Sergeant Rock Benton

Yes sir, I do call it “Little Benton”.

Companion Tropes Extra 7

When I wrote about Mike Yates for this series I touched upon how Yates and Benton gloriously subvert the “Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough” character tropes, instead more of a Captain Smooth and Sergeant Cuddly. However, the one aspect of that trope Benton does conform to is the steadfast reliability of the sergeant character, and that makes him our Sergeant Rock.

The trope is named after the DC Comics character, who first appeared in G.I. Combat and then Our Army at War (both in 1959), before getting his own comic in 1977. The comic Sgt. Rock ran until 1988. He doesn’t look a lot like Benton, but he lends his name to a character trope that fits the bill for Benton very nicely.

The Sergeant Rock is a military subset of the Reliable One trope. This is a character who tends to appear in ensemble casts, and is generally a background character rather than a lead. He or she is an integral part of a team but often works without fanfare, can always be relied on, and is never one to panic. Doctor Who doesn’t have many of these kinds of characters because it rarely has much of an ensemble cast, but on the fringes of the trope can be found companions such as Ian, Steven and Rory, at least from the point of view of their calmness and reliability. Harry would qualify too if he wasn’t such a klutz. In sci-fi shows set in space such as Star Trek, the Reliable One character will often be found in Engineering, keeping the ship together in a crisis.

Benton is Doctor Who’s ultimate Reliable One / Sergeant Rock character. In terms of UNIT he rarely rises above something like the fifth most important person in the team. Our hierarchy of importance to the narrative generally goes something like this:

  1. The Doctor
  2. The Brigadier
  3. The Companion
  4. The Captain
  5. The Sergeant

But without the Sergeant Rock to support the hierarchy we wouldn’t have a solid foundation. Benton is always calm, attentive and alert, and he’s there when needed. Despite being the one who often has to lead the charge against aliens on the front line of battle, he takes everything in his stride, whether he’s shooting at a statue or a blob. The extent to which nothing phases him can be best illustrated by his first and only trip in the TARDIS:

DOCTOR: Well, Sergeant, aren’t you going to say it that it’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside? Everybody else does.
BENTON: It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Anyway, nothing to do with you surprises me any more, Doctor.

In contrast, as I mentioned last week, the by now Flanderized Brigadier bizarrely refuses to believe he has travelled any further than Cromer. But the ultimate example of how reliable Benton is can be found in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, when Sergeant Cuddly is betrayed by his Captain Smooth. This act shakes the foundations of his UNIT family, but he immediately takes it in his stride, adapts straight away to the new status quo, identifies Yates as the new enemy and deals with him. In the same story he is willing to go against the orders of a superior officer and fight and disarm him. Importantly this is not the Brig, to whom Benton is always completely loyal, but an officer outside of his immediate organisation, the army General Finch. Shows such as Star Trek and Babylon 5 do this sort of thing as well, with somebody superior in rank but outside of the “family” of starship or station having to be disobeyed, and the Reliable One character will always side with the Captain/Commander/Brigadier (i.e. his superior in the “family”) rather than the General/Admiral (i.e. the higher echelons outside the “family”). Also in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, which is Benton’s most heroic and important story, he allows himself to be rendered unconscious so the Doctor can escape. The Sergeant Rock will always put the greater good above his own safety and well-being.

The Sergeant Rock can also be a very useful character for comedy moments. He is the ultimate straight man, with nothing ever affecting that calm exterior, so it can be fun to throw him into bizarre or humiliating situations and watch him retain his unfazed demeanour. The comedy springs from seeing the Sergeant Rock never freak out, whatever the provocation. Doctor Who has a go at that in The Time Monster, by turning Benton into a baby and then bringing him back naked. Were this a more adult show, you could imagine him saluting and walking calmly from the room in the buff at that point. But don’t picture that. You’ll never be able to unsee it.

We have a few more “extra” companion tropes to look at, including some Christmas specials, but next week we’ll be looking at our last regular companion in the main series of Companion Tropes articles. Some would say we’ve left the best until last…   RP

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Spare Parts (revisited)

spareA new review from Mike has been added below.  If you haven’t read mine, take a look.  If you have, scroll on down…

I can’t let the month of Halloween go by without taking a close look at a Cybermen story, so I’m going to take a rare foray into a Big Finish audio play.  I’m not intending to make a habit of this because, although I listen to almost the full range that Big Finish put out, I tend not to give them sufficient attention to be able to form a strong enough opinion for a review.  That’s not meant as an insult to Big Finish: their dramas are the perfect accompaniment to work or household chores, or a car journey, because audio by its very nature doesn’t tend to invite just sitting down, concentrating on what you are listening to, and doing nothing else.  Spare Parts is different.  It transcends everything else Big Finish have ever done and grabs your attention whether you are trying to give it or not.  In fact, it transcends most television stories.

