28 July 2006

Reviewing Random Bits of Media Tat

I've not yet blogged a summary of the epic Buffy the Vampire Slayer rewatch, and now the experience has receded from my head rather.

It seems to have taken us around nine months, from rather earlier than this post to shortly before this one. It's been fascinating, watching seven years of televisual evolution compressed into that short a time. As the aesthetic of the show shifts and changes there's often a sense that the plot is being made up as they go along (notably with Angel's swiftly-undone death at the end of Season Two), but still there are character stories (such as Willow's sexual development and the Buffy-Spike romance) which show every sign of having been planned years in advance.

The episodes do show a certain tendency to settle into formula as time passes, and the plot emphasis shifts seismically from the individual episode to the season-long story arc. Nevertheless, Season Seven remains as good as (the admittedly rather patchy) Season One. Both are mindblowingly excellent in certain episodes (e.g. Angel and Conversations with Dead People), but distinctly ropy in others (Teacher's Pet, First Date). Both have strong character-driven climaxes which explore the personal consequences of Buffy's calling... although thinking on it, that's true for all the other seasons as well.

It's true that, in that final year, some of the regular characters are sidelined in favour of newcomers like Andrew and Kennedy... but introducing new faces and making us care about them has been a staple of the series from very early on. (And the only one who's actively annoying is Molly, whose brutal murder by Caleb is just retribution for her atrocious attempt at a cockney accent.)

Certainly I see no sign that the series went into decline after Season Three -- as stated on fansites passim with regard to this and, oddly, every other series ever. It's true that there's a sustained peak between Seasons Two and Four, and in particular from Halloween (The One With The Halloween Costumes) to Restless (The One Where They're All Asleep), but the only sustained trough is in Season Six, with the unfortunate treatment of Willow's magic addiction compounded by the dismal Doublemeat Palace. And that same season offers not only the greatest episode ever in Once More, with Feeling, but also the surprisingly brave Normal Again.

So pfah.

* * *

After Buffy, we worked our way very much more quickly through Ultraviolet, which at a beautifully contained six episodes is exactly one twenty-fourth of Buffy's length.

It's just as marvellous, although in quite different ways: where Buffy has extravagant wit, linguistic creativity and supernatural spectacle, Ultraviolet relies on insinuation, misdirection and double meaning. The dialogue may sound mundane in comparison, but almost everything anybody says has multiple meanings depending on the context in which you understand it. Even its vampires (who are smarter, more organised and deadlier than the ones in Buffy, although also more morally ambivalent) exist in a dual context, being seen both as the mirror-defying supernatural impossibilities they traditionally are, and as a scientific phenomenon susceptible to rational investigation.

One strength the series do share is in crafting a strong and sympathetic ensemble of characters with whose conflicts and predicaments we constantly identify. The climax of the final episode, where all four members of the shadowy vampire-killing hit-squad, together with a vampire and his potential victim, act out their individual concerns and tensions in concert through the same simple sequence of events, is a masterwork of ambiguity and shifting perspective.

Having recently seen more of writer-director Joe Ahearne's directing work in various Doctor Who episodes, I also found myself recognising distinctive tricks like the superimposition of faces in partially reflective glass, the almost subliminal use of religious paraphernalia and a peculiar way of lighting faces in semi-darkness which gives them a halo-like luminosity. Now I'm desperate to see what Ahearne could do with a Who script of his own.

* * *

Superman Returns, on the other hand, was a disappointment -- especially coming from Brian Singer, who made such an excellent job of directing the first two X-Men films.

Much has been made of its rather slavish adulation of the 1970s Superman movies, but mostly I just thought it went on too bloody long. Honestly, it could stand to lose a good 45 minutes -- it would tighten up the action sequences enormously and would allow the excision of all the small-cute-child / father-son-bonding business which Hollywood is under the impression it does so well.

The only thing there really should have been more of was Kevin Spacey camping it up as Lex Luthor, but unfortunately we'd already seen all of his best moments in the trailer. Given that the astonishing "bullet bounces from Superman's eye" sequence was also in there, this did leave the film itself with remarkably little to offer for its two-and-a-half-hour duration.

Given the extent to which Singer plays on the parallels between Superman and God (and / or Jesus) -- showing him floating above the world listening to humanity's cries of help, and later falling from the skies in that cruciform pose characteristic of Hollywood heroes who are in the process of sacrificing themselves -- I'd even have welcomed some theological debate, just to liven things up. How does Superman choose which situations He should intervene in, and when He should let nature take its course? Why are the Americans His chosen people? How exactly can He justify buggering off to Krypton for five years and abandoning us to Luthor and, implicitly, 9/11?

Mostly this kind of thing makes me groan in films, but in this particular case it would have livened it up no end.

* * *

And speaking of spurious S.F. theology... B. and I have just started watching Battlestar Galactica on D.V.D. Prior to borrowing the three-hour miniseries from the local vicar last month, I hadn't seen any Galactica since 1980, when it was only just beginning to be regarded as a camp classic rather than a dreadful load of old balls.

So I'm very much behind the curve here, I know... but having watched the miniseries and the first episode proper, this new series is looking really rather good. Military-grade hard-S.F. space-opera has never been my thing in books, but Babylon 5 gave me an appreciation of its potential on T.V., especially when combined with grown-up politics. Beginning the whole story with a crippling defeat for the good guys is a bold move, and seems to be paying off very well.

I imagine a whole season of such grimness will become rather unrelenting -- as indeed the miniseries was -- but I'm actually really enjoying a fictional universe which takes itself as seriously as this. Great stuff.

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