From the archives: February 2007

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Time flies like a penguin

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 — 9:44pm | Animation, Film, Hockey, Oscars, Video games

I have a number of posts on queue or in mind that are actually of substance, but this is not one of them. In their place, how about a spate of disjointed miscellany, loosely connected by waddling flightless birds:

First, with the addition of Georges Laraque and Gary Roberts to the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins are suddenly even more interesting than they were already. I mention them both in connection to something I want to say about Ryan Smyth, which is next. I appreciate seeing someone as entertaining as Laraque on a team I will actually root for of my own volition, and the idea of Roberts on the ice with Sidney Crosby blows my mind. Mind you, to see Laraque in a flaming C would have been downright awesome, but I’m almost inclined to think the citizenry here in Edmonton, which seems to live and die for the Oilers, has taken enough punishment for one day. Or one season.

As for the Oilers? Speaking as someone from Calgary, I like seeing a strong, healthy and respectable Oilers team worthy of a provincial rivalry. Without a heated Battle of Alberta (preferably one that we win), hockey can only be so interesting. I’ve been told from several corners that in terms of tangibles, Edmonton got plenty from the Islanders for Ryan Smyth, and basically came out on top. But in the context of Edmonton’s rotten year in the front office, and Smyth’s intangible value to his team and to the community at large in terms of morale, leadership and institutional memory, I wouldn’t blame a single Oilers fan for quitting on their team. I quit on the Flames, and hockey in general, for a span of about eight years. I can identify, within a reasonable margin of confidence, when the cracks started to show and the Flames started to quit on me: when they traded Al MacInnis to St. Louis.

It’s easy to console oneself with the mentality that such-and-such a superstar who has been with you for over a decade is 31 years old and won’t be improving anyway, but you start eating your words when said player stays on the other team for another decade without too considerable a decline, and they retire his jersey before you do and stick him in management. Meanwhile, back home you develop all these new faces for a couple of years, and the fan base goes, “Who are these guys?” before it makes like a tree and leafs. I don’t know if that will happen with Ryan Smyth, and it almost certainly won’t with the Islanders, but he doesn’t look like a guy on the decline to me. Then again, he’s never been a MacInnis-class player either, though I don’t want to start comparing apples and orangutans.

Not that I expect anybody in this city to really stop caring about their floundering team. Edmonton takes its hockey very, very seriously, even by Canadian standards. We’re talking about a Roch Carrier’s Le Chandail de Hockey magnitude of seriousness. They burn their owners in effigy around here. But in the oil-ridden backwaters of central to northern Alberta, there’s only so much to live for. (That’s what the Prongers found out.)

It’s incredible to me that we’re now over a decade removed from the time when Al MacInnis, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts were, for all intents and purposes, established franchise players for the Flames. When play resumed after the lockout, all three were still on the ice. Remarkably, one of them still is, and it’s the one we practically lost to injury. An eight-year abandonment and a Stanley Cup run later, I got over it. Go Flames go.

Next: Scientists in China have leveraged the wonders of neuroscience to develop remote-controlled pigeons. My thoughts on carrier pigeons aside (I kind of love them), all I’ll say is this: forty years ago, this would have made for a killer episode of The Avengers.

Next: I’ve come to the conclusion that the Wii remote, turned sideways, is a phenomenal NES-style two-button controller. I’ve been using it as an NES and Genesis pad on the Virtual Console, and with emulated Game Boy titles on my Mac with the assistance of DarwiinRemote. At first, it’s a bit strange to hold a controller that wide when the left side is about half the width of the right, but the D-pad is superb and the 1/2 buttons (mapped to A/B, and horizontally arranged like the NES pad and unlike the Game Boy line) contour like a dream. I’ve been told that these are the same kind of buttons as the ones on the DS Lite. If so, I think I’m upgrading. It’s not just about the buttons, though. The form factor of the Wiimote, in all its lightweight, wireless glory, is such that you don’t grip the controller so much as you let it rest on your fingers and let it become a part of you.

As I was never a Sega man, for good reason – let’s face it, Nintendo won that era handily, even though the sales at the time made it look close – I did miss out on some genuinely terrific games for the Genesis. Well, one, anyway: Gunstar Heroes, the side-scrolling shoot-’em-up to end all side-scrolling shoot-’em-ups. It now resides on my Wii thanks to the Virtual Console service. This is all quite encouraging. In two generations, when Nintendo is still alive and kicking and Sony’s games division has gone under, I fully expect to be downloading and playing PS2 games on my Nintendo system. There are a handful I’ve always wanted to try, though I could never justify purchasing a console from that generation that wasn’t a GameCube.

