Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.
(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.
Read on, Macduff! »
Because I Have Opinions, I’m going to write about this past week’s Doctor Who episode, “Heaven Sent”.
In isolation, the episode instantly became the best of the Peter Capaldi episodes to date. Not that that’s saying a lot, since his run has been extraordinarily weak so far, with only “Under the Lake”/ “Before the Flood” being above average. (Most of last season was completely forgettable.)
What sets this episode apart is that it seems Steven Moffat remember what made his four stories during the Russell T. Davies period among the best of that era: While his stories didn’t always hold up to close scrutiny, they always had a successful emotional resonance and felt true to the characters and situations. But as show runner, Moffat’s stories have lost that emotional resonance and often feel downright manipulative. And his plots have gotten increasingly contrived, and just needlessly complex. While there is some of that here, fundamentally “Heaven Sent” is a simple story which works on an emotional level, relying heavily on Capaldi to pull it off, which he does, in perhaps his best performance in the role to date.
Much more spoilery discussion after the break. No plot summary, though; read the Wikipedia article if you need a refresher.
Read on, Macduff! »
When I was a kid – this was probably the summer of 1974 – my dad sat me down in front of the television (or so I remember it) and said, “You might like this.” This was Star Trek: The Animated Series. I don’t remember much about watching it back then, except being compelled by the episode “Albatross”.
A few years later, a friend and I would play Star Trek on the jungle-gym in our yard. He was Captain Kirk, and I was Mister Spock.
After seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, I eventually realized (although it would take some years) that Star Trek was fundamentally about Captain Kirk. (One reason among many why none of the later Star Trek series worked for me.) But like, I imagine, many engineering types, I still identify more strongly with Spock than with Kirk as a personality.
Yet more years later, in my days of arguing Star Trek: The Next Generation on USENET, my main sparring partner made an observation that Leonard Nimoy was the only actor on the original series with much of an acting range. While I think this sells many of his co-stars short, it’s clear that Nimoy’s acting was a big factor in bringing Spock to life. With any other actor the character would, at least, have been quite different. Heck, even with Zachary Quinto doing his level best to imitate Nimoy’s performance, his version of Spock in the recent films feels considerably different from Nimoy’s.
Today Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. And, as is usually the case when someone passes – in this case, a man I never met, whom I only really know through a fictional character he played – I don’t know what to say.
How about this: I always thought it was great that back when the original Star Trek was bring produced, Nimoy and William Shatner became good friends, and stayed friends for the rest of their lives. Considering that Shatner was cast to be the series’ star, but that Spock was the breakout character of the show, it’s easy to see that they could have instead been rivals and not gotten along at all. I think each of them came away with a lot of baggage from the show, but in a way I think their lasting friendship is as powerful a lesson as any of the morality plays that Trek threw up on the screen.
Welcome to my review of the worst season of Doctor Who since the Colin Baker era. Yes, even worse than last season, which did not have a lot to recommend it.
As usual, I’ll start with my ranking of episodes, from best to worst:
- Deep Breath (written by Steven Moffat)
- Mummy on the Orient Express (Jamie Mathieson)
- Robots of Sherwood (Mark Gatiss)
- Last Christmas (Steven Moffat)
- Dark Water/Death in Heaven (Steven Moffat)
- Time Heist (Stephen Thompson & Steven Moffat)
- Listen (Steven Moffat)
- Flatline (Jamie Mathieson)
- The Caretaker (Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat)
- Into the Dalek (Phil Ford & Steven Moffat)
- In the Forest of the Night (Frank Cottrell Boyce)
- Kill the Moon (Peter Harness)
Let’s sum it up this way: I own every season of the new series on DVD – but I don’t plan to buy this one. Frankly there is not a single episode I particularly want to see a second time. The best of the season, “Deep Breath”, is barely more than a run-of-the-mill suspense yarn. And it gets worse from there.
Also as usual, my reviews contain plenty of spoilers, and so I’ll continue after the jump…
Read on, Macduff! »
I was kind of aware of the SyFy mini-series Ascension (no relation to the deck building card game of the same name) because they’d been running ads for it for a few weeks now (mainly promoting it as Tricia Helfer’s return to SF TV). Somehow I stumbled upon the timeline for the story and it got me much more interested.
The premise is that in 1963 the United States launched a generation starship to Proxima Centauri, with a planned mission length of 100 years, and that this was kept from the public. So the ship, the USS Ascension, developed its own society (with only 600 people), cut off from communication with Earth. The series starts in the present day, 51 years after launch, and begins with the first murder on the ship since it took off. The first episode (of three), in particular, focuses on the investigation of the murder, and various red herrings along the way.
