Review: Surviving Death

Netflix’s Surviving Death, a docuseries adapting the nonfiction book by Leslie Kean, presents a variety of accounts of the afterlife that will not convince skeptics but are sure to provide a genuine perspective on the varied ways in which people look for answers and assurance when facing death and the loss of loved ones.

I’ve not read Ms. Kean’s book, although her UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record is essential reading on the contemporary UFO phenomenon, not to mention her reporting on the subject. If nothing else, this new series makes me want to read what she actually wrote on the pursuit of evidence of consciousness after death, and I can only imagine it would be similarly informative. Ms. Kean does appear quite a bit throughout the series, offering her perspective on various phenomena–especially on the subject of mediums, for some reason.

Each episode of the series covers a different phenomenon: near-death experiences, a two-parter on mediums, alleged signs from the dead, ghosts and end-of-life visions, and reincarnation. While everyone might react differently based on their own biases, my own worldview made the stories about near-death experiences, end-of-life visions, and reincarnation most palatable. Even though the first two categories have many alternative explanations, they’re still interesting phenomena; conversely, the really good and verifiable examples of alleged reincarnation are very compelling, and the alternative explanations about as extraordinary as the idea of reincarnation itself. Even if you reject the (admittedly difficult to reconcile and impossible to prove) paranormal components, the universality of certain themes and narratives across generations and cultures is fascinating in and of itself. At its core, parapsychological studies of these types of stories read to me as a sort of anthropology, just focused on a type of folklore taken as true. So even if you reject them as true accounts of an afterlife out of hand, you’re still left with true accounts of belief and lived experiences that are remarkable even under the most normal of explanations.

Having two episodes devoted to mediums was hard, though. The show repeatedly acknowledges, through some of its interviewed subjects, that spiritualism and mediumship have long histories of fraud. And yet. And yet, two episodes are spent on what can only be read as an attempt to convince us that some level of mediumship must be legitimate. Nothing changed my mind, although I was rather fond of the man who went from medium to medium, attempting to communicate with his dad, celebrating the sessions that were eerily accurate and emotionally on-point, yet even then noting how they could be faked or otherwise staged. For someone to continue to engage with mediums with an open mind, yet never shutting out his critical thinking, well–that’s a man after my own heart. But most of our time is spent with a succession of mediums and true believers. They even have a physical medium, someone who claims to be able to produce physical forms of spirits through the use of ectoplasm. In 2021, a documentary is giving serious space to a woman who claims to use ectoplasm! Oh, sure, all those other physical mediums were frauds or at least highly suspect, but this one’s different? This one who leads seminars to train others to be mediums? Wild! Don’t get me wrong–if you were on the fence, or susceptible to believing in mediumship, this might push you over the edge with some of the more compelling readings, but there’s nothing here that proves mediums are real or that counteracts the obvious non-mystic explanations for all their stunts.

The episode on signs from the dead was fascinating because it really showed how desperately people look for comfort and reassurance when they lose someone. I felt for them. This episode was especially hard on my wife, because it’s basically a nearly hour-long presentation of people’s very raw grief. While it was not compelling evidence for taking signs seriously, it was a nice reminder that if you can take comfort from a perceived sign, there’s no harm in doing so, and a lot of people, even otherwise non-spiritual and rational people, can find comfort in this. In other words, it was just a very human story.

Finally, the episode on end-of-life visions also had a segment on ghosts and ghost hunters. The woman-of-color ghost hunter the series follows is more interesting than the jackass white bros we normally see; rather than pretending to be scientific (and they never are), she actually seemed almost like a shaman, someone who felt that her hobby was sacred work. She was still over-fond of tech gadgets that don’t ever detect or react in exactly the ways the ghost hunters think they do, but it was still a more sentimental and reflective segment than I was expecting given the usual ghost hunters on TV. The proposed “evidence” is all the same, though, and very non-conclusive.

While the episode quality varies, I did stay engaged throughout, even if scoffing at the people onscreen (which was rarer than I might have expected). It was compelling television, with a refreshingly human focus that showed the value in the experiences for the living, regardless of what those experiences actually said about the dead. As an intimate look at how humans respond to death and attempt to adjust to loss in the modern era, I would highly recommend this show.

Review: Ghosts

Ghosts is a very funny British comedy about, well, ghosts. It’s currently available on HBO Max, which is where I watched it. And it’s only got two seasons–or series, I’d suppose they’d call them–of six episodes each. So it’s very easy to binge and definitely worthwhile.

