Monday, December 21, 2009

Holiday Potpourri

Happy solstice to me! And to Samuel motherfuckin' Jackson. DO NOT FUCK WITH OUR BIRTHDAY.

I wanted to get in a post before the end of the year, just so's I could tell 2009 that it was NOT appreciated, will NOT be celebrated, and can now slink off into the ether of shitty years. Much to my surprise, this is the end of a decade. Zounds!! That means Best Of lists, which I have enclosed forthwith. And also the end of the Tennant-era Doctor Who, which will be discussed after I've seen both episodes, which will take place in the new year, which will be miles better than the old one.

Firstly, Johnny says:
Firstly, I wasn't trying to be obstreperous, I was trying to be recalcitrant. Secondly, I was drunk. Far as Dollhouse is concerned, I guess it was just too wheadony for me. If saying so makes me a Joss hating troll, I guess I'll wear the cap. Let's see what half-baked concept of his gets produced next, while tons of great ideas never make it to the little screen. Shoot, one of those ideas might actually be yours...

I didn't know you were drunk. That makes all the difference! Based on the past four or six hours of Dollhouse (Fox is duly burning it the fuck off), it becomes even clearer how interference fucked with it. Dollhouse as a very serialized drama is rocking pretty seriously. But it's not the type of show that can be sustained. Now that Whedon seems to have given up on that, the show's much more relaxed and a hell of a lot more fun. The end of the last episode on Friday was pure, undiluted Joss Whedon and I loved it. The show fails when it tries to be a normal TeeVee show, but it's quite good when it stops that nonsense. If Whedon staying off of TeeVee meant I could get on it, I'd be all for that. But alas...

And to Cairmen, who pimps Charles Stross:
Yes, he got my back up. It's the same kind of tired bullshit that makes people NOT read or watch science fiction. I'm not going to criticize his writing because I haven't read it, and he was on my list before he became irritating. I'll check him out at some point. Promise.

Now I have some Best Of lists, because why not?

25 Awesome Movies:

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon." It had everything I love in a movie and it was one of the rare films that actually transported me to another place. See how I have some fun stuff on my list? You can do that. It's okay. Fun movies take a certain amount of talent to make, too. NOTE TO THE ACADEMY -- Recognize fun movies, you motards. Then maybe the world won't think of you as stuffy asshats. Awards season is now a depressing slog through dreary, too-serious dramas. Movies don't have to be brussels sprouts, people.

25 Grand TeeVee Shows:

Obviously, my favorite TeeVee show of the decade was Mad Men. My top four are actually pretty clear: Mad Men, Doctor Who, The West Wing, Breaking Bad. What worked about TeeVee in the past decade was the versatility. SO many different types of shows, including some genre shows that were able to incorporate so many different elements. Let's see if we can get audiences to watch these shows now...

25 Masterful Records, which I will actually do in order:
3. DOVES – LOST SOULS (2000)
7. HAL – HAL (2005)
12. U2 – NO LINE ON THE HORIZON (2009)
24. THE CORAL – THE CORAL (2002)

Not a bad decade for music. Not great, but not bad. Nothing truly transcendent but there's just so much music available that it's not too surprising one album didn't take off. I still can't figure out what people had against U2's "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb," because that album just gets better with repeated listening, while the weak second half of "All That You Can't Leave Behind" does not. Most of you probably haven't heard my top selection. Pure Reason Revolution is a British prog rock band and I LURVE them. This is one of those records that just stuck with me. I still listen to it all the damned time. Second album not quite as gripping as the first, but I love what they're doing.

