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Jem and the Holograms: Why the Heck Not

I don’t know what’s wrong with me, honestly.

I don’t mean why I’ve been on hiatus so long. That makes sense, to me at least. What confounds me is why I’m reviewing what I’m reviewing.

A while back I admitted to being, to my own bafflement, a adulthood viewer of the tacky, cheesy, badly animated 80’s girlie cartoon Jem, starring the band Jem and the Holograms. I’m still not sure why. The show’s terrible in that particularly 1980s glorified toy commercial kind of way, the music is hit-or-miss at best, and the animation is so stilted it’s like a musical put on by a company of badly-assembled paper dolls. I didn’t watch it as a child (as far as I remember), and genre-wise it’s a ways out of my orbit.

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Out with the old…

As I speculated whilst eviscerating the even worse live action movie trailer, it might be partly that it is cut from the same cloth as my early childhood, but since I actually encountered it by way of fanworks, I think it’s also because the fans have done a surprisingly good job at keeping it alive by working on the subtexts, implications (intentional or otherwise) of the show’s creators, and all that they’ve learned about storytelling as they’ve grown up.

Which meant that, despite the manifest weaknesses of the source material, I took notice that IDW is running a comics version that’s been attracting some positive press. I’ve acquired the first three volumes through my local library to check out.

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…and in with the new

Quick recap: in the cartoon, Jerrica Benton assumes the secret identity of Jem using a hologram-generating AI built by her late father, to lead her sister and foster sisters in a band in order to support her private foster girls’ home and retain control of the family record company. Her nemesis, promoter Eric Raymond, tries to undermine her by the success and general hell-raising wrought by the rebel band the Misfits. Jem/Jerrica has to hold their schemes at bay, support the so-called Starlight House children, and maintain her disguise from even her beloved Rio.

That last point is the biggest stumbling block of the cartoon once you’re in double-digits ages, because for one thing, there’s no apparent reason why Jerrica has to assume a secret identity at all, and it makes no sense to keep Rio, the band’s road manager and her boyfriend, out of the loop. For another thing, since Rio was notoriously depicted as a short-tempered, possessive jerk who dallies with Jem not knowing she is Jerrica and then goes off about hating deception, the double-standards and outright creepiness, while presumably unintentional, are a bit of a deal-breaker.

The comic, meanwhile, creates a much more reasonable scenario: Jerrica and her sisters, Kimber, Shana and Aja, are in their own garage band, which volunteers with the Starlight Community Centre. They are trying to record a video for a contest sponsored by their idols, the Misfits. Jerrica is an excellent singer but has crippling performance anxiety that renders her mute in front of cameras. In her hour of need, she discovers Synergy, the AI her father had created prior to his early death, who is able to use holographic projections to both jazz up the band’s music video and alter Jerrica’s appearance to create a persona for her to hide behind, called Jem. The band thence becomes Jem and the Holograms. The Misfits find themselves upstaged in the contest they themselves were sponsoring, and the jealous and hot-tempered Pizzazz, their frontwoman, leads the way in a war of popularity between the two bands, with the abetment of their manager, Eric Raymond and his right hand man, the computer whiz known as ‘Techrat.’ At the same time, members of both bands deal with their own relationships to each other and such romances as come their way, including Rio, here a music journalist who covers both the Misfits and the Holograms, and Kimber’s star-crossed romance with the creative talent and softer side of the Misfits, Stormer.

So right off the bat the premise certainly makes more sense than the original, ridiculous nicknames notwithstanding. Jerrica has an actual reason to need a cover identity. Rio’s character is recast into someone you can actually stand – crucially, he hasn’t known Jerrica since childhood, and when offered the chance to dally with Jem behind (as far as he knows) Jerrica’s back, he angrily rejects it. Eric’s self-destructive conniving is wound down to simply being a weasel – and a halfway competent one at that. Pizzazz actually cares about music itself as well as her own ego, and however much she despises the Holograms, her schemes aren’t as illegal or suicidal as they tended to be of old. Shana and Aja get much more character development and the Misfits are less of a sackful of angry cats. Synergy herself has much more of a character, which drives the Dark Jem plot in volume 3 when she temporarily goes a bit HAL 9000.

