The Last Enemy Redux

The last episode aired a couple of weeks ago, but what with one thing and another I’ve only just got around to watching it. When the series started, I said

What’s good about The Last Enemy as a drama is the direction, which manages to make any amount of staring at computer screens interesting, and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch as Ezard — he’s convincing as a man distinctly uncomfortable with much social interaction, yet nuanced enough to avoid cliche. And what’s good about The Last Enemy as science fiction is that it doesn’t try to do too much, that it follows the implications of its idea through quite thoroughly but (for the most part) doesn’t try to sensationalise them. Whether this will last is an open question: the producer has described the series as a “cautionary tale”, which rather suggests the ending will be exactly what you expect it to be, ie that the introduction of TIA is thwarted at the last moment, while recognising the irony that it’s helped to stop whatever dastardly plot is afoot. We shall see.

To update these points in order:

  • The direction and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch, did remain pretty good throughout, although the focus shifted to more dramatic subjects than computer screens, such as running around and explosions.
  • Probably the biggest plus in the series’ favour is that it seemed to be trying to show how a suite of present-day concerns — immigration, terrorism, security, underregulated pharmaceutical industry — might interrelate, without suggesting that any one of them was The Problem Of Our Times. Unfortunately, the ending they came up with was very much from the Giant Conspiracy school, which was rather too neat.
  • Which is to say that in the end, it did try to do much, not specifically because the science it described was (and the methods used to approach that science were) complete bobbins, but because it introduced a genie too big to be stuffed back into a bottle.
  • Which in turn is to say I was sort of half-right in my prediction for the ending. What is actually thwarted is the introduction of TIA: The Next Generation; TIA itself (unless I missed something) heads steadily towards implementation and is used by various characters throughout the series to find the next plot coupon.
  • To be fair to the ending, it did have characters recognise that they were trying to stuff a genie back into a bottle, and it was by no means kind to its protagonists; one Ezard ends up dead, while the other is utterly trapped by the existing surveillance technology; the girl ends up wandering free but alone.
  • Moreover, if it weren’t for the tub-thumping lectures about personal liberties in the last fifteen minutes — which most of the rest of the series managed to do without, trusting that it was showing the relevant points — I could have lived with it, even, particularly given the irony that the lectures were being delivered to the one government character who (unbeknown to the lecturer) might agree with some of them. As it is, my overwhelming sense was that the actual science fiction story, and the more interesting story, would be the one about what happens five years later, when the genie actually does get out into the world.
  • Summary: B for effort, C- for execution.

One to Watch

Tomorrow night, BBC4, 9pm: first in a three-part series called Worlds of Fantasy, which looks like it’s the fantasy equivalent of The Martians and Us. Maybe it’ll even pop up on iPlayer. Anyway, there’s a bit more detail about the first episode, “The Child Within”, in the press release:

In the last 10 years, fantasy writing has become one of the biggest-selling genres in publishing, spearheaded by the huge success of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.

In the first of a three-part series, this film explores the role of child heroes and heroines and asks why they have such an enduring appeal to writers of fiction for all ages.

The child hero goes hand in hand with fantasy writing, from Peter Pan to Harry Potter. In Victorian Britain, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies – part updated fairy story, part polemic on the use of child labour – centres on the imaginary life of the book’s 10-year-old sweep hero, Tom. In its wake came a number of novels that defined fantasy writing, including classics such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice adventures and JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

But as childhood changed through the 20th century, so did the child hero. After the Second World War, CS Lewis created the Narnia books as children’s fables, which also incorporated strong Christian themes. In the Sixties, writers such as Alan Garner and Roald Dahl brought a darker kind of fantasy for children, both psychological and bleakly humorous, while in the present day, Philip Pullman’s Lyra has become one of the defining child heroes of our age – naughty, playful, inquisitive, but with the fate of the world in her hands.

With contributions from Pullman, Garner, novelists Will Self and Alasdair Gray and critics (and obsessive Harry Potter fans), The Worlds Of Fantasy examines how the child hero grew up, and how fantasy grew with it to become the massive success it is today.

I wonder if they’ll get through the whole thing without saying “young adult”.

The Last Enemy

Well, I thought the first episode of The Last Enemy wasn’t bad at all. A near-future political thriller, the first episode sees mathematician Stephen Ezard returning to the UK for his brother’s funeral, after several years working in China, where as far as possible he lived the life of a recluse. This is of course conveniently creates plenty of opportunities for other characters to explain to him the developments in the UK political landscape that he’s missed — although pleasingly it’s assumed that some events, such as the “Victoria bomb” that killed 200-odd people and seems to have been a motivating factor behind the rapid introduction of ID cards, penetrated even Ezard’s veil of seclusion.

