Thursday, January 31, 2008

Lost Countdown: No. 1

With only a few hours left until Lost returns to US screens, I finally, after several million words of guff, get to reveal my number one reason for loving this show, heartened by the coverage on several websites and the generally positive reviews for tonight's return, as well as the ABC webisodes entitled Missing Pieces, the last of which features the kind of event that makes Lost fans lose their minds. Remember my ravings about the extra content? This is what I was talking about.

And look! Yahoo! was inspired by this very blog and has listed five reasons to watch Lost. Not a single use of the word "metatextual", though. Pfft. So what's my number one reason for loving Lost?

John Locke and Ben Linus:

As I've said before, if I had to nominate a Lost character as my favourite, I would probably plump for Sawyer. Though I love the show (perhaps by now you, poor reader, will have a better idea of how much I love it), it can be quite dour and humourless, a situation barely rectified by the arrival of Buffy and Angel writer Drew Goddard. Like a Southern version of Han Solo, Sawyer's grubby charm and vaguely inept tough guy mannerisms bring the show to life whenever he's onscreen.

However, love him though I do, it's the "religious leaders" on the island that fascinate me the most. John Locke's transformation from worthless, put-upon loser to hero and possible messiah of the island would already have been fascinating, but even better is that that new power is so tenuous that he is forced to connive and work against his fellow survivors in order to maintain that power. Or is he? Perhaps he is actually trying to figure out what the power of the island is and then utilise it for the benefit of humanity. I don't believe that for a second, but still, we should keep that option on the table.

One of the most appealing things about Locke, something that most viewers can relate to, is that he has spent his life getting shat on repeatedly, but still believes his mother's comments that he is special and cut out for greatness. Most people will have had their ambitions go unfulfilled and feel they're not getting their due. Little does Locke realise that the greatness thrust upon him by the island is not for him alone, and others have been visited by people or animals from their past that are either manifestations of the island or are formed from Smokey matter.

In season two his position as top prophet of the island was threatened by the arrival of Mr. Eko, whose faith in his role in the scheme of things, not to mention his ability to stare down Smokey, was much more instinctive. While Locke's communion with the island appears more fragile, with episodes of paralysis and occasional breakdowns of communication throwing him into periods of extreme doubt, Eko just seemed to get on with it, perhaps because he already has a faith that Locke lacks.

That would be little comfort to Locke, whose faith is entirely based on the island's healing power and the presence of the button. Of course, even that wasn't enough to subdue his doubts, reinforced by the continual reveals of deeper levels of mystery on the island. His freakout upon finding Pearl station was memorable. Nothing could sway Eko, but Locke fell apart, almost dooming them all. So was Eko the real emissary of the island's message? Adewale's early departure from the show for what seems like obnoxious behavior on set tends to suggest he was intended to have had a bigger role to play, which is gutting. I really miss Mr. Eko.

Locke's mania at the end of season two was thoroughly depressing, seeing him slip back from his position of power to a state of fury and doubt. It makes you wonder if the island (standing in for God) has chosen Locke as his emissary because he is the right person, or because there is no one else who is able. As far as I could tell from SmokeYemi's speech in Eko's final episode, Eko disappointed it. If so, then Cuse and Lindelof will have redeemed their Eko plot by using his introduction and speedy demise as a way to show how ruthless and arbitrary the island/God is. It also means Locke was probably only around as a backup, and SmokeWalt's intervention in Through The Looking Glass was an act of desperation.

Locke's egotism, sense of entitlement, and desperate attempts to maintain what he considers his dialogue with the island are fascinating to watch, because despite all of this I still consider him a hero, even though he's doing really terrible, stupid things. He's even crossed the line to murder. Way to go getting Sawyer to do your dirty work killing your dad, but did you have to screw it up a few days later by killing poor Naomi?

So why do I still empathise with him? How much of myself do I see in Locke? Would I go to such crazy lengths to be considered special by a sentient and/or haunted land mass? I guess as I haven't had my kidney stolen by the man who would then throw me out of a window, I couldn't really say.

I've always thought Terry O'Quinn was a talented actor, but in Lost he excels, giving the joint best performance on TV. As well as his swing from self-pity to confident hero and back to whining, self-hating doubting Thomas in season two, his terrified reaction to his wheelchair-bound fate in The Man From Tallahassee was also incredible, as I have already bleated on about. There was only one thing that was bad about his Emmy win; he couldn't share the award with the other best actor on TV, the astonishing Michael Emerson as head Other Ben Linus.

Hired for a handful of episodes and kept on for good after Cuse and Lindelof rightly realised they had just stumbled on pure gold, Emerson's arrival on the show gave the slightly flagging second season a massive burst of energy. His duplicity in those episodes where he was trapped in the Swan station armoury was hugely entertaining, made even better upon realising that the terrified little man we'd come to know and hate was in fact the horribly confident leader of a murderous bunch of islanders with a mysterious plan. His unveiling in the second season finale made me ridiculously happy, and finding out he would be a series regular in the third season was even better. Perhaps that's why I didn't mind the first six episodes of season three; lots of quality Ben Gale action.

Whereas Locke's arrogant assumption about what he sees as his destiny comes from being cured by the island (something that might have happened anyway; who knows how the island's healing powers work) and not being killed by Smokey (though that belief got tested in the season one finale when he got dragged into a Cerberus Vent), Ben's belief comes from the appearance of his SmokeMother, and Richard Alpert's comments about how that means he has a special connection to the island (as with Locke, Alpert and Ben are wrong). There is also his sense that there has to be more to life than his miserable childhood, with no mother and an abusive father. I'm not sure his lot is as bad as Locke's, but I can see why he thinks he is deserving of the island's attention.

And not just the island. His position as leader of the Others and emissary of Jacob's wishes has already been defended with betrayal and mass murder, which means Locke was never going to be strong-willed enough to get the better of him. Thankfully a combination of Sawyer and Jack means he is in a position to take over from Ben, which means he gets to lead characters as unsavoury as Indestructible Mikhail the pro-grenade anarchist and the creepily fresh-faced Richard "BatManuel" Alpert. Erm, yay?

For now Ben remains as much an enigma as the island, and we're only going to find out more about his past as we find out more about the island, but even so we get hints as to his nature. Now that we know the new visitors to the island are not what they seemed to be, his efforts to prevent them arriving seem far more sincere. If the island and Alpert's people are so desperate to keep visitors off in order to protect their secrets, the murder of the Dharma Initiative makes more sense now (in interviews Michael Emerson has said he thinks Ben might turn out to be a good guy after all, though his methods are even more unpleasant than Locke's).

We've also come to realise that his control of his "daughter" Alex is borne of his worries for her health, which would be jeopardised by possible impregnation by her boyfriend Karl. That's fair enough, but does that mean the airdrops that still land on the island don't contain any Dharma condoms? There must be a better way to keep her safe than sticking useless Karl in Room 23 for a spot of brainwashing. ZOMG! Is Lost a satire of conservatism? "If you have unprotected sex you will die, young lady!!!"

Perhaps Ben's most diabolical scheme involved Locke and his really just outrageously beyond evil dad Anthony Cooper. What does Locke killing his father have to do with anything? It's obviously some kind of initiation, but it hints that the Others have a very odd concept of morality if they consider themselves Good People despite all of the murdering and kidnapping (or if not a twisted morality, then knowledge of the island so incredible that protection of it is more important than our own concept of right or wrong).

