Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes Taylor and NovaThere are a few gaps in my sci-fi knowledge, and it’s about time I filled them. OK, I’ve been browbeaten by some friends into filling them, but either way I felt it was time to finally take the plunge and watch Planet of the Apes. I can’t say that I ever felt it was a priority to watch a bunch of actors in monkey suits, but I’ve been told good things about this, so I gave it a go.

Certain aspects validated my reservations pretty quickly. I love 60s television but for some reason I often find 60s films a hard slog, and the slow pacing for the first half hour of this one didn’t help, with the astronauts wandering around a rocky landscape for what seemed like forever. I just wanted the story to get started, and that took far too long. When something did finally happen, the first sign of trouble was the macabre sight of human skins on sticks. Amusingly, one of the astronauts suggested from a distance they might be scarecrows, which made me laugh. Did he see a field of crops on the top of those rocks, because I certainly didn’t? Then, when the ape men finally made their appearance it was just as I had feared: wobbly mouths with static top lips, clearly incapable of forming the words we hear them saying. Later in the film we had not just wobbly mouths, but wobbly actors pretending to be exhibits in a museum. Maybe not a great idea for the director to place one of them right in front of the camera, if he wanted to attempt the impossible and get actors to look like inanimate objects. And then when a couple of the apes were kissing by tapping their fake, unyielding mouths together, that had me laughing out loud at the unintentional absurdity of it all.

But that’s all the nits picked, because I was rapidly drawn into the story after the first half an hour. I loved the apes’ buildings, so organic, asymmetrical and in harmony with the landscape. I loved all the shocking moments, with the lobotomised or stuffed humans, which brought to mind how animals are sometimes treated. I’m not an animal rights activist, or even a vegetarian, but when our treatment of animals is translated to human beings, it really brings home the horror of it all, even being caged up and washed from a distance with a hose. Taylor uses the word “humiliation” when he eventually turns the tables on Zaius, and that’s a very good word for what we have seen.

In fact, what I love the most about this film is the way it reflected contemporary issues through the medium of sci-fi, and that’s one of the big strengths of sci-fi. It makes us think about our own world, through the lens of another. Planet of the Apes can of course be interpreted as an examination of racism, with humans dismissed as inferior, but it also has a lot to say about religious intolerance, with facts being ignored in favour of scripture, in order to avoid uncomfortable truths. Although it’s not exactly a strongly contemporary issue, and wasn’t when the film was made either, the treatment of the theory of evolution as heresy is really at the heart of this film. Much more relevant to the 60s is the way humans have destroyed themselves to make way for the apes, which tapped into fears of the Cold War. But my favourite theme here was probably the most subtle, and that’s because I’ve long held the view that certain aspects of 60s culture was built on selfishness, much like the decadence that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire. Taylor isn’t just sick of his life back home because of the Cold War. He was also living a life of making love but never finding love, so he was suffering from the empty-souled free love ethos of the 60s. Interestingly, when he is paired off with Nova, one of the things that leads Zora to realise that he is something very different to the other humans is how he is monogamous, so this is shown to be a key aspect of intelligent humanity. In that respect, I think the film functions as a condemnation of 60s youth culture, but it’s done with such subtlety that I suspect it tends to go unnoticed, bubbling under the surface of the bigger themes.

The twist ending wasn’t any kind of twist for me, simply because of the emphasis on the year the astronauts had arrived in, when their ship crashed. That would have been irrelevant if they were on an alien planet, so it was pretty obvious we were being shown that piece of information for a reason. Despite no prior knowledge, I watched this film with the certainty that I was watching a representation of the future of this planet, and the twist therefore failed… except I can’t call it a failure because it’s such a striking visual image, and without it the film would have been lacking a strong conclusion. All I can say is it’s a blessing Rod Serling was involved in this project, because that was apparently his idea, and I think it’s probably that one image, left in the mind of the viewer at the end of the film, that turned this from a popular film to a phenomenon that spawned an entire franchise. I must admit I’m not in a rush to watch the sequels or the television series, but I’m tempted to take a look at the remake to see how that was done. Presumably there is some improvement on the wobbly-mouthed ape costumes.

One final thought: Zaius turns out to be right about everything, and when I realised that I was stunned by the cleverness of it all. He’s supposed to be a character you can’t stand, the worst kind of closed-minded religious zealot, the “defender of the faith”, defending it by destroying any evidence that his faith is wrong. And yet, ultimately he’s trying to take a dangerous civilisation which turned the planet into a wasteland, and bury it in the past where it belongs. Depressingly, he’s actually wise to do that.

Zaius was right. Wow.   RP

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Nagato 5: Her Melancholy

Kid Haruhi Nagato Yuki-ChanThe junkyard presents two articles about the Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan episode Her Melancholy.

The view from 5930 miles away:

Misunderstandings are the meat and drink of romantic comedies, but it is rare to see one resolved so quickly. It is even rarer to see everyone just sitting down together to discuss their feelings openly, so this is a refreshingly mature episode for a series that often includes such frustratingly immature animation.

It is immediately made clear by Haruhi that her gift of chocolate to Kyon was exactly what I thought it was: friendship chocolate. Koizumi gets one too. However, there’s a little more to it than that, with Asakura quite rightly calling her out on the timing of the gift. The confrontation between the two of them is a blistering moment, with Asakura very nearly hitting Haruhi, and just stopping herself before her fist makes contact. It’s interesting for a couple of reasons. Firstly, anyone who has watched the parent series will be expecting Asakura to be dangerous, and she certainly seems to have some anger issues (“”I don’t know what to do with all this anger.”). Secondly, the way Haruhi deals with all this stuff so calmly is extraordinary. Haruhi was far from being a two-dimensional character in her own series (well, you know what I mean), but sometimes you had to work hard to look for the nuances. Here she is complex and fascinating, much more than just an unstoppable bundle of energy. When people are genuinely upset she just gets very, very calm, and won’t exacerbate matters deliberately, take things personally, or even attempt to defend herself. She’s also completely honest with everyone, and remarkably fair to her love rival. And Yuki is her love rival. When she asks Haruhi if she is in love with Kyon, you don’t need to be able to do much reading between the lines to realise that he is the first “ordinary human” that has sparked these kinds of feelings in her.

“To be honest, I can’t say I dislike him.”

And for those who were expecting the title of this episode to refer to Yuki after the end of the last episode, the rug is pulled out from under their feet, and the episode is instead the story of Haruhi’s melancholy. She plays it fair and gets out of Yuki’s way so she can give Kyon her chocolates, and looks on from the school building. While Asakura watches in excitement, Haruhi is sad and worried. The animation is beautifully subtle, but it’s enough.

“Bunch of loons, what are they doing? What am I doing for that matter?”

These aren’t aliens or time travellers. This is life. And I can’t help it – I have to root for Haruhi. As cute as the moments are between Kyon and Yuki, with Yuki’s hands shaking when she gives him the chocolates, and as fun as all that counting down to eating one was, the flashback scene with John Smith and the kid Haruhi is the moment that really gets the heart racing. We have an added context to Haruhi’s fascination with Kyon, and once again we can see why she loves him: it’s because he is open to her beliefs, and now that has happened twice, with the additional brief flashback to the moment in the river I mentioned last week. This also throws up some questions. Kyon is younger in the flashback scene than he was in the matching scene in the parent series, but he still speaks those all-important words:

“John Smith wishes you the best of luck in making the world more exciting.”

So what’s going on here? There has been enough evidence now to indicate quite clearly that this is not the same universe as either the original series or the Disappearance arc series, but we still can’t just write off that moment as a chance meeting between Haruhi and Kyon as children. What prompts Kyon to say those words to Haruhi? And does she realise it’s him? I would suggest she almost certainly does.

