We need to talk about America’s Next Top Model

Promo shoot for America's Next Top ModelThis post is going to seem wildly off topic. I’m sure it will garner easy trolls, as well as people who don’t think they’re trolling but feel I’ve made a Serious Lapse In Taste of which I’ll need to be educated. I mean, what am I doing, with my blog which is casual in style but (tries to be) scholarly in approach, enthusiastic in tone, feminist in philosophy, writing about that awful woman , Tyra Banks, and her tacky show?

Which is kind of why I feel like it’s an important post to be made and it does belong.

Let’s start from the fact that it is overwhelmingly men who have criticised me for liking this show. Whereas numerous women have (in hushed tones, with a shifty look, as though confessing a dirty secret) have either volunteered that they like it, or confessed that they do too when I say I do. They are almost always quick (very quick) to add that what they love is the artistry of the photographs, and sometimes (usually if they are more comfortable with their own femininity) with the beauty and interest of the clothes.

Sadly, the promos (like the above) are almost always hilariously contrary to this professed quality. I mean, Tyra looks pretty powerful and clearly knows how to work a camera, but the skimpiness of the clothes and the cliché of many of the poses adds together to make something that looks faintly ridiculous and a tad exploitative.

I’m not gonna defend the promos too much. I rarely like them. But I would say that it’s worth baring in mind that this is all the models, including the ones that fall out in the first few rounds because they are, basically, crap. It’s also a composite of a group of individual photos. None of these women posed with each other. The were all trying to look their best for themselves as individuals, and none of them were thinking about how they would look in the composite because what they cared about was being judged on that photo, and there’s no way they could have known what the other girls would be doing anyway. As for the theme… themes for large groups of people verge very easily on the cliché, and ANTM has to roll out loads of these over the course of the series. If you try to focus on an individual model you can actually see that some of the outfits are not, in themselves, bad. Indeed, the model in question might be working the shit out of that thing. Compare, for example, the models in the front, or the one in the middle row on the far left with the cheesily posed lack-luster trio immediately above her. One thing this awkward promo format does allow for is that as each model gets eliminated her image disappears from the group, and you often have an interesting sense of perspective as you see that the ones who are left are usually doing more interesting things in their first photo.

As for Tyra… Let’s bloody well talk about Tyra Banks. She gets a lot of flack. She gets called fake and cheesy and bitchy and all sorts of unpleasant unsavoury things. Here’s what Tyra is: she’s a driven career woman who launched herself as a teenage girl into a very competitive field that frequently eats people up alive and actively works to exclude people of colour. She not only stuck it out and made it through levels of discomfort and hand-to-mouth poverty that would send most of us looking for a cushy job at McDonalds, she rose to the very top of her field, and then, before her fame faded and at the point where the natural effects of ageing would have excluded her from that field, she used her fame, her contacts, her skills, and her experience to make the move to TV. And whilst that might seem easy for a famously beautiful woman to do, it’s really not very common. There are probably others, but Tricia Helfer is the only other one I can think of (and she hosted Canada’s Next Top Model, too). Think of the adverts you may have seen other top models doing. If they speak at all it’s often pretty stilted. Acting and modeling and presenting are all different skill sets, and we only show our own ignorance if we suppose that any of them are easy.

What’s more, Tyra talks about her own career as a part of America’s Next Top Model, and whilst, yes, there’s a certain amount of self-aggrandizing in that, it’s no more than Alan Sugar gets away with on The Apprentice. She tells how it was always her plan to move from modelling to presenting. She knew the career of a model has a set lifespan and she planned ahead. There’s a kind of terrifying awe that grows as you watch through the series and realise just how meticulously Tyra has planned her life; how in control of it she is, how she manages her image and achieves her goals. She’s a business woman, and a pretty effective and powerful one, at that. Whatever you think of America’s Next Top Model, you can’t deny that it’s given Tyra everything she wanted: exposure, money, a career that extended beyond modelling, and a certain amount of power and visibility in an industry that likes to keep women in their ‘place’.

Which, of course, is usually the reason men laugh at me for being a feminist who enjoys America’s Next Top Model. ‘How can you watch something that’s in an industry that so exploits women?!’ they say, having never seen an episode.

Firstly: are they expecting that as a feminist I want to abolish modelling altogether? Do they have similar concerns about male models? I’m sure that some people do (possibly with good reason), but I’m pretty sure that these men (the ones I have talked to) don’t. That there are people who wear clothes and display them on catwalks and in photographs does not seem, in itself, to be a problem. In fact, it seems like a good way of both getting a designer exposure and allowing consumers to have an informed idea of what’s available. Honestly, I can’t see any problem with the idea that there should BE models.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing wrong with the industry in its actual form. It clearly is often exploitative of models. It’s frequently objectifying of women. The standards of beauty that have become desired in fashion are remote from reality in a way that’s damaging to consumers and (often) models both. That’s a reason to dislike a lot of how the industry works at the moment. It’s not a reason to say we should denigrate the industry altogether. Ignoring it, refusing to educate yourself about it or engage with its politics is basically tacitly encouraging it to continue on however it wants without you.

J Alexander (aka Miss J)

J Alexander (aka Miss J)

I’m going to hold my hands up right now and say that I absolutely had all these prejudices when I started watching. But I was parrot-sitting in a large house with a large TV and no internet. I like to take breaks whilst studying, and I watched a bunch of things I wouldn’t usually watch just because they were on when I was taking a break. America’s Next Top Model was one. At first it seemed bizarre. The characters flamboyant to the extreme, such as the fabulously larger than life Miss J Alexander, catwalk coach. But when they actually started to talk about their work, or when Miss J strutted his stuff on the catwalk* and explained to the young hopefuls what they were doing wrong… I realised quickly that there was a lot more to this career that I had never taken seriously than I had ever guessed. And I felt stupid for that, because of course there is.

Most people are uncomfortable having their picture taken, and many people who are conventionally attractive don’t know what to do with themselves in front of a camera and take dreadful photos. As for walking a catwalk, I’m pretty sure that most of us, if asked to do so, would produce a highly embarrassing pantomime of the activity. Of course there’s skill involved. Millions of attractive women (and men!) wash out of the fashion industry because however pretty they are they aren’t models. And there’s a clear difference between a catalogue model and a supermodel. We all know it. We mock the catalogue models for their cheesy poses – whatever else we say about the men and women in editorials and on catwalks, we rarely call them cheesy.

And this was underlined when it came to the photos. The people I’ve talked to who quickly rush to say that they watch for the artistry of the photography aren’t lying. Some of them are breathtaking. Here are just a few:

Cycle 15 winner, Ann Ward

Cycle 15 winner, Ann Ward

Kayla Hagler, Cycle 15

Kayla Hagler, Cycle 15

Jenah Doucette, Cycle 9

Jenah Doucette, Cycle 9

Cycle 9 Winner, Saleisha Stowers

Cycle 9 Winner, Saleisha Stowers

There’s real skill involved here, and being able to see the difference between someone who is trying to pose and someone with genuine skill who knows their body, their angles, how light plays on their skin, is aware of their surroundings, understands what will show clothes to best effect and what won’t… it’s really interesting. And you also see what goes into the lighting, the photography, the hair, the make-up. What makes a good walk. How personality, common sense, punctuality, can prove vital for someone who actually wants a career, as the models go to ‘go sees’ and compete to get booked, but also to get back on time (a model who arrives late is disqualified). The contestants are educated about what it’s really like to be a model, and so are we.

Which is not to say that it’s 100% ‘real’. The girls share a fabulous house and are constantly thrown into situations that will provoke discord. it’s a reality TV show and it has those markers. I will also concede that quality has fallen off sharply in recent years. I don’t watch anymore, but I watched a good 16~ cycles before I gave up. Of course the format got stretched and old. Of course it got formulaic. And ultimately I felt that the contestants were being asked to do some things that weren’t OK.

In one particularly fraught episode Tyra demanded that all the women wear special pants (underwear) to enhance their bums. One girl refused on the grounds that it went against her beliefs about body image, and she was treated extremely harshly for it. On the one hand, I understood that Tyra was actually pushing the boundaries of accepted standards for beauty. In particular, a larger behind is often favoured in African-American culture, whilst white American fashion scorns it. But on the other hand, the pressure to accept any and all of a client’s demands, whilst possibly realistic, does reflect and support the ugly side of the business, and the pressure to conform to beauty standards, whatever your personal beliefs.

It was also an uncomfortable moment as the girls were being taught ways to stick their bums out to be more attractive. This seemed in direct conflict with the line that had always been drawn before between ‘model sexy’ and ‘hoochy’. The ‘teaches’ and methods of posing the contestants were being taught that season seemed to be getting increasingly silly. One felt that the show was struggling to remain fresh and interesting, and had begun to reach too far.

However, ANTM’s descent into absurdity is highlighted against a background that frequently sought to be progressive. Having been a woman whose own career ended when she ceased to maintain the stick-figure physique, Tyra (an obviously still beautiful woman) championed plus size modelling. And whilst her rebranding of this to ‘fiercely real’ feels a little forced, I can get behind her thought that ‘plus size’ isn’t really as big as that name suggests, and that the real aim is to encourage greater diversity of body-types in modeling. ANTM also embraced transwomen, gay women, bi women, religious women, atheist women, women on the autistic spectrum, women of colour, educated women, women from poor backgrounds, metropolitan women, country women – all kinds of women. There was a real sense of Tyra consciously pushing the boundaries of what is permitted in fashion and championing the disadvantaged and excluded. Yes, some of it was to have a ‘story’, but there are an awful lot of US TV shows that would not have represented such a spectrum, and would have vilified a lot of the sorts of women described above.

So, yes, it’s now over-branded, formulaic, something of a caricature of itself. But just because it’s concerned with fashion and modelling doesn’t mean it’s frivolous. Just because the fashion industry frequently has a very problematic relationship with women and their bodies doesn’t mean that this show endorses everything you don’t like about it. Just because it’s full of flamboyant personalities doesn’t mean they don’t have serious things to say. And whilst one sometimes senses the machine of Tyra’s image generation working in the background, you cannot deny that she’s effective. Over all I sense a woman of tremendous personal strength, charisma, and confidence, with a sharp mind, using what she knows to build the kind of career she wants and challenge the issues she faced when she was fighting her way up the scale.

And I admire that. And I think a lot of the other women I know who like this show admire it. And I think we like seeing a powerful woman leading a show where there are lots of other women of many different races, backgrounds, sexualities, and beliefs, many of whom are ‘interesting’ to look at rather than conventionally beautiful in the way an actor is expected to be. Whether we want to work in fashion or not we also like to see the artistry and skill that goes into a sort of work that women do for which they are denigrated more than their male counterparts. (Which is not to say that male models face no issues of body-image or prejudice, they do, but the scale of the way women are judged by their appearance and for earning money by their appearance is that much more.)

And I can’t help but wonder if maybe some of the people who mock Tyra Banks as ‘annoying’ or ‘fake’ really just feel discomforted by seeing a confident woman running a show, instructing others, being regarded as an authority. She feels ‘fake’ because we’re not used to seeing a woman take such a stance of certainty – of stating facts and imparting knowledge, of sitting in judgement. There’s a sense of ‘What RIGHT does she have to set herself up as an authority like that?’

So, yeah, the later cycles of America’s Next Top Model in particular have issues, but they represent just a fraction of the output. This show has an awful lot more going for it than many people give it credit for, and I’m sick of apologising for liking it and for being berated as though I have betrayed the sisterhood (although it is rarely my ‘sisters’ who voice such views. So, I wanted to talk about America’s Next Top Model for a bit. And now I have.

*It’s my understanding that Miss J is not transgendered and uses male pronouns primarily, although he is referred to as both ‘he’ and ‘she’ on the show.

Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2

Game of Thrones Promo ImageI really meant to review this ages ago, but it had the misfortune of airing at pretty much exactly the start of the shittiest part of my year, and I didn’t really review much of anything (or do much of anything) for a good while after that. But we’re coming up to the second year anniversary of this blog, and I find I just can’t let the year pass without paying tribute.

You guys know I like A Song of Ice and Fire, and you know I enjoyed HBO’s landmark first season of it last year (had, indeed, been waiting with anticipation for it since the end of Rome). It’s expected that I was going to enjoy the second season, I guess, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I was completely blown away. In almost every facet it was even better than last year. Part of that is because the source material is better – A Game of Thrones, the novel, is a slow burn that I probably would have given up on if not for the insistence of a friend that I had to keep reading. By A Clash of Kings many of the characters are established and we already understand a bit about the history and politics of this vast and complex world. In addition, we meet a number of new characters, including Brienne of Tarth, the fearsome and fearless women who has forced recognition of her fighting ability, gaining the status not only of knight, but of Kingsguard to Renly Baratheon. She’s one of my very favourite characters, and her relationship with Jaime Lannister becomes an increasingly compelling read.

