Wednesday, February 14, 2007

SteveSees! Life-sucking fiends of sci-fi!

Yes, gentle sentients, you read that right: SteveSEES!

Call it a little experiment, nothing more. If I enjoy this sort of thing half so much as I do the other, perhaps I'll do it more regularly.

Certainly there are fewer groundrules than obtain at Stevereads! There, I am an all-knowing, even saintly overlord both feared and beloved, incapable of error or contradiction.

No so here! As some of you may know, I watch a great deal of TV - shows, repeats, VCR tapes, DVDs. And it's not mere background noise for writing or reading - I'm a full-throated enthusiast of TV, have a very high regard for the very large number of very talented people who do work in the medium (I came close to JOINING such people, a long time ago, when a friend of mine invited me to join the writing staff of a now-forgotten show called "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" - I quite sensibly declined, since in addition to deeply disliking the climate of LA, I'm also not that funny).

I hate the snobbery of 'Kill Your TV' bumper-stickers in Cambridge. I hate the knee-jerk snobbery so many people show toward the medium. I can understand if people more pressed for time than I am (I sleep freakishly little) rule it out of their lives for practical reasons. I'd argue that these people ought to train themselves to concentrate on more than one thing simultaneously - it's not a hard trick to learn (or I couldn't have mastered it myself), and it can double the amount of things you get DONE in an evening. But still, I understand if people want to cut it out of their lives just so they'll have time for homework and socializing and, in the case of the pretty people, even sex.

As with books, so with TV: I sift and sniff all the time for good stuff. TV doesn't have any MORE crap than any other medium - at least, that's my steadfast belief - and it's not the fault of anybody working in the industry that their overlords are venal and stupid. Most of us have venal and stupid overlords, after all - it doesn't make US venal and stupid. Good people everywhere are always trying to do good work. I like to look for their work on TV.

Fair warning: I also like crap, for its own sake.

Unlike over at Stevereads, here I'm not infallible. True, I've watched a very large amount of TV. And true, I put faith in the tenets of my own aesthetics (as everybody does). And true, I'll very tenaciously make my case for anything I like. But there's no authority here, only gamesome debate.

There's a good reason for this. The best TV critic I've ever read (the best pop culture critic just in general, and oh my, far and away the best movie critic) is currently silent, fed up with the litigious cynicism of the age.
In the meantime, here I am! Fallible, contentious, and happy to be both!

Our opening fair dates from last Sunday and is very comfortingly situated in the realm of science fiction, which suits me right down to the ground.

The extreme old-school science fiction (I trust none of you will commence a-quibbling about what constitutes science fiction! Listen carefully: if the AXIAL PREMISES on which your fiction depends are a) internally consistent and b) in any way different from the laws of observable reality, you're writing science fiction - and yet, I'm aware of the fact that under that definition, there's no difference between science fiction and fantasy... that's because there ISN'T any difference between the two) and the extreme new-school science fiction, head-to-head!

First up was 'Masterpiece Theater's new production of 'Dracula.'

As many of you will know, I deeply love Bram Stoker's novel, and I'm always eager to see it get adapted, especially with a special effects budget.

Although, even without one, Bela Lugosi managed to be the quintessential Count, urbane yet threatening, his malevolent face plastered on the covers of all the BEST editions of the novel.

'Masterpiece Theater' is to be commended for the idea of embracing science fiction, especially since their track record is so different. These are the people, after all, who gave us 'The First Churchills' and 'Upstairs Downstairs' and 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'I, Claudius.'

Their 'Dracula' is a curious affair. An almost complete dramatic failure, but a curious affair.

With a work as frequently dramaticized as 'Dracula,' you have to ask how many points there are in favor or against any new rendition. You gradually accustom yourself to the fact that your beloved work will NEVER be fully realized on any kind of video-screen, and you start counting casualties from that moment.

(Oh! The high hopes I had for Francis Ford Coppola's 'Dracula'! A strong, unconventional cast - by anybody's reckoning, Gary Oldman is an interesting choice to play the Count - a director capable of greatness, a comparatively unlimited special effects budget ... and when I saw it in the theater, I was bitterly disappointed. The directing is awful, the acting is mostly awful - of course leading the pack is Keenu "I know where the BASTUD sleeps!" Reeves, but there's also Anthony Hopkins, hearing and completely missing every cue he's offered, and Winona Rider, trying - and failing - to act like somebody who HASN'T been having sex since she was 8 - and the special effects were, well, weirdly used. But every subsequent viewing has made me like it more, so maybe Coppola knew what he was doing after all)

In Bram Stoker's perpetually underrated novel, the truth of the matter is PLENTY dramatic enough: an undying Carpathian count has set his eyes on England and is (legally, Stoker's little masterstroke) buying up derelict properties all over London, places that will serve as nesting-spots to house an increasing brood of undead.

