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The Fringe Binge, Part 1: Season 4 aka The Best Season

FRINGE-Key-Art110901140313Four years back, we dropped cable in the interest of saving money, vowing to use much more affordable streaming services to keep up with the shows we watched each week, including Fringe. But the practical effect of that move was that Fringe got put on hold with a strong intention to catch up with it again someday. In the newborn phase after my second child’s birth this summer, that day has come.

Fringe has always had the reputation of being an aughts replacement for The X-Files, and certainly it did have the crime procedural married to tales of a supernatural or bizarre nature and an overarching “mythology” narrative, Fringe proved itself distinct from its ancestor.  Watching season 4 over the last few weeks brought home Fringe’s special recipe, and I dare say it has earned a place in the pantheon of great sci-fi television.

I do intend to write specifically about certain plot events, episodes, and moments, so if you’d like to remain naive on the season’s stories, stop reading now.

Season 3 ended with Peter getting in the Machine to create a bridge between the two universes to help stabilize both and allow the two Fringe teams to work together for more solutions. That meant that Peter was erased from the timeline as it got reset and 10-year-old Peter drowned in a lake, as he should have done without the Observer’s help.

fringe-peterreturns4So when season 4 picks back up, we return to the Fringe team we’re used to, but now they’re working with the other side, the other side is healing, and no one remembers Peter at all. But as the episodes add up, and Peter’s non-corporeal presence attempts to reach back into their reality, it becomes clearer and clearer what Peter’s presence meant to the team, especially Walter and Olivia. Olivia, without Peter in her life, has remained distrustful of everyone around her. She has remained the guarded, distant Olivia of the first season without the opening bond with Peter. Likewise, Walter stays distant from the world around him. He never leaves the lab and, in fact, sleeps in it. Astrid is his eyes and ears on the world through a camera she wears like a Bluetooth over-the-ear microphone.

What strikes me as a major difference between Fringe and The X-Files is the emphasis on the relationships in Fringe. This season largely explores the relationships between Peter and Walter and Olivia, but it also focuses on Lincoln’s relationships with his former partner and Olivia, Olivia’s relationship with Nina Sharp, and even Astrid’s relationship with her father. In fact, parent-child relationships are paramount. John Noble as Walter is a font of sympathy, pathos, and humor as he navigates the return of a Peter he didn’t know existed. Each Fringe event that the team studies directly mirrors the interpersonal conflicts of the team. The themes in both A- and B-plots are reflective in a way I don’t remember being as strong in the first three seasons.

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Of course, rather than The X-Files‘ obsession with aliens, Fringe deep dives into the concepts of time and alternate realities. In season 3, we met Olivia’s and Walter’s alternate universe selves–nicknamed Bolivia or later Fauxlivia and Walternate respectively. We also met the other side’s Astrid, Lincoln, and Broyles. Each of them is a plausible variation on the character we came to know in the first two seasons. Now, in season 4 with the timeline reset and Peter gone, we get slight variations on both sets of characters we got to know in season 3. Walternate in season 3 was villainous, but Walternate in season 4 is well-meaning but hard. The doubling down on the variations of character is fascinating. A highlight is when Astrid finally meets her doppleganger, who is on the spectrum, and they bond.

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I’m very pleased I decided to catch back up with season 4. The show antes up the relationships and concepts it built over the previous three seasons and creates what I would argue is the best season of the show.

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Star Wars Saturday: Annie Leibovitz Keeps the Tradition

I love Annie Leibovitz’s photography. She’s a master at the craft. She can make almost subject look cool, attractive, provocative, and self-mocking all at the same time. The Vanity Fair with her The Force Awakens photo shoot hit shelves this week, and the photos are delicious.

See the accompanying article here.

First, the cover of the magazine, which features old crew Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sitting in the Millenium Falcon’s cockpit alongside newcomers Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), and BB-8.

Vanity Fair cover for June 2015. Star Wars. The Empire Reboots! Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz.

Vanity Fair cover for June 2015. Star Wars. The Empire Reboots! Photo Credit: Annie Leibovitz.

Next, a debonair shot of Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Who doesn’t love a man in uniform, hanging off his craft, with the wind sweeping his hair?