So there you have it. Ten years boiled down into lists, which we all love because lists are fun. I want to thank all of you, gentle readers, for sticking with me through 2009. A big thanks as well to the folks at, who did a whole "Midnight of the Century" thing and support good TeeVee. I'll see y'all in 2010, unless I decide to do a post next week. Hey, you never know...

np -- Pure Reason Revolution, of course!!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Starship Smackdown

A comment from Johnny:
Uhu... so, execs suck because they hire successful writers and when those writers turn out to be less successful it's because the execs didn't understand them in the first place. Oh, and audiences suck because they want what they want. Is it remotely possible that Dollhouse sucked and that's why the Company and the hoi polloi turned their backs on it? Wheadon is a one hit wonder turned hack. Call it the Lucas syndrome. Or lack of talent. Fine, I'll take that back... the dude gave us Heathers with fangs, good idea. Though it did pave the road to Melrose Place with fangs, not such a good idea. We all know there's only one good vampire show on the air these days, and that show's Kalifornication.

Well, Johnny, instead of just trying to be obstreperous, go back and read the post. I didn't say executives suck. I'm not sure what you were reading, or in which universe you were reading it, but you've misunderstood. Or maybe you're just a Joss Whedon hating troll. I dunno. There are a lot of reasons for Dollhouse's failure, and Whedon hisself addresses many of them. Which I would think would be illuminating for people interested in TeeVee...

I have been enjoying science fiction author Philip Palmer's blog, who recently stepped into the "SF is dying" meme. Here's the link.

The basic premise is this: Dude #1 (Mark Charan Newton) has come up with four reasons fantasy is more popular than science fiction. And they are:

1) More women than men read books.

2) Culture has caught up with our imagination.

3) Literary fiction is eating up SF.

4) Modern fantasy audiences have grown up on the films of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the science fiction folks have become SO close-minded about what constitutes science fiction (lookin' at you, Charles Stross) that it's become this nerdy invite-only club. And although it's entertaining to make fun of Twilight, a lot of these folks go way too far. If you want new science fiction readers, you probably ought not make vicious fun of other fans.

Obviously, the whole discussion sprang up because of the insane popularity of Twilight and Harry Potter. But the notion that the people who read these books and see the movies are genre fans is erroneous. They're Harry Potter fans, and Twilight fans. Maybe they move onto other stuff but you can't assume that, or else you'd be assuming that people who love Dan Brown books will go on and read other books. If that were true, Tim Powers would be living in a fucking mansion with twenty servants and a private jet.

The rigorous mind-set of some science fiction writers who seem to WANT to pigeon-hole their content is not doing the genre any favors. I realize that one of the commandments of geek is "Thou must form subgroups," but now you're just hurting yourselves. If you want to constantly prove you're the smartest kids in the room, well, fine, but it's gonna cost you.

I have to wonder, though, would science fiction writers moan and complain if some science fiction book became all popular... BUT GOT THE SCIENCE WRONG? Or was poorly written? With lousy characters and lame plots? Or would they be delighted that the audience is responding to it? I would say the former, because they would go, "But there are SO many better writers to read!" Well, same thing in fantasy. Twilight and Harry Potter aren't particularly well written or original. But how often does something truly well written and imaginative gain insane popularity? Science fiction writers are refusing to see this. And it's frustrating, and weird, until you really sit down and think about where it's coming from.

The entire discussion seems to exist so science fiction authors and fans can denigrate fantasy. Jealousy and envy turn to hate and anger, and we all know what happens then. But when you read the back-and-forth you start to find a pattern. As Newton said above, more women read than men. And the extrapolation of that is that more women read fantasy. And the extrapolation of THAT is that more women read fantasy because it has romance in it.

Mr. Palmer says,
Point 1) is a killer: yes, women do read more books, and it seems that by and large they don't read 'blokey' hard SF. (I'm basing this on anecdotal evidence, admittedly - if the publishers know more or different, I'd love to hear it.)

However, I do recall being on a panel at a Sci Fi London event where a female fan asked, sweetly and devastatingly, why SF writers are always so obsessed with 'getting it [the science] right.'

And her words struck me like a body blow. Here was a fan who wanted to be told stories. She didn't want books which taught her all the science she'd so far managed to avoid by not doing physics and chemistry A Levels. And so the whole geeky, anoraky dimension to hard SF was, for her, like a huge Keep Out sign.

