Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blessings of Babylon

I finally understand what it’s like to be infatuated with a live-action science fiction TV series over an extended period of time. I had my fling with The X-Files, but that petered out, and though I absolutely loved the revamped Battlestar Galactica, the show went off the rails in the final season, and disappointed me terribly in the end. I also love Red Dwarf, but that series is not really the same thing, and overall I just shied away from “serious” live-action SF television. However, a recent viewing of Babylon 5 let me get a handle on that long-neglected aspect of my geekhood.

Babylon 5 appeals to my sensibilities and desires (which is why a long-time friend kept recommending it to me), instead of forcing me to push them aside for some unambiguous space adventure. There is a passionate, human heart to the series which is never overwhelmed by desolation, because of the series being open to showcasing the worst aspects of human nature.

J. Michael Straczynski apparently set out to write something like a novel, and as someone who prefers books a lot of the time, it’s a quick way to turn a series into mind candy. Viewing Babylon 5 through that lens, I can see something of the spirit of New Wave science fiction in it, perhaps in part because of Harlan Ellison’s role as creative consultant. Whatever the reason, I was constantly making parallels between Babylon 5’s content and some of my favourite science fiction novels, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (in aliens parallel to religious figures in one way or another, and in transcendent evolution), and C.J. Cherryh’s Chanur Saga (in exploring political difficulties among alien species which no government can truly control). These concepts  likely appeared in other series I haven’t watched, but the literary connection was the first that sprang to mind, and helped to predispose me to the series, and many of the early episodes felt like short stories onto themselves.

As I suggested above, Babylon 5 also has a kind of thematic atmosphere that’s like catnip to me: one in which the harshness and the complexity of sentient nature is a vital concept, and yet there is of course room to show the triumph of spirit and perseverance over all odds, as well as a sense of humour. I have no doubt some would find B5 to be too bleak and cynical, but showing the best of “human” nature isn’t worth much without showing the worst. I always found the various Star Trek series to be too flat and antiseptic, and the allegedly utopian future they put forth was part of that. I’m of the liberal-minded sort, but I enjoy stories in which we are unable to eliminate all the flaws of our current world, because that makes for more complex and exciting storytelling.

I envy Bablyon’s 5 ability to present both the silliest of humour and the highest of drama, both at different times. It suggests a very well-rounded show, one that knows the importance of balance. The special effects are obviously low-budget, but that does not sour much of the experience. I’ve also gotten over my contempt for rubber-forehead aliens and so was much more easily able to accept them than I might have been when I was younger—though I still disagree with the psychological justifications for them.

As to the infamous fifth season, made after the series’ hastily-redone conclusion, I decided to watch it with little hesitation. The way that the fifth season came about didn’t give me much confidence in its content, but I mostly enjoyed the episodes. I interpreted the tail end of season four and all of season five as being essential pieces of a series that were unfortunately shuffled around, so that they jumped back and forth in the timeline. While I do forgive season 5 for most things, it’s still jarring to go from the distant future back to the series’ immediate present, only to go back to a less distant future, even if it’s nice to spend a little more time with the characters, and some important things are still resolved in this last portion.

Babylon 5 also has some great characterization, from minor intrigues to major movements. While it’s expected that humans would play the lead in the series, the non-human characters stop being “those wacky aliens” shortly after the series begins, so that several become just as poignant. There were still a few cringe-worthy jokes and pranks regarding alien characters, and moments when human characters come off as irritatingly smug when they put one over on some aliens of various social standings, but it’s not enough to derail.

It’s not necessarily a sign of a good series when you only dislike the characters you’re obviously meant to, but such conditions can make things pleasant, and Babylon 5 was one of those series where I was favourably disposed towards pretty much everyone in the cast except the obvious scumbags. I loathed Alfred Bester as much as was the likely intention, even more because he always kept surviving when the plot had many opportunities to kill him--just like in real life, often the bastard gets away. Below, I won’t discuss all of the other characters I have an opinion on, but the ones that stood out to me the most.