It’s been said that the cartoon has accidentally become something of a period piece of the 1980s. The comic is set in the modern day, and the contrast is both fascinating and hilarious. Because friends of mine currently wear their hair this way, I was particularly struck by characters like Kimber and Pizzazz rocking the long-on-one-side, buzzed-on-the-other style, in contrast to the bouffant look of their original incarnations. I’ve spotted one or two costumes that are clearly 2010s updates of their 80’s-wear, and a couple of characters share some of my contemporaries’ inexplicable fondness for adult-sized onesies.

Character design generally is really cool. All of them look recognizably like their cartoon selves, but more varied. In the cartoon, it’s not hard to see that both bands are mostly made up of copies of the same figure with different hair. In the comic Roxy, the Misfits’ drummer, is built like Avatar Korra, Jetta is now an Afro-Briton (middle ground between the original cartoon conception and what she ended up becoming). Stormer, and Aja to a lesser extent, are big, curvy women instead of Barbie dolls, whereas Kimber is flat-chested and scrawny.

Beyond that, there are lots of little touches that show just how far we’ve come since the 80’s. Twitter, text messaging, video streaming and social media all form important parts of the plot. Techrat goes from the mad inventor archetype to the more modern hacker/troll. The general art style has gone from 80’s Hanna-Barbera to a more manga-esque look. Apt since, in the absence of the 80’s, anime and manga are the logical place to look for over-the-top hair, but the drawing of eyes and use of abstract facial expressions derives from Anime too. The original cartoon gets lots of little nods, such as Jem having the word ‘Outrageous’ written up the leg of her pants in one scene, as does current pop culture, with one issue making references to things like the recently-revived Star Wars and Mad Max franchises. The writers are clearly fans of My Little Pony too, but I try to ignore that. However happy I may be watching kids’ shows, becoming a ‘brony’ is where I draw the line.

Interest in picking apart and interpreting the cartoon has persisted long enough among fans who grew up with it that the series’ fanworks evolved a number of conventions, known to Tropers as ‘Fanon.’ Arguably one of the comic’s major selling points was running with the most common piece of Fanon, that Kimber and Stormer, the respective songwriting talents of the Holograms and the Misfits, are romantically interested in one another. While Kimber and Stormer’s situation is fairly star-crossed, the fact that they’re both women doesn’t enter into it. Kimber is loudly unselfconscious about being queer, and when Aja inadvertently makes a homophobic comment early on, she apologizes instantly. The rift between them is the rivalry between the bands, not the bigotry of others.

That aspect has, I gather, gotten some criticism, not so much because of the relationship, but more because of how fast it progresses. Kimber is crushing on Stormer before they’ve even met; they’re saying ‘I love you’ after having been on maybe two dates, and while that is in character for Kimber, who is wont to love not wisely but too well, it all seems too neat and abrupt.

But then, I feel that way about the stories of a lot of comics I’ve tried out, like Saga or Gotham City Sirens. I think the format is one that makes pacing difficult by nature. In general, it all speaks to me of a story that is good, but in many respects kind of shallow.

While the Holograms all get better characterization, Jetta and Roxy over in the Misfits get less in turn. While acknowledged, their rough backgrounds haven’t really been used for anything. This may be to avoid the trap the cartoon accidentally set, whereby the Misfits were actually more interesting to some fans – Pizzazz still has a knack for stealing the scene, though, and they’ve got a spinoff series all to themselves, apparently.

While a lot of the good character interpretations are carried through from the cartoon, others seem to have gone unquestioned. The Jerrica/Jem duality could be deepened. Some fanon sees the buttoned-down, responsible Jerrica using Jem as a way to cut loose and go, as it were, Lady Ga-ga. But as in the cartoon, Jem and Jerrica don’t really seem that different. Jem looks taller and flashier than Jerrica, but they more or less act the same way. It’s particularly glaring when Rio interviews Jem for his magazine after they’ve been dating for a while, and he doesn’t recognize her unchanged mannerisms. In other words, Jerrica doesn’t bother doing the Clark Kent thing of altering her behaviour to reinforce the disguise.

The old saw that Stormer is supposed to be the ‘nice’ Misfit who doesn’t quite fit in with the band’s punk/rebel image is discussed in the comic. It’s not as bad as the cartoon, but the contrast, while compelling, is still overdone. Stormer is so nice that it doesn’t seem like it’s in her nature to write the kind of songs that you’d expect from a band like this.