If you stopped watching when the ending titles played then you need to go and put that blu-ray back in the player or whatever, because there is quite a lengthy post-credits sequence this week and it’s important. I’ve seen many anime series that have a Valentine’s Day episode, but not many that show the traditional follow up to it when the boy has to give a present in return: White Day. As somebody who generally dislikes Koizumi, I was delighted to see that he is now being treated as a figure of fun by the writer, because it would have been tedious beyond belief for him to be a genuine rival to Kyon. Instead, he is as hopelessly boring as we would expect:

“You gave me a game only an 80 year old would like, Koizumi.”

She doesn’t spare his feelings. But who cares – he’s nothing more than comic relief now. Haruhi is instead obsessed with her present from Kyon, and trying to find a way that hers might be just a little bit better than the identical gift he gave to Yuki. This is an important scene. It reaffirms Haruhi’s attraction to Kyon, so the rivalry hasn’t gone away. But it also poses the question as to why Kyon has done that. One possible interpretation is that he is simply innocent enough to be returning the favour of friendship chocolate to both of them, and thinks nothing more of it than that, but I don’t really buy that. I think Kyon understands exactly what is going on and is playing the innocent clueless guy routine to buy himself some time to decide. For now, he’s keeping his options open. For Yuki the hopeless underdog, that in itself is an achievement.   RP

The view from 6,868 miles away:

It’s easy to long for the days of innocence, when we were kids and had a crush on someone.  This series certainly is a reminder of bygone days.  Well, I say that with the assumption that it’s true.  My high school days were not quite like this.  But the idea of liking someone and not being adept with um … what’s it called??… WORDS!  Yeah, words.  That’s something I think we can all relate to.  Watching Yuki struggle is both heartbreaking and kinda funny.    It’s heartbreaking because you can’t help but root for her.  You want her to win Kyon over.  She’s sweet and kind, while Haruhi is fun and extroverted but mostly self-centered.  Sure, they are both likable but the series has been gently pushing us to look at Yuki as the star, even if Haruhi is a force to be reckoned with.  But it’s also kinda funny because what goes on gives us a lot to laugh at.

I’ll start by saying that I was right with my assessment at the end of last episode: a chocolate from Haruhi could mean anything.  As it happens, she has a chocolate for both guys in her crew; it’s a courtesy gift on a day where giving chocolates is the expected thing to do.  But now, Yuki has run off and her friends have to find where she went.  And friendship is truly at the core of this series.  Right from the start Asakura is waiting nearby with her hands folded as if in silent prayer that things go well.  When they don’t, she flips out!  But what drives home the point about friendship is that Haruhi sees the issue for what it is, a misunderstanding, and takes a pragmatic approach: “Finding her is what matters most right now.  You can yell at me later!”  She’s not caught up in the drama so much as being concerned about her friend.

This separates her and Asakura from everyone else allowing for a discussion to take place and Asakura has to come to terms with things, but that entails yelling at Haruhi.  And that gives the attentive listener a very interesting piece of dialogue: “When you want something, you just make it happen.”  I found her choice of words interesting.  There’s a hint of that parallel universe bleeding through.  I first noticed it when Koizumi arrived in his high collared military-school uniform, but Asakura’s line brought it home further.  Haruhi, in the alternate universe does make things happen.  So here’s something to observe: when Haruhi remembers her youth talking to a young Kyon about whether or not aliens exist, there’s an incredible starfield image:

The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan Her Melancholy starfield

It’s not just the fact that I love space, but the mirror image really struck me.  We see two stars brighter than all the rest.  If you folded the image along the center gas cloud, from bottom left to top right, those stars would be very closely aligned.  Maybe I’m reading too much into it… but maybe not.  That image struck me as significant.  We already know there is another Haruhi out there that really does make things happen.  This one is still looking for her water imps, but they are very similar.  I felt this was an interesting parallel.

For my money, this episode makes clear that Asakura  is the stand out friend though, and the source for this week’s inspiration.  For kids watching, I was impressed by her “No more wasting time on my mistakes!  Time to move on!”  Sometimes the best advice is to take the mistake, learn from it and move on.  We all make them and wallowing around isn’t going to make it better.  I also really loved that she confronted Yuki with an important question: “why are you so quick to give up?”  It takes a real friend to force us to look at our weaknesses and improve on them.  I credit the writers, and I love the character.  Even while I write this, I realize Haruhi does deserve recognition too.  When Yuki asks her directly about how she feels about Kyon, (along with a well placed flashback to the water imp dialogue proving to us that Kyon’s acceptance of her sense of wonder impacted her deeply), Haruhi gives an honest answer.  She doesn’t sugar coat it, but she’s effectively telling Yuki, don’t let that stop you.  The writing has seriously impressed me!

Along with those well written moments, I have to acknowledge the comedy.  As usual there are a number of laugh out loud moments.  When Asakura compares the situation to a story and mentions the devil, Haruhi realizes that it put her in the role of the devil.  Her simple “The Devil?” as she points at herself is great, but coupled with the quick change in artwork, was hilarious.  I loved Haruhi’s reaction to being a “masochist”.  But the deepest belly laugh I had was when Kyon falls face down on Yuki’s chest.  The screen changes as Yuki realizes where he is and the word “chest” appears twice to the beating of a heart.  It was so cleverly done, I had to laugh.  Asakura’s sudden lifting Kyon into the air by his face while her mouth seethed evil vapors was just icing on an already magnificent cake.

I was surprised that the episode ended early so I stuck around and was rewarded with a few more minutes of Kyon giving gifts to Yuki and Haruhi but totally failing to get Asakura.   I did get one more chuckle as Haruhi says that Koizumi gave her a “game only an 80 year old would like”.  I still find this show such a strange thing to have on my viewing list, but I love the characters more and more.  I sure am glad there are two universes with them going about their lives and I can’t wait to see what they get up to next.  ML

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Babylon 5: The Illusion of Truth

b5For reasons that will become obvious, we break with tradition and present here first…

The view from across the pond:

Once again Babylon 5 takes one step forward and two steps back. We have had a great run of high quality episodes stretching through much of Season 3 and well into Season 4 with the Shadow War. Now that’s over we are back to where we used to be, and my predicted post-War anticlimax has arrived. We are back to an A plot and a B plot, neither of which hit the ground running. This is old B5.

To get the B plot out of the way first, it’s the ongoing question of what’s motivating Garibaldi now. We learn nothing new so we are still getting a flashback of the week that adds nothing, and we are still waiting for any information about what happened to him during his captivity. The only development as such is his betrayal of Sheridan, criticising him to Randall on camera, which is actually just about the only thing that justifies the whole news report segment, but we’ll get to that.

As for the A plot, well it’s horribly predictable, and frankly the whole think makes Sheridan and everyone else look like a right idiot. Randall even spells it out for him:

“The objective journalist is one of those myths you read about like a griffin or phoenix, or an honest politician.”

Of course he’s going to take sides and twist the truth. It’s what many journalists do in peacetime, let alone wartime propaganda. What makes Sheridan think Randall is going to be on his side? Is it his speech about getting “a little truth” into his report? Is Sheridan really that stupid? Even if Randall was a good guy (insert snort of derision here), he’s living under a regime that controls everything he says and does. My respect for the character of Sheridan has already eroded in the last few weeks, due to his apparent lack of a conscience, but here he has simply become a fool.

So 23 minutes into the episode we get the start of the news broadcast, and astonishingly it continues right through to the end of the episode. After a few minutes I was thinking yes, we get the idea, it’s a stitch up, but do we really need to sit through the entire broadcast to get that point across? 20 minutes later and I was just about ready to throw something at the television, especially as the complete silence after the news broadcast made me think it was broken.

In the end, none of this matters a jot, does it. The only actual developments here are Garibaldi’s betrayal and the attack on Sheridan’s family, and that could all have been accomplished in two minutes of screen time, not twenty. Nothing else has changed, apart from maybe the opinions of a few more gullible strangers. Wise people learn not to care about that, very early in life.

Little moments of humour kept the first half of the episode alive: Ivanova and Sheridan’s opening banter with Randall; Lennier headbutting the camera. I was impressed with the prediction of future technology, from the use of drones by television companies to the touchscreen during the news report. Wider of the mark was the prediction of the foundation of a Lunar Colony in 2018. The future never arrives as quickly as sci-fi predicts, depressingly. But the second half of the episode was just a massive waste of time, and I stand by the opinion I stated last week. This storyline makes zero sense.

