Chuck: Back in action

Summer is gone, autumn arrived, and this can only mean one thing: a new season of television shows. And last week kicked off the fourth season of one of my favourites: Chuck.

Beware, all ye who like to watch the Chuck but have not yet seen the first episode of the fourth season: there be spoilers below.

Chuck has always suffered from a problem: lack of confidence.

Not the character Chuck, but the show itself. It seems as though the writing team lives in constant fright that changes might not be embraced by the audience.

For most of the first three seasons, they were afraid to have Chuck make a move on Sarah, to change the chemistry between the two characters by allowing something to happen. Luckily they moved on at the end of season three, and finally let the two lead characters express their feelings.

During the third season, the writers were deadly afraid of abandoning the formula. They even replaced Bryce “super spy” Larkin with a new good guy/boyfriend/bad guy to be Chuck’s nemesis. And like the season before, when Chuck’s driving character flaw was his desire to no longer be a spy, they gave Chuck a somewhat random driving character flaw. In a complete turn-around, it was a desire to be a real spy.

Once again, starting a new series, the writers look scared. When we open, they have re-introduced a familiar mission from earlier seasons: Chuck is searching for one of his parents. His mother this time, naturally.

They also re-introduce old behaviours. Over the course of the third season, Chuck became quite the accomplished liar — which got him in trouble with his family and friends. He opens the season deciding to lie (seemingly without purpose) to Sarah about looking for his mother.

Your correspondent was shaking his head, and holding said head in his hands.

Happily, the Chuck/Sarah behaviour was nipped in the bud by the end of the episode. This — along with a writing team with a tendency to bring everything together at the end of the season — leaves me hopeful and happy about the new season of Chuck. Maybe we will get something that is a bit more creative and new, even if it does feature the same old characters.

The question is whether these same old characters will be given a chance to learn and grow, rather than holding hard-and-fast to defined personality traits until an epiphany arises.

Whether such a radical notion might occur is yet to be seen. Certainly a decision was made to change the tenor of the show this year. Count this viewer as happy.

Chuck, Season 3 (a review)

In a move that makes absolutely no commercial sense, the third series of Chuck is set to begin to show on television here in the UK, a few short weeks after airing the finale in North America. Clearly designed with a young adult geek/nerd demographic in mind — the very same sort of person who will happily pirate TV shows via filesharing sites if it is not made available in the traditional manner — one cannot help but wonder why they would allow for such a delay between the two markets.

Many in their target audience have probably already watched the show, which will only hurt their UK ratings.

For those of you who have yet to watch it, this is a review of the entire third season. It contains spoilers, so read at your own peril.

The beginning: why the third season is awful

When I first started to watch episodes from the third season, I was incredibly disappointed. As you may recall from an article posted almost a year ago, I have long found some of the dynamics about the show to be frustrating and was quite happy when most of these frustrations were resolved at the end of the second series.

Series three, however, begins by stuffing all those worms back into their cans.

The series starts out with Chuck and Sarah back on the outs — the relationship never happened, basically. The two of them have resumed their Sam & Diane holding pattern. On top of it, he now has “Intersect 2.0″ super powers, which take away one of the more compelling elements of the show: Chuck as a fish out of water.

On top of this, the Buy More plots become weaker in the third series, as the show’s focus moves from Chuck as a nerd thrust into the spy life, to being the story of Chuck The Spy. While this progression makes sense, it eliminates the show’s safety net — it used to be that every episode contained a spy story and a Buy More story. With the dearth of Buy More intrigue, there is little to save those episodes in which the spy story becomes a simple re-hash of the Chuck and Sarah story. This happens far too often.

The problems are compounded with the addition to the team: Shaw. This character is basically Bryce II — the good guy who doubles as Chuck’s rival. Shaw is pretty much exactly the same guy, only he appears in every episode.

A kick-ass spy who also holds a piece of Sarah’s heart.

The viewer wants to hate him, but he is also one of the good guys … and who can hate a good guy when he’s saving the day?

Why the awful start is genius

This set-up is painful, but the payoff is worth it.

One of the biggest things that was missing — even though you might not have noticed it — during the first two seasons is that Chuck never gets to face off against his rival. His enemies were always rogue organizations rather than people — FULCRUM, or the Ring. But organizations cannot be a protagonist’s rival. Instead, Chuck’s rival had been Bryce, who is nothing but a good, stand-up guy all the way through the first two series. You were forced to grudgingly like the guy.

