Monday, October 24, 2022

Does Andrew In Fact Hate All Television Programmes on General Principles?

Disney +

Everyone agrees that the first Season of the Mandalorian is marvellous, but thereafter the Star Wars Television Universe seems to generate surprising amounts of controversy. Some people are cross because it references the various animated Star Wars shows; other people are cross because the de-aged Mark Hamill isn't 100% convincing. Some people are cross because it treats the sequels and prequels as canon. Some people are cross because it is made by Disney. Other people are cross because they don't like Star Wars in the first place. (And, of course, the Usual Suspects are cross because it is Insufficiently Racist.)

I can see how you might find the sheer volume of Star Wars material a little intimidating. I can see how you might think "I can't possibly watch the Mandalorian because it continues the story of Asoka, which I am not familiar with" and :I can't possibly become familiar with the story of Asoka because I don't have time to watch seven seasons of Clone Wars and five seasons of Rebels." (I believe some people also have sectarian objections to watching animation.) But holistic concerns apart, the TV Universe seems to have a consistent look and feel and outlook; as well as clearly working towards a vast multi-season meta-plot. If you like Star Wars, these are very much the sequels and prequels and offshoots and sidelong glimpses into the far away long ago galaxy that you have always wanted.

Opinion is understandably divided about how good or bad the prequels and sequels were and there is pretty universal agreement that Solo was a bit of a wasted opportunity, but virtually everyone thinks that Rogue One was awesome. It somehow managed to be a nostalgia fest, plunging us back into the pre-1977 universe of A New Hope, and to repaint that universe in more realistic and dark colours. But it didn't seem to be deconstructing or undercutting the concept of Star Wars, as the Last Jedi arguably did. 

That said, when I heard that the next TV show was going to be about Andor, I was slightly inclined to say "Who the hell is Andor".

Not being able to quite remember which one Andor was is not a particular handicap, because the show is, necessarily, a prequel to the prequel. Andor in episode one is just some guy, hanging out on some planet, getting into trouble with some bad guys. He stupidly kills a pair of corporate goons who come after him because he asked the wrong sorts of questions in a night club. He gets recruited by a Mysterious Figure who, unsurprisingly, is part of the Rebel Alliance; sent on a heist mission to rob an Imperial payroll, and, the last we saw, was being sent to an Imperial Prison. I believe the plan is for there to be a two season of ten episodes each, which will presumably show how Nobody Very Much became an established Rebel operative in time to meet Jyn in the stand alone movie.

It's definitely slower paced, more dark and even realistic, than any Star Wars product we've seen before; a spy/heist/war story that happens to be set against a familiar backdrop. We are told that it is going down particularly well with people who have never seen Star Wars, if such a beast can be imagined. The Rebel who recruits Andor has secret meetings with someone called Mon Motha on a planet called Coruscant; and she is seen making speeches about someone called Palpatine in front of something called the Senate; but nothing in the storyline particularly depends on your being able to identify these characters.

It takes a little while, particularly in episode one, to come up with a reason to care about what is happening. And the thought that a guy talking to high class prostitutes in a cocktail bar was not quite in keeping with the U-certificate comic-strip vibe did cross my mind. Where Boba Fett and Obi Wan pointedly show us familiar hardware and aliens, Andor pointedly doesn't, so we have to take it a bit on trust that we're even in the Star Wars universe. But things very much come together when Andor is embedded in a Rebel unit. The heist itself, which naturally doesn't going precisely according to plan, is genuinely exciting. The group includes sinister and unreliable cynics as well as full on revolutionary idealists who write Marxist manifestos in their spare time. It feels like a terrorist cell: well meaning and idealistic and quite reluctant to kill people, but still made up of scary paramilitaries. 

We also get a behind the scenes look at the Empire: not as comic book villains, but as a genuinely nasty fascist bureaucracy run by relatively plausible human beings, all watching their own backs while looking for the opportunity to stab someone else in theirs. Col. Yularen's sarcastic chairmanship of internal imperial briefings is a joy to behold.