If I’m poked hard enough, I’ll admit that John Sheridan started to get on my nerves after a while, for just being almost too good. It was a perfection that I agreed with, since I almost always sided with Sheridan in whatever decision or speech he made, but he seemed to get the better of everyone else once too often, and while I loved the themes involved in the end of the Shadow War, the fact that much of the ending consisted of Sheridan alone yelling at the Shadows and the Vorlons felt borderline ant-climactic. In short, I wanted to see Sheridan make more mistakes, to be wrong once or twice, so that watching him was less like crunching on sugar cubes. I finally got my wish with the telepath incident, but it’s not quite enough to change my feelings about Sheridan’s previous characterization.

While I wouldn’t say I like him (nor, truly, dislike him), Londo Mollari is certainly a fascinating character to watch. A patriot willing to do anything, yet hardly innocent in the tragedies he creates or even that nice a person. It’s one of the most epic, yet personal, stories that the series produced, and his love-hate relationship with G’Kar is also wonderfully complex.

It’s not necessary to have favourite characters to enjoy a series, but they’re one of the sweetest bonuses you can find. Mine ended up being G’Kar, but with Kosh and Lyta trailing somewhere behind. G’Kar’s appeal is easy to understand. I like characters with a darker sense of humour, but I like the underdogs, too, and G’Kar is often forced into becoming one against his will—and then has the opposite happen when he’s venerated as a religious leader. That he ended up becoming a writer just cemented it, since I’m a total sucker for artistic characters. The only thing that could have made it better is if he were an actual reptilian and not a marsupial, even though the latter is a more creative designation.

With Lyta Alexander, it’s probably my fascination with seeing characters get jerked around speaking. Babylon 5 also deserves kudos for creating a female anti-hero (in the classic sense, not the warped definition of anti-hero appearing today) that feels genuine. You get the sense that Lyta’s problems, externally inflicted though they are, aren’t just meant to make the audience coo in sympathy, but create her darker side as well. That point is driven home when Lyta becomes ruthless towards the very end of the series: hers is a tragic story.

For a while, I couldn’t understand why I liked Kosh. There was just something strangely lovable about him, though normally I dislike characters that seem to be cryptic just for its own sake. It helped that his Encounter Suit was undoubtedly the coolest-looking prop in the entire series, even in the scenes when it was obviously being rolled along a trolley instead of walking. (And on a nerdy note, his voice is provided by Ardwright Chamberlain, was a writer for Robotech). Still, I felt it was more than that, and it turned out to be that that Kosh was apparently one of the few of his species who doesn’t turn out to be a jackass (and Ulkesh was just outright creepy on a microcosmic level), and this is because Kosh is smart enough to change.

The stagnant ancient race that needs a younger one to show them how to feel again is a ridiculous cliché, but applying this dynamic to an individual character makes it much more believable, since it’s about character development instead of painting an entire species with the same brush. Kosh isn’t completely incomprehensible, and some of his pronouncements show a disdain for younger races that he gradually unlearns, and that change is a matter of intelligence as much as compassion. In doing so, he comes out the better being than the other Vorlons because he is still willing to invite change. Members of ancient races don’t have to be empty totems.

As I’ve said elsewhere, I enjoy characters that lack a showy attitude and prefer to simply act without pomp. Delenn eventually grew into such a character, and it made her very enjoyable. I’m not too concerned about whether or not a series depicts feminine female characters being able to play things their way in a harsh environment, but if you’re interested in such a thing, Delenn is a damn good example, too.

Overall, Babylon 5 put me in a good place. It had themes I could agree with, a good balance of tones, as well as character arcs and character development. It rekindled my feelings of wonder and excitement regarding space-faring science fiction, and live-action SF TV. Hats off.

Monday, May 23, 2011

SDFM Series in Review: Episode 2, “Countdown”

I spent a good part of this episode having a laugh. It starts off with a lot more in the way of overt slapstick, which is just fine--watching Hikaru’s Valkyrie stumble around and crash into buildings never gets old, and later on there’s more of that darker Murphy’s Law humour, as the gravity pods rip away at the worst possible time.

