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On Starfury Speed and other stories

February 3, 2019 Leave a comment

One of the things about spending a chunk of your life writing about other people’s fictional tales is you think a lot about how stories get put together. And if you’re me, you then get kind of annoyed when other people miss the point and try and pull a good tale apart for all the wrong reasons.

I love good criticism. A well written review is an art in itself. And I adore it when someone takes a great story and takes it apart skilfully. What I can’t stand is when a work gets taken apart because the critic decides that the story itself is wrong. For example, someone complaining that a vampire movie is bad because the vampires can walk in sunlight without exploding1, ignoring the fact that it’s a story and the storyteller can do whatever the hell they like with the tale.

The Starfury Speed trope is a modern example of favouring story over accuracy. It comes from the 90’s TV show Babylon 5. The show featured small fighter craft that happened to be very quick and agile2. Various parts of the story had the ships turning up in the nick of time, or just too late. So obviously fans corner the show’s creator JMS and ask “How fast do Starfuries travel? Or for that matter, any of the show’s many cool spaceships?”

starfury

How does it work? Unless the story is about the science, or that engineering is part of the creators message, then rule of cool applies. And Starfuries are really cool. (Image via TMC-Deluxe )

 

His reply? “At the speed of plot.” It’s a perfect answer from someone whose job it is to tell stories. Expanding on this though, it should be taken as read that if, say, the tabletop miniatures game states that the SA-32A Mitchell-Hyundyne Starfury travels at a certain speed, that doesn’t make it a rule that applies to all other media. It’s just a thing they’ve done to make the game work.

Looking for details that aren’t relevant to the story in order to criticise a story is not productive. If your argument that Superman is a bad movie because in the real world people don’t fly, you’ve missed an important step somewhere.

There are lots of examples available. My personal favourite comes from the UK LARP scene, were myself and friends happened to be playing Samurai Badger people in a fantasy setting. Various geeks wanted to impress upon us their knowledge of Feudal Japan by asking us stupid out of character questions and lecturing us at length about how ‘Samurai don’t work that way’. We had to patiently point out to people that we weren’t aware giant badger people existed in the real world.

All of this ties into another frustrating trope, called The Thermian Argument.3 You see, just because a thing works in a story, and you can justify it in the context of the story, doesn’t make you immune from real world criticism. Claiming its okay to overtly mock a whole section of real-world society because you’ve made up this thing that says it’s okay, doesn’t make it okay.

Good criticism is an art in its own right, and it’s healthy to bring stories into their real world context. It is not a contradiction to enjoy a story in its context and then pull it to bits when your pop it on the workbench that is a the real world, or even the context of another genre with different conventions. But deciding that one made-up thing is more valuable than another made up thing because they contradict each other misses the point of stories.

—————-

1: Vampiric allergy to sunlight of course, being something that’s toggled from story to story, and a clue that all vampire stories don’t share the same universe. You’d think this was obvious, but no.
2: The design was so simple that apparently NASA drew inspiration from it during their research into smaller space vehicles. I understand it was a ‘Why didn’t we think of that’ moment.
3: Coined by Folding Ideas here : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxV8gAGmbtk. To be clear, The Thermian Argument is where you use a made up thing to defend yourself from criticism about problems wih the stories real world context. You justify something awful by saying ‘It makes sense in the story’.

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Categories: Rants, TV

When Titans Attack

June 1, 2018 Leave a comment

The Attack on Titan series proves the point that you can make even the most ridiculous idea and make it all dark and serious.1. I watched the first season ages ago, and enjoyed it for the high-tension nonsense that it was. I also got to interview Bryce Papenbrook, who does the English dub for the shows main character, Eren Yeager.

The interview is somewhere out there in the Starburst archives, but the thing that stuck in my mind is the Bryce was very proud of his ability to act and shout at the same time.

In case you’ve no idea what I’m on about, The Attack on Titan series is a pseudo flintlock fantasy world which takes place in a vaguely German like country. Mankind is under siege and lives in a massive walled city, with the upper classes living in the thickest wall in the center, with thinner walled bits of the city protecting the peasants.   

