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Saturday, 30 August 2014

Character Spotlight: Klein, Sword Art Online.


Character Spotlight: Klein, Sword Art Online.




“For someone who professes to not like Sword Art Online that much, you make a lot of posts about it,” some of you may be noting. Which is true. To be fair, I do like SAO, I just don't like how its writing sometimes steers into the Moffatoid at times.

But I've been thinking about doing character spotlights, where I highlight a particular character from something that I really like (or really hate) and talk about them, for a while – and specifically, I've been thinking of this one.

So, Klein. One of ten-thousand people who gets trapped in the cursed death badness horrible evil death dying game of Sword Art Online, Klein – whose real name is actually Tsuboi Ryotaro, with his username being a pun on 'klein bottle' as Tsuboi means 'bottle' – is affable, relentlessly cheerful, and a bit of a gigantic dork.

Which I like, because I've always liked affable, friendly, upbeat characters over grim, dark antiheroic types – helpfully, Sword Art Online doesn't have any grim antiheroes at all, which was definitely a plus, but Klein is the most ungrim and anti-anti-heroic of them all, being essentially a concentrated ball of joy, light, and concern for his fellow man.

Introductions.

What really interests me about Klein, though – apart from the fact that, unlike main character Kirito, he's actually equipped with a personality – is that out of all the main characters of Sword Art Online, he's the only one who really thrives in the game world, to an extent not seen in his real life, and who has something to lose by the game ending.

In the real world, he's – something unremarkable, I think it might be mentioned that he works in an office – and while he has a bunch of friends, he's fairly firmly on the lower rungs of society.

In SAO, he's the leader of a guild, one of the three major 'clearer' guilds that fight bosses to get towards the end of the game. All of his friends are with him (and miraculously, all of them survive, in no small part because of his leadership), and he has a position of prestige and power – both institutional and personal, as he's also one of the more powerful players in the game – that doesn't exist outside.

Fuurinkazan. Who knew Klein was a Shingen fan?

That doesn't mean to say he wouldn't want to get out of the game – he presumably has a family, and he's illustrated multiple times as being concerned for other people's welfare, and he obviously doesn't want to die – but imagine the adjustment once he's outside of it.

Kirito, we see, has trouble adjusting to the outside world after being in SAO, and for good reason, since he's suffering from PTSD and he has a wealth of life experiences his peers don't, but he doesn't really lose anything by leaving – outside the game, he still has Asuna, and Klein, and all of his friends, really. But Klein has spent two years as, functionally, a military leader taking down gigantic monsters. He's not only been responsible for his guild's lives, and partly responsible for seeing the game through to the end and saving the lives of everyone in it: He's also been a fighter as skilled as Kirito. Now that he's out of the game, is anybody going to recognise that? Not likely. While Kirito ends up working for the government on VR MMO related missions, everything we see suggests that Klein kind of drifts back into his day-to-day office job and stays there, in exactly the same position in life that he was when he started.

Not to mention that Klein almost certainly has PTSD as well. He might have kept all of his friends alive, but he still saw people die. Given that he was involved in things like the Laughing Coffin Raid, he probably killed people himself. The implication made several times during the anime is that the public's understanding of what happened in Sword Art Online is extremely poor, and quite possibly being actively suppressed with the use of gag orders on the players and manipulation of the media and courts, and certainly Kirito doesn't seem to have gotten any psychological care for his rollicking death-game-inflicted mental health issues. I can't imagine getting help for any of the SAO survivors would be remotely easy, and can you imagine if something like this happened in real life? I can see the Daily Mail's headlines decrying people who claim they were traumatised by a video game now.

What dorks.

I've remarked this before on tumblr and elsewhere, and received in turns agreement and some extremely long-winded rants in response, but I do think that Klein would make a better protagonist than Kirito. A large part of that is because, very often, Kirito's perfect-ness at everything is stretched to the point of being frustrating, and he is often written as being bizarrely and creepily irresistible to all women in a two kilometre radius. But a lot of that is because I simply believe that Klein is a more charismatic and interesting character than Kirito: He's friendly, and cheerful, and affable, and that's always great, but he also has good reason to feel conflicted about what he's doing, and to struggle with what he knows is the right thing, and that gnawing part of every person's mind that tries to justify the wrong thing to them. There's potential for internal conflict there that Kirito – and Asuna, for that matter - just doesn't have.

Which, you know. Is nice.  

Oh, ALO.

As a side note, it appears that headband is one he owns outside the game, and being slightly different from the headband the avatar he made is wearing, was probably what he was wearing when the game replaced all of their avatars with copies of their real bodies. 

It's a part of his head, and he can never take it off. 

Friday, 29 August 2014

Editorial: Four Ideas for Survival Horror Games.



Four Ideas for Survival Horror Games.


“Okay, this is a bit outside your remit, man. You're a review blog. For review people,” you might be saying, if you're the kind of person who reads blogs and formulates ideas about what their remits are, which I am. “Not a writing blog, for writing people.”

Which is true – although creative writing is my field of choice – but I'd say this still qualifies, because by formulating ideas that would fit within a genre, we can examine both the essential elements of this genre and ways in which the people working in it could push the boat out a little, and do so in a fun way!

It is totally not because I've not had a full night's sleep for a week, and I'm in a constant state of disorientation and confusion, and thinking critically about things is hard. That's my story, and I will clumsily shank the one who disagrees with me.

On to the ideas!


The Silver Bed.

This one is prompted mostly by Spec-Ops: The Line and Silent Hill: Homecoming. Spoiler alert, in Homecoming, you initially appear to be a PTSD-ridden soldier returning from war to find that your home has become a survival horror game, but it shortly turns out that it was all a misunderstanding, and you've never been a soldier.

