Monday, January 27, 2014

The 4400: The Home Front

The 4400: The Home Front (Episode 3.6)
Directed by Nick Copus
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Sharif Atkins and Brooke Nevin
First aired 16 July 2006
Rating: 5/10

Previous episode: Graduation Day
Next episode: Blink

For other overlooked video please see Todd Mason's site.

The title of this episode, "The Home Front," refers to both the national home front and tensions brewing in the Tom/Alana household, and only incidentally to the Isabelle/Richard home. The episode focuses on two main plot threads: the ongoing drama of Isabella and Shawn (with all its ugly sidelines), and the possible ejection of Alana from the series via some connections with Gary Navarro and the infamous Nova group.

Of the many 4400 characters, I've always liked Gary Navarro, and his return is refreshing, particularly in that the focus is on the complex course his life has taken since he returned and developed, as you'll recall, mind-reading abilities. He is well acted by Sharif Atkins ("I just wanted to play baseball!!" Chuckle) Unfortunately the episode opens with much silliness: Diana and Tom are outside Navarro's home, and when other NTAC agents appear they barge into the house to find that the former baseball player has moments ago slipped out. Personally I would be scared if my national security team rushes an army through the front door in one fell swoop, allowing a potentially super-dangerous individual from casually stepping out the back door. You'd think the strategists behind that team would have the sense to advise them to surround the house before barging in.

Adding to this is the fact that a couple of special agents can simply walk into a classroom at the 4400 Centre completely unaccompanied and remove one of their staff with no intervention whatsoever, not even the request to see an arrest warrant or even identification from either man. Without a guide, how did they even know where she was? Did they ask at the reception desk: "We're here to arrest Alana Mareva." // "Oh sure!" chirps pleasant underpaid receptionist. "She's down the hall in room XXX."

The possibility of Alana being a member of the Nova group is certainly a good premise, but the execution is sadly lacking. Alana was never among my favourite characters, so I didn't have a great deal invested while watching. Moreover, the once interesting Dennis Ryland has descended into generic megalomaniacal bad guy, and the entire prisoner trade-off concept is tiring and executed here with such ordinariness in setting and style that I just did not care. The looseness of the justification behind Alana's betrayal of Tom simply weakens any redeeming quality of this thread. We are supposed to understand that Alana tipped off Navarro in order to alleviate the guilt nestling in Tom's conscience, yet this makes no sense since she takes the entire situation into her own hands, does not confide in Tom, and hence makes us believe she will continuously thwart Tom's attempts at capturing Navarro. Meanwhile Tom would continue to battle his conscience because all this time Alana is withholding the fact that Navarro turned his back on the Nova group, so Tom would not have access to this all-important piece of information. Alana has been keeping secret communications with Navarro (how she located him when NTAC hasn't been able to is a mystery), continuously risking both of them, and continuously betraying Tom. And she has the gall to scream out to Tom: "I did it for you!" As far as I am concerned she did wrong.

Despite the annoyances I do like that Alana and Navarro are on the run, heading to Canada. (Though ironically they're already there.)

Lovely dress.
As for Shawn and Isabelle, I like the re-introduction of Nikki. The writers were smart to bring her back since it's the only way that Shawn can plunge into a potential romance on such short notice. As a bonus she looks lovely in that dress. I do like that Isabelle's threats are delivered with such seeming innocence, rather than devilishly with some requiem bursting in the background, but I don't like Richard trying to convince Shawn to get back with here since this is completely out of character. I also don't see how Richard can ignore the obvious apocalyptic threats Isabelle makes over dinner. "It'll end badly for everyone."

We learn that Navarro killed eight 4400s, which brings the count from 4,371 down to 4,363. We're told twice that Ryland was behind twenty-eight deaths, yet I'm not sure how that fits in. We learn in "Mommy's Bosses" that twenty-three died from the plague, so what of the other five?

Ryland looking like a little boy being scolded.

The first of four The 4400 episodes directed by Nick Copus, and one among many scripted or co-scripted by Ira Steven Behr (Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and many others) and Craig Sweeny.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The 4400: Graduation Day

The 4400: Graduation Day (Episode 3.5)
Directed by Aaron Lipstadt
Written by Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Ian Tracey, Ulla Friis, Carter Jenkins and Kurt Fuller
First aired 9 July 2006
Rating: 4/10

Previous episode: Gone (Part 2)
Next episode: The Home Front

For other Tuesday's overlooked A/V, please visit Todd Mason's site.

