Sci-Fi Saturday Netflix Review: Sense 8

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I recently finished the first season of Sense 8, a sci-fi show created for Netflix by J. Michael Straczinski and the Wachowskis. Since I don’t have a Star Wars post today, I figure why not give it a review. The concept of the show is interesting. Eight people scattered around the world suddenly develop the ability to communicate telepathically and share one another’s knowledge and skills. Of course it doesn’t take long to find out they’re going to be hunted by a big bad who has similar powers.

sense8

The Concept

The main characters are sensate, which can man any number of things in fiction. In this case it means the eight protagonists can share one another’s headspace in strange and fabulous ways. Their telepathic link works as s sort of bilocation. They don’t just hear one another’s voices in their heads, they can actually project themselves to the same location as other members of the group. They can even “let one another in,” a sort of consensual possession which leads to some truly weird sexual encounters before they learn to control their powers properly, and to a few awesome fight scenes. If you judge it according to the standards of typical American television, this show is w-a-a-a-y out there, people.

Here are a few things I liked and didn’t like about the show.

The Good

1. The acting and characterization are the best parts, and the casting is good. The characters, once you get to know them, are compelling.

2. The camera work is brilliant at times, and gives the series a cinematic feel, which is a strength with a piece of speculative weirdness like Sense 8.Sense8Logo

3. Lots of non-heteronormative characters are depicted in believable, loving relationships, and physical intimacy between same sex & transgender couples is actually depicted in the screen. This is a big one. The show is much more sexually explicit than I like my tv to be — definitely not something to watch while the kids are awake. But for the most part, the show gets this one right.

4. There’s a comic shout-out to the Matrix early on in the series that absolutely cracked me up. You’ll know that one when you see it.

The Not-So-Good

1. Sense 8 suffers from one of the problems Game of Thrones does: loads and loads of characters separated geographically and dealing with their own subplots. I never felt like I was seeing enough of any one character. I almost gave up halfway through the first episode, which introduced all eight, because the first 40 minutes is an incoherent mishmash of opening subplots and the incoherence feels deliberate to me. The show (sorta) brings it all together in the last ten minutes of episode 1 and ends with a good hook, which is why I kept watching. This way of organizing a long story works much better in print than it does on tv.

2. The pacing is uneven. Especially in the last half of the season, there were long stretches where I was thinking “ok, I don’t want to see this scene until you tell me what it has to do with the main storyline. And can we please get back to the action now?”

sense8cast

3. Despite the fact that Sense 8 deals well with LGBTQ relationships, stereotypical tropes abound in the characterization. Why does the Korean character have to be an underground kickboxer with anger issues and a wise sensei? Why does the German character have to be a tall, blonde criminal from an abusive family? And *EGAD* one of the American characters is a second-generation Chicago police officer with a soft heart.

Add in a pixie woman from Iceland who deals with a horrific tragedy by retreating into the London club scene, drugs, and dangerously unhealthy relationships, and well. That’s half the cast. Scattering your main characters around the world and making them diverse is good, but building them from standard, predictable tropes takes a some of the shine off. I will say, though. This wasn’t an issue for me while I was actually watching. Could be that I’m not as sensitive to this stuff as I should be. Could be that the characters are well-drawn enough to compensate for the problem. Your mileage will vary with this one.

4. The show goes a bit overboard with graphic depictions of childbirth. Now, I’m not squeamish about anatomy and such depicted in film, and at least the producers worked hard to make it realistic. But I’m talking frontal shots of bloody, crowning heads. Seven or eight of them. Everyone has their limits with this sort of thing, and Sense 8 exceeded mine.

5. The ending falls flat. I was thinking for the first nine episodes that the story was building to a truly interesting moment, but that just never materialized. The finale is a standard “rescue the princess from the castle of the evil overlord” episode. It’s cleverly-enough done, but it’s nothing I haven’t seen. I want more out of a show with this much potential.

6. And finally, the big one. In terms of deciding whether or not to give another 12 hours of my life to this program, should Netflix decide to order a second season, this is what gives me the most pause. The whole story relies on extranormal phenomena, but just how, exactly, the characters’ powers and weaknesses work is not explained adequately.

