SFX Awards and Current Telefantasy

First up, ahem, if you're inclined to do so, please consider Captain Britain and MI-13 for Best Comic when casting your vote in the SFX Awards, which you can do here. It's pleasing to be included in the drop down menu options!

Second up, you can read me talking about the return of X-Man, Nate Grey, to the Marvel Universe in Dark X-Men here. I'm getting more and more psyched about that as the first issue approaches.

And thirdly, if you want to make an investment in the life of SF fandom, please may I direct your attention to this year's Trans Atlantic Fan Fund ballot, here. My friend Anne Murphy and her partner Brian (I put it like that because I haven't met him) are one of the voting options, and I'm one of the people who nominated them. This is a grand old SF institution (running since 1953) of the sort I love so much. The idea is that people donate small sums of money to help an impoverished fan cross the ocean to attend a convention they otherwise would have trouble making it to. You cast your vote at the same time as proferring funds, and the winning candidate gets all the money. Anne and Brian have tough competition this year, from the wildly popular multi-Hugo-winning sweetheart of an artist Frank Wu, so I wanted to speak up for them, who do so much behind the scenes, Anne being so helpful and professional as one of Neil Gaiman's minders in Montreal that I initially assumed she worked for a publisher (not that I've forgotten you, wonderfully useful publicist). And I wanted to support this fine tradition. I believe that may be the first time I've asked you lot for your money.

Okay, so, now to the meat and potatoes of this particular blog, a glance at the enormous slew of new telefantasy that's come our way lately, particularly the titles (for those reading on Blogger) listed in the poll to the right.

I find myself surprised to be so in love with Stargate: Universe. This is possibly because, perhaps unfairly, I've always regarded previous Stargate series as landfill telefantasy: only there for people to write slash fiction about; generic without a single thought towards the mainstream, where the sort of thing that can happen is dictated by what happened in previous SF TV shows and movies. Where every character is nice, and so drama becomes just a matter of will they survive the latest action sequence/emotional dilemma? Of course they will. And the one time they don't there'll be a fan campaign to get them back. This is how the core of genre TV has become survival of the nicest. But the creators of that show seem to have, nobly, decided that post Battlestar Galactica (which was the game changer for American telefantasy, however the naysayers may have been upset by its theist ending) everyone should be playing in a more competitive league now. So Universe has a bunch of characters who feel much more like real people, with some big negative traits on show (the post House/Lost realisation that actually nobody minds if the characters are gits), Robert Carlyle having been given loads to play, as a guy with lots of levels, hideous and sympathetic at the same time. That moment when the strings fade in to the soundtrack, and he gently turns to bereaved daughter and says 'you must understand, none of this... is my fault' and plays it entirely as the deflating voice of self-convinced moral cowardice... well, I actually made a little noise of amazement. Similarly, Eli, the show's geek, is introduced as our point of view character, charming and sympathetic. But put those geek references in a desert with the water running out, and the exact same guy becomes someone you want to kick. Best of all is Ronald Greer: the African American character who's not the extremely nice guy best friend of the hero who stands at the back being nice. And doesn't do much. Greer is objectionable, complicated, and probably the right soldier to have on your side in a fight. There's SGU's biggest achievement (though let's not forget Boomer in new Galactica got there first at the high end of this genre): at the heart of American telefantasy, they've finally given a black actor something interesting to do. Because your actual drama isn't about the survival of the nicest. It's about the survival of the most interesting. The three-part introductory episode's emphasis on the immediate, on the here and now details of survival, make it crack along, and one can only hope that stays in place. I worry about the news that there's going to be a resident alien on the show. And the so far charming carrying-on of all previous Stargate continuity (as a new viewer, I could have done without seeing the old Stargate team, but at least, and again, excellently, they were shown in realistic circumstances, and not with trumpets blaring celebrity cameo) may come back to bite them, if there's ever an episode about that stuff. But I have faith that this show may turn out to be Voyager done right. So far, it makes the whole previous Stargate universe, as it were, look better. I think there will be Hugo nominations.

As of course there will be for Doctor Who, as Russell ramps up his jam and cream and jelly and icing and a cherry on the top End Of Everything Grand Finale Squeeeeeeee! For which I cannot wait. And Torchwood: Children of Earth I wouldn't rule out winning the Long Form category. But that is not the category we're concerned with now. So, onwards.

