Posts Tagged ‘Joss Whedon’

I don’t normally blog on a Saturday, but last night I caught up on Agents of SHIELD. And I have to say, Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, I bow down before your superior program-making skills.

I’m not saying that Agents of SHIELD is a flawless work of genius. I’m not saying that every line of dialogue, every moment of acting, sparkles with the dark brilliance of Damages or The Wire. But the way they connected the show together with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best example of cross-property continuity I’ve ever seen.

Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?

Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?

Usually when TV shows share a universe the connections consist of cameos and small references, maybe a crossover plotline that emerges for a couple of episodes and then fades into the background. Agents of SHIELD has gone further than this. It has taken the plot, events and themes of The Winter Soldier, created a pair of episodes that run alongside that film, and emerged transformed. The dynamic of the program has been fundamentally changed in a way that makes it far more interesting. The fallout from Cap 2 is being explored in a way there was no time for on screen. It all makes sense, both in-world and aesthetically. And it’s been done not only in crossing over TV shows, but in crossing over with cinema, a more challenging and as far as I’m aware unprecedented approach to media.

What was previously an adventure-of-the-week action show has been turned into something darker, more twisted, more tense. It’s the same shift in world view that The Winter Soldier brings to Cap’s big screen outings, and that is presumably going to play into the next round of Marvel films. It can be read as a reflection of and comment on changes in comic books since Marvel’s early days.

It’s a glorious thing.

If you’re not watching Agents of SHIELD, consider giving it a go. Like all the best genre TV (Babylon 5, Farscape, Buffy) there’s far more going on here than you might realise at first glance.

There are as many opinions on what makes a good vampire as there are copies of Dracula. Whether you like them scary, brooding or barely present (as in the first episode of the new From Dusk Till Dawn) they’re as big a presence in the cultural landscape as rivers are in the physical one.

This open minded approach to others’ tastes isn’t going to stop me being opinionated though, so here, in no particular order, are some of my favourites, and why I think you should like them too.

The Seine

With its slow, graceful curves and sneering French boatmen, this is- oh wait, you wanted the vampires not the rivers?

You know, that would fit the theme of my blog better…

'One more lame joke and you're next, Knighton.'

‘One more lame joke and you’re next, Knighton.’

Dracula

Bram Stoker may not have been the first author to write about vampires, but he’s the one who energised them as a cultural touchstone, who defined the modern myth and made us want to keep coming back for more.

Like many Victorian novels, Dracula’s a bit of a slow, cumbersome read by modern standards. But the group of characters arrayed against the monster is interesting and the atmosphere chilling. You can feel the icy mist creeping in off the sea by Whitby on every page.

If you’re a fan of Dracula, and of all things Victorian, then Whitby is well worth a visit. It inspired a lot of the atmosphere in the book, and if you go up to the ruins on the headland you can feel why. Plus it has a Victorian-style town museum full of the most amazing collection of random stuff, including a hand of glory, a machine to predict storms using slugs, and a sundial made from a cannon ball that killed a man.

What Stoker did was to take that Victorian obsession with collecting oddments from all over the world, in his case mostly fragments of myth, and forged them into something cohesive. He made the modern vampire.

Spike

If you’ve seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer then I probably don’t need to say any more. If you haven’t then shame on you, but I will explain.

Spike is a great example of a character who grew far beyond his creators’ original intent. Starting out as a villainous vampire version of John Constantine – trenchcoat, blond hair, British accent, cigarettes and bad attitude, all present and correct – he evolved into a character at the comic and emotional heart of the show. By turns tragic, pathetic and awesome, he was a tormented soul with a sense of humour, not just one more whining emo vampire.

Spike had such variety of character, such interesting relationships with the others, such twisted motivations, such great lines, that after the show ended he was transferred straight into its sister show Angel, just in time for that series’ great final season.

Spike showed that vampires could be more than villains without losing their dark edge, and that everything Joss Whedon touches turns to awesome.

