Wednesday, March 09, 2005

TV: Old, Not So Old and Current SF Series

During the last month or so, I haven't had any hockey to while away my spare hours and that's meant digging out some old SF series on video and DVD to take a look at how things have progressed over the years.

In roughly a month, I saw the whole of the Space: Above and Beyond and Crusade series, as well as all of the episodes of Battlestar Galactica 2004. To be honest, I watched the first half of the Crusade series, then all of Galactica and Space, then the remainder of the Crusade series. But it was fascinating to watch the computer effects of the shows that span from Space's 1989 to Crusade's 1999 to last year's Galactica.

And you know, the 15-year old Space series probably stands up the best!

Yet another series that lost out due to expensive production, you can see all that money up on the screen. The incredibly jingoistic series was an artistic success and it's a shame it couldn't last. It did get a whole 24-episode season rather than the 13-episode (or less) trial that "modern-day" series get, but ended on an ambiguous note that could be an ending or a cliff-hanger. I was satisfied for the viewing experience, but wish I could have seen more adventures.

The day I put Space to rest, I saw taped episodes of NCIS and Law and Order:Special Victims Unit that featured guests Morgan Weisser and Joel DelaFuente respectively. It was a bit weird, since I couldn't remember seeing either actor much over the last few years. In fact, the only members of the Fightin' 58th I can remember seeing with any regularity this century were James Morrison and Lanei Chapman. Otherwise it's been like the group was lost in space. (One guest-starring role worth seeing in Space is the one with Richard Kind, playing against his usual comedic arch-type).

Crusade was a new-born babe with no sense of form when it got canned. J.M. Straczynski was fresh off the Bablyon 5 success and wanted something the same but different. And the focus hadn't coalesced when this series came to an end. In fact, the interesting (but sparse) extra features in the DVD set of Crusade hints at an overall story that would have been worth watching.

Gary Cole's commander Matthew Gideon only emphasizes the limited range Scott Bakula has at the helm of the now-doomed USS Enterprise. Unfortunately, the only other constants were Cole's right-hand man Daniel Dae Kim and a badly-underused Marjean Holden as the doctor. Other members of the ensemble cast proved anything but regular. A de-glammed Carrie Dobro was the one resident alien and had some promise, as did the annoying corporate barracuda/smart guy Max, played with smarminess by David Allan Brooks. Babylon 5 carryover Tracy Scoggins lit up her three episodes as a captain capable of tangling with Cole and that got her star billing on the series, despite being in less than a quarter of the shows.

But the one character with the most promise was Peter Woodward's technomage character, Galen. His dry, deadpan humour infused his episodes with the most needed component of any SF series, laughs. Humourless SF is horrible. Galen added laughs, mystery, an easy out for some problems, and a riposte for Cole when Scoggins wasn't around. Woodward, Edward's son, was extremely memorable. He popped up in a Charmed episode just after I finished Crusade, keeping my weird meter running.

In many ways, the Crusade SFX were better than Crusade's. But where Space looked dilapidate and dirty effectively, there were odd glaring instances where the brightness of Crusade was just a little wobbly. In fact, Straczynski mentions one glitch repeatedly in the commentary he does for one show. And it doesn't help (although it is explained in a couple of ways) that the crew uniforms go through several changes during the 13-show run.

Which brings me to the darker and grittier Battlestar Galactica. It's been renewed for a 20-episode second season and that is a good thing. But I hope some things the creators cherish disappear during the 'off-season.'

Those among the viewership that bemoan Starbuck and Boomer change of genders to the interesting Katee Sackhoff and appealing Grace Park are all misogynists. Both actresses do a fine job. On the other hand, the human-appearing Cylons don't do much for me and I'm truly irritated by Tricia Helfer's Six, a mind construct for the weasely Dr. Baltar played by Jim Callis. He's too smart, she intrudes too much and nobody notices the man talking to the shadows. Un hunh. Yes, Helfer is gorgeous. No, she's not needed. The 'enemy among us' plot line would succeed just find without her.

Edward James Olmos' Commander Adama has more depth and gravitas than Lorne Greene had and he's fun to watch. As is sparring partner Mary McDonnell as the dying President. But the fun performance to watch is Michael Hogan's turn as Colonel Tigh. The embodiment of Gruff, Hogan and Olmos take turns in being the restrained powder keg in command central. And let's not forget Richard Hatch, the old Apollo and new bad guy with a heart of fool's gold. For a guy who fought long and hard against this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, he's climbed on board impressively.

