Review: Moving Pictures

Moving Pictures, the tenth in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, is a “Discworld discovers” story. (See also: The Truth, in which Discworld discovers newspapers; Soul Music, in which Discworld discovers rock music, or Music With Rocks In; Going Postal, in which Discworld discovers post offices.) In this case, Discworld discovers Hollywood.

Our Hero is Victor – “Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can handle a sword a little.” – a student who has dedicated his not inconsiderable intellect to remaining a student. In fact, he has elevated laziness to an art form: he spends not insignificant effort in keeping himself fit, for example, because it’s too much effort dragging an unfit body around. He finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Holy Wood, a sandy bay in the middle of nowhere where the Disc’s newest industry is starting up. Here, together with Ginger, a fledgling actress, and Gaspode the Wonder Dog, the Disc’s only talking dog, he finds himself equally unexpectedly becoming a star.

Oh, and investigating the strange Lovecraftian horrors Holy Wood is awakening from behind the walls of a false and hollow reality…

The plot’s never the most important thing about Pratchett’s books, though. (I’d be hard-pressed to describe the actual plot of Moving Pictures, and I only read it about a month ago.) It’s not even his characters, although many of them have become fan favourites, as close and familiar as friends.

No: Pratchett’s line is in interrogating the narrative structures that underlie our culture and our expectations of reality. In that respect, he is actually surprisingly formally innovative – surprisingly, that is, for such an unabashedly popular writer, though his fans have been pushing people to his work for years.

Moving Pictures is an excellent case in point, though it’s not really a fan favourite – perhaps because it’s missing the savage flashes of explicit social criticism some of his works exhibit. (From Guards! Guards!: “we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.”) It’s a veritable tissue of structural irony, packed with a plethora of narrative levels. At its heart, it’s a tale that twists Hollywood sidelong by transplanting it into a fantasy world; asks us to look afresh at the silent-movie tropes that are by now embedded into our own cultural consciousness. On the Discworld, the magic of Holy Wood eventually makes those narratives real, makes them all the characters can see; which blinds them, almost disastrously, to the incursion of those monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions.

These narratives, says Pratchett, prevent us from seeing what’s really real. And they’re inherently unfair: Ginger, for example, can only get parts playing passive damsels in distress, there to be kidnapped and rescued, because that’s the only narrative Holy Wood has for women; and so that becomes what women are in the real world. And Gaspode is continually being passed over for a much more photogenic dog, Laddie, who is also terminally stupid: because Laddie looks the part, he must actually be the hero, the clever one, the one who leads the humans to safety.

And this is complicated by the fact that Moving Pictures is set in a world – the Discworld – which canonically runs on story. On the Disc, million-to-one chances always work. It’s a place that’s aware of itself as fictional, an immersive fantasy world continually destabilising itself as such. And Moving Pictures especially is intensely intertextual, packed with references to famous films and moments in Hollywood history (there is, for example, a re-enactment of that shot of Marilyn Monroe standing over the grating). There’s even an in-universe explanation for this: the idea that is Holy Wood takes the same form across many worlds. These moments are, again, acknowledgements of the fictionality of the novel and the world and the situation – and yet, even that acknowledgement is destabilised by the fact that there is an in-universe explanation. It’s a hugely playful novel, one which also takes its characters seriously enough to have real warmth.

The point of this post, I think, is that the Discworld novels are a lot cleverer than I think I’ve given them credit for in the past. In fact, I think Pratchett might well be the Dickens of the twenty-first century: a popular writer who deals in kindly caricature and savage humour, who’s doing some real work beneath the densely detailed surface of his fiction. Dickens wove Themes throughout his long books; Pratchett did postmodernism, ironising the stories we choose to tell, and the stories we unconsciously live by. If you’ve not read anything by either of them, you’re missing out.