You'll scarcely find any of that in the Masterpiece Theater production. Instead, there's a Count who's the focus of some kind of evil religion, and there's a Lord Holmwood who agrees to finance the Count's move to London because he's been lead to believe a blood transfusion from the Count will cure him of his syphilis - because as long as he's infected, he refuses to sleep with his new wife.

Stoker's plot is of course much better than this nonsense. In the original, Dracula's wants are elemental: he wants a new hunting-ground, one he can eventually come to rule as absolutely as he did Castle Dracula.

In this new 'adaptation,' it's extremely hard to know exactly WHAT Count Dracula wants. He detains Jonathan Harker at his dilipidated keep in Transylvania (this production has no idea what to do with Harker, so he dies early), but all he talks about is how Englishmen don't really believe in God anymore.

There's no good acting in this production (a shame, since David Suchet - who gets the here thankless role of Van Helsing - is entirely wasted), and that's curious in and of itself. Tom Burke turns in the most reliable (though still mediocre) performance as a thoroughly heroic John Seward (although since this production lacks Renfield entirely, it would have a hard time accounting for Seward's presence - if it bothered to try, that is) Dan Stevens shows a precocious predilection to chew scenery as Lord Holmwood.

And the biggest curiosity of all is in the center role: Marc Warren as Count Dracula.

Some of you will remember Warren as Private Blithe, from the great, the epic 'Band of Brothers.' Blithe lost his ability to see, temporarily, because he couldn't stand the things he was seeing. Blithe was a perfect 'wise fool' for the 'Band of Brothers' universe (at least, as long as such a simplistic contrivance could last in that universe), and Warren is wonderful in the role.

He's not wonderful as Dracula. This is no doubt the fault of the material, but nevertheless: this is a Count you're never either afraid of or sympathetic with. During the show's setpiece scene, where the Count erupts from Lucy Westerna's bed to, um, pleasure her right next to her sleeping, fully clothed new husband, the viewer has NO idea what's going on or what to think ... sad for her? Happy for him? Sad for both? Happy for both? Icky for watching?

It doesn't matter anyway, because there's no drama in the production. You're never for a moment compelled to watch. And sure enough, in due time and without much effort, Dracula dies (along with a requisite and clunky 'or DOES he?' final scene that's easily the worst thing in 'Masterpiece Theater's history). There's never any of the best parts of the novel - the ineluctable sense of growing doom, the gradual, seduction-like process by which Dracula infects his female prey, and most of all, the growing sense of comraderie between Van Helsing and his young friends against an evil neither they nor the world has ever seen before.

But fortunately, this tepid Dracula wasn't the only consumer of men's lives and souls on offer last Sunday, because as all of you should know, Sunday night is when 'Battlestar Galactica' airs.

Ah, I can hear the groans from here! All you Cantabridgian TV-snobs out there, matched in your legions by all the science fiction snobs out there!
Nevertheless, that's exactly what I'm talking about: 'Battlestar Galactica,' the best show currently airing on TV.

In last Sunday's episode, the Fleet takes on large number of refugees, including a great many Sagitarrons, who don't believe in modern medicine.

The refugees start falling seriously ill, and in their midst is a Caprican doctor played (with customary aplomb) by Bruce Davison, a doctor on a personal vendetta against Sagitarrons, although it requires our heroic Lt. Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) to detect it and root it out.

Far be it for me to criticize a true-blue (well, true-maple) Canadian actor who embraces science fiction (ulp ... where would ANY of us be without Captain Kirk?) (and certainly he has big - literally, they're enormous - shoes to fill in the whole Canuck-on-board-Galactica contest, after our late long-lost Billy was killed off, Billy played by goofy Canadian stoner Paul Campbell, who's currently enjoying the benefits of Youtube - snippets from his new pilot "Nobody's Watching" can be seen there and led - unprecedentedly, I believe, to the show's being given a shot at the fall lineup) but it bears pointing out that Penikett can't really hold his own with Davison, Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, and the indomitable Donnelly Rhodes as Doc Cottle.

No matter, though - the episode is great enough on its own to swallow any such quibbles. As usual, Davison brings depth and plausibility to a role that could, in other hands (coughDeanStockwellcough), have been one-dimensional ethnic-cleansing, with a little mustache-twirling thrown in. And Richard Hatch continues to surprise and delight as Tom Varek - in this case worrying about the effect on the Fleet if Baltar is given a high-profile trial.

At the mention of such a trial - which, we're told, will be followed by hanging the guilty man - viewers can't help but hear a deliberate echo of Saddam Hussein's sham-trial and scandalous execution. That's the glory of this new revamped 'Battlestar Galactica' - it tackles big, real-world issues with exactly the wit and terrier intensity that's a hallmark of the very best science ficiton.