And yet! SF - of the hard and space opera variety - is all about concepts and ideas and amazing extrapolations of scientific insights. Like the many-world theory, or the astonishing properties of black holes, or the commonsense -defying theory of quantum physics. These concepts give a backdrop to a world of the extraordinary, where wonderful events can occur as a matter of course. And it is or should be no harder for the lay reader to grasp these concepts than it is for readers of Dan Brown to follow his historical and esoteric digressions.

'Hard' SF , therefore, shouldn't mean SF that's 'hard,' and on which you will be tested by stern faced boffins.

And, personally, though I love the SF of ideas, I get bored when it's gadgety and geeky, all about the machinery (plot and otherwise) and not about the story and the characters.

EXACTLY, and I guarantee you that this is exactly what that female fan was on about. My issue with Stross's bleatings has to do with the insane nerd quotient, that segment that cares much more about spaceship design and star maps than characters and dilemmas. So the female fan, I believe, was responding to what the science fiction fans and writers have been known to say -- "IT'S ALL ABOUT THE SCIENCE, YOU DIM-WITTED FUCKERS!! If you don't understand it, go read your My Little Vampire books." Which they then did, and now science fiction writers are wondering where their readers are.

If this woman had been presented with an Alastair Reynolds book, or a Robert Charles Wilson book, or a John Scalzi book, then she would probably have been happy. She's not stupid for asking the question; the science fiction writers who throw that wall up are stupid for MAKING her ask it.

Look, anyone can understand ANYTHING if it's explained well enough. That doesn't mean things get dumbed down. Instead, the characters have to be well written enough to support the concept and make the reader WANT to understand. But pages and pages of fiction that's all about science, with no plot or character support? Bullshit. I'll just go read a Michio Kaku book, thanks very much. And yes, I can wrap my girl head around the concepts.

Isaac Asimov could explain science and math to "regular folk." Gregory Benford explains scientific possibilities for TIME TRAVEL, for fuck's sake. And you don't have to be a genius to understand it. You just have to be a good enough writer to write it. So, science fiction writers, before you go bemoaning the genre's lack of popularity, maybe you should take a good, hard look in the mirror. You blame the readers, but shouldn't you take some of the blame yourselves?

Palmer says, about Battlestar Galactica:
But why is this show so beloved by female fans? For it is a "blokey" show if ever there was one. It's all about hardware and spaceships - the Vipers, the Battlestars, the Cylon ships. There are even long scenes in the engineering bay in which spaceship mechanics talk about the mechanics of spaceships. There is jargon aplenty. All in all, there is little - very very little - of what one might call "girly" stuff. And yet women love it. They don't just love it, they adore it, in their millions. It's SF! It's Hard SF! Why????

I think there are three reasons.

First, it's bloody good. It's smart, complex, morally ambiguous, and has characters you can engage with, and care about, and be exasperated by. Women fans are smart, just like male fans; they want stories that challenge them, and make them think and feel.

Secondly, it's sexy. Genuinely sexy. It's not the old-fashioned pulp cliched stuff with big-breasted Amazons with no brains; the women in this show are sexy, the men are sexy, and the Cylons (Number 6! be still my beating heart!) are the sexiest of all. And it's sexy in a totally non-sexist way. The beautiful young women in this show are often seen in revealing vests; but the gorgeous young men wear the same uniforms. And the old guys - Admiral Adama and Colonel Tigh - are also seen in the same revealing outfits, and dammit, they may be old and gnarly but they look good.

Thirdly, the women are just like men. They can be vicious. They can be cruel. Kara Thrace (Starbuck) is a swaggering arrogant jock who punches her senior officer and smokes a cigar - and we love her.

My theory is that the show is made a bunch of men who know nothing about women, so they write them just like men. And women, it seems, like that approach - because it's not condescending, and reflects a fundamental truth about our genders: women can, and do, kick ass.