“You don’t assemble a fleet unless you intend to use it.”

Maybe Sheridan should live up to his propaganda lie of a reputation. I’ll mention my viewpoint on this once more. The Earth government would in reality be terrified of Sheridan and begging him to strike a deal, not baiting him like this. He is the messiah to over two dozen races, the man who returned from the dead to save all their lives. He could have a fleet surrounding the Earth in days if he wanted. And I really think a man whose family has probably just been murdered would do just that. Come on JMS, let’s have some stories that actually make sense.   RP

And now we fly back across the pond for…

JUNKYARD NOTE: Sometimes, mistakes happen.  This week I didn’t get my write-up completed for Babylon 5’s: The Illusion of Truth because of a storm that swept through my areaNow, typically I’d be mad as hell because I hate being late but it gave me a chance to see what Roger thought before I wrote my side of this episode.  Now, normally I talk about the episode however, long before I missed my writing deadline, I was looking forward to talking about this episode a little differently anyway.  It’s not that it’s a great episode, but that it really made me think….

When my pal Paul watched this series, this one struck a chord and we discussed some big ideas at length.  To start, this is the third episode of Babylon 5 to focus on news broadcasts.  The first was more of a background thing during season 1’s Infection.  It established that, along with newspapers, the news was a real part of the B5 universe.  Season 2 gave us And now for a Word which really showed us how much the news plays a part in this universe and the influence it has on the people. We skipped season 3 largely because the war was going “full swing” and there was no logical place to fit it, but by season 4 we get The Illusion of Truth.  And that is exactly what it is: an illusion that people will buy into!

 Now, to a certain extent, (and in this, I’ll agree with Roger’s view) I think Clark is another fool in charge of the Earth.  Roger’s right to note that anyone trying to antagonize Sheridan is absolutely nuts.  Sheridan just brought multiple races together for a war against godlike beings, and won!  For Clark to do anything to annoy Sheridan is frankly idiotic.  His best bet would be to ignore Sheridan and hope he goes away.  The truth is, I don’t think that was the point of the episode.  See, to do a commentary story like this, you need the viewer to be invested.  If a writer wants to tell a story like The Illusion of Truth, they can’t just drop us into a story and expect us to know or care.  You couldn’t do a movie like this. It has to be done with a series and with a cast we’ve come to like.  What JMS did was built an entire series and then in the middle of it, he gives us this and it makes us think.

I’ve often wondered about those one-word reviews on movies or books like “’Mesmerizing’… New York Times”  or “’…a masterpiece of unbelievable proportions’… CNN.”  It’s like we should believe it because these trusted sources said a few words about them.  But what I’ve wondered so often is how often the quotes were snipped.  “I’d like to say this movie was a masterpiece of unbelievable proportions, but it was utter crap!” or  “I was expecting something stellar!  Mesmerizing!   But I was asleep in 10 minutes flat!”  These little blurbs we see on posters and movies and books mean nothing to me because I have no faith in the people saying those things.  I’m my own judge.  And look, these days, the news is utterly deplorable and keeping it on is a testament to one’s desire to be beaten over the head with rhetoric.  So why not look at that in fiction?  We can agree to disagree in real life but in a show, we’re all presented with the same “facts”; it’s a microcosm and we can keep up with things.  We’ve been privy to all that has happened so we are less likely to get into a shouting match with one another over the truth behind Dan Rath… um, Randall’s comments.  Real life is far more polarized.  So JMS may have written this episode far in advance of 2020, but it’s no less relevant because he makes us question the source.  (Well, at least those open minded enough to do so!)

What we see is a series of interviews where Dan Randall asks questions of various members of the B5 community: Lennier, Garibaldi, Franklin, etc.  The camera floats around taking pictures and recording all that it sees and hears.  The content is initially shown in context the audience can appreciate.  But you know things will go wrong, not least of which is thanks to Garibaldi who actually refers to Sheridan as “the devil” in this episode.  It was never going to be a smooth run after that.

I do have to say that right away I was concerned with the way Sheridan says, “We need Mr. Randall to believe everything he sees and hears is the truth and not trumped up for his benefit.”  (Surely we could have a whole other article based on a different part of this sentence!)  But it’s the way Sheridan says “believe”.  Perhaps that is what turned the tide of the interview… Nah, it was always going to be about discrediting the crew.  But this makes me wonder about the real news. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but look how easy it was for the comments, taken out of context, to be turned on the crew.  They show Sheridan as an alien sympathizer (which will only fly on Earth anyway; a planet that is very xenophobic).  They learn things about cryo units and the relationship Sheridan and Delenn have that will be twisted to make others in the Earth Alliance skeptical of Sheridan and his people.  Thinking about how this episode is structured in the context of the news broadcast is very uncomfortable and I’m betting is not a big favorite to viewers because it probably doesn’t sit well with them.  Something on the periphery seems wrong and it’s no wonder why!   What we are shown is a distinct difference between journalism and propaganda, but I have to ask: can we always tell the difference?  I don’t know about you, but I feel that in our real world and I doubt I’m alone.  So, why would we expect different in a fictional universe having just come out of an intergalactic war and on a planet under martial law?

The episode is hard to watch and certainly presents a challenge.  There might be some good banter and the occasional funny quip (“Let’s see what’s on.  With our luck, it’ll probably be a commercial.”  Clearly placed right before a commercial for the network run!)  But I seriously don’t think this will be a popular episode.  It sure wasn’t with the crew.  The ending is a somber affair with everyone standing around without a word spoken.  What could they say?  There’s no words that will make it in the least bit better.  The question is, what will the fallout be from this illusion?   ML

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Underwater

underwaterTaking a week off the video games reviews, I thought I’d share another surprise.  I don’t watch many movies during weeknights.  Work takes up a lot of my time and by the evening, I just want to play some PC games.  But a movie caught my eye and I was rapidly realizing after 2 weekends of pushing, that my wife was not going to watch it with me so I knew I had to watch this one on my own and for that, weeknights work best.  95 minutes later, my wife was still sitting next to me when it was over.

Now I should point out too that I had not heard of Underwater.  When I tried to learn a little about it, I saw a cast of what I would consider relative unknowns and Kristen Stewart, who I normally find about as interesting as cardboard.  I had been subjected to 2 of the Twilight movies and still can’t shower vigorously enough to get that out of my body.  She was not an attraction to get me to see this movie, but having nothing more than a feeling about it, I turned it on anyway.  And I admit it: I was very pleasantly surprised.  First, there are not quite unknowns. Vincent Cassel who plays the base captain, I had recently seen in Westworld, HBO’s current flagship series and he can play a great villain.  He’s no villain in this, however, and with only 95 minutes, none of the characters are going to get fleshed out too much, but his briefly-glimpsed backstory does make him a relatable character.  TJ Miller, always known for comedic roles, though I could not name one thing I’d seen him in, even knowing full well that I have seen him before, plays the only sense of humor in the movie. Thankfully, the humor never undercuts the terror the crew experiences and he works well to keep the edge just below the panic level.  Jessica Henwick (Iron Fist’s love interest, Colleen, and one of the Sand sisters in Game of Thrones) is becoming a very recognizable face in genre TV, but I did not recognize her name when I started the movie.  I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her since she always plays interesting characters.  In this, she plays the very relatable “intern” who is struggling with self doubt as she has to endure some truly harrowing experiences.  (She deserves to be on the poster along with Cassel, Miller and Stewart!)