Would it be impossible for Nintendo to somehow update the Wii firmware so a Nintendo DS could be used as an SNES controller? Given that any sort of DS-to-Wii connection would be over local Wi-Fi and not Bluetooth, I wonder if there are any problems in terms of responsiveness and reliability. Battery consumption really isn’t an issue.

Next: I’ve decided I’m not going to comment on the Oscars until I’ve seen The Departed again, primarily because the first time I saw it, my enthusiasm was deflated somewhat because in some very significant ways, Scorsese’s film fails to escape the shadow of Infernal Affairs. It’s a strong film, but not as good as Andy Lau’s, certainly nowhere near Scorsese’s best, and – upon initial impressions – not nearly as engaging as Babel, which was (in turn) a more intelligent film than last year’s winner, the structurally similar Crash. But I have a feeling that The Departed would improve on repeat viewings.

Okay, I’ll comment on one Oscar. Cars was robbed. Happy Feet was fun and ambitious, but Cars was playing in a different league altogether – Pixar’s league. It reminds me of the hysteria over Shrek when it was the first winner of the Animated Film statuette back in 2001, which only really manifested itself in the box-office performance of the sequel. Don’t get me wrong: Shrek is still the best we’ve seen from DreamWorks apart from their work with Aardman, and is undoubtedly the best of the spoof subgenre. But on repeat viewings, it’s become abundantly clear that its opponent that year, Monsters, Inc., is the finer film by almost every critical metric that should be applied to animation, even if it isn’t as immediately gratifying. Between Cars and Happy Feet, it’s not even that close. The care and attention to character and story design aren’t even comparable.

Moreover, I worry about the impact that the Happy Feet award will have on the decisions that are made at the level of the people with money, the ones who are in the position of treating animation like a business and not a craft. Again, Cartoon Brew is on the money: professional animators have something to fear. The success of a film driven by motion-capture techniques means that the kind of studio bosses who invested in Shrek clones to the point of market oversaturation are, at this very moment, gambling their “development” money on mo-cap.

And why not? From a business perspective, motion-capture provides an Oscar-tested avenue for the budget to be spent on post-production technology that already exists, as opposed to investing in animators, who are trained to sort out all the minutiae in the design and storyboarding process – a pre-production phase that spans several years. If you’re going to greenlight films based on economic forces in a high-stakes nine-figure market, you’re naturally going to be impatient. And in case anybody is still under the illusion that the Oscars don’t matter, consider why it is that the standard idiom in mainstream CG is built on pop-culture references and celebrity voices – material that appeals to the here-and-now, and not built to last. It all goes back to Shrek.

I’m not one to knock motion-capture as a legitimate technique: once animators play with the keyframing and refine the results, the wonders start coming, and there’s no better testament than Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Remember that the harbinger of the CG revolution that first reached silver-screen audiences was also a similar live-action proof-of-concept, Jurassic Park. The real danger is when mo-cap is treated as a replacement for animators, which is a problematic strategy born of ignorance. A reliance on mo-cap as a time-saver and cost-saver, as opposed to a highly efficient modelling tool for animators to play with.

Take Happy Feet, for instance. Most of the animation in the film happens at the level of full bodies and, well, feet. When Mumble is confident, he puffs out his chest and struts around on his pair of tappity-tappers. When he’s sad, he hunches over and pitter-patters away. Fair enough. Can you think of a single memorable moment that involved, say, the eyes? Or even the flippers? If you look at a movie like Cars, almost every memorable shot is fundamentally defined by the “eyebrow” lines over the windshield. (I read somewhere that this was precisely why the animators decided to put the eyes in the windshield instead of the established standard of the headlights. It worked.)

Eyes are usually a dead giveaway when it comes to the apparent fluidity or stiffness of an animated character, and in Happy Feet, they’re not even designed to have any expressive power. They’re just there because penguins have eyes. The puppet-like rigidity in that paragon of Uncanny Valley mo-cap films, The Polar Express? It’s in the eyes, which are ostensibly only there because humans have eyes. When motion-capture actually works, like it did with Gollum, you get both natural body movements from your model (in this case, Andy Serkis) and the subtleties of facial expression (in particular, eye movements) from animators using keyframing techniques.

You can still get by without eyes and rely on full-body motion – hopping lamps, anyone? – but not if you have a pair of eyes just sitting on your character’s face waiting to be used.

