Posts Tagged ‘Wildcards’

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The top 5 badass superheroes

March 12, 2009

I caught Watchmen in IMAX on opening night last Friday, and harrysaxon wasn’t too far behind me. Not surprisingly, both of us thought it was a pretty impressive film. And, with it fresh in our minds, it’s not surprising that this week’s list is about superheroes. Now, there are lots of different categories you can group your costumed vigilantes into, but there’s that certain class of recklessly ultra-violent types who’s behaviour would be otherwise deplorable, but who tend to get healthy nods of respect (and fear) in the superhero world because their explosions of id are channeled through righteous indignation, making them effective tools in the fight against evil, even if their methods are distasteful and given their cause only marginally acceptable as good. In any case it’s almost alwasy a guarantee that they’re fan favourites in the comic and book stores, and definitely audience favourites during the summer popcorn movie season when folks are hankering for big explosions, bone-crunching fights, and droll one-liners. And we put our heads together to give you the Top 5 Badass Superheroes:

5) Ghost Rider
A demon with a flaming skull (and motorbike) and a thirst for vengeance against the wicked, Ghost Rider generally has very little to say, preferring to tenderize the badguys with a chase and thorough pounding before administering the soul-crushing Pennance Stare. And if that doesn’t work, he’s not above killing. Not a superhero to be messed with. However, his overall B-grade status in pop culture reputation relegates the Spirit of Vengeance to the bottom of the list.

4) The Punisher
An ex-cop with a vendetta against badguys, an absolute sense of justice, and a huge freaking arsenal of big-ass guns is a force to be reckoned with. More importantly, Frank Castle has earned his ultra-tough-guy reputation despite a lack of super powers in a world notable for its legions of meta-humans. The Punisher doesn’t rank higher on the list though because he seems incapable of hitting the target for success in the movies.

3) Wolverine
Weapon-X has been through the ringer more times than you can count, but this tough little guy always comes back to pop the adamantium claws and slash his way through anything and anyone in his path. Always a scene stealer, Logan’s only weakness is his propensity to use the word “Bub”.

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The top 10 doctors of SF

February 19, 2009

Not too long ago my family doctor announced that he’ll be retiring soon. After my initial twin reactions of “Good for him; he’s earned it” and “oh crap, now I’ve gotta find a new doctor!” (most docs with practices in this neck of the woods aren’t taking new patients – many people have to put up with the impersonal service at walk-in clinics), I got to thinking about physicians in general, and the roles they’ve had in SF. So harrysaxon and I put our heads together and came up with this list of our favourite doctors of the genre(s) in books, TV and film.

10) Tachyon – Wildcards, edited by George RR Martin
-nominated by bloginhood
Sure he had a hand in creating the wildcard virus that dealt humanity a bad hand, but this purple-eyed alien sawbones made it up to the people of his new home by setting up the Jokertown Clinic to help ease the suffering of those who survived the bug but were left with freakish disfigurements.

9) Martha Jones – Doctor Who
-nominated by bloginhood
Smart, tough, adaptable, easy on the eyes, and most importantly, able to recognize that pining after The Doctor won’t do her any good. Others may have theirs, but Martha’s my favourite among the Companions.

8 ) Tyler Dupree – Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson
-nominated by bloginhood
The world-changing events in Wilson’s brilliant novel are seen through the eyes of Dupree, but it’s not his exploits with a scalpel that are important. His bedside manner with an old friend proves to be more valuable in a story about relationships set against a backdrop where unseen forces of immense power have the Earth seemingly on the brink of disaster.

7) Clemens – Alien 3
-nominated by bloginhood
It’s pretty impressive when a supporting character is so compelling that he outshines Ripley in an Alien movie. Whether he’s trying to figure out what Sigourney Weaver’s character is hiding during an autopsy on Newt, standing up to the prison warden, or telling the story of how he lost is license and was sent to do time on a maximum security prison, Charles Dance’s performance is so absorbing that they pretty much had to kill him off so we’d pay more attention to the castaway who brought the big mean bug – that and because pretty much everybody becomes Alien chow by the end of the flick.

