It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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2020 – the best of the year

And what a year it’s been.

I refer, of course, to the pandemic. And Brexit. And Trump.

Admittedly, the last didn’t impact me at all. And I was sensible enough to flee the UK before Brexit.

Then there’s Covid… When you look at the low number of deaths in Asian nations, it’s clear no Western nation has handled the pandemic well. While Covid has been the most documented pandemic in history, it’s also been the most politicised. The latter is never going to result in intelligent or useful commentary, especially during a time when so many Western nations are led by populist governments and the press actively lies and misinforms in order to serve its owners’ agendas.

But enough about Covid. I’m profoundly glad I didn’t have to experience it in the UK, but I have many relatives and friends there, so there’s scant relief in that. I deliberately fled the UK because of Brexit, and I do not for one single fucking minute regret that decision. BoJo’s mishandling of Brexit – an appalling decision, in the first place – has made my situation confusing at best, and difficult at worst. Don’t forget: Brexit hasn’t just affected everyone in the UK, but also every UK citizen currently resident, or who owns property, in EU member states. Not to mention all those who operate businesses across what is now the UK-EU border. It is a criminal enterprise, and everyone associated with it belongs in prison. There is no outcome which is better than remaining a member of the EU. And if you believe otherwise, then you are a fucking idiot.

But let’s not talk about 2020… Except, well, this post is all about 2020. Specifically, the books, films and music I enjoyed most during the year. I usually do two of these a year: one in June (see here) and one in December or January. Because, well, things change. Although perhaps not that much. The numbers in square brackets below are that item’s position in my June best of the half-year.

1 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Tempest, Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (2019, UK) [1]. Moore has spent a lot of time exploring the history of UK comics, and not just in this property, which originally set out to explore early fictional heroes. But here the commentary on UK comic history is explicit, and even though married with the Shakespeare play of the title, it still hangs impressively together and provides a coherent commentary and story. I find Moore a bit hit and miss, although I don’t doubt he’s the smartest writer currently working in comics. This book is the best he’s done for a long time. One day, I must read his prose novels. I’m told they’re difficult…

2 Still, Adam Thorpe (1995, UK) [-]. I stumbled across Thorpe’s debut, Ulverton, by accident several years ago and was impressed. I put him down as a name to look out for when I was browsing charity shops. And subsequently read a couple of books by him. But it wasn’t until reading Still I realised how singular a talent he is. The book is framed as a spoken narrative by a second-tier British film director, who nonetheless is present for many of the great cinematic moments of the twentieth century, or at least knows the names involved. It’s an impressively sustained narrative, and a clear indication that although Thorpe is not a popular writer he has a voice that will continue to impress in decades to come.

3 Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (2019, UK) [2]. Gwyneth Jones is a favourite writer. Joanna Russ is a favourite writer. This is almost a dream pairing. I know Jones is a sharp critic, I’ve read her criticism. But I was not so sure how she would approach Russ’s fiction. Happily, I need not have worried. Jones’s treatment of Russ’s career is factual and sympathetic. And extremely informative. Jones discusses Russ’s stories in relation to her life and career and the general shifts in science fiction occurring at the time. True, her essay on Russ in Imagination/Space does a better job on The Two of Them than this book does, but Joanna Russ is more of a career overview. Good stuff. Especially for fans of Russ.

4 Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (2017, Israel) [3]. Tidhar either writes alternative histories of the Jewish people, often involving Hitler, or sometimes only involving Hitler, or novels about superpowers made manifest in actual recent history. And sometimes he writes other types of science fiction. In Unholy Land, the Jews were offered land in central Africa after WWI, and accepted it. They called their country Palestina. A Jewish pulp writer based in Berlin returns to Palestina, and as he explores the country’s capital, and his past, so the history of Palestina, and the story itself, begin to unravel. It’s territory Tidhar has explored before – I’m pretty sure there’s an early short story buried in part of this novel – but Unholy Land is a much more effective treatment. His best yet.

5 The Pursuit of William Abbey, Claire North (2019, UK) [-]. North’s novel may sometimes wander a bit, but she shows an impressive degree of rigour in the treatment of her ideas and clearly puts a great deal of effort into her research. It pays off. Abbey is being chased by a shadow, after failing to save the life of a boy in late 19th-century Natal, and that shadow means he can now hear the truth in what people say. Unless the shadow catches him, in which case someone he loves dies. The British Empire have learnt to make use of people like Abbey, and he is co-opted into the Great Game. The premise is pure fantasy, but it’s treated like science fiction. North does an excellent job on its ramifications, and if the book tends to melodrama in places, it’s also an intelligent commentary on colonialism and imperialism.

Honourable mentions: Bridge 108, Anne Charnock (2020, UK) [5], set in a post-climate change UK where migrants and refugees are indentured labour, it’s technology-driven but smells uncannily like recent political changes; All I Ever Dreamed, Michael Blumlein (2018, USA), excellent collection by a writer I’ve admired for many years, who sadly died in 2019; Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho (2015, Malaysia), Regency fantasy that makes a good fist of its setting but perhaps leaves a few too many bits of the plot unexplained; Skein Island, Aliya Whitely (2019, UK), women-only island retreat keeps one of the Greek fates in check, and so allows men the freedom to be themselves, but then the retreat is destroyed, resulting in a somewhat off-centre literary fantasy; Redemption in Indigo, Karen Lord (2010, Barbados), Senegalese-inspired fantasy that may not be hugely original but has bags of charm; The Green Man’s Silence, Juliet E McKenna (2020, UK), third instalment in an urban fantasy series, and probably the best yet; The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, Theodora Goss (2019, USA), third and sadly final episode in the adventures of the Athena Club, a group of female Victorian fictional characters, and I like the fact the books are explicitly framed as the written-up adventures of the club, including commentary on the narrative by the characters.

1 Blue, Derek Jarman (1993, UK) [1]. It probably says something about the sort of year 2020 has been that my pick for best film is 79 minutes of a single unchanging shot of International Klein Blue accompanied by a voiceover by Nigel Terry. But I could listen to Terry’s voice for hours. And Blue is such a perfect endpoint to Jarman’s remarkable career, an encapsulation of the life of a man who was more than just a film-maker, whose art defined an aesthetic and possibly a country’s cinema (more so than Richard fucking Curtis does). The BFI have released two Blu-ray collections containing all of Jarman’s movies. I urge you to buy both box sets. He made some remarkable films and they’re worth watching.

