I’m not someone who digs fan-films. In fact, I don’t dig, period. I rarely engage in them (though there are a couple I may note in future blogs)
So here I be, digging a fan film, period and engaging it - and perhaps you - in its existence.
Now I won’t pretend to be cutting edge. I was still on a Gameboy Advance when everyone was parading their DS. Playstation 4? I’m still on PS3. Amiga? Hell, I was still using a Speccy 48k. So no, this isn’t a cutting edge post. The title has been out for a good eight months. However, its quality and homage makes it worth a note.
Star Trek Continues is a fan-produced web series made with the highest calibre production techniques I’ve seen. What makes this series all the more impressive, not only does it play like professional television, it plays like period professional television.
Star Trek Continues is a faithful homage to the original Star Trek series that ran for three seasons in the sixties. It attempts to carry on where the series left off, and by left off, I mean left off the air, and by off the air, I mean cancelled for poor ratings. A new cast play the original characters and brand new stories await them. By and large, not an entirely unheard of project brief for a fan film, given many fans prefer to submerse themselves in the specific characters from a show than even generate new characters within the same universe. Often, I’d say 99% of the time, this is a surefire recipe for disaster. In fact, I’ll give you the recipe.
- add one fluid measure of creative force behind the fan-film to be the lead star.
- stir with creative force also being the writer.
- mix with creative force possibly directing too.
- bake in an oven until it has the consistency of bark and the flavour of pebbles.
Now aside from the last one, Star Trek Continues does follow a little of this formula. Vic Mignogna is the producing force behind the project and lead actor, playing James. T. Kirk, but as with all assumptions, there’s always an exception to the rule. The lead being the driving force often smells of fan indulgence that professional choice, but quite honestly, I’ve never seen such a perfect James T. Kirk outside Shatner himself.
If you watch either or both the two full length stories now out (links at the bottom), you’ll see how Vic manages to play what I’d suggest is the most difficult tightrope act performance I’ve seen. Kirk is iconic, far beyond the point of parody. Chris Pine wisely stayed away from Shatner’s style when developing the recent movies, Vic attacks it head on… perfectly. It never feels forced, it never feels silly, it never feels exaggerated, but it feels as if he is channeling the same personality as Shatner. His mannerisms are spot on, from his walk, his fights, his love-embraces, to simply hitting an intercom. His delivery is equally flawless. We’ve all seen good Spocks - and you’ll see one here too with a near perfect imitation of Nimoy’s speech patterns by Todd Haberkorn, but to get the subtleties and excesses of Kirk bang on, that really was a make-or-break for the show.
However praise doesn’t stop there. The rest of the cast are perfect too. Never have I seen a fan-film with such a perfect rosta. Chris Doohan, son of Engineer Mr Scott actor James Doohan, takes on the role of Mr Scott. Or his dad. Or both. Absolutely flawless. A shout out to McCoy who while perhaps the lesser of the cast in terms of mimicry, does a dignified and sharp rendition of Dr McCoy. On top of the main cast you have some great cult guest stars, including Erin Gray from Buck Rogers and Lou Ferringo from The Incredible Hulk. Top billing must go to Michael Forest, who reprises his role of Apollo from the original series episode Who Mourns for Adonis? A staggering coup there. All play their roles perfectly.
Which of course leads us to the reason the play so well - the production is tight, lavish and well directed. Not only well directed in terms of playing the drama in the scenes, but again, period direction - this is directed and staged as if it was produced by CBS back in the 1960s. Again, this is an incredible feat, and you cannot fault it.
I wish I could throw in some negatives here, maybe I will at the end. There’s always a couple of niggles one can find, but I’ll push on to the writing. Again, this is solid story writing, perfectly structured in terms of pacing, tone and homage - once more in perfect period; everything feels at home in the 1960s right down to the act breaks. I think the writing needs a real praise here for its ability to deliver fresh dialogue (this never sounds trite, unless a couple of the old series episodes themselves) and the stories play out moral dilemmas with satisfying resolutions. How many fan-films manage that?
Finally, we have to talk about the superficiality that really does finish off a perfect production - the sets and FX are stunning, simply stunning. You feel you’re back on the Enterprise. This of course doesn’t just mean a shout out to set design and CG models, we’re talking lighting, costumes, the whole lot. The CG exteriors do have a slight feel of contemporary FX to them, just like the recent re-masters, but they never betray the style of the era.
So niggles? There are a couple of times where the acting slips a little from period and you get a slight whiff of contemporary dialogue style. This is more prominent in the most recent episode out. It’s very rare, but it is there, and largely this comes from the attempts to make the female crewmen a little more their own personalities than the 60s may have not allowed. Ultimately its not really niggle, given to be so forced into period you can’t give yourself flexibility to push the characters would be crazy. Michelle Specht, playing Dr McKenna, has the daunting position of playing really the only full cast member who has her own original character. Having her fit in without Mary Suing or just feeling forced would be another tightrope situation, but she handles it adeptly.
So why watch this? Well it isn’t canon, but then what is canon? For me, for a new story to any franchise, be it official or non-official as to give me something I feel is worthwhile and builds on what’s gone before. V: The Mini-Series and V: The Series are technically canon, but I prefer to ignore the series as it dilutes the previous mini-series. In this case, I accept these two episodes because they give something to Star Trek that I think is special, and I’d be surprised if anyone could really say that Apollo’s return in Pilgrim of Eternity does not build on Who Mourns for Adonis?. For that reason, and that reason alone, Star Trek Continues is a worthy continuation. And if the faces hinder you - as they are different, being different people - just think of the Chris Pine universe or the Mirror Mirror universe: maybe this is a pocket parallel of its own. Whatever your excuse, just go and enjoy.
