Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Absolute Reality

Alternate reality is the new black, at least if you work at Bad Robot. And if I had to pick one place I'd want to develop shows, well... Bad Robot would be it. JJ Abrams has assembled an enviable, talented team of executives, headed by producing partner Bryan Burk, film head Sherryl Clark, and TV head Kathy Lingg. In the entertainment business, we spend an awful lot of time talking about bad executives. It's nice to be able to praise good ones. The whole Bad Robot team is entertaining the crap out of me.

The Fringe season (and thankfully not series!) finale ramped up and solidified the fact that there is at least one, but probably infinite, alternate realities. When the show started, it seemed like X-Files, but with freaky science. What I love about the show's revelations is that the show hasn't shifted position. Nina Sharpe tells Olivia that it's due to our freaky science. We have meddled with the primal forces of nature, and we will atone. Looks like we're atoning by becoming embroiled in a war with an alternate reality.

The idea that we ARE meddling with the primal forces of nature when we do scientific experimentation goes all the way back to Mary Shelley. But this hasn't been the focal point of a TeeVee show in a long time. This season, there were five of these suckers -- Eureka, Dollhouse, Sarah Connor Chronicles, Lost and Fringe. And there will be another in the fall -- Flashforward.

I've talked about Dollhouse and Sarah Connor extensively here. Both of those shows, and Eureka, use the science as a way in. But the Bad Robot shows do things a little differently. They establish our world, make us comfortable, and then totally subvert everything we think is real. And we're seeing this through the eyes of characters with whom we identify. This is always the trick, and JJ Abrams and the people who are hands-on with the shows are masters of it. It's one thing to have an enthusiasm for the subject matter, but it's something entirely different to be able to get it on the air. I would guess they have daily struggles with the network and studio over this, but if you're not fighting for your vision, what's the point?

Anyway. Back to Fringe. The idea of "soft spots" that will allow us to get from one reality to another hearkens back to the concept of ley-lines, and of the veil between worlds growing thinner at certain places or times. And our atom splitting and super colliding having caused more to appear is that meddling idea. We don't truly understand this stuff. It's still theoretical, and there's so much we can't prove. Who's to say that the work we're doing isn't going to cause an island to travel through time, or alternate reality windows to open up?

There's this moment I usually have when watching Bad Robot shows reveal something, and I had the same moment when watching the Fringe finale -- Please don't make this too close to the thing I'm working on! It happened with Alias and Lost. And it got frighteningly close with Fringe. I got very nervous when Walter talked about taking LSD With William Bell and seeing an alternate reality, for example. I've always wanted to do something with Terence McKenna and his DMT experiences (the seriously old X-Files spec doesn't count). But nonetheless, I'm delighted that this stuff is getting onto the television box. It's actually cool to be on their wavelength, because it means I'm getting to watch shows that I love.

And characters, too. Olivia, Peter and Walter have worked for me all season. I really don't get the enmity towards Anna Torv. She's cold? Really? I don't see it. What I do see is her dedication, and also her open-mindedness, which is refreshing on a show like this. It's clear that JJ Abrams loves the idea of kids being experimented upon, which we also saw with Sydney Bristow in Alias. Well, it IS cool, and it has a really specific reason on Fringe, giving new meaning to "the children will lead us." A lot of the baggage has been jettisoned here, with Broyles and even Charlie Francis believing. X-Files already went to the believer/skeptic well. Just because there's a speculative fiction show with an FBI agent, doesn't mean we need to go there again.

And then there's Walter and Peter, cracked genius and reluctant genius. Walter's craziness and memory loss can certainly be explained, at least in part, by the revelation that either he or Peter is from an alternate reality. But see, there's the coolness of the concept there, and then there's the remarkably moving scene of Walter in the beach house, trying to remember and going off the rails while a helpless Peter watches. Or the story Peter tells of Walter making pancakes. Was that this Walter, or another? The notion of a fractured father/son relationship takes on new meaning when they may not be from the same dimension. Their estrangement is illustrated by this cool concept. And that's what science fiction is supposed to be able to do.

