Tag Archives: science fiction

“Destiny” So Far

Screen Shot 2014-07-26 at 12.32.05 PMFor the past week, I’ve been dipping into Bungie’s Destiny beta — just like the rest of the gaming world, it seems! Although I’ve only had time to play for about five hours so far, I’m already hooked and eager to see what else the game has to offer. Here are my thoughts so far…

New Science Fiction IP

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As a huge science fiction fan, I’m always on the lookout for new sci-fi worlds to explore. That’s why I’ve been so eager to see what Destiny is like — it’s a brand new sci-fi IP!

If I had to compare Destiny to one other world, I would say it reminds me most of Star Wars — yet it’s totally unique. There’s some mystery to Destiny‘s world, and the presence of the Traveler — a massive sphere in the sky that enables people to colonize other planets in the solar system and equips some with special powers — reminds me of the “magic” of the Force.

Destiny has an intriguing science fantasy world that leaves a lot for players to explore and unravel. I’m very happy that it is a world with warmth, which makes me want to spend time there. There are some post-Apocalyptic landscapes, jumpships that add to the sci-fi flavor, plenty of tech, and some special powers that feel almost like magic. It’s a unique blend that I talk about a lot on my blog here.

Character Creation

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Destiny lets you customize a character — an automatic win for the role-player in me. You can choose from one of three character classes and one of three races, each with male and female options. I chose to play as a female Exo warlock. The Exos are a robotic race, while the warlock class is the equivalent of the mage class in other games (or, like, an Adept in Mass Effect).

The character creator itself gives plenty of attractive options without going so far as to allow customized noses and jaw lines and all that. You choose your gender, one of several face shape options, your skin color, eye color, hair, and tattoos or headwear. Those are the main choices, and they’re all designed to give you a unique, good-looking character with minimal fuss. I played around with the engine creating characters for a while before finally settling on my Exo!

Toned-Down MMO Style

 

When it comes to games, I like to immerse myself in the single-player experience. The biggest issue for me is that the “gaming” aspect of playing with other people is very distracting from the role-playing and worldbuilding. That’s why I don’t typically play MMOs.

Destiny offers an experience that feels MMO-ish without overloading you. Some parts you play solo. Other times, you’ll be able automatically grouped with a couple of other players — but the game doesn’t shout this at you. Instead, you’ll just spot the other players hanging around the area with you while you do your thing. And having a limited number of people with you means you won’t bump into others all the time or feel the crush of the MMO crowd. Of course, you can choose to play with others during these times, too — I just haven’t yet.

I appreciate that the MMO experience is toned down, but I’m still not a fan. It breaks the immersion to see other players’ usernames floating above their characters’ heads, and it’s distracting to see other players jumping around the Tower and approaching quest givers alongside me. However, I’m sure I’ll get used to it, and so far, Destiny has been enjoyable (and totally possible) to play solo.

Special Powers

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There’s a problem for me as a sci-fi video game fan: Most sci-fi games are shooters, and I’m terrible at shooters. I just don’t like them all that much. I find it much more engaging to try out different kinds of weapons, such as the daggers, bows, and battle axes in fantasy games — or better yet, throw some magic around. There’s nothing I like more than freezing an archdemon in Dragon Age. It is awesome. And that’s why I enjoy Mass Effect so much. It’s a perfect blend of science fiction polish and special powers (tech powers and “biotic” powers).

The good news is that Destiny offers fantasy-style character classes while still letting you hold a rifle. You can hunker down and shoot in a typical FPS style or play to your more unique skillset. Titans are heavy armor and weapon specialists, Hunters take advantage of speed and stealth, and Warlocks channel energy from the Traveler to cast special (almost magical) powers. The diversity of these classes offers something for everyone, and I can tell I’m going to enjoy the Warlocks’ “magic.”

Last Thoughts. . .

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All of these elements create a very unique game, but it’s nothing if it doesn’t have the right energy. You might mix all of these features together and come out with a game that feels cold or methodical or slow — but Destiny feels right. You launch your jumpship from one location to another to take on missions in order, with the Tower always available to you if you need to grab supplies or upgrades in between. Having a little companion in my “Ghost” — a floating AI — is a perfect, personable touch. And even though it’s very early in the game, I already feel a sense of exploration as I land on these wasteland planets and start scavenging for supplies, fighting menacing enemies everywhere I go.

