TV

A Happy New Year of Science Fiction, or 2010 Repackaged?

Torchwood: The New World

Before viewers resolve to watch or avoid new SF offerings, they might want to look carefully at the packaging. Among the shiny new series are also remakes and pilots being “re-gifted” to a new audience.

January is a time of promised fresh beginnings and new resolutions, for television executives and series creators as well as the rest of us. SF fans can only hope programmers’ and promoters’ resolutions go something like this: “I resolve to support and promote highly anticipated TV series long enough for them to gather a fan base, to make sure my episodes and miniseries live up to all the hype generated by Comic-Con panels, and to value the existing fan base just as much as any new audiences I want to conquer.“ Whether you’re one of those greenlighting a series, thinking up new characters and apocalyptic experiences in which to embroil them, or taking a “snow day” to catch a series’ premiere or marathon, January ushers in a hopeful new year of original as well as re-imagined SF projects.

Before viewers resolve to watch or avoid new SF offerings, they might want to look carefully at the packaging. Among the shiny new series are also remakes and pilots being “re-gifted” to a new audience. Of course, some intriguing, unique characters deserve to keep coming back from the dead, but the industry also must initiate truly new ideas that, one day, will be worthy of being re-imagined for a future generation of SF fans.

Five series promised for a 2011 US debut on Syfy or Starz—Being Human, Alphas, Three Inches, Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, and Torchwood: The New World—will be making SF headlines in January as they premiere, begin filming, or learn their scheduling fate. They also indicate the state of SF in a cable-friendly US market.

Made in the USA

Two highly anticipated SF series, Being Human and Torchwood, originated in the UK Whereas Torchwood retains its British heritage but gains global locations (especially in the US, home to BBC’s new production partner, Starz), Syfy borrowed Being Human’s vampire/werewolf/ghost-as-roommates premise but settled the roommates in a new country.

Syfy’s Being Human takes its title and concept from the original series, which has already wrapped a third season’s filming; however, the names and places were changed to protect, if not the innocent, the “Americanness” of the story. In the US, werewolf (aka “Wild Man” on the Syfy website’s description) Josh, “Lady Killer” vampire Aidan, and “Free Spirit” ghost Sally become roommates in Boston. The character descriptions fit the first-season descriptions of their UK counterparts: Josh and Aidan work in a hospital; Sally meets her new roommates when they move into the home she once shared with her fiancé.

The chemistry among the UK series’ cast helps smooth over bumps in the plot; in particular, the camaraderie between vampire Mitchell (Aidan Turner) and werewolf George (Russell Tovey) makes these potentially monstrous characters much more lovable. If Josh (Sam Huntington), Aidan (Sam Witwer), and Sally (Meaghan Rath) can create the same us-versus-them solidarity and that winning combination of vulnerability and spunk, the US version will well be worth a look. Although I enjoy the UK cast tremendously and I’m biased toward Russell Tovey’s George as my all-time favorite werewolf, I’m especially looking forward to seeing Mark Pellegrino (formerly known to LOST fans as Jacob) as vampire ringleader Bishop (think Herrick from the UK series). He may be even more sinister than his British counterpart by conveying a lethal sexiness that equally attracts and repels viewers who know they shouldn’t like him but find him mesmerizing. Being Human premieres on Syfy on Monday, 17 January.

A series looking for a new beginning with several new cast members in a new locale is Torchwood, appropriately subtitled The New World. For a series reportedly planned for cable-network (Starz and BBC, respectively) broadcast in July, Torchwood has been busily keeping its name in the entertainment news for months. In December, John Barrowman’s many UK-based projects, from Glaswegian panto to BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special, reminded the actor’s fans that Captain Jack will soon be back. The impending relocation of Eve Myles (Torchwood’s Gwen Cooper) to the US was the subject of interviews in home country Wales. At fan convention Chicago TARDIS, Kai Owen (who plays Rhys Williams) enthusiastically looked forward to the start of filming, and tweets between Owen and Tom Price (PC Andy Davidson) alerted fans to the imminent start date. If Torchwood is looking for a fresh beginning, the scheduled first day of US filming is highly symbolic: 1/11/11.

Casting news in mid-December became almost a daily occurrence, first with a call for a one-night stand for Captain Jack; “Brad” was described as a D.C. bartender who shouldn’t be afraid of close-ups. Mekhi Phifer, formerly of ER, was cast as new main character Rex Matheson, and the surprise addition of Bill Pullman made formerly despicably-described convict Oswald Jones seem, if not cuddly and family friendly, at least a character of greater depth than the initial Starz bio indicated.

Even audiences who haven’t followed the UK-based series might be familiar with their characters or at least some highly publicized aspects of previous seasons’ story lines. In the closely knit (or Internetted) SF community, such high-profile series become common knowledge, and even audiences not so much attuned to SF likely have skimmed a YouTube video or entertainment headline featuring a Being Human or Torchwood actor or scene.

