Friday, October 28, 2011

The Slap: E01-E04

This is the first of two posts reviewing the Australian TV serial The Slap, based on the award-winning novel by Christos Tsiolkas. This particular post covers the first four episodes of a total eight. First, a bit of background: the novel is terribly written, riddled with cliched prose and poor limp description. I made it about 50 pages before I had to give up. I had no conception of the novel's potential for awards. But the premise is just so compelling that perhaps an adaptation could possibly alleviate some of the weaknesses. I decided to watch this if only because I hoped the execution of the TV serial could match the promise of the central idea of the novel.

At Hector's 40th birthday barbecue, we're introduced to Aisha, Hector's wife, Connie the babysitter they employ, Harry, Hector's cousin, Rosie, Aisha's best friend, Gary, her husband, Anouk, Aisha and Rosie's childhood friend, and all of the children of the various couples. Hugo, Rose and Gary's son, is somewhat hyperactive, and when a cricket game takes a turn for the violent, Harry steps in and slaps Hugo. The series follows the repercussions of this slap, the reverberations throughout the families and the lives changed by such an act.

The novel lends itself to the structure of a serialized story, which is to say that each episode takes one character as its focus and follows the plot linearly. The next episode picks up with another character, but continues the overarching plot. There are no flashbacks or flashforwards. While this might make for conventional storytelling, there's a certain power in the constant onslaught of the plot, that never lets up, that never blinks in the face of awkwardness or uncomfortable turns of the plot.

Ostensibly the series struggles with the moral ramifications of the slap. Did Hugo deserved to be punished? Did Harry act out of line? Is Rosie overreacting when she attempts to take Harry to court? Are there any good people in this story? Does anybody behave in a morally good sense? Of course, at the halfway point, the series doesn't take a stand. Instead, it presents to us vivisections of four characters, analyzing them and making them squirm under the microscope, if you'll allow me to mix my metaphors.

The show works because of the aforementioned exposure of the characters, their desires, their relationships, their histories together. In the first episode, a lot of the relationships are quickly mapped out: Rosie is somewhat hippie-ish and unwilling to see her child as anything but angelic, Connie and Hector dance around each other in a flirting manner, until eventually they kiss, and even Hector's tentative relationship with his wife's best friends is quickly sketched out. A lot of the show's success lies in using these complex links later in subsequent episodes. There's a scene in the fourth episode, the one focused on Connie, in which Hector comes to pick up Aisha at Rosie's house, where Connie is babysitting Hugo. Aisha goes to the door, opens it and sees Hector awkwardly standing at the threshold between exterior (his car, the open air, freedom) and interior (Rosie's claustrophobic and cluttered house, filled with trinkets). The camera looks past Aisha's face, past Rosie's face (both of which are complex reactions to Hector's presence) to Connie's face. She's enamored of Hector, but Aisha literally and figuratively stands in her way, along with Rosie, who symbolizes the traumatic events of the slap. In addition to all this complexity, you have Rosie staring at Hector, wanting him to take sides in the inevitable court case. There's more happening between Aisha and Hector beyond the slap, and more happening between Aisha and Rosie beyond the slap as well. All of this happens in a second, but the show implies all of this so quickly and so efficiently.

While the fourth episode works as a sort of "end of volume one" climax, there are still amazing moments to be savoured from the second and third episodes, Anouk's and Harry's respectively. Anouk is a staff writer on a famous Aussie soap, and she's dating one of the stars, a much younger and energetic actor. Anouk has a complex relationship with Aisha and Rosie, in that Anouk never grew up, as symbolized by her dating Rhys. Anouk is also working on a novel that fictionalizes the shared childhood between the three friends. As a non-parent, she tends to see the slap as being justified, but her loyalty to Rosie prevents her from taking a side, even when Harry invites her to lunch so that he can ask her which side she will take. Anouk's story is a fascinating portrayal of a middle-aged woman who doesn't conform to preconceived notions of womanhood: motherhood, maternal instincts, the caregiver. Anouk's mother is suffering from cancer and has been for a long time, but Rosie is the one who takes care of her, putting a strain on the relationship between Rosie and Anouk. Of course, a lot of this is explicit in the series, but a good portion of it is implicit, especially the symbolism.

Harry's story is one of success. There's a scene early in his episode in which he visits the grave of his parents. Manoulis, Hector's father and Harry's uncle, tells him that his father was angry, died angry, and never achieved happiness. "Don't be like him, Harry" Manoulis tells him. Later in the episode, Harry attempts to apologize to Rosie and Gary for the slap, but their reaction is quite bitter. He storms out of the house, gets into his car and visits his mistress, where he immediately engages in overly rough sex. He imagines himself shooting Rosie, Gary and even Hugo. He yells at his wife and comes close to abusing her. But he prides himself on being an amazing businessman, an amazing husband, and an amazing father. The slap changes his relationship with his son, but not in the way one expects. Instead, the slap, and Manoulis, and his violent reaction to the rejected apology only serve to make Harry see himself in a truthful light. It't a tremendous moment of catharsis when even after his despicable behaviour, his adolescent son holds his hand and expresses unconditional love.

This is a lot of detail about a show in order to review it, but it's necessary to show how absolutely convoluted and intense these connections are between the families. This is why I wanted to read the novel, but the terrible prose pushed me away. When you strip away the author and his bumbling tools, you're left with a fantastic premise that serves a serial story perfectly. At the halfway point, The Slap is one of the best television shows I've ever seen, all thanks to a luminescent cast and subtle writing, despite its showy premise. Each of the four episodes work to serve the greater story and at the same time, serve to tell a contained story about one person trying to live in such a complicated world. The Slap is utterly engrossing and complex.

"300 kids is 300 too many"

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Catch up post : October Edition

Remember when I said this was going to be a low content mode month? Well, this post is just to catch people up with where I'm at.

