Dollhouse and Flashforward fail to ignite, The Office (US) misses its chance and Stargate: Universe impresses

These last few weeks, a host of shows have returned.  First off, let’s consider Dollhouse, the Joss Whedon’s offering that takes a lump of  Baudrillardian ponderings, digests it along with his usual cast of hip, All American actors (with a glossy edition of OK! magazine on the side) and shits it out.  The resulting dump is a thing of two sides.  On one hand, the concept of reprogrammable avatars (the dolls) living inside a brothel and used by its clientèle for things as varied as romantic engagements to bank heists to rewaking the dead to solve their own murders is rich with potential.  On the other hand, each episode feels plucked from the air with little interest in maintaining a strong narrative arc and impetus in being watchable.

Instead, episodes usually revolve around Echo – a doll who, as her name suggests, finds echoes of her past and the echoes of the personalities which inhabit her over the course of the series – on a mission, with Eliza Dushku playing a variety of characters to various levels of success.  The thing is, every single week there seems to be a hiccup during the process of acting out these missions, so we follow the same procedure of the Dollhouse’s “handlers” – those who look after the dolls while on these missions – as they try and sort out the mess caused.  One wonders how the Dollhouse can be a successful business enterprise and what its customer approval rating is.  Ultimately, the shows first season felt like a very long, extended pilot, whereby only the final reels indicate that the show is going anywhere.

Season Two, starting again after the mysterious 13th episode “Epitaph One” was placed on the first seasons DVD, dawdles about in the same manner as half the first seasons episodes, which is again a shame, because “Epitaph One,” set in an apocalyptic future where the technology programming dolls has run out of control, should have galvanised the shows creative energies.  One can despair already that Dollhouse has been a bit of a spoil sport for ideas, rendering the chance of a similar premised show, executed better in the near future unlikely.

Flashforward unlike Dollhouse has a very clear premise, and one in which the whole show is built around.  The thing is, as I have noted before, everyone is so bloody boring in it.  There may well be genial orchestration in the construction of its overall narrative and mythology – although that has yet to be seen; I’m just saying – but the show insists on only dripping tidbits of information regarding the mysterious flashforwards, and in the mean time documents the ongoing crisis these many characters are dealing with.  That, in itself, is not a bad thing and is a proven formula for success, and indeed that loathed beast Lost does it well with its compulsory flashbacks, but it requires the characters to be more than cardboard cut outs.  Characterisation requires more than everyone having their own dark secret – as contrived as Fienne’s Mark Benford having a drink problem – their one fatal flaw which apparently gives them a depth and  humanity lacking in the perfectly ordinary, average human beings such as ourselves.  Domestic American life has been proved a tale of status, depression and discontentment so many times before that its starting to become incredibly dull, especially when you have to sit there and wait it out to catch a glimpse of the greater narrative arc.  However, Jack Davenport is nice to see onscreen as always, and here brings a standard (for him) knowing performance to the table of absurdity that is Flashforward, a table that no one else seems to cotton on exists.

Jim and Pam finally got married in The Office (US).  Their romance has gone on for a while now and the writers have built upon expectation after expectation that this would be something like the icing on the cake for a very good show.   They seem to forget that the icing on the cake needs a chef to expertly lattice that fluffy pink drizzle over the rest of the cake.  The episode had a feeling of self-gratuitous contentment which just came across lazy; let’s put all these characters which have slowly developed to varying levels of success over five seasons and put them in a hotel near Niagara falls.  Let’s see what happens then.

And it happens pretty much as you would expect it to, in a way one could probably suggest it would after seeing merely the first season.  Michael will embarrass everyone with a speech.  Dwight will have to interact with other people.  Pam and Jim will through off convention with a secret wedding.  There seemed to be little effort or interest in writing a comedic show to it, and as Krasinski and  Fischer’s onscreen chemistry arguably rivals or even betters that of Tim and Dawn’s (which is definitely one of the most underplayed yet wonderful romances of recent memory) to have such a predictable effort for what should be a landmark moment in the shows chronology is a waste.

It’s not all doom and gloom, disappointment and disinterest though.  The Sci-Fi Channel (now regressed to the oh so postmodern moniker of Sy-Fy) has reinvigorated the Stargate franchise, a franchise which I must admit to have never cared for much to the extent of never watching more than a handful of episodes of SG-1 and completely avoiding Stargate Atlantis.  Why I began watching Stargate Universe is not something I can really answer considering my record with its precedents, but the casting of Robert Carlyle probably had something to do with it.   That’s right, taking up the mantle of the game-changing Battlestar Galactica, respected thespians are flocking to Science Fiction television regardless of the baggage of their original hammy incarnations.

Time seems to have moved on in the Stargate mythos – although only a few years to be fair – and us humans have spaceships and shit, with offworld military installations, and all this still unknown to the world at large, and yet we still have no solution to the increasing gut of Richard Dean Anderson.  Carlyle plays a Scientist figuring out what some 9th chevron on the Stargates does, which is something they obviously haven’t achieved yet.  What follows is that some kind of alien force attacks Icarus, the base that Carlyle works on this mysterious Stargate at, and events are pulled into motion that elicit the survivors of the attack to jump into the Stargate and thus into the unknown.  They end up on an old, old ship drifting through space with no way home.  Indeed, we soon learn through a modestly awe-inspiring slideshow that the ship is no longer even in the Milky Way, the zoom of the images drifting outwards until dozens of galaxies fill the screen.  I’m a sucker for stuff like that.

Carlyle, as a source of knowledge among a rag tag bunch of bureaucrats and grunts, occupies a situation similar to Gaius Baltar in BSG, although instead of James Callis’ effete manner, Carlyle rockets around the ship with the kind of fury a bookworm Begby might radiate.  It’s quite hard to stop with the BSG comparisons, and the look of Ron Moore’s remake is obviously a starting point for Stargate Universe, with the Destiny (the name of the ship they are stranded on) replicating not only the interior look of the Nostromo but that of the good old Galactica too, and any comparisons are only likely to do Universe favours considering the acclaim BSG commanded.  The situation too, gives a similar potential for collisons of morality and politik among the crew.

Where it falls short of Battlestar Galactica for this viewer is that while Robert Carlyle is a great actor to watch week in week out, none of those around him carry the same kind of gravitas as Mary McDonnell, Edward James Olmos or Michael Hogan.  Perhaps an arbitrary or ungrateful criticism, but it means that those opposing Carlyle and his brusque manner are unknowable and somewhat tame actors, without the bite of Edward James Olmos glaring and snarling at you, or Michael Hogan giving his excellent pirate impression.  They are certainly capable actors, but they don’t have the extra edge that the aforementioned BSG aluminaries give, and you get the feeling you could pick up remarkably similar performances from any line of queuing Hollywood actors, and a line that will not include revelatory talents like Katee Sackhoff, Tricia Helfer and Jamie Bamber.

What it does provide however, and very well, is the sense of wonder and awe that Battlestar Galactica, in its metaphysical, philosophical mutterings, ignored.  Not having been a fan of Star Trek in any sense until the new film (which borrows heavily from Star Wars, so criticise me for that) I’m loathe to reference a major part of that franchise, but the wonder of visiting these new, strange worlds and being alone in a very alien universe is a major part of what made me connect with Stargate Universe.  It’s a very strong start, and one that I will be following.

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