More than anything, I need to give Stewart credit.  Her character is not a landmark performance, but neither was that of Keanu Reeves in The Matrix.  He was a regular guy who experiences some very surreal things.  Similarly, Stewart plays Norah Price, a mechanical engineer thrust into a very bad set of situation as the deep sea base suffers a catastrophic hull breach.  The establishing shot of her (dry) brushing her teeth actually sets her up with few words in monologue before she saves a spider in the sink.  (Clearly not an arachnophobe!)  Within the first 5 minutes, we’ve gotten a feel for the kind of person she is before life on the sea floor goes to hell.  She and her small group of survivors have to make it to safety.  I bought into her character fully.   She’s always fighting against tears, but she gives the impression of a very real person who has just witnessed the death of a lot of her friends.  Henwick’s character is also struggling against a nervous breakdown and I felt I might be right there with her under similar conditions.

With 90 minutes to resolve the conflict, there’s not a lot of time to build character, but the situation is what we’re looking at.  It’s The Poseidon Adventure 5 miles under the ocean.  That means the bulk of the movie is about the dangers of being under water and the claustrophobia is akin to what I felt having seen Descent.  Periodically, I had to look around the room to reassure myself that I was unlikely to drown.  In a recent discussion with friends, we talked about the terror of being under water and how that relates to space and I think this is almost scarier for one simple reason: it’s all around us.  I mean, if I’m being honest, so is space, but this hits closer to home!  I don’t expect to find myself stuck in space ever, whereas I’ve been in, on and under the ocean enough times in my life to appreciate the fear factor involved.  It is, literally, breathtaking.

We learn that earthquakes caused the hull breach  but what caused the earthquakes is what interested me.  As you might imagine, they are the result of something else.  While the crew goes out on the sea floor to reach a safe haven, we start to see things.  Some in the periphery, some back lit by fallen lights.  They look like people, just standing there.  Then we start to see them moving around just in the corner of the eye.  I, a fan of Lovecraftian horrors, was getting excited!  Was it possible??  Did I find a movie based on Lovecraft’s nightmares?  Well, you’ve got me!  Oh, there’s a big threat alright, but it’s far more angry than Cthulhu.  This isn’t the Great Old One who steps on us because he doesn’t notice us!   This is an actively aggressive sea creature that may have been released by the underwater drilling that lead Norah and her crew down to the seabed.

trypophobia

Without wanting to ruin the creature, I will say that the most disturbing part of it is barely visible, but when it is, it affects the viewer on a visceral level.  Trypophobia is a real thing.  It’s a fear or disgust of closely packed holes.  There are tons of very disturbing images of this online, but I’ll go with a simple plant to illustrate the point. Something about this disturbs me and I think it was because I was burned by that lovely orb in the sky we rely on for warmth when I was a kid and had to be wrapped up like a mummy, but I’ll never forget seeing my shoulders with these deep fissures in them.  So yes, I’m bothered by it; not disgusted or fearful.  When the sea creatures emerge from their host, they come out of tons of little holes like this over the creatures enormous body.  Mind you, what comes out is vaguely human sized so that should give you some concept of how big this creature is.

I agree that conceptually this creature does not fit in with normal life on this planet, but that’s why we call this “a movie”.  It’s not meant to be real. It’s a work of fiction that is either going to hold our attention or not.  If this helps, my wife hates underwater things and planned to leave the living room when I started the movie, but it kept her attention the entire time.  (Anecdotally, when I said to my wife upon seeing the creature, “is this going to be Cthulhu?” she said, “if it is, then I hate Cthulhu.”  Sacrilege!)

I confess, this isn’t breaking new ground, and it’s not The Abyss, but it was a very entertaining experience and gave me new appreciation for Stewart as an actress.  I’ll certainly be more open minded to movies with her.  In reality I feel I was unfair to judge her so poorly because of those shiny, glistening vampire movies she did.  And for me, it’s always fun seeing anything even vaguely Lovercraftian on our screens.  Maybe with enough positive thoughts, we’ll still see a movie version of At the Mountains of Madness.  And hey, if Kristen Stewart wants to be a part of it, I would be happy with that too.    ML

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Star Trek: The Menagerie

Star Trek Opening TitlesHow does one talk about The Menagerie after writing about The Cage and not feel redundant?  With difficulty.  Luckily we’ll be talking about The Cage on its own very soon, so I can bypass some redundancy.

The Menagerie is the only 2-part story of classic Star Trek and that means of the 100-odd minutes, it consists of about 60 rehashed from The Cage.  The caveat is that no one was going to see The Cage until 1980-something so it’s not really a “rehash”.  So I guess the best way to approach this story is to focus on what’s new and what’s changed enough that it enhances the original story.  First off, I’ve been chronicling the various type of missions the crew is sent on.  In this one, Spock receives a message to divert course to go see his former captain, Christopher Pike.  There’s been a lot of radio chatter about what happened to Chris; it seems that during an inspection tour, he was bombarded by delta rays and he becomes the galaxy’s first Davros.  But no transmission was sent to the Enterprise.  All the evidence points against it.  And Kirk refuses the evidence provided.

Spock once stated that when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.  (Actually he claims an “ancestor of his” once stated that.  That “ancestor” is Sherlock Holmes!)  Well, Kirk needs to read Conan Doyle.  With all the evidence stacked up against Spock, what does Kirk do?  “Adjusts the facts to fit the theory”.  One might think this speaks ill of the captain, but I’d argue that it speaks highly of him for one main reason: his trust in his friend is so strong that he refuses to accept anything but Spock’s word.  He also knows that the penalty for what Spock has done would be incredibly high: mutiny still bears the death sentence, even this far in the future.  So even though it is evident that Kirk is not thinking clearly, I still respect him for it.  That  level of loyalty is impressive and even McCoy, typically at odds with Spock, can’t believe that evidence.  This is the bond that made classic Trek so strong: the three main characters are a force to be reckoned with.

When the footage of Pike’s time begins, we have to laugh at the idea that the “camera” pans into the Enterprise, until we learn we are not seeing “camera” footage, but footage presented by the Talosians; footage that dates back 13 years.  Back then, the Enterprise had a crew of 203.  And it had a doctor on board that was decidedly influential.  Why influential?  Because his time in Pike’s quarters forms the basis for everything that happens for Pike on the planet.  I didn’t realize it when watching The Cage; I realized it while watching this two-parter.  First, Bryce talks to Pike about what happened on Rigel 7.  They reminisce that Pike should have known about the danger when he saw the weapons.  The first of the Talosian’s “Hyper VR” experience with Pike is on Rigel 7, complete with weapons and bad-toothed monster.  While still conversing with Pike, he refers to Pike not being the sort of guy to retire and live on a farm with his horses.  Where do the Talosians setup a nice family-style VR?  A horse farm complete with picnic basket, sugar cubes for the horse, and a lovely blue eyed woman to love him.  Bryce also asks what he’d want to do, be an Orion slave trader?  Oh, would you look at that: Pike is given the chance to own an Orion slave girl.  (It’s a shame we had to wait until Enterprise to really get an idea of what this would be all about!)  Thanks to Bryce, we get action, family and adult entertainment in one hyper-VR special.  Well done!  That’s some doctor.

In other news… to the best of my recollection, this is the first time Starfleet Command is mentioned by name.  None of this “Space Command” which sounds like a second rate SF show.  And no one dies in this story either.  Where this version is superior to The Cage is the ending when Pike leaves.  In The Cage, he sees his double go off with Veena.  In this, it’s his reconstructed body that goes off with Veena instead.  It’s a happier ending and the final shot of the Talosian wishing Kirk pleasant journeys is the sort of thing I love.  I always want the “monsters” to be the proven good guys.   Of course, there’s an issue with what we see on camera.  See, making someone believe something is all well and good but medically the man was Davros’d; crippled beyond science’s ability to heal him.  Even if he returns to Talos IV thinking he’s healed, can he still walk up a hill and keep pace with Veena?  Shouldn’t he be moving really slowly?  Also, let’s talk about Commodore Mendez.  At what point was he replaced with an illusion?  And why contradict Spock so much?  Think about it: during the verdict scene, Pike is needed to break a stalemate.  In fact, the whole cliffhanger hinges on whether Spock can show the rest of the footage.  “Jim.  Don’t stop me.  Don’t let him stop me!”  If Mendez was just an illusion created by the Talosians, why make it so hard for Spock to complete the story?  Why not have him simply say “I want to see more”.  The idea that he had to be contradictory to get Kirk interested makes no sense!  If the Talosians can make someone see or feel something, why not just pique Kirk’s curiosity?  (For that matter, why not make Pike terribly hungry when he refuses to eat in The Cage?)

