Is Continuum the Greatest Science Fiction Show Ever?

Two or three months ago a miracle occurred. I didn’t inform the press, or even the Vatican, because it wasn’t the kind of miracle that would have meant much to them, but it meant a lot to me. I was surfing TV shows on Netflix Streaming using the app on my Xbox 360 and came across the TV series Continuum. I’d heard about the show, knew that it was Canadian, that it was science fiction, that it ran on Syfy in the U.S., and had a vague recollection that I’d read good things about it, probably on io9 (a terrific Web site that you should be following if you have any interest at all in science or science fiction). I clicked and began watching the first episode.

Continuum

Some of the better-looking members of the massive cast of Continuum

At that moment Amy got home from work and I figured I’d have to turn the show off, because she has no particular interest in science fiction unless it’s really well done and I assumed there wasn’t much chance that Continuum would be on that level. But she didn’t ask me to turn it off and sat on the sofa with me for a few minutes surfing the Web on her MacBook Air preparing to head off to the bedroom to continue her marathon viewing of all seven seasons of The West Wing. (I’d done my own marathon viewing of The West Wing four years earlier, just before I moved in with Amy, and wasn’t quite ready to do it again.)

That’s when the miracle happened.

At some point during the first episode Amy put down the MacBook and started watching the show. When the first episode was over we simply let Netflix flow through to the second and watched that one too. When the second one ended we went back and watched the opening of the first episode again.

“Yeah,” Amy said. “I could watch this.”

Okay, that might not sound like much of a miracle to you, but trust me — it was. I have enough trouble getting Amy to watch really major science fiction TV shows and movies (though I did get her to watch Firefly followed by Serenity); getting her to watch a relatively little known Canadian science fiction series that runs on cable in the U.S. was something I wouldn’t have thought was possible until it happened. Over the next week we binge-watched Continuum’s first season and as soon as Syfy began running Season Two we starting watching that too. We were completely hooked and we plan to rewatch both seasons before the third one begins, just to refresh our memory of all the details. And the amazing part about that is that it was Amy who suggested it!

Yeah, Continuum’s that good. If you’re a science fiction fan or even just a fan of good serial TV shows who isn’t watching it, drop everything you’re doing now (except reading this blog post, which you really should finish) and find a way to watch it. Stream it on Netflix, rent the first season DVDs, or find a fan who’ll let you watch all the episodes on his/her DVR.

What’s so good about Continuum? Let’s start with the minor things first. It’s a good-looking show with a good-looking cast, and they can act. (There were a few moments in the first episode where I wasn’t entirely sure about the acting part, but by the second episode they’d found their range and were nailing their roles to the wall.) It has William B. Davis and Nicholas Lea, who played the cigarette-smoking man and Agent Krycek, respectively, on The X-Files. And if you have fond memories of The X-Files, they’ll rub off on this show. At least it’s also made in Vancouver.) I should add that not only is the cast good-looking and talented but the special effects, primarily in the flashbacks (flashforwards?) to the future, are stunning. (It’s a time travel show, so terms like “flashback” don’t necessarily apply in the way they usually do.)

The main thing that makes it good, though, is the writing. The plot is complex, inventive and — here’s where it really sucks me in — surprisingly morally ambiguous. I have a thing for moral ambiguity in TV shows; it was one of the things that drew me in to the reboot of Battlestar Galactica and is certainly one of the major selling points of the superb Breaking Bad. On this show, the moral ambiguity initially revolved around its protagonist Kiera, a protector, i.e., police officer, from the year 2077 who somehow found herself transported back to the year 2011 along with a gang of terrorists she had helped capture and was preparing to see executed. It was obvious almost from the beginning that Kiera, who seemed to be a good person, was working for a dystopian government and the initial question in my own head concerned how long it was going to take her to figure out that she might be on the wrong side. But things rapidly became more complicated as it became clear that there really weren’t good guys and bad guys on this show, just good people, selfish people and idealistic people doing the wrong thing for what they often see as the right reason.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the show is watching the present grow into the future, gradually spotting the connections between 2077 and 2011 (which by the second season had evolved into 2013). Figuring which young person in the present will become which old person in the future is one of the show’s main joys, especially because their future iterations are often quite different from their present versions, for reasons that are only gradually becoming apparent. And guessing the personal and political allegiances of the various characters as well as their familial relationships provides, if nothing else, a magnificent guessing game, largely because the characters themselves are so interesting and well played.

