TV review: BOSS

Criminals of Tokyo, watch out! The Special Crime Countermeasures Unit, led by American-trained Inspector Osawa, is on the job! There are just a few flies in the ointment. Osawa’s superiors hate her. To form her squad, she’s been given the dregs of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. And Osawa herself was previously packed off to the US in disgrace. But don’t underestimate what outcasts can do, given the chance to prove themselves…

 

BOSS is a Japanese detective show, two genres I’m not familiar with. However, I have watched a lot of anime, and in a couple of ways, this reminds me of a live-action version of the same.

 

The first similarity is plot. Generally, each episode features a new case for the team to investigate, and to my non-genre-viewer’s eyes, these are implausible but entertaining. I doubt real police officers would use the heroes’ methods, and a couple of plot twists came out of nowhere, but it’s still a delight to watch the heroes outwit the criminal of the week. Here, the show deserves credit for avoiding a formula. In some episodes, the viewer and characters have to discover the identity of the criminal from scratch; in others, the viewer knows from the start, but the characters don’t. In some, the characters must race to prevent the criminal from striking again; in others, there’s no risk of a repeat, so the tension comes from the difficulty of obtaining hard evidence. As such, it has no problem staying fresh every episode.

 

The second similarity, and where BOSS really shines, is its characterisation and its sense of humour – this despite the grisly nature of the crimes. At heart, BOSS is the classic story about the ragtag band of misfits that ends up gelling together to save the day. Osawa is hot-tempered on the job, but also brave and devious; her crew run the gamut from excessively cheerful (young patrolman Hanagata), to apathetic (forensics technician Kimoto), to scatterbrained (washed-up Yamamura), to sullen (firearm-averse prettyboy Katagiri), to deceptively gruff (gay romantic Iwai). I doubt real police officers would be as quirky as the heroes, but they’re too endearing/funny for me to complain – and the whole point of this genre is seeing how the goofballs shape up. Watching them grow, learn to trust each other and conquer their demons over the series is the slow-burning payoff to the immediate laughs they generate.

 

Overall, BOSS might be a fluff show, but it’s a very good fluff show – the best analogy I have is an early Lois McMaster Bujold novel. You won’t ponder its hidden meaning or debate its moral nuances, but with its rollicking plot, vividly written and acted characters, a great sense of humour, and memorable background music, you’ll have too good a time to worry about such things. Recommended.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

What I’m anticipating – May 2011 edition

Currently I’m in something of an entertainment downtime. I finished Tactics Ogre a week ago, and I’m replaying it at a leisurely pace to see one of the other storylines, but I’m not particularly engrossed in any works of fiction at the moment. Starting next week, this should change, as I have some new toys in the pipeline…

 

Already bought, waiting to arrive:

 

Section 8: Prejudice (multiplayer first-person shooter, PC) (Metacritic) I’m not much of an FPS player, and this goes doubly so for multiplayer. But I’m making an exception for Section 8 – it comes highly recommended; it’s cheap (I paid US$13.50); and most importantly, it’s supposed to have very good bots, so I should be able to have fun playing single-player or cooperatively (as I’ve discussed with some of you guys!). Downloading this via Steam as we speak.

 

Jeanne d’Arc (fantasy tactical RPG, PSP) (Amazon; Metacritic) – As you probably guessed from all my Tactics Ogre coverage, tactical RPGs’ blend of RPG storytelling and squad-level strategy gameplay makes them one of my favourite game genres. Jeanne d’Arc, a fantasy game very loosely inspired by the historical heroine, is supposed to be a very good example of its genre; it’s also pretty rare, so when I saw it on sale for a pretty good price, it was a no-brainer to snap it up. My copy should arrive next week.

