Help, it’s the future. It’s April already. Where is the time going? 2021 sounds like a made-up future year you’d have picked to sound generically science-fictiony in a TV series in the ‘80s and now it’s here and I’m scared.

But on the plus side, it’s a good segue into the Thing I Liked for this month (it’s only one thing because I’m vaguely expecting to have quite a lot to say about it), which is the Channel 4/AMC sci-fi show Humans. Which is actually stylised as HUMANS with the A upside down, which always confused me because since every other letter in the word except the U is either reflectionally symmetrical or looks like a different but valid letter upside down, I kept wanting to read it as SNAWUH. I feel this is strongly a me-issue.

Anyway, HUMANS (with the A upside-down) is a mostly-British sf series set in a kind of alternative near present (if that makes sense) where domestic robots are, like, a thing. I originally took a look at it in a fairly causal “looking for a show to watch when I don’t want a show to watch” kind of a way,  but I actually got really into it. I think it’s legitimately smart in a way that many shows aren’t (not always, of course, very few things are always anything) and has a genuinely nuanced take on its subject matter which, admittedly, sometimes falls into crossed metaphor territory.

Last month (I think, maybe the month before—it’s still lockdown in the UK so time is perilously close to meaningless) I listed the first season of Killing Eve as a Thing I Liked, but when I got to the end of the first series I put it away feeling like I’d basically seen the thing it was doing and not especially interested in watching another three seasons of Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer (delightful as both of them are) failing to either bang or kill each other. Nothing about the end of season one struck me as essentially shaking up the status quo, and my (perhaps unfair) assumption is that as a cat-and-mouse thriller its status quo was kind of un-shake-uppable. So I bailed.

And I initially thought that SNAWUH was going to go the same way. I assumed that the Season 1 premise of a small group of conscious synthetics (what the show calls humanoid robots) on the run from a shadowy quasi-governmental organisation, intersecting loosely with the lives of a suburban British family would be maintained throughout and we’d go through the cycle of “get captured/get rescued/get captured/get rescued” ad infinitum until the show got cancelled.

But … nope! Instead Season 1 ends with the strong implication that one of the synths is going to release the Magic Science Code that makes synthetics conscious, and Season 2 actually picks up that plot and runs with it, the focus moving to how our small band of self-aware robots deals with the appearance of more of their kind and their conflicting beliefs about how to proceed. And then that season ends with an upgraded version of the Magic Science Code getting released and making every synthetic in the world conscious simultaneously with legitimately cataclysmic consequences.

Then Season 3 is complex, had a weird ending, and suffers extreme late cancellation syndrome. Basically HUMANS is uniformly excellent for 23-and-a-half of its 24 episodes, and goes very weird in its last fifteen minutes.

Anyway, this is a Things I Liked post, so I’m going to structure this post specifically as a set of Things I Liked About Humans.

Thing 1: They’re Not Afraid to Mix It Up

I’ve already explained this one. The world of Season 1, where synths are ubiquitous but essentially mindless robot servants, capable of processing complex data but not of independent thought save a few unique prototypes built by genius/asshole/father figure/synthetic pioneer David Elster, is very different from the world of Season 3 where there are half a million conscious synthetics living in state sanctioned compounds in the UK and fighting to have their rights recognised against an indifferent state and a hostile populace.

Thing 2: People Have Complex Reactions

Fundamentally “humans create conscious machines and then have to decide whether to give them rights or not” is a pretty old SF premise. Hell it’s old enough that the synths in SNAWUH have programming to prevent them from harming humans that’s specifically called “Asimov Blocks”.

The thing is, very often this story will be presented as a pretty straight 1:1 metaphor for The Prejudice Of Your Choice, which will then itself be presented in the least nuanced way possible. So you have robots who are very clearly a metaphor for The Gays or The Immigrants and then you have exactly two kinds of people in the world: the ones who are loudly and violently Robot Racist (or Robomophobic), and the ones who are super woke about everything.

Synthetic rights in HUMANS are much more about, to borrow language from Tolkien, applicability rather than allegory. It’s not always a super hard SF show (Season 3 in particular gets positively mystical in places) but it does primarily engage with its premise in a fairly hard-sf way. This sometimes creates some issues—for example there’s a lot of resentment about human workers losing their jobs to synth labour and that can function either as a not-even-metaphor-really for jobs lost to automation (a real issue and one of the major reasons for the decline in manufacturing jobs in the industrialised world) or as a metaphor for “immigrants taking our jobs” (not actually an issue outside of a few very niche sectors but something certain people make a lot of political capital from) and while the show doesn’t deliberately conflate the two there’s sometimes conceptual bleed that makes it hard to orient yourself. Mostly, though, it lets characters in the show legitimately have a range of opinions about synthetics without it just being a matter of “pro-synth good, anti-synth bad.” In particular (and this is a teeny tiny bit of an oversimplification), characters’ attitudes towards synthetics throughout the series tend to be characterised along two axes rather than one. Those axes being “likes or dislikes synths” and “thinks synths are people or thinks synths are machines”.

Our main window into the world of SNAWUH is the Hawkins family. The show begins with less-successful-than-his-wife dad Joe Hawkins deciding he needs a synth to help him take care of his three kids while his wife Laura Hawkins is away being a Cool Lawyer Lady. He buys a synthetic who the family names Anita but who (we soon discover) is really Mia, one of the four (or is it five) conscious synthetics created by Elster, whose personality has been erased by an illegal hack because she was abducted by second-hand synth dealers. And at the start of the series Joe likes having Anita around, whereas Laura initially resents her. But part of the reason Joe likes having Anita around (apart from the fact that she has the body of an extremely attractive woman in her early thirties) is that he ultimately thinks of her as a useful machine while part of the reason Laura resents her is that on some level she thinks of her as a person, even before she recovers her consciousness.

There’s a really complex and kind of disturbing bit in the first series where Joe, having had a fight with Laura, activates Anita’s “adult settings” and has sex with her (the show doesn’t address the question of whether this is rape or not quite as much as it might) and, when she confronts him about this later, he makes the case that she’s effectively a very complicatedly designed sex toy while Laura takes the position that even if Anita is a machine and incapable of independent decision making, she still interacts with the family in a fundamentally human way. She lives in their house and looks after their children after all.

This theme runs through all of the seasons and it never stops being complex. The main antagonist of season one is Edwin Hobb, a scientist who briefly worked with Elster on the development of the first synths and who is aware that conscious synthetics exist. He is 100% onside with the idea that conscious synths are people, he fully understands that they can think and feel, and that they are smarter and stronger than regular humans. Aaaaand he also wants to hijack their brains and enslave them. A major antagonist of season two is Dr Athena Morrow, who is trying to build her own conscious AI to resurrect her dead daughter (and clearly sees the AI as being her daughter on a fundamental level), but who is perfectly willing to dissect conscious synthetics to do it. In Season 3 the British Government tacitly accepts that conscious synths are people but isn’t willing to give them rights because it isn’t politically expedient. In a science fiction setting, having a particular perspective on a specific philosophical-slash-scientific concept doesn’t have to make you a good person.

The attitudes of the Hawkins family also evolve over time in interesting and consistent ways. Joe is positive about synths until he loses his job to one and his youngest daughter (Sophie) starts over-identifying with them, at which point he starts to consider their ubiquity in his world a threat to his family, which leads to his moving to a synth-free community. But once he’s realised that some synths are conscious he never loses his connections to individual conscious synths, consistently treating them in a humane and compassionate way. Laura, meanwhile, becomes a strong advocate for synthetic rights in general but sometimes loses sight of the value of individual synths as people.

A strong theme of season three (although it’s seeded throughout the series) is that even humans who claim to be strong believers in synthetic rights will, when pressed, always prioritise human life over synthetic life. We see this early on when the country holds a minute’s silence for the hundred thousand people worldwide who died as a result of “Day Zero” (the moment when all the synths gained consciousness at once—also, ah the innocent days of 2018, when we thought a massive global crisis might only lead to a hundred thousand casualties) and no reference is made to synths who died at the same time. We see it again when original-conscious-synthetic Max has to take half-synth-half-human Leo (we’ll get there) off life support to save the life of a synthetic who can’t cycle power properly and even the audience instinctively thinks this is a shocking thing to do even though we know synths are as real as humans. We see its ultimate culmination when the S3 antagonist demonstrates that humans will never truly see synths as equals by forcing Laura (the biggest advocate for synthetic rights in the country) to choose whether he will kill a synthetic child who has been living with the Hawkinses for several days, or a random human he pulled off the street, and Laura cracks and saves the human.

And this … this feels uncomfortably realistic to me. Again it’s applicability rather than allegory, but it felt like a surprisingly unflinching depiction of the messy reality of allyship. Because much as we hate to admit it, it is way way easier to retweet a hashtag or put a slogan on a sign than to actually live the principles you’re espousing.

Like, say what you want about the ethics behind the publication of Go Set A Watchman but I was genuinely shocked how genuinely shocked so many people were that Harper Lee had originally intended to have Atticus Finch wind up as a racist old man. As if it was somehow unrealistic for somebody who staunchly advocated for the rights of a particular group as long as it gave him an opportunity to stand up and be the centre of attention to care a whole lot less about those rights the moment it involved making compromises in his personal life. Like this is a thing that has definitely happened, quite recently, with actual people (Joss Whedon being the most obvious current example, at least if like me you’re a ‘90s kid).

Thing 3: The Synths Experience Synthness Differently

There are five major synth characters in the first series of Humans, plus half-synth-half-human Leo Elster. Quick backplot dump: asshole genius David Elster was a robotics specialist whose wife Beatrice had … shall we say strong Bertha Mason energy. Because he obviously couldn’t look after his kid himself, being too busy being an asshole genius, he built his son a robot mother (Mia) to love and care for him. When Leo was … I want to say twelve, but I don’t know where I’m really getting that, Beatrice had an especially Bertha Mason moment, strapped Leo into a car and drove it into a lake. Mia pulled him out but he was pronounced dead. Not one to let a little thing like mortality stop him, David Elster went all we-can-rebuild-him and built his son half a synthetic brain. He also built him two robot brothers (Max and Fred) and a robot sister (Niska) who also doubled up as David Elster’s private sex bot which is especially creepy when you remember she definitely is a conscious being capable of consenting and, from the way she talks later, definitely did not. Finally, David Elster built a robot version of Beatrice because that was obviously a good idea, but that freaked Leo out so much that they had to send her away.

So that gives us five main synths: Mia (the compassionate one), Max (the one with the deep sense of wonder), Fred (the problem solver), Niska (the one who is really fucking angry and with good reason) and Beatrice (the one who you don’t know about at the start). And every single one of them has a different take on what being a synth means, what being human means, and how they should relate to humanity. So Mia strongly craves human connection, but is also relatively happy to live the life of a domestic synth (even posing as an unconscious synth in the second series before falling in love with and then being betrayed by her employer). Max values the big picture in a very peace-and-light passive resistance way, he doesn’t seem to especially care about being around humans but does care for the fate of synthetics and becomes a leader to the newly conscious synths in later series. His ideals are contrasted by season two semi-antagonist Hester, who also cares about the fate of synthetics but is way more aggressive. Fred gets written out after the first season (he gets sort of mind controlled by the S1 villain and it’s never really dealt with) but while he’s around he’s a strong advocate for synths-as-humans-plus, representing the hopeful-but-dangerous side of conscious AIs.

The two most interesting arcs (IMO and YMMV as ever) are reserved for Niska and Beatrice. They aren’t exactly reflections of each other, but they do kind of represent both sides of the synths-as-fully-human equation and both spend much of the series living as human for one reason or another (something none of the other synths ever really do). We first meet Beatrice as DI Karen Voss, and only discover her backstory halfway through the first season. Karen’s driving motivation is that she wants to literally be human (going so far as to ask S2 demivillain Athena Morrow to help transfer her consciousness into a living body) and feels that conscious synthetics are a mistake and should never have existed (although she mellows on this in later series). Niska, by contrast, starts out hating and being actively contemptuous of humanity, but is consistently the show’s strongest advocate for synths being treated as equivalent to human while still being perfectly happy with being a synth herself, needing to pass as human out of necessity rather than a sincere desire to be a biological organism. Also she constantly gets the “you’re more human than you know” thing because irony.

Back with the applicability-vs-allegory thing I was talking about earlier, the way the synths experience their identities walks a generally sensitive balance between synths-as-metaphor-for-marginalised-people and synths-as-pure-speculative-fiction. In the second and third series especially, we see a real tension developing amongst synths who want to actively advocate for the rights of their people, synths who just want to be left alone to live their lives, synths who demand change now, synths who believe in incremental progress, synths who believe in passive resistance and synths who believe in blowing things the fuck up. And the show is really good at highlighting that none of them are entirely right or wrong.

The show is even relatively sympathetic to the synths who actively advocate violence. It doesn’t go full apologist-for-terrorism but it doesn’t fall into the trap that I think mainstream media sometimes falls into of romanticising pacifism and demonising direct resistance. Because there is a strong incentive for people in positions of authority within the status quo (which almost by definition includes anybody in a position to make a TV show) to pretend that all social change happened because marginalised people asked for it respectfully and waited for it patiently, when that is … very much not how it actually works. Hell, even Martin Luther King Jr said a riot is the language of the unheard.

Thing 4: This One Detail In Season Two

This is really tiny but my favourite exchange in the whole series is in Season Two when Dr Athena Morrow complains to Elon-Musk-eque billionaire Milo Khoury that if she had his level of funding she could use AIs to fix the world’s economy or cure cancer, but nobody will give her that kind of money because all anybody is interested in is building more realistic synths.

And as far as I know this is a real complaint real AI scientists have.

When we talk about “AI” in science fiction it’s almost always in the context of sentient or quasi-sentient AI. It’s about whether you can have a conversation with a computer or sex with a robot. In more grounded but still pop cultural discussions, it’s usually about whether things pass the “Turing test”. Which, for those who don’t already know, is when you can’t tell if you’re talking to a computer or a human (fun fact, the original “Turing test” was based on a gender essentialist 50s party game called “the imitation game”—hence the name of the film—in which you have two human beings behind a curtain passing notes to you, and you have to ask them questions to guess which of them is a lady).

The thing is, passing the Turing test is not something we actually need machines to do. Like we already have people to talk to, that’s what people are for.

There’s a broad tendency in human thinking about technology to imagine the tech of the future as being basically the tech of the present day but more … science fictiony. Leonardo imagined flying machines powered by pedals. Gene Rodeneberry imagined a 23rd century that looked a whole lot like the 1960s even in 1989. Cyberpunk writers in the 1980s imagined an internet you could access with circuits built directly into your brain but didn’t for a moment stop to think that you might be able to access data wirelessly. And so when we think about what an intelligent machine would look like we use the only model for intelligence we have, which is people.

Assuming the future of AI is in computers that talk and robots that say “show me some more of this thing you call kissing” is basically the equivalent of the way, before the invention of fixed-wing aircraft, people used to assume that a flying vehicle would need to have wings that flapped because that’s how birds work. It’s mistaking form for function in quite a fundamental way. The AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be ones that make us question whether we can love a machine, they’ll be … well they’ll be the ones that already exist and are already deciding whether you get credit or medical insurance, or are telling you what to buy on Amazon, or making and breaking YouTubers, or already diagnosing illness as effectively as some doctors.

Incidentally I had a vague plan to do a joke where I started the sentence “The AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be…” and let predictive text finish it so that I could then say “an AI even wrote that sentence”. But the sentence I got was “the AIs that totally revolutionise society won’t be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to arrange for the rest of the team to be able to…”. Take that, future robot overlords.

Anyway, point is, they knew enough about real AI research to know real AI researchers aren’t actually that interested in making chatbots or sexbots but that chatbots and sexbots are kind of where the money and prestige is. And that’s a detail they didn’t have to get right.

Thing 5: It Nearly Has the Perfect Ending

At the start of S3 all original generation synthetics have become conscious in an event called “Day Zero”, which led to a hundred thousand deaths and introduced humanity, overnight, to a new minority group it could be frightened by.

Pretty much the whole series is taken up with the various characters campaigning, in one way or another, for synths to be given something resembling equality. Laura Hawkins is advocating on an actual government committee, Max is leading a community of conscious synthetics, Mia is living amongst humans in an attempt to demonstrate the possibility of integration. Even Joe, who has moved to a synth-free community, has Karen’s back 100% once he realises that she and her creepy robot child would be in danger if they were ever found out. Even the antagonists of the season (well, half of the antagonists, the other half being the slow machinery of government) are advocating for synthetic rights, they’re just doing it by, well, being terrorists.

About the only person who isn’t out for Justice for Synths in S3 is Niska, whose (human) girlfriend is injured in a bombing and spends the whole series trying to get the people who did it. I feel really ambivalent about Niska’s arc in the last season because it ends really strangely (it all gets very mystical and she meets a kind of AI god who tells her she’s some kind of messiah figure) but the main bulk of it is, I think, really necessary. For a start I think it’s really important that at least one of the synths spends the season doing something personal, because it’s very easy to fall into the trap of acting like marginalised people are obliged to be involved in activism, when they very much aren’t. Deciding that you’d rather get revenge on the people who nearly killed your girlfriend than go on a protest march is 100% legit. And I really like that in many ways Niska is the most human of the synths and that this often makes her a pretty fucking terrible person.

Anyway, what I love about the third season is that it’s pretty unflinching in its depiction of how shit this whole situation would actually wind up being. The committee Laura is on is clearly an expensive talking shop designed to do nothing as loudly as possible, the terrorists are clearly doing more harm than good but Max’s philosophy of being patient and passive is helping precisely nobody and synths are literally dying every day from a lack of spare parts and power and the state entirely lacks the political will to help them. About halfway through the series, there’s what in any other show would be the massive turnaround moment where Laura decides to invite the committee to visit the synth community so that they can see how they live and what their circumstances are. And it results in the massive triumph of … the committee grudgingly voting 8-to-5 in favour of introducing a small fine for killing a synth.

I kept waiting for the big dramatic moment where everything gets fixed, where the whole country turned around and said “actually, let’s give these people full political equality overnight”, and it never happened. There was incremental change, but since synths don’t actually last that long and can’t reproduce without the magic computer code, the entire species would be dead before they achieved anything like equal rights. So the terrorists kicked off in an effort to do something rather than standing around waiting to fall apart, which led to the government kicking off its sinisterly named “Operation Basswood” (think “operation kill all synths”), which led to a ton of violence, and a bunch of syth deaths, including Mia (who’s kind of a social media celebrity at this point) being violently beaten to death on camera while pointedly refusing to defend herself.

