13.7.09

Dollhouse Episode 12

Some notes:

This was by far the most thrilling episode of the show so far. A crazy ride. A lot of this was down to Tudyk being absolutely terrifying. Is there anything that dude can't do?

Why have your own identity when you could be superman? The answer is tentatively suggested by Ballard -- no matter how many personalities you are imprinted with, your essence remains the same. Alpha was a psycho before the Dollhouse screwed him up. And a psycho he remains. Caroline, before being corralled into the Dollhouse, wanted to discover what she wanted to do -- who she wanted to be. Also, she had a badass attitude when it came to authority. Echo retains these impulses. She doesn't want to be a superman. She just wants to be herself.

Ballard, perhaps embarrassed by the fixation with Echo he shares with Alpha, decides to free November instead. He puts his fantasy to one side, and helps the Active he has hurt the most. That's what makes him a hero. But WTF? Why has he signed on to work for the Dollhouse? This needs a lot of explanation. I'm looking at you, episode 13.

When in doubt, put Amy Acker in danger. Never fails to freak you right out. She is amazing. But we all knew that already.

Maybe I haven't said this enough through the series, but Eliza Dushku is doing a fine job. In these last episodes, she doesn't misfire once. And when those hero shots come along, it's not too hard to think: yeah, in a couple of years, and if the show survives... icon. Maybe even one to rival Buffy.

Broadcasting will cease for a month, as I am on holiday. Goodbye interwebs...

Dollhouse Episode 11

Some notes:

WHO DAT? Alan mudafuckin Tudyk, that's who! He gives his best Robert Downey Jr. impression this episode, before switching to terrifying psychopath mode. Extraordinary stuff. My personal fave moment. Hey Alan, what do you think about the Dollhouse?
'I mean, don't get me wrong. I heart my porn, but this is coool.'

So Ballard and Alpha are cut from the same cloth. Both want to rescue the princess. The only difference is that Ballard is obsessed with restoring Echo's personality. Alpha just wants to (it appears) live out his fantasy. Neither understand what the Susannah imprint says at the beginning -- the sleeping Briar Rose and her rescuer are the same person. The only one who can really save you is yourself.

Right. Roll on number 12.

12.7.09

Battlestar Galactica

You gotta love it, right? Well...

Just finished season three. Many of my quibbles with the series remain, but lets be positive for once. I wanna talk about what Battlestar does RIGHT.

First, by golly the show is gorgeous! I mean, would you look at just how pretty it is! Pretty! All those shiny spaceships! I'm drooling every time another Zoic studios jewel of a shot comes zooming by. But that's not all. The shaky grainy interior shots! The way the camera acrobats between objects -- whipping, twirling, tracking around, pulling in. It's a dizzying dance that entrances the viewer, hammering home every beat of the story. And it's not just the movement: every shot is colour-timed to perfection. Directors play around with shutter speeds and lenses to construct beautiful frames. And then there's the sets! And the locations! Never has a genre show been put together so masterfully.

My slavering (and slobbering) allegiance to Joss Whedon means I must mention (and alliterate) how Firefly did all of the above first. So a 'nyeah' to you mister Ronald D Moore! But, actually, who cares. The Battlestar team learned well from Firefly's innovations, so kudos to them. Geniuses steal, and all that.

But may I also put to you, friends, that the Galactica is peopled with some damn fine acting talent. I'm not just talking about the sublime Gaius Baltar. Look at how effortlessly Edward James Olmos captures both Adama's authority and tenderness. Look at how Mary McDonnell can switch from steely battle-axe to wan prophet. Watch the way Katee Sackhoff can show every flicker of emotion on her face. And no one can sell drunk angry bastard better than Michael Hogan. Even the actors that usually get a hard time from critics, such as Jamie Bamber and Grace Park, do a fine job according to me (AND I KNOW ALL!). Park has a difficult task having to win over the audience while being sneaky and evil, but she pulls it off. And Bamber (who's British, don't you know) can pull off scorching performances. I just watched his speech at Baltar's trial, and it was electrifying. Yes. Scorching and electrifying. He's like Pyro and Storm, with cheekbones you can shred paper with. And may we not forget the guest stars. Bruce Davison (Robert Kelley in the X-Men film) plays a similar role treating a superstitious minority group in "The Woman King". The entire episode's success rests on his performance, and he delivered in many and various spades. And we must, MUST! not forget Baltar's attorney (Firefly's Badger), who was so ridiculously cool he made me want to do bad things when I'm on my own in my room.