 

Persona 3 Portable (urban fantasy RPG, PSP) (Amazon – the US release, not the European collector’s edition I ordered; Metacritic) The PSP port of a widely acclaimed PS2 RPG, in which the protagonist must juggle daily high-school life with periodic monster-fighting expeditions. While the juxtaposition of high school and life-and-death conflicts always annoys me in anime, I’m very much looking forward to seeing how this plays out in a game. This should also arrive next week.

 

Already pre-ordered, waiting for release:

 

A Game of Thrones (fantasy TV series) – HBO’s adaptation of my favourite fantasy novels. Filed under “pre-ordered” because I subscribe to the cable channel that will eventually (in July) broadcast it in Australia.

 

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion (space opera RTS, PC) – I wrote this up in more detail back when it was announced. In addition to the usual expansion pack offering of more, and bigger, spaceships, this also comes with “new victory conditions”, which I hope could deliver a better late/endgame to Sins.

 

Will definitely buy when released:

 

A Dance with Dragons, by George R R Martin (fantasy novel) (Amazon – free shipping for Americans!) The long-awaited next instalment in the aforementioned favourite fantasy series.  I’ve waited almost six years for this book, and there’s no way I’m passing on it.

 

May or may not read/buy:

 

The Heroes, by Joe Abercrombie (fantasy novel, paperback edition – book itself has been out for a while) (Amazon): I remember seeing this book described as the “Rashomon effect” applied to a single fantasy battlefield. Abercrombie is a skilful author and I greatly enjoyed his previous books, but their extreme bleakness is starting to wear on me. I’m not sure if this book will have anything to say about the human condition that Abercrombie didn’t give us in his previous two books. We’ll see…

 

The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss (fantasy novel, paperback edition – book itself has been out for a while) (Amazon): Second book in a trilogy that I’ve seen described as “Harry Potter for grown-ups”, about the adventures of Kvothe the omnitalented wizard. The books have generated a fair bit of internet buzz, and I enjoyed the first book at the time, but subsequently I can barely remember a thing about book 1. Another “maybe”.

A Game of Thrones’ bleakness, revisited

HBO has now aired three episodes of Game of Thrones in the US, and while it doesn’t show here until July (in time for A Dance with Dragons!), I have been following the discussion anyway. I am not at all surprised that some viewers characterise it as a bleak show — but I think this is an opportune time to dredge up my post from last year asking whether the franchise is really that grim.

 

(I don’t think the following vague comment counts as a spoiler, but just in case…)

 

Yes, it is violent. Yes, bad things can happen to people who deserve better. No, it is neither hopeless nor nihilistic, and that, to me, makes all the difference.

 

(And no, I don’t think this just means I have extreme standards for what counts as “bleak”…)

Game of Thrones – news round-up

The last few days have seen quite a few Game of Thrones-related news items. A recap below:

  1. A Game of Thrones will premiere in the US on 17 April.
  2. HBO has released new publicity photos, visible here.  I particularly like the bottom-most picture, which is of Catelyn; it makes her look wise, sad, and strong.
  3. Courtesy of Winter is Coming: a list of stations outside the US which will broadcast the series. In Australia, the series will be on Showcase, “possibly in July”.
  4. Also from Winter is Coming, a summary of a fifteen-minute, non-public preview video (SPOILERS for the first few episodes).

How to make dilemma effective: Stargate SG-1, “Between Two Fires”

In real life, how often have you had to make an unpalatable decision because you felt it was the lesser of two evils?

Characters in fiction, though, get off easy (especially if they’re the heroes). Often, they’ll find some way to weasel out of the dilemma, a “third way” that allows them to have their cake and eat it. So this makes me admire the courage of the odd story that doesn’t present that as an option, that forces the characters to choose and then doesn’t shy away from the consequences.

My example here is Stargate: SG-1. (Warning: spoilers for “Between Two Fires”, an episode midway through season 5.)


