So … long time no long, rambling post about board games.

 You’ve probably noticed that I have kind of a thing about horror-themed games. Which is odd because I’m not a huge fan of horror in real life. I mean I’m fine with the Anne Rice end of the spectrum where it’s mostly just hot people and over the top violence, but the sort that’s meant to legitimately scare you never made much sense to me. I mean either it doesn’t work, in which case it’s failed as a piece of art, or it does, in which case you’re scared. And being scared is unpleasant.

TOP BOX.indd Anyway the horror-themed game I’m talking about today is Grey Fox Games’ London Dread. It’s a co-operative game (because I increasingly can’t be bothered with games where you actually have to attempt to beat other people) that casts you and up to three friends as bizarre Victorian stereotypes out to solve some manner of mystery causing, well, dread on the streets of London. Hence the name.

 I picked up London Dread on a whim. The theme was appealing, and I was looking for something to play with some guests who were visiting. I’ve been super into Eldrich Horror recently, but I wasn’t sure I’d want to play multiple sessions in a weekend, so I very much wanted something else that would scratch a similar itch without getting us too burned out on Lovecraftian shenanigans.

 So far I have played exactly two games of London Dread, which is enough to play through half of the game’s four scenarios (or possibly five? Some reviews seem to say five). I’ve wrestled a lot with my feelings about it. And I’m aware that’s slightly portentous way of describing the sensation of not being sure whether you think a game is any good, but I think this might be my first unambiguous discommendation of the series, and since this is a game that practically screams “labour of love” I feel kind of bad about not liking it. I mean I could be wrong – Grey Fox Games seems to be a perfectly legitimate publisher and to have a whole bunch of games under its belt, but everything about the game screams passion project to an almost unhelpful degree. Basically every element of the game feels like something the designer or designers thought was completely awesome (programmed action! Weirdly specific Victorian criminal conspiracies! Personality mechanics!) and I feel a lot like your enjoyment of the game will hinge on your ability to find those things equally awesome, rather than on the way those things come together as a satisfying experience.

 To make this review short, my reluctant but simple conclusion about London Dread is that it … isn’t very good? And I feel bad, because I really want to like the game. There’s an awful lot in it to like, there are a number of quite clever ideas, there are some interesting mechanics and in some places it shows a remarkable attention to detail (there are little markers to put near all your decks of cards, so they organise themselves quite well) but so much of it just feels like it doesn’t hang together properly.

 I was sufficiently bothered by this that I actually went out and listened to some other people’s reviews, and they seem incredibly positive about it, so it might just be that I have no taste. And now I feel even more confused because I really don’t understand what it is I’m missing.

 Anyway, that’s the opening angsting and the tl;dr bit. On to the main review.

 Bad First Impressions

 I did not get off to a good start with London Dread. On opening the box and enjoying the delicious new boardgame smell, I was confronted with a little insert that began with the words “due to a printing error.” My friends and I then spent really quite a long time sorting out which of the cards didn’t have the symbols on them that they were supposed to have (which was a bit awkward because it’s surprisingly hard to identify something that is notable primarily for its lack of a feature that you have never actually seen). The insert also informed us that some of the cards had a printing error that made their backs look subtly different to the backs of other cards from which they were supposed to be indistinguishable, and again it took quite a long time to work out which the faulty cards were, which the non-faulty ones were, and why it made a difference.

 The thing is, accidents happen and mistakes get made. I get that, I really do. But it didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence going into my first game.

 A Learning Curve on a Timer

 London Dread uses what gamers sometimes call a “programming” system where the players decide in advance what their moves are going to be, either for the whole game or for a turn, and then record their decision in some manner, normally with imperfect information about how everything is going to turn out. This is used to good effect in the now-rather-aged Robo-Rally and to hilarious effect in the I-really-should-get-around-to-reviewing-it-some-time Space Alert. Both of these games are wacky comedy affairs where failing ignominiously is very much part of the point. In Robo Rally you get a new bit of randomised wackiness every turn, while in Space Alert you have five minutes of space chaos that you then resolve in the ten minutes that follow.

 London Dread is a bit different. You get twelve minutes to plan your actions, and then actually resolving them takes the best part of the next hour. This is partly because it’s a thematic game with (I would argue light) storytelling elements which you do a disservice by rushing them, it’s partly because the middle and end phases of the game are just legitimately long. We played it with three players, and resolving twelve actions each for three people, many of which involve overlapping or slightly contradictory mechanics, takes a while. Then there’s the endgame segment, in which you have yet another wholly different set of mechanics, which aren’t very well explained in the core rules (to the extent that one very important rule for the endgame must be intuited only from a single reference to the fact that it should already have happened, that reference occurring in an example describing a completely different situation).

 To put it another way, a game of London Dread is fundamentally won or lost in the twelve minute planning phase. The hour-long execution phase and endgame phase are very much an exercise in seeing how it all turned out.

 This means several things. Firstly, it means that you’re only really doing gameplay for the first ten minutes of an hour long game session, the rest is implementing decisions already made or very occasionally drawing cards. This is especially brutal the first time you play, when you’re essentially having to make decisions about what you’re going to do over the next half hour to an hour of game time, but you’re making those decisions on the basis of an at best limited understanding of the way the game mechanics work. This means that the first time you play the game you’re pretty likely to either (a) lose or (b) win, but only because you interpreted the rules overgenerously.

 This problem is exacerbated by the game’s story focus. Of which more later. Or, more precisely, of which more now:

 Storytelling

 London Dread is a story driven game. It comes with an app in which a proper actor reads out a little introductory paragraph that sets the scene and explains what it is that your characters are doing. The plot then unfolds through a number of plot cards in which your characters follow a series of clues to reach their ultimate goal.

 Unfortunately the plot cards only make up 4-6 of the 24 cards on the board. The rest are “Dread” cards; prettily illustrated but thematically sparse cards that describe a particular encounter that a character can have by visiting them. And when I say “describe an encounter” I mostly mean “have a title and some art and a bit of flavour text”. The encounters on the Dread cards are always the same in every game (although they are different between the first and second chapters of any given game) and they feel – and there isn’t a nice way to say this – a lot like filler.

 For example, in the second scenario the premise is that your characters have a Mysterious List of Names, and know that at least two of the people on that list have been murdered. Your goal is to find the people on that list and warn them that they should leave London. On the way you encounter a strange group of owl-themed occultists and fall foul of a corrupt police officer.

 Which is great, but that’s only about a quarter of what you’re actually doing in the game. The rest of what you’re doing is dealing with Dread cards. So maybe at 6 a.m. you’ll visit the plot-crucial NPC you have to deliver your dire warning to, and then at 8 you’ll go to another location to pick up a clockwork monkey, which is in no way contextualised but which does give you a bonus on problems that have a gear symbol on them. Then you’ll take your clockwork monkey and, at 10, deal with some Grave Robbing which apparently it is important for you to deal with despite the fact that there is no logical connection between that and the warnings you’re apparently supposed to be giving out. And apparently a clockwork monkey helps you with this.

 It all puts me very much in mind of that subcategory of modern video games which deliver a terribly serious story through cutscenes but fill the space between them with generic shooter gameplay or sandbox chaos. There’s no connection between what your characters are supposed to be doing in the narrative and what you actually spend your playtime doing. It’s sort of like in Grand Theft Auto IV, where in cutscenes you’re this jaded ex-con trying to put his past behind him, but in all the gameplay bits you’re a gleeful maniac happily mowing down pedestrians for fun. Except here it’s that you’re supposed to be warning a bunch of strangers to leave town and instead you’re encountering Boris the Bear, and the game doesn’t really explain who he is or what that means.

 Agency and Lack Thereof

 This is a tricky one. There is a tiny part of me that suspects there are levels of gameplay in London Dread that are accessible if you understand it very, very well. For example, clearing Dread Cards is an almost entirely deterministic process (you need to match the symbols on your character to the symbols on the card) but you can draw cards from an “adventure deck” in an effort to resolve a card that you don’t quite have the symbols for. This isn’t something we’ve ever done in any of the times we’ve played it. It just never seems worth it, and we don’t have a good handle on how the probabilities shake out. So the Adventure Deck winds up being largely full going into the final confrontation, and this has the knock-on effect of making the final confrontation largely trivial. Except for the final showdown bit, which is a single dice roll that you have a reasonable chance to fail no matter how well you played the earlier game.

 Umm … I’ll get to that.

 The big issue I have with London Dread (okay, one of the many big issues I have with London Dread) is agency – that sense (even if it’s illusory) of having control over the outcomes of the game. The feeling that whether I win or lose will depend on whether I play well or badly, rather than on dice rolls or blind choices.

 To a new player especially, London Dread is all dice rolls and blind choices. You move around London trying to resolve Dread cards to avoid the Dread Level rising. This is important because every five points of Dread is an extra fist icon you need to roll on the single dice roll that decides the final confrontation (again, I’ll get to that). But it isn’t at all clear how bad or not bad a rising dread level will be until you’ve actually had the final confrontation and seen how many fists you need to beat it (and if you’re playing the game for the first time, you may not understand what a rising dread level means at all). I can imagine a world where I knew enough about London Dread that the decision to visit a Dread Card I couldn’t resolve, relying on drawing cards from the Adventure Deck to put it away, would be an interesting and considered tactical choice. But I don’t live in that world, I live in the world where I know what’s on my character and what’s on the card and that Dread is nebulously bad, so I just kind of move around to the cards that match my symbols, if there are any.

 Then there’s the random elements. Dread cards are wholly deterministic if you want them to be. Plot cards, on the other hand, require you to roll dice. But there’s more! The number of dice you roll is equal to the number of symbols on your character sheet that match the symbols on the plot card, but you draw an additional card that is used only for Plots and in the Final Confrontation which has extra symbols on it. These cards are from something called the Personality Deck, which is a cute idea (each character has its own deck of cards which give it, appropriately enough, a sense of personality – it’s kind of nice to know that the Soldier character is also a musician and the Dancer character has a missing sister). As cool and thematic as the personality deck is, however, it’s adding randomness to randomness. If I need to score one fist to get a good outcome on a plot card (I keep talking about fists, sorry: the game uses custom dice that have four blank sides and two fists, fists are good, you need fists to win) then I know I have to roll three dice on average, but the number of dice I get to roll in my effort to randomly score the fists I need for victory is itself randomly determined.

 It’s only having written that down that I quite realise how absurd it sounds.

 And there is still more. Not only does beating plot cards require me to randomly roll the appropriate number of fists on a number of dice that I have determined randomly by drawing cards from my personality deck, but one of those cards will randomly fuck me over. Everybody has one card in their personality deck that gives them Trauma. If you get Traumatised (the Soldier flashes back to the war – and I’m not sure which war, incidentally, peculiarly his art makes him look a lot like a WWI vet despite the game being set in the late 19th century – the Dancer freaks out about her missing sister, that kind of thing) you contribute no dice unless you use Adventure Cards or Items (which are one use) and you also roll the Trauma Die, which can lead to your becoming “Unhinged” or “Injured”, two conditions that do nothing the first time you get them but which raise dread by five if you get them a second time.

 This means that if a character tries to resolve a plot card alone then no matter how trivial it is (many of the plot cards in the second scenario require only a single fist to defeat), the range of possible outcomes varies from “the card is resolved and you get bonus resources that help you” to “the plot card fails, raising Dread, and your character rolls Trauma, raising Dread again.” And you can’t really influence which outcome you’ll get in any meaningful way.

 This is a lot of variance to build into a game.

 Then there’s that whole “all comes down to a dice roll” thing.

 Once you resolve the final plot card of the final chapter (all scenarios after the first are in two chapters) you move on to the final confrontation with the “Antagonist” of the scenario (confusingly, several of the scenario “antagonists” are actually abstract concepts like “infiltration” and “escape”). There’s a nice bit of flavour text leading into the final confrontation which sets the scene very thematically, but the atmosphere is rather marred by the fact that you then have to resolve a series of challenges using a mechanic that appears nowhere else in the game (each challenge card has a number of symbols on it, and you must match those symbols with those on your character sheet, personality card, and adventure cards – but in this phase of the game adventure cards are dealt out to the players in advance, and you choose which ones to play instead of selecting them randomly from the deck and by the way this is the mechanic which you have to intuit from an example elsewhere in the rules).

 There are always three challenges in the final confrontation, and each player who successfully completes a challenge gains a die to use in the final-final-really-final-we-mean-it-this-time final showdown. In a three-player game, this means you have zero to nine dice. The players win the final showdown if they roll a number of fists equal to or greater than one-plus-one-for-every-five Dread.

 And … that’s the big payoff. You roll zero to nine dice, and you need to roll between one and nine fists, so you might have no chance of succeeding (if Dread is high or you won few dice) but you almost never have no chance of failing (some cards give you free fists in the final showdown but they’re seldom enough to guarantee the win).

 I honestly don’t have words for how anticlimactic I’ve found it both times. As I say, I really wanted to like this game, but the final showdown mechanic in particular makes me honestly want to call bullshit. And again, there might be a greater depth of gameplay if you’re more familiar with the game, if you understand the distribution of symbols on the cards better and you know the endgame challenges better and you have a better handle on the risk-reward of managing Dread.

 But this is a story-driven game. And since you don’t find out if you’ve won or lost until the final dice roll (although a lot of time you will have effectively lost the game on the basis of the twelve minutes of planning you did right at the start) you always experience the whole story (barring the “good ending” flavour text) on your first playthrough. We haven’t lost a scenario yet (then again, we’ve played some rules wrong, and in ways that have generally made things easier for us, and I think this was a big part of our success) but if we had I honestly don’t feel like I would have had any desire to go back and play it again to get the win. Annoyingly even having decided that I probably just plain don’t like the game I sort of want to play the next two scenarios to find out where the story goes. Although I suppose I could actually get the same experience by just reading the plot cards and listening to the intro and outro sequences.

 In Conclusion

 I feel really bad about this but I just … don’t like this game. And I know a lot of people do, and I’ve seen some very positive reviews from people who seem genuinely blown away by the whole setup, but it does so little for me that I can’t even suggest who this might be a good game for. I feel like if you want a glossy story-driven game there are glossier games out there (Arabian Nights and Eldrich Horror being obvious examples). I feel like if you want simultaneous movement and programmed actions, there are games that implement that better as well and while I don’t think there are any games that implement simultaneous movement and programmed actions into a story-driven experience, that feels like a weirdly specific thing to want out of a game.