The quality of Fringe baffles me. This is a show with an incredibly awkward format, so much so that the production has to keep violently wrenching about to make it work. By that I mean that our heroes work for one organisation, sort of, while actually being based at another, sort of, and their boss has not one single character to talk to when they're away from the FBI, and all sorts of other awkwardnesses. But it's like one of those aircraft that can only fly by altering its wing shape, moment to moment, but nevertheless does so extremely well. The writing staff are so clever that they seem to have set themselves this show as some sort of test or punishment, and every week pull it off magnificently without making it any easier for themselves next time. One thing in their favour is that the show thoroughly inhabits the ecological niche of The X-Files. You can point to it and say 'it's the X-Files by other means' and the audience will nod and say oh, right, I get it. Unlike that series, however, Fringe's back story episodes are often much more interesting than its monster of the week ones, which can get, a couple of times, frankly desperate. (Oddly, I thought the opening of season two felt very choppy in places after its spectacular start, but they got straight back on that horse the episode after.) They know their way, in the manner of Lost, with a telling, atmospheric room and interestingly peculiar performance. Their black character, is, unfortunately, while not quite the nice guy at the back, that other thing people of colour have always been on TV, the shouty boss. Said shouty boss is Lance Reddick, which makes it worse, because fans of The Wire will be aware that he can do bloody anything, and watching him in this show is like watching Yo Yo Ma dutifully keep time plucking a double bass. Genius creators may have realised that now, and we can only hope for some vaguely disturbing screentime with Nina. But one of the most interesting things about Fringe, for me, is the sexual dynamic. Our heroine is the gun-toting action figure, determined and driven, rather glacial with her relationships, with a hard look and a biting tone of voice. Our hero is nurturing and emotional, a tad vulnerable, back at base looking after his father, and doing doubtless vital things with test tubes. This refreshing dynamic is so unusual that it often feels like Peter isn't being given enough to do. But actually I think maybe I'm just used to the guy doing all the dynamic stuff. Someone clearly thought Olivia needed to be surrounded by family and children and soppy stuff at one point last year, but she just looked awkward amongst it, and now she's sleeping with a gun under her pillow again. They've given her a (fine actor, give her something to play, quick) gammy leg now, but also super powers. And I thought her rescuing herself from the evil mastermind after the mid-season break last year, was some kind of watershed. So yes, more of all that, please, and I continue to be fascinated by watching this show roll out a tightrope in front of itself and walk gracefully along with, with occasional waggles that make the audience gasp about the shark waiting not so far below.

Warehouse 13 is a favourite of mine, but you can tell SyFy, who tend to think like this, said that they wanted a Fringe of their own, and that the great Jane Espenson responded by going 'yes, absolutely, but with a certain homespun warmth, and kind of steampunk, oh, and the sort of character dialogue that gets called quirky and we don't hear enough of these days, and, yes, hmm, it doesn't feel very like Fringe at all now, does it? But it is good.' When it's bad, it's very bad (native American jacket episode, you know the one), because it does have a very solid format, and it's easy for a solid format to become just the things that always happen and nothing else. But the interesting stuff here is everything else: the back story; the charming characters; the almost vanished thought in telefantasy that we're not meant to be taking all this terribly seriously. They do seem to have vanished their nice black character (their Astrid, sorry!) in favour of a much less bland (and wonderful) white replacement someone for Artie to talk to, but I have faith that Their Astrid will be back in some new placing that serves her better. And they also may do more with their black shouty boss, who has some humour to her. And every now and then I do feel that it's all a bit rushed and tightly-budgeted, that just five more minutes and a few more dollars could let it breathe. But I'll bet this ramps up for a second season.

I loved the first season of Dollhouse with only very small reserve, because rather like Fringe it seemed to be an incredibly hard sell that worked only because great writers were in charge. I can't imagine starting a pitch for a show with 'so there are these mindless prostitutes...' It's about good and evil, making us follow and like a whole bunch of people who are doing terrible things. That process, of being forced by quality writing to identify with frigging war criminals is, I think, both incredibly valuable in terms of modern drama (because in real life, you and I and everyone else let people off the hook for terrible things all the time because they're on our side or have a nice smile or are our friends) and why the show tends to alienate Whedon fans, who didn't realise that the truly great creators are the ones who look at what their followers most like about them and do the opposite. (I'm thinking about Russell Davies following up Queer as Folk with Bob and Rose.) The fans who say 'I really liked that last episode, you know, the one with the clear cut moral lines' are missing the point. This show entirely depends on Eliza Dushku giving us an empathy figure, and the only (sort of) good person to root for, in her 'unreal' characters of the week and as a kind of trace element in Echo. And she's good enough to make that work. Again, hell of a tightrope act, brilliant show. I refuse to download illegally, so I look forward to season two starting this week.

