Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Starting again

My problems with "Big Tech" are of course inconsequentially marginal compared with those of current American politics. (See Niall Ferguson in The Spectator for a reasonably balanced albeit somewhat narcissistic overview of the issues.) They're also on quite a different level.

Suffice it to say though that Tumblr did decide that despite my ongoing efforts to avoid posting anything pornographic my "instant blogging" version of The Man on the Grassy Knoll was getting a bit too cheeky. (For anyone who's curious, the sorts of things that got flagged when I tried to post them are here, here, herehere, and here - though arguably this one and this one were fair enough.*) So I've taken the decision (as of a couple of days after Easter) to start over with a "clean" clean slate.

The contents of the old blog can still be seen on line here. And I may carry on posting a bit more cheekiness from time to time, but I haven't posted anything on it about politics (or parapolitics) since January and I won't be from now on.

*I'm pretty sure the censorship behind the removal of this was rather more sinister.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021


John Nathan-Turner took over Doctor Who in the 1980s, he made it much too gay much too quickly, he alienated the kiddies (and, more to the point, their parents) and, over a period of about ten years, he squeezed the life out of it completely.

At least, that's one point of view. The alternative line, in the man's defence, would be to say that he kept the show alive long past the point when TV cultural entropy should by rights have finished it off once and for all. But perhaps we'll never know.

In any case, JN-T's first season as producer kicks off with a very slow boring "brainy" story that is overly padded with pseudo-science and backstory. It continues with a slightly more normal and enjoyable story that is almost devoid of any backstory of any sort, scientific or otherwise. (It's important to the set-up that the Doctor has been to Tigella before. But we learn precisely nothing about Meglos.) Both stories though are fairly devoid of likable characters and both end very abruptly. 

Full Circle therefore feels like the first "proper" Doctor Who story of the JN-T era, with proper monsters, proper characters, a proper mystery, and so on. But it's also very much the first story of the "new" Who era that the new producer was clearly aiming for - and in fact in retrospect it's pretty much proto-NuWho. Tom and Lalla and K9 and the TARDIS are all still there from the Douglas Adams "era" (albeit with a slightly different "look"), but the show itself feels quite different, with a slicker, more self-confident (some might say slightly too self-satisfied) air.

For one thing, by Full Circle the series feels more invested in its own mythology, no longer merely raiding it for ideas or contexts (e.g. in Shada). So now Romana is being recalled to Gallifrey, we hear that the Doctor "lost" his "battle" with the Time Lords, Gallifrey looks very much as we last saw it in The Invasion of Time, and so on. It's to a writer's credit when he can move freely in another author's imaginary universe without having to warp it unnecessarily for the sake of his own story, and now suddenly for the first time the "Whoniverse" has started to feel genuine. Did the Time Lords really need a forgotten prison planet? Did they really need enemies like the Black Guardian - or even the Fendahl, for that matter? Whereas recalling Romana is definitely the sort of thing they would do, and if that leads to the TARDIS shooting off into a different pocket universe - which we later discover was probably created to trap not just an old enemy of the Time Lords but (Tolkien-style!) their Great Enemy - then so be it! The point (again, Tolkien-style!) is that world-building works when the imaginary world comes first and then the stories emerge not just in it but from it. 

The other thing the series is now invested in in a way that it hasn't been for a long time is characters. Most new Doctors used to get potentially disposable male companions in their first seasons almost just to be going on with - in case the new Doctor wasn't quite "physical" enough to be the hero. (Action man Jon Pertwee was the exception that proved the rule.) But Peter Davison was destined to get a veritable team of supporting characters, one of whom was of course going to be the new young male. What was unfortunate of course was that just as he was trying to make the show more "grown-up", with the supposedly brainier scripts (and scrapping K9), JN-T screwed up by simultaneously trying to make it quite artificially more child-friendly and ending up with a slightly weird homoerotic mess. (Gays may like children's TV series - and children themselves, for that matter. But the actual children aren't necessarily going to be too impressed with visuals of men going swimming in skimpy loincloths.)

Because Alzarius's Gomorrah People are not great, by any stretch of the imagination. Why do they steal river fruit, for example, when they could presumably much more easily pick their own? It's a smaller detail than "Who is Meglos?" or even "Why exactly did the Argolins and the Foamasi go to war against each other?" But it could still have done with a bit of explaining. Adric's unlikability meanwhile is clearly deliberate. (He's supposed to be "edgy".) But we don't really see enough of his soul for it to work. He's dickish but we don't know why, but presumably because adult writers just tend to think of teenagers as being dickish. Which is definitely an odd thing to do in a TV-show supposedly aimed at "young adults"!

And the plot of course is still fairly rubbish. The characters flit to and fro as per usual, and the fact that they're now doing it by TARDIS doesn't help. Nor, for that matter, does the lamp-shading (in the story's title, no less!) of their at one point literally going round and round in circles! Where it does shine though, as science fiction as much as anything else, is with its central, character-centred sociological insight. George Baker indeed feels like the first proper actor playing the first real character we've seen in Doctor Who for quite a while. 

State of Decay on the other hand feels like a throwback to an earlier era of Doctor Who, and in many ways it is. And oddly enough that's actually a Good Thing. As such, slap in the middle of this "new"-style season, it has a gloriously old-school feel to it. There's dear old Terrance on the DVD extras, spinning his old time wisdom about the changeless character of Doctor Who, and his writing is a very welcome reminder of what proper backstories used to be like. After Morbius had riffed on Frankenstein and after Fang Rock had done the same with Who Goes There?, doing an alien version of Dracula was a very logical next step for Dicks in his exploration (or exploitation, if you like) of the the "classic" horror genre. And somehow his story doesn't feel out of place.

