Fear of Victory

100 puuchuu points to whomever can tell me what the title above comes from. (50 bonus points if you know what "puuchuu points" comes from--specifically, I mean).

I realized something that's been bugging me: an unwillingness, on the part of people involved in the production of comic-book, SF, and fantasy shows and movies, to let them be the geeky, geeky things they are. Closely associated is a willingness to settle for second-rate work just because the mainstream thinks it's neat. Let's look at each in turn, shall we?

The people behind the new Batman movies, for instance, are unwilling to let them be comic book movies. Ras al-Ghûl is no longer immortal (removing all justification for his character, actually--and he's supposed to be an eco-terrorist); Joker's no longer white, and god forbid he should get any gas (or Harley: why why why couldn't we have had Harley Quinn?!).

Peter Jackson's LOTR movies felt the need to add a bunch of anachronistic "jokes," if that's the word--yet not once does Gimli get to yell, "Barûk Khazâd, Khazâd ai-menu!" (the only sentence in Dwarvish). They cut the Barrow Downs and ruined the whole point of Gandalf the White by letting a Nazgûl--that is, a dead human!--overpower him. As if he couldn't snuff the stupid lich with a thought, this is a Maia we're talking about.

And hell, it's not like Harry Potter isn't essentially mainstream, but after the second movie they brought in a bunch of "edgy" directors, each of whom screwed the story over worse than the hack before. The character development, hell, most of the plot(...the setting? Seriously, what's with Cuaron's hatred of establishing shots)? No, that's none of our business. If we actually told the damn story, people might think we'd read the books (I think that's a prerequisite to adapting a book, reading it, but then I was taught with old books of logic).

Compare, for instance, the Spider-man movies, the Conan films, and the adaptation of Narnia. Sam Raimi felt "like he'd been handed someone's baby," and it shows--those are still the best comic book movies (followed by Hellboy, then Blade). Peter is absolutely Peter Parker, there's no pretense of being more "realistic"...and hey, characters who've shown they'll save the Joker don't leave Ras al-Ghûl to die! Ring any bells?

Why is it Marvel comics are nowhere near as good, but they make better movies?

In the Conan movies, they don't adapt any particular story, but there are certainly elements from several of them, and...frankly, Conan never really had a terribly compelling plot; he made Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser look downright driven. But the films're a very faithful rendering of the feel of the Conan books, and the characters never break out into dwarf-tossing jokes, and there's no @#$%&®© skateboarding, either. It's called "take the material seriously, and stop with the snarky po-mo self-consciousness already."

And then, the Narnia films! Aside from the fact they're better than the source material, not that that's hard, somehow they managed to hit most of the highlights of the plot, and still insert expanded action sequences. Yes, Grasshopper, this comes of killing the Buddha of mainstream approval.

Now for the second issue.

I'd argue that the reason fans put up with bad work is (and I'm not the only one who's said this), they're so glad someone is actually paying attention to them. People that don't have to be embarrassed about their hobbies, are actually paying attention to our hobbies. They're making movies of The Lord of The Rings, and they've got Ian McKellen and the guy that played Agent Smith and Steve Tyler's daughter in them! A Batman movie might actually get nominated for an Oscar--Heath Ledger did not die in vain! ...Not that the academy would pay any attention if he hadn't died, of course. And hey, mainstream critics are talking seriously about a show on SciFi!

"So," they feel, "this is what it's like to sit at the cool table."

That, I think, is what this phenomenon ought to be called. "Cool table" syndrome. Think, stupid high school shows, where people try "to be something they're not" to make the "popular" people like them, before realizing they need to "be themselves." I realize no high school was ever like that, but the trope is of use (anyone uttering the word "meme" should be teleported to a dimension of pure tentacle hentai).

Us geeks, we been kicked around some. We're used to people's eyes glazing over when we talk about our hobbies (hell, I'm geeking on such a level, I can make geeks' eyes glaze over). And seeing the mundanes, the supposed beautiful people, taking an interest, makes us feel loved. This is natural...but it's a weakness, and it can hurt art, if we continue to be so easily satisfied by the attention of the mainstream. One doesn't have to be like Harry "Nothing good can come of being associated with normal people" McDougall, but one needs to remember: these are the people that watch reality TV and Martha Stewart, the people responsible for Rachel Ray having four shows to every one Alton Brown has. These people are the reason Adult Swim barely shows any anime anymore. These are the same people that'll call Farscape a puppet show, the people who stand a very real risk of letting their children see Akira. Are you going to let these Phillistines determine the shape of mass-media SF and Fantasy? Will you let them set the Abomination of Desolation within the Holy of Holies...so to speak?