If Peter is from the alternate reality, does that mean he may have abilities in this one that he doesn't know about? If there is a big war coming, which side will he be on? And what about the Walter Peter remembers? Does he exist in the other reality? When, exactly, did that reality branch off from ours? According to the sharp eyes of fans, it seems like either JFK or RFK lived. Was it then? Was it earlier? Etc.

These are questions that can yield story, and I'm sure that's what we'll get in season two of Fringe. Anyway, I can't wait to find out.

JJ Abrams is building an empire of speculative fiction. Everybody at Bad Robot seems committed to a high standard of storytelling, a particular vision, and what's most exciting about it is that it doesn't just exist on TeeVee.

I have now seen the Star Trek movie twice. Most of the negativity towards the film seems to come because the science doesn't compute, the time travel doesn't work, the nitpicky logic is all off, and the characters don't act like the characters from the show. I just don't agree with any of that. As Neils Bohr said to Albert Einstein, "You are not thinking. You are merely being logical."

See, storytelling demands a balance in order to be effective. It's a fluid, living thing, and if all you're going to do is focus on one element, your story isn't going to work. There's something about science fiction that says it has to be logical and scientifically feasible first. I understand this in part because in science fiction, you're essentially world-building. We already live in a world that works on a logical level. But when you're world-building, you have to build that logic in. So a movie like Star Trek should have rules, and it should follow them and be logical.

However, I think that what's happened with Star Trek is, the balance went all out of whack. The world-building aspect of the franchise has become the most important element. And when the focus shifts that way, the characters become objects by which those worlds are built. That, I think, has happened to Star Trek. Fans have had forty years to play in the universe Roddenberry created. Their imaginations took them to an idealistic future where the problems of the present had been solved. There was no money. No swine flu, or cancer. No psychopathic villains. Only pure exploration, with the kind of altruistic characters that would be employed in such a mission.

As conceived, Star Trek gave us a hopeful future where smart, driven, honest people succeeded. Who wouldn't fucking love that?!?!? But to focus too much on the hopeful future aspect is to ignore human nature. And human nature is what science fiction is about. What the franchise got away from, IMO, are the basics. And to me, the characters are those basics.

Trek's history -- five TeeVee shows and all those movies and tie-in books and original novels -- has given the world a rich universe in which to play, but when it comes time to try and tell a new story, that history acts like a fucking boa constrictor.

The masterstroke of the movie is that Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci have found a way to free themselves of the strangling yoke of forty years of Trek, to go back to those characters and to identify with them in a way that's fresh, without crapping all over canon. They clearly wanted to do the "let's gather the crew" story, but they were hamstrung by the history of the franchise. So they took a page from their work on TeeVee. They created an alternate reality, where they would be free to carve their own path for the series.

These characters are no longer the distant archetypes that history made them. The restrictive reverence has been stripped away. That allows for the return of the duality of Spock, taking the character back to the struggle between his Vulcan and human sides. Because that, and not his scientific acumen, is what made Spock identifiable. He was an outcast, a situation almost everybody has faced at one point or another. This is another example of what science fiction can illuminate. And Roddenberry was smart to create a character who strove to be logical, but just couldn't because of this human infection he had within him. The new movie infuses Spock with this duality and gives him an emotional attachment to it, and thank GOD for it.

The fans have made a lot of Kirk, whom they see as the rebel frat boy and nothing more. I don't see it that way. This Kirk has a duality in him, too -- he has a death wish, but also a terrible fear of dying. The Kirk of this reality was born into death and spent his whole life being reminded of that. His life is a gift, one that he didn't ask for and now resents. His father sacrificed his life for a son who couldn't thank him, or blame him him. The guilt that goes along with that is unimaginable, and Kirk simply doesn't deal with it. He acts out against it. He wants to get in trouble, because he thinks he deserves it. He doesn't think much of himself. If he doesn't try, then he can't fail. But Pike doesn't treat him like everybody else does. Pike sees through that shit, and challenges him. And Kirk takes up the challenge.

The Kirk/Spock friendship is a core of the best Trek movie, "The Wrath of Khan," and it's made the core of this film as well. I utterly love that. I also love the destiny angle, and the idea that the entrop of the universe -- even if it has become a different reality -- is still tilted towards getting this crew together. The collection of the crew -- THE crew, people! -- is such a wonderful dramatic device, one that we love because we rarely see it in real life. It's the idea of the group that is greater than the sum of its parts. And the Enterprise crew being that group is what makes us come back time and time again. And that is what made the assembling of the crew, and Spock's meddling with fake time paradoxes, so much fun and so satisfying.

