Saturday, December 30, 2006


Back from holiday, and catching up on my telly/film viewing. So, just to kick off: Torchwood last week ("Combat"). I don't believe it-- they actually managed to do a story that worked for a change. OK, it was still transparently ripped off from another source (Fight Club is usually cited, but I see more resemblances to Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard), but this is the first time I've seen a Torchwood where logical consequences follow. Owen acts like a twat-- and, for a change, gets beaten up for it. Tosh acts like a nerd-- and the baddie immediately twigs that the website is a fake. Gwen throws over her boyfriend-- and he starts making noises about walking out. Somebody other than Gwen actually has moral qualms about what they do for a living. Oh, and Jack actually acts like Jack, rather than Angel. It was a bit like watching a UFO episode from the period where David Tomblin comes in and sorts the whole series out; it'll probably be back to the same old crap tomorrow, but at least we had this one.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

"Shaken or stirred?" "Does it look like I give a damn?"

Explanation here as to why, although I've seen Casino Royale, and although I think Daniel Craig is one of the best actors of our generation, I haven't put it in my top-picks list. Because, although the Bond Franchise did need to cut back on the silliness somewhat (just an example, the tick-the-box approach to set pieces of the last few movies: "skiing chase scene, check; motorboat chase scene, check; daring escape using helicopters, check..."), it went too far in the other direction (with Craig playing Bond as if he were a real character) and so, things which should have had a tinge of unreality to them to work (e.g. a terrorist engaging in a massively complicated scheme to blow up a plane, as opposed to simply hijacking it and flying it into something) were played as if we were supposed to take them seriously. So my favourite Casino Royale remains the version with seven James Bonds, Orson Welles and a troupe of sea-lions: it's insane, but it's enjoyably insane, and you can at least have fun spotting the bits that Robert Holmes ripped off for his 1970s Doctor Who stories.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New Torchwood for Old

So, Torchwood gets a second series. I'm really delighted by that-- and I rather hope it doesn't improve, because I'm enjoying the sheer badness of it, and I'm running out of Bela Lugosi DVDs. What worries me, though, is that it will be on BBC2. And, while ratings of between 1 and 2.5m are off the scale for a digital channel, they're lousy on terrestrial (even on second-string terrestrial), and I strongly suspect (based purely on anecdotal evidence, admittedly-- that and the BBC2 repeat ratings) that Torchwood is one of those shows with a loyal core audience but not much of a following among the general public at large. Still, one never knows.

Anyway, Random Shoes. I've just written, and then deleted, a long, rambling and incoherent in a pre-Christmas-not-enough-sleep kind of way, in order to boil my reaction down to two ponts:

1) Cool title.
2) One "Love and Monsters" is enough.

Thank you.

Two Python Posts, and a Penguin in a Pear Tree

Two lovely Monty Python fan vids from Youtube:

We shall not go to Telos. It is a silly place.

This one wins top marks from me not only for good editing and appropriate matching of song and series, but also for creative use of audio clips from the show (oh, and Brian Croucher jokes).

And, in the holiday spirit:

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

My Favourite Martians

So I've been watching "The Martians and Us," the BBC4 documentary ostensibly about the history and traits of British science fiction. Unfortunately, while the first episode was by far the worst, the whole series got collectively outclassed by the average episode of Prisoners of Gravity. For a start, it has an insufferably smug, jingoistic tone (apparently, Britain invented every single aspect of modern science fiction, and the rest of us are just imitators), which is undermined by the fact that they can't find enough well-known highbrow British sf writers to take part and have to resort to bringing in Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing as examples (presumably justifying this to themselves on the grounds that they're colonials, which is even worse). It also went on about Olaf Stapleton as if he was some amazing forgotten gem of SF, when in fact a) he wasn't that great as an actual writer (A+ for ideas; C- for prose), b) anyone over forty knows who he is anyway, and c) there are plenty of much less well-known British writers out there who deserve a fillip (no Philip George Chadwick? For shame-- then they could have legitimately claimed that British sf writers predicted genetic engineering). Also, there was no mention of the whole New Wave movement-- no Brian Aldiss, no J.G. Ballard-- no mention of modern British sci-fi writers (aside from trotting out Kim Newman, who's really a critic rather than a writer, every five minutes)-- and, most damningly, no Mary Shelley. Here they are, claiming that the Brits invented evolutionary sci-fi... and the first example they give is HG bloody Wells. They mention that the British invented the postapocalyptic novel-- and don't even mention Shelley's The Last Man on Earth. Could it be sexism, or just a sheer ignorance of anything that happened before 1850? If BBC4 really want to gain credibility as a highbrow arts channel, they're going to have to start learning about their material first.


