Netflix’s “Away” Is Both The Best And Worst I’ve Seen In A Long Time

I developed a rating system for my TV and movie reviews ranging all the way from “worthless” up to “must-see” with varying degrees of recommendation in between. For once I find myself completely torn as to what rating idea new Netflix sci-fi series “Away”. In some ways it deserves most of these ends of my scale. It deserves my worst rating of “worthless” as well as my best rating of “must-see”. If Charles Dickens was writing this review he would say “It was the best of shows. It was the worst of shows.”

Hilary Swank leads an international cast as astronaut Emma Green as the commander of the first mission to Mars. I could ask “Do we really need another ‘First mission to Mars’ TV series?” Considering that in 2018 we had the Hulu series “The First” starring Sean Penn and 2 seasons of a National Geographic series “Mars” it seems like this has been done before. However both of those series suffered from problems that I won’t go into here. So I was anxious to see how Netflix handled the topic.

In the first 10 to 15 minutes of the first episode I knew we were in trouble. The story was revealed in a strange series of flashbacks (or was it flash forwards? At first we couldn’t tell which) about some sort of accident on board the Atlas spacecraft. The confusing storytelling eventually evened out but the scientific errors piled on one after the other. I’m not talking about the nitpicky kinds of things that Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets about. I’m talking about really stupid plot holes and really bad science that even a non-sci-fi fan would spot in an instant.

At this point I should probably issue a spoiler warning because I’m going to talk about plot.

In the opening episode we finally sort out the fact that the accident scenes were a flashback of an incident that happened on the journey from Earth to the moon which was the first step on the Mars journey. The fact that they stopped off at the moon before proceeding to Mars was probably the only scientifically accurate part of the entire story. When we finally do go to Mars we will probably launch from the moon or perhaps lunar orbit. There are scenes where investigators are interviewing the five member crew about the incident and we get a Rashomon-like series of explanations in which everyone saw the same event differently.

During these interviews we find out there is great dissension among the five-member crew and a great deal of distrust of Hilary Swank’s ability to command the mission. They say that the crew has been training together for 2 years and you would’ve thought that if there was that much distrust of the commander it would’ve been uncovered before now and dealt with either by replacing her or other crewmembers. It’s just totally not credible that such a dysfunctional group would be picked for such an important mission.

Much of the story centers on Swank’s character Emma Green who leaves behind a husband Matt and 15-year-old daughter Alexis for this three-year mission to Mars. The husband is played by Josh Charles who is most remembered for his role as Will Gardner in “The Good Wife”. Matt is a former astronaut who was grounded for medical reasons. He has a hereditary disease that makes him prone to a stroke. He serves as a chief engineer for the mission in mission control and knows everything about the spacecraft inside out. Suddenly just before departure from the moon to Mars he suffers a massive stroke. Now Commander Green has to decide if she should drop out of the mission to deal with her family or to go on and fulfill her own dreams. Ultimately with support from Matt and her daughter she proceeds with the mission. We have to wonder if she would be given such a choice in a real-life circumstance. Of course this only further aggravates the crew’s doubts as to whether or not she can stay focused as an effective leader.

Shortly after departure from the moon (with some really bad special-effects on the rocket plume) one of their three solar panels fails to unfold completely. If they can’t get the solar panel fixed they will all die in route to Mars. This is another in a long list of things that just wouldn’t happen on a real mission. You don’t design a spaceship with no backup or no redundancy. If you had three solar panels you would have design things so that you can complete the mission with just two panels. If you really needed three you would have put four of them on the spacecraft. They didn’t even take the time to explain away this decision citing budget cuts or any of the other usual cliché reasons why your vehicle fails whether it’s the Titanic or a rocket to Mars. Later in the series their water recycling equipment breaks down and this time they do have a backup. But the backup is insufficient to do the job. Why the hell would you bother to put in a backup that couldn’t do it? A critical system like this on a real spacecraft would be fully redundant. It was just insane. All of this takes my dreaded “plot driven technology” to an extreme I’ve never seen in any movie or TV show before.

Some of the ridiculous plot holes and bad science don’t require you to be knowledgeable to spot. The center core of the ship remains in zero gravity but the crew quarters are at the end of 2 long rotating arms which generate artificial gravity and thus saving lots of money on special-effects. One of the minor plot points was that the Russian astronaut had a hobby of building puppets and performing puppet shows for his grandchildren. At one point in the story they are about to be so distant from Earth that videoconferencing is impossible so he wants to put on one last puppet show for the grandkids. The puppets he uses are marionettes hanging from strings. But he performs the puppet show in the zero gravity part of the spacecraft! How do you hang and manipulate a puppet on a string when there is no gravity. At the end of the puppet show he releases the strings that allows the puppets to float free. It’s just insane.

Speaking of the communication with Earth issues, when you are at the moon it takes approximately 1.5 seconds for a radio transmission to reach the moon. If you answer instantly, the other person doesn’t receive the reply until another 1.5 seconds. There should be an annoying three second delay in any live conversation. But by some miracle they seem to be able to communicate instantly as if you were phoning someone next-door. This instantaneous communication is a standard violation of physics that many sci-fi movies and TV shows tend to do. Most notably in the 2017 teen romance “The Space between Us” in which a boy from Mars falls in love with a girl on earth and they are able to communicate instantaneously despite the distance. So I’m thinking they’re going to abandon that particular bit of physics for the sake of storytelling. But no… They get about halfway to Mars and suddenly there is a communications delay of 20 minutes. It just happens all of a sudden. We’ve got to get our last instantaneous video messages back to our loved ones on earth before the distance gets too great. From that point forward they limit everything to text messages, emails, and audio attachments to emails. You can’t just ignore physics for half of the movie and then turn it back on again when it’s more convenient to create tension in the story.

