Sunday, 21 June 2015

Doctor Who Books Read and Heard, Part 18!

This post: novel treats from the eras of the 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th Doctors – and all of them in the form of short stories. 
A note on order.  Target Originals are not read in order of publication (which was all over the place), but in order of each Doctor, and each Doctor is read in order of their stories broadcast on TV.  However, I jump about in terms of which Doctor I read at any given time.  The Virgin New Adventures for Sylvester will be read in order; as will the BBC 8th Doctor series (as though they had been on TV, see?  I’m trying to get an arc flavour).  The BBC Past Doctors series and the Virgin Missing Adventures are simply read in terms of which one I fancy next, as they are stand alone adventures slotting in-between the TV ones.
Oh, and in case you forgot, I’ve taken to recording which books I read that are actual paper copies, and which are Kindle or other electronic.  I’m being social historical for my own benefit. I want to see how long it is before I just plug books straight into my brain, how many years before I’m a reading cyborg.

As always with these rambly reviews: OFTEN LARGE SPOILERS ON ALL BOOKS IMMINENT!!!!

1.    Doctor Who: Short Trips no.28 – Indefinable Magic, by Various, edited by Neil Corry (Big Finish Short Story Book Collection)
(This was a very pleasing collection to read.  Right from the 1st story, by James Goss, about sentient books going around altering reality to fit their contents, even if those contents were fantasy.  “There’s nothing more dangerous than a book with ideas”, says the 8th Doctor.  Very wry, and nicely played in tone, this story.  The collection had lots of moments of lovely idea expression, like this one: “I would call it something else.  I would examine it, establish its properties and then call it something else.  I would not call it magic, sir” [says the 1st Doctor, can you tell?!]  “…because to call it magic is to turn your back on logic and reason and basic curiosity about the universe.” [- From Eddie Robson’s ‘The Power Supply’.]  That told those people! 

I am going to have trouble keeping this ramble anywhere near succinct, as most of the stories here had something lovely about them, something thought provoking.  Highlights are: Ian Farrington’s ‘Favourite Star’, which was a clever tale about false horoscopes and friendship; Matthew James’ ‘A Hiccup in Time’ which was partially about doing laser eye surgery on Henry VIII.   ‘Shamans’ by Steve Lyons had Leela investigating table tapping via the Fox Sisters.  ‘The Fall of the Druids’ by David N. Smith had the best usage of Kamelion I have yet read; especially when paired with the marvellously self preservatory Turlough.  Simon Guerrier’s ‘Pass It On’ had an especially lovely and evocative first section, with a clever narrative style that I wanted to try and do myself at some point. ‘The Science of Magic’ by Michael Rees has a complicated fantastical magical creature invasion scenario, involving Pertwee and the Brigadier and Liz Shaw. ‘Hello Goodbye’ by Jim Sangster is short and sweet, about the Doctor leaving UNIT, and in which the absence of “any goo to analyse” is mourned.

‘Trial by Fire’ by Mike Amberry has the 6th Dr and Evelyn only just escaping burning at the stake by the Inquisition; a very nice twist on a city of disappeared people.  ‘What Has Happened to the Magic of Dr Who?’ by Gareth Roberts goes through the whole book, parts here and there.  In letter form.  Very funny complaints from viewers of each era as to what is wrong with the current Doctor compared to the one before.  Exhaustive and correct.

Lastly, ‘Blessed Are the Peacemakers’ by Caleb Woodbridge, in which one of the cardinal arguments of religion vs. any other way of thinking is well put:
“It is truth, absolute truth, and every world must know it.”
“If it’s so certain, why don’t you try to convince people by sitting down and chatting to them about it, hmm?” [says 4th Dr.]
“That’s all you offer, Doctor – uncertainty and ignorance.  What kind of freedom is that?”  [replies invading, certain entity.]
…What indeed?  This is a great collection about the magic of Dr Who, the idea of magic as advanced science, the idea of magic as itself, and some other bits between.  Thoroughly enjoyable.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
2.   Doctor Who: Short Trips, no. 23 – Defining Patterns, by Various, edited by Ian Farrington (Big Finish Short Story Collection)
(Hmm.  Now this felt like it should have been a great collection, all about the butterfly effect, and actions causing far distant unforeseen consequences or the patterns you can see throughout events – or that only the Doctor can see…But it didn’t read well, to me, at all.  Threaded through the whole book is a story of the Doctor and some new UNIT companions in 1957.  This story is supposed to be a pattern in itself, reaching a twisty conclusion in the last story.  I won’t spoiler the end of that continuing thread, because I didn’t think it was very good but someone else might, so I don’t want to ruin it for them.  I found it a predictable end, coming on the heels of some stories that were ambiguous and opaque in the wrong ways, boring ways.

The stories I did like were ‘Time and Tide’ by Neil Corry, where the 7th and Ace save some people from a large illusion; interestingly written.  ‘Losing the Audience’ by Mat Coward had a small section warning against seeing patterns when probability is concerned, that had a good point.  ‘Séance, or Smoking is Highly Addictive, Don’t Start’, by John Davies had a nice message of taking life and holding onto it, even when other people die around you.  ‘The Celestial Harmony Engine’ by Ian Briggs was good, in a very strange overblown romance novel sort of way.

