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Posts Tagged ‘Katee Sackhoff’

Dear Jane,

I have to say that I really do appear to have a blindspot where New BSG is concerned. People around me not much given to talking about SF go all fluttery when it is mentioned, ‘Oh, that’s awesome’ went my manager when I mentioned I was watching the series. The United Nations – the frickin’ United Nations – has hosted retrospectives on the series and learned discussions of its themes. And yet I am finding it really hard going. Rather than something I make a point of sitting down to watch every night, it’s just become the show that’s on in the background when I’m having my tea in my garret, which usually only happens two or three times a week. Not to say that I’m not giving it my full attention: you’ve got no chance of keeping up with this thing unless you stay on the ball.

Possibly this is because I am from a background where stories come in discrete chunks, for the most part. I don’t object to the odd bit of metaplot development going on between episodes, but I’m not terribly keen on series suddenly starting to turn into serials, which is what’s been happening with BSG over the course of the last season or so.

Also, and once again this is perhaps a personal thing, the general tone of the last few episodes is really just not to my taste, as it seems mainly to concern people undergoing moments of extreme personal angst and despair while no-one has a bloody clue what’s actually going on around them. Someone gets thrown out of an airlock. Someone else has their leg sawn off. The admiral appears to be having some sort of nervous breakdown.

I must confess to feeling particularly exercised on behalf of the minor characters, who I’ve always found rather more engaging, for the most part, than the programme’s leads, most of whom feel somewhat crushed by their own significance: apart from the two Adamas, both of whom are well-enough played to be sympathetic, the others don’t feel like real people, just mouthpieces for the writers. And yet its those minor characters, whose performers have had the latitude to bring a bit of humanity and depth to them, who are primarily being ravaged to generate that atmosphere of despair and struggle. Someone has to lose a leg? Ah, make it a minor character. A bunch of hidden Cylons required? Where’s that cast list? And, hey, let’s kill off a sympathetic character who’s been consistently presented as a bit of a loser, by having them murdered. Cally doesn’t qualify for an inexplicable resurrection, unfortunately, presumably because she’s not an insanely omni-competent Mary Sue with a Special Destiny.

I suppose I should probably point out my problem is with the Kara Thrace character and not with Katee Sackhoff as an individual. I know nothing of Katee Sackhoff as an individual, but she obviously has some sort of screen presence (not that it was especially noticeable during Riddick, but that’s by-the-by). I am sure that if I only saw Sackhoff in another part I would be able to give a much more objective assessment of her abilities.

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Or possibly not.

Anyway, when it comes to not having a bloody clue what’s going on, I fear I should perhaps raise my own hand. Let’s try to sort out where we are at the midpoint of season four: Starbuck, who is apparently fated to destroy the human race, blew up but then got better and returned from the planet Earth with a mystic sense of how to get back there. Meanwhile four of the mysterious final five Cylons have been brought together by their shared feeling for Bob Dylan cover versions. They do not feel inclined to act any more like Cylons than they did before, they just know they are Cylons somehow (a peculiar epistemological point). Various minor characters are wheeled on to have visions and toss supposedly-profound theological points into the mix, while the carnival of despair goes on around them.

I really preferred it when it was just Ben Cartwright in a cape leading a parable about Mormonism, to be totally honest. Ho hum.

I actually sat down to do the usual episode-by-episode thing at this point, but they’re all blurring together in my head and I couldn’t find many genuinely positive things to say about any of them. I can still appreciate the skill and artistry that’s gone into the designs and special effects, and many of the actors are consistently doing very fine work. But as far as the actual story’s concerned, it’s really not my cup of tea. The last chunk of the show is going to have to do something spectacular to get me back on board, and striking as the last shot of Revelations is (it would even have been a good moment to close the entire series with) I get no real sense that this is on the cards.

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Dear Jane,

Well, here we are one disc into the weekly series of the new Battlestar Galactica and I actually beginning to see just why you rate this series so highly. Usually with this sort of undertaking I pick out selected landmark or highlight episodes and just mention everything else in passing, but the thing about New BSG, like quite a few modern shows I expect, is that they all sort of run together in terms of plot and so on.

Anyway. The first episode of this bunch, 33, is one that I’d actually seen fifteen minutes-ish of before when it first showed up on British TV in 2006. There was clearly no point in my committing to another big TV show despite a characteristically hearty recommendation from Rusty Davis, as I was flying off to Japan for a year very shortly, but in an case I found the thing completely discombobulating and rather inaccessible. (Bear in mind the mini wasn’t shown prior to the weekly series.) The low-key nature of the whole thing threw me, as did the plotting with the multiple Boomers, and I bailed out fairly rapidly.

