Torchwood: Dead of Night

miracle dayWell it was bound to happen.  One thing I’ve learned over years of TV viewing is that the Brits tend to tell a story and if that story can be done with 3 episodes, or 5, or 6… they tell it and they’re done.  The US has season quotas so they might have a story that could be told in 6 episodes but if they have to fill a 10-episode season quota… well, the story gets prolonged no matter the cost.  

Dead of Night opens up well enough with some fun commentary on the various differences between American and British lingo.  Pants are trousers in the UK, gas stations are petrol stations and chips are crisps.  And lemonade is flat here but fizzy there.  Perfect episode to review such things when it’s also the first one to go over how to create filler for an episode; something you just don’t get much of from the Brits.  And why do I feel this was filler?  

Oswald gets to a diner only to be tracked, escape his pursuers, then find cops to help him… and then get beaten by those same cops who don’t like the pedophile any more than the audience does.  The only payoff to this is so Oswald knows to tell some thugs to beat up Jack but “don’t touch the face… that’s how it’s done these days”.  Was that necessary?  If he hadn’t been beaten up, would the outcome have really been any different?  Or what about Rex breaking into Dr. Juarez’s home?  He’s got a hole in his chest and passes out looking for help, but we were able to get a little sex scene into the episode between him and his doctor.  (Huh?  When did the romance start?)  Meanwhile Jack loses sight of the plot to hang out in a gay bar and, concurrent with Rex, we get to see him having sex with his latest conquest.  Ironically, this one has a payoff but it entails knowing the rest of the series.  Jack is often a… pardon the pun… jackass.  He likes to show he’s the star of the show.  He calls Gwen from the bed of his conquest to get Gwen to agree that “we don’t need anyone”.  It’s his subtle way of dominating Gwen and making her forget her husband.  But the moment Gwen sees her husband and child on the video call, she hangs up on Jack without saying a word to him, leaving him hanging.  Jack is no longer the star of the show.  Rex is. 

Now, these filler scenes aren’t the only mistake and Jacks sexuality is another casualty of the series becoming a joint production.  Jack, throughout Doctor Who, was what I called  “omnisexual”; male, female, human, alien, bug… it didn’t matter.  Jack was willing to be with anyone.  I applauded that; it was open minded and not species-ist or racist or sexist.  He found pleasure and joy in all life.  But bring the series to the US and none of that makes a lot of sense; people need binary simplicity, so Jack points out that Rex “doesn’t like his jokes too gay”.  But that’s the problem!  Jack wasn’t gay; he was omnisexual.  Did we just throw out years of character development because someone only watched clips before writing an episode?  Did no one do a bit of research or was that the price of a joint production?

Oh, I like the continuity of the contact lenses or the reference to Ianto, but a few little things like that don’t make up for destroying a character as profoundly enjoyable as Jack.  Thank goodness Juarez, Esther and Rex are so well written.  Even Jilly is fun to watch; not sure if I like her yet, but she is fun.  Gwen isn’t herself, but she’s still good.  The benefit of her being forcibly separated from her family is that it would make for an obvious motivation for her change so I can appreciate that.  Jack, however, is harder to accept.  Yeah, we can assume his connection with Ianto changed him… if he were even slightly mortal.  (Well… prior to this season, that is!)  He’s lived so long, I can’t imagine any one person would move him to such a major change of personality.  I mean, this is a man who has been married before and has had a kid.  Ianto meant something to him, but if the continuity is to be believed, right after Ianto died, he was already with (Alons-y) Alonso!  So, no, I don’t buy it.  It’s a blatant  disregard for character development.

On the other hand, there seems to be a lot of commentary in this episode.  Pharmaceutical firms is one target I found tedious.  Contrary to what some people believe, pharmaceutical firms aren’t the enemy and the whole commentary track feels played out.  (Some people also believe in Bigfoot, so… what does that tell you?)  There’s also this: “I was a catholic too once.  I got better!”  Is Jane Espenson, the writer of this episode, just having a dig at anything she can?  Maybe focusing on those easy targets, just because she can – since, after all, science fiction gives us a little leeway to do that.  And what am I to say about the “soulless”; the people who have lost their souls because they can’t die.  Seems like a poorly masked commentary on the public at large.  (Then again, this might be another timely series for me to be re-watching, as we near an election!)

And once again, Oswald Danes is a center of attention and he’s a horrible man.  I don’t understand how anyone can fall for his rhetoric and I can’t grasp what the writer was doing with this character.  Are we to appreciate him because he’s trying to make drugs accessible to all?  Oh, who cares that he raped and murdered a child; he’s giving us free drugs!  If that’s the message, you lost me!  (Although, I can’t fault Pullman for the portrayal even if I despise the character.  He delivers his description to Jack with alarming sincerity.  I often think if I were an actor, there would be some things I couldn’t do.  Smoking is one of those things.  Playing Oswald Danes is another.)   

Well, 7 episodes to go, but after just two strong episodes I can’t believe we’ve come off the rails already.  Right now all we know for sure is that whoever is at the other end of the red phone is causing Team Torchwood to go on a merry chase which should help fill a couple of episodes at least.  ML

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Classroom of the Elite

Classroom of the EliteThere are hundreds of anime series set in schools, but an interesting subset is those that focus on elite students, the best of the best. Another interesting subset is those that focus on the failures, the “D” or “E” or “F” class students, depending on the number of classes. Classroom of the Elite is doubly interesting, because it actually does both. It is set in the Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing School, which teaches the high-flyers and leaders of the future, so the D class within the school are mostly the kinds of students that would be in the A class anywhere else, but in a school that teaches the elite, they are the failures. But nothing is straightforward in this series, and some of the students are in D class for reasons that are not immediately obvious.

Some do have clear character flaws, such as Kouenji, who is incredibly intelligent and physically fit, but is so narcissistic that he is a terrible team player. Then there is Airi who is the victim of a stalker and that stops her wanting to stand out from the pack. Not quite so straightforward, but a reasonably familiar character trope, is Kushida, who is the most popular girl in the class but underneath her drive to be popular lurks another, nastier personality altogether. Of the two main characters, Horikita is clever and talented enough to be an A class student, but she thinks she can go through life without the help of friends, which will only get her so far in life. The other main character is Ayanokoji, who is a remarkably complex and fascinating character. Superficially he appears to be an average student who is awkward around other people, but as the series progresses it becomes obvious that there is a lot more to him than that. He deliberately tries to fall under the radar, and the more brilliant he is the more he tries to conceal his brilliance and find ways for others to take the credit for his actions. He is so determined to be average that he contrived to score 50/100 on every subject in his entrance exams, which in itself is of course a remarkable thing to pull off. Just when you think the series is following the typical path of the main guy softening up the aloof girl and teaching her the need for friendships, and girls are starting to see the real Ayanokoji and fall for him, the final scene of the final episode throws in a massive curveball and it turns out he is a completely different kind of character to the one he appeared to be. That makes it hugely frustrating that there is only one series of this so far. It was made in 2017, and the light novels and manga are ongoing, so I’m hopeful that we will get another series eventually. Without one this serves as an exercise in frustration, because so much is set up that never pays off. There are so many mysteries surrounding the main characters, and the whole point of this is that we are clearly moving toward the D students gradually ascending to A status, outwitting their “superiors” en route, but by the end of the 12th and final episode it still feels like we are very much at the beginning of something. Even a second series isn’t going to do any kind of justice to the plot threads established here. Classroom of the Elite needs and deserves several.