"Wow, so much to get through in this week’s podKast, from Peter Capaldi’s first Doctor Who photoshoot to missing episodes – stopping off at the fascinating topic of “was John Hurt cast to replace Christopher Eccleston or not?” on the way.
The podKast team of Christian Cawley, Brian Terranova and James McLean have an interesting hour of discussion for you, and just because we love you, dear listener, we’ve left in a segment in which Christian and James BOTH dry up, with hilarious consequences!
We also have a nice collection of recommendations for you, from Wiffle Lever to Full by Bob Fischer to The Beginning from Big Finish.”
10,000 listens so far. Can’t be that bad.
I was reading a fairly smart opinion piece earlier today on a particular horror of mine from the more recent vaults of Doctor Who. Her name is River Song. I might have mentioned her before - if we got drunk and got tattoos you might find I got her name etched on your buttock with an arrow pointing at a potentially offending crevice. The article in question had me so close to adding a pointless comment in the pointless, volatile, pointless comment section at the bottom of the piece. Often the comments are as - or more - entertaining that most internet opinion pieces, but rather than become a lost voice in a crowd, I decided to be a lonely voice on a pedestal in a near empty room. I think it carries more dignity - plus it means I can distance myself from the prospect of being two spidered comments away from some anonymous voice that has decided to insert “fag” into the debate, usually aimed at the comment poster two spidered comments above him.
The actual article didn’t really deal with River - particularly not in a negative way - but the comments did. There was one who felt River and the Doctor had “great chemistry”, another who postulated if you didn’t like River you must hate Alex Kingston. I always feel disappointed by the notion if you don’t like a character you must really dislike the actor. I need to point out rather squarely on your reader-esque chin I have no issues with Alex Kingston. She seems a very nice lady when interviewed, beyond that, I don’t care what she is in her personal time or in her other roles. That’s the domain of her own private life and her other work topic for different faced opinion writers. I do find my dislike for River Song fascinating though. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t dislike as much as people think. If you’ve been trapped in an empty room with any of my DVD reviews for company, you’ll see it takes a fair bit for me to not like something in any way whatsoever, yet strangely River Song I do not like in any way whatsoever. That’s rare. While I doubt I’ll ever stop watching Doctor Who, and have watched it since I was five years old, she is the singular thing that will turn me off an episode.
So why is this? What is it about this singular character that gets my goat? I’ve mused over this countless times, and I’m doing so again, as much for my own benefit than your enjoyment. I don’t like disliking characters, I want to like them, ergo I’ll enjoy them. So why - and more importantly, what do I think could be done to make her enjoyable? Yes, I want this blog not to be about just ranting on a character, but asking what would I have to do to like her? Well let’s see.
I remember reading an issue of Batman a long time ago, shortly after the whole back breaking Bane story Knightfall, in which Wayne took far longer than is movie counterpart to get back in the saddle and ultimate take his nemesis down. All this is inconsequential aside from the fact Batman came back from a bad injury and had to learn how to fly again, like a Bat. On a rope. A freaky bat on a rope.
I remember him awkwardly standing on top of a building looking down, considering the implications and complexities that single jump took in the light of swinging through the city with the greatest of ease. It made me consider something very singular - how much at his peak in dexterity, mindset and ability Bruce Wayne had to be to make that jump. That first leap, that first act of faith had become a talent no one else shared, so much so, returning back to the role after being incapacitated meant he had to relearn what he’d learned.
That’s a pretty good introspection into a talent the reader takes for granted. Such complexities of the character of course are washed away when you have Robin doing the same. And Red Robin. And Batgirl. And Batgirl II. And Batgirl III. The more who can do the same thing, the less personal that ability seems. Considering Batman swinging through Gotham becomes nearly plausible when you’re told how much work goes into that single leap. As soon as everyone does it, the character is diminished.
Here’s one issue I have with River Song: she is equal - if not better - at all things the Doctor can do. Now you could take that to account for the TARDIS - he apparently leaves the brakes on, creating that wheezing groaning noise and she doesn’t as she’s better. Better, of course, than all other TARDIS pilots seen in Doctor Who’s history who apparently do the same. Throwaway lines like that are a trifle annoying as it demeans a greater legacy, but its a joke, you go with it. Where the issue really comes to the fore is in The Big Bang, series 5’s finale in which she makes a Dalek plead for mercy. Why? Because she’s River Song.
Now in some respects, I sympathise with that Dalek. Faced with River Song I’d plead for mercy too, though I suspect for different reasons. The point here is the Daleks fear the Doctor - the Oncoming Storm, they call him. The Daleks are the most dangerous beings in the Galaxy - so this is a big honour. How do we accept that one man could be feared by the most dangerous beings in the Galaxy? Because we’ve had it justified by the Doctor defeating them before our eyes on countless occasions. In a sense, the narrative calls for them to be at least a little wary of the Doctor as not to be would perhaps suggest very short memories or very high expectations that good fortune might not be that keen to descend for the fiftieth time on his behalf.