6) The Doctor – Star Trek: Voyager
-nominated by harrysaxon
During the long years of Voyager’s trek across the Delta Quadrant, this holographic healer did pretty much everything you can think of, from coming up with radical cures for strange alien diseases to taking a prototype ship into combat to writing a novel. Ultimately, he picked up the mantle from Next Generation’s Data of the Tin Man looking for a heart in his quest to be recognized as a sentient entity with equal rights among the crew.

5) Doc Cottle – Battlestar Galactica
-nominated by both
Sure we don’t see much of him, but when we do, every second counts and all other characters fade into the background. His crusty badgering of his patients is possibly more ferocious than Cylon bullets and is always entertaining.

4) Simon Tam – Firefly
-nominated by bloginhood
Most of the attention is focussed on his troubled little sister, but this fugitive physician is an integral part of Serenity’s crew, and springing River from the lab, he’s played an important part in exposing the government’s Miranda virus experiments and their consequences to the ‘Verse.

3) Abraham Van Helsing – Dracula, by Bram Stoker
-nominated by both
Doctor and ass-kicking vampire hunter. Without his fearlessness and expertise, Harker, Mina and the rest of their gang would have been lost and Dracula would have been gulping his way through London like a drunk in a wine cellar. Anthony Hopkins’ take on the character in Coppola’s cinematic take on the story was great. We shall not speak of Jackman’s Van Helsing flick.

2) Steven Franklin – Babylon 5
-nominated by bloginhood
Franklin’s expertise in med-lab have made him one of the finest doctors in the Earth Alliance (and possibly the Interstellar Alliance), add spy and revolutionary and you’ve got a pretty impressive resume. But what ranks B5’s chief of medical staff so high on the list is how well-written his character is. Sure, it took a season or two to find his pace, but we see eventually saw different aspects to his personality beyond that of the earnest doctor, and his is a personality that changes over the course of the series in believable ways. For someone who was so fiery in many early episodes, it was interesting to see him leave the station quietly, humbly and alone at the end when he took the new job on Earth.

1) Leonard “Bones” McCoy – Star Trek
-nominated by bloginhood
Come on! Who else could top a list like this? Bones is probably the best-known among his profession in SF, if only for his often-lampooned insistance that he’s a doctor, not a – (insert the profession/trade/craft/general labour category of your choice).

Honourable Mentions:

  • Julian Bashir – Star Trek: Deep Space 9
  • Beverley Crusher – Star Trek: The Next Generation
  • Ash – Alien (okay, he was the ship’s science officer, but he doubled as medic when he wasn’t scheming about how to kill the crew)
  • Victor Frankenstein (we weren’t sure whether it was more appropriate to classify him as a natural scientist using medical/surgical techniques to assemble his creation)
  • Henry Jekyll (again, another uncertain one – doctor or chemist?)

Your Nominations:

  • Janet Fraiser – Stargate: SG-1
  • Dana Scully – X-Files
  • 2-1B – the Star Wars franchise
  • FX series – the Star Wars franchise
  • Moira MacTaggart – X-Men
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The best SF gateway TV show

October 18, 2008

What’s the best SF television show to encourage someone in the cultural mainstream to become a genre fan? What show has the magic combination of character development, interesting plot line(s), and, most importantly, easy accessibility (you might argue that sensawunda is another key element, but I’d count that as a sub-branch of plot – and an optional one) in sufficiently compelling quantities that make it the perfect gateway show to entice a person into becoming an SF fan?

