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Film review: Twilight (long post)

Blu-ray

Note: I was originally planning this to be a review for DVD Times. As it progressed, however, it became clear that its tone wasn’t entirely appropriate for that site given that it’s less a critical review and more an uncontrolled rant.

I should state upfront that I haven’t read Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books. I gather they are quite the sensation, particularly among the teenage girl demographic. I am neither a teenager nor a girl, which some might suggest ought to preclude me from appreciating them. Personally, I don’t go in for that sort of compartmentalisation, and have enjoyed a great many books and films that are supposedly aimed at people who don’t possess the same set of genitalia as me. That said, I’ve never felt particularly compelled to delve into Meyer’s four-book saga. I picked up the first volume one day at the library and gave it a quick flick-through, but came to the conclusion that the material was too trivial to justify its length, and that its length was too great to justify my time.

However, something about the media phenomenon surrounding the book and its big screen adaptation piqued my interest, coupled with the widely differing reactions to it. On the one hand, you’ve got the legions of adoring fans who swoon at the very mention of its title. (If you want some idea of just how scary these people can be, head over to the movie’s IMDB board.) On the other, you have unprecedented levels of vitriol being hurled in its direction, mainly from people who consider it nothing more than a self-infatuated author’s overblown wank fantasy, and one with a very dubious moral at that. More often than not with such cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I wanted to know more and swiftly came to the conclusion that it would be easier to do this by watching a two hour movie than by reading a 500-page book.

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Posted: Monday, April 13, 2009 at 1:44 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | Reviews | TV
 

Hello, Dolly!

Dollhouse

I may have gone silent on the issue of Dollhouse, but that doesn’t mean I’ve given up watching it. On the contrary, I’m continuing to keep track of it on a weekly basis, although the news that Fox is readying a BD release does mean that I may consider sitting the rest of the season out ‘til I can enjoy it in all its HD glory. Once I’ve made my way to the end of the season (episode 8 of 13 was the most recent to air), I’ll put together a full review. For the time being, however, to summarise: Yes, it’s got better. No, it’s still not fully “clicking” with me. I felt it really began to find its feet, so to speak, with Episode 6, which was the first one for me to really feel like a Joss Whedon show (which, depending on how you feel about the man’s style, is either a good thing or a bad thing).

It’s therefore promising that, despite less than stellar viewing figures, the signs are pointing towards Fox renewing the show for a second season. Obviously, it’s all still up in the air at the moment, but the rumours look promising. Ever the pessimist, I was actually expecting it to be yanked before the first season reached the half-way mark, but the evidence suggests that someone at the network genuinely likes the show. In any event, I’m crossing my fingers for it following in the footsteps of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had an uneven first year before finding its feet at some point during Season 2.

 
Posted: Monday, April 06, 2009 at 4:57 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | TV
 

When the hunter becomes the hunted

Dollhouse

I watched the second episode of Dollhouse, The Target, this evening, and have come to the conclusion that it showed a marked improvement over the series premiere. Yes, the majority of the supporting cast are still as bland as they were in the pilot, but I felt that this one had more of a drive to it, the central storyline doing a better job of holding my attention and providing Echo with a personality more suited to Eliza Dushku’s acting and looks (sorry, but I just couldn’t buy her as a prim, strait-laced hostage negotiator last week). I detected a definite Deliverance vibe in this one, and it helped that Echo found herself facing off against a decidedly nasty antagonist this week - an outdoorsman who, tired of hunting defenceless animals, decided to move on to humans. The dialogue this week also struck me as a little more Whedonesque, although this episode was in fact written and directed by his old Buffy and Angel colleague, Steven S. DeKnight.

Incidentally, this episode provided a number of flashbacks which filled in some of the questions left unanswered in the pilot - such as what exactly happened to Amy Acker’s face? For the most part, they helped add a bit of background and texture to the world the series inhabits, but I personally hope this gimmick isn’t going to run throughout the series, Lost-style. A few expository flashbacks can be welcome, but pepper the entire series with them and I tend to find myself beginning to zone out.

 
Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 7:22 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | TV
 

The dead will continue to waken

Waking the Dead

For various reasons, one of which is the total sense of apathy I’m feeling after completing Series 6, my Waking the Dead project has stalled. I intend to get back to it before too long, but for the time being I direct you to the web site of my good friend the Baron, who offers his take on the pilot episode and Series 1.

By the way, once I’ve finished the Waking the Dead project (or, I should say, taken it as far as it can currently go, given that Series 8 is at this very moment in production), I’ll be turning my attention back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and attempting to write a proper review of the series as a whole. I won’t be watching all 144 episodes again (I think that would be enough to finish me off completely), but rather providing a summary of my thoughts on the show aimed at those who haven’t necessarily watched it themselves - a definite failing in my Buffy project from a few years back.

 
Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2009 at 11:26 AM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead | Web
 

Waking the Dead: Series 6, Episodes 1 and 2: Wren Boys

DVD

Written by Declan Croghan; Directed by Tim Fywell

For some reason, no episodes of Waking the Dead aired in 2006. When Series 6 finally came round, in January 2007, around 16 months had passed since the end of Series 5. The show came back with a new producer, Colin Wratten (who came from EastEnders and, before that, Holby City), a new lead writer, Declan Croghan, and a new pathologist, played by Tara Fitzgerald. Unfortunately, while Waking the Dead doesn’t have much in common with the previous show I did a full run through, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, they do share one trait: both go off the rails in their sixth season.

Admittedly, Peter Boyd’s fall from grace is considerably less drastic than Buffy Summers’. Even at its worst, Waking the Dead still manages to retain a veneer of respectability, and I could never claim that these episodes are badly made (whereas some of the latter-day Buffy episodes were shockingly poorly written and directed). Instead, they just tend to feel rather empty, going from Point A to Point B, going through the motions but leaving no real lasting impression. One of the biggest losses come Season 6 is the team feeling that permeated the earlier episodes. Series 5 had its work cut out, having to make do without two of the five original characters, but it somehow managed to pull through, retaining the dynamic between the three remaining regulars and working hard to integrate the two newcomers. Such traits are not in evidence by Series 6. By and large, the characters behave like automatons, the interplay between them feels forced, and they function less as a team and more as a collection of people clocking in and out of the office.

It doesn’t help that the writers seem intent on ignoring any previously established continuity. Their biggest faux pas would come with Series 7 (which I’ll discuss when I get that far), but for now, the wheels are already being set in motion. Stella’s betrayal at the end of the previous series is never even mentioned, while Spence’s brush with death, which provided the cliffhanger between the two series, is brushed aside in a single reference to him having had a tattoo painted around his bullet wound. Seeing him laughing and joking about this with Stella, who played a part in his brush with death, is such a blatant breach of continuity that I find it nearly impossible to forgive. The fact that Felix is never once mentioned is also hard to swallow, although admittedly not entirely surprising, particularly if, as I suspect, she was only ever intended as a last-minute temporary replacement for Frankie.

Unfortunately, the new pathologist, Eve Lockhart, just makes us yearn all the more for her predecessors. The writers are at great pains to ram down our throats the fact that the character is alternative and wacky, smoking foul-smelling cigarettes, burning incense in the lab, listening to reggae music at crime scenes, and so on. Unfortunately, the actress, Tara Fitzgerald, may be many things, but “wacky” is not one of them. Her attempts to be so come across as completely forced, and all too often end up veering towards “annoying” rather than the “charming” that I suspect the writers were going for. At least, however, she is a little more animated in these opening episodes than she would later become: come Series 7, she would barely alter her facial expression and tone of delivery at all. Her major gimmick, aside from her insincere wackiness and amazingly deep voice, is that she keeps a “body farm” consisting of a bank of old body parts, which sounds interesting in theory but in practice is only ever referred to a couple of times.

