I do not anticipate needing any more Best Dramatic Presentation reviews in the immediate future.
Frankenstein, by the Mechanisms
Reviewed by William Shaw
Eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and available here.
If you’ve ever thought that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been better as a prog rock ballad, this new song from the UK-based steampunk folk band The Mechanisms looks to have you covered. Retelling the classic gothic tale as a ten-minute song about a rogue AI, Frankenstein, while perhaps the least grandiose of the Mechanisms’ projects to date, is still a wonderful piece of work, and crackles with the same energy as their lengthier albums.
The story is told in one long song, with linking narration putting one in mind of a geekier version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The tale concerns a far-future world where a scientist named Victoria Frankenstein creates a revolutionary AI, and… honestly, you know how the story goes from there.
Initially it might seem a bit of a disappointment, after three albums of giddy textual play in established musical genres and mythical traditions, to see the Mechanisms doing a straight pastiche of a specific text. But the band, to their credit, seem to realise the dangers of this approach, and turn them to their advantage. At ten minutes long the song is tight and focused, avoiding the slightly slipshod nature of their longer and more complex albums, and dialling back a bit on the usual self-indulgence. There’s also a genuinely clever twist at the end, which manages to convey a sense of shock as well as ironic inevitability.
But what really sells it is the technical side of things, which is excellent. The singing and instrumentation are both top-notch, with the shifts in tone handled deftly by the introduction of new musical techniques as the song goes on. As ever, the Mechanisms manage to turn what could easily have been a one-gang premise into magnificent entertainment by sheer skill and chutzpah.
This is a song which has clearly had a lot of thought put into it, as well as an awful lot of effort and talent And it’s that sense of passion which makes this song such a worthwhile piece of storytelling. These a clearly a group of people who care deeply about what they do, and long may they continue to do it.
Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky
Reviewed by James Wylder
Eligible in Best Novel, and available here.
Fanfiction as a genre is barely appreciated as an art form, so its hard to go too far stating exactly how Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality needs to be read and appreciated, as it has opened up the genre in a bold new way. Eliezar Yudkowsky has crafted a massive work that redefines the relationship of fanfiction to the work it stems off from in exceedingly fascinating ways.
The premise: that Harry Potter is not raised by the abusive Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia, but by Petunia and a different man she married: an educated man well versed in science, who does not mistreat Harry, but provides for him as well as instilling the scientific method deep into his worldview. Harry's character, shaped very differently by nurture, is utterly analytical and curious and upon his arrival at Hogwarts begins to excel at Magic at a rate far beyond any one else by applying the scientific method to figure out its inner workings.
The result is a work that is beautiful in its quantities: the limits and ranges of magic become a prismatic river of data, and there is a sheer joy and perversity in watching the magical world dissected the way it is. Yudkowsky's writing is at its best when it is away from human interaction, it blossoms in the finite, and one can't help but wait for Harry's thoughts to be alone on the page and the measurements and calculations to begin.
In taking apart the Harry Potter series using the polar opposite of magic, this story manages to create something wholly original, and yet completely dependent upon its parent. This story could not work with the names filed off, re-purposed and repackaged as its own work. The power in it comes from Harry Potter, from being able to take things millions of readers around the world have peered at through a crystal ball, and put a scalpel to it. In doing so, it enhances the work it was built from, making you question that work without anything so bitter as cynicism.
The work has built a new kind of fanfiction, off of the backs of many fanfics before it certainly, but here it has come into its own. To recognize it for its greatness, well, it would only be rational.
Full Disclosure, written by Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco and directed by Hye Sung Park
Reviewed by Sean Dillon
Eligible in Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form, and available on iTunes and Amazon.
