Sunday, November 30, 2008

robin hood and stuff vol. 4

I remember being very surprised when, back in the US in the fall of last year, I heard that RH had gone into a second season. I’m not sure why I was so amazed, considering I had known the show had been popular in fall 2006, probably because my memories of the show were broken up in to two categories: the hotness of Richard Armitage and the silliness of everything else. In any case, I was only mildly interested in seeing the second season, and now that I have started watching it, I have to say it’s not bad at all. Doctor Who is still vastly, vastly superior, but I honestly have to say I enjoy RH a lot more than I did Merlin. Most of my friends feel the opposite.

Dominic Minghella should know how to write the show, and indeed, I find his episodes to be, in general, the strongest. While “Sisterhood” is not as strong an opener as “Will You Tolerate This?”, it’s a good start. I always marvel that people can start in the middle of a run of Doctor Who and get what’s going on, since I think the program is somewhat the slave of continuity (though not as much as it was in the classic series, IMHO), and to a lesser degree I marvel at what little explanation is given here. I guess because everyone knows the story to an extent, though the new title sequence makes it explicit. By the way, I hate the new title sequence—what was wrong with the old one? The new one’s so cheesy!

I have noticed that summer never seems to end in Sherwood Forest, unless we somehow skipped over autumn and winter 1192 and are suddenly in 1193. Perhaps there is something to someone’s theory that this is all taking place in a parallel universe where women wore trousers in 1192. Then again, I guess it could be taking place in real-time, so if “Will You Tolerate This?” started in May 1192, we could still be in August or September 1192. I seem to remember Robin of Sherwood acceded to the changing of seasons more gracefully (but it could all be allegorical like in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). The real question is why do I care??

There is something very Scarlet Pimpernel-ish, something very childish and fun about the way the gang disguise themselves in the forest. Unfortunately they aren’t preying on mere doofuses this time: it’s a 1940s dominatrix and her retinue who somehow know kung fu—only in RH! What’s immediately apparent about season 2, and about which little has been made of (yet) is that Djaq looks a lot more feminine. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that her cover’s been blown and there’s no need to dress like a male, but I rather cynically think that Marian wasn’t sufficing for the lads to ogle, so Djaq needed to be sexed up. Anjali Jay can easily morph from tomboy to beauty in purple, low-cut tunic, so I guess it’s all good. “Get the girl.” “A woman, you’ll find,” she announces. Indeed.

In Nottingham, the Sheriff has no doubt been spending the interim between seasons (however long that’s been) making Guy feel miserably inadequate after Marian dumped him. “Tell me you would rather have a woman than this!” The Sheriff loves power, as he announces throughout this episode. His symbol, by the way, is a thunderbird for some reason. The dominatrix was carrying one, by the way, as are a multitude of hooded guests coming at the Sheriff’s behest. Marian and Robin have gone from spats to very touchy-feely, though not utterly so. After prancing around in her Night Watchman uniform, Marian comes home. “And that’s all I’m taking off until you go away.” The cocksure Robin is almost too suave—“Listen,” he says, before kissing her. “That kiss says, Marian wants to join your gang.” Marian is absolutely shrewd when she wonders if the King will ever be home at all.

The true extent of Guy’s feelings over Marian’s betrayal are felt in brutal detail when he roughly handles her and her father and then burns down their house. “You come when I say—you do not tell me what to do!” He makes her beg for clemency and denies her—“still not good enough! You think you can humiliate a man at the altar?!” Seeing the prudent, moral, and compassionate Marian destroyed in such a way is hurtful and yet I’m glad Guy reacted the way he did—it’s very in-character and at the same time, it makes it clear how much she actually hurt him—far more than just wounding his pride. Er . . . so says the shipper.

The Sheriff’s sister—for it was she, the dominatrix—really pulls the wool over Robin’s eyes, which gets him captured and beaten up in front of the “black knights.” All I can think as I see this coalition of anti-Richard forces is “The Daleks’ Master Plan” and the council over which Mavic Chen presided. Claims that Richard is “marching on Jerusalem” are technically true, though in fact he will never see the city (in our universe, anyway). The Sheriff is delightfully anachronistic here: “from rank to skank!” is one of the many imaginative ways he describes Robin! He discounts that his motives are greed— “you don’t know me at all.”

This is where it gets completely Indiana Jones and, despite myself, I feel entertained regardless. The Sheriff’s sister likes carrying around lots of venomous snakes and it’s Robin’s punishment to be thrown into the pit! “I almost regret tricking you now. A clue: no.” Marian risks all to come to Robin’s aid as the Night Watchman—the last thing Guy wants to know of Robin is the identity of the Night Watchman—“he’s creating a distraction.” Robin, in a super-duper feat of wits and luck, manages to free himself from the pit of snakes, while causing the sister to be thrown into it. There’s some twaddle about the sister’s lot in life being an attempt to get her older brother to love her—“it’s better than needing reptiles to love you”—and then she just dies! What a cop-out! Why create such a great character and kill her off right then? Robin does find out one interesting fact, that Prince John will “obliterate the county of Nottingham” should Robin kill the Sheriff. Yeah, right.

The Sheriff decides that in order to avenge his sister’s death, he wants Robin to die. Robin gets away, of course, Djaq makes Guy cry (with pepper), and everything goes back to normal. Or does it? Allan a Dale has been disenchanted with his outlaw way of life since, we presume, the end of the last season. He thinks eventually their work will “demoralize” them. Spending most of the episode being tortured (I think in the way Isaac of York was in Front de Boeuf’s castle in Ivanhoe) he finally comes to a deal with Guy. The plot thickens! Allan won’t give up the identity of the Night Watchman, phew, but he will accede to a “conversation.” He won’t kill Robin, to which Guy’s surprising response is, “Yeah, I respect you for that.” The arrangement is basically, “I am not robbed, Robin is not killed.” Guy refutes the notion that he’s just an android who follows the Sheriff’s orders—“we’re the ones who make our supposed betters look good.” I love this plot twist. It brings shading to both their characters. The programme gets increasingly nationalistic as Robin declares “we are the spirit of England.”

“The Booby and the Beast” seems to strike a similar chord for me as The 10th Kingdom does, and for that reason I can forgive its utter ridiculousness. It also has a strong-room, fantastically protected in a way that evokes Indiana Jones, Phantom of the Opera, and “The Five Doctors,” (“as easy as pi!”) which can’t hurt either. I was strongly tempted to shout “Otto of Swabia gave you that tattoo!!” at Guy when the Sheriff asked, “How’s your German?” until I remembered I made that bit up. The Sheriff has decided to “take my bath six months early” in order to prepare for a visit from Count Friedrich of Bavaria. I won’t say anything of the absurdity of a German count coming all the way to Nottingham for gambling (heck, why not go to the casinos in Kissing Town?!). I won’t even comment on the fact that casinos didn’t exist, nor did can-can girls to roll the dice! It’s a useful excuse to get the plot rolling, so here we go.