Come to think of it, that might have been what the folks at Masterpiece Theater were thinking, when they imported the whole foreign-religious-fundamentalism theme into their new 'Dracula' ... if so, they, like everybody else, could have benefitted from a close viewing of 'Battlestar Galactica.'


Hippolyta said...

Interesting! I had to leave the house halfway through Battlestar...just after the captain punched that Irish guy in the face in the hallway...I was curious how it ended!

Out of curiosity, is that a predictable move for Battlestar or was it an unexpected twist? I'm far more of a Stargate girl than Battlestar (both SG1 and Atlantis, but my current schedule means I usually catch SG1).

beepy said...

Gulp! I'm so glad that I missed that whole Dracula mis-event. Surely you know, Steve, how I feel about "Dracula", being the perfect Victorian woman that I am. Why do people feel the need to mess with the plot? I almost threw up because of the whole past love/Vlad and Mina romance in "Bram Stoker's Dracula". Can we not just accept the story as is, since it's so damned perfect? Do they think we're too dense to get the murky sexuality of the original?

On the other hand, "Bram Stoker's Burial of the Rats" was a big improvement on the original story. Any of you boys out there with an interest in watching a movie about a tribe of lesbian Victorians living under London and following the proclamations of leader Adrienne Barbeau, hie thee to Netflix immediately.

beepy said...

My favorite part of "Dracula" that falls under the radar, is how all the men are going to donate blood to Lucy Westenra but her fiance has to be the first one, according to Van Helsing. It's his right as fiance to go first. I laughed out loud.

Kevin Caron said...

Who doesn't remember Parker Lewis Can't Lose?

Elmo said...

I was a little disturbed by the message in that "Battlestar" episode. It seemed to be a case of going against the grain of logic just to do it; and all this squeezed from a FILLER episode to boot! I did love Bruce Davidson though. I wish he was a regular. Unfortunately, I'm starting to feel that whether or not Baltar is actually a Cylon can't withstand the hype they've fenced it in with. To truly surprise us at this point, some scorching comet of a twist needs to arrive hard and fast (one of the Adamas as a Cylon? Yum!)

Jeff E. said...

I also remember "Parker Lewis Can't Lose".

It's interesting that you highlight the legality of Dracula's real estate scheme. A literarily inclined lawyer friend of mine told me that Bram Stoker was a lawyer (or studied law for a while) and that some of the wills that form the 'primary documents' in "Dracula" are full of highly specific quirks and jokes on Victorian estate laws.

Sam Sacks said...

Well, I don't have a thing to contribute to the substance of this post--but I have a TV question: has anybody seen a Canadian show called "Slings and Arrows"? I've only just heard abut it, now that it's wrapping up. Each season is the rehearsal of a single Shakespeare play. (Kind of like "24".) The word in Time Out New York is positive, but anyone know if it's worth Netflixing?

Hippolyta said...

Netflixing. That's a new one. Like Googling....

Jeff E. said...

The verbing of the English language makes me feel qualmly.

Sam Sacks said...

Look, when in blogland, do as the ADD-addled bloggers do. The words in these comment fields are the future additions to the Oxford English Dictionary. You suckas won't be criticizing when I'M cited for the earliest known usage!

Jeff E. said...

I wasn't criticizing, I was kidding on the square(TM).

Kevin Caron said...

Said Calvin to Hobbes:

"Verbing weirds language."

Jeff E. said...

That's certainly where I heard it first. I hope the OED gets that one right.

Hippolyta said...

Well, if you google netflixing Sam, Jeff, and'll see Sam wasn't the first one to come up with the term...

Kevin Caron said...

Well, we should try to come up with at least one original verbing.

Anyone want to take a stab at defining "Steve-ing" ("Steving"? "to Steve"?)?

Hippolyta said...

I was so tempted! What would it mean?

beepy said...

I would offer this as a definition.

To automatically refer to a book as "crap" based on one of the following:

1. it was written by a woman born after 1850.
2. it was written by a roasting tobacco addict.
3. it was written by someone younger than 25.
4. the author once turned you down in a men's room in the Midwest.
5. it was recommended to you by a manatee.
6. you haven't yet read it.

Sam Sacks said...

Hoo, Beepy, a definition that would make Dr. Johnson proud!

steve said...

For three of those six reasons, Dr. Johnson is CRAP!

Sam Sacks said...