Steven Universe is a show about a young boy named Steven who is raised by the Crystal Gems: a group of rebels space gems named Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl who were once lead by Steven’s late mother, Rose Quartz, until she died giving birth to Steven. Together, they go on adventures across the world, searching for artifacts and corrupted gems from a war, thousands of years old, which Steven’s guardians fought in. The war in question was one against a group known as the Homeworld Gems (so named due to their allegiance to the gem home world) and it ended with a lot of death and scars on both sides. But more important to the show’s ethos than all this silly science fiction nonsense, is Steven’s relationship to the town in which he lives in. Be it to his father, Greg, his best friend, Connie, or his pet lion, Lion, Steven will always try to have a fun time and make the best out of whatever situation he finds himself in… at least, until the story I have chosen to discuss in this review: Full Disclosure.
Released on March 13, 2015, Full Disclosure is the second season premiere. As with most science fiction season finales, the show ended on a narrative collapse and a cliffhanger. And as with most premieres for those kinds of shows, the story is about resolving that cliffhanger. However, the cliffhanger in question is a phone call Steven received from Connie, who wants to know what happened to him and his fellow Crystal Gems that had him tell her they might all die. The events in question, being the aforementioned narrative collapse, involved Steven and the Crystal Gems being utterly demolished by the Homeworld Gems, to the point where Garnet, the strongest of the gems, is killed right in front of Steven’s eyes. The collapse is resolved by revealing that Garnet is, in fact, two gems fused together and powered by their lesbian love at the price of one of the gems having to be trapped under the ocean as a ticking time bomb of an unhealthy relationship. And thus is where the meat of the episode comes from: the decision whether or not to tell Connie about last night.
As one would expect from this genre, Steven decides to not tell Connie. This decision doesn’t come lightly, as he spends the entire first half trying to figure out how to tell her what happened (and after being given a lecture about the virtues of being a brooding loner who looks down upon a city that cannot comprehend the horrors he sees in his day to day life and suffers quietly and alone), and we get this amazingly melancholy musical number with a deceptively up beat tempo. This is, of course, typical behavior of a character in a science fiction property with a big dark secret and has been seen on numerous other shows. Unlike those other shows, we are shown how this decision is hurting Steven as a person. And not just in the typical “I see you happy when I am miserable because my happiness would be bad for some reason” bullshit, but in how his decision to repress everything is highly unhealthy. For example, look at the framing of the shot right after the big musical number. The other Crystal Gems are looking at one another while Steven is not only looking away from them, but also is actively separated from the group. Furthermore, there’s the lack of emotion within his voice when he talks and even the words he speaks, highlights someone who could be described as a person who stands alone, above the people he protects, to brood about the difficulties of his life. And, of course, there’s his reaction to the best joke in the entire episode, which is an expression of annoyance at the childish behavior of his fellow gems (reminder, Steven is about 10. His fellow Gems are thousands of years old).
When Steven explains why he’s behaving this way and how he plans on ignoring the problem of Connie forever, the Gems are naturally concerned. In particular, Pearl, who is perhaps the Gem with the least amount of understanding towards humanity and has the most inner turmoil, raises an eyebrow at the prospect of Steven running away from his problems. But, regardless of Steven’s plans, Connie wants to know what’s going on a goes straight for the source (i.e. Steven’s House).
What follows is a literalization of the internal struggle Steven has been going through over the course of the entire episode, in that he is literally running away and hiding from Connie. Here we get one of many amazingly designed shots of the episode as the chase brings them through the alien architecture of the crashed ship which, through its use of color, exudes an eerie atmosphere to the scene despite being a familiar corridor chase scene. Eventually, Steven reaches a point where he can’t run anymore, and he decides to just lie to Connie to get her to go away. At first, he sends her an impersonal text, claiming he doesn’t want to be friends. She immediately calls him, to which he says some things that really hit right into the core of Connie’s insecurities, just so that she’ll go away. It’s easier to be the brooding hero, who cuts themselves off from the world to protect those closest to them when they do not see those closest to them react to their actions. Being a fantasy nerd, Connie knows this and calls Steven’s bluff, telling him that she’ll only go away if he says it to her face. If he says all those cruel, mean things to her directly, she’ll leave. And we see Steven climb up the remains of the alien architecture, draped in shadows. And, for a brief moment, we believe he’ll do it. This is, after all, a science fiction series with a debt to anime, comic books, and video games. So a main hero who broods alone and hurts those closest to him wouldn’t be out of the question.
