A Journey through the world of The Witcher (part two)

the_witcher_3_v6_by_harrybana-d8a4bxlHaving ploughed (maybe not the best word in context) through Witcher 2 I went straight on to Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. First of all, I have to say I am in awe of the work done on this game. Witcher 2 is in some ways quite a confined game. With this game they broke down the walls and made instead the game that any RPG fan would want.

In some ways this era could turn out to be a golden age of RPGs. Not necessarily, as for me story and a sense of place are the alpha and omega of an RPG. It’s not a given that these will improve. On the other hand, there seems to be a real sense of learning. I’m sure games developers play the output of other studios more extensively than me. I tend to find a game and play it to death. One a year can sometimes be enough. Nonetheless, I can still see cross-pollination for the good.

Elder Scrolls and particularly Skyrim reimagined the scope and beauty of a single-player open world RPG. This clearly had an effect in the development of Dragon Age: Inquisition. Horses become a standard feature (also through Red Dead Redemption) and the possibility of exploring a vaster landscape unfolds. But gamers aren’t satisfied they want to fight from horseback and this mechanic appears in the Skyrim DLC. It’s not quite there yet. Now Witcher 3 comes along and (at least on keyboard and mouse) it now works and, most importantly, is fun.

There are many points in Witcher 3 that I felt that the designers were responding to something that fans of RPGs wanted and it is then delivered. None of this is to say the RPG form has been perfected. Far from it. There is so much more that can be done and some things that should be dropped but this is for another post. The point here is that CDPR with Witcher 3 gave me a real sense of responding to what people want.

Personally, I immediately felt that my issues with the previous games had been addressed. It was no longer aimless, rather it gave clear opportunities to progress the storyline as and when suited. The graphics were once again improved (beardy Geralt is a huge improvement over previous versions). The combat was enjoyable, the interface more intuitive and gameplay was more logical (e.g. taking potions before a big fight actually possible).  After the trio of barren locations I had endured in Witcher 2 a more verdant and varied vista opened up before me

Last but not least, the VA was a step up from previous games. There was a bit more variety there (helped by more expressive animations), although there are a number of times when Geralt acts needlessly put upon, sighing when exiting a shop screen for no apparent reason and saying a begrudging ‘fine’ more times than I can count. The greater length of the game and opportunities for interactions also mean Geralt is able to show more of his character than before.

I knew I was going to choose Yennefer based on the fact that she was who he was with before he lost his memory. It seemed a bit odd to sideline Triss after spending the game before trying to save her but Geralt lets on several times that easy-going sweetness is not his bag and when previously in possession of all his faculties he had chosen Yennefer. If in doubt, do what you think the character would do.

The game moves on to Skellige and once again I was in awe. This viking-celtic mishmash setting (perhaps meant to be Orkney or the Shetlands) could have been the whole world for many a game and here it is just one place to visit. I think on this in more depth. Skyrim has myriad locations but actually how extensive are they? Even Riverun is only a few screens, probably only a part of the size of Oxenfurt let alone Novigrad.

I have probably only played a tiny fraction of RPGs out there. Still, some things stick in your mind. There’s a game called Summoner on the Playstation 2, horrible controls/gameplay, mediocre graphics, good story and a fabulous setting. Reasonably early in the game you get to the main city, Lenelle. You first enter the market on the outside then and interior market region. From there you can progress to the old town, the upmarket district and the temple area. I don’t think I’d ever seen so much space given to an urban environment before in an RPG. Now I expect nothing less.

Initially, I ignore Gwent. Once I get a feel for the shape of the game I restart in completionist mode. This time I learn Gwent. Who are all these characters on the cards? Oh look, there’s Phillipa Eilhart again. She’s referred to again but first time round I missed ‘Redania’s Most Wanted’. There are others, Milva, Cahir, Regis. Menno Coehoorn I recognise from the back story of the Dun Banner. I still want to know more about Brenna and Sodden.

I complete the main quest and move on to Toussaint. Riding out of Beauclaire I often have to stop and spin around the panaroma. Once again, I am in awe. Ah hello, here’s Regis from the Gwent card.

Something is nagging me at this stage. All this interaction with people Geralt knows but are strangers to me. I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of references and back history. I feel a bit like an outsider when I should be right in the midst. This was fine when in the previous game Geralt was recovering from amnesia but now I need to know the full story. I feel like I’m coming in late on this and I hate coming in late. I want to start from as close to the beginning as possible.

There is only one solution…I have to now read the books.

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A Journey through the world of The Witcher (Part One)

the_witcher_2_enhanced_ed_for_windows_8_oblytile_by_masakari666-d5n4cngThis is not a review. I am not making a recommendation or judging whether anyone else should like the Witcher books or games. This is simply my meandering journey through the series of games and books and my thoughts along the way.

