March 25, 2015
I used to be a HUGE X-Files fan. Massive. I organized viewing parties in the dorm in college for second season. I dressed as Scully for Halloween at the bookstore. (I still have the fake FBI ID badge I rigged up from my old military ID. I probably broke some laws doing this, now that I think of it. Hm.) How big of a fan was I? I have pretty much every magazine that put the show on its cover in the mid-90’s. I have them bagged. Cinefantasique did great episode guides, and I have all those too. This is only part of the collection — I didn’t dig the rest out of the basement.
I realized recently I don’t talk about this fandom of mine much. Mostly because I completely stopped watching the show after about sixth or seventh season. It lost its way, it lost the thing that made it great, and became one of my early data points on how not to write a series.
The early episodes, particularly right around seasons 2 and 3, are still brilliant. Go back and give them a spin.
So how do I feel about news of a reboot? Very, very meh. I’m glad it’s a mini-series — less chance for everyone involved to embarrass themselves. But mostly I feel the way I did when the second movie came out. Why? Why? Is there a reason for this except to cash in on the nostalgia of old-school fans? The first season is more than 20 years in the past. In some ways The X-Files was a product of its time — post 80’s cynicism merging with the growing paranoia of the 90’s. Can this premise even really function in an age when Ancient Aliens is an actual TV show? Can The X-Files really do anything new? Does it even want to? Or is this just to roll around in the nice cozy blanket of Scully and Mulder’s banter? And the idea of The X-Files ever being cozy is a bit much for me to wrap my brain around. This is the horror TV show that made all horror TV that came after it possible.
I’ll watch, most likely. I’ll probably even like it. But I don’t expect it to be in any way as amazing or as revolutionary as it was then.
And really, I want something new to get excited about.
(If they can get Darin Morgan to write an episode, I’ll take everything back.)
March 23, 2015
I FINALLY got to see Urinetown, the satirical dystopian musical, which I’ve known about since it came out 15 years ago because you can’t be into musical theater and not know about a musical called Urinetown. I had no idea what to expect, but it turns out it was great, because it knows exactly how silly it is and goes full meta, and it turns out that’s a great way to do a quick, punchy, funny musical.
I also had no idea what to expect because this was the first production I’d seen by the local theater group, the Longmont Theater Company. I was braced for iffy, but they started singing, they were great, and I relaxed. The show had that homemade look to it but everyone knew what they were doing and they did an excellent job. I enjoyed it. (Having done community theater in high school, I know exactly how iffy it can get, like when your Nellie and Emile in South Pacific have zero chemistry, and in fact your Nellie and Joe start dating before the end of the show… ANYHOO.)
I’m caught up on this final season of Justified, and for the most part I think it’s great, particularly the villains’ tangled plots and Raylen trying to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up.
But I gotta tell you, I think they’re completely screwing up Ava again. After the last two seasons, you cannot convince me that she’s that much of a wet dishrag idiot. That she would really put up with the shit Boyd’s pulling on her. All I can think is that she must have some big epic plan up her sleeve to screw everyone over by the end. But if so, the show is keeping it really well hidden. And it’s not satisfying.
Also, I propose that you know Sam Elliott’s a bad guy in this because he doesn’t have his mustache. Sam Elliott without a mustache is JUST WRONG.
March 16, 2015
What I’ve been watching:
After being really appalled by the couple of episodes I saw of History Channel’s Sons of Liberty miniseries, which would have you believe that the American Revolution was run by a bunch of Gen Y hotties vamping and fistfighting their way across New England, and that none of them had wives and families and Abigail Adams was a walk-on part, I’ve started on the HBO series from a few years ago, John Adams.
I love it so far. Very well acted and it seems awfully more accurate: the founding fathers were for the most part established, middle-aged men with families who had a heck of a lot to lose by fomenting revolution. Abigail Adams is really damned important.
We get to the reading of the Declaration of Independence — because every show ever having to do with the American Revolution has a reading of the Declaration of Independence — and in John Adams, part of that reading is done by Abigail and their daughter. Hearing this read in women’s voices — it seems like such a little thing, but it struck me powerfully. It’s seems really, vitally important to hear it read in a woman’s voice. And I’m trying to remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard it read by a woman. This is a deep and striking thing that I’m still thinking about.
What I’ve been reading:
I’m reading a bunch of stuff from this year’s Nebula ballot so I can be an informed voter.
I just finished up a fantastic book about the Silk Road: Life Along the Silk Road by Susan Whitfield. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has a great temporary exhibit right now about the Silk Road — I recommend it. This is where I picked up the book. Whitfield’s book isn’t comprehensive — it deals with mainly central Asia and western China from about the 7th to 10th centuries. But the way she approaches it is through the lives of the kinds of individuals you’d have met in these places during this time. There’s a ton of information about religion, culture, art, trading, warfare, but it’s all in the context of what these people’s lives looked like. It’s an interesting and fascinating way to present history I think.
