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Escape Pod 794: Episode 4: The Deflection of Probability

Episode 4: The Deflection of Probability

By Premee Mohamed

The tent billowed in the hot, humid wind, and Harriet thought if the canvas made that gun-crack noise near her head one more time she’d go mad—simply abandon her project and flee screaming into the meadow.

She took a deep breath, ignoring the hovering cameras that hummed in her peripheral vision. They’d make something of that in final production, she thought gloomily. That sigh. The plucky lass from Berwick-upon-Tweed, a clear shoo-in during the first three episodes, has done very poorly indeed today, and seems to be feeling the pressure… Well, and it would have to be ‘plucky,’ wouldn’t it? Harriet was sure the judges had an approved list of adjectives in their scripts. Some contestants were brilliant. Some were confident. Some…

Another gust of hot air roared in like the furious breath of a dragon. Her palladium microtorus setup spun on its little mirrored platform, reflecting glimpses of her startled gaze, her hair frizzed in the humidity. A skiff of pollen had dirtied the molecule-thick coating. Keeping her face still, she got out the nanofiber brush and cleaned the surface again.

It had all begun so well. Or at least it probably looked that way to viewers. Were episodes being aired already? Harriet didn’t know. But two weeks ago, her synthetic prions had gone about the place (well, the slide) like proper gangsters, knocking the other proteins aside and neatly recruiting only the ones they were meant to. Last week, only four contestants had managed to produce the correct crystal matrix in the final experiment—and hers had been the tallest of all, rising high and green as envy above their stations, nearly touching the ceiling. (Continue Reading…)

Portrait of a Slayer at Fifteen: the 15th Anniversary Buffy Retrospective (part 1 of 3)

This is part one of a three-part fifteenth-anniversary retrospective of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It contains spoilers for the entire run of the show.


Fifteen years ago this week, television as we know it was changed forever by…

Okay. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t “change television as we know it”. At least, not in the beginning.

In 1992, the filmed version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was released to a fair, but not great, reception (it only has a 32 percent rating on the Tomatometer). That was twenty years ago. About five years later, give or take, screenwriter Joss Whedon’s televised incarnation of Buffy Summers launched on the WB Network (now the CW). Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as the title character, and also featuring Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Charisma Carpenter, and Anthony Stewart Head, the show quickly gained popularity among… well, honestly, I don’t know who it was popular with, except to say that my college friends were really into it, going so far as to organize little viewing parties in the Honors Lounge. They invited me every time, but I declined.

Last year, for lack of anything better to do on my lunch breaks, I decided to see what this Buffy thing was all about.

And I was hooked.

Okay, not at first — every show has its growing pains in the first ten or so episodes — but the show quickly gained momentum thanks mostly to Joss Whedon’s writing talent and the way he oversaw the show. He didn’t write every episode, but as the showrunner he had control over the main story arcs, and he most definitely did not disappoint.

Buffy ran for seven seasons — six and a half, actually, since the first season was only twelve episodes — and launched a five-season spin-off (Angel). It’s one of the most fanfic-laden intellectual properties out there (trust me; I looked), and even now the story still continues in an official, canon sense with Whedon overseeing the Buffy comic book series.

How was Buffy different from other vampire stories? For starters, it wasn’t really, when it came to the vampires: they can be killed by sunlight and stakes through the heart; silver and crucifixes hurt them; they drink blood; they make more of themselves by having humans drink their blood; they’re faster and stronger than normal humans. But Buffy took it a step further, actually explaining how a vampire is made: when a person is killed by a vampire, their soul moves on to the next world and a demon takes up residence in the person’s body. Apparently all of these demons know martial arts, too, because right when they come out of the grave they’re pretty good fighters.

So some folks many thousands of years ago imbued mystical powers into a girl — the Slayer — who was called upon to fight vampires (and anything else that falls into the general category of “evil”). She, like the vampires, is faster and stronger than normal people, and heals faster, too. She’s supported by a Watcher, a human member of a secret society whose job it is to keep an eye on “potentials”* — girls who might become the next Slayer after the current one is killed. They die young; fighting evil does that to you. The Slayer fights alone, one girl against the forces of darkness.

