Though it looks like I got through a lot of material this month, the majority of shows were watched last month and finished up in the first few weeks of July. I only managed one film and a couple of books, but there was plenty of variety here: a couple of period dramas that were either sentimental or goofy, two sci-fi shows (an old one and a new one) and a trip down memory lane thanks to a podcast that focuses on pulpy teen thrillers from the Nineties.
The Keeping Place by Isobelle Carmody
This is the fourth book in Isobelle Carmody's giant post-apocalyptic saga, and it's worth noting that the first was published back in 1987 and the most recent in 2011. Though I knew the series had been around for a while, I had no idea it spanned that length of time, and it's down to pure chance I didn't get cracking on the first book until the series was completed. Fancy waiting twenty-four years for the completion of a story (though I'm sure George R.R. Martin fans can imagine).
By this point Carmody is juggling a range of storylines and at least two dozen characters, yet all the balls remain in the air (for now). Told in first-person narrative by her protagonist Elspeth Gordie, the telepathically gifted Misfits are attempting to escape the persecution of the oppressive Council by backing various rebel factions – the only problem being that some rebels are just as prejudiced against them as the Council.
It's a complex set-up that's compounded by Elspeth's prophesied role as the one destined to track down and destroy the weapons that ended civilisation as we know it, not to mention a range of other characters with their own arcs and subplots. The stakes are successfully raised in this instalment, so it looks like I'm in it for the long haul.
Merlin Dreams by Peter Dickinson
Storytime: I was a kid when I first went to Fendalton Library, spotted this book on the shelf, and felt intrigued enough to check it out. But although I have very vivid memories of getting the book, I had very little recollection of the stories therein. Written by Peter Dickenson and illustrated by Alan Lee (well before his The Lord of the Rings work) the volume encompasses a number of short stories that are medieval-fantasy in nature, captured within the framing device of Merlin dreaming within his hollow hill.
I suspect most of the material was published elsewhere before being collected here, but all the stories fit well together in regards to their tone and content. Dickenson has a wonderful way of writing happy endings that are still tinged with melancholy and lost chances: it sounds like a strange mix, but it works really well, especially if you suppose all the stories are floating around in Merlin's subconscious.
Chronicles of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery
If it weren't for Montgomery's sense of humour, then most of her stories (if not all of them) would be sentimental mush. Even so, that humour often sits at odds with stories that involve pure melodrama that's played completely straight, and many of the stories in this collection could have easily been written by an eleven year old Anne Shirley (you know, the kind that were thoroughly mocked by the narrative).
Set in and around Avonlea, but containing only a couple of familiar characters (Anne has a brief cameo) the stories deal with the day-to-day tribulations of the townsfolk. There are several tropes that Montgomery simply loves, such as couples that spent years apart due to a quarrel, couples that can't be together due to a disapproving family member, and men returning to their families after having been declared lost at sea (can you believe this happens twice?)
Unfortunately this leads to repetitiveness across the anthologies: three stories in a row involve a) an elderly woman besotted by the daughter of her ex-lover and becoming her secret fairy godmother, b) a child violinist playing for a troubled woman on her deathbed, and c) a dying woman hoping for a visit from a young woman she once adored, who eventually appears and sings to her before her death.
Further Chronicles of Avonlea by L. M. Montgomery
Basically, what I said above. There are three more stories in this volume than the last, which only allows more opportunity for outlandishness. There's a mother who loves her son so much she insists he sacrifice his relationship with the girl he loves, a woman who starts to lose her mind after the death of her baby only to be brought back from the brink when she discovers an abandoned child, and a woman who finds happiness in complete self-sacrifice: after promising her dying mother she'll look after her undeserving brother, she gets kicked out of her own home once he marries, eventually returns to nurse him through a terrible illness, and then dies. Yeesh.
There's also no getting around how so many of these stories have dated. So many spirited and successful young women who realize they're missing out on true happiness by not getting married and managing a household. A teenager who hooks up with her forty-year old guardian who was once in love with her mother is really something I can't get behind. And to finish things off there's a hideously condescending story about a Native American woman who is described as passionate and wild and inferior to white women in practically every paragraph.
As with Enid Blyton, I'm now seeing Montgomery through adult eyes – and despite the lovely prose and otherwise strong characterization ... it's impossible to ignore the flaws.
