I've been working a little too hard this year. Others must share my feeling that they are behind on multiple obligations and doing all of them badly.
In these moments, my overworked brain starts to rebel. Without the occasional break, work suffers. My form of play is looking for science fiction to watch on television. In the interest of offering others the opportunity for efficient escapism, let's review some of the recent sci-fi offerings available for viewing:
• Altered Carbon (Netflix). Not bad, but not exactly good either. The premise is intriguing: In the future humans have the ability to download and transfer their consciousness via cortical "stacks" into different bodies, which are called "sleeves". This means, in theory, that people can live forever. In practice, that concept seems reserved for the very wealthy, who live high up and are referred to as "Meths" - short for Methuselah. In this world, a political rebel is re-sleeved after being on ice for 250 years to serve as a private investigator for a Meth - who attempted to kill this plutocrat?
Netflix clearly spent a lot of money on this programme. It echoes the HBO show Game of Thrones through the ambitious effort at world-building and the rather copious amounts of nudity on display (a tip of the cap to leads Joel Kinnaman and Martha Higareda as well as their personal trainers). Unfortunately, the plot holes in this programme are larger and the characterisations are thinner than in the early seasons in Westeros. This is frustrating, because the show's premise was not bad. The problem is that a show that asks some interesting questions about identity and inequality has not really thought through some of its premises. Without giving anything away, let's just say that you'd think the privacy protections in the world of Altered Carbon would be better and not worse than the present day.
• Star Trek: Discovery (CBS All Access). If Altered Carbon was disappointing, the latest Star Trek effort was maddening. Exploring the Federation through a prolonged war with the Klingons (set 10 years before the original series) wasn't the worst premise. For it to work, however, there had to be characters worth caring about, and Discovery did not really deliver on that premise. Some of the supporting cast are good; Doug Jones as Seru and Mary Wiseman as Tilly inject something genuinely new but compatible with the Star Trek universe. The main characters, unfortunately, are less interesting.
It seems like the show runners knew this, and so after a few episodes Discovery quickly turned into Star Trek: Scandal. I won't ruin the myriad plot twists except to say that they made almost no sense if you thought about them. Doing this on a stand-alone space opera might have worked. Attempting this on a Star Trek show seems ill-fated at best, as so much of the plot clashes with the ethos of the larger franchise. The problem with Discovery is that it never offered an answer to "What is this show's purpose?" beyond "promoting CBS All Access". I doubt the show will ever crack this top 10.
• Lost in Space (Netflix). I love Parker Posey to death, but I could barely get through the pilot episode. Not enough signs of intelligent life.
• The Expanse (SyFy). Last year I called this the best show about international relations on television. I can't quite stand by that claim in 2018 because the last season of The Americans is now on the air and so far that show has been consistently spectacular. That said, Season 3 just started and it picks up right where Season 2 left off. My only request is that the show finds a way to get Chrisjen Avasarala (played by Shohreh Aghdashloo) out of her current predicament and back to her proper milieu, which is the seedy politics of foreign policy.
My one takeaway from this review: Every science fiction programme would be better served with more Shohreh Aghdashloo.