2 Kaili Blues, Bi Gan (2015, China) [-]. Although this film is not unlike those made by Sixth Generation directors, as far as I know Bi does not belong to that group. Yet Kaili Blues has all the hallmarks – a simple and yet very personal story, told in a a very stripped-back way. The centre of the film is a 41-minute single take, which is not only a remarkable piece of film-making, but also makes extensive use of the stunning Chinese geography in the area. It is a less overtly political film than those made by most Sixth Generation directors, but its commentary remains effective all the same. A man tries to discover the fate of his nephew, and ends up in a village where past, present and future co-exist. But not in an obvious way. A beautiful-looking film.

3 Capernaum, Nadine Labaki (2018, Lebanon) [2]. A young Lebanese boy sues his parents for having him, which is merely the entry to a story of child brides, indentured labour, refugee abuse, and Western imperialism. Everything in Capernaum is true, everything in Capernaum is the consequence of the foreign policies of centre-right and right-wing Western nations, everything in Capernaum should be condemned by anyone with an ounce of humanity. I was surprised I’d not heard of this film, and I’m familiar with Labaki’s previous movies, but given its subject perhaps that’s not so surprising. Capitalism does not work, the current world order is broken. We need more films about its victims. Capernaum is a beautifully-made and important film.

4 The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi (1978, Australia) [-]. If Capernaum suggests that things might change for the better, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith demonstrates they won’t. It’s a heart-breaking movie, set in late nineteenth-century Australia. Which is probably all that needs to be said. Australia’s history of race relations, especially with its indigenous people, has been far from exemplary. Jimmie Blacksmith, who is half-Aboriginal, accidentally kills a white woman after his white wife is persuaded to leave him, and subsequently goes on the run. The film show cases both Australia’s landscape and its systemic racism. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith may be set at the turn of the twentieth century, but more than 100 years later it often seems little has improved.

5 Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series (2017, USA) [4]. I loved Twin Peaks. It started out as a perfect pastiche of US daytime soap operas, before heading off into some very strange territory – which was not entirely unexpected, as I’d followed David Lynch’s career for several years. For all that, the last thing I thought the series needed was a third season, especially one made 27 years after the last season. But… it not only worked, it was brilliant. It recapitulated the strangeness of the original, it advanced the plot, it remained just as fucking strange. It also looked gorgeous. It didn’t answer any of the questions left over from the  original two seasons, but it was clearly never intended to. It was, as the UK branding makes abundantly clear, a “limited event”. I think this may be a good strategy for TV series.

Honourable mentions: Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai, Miike Takashi (2011, Japan), a remake of a 1960s film about a samurai forced to commit hara-kiri and the man who avenges his death; Run Waiter, Run!, Ladislav Smoljak (1981, Czechia), amusing comedy in which a man supplements his income by posing as a waiter in various restaurants and taking diners’ money, and gets so good at he becomes a folk hero; Sami Blood, Amanda Kernell (2016, Sweden), dramatic treatment of a Sami teenage girl turning her back on her culture, and encountering prejudice and racism as she tries to fit into 1930s mainstream Swedish society; Rift, Erlingur Thoroddsen (2017, Iceland), a man goes to stay with an ex-boyfriend who is holed up in a secluded cabin, but someone has been prowling around the cabin, and then things start to get really strange; Dodsworth, William Wyler (1936, USA), classic Hollywood melodrama of the period, with a razor-sharp script. Heckle, Robbie Moffatt (2013, UK), extremely low-budget UK film, set in Selby, about a woman who shows promise as a comedian; The Gardener, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (2012, Iran), beautifully-shot documentary about the Baha’i religion, especially in regards to a man who tends a Baha’i garden in Israel.

I’ve been doing a lot of box-set bingeing this year, so I decided to introduce this category. And, to be fair, the music category has been somewhat moribund these last few years.

Two of the series I watched this year were structured around the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. If it takes nigh on 100 years to comment on these horrible events in our popular culture, then perhaps we need to look again at our popular culture. Drama series about the Windrush scandal are not going to cut it in 2115. Get that shit out now, put it in front of as many people as possible, show them that the Tories are Nazis. Fascists shouldn’t have to storm the Capitol for people to take notice, especially when the evidence is there all along.

But, I digress. Or rant. One or the other. TV is a a more immediate medium than books or films. I suspect it’s also a more demotic medium than cinema or books, and so punches above its weight. It’s a medium that’s interrupted by what’s allegedly called news. Not if you box-set binge or stream, of course. But even so, we’re still at the point where a significant portion of the electorate have trouble accepting anything beyond the terrestrial channels… Which might not be so bad if the terrestrial channels had remained true to their charters, but they plainly have not.

1 Watchmen (2019, USA). I am perhaps in a minority in thinking the ending to the movie adaptation of Watchmen superior to the original comic book ending. And Watchmen, the TV series, was written by Damon Lindelof, best-known for Lost – which, when it wasn’t doing “backstory of the week” wasn’t all that bad, although it clearly wasn’t planned – and Prometheus, which is an appalling piece of writing. And yet, Watchmen is… seriously clever, both fitting within the world built by Moore and Gibbons and also extending it. Watchmen starts with police officers hiding their identities in order to protect themselves from Neo-nazi militias and then folds that into the universe of the graphic novel – which had much to say about fascist violence – before eventually dragging it back, as all things Watchmen-related must do, to Dr Manhattan. Smart television.

2 Lovecraft Country (2020, USA). I’d heard good things about this, but it didn’t sound like it would appeal as I’m not a fan of horror and, let’s face it, Lovecraft was a horrible fucking racist so it would take some fancy footwork to re-imagine him for a twenty-first century audience. Happily, Lovecraft Country sidesteps that problem by only referencing Lovecraft obliquely and – more controversially, for US TV at least – by basing it on black history. The end result is a mini-series that feels complete after two episodes, but still manages to keep the plot going for a further eight episodes. Nigerian/British actress Wunmi Mosaku stands out as Ruby Baptiste, and not just because her character comes across as the most rounded of them all. I didn’t expect to like Lovecraft Country, but I thought it excellent.

