After Battlestar Galactica wrapped up in 2009, what happened to television science fiction? There were some fantasy shows, some horror, things that might approach sci-fi, but overall there was a definite dearth for years.

As I noted in another post about TV shows, Orphan Black premiered in 2013. It doesn't take place in the far future or deal with aliens, but it did mark the start of an increase of sci-fi on TV.

I also mentioned The 100 in my other TV post, and it's worth saying that I still think it's one of the best continuing shows right now. I care more about its characters and I'm on the edge of my seat watching it more than I am with most forms of entertainment.

But what's happened since then? What's new? Has sci-fi made enough of a comeback to start sporting some space ships?

The answer is a definitive yes. Below I'll examine the front runners, giving a broad overview of the most prevalent shows in the genre, generally descending in the order that I like them. I thought about including some shows I think are downright bad and critiquing them, but ultimately decided against it. For what it's worth: avoid Extant and Humans. They're both a waste of time.

Continuum

Continuum

Continuum is the only show on this list that has aired its final episode. It also had the lowest budget. I'll be the first to admit that it's probably not for everyone. Time travel inevitably leads to plotholes. And there are some slow spots. But it is filmed in Vancouver, which is always a good sign, and it means there are some familiar faces, namely Tamoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani.

The casting is particularly good. Rachel Nichols and Victor Webster are the leads - I've never seen either before, but they both give great performances. Nichols in particular gets great at conveying complex emotions toward the end of the series. She's put in some unique situations that most actors couldn't handle, but she deals with them deftly.

The supporting cast is also worth mentioning, with Erik Knudson and Stephen Lobo both playing quirky characters. Lobo's "Kellog" is a favorite of mine. Charismatic and pragmatic, he supplies comic relief and occassional villainy.

The action and intrigue keep things moving, and there are some awesome special effects sequences involving the stealth suit. Sadly, the series is marred by some equally bad CG at points. But when it shines, it shines brightly.

I'm really thankful that Continuum got a controlled ending. It was very satisfying, albeit bittersweet, worthwhile journey.

Colony

Colony

Colony is the most criminally under-watched show on TV right now. It's a harsh, modern dystopia where the US has been divided into blocs by massive walls. Friends and family are separated from each other, travel is heavily restricted, curfews enforced, while people are disappearing or shot on the spot. This is all overseen by a hostile occupying force.

And that force is alien.

No one has ever seen or spoken to an alien directly, but they have terrible weaponry and don't tolerate resistance. Nonetheless, resistance persists. And one family gets caught up in the middle of it.

Colony excels because it focuses on the human aspect of an alien encounter. It's about how humans treat each other, as well as how they react to circumstances out of their control.

It also uses a realistic style to make this sci-fi setting more believable. The cinematography has occasional moments of excellence, such as in the recent Season 2 Episode 8 "Good Intentions." There's a continuous shot action scene that has a Banshee quality to it: fraught with tension and executed perfectly.

There are mysteries slowly being revealed, and all I want is for USA to give the show enough seasons to get through them all without rushing. It has so much potential.

The Expanse

The Expanse

I originally had The Expanse at the bottom of this list. I did not enjoy most of the first season, nor did I particularly like the book it's based on. I read it a while ago for the same reason this show was probably greenlit: one of the authors works with George R.R. Martin. I also love the idea of sci-fi taking place throughout the solar system once humanity has spread out a bit - indeed, that's the setting for my own first novel - but in this case I was thoroughly unimpressed.

Season 1 Episode 4 "CQB" was a solid action entry in the series, but I found the show otherwise incomprehensible. Production techniques like desaturating an already ill-light set made it hard to see what was happening on screen. Accents not based in reality made it hard to hear what was being said. Hand cams and fast cuts exacerbated the problems. The plot was far too meandering. And I really didn't like Miller.

But the second season. Wow.

They've improved on everything. The difference is palpable even in the first episode. Gone are the gray scenes and frenetic shots. Instead the camera remains still, moving only with purpose. Neon purples and reds keep the scenes lit, while remaining distinctly sci-fi. The direction and cinematography are both so much better that it feels like a totally different show. It's like the crew grew up a bit, or hired some veterans, or possibly even listened to some critics. Whatever the reason, the change is welcome.

On top of fixing all its production woes, The Expanse actually hit its stride when it comes to story too. The stakes are incredibly high - like planetary destruction high - and it's exhilarating to watch each episode. Having a sci-fi show back on the air that has actual space battles is a watershed event.

Despite my harsh critiques I'm beyond happy that this show has matured. It has quickly turned into one of the hours I most look forward to each week. Over half this list is made up of shows on the SyFy channel, and The Expanse is now the unquestionable leader.

Killjoys

Killjoys

SyFy started airing two sister shows in back to back timeslots: Killjoys and Dark Matter. They are both futuristic settings where Earth exists somewhere, but isn't as important as it used to be. Thy also both feature a small crew operating out of a single ship, and focus on the dynamic of those crew members with each other.

I prefer Killjoys because it's irreverent. The first season does not take itself seriously, and despite the life or death situations the characters often find themselves in they still have time for comic relief. There's love and messy relationships and desire and greed and guilt all contained in a little ship controlled by a sassy AI that goes by "Lucy." They're not afraid to talk about religion, and they're not afraid to hash it out with each other. Throw in a woman called "Dutch" that knows how to fight better than either of the men and you have the closest thing to Firefly since Serenity left theaters.

The second season didn't quite live up to the promise of the first: the show starts to take itself too seriously, and as a result loses some of its charm. But they've built an intriguing universe here. One filled with multidimensional characters, conspiracies, and conflicts. And that means there's still plenty of good TV to be made.

Dark Matter

Dark Matter

I read the Dark Matter graphic novel and really didn't like it. The story is filled with predictable tropes: the crew has amnesia, one of them is a traitor, what a surprise.

