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Category Archives: Holiday Retrospectives

Star Trek II, III and IV: Holiday Retrospectives Part 6

I wasn’t kidding when I said that I’ve been a Trekkie for about as long as I’ve been able to walk. My parents are both fans, and I was born the year Star Trek: the Next Generation started. And like a lot of people in the 1980s I was very keen on the movies.

The Original Star Trek took a while to gather momentum into the phenomenon it is today, so it wasn’t until 1979 that Captain Kirk et al returned to prominence by way of movies. Altogether they appeared in six of them, but the ones that most people remember, and the ones that I grew up with, were the informal trilogy of II, III, and IV, entitled the Wrath of Khan, the Search for Spock, and the Voyage Home, respectively.

Everyone knows by now that Wrath of Khan was the movie that Into Darkness was ripping off. It was a stab at a comeback after Star Trek: the Motion Picture flopped – critically, and deservedly – and represented the arrival of Nicholas Meyer, a newcomer to Star Trek, as director and writer.

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In Wrath of Khan, Kirk is an Admiral, and chafing at the administrative inactivity of the position when it’s in his nature to, as Dr. McCoy puts it, “be out there hopping galaxies.” It becomes that much more poignant when he arrives for an inspection tour on a training cruise for new officers, aboard the Enterprise, under Spock’s command.

At the same time, Chekhov, also late of the Enterprise, is on an expedition searching for a totally lifeless planet as part of a scientific project called Genesis. When he goes to the surface of one to check an ambiguous reading, Chekhov is horrified to realize that he’s wandered right into the clutches of Khan, the genetically engineered warlord, a fugitive by way of cryogenic preservation from war-torn 20th Century Earth, who once tried to seize the Enterprise, only to be defeated and marooned – events which formed the Original Series episode “Space Seed.”

He uses a local parasite to gain control of Chekhov, and then learns of Genesis and where he can find Kirk, to get power and revenge for his exile. It turns out that Genesis is a new system for terraforming dead planets instantly into garden worlds. The problem is that if used on a planet with life already present, it becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Kirk has to race to stop Khan gaining control of Genesis and destroying his ship and crew, taking horrible casualties in the process.

The movie deconstructs Kirk’s traditional devil-may-care style of leadership, showing the cost in character and lives it can carry. And the cost is high. As everybody probably also knows, this is the one where Spock dies. With the weight of decades of their friendship in popular culture, it was enough to make people weep in the theatres.

While the situation leading to Khan’s escape is a bit of a stretch (surely lifeless planets can’t be that hard to find), the thematic elements are highly complex and powerful. The writing is excellent, and the special effects the pinnacle of the days (which I sometimes miss) when model photography was the normal method. It brought back all the old cast, including Ricardo Montalban as Khan, and introduced Kirstie Alley to movie audiences as Spock’s protege, Lt. Savvik, who serves as a useful foil for the old crowd.

It’s important to remember that in those days, every Star Trek movie produced was made for its own sake. There was no assumption that sequels would be made. So it was probably a bit out of left field for the gang to be called up for another one: Star Trek III: the Search for Spock.

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There’s a funny sort of superstition among Trekkies that odd-numbered Trek movies are never as good as even-numbered ones. And indeed, Star Trek III is a bit silly. I love it, but since this is the specific example of Trek that I started out with, most of it is sentimental.

As the grief-stricken Enterprise limps to Earth, the planet created by the Genesis Device which Khan detonated in a last-ditch attempt to kill Kirk has become a political hot potato for the Federation. Savvik (played by Robin Curtis now) has transferred to a science vessel to explore it.

While Kirk and crew sit idly, after learning the Enterprise is to be scrapped, they are concerned by the illness of Dr. McCoy, who seems to be have been driven round the bend by Spock’s demise. As Spock’s father, Ambassador Sarek explains to Kirk, Spock mind-melded with McCoy before he died, leaving a ‘backup copy’ of himself in McCoy’s mind. Apparently, to free McCoy and lay Spock truly to rest, McCoy and Spock’s body must be brought to Vulcan. Trouble is: they buried Spock on the Genesis Planet, and no one but the science team is allowed there. So, for the sake of their friend, Kirk and his comrades steal the Enterprise and go to Genesis. But they’re in for a shock: the Genesis Effect has somehow resurrected Spock’s body, leaving him a gibbering shell, but with a chance to reunite his consciousness with a living body. It will be hard-fought, because the Klingons have gotten wind of the power of Genesis, and want the planet for themselves.

The whole premise has ‘contrived’ hovering over it. The conjuration of a means to bring Spock back was at least vaguely hinted at in Wrath of Khan; exactly why the Klingons need to go to Genesis is a bit unclear, as is why they needed Spock’s body even before they knew that Genesis would regenerate him. The end of Kirk’s long-lost-son arc from Wrath is kind of cheap. But as with Wrath, the saving grace of the movie is its thematic meaning. For all the hoops they had to jump through, the writers made Search a counterpoint to its predecessor. The phrase that bookends Wrath of Khan is Spock’s remark that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” It summarizes the reasons of Spock’s sacrifice and Kirk’s acceptance of his own responsibilities as a leader. In Search for Spock, though, he counters with “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many,” the team’s responsibility to each member. If the basic message of Wrath was ‘one for all,’ then Search’s was ‘all for one.’ The basic moments of friendship, especially Spock’s return and McCoy’s remark to him that “it seems I’ve missed you,” are heartwarming and classic, not something you’d hear in this era of ‘bromance.’ The action sequences are tons of fun too. It also marked a few milestones, including the first extensive showcase of the Klingon language, the first of many appearances of the Klingon Bird of Prey (to this hour, I submit, the coolest spaceship ever imagined), the appearance of a fantastically hammy Klingon played by Christopher “1.21 Gigawatts” Lloyd, and Leonard Nimoy’s directorial debut.

