aria: ([avengers] god of mischief)
valinor spider party ([personal profile] aria) wrote2015-10-21 11:03 am
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planeshift primer!

[Nb: this is a gift for a fanworks exchange my D&D group is holding, but it is ALSO a sincere show primer for the fake TV show we have too many feelings about, and you should read it! YES YOU.]

I've been yelling about my new favorite TV show for months, but I haven't actually given an explanatory write-up! I realize that, sitting down to write this literally a minute after finishing my rewatch of the finale (with the tears still drying on my cheeks, I kid you not) I am ... perhaps not best equipped to give a sane and nuanced Show Is Awesome post. Nevertheless.

So there's this show. It started as a vanity project and a love letter to D&D, and especially in first season it feels like a pleasant romp through a fairly generic fantasyland -- though even then, the characters are delightful, and it's already playing hard with ye olde fantasy tropes -- and somehow spiraled into one of the best apocalyptic epics I've ever had the joy of watching. There was a certain magic to watching it week by week as it aired, and also a certain terror, because something this good couldn't possibly get renewed for all four seasons the show bible had mapped out -- but then, this show was clearly the best thing SyFy had on air since Battlestar Galactica ended (and lbr it was way better than BSG at never going off the rails for more than an episode). I turned right around and watched it all again as soon as it was done, and mainlining the whole thing is also wonderful -- good foreshadowing, lovely character arcs.

Seriously, this show. As I mentioned, it plays with fantasy tropes (some harder than others, my personal fav being "the half-orc introduced as a minor villain in episode two ends up being one of the protags by the end of the show"); it has, I am entirely serious, eight out of nine main cast members who are women; it has a higher percentage of POC in the cast than almost any other show I can think of; it is so queer. So, so queer, not only in the sense that it has m/m and f/f canon pairings, but a main cast member who is trans*, and several who are canonically ace, and a canon poly relationship configuration. (This last is ... kinda problematic, and there's plenty of meta out there about that one, but hahaha I love the Disaster OT4 so much, I don't care.) This show is straight-up amazing.

Also, if you don't actually want to read a huge primer about it, I was yelling with filiabelialis about the show in chat, and they said, "I was just thinking about how I'd pitch it! Like if you took Rat Queens and gave it character dynamics and a plot like Fullmetal Alchemist, but live action with a staggeringly awesome cast." PRETTY MUCH. But if that isn't enough to intrigue you:

The show is Planeshift, and I'm here to tell you why it's so awesome. Hopefully I can accomplish that without too many major spoilers, because I deeply enjoyed navigating the show blind.

Let's get right to it, shall we? Here's the basic starting premise: five very different people walk into a super SyFy-fantasy-medieval city in time for an autumn festival. At the gate, all of them are stopped by a man who is giving out shiny colorful tokens that he says are a tradition in the city. They head inside: contests are had, dances are danced, drinks are drunk, totally-not-plot-relevant tokens are forgotten about; the five of them end up together at a bar -- and, not fucking around at all with how Fuck Yeah High Fantasy this series is, a dragon promptly firebombs the city, driving our heroes underground and into each other's company.

Here is our top-billed cast when the show begins:

From the left, top row: Dessa as Dyr, Nicole Beharie as Skjaldi, Rooni Mara as Lowen; bottom row: Kat Dennings as Gwinna, Chitrashi Rawat as Elliwick.

Let me tell you a bit about them.

Dyr is of a character type I love: the upright hero trying hard to do the right thing in a difficult world, who sees the best in everyone and gives second chances while still trying to stay the course no matter how much she fucks up. And sometimes Dyr fucks up bad; her tendency to rush into things at best nearly gets her or her friends killed, and at worst she ... kind of breaks Heaven. She's a warrior priest, more or less, though she does as much healing as fighting and, while she draws a lot on her faith in her god (the Sun god, Pelor), and even has a lovely speech about the strength she gets from it, she's never at all evangelical about it. She's also kind of a cyborg: we first meet Dyr shortly after she was in a dwarven mining accident that cost her literally an arm and a leg, these both replaced by enchanted mithril armor, which looks really cool and is also very plot-relevant. Dyr is a character is, imo, elevated from what could have been a fairly boring type both by the way she's written and by her casting -- this was Dessa's first foray into acting, and she has such a great presence, and such an edge to her performance. (I think the writers totally fell down by not taking advantage of casting Dessa and failing to do a musical ep or at the very least a rap battle, but eh, one can't have everything.) DYR IS SO GREAT.