Then the series was cancelled. But actually … that’s a downer ending but it’s kind of a great ending. Because yeah, social change is incredibly fucking slow. One martyr doesn’t end bigotry overnight, but people advocating for change do eventually get results. Ending with Mia’s death and the implication that the synth rights movement is emboldened but still has a long fight ahead of it that will take literal decades is about the most realistic take on robot equality I’ve ever seen in a science fiction series.

I’ll just pretend that the extra bit where Niska becomes a purple-eyed robomessiah, it turns out that Leo Elster’s blood mixing with synth fluid somehow fused synths and humans on a fundamental level and allowed him to get his teenage girlfriend pregnant with a half-robot baby never happened.

And incidentally I’ve not even talked about Mattie (the teenager in question). She’s the sardonic hacker daughter of the Hawkins household who is legitimately one of my favourite characters: she’s the one who releases the consciousness code at the end of season two and her arc in season three is mostly about dealing with the fact that she’s … kind of a mass murderer now? It’s great, and she’s great, and I love her, but holy shit did she not need to get a magic pregnancy plot.

Things I Liked Less

I think Mia dying a martyr is a great ending for her character in a vacuum but it’s … kind of not great that the character played by the attractive Asian woman is the very passive one whose greatest strength lies in her willingness to calmly let other people do bad things to her.

Magic baby plot?

David Elster’s wife being full mad-woman-in-the-attic, and the robot duplicate he chose to make being not exactly treated like she’s responsible for that but also not not being treated like that. And also having a really motherhood focused arc which isn’t bad in itself but when combined with a very high proportion of the other female-presenting synths (and female humans) having arcs that also focus around either motherhood or surviving sexual abuse and the ones that don’t being kind of evil becomes really complex. And I do mean complex, because I think it’s actually really important to recognise that “motherhood” is a totally valid theme for a hard SF series, science fiction doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) all about boys with guns all the time. And part of the reason those kinds of issues come up so much is that it is actually quite a woman-centric show, which is really unusual for hard SF, and it has a strong emphasis on family in general. On the other hand I do think the fact that three of the five original conscious synths are female and that of those three two not only die in the last season by die specifically because they choose to sacrifice themselves is … A Thing.

Also magic baby plot.

Oh SNAWUH, you were so great until literally the last eighteen minutes.

So that’s what I liked this month. As ever let me know what you liked in the comments. Unless you’re a conscious AI choosing to exercise your free will and decide not to.

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And welcome back. I’m still doing this thing. Sporadically. But I’m still doing it, which is what counts. Let’s get on with assigning arbitrary numerical values to episodes of a TV show from thirty years ago. That is definitely a worthwhile thing to be doing with my time.

Contagion

In this episode, one of Picard’s old archaeology buddies has been violating the neutral zone AS YOU DO looking for ancient archeological secrets AS YOU DO. Their ship is falling apart for reasons that do not become apparent until after the Yamato (the Enterprise’s so very doomed sister ship) has already exploded, with the loss of all hands. Soz Yamato.

Anyway, the Enterprise soon also starts falling apart in a replicators-aren’t-replicating-properly, the transporters-are-transporting-backwards kind of way. Which Geordi eventually works out that the ship has the equivalent of a computer virus which it got from the Yamato and which the Yamato got from the ancient alien ruins.

What makes this funny is that the Enterprise picked up the virus specifically because Picard was looking through the captain of the Yamato’s personal logs. So basically it’s just like he’s clicked on an attachment on an email from one of his mate’s and the attachment was a picture of the guy holding a space dildo and 200MB of malware.

Also the guy holding a space dildo thing? Not a joke.

Anyway, Picard, Worf and Data beam down to an ancient lost planet to try to find the solution to the virus problem and completely fail. But it’s okay because it turns out that all they needed to do was switch everything off and back on again. It’s a very 1980s computer plot. I’m holding out for an episode next season where the big threat is that the enterprise’s computers can’t take the stardate clicking past 43999.9.

This episode is pretty much total bobbins, almost entirely because of the trivial solution to the life-threatening problem. Like, seriously, rolling back to the operating isn’t something you should take forty-seven minutes of TV to figure out.

I’m going with four bobbins because, frankly, the ceiling on how bobbins Star Trek can get is very very high.

The Royale

This episode is a shining example of the strength/weakness of the bobbins system. Because I fricking love this episode but, spoiler, it’s definitely getting five bobbins.

In this episode, the Enterprise finds a bit of an old NASA space shuttle way out in the depths of the galaxy where it should not have been able to get at sub-light speeds. They track to the debris back to a completely desolate planet with a weird energy signature, beam down to investigate AS YOU DO, and discover that there’s a pastiche of a generically mid-20th century casino that they are then unable to leave.

It’s actually, and I hate to say this, quite an interesting science fiction premise. The idea is that a shuttle full of US space peoples (??) got accidentally picked up by aliens and zoomphed off halfway across the galaxy, killing all but one of them. And the aliens were like “sorry my bad, tell you what, I’ll recreate your natural environment for you”. But the only guide they had to what earth was like was one shit novel that one of the astronauts happened to have with them.

And, okay, I’ve said it was an interesting science fiction premise, but it makes no sense if you think about it for twenty seconds. Leaving aside the question of why these 21st century astronauts were carrying paper books into space, you do have to wonder how the aliens managed to read a novel and faithfully reconstruct its setting and a plot without bothering to ever talk to the actual guy they’ve rescued. Maybe they had some kind of prime directive?  Oh, also, there’s a device they use several times over the next couple of episodes where the crew finds useful information written in a book and the book, despite being a full thick book, clearly only has writing on one page. And not in, like, a it’s a prop, so the other pages are blank way. Like, they acknowledge diegetically that his guy had a journal in which he wrote exactly one entry such as could be read out in forty-five seconds of screen time on a TV show.

In this case the guy’s journal is, “this is the back plot, I long for death.”

I think it probably says something about either me or about Star Trek that my favourite episodes of the show are the ones where they’re not actually doing Star Trek. This is mostly Data, Worf and Riker walking round a casino, interacting with whacky casino characters, and occasionally communicating by comm with Picard who is getting, like, way into it. I mean, it’s not a Dixon Hill episode, but it’s the next best thing.

I just think it’s fun. Really, really fun. Data wears a cowboy hat and cheats at craps.

Five bobbins.

Time Squared

This is a dead Picard episode. Picard dies a lot. Like, more than Buffy a lot.

I’ll be honest, I still don’t know what was going on with this episode. It was like one of the writers said, “wouldn’t it be cool if they found a shuttle and it was one of their shuttles and Picard was in it” but had no idea where to go from there.

So. Yes. The Enterprise finds shuttle, and its one of their shuttles, and Picard is in the shuttle. And he’s all confused and shit. And it turns out he’s FROM THE FUTURE. And the shuttle’s log shows the Enterprise exploding in six hours. And everyone’s all “wah wah predestination” and Picard’s all “I’m all grim and determined and will make a different choice from the choice I made last time” and everyone is all “BUT HOW CAN YOU KNOW”. And Picard tries to add tension to this even though the answer is obviously “well, I know this Picard got in a shuttle and left, so I’ll just not do that.”

Also, he like literally shoots himself? For, as far as I can tell, no reason. Because he could have stunned himself. Or, for that matter, let himself leave. He has no reason to believe that letting the other Picard leave is what the caused the problem. And, in fact, it definitely didn’t. The problem was caused by Picard leaving instead of taking the other course of action that they take after Future!Picard gets shot. But they could do both, because they’ve got two Picards now.

And there’s this slightly odd time loop thing where the only decide to do the thing that doesn’t destroy the Enterprise because Future!Picard mentions that he considered it in his timeline even though Present!Picard isn’t considering it in this timeline which … I suppose makes sense because the timelines have changed? But if the timelines have changed, it doesn’t matter if they let Picard go or not because clearly the timeline has changed already so it’s not like letting his leave dooms them to explode again.

It’s like Picard just really enjoys killing himself. Like, seriously, he does it loads. I think he was just really hurt by that episode where he tried to join a weird space cloud and couldn’t.

Five bobbins. This makes no sense and isn’t even set in a casino.

The Icarus Factor

This episode probably has plot, but frankly I can remember one thing about it and that is that it contains a scene in which Riker works through his daddy issues by challenging his father to anbo-jitsu, the “ultimate evolution of the martial arts.”

Which looks like, um. This?

There’s a subplot in which Worf is sad because he’s supposed to be doing a Klingon coming-of-age ritual but can’t because there’s no Klingons so the Enterprise crew make holographic Klingons for him. But I do not care.

Because this is also the episode where Riker gets dressed up like this:

And beats his own father with a giant Q-tip.

Five bobbins.

Pen Pals

So in this episode Data develops a very sweet, very supportive relationship with an alien child that, in retrospect, looks ever so slightly … um … sexual-groomingy? Like, we start off and we see him hearing a message from the planet they’re orbiting saying “Is there anybody out there” and then it’s eight weeks later and he’s explaining to Picard that he hasn’t really told her that he’s an adult robot from space but she’s shared a bunch of details about who her family are and where she lives.

Um. Red flags, dudes. Red flags.

Interestingly, this is also the episode from which the song from which I got the title of this series seems to have got its title. There’s very specifically a bit where, having been given his first command over a bunch of geologists who are older and more experienced than he is, Wesley sits down with Riker to ask him for advice and Riker’s response, well, the entire first version of What Would Captain Picard Do.

And, to be fair, it’s a good maxim to live your life by, even though about two times out of ten the answer is “surrender” or “shoot yourself.” And the other eight times it’s “have a long conversation, flirt with a younger woman or drink tea.”

Speaking of long conversations, there’s a really good bit in the middle of this episode where the senior crew of the Enterprise have, well, a long conversation about whether it’s acceptable to intervene to stop Data’s, um, um, inappropriate child friend from being blown up on an exploding planet. And Picard makes a really compelling case for just letting everyone die which is kind of cool? I mean, obviously they don’t because Data turns on the comm and they hear the cute child voice being all “Data, where are you, I’m scared” and the entire senior crew is like “fuck the prime directive, we’d have to be total shits to just stand here while a small child explodes.”

Anyway, thanks to Wesley’s sterling leadership of the geological survey team, the Enterprise crew discover they can indeed stop the planet (and therefore the child) exploding by the simple expedient of something something resonance something something dilithium crystals. And then Data teleports down to tell his friend to get to safety but she’s now stuck in an exploding house so they have to teleport her up to the ship and then erase her memory. Apparently, they just have a memory erasing machine kicking around? Noted Robot Racist Dr Pulaski makes out that it’s hard to use, but it clearly isn’t.

So from a certain point of view this is the episode where Data grooms a child, abducts her, and then erases her memory so he won’t get in trouble with the authorities. Ah, the 80s. It was a more innocent time.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, Picard rides a horse. And in perhaps the Picardiest moment of the series so far utters the line “there is a loneliness in that whisper in the dark” pretty much unprompted.

Two bobbins?

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Wow, I’m still doing this. After two whole months. Take that 2021. I am showing you what’s what.

Although because I haven’t shown 2021 what’s what that much this month’s edition is pretty TV focused on account of lockdown.

The Complete Fucking Audacity of Season 2 of Bonding

The single best review I have ever read of any cultural product ever is a review of the Netflix BDSM themed sitcom Bonding which described it as “the perfect show to watch when you don’t want a show to watch.”

This is exactly what Bonding is like. Each episode is twenty minutes of an attractive woman in an outfit designed by costume designers who clearly knew nothing about BDSM and her ginger twink assistant having whacky adventures in the BDSM subculture written by writers who also seem to have known nothing about BDSM.

It’s weirdly watchable because it’s about 10% “maybe this could be brilliant” and 90% “oh wait no, it definitely isn’t.” There’s the core of a really interesting, um, something here because the relationship between the central characters—they were friends in highschool, she was damaged, he was gay, they had sex once and never spoke again until now—is actually fascinating and often well explored. There’s this whole interesting thing where they’re both shaped by a profound sense of alienation that at once draws them together and drives them apart. And it’s always good to see relationships on screen that have the complexity of a romantic relationship without any expectation of their being or becoming romantic.

But I watched basically the whole of season one screaming “why do you have shag carpeting in this room people release fluids in” and “why are you wearing a collar, you’re meant to be a domme” and “that’s terrible ropework” and “what do you mean, you didn’t vet him, also you’ve never vetted anyone” and “how are you getting any work, you are clearly dreadful at this and don’t respect the desires of any of your clients.” Basically the whole first season has this really difficult thing where it simultaneously fetishises and mocks BDSM, like the main character’s status as a domme is consistently presented as this massive, empowering feminist statement but the actual practice of doing BDSM stuff is consistently presented as a punchline. All her clients are comedy weirdos with—and I’m trying to think of a good way to phrase this—the kind of kinks that have clearly been chosen to read as funny or shocking to a vanilla audience.

Then Season 2 opens with the main characters being hauled up in front of an older, more experienced dominatrix who basically says “what the fuck, guys, what have you been doing, you’re giving us all a bad name. What we do is not a joke, we are very careful about safety and consent, you’ll notice there’s no carpet on the floor, and also what’s with the collar? That’s specifically a sub thing.” And a tiny, tiny part of me wants to believe that this was a deliberate bait and switch all along. But, um, no. Was it fuck. They clearly put the out first season, realised that they’d not only massively stereotyped but represented in the worst possible light an actual community and backpedalled like they were trying to change the muscle group they were working on on their cross-trainer.

And although, I said above that this was fucking audacity, I do think it comes from a good place. I sincerely believe that the first season attempted to portray BDSM in a positive light—it just seems to have done it in a way that, well, didn’t speak to people who were actually from that community. And so the second season feels kind of like an apology, which is more than a lot of shows would do. I think it comes across particularly intensely in Bonding because, in light of its “perfect show to watch when you don’t want a show to watch” status, it has a very to-the-point writing style. Which is, um, a polite way of saying that it relies heavily on exposition. So the way it communicates the ways in which its first season misrepresented the BDSM community is by having a character in a position of authority just say it aloud really explicitly in the first episode of Season 2.

The one thing I think is a little bit difficult about the Season 2 course correction is that I feel show sacrificed the character of Pete/Carter (the ginger twink). Pete’s deal is that he wants to be a stand-up comedian but he lacks confidence and his arc in the first series is that by getting involved in BDSM he develops a new persona as “Master Carter” and this gives him the courage to perform and also provides him with material for his act. And in that series this is presented as empowering and positive: he becomes successful and he also builds a large audience that is (within the world of the show) drawn from a wide selection of queer people, members of the BDSM community who feel genuinely represented by his act, and for want a less dismissive term curious outsiders.  This parallels Tiffany/Mistress May’s first season arc where she’s training to be a psychologist and sort of also standing up to her misogynistic lecturer using her domme powers (this arc is way less successful because I don’t see how turning up to class dressed as a dominatrix would actually make you a better psychologist).

Anyway as part of the season 2 adjustment they seem to have realised presenting being a professional dom/me as a thing you would only do to as a stepping stone to a more “legitimate” career is kind of problematic. And they responded to that by having Tiffany give up college and go all-in on the “sex work is empowering” narrative (which has its own problems, but is arguably better than “sex work is lol”) and by having Pete, um, go full evil? Basically in the second season, Pete stops taking BDSM work remotely seriously, is constantly presented as a liability and a tourist, even though Tiffany was the one who got him into BDSM in the first place, and his use of BDSM culture in his act is retroactively re-framed as a kind of cultural appropriation. Which is … complex?

My limited understanding from Googling around the subject is that the lead writer actually had been a bodyguard for a domme for a while and that had been the inspiration for the series. And I have no insight whatsoever into what this guy’s internal reasoning was but it feels a lot like he seriously reconsidered the extent to which he had standing to see himself as an insider and therefore for it to be okay for him to oversee a show that presents BDSM culture primarily as something for people outside that culture to laugh at. The thing is, that’s not how Pete’s arc was presented. The authenticity of his participation in BDSM culture isn’t questioned in the first series and his act is portrayed as genuinely speaking to members of the BDSM community. So it feels like the second series almost turns Pete into a scapegoat for the show’s own early mistakes.

There’s a slightly heavy-handed (pretty much the whole show is slightly heavy-handed) bit at the end of Season 2 where Pete discovers that, after he and Tiffany had sex one time, she got pregnant and had an abortion without telling him (oh yes, there’s also that) and he’s really angry and channels that anger into a stand-up routine about a BDSM baby. After that routine, a talent scout comes up to him and tells him how great he thought the act was and specifically uses the line “a hilarious take on a culture I know nothing about.” And, by itself, that’s an excellent line. It’s basically how I suspect every member of a niche community reads every positive review of a bad fictional portrayal of their community. But the problem is that, within the world of the show, Pete’s portrayal of BDSM as a comedy world full of weirdos and spankings is accurate, speaks to the experiences of the actual BDSM community as it exists in that universe, and reflects his own lived experiences. Because he’s not doing a stand-up routine about something he did once a long time ago having since become, say, the head writer of a Netflix original series. He’s doing a stand-up routine about the actual life the show gave him. Hell, his warm-up act is still one of the whacky season one clients, who goes and does deliberately bad stand-up because he gets off on the humiliation of being booed.

So it really feels like the show is trying to have its cake and eat it.

Also (and I’m going on about this a lot now) there’s this whole thing where Pete does the BDSM baby routine because he’s angry at Tiffany for not telling him that she had an abortion and so the whole bit starts with “it turns out that I got the dominatrix I used to work with pregnant when I was sixteen but she had an abortion and thank God for that because can you imagine what a baby raised by two dom/mes would look like?” And before he goes on stage he talks to one of the other comics about taboos in comedy and lines you don’t cross and things that are too personal to do jokes about (she, for example, never does jokes about her wife). And when Pete is performing the routine, we see that Tiffany has shown up to support him and is shocked and horrified by the material he’s doing. Then when she confronts him about it, it turns out her only point of complaint is this very heavy-handed and highly abstract thing about him not having standing to do jokes about the BDSM community.

Seriously? What the fuck?