Well, this week’s episode of Torchwood was pretty watchable, for a change; having Toby Whitehouse in was a real breath of fresh air in terms of characterisation and dialogue (namely, he actually provided the characters with both). The problem was, though, that, much like after seeing a fast-paced but ultimately superficial movie, afterwards I found myself with far too many niggles on my mind. So, right after Mary tells her the mindreading pendant can be used for good, Tosh just happens to have it on when a murderer passes. And he turns out to be an actual murderer, not, say, a paranoid schizophrenic off his meds. Yet another Torchwood member commits a breach of security that would get them cashiered in any normal organisation (someone on Tachyon pointed out that “Cyberwoman” contained the equivalent of an MI5 agent smuggling his al-Quaeda girlfriend into the office, and “Greeks Bearing Gifts” is just more of same), and Jack just gives them a stern talking-to and lets them carry on at work. And while I can understand Tosh apologising to Gwen for reading her mind, Owen is such a tosser that I think she would be well within her rights to say to him: “OK, I did wrong there, but one more word about it and everyone, Gwen included, finds out about the date-rape spray incident.”

While we’re on that subject, what is it all these otherwise sensible women have for Owen? He’s not particularly attractive (he reminds me irresistibly of Jude Law made up to play an android in AI, only shorter and more out of shape), he has the sort of obnoxious personality that in real life usually is fitted to the office nuisance (the sort who thinks he’s a massive hit with the laydeeez, and somehow manages not to notice that the laydeeez tend to leave the room when he’s around), and he shows every sign of being seriously disturbed on the sex front (leaving aside the date-rape-spray incident, his idea of courtship is to shove Gwen up against a tree and effectively threaten to rape her—and she goes for it?!), and yet reasonably mentally healthy career women—one a policewoman, for God’s sake-- seem to be continually falling into his arms.

Writing all that down, it also occurs to me to say that this episode made me realise that Torchwood has a really, really unhealthy attitude to sexuality. I can’t think of a single example of a positive sexual relationship, whoever the participants, in the entire series. Even the one-off, bit-part ones: we’ve had a married couple where the husband wants to kill the wife this week, cannibal yokels last week, a teenage girl shagging men in nightclubs a few weeks back, Roj Blake the rape-murderer… hell, even Jack’s ex-girlfriend in “Small Worlds” is someone who’s apparently been pining for her boyfriend for decades, and he ultimately gets her killed. Just once, I’d like to see a healthy, loving, friendly relationship where both parties gain support and strength from each other on Torchwood. I don’t care if it’s gay, straight, polyamorous or even human/nonhuman, just so long as I don’t come away from the episode feeling like all relationships are either evil or doomed, and/or that the writing team have got some serious issues to work through.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Last night I watched Doomwatch on BBC4. Unfortunately it was "Tomorrow, the Rat" again (can't they show any other episodes? I'd love to see "The Plastic Eaters" or something else for a change), which I remember finding risible last time I watched it. But the pathetic thing is that, even including the legendarily awful "rat trousers" special (sic) effect, it was still miles better than at least five of the last Torchwood episodes I've seen. It was:
  • Wittier (in that there were at least three lines that gave me a chuckle)
  • More interesting (in that the plot actually started, finished and kept me watching in between)
  • More relevant (in that it dealt with a real issue, genetic engineering, and one which is still pertinent today, if not more so)
  • More convincingly performed (need I explain?)
  • More credible in its portrayal of the relationship between governments and thinktanks (yes, the Doomwatch team have to fill out forms and deal with obstreperous Ministers-- I'd love to see the Torchwood lot do that)
  • More mature in its attitude to sex (seriously-- I believed the relationship between the lady scientist and the office Lothario considerably more than I believe, say, Gwen/Owen or Ianto/Circuit Breaker from the Transformers Comic)