So why should they fear River Song, and more importantly, why should we feel the need for the most dangerous beings in the Galaxy to fear her? The answer is because she’s River Song. That’s it. This is the issue with River Song, the reason she’s amazing is because the show tells us she is, or shows us she is, with little need to justify either count. We see she can pilot the TARDIS better than the eleventh Doctor. Now given the Doctor is still leaving the brakes on prior to his regeneration to the twelfth, are we to assume he teaches her to be better at flying her than him? Is she just a better learner? If so, has she got the mantle for being better than a several thousand year old Time Lord because, wait for it, it’s River Song.
Now one argument against this might be “well we don’t really ever see how the Doctor is good at things, he just is: he’s the Doctor, and she’s the same: she’s River Song. Well thank you, as you’ve just slipped into the Bat-Trap: as soon as you have a secondary character that mirrors the character blocks of the first, the first’s worth is diminished. As soon as Robin is jumping around Gotham alongside Batman, the whole aspect of such a mad ability being the unique result of one character’s long road of obsession is diminished. This is point one as to why River Song irritates - she does diminish the Doctor by being arbitrarily his equal - and this leads to point two.
Cause and Effect:
One ‘fun’ aspect of River Song, and one I think is quite deft and smart about the insertion of the character is that her continuity is at odds with the Doctor’s. They meet in the wrong order. If you are going to create a character that will be an interesting personal dynamic to a time traveller, this is a smart move. However, if you want the audience to invest in their personal dynamic, they do still need to see how it manifests. With River Song, we never see how this happens. The Name of The Doctor series 7 finale quite clearly asserts the Doctor loves her, more than any episode did prior. Before this episode one could suggest it’s a one sided love, one sided obligation to maintain a fixed time line. You could at a push even suggest that in Name of the Doctor; the Doctor is sensitive to her adoration and indulging it one last time as a compassionate person might - but it does feel a stretch to suggest so.
Well where does that leave us? If we go with the assertion that the Doctor does love River Song, and vise versa, is this one of the few romance stories where we never see at what point the Doctor’s awkward confusion over being told he will be in love with a woman he’s just encountered, to actually falling in love with her.
Why is this so important? Well I’d suggest it’s important for any television romance. If you look at the majority of failed pilots, you’ll see an awkward romance inserted as the showrunners try a little too desperately to tick all the boxes to get a green light: yes this show will have a romance subplot that will draw the audiences in! Problem is, if you force a romance on screen, viewers won’t buy it. The best romances work from a build up of chemistry. People don’t like to be told that x loves y and y loves x, they want to see it for themselves - they want to invest in the journey. With River Song, there is no journey, only statement. What’s worse, and I think this caused a lot of damage to the potential acceptance of the character for many viewers, we’re told that it’s an immutable fact before it happens - so it doesn’t matter if you’ve not feeling the chemistry between the two characters (and I didn’t in her debut Silence in the Library), you’ve going to have to swallow it anyway. That’s a very defiant and pushy bit of foreshadowing, and one that will ultimately set some viewers against your storytelling before you’ve written it.
One parallel attempt at such foreshadow was in Babylon 5, where in season three Captain Sheridan travels into the future and discovers he’s married to Delenn and they have a child, however this doesn’t really carry any pain because the audience have had nearly two seasons of the audience slowly accustoming to this notion of them finally getting together, in fact, the revelation is used as a reward, not an act of defiance.
But wait, I hear you say, why should the writer feel people will be defiant about this character being involved romantically with the lead character? Well this is point three:
The key attribute of the Doctor is his mystery. This is largely to do with his past, but the show has used it to flesh the character. Doctor Who as a show has no canon, there’s no direct authority beyond common sense. What’s set up in television, audio, book, comic, video game formats can all equally be rewritten later. It’s flexible, and that flexibility plays into the mystery of the character. Originally the Doctor and his Granddaughter Susan were on the run from their people. She came up with the name TARDIS to describe their ship - the one he suggests he built. Later we find TARDISes are part and parcel of the Time Lord Lexicon. We are given the suggestion Time Lords have babies in the Fourth Doctor’s reign, only to be told in the the canon spin-off books that Time Lords are sterile and are born from genetic looms than as kids, then the sterility is lifted, but the Doctor’s half human. Then he isn’t. Then Time Lords are shown as kids. Throughout, the Doctor’s life and legacy has had little consistency aside from being an eccentric wanderer, but throughout, by and large, he’s been a non-romantic character. Now as I’ve alluded to above, nothing is fixed, and audiences should be very much open to him being played as a romantic lead - who may or may not “dance” with others of his own species or beyond - but to marry him is a big deal. First and foremost there is the question of marriage itself - while we’ve had the suggestion of genetic hierarchy (he is a grandfather in name at the very least, if not very likely genetically too - it’s never been clarified, as with his ever-changing Doctorate!) - the notion that Time Lords marry is a little questionable. The notions of humans marrying is questionable unto itself as being little more than a financial binding that over the centuries has become part of our romantic culture, but to press that onto beings above and beyond our temporal reasoning? It’s a push really. Do Time Lords need to get married? Do they get married? At the beginning of the River Song arc we do not know (and I suspect the author had not yet decided) that River comes from some odd Time Lord genetic legacy, so we’re talking about cross species. Now that’s not canonically new (a Time Lord red-shirt security guy got hots for leather bound companion Leela in Invasion of Time), but one does wonder what really would be a good pairing for a thousand plus year old Time Lord. Now maybe River could be it, but when we have a history of a show that has by and large avoided giving the Doctor a romantic edge - even to go so far to suggesting its a no go (JNT was very keen the Doctor’s companionship with his travellers was platonic, and the aforementioned canon books suggested there was sterility among the race, so while they could love, they couldn’t conventionally breed), to suddenly give him a wife is quite a big shift.