I had the flu, or rather, have the flu, as it's been four days and I still feel like shit. The worst part about the flu, for me at least, is that it affects my ability to concentrate; I can't read while suffering from influenza. This is intolerable. How am I supposed to keep up my ludicrous reading speed when my brain won't internalize anything I've read? Alas, since my previous post detailing the novels I have read, I have only managed to finish one book, which is The Anglo-Saxon Age: A Very Short Introduction. This barely counts. It was for school, and it was only 130 pages or so. I'm almost done Lady Audley's Secret and I'm almost done another book, but it won't be for another day or two until my brains manage to unscramble enough to conquer these tomes.

So what did I do the past week? Well, school, video games, and watching movies. My parents got me an early birthday/Christmas gift which was a 32 inch LCD flat screen TV. At 720p, this is the highest definition TV I've ever owned. I immediately went out and purchased the third Transformers film on Blu-Ray so that I could enjoy it in all of its detailed splendor. On second viewing, I liked the movie as much as the first time, maybe slightly more. I also watched Dawn of the Dead, the 2004 remake, which holds up, I might add. In fact, it almost highlights the tragedy of Zack Snyder: once a director with a mighty visual eye, he has become a joke, a repetition of the same tricks over and over again with too much of a reliance on green screen. I don't have to mention how much I actively hated Sucker Punch.

I also watched Mission Impossible 3 in high def, my favourite of the trilogy, soon to be tetralogy. Just as before, the movie holds up. In fact, I noticed that the Shanghai heist scene seems to have influenced the Beijing heist sequence in The Dark Knight. Both of them look very similar and both involve high-flying acrobatics. The MI3 scene might even work better if only because the method of escape isn't a convenient plane, but a pulse-pounding car chase through the city.

Gearing up for the remake of the video game, I watched the film version of Golden Eye or Goldeneye, I don't know which. I don't think I've seen it before, but I must have. Either way, it was all new. Sort of. I remember parts of the movie, but it might just be because I'm remember elements from the video game. Ah! Hyperreality! Baudrillaud you would have loved this. Anyways, the movie isn't very good, except for the bravura opening sequence in which Bond drives a motorcycle off a mountain to fall into a falling plane. It's fucking intense. Otherwise, the movie is a mess of simplified spy stories and 90's PC nonsense. In fact, one of the reasons why this film is lauded is because of the filmmakers' intention to modernize Bond, bring him into the 90's.

However, it's in stark contrast to spy novels of the 90's in which the post-Communist Russia is a confused, broken and poor country with rampant crime and numerous ex-KGB agents running amok with the burgeoning Russian Mafia. Not only that, but Bond's spycraft itself seems oddly reliant on convenience and luck. It seems he's always in the right place at the right time. On top of this, the villains' plan seems to rest solely on a magic helicopter that's resistant to EMPs being invented. What if this copter had never been invented? How would they have pulled off their plan?

Bond seems even more lecherous in this film than previously. By positioning Bond in an 90's, PC, gender aware kind of world, it serves to highlight how predatory and harassing Bond actually is. Moneypenny even mentions that Bond's advances could be considered sexual harassment, a moment where the audience is supposed to go "Oh that Bond is incorrigible!" but really, my reaction was "ugh". There's another scene in which Bond and the requisite hacker (it's the 90's! There's a mandatory inclusion of hackers in every movie from the era) escape a tortuously convoluted death trap and afterwards, even though they just fucking met, Bond leans in for the seduction. It comes off as opportunistic and manipulative, rather than suave or charming.

Despite these problems, which are more indictments of the 90's than of the film, Goldeneye manages to be somewhat thrilling, especially when Bond fights hand to hand. For some reason, the brutal, non-martial arts style of the pre-Matrix era seems to be visceral and painful. The sound of every punch is exaggerated and amplified but it sounds bone-crunching and epic. The climactic fight between (a skinny) Sean Bean and (a skinny) Pierce Brosnan is long and it looks like it fucking hurts. I long for the days of close quarters hand to hand combat. I can think of only two films that have managed this without seeming overly stylized: The Bourne Ultimatum and The Kingdom (directed by Peter Berg). In the latter, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner try beating up an Arabic terrorist, but it's not how you think it goes down. It's long, it's bitter and it's brutal and it's certainly not romanticized fighting. It's nasty. When Goldeneye has moments like this, it works. When it tries to be suave and charming, it's insufferable.

This doesn't make me want to revisit the other Brosnan Bond movies. I remember quite clearly my disdain for the third and fourth of his era. All they serve to do, in the stark vision of history, is highlight how fucking good Casino Royale is, the antithesis of the Brosnan-era self-indulgence and self-parody. I must stress that this is in no way a slight against Brosnan. In fact, I quite like him as Bond. I think it's simply the movies themselves are terrible, but he's a highlight within them.

In terms of video games, I've been playing Saints Row 2, which makes me laugh all the time. While not as satisfying as GTAIV, it's certainly more fun in the long run: more customization, more mayhem and more levity. GTAIV is fantastic, but too much serious. Plus, I'm stuck on one mission and I can't get past it, so that's why GTAIV gathers dust for the moment.

I also picked up Mafia 2, which was on sale for 20 bucks. It's hard to argue with that. In fact, and I might develop this into a full post, but it seems that with the rise of video games as a storytelling medium, there's more value to be had in a 60 dollar game than in buying a movie or going to the theatre. Especially when a twelve hour campaign is eventually sold for 20 bucks, including the DLC and all the side missions. Mafia 2 starts out fairly weak what with the bizarre inclusion of a WW2 shooter set in Italy, but then gets going once all the tutorial missions are completed. The driving feels fantastic and the city looks gorgeous. This is what I wanted LA Noire to be (I sold that shit because it bored me).

I'm stuck in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, but I think I can get past it. I bought Dead Island and I think it's okay. I wish I had been able to demo it before buying it. Also, I finished the single player campaign for Crysis 2, which was long and epic and awesome. That's a game that I got a lot of value out of. I also purchased Payday: The Heist off PSN, and I really like it, but each mission is soooo long and there are no checkpoints. In addition, I purchased Old World Blues and Honest Heart for Fallout: New Vegas. Check back here for an eventual review of all of the DLC.

Really, all I care about is Uncharted 3 and Modern Warfare 3. Those will be day one purchases for me, regardless of school or work. I fucking can't wait.