Anyway, the series begins with what is probably the least impressive episode of Waking the Dead to date. There was worse to come, but I remember the massive disappointment I felt when this two-parter initially aired a couple of years back. The basic plot is that the team are investigating the case of a teenage boy found drowned in a pit of concrete back in 1990. A teenage boy is dumped outside a Casualty department, badly beaten, and Boyd suspects there may be a connection. (I actually can’t remember what it is that causes him to suspect this, which says a lot about how much of an impact the storyline made on me.) This leads him and the team to investigate the community of travellers from which the boy came, along the way taking in the sights of a local abbey and a young nun apparently suffering from stigmata.

This episode does actually have a rather interesting theme: the combination of pagan and Christian beliefs and rituals. As far as I can gather, it’s a pretty accurate representation of the religious beliefs held in many traveller communities, harking back to the latter days of the Roman Empire’s occupation of Britain, when the occupying forces concluded that the easiest way to convert the local tribes to Christianity was to mix the doctrine in with their existing pagan traditions, resulting in (to quote Bremner, Bird & Fortune’s piss-take of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) “an à la carte religion”. At the same time, though, I think that the episode’s greatest failing is that there are simply too many ideas scrambling for attention, resulting in it feeling incredibly disjointed and not very satisfying as a whole. In addition to the exploration of the travellers and their beliefs, we’ve got stigmata, hallucinogenics, Rottweilers straight out of The Omen, a goat demon who seems to have stepped straight out of Hammer’s adaptation of The Devil Rides Out, arranged fights which clearly own something of a debt to David Fincher’s Fight Club, a family tree as complicated as a spaghetti junction, a young mother offering her unwanted newborn child up to a benevolent angel (no, really), and the curious arrival of an envelope addressed to Mel containing a bracelet inscribed with Hebrew letters. The latter sets up a plot strand which is actually carried through the entire season before finally coming to a head in the final episode, Yahrzeit. I’d like to say that this storyline, which hearkens back to the good old days, provides a sense of continuity to the series and resolves Boyd’s feelings as regards Mel’s death, but I’m sorry to say that, for me at least, this is something that should have been done in Series 5 if at all. Barely mentioning Mel in that series and then taking up the storyline again over a year later, while introducing some whopping continuity errors in the process (more on that later), merely cements my ambivalence towards this season.

Holby connections: Gregory Foreman (Davy in this episode) has appeared in Casualty at various points in Series 22 as Charlie Fairhead’s son, Louis.

 
Posted: Monday, January 12, 2009 at 3:17 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Operation red menace

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Attention, comrades! Who can withstand the charms of Tim Curry hamming it up with his most overdone Rrrrrrussian accent?

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Ivana Miličević certainly can’t, which is presumably why she can’t keep a straight face during this mission briefing FMV. Call me crazy, but when I can tell people have had a lot of fun making something, I definitely find myself more likely to enjoy the end product. Silly, intentionally hammy video sequences like these are the perfect antidote to the sort of overblown, pompous imitations of Hollywood that we’re increasingly finding in computer games. The fact that the editor had enough of a sense of humour to leave the aforementioned flub in just seals the deal. You can watch the FMV in question on YouTube at https://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=16Mpc3ux4Wk - skip ahead to 4:25. (Miličević, by the way, appeared in Casino Royale as Mads Mikkelsen’s girlfriend - the one who did very little other than to almost have her arm lopped off. She also played Riley Finn’s annoying wife in that dreadful Season 6 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, As You Were, the only redeeming feature of which was that at least it wasn’t Hell’s Bells, which followed immediately after it. I’m still undecided as to whether her role here constitutes a step up or a step down from these. At least here, she and Tim Curry have fun trying to outdo each other in the “ridiculous accent” stakes.)

Yes, I now own a copy of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3. As I mentioned in a previous post, EA have relented somewhat and released a patch for the game, allowing users to deactivate their copies and no longer be limited to the idiotic “five installs only” cut-off. Is the situation ideal? No, it absolutely isn’t. You still have to connect to EA’s server to activate your copy, just so you can play it at all (and that includes the single player mode), which is all well and good until EA either goes down the can or decides to stop maintaining the activation server (whichever happens first), and, in the event of a system crash, preventing you from manually disabling your copy, that means one of your five activations will be lost to the ages. Still, I can’t deny that this is a step in the right direction, and it gives me confidence that EA may, at least, have come round to the fact that their moronic rights management implementation may have done them considerably more harm than good. (Similar deauthorisation tools have also been released for Bioshock and Spore, the latter being the game that kicked off the public backlash against this whole sorry affair. Of course, whether similar tools will be released for Mass Effect, Crysis Warhead et al remains to be seen. Frankly, I’m not holding my breath.)

Still, at least I am now able to enjoy a very fun RTS punctuated by FMV sequences that are every bit as entertaining as the game itself. EA have created a great game here; it’s just a shame they had to turn so many potential customers away from it with their needless DRM.

 
Posted: Sunday, January 04, 2009 at 1:01 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | DRM | Games | TV | Technology
 

Anything goes

Spooks Season 7

The seventh season of Spooks began airing last night on BBC1 (the second episode is on tonight), and it started with a bang. Literally.

** Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS for the first episode follow. **

One thing that continues to impress me about Spooks is the climate that has been created in which literally no member of the cast is safe. Anyone can die at any point, and I don’t mean that in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer sense where anyone can die provided they aren’t in the opening titles or the significant other of someone in the opening titles (unless their name happens to be Tara Maclay, that is): literally anyone can cop it at any given point. During the year-long break between Season 6 ending and Season 7 starting, the big question mark was over the head of Jo Portman, who, at the end of the final episode of Season 6, looked very dead indeed. To the credit of all those involved, a remarkably good job was done of avoiding giving away whether or not Jo survived, including omitting any mention of the actress playing her, Miranda Raison, from the press materials, trailers and even the opening title sequence. But survive she did, and I for one was genuinely surprised (pleasantly, I might add) to see her back.

The old and the new.

Above: The old and the new.

Of course, there is an old saying that the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, and, while Jo may still be in one piece, the same cannot be said for Adam Carter, who was literally blown to smithereens at the end of the first episode. If nothing else, you’ve got to admire a show that has the balls to do away with its lead character in the first episode of a new series. I knew the actor playing Adam, Rupert Penry-Jones, was leaving at some point in this series, and it became clear from the start of the episode, when they parachuted Richard Armitage in (much in the same way that Penry-Jones was parachuted in at the start of Season 3, I might add), that he was being lined up to take over as the young male lead (the true lead will always, in my opinion, be the wonderful Peter Firth, the only actor to have appeared in every episode of every series), but I didn’t expect Adam to leave so soon, or in such a way. I figured he’d get in at least another couple of episodes before bowing out, and, given that the writers had already killed off his wife (in Season 4), I didn’t for one minute expect him to do the same with him.