Now again, I must point out that’s not to say it can’t be done. Far from it - Doctor Who should embrace all avenues as its flexibility is key to its survival, but if you’re going to put a big change on a character you need to ensure it is done in a way that is sensitive to any big change. RTD decided to kill off the Time Lords, and that’s a big change to Doctor Who, certainly to the main character’s world. That change was justified and played out through the character and the show. In fact, it created a buffer for the show that allowed it to breathe new air into the Doctor’s lungs. If you’re going to challenge the viewers, don’t challenge them like children that should just accept your new rules, nurture them into accepting the new ideas - or as I mentioned, don’t leave key attributes that would not only be a welcome thread in any change (like showing when a character falls in love with the prospective partner) as it will leave some unable to deal with your new rules.
As you can see, these above points marry - pardon the pun - together. Essentially, if you’re to create a serious romantic love interest to a previously ambiguously romantic character, you need to ensure you nurture that idea well. To place it as fact before it starts is dangerous story writing which would be suicidal for another show, to then ignore justifying the process where friendship turns to love will extinguish the statement even further, and then to make her the same if not better than the hero in all aspects from controlling his iconic ship to scaring off his long term enemies with just her name, creates a character that diminishes the power of the lead. In fact instead of creating a new, bold accompanying character, you create one that is abrasive and unbound; there appear zero constraints to River Song.
So am I done? Is that all you don’t like about River Song?
Well, sorry, no. Those are the factors in her implementation within the body of the show that jar with me personally (they may not for you), but it extends further.
Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.
If you’ve not heard of Mary Sue, really, click the link. I find this really does typify her within the story and does connect to my previous point on her overly powerful role within the show. In a show about Doctor Who, she is the win-all. We’ve already mentioned how the Daleks fear her and she can out-perform flying the TARDIS, but it’s worse than that. When in The Big Bang, time pretty much falls apart and is rebuilt without the Doctor, she singularly exists to give Amy the blue book of the Doctor. No reason is given to this power, it’s River Song, when the universe collapses and the Doctor is lost to time, she’s still hanging around to save the day. Her ‘spoilers’ motif is the ultimate challenge of power to the audience and the characters - she knows more than all the other characters as to their futures, even the Doctor. On top of that, her acts amaze the characters with their smarts and style, calling on the Doctor to save her like you’d call a puppy to the door, throwing herself into ultimate doom, smug in the knowledge she’s preplanned for the Doctor to be amazed at her ingenuity and rescue her. Jump off a building, out of an airlock, do so with impunity because you have the whole universe tied up into a bow. Oh don’t forget she is an ace shot too. Oh did I mention she’s the only person in the world who knows the Doctor’s name? Sort of like Doctor Who-James Bond-Romana-Wonder-Woman tied into a big bow. Of course everyone adores her, as she’s amazing and great and everything. This happened a little with Rose in earlier seasons - it seems a constant in Nu-Who: you don’t show people reasons to think a character is great, you have the characters tell the audience that so often they’ll believe it. It comes across as a very insulting approach of ‘making’ you think the character is wonderful.
Good lord, is there anything else.
Okay, yeah. She’s a bit creepy. Right now we’re onto personal reflections. The above I think are justifiable criticisms based on basic narrative constructs and viewer-writer interactions. You might not agree, but I think they’re sustainable. Here is where it is personal. I didn’t feel she carried the chemistry to justify the character. You may have found differently. Can’t speak for you, just me.
River Song’s interaction with Smith didn’t cut it for me. This isn’t Alex Kingston not being able to act, but I think the problem acting a romance in a vacuum - it’s never been set up as mutual, and when it is, we never see how this happens. It’s a romance akin to Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, and feels remarkably true to that dynamic. Miss Piggy Song seems to presume, push and flirt with Doctor Frog who looks distinctly uncomfortable if confused for the most part. In fact, his attempts to play up to courting (checking his breath/hair before meeting, only to sort of flirt like a man who has been studying a book on 1001 one-liners to prove you might be straight) look naive to her seemingly… experienced demeanor. Now you can play this early on when he’s not technically sure how he falls in love with her, but he was playing this role as recently as the Pond’s departure in series 7. It doesn’t work for me, it jars. I don’t think this is Smith nor Kingston’s fault. I read someone once describe her as your over-the-hill aunty flirting with her nephew’s teen friends, and yeah I can see that.
Okay, so I don’t think it works on a personal front, nor do I think it works in its attempt to construct a romance. So rather than bitch, what would I change?
I’d be tempted to say ‘change the actress!’ but I don’t think this is Kingston’s fault. She’s a good actress. I think on the face of it, it is easy to blame her, when I think the key factor in this is not the actress. I don’t think it’s the annoying “sweetie” or even “spoilers”, I think it’s to do with the application. Change a few things in the application and I think it would work.
I’ve always maintained you can have a crap beginning or middle, but never an end. Time and the Doctor retcons explanations for a lot of the holes in the Smith Era, and by doing so makes those weaker moments stronger. If they had actually given us events which let us see how the Doctor would fall in love with River, if they had risked trying to give what they dared to suggest to a horrified fandom (the Doctor would get married), I think it could have worked. It was like showing off the cake but not really letting anyone taste it - they could look and admire, and accept it was a brilliant cake - but not, you can’t taste it.