It also seems that access to Jacob depends on some act of evil or sacrifice, which Locke tried to sidestep. Either that, or Ben feels guilt about his actions when betraying the Dharma Initiative and killing his own father, and thinks Locke shouldn't get to win over the island without going through what he went through. Perhaps he also fears that if the island chooses Locke over him without this act of murder, then he killed his father and the Dharma Initiative for nothing. Or rather, he did it because he wanted to kill him, but can't take the moral high ground. That said, how cold is he in this amazing award-worthy scene? That might be a guy who isn't going to worry about the rights and wrongs of murder, at least not the rights and wrongs we worry about.

This is why I adore these two characters so much. Not only are they played by two incredible actors at the height of their powers, but their desperate need for acceptance by some unknowable force makes them do terrible things that we cannot really understand fully. Hopefully this will be left open to interpretation when the show is over. As I've said before, the show is a joy to ponder, and though I want answers to a lot of the questions on the show, I also want some room to hypothesise even when the final episode has aired.

Some fans have tried to describe the events of Lost as a metaphor for modern concerns, and with effort it's possible to make any work of art fit into a topical hole of any shape. The Others are the Taliban! Oceanic 815 is the American empire! Jack is George Bush, unable to govern effectively! Ben is Ahmadinejad! Whatever. I'm not as impressed by topicality in art as I once was, and didn't really want to think of Lost as fitting some contemporary straightjacket.

And yet, I still see Ben and Locke as two religious leaders, reverse Abrahams (did JJ Abrams come up with this idea?), sucking up to their God and getting the terms and conditions wrong. That's topical in the sense that it's a story that's being told now, but it's not exactly new. It's been told over and over again through time, but never like this. And that's what I like about Lost most of all. It's influenced by many myths and stories and legends and belief systems and scientific theories and delusions about the paranormal, but even as the story chimes with all of these other elements, in itself it is something new, told in a different way than we have been used to. It's every story ever told, and it's a story we've never seen before. I don't think I could love it more. And it's back, goddammit. It's back! OMG I'm hyperventilating!!! Welcome back, Lost! You have no idea how much I've missed you!!!

Lost Countdown: No. 2

Perhaps this one should be a reason to both love and hate Lost.

The fanbase and their interaction with the show creators:

I'd bet that there has been no sci-fi or fantasy show ever made that doesn't have some kind of nerd following. The net is full of Adam Adamant fanfic, Threshold slash, petitions to bring back Surface, and craziest of all, millions of people who think Torchwood is actually competent (kidding, Torchwood fans! I'm sure there are only a few hundred thousand). So pointing out that Lost has a rabid fanbase is not exactly news.

Nevertheless, part of the joy of the show is diving into the sea of speculation and discussion that boils up in the days after each episode. The Fuselage, Sledgeweb and the excellent screen captures of the Easter Eggs, Lostpedia updates, AICN talkbacks, Jeff Jensen's wonderfully demented Entertainment Weekly column, Cuse and Lindelof's podcasts on; I spend the post-Lost hours poring over this content. Though it's possible to enjoy Lost on a surface level, the textual density of the show demands that amount of attention if it's to be treated seriously.

The AICN talkbacks are an odd one. Most of the time the threads are populated with dedicated fans of the show, dissecting what they have seen and throwing out new theories. However, the show also attracts huge opprobrium from a lot of haters who consider the show a busted flush whose creators are clown shoes and think the fans are idiots for sticking with it. Every show with an adoring fanbase has to put up with some amount of negativity, which is just the way of things, so I'm not saying Lost is any different, but Lost talkbacks get hit more than most by trolls bellowing that Cuselof are making it up as they go along or that, or that it will all fall apart before the end, or that the flashbacks are boring and stupid.

That's nowhere near a deal-breaker for me, obviously. It's also something it would be hypocritical for me to rail against. Much as I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, let alone that of my nerd brethren, expressing your opinion can often lead to being the party-pooper. Pointing out that Torchwood is a multi-level failure puts a damper on the party atmosphere of the fanbase, which is a shame, but still an inevitable consequence that I cannot apologise for. While Battlestar Galactica fans debated the significance of the season three finale, I had to resist the temptation to run in, all guns blazing, and start screaming, "All youse muthafukkas whose been saying Lost is being made up on the fly? What the hell was that? I know Dylan has embarked on the Never-Ending Tour, but his fifteen dates on Caprica are news to me. And Boring Tyrol is a Boring Cylon? What about his kid with Dopeyface? It's a hybrid too? Doesn't that make Sharon and Helo's baby less important? Bullshit, I say! Bullshit!" It struck me as ill-thought out and clumsy. How can Lost get slated all the time with the accusation that it is a series of ill-thought out twists, but BSG get away with so much inconsistency? There are arguments that Ron Moore and his cohorts knew where they are going, and I reckon their final plan is worked out even if the getting there has been a horribly up-and-down affair, but why does that show get a break, but not Lost? My boy Bobby D is similarly displeased, to the extent of wanting to punch things.

What interests me about this attitude to Lost (which seems to be borne of some disappointment that the show isn't what people thought it was going to be, as well as having a very slow pace), is that it's practically a metacomment on the main theme of the show; faith. Just as Ben and Locke battle to prove over their faith in the island, and Locke and Jack fight over their contradictory attitudes to what epistemological approach to take towards the island, fandom battles over whether the show means anything when the show hasn't been conclusively finished yet. Without the ending to wrap everything up, the fans could be wasting their time watching a show that will amount to a series of non-sequitur events and pointless digressions.

Hell, even one-time producer and writer David Fury, in an interview with Rolling Stone, has said that he thinks Cuse, Lindelof and Abrams have no solid idea of how it will end, and has warned the fans they're in for a disappointent. I think the showrunners really should have stumped up for that samovar of coffee he wanted. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who was a producer at the time, commented on Fury's criticisms on LiveJournal, and this kind soul reprinted them, minus some content Grillo-Marxuach removed later.

As I've pointed out already, I'm convinced the showrunners know where they're going. Though sometimes events happen that are totally unexpected (the reveal of Jacob, for example), in time they make an an instinctive sense within the rules set by the show, and I have faith they will be resolved and explained. The polar bears make sense within the context of what we currently know, and eventually when we have more information, Jacob and the Incident (which could be linked to a drilling experiment gone wrong) and the longevity of Richard Alpert will make sense. Note that I said "instinctive". I can't speak for any other fans of the show, but so far the writers have done nothing that is too weird, and whenever they throw a curveball, it feels right somehow. It's like a test of Lost fanaticism -- you have a feeling that it's making sense even when it's gone nuts; if you don't, you're missing the point.

While those who have lost patience with the show will think new twists are just arbitrary crazy events thrown out during frantic writers' meetings and take it as proof that the show has gone off the rails, those who still believe in the show will sense that the Lost train is still on track even though they might not fully understand how or why. This is not meant as a diss to those who don't have time for it any more, and I'm not saying I'm right so there. I just have a very strong suspicion that the final answers will almost certainly turn out to be explicable and not just a series of arcane "facts" that only make sense to the 108 viewers still watching while clutching their Sawyer action figures. However, at this point in the show, watching it and being willing to give it a break when weird things happen is pretty much an act of patience and faith, and that's where the fracture in the sci-fi fandom massive lies.

Luckily there is that network of believers who have confidence in the creators, and I really don't think it's much of a stretch to accept that maybe the weirdness of the show isn't inexplicable and random. Here's another article of faith; I've had so much fun watching this show and parsing it and dissecting it, that even if the finale is an enormous letdown, I'll still think the experience has been worthwhile, partially because of the speculation within the fan community (my most recent lovable crazy theory find; the numbers correspond to boardgames loved by Abrams and Lindelof). I know I'm not the only one who enjoys the waiting game (when it's not delayed by production problems or strikes). Even the writers are listening and joining in, creating a dialogue between them and the fans that has had huge ramifications for the show. It's another thing to love; the showrunners interacting with the fanbase and tailoring the show towards them. When the fans complained (for no justifiable reason, IMO) about Nikki and Paulo, they were dealt with in a witty manner in the episode Exposé.

