Friday, June 9, 2017

Circle: Two Worlds Connected Is Must-See Sci-Fi

(Please note this post includes references to events that
take place in episodes 1-6 of Circle: Two Worlds Connected.)
The best science fiction marries emotion with speculation. South Korean TV series Circle: Two Worlds Connected taps into one of humanity’s basic fears; that science will tamper with the parameters of personality.

Thematically, science fiction television transcends language barriers and cultural differences because every society is curious, if not concerned, about the future, and the unexplained.

An uncomfortable relationship between tech, emotions, and memory is a popular trope in science fiction. Stories exploring the use—or abuses—of advancements in technology are more successful if the audience is tied empathetically to the characters.

Circle: Two Worlds Connected has a winning formula with dominant themes of memory, identity, and family. That most erratic variable—love—usually ruins the equation at some point in scifi, because audiences like to see the warmth of humanity trumping the dispassion of science.

Circle: Two Worlds Connected utilizes the tricky narrative tool of a split timeline. The first half of each episode is set in 2017, the second in a dystopian 2037. The risk with this kind of storytelling structure is events in the present seem futile because viewers have a window into a bleak future.

Creating an immediate emotive link with the audience is paramount. We know what our leads are trying to do isn’t going to work, but we need to care enough to keep watching.

The pilot begins with a flashback to a childhood trauma experienced by two brothers in 2007, so the strength of their bond, even as children, is established. As adults, differing perspectives on that pivotal event creates an ever-widening rift, but their co-dependency persists.

Supernatural has shown a TV series can run for years on the fuel of dysfunctional familial relations. In Circle: Two Worlds Connected one brother studies neuroscience while the other investigates an alien conspiracy. The way the story unfolds aligns us firmly with the “sane” one: until it doesn’t anymore…

The present day timeline offers the possibility of an ageless alien and a number of associated mysteries, most notably the disappearance of our leads’ father. Clues also suggest experiments focusing on memory manipulation are causing student deaths on campus, till now viewed as suicides.

 In the future storyline, aka 2037, Normal Earth is polluted and the rich live in Smart Earth, a city boasting no crime. Smart Earth citizens have chips inserted in their necks, and yes that sense of misgiving specific to mind-control storylines is probably kicking in about now. (Plus the Smart Earth law keepers wear a lot of white: if there’s one thing sci-fi has taught me, it’s never trust the clean!)

At first, we’re unclear as to how the characters from the past connect to those in the future: memories have been manipulated, a violation revealed by the hacker Bluebird. But why? And by whom? How exactly did the Smart B system evolve? We’re also told the brothers became Missing Persons at some point during the time jump, so with each episode, our dread intensifies.

The show feels claustrophobic, no matter how spacious the setting, because the narrative is taking us inside the minds of the characters. Most are lost, searching for a person or particular truths, or looking to hide from memories. The show is seeped in desperation, making each episode increasingly compelling.

A number of characters in Circle: Two Worlds Connected are focused on the tie-in between memory and self. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can transform memories into tools of self-harm that impinge on decision-making and a person’s ability to function. But this scenario wonders if the removal or suppression of harmful memories is potentially more problematic?

Memory is the recall of experiences, but how the mind stores them and how the present day self views them, impacts their power. Are you really “yourself” when pieces of the puzzle that make up your psyche have been removed?

You may be at peace… But are you truly whole?

Scientific knowledge can create a delusional, God-like mindset, and that problematic perspective lies at the heart of the conflicts here: those empowered by knowledge are abusing that power. Deciding the psychological needs of citizen is a slippery slope, especially when you don’t gain consent.

Smart Earth seems a metaphor for humanity’s timeless response to complex societal issues: use wealth to hide from them. The story shows a safe haven can prove to be a type of prison if those in control have no qualms tampering with your mind—for your own good.

The drama is only twelve episodes long. South Korean television generally opts for a single season series, and as a result shows achieve a level of sustained intensity often missing from Western dramas. No story elements are held over for future seasons; the production team throws everything into the shorter format.

South Korean television is also fabulous at capturing emotive moments; the camera documents myriad emotions flitting across the actors' faces. South Korean actors excel at communicating complex wave of feeling just with their eyes, so prepare to be enthralled.

At the drama’s halfway point I’d guessed some reveals, and missed others. Even now, there are a few directions the story could go, and the set-up makes many plot options viable. I’m equally curious about the past and the future: how did the brothers lose each other? What sequence of events brought them to this tragic situation?

And the big question: who is Byul? Is the woman who mysteriously appeared and doesn’t age, an alien? Or are we seeing a series of clones? Can we even trust the brothers’ childhood memories? Can we trust anyone’s recall at this point?

What is really going on?

Circle: Two Worlds Connected is what brilliant sci-fi is supposed to be, packed with complex characters, exploring many ideas related to our relationship with tech, seeping paranoia and subterfuge, engaging and enthralling the audience with intelligent storytelling. The plot is beautifully crafted, the acting is incredible, and the cinematography is stunning. What more could you ask for?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

TV and the Changing Face of Political Dramas

"Sir, you are now the President of the United States.” That’s from the opener of Designated Survivor, the latest in a long line of TV shows about fictional American leaders.