Simon Guerrier’s ‘The Great Escapes’ has Lucie Miller trying and failing to escape a situation many times; the story ends with her about to be executed – the Doctor has not come.  Steven Savile’s ‘Loose Change’ is a nice circular story about the adventure of a coin.  Its symmetry pleased me.  John Dorney’s ‘Lepidoptery for Beginners’ contained the lovely line: “sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from nonsense”, which I often agree with when tired.  Clever little story.

I found this beyond patchy.  Despite the recurring pattern story they were setting up here, many of the stories read simply as excerpts, as unfinished. They read unsatisfying.  Comparing it to the very high quality of the one before…puzzled.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
3.   Doctor Who: Vanderdeken’s Children, by Christopher Bulis (BBC Eighth Doctor Adventures)
(This one was an interesting story.  It started off very slowly, and I had troubles getting hooked.  Then it became a sort of scifi story like Alien, when a crew are exploring a spaceship and finding strange puzzles and mysteries – and grisly murders.  So like a sort of Crystal Maze, but violent.  [And lacking the incomparable Richard O’ Brien.]  Then I became interested.  It also had the extra element that the abandoned ship on which these mysteries are taking place has been discovered simultaneously by two nations who hate each other and are at a sort of perpetual military readiness for standoff; both want the ship as salvage.  One is a cruise liner, with civilians that may get hurt.  Both cultures of people are very different.  This leads to allsorts of varied and likeable/ pleasantly annoying sub characters, most of whom get growth if they are not killed.  In the meantime, the Doctor and Sam are trying to solve the puzzle of what the hell is going on, at the same time as trying to prevent an all-out war that will end either or both civilisations.  This all does sound like a mish mash of several different films, but it doesn’t matter, as it’s written engagingly and plausibly.  I enjoyed it, both as a semi horror, a thriller and simply as a good mystery.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
4.   Doctor Who: Timelash, by Glen McCoy (Target Original)
(6th Doctor.  Ehem.  Am I the only one out here who enjoyed both the TV version of Timelash, and thence, also the book?!  Is it really only me?  It was of course, especially interesting once the illustrious Herbert appears, and I did like the spoiler discovery of who he was at the end, it gave me a smile.  I am not one who will criticise the plain sets of the original TV outing, their beige boxiness.  I definitely will not criticise Paul Darrow [ever], and I loved the Richard III haircut, which I did miss seeing in the book, and I had trouble remembering how well he delivered his sibilant lines, so his character to read, was not so interesting.  I imagined with slightly more gusto, the timelash itself and the Borad’s use of it to dispose of mostly anyone.  So I made my own small mental improvements.  But mostly, this is one of those stories where I am perfectly happy with the original and the book doesn’t deviate much at all.  The only thing I would say about the book was that Glen McCoy has a bit of a strange writing style, some odd word orderings within his sentences.  But I am a fine one to talk of such, hmm?  So we’ll let it pass!  ACTUAL BOOK.)
5.   Doctor Who: And the Web of Fear, by Terrance Dicks (Target Original)
(2nd Doctor.  Now.  I understand that [a] this is one of many people’s favourite stories ever, and since we only got it back recently in its fullness, they love it even more.  And [b], it’s not one of my favourite stories on TV at all.  I felt it dragged a bit, with an overpadded middle, and I got a bit bored waiting for the Great Intelligence to reveal who it was hiding within.  I also got fed up with the military stereotypes of the time: the doughty Sergeant, the cowardly Welshman etc etc, yawn. 

Oddly, I didn’t find this a problem in the book at all.  I found it flowed much better, I couldn’t see the actors making their annoying dated expressions.  I liked several of the subsidiary characters more, and I felt Victoria in particular was less of a contrivance for shifty plot balancing and filling in time, and more of an actual person with plausible reasonings to her actions.  Of course, the one thing the book could not re-create was the joy of those marvellous underground Tube sets, and the atmosphere of menace; or the lovely sound-effect of the web being spun.  Or that infamous and nicely shot battle scene [I love the Brigadier…though obviously, he’s yet to become one].  I’d say this is one of the better Terrance Dicks ones, for not losing nuance of dialogue etc – he does tend to cut out a lot of the banter of the Tom Baker stories, which ruins one of their great strengths, and several companion characterisations.  But here, he did well, I thought.  ACTUAL BOOK.) 
6.   Doctor Who: Rags, by Mick Lewis (BBC Past Doctors Adventures)
(3rd Doctor.  This was a difficult one.  In one sense, it’s almost purely a nasty horror of the kind Shaun Hutson or early James Herbert used to write: its dirty, unkind, menacing, deeply violent and very unsettling – it makes its readers wonder at how much baseness they possess and what would make it come out.

