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Sam Reviews: Hannibal

by on Jul.17, 2013, under Reviews, television

avatarSomething has to be exceptional to end up reviewed on this blog. There are a number of ways to be exceptional, but most of the time I review something either because it’s very, very good or because it’s really, really bad.

Hannibal, the TV series currently showing on Sky Living in the UK, depicts Thomas Harris’s eponymous serial killer during the time prior to Red Dragon, when Jack Crawford was hunting the Chesapeake Ripper.

And it’s very, very good.

Hannibal promo shot

I’ve seen mixed reviews of the series, and I’d not expected to like it. Hannibal Lecter, for me, is one of the great character inventions of modern fiction. He’s a serial killer who isn’t the typical sociopath or psychopath. He’s a man of refined tastes. He eats the rude, and that, for me, is delicious. I disliked what was made of the character in Hannibal Rising — Harris took something monstrously pure and gave it a reason to be. He tried to make Lecter a sympathetic character, someone for whom we should feel pity and understanding.

I think Lecter would have despised him for that. Lecter needed no reason to be. He just was.

Bryan Fuller, who developed the series, has stated that he consciously tried to imagine what David Lynch would do with a Hannibal character. But that doesn’t mean this is Twin Peaks with a more expensive taste in wine and patisserie; this is dark, eerie, intelligent, moody and stylish.

Lecter is portrayed by Mads Mikkelsen (who narrowly pipped David Tennant for the role) with admirable restraint and good-natured, predatory grace. Although initially doubtful, having previously seen him as the unnamed warrior in Valhalla Rising, I was won over within a couple of episodes. His accent is going to make it difficult for him to speak perfect Tuscan when he finally gets his job in Florence, but it’s perfect for this series. He has a poise and presence that make him eminently believable as the psychiatrist whose solution to dodgy flute playing is fine dining.

Will Graham, the FBI profiler with the empathy disorder, is played with beautiful sensitivity by Hugh Dancy — who, it must be said, would make a fine Doctor on the back of this performance. His performance was one of the factors that hooked me in the first episode. Over the course of the series — we’re up to episode 11, with a further 2 to go in this season — his portrayal of deterioration has been believable and moving.

The other cast members also do a good job. Will’s doctor friend, Alan Bloom, for this series has become Alanna Bloom, played with forthright conviction by Caroline Dhavernas. Freddie Lounds, the Tattler reporter who loses his lips to the Tooth Fairy in Red Dragon, is also played by a woman in this version, which should make the reinvention of that scene, when it comes, very interesting indeed.

Best of all is the writing. There is a very strong team here, including (huzzah) a woman writer — Jennifer Shuur. (She might be the only one so far, but that’s one more than Doctor Who, at least.) There is nothing in the storytelling that is wasted. There are no plot elements there purely for the sake of being there. This isn’t one of those series where there’s a different story every week with some meta-arc crowbarred into the plot, punctuated with a Hulk smash double episode just to make sure. Every single element of every episode is related, in some way, to the overall arc. Everything — everything — is about Will and Hannibal, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s not immediately obvious exactly how the relationship is playing out, and yet, once it’s clear, the clues have been there all along. In everything. This is what I call fractal storytelling, and it gives me goosebumps. Exposition, the technique of stating everything explicitly, just to make sure the audience understands, is a strange attractor. Everything weaves and twines around it without ever touching it. I’ve not seen a television series do this comprehensively in a very long time; nor one to place such trust in the intelligence of the audience.

It’s not perfect. I’d be worried if it were. In the last couple of episodes the depiction of real medical conditions has been slightly haphazard and the writers have cherry-picked symptoms to fit the story (a particular bugbear of mine). This is, however, my only complaint to date, and the number of people who will be familiar enough with obscure conditions like Cotard’s and Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis to pick up on where artistic licence has come into play is probably small.

Bryan Fuller has done a fantastic job and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do with the rest of the material.

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Sam doesn’t like Sinbad

by on Aug.26, 2012, under Reviews, television

avatarThis week Frood and I finally gave up on Sinbad, the new fantasy series being broadcast on Sky 1. Halfway through episode 7 we realised we actually couldn’t give a stuff about any of them and so went in search of something else to watch.

I had been looking forward to it despite the cringe-worthy CGI in the trailers. It was made by Impossible Pictures, who brought us Primeval — a series I enjoyed, for the first 2 seasons anyway. The premise seemed decent enough: young man in the prime of youthful folly is cursed by his Grandmother so that he has to spend the rest of his life at sea, hooks up with a bunch of people who are also on the run for one reason or another, adventures ensue.

Let’s face it. It’s basically Blake’s 7 meets Prince of Persia.

The programme starts off with Sinbad (Elliot Knight) —who wears as much eyeliner as a Sisters of Mercy fan for no reason that has been made clear— in a bare-knuckle fist-fight with another young man. It’s the sort of competition-fighting-for-money used as shorthand for “can handle himself and is a bit bad and dangerous” in numerous other works. In this instance, like so many others, the need for the star to have beautiful bone structure and saucy sex appeal means that he doesn’t get to suffer the usual thickening of facial features and scarring concomitant with the sport.