We’re introduced to a lot of things in this episode, and the one that I most remember is Lynn Minmay. I’m not actually a fan of Minmay, in terms of holding any affection for her as an individual character, but I don’t hate her, either. The thing about me is that I love the human-allied male Zentradi, and their character arc, so I seem to have to hold some regard for Minmay on some level. I default to giving her the benefit of the doubt in most cases, and, as I said, don’t dislike her. This episode doesn’t really show much of Minmay’s characterization. So far she’s just the generic cute girl, but that will soon change.

Roy and Hikaru’s banter is pretty fun, though the exposition about how the Valkyrie works loses me. The Valkyries are great designs, but talking about their nuts and bolts just isn’t that exciting.

The animation in this episode is pretty bad. You see wonky character art, miscoloured bits, and so on. Bad animation doesn’t get to me that much, so I only notice it when I slow down (except in “Virgin Road”, where it’s impossible not to).

However, the shot of Minmay falling and Hikaru catching her is a wonderful piece of animation, especially when you think about the effort needed to create the rotating effect frame by frame. They way they fall tangled back into the cockpit is also a very natural-seeming way to cap it off.

For some reason, watching those Regults jump along amuses me. Regults in general are funny mecha, aren’t they?

The scene where the Zentradi soldier climbs dazed from his crashed Pod is an image that sticks. The characters are just as surprised as the audience, and it’s one of the key conceits of the original SDF Macross: that these Zentradi are, in the end, simply human, and that makes them far more interesting.

The ending of the episode is a nice subtle look into Hikaru’s shocked psyche. He’s got the survival mechanism to fight when danger comes at him, but afterwards, it sinks in, and it’s far more effective when the Zentradi looks like a king-sized, armoured version of a guy you’d meet on the street. The narrator says little, Hikaru says nothing, but the idea is conveyed clear and sharp. It reminds me of Shinji Ikari’s reaction to his flashback of Sachiel’s defeat: Shinji simply turns over in bed, but that small move speaks volumes.

I…don’t have much to say about this episode, actually. It’s a place-setter in a lot of ways, and while that doesn’t preclude it from being fun, going through the episode piece-by-piece doesn’t yield much material. We’re all still waiting for the payoff.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

SDFM Series in Review: Episode 1, “Boobytrap”

This is the beginning of a second-round review of the anime series, originally done for a thread at AnimeSuki.

I’m a comparatively recent anime fan, but I discovered Super Dimension Fortress Macross through a set of surprising circumstances and instantly fell in love with it. Now it’s one of my all-time favourite anime, to which nothing else produced for Macross can compare. With that, let’s start with the first episode.

The opening sequence, showing the arrival and crash of the future Fortress, is a wonderful piece of animation that pulls you right in. The visuals are very cinematic, and the lack of any music or narration helps it to pack that special punch. When the narration kicks in (is it meant to actually be Claudia, or is it just the same VA?), and discusses the difficulties the new government had in forming, it showcases one of Macross’ strengths: it may be a very, very idealistic series as a whole, but it’s not afraid to inject a few small doses of realism, which actually strengthens its more wide-eyed aspects.

Watching Hikaru and Misa in the first episode, I wonder if their development was meant to compliment each others’: that is, Misa is being too mature (chewing out Claudia just for having a little fun), while Hikaru is being too immature (essentially crashing the flight demonstration and driving Roy bonkers). Both of them therefore end up together, in part, because they temper each other’s main flaws.

Of course, Misa and Hikaru develop more dimensions as the series goes on, so this alone is too simplistic an explanation for why they chose each other in the end, and furthermore, I don’t find Misa to be all that bitchy or stuffy at any point in the series. She’s not my favourite character in the series, but she’s by far my favourite of the main cast, and at no point do I find her that awful a person.

Roy, just for a second, lets his astonishment at Hikaru’s flying skills slip. It nicely suggests the maturing Hikaru, and therefore the perhaps archetypal need for Roy to die as part of a further rite of passage.

The Zentradi first arrive, and I just love their entire aesthetic. The designs of the ships and uniforms and characters are just wonderful. I particularly love Exsedol and Britai’s designs, both individually, and the way they contrast with each other’s. The interior of their flagship is first depicted as darker than it usually is, and I prefer the lighter shots, which demonstrate the contrast between the ships’ “organic” outside and technological interior. The characters of Exsedol and Britai aren’t explored much yet, but their traits are already shining through: a calm intelligence rather than a silly “warrior race” pomposity, as well as a good working relationship.