This is a series that warrants a second viewing. There is a huge cast of characters. Most of the D class students have something important to do throughout the series, and there are also key characters from each of the other three classes, several of whom make a strong impression. The school runs a points system, which is converted to money that the students can spend. There’s a major twist to how that works in the first episode, and the intricacies of the way points can be gained and lost build up to a complex picture that is still unclear at the end of the series. At the end of each episode we paused the end credits to see a points tally for each character beside their names in the cast list, which would have been even more interesting if we had kept track of everyone’s names a bit better, hence the need for a second viewing. Rewatching the series in light of the final revelation about Ayanokoji would also be something well worth doing.

Classroom of the Elite has a lot to say about friendships and human interactions in general. I’m not so sure that many of the characters come across as hugely likeable, especially when their hidden motivations and issues are gradually revealed, but they are certainly characters you want to find out more about. It’s a series that is packed full of mysteries. I would like to be able to find out the answers to more of those mysteries without having to invest in a book series, but such is the life of an anime fan. They need to start putting disclaimers on the Blu-ray covers: “Warning! This isn’t finished.” But life isn’t always fair, and that’s one thing the students of Tokyo Metropolitan Advanced Nurturing School all have to learn as well.   RP

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A for Andromeda: The Last Mystery

A for Andromeda The Last MysteryLast week I wrote about The Face of The Tiger, the sixth episode of A for Andromeda, and the only one that exists complete (well, almost) in the archives. However, it is also possible to get a very good impression of the final episode as well, from what survives. The second half of the episode exists, and if you can track down a copy of the DVD set you will also find there the scripts for all the episodes, plus telesnaps (photos taken of a television screen when the series was originally broadcast). The soundtrack to this episode, and only this episode, also exists, but frustratingly it was only found after the DVD was released, so there is not currently any way to enjoy that, unless you know the right people I suppose. And I’ve rarely found myself in the happy position of being one of the “right people” in life. Even without that, the telesnaps for the first half of the episode and the existing second half combine to give a reasonably clear picture of how this fascinating series ended.

Let’s start by dealing with the missing first half of the episode. We ended last week’s episode with the shock revelation that Prof. Dawnay and her colleagues had been poisoned by the computer. That is resolved between episodes, with Fleming having found a cure and administered it. Apart from providing a pretty good cliffhanger ending, this plot strand was therefore largely pointless, and I can only guess that it played out in such a hand-waved manner to avoid paying Mary Morris a fee for appearing in the last episode. She will be back for the second season, which I am yet to watch.

As annoying as it is to not be able to listen to the soundtrack to the first half of this episode, it seems to have been quite a visual experience anyway, and what I really regret is not being able to see Andromeda creeping around at night, planning to electrocute Fleming in his sleep. If it was anything like the atmospheric, moody night filming used in the second half of the episode, this would have been a visual treat. There is also a little clip from earlier in the episode of Andromeda approaching the camera, at a point when she is suffering an inner turmoil about working for the computer, and it’s a good indication of how strong the direction was for this episode.

The strong visuals continue for the final half of the episode, the bit that exists. We have just missed Fleming sneaking into the computer room in disguise, hiding as Andromeda enters, and Andromeda getting electrocuted by the machine. We have also missed Fleming smashing up the machine, but unable to access the code that would allow it to be rebuilt, and then Andromeda turning up at Fleming’s hut with her badly burnt hands in bandages. And then we’re into the live action. Poor Andromeda has been a victim in all this, working for the computer because she felt she had to, not because she wanted to, and ultimately she becomes a tool for Fleming to use in his battle against the machine instead. It’s hard to watch her suffering so much, going back into the computer room and struggling to destroy the code with her damaged hands. If you turn the volume up reasonably loud at this point you will be able to hear something you shouldn’t be able to hear: talkback from the gallery. Although this shouldn’t be audible, it’s actually a fascinating little insight into the value an astute director brings to a production like this, with Julie Christie asked to “wait a minute, wait a minute”, bringing a little pause into the scene at a moment that really helps the pacing. It’s hard to put into words why it works so well, but it’s just an interesting little instinctive note from the director.

With the computer destroyed, the army are out for blood, lead by Major Quadring (rich-voiced Jack May, who will be familiar to the Doctor Who fans as Hermack from The Space Pirates), and what remains is a lengthy chase sequence, ending in the demise of Andromeda. It’s a visual treat of night filming, with the action rapidly transitioning from land to boat, to caves on an island.

I enjoyed every minute of this episode, but I can’t pretend it’s a great conclusion to the story. The computer is destroyed relatively easily in the end, without any opposition from the military or the machine itself, which feels like something that might as well have happened a couple of weeks ago. Andromeda’s death seems unnecessary, only serving to provide a fairly pointless emotional beat at the end. It’s all a bit hollow, and straightforward. It would have been better to see the problem solved in a more intelligent way than with an axe and some matches. The series also feels a bit lacking in the end because we never got to see or hear anything from the aliens who instigated this whole thing, and one wonders whether the destruction of the computer would achieve anything other than a delay to their plans, but maybe that’s deliberate, to leave things open for a second season.

Doctor Who tends to grab all the headlines when it comes to missing episodes, but there is so much more of our television heritage that has been sadly lost, presumably forever. The rest of this series would be very near the top of my wish list for any miraculous discoveries in future, but apart from that I’m happy to have been able to experience what remains, via the decent number of clips, telesnaps, and about three-quarters of the original footage for the final couple of episodes. For a 1961 production it’s pretty awesome, so I’ll give Andromeda an A.   RP

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The Skeleton Dance and The Haunted House

The Skeleton DanceIn August 1929 Walt Disney’s first ever “Silly Symphony” was released. It is the perfect cartoon to watch at this time of year, capturing the combination of fun and fear that Halloween represents, and it’s called The Skeleton Dance.

We start with an owl on a stormy night, being menaced by a tree branch. The branch becomes a hand, our first indication of the fluidity of reality in this cartoon. Not everything is going to be what it appears to be. Bats fly towards the camera; in the best horror traditions, the camera is involved in this narrative, making the viewers jump. The year before his introduction, a dog that looks a lot like Pluto howls, and then a comedy cat fight is interrupted by the first skeleton, emerging from its grave, terrifying the cats. Once again, the viewers are drawn into the narrative, with the skeleton swallowing the camera. This idea goes back as far as 1901, with the short silent comedy film The Big Swallow, but here it’s swifter and scarier. The image that accompanies this article is from that sequence.

