Essays, Film

From WARS to WHO our favourite franchises are evolving – why can’t their fans evolve with them?

An unexpected comparison can be drawn this holiday season between two of the biggest science-fiction franchises – Doctor Who and Star Wars. In both Peter Capaldi’s final turn as the Doctor in Twice Upon a Time and Rian Johnson’s sequel The Last Jedi, central characters openly advocate rejecting both their pasts, and indeed intertextually the pasts of their product’s own history. The Doctor, an old man on the verge of rejecting a new lifespan, ‘let’s go’ of his incarnation while The Last Jedi‘s ostensible villain, Kylo Ren, just about avoids fratricide as he advocates killing his own past, killing his own history and letting it die (and by default the known galaxy) to create something new.

In both examples, you have two long-standing, iconic storytelling franchises, both with powerful, ingrained and dedicated fanbases, actively attempting to jettison aspects which made them adored in the first place. And, indeed, in both cases, the fandom of both properties have lost their minds in desperately rejecting this rejection. I won’t rake over my earlier thoughts about the current state of fandom, but it gives birth to another question – why can’t fans let go of the past?

In principle, the answer is obvious. Fandom is a coming together of shared adoration and appreciation of work which touched us deeply, existentially. Star Wars and Doctor Who are both franchises, much like Star Trek or James Bond, which have defined the childhoods of at least three generations of people the world over. The power of how TV or movies imprint on children cannot be overestimated – they can define hobbies, life choices and behaviours for the rest of people’s lives.

People who haven’t experienced this struggle to understand the phenomenon and can find such fans worthy of mockery when they declare “this matters!”, often as a response to someone saying “chill out, it’s only a story”.

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Episode Reviews, TV

DOCTOR WHO: ‘Twice Upon a Time’ (TV Review)

Bidding goodbye to another incarnation of the Doctor has now become as much a staple of Christmas Day every few years as Del & Rodders or Morecambe & Wise used to be in the days classic comedy dominated the British television landscape.

Doctor Who over the last decade has cemented itself as the storytelling event in the UK on Christmas Day, after Russell T. Davies revived the series with a new, modern, American ‘showrunner’ style of production in 2005. We have in twelve short years got through four Doctors (five if you count John Hurt) and their life-cycle has become a repeating standard – barring Christopher Eccleston, every successive Doctor has roughly been around for three seasons over a three to four year period. Peter Capaldi has been no exception but this regeneration, in Twice Upon a Time, is different.

We’re not just getting a new Doctor. We’re about to get an entirely new Who.

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Essays, Film

THE LAST JEDI: from Space Fantasy to Space Equality

Only a week old and Star Wars: The Last Jedi already feels like it’s been dripped dry of critique and analysis. The much-anticipated follow up to The Force Awakens, 2015’s bombastic revival of the Star Wars saga, has been polarising to say the least. For every fan who loved it, you’ll find another two who feel it has destroyed, in one picture, the entire legacy of the tale long long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

As well as my initial analysis of the film, I wrote about the toxicity of this level of fandom who seek to target The Last Jedi for daring to experiment with the established tropes and concepts that have existed for forty years, and have made Star Wars what it is. Whether you liked or disliked The Last Jedi no longer seems to be the point – it’s the consequences of Rian Johnson’s film that have stoked the most controversy. Star Wars, surely, will never be quite the same after this movie? That’s the ultimate question cascading across Star Wars fandom as The Last Jedi settles in their mind. Too much has changed. Yet few seem to be talking about what this change directly is, or ultimately what it means.

If someone asked you, ‘what is Star Wars?’, think about how you might answer that question. Many would say it’s a science-fiction movie, given it takes place in outer space in a distant galaxy, involves a world of strange alien creatures, sentient androids and spaceships firing laser weapons at each other. Some, perhaps with a deeper level of knowledge about George Lucas’ initial creation of the saga, may venture its a ‘space fantasy’; the Princess (Leia), locked in the tower (Death Star), by the evil King (Vader), only to be rescued by the dashing heroes (Luke & Han) with the help of a wise old man (Obi-Wan).

A New Hope‘s original story was born out of Joseph Campbell, of mythical archetypal narrative ‘synthesising all religions’ as Lucas put it at the time. A heroic fantasy with elements of science-fiction, shot through with the adventure stylistics of the 1930’s & 1940’s that Lucas and cinematic contemporaries like Steven Spielberg grew up watching, adventures which massively influenced their work.

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Essays, Film

STAR WARS and why Fandom cannot “let the past die”

The cyclical nature of storytelling is one of my fascinations, and something I fully intend to write more about on Cultural Conversation. Star Wars is one of many major franchises which taps into deeply mythological, archetypal stories which end up telling cyclical narratives about characters and worlds which repeat history, repeat myth and cleve to prophecy. These concepts are all over fiction, in myriad ways. What people don’t always realise, however, is that cyclical narratives are all over Fandom too, and yes that is Fandom with a capital F. Insert your own word appropriately. Fandom started as a beautiful thing, a coming together of like minds. Much like the rest of our society circa 2017, the Force no longer seems, sadly, to be with it.