I would add, on a final note, that motion-capture isn’t nearly as effective for films that are wholly animated as it is for CG elements in live-action movies. The utility of motion-capture, apart from its savings, is to make animated body movements look realistic enough to blend in with live-action ones. In feature animation, it’s not incumbent on anything to look realistic: the first priority is to be expressive, and often, that’s the opposite. (Happy Feet is a strange case in that while it is primarily CG, it does attempt to blend with live-action elements in its enthralling third act.) At the same time, the claim that motion-capture was meant for live-action films is an ironic one: the first major all-CG motion-capture character in live-action features was none other than the infamous Jar Jar Binks. By my account, the primary reason he was so harshly received was his “cartoonish” dynamism and lack of subtlety, which made The Phantom Menace feel like (shock and horror!) an animated film. I get the sense that George Lucas asked Ahmed Best to act like an animated character, and got exactly what he wanted: “Faster, more intense.”

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The kids stay in the picture

Saturday, 24 February 2007 — 10:56pm | Capsule reviews, Film

Now that I can hardly ever find and justify the time to be as thorough as I used to be when writing about cinema (newcomers to the site can find examples here, here, here and here), capsule impressions will have to do. So here are a few brief thoughts on the five theatrical releases I’ve seen since my last summation of the sort. For a few words on the Oscars and my picks for the best films of 2006, skip to the end.

Pan’s Labyrinth: A masterpiece, the best film of 2006, and certainly in my top ten of the decade. Or is it? A second time through will confirm it. As a character study of fascist villainy, it’s on par with Schindler’s List. As a film about romance and fairytales crushed under the boot of a harsh and violent reality, yet resisting and persisting in a way that only the imagination can, I’m racking my brain and its repository of memories from hundreds of films for a treatment that operates at the same level of excellence as Guillermo del Toro’s, and the only one I can think of is Brazil. No small feat, considering that this has been one of the defining themes in all of literature since Don Quixote, or even further back, that Chinese wise guy who dreamed he was a butterfly (or however the story goes). It’s sad, it’s beautiful, it’s fantastic in a way that out-Narnias Narnia, and it’s resolutely human. I recommend it without any hesitation.

Happy Feet: Surprisingly good. As a non-Pixar CG motion-capture film with generally indistinct character designs marketed for its celebrity voices and suffused with pop tunes (a manoeuvre that worked for Moulin Rouge! and nothing since), a movie like Happy Feet is a hard sell for a tough customer like yours truly. For the most part, I was sold: there is a tremendous level of visual craftsmanship on display here, and it would be unfair to dismiss the film based on its motion-capture tap-dancing alone, though one would be right to question how convincing tap-dancing is when applied to animals that don’t even have legs.

Thematically there’s nothing new – just a gravitation from the usual message to the kids about conformity to a hero-quest about environmental consciousness. The former is a wash; it takes a film smarter than this one (The Incredibles, perhaps) to say something with more substance than “being different is okay.” As for the latter, it fares better simply because in its final act, the film’s stunning visuals manage to convey the sense that Mumble, our fluffy footloose protagonist, is on an epic journey to save his homeland – and that furthermore, this is worth doing. The state of mainstream computer animation after Shrek is such that we’ve seen the emergence of a dominant paradigm. While that set of conventions should go straight out the window, and is finally showing signs of collapse, Happy Feet is about the best it has to offer.

Tideland: This is the anti-Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam at his most rebellious and esoteric. I hope none of those bigshot executives with Hollywood money saw it; if they did, they’ll never fund him again. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, Tideland is a film about a child protected from the outside world by a shell of fantasy and adventure, and everything about it that works can be traced to the strength of an outstanding child performance by Jodelle Ferland. The cinematography is lavish, the musical score is not to be ignored, and I was sufficiently familiar with Gilliam’s oeuvre that the story worked for me in a way it won’t for most. However, it would be dishonest of me to overlook the fact that the film’s perverse indulgence in its Faulknerian grotesqueries is so disturbing as to deter me from ever seeing it twice. Human taxidermy, for crying out loud.

Letters from Iwo Jima: Cinema, especially American cinema, is so saturated with images depicting the Second World War that the test for every new war movie has become, “Does this film have anything to add?” In an environment where every WWII film is reverent, patriotic or nominally anti-war, do Clint Eastwood and company have anything novel to say? Letters from Iwo Jima says they do. Setting aside the fact that it is a film told in Japanese and about the Japanese, Letters is in many ways conventional in style and structure, but that is hardly a fault when in recent years, Eastwood has demonstrated a complete mastery of orthodox filmmaking, always finding a way to apply its lessons to new stories and unexplored ideas.

