Monday, August 23, 2010

Vampire Werewolves From Fairyland

Here's an interesting musing on urban fantasy on TeeVee, with a focus on SyFy's Haven. Lately, there has been a lot of discussion on urban fantasy, mostly on book-type blogs. Is there too much? Too little? Is there too much romance in it? Is there not enough? Is today's urban fantasy totally different from yesterday's? Why are there so many vampires? The genre has been subdivided into urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which seems to be romance novels with fangs.

If I never see another misty cover featuring a vaguely urban-looking hooker-girl with piercings, a tramp stamp and an intricately carved athame dripping demon blood, it'll be too soon. I realize that the authors don't have any control over the book covers, but isn't this getting a little ridiculous? A new one comes out about every third day. Every time I see one, I think, "Are they STILL publishing these?? When will it END?" Maybe I think that because in TeeVee, you can't do forty shows that are exactly the same. Unless they're cop/lawyer/medical shows, of course. They STILL won't let you do that kind of an urban fantasy show because of Buffy. Which went off the air before tramp stamps appeared on the backs of these girls. And of all the urban fantasy in all the world, isn't the "somewhat supernatural kick-ass girl fights monsters and falls in love with one" sort of perfect for TeeVee? It's set in a real city. It's episodic as all hell. It's familiar enough for audiences. They get their romance (which they keep telling me all the wimmin want) and their fighting (which is what all the menfolks want).

But it seems like for THIS pitching season (which is still going on, BTW), everyone's desperate for a medical show (huh?) and they'll buy all their cops/lawyers/politicians/whatevers before they start looking into other boxes. Kind of like opening that really big bike-shaped Christmas present, and then finally sighing and opening the small package of socks. Genre on TeeVee = Christmas kitty socks.

Regarding Haven, of which I have seen several episodes, it seems like someone somewhere bought a darkish urban fantasy show and then FREAKED OUT and decided it had to be not-dark and not-fantastic. The problem with THAT, of course, is that you end up with a not-show. So let's see what, if any, urban fantasy sells. That channel that shows Haven on it DID announce a slate of pilots (all written by men, incidentally, so well done THERE). Among them is that rusty old veteran Ball & Chain. If you don't remember this pilot based on that particular comic book, Fox tried it several years ago but didn't put it on the air. So now that network is going to try it. They're picking up all funny genre stuff again. Although their two funny genre shows are working, how much room IS there for that? What if they just, I dunno... FUCKING BROUGHT CAPRICA BACK? I would enjoy that immensely.

It's a fine line between something original, and something familiar enough for executives and audiences. Like, it's SUCH a fine line that it practically exists in a quantum state. Schroedinger's pitch. And it's just as hard to pitch an original cop show as it is to pitch a familiar enough genre show. It's just that cops and all that are what the other networks are buying now. And when you pitch a procedural-type show, you get to spend less time explaining magic to them. Which is refreshing, in its own way.

I have my doubts about urban fantasy REALLY working on TeeVee anymore. The only thing that comes close is True Blood, and that's mostly Southern gothic horror and not really fantasy... although with the addition of the Seelie Court, it's venturing into fantasy territory. But don't get me started on faeries. I would love to see urban fantasy or some kind of hard genre show succeed on a network that's just starting to find its feet, but I don't know where that would be. AMC's going to try zombies but even if THAT succeeds, AMC hasn't shown that it has any interest in picking up the same types of shows. So I'd guess there won't be any fantasy on AMC. HBO and Showtime are what they are. Starz is sure doing a bunch of stuff, but they're really trying to be HBO so it's mainly about the kinds of people they want to work with. And if you're going to go after giant apes, then you're not likely to get a Buffy or an X-Files. I feel like Starz' eyes are too big for its stomach, and when the dust has settled they'll find that they so forged themselves on the buffet that they will need to purge.

So if genre is going to succeed, it has to come from an unexpected place. Could that place be Cartoon Network, which has aired its first live-action show and is ramping up to air its second? Rumor has it that the executives hate it, which can only mean that it's got some originality to it.

Woefully behind on some comments. Yikes.

DMc: I totally get what you're saying about Canadian vs. American shows. Now obviously, I can only speak from my perspective, which involves me hearing a lot of "If only you were Canadian." So I appreciate your position as well, since it is specifically yours. And I also appreciated the WGC's support during the strike. As for Canada being America's hat, it is, of course, said with affection. The hat makes the man.

I think your logic is a little skewed. Not everyone who DIDN'T see Knight & Day DID see some shitty movie instead. Some of us chose to NOT see a movie and catch up on the neverending list of other entertainment options.

Well, I was talking about people who went to see movies and didn't see Knight & Day. So if you didn't go to the movies at all, you're not part of that particular conversation. And yes, it took me MONTHS to comes up with this awesome response!

Not all of you took my Doctor Who rant well, which means that the rant was successful. Yes, that is my criteria.