The premise: a young couple, Alison and Mike, inherit an old, decaying manor. They fall in love with the idea of turning it into a hotel, so they quit their day jobs and move out to start live-in renovations. However, the house is haunted by several ghosts, who would rather not have a bunch of mortals in and out. They try to scare the newcomers out, but they’re not really able to do much– one can cause the smell of burning if walked through, another can cause lights to flicker, a third can (with immense effort) touch or gently push physical objects, and the others are more or less useless. The tactile ghost decides to give Alison a push at an opportune moment as she reaches out a window, knocking her to the grounds a couple floors below. She survives but her near-death experience gives her the ability to see ghosts. While this leads her to want to move out and sell the place, Mike has already taken out loans whose early payment penalties would bankrupt them. And so Alison, Mike, and the ghosts must find a way to tolerate each other.

The characters gradually come to be fond of each other–except for Mike, who remains scared of the dead people he can’t see–but the series thrives even more on a lot of cringe-inducing situations emerging out of their various self-sabotaging and conflicting actions. It’s all very, very funny. From the first episode, my wife and I were laughing early and often. But getting to know each of the ghosts and their pasts was another reason to keep watching, definitely. There are certainly some fun subversions of expectations and twists of perspective along the way.

The show also manages to poke a lot of fun at spiritualists and ghost hunters, drenched in the irony that the charlatans and fools are so close to being right in this case, even as they ultimately conclude that the house is in fact not haunted (due to the overeager, greed-motivated actions of Alison and Mike to put on a show for some visiting paranormal enthusiasts). So often, the show’s playful spin gives a reason for why ghosts would be so fickle, inconsistent, and unresponsive. Of course ghosts have trouble communicating–it’s exhausting trying to tap out responses when even tapping a key on a keyboard is a strenuous effort! Of course ghosts sometimes manifest and sometimes don’t–they’re people too, and they aren’t there to amuse you, if they’re interested in you at all! Whether you’re a true believer or a hardened skeptic, whether you’re deeply engaged in the paranormal or couldn’t care less, you’ll find something humorously rewarding in the viewing.

I’ve said enough though. It’s just twelve episodes! Watch it!

Review: Camp Cretaceous Season 2

I watched the eight episodes of season two over their release weekend, but I didn’t feel particularly compelled to put my thoughts down right after. I think that impulse reflects what season two turned out to be: a pleasant but forgettable bit of television comfort food. I suppose that this puts it rather in line with my impression of the first season, but the first improved over the course of its run and set up exciting possibilities for the second, and I just don’t feel like the follow-up season really ran with anything or even attempted anything new. It did, at least, have several exciting action sequences!

As I mentioned in my first review, this show is rather character-focused over anything else. So, after having grown fond of the kids in the first season, I was simultaneously pleased with and disappointed by their portrayals in this season. This time around, there were more moments where the kids could almost relax, where they tried to just act like kids, but there’d always be some harsh new reality to force them back into survival mode. They’ve grown as characters, and they all get opportunities to shine. They’re also a rather tightly knit found family, although the constant stress does lead to inevitable infighting at times. All that said, sometimes the show forced an arbitrary regression of a character to suit the plot of a particular episode. In finding a situation for the star athlete Yaz to truly learn that sometimes she couldn’t help, sometimes even her best wasn’t enough, and sometimes she had to rest, the writers forced spoiled rich kid Kenji back into his obnoxiously lazy and selfish role to act as a foil. Sure, Kenji’s dumb and self-centered, but he’d come a tremendous way in the first season, and this felt like an unnecessary step back for him. At the same time, the show does appear to want to show what trauma looks like for these children, and having moments of regression does seem natural. Clearly, the show didn’t always convince me that that’s what was going on, though.

The best character development this season goes to Ben, presumed dead by the other campers (though the show made clear enough he’d survived at the very end of season one). Once he’s reintroduced as a wannabe-commando figure to a couple of his friends, the show focuses a whole episode on his arc of surviving on the island alone for however many days (or weeks) have elapsed. He was forced to find his own inner strength and courage, he prevailed over a series of hazards, and he eventually reached a point of power and competence. Yet he’s still Ben, the skinny, dweebish little kid, and so he’s also developed the amusing quirk in which he believes that he’s tougher than anyone else, all evidence to the contrary. With a whole episode devoted just to his survival story, however, it was still a little goofy that it conveniently skips over the point at which he’d made some serious outfit adjustments, and it just as conveniently has a brief falling out between Ben and Bumpy that allows Bumpy to mature into a full-size Ankylosaurus off-screen. (Bumpy remains as adorable as ever, even fully grown, and I still cheered for Bumpy whenever she did anything at all.)