What a wasted opportunity. PTSD, and the horrors of war, is the perfect grist for the mill of survival horror games. It's bizarre that Silent Hill would pass that up for a storyline that is mediocre at best.

So here's the premise: You are a young soldier returning from war. You go to sleep on your first night back, after a celebration in which a few eerie things that you put down to exhaustion happen, and wake up to find that your small, sleepy town has been drowned in sand. Or ash. It's not clear. Everybody is missing. What few news reports you can find say there was a massive dust storm.

But surprise! There are monsters that come from the sands, led by the Sandman. They have something to 'talk' to you about: Namely that you've seen or done something awful, and now that awful thing has come back to get you.

Also, survival horror games often benefit from the use of a recurring landscape element – water in Silent Hill: Downpour, ice in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Here it's sand (or ash). Slowly spreading sand (or ash). Slowly spreading and decaying everything around it.

Far more interesting than Homecoming.


HUSK.

I rambled about this on tumblr, mostly as a joke, and then it slowly started to formulate into something more serious. You are a husky. A voice-acted husky, although you can probably only remark 'I am a husky,' because I've always thought that given the opportunity, dogs would talk entirely in declaratory statements of painfully obvious truths. You're a husky sleighdog, and you're on a research mission up in the Arctic with your human handlers, who are archaeologists who have discovered a cool, hidden town, and it looks ancient.

But all your humans have gone missing, and because you are a good husky it's up to you to go find them. So you travel through the town, fleeing and fending off monsters that start off humanoid, but slowly become more lupine over the game, and encountering pictures and carvings depicting the Wolf God that the town's inhabitants worshipped (you can't read, obviously, so it has to be pictures).

As you discover more and more of your dead humans (who, frustratingly, cannot be woken up by dancing about them and barking), and uncover more and more of the mystery, you realise that you killed all of them. The game culminates in some manner of horrifying boss battle, but at the end, it's unclear whether you're just a delusional huskyface, or if you're under the influence of the Wolf God, or if you are the Wolf God.

The point of this, really, is that there's a certain amount of horror to be derived from taking an innocent – and nothing is more innocent than a dog – and running them through the Standard Survival Horror Storyline of 'in abandoned place, supernatural beings, oh no, you did something terrible in the past and forgot' that seems to show up everywhere. There's also a certain amount of macabre horror to taking something hilarious and ridiculous and making it was unpleasant and dark as you can.


Twelve Nights On.

A lot of these follow the old standard 'you are an awful person, and now the world is punishing you with survival horror' trope that was popularised by Silent Hill 2. There's a reason for this: I really like Silent Hill 2. But let's break away from that. Let's have something where not only are you not a bad person at all, you're not even that important in the survival horror setting.

You are a resident of Hong Kong. A very normal resident. After a car accident, you wake up in hospital, but it's abandoned and falling apart. You go outside, but Hong Kong is twisted and distorted, and everything's wrong, and monsters are chasing you. You also realise that you were comatose for exactly twelve nights, which is a little strange. You're not the only one, either: In fact, the only people who are around at all are twelve-hundred people who were all unconscious for exactly twelve nights, and have only just woken up.

Making your way through the city, you discover, bit by bit, what happened on those twelve nights, a story which includes the awakening of eldritch abominations and the end of the world, and a lot of other things that you are in no way related to or the general cause of. You also discover why you and 1199 other residents of Hong Kong are still around when everyone else has vanished. It also has nothing to do with any dark thing in your past, because the darkest thing you've ever done is that one time you broke up with somebody by text, and it was all really awkward, okay? They were a really awkward person.


@W1RE.

A survival horror game set on … the internet.

Or an artificial reality version thereof. In this game, you are a detective in a cyber crimes division, and you have logged in to the artificial reality worldwide network called the Wire, to investigate a user-heavy server nearly crippled by odd glitches. When you get there, though, you find you can't leave – nobody there can leave. The computerised environments have been warped into fragmented, Escher-like versions of themselves, strange glitch creatures are a-roaming, and the Wire itself seems to be out to get you, digging up records of a past left forgotten in order to torment you.

Again, the idea is to twist around the standard survival horror formula. Again, you are a person with a dark secret in their past – although you are probably not a terrible person, and the survival horror-ishness has nothing to do with anything you've done, so much as it is the villain deciding to psychologically torment you -, arrived at an isolated area where you cannot return to the outside world, with forces greater than you can comprehend pressing in on you. Except that place is an artificial reality, and you are essentially exploring and being tormented by the internet.


Opportunities abound for interesting gameplay mechanics, horror moments (computer malfunctions can be terrifying even if you're not stuck inside them), and the slow, creeping realisation that outside the Wire, something horrible might be happening with your body. Also social satire, one supposes, but I've never been fond of internet-based social satire, as it's always come off as 'argh, technology! It burns!'

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.


Diane off the Great British Bake-Off is the worst criminal the United Kingdom has ever seen, according to an official statement by the London Met this week.

So, you know. There's that.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
By Mark Haddon.



Oh, my stars.

I read this book ages ago, and had not returned to it for a reread since, until my Book Club (yes, I am a one-hundred-and-two year old man from Sussex, what of it) put it down as a book to read. Which probably means that someone there really likes it. I predict making an enemy very soon, because the reason I hadn't reread it is because I hate this book.

Not as much as Ender's Game. Not as much now as I did in the past, as the intervening ninety years has done much to soften my reactions to things. But I still find it rather distasteful.

It has always carried a certain pall of the fetish to me, the kind of rather breathy, rapturous view of the autistic spectrum that teenagers who self-diagnose themselves with Asperger's because they think it makes them look cool or smart seem to also hold. As someone actually on the autistic spectrum, this recurring pop culture idea of the autistic savant – and make no mistake, that pop culture idea is the bread and butter of this novel – has always been a disquieting and unpleasant one. I'm not a genius, by any wild and fanciful stretch of the imagination. Most autistic people are not geniuses, by any wild and fanciful stretch of the imagination. What this meme of 'lulz super-smart Aspies' does is imply with the subtlety of an anvil to the left eye that if you're autistic, you must be a genius savant, and that if you're not, you're worthless.