Skjaldi is a dwarven bard, played with joyful aplomb by the delightful Nicole Beharie, who clearly had a blast wearing dwarf facial hair for several seasons. She's Dyr's best friend, something that's especially delightful early on -- in a group of main characters who are only in this together because they happened to be sharing a friendly drink when the tavern got firebombed to hell, Dyr and Skjaldi were the two who actually liked each other, had a history and secret jokes and lots of affection, helped immeasurably by how many actual in-jokes Dessa and Beharie apparently had behind the scenes. Skjaldi's character arc is one of the most fascinating to me: she starts the show as the solid voice of reason, often proposing the best solution to a given dilemma or yelling advice about caution to the more overzealous characters; but her practicality gets scary as the situation the characters find themselves in slowly gets more dire. Skjaldi becomes one of those characters who will calculate best strategy and acceptable losses and live with the consequences. She's also, in the midst of battle scenes that are part flashy pyrotechnics/CGI and part cool martial arts, the one doing the coolest thing: as aforementioned, she's a bard, which means she gets to do battle chants that fuck her enemies uuuup, which incidentally means the soundtrack over the fight scenes is often really amazing and gorgeous. It's hard to describe in text, so, for a drastic example: Skjaldi once talked an opposing army into marching off a cliff. Yep. SKJALDI.

Lowen, ahahaha oh my god. Lowen is an elf who ran away from home due to the fact that her people, the Genth, are basically evil immortal Slytherins steeped in constant political intrigue over which family has the most power, and most of that power comes from naming and summoning demons. This is not to say that Lowen deeply disapproved of all this; she just thought her family were dicks, and on her way out she stole the knowledge of some demon names Just In Case. Her chief weapons are fire, glitter, and ridiculous creativity; she has the sort of delightful scientific mind that will combine spells into new and terrifying results. Lowen's character development was interesting to watch: while I think the writers had her Genth backstory in mind all along, first season Lowen functions more or less as a comedy relief wizard, and in second season the writing found its footing with her, giving her first a fascinating relationship with the greatest of the Green dragons, then a soul-fusion with an imp critter from the Abyss ("that can't possibly go wrong!" you say sarcastically WELL TO EVERYONE'S SURPRISE IT ACTUALLY DIDN'T), and finally leadership with a community of like-minded wizards. Also, Lowen's relationship with her mother is by far the most fascinating and hilarious and awful of any main character's with a parental figure. Literally no one will be surprised to hear how much I loved Lowen; the Genth are basically Aria catnip, and Lowen herself so so great.

Gwinna is the Bad Decision Druid, so called because she often makes really terrible personal choices. I don't think anyone knew what they were doing with Gwinna for at least the first half of first season, because when you give Kat Dennings "stoic nature-lover trying to do good" she doesn't give you much back; but she bounces fantastically off of Dusk (an asshole I LOVE, to be further explained when I get to secondary characters) and does both tempted by power and actually seizing power in this totally intense bonkers way that really, really works for me. Gwinna is a big picture character in somewhat the same way Skjaldi is -- they both see what the necessary thing is to do, calculate the risks, and then try to do it -- but, unlike Skjaldi, a lot of Gwinna's personal feelings are bad weird ones that get in the way. I enjoy Gwinna in much the same way that I love other Space Toasters (that is, weird aliens who are bad at emotion); and I love the wildly unexpected bit where [spoilers redacted] and Gwinna basically becomes Gwinna the White; but tbh I'm especially there for her animal companion, a "wolf" who was sometimes CGI and sometimes a super adorable Tamaskan Dog named Cooper. <333

Elliwick is a tiny rogue sharpshooter who hails from the Capital City's GNOMISH MAFIA. She left her home because she was really bad at violence and crime, and essentially got exiled by her disappointed father; one of the first things she did was panic in her first on-screen combat situation and shoot Lowen in the calf. One might think that Elliwick was being set up as the loveable disaster -- and indeed, throughout the rest of the campaign, Elliwick does accidentally shoot Lowen at least one more time, and Tsadok on multiple occasions -- but she actually becomes 1000% the most competent person on the show. She is deeply practical but, rather than taking that in a direction that makes her big-picture scary, just makes her become better and better at being the team's sneaky sharpshooter, backup medic, and voice of reason when her friends need to be yelled at. (Chitrashi Rawat has what is perhaps the world's best "oh for fuck's sake" face.) Speaking of being sneaky, about halfway through the show Elliwick makes a bargain with the chief dragon from the Plane of Shadow that turns her into a being of shadow herself ("that can't possibly go wrong!" you say sarcastically well it doesn't go wrong for Elliwick) and she spends basically the rest of the show being a series of cool shadow effects -- made with lighting tricks rather than CGI, so I mean actually very cool -- and making me laugh hysterically every time someone doesn't notice her doing something, which is often. I think my very favorite thing about Elliwick, though, is her friendship with Tsadok -- the height difference alone is worth the price of admission, Momoa is 6'4" and Rawat is 5'1" and there was very little additional perspective fudging that went into making them look hilarious together -- but they are also the best, best bros you will ever meet. Additionally you should run, not walk, to read every piece of Elliwick gen in existence, it's all so good, the fandom went nuts and did an Elliwick gen fest after she was confirmed canon asexual, so much wonderful fic came out of it.

