Doctor Calls and Dark Crystals: An Eclectic Film and Television Sampler
I freely admit that I read and watch primarily fantasy and science fiction. I do occasionally branch out into historical or period dramas, mysteries, and superhero blockbusters. I freely admit that this list is far from complete; there are so many films and shows that I wanted to put on this list. I tried to offer some fare that might not have made a big splash in the public consciousness, but showed special care in storytelling, character, or historical significance. Some of them are rather niche, but do what they do quite well. I also tried to include a basic idea for the rating, as I know some readers and viewers are sensitive to blood or violence. (Full disclosure: I run to the darker side of the spectrum, so I have a higher tolerance level for violence necessary for the story, but I don’t tolerate content included solely to shock.)
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) – Avatar: The Legend of Korra (2012-2015)
TV Series – Animated Fantasy/Adventure
While either series can be watched alone, the experience is enriched if you watch both. Created by Americans and animated by Koreans, these could be called “anime” but lack the stiff animation or bizarre plot and character contrivances that anime often has. The first series, The Last Airbender, takes place in a world loosely based on Oriental mythology, and is populated by “benders,” people who are capable of controlling elements in nature.
The Northern and Southern Water Tribes huddle at the poles while the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation vie for control of the main continents. The Air Nomads, once numerous, have been wiped out by the aggressive Fire Nation in an effort to destroy the Avatar, the only person in the world capable of controlling all four elements. Katara, a young Water Bender, and her brother Sokka find a mysterious boy named Aang frozen inside an iceberg. Aang is the last Airbender, the Avatar, who must now travel the world to master Water-, Earth-, and Fire-bending to defeat the Fire Nation and bring balance back to the world.
While The Last Airbender is geared towards a younger audience, it has a rich mythology, excellent characters, absolutely gorgeous animated and fight choreography, and some surprisingly mature themes and storylines that help it appeal to all ages over the course of three seasons. The elemental bending styles designed for the show are based on actual martial art forms. For example, Water-bending is based off of the flowing, liquid movements of Tai Chi, while Earth-bending is based on the firm stance and sharp strikes of Hung Gar.
The sequel series, Legend of Korra, is shorter but far more intense. It takes place during the world’s Industrial Revolution, when the supremacy of Benders is being challenged by improving technology. The new Avatar, Korra, is faced with challenges far more complex than Aang’s. Korra is a bit of a hothead, whose first reaction is to punch a problem in order to fix it. But this causes her even more problems, both personally, and as the Avatar in a dark political environment where non-benders are starting to resent the perceived oppression by those who can bend.
Each of the four seasons is only 12-13 episodes, but they cover a lot of fast-paced territory and explore more mature themes and consequences than its predecessor. Plus…the fights are totally amazing and the animation is even more gorgeous. As new variations of bending arise, the martial art forms evolve as well from the four traditional ones. The story and characters defy expectations and delve deeper into the underlying mythos of the world of the Avatar, leaving it far richer than before.
**Both shows are around the PG range, as the fantasy violence can become intense, especially in Legend of Korra. However, blood and death is kept to the absolute minimum, and there is no inappropriate content. Suitable for ages 8 to 88.
Babylon 5 (1994-1998)
TV Series – Science Fiction/Space Opera/Drama
I discovered this show 3 years ago, and it remains my favorite show of all time. Babylon 5 was groundbreaking in many ways. It was the first major science fiction TV show that wasn’t tied to Star Trek. It was the first to feature a space station where the aliens came to you rather than flying on a ship to them. It was the first to use CGI for its special effects (even if those effects look clunky by today’s standards.) It was a “novel for television,” a show designed to have an overarching storyline that built upon previous episodes, something that is common today, but when B5 was on the air, shows like Star Trek focused on the stand-alone monster-of-the-week style of story-telling. (And for you music-lovers, each episode is individually scored.)
The costumes, sets, and alien make-up is first rate, better than Star Trek and even many other more modern sci-fi shows. But what really stands out with Babylon 5, the thing that drew me in and kept me, was the characters. They are real. Their struggles, hopes, dreams, fears, failures, triumphs…all of them could be related to, understood, empathized with. This is a very political show, in the sense that everything is complex, nothing is wasted, and there are always repercussions for ones actions. The themes of honor, friendship, responsibility, compassion, revenge are prominent and never easy to unravel in the dilemmas these characters face. And nobody is quite as they appear to be. I have never been so emotionally invested in a show, before or since. Others have come close…but not quite. I dare not say more, since I don’t want to risk spoiling anything!
