Posts Tagged ‘watching’

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Day after day, I’m currently writing science fiction with a grim setting. And I’m enjoying it. I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching quite a lot of science fiction that has that darkness to  it. The harrowing dystopia of the The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic teen angst of The 100. Hell, I’m still a fan of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, even though I haven’t played or read anything set in it in years.

It seems almost perverse to take pleasure in such dark futures. After all, this is science fiction, a form designed to show the amazing and wondrous things that the future could hold. So why do we do it to ourselves? Do we find hope in seeing people struggle against the darkness? Do we find failed futures more convincing? Do they act as a warning? Is it just easier to create conflict that way?

It genuinely perplexes me. There are so many potential explanations it’s hard to work out which are relevant, never mind common for those creating and experiencing this sort of fiction. So I’ll ask – do you enjoy dark science fiction, the stuff where bleakness plays a larger part in the setting than hope? And what about it appeals to you?

Sometimes terrible people make great characters.

I was reminded of this as I was working on my NaNoWriMo story this morning. One of the two protagonists is rude, mean and inconsiderate towards others. But I’m really enjoying writing her, because she says the sort of things I’d love to say but never actually do.

Sure he’s cool, but would you work with him?

This is part of the appeal of any character with an unpleasant streak, whether protagonist or villain, from Archer to the Joker. They say and do things that we half want to say and do because they would help us to vent our feelings, but that we don’t say and do because of the impact on others and the consequences. It lets them be witty and insightful in an edgy way that other characters aren’t. It’s fun to read, to watch and to write.

As people we would never want these characters in our lives. Archer is hilarious to watch on TV but he’s undoubtedly a complete arsehole. The character I’m writing might be entertaining on paper, but her snide superiority would drive me nuts in reality. Fiction lets us have our cake and eat it, spending time with these people but not having to live and work with them, and that’s great.

Who are your favourite mean characters, and do you find that you get something out of spending time with them?

That's my Tardis, it's paintwork is blue!

That’s my Tardis, its paintwork is blue!

Have you ever read the That’s Not My… books? They’re for really little kids. They’re made of cardboard and have simple yet delightful pictures with textured areas for the kids to touch. Each one follows the same rhythm, so that for That’s Not My Dog the first page might read

That’s not my dog, his nose is too shiny [cue picture of dog with smooth shiny nose to touch]

Then the next is

That’s not my dog, his coat is too fluffy [again with a cute cartoon dog, and this time with soft strokeable fur – watch a toddler with one of these books, they’ll spend forever pawing at the furry pages, tiny pink deviants that they are]

And so on until the right dog is found. Or the right dragon, or pirate, or penguin, or whatever – seriously, these books are like kiddy crack, and the dealers are flooding the market with great product.

But you know what’s really weird? No, it’s not a thirty-six-year-old fantasy writer getting excited over That’s Not My Penguin, though that would be a good guess. What’s really weird is that I keep seeing those same books quoted in online discussions, and the people quoting them aren’t even getting it right.

Take Doctor Who. Pretty much everybody loves Doctor Who, in at least one of the show’s many incarnations. And it’s nice that people want to discuss which ones they like. So I could point at an RTD-era season finale and say ‘that’s not my Doctor Who, the resolution is too angsty’. I don’t do that, because it doesn’t give people much to work with as a conversation point, but other people seem to want to, they’ve clearly read their That’s Not My, and they’re ready to debate.

But they keep quoting it wrong. They miss out the ‘my’. So instead of saying ‘That’s not my Doctor Who’ they say ‘That’s not Doctor Who’, which is of course clearly nonsense. Any toddler with a fluffy dog to stroke could tell them that. Whether it’s Doctor Who or Star Trek or James Bond or the Marvel Movie Universe or whatever, the version you’re seeing, the version that’s not to your tastes, clearly is that thing. What’s more, it’s somebody else’s beloved version of that thing. Saying that it isn’t would just be kind of rude and belligerent.

Which is why it’s such a shame that people forget the vital ‘my’, which makes clear that they understand that they’re just voicing a perfectly valid opinion, and not trying to be a jerk to others.

I can enjoy my shiny-beaked penguin, even knowing that the less wonderful fluffy-bellied one is on the next page. I can enjoy Moffat’s first clever use of the weeping angels, even knowing that I’d get annoyed at what he did with them later. I can like both Chris Pine Kirk and William Shatner Kirk. And whether I like them or not, they’re all a penguin, or Doctor Who, or Star Trek, or whatever.