Elsewhere, this did feel like Spooks getting back to basics after a dodgy past couple of series. The references to ye olden days (Armitage’s character at one point asks after Tom Quinn, the show’s original lead) were a nice touch, and, by the looks of it, it appears that the new season will be dipping into Cold War nostalgia, setting up the Russians as the main bad guys. There was even some location shooting in Moscow, which was rather interesting and made for a pleasant change of pace. Of course, I could end up being completely wrong - perhaps Season 7 will turn out to be as big a disappointment as the last couple of years - but, at the moment, things are looking decidedly promising. I’m sure his legion of adoring fans will string me up for this, but I’ve a feeling the removal of Adam Carter may end up providing the show with the shake-up it needed. Now if they can just get rid of Hermione Norris (and bring back Nicola Walker), I’ll be positively elated.

 
Posted: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 at 9:32 AM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | TV
 

Buffy the Cartoon Slayer

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Animated Series

At some point prior to the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, an animated spin-off was proposed. It ultimately never came to pass, despite some aggressive lobbying by Joss Whedon and his colleagues, and despite a number of pieces of concept art that were released generating some degree of interest. Recently, however, a promo video was released (or leaked), giving fans a chance to see what the show that never was would have looked like. Some generous soul uploaded it to YouTube for your viewing consumption.

To be honest, my overriding reaction is that the show’s failure to materialise is no big loss. Based on this three and a half minute clip, it suffers from exactly the same problems as the Season 8 comics, namely flat characterisation and what I like to call “ice cream on the hamburgers” syndrome: essentially, a tendency to throw in everything but the kitchen sink simply because it’s possible. The “real” Buffy series made the most of its limited budget and generally found creative ways around monetary issues (the occasional clumsy CGI dragon notwithstanding). Here, the philosophy seems to have been that, because the medium is animation rather than live action, there’s no limit to what you can do.

This is a myth propagated by scriptwriters and executives who have no understanding of animation. Doing a visually audacious set-piece in animation is no different from doing one in live action, in that it takes longer and requires more work. Unfortunately, scriptwriters are rarely particularly good at thinking visually, generally speaking because it’s not in their job descriptor and the artist/writer segregation of the post-60s animation industry means that they are completely cut off from the visual side of production. It takes less than five seconds for a budding writer to type the words “a huge dragon flies through the entire city and has an epic fight with Buffy”. Now imagine the poor guy who has to draw it. It’s therefore no surprise that such scenes often have a lacklustre quality to them: they can’t be much fun to do, and as a result the animator ends up merely going through the motions and producing a piece of technically complex but ultimately lifeless animation.

The whole of the animated Buffy promo feels lifeless. It also feels rather pointless. What, after all, is this achieving that wasn’t already being achieved, more successfully, in its live action variant (barring the obvious increase in scope and scale mentioned above)? Okay, you’ve got Alyson Hannigan, Anthony Head et al voicing the characters they played in the live action show (Sarah Michelle Gellar didn’t want to participate and as a result was voiced by a soundalike, but everyone else appears to have been on board), but again this doesn’t achieve much, because none of the actors seem particularly comfortable in their roles. I’ve said it many times, but it’s worth repeating: to provide voice-overs for animation requires a completely different set of skills than to act on screen or on the stage. For one thing, you’re limited to your voice, and, let’s be honest, there aren’t many actors who are famed for their voices above all else. Put simply, a good actor doesn’t necessarily equate to a good voice actor. (Of course, it works in reverse too. Would you automatically assume Jim Cummings or Cam Clarke would be able to cut it in the live action world?)

So, ultimately, what you have is a curiosity piece that doesn’t serve much purpose other than to provide a brief thrill at the sight of something which looks vaguely like Sarah Michelle Gellar (and Alyson Hannigan, and…) moving around in animated form. Not exactly the strongest basis upon which to build a series. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have worked or found its audience, but it ultimately looks fairly limp and generic, and I’m not convinced Joss Whedon’s style of writing translates effectively into the animated world (just as I’m not convinced it translates effectively into comics).

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 06, 2008 at 10:21 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Animation | Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | TV | Web
 

Transmission interrupted

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

In the unlikely event that you’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for my review of Issue 15 of the dreadful Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 comic (you know who are, you weird, weird freaks), then I hate to break it to you: it’s not happening. Today, it suddenly occurred to me that the festering thing hadn’t arrived, despite it having been released over a month ago. A quick peek at my TFAW account explained this anomaly: my subscription actually expired with Issue 14.

This means that I won’t be able to tell you which forms of sealife are jumped in the four and final instalment of Drew Goddard’s woeful little tale of Japanese vampires, dead Slayers and laughably predictable plot “twists”, and, to be honest with you, I don’t care. Back when I thought I would also be receiving Issue 15, I contented myself with the knowledge that, although I was abandoning the series, I would at least be jumping off the boat at a semi-logical point. Discovering, today, that I would essentially be left hanging, I realised just how much it doesn’t bother me. And why should it? The comics themselves are risible, and I don’t consider them to be in any way canonical, regardless of what their creator might say. So, while it’s slightly frustrating to be ending on a comma rather than a full stop, as it were, at least this means I can devote less time to writing about crap and more time to stuff I actually like.

 
Posted: Friday, July 11, 2008 at 5:43 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | Web
 

The Waking the Dead Project

The original Waking the Dead team. From left to right: Boyd, Frankie, Grace, Spence and Mel.

Above: The original Waking the Dead team. From left to right: Boyd, Frankie, Grace, Spence and Mel.

I’ve mentioned once or twice already that I was going to do a Waking the Dead project, similar to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer project I did a couple of years back and which nearly broke my will and sanity. 144 episodes of any television programme is a lot, but the number seems particularly high when you consider that the final two seasons, 44 episodes’ worth of material, were at times pretty appalling. Luckily, Waking the Dead has two things in its favour. Number one, there have, to date, been only 74 episodes (including the two-part pilot). Number two, while the later series have, in my opinion, not been of the same standard as the earlier ones, the show has never plumbed the same depths as Buffy at its worst.

The main failing of my Buffy project was the perspective from which I wrote it. Essentially, I wrote as a fan talking to other fans, and therefore didn’t take account of the fact that not everyone reading my ramblings would be as intimately familiar with the series, characters and storylines as I was. I didn’t make it easy for people to understand what I was talking about, and I suspect I probably didn’t convince anyone unfamiliar with the show to check it out either. It would be a shame if I didn’t persuade anyone to give Waking the Dead a whirl - I think it’s a very good series, and if I thought otherwise I wouldn’t be attempting this project - so right off the bat I’m going to do my best to make things a bit more accessible this time round.

To briefly explain what this is all about, Waking the Dead is the creation of a writer named Barbara Machin. Hers is not exactly a household name, but it’s one with which I’m familiar because it appeared at the beginning of many an episode of Casualty between 1990 and 1998. The episodes she wrote for the medical drama stand out as being among the best, often due to her seeming fascination with mental disorders and her attempts to get inside the minds of those so afflicted.

Waking the Dead’s concept is that of “cold cases”, i.e. police investigations that have been shelved or thought to have been closed but which have been opened up due to new evidence coming to light, or because it is thought that the advanced forensic and profiling systems available in the 21st century may shed new light on old material. The idea is not necessarily groundbreaking, and seems even less so when you consider the existence of American-originated shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Cold Case (both of which, I feel compelled to point out, came along after Waking the Dead), but it’s a good one, I think, because it allows the programme’s writers to cherry-pick from virtually any period in recent history. Each investigation tends to challenge the viewer’s ability to keep track of the various ongoing strands and suspects, although it has at times drawn criticism (from people including myself) for being overly convoluted for its own sake.