So the reason I wanted to write about at least one Cybermen story for Halloween is that they are, in my opinion, the scariest monster Doctor Who has ever come up with.  But they are only scary when they are done well, and that’s actually extraordinarily rare.  There are virtually no Cybermen stories where they are really frightening for almost a forty-year stretch between The Invasion and World Enough and Time, and that’s because they work best when the horror of the conversion process from humanoids is the focus of the story, and of course you can’t keep doing that all the time.  And even if you tried then the law of diminishing returns would come into play.

Spare Parts goes back to basics, back to the original ideas of Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, and it tells a compelling tale.  The story of the Cybermen’s early development is told from the point of view of one insignificant family. They are just an ordinary group of people, and this is the masterstroke of the play. They could so easily have been portrayed as cold logicians, perhaps in the mould of the human survivors in The Ark in Space, but this would have removed it from reality, and not shown what could happen to us. In the modern world this hits home, and makes us stop of think about the repercussions of our own rapid scientific development.

The Cybermen have been known to be excessively violent, such as in Attack of the Cybermen and Real Time, with their respective hand and head crushing antics. Spare Parts is more subtle, but uses that subtlety to be much more horrific and frightening, culminating in the moment when Yvonne returns home, surgically reconstructed and almost unrecognisable to her father. The horrors the Hartley family have to go through are portrayed with realism, and are absolutely terrifying.

Spare Parts is perfectly in keeping with established continuity, with the original Cybermen voices. These were often criticised, but were actually very creepy as they were recognisable as human but wrong, and they work wonderfully here.  Nicholas Briggs is simply the most talented monster voice actor to ever work on Doctor Who, and it’s not hard to see why he got the television gig on the back of his Big Finish work.

The standard is faultless throughout, and Peter Davison is the perfect choice of Doctor for this type of story, with his gentle vulnerability.  Fifteen years on this is still the finest audio drama that Big Finish has ever produced.  I can’t see it ever being surpassed.   RP

The view from across the pond:

This is the one you hear everyone talking about.  This is the Cyber-story of Cyber-stories.  This is Spare Parts.  Everyone who is into Big Finish audios knows this one.  Roger did a special edition in the Junkyard for this very story because its “so good”. But is it?  How could I say anything but the best things about this story?

It is a cautionary tale and in science fiction, that’s never a bad thing.  Unless it’s been done already.  And it has, in 1966 and onwards.  From the first meeting of the Cybermen, we are given a sneak peak into what we could evolve into but it’s a bit more prescient now.  Davison even remarks that it might start with a breast implant here or another augmentation there, and before long, we’re looking at socks over our heads and no emotions.  But that’s nothing new. Ok, he said something we know, but any augmentation is a hint towards this, but would we turn down a hip replacement?  Lasik surgery?  We’ve been telling that Cyber-story from the start but with the visuals to accompany it.  I’m not saying it needs visuals, but don’t act like this is the pinnacle when there are far better stories.  And if we’re going to applaud every cautionary tale just on principle of it being cautionary, that’s not fair.  I mean, we can start with patriotism and devolve into ethnic cleansing and sooner or later we’re talking either Nazis or Daleks but that doesn’t make the story good.  It just reminds us that every good side (patriotism) has a bad side when left unchecked (ethnic cleansing).  But that’s not even my biggest issue with this story.

My biggest gripe with Spare Parts is laziness.  And I will blame Greedfall.  I would have felt the same even without this new PC game but the game just happened to be what I was playing the week I listened to Spare Parts.  So what did it?   Greedfall takes place in a pseudo-Earth, and you play as a colonial explorer coming to a pseudo-America where you interact with the natives, a cross between American Indian and Irishman, if their accents are anything to go by.  At one point your character is speaking to a native and he says a word.  (I’ll be damned if I remember the word; it eludes me!)  Let’s say the word was “contract”.  The native asked “what’s contract?”  And I realized how lazy Spare Parts was.  See, kettles and tea and pets and butchers and all those things… those are Earth terms, and very specific terms that would only be known to the English speaking world.  Mondas shouldn’t have “tea”.  As fantastic as Paul Copley is as “dad” in this story, I don’t want to hear him say to “put the kettle on”, because “parallel development” or not, I don’t expect the words to coincidentally be the same, or people in Spain wouldn’t say “poner la tetera al fuego!”  Tetera is kettle.  Weird, right?  And that’s on the same planet.  And you can say “oh, that’s the TARDIS telepathic circuits working overtime” but it’s a copout the minute you consider Cybermats.  The only “mats” we have are the kind you step on outside the shower or the front door.  If the TARDIS is really responsible, it might have been a CyberCat or CyberRat, but it wasn’t.  It was Cybermat, right from the start.  When the Nyssa gives away the Doctor’s prized tea, Frank is able to read it.  He doesn’t say “oh I love shazbot, it’s my drink of choice” because he knows English and that was just lazy writing.  Oh, and FRANK??   I mean, Nyssa is a lovely name and it is exotic.  FRANK?!  Real Mondasian sounding isn’t it?  Thomas Dodd, Yvonne Hartley, Mrs. Ginsberg?!?!!??!  That must be the Jewish section of the Mondasian world.  The most impressive thing was adding “man” to the end of Sister and Doctor to give something different to a woman of religious order or a doctor.  But too little too late.  Way too little.

