Utopia

(Saturday’s Doctor Who episode, that is.)

Not bad, in parts, but I can’t help feeling that doing an end-of-time episode and not getting Stephen Baxter to write it is rather missing an opportunity.

EDIT: I have to admit, this is not an objection I’ve seen about new Who before.

it seems like the premise has always been about someone who is, by choice or by chance, the perpetual outsider. Now that seems like a superficial aspect of the show, a way to increase a character’s social status rather than increase understanding. It seems to no longer be an inclusive universe; certainly it feels like one where I’m not particularly welcome, simply for being female.

John From Cincinnati

The short version? I thought it was interesting. The critical reception of John From Cincinnati has not been kind. A cynic might point out that since almost every review can’t help measuring it against either Deadwood (David Milch’s previous show, cut down in its prime if you believe its supporters) or The Sopranos (the finale of which was the lead-in to John‘s premiere), or both, despite the fact that John From Cincinnati is plainly ploughing a different furrow, this is not entirely surprising. And some of the objections do seem odd: I didn’t feel the least bit assaulted by bombast; neither did I find it maddeningly uneventful and cryptic. A better comparison, which some of the reviews do make, would be with Carnivale (an even better comparison is tickling the back of my brain, and I’ll let you know if I manage to pin it down), although for my money what makes John is actually the ways in which it’s different to Carnivale. The atmosphere is less overwhelming and certainly less exotic, while the characters, principally the three generations of Yost men (surfers or ex-surfers all, from wearily angry Mitch through his son, washed-up Butchie, to his son, prodigy Shaun), cast smaller shadows; all of which means that the small miracles that attend mysterious John’s arrival seem somehow sharper, more out-of-place. John’s pockets seem to contain whatever the person talking to him wants them to contain (money, ID, a phone); Mitch briefly floats a few inches off the ground for no apparent reason; and when a series of improbable coincidences bring most of the cast together for the episode’s dramatic high-point, one of them comments on how “circumstances have intervened”. He doesn’t seriously mean it, but we’re left wondering. Some of the criticisms, though, are fair. The claim that the series needs a compelling antihero to center the drama and bring it to life may be daft, but it’s heading in the direction of the most obvious absence, which is the absence of a story. My guess is that this is intentional, that John will catalyse events (he has, literally, no personality of his own, bouncing back almost exclusively learned phrases at those he speaks to, plus a couple of others — “the end is near” and “some things I know and some things I don’t” — that he may have learned before we met him, so it’s hard to imagine him being involved in or changed by events directly), that the point of the show will turn out to be its characters finding a story to live. But a lot hinges on how far Milch wants to go with his fantasy.

Standalone vs. Serial

So it seems that Heroes is killing Lou Anders’ love of episodic television:

What [Heroes is] doing that is making it for me is that it seems to be leaving the episodic nature of television behind completely. Sometimes they’ll run a “To be continued” and this just blows my mind, because in a show where everything seems to be carried forward and thru, I can’t figure out when they decide something is “to be continued” and something isn’t. I think it’s just to give us a break from the horrid voice overs, since the TBC episodes don’t have one at the end and start. What Heroes is doing to me and my wife is showing us the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.

I am actually very disturbed by this.

Because that’s how most television has been written since the medium’s inception.

I always prided myself on not being one of those people who can’t watch black and white film or refuse to watch things because they are old or the special effects aren’t up to today’s standards. My excuse was always that it’s the story that matters, not the set dressings. But Heroes is doing fundamentally different things with story. I know this began with St Elsewhere and Babylon 5 and a dozen other shows over the last decade, but the level of inter-connectivity, non-episodic format is to an entirely new degree. Rome does this too — they are really neck and neck for my affection and it’s probably just that I’m more into comics than history that puts Heroes ahead — but Rome feels just a touch more episodic.

What I’m realizing is that changes in the sophistication of narrative may forever remove me from the garden and I’m not sure I can go back.

To put it mildly, I have some problems with the value judgements being made in this argument. Before I get to them, though, a quick defining of terms: by “episodic”, I am assuming Lou is talking about series in which installments can be treated independently, even if they are embedded in a larger continuity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example, was an episodic show, although it became less so as it went on (to its detriment). I’m going to call the non-episodic format “serial”, by which I mean series like 24. You can watch, say, “Band Candy” with minimal knowledge of previous Buffy, and it’ll work fine. You can’t do the same with episode 13 of the fifth season of 24. The term “arc”, I would argue, is somewhat meaningless when applied to a serial show, because in a serial show there is only arc — there’s no “non-arc” for contrast.