A mild reimagining of Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back: it doesn't so much undercut them as open the curtain, shine in some light, and let us see the Empire and the Rebellion from the other side. But it stands alone as a science fictional thriller. 

If I despise Rings of Power for not being recognisably Middle-terrestrial, I honour Andor, and pretty much Disney's entire outlook) for continuing to point a camera into what is quite clearly still #myStar Wars.

The Expanse
Amazon Prime

The Expanse reminds me a lot of the the 2004 version of Battlestar Galactica. It's dark, it's dense; it has multiple plotlines going on at once; it's interested in politics. The spaceships feel like big military or industrial vessels: there is no attempt to give us the Red Baron in space. Space feels big and empty and frightening; there are chunks when we could almost believe that we were watching documentary footage from the future. The characters are multi-layered and human. I am quite interested to know how it all comes out in the end. But like Battlestar Galactica, starting a new episode always feels like a bit too much effort. It's compelling without being fun. I have to concentrate slightly harder than I'm sometimes ready for. It's just a bit, how can I put this, mumble, mumble, dull? Big spaceships are only cool to the extent that oil-rigs are cool. Politics involving Mars and the Belt isn't automatically more rivetting than politics involving, say, Egypt and Suez.

Still, it's a convincingly assembled world; and there have been passages of genuine tension. The bigness and the smallness of the plot impressively coexist: the action shifting between Politicians having important congresses; a small team of spacers having a bad time; and a Blade Runnerish private eye in over his head. Doubtless, in the way of Game of Thrones, the whole thing will fit together by the end. I will certainly remain on board until the end of Season One, but there are something like 50 episodes to get through....

Ms Marvel
Disney +

A realistic young person in a realistic setting is transformed into a superhero and has to deal realistically with the consequences. For whatever values of "realistic" are appropriate in a universe where people can be turned into superheroes, obviously. 

Ms Marvel really isn't "A Muslim Superhero" any more than Daredevil is "a Catholic Superhero". She was in 2013 very much what Ultimate Spider-Man had been in 2001, and come to that, what Spider-Man had been in 1962. A fresh, sassy, street-wise engagement with the whole idea of superheroes. A fantasy about the hero who could be you, or at any rate, your mate. A teenager with the attitudes and world-view of a teenager; who happens to be of Pakistani Muslim heritage. (The original Spider-Man was very probably Jewish.) Ultimate Spider-Man was originally shunted off into a parallel universe, but Ms Marvel takes place in mainstream Marvel Continuity. "Realistic" comics and "comic booky" comics no longer have to be kept apart: social realism, of a kind, is the new normal. 

So far as I can tell "Ms" is pronounced Miss rather than Muzz. When the first Muzz Marvel comic book appeared in, good lord, 1977, "Ms" was felt to be rather a feminist statement: I think it is now a pretty standard female honorific.

The Disney+ / MCU series is quite a freeform take on the comic book. The characters are all in place: the over protective Ammi, the rather embarrassing Abbu; the super-religious but also incredibly cool elder brother; and of course, Bruno the almost-too-nice on/off white boyfriend. Kamala herself is a head-in-clouds superhero geek, specifically a fan of Carol Danvers: the first episode involves her and Bruno sneaking out of the house to attend AvengersCon, which her parents don't approve of ("You want to go to a party?" says her mother in disbelief.) I like very much the way that superheroes are treated as celebrities in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that superhero fans are like comic book nerds. (The Captain America Musical was one of the high-points of last year's Hawkeye series.)

Her origin is quite a bit different from the comic book. It no longer involves the Inhumans and the Terrigen mist: instead, she is connected to a group of extra-dimensionals called the Clandestine, her powers activated through a magic bangle, that once belonged to her grandmother. Given that the Inhumans, give or take a cameo, don't yet exist in the MCU, this was probably inevitable. Comic book Kamala is interacting with the denizens of Marvel New York within a couple of issues; but TV Kamala's encounter with her heroes is left to the last possible moment.

