In Memory of Sir Terry Pratchett

It took me a while to get to this, so long that I figured I might as well hold off uploading it until the Glorious 25th of May (“Truth, Freedom, Justice, Reasonably Priced Love, and A Hard Boiled Egg”). When I posted my initial reaction to Sir Terry’s death on March 12, I promised a follow up to say just a little about what he, as an author, meant to me. And here we are.

I first got into reading his stuff over a decade ago, and I proceeded to drag the rest of my family into his orbit. I can’t tell you how many hours we spent reading the Discworld books and Good Omens, or listening to them on audiobook on long car trips. We got Hogfather on DVD when it came out (I found it not so much good or bad as kind of wonky, though with a terrific Susan—I enjoyed it, the rest of my family less so), and I even watched The Colour of Magic and Going Postal even though they were kind of bad (though I’d argue the latter had its merits). A couple of us even watched the animated Wyrd Sisters at one point (which also had its moments). So much joy and family bonding came of reading those books.

Terry Pratchett is, hands down, one of my favorite authors of all time. I can name only a handful of writers who could delight me and touch me as profoundly and consistently as Pratchett writing at his best. Heck, even most of his inferior works were well above my standard reading fare. After his death, my mother and I started reading A Blink of the Screen, the recently published anthology of his short stories, some of which were written in his early- and mid-teens, and even they are cracking good stories by and large, showcasing a command of humor far superior than I’ve managed to develop as an adult (and not for lack of trying). My literary world is greatly impoverished by his absence.

Heck, I’ve immersed myself in his works to such an extent over the years that it’s even influenced my speech patterns, (especially noticeable when it comes to my use of expletives).

And on top of all that, the sense I got both from reading his stories and from what I’ve picked up about him as a person is that he was, by and large, a very decent bloke. I believe he had some stances which I strongly disagree with, but I think he was at heart a good person, and to my knowledge he didn’t promote any outlooks which are actively horrible—not something I can say about all my favorite authors, sadly. Such a loss.

Here’s just one snippet of his writing, one of my many favorite funny quotes of his, from one of my favorite of his books, Hogfather:

The late (or at least severely delayed) Bergholt Stuttley Johnson was generally recognized as the worst inventor in the world, yet in a very specialized sense. Merely bad inventors made things that failed to operate. He wasn’t among these small fry. Any fool could make something that did absolutely nothing when you pressed the button. He scorned these fumble-fingered amateurs. Everything he built worked. It just didn’t do what it said on the box. If you wanted a small ground-to-air missile, you asked Johnson to design an ornamental fountain. It amounted to pretty much the same thing. But this never discouraged him, or the morbid curiosity of his clients. Music, landscape gardening, architecture—there was no start to his talents.

Many people have used the master’s own words to eulogize him, and why shouldn’t they, when he left such a wealth of good ones behind to choose from? I’d like to see somebody compile a list of the best ones, but for now, here’s my pick, another quote from Hogfather:

Susan: All right, I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need … fantasies to make life bearable.

Death: REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN.

Thank you, Terry, for making me and so many others that little bit more human.

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Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens first impressions

According to Entertainment Weekly, the Lucasfilm story group plans to release a slew of books, comic books, and other publications, chronicling the major events of the new continuity between Episode VI, Return of of the Jedi and Episode VII, The Force Awakens. This Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens will begin publishing in the fall.

Details in the EW article are sketchy, listing only a couple of titles and a handful of authors—it looks like the named ones will be writing YA. The only name I recognize from the list is Greg Rucka, whom I haven’t read, but I understand his run on Wonder Woman was highly regarded*. The only other thing I noticed about the concrete announcements is that it looks like we so far have three male writers and just one female writer confirmed. Hardly surprising, but discouraging nonetheless. Anyway, here’s what I think, given the preliminary nature of the information we have at present.

*Though as John Jackson Miller’s output attests, good comic book writing doesn’t necessarily equate to good novel writing. Not that his novels are terrible, they just can’t compete with his comics. (And yes, I know not everyone thinks Jackson Miller is that great a comic book writer, either, but I still do.)

You know, I was just wondering at the lack of book announcements coming out of Lucasfilm lately. I suppose I should have suspected something like this was in the works.

I find myself oddly conflicted about this development. I’ve already explained in detail why I, personally, am overall pleased with the decision to reclassify the former Expanded Universe as non-canon. So this should be no big deal, right? Why the trepidation?

Well, as I mentioned in the previous post, I’m still reluctant to let go of so many of my beloved stories from the New Republic era of the Expanded Universe, and more importantly, my favorite characters who debuted in that era. If they’re being retconned out in the context of a new movie trilogy unfolding before my eyes, and the story that trilogy tells is sufficiently compelling, that would soften the adjustment process. But if the first sight we get of the new continuity is in books and graphic novels—of which we’ve had plenty over the decade since the last trilogy ended—that’s a bit different.

Also, as I pointed out in the previous post, the sequel trilogy takes place more than three decades after the original films. If we started the new, EU-exclusionary continuity with The Force Awakens, we’d be free to imagine that anything which took place in the EU and isn’t directly contradicted by the films still happened more or less as originally written. Apart from elements like Mara Jade and the Solo children, that encompasses most of the New Republic era. Any necessary gaps could have been quietly back-filled in after the release of Force Awakens, when fans will hopefully be basking in the glow of a new Star Wars film. (I’m prepared to give Abrahms and crew the benefit of the doubt that that, at least, will be worthwhile.)

Instead, we get this. I was already steeling myself up to have my favorite characters erased, but to have all the great stories taken out along with them, and not even in the films proper, but in a bunch of spin-off media? I guess the Lucasfilm story group folks don’t believe in easing fans slowly into the new status quo. Perhaps they’re just that confident that the Journey to Force Awakens material will blow even the best New Republic era stories entirely out of the water. Forgive me if I take a more skeptical approach, at least until I’ve seen the finished products.

The one potentially hopeful possibility for me, which I almost don’t dare to type, is that Timothy Zahn has been brought on board as one of the writers for Journey to. That would be awesome. Granted, his Star Wars books have been of variable quality and none, in my opinion, have recaptured the heights he attained with the original Thrawn trilogy. On the other hand, I would contend that even his worst Star Wars material is head and shoulders above the best offerings of ~90% of the other authors who contributed to the old Expanded Universe*. More than that, he’s about the only Expanded Universe author whom I trust at this point to get what Star Wars means to me—perhaps because he played such a big role in shaping what it means to me with the Thrawn books all those years ago. If anyone can, he’d also find a way of slipping in favorites like Thrawn, Pellaeon, Karrde, and even some version of Mara. And most importantly, in the latter case, even if he takes her story in a wildly different direction than he did in the EU stories, Zahn can be trusted to write her in bloody character. (Yep, still sore about Legacy of the Force.) And if it was necessary to kill Mara off for the sake of a storyline, Zahn could probably find a way to give her an appropriate send-off, rather than the bullshit we got in Sacrifice. (Definitely still sore.) Even he couldn’t fit in the Solo children if that’s not in the sequel trilogy gameplan—as seems likely—but Zahn would still come closest to generating what I loved best from the New Republic era EU and deliver it in the form of a deeply engaging, fun, and exciting story.

*And Aaron Allston, perhaps the most prolific of the exceptions—when he’s not collaborating with Troy Denning—is sadly no longer with us.

(Also on the subject of writers for Journey to, please tell me Denning either isn’t involved, or at least has been relegated to low-key projects like Tatooine Ghost, which was a decent enough story.)

Like I said, I don’t quite dare to hope Zahn will be attached to this project, and even if he is, my mind can all too easily imagine scenarios where it still all falls apart. Given the general mediocrity of the books published in the lead-up to the Expanded Universe’s fading out, and the fact that from what I can tell, the folks who presided over that pile of unmitigated adequacy are still integral to the decision-making process, I have significant reservations about Journey to the Force Awakens.

Don’t get me wrong, even in my bleakest moments, I don’t expect a clusterf**k on the level of “Legacy of the Force.” Obviously, it could happen, but it would take an incredible amount of doing—I think the chances against it are pretty good. But I do worry that it’ll be a mess of bad stories on the order of, say, Scourge or Deceived, not-good stories like Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge, and some decent but forgettable stories like Kenobi, and maybe one or two pretty good but far from amazing, stories like A New Dawn. Admittedly, the old EU had of mediocre and outright bad stories, but it didn’t have another narrative of that period in Star Wars history to compare itself against. And the way nostalgia works is that the whole of the Journey to material is going to be compared against the best of the Old Republic era EU. Not fair, but that’s how it is. Even if most of Journey to is of similar quality to A New Dawn—which would be an accomplishment all on its own—it’s still not going to live up its competition for me.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that the Journey to folks have set a really high bar for themselves in order to win me over, and nothing I’ve seen so far gives me any reason to expect they’ll clear it. Overall, I’m still optimistic about the new continuity in the long run, but for the short term, I suspect I’m in for a lot of disappointment.

