Showing posts with label babylon 5. Show all posts
Showing posts with label babylon 5. Show all posts

Sunday, 2 April 2023

Battlestar Galactica at 45

In the wake of seeing Star Wars 45 years ago, I would develop an insatiable appetite for shiny US imports on the big and small screen, cashing in on its box office success.

From Disney's The Black Hole to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The most memorable of which was Battlestar Galactica, released as the first of three feature-length movies in the UK between 1978 and 1980. The BBC's Doctor Who and Blake's 7 were (briefly) sidelined in favour of ITV's big-budget sci-fi offerings from across the pond.

Glen A. Larson's epic television series, following a rag-tag fugitive fleet led by Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) in search of Earth, foreshadowed the long-form storytelling of Babylon 5.

Battlestar Galactica may have been a bigger success had Larson and Universal not been embroiled in litigation with Lucasfilm and Twentieth Century Fox over allegations of ripping-off Star Wars wholesale. George Lucas’ space opera was a distillation of disparate influences from Flash Gordon to Joseph Campbell.

Notably, Star Wars luminaries John Dykstra, a special effects pioneer, and Ralph McQuarrie, a conceptual artist, worked on the fledgling sci-fi series. The following year, McQuarrie's starship designs would also appear in Larson's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Despite being the most expensive series ever made at the time, to save money, Battlestar Galactica reused special effects ad nauseam in later episodes. Larson would go on to reuse Cylon sound effects for KITT in Knight Rider.

At the time in 1978, the 3-part Saga of a Star World was recut and shown theatrically to promote the upcoming series. Infamously, it showed Baltar (John Colicos) being beheaded by the Cylons after failing the Imperious Leader (Patrick Macnee), which confused me as a child when I saw Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack on home video. How the frak did Baltar survive?

Years later, I worked on Dirk Maggs' The Gemini Apes for BBC Radio 4 with Colicos' son, Nicholas, and we talked about his father's iconic roles on Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek.

Battlestar Galactica didn't shy away from darker themes such as betrayal and death. The aforementioned Balter betrayed the human race to the Cylons and Serina (Jane Seymour) died in Lost Planet of the Gods Part 2. At least Athena (Maren Jensen) survived but was increasingly sidelined by Sheba (Anne Lockhart), much to my chagrin.

Where would the explosive space battles be without a bombastic soundtrack underscoring the action? Stu Phillips' music for Battlestar Galactica is memorable and compares favourably with John Williams' operatic Star Wars themes. I adored both soundtracks. For anyone interested, Phillips' recording with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Like Mego, Mattel passed on Star Wars (thereby facilitating Kenner's unprecedented success). Mattel bet on Battlestar Galactica and released a range of merchandise. Exeter's Pram & Toy Shop didn't give up much shelf space, but I did manage to get a Cylon Centurion, Imperious Leader, Ovion, Lucifer and a Cylon Raider.

Growing up, my parents didn't have cable television. So, I only viewed the first movie theatrically, a few of the episodes on HTV at my maternal grandmother's house (Rediffusion television was an early cable provider) and the two 'sequels' on rental video.

During the Betamax vs VHS format war, studios signed exclusive deals with Sony or JVC. Battlestar Galactica was only available on Sony Betamax. Thankfully, an aunt and uncle (who gifted me an Atari VCS in 1980) owned a high-end Sony machine featuring stereo sound, and I was able to watch Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack and Galactica III: Conquest of the Earth on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Teignmouth after playing Pole Position at the seafront arcade.

It would be nearly a decade before I had an opportunity to see the entire Battlestar Galactica series including the risible spin-off series Galactica 1980. The less said about the latter the better. However, The Return of Starbuck, guest starring Dirk Benedict (The A-Team) in the titular role from the original series, is a highlight foreshadowing Enemy Mine.

Ronald D. Moore's (For All Mankind) acclaimed reboot of Battlestar Galactica, one of the first sci-fi series I covered on this blog, ended 16 years ago and was followed by a short-lived prequel series, Caprica.

Much was made of Starbuck's recasting as a female in the reboot - years before Jodie Whittaker would play Doctor Who - and Katee Sackhoff's stellar performance, alongside a fantastic cast, soon allayed any fears. Sackhoff has gone on to play fan-favourite Bo-Katan Kryze in various Star Wars spin-offs including The Mandalorian on Disney+.

The late Richard Hatch, who portrayed Captain Apollo in the original Battlestar Galactica and became a childhood hero alongside Luke Skywalker and The Six Million Dollar Man, played Tom Zarek in Moore's lauded reboot. We were friends on social media. Hatch sadly passed away in 2017.

Battlestar Galactica has left a lasting legacy in popular culture from The Big Bang Theory to Portlandia.

What are your memories of Battlestar Galactica? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Babylon 5 rebooted for The CW

After news broke that Russell T Davies was returning to Doctor Who, The CW announced a reboot of Babylon 5 with series creator J Michael Straczynski at the helm.

Coincidentally, Straczynski had expressed an interest in showrunning Doctor Who and has commended the decision to bring back Davies for the 60th anniversary in 2023.

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, speculates on new adventures aboard the beloved Babylon 5.

Guest post by Nick Smith

The CW is a guilty pleasure for me. The shows are formulaic and repetitive but they’re also cosy, glossy and filled with glamorous actors. The channel has proved a good home for DC Comics superheroes, teen romances and the odd spot of demon hunting. But is it the right place for Babylon 5, a show that originally left the air in the late ‘90s?

