Who Rules? Who Rules!

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Ah, Saturday night telly. Safe, secure home of talent show, hospital drama, old film. And of course, also the place to go for head-mangling, multi-level, wildly self-referential and furiously uncompromising science fiction.

That would be Doctor Who, which always stuck out of the Saturday night schedules like a Sontaran at the dinner table. Gleefully absurd, cheap and cheerful, dark at heart yet always somehow comforting. Effects straight out of the Blue Peter school of sticky-back plastic. Acting straight out of regional theatre.

Yeah. Not any more. Not for a long time. Under Russell T. Davis and more recently Stephen Moffat, Doctor Who is now the best-looking, best acted show on the box, and one of the most contradictory. Ostensibly still a kid’s programme, at least when you look at the extensive BBC website and all the associated mercy, Doctor Who is at the same time deeply complex and terrifyingly adult. It not only refuses to talk down to it’s audience, but launches off in all directions at once and dares the viewer to keep up.

This season, Moffat’s second as show-runner, has been made with money from BBC America, and was supposed to be the moment when the show would break in the States. You would expect, then, a couple of episodes in which a new audience could be eased gently into the story. Something entry-level, with a decent dose of explanation about who the guy in the blue box that’s bigger on the outside than the inside is.

Nope. Sorry. Within ten minutes of the opening titles, the Doctor had been killed, and then reappeared as a version from an earlier timeline. There was something about Scream-faced monsters that you forgot about as soon as you looked away from them. And where the hell did the red-headed broad from E.R. come from? Also, when the heck did the show with the monsters made out of bubble wrap get so goddamn scary?

Since the reboot, Doctor Who has been in the hands of writers who not only get the Doctor and all his dichotomies, but were responsible for keeping the flame lit during the wilderness years. The Paul McGann TV movie aside, the period between the end of Sylvester McCoy’s time in the Tardis and Christopher Eccleston shrugging on the leather jacket was one of furious invention and true high concept adventure. In books, audio and comics, writers like Davis, Moffat and Paul Cornell could carve out stories that didn’t have to be concerned with budget or kid-friendly attitude. They could bring a Doctor to life that had rarely been seen in the shows, a Doctor filled with moral ambiguity, a Machiavellian manipulator. More importantly, a Doctor that instils fear. The Doctor that can turn armies around at the very mention of his name came out of this free and fertile period.

Today’s Doctor Who is a very different programme to the one I grew up with, the one that scared me behind the sofa for two seasons running. The pace, of course, has sharpened, as stories are fitted into forty-five minute slots instead of the two-hour four parter format. Although it’s good to see more two-part cliffhangers, giving the characters a little more room to breathe. It’s also more overtly scary, as Moffat creates adversaries designed to exploit our all too human weaknesses, the flaws in our perception of the world. Creatures that attack in a blink, or hide in the shadows.

And all of a sudden, more adult fears are also being exploited. Constant, unexplained surveillance. The doppelganger, the enemy with your face. Or the terror of a mother losing her child. All tied into a narrative that has no problems with skipping hundreds of years and light years in a single jump cut. It’s epic, demanding and yes, exhausting work. To be honest, I tend to watch the show on catchup, when I feel ready for it. That also gives me the rewind option for those reel “huh?” moments.

But Moffat’s refusal to compromise hasn’t lost him viewers. Considering what else is on around the same time, it’s not a surprise that anyone with the taste for big, brash but thoughtful action would be all over this show. I have niggles with the way the show has so tightly interwoven with it’s backstory, but these are only niggles. Doctor Who is far and away the best thing on British telly at the moment. It’s fearless, tough and when it hits the big notes, a sheer and utter joy. It lures high end names and the best writers in the business. When I realised it was going on break until the autumn, I yelled in disbelief. Although the big reveal wasn’t that huge a surprise, it’s wonderful to finally have River Song’s place set in stone. And with these six episodes, the set up for something extraordinary to come rolling out of the gates in September is well and truly in place.

Now all I need is one of those damned time machines so I can see those episodes now!