VF Star Wars Poe

 

The first look at Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren sans Sith mask. Unfortunately, he seems to be channeling some of the angsty anger of Anakin Skywalker. Hopefully he won’t hate snow.

 

VF Star Wars Sith

 

The shiny trooper below is thought to be Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma. I’m intrigued by how the helmet, breastplate, and torso plates have differing levels of shiny. What would make that happen that way?

 

VF Star Wars Shiny Trooper

 

Here’s J.J. Abrams directing Daisy Ridley’s Rey on set of the planet Jakku. I dig the costume of the foregrounded desert-dweller.

VF Star Wars Ren Abrams

 

I have incredibly mixed feelings about Lupita Nyong’o’s character being a CGI motion-captured pirate named Maz Kanata. On the one hand, she’ll probably do a great job with it. On the other hand, I’d rather see a black woman as a black woman in the Star Wars Universe. And I want Abrams to avoid the aliens as ethnics troubles that George Lucas seemed more and more likely to fall into as he continued making the films.

VF Star Wars Motion Capture

 

Finally, we have a rogues gallery of scum and villainy.  A beautiful throw-back touch is the droid that looks built off of the original design for C-3PO by Ralph McQuarrie. Compare below.

 

VF Star Wars Pirates

 

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Star Wars Saturday: Abrams Announces Names Through Callback to Collectible Cards

Cool points to J.J. Abrams who clearly understands how to get the old school fans on his side. To fill in some information teased in the recently released The Force Awakens trailer, Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, offered a riff on the Topps trading cards printed for the original Star Wars film. The images premiered as an exclusive to Entertainment Weekly.

“I’m only sorry we couldn’t give everyone a stick of gum,” Abrams says.

BB-8

The character that has grabbed my toddler’s interest–not designated F1-F4, but in fact BB-8 (basketball?).

Poe-Dameron

Oscar Isaacs, who I still think is perfectly reminiscent of Wedge Antilles, is Poe Dameron, a name of brooding tone. He looks intense, determined. And his name echoes that intensity by evoking Edgar Allen Poe.

Kylo-Ren

Kylo Ren is the coolest name here. If he weren’t the bad guy, I might name a kid after him. However, in the context of his role, the name isn’t particularly ominous. Perhaps, though, if he’s an upcoming Sith and not a Sith Lord, he doesn’t yet have a big bad moniker like Darth Vader or Darth Sidious. Maybe he’ll earn one. Plus, Anakin Skywalker hardly sounded threatening except for what we already knew about his future.

Rey

Previously, her name had been speculated as Kira. Now its shown to be Rey, but note that she didn’t get a last name on the card, like Poe and Kylo did. Perhaps that’s because Abrams is keeping some family relationship with the old guard in his hat. She has been speculated to be Han and Leia’s daughter.

Finn

Of course, Finn here also doesn’t have a last name. Based on my logic from above, that would make him Lando’s son? And now the whole thing sounds stupidly absurd.

The cards evoke smile-worthy nostalgia and allow the teaser trailer to have a bit more longevity in discussions. Well played, J.J.


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Star Wars Saturday: Anthony Daniels Gets Existential

I’ll admit, I underestimated C-3PO. He always struck me as the classic straight man to ping jokes off of, the anxious companion who increases the tension of a tight situation. I honestly never thought about him as a real character with dimensions, motivation, and consistency.

But Anthony Daniels recently gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly that made me shift my perspective and increase my appreciation for ol’ Goldenrod. If anyone should have greater insight, it is certainly the man who has played him for nearly 40 years.

Certainly the whole interview is worth reading, but there were four bits that kinda blew my mind.

1) C-3PO and R2-D2 are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

It was maybe five years after filming Star Wars, I think maybe I was doing Empire Strikes Back, that it suddenly occurred to me that R2 and 3PO are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. For people who don’t know that play, they are the tiny characters in Hamlet who, in a play written in the 20th century [by Tom Stoppard], became the main characters. One is highly intelligent and sort of intuitive and the other is plodding and slow and usually more correct, usually sensible. I was the clever one, Guildenstern. And I think having played that role the week before we finished and then we’re in the desert [shooting Star Wars], I almost carried on the stage play that I’d been doing. The only difference was that the actor on stage playing Rosencrantz actually spoke to me, whereas R2-D2, to my horror and consternation and bewilderment and confusion, didn’t speak at all. I was in a one-sided monologue.