Where exactly is this business with Agathon and the Boomer-copy on ‘Cylon-occupied Caprica’ going, anyway? (Not very heavily occupied from the look of things, by the way.) At the moment all it seems to be achieving is providing a timescale for the rest of the series (’12th day on Caprica’ and so on). Don’t answer that, by the way.

On the other hand the plotline with the other Boomer taking a very long time to admit to herself she’s probably a Cylon doesn’t seem to be doing much either. Presumably it is Boomer-1 who blew up the water tanks on the Galactica, although as usual the series is taking a very long time to answer any of the questions it poses.

I sort of like this, I may be baffled and lacking in any sense of closure, but at least I feel like an adult whose intelligence is respected who is baffled and lacking in any sense of closure. For example, all that business in 33 with the apparent link between the Cylons and the Rising Star – had the ship really been infiltrated? Were there actually nukes on board? Why were the Cylon attacks so closely linked with the ship’s presence?

I know, Jane, that you said the Iraq/post-9/11 stuff really gets going in later seasons, but it seems very obvious to me that this show is the product of a nation which believes itself to be threatened by war. Every time the characters are forced into a tough, morally questionable decision like blowing up a civilian ship which may have been infiltrated, the programme is surely being an apologist for every suspect choice and misstep made by the Bush administration in the name of homeland security.

Of course, the look of the show is really helped by the presence of Mary McDonnell as a thoroughly sympathetic president. She’s very good, and I can’t help but wonder if she was on some level a model for Doctor Who‘s unexpectedly-elevated Prime Minister in the 2005 and 2006 series. In the circumstances, McDonnell’s resemblance to Elisabeth Sladen is troubling, but that’s no-one’s fault.

I was going to do a long thing here about the whole way in which the characters from the original series have been reimagined and recast, probably at the same time as talking about the appearance of Richard Hatch in Bastille Day. But that is going to be a long thing and I am aware that this update has gone on a bit already. So I will save that for a more auspicious moment and instead comment more on Act of Contrition, which for me was the outstanding episode of this batch.

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Perhaps this was because it is much more of a standalone than the others (for all that it turns out to end with a big TO BE CONTINUED caption), with less of a presence of some of the peripheral characters who I find slightly annoying. On the other hand, the complex structure of the thing (I counted four layers of flashbacks going off in close succession at one point) made it a little difficult to follow: it took me a while to figure out that the accident on the hangar deck was actually happening ‘now’ rather than being a flashback to Zak Adama’s death. In the end I was impressed with how it worked, simply as a piece of character drama.

I know you like Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck, and I agree that she has tremendous screen presence – but I can’t help but find the whole wisecracking-tough-but-vulnerable characterisation to be a bit obvious and maybe even cliched. But here I was surprised to find myself genuinely caring about the central characters (Adama, Apollo, and Starbuck) and their relationships, which never really happened with Disco Galactica. (For what it’s worth, at this point my favourite character is probably Apollo, mainly on the strength of his stand at the end of Bastille Day: he’s not afraid to be a bit of a tool in the service of a good cause, something I always find very admirable.) I’m not sure to what extent it honestly qualifies as true SF (I don’t really think that just being set on a spaceship is enough), but this episode had some riveting moments of human drama, and I hope I’ll always be happy to watch that. Especially if there’s a spaceship involved.

.

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Dear Jane,

I’m going to be perfectly honest and say that the responsibility for this is largely yours. As you may recall, on February the 9th 2011 at about ten to five in the afternoon GMT, you said to me ‘Dude. You’re just going to have to sit down with the BSG miniseries and season 1… trust me,’ on the grounds that it was ‘the best TV show in history’. (I don’t need to tell you what BSG means, but just in case anyone else is reading our correspondence, it’s shorthand for Battlestar Galactica. I don’t really understand why it’s not just BG, as the show isn’t called Battle Star Galactica, but that’s just my OCD-pedant tendency coming to the fore again. But I digress. I suspect I’ll be doing that a lot.)

Anyway, for a long time I paid this little heed, but then I found myself coming to the end of a pilgrimage through the original Star Trek, which had itself come fairly close on the heels of similar trips through The Tomorrow People (original version) and Babylon 5. A strange conjunction of factors was in play: I was casting about for something new with which to occupy myself, found the lack of current space-opera style TV shows a little regrettable, and stumbled upon a box set of the entirety of New BSG (something with which I was still almost wholly unfamiliar) going at a fairly reasonable price on the same day I was sent an unreasonably large cheque in the post by my family (a Significant Birthday had occurred). And so I uttered that incantation which has presaged so many dubious enterprises: Ah, what the hell.