His opponent dies, in a manner suggestive of evil machinations and political intrigue. Said opponent then turns out to be the son of local bigwig Lord Akbari (Naveen Andrews), of course, who promptly goes completely ballistic and kills Sinbad’s brother in revenge. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT ALWAYS HAPPENS. Sinbad escapes from jail and returns to his Grandmother, who, upon finding out what he has done, curses him so that he cannot spend more than a cycle of the sun on dry land hereinafter. AS YOU DO. Meanwhile Akbari is still frothing at the mouth and insisting that murdering Sinbad’s brother is insufficient payment for the loss of his son, because his son was a high status person and Sinbad’s brother was no better than the dirt under his feet. He employs the evil sorceress Taryn to find Sinbad for the purposes of torture and death. AGAIN, THE OBVIOUS RESPONSE.

It took me a while to work out how they managed to make something so ridiculously melodramatic so dull, and it comes down to the characters.

Take a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey trip back to the 80s and consider the aforementioned Blake’s 7. Stripped to the fundamentals, the premise was pretty much the same. A ragtag bunch of people on the run find themselves a ship, form an unlikely crew and head off to have adventures while pursued by a powerful entity. The effects were terrible, the budget next to nothing, and it was absolutely brilliant. The characters had depth and vitality, and were played by the actors in a way that made them believable. The plots were there to serve the characters and give them a stage in which to express: never were the characters shoe-horned into some implausible behaviour because it made the plot work. Avon’s constant deadpan snark didn’t let up for a minute, whether he was having an argument with Orac, insulting Villa or flirting with Servalan. Villa was never forced to turn heroic (although he was occasionally the hero) in order to give him a more palatable character.

Servalan had depth, character, motivation and was both admirable and admired.

Sinbad, on the other hand, introduced us to Sirens, Death, tattooed ladies, a magic gambling den, CGI monsters and black magic chicken sacrifices, but by the end of episode 6 had failed to explain why Taryn was such evil bitch. There was nothing to explain why Sinbad’s grandmother would take the frankly bizarre step of forcing her only surviving grandson to risk dying a painful, horrible death every day — especially considering that he didn’t have access to a boat when she cursed him. Cook was still little more than a fat, bald bloke obsessed with spices who occasionally dispensed nuggets of wisdom in the manner of a fortune cookie. The nerd was still a nerd, and a hopelessly naive one at that.

The different way the story handled male and female characters made me faintly uncomfortable. All of them had something awful in their past which informed their current behaviour. The Viking, along with his Viking chums, apparently raped, pillaged and slaughtered in the manner of a badly-researched Berkserker. But he was a changed man, and prepared to give himself up to a gang of warriors for justice if they let him save his friend, so actually all that raping and slaughtering was completely forgiven.

Nala was once promised to Death by her people as a sacrifice, and that left her cold and stand-offish. She turned Death down, even though it might kill her new friends, and she was still cold and stand-offish and, really, didn’t change at all except that somehow that made it rain. Kind of. What?

Rina was a thief, who kept stealing stuff, even to the point of stealing everyone else’s valuables when they needed them most. But she was sold into slavery as a child by her parents, and used that memory to defeat a (female) demon, so everyone liked her after that. She hadn’t changed, it was just that she used her degradation in the service of saving the menfolk, so that made it worthwhile having her around.

And Taryn, arguably the most potent of the female characters. Evil for the sake of evil. Compare with Lord Akbari, whose insane, murderous intent could at least be hand-waved as the effect of extreme grief.

I don’t like Sinbad. There’s this weird, corner-of-the-eye disparity between the handling of the male characters and the female ones, and not in a good or justifiable way. Plus it’s another instance of the plot being the over-riding driver, resulting in characters doing implausible things because the plot requires that they do so.

I think it’s time to buy the Blake’s 7 box set to remind myself of how such a show should be done, before they ruin it with a remake.

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I am a terrible fangirl

by on May.04, 2011, under Reviews, television

avatarOff work sick with a severe chest complaint that this morning has seen the doctor put me on Hulkinator medication and yet another course of antibiotics1. So, apart from doing a bit more research and coming up with a whole new line of plot to explore for the Russian piece (working title Winter’s Weeping) and fiddling about a bit with ideas for the fixed-gear zombie utopian near-future piece (Carmageddon? And yes, I did say utopian, if only because cycling on the M4 around Bristol has been a long-standing fantasy of mine), I’ve been pondering the last two episodes of Doctor Who.

I’m a fan. I’m not a Whovian, because my credentials extend only as far as owning the box sets for Eccleston onwards and watching certain episodes of Tennant’s run when I’m in serious need of cheering up. I haven’t read or listened to any of the extended universe (with the exception of the Minister of Chance) and have no desire to buy any of the classic titles with Tom Baker or the rest. Well. Maybe the Romana episodes, but only Romana 1. I admit that I own a copy of the terrible movie, number 8’s only TV outing, poor chap, and have a better than average grasp on how the Time War is supposed to have affected his mental state in the ensuing generations (and then only because the average person couldn’t give a stuff). But that’s as far as it goes. Seriously.

That makes me a bad fan. I’m pretty bad at being a fan in general. I’m a bad Marvel fan, too.