Cannon Fodder: the changing face of the villainous horde

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Battle: Los Angeles is a war movie. Let’s get that out of the way right now. The SF trappings are there to pull in the core audience of 16-25 year old males who will happily sit through it in the same way that they’d sit through a walkthrough of Crysis 2 on YouTube. But it’s really an excuse to have US military, modern US military with their grenade lobbing rifles and laser sights and night vision wage war against an enemy with which they can actually get their fight on. There is no fear of accidental civilian deaths or any of the horrible tangled messiness that modern warfare against an enemy that remains undefined and hard to find has become.

SF has always provided this kind of unambiguous thrill. As the audience becomes less and less excepting of the traditional war movie (which after all served primarily as propaganda against countries that have now been friends and colleagues for over fifty years) there’s still a need for shootybangbang excitement against a villainous horde. If you can make that villain completely fictional, and of a different species to the hero, then all to the good.

The aliens in Battle: Los Angeles are faceless, emotionless avatars, existing only to shoot and to be shot at. They spindle around in a backward-leg walk, and fire guns that have been grafted onto their arms. They couldn’t surrender if they wanted to, or were given the chance.

There’s little sign of pain or any kind of emotion when M-16 slugs tear through them (or, in one memorable sequenced, skewered on a bayonet and then torn apart by M-16 slugs). They make that default monster noise that’s becoming as over-used as the Wilhelm Scream, and then they fall over. As such, they’re simply the latest in a long line of invaders that runs all the way back to War Of The Worlds. Think the swarming hordes of James Cameron’s Aliens, mirrored helmets topping a drooling tooth-filled maw. The creatures of Independence Day, blankeyed and mouthless. Notice too, that the writers haven’t even bothered to give the enemy proper names. They are simply called by their function. Alien. Invader. Enemy. Monster.

Creatures from the Doctor Who universe have names, at least. Of their species, anyway. On the whole, they still follow the same idea of being interchangable, indistinguishable. Daleks and Sontarans differ from the Hollywood Horde ideal in that underneath the expressionless masks they wear, something hideous lurks. The Cybermen take this one step further – they were humanoid once, and chose to lock all that away behind a blank carapace. There’s a little more depth there, but their intentions remain the same. They are set on conquest and colonisation.

The Stormtroopers of the Star Wars Universe have the same purpose. Spookily, under their helmets, they all look the same. They’re clones, and therefore again one step away from the human. They’re constructs, manufactured and therefore easily expendable. And again, they have a collective name rather than anything that would allow us to see them as individuals, to give us the chance to empathise.

The one flipside to this idea that I’ve been able to find comes in, of all places, from the first Austin Powers movie. A running gag showed the home lives of some of Dr. Evil’s henchmen after they were killed by the International Man Of Mystery. Giving a faceless hench a wife, a family, friends and a social life is unthinkable in most of the cases I’ve talked about. We’re not supposed to care about them. They are obstacles to be removed without thought or consequence.

As @JaesonX pointed out to me on Twitter, SF invasion pics are starting to shrug off the old cliches. District 9 takes a much more complex and nuanced approach to the theme of first contact, a situation that’s unlikely to begin with the two sides shooting at each other. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters tells us that we’re just unlikely to be able to figure out what they want here in the first place. Both films end, not in full-scale conflict, but a grudging, uncomfortable co-existence, marred with sporadic violence. This can be tracked back to shows like Alien Nation, where the visitors arrive not as aggressors, but refugees. This reflects the fluid nature of national identity, racism and touches on the way people view their territory and the people that come into them in ways that the basic war movie simply doesn’t have the tools to address.

There will always be a place for war movies. But we live in a complicated world, and it’s sometimes difficult to figure out who the bad guys should be. I’m holding out for the first war movie that pits the USA against it’s own banking system. That’s a fight with some life in it.

(pic credit: Francesco Francavilla).

The Invisible Genre: How The BBC ignored SF on World Book Day

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World Book Day is a celebration of all things literary, a chance to put your hand up and say, “Hell yes, I’m a reader. Give me a book and I’ll read the living stuff right out of it!” It’s an important event that brings together writers and readers worldwide and unites them under a common, quarto-shaped banner.