On his return, Ezard is recruited as a spokesperson for a private firm developing a system (known as TIA) that links up all the existing population databases to allow total surveillance. We’re told that the legislation needed to introduce TIA is pretty much a sure thing, and that Ezard is just wanted to smooth things over; after initial reluctance, he’s persuaded to help out, not so much because he thinks TIA is a good thing, or even because he’s mercenary enough to do it for the three years’ funding he’s offered in exchange, but because he wants to use TIA to do some searching himself. Specifically, he needs to find his brother’s wife, who’s vanished in mysterious circumstances; she may be connected to the appearance of a deadly (possibly weaponised) virus in Afghanistan.

That’s an extremely top-level summary of a rather twistily-plotted ninety minutes of television, and it’s fairly obvious we don’t yet know where all the connections being set up are really leading. What’s good about The Last Enemy as a drama is the direction, which manages to make any amount of staring at computer screens interesting, and the acting, particularly from Benedict Cumerbatch as Ezard — he’s convincing as a man distinctly uncomfortable with much social interaction, yet nuanced enough to avoid cliche. And what’s good about The Last Enemy as science fiction is that it doesn’t try to do too much, that it follows the implications of its idea through quite thoroughly but (for the most part) doesn’t try to sensationalise them. Whether this will last is an open question: the producer has described the series as a “cautionary tale”, which rather suggests the ending will be exactly what you expect it to be, ie that the introduction of TIA is thwarted at the last moment, while recognising the irony that it’s helped to stop whatever dastardly plot is afoot. We shall see.

Tangentially, in the same press release I linked above, writer Peter Berry says that The Last Enemy is “predictive, rather than science fiction”. This is clearly rubbish, but I’m not noting it in an as others see us way per se. What interests me is that (I assume) Berry said it because he felt the potential audience for his show was those who watched State of Play, not those who watch Doctor Who, and the question of whether or not that justifies his comment. I want to compare it to something John Jarrold said elsewhere, regarding publicity materials that pushed a debut sf novel (by one of his authors) as worthy of attention because the author is a woman (which is apparently rare and sure to see the book appear on sf award shortlists). What Jarrold said is:

most of these proofs will go to people who do not know the genre and its history as well as you and I do; they are largely meant for the general bookshops and mainstream reviewers. And I can tell you from my own experience that if you have ANYTHING that can be used as a hook to interest the Head Buyer of SF at W H Smiths, who purchases every SF and Fantasy title that appears in WHS across the UK, and can also gain interest in the world outside the SF coterie, you use it. Both those points — Jaine’s gender and the possibility of awards — are exactly that.

To me, what this attitude says, in both cases, is that it’s ok to say dumb, or misleading, or outright insulting things about a work if they result in attention being paid to the work itself. It also says that the people who are annoyed or insulted don’t matter, because they’re not the target of the remarks in question, and they’ll watch or read the work anyway. I can believe this is true — after all, I’ve just watched The Last Enemy, and I plan to read Principles of Angels — but I can’t help finding it a bit depressing.

Ooh

Guillermo del Toro will be directing The Hobbit.

Guillermo del Toro has officially signed up to direct The Hobbit, according to reports leaking out from a film premiere in France. The Pan’s Labyrinth creator will oversee a double-bill of films based on JRR Tolkien’s fantasy adventure, which paved the way for The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, director of the Oscar-winning Rings trilogy, will serve as executive producer.

Interesting choice. I can actually see this being better than if Jackson was directing, in some ways.

P.S. Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles — best new show of the 07/08 tv season? I love me some Pushing Daisies, but Sarah Connor is actual science fiction, so I am biased towards it. Particularly when they have John Connor mention the singularity.

Torchwood

Gareth David-Lloyd the only person involved with any discernible talent? Check.

Still wants to be Angel? So very badly.

Total Bollocks Overdrive? Present and correct. Or rather, as Nic points out, present and very very wrong.

Ah, welcome back Torchwood. It’s like you’ve never been away, but not in a good way. Also, I’m not entirely certain that responding to criticisms that everyone in Torchwood is an idiot by writing a plot that depends on the fact that everyone in Torchwood is an idiot was the right choice for the episode that relaunches the show. But hey, at least it had Spike in it. If you like Spike. Which I don’t.