And may I further suggest, ladies and gentlemen. May I stress in the most honest and sincere terms, that it is these fine actors that make Battlestar's writers look so brilliant. Because honestly (HONESTLY!) to these ears, the scrips they are given sound crushingly pedestrian. Perhaps my standards have been set rather high. I'll admit, I've been feasting on a regular diet of Sorkin, Simon and Whedon, and maybe I've become spoiled. Or maybe not. Maybe I just know what brilliant writing is. And friends, Battlestar Galactica is not brilliant writing.

In the nuts-and-bolts area of dialogue and character, the show is too often uninspiring. Scenes are riddled with cliche. Wit is almost non-existent. Lines rely heavily on ponderous meaningful silences. The characters themselves flip-flop drastically between episodes. Consistency, apparently, isn't a virtue when it comes to Galactica officers. In all, it's pretty astonishing how the actors manage to mine such perfect nuggets of humour and pathos out of the poor materials they are given.

But there is more. Good science fiction means an intelligent examination of human society in alien and extraordinary situations. The Battlestar set-up, humans fleeing from genocidal robots, is pregnant with possibility -- to talk about religion, politics, human rights, class war... anything. Battlestar touches on all these concerns, but it touches as lightly as possible. Ideas and allusions are just references, footnotes. They are not explored in any great detail. This was my main bugbear with the New Caprica arc. My expectations were colossal -- a scenario that mirrored the Iraq conflict, but cast the humans as the resistance? Brilliant. And yet as events unfolded I discovered that there was no real point being made. Suicide bombers, peacekeeping efforts, hearts-and-minds, mass shootings. And then we're off. Why couldn't you say something about the conflict, the nature of war, the arrogance of the invaders and the tenacity of the oppressed? Put yourself out there. I want to know what you believe.

Sometimes a position is taken, a debate is stirred up, and even though arguments are usually simplistic, this is where Battlestar works best. I don't mind telling you that when watching the closing scene of "Dirty Hands", an episode detailing an industrial dispute, I teared up. Now I'm no crybaby. (...) To be moved so fundamentally by a piece of television is rare. How did it happen? That episode talked directly about class and oppression, and how vital social mobility is in a society -- to be able to work at who you want to become. It distilled that idea and dramatized it. And I in turn, not only understood it, but felt it -- responded not only intellectually, but emotionally. Viscerally. That is what great art is. And Battlestar is capable of it.

But only when the writers think creatively about the show's set-up. When they ask a question (how is stuff made in the fleet?) and come up with interesting answers. There was too little of this in the standalone, non-Cylon episodes. One thing that should have been dug into deeper was the nebulous relationship between military and elected officials. Where does jurisdiction lie? To what extent can rights be curtailed in the interests of survival? Countless episodes could have been made testing these difficult waters. The writers could have exposed the frightening fragility of democracy, and how all power is at root military power. Roslin and Adama should have been on opposite sides, each respecting the other while fighting their case to the end. Every non-Cylon episode could have been about this conflict. But instead? Roslin and Adama are the best of friends, and may well get romantically involved in the next season. And we in turn get to watch training missions and boxing matches instead.

I've already discussed the limitations of Battlestar's exploration of religion. I only want to add that all the earth-mother talk, mystical visions and divine inspiration is seriously testing my nerves. Religion in science fiction should be tackled sociologically, dammit! I'm getting worried that in the end, the writers will just ask me to swallow all the feng-shui nonsense. Best believe, I won't be happy.

Hell, turns out I can't just talk about what Battlestar gets right. Ye Gods am I a miserable bastard! But it's all done out of love, you see. The show is fracking amazing. But to leave it at that is to be too complacent, for whilst it's beautiful visually and sonically (did I mention sonically?), and the cast is superb, there remains a vast amount of untapped potential. Ask yourselves. Why should we put up with 24 in space, when we could have The West Wing in space? Now wouldn't that be even more fracking amazing?

11.7.09

Torchwood - Children Of Earth

Gotta fess up. I do not 'get' Doctor Who. I know, and me a nerd and everything. Maybe it's because, umm... the show is for seven year olds? That may be it.

But Doctor Who's success means we get a spin-off adult-orientated series called Torchwood. I've not watched the show when it was on BBC3, but I did tune in to this week's big budget mini-series event. And wasn't it great? Quality entertainment, I thought.

And also clever. What got me to watch Children of Earth was listening to creator Russell T Davies talk about it on the radio. Without giving any details away, he said this series had a specific concept behind it -- exploring how we keep far-away humanitarian disasters (such as in Africa) at a distance. He promised that Torchwood would bring an apocalypse to Britain, and in so doing, tear down the illusion that 'we' are any better than 'them'.