What I love most is that these characters' actions are justified. They are individuals. And let's face it, nobody casts actors better than JJ Abrams. He is just a master at it. And this movie is cast perfectly. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto (who we were lucky enough to cast in our Haunted episode) give star-making performances. All the actors work so well together. There's so much energy and excitement given and received among these characters. It's kinetic, and fun, and audiences are loving it.

One thing that struck me when I watched the movie is that I'm not sure Abrams, Kurtzman and Orci could have made it without their TeeVee experience. In TeeVee, one of the most important skills is to be able to play in someone else's sandbox. You learn how to do this by, well, doing it. And what I see with this reboot is the surety of a TeeVee background. They seemed to come at this like one would come at a TeeVee pilot. How do I introduce my characters and my world? How do I set up a continuing series? Star Trek benefits, in part, because it WAS a series. But I also think this has proven to be detrimental. Some of the movies have been big-budget episodes, and what works on TeeVee doesn't necessarily work in film. But JJ Abrams is aware of this. He's able to use his TeeVee knowledge and expertise and infuse that with an inanely high level of filmmaking. This is a MOVIE, gentle readers. It's not a blown-up TeeVee episode.

I could go on and on and fucking ON about how much I loved this movie. This is how I felt about Iron Man last year. Wildly entertaining, with great characters and tight storytelling. This movie really zips along, even with a second viewing. It's not easy to entertain, yet this movie certainly does.

So thanks, Bad Robot. And keep up the good work.

np -- The Enemy, "A New England." Yes, the Billy Bragg song. It's quite great.


Horse said...

Yes, yes, and yes.

Cory said...

One of the things I really loved about STAR TREK was the way all the crew members got to be heroes. It wasn't just Kirk and Spock defying death. Chekov, Sulu and Scotty got to play very important roles. And the switch up with Uhura and Spock was fantastic! They had me fooled the whole way! Loved it.

Can't wait to take my oldest brother to see it, since he's the one who made sure I saw every episode of TOS when I was a kid.

My one (very minor) critique with STAR TREK (and MI III) is that the villian was only okay. It's tough, with everything the movie accomplishes, but a great villian would have nailed it for me.

Not that I've ever written a great villian either...

Dan Hutson said...

Hi Kay. Great post. I pretty much agree with everything you're saying, both in regards to Fringe and Star Trek. Having read more alternate reality/time travel fiction than anyone else I know, I love how well the Bad Robot folk integrate these concepts into their storytelling. There's nothing gimmicky or tacked on about it. Both the Fringe and Lost finales were great setups to what I expect will be fantastic seasons.

I don't think Star Trek could be in better hands. This may be blasphemy to some, but as a fan of the original series (and STNG), I've found much of the franchise to be fairly tedious, boring and formulaic. J.J. Abrams and crew have found a way to refresh and reboot a series that has sorely needed it for some time. I'm looking forward to the next few movies under their tenure.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the Trek movie yet, so my only comment is that Dorothy Fontana says she has no intention of seeing it. This being the same Dorothy Fontana who was story editor on the original series, and played an important role in creating Next Generation, and was one of 5 women credited on 16 of the 79 original series scripts (20% of the show). In the 60's. And here we are in the 00's, and there are two men credited with writing the script for this film, seven men credited with producing it, and Roddenberry gets exclusive credit for creating the characters, even though we know it wasn't quite that simple.

Yeah, I know, things change--but they don't always change the way you want them to, do they? More action, better special effects, fewer ideas. But Trek lives.

I am glad they rebooted entirely--if you're going to do it, that's the way to do it. I wish they hadn't even bothered with the time travel subplot. We didn't need a time travel subplot to explain why Batman was Christian Bale. It's a remake. Hollywood releases a new remake every other week these days--Hollywood remains obsessed with its past--a real problem for the science fiction genre, which is SUPPOSED to be about the future.