For a long time I didn’t like the Witcher and it was such a shame because I really wanted to like it. Friends, whose opinions on games I trusted, told me it was great. Reviewers told me it was great. I even liked the concept. Yet still I didn’t get on with and to explain this I have to go back to the beginning of my journey.

As previously stated, friends had told me the Witcher was great, specifically that the Witcher 2 was a great game. Long time fans of Andrzej Sapkowski’s writing might well be horrified at coming into the series from this angle but that’s how it was for me. So what was wrong with the Witcher 2? The answer is nothing, initially, as I didn’t start there. I hate coming in late on any series so I started with The Witcher.

There were things to like about the first game. I was keen on the setting and the mythology. The procedural nature of Witcher work seemed like a good tool for telling self-contained quests within a larger story. Ropey graphics (at least by the time I started playing it) notwithstanding the Grimdark aesthetic was one I could buy into.

My stumbling blocks were threefold. Firstly, by the time I got into the Vizima investigation there seemed to be a lot of going back and forth and waiting for things to happen and it all became a bit aimless. Secondly, the combat gameplay was not particularly enjoyable and this exacerbated the first problem. If you’re going to have to do some trudging it needs to be fun. Thridly, and this is the major one, I didn’t like Geralt.

That’s not to say I thought he was a bad character I just didn’t like him because of how he was presented.  This may enrage fans but I hated the voice acting. I’m not going to call it bad acting as I feel that is an accusation made far too liberally. Time and again I’ve heard people label a performance in a film or TV ‘bad acting’ when in fact it was a terrible script. The actor gets the blame for the bad line as if they were the one who wrote it. Another way in which actors get blamed unfairly is that it is sometimes the director’s fault. The actor gave the performance that was asked of them; they were merely asked for something that was bad.

As a consequence, I’m not sure the VA performance in the Witcher isn’t what the creators wanted. It seems as if there was a line about Witchers being purged of emotion and the whole performance stemmed from that. The trouble with this is that one, there is little evidence that aspect of Witchers is anything more than one of the many slanders aimed at them and two, no other Witcher in the game speaks that way. This leaves Geralt as being the sole deadened performer in the piece and comes across more as a poor-man’s Wolverine who’s been given an overdose of sedatives.

A further problem arises from this performance when it comes to the ‘Geralt as a horndog’ parts of the first game. Amorous lines delivered like that come across as skincrawlingly creepy and all the more immersion-breaking when the female characters respond favourable to it.

And so I left Geralt just as he entered the trade quarter thinking I might come back at some point but with no real enthusiasm. I could have left my journey into the world of the Witcher here but, after all, it was The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings that people were raving about not the first game. Perhaps the faults with the first game would be fixed?

The Witcher 2 is widely reckoned to be a pretty good game. There’s a story that when President Obama visited Poland he was given a copy of it as a gift. I can’t help but try to imagine him trying to play it. It’s not easy. I assume he stayed away from the brothel.

On to the second game. Some things were indeed fixed. The combat was much improved, as were the graphics. Unfortunately, the voice acting was the same and the sense of aimlessness had not been eliminated. It was not an amazing place to hang out like Skyrim and the world and relationships were not as engaging as in the Dragon Age series, a fact I found curious as by this time I was aware there were years of book lore behind it.

Once again I left Geralt, this time in the drizzle of Flotsam thinking that one day I might go back. Here my journey seemed to end and had the Witcher series only been games it may have ended indeed. During my time away, however, another Witcher game came out, Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Once again, people raved but I was cautious. However good it was I still didn’t like Geralt. In the other ear, so to speak, came tales of how the books were actually really good and the kind of thing I would enjoy. Here the seeds were sown for I really thought that I ought to like the Witcher.

Time passed and I had a period where I was minded to start gaming again. The nagging thoughts about giving the Witcher series another chance bore fruit and I determined that this time I would play Witcher 2 through to the end (gameplay of Witcher 1 was still a bit offputting).

I started again rather than trying to pick up where I left off. I do this often when coming back to an RPG, I don’t like coming in late. This time the Kayran was defeated and I followed the story (beware spoilers ahead). I took Roche’s path as he seemed the more natural ally and it took me to the bleak surroundings of the Kaedweni camp. After the damp drabness of Flotsam I had hoped for a bit of light and shade but at least the story was moving now. I found out the reasons behind the curse and probably at some point around here I had become immersed. The VA was grating less, I had deliberately hung out with Zoltan and Dandelion more and Geralt had started to seem less one-note than before.