But there’s a problem. Author Stephen Hunt watched the BBC’s coverage of the day, and noticed that there was something missing. Something big.

Apart from a brief mention of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights as a YA crossover, SF, fantasy and horror were not represented. No Pratchett. No Rankin. No Tolkein or Lewis. No Iain M. Banks, no JK Rowling. No China Mieville or Joe Abercrombie. No Clive Barker, no Christopher Priest. Genres that between them take between 20 and 30% of the UK book market were roundly ignored.

I wish I could say I was shocked or surprised. The publishing world is more than happy to make money from the fantastic end of the market, but they’re not so keen on promoting it. You’ll hardly ever see SF or fantasy on the front-of-house deals at your local Waterstones unless your name happens to be Rowling or Meyer. As Hunt points out, it’s pure and simple snobbery. What’s more, it’s damaging.

The publishing industry always depicts the book as a gateway to a world of imagination, to a place of limitless possibility, of endless adventure. At the same time, the act of picking up and reading a novel is considered to be an act that is good for you, in the same way as running twice a week or eating a high-fibre cereal for breakfast. It’s an educational action, a pathway to moral improvement and good citizenship. In some ways, you can be defined by what, and how much, you read.

The perception amongst most mainstream critics is reading SF, fantasy and horror is not an improving activity. That these books are of low character, of dubious morality. That somehow you will put the book down, and not gain the insights into the world and it’s people that you would if you’d only pick up something by Margaret Atwood. Or Jeanette Winterson. Or Kazuo Ishigura. Something without spaceships or aliens, clones or creatures grown from genetic experiments gone wrong.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? All the above authors have written SF. They simply choose not to identify the books as such for fear of hurting their profits.

It’s the same skewed thinking that forces Iain Banks to flag his Culture novels as written by Iain M. Banks. As if they were somehow written by a different person. He at least is pushing the envelope, however gently. His latest “mainstream” novel, Transition, was an SF book in all but name, and contains references to a culture that may be … well, The Culture. But the book is packaged and marketed in a very different way to his SF excursions. The back cover blurb calls it a “fable”.

Stephen describes SF, fantasy and horror as a “gateway drug” to the world of literature. I agree. What’s more, that’s proven to be true by one of the growth markets in the publishing sector – the young adult or YA book. This new stream is stuffed full of fantastik stories – and I’m not just talking about Potter or Twilight knockoffs. Cory Doctorow’s agit-punk books such as Little Brother and For The Win are politically driven and yet still filled with action and drama. Scott Westerfield’s Uglies postulates a world where it’s a crime to be ugly – a pointed and direct comment at the sort of world in which kids struggle with their self-image every day. YA is where a lot of the interesting stuff is happening right now.

Should I be bothered by the fact that the BBC ignored the fantastik? It’s fair to say that a lot of people do buy, read and enjoy genre fiction, and it seems to tick along quite happily without mainstream critical attention.

But a lot of truly great books, head and shoulders above the latest “contemporary” efforts in terms of literary merit, plot, character and inventiveness are marginalised purely because of their subject matter. It’s a stigma that prevents deserving authors from reaching their full potential readership. This is simply not on, and needs to be addressed.

It”s a real shame that genres need to be compartmentalised, but it’s a fact of the industry. However, the playing field should be fair. A good book is a good book regardless of where or when it’s set, irrespective of the species of the main character.

What next? Well, Stephen’s set up a Facebook page, and there’s a petition to sign. If you love SF, fantasy and horror and feel that it didn’t get a fair chance in the BBC’s coverage of World Book Day, you know what to do.

Gaddafi’s Role Models: Five SF & Fantasy Despots

As Libya is on the verge of shrugging off the chains of the most comic-book of the villainous Middle Eastern dictators, I thought it would be fun to look at some slightly more fictional varieties of Gaddafi et al. With his elite guard of female killers and penchant for a fancy costume and ranting speeches, I reckon he’d fit in nicely amongst this lot.

Continue reading Gaddafi’s Role Models: Five SF & Fantasy Despots