3 His Dark Materials (2019 – 2020, UK). An adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy, which I read back in the 1990s – and the first book was adapted for the cinema back in 2007, but no sequels appeared after underwhelming US box office performance and public criticism of the movie from the Catholic Church… But I had fond memories of the books, and occasional rumours of adaptations kept me hopeful we’d see it gain eventually on big or small screen. This British TV adaptation, however, has proven really good – despite not having a $180 million budget – and the second season, which aired this year, is even better than the first.

4 Morden i Sandhamn (2010 – 2020, Sweden) This is a police drama set in a small village in the Stockholm archipelago, about 60 km east of the city centre. It’s all a bit chocolate-box, which is what I call TV designed to showcase the appeal of places, even if the stories involve murder. They are… comfortable. Sufficiently fictional not to upset prospective tourists who like the look of what they see. Like Midsomer Murders, which features murder but nothing so upsetting as brown people. Morden i Sandhamn wins hands-down on the scenery front, and it did have a tendency to reach for cliché at moments of high drama. But it had a likeable cast – that were not exemplary, it must be said – and it took some effort over its plots.

5 Murder Call (1997 – 2000, Australia). A police drama set in Sydney. It is… extraordinarily ordinary. If that makes sense. Its gimmick is that its chief detective, Tessa Vance, would subconsciously solve the case three-quarters of the way into the episode’s 45-minute slot. While the crimes the homicide squad investigated ranged from the banal to the bizarre, it was Vance’s epiphany that pretty much defined each episode. I’ve always had a soft spot for female detectives – my favourite crime writers are Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton – and I’ve always much preferred police procedural TV series which feature female leads. Murder Call was very much a product of its time, but I quite liked the fact it made its central premise seem entirely reasonable and plausible.

Honourable mentions: Star Trek: Picard (2020, USA), Patrick Stewart is dragged out of dotage for one last mission, and it’s probably the smartest bit of writing set in the Star Trek universe ever put on screen; Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (2010 – 2013, USA), the eleventh incarnation of the series, but the smartest yet, filled with clever references and in-jokes, including spoofs of David Lynch’s work: Beck (1997 – 2018, Sweden), definitive Swedish cop show, entertaining to see how it changed – and the genre changed – over a decade; The Mandalorian (2019 – 2020, USA), Star Wars fanfic TV series, never very convincing but it did have its moments; For All Mankind (2019, USA), alternate Space Race which, unsurprisingly, reminded me a great deal of a quartet of novellas by someone or other…


Aiming Deep

I don’t normally write about television series here – in fact, I think I’ve only done so less than half a dozen times in the past. And usually then it’s about programmes I really like and think are very good – which would be, in no particular order, Battlestar Galactica, Waking the Dead, Scott & Bailey, In Plain Sight, Fringe, Twin Peaks, The X Files, Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes, and Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. (I make no apology for the last of those.) However, on this occasion, I’m going to write about something I didn’t think was very good at all.

Last weekend, I watched all five episodes of The Deep, a Tiger Aspect Productions serial originally broadcast on BBC 1 during summer 2010. Much like the movie Sphere – with which it shares some similarities – there are some neat ideas in The Deep, and a setting that could be really cool…


The neat ideas first: 1) exploring vent-fields beneath the Arctic icecap, and finding a thermophilic biodigester which produces biogas with unprecedented metabolic efficiency; and 2) discovering that the Russians have been secretly drilling for oil under the seabed in a UN Exclusion Zone beneath the icecap (shades of Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea?). Idea 1 provides the motive for the expedition to visit the vent-field on the Lomonosov Ridge and a satisfyingly earth-changing end-game. Idea 2 gives us the villains and the obstacles they present which the protagonists must overcome in order to win through to the end.

The setting is 2,000 feet deep in the Arctic Ocean. So the cast are confined to the interior of submersibles and/or submarines. At that depth, the pressure is around 70 atmospheres. Submarines make for really dramatic environments – they’re claustrophobic and subject to unforeseeable external hazards; and in this case, they’re high-tech too. The Deep features three such vessels: Hermes, a research submersible, which disappears with all hands at the start; Orpheus, a second research submersible which is sent six months later to continue Hermes’ research and also discover her fate; and Volos, the giant submarine the Russians are using as a base of operations for their illegal drilling. Each vessel also carries a mini-submersible, single-person but they can carry two at a squeeze.

So far so good. Orpehus arrives at the Lomonosov Ridge, discovers the wreck of Hermes, but is then disabled – and one of the crew killed – by… something. They are captured by Volos, but the Russian submarine remains silent. Aboard Volos, the Orpheus crew discovers all but two of its crew dead, cause unknown. The two survivors try to commandeer Orpheus, but she’s going nowhere because her systems are down. These are fixed by salvaging “the motherboard” from Hermes. But, oh no, the nuclear reactor aboard Volos is over-heating and will soon explode. Except there are other survivors aboard Volos, including a member of Hermes’ crew. It’s a race against time to rescue them before the Russian sub blows up.


Which happily it doesn’t, as one of the crew does a Spock and saves the day (at the cost of his own life). Oh, and the thing that killed the Volos’ crew and disabled both Hermes and Orpheus proves to be… a giant underwater radar. Which the Russians were using to probe beneath the seabed and find oil deposits.

Only now there’s another problem. That thermophilic biodigester is really important, but all the samples aboard Volos are dead. Fresh ones are required… from the oil well at the bottom of the nearby Laurentian Abyss. Well, they call it the Laurentian Abyss, and claim it’s 8,500 feet deep; but the real Laurentian Abyss is closer to 20,000 feet deep. So they have to go and get another sample. But the captain of the Volos won’t let them go, and in fact plans to use the giant underwater radar to destroy Orpheus. But they defeat him. And go and fetch another sample of the thermophilic biodigester by lowering a one-person sub into the well itself. And then the Volos blows up. And the good guys – well, the ones that are left – escape.