The plot is more disappointing. The first season focused on the attempt to reach the evacuation point in time; the group failed, of course. This season again finds the kids attempting to reach a target for rescue–actually, two targets. The first one is an emergency beacon that can call for help. That objective is accomplished rather handily with the group’s new survival skills and teamwork. However, typical chaos ensues involving a Tyrannosaurus, and the kids aren’t sure if their message got through. They soon after stumble upon a small party of “ecotourists” who have made their way to the island in the days since the park shutdown. These yuppie adventurers promise the kids access to their yacht in a few days when it returns from refueling. They’re lying, and how the kids react to their alleged rescuers–and how the rescuers respond–becomes the major point of conflict for the remainder of the season. It’s all for naught because (spoiler alert) the kids find themselves stranded on the island once more, yet again barely missing a boat off the island.

The stakes felt lower this season. The adults could serve as dino food, but the show largely stepped back from any real sense that any of the kids would ever actually die. This made many of the dinosaur attacks (so, so many dinosaur attacks) thrilling rather than horrifying, but if the action-adventure show about killer dinosaurs doesn’t really have killer dinosaurs, it loses its edge fast. Likewise, there weren’t really any great moments of wonder this season. The closest would be the discovery of a watering hole shared by several dinosaur species, but it’s populated with dinosaurs we’re already familiar with, and something about the lighting or dinosaur models or design just made it feel like a bunch of CG dinosaur assets positioned around a flat surface. (Yes, of course, they’re always CGI effects, but the quality did not support the emotional effect needed from the scene.) On the other hand, many of the dinosaur attack sequences looked very real, as though the dinosaurs occupied physical sets, although in a somewhat jarring manner, as though they were claymation.

We get some new dinosaurs, but mostly it’s reused assets from before. That means that at some point, it begins to feel like the park is dominated by Parasaurolophus, Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Sinoceratops (especially unusual given that the ceratopsian is supposed to be a recent addition to the park, yet we don’t really see Triceratops or Styracosaurus). Where are the herds of diverse dinosaurs present in the films? I recognize the answer to that is that the show has a limited budget compared to a movie, but I can’t help but think how diverse and lifelike the dinosaurs look in Jurassic World: Evolution, a video game that also simulates animal and tourist behaviors, weather effects, and a park economy. There are some new dinosaurs, carnivores pulled from the films: Ceratosaurus and Baryonyx. However, the former only has a couple appearances. Meanwhile, the Baryonyx has been reimagined as a very social pack hunter and terrestrial pursuit predator, which raises the question: why did they use Baryonyx at all? It felt more than a little like the showrunners really wanted a predator to fill the gap left by the Velociraptors, so they just forced an animal into the role. Fallen Kingdom‘s introduction of Baryonyx was already far enough from the real animal, but the creatures in Camp Cretaceous seem rather out of step with the semiaquatic, piscivorous but opportunistic spinosaurid that the real animal appears to have been. (And why do you pick Baryonyx for this role when Allosaurus is also in the park, similarly sized, and an actual big game predator that might have actually coordinated in social groups?! Or why not Ceratosaurus, already an asset in the show??)

All that said, it might seem foolish to once again be hopeful about the next season. But there are several elements in play here that should finally push the story in new directions:

  1. The kids have decided to try to find their own way off the island, rather than being dependent on rescue, and they all now have the survival skills to potentially achieve that without always being on the run.
  2. The kids do not know if the emergency beacon worked, but the audience knows that a successful transmission was sent–to whom remains the big question.
  3. The kids accidentally unleashed some new experimental creature on the island, which will almost surely be a focus for the third season. (Is it a prototype Indoraptor or something else entirely?)

We have the pieces but I can’t see what this jigsaw puzzle is supposed to form. I’ll be interested to see what answers the show arrives at.