That says nothing of the Doctors insistence on getting involved in what will end up costing him his first life.  Had he allowed Mondas to move on, on its own course, nothing would have come of the Cybermen as soon as they entered the Cherry Bowl nebula, but he changes the course of the planet and sends it back to Earth.  So he’s forbidden from interfering but had he not interfered, he might still be William Hartnell.  The Time Lords were ok with this??  And did the Doctor really think he was on Earth in the beginning?  Did he really need Nyssa to tell him the cave wasn’t where we typically keep Trafalgar Square?

Ok, Doctorman Allan was a great character especially as she makes fun of Sisterman Constance, and the cast overall is magnificent so I won’t take away from that.  I’m not criticizing the story, I’m criticizing lazy writing.  I enjoyed the story once I got past the lazy writing.  And I can’t knock the voices of the Cybermen.  They are consistently fantastic and hearing them for a two hour car ride is considerably different than hearing Daleks.  There’s something marvelously eerie about hearing those Cyber-voices that Daleks totally lack.  One sends chills down my spine while the other makes me lower the volume over and over.

I’m not saying Spare Parts isn’t worth a listen.  It is.  But you have to be willing to turn off the thinking center of your brain for select parts.  Marc Platt wrote what should have been a great story, but he put too little effort into a simple thing like words to have me put this at the top of the Big Finish list.  And I know that will put me in a minority…    ML

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The Fanservice Debate: Another OVA

Can fanservice ever be justified in anime or is it a disturbing and unnecessary aspect of the genre? In this occasional series we look at the rights and wrongs of fanservice and other questionable content in anime. A warning: this series will have plenty of spoilers and sometimes NSFW discussions and images. This week, the OVA episode of the fabulously creepy supernatural thriller, Another.

What’s the deal?

Another Mei Misaki bath OVAAdding context to the main series, this episode explores the relationship between Mei and her twin sister Misaki, who have been separated at birth and raised as cousins, before Mei sees the colour of death surrounding her sister and tragedy strikes. While Mei’s mother is away at a doll convention, Misaki comes over to stay. The two of them have a bath together and hi-jinks ensue.

Why it’s not OK.

In an otherwise mature and thoughtful series this is a surprising thing for the animators to do. Misaki sees her twin naked and says “so that’s how it looks to other people” and they then proceed to have a teasing debate about their weight, before Misaki grabs Mei’s chest and comments on how she has grown. “When did you become such a pervert Misaki?”, asks Mei. The animators employ some well-worn fanservice tricks – selective choice of shots to tease the viewers without stepping over the line, and bubbles that defy gravity (but only in one key area). Would sisters ever behave like this, or is it simply there to “service” the fans?

Why it’s OK.

The end of this episode is hugely tragic and emotional, so boy does this need some light and shade. The fanservice is the light, and is very funny. More importantly, it explores the relationship between these two girls. They have been raised as close cousins, and have only known they were really sisters separated at birth for a short time. The bathroom scene really makes the point strongly that they have overcome their past and are completely comfortable in each other’s company as twin sisters, just as much as if they had spent their whole childhood together. When the fanservice is there to throw light on characterisation, it’s much more justifiable.

We will be taking an episode-by-episode look at Another in the New Year.  RP

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Heaven’s Memo Pad

Heaven's Memo Pad AliceThis series was a rare thing for me: an anime that proved to be a disappointment. Maybe I’ve just been lucky with my choices up until now, or maybe the world of anime really does have a remarkably impressive hit rate, but virtually everything I’ve watched I have ended up enjoying. I didn’t dislike Heaven’s Memo Pad as such, but I didn’t particularly like it much either.