 So … yeah. Sadface. I can’t recommend this one. I do understand that some people love it, and if you google for reviews you’ll find plenty of people who responded far more positively than I did.

 Perhaps it would work better for me if it included an adorable panda.

people & cardboard
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I thought it would be kind of appropriative of me to talk about the US election so I’m not going to. Which obviously leaves me in a difficult blogging space because talking about politics seems inappropriate in one way and talking about Star Trek seems inappropriate in another.

So I’m taking a middle ground and talking about something newsy and sad but not in any way electoral. I’m going to talk about Leonard Cohen.

Let’s face it, 2016 has been a shitty, shitty year. However you feel about recent instances of democracy we’ve also lost a terrifying number of iconic figures from the middle of the 20th century. It’s almost like they were all getting old or something.

This is probably an over-generalisation but I think everybody has the celebrity death that disproportionately affects them in a way that other celebrity deaths don’t. The famous whose work was important enough and integral enough to a particular time in your life that when they go it is, and I acknowledge that this is disgustingly clichéd, genuinely as if part of you goes with them. For a lot of my friend it was Terry Pratchett. For a couple of my work colleagues it was David Bowie. For me, it’s Leonard Cohen.

This is really obvious but there are lots of different sorts of musicians. At the one end you have the one hit wonders and, at the other, you have people whose careers span significant fractions of a century. But, even amongst those performers, there are differences. Some people consistently reinvent themselves (like Bowie), others just kind of carry on being who they are and who they’ve always been (like Cher or Bob Dylan) but some really feel as if they’ve sung you their lives, like Johnny Cash or—case in point—Leonard Cohen.

And this is also really obvious but responses to music are intensely personal and because music endures in a way that other art forms often don’t the way that a person interacts with a song is a strange and weirdly unique alchemy between the singer at the time the song was written, the singer at the time the song was written about, the listener when they first heard it and the listener today. That’s an extremely complicated set of relationships to go into what is essentially a three and a half minute experience but, well, there it is.

Leonard Cohen was, and I suppose depending on how you count it technically still is, about fifty years older than me. So the songs he was writing about being my age he wrote fifty years ago. And the songs he wrote about the world I live in he wrote from the point of view of somebody who had been living in it fifty years longer. And so me listening to his music today is this peculiar experience that exists slightly outside of time. People often talk about the unique ability of smell to trigger memories and I’ve always felt it was a little bit overplayed. I mean, is it really the case that smelling something can remind you of it more strongly and more reliably than, y’know, seeing it. And surely the sensory experience that has the most profound ability to trigger that weird amalgam of memory and emotion it’s, well, music. I can’t listen to ‘You Got Me Singing’ from Popular Problems , which I bought on release in 2014, without thinking of ‘Light As The Breeze’ from The Future, which I first encountered at university in the early 2000s, but which was written in 1992. And my perception of all those songs is coloured by the awareness that they’re written by the same man who screamed into the microphone on ‘Diamonds In the Mine’, who no longer owns the copyright on ‘Suzanne’, who lost his faith, found his faith, who randomly collaborated with Philip Glass, who I saw live in London in 2008 with a friend who later died.

My original intent for this article was to do a top ten but then I remembered I hate top tens because they embody everything I think it’s wrong to value, being reductionist, hierarchal and over-simplistic. So instead this slightly melancholy article is going to conclude with a list of arbitrary length and in no particular order of some Leonard Cohen songs I thought I could say a couple of things about. I’m not going to mention anything from You Want It Darker because it’s impossible to talk about that right now without it getting all muddled up with the fact he’s, um, dead.

Diamonds In the Mine

This, frankly, is the song that puts people off Leonard Cohen. While I was at university I had a friend who nearly dumped somebody because they said Leonard Cohen sounded like a paedophile. But, to be fair to that person, on the basis of this song alone I can sort of see where they were coming from. I know most people would probably cite ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ as their archetypal early Leonard Cohen song but I’m just weirdly fond of this one. I think it’s the sheer, undirected energy of it. I’ve never known anybody so pissed off about not getting any post.

Um, obviously I know it’s a metaphor. Don’t write in.

Hallelujah

You kind of have to mention this one. Although, honestly, this one of those songs that I actually prefer in cover. And not, in fact, because I think the covers are better than the original—the original is a great song, and the version I saw him perform in London was phenomenal—but because the song taps into something so primal and fundamental that the totality of covers becomes something that eclipses any individual version or artist.

My favourite cover is KD Lang so that’s why I’ve linked that instead of the original.

Anthem

Okay, this is really embarrassing but when I was at university I had a big piece of canvas over my bed that I’d sort of covered in lines from stuff that felt important to me. Like a whole bunch of motivational posters mashed together without the cat photos. God, being twenty was humiliating in retrospect. Anyway, one of those lines was “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” So I basically had to pick this.

There’s basically nothing you can say about Anthem that hasn’t been said because it’s fucking Anthem.

Here it is.

Light As The Breeze

That’s light as the breeze, not light as a breeze. Like vampires.

I was trying to avoid doing too many from the same album but I fucking love The Future. I find this one a little bit embarrassing to talk about because it’s one of those that you listen and go “is this about sex, I’m pretty sure it’s about sex, is it weird that I think this is about sex?” I mean, it’s about Leonard Cohen things like faith and the loss of faith, and sensuality and longing, all in this really tangled up way. But I guess, and obviously I don’t know because I’m not him, for Leonard Cohen the search for physical satisfaction and spiritual connection are (were *sad face* ) kind of the same thing. See also, Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will, and about half the rest of his back catalogue.

Also Resplendent Chemise sounds like a level 23 World of Warcraft drop.

Jazz Police

Okay, I sort of admit that I might have picked this one because I’ve watched a lot of Pointless recently (for my American readers, Pointless is a BBC quiz show in which the aim is to name things within a certain category that other people wouldn’t think of) and if I had to pick a Leonard Cohen from I’m Your Man as an answer on Pointless I’d pick Jazz Police. It’s just sort of very different from everything else on the album. I can’t really say anything profound about it except that I weirdly like it.

Also speaking of obscure BBC quiz shows, you could get a really good Only Connect (for my American readers, Only Connect is a British quiz show in which teams of contestants have to spot connections between a series of seemingly random clues) music round with extracts from this song, Karma Police by Radiohead, Dream Police by Cheap Trick and Love Police by Phil Collins (the connection being, “abstract concept police”).

I should add that I absolutely love everything on I’m Your Man, which is probably why it was so hard to pick a single track and I ended up going for the silly one.

Slow

Popular Problems is my second album of the second half of Leonard Cohen’s career. It is to Ten New Songs what The Future is to I’m Your Man. It’s ultimately a very thoughtful and political album about war ‘n’ shit but it opens with this piece of mischief. It’s another “are you talking about sex, Lenny” track. It’s sleazy as hell and and everything about it just sort of makes me smile.

Villanelle For Our Time

This is a fucking villanelle. There are basically only three good villanelles because it is a silly, silly poetic form. Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night is one. This is another and I’m leaving the third spot open out of charity.

This is from Dear Heather which is the album he did after Ten New Songs and so is sort of like his difficult second album except that he wrote it after already performing for half a century. It’s a very talky, very poetry-ey album and this falls more or less in the middle of it.  I think what I like about this, and about a lot of Dear Heather, is that it almost feels like it’s Cohen going through music and out the other side. I mean, his work has always basically been poetry set to music and Dear Heather was him embracing that to its fullest extent.

While I’m talking about Dear Heather, I have to give a nod to Because Of because it’s Leonard Cohen talking about what a total player he still is, or perhaps isn’t. Super great.

Literally Everything On Ten New Songs

Basically, this is my Cohen album because it’s the one he released when I was falling in love with him. He’d done basically nothing for a decade, on account of being actually really old and going through a tonne of stuff, including becoming Buddhist like everyone did in the 90s, and then he lost all of his money and needed to start performing again. Which is sort of difficult because on the one hand I’m glad his later work exists, on the other hand it’s never nice when old men lose all their cash.

I can’t even begin to explain what this album means to me … so I’m not going to because I’m far too self-conscious and British.

angst, topical
33 Comments

pic1872452I was going to say that this post would be a slightly late, vaguely Halloween themed review of two sort of horror-ish board games, the games in question being Eldritch Horror and London Dread.  But a moment of reflection on my past performance and history of writing blog posts led me the realisation that I would inevitably spend three thousand words wittering on about the first games and be forced to leave the second for a later post.

Given which, this is going to be a slightly late, vaguely Halloween themed review of one horror-ish board game, the question being Eldritch Horror. I’ll do London Dread some other time and, to be honest, I should probably wait until I’ve played it more than once anyway.

Embarrassingly, I was inspired to buy Eldritch Horror largely as a consequence of my own review of Arkham Horror in which I concluded that Eldritch Horror would probably not be enough of an upgrade over Arkham to justify the price of entry. I think, ironically, writing the review in which I concluded that I probably wasn’t going to buy Eldritch Horror caused me to think about my frustrations with Arkham Horror enough that I convinced myself I was probably never going to play it again. Which, in turn, caused me to re-examine my thoughts about buying Eldritch.

There’s actually a really interesting psychological / microeconomic phenomenon at work here and my original intention not to buy Eldritch Horror, even though I wanted to play it, on the grounds that I already owned Arkham Horror, even though I didn’t want to play that, was actually an instance of something quite well documented.

Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: you have bought a ticket to a movie for $10. You put the ticket in your wallet (or bag, or purse, depending on how you carry this sort of thing) alongside a $10 bill. When you arrive at the cinema, however, you discover that you have lost the ticket. You still have the $10 bill and could, therefore, buy another ticket if you so wished. Quite a lot of people in this scenario will choose instead to simply not bother seeing the film. Having paid $10 for a ticket once they have no desire to pay another $10, even though their initial expenditure is definitely lost.

Scenario 2: you go to the cinema, knowing that a ticket for the film you want to see costs $10. You put two $10 bills in your wallet but, when you arrive at the cinema, discover that one of them has fallen out, leaving you with only $10. Since this is still enough to buy a ticket for the movie you want see, the vast majority of people will consider the loss of the $10 irrelevant and decide to buy the ticket and see the film anyway.

What’s interesting about these scenarios is that while the background is different your situation when you arrive at the cinema is exactly the same. You have $10 and no cinema ticket and must choose between paying $10 to see a film or walking away, keeping your $10 and having a wasted trip. From a purely rational perspective, the fact that in scenario 1 you bought a ticket then lost it while in scenario 2 you lost $10 that you had not spent on at ticket should make no difference.

And basically this is the situation I was in with Arkham/Eldritch Horror. Because I’d already bought Arkham, even though I wasn’t actually playing it, I felt like buying a game another similar game that I would play was somehow wasteful, even though, in fact, my ownership of the original Arkham Horror made no real difference to the financial decision. Either I thought Eldritch was worth the money or not. The fact that I happened to own another similar game was, when viewed rationally, immaterial.

So, long story short, I bought Eldritch Horror.

Probably the best way to describe Eldritch Horror is that it’s like Arkham Horror would be if it had been released in 2013, rather than 1987. I mean, obviously it’s a board game and board games aren’t limited by technology in quite the same way that videogames are but you do get trends, fashions and, for want of a better term, realisations that tend to make more recently designed things more in tune with the sensibilities of people today, rather than people nearly 30 years ago (holy crap, Arkham is old, I didn’t quite realise how old).

What makes Arkham great is all of the cool stuff you get to have and do in it.  You can go to shops and buy things and use the things to fight monsters. You can have encounters in places and get clues. You can visit other worlds and have stuff happen to you in them. The stuff is usually horrible but it still happens and is cool. What makes Arkham terrible is how unwieldy, arbitrary, random and bloated all of the cool stuff is, especially if you play with the expansions.

A lot of the gameplay of Arkham revolves around acquiring and using quite a small number of effective items and spells. You basically need a shotgun and someone with shrivelling, and elder signs are a massive game changer. But the decks you get these things out of were huge to begin with and the more expansions have been added the more the already gigantic decks have swollen to, well, Lovecraftian proportions. Instead of a relatively focused game, where you go to the general store and get a rifle, then go to the curiosity shop and get an elder sign, then fight your way past a ghoul in order to close a gate at Hibb’s roadhouse  you wind up with a sprawling, confused game where you go to a general store and buy a used map of Innsmouth, because it the best useless thing available, then go to the curiosity shop and get a quest to betray all of your companions before fighting a creature with a bizarre list of immunities and special rules for movement at the train station while you try to get to Dunwich in order to stop some other monsters walking through portals because something something something something.

Eldritch Horror strips it all right back. And probably the first thing I would say to anyone who’s played Arkham and is considering buying Eldritch is this: if you what you liked about Arkham Horror was the sheer volume of stuff (and I absolutely understand the appeal of stuff) Eldritch has less stuff. The items and artefact decks are half as thick, there are about the same number locations, although they now represent the entire world, rather than one small town in New England, there are only four Great Old Ones (or Ancient Ones, as they call them in the games, possibly because Great Old One is the term Chaosium uses in the RPG) in the box, which is something I’ll talk about later, and all of the other worldly portals now lead to the same place (or rather, they all to a generic otherworld and the place you’re in depends on the card you draw, rather than the card you draw depending on the place you’re in).

If it was somewhere between ten and twenty years ago and I was even more of a dick than I am today, I’m sure I’d be denouncing all of this as dumbing down for the noobs. It’s not, it’s streamlining for the people who actually want to be able to finish a game in an evening.

I think this is the point that I start having to use subheadings again. I apologise. Basically, I want to look in more detail at some of the structural changes to the game and I want to break them down (to pull a completely arbitrary number off the stop of my head) about three different categories. Those categories being flow, theme and future-proofing.

Flow

One of the things I was really impressed by with Eldritch Horror is that it took out a whole bunch of clutter without particularly making the game less deep or less thematic. For example, in the original Arkham half the locations were spooky places where you just had random encounters. Half of them were non-spooky places where you also had random encounters but could instead choose not to have a random encounter in order to do something useful. This useful thing would often involve turning in some kind of token, going shop or repairing your brain.