Peace out, everyone

Anakin Solo Day, thirteenth anniversary

So here we are yet again. Another year rolls around and—oh wait a minute, the entire Expanded Universe has been explicitly rendered non-canon. Well, that changes things, doesn’t it?

Overall, I’m pretty much in agreement with Nash on this move. I mean, ever since they announced they weren’t going to adapt one of the post Return of the Jedi novels, it was inevitable that whatever they come up with will be irreconcilable with so much of the EU that there’s no point trying to salvage it. Something like this was only to be expected.

(Granted, the details of exactly what is being retained and what is being discarded are interesting to consider, and the subject of some confusion. Nash, for instance, claims that everything Lucas had a hand in, including The Star Wars Holiday Special and the two live-action Ewoks films* remain in the new canon. However, the starwars.com announcement only specifies the six films, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars the animated TV show, and the folks at Wookieepedia, at least, are operating under the assumption that these are the only pre-2014 Star Wars media which remain in the new continuity.)

*The first of which, Caravan of Courage, I still have a soft spot for.

And keep in mind, both the prequel trilogy and the Clone Wars series have a habit of incorporating elements of the Expanded Universe into their canon, and the PR surrounding the new canon goes out of its way to suggest that this will continue. Granted, they’re prone to changing details such as the name of the Sith homeworld switching from Korriban to Moraband, or (and I’m a little surprised Nash didn’t bring this one up), the pronunciation of the second “c” in “Coruscant” going from hard to soft, despite not being followed by either an “e” or an “i.” But I’ve always been more impressed that they included stuff like Coruscant or the Nightsisters of Dathomir in the first place—not just EU easter eggs, but stuff which has a substantial impact on continuity.

So a lot of Expanded Universe material which doesn’t directly contradict the new continuity may yet find its way back into official canon. To take an example from Nash’s video which is also near and dear to my heart: Grand Admiral Thrawn. Sadly, the overwhelming likelihood is that we will never get a big screen adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy. However, the sequel trilogy takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, decades after Thrawn’s death in EU chronology. This being the case, nothing could be simpler than to have one of the characters in Episode VII mention Thrawn as a powerful enemy they defeated many years ago. For the EU fans, it cements Thrawn’s canonicity, and for those who don’t follow the EU it could serve as a bit of background flavor, like the references to the Clone Wars in the original trilogy, without need for further elaboration. Heck, you could throw in Joruus C’baoth at the same time, with the filmmakers no doubt dreaming up yet another way to pronounce his last name that contradicts what every previous narrator has come up with. And all it would take would be a single line of dialogue—nothing could be simpler.

Similarly, popular EU characters like Kyle Katarn and Corran Horn could get cameo roles, like Aayla Secura in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, or even just name drops like Quinlan Vos in Revenge of the Sith, and boom!, those characters are now established elements of movie canon. (And even if they don’t make it into the movies, EU writers who’ve been brought on to write books and comics in the new continuity could still include them.) A Wraith Squadron mention would be particularly welcome, in honor of the late Aaron Allston.

I’m not saying your favorite planet, species, supporting character, or cool piece of tech or worldbuilding is necessarily going to show up in the new canon, just that it’s entirely possible for that to happen.

Really, the only bit of EU lore which easily be brought into the new continuity this way are the post-Jedi storylines and a couple of the characters who have a direct bearing upon our main cast. In terms of storylines, as I’ve already pointed out, many of the New Republic era events can be assumed to have taken place in the past, without tying the filmmakers’ hands too much. And even if they are directly contradicted, as much as I love the EU, I find there isn’t any one storyline which I’m so invested in that I regard its loss as a mortal blow to the saga. (To explain: while I feel absence of the character of Grand Admiral Thrawn would be a major loss for the franchise, I wouldn’t mind in principle if the details of his campaign against our heroes and eventual defeat diverged wildly from Zahn’s original story, so long as they were equally compelling.)

And needless to say, I won’t be shedding any tears over the Legacy Era, books or comics. I know both have their fans, but if I can accept the potential loss of stories I actually enjoy—like the Knights of the Old Republic and Dawn of the Jedi comics—I’m certainly not going to bat for them.

That leaves us with a handful of characters who are, to be fair, some of the most important characters in the EU at present. First off, there’s Ben, whom I wanted to like, but his storyline in the Dark Nest trilogy was meh, his storyline in Legacy of the Force I actively despised, what I’ve read of his storyline in Fate of the Jedi I didn’t care for, and whose part in Lord Denning’s Crucible was back to meh. I know Zekk and Jagged Fel both have their fans, but personally, I find them both insufficiently interesting to serve as love interests for Jaina. Tahiri and Tenel Ka I like, and will be sorry to see them go, but not devastated.

Then we have the Solo children: Jaina, Jacen, and Anakin. Now, I’m a huge fan of Anakin and Jaina Solo, and a pretty big fan of Jacen Solo (from the New Republic and New Jedi Order eras, of course, not to be confused with the awful caricature seen in the Legacy era), and you’re damn right I’ll be sad to see them go. Of course, new main characters have been cast, and at least one of the younger ones is likely to be a daughter or son of Leia and Han. However, we’re unlikely to all three Solo children, and their personalities are apt to be completely different—heck, we’ve no particular reason to believe they’ll even have the same name(s).

And then, of course, there’s Mara. Even more than the Solo children, I grew up with the character of Mara Jade. My first exposure to Star Wars was the Thrawn trilogy on audiocassette before I’d seen the movies and before I’d learned to read—she’s always been as integral to what Star Wars means to me as Luke or Leia or Han or Darth Vader or the droids. And—aside from the fact that none of the three women who’ve been cast in new lead roles for Episode VII seem likely candidates to portray Mara—I don’t see how the filmmakers could include her without completely derailing the movie.

I mean, if they just give Luke a redheaded wife who, by the way, used to be a top agent for Emperor Palpatine, the non-EU viewers would be completely at all loss. You can’t just toss off something like that in a line of dialogue, it would have to be explored in the movie, which would then distract from whatever story the filmmakers are trying to tell. (Kind of like how they couldn’t resurrect Kirk Prime in Star Trek|| without making it a story about that Captain Kirk coming back, which was not the story J. J. Abrams and co. were there to tell.) It’s especially unlikely given my understanding that the sequel trilogy is supposed to be about the new cast, with the original trilogy characters playing supporting roles—adding in a whole character arc for a new love interest for one of the characters who isn’t even one of the main protagonists seems highly dubious.

Much as it pains me, and much as I still foster diminishing hopes that I’ll be proved wrong, I’ve always assumed that Mara is one aspect of the Expanded Universe who will not survive the transfer to the new continuity in any recognizable form. A couple months after the re-shuffle though, I had a horrible thought: I could potentially see the filmmakers mentioning that Luke had a redheaded wife named Mara who died—under tragic circumstances, of course—some time before the events of Episode VII. If the character in question isn’t there any more, there’s less of a need to delve into her and Luke’s backstory. This would be the worst of both possible worlds: she technically exists in the new continuity, but as a plot device to provide backstory (and a cliché one at that), without ever getting a chance to be a character in her own right.

Sometime later, a more palatable if still unsatisfactory option occurred to me: they might preserve Mara Jade pretty much as she was through the end of the Thrawn trilogy, and just drop the part where she hooks up with Luke ten years later. If she’s not directly tied to one of the major characters, then like Thrawn, Corran, and the others, she could just be a cameo or mentioned character without raising too many questions. Even her the part about her starting out wanting to kill Luke and working with him in the end could be brought up in passing as “just one of those things” if her role in the story is entirely incidental. While disappointing, this scenario is where most of my increasingly slim hopes for inducting Mara into the new continuity lie; this way, at least fans like me can console ourselves with the thought that she’s still out there somewhere being awesome.

By far the likeliest scenario, though, is that—bar Thrawn—none of my favorite Expanded Universe characters will make even token appearance in the sequel trilogy, and furthermore, that the events of the trilogy will negate the possibility of their ever existing in the new canon.

And you know something? If this were fifteen, even ten years ago, I’d probably be livid at having so many of my favorite Star Wars characters consigned to the memory hole like this. As I’ve said, I’ll be hugely disappointed to see my fears for them confirmed—but even assuming they are, this shift over to a new canon still comes to me as a profound relief.

The reason why is simple: up until practically the very last minute, the EU authors were still busily at work ruining those characters far beyond any damage rendering them non-canon could bring. Let’s run down the list shall we?