If I were to sum up the organizing idea of the movie – the “point,” if you will – I would call it the failure of the Japanese to maintain a façade of ruthlessness, discipline and honour at all costs. We saw shades of this fifty years ago in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and we see it explored from a more concentrated angle in Letters. Obviously, a film that portrays the Japanese on the defensive is going to humanize “the enemy” in the American imagination, but I don’t consider it anti-American or apologetic. The subtle reprimands of the conduct of soldiers and officers apply to any flag in any period of history, and that lends the film its power – as do the strong performances, appropriately dry cinematography and erudite screenplay. Deserving of its Best Picture nomination, and an effective advertisement for Eastwood’s other Iwo Jima movie, Flags of Our Fathers, which I now intend to see.

Dreamgirls: It’s fundamentally nice to see that musicals are alive and well. I couldn’t have said that six years ago, before Moulin Rouge! arrived on the scene and revived a genre that was presumed dead for the better part of three decades. Here, Chicago screenwriter Bill Condon adapts a Broadway musical with which I was not already familiar, so I saw it without any preoccupation with adaptation issues. I admire how fluidly it flows in and out of the songs, and how smooth the apparent transitions are from one scene to another within the same number. The camera is active and dynamic, and in spite of being a musical about stage performers, the film never feels confined to the stage. As a motion picture, everything seems to be in place. If I have any reservations about Dreamgirls, it’s that it doesn’t appear to have been a terrific musical to begin with. It’s not even so much that it’s a shallow story about shallow showbiz folk; on a perfectly superficial level, most of the greatest musicals on stage and screen were about precisely that. I don’t find the music or lyrics as challenging, diverse or cohesive as I’ve come to expect from the best of the format.

Is it because I have a prejudice that favours more traditional showtune writing over soul and R&B? No: see Rent for details (and for an example of what I mean by great musical writing). Is it because I’m not familiar with the source material, and I’m therefore not predisposed to find the musical numbers memorable? No: I never saw Chicago onstage either, and it stuck with me just fine. Is it because the large ensemble cast, with no clear lead, leaves the characters ill-defined? Not in the least. The performances are exhilirating enough that each of the major characters hold their own. Never mind that Jamie Foxx spends most of his time grimacing and being very heartless and businesslike: Jennifer Hudson is a commanding presence; Beyoncé Knowles finally acts and sings, and almost makes up for that boneheaded decision to let her croon all the Oscar-nominated Original Songs two years ago; Eddie Murphy is full of life, though an Oscar winner he is not. There’s nothing specific about why the film didn’t blow me away: it just didn’t, on a simple, holistic level. Still, Dreamgirls is good, colourful fun, and it is not my intent to discourage anyone from seeing it. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

And that about wraps it up for 2006. Oscars are just over the horizon, and this year is too much of a crapshoot for me to do any thorough predictions; besides, I haven’t been following the precursor awards or the awards-season politics, neither of which can be ignored when placing bets. Of the five Best Picture nominees, Babel is my favourite. While I enjoyed all five, and they all deserve the accolade of being on the shortlist even if they’re not on mine, the only other one that I think would deserve to be elevated to the winners’ pantheon is Letters from Iwo Jima.

I don’t do Top Tens, though in the past I’ve occasionally done a February review of the year in film, like the one I did here for 2004. I’m not even going to bother justifying myself this time around – I’m just going to toss out the titles, and if I don’t feel the same way a month from now, tough. The order within the tiers is arbitrary… or is it?

The best of the best: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fountain, Babel.

The best of the rest: Cars, Casino Royale, Brick, Children of Men, Letters from Iwo Jima, United 93.

Any questions?

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Watchmaker, watchmaker, make me a watch

Tuesday, 20 February 2007 — 12:40am | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Riddle me this: It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?

In the famous opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams describes the human species as “so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” In this way, I am only human. I have worn digital watches all my life. I cannot live without one. It’s easy to tell when I’m fidgeting, because I check the time compulsively. As far as I am able to remember, on only two or three occasions have I been without a digital watch for more than a day, and on every one of those occasions, I panicked like an abandoned child lost on a San Francisco pier (which, come to think of it, is something I’ve also been at least twice). I have probably been without my watch more often than that, but those memories lie safely repressed.