Without going into the ins and outs of every quest, I arrived in Loc Muine. This was something of a disappointment. After two cesspits I had hoped for somewhere more like some of the crags I had visited on the way to Vergen. Instead, I was in an infested ruins. Oh well, I’m invested now. Clearly I had missed a number of things along the way and this would not be my best ever play-through. Might as well see this thing out. A dragon appears controlled by Phillipa Eilhart (who is this person? I mean a sorceress, obviously, but I feel like I meant to know who she is.) Everything is a mess. Sorcerers are butchered and now Nilfgaard is coming. Bloody hell.

I’ve got a bit of time on my hands, obviously the next logical step is to immediately download The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt…

 

 

Dear Critics…(part II – Bright)

Bright. According to the critics, the worst film of 2017. By any rational measure it was not even the worst film the week it came out. What’s going on here? On Rotten Tomatoes the critics give an absolutely stinking 26%. That’s bad. That’s really bad. That’s a film so bad that it leaves you feeling dirty, like you’ve soiled yourself. With the disappointment there’s a measure of anger. Why? Why was I tricked into wasting my precious life on this? Just as well the audiences were forewarned.

And yet, and yet. Apparently a number of people went ahead and watched it anyway and…well, they seemed to like it giving it 85%. Hang on, 85%? That’s not a stinker; that’s a genuinely good film. People are saying they not just thought it was ok or short of being awful; they thought it was really enjoyable. A 60% difference seems to require some kind of explanation.

I’ve read a number of the bad reviews and well…there’s nothing particularly insightful about them. It’s a series of cliche’s. It doesn’t work. I didn’t like it because whatever. That’s not to say any of these critiques are necessarily untrue or unfair (albeit uninspired) but they could be levelled at any number of films that don’t lead critics to declare them the worst film of the year (some of these same critics were probably the ones who listed ‘Mother’ as one of the best films of the year so…yeah). Something else is at play here.

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Theory#1 – We are afraid of Netflix.

This theory is also pertinent when it comes to the discussion of Altered Carbon. It goes that Netflix has become hugely successful and is changing how people view films and TV. In the case of the latter, the critics don’t appear to be so worried because, let’s face it, most of them don’t want to have to sit down and watch hours of live TV. They are used to being given viewings in advance, binging four episodes on the trot. They might be a little bit worried about how traditional TV channels are going to cope (and maybe they should be) but it’s not impinging on how they’d choose to consume the product.

Films are a different matter. Many film critics truly love cinemas. For them, their first visit to the picture house was a seminal experience. The smell of popcorn and worn out seat coverings still causes their stomach to clench with excitement like remembering the first kiss of a favourite lover or a first professional level goal, try, century or crossing the winning line as number one. Cinema is at the core of their being, an integral part of their personal history and sense of self. That’s why films about films and cinemas always feature so highly in critics’ lists. It speak to something very real within them. It’s how they can give the Best film Oscar to ‘The Artist’ without a trace of self-awareness.

And there is nothing wrong with any of that until it gets in the way of the day job, namely making fair recommendations for the general public. Netflix represents an existential threat to the cinema-going experience (or so some believe) and they must be stopped. Bright was a big investment for Netflix, a chance to show they can do films as well as series. So, naturally, any true lover of cinema must use their power to stop this juggernaut regardless of whether the film deserves their disdain or not.

Personally, I’m not totally convinced I buy into this theory. There may be an element of that in play but whether it is uniform is debatable. In fairness, there is a argument to say Netflix should release these things in the cinema first. Why not? If they back a film that much let people see it on the big screen. People are going to use Netflix anyway. Anecdotally, I binge on Netflix a fair bit but I’m also going to the cinema as much as I ever have in my life.

Theory #2 – The ‘buy in’.

Another theory as to why ‘Bright’ received such a mauling is that the concept itself just alienated the critics from the get-go and they failed to appreciate the buy-in factor that many fans of sci-fi and fantasy bring to what they enjoy. Here’s a concept; buddy cops but it’s in a world where there are orcs and elves and one of the cops is an orc. You may well read that and go, ‘oh come on, that’s stupid’. Apparently this was the standard critical response.

On the other hand, lots of viewers were given that concept and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll go with this’. Second generalisation alert: fans care about world-building, critics care about performances. Ok, this may be a generalisation too far but there’s something in it. When futuristic and fantastical worlds are unveiled before our eyes a lot of people are just on-board with it. For them, this suggestion of another world to explore is the thing that enthrals them. It’s why they can look at the maps of Middle Earth or even Treasure Island and feel a sense of excitement just at the thought of going to these places, even if they are never really touched by the story. That feeling of immediate investment is something I got watching the title sequence of Game of Thrones and also the sense of instant familiarity when they visit the ‘Oasis’ for the first time in ‘Ready Player One’. Certain things tick certain boxes for certain fandoms and that should not be dismissed.

