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 – The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in Eleventy Vision

As a massive film and fantasy geek, I was incredibly excited about The Hobbit, and about it being in Eleventy Vision* (aka Higher Frame Rate, or 48 Frames Per Second). I was going to see it, and I was going to see it in Eleventy Vision no matter what, although the reviews had prepared me for disappointment, or at least mixed results. Armed with these thoughts, I entered the cinema. I feel my reactions are best summed up by visual re-enactments of my expressions as the movie progressed.

Initial response to the impressive 3D, seamless CGI, and awe-inspiring Eleventy Vision**:

Me, gaping in wonder, in my 3D glasses

Which, segued naturally into grinning like the happiest child to ever hap:

Me, grinning like a foolish child, in my 3D glasses

Which gradually relaxed into:

Me, smiling dreamily at the beauty of it all in my 3D glasses

interrupted with violent flaily for the 2.5 seconds Lee Pace was on screen:

A blurred photo of me flailing in my 3D glasses

And frantically clutching at myself in the scary bits:

Me, frantically clutching at myself in my 3D glasses

All of which is to say that this was an exceedingly pretty and very well-executed movie. I’m also very, very glad I saw it in Eleventy Vision, which was stunning beyond anything I’ve ever seen in the cinema.

On Eleventy Vision

I’d read that it could make the film look sped up, and that this sensation could last for anything from ten minutes to an hour. I did experience this… for all of about five minutes. In all honesty, I adjusted to it very quickly and only had a few minor moments every now and then when an odd camera angle would make things look sped up again.

I had also read that the level of detail was actually a detriment, making the expensive fantasy sets and make-up look cheap. Nothing could be further from the truth. I should say that my Geek Film Buddy, Lee Harris, completely disagrees. He thought Eleventy Vision looked stunning in the panoramas of the landscape, but cheap whenever characters were in view. I don’t know what to say except that I just didn’t find that. And I was actively looking for it, as it was a thing a number of reviews had mentioned, and I wanted to try to be balanced, but it just wasn’t there. For me, at least, CGI and make-up and fantasy set-dressings have rarely, if ever, looked so real. I found myself wishing the Lord of the Rings films could be reshot in this way, although they had been very impressive at the time. True, I could see the pores and flaws in the actors’ faces, but I actually found that a good thing – they looked like real people, rather than ultra-smooth unreal beings.

I had also read that people who were impressed by Eleventy Vision still found it distracting – that the level of detail constantly tugged at one’s attention, drawing one out of the action to marvel at the pretty. Again: not for me. It was only an enhancement and added absorption. Where elsewhere CGI-smoothness can make fantasy films look cartoony, I felt submerged in the other world, the details merely making it more convincing and beautiful.

The 3D was also pretty good. At one point it really did feel like there was a flaming pine cone flying out of the screen at me, which is something few modern 3D films have actually achieved.

I will say that I did find Eleventy Vision tough on the eyes. My eyes still feel achy a couple of hours later, and I did have to remove my glasses several times to rest my eyes. I wonder if this is a symptom of my getting used to the new format so quickly? Like, maybe my eyes were working overtime to compensate? Who knows. All I can say is that the eyestrain was worth it.

If normal 3D particularly upsets your constitution, Eleventy Vision probably isn’t for you. If, like me, good quality 3D doesn’t really bother you (Dredd and The Amazing Spider-Man were both notably easier on the eyes for me, for example) I’d really make the time to give Eleventy Vision a go.

The Plot

I’ll keep this as brief as possible: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), uncle to Frodo (Our Hero from The Lord of the Rings), receives a visit from an old friend of the family, Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen). Gandalf is one of five highly skilled wizards who protect Middle-Earth with their magic, but in Hobbiton, where Bilbo lives, he is mostly known for his fireworks. Gandalf invites Bilbo on an adventure, which Bilbo is none too interested in. Bilbo is a hobbit, and hobbits like the quiet life, in their idyllic Shire.

But Gandalf sees something in Bilbo that the hobbit doesn’t see in himself. He suspects Bilbo might like adventure if he had a taste of it, and he believes there to be a quiet strength of character in hobbits that may be of need on this mission. That, and their stealthy way of moving about unheard. So Gandalf invites his 13 dwarven friends to ambush Bilbo at his home, and he is ultimately persuaded to come along on a quest to take back the dwarves’ city, mines, and gold, from the fearsome dragon, Smaug.

Between here and there, Bilbo encounters many adventures, including an interlude with the curious creature, Gollum, from whom Bilbo steals a rather significant ring, which grants invisibility.

This is the first part of three films and takes us through Bilbo’s adventures tricking three trolls out of eating him and his companions, bumping into Radagast the Brown (Sylvestor McCoy) escaping from orcs, visiting with the elves at Rivendell, riddling with Gollum, and at last catching a glimpse of the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug squats on his hoard of dwarven gold.

Additions to the Film

Many fans have been shocked that The Hobbit, a fraction of the size of The Lord of the Rings, has been given the Peter Jackson treatment and spread over three films. However, I had heard that Jackson had not so much invented plot as augmented the story with context drawn from The Silmarillion – a collection of works from Tolkien’s notes, collected by his son, that fills out the world of LotR and The Hobbit. I wanted to reserve judgement until I saw exactly what he had done with the film.

