Though Avatar: The Last Airbender’s (Nickelodeon, 2005-2008) final episode aired 14 years ago, the television show left an unforgettable mark on its young audience. When the show started streaming on Netflix in 2020, waves of viewers returned to watch, including myself. Perhaps people found comfort in the show during the pandemic, and many new eyes were opened to the incredible art, moving storylines, and powerful social criticism about war, industrialism, and oppression.
For those who have not watched the show, some people in the world of Avatar are born with “bending” power, or the ability to manipulate one of the four elements (water, earth, fire, and air). Avatar follows the journey of Aang, the most recent reincarnation of the Avatar, the only person who can control all four elements. As the Avatar, Aang is connected to all his past selves and is the bridge between the mortal world and spirit world. In search of a way to defeat the tyrannical Fire Nation and restore balance to the world, Aang travels with water bender Katara and her brother Sokka. They are later joined by Toph, a blind earth bender who can sense motion and objects through the soles of her feet, and much later by Zuko, a reformed Fire Nation prince.
“Water. Earth. Fire. Air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.”
Every episode is introduced this way, reminding the audience that despite endearing storylines about love and friendship, the show exists always in the context of war, genocide, and diaspora. That context allowed Avatar: The Last Airbender to explore deeply complicated themes using a speculative world inspired by many cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Tibetan, and Inuit.
While there are several ways to analyze how that complicated world is rendered across each episode, I will focus on records, record-keeping, and documentation or “information-as-thing.” Information-as-thing applies to all kinds of tangible objects that embody knowledge. Documents are not the only records that contain essential information because “objects that are not documents in the normal sense of being texts can nevertheless be information resources, information-as-thing” (Buckland, 1991). A record can be a book. It can arguably be a fish (Ginsburg, Ruth B., Yates v. United States). Information-as-thing is usually manifested in something material, and people can read, see, interpret, misunderstand, understand, control, and destroy it.
Finding other forms of resources outside of paper is also important in Avatar. Posters, maps, and scrolls often guide the main characters to an insight, refuge, or even triumph – but these documents are corruptible, easily changed or destroyed. The authoritarian regime of Earth Kingdom city Ba Sing Se disposes of posters and pamphlets that counter the government’s messaging in ‘City of Walls and Secrets’ (2.14). The totalitarian Fire Nation has re-written its history books to better suit its narrative of conquest in ‘The Headband’ (3.2). If these tactics sound familiar from our own world, it’s because they are meant to. And much like in our world, the fragility of paper documents, erasures of history, and domination of information exchange often require the past to be reconstructed through cultural objects, ancient architecture, and other artifacts. Even in a world of earth bending, where someone could use her power to shatter stone carvings and sacred temples, there are many intact structures and objects scattered across the four nations.
You live in a technological fishbowl. Your life is ruled by television screens. The walls of your room are painted in technicolor pixels. During the day, you pedal on your stationary bike while watching screens. At night, the screens watch over you as you sleep, simulating the sun setting and then rising on a new day to see you return to the bike, going nowhere.
If this doesn’t sound like the most asphyxiating future to you, then you have become too accustomed to the daily grind. Such a live-work environment is depicted in the second episode of the first season of the sci-fi television series, Black Mirror: ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ (2011). In this dystopian future, the class structure of society is strictly hierarchical. The three classes even wear clothing denoting their social rank. Social mobility is possible, but only via a strictly monitored ‘merit-based’ system. Everyone dreams of becoming famous. So, what’s at stake here? Nothing less than our individual autonomy.
Timothy Morton is best known for their writing on ecology and as a philosopher who gave us the concept of ‘hyperobject’. While Spacecraft (2021) is only a small book of 129 pages, including index and notes, Morton has nevertheless written a dense but enjoyable book with a glittering insight on almost every page. Reviewing any book crammed with so many ideas is a challenge. Spacecraft is a heady mix of pop culture and philosophy, where it is difficult to pick out the unifying theory amidst the glare.