Should recycling be left to garbage, or is J Michael Straczynski’s TV opus ripe for rebooting? The show is being redeveloped by its creator, who is writing the pilot and will be, ‘running the series upon pickup,’ according to a late September tweet.

A reboot of such a fan-shipped show has its challenges. Here are my top 5 comments and concerns:

1). Reboots are rubbish (usually).

Nine times out of ten, reboots are a bad idea! Without their original creative team or cast and the rocket fuel of ingenuity that blasted them off in the first place, reheated shows are a pale imitation of their former selves. Exhibits A to Z include Bionic Woman, Knight Rider and Matthew Perry’s version of The Odd Couple (oh dear). Fortunately, there are exceptions, which build on the originals instead of simply rehashing them (including and Battlestar Galactica, so say we all). "You cannot step in the same river twice,” Straczynski told the Twitterverse, quoting the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “for the river has changed, and you have changed.” In the years since Babylon 5, I’ve done a ton of other TV shows and movies, adding an equal number of tools to my toolbox…’ So he’s approaching the franchise as a brand-new show.

2). Arc plots are old hat.

Arc plots, where early episodes of a season or series pay off at the conclusion, are common in all kinds of shows from Heroes to Supergirl to manga/anime like Bleach and Naruto. JMS wasn’t the first arc plotter but he is one of the best. A line uttered by a character in the pilot took greater significance as the show developed. Enmity between two old foes was the starting point of their burgeoning friendship. A mysterious alien was revealed to be more powerful than the heroes ever expected. We still enjoy plotline payoffs but they’re no longer as surprising as they were in the ‘90s. In shows like Doctor Who and The Mandalorian, they’re almost expected. The original Babylon 5 was full of storytelling surprises. Will the same characters mean the same revelations?

3). Characters like Delenn, Londo Mollari and G’Kar are in Babylon 5 for a reason, symbolizing a political position or mindset. Like all the best sci-fi, these aliens provided JMS with an opportunity to comment on our own society. Other than switching the sexes or ethnicities of the actors, how many new observations can be made? How many new characters can be added without losing the sense that we’re on the same station as before?

4). Audience expectations are greater than they were a quarter-century ago.

We’re used to better effects and more metafictional nods to what we’ve seen before. With the new Babylon 5, more time and money can be devoted to computer-generated gee-whizzery – The CW’s recent Krypton (AKA in my household, ‘The Adventures of Superman’s Grandpa’) created believable alien cities and worlds - but Straczynski’s show is far more than that interstellar eye candy. Despite its primitive CGI, the original series’ makeup effects were often astounding for the time but the focus was always on characterization and plot rather than hardware. Now CGI can create everything from aliens to galactic wars, will the balance shift?

5). A new best hope.

A Babylon 5 reboot offers the chance to reinvent the saga with better effects and contemporary acting. But the emphasis still needs to be on the main cast, character motivations and their revelatory experiences.

The remake is in good hands with J Michael Straczynski. The CW seems like an appropriate home, with a teen-friendly cast and more chance of being nurtured than on a big American network. We are fortunate to have the creative talent of Straczynski with a prominent show like Babylon 5, let alone any intelligent sci-fi, on our screens at a time when what we need more than ever is hope.

Are you looking forward to the Babylon 5 reboot? Let me know in the comments below.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

IMDb TV launches with Babylon 5

Amazon has launched IMDb TV in the UK. The new ad-supported streaming service is available to both members and non-members of Amazon Prime from the Prime Video app.

“IMDb TV has created a free-to-consumer destination by combining a hybrid of exclusive Originals from Amazon Studios and highly sought-after movies and television,” said Lauren Anderson and Ryan Pirozzi, co-heads of content and programming, IMDb TV.

IMDb TV first launched in 2019 in the US and has scale in a competitive, and increasingly crowded, streaming space.

“Free streaming services are not unique, especially in the UK, where there’s several broadcaster options [such as BBC iPlayer and Channel 4’s All4],” Pirozzi told Variety. “I think what is unique about us is ambitious, premium original series from Amazon Studios inside a free service: that is much more unique.“

“You might see some overlap in licensed content [with Prime Video], but the selection will be unique and bespoke because we’re obsessing over UK customers,” added Pirozzi. “So we’ll tailor our selection to our customers in the UK.”

All five remastered seasons of Babylon 5 (affiliate link) are available to stream on IMDb TV, which is perfect timing following the announcement of a reboot at The CW. I've begun a rewatch after several decades! You can read Nick Smith's review here.

Will you be watching Babylon 5 on IMDb TV? Let me know in the comments below.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Babylon Burning Bright

Babylon 5, a seminal space opera instrumental in popularising long-form storytelling, has a new lease of life on iTunes, Amazon (affiliate link) and HBO Max.

As I've written previously, the sci-fi series will always be synonymous with undergraduate study and culminated in a letter (co-written with friends) published in Starburst magazine around the time I first saw my name in print in Dark Horse Comics' Classic Star Wars.

Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, goes on a mysterious mythic quest in deep space.

Guest post by Nick Smith

"Life’s full of mysteries," says Commander Jeffrey Sinclair (Michael O’Hare) in the ‘90s space opera Babylon 5. One of those mysteries is, why doesn’t the show get more love?

Warner Bros’ Babylon 5 has a lot going for it – likeable heroes, mysterious aliens, galaxy-shaking secrets and political shenanigans. Its imprimatur can be seen in more recent shows like 2004’s Battlestar Galactica and The Expanse. But unless you’re a hardcore fan, chances are B5’s slipped off your radar if it was ever blipping there in the first place.