Anakin Solo: Ignobly killed off at age seventeen in New Jedi Order: Star by Star (published thirteen years ago today), just as he was embarking on two fantastic storylines: transformation from naïve kid to mature hero, and a really sweet romance with Tahiri. Death revisited in Legacy of the Force just to twist the knife a little bit more.

Mara Jade: Stuffed into the fridge in Legacy of the Force: Sacrifice to further Luke’s, Ben’s, and Darth Mary-Sue’s storylines, after having her character gutted of competence and relevance through much of Legacy of the Force and Dark Nest. (Rereading the part in Zahn’s Vision of the Future where Mara calls Luke on “not slapping down a tipped turbolaser like Kyp Durron the minute he started showing dark tendencies” is darkly hilarious when you consider how Dark Nest and the first half of Legacy of the Force portray her as happily oblivious to Darth Ego running around doing everything short of tying young women to train tracks while twirling his mustache and cackling madly to indicate his villainy.)

Jaina Solo: Spends New Jedi Order, Dark Nest, and Legacy of the Force playing second fiddle to her God-Moded twin brother (despite presumably having equal potential), and has to be trained by the karking Mandalorians to be a match for him. Heroically commits fratricide in Legacy of the Force: Invincible, after which point she, I guess, maybe starts getting the respect she deserves? I dunno, I never read Fate of the Jedi. The final book in EU chronology in which she appears depicts her as finally having earned the rank of Master, but goes out of its way to point out that some random (male) apprentice still has the potential to match her, and shows her to be complacent with Faux Skywalker’s jackbooted authoritarianism. Also, like I said, both of her love interests put me to sleep.

Jacen Solo: Killed off in Legacy of the Force: Invincible in the culmination of a painfully trite, unimaginative, and out-of-character “yet another descendant of Anakin Skywalker falls to the Dark Side” storyline that began all the way back in the middle of the Dark Nest trilogy, and involved him murdering quite a lot of sympathetic characters, Mara included, along the way.

Tahiri Veila: The writers don’t seem to have known what to do with her after the end of her character arc in New Jedi Order, other than angst over her dead boyfriend. So, turned evil in Legacy of the Force and then redeemed, but not before killing Gilad Pellaeon*, and apparently having sex with Darth Recycled Plot. Some shenanigans surrounding her crimes as the latter’s apprentice in Fate of the Jedi, and maybe hints at a possible romance between her and Ben Skywalker, as a substitute for Anakin, just for that little added glurge.

*Probably the character who came closest to a spot on my “absolute favorites” list without quite making the cut.

Tenel Ka: Almost completely sidelined after becoming Hapan Queen Mother in late New Jedi Order. Hooks up with Jacen and has a daughter with him, both of them then going on to serve as a plot device both for his fall to the Dark Side and kind of redemption at the end of Legacy of the Force. Sends her daughter away to be raised by Leia and Han afterward and, to my knowledge, plays no part whatsoever in later story events (though again, haven’t read Fate of the Jedi).

Ben Skywalker: No impression in Dark Nest, except for his trauma from events of New Jedi Order which doesn’t really seem to go anywhere, and dislike of lizards, which really doesn’t go anywhere. Annoying in Legacy of the Force without displaying any particularly awesome or heroic qualities, and his big character arc in the first half is learning that assassinating people and leaving people to die aren’t actually okay. Has an extremely … disturbing scene with Vestara Khai in the penultimate book of Fate of the Jedi, which people who’ve read the series and know more about these sorts of things than I do have compared to domestic abuse. Charming. No real impression in Crucible, either.

In other words, even among the surviving characters, their situations—and in many cases, their personalities—have been f*cked up beyond all recognition*, to the point where it’s very hard to see how you could realistically have a fun and engaging storyline for any of these people. And, of course, no question whatsoever of there being any fun and engaging future storylines for the dead ones. (You can still expand their backstories, but you can’t give them any further character development.)

*Which also applies to at least some of the movie characters, as well. Faux Skywalker, for sure.

And the thing is, fictional characters are not like people. Where their story ends casts a pall upon everything that’s come before in ways a person’s death doesn’t—or shouldn’t—upon the life that has preceded it. This is because the life of a fictional character is comprised of that character’s story, no less and no more, whereas the life of a real person can never be reduced down to just a story (or even many stories).

The early adventures of Mara, Anakin, Jaina, Jacen, and the others are all irrevocably poisoned by the knowledge that this is the shit they have to look forward to, this is where their stories ultimately lead. For fictional characters? Better never to have existed than to have that as the culmination of their stories.

So if rescuing them from that fate also means obliterating them from canon completely, I may be disappointed, but I’d still call that a bargain at octuple the cost. (Likewise, while I think it’s a shame not to get a big screen adaptation of the Thrawn trilogy, I’ll take that if it means we’re spared big screen adaptations of Star by Star and Legacy of the Force.)

For the past eight years, I’ve used the same sign-off for all my Star Wars related posts: “Bring back the Man Who Killed Ithor.” This was in reference to a line by Corran Horn at the end of the third New Jedi Order book: “If there ever comes a time when folks look forward to the return of the man who killed Ithor, well, we know that means the invasion is completely out of hand and things are truly beyond saving.” I took this comment referring to the invasion of the Star Wars Galaxy by the Yuuzhan Vong slaughtering populations and warping their planets into unrecognizable monstrosities and used it as a call-sign in reference to the invasion of the franchise by the grimdarks, slaughtering my favorite characters and warping their personalities into unrecognizable monstrosities.

But now, a day has come I never really thought I’d live to see. It may not have come in quite the way I would have preferred, but the ruination of the characters and stories I grew up with and loved so dearly in the mid- to late-90s has now definitively been rendered non-canon. There will be no more Anakin Solo Day posts, or Jacen Solo Day, or Mara Jade Skywalker Day—none of that applies anymore. So, long, Man Who Killed Ithor, your services will no longer be necessary.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Abrams and the other filmmakers will take the franchise in an equally bad, if not worse direction (from seeing Abrams’ two Star Trek reboot films, I have fears for the presentation of race and gender), but until that actually happens, this is still a potential win, which I’ll accept for the time being.

For the first time in over a decade, the future of the Star Wars universe is looking bright to me again.

See you in ~14 months when Episode VII comes out. For now, peace out, and remember: The Force will be with you, always.

Film reflection: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1

This is going to be a lot more confused than most of my other reviews, especially for someone who has neither seen the movie nor read the books.

In his “Bum Review” of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1,” Doug Walker (a.k.a. “That Guy With The Glasses”) said “’Harry Potter’ was good, but dude, lighten up.” This assessment was exactly 50% correct.

If I were to to sum up all one-hundred-and-forty-seven minutes of this movie in fewer than twenty-five words, it would go like this:

angst, angst, filler, filler, teen drama, filler, melodrama, teen melodrama, filler, filler, angst, filler, filler, filler, filler, filler, melodrama, angst, whoops—movie over.

Now for those observations (spoiler, duh):

– Bill Nighy makes Rufus Scrimgeour look like a relic of the Rolling Stones, or maybe Monty Python.

– Hermione memory-zapping her parents: starting right off with the angst to set the tone for the rest of the movie.

– Voldemort’s little Council of Doom. I think I’ll call him and Bellatrix “No Hair” and “Awful Hair” respectively.

– No Hair is also probably the least scary-looking movie villain I think I have ever seen. Ever.

– Do you really have to bore me discussing the minutiae of Lucious Malfoy’s wand?

– Bill Weasley (whose face was disfigured in the book) appears to have suffered the same scar-reduction process as Doctor Saunders from Dollhouse. Too bad. A heavily scarred face might’ve given him a greater illusion of personality.

– The Death Eaters identify Harry via Hedwig this time? Makes more sense than that “signature spell” crap from the book.

– Do we really need a two-minute sequence of the nWo breaking into the Ministry via the bathrooms? Really? (Also, long lines of people walking into a bathroom, into the stalls, and not coming out again isn’t the least suspicious.)

Archancellor, er, I mean Minister Thicknesse makes a speech, promising to “restore this temple of tolerance” (paraphrased) when he and the Death Eaters take over the Ministry. I find it hilariously fitting to hear Rowling’s weak-tea liberal (“liberal” here used in the same sense as “Love Me, I’m A Liberal”) “tolerance” rhetoric in the mouth of a villain. I suppose it’s supposed to be ironic, but to me the irony is that it exposes how empty and vapid this “tolerance” discourse so often is.

– The actor playing the person Hermione’s impersonating looks chronically constipated. The one for Harry moves like an automaton and has a default facial expression of one mildly concussed—pretty damn good casting, actually.

– I thought the movie makers might decide the Epic Camping Sequence was beneath even them. I thought wrong. Very wrong. This is where a significant amount of the “filler” part comes in.

– Any time you’d like to have something happen, movie. Any time at all.

– Seriously, any time you’d care to have something happen.