Certainly, as geeks, we all have our favourites that we would like mainstreamers to adopt because of character and plot. But accessibility is the crucial factor here for a gateway experience – if your show has too many SF tropes that are unfamiliar to mainstreamers or ones that are too frequently stereotyped, or if your show even looks too weird, then mainstreamers will be driven off, fearing, as an old editorial in On Spec so brialliantly put it: “the SF cooties”. Also in terms of accessibility, a mainstreamer must be able to tune into pretty much any episode and be able to get into it despite their lack of backstory/previous episode experience.

With those ground rules in mind, what SF series (ongoing series, new series, and old series in active reruns all count – old series that are not currently being aired do not count) would make good gateway experiences and which ones wouldn’t?

Here’s my take:

Anything Star Trek is immediately disqualified. To the mainstream mind, Trek = nerd. No matter how good some of the episodes may have been in some of the series, the amount of scorn the franchise suffers in the minds of mainstreamers is about as high as a pile of Tribbles in a quatrotriticalene silo. The fact that some out there on the net may be chomping at the bit to correct my spelling (admittedly probably inaccurrate) of quatrotriticalene only adds weight to the argument. The dialogue in any given Trek is also heavily freighted with self-referential jargon, guaranteed to lose the interest of a mainstreamer in about a half-second. Let’s not even get into the shadow of The Shat.

“Reaper” is also off the list of potentials. It’s funny as hell and one of my favourites right now, but despite the presence of various supernatural baddies, I don’t think the mainstream audience would really be stimulated by it to take up other SF shows or start reading fantasy novels. They’d be more likely to enjoy it as a one-off.

Similarly, “Chuck” and “My Own Worst Enemy” are probably out too. I think mainstreamers would probably view them as shows with a spy bent, and perhaps tacitly acknowledge any sci-fi flourishes, but wouldn’t be driven by them to pursue SF any further.

I think “Heroes” is also unlikely to create any new fans. Putting aside the continuous downward spiral of the plot’s quality, at best “Heroes” probably resurrects some fondness for the superhero sub-genre, but I doubt it’s enough to get people out buying the latest Frank Miller or Alan Moore comic or tracking down old editions of George R. R. Martin’s “Wildcards” anthologies.

“The Sarah Connor Chronicles”? Maybe. Not a high degree of likelihood, but maybe. The big action and disfunctional family drama components might draw them in, and these might make the obvious sci-fi elements represented by the various Terminators more palatable. Would it be enough to inspire mainstreamers to crack open a Harlan Ellison collection, or hunt-down stories involving robots or time travel? I’m not totally convinced, but I’ll allow that it’s possible.

“Battlestar Galactica” is another maybe. Certainly it has the highest calibre of characterization and plot. But the accessibility is pretty iffy. The show has a gigantic story arc that could easily lose someone lacking sufficient backstory – despite the recaps at the top of each episode. The setting is aboard starships, but, aside from occasional exterior cutaways and the occasional battles, most of the story takes place within the confines of the vessels, and thus could be anywhere, making the sets reasonably accessible. The Cylons in their cybrid forms are easy to accept, and the traditional centurion models offer enough overt sci-fi menace to remind the audience that this is an SF show. BSG is one of my all-time favourite shows, so it certainly pains me to not say definitely that “this is the gateway show!”, but the weight of the backstory makes me think this would be a tough one to use as a gateway experience. You’d certainly have to pick the right episode.

The other possibility on my list is the new “Doctor Who” (somewhere, harrysaxon is cheering – it’s his personal mission to make every human being on Earth a fan of The Doctor – which, in fact, could be the plot of an episode of DW – whoa). The plots are consistently entertaining and the characters have enough depth to be worth watching. Accessibility with this show is a bit of a see-saw: David Tenannt certainly makes The Doctor a character you want to watch, and the various Companions are excellent vantage points for the perspectives of the audience – they’re just as confused as we are by all the strangeness going on from episode to episode. But it’s the over-the-top weirdness of some of the far-future or alien settings or the surreal TARDIS itself that might lose a mainstreamer. Again, “Doctor Who” is like BSG, you’d have to find the right episode for it to be effective as a gateway experience.

