onsdag 26 april 2017

No capes!

It's funny, considering my many ultra-nerdy interests, that few things leave me as stone cold as superheroes. Occasionally I wonder whether I may be a little hard on this genre out of sheer ignorance. Look at all the articulate geeks on Youtube whose theories on Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and yes, even Harry Potter I'm happy to get into. They're intelligent, and at the same time genuinely interested in who would win in a fight between Batman and Superman. Am I missing something?

It is just possible: after all, when I grew up, superhero fare was a far cry from the high-budget CGI-ed blockbusters of today. I think I saw two of the Superman films, plus some episodes of the old Batman TV series which even Caped Crusader fans consider a joke. It's only reasonable to assume that more thought went into recent superhero films than the one where Superman goes back in time one day by reversing the turning of Planet Earth (even as a kid, I thought that a bit rum). At least a slice of those multi-million budgets must have gone into scripts and storyboarding, especially considering all the fans out there who will be only too adept at finding holes in the plot. And if it's possible to make fairy-tale characters complex (which it is), then it should be possible to add complexity to just about anything, including superheroes, right?

Yes, maybe, but I still can't bring myself to give this genre another try. Perhaps the concept of a heightened version of the brawny hero with boy-scout morals who sticks it to the baddies, receives adulation from the crowds, sees the world in black and white - because in his case it is - and never has to bother his thick head about nuances, or about anything really, is just too appalling for a lover of brainy villains to ever get behind, no matter how much thought or money they throw at it. Heroes are, for the most part, a pain. Superheroes are a superpain. Then it's just so silly. Secret identity? Those outfits? Edna in The Incredibles (one of my least favourite Pixar films for a reason) strongly advises her superhero clients not to wear capes, which invariably get in the way and suck you into aeroplane engines etc. ("no capes!"). Hey, why not scrap the whole ridiculous gym one-piece look while you're at it?

Given my superhero scepticism, I wasn't too thrilled to learn that Doctor Who would be flirting with the genre in the 2016 Christmas special The Return of Doctor Mysterio. Still, as it's the only new Who available to us poor Swedes at the moment while the Brits are enjoying a brand new series, I eventually and reluctantly invested in the DVD. It turns out that it's quite nice: they can say what they like, Steven Moffat knows how to turn out a zingy script, and Peter Capaldi is as always a superb Doctor. What puzzled me, though, is that Moffat doesn't seem to know much more about superheroes than I do. The story's protagonist Grant, who is accidentally turned into a superhero by the Doctor then enjoined not to use his powers (give it up, already! Special powers will always out), bears a marked resemblance to the old-style Superman of my childhood days. He can fly. He has superstrength. His everyday persona wears glasses as a camouflage and yearns for a female reporter, who has a bit of a thing for the superhero (called The Ghost) and doesn't twig that he and her supportive male nanny are one and the same person. There's also some rather lame jokes about X-ray vision. If even I can pick up on these references, then they're pretty darn obvious, and also somewhat long in the tooth. I just don't quite get why Moffat wanted to do a superhero story in the first place if he's not more into the genre than this. Having said that, the romance between Grant and the female reporter Lucy is sweet, especially when she acknowledges that it's Grant the nanny she truly loves, not the glamorous Ghost. The enemy aliens are acting under the cover of a Big Scary Corporation, which is in no way unoriginal but makes for some pleasingly eerie ultra-modern office set pieces, and there's a bit of a twist at the beginning concerning who the mastermind behind the alien plot is, or rather who it isn't. A doubtful line or two from the Doctor which displays a rather simplistic view of world politics is set off by other lines that work better ("It's a good plan. I like it. Why doesn't our side ever have plans like this?" he says approvingly about the evil alien plot).

The Doctor is always the Doctor, or at least I hope so. I'm not looking forward to the end of the Moffat era - The Doctor Who episodes penned by his successor Chris Chibnall are not among my favourites - and it saddens me no end that we're to lose Capaldi as well after series ten. To be fair, though, three series are about the average for a Doctor actor, so he's not jumping ship indecently early. All Doctors I've seen since I started watching the series back in Eccleston's day have been great, so in this instance one just has to trust the casting director.

