Xena reboot: yes or no?

There was a time when genre shows were a rare thing on TV. In the years after The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, and before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Lost, genre fans had only a few choices: the super serious X-Files, and the wacky Hercules, with Kevin Sorbo.

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In 1995, the producers of Hercules launched a spinoff: Xena: Warrior Princess. It was like nothing on TV at the time. It starred not one but two action-oriented women, Xena and her trusted sidekick Gabrielle. Lucy Lawless, who went on to become a genre mainstay in both Battlestar Galactica and Spartacus, shot to fame playing the larger-than-life, nearly superhuman warrior. She played the role on two levels: she took it completely seriously, and she was in on the fun.

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But, like all good (and not so good) shows, Xena: Warrior Princess had to end. There are only so many storylines one can write, and Xena pushed it to the limit. It went off the air in 2001 after getting way too complex (I remember a plot line regarding an evil-spawn child of Gabrielle, for instance). By then, though, TV was opening up to shows that involved some element of the mystical or fantastic. Buffy the Vamipre Slayer was a critical hit, and SyFy (then Sci-Fi) was plowing ahead with original programming such as Farscape.

While it was great fun, Xena hasn’t been missed. There are so many choices when it comes to quality genre TV today, and strong female characters are no longer a novelty. Now comes a rumor that the powers that be are prepping for a reboot of Xena. Honestly I’m torn.

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On one hand, the world of Xena is rich one, bursting with mythology that could be spun into entertaining stories. She’s an iconic character, and it would be interesting to see how she’d be portrayed in a reboot. Who could possibly fill Lucy Lawless’s boots?

On the other hand, we have (dare I say it) too many great genre shows out there. I cannot keep up. I have a list of series that I’m itching to watch. But when do I fit them all in? And is it fair to all the amazing writers out there to continually recycle old ideas, rather than bring something new to the screen?

This is a tough call for me. As much as I’d like to see a new Xena (out of curiosity, if nothing else), I wouldn’t want to see my favorites — Buffy, Lost, Farscape — reimagined with a different cast. But I said the same thing when they rebooted Battlestar Galactica, and that turned out to be brilliant.

Aliens: do they look like us?

If anyone’s noticed, one of my minor obsessions is alien life. I’m not one of those who believes we’re being probed by Roswell-style aliens. My interest is more about fantasy (and maybe reality). If there’s a book or movie with aliens in it, chances are I’ll be interested. Take one of my favorite TV shows: Farscape. Human dude gets mixed up with a bunch of renegade aliens. What more could you ask for?

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But I also love the scientific aspect of the search for extraterrestrial life. As we discover more Earth-sized planets, the question of extraterrestrials becomes more of when we’ll find them, rather than do they exist.

I’ve written about why we haven’t found any evidence of alien life yet. (short answer — we don’t know why). If we do find intelligent life, what will it look like? For Star Trek alienyears I’ve thought that alien life would be wildly different from our own. Not like Star Trek, where the aliens are basically humans with a few bumps and ridges, and a little different hue. Instead, the real aliens would, due to evolutionary forces unique to their home worlds, be more bizarre than we could fathom.

Not so, says a professor named Simon Conway Morris from Cambridge University in England. Evolution is a streamlined process — it selects the features best suited to thrive in life. And independently, different species evolve similar features (eyes, for instance). If this takes place on Earth, then the same process would apply on other planets.

He also states that evolution has produced life suitable for its environment. If you want a sophisticated plant, then you design it as a flower or tree. Aquatic animals would be fish-like, and creatures that fly would have wings.

The question remains, though, what about intelligent life? Could we assume that Calculating Godthey would look like us only because we’re the first intelligent species on the planet?

In his novel Calculating God, sci-fi writer Robert J. Sawyer had a intriguing take on ETs. Two different intelligent species contact humans. Both are similar proportion and of similar intelligence to humans, though one is a spider-like creature. These aliens were very like us, suggesting that intelligence is linked less to physical resemblance than to shared understanding, beliefs and values.

I guess someday we’ll find out the truth. Or maybe we truly are alone after all.

Will we ever colonize distant worlds?

On first glance, that question seems absurd. Humans are an adventurous species, so the thinking is of course we’ll spread out among the stars, especially as word comes of more and more planets that may be close to Earth-like.

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)But Alaistair Reynolds, sci-fi author of great books such as Revelation Space, throws a little cold water on that idea in a new essay.