From here on in the cartoon is in the business of making us laugh rather than frightening us. The skeleton is scared of an owl at first and then gets angry and throws its head at the bird. Then we are into the dance routine with four skeletons. My favourite moment is the Charleston crazy legs move. This is definitely an indication of the era the cartoon was made, and in the real 1920s dance move, also known as the bee’s knees, the dancer’s hands hide the knees as they cross, creating an illusion of the knees actually moving through each other. But in the cartoon, the “crazy legs” move doesn’t need to be achieved as an illusion, because these skeletons can do anything, so instead it happens for real, with the thigh bones crossing each other just below the pelvis in a way that would be anatomically impossible for a human. Probably the most iconic moment of the cartoon is one skeleton using another’s spine as a xylophone, having stolen his thigh bones to use as sticks.

Keep that moment in mind, as we fast forward just four months to December 1929, for the 14th Mickey Mouse cartoon, oddly missing Halloween that year by a couple of months, for The Haunted House. The similarities are striking, recycling many of the same ideas. The prelude to the main action is different, of course, with Mickey taking refuge in a haunted house on a stormy night, when his flimsy umbrella disintegrates. Once again we have bats flying at the camera, and the viewer is drawn into the action, with Mickey retreating behind the camera while a ghostly figure approaches. But again the scares give way to comedy, with Mickey commanded by the ghost to play the organ, and skeletons emerge to dance again!

This time we have two skeletons using the pelvises of another two as drums, and a radiator becomes a xylophone and then an accordion, impossibly bending the metal. In a strikingly similar moment to The Skeleton Dance, a skeleton uses his own bones as a xylophone, and then the joke is extended this time round, as his ribs become a guitar. Then we have an exact copy of some of the Skeleton Dance moves, with identical wavy legs sweeping the ground. But it’s such a fun idea that we can hardly begrudge Disney having a couple of goes at it, and this one is even funnier than the first effort, complete with a skeleton using the outside toilet.

So beware this Halloween, in case the skeletons dance again, and watch out for that skeleton on the loo! And if you do disturb him, ask him to play you a tune. Happy Halloween!   RP

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Elfen Lied Episode 1

Elfen Lied Lucy Nyu“Begegnung (A Chance Encounter)”

The view from Igirisu:

For the last year or so I have been challenging my non-anime-fan friend Mike to watch some anime series and write about them on an episode-by-episode basis. We started with a deliberately challenging choice, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and then moving onto two of the best thrillers anime has to offer, Erased and Another, before tackling the Haruhi Suzumiya spinoff The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan. Now it’s time to push Mike as far out of his comfort zone as he can possibly get with one of the most controversial anime series ever made: Elfen Lied. Each week we will feature my review of the episode, followed by Mike’s. Let’s see if the quality of the series and the themes and ideas it explores so expertly can win him over, against the backdrop of so much violence and nudity. As always, a note about spoilers: we will both do our very best to avoid spoiling future episodes, but these will be detailed articles, so we suggest watching each episode before you read our reviews.

If you didn’t know that this is a series that isn’t going to pull any punches, you’ll be fully aware of that within the first few minutes. We start with the opening sequence, featuring Lucy naked in a Gustav Klimt art style, while Lilium is sung in Latin. It is a collection of Christian prayers, psalms and hymns, and also features briefly later in the episode being sung by Lucy, indicating that it might have some significance beyond the opening.

The first shot is a severed arm with a twitching hand, and what follows is one of the most violent sequences ever made in an anime, with Lucy slicing and dicing almost everyone in sight during her escape from captivity. What is striking about this sequence is the economy of storytelling. It is actually far from being gratuitous, because almost every moment is imparting some important detail to the viewer. Within the first four minutes (including the opening titles) we have learnt that this girl can kill people somehow while she is still tied up, she can make objects float to her while her arms are tied, she can open huge security doors apparently without touching them, bullets do not work on her because she can protect herself from them, and she cannot hurt people from more than two metres away directly but can utilise objects to do that. After another four minutes we have learnt that there is some kind of invisible hand thing going on, as she is leaving bloody handprints everywhere, she has spared the life of a man who appears to be in charge, for reasons unknown, while mercilessly killing everyone else in sight, we know her name is Lucy, and she can be injured if she doesn’t protect herself. There is even time during these first few minutes to establish a new character, Miss Kisaragi, make her somebody we feel we know well already with a few shorthand characterisation tricks (she’s a klutz) and then have her killed off straight away. Remarkably, within seven minutes somebody is killed who we care about. If anyone needs to learn how to structure the introduction to a new story, to establish the facts and make us care about what’s going on, they need look no further than the first few minutes of Elfen Lied. It’s a masterclass.

The next characters to be established are Kouta and his cousin Yuka, who are meeting again for the first time in a while, long enough that he doesn’t recognise her. The backdrop to this meeting is a striking contrast to what we have just seen, some stunningly beautiful scenery with falling blossom, gorgeously animated. We learn that Kouta’s little sister died many years ago, and then Lucy shows up naked on the beach. She is clearly not quite human, as Kouta notices; she has small horns coming out of her head. She also seems to be behaving very differently to when we saw her escaping. Can this be the same girl? She is nervous and seems mentally like a very young child. She is enchanted by the falling petals, which presumably she has never seen, and she doesn’t seem to be able to speak, apart from saying “nyu”. At least that allows her emotions to be expressed by the intonation of her voice, and both Kouta and Yuka are a bit slow on the uptake when they don’t realise she needs the toilet. So it is clear that Lucy has no experience of how to behave around other people or in a normal home, and no sense of modesty about her body either. She also has child-like logic. Yuka hits the nail on the head when she realises the reason why Lucy breaks the shell that means so much to Kouta:

“I think she understood. She knew the seashell made you sad.”

So that shows empathy, because Lucy sensed Kouta’s emotions, but also a child-like simplicity to her solution to the problem. She saw a way to heal Kouta, without understanding the complexity of his emotional attachment to the shell. It also indicates that she cares about Kouta already, so she is far from an emotionless killer.

The episode also has time to introduce us to another major character, a monster of a man who is being sent to kill Lucy. Bando is a psychopath and a sadist, and again that is established quickly and effectively with a few scenes such as his violent treatment of an assistant. This is also the moment the anti-military message comes across clearly for the first time:

“Every day what does this training add up to? Killing people.”