Superheroes, though. What do those bright female reporters actually see in them?

onsdag 12 april 2017

Page-turners and making a formula work

I have previously whined - here, for instance - when encountering popular fiction that didn't manage to make something of even the most promising page-turning recipes. In view of this, it's only fair to note when I have had the good luck to come across two novels in a row which actually pull off the tried-and-trusted popular formulas they're making use of. When I say they use formulas, I don't mean they're formulaic in the negative sense of the word; rather that you will probably have encountered novels with a similar set-up, but it doesn't matter one jot. One reason plots like these are used so often they sometimes form a whole genre of their own is that they can work extremely well, but only in the hands of authors who know how to handle them.

To start with the slightly more prestigious one, I had a good time with Carol Goodman's The Night Villa. It's not the first novel by Goodman that I've read and enjoyed; you could almost say that you can't put a Goodman down. However, her books have proved strangely blog-resistant, which does not have to be a bad thing at all. If I'd felt terribly annoyed with several aspects of one or several of her books, I could have filled a post about them in no time. As it is, what can I say? It's good, solid, atmospheric, well-written entertainment, often with an added pinch of learning worn lightly.

Goodman's speciality is the surprisingly tricky genre of the past-and-present mystery/romance. What distinguishes this genre is that there are two plots, one which takes place in the present day, and one in the past, either within living memory or in historical times. In the past, there are mostly one or several mysteries to be discovered by the protagonists in the present-day plot, who meanwhile have their own problems - often of a romantic nature - to deal with as well. The two-plots-in-one structure might seem the perfect vehicle for historical tales, but as a matter of fact I often find myself more interested in the modern-day plot when reading novels like these. Goodman's books are no exception. Maybe it's because her modern-day heroines (it's always a she, and I can't say I miss a masculine outlook) are so likeably flawed, while the female protagonist in the past story tends to be someone the modern heroine finds altogether admirable and wants to champion - which in contrary readers like myself prompts the reaction "hang on, she's not as great as all that". The heroine in the past often has a female enemy - there's a distinct "women beware women" feel, especially as the modern-day heroine usually runs into at least one female character who is spectacularly rude to her for little reason - but it has happened more than once that I've sort of seen the female enemy's point. But this doesn't matter much as the attractive settings with an academic and/or cultural flavour and the well-crafted prose suck you in.

In The Night Villa, most of the plot takes place around an excavation in Italy, where scrolls have come to light which tell a story about the goings-on at the eponymous villa at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. Characters from the academic world - check. Classical myths playing a part in the story - check. Likeable, flustered heroine with a problematic past - check. Historical female character in need of championing (Iusta, a roman freedwoman unjustly hauled back into slavery by her former mistress) - check. Some whodunnit elements and more than one potential love interest for the heroine - check. Goodman readers will recognise many of the ingredients, but also appreciate the way they're used here. It's not my favourite of her books - I think that would be Arcadia Falls - but it's definitely a good read.

The plot used by Lauren Willig in The Other Daughter is even more familiar: it's the "impostor in high society" story with shades of Cinderella. In the 1920s, Rachel Woodley returns from a governessing post in France to the English village where she grew up, only to learn that her mother has already died of influenza. Matters are made worse when Rachel discovers that far from being dead as she thought, her long-lost father is very much alive. Moreover, he turns out to be an earl who married an heiress and produced two children, among them another daughter, who have enjoyed every privilege which Rachel has had to do without. With the help of the well-born gossip columnist Simon Montford, Rachel passes herself off as a Bright Young Thing in order to get closer to her father and his family and then to... well, she doesn't know exactly.

The best-handled part of the story is the convincing way in which Rachel's feelings towards her parents are described: she wants to hate her father badly but can't quite manage it. It's also reliably enjoyable to see her playing at being a rakish society girl while trying to suppress her no-nonsense governess instincts. But while it's a welcome variation of the formula that her father's family is not hateful (with the exception of his wife) and that Rachel never really comes close to wreaking any revenge on them, it does raise the question what the real purpose with her charade is. The plot is set up as The Count of Monte Christo light, but when it turns out that Simon's motives aren't that dastardly either, I did feel a little cheated. Still, it saved me from feeling guilty about not being too keen on Simon. Here's a man who manages to smuggle a penniless girl into high(ish) society, provides her with the werewithal in terms of frocks and such, is once referred to as her "evil genius" and talks about them having a "business arrangement" (and the synonym of that would be... a deal!). I ought to approve, right? But I was always hard on aristocratic lounge-lizards, and Simon's drawling so-called witticisms and brushings-off of invisible specks of dust got my goat. And then it turns out he doesn't have some immensely clever master plan, so I'm off the hook - I don't have to like him after all.