What, for me, however, makes the early episodes of this show so enjoyable is the interaction between the Cold Case Unit. There are five core members of the team, three of whom have been present for all (so far) seven series. The man at the centre is Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), a driven, moody and at times baffling man who, taking a page right out of the Detective Clichés Handbook, sometimes breaks the rules or acts like a jerk but gets results. Working under him are DS (later DI) Spencer Jordan (Wil Johnson) and DC (later DS) Amelia “Mel” Silver (Claire Goose), who find their boss’ behaviour strange and a bit alarming at times, but grit their teeth and put up with his mood swings because they know from experience that his slightly unorthodox methods work. Joining them is Dr. Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), a psychological profiler who, it has been suggested to me, is the audience’s main point of identification because she is the level-headed one who often diffuses Boyd’s temper tantrums and smoothes out discord within the team. (She also happens to be my favourite character for reasons that I’m sure to discuss in my episode reviews.) The final player is Dr. Frankie Wharton (Holly Aird), a forensic scientist and someone who is somewhat on the periphery of the team, something which is emphasised fairly often in the earlier episodes by portraying her as feeling marginalised and out of the loop. Frankie is every bit as obsessive about her work as Boyd, spending seemingly every waking hour in her lab, but she is able to keep her head in a way that Boyd isn’t.

The format of the series stays more or less the same, generally opening with a crime taking place or a new piece of evidence being discovered. From then on, the team and the audience are introduced to the evidence and an array of suspects, with the investigation being teased out over the course of two one-hour episodes. Each two-parter tells a self-contained story, although in the last couple of years some attempted has been made to thread either a similar theme or an ongoing story arc throughout each series. Sometimes the episodes take the form of a whodunit; on other occasions, the audience is in on the culprit’s identity while the team is in the dark. Occasionally, there is an obvious suspect and the storyline consists of the team building the case against him/her. What does, for the most part, remain consistent is that, broadly speaking, we only see the team in the context of their job. There have been exceptions, particularly in the pilot and in the most recent series, but Waking the Dead is, by and large, devoid of soap opera, which is definitely appreciated given the TV crime drama genre’s tendency to combine the professional with the private.

Without further ado, it’s time for me to crack on with the first review…

 
Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008 at 10:37 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV | Waking the Dead
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 14: Wolves at the Gate, Part Three

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Drew Goddard; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty

Well, Renée is now dead, bloodily speared through the heart with the mystical scythe by a grinning vampire in what I’m sure was meant to be a deeply shocking and heartbreaking moment, but which just leaves me rolling my eyes and thinking “Jesus, get a new favourite plot contrivance, Joss.” Sudden Unexpected Deaths are all very well when used in moderation and for meaningful purposes, but when you roll out the exact same thing again and again, then please forgive me for not being entirely enthused by it. Jenny Calendar worked, Joyce worked, I’ll even concede that Doyle worked to some extent, but now we’ve had (off the top of my head) Tara, Jonathan, Cordelia, Fred, Wesley, Christian Kane, Shepherd Book, Wash, Random Japanese Slayer… Really, when you add up all the Sudden Unexpected Deaths that have been thrown at us by Buffy, Angel and Firefly/Serenity combined, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was nothing more than a big joke.

Maybe it is. Maybe Joss Whedon is sitting at his desk cackling as his unquestioning fans slavishly lap up each tall steaming glass of liquid fertiliser he serves them and then ask for more. However, if so, I’m sorry to say I don’t share his sense of humour. Oddly enough, what I find particularly obnoxious about the whole affair is that I had no reason to care about Renée in the first place. She was never characterised in anything but the broadest sense, and her entire function, it is now clear, was simply to dump yet more heartache on Xander. Are we at all surprised that the pair shared a kiss not six pages before she was skewered? Then again, given how Whedon and Goddard have treated the Xander character so far in this arc (see his “relationship” with Dracula), perhaps they’ll expect us to see his bereavement as highly amusing. After all, this issue began with Buffy cutting down the body of Random Japanese Slayer, which the vampires had strung up over the streets of Tokyo for all to see, and yet, four pages later, had Dracula hilariously asking if anyone was going to finish eating the corpse.

I haven’t yet mentioned Buffy treating Dracula as a mere annoyance (rather than as the mortal enemy that he is) or the sight of giant Dawn stomping through Tokyo à la Godzilla, but in all honesty I don’t see the point. This comic is a train wreck even by the already extremely low standards set by Seasons 6 and 7 of the television series. I’m sorry to say that I have less and less hope for Whedon’s new TV project, Dollhouse, with every page I read of this travesty. It astounds me that the person who once gave us excellent television like Hush, Restless and The Body has fallen so far from grace, but quite frankly, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to bring myself to care.

My next Buffy comic review will be my final one. My subscription stops after Episode 15, and I most assuredly won’t be renewing it. So, you can all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

 
Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 at 11:27 AM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV
 

Actually, it really is that bad

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

The illustrious Baron Scarpia has braved a fate worse than death and submitted himself to reading all thirteen of my Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 comics. It was actually the Baron who first drew my attention to the world of rubbish Buffy comics in a post he made back in 2006, and, while I’m sure I’d have sought the Season 8 comics out regardless, I suspect that his, erm, appraisal of the comics available on the BBC web site probably served as something of a warning of just how bad things could get in comicdom. Therefore, I suppose I have him to thank for my experience with Season 8 not being as traumatic as it could have been. You see, my expectations had already been tempered somewhat by what I knew about the previous comics in this franchise, to the extent that I wasn’t particularly surprised by the poor quality of this official continuation. Still, I think my appreciation for the comics would have improved immensely had they included this delightful line from a piece of Buffy fan fiction, quoted by the Baron in his 2006 post:

The demon jumped into the air and landed in front of Buffy. “I know you Slayer. You cannot stop me. I shall defeat you then I shall fuck you to death.”

Is that poetry or is it poetry? Proof, perhaps, that Willow asking Satsu what Buffy is like in the sack (in Episode 13) is actually not the single most absurd conversation that could have been written.

Anyway, there’s a point to this post other than simply hawking a friend’s review (not that I wouldn’t have done that anyway - go and read it, it’s insightful and quite amusing). I want to take the time to reply to some of the issues raised in a comment left on of my own reviews of these comics. Basically, the visitor, Marc, felt that, in comparison with my reviews of other series and films, my Buffy reviews were a bit like something you might find in a “tawdry fan blog”, featuring over-analysis and without sufficient context given for those who are not followers of the show to understand what I was writing about.

I disagree with the first point, in that I don’t think my coverage of this series has been any more (over-)analytical than the other reviews I do. And if it is… well, let’s not forget that Buffy is a series that has gone out of its way to be very self-aware and referential towards pop culture. It’s the sort of thing that practically demands that you address it in an analytical way rather than just saying “I liked this, I didn’t like that”.

The other point, however - the lack of background explanation - is a perfectly valid one, however, and is a shortcoming of the Buffy project that I’ve become aware of over the course of re-reading some of the episode reviews recently. It’s quite true that there is a lack of context: if you don’t watch Buffy, most of the time you’ll have no idea what I’m talking abut in terms of characters, events or the mythology in general. In that respect, these reviews are very difficult, not to mention weaker, than the reviews I normally write. In my defence, when I began the Buffy project I wasn’t really writing the reviews for anything other than my own benefit. By the time I realised that this was a problem, however, it was too late to modify the tone of these capsules without going back to the beginning and starting over, something that I don’t feel particularly compelled to do, since it would necessitate yet another trip down memory lane, dredging up all the painful memories that come with it.

Tell you what - one of these days, I’ll sit down and write a summary-style review of each season, written with the assumption that the reader has no prior knowledge of the series in question.