The funny thing about Star Trek III is that it was billed as “the last voyage of the starship Enterprise.” As I said, they didn’t assume they’d be making any more. Mind you, it was technically true: the Enterprise itself didn’t survive the movie.

Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home finds Kirk and crew still on Vulcan, having chosen to return, by way of the Klingon vessel they seized in Search for Spock, to Earth and face the music for their actions. Spock, still not fully recovered from his experience, rejoins them for this last voyage.

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But Earth is abruptly cut off when an alien probe of enormous power arrives, sending out a thunderous but incomprehensible transmission that cripples every ship, station or planetary infrastructure around it, and starts vaporizing Earth’s oceans.

Kirk and his anxious crew are stymied, but Spock realizes that the probe might not be trying to talk to humans. He’s right: the transmission is actually in the song of humpback whales. Trouble is, they’re extinct in the 23rd Century. To talk the probe down, they’d need actual whales to understand what it’s saying. With no other option to hand, they decide to risk travelling in time to the 20th Century and get some.

So, yes, this is the one where they save the whales. A lot of people seem to regard that as the biggest joke Star Trek ever played on itself. I don’t understand why. Saving whales is good, isn’t it? And the time-travel technique they use was well-established in the Original Series. Plus, it was a fresh formula after the Enterprise vs. Bad Guy setup of the last two. Regardless, it is true that Star Trek IV is written as more of a comedy. This was customary all through the pre-reboot film canon; Star Trek movies cycle between dramatic and lighthearted every other movie or so.

They arrive in 1980s San Francisco, hide their stealthed Klingon ship in Golden Gate Park, and Kirk and Spock make the acquaintance of the marine biologist who is responsible for the only two humpbacks in captivity. Meanwhile Chekhov and Uhura have to try and jump-start their ship’s engine by breaking into a nuclear reactor (oddly enough the one aboard the aircraft carrier Enterprise) and Scotty, Sulu and McCoy have to get into the good graces of a Plexiglas manufacturer in order to convert their ship into a flying aquarium. Wackiness ensues.

The degree of cultural disconnect between the 20th and 23rd Centuries is the root of a lot of the humour; the fact that our heores don’t use money (“I’ll give you one hundred dollars.” “Is that a lot?”) or Scotty trying to give voice commands to an early Apple MacIntosh (through the mouse, no less) or their tenuous grasp of the colloquial idiom (“Double dumb-ass on you!”). The one everyone (especially J.J. Abrams) remembers is Chekhov asking the way to the ‘nuclear wessels.’ Funny thing is, it isn’t his Russian accent that’s the joke: it’s that he’s a Russian in 1980s America asking the way to the United States nuclear navy.

I have an on-again off-again fondness for farce comedy, so I can see how some people might not have much patience with it. It’s interesting insofar as this movie has a lot more conversational dialogue, rather than the “Captain, sensors are picking up such-and-such” material Trek usually deals in. The coolness of humpback whales is sold quite well by the movie, and indeed, they had the co-discoverer of whale song on the crew: Roger Payne.

Except for a brush with a whaling ship, there’s no villain per se in the movie, but the end, as they struggle to get the whales free and clear to call the probe off is nevertheless very suspenseful. Spock’s ongoing recovery is both plot relevant and rather charming and funny (“Spock, where the hell’s the power you promised me?” “One damn minute, Admiral”). The camaraderie of the crew is strong as ever and it’s all wrapped up with a feel-good ending promising further adventures.

The three movies form a trilogy within the Star Trek film canon, based on Meyer’s and Bennett’s vision of it being very much Horatio Hornblower in space, and Leonard Nimoy’s long-standing acquaintance with the show, its characters and its themes. They were in many respects more grounded than the Original Series or the Motion Picture, and I find them the most aesthetically compelling Trek production prior to Deep Space Nine. James Horner’s soundtracks for II and III are absolutely fantastic (he’s a major reason why the ‘stealing the Enterprise sequence is so exhilarating), and the special effects represent Industrial Light and Magic in their prime. For a lot of people this was the high point of the Original Star Trek cast, if not Star Trek generally. And despite what everyone thinks of Star Trek, and William Shatner particularly, the acting is top game all round.

Happy New Year, and Live Long and Prosper

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Posted by on December 30, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Movie

 

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The Rankin Bass Hobbit: Holiday Retrospectives Part 5

You know, most of the time when I hear objections raised against an adapted work, like the Lord of the Rings, it usually takes the form of ‘it’s not enough like the book.’

Yet, strangely, I usually find that following the book too closely isn’t a good idea. David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune or the Harry Potter movies often recreate scenes word for word from the books, and the result ends up as a disjointed, inelegant crush. Whereas the ones that are a bit more liberal, like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which aren’t all that wayward anyway, capture the magic in a way that makes the most of the change of format.