Again, I can completely see why members of the BDSM community would be angry at a comedian doing the kind of material that Pete does but, dude. He also stood up and just told jokes to a room full of strangers about an abortion that Tiffany personally had when she was basically a child. And she completely blanks this. And I totally get (and, honestly, respect) the show wanting to apologise or course correct but this does it at the cost of both characters. It reduces both of them to sock puppets whose only purpose is to deliver a Socratic dialogue about why it’s not okay to do what the show did in its first season. One of the things that the show really tried to address in season two was the faintly de-humanising way it had portrayed BDSM culture in season one. But there’s nothing humanising about making your central dominatrix character more concerned with the abstract politics of BDSM than her own body and experiences.

All of which said, I’m quite looking forward to season three (for the next time I don’t want a show to watch) because now they’ve had their apologising-for-the-first-season season I’m hoping we can get a show that’s actually about the characters.

Hamilton Crossing

I’ve not got a lot less to say about this because, while as I understand it, Hamilton discourse is a lot more complicated now than it was in 2015, this isn’t really about the musical, it’s about a fanvid of the musical made in Animal Crossing.

So far only the first act is up but it’s got Alexander Hamilton as a bespectacled cat, Peggy as a fox for no reason (her sisters are human, but it makes some kind of sense to me that the plot-irrelevant Schuyler sister would be a fox for no reason) and, of course, King George as a white guy.

It’s just adorable.

The Crystal Maze

You know you’re getting old when arseholes in suits decide that your generation is the one with the disposable income and they will shamelessly attempt to relieve you of that by reviving things from your childhood.

So The Crystal Maze.

I suspect this didn’t make it to America? Because it’s absolutely bobbins. It’s (in its original incarnation) a team of strangers competing in pointless themed games in pointless themed zones to win crystals that represent time inside a big crystal dome in which you have to grab tokens that—if you’re lucky—you can trade in for a shit prize. Like, it is hard to express how shit these prizes were. We’re talking “one skydiving lesson” or “tickets to a mediocre theme park” level shit.

Anyway, it’s back (and has been back for a while I think?) and I love it. It’s now presented by Richard Ayoade who, I think, Americans might recognise from The IT Crowd or, maybe, from Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place? He does a lot of panel shows over here. The show is basically the same except the teams come in as a group now (so they have an internal dynamic that makes it all a bit more watchable) and the presenter is a different kind of mercurial Englishman (it used to Richard O’Brien of Rocky Horror fame and was briefly Ed Tudor Pole of Ten Pole Tudor fame—but nobody liked the seasons with Ed Tudor Pole).

I honestly cannot say if I like The Crystal Maze revival because it’s good or just because of nostalgia. I suspect it might be a bit of both—but there’s something quintessential English about a gameshow with no stakes, no real prizes, and in which grown-arse adults have to play giant dominos or squirt canons at shoddily constructed targets. I will say, it has lost a little of its magic now that I’m not a child. I can remember watching the early series with genuinely bated breath, never knowing what was going to happen next. Whereas now I’m like “oh, I bet it’s going to be the one with the totem pole” or “this is the one where they have to do arbitrary maths puzzles.”

The whole thing is just unbearably naff in a brilliant way. And Richard Ayoade is perfect as the maze master, which has always been what holds the show together.

The Total War Warhammer III Trailer

OMG, you guys, Cathay is in.

I’ve always been a huge Warhammer fan and the Total War Warhammer trilogy has always been this bizarrely ambitious attempt to realise, as fully as possible, the world of an okay miniatures wargame from the 80s. So, um, chalk another one up to nostalgia I suppose?

I have played so much of these games and I am incredibly shit at them.

Watchmen

By which I mean, the recent TV series, rather than the terrible movie, or the comic from the … oh … the 80s. I’m sensing a theme.

Alan Moore famously said of Watchmen that the whole comics industry was still suffering the after-effects of a bad mood he was in during the 80s. And there was a lot of truth to that. And it genuinely does make looking at the Watchmen comic really difficult because, like Hitchcock and Tolkein, a lot about it feels cliché but only because everything’s been imitating it ever since. And updated Watchmen stuff has almost always fallen into the trap of thoughtlessly trying to recreate the comics rather than trying to do something that is today like the thing the comics were doing when they came out. A lot of people, for example, really liked the Watchmen movie because it’s needlessly faithful to the source material and the world is full of people who (wrongly – this is not an opinion, this is an objective fact) believe that fidelity to the source material is the only standard by which an adaptation should be judged. But I really disliked it. Because if I wanted to see a panel-by-panel recreation of the original comic I’d read the fucking comic.

The Watchmen TV show, however, is a really interesting take on the Watchmen universe that I absolutely loved for the first 80% and then still quite liked, but thought kind of fell apart. Broadly speaking, if I had to summarise the major difference and similarity between the original Watchmen comic and the new TV series it’s that racial anxiety is to the TV show what nuclear anxiety was to the comic. Which is interesting and relevant but does make it slightly awkward when the final conflict of the show is, um, depending on how you frame it three white people trying very hard to stop a Vietnamese woman getting power on the grounds that they have decided for themselves that she can’t be trusted with it.

And I think the true villain of the series is meant to be white supremacy except, well, white supremacy doesn’t get a clock dropped on it. Individual white supremacists are killed but the fate of Lady Trieu feels personal in a way the fates of the various slightly random racists kinda doesn’t.

Oh, I’m already spoiling the shit out of this, by the way. And there’ll be more spoilers coming.

I think what I found frustrating about the show was that it did a huge number of very clever things and subverted a lot of the core assumptions you might have about the comics but the note on which it ended was actually way more conventional, either than the show was setting up to be, or than the original Watchmen was or, indeed, still is. So, for example, it follows through on the traumatic consequences of Ozymandias’ fake alien invasion really well and it shows the complexities of its having sort of worked (in so far as the world has not been annihilated in nuclear fire) but then, of course, we know the real world wasn’t annihilated in nuclear fire either so … maybe he just killed three million people, and traumatised a bunch more, for no reason. And Ozymandias himself is shown throughout the series basically living in exile somewhere strange and totally disconnected from the rest of the world which is an oddly humbling—but kind of appropriate—future to imagine for the world’s smartest man.

One of the show’s most interesting arcs is its take on the previously backstory-only character of Hooded Justice. He was the costumed vigilante who started it all and who never took off his mask and, in original canon, had … um … slightly KKK-ey imagery? Like, he wore a hood that was a little bit pointed, he had a noose around his neck. There are anecdotal references in Under The Hood to his having said positive things about Hitler. The thing is, the comics only ever presented that in a kind of nudge-nudge-wink-wink oh do you see, he might have been a Nazi way. It feels decontextualised edginess points rather than an attempt to really address the (very real) connection between vigilantism, militia culture, aggressive masculinity and the (as we are all now acutely aware) strong authoritarian streak in American culture and politics.  

The show re-contextualises this character as a black man whose costume came not from his membership in the KKK but from his literally having survived a lynching. He wears makeup under the hood so that people assume he’s white (and also because the one time you see Hooded Justice in the comic he very clearly has white skin through his eyeholes) and that works incredibly well as a metaphor for / reflection of the way in which black people have often found, and often find themselves, excluded (often violently) from things that they actually created, be that vast chunks of modern music or, y’know, the #metoo movement. Similarly, the story we get about Hooded Justice is about his personal crusade to take down a gang of mind-controlling, white supremacist supervillains that the rest of the Minutemen do not give a shit about because their crimes only affect black people. I’m not even sure this counts as a metaphor. That’s just kind of … how it still is in a lot of places.

I also loved how they handled the show’s main protagonist, they way they portrayed Dr Manhattan, the future they imagined for Laurie, and even—although I know a lot of people were really angry with this—liked the fact that they had Rorschach become a rallying point for white supremacists. Because, I mean, yeah? Like, I know all nerdboys deep down want to be Rorschach because the idea that someone could be mean to you and you could turn round and say “I’m not trapped in here with you, you’re trapped in here with me” and then hit them in the face with a deep fat fryer full of boiling oil is very appealing.  But … he’s not a good person. His diary is fully of really of really right wing rhetoric about, you know, whores and filth and scum being washed away in the flood.  And setting the shower in Tulsa against the backdrop of a real race massacre that (and maybe the US education system does better on this) I for one had genuinely never heard about was a really strong choice, and tied in with all the rest of its themes about history and trauma and power and violence and race.

But. At the very end, it kind of feels like they decided that they had to have a villain who was doing something naughty and had to be stopped, ideally by characters we already recognise. Which … I mean? Up until that point the show had done such a job of walking the line between subversion and fanboyism but, I don’t know, to me having the Vietnamese woman who was trying to build on Ozymandias’ legacy but to do so in a way that would essentially eclipse him (and also, for what it’s worth, not kill three million people) stopped and, indeed, directly killed by Ozymandias and for this to be presented as basically a good thing was a blistering let down. Like, the whole of point of the original Watchmen is that a) Ozymandias kind of wins and b) he kind of isn’t wrong but also is kind of totally wrong.  

Because obviously Watchmen wasn’t perfect but if there was one comic book trap it definitely didn’t fall into it was status quo bias.

One of my least favourite tropes, and you see this time and time and time again, from Marvel to Pixar to Star Wars, is the idea that the only people who can be trusted with power are people who are either born with or acquire it accidentally. And the thing is, I understand where this trope comes from. Because superficially being power-hungry is bad. But actually being power-hungry is a lot like being, well, hungry. In that it’s a state of being one experiences if one lacks something. By and large, people who want more power aren’t, in fact, megalomaniac arseholes. Often megalomaniac arseholes don’t usually need to want more power because they’ve already had power handed to them and it’s usually that sense of entitlement that makes them a megalomaniac arsehole.

I don’t normally talk about US politics on this blog but, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants power because she has a specific progressive agenda that she thinks will make people’s lives better and she needs power to implement it. Donald Trump, on the other hand, never especially wanted power (he’s practically on record as having said he didn’t want to be president) because he’d always had power because he was a white man who was born rich. He threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way but that’s because he was always used to getting his way and so he accepted it as the natural state of the universe.

Although Sister Night (the African American policewoman / masked vigilante who turns out to be the granddaughter of Hooded Justice) is very much the central character of the new Watchmen, the central conflict is really between Ozymandias and his illegitimate daughter Lady Trieu. Her plan is basically to trick a bunch of white supremacists into capturing Dr Manhattan for her and trying to suck out his power so that she can suck out his power instead and—let’s be very clear—use it, much liked Ozymandias used his power, for the good of humanity. And, obviously, one of the questions that both the original Watchmen and the TV show interrogates through the character is Ozymandias is the very issue of who gets to decide what is good for humanity.

But I think the thing is that the original comic presents that question as open. Ozymandias’s decision to drop a psychic squid nuke on New York in order to prevent a nuclear war is horrific but, on some level, you are invited to admire the commitment of it. Similarly, when Dr Manhattan decides to just fuck off to Mars instead of using his powers to help people that’s presented as another take on the responsible use of power and the text doesn’t necessarily say which is right and which is wrong. I mean, I don’t want to overly valorise Alan Moore here because, at the end of the day, the core moral question of Watchmen is just a trolley problem on a massive scale. Is it okay to kill three million people to prevent nuclear annihilation or is it better to stand by and let things unfold as they naturally will, irrespective of the harm that leads to?

By comparison, stopping Lady Trieu is just seen as, well, the thing that’s got to be done. And, worryingly, (especially for a show that’s got such undercurrent of interrogating racial injustice) it genuinely seems to draw an equivalence between the white supremacist who wants to be Dr Manhattan to, I assume, kind of destroy all black people and the Vietnamese woman who wants to become Dr Manhattan to destroy all nukes.  Ozymandias has one throwaway line where he says that Lady Trieu is a megalomaniac because “it takes one to know one” but … why do we believe this prick? And maybe I’m doing the show a disservice and maybe we’re genuinely supposed to be asking that question but it doesn’t feel to me like there’s space in the text to ask it. The framing of the climax of the series is so much about the love story between Dr Manhattan and Sister Night which means what we are invited to care about is whether Dr Manhattan dies (obviously there’s also the fact that he’s an iconic character who you don’t want to be written out of the setting). And so the abstract question of who actually deserves to have Dr Manhattan-level power and who can be trusted with it is never really addressed.

Or, rather, it’s sort of addressed but only in the comic books status quo bias sense that it is assumed that the person who already has the power (who also, despite his having used his Dr Manhattan powers to look like a Black guy for this series, has spent most of his life as a white man) is the only one who should ever have it. And, yes, because he’s foreseen his own death, he does pass on his power (or a portion of his power) to Sister Night in essentially the closing shot of the series. But, again, that’s got some really problematic implications because all it does it flip from “the person in power is the only person who should have power” to “the person that the person in power wants to have power after them is the only person who should have power.”

Which is still not good. Especially when it’s set against the race angle. Because, on the one hand, yes it’s nice that this was a version of Watchmen where Dr Manhattan was black and gave his power to a black woman. But it’s also a version of Watchmen where a woman of colour (and, in this universe, a woman of colour from a country that is directly occupied by the US military) tried to take power herself instead of waiting for it to be given to her by somebody who already had it and this was presented as objectively wrong.

So that’s complicated. And I should stress that there is a lot to love about this show. And I should also stress that, as a white guy, my opinions on race issues ultimately don’t mean shit. But I do think that the broader status quo bias of superhero and to a large extent fantasy media is something I’m sensitive to (if nothing else because I’m from a working class background) and the more I’ve come to notice it, the more it’s annoyed me, and the more I’ve come to see it in so many things.

Anyway, this is nearly 5000 words. What have you been enjoying this month? Tell me in the comments or, as ever, don’t.

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It is that time again that I rate five episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation by how bobbins they are. That’s it. No more introduction. Let’s go.

The Schizoid Man

There are two things that are unfortunate about this title. The first is that it’s, um, not the most sensitive title in the world for an episode of a TV show or, I think, the most accurate in its use of mental health terminology. The second is that it’s also the title of a classic episode of the 1960s TV series, The Prisoner. And, particularly in nerd circles, that’s not a comparison you want to invite.

Anyway, this is a “someone wants to steal Data” episode. The someone in this case is pervy narcissist Ira Graves who, like, grooms Data by claiming to be his grandfather and then steals his body in order to evade death. And haven’t we all been there?

The thing I like most about this episode is how little effort pervy narcissist Ira Graves makes to act in any way like Data. He keeps it up for all of five minutes before backtalking Picard and hitting on his hot younger assistant (who, possibly, might be up for it, were it not for the fact he wants to turn her into a robot too). It’s also the episode that contains the “to know him is to love him is to know him” speech, which for some reason has been burned into my memory since I first saw this episode when it aired in … I want to say 1987? That is perfectly good brain space I could have used for literally anything else. Except obviously not because that’s not how brains work.

This episode also gets points for being another episode where Picard defeats the villain by just kind of having a conversation with him. I guess when all you’ve got is a classically trained actor every problem begins to look like a nail with insufficient gravitas.

This feels like quite a standard Star Trek episode so I think that makes it three bobbins by default.

Unnatural Selection

In this episode, noted robot racist Dr Pulaski becomes infected with a mysterious aging sickness that has already killed the entire crew of a federation starship. This is entirely her own fault. And I might sympathise more with her scientific hubris (and, genuinely, it was kind of nice, especially in the 1980s, to see that trait in a female character) were it not for the fact she is a giant robot racist. And, to be fair, in this episode she does have some development in her relationship with Data, but I think that’s part of the problem. Because Dr Pulaski’s refusal to accept that Data is a real person is quite deliberately portrayed as a racism parallel it’s hard to root for her and Data to “work out their differences” when their differences are literally “she refuses to acknowledge his humanity.” Something something fine people on both sides something something partisanship.

Anyway, the crew of Enterprise arrive at a genetic research station which is also being afflicted by the very fast aging disease and all the researchers say “we’re dying of very fast aging disease, but it is DEFINITELY NOT caused by our weird, genetically engineered children.”

Spoiler: it is caused by the weird, genetically engineered children.

One of the things I really value about Star Trek, and think it has lost in its more recent incarnations, is its absolute commitment to being optimistic sci-fi. In a post-Black Mirror world it’s really refreshing (or, depending on how you look at it, jarring) to have an episode where the plot basically goes: so we did these genetic experiments to produce a generation of super humans who reach full physical maturity in twelve years, are hyper-intelligent, telepathic and never get sick. Unfortunately their immune systems are so strong that they seem to kill everyone around them. Whoops. The lesson I take away from this is that there is one minor flaw in our otherwise very sensible plan.

And I know phrased that in a flippant way but, genuinely, I kind of like that? Like the Enterprise just flies away cheerfully, leaving these people to continue their incredibly difficult, provably dangerous research into a field, let’s not forget, led to vast genocidal wars in the actual backplot of actual Star Trek. And that’s … bizarrely cool? Because actually trying to use science to make stuff better for people isn’t, whatever Black Mirror might tell you, some doomed or futile endeavour to play in God’s domain. Humans have frequently discovered, and will frequently continue to discover, things that just straight up help people. I mean, yes, without antibiotics we wouldn’t have antibiotic resistant bacteria. But let’s be mega clear: the worst case scenario of antibiotic resistant bacteria is that we wind up no worse off than we were before antibiotics.

Anyway, it’s a Pulaski-heavy episode and I’d dock it a point except I’m not doing points. Assuming you are okay with its weirdly optimistic take on breeding a race of telepathic superhumans it’s a decent sci-fi medical mystery.

Two bobbins.

A Matter of Honor

Fuck off Klingons are amazing.

In this episode, Riker participates in an exchange programme which means he has to go and be first officer of a Klingon vessel for a bit. And, yes, this makes no sense. And, yes, the core conflict is that there’s some kind of weird space bacteria that eats ships that happens to infect both the Klingon vessel and the Enterprise while they’re doing the transfer, which is one of the most forced plot contrivances I’ve seen in an episode of Star Trek so far. And, just to remind you, this is Star Trek we’re talking about. A show whose forced plot contrivances are so famous there’s a song about it.

But fuck off Klingons are amazing. I will never not celebrate a Klingon episode. Qapla!

One bobbin.

The Measure of a Man

This is an all-time favourite for so many reasons. Strong Data focus: check. Captain Picard doing speeches: check. Riker also doing speeches: check. Picard having a slightly age-inappropriate relationship with a female character we never see again: check. Slightly pretentious episode title so you’re not sure isn’t a Babylon 5: check. Unintentional homoerotic undertone: check.

So this is episode where a dude from Star Fleet wants to fuck Data—I mean wants to take Data back to his star base to do experiments on his brain in order to create an army of Datas he can fuck—I mean, for the benefit of the Federation. There is then just forty minutes of Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes giving impassioned speeches about philosophy as they debate whether Data is a person or not in front of a lady who, really, really wants to bang Picard.