God, you know it's time to give up when you're outclassed by a series which is legendary as a byword for lousy early-seventies eco-sci-fi, basically the early Pertwee era without the jokes. I'm going to watch "The Invasion" this weekend and hope it restores my faith in the franchise.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Torchwood or Scooby Doo?

I mean, think about it:

Leader: Cute, muscular and smart American guy;
Female Lead: Cute, feminine, supposedly professional but actually a bit dippy and inclined to mess things up
Techno-bod: Nerdy girl with glasses who almost never gets to do anything interesting (ETA: And she's a crypto-lesbian)
Laddish Sort: Fashionably-haired gent who's thick as two short planks and obsessed with indulging his carnal appetites
Comedy Character: A dogsbody, or dog's body if you prefer.

ETA2: this one appears to have been picked up on by Tachyon, and thence to Charlie Brooker. I'm viral!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


After last week's B-movie spectacular, this week's Torchwood did a 180 and actually produced an episode which I would consider good by any show's standards. Suspenseful, well-planned, and which, most importantly, actually uses something which people associate with Cardiff/Wales (myths about fairies, in this case) to good effect, rather than trying to pretend Cardiff is Los Angeles. I mean, seriously. Setting a couple of stories in Cardiff worked OK in DW new series 1 (S27, whatever), because in both cases all the characters were aware of the reputation of Cardiff as a backwater and took the mick out of it relentlessly. A similar thing could work quite well in Torchwood: e.g., making the explanation for why they seem capable of getting away with murder the fact that nobody in London cares what goes on in Cardiff (cf Boom Town), or focusing stories on local but relevant issues (unemployment in industry; the media boom; Welsh devolution etc., and if you don't think it can be done well in a sci-fi setting, check out Life on Mars and The Omega Factor). But doing all these Angel-style urban night shots just looks pretentious. Come on, guys, I want to like this series!

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Who are you, and what have you done with our Russell T. Davies?!

I was planning on blogging this week about how Torchwood isn't really an adult show (as the BBC keeps claiming incessantly), but a family show with swearwords and sex scenes in (seriously: watch the first few episodes, and, if you cut out the swearing, make the rape-murder in Episode 3 an ordinary murder, and tone down the lesbian-snog scene in Episode 2 somewhat, you don't have anything I wouldn't show to a reasonably bright ten-year-old). But daaaaamn. That "Cyberwoman" episode not only crossed the border into B-movie territory, it smashed down the border crossing, molested the customs guards and claimed the land for the Queen of Spain while it was at it. I haven't laughed so much since the last time I watched White Zombie (which, BTW, the lovely folks at POE-TV have made available in its entirety for download) starring a clearly desperate Bela Lugosi. If the rest of Torchwood keeps up this standard, I'll be a massive fan, but not quite for the reasons I initially assumed I'd be.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

RIP Nigel Kneale

And the pool of talented TV writers in this country just gets smaller and smaller.

By a weird coincidence, my first reaction to this week's Torchwood was "Oh my God! It's The Stone Tape!"

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Puppetry for the People

Again courtesy of YouTube, this is another example of what I was talking about with regard to when The Muppet Show decided to break the formula and get creative. The puppets here are structured so that they have human hands, like the Swedish Chef, allowing them to hold cards, books, cigarettes etc. realistically, and the faces are done as actual soft-sculpture caricatures, making them much more evocative as characters than usual.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Turn the World Around

While I'm on the retro kick: YouTube turns up trumps with one of my very favouritest Muppet Show song numbers ever-- Harry Belafonte, singing what was then a new number for him, "Turn the World Around," in company with some very beautiful African-mask muppets.

