Tagged: TV

Yes Minister

I feel old.

I’ve taken in my efforts to stave off this feeling, but it’s undeniable. I feel old, even though I know full well that ‘millenial’ talk is targeted at me. Part of why is because the things of my youth are not the things of other people’s youth. I was raised on The Goon Show and I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and obscure Christian media. My media background was ultimately not for me – it was for my father.

Lots of it went over my head. The Goon Show had overtones of sex farce and tons of racy humour that I completely missed. I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again built on a host of tropey fantasy and panto skit comedy that I totally missed, and I only now realise what a slide whistle means.

One series of my father’s loves, which was contemporary to my birth, and therefore, completely beyond me until, well, now, is Yes Minister.

It’s fascinating actually in that it has a lot in common with Seinfeld. While the point of Seinfeld was that it was a show about nothing1., with stories that showed people spending huge amounts of effort on tiny nothings, the thrust of Yes Minister was inverted. Episodes of Yes Minister are spent ranging across spaces of days at a time, with enormous outcomes on the line, in which almost nothing ever gets to happen. But while Seinfeld’s narrative structure is bent to the frantic expenditure of energy achieving nothing, the narrative of Yes Minister is the frantic expenditure of energy achieving nothing.

It’s that kind of word play is throughout the series.

It’s also a show where instantaneous communication as we have it now would totally desolate some plots.

One of the challenges of making a sit-com is that it’s meant to be a situation comedy, a comedy that exists, as it were, in situ, in its own place. The dialogue therefore is trying to serve both comedy, with timing and wordplay, and also be some form of naturalistic. You can look at the comedy of say, Everybody Loves Raymond or Big Bang Theory with gigantic, stratified pauses between people talking to allow for reactions, which well, we’ll pretend that’s actually about the jokes being funny rather than signalling that they are meant to be. Anyway, the point is that it’s very difficult to make dialogue serve both funny and natural.

Yes Minister achieves this by having the comedy in dialogue mostly derive from the three voices in almost every given room be either deliberately obfuscating and smug, well-intentioned and prone to blurting, and wavering between the three the voice of Jim Hacker trying desperately to be funny and score a point of the others as a way to signify his own intelligence. This is a series of people being witty at one another, and in the context of the space they’re in, this is naturalistic dialogue. They want to show they’re smarter and funnier than one another.

The really interesting thing to me, now, about Yes Minister, watching it in hindsight isn’t so much that it’s funny – it is, it’s very funny, if you like a particular kind of playfully cynical word play and manipulation – or even that, it’s about how much of the narrative is things that we are dealing with now.

British Government is a fascinating warren of discretions and traditions and importantly deliberate vaguearies, and Yes Minister is set in a time when the EU is about to come into being and the Cold War was still quite cold. Countries in Africa were escaping colonial power. There’s a recognition that America is both powerful and blisteringly foolish as a global power, and there’s a reasonable expectation that the government is spending much of its time trying to move things around and that a lot of what’s going on is actually in service of nothing.

There is a fascinating intricacy to it all where largely, the sheer scope of British bureaucracy is presented as both a problem and a result. The size of government and the people involved in it, the story tells you, are related. You can’t ask for more work without asking for more people to do them. There’s talk about the UK’s role in the then-nascent EU, which was explicitly framed in terms of the very cultural reasons the UK saw the EU as an opportunity to join – or rather the EEC, at the time.

It’s all so interesting to me because it carries within it some very real but very cynical truths about the way things happened. Things that I like, things I believe in, could almost always be viewed in terms of short-term pettiness and spite. And it serves as a counterpoint to The West Wing, which was as much fanfiction of how America could have been in the late 90s as it shows an England of the early 80s.

What brought me to check this out again?

It was this quote:

Sir Humphrey: The only way to understand the Press is to remember that they pander to their readers’ prejudices.

Jim Hacker: Don’t tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?

Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don’t care *who* runs the country – as long as she’s got big tits.


1. I personally don’t buy this. Seinfeld seems to really be a show about how it’s totally okay to be a self-obssessed prick.

