Josh: Well, theaters are still closed, and most of the movies we were scheduled to review have been pushed back to the end of the year or 2021. So instead we’ll talk about the many science fiction and fantasy shows available on streaming services!
Arley: Some shows I’ve been watching, and enjoying, are The Expanse, Westworld, and Watchmen.
Josh: Nice. I like The Boys, Tales from the Loop, and The Midnight Gospel, but we’ll just pick one each to review—
Arley: Rick and Morty!
Josh: Oh man, is the new season out? I need to catch up on that.
Arley: Yeah, it’s great. But this time I’ll talk about Motherland, which is on Hulu.
Josh: And I’m going to review Upload, available on Amazon Prime.
From Greg Daniels, creator of The Office and Parks and Recreation, Upload is a cross of Black Mirror and The Good Place, with bits of Silicon Valley. It’s set in a near future filled with technology that, though beyond today’s abilities, can all be seen on the horizon from here. Mind-uploading, self-balancing bicycles, fully immersive virtual reality, and the like create an uncanny valley world just different enough from ours to be unsettling. The set up is: Nathan Brown, a start-up programmer, dies in a self-driving car crash. Under his girlfriend Ingrid’s data plan, he can upload his mind (in a hilariously destructive procedure) to “Lakeview,” a VR afterlife where his every whim is catered to by an on-call “Angel” who is, in reality, an overworked customer support rep named Nora.
It’s very white-centric: Nathan is as whitebread as they come, some kind of young Tom Cruise lookalike, and his problems are a little hard to sympathize with when contrasted against the 99%. Even though Lakeview claims to be accepting of all races, creeds, and genders, Black people are relegated to supporting characters, literally. Nora, her coworker Aleesha, an in-house therapist, and even Nathan’s best friend/business partner Jamie (introduced helping Nathan code) are secondary and often subservient to Nathan’s needs.
This might be an intentional reflection of real-life economic class disparities where people of color (especially women) do a lot of the thankless work. Nathan even says, offhandedly, “Emotional work is real work,” but he doesn’t say it with any heart, so I don’t give him points for it. These characters eventually do get more of their own story, and Nora rapidly becomes the most compelling character. It just takes getting past the first few episodes.
A support person (of color) says to Nathan, “Sounds like you’ve had every kind of privilege and never questioned it,” so there is some self-awareness in the writing. Lakeview is not heaven, but nor is it hell (at least not on the financial levels Nathan lives on)—it is purgatory, but the sins that he’s atoning for seem to be getting past his privilege even as he remains an economic slave to his girlfriend Ingrid. (For Ingrid, think Ivanka plus Alexis from Schitt’s Creek). William B. Davis makes a surprise appearance as a character he was born to play.
The nickel-and-diming ultracapitalism of the show is Philip Dickian (I was reminded of the coin-operated apartment doors in Ubik, for example) and, while in-app purchases are a reality even today, it’s different when you actually live inside the app.
The show seems a little impressed with itself and all its gadgetry, without delving deeply into some of the implications, resulting in a low-res virtual simulation of a fully realized world. The afterlife theology is solidly western, though there are hints of reincarnation as the show goes on, and it becomes a murder mystery about halfway through, which injects another level of interest to the story. The first season is ten episodes of 30 minutes each, so you can burn through the whole thing in a few sittings.
Any serious science fiction fan will have seen all the gimmicks already but, like Black Mirror, it’s a decent introduction to a broad array of SFF ideas.
Created by: Greg Daniels
Starring: Robbie Amell, Andy Allo, Zainab Johnson, Kevin Bigley, and Allegra Edwards
It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty cool – give it a shot. When you shoot tequila, you need a bit of salt and lime; with Motherland, you need a bit of patience and forgiveness. Like the buzz of tequila, the cool stuff makes it worth it.
In the America of Motherland, the Salem witch trials ended in a pact. In a modern day alternate United States, witches comprise the primary US military force, fighting a war against terrorists called the Spree. This gives rise to some great alternate history/alternate world ideas, which is one of the strengths of the show: the general of the witch army (Lyne Renée) is a centuries old witch with an enthralling coven of women who always accompany her; states are carved up completely differently, global politics works differently; iconic art – such as the crossing of the Delaware – is painted with female figures; and much more.
The story centers on three cadets in military academy: Raelle Collar (Taylor Hickson), Tally Craven (Jessica Sutton), and Abigail Bellweather (Ashley Nicole Williams). Raelle comes from poverty, she’s a natural healer, and her mother was killed in military action. She carries a grudge and is a bit of a wild card. Tally is excited to serve her country, but nervous and inexperienced. Abigail comes from a line of aristocratic military leaders, she’s confident and cocky. A major focal point is their group’s friction, set against the necessity of the three of them working together as a single military unit. Each has a separate story arc, arguably the focus is more on Raelle and Abigail. Raelle has a romantic subplot with Scylla (Amalia Holm), a young woman who is a Spree spy; Abigail is dead set on becoming the next great military leader, even if she has to drag her unit along. Also, Raelle holds Abigail’s mother responsible for the death of her own mother.
Some solid visuals and decent effects combine with a number of cool ideas to make the show fun. There are a number of wonderful gender elements which add to the fun and elevate the impact of the show, such as strong female characters, an overall sex-positive vibe, and women having agency/being in charge in a variety of ways. Not every element is fully fleshed out but occasionally there are truly uplifting scenes.
Let’s talk downsides. While there’s a structure for the magic (unlike shows where magic is a random force which – conveniently – works how the writers want when they need it to, but doesn’t when they don’t want it to), there are moments when the magic doesn’t fit the rest of the rules, breaking the system. Worse, plot elements are sometimes obvious and contrived; or just plain don’t make sense. For example, the Spree can change their appearance and when they do they (inexplicably) use fire. There’s a scene where Scylla, who has a high interest in hiding, uses fire in the middle of the night, outside no less, to change form. But a) she risks getting spotted, wouldn’t she go to her room first? Or, you know, not change at all? and b) why do they even need fire to do this? That’s not how magic usually works in this world. We get it: it’s for dramatic effect. But sometimes a scene is so thoughtless it takes me out of the show.
Lastly, and back to positives, the show features some diversity across intersections of race and sexuality. It could be better: two of the three main characters are white, and there’s a throw in or two which felt like a person of color is essentially there to make the white character seem cool. But it generally ranges from “not bad” to “pretty good” and is better by far than most.
Despite a few hiccups, it’s the strong female characters, solid action, some of the story, and many of the ideas which drive Motherland, and I’ve been watching episodes as soon as I can. If you can overlook its flaws, you’ll get a lot out of this one.
Created by: Eliot Laurence
Starring: Taylor Hickson, Amalia Holm, Demetria McKinney, Jessica Sutton, Ashley Nicole Williams, Lyne Renée
ARLEY SORG, Associate Editor, grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.
JOSH PEARCE, Assistant Editor, started working at Locus in 2016. He studied creative writing at SFSU and has sold short stories and poems to a variety of speculative fiction magazines. Born and raised in the Bay Area, he currently lives in the East Bay with his wife and son and spends way too much time on Twitter: @fictionaljosh. One time, Ken Jennings signed his chest.
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