So there you are, two lightish reads which I had no trouble getting through in spite of a lack of fanciable villains. Is it spoilerish to say that last bit? If so, consider that I might just be too picky. I'm not saying there aren't any villains at all...

onsdag 29 mars 2017

Why I won't be missing The Halcyon after all

I had got to episode six of ITV's new period drama The Halcyon when I learned that it had been axed after only one series, and I can't say I was surprised. Though it did pick up during the last two episodes, in the end this series took far too long to get off the ground. I've seen far worse costume dramas, but I've also seen better, and I've certainly seen more exciting ones.

The first episode of The Halcyon left me feeling hopeful that it could amount to something: if not the new Downton, then at least the new Mr Selfridge. And something you could say about the series was that its creators plainly cared about the characters. They were nice: maybe even a little too nice. Mr Garland the manager is a good man who looks after hotel owners and staff alike, though he sometimes uses vaguely questionable methods in doing so. His daughter Emma is a heroine born and bred - efficient, fair-minded, brave and, just as it happens, very pretty. The porter is nice; the switchboard operator is nice; the Indian bartender Adil who falls in love with the youngest Hamilton brother is the kind of dishy, devoted boyfriend I would have wished for Thomas in Downton; the cynical-on-the-surface (though not that cynical) American journalist Joe O'Hara has a heart of gold; the earthy jazz singer Betsey Day is a sweetheart, and to do the show credit her romance with the touchingly protective band leader Sonny is far more convincing than Downton Rose's dalliance with Jack Ross. Even Lady Hamilton is not so bad after all. All in all, the characters are such good eggs it's hard to get some real drama-fuelling conflict going.

In a way, The Halcyon's problem was the opposite of Poldark's. Poldark had sketchy characters but plenty of plot. The Halcyon had promising characters but little plot to go with it. The fact that the series was set in a hotel was something rarely used to dramatic advantage: we saw surprisingly little of the guests. Then there was the World War Two setting, and the usual peddling of the Bravery during the Blitz cliché. Storylines included Emma influencing O'Hara to stay on in Britain and report on how fantastically courageous everyone was instead of taking a dream job back home. One thing that decided him was meeting the flying crew of Emma's other love interest, the young Lord Hamilton aka Freddie; great chaps, who were so not going to bomb towns and civilians to smithereens themselves a little later on in the war. When Emma risked her life during a bombing attack by staying with a corpse because she had promised the corpse's daughter, I'd had my fill of wartime heroism; I sorely missed the nuances of Foyle's War, which always remembered that human nature during wartime remains the same as during peacetime (thankfully from a drama perspective).

And then there was the villain, or rather the lack of one. All right, so we had a villain reveal, but not until episode six, which in a run of eight episodes was far, far too late. What's more, he wasn't up to much. I can see how it must have looked good on paper - the amoral spy lurking behind an always genial exterior - but the problem was, we only got the genial exterior, and no hint of steel beneath. The scene where the villain showed his true colours by blackmailing Adil should have been full of smooth menace, but wasn't; there was a disappointing lack of villain purring. Not much more character development was forthcoming afterwards either: this was the kind of bad guy who gets himself killed in the series finale for being a nuisance.

I know I can't complain about there being any lack of costume dramas, but what with the somewhat underplotted shows set in the Forties and Fifties which we've had lately - Grantchester, The Collection, The Crown, The Halcyon - I find myself longing for both more costume and more drama, not to mention a decent stab at a costume-drama villain. I suspect that there's some kind of notion that it's unsophisticated to include a villain in a drama, but a villain needn't be a boo-hissable pantomime character (not that I think I would even boo a pantomime villain if I saw one - King Rat sounds promising). A villain can be complex, as long as he or she poses a threat to one or several of the main characters and reveals something about the darker sides of human nature. Other genres - such as, ahem, fairy-tale-inspired fantasy - get this. The next crew who aspires to create a costume drama to rival Downton should too.

torsdag 16 mars 2017

The art of character-pinching: serial numbers on or off?