Gargoyles

There are two ways to approach this introduction; there’s the good, virtuous, but also incredibly self-aggrandising way, where I talk about how the root of all humanity and empathy is an ability to connect things to one another through human interfaces that we would not have otherwise thought to do, and that drawing connections others haven’t seen is what we call genius. Then there’s the meanspirited way which is pointing out that being able to point out how two seemingly unrelated pieces of media are connected is basically the academic equivalent of popping a wheelie and demanding people be impressed.

Anyway, nobody made Gargoyles.

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Star Trek Discovery

Courtesy of my weird childhood, I never really was a Star Wars person or a Star Trek person. My sister and mother watched Star Trek on VHS rental when I was older, but there never really was any sense to me that these shows were a thing to watch. They were just a show on the television sometimes. Heck, I didn’t realise there was an actual arc to these shows – they weren’t like my continuity-driven, beloved and intellectual Robotech.

(Give me a break)

Point is, I’ve never been a Star Trek person. It’s not my thing, it’s never been my thing, and aside from being aware of the term ‘trekkie’ I never really got how or why the series actually played into this subculture. It was a show, it happened to other people, they loved it, and they maybe got a bit weird about it, but I got a bit weird about Transformers, so I wasn’t one to judge.

With all that in mind, when I saw people talking about Star Trek: Discovery, and complaining about it on all sorts of levels (it’s being distributed weirdly), and finding out that here, in Australia I can just watch it on Netflix, I popped open Netflix and had a shot.

And,

well.

Hey, wow, Star Trek is pretty cool!!

This series starts with – and some mild spoilers here, just structural ones – with a really interesting premise to me. Our protagonist isn’t a leader or a powerhouse or a figure of authority who makes final calls, but is instead someone in the midsection of hierarchy; she has to make decisions as best she can based on what’s going on around her, but doesn’t have the latitude to make a lot of free-wheeling, cowboy-captain style solutions, or back up her position authoritively in a negotiation of rules. There’s also her history, and the way her upbringing created a really interesting tension that highlights something cool to me about the universe she’s part of.

I don’t rightly know if Discovery is a good or a bad series, but I know I’m enjoying it three episodes in, and it even did something I found weirdly comforting. Episode 3 introduced a ‘science’ thing that I think is going to show up and be important to the rest of the story. It’s also total nonsense, which actually works for me, because it indicates that this isn’t going to be a series about establishing hard science fiction rules, and instead wants to talk about concepts and ideology that are more about where we are now, and use a framing device of a future that we want to get to.

The main character, Michael, is a mess of elements in conflict, and I like the ways I see the storytelling signalling it. First of all, there’s just the very basic conflict of her name. Normally when we go to the future in stories, we tend to treat elements of culture as reasonably static – look at how the original Star Trek didn’t really feature a lot of trans or queer characters; it looked forward to the question of race but that was a conversation that was already happening.

Michael’s name could be seen as queer-signaling but I don’t think it is. I think it’s taking the much simpler route of making us look at her and feel dissonance. We go ‘that’s a boy’s name’ in our culture (which, yes, is silly, but it’s definitely how the name is coded and don’t pretend that that reaction is unusual). That’s one point of contention – a now, versus a then. There’s her backstory of pure logic contrasting with an impetus of emotional perspective. There’s the tension of being a central character in a wide-open space while being beholden to the orders and mandates of the control structure around her. This leads to actions that are,

I find this really interesting!

I’m actually a bit sad hearing now,now the series is underway and going on, to see people around me talking about how it’s not that good or offering a sort of conciliatory well if the third episode is where it started tone or trying to fix a series that’s, what, three episodes long at the time of writing?

It’s a bit sad, to me. It’s weird, too – because to me, this isn’t a series trying to live up to a huge reputation. I don’t have a feel of what Star Trek should be, or how it’s meant to work? I just have, well, no real opinion. This is a pretty interesting science-fiction series, which frames itself as having a long history that we can discover, a huge infrastructure so the stories aren’t about how to get into space, and a canvas that features an enormous potential war on the horizon and a central character whose main story seems to be about an interesting contest between a logical and emotional contest.

That all seems, to me, to be pretty cool.