When you are gazing at the horizon whether the facial expression or vocal inflection of the person in the foreground is 100% convincing is less of a concern. For many critics, by contrast, the acting performance is the alpha and the omega. It’s why the accusation of 2-D characters is so often used and why some critics can feel fulfilled watching an actor’s face as he stares off into the distance while nothing happens. The interior world of the performer is where they want to explore.

From this perspective it’s easy to see why the critics love films like ‘Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri’ (ok, I really enjoyed it too). It’s all about performances and it is stacked with them. If on the other hand, you went to that film hoping to see a world you’d never seen before where your mind can go off on adventures of its own, you’d be disappointed. The point here is thus, internal and external worlds are both valid forms of entertainment. There’s no rule saying that the former is worth more than the latter.

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Dear Critics Part 3 – Altered Carbon. Coming next…

Dear Critics, we need to talk about fantasy and sci-fi.

It’s been long established that critics prefer realism to flights of imagination. And by realism I mean commentary on the existing world as oppose to actually being remotely realistic. In the mind of the average critic the ability to build and entire world with cohesive culture, history, language, geography and mythology and then weaving a compelling plot on top of that is a feat far short of taking a swipe at what currently exists.

In the minds of such critics, Jane Austen is the revered Goddess. She wrote about what she knew and will therefore be forever brilliant, while Tolkien created so therefore it will forever be lightweight and in no sense ever profound. Apparently, imagination is a non-existent virtue in such thinking.

This view has always annoyed me, not least from a creative perspective when you consider the general difficulty of the two models. I’ve always felt fantasy and sci-fi writers (perhaps genre writers in general) have been unfairly judged when what they do is in many ways considerably harder.

Lately, this thought has bugged me less as I’ve felt since the Lord of the Rings films that kind of dullard thinking has been in retreat. Once Tolkien’s work moved off the page and on to the cinema screen it attained a level of respect hitherto denied to fantasy. Through a direct line this led to Game of Thrones which (albeit begrudgingly) has managed to snatch a few Emmys along the way. Arguably, less than it deserves but progress nonetheless. The traditional prejudice seemed to be wearing thinner to the point that critics could accept fantasy and sci-fi on its merits and not dismiss it out of hand.

And then the last few months happened and I feel we are back to square one. The reason is for the reaction to the trio of releases in that time; The Last Jedi, Bright and Altered Carbon. I’m not saying that the critical responses to these films is necessarily a reaction against sci-fi/fantasy. My argument is that they show the mainstream critics are ill-equipped to evaluate sci-fi/fantasy.

I’m going to start with a highly controversial assertion. If the critics say one thing and the public says another, the critics have failed in their job. I can immediately hear a flood of counterarguments rolling my way at that idea but hear me out. What I’ve stated is unequivocally wrong if, 1) a critic’s job is to tell us what we should like and not what we will like and 2) a critic is not there to recommend but only give their personal take. I tend to think both of these ideas are deeply flawed. The idea of someone appointing themselves as an arbiter of tastes is incredibly dubious from the outset, while the idea of a personal take doesn’t sit with having a paid position in the media as a gatekeeper to culture. It’s either personal or it’s a judgement on what people will enjoy; it can’t really be both. There has to be a compromise somewhere.

The next argument would be the idea that what is popular and what is good are not necessarily the same thing. I would completely agree with that statement. On the other hand, there are far too many who seem to take the view that because something is popular it is disqualified from being good. If 3 million people rate something as 8 out of 10 there is a reason for that. You don’t have to agree with that reason but you should acknowledge it exists. And if your conclusion is that reason is people are idiots I go back to my previous assertion. If it is your job to recommend things to idiots, then you should recommend what idiots like; anything else is an indulgence.

All this is very black and white and too easy to pull apart. In reality, there is a middle ground and for the purpose of this piece I will focus on the discrepancy factor. If the critics say a film is a 93% film and the public say it is an 87% film, (or vice versa) it’s probably fair to say that most people think it’s good. There may be reasons why one group likes it more than the other but there is a consensus. Example, ‘Aliens’; on Rotten Tomatoes critics say 98% and public says 94% based on a considerable amount of reviews. It’s fair to say that reviewers professional and amateur think this is a very good film. I would say more often than not there is this kind of agreement.

Where I grow wary is when there is a huge discrepancy, let’s say more than 20%. There’s clearly two ways this can go. You can have something loved by critics that leaves fans unmoved and you can have something appreciate by the public that is dismissed by the critics. In the case of the former this seems to happen with film that are quirky, understandably so. Critics see a lot of derivative and formulaic films, Anything that breaks the mould will be appreciated. By the same token, fans who see maybe a handful of films in a year are generally less bothered by cliches and more concerned about entertainment.