Why am I a bad fan? Well, as far as I can tell, the job of a fan is to squee relentlessly about how awesome something is and find excuses for any and all flaws (cough Liev Schreiber cough the hair cough what they did to Deadpool cough NO I HAVEN’T FORGIVEN THEM coughcoughcoughcoughcough). A fan is not supposed to hold up a creator’s offering and judge it with a critical eye. One is supposed to celebrate the NEW and EXCITING style and the INNOVATIVE use of VISUALS and HIGH DRAMA.

David Tennant got me interested in the New Who. It was his fault. Tennant’s Who was brilliant, genius, dappy, occasionally unpredictable, deeply flawed and carrying a deep, desperate sadness inside him because he knew where the bottom line was and knew what it was like to stand there and hold fast despite everything in the universe wanting nothing more than him to give up and give in. Where Number 9 was still on the rebound from the Time War, Number 10 had come to grips with the awfulness of what had happened and the things he had done. He wanted to be better than that while still knowing, somewhere, that he was already the best because there was no one else.

He was that kind of man.

I was sad when Tennant left, but Matt Smith’s entrance showed promise and it was Stephen “Blink” Moffat who was taking over. Stephen “I wrote all the really good ones” Moffat. I mean, it couldn’t not be good, right?

And yet, by the time I’d got to the end of the series and was gnashing my teeth over the Bill & Ted ending (acausal loops being a particular bugbear of mine), the complaints regarding Russell T Davies’s tendency towards the Doctor = magic/God/Messiah were looking unfair, to say the least. RTD’s Doctor had limitations. Even at the end, in Waters Of Mars, when he did get a bit God-complexy, the humans turned round and demonstrated that he was really being monstrous and that limitations on power are a good thing. Doctor Ten said “Time can be rewritten” and did so. But the people who needed to die still died.

Doctor Eleven said “Fezes are cool” and handed plastic Rory the sonic screwdriver that would release him from the Pandorica, because plastic Rory had used the sonic screwdriver to release him from the Pandorica. And that’s not magic/Godlike? Where are the limitations if time can be rewritten and all he has to do is decide to do something in the future so that something in the past can make that future possible?

Don’t get me started on the Christmas Special. Jumping the shark is so boring, like the blue stabilisers. Let’s take the shark for a ride instead. And, while we’re at it, change the thought patterns of someone in a way that renders the events leading up to the episode unlikely at best.

Gnash, gnarr, gnash.

Thus we come to the new series, so hotly anticipated it achieved the highest ratings of any BBC America show ever, and set the fandom abuzz with effervescent praise:

…the credits roll and a nation is left yelling at the screen in shock and awe.

http://www.cultbox.co.uk/reviews/episodes/969-doctor-who-day-of-the-moon-review

Really. Personally I was left with the sour taste of disappointment and the feeling that I’d been watching some sort of alternate-universe Doctor: Ultimate Doctor Who as opposed to Earth-616 Doctor Who.

Back in Forest of the Dead River Song had this to say:

When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it will never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever. Everybody knows that everybody dies. And nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever, for one moment accepts it.

Apart from a short bit of preamble, The Impossible Astronaut kicks off with the Doctor saying that it’s time to stop running then, not to put too fine a point to it, wandering over to an ambulatory spacesuit and getting himself (apparently) shot to death.

So. Here we are. We have begun with the impossible. We know that the Doctor isn’t dead. For one, this is the start of the new season and it’s called “Doctor Who”. I know they carried on Taggart after Taggart died, but still. It wasn’t terribly successful. There are also the Singing Towers at Derillium to consider. The Doctor sees River there — it’s the last time she sees him before the Library — and gives her the red sonic screwdriver. That was “her” Doctor. Fairly late in his timestream, almost at the end of hers (we’ll come back to that). Older, wiser, someone who has made entire armies turn back (and I don’t think she was referring to the night at Stonehenge). I don’t care that they’ve burned the body. Moffat might have once suggested that Matt Smith’s Doctor will never regenerate again but I doubt that one writer or actor can claim to own a character like the Doctor in that way. We could argue that Easter Island, Jim the Fish and the visit to the Singing Towers come before the invitations to the Impossible Astronaut Picnic. Just because Derillium was the last time River saw the Doctor before the Library, it doesn’t mean that was the last time the Doctor saw River. But still, Taggart Law applies. He’s not dead. It’s only episode one.

Then the Doctor reappears (bazinga), 200 years younger, calm as you please and for some reason is reluctant to go adventuring until Amelia Pond persuades him with fish fingers and custard. When has he ever been reluctant to go adventuring? Remember the episode in which he met Martha Jones in hospital? There they are, on the moon, contemplating going outside for a wee look.

“We might die,” says the Doctor.

“We might not,” says Martha. Big grins all round, she’s a girl after his own heart and has earned a space in the TARDIS.

Oh and the instruction to Amy and Rory to go off and make babies… ENOUGH WITH THE PREGNANCIES ALREADY. Seriously. What is it with Moffat and the idea that women should be, or be about to be, or have been not too long ago, pregnant? It reminds me of Absolutely’s Mr Nice relaying the facts of life to his children (scroll to 16’53):

“People get married and have babies. Any questions?”

