a lot of new books and watch a lot of new movies in 2015, I didn't watch much new science fiction TV in 2015. Maybe it's because I don't have cable or satellite, maybe it's because I'm too technologically inept and vaguely guilty when it comes to illegal downloading, or maybe it's just because I've been slowly working my way through older shows, like Futurama and Babylon 5.
The few new TV shows I did watch were Sense8, The Expanse, and Childhood's End, and the last two I didn't watch until 2016!
With a sample size so small, a "best of" list seemed a bit presumptuous, so instead I think of this as a report on three new shows.
Whether you love it or hate it, there's no denying that this creation of the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski is one of the most ambitious things on TV. The series was filmed on location on four continents with a diverse ensemble cast.
I understand why some people didn't like Sense8. The characters seem entirely unrelated at first. The main plot thread of the series doesn't appear for several episodes, and the audience has to work a little to figure it out. The show deals with sexuality in a way that might unnerve some viewers.
I loved Sense8. All this ambition can be a bit much and it doesn't always work, but what the show is trying to do -- and the many ways in which it does succeed -- leave me wanting more. Thankfully, Netflix has ordered a second season.
The philosophical core of Sense8 is the idea that, contrary to the dreariness of Hobbesian atomic individualism, we can and do care about one another. Maybe altruism is part of human nature. And maybe this fact is more obvious than we think.
See my full review, "Sense8: Ambition and Altruism."
I've read the first two books in the series by James S. A. Corey (see my reviews here and here), so maybe it's appropriate that I've only watched the first two episodes of this SyFy adaptation. So far I'd say the TV series has captured most of the feel of the books, although the actors are way more Hollywood looking than I pictured in the books (this is TV, after all).
|Avasarala from The Expanse|
The first season is mostly following the plot of the first book, although the show creators made the excellent decision to bring Avasarala, a high ranking UN official on Earth and hands down my favorite character, into it right away even though she doesn't show up until the second book.
Neither the books nor the series are all that explicitly philosophical. These are mostly focused characters and plot, and there's nothing wrong with that. I suppose the big issues are whether humanity ought to be expanding into space (the series does a great job reminding us that space wants to kill us), and about economic and political inequality (this is a gritty, capitalist universe far removed from the rosy socialism of Star Trek). The issue of humanity's expansion into space is better dealt with by Kim Stanley Robinson (see my review of Aurora), but The Expanse does raise the issue, at least if you take a breath between all the action and political intrigue. On inequality, there are some really interesting political and economic dynamics between Earth, Mars, and the asteroid belt, including some underground terrorist organizations and shadowy political dealings (here a favorable comparison with Robinson's Mars Trilogy is appropriate, but without the utopian angle).
I've enjoyed the first two episodes, and I think I'll keep watching. You can even watch it for free on SyFy.com, which is nice except for the commercials and problems that networks' online players always seem to have (I had to reload the page a few times when it got stuck).
my review). When adapting a classic novel to TV, there are always dangers of dumbing it down or making it lame. Thankfully SyFy's miniseries adaptation of Childhood's End doesn't do much dumbing down or lame-making, although I think it would be impossible to fully capture the nuance of Clarke's novel on TV.
The basic story of both the book and series is that aliens, who humans call Overlords, come to Earth and create a utopia where hunger, poverty, war, and many diseases are things of the past. As you can imagine, this has a huge effect on humanity. While most Earthlings are pretty thrilled, not all humans are happy about this state of affairs, and almost everyone is a little unnerved that the Overlords don't seem to be telling us the whole story: Why are they helping us? Are we being prepared for something? If so, what?
One of biggest changes to the plot was making Stromgren, the main character of the first part of the novel, into a Missouri farmer in the miniseries instead of Secretary General of the UN. The second major change was condensing the time frame of the main part of the story from over 50 years into about 20-30 years, which allowed for the same characters to appear in all three parts. They hardly aged the actors in later parts, though, which was a bit odd.
One of the more minor changes was the addition of a deeply religious character, Peretta, who is deeply distrustful of the Overlords. While she could have had a bit more nuance, this was an interesting addition given Clarke's contention that the religious yearnings of humanity would quickly evaporate. This was a common view among scientific intelligentsia of the mid-20th century (and among some "new Atheists" today), but as I've said before I find it unlikely that religion is going away any time soon, mainly because religion doesn't simply serve the kind of quasi-scientific explanatory role that many irreligious people think it does.
Clarke's occasional descriptions of "savage races" may have been a product of his early 20th century British upbringing, but they're disappointing nonetheless in a novel that's otherwise so forward-thinking for 1953. For instance, Rodericks, one of the main characters, is black in the book, which for a white SF author in the 1950's was pretty progressive. The series features a black actor (Osy Ikhile) for this part, too. It's obvious that anxieties about being colonized by aliens are big on the list of SF themes, going all the way back to H. G. Wells. For more on colonialism as a theme in SF, read "Why Sci-Fi Keeps Imagining the Subjugation of White People." (Interesting connection: many years ago I sat in on a science fiction course with John Rieder, one of the authors discussed in this article).
The series somewhat downplays the obvious riffs on colonialism in Clarke's novel (maybe those were more salient in 1953); the series builds up the creepiness and distrust of the Overlords by having them tell the humans even less than they do in the book (we also only meet two Overlords in the series, whereas we meet a lot more in the book). Maybe this feeds into our post-Watergate distrust of government and authority more generally. If I hadn't read the book, I might have been led to believe that the Overlords were up to something nefarious, almost right up until the end. The series definitely plays up horror elements that are barely there in the book (there are some very Children of the Corn type moments with some of the kids). Probably the fact that the main Overlord, Karellen, is played by Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones) lends a sinister quality to the whole affair, although I thought he did a great job of being ambiguously beneficent.
Aside from some interesting thoughts on utopia, the Big Ideas stuff that makes Clarke one of my favorite SF writers really comes in at the end. I don't want to be too spoilery, but we do learn what the Overlords have been doing and who they work for, which prompts some of Clarke's patented Deep Thoughts on Our Place in the Universe (this is the guy who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, after all). This is much more clearly explained in the book than in the series. If I hadn't recently read the book, I'm not sure I would have understood the ending of the series. Also, the deep melancholy of the Overlords doesn't come out as clearly in the series. I was thrilled, however, that the ending was more-or-less the same, something I was most worried would be turned lame on TV. Some find the ending depressing or bleak; I find it hopeful and liberating. It also encourages some thought on the relations between parents and children: our children often become more than we can imagine, and that's a good thing.
So my final verdict: this isn't a perfect adaptation, but it's not bad, and it could have been a lot worse. I strongly recommend reading the novel in conjunction with the series for a deeper, more satisfying experience. You can watch Childhood's End online for free at SyFy.com.