– Ron is jealous of Harry and Hermione—God, this was annoying enough in the book.

– And now the scene where Ron has his momentary attack of sanity, and essentially tells Harry: “this is completely and totally stupid, the only hope we have is to be saved by authorial fiat” and storms off. Yeah, if you were expecting this movie’s plot to make any more sense than the books, I suggest you make an appointment to have your head examined.

– Wait, now Harry and Hermione are dancing? Where the feck did that come from? Now the movie’s generating its own brand new filler.

– Even the visit to Godric’s Hollow feels like filler. Even the snake fight feels like filler. That’s a really bad sign.

– The movie makers did change the whole snake-jumping-out-of-Bathilda’s-neck sequence—apparently, there were a couple things from the book too ridiculous for this movie. (Wonder what they’ll do with the Snape-killed-by-snake-in-giant-magic-hamster-wheel sequence for the next film.)

– Ron’s return and Harry’s dive for the sword, exactly as stupid as in the books. Though I suppose with the advantage for those who dig guys of Daniel Radcliffe stripping to his underwear.

– Speaking of fanservice, Naked (or at least Topless) Harry and Hermione making out in Voldemort’s vision-mist. I’m not sure whether to burst out laughing or cock my head to the side and assume a “say what?” expression.

– I’d thought the movie makers might find some way to condense the Tale of the Deathly Hallows to the essential points. I was mistaken. Though that video game CGI the story takes place in really is hilarious. I suppose at this point I should give the movie some slight props for not loading us down with any of the other fictional documents from the book to pad out its filler quota even further.

– At last, the nWo captured by the Snatchers; at last maybe something will happen now.

– In the book, Wormtail’s metal hand kills him after Harry reminds him about the whole “I saved your life” thing, ensuring the buildup in book 3 had absolutely no payoff whatsoever. Here, Dobby knocks Wormtail out, so maybe they’ll be some actual payoff in Movie 7 Part 2? Probably not, but I can hope.

– Cut to Dobby frantically unscrewing the chandelier and dropping it almost right on top of Awful Hair—easily the coolest moment in the movie; and it wasn’t all that cool.

Awful Hair: How dare you defy your master?
Dobby: Dobby has no master. Dobby is a free elf, and Dobby has come to save Harry Potter and his friends! [actual 4Kids Warner Brothers dialogue]

– You know, if Awful Hair had just thrown the knife into the center of Dobby’s teleportation mist or whatever-the-hell that was, it would’ve been cool. The drawn-out slow-mo and waiting around until the people had vanished and the knife should—had continuity not taken an extremely convenient coffee break—have passed right through it instead of vanishing along with it is just stupid.

– But yes, the knife does enter the transportation mist and gets lodged in Dobby’s chest. Dobby collapses into Harry’s arms

Harry: [insert generic exclamation of denial/grief here]
Dobby: But … at least it was a good speech was it not, Harry Potter?
Harry: Actually, no. It was pretty awful.
Dobby: Oh bugger. [*dies*]
Grand Admiral Thrawn: But it was so artistically done.
Harry: Dude, it totally wasn’t; it was probably the most ridiculous and stupid character death I think I’ve ever seen, and I’m friggin’ Harry Potter for Merlin’s sake.
Grand Admiral Thrawn: Yes, on second thought, I was wrong, it was shite.

– Seriously, was anyone even a little upset by the death of the two-scene non-wonder? I mean, I know they were, I’ve seen the comments but … really guys? Really?

– For the big finish, No Hair nicks the Elder Wand from Dumbeldore’s final resting place and goes all “I am the prince of all Sayans once again,” setting off an unimpressive green light show in the sky. I’m shivering in boots. What’s he going to do, sic his plastic surgeon on me?

In summation, there were a couple good jokes and decent bits (like the chandelier), but for the most part, it’s just one looooong string of nothing happening, punctuated by bouts of angst.

Adventures in Middle Earth

Back in 2012, ptolemaeus and I were studying in Europe over the winter holidays, and were therefore unable to participate in our family tradition of recent years of the four of us and our mother going to the movies on Christmas day. This year, however, we were all back, and there was only ever one possible choice for what movie we would go to: The Desolation of Smaug was in theaters and we were right there.

For this reflection piece, I’m going to follow the format I established with the previous Hobbit film, and the same warnings and disclaimers apply, including that I will thoroughly spoil both the movie and the book (the latter material containing inevitable spoilers for the final film).

Right, that out of the way, let’s see what we thought of the movie.

– We managed to catch this one in 2d, much to my relief, though I’ve heard that Lawrence has said that this is the movie where Jackson learned how to use a 3d camera.

– Movie opens with a flashback to a few months before the quest: a conversation in an inn between Gandalf and Thorin. During this sequence, we learn that in this version, the real goal of the quest is to unite the seven dwarf kingdoms behind the rightful King Under the Mountain. Only to establish said King’s authority, they need the Arkenstone … and to retrieve the Arkenstone from Smaug’s horde, they need a burglar. Clearly, the reason for the quest and Bilbo’s presence on it in the book did not jive with what Peter Jackson was going for with the films, and this alternate reasoning to suit the movie’s storyline is pretty solid.

– Also, bonus points for fitting the Arkenstone into the bigger picture. In film logic, it wouldn’t make sense for Thorin to bring it up spontaneously as he does in the book.

– Also, also, seven dwarf kingdoms, “seven [rings] for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone.” Not sure if that tidbit was Jackson’s invention or Tolkien’s, but its inclusion in the film like this is well judged.

Desolation gives us our first proper introduction to Azog’s son Bolg, the Final Boss of the Battle of Five Armies in the book. Azog himself fades mostly into the background in this film, appearing only as the commander of Sauron’s forces during the necromancer subplot. At this point, I can’t see why Jackson needed a second orc captain in this trilogy—presumably, Azog is destined to fall when the White Council ousts Sauron from Dol Guldur, but I can’t see why we need an orc leader for that sequence.

– One serious deviation (as opposed to expansion) from the book which becomes obvious early on is that Bilbo’s use of the ring is severely toned down. I can only assume this is to play up the ring’s nature as an Artifact of Doom, but it still comes off as incongruous.

– The changes made in this movie are a mixed bag, but one clear success is the way Jackson handles the spiders’ conversation. Having them just be able to use human(oid) speech as they do in the book would again, clash with the tone of the films. So he incorporates Bilbo’s ability to understand the spiders into one of the effects of wearing the ring, which makes sense given what the films have established regarding the ring up to that point.

– Another addition which works really well (despite or perhaps because of the fact that it doesn’t appear to be necessary) and adds a disproportionately large amount of depth is the terrible burns from dragon fire on Thranduil’s face, hidden for all but a brief moment with some sort of illusion.

– The movie blows through the episode with Beorn, the party’s desperate wandering through Mirkwood, the battle with the spiders, and the party’s capture and incarceration by the wood elves pretty quickly. It’s a legitimate move, but it means we miss out on a lot of great scenes involving Beorn and the atmosphere in Mirkwood. The way Tolkien described it in the book, that forest was downright creepy, and even without the spiders and the wood elves, just navigating the damn place was an adventure all to itself, and I would’ve liked to see how that whole sequence could play out on the big screen.

– We get a lot of foreshadowing in this installment, and it’s to Jackson and company’s credit that they are able to find creative ways to set up important plot points for the future, including the Arkenstone, the tendency of the treasure to corrupt its’ owner with greed and Thorin’s susceptibility to corruption, and the vulnerable spot in Smaug’s armor. (While I appreciate giving the origin of the hole in the armor, why did they have to throw in that stuff about “windlance crossbows” and special black arrows which are the only things that can pierce a dragon’s hide? What was wrong with just a really good shot from a normal bow with a lucky arrow?)

– To my everlasting joy, the Seventh Doctor is back as Radagast, Gandalf’s fellow wizard and basically sidekick in this movie. Sure, he contributes nothing to the film other than as foil for Gandalf so that the latter isn’t forced into the undignified position of expositing at the scenery—but he’s still crazy awesome.

– And I love this exchange from when Gandalf is preparing to infiltrate Dol Guldur (paraphrased, obviously):

Gandalf: I sense Saruman.
Radagast: I sense a trap.
Gandalf: Well, duh.
Radagast: Next move?
Gandalf: Spring the trap.

– Gandalf tells Radagast to go back for help, and not under any circumstances to follow after him, in a scene strongly reminiscent of similar conversations the latter had with Ace back in the 80s. We get no signs in this movie that Ace’s behavior has rubbed off on her dear Professor, but I’m hoping the third one will have him busting into the fortress and blasting Gandalf out of the cage he’s stuck in at the end of Desolation—preferably with C4. All right, so that’s probably not going to happen, especially the part about the C4, but hey, a guy can dream, can’t he?