Next up, areas of agreement. Television drama — or at least US television drama; British tv has certainly had short self-contained serials for as long as I can remember — evolved primarily as an episodic medium. More recently — again, particularly in the US — there has been a shift away from episodic storytelling and towards serial storytelling, although I don’t agree that Heroes represents anything more than, at most, an incremental advance in this trend. (And believe me, I like Heroes a lot.) I don’t know how long the current absurd practice of an October-to-May “season” punctuated by sweeps months and periods of hiatus has been operating, but you only have to look at the way shows like Buffy would “save up” showpiece episodes and/or big plot developments for November, February and May to see how it’s affected the structure of US shows, to the point where the decision a few years ago to start the season of 24 in January and run straight through — without breaks! — to May felt genuinely radical.

This, not unnaturally, leads to the assumption that a given number of episodes in a season are filler, just there to make up the numbers. I think this is a deeply suspect assumption, but I also get the impression it may be one of the factors that leads to Lou talking about Heroes as an example of narrative sophistication: a series where every episode is essential is obviously superior, right? But that’s not the part that really gets me: what I object to most are the assumptions in the idea that Heroes is an argument against “the absurdity of dramas that start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end.”

On any given day, my list of favourite Buffy episodes — which of course I’d argue is representative of the best episodes — would include “Lie to Me” or “Earshot”, possibly both; my list of favourite Angel episodes would include “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been”; my list of favourite Farscape episodes would include “…Different Destinations”. My list of favourite West Wing episodes would probably be comprised almost entirely of standalones, because with a couple of exceptions (end of season two) that show didn’t do much serial storytelling. All of the episodes I’ve named start out at the beginning of the hour with a problem and resolve it by the end. But “Lie to Me” is the finest articulation of Buffy‘s core morality the show ever produced, “Earshot” possibly the finest articulation of the high-school-is-hell theme; “Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been” is a devastatingly powerful story about, among other things, race in 1950s America; “…Different Destinations” is arguably the best televisual time travel story of the past decade; and The West Wing never failed to deal with whatever issue it chose in a thoughtful and engaging way. Put bluntly, the point is this: an hour (or rather, 45 minutes) is plenty of time to tell an interesting, powerful, self-contained story.

Nor is the difference between the individual episode and the serial one of sophistication, any more than the difference between a short story and a novel is one of sophistication. That’s an imperfect comparison, but the basic point is easily demonstrated: probably my favourite Firefly episode is “Out of Gas”, which has a narrative that weaves between three time-frames with an almost breathtaking economy and grace. It is, by any measure, a sophisticated narrative. Heroes hasn’t produced an episode to match it yet — even “Company Man”. I would go so far as to say that Heroes taken as a whole doesn’t match it yet. Certainly serial storytelling has qualities that episodic storytelling can’t replicate: an accumulation of detail, a more sustained period of engagement with the tale. But consider Battlestar Galactica, which has been alternating unevenly between periods of serial storytelling and periods of episodic storytelling since its inception. The serial episodes are, almost without exception, the better episodes of the show (the creative peak is probably the start of season two), but — though I’ve seen the suggestion made several times — the disparity has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of the two types of storytelling. Serial is no easier or harder to get right than episodic; they’re different skill sets. So the problem with Galactica is not that it’s turning out standalone episodes, it’s that it’s turning out bad standalone episodes — ones that do offer too-easy answers, that rely heavily on melodrama, convenience and cliche. Serial storytelling is just as easy to do badly: look at Lost. If I wanted to, in fact, I’m pretty sure I could construct an argument that the pleasures of serials are often ultimately simplistic, familiar, consolatory pleasures — but I don’t want to, because that would be just as much a misrepresentation as the idea that a serial is more “sophisticated” than a standalone.

I feel a little weary typing all this, because I’ve been coming across variations of Lou’s argument more or less since I came online. One of the most succinct rebuttals I’ve seen in that time is, perhaps not surprisingly, by David Hines, from his review of the Angel episode “Through the Looking Glass” (the penultimate episode of the second season, while they’re in Pylea). As it happens, I think “Through the Looking Glass” is an odd choice to use as a defence of the principle, since it’s part of a mini-serial, just a mini-serial that appeared less related to the show’s larger continuity than many people would have liked. But on that principle, I think Hines is dead right.

Did I enjoy the Darla/Dru arc? You betcha. Have the writers stepped away from that a bit for more standalone-ish episodes? Yeah. Is there anything wrong with that? Nope. I enjoy story arcs as much as the next guy. But there’s something more important than story arcs — and that’s telling *good stories.* I don’t care what ANGEL tells stories about, as long as the show tells good stories. If the writers felt inclined to make season three an all-standalone year, that would be fine by me; many of ANGEL’s very best episodes (even this season) have been standalones, and I’ll take a story like “Untouched” over one like “Redefinition” any day of the week. Other shows, including one from Mutant Enemy, have gone story-arc crazy and suffered. Give me a good tale well-told any day.