If the series has a problem, it’s one that io9 pointed out in a recent article, which is that they’ve introduced so many characters, factions and subplots that it may be in danger of falling apart under the weight of its own complexity. I like a good, complex serial TV series as much as the next couch potato, mind you, but a lot of us also remember what happened to shows like The X-Files and Lost, which started out exploring unexpected and exciting depths only to wind up wandering aimlessly through the pointless mazes created by their own writers. I’m choosing for the moment to believe that the showrunners/writers at Continuum know where they’re headed. Indeed, there have been hints in recent episodes that there may be a very large and startling backstory (or would that be frontstory?) underlying all the events in Continuum that so far we’ve only had glimpses of. But pulling off this kind of long-running serial without eventually letting the plot become a confused and confusing mess seems to be difficult. If Continuum can pull it off, though, I’ll happily vote for it, even against candidates like Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, as the greatest science fiction series ever.

Advertisements

How Game of Thrones Will End: A Totally Correct Guess

According to a recent Entertainment Weekly article, George R.R. Martin has already confided his “top-secret end-game plan” for the Song of Ice and Fire series to the showrunners of Game of Thrones, presumably in case he drops dead before he gets to it or (more likely, I think) the series gets to it before the books do. In case neither of them gets to it, though, you don’t have to worry. I’ve totally figured it out. And, no, this is not going to be satire (though it really sounds like it should be). It’s a deadly serious, uh, guess.

Winter is definitely coming.

Winter is definitely coming!

I’m sure there are lots of theories floating around as to where Game of Thrones (the TV show) and A Song of Ice and Fire (the books) are headed. I haven’t heard or seen any of them because I don’t follow any Game of Thrones blogs, forums or podcasts. So my theory of how the series is going to end is completely original even if a thousand people have come up with it before me. I want that firmly established in your head, especially if you’ve come up with it too and written a blog, a forum post or recorded a podcast about it. I’m so convinced that I’m right that I’m going to include a

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

WARNING SO THAT, EVEN THOUGH THIS IS BASED ON NOTHING THAT HASN’T BEEN IN THE TV SHOW ALREADY, I DON’T WANT ANYBODY PISSED AT ME WHEN I TURN OUT TO BE RIGHT!

G
O
T

T
H
A
T
?

Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here comes the theory. I hear it slightly contradicts something that’s said in one of the later books, but I think that was just misdirection (i.e., somebody lied). Here it is:

Before he went off with Ned Stark to fight the war against the Targaryens (which must have had a name, maybe The Targaryen War, but even though I’ve read the first book twice and seen the TV season based on it once, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was), I think Robert Baratheon secretly wed Ned Stark’s (now late) sister and got her with child, as they probably would have put it then. How the sister hid this from Catelyn and pretty much everybody else except Robert and Ned, I don’t know, but I suspect it involved taking a long vacation from Winterfell before she started to show, probably at a place that was accessible, at least at one point, to her brother and possibly her husband before they returned from the war. She then died in childbirth. Robert was so stricken by this that he refused to raise the child (or, more likely, he knew the kid would be murdered by his queen’s family when he became king), so he gave Jon — who was, of course, the child, in case you’re not already ahead of me — to Ned to raise as his own. But Catelyn knew damned well that the kid wasn’t hers, so Ned had to say he was a bastard and give him the last name Snow.