Save Heroes

Here:

We need to write a detailed critique of the plot, character, race and gender elements of Heroes. We need to have one place where the producers and writers of Heroes can come and find what fandom has to say on these issues.

That’s the purpose of this website. We don’t need to Save Heroes from cancellation or network misuse, we need to Save Heroes from itself. Because it’s not a lost cause. It’s still capable of being the amazing show it was in season one. No, it’s capable of being even better.

[…]

Timeline

Week of November 19 – 25
Putting together the first draft – accepting comments/links/contributions from all fans

November 26 – 28
Creating the first draft, soliciting input from contributors.

December 3rd
Final draft ready.

Catching Up

Or, well, not really catching up at all. But at least putting something up here, so that you don’t all think I’ve dropped off the edge of the world. So what have I been doing?


Reading: Mostly Clarke Award submissions, of course, about which I cannot speak. (The pile is now down to just over knee-height, or about 66cm, which means I’ve got to read about 8mm of book a day, or near-as-dammit 100 pages.) However, I have managed to fit in a few other things. Notably, like a few others of this parish, at the end of last week I received a proof copy of the new Iain M. Banks novel, Matter, and immediately put all else aside. (Well, I had to get it read before the BSFA meeting interview a week on Wednesday, didn’t I?) Having just finished it, I can say that (1) I will have more to say about it later, and (2) it’s good, possibly very good, and (at least compared to The Algebraist, of which I was not particularly fond) a real return to form. I’ve also, in my lunch hours, been making my way through Jonathan Strahan’s new anthology, Eclipse, about which I may well say more later this week; and I finally got around to reading Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, which is as beautiful and moving as everyone has said it is.


Planning: Once again this has already been reported elsewhere, but the 2008 SFRA conference, which was going to take place in Dublin, has been relocated to Lawrence, Kansas, where it will be held jointly with the 2008 Campbell Conference. This is disappointing, since I’d been looking forward to going, and there’s no way I’m going to get to Kansas at that time of year; it also means that the second SF Foundation Masterclass in criticism is being relocated, although in that case to London, which is actually somewhat more convenient for me than the usual venue (Liverpool). So I still plan to apply for the Masterclass, even if I haven’t got around to it yet.

Somewhat more imminently, I’m moving house! On the 8th of December, to be precise, if all goes according to plan. So at the moment, on top of two hours’ commute a day and those 100 Clarke pages and Strange Horizons work and Vector work, I’m attempting to organise removals and boxes and all the other logistics of moving. So it’s entirely probable that things will stay quiet around here until the New Year — although I have big plans for when I’ve freed up a bit more time, don’t worry.


Watching: Not a huge amount of this going on at the moment. I’m still enjoying Pushing Daisies, which is interesting given that I wasn’t a huge fan of either of Bryan Fuller’s last two series, Dead Like Me and Wonderfalls. The difference that makes Daisies, I think, is the extreme and conscious artificiality of the whole enterprise. The most fantastical thing about it, in many ways, is not Ned’s magical ability, but the technicolour world in which Ned lives. I’m still enjoying Heroes, more than not, anyway; I’m a little bit concerned by the interview Kring gave, because while I agree with some of the things he identifies as flaws, I don’t agree with all of them, I don’t agree with the fixes when I do agree they’re flaws, and there are issues with the portrayal of various characters that he doesn’t touch on at all. This last is understandable, perhaps — saying to Entertainment Weekly, “yeah, we know [plot point or character] came over as [racist|sexist], but we’re going to fix that” strikes me as a good way to commit commercial suicide. But the rest seems to assume that the root problem is not giving the audience what it wants, rather than executing the writers’ vision badly. Case in point: saying that Monica, Maya and Alejandro “shouldn’t have been introduced in separate storylines that felt unnattached to the show”. Yes, they should have been; that’s one of the things that will help to differentiate Heroes, to give it scope and a sense that there’s more to the world than just New York. The flaw is not introducing separate storylines, but introducing separate storylines that the audience didn’t connect with. (Although personally speaking, I thought they were strong.) The same goes for Kring’s comments about pacing: I don’t care whether Heroes tells stories about people discovering their powers or whether it sticks with the people we know. I’d be happy if they dumped the whole cast at the end of a season and started with a clean slate the following year — as long as the stories being told are interesting. (In point of fact, I think Peter and Sylar have both outstayed their welcome; they were both so intimately tied to the season one story arc that they can’t help feeling like spare wheels now.) I do agree with Kring about one thing — no romance — but that’s only because so many shows do revolve around romance that it’s refreshing when one doesn’t.