The Count

OK, OK, so he’s not a classic vampire. But I love puppets, I particularly love Muppets, and the count shows just was a cultural touchstone vampires have become. When even little children can laugh at these monsters then horror has done what it does best – taming our fears, allowing us to live with them.

One, ha ha ha ha ha ha. Two, ha ha ha ha ha ha. Three, ha ha ha…

The Vampire Lanois

The Afghan Whigs made dark, brooding, soulful rock music. Who better to craft an instrumental named after a vampire? It rolls straight on from the previous track Omerta, so here’s both of them in their grinding glory.

Vampires everywhere!

I admit, my selection got slightly random towards the end. And there’s a reason.

A cultural icon isn’t at it’s best when it’s always presented the same way. Not every superhero should be dark and grim or fun and shiny. Not every president on film should be heroic or noble or even corrupt. It’s when we shine a light on something from a hundred different angles that it becomes interesting, giving us new ideas and understandings.

So who are your favourite vampires? What angle would you shine that light from, and why? Answers in the box below, before the darkness consumes you…

 

Picture by davidd via Flickr creative commons

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.

 

Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.

 

Joss Whedon recently gave a great speech on gender inequality and feminism:

If you’re interested in the issue of gender equality – and I hope that you are – or you enjoy the writing of a modern TV great – and I hope that you do – then you’ll probably enjoy the whole video. But what I want to mention here, what caught my writerly ear, is what he discusses in the first few minutes – how words sound.

Forgetting the obvious

It’s easy to forget, when writing prose, that the sound of words can be as important as their meaning in building atmosphere. Poets use this all the time – choosing light, babbling sounds to describe a brook or heavy, solid words to describe a rock. But then, poetry is often about the very precise application of a small number of words. As prose writers, we’re trying to lay down a lot more letters on the page. We’re aiming for precision of meaning, and the precision of sound can get lost in the mix.

Still, if I use ugly, clunky words to describe my delicate brook, that ugly clunkiness is going to undermine my aim. I should bear that in mind.

What to do about it?

For me, this goes on the long list of things I will try to bear in mind when writing – I picked up another today from Victoria Grefer, a golden rule of description. Something gets added to my list most days, which mean that a lot of stuff has fallen off the list too. But as long as a few thinks stick, or become instinctual, I should keep improving.

I might try some poetry exercises as well. Mrs K has the fabulous Stephen Fry’s Ode Less Travelled, and if I’m going to learn from two wordsmiths this week, then Whedon and Fry is about as awesome a combo as I could get.

Anybody else got any good tips or resources on this? I’d love to hear them.

Like half the people I know, I was in front of my TV at eight o’clock last night for the UK start of Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Like many of my friends, I was super excited beforehand, and like a slightly smaller number, I was still super excited by the end. I could do a long post about why I think this show is great, but Hello, tailor has already covered most of what I’d say. So instead I wanted to think about what makes the show interesting.

The SHIELD shield

The SHIELD shield

Lets be clear from the start. A lot about Agents of SHIELD is very familiar. There’s the Whedonesque dialogue of which I’m a big fan. There’s a plot about science gone wrong. There’s some action and some exposition around tables. There aren’t a lot of big surprises, and it doesn’t challenge its audience. But of course it doesn’t – it’s an extension of the Marvel movie franchise, not Breaking Bad. It’s the safest of safe corporate products, and if it makes me think at all then its well ahead of where I once feared it would be.

That connection to the Marvel films is interesting in itself. This isn’t a film spinning off into a TV show, or vice versa. It’s part of an ongoing franchise, in which TV and films can hopefully weave together. If it works well, they’ll reference each other in a way which adds richness to both, without making audiences reliant on catching every single Marvel movieverse product. If it works badly, then the TV show could end up feeling irrelevant to movie fans or incomprehensible to those who haven’t scrutinised every detail of the latest Captain America film. It’s a tough trick to pull off – there are many examples of comics doing it well, many more of them doing it badly – but it’s great to see such ambition in play, and if anyone can pull it off then Joss Whedon can.