The Forbidden Game by L.J. Smith
Thanks to a post on Tumblr, I discovered this podcast in which two women re-read the campy horror novels of their teenage years (think Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine and Caroline B. Cooney). They're hilarious, managing to treat the subject matter with equal parts enthusiasm and mockery and it's worth checking out, especially their experience with L.J. Smith's The Forbidden Game.
As it happens, L.J. Smith was a staple part of my tween years (she's best known as the author of The Vampire Diaries, but my favourites were the Night World series) and the podcast was enough for me to pick up my copy of The Forbidden Game (if there's one good thing about Twilight it's that Smith's novels were republished to capitalize on Meyers' success).
That Smith has watched Labyrinth there can be no doubt: the trilogy involves an ageless, white-haired, supernatural male who is besotted with a sixteen year old girl. As part of his twisted "courtship" he poses as the proprietor of a games store and sells her a mysterious game for her to play with her group of friends. After constructing a paper house and drawing pictures of their worst fears to place inside it, the six friends lose consciousness and wake up inside the Victorian house. If they don't face down their nightmares and get to the top of the tower before dawn, Jenny will be claimed as Julian's prize.
It's the kind of story that's absolute catnip to teenage girls and sends up red flags for everyone else. As it happens there's some fairly passionate internet discourse going on at the moment over whether or not these types of stories are harmless fantasies or dangerous precedents for real-life relationships – I can't really decide which side I come down on, only that (with a few exceptions) I've always found good girl/bad boy pairings ... a little silly. Most of the time I don't care enough about them to have a strong opinion on them.
In this case, I could sincerely enjoy the fantasy elements of six teenagers playing life-or-death versions of snakes and ladders, monsters and lambs, and a treasure hunt (one per book) while finding the romantic power-plays between Jenny and Julian hilariously stupid.
Julian is basically Spike, Kylo, Snape, Draco, Zuko*, Jareth, Guy of Gisborne, the Phantom of the Opera: all those assholes who are undone by their desire for a beautiful, innocent young woman – whether or not that's true in canon, it'll certainly be the case in the eyes of fandom.
* Okay, Zuko is not an asshole, but he was definitely treated as a Draco in Leather Pants by fandom, turned into a smartarse tortured deadpanner who would be redeemed by Katara's love; an interpretation which bore absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to the show itself.
And despite the fact Smith clearly enjoyed writing the dubious consent wooing between Jenny and Julian, I have to give her credit for the fact that – like Sarah and Christine and Lily and Marian and Buffy and Rey – Jenny soundly rejects her supernatural stalker and gains a greater sense of self in the process.
The whole thing is a little dated in some respects. So many problems could have been solved if cellphones existed, and Dee's dark skin is excessively commented on throughout the three books (she's compared to a jaguar, a panther, an African priestess, Nefertiti, to the point where it gets a little uncomfortable – especially since she's the only friend who hasn't been paired up by the end of the trilogy).
But it was a fun walk down memory lane, and L.J. Smith is certainly positioned at the higher end of trashy supernatural teen horror writers. There's no cringe factor when it comes to re-reading her material (at least none that I didn't feel the first time around) and the story still managed to surprise me a couple of times.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Critics panned and audiences avoided this take on Tarzan when it hit the big screen, and I'll admit I would have considered it a waste of ten dollars to get myself out of bed and to the cinema where I could watch the rather predictable story unfold amidst total strangers who won't stop checking their phones every five minutes. But on a stay-at-home rainy Saturday night with the folks? It hits the spot.
Foregoing the usual origin story (save in a few flashbacks) the story starts several years after Tarzan has left the jungle, married Jane, and reclaimed his heritage as John Greystoke III. Suffice to say, this is not the film to watch if you've never heard of Tarzan, as it assumes most people are already familiar with his background.
Though reluctant, he's convinced to return to Africa to investigate rumours of the slave trade, though once there Jane is promptly kidnapped by a Belgian agent looking to hand over Tarzan to a tribal chief in exchange for diamonds (the backstory gets explained). So the meat of the movie focuses on Tarzan's attempts to rescue Jane, involving plenty of vine-swinging, CGI animals and sweeping shoots of the African plains. Pretty standard blockbuster fare.