Heroes Hits the UK

Two contrasting views in the Times, keeping up the standard we expect. Caitlin Moran is (slightly incoherently) for:

Many of my acquaintances have been “fat-piping” this off the net for weeks — mainly, I thought, for the thrill of being 43 years old and otherwise fairly respectable, but then being able to say “Whoo-wee, I’ve been fat-piping Heroes off the net” and making it sound like hot drugs or something. But, of course, Heroes is drugs. The tape I was sent had the first two episodes on, and even though I had had four hours’ sleep the night before, and didn’t finish watching the first episode until 1am, I didn’t hesitate for a moment before putting on episode two. Frankly, if they’d sent me the whole series, you’d be sitting here looking at a blank page, and my emaciated children would now be in care.

[…]

But the big news is that this is big news. Heroes is going to ruin your life (and if not now, then certainly when it comes to BBC Two in a couple of months).

You have now been chosen.

You’re going to find yourself interlinked with a shadowy brother-ship of “special” people across the world — geeks with fat tubes. You could be Heroes, just for the next couple of years.

Kevin Maher is (snarkily, and in the end somewhat tiresomely) against:

Holy creative inertia, Batman! Not more crypto-fascist fantasies of omnipotence disguised as mainstream entertainment and peddled by an increasingly decrepit and, frankly, comic book-obsessed popular culture! If anything, the much-hyped Heroes (Sci-Fi Channel) proved conclusively that, given the right flashy production values and cod-philosophical Weltschmertz, there are no subjects and no areas of modern life that cannot be infected by the inane juvenilia of comic-book lore.

Here the set-up was achingly familiar. A group of anodyne mostly white American catalogue models discovered that they had hitherto unexplored superpowers. “Tiny variations in man’s genetic code are taking place at rapid rates,” explained the show’s Indian, and thus quasi-spiritual, narrator Sendhil Ramamurthy before introducing us to a quintet of protagonists who could variously walk on air, stop time and live for ever — although noble-hearted internet stripper Niki (Ali Larter) clearly drew the short straw here by being lumbered, it seemed, only with the ability to see a sneering, slightly smug version of herself every time she looked in the mirror.

Naturally, ever keen to reveal its own genetic heritage, Heroes repeatedly treated us to scenes of characters reading comic books, painting giant comic-book pictures, and discussing comic-book stories — you just know you’re in a Geek Tragedy when X-Men and Star Trek are referenced in the same line of dialogue. Which might, in theory, have been fine if Heroes had stayed within the kitschy world of fantastical narratives established by the likes of X-Men and The Fantastic Four. But, no, this show had bigger thematic fish to fry.

Hence, before the first 20 minutes were up Heroes had invoked the political crisis in the Middle East, bus bombings in Israel and, of course, September 11. All of which were going to be solved, the show announced in its opening title crawl, by a handful of modern mutants with special abilities.

Now, personally, I find it both morally and artistically repugnant that the most urgent political crisis of our time, one that’s currently claiming thousands of lives every month, can be denuded of all context and cheerily coopted by the wish-fulfilment fantasies of some insular adolescent jerks. It is, surely, a sign of growing American political apathy when the cultural response to the Iraq crisis is simply to send Magneto into Baghdad. What’s next? Spider-Man for president? Wonder Woman at the UN? Or would that just be silly?

My Science Fiction Life

I’m a sucker. I was genuinely looking forward to My Science Fiction Life. Yes, on the one hand, it was a documentary about science fiction fans, and we know how those turn out. On the other hand, though, it was on BBC4, and it was coming at the tail-end of a perfectly respectable season of sf-related programming, and they’d gone to the trouble of sending a camera crew to a First Thursday, and they were going to be drawing talking heads from the general public. The signs were good, I tell you.

But look how it turned out. For starters, the format was a million miles away from The Martians and Us. I don’t mean that My Science Fiction Life should have been deadly serious — clearly that would have been disastrous in its own special way — but that it would have been nice to have got a sense that the programme-makers respected their subjects. Many of the contributions from the real people who contributed to the MSFL website (including Paul Cornell! Of whom more anon) were saying perfectly reasonable things, in good humour, in response to some pretty daft questions. But the frame that was built up around them made them seem, by association, like pedigree oddballs.

The opening narration, even, was quite promising, saying things like “science fiction fascinates everyone from bus drivers to brain surgeons, up and down the country”. The programme proper, though, was divided into segments, each of which was built around an interview with A. Person with a Science Fiction Life, and supplemented with the aforementioned MSFL interviews, and clips from sundry sf shows and films, and you can see where this is going already, can’t you? So, yes, under “They came from outer space” we got Jeff Wayne and Nick Pope, and under “Man & Machine” we got the ever-more-bonkers Kevin Warwick (and an atrociously misrepresentative piece of narration along the lines of, “From Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL to Isaac Asimov’s renegade I, Robot, that recently starred alongside Will Smith, science fiction writers have been imagining the damage that out-of-control machines could do”), who revealed that he had been first inspired by none other than Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man. Under “Designs on the Future” (probably the best segment) we got Will Alsop, who revealed that Blade Runner is an architects’ favourite, and talked about redesigning Barnsley; and under “The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything” we got everything from Scientology (although that was introduced with a rather nice interview clip: “L. Ron Hubbard, do you ever think that you might be mad?” “Oh, yes.”) to the vicar who uses Star Wars and Star Trek in his sermons.

