Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Legend of Korra, Season 1

When I watched the Nickolodeon animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender a few years ago, it was, despite the recommendations of a few rabid fans whose blogs I follow, with no small amount of doubt and trepidation.  When I finished the series, having become a rabid fan myself, and tried to pass on that rabid fannishness to some friends, it occurred to me what a tough sell Avatar is.  If you're not a fan of animated (and specifically anime or anime-style) shows, or of children's TV, the series could very easily have flown under your radar (in fact it's likely that the title will cause associations with either James Cameron's unrelated movie, or M. Night Shyamalan's by all accounts dreadful live action film adaptation of the show's first season).  It certainly doesn't help that the series take a while to get up to speed, and that its first ten episodes are broad and very consciously child-oriented--I wouldn't blame someone from my corner of fandom who watched Avatar's pilot and concluded that the show was Not For Them, not least because I very nearly did the same.  Which is a shame, because once you get past the hump of the show's first half season, Avatar develops into a smart, engaging, and most of all fun series that fans of Harry Potter and Farscape will eat up with a spoon.  Featuring complex, multifaceted characters and relationships, a deft handling of race and gender, and a riveting adventure plot punctuated by thrilling and stunningly animated action set pieces, it's a series that fans of smart genre fare owe it to themselves to become acquainted with--which is no help, since as we all know, "it's really good" is not a convincing sales pitch.  So when Nickolodeon announced that Avatar's creators were returning with a sequel series, The Legend of Korra, I was pleased not just because of the chance to spend more time in the Avatar universe, but because of the opportunity that the show seemed to afford to introduce new fans to that universe on terms they might be more comfortable with.  Shorter, better animated, and focusing on older characters than Avatar, The Legend of Korra seemed like the perfect gateway drug for the two shows' universe.  I was doubly disappointed, then, by what Korra's first season has delivered--not only a lackluster story that has squandered an intriguing setting and characters, but a tone deaf handling of the show's themes that belies its alleged maturity.

Avatar takes place in a pre-industrial world whose people are divided into four nations according to the four classical elements--earth, fire, air, and water.  These elements inform the culture and national character of each of the four nations, and within each nation there are certain individuals, known as "benders," who can manipulate their element--causing fire to shoot from their hands, for example, or forcing the earth to form whatever shape or structure they desire.  The spiritual leader of this world, who can control all four elements, is called the Avatar, and they reincarnate into the world again and again, cycling between the four nations.  As the series opens, the earth and water nations have for a century been under attack by the fire nation, a war that began with the extermination of the air nation, and with it, it is generally believed, the Avatar.  When two water nation children, Katara and Sokka, find the twelve-year-old Avatar, Aang, frozen in a block of ice, they set out together to help Aang master the remaining elements and defeat the fire nation.  The Legend of Korra opens 80 years after Aang's victory, and its title character is the Avatar that follows him, a water nation teenager who has already mastered the water, earth, and fire elements, and who in the series premiere sets out to learn airbending from the one remaining master of the form, Aang's son Tenzin.  To do this, Korra travels to Tenzin's home of Republic City, established after the war to foster better relations between the four nations.

The Legend of Korra thus, from its outset, sets itself apart from Avatar in several significant ways.  Avatar ranged all over its world, and frequently visited urban settings--the fortress of the northern water tribe, the great earth nation cities of Omashu and Ba Sing Se, the fire nation capital.  In each of these settings, the color scheme, design sensibility, and functionality were informed by the nation's dominant element.  In Republic City, these national boundaries have been dissolved, and the advent of an industrial revolution in the decades separating the two shows means that the bending powers that had ensured the smooth running of cities in Avatar (the public transport system in Omashu is powered by earthbenders, who move stone carriages along tracks that they have carved in the ground) have either been superseded or augmented by technology (one of the characters in Korra, a firebender, gets a job shooting bolts of lightning into the city's power grid).  This results in a setting that, though still fantastical in many ways, is mostly reminiscent of a 19th century city--with the same Asian inflections that dominate the design of both series.  In Avatar's story, the spirit world played a significant role--through Aang's interactions with his previous incarnations, through his lapses into "the Avatar State," in which the force that runs through the Avatar line manifests through him and performs tremendous feats, and through his forays into the spirit realm, which give the show's animators the opportunity to venture into Miyazaki-esque surrealism.  Korra's world and story, on the other hand, are almost purely materialistic.  Though Korra is prodigy who has mastered three of the four elements--the ones that Aang struggles with throughout his story--with ease, her skill is purely martial.  Throughout most of the first season she has no connection to the spirit realm, her previous incarnations, or the Avatar State.

In other words, with Korra, the two series' creators have switched subgenres, transitioning from epic fantasy to something like steampunk.  Along the way, they've also created a story that is more mundane, and less purposeful, than Avatar's.  Aang and his cohort were on a quest with a very clearly defined victory condition--defeat the fire nation, end the war, save the world--and intermediate goals--master the remaining three elements (the show's three seasons are titled Water, Earth, and Fire, corresponding to the element that Aang masters in each one).  When Korra arrives in Republic City, the stakes of her story are significantly lower--she's eager to learn airbending and frustrated when it doesn't come easily, but it's her own self-image, not the fate of the world, that hangs in the balance.  There's so little urgency to her quest, in fact, that she has the time and inclination to join a pro-bending team--Republic City's favorite sport, in which teams of benders use their powers to score points and knock each other off the court--alongside brothers Mako and Bolin.  It's only very gradually that the challenges facing her begin to manifest themselves, and only near the end of the season that these challenges take the form of a traditional action-adventure plot.