Oh really? Well I'll hold you to that, Mr. Davies. And if you do not deliver, I'm gonna rip you to shreds, before singing a long groveling paean to Joss Whedon, the writer you wish you could be. But no. The Whedon ass-licking session will have to be shelved for another time (like, every other note I write). Let's talk about Torchwood.

And let's start with Jack. Or should I say... JACK! (picture jazz hands). John Barrowman is definitely the biggest gay in the village. It's great that we have this all-singing-all-dancing presence at the centre of the show. My only quibble is that Harkness is quite a dark antihero character, and sometimes Barrowman's camp panto energy gets in the way of that. When he's being heroic, he sometimes gets too silly. When he's being dark, he sometimes gets too melodramatic. But enough! He's fabulous. Let's leave him alone.

I actually love the wound-up, nervous Ianto even more. He's got to be the most English Welshman ever. Curt, immaculately dressed, but quite vulnerable all the same. His relationship with Jack is one of the most charming aspects of the show.

And Gwen. She's sweet, isn't she, but she's also kickass. I mean, the double pistol and leather jacket combination? Gotta say, kinda hot. But moving on...

Gwen is the one given the profound existentialist speech in the first episode, which I imagine is Davies summing up the underlying idea behind the entire Doctor Who franchise. There is no God, but look at how marvelous the universe is. Do we really need Him? Great stuff, but mired slightly by the fact that it comes out of nowhere. Very stop, insert speech, play. But it's obviously something close to the writer's heart. I'll sacrifice pacing for that any day.

We get this at the beginning. By the end it's apocalypse. Aliens arrive demanding 10% of the world's children, or they wipe everyone out. The kids will be lobotomized and used to produce some alien recreational drug (bastard aliens!). The show is at it's most brilliant when it contrasts the way humanity reacts to this ultimatum in different contexts. As parents, family members and friends, we are horrified. These personal bonds make us analyze the situation with a personal ethical mindset. But such morality no longer works when it comes to big problems and big solutions. Politics means looking after the common (or majority) interest. The attitude is strictly utilitarian pragmatism. 10% is better than 100%, so we comply. In the end, a more favorable option is uncovered, but that still leaves one family torn apart. The world is saved, so it was 'good' in that respect. But on a human level a most profound evil was committed.

All that was really interesting, but I did feel the show did some of the political stuff a bit simplistically. The idea that the Prime Minister could somehow shirk the responsibility of dealing with the Fourfivesix by giving it to a civil servant is pretty ludicrous. Moreover, the PM was a bit too cowardly, manipulative, villainous. The show needed to say that it was the office, not the man, that makes him act in the way he does. It doesn't matter who's in the chair, they will always do the same thing. By making the PM completely unsympathetic, that important distinction was lost.

Before watching episode 5, I was gonna treat the idea of Torchwood as an adult show with a fair amount of distain. Yeah, 'adult'. If by 'adult' you mean sheltered teens who have never seen a horror film. For the most part, the show is pretty gentle -- edges all filed away. Even the humour was all nice and inoffensive. There was none of the nasty, sarcastic stuff I like. (Hello Warren Ellis).

And then Peter Capaldi had to go and do that. My problems with the PM character meant I had trouble accepting what was going on. This was ridiculous, I kept thinking. But there's no way of not being shocked at what happens. Torchwood isn't all good-humoured down-to-earth charm and silliness. It goes to that dark place.

Davies is still no scratch on Whedon, but this Torchwood show isn't half bad. There are worse ways to spend five hours. I'll definitely be back for the next series.

The Invisibles

Getting through Invisibles trades is tough going. I've often given up in exasperation. These past couple of days I've gritted my teeth and finished the first three. The reason I made the effort is that the writer of the series, Grant Morrison, gets a lot of love from people who's opinion I respect (such as the guys here and here). The weight of critical acclaim obviously means I'm missing something. Or if I wasn't, it was still important for me to nail down what it was about Morrison's writing that I didn't like.

It's not possible to deny that Morrison has superior storytelling gifts. In a single issue you get enough crazy ideas to fill an entire series. His characters, while a little off-the-wall at first, grow to become quite endearing when they are developed. I'm thinking particularly of the Lord Fanny issues, which pretty much made me fall in love with the character. The scene when she picks herself up after surviving unimaginable abuse, and declares herself pure and free is a real euphoric moment. Boy's single issue 'origin' is a less magnificent, but Morrison manages to keep the character interesting despite her rather cliche story. And by the middle of the third trade, you're pretty much ready to accept King Mob as the coolest character in the history of comics.