The threat everyone is hiding from are giant man-baby monsters2 with grotesque heads that walk like toddlers and eat people whole.  These are the titular ‘Titans’. It’s utterly daft and the animated TV show and accompanying comic books are hugely popular across the world, especially in their native Japan. 

The main protagonist is a chap called Eren, who shouts a lot and hates Titans. He works with a team of scouts who swing around on gas powered grappling hooks smacking the monsters in their weak spots with huge swords.

The Roar Of Awakening is the third ‘movie’ instalment of the series. You may note that I’d only seen the first season at this point, though I’d read some of the manga (comic books) and felt up to speed. I was wrong. Between the blood, the shouting and the silly plot twists I had no idea what was going on.

‘Roar’ ramps up the conspiracy and paranoia, but it’s mostly lots of characters jabbering on at each other about nothing until another fight scene happens.

This is because Attack on Titan: The Roar of Awakening is a compressed and re-edited version of season two of the TV series.  The editing makes for some interesting scenes; dramatic freeze frame with some dialogue over the top is used quite a bit in order to stitch the narrative into something vaguely understandable. The result is action scene after action scene, with lots of dramatic music, shouting, violence and the more shouting. The animation really shines at these points, with some great cinematic scenes of huge monsters punching normal sized people. Then eating them.

The problem is that if you didn’t know any about the series going in, well this is part three in an ongoing series; this is going to make no sense .  It’s hard to really understand what this is for. Fans of Attack on Titan will want to five the full series a watch, rather than this butchered shorthand. At two-hours, it’s a heck of a long recap.

Though I get why these things exist, I really wish they didn’t. Honestly, if you’re going to watch this weird and macabre thing, you need to invest the time into it.


1: Genuinely not a good thing. Not everything has to be dark and edgy, after all.

2: Yes you read that right.

Categories: Old Reviews, Reviews, TV

Regeneration Speculation

November 22, 2013 3 comments

I’ve been trying to write a blog post about Doctor Who, regeneration and the role of The Doctor being played by a woman for some time now. Mostly I go round in circles and learn a little bit more about my own tastes, personal prejudices and slowly gain a greater understanding of inequality and sexism. It’s a very useful intellectual exercise for me, but consistently makes for a bloody boring wall of text as I1 waffle on. I’ll try to make it less dull, without tying myself up in knots about how to make the world a more egalitarian2 place.

So duly warned, here are some things to consider about regenerations.

1) Every regeneration is a reboot – I think people get distracted by the fact that because Doctor Who’s reboots happen as part of the narrative, rather than outside it, that this makes changing the show’s format some how easier. It’s not. The story and casting are only part of making a show. Casting Tilda Swinton (for example) as The Doctor is as easy to do as casting Katee Sackhoff as the next James Bond.

2) Having a preference for a certain shape, colour, gender or anything else in your future timelords does not make you a bigot, in the same way that preferring Roger Moore to Sean Connery as James Bond does not automatically make you anti-Scottish.

Being a bigot is the thing that makes you a bigot. For example, if your reason for not wanting Tilda Swinton to play The Doctor boils down to “girls smell”, then you need to have a word with yourself.

If, however, every time you close your eyes and picture The Doctor and you see someone who is short, bald and male (and your list of preferences are all actors who resemble Danny Devito) then that’s just your taste and your shouldn’t let anyone tell you that your tastes are wrong or weird; they’re your tastes and you should enjoy them as they’re part of who you are.

3) Casting, if done well, should be based on who the producers of the show think they could do the best work with. No other criteria should enter into it. Which brings me on to point 4.

4) The only way you’re going to get to make the decision is to become the next show runner of Doctor Who. If you’re so inclined, you should make this a personal goal3. I also think speculating on who the next show runner is just as interesting as trying to guess who the next Doctor is. I suspect it’ll be Mark Gatiss next, but I’d love it to be Jane Goldman.

5) With that in mind, lobbying the BBC to produce a version of Doctor Who with a female lead is the wrong approach. Producers should feel free to pick whomever they’re happy working with. Tell the BBC you want more sci-fi and fantasy shows with female leads and female show runners. Then when the job for show-runner comes up, shout your preferences from the rooftops.