– On the subject of Gandalf and Radagast Investigates, ptolemaeus and KorraWP were wisely sitting away from me in the theater—they don’t like how much I talk during movies—so I know less about what they were up to during the viewing, but I can tell you they were rocking out during the exploration of the tomb of the Nazghul. Another scene which probably could have been summarized in a line of dialogue, but was just too cool to ditch.

– I only heard about this afterward, but apparently, when Sauron first manifests himself to Gandalf, Korra exclaimed: “Surprise, bitch! Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.” Which is the most appropriate comment on that scene I can think of.

– Also afterward, ptolemaeus revealed that when Sauron is attacking Gandalf with his shadow-tentacles and the latter is defending himself with an expanding and contracting sphere of white light—all she could think of while watching that scene was Dragonball Z.

– Switching back to the main party, in the scene where Tauriel talks to Kili while he’s in the wood elves’ lockup, he says that any non-dwarf who touches his lucky stone will be forever cursed (though implies he might be kidding)—foreshadowing or just relationship development?

– When I first saw the trailer for Desolation, I had Tauriel marked down as a dead elf walking. In the theater, I dubbed that initial scene between her and Kili the beginning of a romance between “the two deadest characters in this film.” But looking back, my biggest reason for writing off Tauriel’s chances for survival in the first place was that the trailer really played up the romantic angle between her and Legolas, and since there’s no mention of Legolas having a redheaded girlfriend in the LotR trilogy, the most obvious explanation is that she died in the meantime.

– Thing is, Tauriel’s story in this movie is not a romance with Legolas; it isn’t even—as some people on the internet have inexplicably suggested—a Love Triangle with Legolas and Kili. There’s a bit of unrequited romantic affection on Legolas’ part which motivates him to help her out even when it means risking his dad’s ire, and massive quantities of fully requited romantic attraction between Tauriel and Kili.

– Yes, the major romantic interest in this trilogy is between a dwarf and an elf. I’m sure Tolkien diehards are up in arms, but seriously guys, grow up already. Tolkien’s material is great, but it’s not sacrosanct, and the Tauriel/Kili romance is incredibly cute. (Indeed, it’s now the thing ptolemaeus cares about most in the trilogy, and about the only thing Korra cares about.) I think the important thing to look at is not how well this subplot jives with Tolkien’s somewhat crotchety sensibilities, but at how it works in this particular retelling—and from that angle, I think it’s clear Jackson and company have done a terrific job.

– Although I do have to wonder: what does he see in her anyway? It’s easy to see what she finds physically appealing in Kili—a.k.a. “the hot dwarf”—but while Tauriel is plenty good looking by elf or human standards, I have to question how desirable she looks from a dwarf perspective. Especially considering we’ve already had a joke about bearded dwarf women a bare ten minutes earlier.

– As for the character of Tauriel herself, she is, in a word, awesome. The amounts of orc and spider ass she kicks in this film have to be seen to be believed, and among the elf characters, she’s the one to express the most sympathy with the dwarfs and the Hobbit, to the point of running off to heal Kili when she realizes he’s been poisoned.

– Okay, so first she saves Kili from one of the spiders. Then she shoots down an orc that was attacking him on the bridge during the Barrel Escape sequence (“That’s two you owe me, kid.”) And finally, she visits him in Lake-town and heals him from the poison on an orc arrow. She saves his life three times over in this movie. Not. Bad.

– She also saves Legolas’ life in easily the greatest shot of the entire film, by shooting an orc arrow out of the air with her own arrow.

– As for Legolas, ptolemaeus pointed out afterward that his role in Desolation is the traditionally female sidekick part to Tauriel’s stereotypically male action hero. All he does in this movie is trail around after her being helpful and basically doing what he’s told. (Okay, so he also pines away for her a little bit, and has a few arguments with his dad, neither of which really undermine my point.) Oh and he’s a prince while she’s a commoner, so there’s that, too.

– Legolas also has the biggest single Idiot Ball moment of the entire movie towards the end. He’s fighting the orc raiding party in Lake-town, spots Bolg twenty yards in front of him, and forgetting he has his bow right there on his back strides forward to engage the boss orc in melee combat.

– I’m not even sure what the point of the fight between Legolas and Bolg was, anyway. If it had any sort of plot or character significance, it was lost on me.

– In terms of Legolas and Tauriel—it would have been so great if, during the Barrel Escape action sequence, they’d played the “comparing our kills” game from The Two Towers. Though, as I believe ptolemaeus pointed, out, that could’ve been tragic if Tauriel does die after all in the final film.

– Speaking of the Barrel Escape, that turned out to be the best action scene of the film, what with the ridiculous levels of stunts the dwarfs pull while traveling down the river, juxtaposed with the elves fighting the orcs along the river bank. Kili’s big scene of pulling the lever to open the gates and allow the dwarfs and Bilbo to escape despite his leg injury was an inspired addition.

– Next we get Lake-town, a very well-realized location. It’s a new kind of setting for Jackson and co., and they do a great job.

– In the book, the Master of Lake-town was a short-sighted and small-minded man, looking out only for his own interest, and needless to say, he and Bard did not see eye-to-eye (to the extent they interacted at all, which was hardly). In the movie, however, the Master has been upgraded to a full-blown plutocrat, plundering the public coffers and practically cackling as he counts his ill-gotten wealth, and fearful that Bard—heir to the ruler of Dale—could become the leader of a popular uprising against his rule.

– Now, in principle, I’m all for exploring class struggle in fictional settings, including Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. But one of the last things I ever would have expected to see in a Hobbit movie is an honest-to-Iluvatar Occupy Wall Street analogy, and it fits into the setting about as well as a hippo in a gymnastics competition.

– Though Jackson, at least—unlike Christopher Nolan—had the grace to make his OWS stand-ins the good guys.

– The Master, incidentally, is played by Stephen Fry in scraggly light brown hair and a cartoonish pair of mustaches—just right for twirling—and a goatee. In that get-up, I must confess that Noria figured out who he was before I did.

– Fry, you may recall, played Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. And the trilogy already has Freeman and Cumberbatch on board—now Jackson just needs to bring in whoever played Moriarty on Elementary for the third film to get the modern Holmes trifecta. Bonus points for working in Hugh Laurie somewhere, too.

– A major piece of dramatic irony during the Lake-town sequence is Thorin’s vow to the people to restore the riches of Dale to them. Insert joke about campaign promises here.

– Amazingly, Bard the Bowman not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Will Turner, but manages to look even more like him than Legolas. (And now I’m imagining Legolas receiving second prize in a Will Turner lookalike competition and going, “Wait, that can’t be right, I never lose.”)

– In my opinion, the inclusion of Tauriel doesn’t quite make up for the gender stereotyped helplessness of Bard’s daughters when the orcs attack, especially when son Bain gets a more proactive (if minor) role in the drama.

– ptolemaues is of the opinion that they should have made Bard and his family black. Given Bard’s characterization, I worried this might end up stereotyping him as an Angry Black Man—to which she sensibly replied that the solution is to cast more characters as black people. Can’t argue with that logic.

– Korra also remarked that she’d really like to see more stories set in a world exactly like Tolkien’s, just more racially diverse.

– I know that in Jackson’s version of Middle-earth, Bard talking to a thrush would feel disconcertingly out of place, so I can see why he changed it to have the family already know about the hole in Smaug’s armor, rather than having a little bird tell him. But still, this revision cuts out Bilbo’s role in identifying the hole to then be communicated to Bard via the thrush, and I think that’s a shame.

– After getting teased for it in the first movie, we finally see Smaug in all his glory for this one. And on the whole, the dragon’s special effects are great, though ptolemaeus thought his face was weird—a bit too humanoid.

– Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice work is also terrific, like a mix between Megatron and the Smaug from the animated Hobbit film.

– As a matter of fact, they managed to make Smaug so compelling that Noria admitted she’s going to be sad when the heroes kill him in the next movie.

– The big climactic chase sequence, with Bilbo and the dwarfs playing tag with Smaug all through the mountain, before driving him off with a buttload of molten lava, is exciting and all, but it takes too bloody long. It doesn’t further the plot or characters or themes at all, it’s just there to be flashy—it succeeds at that, but it’s massively self-indulgent. I was fine with the pacing of the rest of the film—and I’m sure many people weren’t—but that sequence really bogged down.

– As with the rest of the film, the discovery of the secret entrance into the Lonely Mountain, Bilbo’s conversation with Smaug, the dwarves’ role in the Lonely Mountain heist, and the whole chase sequence at the end, have been changed significantly from how they went down in the book. And again, while the changes aren’t actively bad on the whole, I don’t see that most of them were necessary, or made the movie particularly better.