How did I not know this?! I love Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I even teach it, and I have never, ever made this connection before. But he’s absolutely right, of course, that the characters are practically the same. It’s even more fun to consider the two droids as attempting to figure out how to get out of this “madhouse” of a universe, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do in Stoppard’s play.

2) C-3PO’s pessimism comes from logic, not fear or cowardice.

Not to get heavy about this, but one of the laws of robotics is that a robot has to protect itself — that is, after it’s protected its master. He’s not basically a coward. He has the logic to extrapolate any given situation to its dreadful end. The interesting thing is he only ever sees a bad outcome. He doesn’t have that capability or programming to say, “Well it could end up fine.”

Again, this makes perfect sense. And yet, because Daniels makes 3PO so human, it’s easy to attribute human characteristics of fear or cowardice on him, when he’s really just far too intelligent to be optimistic.

3) Daniels flat out refused to allow his performance in the upcoming films to be CGI.

I will tell you that when [director] J.J. Abrams rang me to ask about filming Episode VII, one of the first things he said after he told me how wonderful I was — and that didn’t take long — but he then said, “Would you be interested in being in the film just doing the voice?” I said, “No,” and he said, “Right!” He knew I’d say that. There’s no way I would just do the voice. I also said that it can’t be the same suit. I will tell you that the team then got together and built a new suit. They made an entirely new look-a-like with changes that you will never notice [on screen] that made my life a lot easier. I can get it on and off very quickly. [During the prequels], the only time [Threepio has] been CG was when it was very dangerous [to act in the scene in a suit] — and it wasn’t very good. In fact, I’m going to say it was awful. One of the difficulties is with a character that you know and love so well is that, as a member of the audience, you go, “Oh no, that’s not right. No, he doesn’t move like that.” With me [in the suit], he’s always going to move the same way and have the same reactions, timing, and so on. With CG, you’re working with some brilliant person on the keyboard who is trying to pretend to be me.

Daniels is not just an actor, he’s a mime. Of course he wouldn’t want his physical acting to be done by a programmer. Bully for you, ol’ chap!

4) How Daniels would envision C-3PO’s final fate.

Humans die … I guess, wow. … Would he rust, gently? … I think probably he would realize that his programming was failing, that it was too old fashioned, and Microsoft had stopped supporting that particular brand. He would see upcoming new robots and realize his power source was running out. He’d say to R2, “Can you go down and get me a new power spectrum?” or whatever. I don’t think he’d ever — I’m looking at this image with [C-3PO wearing his replacement] silver leg … I think he would go on. Getting spare parts, getting surgery. And I think the people around him, humans and droids alike, would help because he had become part of their daily lives, part of their environment. They wouldn’t want to let him go. You know, I’m a great do-it-yourself person at home. I mend pretty much anything I can, whether it’s melting plastic with a hot skewer from the stove because the plastic is cracked, or with my glue gun mending this or that, or cannibalizing a part from something else that I kept in the workshop. I will keep objects going. I’m not from the throw-away culture, I’m from the make-and-mend culture. Threepio is nice to have around. I think he would go on and on and on.


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Star Wars Saturday: Daisy Ridley’s Character – Hero or Merely Bad-Ass Love Interest?

daisyDaisy Ridley has signed contracts for all three of the new Star Wars sequels, signifying that she’s got a significant role. I’m not sure that’s news, really, since she was the only female actor alongside Carrie Fisher at the first script read-through. That alone says she’s a key player.

Here’s what I’m hoping for her character- that she will be our hero, not just the hero’s spunky sister or love-interest or ally. I love Princess Leia, but she wasn’t the hero. Her character growth is minimal, and she’s repeatedly the one who must be saved (once in an ogle-worthy metal bikini). Padme is likewise spunky, resourceful, and totally not the point of the film. But with the new films, Daisy Ridley’s character could actually be the hero, pathing through the classic hero’s journey, having the major character transformation, facing the abyss and coming back changed. Katniss has already paved the way here, Disney. There’s a market for a female-hero.