And yet, he can’t do it. Steven isn’t some brooding anti-hero who hurts others to push them away. He’s not Batman. And this isn’t a show about that kind of character either. And so all of his repressed emotions come out in a beautifully ugly flood of tears. And it is here, in these final moments, that we see what is at the core of Steven Universe. Not giant space battles, or brooding heroes, or even comedy and musical numbers. No, what’s at the core of Steven Universe is a story about people who have been hurt by many things, be it the prejudice of their culture, the nature of their existence, or the loss of someone they love. And more importantly, it’s about those people, and many others, helping others heal and allowing themselves to heal.
And out of all the episodes, I think this episode shows that core through the simple fact that it’s about Steven being healed. Healed from idea that being a grown up means that you have to repress your emotions away, only letting them out when you’re alone and brooding, and you must keep secrets from those closest to you in order to protect them (as an aside, is it just me, or does Steven Universe look a lot like a famous Science Fiction writer named Steven). But the fact is, that’s an unhealthy way to live. Closing yourself off from those closest to you only hurts you and them even more. And so, as with the ending of the episode, we must give full disclosure to those closest to us, so that they can help us heal and become better people.
There are, perhaps, better Steven Universe episodes, but this is the one that I find myself going back to again and again. This is an amazing show with a cast of fantastic characters who we see grow and change throughout the series. The problems they have don’t go away overnight, but nonetheless, they are healing. And this episode highlights just how amazing it’s characters are all the while deconstructing negative tropes and behaviors in favor of ones that promote ones of joy, optimism, and the desire to help others in this strange world of ours. I heartily recommend this series to anyone who thinks these stories are worth telling.
The Race for Space, by Public Service Broadcasting
Reviewed by Nicholas Caluda
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This is not, properly speaking, a “science fiction” album. That would kind of go against Public Service Broadcasting’s whole shtick, which is basically what their name implies – they use found sounds and pre-existing recordings to create the “lyrical” content of their pieces.
But something about this album feels fictional. It’s as though it’s from some alternate future where the space program is still a part of everyday life. Sure, the Mars missions were exciting when they were first announced; but as soon as the target date of 2020 hit people’s iPhone screens, the vast majority mentally checked out. Space just doesn’t matter to us the same way it did in the late 1960s.
Ok, not really a new observation. Peter Harness would probably have a few words to say on the subject. But this album takes a slightly different approach than “Kill the Moon” did. It reshapes the supposed mundanities of the space program into something exciting. It shows us the amount of work that went into those first space flights. It pays tribute to the cosmonauts, astronauts, and engineers involved in the process. And it does all this through incredibly danceable funk workouts, (the super catchy and dangerously groovy “Gagarin”) modern EDM tracks (the riff-laden, slow-building “Go!”), and gorgeous choral experiments (the title track and the forever-ascending “Valentina”).
I could go on about how clever the album is with connecting its music to its spoken word content – the repeated choral melody towards the end of “Valetina” never moves downward, even when it makes more melodic sense, because the track is about ascension. “Tomorrow” recasts the musical themes of “Go!” in 5/4, creating both a sense of unfamiliarity and restlessness – a feeling we should still have for the vast expanse around us that we so often take for granted.
So, though this album isn’t necessarily science fiction, it contains many of the genre’s best elements. It reminds us how exciting space travel really is for humanity, even in its mundanity. And it does so by using our own words. It points us towards a better future by reminding us how excited we once were about that future. It shows us that our destiny is in the stars; we should damn well go search for it.
Just as long as we bring great funk tunes with us.