That relationship with comics plays into another thing I find interesting. Near the end of the show, a character gives a speech about how it feels to be an ordinary person in a world that contains superheroes, how much less relevant we all become. It’s not a new idea to comics fans, who’ve been treated to dozens of challenging readings on the impact of superheroes over the decades. But it’s something new to see on the screen, taking it to a much wider audience. And I think there’s potential for it to draw out a wider issue, using this as a metaphor for modern culture and how people feel when role models are held out as so much more wealthy, more glamorous, more powerful, more unobtainable than them. This looks to be a big theme of the show, so lets hope it’s handled well.

Another of the obvious points of interest is how they dealt with the previous death of their lead character, Agent Coulson. The obvious option would have been to gloss over this, give a quick explanation and move on, ignoring the awkward point. Instead, as my friend John pointed out, they’ve made it a significant feature of the plot. Alternative explanations are being offered or hinted at, and it’s clear there’s something dubious going on here. They haven’t just hung a lantern on it, turned it into a joke for the audience, and I’m glad of that because such brief acknowledgement would have felt like cheating. They’ve turned one of their biggest plot problems into an asset, and that’s great.

For Whedon fans there’s the almost compulsory appearance of familiar faces from his past work – J. August Richards from Angel as a superpowered unemployed factory worker, Ron Glass from Firefly as a SHIELD scientist. For me, this is turning into one of the pleasures of Whedon’s work. It’s like watching the same theatrical troop putting on different plays, seeing how each actor performs in different roles, seeing the same faces in a different arrangement. Some might find it distracting, but for me the appearance of the Whedon troop adds to the richness of my viewing experience.

If my feelings on what makes the show interesting are summed up in one point, it’s in Lola, Agent Coulson’s car. At this point I’m going to drop a very mild spoiler, but then, if you haven’t watched the show you probably haven’t read this far. So, let me rephrase my last sentence – Loala is Agent Coulson’s flying car. Lola’s an old sports car, apparently one of Coulson’s collectibles, that turns out to have something hi-tech beneath the bonnet. But that hi-tech thing isn’t really a new idea – flying cars have been turning up in sci-fi for decades, even if they’ve never made their way into reality. Even Lola’s sci-fi element is retro. She’s a reference to the tradition of sixties hi-tech spies, the James Bonds and Nick Furies of this world, from which Agents of SHIELD springs. She’s an acknowledgement that even the new and shiny parts of this show aren’t really new ideas, they’re just being presented in a new arrangement.

Agents of SHIELD hasn’t brought us anything new yet. It hasn’t broken fresh ground, or turned the world of geek upside down. But it’s doing interesting things with the parts it’s got, playing with long standing elements of comics and TV culture in fun ways, and isn’t that a great thing in itself?

If you’ve not seen it already, try to watch the Agents of SHIELD pilot. And if you’ve got any thoughts on it, I’d love to read them below.

EsoterX, who blogs about monsters, recently wrote an interesting post about gremlins. It explains how their myth arose from people coping with the hazards of manned flight. It got me thinking about how we relate technology to myths in fiction, particularly sci-fi, and how that maybe misses the point.

The psychology of gremlins

Gremlins started out as a way for early airforce pilots to cope with problems with their machines. They needed to be able to face flying, even knowing that their planes might not work right, and that this could kill them. To do that, they needed to feel like they could affect their machines, reducing the chance of problems. They weren’t experts in the complex reality of the problems, so they quickly latched onto the idea of gremlins, creatures that made their machines break down, and that they could appease. That appeasement gave them a feeling of control, letting them face flying. Faith in a myth was a response to technology.