By the time Babylon 5 premiered in 1993, TV audiences were used to glossy space operas thanks to Paramount’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. The latter was so popular that it spawned its own spin-off in the early ‘90s, Deep Space 9. B5 and DS9 were both set on space stations, featuring the interaction of different aliens who didn’t always get along, energized by a rivalry to match that of Warner Bros. and Paramount.

The show does seem dated, with a more leisurely pace than we’re used to in our fancy new-fangled shows and computer-generated space vessels that look… computer generated. Nevertheless, thanks to the amiable acting and ambitious writing, B5 deserves a revisit and HBO Max apparently agrees, as it’s currently streaming a remastered version of all five seasons.

According to Warner Bros., the episodes have been scanned in 4K from the original Super 35mm negatives, cleaned up, colour corrected and released in 4:3 HD. That means we can see Sinclair’s impressive eyebrows comin’ at us in Hi-Def; marvel at the great makeup job on aliens like the Soul Taker, who really looks like he has a jewel embedded in his forehead; and cringe at some of the regular, human makeup, now you can see the (lack of) blending around the eyes or a wee bit too much blush on the cheeks. And that’s just the guys.

Babylon begins with its vaguely ponderous pilot episode The Gathering, introducing main characters like Sinclair (Michael O’Hare), Michael Garibaldi (Jerry Doyle), Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and G’Kar (Andreas Katsulas).

Show creator J. Michael Straczynski seems concerned that the general public will be turned off by sci-fi, so he includes a murder mystery plot and a courtroom drama (Sinclair accused of the mysterious murder).

The story serves its purpose of familiarizing us with different alien races and indicating the tension between them. The Minbari fought the humans but surrendered at a pivotal moment in the war; G’Kar and Londo have an inculcated hatred for each other that might take, oh, five years to work through.

There’s a sense that the story would be better if it stuck with one trope instead of three but Straczynski knows what he’s doing – he is, after all, the author of my well-thumbed copy of The Complete Book of Scriptwriting – a Save the Cat for space heads.

After The Gathering, the show quickly improves, with a more relaxed cast, more fluid camerawork and tighter editing. There are some fun aliens like N’Grath, who puts the ‘man’ into praying mantis. CGI creatures were not really feasible back in Grandpa’s day so we get good ol’ fashioned practical BEMs instead. The humanoid alien makeup is great, as evidenced by formerly mentioned, gem-headed Soul Hunter – more on that bad boy in a moment.

Episode two highlights the rivalry between G’Kar and Londo and introduces a few new characters, including Lt. Commander Susan Ivanova (Claudia Christian) and psychic Talia Winters (Andrea Thompson). Like Sinclair before her, Ivanova will grow on the audience and all the characters become likeable over time.

Episode three features the Soul Hunter, who represents an immediate threat to the Minbari and becomes the second ‘killer on the loose’ in the show so far. Tellingly, the Hunter is not an out-and-out monster; he wants to save souls. The rest of the series develops in a similar manner, with sympathetic villains and moral dilemmas explored in fascinating arcs, with pay-offs begun in the pilot (Sinclair is told he has ‘a hole in his mind’) leading to a satisfying conclusion.

J. Michael Straczynski wrote the majority of the episodes, taking a grown-up approach to space stuff. I admired him. I really wanted to like his saga and I read about it religiously in DreamWatch Bulletin magazine [I miss the fanzine and not solely because my words were reprinted in its pages - Ed]. But it was hard to follow Babylon 5 on British TV, partly because of its scheduling on Channel 4 and also because I was in university at the time, spending my time with ne'er-do-wells like a certain Mr John Hood!

So, it’s great to be able to see this epic streamed in order without interruption, showcasing Straczynski’s masterclass in story development, inspiring sci-fi fans and providing a new best hope for some quality entertainment.

What are your favourite memories of Babylon 5 or are you discovering the series for the first time? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

Babylon 5 remastered on HBO Max

Following the cancellation of Doctor Who in 1989, there was an unfillable void vacated by my favourite time traveller until the BBC's beloved sci-fi series returned in 2005.

Star Trek: The Next Generation came to the fore with a Marvel UK tie-in and Playmates Toys' action figures and accessories as an early nineties sci-fi renaissance began, across the Atlantic, heralded by Steven Spielberg's SeaQuest DSV, Babylon 5 and The X-Files.

All of which became synonymous with undergraduate studies at Bournemouth University.

SeaQuest DSV and Babylon 5 both utilised Amiga Video Toasters and were the subject of lively debate in computer animation studies. George Lucas' Star Wars prequels were still a few years away, non-linear media production was still in its infancy and prohibitively expensive for the homebrew crowd (myself included) before Steve Jobs returned to Apple, democratising the industry with the iMac and iPhone.

"Sooner or later, everyone comes to Babylon 5." - Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

Babylon 5 was originally shown on Channel 4 in the UK running for 5 seasons between 1993 to 1997. J. Michael Straczynski's sci-fi opus, a galaxy-spanning retelling of The Lord of the Rings, quickly became a touchstone in the space opera firmament. There were countless carshare and water-cooler conversations with fellow fans when I was hired as an online journalist following graduation.

Babylon 5 embraced long-form storytelling and the late Mira Furlan, who played Minbari Ambassador Delenn, would go on to star in JJ Abrams' Lost (available on Disney+).