Reynolds is a strong proponent of space exploration. But he brings up a couple of interesting problems.

First, there’s the issue of time.TV shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars utilize faster-than-light technologies to travel among the stars. These technologies, however have yet to be created. Not only that, not one experiment has uncovered anything that can travel faster than light in nature. As Einstein theorized, it just may not be possible.

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That would leave us with daunting travel times just to reach the nearest stars. We’re talking at least decades for a one-way trip. How would that work, logistically? How could we assemble a flight crew willing for a life-long mission? Would this mission be simply exploration, since there may be no guarantee that there would be habitable worlds at their destination?

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Then there’s the issue of a target. As out science is refined, would we be blessed with an abundance of potential worlds to visit? How would we pick just one? It sounds like a silly question, but for such a massive undertaking, we might need to collectively focus on a single goal. That may not be an easy task. Look at our exploration of our own puny solar system. we have no lunar base. We have no Mars base. And the plans for manned exploration of the Red Planet are always being pushed back another decade.

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As Reynolds explains, the study of space may be the answer to the Fermi Paradox, which states that if there is intelligent life, how come we haven’t run into it? Reynolds speculates that maybe as other intelligent alien species surveyed the universe, they became less awed by creation, and more content with their own little corner. They’ve stayed silent and hidden to us.

I hope this last bit won’t be true of humans. Knowing our history, I doubt it. Maybe the answer is that humans are indeed unique in their hunger for more, always more.

Genre TV: a golden age or too much of a good thing?

It is a sad fact that there are too many great books in the world, of all genres, that I will never have time to read. I’m sure that I’m missing out on some life-changing classics, but there’s nothing I can do about that.

Star TrekWhen it comes to TV, though, there used to be a time when you could be up on all the great TV shows. For fans of all things sci-fi/supernatural/horror like myself, it wasn’t that hard, because there were so few TV shows that had a sci-fi or supernatural theme. Back in the 1950s you had The Twilight Zone and in the 1960s came The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and in England, Doctor Who. Along the way there were a smattering of other TV shows, notably the X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the ’90s, but with only a handful of networks (and the BBC in England) the options were severely limited.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

That’s all changed. Now there seems to be a new network popping up every week, along with new TV shows. When Lost premiered, it reinvigorated the genre by making it commercially and critically viable. As flawed as Lost was, the emmy-winning series showed the powers that be that genre shows could make money and win awards.

Lost

Since then, there’s been an explosion of genre shows. A few decades ago, who would have predicted that two of the most hyped television shows would include dragons and zombies? These two shows, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are worldwide cultural events. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead bring more than just supernatural/fantastical/horror elements: they have high production values, are well acted, and have great writing.

Walking Dead

And these are just two of the latest and greatest. The past couple of decades have given us so many great genre shows, from SyFy’s Farscape and the Battlestar Galactica reboot, to BBC’s relaunched Doctor Who and BBC America’s Orphan Black. I should be happy, right?

Orphan Black Tatiana Maslany

In a way, I’m not. There are SO MANY genre shows out there I can’t keep up. And neither can the people who are writing them. The Walking Dead has given us the derivative Z Nation. The second season of SyFy’s Helix was a mess (a glorious, batshit crazy mess, but still a mess). And Netflix’s Hemlock Grove was half-baked camp. We’ve got a glut of genre shows out there, some of which should have never been made, and others that could have used a little more seasoning.

helixNot to mention that I don’t have the time to watch the vast majority. I’d love to watch The Strain, and there’s a new Salem TV show with Lucy Lawless that looks interesting. But between work, writing, play, family, how could I possibly fit all these shows into my life?

Maybe Hollywood needs to scale back a little — if not in the number of shows, then at least in the number of episodes. In the UK, it’s a common practice for TV shows to be short runs. Each season is perhaps six episodes, and the TV shows only run for a few seasons, if that. What you get is concise storytelling that does not require a lifetime commitment of the viewer. I’d fully support this idea; even the best shows suffer from episode bloat and could use some trimming (I’m looking at you, Walking Dead).

Designer humans: the future is almost here

Some sci-fi tropes seem too far-fetched for reality, until science catches up. Take the film Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law, set in a world where genetically approved people were given a higher Gattaca Jude Lawstatus. When the movie came out, the idea of designer babies was bizarre. How could such a thing be done, technically?

But now we’re on the verge of designer babies becoming a reality, and not everyone is eager for this to happen.