If the reaction to The Last Jedi, the latest entry into the legendary Star Wars lexicon, proves anything, its that Fandom cannot cope with change. This is no startling revelation. Many writers have been discussing the toxicity of Fandom for some time now, particularly since the advent of Twitter and the rest of social media gave a voice to a legion of what many would consider ‘trolls’; intentional rabble-rousing, mischief making naysayers who love nothing more than to be reactionary and tear down anything the majority love. /Film has written recently about the toxic reaction to The Last Jedi, a film which as I discussed is not without its problems. It does, however, expose the issue of change and Fandom in greater detail.

The mistake Fandom consistently make—and by Fandom I don’t mean everyone but rather an entrenched, vocal group of ‘loyalists’ who fit the description above—is in believing the property they love belongs to them. And moreover that they deserve to be the gatekeepers and decide what does and what doesn’t qualify as, in this case, Star Wars. They constantly mistake the creation of art as an inclusive phenomenon, that they should be consulted every step of the way by filmmakers or writers as to the direction ‘their’ franchise should go in. If all art was created in this way, almost all of it would be terrible. Great or even good work is always the product of a singular vision actualised by a close-knit team of collaborators.

So it was with JJ Abrams & Lawrence Kasdan on The Force Awakens, and so it is on The Last Jedi with Rian Johnson. They made the movies they wanted to make, and would want to see. Johnson’s just happens to be fairly subversive in its own way.

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Film, Reviews

Film Retrospective: THE ABYSS (1989)

James Cameron is an unusual director, in many ways, and The Abyss underscores this quite keenly. Despite the fact Cameron has made some of the biggest motion pictures of the last almost four decades, you consistently still feel the pull of his Roger Corman-training, his B-picture origins on movies such as Pirahna after spending years as a Corman student, helping put together his beloved but schlocky contributions to cinematic history.

Cameron took plenty of those lessons, those touchstones, and threw them into his movies across the 1980’s & 1990’s with such arrogant bravura, such relentless chutzpah, that he crafted movies which by all accounts probably shouldn’t have been as critically successful as they were. The Terminator in 1984 is a B-movie with the style, smarts and cutting wit to rise above its origins, while Aliens saw Cameron perhaps at his egotistical directorial best, remarkably for only his third picture. The Abyss feels like his first attempt to make a film which can’t be defined, clearly, as a James Cameron movie, and it’s probably why it’s amongst the worst of his efforts.

What makes a James Cameron movie? Granted, many of his films have existed in different decades and in completely different and unique worlds; the washed out, fatalism of the first two Terminator films, the dark and cynical future he presented in Aliens, through to the tragic romance and austere glamour of Titanic. All of those films share common themes and cinematic styles, nonetheless.

Every single one has a sense of scale and import unique to a filmmaker like Cameron, a director who builds his pictures around some level of grandeur and spectacle – he wants you to feel like you’ve had an experience in the cinema, that you’ve encountered a visceral, often alien (using the term broadly) world he has constructed, from design through to visuals.

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Essays, TV

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN’s Brexit Britain: why the old guard TV shows are returning now

If you grew up in the late 1990’s across into the new millennium, you almost certainly remember The League of Gentlemen, if you’re British at least.

Then unknown performers Mark Gatiss, Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith burst on the TV scene and delivered for the BBC a sketch comedy as successful as The Fast Show and Monty Python’s Flying Circus before it, only skewed far more away from social comedy or absurdity, and closer to a grotesque, eccentric inversion of Northern lifestyle spliced with Hammer horror movie homage.

Running for three series and a Christmas special, the League got in and out before anyone could start to find them wearing; constantly evolving their visual and narrative style, telling witty, bleak and inventive stories, and ending with the hope they would make more.

Almost twenty years since they began, they have, with three new Christmas specials on the horizon. But why now?

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Season Reviews, TV

THE CROWN (Season 2) explores the price of royal marriage

The second season of The Crown has something of a difficult act to follow.

The first season, despite having a wealth of recognised talent in front of and behind the camera, and being the most expensive TV series ever commissioned by Netflix at a whopping £100 million, nonetheless was a gamble nobody expected the streaming giant to falter with. The Royal family can entice both loyalists and those who find the monarchy an outdated institution, so the fact it almost certainly garnered strong ratings alongside plenty of critical buzz, meant The Crown got off to a romping start, making an instantaneous star out of Claire Foy as a young Queen Elizabeth II, and receiving plaudits and awards all over the place. Season 2, therefore, needed to keep up the pace.

Peter Morgan, writer of all ten scripts, plays the second season—set roughly between the years 1957 and up to the assassination of JFK roughly in 1963—as very much the second act of an opening two-part, aka two-season story. The Crown of course, famously, is planned to have six seasons which will replace the entire cast with age appropriate actors every two seasons. Season 3, therefore, won’t have Foy as Elizabeth, or Matt Smith as Prince Philip etc… should it happen (as of yet Netflix haven’t greenlit a third run but the chances are very high). These first two seasons of The Crown, consequently, are the first chapter in the life of Elizabeth and Philip, and if Morgan’s second run makes anything abundantly clear, this is very much the story of them both.