Next, the additional members of the cast who were top-billed by fourth season:

From the left, top row: Jason Momoa as Tsadok, Harmony Santana as Asmun; bottom row: Lucy Liu and Natalie Dormer as Aja and Zeth, although that's ... a little more complicated.

Tsadok starts out as a fairly typical Jason Momoa character -- he threatens our heroes, he eventually teams up with them to take out some greater evil, he's kind of mysterious and monosyllabic. We all remember Stargate Atlantis, right? We remember how much effort the fandom poured into giving Momoa's Ronon depths and interesting bits of backstory and how SGA never put in even a fraction of that effort? OHOHO my friends, Planeshift is HERE FOR YOU. Tsadok is -- I descend into screaming incoherent joy every time I try to explain Tsadok. He's a half-orc; in-show, people tend to underestimate him because of this and assume he's stupid and brutish -- part of a loooong tradition in high fantasy of making POC the Monstrous Other, thank you Racist Grandpa Tolkien -- but we're not working at 101 levels where we Game of Thrones this shit, point out that it exists, dust off our hands in satisfaction and call it a day. No, instead Tsadok is literally the show's tactical genius. He became a show regular in part because he gets into a romantic relationship with Dyr, but that's sort of his in to being a show regular rather than the reason for his inclusion. He's ambitious, and complicated, and his ambitions on their smallest scale are to free his people from subjugation and start a homeland for them, and those ambitions only get bigger and more ridiculously badass from there. There's also an aspect to Tsadok's character that I was fucking terrified the show was going to mess up bigtime: if he gets injured enough in battle, he goes into a berserker rage, something that is made more alarming after he encounters a demon that takes away his ability to control it. There are so many ways that could have been played terribly. Instead, the show allows it to be an aspect of his character without BEING his character; it's a thing he has to work through, and learn to deal with, and sometimes it's even played for comedy ("he's gone berserk again! Elliwick, healing potions at the ready!"); Dyr is never threatened by it, and though she does at several points kiss Tsadok out of his rage it never comes across as her, like, ~healing his rage with her love~ or anything. I also don't want to give away the whole arc of Dyr and Tsadok's relationship, but it is one of the most equal and loving and gorgeous relationships I've seen on TV period, and if you told me that I would ship a het thing THIS MUCH a year ago I would have been skeptical. But oh my god, Tsadok *___*

Asmun is Dyr's younger sister; she starts as an episode guest star that I at least was a bit anxious was going to be introduced just to be killed off and give Dyr angst, but this show is a lot more trustworthy than that, and doesn't do cheap shots. Asmun is an inventor: she enters the show having already built a trebuchet from scratch to defend her village; she finishes the show having invented several useful war golems and a new form of magical tattoo, among other things, scary tiny genius. She's also trans, and props to the show for casting a trans woman to play her (a thing that should, obviously, be standard practice, but is the first time I can think of it happening on a major network show rather than a Netflix one); it gets discussed in-show but never goes Very Special Episode. Asmun does get some special episodes, though! During the season three hiatus, Planeshift put out a six-part webseries about Asmun's adventures before she became a series regular, we think as a test-run for becoming a series regular; the webseries is not to be missed, especially because it features several characters being cursed and turning into puppies. Anyway, Asmun is GREAT, smart and manipulative and not even half as morally good as Dyr and a pretty delightful foil for both Dyr and Tsadok and another one of my absolute favs.