Eldritch simply takes all of the utility functions that in Arkham were restricted to specific squares on the board and makes them into actions that any character can perform at any time. It preserves the strategic elements that in Arkham came from managing your movement rate and trying to work out how to get from the shops to the cave to the woods in as few turns as possible with a simple two action gameplay model. Basically, on your turn, you can do two things. If you want to shop, great (as long as you’re in a city) you can totally do that but then eats an action you could otherwise resting, moving, buying train tickets or using your character’s special abilities. It’s all just very clean.  In Arkham, you would spend a turn moving to the general store, then have an encounter phase general store, in which you would encounter the general store (which means go shopping) and you’d have to keep track of how much money you have and had to deal with a weird system where you have no idea what will be available in the shop until you’ve already committed to going there and encountering it, at which point you are explicitly forced to buy one of the three random items you are shown. (Seriously, shopping in Arkham was weird – people must go out for milk and come back home with a box of shotgun shells and a copy of The King in Yellow). In Eldritch Horror you spend one action to go shopping, then you roll some dice to see how much you can buy from the pool of items that are already face up on the table in front of you.

I mean, it’s just better, isn’t it?

And, again, to be fair to Arkham I can see that for some people the more RPG-like system of items being sold in shops that you have to actually go to on your turn and pay for with money, which is represented by like cardboard dollar bills, is a qualitatively different and more immersive experience. And I will admit that if you play Arkham Horror for those reasons you might not like Eldritch Horror as much. Although I might also say that if you play Arkham Horror for those reasons you might want to ask yourself if you wouldn’t be better off just playing Call of Cthulhu.

The games also flows much better when it comes to going places and encountering things. Characters in Arkham moved quite fast which meant, on a given turn, you could probably access about half the board but had no particular reason to go to any bit of it. Unless you had some tokens to trade in or a burning need to get your brain put back in you would probably be limited to snaffling stray clue tokens or blundering into whichever location had the most advantageous looking encounter symbols. This final strategy would inevitably go wrong because the encounter symbols were lies.

I should unpack the encounter symbol a bit. A theoretical part of your strategy in Arkham was that every location had two little symbols attached to it that were supposed to indict the sorts of things that were likely to happen to you (and more specifically the kind of resources you could be expected to gain) if you had an encounter there. So, for example, some places would have a little magnifying glass, indicating that you could find clue tokens while others would have a little heart, indicating that you could get healing. But, in practice, nine times out of ten what would happen is that you’d just get arbitrarily fucked over. And, obviously, that can be fun but Arkham is not exactly short of arbitrary over fucking mechanism, and when part of the gameplay is supposed to be pursuing particular outcomes by having encounters in particular places it feels a bit pointless for those places not to reliably give you those outcomes. It gets particularly bad in the expansions. There’s a location in Dunwich, for example, where is there is exactly one possible good encounter in the entire deck. And all the others just screw you.

Eldritch is a lot more civilised about this. Every major location (which is to say every major city—only named cities get unique encounter decks) has one thing that it tells you that you will get from encounters there. So, for example, it tells you encounters in London will spawn clue tokens. It tells you encounters in Sydney will improve your strength or body or whatever they call it. It tells you encounters in Istanbul will improve your influence. And the cool thing is they actually do. Like more than half the time. I mean, you sometimes have to make a roll, which you can still fail, and there are one or two encounters were something else happens. But whereas in Arkham you’d go to a location labelled with money and clue tokens and mostly get beaten up or attacked by monsters, finding some money or a clue token perhaps one time in six. When you go to London in Eldritch you spawn clue tokens virtually every time.

This has a surprisingly subtle knock-on effect on the game. Because you can actually be pretty sure that, for example, visiting Arkham will give you spells then you can say to yourself “I need spells, so I’ll go to Arkham.” This gives you a clear idea of where to go and, because you get two actions to move with, you have to plan more carefully how you’re going to get there. This makes the movement stage of the game more engaging and interactive. It also makes the world feel bigger, which contributes to a sense of immersion.

I’ve played games of Arkham where I’ve genuinely said to myself “well, I don’t really know what I should do so I’ll guess go here and hope for some money or go to the shop and hope for a good item.” I’ve never had that in Eldritch. There’s always somewhere you want to explore, some way you want to improve yourself, or some calamity you want to avert.

Theme

So one of the things I mentioned above was that Eldritch has fewer Ancient Ones in the box than Arkham. And it’s a fair few fewer (if that construction isn’t awkward). To the best of my recollection, vanilla Arkham Horror ships with: Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath, Yig, Ithaqa, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth and Hastur. Basically it’s got all the really archetypal ones, plus Yig and Ithaqa for no good reason. Eldritch by contrast only includes Cthulhu, Azathoth, Shub-Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth. And, honestly, when I opened the box that did feel a little bit disappointing. I mean, I’d have liked Hastur and Nyarly at the very least.

Once I started setting up and playing the game, however, I realised why there were half as many Ancient Ones in Eldritch. That reason quite simply was that there was twice as much work put into each one.

The Ancient Ones in Arkham basically provide global rules modifications. Cthulhu, for example, reduces everyone health and sanity by one (which is devastating but also, um, not very interesting). Azathoth has no impact on the game at all but you insta-lose if he wakes up. Which is, honestly, kind of a mercy because punching Cthulhu in the nose is the least interesting and certainly the least dignified part of any Arkham game. By contrast, the Ancient Ones in Eldritch have wholly unique encounters and win conditions, right down to the fact that there are decks of cards which are only used for some investigations associated with some specific gods.

In Arkham you win the game by collecting a lot of clue tokens (which are always the same and which you pick up by walking into places, like you’re grabbing a power up in Mario brothers), then handing them in to seal gates (which are, again, always the same). In Eldritch you win by solving three mysteries chosen from a deck of four mysteries unique to the Old One that you’re fighting. Furthermore, clue tokens (which are often specifically needed to solve these mysteries as well as having the traditional use of enabling a re-roll in an action) are no longer picked up by contact but have to earned through encounters and, again, these encounters are described in decks of cards specific to each god.

This makes each game of Eldritch very, very different from other games of Eldritch against different Old Ones. When you’re facing Shub-Niggurath, for example, you find yourself having to fight hordes of dangerous monsters that spawn all over the world and investigate mysteries that almost exclusively pop up in wilderness areas far from civilisation. Against Cthulhu, you spend a lot of time going mad on remote islands and investigating the blasphemous activities of Cthulhu cultists. These things feel genuinely different. If you fail to resolve your three mysteries by the time the doom track runs out, the Great Old One awakens and you flip over their character sheet to find out what happens next. This leads to a bespoke final confrontation which is sometimes a knock down, drag out fight (for, example, if you fail to stop the rise of Shub-Niggurath she appears in the heart of Africa, surrounded by Dark Young, and you have to go and kill her, which is really, really hard). If you fail to stop the rise of Yog-Sothoth then a bunch of terrible stuff starts happening but you just have to keep investigating the mysteries because, while Shub-Niggurath is a very physical, fighty, punchy deity, Yog very much isn’t. Obviously, if you fail to stop the rise of Azathoth you just lose instantly because world destroy because seething nuclear chaos.

One of the many, many problem I had with Arkham towards the end was that it wound up being a game that felt anticlimactic to win and anticlimactic to lose. Because the game’s default goal of sealing an arbitrary number of inter-dimensional gates had no real thematic connection to whichever Great Old One you happened to be fighting, winning felt dislocated and ultimately like a bit of a let-down. On the other hand, because (with the exception of Azathoth) failing to seal the gates in time always led to the same pointless punch up with whoever the villain was this week it, again, felt decontexualised and, in many respects, farcical. Eldritch avoids both of these problems, presenting you with a game that is both genuinely fun to win and fun to lose. When you defeat the cult of Yog-Sothoth you actually feel (well, actually within certain parameters) like you’ve overcome a brain-bending from beyond time and space. When you lose again Shub-Niggurath it really feels like you’ve failed to stop the rise of a blasphemous fertility goddess from beyond the stars.

Which is good.

Future Proofing

I’m setting myself up for a fall here because I’m now I’m going to talk about how well I think Eldritch will handle expansions, despite never actually having playing Eldritch with expansions.

The problem with the expansions for Arkham Horror was that, while in theory they were designed to be modular, in practice the game was built with and pitched on the philosophy that more is better. If you had The Curse of Dark Pharaoh expansion but didn’t use The Curse of Dark Pharaoh stuff it felt like a waste. But if you did use it and used the Dunwich stuff and the Innsmouth stuff and the Hastur stuff and the stuff that’s just expansions for the expansions stuff the game got huge, and overblown and creaky. It also made the thematic elements of the game get more and more diluted because you could find yourself fighting Yig as your main villain, while the son of Yog-Sothoth terrorised Dunwich, the spawn of the Dagon worshiping Deep Ones overran Innsmouth, Nyarlathotep (in his aspect as the Dark Pharaoh) caused chaos at the Ancient Egypt exhibit at Arkham Museum and you spend half your time stumbling through gates to Carcosa and Yuggoth.

And, obviously, there’s still elements of this in Eldritch (it’s not like you only fight starspawn if you pick Cthulhu as your Ancient One, for example) but the game is built with a much stronger assumption of modularity from the outset. In fact, the game starts off with the assumption that you aren’t even going to use all of the components that come with the core box. Like in Arkham, at the end of every turn you draw a card from the Mythos deck in order to discover how the uncaring Lovecraftian universe has fucked you over this time but, unlike Arkham, the Mythos is carefully customised before you start play. Instead of throwing in every card you own, you put together a pre-determined (and Ancient One specific) mixture of event, rumour and environment cards that form quite a small deck, which itself provides a secondary time limit on the game.

What this means is, that even if you add more expansions you’re never going to get the same bloat you get with Arkham (assuming, that is, they keep to this formula). True, the time and artefact decks might be a little bit thicker but they’re quite thin to begin with and, unlike with Arkham, they don’t contain as many must have items that could get buried underneath expansion bloat. Perhaps even more interestingly, from reviews I’ve seen it appears that the game does have expansion that include additional boards but that these boards are tied to explicit ancient ones.  So, for example, I understand that there’s an Antarctica expansion (and, for what it’s worth, Antarctica has really bad luck in the games we’ve played—it’s been completely destroyed in at least half of them) but the Antarctica board is only used if you’re playing against Ithaqua. In which case you’re basically doing Beyond the Mountains of Madness and going to Antarctica makes sense.

Conclusion

I seem to recall that my conclusion to my article about Arkham Horror was that, if you like the sound of Arkham, you were probably better off buying Eldritch. I pretty much stand by that. And virtually everything else I said in that article about who the game is suitable or unsuitable for applies to Eldritch just as much as it does to Arkham. They’re very similar games but, in my opinion, Eldritch is a flat upgrade.

The slightly thornier question I suspect is whether Eldritch is worth buying if you already have Arkham and aren’t bored of it. And there I’m a bit more hesitant. I do think that if you find Arkham is losing its shine, then owning it shouldn’t really factor into your decision whether or not to buy Eldritch (see that whole thing with the cinema tickets, right back at the beginning of this post). I might also say that if you were planning on buying the next couple of very pricey Arkham expansions you could maybe put the money towards Eldritch instead because I think it might wind up being a better investment long-term. If, on the other hand, you’re satisfied with the Arkham you have, then I don’t quite think Eldritch has enough in it by itself to justify the price of entry. Which is more or less where we came in.

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When I said I’d update this blog more often I didn’t necessarily mean every day, but it seems a bit off to save the second part of my deeply specific mid-to-late 1990s terrible awesome awesome terrible spooky movie extravaganza until the week after Halloween.

Which brings us to The Craft.

 The Craft

By all rights, I should hate this movie because it contains about every trope I hate in, well, I’d say this kind of fiction but actually a lot of them are tropes I hate in all mass culture. They include but are not limited to:

  • The only people who should have power are people who are born with it
  • It is immoral to try to make your life better
  • Sexually promiscuous people are evil, emotionally damaged, or both
  • Poor people are evil
  • Rich people are evil but not as evil as poor people
  • Black people aren’t evil but only because they never really get to do anything for themselves
  • Physical beauty correlates with morality in extremely specific ways, namely pretty people are good and ugly people are evil, unless the pretty people got pretty by trying to look pretty, in which case they are even more evil than the ugly people
  • And, while we’re at it, ugly basically means incredibly hot but with a few minor and easily overlooked physical flaws

And I admit some of these are reaching because the list would have been even less funny if it had only had two or three entries but the movie really can’t go more than ten minutes without showing me something that should, by all rights, piss me the fuck off.

So I’m not sure why I love it so much. Maybe it’s Fairuza Balk.

Scratch that. It’s definitely Fairuza Balk.

Anyway, The Craft is the story of a girl called Sarah whose mother was A Good Witch TM (this doesn’t really come out til the end of the movie, but it’s screamingly fucking obvious from the start) and who, therefore, has always had hidden supernatural powers (remember: you’re only allowed to have power if you were born with it). Sarah falls in with a motley cabal of teenage witches and, when I say witches, I mean really explicitly Wiccan witches (which I think is part of why I find the film so fascinating), all of whom have turned to the occult in order to help them deal with their very teenage personal problems. When Sarah joins them her innate protagonist powers kick the group into overdrive, allowing them to start doing real, legit magic for the first time in their lives.

I have a friend who describes Titus Andronicus as Shakespeare’s great unacknowledged comedy (this is going somewhere, bear with me). The play, she says, is so ludicrously over-the-top that you can’t take it seriously or imagine it was ever intended to be taken seriously as tragedy. And so it makes most sense if you view it as a hilarious and bloody farce. In the same way, I think the reason I love The Craft even though it ticks every status quo biased, socially conservative, believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything but only if you’re white and pretty box that I hate in Hollywood movies is that the foundations on which it’s based are so flawed, human and understandable that I can’t take it seriously as a coming-of-age story about a middle class white girl who falls in with a bad crowd. I have to view it, instead, as a profoundly tragic story about a group of variously marginalised people who do the only thing they think they can to make their low-key shitty lives slightly less low-key shitty, and are punished for it by an uncaring cosmos.

And, okay yes, technically Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie do try to straight up murder Sarah. And Sarah actually, when you think about it, has quite a lot of her own shit going on (she’s fairly clearly quite seriously depressed among other things, although the film really dances around that issue), but by that point (and to an extent like the various murders that take place in Interview With The (not a) Vampire) you’ve taken such a sharp left turn off Metaphor Drive into Allegory Close that it’s very hard to unpick how anyone’s actions should be interpreted.