Lost continues to excel. I've never seen season two, having returned to the fold for the third, and I honestly think that's probably the best way to do it, because as soon as that team had a finishing line in sight, they started playing all the surprises they were previously saving for later. The way that show functions entirely on character, revelations about 'the truth', trailers apart, having now been almost entirely given to us (there are only a couple more things we need to know), is a joy. The standard Lost shot lingers on the blankness of the human face. It's another expression of the SF question lies at the heart of Dollhouse: what are people, really? Is there anything meaningful inside that face at all? (I do wonder if J.G. Ballard ever saw this so New Wave series.) And yet, amongst that, we've found depth (or a surprising lack of it) in layers of character in so many people. From last season, I really want 'The Variable', a new take on the SF time paradox short story, with a killer twist, to be Hugo nominated, because I can't think of a single episode of television that's more in the spirit of those awards.

True Blood is yet another tightrope walk, this time between guilty pleasure vampire fun sort of parody on the one side and hard serious adult HBO show on the other. There was a wobble a couple of episodes in, but the series quickly sorted out exactly how seriously it took itself, and is now an absolute pleasure for me. In the character of Amy Burley, hippie vampire hunter for fun and profit, it presents, like a lot of these shows, a complete Nazi who we took, on first impressions, to be very cool. She terrifies me. She and our vampire lead are both pretending to be complete people (a condition which Stephen Moyer conveys with surprisingly finesse), but Bill thinks humans are worthwhile, and Amy thinks vampires are simply not on her ethical scale. And let's check the black character meter: at least two of them, both crunchy and spiky and well-played. And Lafayette is one of telefantasy's two gay men! Count them, two!

Of Flash Forward I've only so far seen the excellent pilot, which thoroughly wowed me with the very SFnal way its characters worked through every inch of the logic of the situation. But I haven't yet felt obliged to catch up with it. This is our genre's current crossover hit, though, taking the real world by storm. And again, it's all about character in the face of backstory. What we may be seeing here is a kind of post-9/11 wave, beginning with Lost, of series that explore what the meaning of personhood is against large, traumatic events that are beyond their control.

And to complete the list: I don't feel I'm in the target audience for Merlin, which, when I see a little of it, looks entirely honest, well-crafted and competent. Smallville for King Arthur seems to work pretty well. I'm just not emotionally attracted to it, but if I had children I might be a major fan.

I look forward to seeing how the poll works out, and comparing the result to the actual Hugo nominations. We shall test the wisdom of crowds! I hope I'll see some of you at the Royal Greenwich Observatory next Friday. Until then, Cheerio!

22 Response to "SFX Awards and Current Telefantasy"

  • govikes Says:


    Just a few quick comments:

    Fringe is the best of the lot. Laugh at me but I like Merlin which I watched here in the USA over the summer. I hope NBC broadcasts season two. Lost is still hanging in there but I can't stand True Blood. One you left out is Legend of the Seeker which start season two in November 2009.


    PS- I miss Dane and Faiza.

  • Kopic Says:

    Hi Paul,

    Yes, indeedy! Loved "True Blood" and am loving "Warehouse 13", "Fringe" and "FlashForward". You're spot on with "Merlin" - if you have kids, you love it. I have and I do! :) This 2nd series is, so far, an improvement on the first and I enjoy spotting where they've taken threads of the original logends and twisted them in new ways. Some people complain about this treatment but to them I say even the "originals" changed in their retelling over the centuries, so why shouldn't a new version be told?

    As "govikes" also commented - "Legend of The Seeker" has been a corker as well. I read most of the original books a number of years ago and it's interesting to see how they've dapted the different story threads into an episodic format. Kudos for trying that AND succeeding!


  • Rachel Says:

    I like Merlin as it's perfect Saturday night Fluff. Loving all the rest of the stuff, except for Warehouse 13 which I've not caught yet.

    I'm especially impressed with SGUniverse, which is a lot more grown up than the previous episodes.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Gov: Legend of the Seeker? Okay... the trailers make it look like Krod Mandoon. Is there really stuff there worth looking at? And yes, so do I! Kopic: indeed, Arthur's always been about the times it's written in. And... Legend of the Seeker again? Okay. I may have to actually watch it. If a third person comes along I will! Rachel: cheers, and thank you for not mentioning Legend of the Seeker.

  • Kopic Says:

    I am not Kopic - I am his evil twin (complete with goatee). You must watch "Legend of The Seeker"... You must watch "Legend of The Seeker"... You must watch "Legend of The Seeker"...