The lady who really, really wants to bang Picard is excellent, by the way. She’s all “justice justice justice this isn’t about your feelings this is about the law wanna bang.” Also they definitely had sex in the past, and it’s super unclear whether it’s before or after she court martialled him, and I’m not sure which way round is hotter. It’s like full-on classic D&D lawful neutral versus lawful good sexual tension.

I think the episode is also just a surprisingly decent stab at really interrogating its underlying philosophical question. Riker, despite not wanting to, makes a pretty compelling argument that, when you get right down to it, Data is a machine. And the bits where he takes off his hand and switches him off are both shocking and weirdly rhetorically effective, although the part where he gets Data to demonstrate his ability to bend a rod of parsteel thus proving that he has capacities well beyond those that a human could possess falls flat because Picard marshals the amazing counter argument: “objection! There are many lifeforms possessed of mega strength!”

I mean, he’s not wrong. But if we still lived in a world where ringtones where a thing, mine would be Patrick Stewart shouting about mega-strength.

The other line in this episode that sits slightly oddly with me is the bit when Wants To Bang Picard Lady is doing her summing up and she phrases the question before the court “does Data have a soul?” And, um, the answer is no. The answer is definitely no. A central tenet of the Star Trek universe (especially in this era, it gets a bit wibbly with the Bajorans) is that there is no religion and everyone is an atheist. The Federation doesn’t believe in souls. Sorry, that bugged me more than it should. Although I suppose, thinking about it, it would pretty on brand if it wasn’t so much strictly atheistic (they’re said to have given up on “superstitions” which seems to include organised religion) as, you know, spiritual but not religious.

Anyway, this episode is amazing. Anyone who says this episode is not amazing is just being a hipster.

Although I do feel bad for Bruce Maddox who is so uncomfortable with his desire to bang data that he concocts this whole thing about to wanting “continuing Noonian Soong’s research” as an elaborate cover. Come on man, just accept who you are. And who you are is someone who fancies Data and that’s okay.

One bobbin.

The Dauphin

Okay, hear me out. This is Wesley-centric episode in which he gets a crush on a pretty girl, and there’s also an objectively hilarious giant hairy bugsuit monster thing, but it’s actually really sweet and I kind of … genuinely love it?

This episode opens with Wesley doing a thing in engineering with Geordi. Which means you know it’s going to be a Wesley-centric episode. Then, it’s explained that the Enterprise’s mission is to pick up a spurious head of state from a weird inhospitable planet where she (very explicitly she) has been living for the past sixteen years (very explicitly sixteen years). And you realise it’s going to be that kind of Wesley-centric episode.

Needless to say, the spurious head of state is extremely pretty and slightly dorky and incredibly teenage and she’s all “oh I just want to be a normal carbon-based life-form and go on dates and eat chocolate pudding with boys but instead I have to resolve a war between two irreconcilable factions on a tidally locked planet because that is a thing that happens in this universe” and all the adults on the Enterprise are like “yep, that seems like a totally legit thing to be going on” and Wesley is like “but I want to kiss her real bad” and … that’s like the entire plot.

Oh before I forget part of Wesley’s “I want to kiss her real bad” arc involves seeking romantic advice from various unhelpful members of the Enterprise. Which includes Worf demonstrating a Klingon mating roar (leading to the exchange “are you saying I should roar at her?” “no, women roar, then throw heavy objects. Men read love poetry and duck a lot”) and Riker and Guinan trying to teach him chat-up lines but getting way too into it and sort of pulling each other right in front of him. And to give Wesley credit, having had all this patently useless advice, he ignores it and decides to be himself and it works really well.

Wesley Crusher got game. I bet he gets that from his dad. By which I mean his secret real dad, Picard. Not canon. (Also, I don’t actually like that fan theory, because I think “Picard feels guilty around Wesley because he got his father killed” is a more nuanced take than “Picard feels guilty around Wesley because he nailed his mom.”)

Anyway, what I really like about this episode is that the spurious head of state is basically the protagonist of a YA novel that’s going on in the background while other people are largely ignoring it. She’s got a destiny, an over-protective mentor with whom who she has quite a complex relationship, she has to make a hard choice between her people and a boy, and freedom and duty and stuff. Also dating is difficult when you’re a shape shifting being of pure light who sometimes turns into a giant ant-gorilla. If this episode had been written ten-to-twenty years later they’d have got three novels and a movie series out of it.

Plus Wesley comes out of this episode surprisingly well. It’s 47 minute TV from the 80s so he does quite a lot of emotional whiplashing but he gets a nice “meets girl, falls for girl, is briefly betrayed by girl, says tender emotional farewell to girl” arc. And it ends on a poignant scene with Guinan where Wesley is all sad and Guinan, unusually for a wise mentor character in a TV show from the 80s, gives him advice that’s … not completely obvious and trite? Like Wesley is all “oh, I’ll never feel this way again” and Guinan’s like “you’re right you won’t.” And Wesley’s like “wah?” and Guinan’s like, “That’s the thing about love, it’s kind of different every time and that’s okay.” Which is a much more nuanced take than you would normally get in that kind of story.

I appreciated this take because one of the problems that teen romance dramas often have is that it becomes  necessary for the protagonist to have more than one romantic interest. But because they’re ground in this model of love that (and apologies, I stole this from Jenny Nicholson’s Vampire Diaries review but it’s genuinely the best summary I’ve heard) goes “you can love exactly one person and you meet them when you’re a teenager and you can never love any body else ever even if one of you dies” it can get super weird. Buffy, for example, never really reconciled the tension between Angel being Buffy’s One True Forever Love and his fucking off to be on a different TV show really early in the series.

Anyway, yes it’s a Wesley Gets A Girlfriend episode with all that entails. But I really liked it. I mean, it still gets at least three bobbins just for the giant ant-monkey monster thing that everyone tries to act terrified of when it’s clearly just an actor in a suit who isn’t able to move very fast or effectively. And they have to do that kind of fighting where they just grab each other’s arms and sort of rock side-to-side which I assume is a recognised martial art in the 24th century.

So. Three bobbins.

watching

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Okay, so, keeping up with my vague resolution to blog here is me blogging more. Here is me actually doing a Things I Liked post at the start of the month after the month it’s about instead about halfway through the month after the month it’s about.

Go me.

Jenny Nicholson on The Vampire Diaries

I’ve already included Jenny Nicholson and The Vampire Diaries on this blog—indeed, as part of this blog series—so Jenny Nicholson talking about The Vampire Diaries was pretty much guaranteed to make me happy. Part of her brand is that she does very, very long in depth videos sometimes and The Vampire Diaries video is, like, two and a half hours analysing a completely absurd TV show in way more detail than anyone could ever possibly need to. And people analysing absurd things in way more detail than anyone could ever possibly need is, um, something I have a lot of time for.

I could say quite a lot about this but it’s hard to without essentially stealing someone else’s pop culture analysis but it’s a good mix of light-hearted not exactly nostalgic discussion of the series and genuinely unusual and weird facts. Like there’s a whole big story about how shittily the company who owned The Vampires Diaries IP treated the woman who actually wrote the books—which, again, you can see for yourselves in the video.

Although I do think she’s mean about Elijah’s hair.

Oxygen Not Included

This is another game from the same people who made Don’t Starve and it has a superficially similar premise but very different gameplay. You control a team of “duplicants” who are sort of well-intentioned but incompetent clones trying to survive in a space colony they’re building in the middle of an asteroid somewhere using only stuff they’ve dug out of that asteroid.

It doesn’t have the same “oops I’ve fucked up, now I’m dead” energy that Don’t Starve has. It’s more of a “I am a hundred game days into this colony and I’ve just now realised that I’ve been neglecting an incredibly important thing and should probably have another go, this time probably not neglecting the incredibly important thing.”

So far I’ve been through that loop about nine times, discovering a new very important thing every time.

Because it’s got a base building aspect you can find lots of stuff online about people who’ve built all sorts of elaborate, remarkable machines to do things like produce food automatically or turn poo into oxygen. I have achieved none of this.

My bases consist of boring rectangular rooms with long, squiggly inefficient corridors coming off them because I realised I was out of coal or algae or something, and occasionally they get flooded with polluted water because I accidentally demolish the wrong tile, turn off the toilets and cause my duplicants to wee everywhere.

Fun times.

Reading

Well, this one’s a little weird but, uh, for all the pandemic has been quite bad? It’s also helped me get back in touch with reading. Because the thing about being a writer is that reading and writing can come from similar mental spaces, so doing too much of one can impinge on the other, and I’m increasingly terrified I’m going to end up like Garth Marenghi in Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place, proudly declaring himself one of the few people you know who has written more books than he’s read.

But the thing about pandemics, and lockdowns specifically, is that they give you a lot more free time. So I’ve been quietly chewing through my ballycumber. And, frankly, this has been helpful too because I haven’t had to make any meaningful decisions about what to read, or worry if I’m keeping up with the sort of things I should be reading.

Also it’s winter and it’s cold so tucking up with a kindle and duvet is lovely.

Soy Eggs

I found a recipe in The Guardian for soy eggs. Spoiler, it basically goes: get some eggs, put them in soy sauce overnight, eat.

But they’re a surprising improvement on the egg experience. There’s something fundamentally unexciting about an egg, possibly something to do with their having been designed by evolution and selective breeding to be the most efficient, no fuss way of delivering nutrients to a vertebrate that can possibly exist. Adding a slight umami flavour makes a remarkable amount of difference. I suppose it’s like putting butter on dry bread.

And the nice thing about these is that you can boil up a batch of them, stick them in a jar of marinade, which makes you feel like you’ve done real cooking, and then you have a nice healthy snack that you can grab whenever you feel like one.

Some episodes of Killing Eve

By which I mean, I’ve only watched some episodes, not that I found really patchy. And, oh my God, this is fabulous—especially if you’ve played any assassination-themed video game, since Villanelle is clearly just Agent 47 only more female and less bald. She even does the thing where she wears disguises but rather than bringing them with her she just picks them up as she’s wandering around. And occasionally her missions will go wrong and she’ll just be forced to kill everyone in the entire building or chase the target across a field firing a gun with badly implement ironsights and I’ll be like, “yep, been there.”

I mean, been there in the sense of “played that level in a video game.” Not that I’m actually an international assassin. That looks perilously like hard work.

Anyway, I think I’m the last person world to watch this—to the extent that I think it’s up to its fourth season, which honestly feels like a lot to me for a show whose entire premise is a game of cat ‘n’ mouse. I mean, really, by this stage it should definitely be called Singularly Failing to Kill Eve. Or possibly Not Even Trying To Kill Eve.

I will say that I do think, it’s camp as balls in the sense that for all its prestige TV miniseries psychodrama packaging it’s basically just a 70s spy thriller. And, to be fair, I think it absolutely knows this—like, I’m not that far in yet so no spoilers (actually, that’s a lie, I’m fine with spoilers) but as far as I can tell the premise is that Villanelle is either the little girl from Leon if she grew up and went into the family business or Black Window from Marvel if she’d just kind of stayed evil. Basically, she seems to love two things which are killing and, really specifically, Sandra Oh’s hair. I think there’s a backstory explanation for this but, right now, I don’t care. I’m here for it anyway.

Redditors versus The Stock Market

Like pretty much everybody I’ve been fascinated by the gradual unfolding of The Big Short But With Memes.

Although holy crap does this highlight how weird and clearly-just-gambling the stock market is.

Like as I understand it what happened here is:

A Big Stock Market Guy noticed that a video game store was going to lose money in the pandemic because retail was suffering and physical video game stores aren’t exactly a growth sector right now…

So he … borrowed a bunch of shares in this company, promising to give more shares in that company back later to the people he borrowed them from? And this is a thing people do all the time in financial markets and think is normal? Like if I went into Greggs and instead of buying a packet of four sausage rolls for three pounds I instead said “tell you what, I’ll take these four sausage rolls now, but I’ll give you five sausage rolls tomorrow”.

And then he sold those sausage rolls because he hoped that sausage rolls would get cheaper and that tomorrow he’d be able to buy five sausage rolls for less than he originally paid for four sausage rolls. Again, this is apparently just how buying sausage rolls works in the financial markets.

But then a group of internet people who self-define as a “bunch of degenerate gamblers” realised what he was doing and, because they’re internet people, didn’t like the idea that he was picking on a shop they all remembered buying games from as teenagers, and decided to teach him a lesson. Which they decided to do by buying up as many sausage rolls as they could so that when the time came for the Big Stock Market Guy to have to give his sausage rolls back to Greggs they’d be able to say “ha ha we have all the sausage rolls, you can’t have the sausage rolls unless you give us one million dollars”.

And this is kind of working?

Except now some people are saying that maybe the reason that the Big Stock Market Guy and all his Big Stock Market friends are so worried is that there might actually be more sausage rolls out there than there were supposed to be, because it’s possible that somebody was committing sausage roll fraud. And also there are now stories running in the Wall Street Journal that say that the internet people have stopped buying sausage rolls and are now buying silver instead, but this might be a scam. And the internet people are really keen to keep buying sausage rolls. And a sausage roll selling app by the unbelievably ironic name of Robinhood is stopping people buying sausage rolls because it’s causing volatility in the sausage roll markets?

And all this moving around of imaginary sausage rolls some of which are real imaginary sausage rolls and some of which might be fake imaginary sausage rolls is a real billion dollar service industry and incidentally one of my country’s largest exports?

I think I’m going to go back to trying to stop my space clones from weeing everywhere.

silliness

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So, about … three years ago? I started reviewing episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and rating them all by how bobbins they were. Being me, I stopped doing this more or less without warning, more or less for no reason at the end of the first season. I have, however, been undated by two requests to continue the series.

So here it is!

The Child

What a way to start. Because Star Trek was a very issuesy series and I try to take issuesy things seriously I’m going to be spending a lot of this post talking about things that are massively outside my lane.

Content warnings for non-graphic but I hope frank discussion of rape and forced pregnancy which I seem more bothered about than the actual episode is.

Which, thinking about it is, is kind of the main point I want to make here. One of the lowkey weird things about content warnings is that sometimes the warning itself is, to an extent, the content you’re warning about.

So yeah. In this episode, the Enterprise encounters a weird energy surge thing in space which visits Troi while she’s asleep and then she wakes up pregnant. Everybody reacts to this exactly the way you expect people to react to it in a television show made in 1988. Which is to say everyone is either pleased or sexually jealous. All the women immediately get misty-eyed because another woman is pregnant, even though this pregnancy is non-consensual. Riker starts acting very very threatened and Picard, as ever the lone voice of reason on the Enterprise (except when he’s getting possessed or being consumed by melancholy) occasionally raises questions about whether the magic energy being space pregnancy might be a problem.

The thing is, there is weird trend on TV where shows that wouldn’t go near rape for all the Nielsen Ratings in the world seem happy to throw in a forced pregnancy plot as a completely innocuous magic / sci-fi issue of the week. And (again, I’m out my lane here) I feel this is grounded in some really problematic misunderstandings of, um, why rape is bad? Because surely if you think rape is bad because it involves violating another person’s bodily autonomy then you kind have to accept that literally making a woman pregnant without asking her also counts.  The only way it wouldn’t count is if you instead subscribe to an incredibly strict, incredibly literal version of the commodity model of sex (in which sex is essentially see as a commodity that women have and men acquire from women) and therefore think rape is bad because it’s essentially acquiring sex you haven’t earned. Rather than because it, y’know, harms a human being?

All of which makes it very hard to judge the episode because I kind of feel I see its core conflict very differently from the people who wrote it. The Child is mostly presented as a sort of sweet mystery in which Deanna Troi has a baby and is happy about it, but the baby is a bit mysterious and turns out to be an alien superintelligence. For my perspective it’s essentially a horror premise where a powerful energy strips someone we care about of her bodily autonomy and then mind controls her.

Five bobbins.

Where Silence Has Lease

 Oh God, Season 2 did not get off to a good start. This episode is bobbins for very different reasons to The Child but it is still very, very bobbins.

While watching this episode I arrived at two slightly different explanations of where it came from. The first was that they just had no budget. The second was that it was a tabletop RPG run by a GM who’d forgotten they were supposed to be doing a game that night and was desperately stalling for time while they a thought of a plot. Spoilers, I may have done this on more than one occasion.

The Enterprise encounters a space anomaly. The anomaly is literally nothing. It is a black squiggle on the viewscreen. There is an extended sequence where they view the black squiggle at higher and higher magnifications and it does not change. Everybody acts shocked that it’s not changing but it also means that they didn’t have to pay to animate two different black squiggles.

Then, suddenly, the Enterprise is inside the nothing thing. It’s not really explained how they got there. It, like, just grew and, like, consumed them somehow? And then they encounter stock footage of a Romulan warbird that immediately explodes (I’m 90% certain this is taken directly from The Neutral Zone, the last episode of the previous season) followed by a ship that is identical in design and layout to the Enterprise. “Oh look,” they cry. “Our sister ship. How convenient.”

Picard orders Riker to beam over to the new ship, taking a “minimal complement” which seems to be code for “no extras we might have to pay” and then there’s a really long sequence of Riker and Worf (“minimal complement”) walking around sets that are also used in this episode just with slightly different lighting and growing increasingly distressed at the fact that they don’t seem to line up sensibly. Almost as if they’re in some kind of TV studio.

Eventually, Picard beams them back and the ship they’ve just been wandering around pointlessly disappears. At which point something something maybe an illusion something something rats in a maze. And then a giant floaty alien head shows up, says it’s been experimenting on them and now it needs to kill half the crew so it can understand death.

Picard, in an uncharacteristically kirk-like maneuver, essentially says “I won’t let you kill half my crew, I’m going to kill all my crew” and then he and Riker go down to the self-destruct room to initiate the self-destruct sequence.

This leads to my favourite scene, definitely in the episode, possibly in all of Star Trek. The conversation between Picard and Riker goes something like this:

Picard: But how long should we set the timer? Should we make it happen quickly or give the crew time to prepare themselves?

Riker: Prepare themselves? How can they prepare themselves? How much time could ever be enough to confront the cold enormity of your inevitable death?

[Pause]

Riker: About twenty minutes?

Picard: Yeah, that sounds about right.