They’re just not my penguin.

I love it when a story does darkness well. Watching the first episode of Gotham, the new sort-of-prequel-to-Batman TV show, I was struck by how well executed that darkness was. It shows a city of dark alleys, grey skies, smoking factories and police corruption. A take on Batman where even the usually civilised Alfred has the grim air of an ex-army sergeant. In both look and content, this is a dark show, and one of the darkest facets is its morality.

 

James Gordon – I’d look grumpy too if I lived in Gotham

It’s hardly surprising that the guy running the show, Bruno Heller, is showing a city where institutions are corrupt and decisions are pragmatic rather than idealistic. This is the man who gave us Rome, a show all about the fall of that city’s republic and its transformation through war and murder into an empire. His characters can embody principles – James Gordon, the central character in Gotham, certainly does – but institutions do not embody principles, their functions are not ideal or eternal. The roles of police, politicians, even criminals are negotiated out of power relationships, the people changed by the institutions and the institutions by the people. It’s realistic, in a cynical sort of way.

I love this exploration of social institutions through story telling. We take so many of the organisations and power structures around us for granted, and TV shows in particular tend to present them in an unquestioned, unchanging light. But everything change over time, that’s how history happens, that’s what I like to see.

The ridiculously names, and yet ridiculously cool, Fish Mooney

This doesn’t mean that there’s no right or wrong, but it encourages us to challenge our assumptions about how society works.

If this cynical take on society sets the show adrift on a sea of moral uncertainty, then this is nicely matched by its aesthetics. Not just because Gotham is a visually grim place, but because its style doesn’t fit any particular point in time. It’s an ambiguity that fits the original comics, in which most of the characters have aged little if at all through over 70 years in print. That means that Batman’s timeline makes little sense, and we’re still expected to read stories from the 1960s as a near-contemporary part of his life, despite al the changes in technology, style and social expectations.

The Gotham city of Gotham, instead of ducking that problem by picking a timeframe, plays with it with relish. There’s hardly any digital technology on display, and the computer monitors in the police precinct appear to be bulky monochrome affairs, yet characters carry cellphones. I don’t know much about fashion, but I’d have been hard pressed to pin down a decade from what I saw. The cars, the diners, the booze bottles and performers in the nightclubs, they all contribute to an air of uncertainty over when this is taking place.

So we’re in when, exactly?

And yet that creates a distinctive sense of place and time in itself. Like steampunk and other retro-futurist genres, it mashes real and imagined period elements together to create its own aesthetic, one in which the city’s issues with powerful, institutionalised crime make perfect sense. One that you might expect to corrupt characters or to drive them mad.

Gotham holds out promise to become something fascinating. On the basis of one episode I can’t tell whether it will achieve that, but I am really intrigued.

Magic and art are a natural match in our minds. Art taps into the parts of ourselves we understand least – our emotions, our instincts, our subconscious. And magic, from card tricks at a kids’ birthday party to vast elemental spells in an epic fantasy, is all about the unexplained.

Casting of magic in stories often involves some form of art. It can be singing and chanting to cast a spell, dancing around a campfire to communicate with the spirits, drawing symbols or stitching together creepy voodoo dolls – if there’s an artform out there then there’s a form of magic to go with it.

Joss Whedon created one of my favourite examples, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode ‘Once More, With Feeling’. For a single episode song and dance are both enforced by and and unleashed by the power of magic, as the cast show off their variable music talents. It’s an in character excuse for an out of character novelty, turning a popular fantasy show into a musical for one episode, and it’s great fun.

Sailing to SarantiumGuy Gavriel Kay often explores art and power, and though magic often plays a low key part in his works, it still fuses with art in Sailing to Sarantium. Sculptures of birds are brought to life, art capturing the human spirit in a way that becomes unsettling as the truth behind it is revealed.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionCombining art and magic is something I’ve tried to do myself in some of the stories in By Sword, Stave or Stylus. The emotional core of ‘Live by the Sword’ is about how the gladiator characters use art as an escape from the terrible brutality of their lives, and about magic making this literal. ‘The Essence of a Man’ fuses oil painting with alchemy, combining two arts that created high excitement during the European Renaissance. ‘The Magpie Dance’ is about dance as magic, while ‘One Minute of Beauty’ is about a very conscious attempt to squeeze the art and magic from life, the artist in his and her modern form.

