Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Beginning of Line

Missing Caprica?

Thinking that it was just starting to hit its stride?

Did the final five minutes taunt you with possibilities?

It certainly did for Teresa Jusino, writer, badass & geek girl, (who I've referenced here previously). Teresa decided to put her pixels (and her time, effort, editing and hours) where her desire was. She came up with the idea of writing Season Two - Caprica.

It's called Beginning of Line. It premiered today.

I wrote Episode 1 - check it out.


PS. OK - so it's a short story, not an episode, but hey, I had fun getting someone else's toys out of the box and playing with them for a bit. 

Monday, November 15, 2010

Space - for a dark place it can be very white.

"It's about us, finding out who you are. It's about being Tauron, being part of a family." 
Joseph Adama, "Rebirth" Caprica

It was when I started following the Caprica cancellation twitter feed that I noticed something.

There were tweets, angry tweets. I knew that because they were in English and English is my first and last language. But then I noticed that the tweets were also streaming in in other languages. There was some French, maybe some Italian and there was some Spanish, and then, slow at first but growing as the news spread, there was a whole lot of Spanish.

I started following some of the links coming off the feed. They led to some passionate articles analysing the reasons behind the SY-FY decision to yank Caprica off-screen three quarters of the way through its season.

When I came across one by Teresa Jusino - "Writer. Badass. Geek Girl Extraordinaire" - at Tor.com the outpouring of Spanish in the twitter feed was given a context that I had, to that point, been totally oblivious to.
Sadly, there isn’t a lot in sci-fi for cultural minorities to latch onto. When I met Edward James Olmos at Wizard World Philly two years ago, I told him “Forgive my language, but it’s so f#@king cool that there’s a hispanic admiral on Galactica!” He leaned in, smiled, and said “It is pretty f#@king cool, isn’t it.” Yes, it was, and with Caprica we got to delve deeper into Tauron culture, which was one of the few outlets sci-fi fans got for a non-Anglo sensibility. Granted, it was a hodgepodge of Eastern European Jew, Hispanic, and Ancient Greek, but it spoke to all of us who struggle to straddle cultures.
R.I.P. Caprica: We Hardly Frakking Knew You - Teresa Jusino

Jusino's observation of the significance of Olmos in the role of Admiral, and of the lack of non-Anglo sensibility in sci-fi in general, got me thinking about the genre TV I love - and how, so often, it fails to reflect today's reality, let alone a future reality.

I'd been enjoying Caprica and its progenitor BSG for the detail of its world building, for the texture of society and culture it was creating, for the exploration of themes that sprang directly out of contemporary issues such as war, torture, religion.

Race, it seemed to me, was being addressed allegorically, on a species level. The 12 colonies had created a new life-form in the Cylons, they had exploited them, the Cylons had rebelled and an inter-species war had followed.

Whilst various ethnic groups were represented as the colonists, to be honest I saw Edward James Olmos playing Admiral Adama as just a fine actor in a great part.

Such is the "luxury" of being "colourblind" when your colour is white.

When I read Jusino's article I was reminded, in an ouch kind of way, of Stephen Colbert's wickedly pointed schtick about being "colourblind" - such as when he asks Morgan Freeman whether it had been Freeman or Matt Damon who played Nelson Mandela in Invictus, because Colbert just doesn't "see" colour.

Jusino's articulation of how important it was for those who "straddle cultures" to see that straddling represented explicitly, in casting choices, in themes and story elements that explore difference and inclusion and exclusion and culture, well suddenly that Caprica twitter feed coming in from Spanish speaking America, from Argentina, from Brazil and Chile made perfect sense.

And it made me even crankier about this show that was being yanked. A show that, while not perfect, was ticking a lot of the boxes that sci-fi ought to tick. That was about society and culture and religion and creation and destruction and family and the future.

It also got me noodling around the internet looking for more commentary on the subject of sci-fi as a white space.

I set out thinking I'd probably want to spend some time looking at Deep Space 9, a show that boldly went where Trek has been far too loath to go ever since.

However, it didn't take me long to stumble across the Earthsea adaptation debacle.

"Do you remember that old saying? "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again?"" 
Amanda Graystone, "The Imperfections of Memory", Caprica 

Back in 2004 the then SciFi channel adapted Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series. I was not familiar with either the books or the series and was therefore pretty ignorant about what had happened in the journey from book to miniseries.

To say the author was underwhelmed by the result is itself an understatement.

Le Guin writing for Slate.com described it as a "whitewash" that had recast her vision of people of many and varied colours and turned it into a white space:
My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn't see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes"). It didn't even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn't they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future? 
A Whitewashed Earthsea  How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books.
Le Guin has written extensively about the bleaching of her Earthsea universe and has collected links to her own and others articles on the subject.