And I thought I would tell you my opinion of it. I am coming at this from the perspective of someone who has always had a bit of a soft spot for original BSG (or Disco BSG as I usually refer to it) and was somewhat wary of what, on the face of it, looks like a fairly radical rethink of the whole concept.

You will, of course, be familiar with the plot of the mini-series: at some distant point in space and time, the human civilisation of the Twelve Colonies has almost begun to forget about the lurking menace of the Cylons, a race of intelligent machines which turned on their creators decades earlier. Now, of course, the Cylons are back, able to pass as human – and they have used this ability to infiltrate Colonial society prior to launching a devastating assault…

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One of the ships taken by surprise by the Cylon blitzkrieg is the venerable battlestar (a big sort of aircraft carrier sort of spaceship) Galactica, commanded by crusty old grumpface Adama (played by Danny Trejo Edward James Olmos). The Galactica is en route to be decommissioned, but the collapse of civilisation as everyone knows it leads to a rethink.

Adama is all for digging in and taking on the Cylons toe-to-toe (probably mixing my metaphors there, sorry), but the newly-installed President (Mary McDonnell) – only in the job because her 42 superiors have all been killed – wants to focus on rescuing survivors and abandoning the system entirely. Can they settle their differences before the Cylons catch up with them?

Well, Jane, you did warn me that the first hour of the miniseries was ‘kind of dull’ and I can see what you mean. Then again, this is a story with over a dozen significant characters and a new world to establish, so they have to do at least a bit of laying in of plot at the beginning. My problems with the mini are not to do with it being slow, because right from the start the thing is laced with striking and engaging moments – the scene with the dead baby was genuinely shocking – but more connected to the fact that at times it seemed in danger of turning into very generic Hollywood SF.

Most obviously, there is the presence of the slippery, untrustworthy Baltar (James Callis), who just happens to be the only character with an English accent. Also, the key character hook for the new versions of Adama and Apollo (Jamie Bamber) is that they have a strained father-son relationship: this is just as much a cliche.

However, apart from this, and certainly once the Cylon nukes start dropping, I found the mini to be very engaging and highly enjoyable stuff. I believe this was originally made for broadcast on a minority network in the US, which may explain the occasional signs of a low budget, but it may also explain the mini’s willingness to go beyond the unchallenging norms of most American TV SF – there is a running theme of characters being forced to take very tough decisions, and the mini does not shy away from showing the consequences of these (a sweet young girl gets vaporised at one point, for instance). It may also be the source of the (to my mind) surprising quantity of sexytime in the mini, certainly compared to Disco BSG: the pilots are having sexytime with the flight crews, the Galactica crew are having sexytime with the presidential staff, the humans are even having sexytime with the Cylons. Crikey. At least the President’s suggestion that the survivors ‘need to start having babies’ seems likely to be fulfilled, and sooner rather than later at this rate.

Watching the BSG mini now it’s easy to see it is, like all SF, a product of its time. It’s very easy to see that this is a piece of post-September 11th drama, contemporaneous with the invasion of Iraq: civilisation is under threat from fanatical ideologues who have managed to infiltrate it, hard, cruel, pragmatic decisions have got to be made, and so on. Perhaps this explains the sheer lack of disco and the down-to-Earth tone of the thing, certainly compared to the kind of Star Trek being made around that time (the Disco-style robotic Cylons are notably short on screen time). I wonder how much of this is a result of the subject matter and how much is down to market differentiation (that said, much of the zero-G Viper combat struck me as being very much post-Babylon 5 in its presentation).

Having said that, Jane, I do find there is a certain disconnect in the milieu of the new show – so much of the technology is recognisably close to our own (nuclear weapons, projectile sidearms, and so on) and yet this is also a civilisation capable of constructing massive FTL spacecraft and advanced AI and robotics: there is perhaps an element here of the makers of the show cherrypicking ideas to suit their story. I think this also connects, sort of, with the issue of the rethought versions of Starbuck and Boomer, but I think I will return to this particular topic at a future date.

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(I am aware, by the way, that Katee Sackhoff, who plays the new Starbuck, has become the breakout star of this series – my understanding is that she is a bit of a cult rave in some quarters and many people are keen for her to play Warbird or Ms Marvel in a future MCU movie. Well, Sackhoff is certainly a very engaging and charismatic performer, but I couldn’t quite buy into her as a top gun fighter pilot. Again, I suspect I will come back to this.)

