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Babylon 5.1
by Rick Norwood

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Ratings are based on a four star system.
One star means that the commercials are more entertaining than the program.
Two stars watch if you have nothing better to do.
Three stars is good solid entertainment.
Four stars means you never dreamed television could be this good.

Most people watch television to move themselves painlessly a few hours closer to death. There was a time when television could produce the same excitement, delight, or deep contentment found in music, books, movies, and games. Then came incessant pop-up commercials.

Torchwood, Children of Earth Torchwood, Children of Earth (***), by Russell T. Davies, John Fay, and James Moran, is a five part miniseries on BBC America. The plot is thin, especially stretched over five hours. The ending is contrived. There is a lot of repetition, and many scenes of London traffic and people walking up to a door and ringing the bell. But the acting is good. There are moments when Torchwood is exciting, even thoughtful. The idea that the discovery of aliens doubles the suicide rate, because people feel less "special," is an interesting one.

And then, just when you are getting in the mood, up pops a commercial. A major character is dying -- a touching scene -- up pops a commercial. Children are in danger -- the suspense builds -- up pops a commercial. The mood is broken, and you become aware that you are sitting in a chair and that there are other things you would rather be doing.

All pop-up commercials (so far) are commercials for other programs on the same channel. In other words, the statistics departments of the networks have found that people watch more television if you give them more pop-up commercials! Hence the conclusion with which I began this column.

So, why do I watch television? I watch television so you won't have to. I do it all for you.

Doctor Who, Planet of the Dead Doctor Who, Planet of the Dead (***), by Russell T. Davies and Gareth Roberts, is more fun than Torchwood, and the pop-up ads less annoying, because Doctor Who was never intended to be taken seriously. This episode is just as contrived as the Torchwood serial. For example, a character is carrying not one but two very unusual objects that happen to be just exactly what is needed to save the world. The Doctor finds, on an alien spaceship, parts that just happen to fit onto an English omnibus. But there are some nice references to old Doctor Who episodes, good special effects, and some clever dialogue.

Warehouse 13 (**) on SyFy is an actual new show rather than a British import. Before it began, there was a delightful music video advertising the new name of the SyFy channel. If only the shows were as good.

In real life, if you heard people talking the way they do on Warehouse 13, you would automatically look around for the camera. Nobody talks like that. The plot is essentially the same as Torchwood and The X-Files -- a government agency investigates aliens and the paranormal and covers it up. The warehouse is straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And we have the beginning of a romantic relationship between a skeptical female scientist and a man who wants to believe in the paranormal. Minute by minute, the action is totally unbelievable. To mention just one instance among Eureka many, a man in a hurry, with a vehicle at his disposal, chooses a method of transportation to the far end of the warehouse that only goes one way, and then has to run all the way back carrying a heavy object. It's played for a giggle, but the overall effect is mild amusement broken by long stretches of boredom.

Eureka fans will be happy that the SyFy channel, in addition to the Season Three, Part Two now running, has picked up Eureka for a fourth season. I watched "Your Face or Mine" by series creator Jaime Paglia. I'm not going to give it a star rating -- you already know whether you like Eureka or not. I appreciated the Asimov reference and the song, "Makin' Whoopee." On the other hand, the plot has serious flaws of which the writer must have been aware.

The A story is about a double Jo while in the B story the sheriff has to take a test. Since the A story has to cover events lasting two days, the sheriff's test also has to last two days. But the test doesn't make sense if it lasts more than about an hour. There are no bathroom breaks and the sheriff's beard does not grow. Also the test itself, which is supposed to be really, really hard, is something any Nintendo game player could figure out in ten minutes. Jaime Paglia cannot have failed to notice that it was ridiculous to stretch the test out two days, but he did it anyway. Not my kind of writer.

Defying Gravity starts August 2. It's the first series set in space since Stargate Atlantis. It follows eight astronauts, four men and four women, on a long space voyage, and I've heard it described as "sex in space." ABC has ordered 13 episodes.

Copyright © 2009 Rick Norwood

Rick Norwood is a mathematician and writer whose small press publishing house, Manuscript Press, has published books by Hal Clement, R.A. Lafferty, and Hal Foster. He is also the editor of Comics Revue Monthly, which publishes such classic comic strips as Flash Gordon, Sky Masters, Modesty Blaise, Tarzan, Odd Bodkins, Casey Ruggles, The Phantom, Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Alley Oop, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Buz Sawyer, and Steve Canyon.

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