The Sheriff wants Marian to fulfil the Count’s “every desire.” “Deception comes easily enough to you,” says an embittered, deliberately cruel Gisborne. The Sheriff suggests Marian go buy some revealing clothes—“the cheaper, the better.” Personally, I think the gown she’s wearing when approached—mint green, with a corset-like bodice—is fairly sexy while being completely anachronistic. Everyone is impressed with the red, plunging-neckline thing she comes up with, though. Marian is disgusted when she meets Count Friedrich—she thinks him an empty-headed aristocrat and has real difficulty snuggling up to him like she’s supposed to. “She says no when she means yes,” Gisborne tells Friedrich to encourage his attentions.

The rather impressive thing about this episode is Friedrich’s character. No double-crosses, perversions, or stupidities, proving that Marian and her father aren’t the only good aristocrats in the entirety of Europe. When Marian is threatened by some soldiers, he “rescues” her—“you are an impressive fighter.” While her pleading a headache is to get away from him, he insists “this is the way trysts are made all over the world.” His arrogance feels very real. When they overhear the Sheriff’s plot to win away all his money, Marian confesses her reluctance and, sensing an ally, she tells him about Robin’s plan.

Robin’s plan, by the way, is to get to the strong-room by consulting its architect, a blind engineer who “worked in the Orient” somehow. This inscrutable character reminds me of the book Erik who created the torture chamber of mirrors for the Sultana in Phantom of the Opera. Under pretense of a tryst, Marian manages to get Friedrich to meet Robin. It is highly amusing to see that both Robin and Guy seem a bit jealous of Friedrich. Marian is impressed that the Count’s vapid exterior disguises a decent person steeped in “tradition, etiquette.” Purely to make people squirm, they kiss demonstratively in front of Guy and the Sheriff—“he succeeded where you failed.”

As the majority of the gang help Robin break the strong room code, Djaq suits up in one of the
extraordinary can-can outfits, giving shippery moments to both Will fans and Allan fans. She’s also further proof of Guy’s blindness, as he doesn’t recognize her! Surely there can’t be that many short-haired Saracen women running around! Marian’s second outfit to please Friedrich makes her total Goth girl, and it’s actually kind of sweet to see the genuine friendly affection she lavishes on the Count. The plan goes, er, to plan, with the fortune rescued from the strong-room and Friedrich smuggled out of the country—he even insists the outlaws take his share of the money. He is Marian’s “servant, your booby, and your friend.“ There is definitely a lightheartedness to this episode that really reverses the violence of the previous story.

There is something very archetypal about the children in “Childhood” make-believe playing that they are Robin Hood and the gang in Sherwood Forest. Unfortunately, while playing they see something they shouldn’t—Guy testing some new armor and then killing (as he does) the witnesses (with that little stiletto knife he seems to love so much). He’s not beyond tying the defenseless little kids up, though one named Daniel escapes. He is against killing them, however, and declares “we can use them” and takes them away. Daniel falls in with the real Robin Hood, makes a joke at Much’s expense (poor Much!), and makes Little John feel . . . little. Unfortunately all four of the kids are really rotten actors.

The armor being worked for the Sheriff is “Damascus steel” (?!) that is virtually impenetrable. The
blacksmith, however, is the only one with the secret ingredient and the necessary formula (shades of last season and the Greek fire, no?) and is willing to sell it to the King of France (who is actually in the Holy Land, but no matter . . .). The Sheriff is distracted by the children brought in from the forest—“Gisborne, you started a family without telling me?” He is annoyed that they are not dead. Of course children are a pressure point—I learned that from writing all those Joker fics. If they are in danger, the audience is imperilled. Now, RH being a family show, not even the Sheriff is allowed to kill children, so certainly Guy—who despite it all has compassion, as Marian observes—is not going to. In an attempt to rescue the three remaining children, Robin has “a big nasty fight” with Gisborne (at least I think that’s what my notes imply). He also reveals he likes his feet rubbed (!). Robin rescues three children and the secret ingredient for the steel, but the Sheriff will only exchange the ingredient for the remaining child. Since the Damascus steel will make the Sheriff invincible, it’s a quandary.

How convenient for season 2 that Marian’s father has gotten so frail. To be honest, I never thought the actor looked anything but healthy, but we are being set up to say goodbye to Sir Edward. Marian doesn’t want her father—now that they are under house arrest in the castle—to suffer undue strain. However, she has to risk his safety in another scheme to get out of the castle (which, so far, despite the Sheriff’s decree, she has managed amazingly well) in order to get the children out of Locksley where Guy is keeping them. In order to get out of the castle, however, Marian has to tell the Sheriff she is visiting Guy to reconcile. “In your finest silks,” the Sheriff observes. “If it were me, I would slap your fickle face . . . both of them.” At first I thought the Sheriff was talking about her arse (!) before I realized it was an allusion to her two-facedness.

Episode three is notable, of course, for the almost entirely gratuitous topless Richard Armitage scene! Having heard raptures about this scene long before I saw the episode, I wondered what possible explanation there could be for Marian visiting Guy in the middle of the night as he tries on armor. There is, actually, some justification as he is being fitted for a suit of armor of this Damascus steel, but no self-respecting knight is going to try on armor bare-chested. Buuuut it gives Marian a chance to have the wind knocked out of her, for them to have a revealing conversation that suggests, despite what he says and what she doesn’t say, that there could still be something between them, and for us to ogle in titillated wonder. (Or is that just me?) Robin meanwhile is a very naughty voyeur!

Speaking of naughty, am I the only one who fears a bit of slash is being hinted at between Allan and Guy?! I’m not at all a proponent of slash, but when Allan says stuff like “He’ll be putty in my hands,” I have to wonder! Of course it is all in service to Allan’s greed as he passes on vital information to Guy in return for riches. Then Guy brutally punches him to enhance the “believability” factor. Daniel is to be exchanged for the rocks in a box lined with pitch so Robin can set it on fire once the Sheriff has it, but thanks to Allan’s interference, the Sheriff is prepared. In a moment reminiscent of Excalibur Guy bursts out in a full suit of armor and nearly kills Robin. (Probic vent! I want to scream.) In the end, Robin throws pitch on Guy who catches fire (!) and has to jump in the well to avoid dying.