The Doctor, under the written supervision of Mr Moffat, appears to be utterly obsessed with humans having babies. River Song gets kids after being uploaded to the library. In The Lodger the Doctor advises Craig and Sophie how many billions of people there are in the world and tells them that’s the number to beat.

It is possible to be successful, happy and fulfilled as a female without having produced more humans. Not having children is a valid choice and it bugs me that Moffat is giving the message that the natural and inevitable and desirable consequence of a woman building a stable heterosexual relationship is pregnancy and motherhood.

Leaving the baby-factory undercurrent aside, hard as it is in this particular double-episode, which is all about making babies, there are the inconsistencies.

I don’t mind confusion. As a matter of fact I enjoy a lack of exposition where that exposition is unnecessary. However, I do not enjoy the feeling of having to go back and rewatch something several times because the failure of things to add up makes me think I’ve missed something, especially when it turns out I haven’t. Here are a couple, although there were more, and I’m not going to start on the last series.

The Doctor asks Rory if he remembers the 2000 years of looking after Amy in the Pandorica. Rory says yes. How does that work? They restarted the universe. The universe that exists now isn’t that one because it has Amy’s parents in it, for a start. Rory is no longer a Nestene duplicate, so how could he remember? He wasn’t there. And if he was there, is he still plastic?

When Amy is at the children’s home, why does she resort to putting the black marks on her skin even though she (apparently) still has the implant (which, by the way, was enormous and would have bloody hurt, not to mention rendered the hand practically unusable)? Let’s, for a moment, consider that between first telling herself to get out and seeing herself with black marks, she has been sucked away in the time machine first seen in The Lodger and no longer has the implant. Why then, is it found on the floor in the room from which she is ultimately kidnapped rather than the room with the Greys hanging from the ceiling? That loose end had better be tidied up at some point, and not by destroying the universe again.

Has the Doctor ever been the sort of person who would blithely give the whole of the human race a post-hypnotic suggestion to commit genocide? Because that’s what he does, and I’m not accepting the argument that it was the Silents (or Silence, I’ve seen it spelled both ways) that did it to themselves: without his intervention the message would not have been distributed. He was also just a little bit too gung-ho happy in the final shoot-out too. This is Doctor Who, not Gunfight at the OK Corral.

And, assuming that this worked, by Moffat’s own rules Amy and Rory should already have been programmed to respond to the sight of one of the aliens by killing them because they were both born long after 1969.

River’s assertions that they are living their lives back to front doesn’t add up either, not when you take the Singing Towers at Derillium into account. Are we really supposed to believe that the time the Doctor gives her the red sonic screwdriver, knowing she is going to her death, as old as he is then; that the day he cries over her he doesn’t kiss her? She doesn’t get a kiss from her “old fellah” on the last time she sees him before she goes to the place where she will die? He was all up for a quick snog from Madame de Pompadour but he’s not going to give Professor River Song a farewell kiss because the next time she sees him he won’t know her?

Funny thing is, this means you’ve always known how I was going to die. All the time we’ve been together you knew I was coming here. The last time I saw you —the real you, the future you, I mean— you turned up on my doorstep with a new haircut and a suit. You took me to Derillium. To see the Singing Towers. Oh, what a night that was. The towers sang, and you cried. You wouldn’t tell me why but I suppose you knew it was time. My time. Time to come to the Library. You even gave me your screwdriver.

And, even assuming, for the sake of argument, we look at this from only her perspective, because she hasn’t been to Derillium yet, this still doesn’t make sense because she’s just seen the Doctor when he’s 200 years older than the one she saw the time before. The evidence is already there that:

We’re travelling in opposite directions. Every time we meet I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days when I see him. But I know that every time I do he’ll be one step further away.

isn’t necessarily true. As an experienced time traveller, who knows that it’s possible to go forwards and backwards, she should know this.

The deliberate use of “dropped from the sky” by both River and Amy in order to confuse Rory was lazy writing. Yes it’s just a saying. But while it’s one that could be used of a man who arrives unexpectedly in a blue, time-travelling spaceship, it’s not likely to be used of someone with whom one has grown up in the same small village. The idea of Amy describing Rory, the boy from her village, as dropping from the sky is utterly implausible and done purely to make Rory and us think that maybe it’s the Doctor she loves after all. That’s blatant manipulation purely for the purposes of dramatic effect and the audience deserves better. We’ve had an entire episode devoted to which of the two Amy loves that way: it has been resolved. Move on.

It may well be that confusion is the new black and actually everyone is very happy to be left with far more questions than answers. It’s fair enough that people like the feeling of not having exposition laid on with a trowel and everything tied up neatly. Maybe they prefer the big special effects and the bangs and the gun battles and the melodrama. Perhaps what I see as being mashed together so that the joins are still visible is really a brave move in not pandering to audience expectation.

And yet I can’t help but feel like I did when they remade The Italian Job — the original was tight, witty, sharp, poignant, even camp. It was genteel. It had a mellow kind of joyful exuberance:

“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

The new one was slick, polished, modern and had big bangs that were celebrated as opposed to being cause for exasperation:

Charlie Croker: That’s Left Ear. Demolition and explosives. When he was ten, he put one too many M-80s in the toilet bowl.
[Cuts to the exterior of a toilet stall. Suddenly the door bursts open from an explosion. The toilet is spraying a fountain of water up]
Kid On Left: Damn, that was cool. How did you do that?