 
Posted: Saturday, May 10, 2008 at 10:29 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV | Web
 

Turn that frown upside down

Blu-ray

A couple of days ago, if you’d told me I’d enjoy Enchanted so much, I’d probably have laughed. I must admit that the idea of an intentionally saccharine Disney fairytale spilling over into the “real” (i.e. live action) world didn’t really sound like a bundle of laughs, but, all the same, reports of stellar image quality and some very nice hand-drawn animation piqued my curiosity, and I picked up the Blu-ray release.

I watched it on Friday night, and I honestly don’t think I’ve got so much pure enjoyment out of a film in a long time. If Disney fairytales aren’t your cup of tea, you’ll probably hate this, but in that case you, sir, are Scrooge McDuck and have a heart of stone. This film has its head lodged firmly in the clouds, and frankly I’m not complaining. A little bit of escapism now and then is a very good thing, especially when it’s executed with this degree of panache. I still haven’t decided whether Amy Adams is intensely charming or intensely irritating, but she and the rest of the cast have a level of enthusiasm that is incredibly infectious and lets me overlook the script’s shortcomings.

I found the live action material more appealing to look at than either the traditional animation or CGI elements, which is quite a feat indeed. Then again, given the bland (albeit slick) look of the hand-drawn elements and the overall shoddiness of the CGI (including the worst talking dragon this side of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Graduation Day episode), perhaps that’s not entirely surprising. Anyway, I thought I’d do a bunch of screen captures to show just how far Disney managed to hit their Blu-ray release out of the park. Feast your eyes on these:

Enchanted
(Buena Vista, USA, AVC)

Animation:

Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted

Live action:

Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted Enchanted

 
Posted: Sunday, May 04, 2008 at 11:40 AM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | TV
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 13: Wolves at the Gate, Part Two

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Drew Goddard; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty

Another month, another wondrous Buffy comic. The previous issue was irksome because of the Buffy/Satsu nonsense, but this one is completely and utterly bloody infuriating. First of all, this episode has more Andrew in it than any previous one - Goddard must be in love with this character, and it’s one of my main reasons for my considering him to be utterly overrated as a writer. Seriously, it absolutely astounds me that he and illustrator Georges Jeanty have managed to make this character every bit as annoying on the page as he was on screen. That must constitute some sort of dubious special talent.

Secondly, the character of Xander continues to be run into the ground with the revelations, spoken (by Andrew) without a hint of jest, that he and Dracula “stayed in touch” post Buffy vs. Dracula, writing “the occasional letter here and there”. I mean, seriously. This is the Xander who, after freeing himself from Dracula’s spell, gave a bit speech about how he would never again be anyone’s butt-monkey. But even this pales in comparison to the statement that, after Anya’s death, Xander went to live with Dracula for several months because he “needed some guy time”. Oh, and taught Dracula how to ride a motorbike.

I know this shouldn’t really be surprising. The character of Xander was treated like absolute crap in the final two seasons of the TV series, and indeed Nicolas Brendon has since stated that, at around the beginning of Season 5, Joss Whedon essentially told him that his character arc was finished and was welcome to stay but shouldn’t expect any meaningful storylines (he only stuck around because he felt he needed the money). But this is a new low. It demonstrates, to me, that those involved have lost any interest in telling a believable story about people the audience can empathise with and instead are content to trade the core characters’ dignity in favour of a cheap laugh here and there.

By this stage, I was pretty close to tearing my comic in two and chucking the two halves in the bin, but I hadn’t even finished page 7 at this point, so against my better judgement I persevered. If I hadn’t kept going, I wouldn’t have got to enjoy the sight of Buffy completely blanking Satsu and barking orders at her, and a whole cavalcade of jokes suggesting a homosexual relationship between Xander and Dracula, each one more hilarious and mature than the last. Oh, and Willow pestering Satsu to tell her what Buffy’s like in the sack. That, by the way, comes after Satsu saying she knows Buffy’s not “a dyke”, surely the most tasteful piece of writing since that infamous deleted exchange in the Season 6 episode Dead Things where Tara sympathises with Buffy’s sordid relationship with Spike by pointing out “Sweetie, I’m a fag. I been there.” (You think I’m kidding? Just follow the link.)

Following this hearty recommendation, I’m sure you’ll all be rushing out to buy copies of this masterful work of literature. Myself, I’d cancel my pre-orders for Parts 3 and 4 of this four-part arc if I could.

 
Posted: Thursday, April 17, 2008 at 2:32 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 12: Wolves at the Gate, Part One

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Drew Goddard; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty

Note: Several of my thoughts on this issue were previously worked out in an email exchange with my good friend Baron Scarpia.

Wow.

I take it most people know the phrase “jumping the shark”. In case you don’t, Wikipedia describes it as

a colloquialism used by U.S. TV critics and fans to denote the point at which the characters or plot of a TV series veer into a ridiculous, out-of-the-ordinary storyline. Such a show is typically deemed to have passed its peak. Once a show has “jumped the shark” fans sense a noticeable decline in quality or feel the show has undergone too many changes to retain its original charm.

Now that we know what it means to jump the shark, my question is can a series jump the shark more than once? Or do you have to jump over some other form of sealife? A Blue Whale, perhaps? By my reckoning, Buffy the Vampire Slayer jumped the shark at some point during Season 6, either with the episode Wrecked or Hell’s Bells. (Others might argue for the final scene of Seeing Red, but as far as I’m concerned it was past the point of no return before that episode anyway.) Still, I now find myself in the unfortunate position of having experienced an event that makes all Buffy’s past transgressions seem minor in comparison. This is worse than magic!crack Willow, worse than the comedy rape of Spike, worse than Buffy juggling, worse than the murder of Tara, even worse than the yellow crayon speech. And no, I’m not referring to the sight of Xander flying around in a helicopter that looks like a fish-bowl.

Buffy just screwed another woman.

I specifically chose to say “screwed” rather than “had sex with”, “slept with”,* “got jiggy with” or any number of other hilarious euphemisms, and the reason for this should become clear in due course. First of all, a little back-story. To briefly set the stage, one of the junior Slayers in Buffy’s squad is a young woman called Satsu, who is fairly blatantly in love with Buffy. I’m not just talking about a crush here - I’m talking full-on true lurve. The reason we know this is that, in an early issue, Amy cast a spell on Buffy which sent her to sleep, and, in typical Buffyland fashion, it had an escape clause built in: she would wake up if someone truly in love with her kissed her. Well, that someone turned out to be Satsu (although this was so unclear in the actual comic book panels that it had to be revealed in retrospect in a “Letters to the Editor” section after several readers wrote in asking who had awakened Buffy). In the most recent issue, Episode 11, Buffy had a long chat with her in which she explained that, while she was flattered, that wasn’t her thing. Fair enough. Cue Episode 12, and what does Buffy do?

She has sex with Satsu. For real.

This is horrible on so many levels it isn’t funny. There are a few ways you can attempt to spin this plot development, and none of them do the character of Buffy or Joss Whedon and his merry band of writers any favours. But here goes:

Theory 1. After being fed seven years’ worth of evidence to the contrary, we are now being told that Buffy is in fact attracted to women. It worked for Willow, after all.

Theory 2. Buffy has learnt nothing from the abominable manner in which she treated Spike in Season 6, and is proceeding to do much the same to another person, using them for a quick lay despite the fact that they want more out of it than a quick orgasm. Now do you see why I used the word “screwed”?