Then of course there's Warriors' Gate, which looks weird and feels weird because it's supposed to be weird, and arguably its lack of backstory is for once acceptable as part-and-parcel of its mysterious appeal. (And yes, sometimes that works, as it does in Ghost Light. And sometimes, as in The Greatest Show, it doesn't.) But then The Keeper of Traken is a genuinely appealing premise that's been butchered into fitting into the usual Doctor Who to-and-fro format, and its pseudo-science certainly can't stretch to nearly far enough cover all its Tolkien-eque elements.

The best news about Traken (albeit sad, in context) is that it's the one story in which Tom and Matthew absolutely shine together. Contrary to collective fan memories, Tom is not grumpy and aloof but (for the first time!) warm and even avuncular to his young male companion. After six years in the role, Baker was a dog that was clearly quite capable of learning new tricks. His brother-sister relationship with Sarah Jane was glorious, his attitude to Leela was explicitly teacher-pupil, and after the whacky flirty alien "thing" he had going on with Romana it's surprisingly painful in retrospect to note the beginnings of an authentic man-boy relationship that was then suddenly cut short by the Fourth Doctor's regeneration into Peter Davison.

Finally Logopolis sums up the whole season quite perfectly - visually (and aurally!) appealing, but with a huge mass of altogether unfinished confusion under the surface. Characters pop up and then become best friends with hardly any explanation, the science wouldn't cover a postage stamp, and the plot is at times quite bizarre. Never mind who the Watcher is. Why does the Doctor want to measure a police box? Why does he think landing the TARDIS in the River Thames will flush out the Master, who he knows has his own TARDIS? How does doing maths change reality, let alone stop the universe from cooling down? And why does that cooling down make people (and constellations) disappear? And how does beaming a message from a 20th century Earth radio telescope (and can one even do that?) keep a CVE open?

Nyssa and Tegan's off-on relationship with the TARDIS obviously prefigured that of the Matt Smith companions. (And why not? It worked for the Brigadier and UNIT - sort of!) But in real life it also led directly to the slightly sinister and in fact deeply unpleasant - not to mention dramatically highly questionable - decision to kill off Adric. (Once it had become the done thing for companions to go and come back whenever their actors' agents felt like it, the only way for JN-T to be sure he'd never see Matthew Waterhouse again was to have his character blown to little bits.) But was this bit of gay spite foreseen from the outset? It's difficult to say for certain. There was no "showrunner" in those days - just what Sydney Newman would have valued as a "creative tension" relationship between producer and script editor.

What is clear though is that the show's second big reboot at the beginning of the 1908s - with higher production values, more cerebral scripts, a tighter mythos and a larger cast - was superficially more radical than Jon Pertwee's "real world" colour relaunch at the beginning of the '70s. But it would turn out to be a much wobblier structure than anyone (with the possible exception of Tom himself!) could have thought at the time.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Twelfth Night

I'm sure we all have our personal "strangest thing about the last four years" - as if it wasn't strange enough to have a literal gameshow host as President of the United States (following on, it has to be said, from the son of the last President but one in the year 2000 and then, in 2008, a turd in a suit). To my mind, looking back, the weirdest political development in my own life was that the best political analysis I could get suddenly seemed to be coming from Pat Buchanan.

Well perhaps no longer! In reaching its apogee and/or nadir (depending on your political tastes) of its glory/horror on the Feast of the Epiphany this year, the Trump tenure at the White House suddenly seemed to shift back into normal focus. Pat Buchanan's somewhat hysterical take on the Trump "insurrection" is here. Mark Steyn's wryly cynical but spot-on analysis, on the other hand, is here.

So was this really another "color revolution" or not? Because clearly that was the idea, not so long ago. Trump was going to try to cling on to office and then be chased out of the White House by a surprisingly well organised "spontaneous" mob of Antifa, BLM and other, er, "colored" people. The American secret state and its various "civil society" offshoots have been doing this sort of thing all over the world for years. In 2020 they were just going to bring that magic home.

In the event, of course, it wasn't quite like that. Trump and his people wised up very early on, the election proved much trickier to rig than was thought (though not impossible, apparently!), Trump made it clear that he would be out in time for his opponent to take up occupancy but would not stop protesting that he'd been robbed, and then the mob that ended up storming Washington turned out to be his one, not that of the "revolution".

Interesting then that Juan Guaidó, the intended beneficiary of the Deep State's most recent "democratic revolution", which was supposed to happen in Caracas, has himself condemned the Trumpists' counter coup de theatre!

Which, as RT has pointed out, is a bit rich given some of the dodgy shit he's pulled over the years. And yet there he is on Twitter, lining up with the rest of the Pax Americana's slimy quislings to condemn exactly the sort of behaviour that he and his supporters have themselves been guilty of purely because this time it was the other side doing it.

Not that one need think too hard about why he is distancing himself from Trump! Officially he's still America and Britain's man. But with the ink scarcely dry on the Brexit deal he's been unceremoniously dumped by the European Union, and Biden now may well be thinking (and I use the term as one of art rather than exact scientific description) of scrapping the Venezuelan operation altogether

Role reversal has been a standard trope of Twelfth Night celebration since time immemorial. I suppose the "mainstream" just weren't expecting quite such an obvious one this time round.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Suited and Rebooted

Perhaps someone can explain to me the point of an Alex Rider adaption in which 12 minutes into the first episode a character says of the eponymous child hero “He’s not a kid anymore.” I mean, hellooooo? He’s supposed to be a pint-sized James Bond - a purer, more fun version of Britain’s finest secret agent, with an additional dose of whimsical wish-fulfilment and a certain slightly subversive worm’s eye view on the world of international covert operations. Why have a kid Bond who's not a kid?