It was whilst following the links from Le Guin's site that I came across the writing of Pam Noles - "Black. Geek. And Fine With That" - and her marvellous blog And We Shall March.

There was also a link to one of Noles' articles at The Infinite Matrix. The article was triggered by the bleaching of Earthsea but became larger than that. In it Noles looks back over her long and conflicted love for sci-fi and genre, and is entitled, simply Shame.

It is simultaneously a passionate affirmation of Noles' love for sci-fi & genre, the "weird stuff" as her mother termed it, and a clear-eyed honest assessment of the genre's failings. She recalls watching Sci-fi as a child, defending its whiteness from her parents queries, whilst longing to "see" herself depicted in the words and images of these future worlds.

Noles questions how Hollywood was able to whitewash Le Guin while the genre press remained silent.
If Hollywood has taken a groundbreaking, universally acclaimed, multicultural novel that has been in print for over thirty years and turned it into a white-boy romp, that is a news story. 
Pam Noles, Shame

"So Say We All"
Various, Battlestar Galactica and Caprica

Fans, and that's what we geek fanciers are - fans, have a right to expect more from our writers, from our creators and producers and TV executives.

And fans, such as Jusino and Noble have every right to want to give up, to just walk away, in disgust at the long, long failure to deliver.

But ... but ... but ....

That's the seditiously seductive thrill of SFF. That hope about the future. That maybe, just maybe, the next one will get the mix right; will get the balance of story and action, character and plot, tek and heart, colour and culture right.

Until then, maybe we should all take Pam Noles' Dad's advice to his daughter, now an adult and still in thrall to the "weird stuff" -

Dad's advice was cryptic only if you fail to understand that he knows precisely what it means to look directly into the face of what you love while saying you are wrong.
"I think you should try," my Dad said to me. Then he added a caution. "Be ready."
I am.
Pam Noles, Shame.  

So say we all!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Firefly, Serenity and 'The Wish'

** Serenity and Dollhouse spoilers**

In the ‘bonus extras’ section of the DVD of Serenity, Joss Whedon’s 2005 movie, there is an interview with Whedon – the writer/director of the movie and creator of its precursor, the TV series Firefly – in which he says that he does not want to make TV shows and movies that people like. He wants to make TV shows and movies that people love.

Like many people, I came to Firefly once it was already on DVD. The first I knew of Nathan Fillion was his creepy turn as Caleb on season seven of Buffy; at that time I was a Buffy and Angel devotee but Firefly was not being broadcast on an identifiable TV slot in Australia and thus I’d only read about it online. It was Joss’s orphan child, and I was prepared to wait, plus I wasn’t so fanatical about the Whedonverse (at that stage) that I was going to buy the DVD as soon as it was released. At that stage I was alone in my Buffy love and thus there was no one prodding me to watch Firefly. (I should also note that at that stage I was obviously still immune to the Charms of Fillion – Caleb being a not-exactly-endearing character.)

Eventually I bought the DVDs and watched them speedily. Then I watched them again. Then the grief set in: only one season. However, relief was at hand: Serenity was newly released on DVD and I could watch that too.

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that Book and Wash get killed. When I’d left these characters in Firefly, they were alive and well and floating around in the ersatz Millennium Falcon that was Serenity. When Wash was done away with in the movie, my intake of breath was audible.

It is, of course, Joss’s prerogative to change the stakes for the movie and to kill whomever he chooses. But despite that fact that he killed two such dear characters, it didn’t make me love the movie less. He had managed to create one TV show and one movie from the same story germ and they were both creations to love. They also demonstrated how one brilliant mind can find ways to explore the same story and that there can be the same characters and the same universe yet different intentions, different moralities, different outcomes. Maybe it’s Joss’s own little quantum physics experiment: if I change X here, how does Y change, and does Z even exist at all at that point?

As a stalwart admirer of the output of Joss’s vast brain, I can’t help but wish there were similar ways to explore different outcomes in his other shows, other than through the comic books. One of my favourite, most-watched episodes of Buffy is ‘The Wish’, in which Anya grants Cordelia’s wish that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale. It’s a glimpse into what might have been; it is the darkness that is always a fingernail’s breadth away in all of Joss’s stories. Then the spell is broken.

Serenity, in a way, is the equivalent of ‘The Wish’ for the Firefly audience: our opportunity to explore what happens if a handful of key elements in the original story are changed. For anyone interested in the role stories play in human existence, how they change to fit the times, the purposes they serve, it is thrilling to see.