At its heart, The Craft is about four girls who want very understandable, very reasonable things, some of which are relatable dreams or aspirations (“I wish I didn’t have these horrific burn scars”, “I wish my family wasn’t dirt poor”) and some of which are things they are genuinely entitled to (“I wish people would stop being overtly, explicitly and disgustingly racist to my actual face”). And it is genuinely pleasing when their forays into the supernatural lead to them getting these tiny things that they’ve hoped for. And what for me sells the pathos and the tragedy of the piece is seeing how much these girls lives are improved by these often trivial or even unnoticeable changes.

Just to go through a few examples, Rochelle, who I really don’t want to refer to as “the black one” but, well, it’s a teen movie from 1996 and pretty much her entire character arc is that a girl is racist to her and it makes her unhappy so … there’s not a lot I can do with that. There’s even a bit at the beginning of the movie where one of the Mean Jocks is pointing out the three witches to Sarah, and he basically points to Nancy and says, she’s a slut, points to Bonnie and says she’s got these horrible scars, and then just kind of ignores Rochelle completely. Where was I? Rochelle’s thing is that there is one girl who is really horrible to her in a really, concretely racist way (she actually uses the line “I don’t like negroids” and I know it was 1996 but … that’s still definitely more a macro aggression than a micro aggression). And, yes, they curse the mean girl so her hair falls out but Rochelle doesn’t seem to take any kind vindictive pleasure in this, she just seems genuinely happy that nobody is throwing racist abuse at her any more. Which is, um, I think something it’s okay to be happy about. Interestingly when they do the initial bonding ritual thing, where they articulate what they want out of their Wiccan nature magic love in, she specifically asks for the ability to love people who don’t love her. She’s not asking for anything bad to happen for anyone (although let’s be clear bad things happening to people are efficacious ways to curtail their destructive behaviours, that’s kind of how the criminal justice system works), she just wants to be not treated like shit. In fact, check that, she doesn’t even ask not to be treated like shit. She asks to have the strength to not feel bad about being treated like shit. This is about as close to being careful what you wish for as you can possibly get.

Then we’ve got Bonnie, the one with the burn scars. In a sense she’s the one who asks for the most (unless you count Nancy’s quest for real, ultimate power) in that she asks for something definitely and explicitly miraculous (yes, in the context of the film, there’s an outside possibility that the sudden regeneration of her scar tissue is the consequence of experimental gene surgery, but even the doctors don’t seem to think that’s a particularly likely explanation). The thing I find most interesting about Bonnie’s post-magic high-on-life sequence is that, barring one scene in which she wears a halter neck, she spends the rest of the film wearing clothes that would have concealed her scars anyway. And, yes, what she wears is still more revealing than the enormous floomfy “I have clearly have serious body issues” sweatshirts she wears at the beginning but, to me, that signals a shift in attitude, not necessarily a remarkable physical transformation. To put it another way, what Bonnie gets out of the circle is a sense of confidence and the ability to feel comfortable in her own skin. And that, leaving aside actual magical scar removal, is a genuine entitlement. Asking for it and enjoying it when you get it isn’t hubristic. It’s … I don’t even know if there’s a word for it. It’s just okay.

And then finally we have Nancy and, yes, when they do the letters to Santa sequence Nancy basically wishes for omnipotence so you can make a reasonable case that she’s a wrong ‘un from the outset. But you can also make a pretty good case that when you’ve got literally nothing, the only thing you can really want is everything because you haven’t had enough access to the world to have the kinds of specific desires that other people take for granted. This is probably best encapsulated by monkey’s-paw-esque sequence in which Nancy’s drunken, abusive, arsehole step-father drops dead of a heart attack, leaving Nancy and her mother the beneficiaries of a large life insurance policy, a life insurance policy that runs to something in the region $175k. Which, yes, is a lot of money insofar as it’s more money than Nancy or her mother can really imagine and, obviously, this was back in 1996 and we’ve had exactly twenty years (fuck, I feel old) of inflation since then but it’s not exactly one percenter territory. I mean, even in the 90s, millionaires were a thing. And a hundred and seventy five grand isn’t even a sizeable fraction of the expected lifetime earnings of most people. It’s about what you’d make in ten years doing a really, really crappy job. So when you get right down to it, although she almost literally wishes for the moon on a stick (which Sarah almost literally gets because, let’s remember, you’re only allowed to have things if you don’t try to get them) all Nancy really wants is not to live in grinding poverty with a guy who’s clearly abusive to her and her mother. Again, not hubristic. Just … okay.

Doing things from the point of view of the villains is sort of a cliché by this stage but that didn’t stop me enjoying the crap out of Team Starkid’s Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier which re-tells Disney’s Aladdin from the point of view of Jafar. In particular, the big number at the end of the first act, the title song ‘Twisted’, ends with a bunch of Disney villains explaining their motivations in this repetitive chorus that takes form “I only wished for [x].” “I only wished for love,” says Gaston. “I only wanted to teach the boy responsibility,” says Captain Hook.  “I only wanted what I was promised,” says Ursula the Sea Witch. “I only wished to have a coat made out of puppies,” says Cruella de Ville at the end, which sort of punctures the mood. The thing about The Craft is that it’s basically that bit from that song only (possibly) unintentionally, twenty years earlier, and for the entire movie. Even when Nancy, Bonnie and Rochelle are trying to drive Sarah to suicide in a pit of snakes and maggots you can’t—or, at least, I can’t—shake the awareness that they just wanted to get things other people take completely for granted.

None of them want a coat made out of puppies, is what I’m saying here.

And I get that power corrupts but the problem with power corrupts narratives in films, especially Hollywood films, is that they grade on a curve. Sarah is born with the heritage of a witch (and, also, born white, pretty and upper middle class) and, therefore, the power that she gets is completely fine and natural and okay (it’s also worth pointing out that she instigates most of the pissing about with magic that the girls do in the second quarter of the movie). Nancy, Rochelle and Bonnie acquire a little bit of power that is ultimately less than the power that Sarah started with and this makes them go evil. There are a whole load of really problematic assumptions about social orthodoxy and the political and economic establishment baked into that. And I’m not sure I can even begin unpacking them. The very potted, very sound bitey version is that it’s the movie about teenage witches equivalent of when people on the internet (and in newspapers and in campaigns for high political office) complain about marginalised people being given “special treatment” when all they’re really being given is a tiny fraction of the treatment that other people get every day without even thinking about it.

I’ve probably taken this way too seriously.

So, basically, to answer the question I asked myself at the beginning, I love The Craft because even though it transparently isn’t, it reads to me as the artfully observed tragedy of three young women who chafe against the restrictions society has placed on them and are crushed for it.

And, embarrassingly, I do actually have quite a lot more to say about the film because the other thing that’s interesting about it, completely aside from the whole “is it a tragedy or a coming of age movie” thing, is that its Wiccan stuff is bizarrely specific, quite different other Wiccan stuff you see in pop culture, and somehow manages to fetishise and demonise the religion simultaneously.

At the time the film came out, or maybe a little after (this is twenty years ago we’re talking about) I had a couple of legitimately Wiccan friends who were quite bothered by the film, not because they thought it particularly misrepresented their religion but because they thought the Wiccan rituals presented in the film were sufficiently accurate that the cast ran a real risk of calling up supernatural forces that would genuinely harm them. Obviously, as an atheist, I don’t think that was especially probable but it does highlight that the witchcraft presented in The Craft is really specifically and quite authentically Wicca. Which is odd.

As I recall, the witch thing was kind of on fleek in the late 1990s and early 2000s. You had Charmed, you had the whole Willow/Tara arc in Buffy, in the world of RPGs you had White Wolf’s Publishing’s Mage: The Ascension. But, by and large, pop culture depictions of witchcraft tended to borrow quite liberally from any source that included a pointy hat or a tripartite goddess. The witches in Buffy, for example, (at least the good sort) are fairly explicitly referred to as Wicca, but there’s very little in what they do that an actual Wiccan would (by my limited understanding) recognise as belonging to their religion. The Craft, as my friends from the 90s would testify, was rather different.

Some of it is just little tiny details that I like. The four girls obviously have an elemental correspondence thing going on and every time I watch it I forget that Nancy isn’t the fire one because the prevailing cultural association we have with fire is to do with spontaneity, unpredictability and, well, hot-headedness. But all of those characteristics in, well … I don’t want to say actual witchcraft because first of all modern syncretistic religious movements are almost definitionally eclectic and heterogeneous and even most practitioners would admit that their connection to Medieval or pre-Christian practice is, at best, reconstructed and, at worst, largely fabricated. Anyway, all of those characteristics in traditional Medieval elemental theory are associated with the element of air, the humour of yellow bile, and the temperament choleric (it is, in fact, pretty much what the word choleric still means). Ironically, the temperament associated with fire in that system is sanguine which, as far as I can tell, also still means today pretty much what it meant back in the day. Chill, happy and outgoing, basically. Bonnie (the one with the burn scars, oh do you see) fulfils the fire role in The Craft and, despite her lack of confidence, she’s basically the relaxed, friendly one. She’s quite explicitly the one who is nice to Sarah when she first shows up and the one who drives the circle in recruiting her as a fourth member.

The elemental correspondence thing gets a bit weird with Sarah, actually, because she occupies the position of earth, which is associated with black bile and melancholia. This is represented in the film by fairly strong hints that she’s dealt with suicidal depression in the past and this is … not really addressed. I think this might be a feature of the film’s traditional coming-of-age character arc in that Sarah basically has to be the designed everygirl whose primary challenges come from the whole business where her friends try to actually murder her, rather than coming from any flaws or foibles of her own personality. Again it ties into that awkward Hollywoodism where supernatural help is only acceptable if you don’t want or need it. If they’d made more of her need to use magic to deal with her mental health issues it would have made it really hard to distinguish between the “light” that Sarah apparently brings to magic and the “darkness” that Nancy is apparently coming from. While we’re doing the element mambo, I’ll also add that part of Rochelle’s problem is that because she represents water and therefore embodies phlegmatism she basically can’t do anything on her own initiative. Which is, again, a slightly awkward position for the one black character to be in.

The final weirdly specific, weirdly accurate, weirdly inaccurate thing about The Craft is how intensely it focuses on the role of a male divinity within Wicca. I honestly can’t tell if they’re being clueless or deliberately subversive. Virtually every kind of Wiccan-inspired fictional witch religion I’ve ever seen makes no reference to a male divine figure whatsoever. It is, at the risk of sounding glib, very much all goddess-this and goddess-that or, to quote Buffy, “blah blah Gaia blah blah moon.”  And, obviously, in traditional Gardnerian Wiccan the mother goddess is a very important concept but then so is the horned god. I’m not sure but I think that people who present Wicca-inspired religions in fiction really want to push the matriarchal thing as a deliberate counterpoint to, well, all the Abrahamic religions. But this is ultimately a misrepresentation of how Wicca works (not least because the oldest form of Wicca we have authenticated sources for was founded by, um, a man in the 50s).

So I like that The Craft nails its flag firmly to the idea that Wicca involves a male god too. I even like that they specifically give that god a name (from my very cursory research, one of the other features of most forms of traditional Wicca is that while the god and the goddess aren’t necessarily referred to by the same name by different groups of practitioners they’ll generally be referred to by a name, again I suspect partly as a way of differentiating them from the famously unnameable god of Christianity). It is, however, a bit weird that they focus on the male deity so exclusively. And maybe there’s supposed to be something Freudian going on – after all, none of the girls seem to have good male role models in their lives (Nancy’s step father is explicitly abusive, we see Bonnie’s mother but not her father, Rochelle’s parents are, of course, completely invisible and even Sarah’s dad is kind of a milquetoast). Or maybe it was just that, since the film presents the divinity that the girls invoke in a very double-edged way, it would have been a troublingly mixed message to have them worship a gigantic female empowerment metaphor that so explicitly screws them over.

Aaaand now I’ve written three thousand words about The Craft. Um, I do genuinely love it, even though there are a million reasons I shouldn’t. About three quarters of the way in, Fairuza Balk just full on transforms into Tim Curry. And it’s kind of brilliant.

So thus ends my deeply specific, mid-to-late 1990s terrible awesome awesome terrible spooky movie extravaganza.

Just assume I said something Halloweeny at the end here. Like boo or something.

absurdity, indulgence
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In my old age I am forced to confront the fact that I’m basically Ben from Parks and Rec. Not only do I non-ironically think Cones on Dunshire might be really fun, but I am definitely definitely having a mid-90s themed party when I turn forty. And it was probably hubristic of me but I honestly never thought I’d get to the point where the cultural artefacts of my childhood and teenage years exerted the near mystical power over me that I’ve observed, say, The Kinks or The Beatles exerting over the previous generation. Truly, does time make fools of us all.

So this Halloween, I thought I would indulge my inner 90s kid by watching two atrocious but brilliant but atrocious but brilliant but atrocious but I will fight you if you don’t say they’re brilliant spooky movies from the mid to late 1990s. And I would love to say this was because they happened to be on Netflix but the truth is I own both on DVD. For my younger readers, a DVD is a storage medium that’s like a record but smaller and more convenient but with much less hipster chic. Basically, it’s as soul-less as an MP3 but you can’t send it via the internet.

Anyway, the two films I chose for my 1994-1996 highly specific spooky movie fest were 1994’s Interview With The Vampire (and, also, if you want to catch someone out in a pub quiz or pub quiz like situation ask them the name of the Anne Rice novel that was made into a movie with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in the mid 90s and featured the characters of Lestat and Louis because I guarantee they’ll call it Interview With A Vampire, and then you’ll get to be all Stephen Fry at them). And 1996’s The Craft, which is the best movie ever made and shut up shut up shut up.

Interview With The (not a) Vampire

This was actually a lot better than I remembered it being. Brad Pitt can’t really act in it but since Louis doesn’t really do express any emotions except anger and confusion it sort of balances out. In that regard, it’s a lot like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, Bill & Ted and, well, any movie Keanu Reeves didn’t suck in. Tom Cruise is surprisingly charismatic and watchable as Lestat, although along the same lines as the Huge Riker game that we play while watching Star Trek: TNG I now can’t really watch a Tom Cruise movie without being fascinated by the ways they shoot around the fact he’s 5’7.  Basically, in Interview With The (not a) Vampire he spends a lot of time standing behind coffins and pianos.