Vandread

Vandread was an anime that came out in the year 2000 and it’s a bit tricky to introduce because everything it is it’s also not quite. It’s a harem anime, but not quite. It’s a space giant robot anime, but not quite. It’s a science fiction anthology anime, but not quite. It’s about genders, but not quite, about relationships, but not quite, and about identity, but not quite. In a lot of ways, Vandread is a really confused piece, a gem of its time.

The premise of Vandread is – okay, hold on – there are these two planets of entirely gender-segregated populations reproducing through artificial means that been at war with one another for centuries because the men planet thinks the women planet eat liver and it’s all cast as a propoganda war, where our main character such as he is Hibiki is working in an awful factory job that dehumanises him. He stows away on the warship that holds a mecha he helped to build, to try and steal it, because he’s an idiot, and then Lesbian Pirates attack as the warship is about to go show off how great it is. A Space Accident ensues and the warship is swallowed in part by the pirate ship, which then becomes an Extremely Sweet Ship with three male prisoners on board – Hibiki, and two other guys from his own home culture, a doctor and a navigator. The ship is then flung out into the middle of nowhere and our cast have to work out what happened, why their cultures are the way they are, who they are and why some of the mecha and space-ships they have can now combine into a powerful Vandread Unit.

Oh yeah, the shapeshifting robot thing comes up, and there’s also these unidentified attackers who keep trying to kill them.

This is the first episode.

Vandread then follows an almost Star-Trekky kind of plot arc where they move from place to place, and each new episode brings a new problem they handle and learn a bit about the overarcing plot. Sometimes it’s a internal drama on the space-ship, Hibiki learning he’s a doofus, or sometimes it’s going to a new planet and finding out there’s a problem there. The plot on this one kind of unfolds, but it’s also much more of a story about a world as a concept than it is about anything the story wants to say with that.

For all that Vandread is a story about segregated genders, though, there are two really weird points to it – and they get a bit spoilery, so I’ll jump on the far side of a cut for that, so you can avoid it. Continue reading

BraveStarr!

BraveStarr, with its internal capital and double-r, is the story of a lone Native-American lawman from (maybe) the planet of New Texas, with his small coalition of friends, opposing an outlaw gang headed up by Tex Hex, who’s best described as a sort of Zombie Cyborg Cowboy. The fearsome crew of idiots and screwball villains wielding big boxy space-guns spent their time ‘terrorising’ the citizens of Fort Kerium, which is a giant mechanised city (buy all our playsets and toooys) made to protect the Prarie People and their Kerium mines.

I feel that when it came to these 80s Merchandise shows, you’d often have details about the creators seep into the work. Part of what made M*A*S*K so remarkable was that there was so little there there, a story that just sort of farted out. If you looked at shows like GI Joe or Silverhawks, there was always a tiny drop of something going on there, an ideology you could point to and use to inform the work at large. It isn’t just something that a work is trying to say: creative people’s values and ideas become part of their work even subconsciously.

These subconscious biases are to me more interesting than a lot of intended messages: Especially when you’re dealing with media primarily designed for fast, forgettable consumption, the pulp of an era, people often don’t have the time to make media that has A Message. Bravestarr was a series that wanted to be a western, with a cool Native American protagonist who channelled nature spirits, espoused environmental and social consciousness, and protected the poor Prarie People of New Texas. That is to say, this story is about a Native American Cop protecting the Colonial invaders while they exploited the small, hairy subhumans who can’t talk properly.

There’s a historical context here – and like it or not, thirty years ago is actually history. Not that the atrocities against Native Americans or the racism in media isn’t longer lasting than that, but the 80s as a creative period were a time when those symptoms of oppression and marginalisation were being expressed differently to now. Now, you present a Native American character poorly and there’ll be an angry online presence making its feelings known. That’s not to say that this tension gets things fixed, but there’s a reaction. There’s an easily recognised, publically searchable, clear reaction to this kind of thing, the sort of thing that results in a Criticisms And Controversies entry on a Wikipedia page.