This post was written in part to assuage the blues that arose when I finished watching season two of Dollhouse. I need to spend a bit more time thinking about it before I write about it, but there will perhaps be quite a lot of writing about it. For now, I’m still underground with Echo.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Caprica Cancellation - who will dare divide an audience now?

Now I had a bit of a rant earlier today here in the comments to Sophie's post about Caprica and Egyptian Gods but I reckon it's worth discussing the cancellation of Caprica in relation to the bigger picture - of what makes good Sci-Fi and what makes commercial Sci-Fi and what the hunt for a large cohesive audience means, creatively and more broadly.

A quick look at the Customer Reviews section of the Amazon.com page for the Caprica DVDs got me thinking about what it means to have divided your audience. There was a lot of love in the comments room for Caprica, but also a lot of the other thing. Which raises the question; can a creative project that divides audiences find support in the cruel harsh light of the commercial world? It's worth considering that question for a bit and maybe broadening it.

Making stuff up, making stories, means you want to tell a tale that your audience will be compelled to hear, to be hooked by, to listen to, all the way to the end. Well, I do any way. I want to write something that people will read. Why? Well, for one thing I have a maybe misguided belief in the power of the story I'm trying to tell. I think it's not only interesting but in some way "true", that is, it is telling some kind of truth about life, the universe and everything.*

Now, just because I want people to hear my story doesn't guarantee that they will. My book is a bit on the sweary side. It's about cops, and though it doesn't swear nearly as much as they do, it probably is a bit rawer than a viewer of Midsommer Murders would care for. 

So, I know up front that I'm going to divide my audience. And frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. That's my story. That's how it has to be told. Cosy crime readers won't dig it, gritty, noir, realism crime readers will. I accept that though crime is a "genre" it has a number of sub-genres within it.

Now, the Sci-Fi genre has a long tradition of telling stories about the future that also tell us something about us, right here and now.  And that's just what Caprica set out to do when the producers and writers decided to find their conflict in the battle of ideas rather than the battle of phasers and space battles. 

As I banged on here, Caprica was all about taking the social, cultural and religious ideas explored in BSG and developing them. This made it one of the few (only?) TV dramas prepared to examine the major issue of the new millennium - extremist religious terrorism - in a way that wasn't just violent revenge porn.

Whether they got it all right, all at once is open to debate. But some viewers got pretty excited about the approach and its potential. Others got bored. The makers of Caprica divided their audience. And that is, it seems, something that can't continue.

Sy-Fy tells us that: "Unfortunately, despite its obvious quality, Caprica has not been able to build the audience necessary to justify a second season."

Now that's a pretty depressing statement which ever way you look at it because it seems to resign itself to the fact that "quality" cannot survive in a marketplace that demands a non-divided audience. And "quality" won't even earn you the time to develop complex ideas that would perhaps build an audience, the kind of audience that buys DVD box sets that give a product an exceptionally long shelf life, like say, Deadwood, The Wire, True Blood etc.

SY-FY is not HBO. That much is clear. I know that I'd love to see what HBO could have done with Caprica. Perhaps it's time HBO took on the Sci-Fi genre and gave it The Wire crime treatment, or the True Blood horror treatment, or the Deadwood western treatment. Sci-Fi that looks to go beyond laser and phasers and space battles deserves to be treated with the kind of slow burning respect HBO extends the stuff it believes in.

The hunt for the undivided audience however is not limited to TV execs. I think it's something we're seeing in politics as well.

It used to be that parties hunted for the middle ground of settled policy, meaning that their own policies became more or less indistinguishable. Whilst that has certainly continued, the introduction of easier, accurate and more predictive polling, has meant that political parties now hunt for the "swinging" voter and then tailor their policies to capture them and keep the ultimate undivided audience. Political parties now shrink from floating any policy that may divide that audience, no matter how necessary the policy may be. 

So, perhaps it is no surprise that in the world of TV politics the hunt and capture of viewers has led to the creation of programs with the widest appeal possible, programs which tend to repeat ad nauseum previous successes, which start to all look, sound and feel the same, there is less and less space for programs which are prepared to explore ideas and dare to polarize audiences.

*Douglas Adams wrote about all these things. He did it in an outrageously funny way. He also told some universal truths along the way proving you can do sci-fi genre that is smart, popular, different and intelligent. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My Gods: Religion in New Kingdom Egypt and BSG/Caprica

While watching the second episode of Caprica (we’re still newly discovering it here in the land of delayed telecast) I had a nagging thought each time I saw the nascent examination of monotheism, through Zoe and Lacy, in a polytheistic society. The thought was: ‘What does this remind me of?’ Then I realised: the turbulent reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) in Egypt during the years 1350 to 1334 BCE.