Sense 8 risks running into the same problem Lost did. I like entertainment with fantastical elements, but I want to know the rules of the paranormal game up front so I can adjust my expectations accordingly. I don’t want to get two or three seasons in and find out things don’t actually work the way the authors led me to believe they do, or to end up feeling like the producers of the show are using the fantastical stuff to sidestep the need to actually resolve plot lines.

The Verdict

Watch this show if you enjoy at least two of these: utter weirdness, contemporary sci-fi with a dystopian twist, or Big Sexy Drama with martial arts and explosions thrown in. But don’t expect too much. If you’re looking for straight action adventure from your Netflix and a satisfying storyline, give Daredevil a try first. I’m on to Marco Polo myself. I think that one has real potential, but then, I’m a sucker for period fiction.

I’m developing a rating system for my reviews, and I’ve not settled on what to use in place of stars, nor created graphics. On a five-point scale, I rate Sense 8 a 3.5, and 1.5 of that is solely for the acting, fight choreography, and camera work.

Thanks to Hannah for discussing this show with me and convincing me to give it a chance. I find it worth watching and writing about, and I am interested to see what Hannah comes up with if she decides to post about it once she finishes the season.

Throwback Thursday My Endless Tolkien Series, part 16

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Originally published at Part Time Monster as “The Mirkwood Affair, pt. 2”

This is part 16 of an ongoing series. You can find previous installments here, and catch early installments on Thursdays at Sourcerer. I’m reading the One Ring as a character and looking at its interactions with various other characters to see what it tells us about the nature of good and evil in Middle Earth.

I was a little surprised to find, as I scanned The Hobbit for passages where Bilbo interacts with the Ring, just how important the Mirkwood chapters are. Before we dive into “Flies and Spiders,” though, one earlier passage that I’ve missed deserves a little attention.

After Bilbo escapes the Misty Mountains with the aid of the Ring, he discovers Gandalf and the Dwarves talking about having lost him. He sneaks past Balin, who is on sentry duty, and right into the middle of the party before taking off the Ring.

“And here’s the Burglar,” said Bilbo stepping down into the middle of them and slipping off the ring.

Bless me, how they jumped! Then they shouted with surprise and delight. Gandalf was as astonished as any of them . . . It is a fact that Bilbo’s reputation went up a very great deal with the dwarves after this. If they had still doubted that he was a first-class burglar, in spite of Gandalf’s words, they doubted no longer.” (1)

This passage is important for three reasons.

  • This is the first instance I can find where Bilbo is clearly acting on the Ring. All through the previous chapter, Bilbo’s interactions with the Ring are written to suggest that the Ring is deciding when to slip on and off of Bilbo’s finger.
  • That last sentence is the point at which the dwarves begin to take Bilbo seriously as a burglar, and in the Mirkwood chapters we’ll see them asking his advice and even following his lead at times. Bilbo’s come a long way since he left Bag End, and the adventure isn’t even half over yet.
  • It is the first time Bilbo makes a choice about how to use the Ring. When he decides, a page earlier, to slip into their midst before removing it, he says to himself “I will give them all a surprise.” This tells us something about Bilbo’s character – he’s getting up to some mischief here, but it’s not malicious. He’s doing it for the laughs. This is a clue as to why the Ring doesn’t affect Bilbo as quickly, or as drastically, as it does Gollum. Bilbo just doesn’t have any malice for it to work with. (2)

Once the company is reunited, they are nearly done in by pursuing goblins and are rescued by the Great Eagles. The eagles deposit them between the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood. The shape-shifting Beorn feeds and shelters them, and allows them to ride his ponies to the edge of the forest. When they reach Mirkwood, Gandalf announces that he has business elsewhere, but will not say anything more about it. He rides away, leaving Thorin and Company to traverse the forest without his aid and with a warning not to stray from the path he’s led them to. (3)

It’s immediately clear that Mirkwood is not a happy forest:

It was not long before they grew to hate the forest as heartily as they had hated the tunnels of the goblins, and it seemed to offer even less hope of any ending. (4)

They travel for so long they begin to run out of food. I haven’t been able to pin down exactly how long this journey though Mirkwood takes, but it is a substantial amount of time. This timeline extrapolated from dates mentioned in the text and references to phases of the moon indicates that they enter the forest in mid-July and arrive at Lake-town on September 22. So we’re possibly looking at a period of eleven weeks, during seven of which the Dwarves are imprisoned and Bilbo wears the ring continuously.