When fans became convinced the show was all occuring in the head of one of the characters (either Walt or Hurley), Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz (who also wrote Exposé) wrote Dave, in which Hurley is told by the mysterious Dave that he is imagining his time on the island. The purgatory theory is brought up within the show from time to time, and the fan rumours about a bird calling out "Hurley" led to the bird making a reappearance in the second season finale. That in-show dialogue from the showrunners is certainly flattering, but it also shows they give a damn about what they're doing. Well, that and the amazing attention to detail within the show. I'll shut up about that now.

ETA: I'm really not suggesting people who don't get Lost should piss off. If anything, I want more people to get into it. I'm forcing my season three boxset on anyone who will take it right now, and even though one total hater dared, DARED, to suggest that Torchwood was as good as Lost, I won't be deterred. The Church of Lost is all inclusive. Even Torchwood fans are welcome!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lost Countdown: No. 3

Not long now until the pop-up primer version of Through The Looking Glass screens on ABC, which could very well look a lot like Amelie Gillette's version for the A.V. Club. Also excited is Jeff Jensen, as usual, who has written a list of things we need to keep in mind prior to the first season four episode, airing tomorrow night. All I need to remember, Mr. Jensen, is my list of reasons to love Lost! Here's another one, which is fairly self-explanatory. So I'll go on about it for way too long anyway.

The many WTF moments:

For a sci-fi show Lost has very few fantastical elements, and those that feature heavily (such as Swan station) are treated in such a matter of fact way that they become part of the furniture. Much of the mystery revolves around misinformation, deceit, subterfuge. It's often just about people on an island of indeterminate and invisible power, with the bulk of the episodes focusing more on flashbacks that dramatise and reveal character moments from the past. I've said it before and I'll say it again; if you don't want to know more about these characters and their psychology, don't watch the show. The ratio of character reveals to sci-fi nerdery is about 100:1. That is bound to annoy some people. If I was still a kid, I would hate the show. Where are the UFOs? Why don't they have jetpacks or teleporters? Why should I care if Sun had an affair with some bald guy? (Of course, I did end up caring, as mentioned before.)

However, every so often the show has a conceptual and/or visual blowout, changing the direction of the show with a big shock moment. Opening season two with the reveal of Desmond's civilised set-up in the Swan station, followed by the 108 minute countdown, and then the total headfuck of the Orientation video, is the point at which my admiration for the show transformed into total love. It all came from nowhere, totally changing the tone and direction of the show, while remaining thematically true to the previous season (Locke's faith in the island became faith in the button and the numbers).

It happened again with the reveal of Jacob. Set up to be a meeting with a shady character whose identity had been kept a secret from the public with a shroud of secrecy hiding the name of the actor playing him, speculation ran wild. Jack's dad, Christian, was the most popular candidate, with some fans backing Locke or Sun's dad instead. Of course we got none of those, and once again the showrunners changed everything with a nerve-wracking and surreal sequence that alone posed more questions than had been answered in three whole seasons (see below for a clip). It was probably my favourite six minutes of screentime in all of 2007, and that's including the amazing gamechanging finale.

That finale worked so well because so much time had been spent setting up the parameters of the show format, to the point that you take it for granted. That structure rarely gets messed with, so whenever it does, it's an event. Even more than The Other 48 Days (showing what happened to the tail survivors) and Exposé (what happened to two characters assaulted by a bafflingly hostile fanbase), the Desmond flashback episode, Flashes Before Your Eyes, was the biggest departure yet, and maybe changed the way we should view the show format. It not only created some huge WTF moments, and introduced the creepy Ms. Hawking (described in a Lindelof commentary as a kind of temporal enforcement agent making sure the time lines don't get messed with), it made you wonder if the flashbacks are more than just a narrative device. A popular theory is that they are false memories implanted in the castaways, but this episode made you wonder if there was even more going on than that. I don't believe that theory, and still think they're a narrative tool, but for a moment there, I wasn't sure.

Of course, the most astonishing and iconic WTF moment came in the first episode, as Smokey/Cerberus announced its arrival. At that moment the show became something more than just a really well-produced soap opera based on Survivor. Over the season we were teased with hints of its true nature, and when it finally revealed itself to us (and not just to Locke), it utterly confounded expectations. Destroying trees and dragging Locke into a Cerberus Vent (which seemed to me to open up as if alive, but I might be mistaken), it was terrifying. Even better was its next big appearance, photographing Eko's memories. The first half of season 2 has longueurs, but this appearance by Smokey redeemed it.

Many who claim to have figured out what the mystery of the island is have to take into account that there are still new mysteries being introduced even now, so how can anyone truly figure out what the endgame will be? At any moment the rug can be pulled out from under us just like before. I love the speculation (love it!), but even know, past the halfway mark, we're just pissing in the wind.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Lost Countdown: No. 4

Last one for today, and look, only three more to go! Then we can talk about something different. And less AWESOME, probably.

The quirky nature of the mystery itself:

Sci-fi TV and movies of recent years have tended to follow certain formats, with rare moments of invention that give fans of the genre hope that new possibilities are available. Yes, yes, I know, I've gone on about it before. It's one of the main reasons I started my occasional feature Sci-Fi Through Space/Time, in an attempt to find something fresh happening within the genre and then document it.

If it's on film, chances are you're more likely to find something more odd, be it Shane Carruth's Primer, or Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. On TV, sci-fi suffers by comparison. It's almost always spaceship/portal-based exploration adventure, and even though some of that can transcend the limitations of the format (BSG's ambition and topicality mark it out as one of the best, and Doctor Who's quirkiness hides the format to such an extent that it's easy to forget about it), much of the time it been done before.

Instead of sticking characters on a ship and making them meet rubber people, or badly translating modern scientific theories into layman-friendly action plots or allegories, Lost goes back twenty years into territory covered well by The X-Files, and then improves on it by avoiding that show's episodic nature. Whether it manages to create a series-long mythology that works better than that of X-Files remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful.

When I was much younger, around the end of the 70s, my grandparents bought me a weekly magazine (sorry, partwork) called The Unexplained, which ran for about 167 issues and covered the arena of the paranormal. Week after week there would be in-depth accounts of UFO and ghost sightings, poltergeist hauntings, psychic phenomena and characters like Uri Gellar and Sai Baba: stuff that was very much in the popular sphere at that time.

Even better, it would investigate things that were not as commonly discussed as UFO abductions, such as the supernatural town of Rennes-le-Chateau, or Ted Serios and his ability to put his thoughts on photographic film (see the photo above, where he is going BZZZZT at some film with much mental strain), or Hollow Earth theory. There was stuff on the weird effect of certain types of electromagnetism on humans, areas of the planet that have peculiar properties, the strange theories of Nikola Tesla, Kirlian auras, timeslips, coincidence, the Cosmic Joker... To a kid, this stuff was scary and fascinating. I couldn't get enough of it.

Cuse, Lindelof, Abrams and the writing staff of Lost remember these kooky theories, and have created a fiction set in a world where highly funded individuals of great influence have found that this fringe science actually pays dividends, and have tried to harness this power to save the world. This is sci-fi borne of the forgotten kookery of the 70s and presented in a modern form with a huge budget and even bigger ambition. I also like that whereas most episodic sci-fi has to be set on a ship or near a portal to be able to go places, this show avoids that dreary fate with flashbacks that allows the protagonists to travel within their own lives. With that internal exploration taking the place of the played out external voyage format, the show has room to look to the past (to the time when psychology and paranormal studies were most popular) for its inspiration instead of the near or far future. Retro sci-fi without the rocket packs and laser guns.