Another factor is that this is basically about class hatred and division, and I read it during the General Election just gone [May 2015], which made it especially piquant [a word I think I have *never* used before].  Being about class divides, resentments and deeply held hatreds, bitterness etc – it obviously had to be the third and most Establishment Doctor, for this story – he was always going to be the number one choice.  That being the case, the oddest thing about this story was that despite the spot on characterisation, the Doctor is barely in this book.  Jo Grant features heavily, and the undoing of her character is a painful thing to read.  The Doctor foolishly leaves her in the danger zone of influence of the strange punk band of class hatred, laying waste by means of mind control through music, to many rich or upper class people its entourage [ever growing] comes across.  Jo is susceptible and she succumbs.  She doesn’t do violence, but she very nearly does, and the reversal of her relationship with the Doctor is sad to read.

It’s not explained why some people simply don’t feel the music’s malign influence, namely Mike Yates [yay, always happy to read Yates], since Benton and even the Brigadier aren’t immune, except that Benton gets a sort of military version and ends up wanting to discipline his own class of people, whereas the Brigadier ends up feeling very murderous towards what we could variate and call Hippy Scum.  I always think, in these stories, you need to be extremely careful how much you mess with the characters of recurring or main players.  Hence Yates comes off ok, as he basically gets to stay himself and be almost the last reasonable person standing in a bloodbath; whereas Jo practically loses her mind with only flashes of lucidity within hatred…and the Doctor, after spending most of the story playing catch up is brought to his knees by the creature himself and gets lost for about 3 chapters more.  Risky and I’m not sure entirely successful.

As a horror this works fine: it’s questioning of society and very unpleasant.  As a horror with the Doctor, I wouldn’t say it works as well as Mark Morris’s Deep Blue, say, but it’s stuck with me.  I want a wash.  For a horror, this is a good thing.  For a Doctor Who novel?  Not so sure it’s sticking with me for the right reasons.  ACTUAL BOOK.)
7.   Doctor Who: Nightshade, by Mark Gatiss (Virgin New Adventures)
(7th Doctor.  This one took me an age to finish and I’m not sure why.  It’s another one where I feel the character of the Doctor got a bit lost amidst a cast of many many subsidiary – and very well written indeed – characters.  He was not a main element of the plot here.  I like the Doctor to be the main thing in a Doctor Who story.  I like the companions to be present much also.  I like a good range of secondary characters.  But I don’t like either the companions or the secondary characters running the show, and this was what happened here [and, by the way, is the entire writing premise of new Who – as well as great whacking dollops of EMOTION, too much for this one here who will cry at anything…I am moved to think of the Matt Smith new Who ep where we defeated the cybermen with love.  I can see the idea, but it’s too drippily sugary, even for me, and I am a sugar lover.  Anyway…].

Saying that, even though the Doctor is not as big a player as I like, Gatiss does create some lovely people for me to get to know.  I love his old men characters – he does love and respect the older person, Mark Gatiss, which is rare and rather lovely in a writer nowadays [think The Last of the Gadarene too – another plucky and excellent older man].  The character of Trevithick is wonderful: resourceful, realist: I really rooted for him.  Hawthorne, Vijay, Holly, Cooper – all the scientists, a great and well differentiated cast.  The vast amount of villagers were well done.  Poor old Jack Prudhoe. [They all had brilliant names too.]

Ace was an odd thing here.  She has a romantic attachment, so there’s echoes to both Remembrance of the Daleks and also Curse of Fenric, and Gatiss is well done to mention her earlier developments as a character in the Timewyrm section of the New Adventures.  And yet – I do feel that Ace’s personality keeps chopping and changing from tale to tale; unlike Sam in the Eighth Doctor Adventures, for contrast, who is markedly and plausibly changing, story by story, and we can see why: every move backward and forward is painted, understandably.  To follow a character’s growth this way is always great for a reader, satisfying.  Even watching why a character cannot grow, if well painted, is fascinating.  With Ace, despite the fact she has/had such potential, I feel writer after writer in this series is simply using her as filler – she’s either the grumpy feisty teen of how we first ever see her in Dragonfire, almost a sort of developmentally stuck but bolshey 15 year old; or else she’s a battle weary semi soldier.  And none of it much is genuinely shown or explained in either dialogue or action.  She just comes off as a bit schizophrenic between books: each story doesn’t affect her to the next one – she resets.  I think this series is failing Ace.  Not just this book.  The continuity between them, from book to book to book.  A shame, I love Ace.

In short, this book is a wonderful set of characters, with a very nice Civil War interlude I didn’t see coming, but it doesn’t have a strong Doctor or Ace element to pull it along.  Which is to its detriment.  Try it, you might well completely disagree with me.  ACTUAL BOOK.)

Friday, 12 June 2015

BJ's EWTBCD: '2001: A Space Odyssey' , by my friend Will!

Will is an American friend of a good old other American friend on facebook (that marvellously confusing tool of both socialising with brill new people and being insulted by people you've never met, at length, in the same day).  Now he's a friend of mine too.  We've chatted a fair bit and he visits my page with regularity, which is nice.  Most people get bored after a while!  We've established we're at polar opposites on some things (political viewpoints, some ideas on religion), and yet oddly close on many others (we seem to share a lot of other ideas in common and like the same books).  An excellent way of showing you can put the same thing in front of two people and get two different things to take away from it.  He's erudite, funny, clever and kind.  You'll like him too.  Off we go...