The early episodes are the worst. The characters don't know themselves, don't trust each other, and generally run around in circles, never progressing anything. Once the characters actually start to get backstories fleshed out and personalities finalized things improve a lot. This means the second season ended up being much better than the first. It also features Wil Wheaton as a bad guy, and that's worth the price of admission alone.

I think Dark Matter has potential to get even better, but it hasn't fully found its footing yet. It needs to give up entirely on the amnesia thread and not knowing who's who. Once it gets out of its own way there's plenty of plot to explore.

Into the Badlands

Into the Badlands

I forced myself to get through Into the Badlands. The intro music is done by Mike Shinoda, but that wasn't enough to make the pilot very good. Or the next couple episodes either. I was still so enthralled by the setup - a future US reverted to feudalism where all guns are gone - that I had to see it through all six episodes. The utterly bland Revolution had something similar and squandered it in mediocrity. It seemed impossible that another show would do the same.

And yet it seemed likely, until somewhere near the middle of the season. The last two or three episodes actually focus enough on moving the story forward rather than dreary exposition that it became enjoyable to watch.

You have to embrace the crazy unrealistic fight scenes. They evoke images of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The swordplay is quite good at points, and that's something most sci-fi that isn't Star Wars lacks.

AMC certainly took a gamble on this wild premise. It's the only show on this list not into its second season yet (although that starts very soon), and it has the least number of episodes in its first season to boot, so there's not a lot of material to judge. Yet what's there is trending upwards. Add that to the supernatural powers we only get a glimpse of and I'm excited for the future of Into the Badlands.

Fantasy Bonus: The Magicians

The Magicians

I'm writing about sci-fi and it's forever intertwined with fantasy so I have to include The Magicians. I think it's my favorite show on TV right now.

It does not start strong. The first four or five episodes are largely exposition, and if you're at all familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia then it feels redundant in extremis.

The Magicians starts with a purely cliche setup: normal boy living a depressing life suddenly finds out magic is real and he's special and has powers and gets whisked away to a magic school where he's at the top of the class except for the hot girl who's smarter than he is. Yes, it draws from Harry Potter heavily. And The Name of the Wind, all the way back to The Wizard of Earthsea. The Magicians is supremely aware of its place in the history of the genre. It's post-modern fantasy.

Then they start playing with your expectations. The tropes turn on you. Around episode 7 or 8 I went from mild disinterest to addictively hooked. It was a race to the finish from there. The show gets DARK. Eliot and Margo are some amazing comic relief characters, but the drama unfolding around Alice and Quentin and Julia works itself up to a feverish sprint and then doesn't stop, even into the second season.

I really can't say enough good things about The Magicians. Everything you think you know will be turned on its head. There's reveal after reveal after reveal and they all make sense and fit together. Go watch it.

See All Comments (0)

Graphic novels are long-form storytelling by way of merging art and words. They differ from comic books in that they are generally longer and not planned to be perpetual - i.e. they have an overall story to tell; they're working towards an ending from the beginning. It's a relatively new medium, as most consider Will Eisner's 1978 A Contract with God to be the inaugural release. I had the pleasure of reading that book recently, and it's clear even today that Eisner was a visionary as well as a master craftsman. And in fact it's his name that's used to honor the top contributions to the field each year with the industry's highest form of recognition: the Eisner Awards.

In the decades since we've seen classics get converted into movies, TV shows, and games. The likes of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Wanted, The Walking Dead, and Preacher have all graced our screens. The late 90's and early 2000's saw some modern geniuses rise to prominence: the likes of Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary) and Brian K. Vaughn (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina) continued moving the genre forward.

And inexorably, we keep moving. This post is concerned with recent additions - only the last couple years - and specifically highlighting the best of the best. There were some close calls and a lot of others I'd love to talk about. Prophet has amazing artwork that blew me away when I perused the first volume, but I found its writing amateurish. Lazarus nails the writing, but it's impossible to tell what's going on in the frenzied artwork. Rather than digging into what those could have done better, I limited myself to only highlighting those that excel in both parts of the medium.

These are the ongoing series that succeeded in the synthesis of words with visuals. All of them are still releasing new issues. These are my top 7 graphic novel series for 2017, in the order that you should run out and buy them.

Saga

Writing by Brian K. Vaughn, Art by Fiona Staples

Saga Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

Saga is the gold standard nowadays. It's referenced on social media, in TV shows, all over. One of its characters is a cat that can only say the word "Lying," and then, only says it if a lie was actually told. Lying Cat has become a semi-famous meme: it can be found on t-shirts and making cameos everywhere, even by those who don't know where it originated.

Beyond the popularity, Saga is also notable for the artwork, which is refreshingly bold. The colors pop in over-saturated pastels. Bright pinks and teals and yellows dominate. The adventure explodes into life, and I love it.

The story is told from the perspective of a baby, which is unique and surprisingly effective. It feels like a space opera Romeo and Juliet, but there are still some nuances within that. Saga manages to mix adventure and drama and romance and comedy into something magical, giving it that Star Wars quality everyone strives for.

If you have to start somewhere, start with Saga.

Low

Writing by Rick Remender, Art by Greg Tocchini

Low Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

The first volume of Low was a book I bought based solely on the premise: in the far future the sun has expanded, driving humanity beneath the ocean waves to escape its deadly radiation. Thousands of years pass while human culture, technology, even biology change while they wait for a response from probes sent to find another planet with a habitable surface somewhere.

Despite mostly taking place underwater, the artwork is very warm: there's a reddish-orange tone to most of the sets and backgrounds. It looks a little sketched and the lines aren't always clean, almost as if being viewed through water. But where it really excels is in the frequent large spreads: there are a lot of full-page and multi-page pieces, and they're filled with tiny details.

The surprising thing is that while the setting drives the action, it is not the reason Low continually impresses me: it's the characters and their journeys. There's an extreme amount of loss and pain here, showing the worst of what humanity is capable of when put into life or death situations. But throughout all of it there's also a persistent thread of hope. And that hope helps the characters keep moving forward.

Low takes a totally fantastic world and puts very real people smack in the middle of it.