Ahem. Got a bit worked up there.

But anyway, it may be nice that Battlestar Galactica attracts some cash to SciFi, but that doesn't change the fact that it's essentially a children's show, but with sex. It's nice that the Batman movies are critically acclaimed...but they're not very much like Batman. It's a historic first, but ultimately shameful, that LOTR swept the Oscars, especially when most of the shallow-pates making it seemed to think it was a story about ecology.

Nowadays, there could never be a show like Babylon 5, there could never be another movie like The Labyrinth (and no, Spiderwick doesn't count, DiTerlizzi notwithstanding); there will never be another Batman: The Animated Series. Why? Well, because we've allowed the mainstreamers to think they get to decide how our stuff gets done. They took notice of the quality of some geek stuff--like Batman:TAS--and, rather than saying, "Yes, we are, in fact, this cool; all of our stuff is this awesome," the geeks decided they liked being liked by the mundanes more than they liked their geek-stuff. So they toned down the geekiness, made the plots so simple fans of The West Wing could follow them, and banished all trace of Niven, Lovecraft or Leiber.

Why do I feel like there's actually a spiritual truth contained in this? Apparently, being "unspotted from the world" is not only necessary to salvation; it's apparently also necessary to making any really good creative work. An artist should no more allow the opinions of anyone--especially the critics and art establishment--ruin his work, than a religious person should let the opinions of worldlings keep him from holiness, or a philosopher let the opinions of Socrates-poisoning half-brights keep him from wisdom (or for that matter, than a scientist should let the opinion of his so-called "peers" in the academic establishment keep him from uncovering physical truth).

Or in other word, what we have here is a Buddha in sad need of killing.


Go Loony

Ah, that was refreshing. Now back to unrelenting negativity.

I saw The Dark Knight this summer, and, well, yes, it is much better than Batman Begins. But it is much, much worse even than The Batman, let alone Batman: The Animated Series.

I'm gonna skip the positive and get right to what my problem is. The Joker. Yes, that's right, I don't like the Clown Prince of Crime, as portrayed in this movie. I'll list my reasons, shall I?

1. The Joker is supposed to be white, his hair green. Maybe the writers/directors had a psychotic aversion to a comic book movie being a comic book movie, but even Frank Miller, who has that same neurotic tic about being taken seriously by mundanes, let the Joker be the Joker. Also, of course, it strikes me as worthy of ridicule--not to say pillory--that they can't let Mr. J be the proper color, but they let Two-Face walk around with no skin on half his face and not instantly die.

2. They seem to think the Joker is merely a force of chaos, who just wants to "watch the world burn." Only, um...he's never been portrayed that way. In "Lovers and Madmen," he's portrayed as a brilliant sociopathic criminal who is helped out of an early midlife crisis by his discovery of his one worthy foe: the Batman. In "Killing Joke," it's revealed that he was once an anxious little nobody, whose overtaxed mind was nly able to cope by the simple expedient of...laughing (or going "Looooony, as lightbulb-battered bug"). That's why he's a sociopath: when he starts to feel the negative reaction a normal person has to the idea of doing evil, he just starts laughing, and the inhibition goes away. Okay, that last bit is my interpretation, but he's been shown to be immune to the Scarecrow's gas.

Incidentally, Scarecrow's gas, slightly modified, probably could have formed the basis of the Joker's gas (which, 3. the bastards decided not to give him). Laughter, after all, is a modified defense mechanism, triggered by fear. Come on, people, are you stupid? Can't you imagine the scene: the Scarecrow, say, has hired the future Joker to help him with a job, but decides to double-cross him, and sprays him with the gas...but it doesn't work! Instead, he starts finding the hallucinations funny ("There's a bunny on the moon," a la "Lovers and Madmen"). That could have been cinematic gold.