This makes Jon Snow a plausible heir to the Baratheon throne. I mean, he has a better claim to it than Joffrey does, should (clears throat loudly) Joffrey survive until Jon figures this out. (Robert and Ned are both dead now, but SOMEBODY else must know.) I think, however, that Jon will abdicate the throne in order to avoid breaking his sacred Night’s Watch vows. Face it: Martin had this part set up in the first book, when Jon learns that Maester Aemon could have been a Targaryen king but renounced the title for the Night’s Watch and also when he has Jon start to violate his oath by running off to avenge Ned then get talked out of it by having his friends catch up with him and recite the Night’s Watch oath to him until he cries. (I think I was crying too. I really can’t remember.)

So that leaves only one serious possibility for the next King, except she won’t be a king, she’ll be a queen. When Danaerys arrives across the Narrow Sea, she’ll demolish any remaining contenders for the throne with a few puffs of dragon breath. (Believe me, I’ve occasionally woken up with dragon breath that would at least have demolished Joffrey. And maybe Renly.) And then, either before or after she claims the throne, Danaerys will realize why she REALLY needs those dragons: to demolish the White Walkers. Because, in case you haven’t been reminded enough, winter is coming and the White Walkers thrive on it. By then they may be trying to cross the Narrow Sea themselves, if it’s iced over enough.

This is where the real battle begins, when (perhaps with Jon Snow’s help) Danaerys fights the White Walkers with her army and (mostly) her dragons. She’ll save Westeros from the actual enemy, probably send reinforcements to the Night’s Watch so they can reopen all 10 forts and, as Danaerys takes the throne, Jon Snow will happily remain with the Night’s Watch, possibly with a dragon or three to keep him company and to keep any remaining White Walkers in line. (Sam can take care of them, like he does with the ravens. After he gets over being scared to hell by them.)

Oh, yeah: There are some subplots that I haven’t addressed here. For all I know, Arya will become a Braavosi hooker, Jaime Lannister will discover that women are really turned on by amputees and Cersei…well, I really don’t want to think about it. But I’ll leave theories about those as an exercise for the reader.

(And I have to give credit to Amy for helping with the part about Danaerys, the dragons and the White Walkers, though I’d really thought of it first.)

We’ll Send Him Cheesy Movies

Mystery-Science-Theater-3000

Remember Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ran on Comedy Central and later on the SciFi (now SyFy) Channel? No? Then stop reading now — unless you have a thing for indie and oddball films and live in the Los Angeles area, in which case you should read ahead for the information on Cinefamily.

I adored Mystery Science Theater 3000 (hereinafter to be referred to as MST3K), especially in the early seasons, when standup comic Joel Hodgson played Joel Robinson, an ordinary guy whose mad scientist bosses (“the mads”) had trapped him on a satellite (the Satellite of Love, a Lou Reed reference) and forced him to watch really, really bad films. This was just an excuse for Hodgson and a couple of robot puppets, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, to make snarky comments about the film and do skits during breaks, but was one of the funniest and most charming shows ever on television, in part due to Hodgson’s low-key comic style and in part because of the show’s brilliant staff of improv comic writers, some of whom provided the voices for the robots. Hodgson left the show after a few seasons, leaving the lead role to head writer Mike Nelson, who was fine but, well, just not Joel Hodgson.

Anyway, Saturday afternoon Amy and I got to see Hodgson give a two-hour-plus talk at a local repertory cinema company called Cinefamily (check out their Web site at that link), which specializes in indie and oddball movies. Hodgson spoke about his life, his career as a standup comic, and his role in creating MST3K, all accompanied by an hilarious Powerpoint presentation illustrating the talk with photos, clippings and (yes) graphs. Hodgson, now in his early 50s, was relaxed, spoke casually to the audience from in front of the stage, and was screamingly funny. After Amy and I saw Book of Mormon at the Pantages a few weeks ago I told friends that I laughed harder than I’d laughed in years, but Saturday afternoon I laughed harder still. Hodgson is still at the peak of his comic abilities and for anyone who, like me, remembers MST3K with fondness provided a jolt of both comedy and nostalgia that I would have paid several times the $14 ticket price for. (Those who sat in the couch seats up front really did pay quite a few times more than that.) Then, for those who either had never seen the show or who, like me, wanted to see it again, the theater showed their classic 1991 riff on the seasonally appropriate Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, best known for featuring a very young Pia Zadora. (Those of you under a certain age are now saying, “Who?”)