I've always liked the Muppets best when they broke away from the standard Kermit-and-Piggy mode and started pushing the envelope on what they could do with puppetry: "The Dark Crystal" was one of my favourite films as a kid, partly for that reason. I'll see if I can find some more later on.

Plus: I embedded a video! Go me!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Carrying a Torch

So, Torchwood then. I'd been hoping to be able to do an unmitigated rave, but unfortunately all I can do is a vaguely optimistic it's-far-too-early-to-tell. It came across to me really as a cross between Angel and UFO-- full of very pretty people but a bit lacking in the gripping, intelligent plot department. Mind you, UFO is a series which improved greatly in the plot regard as it went on, so maybe this will too.

Other thoughts:

-I have a vague worry, which I hope won't be proved correct, that all of this is the result of the production team spreading themselves too thin. Rather than doing one excellent series, they're now doing two which show promise but don't quite deliver. Which means that Sarah Jane Investigates should wind up being really, really bad.

-Los Angeles, with its gangs and neo-gothicism, worked OK as a backdrop for Angel, but I'm having real trouble accepting Cardiff as a sinister, brooding location for supernatural goings-on. I mean, Cardiff. It's just too... nice. London? Yes. Edinburgh? Absolutely. Belfast? Perhaps not as ghostly, but still has a feeling of genuine menace. Going down a rung, Oxford has gothic architecture, Birmingham has a sense of agonised misery, Penzance and, hell, even Plymouth have got a West Country we-doesn't-talk-to-strangerrrrs feel about them after dark, but Davies just had to pick the major city in the UK least associated with violence, ghosts and gangs.

"The Streets of Cardiff." "The Cardiff Boy." "Gangs of Cardiff." Nope, it's no good. I just can't get creeped out about it.

-Naoko Mori's character will, I suspect, prove to have no personality whatsoever. White Britons can write convincing Black and Asian characters; why can't they ever do convincing Japanese?

-Also, she's nicked my coat. No, really. I had to go check the rack to make sure my own purple leather trenchcoat was still there. I don't know what it says about me that my fashion sense is shared with someone whose idea of a daring illicit use of alien technology is getting it to scan the text of A Tale of Two Cities.

-Without giving too much away, the plot twist at the end of Episode 1 is only a plot twist if you haven't read/heard any of the pre-publicity.

-While I hate judging a series on its special effects, I have to say this one really did give me the feeling that they were trying to save money. Over the first two episodes, we got a couple of understated bits of original CGI (mostly involving the lift), plus a vague-shiny-cloud-monster and a pterodactyl left over from Walking With Dinosaurs. Which doesn't bode well, since it's supposed to be the first episodes on which you spend the most money, so as to hook the nerd crowd. Mind you, the trailer seemed to show something vaguely Cybermanlike later, so perhaps they did wind up spending most of the money on subsequent episodes. We'll see.

-Finally, if Eve Myles is going to do lesbian scenes with the guest star, I'd like it to involve something other than flicking each other's hair about. So many lesbians I know are involved in film or television; surely there must have been someone behind the camera who could give them a few tips?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Time for a Change

Alan managed to acquire both the 1960 and 2002 film adaptions of The Time Machine last weekend, so we sat down to have a good old compare-and-contrast evening. Given the lukewarm reviews the 2002 version received, we weren't totally surprised that we both preferred the 1960s version; what did surprise us was exactly how much we disliked the 2002 version. Our biggest problems with it were:

1) Ripping off First Men in the Moon as well (seemingly for no good reason other than to give Jeremy Irons a speaking part) and giving the Morlocks a culture which is a version of the Selenite one from the other book, which actually made them seem much more interesting than the flaky Eloi, who are just a pack of generic noble savages (see below).

2) Completely contradicting its own message halfway through. "You can't change time, it's all fixed, if your girlfriend hadn't died you wouldn't have invented the time machine so you just have to come to terms with it and accept it... oh wait, it turns out you can change time after all, so go ahead and save the Eloi" (and just when I thought he was going to do something actually authentically from the book, and leave Weena [called, boringly, "Mara" in the film] to her dreadful fate).