I know I've already gushed about the first part of James Benmore's Dodger trilogy, but it's worth noting that the two follow-up volumes - Dodger of the Dials and Dodger of the Revolution - are equally first-rate. True, they're not so chock-full of references to other Dickens novels and characters, but there are a few. Noah Claypole resurfaces in Dodger of the Dials (though disappointingly it is never made clear that it is he, not Oliver Twist, who is responsible for Fagin's fate) as well as Oliver himself as a young man, who turns out to be convincingly priggish and likeable at the same time. In Dodger of the Revolution, which I've recently finished reading, we're introduced to the grandson of the Defarges in A Tale of Two Cities (who's a chip off the old block) and the son of Rigaud in Little Dorrit (who, luckily for Dodger, isn't).

What especially impressed me was the continuing charm of the central character, who feels true to Dickens's original throughout. It would have been easy to go down the predictable route of making Jack Dawkins aka The Artful Dodger into a sort of class warrior, what with him having reason to find himself in Paris during the June uprising of 1848 and everything. However, when Dodger is - in spite of himself - carried away by revolutionary ardour, it's because of the festive feel at the beginning of the revolt, before the actual fighting starts. His good humour remains: while there's fellow-feeling with the hard-up masses of Paris, he can't really bring himself to hate those better off than them or himself (though pinching their valuables is obviously not a problem). Dodger's mission in Paris is to steal a valuable document on behalf of a brother and sister which proves their claim to legitimacy and an aristocratic estate, but while these siblings are snooty enough to have anyone in Dodger's position casting a side glance in the general direction of the nearest lamp post, he actually sees the point of his employers and quite likes them. I have a feeling this trilogy hasn't done as well as it deserves sales-wise (I only found the first volume by a fluke), which is a pity: I think I'm going to miss the Artful.

Benmore's sure touch is the more noteworthy since it's especially difficult to get another author's characters right if you keep their name and setting, giving yourself little leeway to do your own thing with them. If you stray too far from the original, fans like myself will complain and wonder - as I have done more times than I can count - why you didn't simply invent your own character with some traits in common with a figure from a well-loved classic. If, on the other hand, you don't put any kind of new spin on your material, you risk what I call character congealitis, where all the reader gets is a tired retread of a series of traits and mannerisms displayed by the original character, though seldom as well done as the first time around.

On balance, then, it seems less risky to do what I believe is called "filing off the serial numbers", though if wiki sources are anything to go by the expression is mostly used when writers of fan fiction change characters' names etc. for copyright reasons. The practice has its non-copyright-related advantages as well, though. If you pinch a character, or several - hey, why stop at one? - from another author and change the names, you can suddenly do what you like with the raw material. It doesn't have to stop with the name, the setting or the general context: you can experiment with changing a few of the personality traits as well and see what happens. Is the original character's essence still there, or has the non-serial-numbered copy morphed into something else entirely? And does it matter, as long as the result is a success?

Filing the serial numbers off has its own perils, though. Kate Saunders included some characters from David Copperfield in her Victorian crime story The Secret of Wishtide, but under other names. She wasn't sneaky about it - she made the characters' origins clear in her acknowledgements. Still, their inclusion irked me strangely, though I've always wanted to see more in the prequel/sequel/retelling genre relating to Dickens. Moreover, I've loved other books by Saunders (Wild Young Bohemians especially) and was glad to see her writing fiction for adults again. However, truth be told, the Copperfield copies were so close to the originals that I didn't see much point in giving them other names at all, though it does allow the author to imagine another (not necessarily better) fate for them than in Dickens's novel. There was also a slightly didactic "look how women were treated in Victorian times" feel to the story, even if the heroine (entirely Saunders's own creation) was not the judgemental kind. While I understand how Dickens's telling of the Little Em'ly story could get anyone's blood up, I didn't feel that Saunders added anything new to my understanding of her, Steerforth, his mother or Rosa Dartle who are the borrowed characters in question. I think what it amounts to is that if you do file off the serial numbers, you should do something with the freedom this brings you. Either that or I'm just miffed that Uriah didn't make an appearance.

torsdag 2 mars 2017

Poldark series 2: Is it George, or me, or the whole series?

I feel bad about George Warleggan. I was so enthusiastic about him when first making his acquaintance: he was hot, he was brainy, he was a banker, he had slender hands perfect for coin-weighing, and his enemy Ross Poldark was so irritating it made siding with George even easier. I really thought, once I'd seen the last of Downton's Thomas (except for a possible film which shows no sign of materialising anytime soon), that Gorgeous George might prove to be my consolation and be promoted to the position of prime villain crush.