So if this series is such a scientific nightmare, why did I watch all 10 episodes in one day? It’s because the characters are absolutely amazing. You really get to know each character in various episodes where we get their entire back story from their childhood up until the start of the mission. The drama is real and not nearly as contrived as the science. The acting of the entire cast is absolutely phenomenal. You expect good things out of people like Swank and Charles but the other characters in the international crew who are not known to me from other work turn in great performances and have really compelling, emotional character arcs throughout the series. Of special note is the performance by Talitha Eliana Bateman who was unknown to me but has appeared in a number of films and TV series. I was very impressed with her.

I could’ve written pages and pages about ridiculous plot holes not even including more pages of ridiculous scientific errors. But as a human story about compelling characters told in engaging and emotional ways this is an absolutely amazing miniseries I could highly recommend.

I feel so disappointed that that much effort went into creating such interesting characters and a heartfelt compelling back stories performed so beautifully yet so little effort was put into creating a credible plot and even a marginally accurate bit of sci-fi.

Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we have self-consistent plots and good science along with compelling drama? It’s such a shame.

The Apple TV+ alternate history sci-fi series “For All Mankind” did a pretty good job in its opening season but nobody watches Apple TV+ unless they got it free when buying an iPhone or iPad like I did. And unfortunately the trailer for season 2 already shows some bad science.

So I’m giving this series a dual rating. If you want well written, deep, well acted characters that will pull at your heartstrings and keep you wanting more then this gets a very strong rating of “Must-See”. But if you insist on a reasonably well-crafted plot with any degree of scientific accuracy then I also have to give it a very strong rating of “Worthless”.

When I watched it yesterday, Netflix said it was trending #2 in the US. Today it just says “Top 10”. The ending left the door open for another season. I don’t know whether I should wish for one or not.

Medical Drama “Transplant” Isn’t about Transplants and That’s the Only Interesting Thing about It.

NBC is desperate for content considering production on fall TV series is just starting and the first new episodes won’t be available until October or November. To fill the gap they purchased the rights to Canadian medical drama “Transplant”. On numerous occasions in this blog I’ve asked the question “Do we really need another medical drama?” And with rare exceptions the answer is no. Fortunately our organs are working just fine and we don’t really need a “Transplant”.

The main character is Bashir Hamed, a Syrian refugee who has been accepted to live in Canada under their refugee assistance program. He’s accompanied by his preteen sister Amira. They have transplanted their lives fleeing the Syrian Civil War to live in Canada. The show has nothing to do with medical transplants.

In the opening episode he’s working as a short order cook in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Toronto. Suddenly a semi truck crashes into the front of the restaurant injuring him and 4 other people. He manages to pull himself together and remove some shards of glass from his abdomen and then proceeds to help the other victims. One is a 50 something-year-old woman who is in full cardiac arrest and he beats on her chest and gives her CPR. Another is his friend who I believe owns the restaurant and he’s got blood behind his eyeball so Bashir cuts the corner of his eye socket to relieve the pressure. Then he moves on to a man with a fractured skull and a blown pupil so he gets a power drill and drills a hole into the man’s temple to relieve the pressure. He doesn’t have time to treat his other friend who has a dislocated arm.

The next scene shows him waking up in the ER with all of the other victims after having been transported there. No one knows that he had performed all of these procedures on the victims because the guy with a hole in his head was actually Dr. Jed Bishop the head of the ER at that hospital. They presumed that Dr. Bishop had performed all of the procedures including drilling a hole in his own head.

That’s a pretty exciting and interesting beginning of a TV show but it falls apart quickly after that. Despite the insistence that he stay on the hospital gurney and wait for further treatment, he keeps getting up and wandering around the ER looking for someone. It turns out he’s looking for a friend who was also injured in the accident. We never do quite understand their relationship. I think they are roommates. We do discover that his friend doesn’t have immigration papers. They eventually meet up and he puts the friend’s dislocated shoulder back in place. Then he goes in search of his kid sister who is missing. She has gone to the hospital looking for her brother because she heard about the accident on TV.

The police investigating the crash are trying to determine who is the driver of the truck. Because Bashir is obviously Middle Eastern and is behaving erratically the police become a highly suspicious of him. I get the idea that we are supposed to be sympathetic towards this Syrian refugee who obviously has rad medical skills but is working as a fry cook. We are supposed to be appalled at the idea that they assume he’s some sort of terrorist who deliberately drove the truck into the restaurant.

But it’s hard to be sympathetic towards Bashir when he is behaving so irrationally and suspiciously. If he was an ordinary All-American (or I guess all Canadian in this case) white guy behaving like he was behaving he still would have been a prime suspect. The whole thing just seemed totally irrational.

We get introduced to other ER doctors trying to treat the patients and solve the mysteries. They finally figure out that he is the one who did all of the procedures. He still runs around the place acting suspiciously and drawing attention to himself eventually getting himself handcuffed to a gurney by the police until they can finally find the real driver of the vehicle. Apparently his brakes failed, he jumped from the vehicle and got run over by it. They release Bashir. By then I don’t care anymore.

Dr. Bishop miraculously recovers from his brain bleed and is sitting up in bed shouting orders to residents in a matter of hours which is totally ridiculous. Then he asked that Bashir come in to visit him after hearing the story of how he saved him and the other victims. It turns out that Bashir had applied for a job in the hospital and been turned down by Bishop. Dr. Bishop decides to reinterview him giving him a second chance and that wraps up the pilot episode.

We really don’t learn anything more in that first episode about where or how he got his medical training. From other reviews and a Wikipedia article I’ve learned that he was a trauma doctor during the Syrian Civil War. His credentials aren’t any good in Canada where he has now “transplanted” his life and so he is going to end up serving as an ER resident in the hospital.

Dr. Bishop’s magical recovery shows us that we are not going to get credibly accurate medicine in this series. We only briefly get introduced to the other characters but they already come off as stereotypes. One is the perky young female resident who tries too hard to make a good impression. Another is a driven surgical resident who is out to compete with everyone and has a chip on her shoulder. Bishop is a hard-nosed, grumpy but brilliant doctor who is worshiped like a God by the other personnel in the hospital. By the way Dr. Bishop is the only actor I recognized. He is played by the Scottish actor John Hannah who did a couple of seasons of “Agents of SHIELD” as Holden Radcliffe but I remember him most as the character Batiatus from the
“Spartacus: Blood and Sand”
TV series.