For these works of the 1980s, though, we didn’t have that. It took a surprising amount of effort for fans to have a direct impact on shows and that effort was mostly isolated to people with the free time to do it. Even the classic Women In Refrigerators was an early internet list, and the 90s Hal’s Emerald Advancement Team still relied on people sending actual physical letters to comic creators. What’s more those were both very entrenched fans working hard – not the pre-teen Bravestarr ‘fans’ who probably were also equally entrenched in six other franchises that gave them reasonably similar or comparable toys.

There’s your historical context: Complaints about Bravestarr were not widespread, not because they weren’t legitimate or real, but because nobody with media platform space was asking questions and nobody was writing down the answers. This is not the same thing as being uncontroversial. It means that we weren’t listening.

At the same time, the 80s were definitely into that period of Native American presence in media (that some say ended with Disney’s Pocohontas) that treated them as just important enough to be magically otherised and also probably not actually whole people.

BraveStarr is noteworthy because Marshall Bravestarr himself is a Native American, or is ‘meant to be’ a Native American. We see glimpses of his childhood, moments where he was living in a situation best called Cartoon Tribal. We hear the story of Shaman the Shaman, who quotes some very Not-Native-American lessons translated backwards (‘to truly understand someone, one must walk a mile in his moccasins’). There’s a clear desire to have some sort of connection to Native American culture, but either by being too cautious to identify anything (unlikely) or genuinely believing that most Native American culture was airy-fairy and indefinite, it very much comes across as being ‘Native American’ culture, like a big broad sticker you can put on things.

Ultimately, BraveStarr earns itself a very white You Tried sticker from another white person. Someone involved in this production wanted to do something with the idea, wanted their silly space cowboy show informed by westerns they liked and space-faring science fiction they liked and also to include an oddball cast of alien-looking villains that included at least one Australian shape-shifting dingo. It’s fascinating that this series tried to do something, that it tried something, but it tried really stupidly.

It serves as an example of how you made an effort isn’t always a good enough excuse to be satisfied with a result.

 

Korra: The Darkest Shadow

How do you follow up success?

How do you follow up runaway successes?

How do you follow up literally the greatest example of its genre of all time?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is, broadly speaking, the greatest piece of long-form western animated storytelling  that exists. When you take into account its competitors, they’re usually storytelling forms that have different demands, but when viewed in terms of just itself – continuity-driven human drama stories told using animation – there just isn’t anything that touches it. I say that as someone who really dislikes some elements of Avatar and its coding, who thinks there’s waste in that otherwise dense series. I like Avatar less than I recognise its overall quality and its excellence as a story.

It sort of follows sadly then that Korra, a story I like better, is much worse made.

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My Guild Leader Is A Demon

First up, some disclosure: This series, My Guild Leader Is A Demon is made by a friend of mine, 0xabad1dea. While I know I’m in the dedication of one of her books, I don’t think I’ve had any influence or involvement in this project, and I’ve not been paid for this piece.

There is potential that she might implement/reject some ideas I mention here, as the series is ongoing, but as far as I know, no such thing is expected to happen. Basically, if I say something here and it winds up being true in this series, assume 0xabad1dea was going to do it anyway.


My Guild Leader Is A Demon is a web-series/kinetic novel. There’s some consideration on my part as to whether to treat kinetic novels – storytelling which has no major interaction beyond ‘keep going’ – as a series or a videogame. In this case, 0xabad1dea has taken a full play of the game and put it up on Youtube, where you can watch it as a single video. Continue reading

Miraculous: Rescuing Cats

There’s this book, called Invisible Ink, by Brian McDonald, which I haven’t read, but I have heard summarised, and that right there is kind of a punchline in and of itself. The book has a bunch of stuff in it (including gender-coding storytelling tools, so I dunno, nevermind). In that book he outlines the idea that a lot of work is put into characterising and presenting certain characters in movies that fail at making those characters resonant because there’s something wrong or missing there.

The example given is the idea of rescuing a cat from a tree, something Superman does. Anyone unfamiliar with this scene idea or story beat probably doesn’t read this blog, but assuming otherwise, the idea is that a Superman story takes some time early on, before the story has ramped up and tension is high, to show Superman rescuing a cat stuck in a tree and return it to the people who are afraid. It’s a simple, small exchange, and one that most Superman movies have left out.