Revival

Writing by Tim Seeley, Art by Mike Norton

Revival Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

The dead have come back to life! In a single small, rural town. But they're not zombies. If this sounds familiar, that's because there's a TV series called The Returned that has a very similar premise, and has been remade and adapted several times. But where The Returned feels derivative, Revival is refreshing.

The genre is one the creators call "rural noir" and it shows a lot of promise. Specifically, they're asking the question: how do average people cut off from the rest of the world behave when confronted with both the supernatural and the mundane? It focuses on families and relationships, as well as power struggles within the tight-knit community. It's powerful and intimate at the same time.

The art is very clear, concise even. Character outlines are thicker than usual, so you can easily separate them from their surroundings. This clarity makes the horrific events happening all the more impactful.

If we have to compare it to a TV show, Revival actually feels much closer to The Leftovers, which is high praise from me. In both series I'm not sure we'll ever find out what actually happened, but that matters far less than what the people in these worlds go through.

Wayward

Writing by Jim Zubkavich, Art by Steven Cummings and Tamra Bonvillain

Wayward Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

Imagine that Japanese mythology is real, and a bunch of teenagers turn out to have super powers and have to fight demons and monsters in the street. Wayward is just that, and it's chalk full of tropes. But I can't help liking it.

First, seeing the research done into the mythos is incredible: each volume contains a large prose section explaining the history of each of the legends. It's great background if you're interested, but you can also safely skip it if you're uninterested.

There's a lot of action: this is a modern, more grown up Ninja Turtles taking place in Tokyo, so there's plenty of punches and kicks thrown right beside swords and spells. But the art keeps it all in check: energy strands are bright and movements are precise. In less skilled hands all the explosions would be a hindrance to the storytelling, but instead we get some epic battles worth re-reading.

This is a coming-of-age story about superheroes: it's fun, and probably less serious than most of the other entries on this list. I keep looking forward to it as a nice diversion, and because the plot keeps thickening with every issue.

Trees

Writing by Warren Ellis, Art by Jason Howard

Trees Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

Trees is...

Well, it's about aliens.

But they don't talk to us or interact with us in anyway. They're just there. Like the TV show Colony, or the book Neon Green.

Ok, it's not really about aliens.

It's about us. And our ability to adapt.

The art is hurried - not always clear, but consistently emotional. Silence is used to great effect: it's not uncommon to see 4 to 6 pages in a row without a single speech bubble. This is the epitome of show, don't tell. It's brave and masterful.

Trees isn't quick to explain the aliens or why the came to Earth. It uses them instead as a mirror to tell us about ourselves.

Injection

Writing by Warren Ellis, Art by Jordie Bellaire and Declan Shalvey

Injection Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

Injection begins with these words:

There's not much left of Maria.
The wind from tomorrow is scouring her away.
The talons of the old world are reaching up out of the dirt for her ankles.
She can barely remember what hope and peace felt like.
She dreams of those infinite childhood Augusts when she didn't know anything and nothing was coming, and wakes up with cold in her bones.

That was more than enough to hook me immediately. I don't want to say much more, because part of the experience of Injection is discovering what's happening and why. Suffice it to say that a group of experts is gathered to combat some bizarre phenomenon. It's roughly comparable to something like Torchwood, but there's a lot of depth beneath the surface.

The art is simpler than normal here, but it's still effective. Characters are a bit desaturated and plain, while backgrounds are often just a solid unadorned color, but it allows for particular and purposeful emphasis. At one point in the second volume the background shifts through a rainbow as the tone of the scene changes. It's visually striking, and powerful.

Injection is fundamentally about facing the consequences of our prior actions. It chooses its visuals and words deliberately, to great effect.

The Autumnlands

Writing by Kurt Busiek, Art by Benjamin Dewey

The Autumnlands Volume 1 Cover

Volume 1 on Amazon

Animals have the ability to talk, and they've created a civilization up to the level of something approximating our own feudal/medieval time period. It's fantasy complete with spells and wizards and barbarians.

Normally I would find this boring. It seems like you could predict everything that's going to happen just based on the genre and all the cliches built up over time. But The Autumnlands surprises in the best ways. The art is subdued and somber, until magic explodes onto the page. I love the way spells look here: they're bright and violent.

The story goes down dark, dark paths. There's a particularly forceful event early on that went the opposite way than I expected it to. That moment hooked me.

The Autumnlands is a tragedy about the trappings of power, the loss of innocence, and trying to maintain friendships through hard times. It doesn't matter that the characters are animals: they're people in all the ways that matter.

See All Comments (0)

Two years ago I wrote about the best new TV shows from the previous year and now I'm doing it again. This time I'm considering shows that started in either 2014 or 2015. I'm continuing to avoid the biggest names because you probably already know about them (unsurprisingly, Game of Thrones is still constantly obsessed over).

On to the list! Here are the top shows from the last two years I think you should check out, in order of importance.

The 100

The 100 poster

The 100 is often dismissed by people who saw early ads for it or watched only the pilot. And given those impressions, I can't blame them. From the outside it looks like a cheesy teen romance. The pilot is complete with angel lighting, soft glows, and makeup that's too perfect. Add to that the fact that the show is on The CW, and you can see why so many might avoid it.

But The 100 is a humbling lesson in not judging a book by its cover. Once you move past the pilot the show quickly pivots into a gritty sci-fi drama. The angel lighting is gone. The characters get dirty and hurt and they don't get cleaned up between episodes. The closest comparison is Battlestar Galactica, because it revolves around a group of humans struggling to keep the species alive balanced against the morality of their choices (not to mention that I've counted at least three BSG alums making appearances). And if you know how much I loved the aforementioned Peabody-winning BSG, you'll know that this comes as especially high praise.

The 100 deals with the worst of humanity when faced with agonizing choices of life and death. There's warfare, chemical weapons, and sacrifices in the name of information theory. On top of that, the characters are dynamic and grow as the series progresses. People you hated will become empathetic, their previously malicious choices turned positive by new information.