The premise sounded fascinating: a bunch of “Neet” youngsters (for those who aren’t familiar with the term, that stands for “not in employment, education or training”) working for a detective agency run by a shut-in girl. Alice is supposed to be one of those kids who can’t face real life and never set foot outside their own room, which is apparently not an uncommon problem in Japan. Alice is a genius, and sits amongst dozens of computer screens, solving crimes using her amazing intelligence and computer hacking skills, while her team of drop-outs do the leg work on the streets for her.

Pretty soon the format runs into a few problems, starting with Alice herself. She is an odd portrayal of a shut-in girl, very bossy, self-assured and arrogant and quite hard to warm to as one of the main characters. Being agoraphobic must be a debilitating condition, but this is a flippant representation of the issue. On a few occasions Alice emerges into the real world, with no repercussions, every bit as self-assured as ever.

Alice’s team generally consist of unmemorable characters, and the main protagonist, Narumi, makes little impact. There is an attempt at a romantic sub-plot with his love interest Ayaka, but it is neglected for most of the series and ends up being too little too late for this fan of the soppy romance genre.

As for the individual detective stories, I found them generally convoluted and hard to follow. Some of them take place over a few episodes, and didn’t really hold my attention. 12 episodes was plenty enough. It was a shame, because towards the end there was a taste of what this series could achieve, with one of the main characters falling victim to a tragedy. It was still not a brilliant storyline, but the last couple of episodes were at least a lot more dramatic and gripping.  It took me to about the ninth or tenth episode before I really felt keen to get onto the next episode and find out what happens next. It also didn’t help that the animation is little more than competent. I do look for some beauty in the animation, and found little here, but then again the inner city setting isn’t going to help in that respect. The scenes I enjoyed most tended to be the quiet ones set on the school roof, where Ayaka and Narumi tend their flowers for the school gardening club.

There are certainly a few things the series does really well. There is some interesting exploration of the complex relationships between male friends, particularly those who exist within a gang culture where they might need to lay their life on the line for their “brother”, and also some examination of how those relationships can break down and turn tragically sour. Running through the series is a strong anti-drugs message, and the series never pulls its punches in showing the destruction caused to human lives. On the other hand, it occasionally comes dangerously close to glorifying gang culture.

I don’t regret watching Heaven’s Memo Pad, but I’m not bothered by the lack of a second season either. In fact, if one existed I’m not sure if I would watch it, despite the promise shown by the last couple of episodes. The world of anime is such an embarrassment of riches that there’s no need to spend time on a series that is just OK.   RP

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Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance (9)

Episode 9: The Crystal Calls

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Episode 9 is a little weird.  Remembering that this story takes place a full 2000 years before the movie, you can’t kill off a character that is going to be in the movie.  So when they kill off Aughra, I was left confused.  Did I misunderstand the timing of this series?  Is this supposed to be a different Aughra?  To compound matters, Chamberlain kills Tavra, which further blows my mind!  I was mortified by the events in this episode and it is very hard to reconcile the events I witnessed here.

Before we get to that, Rian discovers that the glaive he seeks has been with Deet’s grandmother the whole time.  Always lucky but perhaps a little too fortuitous.  Unless we consider that the tree spoke to Deet, possibly because she was related to the keeper of the glaive.  Interestingly, like so much else in this series up until now, the glaive is a blade in two parts; two halves that make the whole.  This motif is visible throughout the series.  The point is illustrated when the Archer speculates about what will happen when the Crystal is healed: “will we be joined again, or torn further asunder?”   I was amazed when watching the movie version of The Dark Crystal recently that  its themes were so mature.  The themes are not those a child would fully grasp.  This series, while adorable, is not meant for kids.

That said, there’s a lot to be said about family and sisterhood especially.  (Since I’m taking this journey with my sister, I’ll say the bond is not reserved for girls only.)  When the sisters come together again, they are united.  “We are never alone; even death cannot break the bonds of sisterhood.”  Seladon apologized for her mistakes and the forgiveness is palpable.  What makes that sentence so strange to me is that I keep forgetting I’m watching puppets; I bought into them fully.  Brea is even bruised, as if she were a real person!  But when you lose yourself in the story, that is proof of some seriously good storytelling.

I also knew the hunter was not dead because it was just too obvious, but considering what they did to Aughra, it was hard to know for sure.  When they started to string up and decorate the dead character (again, something probably not viewed as kid-friendly behavior), I was fairly certain he’d be back.

Then we get the scene of blue fire burning through the skies.  Rian uses it to communicate and even after being intimidated by The Emperor, the call to arms goes out and the Gelfling unite.  “Not as many, but as one!”  Oh, would you look at that!  The motif again.  I’m drawn inexorably back to the line from Babylon 5, “we are one!”   Thank you, G’Kar.