For those of you who haven't heard of Akhenaten, here's the short version: New Kingdom Egypt (a land of conquest of surrounding lands, particularly Nubia, and many gods, particularly Amun) was humming along nicely as a polytheistic society until Amenhotep IV decided that he didn't like the idea of worshipping many gods and wanted to worship just the one god: Aten, the sun. He changed his name to Akhenaten, moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna (Akhetaten - no doubt the 'aten' suffix is becoming obvious) and set about removing references to 'gods'. The priests of Amun, who had previously been the 'main' god, didn't like it very much, as they'd enjoyed lives of privilege and power as the gatekeepers of Amun. And, it seems, others weren't so keen either: Akhenaten has been depicted in artworks from the time as a weak, diseased ruler in thrall to his consort, Nefertiti. The downfall of Akhenaten eventually led to the reign of the boy-king Tutankhamun (notice the -amun? - yes, it was back to business as usual).

I've said 'downfall' because there's no completely reliable evidence that Akhenaten died while on the throne. There is a fascinating book (now out of print) called Moses, Pharaoh of Egypt by Ahmed Osman. Osman is no conspiracy theorist - he methodically looks at the archaeological and written evidence to deduce that, facing the uprising of the priests of Amun and many others, Akhenaten left the capital with his followers in search of a new home. Osman posits that the pharaoh was actually the historical figure Moses. And, as we know, Moses was big on monotheism.

If those last two paragraphs have interested you at all, it's because the life of Akhenaten makes a great story that is as compelling now, millennia later, as it was then. What fascinates me is that this story has parallels in modern television making - or, at least, that I found a parallel. It's also fascinating - or depressing, however you want to look at it - that we're still grappling with all the same 'big questions' as those ancient societies did, and I recommend the study of ancient history for that reason. The Greek playwrights, such as Aeschylus and Sophocles, could be relied upon for story ideas for centuries to come because they covered it all, really. Any drama you could think of, it's there in their writing. The stakes were high in Lysistrata; there were high for Akhenaten; they are high on the planet of Caprica and in the series too, as well as in Battlestar Galactica, where there was serious discussion about the role of religion and mythology in a society that was struggling to survive.

Humans look to stories to illuminate their lives and to help them understand existence; they also need them for escapism. Perhaps we look to religion for the same thing. This post has meandered a bit off course but I guess what I'm trying to say is that in watching the unfolding monotheism/polytheism struggle on television, I feel connected to an ancient society that was itself trying to find its way. Perhaps its reassuring that the same stories are being told and the same issues discussed - humans now and humans in the 1300s BCE have so much in common. The past isn't even another country - it's just a suburb away. And so is the future.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Jane Espenson: "Make it ugly and rough and emotional"

As well as writing our own pieces on what gets us excited and enthusiastic about genre/sci-fi TV storytelling here at Nathan Fillion is My Imaginary Best Friend we're also going to share links to interviews, articles and interesting ephemera that washes up along the shore of the great wide Interwebz.

This interview "Caprica"'s Jane Espenson: "It's Time For Sexuality to be Incidental" appeared on www.afterleton.com and is worth reading in full.

Jane Espenson has written on a lot of this blog's favourites, Buffy, Angel, Firefly, BSG, Caprica and soon Torchwood.

In telling stories that are also issues based, which I'd argue all the best sci-fi/speculative storytelling is, there's a risk that one might lose sight of the storytelling in order to 'make a point'.  Espenson talked about how the writers on Caprica handled the storylines of two characters, one of whom is gay, the other in a group marriage, and neither of whom are entirely squeaky clean.

"But I kept coming back to they're complex, real people who we aren't bending them around to accommodate their preference. They're the most interesting people for our world and our stories, and making the sexuality incidental. It's time to start doing that."

Making "it" incidental, whatever "it" happens to be, seems so obvious, but is so easy to forget when you're up close and personal with trying to tell a story. 

Joss Whedon has spoken at length about his writing and the "dark place" that he goes into to find it. It's this understanding that can lift something like Buffy - (blonde teen fights vamps whilst wisecracking about high school) - such a ridiculous concept that it should only be played for laughs, right? But instead of settling for a cool, jokey show, the creative team elevated it to address "issues" along the way such as being an outsider who finds acceptance, confronting death in all its forms, dealing with the way that killing damages the killers, the way that love can be romantic, obsessive or generous.

So in this article it is interesting to see Espenson referring to the "dark place" in response to not only the work she has already done, but that which she is embarking on now - a new series of Torchwood.