We were dining on the forenoon at a most garishly decorated establishment named Shoneys outside of Cedar Rapids. Evidently unsettled by the Hollandaise in his Reuben (a selection I had vociferously discouraged, to no avail) Johnson pushed away his unfinished strawberry frappe and headed for the Gents.
"I trust you'll manage on your own," I called to Johnson, and he waved a dismissive paw and issued a tremendous eructation in reply.
But as I picked the raisins from our cups of cole slaw, a lurking figure from the next booth, unshaven, ragged, and smelling strongly of...confound it if it wasn't dog hair...arose and followed behind the great man.
"Johnson..." said I, deeply concern and overtaken by a sense of foreboding and gloom....

lockep said...

omg, if ONLY we had Shoneys in Iowa! Sadly, they are a mostly southern and eastern franchise, so those of us above the Mason Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi are stuck with Denny's and Perkins... sigh...

Hippolyta said...

i am so confused...

beepy said...

Ooooh, Sam, your fine praise makes me giddy as a schoolgirl. A rather geeky schoolgirl of course.

The story of you and Dr. Johnson in Cedar Rapids entertained me endlessly. Another piece of the puzzle in place.

Sam Sacks said...

Thank you, but in truth that was an excerpt from a usually-expurgated chapter of Boswell's "Life." (Boswell didn't call the restaurant Perkins, scholars speculate, because he worried that the Fribble-sipping Friendly's patrons in New England wouldn't recognize the name.)

steve said...

unshaven? ragged?

Jeff E. said...

Sounds like someone has been neglecting his bikini area.

Hippolyta said...


Jeff E. said...

For those of us wondering what happened to SteveReads, should we just safely assume that Steve hasn't read anything in the past two weeks?

Beepy said...

Since Steve can't be bothered, what are the rest of you reading?

I just finished "Mistress of the Art of Death", which Steve recommended a few posts back. It was as good as he claimed it is. I read nearly all of it in one sitting, which I hardly ever do. In addition to being a page turner, it left me with a visual memory of the action. I kept trying to remember what movie I'd been watching, then realised it was the book instead.

Now I'm reading a mystery called "Out" by Natsuo Kirino. Three women cut up and dispose of the body of a friend's husband after she kills him. It's very nicely plotted, has believable characters who do nearly unthinkable things, and promises me a twist of an ending. What more could I want?

Who wants to be next in taking Stevereads for a spin?

Hippolyta said...

steve, it would seem that stevesees can't replace stevereads. so, it will have to coexist. sister-site?

Sam Sacks said...

I recently read "Buddenbrooks," by Thomas Mann, for the first time (in the loudly and justly praised Woods translation). It's quite a book--a family history that spans around forty years, mostly concentrating on the growth of a generation of children in an upper class business-owning German household. That doesn't make it sound very entertaining, but, Lord, the characters are unbelievably achieved, living, breathing, nose-upturning, quarreling, affecting, fretting three dimensional beings. Each "Book" (there are eleven) has its own contained beginning-middle-end storyline, and a number of them are just wonderful, written out in Mann's measured, bemused, ironic naturalistic prose.

The book goes along very well, with lots of little rises and falls, the occassional longeur, and beautiful, surprisingly inviting prose--and then you start to near the end and it becomes bleak. Bleak and suspenseful with the promise of more bleakness. The immortality of 'Buddenbrooks' lies, I suspect, mostly in its last chapters, which are utterly devastating--moreso for their being understated. It's hard to recommend a book like this to anyone, because the ending hurts, genuinely hurts; but anytime a book powerfully evokes any emotion it has done what it's supposed to do, so of course, little that I need to, it being a classic, I do strongly recommend Buddenbrooks to all ya'lls out there.

Jeff E. said...

I never read Buddenbrooks, but I toured the house in Lubeck. It took a hit in WWII and only the facade was preserved. Now it's a museum to Mann. I would have appreciated more if I'd read anything he wrote (duh). The other folks I was traveling with were fans.

I bought "The Human Touch" by Michael Fryan, but haven't really plunged into it yet. Steve sent me the (mighty) TLS review of it a while back and I think it's going to be great. Fryan rose to fame writing plays (Copenhagen, Noises Off) and had been regarded as a playwright with a philosophical bent. This new book is just straight philosophy, but very artfully put together. His main topic is considering the human relationship to the universe and the differences (if any) between objectivity and subjectivity. Fun stuff.

I also am on the tail end of a project to read every one of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries. I have 4 left out of about 45. They're like saccharine-based candy. I struck a deal with my dad that if he read one of those I would read one of his favorite mystery authors, Tony Hillerman. So right now I'm about 1/2 into First Eagle. Having traveled through the Four Corners area of the southwest is really helping me enjoy it.

That's about it at the moment.

Kevin Caron said...

I was gonna cataloge all the great comics I've been reading (comics you'll never hear about from a certain blogging cape-zombie), but now Steve's back from his sabbatical.

Oh well!

Beepy said...

Well, I love hearing what other people are reading and what they think about what they read, so when I start a blog of my own, I hope you'll all visit and keep me updated there. Or, if Steve leaves us alone too long, I'll ask again.