The other factor would be to tone her down. Give her flaws, something I saw very few. Look at Captain Jack - another James Bondesque hero of ridiculous levels, just like Song, but he is flawed. His first story is about his failing, his invincibility is marred by the fact he wants to die. Song has no flaws, the only flaw or sympathy the audience can find is the fact that she’s meeting the Doctor in reverse, giving her a romantic partner who knows her less each time (if I recall correctly, it is a bit complicated). This is a fascinating notion that’s never really focused on bar one scene with Rory in Impossible Astronaut two-parter, and perhaps the one sympathetic scene you get with her. It’s a shame as this scene plays River as a person and it works, it works really well. It’s not Alex, it’s not the character - or the notion of a romantic partner for the Doctor - it’s the fact that she’s a tragic character but she’s never played to the tragedy that has befallen her - a bitter love story with no happy ending. If the story spent less time trying to prove how amazing she is, and let her be the person she’d probably be, I think that would have worked.
Mr Moffat does love his loud, sassy heroines, but ultimately they all bow to their heroes. It’s a common trait, and a sad one, as I’d like to see honest, flawed heroines who don’t bow to anyone.That to me is a strong woman. James Bond is not a strong male role model. He’s technically an alcoholic, a killer and unable to sustain relationships. That’s not a strong man, especially when those modes of conduct are not considered by the narrative as potentially flaws.
- Give River/Doctor their moments, let us explore and understand their dynamic. Romance isn’t the same for everyone, what makes it interesting in a story is how unique it is to each chemistry. Avoid that we lose that key prerequisite to the character’s role.
- Stop having to prove her worth. She doesn’t have to be best at everything to be the Doctor’s equal. The Doctor’s equal I’d suspect would be compassionate, not a show off, someone who is their own person, but special in their own personal way, not a superhuman. If he loves humanity for its struggle against adversity and compassion (in individual cases) would that not be reflected in his partner? If not, I take you back to the first point, let us explore why his interest would be in an abrasively challenging superhuman.
- Stop using her to tease or test the audience. Yes, we know you know that a lot of Doctor Who fans don’t like spoilers and hate the idea of the Doctor in love, so rise above the need to tease, especially if it doesn’t really help the character. A personal suggestion, but surely the fact she knows spoilers and the pain that brings shouldn’t be a coy taunt, but a personal weakness. Who wants to know what will happen? Especially with your lover? There is an argument she over-compensates for this dark tragedy, but then the rest of her antics are equally cocky and shallow. The whole prequel to the series 5 Weeping Angels story didn’t show her in any other light.
So there we go. Did they do anything right with her? Well not really, I felt her whole story was a mess. The whole mother and father Pond thing never really played well for me, but then the Pond’s never quite worked for me either - I didn’t really see the chemistry there in any real sense, but that didn’t stop me enjoying episodes with them in (The Girl Who Waited is Doctor Who at its peak) - it’s all to do with implementation. People suggest that disliking River Song is to do with actress hate/can’t cope with the Doctor in love are wrong.
That to me is the real issue here: River Song NEVER showed us the Doctor in love, she was an overplayed narrative tease that never paid off, but never went away. In a nutshell, that’s my issue with the character and not the actress. A missed opportunity to do something different.
I’m always a little wary about reviewing products made by people I know. In a way it feels quite intense actually, maybe a little uncomfortable perhaps - probably because creating art is so personal, it becomes equally a very raw term of self expression; you are exposing your creative soul as you would your naked body. Naked bodies on the internet are fine and depending on your moral compass, pivotal to the internets experience, seeing your friends au naturel is somewhat one disconcerting.
Thankfully in reading the hardback graphic novel To Hell You Ride by Lance Henriksen and Joe Maddrey - two people I hope will share my view of having good relationships with - I had to see no one naked, bar myself, if I did, maybe, read it naked. Strip away the colour from my opening statement and I stand by the core of point: it always feels a little disquieting to see the creative side of people you know, and that’s not a bad thing, but it is certainly more involving, and perhaps more affecting to your expectations; you are expecting something to be “more good” or “more bad” than you would a casual read. In other words, the work of art is stead in a more critically eyed manner. I’m not say I read To Hell You Ride looking for faults or perfections, but I read To Hell You Ride with a subconscious critically nervous eye - as you don’t want there to be faults; you don’t want a friend’s work to fail, and you don’t want the next page to be worse than previous - you want it to be better. All in all, as you can see in this opening ramble, why I sometimes instinctively avoid experiencing art of people I know - it makes me think far too much.
Well I’ll spare you the pain of more rambling monologues by saying I was very impressed by To Hell You Ride. I worry you’ll take that statement as a given; a desire to fawn or promote positively the work of people I like and as I said earlier, have come to see as friends. This frustrates me, because I’d probably think the same in your shoes, cynical sod I am. In fact, if the graphic novel had been mediocre or awful, I wouldn’t have made this entry - I’d have no wish to pull down an associate’s work. So all in all, I hope I can convince you this review is genuine even if it’s biased in the sense that a bad review would have generated no review at all: I’m not an arsehole. Sometimes.
