“Why We Fight” – Getting a Story’s Name Just Right

One of the hardest parts of writing a story is finding a good name. It should evoke atmosphere, draw attention, maybe even add something more to the meaning of the tale. I don’t find a title I like even half the times I write. So when a story does it really well, that’s worth looking at.

“Why We Fight”, the ninth episode of historical drama miniseries Band of Brothers, has one of the most perfectly chosen titles I’ve ever found. It evokes the tone of the episode, draws the audience into the characters’ minds, and adds nuance to the uncomfortable issues present.

Like all of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight” follows Easy Company, an American paratroop unit taking part in the Second World WarThis episode focuses on Captain Lewis Nixon, while also showing the experiences of other characters.

It’s late in the war. The company are fighting their way across Germany. They’ve lost a lot of people and they’ve seen a lot of destruction. Most of them look battered and weary.

Nixon might be one of the weariest. He’s missed out on fighting thanks to a command liaison job, but has still seen the hellish side of war. Now he’s battling with the bottle and been booted back to a combat post. His wife writes to say that she’s leaving him. Nixon, who we first met as someone bright and charming, is falling apart. He fights with others because of the toll the war has taken on him.

Meanwhile, a new man joins the squad. He’s never seen combat. He’s eager to do his part and to see action while he still can. He wants to fight because it seems noble and heroic, while the men around him fight on because that’s their job. The innocence was long ago knocked out of them.

During the first half of the episode, this is how the question of “Why We Fight” is addressed. It’s all about individual motives and personalities.

Then comes the moment that changes everything, both for Easy Company and for the viewer. A group of soldiers stumble across a sight of such horror that they don’t have words for it. We seem them standing stunned, unable to comprehend what lies before them. A few minutes later, the truth is revealed to viewers, most of whom must already have guessed.

Easy Company have found a concentration camp.

Suddenly, the meaning of the episode is turned on its head. Now, when we ask “Why We Fight”, we’re talking about why these nations have gone to war, why the horrors of the Nazi regime had to be faced. “Aha!” thinks the viewer, myself included the first time around. “This is why they fight. To stop the Holocaust.”

But that reaction digs out a deeper, less comfortable truth.

The Holocaust was one of the defining features of the Second World War, a process of nearly unparalleled evil. Yet we’re on episode nine out of ten of Band of Brothers and it’s only just been mentioned. Why?

Because the Holocaust is not “Why We Fight”.

The Allies fought against Nazi Germany for many reasons. Out of self-interest. To protect friendly nations. To stop a relentlessly aggressive regime. But to stop the Holocaust? No.

When they entered the war, Allied leaders didn’t know how bad things were under the Nazis. They had no way of knowing how bad they would become as the war progressed. In 1942, when reports reached them through the Polish government in exile, they chose not to publicise the attrocities. They were afraid that no-one would believe them and that there would be a backlash against the extreme claims.

An argument can be made that the Allies fought to stop evil regimes. Their actions certainly had the effect of ending the Holocaust. But the death camps and the horrors they represented were not “Why We Fight”.

And so the name of this episode draws attention not just to the struggles of Easy Company, but to our own struggle with the past. The fact that the Allies ended something so evil lets us paint the Second World War in black and white. But just like the soldiers who stand stunned in the face of that concentration camp, our governments didn’t know what they were facing when they went to war. They didn’t fight to stop this. That they did so was a happy side effect, if the word “happy” can ever be used here.

This is why “Why We Fight” is the perfect name for this story. It gives us an angle from which to consider what the characters are going through. It provides a lever with which to open up our own perceptions, to face questions about the past and about how we view it.

Story titles don’t get more fitting than that.

Remembering What Something Once Stood For

I’ve been rewatching a lot of the sitcom Friends recently. It popped up on Netflix and, as a show that meant a lot to me at a key point in my life, it evokes a warm sense of nostalgia. So episode by episode I’ve been working my way through the adventures of a bunch of privileged 1990s New Yorkers.

Friends has gotten a lot of flack in recent years, and not unreasonably so. Half the humour is based on gender stereotypes. There’s some not very funny stuff about a character once being fat. Ross turns from a sympathetic nerd into a whiny tosspot whose scenes I regularly skip. There’s a lot here that hasn’t aged well.