That's the catch-up post for you. I'll probably post a review or something of the books I've been reading.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Hangover: Part II

That's my facial expression for the entire running time. Hated this movie.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Low Content Mode

I just don't feel like writing right now. So instead of reviewing things, here are two lists: the list of books I've read and not reviewed and the list of books I hope to read in the next month.

1 (in reverse chronological order of when I finished them)
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold
Paying For It by Chester Brown
George Sprott by Seth
Therese Raquin by Emile Zola
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton
Crime by Irvine Welsh
Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd
Broken Skin by Stuart Macbride
Borderlands by Brian McGilloway
Dying Light by Stuart Macbride
Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
Cold Granite by Stuart Macbride
The Sisters by Robert Littell
Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarre

So I'm really far behind in my reviewing. But look at the bizarre mix of it all: spy fiction, mysteries, "literature", classics, "graphic novels" and even science fiction.

2 (with currently reading being the first few items)
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Reamde by Neal Stephenson
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
Winterland by Alan Glynn
Conundrum by Steve Lyons
The Doctor Trap by Simon Messingham

Caveat emptor for the second list: some of these are books that I won't finish for awhile, especially Pinker and Stephenson's massive tomes. Winterland I might not finish because it's rather light and a library book due soon. Orlando I might not finish because I just don't like it.

Apologies for low content mode. I just don't feel like it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Festival of Death

The Doctor, Romana and K9 have arrived at G-Lock, a space station that's also a terminal for a hyperspace tunnel. Immediately, they arrive in the aftermath of great destruction and many people congratulate the Doctor for saving the day. The TARDIS crew conclude that "saving the day" happened in their relative future, and the saved people's relative past. However, the Doctor finds out that in order to save the day, he made the ultimate sacrifice, his own death. In order to figure out what brought about his death, the TARDIS crew must investigate the Beautiful Death, a tourist attraction that promises to kill you and then revive you, giving you a taste of the afterlife.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "boggle" as a verb: "[to] be astonished or overwhelmed when trying to imagine something: 'the mind boggles at the spectacle'." Now, Jonathan Morris, author of Festival of Death, apparently loves this word. He uses his frequently. So much that I was distracted. The Doctor, specifically the fourth incarnation, "boggles" at everything. There's a lot to boggle at in this book, by which I mean there's a complication in the plot every chapter, and some of these developments are positively shocking. There's plot twists, to say the least, and they deserve to be boggled at. However, Morris could have checked with a thesaurus and found a synonym or two. I found ten. This is a very slight criticism, and one would expect this reviewer to be making much ado about nothing, but this constant repetition of "boggle" sort of encapsulates on a smaller scale the problem with Morris' prose.

In the first 80 pages of this novel, the Doctor, Romana and K9 sound exactly like they do on the television show. One would credit Morris with being able to accurately capture their voices and mannerisms. This is an illusion, however. The author merely repeats the same quirk of character, the most caricaturistic of elements. For example, the Doctor consistently "boggles" at things. Another example would be Romana's constant correction of the Doctor's misstating of the laws of time travel. Morris simply drives this point over and over. At first, these quirks and jokes are amusing and invest the reader into the novel. By the end, the repetition is tedious.

Morris' prose and characterization relies on simplicity and duplication. On the opposite end of the spectrum, his plotting relies on complexity and a lot of attention from the reader. This is easily one of the more complicated and satisfying time travel novels this reviewer has ever had the chance to read, notwithstanding its status as a licensed novel based on Doctor Who. It is a tremendously exciting and engrossing narrative that works backwards, but in ways the reader cannot predict.

The conceit of the plot is that the Doctor is dead in the present, the Doctor's future. So therefore, the Doctor must figure out how to a) cheat death and b) save the day. The audience knows that he will do both, it's simply a matter of how and when. The when being extremely important. When the TARDIS crew arrives at G-Lock, they quickly deduce that they must go back in time. What happens after that is not easily summarized. If fact, to do so would spoil some of the surprises.

Suffice it to say that this novel uses time travel in a logical and consistent manner. There's a comparison to be made with the finale of Series 6, that I previously wrote 1800 words on. Many viewers felt that "The Wedding of River Song" was a cheat or a cop out. I've clearly indicated that this isn't fair or true. If they felt that strongly about the Eleventh Doctor's way of cheating death, they would surely cry foul at the end of Festival of Death. Not only does the narrative ask the reader to believe that the Doctor is dead, but there is some definite misdirection on the part of the narrative and of the Doctor himself. Obviously, the Doctor isn't going to die (especially since this happens before "Logopolis" the serial in which Tom Baker regenerates into Peter Davison). But we're also told that there is no way to change history (even if it's future history) by Romana and the Doctor himself. If the Doctor can't change history and in the future, he's dead, how will he do it?

Both Festival of Death and "The Wedding of River Song" come to their conclusions using a Chekhov's gun and not a deux ex machina (of course your mileage of this statement will vary depending on your definition of what constitutes a deus ex machina in a "fantasy" or "sci-fi" narrative). Both stories play as fair as they can without giving the game away. Both stories include, at the end, an explanation that satisfies why the narrative misdirected in the first place. Therefore, they cannot be saddled with accusations of "cheating".

What Festival of Death has over "The Wedding of River Song" is that the time travel aspects of the novel are far more tighter, which is to say that there are zero loose ends in Festival of Death. No single element that seemed jarring or out of place did not ultimately have an explanation that was cleverly planted previously in the narrative. That's the trick to time travel narratives: being able to sow the seeds and harvest them later. Plus, there's some fun to be had if there's a paradox or two (or in Festival of Death's case: three) in which an effect is its own cause.

Needless to say, I loved this book, despite the weakness of Morris' prose. There were few "clunkers" in phrasing and wording, but one would never characterize Morris as a prose stylist. Happily, Morris' strengths as a plotter more that make up for any deficiencies in prose. The story in Festival of Death is one of the tightest time travel stories I've ever read, and requires some serious work from the reader in keeping up. When things happen backwards and sometimes simultaneously, there's a necessity in paying attention and missing no details. Thankfully, during some of the more complicated sections, Morris provides context and reiterates scenes under new light to explain and keep the reader afloat. Sometimes I needed this help, and I'm a veteran time travel reader. That goes to show how good of a novel this is.