In the latter case, it happens more often with genre films or blockbusters. The critics get fixated on a couple of details (something they deem people ought not to like) or parts that seem derivative and miss out on the sense of escapism and the fact that the average audience member may never have seen something like that before.24218725477_c283330936_b

All of which brings me back to the trio of sci-fi released that have so far divided critic from fan starting with the first release; The Last Jedi. At time of writing rotten tomatoes has this as 91% from critics and 48% from the public. I’ve read some articles (which I’m not going to link as they don’t deserve the attention) that have summarily dismissed this discrepancy with justifications ranging from mass bot attack to a backlash against the progressive nature of the film.

My judgement is that the bot attack theory is nonsense. There are too many reviews on rotten tomatoes that are simply from people who are disappointed; not people with agendas. Not everyone is giving one star and claiming it is the worst thing ever. Many are three star reviews fairly explaining what they felt was lacking. For the record, I’d put myself in this group. I don’t think it is worth 91% nor is it worth 48%. It wasn’t awful but it was far from being great.

As to the PC backlash. It’s fair to say that is a thing for a few people but it does not seem to be a majority. Anecdotally, the most common criticism I’ve read, heard or seen is that there were elements of the film that were off (ahem, flying Leia), poorly plotted and lore-breaking. And I think here we have something close to an explanation for the 50% discrepancy.

Generalisation warning: critics like to be surprised. Fans like continuity. Critics applaud when Luke throws aside the lightsaber. Fans irk at the seeming change in Luke’s personality. Critics enjoy the change of the good guys plans not going to plan. Fans get irate that people on the same side aren’t talking to each other for the sake of a plot contrivance. Critics swoon at an artful silent black and white shot. Fans pull their hair out when a hyperspace ram is suddenly a thing, apparently going against all previous logic of not just the film in question but the entire series.

In essence, the critics think they are watching a piece of cinema and do not have sufficient respect for the world in which it is set. Sure they may consider themselves above such things but now we’re in the territory of music magazines sending someone to review the gig of a band they hate. It all gets a bit pointless.

Next up Bright, which according to the critics was the worst film of the year…(continued in next blog).

 

New Horizons: Choosing your time travel destination

Imagine time travel was a real possibility. Where would you go? Presumably you’d hear recommendations from friends ‘we had an amazing time in neolithic Europe’, ‘you simply must go to 15th Century India’. Magazines and websites would be full of adverts for favoured destinations. Soon enough, there would be lists of ‘time periods to visit before you die’. This is all fine and good but the problem is some places and times would quickly become overdone and ruined by all the time travellers materialising at their now overcrowded beaches and bars.

TV, film and books (let’s call it fiction) has had the use of time travel for some time now and, predictably, created a number of tourist traps as successive writers take cues from what has gone before and been popular. It’s about time (and space) that we started looking further abroad and away from the well-beaten track. Thusly, here follows a short list of tourist traps to avoid and a few suggestions of new places I’d like to see explored. Feel free to add your own ideas (comments accepted here, on facebook or on twitter).

Tourist Traps

The Old West

westernThere’s an amusing David Mitchell (the comedian not the equally brilliant writer) piece questioning why a mere 30 year period in history should constitute an entire genre when other more historically significant 30-year periods don’t. You never hear people say ‘oh, I like fiction about the 30-years war mostly’. Perhaps they should; there’s a hell of a lot more to explore there. In any case, westerns are well-established and that’s fine and if people want to make a western I’ve no problem with that. What I tire of is seeing people from many centuries later ending up there and unfailingly having at least one party member who is au fait with the period through their love of old movies. Seems unlikely given the current popularity trend of old classic westerns.

This obsession reeks of writers of a certain generation repackaging their youth and expecting all who follow to buy into the experience. Likely, if the time travel holiday were available tomorrow the old west would quickly become a new Florida riddled with ageing gunslingers distinguishable from the locals by the whiteness of their replacement gnashers.

The Late Republic/Early Roman Empire

I’m not knocking ancient Rome as a setting but when there’s so much to explore why keep going back to the same bit? As there’s more to Italy than Rome, there’s more to the Roman Empire than the section from Julius Caesar to Nero. Why not try the delights of the early Republican period as the Italian peninsular is united or witness the drama of the Punic wars? They’ve got elephants and everything! Or, if you are of a different taste, witness Constantine’s rise to power and the division of the empire between east and west. Want to see the Colosseum in it’s heyday? For that you need to travel on from Nero to get to Vespasian’s time. colusseum

When dealing with a period of hundreds of years it’s a shame to get stuck around a single lifetime.

Victorian England

English_School,_19th_Century,_Snow_Hill,_Holburn,_LondonI’ll admit a touch of bias here. I studied the Victorians early on at school and I found them to be quite an unappealing group of people. Ethically and aesthetically it seems to me to be one of the less enjoyable bits of history. That’s not to say many great things didn’t happen but does your journey through time have to mean bumping into Charles Dickens or passing under the shadow of Jack the Ripper?