Dan hoped:
However, it wasn't all bad - was it? The fairytale vibe worked brilliantly, Matt Smith wobbled at times but was generally very good, River Song was excellent, the Angels action-packed two-parter was genius, and I personally thought the finale was very entertaining. Considering SM was working with a lower budget than RTD, I think he did marvels with the look and tone. It felt more sophisticated, to me.

I think Matt Smith is the right choice for the part. I don't think Moffat is the right choice to run the show. I disagree about his plotting and think everyone's been WAY too hard on Russell Davies. I liked the first angel episode but the second one was awful. Totally diminished them as the spooky bastards they were. Most of Moffat's episodes just don't make sense to me. If you set up unbreakable rules and you break them in a clever way, well bravo to you. That's good writing. But if you set up unbreakable rules, ignore them, pretend they were never established and then have everyone wish something away, well... then we're going to come to blows. I AM looking forward to a S6 with more River Song exploration. Because DAMN. She's awesome. I hope they can figure out Amy and actually give her character. She ain't got none now. It's great that little girls love Amy, but then kids love Teletubbies so I wouldn't exactly call them critics.

Dan (again? Still?):
@Erin: I don't think you can hold DW to the same logical standards of sci-fi, because it's sci-fantasy.

Actually, you're even MORE beholden to logic if you're doing science fantasy. The addition of the word "fantasy" to your genre description does not give you license to wing it. If you don't establish your rules, you are well and truly screwed. If the Doctor says, "I can't cross over my timeline" and then proceeds to tromp all over it with no repercussions, that's a problem. If you establish that the Doctor will literally be ERASED and that only Amy can remember him but River remembers him, that's a problem. If you begin your season with what is essentially an alternate reality while you're also introducing new characters, then that's a problem. How exactly are we supposed to know what's real? This is awesome to do when the audience already has some connection to the characters. But there isn't any. And in this season, there's a lot of drop-ins, like the Doctor or Amy will just mention the supposedly ongoing story, just because that's what you're supposed to do in a series. And then they move on. "Hey, look, it's The Silence. Well, time to go!" NO. IT'S NOT.

I don't think Moffat knows how to integrate a mythology or a season-long arc into a show. And that's on top of the rules that he breaks with a complete disregard to the fact that he established them. I honestly had NO idea where the hell I was on the show, or in the season. Compare that to the Davies era. Bad Wolf. There, I TOTALLY knew where I was. I got that Bad Wolf was important, and trusted that he would reveal it in good time. And he did. But The Silence? Not a clue. There's just no sense of place throughout the season. Ironic, I suppose...

As for River Song and her diary - well, we don't really know WHAT or WHO she is yet, so maybe it will become clear why she wasn't affected by events next year.

Okay, you can DO This kind of stuff if someone comments on it. If somebody went, "Hey, how the hell did River do that?" Or The Doctor commented on the weirdness that followed him throughout the season. If there had been any awareness of ANY of it, then you can get away with it. But Moffat doesn't seem to understand how any of this is supposed to impact the characters, which makes me think that he came up with fifty cool ideas and then shoehorned them in without a second thought. This stuff needs to be integrated with the characters, too. And it just wasn't.

I still don't know why he was building that weird thing in that odious Lodger episode. That episode is a perfect example of how not to write TeeVee. There's no sense of urgency or tension or awareness in the entire episode. This kind of thing is easy to fix, too. It's just sheer laziness that allows it to exist. And as someone who respects rules in genre, that drives me crazy.

Oh look. Another rant...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Doctor WHO??

So apparently, if you have a lot of pilot ideas, at some point somebody is going to want to hear them. Hence the lateness of my Doctor Who blathering. But hey, I'm getting it done before the next season starts, so keep your hair on.

So. Doctor Who, Series Five.

I thought it was ass.

Not right at the beginning, though. I liked the first episode quite a bit. Steven Moffat had said the show was going to feel more like a fairy tale than its previous incarnation, and the first episode set that mood right away. An adorable small English village, an adorable little red-headed Scottish girl, and Matt Smith, the new Doctor, still spinning and disoriented from his regeneration and all that stuff that happened when David Tennant played him. The scenes he had with child Amy were lovely. The Doctor being Amy's imaginary friend played into the fairy tale themes.

But then Amy grew up. And by the end of the season, I still have no idea who she is, what she wants, what she used to want, what's missing in her life, what need the Doctor fills, what her point of view is, how she views the Doctor, what horrifies her about him, what she adores about him, what time traveling with an alien is doing to her, how she now relates to her life... etc. See, by the end of the first season -- hell, even before that -- I knew all that about Rose. I knew most of that about Martha, and ALL of it about the fantabulous Donna.

Amy remained a cipher to the very end. The only glimmer of character I saw in her came in the Vincent Van Gogh episode. Finally, Amy showed some joy, a love for something. That episode really worked for me, mostly because the actor who played Vincent was so wonderful. Finally, there was EMOTION on the show. The monster was stupid and pointless, but it didn't matter. I didn't hate Amy. And although the show's always playing with the old "you can't change history" trope, when it works it works great, and it definitely worked here.