3) "We Morlocks regard the Eloi as another species, so we kill and eat them-- except for Mara/Weena here, who we're going to use as a sex slave!" Now, really.

4) Most annoyingly, being an unimaginative pastiche of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Between this and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, it's seeming like the default setting for adaptations of classic British fantasy novels these days is becoming "set it in New Zealand and chuck in a bunch of people who look like Maori and add a soundtrack of Polynesian chanting." Which irks me even more, since, while I know it's fashionable to bash Jackson these days (any time anyone has any success, it happens...) I think he's a pretty intelligent filmmaker, and, when Kiwi elements appeared in LOTR (and King Kong), I could rather see what he was getting at in terms of symbolism, message, etc. Whereas this didn't actually contribute anything to the story or say anything remotely new, other than, perhaps, implying that the Maori are a combination of totally thickheaded but beautiful primitives, and hideously ugly murderers, which one hopes wasn't intentional.

Alan summed it up nicely by saying "The 1960 film made you feel like you'd really travelled in time; the 2002 film just made you feel like you'd travelled to New Zealand."

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Golden Oldies

Desperate for some new sci-fi, I hit the local library the other day and came back with a few. One is Banner of Souls by Liz Williams, which is restoring my faith that there really is good, interesting, speculative sci-fi still being written out there. The other was A Plague of Angels by Sheri S. Tepper, and, while I enjoyed it immensely, it unfortunately confirmed my feeling that since the early nineties she's mostly been writing self-pastiche. In fact, I started to play a game with myself as I read it, called Identify-The-Early-Tepper-Source-Novel (spoilers follow):

The Marianne Trilogy: Dark-haired and innocent/knowing girl protagonist, pursued by adoring but clumsy boyfriend who turns out to be a distant relative of hers and by a grotesque female antagonist; character with hair "like a dark cloud" (c.f. Marianne's "Cloud-Haired Mama"); talking dog (OK, in this book it's a coyote) companion; magical creatures turning up and being taken for granted; girl protagonist turns out to have mystical powers the likes of which none of her friends and acquaintaces had remotely guessed.

The Gate to Women's Country: Post-nuclear society obsessed with eugenics, in which the men and women live separate lives and only come together to have sex (in fact, if it weren't for the fact that the cultural reference point is Native American rather than Ancient Greek, and that this book appears to be set in California rather than Washington, I'd have suspected it was the same society, just a few centuries down the road). Whole society is built on a fiction, which a few of the top people know about but nobody else does. Female character who runs away from home in search of adventures, is kidnapped and forced into concubinage, is traumatised about this for the rest of her life, and has a son who can't or won't take a valuable object lesson from his mother's experiences. Girl protagonist's boyfriend doesn't really understand about women's feelings, but gradually figures it out after a few harsh lessons from various female authority figures.

Gibbon's Decline and Fall: Evil rulers of society secretly have a plan to oppress everyone, which is thwarted by a coalition of clever humans and nonhumans; future society in which STDs are rampant (which again turns out to be someone's cunning population-control plan); exploration of alternative ways of sexual/social partnership; Native American spirituality; one character even paraphrases the whole "humans don't mate monogamously like gibbons do" speech from the earlier book.

Grass: Amusing but poignant peasant couple who help out protagonist; diseases; female protagonist finds a resolution at the end of the story that makes her happy but leaves everyone else totally baffled.

The Song of Maven Manyshaped: Girl protagonist, magical powers, adoring but clumsy male companion who needs to be taught a few lessons about gender politics and the oppression of women but he's not a bad sort really, yadda yadda.

There's probably more, but that was all that I identified on a brief readthrough. The idea of a post-catastrophic California in which people live in "archetypical villages", living out Disneyfied fairy-tale scenarios, was intriguing, but it wasn't really explored in enough depth to satisfy me. So: it was worth reading as a kind of greatest-hits album, but I'm glad I didn't actually pay money for it.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Riding through the Glen

Well, the first episode of Robin Hood failed to disappoint. Which is, alas, not a good thing, as I was basing my expectations on my theory that Robin Hoods always seem to be relentlessly contemporary. The 1930s Robin Hood was a New Deal socialist who advised political solutions to the aristocrat problem; the 1980s one was a New Age Traveller who thought we should all get back in touch with pagan spirituality; the Kevin Costner one was a multiculturalist, feminist sort who had apparently been acting as a UN peacekeeper in the Holy Land prior to coming back and getting King John to respect Marion's rights as a woman. So it's no surprise that now we get a bunch of Asbo-lads in the forest, basically doing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Arrows.

