. Tom Baker will always be ‘my’ Doctor, but I truly like them all and I like all the various eras the show has gone through. It wins huge points for longevity and for continuing to find new stories to tell about an itinerant busybody alien and the people who wander around time and space with them. I forgive it its misses because among the hits are things like ‘the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alters their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views’, which is really very good. And also ‘You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner”.

Doctor Who is good.

Missed the Cut:

The Americans: This was very, very, very close. I love this show and I love the writing on this show. Partly I cut it because this is otherwise an SFF list and I like that, because ‘genre TV’ tends not to get the same critical respect as other shows do. Also though, as much as I adore the main storyline, in the last couple seasons there have been some plotlines I am not spellbound by. Watch The Americans, though.

Stranger Things: You know I love this show. It didn’t quite make it because I feel like I need to see more of the story the Duffers are creating to really evaluate it yet. Season 1 was damn near perfect, but now they’re working on a bigger vision that we haven’t had fully revealed yet. Maybe this one gets shuffled up in a few years.

Both Jericho and Deadwood were series that I thought had very nearly perfect first seasons, but didn’t maintain that quality throughout. Lost was a series I thought was awesome out of the gate and then by the end was watching out of spite. I’m still kind of bitter. I thought the writers of Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles were trying to do some genuinely bold and interesting stuff, but they had some really heavy misses and then the show got cancelled. One day I’d like to pick the writers’ brains about what they would have done. Before you ask, I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld yet. I hear it’s very good. I also haven’t seen The Wire.

Brandon tells me these blog entries are too long. I’m stopping. Thanks for reading. Come fight me in the comments if you want.

More importantly, go check out Brandon’s blog and work here.

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Stranger Things 2

I have finished watching the second season of Stranger Things, and so I am once again proud to be nearly the last sentient creature inhabiting the planet to bring forth my thoughts on a thing. This is probably going to be more than a little spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe go finish and then come back and read this week’s blog in a bit. Because I do recommend that you see it.

I think second seasons, and second parts in general, are difficult. One of the strengths of the first season of Stranger Things was that it was super tightly focused on basically two ideas: 1) Will Byers is missing and 2) Elle has escaped. Everything else that happened was connected to one, or both, of those things, and it made for a story that basically didn’t have any dead weight to it. There were lots of other reasons why the series was good, but that certainly helped it. I imagine that in part, it was written that way because the Duffer Brothers didn’t know if they would get any more seasons than that one, so they made a story that was nicely self-contained within the limits of what they knew they had to work with.

You can’t do that as easily with a second season, because the cast of characters you introduced now all need to be developed if they’re going to continue to be interesting (and I suspect there’s a certain amount of keeping the actors happy with their roles here too). So you have to broaden the scope of the story you’re going to tell and include a lot more threads. Probably knowing that they have several seasons to work with, the Duffers now also feel that they can spend more time setting up long-term things that won’t immediately pay off but get us ready for what we’ll see in the years to come.

All of which is basically to say that while I enjoyed this season a lot, it did feel a lot more uneven than the first one. There were parts of it that dragged for me, and parts of it that I didn’t really understand what they were for. (I’m not at all sure what the purpose of Billy’s character was. He set up a little bit of misdirection early on with dialogue that suggested that there was something odd about his situation with Max, but that didn’t go anywhere. Maybe they need him down the line.) The overall story that was told was good, but it had some weak points where Season 1 was very nearly seamless in its quality.

Still, I already want to see Season 3. I’m interested in the story that’s being told about Hawkins and this group of kids. I thought Season 2 veered more into horror territory than the first one; certainly the body count was a lot higher, we had a lot more gore, and a lot of frankly dark moments like Will’s brutal suffering under the control of the Mind Flayer. I’m not sure how much of this was a conscious tonal shift – the situation is getting worse – or how much of it can be attributed to the temptation to constantly up the ante in second parts: gotta be bigger, louder, more crowded.

