Monday, May 7, 2007

EW's Sci-Fi 25

Okay, if you haven't read Entertainment Weekly's "Sci-Fi 25" article in the latest issue, then you should. Or, just click here and read it online.

All caught up? Good.

A fun premise and one that lends itself to debate. And except for a few minor quibbles, I won't argue with the editors' choices. Starting at 25, I'll add my comments on a few of the entries, and then tell you the two painful omissions from the list.

25: V: The Miniseries. I recall being riveted to the television as a teenager when this came out. Between the rodent snacking and the reptilian baby, it was the high point of the miniseries craze on network TV for those of us not fascinated with Richard Chamberlain, and long drawn out weepy love stories.

24: Galaxy Quest. An unbelievably pitch perfect straddling of the fence between gentle mocking of sci-fi geeks (of which I am one) and honoring their devotion and the "conventions" (in every sense of the word) of Trekkian lore. Terrifically cast, sharply written and spot on.

23: Doctor Who. I must admit, I never watched the old BBC versions, but after great critical buzz, I tuned into Skiffy for the updated revival, and was glad I did. A show with cheek, heart and wit.

22: Quantum Leap. As surprisingly awful as Scott Bakula was as Captain Archer on Enterprise (and I was a Trek fan initially thrilled with his casting), he was fantastic as time traveling scientist Sam Beckett. The show had a nice mixture of Sam leaping into "everyday" situations in various timelines along with encounters (and inhabitations) of more famous people in history (Elvis, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marilyn Monroe to name a few). One of the shows on this list (along with V, X-Files, Blade Runner, Khan) that I recall watching with my father, who showed me you could be "cool" and also embrace your inner geek. Intelligently written, sincerely acted and usually compassionate, it also frequently sent me running to the World Book (before the days of the Interwebs) to read up on the time periods represented in its humanistic storylines.

19: Starship Troopers. Really, one of the great misunderstood sci-fi spectacles of all time. I read the books as a kid, and even played the wargames complete with alien bug "counters." People who just didn't "get it" complained that the acting (from noted thespians Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards) was as cardboard as the counters used in the games just referenced, and took the fascist slant as straight on propaganda rather than the brilliant satire it was. Besides, where else can you see Doogie Howser (and Barney Stinson) dressed in Nazi regalia talking telepathically to giant insects?

18: Heroes. As close as we'll ever see to a straight up comic book on TV, without the spandex. It's too soon to say whether or not it will collapse under its own weight and mythic intentions, or if it will engender too much ill will from hewing too closely to previous comic iconography (cough*Watchmen*cough), but right now it's a thrilling and "page turning" must see every Monday.

17: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yes, you can loosely classify this as "sci-fi" because of the premise, but at its heart it's a fascinating, moving and heartbreaking meditation on love and the questions all of us ponder in our minds and souls while trying (and ultimately failing) to make a connection. While I wouldn't put this on a classic, "critical" list of the top 10 movies ever made, it would certainly deserve consideration for inclusion on my "personal favorite" and "most thought provoking" lists. And what I wouldn't fucking pay to be able to use that technology for real.

15: Firefly/Serenity. If you're not already a "Browncoat," you should be. If you value characters, dialogue and entertainment at its best, you owe it to yourself to sit down and watch this killed before its time series (and follow up movie). I guarantee you'll watch the first couple of episodes and suddenly find yourself in a weekend DVD marathon, and then feel indescribably sad that there are no more stories being told in this beautiful, dramatic, funny and richly drawn 'verse. But forever grateful that we got what we did.

14: Children of Men. I recently saw this, and was astounded that it wasn't even nominated for Best Picture. Everything is perfectly realized and executed; the performances, the characters, the writing, the concept, the direction. Dark and hopeful at the same time, this is sci-fi storytelling at its best, and accessible enough for folks who don't want to see bumpy-headed aliens and spaceships.

13: The Terminator/Terminator 2. Sci-fi is one of those rare genres where going back to the well for a sequel or reconceptualization often produces superlative work (Wrath of Khan, Star Trek: TNG, Aliens, Empire Strikes Back, BSG) and T2 is no exception. Strangely, there's one moment that has always bugged me about the amped up sequel, and it has nothing to do with time loop causality, paradoxes or the "rules" of the "mimetic alloy." When the T-1000 (one of the best villains ever created) corners Sarah Conner at the climax in the factory, and pierces her shoulder and needs her to "call out" to her son John in order to lure him closer -- why does it do this? After all, it has been well demonstrated that it can take any form and mimic any voice. Why not kill her there, assume her voice and identity, and lure John that way? Does this bug anyone else?