I realize that Macross was at some points in its development conceived as a comical series, and some of that emerges in the early episodes, but a muchof the comedy in “Boobytrap” is more along the line of dark Murphy’s Law stuff than broad slapstick or parody--that is, anything that can go wrong will, and usually at the most terrifying time. Of course there’s plenty of other jokes; I particularly like the chagrined look of the mascot on the Studio Nue building as it’s being destroyed.

Odd that the first Zentradi fighter craft seen are the Gnerl “planes” rather than the more famous Regults. I also love the way the Zentradi monitor forms piece by piece; it’s a very cool effect.

Overall, this is a good pilot episode. Most of the human cast gets a chance to shine, and the stage is set. There’s a lot of moments that feel very human, very natural in terms of their presentation, which only helps SDFM be awesome.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Come One, Come All

I'm going to be participating in the SDF Macross Rewatch Thread at Animesuki.

I've already done a sort of annotated series review of SDFM a while ago, but any chance to spread the love of the original Macross series is okay in my book. I'll be going by the AnimEigo subs.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Peculiar Olympians: Rodimus Prime

“The Peculiar Olympians” is a series of blog posts about my most favourite fictional characters. They are each here for some combination of sympathy, empathy, inspiration, humour, quality, staying power, and/or significance to my relationship with fandom. These are not all the characters that I like, but they are the ones that have stood out to me the most. The list is also alphabetical and nothing more.

On one side is the Predacon Megatron; on the other, the Autobot Rodimus Prime. In many ways they’re each others’ opposite, which makes them a nice encapsulation of my entire experience with Transformers.

My interest in the franchise started with Beast Wars, but an interest in the then-dormant original Transformers material soon followed. Though there was a lot of it, eventually the third season of the original cartoon emerged as my clear favourite in the 1980s corner. This is not for reasons of quality, since the whole cartoon is pretty bad when seen through adult eyes (and perhaps I should have known better as a teen, too), but there was a peculiar emotional resonance to its main characters that remains strong. This lets me cruise through those episodes at a leisurely pace even now. Any episodes outside of this, though, and forget it.

Rodimus Prime was the second leader of the Autobots during the original cartoon’s run. Originally the “teenage” Hot Rod, he was transformed into Rodimus Prime by the Matrix of Leadership at the eleventh hour to destroy the planet-devouring robot Unicron. In the years that followed, leadership began to take its toll on Rodimus, as he grappled with insecurity over being unable to measure up to his great predecessor, Optimus Prime. Other days Rodimus could handle himself just fine, and displayed a caustic sense of humour that Hot Rod never had. However, Optimus Prime was eventually brought back to life, though, and he became Hot Rod again.

I have a yen for angsty and sarcastic characters, making Rodimus Prime a one-two punch. He became an icon of my very first fandom, and a sign of the times I had there. As an adult, my interest in Rodimus Prime hasn’t changed, and I am also more confident in ignoring those who believe the third season was a fundamental drop in quality. Any flaws in the third season of the Transformers cartoon were intrinsic to the series as a whole.

However, growing older has made me realize that if there is anything wrong with Rodimus’ existence, it is that his insecurities formed no larger arc and resolution. Instead, his problems were solved at the end of an episode, only to emerge again after several episodes without incident, and be solved in the same half hour. Having these problems wasn’t the issue.

It seems almost as if the writers were trying to do something different with the beat-’em-up 80s cartoons, but only half finished it, introducing a character facet not often seen in such shows and presenting it with genuine feeling, but not letting it go anywhere. It’s saddening, but also raises the question of whether one could really have expected the Transformers cartoon to suddenly develop the capacity to do long-term character arcs and character development. Why not just give an “A” for effort?

I do, exactly because Rodimus Prime is still an enjoyable character, and I like watching the third season of the Transformers cartoon for him and other reasons. Any other appearance of Rodimus Prime or Hot Rod in Transformers media, whether it’s the same character or just one with the same name, is nowhere near as fun.