To pull this off, the creators managed to put together a stellar cast. The lead, Eliza Taylor as "Clarke," gives one of the best performances I've seen on television. And the rest of the cast supporting her - especially Bob Morley as "Bellamy" - is also incredibly talented. At its core, The 100 is a show about what it means to be human, and these actors make that journey of discovery a believable struggle.

On a side note, the CW has started churning out a surprising amount of award-winning content. Take the Vancouver-based shows like The 100, Arrow, and Flash plus hits like Jane the Virgin and it's easily the network where I spend the most time nowadays.

Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot logo

Mr. Robot came out of nowhere this past summer (and from USA to boot). I hadn't heard about it at all, but I saw a single ad that intrigued me, so I watched the pilot. Rami Malek as the lead was brilliant. Christian Slater was amazing backing him up. I was hooked immediately.

It's a show about New York city, mental health, the state of democracy and surveillance and the economy, as well as complicated interpersonal relationships. It's full of fun references to similarly themed movies, from Fight Club to The Matrix. But ultimately it is its own story, and told in a singularly unexpected fashion. You should avoid spoilers at all costs.

The music is like nothing I've heard before. A kind of electronic percussion, subtle and subdued in the best way possible. It emphasizes and underscores vital scenes perfectly. Combined with that, the title card placement and timing is absolutely fantastic. It's the sort of thing that should be taught in film school.

Altogether it was over too fast. Considering how crazy things got by the end and that the show's creator (Sam Esmail) has said that the first season was just a setup for the second, I can't wait to see what happens next.

The Leftovers

The Leftovers logo

Maybe you've been wondering what Liv Tyler's been doing with her time recently. Or if there inevitably had to be an HBO entry in this list. In both cases, it's The Leftovers.

This show takes the concept of the biblical rapture and explores it from the side of those left behind. What would happen to society if millions of people unexpectedly disappeared in an instant? Or arguably more important: what would happen to a person's psyche if they witnessed it but weren't included? The Leftovers appears to be a show seeking to answer those questions by examining flawed individuals who are all to real and familiar. But the writers are actually asking what it means to be a person - a friend, a husband, a daughter - and using this unique event to dig into the depths of questions we are too afraid to ask ourselves under normal circumstances.

The show does start slow. It takes time to build up speed. And it's obviously fairly low budget. But it explores themes like survivor's guilt and religious uncertainty with a raw ferocity, unable to let go of a subject even when it becomes uncomfortable. By the end of the second season every episode had me feeling some deep, powerful emotion. If that doesn't sell you on The Leftovers I don't know what will.

Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul poster

AMC's Breaking Bad prequel series got much fanfare before it came out, but the first season is not something I often hear people talking about. It seems to have largely been missed. I attribute this to a slow pilot and equally laggy first few episodes. The pacing there really needed to be improved, and the focus of the storytelling should have been more on the core characters. But if you can make it past that the show does self-correct and become one absolutely worth watching.

The cinematography choices in Better Call Saul are breathtaking. How they managed to turn a parking lot under an overpass into something beautiful is beyond me. And the show uses tools like still shots and silence to masterful effect. This is a team of experts working in a medium they know extremely intimately.

Bob Odenkirk as the eponymous "Saul" delivers a tremendous weight and skill to the role. I was a little doubtful he could carry a show before seeing it, but now I believe he's one of the best actors out there. And I'm excited to see him continue as a leading man.

Man in the High Castle

Man in the High Castle logo

Amazon entered the original content market recently, and Man in the High Castle is the first show I've seen by them. It's based on a novel of the same name by Philip K. Dick, the sci-fi writer whose works - such as Blade Runner and Minority Report - always seem to translate well to the screen. Man in the High Castle is no exception.

The first season's release in November coincided with Netflix's Jessica Jones - a solid series showcasing a marvelous Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, and Mike Colter as broken people in a Marvel superhero-filled Hell's Kitchen. But Jessica Jones ultimately maintained tension for too long, to the point that the audience is able to bear it, and thus becomes uninteresting. It's an odd problem for a TV show to have, but there nonetheless. Sadly, Netflix's reputation and popularity let them steal the spotlight, eclipsing Man in the High Castle to the point where it didn't get the attention it deserved.

The show is set in an alternate history version of America in the 1960's. But it's an America divided: the Axis won World War II and the continent has been split between Germany and Japan, with the Rockies forming a natural neutral zone between them. The machine of war has stopped, and both forces are now set to the task of a long-term occupation. But that comes with all the usual problems; there are tensions and threats from both within and without for the new oppressors.

Alexa Davalos - you might remember her as "Gwen" from Angel - plays the lead "Juliana." She makes this complex, difficult part look easy. She has to navigate unfamiliar, treacherous waters and we get to join her for the exciting ride.

Man in the High Castle ends particularly well: the finale is full of shocking reveals and delightful surprises that had me on the edge of my seat, but also opened up even more questions for the next season to explore.

Honorable Mention: Ascension

Ascension poster

The SyFy channel has been trying to create a lot of new franchises recently (something I plan to explore more in a separate, exclusively sci-fi post) but they've largely failed. Personally, I think Ascension was the best attempt.

It's a miniseries that aired in late 2014, and had a strong viewership to start, but one that abandoned even the small number of episodes quickly. The most common complaint was that the show was advertised as a space opera, but instead delivered something more concerned with characters and psychology than spaceships or aliens. Of course, I didn't mind the bait and switch. And if those people had continued to watch they would have discovered some awesome space opera elements that only appear later on.

Ascension brought BSG's Tricia Helfer back to SyFy and she's awesome. But the rest of the cast has some weak points. Combined with occasionally bad writing - the writers clearly needed a consultant about the basics of physics and relativity - and I can see why it didn't gain wide appeal.

But there are some very interesting ideas they began to explore. And it was only the tip of the iceberg. The show also had this amazing retro-50's-chic style to its sets and costumes that really set it apart visually. Ascension could have been the base for an amazing full series. I'm disappointed that we'll never find out, because unlike everything else on this list it never got renewed.