As the episode ends, we get a juxtaposition between the words “she’s vicious” and a shot of Lucy in tears. This is going to be a series of contrasts.   RP

The view from Amerika:

Roger and I have been working in the Junkyard now since the summer of 2017.  Hard to believe we’ve been doing this labor of love for over 2 years.  I picture two friends rummaging through an old junkyard and finding little “treasures” and calling out to one another: “ooh!  Look what I found!”  The last two years have unearthed many surprises for us.  And it’s funny: we both love good writing and have shared a love of a TV show that has lived on for over 50 years (Doctor Who).  But when we’re unearthing those treasures, I’m often surprised to see how much our reactions vary.  Frequently, I’ll find some awesome nugget and Roger will brush it away saying something like “well, it’s ok, but look at this…” and he’ll show me something that I look at and boggle: what does he see in that?  We agree often too!  I’m not saying we are always on opposite ends of a spectrum, but when we disagree, it’s fascinating!  It is frequently utterly fascinating and eye-opening.  No, more than that: mind-opening.  We’ve exposed each other to things we would never have touched had it not been for the others influence.  When Roger brought me to the world of Anime with The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya, I was given some great stories…along with some weak ones (Endless Eight, need I say more?).  I wouldn’t say I was won over, but rather “on the fence”.  I loved it when the story was energized and full of time travel and science fiction, but I hated the fan service as the girls in this series were, by my reckoning, too young for that sort of thing.  Then Roger unearthed Erased, and I was sold: Anime has something to offer.  Then came Another, a horror series that captivated me.  In retrospect, of those latter two, I can’t say which I preferred.  They are both MUST SEE series.  Most recently, he pulled Elfen Lied out of some dark corner of the Junkyard and handed it to me.  But he warned me: it may have too much fan service for you.  I started episode one reluctantly…

And was blown away by the beauty of the choral music that opened the series.  The opening artwork is fully of “nudity” but I put that in quotes because I didn’t see this as any more lewd than a tapestry in an art gallery.  Then the episode begins and my first thought was of the 1981 movie Scanners.  It’s a movie notorious for one specific image: a person’s head blowing up.  When this story started, a girl in an experimental base begins a brutal path of destruction with her mind, and the first victim has his head utterly exploded.  I take no issue with this sort of thing mostly because it’s over the top violence, but also because I can immediately figure that this woman is the victim of some sort of experimentation.  In fact, what I was reminded of most was the superbly well-crafted 2005 PC game F.E.A.R.  (So much so, that I looked it up to see if that was inspiration, but found nothing!)  Like this, a young girl is unintentionally made into a psionic monster leading to immense amounts of blood being spilled and some truly scary video game moments – an absolute classic!  The entire first 10 minutes of this episode (of the 20 odd minutes to the whole thing) is effectively an anime interpretation of F.E.A.R.   Well, accept that this one can manipulate a bloody handprint in especially freaky ways.  (I hope to come back to this in the future episodes!)  The fact that the girl is naked barring a helmet did not strike me in any way as strange especially as she appears too tall, elegant, and developed to be a child.  If I had any issue with the first 10 minutes of the story, it’s that the unnamed Destroyer of Heads walks through pools of blood, but leaves no bloody footprints.  As she attempts to leave the island, she is shot in the head, but the bullet only succeeds in destroying the helmet and dropping her into the water, while some blood comes from her head.

We are then introduced to Yuka and her cousin Kouta.  While they are at the beach talking about the death of Kouta’s sister, Kanae, our Head Exploder comes out of the water.  With her flowing red hair, she’s a vision of Venus… or perhaps Ariel…  Perhaps the bullet to the noggin reduced her urge to pop people’s heads like balloons but instead of testing the elasticity of the two beachcombers craniums, she hangs around with them squeaking out “Nyu”.  (I had to remind myself that she was not asking for a visit to New York University, as NYU is referred to over on this side of the great divide!)  Yuka has Kouta give the naked girl some clothes, then realizes there are some odd things about her, namely in that she seems to have two horns emerging from her head.  (No one comments on the red eyes, but I was rather excited by that!)  Rather than call the police, these two decide to take this nearly mute, naked, horned creature back to Kouta’s house.  (Who am I kidding: if this happened to me, I’d be doing the same thing, so not for a moment will I criticize the story for doing this!)  Once at the house, we are given some exposition to explain how Kouta can live in it – he’s basically the housekeeper and gets to live there on the cheap if he cleans it – and we can move on.  Inside, Nyu starts running around but cannot communicate her troubles until she finally sits on the floor and a pool appears under her.  I’ve been around long enough to identify humans from horned creatures with psionic abilities, and it is clear to me that this creature is not “one of us” so her behavior is in keeping with what I’d expect.  She had to pee, and that’s that!  Then when she breaks a shell that reminds Kouta of his sister, he becomes furious with her and kicks her out.  She runs off, crying.  Yuka realizes that Nyu did this because the shell made Kouta sad.  This is definitely interesting considering what we’ve seen so far: a girl who can destroy people at a thought, but doesn’t want to see a young man hurt by loss.  I can’t wait to understand more about her.  I hope she hasn’t gone far!  (Incidentally, F.E.A.R. isn’t the only inspiration I noticed for this series.  When Nyu is named Lucy, I immediately thought of the 2014 Scarlett Johansson movie of the same name, about another girl who develops some heightened powers of her own.)

Meanwhile, the organization that created our F.E.A.R wannabe has plans to hunt and destroy this strange girl.  I’m very excited to see where we go from here.

If I have any complaints with this story so far, they are both things that may pass quickly.  The first is when Nyu cries: it’s that exaggerated whine/cry that some cartoons feel the need to use to express crying, as if the audience is too stunted to know crying unless it’s over the top infantile caterwauling.  While this passes quickly, it actually surpasses the sound of nails on a chalkboard for making one’s head explode.  Apt, I suppose.  Hopefully, we will not hear a lot of this.  Second is Bando, the mercenary.  We are shown what a creep this guy is when he belts a woman for “sneaking up on him” when she was in fact offering him tea, but it’s his last line that troubles me: “never saw the day when this country would let me terminate a minor.”  I even checked the subs.  In this one sentence, we establish that the tall, elegant, naked, horned girl is meant to be a minor…

But if she’s not even human, does any of that matter?  I will see how episode two plays out before I decide!  ML

Our reviews of the second episode of Elfen Lied will follow next Sunday, one day later than usual, to accommodate a special article next Saturday for Halloween.

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Babylon 5: Rising Star

Babylon 5 Artwork

Artwork by Katie Marriott

This was almost the final episode of the series before the finale, Sleeping in Light.  It’s a tremendous episode and if the show had ended a year early, it would have gone out with two fantastic episodes back to back.  We’re still 22 episodes away from talking about Sleeping in Light, but Rising Star does wrap up some loose threads very nicely.  (And to think, we have one more episode to talk about this season… let’s wait until next week to discuss that!)

One of the things I love about the way JMS writes is that he can tell a serious story and still find a way to add humor.  Susan’s story concludes but not as expected: Marcus has saved her and she’s dealing with the hurt of his sacrifice.  Claudia acts her heart out for he second time in the last few weeks and her heartache is palpable.  But through it she does have some moments that have to make the audience laugh: she comments that God does have an English accent (because she heard Marcus talking to her just before she was ready to slip away).  She also tells Stephen that she should have at least “boffed” Marcus once.  Even Stephen has to laugh at this.  But that’s actually a very real part of grief; it’s how we cope.  Finding some way to hold on to the humor is important and I don’t for a moment believe that takes away from the sincerity of the scene.  (Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Franklin’s opening with his “Faster!  We’ve got to go faster!”  Something about it makes me laugh and I am certain it’s not intended to make me do that!)  Ivanova just gets a news bulletin “talking point” that she’s been promoted to captain and has asked for a transfer to a Warlock class ship.  (This, in one easy sentence, explains we she is missing from season 5.)