From the quality of the writing to this point, I trust that the Duffers have a solid plan for where they’re taking this story and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. Presumably we can’t have another 2-3 seasons of Will being the victim of the threat from the Upside Down, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with him as a more active character going forward. Elle’s growing powers present a substantial writing challenge as well – how to create a threat that she can’t just immediately fix, and how to write a story

In a lot of ways you could argue that Stranger Things to this point has been Elle’s story: she’s the one with the cool powers, she ultimately defeats our baddie in both seasons, and most of the key relationships revolve around her. This is more than fine – she’s a compelling protagonist. (You could argue that it has also been Will’s story, but he’s been necessarily so much more passive that it doesn’t really work. People are trying to save Will, or help Will, and the story has been about that, but it isn’t about what Will does, not yet anyway) If it stays that way, then most of our other characters will necessarily have to remain more peripheral; Elle is basically a superhero and (this is one of the strengths of the show, in my opinion) everyone else is intensely ordinary. If the focus stays on her, Mike and Hopper and the rest are going to be Elle’s backup. That’s maybe the obvious way to go, to me. Shifting the story off of her would be tricky, and it’s hard to immediately think of what challenge you could create that wouldn’t have Elle as its best solution.

I guess we’ll see. I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

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On Barb, and Hugh

If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you will have seen me gush about the Netflix series Stranger Things, which is one of my favourite things on TV (or whatever we’re calling it when stuff ‘airs’ on Netflix) in a very long while. Stranger Things is a wonderful, creative piece of SFF and I hope there’s more in its vein to come. If you poke around on social media you’ll see lots of people having passionate reactions to the show and its characters, and there’s one in particular that has stuck out at me and that I wanted to write about today.

[[ IMPORTANT NOTE: The rest of this entry contains spoilers for some parts of Stranger Things, so if you are the sort of person who is bothered by spoilers as well as not having seen the show yet, stop reading now and I’ll see you next week, or after you’ve watched the series. By the way, if you read this blog and you haven’t seen Stranger Things yet, I heartily recommend going and doing so. It’s very good. ]]

And we’re back.

Fans of the show have reacted very strongly to the performances of Winona Ryder (who I thought was very good), David Harbour (who I also thought was great), and both the character of Eleven and the actor who portrays her, Millie Bobbie Brown (who is amazing). None of that surprises me, but there is also a reasonably vocal discussion centring around a character that does surprise me a little: Nancy’s friend Barb.

Barb is pulled into the Upside Down by the monster towards the end of episode 2, and unlike Will Byers is unable to survive long enough to get rescued (she’s somewhat disadvantaged by starting off in an Upside Down echo of an empty pool), apparently dying in episode 3 with her fate confirmed by Eleven in episode 7. Although Nancy is deeply worried about her friend, we don’t see the same reaction to Barb’s disappearance as there was for Will Byers, and I think this is part of what has led to people being upset or unsatisfied with how the story treats her.

(It is true that there is some narrative justification for this; the Shadowy Government Lab fabricates a story that Barb has run away rather than mysteriously disappeared as Will did, with only Nancy and Hopper being aware of the truth for most of the series. It is still probably a fair point that we don’t then see a lot of concern about Barb having ‘run away’, although it’s also fair to say the relatively tight schedule the show is on didn’t leave it a lot of room to show this.)

In any case if you poke around online you’ll find a lot of affection for Barb’s character, as well as dissatisfaction (some perhaps tongue in cheek) with her story, that we didn’t get more of it, and that she doesn’t get the (relatively) happy ending that Will Byers did. Part of what’s going on is that the Duffer Brothers created a character that was interesting and engaging enough that a lot of their audience bought in to her during episodes 1 and 2, so that they wanted more of her story and perhaps a different ending to it. From a writer’s perspective, getting the audience hooked into a character who is going to be a victim is exactly what you want – you want that loss or death to hit home and not get shrugged off. The dissatisfaction, though, isn’t what you want, and the two things are shades-of-meaning apart.

I had a slightly similar experience with my own writing, during the editing process for King in Darkness. There’s one character, Hugh, who I called into being solely for one specific scene. (Yeah, I’m restricting the spoilers of my own story. It’s my blog and I’ll be inconsistent if I want to.) You meet him slightly earlier to establish that he exists, then he does his scene and (I thought) he disappears unproblematically from the stage thereafter. I didn’t, to be honest, expect that anyone would get particularly interested in or attached to Hugh (sorry, imaginary person) and that he’d basically vanish into Stage Left, his purpose served, and no-one would mind one way or the other. (really sorry, imaginary person)

Didn’t work out that way. All of the editors for King in Darkness gave me notes to the effect of ‘need closure about Hugh’, ‘what happens to Hugh?’, ‘we need to see how things work out with Hugh’. Basically as soon as more than one editor calls for something, I figure it Must Be Done, and so I wrote a new scene that ties up Hugh’s part of the story a little more completely for the final draft of the book. I think it made the story better in the end and I feel like I have now done better by one of my imaginary people.