Poor Richard Armitage is making a career out of being water boarded. Robin wants the rocks in exchange for Gisborne’s life, but the slimy Sheriff is prepared to let him die (even as Guy pitifully begs for help). Marian thinks quickly and threatens the blacksmith’s life unless the Sheriff saves Guy. “Not even you would let him die—he must be worth more than a sack of rocks!” The Sheriff finally accedes, the rocks are destroyed, the blacksmith leaves for more hospitable climes, and the Sheriff announces Marian will be punished for defying him. Guy recognizes that in saving him, Marian also saved Robin and begins to wonder whether she still might be seeing Robin. Nevertheless he thanks her for his life. You have to wonder if it was Guy’s compassion in not harming the children—or seeing his pecs—that made her risk so much for him. I have to think of Lizzy Bennet and the fact she was swayed by Pemberley (and Darcy in the pond) before she came round. (Robin’s pecs just don’t compare, I’m afraid.) It’s delicious speculation for a Guy/Marian shipper, which makes this a good episode, despite the profusion of kiddies.

New boy Julian Unthank contributes “Angel of Death” which sees more addle-witted newcomers visiting Nottingham and a tying up of some loose ends. Robin and the gang are in super-camouflage mode in Sherwood, with Djaq sitting on Little John’s shoulders SCREAMING as they chase would-be trespassers, looking for all the world like Herne the Hunter! They’ve picked up Dan and Luke Scarlett, Will’s father and brother who fled to Scarborough back in season 1. I really do like the conflict of this—they want Will to return with them instead of living in the forest as an outlaw. “We’re your family.” They want Will, a carpenter and engineer, to earn a decent living. Meanwhile Robin is getting a bit suspicious of Allan—“how many questions have you got?”

An impostor, meant to be the Night Watchman, delivers food and primes himself for “scientific analysis” (WTF). The Sheriff has thrown Sir Edward into the dungeon to hurt Marian. “Stop making those big eyes at him [Guy], he doesn’t want you anymore,” snaps the Sheriff as Marian’s pleas fall on deaf ears. Marian pleads for some other way to be punished, so the Sheriff makes her read out a proclamation announcing a “pestilence” (why can’t they just call it a plague?) and the unjust quarantine to take place because of it. Fearing he’s failed in the eyes of his son, Dan stands up to the Sheriff and is killed (how convenient). Pitt Street, site of the pestilence, is quarantined, with the outlaws trapped inside. In order to get out, Little John has to be seen to vomit à la one possessed by plague to create a distraction so Will can take Luke back to Scarborough. But Will’s not going to Scarborough, he’s taking his revenge, dammit!

Marian suddenly has maidservants! When one of them is quarantined, she has to get out of the castle—this time dressed in peasant clothes. Before she’s ready, though, Guy comes to the door with an urgency that belies what he has to say. “I cannot talk to you through the door!” He wants to apologize for the way the Sheriff humiliated her (!), though surely her saving his life must have prompted some empathy. He really epitomizes their whole relationship when he pleads, “Marian . . . please . . . let me in.” I really love this scene; it’s sexily shot, and I for one wonder what would have happened had she let him in.

Marian makes it into the quarantine, where Robin et al are beginning to realize that the Night Watchman has been impersonated. Joseph, the crackpot “angel of death” scientist, is altogether too obnoxious, and Robin figures out that he’s poisoned the Pitt Streeters with “deadly devil’s cap” in order to experiment on them. They’re only appalling Hungarian “supporting artists” after all!

Will is particularly hot as he single-mindedly pursues his revenge in the castle. It’s a sad side effect of having such a large cast of regulars that most characters don’t get much shading unless they have an episode devoted to them, so while we learn a little about Djaq here—“I don’t fall in love easily”—it’s mostly Will’s show. Allan continues to do his deals with the devil, getting closer and closer to being caught. In Pitt Street, Marian sports an accent and Much plays dead to get out—it’s amazing how easily duped the soldiers are even now! Acting on a hunch—“I know some things”—Little John cures the poisoned with belladonna. With this cure, the team rush to the castle to pursue Will and Joseph. Will tells the Sheriff exactly who he is, though the Sheriff has killed so many he doesn’t realize that “dearly departed dead dad Dan” is Will Scarlett’s. Will has succeeded in poisoning the Sheriff and Joseph—hammy death time for Keith Allen—and Allan is aghast to hear Robin suggest they “kill one of our own” if Will won’t listen to reason. In order to get his point across, Robin drinks the poison so that Will will have to cure him and the Sheriff. (Actually, Robin didn’t actually drink the poison, all of which must be throwing Allan for a loop.) In what is supposed to be an exciting sequence, Robin falls down a CGI balcony with Joseph clinging to his foot, ultimately falling to his death. What a waste of a good boot. The story ends with Will inventing the motion picture a bit early. Anyway.

Onward and upward! Gimme more Guy/Marian!

robin hood and stuff vol. 3

Much like Doctor Who in my opinion, RH follows the same pattern in terms of episode strengths. The weakest are wedged in the middle, and the strongest come at the beginning and the end. That all makes sense, of course, but there is such disparity between episodes 10 and 13, no wonder the show gets slagged off.

“Peace? Off!” understandably tries to throw a bunch of relevant, modern themes into 1192 while co-mingling all the action we’ve come to expect from the show. I have to wonder, though, what drugs Doyle and Kurth were on when they penned it, as it comes out an anachronistic bouillabaisse of well-meaning twaddle. One does admire the show for trying to add the Arab viewpoint to the Crusades, but when it’s done like this, I think it more likely to be laughed off than taken seriously. The Vietnam vet parallel with Harold, a crusader suffering shell-shock, basically hits us in the face, with or without the fact the character is dressed in camouflage fatigues.

I can see the writers trying to tick off their list. Talk of heretics: Harold is branded one for trying to burn down a church, even though he wears a cross and “fights like a crusader.” (“What kind of men burn churches?! Why did you save him?” “I could not fit the church on my horse.”) Tanks: the merry men find Prince Malik’s overturned battle vehicle in the forest. Fast food: when discussing kebabs with Harold (which he had in Cyprus), Much invents restaurantry. Acupuncture?!

It is nice to see that Much can tame the disaffected crusader with listening, but the rest of Harold’s story is a bit iffy. Robin claims “he was forced to go to the Holy Land to fight.” No one was forced to go to the Holy Land to fight, as I recall—knights had to take their vows from clerics to be invested to go, though no doubt non-crusaders fought under the banner of legitimate knights. The show is really, really big on tattoos for some reason: Harold’s torso is pockmarked with malevolent, vaguely Arabic designs given to him as part of a torture. He tells Much he was in Nicaea and Tripoli, but if so, what was he doing there? There wasn’t any action there during the Third Crusade.