Top Ten Book Covers I’d Frame as Art

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring – J.R.R. Tolkien. Illustrated by Alan Lee, naturally. Look how gorgeous this Rivendell painting is! You can actually get prints of it, apparently, for the low, low price of £400.
  2. The Last Hero – Terry Pratchett. Paul Kidby’s covers just about edge out Josh Kirby’s action-packed paperback ones; they’re a bit softer and feel more like the kind of thing I’d want on my wall. And I particularly love all the art for The Last Hero, a “Discworld fable” that’s probably as close as Pratchett ever got to writing an actual graphic novel.
  3. Saga 1 – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. I think this is the cover of the big collected editions, not the individual volumes. I love the way Alana’s glaring right at us. I love the way that explosion bisects the page, but that Alana and Marko and Hazel are still more important than it. That’s exactly what it’s like to read Saga.
  4. Jack Glass – Adam Roberts. The Art Deco, stained-glass feel this cover’s got going on is what made me read the book in the first place. The bubbles! The colour! The space rocket!
  5. The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell. I like the movement in this cover: the way that labyrinths twist into spirals twist into circles. Again, it’s a great reflection of what it’s like to read The Bone Clocks: feeling all the certainties twist with every chapter you read, and yet knowing there’s a grand plan, a common thread, to it all.
  6. Inkdeath – Cornelia Funke. Not my favourite of the Inkheart trilogy – that would be Inkheart itself – but I like how that illustration in the centre, with all its lush fantastic detail, draws your eye in, and it’s only with a lurch of focus that you realise it’s also a skull. (Or perhaps I’m just exceptionally unobservant.)
  7. The Singular and Extraordinary Tale of Mirror and Goliath – Ishbelle Bee. This was really not a good book. But I do like the elaborateness of this Gothicky cover, that steampunk-fairytale title font against the simplicity of the gold silhouettes in the foreground.
  8. Goldenhand – Garth Nix. Again, really not my favourite Old Kingdom story. But there’s something about the wild slash of gold against that black background that would make a great, evocative piece of abstract art.
  9. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. I find the naivete of this cover quite interesting: the faces look like something from a 1950s Famous Five cover, but then there’s that half-glimpsed steampunk balloon above, and the rust on the basket, and that vast thing belching black smoke. And no Famous Five sky was ever that colour. It’s a book about the hidden structures of oppression beneath the familiar, so the unease this cover generates is perfect.
  10. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman. That coloured woodcut of the skies of Oxford, with the Radcliffe Camera, and Carfax Tower, and the tower of St Mary’s…well, it’s everything. (The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Extremis

This review contains spoilers.

I was very prepared to hate Extremis: it’s Steven Moffat’s second writerly outing this series, after the sickeningly self-congratulatory The Pilot.

I was pleasantly surprised, however.

Its initial, slightly Dan Brown-ish premise sees the Pope approaching the still-blinded Doctor to ask him to read the Veritas: an ancient text in the Vatican’s library that has made everyone who has read it kill themselves. What Terrible Secret does it contain?

Interspersed with this ecclesiastical foray is another story, of a kind of which Moffat is regrettably fond: a story from the Doctor’s past. It reveals that the inhabitant of the vault the Doctor’s been guarding all series is Missy (to the surprise of precisely no-one); that he was once supposed to execute her, for reasons, and didn’t because his dead wife River Song told him not to; that he has to guard her for a thousand years, nevertheless, because he made a vow.

It’s not a great episode, but it does actually work surprisingly well. The secret – the “truth” – that the Veritas contains, it turns out, is that the world of the episode is a computer simulation set up by a mysterious alien race so they can study humankind’s defences and invade the Earth (for reasons which I assume will become clear over the next couple of weeks). This is old, old ground that runs the risk of becoming ridiculous; but Moffat eschews Matrix-style reality-bending in favour of subtle wrongnesses that are much more effective. An arm that pixelates into nothingness. Explosives packed under tables in a canteen. A room full of people all choosing the same random number. And faced with these wrongnesses, the creeping panic that Bill feels on learning the truth feels appropriate and well-grounded; the mass suicide of the CERN scientists who’ve read the Veritas seems like the only rational response, an act of resistance designed to stop the aliens learning about humankind’s capabilities.

The episode’s weak link is really the Missy plot thread, which is just not the kind of story Doctor Who is designed to tell. Against the bleak horror of the Veritas story, the various histrionics of the Doctor, Missy, the executioner and Nardole (who enters the scene to speak for River Song) are overwritten and trite. And the Missy we get here, facing her death weeping and kneeling, is unrecognisable as the Master who refused to regenerate in Last of the Time Lords in order to spite the Doctor.

