The big Hollywood blockbuster science fiction adventure is often used as the canary bird to judge the atmosphere or state of the genre. Taken as representative of the whole by the multitude of dabblers (used non-perjoratively), such movies are a shorthand easily referenced to denounce or applaud the genre while some truly great stuff floats by unnoticed. The bright shiny objects that are the summer blockbusters such as Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, Oz the Great and Powerful (ly awful!), Jack the Giant Slayer, Snow White and the Huntsman (how he should have succeeded!), etc are very distracting, so here are a few shows that may have slipped below your radar.
Without the massive marketing campaigns of the big films, many television series go unwatched, and, as audience size determines value and importance, are dismissed. Yet, television is the place to find some great SFF as producers are able to take risks and avoid kowtowing to the generics of mass-market appeal.
So, without further ado or to-do or whatever, here are a couple of cool SFF series you may want to check out:
This is weird, like really weird, yet not in a ‘I took some LSD and nothing makes sense anymore/Naked Lunch’ kind of weird. This is the great strangeness of normal life distorted and made unrecognisable by the revelation that there are things afoot and everything you understood, the safety you felt are all incredibly frail and can be taken away.
Utopia follows several characters as they come into contact with a graphic novel titled ‘The Utopia Experiments’, which is the sequel to a cult graphic novel from years before. The events depicted within the pages suddenly appear prophetic, and they need to find the missing pages. A secret organisation begins to hunt them down.
Filmed using an over-saturation of colour everything appears hyper-real as do the events. The opening scene is one of the most shocking I’ve ever watched and it continues in the same vein from there. Utopia has been criticised for its violence, but I think it is vital to the theme and success of the series. This beginning introduces the core conflict: “Where is Jessica Hyde?” and as the series progresses that question becomes one you anticipate with stomach clenching anxiety because it usually foreshadows some incredibly brutal scenes. The main henchman of ‘The Network’ who is looking for the missing pages is called Arby and he wheezes as he walks slowly hunting down his targets with the pace of an 80s horror monster. With the same sense of inevitability.
Familiar surroundings take on ominous overtones: a casual drink at home becomes ultra-threatening, sources of reassurance and safety are exposed as unreliable, every character has hidden motivations that are slowly revealed. This plays with idea of duality that’s intrinsic in the concept of Utopia – that there must always be a hidden dystopia: heaven must have hell.
The characters go through more development and growth in six episodes than most do in six seasons. The conspiracy nut, Wilson, begins as a paranoid hermit intent on exposing the truth of the ‘villains’ yet as he learns more, he questions whether or not those villains may be right after all. The series villain is ‘Mr. Rabbit’ and is one of the creepiest characters you’ll ever hear about, because you only ever meet Mr. Rabbit in the last episode, so it’s all hearsay and rumour until that point.
Utopia’s six episodes are brilliant and definitely worth a watch. A second season is in the works!
The trailer for season one:
The Returned (Les Revenants)
This French series is about a small town in France where strange things begin to happen.
The dead are returning to life, except they appear without any memory of having died and look the same as they did when they died. With sub-titles, a slow pace and a large cast of characters with multiple plot lines intersecting it takes some concentration but is well worth it.
From the beginning the sense of something being wrong, a dissonance between what is being shown on screen and what you feel is happening, is established by great visuals and a creepy soundtrack. A figure walking down the street or a little boy looking out the window suddenly become images of dreadful significance.
Although the primary focus is on twin sisters, Lena and Camille, each episode tells the story of another of the returned and all their stories are dark and involve the living somehow. Lena and Camille are twins, but now separated by four years of physical growth and the still young Camille is confused and frightened what she sees as the drastic changes to a life that was hers only that morning, but that morning was four years previously…
One of those who comes back is Victor a dark-haired young boy who doesn’t talk and is possibly the creepiest character I’ve encountered in a long time. Yet, all of the characters are well-developed and feature enough that you begin to care about them and learn their pasts and how they all tie together. It’s incredibly well plotted and written. And as the series progresses stranger things begin to happen such as the town’s dam water level mysteriously dropping, strange marks appearing on peoples bodies and, of course, more dead arriving.
This is a great series that will get you hooked quickly, just don’t try to figure it out as you will almost always be wrong. Each episode is a revelation and you’ll want to keep watching more.
A second season is being released in 2014.
The trailer for season one:
Continuum follows the character of Keira Cameron a police officer from 2077 who is transported back in time to 2012 when a group of terrorists are about to be executed but escape using a time travel device. With the help of the local police she begins hunting them down and discovers that she is involved in a conspiracy that spans decades and people from her own time are involved. In 2077 the corporations have replaced the government and everyone’s lives are strictly regimented with Big Brother-esque technology. To her this is normal and makes for a safe and stable society. She is technically on the side of what we would consider the ‘bad guys’ yet from her perspective they are not.
Kiera is a complex character who believes in her cause and just wants to go home to see her husband and child. Her being a mother is a defining aspect of her character as she has to question everything she does and the possible effects it has on her own timeline. If she changes anything her family and future could cease to exist, but at the same time she has to do certain things to stop the terrorists from changing events in 2012 that would affect the future as well.
This show doesn’t give you any easy answers and it’s not always clear who to root for. Much of each episode is from the perspective of the so-called terrorists, who do some violent and unconscionable acts, but at the same time you understand why and what they’re doing. The show deals with themes relevant to the real world such as corporate greed, fiscal irresponsibility and environmental damage. As the show progresses there are no clear villains or heroes and by the end of season two I was amazed where the story ended up and how the characters had changed.
I was sceptical at first as I’ve never been a fan of time travel stories, but this one was great.
Here’s the trailer:
No one puts characters in a box to reveal their dark sides like Stephen King. Based on his book, but diverging more as the series continues, Under the Dome is the story of Chester’s Mill. A perfect town with ordinary residents living mundane lives. Until the day a mysterious dome comes down and locks them in a hermetically sealed bubble from which there is no escape.
As the characters deal with this event in various ways, they are forced to examine themselves and each other as increasingly difficult challenges arise. From food supplies, to crime, to order and government, what happens when people are left to their own devices and can act as they see fit to ensure their survival while there are few consequences for those actions?
Chester’s Mill has secrets and so do each of the characters and as these are revealed violence erupts as people will do anything to protect those secrets. This is a ongoing theme in all King’s work. People are not static; they have histories and those pasts affect their present. Without using flashbacks, Under the Dome slowly reveals the true heart of the town and its people, while several characters learn more about the Dome and their connection to it. As usual there are some good characters, some evil characters and those who you can never quite be sure of.
This series is not really epic and I doubt it will go down as one of the great shows of SFF, but it’s definitely interesting, has great characters, an interesting story and is well worth a watch.
Here’s the trailer for season one:
I’ve just watched the first episode, but it looks good so far. It’s about a woman who discovers she has identical twins walking around. Except they’re not twins. They’re all clones…
Watch the trailer here:
Also, if you may not have heard of a series called Doctor Who. Yeah, you should check that one out as well.
Coming soon: Reviews of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a recap of some great tv series that were cancelled before their time…