That all said, this story offered a really sound means to share the pilot with the audience in a way that had not been done before.  I do think there are better episodes, but sometimes, we have to focus on simple storytelling and enjoy it for what it is.  And if there is a secret moral at the end of the story, I think it’s “trust your friends” because Spock does what he does to protect his friend and former Captain, which tells Kirk he’s also in good hands for the future.  We could all use someone in our lives who will have our backs even when we are hit with delta rays.  Here’s to good friends!   ML

The view from across the pond:

Well, we finally know who that weird woman is who keeps popping up at the end of the closing credits. It took a while. Although I am a newcomer to the classic series of Trek, there were a couple of things I was aware of before I watched this story: it is the only two-parter, and it utilises footage from the original pilot episode. I’m not sure quite when that latter piece of information entered my head, but it seems to be something I’ve known for a long time so I suspect it might be one of those anniversary documentaries they showed on BBC2, maybe for the 30th or something. It seems like a logical time to sidestep and take a look at that pilot, so we will do that next week. In the meantime there is little point in doubling up and talking much about the footage Kirk watches at Spock’s trial, so I will confine my comments about this episode to the surrounding narrative.

This could so easily have gone horribly wrong, in the hands of a lesser writer than Gene Roddenberry. It obviously must have been written around the original footage in order to save wasting that effort, and it could so easily have betrayed that fact. I have seen so many American shows over the years that throw in a cheap episode by including flashbacks, and they are always annoying and always blatant in what they are doing, but this is different. The Captain Pike sequences are integrated brilliantly, essential to the story. Maybe I’m slow to figure things out, but the link between his adventure with aliens who can create a fantasy world to live in and his disability didn’t occur to me right until the end, and I thought it was a master-stroke, as was the twist revelation about the Commodore. Actually, those two things pulled the second episode out of the fire, which was heavily reliant on the pilot episode footage and was lacking the impact of the first episode.

And what a first episode it was! We had the Enterprise arriving at a Starbase (another great special effect for the time), Pike turning up as Trek’s answer to Davros before the fact, with horrific injuries (what age group was this made for?) and then Spock’s betrayal of his ship and captain. That worked so well for two reasons. Firstly, Spock engineered the betrayal extremely cleverly, including the faking of Kirk’s voice, so you can see how his fiendish plan would be a success (although the way he accomplishes that, feeding coloured blocks into mahoosive computers with flashing lights was very much of it’s time). Secondly, Spock is the last person anyone would expect to betray them.

That fact gave me pause for thought actually. Just why is it that everyone is so dead set against the possibility of Spock’s betrayal? His adherence to logic is what makes everyone think he cannot betray them, and yet that kind of thinking is wonkier than Spock’s ever-changing eyebrows. He’s a logical being and if logic requires his betrayal that’s what he will do. That makes him more, not less likely to betray Kirk because the one thing that would get in the way of most crew members doing that would be loyalty, and that’s an emotion that he doesn’t possess, or has suppressed, at the very least.

But I thought the main trio of Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley all rose to the occasion brilliantly for this storyline. Although he had the least significant part to play, it was DeForest Kelley (who names their child after a climate change emergency, by the way?) who really impressed me. There was a moment where he realised that he was going to have to arrest Spock. He had no choice. But Spock was in control of every moment of that. It was a tactical surrender, not a defeat, and in his faux-victory, McCoy couldn’t help nervously deferring to Spock even when Spock was under arrest, asking him for advice (“is confinement to quarters enough?”). It was an exceptionally clever moment, brilliantly acted.

Not everything worked quite so well. It’s hard to conceive of a future where the death penalty still exists, and I also found it hard to believe that a Starbase wouldn’t have anything better in terms of transport than a tiny box of a shuttlecraft that runs out of fuel and… this really beggars belief… oxygen, after no time at all. And although the integration of the pilot footage was clever and seamless, and paid off beautifully in the end, it required the viewer to accept the silliness of Pike only being able to communicate with one flash for “yes” and two for “no”, like some 20-questions Davros game. At the very least, if he can make lights flash he can do morse code.

So, looking at the overall picture, was this a successful two-parter?
Flash.

Was it logical, Captain?
Flash flash.

RP

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Dead Man Walking

touchwoodWhen you’re reviewing a series, sometimes you assess things on what you see and then an episode later, you are proven wrong and have to retract your words.  That’s the case with Dead Man Walking, written by Matt Jones. When I was saying that the commitment was lacking when they killed Owen in the previous episode, I couldn’t have predicted that they would bring him back in the next.  Of course, that was probably going to be a one-episode reprieve and he’d have to stay dead by the end of this one, right?  Wrong.  Torchwood did surprise me with this.  Owen was shot dead and brought back to remain a “dead man walking” potentially for the foreseeable future.

In fairness, by the time of this viewing, I did know what was coming, but that’s because I never forgot how I felt on that original viewing.  But that doesn’t take away from my enjoyment… or my irritation.

OK, it’s only fair that I talk about the irritation first.  When we last saw the “resurrection gauntlet”, Ianto made a good point: gloves come in pairs.  So in that way they set the stage that somewhere out there, there might be another.  (This is what I call a “pro”!)  But when Jack decides it’s a good idea to bring Owen back from the dead (to get a combination code, as one does), he goes to see a psychic kid who tells him that it’s basically across the street.  (This is what I call a “con”!)   If it was so close by to begin with, why wait to go looking for it?  And what was up with the Church of the Weevils anyway?  The other con is that we saw the “shoot the glove to pieces to break the spell” in the first story with the gauntlet; why was it such a shock that they needed to do that again?  And really: how easy is it to evacuate a hospital?!  Maybe in Cardiff!  You sure couldn’t do that in New Jersey!  I’m also not sure how I feel about Owen becoming the “King of the Weevils” now, when that was effectively established last season and then ignored.  Are we to take it seriously now?  Same with the “something in the darkness” routine – wasn’t that Abadon, also addressed and resolved last season?

On the other hand, there are some great elements to this.  I sometimes refer to the little things as brushstrokes that enhance a painting.  Observe some of these: Owen’s wound is shown in all its gruesome glory and he has a hard time accepting it.  His upside-down throw-up scene was actually utterly hilarious, especially coupled with Jack’s reaction to it.  And watch Gwen’s reaction when Ianto walks by her holding the glove!  Her phone call to Rhys was a bitterly sad moment but totally touching that she just needed to hear his voice.  I also think there’s a much needed reminder that Torchwood and UNIT are effectively working towards the same goals and Martha plays that role, driving that point home to Jack.  And I love Owen’s question about what happens when we become the monster we fight!

I think this episode really won me over in two ways.  First, the idea of grief making us say things that we never say in life is depressing but true.  Why do we have to wait for people to die to realize all the things we could have said?  Loss makes us realize what we have.  Sad but I can’t deny it and Torchwood was a good show for tackling that.  It’s often heavy and doesn’t have the baggage of being very happy like Doctor Who, so it is well positioned to take on such an idea.  But the real win that made this episode so strong for me is, to my eternal amazement, Owen!  Yes, Owen has been a pig, disgusting, obnoxious, and about as deplorable a “hero” as any show could hope for.  That is, until he tells Jamie, a child with Leukemia, that he’s going to fight death and beat it partly so that Jamie can have hope that he too can fight and beat his own death.  And watching Owen fight the mist-shrouded skeleton of Death while some truly epic music plays is just so much fun.  I punched the air!  I hooted, or something closely equivalent.  I just wish they went back to Jamie to let him know for sure that he too could win.  But I’ll accept that time constraints limit those little things.  Still, it was enough.  In death, Owen became a hero.  I don’t need a hero to save a planet; give one child hope, and you can earn the title.