For Morrison can also do the hero/action thing very well, building up tension and then releasing it in one amazing rush. His 'hero shots' are amazing. Then there is the way he intercuts scenes -- the page always ending on a tasty reveal, before whipping off to another part of the story. He knows how to keep the action pumping and the reader on his toes.

The crew of counter-cultural terrorists at the centre of the story collects together a bunch of strange physical and mental powers. It's an awesome superhero team. The echo of Claremont's X-Men can be detected in the way Morrison writes the relationships between the characters. The creation of family is one of the oldest and most affecting stories you can tell. It's what Joss Whedon's entire career is built on. Morrison does the same, but for me, he just doesn't go far enough for me to stick with his story.

This is where we hit on my problems with The Invisibles. For you see, Grant Morrison is a nutcase. Large sections of the series feel like mental recordings of his various drug trips and dreams. Randomness and free-association are key. The story is a bubbling soup of science and magic, aliens and demons, drag queens and secret agents, packed with literary and pop culture references. It's admirable that Morrison can retain such control over all this self-indulgence, crafting his tripped-out concepts into an overblown exploration of the struggle between chaos and order, anarchy and authoritarianism, inspiration and dullness. Indeed, it could be said that these preoccupations grow out of the tensions in Morrison's creative process. How do you distill all those madcap ideas into a format that is legible to others? How can you put your mind on a page and make it coherent? How do you balance invention with nuts-and-bolts storytelling?

But adding all this weirdness means you get away from the characters and their relationships. 25 issues in and I still don't know anything about Ragged Robin, the team's psychic. Morrison doesn't give me enough time to hang out with the gang and explore the way they act around each other. I need to become part of the team before you can take me on all these crazy random adventures. This is what Whedon (also learning from Claremont) does so well. The ideas he tackles can be just as epic, but through it all he never loses sight of his characters. In fact, the team dynamic is a central aspect of a Whedon product's overall point: family, built on an almost Christian conception of agape love. As hard as I try, I just don't feel part of the Invisibles family. I don't really want to join up and get that blank badge -- become part of the team. I can understand why the series is a masterpiece. But it's not one of my favorite comics. Morrison just doesn't quite do it for me.

10.7.09

Dollhouse Episode 10

Some notes:

Huh. I guess we do still need standalones. After the fever pitch mayhem in last week's episode, we get a subdued country house murder mystery. Okay...

Single most unbelievable line in the series so far: Margaret's grown-up daughter fights back the tears and says, wait for it: "God, I'm so emo." She's not a teenager anymore, team. Totally destroys the moment.

Ballard gets all mean and creepy this episode. You would assume from Battlestar that Penikett can only do knights in shining armour. But no. Look at those nostrils flare, those eyes narrow. Scary stuff.

But Mellie was even more disturbing. The sweet girl next door who we all fell in love with is now playing submissive love slave. Her personality becomes an irrelevance. She's just a piece of meat Ballard can hump whenever he feels like it. It's disgusting, and Ballard is rightly disgusted with himself. That shower don goan wash away what you done, son...

Aww. Isn't Topher cute! He just wants someone to play videogames with! And then maybe have sex with later... No, wait. That's... rape?

Out of nowhere, Boyd gets all philosophical with DeWitt. The Dollhouse allows clients to cheat death, undoing the most fundamental fear humanity is confronted with. This would indeed overturn every ideology our frazzled brains have come up with. But do we really need eternal life? By the end of the episode, Margaret is satisfied with the way she has left her affairs and relationships, and willingly steps into oblivion. It's the best we can all hope for.

But enough distractions. Who's the sleeper agent? Where is Alpha? Will Ballard be able to keep his shirt on for an entire episode? Come on. Let's rev up that engine. I want that finale to be explosive. Will it be? More tomorrow.

9.7.09

Dollhouse Episode 9

Things are gonna speed up, because I wanna finish the series before going on holiday. The DVD will be bought, which will hopefully atone for my resorting to piracy.

Some notes:

Single best line in the series so far, courtesy of Boyd. What is the Dollhouse?
"We're pimps and killers. But in a philanthropic way. Can I go now?"
Genius.

But seriously genius, for Boyd is sarcastically repeating what DeWitt really believes. The Dollhouse is there to service the fantasies of its clients. It makes people happy. She uses the service herself, in order to find comfort away from her demanding job. What she realizes this episode is that her getaway dalliances are delusions, her lover a fake. What is more, her real relationship with Security Man, perhaps her closest confidant, is also destroyed. She can't have fake friends or real ones. So she'll have none at all. She'll go numb -- cold and steely. Even bullets won't stop her. When you work in the dehumanizing business, you become dehumanized yourself.

