Saturday, July 31, 2010

Doctor Who 2010

So I've finally got around to watching the last episode of this year's season of Dr Who (definitely no question mark as it seems these days), by which time all the serious fans have already blogged about it, sometimes at extreme length and occasionally with useful insights. So anything I'm going to say is going to feel deeply superfluous.

But since when did that stop a blogger?

One thing that those fans spotted was that this season seems to have been largely about Steven Moffat doing the sort of things that Russell T Davies previously did with the show, but doing them well. Now, while this is vastly preferable to many other things (such as, doing them the way that Russell T Davies was doing them), it wasn't what some of us were at heart hoping for (which was, at minimum, him doing Steven Moffat things well). Still, this approach produced some episodes that I enjoyed well enough... Until the last two.

Though the two episodes in the story in question were annoying in different ways. The first was just padded - okay, so bits of it involved classic Who thrills, but all the stuff with the Romans felt rather desperate, and when you're playing for these stakes, some running around and screaming with one (1) damaged Cyberman feels a bit feeble. It also involved some amazing incidental mental thickness; okay, the Doctor might somehow might be expected not to notice the obvious about his little speech about what was in the Pandorica, but you'd have expected one of the two smart-arse companions present to react with "sounds like you".

The plot felt cobbled-together and implausible, too. Okay, hoping for plausibility in a Who plot is a bit forlorn, but there has to be some kind of break point, some chance that stuff might be explained in such a way to make one go "ah!". The Alliance of Enemies had some credibility problems, too; there's infinite comic potential in trying to imagine their planning meetings ("THIS MEETING IS CALLED TO ORDER!" Later. "We have a cunning plan. He's going to cause the end of the universe because of these crack thingies, so we're going to raid his assistant's brain through one of these cracks, construct a hideously complicated plot to attract his attention, and then capture him." "And then we exterminate him?" "No, we lock him in a box that any idiot with a sonic screwdriver can open." "Can't we exterminate him a little bit?" Later. "What are the Silurians doing here? We thought that he liked you lot." "You mean, apart from giving us a scientific name that puts us in the same genus as those monkeys?" "Yes." "Well, he put us into hibernation, and set the timer so that we woke up in the 31st century - just when he knew damn well that solar flares would be sterilising the solar system...").

The second part, on the other hand, showed the severe difficulties with fairytale-style wild science fantasy, by just not doing it very well. If anything is possible - anything that fairytale magic might bring about, anything that wide-screen baroque space opera might conceive - then the most that you can get on screen is pretty pictures and over-acting. This was all-too-Daviesian NuWho, the Doctor as a demigod who can save the entire universe with a bit of dubious technobabble and some pained claims about self-sacrifice, and the assistant du jour as the mostest important magic girl in all the universe who can restore things which have been wiped from history by wishing hard enough. It just wasn't satisfactory.

This series has also given too damn many hostages to fortune. Another thing that some proper fans noted about the whole series was that Steven Moffat seems to like time travel stories - that is, stories in which stuff happens in the wrong order, cause and effect are chopped up for dramatic or comic effect, and so on. Actually, I think that the time travel is just an excuse, a convenience; Moffat simply has a lot of fun tinkering with causality within narrative structures. My favourite script of his, ever, anywhere, remains episode 1 of season 4 of Coupling, "Nine and a Half Minutes", which is essentially Rashomon as an urban sex comedy. However, Who has usually been a little bit careful about time travel stories, in this strict sense; to this show, time travel is just a way to get our heroes into an infinite variety of places and times, and any suggestions about going back in time to stop bad things have been clubbed down with pronouncements about the Laws of Time or Causal Loops. And there are several good reasons for this caution, given Who's nature as a mass-market TV show; time travel stories tend either to confuse casual viewers by being difficult to follow, or to bug the bejasus out of attentive geek types by being sloppy and illogical. Furthermore; they present huge problems for the long-term design of the show, in the way that excessively powerful technology does; if the Doctor can use time travel to solve one problem, to determine which flat to rent to find the monster of the week, why doesn't he use it every time a problem is serious enough to, say, involve the deaths of a few dozen people? The rule has been broken on occasion, of course - Davies broke it once or twice - but Moffat seems happy to plain ignore it. It'll come back and bite him, I tell you.

Anyway, Steven Moffat is definitely engaged in reinvigorating a classic British popular culture hero for television in the 21st century, and doing a fine job of it from what I've seen so far. Unfortunately for this blog post, the hero is Sherlock Holmes. This jury of one is still out on his work on Who; let's hope that, now that he's worked through the unhappily established conventions of 21st-century Who in his first season, the second will do something really worthwhile. The presence of, for example, an actual married couple on the Tardis (a first, I think) does at least suggest that we might get some proper Moffat foibles instead of the tired old Davies foibles.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Expand, Contract (25)

Transhuman Space: Martial Arts 2100 (or whatever exactly it ends up being called, but me I like that title) is now off to SJGames, my final draft editing being done - so I take a deep breath and look at the as-yet-secret possible project that now seems to be coming together. Oh, and I deal with a little Pyramid article I said I'd write. Just a short one.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


"His subconscious has been militarised!"