Well, it didn't turn out that way. When I finally got round to watching series two of Poldark, I found myself oddly unimpressed by George. I didn't dislike him, and I certainly didn't switch sides and start rooting for the increasingly awful Ross. I just didn't feel anything for him. What makes it worse, instead of being disappointed, I was relieved: it made a nice change to be able to view a villain's setbacks without feeling as if someone had my heart in their hand and was slowly squeezing it. So why this cooling of my affections?

All right, maybe one doesn't need three days to guess the name of the reason why. But even if the post of my new prime villain crush is already resoundingly taken, I should be able to appreciate other bad guys and judge them by their own merits, not hold them up to some dizzyingly high master-villain standards which they were never designed to meet. George still looks a perfect banker peach, and Ross still needs to be taught a lesson by someone. Am I as fickle as Carmen not to become more engaged in the fight? Or could the fault lie with George himself?

Of course it must. I do believe the lessening appeal of George illustrates some wider problems with the second series of Poldark. It wasn't necessarily worse than the first one - though it started really weakly, before shaping up mid-way - it just didn't develop. Poldark never looked set to become the new Brideshead Revisited, but in the first series the storytelling zest made you forgive (up to a point) the fairly basic setup and characterisation. However, when a drama makes it to the second series, you expect layers to be added and new insights into the main characters to be revealed. This did not happen here. True, Francis toughens up quite inexplicably from one day to the next, but still remains as convinced of his own supposed inferiority to Ross as everyone else. As for the rest, they act exactly in the same way as in the first series, and if anything lose rather than gain in complexity. New characters are sometimes so threadbare as to be reduced to one characteristic or function. George's sidekick Tankard is weaselly. The intended fiancé of Doctor Enys's new love interest - a spoiled heiress - is a buffoon. John Nettles as Penvenen, the uncle of said heiress, has little else to do but to twinkle avuncularly. And the main characters? Demelza loves Ross, but is jealous of Elizabeth. Elizabeth, too, loves Ross. Francis admires Ross above anything. Enys is Ross's best friend. George envies Ross, which is why he spends his time doing little else than plotting his downfall...

See where I'm going with this? For the most part, the other characters are simply feeds to Ross, who isn't even close to deserving this much attention - in fact, he's a jerk, and not a particularly bright one. Yet never is it hinted that this darling of the Cornwall mining community may not live up to all the hype. I watched in disbelief as he was acquitted of all wrongdoing after overseeing the plundering of the Warleggans' wrecked ship, and not even having the grace to be sorry about it afterwards. His argument that he was helping the impoverished ought not to have carried much weight, seeing as it was not his own riches he was distributing: it's easy to be generous with someone else's money. (Incidentally, no-one spared a single thought on the crew or passengers until the ship had been stripped of every single item of value, so Ross's claim that his hordes first helped the shipwrecked and neatly stacked everything valuable on the shore was a bare-faced lie.) But, apparently, we are supposed to see the acquittal as the victory of justice. Ross continues to do no wrong in the eyes of his friends, family and employees - his losing a life or two in a preventable mining accident is not something likely to spark a Germinal uprising. Not until he commits an obviously reprehensible act and caddishly shies away from the consequences (according to an article I read, he actually behaved even worse in the novel and previous adaptation: it's still not pretty, though) does he get some stick, mainly from the furious Demelza. But, here's where the non-brightness comes in: Ross doesn't have the sense to feel or at least feign remorse - he just doesn't seem to grasp that he's done anything blameworthy. Maybe this is what happens when, for too long, everyone you know keeps telling you how wonderful you are.

The series could really have done with a genuinely Ross-sceptic voice, but sadly, George too thinks he's something to write home about, otherwise he wouldn't envy him. It's a pity that George's enmity towards Ross comes across more as childish petulance than burning hatred, because he does have some legitimate reasons for being miffed with the unshaved wonder. Not so much reason, though, as to make his monomaniac persecution plans credible. (Trying to make Tankard "debauch" Demelza? Hardly villain plot of the year.) Though I liked the mysteriousness of George's motives at first, by now - because we're already on the second series, dash it - we really ought to have had the explanatory why-I-hate-Ross villain rant. Nor was I convinced for a minute that George really loves Elizabeth. (And I don't think it's too much to ask that he should make a decent fist of the Wounded Villain Heart scenario - Thomas could do it in his sleep.) At the end of the day, George's problem is that he's a glorified function character, mainly there to create trouble for Ross. No-one appears to have given any serious thought about what makes him tick, because he's not deemed to be interesting enough.