Dog.


So, how is the book despite that?

Well, to be honest, there's not much 'despite that' in the book. Like I said before, that stereotype, that cliché, that meme, is the substance of the book. It is the main character, for he has no personality beyond it. It is the plot, because the various conflicts that arise in the book are all vehicles with which to demonstrate it. It is the setting, because the loosely sketched out view of Swindon revolves around places where that cliché might most aptly be demonstrated.

That's not unusual for a character study, and this is a character study, in possibly its purest form. But that becomes a massive problem if the premise on which your character study is built is inherently flawed, because those flaws will poison everything else.

But let's try to talk about the book detached from that gaping issue anyway.

Dooog.

It is well-written. My distaste for this book aside, Mark Haddon is an enormously talented writer, and there's no way to honestly deny that. His writing is the kind of concise, no ruffles, expert style that I think just about every writer should aspire to on a technical level. It is ruthlessly devoid of fluff, pomp and dead weight, leaving it very streamlined and engaging. He's also very consistent with writing in the voice of a character who is probably genuinely difficult to write in – I don't like that character, but I can recognise the technical difficulty of writing a whole book in that voice, and doing so in a manner that is consistent and, I admit despite myself, entertaining.

The plot, also, is well-paced right up until the end, and perfectly coherent, and even makes very good use of foreshadowing. Haddon's foreshadowing game is A++, would be foreshadowed at again. My biggest issue with the plot is that the Father is forgiven for his crimes at the end, when I would personally find both of his crimes, especially the second one, to be absolutely unforgivable, and if someone did them in real life – or just the second one, which is an act so nauseatingly monstrous that I am filled with revulsion at it – then I would never speak a kind word to them again.

Dogs, man. Dogs are better than people.

Dooooog.

The thing I'm getting at is, by any meter by which you might judge it, Curious Incident is a very technically strong novel. It is. But no matter how technically strong something is, it's still worthy of a degree of revulsion if it has carved out its fame by, in essence, exploiting and spreading stereotypes about an already exploited group of people. It's one character, obviously – but it's the main character, in a book all about that main character, in a market saturated with autistic spectrum characters who are all exactly the same, and it's not helping. As an iconic and much-loved book, what it's really doing is making things much worse.


Which is not something I'll ever look favourably on. Something unpleasant can be delivered with more elegance and grace than you thought possible, and it will still be unpleasant.  

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Doctor Who S34E1: Deep Breath


Start of a new series, start of a new ongoing. This is in theory replacing Falling Skies, even though the finale for that is next week, so for this week and next week this blog will be Ongoing Review Series: The Blog. 

If you're wondering what will be replacing Teen Wolf, the answer is almost certainly Kamen Rider Drive. 


Doctor Who
Series 34, Episode 1
Deep Breath.



I profess a certain amount of irritation with people who refer to this series as Series 8 (which the BBC does, actually. You should know better, BBC) or, worse, Season 8. It's the thirty-fourth series, goddammit. Doctor Who existed before it became interesting to Americans.

I also profess a certain amount of irritation with this episode. Perhaps my expectations were too high. Having heard the rumours of Capaldi putting the kibosh on the worst of Moffat's excesses, perhaps I had readied myself for something marvellous and wonderful that went entirely counter to what the past few years of Doctor Who have given me.

I was mistaken.

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first: Capaldi was excellent as the Doctor, as I think we all knew he would be. 10/10 performance would watch again – and will this Saturday, one supposes. I also want to give a shout-out to Brian Miller, husband of late actress Elisabeth Sladen, who played Sarah-Jane Smith. He appeared in this episode as a homeless man who has a lengthy conversation with the Doctor.

Anyway. 

Anyway.

Deep Breath, our first episode with Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor after a rather indulgent Christmas Special where Matt Smith departed, takes us to favourite location Victorian London – it's like how Kamen Rider goes to the Edo period once a year. They have the sets, and by god, they're going to use them if it kills them. There, the rather disorientated Doctor and rather irate Clara meet up with the Paternoster Gang – Silurian Sherlock Holmes expy (and in-universe inspiration) Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and overenthusiastic Sontaran Strax – to investigate the spontaneous combustion of a dinosaur.

Which all sounds like good, rollicking fun, but to be honest, this episode is a mess. Moffat's writing has always been marked not just by a marked tendency towards misogyny and an even more marked tendency towards the worst kind of wish fulfilment, but also by a lot of very basic technical errors: It's an issue that's extremely pronounced in his other well-known series Sherlock (try watching the third episode of the first series with a sufficiently critical eye and you'll notice that it crumbles in on itself), and which mostly goes unnoticed because Moffat is a genuinely impressive cinematographer and fairly masterful at staffing his shows with talented directors and actors – in short, Moffat's consistently poor writing is concealed by the glitz of people more able than he is.

But even by Moffat's standards, this was a very poorly written episode. The dinosaur, introduced early and killed somewhat later, has no relevance to the plot except to get the Doctor interested. The monsters are recycled ones from an earlier episode – which would be fine, except that in the first episode they showed up in, The Girl in the Fireplace, also penned by Moffat, they weren't the main attraction, and for a very good reason: They're not interesting, and they were there mostly to add a foe to an episode which was really more about romance. They're not any more interesting here, and there isn't anything else to distract from that, so they end up being a very 'so what' kind of villain – and no amount of pontificating on the nature of humanity, and on the philosophical problem of Theseus Ship (less pontificated on and more tossed out the window, despite the fact that if Theseus Ship isn't the same ship, then every human in the world is periodically dying and being replaced by a doppelganger. An evil doppelganger, we must assume) will muster charisma and interest into the shoddy frame of a very bland and by-the-numbers monster. Lastly, though, and perhaps most damningly of all, nothing really happens.