***

In this episode, our heroes are called in to investigate skulduggery on the planet Tollana. By this stage, we’ve been familiar with the Tollans for several seasons, seen their lovely planet, learned that while they are technologically superior to Earth, their society is peaceful as a lamb. So imagine the shock when SG-1 learns that the Tollans are building weapons capable of devastating Earth – and that they’re doing so at the behest of the Goa’uld, the villains of the series so far.

Now, why would the Tollans do this? Why would they even go so far as to murder one of their leaders who was opposed to the idea? Was their benevolence a facade a whole time? No. They built the weapons because the Goa’uld arrived in overwhelming force and told them to do it, or be slaughtered (the Goa’uld themselves, for reasons previously established on the show,  can’t directly attack Earth, so they need a plausibly deniable proxy).

Of course, SG-1 thwarts the threat to Earth. They talk one of their Tollan friends, another recurring character, into helping them sabotage the new weapons for the greater good of the galaxy. He does so knowing he condemns his homeworld to annihilation. The weapons cache goes up in flames. The Goa’uld see the Tollans have not lived up to their bargain, and so they begin their assault. SG-1 manages to escape, but their Tollan friend stays behind to fight. Back on Earth, they hear a last transmission from him: “I just want you to know that—”

Static.

And that is the last we ever see, or hear, of the Tollans.

***

The moral of the story is, for a dilemma to be effective, a storyteller must make the sacrifice matter. A hard choice must truly be a hard choice. “Avoid cop-outs” sounds so simple – but it works. And it made “Between Two Fires” one of my favourite episodes of SG-1.

Here comes the ten-minute look at Game of Thrones!

As promised by HBO, here’s the long “Inside Game of Thrones” video! It’s also up on Youtube in ten-minute and twelve-minute versions.

 

Mostly, it was the little things that stood out for me. Jaime Lannister’s ornate armour (go to 5:32 on the ten-minute video); it might not be golden but this is just as good. “Littlefinger” Baelish’s sly, mocking tone (2:13). Viserys’ creepy stare (6:19); here is the living, breathing embodiment of a mad Targaryen king. There are snippets that we’ve already seen or heard (such as Ned and Catelyn, and a certain confrontation in the streets), and a scene that I recognise from the leaked pilot script.

 

And we finally have a more precise ETA – April 2011! I look forward to hearing more about the series as we draw closer to April.

Another GoT teaser

Right on the heels of my last post, here comes another teaser for Game of Thrones. This one is a full minute and again, looks pretty cool. Again, it focuses on the Starks, but there are cameos by others: Cersei, Dany, Littlefinger and Jaime (?), Tyrion, and the brothers Clegane. Enjoy!

A Game of Thrones: the publicity rolls on and on

More appetisers for those of us looking forward to HBO’s Game of Thrones! On the Making Game of Thrones site, HBO has recently uploaded twelve large stills that were originally featured in Entertainment Weekly, plus another short (15-second) teaser. On Sunday 5 December, US time, there will also be a fifteen-minute “Making Of” video!

 

I have not analysed the images or the trailer in any detail, but they look great to me upon first glance. Ned and Catelyn look older and fleshier than I’d imagined them, but of course differences between my mental images, and those of the creators of the series, are inevitable. Jaime looks fine in the still image; however, I don’t think a still can really do the character justice. The key to depicting Jaime on screen is his combination of magnetism and arrogance, and this requires that we can see him in motion. So I look forward to future trailers/promotional videos that feature the Kingslayer.

 

(In other news, I’m back from holiday! I hope to post a review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn soon.)

One sign that our geeky hobbies have gone mainstream

How do we know when a favourite, but hitherto niche, hobby has gone mainstream? I’m sure there are many indicators. The most obvious is, have its sales skyrocketed? There are others: has it featured on a talk show? Are our co-workers discussing it?

 

But lately, I’ve noticed one more: How widely is it being advertised? In particular, is it being advertised in public places?