Although Hodgson is now involved in the intermittent Cinematic Titanic project, an updated MST3K consisting of DVDs and live shows, I miss seeing him on the Satellite of Love with the robots, a concept so warmly hilarious that I’m pretty sure Cinematic Titanic couldn’t possibly be coming close to capturing its nearly indescribable allure. (I really ought to watch it sometime.) It’s too late to catch Hodgson’s presentation yourself — the last show was Saturday evening — but if you live near LA check out Cinefamily. They’re a nonprofit organization and need donations (tax deductible!) to modernize their equipment or they won’t be able to show recent films. Amy and I both gave. They also have an upcoming 24-hour Internet telethon that you can read about on the page linked above. Help them out, because Amy and I plan to go back more than once and we don’t want them to disappear right after we’ve discovered them.

Three Spheres for the Mouse!

Years ago, the late paleontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould cited Mickey Mouse as an example of neoteny, the evolutionary tendency for adult members of a species to acquire over time the features of their own infant counterparts. For instance, while we humans may bear only a passing resemblance to our hominid ancestors, who would seem brutish to us (not to mention unusually hairy) if we met them at a party, we bear a much greater resemblance, with our dainty features and unsloping foreheads, to our ancestors’ babies. Mickey Mouse, according to Gould, demonstrated a kind of cartoon neoteny, having gone from the relatively rodentine mouse of Steamboat Willie:

Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie

to the cuter, more infantilized mouse of later decades:

Mickey as infant mouse

Notice the shorter snout and larger eyes, which Gould claimed were features of infant or fetal mice. At a stroke, Disney had removed what was repellent to most people about mice — the beady eyes and questing nose — and made Mickey as cuddly as, well, a baby.

While Mickey’s initial function was to star in cartoons, he gradually took on a secondary function, one that now seems to be his primary role, that of corporate symbol. Mickey’s face has become better known (and perhaps always was better known) than that of his creator, Walt Disney, and certainly better known than the faces of any of the CEOs who have run the Disney corporation since its founder’s death. Amy and I have an annual pass to Disneyland this year, so we’ve seen a lot of the Mickster lately. It hasn’t escaped our notice that Mickey’s progression from rodent to infantile mouse has proceeded to places that Stephen Jay Gould never envisioned. Mickey has, in fact, become a complete abstraction. As a logo for Disney, Mickey has gone from a smiling cartoon face:

Mickey's face

to an abstract sequence of ovals:

Mickey Mouse as three ovals

In this respect Mickey has followed the path of recognizable simplicity pioneered by the logos for such companies as Apple:

and Nike:

Nike Swoosh

The three-oval Mickey logo has considerable utility — for instance, as the instantly recognizable identifier for a television channel:

Disney Channel identification

You can see examples of the abstract Mickey Mouse throughout Disneyland, perhaps most strikingly in the park benches, where Mickey seems to have fallen over on one ear:

Mickey Mouse park bench

But what’s most interesting to me about the three-oval Mickey is that, perhaps to a greater extent than any other corporate logo, it lends itself to extension into the third dimension. Simply replace the ovals with spheres and you have a version of Mickey that an experienced 3D artist can create in about five seconds:

This three-sphere mouse can then be rotated into perspective view:

Mickey wireframe model in perspective

and painted with color to give it a realistic solidity:

Mickey color 3D model

Does that three-sphere form in any way resemble a mouse? Not really. Yet it’s instantly recognizable as both Mickey and as the public face of the Disney Corporation. (This says a great deal about the human ability to recognize faces and forms given only the sparest of visual cues.)