Lennier talks to Delenn about Susan’s sentiment that “all love is unrequited” and Delenn tells him that she was wrong.  I find that a painful sentiment myself.  I also felt this was leading him on but in some ways, it is putting the final nail in the coffin for Lennier if he thinks there’s any chance she will fall for him.  Speaking of love, Garibaldi gets Lise back.  Amazingly, she hadn’t married one of the mob henchmen because it was convenient.  I’m glad Garibaldi finds some happiness but boy howdy, either marry her or don’t let her out of your sight, man!

Londo and G’Kar have come a long way.  Londo jests with G’Kar about being “premature”, which is completely carried by G’Kar’s uncomprehending expressions.  As the realization dawns, one has to laugh, but the fact that they are becoming friends is a wonderful testament to the idea behind Babylon 5: that last, best hope for peace.   Later, G’Kar is asked to be the first speaker for the delegation which makes complete sense; everything he says captures the attention.  I had to laugh when Londo evaluated the merit of rice that it can’t be good if people throw it away at weddings.  And I wasn’t thrilled with G’Kar using his eye to spy on Delenn and Sheridan on their first night of wedded bliss but, creepy as it was, I had to laugh.

And Sheridan resigns his commission … but becomes the president of the Interstellar Alliance.  As great as the episode is overall, I find there’s a lot to unpack in Sheridan’s story.  “Morally I was right, but politically I was inconvenient.”  Sheridan did have ethics on his side; Clark was a monster, but because Sheridan saved Earth in an “inconvenient way” he has to pay a price.  Why is it that government and red tape don’t bow down to ethics?  Why do we accept that the opposite is true?   It’s also part of Sheridan’ story that Bester makes an appearance.  Bester compares himself and John to Reebo and Zooty (wonder if we’ll ever learn who they are…) and Holmes and Watson.  But Sheridan is nothing like Bester and that difference brought into sharp contrast when Sheridan is talking about how Bester likes to use people.  Sheridan explains that what he did, using telepaths as weapons, was not an easy decision.  He specifically chose people who had no families, like he did during the Shadow War, but as Bester points out, Caroline, his love, had no family.  Thankfully, Sheridan lost his own wife only to find her again and lose her again, so he doesn’t wish that on even Bester.  Again, this series does show us what heroism is: it’s not being flawless, it’s holding to your beliefs and doing the right thing even when it’s “inconvenient”.

“Rarely am I in the presence of living history.”  The season ends with the reminder that strength indeed comes from a multitude of voices.  The Interstellar Alliance is now formed and 2261 ends like a chapter from a good book.  We can get a glimpse ahead though and things are afoot.  Delenn references the telepath war and the Drakh war and trouble for the alliance.  But like the show itself, she say that what is built and loved endures.  “…and Babylon 5 endures!”    ML

The view from across the pond:

It might be an odd series structure to not end with the big finale, but this mopping up exercise doesn’t feel like an anticlimax. You know the epilogue at the end of a book, where the big dramatic stuff is all over and we’re just finding out what happens next for all the main characters? This is a bit like that, and in the same way that it can be an absorbing part of a book it is also an absorbing part of this series. There is joy and sadness, and there is also the very realistic sense that not all the problems have gone away.

Bester is still a threat, although I enjoyed Sheridan’s amusement at the idea that threatening him might mean anything any more, and also the way he turned the tables by mentioning Garibaldi, who is going to be far from happy with Bester. Londo learns he is going to be the new Emperor, so that’s a prediction coming true. It’s something he would have greeted with great joy a couple of years ago, but now it’s the last thing he wants. He has seen what power does to people, and instead he is happy exploring his “very strange relationship” with G’Kar. Life on Babylon 5 has become enjoyable for him once again, and he’s not going to be keen to throw that away. Then we have the new Interstellar Alliance with the independent Rangers and Sheridan as the President of the Alliance, which is an interesting development for next year and something that could easily collapse when you think about it. Giving that much power to an independent group in the name of peace might be prone to backfiring. And of course we had the sad fact of Marcus’s death, and Ivanova trying to come to terms with a missed opportunity. As she says, she should have “boffed him”. Such pathos.

But the really interesting part of this episode was the question of how the new Earth President should deal with Sheridan. She was faced with an unenviable problem: a man who is a hero to everyone but also stands as a symbol of anarchy and not following orders. If she were to discipline him she would clearly have a riot on her hands, or worse, but if she did nothing about him then she would set a dangerous precedent. These are the kinds of intricate diplomatic issues that are so often overlooked in sci-fi in favour of big battles, but JMS really shows the value of exploring them here.

Luchenko is right, of course. If we set aside for a moment how wrapped up we have inevitably become in watching Sheridan’s heroism, logic dictates that his resignation is the best thing all round. He remains a moral hero, but acknowledges that his actions must by necessity represent the end of his military career. She has the right idea, but she goes about it in the wrong way, because she threatens him.

“You will be dishonourably discharged, court marshalled, and brought to trial.”

Try it, and see how many minutes you survive before your assassination. In fact, that’s exactly what Sheridan should have said. She clearly can’t do that and hope to stay in office, but I think Sheridan understood that resigning was the right thing to do. That could have come across a little better in the writing, because standing aside because he is “inconvenient” doesn’t really follow naturally from what we have seen of Sheridan. A little more insight into his thought processes would have been useful.

By the end of the episode things are all nicely set up for the next series, and we end on a lovely speech from Delenn: “Babylon 5 endures”. So that’s it then. Everything wrapped up nicely, ready for a fresh start next year… wait, what? Hold on a second. This is episode 21. I thought it was odd that last week’s episode wasn’t the finale to the series, but now I’m even more baffled. What on Earth could be happening next week?   RP

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Detroit: Become Human (Marcus)

Last week I began an in-depth look at a fantastic game by Quantic Dream called Detroit Become Human.  If you want to know more about why this is a three-part series, pop back in time and read about it here.  In last week’s article, I mentioned that after the first mission, things dropped into slow motion.  That was when we were introduced to Marcus.  Shades of Color puts the player in Marcus’s shoes as he… goes out to buy paint.  I’m not kidding.  That’s it.  After that incredible hostage situation that was the opening mission, this was a 180.  Where did the action go?  I’ll be fair, 2 short chapters later, we are back with Marcus and we are given more story and while that too isn’t an action extravaganza, it is building a much needed story.  He’s an android owned by Carl, played by veteran genre legend Lance Henriksen (Aliens, plus 257 other acting credits on his IMDB page).  Carl is an old man who needs to be  taken care of, given shots, and wheeled around in his wheelchair.  He has special equipment to help him paint that lifts him up so he can paint on very large canvases.  Carl treats Marcus like a son and asks Marcus to try to paint, offering him the chance to let his creativity loose.  This begs the question of whether or not a machine can be creative.  Carl also has a son, Leo, who spends money on drugs.  It’s apparent early on that Carl cares for Marcus more than his own son but perhaps justifiably.  As one might suspect, this leads to a conflict.  At this point, we are less than an hour into the game and I have started to question what makes a man: Marcus is a machine but he has more of a soul than Carl’s biological son.  This starts my brain going into overdrive.  When Marcus begins to express feelings, things go pear shaped.