A passion for computer-generated imagery (CGI) was rekindled when I bought an iMac DV SE in the summer of 1999 and subsequently published in 3D World magazine in the early noughties.

This is a very convoluted way of saying, I never saw Babylon 5 (nor spin-off series) after its original transmission and, as I toiled tirelessly on Bryce 3D, Poser and Photoshop, I yearned for the adventures of Commander John Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) and crew of the titular space station.

So, it was a surprise to see Ged Maheux, friend and co-founder of the Iconfactory, tweet Babylon 5 has been meticulously remastered for HBO Max. Seemingly in the spirit of Paramount's Star Trek: The Original Series and The Next Generation but stopping short of updated visual effects. Incidentally, I recently rewatched stablemate V AKA V: The Original Miniseries, on SyFy, and the eighties anti-fascist allegory benefits from its original widescreen presentation.

Alas, the subscription-based streaming service from Warner Bros. isn't available in the UK, but I'm hoping Nick Smith will be able to review Babylon 5 on HBO Max. The remastered series is also available to buy (affiliate link).

Babylon 5 has deservedly become a cult classic and will find a new generation of fans. How about a reboot utilising technology developed for Disney+'s The Mandalorian, HBO Max?

What are your memories of watching Babylon 5? Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, 8 January 2021

Blake's 7: Star Wars for cynics

When BritBox, a joint venture between the BBC and commercial broadcaster ITV, announced it was adding a classic sci-fi and fantasy collection, many of us hoped Blake's 7 would be included. Indeed, I hadn't seen the beloved cult sci-fi series since the early nineties. BritBox, the exclusive home of all things classic Doctor Who, didn't disappoint.

Blake's 7, from Dalek creator Terry Nation, soon joined the subscription-based streaming service, and I had every intention of binge-viewing. It all started promisingly enough with the realisation I couldn't remember anything at all about season one: noting it drew heavily upon the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker eras of BBC stablemate Doctor Who. But I got distracted over the holiday season by the return of Baby Yoda on Disney+.

Thankfully, Nick Smith, our US-based stellar scribe, is here to save the geek galaxy from my festive fail.

Guest post by Nick Smith

Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, BBC’s primetime space opera Blake’s 7 was an obvious response to the success of Star Wars. Audiences wanted more spaceships, more aliens, more derring-do. There are many similarities, including rebels (Blake and crew), an evil empire (The Federation), a ruthless, bad-ass villain (Supreme Commander Servalan, played by Jacqueline Pearce) and a funky ship (the Liberator).

With hindsight, Blake's 7 even shares Star Wars’ bleak outcomes, from the tragic life of Anakin Skywalker to the deaths of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Master Yoda et al. But at the time, the BBC was going against the grain, eschewing the glossy optimism of Universal Studios’ Buck Rogers in the 25th Century for more adult, cynical (some might say realistic) might-conquers-all pessimism. It’s Robin Hood in space, where an elegant, indestructible Sherriff of Nottingham has more chance of winning than the outnumbered merry spacemen.

Following the gloomy bent of Survivors, a show about the plucky people who remain after a global pandemic, creator Terry Nation went darker with Blake’s 7. The hero, Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas), is convicted of ‘assault on a minor’ among other ‘moral deviations’ by a dystopian government that has already brainwashed him; the opening titles incorporate his torture. Fun!

Blake’s crew, gathered after escaping from a prison planet, is made up of thieves and murderers. Banding with Blake is no guarantee of survival, and without the lucky break of finding a high-speed alien spaceship, it’s doubtful whether the rebels would have survived for long. Blake’s idealism is sometimes dangerous, other times inspiring. Avon (Paul Darrow) and Vila (Michael Keating) are initially self-centred but they both risk their necks to help their friends.

Blake’s 7’s dark edge is one of the reasons why we’re still talking about it today, 40 years after it wrapped with a killer ending [Christmas 1981 was the stuff of childhood trauma - Ed]. It peels back the idealistic layers of freedom fighting and shows that one man’s rebel alliance is another man’s terrorist group [a theme explored in The Mandalorian - Ed]. Pacifism doesn’t work (as tried in the episode Volcano) and bold heroics can get you killed.

The deaths of beloved characters such as Gan (David Jackson) were shocking at the time of first broadcast, long before Lost and The Walking Dead made such sudden losses commonplace and far less effective. Under Federation rule, no one is safe and that sense of risk is paramount.

The backdrop of galactic politics has been mirrored, and given greater depth, in more recent shows like Babylon 5 and the Battlestar Galactica reboot. The real allure of Blake’s 7, however, is its captivating characters. All of them have entertaining traits; even the waspish Orac and the obsequious Slave are endearing, mostly thanks to Peter Tuddenham’s meticulous voice work. Vila Restal gets the best lines as the cowardly comic relief with a heart of stolen gold. Space Commander Travis (Stephen Greif), the eyepatched Guy of Gisbourne to Blake’s Robin Hood, gets his own story arc.

Kerr Avon is one of the most fascinating protagonists in the history of television. He weighs the odds but sometimes takes risks that put his life in danger or takes a great toll on his friends (especially in the Season 3 closer, Terminus and Season 4’s Blake). He appreciates the irony of his situation, smiling to himself at the futility of fighting the Feds. With his enigmatic grin, he’s a Milky Way Mona Lisa and his performance is a joy to watch.

