Monday, June 7, 2010

Torchwood update

Just finished the next disc and since one ep ("Random Shoes") is narrated by a ghost I think the show can pretty firmly be considered only partially SF. I'm not especially concerned one way or the other exactly how this or any show might be classified but do think it's interesting how this is marketed. The creators of FlashFoward for instance went way out of their way to claim the show isn't SF but they had two options - either the blackout event was technical in orgin which would make it SF or it was not technical which means supernatural and it's fantasy. But while the FlashForward folk are scared of losing viewers if the show is labelled SF the Torchwood people seem to be latching onto the SF status of Dr. Who as a way to get viewers who might have ignored a Brit version of Supernatural.

In any case, "Random Shoes" is one of those eps where the show goes outside the usual routine - other examples being the documentary on MASH and E.R., the ep told from the viewpoint of two maintenance guys in Babylon 5, the VH1 "where are they now" Simpsons. (Too bad there was no way for 24 to have done an ep about an investigative journalist trying to piece together Jack's career.) In this case it's not just the ghost but that the person was a UFO buff who observed Torchwood only from far away (and which had been set up in an earlier ep). It's mostly well done though a tad too much towards the maudlin carpe diem, life's little things approach.

The other ep on the disc was "They Keep Killing Suzie" which except for a quasi-scientific explanation would have been another resurrected life vampire story with also a positive "appreciate the moments" theme. Well that theme and the genius of bored evil since it does have a clever and pretty unbelievable twist. (And I know I've been in the book business too long when the characters read out an ISBN--the first use of that I can remember in any movie or show--for a Faber edition of Dickinson but when they start with "019" I immediately think that's actually an Oxford number. Turns out I was correct too - why didn't they use the actual ISBN?)

Sunday, June 6, 2010


I'm about halfway through the first season of Torchwood and am pretty hooked despite a few too many cliches ("Some things we aren't meant to know") and too much striving for effect (apparently the best place for a private conversation was for them to crawl out onto the top of a dangerously open domed building). Despite hearing good things about it for a while I had deliberately avoided learning any details and almost gave it a pass when somebody at work told me it's a Dr. Who spinoff - though I might otherwise seem like a strong candidate for Who-fandom, in actuality I've found it mostly pretty dreary. Torchwood though is more like The X-Files and Men in Black but darker, with more plausible/confused characters, better acted and so far more focused. Plus I've heard it only gets better.

But while I'd argue that Dr. Who isn't really science fiction (no consistency, no real effort to even give nominal scientific reasons, too many fantasy elements) Torchwood seems even less so despite actually stating that it's more so. After all Jack constantly talks about "aliens" and "the future" and what could be more SF?

But the second episode was about a body-inhabiting alien and if you removed the meteorite that caused it to land absolutely everything else is really a spiritual possession story, even down to the sexual element which is far more common in such stories than in SF. The mind-reading story is practically a retelling of the familiar "be careful what you wish for" fantasy. That's not even mentioning the (almost-great) fairy episode where Jack doesn't even bother with an SF explanation though he doesn't go so far as to rule one out.

As for Jack - I happened to be reading Julia Briggs' 1977 Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story and came across a statement about the first ghost investigators (Carnacki, John Silence and that ilk):
The psychic doctor is usually an engimatic and unworldly figure whose scattered hints as to his interpretation at first only serve to increase our suspense, while his final explantion often introduces a further level of meaning to the story, or adds conviction by providing a semi-scientific explanation. (p59)

Which sounds exactly like Jack, especially if an extra meaning is added to "his interpretation" so that it not only means his diegetic interpretation but the viewer's interpretation of his character.

But another disc just arrived from Netflix....

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What's wrong with American TV & movies

"Living in America I miss the British sense of humour, that cynicism and sense of realism. It's almost impossible to explain to people. If you say something to Americans, they believe what you say. How ridiculous is that? They take you at face value, so I have to have these injections of ironic sanity to keep me on an even keel."

Richard Thompson in The Guardian.

It's not the sense of humor but this perceived value to bluntness, to face value. How often do you hear people (Americans) saying "straight talker" as a synonym for "truth teller"? Praising somebody who "tells it like it is." Of course they're wrong - it's far easier to lie with a blunt statement than a more elaborate one because the detectors come up for the elaborations.

So the point is that in show after show after movie after movie you have characters talk with nothing behind them. At any moment they'll launch into a description of their motives which are invariably correct. They act like particles in a physics equation. This is even when the motives are so blatantly obvious you'd figure a beginning screenwriter would muss them up a bit instead of actually underlining them.

In a commentary for an ep of The Sopranos David Chase remarked how fun it is to write a show where everybody lies and that's become a kind of touchstone for me. Not that characters should lie but don't real people do things for reasons they don't understand? Or their reasons are conflicted, distorted, mere justifications or even outright wrong? I'm not pushing "realism" or even a pointless notion like "well-rounded characters" so much as simple dramatic interest. And it's worth noting that what I'm describing is pretty rare in American films up until maybe the 60s and then slowly increasing so there's clearly a commercial motive that's trying to make the works as streamlined as possible.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book introductions

I never read the introductions to novels first and a good example why is Pankaj Mishra's intro to JG Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (which by the way is a very highly recommended book). Mishra does offer a little bit of analysis and spends about a page situating the book within a tradition of Mutiny novels, an entire subgenre I didn't even know existed. (I place that to being American but suspect that even most Brits aren't aware of it either.) But Mishra spends most of the introduction on a plot synopsis that even gives away the ending. Why? Either we're about to read the novel and don't want this or we're coming back afterwards and don't need it. I'm picking on this because it's just something I've read recently but it's not an uncommon problem with novel introductions.

But what really got me started is David Rieff's introduction to the current edition of Graham Greene's The Lawless Roads, his account of a 1938 trip to Mexico. Rieff is mainly, actually almost exclusively, concerned with the book as a precursor to The Power and the Glory and as such he finds it wanting. He attacks the travel genre as "narcisstic" and only a "miscellany" even stating that the novel is more universal. This seems an odd way to introduce a travel book (which he does claim is "very good") even if you think it's true. And I suspect he would have been even harsher if the book is considered journalism or reportage.

What's most clearly missing in Rieff's introduction is, well, everything. Why did Greene write the book? The back cover says it was a commission but for whom? Did they want a conventional travel account or a report on religious suppression? (They didn't exactly get either.) The copyright page reveals that it was published in the US the same year as England (1939) though under a different title (Another Mexico) but was it published in Mexico? What was the reception? How accurate is Greene's account? What did he leave out? Has anybody identified the unnamed but very specific people Greene encountered? Did Greene have any opinions about the book at publication or later?

There's also a suggestions for further reading included but everything is related to Greene's life. Nothing about Mexico or its history. In fact even considered as purely non-historical the book desperately needs notes. There are references to Campion and Peguy (Greene didn't bother with first names) that I got, or at least think I got, but there are numerous mentions of other things (an unspecified Jules Romains novel, bits of British culture, Mexican politics) that I and most readers would need help deciphering.