It should be said that this willingness to change their world and the type of story they tell within it so completely is something that Korra's creators should be lauded for, not least because despite the enormous differences between it and Avatar, there's never any doubt that they take place in the same world, or that the one's setting could, over the course of less than a century, become the other's (this is all the more impressive because Korra avoids leaning on the crutch of the previous series's characters and settings--though one of Avatar's main characters appears as an old woman, and several others appear as forty-year-olds in a flashback, these elements are used minimally, and for the most part it's down to the new characters to establish the show's sense of place and history).  In its early episodes, Korra raises several interesting questions about the effect of modernity on the Avatar's place in society: with national identity becoming less important, or even noticeable, in Republic City's melting pot, the Avatar's role as a bridge between the nations appears to have been superseded, and with technology on the ascendant, bending may be losing its importance as well.  The season's villain, Amon, adds another wrinkle to this question.  The leader of a group calling themselves the Equalists, Amon argues that benders have erected a tyranny over non-benders, and seeks to overturn it through acts of terrorism carried out by an army trained in "chi-blocking"--which temporarily disables bending powers--and through his own ability to permanently remove those powers.

It's in its handling of these questions, and of the stories that emerge from them, that The Legend of Korra falls flat.  In its early episodes, the show struggles to integrate the slowly building Equalist menace with the more mundane concerns of Korra's life, and the result is a season that feels alternately fitful and stalled.  Though the subplot about the pro-bending tournament ends up feeding into the Equalist story in an interesting way, with a thrilling Equalist attack on the tournament final, it's hard not to feel that earlier episodes focused on Korra's pro-bending training are wasting valuable time.  And the equally time-consuming parallel love triangles--between Korra, Mako, and Bolin, and between Mako, Korra, and Mako's girlfriend, the industrialist's daughter Asami--have no such justification for their existence, especially so early in the series's run, when the characters' personalities and relationships are still too faintly drawn to support so much romantic melodrama.  Even when the Equalist threat becomes more prominent, however, the story doesn't snap into focus, because Korra herself is so very reactive.  Aang defied many of the conventions of child protagonists in fantasy stories--having been raised to the role of Avatar, he had a deep understanding of himself and his responsibilities, but never lost his childish glee and sense of play.  Korra is a more familiar, Harry Potter-ish type--affable, thoughtlessly and reflexively heroic whenever she's brought face to face with injustice or suffering, but neither very bright nor terribly inclined to think about the world around her and how she can affect it.  She spends too much of the season responding to Amon's obvious taunts and following the lead of the shady Republic City councilman Tarrlok, who uses the Equalist threat to cement his political power, and later as a justification for restricting the rights and movements of non-benders, and even when she takes charge of the fight against Amon, her tactics remain shortsighted and poorly thought out--in the season finale, she decides to seek Amon out despite the fact that he's defeated her in every one of their previous encounters and she has no idea how to turn the tables--and yet rewarded by the narrative--while trying to execute this foolhardy scheme, Korra learns something about Amon that allows her to defeat him.

Korra never manages to integrate its heroine's flaws and strengths into a fully developed character.  Whenever it comes close to acknowledging her failings, it falls back on highlighting her heroism, so that Korra's moments of triumph--especially when she finally breaks her spiritual block--feel less like accomplishments and more like writerly fiat.  In this, unfortunately, Korra is very much in line with the rest of the series's young cast.  Mako is a handsome blank, Bolin never grows beyond the role of comic relief, and only Asami--who is dealt dual blows over the course of the season in the form of the realization that her boyfriend loves someone else and the revelation that her father is in league with Amon, but is able to put her hurt feelings aside in the face of the more urgent threat of the Equalists, becoming the group's best tactician and a formidable fighter despite having no bending powers--is a genuinely interesting character.  The adult characters fare somewhat better--Tenzin is a square whose fuddy-duddiness conceals a strong anti-authoritarian streak, which feels entirely right both as a response to Aang's carefree personality and as a reflection of it, and Republic City's police chief, Lin Beifong (daughter of Avatar's Toph) is a tough as nails law and order type whom Korra rubs the wrong way, and whose relationships with Aang and Tenzin are only slowly revealed.  This, however, only serves to reinforce the sense that Korra is falling into the same pitfalls as the Harry Potter books, overshadowing its young protagonists with adult supporting characters whose adventures and stories come to seem a great deal more interesting.

Even worse than its problems with pacing and characterization, however, is The Legend of Korra's handling of the Equalist storyline.  Simply put, Amon claims that benders are oppressing non-benders, and the show never bothers to tell us whether this is true--doesn't, in fact, seem to think that the answer is very important.  When she first arrives in Republic City, Korra encounters a protester decrying bender oppression.  "What are you talking about?" she impulsively calls out.  "Bending is the coolest thing in the world!"  This is such a clueless, privileged bit of point-missing that one can only imagine that an important component of the season will involve showing Korra how the other half lives.  For a while, it seems that Mako and Bolin's role will be to do just that--when the brothers, who have been on their own since they were children and even briefly involved with criminal gangs, find themselves short of cash, Korra explains, with mock humility, that she can't help them: "I got nothing.  I've never really needed money.  I've always had people taking care of me."  "Then I wouldn't say you have nothing," is Mako's acidic reply.  Very quickly, however, Mako and Bolin's humble origins are forgotten (as is Korra's cluelessness).  They become part of Korra's inner circle--which also includes, as befits the Avatar, the movers and shakers of Republic City.  Within Korra's limited perspective, non-benders are almost entirely absent, and the ones she encounters are either Amon's henchmen or those who are part of her group and firmly opposed to Amon, such as Asami or Tenzin's wife Pema.  In both cases, when these characters address themselves to the issue of tensions between benders and non-benders, it's only to discuss whether they support Amon's tactics--the question of whether his aims or theories are correct is never even raised.  Unaffiliated non-benders from outside of Korra's privileged circle are encountered only as undifferentiated masses--the crowds who flock to Amon's rallies, or the protesters rounded up under Tarrlok's reactionary policies. 

