Fringe – review

Years ago when Fringe started, I watched about 20 minutes of the first episode despite my concerns that Dawson’s Creek was heading to speculative fiction town. There was a plane, people died in mysterious and icky ways and at the 20 minute mark I thought to myself “I can’t commit to another X-Files”. I turned off the TV, rediscovered the lost art of conversation for the evening and felt vaguely relieved that I wasn’t committing myself to yet another television series. Besides, my younger self thought, it probably won’t last more than one season.

The scars of Firefly fandom run deep.

Since then, I’ve heard a scattering of good things about Fringe. Intelligent plots. Good acting not at all reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek. A long running story arc that keeps you engaged. Great characters.

And finally I heard “it’s finishing”.

Aha! I thought. Here’s my chance to get in on this show in the sure knowledge that I can watch the whole damn thing without having to worry about end of season cliffhangers.

What can I say. I think in italics. So, towards the end of last year I purchased the first four seasons on DVD and settled in over the Christmas break to make a dent.

I then proceeded to mainline the first three seasons. My wife complained she never saw me. My children suffered from neglect. Chores went unfulfilled. But finally I finished season 3 and collapsed into a puddle of TV over-watching exhaustion.

Since then I’ve rationed myself to one or two episodes of season 4 per week, partly to help in the recovery process and partly to stretch things out so I can get season 5 before I run out of season 4 episodes.

Because of the ongoing nature of the story, it’s hard to give away much plot without spoiling. Olivia Dunham is an FBI agent who begins to get involved with cases that are a bit weird. She needs Walter Bishop, a brilliant but insane scientist who used to pursue “fringe science” (think telekinesis, teleportation, genetic manipulation etc) and has spent the last 17 years in a mental institution. In order to spring him loose, she enlists the help of Walter’s son, Peter Bishop, an extremely intelligent man with a history of dealing slightly on the wrong side of the law. The three of them solve bizarre mysteries.

So far it sounds a bit X-Files doesn’t it? And reading descriptions like that was what turned me off (as much as I liked the X-Files at the time I didn’t want to repeat the experience). That was a mistake. The storyline for Fringe is much more coherent, with alternative universes, conspiracies and enough sneaky espionage to make a Mission Impossible movie proud.

The characters are wonderful, with fantastic interplay between the three leads (and a fourth regular character, Astrid, an FBI agent who primarily works with Walter in the lab). Olivia is a believable FBI agent, smart and active and even does things like ties her hair back when she is doing actiony stuff (which seems very practical to me). Walter is a brilliant bumbling scientist trying to deal with being back in the “real” world after years in a mental institution. And Peter is great as the sceptic (at least initially), and someone who can get things done outside legal processes.

The ongoing plot line manifests itself in other ways. When a character gets visibly hurt, you see the damage in later episodes, slowly fading over time. There is no reset button here. The plot seems to have been thought through quite well, with threads coming together episodes, sometimes seasons, later.

As you can probably tell, I’ve really enjoyed Fringe and I’m looking forward to seeing how it ends. I’d highly recommend picking it up if, like me, you’ve avoided it for this long.

The Walking Dead – Seasons 1 and 2 – review

One of the newer channels on Foxtel started up a few months back and played the first two seasons of The Walking Dead – a post apocalyptic zombie horror story that K and I decided to watch. It follows the story of a group of survivors of a virus that swept around the world, re-animating dead people as flesh craving “walkers” – very much your traditional zombie.

The main character is Rick, a former small town police officer who was gunned down and put in a coma. He wakes up to find the hospital deserted and his town filled with walkers, which has to take the record for the most disorientating way to come out of a coma that I can remember seeing on TV. He eventually finds a group of survivors, including his wife and son, and the story focuses on their attempts to find somewhere safe to bunker down.

I don’t often get hooked into zombie horror – it can (sometimes) sustain my interest over the length of a 90 minute movie, but anything longer than that strains my interest to breaking point. The Walking Dead was an exception. There is a strong ensemble cast of characters, with excellent acting and great interactions. Main characters get killed off at regular intervals, leaving a “no one is safe” feel which I find appealing.

The show is based off a comic book series of the same name. I’ve never read the comic, so I can’t comment on how true to the original it is. I understand there is a fair bit of divergence at the detailed level, but that the broad story is similar.

The show spends as much time focusing on the breakdown of civilisation as it does on gut wrenching sequences as people attempt to escape from hordes of killer zombies. This kind of exploration of how people react when their comfortable world is ripped away from them is the aspect of dystopian fiction that appeals most to me.