So the big problem with Amazon's latest Alex Rider reboot is simply that Alex is too... big. To be fair, Alex Pettyfer was too old back in the 2000s movie version. But Otto Farrant, although winning in so many other ways, is literally in his early 20s. As it happens, apart from that Farrant's version of Alex is generally speaking an improvement on Pettyfer's. His new Alex is clever and fun and likeable, and he has a certain based humanity that Pettyfer's lacked. Jack is important to him, even when he's "under cover", and he has a low opinion of "hippy bullshit". And in fact it's only every now and again that he slightly overdoes the gawky teenager schtick - wearing the sleeves of his Point Blanc yellow uniform tunic halfway over his hands, for example, or blundering about in a too noticeably oafish teenage manner even when supposedly on a paramilitary operation. The story too from time to time seems overtly at pains to make the point that he's s child, to such an extent that by the end of Episode 7 he's started to feel a lot like a passive hero - a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style glorified hanger-on in his own franchise. Of course that's pretty much par for the course in the age of woke heroism. (There are a couple of times when I wondered is this new Alex Rider's uncle had even taught him to fight.) But it also severely undermines the wish-fulfilment element of the whole premise.

Having said that, one of the franchise's "structural jokes" holds up surprisingly well. Alex thinks his uncle is boring even though he’s really James Bond, and it works on various levels. Obviously everyone is supposed to think that spies are boring anyway, no matter how dangerous and unpleasant their real work is. And of course, albeit on a slightly meta level, if Alex is supposed to have the makings of a super-spy it is mildly improbably that he never worked out for himself what his closest male relative did for a living. At the same time though children tend to think their older family members are boring just because. So if James Bond had had a family, what would they have thought of him? (No man is a hero to a valet. And when Mark Twain was a teenager he thought his father was the stupidest man in the world. And so on. My parents were both doctors, and for virtually the whole of my childhood I didn’t really know what that really meant. It's hard to imagine one's parents ever doing anything particularly interesting or important, and no matter how cool other kids think your dad is to you he's just... your dad. Such, I suppose, is the price one pays for telling the kid it's time for bed, or for not answering questions about sex.) 

When it stops being a joke, of course, we're supposed to find it tragic and moving that Alex Rider doesn't think his uncle's job was cool and doesn't want to follow in his footsteps. And on one level we can sympathise. Alex blames MI6 for is uncle's death, and sooner or later we're going to find out that he was quite right to do so. And of course it's worth bearing in mind that even the sorts of things that James Bond finds enjoyable (drinking and gambling, at least - let’s not mention the other thing) can be tedious to a teen who just wants to hang out with his mates. But it's also admittedly a bit of a stumbling block for the whole Alex Rider concept! He’s a fantasy character made to appeal to children, so why exactly doesn’t he enjoy doing what he does - in the same way, it has to be said, that Bond does (or at least Sean, George, Roger and Pierce’s versions of him did)? We can certainly imagine most teenagers in real life wold want to call it quits after one or two frightening and painful escapades. But at least since the time of Rudyard Kipling's Kim (not to mention Hergé's Tintin) most children, teens and adults have enjoyed fantasizing about having thrilling covert adventures. A young-but-not-that-young Bond, who Harry Potter-style has Bond-like powers from an early age without even speculating why, and who then turns out not actually to want to go to Hogwarts, just isn't quite so appealing as a character.

So what in fact does a likeable but slightly dull twenty-something version of Alex Rider bring to the spy-game table? The original Alex was supposed to be unobtrusive enough to masquerade as a child in a fake family (the plausibility factor) and un-threatening enough for his opponents to underestimate him (hence the wish-fulfilment!), not to mention small enough to fit up chimneys and down ventilator shafts (subverting and deconstructing the genre!). But what is the USP - either to children or, as an intellectual challenge, to a writer - of an Alex Rider who is quite literally old enough to do all the things James Bond can do, including smoke and drive, and who doesn't even want to do any of them? In the first episode he drinks an alcoholic cocktail - albeit a disgusting teenager one, which he doesn't particularly enjoy - and beats a man's face into a bloody pulp with his bare hands. I mean, OK. But so what? He's like Bond, only slightly more annoying and nerdy? Well it's a perfectly legitimate take on the genre, given that Fleming himself saw Bond as less of a hero and more of a morally compromised geek who just happened to be good at what he did. But is it really interesting? And is it even really Alex Rider?

“Well, you can’t imagine Bond following super-villains on Facebook, can you?” I mean, really? I’m in my 40s and my parents use Facebook more than I do. What exactly does Horowitz (currently approaching retirement age) even think he knows about modern teenagers? (Do modern English teens use American terms like "grounded"? Do they still say "lame"? Do they panic when they lose their mobile 'phones? I mean quite honestly I don't know. But does Horowitz know more about them than I do? Alex and his friend are clearly supposed to be uber-retro (into Kurosawa, going double dating like in the 1950s, etc.), but even so... And how exactly is a teenager in the modern world of social media supposed to go incognito anyway? Indeed, why choose to set Alex Rider in the “real” world at all? Why not just kick off in some crazy fantasy spy school (some place like Rugby College, for example) and then take it from there, just making Alex the best of them, with his own dark and tragic secret, and then launch him into some fun screwed-up kid-Bond scenario?