But there are other things that were fantastic, given the context this show was made in. This was the show that put a lesbian wedding on primetime TV. It showed both men and women enjoying and talking about their sex lives without stigma. It tackled issues of infertility and divorce, not always maturely, but at least with sympathy. As someone coming of age in the 1990s, this was a huge deal. It helped set a more enlightened tone for the coming century.

I’m not holding up Friends as some kind of beacon of progress. But it had its moments, and it’s good to see them again.

Star Trek Discovery – Does the Payoff Justify the Buildup?

The new Star Trek show, Discovery, has been more than a little divisive. Some fans love it, some hate it. Its very different tone and storytelling from previous Treks either delights or appals, depending on your point of view. But one response has been near-universal – excitement at recent episodes.

These episodes have taken the show and its character in surprising and dramatic directions. Viewers who liked it are more excited than ever. Those who disliked it are being won around. It’s gone from something I was happy enough to watch to something I’m excited for every week. Story decisions that didn’t work before, like using the first two episodes as a prologue, are proving important.

Does this payoff justify the problems with the buildup? I’m not sure. I’ll certainly look at those earlier episodes in a more positive light. But seeing these recent episodes, I feel like the writers could have done better than they did from the start, while still providing the setup they wanted.

The Wire had a slow start, only becoming truly gripping halfway through the first season, and it’s now considered a groundbreaking TV classic. Will Discovery do the same thing within sf? I’m not convinced, but the payoff is still coming, and you never know

Gilmore Girls and Portraying Motivation

In my last blog post, I talked about character motivation in terms of pirates and economics. Today I want to look at it from a softer angle.

I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls, the early 2000s TV drama of fast dialogue, family angst, and failed romance. It’s cute and relaxing. It’s also very good at portraying the irrationality of human motives.

Pretty much every episode, a character will have several issues going on in their life. One thing will get them frustrated. They’ll carry this frustration into the next scene. They won’t deal with the issue there as well as they could have done because their emotions are already in knots.

It’s fantastic storytelling, because it makes sense on a human level and because it’s clear to the audience even though it isn’t explained. Anyone can join the dots from one incident to the next. It means that smart characters can act stupid, ensuring that conflict happens, without undermining the audience’s affection for these characters.

It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like smartly written characters, or you want to study what drives human drama, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Spiderman Homecoming and Representation in America

Spiderman Homecoming is one of my favourite Marvel movies so far. It’s fun, exciting, and heartfelt in exactly the way I like Spiderman to be. And now I’m going to skip past all the enthusing I could do about its plot, dialogue, and characters, because there are actual reviewers for that. I want to talk about how this fun, breezy film reflects upon serious issues in America, issues that are all too familiar to someone living in Britain.

Who’s Who in Homecoming

There are three important sets of characters in Homecoming – school, villains, and The Man.

Peter Parker’s school is a youthful and diverse place. The students and staff represent the complex and varied society of a modern global city, without the story ever making an issue out of this. It’s a space that celebrates diversity and representation while recognising that everyone has their flaws and weaknesses. This is the America that liberals want to encourage.

The villains are working class men. They’re mostly white, though with a significant black character. A lot of them are getting on in years. They’ve been shit on by the establishment. Their overriding concern is to look after themselves and their families. This is the America that conservatives want to protect.

Then there’s The Man, as represented by Stark Enterprises and Damage Control. These are economically and politically powerful organisations run by people in suits. They cause problems for everyone else. They’re caught up in the big picture and aren’t good at seeing how that affects the people around them. They’re powerful, patronising, and not as smart as they could be.

Symbolism!

You don’t need a degree in semiotics to see how this is symbolic of what’s going on at the moment. The sides of America represented by Spiderman’s school and his villains are in conflict politically. At its extremes, this is supporters of Trump versus supporters of Obama and Hilary. The irony being that they’re both voting for faces of The Man, the big traditional bodies that have let them all down.

I’m not saying that Spiderman Homecoming offers a deep exploration of these themes. I’m in two minds about whether it’s even consciously looking at them, and when I go back to watch it (which I will, many times) that’s one of the things I’ll be trying to judge. But I still think that it’s doing something important. It’s representing both of these groups in a light that is, if not always sympathetic, at least understable. It’s showing that The Man is a third factor in their lives, not the representative of either group. That shouldn’t be an unusual thing for someone to say, but it is. Hopefully by saying it at all, this film will help people to gain a little more insight into the society we live in.

Maybe it will even, as the film suggests, offer hope for reconciliation amid further divisions.