First, thanks to Wendy Harding for inviting me to guest-blog. If there's a livelier, more intelligent and thought-provoking conversational space than Wendy's on Facebook, I've yet to find it. Initially, I wanted to essay forth on the subject of sacred art, but finding that topic too vast and cosmic for my current time restraints, I decided to go with some ramble-rumination on 2001, a film that will forever invite speculation and contemplation. Actually, there are those who do regard 2001 as a form of sacred art, so perhaps in the future these somewhat random, very subjective observations of mine will be an entry to a more systematic exploration of sacred art. (I am hoping).

- I wasn't really a fully sentient adult when, on a hot summer night I went to see 2001 with my fellow nerd friends; this was a day after, I believe, the film premiered in 1968. Still, as the film is primarily a visual experience with minimal dialogue, it certainly made an impact on me as it did on most people. I first saw the film in Chicago's Michael Todd theater, one of those wide-screen, palatial movie theaters that don't really exist anymore. One of my fonder memories of the experience came during the intermission - yes, the big blockbuster films of that era often came with an intermission - when the theater's coolant system had broken down and some wag in the audience shouted out, "Hal, please turn on the air conditioner!". As all in attendance were sweating profusely, this got a highly appreciative response from the audience.

- Since 2001 is now considered one of, if not *the* best film of all time, some might find it peculiar that the film actually received mixed reviews following its premiere. One reason for this was that big blockbuster films were not supposed to be "Euro-arty" - the pacing was comparatively  slow, the acting was for the most part restrained with minimal dialogue, and the soundtrack was, to say the least, very unusual. Yes, it was science fiction, but as sci-fi goes, it was genre-busting, genre-transcending. This was obviously difficult for some critics to get their heads around. I think a similar case could be made for Robert Persig's 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Three pages into that book and you realize that you're in the presence of greatness, yet Persig was rejected by publishers 70-plus times before some publishing house took a chance on him. Of course the book has been in print ever since and is regarded as a modern day classic. So why the rejections? No, I don't think most publishers or film critics are stupid, but they do tend to think strictly "in the box" and are not at all wont to stray from established genre, whereupon readers and movie-goers  generally find their comfort zone, and where publishers find their best sales. What was ZATAOMM as a book? A mystery, a supernatural thriller, a philosophical manifesto, a psychological auto-bio? It really is genre-less, and like 2001, it's  sui generis, distinctly one of a kind.

- By the way, if you've never read ZATAOMM, I should tell you it really has nothing to do with either zen or motorcycles.

- Another reason for 2001's initial mixed reviews is, I think, is the year it came out. When we're young spring chickens, I think there's a tendency to believe that what's going on in the world around us is the natural order of things, business as usual. So it wasn't until years later that I truly reflected on 1968 and what a preposterously tumultuous year it was: two major assassinations in the USA, (ML King and Robert Kennedy), apocalyptic race riots in every major American city, the Vietnam War claiming the lives of 15,000 American service people, as well as God knows how many Vietnamese,  Paris shut down by New Left revolutionaries, the Soviets invading Czechoslovakia, the riots at the Chicago National Democratic convention ..... I'm probably forgetting something, but trust me, it was one helluva year. And 2001 the movie? It didn't address any of that, not even obliquely. I recall reading a review in which a doubtful critic wondered, rather forlornly, I thought, how humankind had moved from '68 to '01 without solving its racial problems. I believe this critic and others found the film's projection of space-age tech with all its slickness and metallic coolness to be rather obscene, particularly in light of the riotous passions of the day.

- How did 2001 do in terms of predicting the future? Obviously not too well. It should be remembered though, that at the time, the concepts of regular shuttles to the moon, a Hilton-like space station, a moon base, a manned mission to Jupiter, even exotic concepts like advanced Artificial Intelligence and ET contact, were not considered unreasonable projections - it was in '68, after all, that we put two astronauts around the moon, and in the following year, Neil Armstrong would walk on it. Social inequities and racial strife notwithstanding, the future, at least as far as tech and our "space-age destiny" were concerned, looked very bright indeed. So what went wrong? Why aren't we vacationing on the Sea of Tranquillity, why isn't there a Disney Land on Mars? Well .....

- ...... I think we were bedazzled by what some call " The Myth of the Age of Eternal Progess", in which, by dint of the Western technological progress, we supposedly transcended the rise and fall cycle of all previous civilizations. This is a beguiling myth indeed, and it's had a million proponents - HG Wells, Carl Sagan certainly come to mind. It's also fairly hubristic, in my estimation, and it can lead to a great deal of harmful denial regarding the world's current state of affairs. I think that Western Civ is in obvious decline even as we speak, and we'd best be preparing for a largely non-tech future. It really comes down to the historical cycle of empires and civilizations, no matter if it's the Roman Empire or a valley presided over by a tribe of Native Americans - eventually they're going run out of resources, and the costs in maintaining the empire are going to overrun the benefits derived. There are always those who maintain that "they'll think of something" to allow for further tech progress and continuance of our rather comfy lifestyles, and there's Ray Kurzweill and his prediction of a Parousia-like "Singularity", but I surely wouldn't bank on such.