The show is dated. The hair is permanent. Some of the monsters defy belief (the giant insect in The Harvest Of Kairos is terrible in the wrong sense of the word). The writing is clever and engaging, the situations gripping, with toe-tappingly rhythmic dialogue and a sense of impending doom. But the scripts are seldom as witty or imaginative as Blake’s 7’s televisual bedfellows, Star Trek and Doctor Who.

Despite its production flaws, there’s plenty to make Blake’s 7 worth watching today: the model and prop designs, the themes and visuals (like a giant space brain!), the strong female protagonists and antagonist, and the sheer impetus of Blake’s crusade are all highlights of this very special slice of sci-fi.

What are your memories of watching Blake's 7? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

"Spoilers, Sweetie!" (Part 1 of 3)

Do spoilers spoil or do teasers tantalise?

A brand new spoiler-filled discussion between Generation Star Wars' John Hood and Taking the Short View's Andrew Lewin...

The return of Game of Thrones for season 4 has once again made the Internet a minefield for those of us who aren't able to watch the show in real time because of not having the right satellite, cable channel or streaming service to see the show before it makes its way to DVD and Blu-ray in 11 months time. How on earth do we manage to stay pure and spoiler-free for that amount of time without accidentally finding out something devastatingly pertinent in the meantime?

Does finding out about some major plot twist or dramatic event in advance of seeing the show in question end up ruining it beyond repair? Or is it no big deal really and everyone should just get over it? To put it simply: are you a spoilerphobe or a spoilerphile?

Andrew: Since it was mentioned in the introduction, I should confess that I am - as you know - very far behind in my viewing of Game of Thrones. Despite absolutely loving the first season, I've yet to even get cracking on the second box set. While it might be vaguely reasonable to insist that no one spoils the current season now airing on television for at least a few weeks or months, it's clearly ridiculous to expect them not to speak freely of events that happened a year ago or further back still.

As result, even before I watched a single episode of Game of Thrones I knew that the person who was the evident star of the show - Sean Bean playing Eddard Stark - didn't make it to the end of the season without a sudden reduction of about a foot in height. This is, as you can image, a rather huge spoiler - arguably it's the shocking pivotal point of the entire first year. Knowing that, you would think, would irretrievably wreck the viewing experience.

But actually, it really didn't. It certainly changed the viewing experience, I'm sure, and given a free choice then I'd have preferred not to have known in advance, but I'm not sure it did any major damage - party because the key moment came so much earlier than I'd expected, a sudden twist in fortune that still caught me off-guard when it happened. While I knew Stark's ultimate fate in the show I had managed to stop myself from knowing the details of how we got there and that made all the difference, it seems to me. In the same way I know in a general way about events such as Blackwater and the Red Wedding and now the Purple Wedding, but it doesn't impact my eagerness to get to those points in the box sets, or lessen my enjoyment of the show or the effect of those shocks when they happen anyway.

So while I don't tend to seek out spoilers, I also don't fly into a rage when one lands in my lap, and I wouldn't declare the whole show ruined for me for all time if and inevitably when it happens. Does that make me an unusually forgiving and forbearing sort of person, or are you the same?

John: I'm of the same mind, Andrew!

Inadvertent spoilers don't phase me per se, but I try to be discreet in how I disseminate information. For example my enjoyment of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was distilled in a spoiler-free review, which made no reference to the titular character, nor identity. It piqued friends interest in a movie they were otherwise disinterested in. Perhaps Marvel should appoint me to the company's social media division?

I've been guilty of very rare, and unintended, spoilers, myself! The most infamous pertained to the appearance of a 'Red Supreme Dalek' in a teaser trailer for The Stolen Earth. This was at a time when BBC America wasn't showing the series day and date with the UK. Twitter replies lit up, aptly, like the Fourth of July and I hastily apologised. Losing a few followers in the process...

Of course there's an omnipresent issue that friends can post spoilers on perfectly innocuous status updates on Facebook. I've received disgruntled direct messages from friends complaining about this. It's exhausting policing my own timeline for fear someone will reveal to the world that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. D'oh!

Andrew: Yes, the international aspect of social media these days makes it very difficult to know what is and is not a spoiler in people's minds - what might have been open knowledge in the UK for months might still be a shock waiting to happen in another country, but how can you police that? And should you? And the nature of what constitutes a spoiler is different for people as well: like your incident with the Red Supreme Dalek, I know a number of people who regard even the official 'next week' trailers at the end of shows like Doctor Who as spoilers and have been reprimanded for mentioning something seen in them even though the network/show producers themselves have chosen to reveal it. Once I was angrily rebuked for a contribution to a conversation about who was to replace Matt Smith as the Doctor, since they regarded the international headline news that Smith had officially quit as a 'spoiler' until the very moment itself came for Smith to depart in the TV series. I think it's safe to say that was a bit of a rogue outlier when it comes to spoiler sensitivity, though. At least - I hope so!

John: Way back in 2003 I was banned from a Star Wars forum for suggesting the original Death Star would be seen in Episode III! The fact this was a 'spoiler zone' made it all the more ironic; seemingly the irony was lost on forum members too eager to protest. The Death Star did appear in Revenge of the Sith and I was vindicated!

Andrew: Okay, so maybe my guy wasn't such a rogue outlier in that case! Anyway, like you I don't mind spoilers myself but I am very aware of not wanting to inadvertently spoil something for anyone more sensitive than I am - which can make writing reviews for Taking The Short View really very tricky at times. On the whole I end up saying very little about the plot of a film or show and stick to just a couple of lines about the set-up and then outline the main characters/actors, but it's very rare for me to go into more detail than that because it's instantly spoiler territory as far as someone out there is concerned. For example, I was keenly aware that in the piece I did on Gravity I had to write it in a very specific way so as not to give a major plot twist halfway through that most other reviews seemed to me to have implicitly done.