Young Justice

Young Justice (the TV show) has some pretty obvious parallels with The Clone Wars. They’re both animated series providing some fresh storytelling in established pop culture franchises. They’re both aimed at younger audiences, but they still provide long-form storytelling around a core team of protagonists with shifting and evolving relationships, and they both explore dark and mature subjects like death, loss, the risks of abandoning your principles in pursuit of victory, and alienation from people you care about. And they also had near-miraculous renewals from cancellation after years of fan lobbying. The Clone Wars ended its Cartoon Network run in 2013, and “The Lost Missions” of the sixth season were released on Netflix in March 2014, but that show didn’t return to the screen, this time on Disney+, until February of this year. Young Justice, in contrast, only got two seasons on Cartoon Network before cancellation, ending its run in March 2013, and it only got revived again for DC Universe in January 2019.

I don’t remember how I first came across Young Justice. It must have been on Netflix. I do remember binging its two available seasons and falling in love with its setting and characters. I’m a sucker for a show that provides a sense of built-in history from the start. We didn’t have to stick around for an origin story of one or two heroes before the show could broaden its focus to bring more in. Instead, we jump right into a setting where Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Speedy have already been fighting crime for their hero mentors for a few years. Rather than spending time on how they got into these roles, the show kicks off with a moment of setback and disappointment for the sidekicks: they think they’re finally being inducted into the Justice League, but they quickly learn that they basically have honorary memberships at the public Hall of Justice, rather than true membership and access to full team resources and the top-secret Watchtower HQ. The show goes on to introduce characters from the comics, twists on those characters, and new creations entirely. We do see some heroes starting out, but it feels natural and organic, never like the seeds of a spinoff for a new series (looking at you, Arrowverse) but rather merely the result of new metahumans and other determined do-gooders taking up the mantle of superhero as they follow in the footsteps of those who came before them. We also see quite a number of personae from the comics appearing to pick up legacy identities–by the third season, there have been two heroes using the Flash identity, two as Kid Flash, three as Robin, three as Blue Beetle, and so on. Characters actually age, retire, die. Relationships are at the core of the show, even as the cast of young covert operatives working under what becomes The Team in the Justice League’s shadow continues to grow. Death of a hero is rare and quite permanent in most cases, and when a major team member dies in the second season, the fallout from that and characters’ efforts to move on (or cling on) becomes central to the emotional arc of the third season. Stakes matter; it’s not just soap opera melodramatics (again, looking at you, Arrowverse).

Now’s definitely the time to watch Young Justice if you haven’t already. I just re-binged seasons one and two and finally watched the third season for the first time now that it’s on HBO Max. DC Universe was too niche in its streaming content, and I read comics too rarely, to justify the continued subscription for me, so I dropped that before I’d had the opportunity to watch Young Justice: Outsiders there; having so much DC content rolled into HBO Max is excellent, and the breadth and depth of content in this streaming service makes it look likely to be the biggest rival to Disney+ moving forward, at least for my viewing time. So, if you subscribe to HBO Max for any other reason (its extensive collection of movies, including more classics than on most of the other big streaming services, or the back catalogue of HBO television series, or the original HBO Max content, or the availability of all Studio Ghibli films in one single streaming service, for instance), then you’re ready to watch Young Justice.

The third season continued the dramatic and mature storytelling of the earlier seasons. It also continued the show’s progress in substantially diversifying the cast. There are more and more female heroes and people of color, as well as people of varying cultural/ethnic backgrounds and even sexual and gender orientation. There are some stumbling blocks, though. Presumably because the return to DC Universe was meant to target hardcore Comic Book Fans in particular, the show’s become a little edgier, with more brutal violence. I was mostly okay with this, but one new hero, Halo, took the brunt of the violence, given her ability to resurrect after death. This meant watching several graphic depictions of her death again and again and again. It especially stuck out to me that this particular character was of Middle Eastern / North African decent (though her particular nationality is fictional), identified as nonbinary (I’m using female pronouns because she and her friends continued to do so), and continued to adhere to certain cultural traditions like wearing a hijab though she did not identify as Muslim in her unique post-empowerment identity. So we see this person of color, appearing female and identifying as nonbinary, and portrayed as culturally connected to Islam, killed repeatedly. That did not sit right with me. The story also introduced Cyborg, providing his origin story and having him go through a horrifically disfiguring accident and repeated rounds of excruciating pain before he could fully embrace his heroic identity. Building people of color into superheroes by repeatedly, graphically torturing them is a bad look and a bad trope and suggests that more diverse writers are needed in the writing room. At the same time, by the third season, we already had a large and diverse cast, and the third season itself continued to add an array of new characters with a variety of backgrounds. Heck, it even revealed this version of Aqualad, now Aquaman (and a person of color), to be bisexual, providing a surprising and welcome example of LGBTQ representation in the series.