The dialogue is basically abysmal, I think partially because the whole framing device is that it’s an interview so a lot of it really is just Brad Pitt expositing in a monotone. And even when characters are actually talking to each other it’s still mostly them expositing their feelings on the situation. But there’s something weirdly compelling about the whole thing. I mean, it’s basically a movie about a cadre of beautiful, jaded, panromantic asexuals who are so desperate for validation, redemption and meaning that they invest disproportionately in whatever drippy plantation owner first catches their eye. And, for some reason, I can sort of relate to that. I think it’s partly because I’m very much a child of the 21st century. Only today I realised that I was ordering my dinner from a website and selecting my food based not on what I wanted to eat but on what my sense of humour led me to belief would be the most amusing thing to order. We are the fucking dancers at the end of fucking time.

Where was I? Oh yes. Falling for a drippy plantation owner. I’ve got to admit that something I didn’t quite pick up on when I first watched this film about twenty years ago is that Louis is, um, an actual plantation owner. Like he had slaves and this is a thing. Although, when I say it’s a thing, I very much mean it’s a thing “we are worried about you, Master Louis” way not in the “at all engaging with the notion of slavery on any kind of critical level” way. I’ve got to admit that this does sort of make Louis’s role as the eternally suffering, struggling soul and conscience of vampiredom just a little bit a problematic. I mean, basically the whole “no, no, I refuse to drink human blood” shtick comes a lot across a lot better if you aren’t implicitly following it up with “but I am okay with actually owning actual human beings.” And, yes, he frees all his slaves eventually but only because he feels that having become a vampire he’s no longer qualified to be a good slave owner. Which is, um, better than nothing, I suppose? Very slightly better than nothing.

And, also, when I say he frees his slaves what I actually mean is that he tells his slaves they’re free, then immediately sets his house on fire and, presumably, disappears from New Orleans society. And while I admit I’m not a historian of the colonial south I’m pretty sure if a bunch of slaves just rocked up in town and said “yeah, our master just set us all free, then burned his plantation down and disappeared mysteriously” the colonial authorities would not have responded by say “oh, fair enough, please go about your lives.”

The other point I find jarring about Louis and Lestat’s grand New Orleans adventure and I confess that this is a slightly pissy point is the sheer body count they allegedly rack up. Louis’s monotone narration informs us that Lestat liked to kill two or three a night (incidentally, and this is a fiddly vampire nerd thing, the film is unclear on the extent to which vampires can feed without killing). Now this makes for some exciting and dramatic scenes with Lestat standing over the artfully distressed bodies of dead courtesans (with his legs behind a coffin so we can’t see what a tiny, tiny man Tom Cruise is) but it does make no sense at all when you think about the numbers for a second. Two to three victims a night is nine hundred victims a year. Lestat turns Louis in 1791 and is definitely still in New Orleans in the early 19th century. By which calculation he must have killed somewhere in the region of thirteen thousand people. According to an 1805 census the population of New Orleans was eight thousand five hundred. Which means Lestat de-populated the city one and a half times between 1791 and 1805. It’s especially bizarre because Louis explicitly informs us that he prefers to feed from the aristocracy which would obviously have been an even smaller proportion of the population.

To be fair, to the film and the book on which it’s based, it’s possible when Louis said that Lestat liked to kill two to three people a night, he meant liked to kill two to three people on those nights on which he killed people. And maybe he only did that once or twice a year as a special treat although even then two or three dead peers every year gets noticed way faster than Team Double L apparently did. I mean, if you think about it, in London in 1888 (a city of four million people) the (admittedly grisly) deaths of five prostitutes shocked the nation and led to a city-wide manhunt. But apparently Lestat can just off Countesses and their young lovers at swanky society parties and nobody gives a crap.

Sorry, I went on about that for a really long time.

Because vampirism in Interview With The (not a) Vampire basically has “this is a metaphor” written all over it in shiny gold letters I can actually overlook the corpse piles more than I’m pretending I can. And that very metaphorical nature of vampirism also has some really interesting implications for the relationships between the characters. Lestat is clearly romantically in love with Louis, albeit in a messed up, possessive, controlling way and, because, as far as I can tell, Ricean vampires’ penises don’t work, not in a sexual way. And Louis and Lestat’s relationship with Claudia walks this very strange line between the paternal and the romantic, which is varying sorts of creepy depending on how you interpret things.

After all, by the time she makes her first attempt to do in Lestat (spoiler, for a twenty year old movie based on a forty year old book) Claudia is actually thirty but, of course, she still has the body of a child so being romantically interested in her is fine (because she’s thirty) or skeevy as fuck (because she’s five) or fine (because vampires don’t actually have sex anyway so even if they were romantically interested in her there wouldn’t be a sexual element to the relationship) or skeevy as fuck (because all the blood, killing , murder stuff is clearly a metaphor for sex and she’s five) or fine (because, when you think about it, once you’ve put mass murder on the table it seems a bit weird to then be skeeved out by a non-physically romantic relationship with a thirty-year-old woman with the body of a five-year-old girl) or skeevy as fuck (because she’s fucking five).

If you can unpick all of that or, at least, find a way to make yourself comfortable with not having unpicked it, it actually becomes an interesting exploration of the nature of love. One of the things that I personally have a bee in my bonnet about is that I think we (as a culture) make a mistake when we treat love as if it’s a morally positive virtue, rather than as a morally neutral one. The whole of Interview With The (not a) Vampire is essentially about these three characters looking for (and I can’t quite believe I’m using this phrase but it’s the only one that really works) love in all the wrong places. The wrong place in question almost always being Louis.

The final thing that struck me as odd about Interview With The (not a) Vampire was the slightly random Louis Is The Spirit Of The Age thing that you get from Armand towards the end. To which my only real response is, hang on a second, which fucking age is that? Was there an age drippy fops with one facial expression that I somehow missed out on? In particular, surely if anyone is the spirit of any age, it’s Lestat who—as a French nobleman trapped by his own decadence, abandoned by the Ancien Regime and spiralling towards a destruction brought partially upon himself and partially instigated by his cruel treatment of his subordinates—really does sum up the 17th and 18th centuries rather well.  In fact, strangely the age that Louis seems to embody might be one that he wasn’t actually born in. As an essentially moral man (for certain definitions thereof) from a plantation owning background you can make a reasonable case that what Louis embodies is the lost honour of the antebellum South. A man born and raised with very clear, quite socially conservative ideas about right and wrong and duty gradually finding that everything he values (his wife, his child, his mortality, his, um, capacity to be an effective slave owner, his spooky vampire lover, his creepy vampire kid) is taken away from him.

Or maybe I’m just projecting because I naturally assume that anything vaguely historical set south of Delaware is about the lost honour of the antebellum South.

Also Louis’ hair is super shiny. In the bits at the end of the film where he’s having his tense confrontation scenes with Armand I kept being really distracted by how shiny all the hair was. So in my head they were just going “Come to me Louis, and I will teach you to make your hair as shiny as my hair” while Louis is saying “No, after all that you have done, my hair could never be shiny enough to compensate for the pain of all that I have lost.”

My final final comment on this film is that even though I hadn’t seen in ages and remembered basically nothing about it I did have an extremely strong recollection of the ending sequence. Because Lestat going on the Golden Gate Bridge to Sympathy For the Devil is as brilliant as it is unsubtle. Which is to say, very very brilliant.

And, actually, this has got far too long. So I’ll do The Craft another time.

absurdity, indulgence
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Hello! So, as you’ve probably noticed if you’re reading this, I have a shiny new website. Which I’m still sort of working on, to be honest, meaning quite a lot of bits of it aren’t super working right now. But it will all be up and running soon, I promise. Though, like nearly every other project I’ve ever worked on, that might be soon in the Aslan sense.

I’ve been meaning to update the website for quite a while because, when I first started it, I didn’t really have much of an idea about what the finished produce was going to look like. At the beginning of what I somewhat laughably call my career I had a lot of spare time and not a lot of books to talk about so there’s quite a lot of detailed information about my earlier stuff—a lot of which probably isn’t that interesting to readers—but as time as gone on and my commitments and back catalogue have racked up the most I’ve been able to remember to do is stick up a copy of the cover with a brief description saying “this is a book about some people, they might kiss in it” and, if I was feeling tremendously on the ball, I’d include a buy link.

So basically I’ve streamlined a lot of things, rationalised a lot of things, trimmed a bunch of dead links and hired a professional to give the whole shebang a new shiny look. I hope you like it.

While we’re on the subject of the internet, my limited free time and getting professionals to do things I’m not very good at people who follow such things might have noticed that I’ve also handed over much of my social media presence to a social media manager. Essentially it had got to the point that I was spending more time talking about my books on the internet than I was spending actually writing new books and I didn’t think I was doing myself, or my readers, any favours. As a result, I’ve decided to step right back and discipline myself to using my sitting-down-in-front-of-a-computer-time writing fiction instead of tweeting pictures of hippos.

Which is a shame because I do love me some pictures of hippos. But I gots me some books to write.

I’ve told myself I’m going to update this blog more often as a sort of compromise position. But, as regular visitors to this website will know, my track record in this area does not exactly inspire confidence. That said, I have a whole crap tonne more Star Trek to talk about. And a couple of board games to review. I’m aware that some writers talk about their books and I sometimes think maybe I should talk about my books but I’m weirdly superstitious about that. Actually, I’m weirdly superstitious about most things.

Obviously I can still be contacted by most of the usual methods. My lovely Social Media Imp, Michele, is more than happy to pass on messages or tell me if there’s a hippo picture I particularly need to see. If you have any questions about any social media type stuff you can contact her directly at mjh(at)quicunquevult(dot)com. And, as ever, I love hearing from people and can be reached at ajh(at)quicunquevult(dot)com. I used to have to contact form but it died when I was updating the website. Unfortunately this means that any messages anyone has tried to send me in the past couple of weeks may have been eaten. I’m really sorry if this includes you and I’m trying to dig them out of the internet as we speak.

Anyway. That’s my exciting technical website update. I hope you enjoy the new look—which is basically all I can enjoy because I haven’t really got any of the rest of it working yet.

Also I had a book out a bit a go and I’ve been so distracted I sort of kept forgetting to mention it. But there’s a book out, it’s called Pansies. I really will send a newsletter round at some point.

PS – here is my favourite hippo. I identify with this hippo very much.

baby-hippo-running-from-birds

 

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Not only have a not quit this yet but I’ve actually got to the end of the first series. The last six episodes of season 1 can be broadly summed as Arms Dealers Are Bad, Drugs Are Bad, The Abstract Concept Of Evil Is Bad, Picard’s Love Life Is Bad, This Episode is Bad, and The Romulans, The Borg and Capitalism Are Bad.

The Arsenal of Freedom

The Enterprise arrives at a planet that was once populated by a race of arms dealers where they receive an automated message saying “hi, do you want to come and check our arms? We’ll do great deals for you on our arms and they definitely won’t destroy our entire civilisation.” Various members of the crew beam down to the planet, where they find that there is nothing active except for a number of automated drone spheres things that pop up at exactly 3 minute 18 second intervals (or something, I can’t remember the precise timing) and try to kill everyone. The crew make various efforts to unravel the mystery of what happened to the planet of the arms dealers, even though it is screamingly obvious from the word go. I mean seriously, do they know nothing about the history of their own galaxy. Gee, I wonder what happened to this ancient and extremely technologically advanced civilisation? Do you think maybe it was destroyed by its own technology just like all the others?

This episode has a slightly weird structure in that the crew are split into three groups with Riker and the soon-to-be-late-soon-to-be-lamented Tasha Yar running around on the ground, fighting drones while Picard and Crusher fall in a hole and have sexual tension, and Geordi and the rest are on the ship fighting another ship. The whole situation gets resolved when it turns out that the hole into which Picard and Crusher have fallen is essentially the showroom of the ancient arms dealers and they succeed in persuading the computer running the whole shebang to stop the demonstration by agreeing to buy some arms from them. And that does sort of make me wonder how the hell this wiped out their civilisation in the first place. It has an off switch that they control – were they just so committed to making a sale that they sat there going “how good is this weapon, why strong enough to destroy our entire society, watch”? Anyway, they turn off the killer machines and everything is okay again.

And while we’re here can we talk about what happened to Geordi’s career? The sole redeeming feature of this episode is that it includes one of my favourite Star Trek arcs which is the “Character X is placed in command of the Enterprise, Character Y doesn’t think that Character X is ready to be in command of the Enterprise, Character X takes tough decisions, performs well in a crisis and learns to believe him/her/oh who I am kidding him self, and everyone lives happily ever after” arc. I mean, Geordi gets that arc which is why that observation is relevant to the “what happens to Geordi’s career” conversation. In this episode, as with most of the first series, Geordi is wearing red, sitting on the Bridge and serving as Conn Officer. Somewhere between now and Troi’s magic space baby (which kicks off Season 2) he re-trains as an engineer, puts on a yellow tracksuit and bogs off to spend the rest of TNG playing with dilithium crystals. So why did he get the  “learning to trust yourself arc?” That’s pretty much exclusively reserved for people who you’re theoretically supposed to accept will wind up as a Starfleet Captain one day.

Sheesh, it’s almost as if they were making it up as they went along.

Four bobbins, only saved from five by Geordi having quite a cool bit and by the fact I know Conspiracy is coming up.

four-bobbins

Symbiosis

I originally heard this said of Doctor Who episode’s but I think it is also very much true of Star Trek: that the difference between a viewer and a fan is that a fan calls episodes by their names and a viewer calls episodes “the one  where…” This is the one where they think it’s medicine but really it’s drugs.

The Enterprise responds to a distress signal or something and goes to the aid of a ship crewed by people who look really out of it, who are more keen to save their cargo than their crew members. It turns out that this cargo is “medicine” that their people desperately need because of a “plague”, the symptoms of which happen to look exactly like someone going through withdrawal on TV. Oh, the “medicine” is Felicium, by the way. To give the crew their due, Beverley Crusher does work this out relatively quickly and I do appreciate she doesn’t have the benefit of knowing she’s in a TV show and, therefore, being able to spot a Very Special About Drugs a million miles away.