I’m being needlessly nitpicky. At a basic level, I quite like the story. Prince Malik, Saladin’s nephew, is lured to Nottingham with an offer of peace by the Sheriff. The Sheriff promises peace talks with King John while secretly ransoming Malik off. Whether this could actually happen I’m not sure. It’s the details that leave the story screwy, like the Sheriff eating goat’s eyeballs, and the “assassination squad.” This is the last episode I saw of the show in 2006, and while it wouldn’t have put me off watching the finale, I certainly didn’t feel I’d missed the show enough to try to finish it (until now), basically because of the ludicrous assassination squad.
Perhaps these kung fu houris are actually from the future, and somehow ended up as Saladin’s personal guard by traveling through time, stopping off first in the 1970s to pick up their aquamarine jumpsuits. To say I rolled my eyes during the final battle scene would be an understatement. Yet, I cannot deny the scene would have been a lot of fun to choreograph. In one thing there is actually a grain of historical truth—when the assassins reveal their target, a drawing of a crusader, it does look a bit like a Muslim illustration of the crusades I saw in a book recently—and Djaq is right, of course, when she says, “Muslims are forbidden to worship human images.”

Much more enjoyable in the episode are Guy’s continued attentions to Marian. The Sheriff teases him about his lovelornity, suggesting that Marian’s affections can be bought with a gift. Marian does react with uncharacteristic excitement to the gift of (what I assume is) a destrier war horse. She also makes it an opportunity to make Robin feel bad: “Some men take pleasure in giving women gifts.”

“Dead Man Walking” by Simon J Ashforth has a similar dose of the silly. Between the deranged Sheriff indulging in his Festival of Pain and the panto exploits of Robin, Marian, and Guy (not to say that I don’t love that scene!), it’s hard to feel any real emotion for Little John, Alice, and little John’s situation. The Sheriff certainly seems to be out of control here—“if the King knew what was being done in his name,” mutters Much. With Luke the bowmaker, Little John, and his son arrested and thrown in the Nottingham dungeon, shortly to be followed by Alice Little (John’s estranged wife), Robin has more than enough to worry about. “We can’t help everyone . . .” as the entire shire seems to be arrested (on trumped up charges, much like the taxes imposed on the American colonists post-French and Indian War, and we all know where that went . . .).
I don’t know very much about torture in medieval England, having only seen an exhibit on it in the Tower of London, but it probably didn’t differ very much from the Spanish Inquisition. So, that the Sheriff would possess such instruments of torture is possible, though why he would choose to use them (as well as hot coals!) inside the castle is a mystery. “We should be very creative!” he announces. Guy for his part is shockingly mum on the whole thing, despite Marian’s heartfelt, “You cannot seriously countenance such cruelty!” (He’s not in Nottingham when it’s going on.) Marian manages to defer suspicion when Little John is captured; “outlaws all look the same to me.” I really love her outfit in this one, anachronistic as it is. At least it’s functional and not totally outlandish.

In order to try to get the prisoners out of the dungeon, Robin and Allan adopt castle guard disguises—ever since a saw a YouTube video I cannot disassociate the scene of Allan whipping Will, as his “prisoner,” with the adjective kinky. Lord save me. There is a moment of broad physical comedy when Little John cannot scratch his own nose, which is surprisingly funny. Marian is staying at an inn in Nottingham for some reason that was never fully explained to me, but it gives an opportunity for the panto “he’s behind you”-type scene when Robin comes into her room disguised as a guard with Guy completely unaware of his identity. Despite the inherent silliness, the scene is really quite sweet. Guy begs Marian not to send him away and tries to steal a kiss—or possibly more than that? “Be with me.” Her objections are flimsy—stupid cow—but her reasoning understandable. (See how I’ve transformed into a die-hard Guy/Marian shipper in a matter of weeks?) As I read somewhere, he fails “to get his wicked way with her.” Giving Robin a nice opportunity to slip in and be charming.

Guy is off to take the King’s tax money (is this an oblique reference to the Saracen tithe?), Robin to switch it with grain, and a rescue for the Littles and other innocents to be mounted before the Festival of Pain begins. Alice Little is quite harsh to her estranged husband whose son has never known him, but in the end relents (perhaps because she thinks she is about to be tortured to death?). What results is another thrilling rescue, and Little John getting quite close to killing the Sheriff—“the devil!”

The last two episodes of season 1 are by Dominic Minghella, and to me they are quite strong and a fitting ending. “The Return of the King” is the first of two episode titles that channel Tolkien (is someone a fan here or what?!). I love the logic behind the finale. Much has the philosophy square on the head: with the return of “good King Richard,” the Sheriff will be ousted, Robin will regain Locksley, the outlaws will be pardoned, Much will have Bonchurch (and Eve), and those who had trades will go back to them. All of this good fortune made rotten merely by Marian’s marriage to Gisborne? Apparently so—though from a viewer’s point of view, we also don’t want the King to return because it will mean the end of our adventures. (Robin McKinley, I seem to remember, got around this by having Richard send Marian, Robin, et al to the Holy Land after he returned, kind of RH in reverse, but I remember at the time really hating that ending!) Not sure why Richard would land at Hull, though his meandering through Nottingham actually makes more sense than the Sheriff implies, since Richard was such a leisurely traveler.

The Sheriff is so evil. He mocks Guy, deceives him, and witters on about being “absolutely in control.” Nevertheless, the “news” that the King is returning has its desired effect, and Guy goes racing off to tell Marian that she will have to make good on her promise to marry him. His attempt to be romantic—“I just wanted to sweep you off your feet”—backfires when Marian backflips out of his arms! (Surely then he’d have a clue that she was the Night Watchman?!) Robin is dedicated to stopping the wedding, and the only way he can see how is to expose Guy as a traitor. This appears difficult as Thornton, I assume the Locksley steward, tells Robin that a physician came to Locksley every day. However, when confronted the physician confirms the treachery and claims he will testify to this effect. Puh-leaze.

Marian’s father Sir Edward is going to lead a coalition of nobles against the Sheriff in Merton, conveniently not going to be there for the wedding, yet he urges her on to do the prudent thing! “There are worse things in heaven and earth than marrying a man you do not love.” “I think he [the Sheriff] intends to kill the King.” Robin is understandably upset with Marian’s behavior and accuses her of using her father as an excuse. “Without him you would have to make a choice!” Marian is not quite as indifferent to Guy as she has pretended (well, duh)—“he has qualities.” (Black leather, puppy dog pouting, blue-grey eyes . . . I could go on and on!) “Do not tell me what I should be doing!” I read my first RH fan fic the other night (Guy/Marian, of course) but it did elaborate on the pressures Marian faces, and though they are not so different as the ones facing Robin, she’s right that he shouldn’t presume to dictate to her.

Marian does have her imprudent moments, however, and decides to give the Night Watchman “one final fling” so she can feel “more comfortable in my marriage.” That is to steal Guy’s fortune, which she bungles. Guy goes a bit Redrum before Robin & co come to Marian’s rescue. They get away with the gold, Marian gets to kick him down the stairs, and they escape, but he stabs her. (I know he finds out in season 2 that she’s the Night Watchman, but I wonder what would happen if he found out then, that he thought he’d stabbed his mortal enemy but it was also his fiancée?) “She’s stealing Gisborne’s money.” “Good work.” Allan and Will end up with the money; the rascally Allan suggests they just take it and go.