This is my first in the Past Doctor Adventures, and I really enjoyed it. There are over 70 books in this series, not to mention the 40 in the Missing Adventures and the further 40 I have left in the New Adventures. Plus, the New Series Adventures! I fucking love Doctor Who.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Left-Handed Hummingbird

1487: The Doctor and Ace go to the ancient Aztec empire and investigate a warrior-god who might have some sort of psychic powers.
1912: There's something on the Titanic that the TARDIS crew and Cristan must get to before it sinks.
1968: A commune of hippies, led by an LSD-taking Cristan, are getting together to research ancient Aztec gods.
1980: The Doctor doesn't turn at the sound of the gunshots that kill Lennon while Cristan looks on in horror.
1994: The Doctor, Benny and Ace respond to a message for them at UNIT headquarters to meet a man in a Mexico City hospital. This man, Cristan, met them three previous times, but in the TARDIS crew's future, and in Cristan's past. There's a great enemy out there.

I specifically gave a detailed plot summary in chronology order so that readers of this review will be confused going into this. Certainly, The Left-Handed Hummingbird is the most complex thing in the New Adventures, related to plot, that is. It's also the first NA written by a female, and it's the first NA written by an Australian, that is to say, Kate Orman. Even though this is apparently Orman's first novel, it's fantastic. It doesn't feel like a first novel at all. This is an amazing read that uses the TARDIS crew properly, time travel properly, and even research properly. You'll not read a pre-James Cameron Titanic fiction that recalls so much of Cameron's titular movie.

I said that this book was amazing, but let's discuss what I didn't like about the book first, so that I can end on a high note. The first major issue is that there's a Marc Platt-style obfuscation occurring in certain scenes. When in 1487, the Doctor takes magic mushrooms and prepares to do battle with the unseen enemy on the psychic battlefield. At the same time, Ace gets goaded into fighting some Aztec warriors. Something or other happens and people die. It's not entirely clear what happens. It's only the Doctor's description of the events a posteriori that allow the reader to make sense of the situation. This isn't an isolated occurrence however. There are numerous scenes, mostly important action bits, that are left purposefully unclear. It recalls some of the more esoteric scenes in Time's Crucible or Timewyrm: Revelations.

As much as I like when authors don't hold the readers' hands, I'm equally frustrated with opacity for its own sake. There has to be some sort of a middle ground between the two. The unnecessary confusion seems almost self-indulgent. There were two instances in the novel where I had to consult Wikipedia just to be sure of what I read. That's not a good sign. It's not Joyce's Ulysses, after all.

Also, in a move reminiscent of modernist novels, Orman inexplicably shifts back and forth between tenses in the novel. For the most part, Orman sticks with the standard third person past tense. However, for some arcane reason unknown to me, she will use the present tense. Perhaps, and this is just a guess, it's meant to convey a sense of urgency and immediacy. Whatever the reason, it's jarring when it happens in the same paragraph. This shift happens frequently during the climactic scene on the Titanic, and I cannot tell you how distracting it is. I cannot believe that this wasn't fixed at the editing stage.

One more minor complaint. While I applaud the excellent integration of research into the novel, there's a couple scenes where it's just too much. Especially in Orman's depiction of the development of the villain. It's simply detail and name piled onto detail and name, simply confusing me. It doesn't help that the Aztec names are all very similar and impossible to pronounce. This is almost more of a failing of the reader, than the writer. But sometimes, when it comes to impressive research, less is more.

Okay, now we can get to what I like about the book. Dorian, of, describes this as "more of a romp" than the other novels in the Alternate History arc, so that's what I was expecting. This most assuredly not a romp, but it is in comparison to the other ones. The Left-Handed Hummingbird is purposefully and almost oppressively depressing. The weight of the untold deaths and personal cost feels palpable on the shoulders of the TARDIS crew. Ace has never felt so distanced from the Doctor. Benny has never felt so out of place. The Doctor has never been so inscrutable. The relationship between the three of them is depicted perfectly; this is the first NA that I've read to do this so well. Not only are they characterized well, but their relationships and feelings are taken to a logical place based on the previous events. Which is another way of saying that Orman integrates previous continuity in a logical and beautiful way.

It's not just previous books that are referenced in this NA. No, The Left-Handed Hummingbird recalls dozens of televised stories including the First Doctor's adventure The Aztecs. But it's not simply a case of Orman name-checking something. That's too simple for her. Instead, Orman integrates the story's themes into her own. Which sounds utterly circular and obvious, but it's not something that previous writers have accomplished with the New Adventures. Not only does the Hartnell story feel like it makes sense in context, but it feels like a part of the Doctor's past, compounding the Seventh Doctor's burden and age. It's well done assimilation.

The Left-Handed Hummingbird uses time travel properly, as well. When meeting Cristan out of order, the Doctor mentions that it's weird that this doesn't happen more frequently. This totally makes sense and it's one of the first things that Steven Moffat used when writing the TV show. Writers often forget that time travel doesn't necessarily leap the conclusion of linearity. The better time travel stories do not flow in a chronological sense. This novel understands that, but doesn't go too crazy. The time travel is in service of the plot, rather than the other way around. This is a mistake made by first time writers, and Orman avoids that.

Orman succeeds in keeping the stakes high. This may sound like a minor point, but I think it's extremely relevant in light of the Eleventh Doctor's near godhood in the televised stories. The Seventh Doctor has been previously depicted as Machiavellian and manipulative, to the point of being alien to humanity. He's a master player of games, and nothing is unforeseen. Orman picks up on this theme and turns it around. Not only does the Doctor experience extreme physical danger, but he himself is the vehicle for the enemy's psychic attack. The Doctor is the most dangerous person in the TARDIS crew because of his strong psychic powers. Because he continues to be the attack point for the enemy, Benny concludes incorrectly that this is some sort of ploy on the Doctor's part. Even Ace remarks that his strategy is cunning, but the Doctor repeatedly tells them both that he is not playing games. He even swears on this, but he can sense the distrust. Normally, a reader wouldn't expect to take the Doctor's word at face value, but because of the nonlinearity of the events, we can only conclude the Doctor is finally making it up as he goes along.