In spite of all this, I did at least partly enjoy Poldark series two. The story moves along at a fair lick, and there are some Ross-unrelated scenes that are quite touching, such as a heart-to-heart between Francis and Demelza, and Verity's relief when her stepson turns out to be a friendly cove who takes the trouble to bring the sulky stepdaughter around as well. Plus, as I've mentioned, it's restful once in a while to watch something where you don't care overmuch what will happen. But I'd be lying if I said I was wildly excited by the prospect of series three.

onsdag 22 februari 2017

Moana/Vaiana: Nice, but the new formula's getting old

Usually, I have no problem producing opinions enough about an animated Disney film to fill a post or two. But with Moana - marketed in most of Europe as Vaiana, for copyright reasons apparently - I find myself struggling a bit. (It's a name, how can you copyright it? Wouldn't whoever owns the rights be thrilled over the extra free advertisement? Don't tell me the Italian, er, entertainment profile actually had anything to do with this decision? Anyway...) I didn't dislike it by any means: it has an engaging heroine, a likeable, flawed hero, some hummable tunes and, towards the end especially, a touching moment or two. However, for once when watching an animated Disney film in a cinema I found my attention wandering. I actually spent some of the time thinking about possible storylines for Frozen 2 - a subject for another time - because Frozen this film ain't.

For one thing, it takes a goodish while to get started. The plot hurdle which prevents Vaiana - I'll be a good little European and call her that, since they went through the trouble of making an English version of the film where she's called Vaiana throughout (seriously) - from leaving her home island right away to find her destiny just feels contrived. Not until she gets away at last and finally runs into the vain demigod Maui on a desert island did the film gain interest for my part. Sweet as Vaiana is, she is your usual, plucky Disney heroine who is in fact far braver and more resourceful than her male counterpart etc.; it's nothing we haven't seen before. Maui is funnier - his musical number "You're welcome" was the best one in my book  - and a more rounded character. In fact, I found him far more likeable than Kristoff in Frozen, and I thought it a pity that there was no romance forthcoming between the protagonists.

But this is now a standard ingredient in the new Disney formula. It started with Merida in Pixar's Brave, which wasn't even that big a hit. Then Frozen happened, and love-interest-free Elsa got spectacularly popular. Someone at Disney must clearly have thought: "Hey, maybe she's so popular because she doesn't have a love interest? She's a strong, independent female character who doesn't waste time with lovey-dovey stuff... This is clearly the way forward." Now, I don't think Elsa's lack of love life had much to do with her popularity - it was more down to her interesting story arc and a great song - but, nevertheless, the animated Disney films since Frozen have been remarkably devoid of romance. True, many of the old Disney prince/princess pairings were beyond bland (aren't Disney princes the most colossal waste of space? With the exception, perhaps, of one...). But there have been many sweet romances too - think of Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, for instance. I really miss the romance ingredient, and I can't see why Disney heroines shouldn't be able to be strong and independent and have some love as well.

Another thing the new Disney formula has all but done away with is the centre-stage villain. For a few years now, Disney films have had plot twists relating to the villain side of things, and it's true that when done well these twists give you some pleasingly jaw-dropping moments. By now, though, I would welcome the recurrence of a villain in the Scar or Jafar mould - obvious, yes, but brainy, suave and full of sarky (ideally British-accented) villain banter. We're sort of onto surprise villain reveals by this time, anyway - I can't say I fell off the sofa by the twist in Big Hero 6, for instance. Vaiana does have one obvious, almost-centre stage villain in the giant crab Tamatoa, but he's... well, he's a crab. His villain song Shiny has its moments - I like the part where he suddenly gets really mean and personal in his attack on Maui - but it's not memorable in the same way as, say, Scar's Be Prepared or Doctor Facilier's Friends on the Other Side. When I remember the first-class bad guys Disney has been able to produce in the past, I really can't get too excited about a boastful, singing crab, though to his credit he does at least relish his own villainy.

