A hat like that – genre mashing westerns

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNvOl_Yml3U&w=420&h=315]

 

Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.

 

My Groundhog Day – remembering Harold Ramis

The death of film maker Harold Ramis is a moment of deep sadness. For people of my generation, now living on the generous side of thirty, the Ghostbusters films were huge cultural touchstones, up there with Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the pantheon of fun, exciting stories that grew in meaning as we grew in age.

But for my money the most notable of Ramis’s works, the one that touches my heartstrings and tickles my funny bone, will always be Groundhog Day.

The day that just keeps giving

I first saw Groundhog Day in the cinema on my fifteenth birthday. The story of a grumpy TV weatherman stuck living the same day again and again, it didn’t make my teenage friends laugh as much as they’d wanted. But for me it was a perfect combination of sweet and funny. Watching Bill Murray’s character grow, remake himself, face despair, hope and ultimately transformation, there was something very relatable about it.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSVeDx9fk60&w=420&h=315]

What I realise now is that Ramis did a fabulous job of reinventing the oldest writer’s maxim – write what you know. He might not have known what it was like to be stuck in a time loop (if he did then good for him), but he knew about human desire. He knew what it was to fall in love, to dream of being a better person, to long for the chance to re-do a significant day and make sure that you get it right.

Ramis turned ‘write what you know’ into ‘write what we all wish for’.

If I had a Groundhog Day

I suspect that we all have a Groundhog Day, a day we would like to live again, whether to put right our mistakes or to relish a treasured moment.

A year after seeing Groundhog Day I fell out with a group of close friends. It was largely my fault. Few teenagers know how to deal with their feelings, and I was worse than most. My cataclysmic blow-out – the first time I ever yelled at anyone in public – ended my first set of really close friendships. I didn’t know how to fix the damage any more than I could go back and avoid it. But I dwelt on that day for years, running over in my mind how I could have got it right.

If I could have a Groundhog Day, one day that went round over and over until I fixed it, it would be that day. I would save those friendships and in the process learn to deal with emotions that even now, as an adult, I get horribly tangled on.

All our Groundhog Days

Ramis achieved something amazing with Groundhog Day, making a common human feeling magical, showing something we all feel. It’s why I’ll always love his work, and is one of the many, many reasons why his loss is such a tragedy.

How about the rest of you? What were your favourite Harold Ramis moments? And what would your Groundhog Days be?

Religion and character in Battlestar Galactica

From the start I loved the modern iteration of Battlestar Galactica. It was gritty and exciting, filled with passion and despair.

Somewhere along the line that went wrong. And the more I think about it, the more it highlights the centrality of character to every aspect of story telling.

You’ve got to have faith?

Religion exemplified the problem with BSG.

Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.
Psst, Starbuck, I think we might be caught in an allegory.

At the start religion played an interesting role. This was a sci-fi setting in which the characters had an old-fashioned faith. Their relationship with that faith, and how it affected their understanding of current events, gave them extra depth. I loved it.

But then faith slipped over into fact. The plot started being led by ancient prophecy and holy books. The role of religion in the show had taken a radical shift, and it was one that completely changed my understanding of the characters.

Subjectivity adds depth

When their religion was a subjective matter, a faith choice on which characters could legitimately hold differing opinions, it gave them depth. It was a layer of the world that added richness, nuance and variety to the show’s diverse collection of soldiers and refugees. It made them interesting.

Destiny removes agency

When their religion became an objective matter, driving the characters towards a pre-ordained destiny, it removed that depth and took away the characters’ agency with it.

As we saw that elements in the religion were objectively true it became harder to see belief in religion as a choice characters made. It also took away the possibility for divergent views. Now a character who didn’t agree with the religion was objectively wrong and being stupid.

Worse, the element of prophecy and destiny deprived the characters of control over their own fate. They were moving towards a pre-ordained future. The choice wasn’t theirs. They were less in control of their actions, and so less interesting.

This is why I almost always hate prophecies in fiction.

What a shame

This wasn’t everything that was good about the show at the start, or that went wrong along the way. But what it highlights is that plot or setting can change our understanding of characters, strengthening or undermining them. As both writers and readers, it’s something to look out for.

So, now that I’ve got you thinking, can you see other examples where the shape of the setting directly affects the characters in this way? Share some examples, help me think this one over.

 

Thanks to Joe Kawano for the question that inspired this post.

The Lego Movie – taking the ‘sub’ out of ‘subtext’

I went to see the Lego movie this morning. It was everything I hoped for – weird and wild and full of visual fun.

As they say in the film, everything is awesome!
As they say in the film, everything is awesome!