There you have it: five sixty-minute episodes of nail-biting underwater drama… Except. There’s just so much that is plain wrong in those five hours that the entire serial can’t help but sink into the abyss…

Those mini-submersibles I mentioned… They’re carried inside each of the vessels, and leave it via a moon pool. At a depth of 2000 feet, at a pressure of 70 atmospheres. So the interior of Hermes, Orpheus and Volos would also have to be pressurised to 70 atm… or be instantly flooded. We’re informed the crew are breathing “neonox”, a neon-oxygen mix, at high pressure, so, you know, it’s a little bit plausible. The current depth record is held by Theo Mavrostomos who, as part of Comex’s HYDRA 10 experiment in 1992, spent 3 hours at 2,300 feet (71 atmospheres) in a hyperbaric chamber on land. But the entire experiment took 43 days: 15 days compression, 3 days at 68 atmospheres, and 24 days decompression. There are no two weeks of compression in The Deep.


It’s borderline plausible – one man has spent 3 hours at 71 atm and survived, but that was 20 years ago. However… there’s no reason why any of the subs should have a moon pool. The mini-submersibles could just dock to a hatch. So then the interior could be pressurised to 1 atm. Just like real-life submersibles. In Sphere, the film adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel, the underwater habitat is 1,000 feet beneath the surface, but it has a moon pool. However, it’s needed because the cast go saturation diving. They go out into the water. No one does in The Deep.


And, of course, nuclear reactors don’t explode when they overheat. Nor do they require the control rods to be inserted by hand – as they must be aboard Volos (hence, the Spock scene). The US Navy has been operating nuclear-powered submarines since 1954, and the Russians since 1959. Several have been lost with all hands. None have exploded. (Incidentally, it’s never mentioned what powers Orpheus. Really really powerful and long-lasting and giant and heavy batteries, I imagine.)

Then there’s that giant underwater radar. And numerous mentions to “calling on all frequencies” by various members of the subs’ crews. Radar doesn’t work underwater. That’s why they use sonar. And radio doesn’t work very well below the surface either. Various navies have used extremely low frequency radio for communication with submarines (ie, with wavelengths of several thousand kilometres), but it’s expensive and technically difficult. Which is why acoustic transmission is the most common form of communication with vessels underwater.

And when the high-powered radar waves hit the Orpheus and shorted out its systems? That’s because it “reversed the polarity” on the motherboard. That’s what one of the characters actually says. And it seems Orpheus has one motherboard through which everything must be routed – not just for its failure to totally disable the sub, but also to allow it to be fixed in one fell swoop later. Never mind building in redundancy…

But, you cry, these are piffling! What do I care about HYDRA 10 or nuclear reactors going boom? The Deep was jolly exciting drama and those are mere trivial details. After all, the moon pool looked pretty neat, so what does it matter if no real submersible could descend to 2,000 feet with one? Or even to 8,500 feet.

As for the other niggles, they’re even more trivial. So what if one of the Russians lights up a cigarette at 70 atms pressure? So what if another character declares Volos, at 300 metres long, larger than any surface vessel – when both supertankers and US Navy aircraft carriers are all over 300 metres in length (and the largest supertanker ever built, Seawise Giant, was 458 metres long)? So what if a marine biologist is asked to do an autopsy and seems to know what he is doing, despite saying he’s only ever dissected a rabbit for his Biology GCSE? So what if the thermophilic biodigester produces nitric acid as a byproduct of its metabolic process, and the acid has been corroding all the subs’ hulls  – but the concentration would be so weak in, like, the Arctic Ocean that it couldn’t even corrode tissue paper? So what if the underwater well, from where they fetch the fresh sample, is a hole several metres in diameters and when have you ever seen an oil well that large or even a drill bit? That’s less than trivial! It is meaningless.


There were problems with the story itself, true; and with the script. Characters telling each other stuff they should already know – “We’re breathing Neonox, a mixture of neon and oxygen”, “That’s a vent-field”, etc. Not to mention a dramatic scene resulting wholly from the fact two switches had been swapped over but their labels had not been changed.

My point is that the details I’ve mentioned above could all be easily checked. And putting them right would not have affected the story (although a hatch doesn’t look as cool as a moon pool, I’ll grant). But when you leave stuff like that in, it will annoy some people and you will lose them. Why not get it right and keep them? No one’s saying it should be, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s nearly as long as a supertanker or a US Navy aircraft carrier, but not as long as Seawise Giant, which was 458 metres long.” Because that would be silly. Instead of, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s longer than anything you’ll see on the surface,” why not, “That submarine must be 300 metres long, that’s really big for a submarine”?

The giant underwater radar is more problematical as it’s a plot device. Something has to generate the EMP which leaves Orpheus dead in the water, something has to kill the crew of Volos. There’s a lovely line in the Wikipedia article on offshore geotechnical engineering, which goes, “For the sub-bottom stratigraphy, the tools used include boomers, sparkers, pingers and chirp.” The article explains that geophysical surveys make use of a combination of sonar and seismic refraction, so perhaps one or more of those might have been used instead of the implausible giant underwater radar.


When I started this post a few days ago, it was with the intention of just pointing out some of the howlers in The Deep. But yesterday’s discussion on Twitter suggested to me there’s a wider point to make. When you’re writing, there’s stuff you make up and stuff you look up. And if you don’t know which is which, then perhaps you need to rethink your story. Never assume your readers won’t spot it when you’ve got details wrong. It’s perhaps forgiveable when the knowledge required is arcane or difficult to find. But the simple stuff? Characters using the Jubilee Line on the London Underground in 1940, 37 years before it was built? Characters referring to the Paras as “redcaps”, when that’s the nickname of the Royal Military Police? Why would a writer not bother to look these things up? If they’re that lazy with the details, what does that say about the story, or the novel, as a whole?