- I should say something about my personal aesthetic reaction to 2001. Stanley Kubrick was never my favorite film director; I often found his style to be cold and bloodless, detached and not in a good way. However, Kubrick's chilly style was the perfect fit for 2001; this was a marriage that produced a classic. To be sure, I still find the film to be cold, but existentially, awe-inducingly, wonderingly cold - a little acre of fear and trembling in the face of what's called the "Mysterium Tremendum", that sense of awe that comes with a glimpse into the Unknown regions. I've often wondered at those who found, and who still find a sense of serene beauty in the contemplation of the depths of outer space. Beautiful, in a sense, yes, of course, but I've never found anything the least serene about its abyssal depths, unfathomable distances and its extreme unfriendliness to carbon-based life forms.  Kubrick' rendering seems to put me right there in the midst of it. For all of Kubrick's game-changing cinematic influence on, say, George Lucas and his space sagas, I think the film that comes closest to 2001's depiction of space's yawning depths and blank inhospitality to human life is the 2013 film, Gravity.

- In his contemplation on the nature of God, Blake wonders what kind of Hand could have fashioned the tiger's fearful symmetry. What about the Hand that fashioned the mind-numbing vastness of the universe!? Fact is, 2001 really is a metaphysical film with a metaphysical message, and this is what will forever keep it in the conversational grapevine. The film addresses ontological issues, the meaning of evolution, the ultimate destiny of humankind, and the  progress of physical, material existence into that of pure Energy and Spirit - these themes are complimented by the film's slow but stately pacing, the use of symbol such as the black monolith, the alignment of planets, the transformation  of astronaut Dave Bowman as he moves about the dream-like neoclassical bedroom at film's conclusion. And of course there is the 2001 "theme song", Richard Strauss's Also sprach Zarathusta, a reference to Nietzsche and the concept of the Ubermensch .......

- Is the Übermensch, the newly born Star Child, a pitiless, beyond-good-and-evil Being, come to replace humanity? I don't know, but it's disturbing to think that the Star Child might be mirrored by the spacecraft's sentient computer Hal 9000, who kills off most of the crew in the name of preserving the mission. Adding to this chilly mix is the scene at film's beginning in which the hominid flings a boar femur, his war-club, into the air and we CUT TO: the space station. Implication: War is indeed the father of all things, as Heraclitus said 2500 years ago. Well, perhaps it is. After all, many, if not most of the advances in science came from the military. The personal computer, eg., was largely developed by the military.  In any event, my view is that we do evolve spiritually, and that in the fullness of time, we sublimate our baser passions into that which we call "human values", compassion, pity, kindness, empathy.  For a film whose theme is human transcendence, 2001 is decidedly lacking in what we would call human values.

- A few words on Hal the computer - no, we didn't develop human-level AI by 2001, but it's an ongoing concern of many that we're going to do so within the next 40 years or so. I have my doubts as to whether a machine can actually acquire a self-aware consciousness a la Hal, but who knows? It might be possible to build a computer so complex that a human soul - or some other immaterial entity - could incarnate in it. I actually wrote a poem about this once. But again, speculation. Whatever the case, of all the robots and AIs in filmic history, Hal is, for me, the most disturbing. As he lacks metal human-like limbs, he's short on the pyrotechnics we usually associate with machines-gone-rogue, but his unblinking electronic orange eye speaks volumes. It's the steady gaze of a non-human intelligence, very disquieting - but again, isn't the trans-human Star Child also a non-human intelligence? What might we expect from that? Those disturbing notions aside, I think it's a bit ironic that of all the film's characters, it's Hal who ends up displaying the most emotion. "Stop, Dave. I'm afraid ....."

- Even though 2001 was an MGM film, it was mostly filmed and edited in England. The Shepperton Studios were larger than anything Hollywood had to offer. When the film came out and movie goers beheld Kubrick's quantum leap in space depiction, there were rumors abounding that he had actually built an anti-gravity machine and had actually shot the space scenes in space. That should give you some idea of the fantasy-mad, conspiracy-addled climate of the times.

- My favorite spoken line from 2001 comes from Dr. Floyd's daughter (played by Vivian Kubrick): "I want a bush baby!" I still have no idea what a bush baby is.

- Thank you.


And that's all from Will for now.  Till next time.  And just to help any other confused people, whilst there were several points in this piece I wanted to debate, there's one thing I can definitely settle: this is a bush baby!


Wednesday, 3 June 2015

BJ's EWTBCD: Fry does Black Mirror Redux, Part 1

Remember I did ramblings on Black Mirror a while back?  Well, Fry hated my post on it.  He felt I did it no justice, rushing through it like ‘a 12 year old with late homework’.  Harumpf.  It was only sposed to be my impressions, not a thorough analysis.  But knowing how he can analyze so well, I asked him to do it, as he would have.  So he did.  Here’s Part 1 of it.  He spoke for longer than me so we thought best to split it, cos there’s lots to digest here, and he has a very intense voice.  Which *I* love of course, but he says I’m biased. We mums get no acknowledgment.  Let me put it this way instead, evidentially:  His first post here, The Incel Experience (along with my post on the unparalleled actor Peter Wyngarde), are the two most popular posts the blog has ever had – highest hit rate, over time and immediately on posting.  So, I asked him back!

