The Third Annual Serene Wombles

Sorry this is so late. I had, like, three significant life crises happen all at once, and I only had this half finished by 3rd October, which was my blog’s birthday. I really wanted to get this out on the day itself, but that’s life. Let the post begin!

Wow, we survived a whole ‘nother year, and for some reason you lot are still interested in what I have to say about various forms of speculative media and other awesome shit. Weirdos.

For the n00bs: The Serene Wombles are the awards I give once a year, on my blog’s birthday, for the stuff I liked best of all the things I have reviewed. The skinny:

Eligibility for a Serene Womble is conferred by being the subject of a review on In Search of the Happiness Max in the past year. There may have been better or more worthy things that came out this year, but if I didn’t find them relevant to my interests, or if I simply didn’t have the time to review them, they won’t be eligible for a Serene Womble. I make no pretense that these awards are significant or important in any way, but I enjoy having the opportunity to praise and draw attention to things I have loved.

The Serene Wombles are divided into two categories, those that apply to recent releases, and special Time Travelling Wombles for the most awesome things in my Reviewing Through the Time Machine posts. The division between the former and the latter may at times seem arbitrary – why should a film that came out in 2009 count as a recent release, whilst a TV Show that ended in 2009 requires a time machine? It’ll always be a judgement call, and the call is mine. At the end of the day, these are not the Oscars, they’re the highlights from a blog, and are therefore subject to my whim.

Due to illness and stress and stuff the pickings have been a little thinner this year than I would like. Nevertheless, there have been some really awesome and creative things out there, and I still want to praise them.

The Serene Womble for Best Film

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Poster for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Elligible films: Looper, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Star Trek: Into Darkness.

So… guess who hasn’t been to the cinema a lot this year?  There are a whole bunch of films that I wanted to go see this year  – summer of bloody superheroes indeed! – but illness and lack of funds have prevented me. As a consequence, this was basically no contest. Looper made me angry. Star Trek: Into Darkness was tiresome and disappointing. And I enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey a very great deal. I said when I watched it at Christmas that it would be the one to beat, and, alas, nothing rose to the challenge.

This was an exceedingly pretty film that I found well-paced and which realised the story very well. I didn’t mind the extra stuff added in, and actually like that Peter Jackson took this once-in-a-generation-or-two opportunity to explore Tolkien’s world more fully. Bags of fun!

The Serene Womble for Best TV Show: Hemlock Grove

Hemlock Grove PosterEligible TV Shows: Hemlock Grove, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, America’s Next Top Model, Sleepy Hollow.

For the first year, Game of Thrones is not the winner of this category! I still enjoyed it, and it had some of my favourite moments of the whole series, but the pacing was rocky, and for consistently good value there was some significant competition.

Hemlock Grove was original, genre bending, narratatively interesting, conceptually challenging, and thoroughly addictive. It wasn’t quite like anything I had seen before, in a good way.

Hannibal deserves an honourable mention, but although it was addictive, entertaining, and well-acted, I can’t say it was anything especially new or original, just very well done. House of Cards was well-acted and reasonably well-written, but fairly unoriginal and tiresomely another privileged white man plotting petty revenges that it’s hard to care for when he’s not really received any very great slights. Doctor Who is… Doctor Who. This really isn’t going to be a contender until Moffat leaves. If an episode doesn’t leave me wanting to scream, it’s a good sign. I thought there were a couple of somewhat interesting episodes this year, but that’s all. America’s Next Top Model, much as I am in the business of defending it, is not remotely in the same league. Sleepy Hollow snuck in as a last minute entry. I enjoyed the one episode I’d seen at time of review, but it’s basically entertaining fluff.

So, it’s a hearty congrats to Hemlock Grove. You seriously impressed me and I hope I can spread the love to my readers.

The Serene Womble for Best Novel – Null

There was precisely one entrant in this category: A Dance with Dragons. Given that this is just a couple of chapters from the longer Read Along with Rhube chapter by chapter review that I have been doing for the last year (two years?). It feels a bit cheaty to give it a free pass to a Serene Womble by default of multiple entries and the fact that I just haven’t reviewed any other (current) novels. Plus, it just isn’t that good. Entertaining, interesting enough for the time and attention I have devoted to it? Yeah, I guess. But it’s also deeply problematic and I doubt it would win against any competition it might have had in another year. (It did not win last year, for example.)