Even physically wounded by him, Marian’s compassion for Guy is more than Robin can bear. “He’s a human being.” Robin suggests that she is “stirred” by him. I’m afraid, Marian, the evidence for that very notion is mounting! Unfortunately, spending the night in the outlaws’ cave proves to be too much, she has a relapse, Djaq tries her best to keep her alive. This sounds perfunctory, but it’s actually a very moving nail-biter of a sequence. Robin risks bringing the physician Pitts from Nottingham, but the rotten man (who obviously didn’t take a Hippocratic oath!) leads the Sheriff and Guy straight to the outlaws’ cave. The cave atmosphere is rather perfect for this story, and I feel like it must have featured in another Robin Hood story at some point—possibly even Robin of Sherwood. It also evokes Romeo and Juliet, which practically seethes from within Robin as he sits at the dying Marian’s bed side. His deathbed confession of love—“we should be together”—comes too late. (Obviously with the second season ahead I know she isn’t dead. But you wouldn’t have known in 2006, would you?) It’s a great cliffhanger.

“A Clue: No” belies its flippant title to be almost as strong a conclusion as “Will You Tolerate This?” was a beginning. We pick up immediately where we left off, with Robin and the remaining outlaws—Little John, Djaq, and Much—on a suicide mission to make one last stand. Their vehemence startles the Sheriff—“what is this? Is this suicide?”—and indeed it would be laughable were the production levels not up to snuff. The forest of arrows coming from Robin’s bow is both deadly and comic, indicative of his mental state. With the timely return of Allan and Will, the outlaws are able to drive off their adversaries.

In the cave, everyone says their “goodbyes” to Marian. Despite myself, despite knowing she’s not dead, I find myself welling up! As I said before, when RH channels the classics it does well; Marian’s miraculous recovery brings to mind Athelstane in Ivanhoe as well as Juliet waking from her timed sleep—that probably even involved hemlock as this does, and to be honest as soon as I saw the physician give her a draught in the last episode I had a feeling something like this would happen. Marian lives—but how to get her back in one piece to Knighton and prevent the wedding . . .?

“I’ve arranged an impostor,” the Sheriff confesses to Guy. “None of them have ever seen the King.” For what it’s worth, Guy is certainly troubled by this news—but not troubled enough. “You get to marry the girl . . . a marriage based on a lie . . . how will you cope?” In fact, Guy does go to Marian with the intention of telling her the truth. Finding Sir Edward reticent, he immediately infers that she ran away, “I knew she would break her promise.” When he sees her ill in bed, he might still be willing to tell the truth—until Edward says that “perhaps the excitement of the wedding” made Marian ill. Unable to cope with the fact Marian might actually want to marry him, he keeps quiet about the deceit. “Send for a physician?!” Much scoffs. “He just killed one!” Indeed, with Pitts dead, Robin has no way to stop the wedding. Edward begs him not to interfere. “You will raise her hopes . . .”

In his sulkiness and jealousy, Robin is “sick of doing the right thing” and even turns on Much. “You speak every banal comment that comes into your head!” (Indeed, like Frodo accusing Sam of wanting to keep the Ring for himself.) Miraculously better, Marian point-blank asks Guy if he went to the Holy Land to kill Richard. He doesn’t say no, but he certainly evades her question. Marian is sure that his feelings for her are genuine, and she is also willing to believe him on this point. Which is why the conclusion is somewhat sad. I have to confess I love this scene. He does kiss her, even if she is too confused (or horrified?) to respond—“You must see what you do to me . . . I have never felt like this before.” Marian suggests to Robin that Guy has been deprived of love, which makes it very difficult for this Phantom fan to resist him!

Robin decides to sit this one out, leaving Much to save the day. Much, having “served with the King in Antioch” (Siege of Antioch was not led by Richard, so Much must have been in the Holy Land a long time before Robin!) recognizes right away that Richard has not returned, and runs all the way to the wedding in Locksley to warn Marian. I could hug him. Meanwhile, Guy has walked into The Matrix (not the most flattering style, I must say) and Marian has borrowed Elizabeth’s wedding dress from Pirates of the Caribbean. (The color and print are beautiful, and were it not for the stupid veil, it wouldn’t be terribly anachronistic.) Guy makes an uncharacteristic confession to Thornton, “ I have no family . . . that is the thing, to be understood. . . . I have committed crimes—heinous crimes . . .” Having never been to a wedding before (!), he meets Marian before she goes into the church. “I hope the decorations please you.” “They do.” “I hope I please you.” “You should not be here.” “Who should be here?” She of course means it’s bad luck to see the bride before the wedding . . . I realized as she was walking into the church that she has never had any female servants, which seems extremely surprising for a woman of her station. Is Knighton just too poor to incur the expense? Or is Marian’s need of secrecy too great to trust anyone? I feel a story coming on.

In Nottingham, the barons are required by “King Richard” to give French evidence. I’m sure this must have historical meaning, otherwise why go to the trouble to include it in the story? Anyway, it allows the Sheriff to get away with stabbing all the men who would oppose him, except Sir Edward who gets saved at the last minute by Robin & co, whom Much has alerted—right after breaking up the wedding! Much is so brave to do what he does. His objections are threefold, one, that Richard has not actually arrived, two, that Guy is a traitor, and three, “she loves another!” It’s enough for Marian to punch her fiancé in the eye and run off with Robin, roused into action at the last minute. (Good thing Guy didn’t give her brass knuckles as an engagement present!) There’s one semi-decent kiss between Robin and Marian, and instead of pursuing Marian like he would had she just been property to him, Guy decides to “let her go.” (Only for there to be more shippery moments between them in the next season, but that’s another story.)

It is very amusing to me that a show so oriented around action, archery, torture, fighting, etc., should have as its major finale the break up of a wedding!

I will, of course, be riding headlong into season 2 now. Huzzah!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

the many hands

“Dying to save Edinburgh, the Doctor thought. It could be worse.”

It could be Cardiff.

Though in the past few months I’ve read some decent and some excellent Doctor Who novels, I can confidently say Dale Smith’s The Many Hands was at least as fun as Sting of the Zygons—in fact, it may be one of the best DW books I’ve ever read. It certainly has the advantage of being a historical, but it’s set in such a rich atmosphere, it completely complements its plot that’s full of horrors Gothic and grotesque. It is a very frightening and disturbing book, with possibly the scary factor of “Blink.”