Even absent the voice of ordinary non-benders, The Legend of Korra paints a disturbing picture of their status in Republic City--a picture that is never fully acknowledged by its characters.  Benders seem to hold a disproportionate amount of power and influence in Republic City's government--all of the city's police force are earthbenders, for example, and though it's not clear whether the city's ruling council is also made up solely of benders, when Tarrlok suggests that non-benders be subject to a curfew, only Tenzin objects.  In an early episode, Tarrlok sends Korra on a raid on what he terms an Equalist stronghold, but what she finds when she gets there is a dojo in which non-benders are practicing chi-blocking.  Given that by this point we've learned that both Mako and Bolin's parents and Asami's mother were killed by firebender criminals, and that when Korra arrives in the city she sees bender gangsters extorting protection money from a shopkeeper, it doesn't seem unreasonable for non-benders to want to learn how to protect themselves, but the possibility that chi-blocking is not an indicator of evil is never entertained by the characters--or indeed the show, which quickly reveals that the people at the dojo are indeed followers of Amon.  Most damning is the simple fact that Amon amasses huge numbers of followers--he has hundreds of henchmen to do his bidding, and great crowds cheer for him in the street--a man who has terrorized their city and promised to hunt down and mutilate their fellow citizens.  When Korra attacks him, they turn on her, and only reject Amon once they learn that he's lied to them and is, in fact, a bender himself.  Unless we assume that the people of Republic City are credulous dupes, we have to choose between two equally unpleasant interpretations: either the city's citizens are evil, eager to turn on those whose powers they resent like a crowd of non-mutants on X-Men, or they have a genuine grievance that only Amon is addressing, and which he has inflamed into hatred and violence.  Either way, defeating Amon doesn't even come close to addressing the problem, something that is ignored by the season's triumphant ending.

There's a sense that Korra's writers are aware of the corner they've painted themselves into, because a lot of the season is dedicated to shifting the goalposts of their argument.  At the end of the season, Korra is told that Amon "truly believes bending is the source of all evil in the world."  This echoes with the fact that, though Amon and his followers frequently use the language of oppression and tyranny when discussing bending, the examples they cite of benders' perfidy are not of prejudice or systemic inequality, but of individual cases of violence.  In their final confrontation, Asami's father tells her that she is "aiding the very people who took your mother away," to which she replies "You don't feel love for Mom anymore.  You're too full of hatred."  In other words, we're in X-Men territory--benders are hated and feared not because of what they've done, but because of what they could do, and resentment of them is a prejudice that blames an entire group for the actions of some of its members.  But while the X-Men model works when the superpowered individuals are a beleaguered minority group that has only begun to emerge into the public consciousness, it's less persuasive when they're a well-known phenomenon that has been folded into every aspect of civic and economic life, and whose members hold key positions in society.  There needs to be some work explaining how benders, through their own actions or as a result of unrelated social change, have lost the public trust, and this isn't something the show does--the suggestion that technology is edging out the need for bending, for example, is something that is only faintly present in the season's early episodes, and then abandoned entirely, and though instances of bending violence are mentioned repeatedly, at no point do either the show or the characters consider that bending and criminality might have become linked in the public consciousness.  Similarly, around the middle of the season the writers try to make up for the absence of any indication that non-benders are oppressed by having Tarrlok initiate his restrictive policies.  "You're doing exactly what Amon says is wrong with benders," Korra tells him, implying that until those policies had been enacted, Amon had been wrong.  But just as Amon couldn't have done all the damage he did on his own, without supporters and people who believed in what he was preaching, Tarrlok can't criminalize non-benders without at least the acquiescence of the city's power structures and its bender citizens--an acquiescence that, in itself, indicates a problem that the show won't face up to.

It's a sad thing to say, but it feels as if, by aiming at a more mature tone and subject matter than Avatar's, The Legend of Korra throws its inherent immaturity into sharper relief.  When it comes down to it, the show isn't willing to say that terrorists are just people like you and me, whose abhorrent actions might be rooted in legitimate grievances, or that large-scale, violent persecution of minority groups can only be achieved through at least the tacit approval of most of the people, not just the ones wearing scary uniforms.  You could argue that that's too heavy a moral for a children's show, but another way of looking at it is that for a story aimed at young people to stop short of this moral--to create a world in which people cry persecution merely because they resent the dominant elite, and social unrest is the work of supervillains and their armies of masked henchmen--is to send a very irresponsible message.  Supervillains like Amon and Tarrlok would have worked in Avatar (in fact, like Avatar, Korra ends by humanizing both characters and explaining, if not justifying, their choices), which for all its intelligence and complexity never sought to escape the conventions of epic fantasy.  Korra's ambitions are higher, but it fails to achieve them and neglects its characters and story to boot.  I still recommend Avatar to just about anyone who is looking for a fun, smart, compelling fantasy story they can be sucked into, but if you're looking to get into the Avatar universe, start with the original (and give the first season at least until its midpoint), and leave Korra until you know you've been won over.

Monday, June 18, 2012


There are a lot of things I like about online fandom, but one of its traits that gives me pause is the speed with which it forms an overwhelming, inescapable consensus about certain pop culture artifacts.  Not to keep beating a much-too-lively horse, but this strikes me as a much bigger problem than the dreaded spoiler.  It's one thing to know what's going to happen in a movie, but quite another to know how you're expected to react to those events--to know that The Avengers has been judged the greatest thing since sliced bread, or that Prometheus, Ridley Scott's prequel-but-not-really-but-actually-yes to Alien, is generally reviled.  Which is not to say that I disagree with the fannish consensus about Prometheus, which is indeed a terrible, terrible film.  But I am a bit troubled by the fact that when I settled into my seat at the movie theater on Saturday, a mere week after Prometheus's release and without having gone to great lengths to take the temperature of fandom regarding it, I already had no expectation of enjoying it.  Instead, the question foremost in my mind was, what could possibly be so bad about this movie to justify not just disappointment or negativity, but the palpable sense of outrage that has tinged the conversation surrounding the film? 