It rapidly became staggeringly obvious that for all that My Science Fiction Life had looked like it was going to be about the communities that have built up around science fiction, what the producers actually wanted to make was a programme about the people who take sf, or sf-related pursuits, to extremes. I’m trying not to be either too flippant or too grumpy here, since I realise that arguably any attempt by sf fans to explain the fundamental appeal of sf — to say that, yes, thinking about the future and about possibility matters — is liable to end up looking either over-earnest or just a bit barmy. But as it turned out, the gestures My Science Fiction Life made in that direction were superficial at best. The narration would make the (quite reasonable) point that sf can be a venue for looking at moral and ethical questions; cut to scientology and the sf priest. The narration would make the (perfectly understandable) point that our living spaces are likely to change in the future; cut to the man who’s made his flat into a Star Trek flat. And they didn’t use any of the footage from their trip to First Thursday, after all, although in the final analysis that’s probably a blessing.

But there was a bright spot, at least for me: Paul Cornell, who (bafflingly) was just listed as a MSFL contributer (rather than as, say, a writer of Doctor Who and other sf), but whose oblivious enthusiasm for his science fiction life shone through every time he was on-screen. He got the last word before the credits, too, with the rather endearing observation that “Oddly, without science fiction, I would be unmarried, lonely, and penniless.” Which is, it seems to me, as good a note as any on which to say that I’m off to the wilds of York, with little more than an 1,100 page Thomas Pynchon novel to sustain me, to spend a few days with people I wouldn’t have met except for my science fiction life. I’ll be back next Wednesday or so with best-stuff-of-the-year posts. Happy New Year, everyone!

Salon Fantastique: My Travels with Al-Qaeda

It’s a sneaky trick, this book: an unthemed anthology prettied up to look like a themed one. [EDIT: But see the comments] Why such fancy-dress should be necessary is unclear to me, but apparently it is (at least, with a couple of small-press exceptions, unthemed anthologies seem to be few and far between at the moment), and if that’s what it takes to give me the kind of enjoyable whiplash that going from “Concealment Shoes” to “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” gave me then, well, that’s what it takes. That said, the jump between Youmans’ story and this is only an exaggerated version of the jump between Shepard’s and di Filippo’s, or di Filippo’s and Youmans’. Theme anthologies are all very well, but they don’t tend to give you the sense of possibility, or the shock of the unexpected, that Salon Fantastique is giving me.

Not that the fragmented style, insistent tone, or serious subject of Lavie Tidhar’s story were, in themselves, surprises. Reading “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” after an extremely conventional story like “Concealment Shoes” made those aspects stand out, but in the last twelve months, Tidhar has published a bunch of stories, in venues like SCIFICTION, Clarkesworld Magazine and Strange Horizons; and most of them have been, in one sense or another, bold. They may not have been entirely successful (“My Travels with Al-Qaeda” isn’t quite a home run, either), but they almost always feel like Tidhar has something to say, and is trying to find the best way to say it.

This time around, “something to say” is a meditation on the aftershocks of terrorism, and “the best way” is fragmentation. “My Travels with Al-Qaeda” contains more subsections than pages, and despite its brevity includes two poems (both by Israeli writer Lior Tirosh who, if Google and the law of conservation of initials are anything to go by, is fictional) and two brief statements, by Martin Ayub and Khalid Saleh, taken from real FBI transcripts made in the wake of the 1998 US Embassy bombings. The fictional meat of the story focuses on a couple, a woman called Alyson and the unnamed (male?) narrator, and is stitched out of vignettes set in, primarily, Dar-es-Salaam in 1998, Tel Aviv in 2004, and London in 2005.

What is actually happening is unclear — one senses that Tidhar knows but, either deliberately or inadvertently, has not left quite enough textual clues for the reader to be able to piece together the backstory with certainty. “I keep going back to the disaster areas”, the narrator tells us at the start of the story; one interpretation of the last sentence is that this is literally true, that the 1998 bombings caused the narrator to come unstuck in time, Billy Pilgrim style, and that some attractive force exerted brings them back into the world at or near similar events. Another interpretation is that events are simply being told out of sequence: we also told “Perhaps it starts, if it starts at all, in July 2005”. Those appear to be the two poles of the story, at any rate. “Somehow,” the narrator says, “we are caught between these two summers, and the seasons freeze”; later, he likens their experience to a videotape played over and over again, looped with no resolution. A third interpretation is that the story is a dream, a jumbled up mash of recollection and imagination. This would suit the narrator’s omniscience, and their apparent ability to know what the other characters in the story are thinking, are dreaming.