This was DeWitt's episode, and Olivia Williams kicked all kinds of ass with the role. Good stuff!

So wait. Security Man's on Echo's side? Didn't he want to kill her for being too unpredictable? Didn't he embody patriarchal fears and desires? Yes he does, and he's not on Echo's side. This was just a power-play about control of the Dollhouse, between a corporation and a government security agency. Security Man is under no delusions about using the tech and fucking with people. He just wants control over it. But at the end there comes the faint glimmer of redemption. He stares at Echo and smiles. They are fucking with you, but you're gonna fuck them up back. Everybody gets theirs in the end.

So was he feeding information to Ballard? He couldn't be. His priority (as he says) was to throw him off. One mole has been uncovered, but there's another one lurking. Doctor Lady? She was saying stuff about how the Dollhouse was imperfect. Boyd? Echo couldn't interrogate him, and why is he working there anyway? Toph? Err, that would be a surprise. But then again, so was Security Man. Wait and see, wait and see...

Ballard's scene with November was sensational. Penikett really sold the horror of his discovery. And Laurie was great at switching between two completely different selves. Good stuff!

Last week teased us with Actives becoming self-aware for the first time. I've been waiting for this moment for a long time. But no. The journey towards subjectivity is going to be a slow and torturous process. Echo is just beginning to assert herself. The change is incremental. As it should be. You don't snap out of oppression. There is no epiphany. We're gonna have to be patient.

A lot of shit going down this week. You can feel the temperature rising as we near the finale. Shame the start of the series couldn't work up this kind of hectic pace. Makes you question whether we need standalones in the first place. Hasn't every other genre show around proven that they are unnecessary? Stupid Fox...

Bit delirious after all that. Hope it made sense. I'll be seeing you tomorrow with number 10.

7.7.09

Dollhouse Episode 8

Some notes:

Episode 6 was supposed to bring the noise. Episode 8 definitely brought the noise. This is a step up from what we've seen before. The plot (for the first time this season!) was genuinely gripping. Victor brought the funnies. There was a beautiful scene between him and Sierra. And that shot of Echo leading the Dolls out was amazing -- brimming with hope, only for it to be completely overturned. Tolkien went on and on about the sublime beauty of victory being snatched away from the jaws of defeat. Episode 8 proves that defeat being snatched away from victory can be equally beautiful.

Fuck, man. The enemy is crafty. It gives you the illusion of freedom, only to placate you, while continuing to control your brain. And the good doctor (scars fading) says all this is necessary. If we are let completely loose on the big bad world, we won't survive. Our freedom needs to be curtailed, our minds brainwashed, for our own good. Otherwise we'll just consume each other. Has Tracy Bellomo been reading Leviathan, perhaps?

Television like this is unique. It has a richness like no other action show before it. We were wrong to doubt Dollhouse. Joss Whedon always delivers the goods in the end.

Blink-182

Blink-182 was that band for me. The one where you don't just fall in love with the songs. The one where you fall in love the band itself. Blink-182 are like the Platonic ideal of a pop punk three piece. Two immature, hyperactive teens with guitars yelling knob jokes at each other, one voice piercingly whiny, the other relaxed and playful. They skip and prance around each other like merry jesters, while behind them sits the serene drummer above his giant drum kit, looking like some tattooed punk rock Buddha. He rests cool and aloof before the song begins, but is then transformed into a furious blizzard of flaying arms, head rocking back and forth with the rhythm. The two up front can barely keep up. Each of their songs is played triple time. Two-minute-long bullets of youthful exuberance.

How can you not love these guys? Every summer, when the sun begins to burn through London's grey clouds, Blink-182 jumps back on the playlist. This one will be no different. It isn't even about the quality of the music. I am not besotted enough to fail to appreciate its derivative nature. Let's not forget that Green Day came first, and did that pop punk thing much better. But there's something about Hoppus's earnest and confused lyrics, and something about Delonge's voice, that pulls me into the Blink-182 camp.

I've deleted them from my Last.fm library (yes, I am one of those people) a good while ago, embarrassed at how completely they take over during the summer months. I shall probably have to do the same this summer as well. I have a respectable image to maintain.

Enema of the State and Take Off Your Pants and Jacket are the classic albums. They got more serious on their final (eponymous) effort, which was good, but for the 'feels like summer' vibe you need to go for the first two. They aren't perfect albums, so I've always preferred to collect the best bits in one fantasy uber-album. I call it Peter Pan Complex, after the original name for the song "What's My Name Again?", which the record company changed to avoid confusing idiot children. I think it pretty much captures the appeal of the band in a nutshell.