I would say that this is the best piece of 21st century TV SF I have seen in a very long time, but given that I have watched virtually no new TV SF since Enterprise got canned that doesn’t really mean very much. Let’s just say that it is good, and a promising start for the series. Thank you for the recommendation.

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Some things I have learned recently about the great Vin Diesel: his real name is Mark, he is a keen player of Dungeons & Dragons (somehow the image of him bouncing up and down in his seat rattling polyhedrals and yelling ‘I fireball the bastard!‘ is a hard one to shake), and – if I understand correctly – he has basically re-mortgaged his house to raise the money to make his new movie Riddick (written and directed by David Twohy). This is presumably because the last movie set in this universe, a grandiose and slightly absurd Star Wars knock-off, did not exactly set fire to the box office – it may explain the nine year interval between installments, too.

Indeed, I’m slightly surprised they’ve made another one at all, but I suppose it’s good for Diesel’s career for him to headline a non-Fast & Furious picture (wouldn’t do for him to get typecast – there’s more to this guy than hulking, laid-back, gravelly-voiced action hero car thief anti-heroes, after all, he can do hulking, laid-back, gravelly-voiced action hero escaped space convict anti-heroes too. Isn’t versatility an awesome thing?) and Diesel claims to be doing it ‘for the fans’. Hmmm.

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Anyway, Riddick opens with Diesel’s preposterously omni-competent sociopath struggling to survive on a rocky hell-planet inhabited entirely by CGI beasties that want to eat him. For a nasty moment all this started to remind me of After Earth, but it is thankfully bereft of life lessons and Diesel is allowed free reign to display his considerable charisma. The film has quite a bold structure and for quite a long time the film is just about Riddick doing various things to prove what a badass he is (improvised DIY surgery, that sort of thing) and how he comes to feel fairly comfortable in his new environment (although there is a fairly lengthy flashback which we will return to shortly).

However, Riddick discovers the planet is shortly about to turn even less hospitable than it currently is and activates the distress signal he discovers in an abandoned outpost. No fewer than two teams of bounty hunters turn up in search of the considerable bounty on Riddick’s shiny head, amongst them characters played by Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, and Katee Sackhoff (wasn’t she in a new version of Buck Rogers or something?), and the film takes another interesting turn as Riddick practically vanishes for the whole of the second act: this part of the film focuses on the tensions between the two groups of hunters and their increasingly fraught attempts to capture or kill Riddick before he picks them all off one by one.

Eventually, though, time runs out and Riddick and his hunters are forced to work together as the true scale of the threat from the local ecosystem becomes clear. We’re very much back in the same territory as the original Pitch Black here – a small group of under-equipped people forced to co-operate against encroaching alien nasties.

Well, I must say that given a choice between Vin Diesel starring in a Star Wars knock-off and an Aliens knock-off, I’ll choose the latter every time – there’s a sense in which Riddick really is a vanity project, in that it’s all about the main character and star, and this works much better in a film with a tight focus than a sprawling space opera epic.

That said, those fans to whom Diesel alluded – hang on, is there a large and vocal fanbase for Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick? If so they must operate entirely off my personal radar. Anyway, in some ways the film is clearly written with an eye on the supposed fanbase, because the last film ended with Riddick being declared emperor of the galaxy or something similar (I haven’t seen it since its original release), and Diesel and Twohy feel obliged to respect this. And so, rather than simply have a throwaway line in the voiceover explaining how Riddick used to be Lord High whatever but was slung out for spending all his time disporting himself with concubines, there is a relatively lengthy and elaborate flashback, in which Karl Urban shows up to reprise his role. I suspect this will be slightly baffling to audiences who don’t remember or haven’t seen the other films – there is some blatantly gratuitous T&A from the concubines, too.

However, this is Riddick‘s only major slip up, for the rest of it is a engagingly crunchy and tense SF action movie. I suppose it would have been preferable to have at least one major character who wasn’t a sweaty badass, and the beat where the enormity of Riddick’s personal awesomeness is communicated to us by two other characters telling each other how awesome he is is slightly overused. And the scenes intended to give Riddick the faintest of softer sides end up looking slightly absurd set against the towering machismo of the rest of it, as well – but on the whole this is slick and entertaining.

You know what, I haven’t seen that many Vin Diesel films but the ones I have seen I’ve enjoyed a lot (I am, naturally, particularly looking forward to seeing him take on Jason Statham in the next Fast & Furious), and Riddick is no exception. It’s a relatively modest production with equally modest aims, but it hits the targets it sets for itself with great ease. Whether or not I want to see yet another movie in this milieu I don’t know, but for the time being I hope that Vin Diesel gets to keep his house and makes enough off this movie to buy a special glittery d20 or two. Good fun.

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