**Rated PG-13 for science fiction action, some content, and some thematic elements, but very little blood.
Film – Historical Drama/Romance
A lavishly produced period piece about a historical anomaly: a mulatto woman raised in a noble household in the late 1700s. Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsey, the child of a slave woman and a noble Englishman, Sir John Lindsey. Raised by her father’s uncle and caught in a place “too high to sit with the servants but too low to sit with the family,” Dido struggles to find her place in a society that does not want her. At the same time, her guardian William Murray, the Lord Chief Justice, struggles with the legal (and moral) question of what to do about the Zhong, a ship accused of drowning its cargo of slaves to collect on the insurance.
Everything about this film is gorgeous. The characters and their struggles are beautifully real, the production values are high, and the emotional impact rewarding. It is both penetrating look at a historical period, a tale of justice battling with prejudice, and a tenderly wrought love story. That’s a lot of hats for a film to wear, but Belle succeeds at them all. Unfortunately, Belle is difficult to find in a DVD format in most libraries, although there is a copy in circulation on Netflix.
**Rated PG for thematic content.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
Film – Animated Fantasy/Superhero
I originally had no interest in seeing this film, but I am so glad that a group of my friends decided to go and dragged me along. It’s the heartwarming tale of a young boy Hiro living in the fanciful town of San Fransokyo. Brilliant but unmotivated, Hiro spends his time making robots to compete in underground battlebot matches. But everything changes when his brother introduces Hiro to a lab filled with creative misfits… and a tragedy changes Hiro’s life forever. Together with his robot buddy Baymax and his new friends, Hiro must fight to save his city.
Described as “Disney’s first Marvel movie,” Big Hero 6 is a superhero origin story, but not based on that rather implausible notion of aliens falling to earth or radioactive spiders. The heroes of this story are clever and creative, but flawed and funny too. It’s a wonderful film that, to me, really captures the spirit of superhero comics, the adventure and danger without becoming grim and dark like the newer Batman or Superman films. This is just fun for fans of superheroes and comics of all ages, but I think it can appeal to people who aren’t into those things as well.
**Rated G/PG. There is a traumatic death (off-screen), and some fantasy/science fiction violence, but no blood.
The Dark Crystal (1982)
Film – Fantasy/Puppetry
This film is a “milieu story,” one that focuses on the atmosphere and existence of a world, rather than on the more traditional elements of plot or character development. Created in a collaboration between Jim Henson and George Lucas, the story is very simple and the characters are rather two-dimensional. (A modern example would be James Cameron’s CGI epic Avatar: simple, even clichéd, story but gorgeous environments.)
In this film, the world is ruled by the evil, vulture-like Skeksis, who draw life-giving energy from a stone called the Dark Crystal. In a secluded valley live a race of gentle, meditative beings known as Mystics. They are harboring Jen, the last of the Gelflings, a diminutive, sprite-like race that was all but wiped out by the Skeksis. As the eldest Mystic lies dying, Jen is told to find a shard of the Dark Crystal and fulfill the ancient prophecy that says by Gelfling hand the land will be healed and Skeksis rule ended. It’s a fairly standard fantasy hero/coming of age quest.
The brilliance of The Dark Crystal lies in its simplicity. That simplicity of story allows one to appreciate the sheer technical marvel of its special effects. There are no humans present in The Dark Crystal. Everything on screen is a set or a puppet. Unlike Labyrinth or Willow where puppetry was used to enhance or supplement human characters and acting, The Dark Crystal doesn’t take place on any planet known to us. There are three suns, multitudes of plants and animals unlike anything on Earth and the closest thing to a human are the tiny, three-fingered Gelflings. The technical prowess of this film cannot be overstated, especially for its time. It was highly ambitious, fantastically well-made, and holds up, even today. For years, it was the closest thing to an alien ecosystem captured on film. Watch the behind-the-scenes features if you get the chance.