Fair? Unfair? It’s my blog, I get to choose.

The Serene Womble for Best Blog – Escher Girls

Escher Girls avatarEligible blogs: Myths Retold, Academic Men Explain Things to Me, Escher Girls

Oh man, this was a really hard one. I want to give the award to all of them and actually changed my mind a couple of times. One of the difficulties is that Myths Retold is a very different kind of blog to the other two, which are in turn very similar to each other in both content and impact. I considered making a separate category for ‘Best Fiction Blog’, so that I could honour Myths Retold as well, but then I couldn’t think of any other fiction blogs and it seemed like that would be getting needlessly specific. Basically, I’m saying that all three of these are very good and worth your attention.

I’ve picked Escher Girls for the win for the scope of its impact. Escher Girls is the creation of Ami Angelwings, an awesome Canadian woman who started the blog to ‘archive and showcase the prevalence of certain ways women are depicted in illustrated pop media’, namely: women are contorted into physically impossible poses for the pleasure of the male gaze. The blog functions as a demonstration that the way women are drawn in comics and other illustrated media is dramatically different to the ways that men are drawn, that we are sexualised to extremes and that this sexualisation is commonplace, and in ways that do not compare to the male power fantasies of ripped muscles in skin-tight costumes which are so often held up to minimise women’s claims of unfair treatment. The volume of examples that Ami has collected (both personally and from submissions) is staggering, and the comfort this provides to women (who have long been told that their experience of alienation by sexualisation in mainstream comics is a mere subjective impression) is extensive and powerful.

Academic Men Explain Things to Me serves a similar function, in providing a platform for women to voice their frustrations with the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’, in which women frequently find that men explain very basic things to them, often in areas for which the woman is herself an expert and the man a novice. Again, this is an area in which women have often been told that they are imagining being treated in an overly patronising manner, that there are ‘know it alls’ of both genders, and that our subjective experiences are not as valid as men’s (who, of course, are privileged by a default supposition of objectivity that does not exist). By creating a venue to archive these experiences in detail and volume, Academic Men Explain Things to Me has provided a powerful vindication of women’s experiences – one which I genuinely believe is helping men to rethink their behaviour, as well as providing women with a sense of justification long denied.

In the end, I chose Escher Girls for its breadth of impact. I feel that there has been a palpable shift in comic and visual culture over the past year, where the misogyny in mainstream comics has come under increasing scrutiny from more mainstream critiques and fans. I don’t think Escher Girls have been the sole cause of this. Blogs such as DC Women Kicking Ass have also provided a sustained critique and made significant contributions, as have prominent critiques from individual women, such as Kelly Turnbull and Kyrax2. But to concede that a leading light is a part of a movement need not minimise the specific contribution. I think the impact of Escher Girls can be seen in the fact that it was able to spin off other projects, such as The Hawkeye Initiative, which highlights the discrepancies in treatment of men and women in comics by showcasing redrawings of sexualised female images with the male character, Hawkeye, in an identical pose.

Moreover, Ami’s blog is impressively organised in a way that facilitates citation and comparison from multiple angles – the tags page not only collates posts by trope, but also by artist, company, character, series, and Genre/Medium. And the blog integrates a Disqus commenting feature, allowing for debate and discussion of issues in a way that usually isn’t possible on Tumblr style blogs, and which Ami manages with great sensitivity.

It’s hard to compare a project like this with an artistic endeavour, like Myths Retold, which is not aiming at the kind of social change Escher Girls enables. Myths Retold demonstrates an artistry and poetic sophistication that simply doesn’t apply in assessing the other two blogs. All I can say is that whilst I recommend all three blogs to you, I felt that in this year, Escher Girls seemed most significant to me.

The Serene Womble for Best Webseries: Welcome to Night Vale

Night Vale logoEligible webseries: TableTop, Vlog Brothers, Welcome to Night Vale

I admit to using the term ‘webseries’ loosely. I reviewed quite a lot of things this year that don’t fit neatly into large categories, and although I might call TableTop a webseries, Vlog Brothers a vlog, and Night Vale a podcast, having each win a category for which it was the only entrant, I don’t think that’s a good use of my time and attention or yours. In any case, there is no question in my mind that Welcome to Night Vale outshines the other two, and I do not have the qualms I had for the previous category, in that I feel these compare fairly well, for regularly web-distributed entertainment.