The stars of Buffy Season 1: Nicholas Brendon (Xander), Anthony Head (Giles), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy), Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia), Alyson Hannigan (Willow)
But Buffy said no to that. She has friends — Willow, a geek who becomes a witch; Xander, a nice guy with a crush on Buffy; and even Cordelia, the queen of the popular kids who can always be counted on to say the wrong thing. And she falls in love with a vampire — again, nothing new here, but unlike a lot of other vampire fiction of the time, said vampire has renounced his old ways and is trying to help in the fight against evil.

And that’s where the strength of the show really is: not “Buffy kills a lot of vampires using ninja moves and wooden stakes”, but the interpersonal relationships between the characters. It means a lot more to viewers when they care about the people they’re watching. Will Buffy’s mom ever find out about the slaying? How will she react? What will Willow do when she realizes her boyfriend is a werewolf? Is Xander’s home life really so bad that he’d rather fight evil than see his parents? And what’s behind that well-constructed British facade Giles shows the rest of the world?

Whedon didn’t just do this with his heroes, either; even the villains got their due — Spike, the Big Bad of season two, is forced to make hard choices when Angel turns evil; the Mayor of Sunnydale, a relentless pragmatist, truly loves Faith, who knows he’s evil but loves him right back; even the Trio, the villains of season six, have their redeeming qualities despite their leader murdering one of the show’s most beloved characters.

Joss Whedon, the man who gave us Buffy, Angel, Echo, Captain Tightpants, and so much more.
It’s that — not the vampires, not the demons, not the pretty girls or the handsome guys — that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer worth watching all those years. We watched to see how Buffy would save Angel, how Spike would be redeemed, how Riley would escape Adam, how Dawn would react when Glory threatened to kill her… and yes, how Buffy would defeat the most evil thing to ever be born of humanity’s desire to do bad. Through it all, we cared about these characters, from the stars of the show to the villains — reformed and not — and even as far as the occasional comic relief**. In the Whedonverse, every character matters, and that’s what makes the show special.

March 10, 1997: the day that changed television for a lot of people. And continues to draw in new viewers all the time. The fashions may not hold up; the slang and pop-culture references might be dated; the effects in the early seasons are definitely iffy. But the storytelling will make this show worth watching even twenty, thirty, or fifty years later.

I’d stake a vampire on it.

I found this on the internet and thought it was apropos.


Parts Two and Three will cover the top 25 Buffy episodes.

Note to Parents: Although BtVS is only rated TV-PG at its “worst”, the show does contain violence, sexual situations, adult language, and intense action and emotional sequences. I’d say it’s safe for middle-schoolers on up. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.


* I just realized I used this same idea in a story I recently wrote — although mine was about Santa Claus, not vampires. So, Joss, if you’re reading this… please don’t sue me.

** Come on, now; who didn’t just adore Clem?

No Ordinary Defense of Genre Television

Anyone who’s ever been a fan of a losing sports team knows that sometimes you have to make excuses for your club’s poor play. As a lifelong Dolphins fan, believe me, I know — I’ve spent more than a decade extolling our defense while facepalming at the antics of our atrocious offense.

As a sci-fi fan, I’ve lately found myself feeling the same way.

No one was more excited than me when No Ordinary Family was announced. I’ve often thought The Incredibles was robbed of a best picture nomination, but if the compensation is a live-action version, well… who am I to complain?

There’s just one problem: I don’t actually like No Ordinary Family.

On paper, the show is a great concept for someone like me: normal family gets superpowers, does superheroic things. And the cast is pretty good: Michael Chiklis as Mr Incredible, Julie Benz as the super-speedy mom, Stephen Collins playing against type as an evil research magnate, and Romany Malco (who always stole the show in Weeds) as the sidekick. The scripts are your tried and true origin story plots — family vs superheroism, vigilantism vs the need to do right, and the ever-popular “getting discovered” story arc. On paper, it’s a recipe for success.

Except that the execution keeps falling flat. The family drama is too dramatic or too silly. Most of the subplots with the kids make me want to facepalm (despite the excellent job Kay Panabaker does as the telepathic teen daughter). The geek references from Katie, one of the sidekicks, are wasted on the audience because it’s abundantly clear she’s a geek only to pacify the geek crowd who — and let’s be honest here — isn’t getting what they need from this show.