Still, I did argue earlier this week that the new Hobbit movies are straying somewhat further than is reasonable. So for those who want to see their beloved childhood favourite rendered faithfully, not merely spectacularly, then there is another option: the 1977 animated rendition of the Hobbit by Rankin Bass studios.

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People around my age have all experienced this production, often at school during study of the book. And if you ask about it, the opinion is almost certainly that it’s terrible.

And frankly, I find this statement somewhat puzzling. Possibly a lot of people conflate it with Ralph Bakshi’s visually artistic but otherwise dreadful rendition of about two-thirds of the Lord of the Rings, which was guilty of the same erratically stitched-together compression used in the other poorer adaptations listed earlier. Rankin Bass did make a campy and quite sloppy adaptaion of Return of the King, handy since Bakshi never got around to it, which probably is best forgotten.

I suppose part of it is the animation, which is a Japanese rendition of fairy-tale style figures that make all the characters look about 95 years old – for some reason, Thorin’s enormous nose is always my first thought in this direction. The New York Times described the goblins as looking like Maurice Sendak’s doing. And in an act I normally regard as unforgivable, several of the characters – Bilbo, Gandalf, Bard and Smaug among them – are voiced by American actors instead of British ones. Amusing side effects include Gandalf pronouncing treasure “tray-sure” and Smaug’s name being (rather aptly, you have to admit) pronounced “smog” instead of “smowg”

The animation is also rather stylized – several of the animators went on to work for Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. The Great Goblin and the spiders’ deaths end with them spinning out and vanishing. Bilbo’s invisibility when he puts on the Ring is denoted by his becoming semi-transparent. And for some reason, the Mirkwood elves are blue and rather ugly, like Smurf gorillas, and have German accents. Possibly the creators used folkloric images of elves and other Fair Folk and missed the memo on Tolkien’s ideas of elves. Plus Elrond has a beard, Gandalf has a tall pointed hood instead of his signature hat, and Gollum looks more like a gargoyle frog than anything that could once have been a hobbit. On the plus side, the design of Smaug, or at least his face, is unlike the standard issue dragon in most European illustrations and cartoons. He looks almost fox-like. In point of fact, he looks like a Japanese dragon, a novelty that, despite Weta Workshop and Tolkien’s own illustration and all the rest of Western artwork, has become fixed in my mind as the ideal dragon.

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And then there’s the music. The 70s-American-folk melodies do use a lot of Tolkien’s lyrics, including the same ones used for “Misty Mountains Cold” in Jackson’s Unexpected Journey. They have a charm and memorable ear worm quality to them which, while stylistically a bit odd, are quite a lot of fun to listen to.

The plot is truncated to fit into the 77 minute runtime: many scenes are a lot briefer, just long enough to get the job done. If nothing else the plot moves quite briskly, while maintaining cohesion. Some changes are a little strange: Gandalf seems to make the sun rise early to trap the trolls, rather than distracting them until it rises on its own; Beorn is absent, joining Bombadil in narrative extraneousness; the Arkenstone and the drama around it is omitted; most bizarrely, in the runup to the Battle of the Five Armies, Thorin seems happy and willing to march into battle with just his thirteen companions (though Bilbo repeatedly points out that this is insane), and treats the arrival of his allies from the Iron Hills as merely a bonus; and while only three of the thirteen dwarves die in the book, seven of them fall in the movie. Bombur and Thorin are the only ones named specifically, with no concern with who the others are.

I re-read the Hobbit in anticipation of Jackson’s movies coming out. And I watched the Rankin Bass version so many times as a kid I fairly memorized it. That being the case, I discovered that the Rankin Bass version oftentimes follows the book word-for-word, or near enough to it. In particular the scene between Bilbo and Smaug is almost dead on the money, as is the scene with Gollum. However abridged, the whole of the basic story is in here. It’s been cut down without turning it into the disconnected mess of cool scenes that many such adaptations end up as. Thorin is also middle-aged or older, as he is in the book.

And thematically it holds up well: Bilbo gains gumption and courage in his adventures, enough to call out Thorin on his greed and bravado by the end, and their reconciliation is quite touching. After all that, Bilbo takes a tiny fraction of his share and goes home to write his memoirs and get as far away from such grand matters as possible.

While I normally cringe at hearing American voices in what is fundmentally a British story, the particular voices involved – veteran actors from the 1950s like Orson Bean and John Huston (also the director of the Maltese Falcon) – have a great deal of character that makes up the difference.

If you can, get the version with the old hi-fi audio, like the VHS edition, since many sound effects are unaccountably missing from the DVD release, and enjoy it. The target audience is younger than the book’s, that much is clear. But it actually is a pretty grounded and precise adaptation of the Hobbit, with none of the excesses the Jackson version has been exhibiting. Equally, it lacks the sense of depth Tolkien imbued his work with. But it’s much better, I think, than it’s given credit for. People who insist that adaptations aren’t any good because they aren’t close to the book really have no right to complain about it. If you like Studio Ghibli movies, the style will be familiar, and the music is a lot of fun.

“You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m very fond of you. But you’re only quite a little fellow, in a big world after all.”
“Uh, thank goodness.”

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Movie

 

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Robin of Sherwood: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 4

I’ve been interested in history for most of my life. My parents both made at least some study of the subject, and I hold a degree in the subject.