Unless you are just desperate for the heartwarming struggles of a Middle Eastern refugee trying to make it in the big bad Western world you would do better to watch Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Doctor,
Chicago Med
, or just about any other medical drama on TV. I’m giving it a solid rating of “Skip It“.

“Raised by Wolves” Is More Than Just Another Android Babysitter Story.

The HBO Max streaming service just released a new 10 episode sci-fi series by Ridley Scott titled “Raised by Wolves”. It’s described as the story of human children who are raised on an alien planet by a pair of androids named “Father” and “Mother”. This of course invites comparisons to the 2019 Netflix film “I Am Mother” starring Hilary Swank and Rose Byrne in which an android mother raises a human child.

Wolves however the much more complicated and nuanced story. The premise is there was a war between religious zealots called the Mithraic and atheists. The war ends up leaving earth uninhabitable. An atheist scientist sends two androids to planet Kepler-22b with 12 human embryos. They are programmed to raise and nurture the human children and to be strictly atheist. Meanwhile the Mithraic survivors have created a giant spaceship called the Ark of Heaven with thousands of colonists headed for the same planet. When they arrive, our android friends have only managed to raise one of the children. The others either failed at birth or died of some strange illness.

I’ve seen the first three episodes which are available now with a total of ten coming this season.

While we expect from the first episode that it’s going to be the story of the androids raising the kids, in the next two episodes the narrative also includes a Mithraic couple named Marcus and Sue who have a young son of their own. Marcus is played by Travis Fimmel whose most notable role was as Ragnar Lothbrok on the History Channel series “Vikings”.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn more about Marcus and Sue. We learn of their role in the war on earth and how they came to gain passage on the Ark to the new planet. We also learn some secrets about the origins of the androids especially Mother. Without giving things away I will just say there are a number of “things are not what they seem” plot points to make it especially interesting.

It’s not really clear which side are the bad guys and which side are the good guys. We aren’t always exactly certain who to root for. That makes the story even more interesting because nothing is strictly black-and-white. There are lots of shades of gray.

By the way, Mithraism or the Mithraic Mysteries as it is sometimes known, was a real religion practiced in the first through fourth centuries. Mostly practiced around the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire it involved worship of a deity Mithra which was loosely based on worship of a Persian deity by the same name. The religion was popular among the Roman army. According to my friend retired Marian University history professor Dr. Jim Divita, it is believed that some of the initiation rites for the religion required hand-to-hand combat. So it can be seen why it would be popular among the troops and never got much widespread acceptance elsewhere. It was sort of a rival religion to early Christianity. In the fourth century as Christianity gained dominance it pretty much wiped out Mithraism. In this show, their version of the Mithraic religion focuses on the God Sol (the sun). In the actual religion Mithra is depicted as having a dinner banquet with the God Sol but there’s no indication that the sun God was their primary deity. Rather it was Mithra himself. For more on the religion check out this article on Wikipedia.

Mithraism on Wikipedia

Shot on location in barren areas of South Africa the planet looks sufficiently alien to be credible. The special-effects are state-of-the-art. The detailed world building in the series is fascinating and credible without much if any plot driven technology. “Plot driven technology” is my term for some piece of science or gadgetry that works that way just because the plot needed it to. It’s one of my pet peeves. The acting is top-notch. I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

I’m giving it a really strong rating of “I really like it” and if you are a fan of science fiction with some politics and religion thrown in then I highly recommend it. This is assuming of course you have access to HBO Max. Check your cable provider because it may be if you already subscribed to HBO you might be able to get HBO Max for free. I’m on Spectrum in Indianapolis and I’m getting it as part of my HBO/Cinemax subscription on cable.

“Lovecraft Country” Brilliantly Mixes the Horrors of Racism and Supernatural Monsters

H.P. Lovecraft is a renowned author of many works of horror and fantasy who is most known for his creation of what became the “Cthulhu Mythos” about a group of ancient powerful deities from space who once ruled the earth. Other authors have taken up that same universe of characters and creatures to create their own horror stories and Lovecraft himself has been a character in many other works of fiction. So it is no wonder that author Matt Ruff would you take up the legacy of Lovecraft in his dark fantasy horror novel “Lovecraft Country“. That novel has been turned into a new HBO series of the same name. The series was created by Misha Green known for the TV series Underground and a former writer for Sons of Anarchy. It also has executive producers Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams.

The main theme of both the novel and the TV series is mistreatment of African-Americans in the 1950s. It is ironic because Lovecraft is well known as a racist whose works including two highly racist poems “New-England Fallen” and “On the Creation of N—–s”. (N-word deletion by me).

Despite Lovecraft’s racism, Ruff builds his story around a fan of Lovecraft and sci-fi in general who happens to be African-American. The story depicts the brutal circumstances that African-Americans endure to survive in the Jim Crow era. In one scene our main character Atticus “Tic” Freeman is describing the plot of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ “John Carter of Mars” series to another black woman. She surprised to hear that the hero of that story was an ex-Confederate officer. She complained “He fought for slavery. You don’t get to put “ex” in front of that.” Atticus replies “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish ’em, overlook their flaws.” I see that as author Ruff’s justification for appreciating Lovecraft’s stories and weird creatures despite the author’s racism.

As a personal aside, I sort of take the same approach to sci-fi author Orson Scott Card whose radical conservative politics and anti-gay stance doesn’t stop me from appreciating his works as long as those works don’t seem to reflect those beliefs. I can still despise Mel Gibson and abhor his anti-Semitism while enjoying his films. I suppose that’s easy for me because I’m a straight, white, Christian and I do not take personal offense at homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism even though I abhor them. Author Ruff is also white so perhaps it’s easier for him to create a black character who can look past Lovecraft’s racism and enjoy the stories while facing life-threatening racism in his everyday life.