But the success of Game of Thrones, season 2, is not solely down to the progression of the books and the development of the characters in the source material. Many actors who gave memorable performances in the first season out do themselves to become truly sparkling in season 2. Peter Dinklage won a well-deserved Emmy for his role as Tyrion Lannister last year, but his performance this year was even better. It isn’t simply that we get to see him perform in award winning episodes like ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ but that his performance is so masterful. ‘Those are brave men knocking at our door. Let’s go kill them!’ he declares, and you understand how the Half-man could win the support and loyalty of a bunch of disillusioned and dispirited commoners who have just seen their king run to hide in his mother’s skirts. For there is not merely bravery, but regret and fear in his tone. Dinklage portrays not only the intelligence, but the honour and the sadness of Tyrion. I loved this character in the book, but Dinklage has made the role his own – it’s a different Tyrion, in some ways, but I like it:

Lena Headey surprised me with the strength of her performance as Cersei in this season. Not quite at the heights that she would reach in her role as Ma-Ma in Dredd 3D, but strong, and in my opinion notably superior to her performance last year. I felt that she had relaxed into the role and really begun to understand Cersei. Again, I feel the need to draw attention to scenes from ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ – that episode was undoubtedly designed as a special effects extravaganza, but the quieter scenes away from the battle itself are not to be dismissed. The scenes between Cersei and Sansa (Sophie Turner) as they hide with the other noble women, waiting to find out if they will be raped and slaughtered, are claustrophobic with their sense of helpless imprisonment. And Cersei’s bitterness at the way she has been robbed of power, as a woman, seems to slowly permeate the room like a toxic fog – increasing with every glass of wine she drinks:

It’s masterfully done. I wrote quite a bit on Cersei and Sansa and the different representations of women in season 2 over on my Tumblr back in June. This was in response to Laurie Penny’s article that basically accused Game of Thrones of being sexist for all the wrong reasons. Because, all the praise aside, it is problematic, and if you’ve read any of my Read Along with Rhube posts on A Dance with Dragons you’ll know just how much I’ve warred, personally, with its issues. Baseless accusations like saying that Game of Thrones is just a ‘racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons’ do nothing but embarrass the author of the article. And it’s important to know the difference precisely so that the accurate criticisms don’t get silenced in the knocking down of the straw man. You couldn’t get much less Disneyland than Game of Thrones, and whilst it does tackle the issues of rape-culture head on, you can hardly pretend it endorses the world that supports them. However, the books of the Song of Ice and Fire series are considerably more problematic. The treatment of Daenerys, in particular, is often presented for titillation rather than critique. And let’s not forget that at the start of the series she’s meant to be thirteen. It’s all kinds of skeevy, and that’s why I’ve forced myself to write so extensively in critique of these moments in reviewing A Dance with Dragons.

Even so, it’s important to discuss such treatment in the context both of Daenerys’s growth into a formidable woman (and one clearly damaged by her experiences) and the other female characters. A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are both notable for a range of female characters rarely seen in books or television. Women are not simply ‘strong’ or ‘weak’, they are multifaceted, fully rounded characters, many of whom express strength in very different ways: Brienne, the formidable knight; Arya, the determinedly ungirly-girl who is also becoming a skilled fighter; Cersei the queen, politician, manipulator; Catelyn, the honourable lady and ferocious matriarch; Daenerys, the wise and powerful girl-ruler, leading an army of disparate peoples to conquer a world, take back her birth-right, and challenge the slavery she herself was sold into; Margaery Tyrell, great beauty and canny political mover, who declares that she doesn’t want to be a queen, she wants to be the queen; Asha/Yara Greyjoy, capable of leading fleets of ironborn in a way her brother, Theon, could never hope to; even Sansa Stark – feminine and meek, but enduring with quiet dignity what she cannot change and showing a different kind of strength in sticking to her values in a hostile world. And there are many, many more.

As Cersei holds forth on a woman’s power residing in her sexuality, there is in no danger of this defining a view of women for the books or for the show – it is undercut both by Cersei’s obvious dissatisfaction with her lot in life and by the many and varied ways that other women have been shown to have power. We see the precariousness of power based on beauty in this season as Margaery Tyrell emerges as a rival to Cersei’s beauty – a younger rival – and Cersei is faced with men, such as Stannis, who cannot be seduced.

As to the accusation of racism… there might be some more truth, there. There’s certainly a presentation of savagery in the dothraki people that might seem indicative of a supposition of barbarism in non-white races. And I’m not entirely comfortable with the parroted phrase ‘It is known’ which seems to be almost the only thing the women of the dothraki are capable of saying – it rings of a lack of knowledge and a culture that discourages questioning and learning. One could read Daenerys as an unusual female example of the white man come to teach the ‘natives’ how to do their culture better than they do it themselves. I think there may have been an element of that at first, but I feel like there are also some significant differences from that archetype. Daenerys does not enter the culture possessed of power and confidence in some alternate ‘white’ norms. She is a lost and broken child who never really knew the culture that birthed her. She has a romantic memory of the ‘house with the red door’, but it’s a childish memory, barely connected with anything concrete. She does not force a home in this other culture, she learns it and adapts to it as a mechanism of survival. As the books go on we see her act as chameleon in several different cultures, and she makes many, sometimes grievous, mistakes as she tries to force her values – her dream of an abolition of slavery – on others. Slavery is wrong, but marching in with an army and demanding that a culture abandon central elements of its identity and economic structures can have catastrophic consequences.

Moreover, if one is inclined to cast the dothraki in the stereotype of savages, one can hardly say that all the races and nations outside of Westeros are presented as ‘uncivilized’. We haven’t seen much of them yet, but by modern standards the ‘Free Cities’ in many ways show more aspects of what we might call ‘civilisation’ from a ‘western’ point of view. Volantis is a democracy, Braavos is religiously tolerant and has outlawed slavery, as has Pentos – not much is known of the other city states, yet, but there’s some interesting discussion on the Wiki of Ice and Fire about them.

There is, perhaps, a case to be made for exoticism of other cultures. Here I feel like I’m not on a stable ground to make a judgement. My instinct is to say that there is always an element of exoticism in fantasy worlds. Part of the appeal is presenting cultures that differ from our own with a sense of wonder. Westeros itself is a somewhat exoticised view of medieval feudalism. Yet, there is no question that we are encouraged to identify with the white, European-like, faux-Britannia as the central locus for point of view action. To an extent the Daenerys plotline is unusual in fantasy novels in basing one of the major plots in completely different, non-European-like cultures, and it does allow for more non-white characters that are not ‘evil’ than you see in the average Hollywood show or Anglo-American novel. But equally, her plotline is the most exploitative in terms of titillation and presentation of other cultures for spectacle. I don’t know. I don’t feel confident making a call in this area as I’m aware of my own privilege as a white European, but my instinct is to make the same call as for the sexism issue: A Song of Ice and Fire is problematic, but does good things as well as bad, and, on the whole, Game of Thrones, the TV show, does its best to tone down some of the more problematic elements (see my discussion of the ‘Qartheen dress’ below).

Returning to the topic of the presentation of female characters, I can’t not stop off to tip a hat to the glorious Arya Stark. Arya’s story develops along new and interesting lines in season 2. Her plot takes a darker turn as she is forced to try and survive in war torn Westeros, concealing her gender for fear of what would be done to her if it were known that she is a girl. She travels with young boys and hardened criminals, heading for the Wall and learning to hold her own. Witnessing death and torture she begins to build a list of people she will kill one day as a coping mechanism, and having saved the life of the assassin, Jaqen H’ghar, she uses his debt to her to begin wreaking vengeance. We also see her treading a careful line in Tywin Lannister‘s shadow. This is sheer invention – a contraction of events from the books to enable a more digestible format for our screens – Tywin and Arya never meet like this. Yet it works; Maisie Williams and Charles Dance make captivating verbal sparring partners, creating for Tywin a charm he didn’t really have in the books, but which works very well for the TV series.

Daenerys Targaryen in the TV series version of the Qartheen gownAnother change from the books that I very much appreciated was concerning the notorious Qartheen dress. In the books this marks an uncomfortable and inexcusable exoticism mixed with misogyny. This is a style of dress that indicates the exotic nature of Qarth by having it just so happen that the women of Qarth traditionally walk around with one breast exposed. A breast that is described in loving detail. There is no obvious reason why the people of Qarth would favour such a style, and whilst some cultures do favour bare breasts, this usually comes with a more relaxed attitude towards nakedness that makes breasts a much less fetishised body-part than they are in much of the so called ‘developed’ world. Such an attitude does not seem to be present in Qarth, and it’s pretty clear that the reason why this outlandish fashion is the way it is does not lie in some flavour of world-building colour, but in seeking to titillate the (presumed male, heterosexual) audience. In case you can’t tell, I found these passages pretty sickening, in the book. It is to Game of Thrones‘ credit, then, that they chose to redefine the Qartheen gown to look like this (above). She still looks stunning, as is only right for a character described in the books as the most beautiful woman in the world, but she’s not in the least bit over-exposed. Rather, this is a dress that exudes strength – complete with metal power-shoulders – at the same time as enhancing her beauty. This dress says that being beautiful does not render a woman weak.

Brienne and CatelynBut lest we start thinking that the message is that ‘only bad witches are ugly’, let’s recall that this series also features Brienne of Tarth, or ‘Brienne the Beauty’ as she is mockingly called. At 6ft 3in, Gwendoline Christie was inspired casting for Brienne, and you can see that they made full use of the camera’s bag-o-tricks to enhance the height difference between her and other characters. Moreover, Christie reportedly put on 6.5 kilos of muscle for the role, enabling her to cut a truly impressive figure as a fighter. Granted, the Brienne from the books is described as considerably more ugly than Christie could hope to be, but her awkward gait and clear lack of typical female mannerisms marks her out in a way that one could see might well be judged unattractive to the men of her world.

It’s wonderful, then, to see the shift in perspective on Jaime’s face when he sees her fight and kill for the first time. He realises that she’s no joke – she might even be his equal, and few men could say that. I’ve always felt that the most interesting thing about Jaime is that, whatever else he may be, he’s a good fighter. He always seems more comfortable talking to people about battles and fighting, and on screen we can see him visibly relax when the conversation turns to such things, as he finds himself on firmer ground. In this way, Jaime is able to respect Brienne as he has no other woman, in the area that matters most to him.

Season 2 shows us just the beginning of what I’m hoping will become the Brienne and Jamie Very Bloody Buddy Movie, which is basically what I’ve been calling season 3 in anticipation. I can’t wait!

It’s not all squee. I can’t say that I’m a fan of how Melisandre has been presented. Not that I’ve ever really been overly fond of the character, but I didn’t think her relationship with Stannis needed sexing up the way it was. Apart from anything else, it’s completely out of character for Stannis. Whether you agree with his principles or not, Stannis is all about doing what’s right, and even if he doesn’t show much affection for his wife, having an affair with his priestess doesn’t seem like his style. It felt like the producers just saw another pretty woman they could get naked, and I couldn’t help but feel that this is a show with enough of those already. I like a bit of sex in my fantasy, but I prefer it in character and less exploitative.

The other big changes that I haven’t mentioned concern the ‘Battle of Blackwater’. In the books, Tyrion’s stroke of genius is not simply making use of Cersei’s stock-piled wildfire, but in trapping Stannis’s ships with a massive chain across the harbour, preventing escape. It’s a shame, as it’s a striking element in the books and a mark of Tyrion’s strategy, but you can see why it was cut. Blackwater was always going to be difficult to stage, and they went with the most dramatic looking elements to portray. It worked. The other significant change is that [spoiler] Tyrion’s nose doesn’t get chopped off. He does get a slice across the face that leaves him with a (supposedly) disfiguring scar, but losing half his nose becomes such a big issue for Tyrion in the books that it does seem like a slightly more problematic departure. Some people have said they thought the make-up would have been difficult to achieve, but I’m not convinced. I’ve seen noseless people/monsters on screen before. I suspect that it had more to do with keeping the face of one of their most celebrated stars intact than anything else. I don’t mind too much. I imagine it would have been difficult to look at a gaping wound like that, and I enjoy Peter Dinklage’s face the way it is, but I had half-hoped for a more gutsy move, there.

Aside from that, however, it really was an impressive production. I finished every episode bereft, like I could have continued watching forever. For quite a while after it had finished I really wasn’t sure how I was going to make it until next year. Of course, I have managed to fill my time with other things since then, but it’s undeniable that Game of Thrones has become a televisual experience not quite like any other.

Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Poster: The Dark Knight RisesTitle: The Dark Knight Rises
Cinematic release: 2012
Starring: Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine
Written by: Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer
Directed by: Christopher Nolan

I’d been worried about this movie. Images of Anne Hathaway in a sprayed on catsuit (and yet more of the ridiculous heels that have become such ubiquitous wear for female stars) had me deeply concerned. I am relieved to say that I was pleasantly and thoroughly surprised.

This is the final chapter in Christopher Nolan’s renowned trilogy, revitalising Batman for a new generation of cinema goers. Batman has always had dark roots – in his origin story of a child who watched his parents murdered before his eyes, growing up to fight crime in the forbiddingly named ‘Gotham City’ – but for a long time these were largely eclipsed in mainstream consciousness by the famously camp 1960s television show. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns sought to revitalise the franchise in 1986, and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 took this darker vision to the big screen in a way that added new life to a hero that had begun to flag outside of comics. His sequel, Batman Returns, was, for me, the best of this series – visually stunning, clever, and featuring an iconic portrayal of Catwoman by Michelle Pfeiffer, giving a powerful and dark feminist interpretation of a character with a history of hyper-sexualisation that continues today. Yet after Batman Returns the franchise deteriorated into a vision of campness all too familiar. I haven’t even seen Batman and Robin, and it takes a fairly unanimously negative response to put me off seeing a superhero movie.

So, the franchise was again in need of a reboot, and Batman Begins could not have been more welcome or more spectacular. It’s still one of my all time favourite superhero movies, despite having a fairly wet female lead. I was blown away. I lost a stone trying to get fit like a ninja because Batman and Ra’s al Ghul made it look so cool. Nolan’s trilogy draws more strongly on the gritty realism of Miller’s Dark Knight and arguably takes it further. It introduced a whole new way for superheroes to be reimagined on the big screen, ushering in an era where superhero films search for the darker aspects of heroes’ characters, rounding them out to more interesting visions.

Critics were torn on whether The Dark Knight was better or worse than Batman Begins. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was near unanimously praised, but some felt the film was overlong and messily plotted. I was inclined to wonder whether it was really two films, with two villains, which would have been cleaner and neater if separated out. However, on rewatching at home, with the opportunity for a loo break, I did find it a more cohesive piece.

So, there was a lot of expectation on The Dark Knight Rises, which Nolan has said will be the last film in the series. I don’t think I would go so far as to say that it was as good as the previous two, but I still thought it was very good – highly enjoyable and one I will want to own on DVD when it comes out. And, thankfully, there was one aspect in which TDKR left the previous two films in the dust, and that was: its treatment of women.