So – here’s the next installment of the Season – ‘Enough With the Bone Crunching Doom’…with this, er, dystopian, deeply doom ridden series…Er…It is funny though, very funny.  And sad…Alright, alright, it’s a different sort of doom than the one I was escaping when I started the Season!  Off we go…

Fry's Black Mirror Autopsy
Well here I am, back by popular demand it appears in light of my debut piece 'The Incel Experience' as my contribution to BBJ&S's summer extravaganza two years ago - who since has been asked to elaborate on a review she posted some months ago about Charlie Brooker's satirical drama Black Mirror. As the person who introduced her to this marvellous Twlight Zone adaptation she found it only right that Fry, with his superior yet inferior mind (just raving the geekometer there, cos we're about to hit the gas), be the one to give you a complete, thorough analysis of what the show is about, what is message is, and some of the ways it encapsulates the twisted nature of our technological revolution. 

The first matter to touch on before anything else is the show's writer, commercialized cynic Charlie Brooker. The same mind that threw the reality TV phenomenon into a zombie apocalyptic world (box office genius of a concept) three years earlier was the only person capable of pulling this show's components together to produce something both meaningful and dark enough to be realistic - not one of the episodes to date has had a conventional ending intended to give us cheesy Hollywood closure. This show makes you think, it doesn't give you the satisfaction of being told what to think. While Dead Set ultimately proved unable to live up to is astonishing hype and potential (despite it delivering Davina McCall as a zombie), Black Mirror is everything it's meant to be and some. As I go through episode by episode, keep in mind this is merely my interpretation, don't expect a clinical review with a barrage of critiques and/or acclamations. In the true spirit of the show, I'm here to give you a synopsis, it's up to you to mentally chew on it.

Episode One : The National Anthem

Perhaps the most overt of the seven episodes aired, but arguably the most relevant. While five of the others rely on an advance in technology to unearth ugly truths about the human condition, this one utilises possibly the most damaging creation of all - the birth of a social media generation (footnote : the other one falls back on simple human ignorance without an aid, but we'll get to that, #VoteWaldo). Getting straight to the point, as this episode very much does, the Prime Minister (played by Rory Kinnear) is faced with a choice - condemn the first social media royal to death or..... hmm, how do I put this both delicately and whimsically? Perform coitus resulting in a literal beast with two backs...... nope, that was impossible. Fuck a pig!!! Now it's interesting to note at this point Blackberry Juniper expressed the natural reaction to this revelation inside the first five minutes, with much squinting and a jaw that forgot the bite reflex - and much sympathy and concern for the fate of the pig (not the human of course lol). But being the emotional vacuum I can be when the situation calls for it thought to myself, 'Now this is different. I'm officially hooked'. 

Social media explodes. YouTube has allowed the ransom video to be seen across the globe within minutes. By the next morning it's become the water cooler debate to end them all, everybody has an opinion, everybody has a voice, we're all seething with anticipation at this man's impending humiliation almost forgetting (dare I say excusing) the abduction of a Royal public favourite. As the clock ticks down, public view begins to stabilize, a verdict has emerged from a jury compromised of flippant twitter simpletons who form the majority. We have spoken - and we expect non-compliance. Then something happens, and second video is released. Once again YouTube has provided the perfect platform to air your art, your grievances, your portion of the spotlight to the world (all of which apply to the perpetrator in hindsight). We watch as he cuts off our beloved princesses little finger, and suddenly this ceases to be an event worthy of the grandchildren test (forget the blitz - I lived through the 'will the PM fuck a pig' fiasco) and becomes about a woman's life. We are left outraged at the mere thought of the Prime Minister putting his image before the safe return of a defenceless young girl, and once again lay down judgement with emphatic condemnation - the public demands his "sacrifice". So the deadline approaches, the Prime Minister has accepted the only choice we've given him, and as he solemnly takes his position...... (I'll just give you a second there) we all as one are transfixed. The country is temporaily shutdown as we soak in this moment in time, we've left our mark on history as the generation that made this not only possible, but palatable.

There was far better to come from Black Mirror, but this episode's message was concise and sharp - leaving you with only one question to ask yourself. Would you have watched? After all this is something extraordinary, images that will stain the foundations of our culture, an event that will be documented as long as civilization exists in some configuration. This is simply history unfolding before our benighted eyes. So again... would you have watched?

Episode Two : 15 Million Merits
From the most overt episode of Black Mirror (and can guarantee will remain so) to the most surreal, and beyond question the hardest episode to discuss in an informative tone. The world has changed. For what reason and to what extent we're not quite privy to, though it's alluded to twice that the changes implemented are that of achieving a self-sustaining world powered only by the human muscle (I shall explain presently). We're left with only two concrete facts about this futuristic society. Firstly, THE ECONOMIC SYSTEM has evolved!!! The days of the paper note have passed us by - money, or merits, is/are logged and stored into your own virtual reality self (again, I shall explain presently). Bing, the character we follow (played by Daniel Kaluuya) gains wealth by pedaling, earning his merits by the virtual kilometre. Why? Because this world seems dependent on the alternate energy source Pedal Power (I say 'seems' as it's not categorically confirmed at any point). And such is the necessity of this demand, a majority of the product, service and entertainment industries appear to have collapsed, everyone's role is made clear - with the exception of a select few, we pedal. 