As I noted, setting is everything in this book—and the setting is (principally) Edinburgh, 1759. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve toured the city, but the way Smith describes Edinburgh is both familiar and atmospherically grim. I know from being there that its closes and alleys are labyrinth, and that it has a reputation for ghosts—Robert Louis Stevenson was certainly thinking as much of it as of London when he wrote Jekyll & Hyde. The book also has perhaps the best opening scene of any Doctor Who book I’ve ever read—easily a crowd-pleaser were it on TV, but much less expensive in book form. It involves the Doctor fighting a reanimated corpse on top of a racing stagecoach through Edinburgh’s winding streets as Martha follows on foot—said stagecoach containing none other than Ben Franklin. Franklin, electricity, and reanimation all weave in and out of the narrative, which is highly appropriate for several reasons.

Of course, any story that puts the Tenth Doctor in Scotland is amusing for two reasons. ‘My men tell me you have a passable Scots accent,’ says the sneering English guardsman McAllister—what a great dig at David Tennant! It also gives the Doctor an excuse to allude to Jamie: ‘I did know a man who fought at Culloden . . .’ The companion, this time, is Martha, making much less of a fool of herself than Rose did, though she doesn’t use the opportunity to dress up (nor did Rose, actually). Smith’s Martha is a good likeness, very much the companion with whom to identify rather than particularly lovesick over the Doctor (though she has one very funny moment I’ll get to). On page 19 she keeps her mind busy while running by listing the organization of the human lung—something I’m convinced Martha would do. A few seconds later she’s confusing bustles and panniers (at least I assume that’s her mistake; if it’s the author’s he’s in grave trouble). There’s also a very funny moment where she’s arrested for wearing pantaloons (against the law in Edinburgh at that time apparently).

It’s a good thing Smith can write Ten as effortlessly as he does, for the sheer horror and grotesquerie would overwhelm the reader were Ten not that curious combination of brave and grave and silly and bouncy. I imagine him saying of Ben Franklin, ‘I think I must have seen his photograph in Heat,’ in the same sarcastic tone as he said “Harvey Wallbanger?!” to Donna. ‘There’s always someone to tell you the last one was twice as good as you are,’ he says to a minster named, improbably, Reverend McVicar. He does a lot of running, negotiating, swimming, sonicking—your range of active Doctor-ish things. He offers to give up a life to save Edinburgh (and Glasgow) and one can only imagine the screams we could have gotten out of that Tennant!acting.

It’s difficult for me not to give away everything, but suffice it to say dead bodies rising out of St Cuthbert’s churchyard and the Loch are not the worst our heroes have to face. There’s an anatomist/resurrectionist/grave robber who isn’t what he seems, and the usual company of authoritarian soldiers not eager to believe anything the Doctor says has a particularly prickly Stahlman character. Martha has all of the most frightening encounters with disembodied sentient limbs that will make anyone with a fear of creepy crawlies shiver all over. Worse still, she’s pursued into Edinburgh’s pitch black underground city and runs into what may or may not be the ghost of a plague doctor. No amount of triple-sun sunsets cold be worth this. Martha spends the book being remarkably brave. Then the Doctor tells her to activate a TARDIS protocol, the git: ‘Just . . . well, just don’t take it the wrong way if it calls you Rose.’

There are, surprisingly, moments of humor in the midst of all this grimness. I couldn’t keep a straight face during this scene: ‘Just rub it against your head, would you?’ [the Doctor] asked. . . . For no reason that he could fathom, McAllister found himself rubbing the ball [a balloon] against his wiry hair. . . . The Doctor, meanwhile, pointed at the hand he was holding. ‘This,’ he said simply, ‘is a piece of snake.’ Anyone who’s seen John Adams and “Unite or die” will understand the Doctor’s curious statement. Really, the Doctor’s interaction in this story with Franklin is the closest thing to an American history lesson we’ve had since . . . well, “Daleks in Manhattan.”

I doubt I’ve done the book justice with this review, but take my word for it: it’s a scary, funny, delightful whirlwind of a ride through eighteenth century Edinburgh.

Monday, November 17, 2008

robin hood and stuff vol. 2 (spoilers)

I’ve continued at breakneck speed through season 1 because I can and because I want to. I have to admit I feel the second wave of episodes are a little weaker than those at the start, but at this point I’m too invested to care very much. Besides, throw in enough Marian/Guy scenes and I’m sold. Yes, I am that shallow. Well, sometimes.

“The Taxman Cometh,” written by Richard Kurth and Kevin Boyle, has really only one plot strand, but I had forgotten the plot sufficiently to be surprised by all the double-crosses and deceptions. For our pre-credits teaser, Robin has a run-in with a Rome-esque butcher and his “economy cuts,” while Much has another Phillipe moment from Ladyhawke in a sewer. Marian’s busy doing t’ai chi in trousers, and Guy loves it. Okay, I don’t know if that’s actually what she was doing, I was too flabbergasted by her weird outfit to completely process it. I must confess the writers/producers are deliberately making Guy as sympathetic as possible despite his murderous tendencies—if there wasn’t something redeeming about him, there wouldn’t be any tension in the “love triangle.” Anyway, he’s decided that material gifts and persistence are the way to Marian’s heart and asserts he will “keep giving” (doesn’t he know that he’s the gift that keeps on giving? LOL!). “You need a husband,” he tells her.

A nun, the Abbess of Ruthfort, has collapsed after being attacked by “outlaws,” and Guy gives her protection, despite the Sheriff’s scorn. “I have some sympathy . . .” “Well, don’t!” We know that in this religious era of history, the Sheriff is a particularly iconoclastic unbeliever, and I had thought, based on Guy’s derision for the Pope, he wasn’t particularly invested in religion either. (Well, in an episode where he gives lots of people bedroom eyes, he does the same to the Abbess!) The Abbess, played winningly by Nikki Amuna-Bird from Torchwood (“Sleeper”), would have been a lovely character to retain as she’s one of the few who can “spar” with the evil, lecherous Sheriff. Their scenes together are a lot of fun. Alas, she’s not a real nun—she’s a con-woman trying to get to the gold.

Robin & co are also trying to get to the gold through a tax inspector and son who they’ve abducted in Sherwood, lured back to Nottingham, and attempted to rob the Sheriff. In an episode teeming with reversals, the tax inspector is on the Sheriff’s side and has delivered Robin & co to his enemy—or is that really the case? When Robin cottons on to the tax inspector and the “Abbess’” game, she tries to seduce him—“it is our duty to cheat [the Sheriff and government].” I’m rather surprised when people say RH is simplistic—certainly the themes are worthwhile if taking second billing to the action. All the talk of taxes keeps bringing the American Revolution to my mind (!) while I expect it’s more to appeal to the average Briton (though certainly not to encourage them to usurp authority!).

The final result of this story lies with Marian. Her father is incensed that she continues as “the Knight Rider or whatever you call yourself,” and she goes to the Abbess to see about becoming a novice. I can’t help but laughing at how bent out of shape this makes Guy—“I thought we were friends”—though there’s no way Marian could have fit her whole wardrobe into the bag she thinks she’s taking to Ruthfort. She’s able to reconcile with her father.