The comic book Ms Marvel's powers were arguably the least interesting thing about her: she can change size and stretch her body not entirely unlike Reed Richards; but on TV she achieves similar results by creating and manipulating a sort of crystal webbing. (I am slightly disappointed that this means she has lost her catch-phrase "embiggen".) As is par-for-the-course, we only see her fully operating as a superhero in the final episode, when she also acquires her costume and nom de guerre. "Kamala" could be understood as "marvel" in Urdu, allegedly.

Iman Vellani is quite ludicrously good in the role; heroic and down to earth, childish (she travels with a cuddly sloth as a nap pillow) without ever being cute, funny without being flippant. We will imagine the comic book character as her from now on, in the way that Tony Stark is become Robert Downey Jr and Samuel L Jackson is forever Nick Fury. 

I wasn't completely onboard with the middle episodes where the action shifts to Kararchi, and Kamala briefly time-slips back to 1947. (There's a lot of it about.) This seemed to foreground the characters ethnicity just a little too much. Ms Marvel is kind of the first Muslim superhero (unless you count The Arabian Knight created by uber-hack Bill Mantlo as far back as 1981) -- but her religious heritage isn't the most interesting thing about her. It also means that we got to see less of her New York supporting cast: I thought the series really came into its own in the final episode when Kamala and her friends are besieged in their school by a nasty anti-superhero quasi-police organisation called Damage Control. Kids and the local community pulling together to defend themselves with science projects, softballs, fire extinguishers and mostly the power of friendship seems much more what Ms Marvel is about than Indian Partition. (I did enjoy the "British Occupied India" caption.) That said, the cultural stuff is really well handled: I loved the brief scene at an Eid celebration where on-screen captions identified the different groups in the Jersey City Muslim community (the trendy young Mosque Bros; the mostly white Converts). Kamala goes to Mosque, takes it for granted that there is a separate women's section, but complains that it isn't as well maintained as the men's. The imam is cool and likeable.

The series only runs to six parts, and our next meeting with Kamala is in a forthcoming film called The Marvels where she (presumably) gets to hang out with her namesake heroes. While the whole point of the wider Marvel Universe is that the characters become part of it, I hope that Ms Marvel's meeting up with the actual Avengers doesn't deprive Kamala of the relatable ordinariness which is kind of the whole point of her. Peter Parker didn't get to be Peter Parker for long enough before he was hanging out with Tony Stark and helping to defeat Thanos.

Captain Marvel was created in 1939 by Fawcett comics, but ceased publication in 1954 after a lawsuit from DC Comics. DC themselves acquired the rights to the character in 1972; but in the intervening years Timely comics had become known as Marvel, so Captain Marvel became simply known as Shazam! 

Captain Marvel is completely unrelated to Captain Marvel, an alien superhero created by Stan Lee in 1967, specifically to establish Marvel Comic's right to use the name. The pretext was that his real name was Mar-Vell, which is now such an established part of the lore that fans can't see how silly it sounds. In one Apocryphal story he merged with Eternity and became the Mar-Vell Universe. 

Captain Mar-Vell had a human girlfriend called Carol Danvers who became known as Ms Marvel when she acquired superpowers. When Mar-Vell dies of cancer, Carol Danvers becomes Captain Marvel in her own right. Although Kamala admires Carol Danvers this Ms Marvel has no connection with Ms Marvel apart from the name. 
Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel have nothing to do with Captain Marvel a black female police officer with the ability to transform herself into a beam of light, who first appeared in 1982. (Her real name is Monica Rambeau, and a character of this name has appeared in the MCU Captain Marvel movie and the Wandavision TV series.) 

When Captain Marvel ceased publication in the 1950s, British publisher L Miller created a similar character called Marvelman. Where Captain Marvel's powers depended on the magic word Shazam, Marvelman's depended on the word Kimota. (Shazam is, of course, Mazahs spelt backwards.) When Marvelman was revived by Alan Moore in the 1980s, Marvel Comics insisted that his name be changed to Miracleman.