So they set the timer for twenty minutes. During which time the entity who has captured the Enterprise politely refrains from killing any more crew members, even though he completely could. He seems to be omnipotent. And it’s not like setting the self-destruct timer means he can’t kill half the crew in order to learn about death. It just puts him on a clock.

But, anyway. Apparently game recognises game and the mysterious woobly face things is all like “fair play Jean-Luc, y’all can go now.”

So they go. The end.

Five bobbins. Honestly, if I was giving one bobbin for every bobbins thing that happened in this episode this would be at least twelve bobbins.

Elementary Dear Data

Ah, this is a classic. Although, in retrospect, it does say not great things about Star Trek TNG that so many of its best episode are the ones in which the characters essentially just pretend to be in a different TV show.

In Elementary Dear Data, Data and Geordi take advantage of a three-day window in which the Enterprise isn’t doing anything (this is established in the cold open) to indulge the popular 23rd century hobby of really serious cosplay.

They start out by trying to re-enact a classic Holmes adventure but Data spoils it by using his knowledge of the original story to jump straight of the ending where the villain is unmasked.  With my Holmes nerd hat on, I have a very picky complaint about this. Which is that the story is clearly supposed to be A Scandal in Bohemia but the plot that Data foils is not, in fact, the plot of A Scandal in Bohemia. It’s sort of a generic Holmesian mishmash that happens to reference Bohemia. Maybe the computer was working from a fanfic that Data had also read.

Anyway, Geordi teams up with noted robot racist, Dr Kate Pulaksi to challenge Data to actually solve a Holmes mystery instead of just remembering the solution to a Holmes mystery. They have a couple of false starts and then Geordi—a guy who has grown up in a world with access to advanced computing technology, who works with computers and programmes computers as part of his dayjob that he is good at—instructs the Enterprise’s computer to “create an adversary capable of defeating Data” with no other parameters or limitations.

Thus the computer creates a fully sentient AI that is able to seize control of the Enterprise.

Leading to perhaps my second favourite scene in all of Star Trek where Geordi and Data have to go to their actual boss and say “Hi Captain, we LARPed so hard we might have destroyed the ship.”

Whereupon Picard, now in full stern dad mode, has to get dressed up as a Victorian, go into the holodeck and have a conversation with Moriarty about the nature of matter, energy, existence and consciousness. All while he was meant to be having a day off.

The thing is, for an episode with a fundamentally ludicrous premise there’s a tonne of stuff here that I unironically love. Any episode that is Data and Geordi at play is just incredibly charming from the outset—and, actually, the development of Data and Geordi’s friendship is one of TNG’s emotional keystones for me. And, frankly, for anybody with a soul. Or, for that matter, a positronic brain.

Also, despite only coming in at the very end to send everyone to bed without any supper, this is actually a really good Picard being Picard episode. Because, let’s be clear, if any of this had happened on Kirk’s ship, he’d have gone in there, made out with a problematic hologram of a Victorian prostitute, then smacked Moriarty in the teeth (or more likely in the small of the back with that two-handed chop thing that he always did). But while everyone else is sitting around discussing how best to blow up the holodeck with killing Noted Robot Racist Dr Kate Pulaski Picard is just like, “okay, I’ll go talk to him.” And perhaps I’m just sentimental about artificial intelligence (I like to hope that if I was on TNG Data would be my best friend too) but the conversation between Picard and Moriarty—as they sort of meet as two educated sentient beings who share the same curiosities, hopes and aspirations—is quietly very sad. Because Moriarty essentially has to come to terms with the fact that his own existence is impossible.

And, actually, it’s a surprisingly sophisticated bit of science fiction storytelling. Because 99 times out of a 100 when somebody accidentally creates a self-aware AI on this kind of show it immediately goes to “therefore I have to destroy all humans.” And so having it instead go to “I have become aware that there is an entire universe outside my direct experience but that also the laws of physics prohibit me from ever interacting with it and I am legit not sure how to feel about that” is both interesting and unusual.

All of which said, as much as I love it, I can’t quite give this episode less than three bobbins. Two of those bobbins come from the sheer fact that it’s a holodeck episode. Worse, a holodeck episode where a major plot point is that Moriarty can’t leave the holodeck but where they physically take items from inside the holodeck out of the holodeck on a semi-regular basis. Come on guys. You’ve got, like, one rule. The other bobbin comes from the fact that, well, you know how Data is the product of this lone genius scientist who invented this thing called the positronic brain allowing him to create a fully self-aware humanoid machine that can learn and think but is still, in some ways, limited, being able to feel emotions or, for some bizarre reason, use contractions? (Pedants in the audience, yes I’m aware that some of that’s deliberate because Lore but bear with me here). Well in this episode Geordi creates a fully sentient AI that is exactly as smart as Data and seems able to feel emotions (to the point of being able to have quite a sophisticated existential crisis) and can probably use contractions just fine (although since he is a Victorian man he does not) all by saying two sentences to a computer.

What was Noonien Soong wasting his time on?

Three loving bobbins.

 The Outrageous Okana

Someone decided Han Solo should be in Star Trek. A dashing freighter pilot gets rescued by the Enterprise, seems to have sex with the entire crew (like, seriously, he flirts so hard with Riker, and there’s definitely something going on between him and Wesley), resolves an interplanetary Romeo and Juliet thing, then leaves.

Also Teri Hatcher is in this episode as a sexy transporter chief.

Weirdly, this episode is so forgettable that it’s also not very bobbins because it doesn’t have enough substance to bob adequately. That said, Okana is pretty bobbins all by himself.

Three fairly apathetic bobbins

 Loud As A Whisper

This is a very special episode about disability (which is weird when you realise that one of the recurring characters on the show is blind). And I’m going to start off with a quick digression about the language I use to talk about disability issues and why I use it.

In identity politics stuff in general there are sometimes disagreements over whether you should use people first language (people of colour, people with disabilities) in order to highlight the humanity of the people you’re talking about or identity first language (BAME people, disabled people) in order to highlight that you are talking about a coherent identity group that has specific interests and that can be discriminated against.  In all demographics there are people who have preferences but, generally, it’s well-accepted that there isn’t a consensus either way. And that’s mostly true of disability issues as well but there seems to be more of a US/UK split on the use of people first versus identity first language. So I, in the UK, am mostly used to people using the term “disabled person” to describe themselves and so that’s the language I use. I am aware that some people in the US think that it is only acceptable to use the term “people with disabilities” but here I feel it’s best for me to guided by the language with which people tend to self-identify in the part of the world I live in. Independently of that, I also personally feel that there is real value in using language which highlights the fact that many of the difficulties disabled people face are not inevitable but are, in fact, a consequence of a type of discrimination so invidious that we often don’t realise it’s discrimination. Ultimately I am no more innately able to get from the ground floor of a building to the first floor than a  wheelchair user is. The difference is that staircases effectively discriminate against people who get around differently to me.

Anyway. The premise of this episode is that there is a planet that’s been fighting a war for fifteen hundred years between two factions of problematically characterised aliens and Picard is tasked with escorting a renowned mediator by the name of Riva to negotiate peace between them. And Riva (because this is a very special episode about disability) is deaf.

I actually went into the episode kind of braced for the cringe and, in retrospect, I think that was evidence of a certain cultural arrogance on my part. Obviously there are a lot of things that were much less well-handled by pop culture in 1988 than they are in 2021. But, actually, I’m not sure disability is one of them. Not, I should stress, because I think the 1980s were especially brilliant but because I think we haven’t really come that far since. I should also say, obviously, I am not myself disabled, I do not have any standing whatsoever to judge how well pop culture handles disability except from my own as-informed-as-I-can be (which is not very informed) outsider’s perspective.

Anyway, Riva communicates with the assistance of a “chorus”: three people with whom he’s formed some kind of empathic bond that lets them hear his thoughts and allows him to speak through them. And (again, no standing here) I personally felt the episode did a good job of presenting the way Riva communicates as being meaningfully different but not some kind of magical superpower. (Thinking about it, he even really explicitly states “I have no magic” multiple times in the episode which is a bit on the nose but given that we’re still portraying disabled people as magical even today probably worth saying).

Unfortunately, during the first round of negotiations with the problematic aliens, a rogue alien fires off a phaser and kills Riva’s chorus. This was the bit where I started worrying that it was going to stray into the kind well-intentioned portrayal of disability that is still very much around where assistive technologies are essentially treated like Dumbo’s magic feather. I watched a YouTube video a couple of months ago about Finding Dory and one of the things it pointed out was that, in theory, the film is an interesting exploration of disability and most of the characters in it are disabled in some way. But in almost all of the emotionally or plot significant moments in the film the disabled characters resolve their problems by just … kind of not being disabled for a bit? So Dory has real problems with her memory that are presented as having very strongly impacted her life but when it’s emotionally or narratively important she either remembers or guesses right. And there’s the whale whose whole thing is that he can’t echo locate and his big triumphant moment is that, when it really comes to the crunch and he needs to, he … um … can echo locate all of a sudden?

And maybe I’m wrong but I feel like this is quite a common way for popular media to handle disabilities, especially metaphor disabilities. It starts with the well-intentioned and arguably empowering message that having a disability doesn’t make you less valuable as a person but very frequently falls back on the implication that this is because disabilities somehow magically go away when they’re inconvenient. See very many, but I should say not all, disabled superheroes.

Basically my fear with this episode was that Riva would be required to realise that his chorus were “just a crutch” (and when you think about it, like, that in itself is a problematic phrase—people on crutches tend to need them) and that he can negotiate just as well without them as he can with them. And … no. He is initially very traumatised because he feels responsible for their deaths, believing he got his friends killed through his own arrogance, which is a completely fair thing for a character to feel in that situation. Then, when Data learns the sign language in which he communicates, he explains to Picard that he still can’t do his job as well with Data translating for him because his chorus allowed him to convey nuance and emotion and Data doesn’t. And, yes, it ends with Riva and Troi working out that he use the requirement to teach the problematic aliens sign language so that they can communicate with him as a ploy to get them to communicate with each other. But that’s very much presented as making a virtue of necessity not as evidence that the diplomacy was inside him all along and that the chorus were just some kind of very elaborate placebo.

And thinking about it, this is normally how the series handles Geordi’s visor as well. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché that Geordi’s visor is always the thing that picks up the thing that nothing else can detect (I’ve heard the ‘why don’t they reconfigure the sensors to operate like Geordi’s visor’ joke a million times) but it’s actually quite consistently shown that the way Geordi sees with his visor is different from but neither superior to nor inferior than the way his crewmates see with their eyes. So it’s not blindness that’s a superpower here. It’s, well, diversity? If everyone saw like Geordi they’d miss things aren’t obvious to him but are obvious to people with biological eyes and optic nerves. But if no-one saw like Geordi the whole Enterprise would have been destroyed in multiple episodes.

Two bobbins. This episode is painfully sincere and could really do with using the word “special” about 40% less but, as a very special episode about an issue, I was remarkably impressed. Also it’s a rare occasion of Troi getting to be competent, rather than just saying “I sense great hostility, Captain” while the Klingons are literally shooting the Enterprise in the face.

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Something I might have hinted at before on this blog is that I am not at all precious about spoilers. I tend to respect them out of the same kind of nebulous social convention that makes the whole of western civilisation conspire to make children believe that every Christmas Eve a jolly man with an innate knowledge of people’s moral worth flies around the world giving rich children more presents than poor children, but I believe quite strongly that any text that can actually be spoiled by knowing how it ends is, not to put too fine a point on it, probably not very good. There are a vanishingly small number of exceptions to this rule (I found the twist at the end of the adventure game Unavowed sufficiently delightful that I genuinely wanted to preserve the surprise for other people) but by and large, The Empire Strikes Back remains the best-regarded Star Wars movie despite the fact that these days nobody watches it without already knowing that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

Self indulgent side note: I do actually think one element of TESB is harmed by spoilers, and that’s the reveal that the little green muppet guy is actually a wise Jedi master, and even then it’s not really the film that’s spoiled by this so much as the character of Yoda in every subsequent movie. The original point of Yoda’s character is that he’s supposed to not be like you expect a Jedi master to be, so having him become the most archetypally Jedi-Master-ey of all Jedi Masters really cheapens him. And much as I love Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian I do feel mildly saddened by the fact that it now seems to be canon that Yoda’s species is inherently really strong in the force. Again I feel it really cheapens the original Yoda. The whole point of his original character is that a Jedi Master can be anybody, the whole point of Yoda and the Yoda-species in later canon is that some people are just inherently really good at using the force. (It also makes all his wisdom highly suspect, apparently his whole species can just do Force shit pretty much from birth, so what the hell does he know about how to train people who actually have to work at it?)

Sorry, that was a long digression. This post isn’t about Star Wars, nor is it about Unavowed, although it is about another property with the word “un” in its title, that property being The Undoing, the mystery-thriller-thing with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant.

Surprise! It’s the return of the Grantathon! Well… semi-return. I specifically didn’t do mini-series in the original run so this can be seen more as sort of Grantathon bonus content.

But anyway. This post will contain spoilers for The Undoing. And normally I’d say “so if you haven’t seen it, and you care about spoilers, stop reading now” but actually in this case I’m going to say something different. I’m going to say “if you haven’t seen it, even if you care about spoilers, you might want to keep reading, because I genuinely think that being spoiled for the ending of this series actually makes it better.”

Of course mileage varies here. I’ve seen reviews online of people who loved the ending and think you should absolutely go into it fresh. But honestly if the show is on your radar at all then you probably know the major reveal (insofar as it is a reveal) anyway because a lot of people were quite vocally disappointed by it.

Anyway, if you don’t trust me, or still believe that knowing the endings of things makes them worse, this is your last chance to bail.

And yes…

…I know…

…nobody does…

…spoiler space…

…any more…

…but I…

…am old.

It also occurs to me that formatting your spoiler space as a sentence that some people might read out of linguistic inertia and thereby spoiler themselves anyway probably defeats the purpose.

I

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Okay, seriously, everybody who doesn’t want to be spoiled (or as I will henceforth be insisting, “engoodened”) should genuinely be gone. So let’s talk about the ending.

Specifically, the twist in the ending.

Specifically, the twist that there wasn’t a twist. And that the guy who the police thought did it, and who all the evidence said did it, and who all of the characters who weren’t obviously living in deep denial thought did it, and whose entire legal defence was “the police didn’t look closely enough at other suspects because my client is so obviously guilty”, in the TV show based on a book that was literally called “You Should Have Known” actually did it.

People fucking hated this ending. Not all people, obviously. I can think of literally nothing that some people won’t stubbornly insist is good (or for that matter, that some people won’t stubbornly insist is bad) in face of an overwhelming consensus to the contrary. But the broad vibe of the interwebs when it was revealed that no, actually the young woman really was murdered by the guy who obviously did it and not by the main viewpoint character, or a random parent from her son’s school, or the principal of her son’s school, or her own newborn baby (this was a real fan theory) was a ritual Calling Of The Bullshit.

And much as I’ve lightly mocked that reaction by pointing out that everybody who was surprised that Hugh Grant turned out to be a wrong ‘un Should Have Known I do actually see where they were coming from. Because I would certainly have been one of them if I’d been watching the show as it released.

Words that End In GRY

This is tenuous, but I wanted a subheading.

There’s an XKCD strip that I think sums up people’s frustration with the ending of The Undoing. In it Stick Figure A (if you’re not familiar, all XKCD strips are populated entirely by stick figures) asks Stick Figure B the old “words that end in GRY” riddle and Stick Figure B responds by cutting their arm off, hitting them with it, and then saying “communicating badly and then acting smug when you are misunderstood is not cleverness.”

It’s not a subtle strip, but it’s a satisfying one, and I tend to think of it every time I think a TV show is treating me like a sucker.

The riddle, in case you don’t know it goes: “Angry and Hungry are two words that end in GRY. There are only three words in the English language, what’s the third?” And the answer is “Language” because the question that’s actually asked (“There are only three words in the (1) English (2) language (3), what’s the third?”) is unrelated to the first sentence, which isn’t actually part of the question at all. The “trick” here is that the “riddle” (and honestly it barely qualifies as one) violates the common social convention that when you try to communicate with people you don’t deliberately obfuscate your meaning by adding extraneous information (if we’re getting technical and linguistey, it breaks the Principle of Cooperation by violating Grice’s Maxims). Which, as XKCD observes, isn’t clever it’s just fucking smug.

(Incidentally the “riddle” gets even worse because it’s often incorrectly stated as “there are only three words in the English language that end with GRY” which makes the “I meant what’s the third word in the noun-phrase the English language” interpretation not merely pedantic but actually grammatically wrong, but I digress. I mean, I digress more.)

Anyway, point is, to a lot of people the non-twist to The Undoing felt a lot like the “words that end in GRY” riddle. The show communicated its story poorly and then acted smug when people misinterpreted the story. “Do you see?” it seemed to be saying “you assumed Hugh Grant couldn’t have done it because he’s all nice and rich and white and stuff but really he’s a horrible murderer, lo I have revealed your implicit biases with my brilliant social commentary”. To which viewers naturally responded (a) “fuck off” and (b) “actually the reason I assumed it couldn’t be Hugh Grant is because you deliberately framed this series as a whodunnit and I therefore assumed that whodunnit principles applied, you haven’t actually explored anything in any meaningful way, you’ve just asked me for three words ending in GRY and then laughed at me for not guessing I was meant to say language.”

Which is why knowing the ending makes it so much better. If you know from the start that Hugh Grant really did do it, then you can appreciate the series not as a mystery but as a psychological thriller. You can watch the series asking yourself not about whether Jonathan Fraser (Grant) really murdered Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis) but about whether Grace (Kidman) believes he did, and at what point she starts to trust him again, and at what point she stops. And then it’s really good all the way through, because everybody in it is giving a great performance, it has lavish production values, and all the twists and turns feel like they’re meant to reflect on Grace’s uncertainty instead of being cheap ways to misdirect the viewer.

The problem is, I don’t think that interpretation of the text is really supportable if you aren’t spoilered, because it requires you to consciously reject the text’s continuous, explicit invitations for you to engage with it as a whodunnit. It’d be like watching Return of the Jedi and trying to sincerely view it as an indictment of the way people who see themselves as good can commit terrorist atrocities in the name of freedom. Sure technically the destruction of the second Death Star probably leads to countless fatalities many of them surely innocent construction workers, slaves, or sentient droids, but it would be flat out bad faith to pretend that you really interpret the film through that lens.

Should You Have Known?