TableTop is a nice idea, and if I were really into game mechanics I might find more value in it, but ultimately it fell flat for me. It’s basically just like watching other people play fun games. The games look fun, and maybe you like the people, but you can’t help but feeling that the whole thing would be more enjoyable if you were actually playing, too.

Vlog Brothers is entertaining, amusing, thoughtful, and informative. I recommend it. But it can’t hold a candle to Night Vale.

Welcome to Night Vale is one of the best, most enjoyable, most original shows I have had the pleasure to stumble across in a long time. The idea of using the podcast format as though it were a radio station for a fictional town is not one I had come across before, and it has been put to good purpose. Funny, strange, and more than a little bit dark, Night Vale is like a ray of sunlight that never fails to make me smile or to delight me with its unexpected changes in direction. It’s also surprisingly durable in terms of being something I can listen to over and over and still find new things to enjoy. I’ve had a hard year, especially the last few months, and being able to tune in to Night Vale any time I would otherwise have been alone with my thoughts has been remarkably soothing. It comforts me to know that wonderful, joyful, eccentric people are making such wonderful, joyful, eccentric works of art.

Not to mention that it manages to be progressive in terms of representation of gender, race, and sexuality without ever being po-faced. I can’t not give this an award.

The Serene Womble for Best Music: Stephanie Mabey

Album cover for Wake Up Dreaming, by Stephanie MabeyEligible musicians: Garfunkel and Oates and Stephanie Mabey

Garfunkel and Oates are witty and entertaining, but occasionally problematic. By contrast, Stephanie Mabey’s music is pure joy. I’ve listened to her album, Wake Up Dreaming, again and again, often on loop, since downloading it, and I’m not sick of it yet. Her music is delightful, witty, and often beautiful – a real must for the geek music lover. I can’t recommend her work enough.

The Serene Womble for Best Webcomic: City of the Dead

City of the Dead, panel oneEligible webcomics: City of the Dead

OK, this one was the only entry in its category – I haven’t been reading as many webcomics this year, focussing, as I have been, on trying out different new media instead. Nevertheless, this comic is dynamic, atmospheric, and fun, making full use of the online medium to present a fast-paced and cohesively presented story. It’s no Romantically Apocalyptic (the winner from last year), but it’s certainly a cut above the average, and worthy of your time.

The Time Traveling Wombles

The Time Travelling Womble for Best Novel: The Count of Monte Cristo

Cover Art: The Count of Monte CristoEligible novels: The Count of Monte Cristo.

A consequence of the sparse nature of this year is that the categories for the Time Traveling Wombles each has only one entry, but as each are stellar examples of exemplary works, this should not count against them.

I had no idea that The Count of Monte Cristo would be either such a rip-roaring adventure, or that it would be so progressive for its time (I ship Eugenie/Louise forever). Some classics are classics because they are fun as well as intelligent, and I can’t recommend this one highly enough.

The Time Traveling Womble for Best Non-Fiction Book: Wild Swans

Wild Swans - cover artEligible non-fiction books: Wild Swans.

In my original article on this I wrote that this is one of the books I would say everyone should read before they die, so it should be no surprise that I honour it here, also. Wild Swans is a biographical and autobiographical work of heart-rending and exquisite expression of three women’s lives across turbulent twentieth century China. The tale is worthwhile and breath-taking in itself, but for people living outside of China – people for whom the ‘Cultural Revolution’ is just a term – this intimate, detailed, and thorough history is an absolutely essential piece of reading that will change your perspective in the world.

Time Traveling Womble for Best Blog – Inexplicable Objects

A cupcake with a festive plane-on-a-stick in it.Eligible blogs: Inexplicable Objects.

Dating from a time before there was any such thing as a ‘blogging platform’ (the first was launched in October 1998), one can’t help but feel that Inexplicable Objects, which updated weekly from April 1998 to June 2001, would have made a phenomenally successful Tumblr. The archive is still active, more than ten years since it stopped updating, and it’s still one of my very favourite things in the world. Chocked full of delightfully strange objects, coloured by the witty commentary of Bill Young, this little website is a welcome piece of harmless absurdity to brighten your day. It may be the only entry in this category, but it is assuredly worthy of the Womble.