The story of a Royal marriage around which everything else pivots.

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Film, Reviews

Film Retrospective: WATERWORLD (1995)

Excess is probably the word to best associate with Waterworld.

The excess of Hollywood in the 1990’s. After the blockbuster formed at the tail end of the 1970’s thanks to the efforts primarily of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the 1980’s saw the phenomenon largely dominated by Olympian action heroes or stars whose names towered on the poster above the title – Schwarzenegger, Ford, Willis, Stallone, Snipes. Alternatively, sequels and franchises began to form and dominate – Bond continued making money, joined by Indiana Jones, Star Wars of course, Star Trek back from the dead, and a whole surfeit of sequels which evolved into trilogies, and continued the trend into the 1990’s. That decade, nonetheless, added an extra dimension.

Waterworld is indicative of the mega-budget ‘high concept’ which had crept in over the last decade and really bore fruit during the 90’s. A high concept movie, essentially, was a picture you could boil down in one, easy for a movie studio executive to understand soundbite. Waterworld’s, without question, would be ‘Mad Max on water’. Simple, clear, readable. Everyone had heard of Mad Max, a successful trilogy itself early in the 80’s. The idea of trying to replicate the success of George Miller’s desert-based post-apocalyptic action series would have seen the bean counter’s eyes kerching with dollar signs. Waterworld smacks of a high-concept, money-making exercise, taking this one-line idea and bulking it out into an event blockbuster.

The irony, of course, was how expensive Waterworld ended up being. A year later, Independence Day revitalised the alien invasion B-movie with a high-concept, simple idea which, schlocky as it may have been, reaped the rewards in dividends. Though chock-full of CGI, some of which at the time was stunning to audiences, it wasn’t nearly as expensive as Kevin Reynolds’ fourth collaboration with star Kevin Costner, given the amount of water-based sets which needed to be constructed in order to adequately sell the idea of a futuristic world where the polar ice caps have melted, consigning the ‘ancient’ world we live in now to the sea bed.

Though a picture designed to make big bucks, Waterworld ultimately became one of the biggest critical and financial disasters of its decade, or indeed any decade.

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Essays, Film

Quentin Tarantino’s STAR TREK makes no sense to me – this can only be a good thing

Let’s be honest, nobody expected this, did they?

Though specific confirmation hasn’t exactly taken place, it’s looking more and more likely the rumour that Quentin Tarantino met with Paramount and series producer J.J. Abrams to pitch a Star Trek movie is true, and that said movie could well be his tenth picture after filming his 1969 Manson era drama. Not only that, Paramount reputedly have assembled a working writers room to flesh out Tarantino’s idea into a script, and have signed off on his insistence the picture be R-rated.

Just let this all digest for a moment… that’s an R-rated Star Trek movie directed by Quentin Tarantino.

It really does sound like the stuff crystal meth dreams are made of, don’t you think? That level of fantasy casting when it comes to cast and crew for your favourite property. Usually when rumours like this float up to the surface, they’re quickly disposed of as lunacy or the workings of a website or tabloid, a perfect example of Trump-ist ‘fake news’. This one, bizarrely, seems to be true, at the very least the notion that Tarantino pitched Paramount a Star Trek movie idea which they absolutely loved.

Star Trek IV: Effing and Jeffing? Well, this is now part of the reactionary state of worry within much of the fandom.

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Essays, TV

The Sense of no Ending: THE WALKING DEAD and sticking the landing

Let me preface this piece with a confession: I haven’t watched The Walking Dead in at least five years.

My relationship with the show ended following the lacklustre conclusion to the third season. Many people have suggested the fourth is the best so perhaps the joke’s on me, but here’s the reason I never came back: I just couldn’t cope with the nihilism. If there is a TV show built on a deeper sense of profound doom than the adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic, it’s doing a very good job of hiding itself.

The Walking Dead has, from the very beginning, been predicated on the fact there will be no happy ending. The zombies will never be eradicated. The world will never be saved, the virus never cured. The survivors will spend the rest of their lives fighting impossible odds only to one day die, either naturally or horrifically. No light exists at the end of this tunnel. Bleak, huh? Bleak and, for many, alienating. The Walking Dead is shedding viewers by the episode as it’s Eighth Season airs in the US. Many have suggested the rot has been setting in for the last couple of seasons, for several reasons (stand up, Negan). It feels like a show approaching its death throes which is ironic, because The Walking Dead refuses to end in kind of conventional sense.

Endings are fascinating to me. Endings are where the power lies in storytelling, no matter whether you’re dealing with a TV show, movie, book, video game, anything with a narrative structure. You’ll hear many fiction writers talk about how they’ve figured out their conclusion before anything else, novelists in particular. That’s a much harder maxim for television writers to follow given the mercurial nature of the business. Movies are able more conclusively to craft an ending if they are telling a contained story but now almost every cinematic experience ends with the promise of a follow up, whether a straight sequel or a cinematic franchise.

The solitary, told story experience is one to be cherished, in whatever form of media.

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