And tracing the root of this is a little tricky. As stated, science fiction and I have known each other from the word go.

I went into Early Modern History not least from fascination with the aesthetics of Myst and Pirates of the Caribbean. But the genesis of my fascination with ancientry, swordsmanship, armour and horsemanship of days passed can, I think, have come only from a sadly little-known series from the 1980s. At the time it titled itself Robin Hood, but it nowadays can be found under its title from the other side of the Atlantic, Robin of Sherwood.

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L-R Will Scarlet, Little John, Lady Marian, Much, Robin Hood, Brother Tuck, Nasir

Whatever name you give it, it was a British series that ran from 1984-1986. In other words, it began and ended just before I was born. Luckily we had taped copies, and even more luckily somebody invented the DVD.

Robin of Sherwood represents a bit of an upgrade from the the traditional depiction of the dude in tights and a green hat with a feather, popularized by the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks and Disney – a shiny, idealized, generically medieval adventure of derring-do.

In Robin of Sherwood, it’s little more than a hundred years since England was conquered by the Normans, and innocent commoners suffer under the oppression of greedy nobles and officials. As the Normans burn the village of Loxley, the hero of the Saxon rebellion says with his dying breath, “The Hooded Man is coming!”

Years later, the rebel leader’s son, Robin, is a wandering woodsman, living with his adopted brother, Much the Miller. Running afoul of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his chief lieutenant, Sir Guy of Guisborne, he’s thrown in prison with a number of other disaffected victims of the regime, among them Will Scarlet, grieving for his murdered wife and hungry for vengeance. They stage an escape and become outlaws, or ‘wolfsheads.’ On the way, he meets Lady Marian and her chaplain, Brother Tuck.

Having dared to stand up for the little guy as he has, Robin is approached by Herne the Hunter, the Saxon forest god, who says that he is Herne’s Son, the defender of the helpless and hero of the common people.

But all is not as it seems. The Sheriff and his brother Abbott Hugo, Marian’s guardian, are plotting with the sinister Baron Simon de Belleme, a sorcerer who plans to sacrifice Marian and promises to use his arcane knowledge to thwart the prophecy of a rebel, who seems now to have appeared, as one Robin-in-the-Hood. Robin confronts Belleme to rescue Marian and the Baron’s ensorcelled slaves, the giant John Little, and the Saracen Nasir.

Thence begins a series of adventures driven by the ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between Robin Hood and his band of medieval guerillas, and the conniving Sheriff and the tenacious Guisborne, to hold the line against tyranny and uphold the protection of Herne the Hunter. Over the course of the series, they confront many faces of oppression: the Sheriff, and sometimes the wicked Prince (later King) John, evil sorcerers, corrupt churchmen, bandits and even Templars.

Moreso I think than any other version of the tale of Robin Hood, this one seems to me to feel most like how it could really have happened. The clothing is realistic, even the most extravagant costumes understated to modern eyes, the castle is a real, proper castle, not one of those ghastly Bavarian birthday cakes. The class division between Saxons and Normans is still a factor: a lot of the noblemen have French-sounding names – the Sheriff is Robert de Rainault, the King’s emissary is Hubert de Guiscard, etc. – the peasants live a Third-World life but they don’t crawl around covered in manure a la Monty Python; the Crusades are still fresh in a lot of peoples’ minds and names like Richard the Lionheart, Philip of France and Saladin get dropped from time to time. Richard himself appears and is not the kind fatherly figure he traditionally is, but the hard-charging, egotistical autocrat he actually was; a conversation between two noble characters in a late episode foreshaows the Magna Carta. And for that matter, you can tell that we’re seeing into an age where the concept of last names hasn’t totally caught on yet.

The only switch there is the paganistic and magical elements, and even these are compelling: even the Sheriff and his brother (who is an abbott, after all) think Simon de Belleme is creepy, and they respect the old supertitions – or fail to at their peril, as when the Sheriff steals a Kabbalah from a Jewish family in Nottingham. Later in the series we have a recurring villain in the mad sorcerer Gulnar, played by Richard O’Brien (late of Rocky Horror) who calls up pagan gods like the Celtic Cromm Cruach and the Norse Fenris, very much trading on the Christian demonization of these figures (not that Fenris was very nice anyway), plus two cases of flat-out Devil worship. Of course Herne provides a nice counterpoint to it, as Robin Hood is his metaphorical Jesus.

The series is pretty well all episodic, each part a self-contained adventure. The tone changes in the third season when Robin of Loxley (played by Michael Praed) is finally slain, only for Herne to appoint the son of the Earl of Huntingdon as the new Hooded Man (played by Jason, son of Sean Connery), thus finding room for two of the traditional origin stories for the character. The tone changes somewhat, upping the level of supernatural features a little bit, and causing a certain amount of ongoing angst for Marian which creates a rather tacked-on-feeling love story, plus one episode with a rather dopey long-lost-brother twist. At the very least, Much’s character did evolve into something other than a man-child nuisance…

While the look of the Middle Ages is captured, nitty-gritty details, like the number of times Guisborne gets shot in the arm and never dies of gangrene, or the fact that Robin never even accidentally gets Marian pregnant is a bit strange, but that isn’t the story they want to tell, so it’s simply not in there. Marian herself doesn’t get quite as much characterization as the others, being ever this serene, if occasionally feisty love interest, although she can bring down a soldier at a hundred yards with a longbow with the best of them.