So closely does it follow the 70s template that the show is beginning to introduce more themes from that era. It was a period where people began to distrust the power and ambition of big business. Whoever is coming to the island, be they emissaries of Widmore Industries or some other group, are bound to be businessmen trying to take advantage of the island's properties. The Hanso Foundation, though more willing to experiment with odd science, seems similar to the eerie Rand Corporation, which had been busy trying to map the human mind using game theory for a decade, as seen in Adam Curtis' astonishing documentary series The Trap, in which he shows the adverse controlling effects upon the modern psyche by people like John Nash and R.D. Laing. That this show has already dabbled with experiments similar to those created by B.F. Skinner, and has featured a brainwashing device straight out of The Parallax View style (see the clip below), is apt. Lost has plundered the recent past and come back with tons of quirky, long-ignored material and a unique tone for the show. It truly is like nothing else on TV.

Of course, the future direction of the show might take it away from that 70s-era sci-fi paranoia, and perhaps towards a scenario involving either more modern scientific theories (parallel universes seem to be a possibility at the moment, or perhaps time travel), or something even more ancient (the possibility that the island is connected to Atlantis is a popular theory), only time will tell.

Lost Countdown: No. 5

Lost is almost here, and now I have to race through the reasons. But that's what love does to a guy. It makes him blog like the wind.

Seeing the main cast improve in leaps and bounds:

This is probably going to sound incredibly bitchy, but I'll say it anyway; when I saw the pilot of Lost, the one thing that didn't impress me was the performances by almost all of the cast, who seemed to have been cast for their sometimes excessive pretty rather than their ability. I'd liked Harold Perrineau from his work on Oz and the Matrix sequels (where he was the only human in the cast), Naveen Andrews was suitably enigmatic and awesome as Sayid, and I was happy to see Daniel Dae Kim finally stop jumping from show to show to land on a hit. Best of all, Terry O'Quinn was around, and he had always been reliable. The rest? Nothing going on. A bunch of anonymous faces of no interest. I doubted they would hold my attention.

As I have said before, the supporting cast is filled with great character actors, and the second season added the imposing Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to the main cast (a plus negated by the presence of Michelle Rodriguez, whose appeal escapes me), but still I was unsure. And yet, by the end of season three, I was convinced the casting directors had been almost totally right. Over time the cast has grown into their characters and several actors I thought so little of have shocked me with their intensity.

Dominic Monahan and Jorge Garcia had been the comedy relief for so long that seeing them break out of that was a great pleasure. Monahan had a lot of big dramatic moments to pull off, especially in the third season, and even though I'd grown tired of Charlie Pace, I still spent most of Greatest Hits crying. His scenes with Henry Ian Cusick (who also grasped great opportunities in both Catch-22 and Through the Looking Glass and ran with them) were especially affecting.

Meanwhile Garcia has had to portray a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, his first season enthusiasm and gregariousness swallowed up by grief and regret. With the mysterious Libby gone and no one on the island taking him seriously, Garcia has done an amazing job of portraying the miserable effects of his low-self-esteem while still coming up with the comedic goods whenever necessary. Thankfully that sadness was lifted in the underrated comedy episode Tricia Tanaka is Dead, and especially when he proved himself to the "cool kids" and saved the day in Through The Looking Glass, one of the many great moments in that absolutely phenomenal finale.

Through The Looking Glass had several impressive performances, but I'd hand the award for best performance in a Lost season finale to Matthew Fox, an actor who struck me as blandly handsome when I first saw him in the pilot, but has shown an impressive willingness to make the heroic Jack seem weak and self-doubting even in his most noble moments. Another of the things I've loved most about this show is that the main character is almost insane with grief and confusion for almost the entire duration of the show. Canyon will disagree with me vehemently, maintaining he is nothing more than a weepy jerk, but she is lovely and wrong. The arc with his increasing mental degradation pays off brilliantly in Through The Looking Glass, not just in his weepy drug-crazed moments but in my favourite scene in that finale, his confrontation with Ben and subsequent violent breakdown. As he beat Ben to a pulp, I found myself gasping in horror, stuck on the edge of my seat with my hands over my mouth.

Violence on TV shows, certainly on action shows, can often mean nothing. It's all throwaway cool and flash, which is fine if that's what you need at that time (I watch 24 for exactly those reasons). However that scene in the season finale was loaded with all of the frustration, misery and anger that Jack has tried to hold back for the three months he has been on the island, and the knowledge that for once Ben might have been telling the truth made it all the worse. At that moment, Jack lost. I'm amazed that the showrunners are brave enough to make the hero of their show become an animal, even though he was motivated by the thought that Sayid, Bernard and Jin were dead.

The strongest actresses on the show, Yunjin Kim and Elizabeth Mitchell, have had a variable third season. Yunjin Kim (and Daniel Dae Kim) have had little to do for a while now, and their flashback episodes are the ones I tend to think will be the most uninteresting. Of course, whenever I think that there is often some astonishing and terrifying piece of Paik-instigated violence perpetrated by Jin, which always upsets me.

This season saw all of the dreary adultery setups from three seasons pay off, with the knowledge that the date of conception of Sun's child was of crucial importance, and I realised how compelling and powerful she could be with good enough material. During D.O.C., my heart was in my mouth throughout. Yet another thing I love about the show is how it makes the tedious stuff pay off well. Perhaps not everything has worked out as well, but this plot, which had often made me drift off, suddenly became fascinating. Maybe that's my failing, and I should have even more faith in the showrunners, but nevertheless, I know I'm not alone in rolling my eyes whenever this plot comes up. Only the two Kims save it, and Yunjin has begun to really shine. D.O.C. and facing up to Sawyer in Exposé were her season highlights, and I enjoyed them greatly.

As great as she is (and I do think she's really really great), Elizabeth Mitchell has, in a third of the time, become the most compelling female character on the island. At first seemingly nothing more than another impenetrable Other, it soon became apparent that she wears two faces. In front of the castaways she appears cold and scheming, but in her flashbacks, and in front of her captor, Ben, she is scared and heartbroken. Her second flashback episode, One Of Us, was another series highlight, as Ben manipulated her with images of her sister and the outside world into doing his bidding.

Mitchell had already impressed me during the season, serving as a great foil for Ben (much more on my love for Ben later) and possible love interest for Jack. However, n that episode she absolutely blew me away. She was so totally robbed of millions of acting awards! Previously I only knew her as Kerry Weaver's neglected girlfriend in E.R., and had little to do. Here, acting showcases like her confrontation with Ben in the kitchen, or seeing her sister on the Flame station monitors, should get her a lot of work when she leaves this show (I'd like her to get awards as well, but she really got messed around this year. I'm genuinely annoyed by that). Also in her favour, on the Tale of Two Cities commentary she is endearingly obsessed with hott Matthew Fox and bondage. It's really cute. And a bit weird.

So, yay for the cast! They have proven me wrong and become superawesomespecial, and yet almost all of my love is reserved for Josh Holloway, as lovable rogue turned haunted victim and vengeful misanthrope Sawyer. While watching the first few episodes I despaired at the casting of this square-jawed lunk, pouting in the background or getting up in several grills with his macho idiocy. Though I understood that the dynamic of the show depended on the conflict between castaways (at least until the Others provided a much more worthy source of drama), it pained me to see him growling and seething.