The thing that amused me most was how terribly similar to the 1980s ITV version it was. I mean, really. Unrealistic, wobbly-looking peasant villages, populated by people who apparently haven't heard that in the Middle Ages everybody went in for really colourful clothing (honestly; look at the margin of any manuscript. Even the peasants look like they're auditioning for Dick Tracy), bunch of cute unshaved fellows wandering the forest; a Guy of Guisborne who looks vaguely like Robin and who seems to have some undiscussed backstory with him; a Marion who is far, far too modern-looking and -acting to be remotely credible; everyone taking everything as seriously as only people in their early twenties can; and a Sheriff of Nottingham who's quite clearly a better actor than three-quarters of the cast and desperately thinking of his pension fund throughout. Unfortunately, though, it lacks the main assets of the ITV version: the retrospective kitsch factor which allows one to laugh at how big the mullets are; the Clannad soundtrack (for which I have a nostalgic fondness); the occasional forays into Hammer Horror territory; and the fact that just about every week some star from the Golden Age of British Televsion would turn up in an unlikely role (my favourite still is the sight of Anthony Valentine sporting a Bettie Page wig and managing not to laugh).

What actually offended me about the series, though, was Robin Hood's sudden conversion to Thatcherism. I mean, not only is he the bloody Earl of Huntingdon again (look, guys, that bit was the invention of Victorians who couldn't stand the idea that their kids were reading stories about a working-class hero) but his advice to the Sheriff is to eliminate all taxes, and let the trickle-down economy do its work. Which, frankly, is an economic policy that even the Americans haven't managed to make feasible, and to see a strategy which only benefits the rich in practice espoused by Robin bloody Hood just suggests that something is very, very wrong with the world.

So, in other words, I think I'll give the rest of the series a miss, and then catch it again in twenty years, when I can at least laugh at the ridiculous old-fashioned designer stubble and hoodies.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Out of the mouths of babes and tabloid editors

Headline in The Sun earlier this week:


As Alan said, "what, again?"

Monday, September 18, 2006

This workout is brought to you by the letter S.

Yesterday, while at the gym, I had my MP3 player set on "random." For the first twenty-five minutes it played nothing but songs by Spirit of the West and Suzanne Vega. Then it played a song by the Smiths, and another by Steeleye Span.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if I'd spotted a sign of artificial intelligence (or artificial stupidity, which is probably scarier), it then played a song by Tenacious D.

It was "Sasquatch."

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Horror

I've been watching, and/or rewatching, the old Universal Studios 1930s horror pictures-- you know the ones, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, The Mummy, etc. -- lately. Which has led me to two conclusions: 1) that I much prefer Bela Lugosi to Boris Karloff as a horror film actor (sorry Boris), and 2) how just about all of them really, really want to be silent films.

Now, it's easy to attribute the latter point to the fact that they were made in the early 1930s, and so had a cast and crew that were still thinking in silent terms, but it goes beyond that: M , All Quiet on the Western Front and Maedchen in Uniform are all good examples of early sound films which, consequently, look a lot like silents, but still work as sound films, and, indeed, are at least partly improved by the use of sound. Whereas in the Universal horror-pics, the dialogue usually takes away from the enjoyment as far as I'm concerned, being stilted and corny at best, the sort of thing that you might, possibly, be able to get away with on a title card if it's reduced to one line. Think of how much more pathetic the scene in Frankenstein where the father of the drowned little girl staggers into the village to report her death would be if you were left to imagine what he said for the most part, or how much scarier the Mummy would be if Boris Karloff never opened his big mouth to rattle on about Anubis.