John: There's an art to crafting reviews that capture the essence of something, whilst preserving enigma and creating a need in the reader to see it. Wish more critics would aspire to that philosophy.

Andrew: I can aspire with the best of them, but everyone slips up now and again. And it's really not easy to pull off sometimes: one review I recall as being particularly difficult in this regard was the one of Oblivion. A good rule of thumb for spoilers is "If it's in the trailer and adverts then it's fair game to talk about it" and that's what I normally go with, but in the case of Oblivion, the PR campaign was disastrous and I felt it seriously harmed a lot of the film by being too explicit: you could accurately predict the final twist from what they divulged. So when I came to writing it up I pretty much only used what was introduced in the first five minutes of the film, and didn't even credit half the cast/characters in the film because simply knowing they existed (let alone who they were or who was playing them) gave too much away. Another problem was that the thrust of the review was about the film being too derivative of a number of other science fiction films, but to start naming these influences too specifically also risked giving away and spoiling the plot twists. What's a reviewer to do in a situation like that with both hands now tied behind their back?

John: Somehow I managed to avoid the major plot twist in Oblivion almost a year after its theatrical release! Bizarre, but true.

Andrew: I remember seeing the trailer in the cinema and on the spot I thought, "Oh, then this means X, Y and Z will happen" - and it did. I think that's why so many people were disappointed when they saw it. Fortunately I didn't watch it until it was out on Blu-ray and by then some of the memories had faded.

Going back to the perils of reviewing without giving things away, there are also definitely times when it's impossible to adequately review something unless you wade headlong into full-blown spoiler territory. That's very much the case with series (film or TV) where events in a new instalment may well hang on the shock reveal from the previous one - your example of Darth Vader's declaration being very much a case in point! Or on a lesser note in the classic Doctor Who serial "Destiny of the Daleks" that I recently reviewed, where I couldn't talk about it without revealing that the story includes a) Daleks, b) Davros and c) robot android adversaries. Key criticisms I needed to make of the serial stem from these points but they're all nominally spoilers. At that point I just have to slap on a spoiler warning and dive in anyway; the fact that the show in question is 35 years old also insulates it from some criticism, hopefully!

John: Mentioning Daleks in the title precludes a shock entrance from Doctor Who's most famous foes. However, it does guarantee eyeballs. That was the brilliance of "Earthshock"! A title that gave nothing away and the return of the Cybermen was all the more memorable for it. Surprise is an elusive commodity in an era of instant gratification.

Andrew: It does make me laugh that there are about a dozen classic Who serials where the big dramatic episode one cliffhanger reveal is the Daleks crashing in, and we're all meant to be shocked - despite having already been told that the title is "... of the Daleks"! By comparison, "Earthshock" had one of the best episode 1 cliffhangers of all time (and indeed, also has the most shocking episode 4 ending as well.) Producer John Nathan-Turner was offered a Radio Times cover by the BBC to promote the return of the Cybermen and he actually refused because he wanted to retain the impact! I know JNT is a divisive figure in fandom but he also did the show a lot of good, and his handling of "Earthshock" is a prime example as far as I'm concerned.

John: JNT has my eternal gratitude for that at least.

Andrew: Of course, no one could hope to retain that sort of shock in this day and age thanks to the all-pervading Internet - or could they? I had certainly managed to completely miss all the spoilers that were apparently swirling ahead of the 2006 story "The Army of Ghosts" and consequently literally fell off my chair when the Daleks suddenly sprang into shot at the climax of what I'd completely assumed was a Cyberman story. I was obviously such a big Classic Who fan that the possibility that the Daleks and Cybermen could ever appear and interact in the same episode was just something my brain had already been pre-programmed not to accept even when all the signs had been there.

John: Shame it descended into a puerile battle between two of the Doctor's most famous adversaries. The televised Dalek vs Cybermen battle had nothing on Junior School playtime! Imagine yours truly as Earthshock-era Cyberleader coldly crushing Dalek casing. Ahem! Please, continue...

Andrew: A bit of a lost opportunity, I agree, but I'm still rather fond of it. And no one does build up quite like Russell T Davies.

Case in point: the show also caught me out in 2008's "The Stolen Earth" when the Doctor is exterminated by a Dalek (them again!) and starts to regenerate. This was at the time when we knew David Tennant was leaving, but no successor had been announced and there was still a year of feature-length specials ahead of us before the handover - or so we thought. The possibility that the show had pulled off the ultimate trick and was about to change its leading man 18 months early and without us having a clue who would be stepping into the part had me yelling delightedly "No ... no .. this can't be happening!" at the screen. Alas in the end it really was just one of Russell T Davies little writing tricks - but so very well played nonetheless.

John: Those so-called specials were anything but.

Andrew: Definitely a mixed bag, but I've revisited a few of them since and they bear up better than I'd remembered.

John: Vivid memory of savagely deconstructing "Planet of the Dead" on Twitter with scriptwriting and directing peeps. However, worth revisiting if only to see actress Michelle Ryan in a post Bionic Woman role! Ryan would have been a brilliant companion.