"The Children of Earth miniseries that was their Season 3, oh my God, how brilliant! The decision that he can't save his grandson, his grandson has to die. Yes, that's a very Battlestar-y/Buffy kind of decision to pay the dark price. Go there. Don't make everything sweet and wonderful and all tied up. Make it ugly and rough and emotional."

As a writer, my response to Espenson's observation about being prepared to "pay the dark price" strikes such a chord. That is the stuff that moves me, when I read it or see it. It's the way I try and write. Not in a melodramatic way, that I think is the point, but in a real way, one that illuminates the truth about the way we live and die in the real world. 

In Walden, Thoreau wrote:  "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation" and in "The Gift" Buffy tells her sister, "...the hardest thing in this world... is to live in it" - Walden and Buffy, two extremes of culture, yet united in the recognition that within the ordinary processes of living lies great suffering and tragedy; both echoing a philosophical observation made millennia earlier, in the first of the Buddhist 4 Noble Truths that of the Truth of Suffering - a truth that is often unrecognised in our daily life. 

"Don't make everything sweet and wonderful and all tied up. Make it ugly and rough and emotional" - they are words to hang up on your shingle if you're a writer.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Telling long stories in Space - sometimes it helps to stay in one place

One of the most satisfying features of genre TV making is its embrace of long form storytelling. The concept of the long running show itself is not unique; serials and soap operas secured themselves a place on the tube early, along with that other genre stalwart, crime, although until The Wire showed how it could be done, crime tended to use its long running format to tell self-contained crime-of-the-week stories, to which the casual viewer could drop into - and out of - with ease.

In a book analogy, the crime-of-the-week, self-contained episode format is rather like a short story anthology. Maybe all the stories are set in the same place, maybe even featuring the same characters who may gradually change from story to story, but the reader doesn't need to read it cover to cover or in any particular order to enjoy the stories.

Long form storytelling in Sci-Fi, such as Torchwood, DS9, BSG, have increasingly offered their audience something more like a contract - we have a story to tell, it won't be told fast, it's going to involve layers, you're going to need to pay attention, but it'll be worth the trip.

Sci-Fi series, such as Star Trek, began with the self-contained planet-of-the-week format to tell their stories. This model was maintained when Star Trek : The Next Generation was re-launched in the late 1980s, apart from occasional two part special episodes. Within this episode based framework, characters developed and changed and made their journeys over the 7-year run of the show, most notably that of the sentient android Data who sought to become human rather than a facsimile of a human. But these developments happened often in spite of the alien of the week format, rather than because of it.

The long form narrative, a coherent detailed and expansive story remained limited to mini-series, such as V until, in 1993, two new shows launched: Babylon 5 and another iteration of the Star Trek universe Deep Space 9. Both series, though structured around the self-contained episode-based storyline format, contained one significant new element.

They were static. 

The were set on stations in a fixed location in space, with residents and neighbours and conflicts that weren't going to disappear in the rear-view mirror at the end of forty-five minutes never to be seen again. In this universe the decisions made had long lasting consequences, and the makers of those decisions had to stick around and experience the ramifications.

For the first time perhaps, in recent Sci-Fi TV making, there was a real sense of a fully developed place. Place in a literary sense of the word, containing all that that implies, not just the physical space of the station, but layers of people, politics, culture, geography, society and history that surrounded the station.

The effect of this sense of place on the storytelling that developed, particularly in DS9, was crucial. It morphed from a self-contained episode-based space opera quite early, opening its second season with the first three-part story arc in Star Trek storytelling history.

The subject matter of this extended story explored the rebuilding of the political culture of the station’s nearest neighbour, the planet Bajor. It revealed the religious and political culture of an alien world; it played out conflicts, established characters and saw decisions made that would reverberate all the way through to the conclusion of the series, five years later.

This was story telling on an epic scale.

Whether the Star Trek creators were initially aware of the narrative consequences of their decision to remain at a fixed point in space is debatable. The fact that the two subsequent series in the Star Trek world, Voyager & Enterprise, both reverted to the ship-based blast-away-at-the-end-of-the-episode structure suggests that some in the franchise were uncomfortable with the long form story format inspired by anchoring yourself in a place and creating authentic worlds and people in that place. 

The storytelling influence of Ronald D Moore, who both wrote and produced on DS9, became clear as the drama began to develop this rich and complex sense of place, and a large cast of regular supporting characters. As Moore and show-runner Ira Steven Behr’s confidence grew the story arcs became longer, richer and more complex and the creators asked their audience to check in and commit for the long ride.

Next time: Taking the long ride