I have a feeling playing the full game is going to be a blast.

— Ashley

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Gearing Up For Season 3 of Continuum!

Some of you may know that I’m a big fan of the Canadian science fiction show ContinuumLike, I once wrote a ridiculously long post recapping the entire first two seasons and giving some thoughts for where the show might take the story in the future.

Now that the third season is premiering, I’m here to recruit some new fans — so here are some reasons to watch (with no big spoilers, don’t worry!):

The Time Travel Twists

The show is about a cop in the year 2077, who is on duty when a group of terrorists calling themselves Liber8 is going to be executed for their crimes. At the last second, these terrorists use a time travel device to escape to 2012 — and the cop, Kiera Cameron, is sucked in with them. Stranded in our time period, she wants to stop Liber8 in the present while trying to preserve the timeline to make it back to 2077, where she has a husband and son. If too many things change in the present, the future might shift accordingly — meaning her family may not exist if she ever does make it back to 2077.

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Kiera’s gun, which also makes it back to 2012 with her…

It’s an original premise and allows the show to be sci-fi yet set in the present day, with no need for major special effects, etc. But what I really love about it is how surprising it is. It plays with familiar time travel concepts such as the grandfather paradox, but it always makes them feel unique. Part of this is because the show’s characters are so strong, and everything presented in the storylines is personal to someone.

A Cop Show That’s Not Your Average Procedural

I would describe Continuum as a cop show, but it’s not an episodic procedural. Kiera teams up with the local police force in 2012 to help take down the Liber8 terrorists, which is the big “cop” arc that the show has. There are no separate crimes that are solved at the end of each episode; instead, Kiera and her fellow cops are specifically tracking Liber8 throughout the series — plus all of the other stuff going on. And while I’m all for a good cop procedural like (Almost Human), I prefer Continuum‘s long game.

The Importance of the Tech

The futuristic technology in Continuum is mostly limited to whatever Kiera has on her when she time travels, such as her cop suit that lets her decipher codes, turn invisible, create crazy shields to block bullets, and more. She also has a Cellular Memory Review (CMR) that records everything, as well as a HUD that can show her readings on people she’s interrogating so she knows when they’re lying, among other things. Plus, during flashbacks to 2077, you get to see a lot of the tech that makes that future world go ’round. Still, if you’re really into lots of tech, it might feel like Continuum doesn’t have enough.

Personally, I like that the tech is limited but well-developed. The Liber8 members are always after Kiera’s cop suit because they know what it can do; there’s even a very cool episode about the suit falling into the hands of people like us, living in modern times, who don’t know what it is. (But don’t worry, I won’t spoil it!) The rarity of the tech, and the fact that not everyone knows Kiera has it, works its way into interesting storylines and adds a lot to the stakes. It also makes the flashbacks to the future more exciting.

The Focus on Characterization

I love Continuum‘s characters. When I haven’t watched the show in a while, I sort of miss them. And what’s really cool is that the “villains” in Liber8 outnumber the good guys and are just as well-developed as Kiera and her friends. Each of the Liber8 members has a unique purpose, personality, and back story, and they have their own conflicts with each other as the story unravels.

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Alec and Kiera.

Kiera also meets interesting allies in the year 2012. One is her cop partner, Carlos, who defends her when the rest of the station doesn’t know what to make of Kiera. But the most important of Kiera’s allies is Alec Sadler, a teenage computer genius who is able to tap into Kiera’s tech… because he’s the one who designed it in the future.

Kiera herself is one of the less accessible characters, which I actually love. She’s serious — sometimes too serious. She’s also got tunnel vision on getting back to her family, which can make her seem selfish sometimes with people in the present. And though the Liber8 members use terrorist tactics to spread their message and further their cause, they champion freedom from corporate rule — something that a lot of us probably agree with today. Meanwhile, Kiera is the one who is actually okay with corporate rule. In the first episode, she even makes a joke that it’s corporations that make life so comfortable for her family and her friends in 2077.