I have to confess, if I could break the rules and nominate a show that’s no longer on-air, I’d have to say that “The Twilight Zone” was probably the best SF gateway show ever. Different episodes featured different subject matter (from the disturbingly near-normal to the far-out) with different actors, written by different authors. It was a showcase of SF variety that had something for pretty much anyone, and if an episode was good enough, not only could a mainstreamer get hooked on the series, they might also be motivated to check out other SF shows or, hopefully, books. Ah, the good old days!

Harrysaxon’s been chomping at the bit to weigh-in on this topic, so he’ll take it from here.

Harrysaxon’s take:

“I agree with much of what bloginhood has to say about the topic – and certainly wholeheartedly endorse Doctor Who as a gateway show. The new series, of course, not the old, which is so thick with bad effects and complex backstory that even a lot of North American sci-fi lovers view it as somewhat esoteric. But the new series has added a great deal of the human element; the arc of Russell T. Davies’s tenure is less about the Doctor, and more about his first companion of the new series, Rose Tyler, a sympathetic Cockney from a working-class background who clicked instantly with fans in the UK. The personal drama – detractors may say soap opera elements – that Rose and her family brought to the series made it much more accessible to a wide-scale audience. The references and characters from the original series are there for the hardcore fans, but it’s immediately accessible for new fans as well. But most important, this is a show which can conjure powerfully emotional scenarios that make even the most macho of dedicated viewers feel a little thickness at the back of the throat. I’d personally recommend starting at the beginning, with S1E1 “Rose”; however, the one-off S3 episode “Blink”, in which the Doctor plays a peripheral role, may be a better introduction for those not sure they’re ready to commit to the full arc of the series. I’ve certainly used it to hook at least two people immediately, one of them hard enough to travel to the UK last summer to see David Tennant play Hamlet on stage.

But that’s just my addition to bloginhood’s nomination. My nomination is somewhat less obscure, as it is a pop culture phenomenon; Lost. Now, when Lost moved from the realm of a scripted Survivor-like experience in the first season firmly into the realm of science fiction with the second series, it turned a lot of viewers off (as well as ending its Emmy success, as they cannot abide science fiction for some reason). But that came as a surprise to viewers, hooked on an experience of watching a bunch of people try to find food and shelter and cope with a threatening group of outsiders on the island. Anyone coming into the series at this point, prepared with the foreknoweldge that it is a science fiction series, shouldn’t be as taken aback by the appearance of underground bunkers protecting electromagnetic anomalies as the early adopters.

Just to get it out of the way, some may call it up for debate that Lost is science-fiction at all; certainly there have always been elements of the supernatural creeping around the edges as well. But at this late date, I’m willing to accept the creators’ word that the remaining mysteries will ultimately have scientifically plausible explanations, albiet involving fictional technologies. I’m choosing to avoid spoilers, but the most recent major cliffhanger we were left with, as impossible as it seemed, was familiar ground for people acquainted with Doctor Who’s futuristic technologies which have plausible scientific backing.

But the reason I think it makes a great gateway is because the sci-fi stuff isn’t all up in your face. The major focus of the show is action and drama, with a heavy dose of romance and tragedy. It’s not a science fiction show with strong dramatic elements; it’s more a drama with strong science fiction elements. If you can get hooked on the personal stories of Jack, Kate, Locke, Charlie, Hurley et al., then you may find that the scientific mysteries surrounding characters such as Desmond begin to draw you in as much as wondering whether Kate will decide to hook up with Jack or Sawyer. It’s a good show, too; it lacks the strong dialogue and bold characters of my favourite shows, most of which have appeared on HBO, but it’s still compelling. Well, except for that 8 episode mini-arc that opened season 3. That was a bump in the road towards what looks to be one of the most compelling series finales of all time.”

But we want to hear from you: what TV shows do you think would make the best SF gateways?