Saturday, May 14, 2011
2005: The Year Genre Broke? (Serenity/Battlestar Galactica)
While there will likely be discussion regarding this, and at much greater length by much more qualified geeks, but it must be said that the timbre of genre expectation has splintered into wildly divergent factions. It can be argued that while we have seen many works made recently that offer the realms of Fantasy/Science Fiction/Horror something reminicent of notions that it's all in good fun, genre fan friendly, nonintrusive, and guaranteed to win fans of all types, there has also been the more recently baggage of a heightened wish for grit, realism, and even literate take on what was once merely a forum for entertaining fantastical ideas while winking at the audience.
And since the "oughts", it has also been made clear that in the post-internet age that there was also a long-hidden viewer contingent ready for something more than fantasy for its own sake. Can it simply be pointed toward technology? It's the reason that a film such as AVATAR, while massively successful can also be seen as a 90s film with 00s visuals. But this is only a single component, as many shows naturally could only wish to have the budgetary, and directional might of a Jim Cameron. With the advent of not only visual effects, and production capability, writing has also come under a microscope, in many ways forcing television and screenwriters to alter the trajectory, and to offer something in less of a popcorny vein, leaving many viewers harder than ever to satiate. And there is no place more telling of this than in television.
While it can more properly declared that geek expectations transgressed into something far more complex sometime around 2007-2008, a part of me can't help but feel that the seeds of this change took place during 2005.
And it is this disconnect between a television series made into a feature film, and a reimagined tv series that began at roughly the same time that seems to carry much of the weight of this pop culture event horizon.
So when I mention the Joss Whedon's short-lived Fox science fiction western, Firefly, and its miracle film continuation, Serenity, it is by no stretch to say that the show's irreverent take on not only space operas, westerns & caper shows is a jumbled tribute to television of the century left behind. From Nathan Fillion's complex and disarming rogue in Cap. Malcolm Reynolds, to the colorful cast of crew members on his trusty Firefly-class ship, containing a mixture of both traditional western favorites, to cleverly remixed versions of them. Both traditionally well executed, and often witty-to-the-point of bemused annoyance, the 2001 series was practically killed on the runway before it ever had a chance, and yet it became one of the first truly successful shows to survive on dvd, creating an even larger fan following that hepled Whedon & Co. move from Fox, and to make a one-time feature film version to be released in 2005. And watching it with 2011 eyes, it has become more evident than ever as to the preoccupations of genre at the time it was released, let alone almost feeling dated upon arrival, which may have also contributed to its less than stellar theatrical performance. But considering the legion of fans the show garnered in the time since the show left the airwaves, and the continuing support the show collected via the inernet, the very idea of a film being made is something of an unheard of event that still must be considered today. And in the second half of a decade grappling with dramatic world changes, a shift in notions, and a general shake in security outlook, it became apparent that merely looking back to look forward was not going to be accepted by all.Which may be partially why Firefly/Serenity never connected with many admirers of science fiction, especially in lieu of fans more acclimated to either allowing a show to breathe beyond the creator's idiosyncratic habits, or containing more grit & science. As fun as this show is (and I admit to being a fan during its heyday), it certainly requires a certain freewheeling, aloof with irony mindset to the whole thing. The more one is familiar with the tropes, and cliches that Firefly is circumventing, the more amusing it can be.
But when considering the decisions made with the feature film version, watching it now, it really does feel like a visually original, funny, and yet hopelessly rushed cap to a series that never really had a chance to show it's inherent advantages. And considering that Whedon clearly knew that this was a miraculous last chance at visualizing something of a dream prject for him, he and crew give it their all for themselves, and for fans, but it also grounds the show heavily within the era of its making. Whether it's making good on it's anti-Lucas stance by having Reynolds shoot an unarmed villain, or having the show's tabula rasa in Summer Glau break out into the so-trendy for the early 00s Wo-Ping-style kung-fu, the world of Firefly revels in its timely "coolness". So much in fact that it almost comes as something of a turn-off at this point in time. Now granted, science fiction also has this almost doomed stigma of always being dated upon the time of release, but there have been examples made in time that help the work transcend this problem. And it is within the writing that this can occur. And for someone with as much writing chops as Whedon to just run hog wild with the post-modern, it just grounds the film in this sphere of time that leaves it all in a campy realm that cares less about how it feels later, and remains hopelessly self-conscious.
Especially interesting considering that nearly two years before, a miniseries rendition of a late 70s network tv cult classic was released in the wake of historical events to paint a bleak picture of future space, complete with enough political and philosophical allegory to fill an entire decade's worth of genre material. When Eicke & Moore's take on the much-adored Glenn Larson series Battlestar Galactica was to experience an almost complete revamp featuring many of the names and iconography in his "mormons in space" allegory, the initial response was the expected type to come when anything is retrofitted for the new. And yet the unexpected success of the miniseries event led to the then Scifi Channel's decision to contract an episodic series to be made of a parrallel humanity's interstellar run from a relentless assault by a machine race they once created in the hopes of finding a new home in the mythical planet known as "earth".
While in all respects still a "remake", much of what fuels the current Galactica is a loosening of the reins of overt reflexive self-consciousness in the dialogue, and greater emphasis in immediate danger. Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos), & Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) form the parental backbone of humanity as it remains endless in its search for a means to survive neverending plots by the Cylons who have now advanced to almost perfectly replicating the appearance of humans, and have now begun to infiltrate the remaining poulace. It's a startling thematic symbol for the decade in which it was produced, and are notions that continue on to this day. And it is here that the series both excels, and suffers. It is a delicate balance to walk since viewers can easily see the time within many of the plots the show tends to throw out there. But the big difference remains in general attitude, and execution, which could easily make or break a series like this.
And while it can be said that Galactica had the advantage of being based on a culty, yet much respected series from genre past to become something that had a lot more storytelling fuel that lead to a moderately sucessful four and a half-season run (much longer than Firefly), it can also be seen as evidence that notions of change regarding how we look at material like this were indeed happening. And it was after an initial season starting in 2004, that it became clear that an audience for darker, headier, and less ironic talespinning was bubbling underneath the surface. Sure, the use of shaky, hand-based camerawork has been regarded as the current "cool", but it can also be seen as a compliment to the dialogue we hear. There's something to be said about dialogue in the immediate that can be considered timeless as long as it's done well. Just as soon as stationary cameras, stagy lighting, and clearly touched-up dialogue for its own sake can come off as artificial, and unrelatable, we have been in a sort of hydra-shaped plane of existence, offering multiple means of digesting our fantasy. And lending us new ways to experience stories, which is not so much a matter of quality, but of taste. And while this writer happens to admire both of these creations, they are for obviously different reasons. But if I had to pick a show for prolonged posterity, it would likely be alongside Adama & Co. No way I'd trust my hide with the likes of those on that little piece of junk.