Speaking of ‘a band like’ the Misfits, what kind of band are they? What kind of band are the Holograms? This one might be partly my fault since I tend to skim over the song lyrics. But the dichotomy – the Holograms are the happy, sunny ones, the Misfits are the edgy, tough ones – doesn’t seem to exist for any reason than just because that’s the premise the story came with. Pizzazz’s jealousy is almost all that seems to drive the rivalry. It isn’t clear to me what artistic vision unites each band. Incidentally, the Dark Jem arc, where Synergy malfunctions and starts brainwashing the Holograms into a dark, Goth/Emo style not their own, is clearly bad but inadvertantly seems to imply that that style and genre is somehow innately villainous.

Look, I realize I’m slipping into a ‘this isn’t how I would have written it’ tirade, but as much as I’m enjoying this series, it lacks a certain bite I can’t quite quantify. I think that the series is aimed at younger readers – certainly it’s aimed at a generation who can be counted on not to find queer characters surprising. There’s minimal swearing, and somehow it keeps bugging me that despite the main characters all being rock stars, even the ‘bad girl’ band doesn’t have a reefer between them. Kimber’s lackadaisical personality never seems to carry any consequences for her, her relationship with Stormer seemingly the only driver of her character arc.

I think another reason why I find this franchise interesting is that at about the same time I started watching the cartoon I was also re-watching Ken Burns’ Jazz series. The biographies of the musicians, especially during the transition from the Swing to the Be-Bop era and beyond, are hugely compelling. So the idea of applying one’s imagination to the history of a fictional band, especially with some daft sci-fi thrown in, is oddly alluring. Not that I want any of them to go the way of Charlie Parker, of course, but a little extra grit wouldn’t hurt. That said, it’s also worth remembering that this series is basically an origin story about them breaking into the industry, whereas in the cartoon they pretty much hit the big time first time out and go from there.

I don’t know if I like the cartoon as a guilty pleasure, or just study it to understand the better examples of the fanworks it spawned, or because I’m an obssessive who gets into things and it’s best to let it run its course. But I definitely like the comic. It’s progressive, characterful, visually appealing and well written. I like the dialogue a lot, it being very Whedonesque. Kimber reminds me a lot of Michelle Trachtenberg’s character from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actually. And Pizzazz’s character arc is hitting my ‘bad-guy-redemption’ buttons. I’m looking forward to the resolution of the series. While it didn’t get as edgy or mature as I might have hoped from a millennial-nostalgia-reboot, it’s a fun read. Outrageous, even.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2017 in Comic

 

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Saturday Supplemental: The Jem Trailer, or Why Am I Even Here?

I can’t quite believe I’m doing this: I’m not only about to complain about a movie that hasn’t come out yet, but I’m furthermore going so far beyond my logical range of interest as to be utter madness. But when the trailer for the live action adaptation of a cult 80’s cartoon is so bad that even William Shatner knows about it, it probably bears some examination. And besides which, the opportunity is golden for me to complain about the current state of creativity in mass media.

So this past week the trailer was released for the live-action movie Jem and the Holograms, based on the 80’s cartoon Jem by Christy Marx featuring Jerrica Benton, daughter of a record company executive who bequeaths her and her foster sisters an AI named Synergy who projects holograms, enabling Jerrica to turn into the glam rock star Jem and lead her band, the Holograms in setting off a cultural bomb against her late father’s underhanded partner and his fractious and criminally insane ‘bad-girl’ band the Misfits.

The cartoon is completely daft from first to last: Jerrica is a borderline Mary Sue – a record company owner and trustee of a private group home for girls, who also maintains the secret identity of a fashionista rock star. The secret identity produces a lot of drama with her boyfriend, the Holograms’ roadie Rio, who dallies with both Jem and Jerrica not knowing they’re the same person, and causing Jerrica angst as she tries to sort out his true feelings and maintain the secret identity. All this despite him being in the inner circle and kind of a creepy hypocrite about lying even as he thinks himself to be two-timing his girlfriend. It’s the kind of relationship drama that could only possibly work on somebody under the age of 8.

Still, its whacky premise and aesthetic and timing for the millennial generation gives it hefty nostalgia potential. But, naturally you must be wondering, how in the hell do I, a hominid of the male persuasion, know all of this?