The first episode also ends with a big plot twist, and it’s impossible to talk about the story in depth without spoiling it, so I’m going to continue this entry after the jump.
But if this sounds interesting, I suggest watching the first episode, which features some stellar set design and costuming, maybe the best I’ve ever seen in an SF television show. When you hit the twist, you’ll either be intrigued to watch more, or you’ll decide to stop there.
But now, on to the spoilers:
Read on, Macduff! »
Time travel stories are maybe my favorite type of science fiction story. However, as I get older I find that I have higher standards for what makes a good time travel story. I realized this after recently reading a the novel Man in the Empty Suit and seeing the film Looper, both of which I think are only so-so time travel stories for reasons I’ll discuss.
(Spoilers for both of those stories below.)
What I mean by “a time travel story” is a story where the use of time travel is integral to the plot and its development, it’s not simple an enabler for a basically different story.
For example, the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is not an instance of what I mean by “time travel story”. Time travel is an enabling plot device, but the story itself is a light comedy driven by a clash of cultures, and the time travel is just a means to get into that situation. Similarly, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine leaps into the far future, but again it’s just a means to get our hero to a far-off shore, the fact that time travel was used is mostly immaterial to the plot.
To me, a time travel story at least skirts, and realistically has to somehow grapple with, the Grandfather Paradox. Some sequence of events which threatens to break the protagonist’s timeline so that the story you’re reading can’t happen. Paradoxes and the avoidance thereof are part and parcel of the story.
What frustrates me about many time travel stories is that they play fast and loose with what happens when someone changes history, and don’t explain what their model of changing history involves.
For example, consider Looper (2012): I think this film runs into problems because it has some clever scenes it wanted to depict, but those scenes undercut the whole story.
The film takes place in 2044, where Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an executioner. Sometime in the future, time travel will be invented, and outlawed, and the mob will use it to send people back to 2044 to be executed. At some point the mob will send the loopers back to be killed by their younger selves, at which point their “loop has been closed” and they’ll be retired with a big payout, which they can enjoy until sometime 30 years hence when they’ll be picked up and sent back for execution. (There are some motivational problems with the story – why would the mob wipe out the loopers 30 years after they retired? – but I found them easy to forgive, and they’re not my concern here.)
The most chilling scene in the whole film is where Joe’s friend Seth (Paul Dano) fails to close his loop, and his future self (Frank Brennan) escapes. The present-day mob captures young Seth and carves a message into his arm to get to a certain address in 15 minutes, which his future self sees as history has been changed. The mob doesn’t want to just kill young Seth since that may change time more than it can handle, but instead they start mutilating him and cutting off his limbs, which his future self experiences as he travels to the site. When he arrives he is killed.
Young Seth is not killed, but he’s obviously maimed and crippled for life (his legs have been amputated, for example, and his nose cut off). It’s a very effective scene when it’s happening, but how can these changes have been significantly less serious than just killing him? Maybe Seth’s future life was largely irrelevant, but if so, why not just kill him? It’s not explained, so it makes the film feel sloppy at one of its best moments.
The crux of the film is that future Joe (Bruce Willis) comes back, and also escapes his execution. He has identified three children, one of whom will grow up to be “the Rainmaker”, the big boss of the mob in the future, and he wants to kill him before he grows up in order to prevent that from happening, and also save his wife from being killed when he is rounded up. He and young Joe have a showdown over the boy who is the future Rainmaker, and young Joe realizes that this very experience may be what turns the kid bad, so he commits suicide before old Joe can kill the kid’s adopted mother, causing old Joe to disappear.
This paradox basically rips the story apart, because it means that none of what happened after old Joe arrived could have happened, and yet it obviously had to happen. (Secondarily, the film fails to show that young Joe’s sacrifice actually prevented the Rainmaker from developing – the film is missing its denouement, which is critical to it being emotionally satisfying.) The story is fundamentally flawed because even by saying that time travel is subject to the many-worlds interpretation wouldn’t have fixed it, because then young Joe killing himself wouldn’t have caused old Joe to disappear, since old Joe came from a different branch of time. So the story ends up as something of a mess, pretending to use time travel in a serious manner but not treating it very seriously.
Man in the Empty Suit, by Sean Ferrell, has similar problems. It has a really neat premise (which is why I bought it): The protagonist invented a time travel device (the “raft”) when he was 19, and every year of his personal time he travels to New York exactly 100 years after his birth (i.e., to the 2070s) to have a party in an old hotel with all of the other birthday incarnations of himself. The main version of the character is 39, and he learns when he arrives that his age-40 version will be killed, and that all the older versions of himself have been covering this up, and expect him to solve the mystery and keep it from happening.