But while that’s what I hope, my expectations are far more conservative. I expect that she will play a character in the Leia/Padme vein. That she will be bad-ass in her own way, likely one of the key allies of the hero, and that there will be some sort of romantic entanglement that she’s a part of.

However, J.J. Abrams has had a female hero in his work before, although all were television shows – Fringe, Alias, and Felicity. He might go that route. One fan pointed out that if the prequels were male-focused, and the original trilogy was twins-centered, than it would make perfect sense for the third trilogy to be female-centered. We shall see.


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Star Wars Saturday: Stars Align with Rian Johnson, Celebration Ensues

Rian Johnson will be writing and directing Star Wars Episode VIII–SQUEEEEE!!!!!

In my youth, the movies I adored were often epic-scale adventures with a touch of intelligence and a dollop of romance. So big favorites then included The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride, and, of course, Star Wars. Now, in my 30’s, my tastes in movies tend toward the smaller-scale, more personal stories. Rather than the sweeping stories of good versus bad in science fiction, I tend to prefer the more nuanced depictions of moral gray areas. I like Indie films. I like noir. I like postmodern, meta-fictional deconstruction of genre. Some current favorites: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Big Lebowski, Cabin in the Woods, and Brick.

George Lucas’s use of Joseph Campbell’s theory of The Hero With Many Faces made Star Wars more than just a dopey sci-fi story. It made it mythic in the most universal of ways. Unfortunately, I think the prequels failed to deliver that same universality even though they followed some of the same pathways. Instead they seemed to shallowly rehash elements of the first trilogy. They seemed like empty, soulless clones. In my wildest of dreams, the new Star Wars films will take back the tarnished reputation and elevate the franchise to greatness again. It will be as fantastic and influential for my son as the original trilogy was for me. J.J. Abrams did a great job rebooting Star Trek, but Into Darkness was a misstep of character development and a disappointment. I suspect he will likewise be a great first reboot director for Star Wars, but I’m overjoyed the next film will be in the hands of Rian Johnson for these reasons:

  • Brick was Rian Johnson’s first feature film, which he wrote, directed, and edited on his Mac. It was fast and cheap movie-making, but it is a delight to behold. Based off of Dashell Hammet detective fiction, it sets Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s character, Brendan, on a search to find his missing ex-girlfriend that leads him into the corrupt, dope-dealing underworld of high school. It is a neo-noir, where high schoolers fill the character tropes of 1940’s noir films and use the stilted language:

Brendan Frye: Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out.
The Pin: Looky, soldier…
Brendan Frye: The ape blows or I clam.

And one would think this would be weird in a high school setting, that the whole thing would be off, or cheesy, or disingenuous. But instead, because of the finesse Rian Johnson gives it (and great performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lucas Haas), it works. It works so well it actually brings new insights into high school and teenage angst.

It proves Johnson can work, rework, and own genre. He can take what’s great about Star Wars, maintain its soul, and give us something new but familiar. He’s even done this within sci-fi–see his third feature film, Looper.

  • He uses genre to explore character. What makes The Empire Strikes Back the best of the franchise is its development of character. Each of the main players is challenged, undermined, and grows. Empire set a kind of precedent for this in blockbuster franchises. Consider the dark turns even lighter sci-fi films take in their sequels–Iron Man 2 is a great example. Into Darkness even calls attention to the movement in the title and fails to pull it off without undoing the good of the first film. Again, with Brick as exemplar, Johnson knows how to balance the light and dark, to challenge and deepen characters without breaking the fun. Brick, despite all of its darkness, is having tremendous fun with the genre tropes.  The Brothers Bloom is lighter all around, but still maintains a gravitas to the character relationships.
  • Johnson writes great dialogue AND he does great visual storytelling. He’s not a director of epic spectacle; he is a director of intimate character drama through the tropes of genre. That’s what I want out of new Star Wars. We’ve had plenty of mindless spectacle with the prequels and Clone Wars. Let’s get some actual character-driven substance up in here!