What's Next?

TV is such a great medium for telling long-form stories, and there's more coming all the time. Netflix vowed to double its original programming in 2016. And I'm still waiting on some new shows from AMC and SyFy. Until then, this list will have to do.

See All Comments (0)

Destiny has been out for three weeks now and it seems safe to say that for most people the game is over. For anyone not interested in the hours and hours of grinding repetitive content required to move past level 20, the short, lackluster story can't have lasted even this long. For those who manage to get to level 26 and unlock all the content the game has to offer, the game is similarly finished by now. The only way to upgrade their gear any more (which is pointless anyway since there's no more content to use that gear on) is to get extremely rare materials, which requires potentially hundreds of more hours grinding from the exact same pool of missions they've already had to complete dozens of times. For a while during the beginning of the limited-time Queen's Wrath event it seemed there would be a more reliable way to get at these materials, but once Bungie discovered that it became clear they didn't intend it, and they removed that ability.

This boils down to a simple fact: as exemplified by the comments in this Reddit thread, for players of all skill and commitment levels, the game is simply begging you to stop playing it.

It's a stroke of pure evil genius. And I'll explain why.

Consider the timing. On July 25th, a week into the Destiny Beta, Warner Brothers announced that Shadow of Mordor would be releasing early, on September 30th instead of October 7th. Do you know how many times a game is released EARLY? Even just one week? It's exceedingly rare. My guess is that by the middle of the beta Bungie had enough data to estimate how long players would take to get through the game, so they used industry backchannels to convince Warner Brothers to move up the Mordor release date so that players were not left hanging without a game to play. Early reviews generally favor Shadow of Mordor over Destiny, despite the former's lower budget and considerable lack of hype.

See, now that Destiny is finished for most people, Bungie doesn't want them harping on it, complaining about it, or really thinking about it at all. They even went to the trouble of hiring such amazing writers that they were able to create a story that is utterly forgettable. If players start to think about Destiny, they may start to think about their actual experience rather than just the shiny visuals and tight gameplay. They may wonder why they spent so much money on it, especially considering how short the campaign is. Players may notice that the classic video game trope of changing enemy colors to denote different types was simplified even further to the point of only changing the health bar colors, rather than anything on the models themselves. This is just one micro example of their genius: Bungie has pushed repetition and re-use of content as far is it can go.

With Shadow of Mordor hearkening the beginning of the fall craze of new releases, it means players won't have time to think about those things, or why they've been playing a game that to fully enjoy demands as many hours each day as a full time cubicle job and also entails sitting for long stretches staring at a screen hoping something interesting happens. It means that when the DLC comes out several months from now, players won't remember any of that, and they'll be willing to shell out the money for any new content, no matter how small. The DLC will probably perpetuate the cycle so that a few months after that another DLC release will follow, each forgettable, each a tiny ball of repetition, ad infinitum.

So here's the real genius: by purposefully making a game so utterly forgettable and timing it so that other releases in the industry with better reviews eclipse it the perfect amount of time later, Bungie has been assured of maximum profits (it's not like you can return your digital download for a $60 refund) while minimizing costs. Because no one will be playing Destiny, they won't have to spend nearly as much money maintaining their servers. Maximizing sales while minimizing the number of active players is a formula EA has been trying to nail down for a decade. I'd say Bungie has finally succeeded. Maybe once investors realize that, Activision's stock will start to recover from the huge drop it's taken since Destiny's release.

Planned obsolescence as a service is here to stay. And personally, I'm glad to have spent my money on a game that has a worse script, worse voice acting, and a more convoluted, pointless story than any recent entry in the Call of Duty series. Because Bungie's genius deserves to be recognized and financially compensated. Plus the alternative - that this is the game the creators of almighty Halo actually meant to make because they thought it would be memorable or fun - is too terrifying to contemplate.

See All Comments (0)

Here we are a week into 2014 and I find myself reflecting on all the media I consumed last year. The games and movies, novels and shows. In particular, I think TV as a medium continues to get stronger with every passing year. As soon as we as a culture started to prefer a show you had to pay attention to rather than the "monster-of-the-week format" (that's a quote from Joss Whedon talking about what made Buffy good) it allowed us to follow long running, deeply impactful storylines, full of large casts of multifaceted characters. Essentially, what we have now are video novels where each installment is really a season, not an episode. That's a concept that got popularized by 24, but I'd argue it was the second season of Babylon 5 that really started it. B5's creator and primary writer, J. Michael Straczynski, was the first source of the phrase "video novel" I ever heard, and he was certainly a pioneer when it came to successfully executing on that idea.

So which shows from last year live up to my gold standard? If you're a TV connoisseur at all then you already know about shows like Breaking Bad, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones. I felt that rehashing the Emmy's list wouldn't be adding anything new to the conversation. Instead, here are a few shows that were probably off your radar, but I think are some of the best the year had to offer. Each one had its first season in 2013, and they're listed in the order of importance for you to go watch right now.

Utopia

Shot of a field from Utopia

Utopia is just brilliant. I seriously loved every minute of it. As pictured, there are continually these vast, sweeping shots of brightly colored fields that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot despite their prevalence I swear. The cinematography is simply top-notch. There's incredibly tight focus. The color palette is over saturated and well thought out in every scene. The actors nail their roles. The music is haunting throughout. And it brings up some frightening concepts about the future of the human race. For a sci-fi-light show from the U.K. based Channel 4 it was so much more than I expected.

The synopsis on IMDB says:

Utopia will follow a group of people who find themselves in possession of a manuscript of a cult graphic novel. The tome is rumoured to have predicted the worst disasters of the last century and the group soon find themselves targeted by a shadowy organisation known only as The Network.

That's all you need to know. Well, that and maybe the fact that Misfits' "Curtis" Nathan Stewart-Jarrett stars in it, since it's always nice to see a familiar face. But seriously do yourself a favor and don't look up anything else about it. The show is worth it and you don't want it spoiled. Trust me.