Over the past year or so, my wristwatch dependency has loosened its grip. It still follows me everywhere, and I am still disoriented without it, but I replaced the strap a year ago and never got used to it. It wasn’t because the strap was uncomfortable; it was because I took my watch off with increasing frequency, either to time my own speeches or to permit the unobstructed handling of keyboards (both QWERTY and black-and-white), and never got so accustomed to the strap that I would be at a loss without it. But in any and all circumstances, my watch was never far.

I find that it is just as vital to know when you are as it is to know where you are, if not more so. If you are lost in space, you can find your way out, or you can stay in that spot, and develop a plan from the inferred state of your observed environment. Not so with time – certainly not here, where the winter days are but a few days in length, and the moon and stars lay hidden.

My model of choice has traditionally been the Casio Databank DB35H, mostly because I got very accustomed to its interface, feature set and display after years of use in elementary school; the segment layout is easy to read and familiar to me. It has evolved over several incarnations, and the one I purchased in what must have been 1999 or thereabouts had electroluminescent backlighting, which my first one did not, though it too has had its features extended in the latest revision. That said, given that I don’t really use the databank features, I’m open to superior alternatives like this Waveceptor model. At the same time, my current model suits my needs just fine, and I see no reason to leave it for another. Maybe an obsession with time is born of a desire for stasis and a fifty-metre resistance to change.

After roughly eight years of long service – perhaps longer, as I do not recall with the utmost precision – my battery died last week. For some reason, I don’t remember this happening before. The technical specifications for the latest incarnation of this model estimate a battery life of two years, which simply can’t be right. Perhaps my extensive use of the stopwatch features accelerated its demise. Or perhaps it was nothing more than any old battery expiring of natural causes.

I was at the university when time abruptly decided to stop, so at first opportunity, I went to the Bookstore to buy a replacement cell. Then I realized I was uncertain what battery I required, so I borrowed a screwdriver from the staff and opened up my watch on a counter. As it was already open, I decided to purchase a battery and perform the replacement myself then and there. I’d never been in the guts of one of my own watches before, so this was an autodidactic experience from the get-go. The battery housing was a veritable fortress, and tinkering about in its innards was a dextrous exercise ripe for eliciting a calm eddy of introspection, even if the device was only a digital timing implement and nothing that required me to meddle with mechanics and grapple with gears.

But irrespective of the absence of moving parts, disassembling and reassembling an electronic device and voiding its associated warranties is something I recommend everybody do at least once in their lives. Changing a lousy 3-volt lithium disc may be no big deal to those of my peers who spent their childhoods overclocking their CPUs, coiling solenoids for electric motors, or downloading instructions for building cherry-bombs from a nascent, textual Internet (and actually following them, to the chagrin of the junior-high caretakers); to them, it must seem no greater a task than the humdrum routine of replacing a lightbulb. However, I happen to be a Software Guy, a hands-off theoretician comfortable in his bubble of machine-independent algorithms afloat in the soapy bathwater of Platonic, Turing-computable ideal forms. For me, playing with little springs and unscrewing little screws and jumpstarting circuits with unfolded staples delivers a welcome pretence of handymanliness. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

In a timely coincidence, on that very same day I read about Zack Snyder’s plans for the Watchmen film.

Anyone who has been following my blog for reasonably long knows that of all the movies presently in development, this is probably the one I care about the most. More than the last three Harry Potters. More than His Dark Materials, which actually seems to be coming along very well from a design standpoint, though the jury’s obviously out on the script and will remain that way until the opening day of The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights, if they’re releasing it under that title elsewhere). Maybe even more than Indiana Jones and the Spanish Inquisition or whatever Lucasian premise it is we’re not expecting. I do not exaggerate when I say that Watchmen is the Lord of the Rings of comic books, and it’s imperative that it’s done right. I’ve seen it pass from Aronofsky to Greengrass to Snyder, and 300 will hopefully give us a good indication of whether or not Snyder knows how to strike the right balance between aesthetic special effects and storytelling mojo.

All signs are good so far. Everything he says about the direction in which he’ll take the film is exactly as it should be; it’s just a matter of whether it can be done. For one thing, setting it in 1985 as a period piece is absolutely the right choice, if not a necessary one. Everything in the story revolves around the binaristic politics of the Cold War era, and the quest for a third way, a way to undo the Gordian knot. The organizing symbol of Doomsday Clock ticking down to midnight, and all of its consequent thematic material – Dr. Manhattan’s totalizing and reductivist perception of time, relativity’s coming of age with the ushering in of atomic physics, or the temporal suspension of the apocalypse – only resonate the way they do because of a very specific milieu that we now consider historical.