The portrayal of Jane interested me, as it very much captures the difficulty Hollywood still has in writing female characters, but also the ways in which it's matured. Margot Robbie certainly brings a lot of spirit and determination to the character, but within the narrative she's squarely in the role of Damsel in Distress. And yet this isn't a deal-breaker for me: a woman in jeopardy is a powerful storytelling tool, and it's not automatically sexist.
So ... I'm torn. This Jane verbally holds her own against her captor and ensures the escape of a fellow hostage which proves essential to her own rescue ... but she's given very little purpose or identity beyond being the wife of Tarzan. Remember the Disney version in which Jane is clearly an explorer and scientist in her own right? That angle is sadly missed here.
The Clone Wars: Season 5 (2012)
Still slowly but surely making my way through The Clone Wars, which comes in handy as an itch-scratcher during the Star Wars movie hiatus. By this point the story arcs and characters are well established, and you can tell the writers are having a lot of fun exploring the corners of the galaxy – not only in the geographical sense, but regarding the social hierarchy and various government factions.
More so than the film trilogies, the episodes have the chance to really delve into the shades of grey that make up this universe, and though the Jedi are generally depicted as benevolent, they are definitely not above criticism when it comes to their belief system. Anakin also benefits immensely, having been given the time and space he needs to get his arc plotted out properly: we not only see him as a kind, brave man of ideals and integrity, but also someone who carries a dark seed of despair and frustration inside him.
It's not perfect: there's a droid-centric four part story towards the end that's excruciatingly dull, one of the few black women in this franchise (if not the only one) is needlessly killed off, and yet another well-established female character is murdered in a near-perfect example of dying for the sake of manpain (seriously, her murderer tells the male character in no uncertain terms that he's killing her solely to make him suffer). But in all, the pros far outweigh the cons.
It ends on a particular high note, in which the aforementioned exploration of the Jedi Council's shortcomings come to the fore when Ahsoka Tano (Anakin's Padawan, and the show's best contribution to the Star Wars mythos) is accused of a bombing at the Jedi Temple. How they respond to it, and the effect it has on a young woman who has devoted her life to their cause, is a serious indictment of their "stifle your emotions" policy.
Oh, and one last thing: a few episodes also feature a very young Saw Gerrera, a character I had assumed was created for Rogue One. Obviously that's not the case considering this aired back in 2012, but it was interesting to realize that for most viewers his role in Rogue One would have provided a conclusion to his character, whereas for me his unexpected appearance in The Clone Wars was in the context of a prequel. And much like Anakin, the seeds of his later fall are apparent.
Killjoys: Season 1 (2015)
This was another show I've had on my to-watch list for a while, and it's an entertaining amalgamation of so many other shows and films. Imagine the bounty hunters from Star Wars in the setting of Firefly, with a cross between River Tam and X23 for a main character. Alternatively, you could describe it as a more sci-fi version of Dark Angel (remember that one, starring Jessica Alba?)
With that in mind, there are very few surprises (bounty hunter with a mysterious path tries to find the answers to her own existence – you've seen this one before) but the characterization is strong and the plot (outside the weekly procedurals of collecting a warrant) is carefully built across the first ten episodes.
Dutch makes for a great protagonist, with that glorious mix of outer steel and inner vulnerability that I love so much in characters. Even better, the show isn't afraid to depict her as afraid or tearful when the occasion calls for it, neatly avoiding the fear some writers have of portraying "strong female characters" as anything other than emotionless killing machines.
She's backed up by her partner Johnny, with whom she shares a close platonic relationship (another rare but welcome trope) and his brother D'avin, who comes complete with his own secret baggage. It's with him that Dutch shares the requisite sexual tension, and it ends up being the weakest part of the show, despite a couple of twists on expectations.
But the world-building is handled extremely well, with ideas and concepts planted early and paying off in the episodes leading up to the finale. The show also has a pretty impressive supporting cast of characters that wouldn't be out of place in the aforementioned Firefly: the disgraced doctor, the mysterious holy man, the beleaguered lawman, the deadly assassin...
I'm not hugely emotionally invested, but at the same time I came away surprised at how good it was.
The White Princess (2017)
If you've seen this show, I trust you had a laugh at the disclaimer right at the end: "some historical events and characters have been altered in the film for dramatic purposes."