I’m kind of hoping Kiera will go through a character arc that has her believing in Liber8’s cause. Or maybe she and Liber8 will meet in the middle. Or maybe that’s not what Continuum is even about. The show loves to present different ideologies, but it doesn’t seem to condone any single one, which is very cool.

———

If you’re interested, the first two seasons of Continuum are on Netflix, and the third season premieres this coming Friday here in the States. I am so ready to jump back in at last season’s cliffhanger…

— Ashley

“The Order: 1886” and the Rickety Definition of Steampunk

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The Order: 1886 is one of my most highly anticipated games of the year, mostly for the gritty Victorian setting that sets it apart from other games coming out. The last time I was this excited for a game based on its atmosphere was when Dishonored came out in 2012! (I literally had dreams about that game while I waited for it to hit stores…)

Set in 19th century London, The Order: 1886 centers on an order of knights based loosely on Arthurian legend. But what makes this world even more unique is that these knights are equipped with advanced technology. However, Ready at Dawn creative director Ru Weerasuriya explains on the EU PlayStation blog that the weapons are “actually not that outlandish or futuristic… We don’t twist the actual technology itself — what we twist is its use.” In other words, the technology behind the weapons is grounded in Victorian times, even though they weapons are not historical.

All of this makes me think the game is steampunk, but the studio says it’s not. The game is more about proposing an alternative timeline — a history that could have been, that’s believable.  There may be fictional, monstrous creatures and guns that shoot lightning, but all of the technology could have existed in that time period, and it’s not steam-powered. Weerasuriya also emphasizes that the game’s atmosphere is dark and gritty, which might separate it from the more whimsical vibe some steampunk gives off…

How Do We Define “Steampunk” Today?

The definition of steampunk seems a bit wobbly to me, but maybe that’s okay. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition of “steampunk” is:

steampunk definition

This makes it sound like steampunk could be set in a sci-fi style future that’s littered with outdated technology from the Industrial Revolution. It could be a little more Blade Runner or William Gibson-y than how we think of steampunk today, at least at first glance.

Nowadays, steampunk seems to turn that definition on its head much of the time. Steampunk worlds are most often Neo-Victorian — old-fashioned, historical settings that have anachronistic technology. Some people seem very tied to that technology being steam-powered; otherwise, they believe it’s not true “steampunk.” But for me, whether that technology is steam-powered or not seems beside the point. The most important important thing is that the technology is more advanced than what that time period really knew — it may even be advanced for our time period, today — but it still has a vintage vibe to it. For instance, you might have an elaborate wooden computer desk, such as this one designed by Bruce Rosenbaum (ModVic) out of an old pump organ:

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Or you might have a weapon outfitted in an original way, with a distinctive Victorian coating:

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These staples of steampunk give the genre a definitive look and feel, but when it comes down to hard rules, I don’t know that all of us abide by them when we think “steampunk.” I’m sure there are steampunk purists who know a lot more about the genre than I do and have a very strict definition in mind, but for the rest of us casual fans, “steampunk” is a handy word to describe a lot of neo-Victorian settings.

Bending the Genre in The Order: 1886?

Even if the technology in The Order: 1886 is based on real Victorian tech, its anachronism makes the weapons feel more futuristic — hence the steampunk connotations. Just check out some of the game’s gadgets and weapons here and tell me they don’t seem steampunk-y.

Airships are another common staple of steampunk. Having them floating around the skyline of an industrial-era city makes that time period feel more tech-heavy, without actually adding anything “sci-fi” to the world. And guess what? The Order: 1886 has airships too!

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Airships in The Order: 1886

Some people might argue that it’s silly to say that a game is not steampunk when that word so aptly sums up the overall atmosphere of the world. But in spite of how steampunk The Order: 1886 appears at first glance, digging deeper into the definition of the genre helps me see creative director Weerasuriya’s point. Genre labeling can be limiting. (Like, if it’s not steam-powered, can it still be steampunk?) And it can also create misconceptions of what a fictional world is before it’s actually experienced.