1: I’m fat white bloke of average height in his late 30’s. I’m happy with my body and gender and very happily married to a rather lovely lady. As such I feel I have very little to add that hasn’t already been said by other fat white lucky sods.

But I like to waffle on, so there.

2: Being an egalitarian does not mean you only have to eat eagles. Hmmm, eagles. You can’t be an egalitarian without being a feminist by the way; can’t be for an equal society without dealing with the most obvious imbalance.

3: A hall of fame that includes the likes of Verity Lambert and Russel T Davies.

Categories: Geek, TV Tags: ,

Press Gang

February 25, 2013 3 comments

There is an odd thrill in discovering that a particular artist or creator that you admire presently has also created things in the past that you also really liked, especially when you can learn more about that persons process simply by rewatching or re-reading their old stuff. A recent example for me was rewatching all of Press Gang1

For those not lucky enough to be British teenagers in the 80’s, Press Gang was a kid’s tv show that told the tale of a newspaper ran by school children. It isn’t a school newspaper, the premise is that it’s a local paper targeted at the youth audience2. This Junior Gazette is ran by the tyrannical Lynda Day (played by Julia Sawalha (who would go on to be the straight woman in Absolutely Fabulous), and she is supported by a cast of misfits including a chap called Spike3, who spends most of the series trying to pursue Lynda romantically.

Oh so eighties

Oh so eighties

At its heart, it’s a drama about truth and beauty, and yes, I know how that sounds, but hear me out. The beauty in this case isn’t the constant struggle for romance and happiness (though that is part of it), but the burning desire for unobtainable perfection. Lynda wants the paper to be perfect, Spike strives to be desired by all, the marketing manager Colin wishes to own all the money in the world and so on. The cold light of truth shines on all of these desires and is represented by the newspaper itself, which every episode must carry on no matter what. This allows the show to be silly and serious at the same time; one part of romantic comedy farce and the other part serious teen drama.

This is the framework for some rather dazzling stories that still work to this day. I thought that the more melodramatic scenes that involved themes such as teenage suicide, abuse and the death of the young would have less of impact on me now that I’m a more world weary type of chap, but the show still packs an incredible punch and this is all due to the incredibly well rendered characters and the wit and wisdom that seems to be burnt into almost all of the dialogue.

It certainly isn’t perfect; it suffers a little bit from the ‘moral of the week’ formula all too common in Eighties dramas, and is hampered by that decades unwillingness to be blunt about what it’s trying to say4. The performances are superb, and when it is good it is very, very good. Some of the ideas and scenes are clearly a first draft for more memorable moments of Moffat’s later shows; the slapstick of Coupling can be seen in some of Press Gang’s sillier moments (usually featuring the hapless gobshite Colin), and the relationship between Lynda and her best friend Kenny has echoes with Holmes and Watson in Sherlock.

The old show is well worth a re-watch, but be warned; you will find yourself rewriting the last episode in your head for weeks, if not years, to come.


1: Of course I’d known for years that Moffat was behind Press Gang and Coupling but the thrill only becomes obvious when you take the time to experience the earlier works again.
2: The 80’s were obsessed with capturing ‘youth audiences’ as if young people were this new and strange alien culture that had recently come to Earth. Looking back on it all, I cynically wonder if the 40-something commissioning editors weren’t merely trying to recapture their own youth.
3: Played by South London’s own Dexter Fletcher with a not-as-good-as-you-remember American accent, He went on to be in a wide range of British movies, typically as ‘slightly crazy cockney geezer’. We try not to talk about his stint as the presenter of kids show Games Master.
4: Back in the 70’s and 80’s, TV programming made the mistake of taking idiots with too much time on their hands too seriously. This severely hampered what could talked about on telly, especially children’s drama. Proto-trolls such as Mary Whitehouse and her ilk deserve their own blog post however, so I’ll talk about them some other time.