Andrew: Maybe. Anyway, I think it is still possible for the show to continue to surprise us today: when I sat down to watch the pre-50th anniversary online minisode "The Night of the Doctor" I had absolutely no idea who was starring in it. None at all. All the old stars had publicly said online via social media that they weren't returning and I believed them, so I guess that's an example of how you can game the Internet to send out disinformation to help guard against spoilers. I'm glad they did, because that was a terrific surprise and a total shock.

John: Wasn't that joyous? I literally had goosebumps when [REDACTED]. In the midst of last year's Doctor Who 50th celebration, I was fortunate to attend, with friends, the Official Celebration at ExCel and the inevitable spoilers didn't matter a jot. Especially as most of these emanated from the series' showrunner, Steven Moffat, during Matt Smith's final panel as the Doctor.

Andrew: Okay, before this discussion gets too monopolised by Doctor Who, what are the best things from other films/series that you can recall being surprised and unspoilered by in advance? And how much of a difference would it have made to the experience if you had known before seeing it the first time? To pick up on your mention of it before, I'll cite Vader's revelation in The Empire Strikes Back as one I had no idea was coming and which left my jaw on the floor.

John: Vader's paternal revelation turned everything upside down in the wake of Han Solo's capture by Boba Fett! Was Vader trying to trick young Skywalker into either joining the Dark Side or kill Luke as he pulled himself back across the gantry? I literally feared for Luke's life and didn't give it any credence until the months leading up to Return of the Jedi (enacting potential scenarios with new action figures). Foreknowledge would have dampened proceedings irrespective of any ambiguity therein.

Spock's death at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is another. That scene gets me every time.

I have a habit of trying to decode major plots twists, but Unbreakable alluded me.

How about yourself, Andrew? Has there been a spoiler, which enhanced your enjoyment or even piqued your interest in something you might have otherwise overlooked?

Andrew: I guess the 'spoiler' of knowing in advance about what happens to Sean Bean in Game of Thrones was ironically the thing that made me think, "Oh - maybe this isn't going to be what I thought it was. That sounds interesting, I'm going to give that a try" when previously I'd been dismissing the whole thing as a Lord of the Rings wannabe that I had very little interest in. And of course, now it's my current choice of all-time favourite TV show, so thank goodness for that change of heart!

John: High praise for Game of Thrones and understandable given how deftly the multiple subplots are threaded together! In less assured hands it could so easily unravel and become incomprehensible to even the most ardent fans. Such was the success of Sky Atlantic's promotion for the S4 premiere: NOW TV crashed (mimicking HBO Go in the US) due to a high level of demand during the live stream on Monday evening. Sky quickly compensated affected users (myself included) without any prompting. Commendable, but poses questions regarding the pitfalls of cable-cutting too soon.

Andrew: Yes, people pushing for putting everything online and doing away with broadcast channels have little idea about the reality of the network infrastructure and what it can and can't do. No surprise it was Game of Thrones that keeps exposing the problems - I'm so in awe of that show.

Like you, I have an annoying habit of 'reading' a film and working out the plot twists - even when I'd actually rather not. Unfortunately I'm rather good at it, so therefore any film or TV show that can catch me out and blindside me immediately goes up in my estimation. The trouble is that even knowing that there is a 'twist' in a film almost counts as a spoiler in its own right because then I go in looking for it and more often than not figure it out in advance.

The biggest example would be The Sixth Sense which was hugely promoted on its shock twist: I went to see the film and absolutely nailed it from the very first scene and was then rather bored of watching the mechanics of how it was followed through. Again, it was the trailers headlining the "I see dead people" quote that made it possible - damn publicists! On the other hand, The Usual Suspects is another famous 'shock twist ending' and I confess that I only narrowed it down to about five possible outcomes by the end - one of which was the right one, but that doesn't count! So high marks there for Bryan Singer's first big screen outing.

John: Have a soft spot for M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense! If only for James Newton Howard's haunting evocation of celebrated composers Bernard Herrmann and John Williams.

Andrew: Herrmann being possibly my all-time favourite movie soundtrack composer of all time, too. But that's a subject for another blog post I suspect!

John: A future post on soundtracks! What's not to like?

Andrew: My most profound shock in a cinema has to be David Fincher's Fight Club. I'm not even sure I why I went to see that film - on the face of it, it wasn't my sort of film at all as I'm totally averse to films about fighting and boxing, even classics like Raging Bull. I certainly didn't know there was any twist in it. I spent the first half thinking "This is dreadful, the plot, characters and acting are all over the place" - and then came the revelation ("Ladies and Gentlemen, please return your seats to the full, upright position...") and for a moment I literally felt physically off-balance because it changed absolutely everything I thought I'd known up to that point. I had to go back and see the film again a couple of days later, and it was a totally transformed experience seeing how it really fitted together rather beautifully yet without tipping its hand like most films would have done. As a result, I have to put Fight Club in my all-time top ten movies.

What about you - any others you've seen where you've felt, "I wish I hadn't known X before seeing that"?

John: A friend suggested Jacob's Ladder on rental DVD and the twist was revealed, accidentally, by his dad only minutes into the movie. Wholly unintentional, but there was an awkward silence thereafter.

Andrew: Oh dear! Did he already know what was going to happen in the film, or was it a lucky guess that inadvertently ruined what unfolded?

John: "This is the one where..." Pinter pause. "Yes, dad! John hasn't seen it before."

Andrew: Hard for me to ask "And in what way did knowing this spoil things for you?" when I haven't seen the film myself and don't actually want to know!

John: It would be remiss of me to answer!