 

Using this litmus test, gaming has definitely gone mainstream. In the last few months, I’ve seen the bearded special operator from Medal of Honor, the scowling cowboy of Red Dead Redemption, and “Super Mario 25th Anniversary – Part of the Family Since 1985” all staring down at me from the sides of buses. A couple of years ago, I remember seeing LittleBigPlanet posters at the train station, in which an adorable-looking Sackboy proclaimed, “On my planet, the stock market isn’t so scary.”  And I could be mistaken here – this was years and years ago – but I seem to recall seeing CivAnon brochures at university, in which case even turn-based strategy can be mainstream..

 

Speculative fiction movies and TV are also mainstream by this definition. Most recently, I’ve seen posters at the train station advertising vampire TV shows, but pretty much any speculative-fiction blockbuster would count.

 

On the other hand, speculative fiction NOVELS are most definitely not mainstream. Neither is anime (well, in Australia, at any rate). No real surprises in either case…

“The golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”: when do you have the most fun with a hobby?

There is a saying, attributed to one Peter Graham, that “the golden age of science fiction is when you’re 12”.

 

Now, assuming “12” is a metaphor for “when you first discover it”, I can understand the argument. I discovered most of my favourite anime in the first couple of years after I came to the hobby: Cowboy Bebop, Crest of the Stars, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, etc. I suspect this is due to my relatively narrow tastes in anime – in other words, it didn’t take me long to come close to exhausting the pool of anime that are to my liking.

 

But it’s not true when it comes to the games I’ve played. Oh, I whiled away endless hours playing games when I was a kid. And I was willing to spend more hours on any one game than I am now: the two that first spring to mind are Civilization II, which I played and modded ad infinitum, and the original X-Com, which I never bothered to finish because I was having so much fun stomping around on Earth, but there are undoubtedly many, many others. From an “amount of free time” perspective, any time you don’t have to hold down a job will be your golden age.

 

Yet many of my favourite games, or the games I would consider ‘the greatest’ or in some way the best, or those that had the biggest impact on me, are ones that I only played in the last 3-4 years: Fallout 3, Star Control 2/The Ur-Quan Masters, Okami, etc. And I think coming to them with a grown-up’s eyes is a major reason why. For now I have had the benefit of years and years of reading books and playing games and absorbing stories. And now, I can better recognise originality. I can now dissect games well enough to see how they bring together individual building blocks, analyse them in terms of theme and character arc and worldbuilding. In other words, I can appreciate games on more layers than I could when I was younger.

 

Perhaps, then, the golden age of science fiction, or gaming, or anime, or movies or TV or any hobby, is when you’re sufficiently well-versed to understand why you like it.

Rereading books and re-watching movies

I’ve previously mused about the extent to which game-playing habits reflect real-world habits. That said, there must also be plenty of cases where the two don’t match. Take, for example, rereading books vs replaying games. As I noted yesterday, I don’t replay games; however, I read the same old books and watch the same old movies and anime over, and over, and over again (as anyone who lives with me could attest…).

 

Not only that, but I never re-read (or re-watch) cover-to-cover after my first time. In the case of a book, I either just pick it up and start a re-read session at a random page, or else I just beeline for my favourite chapter. In the case of a movie or anime, I go straight for my favourite part. In either case, I skip any scene that I found excessively gory, depressing, or boring the first time around. You could say I’m like the two webcomic characters who described their favourite way of re-watching Episode I: “Pod race, saber fight, pod race, saber fight – our faith in George Lucas is almost restored!”

 

How about you?

Stargate SG-1: The mysterious vanishing Jaffa helmets

In the Stargate movie, and in the early seasons of Stargate SG-1, the bad guys are resplendent in animal-head helmets: Horus guards (from the movie) wore falcon-headed helmets, Apophis and his serpent guards from SG-1 make their first appearance in sinister snake helmets, and when SG-1 meets Heru-ur, their first new System Lord other than Apophis, his goons are wearing the falcon helmets again. However, after the first couple of seasons, the helmets disappear. Why?