If you look at the James Bond franchise, observe what a paucity of truly consequential political storytelling there was in the Pierce Brosnan era, in spite of the fact that they had possibly the very best actor in the “debonair gentleman Bond” mould at their disposal. Goldeneye is by far the best, and it’s fundamentally a Cold War film; in the other three, Bond was a fish out of water, though things started getting interesting again in the deliberately comical Die Another Day. What was compelling about Casino Royale, from an adaptation standpoint, was how the writers managed to graft a Cold War story into the immediate “post-9/11” (post-baccarat?) present, to give a media cliché another whack on the head. I’ve always thought that the Bond franchise should be grounded in Fleming’s day instead of evolving with our present technology and geopolitical climate, but Casino Royale somehow achieved precisely that effect without moving an inch away from 2006.

It worked for Bond, and I ate my words, but it would never work for Watchmen. Too much of its backdrop depends on the relative parity that exists between two well-defined state superpowers at the zenith of an arms race, and how the iconography of the American superhero grew out of a very specific ideological landscape particular to an era where the theoretical band-aid solution to all matters of military prowess was more atomic power. While I haven’t paid much attention to how the comic-book superhero has fared against terrorists and urban guerrilla warfare in the twenty-first century, I imagine our situation is somewhat different.

But for now, let’s hope that 300 is a good film and a glorious financial success. It will keep the suits off Snyder’s back. Hopefully this time, Watchmen will motor through the production pipeline and come to the silver screen without too many complications; last time around, they only got as far as putting up a teaser website. I’d hate the job to be rushed, but I’m an impatient fellow, and the clock is ticking.

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Better dead than smeg

Sunday, 4 February 2007 — 6:23pm | Television

Red Dwarf and I have a very long history together. I’m not completely sure it’s my favourite television series of all time, but it’s in the top two (the Diana Rigg seasons of The Avengers being the other candidate).

Briefly, for those of you not in the know: it’s a British comedy in space, and it’s smegging fantastic.

I discovered it during the four-year lull between Series VI and VII, when we were all left with a rather explosive time-twisting cliffhanger. It was the subject of my very first website, which I never properly finished. (Don’t bother looking; it doesn’t exist anymore, but do know that it was created back in the era when website “design” didn’t exist as a proper discipline and frames, hit counters and embedded MIDI files were cool.) This was before Rob Grant and Doug Naylor split up, Chris Barrie left the show, and Naylor decided to go ahead with VII anyway. I bought Grant’s Backwards in hardcover when it first came out. In the sixth grade, I was Rimmer’s “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” alter-ego, Dangerous Dan McGrew (no relation to the Robert Service poem), for Hallowe’en.

I caught the entirety of Series VII and all of VIII (minus the last episode) exactly once, when they first appeared in North America by way of PBS pledge drive marathons. And I never saw them again… foreboding ellipses… until now.

I received the DVDs of Series V to VIII this Christmas, and I’ve now watched every episode, including the reconstructed lost episode featuring the Cat, “Identity Within.” And here we arrive at the point of this post: I think VII and VIII are worth a brief revisit.

If you’ve made it this far, I’m guessing that you are already halfway familiar with the show; if you’re not, go watch it and come back. Consequently, you are also probably aware that Series VII (and to a lesser extent, VIII) have a particularly nasty reputation. Think of the backlash against The Godfather, Part III or the Star Wars prequels, and sprinkle liberally. The argument goes like this: after six seasons of brilliance, the show set standards for itself, and didn’t meet them.

Now, I won’t be one to argue that VII and VIII are on the same level as the first two eras of the show (I-II and III-VI). But they certainly aren’t as bad as everybody who hasn’t blocked them out of their mind remembers.

What surprised me most about Series VII was that the elements that worked were not what I thought they were. First impressions, way back when, was that the Rimmer-centric episodes – “Stoke Me a Clipper” and “Blue” – were the highlights of VII, and virtually everything else was dispensable (i.e. Chloe Annett as Kochanski, a blubbering jealous Kryten, the filmlike lighting and colour-balancing, the crappy CG where model shots used to be).

