Sunday, 29 September 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Body

“I don't understand. I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean I knew her, and then she's, there's just a body, and I don't understand why she can't just get back in it and not be dead any more. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid, and, and Xander's crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever. And she'll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain to me why."

Ok, deep breath. I can do this. Even though this episode hurts so much. DAMN YOU, WHEDON!

Joss himself write and directs, and sets such a sombre and unsettling mood, in large part through the extended use of silences to convey not only grief but also the awkwardness of not knowing what to do, what is socially acceptable, and to what extent we should broadcast our feelings when we lose a loved one. The scoobies are all young and just feeling their way through all this, and the episode consists, McLuhan-like, in characters not communicating and being incapable of reconciling their feelings, their feeling about how they should be feeling, and whatever the rules are supposed to be when the sky falls in. One theme of this episode is the silliness, and simultaneously the necessity of social conventions at times of extreme emotion. Anya may provide the comic relief in breaking these rules, but at least she’s being herself. This contrasts with Xander’s lack of eloquence as he punches the wall and Willow’s displaced distress over what to wear.

Another deep breath. New paragraph. And hopefully a shorter one.

The opening scenes are brutal, presenting Buffy and the viewer with a body, an object, that is not Joyce. We feel for Buffy in the eternity before the paramedics arrive and both we and her are punched in the face with the brutality of the language they use: ”Try not to disturb the body”. Even more brutal is Buffy having to break the news to Dawn. We know what’s coming as we see Dawn in her art class, adrift in the everyday concerns of a teenage girl, and as we hear her teacher speak of “The negative space around the object”. That’s a fair description of what this episode is about if ever I saw one.

We cut to scenes of the scoobies’ silent reactions to the news. We are not used to seeing them so helpless and distressed, but this is nothing so manageable as a monster. Death by natural causes is the most harrowing thing that has ever happened in Buffy, and it hits everything like a train. No one reacts well. No one really knows how to. Except Tara, who has experience bereavement before, and who seems less awkward with Buffy than before.  No one can cope with the lack of a simple linear cause or, in the case of Buffy, with not being able to know for certain that there is nothing she could have done.

Her mother “probably” didn’t suffer. Probably. Such a cruel word.

Dollhouse: Belonging

“You're a rapist scumbag just one tick short of a murderer. I've forgotten, do you take sugar with your tea?”

Before I go on to this episode and its rather harrowing events and themes, I can’t help mentioning that this episode is directed by Jonathan Frakes, Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation. He ain’t bad.

This episode covers some rather heavy themes and deepens our concerns about the ethics of what the Dollhouse is doing and whether, whatever Adelle might try and convince herself, the Dolls truly consent to what is being done to them. We also see an entrenchment of Topher’s ethical troubles. Most of all, we are exposed to the full horror and tragedy of Sierra, a character whose pain we had never suspected.

Flashbacks show us Sierra as she was before any of this happened: a free- spirited Australian tourist on Venice Beach, an amateur artist and easy prey for Nolan, a creepy and predatory pervert who, sadly, combines this with being rich and powerful. She is only an active because of his sexual abuse and disturbing machinations, and cannot be said to have in any way consented to being made an active. Most upsettingly of all, Nolan is still seeing her as a client, which can only be considered as rape. Yes, Adelle is furious and throws the book at him, but the episode ends with Sierra still as an active with a year of her contract yet to run. The only concession she gets at all is to get her memory wiped to remove the events of this day. It’s all very dark. Fortunately, all this is balanced by the very sweet love between Sierra and Victor, which makes this episode less harrowing then is otherwise would have been.

Topher, with his new found conscience, is left to face the full horror of what he has done to Sierra while recruiting her. He may have been ignorant of Nolan’s motives, but he is left with deep misgivings about his role and things he has done. He is intelligent but juvenile; this is the first time he has ever considered the ethics of what he does and he has to go through it alone. Adelle may be something of a mother figure to him, but she has he own ethical blind spots. He may collaborate with Boyd in covering up Nolan’s death, but this act of washing away the blood is an apt metaphor.

Oh, and did you notice the graffiti on the inside of Echo’s pod? The story arc proceeds apace.

Dollhouse: Belle Chose

“Lovely. So you're saying that we've imprinted an active as a serial killer and blindly let him loose upon the streets.”