Yes, I imagine that Frozen's success was helped by the fact that the Disney formula had some new, fresh ingredients. But if you use them over and over, then they won't feel as fresh anymore. If you ask me, there's nothing wrong with adding some more traditional but spicy ingredients in the form of a romance or a charismatic, attention-grabbing villain. Next time, could we please have them back?

onsdag 8 februari 2017

The Halcyon and the first-episode problem

Swedish television has been fairly quick off the mark and has already aired the first episode of the new ITV costume drama The Halcyon, premiered in the UK not so long ago. And I must say it was far from terrible. My expectations weren't that high. I'd read an article about the show that sounded as if the people involved thought they were slightly better than Downton - never a good sign - because the employees at the eponymous hotel were more independent than the supposedly over-deferential Downton staff. (Where does this idea come from that the Downton servants were deferential? Remember Miss O'Brien and the soap? Thomas framing Rose's dad-in-law? Edna nearly tricking Branson into marriage? Downton servants have been up to all kinds of mischief, even if the remaining ones do sing "Auld Lang Syne" in the final episode.) Moreover, one interviewed actress referred to her part as a "trope". This seemed to bear out my suspicion that the series was mostly about the setting - "Hey, let's do a TV series about a glamorous hotel in London during WWII where the guests lived the high life while bombs rained down" - and that the characters would be puppets representing a particular demographic, social caste and (caricatured) political opinion. Here's the snooty society lady - there's the pretty, honest girl who cleans the rooms, or something along those lines. A bit like Maid in Manhattan, only in wartime London and without the romcommy froth.

There was a bit of that, I suppose; one of the characters is a pretty, honest receptionist, for instance, and both Lord Hamilton's (the hotel owner's) wife and mistress are good at being snooty in their own special way. But on the whole, things could have been a whole lot more schematic. The script wasn't scintillating, but neither did it clunk, and the story flowed smoothly. The acting was good, and you got a feeling that this could shape up to become something.

It's not there yet, mind you. The WWII setting is a drawback; there's even a wicked Nazi siren, as in the Upstairs Downstairs sequel, and where Nazis go in, nuance goes out. The emotional stakes aren't very high as yet. So Lord Hamilton doesn't see the point of his younger son's university career? Call that a fraught father-son relationship? Lady Hamilton (I think she was the "trope" mentioned in the article, but Olivia Williams plays her very well, so maybe she was short-changing herself and her part) bemoans the past at one time, recalling how in love with her husband she once was before their marriage deteriorated because of his serial unfaithfulness. But there's nothing in the lukewarm present to suggest there was ever a deathless romance there. The sweet receptionist is set up to be in a love triangle between an American journalist and the eldest Hamilton son, but again: no fireworks so far. Also, aside from the Nazi siren, there's no sign of a villain. The hotel manager Mr Garland has a rather nice arm-twisting scene with an English newspaper man (who meekly goes along with camouflaging a blatant case of blackmail as a friendly chat - "I like you too"), but something tells me this doesn't make him the villain, only a harassed individual trying to hold everything together in times of crisis.

I didn't, in short, start to care for any of the characters in the first episode, with the possible exception of Garland. But then that's the problem with first episodes, especially in ensemble pieces. When the main players and the whole set-up have to be introduced and put in place, there's really no time to introduce in-depth characterisation right away. So what can you do to get a viewer hooked?

A clever, funny script is one way to impress - but, as I said, The Halcyon's script, though in no way bad, doesn't offer much in the way of sparkle. There's also the "style first, substance later" trick which works especially well with villains: a character can be entertaining even before his/her motives are explained. That's not The Halcyon's way either. What it does do is establish at least one relationship between main characters that shows promise of development. Lady Hamilton despises Mr Garland, whose duties include keeping her husband's bits of skirt out of her sight, and he in his turn isn't too keen on her, as his loyalties lie with Lord Hamilton. Just when the lady has decided to give up on her marriage and retire to the country, however, her husband has a heart attack, and she has to step into the breach for the sake of the hotel. So, will she and Garland learn to work together and appreciate each other's good parts, how long will it take and to what degree can we expect them to become matey? Even knowing the characters as little as I do, I'm mildly interested in how this particular plot line plays out.

A piece of advice routinely handed out to hopeful authors is "what story do you want to tell?", and though I find it irritating - how could anyone possibly know that until they've told it? - there's some truth in it, as it highlights the importance of a human interest angle. To decide a setting that appeals to you and then randomly throw some characters into it, as I feared The Halcyon would do, isn't a promising way to start a story. From the start, the characters' story-arcs have to come first, and the back-drop should stay exactly that: a back-drop. The Halcyon might succeed in this or it might not, but at least there's room for hope.