To Hell You Ride is a horror/fantasy tale by Lance Henriksen, Joe Maddrey and illustrated by Tom Mandrake released by Dark Horse telling of a Native American legacy that comes to haunt a Colorado town. It was released in a five issue format and then compiled into a rather lovely hardback. I waited until the whole thing was in hardback before purchasing. Lance has been excited about this for a few years, and given little nuggets of information I both listened intently to and tried to try and formulate any ideas how it would contextualise in the story. I’m a firm believer you go into any story as raw as you can, as to enjoy being fully at the mercy of the creators. I did look at the preview Dark Horse released, more out of politeness than wanting to be spoiled - I was impressed then by its narrative tone and dark balanced artwork by Mandrake. I was glad when I finally got to read the story in its whole this Christmas, I’d forgotten nearly all I’d read, so it didn’t spoil delving into the tale.
To Hell You Ride is story hard to describe. You could say its a tale about Native American, but in some sense it isn’t really. The physical journey focuses on a Native American, his legacy and his spirtuality, but it also deals with what you could say is “white” American’s crass, soulness identity, or you could say it really deals with neither, but a far broader sociological stroke as to the sheer struggle of the individual and transitory nature of the body and perhaps, society itself. All these things are, quite bluntly Lance Henriksen. For those who haven’t listened to him on podcasts, radio, down the pub, in written interviews, or wherever, I can guarantee you this isn’t a collaboration where an actor or celebrity has a half baked idea and a writer goes and creates a story, the narrative throughout the story is unmistakably Lance Henriksen. It has that raw, avid, colourful and astute observational outlook the man has.This is who he is. It’s not a guise for interview, it’s not like me, who will over colour and over-elaborate his words because he enjoys word-play, Lance speaks naturally in the voice you read in To Hell You Ride. He’s a man who has catalogued experiences, conversations, ideas and mythologies in his head and they roll off his tongue over a beer with no strain whatsoever. Probably sounds like I’m idolising him, I’m genuinely not, he is a very unique personality. It’s funny how people look to film actors as the ultimate walk of life - if you’re an actor in film, you’ve hammered life into place. You’ve made it, Ma - top of the world. Lance is one of those people who is far more interesting than his vocation. If you’ve read Not Bad For A Human - his autobiography, also aided by Joe Maddrey - you’ll see how unusual his life was, and how much more interesting that person is compared to Bishop or Frank Black. Heresy, I know, but he is a genuinely unusual and fascinating character, and that embolden personality and tenacity comes through in To Hell You Ride. Each narrative box is an observation or a point coloured by story or an idea, the story of Two Dogs and Shipp almost play secondary to the content of the narrator. It’s a natural and very potent layering of questions posed to the reader and giving the story itself momentum.
I have to apply some sort of digital handbrake here and point out that by bigging up Lance’s role, by no means diminishes Joe. Lance and Joe are an unusual pair. They resonate where they need to and differ where they don’t. Lance will sit at a convention and readily engage everyone who comes up to him, to the point that by the evening when he’d probably want a bar and a beer to enjoy, he just wants to sleep. Joe will sit with him, behind him in fact, letting people come to the person they’ve travelled to meet. He will look quiet, perhaps even shy, sitting patiently behind Lance, and you’d be mistaken for thinking so. Joe’s smart, a man who seems very comfortable with who he is and what he does. He was a producer and writer before working on Lance’s projects and a talent in his own right, just as Lance is. He doesn’t look for fame or attention - he knows people travel far to see Lance, and he’ll let them enjoy that moment. You’ll see Lance try and pull Joe forward, to let him share in the interest in their autobiography, but Joe will slip back eventually, because he understands the world he walks, and I think that gentle, articulate and balanced insight into our world married with his skill and understanding of structure most likely balances out Lance’s excited, vivid energies. Guesswork on my part to some degree, but ultimately some people just connect, and they connect in a way that serves the work they produce perfectly. It’s a good creative binding. If you follow the behind the scenes commentary at the back of the book, you’ll see Joe’s insights into the story, it’s history and the evolution behind To Hell You Ride.Lance is a hurricane of ideas, I imagine Joe brings a calm that helps structure them. That’s not to say Lance can’t do that himself, To Hell You Ride was a screenplay by Lance originally, so I’m cautious suggesting that Lance just has ideas Joe formulates, but I’d think Joe’s experience in structure and research would be a further catalyst to creating what is a very good read.
There are some very smart ideas in To Hell You Ride worth noting. The horror that runs through out is simple in its concoction, playing on the extremes of cold and heat, and by doing so takes the population of the Colorado town into a social schism of ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’. The story deals heavily with nature and the sheer ignored power that comes from ideas beyond Western society, ideas so merrily crushed as we steamrollered our way through history flattening an ideas that didn’t conform to our own. The horrors that the story inflict in the town are a deft mirror to the Native American reservation it borders; it becomes an unwilling reservation unto itself. The horror is horrid, but it serves as a secondary component to the story’s thrust, a story that’s bigger than any of the people involved.
If you’re put off by the Native American aspect, having seeing the Western guilt played through copious American television shows myself, don’t be. This isn’t a Western observation on their destructive tendencies - well, I suppose it is to some degree - but great effort has been taken into keep the narrative very much from the perspective and mythology of the Native Americans - and the Native Americans aren’t depicted as the detached, wise, proverb spouting wizards they end up as in television. Here they are a mix of wise people, lost people, and quite frankly, drunk people. None of that is embellishment but an honest reflection on a turbulent and perhaps somewhat spiraled culture. Henriksen has had an interest in the Native Americans for decades - he’ll tell you stories of some of those he has met and their profound affect on his life. Stories that appear in the book, the Native American who walked backwards across State, come from people he has met. It’s not Western hokum. As I recall, Joe and Lance made a further research trip down to a reservation while working on the book. It’s a book by Westerners sympathetic and fascinated to the often ignored truth of Native American culture, both today and the fascinating mythology that emboldens it.