You can’t, as they say, please all of the people all of the time – but you can at least make an effort to please as many as you possibly can. If I’m writing and I want something to happen in my story but I’m not clear on the details, then I look them up. I don’t just wing it and hope no one notices. This does not mean every story needs to be fact-checked. It’s not always necessary. I wrote a story about an ATA pilot who flew Spitfires, so I researched both. I wrote another story set in an unnamed town during an unnamed decade (which sort of resembles the 1940s) – no research was necessary. If a story is set on an invented world in an invented galactic empire, then there’s not much you can look up anyway. But if it’s set in London, or Belfast, or beneath the Arctic icecap – then it’s time to get googling.

The internet is an amazing tool, so why not make use of it? Pretty much all of the information mentioned in this article, I found online. And if I could find it, so could anyone…


It’s not rocket science

Perhaps television science fiction is too easy a target. Perhaps the demands of television drama are incompatible with the demands of good science fiction. Good prime-time television drama, that is: a television series that doesn’t want to appeal solely to fans of television science fiction.

I am, of course, speaking of Outcasts, BBC1’s new science fiction drama. It’s currently being shown at prime-time on Monday and Tuesday nights, but in March will be moved to late night Sunday. I have so far watched the first four episodes, and I can’t decide which is worst: the plotting, or the world-building.

To be fair, the programme looks good and is mostly well-acted. And those television series which have clearly spent a lot of time and effort on world-building have ended up with (relatively) small but loyal fanbases among media sf fans – Battlestar Galactica, for example; or Firefly. But perhaps such an investment was thought too much for an eight-episode drama aimed at general television viewers, and which just happened to be science fiction.

But, you know, the world-building is important. It’s one of the pillars holding up suspension of disbelief. And without suspension of disbelief, you have a television drama that’ll shed viewers and end up being moved to a graveyard slot. You don’t need to create an entire world’s worth of back-history, you don’t need to invent new swearwords. But you do need to apply a little common sense to the world you’ve created for the story. No giant starships, for example, which are plainly not built to make planetary landings, but do anyway – despite previous attempts by other giant starships often proving catastrophic. Or re-introducing slavery, which is morally abhorrent no matter how you try to justify it, and simply wouldn’t happen in a story set no more than handful of decades from now. Or possessing sophisticated technology, but ignoring the way it is used in the real world – for communications, for instance; or GPS.

Granted, these may be considerations which are only going to exercise the minds of science fiction fans; perhaps general viewers, unused to, or unconcerned with, the demands of genre television, will ignore them. A lack of them won’t spoil their viewing experience. But is that any reason not to take the trouble to get it right? Their inclusion can only improve the story, and they’re unlikely to turn off non-sf viewers. There’s no need to turn Outcasts into Battlestar Galactica, with an entire universe invented from scratch, but throwing in a little rigour will surely make the programme better viewing for all.

Because when you skimp on the world-building, the plot stops making sense. Since many of those dramatically-tense scenes wouldn’t exist if you’d used a bit of common sense. So, for example, you have lots of sophisticated comms gear on your colony world, but people go off into the outback without any means of being contacted, so no one knows when they encounter trouble. It’s dramatic; but it’s also pretty dumb. And when you abandon common sense in world-building, you end up with idiot-plotting, a story that can only progress if the characters make pretty dumb decisions.

Battlestar Galactica proved that science fiction television can tackle grown-up themes in a grown-up fashion. It doesn’t always have to be juvenile. Outcasts could have demonstrated that rigorous intelligent science fiction doesn’t only appeal to fans of media sf. Instead, it seems Outcasts‘ writers ran from that particular fight. A shame.

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Genesis of the Cylons

When a television series pilot opens with what seems to be a vision of hell – writhing naked bodies, men fighting bloodily to the death, people being shot, human sacrifices – and then later features a suicide bomber on a train… you know you’re not watching your usual anodyne and juvenile science fiction series. But then Caprica is the new series from the makers of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, and Battlestar Galactica could never have been described as “anodyne and juvenile”.

Caprica is set fifty-eight years before the events of Battlestar Galactica – in fact, Commander Adama is a child in the Caprica pilot – and sets out the events which led to the creation of the Cylons and their eventual revolt against the humans.

Daniel Graystone (Eric Stoltz) is the CEO and driving force behind an electronics company on the world of Caprica, one of the Twelve Colonies. He invented the holoband, which provides access to a virtual world or cyberspace called V-Space. At present, he’s working on a robot soldier for the Caprican government, but is having little success. Graystone’s teenage daughter, Zoe, is a computer genius. She has invented an AI copy of herself, called Zoe-R, in the virtual nightclub she and her friends frequent in V-Space. It’s the nightclub which is the aforementioned vision of hell.

Joseph Adams (Esai Morales) is a lawyer on Caprica, although he is originally from Tauron. He has connections with the Ha’la’tha, an organised crime syndicate on that world, but refuses to do their bidding.

As in Battlestar Galactica, the Twelve Colonies practice pantheism – and again, their gods share the names of the Greek pantheon. But Zoe and two school friends have turned their back on the gods and embraced monotheism. They are secretly members of a group called the “Soldiers of the One”. Zoe and her friends run away to Gemenom, where they hope to contribute to the monotheistic cause. They don’t get very far. One gets cold feet and doesn’t even get on the maglev train to the starport. And, while on the train, another reveals that he is carrying bombs strapped around his middle. Which he promptly detonates.

Daniel Graystone and Adams meet at the enquiry into the terrorist attack. Adams’ wife and daughter were on the same carriage as Zoe and her suicide bomber school friend.

It’s not hard to see where the story will go. Graystone is struggling with his robot, his daughter has created an AI. Put the two together and you have a… Cybernetic Lifeform Node (which is, I must admit, a particularly naff backronym). This, then, is the genesis of the Cylons.

Adams’ role in the story is less immediately obvious. Towards the end of the pilot, he admits his family name was originally Adama, and vows to change it back. This certainly explains his connection to Battlestar Galactica, if not to the story of Caprica. Because up until that point, he has only been used by Graystone, chiefly by approaching his Ha’la’tha contacts and asking them to steal a chip created by a competitor which Graystone needs to load Zoe-R into the Cylon. Adama’s payment for this will be an AI of his dead daughter.