In the first episode of the HBO series, Atticus connects up with his uncle George Barry who is the author/editor of a guidebook for traveling African-Americans similar to the famous “Green Book”. Atticus has heard that his father Montrose Freeman has gone missing. Atticus and Uncle George go on a road trip in search of his father and to make more installments in the Green Book. There are accompanied by his friend Letitia “Leti” Lewis.

Atticus is played by Jonathan Majors whom I’ve never seen before. Uncle George is played by Courtney B. Vance known for “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and for playing Johnny Cochran in “American Crime Story“. Leti is played by Jurnee Smolett most recently seen as Dinah Lance/Black Canary in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey“. She is the sister of controversial former “Empire” star Jussie Smolett.

Clues left in a letter his father sent leads Atticus and friends to search rural Massachusetts in an area known as Lovecraft Country (an area which was the setting of many of Lovecraft’s stories). Along the way they pass through a number of so-called “sunset counties” which are racist areas where African Americans are warned “Don’t let the sunset while you are here”. It’s basically a sort of “The Purge” type of situation where after sundown, racists are given free reign to murder blacks.

The horror of the very real and deadly racism that they encounter is actually more terrifying than the worst of Lovecraft’s monsters. And by the way while being chased through the woods of rural Massachusetts by a lynch mob they run into some of those Lovecraft monsters. Notably they encounter several “shoggoth” described as a “massive bubble blob with hundreds of eyes”.

The special-effects of them being chased by these monsters and eventually cornered an abandoned cabin is a very well done state-of-the-art sequence. Lots of terror, blood, and gore. There are some amazing special-effects also in an opening dream sequence.

Overall the writing and acting are excellent. You really feel the terror in both the racist and supernatural monster sequences. I will be anxious to see what happens in the remaining 9 episodes. I’m giving it a strong rating of “I really like it” and suggest you check it out. The first episode will re-air throughout this week and is available on demand. The remaining episodes will air Sunday nights.

Late Night Comedy Does Work-from-Home

Last week both Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon attempted to put on a show with no audience. Both attempts were funny only because they were such terrible failures. On October 29 and 30, 2012 David Letterman did shows without audience just before and after hurricane Sandy as seen here. Telling a joke with only Paul Schaefer with his signature annoying laugh just didn’t work. Colbert’s audience consisted of about 20 staff members. Part of the way through his monologue he asked “Is this going okay?” And they all cheered and applauded. He thanked them and then reminded the viewers “Of course I pay these people so who knows.” Another good line was he said “Each night in my mind the show is perfect. All of the jokes are hilarious. And the only thing that goes wrong is when an audience shows up and proves me wrong. Tonight with no audience to disprove it, this show will be perfect.”

Seth Meyers and James Corden went to reruns rather than go audience free.

Now the late-night comedians have taken to YouTube to do 10-20 minute monologues. Here’s a sampling. Suggest you subscribe to their YouTube channels to see remaining episodes. It’s sort of reminiscent of amateur YouTubers who haven’t quite yet figured out how to do lighting and audio in a home environment. Click on the show title to get to their entire YouTube channel. And then click the links on individual shows.

The Late Show Was Stephen Colbert

March 17 Colbert broadcasts from his bathtub

March 18 Colbert in his backyard fire pit. Includes a very funny parody of “Danny Boy” and a nice piano concert by bandleader Jon Batiste.

 

Jimmy Kimmel Live

March 17 Quarantine Minilogue. Discovers by staying at home that he actually has children. Says that they watched Frozen 2 more times than the animators who created. Apparently first in a series.

 

Late night with Seth Myers

March 12: A Closer Look. Seth Myers canceled his Thursday night show but went ahead and recorded his “A Closer Look” segment that they had already written the night before. He hasn’t done any additional YouTube since then.

 

The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon

March 17 Home Edition (The First One). Shot by his wife on an iPhone apparently from his kids play room. Wonderfully amateurish 🙂

 

LastWeek Tonight with John Oliver HBO

March 16: Did his regular show without an audience. Could not do it in his regular studio because it had been contaminated by someone who tested positive. Clearly the most successful non-audience show of the group.

 

The Late Late Show with James Corden

He is showing reruns on broadcast and has not contributed anything to YouTube

 

 

Overall I’m giving the entire collection a rating of “I’m watching”. It’s really nice that I don’t have to record the entire show and fill up my DVR. I could just watch these monologues on YouTube whenever they come up. Hope you are staying safe and healthy during this crisis.

“Devs” is a Creepy Reflection on the Nature of Reality.

A new sci-fi thriller called “Devs” is available on Hulu. This eight part miniseries is released under the branding of “FX on Hulu” however the series doesn’t appear to be available on FX network at least as of yet. Nick Offerman plays a billionaire genius Forest who runs a computer company that has made major breakthroughs in quantum computing. If you’ve not heard of quantum computing it’s a new type of computer processor that takes advantage of some of the bizarre properties of quantum mechanics. Pundits currently claim that it has the potential to create the most powerful computers we’ve ever seen. It could be a disruptive technology that could unlock any current encryption techniques rendering all computer security obsolete. In real life quantum computing has yet to deliver on its promises but in this series it has delivered way beyond expectations.

The story follows Lily Chan played by Sonoya Mizuno works for a computer company called Amaya along with her boyfriend Sergei. Sergei gets promoted to the company’s top-secret division known as “Devs” but disappears the next day. She goes on a quest to uncover what really happened to him and to try to figure out what’s really going on in the company she works for.

The entire show has a very creepy feel to it. The Amaya company campus is in a wooded area featuring a giant 60 foot statue that looks like a two-year-old girl dressed in a dress. It sort of looks like a giant baby doll. No explanation is given why they have this bizarre monument. We get lots of creepy looking shots of this figure towering above the trees. The soundtrack that runs continuously beneath the show also adds a very creepy feeling to the entire thing.