So, to sum up, we have time travel, research, characterization and themes all synthesized and working together harmoniously to provide an excellent adventure with small reservations. This might be the first time that a New Adventure has all the elements working in tandem. It's a fantastic read, and this doesn't even mention Orman's above-average prose. Of the twenty-one New Adventures that I have read so far (!), I would rank this in the top ten, easily, maybe even the top five.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dog Soldiers

John Converse, journalist in Vietnam, decides to buy some raw heroin and then employ a long-time friend, Ray Hicks, to smuggle it into the US and into the hands of Marge, John's wife. Of course, it goes badly, and some definitely violent and scary men come after Ray and Marge. They book it to a former hippie commune site and wait while those violent men torture Converse and bring him to the inescapable showdown.

It's inevitable that books that I'm desperate to get my hands on will ultimately disappoint me. Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone, is a National Book Award winner, and one of the few that I so desperately wanted to read. Unfortunately, it's scarce and not available in my library. I didn't think that it was worth eBay-ing, so I resigned myself to waiting until I one day stumbled across it (I carry a mental list of books whenever I come across a store or a garage sale - it's just statistics that one day I'll find it). My school library, of all places, turned out to carry a copy - not just any copy, but a third edition of the original hardcover, with its pleasing-to-the-eye typeface and its garishly yellow hardcover (the dust jacket is missing, and presumably discarded, the modus operandi of my school library it seems). So I immediately took it out and set to work reading this. But would the experience of reading the book compare to the experience of hunting the book?

Alas, not really. It's unfortunate, because the premise is just so exhilarating: drug deals, Vietnam, burned out journalists à la Graham Greene, shoot-outs and a fairly pessimistic view of hippie culture. It's also a novel about the disillusionment with the government, with the war, with the counter-culture, with modernity. There's a lot to like in the promise of this novel, and it gets there... mostly. A lot of my favourite themes, wrapped up in a neo-noir plot, and critically acclaimed (also made into a movie). So where did the novel go wrong?

It's certainly not unambitious; Stone takes the reader from Saigon to San Francisco, and some rather shady places in between, introduces a medium-sized cast, and puts in some serious narrative time sketching out his three primary characters. The unfortunate part is that all three remain ciphers, regardless of how much background information and characterization the novel invests in them. The single most vivid character is one of the villain's goons, who gets a chance to tell, in his own words, his story of homicide and subsequent imprisonment. The reason why this character works so well is twofold: his monologue is presented in his own words (which seems circular but still important) and he remains consistent throughout his appearances.

That's the biggest downfall in Dog Soldiers, apart from the oppressively vernacular dialogue. The characters, the three primary owns, do not seem to have consistent motives. The most important part of Converse is when he says that this heroin deal is "the most real thing in his life". Why then does he joke and appear not to care about the fate of his wife or his daughter? Why then does he act incensed in one scene and completely passive in the next? Perhaps this character inconsistency is a comment on the affectations of the characters themselves. Perhaps the novel is trying to say that the cast has no idea what they want beyond the next high. If that's the case, then this point is slightly lost on the reader.

Or perhaps this cast acts weird because they're all so high. This is the first novel that I've read (other than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) where the characters just get high and there are no consequences, social or mentally. Only one character, Marge, shows any signs of withdrawal, but her inclusion in the novel speaks wondrously about the female presence in this novel, and agency in general. When I say, "wondrously" I mean that sarcastically. Marge is only a pawn, kidnapped by Ray, who ultimately ends up sleeping with her, his friend's wife, I might add, and Marge never does anything remotely interesting. She's merely the person holding the bag of heroin.

This lack of agency isn't commented on directly by the narrative, but her promiscuity and lack of drive certainly are comments made by the narrative. Marge seems to encapsulate a lot of the counter-culture: her indifference and blasé attitude to drugs, her unwillingness to be conventionally employed or normal, and her definite blurring of marital boundaries. She sleeps with whoever she wants, tells her husband about it, but the novel hints at the emptiness of this direction. In fact, the novel uses some big neon signs to tell us that the counter-culture's approach to life was inherently a failure. One of the bigger scenes in the novel is near the end when Ray and Marge, on the run, end up at a former commune. Dieter, a self-proclaimed God, worshiped (ironically) by Mexicans, has high hopes that Ray's return will signal a like return to the bacchanalia of before. Ray, possibly the only character with his head on his shoulders (until the last thirty inscrutable pages), tells him that those days are over.

This is what makes this book so hard to like. While I respect what Stone was doing with theme and symbols and meaning, because Dog Soldiers is filled to the brim with theme, I just didn't enjoy the book on a scene to scene level. The characters felt hollow (whether or not that is intentional is divorced from my enjoyment of them) and the plot seemed rather stretched out at 350 pages. This should have been a much shorter book; there isn't enough story to sustain so little.

The novel's pointed look at the counter-culture is so diametrically opposed to the nostalgic way we're used to looking at the end of the Sixties. If I might indulge myself with some political thinking, in regards to the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, now in its third or fourth week (depending on who you ask), there are some definite parallels with the Sixties counter-culture. Certainly, if we asked a whole bunch of these protesters, they would look fondly at the past and say that those hippies were real hippies, fighting for what they believed in. Or, these young protesters of today would say that those hippies of yore were fooling themselves, getting caught up in drugs and orgies for the pleasure of it all, rather than the altruistic and political motives youngsters today have. As if there is any difference. Both answers apply to both parties. The 99%, as they call themselves, are just as clueless and formless as the earlier hippies. They have no set political agenda to be legislated. That's the key problem there.