One of the things that made Battlestar Galactica such compelling viewing was its full-frontal assault on the difficult subjects not normally tackled by sf television series. Perhaps sometimes it tried too hard to be edgy, and so sacrificed rigour for the issue of the week. Opening Caprica with a terrorist bombing shows the series certainly plans to continue Battlestar Galactica‘s dramatic use of contentious topics. While the programme makers have married this to a religious war – monotheism vs pantheism – they’ve also demonised the monotheistic worldview by defining it using only a black and white moral framework. There’s no reference to a creed, or a body of law, only the repeated insistence that morality is polar and imposed on humanity by their god. It feels overly simplistic, as if the monotheistic cult were invented by Zoe and her teenage friends.

Also appealing in Battlestar Galactica was the care and depth of detail with which its world had been built. Admittedly, it’s easy enough to create a futuristic, and not quite recognisable, world when the programme is almost exclusively set inside various spaceships. It’s harder to do for a programme set in a city – especially if the city is not entirely CGI. Caprica uses production design to show that it predates Battlestar Galactica, but it doesn’t quite work. Hats and old-fashioned suits are not enough. Of course, Caprica of sixty years prior to Battlestar Galactica is not going to map on any comparison between now and a US city of the 1940s. But there are enough differences between the two Earth time periods – not just the clothes; but the cars, the sensibilities, the technology… – to at least suggest that Caprica doesn’t really feel as though it takes place sixty-eight years before Battlestar Galactica.

Also somewhat problematical is Graystone’s motivation. He’s a fat cat captain of industry. He wants his Cylon to succeed because it means a huge contract from the Caprican government. Zoe-R is a means to an end – on first meeting her in the V-space nightclub, he dismisses her as a sophisticated software construct, not a true AI. Yet he offers to create a similar AI of Adama’s dead daughter. Not his wife, but his daughter. And Adama comes close to seriously considering the offer, even though he has a son (who grows up to become Commander Adama of Battlestar Galactica).

According to Caprica‘s makers, the programme will be a soap opera of sorts, focusing on the Graystone and Adama families. A rich industrialist with a low ethics threshold versus a lawyer who denies his crime syndicate background as a matter of personal morality sounds way too much like a loaded scenario, especially given the simplistic moral framework the Cylons are plainly going to inherit from Zoe-R… Nonetheless, I suspect it will be addictive viewing and I plan to buy the Season One DVD boxed set of Caprica when it is released in UK later this year.

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Waking the Dead

The eighth series of Waking the Dead finished a couple of weeks ago. And it’s difficult to know what to make of it. One character died, one resigned but then seemed to stay, one transferred out of the team, and one handed over to a replacement while she went into hospital… but her replacement cocked things up and so might not be taking over after all.

Waking the Dead, for those of you who have never heard of it, or don’t watch it, is a BBC drama about a police team which investigates old unsolved case, the Metropolitan Police’s Cold Case Unit. The programme has been broadcast annually since 2001, and each series usually takes the form of four to six two-hour episodes, each one split over two nights (typically Sunday and Monday). At present, the Cold Case Unit comprises Detective Superintendent Peter Boyd (Trevor Eve), psychological profiler Dr Grace Foley (Sue Johnston), Detective Inspector Spencer Jordan (Will Johnson), Detective Sergeant Stella Goodman (Félicité du Jeu), and forensic pathologist Dr Eve Lockhart (Tara FitzGerald).

I don’t normally write about television programmes on this blog – well, not unless they’re science fiction… But Waking the Dead is one of my favourite series. And that’s despite not being much of a fan of police procedurals. Waking the Dead, however, is not only classy drama, with high production values, it’s also very watchable. And – it is probably this which appeals to me the most – each series it does something interesting… as a police procedural and as a television drama. Past series, for example, have been themed, with each story an interpretation of the theme. It has run story-arcs in the background over multiple series. And in series eight, it put the entire cast at risk, and then failed to resolve their fates.

In fact, if there is a theme to series eight, it’s that: lack of resolution. Not one of the four stories was properly resolved. I couldn’t actually decide if this was deliberate, a choice explored by the writers, or simply evidence of poor writing. Given the programme’s history, I’m inclined to the former.

But it’s such an odd choice of theme. And its implementation seemed to undercut the plausibility of the programme.

In the first two-parter, ‘Magdalene 26’, a body found hanging in the victim’s house, which has been dead for several days, proves crucial to the investigation. Except… it is never actually identified. Initially, it’s believed to be the victim’s husband, but he later turns up alive. So who was it?

So: not resolved. One or two loose ends I can accept. Not everything needs to be tied up neatly.

But the ending of the story? The murder eventually proves to be the work of a pair of Turkish gangsters, after the victim’s millions. Boyd, claiming to be a shady financier, arranges to meet the Turks in a secluded spot. He has a pair of hidden snipers with him. Boyd pulls out his warrant card to show the Turks. One goes for his gun. Two shots ring out. The credits roll.

Hang on a minute.

They haven’t solved the case. Justice hasn’t been served. The Cold Case Unit shot the villains. That doesn’t happen in the UK.Certainly not without a great deal more provocation.

Was this, perhaps, an attempt to make the series more US-friendly? Or was it a commentary on US-style police procedurals?

The second two-parter, ‘End of the Night’, made it no clearer. Twelve years earlier, a teenage girl was raped and her younger brother murdered by a pair of men the authorities have failed to identify. The girl, now a young woman, attempts suicide, and this inspires Boyd to re-open the investigation. Eventually, the Cold Case Unit identify both rapists. The young woman learns their names. She kidnaps the man who murdered her brother and takes him to the scene of the crime, a high stone bridge over a narrow brook. She murders the killer, and then tries to kill herself by jumping off the bridge. Boyd stops her before she can. The credits roll.

Okay. A more plausible ending, certainly. But the only resolution is that of the victim’s character arc. And, like ‘Magdalene 26′, it’s a more abrupt ending than you’d expect from a television drama.