I am afraid that the new Doctor Who might be falling into the pattern of characters conforming to plot, like so many things I used to enjoy. In this case the plot is brighter, bolder, BIGGER and more WHIZZ-BANG EXCITING with LOTS OF HECTIC ACTION and THINGS GOING ON. Have we forgotten that it’s possible to do lots and lots of running without it ever tipping over the edge into frenetic?

I really hope not.

~>0<~

1: According to various sources there are between 1 and ~4kg of bacteria in the human body. Given that I’ve been on antibiotics of one sort or another for around 2 weeks now, you’d think I’d have lost some weight. But no. Dammit.
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Misfits of Science

by on Feb.11, 2011, under Reviews, television

avatarOutcasts is the BBC’s new flagship science fiction drama for the adult audience (I am assuming that Doctor Who remains the flag-bearer for science fiction in general). It follows the various stories of a group of people who are settlers on the planet Carpathia, after some so-far unspecified calamity on Earth made it necessary to evacuate. At the time the series starts the main characters have been there for ten years and the only known surviving transport ship is about to try to land on the surface, bringing with it the last influx of fresh blood the settlers are ever going to see. After this, they are on their own.

Outcasts

Carpathia is an Earth-like planet, named after the ship that came to the rescue after the Titanic disaster. No attempt has been made to make the setting seem alien, other than something called a “white-out”, in which presumably tidal forces from the planet’s moon cause what would appear to be a dust storm on steroids. They say it’s something to do with the moon, anyway. In the two episodes so far we have had bad science (aforementioned white-outs and something called deep brain visualisation, in which the subject sits in a special chair and his memories can be seen on the big screen) and good science (an excellent scene in which the teacher was describing the Goldilocks Zone to a class of children). It is therefore not what I would call hard science fiction, as it is the sort of science fiction I can demolish with two diagrams and a joke. A lack of hard science isn’t necessarily a negative criticism, I like soft science fiction as much (and occasionally more than) the next person. However I dislike science fiction that presents itself as hard and then widdles all over itself with hand-waving and dodgy research, not to mention something I saw done in Until the End of the World.

As far as main characters go, I was delighted to see very strong females in the early sections of the first episode. One of the reasons I like science fiction so much is that it has a track record of strong female characters. One of my earliest introductions to strong women was Dayna from Blake’s 7 — an assertive, competent, highly-skilled warrior who took no nonsense from anyone (and whose attractiveness usually took a back seat to the fact that she kicked arse).

Stella Isen, played with usual competency by Hermione Norris, is the Head of Security. Fleur Morgan (Amy Manson) is one of her officers. Both started out well, but Stella’s role quickly became that of the obsessed mother, while Fleur’s maternal instincts were also called upon before the first episode was halfway done when her best friend’s husband went a bit nuts, beat his police officer wife mostly to death, then took off into the wilderness with his son.

At which point my face did this:

WAT

So we’ve passed the Bechdel test early and now we’re going to ignore the whole bucking of the gender-bias trend and relax into the girls like babies and boys like guns model. I see.

By episode two the writer, Ben Richards, has made his premise for the series not only perfectly clear by way of storytelling, but also explicit in the dialogue: can humans truly live together in peace? Outcasts is a social pressure-cooker: the problem with it isn’t that this is a bad idea, but that Richards has come to it with the answer already and has arranged everything so that the story can’t fail to produce that answer.

The divisions of labour between the various sub-groups are artificial, counter-productive, and I can’t for the life of me imagine any settlement group on a distant planet trying to work that way. The method of introduction for the various plot points feels like shoehorning them in to serve the underlying premise, rather than things that might have happened and the consequences that ensued. While I enjoy the fact that there is little in the way of unnecessary exposition, I cannot get past the idea that the structure of the society there is implausible and thus everything that happens is difficult to believe on principle.

This is, in short, one of my pet hates: plot driving character, and in this case it extends to the very nature of the community. The desired conflict will not happen without imposing certain conflicts that come across as terribly unlikely with a few moments of thought about how people would actually behave in such an environment.

It is drama. That it takes place on a different planet is simply a device. Even the use of genetic modification is there to define an us-and-them conflict. They could have done the same by punting the characters a couple of hundred years back in time, sticking them somewhere remote and picking some arbitrary differentiation.

So, yes. The only thing that defines this as science fiction is that there are women doing what is usually thought of as a man’s job. It amuses me immensely that writers still find the inclusion of women who are taking on roles traditionally performed by men to be an easy way of saying “LOOK. THIS AM BE THE FYOOOOOTYOOOOOR! IN SPACE!”

But it’s also somewhat tragic.

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It’s as bad as goblins in the wardrobe

by on Dec.06, 2010, under Life with Frood, Planet Sam

avatarNow, see, I know I’m not the only person to find the Bird’s Eye Polar Bear adverts creepy. I know this for a fact. Other people find him creepy too. The great divide seems to be whether or not we like him.

Short answer: I don’t.