Full disclosure, I’ve watched some of this show. And I don’t mean when I was a little kid. I mean about two years ago. I stumbled upon it partly by way of a fanvid I randomly happened upon, then I looked it up and discovered Outrage of the Zygons, a quite excellent fan webcomic crossover with Doctor Who, and then I went ahead and examined the source material, partly out of nostalgia for the crummy old animation style of the period and partly out of a quest to lose my Man Card as far behind the sofa as possible. Besides, it was more or less Christy Marx’s magnum opus, and since she also penned a number of episodes of my favourite shows – an award-winning episode of Beast Wars, in addition to episodes of Shadow Raiders, ReBoot, X-Men Evolution and even Babylon 5, I figured she deserved some further recognition on my part.

When I was a kid, my grandparents were the only ones in the family with satellite TV – back when having a satellite dish looked a like you had a Jodrell Bank franchise on your lawn – and I used to sneak next door to watch retro Cartoons at ungodly hours of the morning. Gotta hand it to them, they never seemed to mind.

From this experience I deduce that Jem is something of a missing link between three generations of cartoon.

It’s got early signs of the ‘socially responisble Aesop’ kid’s show of the 90s, exemplified by Captain Planet (and even cheesier, if you can imagine). It lives in the period of the ‘suprisingly good glorified toy commercial’ of the late 80s; it’s basically a girlie counterpart to GI Joe or Transformers. But it’s also among the last of an older subset of the mystery-solving-team genre a la Scooby Doo where the amateur detectives are also a rock band. I have no idea where this concept sprang from, but in the 70s and 80s there seemed to be scads of them: Josie and the Pussycats are the obvious one, but there’s also Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids and Jabberjaw, a sci-fi variation taking place in an undersea civilization where the band’s frontman is a talking shark. No I don’t know why, shut up!

Anyway, like a lot of such properties it’s getting a bit of a reboot in film form, and the trailer almost instantly provoked universal objection from the whole freaking internet.

I was vaguely aware from the Facebooks of fangirl friends of mine who remember this show that a movie was in the offing, and red flags sprang up instantly when the creative team running the show were revealed to all be men. So, the cartoon that set itself up as being a deviation from the bunches of dudes in contemporary shows, that told stories from women’s perspectives, and you’re handing it off to a bunch of dudes? You don’t think a woman’s perspective and understanding of the characters, their dynamics and society’s pressures on them might have helped? A woman like, say, Christy Marx, who you didn’t even bother telling about this movie apparently?

Then when you actually get to the trailer itself, it bears zero resemblance to the source. Apparently in this Jerrica is a regular teen who gets discovered on YouTube, is picked up by a record label who basically turn her into Jem and make it impossible for her to be herself anymore, straining her bond with her family/bandmates and setting up the moral about the costs of fame. Jerrica Benton? More like Jerrica Bieber!

This moral played itself out about three trillion times in various teeny-bopper shows in the 90s – I seem to recall the show Kids Inc tackling it in particular. What’s striking is that it’s tonally the opposite of what I got from the cartoon. In this, Jerrica is a victim of the big monstrous machine forcing her to be Jem and ruining the really important stuff in her life. In the cartoon, being Jem is her idea, allowing her to rocket to the top of the charts at the head of her own record company. She’s in charge, and uses that power to prevent unethical business practices and do good in the world, while trying to balance that with her private life! She was basically a well-adjusted, girlie-glam-rock-Batman!

Adapting that aspect convincingly would indeed have been a challenge, if they’d actually tried, because the cartoon’s tagline of ‘glamour and glitter, fashion and fame’ would be met with cynical suspicion rather than awe in the age of the Britney Spears train wreck and corporate-engineered pop stars like Justin Bieber. But to then turn around and subvert that (kind of like what I suggested they should have done with idealism in Man of Steel) would have been a cool idea.
More bizarre still, the ‘hologram’ part of ‘Jem and the Holograms’ is absent. Back in the day it was a truly random bit of sci-fi – Synergy’s avatar always looks to me like one of the Bangles had a lovechild with Optimus Prime – but today it’s bordering on plausible! And yet they almost recoil from the idea of making this in any fantastical or even fun!

