By Mark Onspaugh
(Note: Some of you may have noticed—and been relieved—that the Remote Outpost went “dark” for a while… We have a lot of sophisticated equipment and prototype AI stuff here to make sure we cover all the best in genre TV. Sometimes, the equipment achieves sentience and decides we “meat puppets” have to go… It was a long and bloody campaign, but good old Terran humanity triumphed again. Hopefully it will be a long time before something goes worng again.)
3 SHOWS WORTH YOUR TIME
These series have now gone into hiatus, which means you’ll have time to catch up on their first seasons before the second one debuts. Don’t be like me… (I had to binge-watch three seasons of LOST before getting on that bandwagon!)
BATES MOTEL (A&E)
A great writer, a great screenwriter, a great director, a great actor—Robert Bloch, Joseph Stefano (THE OUTER LIMITS, 1963-64), Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Perkins—all worked together to create one of the most memorable and nuanced psychotic murderers of all time, Norman Bates in the classic film PSYCHO (1960). Now this new series seeks to show us what made Norman “go a little mad, sometimes.” Creator Anthony Cipriano has reverse-engineered Norman, showing us his high school days, and the series is just terrific.
First up is the cast, with Freddie Highmore as the boy who loves his mother. Highmore has been with us since he was seven, appearing in films like FINDING NEVERLAND (2004), CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005) and AUGUST RUSH (2007). In BATES he channels Anthony Perkins just enough so that we see the man the boy will become… But this Norman hasn’t killed and mummified his mother, yet. (Norman’s first foray into taxidermy is both poignant and creepy.) And we’re not sure just how crazy Norman is. True, he does have fugues, but some of his more outlandish experiences (finding a captive Asian girl in a neighbor’s basement) turn out to be true. You wonder just how much is Norman, how much is his crazy mother, and how much she (or someone else) may be gaslighting him.
Speaking of mom, that would be Vera Farmiga (JOSHUA, 2007, ORPHAN, 2009, UP IN THE AIR, 2009 and THE CONJURING, 2013). She’s Norma Bates, and that first name is not one I am crazy about… a little too “on the nose” for my taste. But she is wonderful—one minute shrewish and shrill, the next loving and nurturing, the next wheedling and cajoling. This is a woman desperate to protect her favorite son, even though there are those in town who believe Norman is in serious need of counseling.
And yes, I said favorite son. Norman has a half brother, Dylan, played by Max Thieriot (MY SOUL TO TAKE, 2010 and THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET, 2012). Dylan’s bad boy with a heart is a fine foil to Norman. At first, Dylan wants to little to do with Norman or their mother—then he wants to move Norman out of the house and away from their mother… But events conspire to draw the three of them even closer together. (And that friendly little town has a lot of secrets—like the basis of its economy.) The fact that Dylan is never mentioned in any of the PSYCHO films leads one to believe things will not end well for him.
One of the things I love best about the show is the (PSYCHO) house and the eponymous motel. Like Amityville, the Overlook and the House of Usher), both of these places seem cursed. One new conceit is that the Bates move there after Norman’s father dies. So the house is aged and creepy, and the motel is… waiting. Much of the first season is concerned with getting the place ready for guests. My guess is that things will get even weirder and darker once it starts booking lots of guests – giving an opportunity for an almost anthology style of storytelling.
Now that there are no (new) Star Trek series running, I am hungry for good SF on TV. The last shows I truly loved were BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2004-2009), CAPRICA (2009-2010) and SGU STARGATE UNIVERSE (2009-2011). While DEFIANCE is not as good as GALACTICA or SGU, it has the potential to become some really good SF TV.
The premise is ingenious—seven alien races collectively known as the Votan flee their system, where the sun is going nova. They come to Earth in huge arks, somehow thinking our planet is uninhabited. The citizens of Earth regard them with suspicion and hostility, but allow them to establish some modest colonies while most of the Votan remain in suspended animation aboard the arks. All is proceeding well until the Votan ambassador is assassinated, and the Pale Wars break out. Many lives are lost and the war goes on for years… until the ark fleet is blown up! Huge pieces of technology rain down on the Earth, and terraforming devices begin haphazardly remaking the planet and mutating the animals, as well as introducing alien flora and fauna (I hate it when that happens). Humans and Votan realize they cannot survive this new world, which is now alien to both groups. Because of debris sometimes falling as “razor rain,” long-range air travel is impossible, and going into orbit is too costly – so both groups are earthbound. An uneasy peace is declared. The new Earth is deadly and pieces of space debris still fall, bringing death… but also opportunity for scavengers.
All of this is backstory and told wordlessly (and briefly) in the title sequence. The series opens with Nolan, a former soldier turned scavenger who combs the frontier with his adopted daughter Irisa, an Irathient girl he rescued in the war. The Irathient people are orange with white markings—whether these marks are pigmentation, paint or tattoos is not quite clear, but they seem permanent. Nolan and Irisa are trying to get enough money to get to Anarctica, which is rumored to be an oasis on the hostile planet. Their pursuit of an “arkfall” leads them to Defiance, a settlement of human and Votan built on the ruins of St. Louis (the arch, somewhat the worse for wear, still stands). The town is a wild and wooly frontier town, a bit like Mos Eisley in STAR WARS (1977), but with only a handful of alien species.