It’s bad enough that there’s this passive-aggressive, snarky mammal in the freezer that in real life would be ten times my size with feet the size of bicycle wheels, teeth designed for ripping seals apart and a tendency to chomp first, ponder prey-appropriateness later. Bad enough that he’s voiced by an actor I best remember going off his head in Platoon. I mean, is that why he can’t tell whether it’s a pea or a cannonball? Because he’s still having flashbacks?

He tries to tell you what to eat! A polar bear! Who lives in the freezer! And somehow can survive the lack of air and general scarcity of seals in the average British domestic household!

Then I realised. He’s trapped in there, talking to himself, going batshit crazy like Adrian Brody in The Jacket. Playing with the switch that makes the light go on and off until the bulb blows; or fapping into the bags of vegetables while trying to drink himself to death on ice-cold vodka. The only interruption in his interminable life of tedium, imprisoned in the dark with the tupperware boxes filled with solidified leftovers and the peas that escaped from the bag to grow wrinkled and grey in the hoarfrost, is when someone opens the door.

He’s deranged. Anyone would be after being stuck in there. There is no one who could possibly survive that sort of environment mentally intact. But these people, coming to the door, letting in a brief glimpse of daylight and a warmer world of colour and sun… He has to be careful. He can’t scare them off. They might not come back. He has to be nice, friendly, helpful.

There’s nothing quite so creepy as a deranged predator trying to be nice, especially when the mask slips and the simmering rage and hatred sneaks out in the form of sharpened sarcasm:

“Hey, Laura. You know, I love preparing chicken.”

“Really?”

“No, Laura, nobody does.”

“I’m feeling a little neglected… And Clive? Don’t be a stranger.”

I swear the subtext to that reads: “Because if you are, next time you open this door you might just find that I gut you like a pig.”

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I bet River Song would prefer Campag

by on Nov.30, 2010, under Cycling, Rant

avatarI’ve been watching Doctor Who on DVD lately, and at the weekend I saw the Forest of the Dead. I expect I’m the only one who felt the episode utterly failed right at the end because the amazing River Song — adventuress, criminal, Mrs Doctor — finishes her existence as mum to three children who will never grow up: the eternal mother.

It is possible to have a career and have kids, although by no means easy, but not every woman wants that, and River Song never struck me as the sort of person who, with an entire virtual reality at her fingertips, would settle for a life of taking the kids to the park and reading them bedtime stories; and it bothers me even more that this was in a programme ostensibly for children. I hate the idea that little girls are being told that you can have your career as an archaeologist and run around adventuring, but at the end of the day what will keep you happy is looking after children, even though they can’t possibly have been made with the man you love (what with him still being alive and out in the real world).

Kids aren’t stupid. They absorb these messages.

There seems to be an idea, somewhere in cultural consciousness, that what women really want to do is stay at home and make babies; not get all oily and discuss gear ratios or whether Batman is more of a psycho than Rorschach. We want to have babies and ultimately we’re only interested in and good for things that are in some way related to the making of and caring for babies. And that hopelessly outdated idea is being perpetuated by happy endings that involve a bedtime story and a goodnight kiss.

I suppose this is also what bothers me about the way those who want to encourage girls onto bikes go about it. There appears to be a de facto assumption that girls aren’t interested in bikes. It is related, I think, to the de facto assumption that women can’t write horror or science-fiction, or don’t like playing games like Bioshock.

I wrote the following piece about the love of bicycles back in 2004 — 6 years ago, FFS. I think it bears saying again, because I still feel the same way.

It was when I caught myself talking to it that I thought things had gone too far. This was not a case of a friendly word of encouragement when trying to break top speed on the long descent on the way to work, or a muttered epithet on the steep climb up past three-fingered Pete, the lollipop man. I was sitting on the toilet at the time – we have a toilet downstairs, in a cubby hole attached to what was once a utility room before we moved in. Now it’s where they live: four of them now. There are more in the shed and another one has even claimed a space in our marital bedroom.

I’m not entirely sure how this happened, how these things came to be such a huge part of our lives. They all have names, even the ones that don’t belong to me (in case you thought it was just me being anthropomorphic), and they all have character. Ivanhoe is my spouse’s indefatigable Dawes Galaxy. Then there is Andy’s Cannondale Bad Boy: a long-suffering, Marvin the Paranoid Android type that resolutely goes by the name of Dave. Fingal is my Orbit Harrier, with a tone reminiscent of Noel Coward and a jealous streak. Max is the Specialized Hard Rock I bought for dismal winter commuting and towing the Bob Yak. He’s a real trooper and has a penchant for fast, slippy descents on the tracks and lanes they laughingly call ‘roads’ round here. Peregrine is the relatively new Pinarello Galileo I bought for no other reason than to cheer myself up, currently only 3 months old and still as excitable as a puppy. The other half has recently bought a Giant Terrago, second hand, and they haven’t developed enough of a relationship yet for us to find out what it’s called.

Out in the shed are the relegations, including Percival the Raleigh Dynatech XC80 – my first proper bike – and Vercingetorix the generic mountain bike never really designed for off-road. All the bikes in the shed are somewhat sad and slightly reproving and we keep meaning to find good homes for them.

It’s a bit mad, really. Even so, we know that if Andy tries to do any maintenance on Fingal it will go badly because Fingal is a one-woman bike, a bit like a border collie, and doesn’t like to be touched by anyone other than me unless it’s a paid professional and I have a good excuse. Max, on the other hand, enjoys being fussed over by just about anybody, Ivanhoe is apparently above such things and Dave is stoic in his sense of being neglected. They have an entire room in our small house dedicated to them.