Captain Marvel shared his magic word with a number of other heroes, creating a Marvel family which included Captain Marvel Junior, Mary Marvel, and Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. If Baz Luhrmann is to be believed, Captain Marvel Junior was one of the main causes of Elvis Presley. The magic word was also used by an Egyptian wizard; who became a super-villain but was then partially rehabilitated. He took the name Black Adam but is so obscure that no-one would ever consider putting him in a movie. 

The Elgin Marvels are sculptures in the British Museum, but many people think they should be returned to Greece

Paper Girls 
(Amazon Prime)

Sat down to watch Ms Marvel; found my Disney+ link had temporarily gone away; picked Paper Girls off Prime more or less at random. Instantly hooked.

I'd seen adverts for the comic book at least seventy six times, and never been particularly intrigued by them. It's written by Brian K Vaughan who wrote the remarkable and still ongoing Saga saga, which has been described as "Kinda like Star Wars meets Game of Thrones". Saga isn't actually very much like either of those two franchises; but it's hard to sum up a hundred and fifty issue graphic novel in ten words. Paper Girls is equally unlike Back to the Future meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In 1988, four twelve-year-old girls (Erin, Karina, Tiffany and Mac) are out delivering newspapers on their bicycles, which was a thing which kids did in the Olden Days. They time-slip into the future, which is to say, the present, which is to say, 2019. The first four episodes of the series are about them figuring out what is going on, coming to terms with how the world has changed, and attempting to go home.

There is the thinnest possible science-fiction backstory. Some baddie time travellers from the far future are trying to change the time-line to their advantage, and some goodie time travellers are trying to stop them. But the interest in the show, so far at least, depends on the basic time-travel situation, which skilfully avoids going in any of the most obvious directions. Naturally, the girls are sometimes bemused by modern technology. When one of them inadvertently sets off a voice-activated Alexa smartphone, they assume that there are "really robots" in 2018. But relatively little space is given to the dropping of jaws or "gosh, isn't the future amazing" moments. They are much more worried about the realisation that their parents (and pets) are mostly long dead, and that familiar buildings have been pulled down and built on. The bulk of the drama comes from character situations. Erin encounters her fifty-year old self, who has entirely failed to fulfil any of her childhood ambitions. Mac tracks down her now-middle-aged elder brother who has unexpectedly turned into a successful middle aged doctor. He somewhat reverts to childish attitudes around his younger sister, who is distinctly unimpressed when he acts like a responsible dad around his own kids. ("So, it started with me and Dr. dіldо, over here, shooting off illegal fireworks, then he took me on a shopping spree, but then the clock struck 3:00, and he suddenly turned back into a total prick".) 

I've just got to the part when the guy from the Rebel Alliance reveals that he has a giant robot in the barn, and everyone flies off through a wormhole, presumably ending up in an entirely different time-zone. If it's anything like Saga, plot threads are going to multiply as things proceed: but so far it is both clever and compelling and I really want things to turn out well for the main characters.

Erin is Chinese-American, Karina is Jewish, Tiffany is black and Mac is white. Mac is sometimes quite prejudiced and Karina pulls her up for it. I assume that some people in the writers' room consume large     quantities of tofu.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Pete Ashton said...

Paper Girls was fantastic. Massive shame it got cancelled. I heard it described as the most accurate depiction of teenage girls on television.

Achille Talon said...

I do think it is worth mentioning that rather a lot of people object to the CGI Luke on the basis that it was disrespectful to Hamill to do it all without him, when he could easily have done the voice; or more melodramatically because it represents blah blah death of art blah blah commodification blah blah. Too raging-against-the-tidey for me to bother with online screeds, but it's certainly played a part in a general sense of distaste that has made me reluctant to check them out. And it's been a prominent part of the criticism of New Star Wars since the Peter Cushing impersonator in “Rogue One”, so I don't think I'm alone.

voxpoptart said...