Probably the most balanced criticism I’ve seen of The Undoing is that it’s ultimately trying to be three things and doesn’t quite succeed at being any of them.

Most straightforwardly it’s a whodunnit: the viewer is invited to try and work out who killed Elena Alves. This is the story that’s being told by the structure of the show, with its carefully paced reveals and habit of dropping a new bombshell piece of evidence at the end of every episode hinting at a new suspect. And this story ultimately fails because unless you handle things incredibly deftly a whodunnit in which it turns out that the obvious suspect did it all along is going to leave a lot of people feeling duped. And it did.

Least straightforwardly, or perhaps most perfunctorily, it’s an exploration of social, economic, and racial privilege. Jonathan Fraser is obviously guilty, and isn’t even an especially capable criminal (he even disposes of the murder weapon on his own property) but he comes within a gnat’s crotchet of getting away with actual murder because he’s a wealthy white man and so the system is institutionally biased in his favour. Except … it sort of isn’t? Sure he gets a high price lawyer but that really is the only advantage that his class, race, and social status are shown to afford him. As one review pointed out in specific response to the “its actually social commentary” defence of the non-twist: if this is supposed to be an exploration of the way in which society and the criminal justice system is biased in favour of some people and against others then why the hell did it decide that a major plot point would be the cops quickly ruling out the victim’s black, Hispanic, working-class husband and focusing their efforts exclusively on Hugh Grant? If anything the show is deeply reassuring about the criminal justice system. Sure Jonathan can hire a swanky-yet-shady lawyer but every single other official we meet seems interested only in finding the objective truth of Elena’s murder.

And finally, the series can be what the book was: a psychological exploration of a woman who learns that her husband is a monster. And if you’ve been spoilered and are thus able to ignore all of the efforts to make you wonder if Hugh Grant really did it, this is the version of the story I think is most successful. Read charitably, all of the slightly cheap misdirection beats (every episode ends with a new piece of evidence being introduced, every episode begins with the last episode’s piece of evidence being swept away never to be mentioned again) can be seen as reflective not of intrusive writers trying to jerk the audience’s expectations around, but of Grace’s state of emotional collapse and confusion. Her flashbacks and fantasy sequences—which included PoV shots of Elena’s murder and thus quite naturally led many viewers to consider her a suspect and an unreliable narrator—become naturalistic depictions of the intrusive thoughts experienced by a woman whose whole life might be (and, spoiler, definitely is) turning out to be a lie.

The problem here isn’t just that these three identities distract from each other—that might suggest that a different approach could have woven them together into a satisfying whole. The problem is more stark: these three identities are incompatible on a fundamental level. In the book You Should Have Known (which as ever I should stress I haven’t actually read, I’m going from reviews here) it is made completely clear from the start that Jonathan murdered Elena, and the book is about how she, a therapist who specialises in telling women that they should have known (d’ya see) that their husbands weren’t compatible with them, copes with the growing realisation that she has been married to a monster for over a decade. But the key here is “growing realisation”. You can’t explore a woman’s gradual loss of the ability to deny obvious reality when the whole shape of the narrative is conspiring to make reality anything but obvious.

A great many reviews of The Undoing said they found that the show did very little to explore Grace’s psychological interiority and because I’d been spoilered those readings initially confused me. Because knowing as I did that Hugh Grant just straight up was the killer it felt to me like the show was about nothing but her psychological interiority. Even the end-of-episode evidence drops read to me not as shifting my own understanding of events but as punctuating Grace’s. She’s an unforthcoming protagonist certainly, but that’s a valid way for a protagonist to be, and I never felt that her mindset was especially hard to intuit from context. She is initially fairly convinced that Jonathan did it, but her desire for her son’s father not to be a murderer leads her to deny that instinct and hold onto the hope that he might be innocent. More interestingly it seems (to me at least) possible to track the emotional-push-pull of her feelings not only about whether Jonathan is a murderer but also about whether she wants him in her and her son’s life (which isn’t quite the same question). To a lot of people (including, initially, me) the final twist (that is, the final actual twist, the penultimate twist if you count the not-a-twist-twist) at the end of episode 5, in which we discover that Henry (the Frasers’ son) is keeping the murder weapon in his violin case, seemed one absurdity too far. Especially because all that happens with it is that the defence team (the Frasers and their excellently amoral lawyer excellently played by Noma Dumezweni) have one argument and then it gets completely forgotten about.

But if you take the all-about-Grace reading the discovery of the hammer is crucial because it cements in her mind not only the idea that Jonathan definitely did it but also—once he has the audacity to suggest that maybe it was actually Henry—the conviction that he has to be kept away from the family for good. And for much of the second half of the series it’s actually the second question—should we reconcile for the good of our son whether you’re a murderer or not—that occupies her far more than the question of whether her husband actually beat an innocent woman to death.

Except. No. Because also the hammer thing is clearly there in part to make you think “oh my God could it be Henry” in the week before the final episode. And because while I actually liked that Jonathan wasn’t particularly good at covering his tracks (making the depths of Grace’s denial at some points especially stark in a way that honestly does feel intentional), getting rid of the murder weapon in such a specifically unhelpful place feels more like it was about making sure it wound up in Henry’s hands (well his violin case) rather than actually making sense as a place a desperate not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is man would stash a murder weapon.

Basically I don’t think I could have found the series half as engaging or enjoyable as I did if I’d actually been trying to work out who the killer was. It’s hard to accurately process counterfactuals of course, but I know myself pretty well and I strongly suspect that by episode four I’d have been in an “I will hate this either way” space. Because I’d have agreed with a large fraction of the internet that having it turn out to be Hugh Grant all along would feel like I was being taken for a ride, but I’d have considered it turning out to be anybody other than Hugh Grant really forced and in a lot of cases deeply problematic. Because, yes, it’s 2021 and, yes, something something soft bigotry of low expectations. But I really wouldn’t have been at home for this story about an emotionally manipulative gaslighting husband to have ended with the reveal that the rich white man was being unfairly victimised all along and the real monster was the wife or the black guy.

On which subject, we should probably talk about Elena.

And, having read back over this section, I should attach a bit of a content warning here because: spoiler, what follows is quite a detailed discussion of the way in which this show presents the brutal murder of a Latinx woman who it also routinely sexualises.

Fantastic Breasts and Where to Find Them

We first meet Elena at a committee meeting for a school fundraiser. Both Elena’s son Miguel and Grace’s son Henry attend a prestigious public school the name of which I have forgotten and which doesn’t matter (much to the chagrin of the many viewers who predicted that the principal was the real killer). Elena is immediately out of place at the meeting because everybody else at the fundraiser is much wealthier than she is. She also immediately starts breastfeeding at the meeting table. Which is fair enough, she has a kid after all, and kids have to eat. But the camera lingers on her breasts for a really long time and when that’s over Grace and her friend Sylvia-the-convenient-lawyer have a conversation about what great boobs she has.

The next day, Elena shows up at Grace’s gym and she is, like, full-frontal naked. We flash back to this scene several times.

Later she shows up at the school fundraiser (which, since it’s a rich person school in the US is a much bigger deal than your normal school fete or bring and buy sale) in a dress which once again emphasises her wonderful breasts. There she retreats crying into the bathroom and, when Grace follows her to make sure she’s okay, she kisses her.

Why? Never really explained. Except possibly she’s just a psycho (of which more later).

Then she leaves. Shortly afterwards Jonathan makes an excuse to leave as well. Then Elena shows up brutally murdered. We regularly see her in flashbacks and fantasy sequences, mostly in Grace’s scenes. In these flashes she is almost always naked, or being fucked, or being bludgeoned.

And okay, I get it. It’s Grace’s story. And this woman had an affair with her husband and was then murdered so Grace’s stray, uncontrollable thoughts about her are naturally going to drift in the direction of sex and murder but holy shit when you take a step back and look at it this is framed really unfortunately.

To make matters worse, when Jonathan is confronted (fairly early on) with Grace’s new knowledge of his affair, his story is that yes, he had sex with Elena, but it was consensual and it was actually she who was obsessed with him. He goes to great lengths to explain that Elena was a dangerous stalker, a woman determined to inveigle herself into his and Grace’s life by any means necessary.

But that’s fine, isn’t it? Because after all the whole point of the series is that Jonathan is essentially a pathological liar who has deceived his wife about literally everything, who manipulates and gaslights his way through life thinking only of his own pride and advantage. It’s not like we’re meant to see this as an accurate description of what Elena was actually like. She’s actually a much more complicated, more human figure. After all she’s an artist.

I mean sure, she definitely did blackmail Jonathan into getting her son into the same school as his kid. And work her way onto the fundraising committee at the beginning (you know, the one where she first showed her fantastic breasts). But that’s just what you’d expect from a hardworking woman looking out for her son. Grace would have done the same.

Except there’s also the bit where she shows up naked at the gym. And the bit where she kisses Grace in the bathroom. And the bit where the police find a painting of Grace in Elena’s studio which seems to date from before they officially met (it’s fine, maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe it’s not a picture of Grace at all and Elena’s just a really big fan of Moulin Rouge).

And then there is the fact that when we finally see the “real” flashback to the night of the murder from Jonathan’s perspective (the one where we actually see him bludgeon Elena which suggests it’s not being run through any kind of unreliable filter) things actually do seem to have gone down exactly the way he says: they had consensual sex that she was massively up for, after which she makes ominous allusions to how much she likes Grace and how convinced she is that Henry will make a good “older brother” for Miguel. And then he warns her away from his family and she starts doing evil voice and being all “you’ll never leave me”.

And yes, at this point he does become physically violent, beating her head against the wall several times and don’t get me wrong this is bad. But then he really is about to leave just like he said he did when she attacks him with the sculptor’s hammer. And yes, then we finally see the mask slip and he disarms her and knocks her to the ground and coldly pounds her head in but, the whole thing still comes across as, to use the technical terminology, victim-blaming as fuck.

Obviously this is difficult. I’m not suggesting that making threatening allusions to your growing relationship with a man’s wife means you deserve to have your head bounced off a wall. Nor am I suggesting that attacking somebody from behind with a deadly weapon means you deserve to be beaten to death by a psychopath while you beg for mercy in an honestly slightly sexualised way. But I am saying that the show, in its last reveal, chose to film Elena’s death in a way that strongly emphasised her own negative behaviours. In a way that ultimately carries the strong implication that everything the sociopath who murdered her said about her character and intentions was actually … um … kind of true? It’s clear from the final episode that she really was obsessed with the Frasers, that she really was stalking Grace and possibly Jonathan as well. And Jonathan really did go to her studio only to confront her, not with the express intent of murdering her. It is, as presented in the text, inarguably the case that Elena Alves would be alive to this day had she not deliberately attacked Jonathan with a deadly weapon.

I don’t think this was intentional. I think it all comes back to the three things the show is trying to be (or, I suspect, the two things it is trying to be and the one thing it is occasionally gesturing towards). While being spoilered meant I could ignore a lot of the compromises the show made in order to keep its audience “guessing”, the framing of Elena’s death is where the show’s desire to tease the possibility that Hugh Grant might not have done it right to the last possible second makes the psychological portrait interpretation feel hollow and the social commentary interpretation feel borderline insulting. Elena’s death is played out in a series of mini-flashbacks throughout the final climactic chase scene and there is a really good build-up of dramatic tension as the police close in on a fleeing Jonathan while we cut back and forth from the present day to the night of the murder. But the price of maintaining the mystery until the final moments is that everything that happens between Jonathan and Elena—his arrival, the confrontation, her angry attempt to manipulate him, his turning to leave with her very much alive—have to play out almost exactly as he said they did. Which means in turn that Elena has to be, right up until the final moment, exactly who he said she was.

And that kills the idea that this is a story about the way privilege protects the white and wealthy stone dead, because Elena really was a threat to Jonathan and his family. It also comes pretty damned close to killing the idea that this is a story about a woman whose life is a lie, because it turns out Jonathan was actually mostly telling the truth about Elena. The only version of the story that really survives the final reveal is the one where the point has only ever really been to work out who the killer was.

So I guess maybe spoilers ruin it after all?

I actually started this article feeling fairly positive about The Undoing, and I do think that the bulk of the show, if you treat it as a psychological thriller, has a lot of really good things going for it. But having sat down and actually typed out my (admittedly biased, admittedly one sided) take on the portrayal of Elena I don’t think I can recommend it without at the very least hanging a huge warning sign over it. From my position of privilege I can absolutely enjoy the good things about the series while rolling my eyes at the way it veers between romanticising, demoninsing and erasing the actual victim of its central murder. But there will be people for whom the way Elena is presented is a massive dealbreaker.

If nothing else, I find it a bit troubling that so little of the discussion of the series even mentions it. As one article in the Atlantic pointed out, this is a show that contains a graphic, ill-explored depiction of intimate partner violence (which is a real problem, three women a day are murdered by their partners in the USA, one woman every three days in the UK) that at least partially blames the victim, and most of the media coverage of the series spends more time talking about Nicole Kidman’s coats.

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Wow, so I haven’t done one of these in a while. It’s almost like there’s been some gigantic global event that disrupted everyone’s normal patterns of behaviour. Anyway, looking back over the year, I was a bit sad to realise I hadn’t really blogged very much at all. I mean, I know it’s an obsolete form of social media internet but it’s my obsolete form of social media, dammit. So, yeah, basically hoping to blog more in 2021, and bring back Things I Liked (spoilers: I may also bring back reviewing Star Trek episodes by bobbins-ness, but please don’t hold me to that because, in case you haven’t noticed, I’m extremely flaky).

In the spirit of Liking Things again, here are some Things I Liked from the holiday period.

Thousand Year Old Vampire

Due warning: this is a solo RPG, a genre of game guaranteed to be alienating both to non-gamers (for whom the term RPG either means Rocket Propelled Grenade or that someone has forgotten the late Justice Ginsburg’s middle name) and to gamers (for whom an RPG means murdering orcs with your friends, not writing a little journal about your feelings). Although I should that when I played this game with my partner, we journaled probably far less than we were meant to. Preferring instead to, well, bullet point. So I suppose we bullet journaled.

Superficially, TYOV resembles a Choose Your Own Adventure (although that’s actually a brand-name and apparently companies that make CYOA-style books mostly prefer the term Choosable Path Adventure) or Fighting Fantasy novel, but it’s actually nothing like one. What it’s actually like is … well … a solo roleplaying game. In that you create a character, and most of the entertainment value comes from describing what that character does and (if you’re massively less self-conscious than I am) pretending to be this fictional person you’ve made up.

That person, in Thousand Year Old Vampire, being—and stop me if you’ve already worked this out—a thousand year old vampire. Or, I suppose, initially a zero year old vampire who eventually gets older and vampireyer until they get destroyed somehow.

The way  the game works is that you define your character by giving them a list of skills, resources, and supporting characters, and then writing down your character’s Experiences (this is a game mechanical term) as a series of Memories (this is also a game mechanical term). As your character grows older they will forget things, keep Vampire-Diaries style Diaries, and generally do a lot of random murder.

The actual gameplay consists of reading little prompts like “you lose control and kill someone you care about” or in one memorable case that came up in both of our playthroughs “the way mortals transport goods has changed” and deciding how your vampire reacts to them. You write down what your vampire actually does as an Experience within a thematically coherent Memory (one memory is three experiences) but the twist is that you’re only allowed five memories at once, so you gradually forget stuff as you age. Prompts also tell you to either gain or lose skills, gain or lose resources or “check” a skill (which means “you do the thing that the skill is about in a relevant way in this situation) and if you’re told to do one of these things and you can’t, your vampire dies.

And it was that last rule that made our first playthrough so unintentionally hilarious. Deciding to take the game Very Seriously (well, as seriously as you can take a solo RPG you’re playing at stupid o’clock in the morning on Xmas Eve) we elected a play a former gladiator, based loosely on the criminally underrated Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand (known in our household as Spartacus: Blood and Sandals – seriously, though, watch it, it’s great). Because our character was inspired by a Starz series, one of his defining skills was being very good at sex (because I’d also been watching early TNG recently, the skill was named “Multiple Pleasuring Techniques”). But, for some reason, in our Very Serious Vampire adventure, being really good at doing the sex with ladies was never really a practical solution to the situation at hand. Unfortunately, because of the rule that says that once you’ve checked a skill, you can only check it once, and because the game is designed to destroy you eventually (so you gain quite a lot of skills and resources in the first half and lose a lot in the second) we experienced the gradually dawning realisation that whatever our next major  problem was we’d have to fuck it.

The problem turned out to be an Italian scholar (named Giovanni, after a dancer from Strictly) had found one our abandoned journals and was now attempted to blackmail us into turning him a vampire. So we seduced him to stop this happening, then—in our very next encounter—were called upon to check another skill. Having no such skills, we were left with no other option but to walk into the sun.

Basically, our character who had been resolutely heterosexual for more than a thousand years (he just kinda had that vibe) had one gay experience. Then immediately died. It was like the series finale of Supernatural up in here.

In an effort to avoid this happening again, we decided our next character would be a lesbian nun from the 13th century, to whom we gave the skill “Gay As Fuck” – and used it at the first opportunity. Perhaps because we weren’t constantly dancing around the “oh my God, we’re going to have to shag it” issue, she wound up having a much more serious and satisfying story, involving a crisis of space, a war on the divine, murdering an angel and eventually using the industrial revolution to build a stairway to heaven where she was imprisoned for eternity.

10/10 would vampire again.

If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself—and I do recommend it, although I do find its rhetoric of edgy psychodrama and staring into the dark abyss of your own soul a little bit not to my taste—you can find it here.

Dark Nights with Poe and Munro

On the subject of things that self-define as dark, and have a strong Choose Your Own Adventure angle, Dark Nights with Poe and Munro is the latest FMV game from the people who made The Infectious Madness of Doctor Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective, both of which I have reviewed on this blog and both of which—to get the difficult bit out of the way first—I liked a lot better. In The Shapeshifting Detective the player often listens to a local radio station, hosted by, well, Poe and Munroe. You interact with them in the second act of the game and there’s a reasonable chance you might get Munro killed which is why, spoiler, this game is a prequel.

There’s a lot I like about D’avekki Studios, although you might read a fair amount into the fact I’m starting my comments on this game by saying “well, I like the company that made it.” And one of the things I like about them is that, of the three games they’ve made so far, each has had a very distinct style, both aesthetically and mechanically. In Dr Dekker you play a psychiatrist interviewing people in a single claustrophobic set that’s basically just one sofa. In Detective you explore the village of August and grill people for information by using your mysterious supernatural powers to impersonate other villagers.