Belleme and Gulnar seems a bit more fantastical (not that Richard O’Brien is ever one for the grounded or naturalistic), whereas the Sheriff and Guisborne are pretty believable. Guisborne is a good soldier but not much of a leader, whereas the Sheriff is a conniving bastard who seems well aware, and not particularly unhappy about what he is. King John, in his appearances, is the kind of venal creep he is sometimes remembered as, and fully displays the Plantagenet family’s famous temper. His and the Sheriff’s outbursts are, along with the antics of Robin’s band, a source of much comic relief. Abbott Hugo, while as conniving and cynical as his brother, the Sheriff, still takes his religious station (and its perks) seriously; the writers didn’t take the easy route of making him a lecherous hypocrite.

The actors really nail it: Praed and Connery both bring a neat flavour to the title role. Nicholas Grace as the Sheriff is delightfully good at being bad; King John, who some might also recognize as the cab driver in Sherlock, is an absolute hoot; Ray Winstone as Will Scarlet is a brilliant, scenery-chewing machine; Mark Ryan as the tactiurn, enigmatic (if shamelessly whitewashed) ex-Hassassin Nasir was a trendsetter in the adaptations of Robin Hood, and, for better or worse, the first character I ever saw my mother fangirl over. Not that I can throw stones; I once used him as a character in a game of Dungeons and Dragons

The special effects are few, cheap and crude, but they do the job. Any Anglophile will relish the views of the English countryside; the choreography of fight scenes is above average for a show this age; the acting is old-school, gloriously hammy, theatrical, and memorable; the actors themselves are perfectly cast; the stories have equal parts action, drama and historical resonance, with lots of little bonuses like playing spot-Eleanor-of-Aquitaine; its award-winning soundtrack by Irish group Clannad is haunting and flawlessly sets the scenes. It’s a perfect example of the British aptitude for making short, memorable series that don’t burn themselves out but also leave you wanting more. It’s a classic which deserves way more attention than it gets, and is easily available on YouTube or your local library.

“Nothing’s forgotten. Nothing is ever forgotten.”

 

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2013 in Holiday Retrospectives, Television

 

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His Dark Materials: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 3

Phew, it looked for a while like we were in for another wet, greenish-grey Christmas, but lo, the Arctic winds came through for us at the last minute.

Maybe it was the snow, or the nostalgia, or both, that leads me ultimately to the third and final retrospective on stories that take me back to the good old days and have impacted me ever since: the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Phillip Pullman.
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His Dark Materials, better known as the Golden Compass Trilogy for its first chapter, is based in what I like to call a ‘little bit to the left’ world, a setting that is similar to our world but drastic differences have arisen in the weave of its history. Compare the world of Nation or the Leviathan Trilogy for other examples.

In the world of the Golden Compass, England is still a true monarchy, there is a single Church that has power over all of society,the Arctic is ruled by witches and armour-clad polar bears, and people have a kind of external soul in the form of an animal-shaped ‘daemon.’    

The Golden Compass features Lyra, a tomboyish orphan living in the care of a distinguished Oxford college, and her daemon, Pantalaimon. Lyra is more at home among street urchins than scholars, and longs to join her uncle, Lord Asriel, on his mysterious expeditions to the north to investigate the Northern Lights.  
She has matters of her own to worry about when children start disappearing. At the same time, Lyra is swept into a new life with a glamorous adventuress, Mrs. Coulter. Before she leaves, the Master of the college gives her an alethiometer. Like a compass, this device points your way, but not North; it points to the truth, for those who can read it.    
Discovering that she has a natural talent at interpreting the alethiometer’s symbolic signals, she runs away and finds allies; the boat-gypsies of Britain’s waterways, a witty balloonist, a beautiful witch queen, and a ferocious armoured bear and joins them to find the missing children and discover the intentions of Lord Asriel and what he knows, and what Mrs. Coulter dreads, about the force known as Dust and the other world behind the Northern Lights.    

The second novel, the Subtle Knife, jumps to our own world to introduce Will Parry, a boy who leaves his mentally ill mother to find his father, missing for many years, to try and find out where he disappeared to, and why men seem to be hunting for his father’s old letters. He finds a strange door into a new world, and meets Lyra, who has also crossed over from hers, and they discover that they are caught between powers that span universes. Will also discovers the Subtle Knife, with which he can cut portals between worlds. With the help of a physicist, they begin to figure out one side and the other, and the nature of Dust.

Finally in the Amber Spyglass, answers start being uncovered as Lyra and Will start to realize they have a key role to play in this new war for Heaven. Dr. Malone, their physicist friend, creates a special glass to observe Dust, while Will and Lyra make their own discoveries about the motives of the different sides of this pan-dimensional war. As they come of age together, their actions and their feelings will determine the fate of all that exists.

  I have praised a lot of stories for their world building, but I have to say that in the realm of fantasy literature, Lyra’s world achieves all the charm, depth and wonder of the classic Middle-Earth type fantasy setting while retaining almost none of its usual trappings. There are a thousand little touches to let you know what the rules and history of the world are; electricity is called anbaric force,a scientist is an experimental theologian, chocolate still answers to its ancient name of chocolatl and, as often seems to be the case with alternate worlds, there are a lot of zeppelins.