Which brings up the special effects. The show has a future retro vibe that works in the main. But everything is SOOOOOO dark lighting-wise, the SFX guys are fighting a loosing battle. The same grittiness worked for Space. But it fails to hold the attention here. I guess I expected better.

I hope Galactica gets off the ships and hits the planet-sides once in a while this coming season. I want to see more of Hatch and his plots and less, much less, of Six and Baltar having mind-sex constantly. But most of all, I'm just happy to see a SF series get a second season.

SPORTS: Gonzaga or Louisville?

A month ago, I 'knew' my final four for the upcoming NCAA basketball championships was Kansas, Illinois, North Carolina and Duke. A week ago, I 'knew' the final four was Illinois, North Carolina, Kansas and UConn.

Today, what I know is that I don't know who to pick to complete my final four with North Carolina, Illinois and UConn. Will it be Gonzaga or Louisville? I think the TarHeels will beat Illinois in a low-scoring final, but I like Charlie Villanueva to get UConn close and I have to choose between Rony Turiaf of Gonzaga and Francisco Garcia of Louisville as this year's Travis Diener. Rick Pitino makes Garcia the pick, draw permitting of course.

Wake Forest? Chris Paul is outta control and will get distracted at a key moment. So many good guards out there means John Lucas will get shut down before Oklahoma State runs the whole race. Duke's short bench means any tightly-officiated game is deadly to my favourite team's chances. Boston College, Syracuse and Pitt all have flaws, although BC's hidden theirs longer.

Kentucky loses with one sub-par Patrick Sparks game. Florida, Alabama and LSU are heartbreakers for their fans. Arizona and Washington will eventually come up against defenders capable of stopping Salim Stoudamire and Nate Robinson respectively. And Utah feels like a cozy pick until you look at the litany of teams they have beaten, and don't recognize anybody other than LSU. Pacific is the terror that wins two and celebrates a good year. Charlotte and Wisconsin are better than their reps, but not good enough. Michigan State isn't as good as Paul Davis et al should be. They'll trip early.

Who's left? Kansas. My pick to win it all a month ago. A competitive team without Wayne Simien, and a top team with him back. Or so I thought. Turns out the team needs now-gimpy Keith Langford to shoot well (hit or miss) and 35 plus minutes from PG Aaron Miles. As a first or second #1 seed, the Jayhawks might very well have gotten what they needed after coasting a round or two. I just see that not happening.

So, here I am, a week before the festivities start, wondering who to take fourth rather than fifth and hoping the injury bug leaves 'my' teams alone.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

SPORTS: A Cheeky Treasure

In between dental procedures, I've finally found time to listen to some radio and get back here to record a few thoughts.

Saturday was a programming day with the usual cacaphony of sounds and images playing around me as I tried to get a handle on product reduction for this project I am working on. The TV was showing CBS's triple-header of what turned out to be great college basketball games. But I wasn't paying too much attention, since I was anticipating a big Illinois win over Ohio State. Not much to my credit there.

No, the main source of distraction was the Toronto Blue Jays' game on the radio. And, much to my happy surprise, the voice I heard was Tom Cheek's. The timbre and sound of his voice has been more than the occasional companion for more than half my life. His consecutive game streak came to an end last year as he lost his father and then his good health in one horrible fortnight. But until then, the tall, ex-Vermonter had been a constant for every game the Jays played until then. Every game, save some Spring Training exercises in exercise. He was a man who's style and grace made comparisons to Vin Scully legitimate. For that, he should have won the Ford Frick Award and entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame. With apologies to Jerry Coleman, a fine man and announcer, I believe Cheek should have won the award.

I say all of this so that folks out there make sure to catch Tom Cheek this season in the home broadcasts that he has signed up for. His continuing treatment for a brain tumour have me worried that the end of career is nigh. He had a rough time Saturday, but that could just be a case of getting out the winter rust. But even at a sub-par level, Tom Cheek made me feel like it was warm and sunny out and the Jays were once again the coming sign of summer.

A couple of innings in, I noticed the supposed to be one-sided basketball game wasn't. The programming was put aside and I wandered over to the lounge where the radio is set up near my left ear and the tv's straight ahead. I'm a basketball junkie, so I could have been pardoned if I shut the radio off. It was, afterall, a meaningless game. But I didn't. I kept the TV sound down low and let the sounds of coming summer cast their spell over me.

I didn't want to miss one more Cheeky performance. Make sure you don't pass up the opportunity to turn in every now and then to Blue Jay home games this summer. Mute the TV sound and let Tom and Jerry (Howarth) remind you of when you were younger, a lot younger, and loved pro sports a whole lot more than you do today.

Appreciate Tom Cheek while we still have him.