At this point I will just say that after 3 episodes I’m really enjoying it and giving it a strong rating of “I like it“. It is being described as a miniseries of 8 episodes so don’t expect a second season. If I’m going to continue to talk more about it I really need to get into some spoilers. If you read on, I don’t think it will ruin your enjoyment of the show but some people are especially sensitive to any spoilers so if that’s you… stop reading now and go watch the show.

spoilers below

 

 

 

In the opening episode, Sergei is taken on a tour of the Devs facility by CEO Forrest played by Nick Offerman. It is housed in a completely separate building on the Amaya campus. A giant quantum supercomputer is housed in a vacuum sealed building that hovers inside the building using magnetic levitation. The entire thing is completely sealed from the outside world. Sergei is invited to sit down at a workstation, look at the code they are developing and then he will realize what the Devs project is all about. After several minutes of staring at the screen he suddenly jumps from his seat, runs into the restroom, and vomits violently.

We don’t have to wait long to find out what disturbed him so much. Forest explains to him that indeed this quantum computer has proven that the entire universe is deterministic. Every event in the world is the inevitable consequence of chemistry and physics working on the conditions prior to that moment. Everything is total cause and effect. Essentially free will does not exist. Everything that we do is 100% the inevitable consequence of what has happened prior to that. So this computer has the ability to accurately predict the future as well as run the equations backwards and look into the past.

In subsequent episodes we see them looking in on the crucifixion of Jesus, the burning of Joan of Arc at the stake, and then more personal items such as Marilyn Monroe having sex with her husband Arthur Miller. The latter was done so in violation of company policy and earns the programmers a reprimand. One of the female scientists Katie played by Alison Pill bemoans “Why do male techs always feel the need to caricature themselves? Step one: Create a new technology that reinvents the nature of human existence. Step two: Use it for porn.” Personally I would’ve gone for Marilyn and JFK.

One of the other consequences of the revelation that the universe is completely out of our control means that the enigmatic CEO feels no sense of guilt over anything. If one is not responsible for one’s own actions then one can do whatever they want because that choice is not theirs. It is inevitable.

The main part of the story is Lily trying to uncover Sergei’s disappearance. She is shown a video of him committing suicide but she doesn’t believe it’s real. She comes to discover that he is in fact an industrial spy for Russia. She had no idea. This furthers her feelings that everything isn’t what it seems to be. I’ve only seen the first 3 out of 8 episodes sort remains to be seen how deep the conspiracy goes or where the story will turn after this.

The questions raised by this strange technology and the bizarre revelation that the universe is not what it seems to be along with the mystery of the boyfriend spy and a hidden agenda of the company make this very compelling viewing. As stated before it gets a rating of “I like it” and if you like creepy technology shows sort of like Black Mirror then I highly recommend it.

“Star Trek: Picard” Shows Great Promise

The much anticipated “Star Trek: Picard” premiered on streaming service CBS All Access today. Only the first episode is available and a total of 10 episodes will be released on a weekly basis. The story revolves around former Enterprise Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in his retirement from Starfleet.

There’s no way I can really describe what’s going to happen in future episodes without giving some major spoilers as to what happens in this opening episode. So if you don’t want to know what happens in the opening episode I will just say that I like what I’ve seen and if you are at all a Star Trek fan you definitely want to check it out. One suggestion I will leave you with is you should watch “Star Trek: Short Treks” season 2 episode 6 “Children of Mars” also available only on CBS All Access before watching this premier episode.

SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

 

 

 

The series takes place 14 years after Picard has left Starfleet. It opens with a dream sequence where he is playing poker with Cmdr. Data. Brent Spiner returns to play the role and somehow doesn’t look a day older than we last saw him years ago when he sacrificed his life to save Picard in the film “Star Trek: Nemesis“. One little bit of nitpicking, Data’s eyes didn’t look quite right to me. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we are seeing him in HD compared to the analog TV in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or what the reason was. It just seemed that during the close-ups it was more obvious than usual that he was wearing yellow contact lenses.

The dream ends when they look out the window and you see the destruction of Mars. You might not immediately recognize it unless you’ve seen the Short Trek “Children of Mars” that I mentioned earlier. That short subject depicts an attack on Mars that devastates the planet but doesn’t really explain who is attacking or why.

Picard is living in a French château surrounded by vineyards that are being cared for by robotic machines. He’s accompanied by a pet bit bull which he affectionately refers to as “Number One”. He is tended to by what appeared to be a butler and maid who I initially thought were Vulcans but on further reflection they are probably Romulan. They show great affection for the retired admiral.

Picard is about to be interviewed for a news program and through the course of this interview we get a lot of back story about what has happened in the days since we last saw him. In short, the Romulan sun was going to go supernova. Picard persuaded Starfleet to help with a mass evacuation of the entire planet before it was destroyed. This was despite the fact that the Romulans were a long time enemy of Starfleet. Picard makes it clear he was there to save lives… the fact that they were Romulan lives was immaterial.

The rescue effort was aborted when Mars colony was attacked by so-called “synthetics” which are apparently androids. The reporter points out that Mars is still burning yet to this day. The end result is that synthetic life forms have been completely banned and all research into creating them has been terminated. By interplanetary treaty they are forbidden.

Intercut with Picard’s story we meet a young woman named Dahj played by Isa Briones. She is celebrating with her boyfriend that she has been accepted to a position at the Daystrom Institute in Okinawa to do artificial intelligence research. Suddenly three black clad assassins transport into her apartment, murder her boyfriend, and try to take her captive saying along the way “She hasn’t activated yet”. Suddenly she does “activate” and despite having a hood placed over her head she quickly attacks the three assassins and with almost superhuman moves ends up killing them all. It is obvious she has no idea how she obtained the skills to save her own life and kill these three assassins. As she wanders the streets in a daze, she sees Picard being interviewed on TV and is irresistibly drawn to seek him out.

Picard does not know the woman and has no idea why she would come to him even after she recounts the story of the attack and her unusual ability to easily dispatch her attackers. Through a series of events, Picard concludes that not only is she an android despite the fact she appears completely human (she bleeds real blood), he also theorizes that she is somehow the daughter of Cmdr. Data. Data had once painted a portrait of a woman exactly resembling her and titled the painting “Daughter”.