– Speaking of the conversation with Smaug and making significant changes from the text:

Smaug: Well, thief! Where are you?
Bilbo: Hang on; Holmes, is that you? But that’s impossible! You’re dead. I saw you die.
Smaug: Watson? What are you doing stealing my treasure?
Bilbo: Your treasure? Holmes, what’s happened to you? Last I saw you, you were getting blood all over the nice London pavement, and now here you are all 70-feet-long, wearing a load of bright-red scales, sleeping on a great big heap of gold, and breathing fire, I think if anyone has explaining to do around here, it’s you. What happened?
Smaug: It’s a long story.
Bilbo: Oh, try again.
Smaug: And what about you, Watson? What are you doing in my mountain, stealing my treasure, reeking of dwarf and unwashed clothes, and why can’t I see you?
Bilbo: *sigh* It’s a long story …

(Okay, okay, I know I really should let it go, but seriously, I want someone to make a video of the scene between Smaug and Bilbo, with lines dubbed in from Sherlock. Because that would be hilarious. Make it so, internet!)

– In one case, at least, the changes do the film a disservice, by making part of Smaug’s characterization incomprehensible. In the book, he failed to catch Bilbo, and couldn’t find the dwarves, so he blasted at them with fire and then flew off to burn down Lake-town. In the film, right in the middle of chasing Bilbo and the dwarves, he up and decides to attack Lake-town on a whim, because that’ll show them. Then he stops when Thorin arrives and waits politely for the latter to dump a shit-ton of molten gold on him. When that completely fails to stop or slow Smaug, he reverts immediately back to the previous plan, forgoing his chance to take out Bilbo, Thorin, and at least some of the other dwarves while they’re standing right there, practically begging to be incinerated. Tip to filmmakers: your villain is less threatening if he has the approximate attention span of a kitten with a laser pointer.

– Speaking of incomprehensible logic, though, what on Middle-Earth made Thorin think that molten gold would be an effective weapon to use against a frickin’ dragon?

– Closing out the movie with Smaug just on the verge of beginning his attack on Lake-town—most gratuitous cliffhanger ending in the series, and remember how some of the previous movies ended.

– Ed Sheehan’s “I See Fire” played over the credits was a bit of a jolt. In the previous four movies, the songs have all sounded appropriate to the world of Middle-Earth, but “I See Fire” struck me as way too modern, especially towards the end.

– Speaking of music, ptolemaeus pointed out the absence of any songs within the movie itself. After a bit of thought, I concluded this is in keeping with the more serious tone of the film overall. Still, it’s kind of baffling, especially since a rewatch of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy soon afterward reminded me how much singing there actually is, even in the more serious second and third installments.

– When you tot them up, there are an awful lot of calls forward to “Lord of the Rings” in this movie. They include: Gandalf’s “You shall not pass” scene with the Necromancer; Tauriel’s rhetorical question to Legolas, “Are we not part of this world?” as justification for venturing out of Mirkwood to fight the evil that’s abroad; Bard’s injunction (in reference to the black arrow) to “keep it secret, keep it safe”; Bain’s response to Bofur’s urgent request for medicine, “King’s foil? Ah, ’tis a weed”; Kili’s fevered assertion (to Tauriel) that his meeting with her “was just a dream”; and of course, Tauriel shooting the arrow with Legolas’ name on it out of the air, hearkening back to Aragorn batting a thrown dagger out of the air in the climax of Fellowship.

– Even more so than the previous film, in Desolation you can see Jackson and co. hard at work shifting plot elements around to bring it more in line with that of “Lord of the Rings.” The efforts to tie the dragon, the orcs, and the necromancer together into a single overarching threat rather than three disparate foes being one of the most obvious examples.

– To be fair, Tolkien prefigured this behavior by re-writing “Riddles in the Dark” to get the characters of Gollum and the ring more in line with what he envisioned for the sequel trilogy. However, I’m not sure how well these drastic exchanges work overall.

– To give you some idea (though in my mind, a slightly exaggerated one) of how drastic those changes were, virtually the first words out of my mother’s mouth once the credits rolled were to remark that she was hard pressed to find the source material in there at all.

And that was The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. As a film, it’s probably better than its predecessor, in no small part because it has so much more of the book’s plot to get through, and additions such as the Tauriel-Kili romance and bizarre OWS subplot deepen the story rather than primarily being filler. The running battle with Smaug in the Lonely Mountain is blatantly filler, but that still puts this one ahead of Unexpected Journey.

 

Again, though, I am far and away from being in a position to judge either movie fairly on their own merits. I loved both of them to pieces, and I have no doubt I’ll feel anything but the same for the third movie, There and Back Again.*

*Though I do have to question Jackson’s judgment in giving the most exciting title in the trilogy to the middle installment.

To be concluded …

Movie reflection: Doctor Who: The TV Movie/The Enemy Within

Trapped on Earth and newly regenerated, the Doctor (Paul McGann) sets out to close the Eye of Harmony before it swallows the whole planet. Meanwhile, the Master (Eric Roberts), also on Earth, goes on the hunt, seeking to steal his old rival’s body and all his remaining regenerations.

Fifteen years after its initial broadcast, the Doctor Who TV movie—also know as The Enemy Within—was finally made available on DVD in the United States a couple years ago. Needless to say, I lost little time in ordering it from the library and watching it with my mother, KorraWP, and Noria, (ptolemaeus wasn’t interested).

I went into this movie with pretty low expectations. I’d read the synopsis and some analysis of the movie some time ago, and it sounded pretty bad. Then I sat down to watch it and it wasn’t that bad. Not great, but fairly good.

The plot is uninspired, illogical, silly, and dependent on massive coincidences. (For example: the Doctor needs an atomic clock—oh look, the local TV news just happened to announce that the city he just happened to land his TARDIS in just happens to be hosting the world’s most advanced atomic clock which just happens to have its grand opening today. And to top it off, the Doctor’s companion for this outing just happens to be on the Board of Trustees for the San Francisco Institute of Technological Advancement and Research where the atomic clock is being unveiled). The TV movie is stupid fun, no doubt, but a lot of Doctor Who is stupid fun. Heck, I sat through four years of Russell T Davies—compared to that, the TV movie is nothing special.

In fact, let’s dwell on that comparison a moment, shall we? Both the new show and the TV movie often take themselves too seriously, and both are melodramatic, but the new show delivers melodrama by trying to pass off ludicrous and emotionally manipulative material as Serious Drama, whereas the movie delivers melodrama because over-the-top hijinks are fun. Only twice does the movie go for Serious Drama—and admittedly, the results in the first scene are about as tedious as most of the Serious Drama in the new show, while the second is so contrived and unsubtle in its symbolism as to attain new heights of Narm.

A lot of this comes down to a matter of personal taste, but for me a fun, pulpy adventure story without all the extraneous angst Davies and Moffat have stuffed into the new show comes as a breath of fresh air. Which is not to say that angst and real drama have no place in Doctor Who, just that for my money, it does better without those elements than when they’re overemphasized (see, for example: “Last of the Time Lords,” “The End of Time,” “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and McGann’s TV mini-episode, “The Night of the Doctor”).

Maybe it’s the vantage of fifteen years and seven seasons of the new show (plus the fact that I’d read the spoilers), but I also wasn’t bothered by all the continuity issues which threw fans into a rage way back when. Oh, the Doctor is half-human, that’s pretty stupid but ehn, life goes on. Oh, the Daleks are letting the Doctor on Skaro now? Oh well, they’ll be sorting each other out again soon enough. Oh, the console room’s all different? Well, it changes again between Eight and Nine, and again between Ten and Eleven*. Oh, the Doctor’s snogging his companion now—honestly, I doubt this would’ve bothered me even before the innumerable romance arcs of the Eccleston-Tennant-Smith era.

*And incidentally, the Victorian-themed console room—complete with working fireplace if I recall correctly? Pretty fly.

And I really like the way all this material comes up off-handedly—in keeping with the general trend of the movie not wallowing in Serious Drama. If this were the new show, there would be dark hints and ridiculously cryptic clues about the Doctor’s “true nature” for one-to-three seasons, and the revelation would come with a great narrative crescendo. Whereas in the movie, the Master opens the Eye of Harmony and basically says “The Doctor is half human, how interesting,” within the first half hour.

Then there’s the scene at the San Francisco Institute, where the Doctor and Grace Holloway (Daphne Ashbrook) have been ambushed by the atomic clock’s creator just as they are plotting to steal it. The creator insistently asks the Doctor to reveal his “big secret,” so the Doctor pulls him aside and confides: “I’m half human. On my mother’s side.” F*** you, that’s hilarious.

Like I said, the TV movie is stupid fun, but it is quite fun. Paul McGann plays a suitably eccentric Doctor—I knew I was in good hands when he interrupted a line of exposition on the impending death of the Earth to exclaim, “Grace! These shoes fit perfectly!”