We learned in the previous episode that in return for the safe release of Maia and the other abducted 4400 children, Tom Baldwin must kill Isabella. "Graduation Day" opens with a dream sequence that reveals Tom's guilt at having to commit the murder. While dream sequences can be tiresome, it makes sense here in that Tom can't speak to anyone of the deed, and the soliloquy does not translate well to the telvision medium. "'Tis Isabella I see before me / Her neck in my hands?" Moreover, a display of guilt is important since the audience must understand, by commercial television standards, that our hero is a good, moral dude. (Otherwise, where would the advertisers be?)

While Tom having been hoodwinked into killing Isabella is an interesting and promising scenario, I can't help but wonder why the good people of the future abducted mother Lily and father Richard if they together produced the bad seed that the future now wants eliminated. Neither Lily nor Richard (though he is among the show's best characters and actors) seem to have much else of a role to play in the course of history. Lily is already dead and despite a brief second season tease revealing some telekinetic ability, Richard hasn't been productive on the power front lately. I doubt he was abducted and returned solely so that Shawn and the 4400 Centre can have a level-headed funds administrator. I have probably mentioned already that Richard is among the better characters in the series and Mahershala Ali among the better actors, so I'm not advocating eliminating him, just arguing that he appears to have little purpose for a series that purports all the returnees have a role integral to saving humanity.

This episode follows a conventional plot structure and offers nothing fresh or exciting. Having Tom occasionally pull out the deadly syringe he is to use to kill Isabelle (with the director calling out, "More guilt! I want to see more guilt in those furrowed brows!") is not a tension-builder. Isabelle wreaks havoc, shows off her powers by doing away with a couple of 4400 members, bringing our count of remaining 4400s back down to 4371. She kills animal whisperer Jane Nance by turning animals against her (what good is Doctor Doolittle to the 4400?), and helps burn Jorge Molina to a crisp, then conveniently finds and emasculates Daniel Armand. We learn that among Isabelle's many talents is to turn 4400 powers against them. (So many talents Isabelle has, from regeneration to power swapping and so many in between, while acting is unfortunately not among them.) The post-climactic resolution is utter nonsense, since clearing Isabelle of the disastrous events would take months to years, not minutes. The final moment, that visit to Dennis Ryland, is really the only decent twist the episode has to offer, and yet that generates longing for episode 3.6 while doing nothing to improve this one.

Isabella's motivation in wreaking all this havoc is to defend Shawn from Daniel Armand's attack. Armand's power is to get into people's minds and drive them nutty. While Isabella's obsession over Shawn is intended to be creepy, in this episode it comes across as plainly annoying. Shawn going batty is another unfortunate sequence since the end result is laughable. Moreover, along the way Isabella does away with Matthew Ross, one of the more interesting and certainly the most enigmatic character since the departure of Jordan Collier. Before his death we learn that Matthew wants to destroy the 4400, and I wonder if that motivation and the reasons for it will become evident down the line. Perhaps the writers didn't know what to do with the character, or thought it was time to eliminate a familiar face in order to shock their viewers, most of whom were likely dozing off at the half-way point of this entry. If only they'd done away with Isabella instead.

During the episode I found myself missing Kyle Baldwin (Chad Faust). While I like Shawn most of the time, his entanglement with Isabella is exceedingly dull. Both characters, cousins we'll recall, are morally attuned and ethically motivated, yet there was a sincerity as well as a desperation in Kyle that is replaced with gullibility in Shawn. The assassination sequence involving Kyle, and his always wanting to make up for wrongs he had little control over, completely overshadow Shawn's continuous involvement with women and the reminders that he is all that wise. Kyle, Jordan and now Matthew having departed make for a weaker series, though I'm pretty sure Collier will return in due time.

A secondary plot involves Alana, in her new position as 4400 counsellor, learning the identity of the man who killed her husband and son in a hit-and-run. Turns out drunken hit-and-run offender Keane Driscoll does not recall the accident too clearly and has, through guilt, been helping other alcoholics overcome their drinking. I like the idea, particularly since it falls exactly within the realm set up by the show's first season, in that we know not why a particular power was granted, but it ultimately leads to a specific set of consequences (see "The New and Improved Carl Morrissey" ep. 1.2). Unfortunately the mini-plot here is only incidental, a few minutes of filler to relieve the viewer from being overexposed to Isabella's annoyances or Shawn's psycho-tripping. A good deal could have been made by these circumstances. I like the twist and the complex morality it exposes, but do not like Alana's idiocy; her guilt though she was the direct cause of Driscoll's accident. Driscoll is well played by character actor Kurt Fuller.