The Order: 1886's setting
The Order: 1886’s setting

I like the idea that The Order: 1886 is an alternative history, offering up a more fantastical version of what life might have been like in Victorian London. Whether we call it steampunk or not, what the game shares with that genre seems to be a love of history and technology, and the creativity to match those two things in original ways. I can’t wait to dig deeper into the game’s worldbuilding as more information comes out, and I’m dying to hear that release date… =)

— Ashley

Writing Science Fiction: Thoughts on Worldbuilding and Characterization

Since NaNoWriMo in November, I’ve been writing a science fiction novel. That’s been a big dream of mine for a long time, because I’ve always thought science fiction is the most difficult genre to write. You have to be knowledgeable about everything from politics to economics to religion and make all of those pieces fit together in a rich, realistic world — and that’s on top of the usual characterization and plotting that all novelists have to master. Fantasy also deals with all of that, but in addition to the imagination that goes into creative worldbuilding, science fiction writing also requires at least some knowledge of science, because most of the time, you’re developing a world with advanced technology.

I’m fascinated by all of that, but I’m not an expert. That’s why I put off writing science fiction until now. I developed worlds, characters, an idea of how interstellar travel would work — but then I would set aside my notes for later. I needed to be older and more mature. I needed to better understand how the world works.

How Realistic Does Future Tech Need to Be?

But underneath all that was really just a fear of getting the technology wrong. As soon as I think of an idea for an FTL drive or an alien race, I worry that it’s too unrealistic. In 10 years’ time, my theory for people using holograms might seem totally outdated. Will we ever get invisibility cloaks? What are wormholes? What will weapons look like 100 years from now? What type of energy sources will we use? All of these questions come up, and I second-guess everything I just imagined for my fictional worlds.

On my blog, I posted a little bit about how anachronistic science fiction can seem once a short amount of time passes. Seeing big, bulky computers and thick data pads already seem totally old-fashioned, yet they’re all over sci-fi from the 20th century. It can suck me out of a world if I see something so unrealistic or outdated in a fictional setting that’s supposed to be technologically-advanced.

However, for the most part, I forgive it. I consider these features to be part of that fictional world. I’m sure we could all pick out unrealistic things in Star Trek, Mass Effect, Dune, or any other number of popular science fiction — yet we rarely rail on them. We accept them. These worlds belong to fiction, and we like to imagine how everything works together there, even if it’s not how our future will look.

paul1There’s also the issue of leaving things unexplained. In Dune, the spice melange mutates its users. It gives them all-blue eyes and, in extreme doses, makes them totally change shape. It also allows some to see the future or even fold the fabric of space-time. None of this is very scientific — it almost reeks of magic — but it’s presented in a scientific way.

I guess I’ve always wanted to write hard sci-fi. I want all of my future tech to be feasible in the real world — our world — but for someone who would rather write than research, I find it hard to keep a balance between fiction and what could be fact.

Last year, I decided it was time to stop putting off my science fiction novel. I dove in. Although I’ve done plenty of research, I don’t know everything about science, advanced technology, politics, religion, and everything else that make society function and, at times, fall apart. But I’ve decided that the best science fiction worlds come from their authors’ imaginations more than anything, and I’ve forced myself to trust my instinct as I build my fictional world.

Characterization is What Counts

My favorite fiction has always centered on vibrant characters who feel real. A lot of science fiction focuses so much on the worldbuilding — all those gears that turn to make the big old futuristic setting work — that characters come across like part of the clockwork. They’re cold. They can sometimes feel like pawns, and the bigger political struggle or themes about humanity are what matter. Although that can be interesting, science fiction suffers when it doesn’t have solid characters, in my opinion.

serenityThe sci-fi I love most has strong characterization. The crews of the Bebop, the Serenity, the Normandy, the Enterprise — they’re dynamic and interesting. They ground the world and make you feel a part of it. You don’t have to hear long descriptions of how the political system of the sci-fi world works; you just hear snippets about it from characters you love, or you watch those characters’ lives changing because of what’s happening out there in the wider universe.

In this way, good characters can ground a science fiction work. You don’t have to enter this cold, metallic future all by yourself. I was taught that in fiction, a car crash doesn’t mean anything unless you first care about who’s in the car. And when you’re dealing with a world that’s as foreign as a sci-fi world, that becomes even more important.