Finally Tom Mandrake’s art. I’ve followed comic art since I was six years old. I’ve watched the general trend and approach to artwork shift and change over the decades. For me the nineties wrought a rather devastating hit on mainstream artists, thanks in part to comic artists being brought up on comic art. No longer were comic artists artists born from necessity, these were comic fans who not only brought new perspective and a certain self parody (check out Simon Bisley’s amazing work and the clones he spawned), but also a commercial domination to the medium. Suddenly artists were telling the story more than writers. Comics were a visual medium where the writers seem to be a backbone for artists to do luscious splashes. Quite often - certainly with Bisley - the art told a narrative devoid of the writer’s intent, and that could carry a charm or even create a subtext, but mis-used could undermine the writer’s story. This still happens today where the art feels divorced by the storyline and a comic book can devolve into ego vs ego. I read a 2000AD story of late, a future dystopian war, with a dark hero and broody storylines, but the allotted artist decided when people got shot in the head, to embellish the moment with artistic flairs of parody or silliness - cross-eyed soldiers with bullet holes in the head and the ilk. This has always frustrated me - sure be over the top or silly if the narrative tone requires it, but of the tone is serious, don’t start dropping in your own little attempts at humour. Mandrake’s work is old-school - it listens to the writer, respects the writer, and doesn’t try to use the writer as a platform for their own personality. The usual dysfunction we commonly see where the writer’s and artist’s voices compete, isn’t here, To Hell You Ride, Mandrake does what an illustrator SHOULD do, and that’s visualise the voice of the storyteller. It was a good call - I see why Lance and Joe were so keen to get Tom on board.
So take from this what you will. As you can see there’s an almost irritability to this review that I have to justify my enjoyment of this book on the basis of having some insight into the people who forged it; that somehow that weakens my positive statement. I hope that perhaps this review will do the opposite - and give you some insight into the people behind it as well as an honest appraisal of the work. If you don’t believe me, there are a lot of positive reviews online (and the back cover). As a long term comic reader I’d say this was a very refreshing and insightful read. Go get it.
Thanks to the wonder of modernish technology, I have caught up on the show I couldn’t be bothered to catch: Sherlock. It was on 9pm last night and I decided not to watch it but to do something less boring instead, as I hark back to the words of the fabled Why Don’t You?
Funnily enough, I don’t dislike Sherlock. I think Cumberbatch is excellent, I think Andrew Scott even more so. The idea is simple and on a superficial scale, as a non-source comparative, it’s fun. The links to the original fiction are tenuous, and there are some choices I very much disagree with (I don’t believe Watson would write a blog on crime, you know, some people - educated people - do actually write books in the modern age, and enough not said about the terrible, crass depiction of Irene Adler the better), but I can sit and reasonably enjoy 90 well cut minutes of well produced television. It is easy to forget in an era of cheap reality TV shows, quizzes and bargain hunts, drama being funded of any kind is a gift. Might not be always the best gift at the party, but we should appreciate it for what it is - especially when we see drama so often crushed against the might of reality television. Yes, Ripper Street, I’m looking at you (though I suspect rather strongly you’ll be back from the dead, just like Jack the Ripper was according to 99% of franchised science fiction).
I digress as usual. Or rarely, given the lack of posts of late. I see people saying Sherlock jumped the shark last night. It gave me pause to ramble.
First off, I hate that term, ‘jump the shark’. First and foremost, Happy Days was a silly comedy and I loved that one when Fonzie did that thing with the water. I barely remember it, it had such a profound affect on me. So much so, I’ve continued to watch Happy Days when it’s on. If Happy Days ever did Jump the Shark, a point where a show derails in integrity and quality, it was the first episode, where Fonzie was barely in it and didn’t have a leather jacket. Terrible television. No going back from that.
I can’t think of a show that’s genuinely Jumped the Shark, if we’re to make it a given that this is a basis of the product prior to the episode in question when it all goes wrong. Even Battlestar Galactica's 1980 series had a brilliant final episode. Show's go off course, or sometimes lack a certain quality but its rarely total. Even Fraiser, for which I often spout “jumping the shark” as soon as Daphne began to show interest in Niles, still upheld its quality.