To a large extent, it doesn’t matter which is the case. The power of the story — which is considerable — is in its effect on the reader. “Just another collapsed dream” is how one of the poems describes the ruins of the American Embassy in Nairobi, and whether the phrase is original to Tidhar or borrowed from Tirosh, the feelings of helplessness and resignation that it implies saturate the story. The world itself becomes oppressive — “August heat squats over low buildings” and “Night covers the tarmac as if trying […] to hide the city’s flaws” — and for a dozen pages or so, we are trapped in the loop with the narrator. But even when we’ve turn the page and escaped, the effect of the story lingers: we remember the urgency and economy of the telling, and the sharp sudden pains that are told.

Recent TV

So what’s the current feeling about Battlestar Galactica? I’ve been lagging behind real-time in my viewing, so I haven’t really read any commentary on the show since they left New Caprica. I thought “Torn”/”A Measure of Salvation” did good work on the Cylons, but cheated on the humans horribly, and that “Hero” and “The Passage” were about on a level with the second half of season two, with some nice moments and some less nice. (From “The Passage”, aka the Jane Espenson episode, I’m keeping the moment where Adama and Tigh collapse in hysterics as one of the absurdities of their ration situation hits home, and I’m trying to forget the frantic handwaving necessary to make the A-plot work.) And then there was “Unfinished Business”, aka The Boxing Episode, which was just a bit of a mess, really. From the teaser — a montage of stark, semi-related images, set to a soundtrack of slow, cold strings is fast becoming one of the show’s cliches — to the resolution, there was very little in the way of surprise, which is more of a shame than it would normally be, given that this was probably our one chance to see some of what happened in the missing year on New Caprica. Compared to, say, Diane Ruggiero’s use of flashbacks in Veronica Mars‘ “A Trip to the Dentist”, or Tim Minear’s use of them in Firefly‘s “Out of Gas” — both episodes designed to provide backstory that’s been informing the present story — Michael Taylor’s structuring of this episode looks distinctly amateur-hour. Too much material is repeated to no good effect. Starbuck and Apollo remember the same events, and the meaningful glances become very old, very fast, which is probably why the single biggest structural problem I’d point to is that the episode has the wrong emotional climax. Even if you’re particularly invested in the concept of Starbuck/Apollo (and I’m not), I think you have to concede that it’s not the Epic Romance that the last few minutes of “Unfinished Business” try to sell us. On the other hand, while the Adama flashbacks are arguably just as unsatisfying as the Starbuck/Apollo ones (cute though it is to see the fleet’s leaders giggling like schoolkids), some of them do set up Adama’s fight against the Chief, which is utterly riveting. It’s not clear whether Adama was looking for an excuse to get himself beaten up, or whether he felt it was necessary to give the crew the closure they needed, or both, or something else: either way, the long beat after his defeat, before his speech, is the single most powerful moment Galactica has generated this season.


One of the things that’s marked out Galactica all along is its tendency to include episodes, like “Unfinished Business”, that have absolutely no need to be sf, and could be transplanted wholesale to a more contemporary setting. That’s not an accusation you could ever level at Heroes, to which I now freely admit I’m addicted. Of course, the foregrounding of speculative elements in Heroes isn’t why the show works, per se, although it sure doesn’t hurt; the secret of its success is largely in its plotting. The decompressed, immaculately-woven tapestry of story threads feels, at least to me, like one of the things the show has most successfully ported from its source medium (although it’s worth noting that Galactica at its best, and in particular at the start of season two, has also used such techniques, so it’s not exactly a pure comics tradition). In that and many other ways, it’s fair to say that Heroes has become exactly what I hoped it would be when I first wrote about it, and fittingly the “fall finale”, Joe Pokaski’s “Fallout”, is the strongest episode of the season to date. Somewhere on livejournal I saw someone say that “Fallout” was made up of nothing but moments that would have been the centrepiece of an entire episode on another show, and that’s not much of an overstatement There’s an utterly gobsmacking amount going on, almost all of clever and effective, and if you asked me to pick a favourite moment from, say, Eden, the closing vision, Isaac’s painting, Peter and Claire, and the Haitian, I don’t think I could do it (and could probably name another three or four contenders if I took longer to think about it). The flipside, the show’s critics will say — and I have a running debate with Abigail about this — is that the show doesn’t do dialogue, doesn’t do character, doesn’t really do depth of any kind. The first two criticisms had some merit to start with, but it seems to me the writers have come on in leaps and bounds; with the possible exception of Niki, I don’t think there’s a single character on the show I’m not interested in, which is not a small accomplishment. The lack of depth is perhaps a more serious criticism, but even there I think a lot of people underrate Heroes — and anyway, it’s an attack that shifts the goalposts. First and foremost Heroes is more consistently fun than anything else on TV, and that’s not a small accomplishment, either.