Shaw suffers from the same problem; he becomes the rival, even as he is fighting on Chuck’s side. However, he does not come with Bryce’s baggage. He is not Chuck’s former best friend, the guy who made Chuck into a superhero. He has not protected Chuck from day one.

Instead, Shaw is the perfect guy to be turned to the dark side and become Chuck’s true arch-rival. So, of course, he does. Shaw’s betrayal also kick-starts (what we hope is) a final resolution to the Chuck/Sarah plot, which is most welcome.

A wonderful end to the season

By season’s end, a number of fantastic developments have taken pace which, quite simply, make Chuck a better show.

First, Chuck finally gets to confront — and overcome — his rival. He finally has the chance to defeat a villain who was built over an entire season, and get the girl.

At last, Chuck finishes the season in a truly heroic manner.

Second, the secret is revealed. The show suffered for two years with Chuck’s double-life — it works for a few episodes, but not for a series. Every other show with secret identities — such as Buffy and Smallville — functions much better when there is a larger circle of friends and family who know the secret.

Chuck is no exception. Throughout the first two seasons, the two people closest to Chuck — Morgan and Ellie — were unaware of Chuck’s secret. But there are only so many ways to make the hiding-the-identity scene entertaining, and only so long that it can go on and continue to be believable.

In the third season, first Morgan and then Ellie find out. Not only are the individual episodes (and scenes) compelling in and of themselves, but the series becomes much more watchable as a result.

Where do we go from here?

The third season ended with a reveal for the beginning of the fourth season, so we know where we go to a certain extent. The question is whether the series can move forwards or if it will rehash old ground.

Chuck has promised Ellie that he will quit — clearly he will not. Does this mean that we backtrack to the lying-to-family stuff, or does the series move on from that?

Do Chuck and Sarah stay together, or do they somehow backtrack into being broken up — yet partners — again?

Backtracking on the first count seems more likely than the second, but I honestly hope it doesn’t happen. The de facto reset for season three — Intersect 2.0, backtracking on the Sarah/Chuck relationship and (essentially) recasting and redefining the role of Bryce worked well for series three. It probably will not work in a fourth series.

I hope that they keep the idea of having a proper villain to defeat over the course of a season, rather than just having the head of a rogue organization surface in the last two or three episodes. But one “reset” season is enough, and repeating plots grow old.

Here’s hoping that season four introduce some new twists, rather than taking us through the same paces all over again.

Sir Pratchett vs The Doctor

Last week, author (and knight) Terry Pratchett wrote a blog entry for SFX in which he makes the claim that Doctor Who is not science fiction. His pronouncement on this subject caused me some consternation — my gut instinct was that I did not agree with him, although I did not disagree with the individual points that he raises.

Pratchett begins his argument with a fallacy, losing me right off the bat:

People say Doctor Who is science fiction. At least people who don’t know what science fiction is, say that Doctor Who is science fiction.

If you disagree with me, says Sir Pratchett, then your opinion is invalid.

Here at the Big Bad Blog, we are willing to consider ourselves invalid as judges of Science Fiction. We are willing to take on the good knight Pratchett.

What makes science fiction science fiction?

Pratchett believes that Doctor Who‘s failing (as science fiction) is one of plausibility. Can we really believe that a hospital can be teleported to the moon? Or that people’s body fat can turn into little creatures?

What Pratchett misses is that it’s not the plausibility that makes or breaks something being good science fiction. The difference between bouncing a tachyon particle beam off the main deflector dish and using a sonic screwdriver is semantics and handwaving. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, after all. Pratchett wants the viewer to consider whether or not individual feats of technology are scientifically feasible.

Why shouldn’t teleportation be possible? Is The Fly not science fiction due to teleportation? Or is it just that the moon is a long way away?

Why shouldn’t an alien species reproduce by introducing itself to a host parasticially, and replacing the host’s fat cells with its own children?

Why must a Science Fiction writer’s mind not be free to explore these things?

In my mind, the difference between science fiction and fantasy (in which “science” is permitted to replace “magic”) is that science fiction explores the consequences of paths that might be taken in the future. Fantasy says “wow”.

So if we take Pratchett’s hated episode with the diet plan that converts your fat into aliens, consider: People are presently so obsessed over their weight that they ingest parasites, purposely, in order to lose weight. These are usually illegal, but they exist, and are sold. Enter into a world with aliens — there must be parasitic aliens. Let’s imagine one that provides a symbiotic relationship with weight obsessed humans. A creature that procreates by repurposing fat cells and breaking off from the body.