The progression of the plot is glacial, absurdly so, and the plot points covered could have been boiled down to an episode half the length, or even shorter, in the hands of a more competent writer. It feels like an episode with more fluff than substance – and you know, I like fluff. I like fluff a lot. I don't like badly written fluff, and that is, unfortunately, true of the fluff here. 

The relevance of this picture will become clear shortly.

What did happen to Clara's characterisation? I don't recall her being the type of person who, herself having seen no less than twelve incarnations of the Doctor already and having absolutely no problem with any of them, including John Hurt, would become angry, resentful and upset over the Doctor being old. I don't remember her being the type of person who would angrily accuse another woman of just being too clouded with lust for her to think straight.

The answer seems to be 'someone on the writing team was worried about how fans would react to an older Doctor, and Clara is meant to be their stand-in as they're guided into loving this new Doctor, consistent characterisation be damned', which … Okay, which has been done before and isn't a terrible idea. Russell T. Davies did it when Nine initially regenerated into Ten, having Rose be suspicious of and alarmed by this new Doctor, and then coming to accept him over the span of an episode. Moffat didn't when Eleven arrived, but there was no companion to fulfil that role, so instead he utilised Amy and Rory for that task. But both those instances were done with a great deal more subtlety, and they were both effective and, most importantly, didn't patronise the audience by assuming that they'd be unable to cope with a man in his fifties. Perhaps more saliently, they didn't butcher anybody's character to do it.

Clara's sudden personality change is a problem, because it's the companion that carries a Doctor Who episode, not the Doctor, and a companion without a consistent personality may as well just be a sockpuppet. Not that, of course, companion consistency has ever seemed to be a strong point of post-RTD Doctor Who, as we are not long yet past Amy, whose life and goals seemed to change with the passing of the seasons – compare and contrast with Rose, Martha and Donna, who had clear driving goals throughout their tenures as companions.

Clara looks as alarmed as I am.

Moffat's characterisation of the Doctor is also on shaky ground, as the Doctor becomes abruptly clingy towards the end of the episode – a character trait that no Doctor has ever displayed. It's a very jarring scene, because it feels so fundamentally wrong, and because it is so entirely unnecessary for the purpose it was trying to achieve. A more understated script, where the Doctor is visibly sad at Clara's uncertainty but doesn't push it, could have been worked with to produce the same result while having more emotional impact.

So, overall opinion? I adored Capaldi, and I look forward to seeing more of him. I also look forward to seeing more of him in episodes written by people with competence – and so help me God, I will seek out and eat the first person to go 'But Moffat won Emmys!' as if that means anything other than 'he won Emmys' – and I'm especially looking forward to seeing his interactions with Clara. Actual Clara, not Pod Person Clara.

Ugh, not a good start to the series. But I hold out hope yet.  

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Teen Wolf S4E10: Monstrous.


Teen Wolf
S4E10: Monstrous.



It's nice to have 'previously on' segments, they gear you up for what important plot points you're going to see this episode, especially when, as is the case in this episode, we're seeing plot points from way back in Series 1, of Peter and his burned face.

As we discover in the first few moments, Brett, Werewolf Love Interest of Liam's Friend, is back, as is Kira, as the former and a friend are rescued from hunters with crossbows by the latter. More assassins? It seems likely, especially as hunters aren't meant to hunt teenagers. Has Brett gotten a haircut? Or a new actor? He looks different.

I think he might have cut and dyed his hair, but you can't
really see it in this picture, I just like the eyes.

Scott hears the news, and he rustles up Liam to head out, but Liam is feeling a bit overwhelmed with this situation. He's not only been thrust into the werewolf thing, but it almost came with the expectation that he'll help save everyone as well, when that's an enormously risky thing – and he asks Scott how all of them have managed to survive so far and gets the somewhat disheartening answer that not all of them have. Scott, being a good older brother alpha thing, though, says he'll drop Liam at home before he heads off for superheroics.

Stiles is trapped at the hospital, as despite not wanting to incur more medical costs, Melissa won't let him leave. Melissa, you're great, but you shouldn't be keeping Stiles here for a CT that he and his father probably can't afford. Stiles asks for a cassette player, intending to listen to the recording of Lorraine's last words.

At the police station, Lydia sarcastically raises the question of Meredith's competence. The Sheriff points out that given the complexity and skill involved in the crime in question, she kind of has to be competent – but that even with her in custody, assassins are still being hired, and may still be getting paid. It's not clear when he got this information, but that's fine, we don't need to see or hear about every call Scott and Kira makes to keep the rest of the cast informed, that would get boring very quickly.

(Meanwhile, Scott and Kira passionately unite at the animal clinic, where Kira shows him that Satome's pack – what remains of it, at least – has gathered; and Chris breaks into some kind of warehouse, where a yellow flower is growing. Who can say what it does? Nothing good, I'd imagine.)

Face-eating.

Lydia's still at the police station come morning, and Meredith still isn't talking. Lydia insists to a rather incredulously Sheriff and Parrish that she should be allowed to go and talk to Meredith, since the girl has proven responsive to Lydia before. I do really like this scene: The Sheriff and Lydia have an almost father-daughter dynamic that is only enhanced by their mutual Meredith-directed frustration and lack of sleep.

This one picture sums up their entire interaction.

Malia visits Stiles at the hospital, and they somehow end up locked in – oh god, it's like fanfiction – and talking about their own issues using the medium of Melissa-accidentally-locking-the-door on them. Except Melissa didn't, as when they reconcile, after a fairly adorable scene, the door unlocks. Which is – strange. I'd call Nogitsune powers, but I don't think door locking was ever part of his abilities.