Anyway, this movie has no bearing on the TV shows--I'll never accept it as part of the same canon. But hey, I still don't accept Enterprise as canon--neither does Dorothy Fontana. And she's the only living sentient whose opinion I care about on this subject.

Would it be impudent to ask why, if Bad Robot is that bad, they couldn't just have thought up their own original version of Star Trek, just like they thought up their own original version of The X-Files for FOX? That would have given them even more freedom. But a lot less brandname recognition, of course.

I am 1000% with ya on Torv--she's wonderful on Fringe, and has been from the start. Most of the hate she's getting is coming from X-Files fans hung up on Anderson/Scully and Alias fans hung up on Garner/Sydney. But Torv/Olivia could kick both their asses, then take their jobs, and do them better.

She can enjoy her niece without feeling a gaping vacuum in her womb, because she actually thinks what she does matters--in other words, she's treated the way a male character doing her highly improbable job would be treated. She can have weaknesses for certain men without becoming weak in general--again, like a male character. She can be emotionally vulnerable without getting all weepy and angsty and immobilized--you're way ahead of me.

Best of all, she can be a skeptic and a believer, trading roles whenever the story demands it--the skeptic/believer dynamic isn't dependent on one character being the skeptic all the time. It's not The X-Files, where the formula was "Something bad happens, Mulder says it's paranormal, Scully says it's not, Mulder is right, Scully can't admit it." All three main protagonists bring something to the table, and nobody gets to be right all the time. It's a better dynamic, and AS A WHOLE, a better show.

However, it's still a reworking of earlier shows, The X-Files included, and you can still see them thinking "here's how to take that idea and make it work better"--I enjoy that, but it's a less spontaneous more cerebral pleasure than I got from the first few seasons of The X-Files.

The set-up of the show is nearly perfect, but the execution still feels a little too controlled--they aren't letting the show take over and lead them down interesting by-ways. There's no Darin Morgan on the staff, even though Darin Morgan actually IS on-staff, at least technically.

The supporting players definitely need to be used better, particularly Broyles and Sharp. I think they're going to try and fix that next season. I hope it works.

But Leonard Nimoy! I'll be too busy geeking out over that to be too worried about whether it works or not.


Alan Smithee said...

I thought the FRINGE finale worked better and was slightly more enjoyable than the rest of the season had been. The parallel universes thing felt snuggly logical in the context of the show, even if we kind of knew about it all several episodes ago to such an extent that it became rather predictable watching the characters catch up.

But I do think the praise lavished on it is worrying, perhaps indicative of an age of diminished expectations on network television. I mean, isn't the show guilty of most of the things you condemn elsewhere? Cool Ideas given more importance over character, motives sacrificed for mystery, gimmicky, hollow plots. Sound familiar? I wonder why it is that people can recognize all this stuff so readily on the likes of, say, HEROES, but don't want to see it in Fringe and LOST. Maybe it's because JJ Abrams is just so fashionable at the moment that to step back and say "hang on a minute" is to make yourself the only pooper at the party.

One of the biggest problems for me, as a viewer, is that Fringe has tried desperately to make every episode both a standalone freak-of-the-week story and a mythology layer at the same time, and ended up doing neither very well. Witness the big Olivia-gets-kidnapped cliffhanger that was reset in the following teaser to investigate the giant cold virus instead. Even the finale tried the same thing with its mission to stop Jones that ended as something of a damp squib to preamble up to the appearance of Leonard Nimoy. Another downside of that was that, with the casting of Nimoy so widely publicized and billed in the opening credits, you can't help but spend the whole hour sitting there waiting for his entrance which isn't until the last 30 seconds.

Dan said above that there's nothing gimmicky or tacked on about Fringe. Putting aside Nimoy's appearance (which felt like both), there's that other thing they call The Observer. I of course refer to the giant Where's Waldo game that's been going on not only on Fringe, but in fact all over FOX apparently. This is a figure who has no discernible motive or purpose, but gets people thirsty for the Kool Aid. You might as well call him The Gimmick. It just makes the show feel so cynical and manipulative, the TV equivalent of The Cups And The Balls.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's all bad. The production values are immense. It looks glorious on screen, and I loved the final shot. Production wise, the Bad Robot machine clearly knows exactly what it's doing, as you say. They've got FOX investing in the genre, giving it more minutes and less commercial time, and no one quite builds a hype bandwagon like Abrams. Fringe has clearly got a lot of potential in its set-up and could stand to improve a great deal in its second season if it either gives Astrid/Charlie/Broyles/Nina something worth doing or else ditches them entirely. I don't think the series is structured with enough elasticity to ever match THE X-FILES, but it could be fun watching the attempt.