We wanted a live-action Incredibles. What we got was a family drama with a veneer of superheroic fantasy. And as bad as it would be for genre as a whole to lose No Ordinary Family, I can’t see any way that the show can turn itself around without killing off a few of the characters in a David Mack style (remember what he did to the crew of the Da Vinci, and the billions he sacrificed to the Borg).

The thing is, instead of geeks saying we should cut our losses and support other genre shows like Fringe, we try to have our jumja sticks and eat them too. We make apologies for the less-intelligent plots, the overused origin stories, the constant hammering into our heads that MISUSING POWERS FOR PERSONAL GAIN IS WRONG. The core audience already knows all this stuff. They want more Chuck and less Brothers & Sisters.

Now I’m not completely dim — I’ve worked in television for six years, and I understand the concept of making a show appeal to the widest audience possible. Unfortunately, homeopathy doesn’t work. Putting 1/100th of 1% of genre into a 100% solution of ABC family drama won’t cure the lack of geek audience.

I’m tired of making excuses for shows like No Ordinary Family. I’m tired of keeping passable excuses for genre on the air at the expense of truly good shows like Fringe. I don’t wish anyone working on the show any ill will, and if it stays on the air for five years, I’m totally fine with that. But I can’t keep ignoring the flaws of genre shows like No Ordinary Family. I say it cheapens the content pool as a whole, and — let’s be honest here — if they wanted a TV version of The Incredibles… well, doesn’t Disney own it already?

I’m leaving No Ordinary Family on the DVR, and I’ll probably finish out the season. But I can’t lie to myself anymore.

I don’t think I actually like the show.

Superheroes II: Metropolis, we have a problem

Hello 2011! I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday and are ready for a kick-ass year… wait, it’s halfway through January already? Oh boy. But hey, this year is an odd number, and a prime one at that. That’s got to be a good sign. Right? Right.

My last post about superhero prose fiction seemed to generate a few comments, not only here but also over at io9 who were kind enough to reblog it. I made a lot of omissions, some glaring, and I knew I would. I’ll return to the subject of superhero prose fiction later on where we can talk properly about examples of the genre. In that post I missed a lot of titles (Playing for Keeps, Brave Men Run, George RR Martin’s Wild Cards, Union Dues, In Hero Years, I’m Dead, to name just a few), but only because I don’t think these are (or were) signs particularly of a forthcoming movement towards superhero prose fiction. As I said last time, superhero prose fiction has been around almost as long as superhero comic fiction has been, possibly starting with The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther from 1942 (the plot of which, involving ghost ships and Nazis, sounds awesome). While it’s probably impossible (and foolish) to try and generate a comprehensive list of superhero prose fiction, we can at least take a gander at some prime examples of the genre a bit later. As it happens, my prediction might have been right up the wazoo anyway, as it looks like the YA dystopia is shaping up to be the Next Big Thing. I might be wrong but it seems to me that the vampire/werewolf trend originated in YA books too, before influencing more adult-oriented works. Although I’m not quite sure where the fashion for zombie originated – is there a YA zombie series that I don’t know about?

Anyway, I wanted to touch on superheros again for a moment as there is something that has been bugging me recently. NBC’s new superhero TV series The Cape has started, as has the Cartoon Network’s latest DC universe animated series, Young Justice. The fact that they both debuted at more or less the same time is just coincidence and not particularly relevant, but it does serve to illustrate a little problem I – a comics fan and superhero write –  have with the genre.

Live-action superheroes just don’t work.

Uh-uh. Hold the hate mail and move the mouse away from the comment button. Let me explain.

The Cape is attempt – one of the first, I think – at creating an original, made-for-television costumed superhero. Costumed is the key here, although it’s probably unfair to single out this one particular issue with The Cape given that it really is the least of the show’s problems (which, off the top of my head, include the title, the premise, the cast, the characters, the plot and the writing… but other than that it’s pretty great, no?), but it does illustrate my point. Vince Faraday, aka The Cape, looks immensely silly when dressed up as the superhero. Okay, the suit is assembled from bits and bobs from the Carnival of Crime (yes, the Carnival of Crime) and based on a comic book character beloved by his son (although not a comic book written like I have ever read, although I suppose Vince was adding in the exposition and description himself when he read an issue to his son in the first episode). But… no. It’s impractical and is looks silly.