In the US Midwest where I grew up, "Ms." was pronounced as vowel-lessly as "Pssst!" and meant "I recognize your status as a full person whether you're married or not". It was always intended to become standard and generic! In the US South where I live now, it's pronounced "Mizz" and is basically only used by unmarried women.

Siddhant Adlanka posted wonderful episode-by-episode reviews of Ms. Marvel. Pakistani-American culture is Adlanka's culture, and apparently the show does a genuinely wonderful job portraying it, which makes me happy. "Demons of the Punjab" was the only excellent episode of Chibnall's Doctor Who and it was about the Indian-Pakistan partition; high-quality cultural tour guides plus monsters is an A-OK experience by me.

Never heard of Paper Girls; it sounds worthwhile! Pete Ashton has already warned me it got canceled; if I watch it I shall try not to get too invested.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

I wasn't aware that it was done without Hamill's input (although presumably with his permission): I thought he played his scenes and then was made to look younger by computer Sorcery. I thought the scenes were convincing enough.

If you'd somehow discovered an unfinished James Dean movie, then there would be some validity in using Deep Fake jiggery pokery to fill in the missing scenes; but the idea, mooted a few years ago, that you could make a "new" James Dean movie with all his scenes computer generated seems odd and pointless. (Presumably, what made him an icon was not his face and his voice but his Acting.) Star Wars is an odd case because its pseudo-history about specific characters who are indelibly associated with particular actors. I tend to think that a CGI Luke dropped into Boba Fett is no different from cartoon Lukes, Bens, Leias and Qui-Gons right the way through Clone Wars and Rebels, or indeed, the very obvious use of photo reference material to create Star Wars comics. (There is a question about an actors ownership of his image: I believe it was said at the time that the Star Wars merchandizing empire took off because Lucas had more rights to use actors faces than was standard at the time.)

I think in this country "Miss" "Mrs" and "Ms" are used fairly consistently for Single, Married, and None Of Your Business. As long as "Mrs" is in common use "Ms" is no improvement over "Miss". The use of Master for a young male child has dropped completely out of use, and the American Jnr. never really took off over here.

Glad that American Muslims are cool with Ms Marvel: there were a couple of scenes that I was afraid might be drifting into "orientalism", if that's what I mean.

Sad that Paper Girls isn't going beyond a first series, but it means I have no excuse not to read the comic.

Achille Talon said...

I wasn't aware that it was done without Hamill's input (although presumably with his permission): I thought he played his scenes and then was made to look younger by computer Sorcery. I thought the scenes were convincing enough.

I believe he was involved with the process, but hadn't been told that his voice performance itself would be erased altogether and replaced with an A.I.-generation based on his younger self's recordings. Which makes an interesting echo with Dave Prowse not being best pleased with the idea of being overdubbed by James Earl Jones, if nothing else.

I agree the effect itself was convincing enough, but that's rather the problem. It's all very well to rejuvenate actors who are actually acting (I didn't mind the deaged Alfred Molina in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, for example), and the few frames of the CGI Carrie Fisher in “Rogue One” weren't much more than a wax figure of Tom Baker for the group picture — but there is an increasing feeling on the interwebs that a photorealistic duplicate of a dead or geriatric actor is "more authentic" than a recast actor, and this makes a lot of people queasy, and I count myself among them.

Within ten years or so it will very likely be possible for a company of Disney's means to create a “Solo” or “Obi-Wan” film where the central figure is a lifelike and entirely artificial Young Harrison Ford or Young Alec Guinness, crafted out of Deep Learning models and plastered over a series of anonymous stuntmen. However much David Bradley did or did not convince as William Hartnell, I think we can all agree an hour of Peter Capaldi acting opposite a VFX Hartnell zombie (delivering all those same Moffat lines) would have been much worse. That prospect creeps me out enormously in how it replaces a respect for the actual craftsmanship of acting with a fetishistic attachment to the specific bone structures involved; and CGI Luke felt like a definite step towards that future.