Well. No. The reason the female characters work on Galactica has more to do with the fact that they're written like PEOPLE first. And you know what? So are the male characters. Because the male characters on Galactica can be sensitive and brooding and fragile. Y'know. Like fucking PEOPLE. The women on the show don't work when they're written like women. But hey, now we're talking about TeeVee, where staffs of men are hired to write female characters with nary a female writer in sight. And when they TRY to write women like women and not like people, they fail. Conversely, when ANY writer tries to write men like men and not like people, they also fail.

Stereotyping fiction into different factions leads to the stereotyping of the audience. It seems to me that some science fiction writers WANT to do this. They don't want women reading their books. But I don't want to read anything that isn't well written, so take that as you will. You can have all the research on the planet but if you can't write, an awful lot of people aren't going to give you the time of day.

Mr. Palmer wonders if science fiction writers are going to have to turn to epic fantasy, which he admits is, of course, ridiculous. But open up a bit, guys. Stop being so narrow-minded. There is tremendous work being done in science fiction. Instead of deriding the women who read fantasy, why not make a real effort to find out WHY they like that genre so much? And why not make a play for them? And here's something to think about -- why not, just one time, write a science fiction book with a female protagonist?

Didja ever think maybe THAT has something to do with it?

And then there's this, from Sam J. Lundwall:
“The question of whether a certain story of imagination is a fantasy or a science fiction work would depend upon the device the author uses to explain his projected or unreal world. If he uses the gimmick or device of saying: ‘This is a logical or probable assumption based upon known science, which is going to develop from known science or from investigations of areas not yet quite explored but suspected,’ then one could call it science fiction. But if he asks the reader to suspend his disbelief simply because of the fun of it, in other words, just to say: ‘Here is a fairy tale I’m going to tell you,’ then it is fantasy. It could actually be the same story.”

In other words, "Science fiction is logical, fantasy is made-up and illogical." Science fiction folk seem to have a VERY specific, narrow idea of what constitutes science fiction. They are trying to apply this narrow viewpoint to fantasy as well (witness the assertion all over the interwebs that urban fantasy is paranormal romance). But fantasy, well... there are SO many different ways to go. Fairy tales are just one. Magic realism. Urban fantasy. High fantasy. Contemporary fantasy. Etc. But I personally don't just like one of those sub-genres. I like bits of all of them. Same with science fiction. I like time travel stories, spaceship stories, even future war stories. AS LONG AS YOU FUCKERS WRITE THEM WELL.

So how about we refer to these sub-genres under one umbrella -- speculative fiction. Because at the end of the day, that's what it IS. Everybody's not going to like everything -- I really can't stand high fantasy, for example -- but you have a better chance of getting new readers if you don't alienate them before they've even picked up one of your books.

When we're talking about TeeVee and movies, incidentally, science fiction is actually MORE popular. Star Trek made a ton of money this year. So did Transformers. And unless your show has vampires in it, it's VERY difficult to get a fantasy show off the ground. Partly, I think, because science fiction is perceived as having procedural elements, while fantasy is not. What I like is the emergence of shows that don't have those restrictions. Lost, for example, has science fiction and magic realism elements. The more the networks insist on shows set in a recognizable world, the more opportunity there is to do urban and magic realism. You just have to be CLEVER about it. Science fictionally, there's FlashForward, V, Eureka, Stargate, Sanctuary, Fringe (which also steps into the fantasy world), Warehouse 13 (fantasy elements as well). I'm sure I'm leaving some out...

Anyway, as a woman writing genre on TeeVee, I resent it when arguments are invented seemingly just to bash women. I've really had it with this shit.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Half Built House

Here's an interesting interview with Joss Whedon about the problems with Dollhouse.

Given what Whedon says about the network, it's a total miracle that they brought Dollhouse back for a second season. When a network gets buyer's remorse, the show usually doesn't even finish out the initial order.