And I find this all very instructive because we’re living in an age where, in the words of Yahtzee Croshaw, “What isn’t a sequel is a knockoff, what isn’t a knockoff is a reboot, what isn’t a reboot is a remastering.” As I wait for a reboot/sequel hybrid apiece from Jurassic Park and Star Wars, and another one from Star Trek, plus the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this trailer seems to foretell the absolute extreme of several of the problems this trend brings with it.

Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer once told me that, as a writer, it is better to be exceptional to a few people than adequate to a lot of people. And movies like this exemplify the opposite approach, as do things like the AAA video game industry (the gaming equivalent of Hollywood) regularly cranking out long series like Call of Duty.

Unfortunately, part of that homogenization is also reinforcing certain tropes which end up going unchallenged. See this article on the exact gender politics of the period Jem came from, but it actually reminds me of the kerfuffle that’s been attending Marvel and Hasbro’s (also the originators of Jem) obstinate refusal to make toys for Black Widow. Despite the consumer outcry, they seem determined to keep women and girls in the marketing-safe, age-old boxes. It’s as if they’re actually defying their customer base, rather than just misunderstanding them.

Usually my big concern about reboots is that the creators will be fans whose love of the source material will get the better of their artistry. But this is closer to nostalgia reboots like Michael Bay’s Transformers movies or J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: a stereotypical twenty-something everyman protagonist, using tired old stereotypes of who the fans are to inform who they write it for, disrespecting any element of depth or daring that might have been present lest it be too niche in its appeal.

In the Jem and the Holograms trailer, we invert the setup of the cartoon, making Jem a victim and fame and success bad and to be avoided, rather than harnessed. What’s more is that she has no agency: her stage persona is forced on her, her success demanded against her will. In fact, the song that makes her famous appears to be uploaded to YouTube by her sister without her permission! The only agency she has is to ‘be herself,’ which seems to mean ‘be a quiet, unassuming hometown girl with no ambition or dreams of great artistic achievement.’ And also Black Widow has to want babies, boys don’t want girl toys, a Wonder Woman movie won’t sell, the action protagonist always has to be a youngish white American guy with brown hair and stubble, blah, blah, blah. Making everything the same is bad enough, but we’re making everything the same to a standard which is sexist, oversimplified and retrograde indeed.

I’m not one of the old-school fans of Jem, but like Captain Planet, I can see what it could have been in a different time with a different format, but the fanfiction community, combining familiarity with the material with the freedom not to have to worry about making money from it, is far better equipped to explore its potential than a committee-designed big-Hollywood production team who aren’t able to be daring, or unusual because there’s no will to test their assumptions about what people want anymore. They couldn’t even see their way to having what was clearly a pretty influential story by women, for girls, updated and retold by women! And that’s why the Jem trailer interests and infuriates me, because it summarizes what I feel is the looming threat of the big movie and video game industries: cultural stagnation, and even regression at times, not helped at all by the backlash against the slightest diversity in pop and geek culture that’s becoming so common these days.

It’s truly outrageous, is what it is.

 

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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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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Doctor Who

With yet another Doctor Who special on the books for this Christmas, I thought that, as with my comments on Star Trek, a little context might be called for.

As I’ve said before, there are three franchises that set the style for popular science fiction: Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Of the three, Doctor Who is the oldest, starting on the BBC in 1963. Two schoolteachers, curious about the uncanny knowledge of one of their pupils, follow her to her home, which turns out to be a police telephone booth. Or so it seems. Within, it is in fact an enormous, impossibly advanced machine, able to travel instantly through space and time, called the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space). And its master is an eccentric scientist known only as the Doctor.

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From top left: 1. William Hartnell 2. Patrick Troughton 3. Jon Pertwee 4. Tom Baker 5. Peter Davison 6. Colin Baker 7. Sylvester McCoy 8.Paul McGann 9. Christopher Eccleston 10. David Tennant 11. Matt Smith…12. Peter Capaldi still pending

Over time, we learned that the Doctor is in fact an alien; a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, a freethinking, good-hearted (and also two-hearted) voluntary exile from a society once described as ‘dusty old senators,’ with an offbeat intellect and strong sense of right and wrong. He’s regularly accompanied by at least one or two, usually younger, female companions whom he can explain things to, and thus to the audience. He has a recurring rogue’s gallery: the genocidal Daleks, the implacable Cybermen, and his dark counterpart, renegade Time Lord the Master.