The film’s pretty clear in its underlying message – don’t try to fix everything in a sterile image of perfection, let life be messy, chaotic and fun. Near the end an unexpected plot and stylistic twist turned this from what you might generously call subtext to a full on out loud message about how people should play with their toys and with each other. That might sound like it trampled over any subtlety the movie had, but actually it worked. Despite the moral sledgehammer they were wielding I found it charming. The fact that it was tied to a visual shift and story twist really helped. (Sorry if I’m being a little cryptic, I’m trying not spoil the film.)

Sometimes the subtext can become the text. Sometimes it’s OK to just throw subtlety out the window and go ‘hey, here’s the message of my story!’. That’s particularly true when writing for children, but I think it applies with adults as well. If you do it well enough you can get away with that kind of thing. The risk is that doing it badly will really put people off your stories.

I heartily recommend the Lego movie. It’s awesome fun. And maybe it’ll inspire you in your own creative acts as well – something this wild and exciting really should.

Catching Fire: three reasons you should read the book too

I considered reviewing the film of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but it would have just been a gushing stream of enthusiasm. For brevity’s sake, my review is this: ‘it’s great, go see it’. To add some nuance, here are three reasons you should also read the book:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MkvUNfySGQU&w=560&h=315]

Getting inside Katniss’s head

While Jennifer Lawrence gives a brilliant performance as Katniss Everdeen, the books let you really get inside her head. Suzanne Collins does an amazing job of showing rather than telling just how traumatised Katniss is, and of drawing you into her interior world without making the books slow. She also manages to make readers understand things that Katniss doesn’t, even though the whole story is told from Katniss’s viewpoint. It’s an incredibly skilled piece of writing.

Extra details

Turning a book into a film inevitably means cutting things out. The film’s producers chose the right things to drop, but those details are still worth experiencing. There are secondary characters in the book who aren’t in the film and who add real depth to the world, as well as details of the rebels’ plan that are pleasingly clever.

More Peeta

Katniss isn’t the only tragic figure in these stories, or the only one worth more time than the film can give. My heart breaks every time I watch Peeta Mellark try to survive a fake relationship with the woman he loves, and I sometimes want to scream at Katniss for not understanding how much she’s hurting him. While Josh Hutcherson is terrific as Peeta* the book gives you time to really appreciate his situation.

So go see this film and read this book. They’re both brilliant.

 

* The consistent quality of the performances in the film also reflects well on Francis Lawrence’s direction – there’s barely a false note from anyone in the thing.

Adaptations

I love a good adaptation. Whether it’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, seeing something I love on the screen, seeing how script writers, actors and directors turn those familiar elements into something new, it’s pretty exciting.

Tonight I’m off to see Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve written before about how powerful and skilfully written I think the books are, and I think that the first film did a good job of a potentially difficult transition from page to screen. But I’m going to see it with my friend John, whose criteria for judging adaptations are slightly different from mine. For John, as for many fans going to see stories they love, what matters is how faithfully it sticks to the original. For me that has a place but, more than with presenting the past on screen, what I’m really after is a film or TV show that can stand on its own two legs, inspired by the source rather than bound by it.

These two different attitudes to adaptation are where film and TV producers can get in trouble with their potential viewers. I think that the way Elizabeth is portrayed in the 1990s BBC Pride and Prejudice is fantastic, drawing out sympathy and contrasting with other characters. But I know that others feel she’s not as faithful to the book as she could be. And in the second season of Game of Thrones, I thought that putting Arya and Tywin Lannister together strengthened the narrative, but some people look at that and mutter about how it didn’t happen in the books.

You can never entirely please both sides.

The show that probably comes closest is The Walking Dead. They’ve taken a clever approach, one that probably only works because the original writer is involved and this gains the trust of fans. They’ve kept the characters and the scenario, as well as some of the story arcs, but thrown the detail of the narrative out of the window. In this way they’ve set their stall out from the beginning. They’re actually being more faithful to the unpredictably terrifying world of the comics by being less faithful to their storylines, and that works for fans both new and old.

Of course it’s an approach that wouldn’t work for a story like Game of Thrones, where that epic story is crucial, or a small, more contained work like Pride and Prejudice. But it’s an interesting experiment, and one that seems to be paying off.

So what are your favourite adaptations? What works for you and what doesn’t? How do you judge their success? Leave a comment, let me know.

My Doctor Who: Peter Davison

For me, Doctor Who will always be Peter Davison.

It’s a matter of age. I was just old enough to be watching Doctor Who during his tenure, and to be traumatised by his near-death and regeneration at the end of The Caves of Androzani. As a little kid, this charming, energetic young man was everything I wanted to be. The fact that he beat alien menaces without resorting to violence really clinched it.

Seriously, how much cooler can a person get?
Seriously, how much cooler can a person get?