So what’s new? This is comic book stuff, right?

Actually, yes it is. The Cape would work fine as a comic book, assuming it was written by someone who knew what a comic book was (unlike the writer of the TV series it seems). The bits we see of the actual (fictional) comic in the TV show looks okay. And superheroes in cloaks and hoods are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s plenty of scope for dramatic flowing fabrics.

It’s perhaps telling that other, more successful television superhero shows have neatly avoided the problem of silly costumes by not featuring them at all. Everyone in Heroes was in civvies. The other currently screening superhero TV series, No Ordinary Family, likewise has avoided comic book cliche, visually at least, even if the central premise of the story is as old as the hills. Misfits, that UK subversion of televisual superheroics clad our anti-heroes in the orange jumpsuits required by their community service, and even cracked a joke about traditional superhero costumes in one memorable scene from the second series. Notably, when a costumed superhero does appear, things start to get creaky, because it’s a guy in a silly suit (although they didn’t do that bad a job). Looking at earlier examples, The Flash was stuck in a bizarre muscle suit in 1990, and the less said about the 1997 attempt at a live-action Justice League of America, the better.

The prime example is The Dark Knight. I’m a Batman fan and I love this film… but Batman himself is a bit silly. When he sticks to the shadows like he should, no problem. But there is one surprising scene where he terrorises The Joker in a police interview room. A brightly lit police interview room. The Joker here looks amazing, as tailor-made purple suit aside, he is just wearing clothes. But in the glare of the fluorescent strips, Batman looks very, very silly. An interesting experiment in creating a more comic book-like Batman is the fan film Batman: Dead End, which features a Batman in grey spandex fighting… erm, aliens (as in Aliens aliens). Okay, so the story is a little odd, but Batman looks pretty good. However, sticking an actor in skintight lycra causes all sorts of problems with movement, result in the need for careful choreography to avoid unsightly creases and bulges. The forthcoming Green Lantern film is avoiding this by using an entirely CG costume, but from the trailer it looks a bit peculiar (although it would help if the eyes of the mask were whited out, like in the comic).

Of course, I’m generalising. There are exceptions. Marvel seem to be doing a better job. Iron Man looks amazing, by virtue of the fact that the suit is hard, metallic, robotic. The best example of successful live-action superhero costuming might be seen in the X-Men films. Here, brightly coloured spandex is swapped for dark leather which looks great and, importantly, moves well, despite Logan’s initial dismissal of the rack of jumpsuits. Spider-man likewise is pretty slick, if a little CG-friendly. Back in DC land, Watchmen too manages it admirably, with the current crop of heroes looking pretty cool while their predecessors, very cleverly, were clad in rather more home-spun costumes. Jonah Hex might have been a train wreck of a film but it looked pretty good, but then Hollywood has a long and glorious history of Westerns and, like the Joker in Batman and everyone in Heroes, the people in Jonah’s world just wear normal, if customised, clothes.

But what’s this got to do with The Cape and Young Justice? Well, Young Justice is better than The Cape in all respects, and is shaping up to be one of the best DC animated series in a long while. But visually, it is just so much better than The Cape. Superheroes just work in animation, which is perhaps not surprising given the ease of transition from static comic book pages to moving animated scenes. The inhabitants of the DCU, at least, have never looked better than in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Any impracticalities or craziness in superhero costume design that just fail in the real world fit perfectly into animation, just as they do on the comic book page. It’s the same when you’re reading prose superhero fiction – as a reader you’re in control of the action, and everything looks just tickety-boo.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as applicable) I’d say The Cape is set for cancellation before the season is out. Hopefully Young Justice will settle in for a long run, but on the basis of the double-length pilot episode, its well deserved. Looks aren’t everything – far from it, in fact – but certainly The Cape is not a great example of live-action superhero design.

Now if NBC were looking for a circus-themed superhero, why didn’t they just commission a live-action series of Deadman?

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