And finally:

The People’s Choice Award 2013: Hemlock Grove, Season One

Hemlock Grove PosterBy far and away the thing you most wanted my opinions on that I reviewed this year was Hemlock Grove. Netflix’s original fantasy/horror/weird show, released as an entire season, all at once, in April this year has garnered nearly 2,500 hits, with over a thousand more than its next nearest rival, Looper. This should possibly give pause for thought, as my review of Looper garnered attention more because it was negative and controversial than because the film was well-liked, but I hope that those who came to read my review of Hemlock Grove came away with a more positive image and their interest was more than car crash theatre.

Incidentally, last year’s winner, The Guild, Season Five, still has more hits than any other page on my website (including the home page) at over 14,000. What do these figures mean? Who knows, but something captured a lot of people’s interest, and maybe that’s something that’s worthy of your attention, too.

And that’s about it for this year. I hope you’ve enjoyed my reviews (or at least found them interesting) and that those who have won Serene Wombles of one kind or another get something positive out of the experience. It’s amazing the volume of wonderful and engaging things out there to culturally consume  in this crazy internet age; I hope I can continue to provide some kind of useful commentary on the tiny section of it in which I partake.

Review – Star Trek: Into Darkness

Star Trek: Into Darkness poster, featuring Uhura looking badass

I wish I’d seen THIS movie.

It’s hard to write a serious review for what was not even remotely a serious movie, so I’m not even gonna try. Benedict Cumberbund* was excellent, and whilst it’s hard to talk about the deeply problematic elements of white-washing represented in his taking the role without giving spoilers… I can see why he was chosen even if I also feel considerable disquiet about it **(spoilers in the footnote). Nevertheless, this film was beyond sloppy, and if you want to enjoy it in any sense, just find a YouTube clip of all the Cumberbatch bits and sit and watch that. It’ll be cheaper and less disappointing.

So, this is my half-arsed, bullet-point list of everything that was wrong with Star Trek: Into Darkness:

  1. Tribbles. It’s WAY too early for Bones to even know what a tribble is, let alone for it to be a standard lab animal – and WHY WOULD YOU HAVE A TRIBBLE AS A LAB ANIMAL, ARE YOU INSANE? DO YOU EVEN WANT TO HAVE A SPACESHIP LATER? Although both Vulcans and Klingons have a history with tribbles, in ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ it’s made reasonably clear that humans haven’t encountered them before, as evidenced by the fact that they have no idea how dangerous they are.
  2. Androids on the bridge. I like androids about ten times more than the next person, but whilst I was uneasy about their role in the previous movie, I am NOT HAPPY about seeing an android officer on the bridge of the Enterprise in Kirk’s time. You don’t mess with Data. You just don’t. Stop it.
  3. Intertextuality without text. This movie was all over the place riffing off things both explicitly and implicitly. It’s not just other Star Trek movies and the way that every character is constantly saying favourite quotes with no sense of timing or style, its visual references to Star Wars and spaceships that look like Terminator hunter-killers and the inside of a Klingon death… planet… thing… that just really strongly reminded me of the spaceship interior at the end of Independence Day. But it was all just… thrown in there. There was no meaning to it, and, out of context, it doesn’t even really work as a hit for geeks. Geeks like consistency, and this film had none of that.
  4. Spock is Kirk is Bones is Scotty and Uhura is Deanna. Everyone (except Khan) is in slip-stream between a caricature of who they’re meant to be, spouting catch-phrases, and completely the opposite of both their character in canon and as set up in the 2009 movie. The Kirk-Spock-Bones Freudian triad is gone. Spock has emotions up the wazoo and Bones… Bones is an empty puppet, whose lack-luster lines are wasted on Judge Dredd Karl Urban. I mean, I get why you want to make Spock the main character: Zachary Quinto is much more charismatic and modern a front-man than Chris Pine, and the 2009 movie added real nuance and interest, but the nuance is gone. Spock is interesting as a man drawn in two directions, and the Vulcan no-emotions side to Spock has become a thin gauze, stripping any sense of emotions roiling under the surface of their power and tension. As for Uhura…
  5. That’s not Uhura. The kickass, take-no-shit, in-love-with-a-vulcan-because-she-can-respect-his-reserve-and-keep-that-shit-PRIVATE woman is GONE. This is a needy stereotype of a woman who gets pissed at her man at the drop of a hat. And whilst, yeah, she might be upset that he put his life in danger, the Uhura of the last movie would have understood his motivation, and if she had any problems with it she would have worked them out in PRIVATE, and not in front of the captain, a man she knows to be a womaniser who has always been needling at the edges of their relationship, waiting for it to fray.
  6. And whilst I wanted to be generous when I read quotes of Abrams saying that Star Trek was always sexy and that’s what they fans want, I had to admit that the shots of the saucy-shiny-suits at the beginning which offered a bit of equal-op sexiness were pretty brief. And all Uhura does in those scenes is emote whilst the men around her – who all like Spock, too, take action. She gets a tiny bit of come-back towards the end, but it’s like the way Brenda finally stops screaming to step up to the plate in Highlander as… a distraction so that her man can properly dispatch the bad guy. Between those two points we see an AWFUL lot of men, both extras and main cast, and two VERY sexualised women in the main cast and a negligible scattering of female extras. All of whom are in the ‘retro’ mini-dresses. Alas, the TNG move to have that be a uniform that men wear too seems to have been swept under the rug.
  7. LIGHTS. OH GOD. THE LIGHTS. I thought Texts from Superheroes were exaggeratingTextsfromsuperheroes mocks J J Abrams' obsession with lens flare.