Likewise, Victoria seems to be one of the least fun monarchs of the lot. If you want to dine with a King or Queen, I daresay most others would be more entertaining company. Oh, and if you are desperate to wander through a foggy London, remember the ‘pea-souper’ was called that for a reason. That pearly cloud you picture yourself bisecting in your greatcoat will actually be green and probably smell horrific.

 

Some alternatives

The Aztecs

The Aztecs were a very interesting people; fascinating architecture, a vivid pantheon with bloody rituals, and gold everywhere. For the most part they seem to have been ignored by fiction (I suppose Dr Who might struggle with the pre-watershed slot) both historical and sci-fi. Still, the story of the meeting between Montezuma and Cortez and how a great civilisation came to crumble so quickly would be interesting to observe from an outsider’s perspective.aztec

 

The Dark Ages

vikingSeeing as the ‘dark ages’ remain one of the most misrepresented periods of time, a visit here would be educational if nothing else. Most people’s notion of history seems to be that there was the Romans and then not much happened until 1066. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from anything else, there was still a Roman Empire in the east throughout the whole period. The rise of Charlemagne seems to be something unheard of to a lot of people who studied history only at school.

Oh, and there’s Vikings. Obviously Vikings are awesome in their own right (or horrific if you are on the other side) but more importantly, we need more depictions of them never bloody wearing horned helmets. We don’t use Wagner musicals to inform our history for anything else and it’s about time this annoying myth died a death.

 

A non-apocalyptic future

According to time-travel fiction, there’s only a couple of centuries at best left for human civilisation before we regress massively. That might be true, who can say for certain, and that’s one way to view the future. Does it have to be the only way? For once, can’t we see Earth a bit further on that isn’t dystopian? I appreciate this is harder to render because you can fall into the realm of futurology and having to make predictions which may turn out to be ludicrous. Equally, it’s harder to make political points about now if everything turns out all right (although there’s still room for this by showing the will to change was what made things better). That’s not to say our future has to be shown as utopian either. Maybe some of today’s problems will persist and be worse in some ways. That doesn’t necessarily mean we will all need to be hunkering down in burnt out shelters staring forlornly as the last of the water supply vanishes.

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There’s many more that can be added to both categories and I expect I will update as I go. For now, I will sign off with this. As people we like to see new things and visit new places: let’s do that as time-travellers too.

 

 

The Dangers of Fan-casting

On Sunday after the Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final the BBC will reveal the identity of the next Dr Who. In many respects, it would make more sense to write this afterwards but the final decision is not really what I want to address – it is fan-casting. For any who are unfamiliar with the term ‘fan-casting’ it’s etymology seems a little shaky. As I understand it the original idea was ‘fantasy casting’; the idea like with fantasy football that you could pick your dream cast for a film or TV show regardless of financial restrictions, contracts, scheduling etc. This idea has been very popular for a while now particularly in the field of adaptations from books and comics. Fans say who they want for roles and the favoured choices then become talked about over and again. In this way fan-casting has evolved from ‘fantasy casting’ into actual ‘fan casting’ where fans of a series, franchise or book try to influence the casting through the internet.

This is where things get problematic. It is completely understandable that fans can have an actor in mind who they think is perfect for a particular role and in some cases these actors have ended up getting the part. Everyone is happy, right? After all, it is arguable that many fans are more invested in and have a better appreciation of the object of their 1319033604d96695b390c6049da4186d--the-simpsons-beautiful-ladiesfandom than the TV or studio execs trying to turn it into a film. You can bet that the fans are more invested in a ‘faithful’ rendition than the show runners and sometimes than the creators. An example of this would be the ‘Jack Reacher’ series. Tom Cruise is physically completely unlike the character in the books (a foot shorter for a start) and pretty much everyone I know who is a fan of the books can’t bear to see Tom Cruise represent him. The author, who is clearly aware of the lack of resemblance, is reportedly less concerned. Although it is tempting to think of the McBane/Wolfcastle defence here.

In general, I have a certain amount of sympathy for fans trying to defend the purity of the source material. My only problem with it is when it becomes dogmatic and ignores what an actor can bring to a role. Like Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman is completely the wrong height for a role. It’s not talked about much now but when Jackman was first cast many fans of the comics were enraged that a guy who was 6’3 was given the part when Wolverine is meant to be shorter-than-average stature. If fan-casting had had it’s way Jackman would still be on Broadway and the cinematic Wolverine we know would never have existed.

The trouble with fan-casting becoming too rigid really comes to the fore when a fanhood starts to consider their casting as somehow canon. What happens if that actor is unavailable? Now, instead of whoever is chosen being revealed and given a chance to prove themselves on merit, they begin their tenure with a sense of disappointment hanging over them. That may not stop a good actor making the role their own but there are some who will never forgive them for not being someone else.