Bobbins as I think this episode, I feel like it’s nearly saved by the fact that it almost explores its central science fiction concept in an interesting way. It turns out that the clearly out of it people come from the planet Ornara and they buy Felicium from the planet Brekka. The Ornarans are the only people in their star system who have access to advanced engineering and space travel, technologies that they developed before they all got hooked on Felicium. Brekka produces Felicium and only Felicium. So the entire economy of Brekka relies on knowingly keeping the entire population of Ornara addicted to this terrible narcotic. The central conflict of the episode arises from Beverley’s desire to tell the Ornarans of her discovery and Picard’s desire to conceal it from them in the name of the Prime Directive. I’ve mentioned before how much I love Prime Directive episodes.

I think what makes this episode more or less work for me is that, unusually, I feel like the Prime Directive has real value in this situation, in that it is a scenario in which there appears to be an obvious, morally good course of action but, in fact, when you stop to consider the fact you are talking about whole frikkin’ planets it suddenly gets a lot more complex and ambiguous.

Put simply: assuming the situation is as the characters in the episode present it as (and if we don’t assume that, then we can’t really have any useful discussion about this episode) then Felicium is the only thing that Brekka makes. No matter how immoral you might think that is, you’re talking about a planet that relies entirely for its survival on another planet that only wants one thing it produces. If the Enterprise does as Beverley suggests and blows the gaffe on the whole “Felicium is drugs” thing, then there is a pretty good chance that everyone on Brekka will literally starve to death. So rather than the choice being the typical Bioware or Fable 3 dynamic of “stop the people being addicted to drugs / make the people addicted to more drugs” with good and evil points awarded for each the choice is more like “intervene in an obviously immoral situation knowing that your intervention will have far reaching consequences beyond anything you can predict or understand and may potentially cause the deaths of millions / don’t do that.”

Of course, the episode sort of undercuts this by having its cake and eating it. At the end of the episode it is revealed that the freighter the Enterprise rescued was the last ship capable of transporting Felicium between Brekka and Ornara, and, ironically, Picard declares that the Prime Directive prevents him from helping to fix the ship. So the Felicium trade will necessarily die away and we’re asked not to think too much about the inevitable social chaos and mass starvation likely to result on both planets. But, then again, that would probably have happened anywhere if the Enterprise hadn’t come along, which is sort of the Prime Directive’s whole point.

And, although I’ve just said it handles its central science fiction concept fairly well, the moment you stop to think about the setup between Brekka and Ornara makes no sense. How the hell are these people who when we see them on the show are completely incapable of walking in a straight line or stringing a coherent sentence together the only people in their star system with space travel? Why, for that matter, does no-one on Brekka think that maybe, just maybe, relying for all of your needs on the skilled craftsmanship of a bunch of strung out addicts might not be the best idea in the history of the Alpha Quadrant. And, obviously, part of the point is that very exploitative situations are unsustainable (this seems to be a central tenet of the early TNG worldview and it’s not one which I think is entirely borne out by observation, I think exploitative situations are bad because it’s bad to exploit people, not because they inevitably lead to everyone getting killed) but it just seems very convenient that the Enterprise arrived at exactly the point that this absurd and unworkable state of affairs was about to collapse under the weight of its own absurdity and unworkableness.

Oh also, this episode contains a truly awful speech about why drugs are bad from Tasha Yar (to Wesley, obviously, because Wesley is the teenager and therefore represents the cool kids). To be fair, every single person involved with the show thought it was a bad idea but Morris Hurley (who I think was a producer of some kind) made them put it in because, in his words, “no, there are kids out there, if we’re going to make the message, let’s make the message.” I can only assume Morris Hurley knows nothing about kids.

Four bobbins.

four-bobbins

Skin of Evil

Oh dear me. So this is the  one where Tasha Yar dies. My understanding is that there are a lot rumours about why Tasha Yar got such shitty, shitty send off in such shitty, shitty episode.  Whenever the characters portrayed by people who want to leave TV shows are killed off in ignominious ways one always suspects that ego has more to do with it than anyone will admit. Although perhaps less to do with it than we like to speculate.

The official line is that Gene Roddenberry thought that being killed randomly by something random was appropriate for a security officer because being a security officer is dangerous so that kind of thing should happen sometimes. The problem is that kind of thing never happens on Star Trek. I mean, this is heroic space adventure. The crew of the Enterprise have fought the most malevolent, unstoppable and terrifying beings in the galaxy with a casualty rate of essentially zero. In DS9 they fight an entire war against an enemy that is, in a very real sense, the dark reflection of everything they stand for, and we lose exactly one recurring character. Star Trek characters talk about the dangers of putting on a Starfleet uniform but we have known since the mid 1960s that putting on a Starfleet uniform is only dangerous if your uniform is red (yes, I know that actually, in the later series, red shirts are worn by high ranking officers rather than disposable ensigns but the Star Trek redshirt is such an iconic image that I think the observation still stands).

So this episode just sucks. Tasha Yar dies. Troi spends the entire episode providing really bad 80s psychoanalysis to a pool of black goo. And its backstory turns out to be that there was race of being that cast off all their negativity and left it behind and that’s what this thing is. Apparently the monster, whose name was Armus, was originally designed for an episode of the Outer Limits and I honestly think it makes a lot more sense in that kind of context. I mean, you could almost imagine the Outer Limits voice over guy doing his crappy end of episode summing up: “In trying to rid ourselves of evil, do we not sometimes create … a greater evil?” And the thing is, in an Outer Limits episode, the random gloopy monster arbitrarily killing someone is completely fine because they’re just the character who is in that episode to get killed to show the monster means business. In a Star Trek episode, that’s what redshirts are for. And members of the Bridge crew, at least members of the Bridge crew we’ve met previously, are not redshirts. Even if they’re wearing red shirts.

Basically, it’s an episode that doesn’t fit the genre of Star Trek. And the fact that a major die got killed off in this episode makes it particularly hard to take.

Five bobbins.

five-bobbins

 

We’ll Always Have Paris

This one, honestly, is forgettable. Something something brilliant but loopy professor something something spurious field or emission or wave or something something something time distortion something something.

The actual plot of this episode is that the professor is married to a much more attractive younger woman who, many years ago, Picard stood up at a café in Paris. I’d point out that she’s much younger than Picard but, then, as we have established at great length Picard has a type, and it’s “much younger than him.”

As if traditional for Star Trek character development, we discover in this episode that Picard has spent the rest of his life regretting and reflecting upon his decision to leave this young woman alone in a café in Paris and, instead, run back to Starfleet Academy. He has never mentioned this before. He will never mention it again. And perhaps because Picard is quite old and because Patrick Stewart plays him with such a sense of wistful melancholy (the hero of our space adventure series, ladies and gentlemen) the writers seem to pull this trick with Picard very regularly.  You can barely go three episodes without it being revealed that something happened in Picard’s past that has profoundly affected in him in some way that barely ever gets talked about. The most extreme example of this, of course, being the episode in series two where we discover that, in his hot blooded youth, Picard was legit stabbed through the heart in a bar fight. And has had a robot heart ever since.

Oh do you see, because Data is a robot but, at heart, is he not in a very real sense a human. While Picard is a human but, at heart, is he not in a very real sense a robot.

I think the best way to sum up this episode is that, in writing this recap, I spent about ten minutes going “oh, is this the one where Picard’s on a horse” or “oh is this one where Picard shoots himself in a time loop” and, okay, I admit part of the reason for that is I’ll ask myself those questions about anything, even if it’s not a Star Trek episode. But partly it’s just that this episode is very, very forgettable.

Three bobbins.

Conspiracy

I feel a bit bad for this episode because, throughout all of these recaps, I’ve been saying “well, at least it wasn’t as bad as Conspiracy.” Even though, about half the episodes in this series, were, in fact, as bad as Conspiracy. I mean, actually having done the recaps now I think the worst episode in the series is probably Skin of Evil or possibly Code of Honor.

Like Skin of Evil I think the basic problem with this episode is that it feels like it belongs in a completely different series. Interestingly, the original premise was for there to just be a conspiracy within Starfleet and for it to not necessarily involve brain-controlling alien slugs that came out of nowhere. Roddenberry nixed this because, in his view of the series, Starfleet should be (and I’m paraphrasing here) basically infallible. And, actually, I sort of stand by him on this in that the entire premise of the show is that it’s set in a Utopian society and if you start poking too closely into the institutions that underpin the Utopian society, and especially if you start asking questions like “who the fuck are these people accountable to anyway?” or “why do they put children on their warships?” or “if the Federation is a vast and, as its name suggestions, federated amalgam of dozens, perhaps even hundreds of worlds, many of which have had space travel for far longer than humanity … why are virtually high ranking Starfleet officials human and for that matter why is there only ever one alien on the Enterprise?” then the whole thing falls apart.

Unfortunately this means the episode winds up being something of a bitty compromise. You’ve got all the paranoid conspiracy stuff that you’d get in a gritty drama about the seedy underbelly of institutionalised power but set against the backdrop of this objectively perfect, benevolent organisation. The brainslugs vaguely paper over the gaps but, well, they don’t really. And it just leads to some awful sequences and terrible special effects. Also they blow a dude’s head up on screen.

Oh, hilariously, the reason they left the blowing the dude’s head up on screen in the episode is that when concerns were raised about that scene being potentially too disturbing for children, a member of the effects team showed it to his six-year-old son who—funnily enough—thought it was awesome and suggested that create an action figure with an exploding head. Now perhaps I’m wrong but I question the wisdom of making your decisions about to show children on the basis of what six-year-old boys are into. Because six-year-old boys are often into some nasty shit.

Five bobbins.

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Aaaaand finally: The Neutral Zone

This episode was apparently based on a fanfic. Which, when you think about it for ten seconds about the plot (three cryogenically frozen people from 20th century earth wake up in an episode of Star Trek) well … of course it was. I was too younger to remember it at the time but there was a big writers’ strike in 1988 and this impacted quite a lot of the early series of TNG. The Neutral Zone was originally intended to be a two-part episode that sees the Enterprise journey into the neutral zone to investigate some mysteriously destroyed colonies only to encounter a Romulan warbird investigating the same mysteriously destroyed colonies and then, in the second part of the episode, to team up said Romulan warbird to fight the mysterious enemy responsible for the destruction of those colonies which would, spoiler, have turned out to be the Borg. I am super sad which didn’t get Picard And Romulans Versus Borg as the finale of Season 1 / opening of Season 2 and instead got Comedy Frozen Texan and Deanna Troi Impregnated By Alien Light.

The thing I take away most from this episode, apart from the fact that it provides the inspiration for the second verse of the song which provides the inspiration for the title of this recap series (that song being, What Would Captain Picard Do by Hank Green) is that it’s the episode in which it was made canon that the Enterprise has shit security. One of the three 20th century dudes, who wakes up on the Enterprise in this episode, is a rich, arrogant jerk from what would have been the present day at time of writing. While Picard is trying to deal with the whole “Romulan and mysterious enemy going to turn out to be the Borg”  situation this dude constantly messages the Bridge and his messages just get through on the ship’s com. When Picard talks to him later he makes it very explicit that the com is completely unsecured because in the post-scarcity, post-human weakness Utopia of the 24th century people can just genuinely be trusted not to mess with that shit.

So taking this to its logical conclusion it seems very likely that the Enterprise’s entire security infrastructure basically runs on the honour system. Those aren’t forcefields in the brig – you’re just asked very politely not to walk past the yellow line and they flash some pretty lights up if you go near it.

I mean, I suspect you probably shouldn’t take it to its logical conclusion because the implications render much of the series farcical but it does also explain quite a lot. I’ve nearly finished series 3 and I’ll very frequently find myself looking at something and saying “why has that happened, surely that would only happen on a ship with really shit security” then I think to myself “oh no, wait, the writers cleverly established in the series 1 finale, The Neutral Zone, that the Enterprise does, in fact, have really shit security and that this, when you think about it, quite a reasonable world building point.”

Four bobbins.  I mean, it’s not as bad as the worst episodes but it is the episode that establishes as canon that the starship Enterprise is terrible at being a starship.

four-bobbins

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I never quite know what to do with book release posts because once you’ve said … I’ve got a book released today that’s kind of covered it.

But, um, I had a book released today.

It is Pansies.

You can purchase it from all the usual outlets.

Here’s the blurb:

Pansies_400x600 (1)Alfie Bell is . . . fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was eighteen, and a bunch of fancy London friends.

It’s rough, though, going back to South Shields now that they all know he’s a fully paid-up pansy. It’s the last place he’s expecting to pull. But Fen’s gorgeous, with his pink-tipped hair and hipster glasses, full of the sort of courage Alfie’s never had. It should be a one-night thing, but Alfie hasn’t met anyone like Fen before.

Except he has. At school, when Alfie was everything he was supposed to be, and Fen was the stubborn little gay boy who wouldn’t keep his head down. And now it’s a proper mess: Fen might have slept with Alfie, but he’ll probably never forgive him, and Fen’s got all this other stuff going on anyway, with his mam and her flower shop and the life he left down south.

Alfie just wants to make it right. But how can he, when all they’ve got in common is the nowhere town they both ran away from.

I honestly never quite know what to say about my own books. Making claims about what they’re about is kind of presumptuous because that’s up to the reader at this point. And I’m fickle as fuck when it comes to writing, which means the current book is rarely like the previous one … so I get kind of angsty people are going to be disappointed. All of which to say,  Pansies is not like either Looking for Group or For Real. Theme-wise it has some things in common with Waiting for the Flood. Heat-wise it is probably closest to Glitterland. No desserts are defiled in Pansies. Though there is an act of intimacy that takes place on the bonnet of a TVR Sagaris.

Hope this helps you orientate whether Pansies is an Alexis Hall book for you.

And, err, sign up for my newsletter for an exclusive deleted scene. If that’s the sort of thing you’re into.

PS – my website is kind of horribly out-of-date at the moment. I think it still believes Waiting for the Flood was the last book I released. I’m working on that too!

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You know the drill by now. This is the blog series in which I re-watch old Star Trek: TNG episodes and rate them according to how bobbins they are. First up…

Too Short A Season

This episode is either quite good or super bobbins depending on which bits you focus on. The basic premise: Federation Admiral Goes To Extreme And Unwise Lengths In An Attempt To Make Up For A Terrible Mistake He Committed In His Youth is actually pretty solid. Unfortunately it’s buried under some scenery chewing acting and really unconvincing old man make up. Also, according to random trivia on Wikipedia, the script was originally inspired by the male menopause because … what?