Orphan Black

Orphan Black

I'm really proud of AMC. They started as just another cable channel that showed movies with commercial breaks all day long. It was a simple formula, and it worked to sustain them. But then they took a risk and started producing original content. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead are all evidence of what they've accomplished. Almost more importantly, by doing it they opened the doors for others. The History channel now has Vikings. And BBC America - which previously was just a region to region importer - has Orphan Black.

Just like Utopia, Orphan Black is sci-fi-light. It takes place in the near future, and there are some technological advances in its world that we don't have, mostly of a biological nature. But it's otherwise very familiar. There are conflicts and crime, families and lovers. And although the show is mostly filmed in Toronto it gives a nice shout out to the University of Minnesota, a refreshing change of locale to the Midwest instead of the usual coasts.

The story revolves around a girl who sees a twin she didn't know she had on a train station platform. Things get crazier and crazier from there. The show is not as strong visually as the others on this list, but the acting more than makes up for it. The lead, Tatiana Maslany, blew up on social networks like Twitter, where the internet masses demanded that she be nominated for an Emmy for her performance. She didn't get it, but she certainly deserved it. And a lot of media outlets called it the biggest awards snub of the year.

Her sidekick and adopted brother in the show, Felix, played by Jordan Gavaris, might be my favorite new character of the year in television. He's hilarious as the comic relief most the time, but he can also put on a doesn't-take-crap-from-anybody attitude. Both work marvellously, and I can't wait to see him resume this role.

The other notable cast member is Maria Doyle Kennedy, playing the aforementioned two's adoptive mother. She's the only one I had seen before, and her past roles are each a knockout: Queen Catherine in The Tudors, the babysitter Sonya in Dexter, and the ex-Mrs. Bates in Downton Abbey. She's at the top of her game here in Orphan Black.

Broadchurch

Broadchurch

Another U.K. based show, this time from iTV, Broadchurch is on the surface what I would call a "whodunnit" murder mystery. Normally that kind of show would not appeal to me at all, as I typically loathe stories that are dependent on their plot twists to be good (see Fight Club as the exception with a drastic twist that still manages to be awesome on repeat viewings, but Mystic River as a case of one that is not). However, while the characters in Broadchurch are quite obsessed with finding the murderer, the show itself is more about their interactions with each other and the challenges they face along the way. It's an excellent example of the journey being more important than the destination.

In addition to having great characters that experience a full range of emotions throughout this tragedy, Broadchurch also excels technically. With a subdued tone and wide shots, the camera is actually helping to tell the story rather than getting in the way. And there's one transition early on that is just fantastic. It's worth watching the pilot for that alone.

Broadchurch is getting both a second season and an American remake (to be called Gracepoint), but it doesn't need either. It's a complete story on its own. And for good or for bad it will make you feel something, deeply.

Banshee

Banshee

The most surprising network to have a show on this list is Cinemax. Yes, they made a serious drama, and it is suprisingly good. It is the most graphic show on this list, with some extreme violence, so if that makes you squeamish you my want to avoid it. But if you can get past a couple of the more gruesome scenes, the show is totally worth it.

Banshee takes place in an eponymous town in Amish country in Pennsylvania. Its new sheriff is recently freed from prison and the star of the show. His appearance causes the small town politics and relationships to quickly grow in complexity, and the story branches out from there in multiple directions that miraculously find a way to relate back to each other eventually. The action - particularly the gun fights and car chases when they happen - is quite possibly the best I have ever seen on a TV show. Cinemax really spared no expense.

I have to mention that Hoon Lee as "Job" is an equivalent character to Orphan Black's Felix in the best way possible. Every scene he's in is either hilarious or epic, and I can't wait to see more of him.

The show is also worth noting for its penchant for continuous shots that seem almost impossible to pull off. Add that to the writing, the action, and not one but two of the best villains I've seen recently (including one who - coincidentally? - has the same name as a villain in Utopia, "Mr. Rabbit") and Banshee is absolutely a show worth watching.

Into the New Year

In addition to following all of those shows (they've all been renewed for a second season) there are several new shows coming out in 2014 that I'm excited about. At the top of the list are AMC's Ballistic City, which is about a cop on a generation-spaceship, and Netflix's Sense8, which is being penned by J. Michael Straczynski and directed and produced by the Wachowskis. It's an exciting time for storytelling.

See All Comments (0)

This might be old news for some, but I had never encountered this particular IE bug before. It's such a good example of what is utterly wrong with Microsoft and the quality of their product that I had to write it up. If you ever hear someone say, "Oh, IE's not that bad" then please send them a link to this post. This is the kind of bug that is ridiculous to deal with as a developer. We spend way too much time hunting down these bugs. It's not even behaving like their own documentation says it should.

So here's the situation: you want to use tabindex to skip over a radio button. In IE, only checked radio buttons are focusable anyway, so here's a test case showing a few radio buttons all checked without any tabindex set, except for the middle one that's set to -1, which should make your tabbing skip over it. Just click on the first one and you can use tab and shift-tab to navigate back and forth along them:

  • no tabindex set
  • tabindex=-1, should be skipped
  • no tabindex set

Notice how using -1 doesn't actually skip over that radio (if you're using IE9). That's surprising, because it seems to work for every other element type, so why should radios be any different? Searching around will yield some results that tell you that setting the tabindex to -40000 will fix this problem.

Oh, of course. Obviously. -40000. Why didn't I try that first?

This is the part where I take an ax to the mannequin I have with the IE logo pasted to its face. It is so incredibly frustrating to deal with quirks like this that every once in a while you just have to let out your rage by chopping some heads off.