  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Are you *in* it?

  • govikes Says:

    Yes Paul, The Confessor character named Kahlan is worth looking at!
    Also, check out the Mord'Sith women.

  • sfinx Says:

    Like this a lot.
    The most I can relate to, except for Fringe maybe witch I never gave a chance really after a half episode and but I fell headless for Warehouse 13, and too my big surprise I found SGU so intriguing. A back-door for me to BSG anytime soon.
    My problem now is to convince my Fringeloverfriend to stop whine at Warehouse 13, and my Stargatehaterfriend to watch SGU.
    Merlin...I have some schizophrenic relationship to, where I swear to not watch it again after every episode.
    Right now, All creature great and small rules my telly.

    Thank you.

  • Michael A. Burstein Says:

    I've known Anne a long time but didn't know she was running for the TAFF. (Or maybe I did and forgot...) Anyway, thanks for the pointer.

    We've been watching both SGU and FlashForward from the beginning and enjoying them a lot.

  • Madison Says:

    Hmm. Here I was wondering why every incarnation of Stargate has to have an overly-serious black male warrior. SG1 had T'ealc, SGA had Ronan and now SGU has Greer. What's up with that?

    I'm still 50/50 about SGU. I think it could be really interesting but then again they could mess it up.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Gov: still only two of you, I'm safe! SF: what a lovely retro choice. I was a fan of that when Peter Davison was cast as Doctor Who, and thus I was very pleased. Michael: great. Madison: you have a point. But I think the distinction between alien warrior and real person is meaningful. (Alien warrior should be the third class of black people in telefantasy, alongside nice friend and shouty boss.)

  • shawnlunn2002 Says:

    True Blood is by far my favourite from the ones you've mentioned, though I do watch both Lost and Dollhouse and have checked out bits of Stargate Universe and Fringe.

  • helfron Says:

    I agree with you about Dollhouse. I do think it makes people feel very uncomfortable rather like Hitchcock's Rear Window and Vertigo. And it is supposed to. It is perhaps Whedon's most interesting series so far.

    FlashFoward lost me after the fourth episode (Glee lost me at episode 5). It has all that Rodden, er Braga cliched dialogue and people in cardboard philosophy clothing. I thing that it is far more wooden, oops cardboard than any of the Stargates.

    I have no interest in True Blood. Lost seems to me nice little crossword puzzle and no more. I kind of watch it when I happen upon it but don't go out of my way to keep up with it. I find that it lacks the depth, intellectual and emotional, of a Buffy. Fringe? Fringe is too X-Filesy and too Abrams for me. Abrams is no more than a second rate metteur en scene in my not so humble opinion.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Shawn: I have difficulty picking a favourite, but True Blood is certainly in that league. Helf: that's exactly it about Dollhouse for me.

  • Anonymous Says:

    Just to put your mind at rest, there is no 'resident alien' being introduced to Stargate: Universe, I think the Rhona Mitra news has been misinterpreted.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    That sounds splendidly like an anonymous tip off!

  • shawnlunn2002 Says:

    You missed Season 2 of Lost? It's the worst season but there are some exceptional episodes like The Other 48 Days and Two For The Road.

    I caught Defying Grafity last night on BBC2, not too bad. And Dollhouse returned with two great episodes on Sci-Fi.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I didn't do Defying Gravity. I just felt that I had to miss something!

  • paisleyannemn Says:

    I am still in the earlier eps op Fringe (spoiled though), but the main reason that I´ve kept wacthing was the fact that Darin Morgan is listed as consulting producer. Shame that he didn´t actually write any episodes. But it warmed my former X-phile heart.

    Danish TV has yet to air any Dollhouse at all. But I brought the DVD set with me on vacatiion and I was very glad to be able to watch in sequence and unspoiled. It´s a much more coherent expericence. But can not imagine many other creator/writhers that I would trust with that pitch.

    Re: Stargate: Not even Browder and Black together again could hold my attention. Shame that they wasted them on the old version of the show.
    Thanks for the quality blog.
    Anne in Denmark.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    I think I hear Darin's voice every now and then when we get quirky scenes of everyday folk. He was on Bionic Woman too, and I felt similarly there. But it is indeed time for him to write again. Cheers.

  • Anonymous Says:

    I guess I missed all the intelligence and hard questions in Dollhouse by being distracted by the fetishizations of rape and rape fantasies and all the excuses to justify men punching passive women in the face.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Indeed you did.