Theory 3. 2 grls 2gether = teh s3xy = $$$.

Yep, sorry, guys - I think Theory 3, probably with a bit of Theory 2 thrown in for good measure, is the most likely. The publisher suggested that retailers order more copies than normal for this issue. You do the math(s).

(Incidentally, I once read a very funny piece of intentionally absurd fan fiction which culminated in, for want of a better description, a gang bang involving a good 95% of the female characters in Buffyland. It’s some measure of how low this series has descended that, if Joss Whedon served this scene up as it exists in Issue 13, I wouldn’t even do a double take.)

So, we now find ourselves in a situation where the heroine of the tale is, in all likelihood, so callous and heartless that she is willing to toy with a friend/underling’s emotions in a manner that is utterly reprehensible and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to continue to root for her. Okay, so Seasons 6 and 7 did a pretty solid job of stripping Buffy of every ounce of humanity, but until now I still held on to a rather slim hope that she might have learned from her mistakes and realised that it’s not good to treat your friends as commodities that are devoid of feelings of their own, and can be picked up and used to scratch an itch, then immediately dumped. I really shouldn’t be surprised, though - it’s not as if there have ever been proper consequences for bad behaviour in Buffy, regardless of the writers’ endless pontificating to the contrary.

Perhaps I’m taking this all a bit too seriously? After all, it’s only entertainment, and at least on some level this episode was clearly written with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek (and yes, a lot of it is genuinely funny, considerably more so than any previous issue). Maybe I should lighten up and just see this as a bit of a laugh, a bit of outrageous fan fiction that really isn’t any better or worse than 99% of the other fan-written jaunts you can find for free on the web. Only it’s not fan fiction, and it’s not free. It’s also rather depressing to watch characters who I have developed some degree of affection for over the years being used for such cheap ploys. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that these comics aren’t worth my time or money, and that I would be better served by cancelling my subscription and devoting the cash I save to something that actually gives me some degree of enjoyment.

Oh, and incidentally, what happened to the searing animosity between Willow and Buffy? The only thing worse than creating insincere conflict is creating insincere conflict and then not following up on it. (Hmm, sounds like Season 7 described in a nutshell.)

* Pointless aside: did I ever mention how much the euphemism “slept with” makes me roll my eyes? I’d imagine sleeping is that last thing either party will be doing. Which reminds me of a great exchange in the Season 5 episode Intervention:

Willow: Um… Buffy, this thing with Spike, i-i-it isn’t true, is it? You didn’t, you know, sleep with Spike?
Buffybot: No. I had sex with Spike.

Ah, happier times.

 
Posted: Saturday, March 29, 2008 at 8:30 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 11: A Beautiful Sunset

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Joss Whedon; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty

Hmph. Another month, another underwhelming episode of Buffy’s eighth season. I’m fast reaching the point where I’m considering cancelling my subscription. Yes, for the first few issues there was the novelty factor of seeing my favourite characters (well, some of them, at any rate) having new adventures that were given some degree of authenticity due to being sanctioned (and, much of the time, written) by their creator, but that appeal has long since dried up.

This week, Buffy finally encounters the season’s Big Bad, the muscular, masked Jason Voorhees lookalike who first appeared in Episode 9. Guess what? Buffy announces that he’s tougher than any opponent she’s ever faced before. Sort of like Caleb, and the First, and Dark Willow, and Glory, and Adam, and the Mayor, and… See what I’m getting at? Oh, and it looks as if we’re headed for another season of “I’m so alone” angst, to boot. Clearly, Joss Whedon still hasn’t learned that fans generally don’t enjoy seeing Buffy moping about as a manic depressive. Nor do I particularly enjoy having the gang at separate corners of the earth. I’d like to see them actually interacting properly, not briefly mentioning or phoning each other every now and then.

They’ve changed the cover art too. The new artist isn’t bad at all, but his work is not a patch on that of Jo Chen, which I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I called the best thing about these comics.

Next month, Drew Goddard comes in and starts his Tokyo arc. This four-parter will probably be the last chance I give the series… although, given that Goddard is probably the single most overrated writer in Buffydom (his greatest claim to fame is that he wrote one or two of the Season 7 episodes that weren’t complete garbage), I’m not holding out much hope.

 
Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008 at 4:21 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV
 

Sex and Death

I would expect a suicide note to be heartfelt and dramatic. Not this one, though. Wouldn’t be very much in keeping with me, would it? I think someone may have forgotten to fit me with a heart. I can’t even think of anything worth writing. I am summed up by three piece of paper: a birthday card from a father who never loved me, a Christmas card from a man who I foolishly thought did, and a visiting order from my brother. My family have to order me to visit them, and still I don’t. What a hate-filled person I am.

It’s not much of a legacy, is it? Maybe I can go down in history as author of the dullest suicide note ever.

I tried to be a good doctor. Really, I did. But it was too hard. It beat me, and I’m so ashamed. I never wanted anything else out of life, so there is no life. I am so sorry to the patients I caused suffering; to their families, my sincerest apologies. I don’t belong here. (Casualty 22.25, “Sex and Death”)

Casualty is now just over half way through its 22nd series, and now seems like as good an opportunity as any to examine its status, particularly given that last Saturday’s episode, the 25th of the series, entitled Sex and Death (a nickname that would be quite appropriate for the programme as a whole throughout its “dark period” of Series 16 through 21), seems destined to go down in history as a real eye-opener.

I previously wrote about how much of a turnaround the two part season premiere constituted, only to be disappointed as so many of the promises of the first two episodes turned out to be empty. By and large, my observations remain the same as they were the last time I wrote about Casualty: the first two episodes were excellent, heralding a real return to form, but, while the standard has, on the whole, been higher than it has been for a very long time, the quality is just too uneven, with every decent episode being countered with a complete dud, and a general feeling that, for all the promises of a return to socio-political issues and medical drama, the most of the current writers (many of whom are more generally associated with soap operas like Doctors and EastEnders, or even, if rumours are to be believed, writing students submitting scripts as part of their annual assessment) just don’t have sufficient skill or experience to cope with this style of writing.

Sex and Death

Above: Sex and Death.

The 24th episode, Before a Fall, brought to a head the ongoing storyline of Ruth Winters (Georgia Taylor), an F2 (a junior doctor in her second year out of medical school) and Lily Allen lookalike (seriously, the resemblance is uncanny - luckily, though, Ruth doesn’t sing). She first appeared at the beginning of Series 22 and, from the start, she was established as cold, rude, arrogant and, for all her textbook knowledge, worryingly incompetent when it came to actual patient treatment. Her actions had already led to two near fatalities, plus the paralysis of another patient, the latter leading to her passing the buck on to the nurse who had been assisting in the patient’s treatment, resulting in said nurse’s resignation (although, given that the nurse in question was one of the worst characters ever to grace the show, I doubt that many people mourned her departure). In Before a Fall, however, Ruth’s incorrect diagnosis led to a patient’s death, which seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, leading to her returning to her halls of residence and hanging herself. The episode ended with the team desperately trying to resuscitate her. (The character is currently in a coma and will presumably make a full recovery, given that the actress has recently signed an 18-month contract.)

Sex and Death

Above: Sex and Death.