In fact why the need even to give Alex Rider an origin story? Even the Daniel Craig Bond didn't (quite!) go that far. Whatever else you might think of Agent Cody Banks, at least they called that one right. So just kick off with Alex on a mission with a couple of adults. The adults screw up. Alex chases the baddy with desperate speed and ferocity. Adults poring over monitors yelling abort. Others saying who is this kid? Alex recovers the MacGuffin but the baddy escapes. The adults are all stunned by how good he is. Climax with hero shot, voice oov says "That's Alex Rider!" - and cut to Bond-esque opening credits. Main story opens with Alex being Bondishly arrogant and insubordinate to his (adult) superiors but also sweetly charming. Interestingly you’d actually have to have a bit more realism than you’d expect from Bond. (The adults would have to care about Alex in a way that M seldom does about Bond, and Alex would have to have a certain amount of vulnerability, which of course Bond tends not to have. But that’s a minor gripe.) And it could definitely be fun. After all, there are plenty of things a child secret agent could do that would be genuinely interesting. Why not have him infiltrate an inner-city child gang, or a slave racket? Why not a cult, or an army of child soldiers? Alex Rider chasing drugs mules and underage prostitutes could be genuinely gripping. Or just have him being a kid investigator nonchalantly picking up on clues that adults drop when their guard is down, and only occasionally going full Jupiter Jones or Hardy Boys.

There are times indeed when one starts to wonder whether the writers are actually trying to subvert expectations. Alex Rider being the shy late arrival at a teen house party? It's just not him. Actually Alex Rider being another lad's wing-man is just as bad. (In the books Bond was actually much more matey with his male colleagues than the unpleasantly and obsessively hetero-social character in the movies - he genuinely enjoys drinks at the club, a round of golf with Bill Tanner, etc. But he's still an alpha male and never just another man's support staff.) And we see that he's good at climbing drainpipes and opening locked drawers. So what about his other powers? It would be nice if he could turn up at a party and immediately recognise everyone there. More importantly, he needs to have a stiff upper lip when he hears about the death of his uncle. Alex blubbing just is problematic, and although over all Farrant does a competent job, it takes a long time to warm to the boy. He doesn’t have Alex Pettyfer’s chiselled good looks, nor indeed Daniel Radcliffe’s blinking prepubescent winsomeness. Come to that, he doesn’t have Nicholas Rowe’s vowel sounds or Tom Holland’s impressive physical assets. Soft brown eyes, a pudgy round friendly face, and the dorkiest hairdo this side of the last ten years (with a bad blond dye-job to boot). And he cycles. With a cycle-helmet. (And for all that this is supposedly a grittier, more realistic version of Alex Rider, it has a seriously fantastical fantasy version of London. Is this based on real life - or at least on the lives of the sorts of teenage boys who read books - or is it based on Hollyoaks?)

The death of Alex's uncle on the other hand is more realistic than the ludicrous scene in the film version with Damien Lewis hanging upside down from a helicopter. But it's also surprisingly grim for a series that is fundamentally still for children. And it does upset the genuine subversion of the opening line of the book of Stormbreaker. Fourteen years ago they were aping the vibe and conventions of the Brosnan films, mere months before Casino Royale would sweep them all comprehensively away. Now they seem to be out-Craiging Craig, and the contrast between Rider Sr's death and the silly slapstick death of the baddies' first victim in the opening pre-credits scene is jarring. MI6 meanwhile is located in a multi-storey car-park. (Echoes of the warehouse chic of 2011's pretentious but substandard version of Tinker, Tailor?) It's worth remembering that there's a difference between being gritty and morally complex and being actually realistic. In Episode 7, for example, MI6 start almost randomly murdering people on the testimony of a teenage boy. (I mean, WTF? And Horowitz self-identifies as a "liberal" - although he also writes for The Spectator. Natch!) In the end of course, although they're happy to murder the baddies' guards, they don't (so far as we can tell!) murder the clones. But then we don't find out what happens to them either.

The baddies for their part initially show a good deal of promise. Point Blanc itself has a surprisingly cool creepy Overlook Hotel vibe to it (with maybe a touch of Agatha Christie) - which is (presumably!) clever, given that it is (apparently!) deliberate. Is the main baddie a Malthusian? It's one of the oldest Bond villain tropes in the manual - going back to Stromberg and Drax (not to mention Richmond Valentine in Kingsman). Alex (finally, albeit briefly!) gets his shirt off - for a medical examination. And the episode closes on a Prisoner-esque brainwashing montage! And there's an implicit promise that over the next few episodes we're going to see something clever and "psychological".† So suffice it to say that the eventual cliched rubbish about Nazis and human cloning is a big, big let-down. Even the dramatic double double bluff with the Alex clone in the last episode - with the dangled possibility that the real Alex was left behind at Point Blanc and the duffers at British intelligence have inadvertently rescued his clone - doesn't last very long, with the clone giving himself away almost straightaway when he bludgeons a Swiss motorist to death. (It's classic movie nasty Naziness, apparently!)