Of course I enjoyed Colin Baker, for all that I know now that he was controversial. And I loved Sylvester McCoy, with his erratic energy and weird, dark plotlines. Berty Bassett still gives me the creeps. I watched the older doctors on video, and took a particular liking to Jon Pertwee, for reasons I can’t even remember.

I was gutted about the McGann mess, for all the flare he brought to the role, and then immensely releaved when the RTD revival got it right. I’ve enjoyed Eccleston, Tennant, Smith and now Hurt, and I cannot wait to see Capaldi take on the big blue box. These days, the Doctor just seems to get better and better.

But for me, and I suspect many others, the appeal of Doctor Who isn’t in the quality of the show, which has swung wildly about over time. It’s in my emotional attachment. And that lies forever with the fifth doctor.

Fantasy and history – one thing leads to another

Having written on Friday about fantasy as a place where we learn some history, and about Robin Hood and the spectrum from history into fantasy, I got to see it all connect together over the weekend. Not only did I watch Disney’s Robin Hood (that’s right, the good Robin Hood), but I watched it with children, taking their first steps into understanding history.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLhYSw67pdg&w=420&h=315]

Oo-de-la-li

I spent Saturday at my brother’s house, helping entertain my nieces, the terribly serious Princess and the unstoppable Ever-ready. The Princess is nearly five years old, Ever-ready two and a half, and thanks to their parents they’ve both acquired a taste for the fantastic.

After a busy day of playing and visiting the library, we settled down together to watch Disney’s Robin Hood, at the request of both girls. No sooner had the music started than they were enthralled, watching Robin and Little John run through the forest, excitedly telling me about the characters – who was good, who was bad, what animals they were and what they were doing.

For the first time all day, Ever-ready sat still.

Bedtime stories too

Bedtime showed the power of fantasy as well. Ever-ready’s choice of stories was The Reluctant Dragon, adapted from the story by Kenneth Grahame. The Princess chose Starcross by Philip Reeve, a space-faring steam fantasy – she has excellent taste. Both stories showed just how powerfully fantasy can capture children’s imaginations.

Watching the wedge

Watching them enjoy these stories, whether on screen or the printed page, I could see the thin end of the wedge of history slipping into their minds. They know what a knight is. They know how Victorian ladies dressed, and that they were expected to behave differently from men. They know about bad Prince John* and King Richard’s absence on crusade. They might also suspect that space is full of Moobs and that outlaws disguised themselves in Lincoln green, but we can correct that later. For now, they’re learning, and part of what they’re learning is a love of the past. Skipton castle is one of their favourite places.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the relationship between fantasy and history isn’t just the former feeding off the latter, it’s fantasy breeding a passion for history. And as a fantasy author and history graduate, I think that’s a great thing.

So how about you – do you have a passion for history, and was it fuelled by fantasy? Or maybe the other way around? I’d love to know.

 

* Having done my masters dissertation on John, I actually think he has an unfairly bad reputation by comparison with the rest of his family. It’s not that he doesn’t deserve to be viewed badly – he was responsible for several political murders, including that of his nephew – but that the rest of them deserve it too. I mean look at Richard. The guy was in England for five months out of a ten year reign, neglecting the country that funded his middle eastern killing spree – total dick.

Back to the core of the story – a great week of TV

I watch my TV online through channels’ streaming sites and Netflix, to avoid the schedules and the adverts. Also because I tend to forget that stuff’s on. So over the weekend, I ended up watching last week’s Misfits as well as Agents of SHIELD. They were both great episodes relative to their shows – though Misfits, being Misfits, was far more interesting – and they both acted as reminders for me of how important it is to stay true to the core of the world you’re exploring.

Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.
Oh TV, how I love you. At least this week.

Spoilers ahead for both shows. Just saying.

Agents of SHIELD

I know some people have been down on this episode. But for me, it focused on the things the show originally promised – how living in a superhero world affects ordinary people, and connecting up with the Marvel movieverse.

The whole plot stems from the actions of a group of fire fighters who helped clear up the mess in New York after the Avengers film. They’ve been through a lot just doing that, and naturally enough they’ve taken a souvenir. It was a great reminder that somebody has to clear up after the destruction of these superpowered showdowns. That that’s hard, sometimes heart breaking work. And that, for the people involved, it would be a huge moment in their lives.

The souvenir, an alien helmet sitting in a fire station, was also emblematic of the exotic element entering ordinary people’s lives. Of the sense of wonder those fire fighters felt seeing beings that had come from another world. Of just how brightly that moment must have shone for them compared with their ordinary lives. And of the fact that something that powerful, that exotic, can also be dangerous.

This was followed up in the second half of the show when Simmons became infected by the virus on the helmet. She was all excited about science, and then she was facing her own death. Because she was ultimately just a scientist, and she’d been infected by something from another world. The way she handled that almost had Mrs K crying.

So what looked like a mystery of the week became an exploration of the show’s themes and the nature of its world, and that was great.