What do I mean by designer babies? Manipulating DNA to either enhance favorable qualities, or delete some bad genes though a process called gene editing. This could be good. Think of all the heritable diseases we could get rid of. Once we snip them from the gene pool, they’d be gone from that genetic line forever. An embryo that had its genes for a deadly disease extracted would never pass those genes on to future generations.

But there’s the flip side. What could we do to enhance humans? Super strength? Super intelligence? Evolution works by filtering out the bad traits and promoting the good traits. With this gene editing technique, we could make humans a whole lot better. Evolution put in the hands of man. Think of Star Trek and the genetically enhanced supervillain Khan.

Benedict Cumberbatch

And that’s what scientists are afraid of, so much so that they’re calling for a moratorium on using these amazing techniques on humans. I suppose their thinking is that if we can manipulate genes, we can create supermen, or monsters.

Personally, I don’t see the problem. Not right now, anyway. The truth is there is a whole hell of a lot we don’t know about the human genome. Scientists have not found a gene (or set of genes) that correlate with intelligence. There’s also the problem of junk DNA — strands of genes whose function scientists don’t understand. And also epigenetics: the strange phenomenon where environmental factors can change your genetics, and pass down these changes to your children and grandchildren. Right now we wouldn’t be able to do much with this gene-editing technology.

I say let’s keep exploring. Welcome to the brave new world.

Are ancient aliens ignoring us?

We’re obsessed with life beyond Earth.

For a while, we thought we might find it close to home. Venus turned out to be a hellish bust, and Mars is turning up nothing but red rocks. SETI has been beaming a hello for decades, but no one has greeted our call. So, unless you believe that Roswell is indeed the site of an alien vacation community, we’ve come up with nothing.

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That hasn’t stopped us from making it a focal point of sci-fi and pop culture, from HG Wells’ vicious War of the star trekWorlds to the community of agreeable, and sometimes sexy, aliens embodied in the Star Trek series and movies.

And, the research to identify life supporting planets is going full steam, with hundred potential candidates identified to date. Now, we may be able to expand our time frame as well.

First, the title of this io9.com article — Freakishly Old System of Planets Hint at Ancient Alien Civilizations — is misleading. Nowhere does the writer, or the research, state that we’ve found any kind of proof (or even a hint) of alien life.

But what we’ve discovered—that rocky planet systems are billions of years older than we first thought—is intriguing in its implication. And what is this implication? That life, and advanced civilizations, have had several billions of years in which to develop.

Our universe is considered to be about 13.8 billion years old, and according to the article, scientists have detected a planet system that is about 11.2 billion years old. Before this, scientists didn’t believe that rocky planets capable of sustaining life could have formed that early in our universe’s life span. Now they know different.

But this leads to the inevitable question: if there are so many planets that could potentially support life, and if these planets have existed for at least 11 billion years, then why isn’t our universe teeming with life? Surely there would be ONE advanced civilization that would have colonized the stars. Was there NEVER a planet capable of supporting life? Or, did they ALL fail to advance to the point we have?

Revelation_Space_cover_(Amazon)One of my favorite sci-fi writers, Alastair Reynolds, explored this very topic in his book Revelation Space. His world view was bleak: advanced civilizations destroyed each other, leaving behind a higher power that would snuff out advanced civilizations whenever they reached the point of breaking their planetary bounds.

If that’s true, then we’re in danger.

Or, maybe there are tons of aliens out there, and they don’t find us interesting enough to return our calls.

Where is everyone? (by everyone, I mean aliens)

I’m not alone, not by a longshot, when I say I love the idea of space exploration and possible alien cultures.

Look at some of the staples of pop culture — Star Trek and Star Wars, for example. These classic sci-fi stories have given us thrilling images of new worlds and aliens of all sorts. We can add one of my favorites, SyFy’s brutally cancelled Farscape, and one of the newest movie franchises, Guardians of the Galaxy (highly recommended, btw).

Farscape

In all of these, the universe is thick with life. There are countless races of intelligent—and not-so-intelligent—life forms, numbering perhaps trillions of individuals.

But, as far as we know, we are utterly alone in the universe, and we don’t know why.

As scientists discover solar system after solar system, with planets in the habitable zone, it’s dawning on us that our planet is not unique. And the logical assumption would be, if Earth is not unique, then we are not either. Surely if life evolved on Earth, over millions of years, to produce a species that is capable of traveling into space, then at least one of these other countless planets would have evolved similar life as well.