My science fiction book definitely focuses heavily on characterization. While I’ve spent a lot of time building my world, I don’t want my story to get bogged down in how all the big gears work. I want to reveal the details of everyday life through my characters, and anything that happens in the universe is only relevant because it affects them personally.

I think that’s why a lot of science fiction (and fantasy, for that matter) focuses on characters who hold a lot of sway in their worlds. Even if they’re hobbits, they go on epic adventures that will change everything about the way their worlds work and the way they live. Other times, the main characters are royals, politicians, war generals. They’re people who matter, and that can work really well for the story.

The trickiest part of writing science fiction, for me, has been making “small” characters work. I have ideas for writing books about royals and “starship” commanders, but my current book is about everyday people taking on slightly bigger responsibilities than before — but they’re still part of the fray. Any big political machinations that happen in my world have to affect my characters’ every day lives, and my characters need to be actively involved in it somehow. It took time for me to find a story that made that work, but I’m excited to see how it all comes together as I continue fleshing out my book.

— Ashley

Listmas 2013: Snowy Environments in Sci-Fi and Fantasy

It doesn’t snow in California. I’ve come to accept that, and having lived in places where it does snow, I comfort myself with the firsthand knowledge that as pretty as it is, snow can be a hassle too. But around this time of year, I find myself gravitating towards video games, books, and movies that feature cold winter weather. For some reason, the snowy settings help set the mood for the holidays. That’s why my computer backdrop for the season is this:

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It’s Skyrim. And that just happens to be my first choice for my favorite sci-fi and fantasy worlds that make awesome wintry vacation spots, even if it’s just in my imagination.

1. Skyrim

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It might be a dangerous place if you’re on the wrong side of the civil war or facing an unexpected dragon attack, but Skyrim is the most beautiful video game landscape I’ve ever seen and would make an amazing vacation spot. Though parts of it are sunny — a ‘crisp autumn day’ type of sunny, that is — much of it is covered in snow. In fact, Windhelm can look downright bleak with its gray walls and murky skies, but it has an intense atmosphere that draws you in. Personally, I love climbing snow-topped mountains and looking for ruins partially buried under the snow when I play Skyrim. And when I came across a little village along the way, the chilly atmosphere only makes ducking indoors feel cozier.

2. Narnia (Chronicles of Narnia)

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The world of Narnia felt so magical when I was a kid, and I still love it. This place is one where animals can talk and magic abounds. There are witches and centaurs and unicorns, and the change of seasons feels important. For instance, there was a time when the White Witch covered Narnia in ice and snow for 100 years, which caused all kinds of hardships for the people. But winter is exactly the time I would want to step through my wardrobe into Narnia, just to experience that thrilling chill of discovery in an atmosphere that so suits it.

3. Pandora (Borderlands)

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Pandora is another video game setting that oozes charisma. It’s not always the prettiest of places, but its dingy settlements, psychos, and monsters have a visual appeal that’s part art style, part amazing atmosphere. When I play a Borderlands game, I completely lose myself on the planet of Pandora, and my favorite areas are always the snowy ones. Seeing massive glaciers and tramping through snow with crackling ice nearby is the perfect way to start off a playthrough of Borderlands 2.

4. Hogsmeade (Harry Potter)

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Who wouldn’t want to get away from school and drink butterbeer in Hogsmeade? That’s what Harry Potter and his friends do when they get to spend a weekend day in this little all-wizard village of snow-covered cottages and shops. Hogwarts students bundle up in their coats and scarves to make the wintry trek to the village — and then they escape inside where it’s warm. Plus, enchanted candles nestle in the trees during the holiday season to make the place festive. It might be wizards-only, but this town would make a cozy winter getaway for anyone’s imagination.

5. Noveria (Mass Effect)

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Noveria is cold — so cold that people stay inside pretty much all the time. When you first visit the planet in the first Mass Effect game, there are severe storm warnings, but of course you brave the weather to complete your mission before it’s too late. While I enjoyed exploring the industrial-looking facilities built on Noveria to shield the people there from the elements, getting into the snow outside and seeing the glaciers up close was even better… even if it did involve driving the Mako.