This three-sphere Mickey has even more utility than the three-oval Mickey. At Disneyland and Disney World you can see it in the form of balloons:

Mickey Mouse balloons

which sometimes glow in the dark:

Glowing Mickey Mouse balloons

Or as tasty beignets in a New Orleans Square restaurant:

Mickey Mouse Beignets

But my favorite application of the three-sphere Mickey can be found hanging on our tree this Christmas:

This ornament can be purchased at the Disneyland gift shops in several different designs and color schemes. You can even get it with a more realistic Mickey — to the extent that a cartoon mouse can ever be described with the adjective “realistic” — climbing on top of it:

Mickey Mouse realistic ornament

So the modern Mickey isn’t entirely about abstraction and simplification. However, it’s possible for Mickey to be abstracted without being especially simplified. At first glance this t-shirt (found under the same tree where those ornaments are hanging) seems to depict a random collection of planets and moons:

Mickey planet t-shirt

until you view it in the correct orientation:

Another Mickey planetary t-shirt

It’s Planetary Mickey!  An artist, or maybe a Photoshop expert, has taken a set of what are probably NASA photos of our solar system (there’s also a spiral galaxy posing as Mickey’s right ankle) and assembled a surprisingly complex Mickey image from them. No three-sphere Mickey here! Indeed, Planetary Mickey even has that little bump on the tip of his snout (I suspect it’s Venus or maybe — no joke intended — Pluto) that represents what remains of his rodent nose.

Mickey’s in his 80s now, which may explain why you rarely see him in cartoons any more, and you have to wonder what he thinks about his increasing abstractification. (Is that even a word?) I suppose I could ask him, because this also showed up under the Christmas tree:

Mickey Mouse in person

Information Is Life

I live my life surrounded by information. So, very likely, do you. I’m writing this in front of a 23-inch computer display, with 17 tabs open in my Web browser. (They grow like weeds, those tabs. I trim them mercilessly and they grow right back, like dandelions or nose hairs.) Right now my iPod Touch is plugged into the iPod dock on my clock radio, playing Christmas music from a Sirius/XM satellite. In back of me is a shelf of books and CDs. Downstairs is a 48-inch flat screen TV attached to an XBox 360 configured to stream music, video and pictures through my home Wi-Fi network. (It also plays games.) I live in Southern California, where much of this information is manufactured.

I feel remarkably comfortable in this crowded infosphere. Maybe that’s why there’s more information in my house than there is food. The only information device I’m dubious about is my cell phone, which is often more of an intruder than a welcome guest. I tend to leave it at home when I go out. I’d rather take along my e-book reader (a Barnes & Noble Color Nook).

In the modern world, there are two ways that people react to this massive flood of information: They either run from it, as though the information dam has burst and the whole valley is doomed, or they swim with it and thrive in its flow. I tend to do the latter. I love information. I love to read, to play video games, to surf the Web, to listen to music, to go to movies, to watch television, to attend the theater and concerts, to browse the newspaper (though I only have time for the Sunday editions), and sometimes just to stare at the labels on the backs of food packages. By profession I’m a writer, so I spend my working hours producing still more information in case there’s anybody left who doesn’t have enough of the stuff. Information is my life. No, I should be more emphatic than that: Information is life.

This blog is about that infosphere, the shifting, pulsing, throbbing flow of information that surrounds us at all times. More specifically, it’s about the points at which my own life — my own biosphere? — intersects the infosphere. It’s about books, it’s about games, it’s about movies, it’s about music, it’s about TV. If I have anything interesting to say about these things (and you don’t become a writer unless you think you have interesting things to say), I’ll blog about them here.

Is there junk in the infosphere? Oh, god, yes. The infosphere is polluted with crap. Junk information surely outnumbers worthwhile information by a factor of thousands. But given the sheer quantity of information floating about, even that tiny percentage of good stuff is enough to fill anyone’s lifetime. You just have to look for it and recognize it when you find it.

And that’s what I’ll be doing here: Trying to separate the junk information from the treasures. You are invited — heck, encouraged — to post comments about any interesting gems you’ve stumbled across in the portion of the infosphere that your own life intersects.

I’m going to leave you for a moment. And then, as an ex-governor of my state once said (in a movie, of course), I’ll be back.