What would the ramifications be?

That’s science fiction. It imagines a potential scenario and explores the consequences. Admittedly, that particular Doctor Who episode was a bit silly and vapid, and does not represent the show’s finest moment. But not science fiction? We beg to differ.

Of course, the show is not always science fiction. It quite often steps towards being fantasy in space and time and/or horror (horror, as it happens, appears to be where Doctor Who is at its best). But the claim that Pratchett makes, that the science and technology must be recognizable to the viewer as real in order to earn the title “Science Fiction”, rings as false.

And the deus ex machina

Terry Pratchett’s other problem with Doctor Who is the reliance on deus ex machina. We agree. Something completely out of the blue often comes along and wraps up the problem quite neatly, thankyouverymuch.

The newer episodes are better at avoiding this. The gravity trick, for example, is demonstrated halfway through the new Weeping Angels two-parter. It is most definitely an improvement in storytelling when the hero does something where the viewer thinks “that was genius!” rather than the hero simply being able to do something because he is a genius.

On the other hand, there is something magical about Doctor Who using deus ex machina as often as it does. Because this is what the Doctor is. There is an intractable problem, and this strange man shows up in his strange box and fixes everything for you.

The Doctor is a god from the machine. His every appearance is, if viewed as part of a larger narrative, other people’s problems being solved out of the blue and for no apparent reason.

Given this, it’s nice to have an occasional deus ex machina. It reminds us of what The Doctor really is.

On Sky, insurance, and why I’m not biting

A little over a year ago, I cancelled on BT. They were giving me the runaround and treating me pretty poorly when trying to set up the Internet, television and phone in the new flat. Not caring for the treatment, I turned to their competitors. Sky seemed like the best deal out there, so Sky it was.

And I have had no regrets. Sky’s service has been friendly and problem-free.

The stuff that comes with Sky’s service — the Sky+ box (essentially a DVR) and satellite — came with a one year warranty. That year has come to an end, and Sky sent out a warning letter letting me know. If an engineer comes to call, it will now cost me £65. They also invited me to take out their insurance policy … at £97 per year.
sky_protect
In my younger days, not too long ago, I spent a large amount of time working for insurance companies and in close quarters with actuaries and their formulas. They’re pretty bright, as a group. Their job is to figure out what the likelihood and cost of a risk is. From there, it’s a simple hop-skip and jump to figuring out how much to charge for an insurance policy.

In short, the insurance always costs more. Always. Even when you “win” at insurance by getting a payout from the company, or being happy that you had it, the insurance company is winning even more. The basic premise is that the average customer pays out considerably more than what they receive in return, over the life of the policy.

So why get insurance, then? There are three basic reasons to buy:

1. It’s mandatory. In some situations — such as car insurance — it is required by law that you are insured. What the legislators really want to be sure of is that anybody who is driving a car can afford to pay for damage they might do should they crash. But there is no way for the police to check, and it is unlikely that most people would consistently have sufficient balances. Insurance is the way out.

2. You cannot afford what is insured. An example of this would be medical insurance. Most of us could not afford to have an operation, on any given day. But because operations are rare for the individual person, the cost of insuring against such a thing occurring are affordable.

3. To spread the pain. Perhaps you can afford to go to the dentist — the prices are not astronomical. But if you have a number of dental problems in close proximity, you might not have the funds available. Alternatively, if there is major dental work to be done, it might make it difficult to both pay up and pay the rent. Better to pay a bit more on a monthly basis than end up in a potential hole.

Which brings us back to the Sky insurance. The cost if things break down — £65 — is not a cost I cannot pay, and is certainly not mandatory. This leaves reason three: spreading the pain. Again, there is not much pain to be had unless it breaks down repeatedly in a short period of time.

But should this occur, I would be dissatisfied with Sky’s service — I do not want television, internet or telephone services that break down regularly. In fact, it happens so rarely I cannot think of an instance where this has happened to me or someone I know. The services go down from time to time, but not locally to an individual home.

Should the service break down in such a manner repeatedly over a short period of time — say a year — I would most likely switch services. I would never get to the second service call during a year, making my largest possible out of pocket expense £65.

Sorry Sky, but I am not interested in paying £32 to feel obliged to stay with you if your service suddenly becomes terrible. And I hope that this is not an indication that you are planning anything of the sort.