This becomes more problematic still when the fandom’s canon is actually not faithful.Pedro_Pascal_in_The_Miracle_at_Naples,_2009 Most people I’ve talked to think Elijah Wood looks exactly like Frodo and are surprised when I say I think he was miscast. In this case the fandom has edited out the fact he is too young for the role. This is easy enough to live with because this is more people being happy with the result than trying to influence casting in the first place. For Pedro Pascal the process was quite different. Many who read ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ seemed to have misread or ignored the description of Oberon Martell from the books and enthusiastically fan-cast Naveen Andrews in the role. When Pedro Pascal was cast these fans were left horrified and accompanied their disappointment with cries of ‘racism’ and ‘whitewashing’.

I’ve no wish to trivialise either of those issues but those accusations were inappropriate in this case. Expecting sympathy from George Martin, some of these fans were then horrified when Martin explained that this was what the Martell’s were supposed to look like. By any estimation, the source material suggests someone far more like Pedro Pascal than Naveen Andrews. At which point, this vocal part of the fandom then switched approach and claimed they’d fan-cast Andrews because it was an opportunity for greater racial diversity on the show. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that but demanding show-makers follow a particular political agenda opens up a whole multi-pack of worm-containers.

For the most part, TV and film-makers want to be seen as liberal and progressive. There is a good case for this too. If you are holding up a mirror to life then it should be a mirror that reflects in technicolor and not in monochrome. Likewise, values are promoted through our culture and there is a case for ensuring those values are consistent with the kind of society you want to embrace.

Fan-casting to an agenda, however, is a no-win situation. Either the agenda is appeased and or it is denied. Both outcomes will piss people off. Current thinking is that the most likely choice of Doctor will be either Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Kris Marshall. Sunday may prove these predictions completely wrong but whatever happens there will be grumbling and that is because pushing for a female Doctor has become an agenda. If those pushing for it get what they want, others will feel it was forced and will feel alienated from the show. Not only is this bad for the show it’s really unfair of Waller-Bridge or any other female actor who might get the part. Rather than embracing the qualities she will bring to the part, she will have a cloud of ‘political correctness’ hanging over her.

The alternative is that Kris Marshall (or another man) gets the role and the people pushing for a female Doctor feel let down or even that their wishes have been explicitly rebutted. Marshall (or whoever) will also start the role with an unwanted cloud, as if now they are the representative of the patriarchy, reinforcing the glass ceiling. None of this would happen if not for fan-casting. Of course, whoever is chosen may still have been a disappointment to someone but at least it would be on the basis of their acting and not something over which they have no control.

Now, you might argue it is still worth all these problems because the agenda is important. That may be true and works very well as long as TV and film-makers are on board with your agenda. What happens if and when a fandom with a different agenda gets what they want? You might think this is fine as long as their is a range enough of art for everyone and herein lies the rub. Fan-cast in your head all you like but remember what is canon for you isn’t for someone else even if other people on the internet seem to agree with you. In the end, it is better that these decisions are made on an artistic basis.

Finally, whoever is cast as Dr Who, good luck to you. That baton is going to feel especially heavy this time round. tardis

You would never write it that way – How history and fiction differs.

Some of the greatest stories of all time come from history. Real events can at times eclipse fiction for scale, drama and narrative. Other times – for which read  most of the time – history is a bit more inconvenient. Sure, WWII is a (debateably) great good vs evil battle with a satisfying (and horrific) ending but it is a real aberration. On the whole, real events are messy and rarely neatly resolved. Essentially, if you were writing it you’d never make those choices. That doesn’t mean some writers don’t write it this way; some do so deliberately precisely because it feels more like authentic history but they do so with the awareness that it is a departure from a traditional narrative. Before I get into the ways in which stories and history diverge I should point out that there are many, many more things that could be added to this list. Here are just a few, off the top of the head, examples.roses battle

Repetitive Naming

If you ever study the War of the Roses era you’ll notice that lots of the protagonists are chiefly referred to by their title. You might think this is because that title is a measure of their involvement ‘Ah yes, it’s relevant that the Duke of Gloucester was that because his forces were from Gloucester’ but quite often you’d be wrong. Richard of Gloucester- which one? – the one who became Richard III – had a lot of support in Leicestershire, which doesn’t even fit the Lancashire vs Yorkshire paradigm. You wouldn’t write it this way. It would be far more satisfying to have their be something distinctive about the people of Gloucestershire, unique warriors with an unusual set of skills, that informed the following campaign.