Torchwood has never quite reached epic status (yet), but episodes like this come close.  And who would have guessed that the character to bring us this close would be Owen.  Didn’t see that coming!    ML

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Squid Girl

Squid GirlSeason One. I spotted the first season of Squid Girl in a second hand DVD shop, and it was cheap enough that I couldn’t turn it down, despite the title not exactly shouting out “quality entertainment”. Much to my surprise, I found out that this did well enough to justify a second season and three OVA episodes, plus the manga ran for nearly nine years, so this was clearly a concept that had legs… and tentacles.

Squid Girl herself is visualised as a cute anime girl with a sort of squid thing on the top of her head that looks like a hat, and tentacles for hair. She emerges from the sea with a plan for world domination, not quite realising that the world consists of a whole lot more than the few people she sees scattered around on the beach. She ends up getting roped into working in a cafe on the beach, the Lemon Beach House, and instead of her tentacles being used to conquer puny humans they are put to use carrying drinks and snacks to customers. Most people seem to just accept that, sometimes with admiration, but almost always without freaking out about it. Don’t expect a realistic portrayal of an invasion from the sea when you watch this anime!

In charge of the cafe are two sisters and their little brother. Eiko is the manager despite being only 17, and she ends up accepting Squid Girl (who has no name other than that) into her family. Her older sister, Chizuru, is probably the best character in the anime, outwardly calm and polite, but always one step ahead of everyone else and super quick and strong. Their brother Takeru I found rather a boring character, and I can’t think of one interesting thing to say about him.

Other people become a part of Squid Girl’s life throughout the first season (the only one I have seen so far). Sanae is a girl who appears to be about the same age as Squid Girl, and she falls head over heels in love with her. It is always played for laughs, with Squid Girl violently rejecting her advances, while Sanae seems to get a kick out of being beaten up by her. The one episode that really focusses on this situation is uncomfortable to watch. Sanae tries to move on and behave normally around Squid Girl, and just when they start to form a friendship because Squid Girl can finally relax around her, Sanae buckles under the pressure and goes back to her old ways, throwing herself on Squid Girl at every opportunity. She’s actually happier like that, and thrives on any intense interaction, even if it’s a violent one. Basically she’s painted in terms of being an addict, and the writer doesn’t really come to much of a conclusion other than she’s happier feeding her addiction than walking away. It’s a sad thing to watch, and I’m not sure that was the intention. At times this series feels like there are important themes bubbling under the surface, which are always brushed under the carpet in favour of slapstick comedy. In this instance, the comedy is seeing Sanae enjoying getting her face bruised up. We’re clearly supposed to laugh at that, but I couldn’t.

Another good example is Ayumi, who works for her dad at a rival beach cafe. She appears to be being treated badly by her father, made to dress up in a silly costume to attract customers, until he mentions that she actually wants to hide away rather than interact with customers as her true self (and when the customers actually get to see her they adore her because she’s stunningly beautiful). Again, it seems like a good opportunity to tackle an important issue, but it’s just brushed aside as usual. Part of the problem here is that the episodes are divided into distinct chapters, so the whole series is a collection of mini-stories, each less than ten minutes duration, so there is never much time to do a situation justice before we move onto the next thing.

Few of the other characters make much of an impression, or at least not a good one. Nagisa is a girl who is unusual in that she is actually scared of Squid Girl, and her refusal to change her opinion of the threat she poses in the face of all the evidence to the contrary makes her seem rather stupid. Goro is a very boring lifeguard, who is more of a plot device than a person, as is research scientist Cindy Campbell. She has three American scientists working for her, who are crushingly disappointing and unfunny stereotypes: an old thin one, a very fat one, and a black one. I suppose we must give the series a little credit for including a person of colour, which is so rare in anime that it’s the first time I have ever seen that done, and this is something like the 70th series I have watched, at a rough guess. Schoolgirl Kiyomi turns up later in the series and provides Squid Girl with her first genuine friend of her own age, which is one of the better storylines, although it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth with the distorted relationship with poor jealous Sanae going on in the background. I felt so sorry for her.

So I came to this series without much in the way of high expectations, and I think in the end I was about right. It was a bit of fun entertainment, but never did much to engage the brain. I would say it’s probably a better series for kids to watch, apart from the problem that the violence, although cartoonish, fully justifies the 12 certificate, so this is not one for young children to watch. In fact, 12 year olds are probably about the full extent of the ideal demographic for this. Any younger and it’s not really suitable. Any older and it’s going to come across as something too childish to watch. I’m not in a hurry to get the second season, so if anyone has seen it please let me know in the comments section if it gets any better or not. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad series as such, because it’s reasonably entertaining, but there are far better series out there to watch than this. Squid Girl herself is quite a fun character though, so if you’re into squid ink and tentacle based humour this might just be the series for you. There’s a fan out there for everything.   RP

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Red Dwarf: The End

Red DwarfWe open with a shot of somebody, perhaps Lister, cleaning the outside of Red Dwarf. As the camera pans away we see the full scale of the ship, and it’s enormous. This is a utilitarian view of the future, with satellite dishes and all kinds of bits and pieces hanging off the ship. It’s not sleek or pretty, but it’s certainly impressive. This one shot, for my money, establishes a level of scale and realism that is missing from spaceship models or CGI shots in most sci-fi series. Considering this is going to be a sitcom in space, that’s impressive.

An enormous amount of information is packed into this first episode, which is a masterclass in world building. Although the main focus of the episode is of course the relationship between Lister and Rimmer, other characters come to life with very little screen time. Mac McDonald is great as the captain, and even Mark Williams as Peterson and CP Grogan as Kochanski are memorable, despite basically having only one scene each. It’s to the credit of everyone involved in this that characters who will be killed off after the first 20 minutes still manage to make an impact. But most importantly, Lister and Rimmer are both great. Their characters are established incredibly efficiently. Lister is a fun-loving slob, who keeps his lighted cigarette in his ear. Rimmer is an insufferable bore, who fails at everything in life and tries to keep up a pretence of superiority. He’s a “smeg head”, an insult coined for Red Dwarf. We are also introduced to Holly, the ship’s computer, who is the funniest thing about this episode, and his “everybody’s dead, Dave” interaction with Lister has quite rightly been remembered as a classic comedy moment, and a catchphrase that occasionally pops up in other shows. The episode even finds time to introduce us to Cat, whose personality is also established efficiently within minutes. So by the end of the episode the premise for the series has been neatly set up: a human slob, a holographic nerd, a computer with a laconic wit, and an egotistical evolved cat. They are all instantly likeable and fun. In retrospect it’s not surprising that people wanted to keep watching these characters for over three decades and counting.

Watching it today, The End is a gloriously 80s view of the future. The rules in the exam are “no modems, no speaking slide rules”, and Lister’s smuggled cat is discovered when Lister sends a photo to be processed in the ship’s lab, but that’s all good fun, and this isn’t exactly a show that’s asking us to suspend disbelief anyway, so this episode has lost nothing in the intervening 33 years. The humour isn’t always laugh-out-loud, but it doesn’t have to be. A couple of good belly laughs in a half-hour sitcom is fine. My personal favourite was the sight of Rimmer being taken out of his exam on a stretcher, drenched in sweat and saying “I think I did quite well.”

So what did this episode have to teach us? Maybe that it’s better to be lucky than to be smart. Out of all the crew, the two survivors (well, sort of), are the two biggest losers on the ship. According to the bible, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth”. I have a sneaking suspicion that The End gets us closer to the truth, and that the stupid will probably inherit the Earth instead. At least life will be entertaining. Let’s all pack our modems and talking slide rules. The future’s waiting for us, and it’s going to be funny.   RP

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Nagato 4: Be My Valentine

Haruhi Be My Valentine Yuki Nagato-ChanThe junkyard presents two articles about the Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan episode Be My Valentine.