One of the Stone's characters has a great monologue on the foolishness of the average American college student. Everything they wanted, they could have. A revolutionary in the South Americas? Well they want that too. Who is going to tell them that they can't have revolution at all. Even if it's logically opposed to their parents who gave them everything. The futility of their resistance to "the American way" is echoed by the novel, and in some ways, by the Occupy Wall Street protesters***.

This is why Dog Soldiers is easy to recommend as a rich assembly of thematic elements and hard to recommend as a entertaining narrative. It doesn't quite work as a novel, but there is still much to enjoy in the novel's approach to a very turbulent and complicated time in American history. Many modern day hippies would do well to read this more honest work of the dark side of counter-culture than to re-read their tattered copy of Howard Zinn or Abbie Hoffman.

*** Not that I don't fundamentally agree with them. It's just that I can't agree with their lack of organization. There is no clear political lobby here, nothing that can be ultimately written into law. That paints them all with the same brush, unfortunately, because there are some intelligent protesters looking to engage in political discourse in order to ameliorate the economic situation. It's the most ludicrous wishers of economic parity who are receiving the most media attention.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Dimension Riders

While Benny is relaxing in twentieth century Oxford, the Doctor and Ace find themselves on the hunt for a spectral figure that only Ace saw, intruding in the TARDIS. It takes them to a dilapidated space station, surrounded by the dead. However, the Doctor gets thrown a week back in time and Ace gets arrested by an investigating search party. It seems that somebody is playing with time again, and it all something to do with the Doctor's past.

On a few Doctor Who fora, I have been arguing in defense for Steven Moffat's "timey-wimey" approach to the new series. Not only is it clever, but when you do time travel stories, when you become God, you have to think non-linear. Time isn't a river anymore. The Dimension Riders kind of picks up on this theme slightly. The villain of the piece, the Garavond, is a creation of the Doctor's meddling in time, and receives his power from paradoxes. So whenever the plot requires the villain to get scarier, the author inserts a paradox. It also serves, paradoxically, to explain how things happened in the novel.

Which is helpful, because the first half of the novel is fairly boring and seemingly endless. In Oxford, Benny hangs out with some hawt student who coincidentally becomes integral to the villain's plot later, but before that, they're busy running around while a hawt chick in skintight clothes drives a Porsche and seems to know a lot about TARDISes. The audience is left unsure of its connection with the 24th century action on a space station, but we trust that the author has some sort of idea what he's doing.

Meanwhile in the 24th century (cue the Superfriends woosh noise), Ace and her new friend from the search party are beginning to get persecuted by these ghostly soldiers who are able to de-age you into a baby (maybe not the worst and most intimidating threat the author could have picked), but this is where the novel decides to become philosophical. Time itself becomes a weapon. And no, not in the figurative sense. The Time Soldiers, as they're dubbed, wield guns that use Time as their ammunition. When Strakk, Ace's new friend, gets too close to a Time Soldier, his hand is brutally injured by Time itself. I'm not quite sure how this works, but I'm willing to go along with it, if only because the author's prose and cast is fairly strong.

Daniel Blythe, the author, has a very good grasp on his overall cast. Each character is well drawn, including the characters who are destined to be cannon fodder (as per a lot of Who stories). The relationship that grows between Strakk and Ace (while reminiscent of Ace's growing friendship with another doomed fellow in Blood Heat - surely coincidental) is extremely compelling. When faced with ultimate destruction, Strakk reaches out to wrap his arm around her waist, Ace acquiesces and it's beautiful and tender. It's definitely moments like this that resonate with the reader, beyond the usual Who stuff that draws them in.

And that's all here as well. The Seventh Doctor is at his most Seventh-y, if you will. Even on the cover, the darkness and manipulation are hinted at, as he is over-seeing a game of chess. This theme, while used previously, is brought to the forefront. Blythe shows off his knowledge of chess by having Benny recognizing the sacrifice of the TARDIS by the Doctor as a classic chess move in which the player loses their knight but gains the queen, or something like that. Later, in a virtual reality-esque climax, the Doctor sees a chessboard, with a game in progress, but no players, and yet he immediately recognizes the paradigm, and names the famous players who helped usher it in.

If the chess metaphors weren't enough, the tension growing between Ace and the Doctor seems to come to a boil here. In the same aforementioned virtual reality-esque climax, Ace chooses to shoot the Doctor in order to stop the madness, but luckily, it's all part of the Doctor's plan. Ace is becoming disillusioned with the Doctor's games and manipulation and it's starting to take its toll. But you notice I've said this before. This theme, brought up ad nauseum by the New Adventures, is becoming slightly tedious. It's time for a climax, instead of constant simmering tension. This can only go on for so long. It stretches credibility with Ace as a character. Is she just going to lay down and take it for another dozen books?

However, this is an editor-targeted complaint rather than an author-targeted one. The problems we can lay at the author's feet include the aforementioned boring first half, when all the disconnected pieces seem so widely divergent. As well, I don't think the book is as clever as it thinks it is. The Garavond's existence is chalked up to someone messing around with the Doctor's timeline, but its ultimate origin is explained in a weird way. Something to do with the Matrix on Gallifrey and a piece of the Doctor's mind? It's confusing and somewhat irritating. I didn't understand its power, or why, with something so inherently powerful, it would need to humans... and then why go ahead and shoot a bunch of people? If you needed them, why would you kill them? The Garavond's plan is exceedingly complex and stretches across time and space, but only to trap the Doctor? How did it know that the Doctor would be in Oxford at that time? Also, the plant of the android assassin and the renegade Time Lord in Oxford of 1993 is exceedingly convenient enough to stretch credibility again.

I still enjoyed myself, I guess. I never felt compelled to read this. I finished it out of duty and because I still have another 35-40 books to go in the series. This is damning criticism, unfortunately. While the actual reading experience wasn't good or bad, the fact that I had to force myself to sit down and read it like a textbook is a poor reflection on the book. But, like I say, I still had an enjoyable time, especially at the climax of the book, which is a fairly strong example of how to pace things at the end of a story. Other than that, I thought it was a fairly pedestrian and mediocre read. But not terrible.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On "The Wedding of River Song"

Series 6 of Doctor Who has wrapped up, thus depriving me of Saturday night television until Christmas and then again until August 2012(!). "The Wedding of River Song" was the finale, and breaking with tradition, was not a two-parter. However, in keeping with tradition (of Series 5) it has stirred up no small amounts of confusion and controversy, with some fans claiming it to be a total cheat or a cop-out and thus brings the death knell of Doctor Who while other fans (such as myself) enjoyed it as a great finale to a good season. With this post, I want to address some of the issues I had with a) the series as a whole, b) the finale by itself, and finally c) fandom's divisive reaction to both a) and b).