There are many little touches that mean a lot to me.  I love watching Aughra come to the rescue of the sisters, even though she is sacrificing herself for them.  There’s a magic in that degree of selflessness (even for puppets).  The whole idea that they are not worthy is shot down by Aughra’s “yes you are!”  I get so overjoyed by these little things.  But then, I also love that this episode gives us a view from the Arathim’s eyes.   So it’s not only the sappy stuff that makes me happy!

Well, we’ve come to the penultimate episode.  The rebellion is about to begin.  Will it be quashed?  Will the Gelfling succeed?  Or will this lead to the extermination of the Gelfling and bring us to the 2000 year lead-in to the movie?  Tune in next week to find out!  ML

The View from my Rainbow Connection

My favorite Gelfling, Deet, wakes up. She is fine but changed as Maudra Algot says. How funny that half of the dual Glaive was in Maudra’s Algot’s possession all along as a walking stick.

Back at the Castle of the Crystal, Mother Aughra comes just in time to save Seladon and Brea from being drained of their essence and tells the Skeksis only her essence can save The Hunter, but it must be given willingly.

A trade is made by Mother Aughra, that she will sacrifice herself to save the Gelfling in captivity. Reminds me of what my faith as taught me about Jesus dying for us.  Wait, I just realized the sisters, there’s 3 of them. Like the holy trinity. Mother Aughra’s sacrifice has reunited the 3 sisters. Tavra, having been attached to the Threader for so long has now sort of mind melded with it. They are of one mind and due to this, she is able to summon the rest of the spitters to help stop the General. She stabs him but that creep Chamberlain sneaks up and stabs her before she can kill the General. He gives essence that he had stolen to save The General. This can’t be good.

Seladon finally realizes how wrong she was just in time to watch Tavra die. Before she does, she tells Brea and Seladon that even death cannot break the bonds of sisterhood. I’m not crying – you are.

Since Chambelain is a snake, his “kind deed” of saving the General has now put him in good graces. Chamberlain suggests reanimating dead arathim to become soulless killing machines. He is a real jerk.

Then the wacko skeksis pull a “weekend at Bernie’s” and prop skekMal (the hunter) up like a puppet to serve beside them.

Back in Stonewood, where the other half of the Glaive was hidden by Ordon, Rians father (RIP), Rian climbs the crucible to find the other half of dual glaive. The swords start to “sing” when it is made whole by Rian and Deet. (Who btw got there by riding a landstrider).  Here comes a cool part: every fire turns blue and lights up the sky. The gelfling are uniting against skeksis. They all can hear Rian through the fire. This is a new, great model telephone if you ask me!

Rian’s speaks from his heart to all Gelfling everywhere. The truth is now known to all. We will make a stand as one!

Oh no! The hunter may be alive. I saw his finger twitch…  DG

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The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00

You’re in shot, Koizumi.

The junkyard presents two articles about the Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya episode The Adventures of Mikuru Asahina Episode 00.

The view from 5930 miles away:

One of the things I love about Haruhi is that it’s just such a weird and wonderful series to watch. This episode adds an extra dimension to the weirdness, and we should spare a thought for the original viewers of the episode on its first broadcast in Japan. This is a bizarre enough episode to watch consecutively, following on from the Sigh arc, but imagine what it was like back in 2006 when this episode launched the first series of Haruhi. What must the viewers have made of it? With the 4:3 aspect ratio and the fuzzy picture, they must have thought their televisions had developed faults for a start. Astonishingly, the Sigh arc didn’t even form part of the first series, so the viewers had to wait until 2009 to make sense of what they had seen. On the other hand, I suppose it adds another dimension to the Sigh episodes to watch them in that way, recognising the scenes that the SOS Brigade are shooting.

For those baffled viewers back in 2006, at least they had a funny episode to watch, with most of the humour coming from Kyon’s narration.

“Unfortunately none of this has anything to do with the story.”

It’s not actually clear whether his narration forms part of the film, or if we are just hearing his thoughts as usual. Either option throws up a slight problem. If it’s not part of the film then there would be long passages of silence and it would make even less sense. If it is part of the film then surely Haruhi would object to it? Or is she smart enough to realise that his humour is what makes it so good?

“Yuki Nagato stands there dramatically, although we don’t really know why.”

Kyon has fun pointing out some of the continuity errors to us, but some of the funniest goofs are those that go uncommented on, such as the old man slowly walking in the background of the shot when Mikuru is delivering one of her advertisement speeches, or the cutting between two locations for what is supposed to be a conversation between Itsuki and Yuki, complete with background traffic noise in just one of those locations.

“With a forced look of awe on his face, Itsuki watched Mikuru run off, and what’s with the camera tilting up like this?”