In fact it's in the final episode that the whole thing genuinely starts to fall apart. The theme song for one thing is still terrible. (The lyrics are one of the few things that aren't a patch on the 2000s version, despite being tediously ear-wormy.) And by the end the writer has given up even trying to make any of it make any sense. How did the clone find Alex's address, for example? In any other genre it wouldn't really matter, but this is a spy series, where ultra-clever operatives follow clues and dropped titbits, so even "in genre" we ought to have the right to know. And Alex keeps a spare school uniform at home. (Really? I'm quite sure I've never met anyone who did that.††) Still, on we plod! The arrival of the clone at the school is very Terminator. (They reprise the same vibe in the disco scene. "I'll be back!" Yeah, cheers love, but we get it. As with the Overlook Hotel atmosphere of the middle episodes, one presumes that directors know what they're doing when they do things like this. In fact even the car park stuff is reminiscent of the sort of thing we used to see in an earlier era.) And are we even supposed to know which Alex is the clone and which is the real one? And if so how? (To be honest, it would be more interesting if the real Alex was a bit of a dick, but we know that's not going to happen even in a "modern" and "edgy" teens' TV series - even on the Internet.) We then go on to discover that Yassen Gregorovich is far more bad-ass in this version of Alex Rider than he was either in the books or when he was played by Damien Lewis. Mrs Jones brandishing a takeaway coffee at the end just put me in mind of Aidan Gallagher - seven years younger than Otto Farrant and umpteen times cooler! (Alas, even in post-Potter 2020, British telly (even online telly!) still can't bring itself to cast minors in even semi-adult dramas.) And to round off, of course, we have "The book was better." (Post-modern? Moi?)

So, what did everyone else think? The Grauniad reckoned it was "escapist". (Subtlety and cultural complexity aren't exactly their strong suits.) NME were correct that the series didn't (even!) identify its target audience.††† (To be fair, that may go for a lot of Amazon's original output. Who else watched Man in the High Castle? Or the new Tales from the Loop series, for that matter?) And The Indy thought the series caught the books' "momentum" - which is a little bit perverse, given that I could have read Point Blanc several times in the time the series took to tell its version.

And finally, of course, how does the new version of Alex compare with the old one?

Well, personally I was never entirely sold on Alex Pettyfer, who once again was himself much too old to play Alex Rider (when he eventually did, that is - Horowitz tells the story of how he spotted his perfect Alex whilst watching a TV-version of his own alma mater's literary finest hour). Alex Rider with the nervous energy of a twelve-year-old Christian Bale would have been electrifying. Alex Rider as a languid teenager was less so. But Alex Rider as a twenty-something pretending to be a languid teenager just felt slightly... deadening. There's nothing really wrong with Otto Farrant's take on the character. But he is too darn old.

Interestingly I didn't even notice the almost total lack of gadgets in the Amazon version. Yes, I know this is Craig-ification. But clearly I didn't miss them. The gadgets were always the most child-friendly element of the Bond films anyway, and it's slightly gauche of a an actual children's author to rely on them too much. Yes, I know Roald Dahl had them. But if you look back on his Bond work it's surprising how few even he actually used. (Who needs pen guns or magnetic watches when you've got spaceships and ninja?)

So what are the other pros and cons of the earlier version? Well Alex Pettyfer did at least look like Alex Rider, albeit too old and quite obviously the wrong side of a teenage growth-spurt. (And his eyes were the wrong colour, but then so were Daniel Radcliffe's.) But on re-watching one notices Ewan McGregor albeit briefly injects a surprising amount of warmth and humanity into Ian and Alex's man-boy relationship - something painfully lacking in the new version. Horowitz's gimmicks - the BMW in the car-crusher (in a nod to Goldfinger) - may have seemed fun to him at the time. But plot-wise they're pointless, and on re-watching they seem gimmicky without being fun. The fetishization of modern London is a peculiarity that both versions share, and one wonders why. The beginning of The World is Not Enough was actually quite a good in-joke for long-term Bond fans. (And let's face it, every red-blooded Englishman is, deep down, a Bond fan.) Back in the late 1970s and early1980s we saw Bond cause chaos all over Europe (Venice in Moonraker, Germany in Octopussy, Paris in A View to a Kill, etc.). So bringing the carnage home to dear old London Town was genuinely fun. But transmogrifying Bond into a teen riding a bike (with or without a helmet) over Albert Bridge or past the Shard really is just... lame.

Back in the 2000s version, Bill Nighy as the M character clearly thought he was doing a straight-up Bond spoof - and to be fair Bond spoofs have been done plenty of times before and since. To this day though I'm still not entirely sure what the point of them actually is, Bond himself so often having been a send-up of himself. (You may as well try to satirise Donald Trump.) So for example Nighy apparently decided to make Blunt gay. (And if he's not, why does he have the statue of a man's nude torso in his office?) It's a bit of a bum note by anyone standards, given that even Dumbledore didn't officially come out until after the first series of the Warner Bros films was finished. So needless to say his more down-to-earth equivalent in the new version is a vast improvement. In fact generally, the darker, more cynical tone of the new version - not to mention its quite on-the-nose observations about the nature of an over-mighty and unaccountable state bureaucracy, complete with intrusive immigration and child protection services - is far more rewarding than the smug jokiness of Nighy and Stephen Fry in 2006.

The Indy's woke snigger about the cast now being more "diverse" was on reflection especially ill-judged. Mrs Jones is now white (again), whereas in the film she was black. But to be honest I can't say it's much of an improvement. Sophie Okonedo played her as a one-dimensional callous bitch, and frankly that was all that was required. Conversely, in the new version Alex has two black females thrust in his direction, but the only girl he shows any serious interest in is the surprisingly attractive white girl who wasn't even in the books.

One does slightly despair of the Army's replacement of the Navy in British popular culture's representation of the Armed Forces. And the fact that Alex is very clearly not a little kid is particularly painful in the scenes in the Pettyfer version where he's dropped in with real soldiers. (He's actually taller than Wolf. Was everyone just too polite to mention it?) Indeed there are plenty of 16-year-old heroes in basic training in real life and no one (except perhaps the buffoons of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch) thinks anything of it. And, er, why is he doing basic training in a Special Forces camp anyway? And, er, why is he doing basic training anyway, when it's already been established that his uncle trained him to within an inch of his life? How is running around in DPMs with a rifle and doing the sort of assault course that kids in the CCF do for fun (Think about it...!) going to help him be a secret agent? One is left with the distinctly uncomfortable feeling that the writer and director simply needed a 1980s-style "training montage" to cover the dramatic caesura between Alex Rider the slouching schoolboy and Alex Rider the hardened superspy. So happily all this nonsense is missing from the new version (even if it is nice to reflect that in 2020 blacking up have would be seen as "problematic").