Sex and Death, meanwhile, picked up the story where it left off, and, in a radical departure for the normally formulaic Casualty, went back over the previous five months in flashback, filling in many of the events which occurred off-screen and led to Ruth’s decision to attempt suicide. It really was an exceptionally well put together episode, both in terms of Ian Barnes’ direction (the blue-tinged lighting and use of Arvo Pärt’s composition Spiegel im Spiegel, in particular, were gut-wrenching) and Georgia Taylor’s performance, while the script, by Mark Catley (who also wrote the two-part series opener), did the impossible and actually made me feel somewhat sorry for Ruth. Unfortunately, feeling sorry for a character is not the same thing as liking them or excusing their behaviour, which I suspect was the episode’s key aim. Despite clearly establishing the character as a tragic figure (her father was abusive; her mother committed suicide; her brother is in prison; she was bullied at school; she was utterly exhausted from working long hours; the one colleague she allowed herself to open up to rejected her advances; a cancer patient whom she befriended ultimately died), none of this changes the fact that she was a callous bitch who endangered several lives, ruined one co-worker’s career and repeatedly rejected others’ offers of friendship and assistance.

Sex and Death

Above: Sex and Death.

Unfortunately, this seems to be par for the course in Casualty these days: introduce a character as completely unlikeable, and then, a few months later, do an about-turn and heap misery after misery upon them in an attempt to make the audience like them. (A similar technique was used, to an even greater degree, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season.) The method demonstrated in this episode, using flashbacks to establish a sort of double life for Ruth, almost enters into retcon territory, effectively telling us that what was shown for the last six months was in fact been only half the story. I don’t object to surprise revelations within reason, and, despite it being clear in retrospect that this must have been quite extensively planned from the start (at least judging by the manner in which seemingly innocuous scenes sampled from the previous 24 episodes suddenly took on a different meaning when mixed in with new material), it reminds me a lot of the sort of trick the writers of Angel used to pull all the time, suddenly announcing that an entire episode had actually been a hallucination, or that a character’s behaviour was in fact nothing but a charade, despite the viewers not being given any clues with which to work this out for themselves. Had more hints been given towards Ruth’s mental breakdown throughout the previous episodes, I would probably have looked on this episode more kindly, but as it is, it feels almost like rewriting a character with little or no foreshadowing whatsoever, and it’s hard not to feel manipulated. The Series 12 episode Love Me Tender (my second favourite of all time) did a much better job of revealing the reason for a character’s coldness in a genuinely heartbreaking manner while still having given the audience ample opportunity to work out what had happened beforehand.

It’s an achievement for Casualty if for no reason other than for successfully jettisoning the formula in a way previously only matched by the non-linear continuity of Barbara Machin’s two-parter last Christmas, but I remain undecided on how I actually feel about the end result. Certainly, it was all extremely well put together, and I suspect will remain one of the high points of the current series, but I think that, in resorting to such blatant manipulation and rewriting (or concealing) of facts, the writers have broken a certain unarticulated contract with the audience, which, in a sense, is really not playing fair.

Oh well. Right now, I’m most looking forward to the imminent departure of the pompous git known as Harry Harper (Simon MacCorkindale), whose tenure as the department’s senior consultant has been like listening to nails scraping on a blackboard non-stop for the last six years, and the impending return of Charlie Fairhead (Derek Thompson), who has been on another of his sabbaticals since Christmas. Maybe he’ll find a way to kick this sorry lot into order.

 
Posted: Tuesday, February 12, 2008 at 12:12 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Music | Reviews | TV
 

Writerspeak

The scriptwriter's most dangerous weapon

I’m not sure whether John Kricfalusi was the first person to coin the term “writerspeak”, but his was certainly the first web site on which I read the term. He offers an excellent post pertaining to the writing of dialogue for animation, although I suspect that many live action screenwriters could benefit from reading it as well. In a sense, most of what he says is common sense, but sometimes you need to see things written down to actually understand the logic behind them.

John defines writerspeak as this:

A lot of characters in modern cartoons are simply mouthpieces for the writers. They speak in the writer’s voice rather than the character’s voice, tell the jokes that the writer and his writer friends think are funny, but are totally out-of-character for the character who is actually saying them. This common writer’s flaw is known as “writerspeak”.

I’d like to go one step further. I think there are basically three different categories of bad dialogue writing that can be claimed to be writerspeak:

1. A character suddenly says something that completely contradicts their personality because a writer thought of a funny line of dialogue and wants to show everyone how clever he/she is… even if the character is normally supposed to be a complete dolt. See just about every prime-time sitcom, animated or otherwise. In some shows, such as Family Guy, none of the characters have defined personalities anyway, so whenever someone speaks, it sounds like they’re suffering from schizophrenia.

It works both ways, though. Sometimes, a writer will make a character appear more stupid than they normally are for the sake of a joke. Here’s an exchange from the Season 2 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, When She Was Bad:

Willow: I mean, why else would she be acting like such a B-I-T-C-H?

Giles: Willow, I think we’re a little too old to be spelling things out.

Xander: A bitka?

Not only is Xander’s contribution eye-rollingly unfunny, it demeans the character something rotten. He may not be the sharpest tool in the box at times, but are we seriously expected to believe that he can’t spell the word “bitch”? It’s an excruciatingly bad bit of dialogue, even by the already low standards of writerspeak, because the very joke that the character is sacrificed for doesn’t even work.

2. A character tells us how they’re feeling or what they’re doing, despite it being blatantly obvious what’s happening if you just open your eyes and look at the visuals. Again, the sitcoms, whether animated or live action, are particularly strong offenders. This often manifests itself in the over-explanation of jokes. To quote the recent Simpsons movie, we see Fat Tony and his thugs hauling a bag which obviously contains a body towards the newly walled-off lake:

Chief Wiggum: Uh sorry, sorry, no dumping in the lake.

Fat Tony: Fine, I will put my “yard trimmings” in a car compactor.

Fat Tony and his men now walk off with the body. See, that on its own is quite funny. It’s an amusing sight gag that relies half on the presence of the body (shown visually) and half on the stupidity of Chief Wiggum (conveyed through dialogue). However, not content to simply leave it at that, the writer (one of the dozen or so credited as having worked on the script) has to spell it out for us in case we didn’t get it:

Lou: Uh, Chief, I think there was a dead body in there.

A lot of writers struggle to think visually. They feel that, unless an idea is expressed in dialogue, it won’t register. That’s probably because they spend most of the day staring at text typed up on a screen or on paper. Furthermore, if you’ve ever read a script, you’ll know that it’s much easier to read dialogue than to read descriptive text. For a start, it takes up less space. For another thing, it tends to flow better. Long, descriptive passages of action or non-action can be extremely tedious both to write and to read - it stands to reason, because the written word is simply not suited to describing visuals in a coherent, efficient manner. Scripts aren’t like novels - you don’t have the luxury of spending pages and pages describing a situation in minute detail. (Given that animation is traditionally highly visual, is it any wonder that cartoons written on scripts rather than conceptualised on storyboards are loaded to the gills with writerspeak?)

3. A character tells another something they already know for the benefit of the audience. The Rock contains an absolute doozy:

Chief Justice: This is for the sake of national security.

Womack: No, it’s the sake of national security that got us here in the first place thirty-three years ago. I knew some day this would come back to bite us. Forget it. He does not exist!

Chief Justice: He does exist! We just chose to forget about him for thirty years. We locked him up and threw away the key.

Womack: Oh, and a lot of goddamn good it did us. He broke out of two maximum security prisons, and if he hits the streets…

Chief Justice: He’s not going to hit the streets, Jim! Thirty years ago he was a highly-trained SAS operative. He is my age now, for Christ’s sake. I have to get up three times a night to take a piss!

Womack: We can’t risk letting him out. He’s a professional escape artist.