Anne Hathaway is to be commended for taking on a challenging role that she must have known would always leave her being compared to Pfeiffer. As I myself was doing before the film had even come out. And she delivered. She artfully uses the sweet, vulnerable image she has cultivated in roms-coms and feel-good movies like The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada to create a foil for the sexually barbed, completely in control, couldn’t-give-a-fuck-about-anyone-else Catwoman. She sashays from vulnerable flirtation to lightning speed expert violence to utterly convincing screaming-weed to calm and collected woman again in seconds in the scene where she destroys a bar in response to being double-crossed, and leaves unscathed, along with my heart.

Poster: Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer as CatwomanThat said, Pfeiffer still has the top spot, for me. Part of that’s the writing. Whilst this film unquestionably has the best writing for women of any of the Nolan trilogy, Catwoman still has a softer edge that stops her presenting a truly cutting message about women in film, women in superhero films in particular, and women in general. Catwoman’s bitterness is present in Hathaway’s presentation, but it is softened by a vulnerability that was fiery instability in Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Hathaway’s Catwoman has a softer side that can be appealed to, can be won over, can be wooed. Pfeiffer’s Catwoman triumphantly declares ‘four, five, and I’m still alive!’ as her cat’s ‘lives’ are cut down by Max Shrek – she never asks for help and she never runs into the arms of Batman for protection from the cruel world that has driven her to the edge. She is a woman with vulnerabilities, yes – she was used and abused – but she has been forged by them into a force of nature – a cat-force: as dangerous as she is magnetically sexual. The butchered PVC costume that oozes sexuality and brokenness also screams of danger, right down to the wicked claws of her gloved hands. Pfeiffer’s (or perhaps one should say Pfeiffer’s and Burton’s) Catwoman is a statement, an icon, an image in a way that Hathaway’s/Nolan’s cannot hope to be.

But then, I don’t think that was the point. Batman Returns is almost more Catwoman’s film than it is Batman’s – certainly more hers than the Penguin’s. But The Dark Knight Rises is about closing a chapter, about saying goodbye and settling down to something else. We may have always wanted for Catwoman and Batman to get it together, but it would have been deeply inappropriate in Batman Returns in a way that it is not in The Dark Knight Rises. Both Batman and Catwoman start the movie in places where they are tired of this life they have carved for themselves, but don’t really know how to let go of it. It works for them to find a way to do so together; and it must be confessed that Hathaway’s Catwoman is pretty hard in places as well.

I also appreciated that she was not the only prominent female character. Miranda Tate (Cottillard) adds an effective counterweight to Hathaway’s sexuality. She is a beautiful woman, but she dresses sensibly and in a manner that befits a board member of a powerful company. And when everything goes to pot she shows strength and guts in practical ways that are more attainable than Catwoman’s ability to casually break a man’s hands if he looks at her funny. Without spoiling too much, the addition of Miranda Tate added significantly to the balance of this movie, and was greatly appreciated.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake was as wonderful as he always is. That’s a man who deserves his own film, and I feel like this one may have been a way of shifting him on to step up to a leading role. There is a moral complexity and interest to Blake’s character that is very skillfully built up over the course of the film and to which Gordon-Levitt was very well-suited.

Gary Oldman, of course, was immaculately good, and appeared to be having a very good time. His Commissioner Gordon is one of the most truly wonderful features of all three films, and I enjoyed the way the events of the previous films, and his decisions along the way, are all called back to. Gordon is presented to us as a flawed, yet still wonderful, human being. A good man in a bad place who is still capable of making mistakes, but also still worthy of our love for the good he has brought into the world.

But it’s not all glowing praise. There were a number of moments where the script was notably less strong than the previous two films, and both Batman and Catwoman’s costumes had an air of campness that seemed slightly incongruous in the context of the gritty realism that premised this revitalisation of the franchise. And, to be blunt, there were several moments that were just plain silly. Specifically, medically silly. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, so I choose my example carefully, but if Bruce Wayne really has no cartilage left in his knees he’s going to be having a lot more trouble than a single walking stick will be able to help him out of. And as the film goes on the idea that anything at all is wrong with his legs seems to be jettisoned entirely.

Moreover, the whole episode in the hellish prison that Bane (Hardy) supposedly escaped from is not only implausible, but a little bit dull. Because you know exactly what is going to happen from the moment it enters the plot. The rest of it is just treading water, waiting for the inevitable to happen.

Michael Caine is also decidedly sub-par. There’s a scene where Bale and Caine are required to emote at each other for a protracted period of time, and although the script probably isn’t doing them any favours, it’s clear that this is not the sort of acting that comes easily to either man. It’s just painful, and I was glad when it was over. I’m also not really sure what it added to the plot.

So, it’s not without its flaws, and it’s not the equal to the previous two films, but it’s still a well-made, exciting romp that still deserves to be on your list of superior superhero movies. Moreover, it’s a positive breath of fresh air from a feminist point of view. Hathaway’s Catwoman does everything Black Widow was trying (and, for me, completely failing*) to do in The Avengers, and more. It did a good job of rounding off the series and I left the cinema able to report that I had had a jolly good time.

*I know this is not a popular opinion, and it’s pretty much the primary reason I chose not to review that film – I didn’t want to be dogpiled by the legions of fans – I mention it here merely because it’s relevant to how positively I responded to Catwoman. Please don’t treat this as an invitation to tell me how wrong I am in the comments.

Review: The Amazing Spider-man

The Amazing Spider-man posterTitle: The Amazing Spider-man
Cinematic Release: 2012
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, and Irrfan Khan
Written by: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves
Directed by: Marc Webb

There are two things that immediately struck me that were most important to communicate as the credits roled. These things are as follows:

1) There is nothing wrong with this movie.


2) You need to see this film in 3D.

These might seem like ‘damning with faint praise’ in certain portions of the net, but if you’re been following me for a while, I hope you’ll take them as they are meant. Which is to say: I thought this movie was excellent. There was not a single thing wrong with it. Moreover, every other movie that I have seen in 3D, even where I thought the 3D added something in places (pretty much, in Thor and Avatar), at multiple points made me feel a bit queasy, was unnecessarily blurry throughout, was confusing in the fight scenes, and I repeatedly had to remove my glasses for my eyes to recover. None of these things is true of The Amazing Sprider-man. Furthermore, the 3D was not only not gratuitous, it was completely and utterly breathtaking. You need to see it. It is worth your time.

Now, if you have seen the trailer whilst watching some film you did not see in 3D you may be looking at this review somewhat sceptically right now. Let me put your mind at rest. I shared your concerns. I now understand. This movie is meant to be shown in 3D. The CGI looked shit in 2D because it was meant to be seen in 3D. In 3D it is stunning. You really feel it as an awe-inspiring experience every time he leaps from a building. For the first time 3D has made me feel closer to the action, more engrossed, as opposed to distancing me from it. For nothing else but that, you should experience this movie.

And that’s just the set dressing.

OK, it wouldn’t be hard for to beat the previous Spider-man movies in my eyes. I found the first one to be almost without redeeming feature (although quite funny in an unintentional way). I enjoyed Spider-man 2, sometimes in the way it meant me to (there were a few genuinely funny, rousing, exciting moments), but often because the scripting was so bad I had to laugh or I’d cry. I actually have time for Spiderman 3, in a way that I know few people do. I think it had a better, tighter plot, and made few appalling scripting errors, at the same time as taking a more realistic and welcome attitude towards romantic relationships. None of this is to say I thought it was a great movie.

The Amazing Spider-man is just a different creature in every sense. There were one or two moments that might have been called corny, but these were entirely due to the nature of the source material – I want this to be spoiler free, but there are certain Spider-man events that you know are inevitable, and they need to happen in one way or another. Given that they had to go down, they were given the most plausible interpretation possible – one which was both respectful to the source material whilst bringing it up to date with what a modern audience would expect.

Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, wearing pipecleaner glassesThe acting was flawless. Just look at the cast list and you know that there was a lot of talent. I mean, Martin Sheen, well. He was everything you’d expect. Rhys Ifans was also excellent, and touching, even though he had a somewhat less realistic story arc (again, within the confines of comic book lore, very well-handled). Sally Fields was nuanced in a way the previous Aunt May did not even approach (although, she did what she could with the lines she was handed). But the real prizes go to Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield. They both epitomise the nervousness and enthusiasm of young love without ever becoming clichéd or obvious. Their on-screen chemistry is undeniable and wonderful. Before I even saw the film I was charmed by this photo of them together at a cocktail party, captioned by Megan O’Keefe (she of My Mom Watches Game of Thrones fame): ‘I’m at the point where I honestly don’t think Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are promoting The Amazing Spiderman. They are promoting the fact that they share a perfect, flawless love that I will never understand’… And, well, that’s pretty much how it looks on-screen.

And I can’t stress enough what an excellent actor Andrew Garfield is. He not only fills out the tights (or whatever it is they make Spider-man costumes out of these days that I’m pretty sure teenagers can’t afford, but anyway), but the boy makes a believable character out of the two-dimensional shell Toby Maguire left behind. I have an affection for Toby Maguire, but Spiderman is not his best work. In illustration: Peter Parker is a character with a lot of reasons to cry. I imagine it’s hard for an actor not to turn Peter into a blubbing mess. I imagine it’s also easy for a director to say ‘don’t worry, son, we’ll just pull out the air-sprays and may your eyes water on cue’ – I’ve seen far too much of this these days and I really don’t believe in single, beautiful tears from pristine white eyes anymore. Andrew Garfield cries from the red eyes of someone who doesn’t want to cry,who isn’t weak or wet, but who nevertheless has landed in a life that is seriously fucked up even before he gets bitten by a mutant spider. He’s angry as well as conflicted and despairing, and justifiably so. But he doesn’t wallow in his pain. It’s masterful. Andrew Garfield is one to watch.

Lex Murphy from Jurassic Park and Gwen Stacy from TAS

Neither of these photos is what I was after. My Google-fu failed me. But I guess you can see what I meant by the hair style?

Frequent fliers of the Happiness Max will know that I have issues with the treatment of women in most superhero films. Not so, here. Even Aunt May gets to say ‘For goodness’ sake, I can walk 12 blocks by myself!’. And though the confines of existing story structure and comic book lore mean that there is an inevitable power imbalance between Peter and Gwen (Emma Stone), it does not really impose upon their relationship. Moreover, Gwen gets to be believably strong, saving the day in her own right in a really, really beautiful moment that makes an awesome visual reference to Jurassic Park in a way that I can’t say too much about without spoiling things, but is just thoroughly awesome – right down to her bangs*.

I suppose a nitpicker might want to complain that the science doesn’t make sense, but to them I would say ‘Really? In Spider-man? You don’t say.’ You really can’t have Spider-man where the science makes sense. He gets bitten by a spider and gets superpowers. As the whole sciency bit turns on the assumption that this makes sense, anyone who has a problem with this was never going to like a Spider-man movie anyway.

Besides that… OK, I tell a lie. Representation of people of colour was not super awesome. There was a prominent character with asian features, Dr. Rajit Ratha, but he was a baddie, so that’s not 100% win. That said, I didn’t feel he was stereotypical at all, and nothing about his evilness seemed connected to his race. Equally, there was a disabled character – awesome – but he went evil too – less awesome. But it didn’t seem like the character was really evil, rather that the serum he took made him act not much like himself. He was a really cool and well-rounded character before that. I suppose, again, there was the constraint of the format. The character’s disability and character development are a matter of comic book lore. It does at least raise interesting questions about the treatment of disability – what is ethical and what is not; how much people with disabilities should feel like they have to be like able-bodied people… He seems like a perfectly capable (and lovely) scientist before the plot-hammer hits him, and his basic desire to find a way of healing himself is not actually what is presented as questionable by the film. Rather, certain pressures are applied in a business capacity to make him do something he would have found ethically unsound otherwise. In this sense, both Dr Ratha and Dr Connors are pressured into their unethical behaviours by an unseen (hinted white) rich man. Which suggests to me that the big bad in this movie is really the big bad of our age: the 1%, the over-privileged, forever seeking to carve out an extra sliver of advantage for themselves at the expense of anyone else who might get in their way.

I don’t know. I’m not gonna press that point too hard. Perhaps I should say that it’s a film ‘with much less wrong with it than all the other superhero films’. Even Captain America and Batman Begins (which I adore) have their issues. Nonetheless, I’ve been so let down lately by films that I expected more from that I don’t feel bad about giving credit where it’s due. This is a fine, fine film. The cinematography is simply stunning, and the use of 3D is unsurpassed, creating a seamlessly enjoyable visual experience. On top of that it is witty and the fight scenes are fantastic. Spiderman is satisfyingly wise cracking whilst never being too cool for a dorky kid. The characters are well-rounded and universally well-performed. It’s also the least thematically problematic superhero film I’ve seen.

You need to see this movie. Honest to kittens, I was jiggling in my seat with joy.

Review: Prometheus

Film poster for PrometheusTitle: Prometheus
Cinematic Release: 2012
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron, and Michael Fassbender
Written by: Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof
Directed by: Sir Ridley Scott

There has been an awful lot of hype about this movie. There have been rumours both that it is an Alien prequel, and that it is not. I’ve tried to avoid all of it. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to see it after I heard Michael Fassbender was in it. This is not because of his acting ability – I thought he was excellent as Magneto – but rather because of the allegations that he broke his girlfriend’s nose and burst an ovarian cyst whilst dragging her alongside a car.

Ultimately the charges were dropped, as so often happens where a Hollywood star is involved, and I can’t find anything but rumours as to why. There are reports that she dropped the charges because she didn’t want to hurt his career (she later got back together with him), and (as far as my Google-fu can tell) unsubstantiated rumours that she was just making the accusation for the money, and that she had ‘done it before’ – i.e. accused another famous boyfriend of beating her up. I’m always curious when a woman is beaten up by two different men and it’s cast as her doing something before. Doing what, exactly? Getting beaten up? Daring to take the matter to court? If she was doing it for the money, she doesn’t seem to have got anything out of it. And while I know that women who are attracted to a certain type of man will make the mistake of following that attraction more than once, and even go back to a man who has beaten them, I can’t for the life of me see why a man would go back to a woman who had wrongfully accused him of beating her if there was no truth to the charges.