Like the previous two, the third story, Substitute’, started well enough. Eve enters into a relationship with a man, but doubts his identity. So she secretly takes a DNA swab, and checks up on him. It seems his DNA was found at the scene of a ten-year-old murder – in fact, his semen was on the victim’s body. The means by which Eve took the DNA means the evidence is tainted. But Boyd insists on re-opening the investigation into the murder. As the story progresses, the more it seems the main suspect, Eve’s lover, is not guilty. Or is he? Not that it really matters. During the investigation, the team have identified the villain of the piece. At the end of the episode, Eve has taken her lover to a remote boat-house in order to determine whether he is truly innocence. The rest of the team turn up. As does the villain and his henchman. Eve gets her answer. Boyd and the team drive away, leaving the suspect to be killed by the villain. A shot rings out. The credits roll.

Er.. what? The Cold Case Unit left their suspect to be murdered by a criminal? What happened to justice? The Cold Case Unit are members of the Metropolitan Police, aren’t they? They’ve not only allowed a murder to take place, and so condoned it, but they’ve also failed to charge the villain – against whom they have plenty of evidence.

I did wonder if this was the last series of Waking the Dead, and they were wrapping everything up. Stella had been shot in the first two-parter – and then abruptly died off-stage in hospital from a thrombosis. Spencer had jumped ship to CID, and Eve had handed in her resignation. Boyd was complicit in a murder, and clearly going off the deep end.

The Cold Case Unit was finished.

But no. The final two-parter, ‘Endgame’, seemed to be a return to form. It brought back an old villain, the psychopathic prison guard Linda Cummings from series seven, and also referenced a couple of episodes from previous series. Spencer, despite his move, was dragged back in to help. Stella’s replacement Kat was clearly now a full member of the team. Grace, however, had been admitted into hospital for treatment for cancer, and a replacement had joined the unit. Played by Gina McKee. Casting her led me to suspect she would be staying, that Grace was going to be written out. But she proved to be partly complicit in Linda Cummings’ scheme. So she’s unlikely to stay. And we still don’t know what’s going to happen to Grace.

The ending of the story was also less abrupt than those of the preceding two-parters. Cummings kidnaps Grace from her hospital bed, and threatens to kill her unless Boyd does as she says. There’s a last-minute reprieve and Grace is rescued unharmed. It is, on reflection, an almost traditional ending to these sort of stories. It is also completely at odds with the endings of other series eight stories. It’s as if the writers bent the concept of a “police procedural story ending” completely out of shape… only to let it snap back in the final two-parter. Which certainly qualifies as “interesting”.

Perhaps they had no choice – they had to leave the series as they found it. This is not unusual, given that most television programmes are made on a series by series, or season by season, basis. Some, such as Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes (also programmes I like a great deal), have strictly-defined runs – although I believe this is a lot more common on British television than it is on US television. But still most expect to return the following year. And so they have to leave cast and story-arc in a state which does not preclude continuation.

But this doesn’t explain the events of the first three two-parters of series eight. Certainly one of the cast has gone – killed in the line of duty. Spencer is unlikely to return given his transfer. Eve resigned, but then stayed on. But perhaps she’s leaving too. Grace’s fate is unknown.

And yet, if no series nine was planned, I would have expected a more final ending to ‘Endgame’ – I suspect the title is not a hint. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to believe that in this series the writers were exploring the use of dramatic unconventional endings. While this may have had unintended consequences – plausibility took something of a bashing, and the various endings seemed more characterised by a lack of resolution than anything else – it does strike me as a valid, and interesting, artistic choice.

I can only wonder what next year’s theme will be. Because I certainly hope there will be a series nine.


Why Television Sci-Fi Sucks

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been watching Battlestar Galactica seasons one and two on DVD. I missed most of the episodes when they were broadcast, so I bought the DVDs. Battlestar Galactica is one of those sf television programmes that is allegedly so good, people desperately try to find ways to describe it as not science fiction. The same has been said of the new Doctor Who. And yet, and yet… If television sf is good, then it seems to me it’s more by accident than design – after all, we’re talking about programmes created by people who are not sf fans, and aimed primarily at an audience that is not composed of sf fans. And so it should be – for a TV programme to succeed, it has to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. What this means is that sf programmes are often good drama but bad science fiction. Sometimes, they’re both bad drama and bad science fiction. But programmes that are bad drama generally don’t survive.

This post was sparked off by BSG. On the whole, I like the series. It’s well written, well acted, and it presents its fictional universe convincingly. Well, okay: it presents its fictional universe mostly convincingly. The laws of physics are still frequently sacrificed to the rules of drama. And, if you think too hard about the Cylons, you realise they don’t actually make much sense. They’re supposed to be machine intelligences, a “race” of AIs created by the humans. Fair enough. That doesn’t mean the interiors of the raiders can’t be organic, or that there can’t be ones who resemble humans. Except… the latter are humans, by any meaningful definition of the term – biologically, and they’re sentient and aware. They just happen to have been created artificially. It strikes me that the makers of BSG haven’t actually worked out the full ramifications of “machine intelligence”. The Cylons are merely television villains – in other words, a blank canvas on which to paint a suitably-disguised version of Western society’s current enemies.

But I didn’t set out to pick apart the Cylons. I wanted to show that good science fiction and good drama are not only possible, but result in excellent television sf. And that doing either badly can spoil a programme. I recently found myself annoyed at the direction the story-arc took in BSG’s season 2. Beginning with the final episode of season 1, ‘Kobol’s Last Gleaming: Part 2’, in which Adama “terminates” Roslin’s presidency. The last time I looked, in a democratic state the military does not have the authority to unseat an elected ruler. It happens, yes – Musharref in Pakistan, for example. But that’s a coup, a military takeover. So, Adama doesn’t “terminate” Roslin’s presidency. He seizes power. And he does so in a fit of pique – because Roslin persuaded Starbuck to undertake a mission against orders. It gets worse… Several episodes later, in season 2, Adama hands power back to Roslin. There’s a clear inference that the democratic process only exists through his largesse. Which makes a mockery of earlier episodes in which various people – including terrorist Zarek – insisted that the fleet must maintain a democratic government. It seems that in BSG, a democratic government can only exist if the military allows it to. Which makes any political commentary the series might wish to make immediately invalid.