Before you ask what’s wrong with this exchange, bear in mind that both characters were already privy to all this information before they opened their mouths. It’s only one step removed from those phone calls where you only see one side of the conversation so Character A repeats back everything Character B said. (“Why, I’d love to come to a party at your place at six o’clock tonight. What’s that? You want me to bring a bottle of wine? But of course I will!”) I’m not sure who penned this Shakespearian exchange (Weisberg/Cook? Mark Rosner? Jonathan Hensleigh? Quentin Tarantino? Aaron Sorkin? Clement/La Frenais? They, among many others, contributed to the script, many of them uncredited), but it’s absolutely magical, one of the finest examples of writerspeak and makes me laugh every time I hear it.

I’m not claiming to be some sort of dialogue writing expert. Writing convincing dialogue is hard - I know this from experience. But really, there’s no excuse for some of the travesties I’ve mentioned above… unless they were meant to be intentionally funny, which I somehow doubt.

 
Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2008 at 5:31 PM | Comments: 7 (view)
Categories: Animation | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Cinema | TV | Web
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 10: Anywhere But Here

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Joss Whedon; Illustrated by Cliff Richards

Ugh. Kennedy’s back. And the manner in which she is drawn conveys all the irritation of her “personality” without the added bonus of sound.

In this episode, Buffy and Willow go flying on what I can only assume is a voyage through a dream state to gain information from some sort of demonic beast with a television attached to its head. It’s a bizarre image, but it works. What doesn’t quite work is the whole “dream logic” thing, which Whedon pulled off with great aplomb in Restless (my personal favourite ever Buffy episode) but doesn’t quite accomplish on the page. It might be that the compressed nature of this single-issue storyline (we only get 25 pages, several of which are given over to Dawn’s ongoing non-storyline), but tonally is seems a lot more muddled than any of the dreams we saw in the original series. It doesn’t help that Christian Bale and Daniel Craig both appear in the dream, something that wouldn’t have been possible on the show - to me, it just seems like self-indulgent pop culture for pop culture’s sake. Not that Buffy ever shied away from pop culture - on the contrary, it positively revelled in it - but here, it feels like poorly written fan fiction. Fan fiction written by the series’ original creator.

At the crux of this issue appears to be a partial explanation of why Willow has been avoiding Buffy, and more to the point keeping Kennedy away from her. Apparently, by resurrecting Buffy back at the beginning of Season 6, Willow feels that she set in motion the events that eventually led to Tara’s demise, in effect choosing Buffy over her girlfriend. Now, she’s concerned that her current piece of ass (that’s all I can dignify Kennedy as, since even in comic book form you can sense the complete lack of chemistry between the two of them) will meet a similar fate (if only), so she’s intentionally keeping her out of Buffy’s reach. Oooo-kay. Not only does this not make the blindest bit of sense, I’m still not getting why it’s taken Willow until now to come to this conclusion. She didn’t seem to have any problem hanging around Buffy throughout Season 7. (They throw in a rather trite explanation that she didn’t realise how she felt until she saw Warren again, but this blatantly makes no sense at all, since she and Kennedy were hidden away long before he showed up again.)

On a side note, this issue was drawn by Cliff Richards, who is apparently something of a veteran of the Buffy comics. His style is similar to Georges Jeanty’s, but with his own individual quirks. He captures Dawn’s likeness much better, and does quite well with Willow as well, but his Buffy is inconsistent.

I don’t know, I’m just not really feeling it. It’s enjoyable enough to read, but once you actually stop to think about what’s going on, it makes less and less sense. I find it hard to believe that Whedon’s heart is in this any more - certainly no more than it was during Seasons 6 and 7 - and none of the character progressions strike me as believable. I’m going to continue to read this series, but more out of mild curiosity than because I actually consider it canonical… which I don’t, even if it’s supposed to be.

At this stage, I personally think that those looking for their Buffy fix would be better served by The Chosen, a fan-written continuation which adheres as closely as possible to the format of the original TV series, and has the added bonus of being free. It’s currently just over half-way through Season 9 (where it has admittedly been stalled for some time, although the writers have given continual reassurances that their plan is to eventually take it all the way to the end of Season 10), and, while re-reading some of it recently, it struck me how much better it works than the official comic continuation. It takes a few episodes to find its feet, but once the writers perfect that Buffy “voice”, it rarely becomes anything less than completely convincing and, 99% of the time, is vastly preferable to anything in Seasons 6 and 7. It even has a few episodes that I think compare to the best of the official series, with the writers taking great pains to right many of the wrongs committed during the final two seasons of the original show. In Season 9, for example, an episode set in an alternate reality gives Anya the closure she was denied in the final episode of the real show. Don’t ask me to explain it, but it works, as a sort of bitter-sweet inversion of The Wish. The writers are also comfortable enough with writing the characters that, when they have someone do something radically unusual (such as Faith and Tara going off to get pissed in the woods in the most recent episode), it still seems natural rather than out of character.

I know a lot of people are some what suspicious of these fan-written continuations, and rightly so, because the vast majority of them are indeed poor, but this one proves to be the exception to the rule and is why, ironically enough, the official continuation of the series feels more like fan fiction than an actual example of fan fiction.

 
Posted: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 12:02 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV | Web
 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8, Episode 9: No Future For You, Part Four

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8

Written by Brian K. Vaughan; Illustrated by Georges Jeanty

Brian K. Vaughan’s Faith storyline draws to a close, and I have to say that, on the whole, I enjoyed it much more than the first four-parter that Joss Whedon wrote. Part of that may be because I like Faith more than I like Buffy (this has got to be the only series I enjoy despite not having much time for its protagonist), but I suspect it’s also because it feels more self-assured and manages to maintain a more consistent tone and focus. Faith’s character is fertile ground, and Vaughan does an excellent job of exploring her conflicted feelings, which make a lot more sense in this instalment than they did in the previous one. I particularly enjoyed her flashback involving the Mayor, given that (a) the Mayor was a great villain and (b) it’s really the first time Faith has actually verbalised how she feels about her relationship with him. Surprise surprise, she’s conflicted.

I also like the ruthless side of Giles that is shown in this episode, and I hope that this will lead to more of an exploration of the inner turmoil he experiences over the issue of taking a human life, particularly given how quickly his killing of Ben in the final episode of Season 5 was brushed under the carpet. The final pages of this issue seem to be foreshadowing Giles’ affections being transferred from Buffy to Faith, which is intriguing, and actually oddly satisfying, given that Buffy and Giles both treated each other like crap throughout Season 7. Faith, I suspect, in her own way, has more respect for Giles than Buffy does, and the thought of them going rogue together does please me considerably.

Oh, and the final page introduces what I assume is going to be the Season’s Big Bad (it doesn’t appear to be either Amy or Warren, thank god). He appears as a big floating guy in a mask not unlike the one Jason Voorhees wears… oh, and his voice is emphasised by the use of a different font for his dialogue. We don’t learn anything much about him at this stage, but it does appear that the end of the world is - dun, dun, dun! - nigh. Again.

The next two episodes appear to both be stand-alone storylines written by Joss Whedon. I’m particularly looking forward to Episode 10, which, judging by the cover, sees Willow, my absolute favourite character, take centre stage. After that, Drew Goddard, who wrote on Season 7, is doing a four-issue arc, seemingly set in Tokyo. Well, it should be different, at any rate.

8/10.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 18, 2007 at 12:30 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Books | Buffy the Vampire Slayer | Reviews | TV
 
 

 
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