I love to see magic and art combined in stories, one becoming an outlet for the other. So what other great examples are there? What other books, shows or films have combined magic and art in interesting ways? What have I missed?

If, like me, you’ve seen the internet, you’ve probably noticed by now that the new series of Doctor Who is pretty divisive. I’ve seen a lot of strong opinions expressed on why this episode was awful or that one was great, and even the hardcore Whovian opinions seem hugely varied.

This weekend’s episode, ‘Listen’, helped me pin down what I think’s going on. So in case you haven’t seen it already, spoilers ahead. Also, you should go watch it. Whether it fills you with hatred, admiration or a bewildering sense of ambivalence (like me) it’s still worth watching because it says something significant about where genre TV, and Doctor Who in particular, is at right now.

Steven Moffat’s a smart writer

Let’s start with the basics. Steven Moffat is a smart writer. ‘Listen’, with its exploration of fear and motivation, its closed time loop and its charming romantic scenes, was proof that the man can rub two narrative sticks together and make an admirable fire. I love smart writing, and this sort of thing is why I was so excited when he took over the show.

But as ‘Listen’ also reminded us, Moffat feels a constant need to show how smart he is. It’s as if some high school maths teacher tattooed the words ‘show your workings’ across the inside of his brain, and he’s been trying to live up to that ever since. Seriously, if we got in the Tardis and hopped back along his timeline we’d find some adult who gave Steven the need to prove his smarts over and over and over again. And I would have very stern words with that adult, because they’ve become the subconscious voice that’s ruining one of my favourite TV writers.

Moffat has other ticks whose charm/annoyance depends on your personal taste. Charlie Jane Anders has dissected a bunch of them over on io9. But the one that really troubles me is his attitudes towards sex and gender. Steve’s dinner party porn speech from Coupling, while a sharp and hilarious piece of writing, also reflects an assumption that men are one way and women are another. It’s essentialist and heteronormative and a bunch of other troubling and long-titled concepts, and I laugh every time but I shudder too.

(I tried to find a clip of it to include here but apparently YouTube doesn’t like it. If you have the chance, go watch ‘Inferno’, season 1 episode 4 of British sitcom Coupling to see what I mean. Content warning – the bit I’m directing you towards is a two minute diatribe about why pornography is good, and that reflects the tone of the show.)

Smarts in service to the story

If I like smart writing, why does a smartly written episode like ‘Listen’ not excite me?

In short, because I like a compelling story too.

I like smart writing to exist in service to the story, but ‘Listen’ seemed like a story in service to smart ideas. There was no compelling narrative to draw me along, no forward moving tension to engage with, no sense that the characters really had something at stake in the main arc of the plot.

And before anyone says ‘the art of storytelling can be about character, dude’, or something along those lines, I also watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this weekend, and that film proves that you can focus on art and character while still having a compelling narrative.

In fact Joss Whedon does this all the time. He’s another incredibly clever writing, working in similar genres and industries to Moffat, yet he uses his smarts to craft exciting stories every time. Because those stories aren’t about Whedon being smart – Whedon is being smart about the stories.

Show runner as auteur

What I this reflects is that some TV show runners are now seen as auteurs, the creative geniuses behind their shows who should be left to express their distinctive voice.

I’m OK with that. It over-simplifies our understanding of creativity, but it also gives creators like Moffat and Whedon a lot of freedom. It creates television that is distinctive and individual and fascinating, rich with new ideas and of course flaws.

This means that I’m not getting the Doctor Who I want, or the Steven Moffat TV that I want, both of which would need a restraining hand pulling Moffat back in line. But I’ll pay that price for a genre TV landscape that’s richer and more interesting.

Because ‘Listen’ might be self-indulgent, but it’s also fascinating. And a TV industry that can create this will leave room for some other smart, story driven shows.

A special treat today – I have a guest post from Sue Archer of the Doorway Between Worlds blog. I’m a fan of the way Sue uses science fiction and fantasy to explore topics around communication, and it’s a pleasure to host her opinions on another topic here today, one that I’ve touched on in the past. So without further ado…

Female Superhero Movie Franchises: What Would Ellen Ripley Say?

When I was eight years old, my parents gave me a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I devoured the story, identifying with the plucky character of Lucy. I then went on to read A Wrinkle in Time, and got drawn in to the world of Meg Murray, who was geeky (like me) and who saved her brother from evil. And I knew: science fiction and fantasy were written for me. This was a genre where girls could save the world.