Having watched the film, I'm not sure I'm much closer to an answer.  Again, I think Prometheus is a terrible, terrible film--messily plotted, peopled with unpleasant characters whose decisions one can only explain through a catastrophic combination of idiocy, lack of professionalism, and sociopathic tendencies, and littered with half a dozen themes, character arcs, and throughlines, none of which come to any sort of fruition, and most of which work at cross-purposes to one another.  Plus, there are hardly any scary bits, and no action scenes to speak of.  I'm just not sure that it's quite so terrible as to justify the opprobrium that has been heaped upon it, to the extent that I'm wondering if there isn't a reverse Avengers affect in play.  I liked The Avengers, but couldn't quite understand why it aroused such extreme love in large portions of fandom, and by the same token I'm having trouble understanding why Prometheus, terrible as it is, is the subject of so much outrage.  Were people expecting great things from Ridley Scott?  The man hasn't directed a truly excellent film since Blade Runner.  Are fans upset at the damage that Prometheus does to the Alien franchise?  You'd think that a fandom that has managed to reason away of existence both of the Alien vs. Predator movies, Alien: Resurrection, and, in the case of certain purists, Alien3, would have no trouble doing the same to this movie.  I can see how science fiction fans, in particular, would be upset at Prometheus's anti-science, anti-evolution bent--the titular ship embarks on its ill-fated journey to the alien moon LV-223 because our heroine, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), believes it to be the home of aliens whom she has dubbed The Engineers, who created the human race.  When it's pointed out to her that she hasn't got a shred of scientific proof for this theory, Shaw simply replies that it's what she chooses to believe.  Not a very compelling audience identification figure for science fiction fans, then, especially as in her zeal to prove her theory--which is explicitly likened, on several occasions, to religious fervor, not least in the way that several characters restate Shaw's mission as the quest to meet her makers--Shaw smugly ignores every common-sense safety precaution and research protocol, and plays a substantial part in bringing about the disaster that kills almost all of the Prometheus's crew (in fairness, Shaw is matched for recklessness and lack of professionalism by pretty much every other character in the movie, but she's the one we're meant to identify with).

On the other hand, science fiction film and TV have been moving away from scientific rationalism and towards a vague sort of deism for the better part of a decade, and Prometheus's writer, Damon Lindelof, was one of the standard bearers of that movement in his work on Lost, so it can hardly come as a surprise that Prometheus continues that trend, especially as the film's trailers all but laid out its Von Däniken-inspired plot.  So while I can see how fans might be disappointed by the film's anti-science stance--which is anyway somewhat ameliorated by the revelation that though Shaw is right about the Engineers, they are far from benevolent parents, and in fact created the organism that would go on to evolve into the original films' Alien in order to unleash it on Earth and destroy their creations--I'm not sure that it on its own justifies the vehemence of the negative reaction the film has received. 

But that, I think, is a clue to the answer I'm looking for.  Taken on their own, none of Prometheus's flaws, serious as they are, justify the revulsion it's elicited, but taken together?  Just about the only thing that works in the film are its visuals, which combine H.R. Giger's by-now iconic and still wonderfully creepy designs for the alien ship with CGI and some clever interface design, creating an environment that is both lived-in and foreign, and culminating in one of the film's two truly successful scenes, in which the android David (Michael Fassbender), activates the control room on the alien ship that Prometheus finds, and becomes the focal point of a symphony of holographic astronavigation information.  If you take just about any other approach to the film, though, you'll fall flat.  Want to learn where the Aliens came from?  Prometheus does contain answers, some silly--the elephant-like head of the alien in the control chair in the original film turns out to have been a helmet concealing a humanoid face, which no one on the Nostromo noticed--and some interesting--after four films in which the Weyland-Yutani Corporation repeatedly tries to get its hands on the Aliens in order to use them as weapons, it's darkly funny to discover that the Engineers created them for precisely the same reason (and it's somewhat to the film's credit that we don't find out the Engineers' reason for wanting us dead is that humanity is just so awful, an infuriatingly supercilious conclusion that too many science fiction stories are happy to plump for--though it seems that Scott's original vision may have included this wrinkle, and that the film can still be read as saying this)--but there's a gap between the film's ending and Alien's beginning that seems hard to bridge, and also unnecessary.  Want to find the answer to Shaw's questions about the origin of the human race?  The film leaves them, and her subsequent desire to know why the Engineers decided to destroy humanity, completely unresolved.  (There's a strong sense that Prometheus's ending is intended to tease a sequel, but given the film's catastrophic box office results that is now mercifully unlikely.)

The film's themes fare no better.  Want to find out more about David, whose nature the film repeatedly puzzles over even as it shows him alternately saving the crew's lives and endangering them, for no reason in either case?  These contradictory actions, and David's own expressions of mingled fascination and revulsion towards humanity, never cohere into a comprehensible character, and David's motivations, sanity, and personality remain opaque all the way to the credits, in no small part because after playing a major, plot-advancing role in the film's first two acts, he is unceremoniously sidelined for its denouement.  Want some more development of the previous films' themes of gender and sex?  For the most part, Prometheus leaves this aspect of the franchise alone.  The Engineers are all male, but nothing is made of this, and though the film's mid-segment seems suddenly to remember that pregnancy, motherhood, and the appropriation of both by a masculine power structure are important themes in the franchise, its handling of them is at once over the top and perfunctory--no sooner have we learned that Shaw is infertile than she turns out to be pregnant with a proto-alien and is sedated by David (who was creepily sort-of lusting after her in the film's early scenes), then breaks free and seeks her own solution to the problem.  This leads to the film's other truly successful scene, in which a naked Shaw locks herself in an auto-surgery unit and watches, fully conscious, as she is cut open and the proto-alien is removed from her body, and then must escape from the unit as it hisses, spits, and tries to capture her.  As effective as this scene is, however, it's also terribly broad, taking an already not very subtle theme and intensifying it to the point that it seems almost like self-parody (the same is true of a later scene in which the last surviving Engineer is vanquished by Shaw's now fully-grown "baby"--his death is so blatantly meant to recall sex, or rape, that the power of the correlation is complete denuded).  More importantly, it's an interlude that seems almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the film, to the extent that when a bloody and traumatized Shaw wanders into an inhabited part of the ship, she's met only with puzzled stares, because everyone else has been going about their business and hadn't even realized that something bad was happening to her.