The reason I’m researching the Silk Road: for my fantasy novel that I want to write some day, I want it sent in a diverse and tolerant culture. This means not medieval Europe. Are there medieval examples of religiously diverse and tolerant cultures? Why yes, along the Silk Road — because it turns out people can be diverse and tolerant when there’s an economic benefit in doing so. Who knew?
February 16, 2015
BBC America has been airing Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes 2-3 nights a week for a good long while now, and I find myself very often after leaving off work and before foraging for dinner, melting into my sofa and watching for a bit. Or I’ll put it on as background chatter while I’m knitting. Somehow, some way, it’s very comforting.
The thing is, the show as whole does not hold up well. Especially in the notorious first season, the actors clearly aren’t sure just what they’re doing, they’re not comfortable with each other (oh my gosh, the number of times they have to point out Data doing something android-y or Worf doing something Klingon-y, gah), the stories are often very staid, the philosophy ham-handed, and the dialog… oh my. ST: TNG has moments of brilliance — “The Inner Light” is one of the best hours of dramatic television in existence. But then there are times when the show sounds like a role-playing game run by fifth graders. Very smart fifth graders, usually, but still.
For awhile, I couldn’t re-watch the show at all, and I winced at how I was so enamored of it when I was a teenager. (The excuse was we didn’t really have any other science fiction on TV, and that was very true.) But…. and yet… I’ve started watching it again. Like I said, it’s sometimes just voices in the background. But these characters are so familiar, and so likable, and their world is also so familiar. Did you know you can go to YouTube and play the Enterprise’s ambient engine noise for 24 hours? And isn’t that weirdly soothing? At this point, the whole show is like a warm fuzzy blanket.
The phenomenon of how much I’ve come to appreciate just hanging out with Picard and Worf and the rest is fascinating to me. Fiction, entertainment, comfort — powerful stuff, here.
(How many of you are still playing that engine noise? *raises hand*)
January 19, 2015
I suppose I could call this post talking about TV, but I really want to call it talking about women characters, ’cause that’s what I’m going to do. One of these shows is pissing me off, and one of them isn’t. Can you guess which is which? Heh.
By the penultimate episode, our two strong, interesting, active women characters are both lying in bed at the edge of death, being watched over by the men. They aren’t just ill, they’re infected: one with TB (Victorian gothic bingo FTW!), one with some kind of “evil” that I suspect will end in a Rosemary’s Baby situation. Both of them have become, by this episode, mere conduits for the plot in which the men will act. For all their earlier strength, they are in the end damsels in distress. (Like Mina, who is barely worth mentioning, really.)
This is what writers must guard against. You can create the most wonderful, interesting, strong, well-rounded women characters in the world. But if you reduce them to the usual roles in the plot — McGuffins, creatures who are acted upon rather than acting — then you haven’t actually written a strong woman character at all. You can call them powerful and liberated because they sleep around with no consequences. But if that’s all they do? If that’s the only agency they have? No.
I keep flipping the genders on that possession scene. What if it were Dorian Gray lying tied to that bed? Or Mr. Murray, who has peered too long into the darkness? What if the women were set to looking over him, to find a way to save him? What would that story look like?
I would like to keep watching because despite my frustrations I want to see what they do with the mess they’ve made. Also, at least no one has actually said the words “American werewolf in London,” but we’re all thinking it.
Oh my yes. I have some quibbles. There’ve been some real bone-headed plot beats. But I forgive the show, because of what it’s doing and what arc it’s setting up: I propose that the whole premise of the show is to establish that Peggy Carter is Steve Rogers’ equal, and that she is worthy of carrying on his legacy. Moreover, she must learn to believe that she is worthy of carrying on his legacy.
The show is doing a couple of things that I love:
1. In Peggy’s personal life, she’s surrounded by supportive women (“Love the hat!”) who are going through the same things she is — fighting sexism, finding their places in the world. There is a whole world of women here. Peggy may be the only woman at work, but she isn’t alone.
2. In the same way Steve Rogers represented the common soldier — he never claimed to be any different from the soldiers around him, no more deserving of accolades, no less willing to shoulder the same burdens — Peggy Carter represents post-war working women. The radio show that dogs Peggy? It plays the same role here that the USO stage show played in Captain America — the fiction at odds with reality, that they must put behind them. That thing I said above, about Peggy being Steve’s equal? It’s there in that conversation she has with Jarvis (this is massively paraphrased):
Jarvis: Everyone in this line of work needs a support network.
Peggy: Steve didn’t.
Jarvis: It’s my understanding that Captain Rogers had you.