The third season did manage to bring the story to new heights, wrestling with the fallout of the previous two seasons. I love that there’s always a time gap in between seasons, providing the characters time to respond to what has happened and grow, giving some space so that we can see clear developments whenever we return to them. The show doesn’t document everything, leaving plenty up to the imagination–and given that it didn’t start with an origin, this style of storytelling has been there from the beginning.

While there is still a core cast of characters–at this point, probably Dick Grayson (currently Nightwing), Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, Artemis Crock (currently retired), and Will Harper (that one’s completed)–each season brings more into the fold and explores characters otherwise left out of the spotlight. Zatanna has had a significant arc throughout the series, and Roy Harper has certainly had a complicated and important story in the background. Season two brought the focus to Blue Beetle, Impulse, and Beast Boy, while season three sent Geo-Force, Terra, Halo, Forager, Cyborg, and Black Lightning to the forefront. And that ignores a great number of characters who have significant supporting roles and who have their own full character arcs playing out in the background. The show also keeps bringing in interesting new takes on villains. In comparison to most of the antagonists, the Joker’s brief role in the show actually makes him one of the less-interesting characters, even compared to The Riddler, which is remarkable. The chaos agent in this show is Klarion the Witch Boy, an actual Lord of Chaos in this interpretation, and he’s so evil and yet so silly, truly chaotic and unpredictable. Klarion’s bizarre sayings are memorably iconic. “See you later, armadillos!” He’s just one villain, though. Most remarkably, Sportsmaster takes a major role as the chief enforcer for the big bads for much of the show; he’s the ex-husband of disabled former assassin Huntress, father of vigilante Artemis and assassin Cheshire, and a formidable foe who can go head-to-head with any of the heroes with strength, agility, cleverness, and an assorted toolkit of weaponry and gadgets that makes him something of a working-class and villainous Batman. Plenty of other villains weave in and out of the story, and as it goes on, it becomes clear that most are motivated by greed or vengeance or honor or a misguided belief that they are doing good for humanity, even if that means adhering to a harsh brand of Social Darwinism, while few (Klarion or Joker, for instance) are truly antisocial or psychopathic. The status quo keeps changing, and the show mines deep for characters to bring in as heroes, villains, rogue actors, and “normal” civilians.

The show itself is no longer static, either. Not only did we get that third season, but a fourth one is coming! I’m looking forward to it: flaws and all, Young Justice is my single-favorite version of the DC superhero setting.

The Mandalorian Season 2 Finale

[Warning: plenty of spoilers for The Mandalorian.]

I really rather enjoyed the finale of the second season of The Mandalorian. It was action-packed, it had some great tense sequences in which I was really dreading what would happen and entirely unsure of how it could be resolved, and then the ending was so bittersweet and hopeful, delivering some quiet character development. I thought it was a good cap to the season and, for that matter, to the overall story arc of the first couple of seasons, even while being a clear signal that future content is on the horizon.

Of course future content is on the horizon. Ten Star Wars series and a couple movies planned for the near future? That’s too much Star Wars! I’m not even keeping up on the books, and I gave up a couple years back on even trying to track the ever-increasing glut of comics being released for the new canon. Mixed feelings as usual here about this development: (1) more Star Wars gives more opportunities for new creators to dabble in the universe, for new stories to hook new fans, and for plenty of different characters and settings and subgenres so that everyone can probably find something they’ll like; (2) more Star Wars means that it will soon be unmanageable for most people to get a good footing in the universe, especially as it’s leaned more into MCU-esque winks for hardcore fans, like including Maul in Solo or Ahsoka in The Mandalorian, which at some point will surely begin to alienate people not already obsessed; (3) more Star Wars means I’ll have plenty to read and watch in my preferred sci-fi/fantasy setting, which is great, but it’s not so great to have me so insularly focused on one massive franchise when so much great independent sci-fi and fantasy has been and continues to be published; (4) more Star Wars means more talented writers writing for an existing property instead of exploring their own ideas, while also meaning that Star Wars becomes less of a thing defined by George Lucas’s vision and more of a bland product produced by committee; and (5) more Star Wars means that a monolithic corporation within the ever-narrowing band of oligarchic entertainment companies is going to tighten its grip even further by giving plenty of people reason to only watch/read/play/listen to (and thus pay for) its particular intellectual property, IP that in this case it just went out and bought after the fact rather than having any role in creating (as though IP law wasn’t already so corrupted toward longstanding corporate interests).