Phillip Pullman is on par with Brian Jacques in his skill and describing landscapes and people, and there’s no one to match him with writing dialogue. The characters fairly leap off the page for me, and you can feel all their joy and anguish almost as vividly as your own. Lyra was and remains one of my favourite fictional characters ever. Pullman has a skill, a subtlety and an economy of language in his writing that makes it incredibly fun to read. The story itself gets progressively more epic in scope, and hits strong emotional notes and high action points just often enough to keep you engaged and in suspense, and clever elements of mystery will keep you guessing. The lf story itself can be harrowing at times, especially for young-adult readers, with all victories coming at a cost, sometimes a gut-wrenchingly horrible one.

The trilogy is based around the classic theme of innocence to experience. Both Will and Lyra start out less innocent than some, but discover the heights of goodness and the depths of evil and where they stand throughout the story. It is the most basic heart of the story, and in many respects the main thing we, and Pullman himself, are here for.

There is a passage in the Last Battle, final instalment of the Chronicles of Narnia, where Susan, one of the four children from the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is said to be “no longer a friend of Narnia” and interested “in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Pullman, along with Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling and others, have interpreted this to mean that Susan is being excluded, damned after a fashion, because she embraced her adulthood and particularly her sexuality. Pullman voiced strong objections to these and related themes in Lewis, and His Dark Materials can be read as the anti-Narnia. Crucially, the process of losing innocence is treated, on balance, as being a positive force.

It’s a brilliant idea, but certain side effects do cause problems. His Dark Materials is that most ornery of beasts, a story that exists to make a point. Lots of famous works have done so, but it’s a difficult line to walk because you risk your tale turning into a tract. It isn’t as apparent in the Golden Compass or in the Subtle Knife, but as the threads get tied together Pullman starts piling on symbolism and exposition to make his point that starts to turn the Amber Spyglass into more of a slog than it could have been. He lays in a lot of references to Adam and Eve, the Rebellion of Lucifer and similar matters. They get explained in-text but it can be very out of left field if you don’t already know something about Christian theology and symbolism. This is part of the reason why I found I could barely remember anything about the third book after I read it when I was 13. However, I can’t be sure if that says more about the book or about me…

And of course the point being made might be one you find distasteful. As I said of Terry Pratchett’s Nation, when a particular philosophy (secular humanism in both cases) informs the story, it can potentially be off-putting if you do not share it, and Pullman is nowhere near as subtle or lighthearted about it as Pratchett is either. Since I happen to share views with both writers, it doesn’t distress me, but it might be a bit glaring for some.

While I can’t really point to anything specific, I sometimes get the feeling that Pullman worked out the thesis but played the story around it by ear. It would certainly explain why it always takes Pullman freaking forever to come out with a new book. Part of this is that as new characters get introduced – Will in Subtle Knife and a whole whack of people in the Amber Spyglass – it can get unfocused after spending the whole first book getting to know Lyra. That said, our heroine seldom leaves our field of view and stays pretty active throughout. And indeed, the other characters are sufficiently engaging that it’s still a pleasure to meet them. Lord Asriel’s plan escalates with almost ridiculous speed, and the plot of the second two books seems at times to meander a little.    

The trilogy is still one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had, and has affected me a lot ever since. It’s a deep, moving, superb story with a vast amount of imagination and talent behind it. It falters only in that, in its determination to make a statement, it loses the accessibility and clarity of its breakout contemporary, Harry Potter, which is a shame because, artistically, it’s at least the equal of Harry Potter. It’s well worth a try for any young reader.

Happy New Year. Oh, and whatever you do, don’t watch the movie. It’s dreadful….

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Book, Holiday Retrospectives

 

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Redwall: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 2

To continue in the Christmastime theme of stories that hearken back to childhood, I want to talk about the one that has probably affected my life more fundamentally than any other. It got to me early on and set in motion my love of fantasy and my desire to be a writer.

And as a fantasy fan, you might reasonably assume, I was first inspired by the Lord of the Rings, the Chronicles of Narnia or something like that, yes?

Well, no. Those things were a part of my life in one way or another, but what tipped the balance was something less well-known: Brian Jacques’ Redwall.

Redwall

Written by a Liverpool truck driver, Redwall was the first full-length novel I ever read. It takes us to the forest of Mossflower and Redwall Abbey, a monastery inhabited by an order of mice.

Yes, mice. The characters are anthropomorphic animals. Humans don’t exist in this world like they do in, say, Wind in the Willows. The world of Redwall is populated solely by creatures of the English countryside; soft-spoken mice, stout hedgehogs, foppish hares, vicious rats, devious weasels, and insidious adders.

The monastic denizens of Redwall are charitable protectors. Founded by the hero of old Martin the Warrior, they provide safe haven and medicine to the forest-dwellers around them, and invite all and sundry to their famous feast days, generally living in peace, material simplicity and natural plenty.

Matthias, a young mouse and novice of the Redwall order, has a longing for the adventure and action of the long-dead Martin’s era, though Redwall has been at peace for many seasons, and Matthias can only experience these things through the record of the abbey’s famous tapestry.