There are a couple of plot twists I have not revealed. So I didn’t completely spoil the story. I hope I just set it up for you to anticipate what comes in future episodes. The rest of the series will cover Picard trying to figure out who this woman is. Unfortunately (sorry spoiling) she is killed in a subsequent attack by more assassins who are revealed to be Romulan. Picard then goes on a quest to go in search of her twin sister.

Previews for upcoming episodes reveal that we will see Jonathan Frakes reprise his role as Cmdr. Riker a.k.a. Number One and his wife Deanna Troy played by Marina Sirtis. Although these will only appear in a single episode, it doesn’t appear that this is a flashback or dream sequence. Frakes is also listed as the director of 3 of the episodes. We will also see Jeri Ryan reprise her role as former Borg “Seven of Nine” from the TV series “Star Trek: Voyager“. Unfortunately IMDb.com does not yet list her as part of the cast so we don’t know how big her role will be. But the previews indicate it might be significant. There may be other cameo appearances from other previous Star Trek series.

Overall Patrick Stewart credibly re-creates an older version of his most famous character. We also look forward to seeing more of Alison Pill in her role as an artificial intelligence researcher named Dr. Agnes Jurati. I’ve been a big fan of hers ever since her role in “The Newsroom“. Apparently Picard will spend the next episode recruiting a crew and a ship for his quest so we will have new characters introduced soon.

With the exception of one brief shot, the special effects are state-of-the-art. The stunts and action sequences were well done. The plot has great promise leaving many mysteries to be solved over the course of 10 episodes. The show has already been approved for season 2 as well. What is the origin of these extremely human looking androids? Why did the androids attack Mars? And what are the surviving Romulans up to?

I’m sure somewhere along the way Star Trek fans will nitpick a variety of issues. I’ve loved every episode of “Star Trek: Discovery” for the past 2 seasons on CBS All Access but some fans say it’s terrible. I seriously disagree.

I’m giving it a strong rating of “I Really like It” and suggest you check it out. Together with the third season of “Star Trek: Discovery” and the excellent series “The Good Fight” CBS All Access is well worth the money. I’ve also been using it to watch current episodes of CBS programs because I am typically many weeks behind and I don’t have room on my DVR to record them all. Although I’m endorsing the service, of course I have no financial connection to it and the opinions are all my own.

“The Morning Show” Best New Drama of the Year — Says Me

When I heard that the new Apple TV+ series “The Morning Show” starred Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell, I naturally assumed it was a comedy. I knew that it revolves around a morning network talk show similar to “The Today Show” or “Good Morning America“. Seeing the two of them sit behind a desk and crack jokes or perhaps a sort of ripoff of “The Office” that went behind the scenes at such a show just didn’t appeal to me.

Then I heard it was nominated for three Golden Globes in the drama category. Perhaps there was more here than I initially believed so I decided to check it out. I ended up binge watching all 10 episodes in a little over two days and at times it took my breath away. Jennifer Aniston and her costar Reese Witherspoon well deserved their Golden Globe nominations as well as the series nomination for best TV drama. Aniston, Carell, and Billy Crudup have also received Screen Actors Guild nominations.

Late Update: Aniston won the SAG award for Female Actor in a Drama Series.

There will be very minor spoilers ahead but I don’t believe it will ruin the show for you. If you are worried about spoilers just watch this show because it gets my highest recommendation.

Aniston plays Alex Levy and Carell plays Mitch Kessler. They are the anchors of a network morning news talk show called “The Morning Show” or TMS for short. In the opening episode it is announced that Kessler has been fired for sexual misconduct paralleling the true life story of Matt Lauer being fired from “The Today Show”. Note however that this is not at all intended to be a thinly disguised telling of that story. It is very much complete fiction.

Initially there is a scramble by the network to decide how to deal with this disturbing situation. Aniston’s portrayal of Alex is exceptional as she tries to express sensitivity towards the accusers, outrage towards Mitch, and her own personal hurt that such a thing could happen to someone who is her friend and with whom she has had a great working relationship for 15 years.

In the next few episodes Alex is in a fight with the network to keep her job and to try to have a say in who will be her replacement cohost.

Along the way she happens to interview Bradley Jackson portrayed by Reese Witherspoon. She is a local TV reporter that has a slightly embarrassing viral video moment where she gets into a shouting match with a protester at a coal mine. The network tries to intimidate Alex by hinting that she could be replaced by someone like Bradley Jackson at the drop of a hat. Alex reverses the tactics by publicly announcing that Bradley Jackson will be her new cohost starting Monday morning. Of course neither the network nor Bradley herself have any idea that this is going to happen. Rather than fire Alex for making an unapproved announcement, they decide to roll with it thinking that if it fails they can blame her. Although Bradley realizes she’s a pawn in a big chess game she goes ahead and takes the job.

While all of this politics of network TV makes for fairly interesting drama, the real story is the #MeToo issues about the firing of Mitch Kessler. Throughout the 10 episodes, we the viewers ride a roller coaster of emotions in regard to his character. He insists that although he had affairs with coworkers, everything was 100% consensual and that he doesn’t deserve to have his career ruined or to be lumped in with sexual predators the likes of Cosby and Weinstein. You can’t help but believe him that in some ways he is a victim of these accusations.

Along the way as he’s trying to fight for his reputation, he reaches out to a friend who is a filmmaker whose career has been similarly ruined by #MeToo allegations. This part is brilliantly played dramatically by Martin Short. But they are not far into the conversation where Mitch is trying to say “We aren’t like Weinstein or the other perverts out there” when he begins to discover that his friend really is a sexual predator. The contrast between Mitch and his predatory friend makes you more still sympathetic for him.

However in later episodes as we hear the other side of the story from his accusers, we get a different perspective of the whole thing. You begin to see in a very dramatic way that although Mitch can accurately say that everything was “consensual”, the power dynamic of the situation puts him in a much more negative light. You begin to feel deeply for his accusers. Although not the same kind of despicable sexual predator as the Short character or other Weinstein types, Mitch is not at all an innocent victim in the situation.