This was, and is, the most basic formula of the show. Not much else about it is constant. Doctor Who in its original form was a really long-runner, from 1963 to 1989. William Hartnell, known ever since as the First Doctor, was nearing the end of his career (and, sadly, his life) when he started the role. When he left in 1966, it was revealed (that is, invented) that Time Lords had multiple (later specified to 13) lives. At the end of each, he would ‘regenerate,’ altering his appearance and the balance of his personality. Altogether, there were seven Doctors in the original run of the series.

It’s difficult, given its scale, to encapsulate what Doctor Who is. As I said in my Day of the Doctor article, it was basically a scenario upon which a great diversity of stories could be grafted, but it lacked the explicit mission statement of Star Trek. It was a lot more flexible because it wasn’t designed specifically to showcase an idealism or vision of any sort.

Which isn’t to say it couldn’t do that. The 3rd Doctor serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” could almost have been a Star Trek episode. And while it looked campy as heck even in the late 80s, the anti-Thatcher and pro-gay rights subtext of the 7th Doctor’s “The Happiness Patrol” was, I thought, quite impressive.

The usual framework was, and remains: the TARDIS appears somewhere, the Doctor finds out that the people who live there have a problem, with mysterious disappearances/alien attacks/whatever. The Doctor investigates, his companion in tow, finds a solution that either sets things right or, perhaps more often, clears the way for the locals to do it themselves, and then he moves on.

After that, each story is probably best appreciated on its own merits. I’ve seen at least some episodes of Doctors 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10 and 11, and there’s something to be said for all of them. They can range from drama (“The Curse of Peladon”) to comedy (“The Sun Makers”) to horror (“Blink”). Still, I think a lot of people would agree that the heyday of the classic series was the period from 1971 to 1984, the tenures of Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison.

The first two Doctors, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton seem less thoroughly remembered. They lacked the distinctive costumes of their successors, a lot of the mythology hadn’t evolved yet; their episodes haven’t held up as well because they’re in black and white; and, indeed a number of their serials were destroyed in a BBC archives purge. Happily, though, a number of them have since been recovered or reconstructed. Troughton did become a big hit on the convention circuit once it began. He was actually at one when he died.

Pertwee was the first Doctor to become iconic in the role to the point of typecasting (luckily, he loved being the Doctor) and his tenure is defined by a strong focus on his character and many benchmark moments for him, including the introduction of his most beloved companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It also spent some time with him grounded on Earth and working with the special ops group UNIT, which framed a lot of somewhat politically loaded stories concerning military responses, human fallibility and interpersonal drama.

Baker captured the darkly comedic, countercultural side of the character with his off-the-cuff lunacy, insanely long scarf and tendency to offer a candy to any passing monstrosity. For a long time, if you asked most people to think of Doctor Who, they’d picture him. He ultimately held the post the longest, at seven years, and his serials contained a greater variety in content, setting and themes than Pertwee’s. Incidentally, it was during this period that Douglas Adams spent time as the series’ writer and script editor.

Davison was a younger, more big-brotherly Doctor, and arguably one of the first attempts to make him a genuinely conflicted character. Baker had his melancholy, even disturbing side, but Davison’s Doctor could sometimes be excessively soft-hearted and naive. Also he wore a celery stalk on his lapel for some reason.

An eccentricity that may have been a bit ominous, because, it is generally agreed, the low point for the series came with the advent of Colin Baker (no relation to Tom) as the Sixth Doctor. This was through no fault of his, I should say, but of assorted political and creative wranglings in the BBC and an ongoing effort to re-tool and ‘brand’ the series. The Doctor now had a dreadfully loud technicolour outfit, a lot of villains and plot elements from previous Doctors started getting recycled, sometimes to excess, and the use of companions as sexy fanservice had markedly increased. The Doctor could exhibit deeply unsettling outbursts and his serials became very dark and violent. Baker only lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy (or Radagast the Brown, as he’s known these days).

The branding efforts continued, notably with a costume festooned in question marks. The dark side was rolled back, though not eliminated. It regained some thoughtful depth (sometimes at the cost of coherence) and was also the first to dabble in mythology arcs. Ultimately, the series ended in 1989, returning briefly to introduce an 8th Doctor, Paul McGann, for a TV movie in 1996.