On the cod training front, now that one comes to think of it, Dap is similarly painful in Ender's Game - the subtle, complicated pedagogue of the book reduced on film to the most toe-curling cliché of a drill sergeant, and wince-inducingly realised at that. And in truth what the film version of Stormbreaker has in common with that of Ender's Game is that they're both similarly well-meaning and surprisingly honest attempts to adapt their source material: they just fail, albeit for different reasons. Ender simply found it impossible to translate a moral that Hollywood wasn't ready to hear into a modern kidult sci-fi movie. (Also, the problem of making a big-screen roman a clef about a child soldier in space between the ages of 6 and 12 was never going to be one any director was ever going to be seriously interested in solving.) But with Stormbreaker one just got the feeling that no one really thought ahead. Horowitz knows how to make great British telly. Why exactly did he trip over his own feet making the leap to tinsel-town? (It must be said though that thanks to a comparative lack of time constraints there is actually space for subtlety and depth on the telly that there simply isn't on the big screen.)

For what it's worth, my own feeling is that wish fulfilment simply works better in children's heads than it does on the big screen or on the small. Bond only works because adults when they watch him are normally sufficiently well lubricated to enjoy him. And even Bond in any "real-life" military context is problematic. It's taken for granted that the 00 agents are better than than the SAS (who are in turn better than the Paras, etc.). So the military themselves can only ever form the background to Bond (as they do, for example, at the beginning of The Living Daylights). He can pop on his old uniform from time to time for nostalgia purposes, but he cannot really be on active duty with them.

The biggest problem with the film of Stormbreaker once again is that it genuinely didn't know whether it was supposed to be funny or not. In fact the problem with tone is THE problem par excellence. The books were supposed to be a straightforward children's James Bond, with the added bonus that an adult would get the knowing deconstructionist angle. The film, unfortunately, is just another knock-off spoof (like Teen Agent and Spy Kids and Cody Banks - and, for that matter, Young Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood Jr, etc. etc.) of a film series that (at the time!) was increasingly becoming a spoof of itself. And let's face it, a spoof has to be clever not to make the average viewer not want simply to turn off and watch the original. Again, thankfully, that's a problem that the new version has dealt with quite definitively. 

There is of course a fundamental problem with Bond himself as a character. Basically he's just a nerd who's good at what he does: he's fit, he's clever, he's competent. In every other respect, he's barely a hero at all: he drinks like a chimney, he smokes like a fish, and he bangs like a shithouse door. He also lies and murders for Queen and country. In order even to root for him as a character, implicitly we have to enter the morally ambiguous world that he inhabits. He's not someone you'd take home to meet your parents. He's not someone you'd expect to see in Heaven.

Horowitz for his part factors all this in, but in taking care of Alex's morals he also (once again!) makes Alex less fun: what's the point of indulging juvenile fantasies if at the same time you're implicitly wagging your finger at them? More to the point, how exactly is the average juvenile reader supposed to sympathise with Alex Rider when he spends all his time chafing at authority and kvetching about all the exciting adventures he's forced to have? (Would J K Rowling's stories really have worked if Harry Potter hadn't wanted to be a wizard?)

I suppose it remains to be seen how Horowitz eventually finishes his series and how he completes Alex's character arc. It's quite hard meanwhile to imagine how much longer Amazon can carry on making a surprisingly watchable TV-version of said series with a lanky adult playing a child in the lead role. But then there is also time for them to iron out a certain amount of early episode weirdness and continue, at least for a couple of years, with a series that so far has shown a good deal of genuine promise.

*One actually wonders if JKR's secret entrances for the Ministry of Magic were really inspired by the film version's highly questionable photobooth entrance to MI6 in Liverpool Street Station. (The film of Stormbreaker - complete with Alex's slightly out-of-order "Hogwarts" snark, which made it into the trailers though not the final cut - came out at about the same time as Rowling was writing Deathly Hallows.)
†Teenagers are "rebels" who hate their parent, school teachers, legitimate authority, etc. And so are Bond villains. So is that how they get "turned"? (It's a familiar moral to anyone who's read up on how the Nazis "seduced" young men in the Hitler Youth. But it's also bollocks. In real life teenagers just want their parents' approval, and only become frustrated when it's not forthcoming, when they feel confused and frustrated about others' expectations of them, etc. - and of course at the intrinsic and extrinsic physical limitations of their current states in life. They aren't per se anti-authoritarian, rather than simply expanding their ego boundaries.) But are they going to turn him not against his undercover parents but against the service itself?
††As it happens, the decision to go with school uniform (and a "realistic" London academy-style comp) was definitely the right way to go - vs. the cool fantasy (Sex Education-esque - because this is Amazon, so suck on it, Netflix!) American-style school in the Pettifer film. The only slight problem of course is that it feels as if it's compensating for the fact that all the series "child" actors are basically adults. And whereas once again one despairs of a kid-version of James Bond having "romantic" interests (becuase, once again, what's the point?), Kyra is actually an "interesting" person, and whereas in the books Alex is fourteen, here he's twenty-three. So can we expect kissing in future seasons? I hope not, but then this is the 2020s.
†††In fact towards the end I very much started wondering just who else was actually watching this? Were American and Korean teenage girls swooning over Alex's bangs? Were shitty London neo-corporatist "academy" schools going to be the new Hogwarts? Were beanie hats going to be retro nerd Bond-spoof sidekick cool? (Again?)