Patrick McGoohan, in a 1970s interview, lamented the fact that black and white had gone so far out of fashion, since he thought Ibsen worked much better in monochrome; I'm starting to feel the same about sound as far as some early horror pics are concerned.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Quote of the Week

"I don't like it; it might give the servants ideas." (old lady on Upstairs, Downstairs, regarding a suggestion about holding a charity ball on a French Revolution theme)

Friday, August 04, 2006

De rerum Tennentibus

Remarked last night at the Tavern, on Tennant's performance:

"You know how that tabloid reviewer said that Christopher Eccleston looked like he should have a tin bath and a whippet? Well, it seems they've found the whippet."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Doctor Who: Season 2 Review

As promised, there's now a Doctor Who Season 2 Overview on the Kaldor City website, for those who want to know what I thought of it in any detail.

David Maloney

No, I didn't do an RIP for David Maloney. I didn't really think it was right, and after thinking about this for a long time, I realised that it's because when I actually know the guy (and I knew Maloney well enough to go to the funeral), it somehow feels stupid to do a brief "great contribution to society... sorely missed..." thing. Alan did a tribute on the KC page, and I think that's enough for both of us really.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Duke, duke, duke duke of Earl

My Name is Earl is in my current top picks, partly because it's funny, but also because it manages to pull off the trick of being simultaneously the most and least preachy American sitcom I've seen since M*A*S*H.

The main thing that differentiates American sitcoms from every other country's sitcoms, as far as I can see, is that there always has to be a moral lesson somewhere in the episode. If you don't realise how unusual this is, try comparing a Canadian or British sitcom to any American sitcom of your choice, and you'll see what I mean: while some non-American sitcoms do involve moral messages (Corner Gas is pretty heavy on "don't underestimate people just because they're poor/uneducated/not from Toronto"), it's generally pretty understated and also isn't necessarily a requirement for every episode, whereas even Frasier is given to delivering explicit homilies right after the climactic scene.

Now, by its very premise My Name is Earl is set up explicitly as a series dealing with moral lessons. After all, its titular character is a small-time con-artist who has reformed and is trying to make up for his crimes, and each episode revolves around him atoning for some past crime and usually learning some sort of related lesson-- gay people are human too, paying taxes supports public services, stand up to big business, own up to your mistakes, etc.-- so you'd think it would be the comedic equivalent of a Baptist Sunday School class (and one from the sort of Baptist church that frowns upon gospel singing and Getting The Spirit). However, the very fact that the central characters are deeply amoral allows them to get away with it: when Earl makes some kind of climactic speech about how he's just learned he should be nicer to his brother, you can genuinely believe that it's only just now occurred to him that there is value in doing this, and the series' simple the-good-do-well-and-the-bad-suffer setup also allows the series to deliver rewards and punishments to its characters without incurring a "c'mon, that's unrealistic" reaction-- if anything, having had the setup, you're just waiting for the moral payoff.

I compared it to M*A*S*H above, and it occurs to me that the earlier sitcom also managed to get away with its periodic moral lessons for precisely the same reason. Everybody in the surgical unit was as morally bankrupt as the characters in Earl (with the arguable exception of Radar, but he had the innocent-who-does-as-much-harm-as-good thing going, which leads to similar results), and so you could actually believe in them, if not learning from their misdeeds, at least providing a non-preachy example to others through them. So the lesson is, if you don't want your sitcom to come across as a prissy lesson in family values, make your characters as vile as all get out.

Now, if they'd only manage to pull off this trick with Will and Grace, maybe I'd actually be able to watch more than five minutes before switching off in disgust.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A planet where liberals evolved from conservatives?

The other thing I'm digging on television at the moment is Planet of the Apes (the 1970s TV series), because I can't figure out if it's a work of genius or a piece of trite sub-Starsky Seventies action television. On the trite side, the characters are cardboard (with the arguable exception of Galen the chimpanzee), the acting variable, and the plot premises are so cliched that Alan and I have taken to shouting out the ending of the story in the first five minutes. But on the genius side, there's actually an astoundingly subtle understanding of politics in the stories which emerges from all that.