The key to writing great presidential dramas is fusing a reflection of reality, with elements of fantasy. But the current American presidency is proving more surreal than any administration written for the small screen, so what happens when the plot in the real world becomes stranger than fiction?

For one, an adjustment of television tropes. Many of the “crises” in political dramas are fuelled by fear of negative public perception. The “polls” are regularly referenced to inspire narrative—nothing can prod a president into action faster than a drop in the polls. 

The series Designated Survivor revolves around a lower tier civil servant who ends up president following a bombing that takes out most of the government. As a result it’s an uphill battle for President Tom Kirkman, played by Kiefer Sutherland.

Unfortunately an onscreen president trying to curry favor and negotiate support for his initiatives starkly contrasts with the current offscreen president who writes executive orders when government doesn’t agree.

What’s playing out onscreen is old school: the inexperienced president respects the longstanding boundaries of his office, and takes public opinion seriously.

Watching this during the Trump era is like viewing something from the past, even though it’s set in the present. The story is good, and prior to the current political climate would qualify as an infallible interpretation of a worst case scenario, but the reality has become incomparable.

For many, one of the greatest presidential dramas is House of Cards. Machiavellian President Frank Underwood—chillingly played by Kevin Spacey—is not openly defiant of standard presidential expectations; he maintains a kindly uncle fa├žade. But below the surface, his morally grey behavior becomes increasingly dark, culminating in the murder of a journalist.

President Underwood is wary of acknowledging anything that could potentially lead to impeachment. House of Cards is the story of a conservative government, with a rotten apple at the core. But will the new season seem shocking now? Can President Underwood’s self-serving choices and his tendency to decimate the careers/lives of others challenge and enthrall the audience as it once did?

When it comes to women appointed to the US presidency, scripted television has been quite progressive in exploring the idea. To name a few examples, over a decade ago Geena Davis hit screens in Commander in Chief as President MacKenzie Allen, and Alfre Woodward was President Constance Payton in the recent State of Affairs, playing the first African American female POTUS.

Casting a woman in the role of president doesn’t seem to draw audiences as strongly as shows with male presidents, perhaps partly due to the country's complex cultural attitudes regarding the appointment of a woman to a position of ultimate political power. (Waiting to see Gillian Anderson play an American president though; she might just buck the trend.)

The material is both helped and hindered by the fact the writers and the audience has no real life counterparts to compare with the characters (don’t even get me started).

In the past, as a character the US Commander-in-Chief offered viewers an interesting paradigm: the most powerful person, yet answerable to many; responsible for the safety of all Americans, yet personally in danger; protected, yet vulnerable. While there are darker fictional incarnations of POTUS who succumb to a thirst for power, more positive, humanitarian portrayals are often onscreen presidential favorites.

Arguably the greatest presidential drama is West Wing. Or, as my parents called it, the walking show. President Josiah Bartlet, wonderfully portrayed by Martin Sheen, personified an ideal American president—constantly trying to do good while hampered by the machinations of others. Striving, even whilst compromising, to engender positive change for American citizens. Empathy portrayed as a source of strength, not weakness.

The hallowed halls of the White House have long been a storytelling haven for TV writers, and never has the bureaucracy of government been so riveting as when it’s happening in the Oval Office.

But scripted POTUS dramas of the future will require different narrative devices. The real world boundaries that shaped the format of the political genre on TV, have been decimated by current day politics.

Visual fiction will have to catch up, and embrace new, previously unimaginable parameters of presidential and governmental behavior—the good, the shockingly bad, and the downright unbelievable.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Nostalgia Party

Stories we’ve experienced before—whether in book, film, or TV series form—hit screens in the next few weeks. Say hello to Twin Peaks, American Gods, Anne (of Green Gables) and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Expectations are high because these tales are beloved. But can they meet our lofty desire for a rapturous fusion of known premise, and unknown re-presentation?

Is it possible to successfully pastiche the discovered and undiscovered country? Much has been made of marketing nostalgia, but like a Unicorn Frappuccino, delight can fizzle to a sickly feeling.

In recent times the unsettling sensation of the familiar and the unfamiliar in a TV show doesn’t seem to be wowing audiences. Gilmore Girls and The X-Files rehashed didn’t bring the joys and feels they were meant to. So why are we still on this kick?
Channeling the optimism of Anne Shirley right now.
For the Powers That Be, the answer is the allure of a ready-made fanbase. People pre-loving the material saves a lot of dime for networks/production companies. No need for a kick ass marketing campaign to win over fans: they’re waiting in the wings. Can anyone say, "safe bet"?

Likewise, anticipation itself is a powerful marketing tool. Studies suggest just the expectation of a happy event is hella beneficial to the brain/body, so on a chemical level we’re getting a buzz out of these shows before they even drop.