In all honesty, I’m positive about the move. As a fan, I would love to see a lovingly made production of The Hobbit that was simply the tale as originally told, but I think there is always time for that. Jackson has a unique opportunity to fill out Tolkien’s world for people like me who really couldn’t make it through the dense drudgery of The Silmarillion. Tolkien invented a rich, beautiful, haunting world that has become indelibly embedded in our culture. It had a powerful impact in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, but had slipped out of the mainstream (although still generally regarded as a classic, even outside of genre circles). To have the money, the production freedom, the cast – the power – to bring so much of that world to the popular consciousness is a rare opportunity that is unlikely to arise again, and I, personally, admire Jackson for taking this bold move. As I am also grateful to him, for enriching my understanding of Tolkien’s world. The Hobbit will be remade. You can depend on this story being retold and drawing audiences to the big screen again in the future, but a moment like this? I don’t think it will come again.


In addition to being stunningly beautiful, this was very well-acted and very well-cast. I wasn’t sure about Martin Freeman when I heard he’d been selected, but he more than rose to the challenge. Ian McKellen has always seemed natural in his role as Gandalf, and he only gets better with time. He seems to have relaxed into the role and delivers it effortlessly and spotlessly.

The dwarves are generally good. I’ve heard a lot about the ‘hot’ dwarves, but I didn’t feel particularly distracted by them. A few of the ‘background’ dwarves sort of blurred into one, and I’m not entirely comfortable with Bombur’s character essentially being ‘funny-because-fat’, but overall they felt true to the original spirit of the book. The Hobbit is in many ways a more joyous and light-hearted book than Lord of the Rings, and the more comedic aspects of the dwarves felt far more in keeping than Gimli’s ‘comedy dwarf’ persona in Jackson’s previous films. Moreover, as I watched, I realised that, seen as a complete work, we might even take Jackson as doing something rather clever. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are notably different in tone, and that makes for a challenge in presenting a cohesive world on screen whilst remaining true to the material. Seeing the dwarves together as sociable characters that like to mock each other and take everything in good humour, whilst also being capable of formidable warfare, Gimli’s character suddenly fell into place. He seems odd in Lord of the Rings because he is isolated from his culture and other people who are like him. I’m not saying that this completely overturns the flaws in Gimli’s presentation in Jackson’s previous films, but it does make for an interesting way to stitch the two tales back together and see a continuity of in-world culture that one becomes isolated from if one focuses on one specific story.

My only negative note on character presentation comes, surprisingly, for Galadriel. It will not surprise you to know that I am not against Jackson’s changes to squeeze female characters into the story by hook or by crook, and Galadriel was at least always a powerful figure in the original works. My problem is not with her inclusion so much as how she is treated on screen. Poor Cate Blanchett is subject to some very unfortunate and stilted blocking, and to a dress that, whilst stunning, is clearly almost impossible to move in without tripping up. She therefore alternates between standing unnaturally still and walking gracefully, but pointlessly, in slow steps designed to display the gown without tripping her up, and which bear little relation to probable moves the character would make in relation to her dialogue. I guess her strange movements and stillness are supposed to have an otherworldly impression, but I’ve never felt that an other-worldly air was a struggle for Cate Blanchett, and mostly came away thinking that the director and costume designer needed to step back and let her work, as opposed to treating her like a pretty pawn to move about the stage.

That said, Jackson did succeed in creating an impression of Galadriel’s power. In the magical actions she takes, and the understated ease with which she takes them, it is clear that she is a force above and beyond that of anyone else in the room: a knowledgeable weilder of a ring of power, in command of its abilities and capable of using it in more than the ‘accidental invisibility’ sense that we mostly see when the One Ring is used.

Above and beyond all these other performances, however, I have to take note of Andy Serkis as Gollum. He is, if anything, even better than his performance in The Lord of the Rings films. He strikes just the right balance of hauntingly pitiable and frighteningly repulsive. Truly, both Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman are to be commended for a flawless presentation of the riddling scene. And it really did have to be flawless. The keystone of the story, this scene is itself the most memorable – for me, and I’m sure for others. Much more so even those involving Smaug. The mix of humour and fear is carefully balanced, and all the iconic lines are delivered to perfection: what has it got in its pocketses


The added content makes the pacing a little uneven, but much less so than I expected. It’s a long film, and I would have appreciated an interval to go pee in (I had to skip out on the last bit of Sylvestor’s performance, in the end, which was a shame) but it actually does a pretty god job of maintaining interest and tension.

The big moments are handled well: the arrival of the dwarves in Hobbiton, the encounter with the Trolls, Bilbo’s finding of the ring and riddling for his life with Gollum.

The additional material fills in the world and makes a more solid connection with the other films. As well as the cultural connection mentioned above, there’s a lot of foreshadowing, and the connection of the One Ring with the events that follow in LotR is less a curio and more of a cohesive part of the sense of something dark building in the South.

We saw glimpses of the spiders in Mirkwood – I hope that’s not all we’ll see. The most terrifying part of The Hobbit, for me, was the capture of our heroes by the spiders, and I would feel let down if it were missed out, but we do still have three films left.

Similarly, I would have liked to have seen more of Thranduil, but that’s mostly because I have the hots for Lee Pace. And because if ever a man was born to play an elf, it is the 6’4″, svelt and graceful Mr Pace.

And in contrast to the grumblings I saw in other reviews, I was completely bowled over by the beauty of the 3D and Eleventy Vision.

Honestly, this is a moment of cultural significance: go see this in all its glory. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

*Eleventy because eleventy.

**I apologise for the excessively dark and yellow tint – not an ideal time of night for snapping pics on the laptop-cam, and it’s far too late at night for faffing around with Photoshop.