Having said that, this isn’t just a thoughtful philosophical piece that explores a human reaction to crisis. There is gore. Lots of gore. If fact, if you’re the type of person that feels a bit queasy when you see a bit of blood, I strongly suggest you avoid this show. But for those horror fans that don’t mind a disembowelling or two The Walking Dead provides a good combination of physical and psychological horror.


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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Outland – review

I caught the first episode of the new Australian series Outland on the ABC during the week. I’ve been hearing a bit about it in various podcasts and websites for a little while now, so I was keen to check it out.

The premise is that a small group of gay science fiction fans split off from their local club after a somewhat dramatic sounding confrontation (which happens off camera but apparently involved setting someone accidentally on fire, amongst other things). At the same time Max, who has missed the meeting to go on a date, is desperately trying to hide his science fiction shame from his date, Dylan.

Dylan comes up to Max’s apartment for coffee just as the ejected members of the club converge on it to have a showing of a rare 1960s show.

I normally take a few episodes to get into a show, but this was absolutely hilarious from the word go. Minor references to science fiction lore and trivia pepper the show. The characters are funny, the dialog smart and the acting excellent. I usually comment on TV shows in series blocks and I will write a better review once the series is finished, but I wanted to post on this show early on so that if anyone is reading and is a fan of science fiction, they start watching sooner rather than later.

For Australian readers, the first episode is currently up on iView. It airs at 8:30pm on Wednesday nights on ABC1, or 10:30 Thursday on ABC2.

Haven – Season 1 – review

I got Haven Season 1 from the kids for Christmas, and K and I have pretty much inhaled it over the last week or so.

The series is (very) loosely based on a novella by Stephen King called The Colorado Kid. The TV series follows FBI special agent Audrey Parker who arrives in a small town called Haven in Maine, USA where people are exhibiting strange powers/abilities (a result of The Troubles – a phenomenon which has occurred before – and leaving people afflicted with powers they can barely control). After Parker, an orphan, finds a photo of a woman that looks exactly like her in the local paper’s archives from years before, she joins forces with a local police detective, Nathan Wuornos, to investigate the strange goings on and perhaps find out something about the woman she suspects is her mother.

This is a series that definitely gets better as it goes on. After the first few episodes I was feeling fairly ambivalent about it. The premise was interesting enough in the abstract and the characters were solid, but it felt a bit “freak of the week” and the solutions to the afflicted’s problems seemed a little fragile (for instance a blind man who can separate his shadow which proceeds to rampage around killing people is put in his house with all the windows blacked out so no light can get in. While I understand the concept, it seems like an impractical way to spend the rest of your life…).

However, as the story arc covering Parker’s search for her mother comes to the fore in the second half of the season the series really picks up. By the final episode K and I were hooked, and quite disappointed when we realised we couldn’t get season 2 straight away!

The scenery and landscape is beautiful. The series was mostly shot in Nova Scotia and it is obviously a lovely part of the world. It was shot on film, which makes for a beautiful cinematography.

The characters grow on you and the cliff hanger at the end was suitably tense. Parker is a good female lead – pretty kick arse all round.

There are only 13 episodes in season 1, so if you are going to try this show out then I recommend you commit to the whole thing before you make up your mind.

Game of Thrones – Season 1 – review

I suspect that anyone that isn’t already thoroughly sick of people reviewing Game of Thrones has probably spent the last 6 months in the speculative fiction version of Siberia, but for those that haven’t heard of it Game of Thrones is a new American TV series (10 episodes) based around the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASIF) series of books by George RR Martin.

I’ll be clear up front – it has been over a decade since I read any of the ASIF books. I read the first three and really liked them, but it was so long between drinks that by the time the fourth book came out (A Feast for Crows) I would have had to go back and read the first three again, which I never quite found time to do. There are 7 books in the ASIF series (5 released, 2 more planned) and I’ll probably wait until all 7 are out before I try to read the lot (I’ve learned my lesson from trying to keep up with the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time series).

Each season of GoT is based around one of the books in ASIF series. So I had a hazy recollection of the plot, just enough for me to remember major plot points about 5 minutes before they happened. This was a bit distracting.

Putting that aside, I really liked this series. The acting was excellent. At the time of writing, Peter Dinklage (playing Tyrion Lannister) has just won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or Movie and it was absolutely deserved. While his was the stand out performance, I find it hard to fault any of the actors.

The plot stayed true to my (admittedly incomplete) memory of the novel. The opening credits are something to behold – I believe they might have won an Emmy for those too (although why there is a “Best Opening Credits” Emmy is beyond me).

I won’t give any spoilers – many Australians without pay TV may not have had a chance to see the series as yet. But if you like your fantasy to reflect a cold, hard world and you don’t mind a bit of nudity, this is almost certainly the TV series for you.