The basic idea behind the track-listing was to switch between Delonge and Hoppus on lead vocals, so things stay interesting. Apart from that, the a cappella intro of "Reckless Abandon" had to introduce the album. And I felt the devastating "Stay Together For The Kids" and then the subdued "Story Of A Lonely Guy" would be the perfect closing pair. Apart from that, the mix follows the original track-listing pretty closely, partly because songs segue into each other, and partly because those boys knew what they were doing in the first place. Anyway, here it is:

Peter Pan Complex

Side 1
1. Reckless Abandon
2. Every Time I Look For You
3. Mutt
4. Online Songs
5. All The Small Things
6. Man Overboard
7. First Date
8. The Rock Show

Side 2
9. Dumpweed
10. Don't Leave Me
11. Aliens Exist
12. Going Away To College
13. What's My Age Again?
14. Wendy Clear
15. Please Take Me Home
16. Stay Together For The Kids
17. Story Of A Lonely Guy

And because I'm an even crazier fan than you think, I've bothered to collect the out-takes into two dream EPs, which in my Blink-182 fantasy would have been released before the album to bump expectations, so that when it came out it would have gone stratospheric and changed the pop landscape. Ridicule is welcomed. Each EP would feature only one of the two vocalists. In my delusions, I imagined the two would hold a tongue-in-cheek competition in which whoever sells more would be declared the band's official frontman. A PR stunt of some genius, I thought. Anyway, look:

The Delonge EP
1. Anthem Part 2
2. Dysentery Gary
3. Give Me One Good Reason
4. All The Small Things
5. What Went Wrong
6. Anthem

The Hoppus EP
1. Adam's Song
2. The Rock Show
3. Roller Coaster
4. Happy Holidays, You Bastard
5. The Party Song
6. Shut Up

Now I'll leave you alone.

6.7.09

Mercer Finn doesn't think his arguments through properly!

A new Hot-Doll convert (hey Claudia, this ones for you!) conferred frankly embarrassing praise on my post on culture. I cannot bask in the vindication of my own glory in good faith, however, because there is a massive hole in the ideas I splurged. In short, since writing that post, I've modified my opinion on reader-generated news. I had completely failed to grasp the problem of accountability. How do we know what bloggers are saying is true? We still need existing media institutions to verify stories and fund investigative reporting (which requires time and money unavailable to most bloggers). Having a totally free press will severely limit its accuracy, and we will all be the worse for it. So this is me admitting I was wrong. People should not listen to me.

Or at least not all the time. (Please! I'm still important!) On the cultural exchange side of things, I'm still behind most of what I said. Art doesn't need any verification. You don't have to have accurate knowledge of its context to understand it. It just is. So I say keep putting stuff out there! We need to show we can be just as good as those being paid to be cultural producers and arbiters. In fact, we're better in one respect, because our product is free and available to anyone with a computer. That means there's a lot more rubbish around, true, but as I've said before, we have ways of dealing with that. On the whole, a cultural democracy can only lead to more goodies for all. I remain an optimist.

Scarlet Traces

Ahh. Good old British fi-sci. I read War of the Worlds when I was a teen, and finished it to my surprise. All the quaint talk of Martians advancing on Clapham felt a bit silly. But the showdown at the end was terrific. Still, have to say I enjoyed this comic book steampunk sequel by Brit duo Ian Edgington and D'Israeli a whole lot more. It was much prettier, for one.

Why have comic books cornered the market in pulpy speculative fiction? The comic strip is a form. It can tell any and all types of stories. And yet it is most commonly associated with genres featuring the outlandish and the weird -- science fiction, fantasy, horror. This is no accident, I think. Because these tales feature events so removed from our regular experience (zombies, spaceships, castles), describing those worlds is difficult to do with words. In fact, can you even use our language in a context so alien? I remember being really annoyed by how the dragon firework in Lord of the Rings is described as 'passing like an express train'. Hobbits have no knowledge of express trains. That simile takes the reader outside the world they are reading about. You feel like the internal consistency and credibility of the story is undermined.

Telling your tale in a comic strip means you avoid all such problems. The pictures take care of the description. How does Spiderman swing on his webs? I'll show you how he does it. Before computers started making films, illustration and animation were the only ways you could tell these stories easily, using visual information to convey things words cannot describe. Only with the advent of CGI have the tables turned. And this is why we are getting such a rush of superhero, science fiction and fantasy films in our multiplexes. It's not that those stories are particularly relevant to our times (they always were). It's just that they are now easier to make.