On one level, Morton has written a performative history of spacecraft, both speculative and real, in the media, with a particular focus on Star Wars. The book examines the role played by these vehicles, not the method of portraying them or the nuances of their design. While the principles may apply to all spacecraft, Morton’s sources are primarily drawn from within Western cultures, especially American. Essentially, spacecraft representations, according to Morton, performed one of the following functions:
the ark, carrying all remaining life forms, such as in Silent Running or the Jupiter ship in 2001
the juggernaut, destroying all before it, such as the Death Star and Imperial Cruisers in Star Wars or the militarized version of the Enterprise from Into Darkness
the frigate, a standard SF warship
the fighter, small military vessels such as the X-wing and TIE fighter
the explorer, such as scouts or shuttles
the machina cum dea, Morton’s phrase inverting the traditional deus ex machina, meaning an alien vessel that sweeps in to dispense justice. Examples being the UFO at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian or the TARDIS
the coracle, where the spacecraft is a spiritual craft on a mystical journey, such as the EVA pod in 2001 or the real Voyager I probe.
Morton makes a distinction between spacecraft and spaceship, for example, with respect to size, with starships being much larger. Furthermore, starships such as the Enterprise and an Imperial Cruiser are part of an established fleet with a large crew in a fixed hierarchy. In contrast, spacecraft are smaller, often with a fluctuating crew roster: people simply climb aboard one and fly away, such as happens repeatedly with the Millennium Falcon over many films, or The Heart of Gold in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Morton notes the “craft” aspect of the name, reflecting the skill required to fly the vessel. There is also a sense that these ships are being crafty, meaning cunning.
While Spacecraft draws on many sources, the book is at its heart a love letter to the Millennium Falcon. Morton clearly sees this vessel as the archetypal spacecraft as each chapter casts the Falcon in a new light. Spacecraft highlights the Falcon as a feminist vessel because when the revolutionary feminist robot L3-37 is damaged beyond repair, her data and personality are incorporated into the Falcon’s electronics in the Solo prequel: “The Falcon is then really a ‘she’ insofar as the Falcon is a feminist robot keen to liberate other robots from their status as slaves.”
The Millennium Falcon is also the third important non-human to appear in A New Hope. Moreover, the Falcon is adept at defying the forces of gravity in a film series all about the use of the force. Morton also highlights how the Millennium Falcon is the plot pivot in The Empire Strikes Back. Once the Falcon functions properly and engages the hyperdrive, with the help of R2-D2, the film is emotionally “over” and we await the sequel.
Spacecraft includes only four chapters and an introduction. Each chapter explores one aspect of spacecraft and the Millennium Falcon in particular. In the first chapter, Morton notes a recurring trait of garbage, or the “found-ness of objects”: “we need to consider the Falcon as pure contingency, as something that just happens to you, garbage or not”. The Falcon demonstrates this trait when Rey initially refuses to escape on a ship located off-screen in The Force Awakens, dismissing it as “garbage”. When her first choice spacecraft is destroyed, she concedes “the garbage will do” and we see her and Finn escape on the Falcon. Indeed, through the whole franchise the Falcon is repeatedly found just when it is needed.
Morton specifically notes the role of dirt in the Star Wars series. Unusually, all the good vehicles in these films are dirty, a notable difference from the Imperial vessels or a spaceship like Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. Dirt seems to be used as a signifier for the rebellion, while at the same time making the setting appear more real. After all, what actually is dirt? Morton shares the definition given by Mary Douglas in Purity and Danger of “matter in the wrong place”. How often is the Falcon in the wrong place? Taking the viewpoint of the Empire, the Falcon is forever in the wrong place, typically waiting to be found by one rebel faction or another.
This aspect of stumbling upon the Falcon is a focus of chapter two of Spacecraft. Here Morton explores the concept of spacecraft as winnings, such as how Lando won the Falcon in a card game. More broadly, spacecraft are often outright stolen and become the trophy of the escape. Once again, the Falcon is the epitome of the getaway vehicle, repeatedly evading Imperial entanglements in almost every appearance. Other stolen spacecraft include The Heart of Gold, The Liberator in Blake’s 7 and the TARDIS. Yet, so often these thefts are justifiable and necessary to escape the crimes committed by the state.
Morton’s third and longest chapter deals with hyperspace, that common avenue of escape. One example of a coracle is a passage from Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, where the Mariner is taken through the netherworld. To Morton this netherworld reads a lot like hyperspace:
And soon I heard a roaring wind:
It did not come annear;
But with its sound it shook the sails,
That were so thin and sere.