It’s a great idea, but it opens up several expectations which the book really has to meet to work:
- Who kills his 40-year-old self, and why?
- How can his future selves exist if age 40 was killed?
- How can he prevent his own death while still appearing to die?
- Why don’t his future selves know what happened and how to prevent it?
The book is filled with loops, in which the main character sees or learns about things which will happen in his future, and then duly makes sure they come to pass when the time comes. But it also has some flat-out paradoxes, the cardinal example being when one of his mid-30 selves breaks his nose, and one of his slightly-older selves changes things so it doesn’t happen. So some of his selves have a broken nose, and others don’t. Also, while there “should” be only about 50 of his selves around the party (since the oldest one we see is 70), there are many more, including many from before he invented the raft, and he has no memory of them having been there.
I think the book is trying to go for a many-worlds interpretation of events, but it’s messily handled since characters seem to have memories of events which never happened to them. And the book eventually fails to work out any of the goals I expected it to meet above. Okay, a many-worlds interpretation would address some of them (although we never learn who killed age 40 or why they did it). So the book ended up being a big disappointment because the messy time travel and lack of a structure for how it worked made everything else much less meaningful or sensical.
I think time travel stories appeal to me in part because getting the pieces to fit together is challenging, and figuring out how they fit is fun. So when a story doesn’t deal with the Grandfather Paradox appropriately – or at least tried to – I find it really frustrating. Dealing with it usually means taking one of the following approaches:
- There are no paradoxes, because everything gets carefully worked out so that everything happens exactly as it always did, despite the presence of time travellers. This can be very difficult to do, but it’s really satisfying when it happens. The original series of John Byrne’s Next Men comic book did this really well. (The later series tore it all down and is therefore not nearly as interesting.)
- The shadow history approach: There are no paradoxes, but it seemed like there might be because the characters had an incomplete understanding of what happened in the past. The story is often focused on illuminating those things. (Some stories use time travel to retcon something from an earlier story which didn’t make sense, which is a variant of this approach.)
- Use the many-worlds interpretation. This is perfectly reasonable, but it also means you can’t have paradoxes: Changes to a character’s past don’t affect the character’s present, because they create a new timeline with a different instance of that character. This takes away the “character gets killed, his future self goes poof” effect that some writers like to use, as in Looper. But you can’t have it both ways. X-Men: Days of Future Past (both the original comic story and the film) use this approach. In the film, Logan goes back from the dystopian future to 1973, creates a new future timeline, and then returns to the present in that timeline. But there’s no evidence that anyone in the present remembers the other timeline, other than what Logan told them in 1973.
A good example of a film that handles the Grandfather Paradox well is the first Back to the Future, which works because it strongly suggests that the paradox could be created, but our hero prevails and manages to fix his timeline (even if some of the details get revised in the process). The first Terminator film takes a subtler approach where everything works out the way it was supposed to.
Looper would have had to sacrifice some of its cool scenes to satisfy me as a time travel story. But Man in the Empty Suit I think could have been pretty satisfying if it had stuck close to its original premise and not brought in all the paradoxes – or better, come up with a framework where the paradoxes either aren’t what they seem to be, or are explained due to events the hero wasn’t originally aware of. I kept hoping there was an explanation for how age 40 was killed, yet the character survived. But the writer wanted the story to go in a substantially different direction, which wasn’t the story I wanted to read, and wasn’t the story I felt I’d been promised by the premise.
Too bad, because it started off so cool.
Redshirts is just about the perfect vacation book: It’s a page-turner, it’s funny, and it’s thought-provoking.
It takes place in a Star Trek-like universe, in which crew members of the starship Intrepid find that they are at great risk of being killed whenever they go on a mission with one of five key officers. So much so that most of the crew tries to look busy whenever they can’t avoid the officers outright. Our hero Andrew Dahl and his friends – all recent recruits to the Intrepid – try to unravel what’s going on, and find that not only is there a high fatality rate, but that the officers’ adventures are filled with near-impossible levels of coincidence, as well as events which seem flat-out impossible violations of the laws of physics. Eventually they convince themselves of what must be happening, and hatch a plan to try to fix things and save their own lives in the process.
If you’re familiar with the central conceit of the book, then I’ll discuss it at more length after the jump below. If you’re not, then I’m not going to spoil it here. And it’s either going to work for you, or it isn’t. It worked for me (for the most part), and the story is a fine example of characters backed into a corner and struggling as best they can to get out of their predicament. It’s also at at-times touching story for certain characters who realize what’s been happening to them (in some cases for years), and for certain other characters whose confrontation with the fantastic events causes them to reflect upon and change the course of their lives.