And, not before time, Heroes even appears to have lost the voiceovers. I wish I could say the same of Torchwood, since whatever his other virtues John Barrowman just cannot sell that “the 21st century is when everything changes, and you gotta be ready” line to save his life, and it’s painful to hear him try at the start of each episode. The only reason I’m still watching the show, if I’m honest, is that I lack willpower: every Sunday evening I have something better to do (most of the time, I forget about Torchwood entirely), and every Monday, or at the latest Tuesday, I’ll see a comment somewhere about how this episode wasn’t bad, or started to show promise, and I’ll think, well, I’ve come this far … Paul Tomalin and Dan McCulloch’s arc-initiating “They Keep Killing Suzie” is the most recent episode I’ve watched, and while it was far from being the most horrible episode of the season so far (that honour still goes to CYBERWOMAN VS PTERODACTYL), anyone who seriously compares it to Heroes, or even to sub-par Galactica, has got to be on something pretty strong. Where Heroes gives its viewers cool stuff rooted in character, Torchwood tries to give its viewers shocking stuff not rooted in anything. Where Galactica is always, always beautiful, the cinematography and soundtrack on Torchwood make me want to cry. “They Keep Killing Suzie” had an interesting premise — the dead hand of the rogue Torchwood member who killed herself in the show’s pilot enacts a complicated vengeance — and one scene with actual emotional impact — the one with Gwen and Suzie in the car, after the hospital, talking about death, where Suzie says that humans are “just animals howling in the night, because it’s better than silence” — but it was all rather spoilt by the engagement of the, as Tony put it, TOTAL BOLLOCKS OVERDRIVE towards the end of the episode. (There’s something about this show that just inspires the use of ALL CAPS. I can’t help myself.) So … what was this week’s episode like?


That one emotionally involving scene did have a second good line, now I come to think of it, which was the one about all these aliens only washing up on Earth because there’s life here, because they’re drawn to it like moths to a flame. It strikes me that if Torchwood ever built on moments like that, and if it was ever any good, it could potentially (don’t laugh) start telling the stories about sex and death that a 21st-century James Tiptree, Jr might have told. Admittedly, they couldn’t go as far as “The Screwfly Solution” and actually end the world, but I think there’s room for a series working in that territory — Angel gave us “Billy”, for instance, which in retrospect looks not unlike a reconfigured version of “The Screwfly Solution”. I was somewhat amused, in a despairing kind of way, to come across comments like these about the Masters of Horror adaptation of Tiptree’s story, which insist that it’s not really horror but science fiction (as though it could only be one or the other), because to me it seemed to be full of the visual grammar of horror (from lashings of blood to dark woods), and because “The Screwfly Solution” is one of the two or three scariest stories I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter whether the premise (aliens who want our land corrupt the linkage between human male sexuality and violence; men start killing women) is an actual biological possibility. The thought that it might be — or to go back to “Billy”, the idea that it might be something in men, rather than solely something done to them — is utterly terrifying on its own. Here I suspect I’m disagreeing with Abigail, again (I already know I’m against her and with Matt Cheney on the story’s last line), but arguably the scariest thing about Hamm’s adaptation is how little updating it needed to retain that air of possibility. The rhetoric about bioterrorism and fundamentalist religion fits in more than comfortably, as does the suggestion of chemical castration, and between them Sam Hamm and Joe Dante almost entirely preserve the conviction and unarguable raw force of the original story. If I had Hugo nomination rights this year, for that feat alone “The Screwfly Solution” would be on my ballot.

The End Of The World As We Know It

It’s not the end of Science Fiction Britannia, which appears to continue at least until the fan-focused documentary My Science Fiction Life on December 27th, but it’s the end of the series, and the end of the world. The talking heads this time around are Stableford, Newman, Luckhurst and Aldiss again, Doris Lessing, Sam Youd, Christopher Priest, Kadwo Eshua, and Will Self — plus the litblogosphere’s current least favourite man, John Sutherland, although the worst I can say about his contributions is that I bridled slightly when he lauded J.G. Ballard’s “extraordinary imagination” in a way that implied he felt writers like John Wyndham weren’t imaginative because they told their stories in a plausible manner — and the range of texts discussed makes up, at least a bit, for some of the deficiencies of the earlier installments.

Which means that the third and final part of The Martians and Us is probably the best. And that’s not only because, having told a story about evolution that ended in 1968 and a story about dystopia that ended in 1986, this episode ends up in the present, although that’s a factor. It’s also because the episode gives a much greater sense of science fiction as a living genre, even if at times it seems to be a living genre composed of grumpy old men. I’m not sure why that’s the case. Part of it is the nature of the subject matter, since a greater proportion of the works discussed were written in living memory, and since tales of catastrophe have gained a level of popular traction that transcendental and ‘topian science fiction can’t quite match. Even leaving aside disaster movies — since, as Kim Newman rightly points out, those are mostly an American tradition, and British doomsday sf is more interested in the day after the day after tomorrow — something like The Day of the Triffids is, or was, a mass-market book in a way that I’m not sure is true of The Time Machine or Nineteen Eighty-Four. And there’s no parody of their tropes quite as deft as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy‘s parody of the end of the world.