Firstly, I thought Series 6 was good, but not great. Splitting the series into two halves made everything feel so much longer and that any stand-alone episodes (fairly true to the original DW ethos) were merely stopgaps or filler episodes. The arc, which was set up so admirably in "The Impossible Astronaut", was ambitious, but seemed stretched out. Essentially, a future version of the Doctor brings Amy, Rory and River to Utah where they witness his true death by the hands of an impossible astronaut. By the halfway point of the series, the Doctor has foreknowledge of his death, but struggles with his emotions regarding it. After seeing Amy's faith in him nearly kill her, he bids farewell to his companions and then goes after The Silence who have orchestrated the circumstances surrounding his death, including the kidnapping and brainwashing of Melody Pond/River Song. This is a cracking good arc, ambitious and lofty, but unfortunately, it feels rather thin spread over so many episodes.

This leads me to my first complaint regarding Series 6: the universe seemed so small. Everything was connected to the Doctor and Amy - it felt claustrophobic. When we are introduced to a childhood friend of Amy, she is ultimately revealed to be River Song, thus shrinking the fictional world even more. When we arrived at "Let's Kill Hitler" I was hoping for a fun romp, after the shakeup and (obvious) reveal of Song's identity in the previous episode. However, "Let's Kill Hitler" pushed all the fun to the side in the first ten minutes and opted for more and more foreshadowing and building up of the finale. It seemed we couldn't go one episode without the show teasing us further and further.

Therefore, I was ambivalent going into "The Wedding of River Song". The epilogue of the previous episode left me cold. It was meant to get the viewer excited about the finale, but I didn't think much of it. I was getting sick of River Song. Series 6 had put so much emphasis on River Song that I had begun to long for the days of Russel T Davies who knew how to invest in his characters without providing too much exposure (see Mickey Smith in series 2 and 4 or Wilfred Mott in series 4).

However, "The Wedding of River Song" surprised me. Yes, the solution to the Doctor's death was easily guessed (thanks to the painfully obvious "Previously On..."), but it is not the destination, it is the journey that's most important. The finale provided so much to the viewer, that I could have happily accepted a two-parter instead the rushed and packed single episode. Even if fans disagree on the direction that Moffat is taking, it cannot be denied that Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor has come into his own, and is easily the strongest actor in the current series. There is a moment in which the Doctor calls up a retirement home and is told that the Brigadier had passed away a few months earlier. This brings the Doctor to his eventual acceptance of his death, but it is Matt Smith, not the writing, that makes this scene so effective. Of course, this is but one scene of many in which Smith displays such fantastic acting. He was given a fairly complicated and overstuffed script for the finale, but he performed spectacularly.

I suppose that the major issue people are having with this finale is that the ending is a) easily spotted and b) a "cop-out" or a "cheat" or a "deus ex machina". Now, let's systemically examine the claims of point b) and then work backwards to point a).

Firstly, let us define our terms. "Cop-out" means "an instance of avoiding a commitment or responsibility". It is an idiom, which is to say that its meaning will be volatile and dependent on context, often enough. When fans refers to the solution to the finale as a "cop-out" they are probably trying to say that Moffat took an easy way out of the corner he found himself in. This refers to the Teselecta, a plot device he introduced in "Let's Kill Hitler". This "cop-out" also refers to the repeated statement in the premiere that indeed this was the real Doctor being killed. So therefore, Moffat has not only avoided the responsibility of providing a logical answer to the Doctor's apparent real death but has also provided an obvious elucidation.

Obviously, I take issue with this in part. As far as the Doctor's real death, and that we were told frequently that yes this was the real Doctor, it is simply a matter of the Teselecta being able to so convincingly pretend to be the Doctor, up to and including the light show that masquerades as the aborted regeneration. If the Teselecta can fool both Amy and Rory, why can it not fool the audience?

Next, we have "cheat". This is saying that the mystery was not resolved in unequivocalness, that Moffat wasn't playing fair. I disagree, of course. The mystery can be easily solved, which speaks to its plausibility. If the Teselecta had only been introduced in this episode, viewers would have been rightly justified in crying out their rejection. However, like any skilled writer, Moffat puts the pieces of the game into place before making the final move. This is called Chekhov's gun, named after the famed playwright and author. If a gun is shown in the first act, then by the third is should be fired. It's a literary term that implies a logical consistency and efficiency within a narrative. It's also part and parcel of the time travel narrative. Without it, time travel stories would denigrate into incoherency and cheating. With "The Wedding of River Song" the only claim of cheating could be the misdirection related to the real death of the real Doctor. But again, as Moffat and River Song repeatedly tell us, rule number one is that the Doctor lies. Since Moffat offers the solution to the mystery at the beginning and fills in the gaps in the story, one cannot conclude anything other than Moffat played fair.

Thirdly, the claim of "deus ex machina" a woefully misused term and misunderstood to boot. Deus ex machina is a literary term that refers to the abrupt and unforeseen resolution of the plot by an outside party. Its origin is related to classical drama in which gods would abruptly sort out the tangles of the plot at the end of the play. It's considered to be an example of lazy or subpar writing. Whether or not this is true is outside the purview of this particular blog post. Whatever may occur in the end of "The Wedding of River Song" it is most assuredly not a deus ex machina in the literary sense. Not only does Moffat offer the resolution as early as the midway point of the series, it is set up as an idea offered by the Doctor himself. It is the Doctor's cleverness to use the Teselecta that helps him cheat death, not the Teselecta's suggestion. For further explanation of why Moffat played fair, see the previous paragraph.