— Ashley

So I Finally Watched the Sci-Fi Cop Show “Almost Human”…

This past week I came down with a bad case of the flu and couldn’t do much other than sit and stare. But the good thing that came out of it was that I finally got around to watching the new science fiction show on FOX called Almost Human.

Created by J.H. Wyman (who worked on Fringe), it’s basically a cop procedural set in the near future (the year 2048 to be exact), a time when every cop is assigned an android as a partner. Detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) wakes up from a coma with memory loss and a synthetic leg. He doesn’t like the idea of partnering up with a robot, so he has eccentric android technician Rudy (Mackenzie Crook) hook him up with Dorian (Michael Ealy), an android model that was discontinued for being almost too human.

almost_humanThe pilot episode is a lot of Kennex adjusting to life back on the police force and getting into arguments with Dorian, who he calls “synthetic.” At one point, he tires of talking to Dorian and tries to turn him off — but besides not working, this seems to offend Dorian. By the end of the episode, Kennex is starting to like Dorian for his natural, emotional responses. Besides that, Dorian isn’t like the other androids on the force; he thinks on his own and sometimes breaks the rules. That’s the kind of partner Kennex appreciates.

To be honest, I’ve been missing another sci-fi show lately: Continuum, which returns with its 3rd season next year. Part of the reason I watched Almost Human this week was because I wanted to watch Continuum so much, and it turns out they do have a similar feel. I like the slightly futuristic tech they both feature… and they’re both cop shows.

imagesSetting police procedurals in the near future is an easy twist, but it works surprisingly well. You can’t think too hard about the technology — for instance, I’m not sure we’ll still be carrying cell phones around in 2048 — but the addition of fictional drugs, androids designed as prostitutes, and futuristic weapons and armor is always fun to see in these shows.

Plus, these shows always include some type of future-tech nerd. In Almost Human, Rudy fills that role and adds a lot of humor to the show. In the latest episode, “The Bends,” he goes undercover for the police, posing as a drug cook — and his oddball personality actually helps sell his disguise until things start to go horribly wrong, as they inevitably do in these situations…

Kennex and Dorian are also funny as they try to relate to each other. Dorian’s usually calm and composed but has a dry sense of humor when he teases Kennex. Meanwhile, Kennex gets irritated when Dorian points out things that people don’t normally talk about. A great example is in the latest episode, when Kennex tries to teach Dorian human manners at a Japanese restaurant — only to have Dorian retaliate by having the chef serve Kennex a meal that’s still alive.

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Sure, the show can get a little cheesy sometimes. That’s the way of low-budget sci-fi. Some of the plots are also very derivative, and I wasn’t into the latest episode’s Breaking Bad homage with the fedora and the genius cooking drugs (although I did like that the episode centered on Rudy!). And while I think the acting is good — particularly Ealy as Dorian — I feel like having the protagonist be a man with a troubled past, depression, PTSD, and a major chip on his shoulder is a little overdone.

But it’s working out okay so far. I’m getting into it. Mostly I like Almost Human for being an offbeat choice and filling in the gap until Continuum starts back up. I’m also looking forward to finding out more about Kennex’s past as his memory comes back to him. I’m sure it involves a major conspiracy…

— Ashley

Holding out hope for Almost Human and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Almost Human © Fox Broadcasting Company (source)
Almost Human © Fox Broadcasting Company (source)

“Please be good.”

“PLEASE be good.”

“Please be GOOD.”

This  I repeated over and over in my head before the week’s two-night premiere of Almost Human. Y’know, that hyped and postponed sci-fi show on Fox starring the sexy Karl Urban as a gritty, glowering, future cop John Kennex? Yeah, the future. He saw some bad things and did some bad stuff, and all he’s got is a eyebrow-furrowing, post-coma life, a head full of repressed memories, and a synthetic leg to show for it. Oh, and he’s also got a new partner who’s fully synthetic. Dorian, played by Michael Ealy, is a “crazy,” emotional android who’s not at all like his other straight-laced, by-the-book manufactured colleagues. He thinks, he feels, and he has a cool party trick – making parts of his face light up (which do that anyway when he’s “processing data”).  This new take on the old “buddy cop” premise intrigued me from the start, and after was all said and done, the shows were okay…mostly.

Continue reading Holding out hope for Almost Human and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.