But equally, this episode somehow gives the impression of a sense of dialogue, of community, in a way that the earlier ones somehow just didn’t. There’s Brian Aldiss, defending his use of the term “cosy catastrophe” to describe John Wyndham’s work; there’s Christopher Priest, arguing that maybe it’s useful to think of Wyndham as a satirist; there’s Roger Luckhurst, suggesting that what Aldiss has missed is the sense of social exploration in Wyndham, a commitment to a quite ruthless social Darwinism. Or there’s Chris Priest again, this time talking about how a cover for New Worlds — “What is the exact nature of the catastrophe?”, which we are told was part of the genre discussion of Ballard’s The Drowned World — and talking about how it fed into Fugue for a Darkening Island (which of all Priest’s novels that I haven’t read is possibly the one I most want to get around to reading). Or there’s the discussion of 28 Days Later — according to Newman, the most important British sf film of the last ten years, and I can’t immediately think of an example to counter him with — and its obvious debt to Wyndham.

If science fiction in the first two episodes felt a bit like a told story, this time around it feels more like the telling is still going on — although, somewhat ironically, part of the episode’s argument is that the catastrophe novel as a subgenre of sf has had its day. The episode proposes a clear (according to John Sutherland, at any rate, and I have no particular reason to distrust him on this one) starting point for the subgenre, The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, and links it and most of the examples discussed later on to their social context, whether they were written at the pinnacle of Empire (Shiel), or between the wars (Sydney Foster Wright, Deluge), or at the disintegration of the postwar consensus (Priest), and so on. The world ends in a satisfying variety of ways, although perhaps surprisingly, only once by nuclear apocalypse, and that — Threads — was from tv. Various commentators nod knowledgeably about the reasons for the popularity of catastrophe stories, from the dramatic power of “if this goes on” to the practicality of thinking out worst-case scenarios.

And then we get to the end, and the narrator asks whether the time of the catastrophe story is past. In the closing minutes, it feels like almost all the contributors leap at the chance to say that it is, and explain why that might be so — the real world is being far too efficient at giving us catastrophes that are already happening (Priest); the media are making sure we know about them in detail, there’s no room for fiction (Lessing); we’re not going to be able to stop the catastrophe from happening (Sutherland). You sense that Kim Stanley Robinson might want to have words on that last point, although strictly speaking his Science in the Capitol trilogy is more about mitigation and adaptation, and you might also point to Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead or (a bit more tenuously) Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as recent catastrophe novels — except that all three writers are American, and two of them are very definitely not genre sf writers. In Britain, for whatever reason (and if we discount books like, say, Accelerando, where the end of the world is an incidental background blip), the only recent example I can think of is The Snow by Adam Roberts, and in the end that’s arguably not a catastrophe novel of the sort the programme talks about anyway.

So the episode doesn’t even try to get into specifics, but it might have a point. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, given the overall pretty high quality of the series. I tuned in to the Parallel Worlds documentary the other day, and it wasn’t nearly on the same level; despite many of the same talking heads, the discussion was much more lightweight, much less contextualised. The Martians and Us has looked in detail at three major stands of British sf, integrated discussion of film, tv and other non-book media smoothly where appropriate, and had intelligent and interesting people commenting on it all, and is generally a pretty impressive accomplishment. My caveat is only that the more I think about it, the more I think it could really have done with one more episode. For a theme, I think colonialism and postcolonialism, touched on this episode and the first episode but not really explored in either, could have legs, and it would do the two things I was really waiting for the series to do — bring the story more current, and point out that people other than grumpy old men have been writing sf too. You can see why, given the argument the series has been presenting, they haven’t mentioned Mary Shelley, but it would have been nice to see mentions of, say, Josephine Saxton or Naomi Mitchison, or discussions of Doris Lessing’s actual books, or latterly discussion of a writer like Gwyneth Jones. (Come to think of it, she should have been a talking head, too.) The stumbling block, I would guess, is that there isn’t a big-name author or text to hang that theme on, in the way that Wells, Orwell and Wyndham provided hangers for the episodes they did make (unless, perhaps, they went back to Wells for a different angle on The War of the Worlds); but by this point, I think most people would trust the series to tell them an interesting story anyway.

Trouble In Paradise

It’s not a Radio Times recommended programme this week, but the second installment of The Martians and Us is as well put together as the first, albeit a bit more obvious in its limitations. There may be an element of personal prejudice here: the theme this time around is utopias and dystopias, which I have to admit is not my specialist subject, or even one of particular interest to me. Much as I love Brave New World (and I do love it dearly), there’s something in most ‘topian fiction that stops me from being hooked. Perhaps it’s the sense of streamlining, of paring down the actual complexity of the world a bit too fa while sidestepping whatever catastrophe or other events led there — although, ironically, “Trouble in Paradise” builds a not-unbelievable case for ‘topian fiction as much more grounded in the real than most sf, presenting it as perhaps the most pure, naked expression of the central dreams and nightmares of the twentieth century that we have.