4. The Joker likes money, folks, he's not stupid. Yes he'll burn it in a heartbeat for the greater...punchline...but no, he'd never burn it just to prove some kinda point to some nobody gangster. That would be the act of someone who believes in something, and he doesn't believe in anything: he's a Nietzschean superman (seriously, think about it--the only better contender is Luthor, although the movies never get him right, either).

Not a Joker problem, but I also didn't like the whole "give them something to believe in" (that happens to be a lie), thing, from the ending. Come on, guys, this is Bruce we're talking about! He'd be more likely to say, "You see an S on this chest, Jim? You want Hope, move to Metropolis."



Eh heh heh, thought I'd do another positive one before ripping a certain summer blockbuster to shreds. So here it is: Farscape.

As with Babylon 5, let's do the bad first. Um...I didn't like that Scorpy didn't get to annihilate the Scarrans.

The news programs about the aliens, after they went to earth, were a bit moronic—and the UN being in control of space matters, would be race-suicide for humanity.

And that's it.

Okay, for the good. First, puppets—come on, man, puppets! The aliens don't look like they're floating just a few degrees into another dimension—they look like they're really there. Why? Well, because they are really there. Sure, there are people that can't stand having puppets in something—they, of course, prefer bad CGI. Everything, of course, should look like a PS1 game, because the mundanes will laugh at us for watching puppet shows (but that, reader-sama, is another post—look forward to it!) But it's really hard for a show to have any good CGI, and still have any budget left over for luxuries like...writers (the reason so much eye-candy SF sucks, I'm guessing).

Second, the story. The technobabble is used as it is in comic books, not as in Star Trek or Eureka: it is there to be hand-waving, to justify the wondrous things that happen in the plot, and as stage-dressing (or cultural setting, as it’s known), not to be the plot. The whole premise of wormhole tech as the holy grail, is not there to provide some Deus Ex Tachyons; it's there to provide justification for the entire Peacekeeper military to be hunting some nobody from a planet called Earp (Um, 'Earth.')

Third, the characters. This is your band of space renegades, Kemosabe—dare I say Outlaws? Eat it, Whedon, Crighton is the coolest male lead since Han Solo. For god’s sake, he’s a Southerner and he knows it. And he quotes Monty Python! The man is like a competent version of Arthur Dent and Philip Fry. D'argo is the only "primitive bruiser" type character I can really get behind, because his culture aren't a bunch of "noble savages," they're just warlike. And he could bust Worf's head like an eggshell, let's be real clear. Stark is unmitigated joy (because he's barmy), and his and Rygel's manzai act (Rygel is the tsukkomi) is amazing. Rygel, for pity's sake, is one of the six best characters ever. I can't imagine people now able to write that complex a character: a tiny, snobby, slightly pervy little tyrant who is, when push comes to shove, a really good leader. Gasp! You might think a rational person was involved in writing this show!

The female characters are among the few good ones in anything Westerners make. Aeryn’s not a feminist Mary-Sue…because she's basically only good at one thing, ass-whup. Okay, yes, Zan is annoying, but to be fair, most clergy are. Okay, yes, Chiana is an irritating little, well, tralk. But she doesn't seem to really likeit, and she's never portrayed as terribly admirable for being a slut. Actually her sluttiness screws her over fairly often—promiscuity having consequences! Is it even legal to put that in a script anymore? And she does get better after she accidentally acquires the ability to see the future. Jool and…Sputnik, whose name I always forget… are two variants on the Chiana theme, but believable as characters in their own right.

Scorpius and Crais are among my favorite antagonists in anything. Both of them are very sympathetic, and Crais has that whole badass leather-wearing Spelljammer-captain thing, with Talyn. Sorry, folks, that’s neat, and he gets a most excellent death. Scorpius, on the other hand, is even better—he might as well be an anime character. Think about it: he’s a single-minded badass, not unworthy of respect, who’s basically a revenge-crazed mama's boy. And he makes S&M jokes! He might as well be Edward Elric.

Fourth, the fact it's not purely SF at all. There are a whole bunch of what are basically wizards, all over the place, and Stark's weird death powers couldn't even count as "scientifically plausible" in the days when Campbell was the editor of Analog. It's more speculative fiction than purely SF...and yet it doesn't have 'Heisenberg compensators' or such idiocy.