But where are they? Set aside the assumptions we’re making, such as that we would even be able to recognize alien life at all. If other species developed interstellar travel, wouldn’t they have found us by now? Wouldn’t their presence have long been known?

Revelation SpaceOne of my favorite sci-fi books, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, tackled this question. Reynolds had an intriguing, though wholly fictional answer. (SPOILER WARNING) In Revelation Space, there were indeed alien races spread throughout the universe. But they went to war and ended up wiping each other out. To avoid any such catastrophe, a super-entity was established that would snuff out any civilization that got too big for its britches. How would it to that? Simply by waiting patiently for a curious species to contact it, and then exterminating it.

Another theory for the lack of alien life is more simple. Maybe complex and intelligent life is extremely rare — so rare that we’re it. It’s called the Great Filter theory. Several nearly impossible steps had to be overcome for us to be here.

–the creation of molecules that can reproduce

–the creation of simple single-celled life

–the creation of complex, multi-celled life

And that’s not even getting into such things as the rise of intelligent life capable of traveling into space, while also avoiding threats such as asteroid strikes, nuclear war, radiation bursts from space, and so on.

So, maybe we really are alone, and there is no Star Trek style federation waiting to greet us.

The good news? Maybe we’ve already overcome the biggest hurdles to interstellar life, and the universe is ours for the taking.

Helix: the last spasm?

The SyFy original was more than I thought it would be, but will the lack of character (and viewers) be its downfall?

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One episode left for SyFy’s 13-episode sci-fi series Helix. No word yet on whether it will be renewed. Knowing SyFy, we may never see Helix again, which would be a shame.

When Helix was first launched, I was intrigued. Was it a zombie story? A medical procedural? Knowing it was produced by Battlestar Galactica‘s Ronald D. Moore was a plus, but so what?

Over the past 12 episodes I’ve been surprised. It was not at all what I expected. The writers of Helix have seeded intrigue steadily and consistently, with more than enough plot twists to keep me coming back.

–About those “zombies” – I would liken them more to vampires in the sense that the infected don’t die and come back to life, but turn. And what do they turn into? A sort of hive collective. Think bees, or ants – parts of a whole. A snippet of dialogue explained that the virus appears to be acting in concert, across the bodies of the infected. Kind of like Star Trek‘s Borg collective. It’s a cool twist on an old trope. I loved when one of the infected spit a mouthful of blood into the Keep Calm mug.

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–The writers have built layers of mythology, the most notable being the identity of the company that is funding Dr. Hatake’s research: the Ilaria Corporation. Their rep was Constance Sutton, overacted by Jeri Ryan, who didn’t fare too well against a desperate Hatake. Now we know that Ilaria is populated by 500 “immortals.” Like Hatake. And… his daughter.

–And that would be Julia Walker. Sure, it was a soap opera move reminiscent of Star Wars, but I bought it. The reveal of Julia Walker as Hatake’s daughter was telegraphed, and it made sense in terms of Hatake’s motivations and actions. It explained his preoccupation with her, as well as the fact that he rescued her from the infected-zombielike fate by making her “immortal” too.

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–But what about this immortality? Is it a fact? Why? Where did it come from? And what does it have to do with the Narvik A virus, the one that’s creating the hive-minded people? Could it be that Ilaria and the 500 want to rid the world of those annoying mortals forever? But is that the best way?

–Speaking of pesky mortals, we’ve got a mixed bag of semi-developed characters, which is Helix‘s glaring weakness. Crusading CDC researcher Sarah Jordan has been on death’s door for a few episodes now, and honestly I don’t care. Peter Farragut was healed, but he was more interesting as a viral. Alan Farragut is noble but cardboard. The only characters who have moderately interested me are Julia Walker, Hatake, his stolen/adopted son Daniel, and the evil-but-trying-to be good Sergio Balleseros. Compare Helix to Lost: Lost made you care about the characters, whatever nonsensical craziness happened on that island. Helix struggles to make us care.

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–But then there’s the storytelling. While Helix fails in characterization, it excels in plot and pacing. It is consistent in giving me just enough to hook me. The plot twists keep me off-balance. The visuals are stilted and creative. The music is moody and disturbing. Helix is a quickly moving story. Each episode spans single day, and it’s told with no flashbacks. The structure is bound and wound.

There is something subtly different about Helix. It’s not perfect, but few TV shows are. There’s only one episode left, I suspect not just for this season but for good. If this is the case, then Helix was a great experiment in tight, daring storytelling.