We shall never know where any of the hints dropped in McCoy’s day might have led, and in any case to try and establish a continuity for Doctor Who at that late stage seems a bit pointless. So many hands contributed to it over so long that which mythology additions and story elements stuck and which got retconned out of existence was pretty much a crapshoot. The rules of time travel were whatever the current serial’s plot required, and the Doctor could utterly defeat, say, the Daleks or Cybermen a hundred times and still run into them again. The purely episodic style meant that cast changes, be it the Doctor or his companions, are often abrupt and seem rather dismissive.

Go through the whole series and count how many aliens left racial memories or secret plans for their return on Earth; “the Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” “Image of the Fendahl,” “City of Death,” “the Stones of Blood,” “Battlefield,” “the Satan Pit.” That hair guy on Ancient Aliens never had it so good. While the show often professed a respect for science and reason over tyranny and violence, it was at best dodgy on hard scientific or historical accuracy.

Among the few points that stuck were the 12-regeneration limit (“Keeper of Traken”) the fact that they have two hearts (“the Daemons”) and the origin story for the Daleks. That is, their second origin story, in “Genesis of the Daleks.”

Probably what will put a lot of people off it today is the special effects, which are limited and crude by today’s standards, as can be the overacting that goes on in reaction to them. I like the creativity of them, myself. I may not look at them as say “oh, that’s realistic,” but I do tend to say, “oh that’s a very clever way to do that.” I think that in those days, TV had more in common with theatre than, as now, with movies. They ask, as Shakespeare did, for you to ‘eke out [their] performance with your mind.’

The lack of a rigid mythology is frustrating, but also liberating in a show this long. The fans can indulge, relish the scraps of mythology that they find personally compelling. It can be, and is, many things to many people.

In 2005 Russel T. Davies achieved a dream of his, to bring Doctor Who back afresh, and he did this while attempting to marry the old traditions and the new. The Doctor was the wandering adventurer, with a companion or two in tow, finding all manner of alien menaces and saving people and planets, usually Earth.

He also began to build a clearer continuity, something expected of television series in the new century; now the Doctor was the last Time Lord, having wiped out both his own people and the Daleks in a last-ditch attempt to halt a terrible war. So far we’ve seen a Ninth, Tenth and Eleventh Doctor each going through quite compelling phases of coping with that experience. It lent the series a new emotional punch, something which Tennant seemed to capture particularly well, along with reflecting a lot of the best of the eccentric comic Doctors. With the advent of Matt Smith as the 11th Doctor, Davies handed the torch off to his writer, Steven Moffat.

The new series has distinguished itself with a regard for the effect of big cosmic events on the little people, examining the consequences – not always positive – of the Doctor’s impact in the long term, and his adventures’ impact on him. Eccleston’s (9th) high point was in “The Doctor Dances” when he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!” It’s further exemplified in Smith’s premier episode, when he says “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.” It also explores the relationship between the Doctor and his companions, who are often his moral compass and foil, as well as exposition conduits.

Having said that, the new series is attracting its share of criticism, especially since Moffat took over. A lot of them, I feel, can be traced to the attempt to make a cohesive long-term story arc and mythology, because after having burst in shining colours in every direction for 26 years, trying to get Doctor Who to turn into a unified laser beam of a story causes a lot of collateral damage.

There’s been a creeping tendency throughout the new series that got really bad late in Tennant’s run for the Doctor to exhibit a sort of machismo about his status as the hero of the piece. Similarly, his sidekicks have gotten increasingly worshipful of him. In a way, this makes sense, given the cumulative effect of his adventures, but in “Day of the Doctor” we can see that it’s getting the better of storytelling.

This seeps over into an increasingly violent show: gunplay has been introduced, albeit often not the Doctor doing it, in ways that make it cool and heroic (“Time of Angels,” “A Town Called Mercy”) whereas when Eccleston picked up a gun (“Dalek”) it was a clear sign there was something wrong with him. A shocking deviation from, as Tennant so excellently put it, “a man who never would.”