Bradley Jackson is a fascinating character as well being thrust into a national limelight overnight and basically being in over her head. Yet when presented with the opportunities to investigate the story deeper and perhaps uncover how the network brass had long known about and covered up Mitch’s affairs she has to run with the story. She ends up in a sort of conspiracy to overthrow the network president with the help of the head of the news division played by Billy Crudup. Also is the noteworthy performance of Mark Duplass as the show’s producer who assists in this network coup when he realizes that he is going to be the fall guy for allowing Mitch’s behavior to continue unchecked.

A brief aside for a moment… When looking up Mark Duplass on IMDb.com I came across this video interview in which he reveals that originally “The Morning Show” was supposed to be a quirky fast-paced comedy… the show that I didn’t want to see. But then they realized they could do something significant with #MeToo and they completely scrapped their original scripts and rewrote the show. Many of the episodes were written just in time to be filmed. I still find it amazing that shows like this and “The Watchmen” can be written on the fly like this.

Aniston has many outstanding dramatic performances throughout the series but the most touching revolve around the subplot of Alex’s family life. She has been separated from her husband and he asked for a divorce. Naturally the publicity people are worried that the public will think it’s related to Mitch’s departure when in fact it’s not. Her concerns about the effects of the divorce on their teenage daughter are also quite dramatic and well portrayed by Aniston.

At times this series is reminiscent of the Aaron Sorkin series “The Newsroom” which ran on HBO for three seasons from 2012-2014. This is especially true in the flashback episode where they go to Las Vegas to cover the mass shooting that occurred there. We also go on location to cover California wildfires.

The writing is superb. The performances by Aniston, Witherspoon, and Carell are all top-notch. Although there are a few funny moments it is mostly breathtaking drama throughout. It is very much the single most thought-provoking TV series I’ve seen in a long time. In a recent review of Netflix’s “The Messiah” I described it as the most thought-provoking show I had seen in some time but this one clearly eclipsed it.

On a variety of talkshows and news programs ever since the wave of allegations that launched the #MeToo movement, pundits have been saying “We need to have a national conversation on this topic.” As far as I’m concerned, these 10 hours of dramatic television are an excellent attempt to have that conversation. You really get an in-depth and personal look at the issues from all sides. Anyone who has any interest in understanding #MeToo or anything concerning sexual dynamics in the workplace absolutely must see this program.

In fact anyone who enjoys good dramatic television should consider watching this. I’m giving it my highest rating of “Must-See“.

I previously had high praises for 2 other Apple TV+ series “See” and “For All Mankind” and even said that the latter was almost worth subscribing to Apple TV+ on its own. But those both are fantasy or sci-fi genre shows that might not appeal to a wide audience. This however is an important TV series that needs to be widely viewed.

I got my subscription to Apple TV+ because I recently purchased a new iPhone and iPad. There is a seven day free trial which should be enough that you could watch the show if you set aside time to binge 10 episodes at about an hour each. The subscription is $4.99 per month which is very cheap compared to other services but note that their catalog is quite small containing only original programming. They’ve announced no intent to license outside TV shows or films that are not exclusive to their service.

The bottom line is you should sign up and binge this. It’s well worth $4.99 if you can’t get it all watched during the seven-day free trial. And if you have time check out some of the other series from this service. Links to my reviews below.

Related reviews.

“For All Mankind” is almost worth subscribing to Apple TV+

Fans of Dystopian Action Should See “See”

Would You Recognize Jesus If He Arrived Today? “Messiah” on Netflix Seeks the Answer.

Would You Recognize Jesus If He Arrived Today? “Messiah” on Netflix Seeks the Answer.

Theologians and pundits have often wondered what kind of reception Jesus might’ve had if he had appeared in modern times or what would happen if the promised second coming came in modern times. The new Netflix series “Messiah” gives us a glimpse into what might happen if that occurred. Some spoilers included below.

A charismatic figure who looks like a stereotypical image of Jesus begins preaching in Damascus initially to a mostly Muslim audience. He claims responsibility for a giant dust storm that wipes out the terrorist organization ISIS. The crowd gives him the name “Al-Masih” Arabic for the Messiah. He then leads approximately 2000 refugees to the Israeli border demanding to be let in. As he crosses the border, he is immediately arrested leaving his followers alone in the desert creating a political and humanitarian crisis. Al-Masih is played by Mehdi Dehbi.

The story mostly follows an Israeli interrogator presumably Mossad named Aviram Dahan played by Tomer Sisley and an American CIA agent Eva Geller played by Michelle Monaghan. While being interrogated Al-Masih seems to have secret knowledge of his interrogators that gives him an air of mystical power that shakes them up considerably. He escapes the Israeli prison by an unknown mechanism and Aviram is suspected of releasing him although he did not. After appearing briefly in Jerusalem and miraculously healing a young boy of a gunshot wound, he disappears again and then reappears in a Texas border town that is wiped out by a tornado. Only the small church run by a troubled pastor and his family survives the devastation. Although he originally preached to a Muslim audience he claims to have no particular denomination affiliation and speaks openly to this Christian community challenging them reform their lives to live out their life in peace and harmony with their fellow human beings.

From there he leads a cross-country caravan to Washington DC but no one is sure exactly what his agenda is.

Eva spends much of the series trying to figure out who he really is. Is he a con man? What is his political agenda? There are hints of Russian connections and connection to a known terrorist who hacked Wall Street. All the while she and Aviram struggle with their own personal demons and are haunted by Al-Masih’s mysterious ability to know their life story.

The entire 10 episode series explores the nature of faith, fame, politics, and what it means to really live out one’s peaceful religious convictions. I suppose the main spoiler that I will include is that although his true past is revealed and there is ample evidence that he is a charlatan, there is also ample evidence that there are some supernatural forces involved and that he may in fact be legitimate. He never claims to be the Messiah himself only saying that that’s what his followers call him. He claims to be “The Word” sent from the Father which is a reference to the Gospel of John which describes Jesus as “the Word made flesh”. The series pretty much leaves you to make up your own mind about who or what he really is. Were the supernatural events simply illusions of a skilled magician or was something real happening?