The second time through, almost a decade later, I’ve come to realize that Chloe Annett was a damn good if underplayed addition to the series, and I can’t believe anybody seriously prefers Clare Grogan’s bit parts as the Kochanski character in Series I and II. The dynamic between her and the blubbering jealous Kryten holds the fort remarkably well for five-and-a-half Rimmer-less episodes as far as character work goes. The film effect worked for me, and I don’t buy the argument that sitcoms inherently have to look cheap and stagy; if they’d stuck to that way of thinking, we’d never have progressed to the sci-fi adventure look and feel of Series III onwards. The crappy CG… okay, it’s still terrible, but I had a lot more sympathy for it after watching the documentaries and discovering that the model work became unaffordable, and their graphics house was a Chris Veale one-man show.

“Stoke Me a Clipper” is still one of the best episodes of the series, but not as great as I remembered. This might have been because after sitting through Series VI’s “Emohawk: Polymorph II” (and wondering why I never before realized just how outright bad it is; it’s easily one of the worst episodes from I to VI), I began wishing that they’d just leave alter-ego characters like Ace Rimmer and Duane Dibbley alone. Not a bad exit for Chris Barrie, but I’m sure we all wish he’d never left. Sure, pre-disaster Rimmer was resurrected for Series VIII, but that didn’t rescue six years of character development tossed out the window.

Speaking of disasters, I didn’t expect that “Blue” would come off as the worst episode of the series. Everybody remembers it fondly for the Rimmer Experience, which is classic, but as for the other twenty-five minutes of the episode, the less said the better. I couldn’t help but think it was a jarring error in the script every time the Cat actually used the name “Rimmer” instead of, say, “goalpost head.” Then again, “worst” might be a bit harsh: “Beyond a Joke” is terrific for its first half – there’s nothing quite like Kryten driving a World War II tank into Jane Austen World – but the rest of it is a wash.

But it’s not like Red Dwarf never had bad episodes before. The problem is that Series VII didn’t deliver any especially excellent ones. Instead, it consisted of several middling episodes with excellent moments (and from time to time, some fairly inert moments). It felt like a bigger kick in the pants when it had four years of expectations to live up to.

On a final note about VII: judging solely by the DVD feature where Chris Barrie reads an early draft of the script over storyboards, “Identity Within” could have been the great episode of the series, were the time, budget and Chris Barrie available to develop it properly. I’m not a fan of the big furry GELFs that we see in “Emohawk,” “Ouroburos,” “Beyond a Joke” and Doug Naylor’s novel Last Human, and there would have been more of them here, but that’s a small price to pay for a solid episode where the Cat finally gets the spotlight.

Series VIII – now that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

I did remember it to be an improvement on VII, and for the most part, I’m still holding to that. “Back in the Red” was originally intended to be two episodes instead of three, and it shows – there’s some extraneous matter I could do without, like the Blue Midget dance and the horrid Reservoir Dibbleys bit at the end of Part II – but those were really minor blemishes on what was otherwise a strong return to form, heavy on both story and comedy.

Series VIII also had, in “Cassandra,” what VII didn’t: a thoroughly balanced episode that I’d be tempted to place in my top ten. It found room for a classic causality-bending story and great character work, and proved that Rimmer’s return to the show need not displace Kochanski.

If there’s one problem that’s specific to VIII, it’s not the revival of the crew – it’s that the half-hour format only really has room for four characters. The Hattie Hayridge iteration of Holly got short shrift throughout most of Series III to V before disappearing entirely. VIII had to contend with six central characters, and while it disguised it well at first thanks to the length of “Back in the Red” and the tight writing of “Cassandra,” it begins to show. Sure, Norman Lovett shows up every now and then and does his Norman Lovett thing, but Kochanski doesn’t get to do much – a real shame, because I think by the end of Series VII, she’d taken up a position in the class hierarchy that we hadn’t seen before, and it showed promise.

And “Pete” was just bad.

As for the ending to “Only the Good…” – which I saw for the first time a few days ago – what I don’t understand is why they threw away a far superior ending that was scripted, filmed, and placed in the Deleted Scenes section of the DVD. Instead, we have a cliffhanger that will probably never be given a proper resolution.

To be quite honest, I think Red Dwarf is over for good. The official word is that any continuation of the television show has been on hold for years now because the feature film is only a studio’s big fat cheque away from happening. But it’s not getting any more marketable with age. Furthermore, whatever film gets made is going to be a standalone adaptation of the Red Dwarf story, not a continuation of the television series – and while this is in many ways the right decision, it’s not so good for giving the fans a sense of closure.