The upper air burst into life!
And a hundred fire-flags sheen,
To and fro they were hurried about!
And to and fro, and in and out,
The wan stars danced between.
Modern film depictions of hyperspace turn “fire-flags sheen” into a familiar visual, argues Morton. The dominant method arose from the slit-scan technique of computer animation pioneer John Whitney for Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958, that impressed Douglas Trumbull who made similar visual effects for To the Moon and Beyond, which in turn brought Trumbull to Kubrick’s attention. Trumbull was thus engaged to create the stargate sequence for 2001. A similar slit-scan technique was developed by graphic designer Bernard Lodge for Doctor Who and was applied in Nolan’s Interstellar in the tesseract scene.
In Morton’s view, hyperspace is a place of bliss and sensuality. Hyperspace is an expression of Gaussian geometry – the term Morton uses for not Euclidean (but euphoric) space-time. When the Falcon “makes” hyperspace, it is catapulted into a whirling, glittering realm of beauty. The visuals of hyperspace are a liquid tunnel that whisks spacecraft off. Morton invokes the feminist term circlusion, coined by Bini Adamczak to describe these visualisations in the media as circlusion of a spacecraft by hyperspace. The verb circlude was defined by Adamczak as describing any process of enveloping one thing with another: “Indeed circlusion is an extremely common experience of everyday life. Think of how a net catches a fish, how gums envelop their food, how a nutcracker crunches nuts, or how a hand encircles a joystick”.
This random, democratic and almost chaotic nature of hyperspace is contrasted in the conclusion with the precise orderliness of the Death Star or the Enterprise. These spacecraft resemble giant, open-plan offices in space. Such “middle class” workspaces seem so unlike the rogue-ish Falcon and its crew of misfits.
There are so many ideas in this small book that I have barely scratched the surface in this review, and I am sure that rereading it will uncover new ideas each time.
There is no particular issue with the timeline of the original 1973 film, Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton. It is set in the then near future, 1983, and the linear action takes place entirely within the Delos theme park. But when the film became the basis for the television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, Westworld (2016-present), time became a complex and confusing issue.
Nolan had already displayed a rather cavalier attitude towards time in his earlier television series, Person of Interest (2011-2016). The first series, first broadcast in the autumn of 2011, was set in 2012, but contained multiple flashbacks to events over the previous decade. Although these flashbacks are often dated, it can be difficult to construct a coherent timeline for the two principal characters, Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) and John Reese (Jim Caviezel). But when it came to Westworld, that tendency to play fast and loose with chronology became an often understated but defining characteristic of the series.
To date there have been three series of Westworld (it has subsequently been renewed for a fourth season). For convenience I will refer to Westworld Season One: The Maze as WW1 (2016), Westworld Season Two: The Door as WW2 (2018), and Westworld Season Three: The New World as WW3 (2020), each of which presents time in a different way, even though theoretically each is a direct sequel to the series before.
As I’ve done in past years, this won’t be a comprehensive overview of genre films and television of 2019. Instead, this is a selection of titles which are worth your attention. All were commercially released or reissued in the UK last year.
If in Groundhog Day it was Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” which heralded its protagonist’s recurring day ahead, in Russian Doll (on Netflix, eight episodes of just under a half-hour each) it was Harry Nilsson’s “Gotta Get Up”. It’s Nadia (Natasha Lyonne), again and again in the bathroom of her friend’s apartment while her own birthday party goes on. A cynical, New York thirtysomething, Nadia certainly has her share of damage, manifesting itself in casual drug use and equally casual sex. At the end of today, Nadia will die, she finds out … and then she’s back in that bathroom with Nilsson on the soundtrack. After several go-rounds she finds Alan (Charlie Barnett) in the same predicament.