But enough of that. I actually just wanted to yell about Luke and Boba Fett.

Boba’s interactions with the “real” Mandalorians in the finale were fascinating. It’s easy to see why he remained such an isolationist outsider throughout his life, as he faced bigotry as a clone and a refusal by purists to accept him as a member of Mandalorian culture. Bo-Katan’s hostility toward his use of Mandalorian armor, despite his rightful claim to it, is somewhat ironic given her own wariness toward the extremist sect that Din belongs to. It’s interesting to see a lot of different Mandalorians in this diaspora all finding ways to identify themselves as “real” Mandalorians in the wake of the loss of their homeland, often creating identities in opposition to other ideas about what a Mandalorian can be. All that aside, that post-credits scene was some sweet Boba- and Fennec-badassery, and I am intrigued to see what The Book of Boba Fett does to further develop these characters. There are certainly plenty of subjects to explore. Why did Fett want his armor back now, and why did he not reclaim it earlier? Why was it important to him to claim Jabba’s palace? Does he plan to start his own criminal empire, or a new bounty hunter’s guild? Does he plot to build a coalition to retake Mandalore and rise as its ruler? Or perhaps does he want to assemble a warrior society of his own, an outsider group that rejects the formalistic traditions of Mandalorian culture? And now that he’s more of a team player and working with others, does he make any attempt to reconcile with the “friends” and mentors he’s had in the past, like Bossk or Dengar? I’ve never been great at speculation, so who knows if the story even follows any of those leads, but I’ll be interested to see what they do. Boba’s still not my favorite character, but I like this take on an honor-bound, brutal warrior who seems to be doing a tightrope walk of reflecting on and honoring his father’s heritage while facing and accepting rejection from the culture his father was raised in.

Then there’s Luke. It’s incredible that they really brought Luke into the show as the Jedi to respond to Grogu’s call. It was also incredible fan service to finally show Luke at the height of his powers, easy dismantling a platoon of super-soldier droids after we’d seen a single one of these Dark Troopers nearly pummel Din to death. I haven’t particularly been interested in the Disney Gallery series for The Mandalorian, but I’d love to see some behind-the-scenes discussion of how they got Mark Hamill’s younger voice and likeness spot-on for his appearance. Obviously most of the time, he was silent and hooded, and it’s not hard to figure out that you’d have a stunt double in any sort of sequence like that, but we have some extended periods where Luke is interacting with the Mandalorian posse.

Will we see more of this younger Luke? Will we finally see him starting his own Jedi Academy? I’d love to get more of that story. It’ll be interesting to see where Grogu goes; I suspect that, like Ahsoka, the little guy will find a way to escape the upcoming Jedi Purge (just as he did the original, come to think of it). And, though this is somewhat surprising to me, I’m really eager to see not just what comes of the potential conflict between Din and Bo-Katan, but also what exactly Boba Fett is up to.

Terra Nova deserves a fresh start

Every now and then, I think to myself that it would be nice to see Terra Nova returned or rebooted. You might not remember, or even heard of, Terra Nova. It existed for a brief while in 2011. I remember quite a lot of buzz for the expensive production, time-traveling shenanigans in the plot, dinosaurs, and involvement of Steven Spielberg as executive producer and Stephen Lang in a role that was basically a more mysterious, less evil version of his character in Avatar. Despite that, it became a convoluted mess that was cancelled after a single season, after a total of 13 episodes.

The basic premise was cool: humanity now lives in a worsening environmental apocalypse of its own making, but a new hope arises when scientists discover a way to travel into an alternative past corresponding to the Cretaceous Period. As far as anyone knows, you can go back, but you’re stuck there. They’ve been able to verify that activity in this other time stream does not affect the present, so there are no A Sound of Thunder ramifications to worry about. Humanity has a second chance at a future by going to a past that preexisted us. There are a variety of ecological threats to worry about from the native flora and fauna, but there’s just as much tension in the conflict between the cult-like loyalists to Lang’s militaristic compound leader and the rebel cell that splintered off from the main group and disappeared into the jungles.