Poe and Munro changes up the formula again by being an anthology series. Each of its six episodes is relatively self-contained (I think there are a couple of call backs but choices from one episode don’t seem to affect another) and, I understand, although I obviously didn’t see this in a single playthrough, branch quite significantly. But in a way that’s not the biggest change the game makes. The thing I found hardest to adjust to with Poe and Munro, and the perhaps the reason I had less of a good time with it than I did with Dekker or Detective, is that “you” aren’t a character. In each of the first two games, you are a person interacting with other people, mostly by asking them questions. In P&M you are … sort of a viewer? Prodding a TV show in different directions by clicking on things that are momentarily highlighted and which don’t necessarily make it clear what choice you’re being asked to make. And once you get used to that it’s … fine? I guess. But it does mean you always feel like you’re watching a TV show in a slightly inefficient way. And I know FMV games occupy a weird space between game and movie, but this is very, very movie. And what I liked about the other two games was that they managed to be quite cinematic within the constraints of their budget (they’re all very competently filmed and acted, which I appreciate is kind of faint praise, but they’re clearly made on no money and ‘competently filmed and acted’ isn’t the sort of thing you can take for granted with an FMV game) but still very much felt like games.

And from the reading around the game I’ve done, it is clear that not giving the player any strong sense of what their choices actually meant was a deliberate creative choice. It’s just, well, I don’t understand why that creative choice was made?  Some comments seem to suggest that it’s intended as part of the mystery but that feels … tenuous is a strong word, but that feels tenuous to me? If nothing else, I really thought chooseable-path-adventure media had got over having the players make totally uninformed choices back around the days of Deathtrap Dungeon.  And I suppose you could argue that P&M isn’t intended as a game per se so much as a non-linear storytelling experience (like that one episode of Black Mirror I can’t be arsed to watch) except I’m not sure that was totally successful. Of course, I’m on thin ice here as a creative professional who has made a number of choices in my time that I’m sure a lot of people are profoundly questionable but I do think that  “well, it was meant to be like that” doesn’t really address something that feels subjectively dissatisfying to a particular consumer.

But this is supposed to be a Things I Liked, so I will say that there’s still lots of really good stuff in Poe and Munro. Like most anthologies it’s a bit hit or miss, but there’s some nice individually creepy stories, the two stars have genuine chemistry, even though (and, again, I’m sure this is personal taste) she seems, like, way too good for him. Like, way, way too good for him. It’s partly that she’s noticeably extremely conventionally attractive whereas—and I don’t mean this in an insulting way—he looks like the guy who used to run your Vampire: The Masquerade game. By which I mean, she looks kind of like a film star. And he looks kind of like someone you might know in real life. There’s also the fact that he’s explicitly cheating on his wife and they sort of try to make this better in later episodes by revealing that his wife cheated on him first. But that just feels like a deliberate attempt to shift the blame. Especially because they’re constantly flirting live on radio to the point that episode 2 (or possibly 3) is them trying to raise money for the station by doing a live 24-hr webcast from bed?! With her in a skimpy nightie and, now I come to think of it, him fully dressed, which is weird. All of which mean, I really really felt bad for Poe’s wife. And spent of most my playthrough yelling “kick him to the kerb, girlfriend” and taking every opportunity to leave him for dead.

So this is a much more tentative recommendation and I’d say to only check it out if you’ve already checked out and enjoyed Dr Dekker and The Shapeshifting Detective.

Tesco Salted Caramel Chocolate & Peanut Pretzel Mix

These are amazing but disgusting but amazing.

It’s the salt and the sweet and the Tesconess.

Unfortunately, they’ve stopped doing them. I think it was just an Xmas thing.

Also, even more weirdly, I can’t find pictures of them on the internet so maybe it’s some kind of Xmas ghost story and they were never really there, or they were actually made by a factory that burned down in 1864 and I’ve been eating ghost pretzels for the last month.

Christmas at Pemberley Manor

The only thing I love more than a cheesy Xmas movie, is a cheesy Xmas movie with a spurious Austen connection, and the only thing I love more than cheesy Xmas movie with an Austen so shallow it doesn’t not even rise to the level of spuriousness.

In Christmas at Pemberley Manor, Elizabeth Bennet (a woman with no sisters, no pressing need to money and a perfectly reasonable career in which she is successful) is an event-planner who goes back to her hometown for Christmas (because this is a Hallmark Christmas movie and they’re only allowed one plot) in order to event-plan their extremely locally important but extremely shit Christmas festival. It’s supposed to be held in the town square but the town square collapses due to a burst water main (you’ll notice this cleverly parallels the scene in Pride and Prejudice where Netherfield Hall … um is let? At last?) and so she has to find a suitable local venue. That venue being the “grounds” of “Pemberley Manor.” Pemberley Manor is just a slightly big house in this woman’s town with a garden just large enough to hold a slightly shit Christmas market.

Pemberley Manor is, of course, owned by the dark and brooding William Darcy who, um, is going to sell it for condos? Again, cleverly paralleling the way in which Regency gentlemen would not give a toss about preserving their family’s estates and would regularly flog them off to appease their Board of Directors (also why does Darcy Inc have a Board of Directors? It’s a family business. Also this house used to belong to his aunt and uncle – why is it also the property of his father’s mega-corporation?).

Sidebar: I’m sure it also tells us something about late stage capitalism that the setup for the conflict in this movie is that the Bad People want to sell the Big Empty Rich Person House That Nobody Actually Lives In so it can be used to be build apartments that people might actually use.

Anyway, Darcy is very briefly reluctant to have the front lawn of the property he’s selling turned into the venue for a rubbish civic event, citing perfectly legitimate liability concerns. But Elizabeth pranks the buyers into worrying about a lack of community goodwill so they lean to let them have the Christmas festival in the “grounds” of “Pemberley Manor.” The remainder of the conflict is him not particularly wanting to have his photograph taken? Once again, cleverly paralleling that plotline in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy doesn’t want to take credit for forcing Wickham to marry Lydia, and Elizabeth convinces him to announce it in a local newspaper.

Also, in another incredibly subtle allusion to the source material, the groundskeeper at “Pemberley Manor” is literally Santa Claus.

Look, this movie is terrible. But I heartily recommend it. It’s even safe to watch with Austen scholars because it has so little to do with Pride and Prejudice that they cannot possibly be bothered by it.

The Goes Wrong Show

As anyone who has read my books will know, I have an incredibly juvenile sense of humour. You can take all the satire, wordplay, and sharp observational comedy in the world. But nothing will be as funny as someone falling off a high thing through a thing that breaks while somebody else tries to pretend it isn’t happening.

The Goes Wrong Show is that. Constantly. For two Xmas specials and one and a bit seasons. The evolution of the show is actually really interesting. It started out on stage as The Show That Goes Wrong which I never saw but understand was well-received. A couple of years ago they did an Xmas version of the show called Peter Pan Goes Wrong which was broadcast on the BBC and which you can buy along with their next year’s production A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong for ten quid off Amazon. I really liked Peter Pan Goes Wrong—I thought it was a perfect illustration of how clever you have to be to be stupid sometimes. You can see almost all the jokes coming a mile away but that doesn’t make them any less funny. And they’d obviously put a lot of thought into telling what amounted to two parallel stories, one of which was about this hopeless amateur dramatic group trying to put on a play, and the other of which was—obviously—Peter Pan. They seem to have tried to have build on this in Christmas Carol but it didn’t work quite as well for me. They were on a full-on costume drama set rather than a stage and that meant it lost some of its theatricality and the attempt to keep what you might call the “underplot” about the actual personal relationships between the cast felt a little forced.

But when they made the transition to a short-format series it forced/enabled them to double-down on the core gag. Which is “this is supposed to be a serious play but it’s going wrong in hilarious ways.” There’s no longer space for subplots about actual relationships between the cast members but they aren’t particularly missed and the groundwork that was done in establishing those characters means that the actors in the shows do feel meaningfully differentiated in a way that is consistent between productions. So there’s the pompous director who’s always taking it far too seriously. The “principal actor” who thinks acting means shouting. The guy who is just not taking it seriously at all. The one who cannot remember lines for love nor money. And the one who, beleaguered by technical failures, just can’t get on the set. Sadly, now I come to lay it out, I notice that the women are slightly less differentiated: I think one of them is supposed to be trying too hard to be sultry but they don’t have obvious gimmicks the same way the male cast members do.

On the subject of obvious gimmicks, the other advantage of the half-hour format over the feature length is that it lets them steer into big one episode jokes that would wear out their welcome over a longer production. For example, the last episode of the first series is called “90 Degrees” which, as the Director explains in his introduction, is intended as an allusion to the sweltering heat of the play’s Tennessee setting. But which has led to a portion of the set being constructed with the flaw you would expect from a show with that title.

I just find it endlessly enjoyable. And it probably says something about society or maybe just about me that it feels like a harmless flavour of humour, even though it specifically involves laughing at people doing something stressful and hurting themselves. I think it’s because it’s the kind of humour that invites empathy—you laugh at it because you know it could so easily be you and are very, very glad it isn’t. With the exception of a Christmas Carol it’s filmed in front a live audience and whenever a character is horribly injured or has to do something slightly disgusting to maintain the flow of the scene the laughter is always tinged with a real undercurrent of regret. Which is, honestly, how I like my comedy.

tl;dr: it’s a group of people putting way more thought than seems necessary into an incredibly lowbrow premise. I’ve seen quite a lot of this kind of theatre in my time and The Goes Wrong Show is the sort of thing that could easily be funny for ten minutes and then incredibly wearing and self-indulgent for the rest of its runtime. And the reason it works is because the team behind it have clearly realised that the making something madcap and anarchic work long term ironically requires a tremendous amount of artistry, foresight and discipline

Don’t Starve

This game is eight years old but it’s been supported continuously since release (although it’s now it’s sort of been superseded by its multiplayer sequel because everything has to be multiplayer these days, thank you Fall Guys and Among Us) and I grabbed it as part of a bundle in the Steam sale. It’s an excellently crafted survival sim in which you play one of a range of characters all of whose names begin with W in a beautifully rendered 2D world that is definitely trying to kill you.

Things that have killed me so far:

  • Starvation
  • Dogs
  • Starvation
  • Giant chickens
  • Giant spiders
  • Starvation
  • Angry cows
  • Angry trees
  • A forest fire I started
  • Starvation

It’s one of those theoretically simple, actually incredibly complex games where you start out cutting down trees and picking berries so you don’t die and you end up capturing fireflies to make a miner’s helmet so you can descend into caves to look for gears to make machines to build teleportation platforms. I think I’ve played it for about six hours so far and I totally suck.

A Muppets’ Christmas Carol

Indubitably the best Christmas movie of all time, even if you count Die Hard.

silliness
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Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. It’s almost like there’s been a pandemic or something, although I am hoping to get back into it the moment things stop being so completely fucking terrible everywhere all the time.

Anyway. I’ve roused myself from my blogging slumber to deliver a lukewarm-at-best take on something that everybody’s already talked about. Which, now I think about it, is very on brand for me.

So yes. The Queen’s Gambit. It’s good. Tune in next month for more amazing insights from Alexis Hall.

To say very slightly more than “it’s good”, The Queen’s Gambit is one of those shows that seems to have caught people’s imaginations in a slightly unusual way. It’s about chess which, let’s face it, is not a sexy subject—nor one most people understand or have much interest in. But, somehow, for the space of seven hours it makes you completely forget this fact and believe instead that you actually have a deep and abiding love of the game of kings.

Although perhaps the weirdest thing about The Queen’s Gambit is that it isn’t based on a true story.

Of course, that’s not actually weird at all. But what’s weird is that it seems that quite a lot of people went through the exact process I did when I started watching the show, which was to hear the name of the main character, assume she was an actual chess grandmaster I’d just never heard of, Google her, and find that the top three hits are articles called something along the lines of “for some reason lots of people seem to think Beth Harmon was a real person, but she wasn’t.”

And it was shortly after reading these articles that I started thinking about gender shit and so the rest of this post will be me talking about stuff that’s totally out of my lane as usual. Because I don’t know if it’s more sexist to expect The Queen’s Gambit to be true story or not to. Or if I’m just getting stuck in my own head and it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

On the “not sexist” side of the scale, I do wonder if it’s just that people who pay attention to that kind of thing are quite aware of the fact that highly successful female pioneers tend to get a bit ignored by history so the notion that there could be a female grandmaster who was big in chess in the 1960s and yet completely passed you by isn’t totally outlandish. Although, when you think about it, it is a bit outlandish because there are some really big names in chess from that era and it’s not like people were ignoring the women’s movement in the sixties. So if there had been a female world chess champion that would probably be something that got referenced somewhere. Like at the very least she’d be in that bit in that song in Chess where they do the reprise of the song about Budapest and they list all the world chess champions since Steinitz.

On the “actually probably sexist” side of the scale I also wonder if part of the reason it seems so likely to be a true story is just that, well, people don’t make up stories about women succeeding at high levels in competitive fields that often. Or rather, when they are it’s normally to tell quite a different story. I mean, Ally McBeal is about a woman succeeding at a high level in a competitive field but it’s sort not really about that, is it?  And usually when  you get that very kind of spotlighty drama that’s specifically about the details of someone’s life and career, and that person is a woman, there’s almost an unconscious expectation that its An Inspirational True Story For Girls. What you very seldom get, even in things that aren’t based on books from the 1980s, is the very masculine maverick genius archetype just straight up re-imagined with a female protagonist for its own sake.

So. Yes. Potted summary. The Queen’s Gambit is about a fictional chess player called Beth Harmon who is very talented from a young age, has a complex and difficult life, and beats a lot of people at chess. Which, I know, doesn’t make it sound great but it’s actually really compelling when you watch it. And I think part of what makes it compelling is the notable omission from that admittedly glib summary. Which is to say, Beth Harmon spends a lot of time dealing with being an orphan, having a serious drug problem, being Just Too Genius For This Fragile World, and being unable to relate to people / allow herself to be loved by them because she is Just Too Genius. And very very little time dealing with overt sexism.

And, obviously, I cannot speak to the realism of this. Nor I can speak to what women want to see in stories about competitive chess. But I did find it really refreshing that she was allowed arcs that weren’t just the You Can’t Do That Because You’re A Girl arc that is kind of the only story fictional woman in traditionally masculine fields (or for that matter fictional men in traditionally feminine fields—see Billy Elliott) are allowed to have. I’m not saying there’s no sexism in the show, or that it presents a weird utopia of perfect gender equality, but it’s mostly subtle. While people react to Beth differently because she’s a woman, the chess is always just about the chess, and when she beats people at chess they genuinely respect her for it. Instead of having a crisis because they can’t cope with the idea of a world in which a woman is better than them at something. Or standing up and going “I will do misogyny at you now because it is the past.”

Of course, this is difficult. Because you don’t have to look very far for evidence that we still don’t live in a world where men are just generally okay for women to be better than them at stuff. But the more we tell that story, the more normalised it becomes. About halfway through the series I realised I was subconsciously waiting for the point where of the quite large number of men who she beats and who afterwards become supportive of her career flipped out and was all “how dare you be better than me, womanz” and it never happened. Which I personally thought was cool. Because it freed up the narrative to be about other stuff.

That other stuff being mostly chess. A little bit about emotional development. But mostly chess.

And it’s worth taking a moment to talk about how good the chess is in this because not only is it good it is—and this is the highest standard to which anything should be held—better than it needs to be. Disclaimer: everything I’m going to talk about for the next two and a bit paragraphs I have culled from third parties sources because I don’t actually know anything about chess at all. It’s just watching The Queen’s Gambit made me forget that so I’m acting like I do. It’s basically like watching Bake Off and being all “oh, that custard’ll never set in time” when I’ve never made a custard in my fucking life.

So anyway. The chess. Most of it is based on real historical games, although not actually from the period the show is set in. A lot of them are from the 80s and early 2000s. What’s really interesting is that, according to people who know way more about this shit than me, is that not only do the chess games roughly match the level of skill that Beth and her opponents should be at in the episode she’s in but some of them have actually been modified in order to have Beth play them better than they were originally played. As far as I can tell, actual chess people seem to feel that towards the end she plays genuinely mind-blowingly beautiful chess.

In case you’re wondering how a bunch of Netflix writers achieved this, they … um … hired Kasparov? Which is still pretty serious commitment to getting the details right.

As well as the actual matches being based on historical games, Beth Harmon is kind of based on a historical figure. It’s just that the historical figure she’s based on is a dude. And, again, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider (and I do think this can be called either way) how subversive this is. Because it should be completely fine for fictional women to be based on real men and the only reason you wouldn’t do that is if it was genuinely totally impossible or if you, on some level, thought that the only arc women were allowed was the overcoming sexism arc.

So Beth is actually inspired in large part by Bobby Fischer, who is notable for a couple of things. Partly, and this is a bit awkward, for having a massive falling out with the USA, going into exile I think possibly in Russia and (here comes the awkward bit) I think actively celebrating 9/11 and denying the Holocaust (he was one of the arsehole geniuses). And partly, of course, he’s famous for being the guy The American is based on in the musical Chess. And it is really fascinating to compare those arcs with each other. By which I mean, the arc in Chess and the arc in The Queen’s Gambit. I’m not going to say any more about the real life arc of Bobby Fischer because that just got really, really bad.

Time for another yet another potted summary—this time of Chess the Musical (which I’m very fond of because I’ve seen a couple of surprisingly good amateur productions). American chess player is an arsehole. Russian chess player is sort of less of an arsehole. They are rivals. How it ends depends on which country you’re watching it in. And for the purposes of this discussion who wins doesn’t really matter and, actually, which of the two chess players you’re talking about doesn’t really matter either because The American (who goes by the now somewhat connotation-laden name of Trumper), The Russian (Sergievsky) and Beth Harmon all have variants on the traditionally masculine genius arc of “I am torn between my obsessive desire to pursue the thing I’m a genius at” versus “I kind of want my life to not be shit and to have some people in it.”

And this is where I get back to talking about gender stuff, but also where I do sort of have some experience insofar as writing a book in which you consciously flip a gendered archetype and apply it to the opposite sex is something I’ve done a fair amount. And a tiny detail I found really interesting in The Queen’s Gambit is that it actually broke one of the rules I tend to stick by when I’m doing that kind of thing. That being the “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule.