But without said entertainment industries in effect, how do we unwind? Very simple, we live out our lives on screens (that we generate by pedaling) - whether that be buying a new pair of trainers for our virtual surrogate, playing the latest shoot ‘em up, or in our loveable protagonist Bing's case settle in to the latest installment of Wraith Babes (i.e. futuristic BabeStation). And here we circle round to the second undisputed fact about this reality. One of the few service industries left, commercial advertising, has a death grip on its consumers. Skipping advertisements incurs a reduction in merits, and even failure to view advertisements that haven't or can't be skipped results in every screen within your vicinity shutting down with a high pitched, spiking audio intended to torture you into watching the content. Make no mistake; everything about this reality is hollow, unnerving and devoid of any substance.

So here we're introduced to Bing, an ordinary guy searching for purpose in a world that fails to stimulate him on any level - a relateable character to anybody with a depressive streak. One day he overhears the faint sounds of his crush singing and is mesmerised by her voice. With some persuading, and a merit endorsement, he convinces her to star on a highly regarded talent show which appears to be one of the few ways you get to escape the mundane existence on the bike. For the first time in the episode he cracks a smile, taking fulfillment in his generosity and brief connection with her. Accompanying her to the studio, he watches backstage as she moves the audience and judges alike only to be told her voice isn't in demand right now, but something else is. Fast forward a couple of days later, a dejected Bing is lying in his room (which might as well be a cell), murmuring her song, totally defeated by the system enslaving him - passionless, powerless, numb to his life. The screens forming his walls begin playing an advertisement for Wraith Babes showcasing the debut of their newest girl. The girl. His girl. And having spent his merits on her admission for the show, and despite his best efforts to shatter the screens, he's forced to watch. 

Days turn to weeks, weeks turn to months, and Bing has one core motivation left, one last goal to achieve. Appear on the show himself and if nothing else - for 15 glorious minutes, for 15 million merits, gets to make some noise.

He takes to the stage armed with a shard of glass which he places up to his throat, threatening to kill himself if security interfere with what he intends to do. He stands there stagnant, trapped in his own moment, consumed by the rush of fear, adrenaline..... The weight of a purpose rooting him to the spot. But when one of the judges (played by Rupert Everett) antagonizes him Bing proceeds to bleed from the soul, dishing out a cutting, guttural speech tearing into the "system" and it's effect on our quality of life. We're nothing but insignificant blips, so wrapped in our own pain that we can't digest the raw authenticity of reality, can't handle the glow of true beauty, that we accept the comfort of fake fodder to get us through the next moment without having to feel something genuine, something that could change us and how we percieve the world (footnote: to those of us who are wrestling fans, basically he cut your standard shoot promo). After a minute of tense, errie silence the judge pulls out the system's most devious trick that Bing couldn't of possibly predicted. In such a bleak, uninspring world people need to see the reflection of their own emptiness to retain any sense of sanity (you could even say looking at themselves through a "Black Mirror") - he's offered his own podcast in which he gets to utilise his cynicism to reach out to the millions of disillusioned like himself while they go about their meaningless lives riding the bike. He accepts.

To me, this episode is Charlie Brooker's equivalent of a Rorschach test (in which he sees himself). What you take away from it can be interpreted a variety of different ways depending on your philospical bent, your opinions about society and your faith (or lack of) in the human spirit. While not being a favourite episode of Black Mirror (#VoteWaldo) or necessarily the best from a writing standpoint, I'd go as far as to say this was the most thought provoking, giving off a chilling atmosphere that bites underneath the surface. And in spite of luring you in with a fresh world and new possibilities, it ended up reiterating two truisms that plague our existing lives and none of us can escape from.

1) No matter how things change, they ultimately end the same.
2) The system......... ALWAYS wins!!!

Episode Three : The Entire History of You

The most critically acclaimed episode to date, and based on the nature of the device it showcased it's easy to see why. While 'The National Anthem' gave you something rough and raw, and '15 Million Merits' provided something truly out of left field, 'The Entire History of You' almost acts as a steady compromise between being something with a story that leaves you on edge, but provides terrific food for thought regarding the limitless possibilities attributed to the device it centres around. The writer (Jesse Armstrong) decided to place it in a situation that while beautifully demonstrated its destructive capabilities was simply too narrow to do the concept any real justice. The device is a microchip implanted behind the ear that acts as a shadow drive to your brain's memory bank - enabling you to play back experiences for yourself and others exactly how your brain interpreted the information first time around...... what me, and thousands of other overthinks out there, would aptly refer to as 'The Devil's Device'. 