Ostensibly a sequel to The White Queen, this miniseries suffered from a) having no actors return from the previous show, and b) not having good material to draw upon, either from Philippa Gregory's novel or history itself.
The truth is that the real Elizabeth of York's life simply wasn't as eventful as those who lived through the War of the Roses, and that she was seemingly content not to rock the boat during her lifetime certainly doesn't allow much room for intrigue and drama. To compensate for this, the show has to invent an entirely fabricated plot involving one of the York princes returning to claim his throne and the emotional fall-out that follows. Essentially, who will Lizzie chose: her husband or her brother?
None of the performances really stood out. Jodie Cormer has an uncanny resemblance to Ivanka Trump which was a bit off-putting (it wasn't just me right?), Essie Davis gets shuffled off-screen pretty quickly, and I'm afraid that Michelle Fairley is going to be stuck with shrewish roles for the rest of her career. She deserves more than that, particularly after Game of Thrones fundamentally misunderstood Catelyn Stark's character.
Still Star Crossed (2017)
I won't beat around the bush: this show is pretty awful. But it's awful in an awesome way. The melodrama is so melodramatic. The plot holes are massive and the characterization is muddled. And the dialogue ... hoo boy. And yet for all of that, I enjoyed every minute.
The premise itself is a winner: a continuation of Romeo and Juliet in which the feuding families grapple with the deaths of their children and struggle with the enforced peace that's been declared in the wake of the double suicide. The cornerstone of this truce is the betrothal of Benvolio Montague and Rosaline Capulet who are the complete opposites of their younger cousins: Benvolio is lackadaisical rather than passionate, and Rosaline is down-to-earth instead of romantic. And naturally, the two of them hate each other.
It's such a good idea that I'm almost sorry it was squandered on a soap opera (no matter how entertaining). Despite arranged marriages and bad first impressions being two things you want to avoid in real-life, they're immensely popular tropes within the confines of fiction. In this case Benvolio and Rosaline capture the contentiousness-but-underlying-attraction that makes the formula so much fun, and it's a damn shame we're not going to get a season two to see it play out further.
(And in case you were wondering, the Rosaline of this show is not the Rosaline of the play – you know, the off-screen girl Romeo was in love with before he abruptly ditched her for Juliet. It seems a bit of a waste).
Also noteworthy is Princess Isabella (super-beautiful Medalion Rahimi), the younger sister of the current Prince of Verona. Unlike her brother she has a keen interest in government, but still requires a lot of experience before she can go toe-to-toe with some of the more corrupt members of court.
Knowing it had been cancelled before the first season had even aired in its entirety, I didn't let myself get too emotionally invested. But I'm a little sad it's over so quickly.
Doctor Who: Season 10 (2017)
Season ten draws to a close and with it the run of Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. To be honest it feels like he just got here, and given his enthusiasm for the show I'm surprised he's leaving so quickly (I can understand younger actors wanting to leave for greener pastures, but as an already-established thespian I thought Capaldi would be happy to stick around for a few more years).
This was also Moffatt's last hurrah, and I have to say I'm relieved – despite not being totally confident about Chris Chibnall. Let's not forget he was behind the dreadful Starz Camelot and the worst Torchwood episodes. But it's obvious that Moffatt has been out of ideas for a while, and many of his usual tricks played out for the final time across this season, which ended up being fairly lacklustre.
It was interesting to note that many of the episodes were pointedly topical (as when the Doctor punches a man in the face after he makes a racist comment) though not always to good effect. The show takes on fake news in a well-intentioned three-part arc, and yet it culminates in a Broken Aesop when Bill manages to save the day by projecting false memories of her mother across the world. So a fake reality isn't defeated by the truth, but with another deception – albeit a well-intentioned one.
But speaking of Bill – she's delightful. It's so refreshing to have a companion that's just a normal human woman and not some cryptic mystery for the Doctor to solve (I never really got a fix on Clara's character for precisely that reason) and Bill Potts is observant, kind, brave and curious: all the essentials for any self-respecting companion. Though strangely enough, her story ends in a way that's suspiciously like that of Clara's: transcending her human form and travelling space/time with another woman.
Are we really only going to have her for one season? That seems very unfair.