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

Map by Deviant Artist silentrageleon

During the early part of this episode, they come to an enchanted river, which Beorn has warned them not to touch or drink from. They find a small boat and use it to cross, but Bombour falls in and when the others pull him out, he is comatose. And we get our first hint that Wood-elves are about:

They were standing over him, cursing their ill luck, and Bombour’s clumsiness . . . when they became aware of the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound as of dogs baying far off. Then they fell silent, and as they sat is seemed they could hear the noise of a great hunt going by to the north of the path, though they saw no sign of it. (5)

This is the first of several passages that introduce the elves of Mirkwood. The picture of them that emerges is much different than Tolkien’s depictions of elves in the other texts, so I’m quoting them extensively as I work my way toward Bilbo’s encounter with the spiders. We get a bit of foreshadowing a couple of paragraphs later:

Yet if they had known more about it [the forest] and considered the meaning of the hunt and the white deer that had appeared upon their path, they would have known that they were drawing towards the eastern edge . . . (6)

When the white deer referred to in the passage crosses the path,  the company is already so low on food they waste their last arrows shooting at them. Bombour remains asleep for days, during which time the others lug him along. Eventually, the food runs out entirely and Bombour wakes up. He’s had a curious dream

“I dreamed that I was walking in a forest rather like this one, only lit with torches on the trees and lamps swinging from the branches and fires burning on the ground; and there was a great feast going on, going on forever. A woodland king was there with a crown of leaves, and there was a merry singing, and I could not count or describe the things there were to eat and drink.” (7)

The picture of the wood elves that begins to resolve as these passages build on one another is straight out of Faerie. The dwarves spy fires in the distance and forget Gandalf’s warning to stay on the path in hope of finding help. They discover that there are indeed feasting elves about and we get another Faerie-like description.

. . . they peered round the trunks and looked into a clearing where some trees had been felled and the ground levelled. There were many people there, elvish-looking folk, all dressed in green and brown and sitting on sawn rings of the felled trees in a great circle . . . they were eating and drinking and laughing merrily. (8)

So we have a woodland host hunting white deer and a character who’s been under an enchantment having a prescient dream about a king with a crown of leaves. Then the heroes are drawn off the path in search of aid and discovering a circle of feasting elves. It gets even better.

They try three times to enter the circle and speak to the elves. The first two times, the fires go out suddenly, they are plunged into darkness and confusion, and the lights reappear in the distance. On the second attempt, the dwarves shove Bilbo into the light before he has time to slip on the Ring. He falls asleep when the fires go out, and when the dwarves wake him up, they discover he’s had a dream similar to Bombour’s. (9)

The third time, the feast is huge and the elven king is there. Thorin himself steps into the light, and the darkness falls again. This time, the dwarves are blinded by ashes and cinders and Bilbo is separated from them in the confusion. That is the last we see of the Elves until after the encounter with the spiders, but a few pages later, there is this notable passage:

The feasting people were Wood-elves of course. These are not wicked folk. If they have a fault it is distrust of strangers. Though their magic was strong, even in those days they were wary. They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise. For most of them . . . were descended from the ancient tribes that never went to Faerie in the West. (10)

image by lucasmt

image by Deviant Artist lucasmt

There’s much more about elves in that passage, but I am quoting it here to note that Tolkien is actually using the word Faerie for Valinor here. The mythology was obviously not fully-formed at the point Tolkien published The Hobbit, and that makes reading The Hobbit as part of a seamless set of historical narratives a challenge. But it also makes the book more interesting.

There is not much to learn about the Ring in the early part of there chapter, but there is all manner of nerdy goodness here. These passages are important background to the encounter with the spiders, which is a huge turning point in Bilbo’s development as a character, and the escape from the dungeon of the Wood-elves. I’ll discuss those in the next two installments, and hopefully we’ll be out of Mirkwood before I pause to do the A to Z Challenge.

Notes (Bibliography)

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Wordless Wednesday: Flowerbug

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Photo by Gene'O

Photo by Gene’O