It’s a quandary. I believe in ‘innocent until proven guilty’, but I know that even proven guilty men are treated as innocent in Hollywood. Chris Brown beat Rihanna in a really quite horrific way. He turned himself in and was judged guilty of this crime. This year he was invited to present the Grammys, and the Grammys explained their decision as being that they felt they were the victims because they hadn’t been able to use him for a few years. This is a man who was convicted of an incredibly violent beating.

In most ordinary circumstances it is difficult for women to have their stories believed in cases of domestic violence; in Hollywood the industry feels victimised when confronted by the moral failings of its stars and the woman is blamed for bringing ill-repute on the man. Which is why I wouldn’t be surprised if pressure was applied to Leasi Andrews to hush up, and hence why I don’t want to support Michael Fassbender by going to see movies that he is in, and why I find it a little disturbing to see people gushing over him.

Ellen RipleySo. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see Prometheus, despite the hype. But then I saw the trailer, and I had to admit that it looked like it was going to be a significant cinematic event. And I reflected on the fact that this is a film by Ridley Scott. Ridley Scott gave me Thelma and Louise and the incandescently iconic Ripley from the original Alien films. If you haven’t read the incredibly powerful article ‘Ellen Ripley Saved My Life’, by Sady Doyle, you need to correct that. Because Ridley Scott doesn’t simply create and enable feminist icons, he makes films that have a powerful impact on real women’s lives, and if he had produced another work in the same vein as the Alien films that looked like it might be as powerful and beautiful as the trailer convinced me this film could be, I wanted to see it. Michael Fassbender is just one actor. He wasn’t convicted of anything. Did I really want to condemn the work of all the other actors, and of Ridley Scott because of what one man might have done? If Ridley was prepared to use this actor, shouldn’t I be prepared to watch this film?

I don’t know. It still feels a bit like I’m making excuses for compromising my morals. If you scroll down to the bottom of that link I gave you on the Chris Brown thing, you can see from the comments I add that I’ve struggled with this before with other actors I liked about whom nothing has been proven. I guess my compromise is to go see the film, and then review it, presenting all my qualms and leaving you to draw your own conclusions. Comments will be disabled on this post because I suspect that any debate about Mr Fassbender will be along similar lines to what I have seen repeatedly in looking into discussions of this elsewhere on the net. I just wanted to make this better known, as the net has been unusually quiet on this one.

But for now, let us set that behind us and discuss the film itself:


Two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw (Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Marshall-Green), discover ancient artifacts from disparate ancient civilisations from around the world that they believe are an invitation from aliens who created life on Earth. Their evidence is apparently compelling enough to convince a vastly wealthy company to commission a mission to go to the place indicated by the cave paintings and see what’s there. The head of the company, Peter Weyland (Pearce), is an old man, and dying, and he wants to fund a mission so that mankind can go talk to their makers.

Film still of Prometheus crew landing in front of the 'pyramid'Everyone on the mission goes into stasis for the two years it takes to get there. Except, that is, for David (Fassbender), who is a robot created by the man who heads the company. When they reach their destination he wakes everyone up and they go down to the planet to see what can be seen. What they find are the apparently deserted ruins of a ‘pyramid’. As David has been learning the languages of all the ancient civilisations that contained the markers that led them here, he can now read the language of these ancient aliens by working out what their symbols mean. Using this ability he is able to trigger a holographic projection which leads them to a dead alien body – the alien was decapitated by a closing door. Entering the room they find a massive humanoid stone head surrounded by metallic objects that are totally-not-alien-eggs.

Room with giant stone head and totally-not-alien-eggs

Yeah, there’s no way this is an Alien prequel

Everything looks pretty dead inside this tomb-like pyramid, but David notices that by opening the room they have changed the atmosphere, and the surface of the totally-not-alien-eggs starts to change in response. Before they can investigate further, a powerful storm draws the crew back to the ship… except for Milburn (Rafe Spall) and Fifield (Sean Harris), who are stranded in the pyramid, which is maybe not quite as dead as it first appeared…

How was it?

I have to admit, Prometheus impressed me. Part of it was just that I haven’t seen a proper science-fiction movie in so long. I love me some superhero films, but I miss the part of me that used to get inspired to dream about space and other worlds. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that was really trying for science-fiction in this way since Moon, and I have to say, just like Moon it was very pretty. This was grown up CGI. CGI that doesn’t even look like CGI, but is taking us to other worlds, freeing us from planet Earth. I suppose the other major contender of recent years would be Avatar, but in its constant bright, sunny colours, Avatar lacked the gritty, visual realism-combined-with-wonder of Moon and Prometheus.

That said, I’m not going to stress the realism point beyond the visuals. My geek-film-buddy, Lee Harris, was much less impressed by the film than I was, and I think I can understand why. In terms of themes and big ideas, this was science fiction, but the actual science was pretty light. The trouble with doing a prequel (or prequel-like-film) is that you are constrained by the existing set-up. There is no room for the advances we have made in computing to be reflected in the vision of AI presented to us. David is fixed in the same vogue as Bishop and Ash, and in fact condemned to being an earlier model. He therefore maintains a sort of aloofness and affected lack of emotion that no longer seems plausible.

I’m not prejudging the matter of whether robots really could feel emotion (my personal feeling is yes, but the matter is still hotly debated) but rather how well they might perform it. Anyone who has ever messed around with a chatbot will know that whilst they can still sometimes be hilarious in their mistakes, they’re also based on programs that learn from those they interact with. They therefore work on a principle that allows them to seem increasingly like us, and not therefore distanced by an artificial aloofness. The idea that a computer as advanced as David clearly is would not thus be able to perform human behaviour and emotions more seamlessly than he does is simply ludicrous in 2012 in a way that it wasn’t in the 80s. Not that there aren’t hints that David does have emotions despite what everyone says, but his performance of them is still marked by an attempt to project ‘otherness’ that I don’t find wholly convincing. This is not, incidentally, a knock at Fassbender – it’s a part of the writing, and I’m pretty much sure it was a directorial decision as well.

Which brings me to another point. The technology required to produce a being like David… maybe we’ll have it before the century is out, but the tech to get us to other worlds? No. The technology that fills this film is simply too far in advance of our own. I wish I could say I thought we’d see it in my lifetime, but in all honesty, I don’t believe it.

The other major split with realism comes towards the end of the film, so this will be slightly spoilery, but I don’t feel I can adequately review some of the most significant aspects of the film without covering it. Basically, there is an instance of alien impregnation. The protagonist is having none of that, however, and manages to haul herself into an automated surgical machine (one designed solely for use on the male body, no less) and gets it to perform an abortion on her by telling it to remove the foreign body. Nevermind that her whole womb would be a foreign body on a man – let’s assume she’s a computer wiz and knew just what to input to prevent such a mistake. Having had abdominal surgery, after which the wound is sealed by staples, she fights off the surprisingly deadly alien that had been ripped prematurely from her body, struggles out of the room, and, dosed up on painkillers, manages to run, jump, fight, abseil – basically everything that is required of an action hero, for the rest of the movie. The actor, to her credit, does a pretty ace job of acting like this really fucking hurts, but you can’t get around the fact that it seems unlikely that she would have been able to stand, let alone walk or run, so soon after such an operation.

I’m in two minds on this last point. On the one hand, it’s laughably implausible. But on the other, I wonder if it would seem so if she were a male action hero. Male action heroes routinely suffer injuries that should leave them out for the count, and yet they go on to save the day – usually with less honest expression of pain than Noomi Rapace delivers. There’s a part of me that’s kind of cheering to see such a bold statement that simple possession of a womb and the ability to get pregnant does not render a person weak and helpless. Of course, Ripley was a more believable illustration of this, but I also appreciate the counterpoint to the backtracking that seemed to place all Ripley’s strength in a mothering instinct in Aliens. Elizabeth Shaw is a character who does want children, but she acts quickly to get the abortion she needs to survive. With the sort of draconian legislation that has been proposed in the US recently to further remove the power women have over their own bodies, such a bold pro-choice statement is actually pretty welcome. A few years ago I might have wondered if something that drastic was really necessary, but given the breathtaking attitudes expressed in the link above I kind of feel like the symbolic sledgehammer might have a role at this place and time on this issue.

Props should also be given (and with fewer qualms) to Charlize Theron and her portrayal of Meredith Vickers. Vickers is tough, commanding, and capable of burning a man alive if that is what’s necessary to save her team. Yet she is not frigid or unattractive as such female characters are so often portrayed. She is allowed to have a sexuality, but she does not need to use her sexuality to control her male subordinates. It slightly grated that Janek had to ‘educate’ her in asking for sex if that’s what she wanted, but this was slightly alleviated when her decision to follow his suggestion is given as a command for him to come to her quarters at a place and time of her choosing.

I also appreciated the racial diversity in this film. It’s a rare thing to have a female action hero who is not sexualised up the wazoo, it’s rarer still to have a female, mixed-race protagonist. Although the cast is still predominantly white, the inclusion of Idris Elba as another prominent character and Benedict Wong in a supporting role still help to make this a more racially mixed movie than your average Hollywood blockbuster.

The other major facet of this film was an exploration of religious belief. Unfortunately, this was not as well-developed as I would have liked. Although other belief-systems are mentioned in passing, the only religion any of the characters express any devotion to is Christianity. The over-arching message seemed to slightly awkwardly equate hope and religious belief (especially Christianity). Whilst I wouldn’t put Prometheus on a par with Signs for heavy-handed religious symbolism, the film was clearly attempting to evoke deep questioning here, and, for me anyway, only achieved something fairly shallow. There was a gesture towards a discussion about the relationship between religious belief and the human drive to seek answers in a universe that rarely gives them, but the narrow focus on Christianity artificially limited the bounds of that discussion. Equally, although a few characters in the film professed atheism, this was too often equated with not wanting answers, or with giving up, which, as an atheist philosopher, I find bizarre and a little offensive. Religion is not the only place human beings have turned to in search of answers for the ‘big’ questions about where we have come from, what life means, and how we should live. In a film called ‘Prometheus‘, which frequently underscores the fact that the fact that aliens might have created human beings, there is surprisingly little substance to its discussion of what this might mean for human belief systems, and the focus on Christianity, to the extent of making it happen at Christmas oddly polarised the debate, as though Christianity and a cold, empty atheism were the only options.

That said, I still give it props for trying. My hope is that this film will give other film makers the jolt they need to start thinking about what we can do with science fiction again. We have the technology to make it look pretty, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to just keep giving bigger and bigger budgets to films that just roll out the familiar tropes against a backdrop of very pretty scenery. Take us to other worlds and use that to make us consider other ways of viewing our world. That’s what I love science fiction for, and I have to give Prometheus some respect for bringing that to our screens again.

Prometheus: it’s worth your time. At the very least, it’s extremely pretty.

Review: Rome Burning, by Sophia McDougall

Title: Rome Burning
Author: Sophia McDougall
Series/Stand alone: Volume Two of the Romanitas Trilogy
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Published: 2007
Edition Reviewed: Orion Books/Gollancz (2008)
Hb/Pb/ebook: Paperback
Price: Available from Amazon Market Place from £0.01 (+P&P) at time of posting.

Sophia McDougall is my find of the year. I can’t say that I have gotten as much out of any other books, with the possible exception of China Miéville’s Kraken, which is but one book, whilst Romanitas is a trilogy. After finishing the first I could barely wait the length of time it took to order the second. It was only by strength of will that I forced myself to hold out for the paperback, which I dearly desired for both ergonomic and practical reasons – these are fantasy books where there is real value in having a map you can actually read, and the Kindle version was sadly lacking on this front.

I’m glad I held out. This is a rich and complex book that spans the politics of a world both like and unlike our own. Being able to flip to the front to check the place names and countries in this alternate history was a real advantage. Which is not to say that the book could not be read and enjoyed without reference to the map – to say otherwise would be a disservice, and I certainly enjoyed the first book in electronic format despite this minor issue – it’s more that I feel it speaks interestingly to the role that the map-at-the-front plays in fantasy books. I have friends who love them and friends who rarely look at them. I sit somewhere in between. I don’t think all fantasy books need one. I shouldn’t be surprised if there is an occasional truth to the thought that fantasy authors and publishers tend to include them more because Tolkein ‘started with a map’ than anything else. Certainly, one of my very favourite fantasy (and other genres) serieses, The Dark Tower, positively benefits from the lack of one. Mid World is a place that has grown with the telling of its story – both within the text and without. In the very first volume Roland notes that the distances on maps are no longer accurate – the world has moved on. By contrast, my other favourite fantasy series, Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy (and related novels) is seated in a political world where geographical location matters, grounding alliances and peoples – my understanding of the Six Dutchies and its neighbours would have been poorer without the map.

Books are interesting and complex physical objects. We live in a time of evolution for story-telling. If we think of ebooks as freeing the pure story from it’s awkward, limited, physical trapping, we are missing part of both what people value in books and the opportunity for creativity and development. Publishers who think of the shift to ebooks as a simple transcribing of text from one medium to another have missed that wonderous variety that technological evolution has introduced to our lives. There are opportunities, here, and the best creativity has often drawn on the past for inspiration. I’m not saying that the ebook should try to ape its physical cousin, but it is a mistake to miss what people have loved about that medium for centuries and not take this moment to pause on the threshold and ask what multiplicities of function and art the ebook can offer.

My books are art objects. The best of them have drawn me in by their covers. I have bought multiple editions of the same book because of the cover art. It decorates my rooms – says something about me, as well as the book. I know some people who have rebought a book so that they can have a matching collection. I have not done this, but I have bought ‘lending out’ copies of the same edition when the original, cherished object became to fragile, and I felt that a friend would miss out on some of the full experience I had enjoyed if they read a different edition. I haven’t done this very often, but I have done it, and I’ve talked to many people who have done the same, or similar. I have yet to see an ebook cover that wasn’t actively ugly, usually because the image, if the publisher bothered to include it, is a low resolution black and white copy of artwork intended for a different, coloured medium. The same attitude has been given to the map-at-the-front, and it suffers similarly. The text is a part of the image, and thus unscalable and mostly illegible.

