Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Three to go

I finished watching season 7 of Smallville last week – somewhat abruptly, as I hadn’t quite realized (or remembered) that ’07 – ’08 was the Writers Strike which shortened quite a few shows’ runs. Things in Smallville season 7 build to a fever pitch by the end of episode 20, which had me wondering how exactly they were going to continue upping the ante for another two hours. Then I realized the box set was out of discs and I had just been watching the de facto season finale.

So, three more years’ worth of Smallville to go! I would not yet say that I’ve reached the point of working my way through the DVDs out of sheer cussedness, but there’s definitely some advanced interplay between the entertainment value and my pre-determined commitment to seeing it through (however belatedly) to the end. Season 7 at least shook things up as it drew to a close, writing out mainstay characters like Lionel Luthor and Lana Lang who had been spinning the same plot wheels for a while. I have moderate hopes for Season 8, and if nothing else, I can rip through it pretty fast thanks to the wonders of portable DVD technology: if I maximize every possible viewing minute of my train commute, I can squeeze in three full episodes over the course of the morning-and-afternoon round trip.

One of the funny things about watching episodes back-to-back, as opposed to a week (or more, with re-run breaks) apart, is the amusing contrasts and compliments that get highlighted. A couple of episodes that wound up paired during my charge towards the season 7 finish line were “Sleeper” and “Apocalypse” and they stand as pretty good examples of both. Complimentary, in that they were both pastiche episodes; contrasting, in that I hated “Sleeper” and loved “Apocalypse”.

Well, maybe hated is a strong word for “Sleeper”. It just didn’t do anything for me. It’s a James Bond pastiche, and while I enjoy a good Bond flick that usually has more to do with who’s playing Bond, and more importantly who’s playing the villain, than the trappings of the plot or the gadget-assisted action setpieces. Smallville does a James Bond, Jr. storyline with Jimmy Olsen being forced to act as a secret agent, trying to exonerate his girlfriend Chloe (who is the show’s resident super-hacker) at the same time the U.S. government is trying to cement their case against her as a terrorist. Yeah, it doesn’t make much more sense than that if you watch the episode, or even if you have previous watched all the other episodes and know Jimmy and Chloe’s backstories. Ostensibly the purpose of the episode was to address the long-unasked question as to how Chloe could constantly hack into networks to get vital information for Clark Kent to solve the problem-of-the-week, and do so without drawing attention to herself. I can honestly say this question was unasked by me, and when the episode raised it, I didn’t particularly care. Clark Kent is an alien from another planet, with implausible superhuman abilities, who tends to constantly run afoul of other aliens with powers plus scads of human beings who get very individually-tailored powers from exposure to radioactive meteor fragments that accompanied his rocket to Earth … that, convoluted as it may be, is THE premise of the show. The fact that Clark is also besties with a girl who can cyberworm her way into highly defended targets? Suspension of disbelief already has that sideshow pretty well covered, I think. Thus, an episode devoted to dissecting that subplot point as an excuse to dress up a secondary character in a tux with tranq dart cufflinks just registers as a waste of time with me.

“Apocalypse” at least gets a leg up with its choice of source material to pilfer: It’s a Wonderful Life. I unironically love It’s a Wonderful Life. I often enjoy telling people that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the answer to both “What is my favorite Christmas movie?” AND “What is my favorite sci-fi story?” (A wish-granting celestial being shows a man a parallel world with an alternate history that omits him = pure geeknip.) So Smallville, at this point already embroiled in a storyline in which (deep breath) Brainiac has kidnapped Supergirl and disappeared with her INTO THE PAST where he plans to prevent infant Kal-El from ever rocketing away from doomed Krypton, decides to go ahead and show what would happen if the villain were to succeed and there had never been a Clark Kent. Color me intrigued.

But then rather than just coasting on that premise, the writers more or less subvert it. For as sweet as most of It’s a Wonderful Life is, and as heartwarming and tear-jerking as the last five or ten minutes are, the alternate history stuff is pretty dang darkest timeline, as from the moment he and Clarence leave the bridge together, George finds out that basically everyone whose life he ever touched is so much worse off without him, convicted of felonies or engaging in prostitution or dead in the cold, cold ground. Clark Kent’s revelations start out going in the opposite direction: he finds out that his adoptive father is still alive and well, that Chloe (who has always carried a torch for Clark) is blissfully engaged to a seemingly very decent guy, and that Lana (who at this point in Clark’s timeline is in a crazy nanobot-induced fugue state thanks to Brainiac) is also happily engaged, living in Paris no less. The whole plot gets kicked off when Clark is musing that maybe he should stop interfering with Brainiac’s plans and let Brainiac change history, because maybe everyone he loves would be better off without Clark’s disruptive presence in their lives. This of course is one of the problematic areas of Smallville that a lot of critics ding it for: Clark says and does really stupidly juvenile stuff all the time, none of which is terribly heroic. To which I can only say, as I’ve said before, that Smallville is not a superhero action show, it is a teen soap opera that borrows certain trappings of a particular comic book mythology. By Season 7 Clark is supposed to be 21 or 22 years old or so, but the dictates of the kind of show Smallville is put him in ultra-angsty positions that the target demographic should be able to relate to, including good old “I wish I had never been born.” And for a while this episode makes it look like he is absolutely right to wish for that! People really are better off without him!