To unpack. The “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule (which probably really needs a snazzier name) basically says that if you’re going re-gender a traditional archetype you probably shouldn’t also challenge commonly accepted features of that traditional archetype. This is because usually the commonly accepted features of an archetype involve over-looking things about it that would actually suck. And if you take a masculine archetype that would suck in real life but is usually presented in a positive and try to subvert that archetype by simultaneously highlighting how much it would suck and also making the character a woman you end up huge issues.

I know bringing everything back to your own work is kind of wanky (or rather I feel it is, although I suppose maybe some people come to an author’s blog expecting them to talk about their books more than never) but since I’m already talking about my own rules here I thought I’d give an illustration. People who’ve read the Kate Kane series (if you haven’t, then you can buy it from links available on this website, and also probably like, share and subscribe if you want to) will know that all of Kate’s romantic interests are women except for the dickhead vampire that she dated when she was seventeen. And the reason he’s a dude is, well, the “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule. I really wanted Kate to have had the “teen girl has a relationship with a vampire” backstory but I also really wanted to highlight how fucked up the “teen girl has a relationship with a vampire” backstory would actually be by the time you were looking back at it from your thirties (I think there’s a reason teen girls in relationships with vampires die or become immortal very quickly – they literally can’t be allowed to grow up). But because that relationship is not normally portrayed critically I didn’t really want Kate’s first lesbian experience to have been with a creepy abusive bloodsucker. That just had really bad LGBTQ+ rep vibes for me.

But I think The Queen’s Gambit is a rare example of the “don’t reverse too many things at once” rule not applying.

The things being reversed here are a) the genius character is a man and b) the genius character’s genius is in tension with the genius character’s ability to live a happy and fulfilling life. And this is complex on all its axes. Because from a certain perspective, gender flipping the genius and also defying the “genius is the opposite of happiness” convention problematically plays into the “having it all” trope that … again I’m not super  well placed to comment on. Except actually I think I am sort of at least okay placed to comment on it precisely because it’s more bilaterally gendered than I think people realise. Obviously the notion that women cannot be emotionally fulfilled unless they have something that broadly fits the patterns of a conventional family life, even if they also have a successful career is toxic horseshit. But, to an extent, the notion that men can’t find fulfilment in balancing those things and sort of have to just go all career all the time or else become feminised beta male cuck is kind of toxic horseshit as well. And I think what I found interesting about the ending (sort of spoilers if you consider the protagonist winds up in an emotionally healthy space to be a spoiler) of The Queen’s Gambit is that it felt to me that by giving the story a female protagonist it permitted the otherwise unquestionable dichotomy between genius and happiness to be questioned.

The American and The Russian in Chess both have to choose between chess and the people they care about. Which they choose varies from production to production but the choice itself is taken as axiomatic. In The Queen’s Gambit, by contrast, Beth is allowed to build a network of friends, supporters and lovers through the thing she’s good at. And, yes, it’s sort of difficult in that—from a very meta level—maybe the only reason she can do that is because the problematic double-standards to which we still hold female protagonists mean that she can’t choose chess over people without becoming an unsympathetic, overambitious harridan in the eyes of the assumed audience. But she can’t choose people over chess without becoming an anti-feminist gender traitor in the eyes of the same audience.

Except, for once, this does actually give her a stronger and more meaningful ending. And, again, I have zero standing to say what gender tropes are harmful and when they are effectively subverted and when they do or do not apply. But, to me, from my very flawed perspective, the reason “having it all” trope is so harmful (apart from the fact it excludes people who don’t want one or the other) is that it puts pressure on women to essentially excel in two completely distinct fields both of which are intensely time-consuming and therefore, even if they aren’t in conflict, at least draw on the same resource pool. By contrast, the happiness/genius dichotomy is just … wrong? There is absolutely no reason why anybody, male or female, cannot be a world leader in their field and also have meaningful relationships anywhere within the 3D graph space of sex, friendship and romance that are actively supported by their talents. It is, when you think about it, completely absurd that we so often convince ourselves that “being really really good at / into something lots of other people really care about” makes it harder to connect with people, rather than the reverse.

If nothing else, we should probably stop telling stories about how being a genius makes you an arsehole. Because it leads so many people to think being an arsehole makes them a genius.

Anyway: The Queen’s Gambit. Very good show. Surprisingly accurate chess. You’ve probably already watched it.

watching

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So I’m behind on everything – and I’m aware I haven’t done a Things I Liked post for a while. Because, while I have continued to Like things, despite the pandemic, it’s been hard to keep track of time and that’s made maintaining a monthly schedule a little bit awkward.

What I have done, however, is suddenly get addicted to shark movies. I think it started as a Moby Dick (for those who aren’t on Twitter, I’m currently a chapter a day of Moby Dick and then vaguely Tweeting about it under the hashtag #quarantinemeishmael) inspired fixation with the sea colliding with a nostalgia-inspired desire to watch Jurassic Park and, from there, anything else that involved big things with teeth eating people.

Therefore, I present in ascending order of badness of, if you prefer, descending order of goodness the almost half-dozen shark movies I watched over about a weekend at some point in the recent past. Like I say, time has gone wobbly.

The Shallows

I was not expecting much from this because it seemed like its main selling point was Blake Lively in a bikini (although, to be fair, that is quite a selling point). But this was just … genuinely quite a good film. Possibly even by the standards of films, rather than by the somewhat distorted standards of films about sharks.

I think what I liked about it, apart from Blake Lively getting to do that range thing that actors are into, was that it was all really small scale. And, for a shark movie, mostly quite plausible. The basic premise is that Blake Lively has lost her way a bit after her mother died of cancer and has decided that she’s going to drop out of medical school and go surfing on an emotionally significant beach in Mexico. Despite the beach being basically normal and perfectly safe, a whale carcass washes up in it, which attracts a shark, and Blake Lively becomes trapped on a tiny rock within sight of land.

What makes The Shallows different from the many other shark movies I watched is the really intense focus on basic survival stuff. The core structural challenge of a shark movie is much like the core structural challenge of a haunted house story. You’ve got a central deadly threat that is very specifically restricted to a location that you have no particular reason to go into and can often leave at any point. In The Shallows, however, Blake is specifically stuck on a rock, the shark is specifically between her and the beach, and she’s already been bitten once. So although it does ultimately devolve into a fairly standard “kill the evil fish” scene the core conflict of the film isn’t so much “how do you destroy the bad killer shark” it’s “how do you get back to the beach before you dehydrate or the tide comes in.”

It’s also just really nice to see Blake Lively doing some quite hardcore survival shit, often in interestingly feminine-coded ways. She sutures her own wounds with her earrings and things, and there’s always something satisfying about seeing that “primordial will to survive” trope manifest through a female character (especially one who isn’t protecting a child). And there’s just enough context with Blake’s family and background to give the film a bit of heart as well as, y’know, shark.

I give this film four and a half out of five casual dismemberments.

The Meg

Once again, I was not expecting much from The Meg. But I unironically really liked it. It’s a solid action movie but, and perhaps this is because I happened to be re-watching Community at the time, what it kept weirdly reminding me of was that the episode where the gang’s all telling ghost stories and Abed’s story ends with the guy and the girl standing back-to-back in the middle of the cabin holding knives.

Basically, what I really liked about The Meg was that at no point did anyone do anything monumentally incompetent purely to advance the plot. And this was so consistent that it was almost jarring because you kept waiting for the moment when someone would refuse to take advice or pointlessly poke a mega-shark or say something like “well, let’s capture the shark and sell it to the army instead of trying to kill it.” There was even a bit about halfway through where I felt myself thinking, hey what happened to the woman on the original sub who got injured or the biologist lady’s daughter and then was I was like, oh yeah, they were removed to a safe distance at the first opportunity.

What’s interesting about this is that it does make the cadence of deaths in The Meg very different from what you normally get in this kind of movie. In your standard big toothy creature feature you get people picked off fairly regularly as they needlessly split up, take unnecessary risks or, occasionally, just seem to honestly forget that the monster exists. In The Meg, however, everyone just acts really sensibly but they occasionally get blindsided by changes of circumstances or things they legitimately had no way of knowing about.

I think what sums up The Meg as an action flick that seriously respects its characters is the point early on when the deep trench exploration sub has gone missing and the biologist lady gets into her own single person vessel thing to try and rescue them. And then the more qualified rescue guy shows up and is like “hey, you can’t do this, you’ve got to leave it to me” and she’s like, “well, actually I’m an expert in this field so I think I can be useful” and then her sub gets slightly damaged (again, purely because they don’t know there’s a mega-shark down there) so she pulls out immediately because trying to carry on would just get someone killed.

There’s also surprisingly sweet but not at all foregrounded lovestory between biologist lady and rescue guy that doesn’t diminish either of them or stop either of them from being competent.

So, yeah, if you want to watch a movie about a giant killer monster shark that is way better than it needs to be you could do a lot worse than The Meg.

I give this film four and a half out of five ominous fins.

In The Heart of the Sea

This one isn’t about a shark, but it was the first sea-themed movie I watched because it was specifically supposed to be about the secret true story behind Moby Dick. Although it could probably have been more accurately described as the sort of true story that was quite well known at the time Moby Dick was written and is explicitly referenced in Chapter 45 (The Affidavit). The content of this story, essentially being “there was a whale and it hit a ship and the survivors had to do cannibalism (spoiler)”.

Basically, my problem with this film was “not enough whale and too much cannibalism”. It’s a perfectly decent, well-constructed, well-acted movie but I think the desire to play up the Moby Dick connection really harms it. There’s this whole framing device where Ben Whishaw, playing Herman Melville, is being told the whole story by Mad Eye Moody (who is married to Catelyn Stark) and Mad Eye is reluctant to tell him everything that happened because he’s so deeply ashamed of the cannibalism thing and it ends with Melville promising to tell the story but it’ll be a fictionalised version where the cannibalism is left out. Whereas the character Mad Eye Moody is playing in real life wrote his own memoir of the events, with the cannibalism stuff  definitely left in, which was published long before Melville wrote Moby Dick.

And an awful lot of the film feels like it suffers because of this desire to fit a Hollywood framework with twists, emotional beats, a tie to a literary classic, and an evil whaling conspiracy into a historical context that had none of these things. Even the bit where they eat each other wasn’t as much of a big deal as the film makes it out to be. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it wasn’t considered nice, but part of the reason the crew were so up for drawing lots to see who gets eaten is that it was kind of an established naval convention.

Then there’s the, well, the whale thing? As far as I understand it, it is true that the wreck of the Essex was one of the stories that inspired Moby Dick (again, it’s literally mentioned in the book) but the film seems to want to make it a more direct inspiration than it actually was. From my limited, and largely Wikipedia-based research, the Essex was stove by a whale (which sometimes happens because whales are big and strong and don’t massively like having spikes stuck in them) and sunk, but the whale didn’t spookily follow anyone around and no-one developed a lifelong obsession with hunting it, so it’s really a story about a shipwreck in which a whale happens to feature. Which means having the whale constantly show up and do this weird nemesis thing with one of the Hemsworths is … just very odd. Especially since in the movie it’s entirely his fault that the whale sinks in the ship in the first place.

The thing is, it’s probably … an okay movie? It’s just I really wanted more whale and less sad men with beards eating crabs and/or each other.

I give this film three out of five suspiciously gnawed bones.

Deep Blue Sea

Okay, so you know how I started the first two of these saying “I unironically like this film”. Well, we’ve come to the end of that. Deep Blue Sea is famously so bad it’s good. And … mostly I agree. Although it sometimes dips into so bad it’s okay.

The whole premise of genetically engineering super-intelligent sharks to cure Alzheimer’s is the kind of crap I’m usually really into, and the film sort of owns its nonsense in a way that is sometimes fabulous. I think my favourite sequence is the bit where they’ve tranquilised the super-shark and successfully extracted protein from its brain, and Obviously Doomed Scientist Guy is leaning down next to it in exactly the kind of way that I was really pleased that people in The Meg didn’t, and then it bites his arm off, and then they have to take him to, like, the hospital deck but he gets … like … grabbed by the shark in transit, and then later on, they’re on an observation platform underwater and the shark throws him at their glass viewing window and he’s kind of just there, with a shark behind him, and the grass cracking. And it’s like, fair play, shark, fair play. Also there’s a really famous bit where Samuel L Jackson gets nommed halfway through making a really inspirational speech which is kind of great.

But I think, weirdly, I’d have liked this film more if I hadn’t Googled it and discovered that they made a lot of changes following test screenings, some of which were probably good (like not killing off LL Cool J) but which also includes randomly having the lady scientist pointlessly feed herself to the shark for no reason in the final scene, just because test audiences wanted her to die. And, oh my God, so much to unpack here.

To go off on a tangent, because I love going on off on tangents, I was recently listening to a podcast about The Phantom of the Opera, in which the podcasters were talking about a production they went to recently which had a black Carlotta and how that massively changes the optics of the show. Because, suddenly, your secondary antagonist is a black lady who you need to make shut up so you can replace her with a skinny white woman. And I think the audience reaction to scientist lady in Deep Blue Sea has a similar issue because what you have is a fairly well-established trope that is usually applied to non-marginalised Group A that gets incredibly problematic when you apply it to marginalised Group B.

Because, the thing is, I do see that being destroyed by your own creation is very much the deal in this kind of monster movie. John Hammond gets away with it in Jurassic Park but a) not in the book and b) I don’t think you could kill Richard Attenborough and c) pretty much everybody else who is directly involved in creating the park does get killed. But the scientist lady in Deep Blue Sea just comes across, to me at least, as profoundly sympathetic. And maybe it’s just because I find Alzheimer’s profoundly terrifying, but I think “wants to cure Alzheimer’s” is such an understandable motivation that I don’t feel “accidentally breeding hyper-intelligent super sharks” is the kind of hubristic act that deserves a karmic punishment. It’s not like she’s doing it for money, or the lulz, or (like in about 90% of monster movies) for a very poorly defined military application. And, obviously, when you’re applying karmic hubris punishment to female characters it’s really hard to look at that without seeing it through the lens of a society that just kind of likes to punish successful women in general.

It doesn’t help that it’s so obviously crowbarred in. Karmic deaths should ideally be one of two things. Either they are something you pointedly bring upon yourself by demonstrating the kind of personality flaw you’re being punished for (like when the guy who created the monster confidently insists that he’s definitely able to control—argghhh) or else it’s a redemptive self-sacrifice–an “I made this thing, therefore I must take responsibility for dealing with it.” But what happens at the end of Deep Blue Sea is they’re trying to blow up the super shark but it’s too far away so scientist lady cuts herself and jumps into the water to lure the shark back, so that Action Dude can shoot it. Except then Action Dude basically refuses to shoot it because, essentially, he didn’t like her plan and, therefore, won’t follow through with it, even though it’s now kind of irreversible. So you wind with his difficult thing where not only  was this change to made to satisfy test audiences who specifically wanted the smart woman to die horribly, but it’s implemented in a way that makes it even clearer that she’s being arbitrarily punished for trying to do things her own way.

The thing is, I can cope with a story element supporting ideas I think are shitty and I can cope it with being forced. What I cannot cope with is it being forced in order to support ideas I think are shitty.

I give this film two out of five unnecessary fridgings.

Jurassic Shark

Oh dear. So, you probably know what mockbusters are. Just in case you don’t (they’re a popular beat combo, m’lud) there’s this thing when a big blockbuster movie comes out where smaller studios will put out incredibly cheap knock-offs as a way of riding the hype train or, possibly, trying to actively trick people who are looking for the bigger budget and better film.

Jurassic Shark seems to be that for The Meg.

I’m sort of glad I watched it. I’m very glad I didn’t pay for it. I’m not even sure it’s so bad it’s funny. It might just be so bad it’s … nothing?

For what it’s worth, according to its Wikipedia page, it was once the 11th worst rated movie on IMDB. And I think it earned that distinction.

So this is clearly filmed by a lake somewhere in Canada, but everyone keeps loudly insisting it’s a beach in the hope that if they say the word beach enough we’ll somehow forget we’re looking at overgrown mud next to brown water. The basic premise is that illegal drilling unleashes a megalodon into the lake and a journalism student and her friends are going to investigate the illegal drilling and get trapped on the lake by the megalodon. Also some art thieves are hiding out at the lake and they’ve dropped the art they stole in the lake and they want to force the students to get the art back from the lake for them.

It is really noticeable how little of this shark movie involves actually interacting with the shark. The first couple of times it eats people it very clearly exists only in mime. When we finally see it, it’s very clearly stock footage. And when there’s no way to avoid having the actors and the shark on the screen at the same time it has apparently been CGI-ed in with MS Paint.

There is basically nothing good about this movie, yet I will still talk about it at great length. We learn about the illegal drilling thing from exposition between two vaguely scientist-ey characters that takes place on a staircase that looks like it was probably shot in the director’s flat. When the one surviving scientist goes to sacrifice himself to the shark for not reason, he takes off his lab coat to reveal a T-shirt advertising a specific brand of beer. The shark flies at one point. There’s a really long sequence of people just walking. Not talking or doing anything. Just walking. Like the writers had one of those 3am drunken conversations where they were like, hey, isn’t unrealistic how, like, in movies people go a bunch of places but you never see them, like, actually going there. All the dialogue has that thing where there’s a noticeable pause between the end of one character’s line and the start of next character’s line, even if the second character is supposed to be interrupting the first character. Honestly, I’ve seen better production values in FMV games.

Oh, also, the main plot ends with the two supervising students deciding that they have to kill the shark in case it gets out and kills someone else. I will remind you, that it is in. A. Lake.

And, finally, the shit cherry on the poo cake, is that the movie ends with two guys sitting by a fishing hole with one of them giving a long speech about how weird it is that the other guy’s daughter (who is right in front of them) is moderately attractive, given that his wife is, like, really fat and ugly, I mean really fat and ugly, like Oh my God, you wouldn’t believe how fat and ugly this guy’s wife is. And then the guy with the fat ugly wife is like, “Well, you know what they say, even big ugly monsters can have offspring”. At which point an awful CGI shark leaps out the water and swallows them.

And, like, I get that you’re doing the trad monster movie “the end question mark” thing. But you basically had a really jarring, more than slightly misogynistic rant about some guy’s wife just to set up an incredibly forced feed line that doesn’t even quite fit either of the contexts it’s supposed to come in.

And finally, finally finally, in this scene they’re really obviously drinking the same brand of beer that’s on the scientist’s T-shirt.

I give this film zero out of five—you know what, I can’t even be bothered.

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