“Brothers in Arms” by Joe Turner is also rather simple, with just two plot strands, by far the more interesting of the two having to do with a necklace and Marian’s loyalty. I’m flabbergasted yet again at the idea of Lucky George, literally styled after a snake oil salesman from the Wild West. In robbing from him, Robin sets in motion both strands of the plot: meeting Allan a Dale’s rather useless brother Tom and getting back for a peasant woman a Lord of the Rings-style necklace. When Robin rescues swindling Tom, he declares “we do not horsewhip thieves.” I was about to wonder how exactly he intended to punish wrongdoers (!), but then he answered that question by making Tom & co thatch the peasant woman’s house for free. Not bad. Robin is reluctant for Tom to join the outlaws—“you rob each other in your family”—and despite the audience knowing no good can come from it, he agrees to Allan’s essays. Tom manages to try to attack Knighton and Marian—as the Night Watchman, she really kicks butt!—and then gets captured. Poor babykins Robin must seek Marian’s counsel on whether he should risk his men to save Tom—“people will think I cannot save my own men.” Despite his best efforts, though, the wily, sadistic Sheriff foregoes public execution and hangs Tom before Robin can get to him. It will become much more important later in the season, but already we are getting hints of Djaq shipperiness with two of the merry men. Allan teases her that she should be wearing a dress—“I will if you will.” Later she comforts him on the loss of her brother, with Will rather conspicuously watching in the background.

As for the “affair of the necklace.” When the peasant woman’s daughter wears it, seeking permission from her lord Guy to marry, he takes a shine to it and takes it from her (for one frightened moment I thought he was going to invoke prima noctes!). Of course his intention is to give it to Marian. His attentions to her are impossibly sweet, so he is quite unable to see her for the spy she really is. He is disappointed to see her not wearing the necklace later, at the same moment he is torturing his sergeant for betraying him. When Guy sees the peasant girl wearing the necklace (because Marian gave it to Robin who gave it to the girl) he is ripe to be twisted around the Sheriff’s finger. “My sergeant died an innocent man.” “Oh, I’m sure he was guilty of something.” The Sheriff certainly knows how to poke holes in Guy’s self-esteem—“she [Marian] was laughing at you.” When Guy confronts Marian, it looks bleak (though having seen the episode before I wasn’t worried!). “The only reason you paid me any attention was to feed information to my enemies.” When she is able to produce the necklace, we are of course relieved that she is in the clear for moment—but she’s creating bigger and bigger lies. There’s an all-out Heathcliff moment: Robin listening as Marian agrees to marry Guy and declares she “despises” Robin Hood. Marian manages to avoid kisses from both of them! And then Much eats some muffins.

Again, there isn’t much to “Tattoo? What Tattoo?” by Foz and Dominic, but I have to admit it a guilty pleasure! Now, I had to have a long think about tattoos and if it would really be possible for Guy to have such a tattoo. Of course, it would be—but how likely? The word “tattoo” is actually from the eighteenth century, but etymology means nothing in context to this show! According to the lovely Wikipedia, Sunni Muslims are not allowed tattoos but Shi’ites are (in which case Djaq must be Shi’ite, unless her tattoo is henna). It’s just a guess that Guy got the tattoo in the Holy Land, but since tattoos don’t seem to have been reintroduced to Europe until the 16th century, it’s a reasonable guess. What is it of, exactly? I thought it was a black widow, but I’m not sure. (Maybe I’d better watch it again to make sure! :-P) Whatever it is, it’s a good device for creating this whole subplot.

This is, of course, where Guy takes on more Brian du Bois-Guilbert’s qualities, for he, too, in the Holy Land committed treason by attempting murder against the King. A flashback at the beginning is a necessary evil—to Acre in 1191, where Robin defends the King and is left for dead. Just, er, like Ivanhoe. In the present, Much is disgusted that Guy is celebrating the King’s birthday (8 September), though when Robin decides to do something about it, he declares, “There is something wrong with you!” The plot is, as I say, quite simple: Djaq being captured and Robin trying to execute Guy for treason—both good strands, which makes this quite fun (if full of Hugo-esque coincidences).

At Knighton, Guy announces his engagement to Marian. He’s in a different outfit, with very tight trousers (oodalolly) and she is actually in something approaching period. It’s nice to see that there are some other noblewomen in the land—for the last seven episodes I wondered if they’d all been killed off! He presents her with a ring—how very Phantom-y!—and is so earnest. “This means so much to you, doesn’t it?” “You mean everything to me.” When Robin & co arrive to break up the party, Robin (who quite recently declared “trial by combat is not big and it’s not clever”) seems incensed by jealousy and rips up Guy’s pretty outfit, revealing THE TATTOO! We have a flashback to the first episode, where, as I said, the Important Plot Point established Guy knew of Robin’s fighting abilities but wouldn’t say from where. That’s convenient!

When Guy goes after Robin to get the ring back (Marian bears comparison to Scarlett O’Hara and her pawned wedding ring for the Confederate cause!), he doesn’t realize he’s going to spend the rest of the episode getting beaten up. Actually, the two beat the crap out of each other, which is what the Crusades were all about anyway, weren’t they? (Taking all the bloodthirsty violent men from England and getting them to kill each other off in Palestine.) Guy admits to trying to kill Richard, and his reasons aren’t as flimsy as profit or power. He claims that Richard is a pawn of the Pope’s rather than an independent force for his country. (He also says, “He would make peace with the Turk,” though I don’t think that was Richard’s game at all!) It’s the legend of Robin Hood, really, that has given us the myth of “good King Richard” whereas he actually only spent six months of his reign in England, and according to chronicler William Stubbs, “He was a bad king: his great exploits, his military skill, his splendor and extravagance, his poetical tastes, his adventurous spirit, do not serve to cloak his entire want of sympathy, or even consideration, for his people.”

I find it amazing that Robin’s men are not convinced by his sheer passion and certainty—since they don’t seem to have any evidence, unlike us viewers, who have just seen the flashback and are bound by conventions of TV to consider that the truth. “Killing, we do not do” is Little John’s Doctor-ish stance, and Much is much distressed to “follow you [Robin] into this torture.” They have more important things to do, though, like rescuing Djaq—and Will is right to worry about what will happen to her once the Sheriff finds out she’s a woman. Though this episode is supposed to make Robin look culpable, fallible, and a little “modern,” it makes me think he would definitely make a better king than Richard—his compassion and worldliness are more considered than his King’s, who was an anti-Semite though Robin’s is a mission of tolerance—“It was their [the Jews’ and the Saracens’] Holy Land, too.”