But back to Scarlet Traces. It is a perfect example of pictures saying more than a thousand words. D'Israeli can convey in a couple of pages the huge transformation Victorian society has undergone with the arrival of Martian technology. His backgrounds and landscape panels are meticulously designed, making this new world order completely believable. The fact that his artwork is beautiful (particularly the colours) also helps. It's a totally immersive experience.

And Edginton's writing pulls its weight. He is able to construct a variety of voices for his different characters -- refined Queen's English, East End cockney and gruff Scotsman. And they all sound like people who lived a hundred years ago. The mystery itself unfolds at a merry pace, taking up just four chapters. There is a wonderful circular feel to the story, the last scene being a grim echo of the first. Most importantly, Edginton finds time to pack his tale with all sorts of ideas. The fate of Scotland post-invasion is an evocative exploration of the Marxist critique of capitalism. The women being lured to work as domestic servants, only to be bled dry servicing the British war machine, has feminism written all over it. And the villain of the piece brings back uncomfortable memories of Nineteen Eighty-Four's O'Brien. The state uses people as a means to an end, and its only objective is to protect those in power.

What more do you want? This is SF at its very best -- building a believable alternative reality and using it to explore grand ideas about human society. It can't really get better than that. Now go read it!

5.7.09

How I love Denise Mina...

'It's either Halloween, or this is an S&M playground. Tell me it's Halloween. Suburbanites slapping each other across the arse for kicks depresses the shit out of me.' -- John Constantine

4.7.09

Dollhouse Episode 7

Some notes:

Toph in his underpants. DeWitt on a trampoline. Echo trying to make a fist. Where were all the funnies? Here they are!

The 'let's get everyone high' idea was great until you remember that the Angel episode 'Spin The Bottle' did it first, and did it better. But here it has its own particular delicious flavour. All the Dollhouse characters are so damn serious all the time, when the silliness comes, it takes us by surprise. There is a wonderful moment in the Topher/DeWitt exchanges when they start tripping, but you don't quite catch on immediately. You think: whoa, hold on, the witty banter quotient just jumped almost to Firefly levels. Has the writing style just done a screeching u-turn? And then you realize it's due to a plot twist, which will be unravelled at the end. You almost feel disappointed. Can't they be high all the time?

After last week's revelation, the Agent Ballard stuff this week was dull, dull, dull. So I guess it goes in cycles.

The camera effects were pretty cool this week. You can tell the director has been watching his Battlestar Galactica.

We meet Caroline for the first time. Finally. And yet I'm slightly put-out. Her circle of friends don't sell me on their activism. We only get glimpses of them, and there was no hook that got me to say: 'Yes. I like you and I care about what happens to you'. This may also be an acting problem. Dushku is good at playing hardened and foxy, and showing flashes of vulnerability underneath. But she's really really bad at playing earnest.

Like number four, this is a Craft/Fain episode. And again, thematically they don't get the party jumping. The link was made between callous animal testing and what the Dollhouse gets up to. We are asked the obvious question: do the ends justify the means. Except that the answer is totally obvious. Fucking with people in this way is dangerous and can cause a lot of damage. Frankly, yawn.

Next!

2.7.09

Paris

One day. We're gonna live. In Paris. I promise. I'm on it.

Those boys from Friendly Fires need to eat shit and die. Don't get me wrong, 'Jump In The Pool' was a great single, a first essay into the exiting but little-explored region of shoegaze disco. Further endeavors in this direction will surely deliver rich rewards. More music makers need to get on it. I need swirly music I can dance to.

However, 'Paris' is an abomination. It's a twenty-something stockbroker arsehole asking his bored, spoilt fiancee to stick with him a few more years, while he makes enough money stealing from starving Africans to deliver on their dream life. The whole thing reeks of yuppy excess. And it becomes ten times worse when you realize that the part of the bored, spoilt fiancee is played by those fine girls from Au Revoir Simone, who otherwise make charming innocent tinkly Postal Service rip-off synthpop. For them to be implicated in this capitalist wet-dream single-handedly destroys all that is holy and good in the world.

Naturally, I couldn't get the thrice-accursed song out of my skull all the time I was tramping the streets of Paris. Sometimes I hate pop music. But believe it or not, those bastard Friendly Fires boys were the only thorn in my side during my stay. Everything else was perfect.