When I was ten years old, I played with She-Ra: Princess of Power dolls, because other dolls were downright boring next to ones who could use swords and magic. I watched the various incarnations of the Justice League and Marvel characters on television and pretended that I was a superhero like Wonder Woman.

When I was twelve years old, a movie came out that I wasn’t old enough to see yet. In this movie, an ordinary woman fought against the odds to save humanity from aliens. The movie went on to spawn several sequels, and the female lead became a hugely popular character.

Her name was Ellen Ripley. And the year Aliens came out? 1986.

Ripley

Fast forward twenty-eight years later. Count ’em: Twenty-eight. We are in 2014, and since Ellen Ripley, I have not seen another adult female character leading a movie franchise in the speculative fiction genre. (The closest thing so far is The Hunger Games, but it’s aimed at more of a teenage audience.) Frankly, I’m tired of waiting for another one. What happened?

The Wonder Woman That Wasn’t

There certainly hasn’t been a lack of trying by those who understand that this genre is for women as well as men. Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame was slated to helm a Wonder Woman film. Joss Whedon and Wonder Woman! Alas, that movie never got off the ground. And now we’re left with DC introducing Wonder Woman as a secondary character to Superman and Batman in their next superhero film. Apparently the studio thinks my favourite Amazon is just not strong enough to have her own movie. Which is ridiculous.

Superheroes Without Superpowers

I love the Marvel movies, but I’m disappointed that they aren’t making definite moves towards a female-led superhero film. Instead, we’ve had female characters who are part of a team: Black Widow, a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers; and Gamora—wait for it—a female assassin in a bodysuit who has no superpowers. Black Widow was done well, while Gamora had an underused backstory and was upstaged by a sarcastic raccoon and a talking tree. Neither of these women were leads. I’m tired of looking for small victories. When will we get a movie about Captain Marvel? Or another Marvel female character who is just as powerful as the men?

Men as Women

And I don’t mean a female character who is based off of a powerful male one. Marvel’s announcement of a female Thor being introduced in their comics annoyed me. I would have no issue with Sif taking up the hammer of Thor and wielding its powers as herself. But for the woman taking the hammer to be called Thor? This is insulting. Other characters have taken up Mjolnir in the past and gained the powers of Thor, but they kept their names. Why does the woman have to lose hers and be called Thor? It reminds me of Batgirl, Supergirl, and all of those other characters that were derived from male ones. Is Marvel afraid of developing a new standalone female character? That’s just sad.

Superwomen vs. Hollywood

I’ve heard all of the arguments about why a female-led movie franchise is not being made. And none of them make any sense.

Well, look what happened when we made Elektra and Catwoman. No one turned out, so clearly the appetite is not there for female-led movies. (It couldn’t possibly be because they were terrible movies.)

Women don’t go to see these kinds of movies, so we wouldn’t make any money. (Too bad that according to the MPAA, 42% of the domestic audience who came to see Iron Man 3 were women. Superhero movies in general are coming in at around 40% women in the audience. Not to mention you’re assuming men don’t want to see women superheroes. Not true of the men I know.)

We’ve already made plans for other movies, so you’ll need to wait a few years. (So change your plans. You could if you really wanted to.)

And this is the crux of it. The movie industry is made up largely of men who don’t really want to produce movies about female superheroes. So, unfortunately, I think I’ll be waiting for a few more years before I see what I want. (Some possible light at the end of the tunnel: There have been some recent rumours about an unnamed female-led movie in the Spiderman universe for 2017. I’ll believe it when I see it.)

What I’d pay money to see: Ellen Ripley facing down the leaders of The Company, also known as Hollywood movie execs. I can only imagine what she would say.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch my copy of Aliens.

Which female-led shows have you enjoyed? Who would you like to see on the big screen?

*

Thank you to Sue for the post. If you enjoyed it then please go read more of her views on the Doorway Between Worlds.

What do you all think of the new Doctor Who?

Personally I’m really enjoying it so far. Capaldi has that intensity we’ve come to expect from the Doctor. The first couple of episodes have been wildly imaginative, and I’ll forgive them a lot for that. The new credits are a nice mix of steampunk stuff and references back to the classic credits. And Strax was in the first episode – I want him to be the next companion.