And of course, I ended up loving him. His half-hearted tough guy act, his doomed attempts at reconciliation with the castaways he has annoyed, his growing love for Kate, and the flashbacks showing his painful upbringing; I was powerless in his thrall. Holloway had initially struck me as a pretty boy with a bit of charm, but I sold him short. He's immensely charming, and it's a joy to see him bouncing off the other characters, most of whom seem to loathe him. The conflict between many of the other characters creates tension; a lot of the time, conflict with Sawyer means funfunfun. You could randomly pick almost any scene with him and Hurley and you'd be onto a winner.

Of course, I was also wrong that he was just a charmer. Not to say that charm means nothing; it may come from his natural likeability, but he sure knows how to play off it with expertise. Anyway, on top of even that, he has become a compelling dramatic presence. His early season reaction to facing death at the hand of evil Other Danny Pickett was nerve-wracking, and even though I knew there was no way they would kill him off, I still got all panicky. Best of all, his final confrontation with the man who destroyed his family, the unbelievably evil Anthony Cooper, was another season highlight. Provoked by Cooper's indifference to his pain, he kills him in a deliberate echo of Jabba's death in Return of the Jedi (a wonderfully nerdy touch), and from his behaviour in the finale it looks as if his future self will be haunted by the hollow victory he scored over this life-ruining face from the past. I've even forgiven Sawyer for killing the lovable Other Tom, even though I'll miss M.C. Gainey terribly.

Holloway's agonised reaction to the taunting of the real Sawyer haunted me for days after. He had proven himself to me a thousand times over, and my admiration is boundless (and kudos too to Kevin Tighe, who gave a career-best performance in that episode). I can't remember who it was who said Holloway was the breakout star of the show (it was in something I read a long time ago now), but that scene proves they're onto something.

Lost Countdown: No. 6

At last, a non-pretentious reason to love Lost! Anyone with two ears and a heart would agree with me on this one, surely.

The incredible genius of Michael Giacchino:

I had been exposed to Michael Giacchino's work before I even knew who he was, not realising how much I would come to admire him. The first few Medal of Honour games were where it was at for Nazi-killing WWII action before Call of Duty came along. His music so perfectly suited the games that they often barely seemed to be there, and all I can remember of it was stirring, atmospheric themes that drove the action along. Which is what you'd hope for.

It was after watching the first two seasons of Alias, in which he offered an entertaining variety of appropriately driven action soundtracks, that I began to take notice of his work. So much TV music is anonymous that you can take it for granted, and only a few TV composers (Bear McCreary, the late, great Shirley Walker) ever had enough of a signature sound to rise above the others. I could include Mark Snow, but his music is at once recognisably tinny and anonymously unimaginative, so much so that his music for Smallville is often indistinguishable from his X-Files work.

It's slightly different with W.G. Snuffy Walden. When he's working with Sorkin his work is nauseating and mawkish, but at least it's distinctive. God bless him for his Friday Night Lights soundtrack with Bennett Salvay; it might be more cuddly than the source material by Explosions in the Sky, but it is beautiful to listen to and perfect for the show. Giacchino's Alias soundtrack was distinct and memorable and certainly just right for the spy shenanigans, but it's not something that I would listen to outside the context of the show.

Then came Brad Bird's masterpiece, The Incredibles, and Giacchino's soundtrack was absolute perfection. Sassy, moving, urgent, and filled with John Barry stings that matched the magnificent Bond-style middle section. There were hundreds of things about the film that I loved completely, but I might have been most thrilled to see Giacchino reach the next level with such confidence. From that moment on I was crazy about him, the same way I had once been crazy about James Horner (shut up! His Aliens and Wrath of Khan soundtracks were amazing!), Jerry Goldsmith, Elliot Goldenthal, Carter Burwell, etc.

When it was announced he was going to be supervising the music on Criterion's gritty FPS Black, I was more excited about that than I was about the super-destructible environments and groundbreaking sound effects work, and even though he only did a couple of themes on it, it sounded amazing. His soundtrack to Sky High was also great, one of the many terrific things about that underrated movie. And then, about a year after it was shown on US TV, I watched the first season of Lost in about a week (Canyon and I were dealing with moving house and that show got us through the stress), and I realised Giacchino had written his masterpiece. Yes, even better than his subsequent Oscar-nominated soundtrack to Brad Bird's other best film, Ratatouille.

I remember people making fun of the montages that ended many of the first season episodes, the gooey ones that showed the castaways getting on with their new island life (often with Walt running around in slow motion and chasing Vincent), but they worked anyway, and it's a testament to Giacchino's work that they didn't come off as lazy and sentimental but actually moving. His greatest achievement (as far as I'm concerned) came with the final episode of season one, when Jin, Walt, Michael and Sawyer prepare to leave the island on Michael's raft. The piece of music, track 26 on the first season soundtrack, sounds like this. First time I listened to it at work on headphones, I burst into tears. Pathetic, I know, but it's the truth.

Sadly the soundtrack is marred by the dreaded Trumpet Fart of Doom, the heavily brassy "Phraaaaaaaaaaoooooong!" sound that comes in at the end of each episode when the happy montages segue into the shocking final moments (usually something to do with the Hatch). Also, some of the song titles are horrid (Thinking Clairely, Booneral and Shannonigans make my head hurt), and the second season is not as memorable, but if the third season soundtrack is released I'm definitely getting it. It had some stunning moments, and themes from the previous seasons were reintroduced and beautifully expanded upon.

Even if I thought the second season soundtrack was a little less startling, the overall achievement is still notable. It's one of the most complex, beautiful, chilling and ambitious musical projects on TV. It's a strong enough piece of work that Giacchino was able to perform a heavily orchestrated version of what has become known as Lost Symphony. ZOMG I would have loved to have been there that night!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lost Countdown: No. 7

These reasons for loving Lost are entirely too pretentious, but it's my brain and adrenal glands responding to this, so you'll have to suck it, Lost haters.

Complexifying (?) the universe with easter eggs and real-world Alternate Reality Games:

*Warning! This post contains many uses of the nebulous word, "metatextual"*

Did you know that the man who discovered electromagnetism was called Hans Christian Ørsted? Did you know that The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien (seen in the Swan Station) features an underground complex in which can be found a substance called Omnium, which can transmute itself into anything you can wish for? How many Wizard of Oz references have there been? Or Alice in Wonderland? Were you aware that the mark on the tree to point Juliet towards the case of "vaccine" is the same as that of the planet Ummo? Do you know that the guy who got sucked into the engine in the first episode was not only dating the flight attendant Cindy (kidnapped and brainwashed by the Others), but wrote a tell-all book about the Hanso Foundation that got banned, leading him to "write" the novel Bad Twin, which also exists in our world (and is a detective story about The Hanso Foundation and evil twins and isn't actually as bad as Carlton Cuse has made out)? Do any of these things matter to the plot? Not at all. In that case, why keep them? Just to make me happy, I'm tempted to say. Because I love Easter eggs even when they're pointless, and even more when, as I suspect with Lost, they add up to more.

A few years ago I went crazy with anticipation for the release of the sequels to my favourite movie, The Matrix. Warner Brothers and Silver Pictures went into hype overdrive, and I lapped it all up and asked for seconds. I rewatched the original over and over again, devouring books explaining the symbolism of every object, name or event on screen. The first sequel was everything I ever wanted from an extension of the first movie and more, expanding the mythos and throwing out numerous allusions to real world (or Matrix, depending on your viewpoint) religious and scientific ideas and motifs. I saw that movie so many times during that summer, building my excitement for the finale into a frenzy that was horribly shattered when Revolutions came out and seemed to be telling an entirely different story than the one I had expected (which was my fault), as well as sucking on a narrative and pacing level (which was the Wachowski's fault). I've given it a break since (and still maintain Reloaded is excellent), but at the time I was gutted. And yet, the experience of picking apart the dozens of textual and metatextual details still made me happy, and I don't regret it for a second.