I spend a large part of my time campaigning for my and other people’s rights to take them and their kin on the road. I can now tell what size allen key I need at a glance and I can overhaul a set of Ergopowers. It wasn’t like this four years ago. Four years ago I couldn’t even spell Campagnolo, never mind be in a position to admit to taking their side in the pseudo-religious Shimano vs Campag debate. Four years ago I had trouble getting a front mech to shift properly. Now I can build my own wheels.

We seem not to be the only ones to have been sucked into a love affair with these human-powered works of art. Go to any internet-based cycling forum and you will find people waxing lyrical about their ‘babies’ and spending what might seem like a ridiculous amount of money on something that is, to the outsider, really no more than some metal tubes, wheels, cogs and levers. They share photographs of them with each other as if they were snapshots of their children. It is usual for them to refer to their machines by, if not a name, then at least by make and model.

Frankly I think it’s bloody marvellous. More of it, I say. More people should have Pinarellos in the bedroom or Mercians sitting in the hall. It should be perfectly normal to possess a Giant that practically wags its tail when its owner is within view. These things aren’t toys: they are noble steeds, carrying us through no matter the weather. They are beloved companions, accompanying us to far off places made all the more memorable by the true appreciation of the tea and cake that help weary muscles recover for the next leg. This isn’t about having shaved legs and wearing lycra, or being able to relate tales of broken bones gained falling on a technical single track. The famous Mr Armstrong said “It’s not about the bike,” and I suppose he was right, in some ways for some people. In many ways he was very wrong.

The humble bicycle and its cousins are not just for the racing elite. They bring freedom and joy to a great many. While a shiny new car may cruise at seventy miles an hour, if it breaks down it can cause a considerable hole in the bank account. A bicycle can be maintained by almost anyone for little cost. The fuel that propels a combustion-engined vehicle has a price greater than a dent in the wallet: the human powered vehicle is an excuse to eat cake. A car may eat up the miles but the bicycle provides a direct experience of the landscape. Those aren’t just pretty postcards seen behind a pane of glass. They are ascents, descents, swooping curves and pock-marked tarmac. Mountains are not defined by a crawler lane but by the sense of achievement on reaching the summit. A bicycle doesn’t take you to motorway service stations and multi-storey car parks. A bicycle doesn’t trap you in a traffic jam, listening to endless traffic reports and slowly cooking in your own juices. A bicycle isn’t something that carries you around: it’s one half of a team, and you are the other half.

So maybe it’s not surprising that so many have such a fond attachment to their bicycles. Maybe it’s not so surprising that all of ours have names, and characters that reflect the experience of the human half of the team. Having shared with him the moment of metabolic crash at 2am and the exquisite joy of the sunrise 2 hours later on a 125 mile night ride that was just one of our many adventures, perhaps it’s allowable for me to feel attached enough to my Harrier to talk to him while sitting in their en suite.

Fingal’s indexing is playing up again. It’s just jealousy over the Pinarello. I’m sure he’ll get over it soon.

We’ve moved, of course. We no longer live in a small house somewhere between Exeter and Dartmoor, where the downstairs toilet had a Park Tools TP2 toilet paper holder (I still have it, but there’s nowhere to put it at present). This piece is four machines out of date. Ivanhoe has gone to a new home — Frood rides a Revolution Cross called Spartacus these days — and I have acquired some additional steeds. I don’t campaign so much, having become disillusioned with the general acceptance that bike paths are the way to go, but how I feel about bikes hasn’t changed. We even had one in the marital bedroom to make space for the guests over the weekend.

Women ride bikes for exactly the same reasons as men. There are men who treat bikes as training tools and those who treat them as a means to get to work without having to worry about parking charges; there are men who worry about climate change and doing their bit by leaving the car at home; and there are men who just love bikes.

I’m a woman. I don’t worry about helmet hair or what the latest fashion is. I don’t worry about which lipstick will complement my skin tone and prevent the wind chapping my lips. I don’t worry about these things because my default mode of being is not one that worries about attracting a man in order to make babies.

I ride my bike because I love bikes. I love the freedom, the sense of exertion, the feeling of raw power. I like the sense of accomplishment and independence that comes from the knowledge that no matter what breaks I can fix it. I drool over a Campag chainset as much as the next person and I had to resist the urge to lick my Planet X Stealth when I got her home.

If River Song was a cyclist I suspect she could build her own wheels and would know to expect trouble from one machine on bringing a new one home. She’d be traffic-jamming with the best and she’d have an opinion about the best gear ratios and tyres for fixed gear riding in the snow.

I don’t think that women need anything special to encourage them onto bikes, or to write horror, or to play the sorts of computer games that are traditionally thought of as being for boys. They just need people to stop telling them that the one thing in life that will ultimately make them feel fulfilled and happy, no matter what else is available, is caring for babies.

Get told something often enough and it’s damn hard not to start believing it.