Friday, November 13, 2020

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The British Establishment and the Media

Can anyone else remember those heady, halcyon, pre-Covid days from, oh, about nine months ago, when righteous liberals were challenging the British MSM to be sceptical about Boris Johnson? (It really wasn't so long ago...)

Things like Channel 4's eating humble pie after one of their classic blunders (if you can really call it a blunder to accuse the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of "racism") during last year's general election ought to have come with a sense of relief. For any of  the mainstream media (MSM) to repent of any of their screw-ups is unusual, after all. But at the time it felt a lot like a strategy of diversion and even (pace the current epidemiological situation) inoculation - apologising for a comparatively minor error in order to distract from a far, far larger one.

And so lo, before our very eyes the old symbiosis of the MSM and government was re-established. The two faces of the Establishment’s PR machine - its party politicians and its corporate journalists - duly kissed and made up.

Nick Cohen and Huw Edwards did their best to get a battle going on between Boris and the BBC - both readily supporting the latter - because supporting an undemocratic media corporation against a democratically elected government is, of course, democratic! (Cohen in particular might like to look up the word ‘democratic’ in a dictionary some time. Only people like him equate it with permanent rule in favour of a state’s “institutions” and their vested interests -and no normal person thinks the BBC or the civil service are impartial. In fact getting the latter to implement the manifesto commitments of a legitimately elected executive is a pretty good definition of what democracy ought to be. Of the people, by the people, for the people... and all that guff! But there’s no telling some people.)

Looking back on this supposed feud between Boris and the Beeb from just over nine months later unfortunately it's surprising how misguided it feels, not to mention how quickly it fizzled out. Most of this at the time, for example, just came across as paranoid partisan sniping, with little genuine sense of a big intellectual or institutional split.* As it happens, he was of course quite right not to trust Boris Johnson. And keeping an eye on Boris’s manipulations of the media would definitely have been a Good Idea. It just never actually happened. The MSM swallowed all of Boris's claims about Covid, including the claims that contradicted the other claims, and asked for seconds.

I would suggest though that since 2016 something has gone quite badly wrong with the mainstream media generally! After all, 'according to Ofcom 49 per cent of Britons now get their news from social media, a proportion that has risen from 18 per cent in just four years.' [The SpectatorTheir undisguised and undiluted hatred of Brexit and Trump, for example, has made them utterly incapable of reporting on current affairs in either Britain or America (and probably Russia, if you think about it) with anything even approaching fairness or balance. And lo and behold, half the population have given up on them completely!

Not that things are that much better across the herring pong. The ever redoubtable Douglas Murray recently blew the gaffe on Bill Maher.
Most people have mixed feelings about Bill Maher — they like him when he agrees with them and dislike him when he doesn’t. Perhaps I should note that throughout his career I’ve always admired him. But there’s a problem with his show: the unnaturally close relationship between him and studio-audience. When Maher says something vaguely funny, the audience whoops and hollers. When a guest he disapproves of says something funny or wise that he doesn’t agree with, the guest is met with stony silence. It is made to seem as though it is very hard to get one over on Bill Maher. 
It was only when someone who had been in the audience explained to me the warm-up procedures for the show and the fact that the audience is actually directed when to laugh, clap and applaud, that you realise how much power Maher has (far more than almost any other host) to be the one who decides which guests do well, and which points fly.
Every day’s a school day, I suppose. (Why is it always the creepiest and most feckless of libertarians - Emperor Boris included! - who wants to be Ming the Merciless?)

The "independent" media, alas, are not noticeably better. To this day it’s not entirely clear to me whose side the “investigative journalists” of Exaro were really on (let alone what they were one, given how whacky some of what they coming out with was). Yes, their links to the British “mainstream” Left are a matter of public record. And their “anti-Establishment” credentials ended up being somewhat tarnished not just because the smears they were peddling were spurious (and morally appalling) but also because they were directed not against the Establishment per se so much as against various individual members of the Tory Party. In fact their putative founder Jerome Booth (Christ Church, Oxford and Anglia Ruskin, something big in emerging markets doncha know, etc.) is rather more “Establishment” than they might let on.

Perhaps the simple truth though is really just that everyone likes a good conspiracy theory, and if it involves sex then most people will like it even more. For some reason everyone but everyone likes either (a) reading about sex, or (b) looking down from a moral high horse on anyone whose sexual tastes are slightly more, er, exotic than his own, or (c) both. Though it may have a had a distinctly left-ish hue to it, at the end of the day the “Westminster paedophile” allegations scandal was really just a product of bigotry and titillation and not very much more.

The Establishment's very own little beagle on the other hand is of course a decidedly strange outfit called Bellingcat. (See here.) And they're strangely convincing. Even the good old Speccie has fallen prey to their enthusiastic tail-wagging.
Julian Assange’s Wikileaks was once fêted by western media for its willingness to release suppressed information — for instance, footage of US choppers shooting up unarmed civilians in Iraq — but later turned into a channel for political dirt stolen by Kremlin-sponsored Russian hackers.
Except that (pace Mandy Rice-Davies) they say they didn’t. What probably happened in fact was simply that Assange’s team fell from grace with the Left partly because of his own sexual peccadilloes (in Sweden a famous leaker can be undone by, er, a leaky condom, it turns out) but mostly because they simply went too far. Assuming that Hillary would win anyway (because Trump wouldn’t “be allowed to win”), they thought they’d bolster their credentials with the Far Left (or should that be Far Far Left?) by coming out swinging for Bernie Sanders. These are, after all, the same people who were quite happy to force the West’s allies in Afghanistan to choose between exile from their country or possible murder by the Taliban (because they were “informants” and “they had it coming”). For them the actual election of Donald Trump was presumably just one of those things.