In other words, pretty much everyone who watches Prometheus will find something about it that they dislike intensely, to the point that it ruins the film for them, and when those individual dislikes are fed into each other in fandom's crucible, the result is a critical mass of hate.  For me, Prometheus's core flaw is the way that the film's self-conscious and over-obvious attempts to recall Alien keep running up--and even playing up--Lindelof's obvious incomprehension of what made Alien work.  Prometheus opens on the image of a ship in space, and with an opening crawl that introduces that ship and its complement, and ends with the recorded message of that ship's sole survivor, an almost word-for-word recreation of Ripley's final message from Alien.  It has a female lead, and a menacing android character.  There is a scene in which a character refuses to let crewmembers aboard the ship because one of them is infected with an alien pathogen, and a false bottom ending in which our heroine arrives at the seeming safety of an escape pod only to find an Alien waiting there for her.  But everything is backwards, reversing what was interesting and appealing about the original film.  Shaw, as I've already said, is an unappealing character, absorbed with her quest to the exclusion of almost all other considerations until the awfulness of what she's discovered become inescapable (in other words, until it kills her boyfriend and impregnates her).  She seems more like Aliens's Burke than a Ripley.  The character who tries to stop the infected person from coming aboard is actually the one signposted throughout most of the film as a villain--Weyland Corporation's on-board representative, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron).  Despite which, she is the closest the film comes to a Riply character, being the only member of the crew to reject the fool's errand that her company has embarked upon, and hoping--as Ripley does in Aliens--that the expedition will be for naught.  Vickers is no heroine--she's infected with the same stupidity as the rest of the cast, and is in addition selfish and craven, lacking Ripley's compassion and moral authority (for those traits, we turn to Idris Elba's Captain Janek, who would be a shoe-in for the film's Ripley if he weren't even stupider than Shaw, massively underserved by the plot, and also a man)--but she's the only one with enough common sense to keep the infection off the ship (later, when she's off the bridge, Janek simply lets an infected--and, as he should well know, long dead--crewman on board, which dooms most of the crew) and the only one who distrusts David from the start, which makes her the easiest character in the film to sympathize with.  Unfortunately, the film ends by dropping a house--or rather a spaceship--on Vickers's head, as if to make it clear which of its final girls we're meant to root for.

Perhaps what's most annoying about the way that Prometheus misapprehends Alien is the use it makes of the Weyland Corporation.  In the Alien films, Weyland-Yutani was more of a villain than the Alien.  As Genevieve Valentine explains in her recent, excellent essay, the franchise begins because the corporation has embedded, deep within the computers of all its ships, a directive that declares its employees expendable in the face of the opportunity to capture an Alien specimen.  The fact that she is expendable is what dogs and dooms Ripley--and her crewmates, and the colonists of LV-426, and the marines who accompany Ripley there, and the prisoners on Fiorina 161--not the Alien, and even more than it, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation is faceless, inhuman, and ultimately unbeatable (there will always be more corporate officers, after all--you feed a Burke to the Alien, and a Bishop turns up to replace him).  In Prometheus, Weyland's impersonal, coldly calculating nature is replaced with a boatload of daddy issues.  The mission to LV-223 is a spiritual quest that the fiscal-minded Vickers considers a waste of time and manpower, and as we discover around the film's midpoint, its actual purpose is to bring the dying Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce under a ton of old age makeup) to beg for immortality from the Engineers.  Vickers, who turns out to be Weyland's daughter, and David, who calls Weyland "father," are both desperate for his approval and for the freedom that his death will grant them, which echoes in both the film's title and the discovery that humanity's parents have turned upon it and must be murdered lest they murder us.  As overheated as this theme is, what makes it even worse is how completely it defangs the franchise's most terrifying villain.

The story we've been told about Prometheus's inception is that it was originally envisioned as a prequel to Alien, then spun off into its own story, and then brought back to the franchise, but to me it feels that the truth must be the other way around--that the film was first an original story, and only then folded, rather inexpertly, into the Alien franchise, the joints and fittings still showing quite clearly.  Maybe that's why, despite its too-obvious echoing of the original film, Prometheus feels less like an homage to Alien, and more like a dark retelling of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The imagery of the film's opening scene--a shot of the Earth illuminated from behind by the sun--recalls 2001 so strongly that it is almost unnecessary to go on and see an Engineer kill himself--and possibly jump-start human evolution--at some distant point in our past.  David even makes more sense as HAL in android form--unlike Alien's Ash he, after all, has no directive to cause mayhem, but does so for his own inscrutable, perhaps insane reasons.  And, of course, the film's preoccupation with meeting aliens who uplifted humanity and learning their purpose for us echos with 2001 and 2010.  Unfortunately, reading Prometheus as a twisted retelling of 2001 is just as unsatisfying an approach as any other we might take towards the film.  The revelation that our alien parents are villains is trite, and tritely handled, and despite a few exceptions like David's scene in the control room (and despite the soundtrack breaking out the classical music at the slightest provocation) Prometheus doesn't even approach 2001's immersive audio-visual majesty.  Prometheus may not be the worst movie ever, and may not deserve the intensity of the scorn heaped upon it by fandom, but it is a waste--of money, talent, and not one but two iconic science fiction film franchises.  That, maybe, is something worth getting worked up over.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: The Black Opera by Mary Gentle

