Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Zoned Out

An old but unposted-post, from when I found myself watching two different television shows in alternation, separated by a wee bit of Mass Effect and a little of the Anabasis of Xenophon.

Otherworld ran a mere 8 episodes in the mid 80's. When I caught a few episodes a couple of decades ago it didn't do anything for me. Now I find the underlying premise more acceptable. Not the idea of a family trapped in a mysterious other world, that was fine. But the emotional through line; that what is important is staying together as a family, even if that means settling in, finding jobs, otherwise becoming temporary settlers (at least, until Commander Kroll catches up with them again). As a kid I wanted more shooting lasers, less going to PTA meetings.

The plots are clever. It's basically Star Trek on foot, as the family crosses the Forbidden Zone into one isolated community after another. The overall setting is dystopian but the people are basically good. Even the troops of the oppressive regime are humanized (in one episode the elder boy is drafted into the Zone Troopers and experiences first-hand the indoctrination they go through and their essential powerlessness within the system they represent). The gloss is family values and moral choices, but the situations have a Gulliver's Travels twist in their pointed satire on present-day society. The typical starting point with the family comfortably ensconced in the ersatz Anytown, USA de jour means they can be confronted with questions of social responsibility, morality, militarism, mortality, etc. from a close-to-home perspective.

(A unexpected sharp observation from the first episode. The eldest son has fallen for an android who is an essentially perfect human duplicate. Although he seems to accept her, he dismisses her feelings for the family he is urging her to abandon as not real. She presses him into an admission that he doesn't believe that she, as an android, has a soul. So she leads him to the computer that backs up their memories, and points. "There's my soul," she says, "That light there, third from the left. Can you point to yours?")

One of the most refreshing things about this show is that unlike, say, Sliders, the Sterlings recognize immediately that they don't know the lay of the land and what they don't know can kill them. So instead of asking stupid questions in loud voices until they get unwanted attention, they are careful to charm and dissemble and not get caught out by their ignorance. (Not that it always saves them; Trace gets drafted because he takes getting a "yellow slip" from his school for his poor academic performance to be equivalent of similar-sounding but ultimately toothless warnings on our world.)

Of course it is far from perfect. 80's hair once again makes an unintentional period piece of all the supposed otherworldly communities. The effects are minimal to go along with the budget -- save one oddly effective touch; otherwise seemingly ordinary automobiles and doorknobs are juiced up with subtle-yet-nifty electronic sound effects. And there is (to paraphrase from a term coined by Brian Aldiss) a rather "cozy refugee" aspect to it all. Given my own financial background, I can't help noticing how clean the (many changes of) clothing available to the lost family are, or how often they conveniently find themselves with yet another upscale suburban home, status jobs, and well-funded schooling for the kids. One starts to get the impression that their pursuer Kroll is all and all working harder and having a tougher time of it than his purported victims. 

From a couple decades later, Threshold similarly lasted a mere thirteen episodes. The aspect of this one that is refreshingly different is that the central "team" don't really get along and really, really don't want to be there.

The idea is transparently borrowed. Michael Crichton set up in his novel Sphere the idea of a contingency plan for an unlikely circumstance (essentially, alien contact) complete with a list of experts in various fields who would be drafted into an ad-hoc team if said event were to actually occur. He was borrowing from himself as well, since there was something similar in Andromeda Strain, but Sphere added the clever distinction that the plan -- and the names -- were throwaway choices made by a far-from-conscientious drafter who was just doing it for the money and was sure it would never actually happen.

In Threshold, the plan was well-intentioned and the experts appear effective, if as usual over-tasked (why hire a NASA aeronautics engineer and make them do the soldering themselves?) At least this series has some explanation for the latter; in one episode, when one of the fractious experts complains about all the grunt work he's being given, it is explained to him that with all the data miners and military people they have on call, only eight people are cleared to actually know the full details of their work. A more facile explanation than most for why the "bridge crew" seems to do all the work.

Oh yes, the plot. Apparent alien spacecraft appears near a Navy freighter then vanishes, but not before emitting a "signal" that causes all who hear it -- or even hear a recording of it -- to go through severe psychological and physical changes; chief among them a strong desire to expose as many more people to the alien signal as possible.

So in this show, the "masquerade" (the idea of fighting the threat in secret instead of making it public and enlisting everyone to help) makes more sense. Due to the specific nature of the threat, telling everyone would mostly generate false leads and would rapidly multiply potential vectors. This is literally the kind of problem that just knowing about it puts one at risk (rather H.P. Lovecraft like if one thinks about it; even hearing a recording of the alien signal can change you irrevocably into becoming slave to the alien plan). And implicitly pointed out in the series is that lots of people -- particularly terrorist groups -- are entirely willing to overlook the risks when presented with these terribly easy-to-use potential weapons of mass destruction.

Again the flaws are there. It is very much a piece with conventions of story, character, camera work of 2005 television. The science is once again bogus, although it drifts a little closer than some to reality every now and then. But the acting is solid, the situations amusing, and the constant shifting and escalation of the threat removes it completely from the status quo limbo of so many television series. There is absolutely no assurance that the masquerade will continue successfully; information about the alien signal is spreading despite all they can do. In fact, the team essentially fails; they slow the spread down but for every outbreak they find and stop, three others go unstopped. Through even the few episodes filmed the problem is leaping out of any containment (the writers stated in interviews that indeed, by the next season the threat would be fully public. By the third season, the uninfected would be a vanishingly small resistance).

Oh, but just once I'd like to see a top-secret the-Secretary-will-deny-all-knowledge agency that doesn't have a fortune to spend on chrome, mood lighting, and giant wall screens.

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