Out of universe, I have a pretty simple explanation. As the later seasons introduce more and more Goa’uld System Lords, it would just not have been practical (or affordable?) to design and build unique helmets for each System Lord’s Jaffa. Thus, the vanishing helmets reflect real-world constraints.

However, I think I like my in-universe explanation better. Remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke rips off a stormtrooper helmet and exclaims, “I can’t see a thing in this helmet!”? Well, maybe the Goa’uld decided that SG-1 could regularly defeat whole armies of Jaffa because the Jaffa couldn’t see what they were aiming at. Of course, the Jaffa’s accuracy doesn’t seem to improve even after they start running around bare-headed, but perhaps the Goa’uld thought it was worth keeping up the experiment…

Stargate SG-1: Glad to be proven wrong

As I make my way through season 6 of Stargate: SG-1, I’m glad that the show has addressed my key gripe. Some spoilers in the paragraph below…

Continue reading “Stargate SG-1: Glad to be proven wrong”

Is A Song of Ice and Fire really that bleak?

Now that HBO has released a new teaser, a behind-the-scenes video and a “making of” subsite for A Game of Thrones, and since I had my copy of AGOT autographed by George R R Martin today, this seems an opportune time to ask: is A Song of Ice and Fire really as grim as it’s made out to be?

I know — this seems like a crazy question at first blush. ASOIAF is one of the defining series of modern, gritty low fantasy. Its signature shtick is that characters who would have escaped the consequences of their own stupidity in any other work, by virtue of protagonist plot armour, here pay the price. GRRM has gone on record as saying that he set out to avoid the “roller coaster” feel of novels that create the illusion that their characters are in danger, but where you know the heroes will ultimately be all right.

But stopping there would overlook one vital point. In the novels, trying to do the right thing can get you killed – but when a characters does choose to take a stand, it is held up and celebrated all the same. Characters do change for the better. Life in Westeros is filled with tears – but also moments of joy and triumph. And GRRM has declared his goal of a bittersweet ending, not a horrific one. Compare this with, say, Richard K Morgan’s rage against the world, or Joe Abercrombie’s unrelentingly cynical view of human nature. Who is the bleaker?

Stargate SG-1 and the importance of creating a believable world

I’ve seen the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1, and so far, I quite like it. The pilot episode was as close as we’ll ever come to a TV adaptation of UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense, and although the following filler episodes were a big step down in quality, the series eventually regained its stride. It’s moved past Pre-Industrial Society / Monster / Mysterious Alien Plague Of The Week and now, it seems to be striving for epic space opera. That it does well, and intelligently.

The secret, I think, is how many things – some little, some large – make the world feel believable. The show avoids familiar howlers such as the “Always Chaotic Evil” alien species (admittedly, it is guilty of a few of its own). The characters are generally pretty intelligent when it comes to solving problems – and sometimes, this backfires, when they do something that makes in-character sense but turns out to be wrong, because they don’t know the full story.

And most importantly, the show has a sense of continuity, most obvious in its overarching story arc. But it operates in so many smaller, yet vital, ways as well. Real people remember what happened to them a week ago, or two, or three, or ten. They gripe if it was bad, crow if it was good. So do the characters of SG-1. Real people remember how they previously solved problems, and make preparations if they think they’ll encounter the same issue again later. So do the characters of SG-1. When the show needs minor characters – an ally has come with vital information; the heroes are saved because “the enemy of their enemy” has provided a distraction; a red-shirt to accompany the heroes – it draws on the world it’s already established instead of creating a wholly new disposable character.

And yet, it only takes this so far. Earth itself is locked in stasis; SG-1 never recovers any artifacts that would dramatically shake things up; alien technology never leaks out into the wider world; society remains unchanged. For all I know, this was intentional and the creators weren’t interested in telling a story about how contact with alien societies/advances/species, even in a gradual trickle, might change the modern world. But it disappoints me all the same.