All in all I’m enjoying it.

But I find myself completely incapable of critically evaluating what the show’s currently doing. I fear that Moffat might get self-indulgent in following his favourite bits, like with the weeping angels and River Song, both of which lost their appeal the more he leaned on them to keep us interested. He’s a really clever writer but sometimes his plots get so tangled they lose their coherence. I’m not sure yet whether he’s got that stuff out of his system or whether there are danger signs showing.

So, what do you think? What’s been good so far? What’s been not so great? What are you looking forward to? What have I missed?

Conflict is common over the depiction of race and gender in speculative fiction. As a middle-class first-world white bloke I recognise that I’m in a very privileged position and over-represented in popular culture. But as a nerd I also recognise why people get defensive about challenges to a frequently mocked subculture. I’ve written a post about this and recent superhero films over one Curnblog. Here’s the start of it…

Where Did Storm Go? Representing Race and Gender in Superhero Films

Superhero films and the comics that spawned them are famous for their traditionally white male fan-base. It’s a fan-base to which the creators play, with the vast majority of superheroes, and particularly the high profile ones, being white men.

This raises issues for the balanced representation of gender and race and for the diversity of perspectives possible within these stories. It becomes even more problematic as these stories reach out to a wider audience, perpetuating norms of white male cultural dominance. But why is this so common? And is an opportunity for change being squandered?

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

Talking raccoons are surprisingly well represented in the Marvel universe

To read the rest please hop on over to Curnblog. And while you’re there I also recommend Anthony Pilloud‘s ‘The Fallibility of Superheroes‘, an interesting article on the troubling moral structure of the Marvel universe.

 

For more on issues of representation you might also want to check out this rough transcript of a panel R A Smith was on at LonCon.

And if you have any thoughts on the subject or links to other interesting articles then please leave a comment.

When I was growing up science fiction and fantasy TV was a rare and precious thing. My dad, my brother and I would set time aside for any episode of Doctor Who (old school) or Star Trek (repeats and then the thrill of TNG), because that was what there was. Then came the X-files, Babylon 5, Buffy – suddenly there’d be two speculative shows on TV in the same week, maybe even three. A new dawn of nerdery seemed to be upon us!

These days there are so may science fiction and fantasy shows, and so many ways to consume them, that I have to pick and choose. Something like The 100 can be out there for a year before I even hear of it. Fortunately I heard of it three weeks after Channel 4 started showing it, so laid low by a headache one evening I lay back and caught up on the first three episodes.

It was a pleasant surprise.

Wait, it’s not the 4400 sequel?

Like me, you may be disappointed to discover that The 100 isn’t the post-apocalyptic sequel to flawed but intriguing The 4400. Instead, it’s the story of a bunch of teens dropped into an Earth recovering from nuclear war. Will they be the harbingers of humankind’s return? Or will they all die of radiation poisoning, leaving us to watch twenty episodes of trees, glowing butterflies and rotting corpses?

In case you can’t guess, this trailer explains a little bit more.

 

It’s clearly a YA drama, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that it’s based on a book.

Did they just do what I think they just did?

If you hate dramas about teens then you’re going to hate this. There’s no escaping that. And if you get annoyed at trend-jumping television then you’ll spend the whole time screaming ‘I read The Hunger Games already!’ Honestly, I don’t even know whether I’m going to stick with this one. It has potential to be awesome, or to descend into Lost-meets-the-Vampire-diaries meandering tedium. I have no idea which way it’s going to jump, and that’s part of why I’m still watching.

This show clearly wants to be seen as Lord of the Flies in space. But its commitment to that wavers. There was a shock moment at the end of the first episode that made me grin darkly and rub my hands together as they committed to the concept’s horrifying potential.

Then the second episode pulled back from all of that. Dammit, I thought, they’ve lost it.

Then came the last five minutes of episode three, and another ‘holy cow’ moment that was particularly surprising from American network television (dammit, it’s hard to discuss this without spoiling it).

Based on what’s happened so far I fear bitter disappointment from episode four. But for now at least I’m going to keep watching. Partly because I’m the kind of guy who wants to see Lord of the Flies in space, but more than that, just to see if this show turns into something darkly brilliant or collapses into a compromised mess.

Either way, I’ll get to witness something terrible.

If you’re in the UK you can catch The 100 on 4OD. If you’re elsewhere in the world and have seen it already, does this thing work out?