It's sorta like opera, but a little more, well, pulp. It's more Double Suicide at Amijima than it is Götterdämmerung, wouldn't you say?

Chikamatsu's ghost, I think they invented a genre: space kabuki!


Babylon 5

I thought I'd take a break from being insanely critical, and mention a series that's awesome--Babylon 5. Now, it's been years since I've seen the thing, but I remember it pretty dang well (having seen whole swaths of it several times), and it's great. Let's break with my usual practice, and list the bad things first:

Um, Garibaldi referred to the Pope as "her," which is slightly religiously illiterate, and a fairly cheap way of establishing the "future-ness" of the whole thing.

The last season was sorta lame, most of the movies aren't that great, and the spinoff series was wretched, wretched, wretched.

And...that's about it!

A neutral point that's basically an objection but which doesn't count agains the show is that energy beings would not move like jellyfish, they'd move at lightspeed...and it's actually debatable whether they could interact with meat-people at all, without converting their energy to matter (how's that for a godlike alien trick?) But Star Trek's got the ridiculous energy beings too, and B5's don't appear ever to have had bodies.

Onward to the good things.

First off, the production values--come on, BSG, Firefly, where's your shame? This show from twelve years before you is eating your frigging lunch! The Minbari and Centauri alone are better than your entire productions! Every little thing on the station is believable, but recognizably different from ours. The costumes are amazing; it's very difficult to believe that G'Kar is not really an alien and Londo is not actually hung like a squid. The space battles have aged better than a lot of things, and the shadows and Vorlons are amazing, both their bodies and their ships.

Second off, the characters. Sheridan is the only believeable Chosen One in anything. Dilenn is one of very few women in anything made in the West in the last twenty years, that isn't just some feminist Mary Sue. Marcus can out-Aragorn Viggo Mortenson any day of the week, while wearing a leather stole. Lennier is an amazing combination of ever-so-slightly feeble but secretly badass bureaucrat and self-destructive unrequited lover. And could you even imagine a show having a guy like Londo Mollari now? And not just using him as vehicle for illiterate screeds against the Bush administration? Hell, I can't even imagine a show now able to conceive of an alien civilization not being a democracy or fascist dictatorship (the Centauri are a monarchy, the Narns seem to be an aristocracy, and the Minbari were a Brahmanocracy/Kshatriyacracy until Dilenn changed them to an "Aryatocracy", i.e. rule by the farmer-caste).

Third, the depth of the whole thing! Seriously, find me another writer who'd make a TV show based around Jungian archetypes! For that matter, find me another writer who'd have the stones to have a guy go to a place called Z'Ha'Dum, fall off a bridge while fighting something dark, and get reborn in the company of someone called Lorien! Or how about Emperor Katagia? That whole arc kept me on the edge of my seat, and was amazingly respectful of the viewers' intelligence. The Minbari caste-system is probably a reflection of the Indo-European Cattle-culture, that's why I used Sanskrit terms to discuss them above (India being the oldest example of that culture in essentially unmodified form).

Fourth, the realistic society. There's rock and roll, for God's sake, not just coffee-bar jazz and classical. People aren't just Yuppies in pajamas, they have mortgages and insurance and have to make money. The aliens do seem not to have multiple races (something nobody ever seems able to pull off), but they do have religions, and they're not all Ethical Cultural Jews (Vulcans) or Gary Gygax's version of Vikings (Klingons). The Minbari are some kind of panentheists, it would seem, while the Centauri religion looks something like Hinduism and the doctor is a Neo-Platonist (you say Foundationist, I say Neo-Platonist--seriously, look them up and tell me I'm wrong). Hell's bells, people have real relationships and fights, not either perfect happy-endingism or soap opera problems.

Fifth, PsiCorps. That's it, man, right there: what the hell else do you want? Anyone that remembers Walter Koenig as an offensive backwoods Russian who can't pronounce the letter V, should get a load of him as a telepathic Gestapo. "Ask me to say 'Nuclear Wessels' again, and I'll make you think you're Eleanor Roosevelt."

I still wonder to this day why people (other than the folks that made Farscape) seem to have seen the greatness of Babylon 5, nodded to themselves, and decided "That can never be allowed to happen again."

It was our last best hope for changing the shape of television science fiction. It failed.