I envisage that ebooks will adapt and change in part with the technology. E-ink will become more widely available in colour, combinable with touch-screens and generally more flexibility. But I also note that cost doesn’t seem to be coming down much for these items. People who see libraries going digital are forgetting about those that cannot afford ereaders, or even computers. There is scope for more creativity at the limited end of the spectrum, as well – those who wait for IT creatives to tell them what they can now do with ebooks will soon find that their more imaginative competitors have left them behind.

But I digress. On to the review!


Rome Burning picks up a few years down the line from the events of Romanitas. Marcus is heir to Rome, he and Una are still together, although worried about how his relations regard their relationship, and whether they will ever be allowed to marry. It’s summer and swelteringly hot. In the baking heat fires are common – worryingly so, perhaps even more so than the heat justifies.

Drusus, Marcus’s cousin and rival for the throne, has been avoiding Rome since the events of the previous book. Unknown to everyone but us [Spoilers for book one ahoy! Although if you haven’t read that one yet, what are you doing reading this review? Get started on Romanitas, STAT!] Drusus is the real mastermind behind the deaths of Marcus’s parents, Varius’s wife, Gamella, the attempt on Marcus’s own life, and the attempted cover-up. Una discovered the guilt of the emperor’s mistress, Tulliola, via telepathy, but although she poisoned the sweets that were meant for Marcus and killed Gamella, the plan was Drusus’s. To prevent her revealing this secret, Drusus kills her, and portrays it as suicide.

Relations between Nionia (aka Japan) and Rome are tense. A conflict breaks out on the Terra Novan border and it is unclear who started it. During attempts to resolve the dispute, the emperor suffers a stroke. Marcus is sworn in as regent, and his and Una’s lives change. As regent, he cannot fulfill his promise to free all slaves, but he does free all the palace slaves, offering them positions as servants. Convinced that peace with Nionia can be achieved, he arranges talks with the Nionians on the neutral ground of Sina (China). Una, who has never trusted Drusus, uses her telepathy to discover his guilt. He tries to kill her to prevent the truth coming out, but she escapes and he is thrown in jail.

But all is not well. General Salvius, who commands Rome’s forces, mistrusts Marcus and Una. He does not believe peace with Nionia can be achieved and he loses respect for Marcus in his failure to respond with force. Drusus convinces Salvius that Una and her brother Sulien are part of a Nionian plot to mislead Marcus, and Salvius frees Drusus from jail, persuading Emperor Faustus, who is still weak and confused from his stroke, that Una and her brother are traitors, along with Varius, whom Marcus has persuaded to act as his advisor.

Meanwhile, some other faction has been acting covertly from within Rome itself. Tensions with Nionia increased after the events in Terra Nova, and worsen when a weapons factory explodes near Rome. Varius and Sulien had been visiting it at the time. Sulien has been working with Varius in a clinic set up to help sick and injured slaves, using his healing skill. The factory had had a very poor safety record, and Varius had been trying to persuade the manager that it was in his own interest to treat his slaves better. Varius and Sulien had been caught in the explosion and barely survive with their lives. Everyone suspects Nionia, but something doesn’t add up. Then again, if Nionia isn’t to blame, who else could it be? Drusus? If so, why? Was he trying to kill Sulien? If so, who was it who tried to kidnap Sulien shortly before the explosion?

Was it awesome?

Very much so. The plots and twists are intricate and gripping, and the characters build on what was established in the first volume to develop real depth. Sulien forms a particularly interesting case. His character in Romanitas was less fully developed than Una’s. He seemed oddly resilient to the events that surround him. He is described as having a conveniently malleable memory. When bad things happen to him, he just forgets them – he moves on, he lives in the present. I wouldn’t say it was precisely implausible, but it was at least peculiar. I sometimes wondered if his unusual character might be linked to his healing ability – his mind subconsciously healing itself by removing the troubling elements.

In Rome Burning, Sulien’s world view is repeatedly challenged. Even his even-tempered nature cannot withstand witnessing the murder of thousands of slaves at the factory. One senses that something has shifted in him forever – he is no longer sure that he wants to take everything in good grace. It is a peculiar and interesting character study in loss of innocence. Sulien had endured being wrongly accused of rape, sentencing to crucifixion, being on the run with Una and Marcus – all the events of the previous book – with barely a chink in his good humour. The only exception was his realisation that he himself would be prepared to kill to save his sister; a realisation that he has tried not to think about since. Sulien is not entirely broken by his experiences in Rome Burning, but something has changed.

He makes for an interesting comparison to Varius, who was broken by his experiences in the first book. He was tortured and changed by having given in to torture – he has betrayed Marcus, and although Marcus has forgiven him, he cannot forgive himself, and he has not stopped grieving for his wife. I was particularly moved by the description of his failed attempt at a new romance. He develops a relationship with a neighbour, but cannot understand what she sees in him. His self-respect is so low that he concludes she can only be interested in some romantic idea of him as a broken man. It’s a nice episode of knowing reflection. I had already begun to work on my Varius-crush, and there is something uncomfortable in being confronted with the reality of a romantic ideal. I love a tortured hero, but I must confess that I’m attracted to more stable men in real life. No one wants to be loved for the sake of an idealised version of themselves. That’s not love, and it’s only ‘romantic’ in its crudest sense. We often see women idealised out of true character-hood in books and films. It’s something I’ve found frustrating in my own life. I cannot stand to be pedestalised for the sake of romance, but there is an entrenched cultural ideal that this is how love should work. It’s good both to see the tables turned on a male character in this way, and also to have one’s own habits challenged. Women can objectify men just as men objectify women; women should recognise this. Equally, it’s good to have a character men can identify with, and thus experience frustration on beahlf of, in the face of such treatment (even if it remains unknown whether his perception of the relationship is a fair assessment).

Una and Marcus also grow as characters, confronted with the realities of a world where Marcus is expected to assume the responsibilities of power and restrictions that go with it. Una, the forceful character from the previous novel, finds herself oddly displaced in the world of power, to which she is only permitted as Marcus’s mistress. She has talents that are applicable in the political world – as she demonstrates when she accompanies him to Sina – but she is only there because of her relationship to a man. This limits her and makes her uncomfortable. Marcus, on the other hand, is growing into his power. He looks like he just might make a good ruler. He is wise and sensitive, and still just idealistic enough… yet he is also confronted by a ruthlessness within himself that, although it is necessary – good even – in a ruler, changes him in ways that he himself does not entirely like. Another kind of loss of innocence. Another example of someone learning something about themselves by being confronted by what they will do.

There is a question here about the nature of personal identity and self-knowledge – about how we know about ourselves, and what we can know. I don’t think it is as simple as saying that we only really know ourselves by witnessing what we do, however. Rather, we are both formed by our experiences and by what we decide to do. Or perhaps I am projecting my own philosophy onto these characters. The book doesn’t really offer any answers, on this front, but it prompts interesting questions.

I cannot complete a review of this book without touching the interesting examples of women in power it explores. Three of the most powerful and important movers in this political drama are women, and only one of them is in a position of power herself. Enigmatic and captivating, the Empress of Sina is heard of before she is seen, as Una wonders to herself how she did it – how this woman took such power to herself having been merely the emperor’s mistress. It’s an interesting mirror on Una herself. The cultural values are different, but the similarities striking. Una is what we would call Marcus’s girlfriend, but because he is in a position of power, and she had previously been a slave, Roman law says she can never be his wife. Of course, Marcus wants to change that law, when he is emperor, but it isn’t clear that his dreams will truly be within his power to realise. Moreover, it is heavily implied that Una was once a prostitute, and there is a theme of the connection between women and sex and power that hangs tantalisingly in the air. McDougall wisely does not draw any straight lines. Both the Empress and Una are in positions of power because of their relations to powerful men, but Una’s past experience of prostitution represents an underminding of her power and strength. It is an element of her past she cannot even think about, although, unlike Sulien, she does not seem to have been successful in simply wiping the events from her memory. They linger on. If sex is an avenue to power, it is a fragile one, as it is clearly also an avenue to violation and destruction.

To me, what this implies, is more a challenge to the commonly drawn line between women and sex and power. Neither Una nor the Empress are ever really seen to use sexuality to get what they want. Una’s flowering as a political entity in Sina is utterly independent of Marcus. In fact, she could not be more forcefully separate from him when she takes control of events and forges a sort of women’s alliance with Noriko, the Nionian princess, and the Empress Jun Shen. She is held by the Nionians as a hostage, and he is trapped on a train in the middle of nowhere. Similarly, however she originally came to the emperor’s attention, Jun Shen is unquestionably the power in Sina in her own right. We never even see the emporer.

Noriko stands as an interesting counterpoint, both similar and different to the other two women. Unlike them, she was born into her position, and yet she seems to have taken very little power to herself before this point. Her presence in Sina is as a mere playing piece – the Nionians hope they can cement peace with a marriage. Noriko is initially shocked when she realises Una’s history, and that she is not noble born at all, and had once been a slave… until she recollects that Jun Shen was not nobley born either, and, in fact, the Empress and the ex-slave have more in common with each other than they do with the princess. Yet, Noriko is not entirely inert before being exposed to these other strong ladies. Her first meeting with the empress is when she is caught spying on Marcus, trying to find out who this man is that she may be asked to marry. Even as the empress chastises her, there is a moment of identification when she offers backhanded advice to Noriko: “‘Your disguise is pitiful, it does nothing but tell the world you have something to hide… Better to find a way of doing your work in your own person. That… is what I would have done.'” Even though the empress is contemptuous of the manner in which Noriko acts, she confesses that she would have acted similarly to obtain more information were she in Noriko’s position, and there is a sort of friendliness in her correction – it indicates that she wants Noriko to take charge of her own life, to use her position as an asset, rather than a constraint.

Again we see a familiar trope of the relationship between women and power: that power is something that never truly belongs to women, that it merely passes transitively through us as conduits for males who wish to cement relations. There is a large and fascinating literature on ‘The Traffic in Women’ – the value of marriage in gift-culture, and the wide-ranging consequences of such actions and attitudes. Noriko is partaking in the traditional exchange in a way that Jun Shen and Una have not. Jun Shen is a successful transgressor of that boundary – she has taken power out of the system of male exchange. Rather than one man confirming an alliance with another by offering him one of his women, Jun Shen assumed all of the most powerful man in Sina’s power for herself. An incredible feat. Una started from a position of no power at all – literally the property of men, as well as figuratively. It was her forceful personality in seizing control of Marcus’s life in order to protect him that won her his heart. She transitioned from one man’s possession to take from others first one man (her brother) and then another, who happened to not only be a free man himself, but heir to the throne. But she did so by running away from the world of rules. Marcus took power back for himself in returning to Rome, and in this novel they are learning that power is a network of agreements between people, and the established rules are the main way that you access that power. Until Una forms a tentative network of her own with Noriko and Jun Shen she has no access to the power that Marcus has. She is left adrift in a world where the cables of power only allow female connections as a way of joining men to each other.

You only break into such a system by breaking the system apart and putting it back together in a new form. Which, of course, is exactly what Marcus wants to do, but hanging over this novel is the question of what Una, Sulien, Varius – any of them – can do if anything happens to Marcus. In a sense, he has to become entirely isolated in order for others to start taking power on their own. And that’s exactly what happens.

In this sense, the removal from Rome to Sina is interesting in another way. There is no single network of power, here. There are three large, powerful, ancient, entrenched cultural nexuses coming together. Everything that happens in Sina must be performed by careful, even tortured, forging of new behaviours, rituals, alliances. This is particularly obvious in the ceremonial ritual Varius is forced to devise to allow all three monarchs (or their representatives) to meet with no party placed above any other. A difficult task where each monarchy claims to be descended from a god. The result is painfully awkward for all involved, but it is achieved. The old traditions are bent to new ends, and this is symbolic of the incredible possibilities that open up when cultures meet and engage in exchange. It is in part being away from the strictures of court life that allows Noriko to take a more active part than she ever has before. But this simply highlights that the mechanics of power are not simply about gender – they are about race and culture and religion, and a multiplicity of other things. It is difficult to adapt to other ways of thinking and behaving, but the more we are open to other people and cultures, the more possibilities open up before us.

This is a rich and complex book with a relentless pace that manages not to sacrifice character for tension. It’s a book to eat up your life and make you neglect more important things. The only note that struck a little false, for me, was the ending. Without wanting to give away the details, I can’t comment on this without noting that it is a cliffhanger, and one that felt slightly forced, to me. I appreciate the temptation, in trilogies, to use the second book to do something daring and leave the reader wanting more. The Empire Strikes Back is a famous example from film, and famously popular. But even though Han Solo is trapped in carbonite and many questions remain unanswered, there is still a kind of resolution, and I think you need that, unless you’re saying something beyond ‘buy the next book, now’. Thinking of cliffhangers in books, I’m actually coming up with nothing, so take another example from film: The Italian Job – this works because even though it’s frustrating, the anti-narrative ending fits with the quirky, anti-establishment tone of the movie. The film is giving us a slip in the same way that the characters have led the police a merry chase. I don’t really find anything in Rome Burning that justifies the cliffhanger. The book could have ended comfortably just short of this moment with plenty of questions left to want you to get to the next book, but without the slightly ragged feeling of just having… stopped.

Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but it simply didn’t work, for me. As complaints go, this should not be considered as too significant, however. I was going to buy the next book anyway – I hadn’t wanted the story to stop – and I would still recommend it to others. You can tell I found a lot to sink my teeth into just from the length of this review, and I haven’t even touched on some of the major plot points, in an effort to avoid spoilers.

Go, read it. It is worth your time.