As Cap says, it just might take a little patience to get us there.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Beautiful and Surprising Characterisation

Sometimes a film comes along that’s so awesome I barely know what to say about it. It feels beautiful and surprising and utterly human. It makes me wish I knew more about films so I could better understand its magic. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those films.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was written and directed by Taiki Waititi, the New Zealander behind the wonderfully deadpan vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. It’s about a boy who’s been bounced around the social care system and is on his last chance before he goes to juvenile detention. He’s placed with a foster couple also living on the fringe of society, in a physically isolated cabin at the edge of thousands of miles of wild forest. That might sound like a bleak start, but their lives together and what follows are quirky, touching, and filled with hope.

I love a lot about this film and don’t want to go into details for fear of spoiling or over-hyping. But I feel it’s safe to say that what makes it so great is the characters. They’ve been written in a way that displays, challenges, and twists stereotypes and cliches. The writing and performances bring the same approach to emotion as to humour, gently easing a reaction from viewers rather than trying to force a laugh, a gasp, or a tear. Ricky’s way of expressing his emotions is particularly surprising and lovely.

Taiki Waititi is clearly an awesome director. It feels bizarre that the man who created this will also make the next Marvel Thor film, but I can’t wait to see what he does.

In the meantime, go take a wander with the Wilderpeople.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – An American Sort of Weird

I love Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently books. His weird stories of an offbeat detective and his surreal methods are my favourite Adams work, even in a world where The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy exists. So I was intrigued to see what happened when the Americans turned it into a TV show.

Turns out they’ve done a decent job. To me, this feels like it gets the surreal tone and crazy connections of the books. Dirk is just as exasperating as you’d expect, though in a less whimsically British way. The adventures might lean a little heavily toward action at times, but they still feel like Dirk’s sort of adventures.

There’s some Americanising here, or perhaps modern-TV-show-ising. It’s not enough for Dirk to just have strange methods. Instead he’s the escaped product of some government-backed scheme that has unleashed a bunch of psychically powered people into the world. I can’t say that feels like a good fit for an Adams story to me, but all the characters coming out of it do. Sure, I’d rather that Dirk was just a man with an unexpected method that works against the odds, but I’ll accept this change in return for the holistic assassin and the crazy guys in the van.

Honestly, I don’t know how well fans are responding to this – I haven’t dared look. But I liked it. Whether you’ve read the books or not, I think it’s worth a look.

The Man in the High Castle: WW2, Identity and Resistance

The Man in the High Castle is a gripping piece of television. It takes the ideas laid out in Phillip K Dick’s book and expands upon them to create something powerful and fascinating. More than this, it’s an exploration of morality and of why the Second World War is still so powerful in all our imaginations.

Why WW2?

The Man in the High Castle is a rarity. It’s an alternate history story that, both in its original novel and in the TV show, has reached beyond that small cultural niche and found a wider audience. Both versions have received popular and critical acclaim.

A huge part of its success lies in the choice of historical settings. The Second World War lies heavy in historical memory. For the generation before mine, it still had a great immediacy. In Europe, they grew up amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts. Across the world, they grew up with the consequences and with the war stories of their parents’ generation. As a result, the war also felt immediate for the generation that followed – my own. It was a modern event that shaped the modern world.

The scale and impact of the war are also factors. The term “World War” is a little misleading, given the number of countries that weren’t involved. But it was still a war on an unprecedented scale in the number of nations and combatants, as well as the sheer destruction. Millions died both in combat and in atrocities against civilians. The political and cultural landscape of entire continents was transformed in the space of a decade.

Perhaps most powerfully, it is a war where the sense of moral right and wrong has lingered. While all sides committed terrible acts and every nation had figures striving for good, a distinction remains. The Nazis and their allies sought to enforce their will upon others through violence. They tried to wipe out entire groups of people because of who they were. The Allies fought against that.

Trying to assert a sense of right and wrong upon history is usually misguided at best. But in this case, nothing has shaken off the sense of being in the right that the Allied nations retain.

Playing into Our Vision of WW2

The Man in the High Castle plays into this collective vision. It uses our understanding of the war and how significant it is. This is an easy shortcut to show us that the alternate world is very different and far darker.

By sticking inside the 20th century, it retains that sense of immediacy. Sure, its 1960s setting is now decades behind us. But it’s still modern enough to feel achingly familiar, painfully so when things are wrong.