I couldn't just let that answer fly though. After some investigation, I figured out that the actual number this starts working at is -32769. -32768? No go. But -32769 and anything below that works. Wait. 32768 looks vaguely familiar...oh, it's 2^15. So obviously that's Microsoft's limit for the memory assigned to the tabindexes integer (this is actually mentioned in the documentation linked to above), and we're now able to skip the radio because it's out of that range. But it doesn't explain why -1 doesn't work in the first place. At least the mystery of -40000 has been solved - it's just the next nice round number. To conclude, here are some fun radios showcasing these numbers and this bug:

  • tabindex=0, normal page flow
  • tabindex=-1, should be skipped
  • tabindex=-32768, should also be skipped
  • tabindex=-32769, actually skipped
  • tabindex=-40000, also skipped
  • tabindex=0, normal flow again

Dear Microsoft, this bug is in IE9, the current release of the browser right now in 2012. Not IE6, so you can't claim it was made a decade ago and you didn't know what you were doing. Shame, shame on you.

See All Comments (2)

I've been developing for Google App Engine (GAE) ever since it first came out. Along the way, I've built up a list of open source software to help accomplish tasks I found myself repeating. Each of these are hosted on GitHub, which provides free hosting for any open source project.

GAE Blog

The Blog project provides a fully functional blog, complete with support for multiple authors per blog, multiple blogs on the same site, commenting with moderation and spam blocking, image uploading, RSS, pagination, and more. It can easily be dropped into an existing project or serve as a stand alone. It will also automatically use the HTML project below if it is available.

GAE Scaffold

The Scaffold project provides skeleton code for setting up new sites quickly. It handles writing a lot of boilerplate, creating a jumping off point for feature-rich, high-performance sites. It is thus similar to small-scale web development frameworks, though unlike many it remains front-end agnostic. And it includes the Deploy and HTML projects below automatically. From the start, it supports sessions, templates, minification, caching, testing, and human readable error messaging. With just a little work, it can be configured to do anything you want on the GAE platform: run new cron tasks, serve a dynamically generated sitemap, access the datastore, and more.

GAE Deploy

The Deploy project handles cache-busting for a site's static resources. Specifically, it will create new minified versions of JavaScript and CSS files, and then reference those files in production. It smartly serves the full non-minified version in development, and cache-busts when a change is made to a file. Images are supported by simply appending the timestamp of the most recent deployment. This project could easily be extended to include processors for things like LESS or SASS.

GAE HTML

The HTML project handles minifying and caching rendered HTML. This makes it easy to do things like immediately displaying a cached version of a page without having to go through that page's normal controller processing. Fewer processor cycles combined with smaller outgoing bandwidth means the GAE free quotas last even longer.

I hope that these projects will help others see how easy and fun it is to get web applications up and running on GAE. Feedback, bug reports, feature requests, and patches are all welcome.

See All Comments (1)

There came a day
When they had explained
Everyone else away

"The poor are too poor!" they said
"They'll leave nothing for the rest"
So the poor disappeared
Despite doing their best

"The sick are too sick!" they said
"They'll infect us if we try"
So the sick all died
Without saying goodbye

"The queer are too queer!" they said
"They'll make us weird and strange"
So the queer went into hiding
Hoping for a change

"The smart are too smart!" they said
"They'll challenge with words"
So the smart were all silenced
None left to be heard


There came a day
When they had explained
Everyone else away

A people who worship
A man who said, "Blessed be
All those different than me"

And cheer for a country
Holding onto a sign:
"Send the poor and sick to my side"

With fists clenched, pounding the floor
They finally found they could ask for no more

They simply watched as the world would fall
Screaming: "Only me! Only my kind!
I want it all!"

See All Comments (0)

I'm happy to announce that drawtunes is now available for public use. It's a free website where you can compose your own songs just by drawing them.

The input is incredibly simple: the higher you draw vertically on the canvas, the higher the pitch of the note that comes out. And the longer you make the line horizontally, the more time that note takes up. Volume is represented by the thickness of the line. Any empty space is a rest, which you can create by leaving it blank or by erasing notes you've already drawn. Change colors to change octaves, where warmer colors are higher and cooler colors are lower. It's all very easy to use and understand just by glancing at the page.

The output, in contrast, is infinitely complex. You can have as many tracks in a song as you want, and each track has its own instrument. Instead of having a band in your garage, you now have one online.

The best part is that you don't need any music theory or experience to use drawtunes. The concept is concise and elegant: if you can finger paint, you can make music. There's no need to "read" music or remember what those strange symbols mean. Of course, being a classical student doesn't stop you from using this tool either.

Some History, for the Heck of It

This project was a long time coming, dating back over a year at this point. It all started on a random day in November of 2010 when I was working on a video game and I thought to myself: "How would I make music for this? Surely a computer could do it easily. Maybe a website already exists that solves this problem." Although some searches did yield results, none of the sites I found were very useable. Often they were limited to a single instrument, or an input system that exactly mimicked sheet music, an idea which hasn't been improved upon in over 500 years.

So I spent the rest of a day programming a very simple sine wave generator that I could give instructions like "play C4 for 1 second" and it would do it. I was satisfied with the proof of concept and tabled the idea.

Months later, in March of 2011, I saw a survey online that asked, "What one skill do you regret not learning?" The number one answer was "another language," but right behind that in the number two spot was "a musical instrument." And I realized that there were a lot of people who wanted to make music, but just didn't know how, or thought they lacked the talent. I came back to the simple script I had written and started developing a website around it, complete with an interface that required no prior skill to use to its full capacity. By the beginning of summer I was pretty much done, but there was one problem: I couldn't find a good name.

Seasons changed, I got a new job, and the project just sat there, untouched. I came up with dozens of clever plays on "drawing", "sketching", and "painting" combined with "song", "music", or "band", but none of the good ones had a corresponding domain that was available. I was stuck.

Thankfully, I realized that I needed some more brainpower to overcome this hurdle and enlisted the aid of some friends. That eventually lead to a great domain name and logo. After that it was a simple matter of putting the final product online. And now drawtunes is ready for you to make some music!

See All Comments (0)

Recently I've had a lot of run-ins with MBA students at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. As a group they are smart, capable, and hard-working. However, I've personally noticed several traps they've fallen into that seem to be common among business students and recent grads from schools around the country. This is my un-asked for, free advice to those students and graduates. My hope is to help them avoid the traps I see so many falling into already.