Reviewing Through the Time Machine: The Glass Slipper

Reviewing through the Time Machine Title: The Glass Slipper
Cinematic release: 1955
Starring: Leslie Caron and Michael Wilding
Written by: Helen Deutsch
Directed by: Charles Walters
Genre: Fairytale/Fantasy/Romance
Price: Only available on VHS. Available on eBay at time of posting at £15.75 + £11.49 P&P

It may seem a bit ludicrous to review a film you can’t even buy on a format most people would watch, these days, but that’s kind of why I feel it’s important to include these glimpses into the past, reminding us of treasures that ought to be a part of our heritage, whether the big distributors think they should be or not. And anyway, how does one create a demand for the production of great old films in DVD format if nobody talks about them? I’m glad I have my old VHS tape, but I would buy this on DVD, and I’d exhort others to do so, too.

Poster: The Glass SlipperThe Glass Slipper is an absolute classic. It is still my favourite Cinderella story film – over Ever After; over Pretty Woman; and certainly over Disney’s Cinderella, released just five years earlier than The Glass Slipper itself. It melds qualities dreamlike and suitably fairytale with a tone of wry subversion that respects and updates the source material in equal measure.

The plot does not deviate greatly from the traditional tale, but its exploration is more subtle, with more of a care for psychological realism than most. Ella is the daughter of a rich man who remarried after her mother died, before passing on himself. Her stepmother and step-sisters use her as a servant, refusing her equal standing and treatment on the premise that she is bad-tempered and dirty, even though she is only bad-tempered and dirty because they use her so ill. The narrator explains. ‘She was not precisely an amiable child… It was the old story of the rejected becoming all the more rejected because they had behaved badly because they had been rejected – one of those, err, circles… And there it was again. The heat of tears burning behind the eyes… a few more years and she will stop fighting back’.

Oh, does that ever ring true. Not that I was neglected by my parents, but I was bullied because I didn’t behave in the ways considered ‘normal’, and so I became bad-tempered, and was bullied all the more for being bad-tempered and ‘anti-social’. After a while it does kick the fight out of you. It becomes clear that shouting and fighting and speaking up for yourself does no good, and so you become quiet and ‘docile’. It’s a theme any child could identify with – everything that doesn’t go your way seems unfair as a child, but I identify with it all the more in retrospect. Somethings are genuinely unfair, but one’s complaints are taken for childish peevishness, and ignored. So it starts to seem hopeless. Why continue to cry out if your voice is never heard?

Ella, looking soot-stained and grumpyThat’s when depression hits. Whether the initial fire is extinguished or directed inwards, all external action comes to feel fruitless. If the world is deaf enough, unresponsive enough, eventually even the strongest spirits collapse, stop trying to change it. In a sense, it’s almost worse to be strong-willed in such a case, for if you stick stubbornly to your principles and what you believe is fair you can’t bring yourself to adapt to the world and enjoy it for what it is. You perceive only the bleakness of what is wrong, and the impossibility of setting it right.

It’s a complex motif, simply expressed, which a person of any race, gender, background, sexuality etc. etc. can identify with, but I do feel it would be wrong to neglect the implicit feminist critique in this archetypal tale of female aspiration in the face of limitations placed on women both by society as a whole, and by other women who have internalised society’s rules and oppressive habits. I cannot help but be reminded of this theme, following my reading, today, of this interesting reflection on the way boisterousness and ‘bad behaviour’ is treated when exhibited by men as opposed to women, as exemplified in the recent kerfuffle prompted by Christopher Priest’s comments on the Clarke Award. I wasn’t convinced by yuki_onna’s argument at first. I’ve seen men shout offensive remarks at one another on the Internet, after all, they hardly go uncriticised. And it’s not as though no woman’s critical comments are considered by some to be of worth even if they also receive harsh objections… but as she went on, I realised she’s right. If I have seen men threatened with rape for daring to voice their opinion it has happened so rarely that it left no impression. And I can’t help but recognise in myself the caveat after caveat I attach to even the most mildly worded critique on the net if I think it is likely to be at all controversial. This is not because I’m naturally timid – my parents took me to a child psychologist because of fighting at school (incidentally, the psychologist judged me completely healthy, at that stage of my life – I fought because I was provoked). In the past I have been described as ‘scary’, because of my forthrightness of opinion and boisterous attitude. I don’t think anyone would say that now, and there’s a very good reason for that: I’ve been worn down. I am tired. I don’t want to be called scary for voicing my opinion without lowering my eyes and apologising first. Behaviour that is normal and accepted in boys and men is pathologised and ostracised in girls and women (even if medical professionals can tell the difference, nowadays, the rest of the world has some catching up to do).

Mrs Tuquet defuses Ella's angst. She has put weeds in her hair as decoration.Incidentally, I’m not just going off on one, honest. Although the film treats the subject gently and with unintrusive grace, the feminist critique is undoubtedly intended. One of the most wonderful aspects of the film is the ‘fairy godmother’, Mrs Tuquet. She is a woman who has been ostracised by society herself for reading books, which Ella’s stepmother says led her to go from ‘bad to worse’. Although her behaviour is a bit strange, she seems nonetheless intelligent and kind. For example, when they first meet, she comforts Ella by gently defusing her anger at the way she has been treated, reducing the insulting corruption of her name to a mere word – showing Ella how to hear it only as sounds, sounds which can be musical or funny independently of their intended meaning: ‘”Cinderella”,’ she says, ‘I like it very much. There are other words I like very much, like “windowsill” and “elbow”… el-bow… and I like “apple-dumpling”, too – it’s a comical word’. My early attempts at self-preservation followed very much this path: if society won’t accept you, accept that you are strange and take pleasure in the freedom that can be found in being defined as different. Once you’re labelled as different it is hard to impose upon you the rules that apply to those who are still within reach of the cherished title of ‘normal’.

Ella in her servant girl clothes, with her tiny, tiny waist.

I think that's her real waist, guys - she actually does ballet in that corset!

Mrs Tuquet seems content in her ways, and yet though she has been content to adopt the reclusive, excentric lifestyle for herself she wants both happiness and acceptance for Ella. Her interventions in Ella’s life are not simply the traditional ‘makeover’ role of the fairy-godmother, revealing the beautiful, normal-looking girl under the ashes. When she asks Ella why she goes about as she does, and Ella petulantly declares that she doesn’t care what people think of her, Mrs Tuquet responds ‘Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s no excuse for scaring people’. Of course, Ella is beautiful (one could hardly disguise Leslie Caron’s dancer’s physique), and she will receive a beautiful gown and a brush up and she will be acclaimed as a great beauty at the ball – this is a Cinderella story, after all – but the film makes a valiant effort to draw the fine line between beauty in confidence and conformity in beauty. Again, I identify strongly with both Ella and Mrs Tuquet, here. My mother and sister never understood my insistence in wearing baggy T-shirts, shunning make-up, refusing to brush my hair, and so forth; and the more they tried to force me to conform, the wilder I became. Of course, I was completely right to wear only what made me feel comfortable, but not brushing my hair and failing to use deodorant were not, upon reflection, all that valuable a form of protest.

Another fun aspect of Mrs Tuquet is that it’s never quite clear just how much of a fairy-godmother she is. She appears to be an ordinary woman, and she’s certainly never referred to as a fairy. She is known about the village as a sort of harmless thief. She steals things, but she always gives them back. The shenanigans she construes to enable Ella’s attendance of the ball appear to be a combination of theivery (stealing the dress) and calling in of favours (persuading the coachmen to do an extra run for Ella)… and yet, at the end, as she walks off, Mrs Tuquet simply fades away. I’m usually somewhat bored by the ‘is it or isn’t it’ style plot, but in this case, I approve. The suggestion is pretty strong that Mrs Tuquet is in some sense magical, yet nothing she does to help Ella amounts to something impossible for a real woman to do. In this way, Ella is not robbed by her achievement. The prince falls in love with the dirty, spirited, rude girl, and Mrs Tuquet merely facilitates their coming together, providing the opportunity for their love to flourish, and prompting Ella towards a more mature outlook that will enable her to forge her own place in the world, rather than simply handing her illusory baubles with which to attract a man.

I also like that the film openly explores the emptiness of Cinderella’s ambitions and dreams as expressed in the traditional tale. Ella has been told a prophecy, that one day she will live in the palace, but when Mrs Tuquet asks her what she will do in the palace she hasn’t a clue. And later, when she fantasises about it, even her daydream descends into a sort of boredom. I remember being puzzled by this scene as a child. The vision of the palace seemed artificially stale and empty I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to get from it. I now realise, of course, that that was the point: a nebulous dream of having wealth bestowed abruptly upon one is artificial and empty, baring no concept of what in such a life would bring happiness. And once Mrs Tuquet’s questions have gently nudged her towards such a realisation, Ella’s mischievous curiosity causes her own day-dream to come tumbling down:

This is one of three dream-ballet sequences, all bar the last of which somewhat puzzled me as a child. I understood that they were dreams or fantasies (I think), but the sudden interjection of ballet into a live-action piece was striking, despite my ready acceptance of random singing and dancing in musicals and the odder flights of fancy one met with in the average Disney film of the period (pink elephants on parade, anyone?). I’m not sure this was to the film’s detriment. I found such sequences fascinating fodder for the imagination, although I don’t think I ever really understood the middle sequence as a child.

In this dream Ella believes the man she met in the woods is the son of the cook in the palace of the duke (he is, of course, the prince himself!), and her fantasy is easily converted and happily filled with thoughts of being not only a cook’s wife, but a valuable part of the kitchen staff. Far from disappointed that the prophecy might mean that she would merely work at the palace, Ella’s dream is enlivened now that she can see a role for herself within that world.

But the real prize is the final sequence, where Ella has finally discovered the truth of the prince’s identity and believes that he is promised to marry a foreign princess (a rumour started by her own enigmatic presence at the ball). The passion expressed by the lead performers elevates this ballet sequence from mere dance to true art:

I was swept up by the romance of this film as a child. For me, it was the correct Cinderella. I am ever so glad to see that it has stood the test of time. If only it were available on DVD.

Review: Romanitas, by Sophia McDougall

Covert Art: RomanitasTitle: Romanitas
Author: Sophia McDougall
Series/Stand alone: Volume One of the Romanitas Trilogy
Genre: Alternate History/Fantasy
First Published: 2005
Edition Reviewed: Gollancz (2011)
Hb/Pb/ebook: ebook – Kindle
Price: £4.99 on Amazon at time of posting.


Rome never died. The Empire is as strong as ever and ruled by the Novious family. Marcus is the son of Leo Novious, brother to the emperor and heir to the throne. But as the book opens tragedy has struck. Leo and his wife Clodia have died in a car crash. Although succession is not guaranteed, Marcus is the tacit favourite for heir in Leo’s place. But Marcus is only 16. He has never liked the grandeur of Rome, he feels intimidated by his more confident cousin, Drusus, and he hates being weighted on by slaves, which his own father had refused to own.

It is with relief, then, that Marcus is called back to his parents’ estate by Leo’s friend and the executor of his will, Varius. But the relief is short lived. Varius and his wife, Gemella, reveal to him that they suspect Leo and Clodia were murdered because of their plans to overthrow slavery once Leo became emperor. As they are speaking, however, Gemella eats a sweet that had been in a parcel given to Marcus by his aunt, Makaria, before he left Rome. Gemella collapses and dies – poisoned by sweets intended for Marcus. Varius helps Marcus to flee, giving him a map to a secret refuge for runaway slaves.

Meanwhile, Una, a slave in Britannia, frees her brother, Sulien, from a prison ship that had been taking him to be crucified for rape. Sulien is not a rapist, but he made the mistake of sleeping with the daughter of his owner, and it is forbidden for a slave to sleep with a free woman. Una and Sulien have unusual abilities: Una can read minds, and to some extent direct people’s thoughts; Sulien can see how the body works, and heal it. Una cannot put a thought into someone’s mind, but she can distract them by bringing some thoughts to prominence over others. This is very useful when you’re an escaped slave trying to keep your fugitive brother safe.

Una and Sulien flee to the continent and encounter Marcus. Their first instinct is to turn him in. A large sum of money has been offered for his safe return, and it is rumoured that the family curse has come upon him, and he has gone mad – a danger to himself. Sulien suggests that they could trade Marcus for their freedom, and a pardon, but Marcus persuades them that he is fleeing for his life, and Una can tell that he isn’t mad. He promises them the money, the pardon, and their freedom if they let him go, and offers to take them to the slave refuge he is going to himself. The slaves and the heir to the empire flee together, heading for a sanctuary they barely know the location of, whilst in Rome Varius strives to protect Marcus by concealing his escape.

How was it?

Bloody awesome, that’s how it was. Stay-up-until-2am-to-finish awesome. Waste-hours-in-the-bath-topping-up-the-hot-water-because-you-don’t-want-to-stop-reading-to-get-out awesome.

Romanitas marked a new experience for me. I follow a lot of authors on Twitter, but I haven’t actually read an author solely based on my social media interactions with them, before. I followed Sophia after I was linked to her Capes, Wedding Dresses, and Steven Moffat blog post. The article included both the full quotation from SM himself and an extensive, accurate, entertaining, and fair take-down of what the Moff had said. It chimed very strongly with my own views about sex and gender, which is something that happens all too infrequently. The more I followed her and the more I read from her, the more she talked very well-articulated sense. Blog writing and fiction writing are not the same thing, and I was by no means sure from this that she would have a fiction writing style that I got on with, but I thought: what the hey? I’m bored of reading books that trip me up on gender issues when I’d much rather get caught up in the action – at the very least I think I can depend on her not to do that.

And oh my, but I’m glad I did. Looking at the reviews on Amazon, there was a surprising split. Lots of people had given it five stars, and lots of people have given it only one star. You don’t see that often, so I was curious. The most common complaints seemed to be either that a) the reader had been expecting an alternate history, and what were these psychic abilities they had found in their porridge?; or b) the reader had found the prose impossibly dense. The first I dismiss – it’s a matter of taste. I love crossing genres and see no reason to be bound by what are, in any case, loose groopings of linguistic convenience and bookshop shelving. If you don’t like fantasy in your alternate history, don’t read a book where the main character can read people’s minds. It’s not the book’s fault.