As far as the Master goes, I have to disagree with Nash of Radio Dead Air. Eric Roberts’ acting may be bad, but he’s still entertaining as hell, especially when he has one of the other three main characters—The Doctor, Grace, or Chang Lee (Yee Jee Tso)—to play off of.

Grace Holloway and Chang Lee are not the most memorable or inventive of Doctor Who guest stars, but they’re sufficiently active and likable to help carry the story. Likable enough to provoke some sense of sorrow when they die*; and happiness when they’re resurrected. Nash scoffed at this—and it’s the sort of thing the Nostalgia Critic regularly mocks as well—but personally, I’m good with it. I had a safe and happy childhood, and even I don’t need TV to tell me that in real life, when people die they stay dead. Besides, despite the best efforts of Davies and Moffat and the like, Doctor Who is not the right medium for making profound statements about death, and it hasn’t been for a very long time, if ever. It’s a medium for fun, silly adventures, it’s what Doctor Who does best, and that spirit is undermined when sympathetic characters get Killed Off For Reals**. Again, campy adventure wins over foolhardy attempts at Serious Drama.

*And without all the tedious emotional manipulation and general angst the new show trots out whenever it kills off a character—or pretends it’s going to.
**Also known as the Vector Prime-Star by Star-Legacy of the Force Syndrome.

It’s fun just to sit back and watch as the Doctor dashes madcap about San Francisco with his astonished companion in tow; while the Master bods about deceiving Chang, menacing the Doctor, and sounding remarkably like George Clooney. (Yes, George Clooney.) It’s all so endearingly silly, and you’ve got to love the gag with the motorcycle cop accidentally driving through the TARDIS door, and you can hear the cop drive a very long way before turning around and driving right back out again. Heck, even Nash appreciated that one. (It was probably the inspiration for Clara riding a motorcycle right into the TARDIS in the 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor.”)

So yeah, to sum up: cute film, definitely worth a look.

Not Exactly Arthur Conan Doyle

In the summer of 2009, I found myself in a movie theater (all right, two movie theaters) waiting to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. My parents, bless them, were still into the series somewhat, and I found it bearable for the snarking, so I went along.

So there I am, sitting through the previews and—oh my god, what the hell is that?

It was a trailer for what purported to be a live-action movie starring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved character, that master detective, Sherlock Holmes.

I say “purporting” because all through the preview I was listing in my head the things which were horribly, atrociously wrong: Sherlock Holmes played by the very American Robert Downey Jr.; Holmes in a sexual tension subplot with a woman; Holmes acting in general like a boorish, hedonistic cad; gratuitous generic action sequences; Holmes solving problems through violence with a distinct lack of observation and deduction; floating women in white and other indicators of a supernatural element; oh, and at the end of the preview, Watson punches Holmes. Watson’s not supposed to do that.

In short my mind quickly filed the whole movie under Things to Be Avoided Like the Plague and that would have been the end of it. However, ptolemaeus also saw the trailer, and while she agreed the movie would be bad, she was convinced it would be So Bad Its Good.

Come the 2009 winter holidays, she was so excited about Sherlock Holmes that our mom and I conspired to take her and our two sisters to the opening show Christmas Day. Even I became excited, figuring I would snark all the way through the movie and give it a devastating write-up. On the way to the theater, all we could talk about was how awful the movie was going to be.

We went into the movie and to my complete astonishment, it didn’t suck. What’s more it was actually good. It was great.

From the trailer, I had expected a derivative Hollywood adaptation which throws out practically all the source material except the names of the characters and some of the trappings in favor of a generic sex-and-violence caper.

What I got instead was … well, let’s take it from the top.

Spoilers. Natch.

The Eponymous Hero

Robert Downey Jr. certainly brings a new interpretation to Holmes, and I feel like there was a certain amount of Hollywood wrongheadedness about his performance.

In A Scandal in Bohemia, Conan Doyle describes Holmes thusly:

All emotions, and that one [love] particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.

Downey’s Holmes, by contrast, is highly emotional. Churlish, excitable, susceptible to petty goading, jealous of Watson’s relationship with Mary, and strongly attracted to Irene Adler, in direct opposition to Conan Doyle’s assertion that “It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler.”

Furthermore, while Conan Doyle’s Holmes is always cool, collected, and at least a dozen steps ahead of the audience, Downey’s is constantly behind the curve, and having to catch up. Where Conan Doyle’s Holmes is sophisticated, Downey’s is coarser, grungier, much quicker to get his hands dirty.

What the trailer completely left out was that he’s also analytical, observant, and in fact solves most of his problems through intelligence, creativity and even planning. The violence is certainly played up, but it’s fairly well grounded in the Holmesian canon and does not, in fact, overshadow the logic and deduction.

Holmes’ nigh-clairvoyant ability to analyze people and situations through small and often obscure details and his use of disguises* are prominently displayed, and far from being throw-away features to provide a vague nod in the general direction of the original canon, they are integral to the story. He observes and deducts his way through most of the plot, and the dramatic climax is notably not for his duel with the villain atop Tower Bridge, but his subsequent summation of the case.

*You can spot the first use of a disguise when Irene Adler’s mysterious associate pulls a gun on a nosy stranger—had said stranger truly been an extra, he’d have been shot dead rather than let off with a warning.

Whilst in the theater I remarked that the screenwriters must’ve arrived at this version of Holmes by reading the CliffNotes Doyle and then filled in the rest after an extended House marathon. Now that I think about it though, Downey’s Holmes is more reminiscent of Captain Jack Sparrow; more vulnerable and fallible than Conan Doyle’s version, but always with at least one card up his sleeve—even if it is sometimes mere improvisation.

There’s a part in the trailer where Watson exclaims “Holmes, does your depravity know no bounds?” to which Holmes replies “No.” The trailer insinuated Holmes was coming off a grossly out-of-character night of drink and debauchery, but in context it referred to Holmes paying off a fortuneteller to convince Watson that his marriage to Mary would be a nightmare, which makes somewhat more sense.

Even the romance with Irene Adler is more palatable in context. While Downey’s Holmes is not the woman-hater of the original canon, he’s closer to it than the lecherous skirt-chaser depicted in the trailer. His attraction to Irene and hers to him is clearly grounded in their mutual respect for each others’ professional talents.

A romance budding between criminal and investigator is a well-established dramatic trope, and at times Holmes’ and Irene’s relationship verged on the cliché, but on the whole I think the filmmakers pulled it off rather well.

A Brit might take issue with Downey’s accent, but I confess I quickly learned to stop worrying and just love the performance. I’m also reliably informed that, for those whose orientation swings that way, Downey’s Holmes is pretty hot stuff, which certainly doesn’t hurt.

Irene Adler

Contrary to the impression made by the trailer, Rachel McAdams spends the majority of this movie fully clothed. She does employ seduction against Holmes, but it’s clearly only one tool in her bag of tricks, and not even the primary one.* She also comes equipped with a small arsenal of miniature weapons, impressive combat skills, and a flair for improvisation which nearly matches Holmes’ own.

*In fact, a reviewing of the movie trailers makes it clear that the film cut an additional scene of Irene in lingerie and acting seductive, meaning the film’s editor actually toned down the sexual objectification for the theatrical release.

Mind you, I don’t see the Irene Adler of the film defeating Holmes. For all her smarts and all her skill, Irene nearly gets herself killed twice by the villain and has to be saved by Holmes, and spends the bulk of the movie under the thumb of the Man in Shadow. She comports herself well and pulls some neat tricks, but I don’t think she lived up to her reputation. Shame.

Of course, I shouldn’t give her too much grief for pulling a Gwen Stacy Maneuver. Just as the romance side plot for the (male) main character is obligatory for any modern American action film, it is equally mandatory either to kill off the female love interest or to fake same.

Still, Rachel McAdams is a great actor and, for those of us whose orientation swings the other way, very attractive, too. Apropos of nothing, I also noticed halfway through the movie that she has two freckles on her neck which look amusingly like vampire bite marks.

Watson

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, because I’m sure Jude Law delivered a fine performance, and his Watson was competent, proactive, and funny, but I find I don’t have a whole lot to say about him. For me, Downey’s Holmes, McAdams’ Irene Adler and even Mark Strong as the villainous Lord Blackwood rather stole the show.

Oh, on second thought, I suppose I could point out that Law plays up Watson’s military background, as part of the whole action movie motif (more on that later).

And it turns out the punching-Holmes-in-the-face incident, as well as the scene where Watson angrily lists Holmes’ flaws are both in response to Holmes’ continued meddling in Watson’s love life. It’s not quite the relationship Conan Doyle portrayed, but then, neither were Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. The point is that where the trailer had me expecting a highly adversarial relationship between Watson and Holmes of the type Dark Lords would do well to fear, what I got was a strong friendship of great mutual respect occasionally punctuated by open conflict—which to me is entirely in keeping with the Holmesian tradition.