The view from 5930 miles away:

Every romantic comedy anime I have ever watched has a Valentine’s Day episode. The tradition in Japan is for the girl to give chocolate to the guy, often home-made, but there is an added level of complexity because Valentine’s chocolate can also be given as a sign of friendship. It’s all in the context. If Yuki makes chocolate for Kyon and nobody else, and has clearly put a huge amount of effort into making it herself and making it special, then her intentions are clear. If she were instead giving it to everyone in the Lit Club it would be a different matter. But as Asakura says, Yuki pours her love into those chocolates. Ironically, while she is doing that, and trying to think of a way to get herself alone with Kyon, he’s having his time monopolised by Haruhi, which is just a bit… melancholy.

At this point Yuki’s spinoff series has been completely crashed by Haruhi. That’s not a criticism, just an observation, but the best part of this episode and indeed every episode so far has been the scenes featuring Haruhi. That’s even true of the first episode when she was on screen for a couple of seconds and it was an electrifying moment. So while all the boring chocolate making and all the angsty stuff is going on with Yuki, Haruhi is actually going about the business of forming a relationship with Kyon.

A look at a contemporary forum gives a very clear indication that nearly everyone watching this on first broadcast wanted Kyon and Haruhi to get together, while feeling a bit sorry for Yuki, so whichever way the series jumps from this point on it’s going to have to (a) fail to deliver on what the viewers want, or (b) undermine the premise of the series. The latter is looking like the lesser of two evils at the moment, because Kyon is clearly perfect for Haruhi. Just look at the artwork for their scenes together at the river – it’s stunningly beautiful. The world bursts into vibrant colour when these two share a moment. There is a subtle callback to the original series when Haruhi asks Kyon if he thinks water imps could be real. The average person would probably say no, but Kyon is open minded:

“I don’t know. They could be real.”

This is reminiscent of a similar question about aliens, time travellers and ESPers, which prompted the original Haruhi to call those into existence (but not sliders!), but the important thing is Haruhi’s reaction to his reply. It’s palpable, almost as if she has just heard him make a declaration of love. The reason for that is Kyon gives her exactly what she needs from a companion, and something she gets from nobody else. He is positive and life-affirming, refusing to stand in judgement over her weirdness and keeping his mind open, but he is not a sycophant. He treats her like a human and speaks his mind, but he doesn’t do it in a way that undermines her. He gets everything right immediately which it took the original Kyon until the end of the Sigh arc to learn. And that humanises Haruhi much more quickly than she was humanised in the original series. She actually apologises to him when she makes him get freezing cold water in his shoes. “I’m sorry” are not words we are used to from Haruhi, but I genuinely believe she is fundamentally the same person in this parallel universe, despite lacking her god-like powers. It’s just the Kyon and Haruhi have found a shortcut to where they were at the end of the parent series, and they’ve done that simply by spending some time alone, just the two of them. Something clicks into place here, and it’s perfect.

Kyon saves Haruhi Be My Valentine Yuki Nagato-Chan

And yet this is still Yuki’s series, so I suspect the chocolate we see Haruhi giving Kyon at the end is simply a gesture of thanks. It looks like something that has come out of a vending machine for a start. One thing’s for sure, if Haruhi did decide to pursue a relationship with Kyon, Yuki has zero change with him, in any universe. She remade the world, and she’s still losing out to Haruhi… so far. But that’s going to be the interesting bit. These are fundamentally the same people, right down to their attractions, feelings, behavioural traits, and emotions, but we are seeing them in a different context. Yuki might have made herself into a human, but she still can’t express her feelings and she is still being pushed into being a background character by Haruhi, the amazing girl who speaks words of pure inspiration without realising it:

“Just because we don’t know where we’re going doesn’t mean we won’t get there.”

We’ll get somewhere with this series, but at the moment it’s tearing itself off in two different directions.   RP

The view from 6,868 miles away:

Episode 4 opens like a hyperactive child on speed having just had a gallon of Jolt Cola and being asked to speed through life for no good reason.  Oh, make no mistake, I loved it but boy howdy was it hard to keep up with.  And what’s not to love.  It’s hilarious as a contest is underway to see who can embarrass Yuki or Ms Asahina the most.  The art work gets especially fun as Yuki eventually freezes in a block of ice and the whole thing is just outstanding.  To improve it, little signs appear overhead like “firm protest” that just make the surreal nature of the “battle” even more enjoyable.  Sure, I may not be getting my standard sci-fi mystery that I love, but I accept on account of some very funny comedy.

Well, if I’m thinking about it fairly, the story is not totally devoid of that sci-fi.  In that mix of things, Ms. Asahina’s star shaped tattoo comes up again and like the previous series, she’s not even aware she has it.  (This does lead to yet more hilarity with the line “I see I’m facing off against a master!  I didn’t expect you to know things about Mikuru that she didn’t even know!”)  Trying to spot the similarities is a mini-game on its own and I enjoy that too!  Through this contest, one thing stood out to me: Yuki calls Asakura “mom” when she wakes her up.  If this universe isn’t the same as the one with the Data Entity… where are Yuki’s family?  Why does Asakura come over all the time and, effectively, play the role of mom, waking her up and teaching her how to cook?   To a very large extent, I feel like her absent family is why she is the quiet girl she is.  Who guides her?

I do have to say that the friends provide her with actual friendship and I find myself once again grateful that a show like this exists.  All of Yuki’s friends are behind her; they all want her to succeed to the point where they all conspire with her to allow her time to be with Kyon.  That makes the final shot of the episode that much more painful.  This show may not have the depth of Erased or the horror standards of Another, but it’s sating another need: the need to be uplifted and, maybe a little bit, to be reminded of our youth!  And it’s not just the girls who stand up for one another.  As Kyon continues to find Haruhi strange and somewhat frustrating, he’s quick to help her when she almost falls, joins her in freezing water just to support her and most of all, sees her need to believe in water imps so, rather than shoot her down, he admits he doesn’t know if they exist.  He won’t break her spirit even if he knows the truth is so much more mundane.  (Well, at least on this side of the looking glass!)

Once again Kyon had me laughing the most, but it’s in the typical way that is so terrible to admit: his pain had me experiencing a deep belly laugh when Asakura stabs him in the back with a pen and he actually gets tears in his eyes!  I loved Haruhi’s Dirk Gently-like quote, “Just because we don’t know where we’re going, doesn’t mean we won’t get there!”  It’s so her!  A carefree girl looking for an adventure in the realm of the unusual, going out there to find whatever she can.  Mikuru’s “please deny it” about her fan club is another laugh-out-loud moment made better by the sadistic laughter of her foul fanged friend Tsuruya who absolutely delights in her discomfort.  There’s a sense of meta dialogue when Asakura tells Yuki that she saw Yuki and Mikuru starring at each other “like a scene from a manga”.  And the star of the show, upon hearing this, thinks “it’s kind of creepy how similar their thought processes are!”  But the best scene for Yuki is trying to decide how to interact with Kyon.  As she struggles to come up with the right choice in a question asked by Asakura, the artwork become increasingly funny, until a pop can be heard and we get a distorted digital image.  These characters all offer something and each is intensely likeable.  There’s not a bad one in the bunch.

Speaking of images, I’m amazed that nearly every episode has included a scene that takes my breath away for sheer beauty.  There’s a sense of lazy afternoons in the dreamy days of our past, hanging out with a friend without any plans in mind.  It’s not a big scene but the artwork is just magical as Kyon watches Haruhi as she searches for Water Imps.