And finally, if you really do want to go all the way, there's dear old Pooty Poot and what's left of the pro-Russian Far Left. So was Peter Hitchens supping with the Devil again when he was recently endorsed by the Canary? One would counsel him to use a long spoon, in any case.†

*And if Cohen was merely his usual obnoxious leftist self, this from Edwards was dubious in the extreme.
And you realise yet again that the real purpose of many of the attacks is to undermine trust in institutions which have been sources of stability over many decades. The apparent purpose, in short, is to cause chaos and confusion.
Surely the point of attacking perceived bias is to correct that bias in favour of truth - or at least of fairness and balance? Here and there, of course, one did come across small victories. At least, for example, the BBC stopped insisting: (i) that an Albanian gangster murdered in London was Swedish; and (ii) that there was any very great mystery about why he was assassinated. But they were only ever few and far between.
†For what it’s worth (and I write as one who is normally deeply sceptical of the anti-Russian fantasies of the MSM) my instinct is that here be Russian disinformation rather than that Hitchens of all people stumbled upon a massive conspiracy - by the Americans, presumably! - to fabricate reasons for a war against Syria that, thanks to Trump, never actually happens. But perhaps we’ll see!

Sunday, November 8, 2020


Is there truly anything nicer than a British boy's bum?

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Bores

Well it had its moments, but really it failed to live up to any of the promise of the first season. Whereas Season 1 of The Boys finished with shock revelations, complex characters and a decisive break from the source material, Season 2 rowed back on all three.

The biggest disappointment was of course Homelander, who by the end had more or less been reset to the "stupid Superman" character he is in the comics. All the hints of depth that he had in the first season are now gone. He doesn't say prayers before bed with his kid, for example, so presumably we're to take it as read that his Christianity in the first season was simple hypocrisy, rather than something that might have made him an "interesting" person. And although he can still be sneaky and manipulative from time to time, for the most part he's basically so dumb he's hardly even frightening anymore.

Every now and again, for example, both he and other characters seemed to be forget what his powers actually were. Why doesn't he hear Ashley Barrett approaching the door of Stilwell's old office, for example, before she interrupts his "moment". (Did he drop the bottle? Why not just screw it up into a tiny ball? Was he too engrossed in said moment? Is he starting to lose it? That would a surprisingly human direction to take a psychopath former lab experiment, but otherwise it's just a strangely sloppy moment in an otherwise remarkably genre aware franchise.) Ditto in episode 2! Why does he need to go through his ex's drawers when he could just, er, x-ray them? And by episode 3 he can stand in the same room as someone having a 'phone conversation and pretend not to overhear it - although of course in the next episode we discover that he did overhear it. (Why did Maeve imagine that he hadn't? Is she genuinely not so bright as we thought?)

More painfully, it's no longer clear that there's much more to the show's "politics" than simple, unrelenting, grinding (post-Trump!) wokeism. The show does still have its moments, but they're sketchy and less frequent than they used to be. Is there a socio-political comment behind Ryan's home-schooling, for example? Possibly - but it could just as easily be that home-schoolers can't manage to hold out against the "real" world for long. The idea of superheroes not being "born" but "made" is a direct rewriting of the palaeo-leftist X-Men mythology. And the cut to a therapy session with the Deep is a direct call-back to the whole "being a mutant (or a kid wizard, for that matter) is like being a gay" meme. (Hero or monster? Beautiful angelic higher-functioning sociopath or neurotic little pervert? You decide!) But it's little more than a joke that is funny for a moment and then goes nowhere. The whole 'Girls get it done' subplot meanwhile is a glorious satire on Hollywood's prurient intersectional approach to homosexuality, but it never goes much further than a basically clunky leftist message that celebrities should be entitled to their "private lives".* And the worst "racist" in the series is of course Butcher, who apparently blames all supes for the sins of a minority of them. But we're supposed to imagine that by the last episode he's started to see the error of his ways.

As it happens, the weakest element in the drama throughout hasn't changed at all. It's very much still there, and it is of course the Boys themselves. They're almost wholly unlikable and, more to the point, their motivation is seldom clear. It's possible that modern screenwriters just aren't able to create identifiable right-wing characters. But it's also possible they're just lazy. Why, for example, do our eponymous anti-heroes spend so much time just lounging around in a basement? I can't say. But it's very, very boring.

The best new addition to the series was of course new supervillain Stormfront, but by the end she's been outed as a "Nazi" and (quite literally!) disarmed. The possibility of an interesting relationship between Homelander and his son has been peremptorily curtailed. Simon Pegg's not in it anymore. Most the old cast are now more or less 'phoning in their performances. And the revelation that the new left-wing politician character (basically an Alexandria Ocasio Cortez calque) is really a baddy looks altogether doomed from the outset. We're certainly not being promised that next season's baddy will be Far-Left, to balance out this season's "Far-Right" character. In fact quite the opposite! There's little doubt that she'll eventually be exposed as a "hypocritical" liberal who's simply "sold out" to the corporatists of Vought. Her leftist ideology will no doubt remain pure.

So all-in-all something of a disappointment - and with Joe Biden back in the White House there's little prospect that it (or any of the rest of America's "cultural output") will be getting very much better anytime soon.

*And they, of course, get to decide what counts as "private".