There’s also all the lovely gay subtext (bordering on supratext) between Watson and Holmes. I don’t really have much to say about this, except, I guess, “have fun, guys.”

Mary Morstan also has a role, but only as a plot device to generate (sexual) tension between Holmes and Watson. Hopefully, the sequel will give her a more substantial role.

The Villains

The main antagonist of this movie is Lord Blackwood, played by Mark Strong. Blackwood is not a hereditary lord, as we learn midway through the film that he’s the illegitimate son of some bigwig or other who just so happens also to be the leader of a secret society of mystics similar to the Illuminati. You know the drill, clandestine rituals involving knives and goblets, long robes and pentagrams, bones and hair, ominous biblical quotes, rinse and repeat.

Blackwood, is, of course, a practitioner of black magic, and is, of course—though never referred to as such—also Jack the Ripper. The murdered sex workers were a means of gathering power for his real goal, which is, you guessed it: take over the world. Say it with me now:

 

The movie opens with Holmes and Watson foiling the suicide of Victim #6—clearly under Blackwood’s influence—and Blackwood’s arrest. However, Blackwood is not terribly put out by being jailed, as it apparently allows him to put his real plan in motion. Blackwood is hanged, buried, busts out of his grave, then kills his father and takes over the Fauxminati. With their assistance, he plans to show Guy Fawkes how it’s done and wipe out Parliament—except for his own followers—leaving him in control of the Empire.

Needless to say, our heroes have other ideas. Blackwood’s device is disarmed and Blackwood himself, pursuing Holmes and Irene to the top of the half-constructed Tower Bridge, falls off the bridge with a chain wrapped around his neck.

Not the most memorable movie villain out there, but the relative originality of his plan and the way it unfolds put him—and the plot—well above standard action movie fair. The fact that his ultimate goal is not patently obvious from the first ten minutes speaks volumes for the plot, and Blackwood’s part in it. On the other hand, I gotta knock a few points off for the lazy “empire to last a thousand years” reference.

Blackwood is aided in his duplicitous affairs by Lord Coward of the Home Office, a high-ranking member of the Fauxmenati. From the moment I clapped eyes on him, I thought Coward looked familiar, but a perusal of Hans Matheson’s IMDB page failed to ring any bells, so perhaps I imagined it. This illusion did make Coward a more interesting character for me, and I note that he survived the movie unscathed and apparently a free man. I hope this means we’ll see more of him in the sequel.

Last we have the Man in Shadow, who employs Irene Adler and carries a miniature gun in a spring-loaded holster. At first, when Blackwood talked of greater things afoot than himself and Holmes, I thought perhaps Blackwood was just the lieutenant—“the channel,” as he identifies himself—and the MIS would prove to be the man behind the man.

It soon became clear that Blackwood was indeed the main villain and, more significantly, that he and the MIS were working somewhat at cross-purposes. With that cleared up, pegging the MIS as Professor Moriarty was elementary.

Moriarity’s involvement in the plot is probably one of the most interesting aspects of the entire movie. I daresay the filmmakers never would have gotten away with it if they weren’t writing an established character in an established fictional universe. Apart from controlling Irene Adler, Moriarity’s role is tangential to the main plot and very much behind the scenes. Fortunately, Moriarity’s reputation does the filmmakers’ work for them, allowing them to add an extra layer of significance to the story and culminating in a satisfyingly clever little sequel hook. It was a gutsy move on their part, including Moriarity in the film purely to lay the groundwork for an uncertain sequel, but as far as I’m concerned, it more than paid off.

Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

This is one of the few parts where the trailer was not entirely misleading. The filmmakers have significantly beefed up the fight scenes in Sherlock Holmes, because the only way an American movie can be a success in the 00s is if it’s an action movie.

While the fight scenes do not exactly say “Sherlock Holmes,” they do not detract from the essential detective story nature of the film, so I’ll forgive them.

Towards the end of the trailer, Holmes is confronted with a Giant Mook wielding a comparably sized hammer. He reaches for a weapon and picks up a perfectly ordinary hammer, which looks puny in comparison. Cue a split-second of “comic” consternation as Holmes contemplates the situation, then throws the hammer, which bounces off his opponent’s chest.

When I first saw this sequence in the theater, cringing in my seat and reflecting that after this, Harry Potter would be a relief, I thought ‘Great, so now on top of everything else he’s freaking Inspector Clouseau?’

Then came the movie and what did I see? Holmes calculating the moves in a fight and identifying weak points on his opponent before the first punch has been thrown. We get treated to a similar sequence a bit later on, when Holmes is in a boxing match played out to the surprisingly apt tune of The Rocky Road to Dublin. Of course, both fights go precisely as predicted.

This is not like anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever wrote, but it’s a reasonable extension of the canon; we may imagine this is how Holmes would comport himself in a fight. In his fight with the giant Dredger he displays ingenuity and strong tactical thinking in no small measure. This degenerates by the halfway point, but given the vast amount of truly Holmesian thinking displayed throughout the rest of the movie, I’m prepared to overlook one mindless action sequence.

For reasons which remain unclear, Holmes, Watson and practically everyone else in this movie seem to be practitioners of some strange Western martial arts discipline, which is a little jarring. One wonders why they so often resort to fisticuffs rather than firearms; presumably it’s because they know that with the way they shoot when they do resort to firearms, they’ll get better results by simply whomping on their opponents.

More Things on Heaven and Earth

Among the many disservices the trailer afforded me and the movie was to portray the existence of the supernatural in this film as a done deal. Women levitate off of alters, Lord Blackwood rises from the grave, you better start believing in ghost stories, Mr. Holmes; you’re in one.

When the movie opened with Holmes and Watson foiling Blackwood’s ritual (which pointedly did not feature Victim #6 levitating), ptolemaeus confidently whispered to me that all the supernatural stuff would turn out to be a red herring. I had my doubts for a while, but as with most of her other predictions, this one proved spot-on.

Oh, the last shot of Lord Blackwood (whose final paperwork will no doubt read “Cause of Death: Poetic Justice”), and the ubiquitous crow (there’s always a bloody crow) are a clear tip of the hat to the notion of forces at work beyond our understanding. But it’s vague and not necessarily supernatural at all, whereas the specifics of black magic and ritual and humans harnessing occult forces to do things like levitate young women or boil a man alive or set another man on fire or come back from being hanged* are all debunked in the Summing Up scene. (Actually, the whole levitation thing wasn’t explained, because it never occurred in the movie itself. Make of that what you will.)

*This one likely would’ve been more impressive had Terry Pratchett not pulled a similar trick five years earlier.

I had slightly different worries when Blackwood started talking about “three more deaths” which Holmes must accept he can do nothing about. Fortunately, while Holmes indeed fails prevent the deaths, there’s no angsting about fighting fate or any of that nonsense, no agonizing about whether or not he’ll be able to prevent the prophesied fatalities when we all knew quite well he wouldn’t—in short, no yanking our chains by proffering the illusion that he might actually be able to save even one of them. The Magic Three dropped off the radar completely, only coming back ex post facto, which is probably the right way to handle deaths foretold if you absolutely must have them.

However, once you take the supernatural aspect out, you have to wonder why Blackwood specified Holmes would be unable to prevent the three deaths, but said nothing about the massacre in Parliament (which, of course, he does prevent)—or, for that matter, how Blackwood knew the American ambassador would try to shoot him and where. In hindsight, the “three more deaths” line sounds more like the filmmakers appropriating Blackwood as a mouthpiece to tell the audience what the next hour-and-a-half is going to look like, rather than Blackwood telling Holmes his plans, which seems a rather odd creative decision to me.

Style, Style, Style

This is probably the one section of the review where I don’t disparage the trailer.

The movie’s editors employed many interesting tricks for this movie, such as Holmes thinking out a fight in slow motion, followed by the fight itself in fast motion, or the sound dampening utilized when the slaughterhouse is torn apart by explosions. The use of flashbacks coupled with subtle optical cues to draw the viewers’ attention to a certain detail should be familiar to anyone who’s seen a modern mystery movie/show (Psych, for example), but the filmmakers took this trope and made it their own. As a result, Sherlock Holmes ends up a stylistically unique movie experience

In Conclusion, I Accuse …

If I were to condense this review to one short paragraph it would probably go something like this:

The trailer to Sherlock Holmes sucks royally and totally misrepresents the movie, which is actually very good and appreciably faithful to the Holmesian canon and style. It’s not Conan Doyle—any more than Rathbone and Bruce were—but a worthy adaptation in its own right, and well worth checking out.

Stay tuned for my review of the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which I’ll get around to posting eventually.