My review of Mary Gentle's The Black Opera appears today in Strange Horizons.  I've liked pretty much everything else I've read by Gentle, particularly 1610: A Sundial in a Grave, which The Black Opera resembles in several ways, so it was a particular disappointment to discover that her latest effort is a baggy, unconvincing exercise.  Better luck next time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

From the Horse's Mouth

A bit surprised that this hasn't had more play: in an interview with Empire last week, Neil Marshall--who directed the penultimate episode of the second season of Game of Thrones, "Blackwater"--has this to say on the subject of the show's use of nudity:
The weirdest part was when you have one of the exec producers leaning over your shoulder, going, "You can go full frontal, you know. This is television, you can do whatever you want! And do it! I urge you to do it!" So I was like, "Okay, well, you're the boss."

This particular exec took me to one side and said, "Look, I represent the pervert side of the audience, okay? Everybody else is the serious drama side. I represent the perv side of the audience, and I'm saying I want full frontal nudity in this scene." So you go ahead and do it.
(The original quote is in a podcast.  Here are two text reports, both of which seem quite cheerful about HBO courting the pervert demographic.)

Of course, this isn't really a surprise.  No one who watches Game of Thrones can have imagined that titillation was not at least a partial motivation for its copious scenes of nudity and sex.  And given the unattributed quote from a one-time director, a grain of salt might not be entirely out of order as well.  But it is something to have people involved with the show saying this--that young women are being asked to strip naked and simulate sex for the benefit of perverts.  If someone could explain the difference between that and soft-core porn, I would be very grateful.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Game of Thrones, Season 2

By a lot of conventional yardsticks, the second season of Game of Thrones is less successful than its first.  It lacks the commanding, gravitational figure of Ned Stark at its center, and the strong throughline of his investigation into the death of his predecessor as Hand of the King and the maiming of his son.  It's a more diffuse narrative, flitting between an ever-increasing number of locations and characters, and not properly a story at all.  Most of the season is spent laying the groundwork for a single battle in a war in which no side has a particularly strong claim on the audience's sympathies, and that battle turns out to be not only far from decisive, but perhaps not even very important in the grand scheme of things.  And yet it can't be denied that the second season of Game of Thrones is better and more engaging than the first, that over the course of its ten episodes the pull of its narrative, of the various clans warring for control of Westeros and the two forces massing against it in the East and the North, only grows stronger.  That as each episode, and finally the season finale, roll their credits one is increasingly consumed by the desire to know what happens next.

It's that impulse, I think, that is at the heart of Game of Thrones's success, and whose wholehearted embrace in its second season is the main reason that it outstrips its first.  I had an inkling of this already when I read the first book in George R.R. Martin's series, A Game of Thrones.  I disliked the book and was glad to see the end of it, but still when I turned the last page I felt a flicker of the desire to read the next book all the same--not because I thought Martin's prose or his characters would improve on me, but simply to know what was going to happen.  It's a soap opera impulse, a craving for pure, continuous narrative whose purpose is less to arrive at a single, fixed endpoint as it is simply to keep going.  This is not to say that Game of Thrones is a soap in the vein of Heroes, distracting viewers from the paucity of its story by delivering a constant barrage of twists and revelations.  On the contrary, the show is actually at its worst when it attempts these sorts of narrative tricks, handling them in a surprisingly ham-handed fashion--the "discovery," at the end of "The Prince of Winterfell," that the two corpses presented at the end of the previous episode, "A Man Without Honor," are not those of the two youngest Stark brothers, which the audience will surely have assumed anyway; the way that "Blackwater" ends with the question of whether Sansa Stark will accept the deserting Sandor Clegane's offer of escape from King's Landing under his protection, then resolves it in the most anticlimactic fashion in the next episode by cutting to her in the middle of a scene with a completely different topic to show that she hasn't left; worst of all, the way the season finale, "Valar Morghulis," seems to imply that the castle of Winterfell was sacked by twenty fleeing men while a liberating army of 500 stood outside and watched, but which, when one reads about the events of the books, turns out to have been intended as a cliffhanger for next season, which will resolve the mystery of who sacked Winterfell--a mystery so poorly established that most people watching the show without prior knowledge will not even be aware that it exists.

Game of Thrones's soap storylines work when they proceed logically and obviously from what came before, like a train track being laid down one tie after another.  Arguably the most stunning moment of the series, the execution of Ned Stark, is after all effective precisely because it proceeds so logically from what came before it--from Ned's naivete, from the viciousness and desperation of those arrayed against him, and from the sadism of the boy-king Joffrey, who holds Ned's life in his hands.  It's precisely the absence of a surprising, last-minute twist that makes this moment so powerful, allowing it to establish the kind of story that Game of Thrones is telling and the kind of world it is set in--one in which what happens next is interesting not so much because it is surprising, but because there are so many players and moving pieces in the system that, for all that each individual interaction usually proceeds along predictable lines, the cumulative effect is chaotic.