…asks the cameraman. In fact, some of the funniest quirks of the film are down to Kyon’s filming techniques. For example, in one scene he focusses the camera a bit too low on Mikuru’s body, before correcting it upwards. Haruhi obviously wanted Mikuru to bring in the male viewers, but Kyon often goes above and beyond the call of duty in fully exploiting her best attributes.

“Hold on, we’re only half way through this thing?”

Adventures of Mikuru AsahinaThere’s a lovely little ad break caption screen, something that is commonplace in anime but usually lacking from Haruhi. Amusingly, Haruhi’s ads aren’t placed here, but are clumsily integrated into the narrative of the film instead.

“That dialogue was incomprehensible.”

There’s an interesting moment in Tsuruya’s house where the dialogue sounds like the sort of confusing sci-fi stuff Nagato and Koizumi normally go on about. It feels like the two of them having a real conversation in the middle of the film, and it is surely not dialogue written by Haruhi?

Speaking of Tsuruya, she only appears a couple of times in this, but she’s absolutely hilarious. She can’t stay in character, and there’s a lovely vibe of one friend trying to watch another trying to act and finding it all absolutely hilarious. While Mikuru’s trying to say her lines, Tsuruya is corpsing, trying to hold in her laughter, and then finally gives in and laughs out loud. I was laughing with her, although not quite so manically.

Then we get to the final confrontation on the roof, and Shamisen finally has enough of all this nonsense and decides to have a diva rant. That’s a bit of a problem, because he’s a cat.

“I am also a ventriloquist.”

Nagato’s line is a laugh-out-loud moment and also illustrates how clever and quick-thinking she is. Of course, she could have just not bothered with that line, working on the assumption that the viewers would assume it was a special effect anyway, but (a) she needed to provide an explanation for Haruhi at that moment, while they were filming, and (b) she must realise that the special effects added in post-production on the school computer aren’t going to be up to the kind of standard that they could convincingly be expected to account for a talking cat. In fact, it’s quite likely that she was the one who added the special effects anyway.

Finally, we get Haruhi’s own narration over the end credits (perhaps adding credence to the theory of Kyon’s narration being only in his head), with her speaking the lines that will bring to an end all the weird phenomena she has called into existence. It’s interesting to note how much she is deferring to Kyon at this moment, not only agreeing to read something she sees little point in, but somehow persuaded to read the “work of fiction” bit twice, just to be on the safe side.

“That totally rocked!”

And she’s right about that. The line is followed by a dramatic turn to the camera, and again we must be mindful of the original broadcast order. From our perspective, watching the Blu-rays, this is episode 25 of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. For a viewer in 2006, this was episode 1 and they had just seen the face of Haruhi Suzumiya for the first time. It was probably the strangest thing they had ever seen, but it was going to be a magnificent series… RP

The view from 6,868 miles away:

Well, if I doubted this series from a science fiction point of view, I may be justified.  It has a hint of it, like drinking those orange flavored seltzers – it’s a hint you can’t miss – but it has no calories to keep you satisfied for long.  But also like those seltzers, it does quench thirst because it give me something by which to be entertained.  And this episode has some of the best lines of the whole series.  First of all, it’s hilarious imagining Kyon doing the voice-over while people watched this “cultural arts festival movie”.  The mere notion of it in a high school is magnificently funny.  But I get ahead of myself.  Let’s start with my recurring complaint.  It’s pretty evident that the creators were aiming for sex appeal when they show Mikuru about to take her top off, and just as they get to the point she’d undress, they cut it.  (This happens twice!)  It’s made better by the comedy lines spoken by Kyon that they don’t have the footage because they stopped rolling (so don’t ask) but I can’t help but be bothered because of the supposed ages of the characters.  Even as Mikuru is running with the weight of the world “riding on your shoulders”, there’s no denying that the focus is on her ample bosom.  I would have been completely fine with this if the characters were of age, but they are teens!  I can only pretend for so long.

But barring that, our precious cupid arriving from the future does bring a lot of laughs.  When she seems to randomly run into a pole, I had to pause from laughing so hard.  It was just so random!  This is an animation, not a real woman!  To make her trip was just icing on a great cake.  (I seem to go for a lot of food metaphors!)   When Itsuki carries a suddenly bathed Mikuru into the bedroom, Kyon’s frustration was perfect.  “This would be the point where anyone’s doubt turns into a white hot rage, building to a desire to kill; but for now I will not give it much thought!”  This was uproariously funny.  Same with Itsuki, when he’s doing one of his scenes, he says, “I understand that he… no, in this scene it’s me so, I…”  I guess this is what one should expect of a guy who stares “blankly at the world as he always does!”