I mean, I’ll be honest, I thought I knew and understood that J J Abrams has a lens flare problem, but someone close to him needs to stage an intervention. This is NOT healthy.

He even had the gall to put his flashy little lights in the beam-up effect, which my Geek-Film-Buddy Lee actually liked, but I… was rather less impressed by.

Going into this movie I thought J J Abrams’ had been his own worst enemy leading up to the release. He overhyped the ‘WHO IS BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH PLAYING?!1!’ card and he said really dumb things in interviews, like that he never actually liked Star Trek and thought it was too ‘philosophical’. I thought he couldn’t really mean it, because the 2009 movie had been so good. But this movie felt like the lazy work of someone who’s a bit too full of their success and whose careful attention to detail when he was trying to win over the fans went out the window when he felt he had them bought and paid for.

I don’t like to write negative reviews in general, but this was one of the Big Damn Films of the year, and I’d been really looking forward to it, and I thought if you’re the sort of person who’s interested in my reviews in the first place you’d probably want to know what I thought. So, here it is: it was a white-washed movie with a pinch of sexism, a couple of nice cameos from Hollywood sci-fi old guard and one up-and-coming charismatic actor making a role his own who you can’t fault for stepping up to the plate even if it really ought to have gone to a person of colour. It was poorly paced, poorly plotted, and contradictory, but the production values were very high. If you don’t mind these issues then you may enjoy it as sci-fi fluff.

*Yeah, yeah, I’m not really into making fun of people’s names, but he’s a rich, successful, white man who doesn’t seem to mind and generally seems to be having the time of his life. He’s also about the only thing I’m going to speak positively about in this review. He can take it.

**SPOILERS IN THIS FOOTNOTE: if you’re luckier than me and avoided more than hints about WHO BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS PLAYING, I didn’t want to give the game away, but yeah, it’s Khan. Although the big reveal is somewhat marred by Cumberbatch pronouncing ‘Khan’ differently to every person ever, including everyone else in the film. If you don’t know why this is problematic: Khan was a NON-WHITE superhuman. He was from INDIA. And whilst his portrayal by Mexican Ricardo Montalbán in The Wrath of Khan has some clumsy race implications, he was at least played by someone other than a white guy. Yeah, Khan is a character with tremendous charisma, and you need a really phenomenal actor to pull off the role, in part because Ricardo Montalbán’s performance was so iconic, but if you don’t see how having a white guy play a genetically-engineered-to-be-perfect human being FULL STOP is a problem, you got some alone time you need to spend thinking about that, anyway. Add to this that the role was specifically conceived of as for a person of colour in a ground-breakingly progressive series… yeah, it’s really problematic. THEN, they take a really, really pale white guy – a BRITISH white guy (because everyone knows charismatic villains are only PROPERLY charismatic and villainous if they’re British) and PALE HIM UP SOME MORE with make-up that makes him look ill (why? this guy is a superhuman! He’s not ill. It’s almost impossible for him to BE ill) and dye his red hair black BECAUSE HE’S AN EVIL BRITISH GUY, GUYS, THAT’S WHAT THEY LOOK LIKE! LIKE DRACULA, RIGHT? I’M PRETTY SURE HE WAS BRITISH. And yeah… my cans ain’t happening because I’ve lost my evens.