So did Sherlock jump the shark with “Sign of Three”? I was forewarned it was terrible, worst, self-indulgent episode ever. Now maybe it’s because I was forewarned, and thus expected the utter worst, or perhaps because I’m not THAT infested in Sherlock that the end result didn’t strike me as that awful. Sherlock isn’t a deep character story, I tend to find Mr Moffat’s stuff works on quirks and smarts than realistic characters, so as such, there wasn’t much to break here. One thing this series 3 has established is Sherlock is a far less immovable object he’d seemed prior. Unlike House MD, a Sherlock based lead character who was (as far as I watched it five years in) a sheer rock of Gibraltar in terms of definitive unrepentant sociopath tendencies, this Sherlock seems keen to unbend a little and conform - or perhaps, try to conform, for his friend. If one accepts that bill, I don’t think this episode is terrible. I’ve read some Guardian comments that for a show with only 3 episodes (or four and half hours of television) every year or two (depending on when Moffat can juggle this with Doctor Who while he juggles Doctor Who with Sherlock), so much character focus in a drama about mysteries is too much. Perhaps there’s truth to that in fairness. It is perhaps one definitive aspect of a show “jumping the shark” when the show loses sight of its original mandate. This is frequent in television. You only have to look at the aforementioned House MD as an example where a show about medical mysteries began turning inward into a show exploring the lead character dynamics. Look at the hit comedy Scrubs, and how that equally lost sight of its pithy commentary on the medical profession into farce between the central agents. If Sherlock is about mystery, this episode put mystery as a secondary force, though in the end, it was brought back to the foreground.
I guess the question is why do you watch Sherlock? Is it because you care about the dynamics between the characters of Sherlock and Watson, or is it because you enjoy the dynamics between Sherlock and Watson as they solve cases? The latter is often misread by show-runners - and more often in personality based TV shows. You’ll see frequently how presenters to a format are suddenly considered more important than the show as the audience enjoy their presence, and presenters and show runners are blind to the fact that if you remove the show, those presenters aren’t as interesting. It’s the chemistry between leads and product that often scores the win. We enjoy Sherlock, we might enjoy Watson, but ultimately we’re there to watch a smart bit of clue deducing.
So has Sherlock failed? I’d say this was a possibly mis-step. Compared to most television I think it worked. If you can ignore the issue of whether the almost focus soapy characters was a mistake, the actual structure of the story is pretty slick and well told - something its sister show Doctor Who tends to lack of late, feeling a very unbalanced if charming mishmash of ideas. I don’t think this is a sign of a downward trend in the show. In fact, I found their take on Irene Adler and the Hound of the Baskervilles last series to be a far more derivative bit of programming. The former had me despair on female character writing, the latter had me bored and wincing at the terrible attempts to marry a contemporary story with its source. No, I think Sherlock has been in worse spots than this.
So roll on the final episode, a deciding factor on the success of this series. I personally found the first episode to be quite strong - nothing mind-blowing but very well paced and put together. If episode three is as good, this series will be far superior to the last one. For me anyway. I remain in hope that Mr Moffat will move on from Doctor Who and focus on Sherlock for future seasons. One can’t help feel that juggling two main flagships is helping neither, and while Doctor Who is a show that’s used to change, perhaps Sherlock is in great need of establishing its focus if its to find a future consistency that won’t leave camps so readily divided.
Shouldn’t quote yourself, but very touching when someone does it for you!
Millennium Group Sessions is back, with what for myself and Troy, is a very special podcast. In this session we speak to the talented three time Emmy award winning actress Barbara Bain. Millennium fans will remember her role as Lilly Unser in season three’s Matryoshka – for me, she is Cinnamon Carter from Mission Impossible and Dr Helena Russell in the cult space hit, Space: 1999. Barbara is one of the most charming and relaxed people I’ve had the good fortune to interview – and that’s a high benchmark given the people we’ve interviewed on Millennium Group Sessions alone!
On top of this hour long interview, we talk about the recent video competition, courtesy of Mark Snow and the move of the Back to Frank Black book to Kindle.
Back to Frank Black: A Return To Chris Carter’s Millennium, is now out on Kindle. This book covers everything you want to know on the TV show Millennium which expired sadly before its time just before the millennium itself. It’s been out in hardback and softback for a year, now you can buy it at a fraction of the price on Kindle. Why do I rate this purchase? Here we go.
1. It’s a good book. This isn’t a fan-book. It’s a smart, well documented repository of all things Millennium. Essays and interviews - and not just from fans, but cast and crew. It has forewards by all the leading creative influences on the show and written pieces by some of the show’s artists too. It’s truly an amazing achievement worthy of this digital age. This is truly an example of what can be achieved using the resources now available to everyone.
2. It’s a good cause. Profits from this book, hardback, softback or digital download go to charity, specifically Children of the Night. You can read more about their efforts to help kids out of child prostitution here.
3. It’s history. Millennium was a great TV show. It was also an influential one. At the time it was described by many-a-hack as “serial killer of the week” - a phrase used a lot these days, but not in the derogatory context it was used then. The art and content influenced television and still holds up under scrutiny. It also posed a question: what would happen on the fall of the millennium? A lot did happen. Contextually to entertainment and social history, the book makes an interesting read as it very much taps the angst normal people were feeling about the millennium in the 90s.
4. It’s an independent book. Published by Fourth Horseman Press, you are supporting and encouraging what surely is an artisan era of media. The internet has allowed the individual artists to find a voice away from the controlling bigger media voice boxes. It’s quality too. Good reason to support it, I think.
5. I’m in it. Internal illustrations are me, there’s a chapter by me on the campaign, and many of the chapters about specific show artists are based on interviews conducted by myself and US colleague Troy Foreman. Those chapters aren’t transcripts, editor Adam Chamberlain went to great lengths to integrate the data from those interviews into full chapters. There are no short cuts in this book.
6. It’s cheap. On Kindle, you’re talking a fraction of a book cost. UK pricing has it just under 7 quid for just over 500 pages. That’s damn fine value.
Big kudos to editor Brian A. Dixon for migrating the book to Kindle. Other digital platforms are planned. Here’s the link.