"The problems that the show encountered weren't standalone versus mythology [episodes]," Whedon said. "Basically, the show didn't really get off the ground because the network pretty much wanted to back away from the concept five minutes after they bought it. And then ultimately, the show itself is also kind of odd and difficult to market. I actually think they did a good job, but it's just not a slam-dunk concept."

That's for damned sure. It's no surprise why Fox wanted to be in business with Whedon again. They probably shouldn't have canceled Firefly that soon and no matter how Whedon's shows have performed, he has that certain credibility networks crave. This is especially important now, as networks look to woo intractable advertisers with shiny things and ponies.

(waits patiently while people confuse Whedon's credibility with box office)

And no matter what, Whedon has already created one of the top geek shows of all time. Even if a show isn't performing ratings-wise, having a critical darling is something they can promote. And all networks want some form of THAT credibility.

While it can be infuriating to see a network overlook everybody else to go to someone who's had success, it's not hard to understand. These writers have been there. They've done it once, and the odds are better (so the conventional wisdom goes) that they can do it again. But just buying a concept they like from Anonymous Writer? That's a RISK, gentle readers. And networks aren't in the business of taking risks. They're in the business of, well, business. If an exec wants to buy something from Anonymous Writer and rejects JJ Abrams because they don't like the concept enough, that requires an explanation. They have to put their opinion on the line. And we don't necessarily have the climate for that right now.

So it makes perfect sense that they would put Whedon's show on, regardless of the concept. And actually, it makes sense that they would give him a second season and try to see if Dollhouse could rise from the ashes.

But then it all comes back to concept. If he'd fucked up the first season of Buffy, a reboot would have been entirely possible because the Buffy concept lends itself beautifully to TeeVee. The premise has incredible flexibility. There's a deftness to it that allows the writers to move within its universe. Dollhouse, unfortunately, didn't have that. And it's not that the concept was necessarily flawed. It was just never clarified:

"We got the espionage that the network wants, but it's the questions about identity that we want," he noted. "There are other things about the show that never came back, and I didn't really realize it until the second season—[there were] things that we were ultimately sort of dancing around. ... We always found ourselves sort of moving away from what had been part of the original spark of the show and that ultimately just makes it really hard to write these stories."

The network wanted a certain element and the problem with Dollhouse was that the premise wasn't solid enough to support that kind of a move. You can tell the difference between a flexible premise, like Buffy, and a nebulous one, like Dollhouse. And just plugging in a certain element the network wants isn't going to work. But then Whedon didn't know that, exactly, because he didn't have that rock-solid set-up. So he gave it a shot.

Asking questions about identity can certainly be a part of a series but it can't be the SERIES. It's too nebulous. The only way to solidify that is to make sure that you've shored it up as a metaphor, and that speaks directly to the concept of the show. See, I think it was too obvious: Let's explore the nature of identity through a corporation that erases and implants identity. What you don't get with that concept is the freedom to really explore it, because it's in your face all the time. Dollhouse spent A LOT of time justifying its premise, and that's a problem. A premise shouldn't get in the way of the storytelling. Buffy's metaphor was that high school is hell. And although Whedon put a Hellmouth under Sunnydale, the Hellmouth didn't have to be justified or constantly explained. It existed to serve the show, and not the other way around. the elegance of that metaphor served the show.

And of course, the biggest problem with exploring the nature of identity is when your main character simply doesn't have one. I can envision a more Philip K. Dick version of Dollhouse where there IS no easily identifiable Dollhouse, and the audience gets what it needs from a TeeVee show -- to identify with a character -- before being led down a much different path. But that requires a much different approach than Whedon employed.

This, BTW, is partly where a show like My Own Worst Enemy fails. You can break a lot of rules in TeeVee, but at some point you need to invite the audience in and the way you are most successful in doing that is with character. Even with a character like Dexter, or Don Draper. Not the most likable characters, but they are understandable. The characters on Dollhouse -- the ones that weren't actives -- were always battling the premise.