He’s about to get more action than he bargained for; the ravening horde of the rat warlord Cluny is on the road to Redwall, and the peaceful denizens of Mossflower will have to learn to defend themselves. Matthias, helped by the abbey’s aged loremaster, seeks to give Redwall back its fighting spirit by recovering the lost sword of Martin, a quest which will take Matthias into the darkest corners of the abbey and into faraway lands in search of clues and allies.

The story is a riveting quest with airs of the Sword in the Stone or the Hobbit, with the storybook charm of the aforementioned Wind in the Willows or Beatrix Potter woven in as well. Songs and especially riddles form a key part of Brian Jacques’ writing, and you’ll grapple with them along with Matthias as he confronts terrifying villains and confounding mysteries in his efforts to save his home.

This is a kids’ book, of course, so the themes are standard unity in difference, innocence to experience and hero’s journey fare, but they’re presented with an imagination and charm that gives them great zest.

Brian Jacques once described writing as ‘painting pictures with words’ and few can claim to paint pictures so vivid. The characters, the landscape and the medieval aesthetic of the setting leap off the page, especially if history is something you’re into anyway. Any Anglophile will get a kick out of the hare’s aristocratic military dialect, ending sentences with exclamations of ‘what, what!’ or the moles, whose indecipherable Somerset accents are hilarious to read aloud. He also had a great skill at selecting resonant names for characters. The lavish feast days at Redwall will make your mouth water – you can even find Redwall recipes out there. I recommend the Deeper n’ Ever Pie, myself. Despite the fact that the characters live in a monastery, no religious associations are made, so you don’t need to be Christian to get the experience.

Another thing that makes Jacques great as a children’s author is that he didn’t pull too many punches. This was the series that first taught me that good guys die too, and not just in heroic sacrifices or peacefully in bed, but sometimes unexpectedly, pointlessly and tragically. Victory feels real and hard-won as a result.

Redwall ultimately spawned a vast set of sequels. The first were Mattimeo and the Pearls of Lutra, which follow later quests and crises suffered by Matthias’ descendants, some of which are fallout of the events in Redwall. Others deal with characters connected to but outside of Redwall. Of these, Mariel of Redwall and the Bellmaker are the best in my opinion. The books also cross generations, so a character who is a child in one book will sometimes turn up again elderly in the next.

As I got older, though, the effect of the books started to wane. They became very formulaic. You start to wonder why Redwall is ever surprised to find itself under siege. One branch goes back in time to follow ancestral characters like Martin, but I found these characters much more effective as historical ideals than as real people, and it spoiled their mystique somewhat. The divide between someone who is a member of the Redwall order and someone who just seems to live there starts getting fuzzy, and the frequency of great feasts starts to seem a little bizarre (although perhaps not, given how many Saints’ Days there are in real life). Despite the series covering seemingly hundreds of years Mossflower and Redwall are usually pretty much the same, and the world feels weirdly static. Mossflower and the Bellmaker are the only books that seem to defy that trend.

Jacques also wasn’t very good at moral ambiguity. Every now and again a mouse, vole, or other ‘good guy’ would go over to the bad guys, and in the Bellmaker a rat came over to the good guys, but the good/evil divide was so inflexible that it was actually a little offensive, especially in Outcast of Redwall. It’s by far my least favourite instalment and marked the beginning of the end of my passion for the series.

Some later books like the Long Patrol and Marlfox still held up. But for a kid, the formulaic structure is likely to be a plus, and the dividing of characters into recognizable types appeals greatly to a young mind, giving them clear rules to learn. It’s a bit like a fantasy starter before trying to tackle intricate epics like the Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, it lacks the all-ages accessibility of Harry Potter or the Hobbit. I’ve referred to other stories as probably inaccessible to readers below a certain age. Redwall books, on the other hand, will probably be lost on you if you’re over about thirteen.

For all that, Redwall itself, and Mattimeo and the Pearls of Lutra as well, are terrific. The world is vivid and sumptuous, the stories are classic and the emotional arcs are very intense. This was the series that taught me the power of books to affect your feelings. Jacques’ visual style and his love of children shine through and warm your heart. The feast (in every sense) it provides to the mind’s eye will thrill young readers, especially if they’re budding historians. If you have kids, or are one, then this is a great way to get into reading and offers a young person a great stepping stone into more mature literature.

RIP Mr. Jacques, and Merry Christmas to all.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2012 in Book, Holiday Retrospectives

 

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Myst and Riven: Holiday Retrospectives, Part 1

With the Christmas season at hand, I’ve been debating what to review that would fit the occasion. I’ve never seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street, the old claymation Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is so bad I wouldn’t know where to start, and much as I love Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown it’s rather insubstantial.

It occurred to me that the key, the true meaning, if you will, of Christmas is childhood joy and family. So I’m going to talk about something that brought my family together and had a profound impact on my childhood.

In the late 90s-early 00s my family, particularly my brother and I, had one fictional work firmly at the centre of our lives: Myst, and its sequel, Riven.

Myst was a trendsetter for computer games in the 1990s. Created by the brothers Rand and Robyn Miller of Cyan, it’s a fantasy adventure game that spawned a franchise of five sequels, two spinoffs, an online multiplayer game, and three novels.

In the first game, Myst, you discover a strange book that describes an island in another world. You lay a hand on a page and find yourself teleported to the island in question, which, funnily enough, is named Myst. The island is littered with strange devices, combination-code locks and more books linking to other worlds (Ages, as they are called) with more puzzles, lost diaries and other clues to a story of betrayal, loss and dark secrets.