Ultimately, Extremis doesn’t really feel like it’s doing much work: it makes some play with the idea that

Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward

with the idea, presumably, that this is what the scientists are doing when they blow themselves up, what the simulated Doctor is doing when he emails what he knows to the real Doctor, knowing that the simulation will be terminated at this point and he will die. But the episode is much more interested in setting the next episode up, in establishing the capital-p Plot and capital-t Themes for the rest of the season, than in exploring its rather disturbing premise. This is a shame, on the whole, as it makes for a bitty and slightly incoherent episode – though I’m also not sure how “we are all living in a computer simulation” would have worked as a standalone.

In summary, Extremis isn’t going to be remembered as a great Doctor Who episode; but I don’t think it will be remembered as a terrible one either. Next week: who the hell knows?

50-Word Review: Notes from a Small Island

Notes from a Small Island is celebrated travel writer Bill Bryson’s account of a farewell trip around England before he moved to America. It’s sexist in that nauseatingly Middle England way that tells you unconsciously that you’re being a bore if you take offence. And is not even that funny.

(Micro-post because it’s Friday evening and, really, this book deserves nothing more.)

Top Ten Books for Firefly Fans

  1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. It’s been noted across the internet that this book is pretty much Firefly with aliens. It’s an episodic amble across the galaxy, complete with crew tensions, individual character arcs, space pirate invasions and dodgy cargo. There’s even a bubbly lady engineer.
  2. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. Consider Phlebas is a lot chillier than Firefly, but it wears the same kind of pessimism about the universe. It centres on a mercenary ship, the Clear Air Turbulence, whose crew feels like Serenity‘s without the rose-tinted goggles: a group of ruthless pirates without loyalty, love or hearts of gold, who kill without a moment’s thought.
  3. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie. Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy is all about doing what you can in your small corner of space, which is very much a thematic core of Firefly‘s. Its universe also feels as culturally immersive as Firefly‘s does, and it’s about resisting a totalitarian government.
  4. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This may seem like a weird pick: it’s not SFF at all, but an epistolary novel about how the people of Guernsey survived the Second World War. But, like Firefly, it celebrates the power of community to resist and overcome evil.
  5. Nova – Samuel Delany. Another space-pirate story, this one’s about the importance of the ordinary and the powerless.
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams. It’s set in space! I’m not sure why I feel like this should be on this list. It’s got Firefly‘s lightness of touch, its irreverence for authority.
  7. Temeraire – Naomi Novik. Although it’s a Regency military AU with dragons, I think Temeraire has something of Firefly‘s emotional heart, as its hero Laurence carves out a space for empathy in his rigidly defined social world.
  8. Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve. This is a steampunky story about a far-future world in which cities eat each other to survive. It’s got Firefly‘s beaten-up, lived-in aesthetic, and its deep, cynical distrust for capitalism.
  9. Railsea – China Mieville. Railsea‘s characters are, like the crew of Serenity, nomadic: the novel’s set on a train that hunts moles through the desert of capitalism. It’s about radicalism and salvage and storytelling, all concerns of Firefly‘s.
  10. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel. This is about a travelling theatre wandering through an America devastated by superflu. It’s nowhere near as depressing as it sounds: again, it’s about carving a community in circumstances that seem hostile.

(The prompt for this post comes from the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

This review contains spoilers.

Well, the space zombies were not actually as bad as I feared. We’re not in the-moon-is-an-egg territory yet.

Oxygen is a horror story whose ultimate villain is capitalism. Following a distress signal, Bill and the Doctor find themselves on board a mining space station whose crew is nearly all dead – killed by their own spacesuits. Those intelligent spacesuits are now hunting down the survivors, taking their dead occupants along for the ride. So: space zombies.