"When you’re dealing with fantasies, particularly sexual ones, you’re going off the reservation," Whedon said. "You’re not going to be doing things that are perfectly correct. It’s supposed to be about the sides of us that we don’t want people to see…. The idea of sexuality was a big part of the show when it started and when that fell out, when the show turned into a thriller every week, it took something out of it that was kind of basic to what we were trying to do."

Well. Yeah. The stuff that was interesting about Dollhouse had zero to do with the engagements, but unfortunately, that doesn't make a show. It DOES make for some intriguing moments. The unaired episode, Epitaph One, is a pretty damned fine hour of TeeVee. I have no idea if it's a Dollhouse episode, however, and that's something of a problem.

I told him I had trouble wrapping my head around the idea that Fox wanted less sex.

"This is the thing that caught me off guard," he replied. "First of all, network television has taken great treads backwards in terms of dealing with sexuality or the body or anything. I mean, now on cable everybody is prancing about naked and whatnot. On the networks, it’s gotten different since I was last making TV.

"Fox sort of has that reputation for 'sexy' or 'edgy' or blah blah blah, but they don’t actually want that and it frustrates me," he continued. "It’s the classic American double standard: torture -- great. Sex -- oh, that’s so bad!"

Whedon's being somewhat disingenuous here (I hope) by ignoring the fact that the actives are, essentially, sex slaves. Whether their implanted personalities enjoy it or not, they are being forced to fuck people for money. Sex may not be all over network TeeVee, but it's certainly THERE. But the basic concept of sex in Whedon's Dollhouse world isn't palatable to the majority of people with eyes. Exploring the evil of that is interesting, but that's not a show. That's an element. And something that noxious just can't exist without SOMEONE the audience can identify with.

"My favorite thing is to shake it up, is to bring as much that’s different as I can every week -- to get people to a different place. But television is largely designed to do the opposite," he said. "Hit shows are basically designed to give people exactly what they expect, and that’s not to slam on every other show. There are plenty of shows that surprise you, that are humorous where you expect them to be maudlin or scary where you’d expect them to be romantic. But ultimately most people [watch] TV shows going, 'OK, this is "Party of Five." I’m going to cry." And I’m not really good at that."

Can't disagree with him here. I think what happens is, there are people who are just plain good at giving audiences exactly what they expect. They don't have to think about it. When they come up with a show, it's already THERE. Whedon doesn't think that way. Most of my favorite TeeVee writers don't think that way. They're a little left of center. Whedon creates his world, and then he plays in it. But when he looks up, the audience is watching CSI and he's all, "WTF just happened? Look at my wonderful world!" And that also speaks to what a network wants. Especially now, that has to be CLEAR.

Buffy's world was always easy to enter but with Dollhouse, I'm always kind of confused about what the world IS. It's too realistic on the one hand, and too fantastic on the other. And I don't think the show ever found the medium between those two things. But if you're going to break the rules, you have GOT to succeed. I love Whedon's worlds but Dollhouse feels too much like an exploration than a solution.

The shows I like to watch have well-developed worlds, particularly shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and True Blood. The worlds are SO different and distinct and immersible. But it doesn't always have to be a dark world. Glee has that, and so does Chuck. Network shows have to have more of a balance than cable shows and these two in particular do that very well. Glee has the music, the teenagers, and the teachers. Although it's generally more comedic, this week's episode had a pretty dark, dramatic scene. And I like that the show has the liberty to do that. Chuck somehow manages to effortlessly balance the espionage elements, the Buy More, Chuck's family and his relationship with Sarah. The writers can take the show a little off the rails when they want to because they've created great characters. I'm not actually sure why America isn't watching it. This is exactly the kind of show that used to be a network staple.

Come on, America. Tune in. You can miss a crime show once a week...