We're in for a wild ride.
Post-viewing, fans are usually the first to riot (well, in an online sense) when the series doesn’t meet expectations—which is most of the time. The causes of these cruel, crashing, scripted TV hangovers are myriad.

Memory is a fickle animal. Another version of you scored a hit from the original material, but the you in the audience now isn't coming from the same place. And the writers are not in the same place. Society is not in the same place. Hell, even pop culture is not in the same place.

These stories stay with us because of a wild first impression, whether we read the book, watched the film, or saw an old series. But when it comes to a fresh viewing experience, that original stamp on our subconscious can hinder as much as help.

In the case of The Handmaid's Tale, I'm perpetually freaked.
(Strangely, non-fans who watch with fresh eyes often come out the winners. Maybe because they press play with minimal thoughts other than, hope this show doesn’t suck.)

Time to take a look at the trailers, and see if we can cut that subconscious commentary off at the pass. Maybe lower expectations from “greatest thing to ever hit the small screen, West Wing, Buffy and Veronica Mars included” (or whatever your poison) to “vastly entertaining show that did not change my world because I am not an unrealistic and demanding viewer”. Here's hoping.

Twin Peaks

Yep, starting with the Big One.

Why It Should Be Good: Because the original is incredibly iconic. Because TP’s creators are on board. Because the new eps are directed by Lynch. Because so far the aesthetic looks as incredible as the eye-catching original. Because so many of the cast members are back, and new additions are A grade awesome. Because an hypnotic, pervading existentialism is bound to be woven through the narrative. Because there are eighteen episodes, so no need to rush the story. Because my Twin Peaks DVDs make me feel like I’ve holidayed in this town many times.

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: Because the original is incredibly iconic to the point where anything less than equally iconic will seem a step down. Unrealistic expectation level: uber-high, and hard to budge.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: The endless donuts and slices of cherry pie. Young me used to think, yummm, my kinda Americana. Older me is like, are there going to be gluten-free or paleo options and is anybody worrying about blood sugar levels?

American Gods

A modern classic for many.

Why It Should Be Good: The premise is great. Love the idea of Gods like Odin livin’ large in the US of A. Show-runners Bryan Fuller and Michael Green have speccy credentials. Cast-wise, I like Emily Browning, and I think she has the potential to be a massive star. I love Gillian Anderson (most people do). Kristin Chenoweth and Krispin Glover are also faves. The trailer looks moody and super-cool and already I might be Team Modern Gods (don’t tell “Wednesday”).

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: Not much chance actually, because I’m not a big Gaiman fan. I’ve read American Gods, but it’s not in my Top 5 all-time novels, meaning no obsessing over changes in the transition to the small screen.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: Old Gods wandering around has popped up on a few TV shows over the years, so am sure to end up comparing Buffy, Supernatural and other series’ versions. Since Gaiman was probably part of the birth of this trope, his interpretation deserves to be respectfully viewed without other takes in the back of my mind.


Who doesn’t love Anne with an ‘e’?

Why It Should Be Good: This looks like it was made with care and obvious affection for the original material. The cinematography is lovely, and the story is touching. Even in the trailer Anne’s imagination, intelligence and emotional strength shine through. The plucky orphan who finds love at Green Gables is a perennial fave.

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: Megan Follows was amazing as Anne and I don’t think she can be displaced in my subconscious. The cast of the eighties version are internationally beloved, so it will be a bit of an uphill slog for this lot.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: Lines like “Girls can do anything boys can do, and more.” Yes, Anne believes this, but pushing modern/positive beliefs into classic texts with such blunt dialogue can be clumsy and jarring. Anne is all for equal rights and is constantly pushing boundaries, not just in regards to gender but also class expectations of the period, but the story itself shows us this during her journey. Anne is a hero to many, in whatever decade, for a reason. Let the narrative speak for itself.

The Handmaid's Tale

Every woman’s nightmare: a dystopian breeding program in a fertility-challenged future.

Why It Should Be Good: The plot is a chilling extrapolation of the disempowerment of women, written over thirty years ago. Seriously, even the trailer gives me nightmares. The cast includes Peggy from Mad Men (Elizabeth Moss), Rory from Gilmore Girls (Alexis Blendel), and a heap of other talent.

Why My Memory Will Mess It Up: It won't. I found the story so dark and depressing I was never inclined to reread the novel. Not a huge fan of Atwood’s writing, but I do appreciate the narrative here, and think 2017 is the perfect time for this to transition to series. Not a big fan of the film interpretation either, which is helpful in that I won’t be making a visual comparison.

What My Current Day Mind Will Mess Up: This tale of the subjugation of women, complete with religious wrapping, is so bleak. At first read I thought, society is a hundred steps from creating such a world, and we’re only moving further away; never gonna happen. Now, with the situation in America, I take back those words: we’re about 95 steps clear. My mind will be screaming, PLEASE STAY FICTIONAL. Whatever the quality of this series turns out to be, plot-wise it’s the kind of cautionary tale the world needs right now.

See you all post-pilots xx