The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-Chan Be My Valentine

I’m not sure where the show will go, but I’m definitely up for the adventure.  I just hope Yuki isn’t too broken up over walking in to see Kyon accepting chocolate from Haruhi.  Surely, even in this short a time, she must realize that from Haruhi, that could be an act of war as quickly as a term of affection.  I guess I’d better find out…  ML

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Babylon 5: Epiphanies

b5The shadow war is over!  Babylon 5 is having a party to celebrate and the whole start of the episode might as well be the start of a new season.  It’s an interesting structure for a series, but life is rarely neat and this series illustrates just how that plays out.  I mean, think about the lockdown of 2020 which started in March.  It didn’t start on January 1st.  Babylon 5 has always broken each season out per year;  each season ends at the end of an earth year and major events carry over, because life is not neat.  To illustrate that point further, President Clark is putting a quarantine on Babylon 5 making it illegal to go to the station.  He wants to discredit those on the station by having the Psi Cops special forces commit murder.   Blaming B5 would certainly hurt their reputation, but Sheridan is nothing if not a strategist and he has a plan.  Admittedly, he gets what he needs thanks to the timely arrival of Bester.  But we all know Bester, he has a price: he wants to go to Z’ha’dum to get the technology needed to save his love, Carolyn.  He just doesn’t bargain on what might happen when he antagonizes Lyta.

The episode sets the stage for what will be coming in the rest of Season 4: Sheridan will have to deal with the situation on Earth.  It won’t be easy and things have been made even trickier by Garibaldi’s resignation.  Zack is the new head of security while Michael wants to carve out a little happiness.  In some ways, this story gives us a check-in with the various characters.  Londo is on his way back to Babylon 5 leaving a new regent in charge; that funny little fellow who thinks in pastels.  G’Kar is having his eye examined by Franklin and his appreciation of life is so enjoyable.  He manages to steal the show in every scene he’s in and he’s hard not to admire.  His comments on the extraction of the eye is very funny, but then he goes to see Garibaldi and he discusses his appreciation of everything he had been through is just looking at life with the glass more than half full all of the time!  (Who doesn’t love watching G’Kar menacingly approach Garibaldi, only to lift him bodily and welcome him home?)  On the other hand, his reaction to Londo is disappointing, even if it’s totally understandable.  I don’t disagree with it, I just wish he could forgive.  (I doubt I’d be able to if the roles were reversed, but I’d like to think I could!)

Zack has to have a conversation with Lyta and he plays the honesty card beautifully.  I actually really loved that dialogue, even on Lyta’s side who agrees that, deep down, she knew everything he shared but it was nice having someone be honest with her.  But she starts to go wrong here too.  When Zack offers to come by with pizza later to help her, she rolls her eyes in a way that says a very snarky “gee, thanks”.  Maybe that wasn’t the intent, but after his honesty, I wanted her to be more appreciative.  And her decline doesn’t end there.  I wondered about Z’ha’dum when it blew up.  I wondered if somehow Lyta did that.  It seems I was not alone!  Sheridan confronts her about it and while he emotionally agrees with her rationale (to hurt Bester), he has to be pretty harsh with her for not consulting him.  While he may be viewed as too hard here, he is the leader and needs to be aware of decisions.  It’s not a comfortable spot to be in, but he deserved to know.  And to think, this was after that amazingly great reply to Bester about taking Lyta in to the Corp…

“Oh, you could do that. And I could nail your head to the table, set fire to it, and feed your charred remains to the Pak’ma’ra. But it’s an imperfect world and we never get exactly what we want. So get used to it.”  (Loved it!)

It’s not the only great line either.  G’Kar shares his view on being asked to lead:  “I have seen what power does and I have seen what power costs; one is not equal to the other.”   Lyta, reminded that the Psi Corp is mother and father, says simply, “Then I’m an orphan!”  And perhaps the most visually clever scene has Zack saying that the next person to walk through the door may be the “second coming”, only to have the Three Kings come through instead… that’s 3 Elvis impersonators!  I also felt a certain kinship with Sheridan when he is described by Delenn as someone who needs a challenge and could not sit comfortably on a beach without having his head implode.  And Garibaldi’s comment about DisneyPlanet is rather fun too.

But with all I love about this series, I did have an epiphany myself that really bothered me.  I’ve been using War Without End as a sort of Rosetta Stone for a lot that has happened in the past and will happen in the future, but Sheridan fails to realize something and it’s because of what he says that put me off.  He says “I just wish I knew…” where the Shadow’s allies were going when they left Z’ha’dum.  But he does know!  He saw it in the future.  They go to Centauri Prime.  That was not a good thing to mistake; he should have known. And that brings us to the ending when the Regent wakes from his slumber, looks in the mirror and sees one of those same things Londo had on his neck in War Without End.  And the look on the Regent’s face sends a chill through the soul as we wait to find out if this is indeed the beginning of the fall of Centauri Prime.  ML

The view from across the pond:

The previous episode was so conclusive that it left me wondering where the series could go from here. My guess was the unresolved issue of Psi Corps, which looks like being a good shout, but also there are other unanswered questions. We still don’t know what happened to Garibaldi when he was captured, and Earth is still under the control of the bad guys. All these things feature in this episode. Despite that it still feels like an anticlimax, which I suppose was inevitable with this weird series structure. The opening sequence already feels oddly out of date by the way.

The main threat to Babylon 5 now comes from Earth, and we learn that “the President wants Babylon 5 shut down, permanently.” This is not news, but he is stepping up his tactics. It’s convenient that he didn’t decide to do that during the Shadow war. Here we see the first inherent problem with the odd approach of ending the Shadow war mid-season, which felt like the biggest story and seems like it should have been the season finale. Sheridan has just commanded a fleet of over 1000 ships, from over two dozen worlds, to victory. Earth should be terrified of him, and begging to reconcile. A word in the right ears and he could send a fleet to Earth to take control. He has been built up as some kind of a messiah; everyone would follow him.

Instead Bester turns up on the station to cause trouble again, apparently followed by an Elvis convention. It’s a lame joke, and if the human race still has Elvis impersonators in the future we really are doomed.

But JMS is no fool, and I think he realised something important when he wrote this episode. The anticlimax was inevitable, but the one big thing he had in his armoury was a cast of fascinating characters. This week it’s the characterisation that matters, the personal dramas and issues. We have G’Kar dealing with the loss of his eye in typically matter-of-fact and heroic fashion, and also his reunion with Londo:

“My world is now free. You no longer exist in my universe. Pray that we never notice one another again.”

Then we have Garibaldi’s resignation, everyone’s reactions to that, his very valid reasoning, but also the nagging feeling that he’s up to something and can’t be trusted any more. Zack is still at the stage where he is being fleshed out as a character, despite being in the main cast for a long time, and pairing him with Lyta for a possible budding romance is a smart move. Speaking of Lyta, I never thought I could like the character so much, but she has just got better and better, and here we see the ruthless side of her that wants revenge for her past suffering and that of other telepaths:

“He has sent away so many loved ones, he deserves to find out what it feels like to lose someone he cares about.”

I didn’t like Sheridan’s reaction, and he is increasingly losing my sympathies. A couple of weeks ago we saw him send a man to his death, asking about his family while neglecting to give much thought to his similarly doomed Minbari crew. He was thrown into sharp contrast with Vir, who was also a man who had done what he had to, but it had traumatised him. Here he is faced with Lyta’s heroic actions, and throws a hissy fit because she kept him out of the loop, for the very sensible reason that Bester would be able to read his mind and it would have scuppered the whole plan.

“Well I’m glad we’re talking theory here Lyta, because as much as I may agree with your reasons, might even have supported the decision, if this were to happen again, if a command level decision were made without consulting me, I would turn you over to the Psi Corps and let them turn you inside out.”

It’s a great speech, and Boxleitner delivers it with stunning conviction, but Sheridan is like a petulant child who hasn’t been included in somebody else’s game. How many times has he been undermined by Franklin, who merrily keeps his job? And yet he threatens the sheer horror of turning the heroic Lyta, to whom he owes his life, over to the Psi Corps, who would effectively lobotomise her. I could be charitable and assume we are supposed to feel ambivalent towards Sheridan at this point, but I’m not so sure. Time will tell if JMS is making an observation about flawed heroism, or if it really is simply just a skewed morality tale.

I’m also not sure what to think about the twist at the end. It seems to suggest that the Shadow threat isn’t entirely over, but it reminds me of one of those moments at the end of the film where the killer comes back to life for the final scene. “Aha”, says the writer, “you thought it was over?” Sometimes people outstay their welcome. Sometimes a television series does that too.   RP

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