If you approach Game of Thrones as the story of the Starks and their travails, or the story of the war for the Iron Throne, or even the story of how Westeros was attacked by zombies, a lot of it seems baggy and beside the point.  What the first season of the show suggested, however, and the second has cemented, is that Game of Thrones is actually the story of its world, in which all of these stories, and many others, are happening.  By its nature, this is a story without purpose or end, one that can only diffuse rather than converge, which is why the second season often feels like a collection of digressions--Theon's betrayal or Robb and his conquest of Winterfell, Arya's stay at Harrenhall and encounter with the assassin Jaqen H'ghar, Catelyn's decision to send Brienne with Jamie to King's Landing and trade him for Arya and Sansa.  (This, by the way, is the reason that Jon and Daenerys's storylines this season fall so flat--because neither of these characters are suited to soap opera storytelling.  The deposed princess who has great power and the nameless orphan who might the world's last hope belong in purposeful stories with a definite endpoint--the kind that Game of Thrones can't, or at least can't yet, give them.)  When those digressions work, they are worthwhile in their own right--if Game of Thrones is a train ride, it's one best enjoyed for the scenery, not the destination--but the cumulative effect of watching the series not because one hopes to reach an ending, but simply to find out what happens next, is that the entire exercise can start to seem a little weightless.  Yes, season two was very exciting and engaging while we were watching it, but looking back, how much actually happened in it, and how much of that was actually important?

One way of counteracting this weightlessness is to use the show's many diverging and proliferating storylines to illustrate and elaborate its central themes--the corrupting influence of power, the inherent unfairness of a system that gives one group of people absolute power over another, against which the relative benevolence of one or another ruler is insignificant, and the cruel exploitation of women, in particular, in these kinds of hereditary patriarchies.  These are all themes that Game of Thrones hits repeatedly, but by the end of the second season that repetition reveals an uncomfortable truth--that the show doesn't really have much to say about any of these, actually quite self-evident, topics.  After a while, the constant barrage of examples of how it sucks to be a peasant, or a women, or a woman who is a peasant, in a feudal patriarchy, starts to seem less like driving home a point and more like misery porn (which, on this show, is often indistinguishable from regular porn).  The solution would be to focus the show's stories on its disadvantaged and disenfranchised characters, to make them people rather than receptacles for abuse and humiliation, but even when Game of Thrones gestures in this direction, it holds back.  In "The Old Gods and the New," there are two scenes in which child characters are gently rebuked for taking the loyalty of their servants, even under extreme circumstances, for granted.  When Theon takes Winterfell, Bran is shocked that the servant Osha offers Theon her service, despite the fact that Osha is a Wildling who only a few months ago was brought to Winterfell in chains by Bran's brother.  When Sansa exclaims to her handmaiden Shae that she hates Joffrey, Shae cautions her never to assume that a servant can be trusted implicitly.  But both servants do turn out to be loyal, to a self-sacrificing degree.  Osha is gaming Theon, and later prostitutes herself and risks her life in order to get Bran and his younger brother Rickon out of the captured Winterfell.  Shae not only keeps Sansa's thoughts about Joffrey to herself, but later goes to great lengths and almost compromises herself trying to keep the secret that Sansa has begun menstruating and is eligible to marry Joffrey.  For all that it keeps telling us that the game of thrones takes its heaviest toll on those who can't even play it, there is no instance of a servant or peasant character realizing this, or wondering why they should be expected to put themselves out, and even risk their lives, for the sake of the aristocratic main characters.

There's a similar schematic, dehumanizing impulse at work in the show's treatment of its female characters.  Though the second season proliferates these considerably, they eventually come to seem like markers on a spectrum, talking points in an argument that Game of Thrones is having about femininity, rather than people in their own right.  You've got women who step away from femininity entirely, like Brienne, Arya, and Yara; women who are outwardly feminine while rejecting the frivolous pursuits of those other, silly girls, like Talisa; women who, to varying degrees, take advantage of their sexuality in conjunction with other, less traditionally feminine skills, like Ygritte, Osha, Melisandre, and even Shae; and women who exist entirely in the feminine sphere, who operate and draw their power solely from their position as wives and mothers (or as potential wives and mothers).  In theory, such a broad spectrum should be an opening for a wide-ranging and interesting discussion, but as this post argues, many of these characters have suffered a considerable loss of agency in the transition from page to screen that seems aimed at denigrating the last of these groups, and with it, "girly" femininity, without ever stopping to consider how problematic such an approach is.  "Traditional" femininity's most prominent representative in the second season is the increasingly bitter and toxic Cersei, who spends the season's penultimate episode, "Blackwater," getting drunk and cracking jokes about how, if Stannis Baratheon's forces take King's Landing, the women hiding with her in the castle "will be in for a bit of a rape."  Women like Catelyn, who stands as Cersei's opposite in almost every respect, most of all in drawing her power from an almost de-sexualized, matronly demeanor, and Margaery Tyrell, who is only beginning the process of shopping for a good marriage and might have made an interesting third on a triangle whose other points are Cersei and Sansa, are sidelined almost entirely, which results in a season that ends up dividing its female characters into good and bad women, based almost entirely on how feminine and/or sexualized they are.