Although she was one of three creators (along with Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler), Lyonne dominates the show. She wrote and directed the final episode and co-wrote another. Her chartacterisation inevitably brings resonances of her own personal history, including publicly-known issues with substance abuse. It’s a commanding performance in a miniseries which works out its premise in several interesting ways. The music works perfectly, from Nilsson at the outset to Love’s “Alone Again Or” in the final scene. A second season is on its way.Continue reading “2019 in TV and Cinema”→
Channel 4’s Humans was one of the big successes of the 2010s. It won many accolades across its three seasons, including a BAFTA. Based on a Swedish drama, Real Humans, it provided a timely reflection on the changes we are actually experiencing due to the rise of AI, but framed as a thriller set in a world of robots. In Humans, the robots look human but are machines with very Asimovian constraints on behaviours, constraints that sentience removes. Enter one group of robots who have moved beyond the programmed and are fully aware.
The essential story of season 1 is where I’d like to focus. The ingredients are a family strained by tensions, husband about to lose his job to a robot, a wife who is a busy, successful lawyer, and their three kids. Into their lives comes a robot with a buried sentience.
The first series inspires moral and legal questions. How fast does an artificial sentience grow relative to how we think of maturity in humans and when does it become responsible for its actions? Is there an equivalent period of ‘childhood’ for AI that should be reflected in the laws governing sexual consent? Who is developing a legal framework applicable to AI?
If this wasn’t ethically challenging enough, further themes explored in the series include whether it’s possible to love a robot (the conclusion being very much a ‘yes’) and an even deeper one: ‘is there a right to sentience?’.
Humans holds up a mirror to make us aware of how driven we are by appearances. The show is very deliberate with the blurring of boundaries when the robots look and behave as we think people do. While the cast went to synth school to learn how to not move like people, the plot depended on robots being able to pass for humans, sometimes in order to harm them.
The episode where Niska – one of the sentient robots – is on the run having murdered an abusive human, is a riff on the film Fight Club. She passes for human and is allowed to join in with a group (largely men) whose evening’s pleasure consists of beaten and destroying other robots. The robots look like people and are helpless. To all intents and purposes, the baying crowd were killing people they’d relabelled as objects. Sometimes it’s easy to despair of humanity.
It’s not clear we are anywhere close to answering any of the ethical questions raised by this show, while the rise of AI in the actual workplaces continues apace. Let’s hope we do a better job than Humans suggests we might.
As part of our 2018 Round-Up, Gary Couzens takes a look at some screen highlights.
As with last year, this isn’t meant to be a comprehensive review of the SF and fantasy films of 2018, but a highlighting of some titles worth seeking out, leaving out the obvious ones. Everything here, however, received a commercial release or a festival premiere in the the UK in 2018.
Fans of a certain vintage will have grown up following the adventures of the Space Family Robinson who were very much Lost in Space … though this involved being (mostly) trapped on a strange alien world, which happened to be prone to eccentric visitors. Child prodigy Will Robinson often took centre stage, trying to find the best in the conflicted villain Dr Zachary Smith, and often relying on the protection of The Robot.
The original Lost in Space was first aired between 1965 and 1968. If we skip quickly past the 1998 film, in 2018 it was the turn of the Netflix behemoth to reboot the show over ten expensively made episodes. Is it worth a watch, and – perhaps more importantly – is it still really Lost in Space?
The Robinson family persist, though it’s a more complex setup with Maureen and John now somewhat estranged and Judy being Maureen’s daughter by an earlier relationship. Maureen is very much a central heroic figure, scientist and leader, but she also has flaws – as shown by how far she is prepared to go to ensure Will can accompany the family into space.
If the family are updated, so too is the character of Don West, now a smuggling engineer rather than a Major who pilots the Jupiter 2. We still have the Jupiter 2, but now it’s a very well-equipped ship carried aboard a huge colony ship, The Resolute. As the show opens it’s not long before alien robots attack and the colonists must flee The Resolute to an unknown planet.
So far, so similar, and there’s even a Dr Smith – though this is a female psychopath played with dark chill by Parker Posey, and she’s really June Harris, who has taken Dr Smith’s identity for her own reasons. If that wasn’t enough to follow, the real Dr Smith is played by Bull Mumy, who played Will Robinson in the original TV series.
Once on the planet Will finds and befriends an all-powerful Robot who is a great piece of CGI but not quite in the spirit of the original. Will himself though is very well written and performed, and very much a real Will Robinson, if that means anything.