Speaking of which, I'm curious about your old X-Files spec should you be tempted to showcase it alongside the unproduced pilots. ;)

And someone just has to tell me what it is about pancakes for breakfast that inspires such obsession -- first John and Sarah Connor can't get enough, now the Bishops are in on it too!

Robert H. said...

Having endured most of Abrams work for almost the last decade or so, I have to respectfully disagree with the crowd. FRINGE may have finally gotten interesting with its INFINITE EARTHS poach, but too bad one had to sit through a half-season of warmed over X-FILE stylings.

STAR TREK: THE PEPSI GENERATION does its job well, giving a thrill ride to the audience and convincing Trekkies and Lemmings alike that Sci-Fi is way more fun when you shut off your mind and enjoy the bright lights.

The one constant in Abrams' work is DOUCHEBAGS. Pretty much sums up all the main characters in his work, and now we have a STAR TREK that 'Everyone' can relate to - now, the TREK characters are douchebags, YOUNG douchbags that Paramount and whatever monkeys with typewriters they can enlist to churn out the next segment.

New beginning? I guess so, if you don't notice the Dead End that's waiting down the line.

The Human Adventure Is Douchy...


Robert H. said...

add 'can exploit' after 'next segment.

Sorry for the omission.

devonellington said...

I really need to catch up on FRINGE.

Thanks for the comments on the STAR TREK. I might actually go and see it now.

And, of course, go Rachel Alexandra! Although Mine That Bird ran a great race and Mike did a superb job on him. And I think MTB will do well in the Belmont, just like his Daddy.

Anonymous said...

...and everyone remembers what happened near the end of "Felicity"'s run...right? Okay, maybe no one was watching by then...but I heard it reenergized the show.

AJ in Nashville said...

I've already told you how much I appreciate this post, Kay, and your deft summarization of Abrams' most recent work on both the large and small screens.

However I wanted to address a couple of your commentors, most of whom acquitted themselves brilliantly, but still...

Pisher: As an author with whom you're no doubt familiar said a loooong time ago: "There is nothing new under the sun." Whether or not Fringe is a rehash of The X-Files concept doesn't matter, because inevitably, everything is a rehash of something. It's all about the way its reconstituted. Just sayin.'

Alan Smithee: You as a 'Heroes' proponent should certainly be aware that Kay has admitted numerous times to not having watched more than just the pilot, so your insinuation that she's unevenly held that show up to the same scrutiny as Fringe is sort of a hollow argument. It doesn't let her completely off the hook in the matter, but again, I'm just sayin.'

And finally, Robert H.: I really enjoyed your 'STAR TREK: THE PEPSI GENERATION' reference. I don't know how old you are, but in 1966 when the original Star Trek TeeVee series first aired, that 'Pepsi Generation' ad slogan was already three years old (1963). Unfortunately it's a concept they've regurgitated more than a few times over years, resurfacing once again just recently. The fact that Pepsi is still whoring off it's own material better than 40 years later is just more proof that, like Solomon said, 'there IS nothing new under the sun.'

Alan Smithee said...

If I may be indulged with a quick reply to AJ above, having only just seen his comment...

I should clarify that I had no intension of insinuating that Kay herself is exercising any double-standard in judgment in regards to Heroes vis-a-vis Fringe, although I can see how it might be read that way. I meant to make more of a generalization (perhaps unfairly, perhaps not) on the wider TV audience and the popular critiques which (correctly) identify fatal flaws in the one but not so much the other.

I'm no proponent of Heroes. In fact, I don't watch it either -- not for me. It may be unfair of me to refer to criticism of the show without watching and analyzing it myself, I must admit, but then my reference was a passing one, by no means an attempt to give it any backhanded praise. Honest.