It was around that time that I got heavily into The Invisibles, Grant Morrison's complex metatextual diary/call to arms that had finally been collected in its entirety by DC and Vertigo. My first runthrough was done through a perpetually confused squint. So many of his references made no sense to me that I had to get a primer to get the most out of it. Thanks to those two complex works, my library became much more esoteric.

Lost has the same effect on me. The references to real world books and people sends me scurrying to the internet at the end of each episode, to absorb facts about them not just to see how they fit into the Lost experience, but why the showrunners thought them interesting enough to get a mention. Sometimes the books are included just because the writers like them and want to promote them (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume), because of a cool fact they like and want to include (Desmond saving Our Mutual Friend so that it is the last book he ever reads is actually based on John Updike's plan to do the same thing), or because the book has some thematic connection with the plot (The Fountainhead's protagonists are world-changing individuals not unlike the ambitious Alvar Hanso).

Similarly, the naming of the characters delights me, though I also regret not paying more attention while studying for my philosophy degree. John Locke, Rousseau, "Desmond" David Hume, and the most over-the-top one yet, Mikhail Bakunin. There are other connections, less obvious. Anthony Cooper, Kate Austen (okay, different spelling, but still), James Ford, Ben Linus (bit of a stretch, that one). I love that the actual character names are real people who lived in our world, but the aliases used by some of the characters (Sawyer, Henry Gale) match up with fictional characters. I think there might be some significance to the name Christian Shephard but it eludes me right now. The showrunners say that there is a point to this name-linking, but whether it is connected to the mystery or is merely another way to increase the complexity of the thematic web is not yet clear.

I love all of that detail, and think it enriches the narrative and gives the show an air of seriousness. I won't say it gives it an air of intelligence because I think it's plenty intelligent already without namedropping, but it does put the events in the context of the world of ideas as much as the onscreen drama makes it a show about action. It's an understatement to say that not everyone is convinced. John Patterson, the formerly brilliant and now increasingly curmudgeonly film columnist in The Guardian, recently railed against Southland Tales for its aimless complexity, and he had a point. That film meant nothing, probably on purpose. His main thesis, though, is complex works of pop culture and why they're "not as good as the films of the 70s, when Robert Altman blah blah, and Bert Schneider yada yada". You get the drift.
It joins a number of similar pop-culture artefacts, like John August's The Nines and the TV shows Lost and Heroes, among others, whose ambitions are not equalled by execution, and whose immense complexity often proves self-defeating. These are not stand-alone items either. Sprawling and expansive, with multilayered storylines and timeframes, most feature huge casts and, in the case of the television work, are possessed of enormously complicated "Show Bibles" (the ever-expanding encyclopedia of a show's mythos). Their stories spread everywhere, linking every character in a web of coincidence and interrelatedness.

Sounds great to me. He criticises Heroes, saying it had failed because of the same overcomplexity. I'd say it's more to do with the writers forgetting how to pace their show, but whatever. Then he started in on The Nines (which I've yet to see), and then Lost:
Made up of three interlocking stories using the same actors - Ryan Reynolds is, successively, an actor, a screenwriter in a reality show, and then the star of his own TV show, ie inside the show's fiction - it piles inspired weirdness upon witty conceit upon many layers of pop-culture and TV in-jokes, to the point where the resolution to the story can only be a letdown; where the answers retroactively ruin and discredit all the questions. When all is tidily resolved in the final moments, you feel like an idiot for hanging around so long.

This seems likely to be the fate of many Lost viewers as well. Remember, the show's writers have almost as little idea as the viewers about where the show can go next. They might be 10 episodes ahead of us, but that's all. Beyond that, they're as clueless as we are. Each season sees another desperate opening out of the plot into another dimension, answering some questions but foreclosing other possibilities forever. As with The X-Files, the final explanation can only be a disappointment.

So why bother? Why even make anything that is ambitious or filled with metatextual references? Has he no idea what these things do? Firstly, the internet games such as The Lost Experience give valuable information about many aspects of Dharma Initiative's and Hanso Foundation lore, such as the Valenzetti equation, the Life Extension Project, and Magnus Hanso's New World Sea Traders company.

I admit, it's sad that less obsessive viewers of the show don't know of these aspects of the beautifully detailed Lost universe, and probably missed out on the subtly revealed news that the polar bears are on the island to be used for genetic testing by Dharma, in an attempt to keep them alive following drastic climate change. Without the urge to delve deeply into the show, information like this eludes viewers, but that's fine. It's their choice and I respect that. However, I do get mad when stupid TV critics who have no respect for the show bitch about it not even giving up any information about that one thing from the pilot just because they don't have enough respect for a heavily layered sci-fi show to do some research. They're genetically modified to survive a different climate! Get over it! Move on! Other stuff has happened since!

Secondly, as I said above, it nods to the viewer that Lost is about ideas and theories and allegories that aren't spelled out implicitly within the show. The characters don't debate philosophy and theology out loud, but their actions and their beliefs dramatise this debate implictly. The philosophical detail points us to that and provides a contextual framework for the attentive viewer.

As for the little touches like the brand names (Apollo chocolate bars, MacCutcheon whiskey), businesses (Widmore Corporation, Paik Heavy Industries, Herarat Aviation), and research organisations (Mittelos Bioscience, the Global Welfare Consortium, and of course The Hanso Foundation), having these things crop up within the universe over and over again (with connections revealed in-show or in-game) creates that sense of having a functioning, coherent fictional world, as well as giving the show context (it's as much about the scientific research world as it is a world where big business leads). Patterson might be convinced that storytelling only works when confined to the 90-180 minute duration of a movie, and anything else is time-wasting, but with the internet and long-form storytelling coming of age, we can tell stories of much greater complexity, with connections being made between characters, events, themes, organisations, etc., that could never be touched on in previous formats. These connections might seem like frippery, but they mean something to the viewer willing to invest time in finding out about these things.

A story told in a film can be a world. A story told in a complex narrative form like that of Lost can be a universe, and within that universe we can have that cathartic feeling of coming to a conclusion over and over again. The finale might suck and leave the viewer disappointed, but the outcome of the Lost Experience ARG satisfied people, and the scene where the mystery of how Locke broke his back was incredibly satisfying, and Charlie's sacrifice was satisfying, and over and over again we get moments of closure within the Lost universe that resolve things we needed resolved without finishing the story. It's not your parents' storytelling, Patterson. We've moved on. Come join us.

Lost Countdown: No. 8

Here's a reason for loving the show that I felt a little embarrassed about talking about, because I couldn't understand why it made me happy. Still, let's give it a try.

The thematic echoes:

The biggest criticism leveled at Lost is that Lindelof and Cuse are just making it up as they go along, a refrain from the haters that drives Lost fans out of their minds. I'll come back to that a lot, as it's connected to things that bug me about fandom in general, as well as some of the other reasons why I love it.

Let's say the doubters are right. The showrunners have no idea what's going to happen and are just adding stuff to each episode because it seems cool, or because they can't think of a logical way to further the plot. If that's the case, they're doing a great job of creating events that are thematically relevant to what has gone before. Even if the show were being made up on the fly, worst case scenario is that things would be introduced that had little or no connection to what has gone before. That's not the case here.