Chris returns to his … lair … to put the flower in his safe, but swiftly realises he's not alone. Surprise! It's an entire pack of werewolves, plus Scott and Kira. Satome's pack needs a place to stay and defend themselves against the team of assassins after them. Chris isn't happy at first, but he allows it, saying that he'll help them buy some time for Lydia to get Meredith to talk and to figure out how to cancel all the assassin contracts. He also reminds Scott that he's still target number one, with a massive price on his head.

While Stiles and Malia realise that Lorraine made her recording somewhere other than Eichen House, and that they need to find out where it was (and realise shortly thereafter she was at the lake house), Lydia is interrogating Meredith. It's kind of ridiculous to watch, because Lydia seems to be going full CSI: Miami on her, with a lot of walking around and dramatic spinning about and a lot of rather obviously faked confidence.

She settles down pretty quickly, though, and Meredith starts talking, saying that she gave Lydia and Stiles a cipher key because she wanted to help them. Lydia keeps pushing, and Meredith says that she does want to talk, but only to Peter. Everyone is – appropriately shocked.

Peter shows up, and is not – over-impressed with the Benefactor's identity. He goes in to talk to her, though, after some sarcastic belly-aching, and it becomes immediately obvious that they have met before, even if Peter doesn't recall it, as Meredith refers to when he had burns all over his face, expressing wonderment at the fact that they're gone.

This won't go wrong, I'm sure.

The conversation winds its way on, with Meredith insisting that Peter told her the dead pool had to be a secret, while Peter insists that they've never met before. Eventually, Peter gets frustrated enough to do the werewolf mind meld, rifling through her memories. Poor beleaguered Parrish gets some violence done to him in the attempt.

As all this is going on, Chris and Satome talk about her mantra, and how all werewolves are violent creatures at heart, which just seems to be making it more likely that Chris is going to revert to the side of evil before this series is done. Mercifully, assassins attack, armed with body armour, rifles, and smoke bombs. Where did they get all this equipment from? Who knows. Maybe Missouri's police departments have collectively taken up supernatural assassinations.

With Peter and Meredith mindmelded, Meredith starts whispering – but only Lydia can hear. Lydia narrates how Meredith ended up in hospital at the same time that Peter was there, burned and comatose, and how for the entire time she was there, she could hear all of his thoughts. Peter's thoughts, it turns out, are all about revenge, and detailed if rather lunatic plans thereof. It's almost silly how detailed Peter's plan is, and how perfectly it matches up what Meredith eventually did.

One thing of note is that Peter mentions how he might hire the Desert Wolf, who we know is Malia's biological mother.

So that's nice.

Over at the lake house, Malia and Stiles become frustrated with listening to the broken record player and switch it off – but Malia can still hear something, behind the wall that the record player sits against. Breaking through the wall, they discover a very old computer that's apparently generating the dead pool based on Lorraine's predictions years earlier.

Um. This is all getting very confusing very quickly.

Back at the police station, Peter, now having broken the mind meld, has a gun pointed at his head by the Sheriff. Some threatening ensues, and Lydia points out that this is what Meredith wants, as if the Sheriff shoots, the ensuing scuffle will most likely result in the deaths of Lydia, Meredith and Parrish, who are all on the dead pool. She also points out that the Sheriff has to let Peter go since, as Peter himself points out, nobody will believe the story. The Sheriff eventually relents, much to Meredith's disappointment.

The lake house computer needs a code or a prompt to make it stop – or, as Malia notices it has a keyhole on it, a key. They call Lydia, who quickly notices that the wine she spilt on the carpet episodes and episodes ago when they had that lake house party is gone, and that wine doesn't simply vanish – so it follows that, in a lake house where nothing is as it seems to be, the wine might not be wine. Stiles locates the wine bottle and Malia smashes it, allowing them to find the key in the shards and switch off the computer.

The evil assassination computer.

Which is a relief for Scott, I'd imagine, who is a) Caught up in a battle with heavily armed men, and b) Slowly becoming more monstrous and losing control of himself. In the aftermath, Lydia talks to Meredith, who says that when she heard Lydia's scream in Oak Creek way back last series, she knew it was time to set the plan in motion – and that they, the supernatural creatures of Beacon Hill, had done too much harm and caused too much death, and were all monsters, with only Peter able to set things right. Lydia uses Scott as an example of a monster who doesn't do monstrous things, which is – not promising for his continued moral rectitude, to be honest – and Meredith uses Lydia as an example of the same, before breaking down with the realisation of what she's done.

What a really disappointing end to the dead pool plot. Meredith's reveal as the Benefactor had potential, but the plot twist with Peter and his thoughts strained my suspension of disbelief more than a little, and the entire conclusion of this plot seemed incredibly rushed, and lacking any kind of bite. Also, so much stuff is left unexplained: The computer being the main offender of this. Did Lorraine make it? How did it end up spitting out a dead pool? Why was it hidden behind a wall and disguised as a record player?

This all seems rushed almost to the point of incoherence, which is a shame, because I was enjoying Series 4 so far.

In the final scene of the episode, Peter meets up with Kate. He's rattled, and Kate thinks he wants to stop the plan, despite the fact that everything is going in their favour, even if it isn't entirely in the ways they might expect. Peter insists that no, no, he's good to go as far as the plan goes, and he'd never shut it down when he's so close to killing Scott.

Which isn't so much of a surprise, that's been his stated goal since halfway through Series 3. It's looking like for the final two episodes – the second of which will be thirty five minutes longer than a regular episode, apparently, so I may have to review that over two days – Peter, Kate and the Berserkers will be the villains, so we'll see how that works out.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Falling Skies S4E10: Drawing Straws.