If you’re not familiar with his work, check out this succinct intro to Johnson’s films and work on “Terriers” and “Breaking Bad”. Then jump in somewhere. You can thank me later.


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Star Wars Saturday: Calling for Greater Gender Equity, or Feeding the Monster You Created

princess-leia-star-wars-chronicles-promo-stormtrooper-blaster-alt2-disney-has-no-plans-to-produce-star-wars-leia-doll-this-is-wrongBy my calculations, it’s been 37 years since Star Wars: A New Hope transformed the geek and cinema landscape. Calculations are not hard–I was born mere weeks before the movie premiered, and I have grown up emulating one Princess Leia Organa, Senator from Alderaan and Leader of the Rebel Alliance. Before I hit grade school, I was inspired by Leia’s self-confidence, resourcefulness, leadership, courage, and forthrightness, and I spent much of my play time pretending to be her. She could both mouth-off and embrace in celebration an 8 ft. Wookie. Who wouldn’t want to be her?

But looking back, she’s a complicated heroine, probably due to the time in which she was created. In all three films, she gets captured and must be rescued by Luke and company. In some ways that was balanced by scenes in which she was in the “war room” strategizing the destruction of the first Death Star or the evacuation of Hoth, but in other ways it wasn’t. In Return of the Jedi, her stealthy entry into Jabba’s Palace is ruined when she’s discovered freeing Han, gets captured, and becomes “Slave” Leia, the object of desire of geek boys and men everywhere. That’s just the first half of the movie. In the second half, she jumps a speeder bike to thwart stormtroopers announcing the rebel presence, gets captured again, this time by teddy bears, and once again has to be rescued. Then, as they attempt to set explosives in the shield generator, she gets grazed by a laser in the arm and has to be rescued again. Sheesh.

None of these issues bothered me as a child though. For the 1980’s, she was it as far as strong, intelligent, and confident role models went. The fact that she was also a princess (with most of the tropes associated) hardly mattered at all.

Now, however, it’s 2014. Post-Xena. Post-Buffy. Post-Leia even. Disney, known for its princesses, is now the showrunner of all things Star Wars, from new films and television shows to new merchandise, and they don’t seem to understand the gender scrutiny they’re under. When a cast photo hit the internet from a script read-through, a backlash arose regarding the very few females with major roles–only Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) and Daisy Ridley are shown. Perhaps in response to the uproar, two more female castmembers have been announced–Game of Thrones‘s Gwendoline Christie and 12 Years a Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o. I’m excited about both of those women being involved, but I fear their roles will be minor. Heck, it’s likely Carrie Fisher’s role will be minor–think about how little of either of Abrams’s Star Treks Leonard Nimoy graced the screen. J.J. Abrams and Disney understand the need to feed the fan face, but Abrams is going to reboot the franchise like he did with Trek. The upcoming trilogy is not going to be about Luke, Han, and Leia.

wewantleiaIn addition to this concern, Disney has underestimated the desire for Leia merch. (Here I am reminded of their lack of faith in the salability of Frozen.) Apparently the Disney Store was only stocking items featuring the male characters until a Twitter hashtag told them they’d misread Leia’s popularity. Now, Disney reps are assuring fans the new merch featuring Leia is on its way. Oh, good.

Disney best get with the program. The monster they face was created in 1977 when a spunky chick in white shot first, mouthed off to a giant dude in black robo-skull mask, and kept her secrets even under intense interrogation. This monster has only grown in the 37 years since, now birthing and buying for a new generation of girls and boys who are about to have the Star Wars universe re-introduced to them. This monster has money and a strong desire to keep the love alive for self-rescuing princesses and a science fiction mythology that everyone can identify with. If you appease the monster, Disney, you will be well rewarded.

By ignoring female fans and fans of the females, you’re creating an alternate market. Enter http://www.heruniverse.com/, an online merchant specializing in catering to the she-geeks. I *heart* Her Universe and would like to own several of their items; however, this is a website you have to be fairly internet savvy to find. This is not the mainstream, in your 6-year old’s face, of the Disney store. And that’s where the women of strength, intelligence, leadership, and sci-fi need to be.