Should Naylor do a Series IX or a one-off concluding episode, it’s encouraging that the quality of affordable CG effects work has finally caught up to the ambition of the show, and the cast (judging by the DVD interviews) isn’t too, too old to revisit the characters. To keep things in perspective, though, it has been almost a decade. In fact, Red Dwarf turns twenty next year. I don’t have my fingers crossed that anything will happen.

Then again, there’s no point in doing a Series IX if the quality of the writing isn’t going to be up to scratch. But there would be quite a real point to making it if it meant the show could go out with a bang.

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Hogwarts, Quahog and the Chinese Room

Friday, 2 February 2007 — 12:02pm | Harry Potter, Literature, Television

I’m quite shocked. I didn’t think she could do it.

A July release date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had been rumoured long before yesterday’s announcement, mostly because the prospect of the seventh Potter being released on 7/7/07 (as was often suggested) was too numerologically fortuitous to pass up. There were two reasons I never believed this: first, it coincided with the anniversary of the London tube bombings, and while I don’t like the idea that we’re effectively letting the terrorists win, I can understand the need for sensitivity.

More to the point, though, all indications were that Rowling wouldn’t finish in time. Books don’t get printed and shipped out as soon as they’re done: the fact that the date is now set to 21 July indicates that a complete draft is already in the can. I had no idea she was anywhere close to this. Settling on a title in December was probably the first indication that the book was coming along much faster than I expected, but even then, this is all rather sudden.

It’s encouraging, though. As was the case with The Prisoner of Azkaban, a quick turnaround time means things were tightly planned, things are going as planned, and the author isn’t struggling. It could make for a satisfying finale, to say the least.

By the way: while I have to read The Half-Blood Prince again before I commit to anything, my chips are still on “Harry is not a Horcrux,” “Snape is evil” and “Harry, Ron and Hermione all make it out alive.” All three of these positions are somewhat contrarian, and I wager I’m one of very few people to hold all of them at once, but we’ll see who’s eating crow come Saturday the 21st.

Next item on the agenda: Family Guy.

I make it no secret that I am not at all a fan of the show. In fact, I find it often irritating and outright dumb. After watching a few consecutive episodes one summer, it became readily apparent to me that however fresh it must have seemed back in its inaugural season, what passes for comedy on Family Guy amounts to a bag of three or four basic tricks.

I’m not going to get into details here. I tried once, but I couldn’t get to the end. Just read this guy and pay special attention to #9, #7, #3 and #2. And just know that the moment the show lost me for good was when I realized it didn’t even know how to make a decent jab at The Da Vinci Code.

I only bring up Family Guy now because for all its failings, the one element that never ceases to impress me is the music, be it the nostalgic sitcom cues or the full-blown musical numbers. Sure, like the rest of the show, most of them are merely referential and not parodic, which means that they can be cute, but not necessarily funny. I know at least one person who only knew the great Lerner/Loewe tune “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” from Seth McFarlane doing Stewie doing Rex Harrison in one of Family Guy‘s more triumphant moments, and not from My Fair Lady; I’m sure he’s not alone.

So what do we make of this: taking the scene from Anchors Aweigh where Gene Kelly dances with the latter half of Tom and Jerry as a palimpsestic surface, so now we have Gene Kelly dancing with Stewie Griffin?

Personally, I find it quite enjoyable, and probably as good as the show is ever prone to get. In fact, Family Guy is generally a lot more tolerable when snipped into little sketches and segments that are placed online. This is one of its better moments, even if it reeks of the problem I mentioned earlier – that the show can’t tell the difference between reference and parody, and often settles for the former.

But as fun as it may be, Steve Worth is on point: “How much ‘thought to animation and choreography’ does it take to rotoscope someone else’s animation and slap your own character over the top of it?… Family Guy deserves no praise for this. A ripoff is a ripoff.”

Then again, even a ripoff is linguistically interesting from time to time.

As an aside, I started sketching this post in my undergraduate class on the philosophy of mind, and it’s slowly dawning on me just how little most people know about computers. I think it’s a problem, at a basic conceptual level, that the average layman wraps his head around computers as if they were only machines that are or aren’t powerful enough to do certain things, and not as theoretical, mathematical constructions – which, when it comes to a philosophical approach to consciousness, is the part that matters.

Generally, this is probably a consequence of the fact that most people’s exposure to science is limited to an exposure to technology. Consequently, it must be easy for them to fall into the trap of thinking that scientific problems, or philosophical ones with scientific elements, can be solved by technological progress alone.

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