Written by perennial The 4400 scriptwriter Craig Sweeny, "Graduation Day" is among his weakest scripts. In his only episode involvement, "Graduation Day" was directed by Aaron Lipstadt, whose directorial debut was the forgotten yet highly enjoyable Klaus Kinski movie Android (1982). You cannot blame the director for this one, and the sub-par acting might have to do with more than just the script.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Jack Finney, The Woodrow Wilson Dime (1968)

Finney, Jack, The Woodrow Wilson Dime, New York: Simon & Schuster, April 1968
___________, Three By Finney, New York: Simon & Schuster / Fireside Books, August 1987

The Woodrow Wilson Dime at ISFdb
The Woodrow Wilson Dime at Goodreads
The Woodrow Wilson Dime at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.
And for more Vintage Science Fiction, please visit The Little Red Reviewer.

Discontented advertising clerk Ben Bennell finds himself in an alternate reality after purchasing a newspaper using a Woodrow Wilson dime. Unhappy with his work and his wife, in this new reality he finds himself married to an old flame and riding high in a great advertising career. Though there is nothing deep or challenging about The Woodrow Wilson Dime, the novel is a great read, genuinely funny and highly entertaining, and with Finney's many scripted stories, I am surprised this one hasn't yet made it to mainstream cinema as a romantic comedy.

Though often referred to as science fiction, The Woodrow Wilson Dime is more appropriately fantasy. The fantastical element is made up of time travel and an alternate New York, yet the time travel method to this alternate landscape is pure fantasy with no allusions to science whatsoever. Bennell stumbles upon the portal uniting the two realities by using a coin from the other world to purchase a paper in this one, and logically the way back is the same, by substituting the Wilson dime with one from his own New York. The alternate New York is almost identical to our narrator's New York but with gaps in technology, such as the absence of motor bikes and zippers, along with gaps in culture, such as the music of Cole Porter. The alternate world is on a different course from our own, with different former presidents occupying the face sides of coins (though we know Wilson was president in both universes), and people pursuing different steams and obtaining different levels of success.

Finney has written a variety of genre pieces, mystery and science fiction, and many deal with time travel. His most popular novel is the 1954 multi-adapted and referenced The Body Snatchers, yet achieved much success and cult status with his New York time travel novel Time and Again. While this latter approaches time travel with a more serious and (semi-)scientific approach than The Woodrow Wilson Dime, he has produced other time travel fantasies, such as the early and oft-anthologized short story "The Third Level" (Collier's, 7 January 1950), where the third level of Grand Central Station carries our protagonist to 1894 New York. Finney clearly had an interest and love (as witnessed in Time and Again) for New York history, and likely imagined himself wandering the streets of its past, and manages with varying success to allow his readers to walk those streets as well.

The main flaw in the novel, if we were to look at through a serious lens (as opposed to its clearly playful approach, only partially interested in the finer points of the co-existing realities), is what happens to Ben Bennell Two when Ben Bennell One enters his world? When Ben I enters World II, his counterpart is nowhere to be seen, and the logical assumption is that Ben II transfers over to World I whenever Ben I enters World II. This is evinced by the fact that we learn Ben I's relationship with Hetty progressed while he was away. Further deductive assumptions would lead us to believe that no matter where Ben II is at the moment Ben I transits into his world, he in turn is tele-ported to the other, so that the Bens can never co-exist in the same reality. And yet there is no concern for this Ben II and his plight from successful ad executive to measly ad clerk. No suspicions from Hetty who must've been freaked out by a Ben II claiming not to belong to this world, appearing at her doorstep wondering who she is, likely having discovered Ben I's address as Ben I discovered his. Moreover, Ben I does not even consider the implications of flip-flopping between realities, likely sending Ben II into a crazed whirl, driving him to all levels of madness.

The novel is a pleasure because of its original ideas, the zany concepts Bennell devises, the constant scheming to not only win his wife back, but in obtaining capital. The novel is fresh, energetic and charmingly silly, and though the characters are two-dimensional as they would be in most romantic comedies, the writing is genuinely funny.

Based on Finney's short story "The Coin Collector," originally published as "The Other Wife" in The Saturday Evening Post, 30 January 1960. The novel was first published in 1968, and was updated for the 1987 omnibus volume, Three By Finney. The updating was done (sadly) in an attempt to make it more accessible to contemporary 1987 readers, which becomes completely absurd since our narrator from 1968 references the likes of Cindy Lauper and quotes prices astronomical to the late sixties, where a newspaper is still worth a dime. If you can, hunt down a copy of the original, and you'll have that great cover, the images on which make sense once you've read the text.

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As of 24 December 2015