Categories: TV

Bring Back Jupiter Moon

January 28, 2013 1 comment

Once in a while, there’s a rush of interest when some actor/director/geek celeb mentions the possibility of a much loved TV series being remade, or coming back to TV in some way. In a way it’s the fault of Star Trek; there was a show that was cancelled, came back as a series of movies, and then went on to be re-imagined in many different ways. Collar a random nerd in the street and they will almost certainly have some show or other that they want to see re-done or just resurrected. These days it tends to be Firefly1, but it can easily be Blakes 7 or even Star Cops.

Do you know what TV series they should bring back? Jupiter Moon. For those of you who have never heard of it, Jupiter Moon was the flagship soap opera of the long defunct British Satelite Broadcasting company, and vanished shortly after Sky bought BSB out. The characters lived in a re-conditioned space ship that orbited Calypso, one of Jupiter’s Moons (hence the name). The ship, called the Ilea2 functioned as a university for students studying the cosmos. It had no aliens, no monsters, and at no point did anyone have a teleport accident and devolve into a weird lizard-duck creature. Set in 2050, all the technology was based on conservative estimates to what would be possible by then, so it had a very down-to-earth feel.

The ILEA. Beats the Rover's Return hands down in terms of awesome.

The ILEA. Beats the Rover’s Return hands down in terms of awesome.

So was Jupiter Moon any good? Well, not really. It spent far too much time telling the viewer that it was set in the future and not enough time on being a soap opera. However, when it did concentrate on the more mundane elements it really shone. This is because the show was really about people living in a remote place and having to work together to get on. Cramming characters into a confined space a letting them talk tends to work as a drama3, and the hazards and emptiness of space do a decent enough job of adding an element of the exotic to the show.

So why remake it? Because it would be a science fiction show for a people who don’t watch science fiction. In the same way that The Big Bang Theory isn’t for nerds, a remade Jupiter Moon would hand the wonder of the stars to those who have never really looked up. It would also allow the broadcaster to educate and entertain. The format would allow the public an ‘easy way in’ to the idea of space exploration, and could be used to gather more interest in the sciences. It’s also a rich vein of drama; sure you could do a similar show set on a remote island or oil rig, but neither of those settings are quite as awesome a reconditioned space ship orbiting a moon of Jupiter.

So the next time you watch a soap opera, ask yourself “Would this be improved by being in space?” Because surely, the answer is yes.


1: As much as I love the show and the movie, if they ever relaunch Firefly it will be with an all new cast. Though I can’t see it myself; Whedon has been given the keys to the Marvel toybox, I suspect he’ll be busy for a while.
2: A pun. Named after the Inner London Education Authority.
3: If you don’t believe me, consider why Big Brother continues to be on the air.

Categories: Rants, TV

Superman Versus The Elite

November 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Mainstream comics have a strange sort of an affliction; on the one hand the producers are constantly looking out for innovative new ideas and story lines in order to sell books to an increasingly jaded and cynical audience, who also fear change1. The result tends to be that any work that challenges the status quo does incredibly well to begin with, before being quickly buried. 2

I was remind of this after watching Superman versus The Elite, which is an odd sort of cartoon. It’s an adaptation of a comic book which in itself was a reaction to another comic book that had nothing to do (directly) with Superman. The plot of Superman versus The Elite can be summarised as something along the lines of this; “Superman encounters a new team of heroes who, lead by a Union Jack Flag wearing Englishman3, go out of their way to directly take on tyrannical regimes. Superman’s public approval is suffering due to his boy scout image, and he goes on to teach this team, known as The Elite that killing is wrong, and that violence is scary.” The behaviour of the characters make little sense, Superman comes across as a grumpy old bully and the plot fails on every level, even as a possible parody.

Jenny Sparks; the spirit of the last century, wrapped up in the Union Flag.

Or to put it another way, the cartoon is a boring bag of rubbish, and it’s based on an equally boring Superman story, What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice & the American Way?. That story was written as a response to The Authority, a comic book series created by Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch. The initial run of book asked the question “If you literally had the power to overcome tyranny, then would you accept the moral responsibility to do so?” Thought provoking and deliberately provocative, it was crammed with some lovely ideas, such as the spirit of the age, the soul of cities, super heroes as a pantheon, and iconic heroes being part of a much older story.4

It didn’t last, of course. DC comics bought Wildstorm, who published The Authority. After an initially amazing run, with some great talent involved, it was quietly taken out round the back and shot.