11: Lost. While I passionately love this show, I question whether or not it belongs on a list of "sci-fi." If you do, how far do you open up the definition? Still, this is breathtaking storytelling which doesn't diminish -- and in fact, greatly enhances -- characterization.

10: The Thing. If Kurt Russell wasn't already a geek god for his portrayals of Jack Burton and Snake Plissken, then R.J. MacReady would have put him on the throne anyway. Cutting edge effects for the time and unrelenting tension in a setting of absolute isolation made this sci-fi horror at its best. I defy anyone to relax (or hell, breathe) during the petrie dish testing scene.

9: Aliens. There was no way to improve on the "haunted house" perfection of the original Alien, so James Cameron didn't even try. Instead, he wisely took the story in a completely different direction and produced one of the most quotable, thrilling, empowering yet still creepy epics ever to grace the screen. Of all the DVD movies in my collection, I may have watched this one the most. Not a false moment in two plus hours of thrills, chills and gasps.

8: Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite an awkward and at times clunky first season, TNG quickly found its voice and continued the Trekkian legacy of compelling allegories and thought-provoking metaphors, told from a perspective that was as hopeful as it was "human," and anchored by the stellar work of Patrick Stewart. "The Best of Both Worlds" was the best season ending cliffhanger in television history (and this geek was actually around to wonder who shot JR, too).

5: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Delivers on every aspect of the original Trek that the moody and slower first big screen adventure just missed. Kirk and Khan's game of "Ahab" is a thing to behold, and it's a wonder there was a set left in which to film, given all the scenery being (delightfully and entertainingly) chewed. Also, one of the few times I can recall my father and I weeping openly during the same movie (geeks know when), while my mom rolled her eyes, but secretly choked up a little too.

4: The X-Files. I love this show (hell, one of my cats is named "Mulder") and frequently find myself rewatching episodes. Though the whole "mythology" never quite paid off as coherently as fans hoped, the classic "funny," "drama" and "horror" standalone episodes (like "Bad Blood," "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" and "Home" respectively, for example) still rank as some of the best single hours of television ever produced.

3: Blade Runner. A perfectly realized vision of a dystopian future that set the standard for sci-fi on screen, and like many, based on a work by Phillip K. Dick. Unjustly ignored upon its release and now considered a classic, it poses the ultimate question of what exactly does it mean to be "human?" And a movie that still leaves fans with the nagging question: Rick Deckard, yes or no?

2: Battlestar Galactica (new). Quite simply, the BEST SHOW ON TELEVISION. A fascinating, dark and morally complex tale that draws deep, grey and rich characters and tells stories that always keep you coming back for more. If you're not watching this, you're missing television history.

1: The Matrix. Another movie, that if DVDs actually showed wear and tear, would be in tatters. The number of times I've seen this borders on the embarrassing, yet each and every time I find it breathtaking and addictive. A perfect blend of superhero action, Gibsonian cyberpunk, epic storytelling, unrelenting violence, iconic imagery and cutting edge film making techniques.

As I said, I didn't have many arguments with their list. However, there are two titles I would add:

Stargate SG-1. Yep, the movie, despite the presence of Kurt Russell and James Spader, was pretty bad. And for the longest time, I avoided the series, thinking it was just a hokey action adventure show. But I started catching repeats on Skiffy, and found myself drawn to it at first for tight plots and interesting explorations of earth mythology (actually created long ago by visiting aliens). But the heart of the show has always been about the "teamy goodness" of the central characters, and the humanistic and passionate attributes they bring to their weekly exploits. At the end of the day, you continue to watch because you care about these folks as well defined and well acted characters, and even though SG-1 will soon end after establishing itself as the longest running sci-fi series ever, I'll miss them.

Farscape. On its surface, the concept is ludicrous. A modern day astronaut gets sent through a wormhole into a distant universe populated by bizarre aliens (typically realized by Henson Company puppets and extravagant make up) and borderline fascist humanoids called "Peacekeepers." But the show, which was canceled way before its time, was unbelievably nimble in its storytelling, psychotically bouncing through long story arcs with heartbreaking drama, laugh out loud wit, pop-culture references galore, edge of your seat action, sheer popcorn entertainment, darkly fascinating characters, and the most compelling love story I've ever seen on TV. Yes, that last part is true. If you don't care about the romance and relationship travails of John Crichton and Aeryn Sun, then you just don't have a soul or a heart. The spectacle of the show was always there, but as with all great stories in any genre, it's the characters that keep you coming back for more.

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