Visual and narratives motifs echo throughout the series in ways that either affect the audience subconsciously or, to the Lost nerd, as concrete proof that the show is being made by people who know exactly what they're doing. On a meta level, this enormously satisfying, as the plot rests on connections between the characters, and presenting a series of images and narrative motifs that replicate throughout the show in each character's stories reinforces this sense of connection.

The first shot of the show, the opening of Jack's eye, has come back several times so far. Parent issues have blighted the lives of almost all of the characters, as have car crashes, which have affected several characters, and even bound them together (Shannon and Boone link with Jack whose decision to save his future wife dooms their father). The numbers show up again and again, either as plot points (Hurley's lottery win, the Swan station computer) or in the background (e.g. on the top of police cars, or on football shirts). These are all elements of one of the overarching themes in the show; the interconnectivity of the modern world.

One of my favourite echoes, used to illustrate a changing power dynamic on the island, came in season three. Ben is confined to a wheelchair when confronting Locke from what seems to be a position of weakness, but as soon as his authority is reasserted, he regains enough of his strength to get around using a stick, much like Mr. Eko. Their relationship at that point begins to echo that one as well, with each of them battling over which one of them has access to the truth. Another great character echo is that whenever Locke comes upon a computer, such as the chess machine in the Flame station, he is compelled to interact with it in the same obsessive manner he did with the computer in Swan station. And then fuck shit up, to quote a Dub Narcotic song title.

It's not just on the small scale. The moment I realised the show was following a plan came with The Man Behind The Curtain, which featured a classic moment of vindication for the doubters (the reveal of Jacob) or something that the believers would just accept as something that would be explained in the future.

That wasn't the cool part, though. In a prior episode, Ben and his cronies leave the prison island en masse, and return to the Barracks with Jack in tow. A few episodes after that, The Others, faces obscured by gas masks, abandon the barracks after gassing Kate and Sayid, and embark on an exodus towards the Ruins. In The Man Behind The Curtain, we see the barracks gassed years before, and it echoes (or pre-echoes) the gassing of Kate and Sawyer. In Through The Looking Glass, the castaways leave the beach the same way the Others left the Barracks, this time in search of the beacon.

Throughout the season we saw these moments reoccur in different ways, that wouldn't happen if the show was being made up as they went along. The massacre at the end of The Man Behind The Curtain is such a deliberate echo of Kate and Sayid's incapacitation that it had to have been planned. The doubters may not be convinced there is a plan at work, but I am. Think me a fool, see if I care! [/defiant]

These echoes don't just provide the canvas on which the show is painted. They also give hints of what might be in store. The occurences of black and white objects suggest that the mystery of the show boils down to a tension between two opposing forces. By that I don't just mean the classic struggle between protagonist and antagonist, but perhaps the big secret of the show revolves around a duality theme. When the show started I was convinced it was something to do with twins or clones, but by now the popular theory among the fanbase is that our heroes have crossed into a parallel universe where their doppelgangers are dead but their relatives are still alive. If so, the black and white imagery is more than mere set dressing, and is in fact a clue. Or a hint. Or an echo of an echo.

Part of the joy of Lost is seeing this thematic structure being reinforced, and now that the show has reached a kind of midpoint with the future being revealed, we can look forward to seeing the echoes appear in the future, so that the echoes of the past echo forward into the future and then echo back to the present and possibly even into the past again. Lost fans will know what I mean, at the very least.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Temeraire and the Challenge of Ambitious Fantasy

It's well-established that we here at Shades of Caruso love dragons. We love them so much that both of us independently paid money to see Dragonheart in the theater, a movie that features Dennis Quaid playing a hero with a voice reminiscent of a man in the late stages of emphysema, a dragon played by a surly, transmogrified James Bond saddled with lines like "I merely chewed in self-defense, but I never swallowed," and David "Nyeehh" Thewlis nasaling his way through another cringing, effeminate villain role. It might be a significantly less painful experience on mute, actually. Of course, it's bad for lots of other reasons too: terrible writing and plotting, corny "comedy" bits, lackluster CGI, muddy production values... Sure, it's got a talking dragon in it, but he's too busy making pseudo-sexual innuendos about eating people to save the movie.

Of course, the fact that we sat through D-Wars is even more damning proof (we may have even enjoyed it a little), as is our viewing of Eragon on Sky Movies last night (not as awful as D-Wars but infinitely more boring and cliched. The dragon was too cutesy-looking to be cool, and too sassy to be likable). But the truth is that dragon-related entertainment is hard to come by. Well, scratch that -- I should say that good dragon-related entertainment is hard to come by. I have to admit here that I know there are plenty of books about dragons out there that I haven't read (excluding the series I'll be talking about in a moment, obviously), so it's a bit unfair of me to say that; for all I know, there are ones out there that I'd love. It's just...well, take Anne McCaffrey, Dragon Poet of Pern. Here's a partial description I found on Amazon:
In earlier episodes, hero and heroine F'lar and Lessa summoned the captivating dragons and their riders from the remote past to save Pern from a devastating rain of Thread, while the later discovery of Aivas, the artificial intelligence that guided Pern's original human settlers, brought technological marvels like printing to Pern and helped shift the Thread-producing Red Star from its lethal orbit before it self-destructed.
First of all...F'lar? F'lar?? That's the best name you could come up with for your hero? A sound that is most reminiscent of a pirate spitting up a gob of mucous? It has an apostrophe in it, for fuck's sake! (This is a particular bugbear of mine, sci-fi and fantasy writers' insistence on putting random apostrophes in the middle of what are already ridiculous names. After all, what good is a name like Robert when you can invent a character named Ro'outabro'igle?)

Second, devastating rain of Thread? ("Look out! It's multicolored! Auughhh!!") Aivas? "Helped shift the Thread-producing Red Star from its lethal orbit"? I don't have a hate-on for fantasy, but it's these ridiculous concepts that turn me off to a lot of it, and I suspect turn off a lot of other people too. For all I know, those are thrilling stories that, if I read them, I'd end up championing. I love the concept of fantasy, the incredible range of ideas it has access to. But I probably won't read these books, precisely because they sound so silly. I'm sure they have a basis in solid dramatic ideas -- how to build a society, the effect of technology on human lives, the pitfalls of telepathic communication with winged lizards -- but unfortunately the marketing for them tends to be really bad. Plus, I don't know why this is, but they're always about a thousand pages long each and there's about twenty books in every series. Why? Even if the idea intrigues you a little bit, you're immediately put off by the incredible investment required.

Perhaps the core audience doesn't want publishers to pander to what's considered acceptably mainstream, but still, I think a lot of genre books get unfairly ignored because of their covers and their marketing copy and all the rest (I do realize the irony of me saying this, as I'm one of the people who gets turned off by these things). I edit children's books for a large company, some of which are fantasy or sci-fi, so I realize the conundrum here; the stories might draw a larger audience but also have to appeal to the people they know are going to buy them, and be true to the stories within.

Okay, so enough unfocused and contradictory tangenting. The real reason I'm here today is to talk about Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. To go back to my earlier point, I don't think I ever would have picked up these books based on the covers.

They look like standard-issue dragon fantasy novels. Actually that's what the US covers look like. The UK covers are interesting, but I'm still not sure they completely succeed.