I have to admit, I had a hard time keeping it together for this sequence.  I wanted to allow my inner rage to have its own freedom of expression, but I knew that would upset Carl so I kept it together and a terrible thing happens.  Marcus starts down a path that makes him perhaps the single most important person in the game.  Stunningly, his is still not my favorite story but the three main characters are all so well developed and their stories are so compelling, that it’s like a best of three great choices, so at no point do you feel let down.  The only part that surprised me was how slow the first handful of episodes are after that stunningly fast-paced opening.

The issue with talking too much about the game is that I don’t want to spoil the story.  I will say that Marcus is essential to the wave of Androids starting to express emotions and he realizes that their message has to get out.  Once again you have choices in what you want your message to be and I went with equality; I don’t know how different the game would have been had I selected freedom or one of the other options.  I think I chose equality because I don’t like seeing things in my personal life where what is ok for one person, is not for another.  That aside, his story is one of a handful of mistakes I made, but I was not going to replay a mission: I was determined to see how things would play out with my actions.  At one point, while taking over a TV tower, a human makes a run for it and I hit the wrong button!  I shot the fleeing fellow.  I felt awful.  There is no reloading and my only option was to replay the whole mission.  Life doesn’t work that way, so I opted to play on.  When I replay the game, this is one change I plan to make!  You don’t shoot a fleeing man!

Marcus is played by Jesse Williams and looks just like him.  The acting is incredible and the graphics are amazing.  Minka Kelly plays his love interest, North.  (I pressed a wrong button on the final mission with North too.  It’s the only mission I did replay because I was completely disgusted with the way I screwed up that mission.  I was very happy to say I was able to have a much better ending for Marcus and North when I replayed it!)  Together Marcus and North can bring about a better world for the androids.  Maybe humans can coexist with them.  Maybe they should be treated as a lifeform unto themselves.

Since Marcus’s actions are intrinsically linked to her, I’ll use this week to introduce Chloe.  Chloe is introduced as the loading screen android.  She’s beautiful and sits there welcoming you back every time you launch the game.  With the points you get between missions, I unlocked her introduction video.  As this is just a short clip and does not impact the game, I’ll include her video instead of a trailer; for that, check last weeks post.  The thing is, her words send chills through me each time I listen to them.  She claims the one thing she can’t have is a soul.  I struggle with this: why??  What is this “soul” of which we speak?  (Yeah, I’m a ginger, so maybe I’m biased…)  It’s it biological or is it based on our emotions and who we grow up to be?  Looking at Leo and Marcus, I’m fairly certain Marcus has a soul, while I can’t be sure if Leo does.  He’s self absorbed and doesn’t care about his father, treating him and his belongings as if they are only there for his use.  Marcus, by contrast, cares and even cries when something happens to Carl.  So is Chloe right that she doesn’t have a soul merely because she is a machine?  Can a machine have more soul than man, if it’s capable of deciding for itself?  And is it ok for me to even say “it” when referring to a machine?   This is the concept sitting comfortably at the heart of the game.

To enhance the Chloe/Marcus connection, upon completion of the game, Chloe realizes she wants her freedom and, yes, even though she’s the face of the loading screen, she asks if I would allow her to be free.  Look, I didn’t want her to go, but how could I deny her?  What right did I have?  Sure, it’s a game, and I bought the game, and I should be able to enjoy it, but I enjoy it when a moral dilemma is posed that I have to really look at and I didn’t feel I could hold her there just because I didn’t want her to be gone.  So I accepted her request and freed her.  She thanks me, and leaves.  I launched the game the next day to replay the final mission (for North’s sake among others… stay tuned next week for that one).  And what did I discover?  She was still gone!  The game didn’t lie to me: it said she wanted her freedom and she really is gone.  Chloe, my friend who asks me things at the start of every round and who even invited me to a survey, left me alone.  Somehow the game felt colder now.   I’ll miss my friend.

I am absolutely stunned by how insanely good this game was.  The aforementioned survey was something I found fascinating, especially since I got to see the percentages of the population that agreed and disagreed with me.  I have a very good friend who debates these very questions with me now and then and I think she’d be of the same outcomes on most of the questions.  I might have to give her the survey.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to ponder if a machine can have a soul and if they are capable of feelings.  I don’t know if I am knowledgeable enough to know the answer but I’m certainly willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  (I’ve even started to wake Alexa just to wish her good morning!)

Stay tuned next week for the last character.  In the meantime, let me introduce you to Chloe.  ML

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Star Trek: This Side of Paradise

Star Trek Opening TitlesI remember seeing Day of the Triffids when I was very young.  And Specimen: Unknown… which we will talk about next year… but I think my love for both started with Star Trek’s This Side of Paradise. 

This Side of Paradise offers us a strange tale.  The planet Omicron Ceti III has been bombarded by deadly Berthold rays.  Sandoval’s colony should have been wiped out.  Kirk goes to … actually, what the hell was his mission?  Go down and see what was in their pockets?  Get their wagons back; you never know when they’ll come in handy for Starfleet! And when they find the colonists alive and well, what’s the urgency in evacuating the colony?  Clearly these Berthold rays don’t exactly kill; quite the contrary.  In fact, you know what?  Starfleet should go to hell!  McCoy says the colonists are fine, healthy, happy, and have renewed appendixes… appendices?  What is the plural when it’s in the body?  My point is, they didn’t want to leave and they weren’t initially a threat.  They only start becoming all “one of us, one of us” when Kirk and crew say “You have to come back to my ship… Starfleet demands it!”

I’ve actually gone and annoyed myself!  I liked this episode but maybe I shouldn’t have!  Maybe all the little pet peeves I have add up to nothing when we look at the big stinking problem of Star-“non-interference-my-ass”-fleet!  I’ll come back to that in a minute.  Let’s talk about strange behavior.  Kirk anticipates when McCoy will need medical data, so he walks around with a zip disk in his pocket.  Unlikely but plausible.  Less likely, Spock didn’t think to use that blue light scanner on his desktop when approaching the planet to scan it?  Shouldn’t scanners have shown life signs?  Still less likely: Kirk has my parents’ luggage case in his quarters.  It fits all of two shirts and one pair of pants.  That’s what they use in the future to travel!?   Even less likely still: after the crew has beamed down to the planet, Kirk goes down to confront Spock again, then goes back to the ship.  Huh?  Who beamed him back up?  Probably had a rope hanging down… that must be it! Speaking of starships, Leila says to Spock “I’ve never seen a starship before”.  Oh, no?  How’d you get here again, all of 4 years ago?  Bus?  Really big pogo stick?  Oh, I know: a wagon!  That’s why Starfleet needs them back!   OK, completely unlikely: Spock gets spore’d.  What’s the first thing he does?  Runs back to his girlfriend’s house to get a workman’s overalls!  Wait, it gets better.  Jim lures him back to the ship to insult the crap out of him upon realizing that anger overpowers the spores.  Spock is himself again.  So before working on the sonic device to make everyone fight, he runs to his quarters to put a new uniform on.  Give me a break.  (Thank the god of all Vulcanians, Spock doesn’t hold a grudge.  Kirk said some pretty bad things about his mother and father!  At least we learn one was a teacher and the other an ambassador!)  I mean this story is just full of issues. McCoy suddenly becomes DEEP SOUTH but worse… he throws away a perfectly good mint julep!  And I haven’t even discussed the worst yet.  If anger can override the spores control, did not one of these colonists ever slam their fingers in a barn door?  Step on a nail?  Get kicked in the head by a cow?  I know when these things happen to me, I want to punch the pope!  And I like our pope!  (Well, let’s be clear: I don’t get kicked by cows, but I’m rarely around farms.  I have slammed my fingers in the odd drawer from time to time and my language gets… colorful!)