Therefore, in regards to "The Wedding of River Song" we can conclude this: Moffat played fair, resolved the mystery in a logical manner and did not resort to "lazy" writing techniques such as deus ex machinas. Whether or not it was entertaining is not a matter accomplished with the use of logic.

The episode entertained me. I was not looking forward to it, as I felt that the series had begun to be too close, but within minutes I was excited. This was the reason why I watch Doctor Who.

Of course, the future of the series slightly worries me. Series 6 was easily the most arc-intensive series since The Trial of a Time Lord. In the future, Moffat has teased a return to more stand-alone episodes, but this fills me with dread. Stand-alones or one-offs tend to bore me. I prefer longer forms of dramatic storytelling. This is why I read novels, enjoy trilogies and watch serial television. This is why I cannot get past the first season of Supernatural, no matter how good the show is in later seasons.

However, the intensity of this arc also posed a problem for me. Therefore, I suggest a happy medium. Perhaps instead of a plot-driven arc, the writers could employ a thematic arc. The Cartmel Masterplan, while ultimately failed, could provide an excellent template in form rather than theme for the next series. This arc worked in the background mostly, while coming to a head with "The Curse of Fenric" and then later with "Lungbarrow".

This isn't to say that I didn't ultimately enjoy "The Wedding of River Song". Far from it. It was a captivating and exciting hour of television - the very reason why I watch Doctor Who. My desire to defend it from the fans who disliked it is based on their misuse and misunderstanding of the episode. If fans didn't like it because it didn't entertain them, this is acceptable, rather than fans dismissing it because they are under the delusion Moffat deployed a deus ex machina (rather than a Chekhov's gun) to tie up his loose ends. If they weren't entertained by the finale because they solved the mystery, then this just goes to show the plausibility of the resolution and a testament to Moffat's ability to play fair.

Whatever the answer, I liked "The Wedding of River Song" and it has made me excited for another series of Doctor Who. But not the Christmas story - the last one was very much a failure. But that's another blog post entirely.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Four Doctors

The Fifth Doctor is investigating a science lab in the Vault of Stellar Curios which is leaking chronons (or whatever). This leakage attracts the attention of the Daleks, who want whatever is in the Inner Vault. This leakage also accidentally attracts the Eight Doctor, who sort of remembers this.... When Colonel Ulrik betrays the lab to the Daleks, the Doctor throws him through time, backwards, as there is a larger game at play, across time and space, which involves the Doctor's personal timeline and previous incarnations.

I listened to this Big Finish audio drama because it was a multi-Doctor story, one of few. It also features two of my favourite Doctors, Fifth and Seventh. What I didn't expect was an extremely complicated and coherent nonlinear time travel story. I mention "coherent" because the medium of audio drama can sometimes have a disorienting effect on the listener; if the audience doesn't follow every scrap of information or exposition, they may become lost - especially if it involves the listener trying to wrap their head around convoluted chronology.

The plot is stellar. The Eighth Doctor, with the advantage of seeing this all already, throws the misguided Colonel into a time loop that was caused by Eight suggesting it to Five (who only suggested it because he remembers being the Fifth and receiving the suggestion (paradox!) ). The Colonel and a Dalek get tossed down a time corridor to 1854, where Seven is trying to prevent a paradox with a Prof Michael Farraday. Seven is trying to close a temporal corridor that's allowing things to spill in, such as a destroyed Special Weapons Dalek. He must keep Farraday from realizing the truth. Of course, it doesn't help when Dalek Prime and the Colonel show up. Seven manipulates them into going further down the time corridor, into the historic war fought by the Colonel's grandfather against the Daleks, where they both meet Six.

Of course, if you know time travel stories, you can pick up on all the clues, the Chekhov's guns being put into place. We realize that the history everybody speaks of is actually caused by the people from the future, creating a nice neat time loop, a loop that was already explained. Once Six shows the Colonel the light, he has a change of heart and is sent back to the future just before he left. We find out what is in the Inner Vault - somehow this is surprising even though the piece was put into play earliest in the chronology - and the Colonel makes the ultimate sacrifice by helping the Fifth Doctor create the time loop in which the day is saved.

Hurts your brain, doesn't it? The beginning of the story is the end of the story, but we experience it in the wrong order. This is exactly why I love time travel stories. They challenge notions of linearity and normal storytelling parameters. They are a different paradigm. Although, nowadays, they have so many similar elements that I was able to deduce the overarching idea of the plot basically from the beginning.

This doesn't detract from the experience; it's the journey, not the destination, after all. While I loved the plot, that isn't the only thing to recommend here. Everybody is on top form, especially the Seventh and Sixth Doctors. We all knew that Sylvester McCoy would be an excellent radio personality as his voice is just so muscular and multipurpose, but Colin Baker has really come into his own as the Sixth Doctor. He sounds more wearied, older, stronger and smarter. No longer is he the Doctor with a short temper. He's also far more sly than you'd expect.

Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor puts in a predictably fantastic performance. However, Peter Davison sounds old and gruff, almost unrecognizable. When he began speaking, I wasn't sure which Doctor he was. His characterization is also slightly off it seems. Instead of the vulnerable indecisive but heroic Fifth Doctor, we hear am impatient and grumpy Fifth Doctor (kind of like his appearance in Moffat's Time Crash). It's not insurmountable; the audio drama remains top notch.

Even the supporting cast does a great job. The Colonel, a complicated character who goes through a rather harrowing and life-altering journey (over and over ad infinitum) is played to perfection. It's a tough character to pull off if only because of the nonlinearity. David Bamber plays the Colonel and he just absolutely nails it.

The sound effects and production level are outstanding. I was at the gym listening to this, and for long stretches of time, I had forgotten that I was running on a treadmill and I imagined myself in the Vault with the Colonel and the Doctor, surrounded by menacing Daleks. It is a testament to their immersive quality that this could happen.

I liked this audio drama much more than the previous ones I've listened to, if only because the plot was a notch more complicated than expected and the cast was incredible. A backwards time loop through his own timeline! It's genius! Go out and give this is a listen, I guarantee you that you'll be riveted.