I like the dragon-and-boats thing -- pretty accurate, and a bit more in the direction of "this might just be serious literature WITH DRAGONS IN IT OMFG" -- but the paperback covers look a bit too much like Jane Austen-esque beast-friendly chick lit, which is schizophrenic and sexually confusing. I appreciate what a tough job the designers have, though, and I like the idea behind the attempt. Part of the problem is that on none of them do the dragons look friendly -- they look like attacking war-beasts who could very well be ripping apart our society. This is a bit of a problem for Temeraire (the dragon of the title) in the book, but I don't think that's to a marketer's advantage -- but then how do you make the dragons look cool without making them too cutesy? The one I like best is the UK omnibus edition:

It's still a a bit too cheap-fantasy cover for me, but it's an arresting image -- I'd stop and stare at that cover much the way Masticator would at a picture of a woman on a magazine cover thrusting her bottom at the camera. But as I said, I didn't get the books because of the covers -- I read a review of them in Entertainment Weekly in which they were highly praised and I think described as a kind of Patrick O'Brian with dragons, which was enough to intrigue me (I haven't read any O'Brian, though I loved the film of Master and Commander, but the blending of genres sounded great). Meanwhile Admiral Neck heard that Peter Jackson bought the film rights for the books, and when they arrived from the States (they weren't published here until a few months later), he immediately grabbed the first one before I could. Damn you, Admiral, and your insatiable dragon love! He raced through the first book, though, and soon we were both staying up till four to read them. The first three were published all at once, and while I know I complained earlier about the length of fantasy series, these weren't too long (300-400 pages each), and the world they described was not too different from our own. In fact, the only difference was that this alternate universe contained talking, intelligent dragons. Can you imagine anything more awesome? I didn't think so.

Novik came up with an incredibly clever, simple idea -- what if dragons existed, and were used as a line of England's military defense during the Napoleonic Wars? She also started us out with a protagonist as green to dragons as we were -- Captain Will Laurence (note lack of apostrophes), a seaman in Her Majesty's Navy, who accidentally ends up with a very valuable Chinese dragon egg when he captures a French ship. The egg hatches some weeks later, while Laurence and his crew are still out to sea, and though Laurence knows almost nothing about dragons except that they need to be harnessed when they hatch (so that they can bond with the person who will become their captain in England's Aerial Corps), he ends up becoming the choice of captain for the egg who hatches -- the dragon he will name Temeraire.

The first book in the series largely concerns Laurence's gradual acceptance of his fate as an aviator -- he was a respected captain in a prestigious profession, happy with his life, and he is at first reluctant and resentful of his duty to Temeraire, who, despite this, takes to him instantly. We follow the pair as they embark on training and learn about life in the Aerial Corps, which is very different from the life Laurence knew. Aviators are the shabby black sheep of the military, treated by the rest of English society as something of a joke, their dragons feared as dangerous beasts. This despite the fact that dragons are as intelligent as humans -- perhaps even more intelligent; they show an incredible aptitude for math and science, and Temeraire in particular is something of a savant. At first Laurence thinks his growing bond with Temeraire is unusual and that the other aviators think of their dragons as mere war beasts, but he soon learns that the bond between a dragon and his captain is one of the closest relationships a person may ever experience.

Initially Laurence is a bit unlikable -- stiff and proper, with a rigid inclination towards what's considered right and mannerly by society. It's only when he meets Temeraire that he begins to soften, to become less self-serious. It's to Novik's credit that she doesn't entirely soften Laurence, though -- though he grows to love Temeraire more than he can express, he is still concerned utmost with what is right and good, with being an honorable man, with following society's strictures. Temeraire himself is a very intelligent innocent, always questioning why society is the way it is, why people are afraid of dragons when there is so clearly nothing to fear (he is often hurt and offended when people show fear at his enormous, 20-ton physique). This sounds like it could be simple and didactic, but it never is; it comes from character and not as a lecture. The push and pull runs through the series as a constant, with each party softening to the other's argument as they grow to love and depend on each other more.

Subsequent books have Laurence and Temeraire being forced to travel around the world -- to China, Turkey, Germany, Africa, and back to England to fight Napolean, whose ominous presence runs through the books like a harbinger of impending destruction. It's a clever idea to have the pair travel the world -- not only because there's only so much you can write about English battles against Napolean's army but also because it allows Novik to explore how dragons are treated all over the world.

This is perhaps Novik's cleverest idea of all. By far the greatest strength of genre fiction is the way it allows its creators to approach all the ordinary issues of domestic drama from unusual angles, usually through metaphor. Where an ordinary drama would tell a story as a standard teenage-daughter-hates-her-mother story, The Exorcist compares puberty to demonic possession. The interesting-but-flawed Ginger Snaps does much the same: a young girl getting her period for the first time realizes she is also becoming a werewolf, and the movie charts her wrestling with her newfound power and sexuality. Buffy, of course, worked on a throughline of a high-school-as-hell metaphor, and Battlestar Galactica gets us to sympathize with Iraqi insurgents by placing its characters in a situation where they are colonized by an oppressive regime.

The Temeraire series explores issues of feminism (a certain breed of dragon -- Longwings -- only accept female captains, to Laurence's surprise and profound comic embarrassment), racism, slavery, the question of animal intelligence, dragons as a metaphor for how we treat outsiders and minorities -- all without being didactic. In England, dragons are kept away from society at large, and are generally treated as if they were large, winged horses. Their captains and crews love them, but they have no autonomy, and they are generally not treated as intelligent beings. Laurence and Temeraire don't realize there's any other way to be -- until they journey to China and find out that there, dragons are independent and have their own lives and professions (ferrying people from one place to the other, doing manual labor, etc), eat cooked meals instead of raw cows and sheep, and live in sheltered, warm pavilions instead of making their beds on the ground. And some -- like Temeraire, for he is an extremely rare and special breed known as a Celestial -- are revered as thinkers and scholars, and spend their time in the life of the mind instead of being charged with defending the country as a mere unthinking tool of war.

As we go through each country, we find how each one treats its dragons, and with each book Temeraire grows more and more anxious about the way dragons are treated in England and feels more and more that he must do something to change it. Laurence too wants only the best for Temeraire, and for dragons as a whole -- he wants them to be happy above all -- but he knows the harsh reality he's afraid to confront his friend with; he knows how unlikely the possibility of change is, especially in a time of war.

The most touching thing about the books -- in which much is touching, as Novik has a deft hand with melodramatic but never mawkish storylines -- is obviously the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, but it is also the way Laurence is changed by his love for the beast. Temeraire is part precocious child, part confidante, part comrade and colleague -- a true life partner and probably the closest relationship Laurence will ever know -- and he gradually opens Laurence's tightly closed and rigid personality. For me, good drama happens when we as an audience are torn between two points of view -- when two sides of an argument are presented as equally valid, and we empathize with and understand the views of those on either side. I find nothing more riveting than this three-dimensionality of character, and good drama always has it, no matter what the genre. And in this series, Laurence and Temeraire are always fascinating, always people we want to know.

The fourth book, which I read a few months ago (and am belatedly writing about, obviously), was a tiny bit disappointing in that it was a kind of transition book -- Novik is clearly building up to something exciting, but she has to get through certain story mechanics to get there, which is not so much her fault as just the way the story happened to fall. Getting the first three books at once spoiled me, and now I'm stuck anxiously waiting for the next story as she finishes it. I have no doubt it will be just as fascinating as the others.

I'm also anxiously waiting for Peter Jackson's film version and get more anxious every time he announces another unrelated project. OMG stop taking on goddamn Lord of the Rings movies! How many more drunken homoerotic hobbit songs can we suffer through? (I should explain that -- I think Jackson is an immensely talented director and that he is the perfect person to do justice to Temeraire. I just really don't care about the Lord of the Rings as a story, though I think they're beautifully made movies and he did the best job he possibly could have with them.) (Yet more heresy on this blog! What kind of anarchic free-for-all is going on here - Neck)

When July arrives and Victory of Eagles comes out, I will be first in line, brandishing my nerdy fantasy book with pride.