At root, Oxygen is satire. Its conceit is that, this far out in space, oxygen is enormously valuable; so the corporation running the station supplies oxygen “for personal use only” – through the suits, rather than filling the station up with air. If the workers aboard the station want more oxygen, they have to buy it. Capitalism at its most efficient! It’s an exaggeration of the kind of financial logic that makes budget airlines charge you to check in. And the Doctor’s ghoulish conclusion at the end of the episode is that the suits (there’s a wonderful play on words that equates the spacesuits with “suits” – the accountants, lawyers and compliance officers popularly equated with The Man, and popularly portrayed as zombified by such allegiance) are murdering their occupants to save money – the crew have become unproductive and are to be replaced by a fresh one, and what’s the point of giving idle hands valuable oxygen? (And that sentiment feels chillingly Victorian, or even Trumpian.)

I think the episode’s power as satire, though, is diminished by its failure to understand capitalism as a truly overarching social system. I am aware, by the way, that this is but an episode of Doctor Who and I cannot expect it to do everything; but I do think there are a couple of ways Oxygen could have gone to be a little less…mendacious about capitalism’s power.

The moment of the episode that really sticks out to me here is the moment – in many ways the emotional crux of the episode – when Bill’s spacesuit malfunctions, anchoring her immovably to the station floor while an undead horde approaches. The survivors try to carry her, but are informed by the malfunctioning spacesuit that this is “an illegal move”. “Health and safety”, one of the survivors explains. It’s funny and makes a kind of sense against the satirical framework of the episode up until that point, but, crucially, makes no sense when the solution to the spacesuits’ behaviour is revealed: why would a company so obsessed with the bottom line that it’s prepared to kill its workers care about health and safety? Health and safety doesn’t exist because it’s intrinsically good for companies; on the contrary, it gives rise to a hell of a lot of paperwork they could probably do without. Health and safety exists because legislation has ensured that it potentially costs a company much, much more in damages not to do it. But, if this is a company that can, again, kill its workers (and I definitely read this as a systematic practice, not an isolated incident), then surely we can assume that no such legislation exists any more?

My point is, I suppose, that, far from being the party-pooping capitalist gremlin it’s popularly imagined to be, health and safety legislation is actually a quite astonishingly effective way of making sure that companies don’t kill people wantonly any more. And Oxygen‘s failure to recognise that is surely a failure to imagine capitalism properly.

The other moment that takes the wind out of Oxygen‘s sails, so to speak, is another throwaway line, this one at the end of the episode: the Doctor tells Bill that the upshot of the events on the mining station is that two of the survivors go to “head office” and make a complaint. And so ends capitalism.

What?

I mean, this underestimates capitalism’s ability to defend itself to an extent that’s actually laughable. And, again, it’s supremely easily fixed. Perhaps the company folds, and everyone sees that killing people in the name of efficiency is not good for the brand. Perhaps the legal battle stretches on for years, and in the end new, far-reaching legislation is put in place.

But the conclusion “and they all lived happily ever after” is one that doesn’t even make sense for Doctor Who‘s moral universe, and it certainly isn’t helpful for the project of the episode. The way out of capitalism isn’t whistleblowing alone; it’s years and years of legislation, of hard work that isn’t monetised, of sustained political activism. We can start at whistleblowing, certainly. But that’s not where we’ll end. And, generally, the Whoniverse tends to resist such easy answers.

At a micro level, then, there’s a lot that’s good about Oxygen: apart from the satirical elements I’ve mentioned above, the Doctor has a great line about being responsible for bad stuff:

You know what’s wrong with this universe? Believe me, I’ve looked into it. Everyone says it’s not their fault. Well, yes, it is. All of it. It’s all your fault. So, what are you going to do about it?

Which to me looks like a recognition of the state of complicity that capitalism puts all of us into; although the Doctor is feeling guilty about leaving Bill behind to be potentially zombified at this moment, so I think there’s a possibility that this line unhelpfully conflates capitalist complicity with the Doctor’s patriarchal god complex. Still.

At the macro level, though, Oxygen doesn’t quite do enough work to give itself real teeth as a satire. “The Doctor against corporate greed” has been done a number of times before (see, for example, Sleep No More, which even had a similar industrial spaceship setting), as has the link between zombies and capitalism. The latter’s practically a trope now, in fact. Oxygen is a better episode than Knock Knock; but it’s not exactly good, either.

Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

This episode contains spoilers.

Ah, well. I suppose three good episodes in a row was too much to hope for.