What great potential! (And one utilized elsewhere since as an RPG setting.) Unfortunately, the show tried to be something for everyone. While the above would have been more than enough for several seasons of television, elements of different genres were cobbled together to try to catch as many eyes as possible from the start. The central viewpoint characters are a family escaping from the future to live a life free from its population-control laws (mom and dad had a third child). The hot-head father becomes top lawman to the colony leader. The mother is a doctor much needed by the community. The three kids, ranging from teens to a plucky young child, have their own assorted adventures. Focus could shift episode to episode, and even within a single episode you might have teen relationship angst intermingled with a prehistoric murder investigation. The two-parter first episode jumps between the complicated politics of the future and the past, the awe-inspiring nature of the prehistoric world, and some bizarrely low-budget teen slasher horror (literally, the dromaeosaurs in the show are called “slashers”). Within this oh-so-short first season, we even have a former love interest to come between the mother and father (never mind that they love each other so much, they staged an elaborate escape into the past just to preserve their nuclear family). On top of this, the conflict between the colony and its rogue faction is played up for maximum mystery, creating a more convoluted and opaque interrelationship than necessary and setting up a bizarre situation in which the officially sanctioned colony represents more of an isolationist, eco-friendly group while the rebels are actually working for the corporate interests controlling access to the time stream.

I haven’t watched the show in years because I know its flaws too well. Jumbled plot and mismanaged tones aside, it manages to look like over-produced yet still unconvincing television. The dinosaurs in particular look like obvious digital inserts, easily topped by the computer graphics, animatronics, and puppets used to bring Jurassic Park to life 18 years before this show. The dialogue and some of the performances could be just as unbelievable. Even if you can sit through it, you’ll be disappointed with an ending that sets up even more mysteries and leaves plenty of loose ends to never be resolved.

But, again, that premise is incredible! I’d love to see a show that doubles down on the premise, that focuses on a colony eking out a frontier existence in a world it should never have been a part of. The combination of post-apocalyptic politicking, prehistoric creatures, and environmental themes provides storytelling favorably comparable to Xenozoic. And the parallel-time-stream-traveling offers a unique explanation for how humans and dinosaurs could coexist, outside of the cloning route of Jurassic Park or the techno-magic implications of Xenozoic or The Dinosaur Lords.

If I were given the choice to continue or reboot Terra Nova, I think I’d do a prequel-as-reboot by focusing on the second generation of colonists to arrive. The colony is barely established, so there’s plenty of work still to be done in getting things running smoothly, but we have an outsider’s perspective to follow among the new arrivals, an outsider who finds this functioning community so devoted to the mythic figure of a former military man who managed to survive by himself for months before anyone else arrived. I wouldn’t mind a family focus at the center, but no bloated backstory. And if you go the family route, I’d rather the family actually be bonded so that they want to support each other and we have people to clearly root for. Teens will be teens, but the level of unnecessary drama combined with bad dialogue made it difficult to care about the cast of characters. By having the story start in the early days of the colony, we don’t have any rebel cell or mystery corporate interests; the central drama would simply be dealing with this totally alien world. You could bring in tension as later arrivers gradually grow resentful of the iron fist of the compound leader. That in and of itself is enough of a reason for a faction to revolt, without shady corporate tactics involved. I think a more interesting divide would be between those who believe they have the right to continue this colony and others who come to believe that this is still unnecessarily exploitative, with humanity following a path that will eventually doom this world too; perhaps they want to destroy any presence of a colony at all, or perhaps they want a way to teleport everyone back to the future and to shut down the time stream for good. Terra Nova dabbled with the idea that maybe our protagonists were working for the bad guy, but it eventually backed away from this, doubling down on the idea that the rebels were dishonest and basically evil. I’d push the cast-aside idea further; it’s not that the leader is evil, but he enjoys the control he has, and he has a settler mentality, intent on exploiting this world even without a clear corporate beneficiary.

Sure, if you could get past the rebooted season, you could layer on additional plot points. You could tell adventure and exploration stories, war stories, time travel stories, stories of corporate greed. You could have plenty of interesting real and speculative prehistoric plants and animals. You could run in a variety of directions, even time jump to set up a society that is more entrenched, to follow different characters. Heck, you could evolve from a rough-and-tumble frontier to a sprawling metropolis at the center of linked communities, complete with Dinotopia-style human-dinosaur symbiosis. But if you try to do too much too early, you don’t have likeable characters, and you keep throwing on more elaborate and unnecessary mysteries, you’re going to tank any show. Terra Nova already proved that. I wish that the premise had another chance, though.

Mando 2.2-2.3

I don’t think I’m going to do episode-by-episode reactions for this season of The Mandalorian, but I’m loving the new season so far. The newly introduced characters are fun (especially Frog Lady), and I was stoked to see the returning characters from other Mandalorian-themed Star Wars projects. I’m super-eager to see the character now sure to enter the series by the end of this season after a name drop in Chapter 11, and I like the tight focus on a clear quest that this season has, with a concrete end goal for Din Djarin.