Torchwood seems to court controversy, and its transition from script to screen likely will be eagerly followed by fans and critics alike. However, Torchwood must balance teasing the audience from January to July with making the tease worth the wait. US and UK fans of the original Welsh-themed series need a reason to follow Captain Jack to LA, where a new, broader-based potential audience must be introduced to the good Captain and even the concept of “Torchwood”.

Being Human has a fan base not only in the UK but in the US, via BBC America, which will broadcast upcoming episodes of the British original. To distinguish itself, Syfy’s Being Human must build on the strengths of the original: an appealing cast, dark themes interspersed with self-deprecating humor, and audience empathy for basically good characters who, through no fault of their own, become social outcasts. Nevertheless, the move from Bristol to Boston requires more than name changes if Syfy’s series is going to have a ghost of a chance with viewers. Its plots have to diverge from its same-named competition on another cable channel and make Josh, Aidan, and Sally different from George, Mitchell, and Annie.

One More Time

Like Torchwood and Being Human, Battlestar Galactica, in its many guises and spinoffs, has a built-in fan base as well as a potentially large new audience looking for a reason to follow the franchise. Last year’s new series Caprica gained a faithful following who didn’t particularly care about Cylons but liked to see religion and politics mix it up as frequently as the members of the series’ founding families. Caprica lovers, however, never were as large an audience as that of the re-imagined BSG from which it spun. When Caprica was abruptly axed and its remaining five episodes scheduled for a marathon session on 4 January, the series’ fans were, to say the least, dismayed. Before Caprica was cold, yet another BSG-themed series (Blood and Chrome) was announced, presumably for broadcast in 2011. This prequel emphasizes William Adama’s first mission aboard Galactica during the tenth year of war with the Cylons. Furthermore, a 15 December Variety article noted that a film based on Syfy’s BSG is in development with the newly created Syfy Films, a joint venture between Universal Pictures and Syfy.

Apparently, if one BSG-themed project doesn’t garner enough audience attention and devotion, there’s another version just waiting to be launched. With Variety’s news indicating that the fan-favored BSG might be getting another chance at the big screen, will fans less than happy either with Caprica ’s story or its cancellation be willing to spend time with yet another TV prequel? Stay tuned. More undoubtedly will be revealed in January.

Original Series

Although “superheroes” is hardly an original concept, variations on this theme continue to be popular. As a result, Syfy finds itself with two pilots about basically the same idea. Alphas and Three Inches both cover the SF premise of ordinary people who find themselves with superpowers (as does NBC’s No Ordinary Family, which debuted last fall and is steadily gaining viewers). Whereas Alphas seems to Syfy to be better suited for a dramatic hour-long format, as of mid-December, Three Inches apparently is about an inch and a half too long. To differentiate the two series, Syfy announced it was considering changing Three Inches’ team-based story to one emphasizing a single character, and episode length might be shortened to a half hour.

Whether both heroes-themed series ultimately make it to Syfy’s schedule, January seems to be a key month in determining when the pilot episodes will be shown and to what end—as merely a burn-off of a good pilot or the start of a promising program.

The Promise of January

With the TV industry now developing projects for later broadcast in 2011, January is an auspicious time for planning, scheduling, and filming. The fate of original series, such as Alphas and Three Inches, soon must be decided while fans of the projects themselves or the actors associated with them are still interested in the outcome and before these 2010 pilots become tainted from being kept on the shelf too long.

SF series looking for new life in 2011 must conquer conflicting challenges. As BSG’s executive producer David Eick explained about his new prequel, “The goal with 'Blood & Chrome' is to appeal to our fan base, of course, but it’s primarily to reach out to new fans who do not have, and will not require, any allegiance to either previous show." Producers and creators of the US version of Being Human and US-UK production Torchwood: The New World likely share this sentiment. These series already have a mythology on which to base prequels, sequels, spinoffs, or remakes. They have fans who know and love the original but may be enticed to view further adventures and to meet new characters. These series have to tell new stories, but they can’t stray too far from the expected path or they risk alienating a loyal core of the fan base. BSG, Torchwood, and Syfy’s Being Human have to allow samplers a clear entry point while retaining returning viewers’ interest.

Science fiction is at a turning point. Although mainstream SF series, which are often serialized episodes with great, if sometimes unwieldy mythologies, come and go from US broadcast networks, cable offers SF more programming possibilities. Cable can import another nation’s original programs (e.g., BBC America programming) or permit experiments with length (e.g., Three Inches as a half-hour drama) and number of episodes (e.g., Torchwood’s “season”al range from 13 to 5 to 10). It can try to twist one premise into multiple audience-attractive shapes or create something truly original.

What will SF on TV become in 2011—something shiny and exciting or last year’s leftovers repackaged for quick sale? Will the stories and characters intrigue viewers enough to invest their time, and will that investment be rewarded with a completely-told story or death by plotus interruptus? Will 2011 birth an innovative, provocative new SF series or take previously mythologized series in exciting new directions? As we raise a toast to 2011, let’s hope SF has something to celebrate.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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