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It’s not the road, idiot

by on Nov.09, 2010, under Planet Sam, Rant

avatarHere’s another advert that is aimed at a market to which I definitely do not belong. It’s the Michelin Sad Road commerical:

“Once there was a sad stretch of road where drivers just couldn’t stop in time. But along came the Michelin Man, who reminded them that the right tyre changes everything. With the right tyres in place that sad stretch of road wasn’t so sad any more. Michelin Hydroedge tyres stop up to 14 feet shorter.

Michelin, a better way forward.”

This makes me so angry that I honestly have to step away from the keyboard for a couple of seconds to compose myself before launching into what is wrong with this. I mean, to me it’s so bloody OBVIOUS what’s wrong with this that blogging about it is pointless. It’s worse than pointless. It’s bringing additional attention to a manufacturer that should be ashamed of itself for spouting forth complete nonsense.

A good driver will always control the speed of his vehicle such that he can stop in the distance he can see to be clear. It’s not the road’s fault the driver can’t stop in time to avoid running over the cute fluffy animals, it’s the DRIVER’S fault.

British wildlife suffers severe casualties every year. The Mammal Society estimates British annual road casualties account for 100,000 foxes, 100,000 hedgehogs, 50,000 badgers and 30,000-50,000 deer. That’s bad enough. Stick the 3500-odd human KSIs on top of that and you realise that there is carnage going on out there on the roads. Telling drivers they have 14′ more leeway isn’t going to prevent any of those deaths or serious injuries. Michelin isn’t contributing to road safety by saying it’s the fault of the infrastructure and drivers just need to buy their tyres: that’s not merely disingenuous, it’s immoral.

Do I even need to point out that the 14 feet claim is entirely dependent on what speed the car is travelling in the first place? Plus, they tested versus a Goodyear and we have to take Michelin’s word on that being the leading competitor.

Roads aren’t dangerous. Or sad. They are just roads. Take the cars away and there’s nothing dangerous about a road unless it has a live volcano underneath or a tendency to subside randomly and drop the unsuspecting traveller into a pit full of angry piranha. The answer to not being able to stop in time is to drive appropriately for the conditions, not buy different tyres.

Take the cute animated animals away and replace them with live children. How appropriate does that driving seem now?

What this advert is actually telling drivers is the following:

Once there was a stretch of road that all the Clarkson-worshippers thought was ideal for driving along pretending to be that German burd who is so great round the Nürburgring. It had some blind corners and S-bends and the surface wasn’t so great but there weren’t any speed cameras and the police didn’t go there much. There were lots of cute fluffy animals and they had a tendency to wind up flat, squidgy, stinky, entraily pancakes on the tarmac, but who cares about squirrels and bunny rabbits when there’s 500bhp under the bonnet and Golden Earring on the stereo? Then one day the Michelin Man came along and whispered that maybe the next time someone was doing 60mph around a corner with the traction control off it wouldn’t be a rabbit but a stonking great deer with a pair of antlers the size of that rocket car that nearly killed Hamster Hammond, or even a BEAR. But it would be okay if they fitted these special tyres because they’d take a whole 14′ less to stop. That’s a bit more than two Michael Schumachers! No danger of totalling their precious Audi then!

Michelin, giving drivers even more of an excuse to behave like inconsiderate morons.

What drivers SHOULD be told is:

IF YOU CAN’T STOP IN TIME THEN STOP DRIVING LIKE A TOTAL TWUNTSPUD, ARSEHOLE!

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Planet Sam

by on Oct.30, 2010, under Miscellany, Planet Sam, Rant

avatarI’m known to friends for my somewhat literal approach to advertisements. The commercial breaks in TV shows are more likely to provoke a furious reaction than the programme they interrupt. Here on Planet Sam, advertisements are a confusing brantub of mixed messages, inappropriate metaphor and plotlines that evidently haven’t been thought through properly.

I mean, really. Would you buy a stop smoking product that causes you to hallucinate giant cigarettes to the point of attacking them with a frozen chicken? Would you really want to buy a pair of running shoes that came with live scorpions inside?

So here’s my new project. TV ads as seen from Planet Sam, or Why I’m not the target market.

I’m going to start with one that is straightforward rant fodder. The Dulux Paintpod Compact Let’s Colour Campaign.

I shouldn’t have to point out how stupid this is as a piece of 21st century advertising. Mattel has a Barbie campaign that is admirable in telling little girls they can be whatever the hell they want to be, and I actually like the fact that this includes a ballerina. Because the freedom to be a fighter pilot or a policewoman or a surgeon or a bomb disposal expert should never get in the way of those girls who wish to dance.

So what if the baby turned out to be a girl? Is Dulux seriously telling us that their company is so stuck in sexist stereotyping that a failure to predict the sex of an unborn child correctly is a good reason for buying one of their products? A girl can become a footballer. A boy can become a dancer.

Frankly I think both pink and blue are horrible colours for a room, and that’s not just the synaesthesia talking. Blue is too cold a colour, and shading everything like that makes the room smaller and less inviting. The pink room is like being shoved into a vat of rendered animal protein before it’s turned into twizzlers.

What this advert says, on Planet Sam, is that the Dulux Compact Paintpod is the ideal product for those trapped in sexist stereotyping who have the aesthetic taste of an inebriated chicken.

That’s a market to which I can happily claim not to belong.

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