Overall it is extremely well written and well acted by all involved. It is one of the most thought-provoking TV series I had seen up until the time I completed the 10 episode binge which took me just two days. However the title of “most thought-provoking TV series I’d seen in a long time” was eclipsed just a week later by another show that I will review soon.

I highly recommend this series to anyone of faith or those who are interested in religion and its role in modern society. I’m giving it a strong rating of “I really like it“. Check it out and form your own opinions. Would love to hear from you on Facebook about what you think of the series.

“The Mandalorian” Is the Best Star Wars Since “The Empire Strikes Back”

Moving along to our next review of a streaming TV series we have to take a minute to discuss the new Disney+ Star Wars series “The Mandalorian“. If you’ve been on social media at all the last few weeks you’ve already seen hundreds of memes about this series most of them featuring a character that has come to be known as “Baby Yoda”. This adorable little green creature is the same species as the Yoda character from the original Star Wars series. Unfortunately George Lucas never did tell us the name of the species of this iconic character. In this series he is only referred to as “the child” but immediately the Internet has dubbed him “Baby Yoda” even though the original Yoda is already dead at this point in the timeline of the Star Wars universe.

While Baby Yoda is central to the 10 episode plot of this series, it really is about the journey of the title character. Mandalorians are a race of fierce warriors who have a rich history throughout the Star Wars novels and especially the various Star Wars animated TV series. Our title character, often referred to as Mando is played by Pedro Pascal who is most known for playing Oberyn Martell in “Game of Thrones” and 30 episodes of the Netflix series “Narcos“. He is, as many of his people are, a bounty hunter and mercenary. He is given an assignment to retrieve dead or alive (preferably alive) an unknown subject. All he knows is that he is 50 years old and he has a tracking device which can locate the subject.

When he finally battles his way into a compound to retrieve the subject, he discovers it’s an infant Yoda like character. Star Wars fans know that when we met the original Yoda he was 900 years old. So a 50-year-old infant is not out of the question given what little we know about the species. Being duty-bound to fulfill his mission, he turns the child over to the client magnificently played by documentary filmmaker Warner Herzog. After turning over the child and fulfilling his contract, he begins to worry about what their intentions are for the creature and decides to steal the child back again to rescue it from whatever nefarious purposes the client might have. This sets off a whole wave of consequences in which his Mandalorian friends have to help him escape at the expense of revealing their secret hideaway. The entire rest of the series chronicles their journey to try to escape a horde of bounty hunters who are trying to retrieve the child.

Along the way we have a number of notable guest stars such as Nick Nolte who voices a CGI character that marginally resembles him named Kuiil. In later episodes we see Giancarlo Esposito as an imperial officer named Moff Gideon, Amy Sedaris as a spaceship mechanic and Ming-Na Wen as an assassin. Gina Carano also appears in three episodes as a former rebel soldier who accompanies the Mandalorian on a couple of missions.

Each episode is approximately 30 minutes and includes a great mixture of action and story. The Baby Yoda character is undeniably so cute he is irresistible but is not just about his cuteness. The real story is the personal journey of the Mandalorian who is trying to make his way in the universe and protect his new adopted charge Baby Yoda. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Mando is not a native Mandalorian but is a so-called foundling who was adopted as a child by Mandalorian warriors. That helps explain his empathy for the child who is caught up in circumstances not of his own making.

I suppose if you’d never seen any Star Wars, you could enjoy this on its own as an action-adventure sci-fi series. But the real fun comes from all of the references to the original Star Wars stories and even deeper and more obscure Easter Egg references to the extended Star Wars universe especially the animated series which gives you much of the back story of the Mandalorian people. Along the way we visit Luke’s home planet of Tatooine including Moss Eisley spaceport and a familiar booth in a familiar cantina. A plethora of classic Star Wars characters including sand people and Jawas make appearances. There is a hilarious scene in one of the later episodes where a couple of storm trooper scouts are killing time by taking target practice and famously missing horribly. They are portrayed by Adam Pally and Jason Sudeikis.

As the title of this review suggests this is the best Star Wars we’ve seen since “The Empire Strikes Back“. All of the characters, not just Baby Yoda, are interesting and have memorable moments. The action sequences and special effects are state-of-the-art and worthy of theatrical film. Because these are essentially new characters, the fans don’t have a backlog of expectations about what they want to see so they have been free to enjoy the series on its own merits. The show has already been renewed for a second season and I suppose the fan fiction writers are already hard at work trying to guess what’s going to happen and unless it meets their predictions they are going to be disappointed. That’s a shame because such practices have destroyed the latest Star Wars films. Expectations about what the fans want to see have been so high that when they aren’t met exactly, the fans rebel as if they owned the franchise. Perhaps this new series will inspire fans to just sit back and enjoy it and not try to impose their own expectations on the plot lines or characters. It also helps that creator/writer/showrunner Jon Favreau has done a wonderful job extending the Star Wars universe to these new characters while maintaining a deep reverence for the rich traditions of everything that has come before.

I’m giving it a strong rating of “I Really like It” and it is recommended for any fans of action-adventure, sci-fi whether or not you have a deep knowledge of the Star Wars franchise.

Overall the Disney+ platform may be the most cost-effective streaming subscription service because it includes not only the entire Star Wars catalog but the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the entire Disney and Pixar catalogs. At just $6.99 a month or $69.99 per year it is quite reasonably priced. There is also an option to bundle Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ for just $12.99 per month which is a significant savings for what it would cost to subscribe to those individually. A number of Disney+ films and series are planned. We’ve already got the “live-action” version of “Lady and the Tramp” and more Star Wars series are in the works as well as season 2 of “The Mandalorian”. So there’s a lot to like here. By the way none of my reviews are sponsored by anyone and the opinions expressed are entirely my own.