She wasn’t his sidekick. She wasn’t his “girl.” They were partners, full stop. Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter are the same. It doesn’t have anything to do with superpowers, but with the people, and we finally have our heroine who is a hero. I weep for the joy of it.
December 26, 2014
So I’ve finally started watching Penny Dreadful. I’m only a couple of episodes in, but I’m already simultaneously amused and frustrated, because it’s such the standard Mythic Victorian London. With a little more horror, maybe — but even then, it’s bouncing up against From Hell and various Wolfman and Jekyll and Hyde retellings. Look, everybody: Grubby slums! Garish prostitutes! Jack the Ripper! Upperclass gents in cravats with deep dark secrets! I’m going to keep going with the show, because this is an excellent take on the Frankenstein story so far. I love Proteus. He’s broken my heart three times in two episodes, and I want to see more. (I’d been drinking the rest of the champagne from what was leftover after making cheese fondu — in other words, a lot of champagne — and I turned to my friends and said, “You know why this story’s going to break my heart? Because in every version of Frankenstein, Victor’s always such a shit!” Yeah, I got a bit emotional.)
But it’s got me thinking about mythic settings. Especially mythic historical settings. Because it seems to me at this point most of the shows/stories I see set in Victorian London have very little to do with Victorian London, and are instead amalgams of all the stories about Victorian London that have been handed down to us. This setting got its start with Dickens and Conan Doyle, but it’s now taken entirely for granted that a story set in Victorian London will have grubby slums and garish prostitutes and upperclass gents with deep dark secrets.
World War II is another space where this is happening, and it’s really come to a head over the last few years. We don’t see too many stories about Vietnam anymore, but darn it if we haven’t had half a dozen World War II stories — Monuments Men, Fury, Unbroken, Defiance, Enemy at the Gates — even Captain America counts. Heroic men, impossible odds, triumph over evil and adversity, etc. The mythologization of World War II really comes clear for me when I watch movies about that war that were made in the few years after — because the war in those stories isn’t the mythologized one we’ve grown familiar with. Even the frame story in White Christmas (released 1954, I think) deals with issues we don’t see told about that particular war anymore — coming home, the way war experiences continue to affect the people who fought. But since then, we don’t really tell stories about World War II — we tell stories set in this backdrop that’s been handed down, with a certain expected set of tropes, whole cloth.
Not sure where I’m going with all this. Except maybe that it reinforces my feeling that if you’re going to write about a familiar historical setting, it’s very useful to research that setting, rather than to take for granted the familiar — perhaps overly familiar — tropes of that setting that have been packaged up and handed down to us over and over again. This is not to say using those tropes is automatically bad, but it’s important to recognize which details are perhaps overused tropes, and which are details that will actually seem fresh and interesting.
October 29, 2014
This is the week I’m supposed to be doing all the stuff I was putting off until after MileHi Con (no more traveling this year!). That’s not going as well as I’d hoped. But — I got a really nice surprise last night because I had forgotten that I had tickets to go see Erasure at the Ogden. Fortunately, I remembered, and went, and had a great time, because Andy Bell is a god. He came out in sequined tails and top hat and opened with “Oh L’amour,” and I pretty much burst into tears, which makes me think I’ve been a little more stressed out than I realized. Whew. I danced for an hour and a half solid. Nice, huh?
I caught up with last week’s episode of Arrow and it had a bunch of examples of why I like the show so much — most of them involving Ollie and Thea. So Ollie flies to Corto Maltese to try to talk Thea into coming back home. And it’s all very straightforward. While another show might have tried to turn it into some big cat and mouse hunter-seeker thing, where Ollie has to spend the whole episode just looking for her, none of that happens. He finds her working in a coffee shop, they hug, they sit and talk like adults. It’s unexpected and it’s great. Then, when Ollie apologizes for keeping secrets and that he wants to be open with her now, what is the first secret he reveals? It’s not, “I’m the Arrow.” It’s that their father survived the wreck of the Gambit, but then killed himself so Ollie would have enough food. It’s an awful story, it’s another bit of lore about their family, and it affects Thea. Because now Thea is the one keeping secrets — that she’s been training with Malcolm Merlin — and that half the reason she’s doing what she’s doing is so she’ll have secrets of her own, and maybe that’s not a good thing after all. It’s super clear that this brother and sister still love each other.
The reason I like these story beats is because they avoid low-hanging fruit. They’re not obvious. They don’t go for cheap drama — cheap drama would be Thea hating Ollie and them screaming and fighting. But no, they sit and talk, and there’s a ton of stuff going on in subtext. The guiding principle in scenes like this isn’t “Let’s get our conflict by having all our characters go after each others’ throats.” These scenes are anchored on a premise that doesn’t change: Ollie and Thea love each other, even when they hurt each other and keep secrets and screw up. The drama comes from watching them try to work it out.
It’s refreshing and I’m really enjoying it.