The mistake made with Amy was in telling the audience how amazing she was, without showing us. TeeVee does this a lot, using it as a sort of shorthand. No matter how or why it's used, it's thoroughly irritating. What's bizarre is that the flipside of Amy Pond, River Song, was fucking AWESOME. Not in the angel two-parter. Lots of problems there. But in the last few episodes? Marvelous. She was the interesting character with the darkness in her. I wanted to follow her around. Screw Amy. Give me the River Song show. I thought it would be awesome to see her show up in the new Torchwood, but given what seems to be happening with THAT, I'm a hell of a lot less interested. So let's keep River Song out of any potential trouble, shall we?

A lot of how we the audience see the Doctor has to do with how the companions see him. They are our eyes into his world, which has always been part of the genius of the show. If we're introduced to a companion who just doesn't have a point of view, then the Doctor remains a mystery to us as well. That's really too bad, because it does a huge disservice to Matt Smith. I think he can be a good Doctor but he just hasn't had the chance to develop any kind of character. He isn't playing against anything. I don't know how he sees Amy or the universe. I especially don't know how he sees Earth because when he shows up in The Lodger, he acts like a fucking idiot, like he's never even SEEN a person before. This is not an in-valid way to present him... if that's ever been set up. And it's not hard to set up, either. He regenerated. It was particularly violent. His previous incarnation really, really did not want to leave. The events that happened to him were particularly, personally traumatic. He had become, in effect, quite human. But I feel like none of the "before" work was done. These discussions didn't happen.

One issue here is that by the end of Tennant's Doctor, we really knew him. He had a wonderful arc, especially in the last season. But it felt like Moffat just had no idea where to start the eleventh Doctor. And because he had no idea where to begin, he didn't make a decision. And that gave us a character with no point of view. He had nowhere to go, because he wasn't coming from anywhere specific. So his reactions to things and people and aliens can just be whatever, because he doesn't have a point of view. This isn't really any fun, and it doesn't make me engage with the character. Nor does it give him a consistent arc. We NEVER know how he's going to react in any situation, so nothing he does makes any sense.

Beyond all the myriad character problems, the stories were riddled with issues. The biggest thing that kept happening was the way the plots were solved -- Wishing makes it so. Seriously, in almost every episode, it all came down to someone wishing really hard. If you set something that's impossible to defeat, say, the Pandorica, then you can't just make up some bullshit about how the Doctor got out of there. The build-up for the damned thing is so "THIS IS IMPENETRABLE AND YOU WILL BE IN HERE FOREVER" that all you can do when Rory uses the screwdriver to get the Doctor out is roll your eyes and eat some more chocolate (I did this).

I don't want to go through ALL of the plot problems with the show. I don't think there's enough Interweb space for that. Suffice it to say that plot problems are not nearly as irritating or glaring if the characters are working. But since I mentioned the Pandorica, let's just talk about the most ludicrous scene in either episode -- where ALL the aliens who are the Doctor's enemies come together to put him in the thing. They're all standing there, Daleks and Cybermen and Silurians, talking quite calmly about why they're putting him in there. Since they're always trying to kill him and stuff, that would seem like the easier way to go. But no, they don't want to kill him. They want to put him in a (seemingly) impenetrable box. And before they do that, they want to take turns telling him how assy he is.

Really? Does that sound believable? That's horrible writing. HORRIBLE. There are SO many problems with the finale that it's impossible to take it all in. Steven Moffat's proven to be good at a lot of things. I loved Jekyll. And the funny thing about that was, there was actual emotion in it. Characters had arcs. But when you think about his previous Doctor Who episodes, which have been wonderful, you realize that they exist in isolation. He's not concerned with arcs and character development because as a freelancer, that's not his job.

But as a showrunner, it IS. We have the evidence now -- thirteen episodes worth -- to say that he just isn't a good showrunner for this particular show. He's a great soldier but not a great general. It feels like he had a lot of cool ideas, but just never settled down to arc the season and figure out what worked and what didn't. He didn't kill any of those children, and it wound up hurting the parent. Doctor Who is a science fantasy show, which means that you can be fantastic with the elements. You can fudge stuff. The Conservation of Mass isn't really your problem. But you HAVE to be consistent with the rules that you set up, and he just wasn't. The only thing that's going to keep me coming back next year is the promise that we are going to find out more about River Song. Maybe Moffat needed a season to shake off the dust and figure out how to run this thing. I hope so. I want it to get back on track.

Lastly, I just want to say something to all the TeeVee writers who are forging out to pitch pilots: We are all going through the same shit. Nothing that you are going through is any different than what everyone else is going through. You are not alone. Try to cut through or ignore all the bullshit. Go sell some shows you love.