Where on earth do I begin with this? Like all truly terrifying ideas, it marries practicality with maniacalism (I believe I just made that up?). On the paper thin assumption this device couldn't be hacked - this would eradicate crime, revolutionize the academic system, demolish a crippled political system (#VoteWaldo), etc... this is artificial telepathy, a man made catapult to the next phase of our evolution, and we COULDN'T be any less prepared. Frankly at a time where we drip-feed our personal information out piece by piece spreading our private affairs over the internet (lords knows me and BJ&S are guilty of this) the creation of such a device seems almost benign, just another fun way for us to put our lives' under the microscope - and therein lies the problem. How could such a conceited generation cope with the power of being able to watch our lives in the third person and have the will to not disappear into ourselves entirely? And to be fair that's precisely what the episode got across. Meet Liam (played by Toby Kebbell), normal guy, normal life on his way to attend a dinner party hosted by some of his wife's friends. Already anxious after a less than impressive work appraisal earlier in the day, he enters the house to see his wife and a man he's never meet talking amongst themselves in a far away corner. Following introductions, as he casually asks who her friend is he immediately notices a change - she's flustered, caught off guard by his presence.

After obligatory exchanges with a few of the guests who are sharing a laugh over each other re-do's (the name given to the process of viewing back experiences using the device), everyone sits down to dinner and the topic of using the device to relive the early stages of past relationships comes up instigated by the man conversing with his wife earlier who goes into vivid detail. Despite this transparent attempt at alpha male supremacy alienating the rest of the women at the table, Liam's wife is reciprocating his carnal call - giving subtle indications there's more to this friendship than appears. 

And so begins Liam's self-desecration, armed with the implant his only interest becomes uncovering the truth between these two. Everything from shifty eye contact to nervous laughter by his wife on that night is scrutinized right in front of her, the device providing all the chain of evidence necessary to reinforce Liam's jealousy - completely justified when granted the opportunity to psychoanalysis micro expressions with re-do's, all of it alluding to his wife and this guy having a stronger bond than mere casual acquaintances.

The device has quickly rendered her word obsolete, just a baseless rebuttal in the face of compelling data fuelling this accusation. But despite it seeming an open and shut case the more Liam plays back the timeline it still remains just an accusation driven by paranoia, until he confronts the man in question the next morning still drunk from the previous night. Following a stony altercation where Liam's drunken state, superbly acted, pollutes the atmosphere with a tense, intimidating presence (thank god I'm always the drunk one in these situations), Liam smashes a bottle and threatens to stab him unless the man deletes all re-do's featuring Liam's wife - which upon reviewing the footage not only confirms his suspicions but brings something else into question. Sobered up and back home later that day, he informs his wife he's aware of her infidelity but presents them both with something far more troubling, a time stamp of her last sexual encounter with the man which falls ominously in-sync with the birth of their child. And so Liam, left for nothing but a carousel of his insecurities, lost in this obsession seizes the chance to relief himself and coerces his wife to play him the re-do of her sleeping with this man as he looks on, wondering what he ultimately gained with the truth. The episode closes with Liam stranded on a pile of hollow memories of his former family life which the device largely contributed to both destroying and prevented him moving on from, he aimlessly staggers between rooms of an empty house re-living the only moments he chooses to remember with precision accuracy. Once at the bathroom he gazes at what he's become in the mirror before methodically cutting into the implant and tearing it out from behind his ear. 

This was Black Mirror's first attempt to grab it's audience on an empathic level. The previous two episodes presented dilemmas for its characters while keeping the viewer at an emotional distance (more thought provoking than touching), this one just laid itself out bare. Those of us who think of ourselves as insecure, unstable, in my case bat shit fucking crazy, feel the devastation of stories like this. How quickly a paranoid delusion can transform into a full blown obsession without us realizing it, how we're much happier living under a veil of ignorance to protect us from the terrifying uncertainty of the truth. To people like us, this device is the worst thing imaginable. And the creme de la creme of this particular story, without a doubt the most unsettling plot development of all, was the fact Liam was right. The demons in his head, and the devil himself behind his ear, were correct in their assessment of his wife's behaviour, and it cost him everything. No moral. No questions. Just a story advocating the most fundamental law of human psychology....... Ignorance is Bliss.

PART 2 coming soon... 


(Completely Irrelevant closing words - BBJ&S says: And thats that for know the weirdest thing about all that?  I agree with each and every one of Fry's most negative assessments on the human race and on the future: each conclusion he makes, I see the sense of.  And yet, quixotically...I don't think we're doomed.  I see hope all over the place.  Whoever it was who said humans are 'a virus in sandals' on the face of the planet is 100% correct...and see a baby's face, and it hasn't done anything wrong yet.  It hasn't.  It will learn to.  LEARN.  Most of the vile crap we all do to one another, we are paying back for hurts we have had inflicted on us.  Sure, some of us are born with a screw loose or missing in the empathy department, and that's different.  But most of us...we can learn.  Not to invent the memory implant.  Not to enslave each other.  [To actually consider THE PIG when writing stories like The National Anthem (very humanocentric)].  To think more carefully about our actions.  Yes, it will take thousands of years, but thats what evolution is about. I feel oddly both depressed and hopeful when I watch Black Mirror.)