Scalzi is, no doubt about it, a fantastic wordsmith. His light tone doesn’t always work for me (and I can easily see it turning off some readers), and he has to thread the needle here to not lighten the tone of the often-gruesome first half of the book without making it feel inappropriate, and then switch gears to the more serious second half without it becoming maudlin. He succeeds at this quite well, and I was constantly impressed with how funny the book was, but also how clever it was.
As I said, the similarity to Star Trek is deliberate, but it’s not – as I’ve seen a few observe – fan fiction by any reasonable measure. It’s also not metatextual in that it’s not really commenting on Star Trek or similar shows. (If it’s commenting on anything, it’s poking fun at the bad writing that creeps into – if not pervades – most TV shows which have to crank out 20+ episodes per year.) It’s using the basic framework of Star Trek to tell its own story, and I think by-and-large it is respectful of the genre while still being realistic about its sillier aspects.
Unless you take your Star Trek too seriously, or can’t connect with Scalzi’s writing style, I think Redshirts is well worth a read.
Some more spoiler-laden discussion after the jump:
Read on, Macduff! »
The central conceit of The Hunger Games is this: In a post-apocalyptic future America, every year 24 teenagers are taken from each district and brought to the capitol to fight a battle to the death for the entertainment of the public. The winner receives lifelong riches. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, comes from the poor mining District 12, and we see the experience through her eyes. However, since the story is told in the first person, we know that she survives. (Because no rhetorical trick to arrange things otherwise would be convincing.)
Fundamentally, The Hunger Games is a suspense novel, colored by Katniss’ experiences on her journal. The novel sets up the status quo in her own district, and then upends her life when she’s selected for the Games. Katniss feels very deeply about some things, like her mother and sister, but beyond those things she’s very rational and thoughtful, to the point that she has trouble picking up on certain emotional cues from others, and then reacts violently when she’s surprised, as happens several times in the book. On the other hand, her ability to reason serves her well in the arena once the games begin, and her fundamentally good heart wins her some friends and allies.
What Collins does which lifts The Hunger Games above other YA fare that I’ve read is that some plot developments are telegraphed pages ahead of time, but you realize that it’s only going to make thing worse – worse for Katniss, worse for someone she cares about, or worse for everyone. Or that she’s been backed into a corner so although she technically has a choice, she doesn’t really have a choice. It’s a suspense novel, and there’s the constant worry that things are going to get worse, and might not ever get better.
So, the novel is about Katniss’ resilience in the face of despair, in the face of overwhelming odds. Not for nothing is the signature aphorism in the book, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Almost designed to appeal to statistically-minded fans of modern sports, the saying ironically notes that any edge you gain is so small in the Hunger Games as to be almost meaningless, even if it might be vital to survival.
What the book forces Katniss to do is to recognize what’s really important to her. Certainly she’s been caring for her family since the death of her father in a mine cave-in when she was young, but she has to move beyond that: Fighting for her own survival isn’t enough, there are other things to care about as well. Friendships she makes in the arena, the unjustness of the Games themselves, and knowing how far she’s willing to go to survive.
It’s easy to see why The Hunger Games is popular: Katniss is a capable, clever and thoughtful young woman, but she’s also awkward and lacks self-confidence in many areas, so she both stands in as a model of wish fulfillment, and as a person the reader can relate to in her uncertainties. She’s hard when she needs to be, empathetic when she wants to be, and not perfect on either count. In a more nuanced way than Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen is someone the reader wants to be (without going through the ordeal of the Games, of course).
The world is very well realized, too; I expect it will be better fleshed out in the other two books in the trilogy, but there’s not much left wanting for the purposes of the story in this first book. And the setting and execution of the Games themselves is very well done. Perhaps the conflict falls apart a bit at the end – the climactic showdown is sidestepped in an awkward manner – and the denouement feels a little rushed (though it sets up the first act of the second book, which I’m already reading), but those are quibbles.
As adventure, as character drama, as gets-you-squirming-in-your-seat suspense, The Hunger Games is a resounding success. I’m not sure why it took me this long to read it.
Despite being one of his shortest novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is in some ways the quintessential Neil Gaiman novel. An unnamed narrator in England returns to his childhood neighborhood following a funeral, visits the house of a girl he knew, and recalls the events of four decades earlier, the adventures the two of them shared over the course of a few days when he was a boy of seven and she a girl of eleven. The girl, Lettie Hempstead, and her mother and grandmother (Mrs. Hempstead and Old Mrs. Hempstead) have a pond in the back yard of their farm, which is at the end of the lane where the narrator lived. Lettie calls it her ocean, and says that the three of them travelled across it when she was much younger. The narrator is a bookish, lonely lad who has had several degrees of tragedy visited upon him shortly before he meets her, but after a man dies near the Hempstead farm, he learns that the Hempsteads have connections to exotic, impossible lands. A moment’s lapse in judgment (or perhaps bravery) causes our narrator to become the focus for a dark entity which bedevils his neighborhood and which he and the Hempsteads have to get rid of.