The more important part of the process, though, was realizing that people might latch on to characters that I didn’t expect them to, and didn’t intend them to. I’m still not sure exactly what it was that made people want to know how things worked out for Hugh in King in Darkness (I kind of wish I did, so that I could sprinkle that magic on future imaginary people) but obviously there was just enough there to get the people who read the manuscript to get bought into him, and his story, enough to want there to be more of it than I originally planned to give.

I suspect (and of course, it’s just a guess) that this is what has happened with Barb in Stranger Things. She’s not written as a major character, she appears to have been created as a way to get Nancy actively engaged in trying to solve the mystery of what is going on in Hawkins, and probably also to indicate to the audience in an impactful way that the monster that took Will is an ongoing threat. Lots of stories, horror stories and others, have these ‘victim’ characters in them that serve this kind of narrative purpose, as well as providing a moment of terror or pity when they meet their doom.

However, Barb’s fate, and the reaction of the world of Stranger Things to it, does touch on wider issues of female characters in fiction, and in SF/horror in particular, where they have all to often simply been used as recipients of violence and/or motivators for male characters. I believe I’ve touched on the Women in Refrigerators issue before, and people have made the argument that Barb fits into this pattern as well (despite not being a superhero, although the concept has I think been broadened to think about how female characters get treated in SFF in general). Looking at things from a plot perspective, the main thing Barb’s character does is to be a second (well, third) victim for the monster and thus provide Nancy (who is a main character) her motivation to get involved in trying to figure out what is happening in town, thus hooking her into the main stream of events leading up to the climax.  This does tick some problematic boxes, ‘female character as victim/motivator’ in particular.

It’s also true that Barb is not used to motivate a male character – in fact part of the issue people have with what happened to Barb is that some of our male characters don’t seem to particularly react to what happens to her. Her disappearance is a motivating factor for another female character, one who does not settle into a passive role and becomes an active part of driving the plot forward. I would argue that’s an important distinction. (I also think that although Hopper doesn’t really seem to react much to what happens to Barb, he’s already pretty fully engaged in trying to figure out what’s going on in Hawkins by the point, and Will’s disappearance probably has more personal impact for him because Will is closer in age to his deceased daughter) I don’t think the intention of pointing out the Women in Refrigerators issue was to say, either, that you can’t ever have a female character who is a victim in a story, just that it can be a lazy plot device and that it seemed to happen to female characters in comics disproportionately. For what it’s worth I think Barb’s role in the plot is both important and handled with relative care (we don’t see a lot of fallout from her disappearance, but it’s more than Benny gets!). I think, overall, Stranger Things presented some really strong and interesting female characters and so, overall, I think the Duffers deserve far more praise than criticism here.

I also wonder if, since Barb is not one of the ‘cool kids,’ and appears to fit kind of awkwardly into her social world, that since SFF tends to attract a reasonable proportion of the socially awkward, shy and introverted to its audience (definitely include me in that number), that audience saw ‘themselves’ in her a little bit, and that’s part of why her fate has attracted as much discussion as it has. Barb is kind of like many of us in the audience, so we want to root for her a bit and are extra disappointed when things end badly for her. Which gets us back to the idea of the audience getting attached to characters you maybe didn’t expect them to, as a writer. In the end, to me, it’s a really cool feeling when someone reads my stuff and feels a connection to it. One of my favourite things in the time that King in Darkness has been out has been hearing from people who read it and dug one or more of the characters; sometimes ones I expected people to like and sometimes ones I didn’t.

I think it’s a great gift as a writer to have your characters end up having an impact on people and mattering to them; it’s very hard to think of a better compliment from a reader. (Aside, perhaps, from ‘please write more’) I hope that’s how the Duffer Brothers are taking the reaction to Barb in Stranger Things. They created a whole cast of characters that their audience really bought into, and left many of them wanting a little more about one of them. I hope they continue to give us the same rich selection of imaginary people in their next project.

And perhaps I’ll write a little more of Hugh’s story one day.

Thanks for reading.

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