And, much like in the late 80s, the series is beginning to repeat itself a fair bit. One of the things that cooled me on the show was that the seasonal arcs, always promising something dreadful and profound happening, fell into a pattern of the entire Earth/Universe being menaced by a monster. You start to wonder how the Doctor gets any sleep without the cosmos imploding. The recycling of monsters themselves was getting wearisome.

Especially the Daleks. For perspective, consider: the 4th Doctor, in 7 years, fought the Daleks twice. Doctors 9-11, in the same span, have fought them eight times. And this is after they were supposedly wiped out in the Time War and, seemingly, wiped out again in “Bad Wolf” and then again in “The Stolen Earth.” Obviously this was common practice in the old days (but even then), but back then we weren’t trying to build a consistent story arc.

The stakes oftentimes felt a bit toothless anyway because of the prevalance of excuse-by-technobabble and Deus Ex Machina devices (several of them at once in some cases). Look at the sonic screwdriver. Believe it or not, the Doctor actually used it to undo screws once in while in the old days. Now it’s a magic wand that abuses suspension of disbelief beyond all tolerance.

The point where I finally quit watching was “the Hungry Earth” which re-introduces the Silurians and the 11th Doctor’s efforts to avert a war between them and humanity. We already saw this! The Third Doctor did this (twice, if you count “the Sea Devils”), and did it well, no matter how bad the special effects were! It indicates both a dearth of ideas and, despite the enthusiasm of the writers in general, is a bit disrespectful of the character’s heritage.

Strangest of all, to me at least, has been the use of romantic tension. The character of River Song, teased along as the Doctor’s destined wife, was prefaced by companion Martha’s torch for him, and even earlier by an unfulfilled mutual attraction between the Doctor and Rose.

The BBC during the 70s and 80s forbade such teases because it was considered family entertainment (albeit with companions like Leela and Peri who dressed “for the dads” as they described it) so it was deemed improper for there to be any suggestion of “hanky-panky in the TARDIS.” Thus has it been that the Doctor was an asexual character, which was sometimes used to underscore his alienness. In principle I don’t object to this content (except to the stupid phallic humour around the sonic screwdriver), but I have to ask: why did this need to be here? Do romance subplots have to be put in everything? Why wasn’t the Doctor as friend, teacher and enigma good enough?

River Song’s especially irritating because the way she upstages the Doctor left me, in “Time of Angels” feeling like I was watching the show that Moffat wanted to be making, instead of Doctor Who! Even in the old days, the companions, male or female, could be at least basically intelligent, decent people. Moffat’s women are, infamously, cardboard cutouts, and the way the Doctor and other men behave around them reflects a dunderheaded Mars/Venus sitcom dynamic. I knew we were in trouble when River said of the trademark TARDIS sound, “It’s not supposed to make that noise: YOU leave the brakes on!” This is Doctor Who, not How I Met Your Mother!

He also has a tendency (done three times now) to have the Doctor meet his companions as children, make a deep impression on them, and then meet them again after they’ve grown up, inevitably as highly sexualized adults, deftly upgrading from absurd to creepy.

So Doctor Who is in trouble: the writing quality is suffering, partly from being marketed to what marketing people think of as 20-somethings, partly from excessive enthusiasm and flat-out bad writing. The long arcs became attempts to disguise vagueness as profundity, and often conflict with the, occasionally rather distasteful, short-run gags and gimmicks in certain episodes. The CG effects are generic and tiresome, and so, increasingly, are the stories. The attempts to build huge epics while at the same time trying to tell the unconstrained-by-canon stories of the classic series, are causing more clutter than coherence, even to the point that the number of Doctors is suddenly up in the air. The attempts to brand the series with two very similar, young Doctors while at the same time fetishizing the Doctor out of proportion to his actual (considerable) appeal are a combination of new vices and the ones that afflicted it in the late 80s. I also fear that it causes even fans to dismiss the storytelling, creativity and performances of the classic series because it’s ‘old,’ while neglecting their great merits.

But it need not be past saving. No Doctor hasn’t had at least one good adventure. I have hopes that the new, older Doctor will sober things down a bit, and help recapture the older traditions.

Doctor Who is, and has always been, a show with near infinite possibilities, a male lead who (usually) stands out for his intellect and nonviolent ways, in contrast to many such leads in fiction, and, I might add, the most epic theme song ever created.

Merry Christmas

 
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Posted by on December 21, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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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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