Yes, the Dollhouse reviews resume. So, without further ado… on one level this is a story of the week about a misogynistic serial killer called Terry, his creepy doings and habits, and the fact that his influential father is able to use the Dollhouse to deal with his wayward son rather than leave things to the justice system as lesser mortals do. On another level, this advances the themes of the season and begins the acceleration of the plot threads towards the season finale. From this point, things are liable to move just a little too quickly, courtesy of Fox not being very nice to Joss Whedon, again.

This is also the point where Topher begins to have ethical issues with what the Dollhouse is doing, which at this point is so at odds with his character to date that Adelle reacts with mock amusement at his sudden development of a conscience. This is linked to the fact that this episode sees the Dollhouse, and active technology, being used in new ways. After Terry’s capture, which results in severe injuries towards him, his mind is put into Victors’ body. This is an acting tour de force from Enver Gjokaj, but we’re left a little uneasy at what the Dollhouse is doing. And this is before Victor escapes into the streets with the mind of a serial killer.

Linked to this is the fact that Terry himself acts as a sort of metaphor for the Dollhouse’s clients (remember, this includes Adelle) and their attitudes to the dolls/people. The character makes us, and them, think uncomfortable thoughts.

Things get even murkier when Adelle convinces Topher to salvage the situation by means of a remote wipe. The fact that only Alpha has previously attempted this hints at it not being a good idea in the long run; this is our first inkling that Active technology will eventually go too far.

Interesting things happen to Echo, too. She ends the episode with Terry still inside her head, unwiped and accessible to her. It is also bizarre to see Echo suddenly reverting to doll form in public, asking if she fell asleep.

For all of its thematic unity, this episode very much points the way forward towards the finale. This is where the pace picks up. Hold tight.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Pilot

“It means someone really wanted our initials to spell ‘Shield’!”

Oh dear. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve got no real excuse either. Just living and that. Home life, work, Doctor Who conventions, pod casting, and two gorgeous cats. And throughout all this time I’ve carried on making my usual blog notes for many things I’ve watched, both film and telly. There is a bit of a backlog for Dollhouse(notes completed up ‘til the end), Grimm, Buffy, Angel, and, well- how should I say this?- two entire television series right up until the end! One of them is four seasons long!

So I’d better get on with it. After all, I’m a massive Marvel geek, albeit one who stopped getting the comics with any regularity back in the 90’s, and rapidly becoming just as much of a Whedon geek. Plus, this is the first time ever that I’ve seen a Joss Whedon show on its original transmission. Well, I say original transmission, but we Limeys are seeing this a full three days after you Yanks!

SO, what to make of this first episode? Joss himself both co-writes and directs, and his fingerprints are all over both the dialogue and the general look of the thing. Of course, being a first episode, it’s a bit of a blur and it will take a bit of a while to get to know all the characters. But the supposedly late Agent Coulson is back from the dead with his dialogue made suitably snappy for him to be able to star in a Joss Whedon show. There is also a white coated scientist who is, at this point, notable only for being played by Ron Glass. More prominently, we have Agents Hill and Ward, technical British people Fitz and Simmons, and some other people. Most importantly, we have Skye, a hacker turned agent and Mike, a superhero played by none other than J. August Richards, who suddenly looks older than he did in Angel.

The opening dialogue recalls Torchwood in that it is set after the events of The Avengers and the “battle of New York” and the full outing of superheroes, and an alien invasion into the bargain. Everything has changed and we’ve got to be ready. In addition, the scenes with Mike at the beginning remind me of the first season of Heroes, but, mercifully, nowhere near as long winded.  As ever, Whedon has fun with the tropes. Mike’s story echoes that of Spider-Man’s origin and also that of many Marvel heroes. Wonderfully, Mike is quite aware of this, responding to the doctor who gave him his powers, when she tells him that it’s a disaster that “No, it’s an origin story”. Even more gloriously, Skye is set up early on as an agent of a mysterious organisation and antagonist, only to be revealed as a lone wolf hacker and captured within the first few minutes.

Skye compares Shield, while in conversation with Mike, to men in black and makes them sound sinister, but it seems that Whedon is anxious to avoid this cliché and takes pains to emphasise that they are in fact quite nice. This immediately gives the show a very different feel to Dollhouse, in spite of some superficial similarities.

Marvel Universe geekery is kept quite subtle, although there is an obligatory reference to Professor Erksine and the Super Soldier Serum. There are numerous mysteries, not the least of which is who gave Mike his powers, but for me the most pressing point is whether Mike is going to stay on and join the team. I get the impression that he isn’t dead, and Richards is far too good an actor to waste as a one off guest star.

One more thing: I had a red car called Lola way before Agent Coulson did! Just sayin’. That aside, this were well good.