I’m finding that my reactions so far are reinforced by larger fan chatter, so I just don’t feel especially compelled to post a reaction each time that’s in line with what everyone else is more or less saying. The big topic right now still seems to be the egg-eating from Chapter 10. For what it’s worth, I thought it was darkly humorous but also quite troubling, as even unfertilized, they were still the spawn of a sentient species. (While I think diverse writers’ rooms are important, I’m a little confused that this is being used as an example of the problems of an all-male writers’ room because I don’t think sensitivity about fertility/reproduction or violence against fellow sentient beings is something unique to non-cis/hetero men–after all, while I know this sounds like “not all men,” I still have to point out that these are issues I tend to be sensitive about!) Chapter 11 gives the Child the opportunity to gain a little bit of a new perspective, not only literally getting consumed like an egg in a terrifying moment of danger but also spending some pleasant quality time with the Frog Family and their new tadpole. I thought that latter element was sweet, redemptive, and a good opportunity for the kiddo to gain some needed empathy to contrast with all the violence Din regularly exposes them to.

I imagine this is another topic already heavily covered, but I am also glad to see the show finally acknowledge and explain the rift in Mandalorian cultures that has produced such an extremist sect with its fundamentalist values. The comparison to the development of real-world religious extremism among oppressed and marginalized minority groups is obvious. It’s kind of funny to me that Din was so deeply taken in by this cult and isolated from alternative worldviews that he didn’t even realize he was in an extremist cult, or that there were other sorts of Mandalorians! We’ve already seen moments in which he clearly wrestled with the hardline code of the Watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him remove his helmet by the end of this season. Conveniently, Din’s involvement in what amounts to a hardcore cult in backwater systems of the Outer Rim also explains why he’s relatively ignorant about the Jedi, a religious order that is all-too-familiar to the more mainstream Mandalorians.

That’s all I have to say for now. But if I find something else I’d like to discuss in future episodes, you can bet I’ll share it!

The Mandalorian Returns: 2.1

Okay, yes, no “post” this “weekend” but I’d been so caught up with work and the conference that I’d forgotten The Mandalorian Season 2 started today and now I’ve watched the first episode and I’m all excited.

Good start. Good score. Good cinematography. Lots of good tension-building and quite a good bit of levity. Good Baby Yoda. Good balance of new and returning characters (I love the return of Amy Sedaris’s character).

Most of the rest of the stuff I loved consists of spoilers. So I guess watch the episode first? I just want to holler about it, real quick.

I am impressed and a little surprised that they actually kept the Cobb Vanth story from the Aftermath books. Maybe that’d been confirmed before the new season’s airing, but I haven’t been paying attention. And it’s not exactly the same Cobb Vanth that we see from Aftermath. The story’s a little different. Two tellings, two different versions. Is the version presented in Aftermath the “truer” version, or is Cobb’s story to Din Djarin as told in flashbacks in this episode the right one? It doesn’t really matter. (Wookieepedia, true to form, attempts to force together a single narrative, but I don’t think it quite makes sense and is unnecessary.) Timothy Olyphant is a great casting choice. I love Timothy Olyphant in what I see him in, but I’ve not seen the things he’s probably best known for–that’d be Justified and Deadwood, right? I should change that.

I loved this version of Cobb. I loved his developing relationship with the Mandalorian. I loved that they parted ways with Din having yet another ally to call on if needed. I loved the moment when Mando whacks Cobb’s jetpack and he flails off in a briefly comical echo of Boba Fett’s demise.

I loved seeing further personification and complexity applied to the Tusken Raiders. I loved the Western vibes. I’m a little over Tatooine, but if they can maybe stop coming back here all the time, I’ll have loved what they did with it, how they made it familiar yet fresh, shown from a different angle.

I loved the mysterious appearance of Temuera Morrison at the end. Is he Boba Fett, surviving as a lone wanderer in the Tatooine wastes? Is he some other Fett clone who just so happens to have taken up residence in Boba’s presumed final resting place? How will he connect to the larger events in the show?

I learned over last season to just let the show build at its own pace. It’ll get to where it wants to go in time, and it’ll surely surprise me with how it uses the foundations it’s set up along the way–things and people and places I didn’t even realize were supposed to be foundational.

Bottom line: I love that Mando’s back!