The Mighty Business Plan

One of the students I had a meeting with was on the eve of earning his degree, just a few short months away. He was explaining to me the idea he would continue working on after graduation as a full-fledged startup. He said he had been working on the business plan for his entire time in grad school - over a year and a half. I nearly choked on my coffee.

You should not be working on a single business plan for more than month. Even that is probably a huge amount of overkill. Make it a week. That's much more reasonable. I think you could even do it in a business week of five days. Here's my proposed schedule, which you could accomplish with even minimal part-time hours:

  • Day 1: your idea. Flesh it out a little. Consider the scope. For the first version only include what is absolutely necessary to create a minimum viable product. Mark any other features as a later version, and then forget about them.
  • Day 2: your market. Does it exist? Roughly how big is it? You don't need exact numbers or tons of research. Estimating will save you a lot of time.
  • Day 3: your competition. Does it exist? As a rule, if you are searching Google for more than an hour and haven't found anything, then your competition effectively does not exist - even if they technically do - because they cannot be easily found in the place most people will look. But if they do show up in the results, roughly how entrenched are they and how popular is their product? Again, estimate.
  • Day 4: your required resources. This could be as little as a timeline and basic dollar amounts. How long will it take to develop and market this product? How much capital do you need up front? Do I need to say it? Estimate.
  • Day 5: review. And by review, I mean cut. Get rid of all the fluff and tangents that were built up even given this small amount of work you've already put in. Have a competitor on the list who is only rumored to be branching into the same market? Cut it. Have a feature that'd be nice to have, but not a core requirement? Cut it.

Really, only the first day is required to move forward. The other days will just give you more data to help make the only decision that matters: do you want to make this idea a reality? If the answer is still a hearty "yes," then please continue.

Paper Prototyping: No Code Required

You need to get feedback early and often. Iterating on an idea is the single best way to make it better by exposing both weaknesses and strengths. It allows you to fix problems and exploit opportunities. (I know you're good at those.) And you can do it without writing a single line of code or even consulting an engineer. This process is called paper prototyping.

Step into the role of designer for a moment. Take a look at the number you wrote down as the cost for implementing this idea. Now replace it with a zero, because you can create a low-fidelity version of your product for nearly that. With just a few elementary school supplies you can mock up the interface for your product with paper, crayons, glue, and markers. Jakob Nielson explains the virtues of paper prototyping and A List Apart has examples to go along with their recommendations. These resources should be sufficient to give you a pretty good idea what paper prototyping is about.

Once you have a paper prototype you can easily show it to friends or family - or even a friendly stranger at the local coffee shop - and see how they interact with it. Ask them to think out loud and explain what they're doing, what they want. Give them a simple goal in the form of a story, like "you want to buy a new dishwasher from this site" and then show them a "page" that represents the index of the site. When they "click" on a link with their finger, switch the page out with the appropriate one. This method can easily be adapted for software beyond websites, and even hardware products.

You'll be amazed at the feedback you receive. You'll realize that even your paper prototype could be improved. So improve it! Then return with the new version to get more feedback. Most people love being involved in the design process, and will be happy to help. You will immediately see huge gaping flaws in your thinking about this product, and you'll have a clearer idea what the best direction for it is. Given this information, you are now much better prepared to bring this idea to investors or an engineer. And it didn't cost you much time or money.

Kill Your Darlings

Occasionally though, you will encounter a part of your idea that needs to be removed, but you desperately want to keep. Learning to recognize these situations and act on them is a really hard part of the process, but it will make you a stronger leader for being able to do it. This is sometimes referred to as the ability to "Kill Your Darlings" and Adaptive Path has a post about just that.

Learn to Code

If you have an idea that has survived your own scrutiny and that of others, then maybe it's time to create a more high fidelity version. Often a mockup on the computer is effective, and it still doesn't have to be fully functional for you to be able to talk about it with others in a meaningful way. Services like Balsamiq help you do just that.

Beyond continuing to prototype, there is no reason why you can't learn to code in your free time. If your ideas are so good that you think an investor should give you money for them, then why not try bootstrapping instead to keep a larger share of the company for yourself? At the very least, you could create a demo or early working prototype to put yourself in a better position at the bargaining table.

Modern scripting languages like Python are exalted for their simplicity and ease of use. There is even a really good free book for beginners available. If you want to go the Ruby route, then you can even go through an interactive tutorial right in your browser.

Finally, if that seems like too much, then consider just making a few pages that link to each other in HTML. This is very simple, and can be accomplished with a few lines of text in a few files on your computer - no server or backend required. I was doing this by the time I turned ten years old, so I am absolutely certain you are capable of figuring it out.

Engineers Are Not Code Monkeys

If you do decide to enlist the help of an engineer, then understand that they do not exist simply to do your bidding. Believe it or not, engineers often have a slew of their own ideas, and don't need yours. Your time is not more valuable than theirs. In high demand industries and geographies (e.g. web development in the Bay Area) engineers are highly sought after and have a lot of opportunities to do exciting things. Understand that you are competing for their attention, and respect them.

Most engineers are not willing to work for free, even with the promise of future rewards. You will have to give up either money or control. Lets talk about the money first. If all you want is a functional product and you aren't trying to build up a team, then there are sites to help you find someone to do it for a set amount, like Elance. Or if you want design work done, then use a site like 99 Designs.

However, if you want a technical partner, co-founder, CTO, etc. then you must be willing to sacrifice up to 50% of your share to an equal. For potential full-time employees doing hard, thinking work, money is not a good motivator. Having control and influence over a product is. Dan Pink talks at length about this in his amazing TED talk on motivation.

Finally, my self-plug is merely this: if you do have an idea for a product that you want built quickly by a professional, then feel free to contact me.

I hope this post helps you create better products, faster. Remember that you don't need a million dollars to put an idea in front of a member of your market. You just need some paper.

See All Comments (0)