The episode still needs a plot, though, and not just an extended meta-joke, and it turns out that in this alternate timeline Lex Luthor is President of the United States and exceptionally eager to start a nuclear conflict, possibly due to the influence of his Chief of Staff, who is of course a disguised Brainiac. (Also, President Luthor’s Head of National Security is Supergirl, because why not.) It’s not entirely clear how Clark never arriving on Earth led directly to Clause 5 of Article II of the Constitution being revoked (if Clark is supposed to be 22, Lex should be 29 or 30, tops; if Lex is the youngest POTUS ever at, say, 37 then that means when the series started and Clark was a freshman in high school hanging out with too-cool Lex, then Lex was 30 and that is hella-creepy) but nevertheless Clark is given something to fight for … although he fails, in another fairly cool subversion, which leads to some neat CGI from-orbit shots of nuclear explosions detonating across the face of the planet …

… at which point Clark wakes up. It was all a dream, specifically one given to him by the disembodied spirit of his Kryptonian father to convince him to go back in time and save his younger self from Brainiac, and amazingly that all goes down in like the final five minutes of the episode; I thought they were setting up an entire To Be Continued where it would take the whole following show for Clark to travel back in time, find Brainiac, rescue Kara and foil the plan. Nope! The important thing apparently was that Clark want to save himself, and after that it’s bingo-bango. At any rate, the fact that it was all a Jor-El authored vision explains a lot (including Lex being too young to be elected leader of the free world). The lighting is always very weird during the alternate timeline scenes, which is a hint that it’s not truly real. Not to mention the fact that the Oval Office where Clark confronts President Luthor looks exactly like Lex’s personal office at his mansion except with the Seal of the President in front of the desk like a big FatHead floor decal. Presumably Jor-El is just recycling elements from his son’s subconscious. Or maybe it’s just a show with severe budget restrictions compressing what could have been a long season-defining arc into a single insane episode.

But lest I forget, there’s a third element of “Apocaplypse” which is utterly charming. Smallville has often gone out of its way to differentiate itself from its source material in Superman and/or Superboy comics. Sometimes this is done in the name of “realism” and sometimes because narrative choices made in the early seasons (when I’m sure the producers thought the series could easily be cancelled at any moment) make it impossible to incorporate other mythos elements later without major modifications. Even at the outset, certain decisions laid down divergent groundrules: in the comics, Superboy operates publicly and Clark Kent can’t let anyone figure out he and Superboy are one and the same. On Smallville, there is no Superboy, and Clark uses his powers secretively (usually by moving at impossible-to-track superspeed). That means no costume for his heroic guise, and in his civilian identity, no glasses. The show also opted not to make Clark a goody-goody who excelled at everything, and to give some of his skillset to other characters. Chloe the super-hacker started out as Chloe the aspiring investigative journalist who worked on the school paper, and later at the Daily Planet, and those reporting-driven plot devices have always run through her. And the show started with no Lois Lane at all, focusing on the Clark and Lana romance, so that when Lois was finally introduced in Season 4 it was as more of a foil for Clark; Lois thought of Clark as her cousin Chloe’s dorky bumpkin friend. (By season 7 Clark and Lois have gone from sniping at each other like competitive siblings to something like a real friendship, clearly setting the stage for true love to blossom in its own sweet time, which is kind of cool, but I digress.)

The thing is, the alternate timeline that Clark visits provides a perfect opportunity to do a version of Smallville that is much, much more faithful to the source comics. Clark and Lois get to have a meet cute and she is instantly smitten with him! Later he saves her using his superpowers, literally sweeping her off her feet! When Clark needs to get close to President Luthor, Lois has the brilliant idea of disguising him as a Daily Planet reporter so he can get into a press conference, and the disguise consists of a dark blue suit and heavy-frame glasses! Supergirl in the alternate timeline goes by the name Linda Danvers, because that was Supergirl’s secret identity in the comics in the 80’s and 90’s! (OK, that last one’s an Easter Egg aimed at hardcore geeks like me, but still.)

I can only imagine how all of this went down in the writers’ room: Hey, let’s do a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but we’ll flip it at first by having a world without Clark Kent shown as shiny and happy, then we’ll flip it again and have the Luthor/Brainiac team start World War III, and throughout it all we’ll weave direct shout-outs to the comics archetypes we’ve avoided for seven years. They may not have stuck the landing, but it was an admirably ambitious episode and the ambition was to play a concept for maximum fun. And the fact that every once in a while the show can hit those highpoints is why I will continue ahead undeterred into the 66 episodes remaining before me.

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