**Rated PG for some fantasy violence and the Skeksis.
Doctor Who (2005-Present)
TV Series- Science Fiction/Fantasy/Drama
I confess that I have not watched the original Doctor Who that ran from 1963 to 1989 (with a brief flicker of revival with a 1996 movie.) I know about it and started watching some of the First Doctor, but I haven’t gotten far. My introduction to Doctor Who was with the 2005 return starring Christopher Eccleston as the 9th Doctor. When I first started watching it, I swear, I wasn’t that impressed. I was having fun, but I wasn’t blown away. Until the 9th Doctor regenerated. At that moment, I realized just how emotionally invested I’d become, without even realizing it! I’ve been hooked ever since.
Doctor Who is a soft science fiction show. By “soft” I mean that it often plays fast and loose with science so it doesn’t always make sense. In fact, Neil Gaiman said that, “Doctor Who has never pretended to be hard science fiction… At best, Doctor Who is a fairy tale, with fairytale logic about this wonderful man in this big blue box who at the beginning of every story lands somewhere where there is a problem.” And it is. It really is a huge constantly evolving modern fairy tale that constantly reflects the fashions, values, and sensibilities of the eras in which it is made. I will not pretend that every episode is amazing (they aren’t) or that the show is perfect (it isn’t) but I will say that Doctor Who succeeds at the most important level: it makes you wonder and it makes you feel. Or at least, it did for me.
**Rated PG to PG-13 for fantasy/science fiction action, violence, and occasional thematic content.
TV Series- Science Fiction/Drama
A rollicking science fiction tale with a liberal dose of the Wild West from the mind of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse, and Marvel’s The Avengers. 500 years in the future, humanity has spread throughout a new solar system. The paramilitary Alliance maintains order with an iron fist, but out on the Rim, their grip is loose, the law becomes gray, and folk eke out a living as best they can. Enter Captain Malcolm (Mal) Reynolds, a man who was on the losing side of a war and now skips along, one step ahead of the law, ready to take any job to keep his ship, Serenity, flying.
Riding alongside is a motley group of crew and passengers, all of them with something to hide. (As Joss Whedon put it, “Nine people look into the blackness of space and see nine different things.) And life gets even more complicated when Mal takes on a special passenger who is on the Alliance’s most-wanted list. Filled with engaging characters, witty dialogue, and thoughtful, imaginative plots, Firefly is not to be missed. Although it was canceled after only 14 episodes, the legacy of Firefly lives on in its sequel movie Serenity and various accompanying comic books. You can’t take the sky from me!
**Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence, action, and/or gore. Blood and bodies are plentiful. Overall, about the same “ick/ouch” level as Lord of the Rings.
Ghost in the Shell: The Stand Alone Complex (2002-2005)
TV Series – Animated Cyberpunk
An engaging Japanese cyberpunk anime that illustrates the blurring between man, machine, and the internet. Set in the not-too-distant future where cyberization (the act of being modified with cybernetic enhancements ranging from prosthetic limbs to entire bodies, including the brain) abounds, cyber crimes and cyber terrorism are investigated by the shadowy, paramilitary police force Section 9. Led by the female cyborg Major Motoko Kusanagi and populated with a wide-ranging and colorful cast of characters, the first few stand-alone episodes quickly evolve and delve into a deeper and far-reaching mystery that questions the very essence of humanity.
There is a movie called Ghost in the Shell that came out before this, but The Stand Alone Complex, true to its name, stands apart in its own alternate timeline, although many of the characters are the same in appearance and personality. It’s a show that should probably be watched more than once; each time I do, I see something new and find a new philosophical puzzle to think about.
**Rated PG-13 for science fiction violence, thematic content, and some disturbing subject matter.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
Film- Animated Disney/Adventure
Do you like mice, Disney movies, or Sherlock Holmes? Well, this film has them all! Join the brilliant mouse detective Basil of Baker Street and his hapless sidekick Dawson as they try to rescue a toy maker from Basil’s arch-nemesis, the dastardly Professor Ratigan. This adorable reimagining of Sherlock Holmes in mouse form is one that captured me as a child and remains of my favorite movies of all time.
The dialogue is amazing, the characters wonderfully funny and touching, and the story is full of enough hi-jinks to satisfy any fan of children’s movies. (Fun fact: Basil of Baker Street was named for Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes in the 1940s film series.)