It’s one outstanding line after another in this crazy movie.  “The schizophrenic movie reaches it final act as if it were written by a drunk child!”  That sums up much of the series, come to think of it.  There are moments of brilliance followed by moments of mind-numbing normality that one wonders how much the car swerved off the map during the writing of the episodes.  When the cat speaks in the movie, Yuki has to actually state: “I am also a ventriloquist” which is freakin’ brilliant!  As if anyone would think the cat actually spoke and it wasn’t some special effects like all the others that were added to the movie!

But there are a couple of other things that warrant attention.  Throughout the series, we’ve seen a number of odd “camera angles” but this particular episode is actually supposed to be a recorded movie, so it belongs here more than any other episode to date.  As such, we see a lot of grainy and out of focus shots, with the occasional unintentional zoom in for good measure.  While the show may be all over the map for Science Fiction, there’s a very clear awareness of various elements.  I mean, this could be a downside because it implies that the sex stuff was also intended even though these are underage characters but I just have to remind myself that the culture I was brought up in is not the only culture out there.  But that aside, this episode was by far one of my favorites because I laughed so much.

Then, just as the episode is ending, Haruhi asks “Right, Kyon?” and I am again realizing how much she values him.  He is the one person that she actually turns to for validation.  So even amidst all the comedy, we are again treated to hints of who Haruhi is.  She’s not an easy person to get to know, but then, barring Kyon, who is?  Yuki is a robot.  Mikuru is classified.  Itsuki is mysterious and we never get to anything deeper about him or his organization.  I guess we shall see, in the final 3 episodes…  ML

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Babylon 5: And Now For a Word

b5My wife is a news junkie.  It was during the horrors of the financial banking crisis that I lost the faith my wife still seems to hold in the news.  Matt Lauer, then-respected, was among the fear mongers, effectively scaring the nation about the riots in the streets that were inevitable.  We’d be living in a Walking Dead world, if the media was to be believed!  That was when it all went south.  I wanted to write to Lauer, suggesting he try to instill some positivity; give people a sense of hope again.  Everything is cyclical; why assume it’s the end of the world?  But the news never recovered.  Now we have “news shows”, which, forgive the phrase, are ratings-whores, working more on getting people to watch their network than actually share news.  It’s nauseating.  Sit two people against one another and watch them argue over whose opinion is right.  How is that, in any way, news?  And why, with all the fear mongering, have the news channels turned a blind eye to the fact that everything the banks did to lead us to that financial crisis is all happening again?  Because it wouldn’t make money.  So I don’t have much faith in our news media.  I see things a bit like Joe Straczynski does in this episode.

And Now For A Word is shocking, and unsurprisingly written by JMS.  A news crew comes to Babylon 5 to report on how things are on the station.  They take a tour, record some great footage, and then edit it and show it to the populace at large.  There is another similar episode to this one that will give us a lot more to work with.  Bear in mind, this is similar to the interview done during season one’s Infection but we did not get to see the end result of that.  This one depicted the interviewer as a bit of an inquisitor.  She’s cold, unemotional, and doesn’t care how her questions affect those she questions.  There is a scene with Delenn where she is being interviewed rather cruelly for looking “human” and how that might affect the families of those who lost people during the Earth Minbari war.  Delenn struggles with this.  It’s a difficult scene to watch and worse for the fact that the camera lingers on her even as she breaks down.  How much of that is done today?  How does it help ratings to show someone breaking down?  (Of interest, watching on Amazon Prime, there is a “trivia” section which states that this is actress Mira Furlan’s favorite episode because one of the main reasons she left her home in Yugoslavia was because of constant harassment in the press over the fact that she refused to take sides during the war.)

The events that are going on during these interviews are secondary, though it builds on the war going on between Narn and Centauri.  However, the evidence of the world building is amazing.  Let’s take a look at some of what JMS does here.  During the interviews, Edwardo Delvientos is questioned.  He works in the docks.  He was a “bit character” in the season one episode By Any Means Necessary.  Guess he was a real guy after all.  Oh, and IPX sponsored the whole interview.  Remember those guys from season 1, episode 4: Infection?  They were behind the organic tech smuggling that David McCullum was up to!  So is there any reason to suspect that they know about what the Centauri are up to, using B5 as a transfer point for weapons?  Perhaps they do know!  Let’s look at evidence.  First, we get the subliminal “The Psi Corp is your friend.  Trust the Corp” which flashed up on the screen during the news show.  Since season 1, there have been speculation that Psi Corp is behind some of the dark undercurrents going on back home, especially with the assassination of President Santiago.  (As a point of interest, according to that trivia page, that image appears 1/6th of a second, which is double the allowed length according to the FCC!)   Let’s also consider the “Ministry of Public Morale” and “The Office of Public Information”; both sound like something out of 1984 or The Prisoner, both of which have a connection with Psi Corp.  (In fact, the “Be seeing you” hand gesture is used by Bester every time he’s saying goodbye!)  And it is extremely interesting that the interviewer, Torqueman, says “…and yet growth only comes through pain and struggle.”  I wonder why she said that.  Surely growth also comes through caring for our young and helping them learn.  No?  (And just looking up her name to see how to spell it, I realized this had to be an in-joke of Straczynski’s surrounding Grand Inquisitor Torquemeda from the Spanish Inquisition!  Bravo, sir! Bravo!)