Case in point, a recent episode in which Galen breaks his leg and the protagonists are forced to find shelter with a sharecropping family who are the ape equivalent of Southern white trash, with all manner of racist preconceptions about humans. You just know how it's going to end: the humans will win the racist apes over, and the now-no-longer-racist apes will end up saving them from the authorities. But it wasn't quite as simple as that.

The initially racist apes were gradually won over by the humans' showing them how to use their farmland, tools and oxen with greater efficiency, essentially demonstrating to them that tradition is not sacred and they didn't have to stay poor sharecroppers all their lives. But opposition was staged by the elder son of the family-- because under the traditional system, the oldest son is given a bull calf and goes off to set up his own farm upon reaching maturity, and, while he initially objects on the grounds that the humans might "curse" the cow and cause it to bring forth a heifer calf, it rapidly becomes clear that he's also afraid that the humans' challenge to tradition might result in him losing his chance at independence-- indeed, three-quarters of the way through, his younger siblings, noting that the sky hasn't fallen when they changed their traditional ploughing or watering systems, begin to question why the eldest should automatically get the calf. So what could have been a dull and worthy lesson on racism turned into an exploration of how people contribute to their own oppression by buying into the small benefits the system allows them-- the son is willing to be oppressed if that means he gets a calf, rather than reject the system and maybe not get a calf. Worth thinking about, even today.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

RIP Humphrey the Cat

Non-Brits, non-Anghophiles and/or non-catlovers can catch up on what I'm talking about here.

All these deaths have tempted me to start a blog solely for obituaries. "So, Farewell Then" is what I'd like to call it, but E.J. Thribb of Private Eye would probably sue.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

RIP Octavia Butler

I know I'm late to the party on this one, but I only just saw the obituary in the newspaper. Anyway, this seems to be another of these months were all sorts of people whose work I like and respect dies. I remember being riveted by Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy as a teenager, and I'm ashamed to admit that I haven't bought any new SF books that aren't at least fifteen years old since Oryx and Crake was released in paperback. It just seems like all of the recent stuff looks either boringly pulpy (just how many Honor Harrington novels are there?) or so literary and high-flown that one can't remotely enjoy it (I'd like to subtitle Michel Houllebecq's latest opus Cold, Boring and Whiny Lazarus). Even my old favourites are failing to grip me: I've completely given up on Sheri S. Tepper, for instance, as everything I've read of hers that's been written since Gibbon's Decline and Fall just reads like self-pastiche to me. I did get lent Paul J. MacAuley's White Devils recently and enjoyed it, but I can't say I feel much desire to read it again.

Something about a person dying seems to send me completely into curmudgeon mode. Right, my mission for the next few weeks, should I choose to accept it, is to find some new sci-fi writers to enjoy. Suggestions, as always, greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Can you catch psoriasis from watching too much Dennis Potter?

I've added "Ghost in the Shell" to my list of current recommendations, but with a few reservations. I think it deserves recommendation for the audio track alone, and the visual look of the piece is absolutely beautiful. The philosophy about what constitutes a human being/person is also great (I particularly love the moment when the protagonist remarks that she thinks that the only thing that makes her human is the fact that people treat her as such), and cleverly interwoven with the story; the political machinations are also believable, and the idea of [spoiler here, but not for the really big twist] using a computer program designed to simulate a terrorist to keep the government in power anticipates both the neoconservative philosophy of solidarity through fear of external threat and the BBC's documentary "The Power of Nightmares" by ten years.

However. The dialogue is flat and boring as all get out (I don't know if it's just a bad translation, or if the Japanese is equally stilted, but either way) and the voice acting is really below par: the protagonist in particular sounds like the director said, when she asked for her motivation, "well, you're a cyborg policewoman with issues about whether you're a robot or a human, so you should say everything in a flat, mechanical voice." Her sidekick manages a bit more emotion, but still sounds like he's ordering out for pizza rather than engaging in high-speed, life-or-death chases most of the time. So my recommendation is: be warned, and ideally watch it in small chunks so that the flatness of the dialogue and delivery doesn't obscure the thought-provoking messages.