I think about this moment a lot, and here’s what’s had me thinking about it lately:



In Miraculous, there’s a moment where Marinette, as Ladybug, goes into a room to hide when she transforms. The door is ajar, and she left it that way, so it’s not like looking in the open door requires an action. If you were outside, and the light caught your eye, there’s a deniability to looking. Adrien, as Cat Noir, is outside and is in a position to look.

Now to be clear, there is no actual need for Adrien to be there. The story has been resolved and it’s an established point that Cat Noir often leaves the scene of an incident quickly so he, too, can transform back into Adrien and hide his identity. If the story wanted, he would not even be here.

Adrien approaches the door where Marinette is changing, and closes it.

The story doesn’t need to do this. There’s no unending question of why he was or wasn’t doing something in that room at the same time, no plot hole introduced by his presence or absence there. There’s nothing that needs explaining here. There’s no reason for this scene – except to show you something of who Adrien is, and what he’d do when confronted with an opportunity to learn something about Ladybug she’s not willingly letting him know.

M*A*S*K – A Platonic Ideal

There was this comedy web cartoon called Cheat Commandos, whose tagline was Buy All Our Playsets And Toys! If you’re at all a fan of this era of tv, and I guess somehow I am, you might be inclined to remember this as being connected to the GI Joe cartoons of the time – which Cheat Commandos very clearly connects to. The toy lineup for GI Joe was ubiquitous, too, row upon row of them in the toy stores or the aisles of supermarkets, little toys designed to make kids happy and also extract their pocket money. This was the Reagan Era of media, the period when advertising directly to children was deemed Okay Now.GI Joe wasn’t actually a brand made for this – that’s a toy line that existed since the fifties, a venerable senior of the merchandise wars. When deregulation hit the toy media market, it wasn’t GI Joe that shifted over first. Heck, it wasn’t first out of the gates; the very first media like that was stuff like The Gummi Bears, which happened because Disney could make a TV show that fast to try and sell plush toys (I understand).

We all know, now there’s a sort of template for all these shows from Dino Riders to Inhumanoids to Zoids’ first appearance to the Street Sharks to the X-Men cartoons that they were all more or less the same basic idea to try and sell you a toy lineup. Yet when you go back and look at those series and really consider what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do as the way they fill time selling you a toy, there’s almost always something interesting to talk about. It can be a queer reading or elevating pulp media with surprising value to it or attacks or critique for racism or transphobia or –

There’s almost always something there.

Moviebob recently stated in Really That Good that the Transformers movie being good may have been an accident but its accidental existence doesn’t change the fact the movie is good. Looking back on Silverhawks and Thundercats shows some drop of something that’s there, worth talking about, worth revisiting.

That’s why going back and rewatching M*A*S*K has been astounding. There’s almost nothing in M*A*S*K to talk about! If you want to remark on anything in this series it has to be the naked emptiness of it, the way its enormous cast of characters had three and a half personalities between them. Or maybe the way its racial diversity is somehow more represented by white guys doing accents. You could try and build something out of the way that several of the characters are the same basic person, or the way the series gave its most boring, easiest voices multiple new masks and vehicles.

I think the one thing in M*A*S*K that really stands out to me as interesting, the one thing this series does that’s kind of cool is when the M*A*S*K signal calls, every member of the squad is shown interrupting whatever they’re doing, no matter what, and bailing. This gives a chance to show that the character is a character, who has something going on – like you see Bruce bailing on a meeting with other inventors, or Alex rushing a pet feeding. That’s almost all you get to demonstrate anything about the characters, though because after that point, they are nothing.

M*A*S*K doesn’t have characters, it has the accents Doug Stone can pull off.

What I’m saying is, when people joke about a TV Show, from the 1980s and early 90s with interchangeable, underdeveloped nothing characters who existed to only advertise and encourage the sales of toys to children, they’re almost certainly talking about M*A*S*K.

Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, Pt 2. – Marinette

Here’s an idea, he says, missing PBS Idea Channel So Much Already, Miraculous is a superhero story of a different type because it is girly.