The genius of this film is its solution to a deep-seated Hollywood problem; how to reconcile the Therapy Model of Plot (the idea that the only real point of the stuff that happens to a protagonist in a movie must be to solve some deep-seated emotional problem) with the demands of the action genre (which doesn't leave time for that nonsense if it's being done right). Past solutions have involved carefully paced talky intermissions between the explosions, kids needing rescuing, villains who represent (or just plain are) The Father, and so on. Inception skips all that in favour of something much more literal; it sets out to explore the subconscious - somebody's subconscious, anyone's subconscious - and promptly discovers that it's made up entirely of gunfights, explosions, car chases, and at the deepest level, a rather nifty, slightly grimy post-Bondian alpine villain base, complete with skiing guards.

And it does it gorgeously. Christopher Nolan lives up to the old Welles line about a movie set being the best train set any boy could have, and adds on the best computer game level designer kit that boy might want today. One tip; go see this movie on a reasonably large screen with a proper sound system - I doubt that it'll be anything like the same without wall-to-wall visuals and a seismic bass undertone. Admittedly, nothing later in the movie quite lives up to the early, fabulous poster-moment when Paris folds back on itself like so much well-designed cardboard packaging, although a late, bleakly exquisite landscape of abandoned mega-skyscrapers tries hard. But as his Batman movies showed, Nolan loves his cityscapes with an infectious passion, and can shoot a decent action sequence too; given the chance to combine the two, he's in his element.

Here, he shifts the scene to Mombasa for a while for no real reason other than that it lets him do a street chase scene with a new aesthetic edge (okay, maybe owing something to Casino Royale).That's during the early part, when the movie is still running through a highly traditional "assembling the team" phase, which reminds me; the movie also shows Nolan's knack for casting. The leads all do their best with often slightly thin characters, even Ellen Page, who spends the first third of her screen time being on the receiving end of some mandatory exposition, and the rest being the empathetic girl genius, manages to make something of her part. However, the plot is all about Leonardo DiCaprio's character, who's a damaged soul... This isn't a character movie.

What it is, is the action movie re-imagined as a Chinese philosophical parable, Freud with big guns in a cyberpunk world. The soul of the thing may be a little flimsy to justify the scale of the structure built to support it, but that's Hollywood movie dreams for you - and it is a big-budget SF movie with the sort of serious ambitions we've mostly come to associate with smaller-budget SF movies in recent years. The two-and-a-bit hours certainly went by for me in a glow of admiration.

Monday, July 19, 2010

High and Low

Hmm, no, I don't seem to have been saying much here lately. I've been a bit busy. There's a couple of things I will just make a note of, though.

For one, on the 28th of June, we got to the British Museum for the "Fra Angelico to Leonardo" Italian Renaissance Drawings exhibition. (Well, there was a lot of stuff you'd otherwise have to get to the Uffizi in Florence to see.) This turned out to be a very technical sort of exhibition - there were explanations of the various techniques used, samples of paper and parchment one could actually touch, and comparisons of some of the drawings that were actually preparatory works for paintings with images of the finished paintings themselves. And for the first stretch, it maybe felt a bit too technical; the drawings from the early years of the Renaissance weren't bad, but they weren't exciting either, and were often formalistic copies of standard designs. And I'm still no fan of late medieval art, with all its stiff religiosity, even though looking at drawings rather than paintings saves one from the usual surfeit of gold halos.

But then, well, the exhibition kind of proved that art evolved for the better in the Renaissance, and after the path through had hit the Leonardos around the mid-point, well, I was sucked in. Stunning stuff, some of this, and all of it certainly never less than technically interesting.

And on 11th of July, we got to see Shrek Forever After at the Cambridge Arts. We previously saw the first couple of Shrek films, but we missed the third, so this was a fairly casual interest, but we enjoyed the movie; it had the usual density of reference to both fairy-tales and other sources (amazingly for an American series, the Shrek movies hadn't thrown in anything from the Wizard of Oz until this final episode, so far as I recall), the usual grossly over-qualified cast (I missed noticing the presence of the wonderful Jane Lynch until the final credits), and the usual torrent of good jokes. The 3-D, while effective enough, was pretty much an irrelevance here - a few hurtling broomstick-mounted witches are nothing compared to, say, Monsters vs. Aliens' games with scale - and the movie as a whole was nothing like as sophisticated as, say, The Incredibles. Whereas in that movie, the hero is aware from the first of the ambiguities in his discontent with family life, and the solution to the problem is a complex process which requires adaption by all the parties involved, Shrek is just an understandably put-upon-feeling husband, father, and citizen, who gets a chance to see what the bachelor life would be like, enjoys it for a short while, and then gets hit over the head with the Hollywood presumption in favour of domesticity. It's an unearned moral, mere moralising.

One shouldn't think too hard about the alternate history plot structuring, either. Technically, it creates a whole universe full of people with their own lives and troubles and hard-won triumphs, and then obliterates them with a kiss, in a casual act of cosmic genocide. Although it was the even more casual death of the Gingerbread Man that might actually worry more viewers. Also, I was probably too taken with Rumpelstiltskin's palace - a gilded Versailles-for-dark-lords - and his wigs - all wiped out by the plot's tide of narrative Tipex. Still, yeah, don't think too hard and it's certainly huge amounts of fun.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Expand, Contract (24)

And yeah! The finished edit of Transhuman Mysteries is off to e23. I don't know when exactly it'll appear, but it's off my hands now. Good book, by the way.

So it's back to a couple of my own writing projects now...