The second criticism, though, just puzzles me. This is not a dense book. I’ve seen it likened to China Miéville as a compliment, too, but I don’t see that, either. From the reviews I was expecting something either Miéville lush and maybe a bit purple, Stephen King rich and detailed, or Mervyn Peake impenetrable. I suspected not the last, as the positive reviews rebuked this, and I’m a King fan and occasional Miéville reader, so I don’t mind a wordy book if the words are well-used, but I wouldn’t really equate Sophia’s writing to any of the above. The style was clear and it set the scenes well, but at no point did I feel that the description got in the way of the story – quite the reverse. In fact, one of the few criticisms I might make is that first chapter is noticeably weaker than the rest, as it was a bit difficult to visualise the scene. I know very little about the architecture of Rome and was still settling into the new world Sophia was creating, so I had a little trouble placing people within the scene and imagining where they were. The problem did not recur in the rest of the book, however. The only reason I note it is to say that if you’re not immediately captured by the first chapter, keep reading – it pretty much instantly finds its groove and starts moving.

This is a fast-paced novel of disperate threads coming together in culminating tension. The characters are rich and well-rounded. There are plentiful characters of both genders, all of whom have their strengths and their flaws. Una is simply fabulous. Her angry-at-the-world spiky strength, determination, and defensiveness remind me oh-so-strongly of the girl I was at that age. I could have taken on anything, and yet I was crushed by the oppressive reality of how cruel the world could be. It made me closed off and determined, and it didn’t make me a lot of friends, but it helped me to survive. I was stronger then than I ever shall be again. Una is like that, and with greater reason. I can’t describe how wonderful it is to have a female protagonist like this, especially as it is recognised that her strength is also a flaw. To be tough like that is also to shut down on the world, to not make room for others. Moreover, Una and Marcus are given opportunities to save each other. The plotline of the slave girl and the emperor’s nephew could so easily go over into a painful Cinderella story where the tough girl is rescued from her squalid life by the handsome prince, but Romanitas skillfully avoids this without turning Una into an implausible superwoman, leaving a swathe of foolish menfolk in her wake.

The other characters are also rich and diverse. I’ll confess I enjoyed the galdiatrix, Ziye, more than I would have expected. It would be easy to insert a gladiatrix and make her some implausible, cartoon Amazon, but Ziye’s past as a fighter is used lightly. It is something she escaped from, something she doesn’t talk about, but a fact of power and skill for killing that exists in her background and colours the few nice moment where it becomes relevant. Equally, I found the escaped slave, Pyrrha, and her daughter Iris, just as compelling. Pyrrha escaped slavery and took Iris with her, crossing hundreds of miles to find safety, after which she retreated into a shell of despair, convinced that they would never be safe, with patient Iris looking after her. Women in all their weaknesses and their strengths, and men, too. Marcus is intelligent and possessed of that germ of leadership that could make him something one day, but still every inch the sixteen year old boy. Dama, the fiery revolutionary, crippled physically by what happened to him as a slave, but also mentally driven by it into a single-mindedness that is its own prejudice. Delir, the ordinary man who became a leader when he simply decided one day that enough was enough, pulled a slave down from a cross, and went on the run with his daughter in tow.

The exploration of privilege is deftly handled. A story about slavery set in the modern day is crying out for some discussion of privilege, and it could very easily be overdone and heavy-handed. Romanitas does not have this problem. The striking contrast between Marcus’s and Una’s positions produces a thorn in their relationship at several points, but although the narrative never denies Marcus’s privileged upbringing, it does not blame him for it, either. It acknowledges, rather, the difficulty one who has privilege can find in trying to understand the difficulties faced by those who don’t, whilst elsewhere other characters take up the burden of exemplifying casual and unexamined privilege. No one is painted entirely flat, though. Even Gabinius, the business tycoon whose life is founded on the work of slaves, is not a character without humanity. This is the lesson so often missed: the privilege discussion is not concerned with dividing the world into the privileged and the underprivileged. Rather, it calls on all of us to recognise privilege both in others and in ourselves, and to see that each of us is privileged in some ways and not in others. Painting those who, without thought, benefit from the oppression of those less privileged than themselves as evil is no more an answer than insisting that the problems of others cannot be as great as they say simply because it does not seem to be so very bad from the outside. Romanitas does not provide an indepth discussion of these issues – that would detract too much from its story – but it acknowledges and incorporates them; it is written in a way that recognises the complexity of the world and human interactions. I only wish we lived in a world where recognising that a novel has done so went without saying.

The setting is also delightful in its similarities and differences from our world. I haven’t read a lot of alternate history and I’m not a historian, but I enjoyed Sophia’s modernised Roman Empire. To my novice eye it seems well-researched, complete with a timeline of the alternate history at the back. There were only two drawbacks, for me, one of which is not the novel’s fault, but the Kindle’s – or its adaptation for the Kindle, perhaps. I speak of the map in the front. Where the changing political status of nations forms a major premise of your novel, the map at the front becomes more than a curiousity, but in the Kindle edition the map is too small to read, and it’s too cumbersome to jump back to it and then find your place again in any case. I would have loved to be able to flip freely back and forth and was frustrated by my inability to do so. I was pleased with myself for working out that the Sinoan Empire was China, cursed myself for taking so long to realise that Terranova was the US (the New World), and utterly failed to work out that Nionia was Japan.

The other point I’m not sure if I liked or didn’t like. Throughout the novel, many words that would have had Greek origins were shifted to what would have been their Latin alternatives. This is nifty and pleasing at first glance, but upon reflection rankled slightly. The main characters all speak Latin, but I don’t, I’m reading English. The whole novel is in translation, and far more than the Latin/Greek shifts would have changed linguistically as a result of a prolonged occupation of Great Britain by Rome. Which meant that the more I thought about it, the less sense it made for the telephone to be rendered as the ‘longdictor’, or the helicopter as the ‘volucer’. I’m probably over-thinking it – it’s all just colour, after all, a way of portraying how things have changed, and Sophia is clear that her linguistic choices are stylistic in a note at the end – but every now and then it would throw me. I don’t know. I’m still torn between thinking that it adds something to the novel, and that it detracts from it. I suspect that it is a sum game, or ‘worth throwing in overall’. As problems go, it’s very minor.

Lastly, there was an interesting flutter towards discussing religion, as Dama has converted to a monotheism that may be Judaism or Christianity (I wasn’t quite sure*), and it looks like Una might, too. In a world where pantheism has retained its dominance I was curious that monotheism should be given this focus without any exploration of the contrast. Everyone else seems at best apathetic towards the gods and their doings. It feels like a missed opportunity, and the themes surrounding the monotheistic elements left oddly hanging. Of course, not every story has to give quite the tour de force that so delighted me in the remake of Battlestar Galactica, and the character’s reasons for conversion were plausible, it just felt a little lopsided, is all. But still, this was a minor point that barely intruded and made very little difference to the general plot.

Overall this was a deftly executed, thoughtful, fun, engaging read that sucked me in and tugged appropriately on my emotions. I recommend it without hesitation. One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. So refreshing to find a new author that one feels one can trust to deliver. My only decision now is whether to buy the next volume for the Kindle or as a physical book.

* Zoroastrianism, apparently, so I was wide of the mark, there. But the point about monotheism vs polytheism stands.

Read Along with Rhube 14: A Dance with Dragons, Chapters 27 & 28

(Index to previous A Dance with Dragons posts, here.)

An aside about the physical object: I still have no regrets about buying the hulking mass of maybe-I-won’t-read-this-one-whilst-I-walk-to-work; I still think the cover art is chic and stylish; the matt finish, though? Umm. Let’s just say that I have never managed to crap up the cover of a book quite so badly before, and this baby has almost never left the house since I brought it home. I’d show you a picture, but it’s late and my main light crapped out a couple of days ago – I’m typing by lamp-light – so if I took a photo you wouldn’t see much. (And yes, I said a couple of days ago. I haven’t replaced it yet. I am simultaneously afraid of potential spiders in the lampshade and in the box where I keep my spare bulbs. That, and I’m lazy. Do you want me to write a review, or do you want me to change a light-bulb? Only one practical thing per evening, folks!)

Chapter 27: Tyrion

Did I mention that I liked this chapter? I liked this chapter. I really liked this chapter. Tyrion and Ser Jorah brought together at last! And then…! With the…!

Daenerys and Jorah

Whatever could they mean?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s have a recap. Last we saw him, Tyrion was being abducted by an anonymous ‘knight’ who was taking him to see the ‘queen’. We were obviously supposed to assume that this was Cersei; I dunno about you, but I was rooting for Ser Jorah taking him to see Daenerys anyway. You all know I want to get Tyrion and Daenerys together, and apparently I now have a crush on Ser Jorah, so I was enjoying that, too. It has been alleged on Twitter that my current infatuation has more to do with the fact that Iain Glenn plays him in the TV series than the character himself. I can’t imagine what would give anyone that idea. I mean, what’s sexy about this (above-right)? And, no, I didn’t publically melt into a puddle on seeing that he was in Downton Abbey. Anyone who says differently has obviously been hypnotised by his deliciously reverberating voice… Ummm.

Honestly, I can’t remember whether I gave two hoots about Ser Jorah before I saw the TV series. It’s astonishing the things I have forgotten, and I usually have an annoyingly good memory for books. (Annoying, because it makes them difficult to reread.) But I must confess that it rather suggests he wasn’t really on my radar before. I don’t especially care. Some of the actors on Game of Thrones have differed sufficiently from my mental picture such that stepping back into the book version caused a bit of a jar. Despite my adoration of Peter Dinklage, and the fact that Tyrion was always one of my favourite characters, I simply can’t deny that I don’t find the Tyrion of the books sexy at all, whereas, Dinklage? Yes, I would. They’re similar, but subtly different characters. Tyrion of the books is funny and engaging and clever, but his charisma lacks the youthful freshness of Dinklage’s portrayal – it’s just a shade more bitter, more mature. But Ser Jorah… however he was written before, the writing now melds seamlessly with the picture in my head created by Game of Thrones and Iain Glenn’s delectable portrayal. Gosh. What a shame.

Anyway, Jorah is taking Tyrion south, apparently not having told him his name or anything like that. Tyrion remains sure he’s being taken to Cersei for a surprisingly long period of time, even after he figures out who Jorah is. I mean, come on – Westeros is in the north, what way are you going, Tyrion? You know there’s more than one queen. Why wouldn’t the man admit it if he were taking you to Cersei?

Ah well, it makes for a nice bit of tension. You know I love a bit of concealed identity, and we get two for one in this chapter – after all, Tyrion cuts a recognisable sort of figure as well. They nicely dance around the issue through most of the chapter, then Jorah takes Tyrion to see the widow of the waterfront, aka Vogarro’s whore. The widow is a lady who used to be a whore, but was then married by a very influential man. After his death she inherited his fortune and carried on his works and made his power her own. If she weren’t a former slave, she would almost certainly have been elected as a Triarch, despite the disadvantages of her gender – there is precedence, we are told. If anyone can get them passage to Meereen on the sly, it is she.

Of course, once Jorah reveals that it’s Meereen he’s headed to, Tyrion practically wets himself with laughter. It’s a nice moment, but I would have felt it more if it didn’t require Tyrion to hold the idiot ball for a bit. Nevermind. It’s a small part of a stonking chapter.

Of course, the widow knows exactly who they are and that they have nothing she wants. Or rather, they might do, but Jorah isn’t as quick as Tyrion at working out what that is, and he foolishly offers her money – as though she needed that. In the meantime, Tyrion has been clocked by someone. A fellow dwarf, and a young one. This was a tense and interesting part, well-played. Lots of things were racing through my mind. If this person is a dwarf, what if this is actually the child of Tyrion and Tysha, grown up to hate him? That’s stupid, of course, dwarfism isn’t usually hereditary and how would the child recognise him anyway? But hey, it’s fantasy, who knows? O’course, it could also just be a short person, like, say, Arya? Come to kill Tyrion for trying to murder her brother? (She doesn’t know the truth of that, after all.) It’s also nicely played, there, as the person, when they come charging at Tyrion, does so saying it’s because he got her brother killed…

But, of course, it’s neither of those things. It turns out to be one of the dwarves that were jousting as entertainment for Joffrey’s wedding feast. After Tyrion killed Joffrey, some idiots killed her brother, mistaking him for Tyrion, or at least thinking they could say it was him. It’s also a nice moment because it gives both Tyrion and Jorah the chance to show that they’re not bad sorts, and gallant in their own ways. Jorah protects Tyrion, Tyion tells Jorah to let the girl go, once he realises what’s up, and Jorah does, apologising to her.

In response, the widow says: ‘Knights defend the weak an protect the innocent, they say. And I am the fairest maid in all Volantis’. Her words are scornful in tone, but not entirely, methinks, in substance. She dismissed Jorah’s reasons for taking Tyrion to Daenerys because they sounded like the sort of romantic twaddle that could only be lies. Yet she’s seen that he does have a sort of honour, and she clearly likes Tyrion. Choosing to believe that he really intends to serve Daenerys, the widow tells Jorah: ‘Should you reach your queen, give her a message from the slaves of Old Volantis… Tell her we are waiting. Tell her to come soon’ – and, man, I felt a tingle just copying that out. It’s a fabulous line with a finely crafted lead-up.

Tyrion’s idiot-ball induced stupidity is more than made up for in other ways. Firstly is his insight into the widow. He quickly sees that what she wants is respect. She’s a tough, smart lady who has earned power and wealth against all the odds, building a place in the community that, despite the fact that she is called by two names that define her in terms of her relationship to a man, is her place and her power. Yet she is barred from having her status recognised and achieving the election she clearly deserves because she was once a slave. She wants recognition, and she feels an affinity for a woman who was sold to a man and carved a nation and an army for herself by freeing slaves. She doesn’t want fairytales of princesses being rescued, she wants emissaries that will take her message to Daenerys and call her to Volantis – call her to take her war to them.