**Rated G, fun for the whole family!
Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2011-2013)
TV Series – Animated Science Fiction/Superhero
Another amazing, and sadly short-lived, series that blew me away. And good news! You don’t need to be familiar with Green Lantern or the superheroes of DC Comics to enjoy it! The galaxy is protected by the Green Lantern Corps, a group of aliens with “power rings” (fueled by the power of one’s Will) are sworn to defeat evil. Earth’s guardian is the hot-shot fighter pilot Hal Jordan, although he spends most of the series away from Earth with his friend and fellow Lantern Kilowog trying to save the galaxy from the evil machinations of Atrocitous and his army of Red Lanterns.
The series is animated with CGI and is rather stylized, but what Green Lantern TAS lacks in flashy detail it more than makes up for it with depicting emotion and fleshing out some of my favorite characters in television. The wit and emotional payoff of the story and evolution of the characters is beautiful and above and beyond the typical superhero fair. The entire series is only 26 episodes (broken into two 13-episode arcs) and can be found on Netflix.
**Rated somewhere between G and PG, as there is a lot of comic-book-style fighting and some occasionally shocking deaths are implied but there is little to no blood. It’s geared towards kids (ages 7-13) but can be enjoyed by teens and adults as well.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Film – Historical Drama
I freely admit that the main reason I went to see this movie was because Benedict Cumberbatch was starring in it as Alan Turing, a British mathematician who worked on a top secret project to decode Enigma, the German encoding machine in World War II. This dramatization delves not only into the creation of Turing’s thinking machine designed to break Enigma’s codes, but also into Turing’s life as an antisocial genius and his personal struggles.
I love movies like this which take dry historical facts and little known historical figures and brings them to life. I knew nothing about Alan Turing, the father of modern computers, before this film, and by the end of it, I was moved to tears. I cannot recommend this beautiful, well-crafted and well-executed film enough.
**Rated PG-13 for some subject matter, historical smoking & alcohol consumption.
Star Wars (original trilogy – 1977, 1980, 1983)
TV Series – Science Fiction/Space Opera
I am a huge fan of the original Star Wars trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi.) I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen those movies. Also, I freely admit that I am not a fan of the prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace was okay, Attack of the Clones was awful, and Revenge of the Sith was better than Clones, but not by much. By that point the series had gone past the point of being able to redeem itself.) I am cautiously curious about the new sequel series coming out. I could wax eloquent on Star Wars for a while, but I wanted to talk about something a little more niche, a little nerdy, and quite possibly so small that most people don’t notice… but it bothers me.
The original Star Wars movies have never been put on DVD. The things they call the original series that are on DVD are not. They are illegitimated versions with random CGI additions with lines removed, scenes inserted (that were cut for a good reason in the original), and lines or even entire scenes changed. (Han shot first!) These wouldn’t bother me if they served a purpose, but they don’t. It’s random, unnecessary, and jarring to the original narrative. And even if you were raised on the VHS tape versions, even THOSE are a little different. For example, I was raised on the first generation of Star Wars VHS tapes from the 1980s. In the 1990s, they were re-released. Both of these versions are full-screen, meaning the sides got cropped to fit the square tube TVs of the day. There were also letterbox/widescreen special editions available. (I now own one of these.)
Between the 1980s and 1990s full screen editions, there are differences, mostly in the way the wide angles are framed. If a scene in the widescreen shows both characters standing across from one another in a room, the full screen version doesn’t have enough space to both of them at the same time. So, in the editing room, they’ll make the camera appear to follow one character or another. My test for which version it is holds up best during the scene when Han and Luke are on the Death Star in A New Hope. Obi-wan (Ben) Kenobi has just left to go deactivate the tractor beam holding the Millennium Falcon. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker are supposed to stay put with the Wookie Chewbacca and the droids, but then R2-D2 discovers that Princess Leia is on board and Luke wants to rescue her. Their dialogue follows like this:
HAN: (sits down in chair) “I’m not going anywhere.”
LUKE: “They’re gonna execute her! Look, a few minutes ago you said you wanted to get out of here now all you want to do is stay?”
HAN: “Marching into a detention block is not what I had in mind!”
LUKE: (voice rising) “But they’re gonna kill her!”
HAN: (yelling) “Better her than me!”