In the second game, Riven, you’re sent on a mission to the Age of Riven to stop a tyrant who threatens to unleash his madness on countless helpless Ages. You’re thrown into a new world of puzzles and clues, tracing the history of a fractured family, a lost civilization, and one man’s insane ambition.

There are more sequels, but the heart and soul of the franchise is Myst and Riven. Cyan was still a small company and they have a creativity and craftsmanship about them that reflects that. Later instalments were handled by big companies like Ubisoft and, frankly, developed an increasing air of money-spinning.

Myst and Riven, before they’re fantasy, or adventure, are a mystery – which makes sense, if you think about it. Weirdly, a lot of the game involves reading other people’s diaries. Journals, letters, and secret messages abound, sent by people you seldom see and which you must use to attempt to reconstruct who they are and what happened to them. We spent hours tossing around theories as we tried to discover how various clues fit together. The mystery is punctuated with logic puzzles that open locked doors, turn on power, and open the way to new clues, all the while letting you make deductions about the nature of the world – indeed, worlds – you are in.

And those worlds are remarkable. Douglas Adams described Myst as ‘a beautiful void,’ words that cannot be bettered. It can actually be quite unnerving as you wander the islands, pushing random buttons and discovering an hour later something has changed and you wonder whether you did it and whether, perhaps, you are being watched…

There are drawbacks. Myst has very 90s graphics that the revamped ‘realMyst’ version doesn’t completely overcome. The victory scenario isn’t locked off until you play the rest of the game. The only thing stopping you from going straight to the final mission is not knowing how, so a second playthrough might feel like just going through the motions.

The movement controls are a little old-fashioned. RealMyst added a fluid 360-degree motion system but Riven is still like clicking your way through an incremental slideshow.

Myst vs realMyst

 Screenshot

Still, Riven improves on most of the issues; the graphics use photographed textures for a startling degree of realism that has aged incredibly well – it’s definitely the best-looking game in the franchise. Every time you start a new game the lock combination puzzles are re-scrambled so that you still have to find them, and you have get to a certain point in the game before it’s possible to trigger the ending. Some puzzle clues are widely scattered, which in Riven’s much bigger game world gets a little frustrating. To this day there is one puzzle that I can’t solve without the walkthrough.

The sole flaw in the world building is that some locations were clearly meant to be puzzles and nothing else. We’re to understand that people lived on Myst Island, and you can examine personal items like dinnerware and inkstands in some Ages. So it is a little distracting to realize that nobody in the world of Myst appears to require a toilet.

It must be said that the Myst games are awfully mellow. There are no weapons, no explosions, and no monsters; just you and an island. You don’t have a voice or appearance, either; you’re a silent stranger. That does let you imagine yourself there rather than remote-controlling somebody else, though. Apparently the Millers are deeply pacifist, so they wanted to do a game that was challenging and immersive without using violence and gore.

And do you know what? They nailed it. The games grab the imagination with a combination of escapist fantasy and detective work. The setting is one of the most stunning and beautiful I’ve experienced in any medium, a combination of original fantasy landscapes, steampunk aesthetics and some of the most meticulous world-building imaginable. There are lots of little touches, like strange knickknacks on a bedside table, that are just there to create a sense of completeness to the worlds you move through without seeming like fluff, and without telling you too much and spoiling the atmosphere.

The sound design gives the environments so much reality that you can almost smell the pine needles and feel the sea air (the Millers clearly took inspiration from the landscape of their native WashingtonState). Robyn Miller’s imaginative musical tracks help create the emotional motif of each setting. The games get into the imagination so completely that 16 years later, the sight of wood panelling, brass fixtures, leather-bound books or the smell of pine trees on a wet spring day compels me to go play it again.

Indeed, the atmosphere is my favourite part. It’s distilled curiosity. Not only are you driven to solve the puzzles and the main mystery, but the worlds give you lots to grab onto as you try and interpret the characters, environment and civilizations around you. Scrutinizing the in-game cultures played a part in my choosing to study archaeology later in life.

What few characters there are, are played by live actors, not CG-characters, and seem real and important as a result. The pressure of trying to help them or hinder them, depending on which side they’re on, makes accomplishing that mission very satisfying. The story is a subtle one, in a way; a lot of the drama has already happened by the time you show up. But as you learn about it and bring about the resolution, a beautiful theme of redemption and closure emerges. One reason the later games, except maybe Myst III: Exile, lack this impact is that this theme is present but depersonalized.

The rest of the franchise has appeal, especially Exile and the novel the Book of Atrus, but they’re optional at best and spoil the mystique at worst. The core of the experience, and by far the best part, are Myst and Riven themselves. The story they tell is powerful, and the atmosphere makes it that much more gripping. The old-fashioned graphics are more quaint than unpleasant and the world building is second to none. RealMyst and Riven are available on Steam, compatible up to (unofficially) Windows 7. As retro and slow-paced as they may be, get them anyway (they’re cheap as borscht, I might add). It’s like being the main character in the Chronicles of Narnia as written by Agatha Christie, and you will never experience anything like it. It had a defining impact on my life, and it has all the power that effect suggests.

So give it a try. The ending has not yet been written…

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2012 in Holiday Retrospectives, Video Game

 

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