Aja and Zeth are ... oh dear. Tbh I think I can't actually say much about Aja and Zeth without major spoilers, and if you haven't been spoiled I don't want to give anything away; the fandom's meltdown when [spoilers] happened was EPIC, and I wouldn't deprive anyone of that moment. I can say that both Lucy Liu and Natalie Dormer clearly had a blast and play off each other so well, that Zeth and Aja have both made me cry buckets of horrible feels-tears, and that, if you have ever said to yourself, "Gosh, I wish I could watch Lucy Liu make out with Natalie Dormer AND Kat Dennings," my friend you are in for the best day of your life, hiding behind a blanket and keening because you can't even understand how something so amazing is happening to you eyeballs.

Anyway that is the MAIN cast! The supporting cast are a cast of thousands, and no one could figure out how the fuck the show even got some of these people -- like, your top-billed cast includes a hip-hop artist with no previous acting experience, and somehow this show has, among other things, Christopher Lee and Jeremy Irons as two of its main villains, MERYL STREEP AS LOWEN'S MOTHER, Idris Elba and Ian McKellen as Dyr's mentors, Emma Watson in a several-episode cameo, Andrew Garfield popping up in hilarious makeup in various episodes over the course of the show, and, my personal favorite, Tom Hiddleston (that Dusk character I mentioned earlier) as a recurring minor villain/annoyance/love interest for Gwinna.

If I got into all my favorite guest stars we'd be here all day, and this isn't even touching upon all the great actors they got to voice/occasionally play various amazing and plot-important dragons (including Patrick Stewart, David Tennant, Kate Mulgrew, and Tilda Swinton at PEAK GLORIOUS TILDA SWINTON). And like. Aldis Hodge and Christian Kane are military husbands and bros with Tsadok? Donald Glover and Danny Pudi are these two guards who keep on making hilarious cameos and work for scheming duchess Lena Headey?? SEAN BEAN IS THERE AND DOESN'T DIE. Ralph Fiennes is an evil elf who badtouches Tom Hiddleston a lot, and Chris Hemsworth voices a goddamn friendly merchant minotaur, and Alan Tudyk and Nathan Fillion are both there being perfect hilarious troll Tudyk and Fillion, and this isn't even the whole cast, and it's amazing.

Wait, Aria, what's the plot? Shh, I don't want to give everything away! It's an interpersonal drama that ends up spanning worlds, and while it isn't interested in asking any huge sweeping questions it doesn't need to, because it's already busy being both takedown and celebration of fantasy tropes, and amazing delightful queer diverse feminist fiction, and I love this show, you guys, I love it so, so much.

Finally, a couple of links. Go forth and enjoy!

Planeshift Wiki
The fanworks comm, currently holding a gift exchange!
The kinkmeme
Planeshift (TV) tag on the AO3

Planeshift only just finished airing, too! You can probably still find most of it on Hulu, so run, don't walk, and buy the full boxed set when it comes out, IO9 tells me there's going to be tons of delightful behind-the-scenes cast adorableness and a few deleted scenes and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
graycardinal: Shadow on asphalt (Default)

[personal profile] graycardinal 2015-10-21 04:49 pm (UTC)(link)
Okay, you told me to read this, and I did.

Now I want the gate-code to the alternate universe where this is an actual TV show. Failing that, possibly the nine hundred hours of video covering the actual campaign play sessions will help....
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[personal profile] luzula 2015-10-21 09:06 pm (UTC)(link)
You guys are delightful, and this primer is delightful. : ) Would totally watch this!
tei: Woman in red dress in the snow. (Default)

[personal profile] tei 2015-10-21 10:42 pm (UTC)(link)
Somehow I missed the NB before reading this, and then actually googled "planeshift syfy"and spent some time being like "WHY CAN I NOT FIND THE THING, I NEEEEEEED IT."
scribe: very old pencil sketch of me with the word "scribe" (Default)

[personal profile] scribe 2015-10-22 03:57 pm (UTC)(link)
Okay look this is SO GREAT that I can't even COPE WITH IT. I am so incredibly extra angry that none of this is real, I WANT RPF OF THIS CAST SO BAD. WHY AREN'T THERE REALLY DELETED SCENES AND BEHIND-THE-SCENES ADORABLENESS. *wails*

Also there was an ELLIWICK GEN FEST this is my new favorite piece of Planeshift fandom canon omg.

And A+ actually intelligent analysis of character arcs and trope inversion and stuff, I...hadn't really thought about how our journey from failboat to scary high level would actually look as part of a tv show. WHAT A WEIRD SHOW. I LOVE IT SO MUCH.
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[personal profile] polarisnorth 2015-10-22 05:39 pm (UTC)(link)
I have nothing to say I just want to roll around yelling about how much I love this primer.

(Okay I do want to say I love the bit about Skjaldi's arc.)