Ben/Maggie blogs keep being recommended to me by tumblr.

I feel like there has been an error.


Falling Skies
S4E10: Drawing Straws.



I feel like my enthusiasm for Falling Skies has waned in the past few weeks. I'm enjoying it, but my excitement for it seems to pale in comparison to Teen Wolf, Kamen Rider Gaim or Aldnoah.Zero. That, combined with a certain persistent lack of focus the past week, meant that when this episode started I spent a lot of time blinking and going 'what's going on, who are these people, who am I.'

We open on Alexis having a bad dream, which is probably meant to indicate that she's conflicted over the terrible things that she's doing but probably more likely means that she just ate some cheese before she went to bed (the British Cheese Board insists that cheese doesn't actually cause bad dreams, but I am entirely unconvinced by this. Do you have an agenda, British Cheese Board. Do you).

Back in Chinatown, everyone's trying to figure out how to get the beamer working. They're not having more success, although Cochise theorises that he has a one-in-three chance of being able to direct the beamer to fly to the Espheni homing beacon automatically, allowing the others to hitch a ride. Matt, meanwhile, is going through a teenage rebellious phase that literally seemed to set in this very episode, which prompts him too foolishly clamber up into the currently-hovering alien spacecraft looming over a populated area and fiddle about in its controls.

Good job, Matt.

Disaster is miraculously avoided, and he gets it to move slightly, giving Dingaan and Cochise a chance to start figuring out how it works. While searching for the signal of the Espheni beacon, though, they accidentally come across another transmission in Spanish.

Back with Alexis, she is receiving her training from Espheni Gandalf. It's all to do with gravity, specifically that gravity is the most pervasive force in the universe (true, it is the weakest but most omnipresent of the four fundamental forces), and that Alexis can control it and all the other forces of the universes, which pretty much makes her a god. For her first training session, Alexis has to reverse the pull of gravity on a tree, turning it into a push. This, it seems, makes the tree explode in dramatic fashion, also causing a fair amount of damage to the surrounding area.

Gandalf Espheni is impressed, but Alexis is more interested in knowing whether she'll eventually be able to make a star with her powers. I'd say 'what a specific question', but stars are very pretty, and if you want to demonstrate power, creating a star is a pretty sure-fire way of doing so.

What a trustworthy face.

The Espheni Warden is watching on, though, and he seems less than pleased.

The transmission that the 2nd Mass received is, apparently, somebody from Spain telling people that the Espheni have a new weapon and that they're emptying the ghettos, and that naybody surviving should go to ground. Apparently they know it's legitimate because it was broadcast at 1776 megahurtz, the year of the American independence – because, obviously, that would be a date that Spanish people would know or care about, and the Espheni, masters of strategy that they are, would be unable to figure out that Tom's constant monologues about the American Revolution might mean that he has some kind of attachment to it.

Jesus, this show's love affair with a minor territory dispute between genocidal English people.

A few people say that they should hide, and Maggie and Pope both suggest attacking some ghettos and freeing the people, but Tom insists that they're going to the Moon instead. When asked who will pilot the beamer, Tom, naturally, says himsef. Defending your main character status to the end, I see, Tom. Don't bother letting Cochise, who is experienced in alien technology, or Dingaan, who is a genius engineer, or Hal, who is very competent with vehicles do it. Clearly you, a history professor, are the man for the job. 

Those are the faces of convinced people who are on board
with this plan.

It turns out that actually Cochise is going on the mission as well, as Tom mentions when Anne berates him for constantly making unilateral decisions, which does come off as a bit – ninety-second verse, same as the first, if you catch my meaning. Except Cochise can't go on the mission, we discover a moment later, because the beamer may have a defence system that will reject anything Volm, and this might cause issues.

Tom will have to pilot the beamer all on his own then, because of course he will, and they set themselves to figuring out how to do that.

(Ben, meanwhile, tries to explain to Hal that The Spikes Made Him Do It. Hal is unconvinced.)

The next scene baffles and alarms me. The 2nd Mass, vexed with Tom just deciding that he's doing the mission, want a fairer way of deciding who does it, and for some reason, some bizarre reason, take Matt's suggestion of 'draw straws'. Even Dan, Anne and Anthony – a soldier, a doctor, and a police officer respectively, who should know better, think this is a better idea than, say, drawing up a list of everyone's relevant skills and then voting on it. Can you imagine how that would have worked out in their chosen professions?

'Okay, Doctor Smith, you've been here for literally a week and your expertise is in psychiatric care, but unfortunately, the straws have picked you to do Mister Gregson's open heart surgery. Sorry, I don't make the rules. Hail the bountiful straws.'

You killed Mister Gregson, Matt.

Anne puts her name in the basket – good job, Anne, I'm sure if the beamer requires medical care everyone will be glad you stepped up to the plate – and it's implied that Hal and Ben put theirs in, too. Matt wants to, but Tom tells him no, for the perfectly rational reason that Matt is thirteen. Matt's protest is that Joan of Arc was thirteen when she went into the battle, which seems like a bit of a stretch, as Joan of Arc was never operating complicated machinery.

I mean, except in Nobunaga the Fool.

(Espheni Gandalf and Espheni Warden meet in the communication stone hellscape, meanwhile, and discuss their plans for Alexis. The Espheni Warden wants her dead, and in their discussion of this they reveal that they're not interested in peace and that Espheni Gandalf has a way of controlling Alexis if he has to – of course, Alexis is listening in on this.)

In the run-up to the straw drawing, Maggie and Hal have a scene where Maggie tries to explain that she's not actually interested in Ben, the spikes are, and Hal doesn't believe her either. Wow, kind of acting like a douche there, Hal. Dan and Pope also have a scene, where Pope reveals that he's taken Dan and Tom's names out of the draw, and that he really wants to go on the mission, as it is essentially a suicide mission.