If I was flying one of these, I'd believe in anything that kept me aloft

If I was flying one of these, I’d believe in anything that kept me aloft – photo by Elsie esq. on a creative commons attribution licence

Ye olde tradition in a modern world

In science fiction, that relationship between superstition and technology is usually shown in a very different way. Star Trek Deep Space Nine, for example, explores the faith of the people of Bajor. While this faith is shown to have material roots, it is still depicted as an old tradition, an ancient institution that modern Bajorans respond to. There is no mythological or superstitious response to the technology and society they face. They don’t explain transporter malfunctions using gremlins.

The same thing applies in a lot sci-fi. Faith in something unseen, whether religion or superstition or the spaghetti man in the woods, is something the characters have picked up from old traditions, not a response to their world. Julian May’s Saga of the Exiles depicts Catholics, but no superstitions surrounding the portal into the past that allows the saga to happen.

The legend that is Whedon

If I have faith in any modern cultural force then it’s Joss Whedon, so it’s no surprise that he’s at least bucked this trend a little. The Reavers in Firefly provoke an almost superstitious response from characters. These violent lunatics have a legendary quality, and the characters’ responses to them are similar to our responses to the supernatural. Stories about them have an air of exaggeration.

But even here, Joss wants us to believe that the stories are rooted in truth, that the Reavers really are that bad. The root of their myth lies in their origin story, as revealed in Serenity, not in the way people respond to them.

So what?

EsoterX’s gremlin article provides a great example of our relationship with mythology, and one I’m now totally going to use in a sci-fi story. It shows how superstitions are something we still invent in response to problems we can’t solve for ourselves. In a world where both society and technology are increasingly complex, we face more of those problems, not less. We should expect superstition to keep springing up long into the future, not just to be a relic we cling to.

Speculative fiction isn’t just about technology, it’s about human responses to it. And mythology seems like a response we should depict more.

As always, if you have any thoughts, please share them below.

No sooner had I posted about boundaries and creativity than I found this excellent article by Richard Rosenbaum on game-changing use of genre conventions. It sharpened my understanding of how boundaries lead to new boundaries, and thus not only support but drive creativity.

Genre conventions are among the most important creative boundaries. They let you know what your audience expects, and so are important in satisfying your audience. They are shortcuts for audience understanding – if your genre has a convention that orange women are always villains, then your audience gains a lot of information just from you saying ‘she was orange’.

This also applies to conventions of your medium, for example the use of chapter breaks and brightly coloured covers in printed novels, or particular edits in film.

The flawed hero - going past convention into compulsory

The flawed hero – going past convention into compulsory

Rosenbaum’s article discusses genre conventions used in unusual ways to create great storytelling. The examples he uses – primarily an episode of House and the film The Cabin In The Woods – don’t break the conventions of their genre and medium, but instead explore them, working out their logical implications or applying them in new ways. This creates new rules – in the House case the appearance of memory gaps at particular points, in Cabin a meta-narrative about the nature of horror films – that others can play with. New boundaries and structures emerge not by breaking the old rules, but by following them in a way no-one has before.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

Stunned into silence by my wisdom. Or maybe the monster at the door.

This doesn’t just apply to story-telling. Nick responded to my last post by saying that the benefits of boundaries apply in design work. And following rules to create new ones applies there too. Manned flight started out pretty crudely, but with a series of boundaries, rules for what would make a flying machine. By following those rules, and trying out different ways of following them, engineers refined them and varied them, discovering even better ways to build a flying machine. Sure, we still don’t have our Marty McFly hoverboards, but we’ve moved on a long way from the Wright Brothers.

Wilbur Wright's propeller design was inspired by his brother's moustahce

Wilbur Wright’s propeller design was inspired by his brother’s moustahce

Boundaries aren’t just structures that support creativity. A lot of the time they are creativity. They are the structures we create, within our stories, our genres, our world, that allow us to create greater things. Through those boundaries, creativity becomes self-perpetuating.

 

Or does it? Let me know what you think below, whether it’s about boundaries, creativity, or The Cabin In The Woods – seriously, I could talk about that film all day.