Don’t get at me on this one. We exist in a world with a culturally-accepted, defined and utilised gender binary, and all the Gender Is Fake, and Girly is Fake comments you can throw out there won’t change the fact that it’s part of how we do exist, and in that existing, there is definitely such a thing as girly stuff. And Miraculous Ladybug is very girly.

Girly is in this case a shorthand aesthetic for the things we already signpost as of or relating to girls. It’s in part an aesthetic, choices full of pinks, bright colours, pastels and broadly emotionally approachable signals. In a lot of media these are things that are also coded as being frivolous, or unimportant, or inherently comical. In Season 1 of Ladybug, Marinette is shown focusing on a fashion show, a school play, a babysitting job, and a literal popularity contest, which are all things I’m fairly sure Spider-Man has made fun of caring about.

They are serious though, and Marinette takes them seriously. Taking these things seriously involves looking – seriously – at why we don’t, about what about them makes them Not Serious. Why is babysitting silly? Why is fashion silly? What makes them somehow less worthy a subject for a teen superhero to care about than, say, a chemistry experiment or a baseball game?

Sexism, yes, but think about the specifics. Why shouldn’t these things matter? Why not? When you start to remember these things are competitions or challenges with their own stakes, and the story takes them seriously, they’re just as rich a vein of fodder for the story as anything else. Since they’re inherently low-stakes problems in universe, though, these aren’t spaces you can have things like Out of Control Lab Accidents that make people into monsters, or introduce gunshot-level threats. The problems in Miraculous have to be superhero-worthy while having roots in these very mundane activities we entrust to children, without the framing of being Eventually Important versions of Important Things that we normally code as for boys.

Know what definitely is a real thing that can feel worthy of a threat in those situations? Human emotions. Distress and sadness and anxiety and all these problems that we struggle with as adults, and maybe don’t even successfully handle. When you look at the problems that come up in the first season you have problems like being ignored by your parents when you were right, not being respected by your peers, being given conflicting information when you’re too young to understand it and being rejected and spurned by someone who you realise was much worse a person than you ever imagined. These emotional states are then, through the narrative tool of Hawkmoth (Papillon in the French, which makes me giggle), transformed into open, obvious metaphors for being stuck on that emotional problem.

There’s also how it informs the tension of the story’s protagonists: Adrien and Marinette are both characters who have Got It for each other, but this tension is not arbitary. Adrien is a good looking boy – both in universe, and also in his design. The story doesn’t present a Very Average looking boy as being handsome, and there are boys around him who are also less pretty, showing the story is actually making him exceptional. The boys are presented as needing to be visually interesting, and they are, rather than being more or less templates of one another.

When the time comes, however, that Marinette takes action – as Ladybug, mind you, since this is clearly part of her contention as a superhero – none of the negative traits we associate with Girly are a problem. Marinette is not shown being paralysed by emotions, or wrapped up in indecision. There is a confidence to her actions that typically would be coded as Not-Girly – but this is  story that is so happily and wholly Girly it serves more to ask the question Why Would This Be Out of Type? Ladybug’s behaviour is unlike Marinette’s, but that’s because Marinette isn’t confident – not because she’s a girl.

Let’s take this one to a point of demonstration. In episode 6, the villain, Mr Pigeon, has a whistle that lets him control flocks of pigeons. Oh and spoilers I guess. Point is, in this episode, there’s a moment where three people lunge for it and their hands hit it in a stack – Cat Noir’s hand, then Mr Pigeon’s hand, then Marinette’s hand. And without thinking about it, without a moment of ‘ahah!’ or looking to the characters’ faces or whatever, bam, she just smashes downwards and breaks the object at the bottom of the stack.

Marinette’s problem-solving, the power of getting one Lucky solution in the right time and place, is really excellent as it shows her being thoughtful and confident, quick-thinking and decisive. The story will present her with Oven Mitts and say fix the problem, hero, and she will come up with the solution in some of the most wonderfully silly point-and-click adventure moments in media.

Miraculous is a girly superhero show. It’s about a girl, it’s about the things a girl cares about, and it wants to talk to girls in the storytelling tools of girls. And it’s absolutely great.