There isn’t much to say about this episode that you can’t basically work out from a one sentence plot summary and one look at Admirable Jameson. I mean, let’s face it, the moment you see a guy done up like that you know it’s either a returning character from the original series or a reverse ageing plot.

One thing that might be worth commenting on is that this episode hinges around a person’s interpretation of the Prime Directive but not one that’s taking place live on screen. Jameson’s great error was to provide arms to both sides of a conflict in order to satisfy a hostage negotiation while also, as he saw it, preserving the balance of power on the planet. I can’t decide whether this is a more realistic and nuanced representation of the way flawed people might interpret a vaguely worded principle than the usual “whatever make the best episode” presentation. Or if it’s just another instance of the same phenomenon.  Jameson’s dilemma of forty-odd years ago was that a man Karnas was holding some Federation citizens hostage and demanding Federation weaponry in return for their release. His solution was to make the deal but then give an equal amount of weapons to the other side of the civil war that was going on at the time in the hope that they would somehow cancel out.

This, yet again, makes no sense. The Federation is super super protective of its technology and the reason you don’t go around giving that technology to less advanced civilisations is that you don’t want to artificially accelerate their development. Giving it to both sides in a war is not the same as giving it to neither side in a war. It’s just worse. And, to be fair, maybe Jameson made the only call he felt he could make in a  crisis … although why beam in and shoot everyone with phasers didn’t strike him as being less long-term disruptive I don’t know. And, again, I can’t help but feel that his actions make most sense if you assume he was trying to create the plot for a Star Trek episode that would take place forty years later.

Once again, I find myself at the edge of the usefulness of the bobbins system because there is so much that is bobbins about this episode but, deep down, I sort of like its core concept. Dude makes tragic mistake, seeks to atone is a classic for a reason. So let’s split the difference and go with three.

3-bobbins

When The Bough Breaks

This one is … odd. Ever reliable Wiki informs me that this is the first episode of TNG that makes a major plot point of the fact that the Enterprise, for no logically discernible reason, has a bunch of civilian on board. And, yes, yes, I know the Enterprise isn’t a war ship, and yes, yes, I know Star Fleet isn’t a military organisation. It just has a bunch of military ranks and does a bunch of military jobs. And, despite not being a war ship, the Enterprise is capable of going toe-to-toe with any vessel built by any species in the galaxy, except the Borg and presumably a couple of the omnipotent ones. And there are constant, constant references to people “understanding the dangers” that come with a Starfleet inform. What I’m saying is, the Enterprise is not the sort of thing you should take your kids onto because every week there is a non-zero chance it will explode. The whole children on board thing is occasionally brought up as part of the ‘Star Trek is actually a Dystopia’ discussions you get on the internets and you can make a reasonable case that the only reason to have actual families on board your deep space exploration fighting real legit aliens with lasers that go boom ship is as a form of hostage.

Anyway. In this thoroughly silly episode, the Enterprise encounters the mythical plant of Magrathea … or something. The Magratheans offer to trade some of their incredibly advanced technology to the Enterprise crew in return for some of the Enterprise’s children. They themselves have become infertile for reasons they don’t understand despite their amazing technology but which … spoiler … Beverley Crusher will work out within about ten minutes. Double spoiler: it’s the unintended consequence of their own technology because of course it is.

Something I’m never sure how much I should be bothered by in Star Trek is that it’s unambiguously soft SF. And there are a whole bunch of things you just accept when you’re watching soft SF – like “planet” is basically code for “village”, “computer” is basically code for “wizard” and going anywhere and doing anything takes as long as its plot convenient for it to take. Having said that, what is the Magratheans plan here? They have an entire world to re-populate. And they seem to be trying to do it with the six kids they nab off the Enterprise. I mean, maybe they’re so technologically advanced that virtually everything else on their world is done by machine and there really are only a dozen actual families. But that doesn’t seem terribly plausible. Even if it’s a really really small planet there must be a few thousand people living there, probably a few million. Six kids won’t make a difference. And if they’re all infertile then what is this plan going to achieve apart from replacing their native population with a bunch of people descended from humans. And, actually, if they think as they seem to that the infertility is a consequence of isolation and inbreeding surely what they’d want to do is negotiate for sexually viable adults. Although somehow I suspect that idea would have received less resistance from the Enterprise crew if their behaviour on any other planet is anything to go by.

And, okay, I understand that Star Trek episodes are essentially morality plays but if it hadn’t turned out that the Magratheans’ infertility had a simple, external and easily remedied cause I’m not even sure the Enterprise would have been in the right here. I mean, yes, abducting children is wrong. But this isn’t a bomb that’s about to go off, it’s a planet lacking in genetic viability and while stealing kids from their families on the one ship that came to visit you is not okay it isn’t like the Enterprise couldn’t have worked with them to find a solution. Okay, the Federation is supposed to be this utopia and we’re supposed to think that no child would ever want to be raised outside of it if they had the opportunity but, well, just taking the Magratheans problem at face value which is they need children and lots of them and soon, couldn’t the Enterprise instead say “Tell you what, you sit tight on this planet you live on that isn’t going anywhere, we’ll fly over to Tasha Yar’s homeworld, y’know, the one with the rape gangs and see if there are any kids down there who’d like to move to a different planet.”

Four bobbins.

four-bobbins

Home Soil

I sort of weirdly like this episode. The Enterprise crew come to a planet that’s been terraformed and discover that the terraforming team have had to deal with a number of accidents and slightly spooky goings on. It very quickly turns out that the supposedly lifeless planet they were working on is actually home to some kind of vast, sentiment networked crystal consciousness thing that lives in a very thin hydrated layer below the sands of the planet.

There are several things I appreciate about this episode. The first being that planet-inhabited-by-sentient-crystals is quite an interesting SF concept in its own right, and the episode explores it fairly well. The other thing I liked was that the episode engages with, or less charitably, explains away some of the ickier implications of the entire Federation deal. When you get right down to it, the whole point of Star Trek is that it’s about the glory and wonder of exploration, and it very consciously harks back to Age of Exploration that happened on Earth, right down to borrowing all of its ship terminology from classical sailing ships, having multiple crew members collect or build models of Age of Sail vessels, and so on. But, of course, the actual Age of Exploration was kind of horrible because it wasn’t just an age of discovery and wonder, it was an age of colonialism, imperialism and conquest. This episode bends over backwards to explain that the Federation only ever terraforms or settles on world’s that are not merely uninhabited but utterly lifeless. And while I’m a whinging leftie even I am not especially bothered about protecting the rights of rocks moving in circles.

A couple of little trivia points in this episode: the tiny copy of the sentient crystal thing (not to be confused with the Crystalline Entity) at one point refers to the crew of the Enterprise as “ugly bags of mostly water” which went on to be the title of a documentary about Star Trek fans (I assume this was meant affectionately). Other than that there’s not a lot to report because there’s not a lot that’s blazing nonsensical. Unless the count the bit where Data fights a mining laser.

I think this is a solid two bobbins episode.

2-bobbins

Coming of Age

This is another episode that’s both brilliant and terrible. It contains some excellent Picard bits, some surprisingly good Wesley bits, and a bunch of subplots that hang together pretty decently. It does, however, also set up for the completely dire episode Conspiracy later on, which is hard to forgive.

So, anyway, Admirable Gregory Quinn and Lt Commander Dexter Remmick come on board the Enterprise in order to inspect it for signs of dodginess. Both of these characters will appear again in Conspiracy, Remmick in particular will have his face melted off, his head explode and an alien hive queen sock puppet burst out of his chest. Conspiracy is a terrible, terrible episode. Remmick spends much of this episode wandering around the Enterprise looking for signs that Picard is up to no good and finding none. His little vignettes with the crew vary between strangely touching, as we learn how much the crew value and respect their captain, and strangely hilarious as you realise how ludicrous the adventures of the Enterprise must seem as they get reported back to Starfleet Command. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love me some Picard and I naturally take against interfering outsiders coming in, trying to impose bureaucratic rules on fictional organisations that I’ve watched on TV a lot,  but when you have complaints like “so your Captain became possessed by an energy being and teleported himself into space, then on his recovery abandoned his preparations for a vital diplomatic mission to go and play on the holodeck, then got stuck on the holodeck, then got some aliens in to fix the holodeck, then let the aliens steal the ship” you can sort of see why Starfleet might think something suss was going down.

Meanwhile, there are two subplots involving Starfleet Academy. In one, a young man who has failed his entrance exams freaks out and tries to steal a shuttle and leave the Enterprise. In the other, Wesley competes against a number of other candidates for a place at Star Trek Academy. The first subplot is quite cool if only because it culminate in a scene where Picard, in his authoritative Shakespearean actor voice, talks the panicking cadet threw a complex manoeuvre in which he bounces his shuttle off a planet’s atmosphere, thus demonstrating that Picard is awesome and everyone has total faith in his abilities because he’s awesome.

The second subplot involving Wesley, a blue alien and a girl has a few more problems. Wesley, alien and girl are the top three candidates for entry into Starfleet Academy. Why Starfleet Academy makes its candidates  compete head-to-head in groups of three, I don’t quite understand. I mean, the recruiter in the episode even tells them that they’d all make great Starfleet Academy cadets so … why not take all of them? There must be more than one place and they’re all clearly geniuses and there must be some people who get into Starfleet Academy who aren’t geniuses like, say, virtually everyone on the Enterprise. But, anyway, I digress.

Wesley, the blue guy and the girl take a number of tests in which Wesley and the blue guy come out almost neck-and-neck and the girl is, well, just not as good as they are. It’s almost like she’s only there to look pretty and flirt with Wesley because, let’s remember guys, this is a post-sexist society. The whole arc is saved from complete ruination because their tests end with a psychological examination in which they are forced to confront their greatest fear and even though I know it’s a cheap gimmick for expositing character I do like me a “confront your greatest fear” scene.

So Wesley goes to have his psyche test and meets the blue guy coming out, looking all shaken up and scared. He sits on a chair, waiting for the test to begin, and then OMG sirens start going off and something bad is happening elsewhere on the facility. Naturally Wesley, instead of evacuating in good order like you’d presumably be supposed to do actually, when you think about it, dashes down the corridor to see if anyone needs help. He seems two men trapped in … some kind of vaguely spaceshippy looking room, full of gas and bits of fallen over pipe. What they were doing, I don’t know. What that room is for, I don’t know. Perhaps they were just on pipe inspection duty that day. Anyway, Wesley rushes into this scenario that is suspiciously similar to the circumstances in which his own father died ten years ago, has to make a difficult decision because he can only rescue one of the dudes, and then … oh gosh, it turns out it was all part of the test all along, who’d have thought?

Maybe I’m just sentimental but I actually really like this bit. The show never really goes into it much but I find the implied relationship between Wesley and Captain Picard really interesting because Wesley obviously admires and respects Picard because, dude, you’d have to be a monster not to. But at the same time Picard is also directly responsible for his father’s death, not only because he was leading the mission on which the elder Mr Crusher got killed but because he had the chance to save one of his team and, spoiler, didn’t pick Wesley’s dad.

Our various unrelated plotlines end with the nervous cadet coming back to the Enterprise, Picard being exonerated on all counts and informed of a terrible conspiracy within Starfleet (oh, we’ll get to that) and Wesley discovering that the blue guy has beaten him out for a place at Starfleet Academy despite the fact Wesley seemed to have done better on most of the tests. There’s mention of the fact that blue guy would have been the first member of his race to enter Starfleet so there’s a weird implication that it’s political correctness gone mad but Wesley doesn’t seem to mind. Wesley’s arc ends somewhat bizarrely with Girl telling him that she’ll beat him next year, which is a bit out of left field since there is no indication in the episode that is remotely as good as he is at anything.

Really fractured but some nice bits. 3 bobbins.

3-bobbins

Heart of Glory

Bizarre trivia point: this episode includes the first appearance on Star Trek of Vaughn Armstrong who is moderately well known for having played eleven different across every series of Star Trek, including a recurring role on Enterprise (not that I’ve ever watched it), a bunch of people in Voyager and a Cardassian Gul in DS9. Perhaps most bizarrely of all, however, he also played Donald Trump’s dad in an episode of Quantum Leap. Or at least I assume he did, he’s credited on IMDB as having played Fred Trump in an episode of Quantum Leap and Fred Trump is the name of Donald Trump’s father and is Quantum Leap is just an extended love letter to 20th century American. So I’m assuming it’s not a coincidence.

Anyway, this is a Klingon episode. And I love Klingon episodes. My perfect TNG episode would be one where Q pisses off some Klingons by offending their sense of honour and then Picard sorts it out by being principled and badass. On the holodeck.

The Enterprise crew rescue some Klingons from a derelict ship. It turns out that they are renegades who are on the run from the Klingon Empire after its peace treaty with the Federation because they feel the Empire has turned its back on its warrior ways and they want to find somewhere they can live like true Klingons. This is basically an opportunity for Worf to angst about his identity issues and his heritage which is pretty much exactly what we want Worf to be doing all of the time. At least until banging Dax becomes an option.

This story is surprisingly small scale. It’s essentially about three guys who are no longer happy with their society and, therefore, choose to run away from it (also shooting a bunch of dudes). They all get killed pretty quickly because there’s three of them and the Enterprise is packed full of armed bastards (not a warship, remember). But it’s got lots of really nice Klingon ritual stuff and Worf content. This is also episode where we find out exactly how Worf wound up serving on a Starfleet ship in the first place.

Second minor trivia point: because of a time shortage, they couldn’t actually write the Klingon dialogue in this episode in proper Klingon so it’s just Klingony-sounding nonsense. I’m sure this bothers some people.

Two bobbins because I love Klingons.

2-bobbins

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So I’m still doing this. This meaning my sporadic attempts to recap and vaguely review episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, rating each one by how bobbins it is.

The Big Goodbye

There’s so much that is iconically absurd about this episode. Essentially Picard has a vital diplomatic task to perform, which if he does not execute it flawlessly could lead to the destruction of the Enterprise or even plunge Starfleet into a terrible war. Like a child avoiding homework, Donald Trump preparing for a presidential debate or me getting ready to write blog content, he decides to prepare for this by completely ignoring the task in front of him and instead throwing himself furiously into displacement activity. Picard’s procrastination method of choice is cosplaying ineffectually as a 1940s gumshoe.