Most powerfully, it plays up the moral aspect. The horrifying nature of Nazi moral values is there from the start. Characters have taken part in and borne witness to atrocities. Political murder and oppression are common. Aberrations against what the Nazis consider normal, even those as innocent as ill health, are dangerous.

On the Pacific coast too, continued Japanese militarism creates a menacing state with clear racial distinctions.

Undermining Our Certainties

But what makes The Man in the High Castle so powerful is that it questions and undermines these certainties.

Partly, this is about the significance of the war. Within the story, films of alternate realities create questions about the world the characters live in and by extension our own. If there are many other possible realities, is any one event really so significant? Don’t other events equally shape our lives? If the Axis powers had won, would the war still be the single most significant event, or would others that followed match it?

Most tellingly, The Man in the High Castle challenges our moral certainties.

By dropping the atomic bomb on Washington, it forces us to face the terrible nature of the things the Allies did to win the war. The Nazi leadership may have been villains, but can the other side still be considered heroes after wiping out entire cities?

By showing us sympathetic characters on the German and Japanese sides, it undercuts the image of these regimes as all bad. It reminds us that ordinary people can do terrible things if society leads them that way. The question for anyone watching then becomes “in what ways is society leading me to harm others while seeing myself as right?”

Darkest of all, the story undermines the image of those resisting the Axis powers as good. Resistance fighters do desperate and terrible things in the name of freedom. At times, they become antagonists to the show’s hero. They go so far that it’s hard not question whether anyone is in the right here. There are different degrees of wrong and the Nazis are clearly far more hideous in their values than anyone else. But still, the certainties fade…

No Certainties

The Man in the High Castle uses a powerful part of our historical memory to raise powerful questions. To do right, we have to be able to act. We cannot be frozen by doubt. But we still need those doubts, to be able to see when we might be wrong and to adjust our path.

This is a show that should help us to approach morality more intelligently and to examine the past more critically.

Fortunately, it’s also damn good entertainment of the most chilling kind.

Moana – An Awesome Disney Not-Princess

I’ve always loved Disney films, but the older I get, the more problematic they become. No-one reinforces gender stereotypes like the House of Mouse. Given the way these films hook the brains of the young people in my life, that’s worrying.

So thank all the Rock-voiced hook-wielding demigods of the Pacific for Moana.

I’m a little behind the curve on this one, I know. Not having kids, it took me weeks to see the latest Disney offering. But when I did I was delighted.

There’s everything good you expect from Disney here. Fun characters, great animation, catchy songs – I can’t stop singing about how shiny I am, and I’ve only heard that song twice.

There’s also a level of fantasy world building that feels deeper and more interesting than in most of their previous offerings. Because this isn’t based in European folklore like most Disney, there’s more space to present something unfamiliar to an audience like me and more need to explain it. This is done as subtly as you can get away with in a kids film, using songs to make the exposition more entertaining. It creates a world and its people I found fascinating, with their isolated island life and gradually revealed ancient sea-faring culture.

On top of this, the central character gets away from the Disney princess cliches, to the point where there’s even a joke about whether or not she’s a princess. She’s self-reliant and strong-willed without being irrationally obstinate. She doesn’t end up needing rescue by men. Her life is in no way defined by romance.

This isn’t a hero defined by being female – it’s a hero who happens to be female. And an awesome, skilled, fun hero at that.

I’m sure this film has flaws. Everything does. But I was so blown away by the good parts that I didn’t even notice them. Maybe one day we’ll look back on this and see its failings, both in film-making and in gender representation. But right now it sets a very high standard.

I won’t say it’s my favourite Disney film. Until all the copies of Robin Hood are expunged from existence, no other Disney will ever displace it in my heart. But this comes a close second.

Go watch Moana. It’s one of the best fantasy films in years.

The Best Bit About Rogue One

I’ve been a Star Wars fan most of my life. So while I was delighted to enjoy Rogue One, my favourite bit wasn’t any of the stuff that makes a good movie. It wasn’t the exciting plot. It wasn’t the diverse cast of characters. It wasn’t the action, though the final act was pretty bad-ass.

No, it was a single moment snatched out of childhood memory and shifted from the first film in the sequence to the eighth in this franchise:

“You may fire when ready.”

Those words, that tone, it took me straight back to my childhood excitement. It’s an obscure little touch, but damn, these guys know how to please their fan base.