Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: A Dance With Dragons

So, it actually came out. After 5 years after the previous instalment, and after various drama on the internet, rampant speculation from all sides, and for a lot of fans, simply a damn long wait, A Dance with Dragons is upon us. Having basically ignored the very existence of the series for years, I finally succumbed to A Game of Thrones last year, and then reading the rest nearly back-to-back ever since, I didn’t really suffer from all of that, and was able to roll straight from A Feast for Crows into this one. Which as we will see, is probably a good thing.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Box Set Blues: The Wire, Series 4

Anyone who listens to Dissecting Worlds will know that talking about The Wire has become a bit of a running gag for us, and anyone who reads a certain class of Broadsheet newspaper will probably be likewise aware that the show has been the "go to guy" when any pundit wants to annoint a Greatest TV Show Ever Made. In fact The Wire now comes with so many plaudits heaped around it that I can almost imagine it putting people off watching it, or at least watching the first couple of episodes and wondering what the hell the fuss was about. But our watch-through has just finished the fourth season, and whilst it's not the best series of the show, it's possibly the most typical.  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Thinking: Bored of Origin Stories?

I've not seen a superhero movie this summer. How is that even possible? I mean, there is so many of them, it must be some sort of compulsary act to keep my “geek license” in good order. But I haven’t, and more strangely, I don’t really want to. In fact, when I last got the opportunity to go to the movies I went to see Bridesmaids over Green Lantern or X-men: First Class. It’s been something I've not been too sure how to process, but here goes anyway….
Bitten by a Radioactive Glowfly
So, I've watched the trailers, eaten up the pre-release titbits from Comic-Con panels, internet “leaks” and widely distributed interviews across all sorts of media. I've seen re-tweeted hints, grainy set photos, read casting debates, costuming changes, the whole works. And at the heart of it, I think what gets me down is that it’s all the same. It’s the origin story; the franchise launch. After all these years we’re still making bloody Superman. What’s worse is that many of the sequels are still Superman II

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thinking: I Love 'A Song of Ice and Fire' But It's All That is Wrong with Fantasy..

So, what is probably the biggest event in the Fantasy Calendar happens this week, when the latest book in the George R R Martins’ epic A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons, is unleashed into the world. After being promised it within a year of the publication of A Feast for Crows, and that being five years ago, anticipation is high, coupled with the success of HBOs adaption of A Game of Thrones, so clearly it’s a good time to be a fan of the series.  In fact, with the general cultural impact of Harry Potter, and Lord of the Rings and a host of other pop-culture friendly fantasy flying around, it’s a good time to be a Fantasy Fan, right? Well, certainly better than being a fan of spaceships, at least. 

But if you mean it’s a good time in the sense of being able to show a little “fantasy pride” without people looking at you like you’re a real weirdo, then yes, it’s a great time to be a Fantasy Fan. Because lots of people are dabbling in the shallow end of the genre these days; the booming Young Adult market is full of fantasy-tinged works I think there is a general awareness of the genre that there hasn’t been since the great “Fantasy Boom” of the 1980s. On the other hand, anyone stepping out of that shallow end is likely to be pulled away the current and drowned. And A Song of Ice and Fire is as big a culprit for that as any. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Tyranny of Knowing (and not Knowing) the Numbers

One of my other hobbies, when I'm not podcasting, reviewing, writing or painting tiny plastic figures, is being neurotic and insecure. As many of the above involve putting my thoughts out onto the internet in one form or another, this can be best described as an "interesting" combination.

Now on sunday we are recording the "Conclusions" episode of Dissecting Worlds Series 4, which will be our 29th podcast, which is all kinds of cool. Like the rest it will go out into the world, get syndicated, copied, stuck on itunes, and generally passed around the internet, and like all the rest we'll have very little firm idea of how many people listen to it. Sure, we get some very welcome feedback, it's not that much. I've worked my time in Customer Support roles and I know the deep truth that no-one rings you or emails you to tell you you're doing a good job, so a lack of being called a proper idiot is as good a compliment as you can get in these circumstances, but at times you just want to know people are out there.

The complete opposite is true of this blog - and indeed the reviews I've done over at Geek Syndicate. I can see in wonderful, granular detail how many hits an article gets, and where it is referred from, and so on, which leads to complusive stat checking to see how many people are reading whatever whitterings it have put out at which particular time.

Now the wierd thing is, from talking to fellow podcasters and bloggers, is that I'm not alone. We're all - well certainly a lot of us - like this, driven by an urge to put out our opinions to the world and then caught between fear of being told we are doing it wrong, or just plain ignored and not sure which would be worse. It could drive you mad, but I'm not sure doing this sort of thing is a mark of sanity to start with.

The answer of course is simple, and the single best piece of advice I was given when we started out, and probably the only piece of advice I would pass on. Do it because it is fun to do, in of itself. Do it because you enjoy the process of recording, or writing. Do it for your own pleasure, with your voice, and that will come through in what you do. 

Let the numbers look after themselves. Anything else is a bonus.

Right, just got to go check how many hits this has got...

Thursday, July 7, 2011

State of the Blog: July 2011

Well, I've had this blog for just over a fortnight and managed to post several times, which is an improvement over what I expected. I should shut it down now and call that a win! So I thought I'd do a quick update on what is going on with me when I'm not writing short essays on whatever crossed my mind on the commute to work. 

Well, over on the Geek Syndicate site I'm steadily working my way through a year-long reading list of Dystopias and Apocalypses called Dark Futures. GS have been very tolerant of letting me spout off about books over the last couple of years, and they are also letting me cover the new TV show Falling Skies for them. I've also volounteered to help out with their upcomming (and pretty exciting looking) Summer of Indie which starts next week.