Even so, this is not the major flaw. The reason titles are used is because everyone had the same bloody name. Or rather, they had a very narrow set of names. Richards, Henrys and Edwards made up a significant fraction of the male nobility of the time. Similar problems occur on the female side with Elizabeths and Marys. This is by no means restricted to this period. Romans gave multiple names precisely to avoid the chaos that would be caused simply by referring to someone as Gaius. Gaius? You know, Gaius? The one who was stabbed by the senators. Fine, let’s just use his other names  ‘Julius Caesar’. In fiction, writers tend to avoid this kind of confusion as much as possible, for which readers are generally grateful.

Dying quietly in exile

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Imagine this for a story…the final battle has been won and the evil (or good, depending on which side you’re on) King has been forced to surrender. Now comes the justice, now comes the reckoning, this tyrant shall pay by…going away somewhere else. Ahh, I see where this is going. The evil King will now plot from exile and this is the set up for the sequel, got you. What? He’s just going to live out his life and do nothing? But he’s assassinated, yeah? Or the guilt causes him to commit suicide? No? You mean this big baddie we’ve been building up just goes away and lives a normal life for the rest of his years before dying of natural causes? Who writes this crap?

That’s not to say many an exiled King or Queen hasn’t plotted in exile. This was standard behaviour for ousted monarchs of the middle ages but quite often throughout time they just stay in exile. For every Napolean of Elba, a short time away from a comeback, there’s a Napolean of St Helena, banished then, somewhat prosaically,  dying of stomach cancer or a Kaiser Wilhelm dying at the age of 82 after over twenty years absence. In his case the sequel happened without him.

Absence of a central hero

Great historical events are usually ensemble affairs. It’s generally quite rare that a single personality sees them through from beginning to the end. History is a perpetual relay event where one stops and another continues, only much, much messier than that. This is true even with fairly straightforward things like inventions. Who invented the whatnot? Often as not the person who is credited with it was only adapting someone else’s existing ideas or, if they genuinely are the progenitor, it wasn’t until some time later that their ideas were put into effect. That miracle drug didn’t save a single life until the next person in the line tinkered with it so that it was usable.

That’s not how a story tends to go. The protagonist dying fifty years before their work pays off would be in the territory of a downer ending. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth writing that story it’s just those kind of stories tend to become the stuff of prologues and back stories. Consider that if instead of being the story of Frodo, Lord of the Rings was the story of Isildur and ends with the ambush of the Gladden Fields and a little post-script with ‘2,000 or so years later Isildur’s work was finished by a hobbit’.

Inconvenient siblings

This often comes into play when people try to make adaptations of history. It would be so much simpler if after event 1, the protagonist became King or Queen and this led to event 2. Instead, what often happens is event 1 is followed by the sibling being King or Queen for two years where important event 2 happens that in turn leads to important event 3, which really was the protagonist’s moment.

In times of high infant mortality multiple siblings were common and, of course, so were early deaths. This both led to more frequent changes of leadership and tasks being divided amongst the family. As with the point before, a single hero can’t be everywhere and siblings were very often the ones who starred at an important moment only to die ingloriously so soon afterwards their role falls somewhere between cameo and supporting and leaves them in prime territory for ‘editing for content’.

Inconclusive battles

Not all battles produce a clear result on the day where the hero or villain is slain and one side emerges victorious. Sometimes it is a stalemate and both sides go away frustrated and feeling defeated. Other times, even decisive victories don’t feel like decisive victories at the time. It is only later and in concurrence with events happening elsewhere that the true result becomes apparent.

Look at the battle of Jutland. It was a bad day for the British Navy and one much better than expected for the German one. On the other hand, it was the beginning of the end for the German navy’s involvement in the war. They would end up retreating and eventually being scuttled. In retrospect, they would have needed to do much, much better than expected to claim a victory. Given the eventual result, if that were a story the German Navy would have been all but destroyed that day.

In a similar vein, for all the many battles with hideously high casualty rates there are many battles where less than 10% of those who took part were killed on either side -for point of reference, the Battle of the Boyne, generally considered a decisive and significant encounter, is thought to have had a casualty rate of under 4%. Certainly tragic for that small percentage but unlikely to be how it goes in the feature film.

Should it matter?

Ultimately, concluding that fiction isn’t life real life is hardly a revelation but what can we take from this? From a reader’s perspective there is always a balance to be had between being surprised and feeling unsatisfied. Stories need endings one way or another even if they are but a small part of a much wider picture.

From a writer’s perspective, I think there are lessons to be learnt. We should be prepared to acknowledge the ensemble nature of the world and that the events of our stories and the deeds of our protagonists happen within a context where a great many others will play their part. Likewise, we should be prepared to embrace a bit of messiness sometimes. There is conflict between the chaos of real history against the order of a fixed narrative. As with life, these two sides must be reconciled.