Misfits

To my mind, Misfits has been upping its game all through this series, following the wobbles of the last one. It’s getting properly focused on its own core theme and the point of its world – slightly rubbish super powers possessed by slightly rubbish people.

This week they explored that theme in a big way, paying off the promise of Abby’s mysterious background. Who was this girl who couldn’t remember her past? Who had she been before the storm? And, from the more meta perspective of the audience, why was she in the show if she didn’t have a super power?

The answer paid off both promise and theme beautifully – Abby wasn’t a real person. She was someone’s imaginary friend, the output of that person’s power. She was, in essence, no-one. And, as a result, she lost what was becoming the great romantic relationship of her life.

It was heartbreaking. But in true Misfits style, this wasn’t made maudlin, but delivered with a flurry of sex gags and inappropriate behaviour. The episode was both beautiful and hilarious, and a reminder that the people society treats as hopeless and unimportant can have as deep and powerful feelings as anybody else.

Just goes to show

For me as a writer, this was a reminder not to get too distracted. To remember the core theme of the world I’m writing within, and make the whole story an expression of that. And also that superpowered stories don’t have to be just crash-bang-wallop.

So, if you got through all my ramblings, did you watch those shows? And what did you think?

 

Picture by Robert Couse-Baker via Flickr creative commons

Regeneration as a plot device

As a British sci-fi fan, I can hardly let this week’s Dr Who hullaballoo go by without some sort of comment. So today I’m going to write about regeneration, and some of its implications as a story-telling trick in Dr Who.

I grew up watching Dr Who. My earliest television memory is the fifth Doctor, horribly injured in The Caves of Androzani, regenerating into the sixth Doctor. Looking back, the combination of horror and hope that comes from that scene did a lot to shape my taste in stories. For me, as a six-year-old, it was a unique and compelling moment, far more powerful than any death they could show in a Saturday evening family adventure.

Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker
Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker

In one sense, the Doctor’s regeneration is just a way around a limitation of television production. Actors get bored or dissatisfied or ambitious. They want to move on. So if you want to keep a show about one character going then you need a way to overcome that. The BBC couldn’t use million pound pay deals, and they care enough about their audience not to fob them off with a lookalike. So instead they came up with regeneration. They looked at the limitations they had and worked within them to create something new – it’s that boundaries business all over again.

But like the best responses to limitations, regeneration has helped them to achieve something more.

First there’s the most obvious thing. By introducing the new actor at a climax for the previous one, just as the audience’s emotions are up, they ensure that you’ll care about the new guy. You’re excited about whatever great thing the last Doctor ‘died’ doing. You’re relieved that this beloved character has survived. You see the new doctor and you are filled with positive emotions. Roll credits before he has time to mess it up. Now you’re all excited for the next series.

Excited, terrified, it's all the same thing, right?
Excited, terrified, it’s all the same thing, right?

It’s also a way to change the highest stakes for the character. Death isn’t always the worst thing you can do to a character. It certainly isn’t the most interesting, as if the character dies then you stop seeing their journey. But if there’s something they fear more than death – loss of control, a loved one suffering, being dishonoured – then the writer can put them through the wringer and still keep going. Regeneration has a similar effect. It actually reduces the risk of death, but introduces another risk instead – the risk of losing one’s self, of becoming an entirely different person.

Think about that for a minute. What if you took a knock to the head and woke up dark and traumatised (Dr Ecclestone) or flippant and erratic (Dr Smith)? Sure, you might still be alive, but the person you were is gone. Worse yet, you probably don’t care. How harsh is that on the person you were? Or on the people around you? By taking death out of the equation, regeneration doesn’t soften what’s at stake – we never believe that our Saturday TV heroes are going to die – it actually makes things more emotionally hazardous.

Wait, are you saying I'm immortal?
Wait, are you saying I’m immortal?

All that’s what you get with any decent writer using this plot tool. Throw in someone as tricksy as Moffat and he’ll take the consequences one step further. He’ll look at that structure and see the implications others haven’t explored. Like a magician watching another’s trick, he notices the difference between what the audience think they’ve seen and what’s actually visible. And like some kind of crazy script-writing David Blaine, he’ll stick a trick into the gap. At the end of the last series, it was a new Doctor in a space between regenerations (or at least that’s what we’re meant to believe for now). Who knows what he’ll come up with next?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s never been more true than in the case of the Doctor’s regenerations. And I can’t wait to see this next one.

Here’s hoping for a real Tucker-style Capaldi performance.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MSScBIopM8&w=420&h=315]

 

Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you enjoy the regenerations? Do you have fond memories of a particular one? Are you as sick of this weekend’s hype as I am, and as excited about the new Doctor as I am (seriously, Capaldi, that’s awesome!)? Let me know.