So, this reboot has the main ingredients, and sets them on a threatening alien world with a problem – it isn’t viable in the long term. There’s lots of shenanigans about fuel supplies, treachery and angst and one major difference from the original: the Robinsons aren’t alone!
Yes, the planet is temporary home to dozens of other Jupiter ships and their crews. This gives the central cast plenty of other characters to interact with, without resorting to the original show’s device of random aliens just arriving every week. There’s also a bigger story hidden in the background as we slowly learn why The Resolute was attacked, who the Robot is, and how far Dr Smith will go in her deceptions and her lust for power. Her character is consistently well written, and is one of the show’s real strengths.
The Robinsons’ interactions drive a lot of the episodes, either reacting to Dr Smith’s machinations, or attempting to escape from the planet, and there are plenty of opportunities to explore backstory, and for Maureen and John to build some bridges. If some of the main characters are updated, this feels less of a departure from the spirit of the original than the failure to leave the Robinsons isolated. But. Yes, there’s a but in the form of a (spoilers) new attack by super alien robots, some narrow escapes and – just as a happy ending looks possible – a surprise turn of events which does indeed leave the Robinsons and the Jupiter 2 truly lost in space.
Tony Jones has dined with royalty, supped slings in Singapore and been taught by several Nobel prize winners (though he could have paid more attention). He is a writer and blogger based in the early 21st century.
The Dragon Prince (Netflix Original, 2018), Dir: Villads Spangsberg, Giancarlo Volpe
The Dragon Prince – written by Avatar: TheLast Airbender head writer and executive producer Aaron Erhatz and co-director of computer game Uncharted 3: Drake’sDeception Justin Richards – is a high-fantasy animated Netflix series about step-brother princes Callum and Ezran, who team up with a would-be assassin, the moon elf Rayla, after the three of them discover that the last dragon egg, believed to have been destroyed, has in fact been hidden away as a dangerous weapon by their father’s adviser, the power-hungry mage Viren.
Callum, Ezran, and Rayla escape from the castle just before the other moon-elves attack and King Harrow is killed. Viren attempts to declare the princes dead and seize the throne, but is stopped after their aunt, General Amaya, reports seeing the princes alive. Viren’s children, Claudia the Mage and Crown Guard Soren, are sent to follow them, but each is given a secret mission on top of returning with the princes and the egg. Rayla, Callum and Ezran encounter other characters along the way, some helpful and some hindering, and they develop skills, talents and inner strength as they overcome dangers and difficulties.
The story is an exciting adventure with a fantasy setting written for pre-teen children. In the land of Xadia, where the elves and dragons reside, magic comes from natural sources. However, humans have been driven from Xadia to the Human Kingdoms after a Mage discovered Dark Magic, which exploits the powers of magical creatures, leading humans to enslave them. The war between the two countries has been going on since that time, although the egg could end it, as it would provide a guarantee of ongoing magical powers. It is clear that Viren has his own reasons for not wanting magic to continue.
This is not a perfect show by a long way. At nine episodes it rushes through the story, and Callum and Ezran’s characters are not given much chance to develop and remain rather stereotypical. Callum is the artistic older brother, who is not much good at princely arts of swordplay and horse-riding, but discovers he is a mage. Ezran is the fun-loving, rather greedy younger brother, who has a humorous pet, the glow-toad Bait. However, the conflicted elf assassin Rayla is a truly intriguing character, and I hope that we learn more about her in the next series.
I did particularly enjoy the very visible inclusion in the series. In an era where only 1% of children’s books published in Britain in 2017 had a protagonist of colour, according to research carried out for the Centre for Primary Literacy, it is wonderful to see a Black King, a mixed-race child protagonist, a stepchild who is not neglected and abused; the children’s aunt, their late mother’s sister Amalya, is a general in the King’s army who uses American Sign Language and has a translator. Giancarlo Volpe has said that the girl Ellis who joins the dragon’s egg protectors with her wolf Ava is based on Tibetan heritage. None of these inclusive depictions are plot points: they are just there for children to notice, or not. My stepson and I look forward to the second series.
Ali Baker is a lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at the University of East London and a researcher in children’s fantasy literature. She is the Programme Chair of Eastercon 2019, Ytterbiumcon.