Knock Knock is the requisite Scary Episode of this season. It starts off very scary indeed (well, bearing in mind that I used to get freaked out by the Daleks) and goes downhill quite rapidly.

So. Bill and five friends-of-friends are searching for a student house to rent and having abysmally little luck when a mysterious stranger played by David Suchet approaches them and offers to rent out his mansion for an absurdly low price – provided they don’t go into the tower.

Pro tip, student househunters: never, ever rent a room off a mysterious stranger you just met. Particularly one played by David Suchet.

Against all common sense, the gang sign the Landlord’s contract and move in. But why do the floorboards creak so in the empty corridors? What’s the noise like tiny footsteps that one of the housemates keeps hearing above his head? Why does the tree outside sway in the non-existent wind? And what about Pavel, the housemate who’s not been seen for a day?

These are profound questions, well asked. The paranoia and claustrophobia build up in the house until it’s nearly unbearable, and the differing reactions of the housemates – some passing it off as a prank, some genuinely terrified – are a nice touch. (Actually, Knock Knock has overtones of the spin-off series Class, thanks to its diverse ensemble cast, each with an actual character to play rather than what feel like inherently supporting roles.)

And then – the tension breaks as doors slam and shutters seal themselves and the walls knock, knock, knock. The housemates are trapped.

But they are, at least, trapped with the Doctor, who’s been helping to move Bill’s stuff in and has refused to leave since then. The Doctor quickly gets to the heart of the action and solves the mystery, and Everything is Made Better by Love. Overacted love.

Doctor Who has two problems with horror stories. The first is that 45 minutes is really too little time to build up enough tension to make it scary while also having a decent payoff for that tension. It is possible to strike the right balance, as Blink proved, but it’s difficult.

The second is that the writers always try and make the payoff emotionally meaningful, usually in a way that is entirely, painfully unsubtle. Again, it is possible to have an effective, meaningful payoff, but, again, it’s difficult, especially on a show still nominally aimed at twelve-year-olds.

In this case, the episode is trying to be about parenthood. Specifically, it turns out, the Landlord has been keeping his mother alive by feeding people to the alien woodlice which infest the house. Only he’s told her, for…reasons, I guess? that she’s his daughter, and that as her father he knows best.

That’s the battleground of Knock Knock: who knows best. When the Landlord’s mother discovers the truth, she also discovers that she can control the woodlice. That would be an interesting device, if it was established as a point of worldbuilding: that the lice respond specifically to motherhood, or something like that. But it isn’t. Apparently motherhood just gives her a natural authority – which she uses, effectively, to commit suicide and kill her son along the way.

Mother knows best!

And there are troubling overtones of parenthood in the relationship between Bill and the Doctor, too. Embarrassed by his presence – an embarrassment which I read as Bill fearing her new housemates might think she was sleeping with him – Bill pretends that the Doctor is her grandfather. She repeatedly tries to get him to leave the house in a way that makes it clear that she’s trying to set some boundaries:

This is the bit of my life that you’re not in.

Look at the way the episode frames Bill’s boundary-setting. We know, of course, that there’s something badly wrong with the house, and that the best chance for Bill and her friends is if the Doctor sticks around. So, not only does the Doctor refuse to leave; we as viewers are forced into recognising that he’s right not to leave, because, after all, grandfather knows best!

Except the Doctor isn’t Bill’s grandfather. And Bill is an adult woman. What this episode is doing is trampling all over her agency, undermining all the work the series has done to establish her as smart and independent and progressive. Being the Doctor’s companion, being under his protection, apparently makes it OK for him to infantilise her in a way that the narrative structure of the episode validates and supports.

This, by the way, is pretty similar to the Doctor’s relationship with Clara.

Knock Knock wants to be a moving exploration of the power of parenthood. In fact, what it is is a look at two very fucked up parenthood models. That’s the core problem of Moffat-era Doctor Who for me (note: this episode was not actually written by Stephen Moffat): it tries to make us believe in, and root for, relationships which are not just flawed but actually, dangerously rotten to the core. It doesn’t know what healthy relationships look like. That’s why its more emotion-driven plots don’t work.

Next time, zombies in space. Really?