There are some differences to the first episode. This one spends noticeably more time focused on writers; which is not to say that the works get short shrift, but just to point out that the makers take pains to describe the personal and social contexts from which these works sprang in a way that they didn’t last week. Another change of emphasis can be seen in the selection of talking heads: alongside returning favourites such as Kim Newman, Nigel Kneale, and Brian Stableford, this week saw soundbites from John Carey, Will Self, Iain Banks, Ken Macleod, Margaret Atwood (!), Bernard Crick and Nicholas Murray. This is not a list that in any way effaces genre sf, but it doesn’t half give a lot of weight to more mainstream voices, with the inevitable undertones of “pay attention, this is the respectable bit!” that that engenders. And the presence of Crick (biographer of Orwell) and Murray (biographer of Huxley) hints at the weight that’s going to be placed on their two works — which is, of course, not surprising, but I’m not sure it’s the most interesting way to frame the argument the programme wanted to make, and it seems to thin out the story of British ‘topian fiction in much the same way such fiction seems to me to thin out the world. In this episode, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four are the poles around which all else revolves.

Other texts do get a look-in. After a brief primer on Thomas More and Francis Bacon, and a link to the evolutionary/progressive argument for the development of sf aired in last week’s episode (“Darwin had rewritten the past […] writers believed they could predict the future”), we move on to Wells’ A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come (I don’t know exactly how accurate the description of Wells’ view of eugenics is; it certainly seemed a bit more extreme than other accounts I’ve heard), before arriving at the Two Big Books. We stay there for most of the rest of the episode, with brief (and again, admirably catholic) sidebars on Swastika Night (which I must read), The Year of the Sex Olympics (which I must see), A Clockwork Orange (which I didn’t really get on with), 1985 (which I have no real interest in reading), Judge Dredd (which I haven’t read much of), Doctor Who (which in the 1970s “came as close as anyone has to mass-producing dystopias”, says Kim Newman), Brazil (which is truly wonderful, isn’t it?) and, closest to the present, The Handmaid’s Tale (on what grounds, it’s not entirely clear).

But it’s Brave New World and Nineteen Eight-Four that occupy the lion’s share of the time. The points made range from the slightly fatuous, such as Peter Carey’s assertion that love is a threat in dystopian fiction because if you love someone else, you can’t love the state, which may be true in some books but doesn’t seem to me a very accurate reflection of the complexities of human emotions, to the more insightful, such as the discussions of the aversion to mass culture embedded, in different ways, in both Orwell and Huxley’s books. (Although there is discussion, inevitably, of reality tv, there’s no specific reference to Big Brother — except, cheekily, in the closing eye that marks the scene transitions.) I don’t want to downplay the importance of either novel, since if nothing else the way Orwell and Huxley react to each others’ texts is fascinating. Orwell said that Brave New World had “no relation to the actual future”, and went off and wrote Nineteen Eight-Four; much later Huxley read it, and wrote Orwell a patronising letter saying that that’s all very well, but it’s not how the future is really going to turn out. It was somewhat surprising to me to see how committed to their futures both writers seemed to be, how real their disagreement of vision was. They may not have intended them as straight-down-the-line prediction, but they certainly appears that they intended them as something more than just an argument about possibility, more than just another cautionary tale.

But in a couple of ways, I think the programme simplifies too much. Following through on the point about prediction, Margaret Atwood’s remarks near the end are telling: “For a while it looked like it was going to be Nineteen Eighty-Four,” she says (I paraphrase), “then the wall came down and we all thought it was going to be sex and shopping, and now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and Big Brother is watching over us more and more.” It’s not particularly helpful or particularly accurate to see history in this sort of binary light, I think. And in terms of a discussion of British ‘topian sf, it’s ludicrous to not even mention the Culture in passing — until you realise that the episode isn’t actually making an argument about British ‘topian sf in particular, it’s making an argument about the affect of British sf in general, one built around class and fear — not an invalid argument but one that in this iteration is very selective about its examples. There’s an interesting moment, in the middle of the narrator’s description of how dark and nasty British futures are, when Iain Banks says something along the lines of “Of course, while American sf was all gung-ho and can-do, British sf was very dour and maybe a bit dreary.” I didn’t get the quote down, so the adjectives are almost certainly wrong, but the thing I want to point out is that he was making a past-tense remark, and the programme took it as present-tense. It’s not just the Culture, in other words; all the British sf that (I suspect) most people are reading this are most familiar with, the stuff from the 90s and onwards that is so frequently expansive and extravagant, might as well not exist at all.