And some links to finish:

And that’s your lot.

Dax

As I mentioned in the comments of a recent post, I’m in the process of rewatching the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In the great Babylon 5 vs. DS9 rivalry, I started out firmly in the B5 camp, and ended up firmly in the DS9 camp — despite the fact that I missed large chunks of the later seasons. As a result, collecting the DVD sets and rewatching the whole show from start to finish has been a vague ambition of mine for some time. I was finally spurred into action by the confluence of (a) being bought the first season for my birthday and (b) the desert that is the summer tv schedule.

Given that it’s received wisdom that DS9 didn’t get good until the Defiant turned up (which in turn created the received wisdom that it takes three seasons for Trek shows to find their feet), my expectations for the season weren’t particularly high, and so far — with the exception of the pilot, “Emissary”, which turned out to be really quite good — they’ve been met. Abigail made reference to Trek‘s “overpowering squareness“, and it’s certainly something the early DS9 struggles, not very successfully, to avoid. The most interesting characters are almost all the outsiders — the acerbic, abrasive Odo, of course, but also weaselly Quark (I haven’t had to sit through any Ferengi comedy yet), and the rather wonderful Major Kira. I’m enjoying Avery Brooks’ performances as Ben Sisko more than I did first time around, probably because I can see the roots of what he becomes in later seasons, but you can see that neither writers nor actor have really got the hang of how best to deploy the character’s mix of iron authority, explosive anger, and occasional ebullience.

Although there are glimpses. In the episode I’ve just watched, “Dax” — in which Jadzia Dax is put on trial for treason and murder originally committed in the symbiote’s previous life, as Curzon Dax — there’s a marvellous little scene in which Sisko and Kira double-team the man trying to extradite Jadzia, Ilon Tandro (played by President Logan Gregory Itzin). Tandro’s people have a treaty with the Federation that allows “unilateral extradition” (God knows how that one got signed), which they invoke when their initial attempt to kidnap Jadzia Dax is thwarted; but of course, Deep Space Nine is technically a Bajoran station:

TANDRO:
That’s absurd. No Bajoran interests are even involved here.

KIRA:
How did you people know your way around this station so well?

TANDRO (with disdain):
My conversation is with the Commander.

SISKO (stepping back):
No, I think your conversation is with my First Officer now.

KIRA:
You Klaestrons are allies of the Cardassians. Your knowledge of this station confirms that. They must have given you the layout, which not only comprises Bajoran security but also … [beat, then with a certain amount of relish] annoys us.

SISKO (faux-apologetic):
I’m afraid it means Bajoran interests are involved. And Bajor is adamant that — [courteous, directed at Kira] At least, I believe it’s adamant —

KIRA (definite relish now):
Oh yes, adamant.

SISKO:
You see. There will have to be an extradition hearing before I can lawfully release Lieutenant Dax.

I never thought I’d say find myself watching an incarnation of Star Trek for the characters, but here I am. Every episode so far has featured one or two wonderful nuggets of interaction like this — or a great guest star; “Dax” features Anne Haney as the fabulously crotchety arbitrator of the extradition hearing (“I’ll start with some informal advice to all: I’m one hundred years old. I’ve no time to squander listening to superfluous language. In short, I intend being here until supper, not senility. Understood?”). Which is just as well, since the plots have been almost uniformly lame. “Dax” is a transparent excuse to explain Trills to the viewers; the exploration of the putative issue at hand is somewhat half-hearted (certainly in comparison to The Next Generation‘s Data-on-trial episode, “The Measure of a Man”), and in the end the question is dodged entirely by having Dax’s innocence revealed just as Dax is finally asked, directly, whether she considers herself responsible for Curzon’s crimes. The secondary theme — the exploration of Dax and Sisko’s friendship; after all, Sisko is in the position of having to prove that Jadzia Dax is not his friend, when he’s spent the previous six episodes trying to convince himself that she is — is also underdeveloped. More evidence of Trek‘s squareness, perhaps; a lingering unwillingness to really delve into interpersonal conflicts between members of the Federation.

Of course DS9 improves, until it becomes the show of later seasons, a show both bolder and more subtle than the one I’m watching at the moment, probably peaking in the sixth season with episodes like “Far Beyond the Stars” and “In the Pale Moonlight”. The high-point of B5, at least for me, is the station’s declaration of independence from Earth. It strikes me now that DS9 made a more gradual declaration of independence of its own, one that I’m still eager, if a little impatient, to revisit.