All of which is eating a little into my free time, including, ironically, the time to do research and reading and gaming in order to have anything to write about in the first place.

So what am I working on at the moment? Well I was struck the other week, when one of our rare-because-we-have-kids opportunities to go to the cinema came along, how little enthusiasm I could muster to go and see any of the stream of Superhero movies that are about this summer, and let the wife drag me to see Bridesmaids instead. I'm not quite sure why, but I'm trying to put it into words. I'm also planning on joining the rest of the internet in writing about A Dance with Dragons when I get my hands on it next week.

All of which is more than enough to be getting on with.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thinking: Goodbye, Space Opera?

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”
-          Lord Darlington (“Lady Windermere’s Fan”, by Oscar Wilde)

One of the great things about this time of year for any fan of lazing on the sofa and watching the telly is the great swathe of gossip, fear, triumph and disappointment that comes with the US TV networks deciding which shows to cancel, renew and launch. Sure, many fall mid-season, but most victims linger into the spring and the slow death of being shunted about the schedules until the last of the audience give up writing petitions and let them die. Others hang over the edge a bit before bounding free into renewal, and the internet swarms with pictures and sneak reviews of commissioned pilots on which viewers can hang their hopes of a new show with which to go through the whole cycle again next year. 

And this year we have the usual bunch of Lost-alikes, a bit of modern (and not so modern) fantasy, Steven Spielberg’s return to using Dinosaurs, and a couple more attempts to repeat the success of Heroes series one with-out the nasty aftertaste of the rest of its run. But what’s missing in all this geeky programming is anything “out in space”. And I think that’s a curious omission, so I did a bit of research – well, spent half-an-hour on Wikipedia – and confirmed my suspicion that this is the first time in over twenty years you can’t get a “Space Ships in Space” fix on the telly. Here’s a picture to prove it: 

Space Opera TV Shows in Production by Original Broadcast Year (click for bigness)

Now, even discounting the hugely dominant Star Trek franchise, that’s a lot of shows with a lot of overlap. There was a lot of people spending a lot of money to make people look like they’re flying around in space and tell stories about it and suddenly there isn’t anymore. There wasn’t even a non-picked-up pilot that I’m aware of. So where did they go, and why? 

The first answer that comes to mind is simply that no-one watches them. And I think that there may be some truth to that; Battlestar Galactica always struggled with ratings but survived at least in part to being very highly reviewed and lending prestige to a network desperately lacking it. In fact very few of these shows where ever considered “safe”, as far back as Babylon 5 – but that was 20 years ago (god I feel old) so if Space Opera has always been a little niche it never stopped people trying to make it before. Sure, Star Trek: The Next Generation was pretty big but none of the rest were what you’d call televisual juggernauts, but they clearly did well enough to keep on the screen (mostly) for a decent run and many cancelled shows even got spins off and movies for the faithful. 

So the next answer is sort of related – money. It is cheaper, says the common wisdom, to make five editions of Jersey Shore or a new series of The X Factor, which get more viewers, which mean more advertising revenue and therefore the networks make more money off the show. Which is also true, but this argument applies to all genre shows and is, I think, a reason that they are receding off mainstream networks in the US generally, or become more based in “this world” but HBO hasn’t been shy in creating “other worlds” the last few years not just in the obvious (Game of Thrones) but in its strand of historical dramas (The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire) as well. And the other premium cable networks are keen to emulate that model with shows like Camelot and Spartacus and the Torchwood buy-out which may not be as high-class but still have the costs associated with imaging these worlds. 

I think the point with both the above examples is that whilst they are both factors in Space Opera vanishing from the screens I think that as factors go they’ve been ever present, and something that the genre has always struggled with. They kill shows for sure, but I’m not sure they stop people trying to make them in the first place. But I think more fundamentally, it has just finally gone out of fashion. This is different from ratings, by the way, I think there is almost certainly still an audience, but I think that creatively, from writers and commissioners and network executives, there is a sense that the possibilities of flying around in space have been played out over the last twenty or so years it is time to move on. 

I blame Star Trek, of course. 

By which I mean that Trek has been such a dominant force in creating the model of a Space Opera show that the whole genre has struggled to be free of it. It certainly didn’t create TV space opera but it sure as hell shaped it, and The Next Generation’s launch is the show that brings it back to the screen after the post-Star Wars boom shows limped off in the early 80s. For a while it seemed to define the whole genre – shows like Babylon 5, Farscape and Firefly were at pains to be not-Trek, whilst each lifting aspects from it, and even the Trek franchise itself struggled with its own legacy, both successfully in later Deep Space Nine and much less so with the sad and confused Enterprise

It’s also interesting that after the death of Enterprise there are no new shows put out there, Stargate: Universe being a noble-if-doomed attempt to take the venerable Stargate franchise in a new, credibly dark’n’murky direction. It makes me wonder if Trek, the clear market leader in terms of consciousness (if not quality) is somehow dictating the rhythms of the whole genre, and having it on the screens makes it easier to move other projects forward. I suspect so. 

So what next for Space-Ships on your telly? Well not included on the list, and buried on the kids channels of your TV remote is Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is all CG animated and pretty much as space opera-ey as it gets, not to mention featuring better plots and acting than much of the Star Wars prequels. So I guess you can get your fix of hot starship-on-starship action from there, but apart from that I suspect it will be a while before someone dips a toe back in the waters.

And that’s a shame, frankly, because I like Space Opera as a literary genre, and I think TV is a great medium for it’s mix of adventure, accessibility and story-telling freedom. And for now, as it’s flown off into the sunset, I shall miss it.