Friday, February 12, 2016

Killjoys (Season One) review

    The SyFy channel has recently done something amazing: it's started showing science fiction again. The show has never been entirely without science fiction but the Sharknados and werewolf shows have been outnumbering the Battlestar Galacticas for some time. This is changing with series like Dark Matter, The Expanse, and Killjoys. I, for one, am very intrigued as the majority of these series are taking a decidedly dark take toward the material.

    Killjoys, at the least, is probably the darkest of the lot. It is also, notably, the show with the smallest budget but manages to do a remarkable job with what little it has. The show has the interesting combination of cyberpunk tropes (all-powerful corporations, class warfare, cybernetics, environmental collapse, urban sprawl) and combining it with space travel.

The leads have great nonsexual chemistry. Which is rare in these kinds of shows.
    The premise of the series is four planets exist in a star system called, imaginatively enough, the Quad. The all-powerful Company (but not Weyland-Yutani, sadly), owns the place and has created its own little nobility on the largest world called Qresh. Its three moons have been terraformed with Arkyn being supposedly uninhabitable, Leith being the source of the Quad's food, and Westerley being an industrial hellhole where only a few areas have overpacked mining cities living day-to-day.

    Law and order, such as it is, is maintained by the RAC or Reclamation Apprehension Coalition. In Star Wars terms, it's the Bounty Hunter's Guild. The RAC agents take contracts on fugitives identified by the Company or private clients them bring them in or kill them. Only certain crimes warrant execution and only certain agents qualify for them (both called "Level Five").

It's a show about space bounty hunters. How can you not like that?
    Among the best of these bounty hunters, nicknamed Killjoys, is Dutch (Hannah John-Kamen). Dutch is as deadly as she is beautiful and teamed up with her tech-savvy partner John Jaqobis (Aaron Ashmore a.k.a. Shawn Ashmore/X-men's Iceman's twin brother). The two work well together and are enjoying their life chasing mid-level criminals when  John's brother D'avin (Luke Macfarlane) gets a kill warrant taken out on his head.

    Killjoys is a great mixture of episodic and interlinked adventures. One episode may deal with Dutch's mysterious past while another involves faulty nanotechnology. All of the episodes are remembered, referenced, and incorporated into future ones, though. Relationships change as events proceed at a lightning pace and much of the story comes to a head at the end of the very short ten episode season. This is partially due to the fact they didn't know if Killjoys would get renewed or not, it has been, but is quite the change from the usual sedate pace of most science fiction series.

The Quad is an amazing setting.
    The breakout character of the series is Dutch as Hannah John-Kamen is just plain amazing to watch on screen. Not only is she gorgeous but her acting skills, character, and ability to handle herself in action scenes all work wonderfully well. Any science fiction series would be lucky to have a character like her and as played well by her. Really, she should be a character as well-loved as Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck but it doesn't have nearly that audience.

    I'm also a big fan of Aaron Ashmore's John as he's the perfect genius comic relief. He's a loyal, decent, pragmatic, and extremely cynical man living in a society where the latter is necessary to survive. He's also a figure overshadowed by Dutch in combat situations and comfortable with that. He's likable enough that you could easily see him in a relationship with multiple characters on the show but not Dutch herself, which is rare enough in these sorts of stories.

    D'avin Jaquobis is a hit-and-miss character in an otherwise near-perfect show, budget or no budget. Luke Macfarlane is actually quite a good actor, definitely upper journeyman level, but never really brings anything to the table on the level of his cast mates. The fact he's a generically handsome male lead and shipped with Dutch is one of the few missteps as their surrogate family dynamic is much-much better than a romantic one.

Doctor Simms is a great character. Tragic, sexy, flawed, and fun.
    The world-building for the show shows immense attention to detail as we learn the setting's geopolitics, it's religious traditions, and the various ways life completely sucks for the inhabitants. Seriously, this world is a pit and the wealthy sections are every bit as hellish in their own way as the people they're oppressing's homes. If I were to describe how this world works then I would say Killjoys is very much a sci-fi setting as someone like Joe Abecrombie would create.

    I'm also a fan of the world's supporting cast. There's numerous recurring characters that play roles both great and small in the setting. My favorite of this is Doctor Pawter Simms who is a jack (basically space-meth) addicted doctor who, nevertheless, is one of the most compassionate and decent people on the moon. She's also sad, lonely, emotionally immature, and vaguely crazy--which fits with the fact she's a drug addict operating under a varying artificial high at nearly all points of our contact with her.

Another Dutch picture because, why not?
    The layers of conspiracy and politics in the show are good too. Too often, shows throw in twists and conspiracies which are made up as they go along. Instead, the show has a number of major mysteries which it slowly and carefully reveals the truths of step by step. All of them are preestablished and have definitive answers which we start to find out along the way. The mysteries don't "cheat" and the politics are believable, if incredibly brutal.

    The real seller for how good this series is for me? How incredibly bleak the world is. Every level of society is corrupt, oppressive, and self-destructive. There's good people but they're individually powerless against the system and even the resistance is probably going to do more harm than good. I love dystopian science-fiction and this combines it with very personal stories about how screwed up things are.

The nobility of the Quad are a bunch of rich landowners pretending to be royals--which is how the real-life Post-Roman nobility began.
    For example, one episode deals with a religious cult that exists for the purposes of providing surrogate mothers as a holy duty to the Ruling Families of the Quad. It's very obvious they're being raised an indoctrinated as servants to the nobility who just want to avoid the trouble of pregnancy. Another episode takes place in a lawless badland which has been rendered a warlord-ruled anarchy solely so it can serve as an example to the other communities, even to the point it can never be allowed to get better. One episode deals with a torture ship which, by the character's reactions, is nothing particularly noteworthy in the setting.

    Other details which underscore what sort of place the Quad is are the fact there''s acid rain so bad that being left out in it is a reform of horrific execution and we get to see some people melt in it. The fact these dark setting elements get contrasted with the causal corruption, decadence, and beauty of the ruling families help bring them to life. Even the royalty of the setting don't get off easy as we see their scheming, murder, and eugenics. Dutch, for example, grew up in non-Quad Royalty and lived in a harem where she was selected to be trained as a professional assassin from childhood.

This image makes sense in context.
    In conclusion, Killjoys isn't without it's flaws. I've mentioned the cheap budget which means the CGI isn't great, everything looks like a factory or rock quarry because they were filmed in both, and things are a little too saturated in order to cover up the constraints. Despite this, though, it's probably my favorite new series of 2015. I heartily recommend it to any sci-fi fans who enjoy their futures crappy with people acting like bastards but looking damn good doing it.


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