The only character who escapes this fate is Sansa.  It took me a while to embrace this, but Sansa has emerged as my favorite character of the season, and the only one whose story I felt interested in not because of what was happening in it but because of who it was happening to.  My reticence was rooted in the fact that for a sizable portion of the season it seemed that Sansa's purpose on the show was to suffer beautifully.  Her unattractive qualities from the first season--her childish selfishness, cowardice, and the wholehearted embrace of romantic fairy tales that leads her to ignore the grim reality of the family she's gleefully marrying into--are toned down considerably, and she's subjected to a host of abuses and humiliations--from being forced to view the severed head of her father by the boy who had it removed, to nearly being raped--which she endures with stoic equanimity.  But after a few episodes I realized that I found Sansa not just pitiable, but interesting.  One of the pitfalls of soap opera storytelling is that it flattens its character, who become compelling because of the things they do or that are done to them, not for their personalities, which remain static and obvious.  Sansa, on the other hand, is a deliberately opaque character.  Her life depends on seeming loyal and devoted to Joffrey, but for most of the season it's hard to tell where genuine devotion ends and performance begins.  Is Sansa truly naive, holding on to the princess stories she grew up with in the belief that they reflect reality, or is she playing innocent in order to seem harmless?  Is she consciously manipulating Joffrey, as when she persuades him not to kill a knight who has displeased him in the season premiere, or simply parroting ideas about courtly chivalry that happen to hit home?  Is she truly taking in Cersei's poisonous ideas about what it is to be a woman, or inwardly rejecting them?  Sansa's total commitment to the performance of docile, devoted femininity makes for a fascinating puzzle for the viewers, whose ultimate answer must be that she herself doesn't entirely know the answers.  (Sophie Turner should be commended for committing to that performance as well, only rarely allowing us to see beneath its surface.  It's a choice that makes for an unshowy--and at points almost unsympathetic--turn that might get her overlooked when the season's MVPs are tallied up, but she deserves kudos for her work.)  It also goes some way towards redeeming the season's otherwise schematic treatment of female characters, who on a meta level seem almost to be putting on a pageant for Sansa's benefit, as the only female on the show who hasn't decided what kind of woman she wants to be.

Unfortunately, the same can't be said of Tyrion.  Despite standing as the second season's closest equivalent to a lead character, Tyrion doesn't escape the flattening effect of soap opera storytelling.  He ostensibly has an arc over the course of the season, proving himself a canny political operator as Hand of the King, developing a taste for politics, and spearheading the defense of King's Landing against Stannis's forces--only to have all his power snatched away by his father and sister when the danger has passed.  The problem is that Game of Thrones is too in love with Tyrion, with his clever quips, sarcasm, and tendency to be the smartest guy in the room (not to mention his propensity for slapping the odious Joffrey).  There's not so much an arc or a progression to Tyrion's political acumen as there is the establishment, already in the season premiere, that he is much smarter and more capable than all the people he's dealing with.  His success feels like a forgone conclusion, which not only invalidates the idea of his having an arc, but makes the rest of the cast--particularly Tywin Lannister, who over the rest of the season is established as a shrewd person who doesn't suffer fools or incompetence--look stupid, both for discounting Tyrion before he becomes Hand, and for dismissing him after King's Landing is saved.

Of course, the reason that Tywin, Cersei, and so many others discount Tyrion is because he's a dwarf, but Game of Thrones's frustrating vagueness in depicting that prejudice undermines what should have been Tyrion's defining character arc--his discovery that all of the prejudices held against him are wrong, and that his realizing this doesn't make the people around him less likely to be prejudice against him.  In the world of Game of Thrones, Tyrion's dwarfism should class him as an un-person, someone who is only allowed to participate in society because he was fortunate enough to have been born to a rich, powerful family.  He should be subject to a constant barrage of abuse, both thoughtless and malicious, but instead almost everyone who meets Tyrion takes his condition entirely in stride.  Compare that absence of overt prejudice to the way that Brienne is casually humiliated by Stark soldiers in the season finale, even though she's a knight and they're common soldiers, just for being a woman.  Or the way that no one on the show is able to say as much as two sentences to or about Varys without making some scandalized, prurient reference to his missing genitals.  For a show whose depictions of misogyny and sexual violence are often justified on the grounds of "realism," this unrealistic absence is baffling, but even worse, it serves to neuter Tyrion's character.  Without a lifetime of overt prejudice to explain Tyrion's self-loathing and feelings of inferiority, we're left with the simple fact that the smartest, most capable character on the show (who is also played by its most charismatic actor) is treated like trash by everyone around him--including characters who are supposed to be smart themselves--and is at best half-hearted in protest of this abuse.  It's not convincing behavior, and it leaves Tyrion himself, and his slow growth towards greater self-esteem, feeling groundless.

Lacking either well-developed themes or--with the exception of Sansa--rounded characters, Game of Thrones falls into the pitfall of soap opera storytelling.  It is enormously, addictively, compulsively watchable, but also easily set aside.  Last night, when I finished watching the season finale, I wanted nothing more than for the story to continue.  Tonight I'm less eager.  Tomorrow I probably won't care.  This isn't a fatal flaw, to be certain--next year, when the third season starts, I'll surely be caught up and compelled to watch yet again.  But it's hard not to feel that Game of Thrones takes itself a little more seriously than is justified by the kind of story it's telling.  This isn't high drama, or a meaningful statement about history, fantasy, or the space between them (or if it the latter, then the statement has been made and is now simply being repeated with minor variations).  It's a story about beautiful, rich people squabbling over something that none of them deserve or could hold on to for very long, and no doubt setting themselves up for years--generations, maybe--of strife, betrayals, short-lived alliances, and strange bedfellows.  In other words, a soap opera.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Book Migration

Setting up my new apartment is a lengthy process, involving many cycles of shopping, positioning, evaluating, and making lists of what's still missing.  But possibly the most important part--the one without which I couldn't have felt properly moved in--was moving and arranging the books.

The first part took a while to accomplish, spread out over two weeks and several stages, and mostly taking advantage of my brother's limited free time and strong back.  Slowly, The piles of books started accumulating in my new place.

I spent most of yesterday sorting, forming teetering, alphabetized piles.

With more than 30 Discworld books, the letter P is the big winner of this construction project, though M (Miéville, Mitchel, McEwan, McDonald, Morgan), and C (Crowley, Chabon, Angela Carter) weren't far behind.  I, O, and U had only one representative each (The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, Morality Play by Barry Unsworth), and poor Q and X are entirely absent.

And the final result:

This is the first time in years that I've been able to see all my books properly organized, instead of shoving them on top and in front of one another.  It makes a nice change.  And yes, your eyes do not deceive you--that's empty shelf space at the bottom.  Something must be done.

(The final count, incidentally, comes to about 600--slightly less than I was expecting, actually.)