You know, Pope actually can fly a plane. He's not a bad choice for this mission.

Tom draws the names, and the first one is Ben while, it seems, the second one is his own. As Pope and Dan both know, this is impossible: Tom's name was removed from the draw. But, hey, at least it's not Ben and Maggie, I might have just stopped watching.

Pope looks like he doesn't know whether to punch Tom or build
a shrine to him.

Espheni Gandalf, at another training session, moves to strangle Alexis while she's concentrating. He fails, as she turns her powers on him, explaining that she heard his conversation, and that she's the bringer of death, shortly before vapourising him.

After some prompting from Tom, Hal goes to see Ben, only to find Ben and Maggie engaging in spike-influenced making out, because of course they are. I hate this storyline, guys. I hate this storyline so much.

Who thought this was a good idea?

The next day, Ben and Tom prepare to head off to the Moon, and Hal reconciles with Ben – sort of. Before the launch can happen, though, Dingaan arrives, saying that something is coming and they have to delay the launch. Frankly, I'd call that a reason to start the launch as soon as possible just in case it's a beamer coming to blow your beamer up, but never mind.

It turns out, in fact, to be lots of beamers, coming to kill them all, but before they can get close, they all explode. Predictably, this is due to Alexis, who has returned to Chinatown, presumably to be an ally to them now.

Looking like you came from a high fantasy novel there, Alexis.

There was some good plot movement on this episode, which is always nice, but a lot of it grated for me. The entire drawing straws thing. The whole Maggie-Ben storyline. I really hate those parts, I do.

Next week is the finale, an eighty minute long extravaganza. I really don't know how I'm going to review that. It might end up split into two parts: One on Monday and one on Thursday, with the master post then going up on Friday. Or it might just be a very long review.






Saturday, 23 August 2014

Robocop (2014)


Robocop (2014)


 Hmm-argh.

I never really saw the original Robocop, actually. The most I ever caught of it was the last third or so at a mate's house during university, complete with effusive praise from the aforementioned mate for the clever in-film commercials (which, to be fair, were very clever). That, and having a Robocop action figure when I was a kid. I submerged it in water and it died. That's not a metaphor for this film.

Robocop (2014), a reboot of the beloved 1987 film of the same name, follows Detective Alex Murphy, a slightly rough-around-the-edges Detroit cop who gets blown up by a car bomb and is reconstructed by Gary Oldman into a robotic super-cop in a private company's bid to raise public support for replacing all law enforcement with robots. The original was praised for combining science fiction action with interesting political and social satire, and is a fairly iconic entry in film history, so how does this reboot stand up?

That … really depends a lot on what metric you're judging it by, and what metric you're judging it by really depends on what part of the film you're at.

The first twenty minutes of the film is some brilliant political satire, feature Samuel L. Jackson as Pat Novak, a Fox News style news pundit with a particular eagerness to see law enforcement robots on the streets. Actually, every time Samuel L. Jackson is on screen is pure satirical gold. He opens and closes the film, and appears intermittently in short news sections that serve, in essence, as this reboot's version of the aforementioned commercial breaks.

Lookit those teeth.

The rest of it is fun, but very standard, action fare. None of it is bad – actually, the film had me hooked, with a decent amount of sci-fi action while still focusing predominantly on what I thought was more interesting, the human element of Alex and his doctor, Norton (played by Gary Oldman) struggling with their conflicting priorities: Alex divided between his family and his robotic protocol to enforce the law, while Norton is torn between corporate influences and his own better nature. The conflict is painted in very broad strokes, and there's not a gigantic amount of subtlety involved in it, but it's still very compelling to watch, especially with Joel Kinnaman and Gary Oldman both putting in excellent performances.

(There's also some very striking moments in that regard, such as when Alex's suit is stripped away, revealing him – for the first time for both him and the audience – to just be lungs, a spine, a brain and a face.)

The action, when it happens – which was too infrequently for some critics but just enough for me – is very well-choreographed and appealing to watch, too, which is always a plus.

Riderman? Is that you?

Where the film really starts to falter is with its plotting. It has an odd Krull problem of feeling like a much shorter film than it actually is, just because there's a lot of plot trying to be crammed into its two hour run length. The film is trying to balance both the Omnicorp trying to sway the public plotline and the Alex solving his own (attempted) murder plotline, and the result is that the latter, which should have really been in the foreground, is brushed over and out of the way in almost no time. From Alex starting to investigate his murder to killing the culprit it can't be more than twenty minutes, wedged rather haphazardly into the second half of the film.

The most jarring thing, though, is that there's never much overlap between action and satire – and the few times there is, it feels very weak, and often revolves around the old idea of 'har har, corporations are evil' – which is certainly true, but is also touted in films and television so often that it's rapidly turning into cliché.

Which is a shame, because when the satire is on the ball, it's really on the ball, and is often quite thought-provoking. When the villain posits that robotic police officers would not experience prejudice, wouldn't act irrationally, and wouldn't be corrupt – more than a few current events did come to mind where that would have been undeniably a good thing. In contrast, when the film showed a mech half the size of a house gunning down a child for holding a knife that posed no viable threat to it whatsoever – well, definitely a fair share of current events came to mind there, as well.

There is a very keen awareness of the references – either specific or general – that the satire is meant to be making, and a clear sense of where it's grounded. This isn't satire that could be set anywhere. It's satire that's embedded in America's culture of police brutality, war crimes and the frantic excusing thereof, from the opening scene where Samuel L. Jackson plays off frightened Iranian citizens being treated like criminals as them 'being happy to feel safe and secure', to the final scene where he screams at the audience about how America is the greatest country on Earth, and will be forever. There's shades of Brecht there, but really no more than shades, because while Brecht operated firmly in the realm of surreal political fantasy, Robocop's satire is often only distinguishable from real life by the addition of holograms and robots.