In season 2, a new battlestar appears, commanded by Admiral Cain. And the annoyance factor shoots sky-high. Cain, the superior officer, takes command of the fleet. The president is completely ignored. In the US, the president is also commander-in-chief. But not in BSG. (There’s no reason why she should be, of course.) Cain’s singlemindedness then results in her and Adama almost going to war, and actively plotting each other’s assassination. Why bother putting a government in place in the fleet, if the programme makers are going to ignore it every other episode? Especially when Cain’s past actions come to light, and are clearly those of a war criminal. Not only are these actions ignored, they are tacitly condoned. After attempted genocide by the Cylons, Cain deliberately left survivors to die – and no one thinks this is a terrible offence? There is an off-putting current of militaristic fascism running throughout BSG which has been steadily increasing as the series progresses.

It’s not just the laws of physics or politics which are blithely ignored in order to present “good drama”. There’s economics, too. In episode 11 of season 1, ‘Colonial Day’, Zarek makes a long speech about how people in the fleet no longer require money. Since supplies are provided, there is nothing to buy… and so no reason to pay people for the work they perform. This makes sense – the fleet is comprised of refugees, and whatever supplies they might carry are being managed by the military. But sometime when writing season 2, the makers chose to ignore this. In season 2’s episode 14, ‘Black Market’, Commander Fisk of Pegasus is murdered, and the Galactica officers learn he was running a black market. In fact, black market profiteering is rife in the fleet – and is controlled by a single gang lord. So much for not needing money. You can’t have a black market without money – not only so that people can buy from it, but if there were no profit in it then it wouldn’t exist. Not only does this directly contradict earlier world-building, but the episode’s situation was clearly created for drama’s sake. It’s implausible within the setting. Story-telling discipline is more important in science fiction than it is in other genres. Readers know what is and what isn’t possible or plausible in the real world. In sf, the creator determines what is possible or plausible. And if they chop and change that from episode to episode, they undermine their creation. It’s no different to Hercule Poirot pulling a clue out of thin air to solve the crime.

It’s not enough that science fiction should have a central conceit, but it should also follow its own internal rules. Television sf may be the intellectually-challenged brother of written sf, but if it wants to be “good” then it’s still bound by the same rules, it should still use the same techniques. It recently occurred to me that part of the problem is television sf’s lack of subtlety. Written sf is not just action-adventure in outer space – even some Star Wars tie-in novels aim higher than that – but whatever commentary it might present is often disguised. Television sf has much less room to manoeuvre – episode lengths of up to an hour; aimed at an audience chiefly ignorant of the language of science fiction; and must appeal to the least sophisticated members of its audience as much as it does to the most sophisticated. As a result, commentary in a television sf programme – where it exists, which is not often – frequently involves beating the viewer about the head. I don’t have a problem with this – except, when the desire to create such drama means the rules and techniques of good science fiction are abandoned. Throughout season 2, Battlestar Galactica has done this.

All this makes for an interesting comparison with Doctor Who. BSG, of course, is American; Doctor Who is British. I was as excited as any other fan of sf when I learnt Doctor Who was returning to television. And, on the whole, I have to say the new series are a great improvement over the old ones. We might well remember past Doctor Who stories with fondness, but it’s often best to leave them as that – memories. Watching them anew on DVD only spoils the magic because, let’s face it, many of them weren’t very good. They were done on the cheap, and it showed. In Doctor Who – The Green Death, the UNIT air support proves to be a two-man helicopter, with the words “Twycroft Helicopter Rentals” (or something like that) painted on the side and a man leaning out and dropping hand-grenades!

Of course, nowadays it would all be done with CGI – and CGI has been used to great effect in the new Dr Who. This is both a blessing and a curse. The ability to realise alien worlds with such convincing verisimilitude often results in poor science fiction – just look at the Star Wars prequels (not that the original Star Wars trilogies were paragons of science fiction; far from it). Doctor Who series 3, for example, we had the sfx-heavy ’42’ (the title no doubt a reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), in which the Doctor and Martha find themselves aboard a starship falling into the sun. They have 42 minutes to save the ship. Not only did the episode seem like a rip-off of Sunshine, but a race against time to survive when you know the protagonists will be back hale and hearty next week is entirely pointless. And suspense-free. Yet the best episode broadcast so far – of all three series – was pretty much sfx-free. Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ was not only excellent drama, it was also excellent science fiction. It was gripping drama, peopled by engaging characters, and made clever use of the Doctor’s time-travelling abilities. ‘Blink’ deserves both a Hugo Award and a BAFTA.

The remainder of the series could only be a let-down after an episode like that. And so it was. The humans at the end of time in ‘Utopia’ were, well, too human. When Worlds Collide at the heat death of the universe strikes me as more like a heat death of the imagination. And then in the two-parter ‘The Sound of Drums’ and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’, we had the Master conquering Earth… and the Doctor putting it all back as it was before it happened through some sort of psychic deus ex machina… From the sublime to the ridiculous.

Interestingly, Doctor Who’s much freer set-up means it rarely drops into the trap into which BSG so often falls. The Doctor travels so far and so wide, that any rules as to what is possible and plausible attach only to him and his behaviour. There is no setting, as such, in which the series is, er, set. The world or universe need only be consistent within the episode itself (we’ll ignore the greater inconsistency of baseline humans and Goths inhabiting Earth at the end of time in ‘Utopia’). The only objects within the “Whoniverse” which require consistency are those which are common to many stories – such as the Daleks, the Cybermen, the various other alien races which have made more than one appearance. Admittedly, the Doctor’s time-travelling nature means any inconsistencies with these can be explained away as his encountering them at different points in their history. So, for instance, series 1 and series 2 can end with the destruction of the Daleks… only for them to pop up again halfway through series 3. As anti-narrative consistency devices go, time travel is both the perfect weapon and the perfect defence.

I set out with this post to discuss how internal consistency in television science fiction should not be sacrificed to drama, that good drama and good science fiction produce superior television. Instead, I’ve just pointed out why BSG is often bad science fiction. And that the best piece of television sf I have seen recently is Steven Moffat’s ‘Blink’ – an episode which clearly demonstrated the benefits of good sf as well as good drama. I probably need to think more on this subject. I shall endeavour to do so. Expect a continuation of this post sometime in the future…