The fact that Superman versus The Elite exists is just odd; it’s as if someone at DC felt so threatened byThe Authority that they wanted to ensure that it was stomped on thoroughly. What it actually did was remind me how good the original work was, and not only dig them all out again, but recommend the back-issues to friends. Maybe that was the plan, but I doubt it.


1: Perhaps because the audience is getting older. Recent research (article here) suggests that over a quarter of the readership is over 65.

2: The good but over-rated Watchmen is not the exception to this rule you may think it is. The work has been pretty much seen as a one-off, its innovations taking decades to filter into mainstream books. They recently launched spin-off books based on the original work, causing much outrage from the comic book reader community, who mostly failed to consider that had this happened sooner, it may have triggered all sorts of interesting ideas.

3: Oh, and they have a magician, a super strong guy, a winged girl with techno-organic powers and a reality hopping space ship that can generate teleportation portals. The Elite are a strawman parody of The Authority, such much so that it’s kind of sad.

4: Apollo and Midnighter where direct references to mainstream characters Superman and Batman. One was the Sun, the other night. Where one was kind, the other was vicious. They were also lovers, which made every homophobic comic book fan who read the book spit out their dummies so fast that the sound barrier was breached. Seriously, the day that book came back you could hear the sonic booms.

Categories: Comic Books, TV

Elementary Mistakes

October 19, 2012 6 comments

A little while ago, Sue Vertue1 expressed her displeasure over CBS’s announcement that they were going to produce a show similar to the BBC’s excellent Sherlock. She need not have worried, the American take on a thoroughly British idea, called Elementary2 does not come within a country mile of Sherlock, especially in terms of quality, plot and originality.

The problem is that it’s more beholden to the rules of American TV than it is to the source material. 3 So rather than a brilliant yet austere man who, by modern standards, may well be considered a danger to society, we get an edgy and cool adolescent who has kinky sex, goes to addiction counselling and admits that he could be wrong. It makes for a great detective show, but doesn’t live up to the promise of Sherlock Holmes.

Tommy Lee Miller as not really Sherlock Holmes

Less the Great Detective, more the great big man child.

It is a huge shame; the roles are superbly performed. Johnny Lee Miller is an excellent Holmes, and injects manic intelligence and dispassion into the role. Lucy Liu4 is a superb Doctor Watson, being sharp and hard enough to be the great detective’s companion. However, this is a dynamic familiar to many a crime drama, and it doesn’t evoke the classic work. Given that it’s meant to be a direct re-imagining, it seems a bit of a waste.

What I wanted was a Holmes style version of Person of Interest (which is also produced by CBS) and what we got was something more akin to House than Sherlock; it’s a clever remix of old ideas, and though this makes for a good show, it doesn’t make for a remarkable show. TV is moving on from the tired old formulas of crime drama, and it’s sad to see such talent go to waste on something that could have been much, much more.


1: Her productions credits include Mr. Bean, The Vicar of Dibley, Coupling and two small boys with her husband, Steven Moffat. The pair of them are responsible for Sherlock, of course.

2: Elementary, as in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase that Sherlock Holmes never actually says in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original work (and isn’t really his catch phrase). But then the writers of the show wouldn’t know that, as they clearly haven’t read any of the books. In many ways, it’s quite a regrettable name, especially as it sounds a little bit too much like alimentary, a part of the digestive tract.

3: You could argue that CBS has made these changes to avoid conflict with the BBC. I doubt that; the changes look more like the inevitable consequence of altering something to fit the market.

4: While we are at it, why have they changed Watson’s back story so much? It’s another change from the source that doesn’t makes sense, if you assume they’re drwawing inspiration from the original. Elementary’s version of the good doctor isn’t a former member of the military, which is rubbish. Is it because Watson is a woman? I sincerely hope not. It could be that American audiences don’t like to be reminded of Afghanistan. Both reasons aren’t good enough.

Categories: TV