Which is depressing.

Dramatic table leaning!

But that kind of political satire is brief and infrequent, which is really a crying shame. For all the mixed reviews this film got, it is a good film, just a bit confused as to what it wants to be. It's also a bit of a shame that they didn't get the opportunity to include the 'Alex gets gunned down by his own colleagues' scene, which is often cited as a very effective scene from the original – but it wouldn't have fit into the plot, and wouldn't have been as effective in this version (where his injuries are caused by a car bomb, not a prolonged shooting).

They did include the 'dead or alive, you're coming with me' line, though. Neat.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Accel World


Accel World.



Advance warning: This will be one of those reviews where I complain about how the creators didn't have the decency to actually end their story and instead decided to just stop it. If you want to know precisely where Accel World stops, in terms of storyline, I can tell you that it's before the resolution of the main plot, and before the resolution of almost every subplot, but after the resolution of a short arc that mostly served to introduce a set of villains.

Good job.

Anyway, set in the future of the Sword Art Online world, where being hooked up constantly to a virtual reality net has become common, Accel World follows a boy named Haruyuki who, being short, overweight, and socially awkward, is a pariah in real life – but has extraordinarily quick reflexes in VR games. It's these reflexes that bring him to the attention of Kuroyukihime, the Most Popular Girl In School and Student Council Vice-President, who reveals to him the existence of a VR game like no other: Brain Burst.

Having Brain Burst installed allows the user to accelerate their cognitive processes even in real life, making it a valued (and secret) resource for its users. Kuroyukihime isn't interested in this: She, one of seven Level 9 players known as the Kings of Pure Colour, wishes to reach Level 10 and discover the secret that is apparently hidden for whoever can attain that goal – and she wants Haruyuki to help her. It's this goal that has led to Kuroyukihime becoming the most hated person in the game world, as in its pursuit she killed the red king, causing him to be banished from the game forever. 

Oooh, wings.

Cor, that was a long summary.

It's a complicated premise, I'll grant, but then, it's a complicated show. While Sword Art Online has quite a narrow focus on Kirito and Asuna (and while I have many issues with SAO, that isn't one of them), with the various worlds they inhabit being interesting, but often very deliberately only fleshed out just enough to provide what's needed for those characters' stories, Accel World is about the world of Brain Burst more than it's about its characters.

It's a good look for Kawahara Reki, author of the light novels that both Accel World and SAO are adapted from, as while the man is wholly capable of producing interesting, three-dimensional characters (Sinon in SAO, for example), he seems to be terrified of using them as lead protagonists, instead preferring the most boring characters he can.

Because Haruyuki isn't that interesting. He's better than a lot of protagonists, that's for sure: He's flawed, he struggles, and so on. He's also utterly charismaless – to an audience, not in-story. A character, especially a main character, needs to engage an audience in their struggles, and while a large part of that is actually having struggles in the first place (which Haruyuki has down pat), an equally large part is being likeable, and likeability tends not to be defined by whether a character is a good person (as Haruyuki certainly is) but whether they have the charisma to appeal to an audience. It's why Gregory House and Loki are, despite being objectively awful people, beloved by fans.

Also, he's drawn in a completely different art style to everyone else.

Haruyuki also seems to suffer from the same issue a lot of anime protagonists have, that never gets any less boring: The 'every woman who comes into contact with him seems to fall for him, and I'm not entirely sure why' problem. It's not as bad as, say, Kirito's case of it, but the boy does have some three or so suitors, at least one of which is young enough that it frankly makes me extremely uneasy, and I'd rather not talk about it too much for fear of feeling a little nauseous.

So that's the big, gaping issue with it. The characters. Haruyuki doesn't have a particularly good supporting cast either, actually: Kuroyukihime is quite interesting, with a mysterious past and a conflict between the cold facade that she projects and a warmer exterior, but the other three members of the main cast are either dull (childhood friends Takumu and Chiyuri) or creepy (new red king Niko).

All of which might make it sound like I don't like Accel World, and it's true that I have mixed feelings about it. To be honest, there are worse crimes than a boring cast, though, and Accel World has a lot of positives. The worldbuilding is fascinating and excellent, setting up the world of Brain Burst in a way that's intuitive enough for most watchers to grasp it quickly, while deep enough that there's always more to discover and theorise about. Brain Burst, and the mystery behind it, is the driving force of the series, and there's a trickle of information about it that's just enough to keep an audience interested in finding out more.

(Not to mention, the idea of a virtual reality game that will generate a personalised avatar for you based on your traumas is just – well, a little terrifying, but also kind of cool, and with a better cast of characters could be the basis of something exceptional.)

Ooh, sword.

The animation is consistently gorgeous, especially during fight scenes, and the soundtrack is genuinely striking, with the two combining together to make some very memorable dramatic moments. Some of the minor characters, even, are actually pretty interesting, although they don't get enough screen time to really make it worthwhile. So it's not a series that is anywhere close to perfect, but it's a series that people should maybe take a look at.

Except, of course, that what you'll be looking at is a tiny chunk of a longer story, that ends suddenly in the middle of several unresolved plot threads, with very little chance of a second series and very few translations existing of any of the source material. I really can't describe how much this annoys me, and it's something that Attack on Titan did too, although we do at least know that it'll be getting a second series. If you know that you're not going to have enough episodes to cover your source material, or even come close, then edit. Diverge from the source material. Do what Fullmetal Alchemist did when the anime creators realised they wouldn't be able to keep up with the manga and split off into your own story.

It is terrible storytelling to just go 'okay, time's up, guess we're stopping here, soz.' It's the height of laziness, and it suggests that you don't actually care about your audience.

Ooh, energy blast.


Yes, I'm still bitter.


Goddamn Accel World.