Which came as a bit of a surprise. My previous visit had left me with bad memories of a crowded Louvre and dull trips up and down the Seine. I've had a bad opinion of the city ever since. Paris was overrated. City of romance, fashion and small portions in big plates? Please. Give me the mess and drizzle of a London suburb anyday. But you can only hold on to your high horse for so long. Due to much free time and little to fill it up with (Ach! Woe is me!) I decided to go back to Paris when the opportunity arose. My father had a gig there at a bankers conference, serving as the token reminder that as well as profits, there are things like poverty and human rights that deserve attention. While he was busy doing that, I was free to explore the city for two and a half days. After, me and dad would head south to the riviera (dad has a friend there) and work on our tans. I am one lucky bastard, right?

Even more than you think, actually. I have a cousin who lives in Paris, and who is selfless enough to take time out of her insanely busy life to show me around. On my first night on French soil she shows me round Jardin Des Tuileries, the Louvre, over the Pont Des Arts and into the Latin Quater. From grand rococo palaces to noisy student hangouts to crooked cafe-stuffed byways. And back. The perfect introduction to the city's delights, I think. My gratitude for this and other midnight walks is frankly ineffable. It allowed me to see the most of Paris with the time I had at my disposal.

Day two I retraced the same route into the Latin Quarter, this time to visit the National Museum of the Middle Ages. It houses the mightily impressive Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which really are a must see. I got in free with my student card, so you have no excuse. The tapestries form a single piece. Each one features a lady and her handmaiden, flanked by a lion and a unicorn. Five are allegories of the five senses, the sixth is addressed 'to my only desire', and is thought to represent love and understanding.

Take a look at the tapestry representing touch:

What struck me initially about the work was the complete lack of any reference to Christianity. I had assumed that all medieval allegorical works would automatically use Christian symbols, filtering every human emotion through the faith. But these tapestries use images of bountiful nature and fantasy monsters instead. Its matter isn't cerebral, but earthy. It's about what you can touch, the garish colours and busy backgrounds emphasizing the range and richness of human empirical experience.

Slowly I realized just how raunchy these tapestries were. I mean, really look at the above picture. The woman, the hand, the horn. The people weaving this had only one thing on their minds. In the final tapestry, the lady stands in front of an open tent. The handmaiden beside her holds a chest full of treasure, and the lady appears to be offering them to the viewer. Come inside, she seems to be saying. You've seen what treasures our senses provide. Let's enjoy them together.

So I guess they did have sex during the Middle Ages. Who knew?

Maybe I had sex on the brain. Day three I had planned to go to the Louvre early and dodge the crowds. I overslept, and couldn't face throwing elbows in an art gallery. Instead, I walked around the outside of the palace examining the architecture. The Louvre comprises a larger square, with one side opening out to the Tuilleries garden, and an inner square walled all around. The contrast between the two is striking. The outside square is towering and magnificent. You are surrounded on three sides by imposing-looking statues of kings, ministers, dukes and generals. They are clothed in the robes of office, and they wear serious, intimidating expressions. The square opens out into the world. It's a public space. And an overwhelmingly male space. The inner square is entirely different. The statues don't rise above the buildings, but are embedded in the walls. They are of men and women, usually nude, and in relaxed, conversational poses. They look at each other, not down on you. And the square is closed off from the outside, with a fountain, rather than a hulking glass pyramid, at its centre. In other words, it's private, personal, feminine.

The French Revolution appeares to directly challenge this dichotomy. Later that day, dad finished his conference duties and took me to the Carnavalet museum, which told the history of Paris. Within, I found that most Revolutionary artists used the image of a woman, serially suffering from wardrobe malfunctions, to symbolize the spirit of Liberty. The private, female sphere and the values it held was spilling over and challenging public, male values. Equality and brotherhood over lordship and deference. Liberty's tattered clothes suggest freedom from old social mores and attitudes. The old uniforms of office were being torn down. Mankind was nude again, like in Eden.

The images produced by the Revolution appear much more revolutionary than the original ideas behind it. Rousseau is perhaps its most influential intellectual figure, and yet on the ladybusiness he was entirely conservative. Women should be domesticated to contain the disruptive sexual energies of both sexes within the home. The public sphere should remain entirely masculine and rational. But when Frenchmen read the Social Contract, they ran with it, going to places Rousseau wouldn't dare tread. The ideas thrown around in Revolutionary France were extremely radical and utopian, perhaps more than we generally realize.

Revelations abound when you are visiting Paris. It's amazing what you can stitch together walking around its many landmarks. I was stimulated both intellectually and physically (not to mention gastronomically). Tourism gets no better. Already I want to go again. Perhaps London's grey streets aren't all they are cracked up to be...