That all said, the plants are gloriously creepy looking and the idea of being sprayed by them is somewhat disturbing.  The fact that they could do something to your mind… that’s actually sort of scary.  I love that we learn a bit about Spock’s parents, even if it is through jibes.  I love learning that Spock is actually stronger than humans; at least some of the lore starts to build around these characters.  I hate the cop-out answer that he has another name but we “couldn’t pronounce it”.  Lame!  But I’m “debating in a vacuum!”  The real meat and potatoes of this episode is Paradise.  Was man meant to achieve it?  Kirk says no, but who is he to make that decision?  The planet was so beneficial for the colonists that even after leaving, they were completely healthy.  Sounds like Starfleet really did have paradise under its nose.  (Good god, you could probably send sick people there and have them get better!)  I actually think this episode is very bad for Jim, because even in the final moment of the episode, Spock says that for the “first time in my life, I was happy!”  So, Kirk took happiness away from his entire crew and a bunch of colonists because in his mind, he needs his pain?  Even Sandoval, upon getting out from under the spell of the spores, says in three years, they achieved nothing.  Actually, looking at those mortgage-free houses and the farm, I’d say you did pretty well for yourselves.  Yeah, you don’t have DVD players to watch Enterprise, but that’s a small price to pay.  So what is paradise?  Is happiness a measure by which we should measure our lives?   Those colonists sure were happy.  Or is it satisfaction they should be striving for?  To be honest, they seemed pretty satisfied to me too.  So what was missing?  Pain, failure, misery and death?  Mortgages?  Netflix?  Did Kirk have the right to make them give up what they had?  In retrospect, I am not sure what I liked about this episode, but I think for his birthday, I’ll send Jim a copy of Genesis of the Daleks. He may need to hear that “do I have the right” speech of the Doctor’s…  ML

The view from across the pond:

Well that was a fascinating anti-drugs parable. What, you didn’t get that? I did a quick trawl around the internet after watching this episode and on first glance I can’t find anyone joining those dots, which surprises me. The episode shouts out “drugs trip” and then shows the futility of using drugs as a path to happiness.

We have a colony where people inhale something and then find happiness. Superficially it looks good: they are living in harmony; they shed their inhibitions and embrace childish fun once more; they can love without feelings of repression. Spock is the poster boy for the drug, able to escape his straitjacket of coldness and logic, fall in love and climb trees. But when the Enterprise crew start mutinying and beaming down to the planet, leaving the ship abandoned, the insidious nature of the drug is revealed: it’s a fake, forced happiness, and it’s achieved by neglecting responsibilities. It’s a selfish high, and one that causes people to abandon any ambition for the betterment of themselves or their society.

Like real drugs, what the spores offer is temptation. The way these people live their lives does seem superficially very tempting, but the key word there is superficial. I have been watching an anime recently that has a lot to say about the balance of sorrow and joy. One cannot exist without the other, because there is no context. The kind of happiness these colonists experience has no meaning, and Spock’s love for Leila is a sham. He has been lobotomised by the spores, his higher thought-processes removed. She desperately wants him to love her, but it’s just not real. This is a utopia until you scratch the surface.

“We have harmony here. Complete peace.”

Sounds nice. What am I saying? I’m watching Star Trek on a laptop computer. I’m not trading that in for a plough. As I say, superficial. It’s repetitive, boring, soulless. The utopia the spores offer is no more substantial than the happiness achieved by real world drugs. Tellingly, the spell is broken when genuine human emotions break through the drugs haze. The true self re-emerges.

As always with Trek, the storyline stumbled on some questionable ethics. For the second week in a row, Kirk behaves like a “just following orders” Nazi, heavy-handedly insisting on trying to evacuate the colonists against their wishes, never stopping to think about whether destroying an established society is the right thing to do. In doing so he exacerbates his problems. There were kinder ways to deal with this than to go in like a bull in a china shop and force everyone to go cold turkey. His punishment for his hubris is a whole-ship mutiny.

It wasn’t quite clear why Kirk was the only one to escape from the effects of the spores, until eventually one got him rather amusingly on the bridge. I did like how his anger at abandoning the Enterprise made him snap out of it in the end, although it’s hard to believe that only Kirk would achieve a level of emotion sufficient to escape the effects of the spores, especially as the colonists had been on the planet for so long. Surely that would have happened to somebody else by now? A great episode could have been made even greater by having some examination of how the colonists might have snapped out of it and then actively decided to inhale the spores again. Then the story could have dug deeper into the realms of addiction. Matters are complicated by how avoidance of the spores would be a death sentence on the planet. That was the one area where the script falters, because it takes something away from the parable. These people didn’t actually have a choice, and it would have been so much more effective as a story if they did.

The rights and wrongs of what we see take place are complicated by Spock’s role in it all. Yes, it was an artificial happiness, but for Spock it was also a release from his life of logic, almost as if his true self is locked away and he cannot reach it:

“For the first time in my life, I was happy.”

It was a melancholy moment but the episode illustrated that there is no shortcut for Spock. Drugs cannot break through his repression and help him find happiness. If he wants that, he has to find a way to do it for himself, or he just won’t be Spock any more. Life can be blessed with peace and happiness, but you have to work for it. Nobody can inhale their way to utopia.   RP

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Torchwood: Rendition

miracle dayMiracle Day continues with Jack and Gwen being taken to America.  Rhys is left behind to do “spousal stuff”.  The episode is then broken into two main parts: the framing of Esther Drummond and the poisoning of Captain Jack Harkness.  I didn’t remember liking this season that much and yet, I find myself on the edge of my seat.  I think a lot of that has to do with good characters and this second episode showcases that nicely.