Andrew: Sometimes people can just blurt out a guess that happens to be right, or because it's basically obvious. For example, it's pretty easy to say at the start of a film like Titanic that the ship sinks and pretty much everyone dies, or that in Pompeii the volcano is about to get a little active any moment; is that a spoiler? Hardly, no more than "revealing" that Noah features a big flood that wipes everyone out except the people on the ark. If someone blurts that information out at the start of a film then I guess it's enough of a spoiler to really ruin the film for some people, but to be honest they'd have to be pretty clueless about the subject matter if it does.

Actually that raises another question about spoilers: can they actually be a good thing? After all, it's the audience knowing that the boat is going to sink or that the flood's going to wipe out every living thing on earth that drives a lot of the suspense of the film. In fact filmmakers often 'spoiler' what's going on in order to achieve the dramatic effect they're after: Hitchcock always said that the difference between shock and suspense was that the former might feature a bomb suddenly going off, which would leave the audience reeling for maybe ten seconds; but if we know there is a bomb ticking down to zero in little Timmy's hands on a packed bus, the suspense of that knowledge can be stretched out to an unbearable degree over five or ten minutes. Hitch of course was a master of the latter.

John: JJ Abrams is a master of mystery and this will serve him (and Disney) well where events "in a galaxy far, far away..." are concerned. Just imagine if Karen Gillan is cast as a Mara Jade? Oops! There I go again.

Andrew: I've just finished watching reruns of Babylon 5, and what's interesting here is that the writer/creator of the show actively gives away what's going to happen through various means such as the use of time travel, premonitions and 'flash forwards.' And yet in each case, what we think we're seeing is completely turned around by subsequent developments, so by the time we see the scene actually happen in "real time" it's telling a completely different story from the one we thought it was. I guess I should say that Steven Moffat is now the modern master of that art with his timey-wimey, head-scrambling work for Doctor Who which often does the same thing.

It's probably this approach that worked for me on Game of Thrones: although I knew the twist about Sean Bean, I had no idea how exactly it happened, when or why. So in the end it worked perfectly, setting up the anticipation but not giving away so much detail that it ruined the journey. When the moment came, it was fully a whole episode ahead of when I had expected and so I was still open-mouthed and aghast at what was transpiring.

John: Babylon 5! J. Michael Straczynski's ambitious retelling of The Lord of the Rings. Loved the series and imagine how it would look today on HBO sans the spectre of cancellation every season.

Andrew: What a wonderful thought! If only ...

Think that's it? We've hardly scratched the surface of spoilers! Join us next time for the second part of our discussion, in which we wonder whether falling foul of spoilers stops us from watching programmes, which current shows are the most spoilered, and the question of whether novels are spoilers for the TV and film adaptations made from them. Join us then...

Wednesday, 7 February 2007

Star Tunes

I have no qualms about the fact that I am a self-confessed geek!

I'd rather read graphic novels, draw, Photoshop, pore over lines of XML and HTML code, write about Apple Inc, and I adore the genres of science fiction, horror and urban gothic (amongst others). If there was ever a bona fide candidate for that dubious, and exploitative, television series Beauty & the Geek, that would be me (See my photo - aged 11 outside Doctor Who's Tardis at Longleat. Frankly I was in heaven).

The latest (and last for the moment) member of the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Enterprise, is now available in the iTunes Store (USA). Presently only the first season is available, but further seasons will arrive in due course.

Episodes are priced at the standard $1.99 and you can get the entire season for $48.99, which is quite competitive considering the DVD box set of the first season is going for $112 on Amazon (though, to be fair the DVD set includes some special features, higher quality picture and 5.1 audio).

Here's hoping Deep Space 9, Voyager and The Next Generation show up on iTunes in the near future. Of course none of these shows could hold a candle against Babylon 5!

Friday, 14 October 2005

Bobbing for apples

Apple's announcement of a video iPod, iTunes 6 (including obligatory QuickTime update) and Front Row Media Experience was almost too much to digest in one evening. And the closer content ties between Cupertino and the Magic Kingdom, hint at possible merger* plans! At the very least Pixar should continue to leverage Disney's considerable marketing might coupled with vertical integration. In return Disney secures lucrative brands and artistic talent.

Churlish comment alert! In its present form I can't see myself downloading video from iTunes 6. Whilst the image quality surpasses HDTV, it scales poorly (see UMD) and there's no approved way to burn videos in iDVD. Toast 7 is crippled (due to contractual reasons). So, no legal means for me (or any UK viewers for that matter) to watch the new series of Lost (USA only) or Battlestar Galactica (the best sci-fi/tech noir series since Babylon 5, which is unavailable at present). A year from now things could be very, very different! As Master Yoda would say "Patience!"

The decision to use an existing form factor - a slimmer G5 iMac - meant that Apple's media centre proposition is in stores before the holiday season and the computer company can establish a beachhead into an overcrowded market that includes TiVo and Microsoft. Personally, I would suggest that power users wait for the 'star dust' to settle and snatch the first of the Intel-powered machines next year! A portable Mac mini Front Row Media Experience is alluring in the extreme.

It is arguable that Apple is now the custodian of the Capitalist media industry and if they can't get digital distribution of television programs and movies right then no one can!

Never one to be deterred by bleeding-edge technology. I've tested QuickTime Pro's new Movie to iPod (320x240) export option. Here's hoping a 60GB video iPod (in black) is in my stocking this year!

[*A merger between Apple and Disney has been the subject of Wall Street water-cooler conversations since 1997.]