So yay, this is the first proper holodeck episode. I have so many things to say about the holodeck. And, having tried to say some of these things, I realised they’re all variants on two broad themes. A) Why has nobody realised how powerful and versatile this machine because, seriously, they way under use it and b) It sure does malfunction with near fatal consequences a lot, doesn’t it? To be fair, maybe b) has something to do with a).

Just off the top of my head things I’d really expect to see in a universe where holodecks existed would include:

  • Some form of artistic expression based around the holodeck that isn’t cheesy roleplaying or just sort of using it as a musical theatre venue. I mean I don’t want to get all wanky about videogames as an artistic medium but we’ve done some pretty cool things with interactive storytelling in the last twenty years without the benefit of a machine that can flawlessly fabricate entire realities.
  • For that matter, some kind of gaming that isn’t just using the holodeck as a squash court or dojo.
  • Some really sleazy shit (although to be fair, at least at this stage it’s fairly clear that Star Trek is a universe with the sexual mores of an aging hippie who hasn’t quite realised that Woodstock is over so maybe they get enough of that in real life)
  • A whole lot less exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilisations because, honestly, given the choice between fighting the Borg and being God of a universe of my own design I think I’d take omnipotence. (OMG fan theory which I’m sure already exists: what if the whole Star Trek universe is a holodeck simulation being run by Q)
  • Actually just coming back to the first point on this list, I’d expect to see some kind of artistic creativity somewhere, anywhere, in the entire culture whether holodecks existed or not. I mean, not only do they use the holodeck exclusively for exploring places they’ve already been or kitschy pastiches of 20th century Earth, but I can’t think of a single example of anyone in an episode of Star Trek consuming a new cultural artefact of any description created by a human. I mean, I think Jake Sisko tries to become a novelist in DS9 but otherwise people seem to be exclusively building models of ships, reading books from centuries ago and putting on Shakespeare plays. Maybe it’s a really subtle and damning exploration of cultural imperialism from within since we encounter a lot of people who listen to Klingon opera or read Vulcan poetry or otherwise are interested in the culture output of alien civilisations. But humans don’t seem to make shit of their own any more.

Anyway, the holodeck. It is underused, stupid and dangerous. And, I’ll be honest, I sort of love the holodeck episodes if only because they suggest that this is a society so advanced that even people on extremely important intergalactic missions still spend large chunks of their lives just kind of dicking about with stuff that they obviously don’t take particularly seriously.  And maybe I’m being a bit unfair because I suspect if I had to make up all my dialogue on the spot then I’d play videogames much more awkwardly too but I think if I was actually into the holodeck as a thing then I’d get a bit more invested in my fake-40s PI persona than Jean Luc does. I mean, he doesn’t even do a voice or, peculiarly, display any knowledge of the genre in which he has chosen to participate, despite the fact that it appears to be based on books that he has personally read and enjoyed.

Basically, being on the holodeck with Picard is like watching TV with my dad (and, if I’m being super honest, increasingly like watching TV with me): who’s he? what’s going on? why did he just do that? have we seen this person before? why are there space ships in this? Is this a flashback? didn’t she just get shot?

Like every other holodeck episode, something goes wrong with the holodeck, they get stuck on the holodeck, they fix it, they get out the holodeck. Picard then delivers his extremely important diplomatic message and war is averted.

Oh, one more thing. And sorry I really will recap another episode soon. It bugs me far more than it should how inconsistent they abiggoodbyere with things being able or unable to leave the holodeck. People always seem to vanish when step out the door but crew members pick stuff up off the holodeck and take it onto the bridge with distressing regularity. Even more confusingly, when the crew go into the holodeck they’re usually already in costume so while everything in the holodeck is a hologram created with force fields, the crew’s costumes are real clothes that are apparently stored elsewhere on the ship. So not only do they have a holodeck, they also have a holodeck props cupboard.

One final bonus of this episode is that Dr Crusher looks amazing in her femme fatale getup.

I don’t know how many bobbins to give his because I personally love holodeck episodes but the holodeck itself is a giant bobbin. Three bobbins just so I don’t have to make a decision.

3-bobbins

Datalore

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single android in possession of a positronic brain will be in want of the ability to feel emotions and have a plot relevant problem using contractions.

This episode is sort of brilliant, although mostly only because Brent Spinner is sort of brilliant. The crew goes to the planet where they discovered Data and finds the ruins of the research facility in which he was built. They also find a de-activated Data-like android named Lore, who turns out to be exactly like Data except much more human and btw also totes evil. He claims to be a more advanced model of android because he is capable of having human feelings but he turns out to be a less advanced model of android because his human feelings make humans uncomfortable. This is the developmental cycle of all androids in science fiction. It’s even in an episode of Red Dwarf.

Oh, also, d’you see, he’s called Lore because Data, right, is all about hard facts and numbers whereas Lore implies a more abstract and intuitive wisdom. Because Data, right, doesn’t have emotions and Lore, right, does.

Anyway, it turns out that the colony where Data and Lore were created was destroyed by a crystalline entity called The Crystalline Entity. It turns out Lore was working with The Crystalline Entity because Reasons.

Lore de-activates Data and tries to take his place on the crew because of course he does. It is a truth universally acknowledged that any being in possession of an exact duplicate must be replaced by that exact duplicate and for the ruse to be revealed only by a minor and inadvertent slip and/or a failure by the duplicate to exhibit the same qualities of nobility and self-sacrifice as the original.  Lore gets rumbled, primarily because of Wesley, there is a gun fight in the transporter room, Lore … escapes? I think? I’ll be honest, I lost track of this episode a bit.

This episode also features the iconic “shut up, Wesley” segment which pretty much killed any sense of credibility Wesley Crusher could ever have had. I’m scoring the episode an extra bobbin for that alone because it’s weirdly out of character for both Picard (who isn’t particularly shouty) and Wesley (who is making perfect sense at the time).

Four bobbins.

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Angel One

Interestingly, this was an entry on the Brunching Shuttlecocks’ “Star Trek episode or Christian Rock Band” quiz. Um, it’s a Star Trek episode.

I seriously do not know where to begin with Angel One. Apparently it was supposed to be a comment on apartheid South Africa which I actually think makes it worse. It’s also yet another planet run by hot blonde women who want to bang Riker. So. Yes. The planet of Angel One, which for some absurd fucking reason is called Angel One (apparently this is what Gene Roddenberry thinks women would call a planet if you let them run it) has a highly gender normative but matriarchal society, in which—oh d’you see—the men are smaller and expected to dress sexy while the women are bigger and more aggressive and dress sexy in a slightly different way.

The crew of the Enterprise are there to pick up the survivors of a crashed shuttle or something and the Angel Oneians (what is the correct demonym for people from a planet called Angel One – answers on a postcard, please), after initially being hostile for no particular reason, then accept the Enterprise’s offer of support because, well, why wouldn’t they? The Enterprise is literally offering to solve a problem that they want solved.

angel_i_fashionThe away team on the planet does basically nothing except Riker bangs the head of their government, who is something completely ridiculous like The Elected One, because of course he does. He’s the Kirk of the series. There is an “I can’t tell if it’s fantastic or problematic” sequence where he dresses in the diaphanous and revealing clothing that is considered appropriate for males on Angel One and Troi and Tasha laugh at him, despite the fact that they live in a post-sexist society where men wear mini-skirts as part of their formal dress uniforms.

While a retro part of me sort of likes the “Riker bonks something on every planet” trope because it’s a call back to the days of classic Trek, this one makes particularly little sense. It’s made very clear that on Angel One not only are cultural expectations of male and female behaviour different but physical norms and beauty standards are the other way round as well. I will remind you that Jonathan Frakes is six foot four (one of my favourite mini-games to play during an episode is the ‘Huge Riker’ game—mostly they’re quite good at choosing camera angles that downplay how enormous Frakes really is, but every so often you just get him towering over someone and once you start seeing it, it’s really hard to stop so the best thing to do is shout HUGE RIKER and laugh hysterically). This means that by the standards of Angel One he is basically Brienne of Tarth. And, don’t get me wrong, I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with being Brienne of Tarth but, then, I’m not a fictional character whose whole function is to reinforce the fact that I come from an incredibly gender normative society. The Elected One, by all in-world logic, should be patronising Riker and making condescending comments about his figure—not telling him he excites her like no man she’s ever seen.

Anyway. They track down the shuttle survivor people by this roundabout method where they realise there’s no platinum on Angel One and therefore the only platinum that could exist on the planet would come from someone off world. I’d sort of assumed, when they described this strategy, that they’d be testing for trace elements, which would be quite a cool concept. Your body is ultimately made up atoms that you acquired from the food you ate. Food you ate on earth or, well, any other part of the Federation could have trace quantities of platinum in it and those trace quantities of platinum could conceivably show up on a starship’s sensors (although that would mean that starship sensors were sensitive enough to detect maybe a few hundred atoms on an entire planet). Instead, it turns out their leader is literally wearing a platinum necklace which, y’know, coincidence.

There’s this sort of really weird bit where they show up and the survivors tell them that they want to stay on Angel One and then the crew of the Enterprise say “no, you’ve got to come with us” and the survivors say “we don’t actually work for Starfleet and because the governmental structure of the Federation is incredibly poorly thought through it isn’t particularly clear how you have any authority to get us to do anything whatsoever.” To which the crew say “fair point.”

Then it turns out that basically all of the shuttle survivors are married to or banging influential members of the ruling council of Angel One because of course they are. And this is really difficult because on the one hand it’s an empowering narrative about how members of a marginalised group successfully advocate for change within their society. On the other hand, it’s also essentially about how a bunch of hot white guys from out of town come to the planet of the womenz and show them how to do things properly.

Picard makes a big speech about how institutionalised inequalities are unsustainable and they all fly off into space. The end.

Five bobbins.

five-bobbins

11001001

Bizarre trivia point: according to Wikipedia another title considered for this episode was 10101001. I’m kind of not sure why they changed it or how the conversation about changing it might have gone. I’m aware I’ve referenced Red Dwarf more often in this post than in all the rest of my collected works combined but this is a lot like those episodes where Kryten will have strong opinions about jokes in binary or about whether 2X4B is a jerky middle name (although it is, of course, far preferable to 2Q4B).

So this is the one with the binars. I’m aware I’m saying this a lot, but there is so much that is weird about this episode. I was having a conversation with a friend recently about re-watching TNG and they were saying that, like me, they’d found it much better than they’d expected, although they had qualified that comment with the observation “apart from the first season and a half, of course, which is unwatchably terrible.”

Where to begin. Okay, so you know how I spent the first thousand plus words of this post talking about the holodeck and, in particular, how a) nobody uses the holodeck for anything apart from daytrips to bits of 20th century America and b) how I’d expect people to get up to a lot of skeevy shit on the holodeck? Well, this is the episode where Riker goes to the holodeck, creates a simulation of a jazz bar from, you guessed it, 20th century America and then commissions a holographic woman to creepily detailed specifications who he proceeds to—and I’m aware that I’m spinning this for comic effect—ask how functional her vagina is. Okay, I’ll admit that’s not the actual line. The line is: “just how real are you?” (suave Riker voice) “how far can this go?”

While Riker is preoccupied trying to fuck a hologram, two tiny, tech-savvy aliens hack the Enterprise, creating a catastrophic malfunction in its warp core, causing the ship to be evacuated. Picard somehow manages to miss this, possibly because he’s chilling out under the “personal relaxation lamp” he makes a big deal of having in another episode, and also winds up in the 20th century American jazz bar, possibly about to have the world’s weirdest threesome with his six foot four second in command and a sexy forcefield.

To be fair, I should highlight that the binars deliberately influenced the creation of the sexy holodeck lady in order to entrap Picard and Riker on the holodeck. This also goes some way towards explaining why both Picard and Riker seem so utterly thrown by the basic functions of an item of technology that exists in their universe and is on the damn ship where they actually live and that they have used before. I think the implication is supposed to be that part of what makes Sexy Hologram Lady (I’d feel bad about not using her name because it’s a little bit dehumanising but given her name is Minuet and she was specifically created as a honeytrap for a giant I’m not beating myself up too badly) so enticing is that she is more sophisticated than other holodeck programmes are capable of being.

How this explains all of the other equally sophisticated holodeck programmes that you encounter in other “stuck on the holodeck” episodes across the entire series, I don’t know. I’m also not completely sure it explains why Riker is quite so keen to neglect his duties in favour of exploring the depth of realness afforded him by the lady in the red dress.

Having said all of this, however, and even allowing for the fact that this is not only a “stuck on the holodeck” episode but a “stuck on the holodeck” episode in which the characters who are stuck on the holodeck don’t even realise they’re stuck on the holodeck and only get stuck on the holodeck in the first place because the holodeck was sabotaged by the people who were brought in to fix the holodeck to stop people getting stuck on the holodeck, the weirdest thing about the episode isn’t even holodeck related.

The episode ends when Picard and Riker escape Minuet’s sexy jazz party of doom to find that the binars have stolen the Enterprise and taken it back to their homeworld where they intend to use the ship’s computers to reboot their planet’s mainframe. The binars have integrated so completely with digital technology that they have, in essence, put their entire species at risk of being wiped out by a stack overflow or a bad driver update.

Picard and Riker save the binar homeworld with some delightfully 1980s computer sequences, including the fabulous observation that binars always work in pairs and that they therefore have to sit next to each other and type together. Then they kind of tell the binars they’re okay with the ‘you stole our starship’ thing. Again, I find Picard weirdly subversive in moments like this. The whole concept of the action hero is so grounded in unexamined notions of masculinity, rugged individualism and, for that matter, personal property that it’s bizarre and almost moving to see an episode of a TV space adventure series in which the hero (who, let’s not forget is an actual ship’s captain) responds to the theft of his ship by saying “it’s okay, I understand, you had good reasons for what you did and your actions made sense given the situation. Goodbye and good luck, I’m going to pick up my crew.”

Also the episode ends with Picard piloting the Enterprise really awkwardly, like when your granddad has to type on a modern keyboard, or you lend your Mac to a PC owner. Well, technically, it ends with Riker going back to the 20th century jazz club and being all disappointed that Minuet has vanished and that he, therefore, has lost his opportunity to get his bone on with her.

But Picard piloting the Enterprise is legit adorable.

This could be anywhere from two to four bobbins, although what am I saying. Apart from Picard being subversive at the end and piloting the Enterprise with charming ineptitude this a silly, silly episode.

Four bobbins.

four-bobbins

star trekkin'
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