“What do you think they’re gonna do: kick out a window and jump 30,000 feet?”  Phifer’s Rex Matheson continues to be the new hero of the season.  Jack is relegated to a poisoned, sickly character in handcuffs through the episode giving Matheson the chance to shine.  He’s got some wonderful lines, shows a great deal of intelligence, and still seems to be interested in doing the right thing.  If he were to become a part of Torchwood long term, I would not be upset with that decision.  The situation with Jack requires quick thinking to reverse arsenic poisoning, administered by another CIA agent on the plane.  It’s tense and kept me hooked, but the reality of it is… well, not realistic.  Perhaps I only say that because I’m not a doctor, but I don’t know if one can melt down silver in a kettle on a plane, then inject it into the bloodstream.  Still, I’m not watching for medical accuracy, and the sequence is extremely entertaining.

Esther, Rex’s friend and counterpart in the CIA, is attentive to everything and upon seeing Rex’s computer being searched, realizes things are going wrong.  It takes her no time to realize she is being framed for something and makes an escape from CIA headquarters.  While not as tense a piece as Jack’s near death experience, it serves to illustrate that Esther is also extremely smart.  At least we will have intelligent heroes this season.  Let’s face it: the story last season was going to be hard to beat, but good characters could make a difference and shift the focus.

Speaking of intelligent heroes, Vera Juarez continues the trend.  She attends a medical conference and seems to be the only doctor that’s capable of taking charge.  Again, a strong character and the script shows her intelligence in the face of adversity.  That makes three characters so far that would make outstanding members of a new Team Torchwood.  Then we meet Jilly Kitzinger.  Seemingly ditzy, she clearly has more going on than meets the eye.  Is she doing that thing the second Doctor was known for: appear less capable while hiding a brilliant mind?  I think so.  Alas, she and Juarez end up being smokers, so they aren’t quite as intelligent as I thought.  But she has added a level of intrigue to the story – is she friend or foe?

Then we have Oswald Danes, played despicably by Bill Pullman.   Beyond the fact that he plays an irredeemable monster, I can’t help but wonder about the actor.  This was the President of the United States in 1996’s Independence Day.  Remember that speech?  “We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”  I don’t think he can ever upstage that scene; it was a defining moment for the actor.  Yet here, he instead goes for the extreme opposite end of the spectrum: a child rapist and murderer who speaks like he’s auditioning for a computer reading a book.  His on-screen apology is not enough to hide the monster and Kitzinger knows it.  But can he be redeemed after all?  I’ve said before: no one is just one thing.  Can even this monster find peace and can we find a way to view him as anything but a loathsome thing?

Gwen has her moments to shine too.  Don’t call a Welsh woman “English”; she shows Lyn who’s boss.  She also has a great commentary on America: “Don’t all American’s have big SUV’s?”  But the ensemble cast has to be built so she doesn’t have her normal range and we are still in setup mode.  The mystery is only just being explored.  Friedkin, Seinfeld‘s Newman, has a phone that spins a strange triangle and gives him the one word order: Remove.  Who is he working for and why?  How does it tie in with the Miracle?  And now that they are on US soil, what will the new Team Torchwood need to save the day?

The story is a strange one.  The big draw of the first three seasons of Torchwood is Jack’s charisma and the fact that he can’t die.  Taking that away from him creates an entirely different dynamic that has to be carried by a good story and a strong cast.  We’re too early to say if it’s a good story, but at least we have a strong cast.  While we have 8 more episodes to go, let’s just hope the story remains strong and doesn’t go quietly into the night.  ML

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The Eccentric Family

Kaisei from The Eccentric FamilyThis is an anime that draws inspiration from Japanese folklore. The main characters are mostly tanuki (Japanese racoon dogs), who are able to transform into anything they want, but most of them seem to spend the majority of their time looking like humans. Our focus character is Yasaburo Shimogamo, and the “eccentric family” of the title refers to Yasaburo, his mother and his three brothers. His father passed away, and the circumstances surrounding his death are explored throughout the series. Yasaburo’s brothers are an interesting bunch. The eldest is Yaichiro, who aspires to an important position known as “Trick Magister”, and the youngest is Yashiro, who amusingly can’t stop his tail from popping out when he is in human form and gets scared. Yasaburo is the third son, but my favourite was Yajiro, who suffers from such crippling guilt that he turned himself into a frog and lives as a hermit at the bottom of a well. The reason for his guilt is revealed towards the end of the series, and makes for a great storyline, probably the best of the series.

There is also a rival family, the Ebisugawas, to whom the Shimogamos are related. The head of the family is Soun, the uncle of the Shimogamo brothers, and he’s not a pleasant person at all. Neither are his twin sons, Kinkaku and Ginkaku. Most stories need antagonists, but I found those two very unpleasant to watch. They are condescending towards the Shimogamos, and delight in bullying Yashiro. I found them quite disturbing. The only Ebisugawa I liked was Kaisei, who used to be engaged to Yasaburo. The reason that fell through is also explored throughout the series, but I didn’t feel like she got enough screen time, considering what an interesting character she is. A stronger focus on her story would have also helped the gender balance, which is skewed a bit too much towards the males. Luckily there is a very strong female character: Benten. She is an interesting character, and quite mysterious. It’s often hard to figure out her motivations, and she is emotionally complex, so she’s probably the best character in the whole thing. Although Benten is human she has magical skills including flight, which she learnt from the Shimogamo brothers’ old teacher, Professor Akadama. He is a tengu, a type of yokai. I have mentioned yokai a few times in my anime reviews, but they are various kinds of spirit beings, central to Japanese folklore. The Shinto faith has a similar concept, referred to as kami. Most anime fans will have some experience of seeing yokai depicted, most famously in Spirited Away, which has a tengu as the main antagonist. Oddly, Yubaba from Spirited Away never seems to get referred to as a tengu in articles about the film, but that’s surely what she’s supposed to be, with her transformation into a bird and her long, hooked nose when she is in human form. These are key characteristics of the tengu.

At the heart of The Eccentric Family is the balance between humans, tanuki and tengu. To a certain extent they each have their own territory. The humans have the cities, the tanuki have the countryside and the tengu have the skies, but of course life isn’t that simple and the three groups have to co-exist. Once a year a club known as the Friday Club has a feast where they eat a tanuki, and the series builds up to one of those moments. Apart from the presence of Benten as one of their members, their club reminded me of a British Gentlemen’s club. The danger of one of the tanuki getting eaten each year adds some much-needed excitement to the latter part of the series, which meanders along for far too long at the start with nothing much happening, simply introducing us to all the characters. My wife lost patience with it and stopped watching, but I was glad that I persevered. At times I found it a bit of a disturbing series to watch, and it’s definitely not one for newcomers to the world of anime. It is so steeped in Japanese folklore that there is a bit of a culture shock watching this series, like a glimpse into an unfamiliar distortion of our world, and there isn’t even a dub to offer any kind of sense of familiarity to a Western audience. I would struggle to say I particularly enjoyed it as such, and I’m in no hurry to see the second series (apart from wanting to see the relationship between Yasaburo and Kaisei properly explored, which apparently happens in Series Two), but I did find it a fascinating series and I think I learnt quite a lot from watching it. The Eccentric Family was perhaps a little too eccentric for my tastes, but sometimes it’s good to push the limits of what we usually watch. It is a series that took me out of my comfort zone, and that’s not a bad thing to do.   RP

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