Nolan is jacked (robbed) by some of Irisa’s people, and is forced to become the peacekeeper of Defiance. Irisa becomes his deputy, along with Tommy, a human African-American who develops a sexy but tempestuous relation with Irisa. Defiance is run by newly-elected mayor Amanda Rosewater, whose sister runs the local brothel/bar/gambling hall. Two more races are most fully represented by power-hungry Datak Tarr and his wife Stahma, both Castithans. Castithans are albino, sophisticated, scheming, fierce and their families all bathe together—their dwellings are white on white, making them nearly the opposite of the Irathients, and these races despise one another—united only in their disdain for humans. Stahma is a great character, sensuous but crafty, deadly while being vulnerable. The town doctor is an Indogene, a people with pale, reptilian skin and dark eyes and lips (very goth/Cenobite) —they are brilliant scientists and have done both brilliant and terrible things during the Pale Wars—this is true of Dr. Yewl, who follows in the tradition of other great TV sci-fi doctors as being brilliant, crusty and not afraid to speak her mind.
The town and its people (human and Votan) are rife with secrets and intrigue. Datak and Stahma’s son, Alak, is a DJ who plays alien covers of old Earth standards from the Arch. He is in love with the daughter of the richest human in Defiance, Rafe MacCawley, who owns a huge mine that yields both precious minerals and alien tech.
The other races get somewhat short shrift (so far) – one looks vaguely birdlike (the Liberata), another quite apelike (the Sensoth). There are also Biomen, huge blue warriors who are virtually unbeatable, and the Volge, a warlike race humans and Votans alike fear. Who smuggled the Volge onto the arks is still a mystery.
Much SF TV is usually confined to a single ship or locale to utilize standing sets. Green screen has freed up filmmakers to some degree, and Defiance doesn’t feel too claustrophobic. The principals are all quite good. Nolan is played by Grant Bowler, a Kiwi whose had roles in LOST (2004-2010) and TRUE BLOOD (2008 -). His daughter Irisa is played by Stephanie Leonidas, who played Mina in a TV version of DRACULA (2006). Mayor Rosewater is genre fave Julie Benz (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 1997-2003, ANGEL, 1999-2004, and she played Rita on DEXTER) and her sister Kenya is Mia Kirshner (THE VAMPIRE DIARIES on the CW, and was on the Showtime series THE L WORD). Mine owner Rafe MacCawley is played by Graham Greene (DANCES WITH WOLVES, 1990, TWILIGHT: NEW MOON, 2009). Datak Tarr is Tony Curran (THE 13TH WARRIOR, 1999, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, 2003, BEOWULF & GRENDEL, 2005, THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN, 2008) and his wife Stahma is played by Jaime Murray (HU$TLE, 2004-, WAREHOUSE 13, 2009). And crusty Doc Yewl is Trenna Keating, who doesn’t have a lot of credits, but is one of my favorite characters.
It’s a fairly complex mythology, which is why they are fleshing out the alien characters slowly—Star Trek had many years and several series to refine the Klingons, and I imagine this show could be just as rich, if it stays on the air. As with many new ventures, this is a cross-platform show, so you can find out more about the characters and their races from the website, or from playing the MMORPG online.
ORPHAN BLACK (BBC America)
I do love BBC America. Once in a while you find a real gem there, like BEING HUMAN (2008-) a show with a mismatched trio of supernaturals (vampire, werewolf, ghost) trying to survive both the human race and their more hostile counterparts. The original British version is far, far superior to the American one and I urge you to check it out. Lest you think I am a snob for Brit-TV, I will confess I gave up on COPPER (2012-) during its first season… It was meh (despite my loyalty to my Irish kinsmen), and not half as good as RIPPER STREET (2012-) when it comes to period police procedurals. Also, LUTHER (2010-) with Idris Elba is amazing.
Which brings us to ORPHAN BLACK—more grounded in everyday reality than BATES or DEFIANCE, it still has a cool, science fiction premise: a young woman unhappy with her life of violence and estrangement from her young daughter is terrified to witness a woman commit suicide by jumping in front of a subway train… a woman who is her exact double.
Our protagonist, Sarah, takes the place of the suicide victim, using the death of a double to fake her own and get out of an abusive relationship (with a drug dealer from whom she has stolen a lot of money). Unfortunately, the woman she has chosen to impersonate is a homicide detective with secrets… lots of secrets.
And, it gets worse. One double? How about several? Turns out Sarah is just one of several clones. We don’t know how many, nor who the original is. But someone is eliminating them, and so Sarah is trying to maintain her false identity, evade the clone killer, win custody of and protect her daughter, and solve the mystery of her own existence.
ORPHAN BLACK works largely due to its star, Tatiana Maslany. Tatiana was in such fare as DIARY OF THE DEAD, THE MESSENGERS and the TV movie STIR OF ECHOES 2: THE HOMECOMING – all from 2007. But whatever you thought of her in those roles, this is her breakout. Whether neurotic housewife, crazed Russian, lesbian science geek, French goth or our hero Sarah, she inhabits each role effortlessly and really seems to become someone beyond just a different hairstyle or fashion sense.
Kudos also go to Jordan Gavaris, who plays Sarah’s foster brother Felix. Gavaris manages to take the character of outlandish but sensible gay man and make it seem fresh and funny. Felix goes beyond caricature and is a very real ally to Sarah and her daughter…
ORPHAN BLACK is a mystery and a science fiction thriller. Like good science fiction, it makes us look at larger issues of identity, individuality, the rights of “manufactured” beings and what it means to be human. It also has one of the coolest title sequences and theme music (by Two Fingers) of any show currently on.
FINAL NOTE: While I love science fiction, I can’t stand it if it’s boring. Those who have read this column before know I gave up on TERRA NOVA. The same may soon be said of CONTINUUM, the SyFy series about a revolutionary group from the future transported to our time, and the cop who is accidentally sent back with them. Engaging at first, the show is becoming the same song played over and over. Unless it turns a corner soon, I will toss it into the metaphorical dust bin.
© Copyright 2013 by Mark Onspaugh