Culturally, we learn about the three languages of the Minbari; a race obsessed with things in 3, which we first encountered during episode 5 of season one, Parliament of Dreams.  Gone is Senator Hidoshi who has appeared often since the series started, but that makes sense as the powers-that-be don’t want someone sympathetic to Babylon 5; hence Senator Quantrell’s involvement.  The question is, will this help boost B5’s place in public opinion or hinder it?  (By this point in the series, 41% of Earth citizens think B5 is a waste of time and money!)  I’d focus on the ending of this episode to really determine how it will be received.  The responses to “Is Babylon 5 worth it” are very positive with some great lessons about life neatly summed up.  “We learn.  It’s what humans do.”  “We must simply work harder to make sure we communicate with one another.”  “Humans share one unique quality: they build communities… out of diverse and sometimes hostile populations.”  Most positive of all is Sheridan: “This place was built on the belief that we could work out our problems and build a better future.  …   see the line of ancestors behind us saying: ‘make my life have meaning.’  And to our inheritors before us saying  ‘create the world we will live in.’  We are … building the future.  … Only by making people understand that can we hope to create a better world for ourselves and our posterity.”  It’s a positive message full of hope and things we could all learn from.  Which can only mean one thing… trouble is on the horizon!  ML

The view from across the pond:

When I realised what this episode was doing, two thoughts popped into my head. Number One: cheesy 3D fonts are obviously a big thing in the future. Number Two: it’s a novelty, but there needs to be a reason for it.

It wasn’t long before I got my reason. The faux documentary format, “26 Hours on Babylon 5”, includes interviews with many of the main characters on the station, and those interviews help us to learn a bit more about them. Best of all is Franklin’s anecdote about losing a friend who hid in an airlock:

“You could see that he was trying to breathe but there was nothing.”

It’s a grim story, but it humanises the previously unlikeable Franklin a little bit more. Delenn is put on the spot, and easily gets emotional at Cynthia’s questioning, and we get a bit of background to G’Kar’s hatred of the Centauri. The most fun is the interview with Ivanova, whose name Cynthia mispronounces and then describes her as “perky”.

“I’m sure there’s more to your story than that.”
“Yes.”

With G’Kar now the figurehead on the station for a warring faction, Ivanova is fast becoming my new favourite character. An opportunity was missed with Kosh declining to be interviewed. It would have been fun to see how an interview would have gone with the irritating Mr Riddle. One word answers, I suspect, and not useful ones at that.

The format also allowed for an advertisement from Psi Corps which illustrates the level of propaganda they are stooping to, complete with a subliminal message (which wasn’t actually subliminal because the whole point of it was that we were supposed to notice it).

“The Psi Corps is your friend. Trust the Corps.”

It also meant that we got the war portrayed in a very frank, documentary style, and that made it all feel a lot more dangerous. For example, the battle between the Narn and the Centauri that endangers the station plays out as simple documentary footage, devoid of music, and that makes it seem much more real and powerful.

The only problem for me with this episode is that it required a huge suspension of disbelief. I forget which episode it was, but a while ago I remarked on the absurdity of a journalist just walking into the command area to ask a question. Where’s the security, on this most vital part of the station? This episode has the same problem, turned up to eleven. A documentary crew filming in the control area while Sheridan is trying to command in a crisis that threatens the lives of everyone on the station beggars belief. Seriously, Cynthia tries to start asking a question when he is about to communicate with the arriving Narn. It’s absolutely ludicrous. Name me one war, anywhere, ever, where a documentary crew has been permitted to film in the place where command decisions are being made by the person in overall charge, on the front line. It doesn’t happen and it never will, because it’s ridiculous and Cynthia in these scenes is actually getting in the way and endangering everyone.

So this is a good episode and it’s fun, but if it had all just been dialled back a little then it might have actually made sense and had even more impact. As it stands, it’s simply another example of what a very silly slice of sci-fi this whole series is turning out to be. RP

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