At this point, Han turns away in his chair sulking while Luke turns away and walks a few steps, trying to think of a way to convince Han. In the theater, you would see both of them doing their own thing at the same time. In the 1980s version, the camera follows Luke as he ponders how to convince Han, then follows him as he leans over Han’s shoulder and says the magic words: “She’s rich.” In the 1990s version, the camera stays on Han as he pouts until we see Luke’s head pop back into frame to say, “She’s rich.” Other shots that were framed out in a similar manner follow this pattern, but that’s the main tell. There aren’t many of such shots, but they do make enough of a difference in what character they draw your attention to, and this, make it a different movie experience. It’s subtle, but there. And now you know about it.
**Rated PG for science fiction action and violence.
Sapphire& Steel (1979-1982)
– Science Fiction/Mystery/Psychological Thriller –
I discovered this British series by pure chance while searching for old science fiction shows. While it is called a spiritual precursor to The X-Files, I found it more reminiscent of The Twilight Zone with its claustrophobic sets, eerie music, and stories with ambiguous moral implications. (After watching Sapphire & Steel, I was finally inspired to embark on Doctor Who.) Sapphire and Steel are two alien “operatives” who are sent to mend rifts in time…at any cost. The primitive but very unsettling special effects make Sapphire & Steel a very creepy but fascinating world to inhabit.
This show does not baby you. You don’t get straightforward explanations; in fact, count yourself lucky if you get any explanation. This might be a turn-off for casual viewers, but I found that trying to unravel the puzzle of the stories and the history of the Operatives, along with decoding Sapphire and Steel’s interesting relationship kept me busy. For the record, I don’t think the rules of the world were tightly pinned down when the show was created, so there are some inconsistencies, but the intrigue of these alien and yet human-like characters makes up for it. There are several episodes in each story arc, or “Assignment,” for a total of 34 episodes. You can safety skip Assignment 5 since it’s basically filler, but the others range from Good to Fantastic.
**Rated PG-13 for some disturbing thematic content and overall creepiness. There is very little overt violence or gore, but it can be psychologically intense.
The 7thVoyage of Sinbad (1958)
– Fantasy Adventure/Stop-Motion Animation-
This is a classic from my childhood, a fantasy action-adventure film starring Kerwin Matthews as the intrepid explorer Sinbad. When an evil sorcerer enchants Sinbad’s betrothed, the Princess Parisa (played by Kathryn Grant), Sinbad must travel to the terrible Island of Colossa and face down many strange and frightening beasts to find a cure for his beloved. I include this film, not because it has a stellar story and well-rounded characters (because it doesn’t), but because it is a perfect example of the now-archaic art form of stop-motion animation. Before computers, special effects had to be crafted by make-up, camera tricks, matte paintings, and stop-motion animation. Instead of drawing, animators would have to movie replicas of monsters, spaceships, etc. To better understand the intensity of this craft in an age of computer generated animation, here is an excerpt from an article I wrote on this subject for the site, Geek la Femme:
“Consider this: movies were originally shot on film. Real, physical, tangible film. A role of film had little frames that were individual pictures. A movie is basically a series of still images individually photographed and strung together at such a high speed that the human eye interprets it as movement. Now, each second of film requires 24 frames. That means a 90-minute film (5,400 seconds) is comprised of 129,600 individual pictures. Again, when the film is played back, it moves fast enough that you can’t see each individual frame. Filming live action is simple enough because you just set up the camera and let it roll. But with special effects involving monsters or flying saucers, you had to get creative. Your only options were to dress someone up in a costume (which limits the kinds of monsters you can do and generally looks cheesy) or you use stop-motion animation.
So how do you get something that is basically a model, be it of a space ship or a dragon, and get it to move? And not just move, but move in a way that looks realistic? By moving very, very slowly. The animator would have to make minute adjustments to the models. Any movement had to be photographed frame by frame. Every tail-twitch, every wing-flap, every blink, every footstep had to be carefully choreographed and photographed individually. [For example, one] fight between [two monsters] is one minute and thirty-five seconds long. That’s 95 seconds and 2,280 frames. That means that Ray Harryhausen had to make at least2, 280 adjustments for each movement. Adjust, step back, photograph, adjust, step back, photograph, almost three thousand times. With two monsters and multiple movements going on in that fight, you can just imagine how intense and time consuming this process was. And if you screwed up, you had to start all over again.”
**Rated PG for fantasy action and violence. Very little blood.
By Hikari Katana