There’s no doubt that the narrative is powerful: The pitfalls and tragedies which befall our hero in the first few chapters are keenly felt – so much so that the book is at times a hard read, because it’s really not pleasant. The book after that is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. Gaiman’s storytelling is always arresting, and this short book is crisply paced and pulls you along. It’s the first book in a while that I’ve read in a single day.
Still, Ocean also has many elements which frustrate me about Gaiman’s work, and they largely come down to the vagueness of the setting and communication of the ideas. The narrator is nameless, his background murky. He’s not a total cipher, but it’s very difficult to connect to him; rather, he’s a vessel for event around him, rarely acting, and if anything his actions are often bad decisions which sometimes work out and sometimes go wrong.
Likewise, the Hempsteads and their larger world are left vague, with hints dropped about who they are (I infer they’re an incarnation of the Moirai, whom Gaiman has used in The Sandman), but with connections to other lands, their own apparently no longer existing. But what it all means, and what they can do, is only hinted at. Gaiman’s stories are often trying to evoke myth, legend and folklore, and while I don’t expect every last thing to be explained, Ocean leaves too much to the imagination for my satisfaction.
The story is a fun read, but the ending feels empty. The narrator doesn’t seem to have substantially changed – because the story isn’t about him. It’s not about anyone, really; it’s about moods, and settings, and a series of events, but the emotional impact of the resolution doesn’t come close to matching that of the set-up.
Gaiman is a consistently enjoyable novelist, but American Gods remains his only novel I’d call “great”. I have no doubt that books like Ocean are exactly the books he wants to write, but I always feel like they need more development to feel really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the short length of Ocean drives that home particularly well. To be sure I enjoyed reading it, but after finishing it I was surprised at how slight it felt in hindsight.
My alternate name for Cloud Atlas is “six stories in search of a novel”. It’s a series of six novelettes, each one nested inside the previous one. The six are ordered chronologically from the 19th century to the future, but each one is interrupted in the middle so the next one can begin. Moreover, the previous one appears in some form (usually as a book or film) which the characters in the next one encounter. Once the sixth story runs to completion, the stories unwind with each previous one being resumed and running to its end.
As a structure wonk, this intrigued me: What sort of larger story is Mitchell telling here? How can he wrap everything up when the end of the book is chronologically the earliest story? And the answer is: There is no larger story, and each story is effectively discrete from the others. The structure is merely a gimmick, and the book would have been perhaps only marginally less effective had the six stories been told in their entirety in sequence (mainly because the cliffhangers in several stories make you look forward to getting back to it).
So the structure was very disappointing. The movie Memento raises similar questions due to its structure, but uses its backwards-running format to great advantage rather than as a trick. (If you haven’t seen Memento, do so. You could argue it’s Christopher Nolan’s best film and I’m not sure I’d disagree.)
Not that the stories in Cloud Atlas themselves are without interest, but some reviewers’ claims I’ve read that Mitchell is writing each story in a different style are, to my mind, overblown. With perhaps the exception of the last story, which takes place in the far future, all of the stories seem clearly written by the same person, with very minor – if any – stylistic differences. It’s nothing like Dan Simmons’ Hyperion when it comes to showing off writing chops.
Considering the six stories on their own, the last one, “Sloosh’a Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ after” is the best one, occurring in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii where humans are trying to survive, and a ship with advantage technology comes by every so often. I’m a sucker for these settings, and Mitchell portrays this one very well, without even making the affected English of the characters annoying. And the ending is satisfying, too. The earliest stories – about an American notary touring the South Pacific and a disowned would-be composer in 1930s Europe – are the least satisfying (which makes the novel’s ending even more frustrating). The other three stories are all enjoyable enough, but nothing special, I felt. For the most part I found them enjoyable stories but not particularly notable, so I have little to say about them.
I’ve read reviews about thematic connections among the stories, but I think those connections are pretty weak, and at best fairly obvious observations about common characteristics of human nature. And the book makes so much out of its structure that it suffers a serious blow in that it doesn’t really do anything substantive with that structure.
All things considered, I’m not sorry I read it, but I can’t really recommend it, especially to anyone interested in it from a science fiction perspective. There’s probably a great novel to be made out of this structure and approach, but this isn’t it.