Tyrion also shows his smarts in other ways. You may recall my concerns about his plan for Young Griff to go north instead of south – that although it had some feasibility it under-estimated Daenerys and the distance between Meereen and Westeros. Turns out Tyrion didn’t think it was that great a plan either. He’s a disappointed to hear that Young Griff et al are headed north, rather than south. He recognises, as I suggested, that blood and a call to rally to someone else’s claim to the thrown aren’t going to greatly impress a queen like Daenerys. A call from another former slave and strong woman to come rescue slaves, however? She just might come to that.

I also enjoyed the relationship between Jorah and Tyrion. Methinks Jorah is starting to like Tyrion in spite of himself. A cliche? perhaps, but it’s well done.

Soon, my Dream Team will be coming together: Tyrion, Daenerys, Jorah, and Quentyn. Yes. This is what is going to happen. Nothing could possibly go wrong. It’s not like it’s a George R R Martin book, after all.

Oh wait. They’re all screwed, aren’t they?

Chapter 28: Jon

Less happens in this chapter. Some information gets exchanged, and some bits and bobs get set up.

Jon gets in on some training and shows he’s better than all the new recruits – quelle suprise – but then the Lord of Bones shows up and tests Jon’s metal. Jon finds him surprisingly spry for a man of his size. Hmm, isn’t that odd? Jon then gets a letter notifying him of Arya’s impending marriage to Lord Ramsay. And Jon is all ‘Noooo – I mean… oh dear. That poor girl. But she’s not my sister anymore. I am a good man of the Night’s Watch. I don’t have any sisters anymore. Nope’. But then Lady Melodrama Melisandre shows up and is all ‘I have seen your sister in my visions, Jon Snow… She’s running away. I can help you save her, if you give me your soul…‘.

It’s a nice little chapter that’s as long as it needs to be, and no longer. Lady M is still boring me to tears, and I’m all ‘But that’s not Arya‘, but it is Jeyne Poole, and that poor girl doesn’t deserve such a fate anymore than Arya does. Jon will be so sad when they rescue her (as they clearly will) and it turns out not to be his sister. But at least it looks like Ramsay won’t succeed in his aim of legitimising his rule of the North with this fake marriage to Arya. Not that you can ever bank on anything with these books.

Not much more to say about this chapter. If you’ve read any further (as I now have) you’ll know there are things about it that make you look back and go ‘Ohhhhhh’, but I aim to stay spoiler-free for all points up to the chapter currently being discussed, so I’ll leave it there. It’s past my bedtime, anyway.


Torchwood: Mircale Day – Finale

(Index to previous Torchwood reviews here.)

Gwen looking bad-assI feel like I’m the only person on the Internet who’s going to say this, but I thought this was non-stop bad-ass awesome. I simply don’t comprehend the level of vitriol this season has sparked, but I more than respect people’s right to feel disappointed when a show doesn’t meet what they wanted from it, so I’m not interested in debating the matter. Such different readings of the same piece can only come from wildly differing starting points that are never going to agree the foundations for a discussion, and even if they did they’d keep tripping each other up when it turned out some other assumption was being made that was not initially acknowledged. Whilst I have never said that this season was perfect (it’s still Torchwood, and it would almost be a betrayal of the programme’s premise if they stopped throwing so many things in the pot that inevitably some would be spewed up as awesome and some painful) so many things have been heart-stoppingly brilliant I can only feel it’s a shame that it doesn’t seem that they will be recognised, from the reception I’ve seen on the net. It’s for this reason I couldn’t bring myself to blog about it last night, and was in two minds about finding the energy for doing it today. But, fuck it, just looking at an image like that to the above is enough to get the excitement juices flowing again.


Having located the Blessing on both sides of the world, Jack, Gwen, and Oswald head for the one in Shanghai whilst Rex and Esther head for the one in Buenos Airies. Rex decides the time has come to call in the CIA, which proves to be a monumental mistake, as they still have a mole, Charlotte. Charlotte shows her 1ee7 traitor skillz by arranging for a suicide bomber to be on the truck of CIA dudes sent to help Rex and Esther invade their Blessing end. He blows up the truck with all the CIA dudes on it, along with a briefcase full of what seems to be all of Jack’s blood that they have on that side of the world. Meanwhile, Gwen sets off to track the Blessing her own and finds it out the back of an old Chinese shop (?) or restaurant (?). Anyway, there’s an old Chinese lady who’s all ‘Noooo, go not into the Evil Alleyway, can you not feel the bad juju?’ and Gwen’s all ‘Got no choice, old Chinese lady, got a world to save. Can I buy my way into this Evil Alley?’ and the old Chinese lady’s like ‘Yeah, sure, OK. But I DID warn you. No idea why I keep my business here when I hate this alley so much, but apparently I make good money out of letting people enter it for dosh’.

So, Gwen goes into the alley and backs straight-the-fuck out. Yeah, that’s one Evil Alley. And the old Chinese lady’s like ‘I told you. Can I get you some tea?’ and Gwen’s like ‘Fuck it, I don’t know how you’re not in the pay of the Families living so close to the Blessing and all, but I’m too freaked to worry about this being poisoned’. (It’s not poisoned, it’s just that I was assuming the old lady was a Families spy, and she totally wasn’t. Maybe they don’t need to protect the Blessing that well – it’s clearly fucking scary.)

Gwen calls Jack and Oswald to get their bottoms in gear and come down to the alley whilst Rex and Esther are busy pretending to be dead and invading the Blessing on the other side of the world. Back in the CIA Q Shapiro is finally all ‘WTF? Who is my fucking mole?!’ and releases a trace that identifies Charlotte – sadly, not before she can plant a bomb and run away.

Torchwood enters the Blessing from both sides and ends up in a stand-off. In Shanghai they strap bombs to Oswald as a threat to combat the fact that they are extremely outnumbered by people with guns. In Buenos Aires Rex and Esther are captured. The Families try laughing in their faces, as they’re not afraid of death, and the blood of a mortal man needs to go into the Blessing from both sides at once, and Rex and Esther’s supply got blown up. But it turns out that they transfused all Jack’s blood into Rex as a precaution. Rex and Jack get shot at the same time and their blood pours into the Blessing, but not before Esther gets fatally wounded. The Miracle ends and all the category ones die, including Gwen’s dad. Jack and Rex die, but some combination of Jack’s blood and proximity to the Blessing means that they regenerate. Gwen, Jack, and Jilly escape, as does Rex, but Esther is dead, Dave, totally dead.

Some days later, we see a slightly dishevelled looking Jilly waiting on a bench in the hope of seeing her Family contact again. Amazingly, it works, and he reveals that this was just the first run of the Famillies’ plan. They have a Plan B… and they want her in on it.

Torchwood, Esther’s family, and the remaining CIA agents (including Charlotte von Evil) go to her funeral. Data from the exploded CIA trace is recovered just in time to reveal Charlotte’s betrayal as she runs from the funeral. Rex gives chase and is shot and killed. In a (not that shocking) twist, Rex comes alive again, Jack-style. And we are left hanging with the question – what will this mean for Torchwood’s future?

My thoughts

Was it perfect? No, but so much of it was awesome that I don’t care. It was fast paced and dramatic and everyone was playing top form on the acting (except maybe Bill Pullman, who continues to struggle with the nuances the role requires). I don’t know whether I like that the mystery of the Blessing was never solved or not. It raises the very interesting question of the limits of our knowledge in a way that SF shows, and especially Doctor Who and its spin-offs, usually avoid like the plague in the name of making their characters seem cool by spouting techno-babble. Similarly, audiences expect perfect resolutions, and I enjoy it when that’s upset a bit. On the other hand, with so much hanging on this, and with so much excellent, carefully thought out consequences for Miracle Day itself, it feels like a bit of a cop-out. I’m torn. As an epistemologist I’m fascinated by the tension between the human desire to know and the threat of scepticism – the possibility that some things may simply be unknowable. It terrifies me and frustrates me, and draws me to fight it, and I like that the unknown is being displayed in an SF show for our confrontation, and not then immediately fathomed. The Blessing is the ‘nothingness’, the ‘gap’, the ‘unknown’, and Jack cannot explain it. But it’s also an implausible hole going straight through the Earth and everyone’s surprisingly at ease with their inability to explain it.

I also have dual feelings about the Blessing being a thing that reflects your own idea of yourself back at you. It is an interesting idea, but it was more interesting when I first saw it on the Red Dwarf episode, ‘The Inquisitor’, where the crew are each judged by themselves and sentenced accordingly. Doubtless it had been done before that, as well, but for me that’s the classic iconic instance. When Jilly points out that it maybe wasn’t a good idea to bring Oswald in covered in explosives and then show him his soul, it’s an interesting moment, but whilst Oswald’s declaration that he’s ‘used to sin’ works as a resolution of the issue and allows the plot to continue, I would have liked a little more from the interesting questions raised about his possible guilt throughout the season. Everyone finds a way to be at ease with what they see, and it sort of takes the bite out of that aspect of the Blessing.

I’m also not sure how I feel about Gwen’s comment to Jilly as they fight, about ‘how much lipstick can you wear?!’. On the one hand, I’d sort of felt that way myself – there is far, far too much pressure for women to wear make-up constantly, especially as a mark of looking ‘professional’ or ‘taking care of yourself’. I regularly receive derogatory comments of this nature for not wearing make-up, or pressure to wear it more often on the occasions that I do – like I’m finally behaving and people want to reward my good behaviour with positive ‘encouraing’ comments, rather than genuine compliments. It’s always ‘wow – what a difference’ or ‘you should do that more often’ or ‘I don’t understand why some women don’t make more of an effort when you see the difference when they do’. It’s not like I’m a slob when I’m not wearing lipstick. I like that Gwen has looked 100% stylish throughout without ever having to look ‘made-up’. On the other hand, it’s a perfectly legitimate choice for a woman to want to adopt the sort of look that Jilly employs. It’s an expression of herself and how she wants to be perceived. And having one woman bashing another for their choice of lifestyle and expression of self in a way that was entirely besides the point to the action and that focuses on appearance is kind of not cool.

Similarly, I sort of wanted Jilly to come out of it fighting in the sense of still preserving her sense fo style and showing her survivor teeth in forging a new life without the Families. Having her run off after them like a dog, adopting the nude-make-up look endorsed by Gwen, was not at all what I would have imagined she would do. When people make those back-handed compliments about me it makes me want to wear make-up less, in defiance. If someone knocks Jilly’s choice in this area I expect a corresponding defiance in affirming her self-expression.

On the other hand, given that she’s been walking around in full on scarlet being unashamedly morally dubious, I pretty much expected her to be made to die for such behaviour at the end in accordance with TV rules. But she didn’t, and hearing how she had to fight her way out of Shanghai, selling her jewellery and clawing her way back home does speak somewhat to her spirit.

In some ways it’s a shame that we’re keeping Rex over Esther, who was by far the more interesting character, showing more growth across the season. It’s a shame to see the shy girl get killed off once she’s grown into strength. On the other hand, it would have been equally bad to kill off the black guy, and we’ve had plenty of other strong women, some of whom did survive. Whilst I can’t help but feel that having two immortals around will make Jack’s condition much less interesting, it is really cool to have a black person fulfilling this role. Doctor Who and its spin-offs have enough of the whole immortal, powerful, know-it all, wealthy white male who always saves the day, thing. This is not the sort of role that would usually go to a person of colour. Whilst I think a more powerful statement might have come to giving this to Esther, as she had more of a growth story, and I feel like women have an even harder time getting cast in such roles, it’s not the Issue Olympics, and I can’t deny that there are far more white women on telly than black men.

And never let us forget the awesomeness that is Gwen. Gwen and freakin’ Eve Myles. Absolutely flawlessly stonking from start to finish, whether she’s kicking butt or despairing or having quiet moments with her husband – every second of her screen-time was wonderful, and I want to make the BAFTA-or-similar call-out again. Also for the writers. With the exception of a couple of really rocky episodes early on, and a somewhat awkward tendency to highlight Jack’s homosexuality at the expense of his omnisexuality, this has been a tour de force. It’s been a long time since I saw original science fiction like this on British TV. I hoped that Outcasts would form the back-bone of a resurgence in original SF drama on British tellies, but I can’t deny that it did not fulfil my expectations. Torchwood: Miracle Day on the other hand has been full to bursting with original ideas fully explored. I thought I was someone who thought about apocalypse SF a lot. I thought I was a person who explored the boundaries of immortality in fiction. Torchwood: Miracle Day has taken me through so many different things I never thought of. Wonderful.

I also want to praise the political science. Absolutely on the fucking pulse. And given that this will not have been written to coincide with current events, praise should be given to the writers for reading the times and projecting what would strike a chord. Even in the last few episodes where the tightened focus on the main plot reduced screen-time for the global consequences of Miracle Day, a few comments here and there have kept the economic and political issues in sight. The attitude of the Families, anticipating the financial breakdown but predicting with confidence that a new world will surface to their satisfaction. Sure it will hit the poor hard, literally killing them off, but won’t that just make the world a better place anyway? Can’t help but feel the thrumming accord with austerity measures to cut the deficit. Especially as balance is maintained. The Famillies are unquestionably evil, the governmental measures are undoubtedly harsh and disturbing, and yet, floating in the background, raised especially by the health workers in the camps, is the question: what else could they do? Maybe the answer is ‘Something not quite this extreme, surely’, but there’s no doubt that it’s simply naive to think they could have gotten away with doing anything that wouldn’t hurt a lot of people.

All in all I have to say that despite its rocky moments, this season of Torchwood has been the most original, most strongly acted and scripted, most gripping and exciting. I know that puts me in the minority, especially as I’m praising it over Children of Earth, and that’s widely excepted by even most Torchwod-sceptics as being Good. Oh well. I can only report on how I saw it, and I feel there are a lot of things that deserve praising somewhere, even if it’s only on this blog.