When Djaq tries to escape with her gunpowder and acid mixture, the Sheriff tries to make her produce explosives for him. A clue: no. The ships set sail when both Allan and Will declare their feelings for Djaq: “I like her” / “I think I love her.” Everyone finally resolves to exchange Guy for Djaq, not a minute too soon since the Sheriff has discovered her identity—“no wonder they want you back in the forest!” When Robin shows his hand, you have to admire the Sheriff’s quick-thinking—he takes Djaq’s acid and erases the offending tattoo (again convenient, but had he not had the acid I imagine he would have just ripped it off Guy’s flesh with a dagger!).

While the debate has been about loyalty and treason, there is no doubt in our minds that’s also the same conflict that’s been brewing since episode 1. Guy is very happy to lord over Robin that he’s got Marian now as well as his estate. Robin maintains that Marian will find out what a villain he is, “she is astute.” Guy agrees, but adds, “She’s also stirred by me.” So far she’s given no evidence that she feels that way, but if she had eyes in her head she, ahem, would. Well, she was blind enough not to realize Djaq was female so I guess all bets are off!

“A Thing or Two About Loyalty” boasts the formidable team of Paul Cornell and Graeme Harper, but it’s rather a partnership wasted. This is Much’s episode, and because he is a Hobbit I love him. But the fact that the Sheriff makes him a nobleman is a whim that really stretches credulity (but gives Guy a chance to roll his eyes for the nine-thousandth time). An engineer named Lambert has created “Greek fire,” which the Sheriff is desperate to have, even though it’s Guy’s “project.” Lambert refuses to give up the formula because he is convinced the Sheriff will use it as a weapon as opposed to some kind of mining tool. The Muslim education afforded Djaq calls her to scorn the name Greek fire—“never Saracen, Greek!”

Much is invested as “Earl of Bonchurch” (the Sheriff claims that hanging him would make him “an instant martyr”) and given an estate and a simpering maidservant named Eve. He gets to wear a kaftan, be humiliated at the Council of Nobles, and have a bath. “You are surely a spy and this is a trap,” he muses, before falling head-over-heels for Eve (it’s very amusing to have him insist “wear a bath shirt and pour yourself a bath!” when she tries to climb into the bath with him). When Much trusts Eve despite Marian’s advice, and Eve feeds the Sheriff rotten information for love of Much, the affection invested in a character such as he is well-earned—“you are the bravest, loveliest girl I’ve ever met.”

Both Guy and Robin want to save Lambert, for different reasons, of course. When Robin finds the secret formula, he must decide whether to destroy it or use it, and how to rescue the tortured Lambert. Is Robin allowed to decide “what should or shouldn’t exist as knowledge?” as Marian wonders. Marian delights Guy by taking an interest in his predicament—“the Sheriff undermines me as much as ever.” When he disappoints her (‘cause Lambert cops it!), she flouts not wearing his ring. “I felt dishonorable wearing it!” Again, the Phantom-ness when he asks her to wear it again. Robin is meanwhile heartily jealous—“what on earth did you do to him to make him do this?” The Sheriff, we see, is prepared to play everyone against each other for his own motives (and paints his toenails again! wtf?). There’s a major slash creepy moment as he paws all over Guy and announces they make “a fine team.” Ewww. And surely nothing good can come of Djaq saving Lambert’s ledger from the fire.

Oh, and the special feature on this disc was, as fate would have it, the character profile for Guy. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know, though of course as I said of the first episode, “he wants to have everything Robin has,” including his “girlfriend.”

I’m going to have to catch up on the end of the season, and probably season 2, elsewhere because the library doesn’t have those DVDs. :-P

Sunday, November 16, 2008

'twould make a good pub sign

The Tavern Knight

Rafael Sabatini was a great writer in his time. His mother was British, and he eventually took British citizenship and settled in Wales. It’s very sad that he’s not better known now. Swansea Public Library system had only a handful of his books among the dozens he published, and shockingly, his two biggest hits, Scaramouche and Captain Blood were not among them. What was among them, surprisingly, was The Tavern Knight, written in 1904. It is therefore one of his earliest works, and I believe I just finished reading a first edition.

Sabatini wrote historical adventures with a dash of romance. Looking at them as a whole I suppose you could call them formulaic novels, but at his best—the two titles mentioned above, set during the French Revolution and in Jamaica during the English Civil War, respectively—they transcend that genre. He’s usually a very funny writer and a keen observer of human behavior. His novels are great swashbucklers and usually nail-biters. The Tavern Knight shares many themes with his later works, though painted in broader strokes—illegitimacy, a brave and courageous man victimized by foul relatives or corrupt government officials, an ideal of a woman who must give up all to be with her hero, a rather contemptuous view of religion, no trust in nationalism as such, with the backdrop of history. The Tavern Knight isn’t as carefully researched as the above books or indeed his other famous work, The Sea Hawk; it almost feels like a fan fiction of the English Civil War (though a well-constructed run-in with Cromwell saves the reader entirely from that notion).

The Tavern Knight would be well-suited to drama, as its cast of core characters is comparatively small: Sir Crispin Galliard, the royalist rakehell of the title; the “milksop” Kenneth, who is his companion on the battlefield, in prison, and in flight; Hogan, the Irish turncoat; Cynthia Ashburn, Kenneth’s betrothed; and her father and uncle, the dastardly Gregory and Joseph Ashburn. (I’m highly amused since we have some Ashburns in my family tree.) Unfortunately the circumspection makes one plot twist visible from miles away. That said, with its opening reminiscent of The Sea Hawk, I didn’t at all see where this story was going. Despite his rough exterior, Crispin first of all helps the trapped Hogan to freedom, then barters his life to save his king, helps the rather useless Kenneth escape from Parliamentarian prison, and continues to be the main thrust of the action. As a young man he was cruelly used, his wife and child murdered, and was made a galley slave (as was the Sea Hawk). Yet he has moments during his bravado for one mental breakdown where he cries like a girl.

While the heroine of The Sea Hawk was a rather courageous virginal Cornish girl and her counterpart in Scaramouche a sharp-tongued Parisian, Cynthia by comparison is a bit bland. She childishly uses and abuses Kenneth before realizing that she’s not in love with him at all. She is, of course, in love with the romantic and much older Tavern Knight. Strange how we may bear a sentiment in our hearts without so much as suspecting its existence, until suddenly a chance word shall so urge it into life that it reveals itself with unmistakable distinctness. He has feelings for her, too, and the two are good at sparring (the one quality that saves Cynthia from being an annoying cardboard cut out in lace and silk). But duty and paternal love conspire to keep them apart until the very end. Sabatini’s heroes always end their adventures with their heroines at their sides—but the narrative stops there, and we have no idea how their happy-ever-afters will play out.

Finally, can you guess from this description who Crispin made me think of?

The ruffler shook back the matted hair from his lean, harsh face, and a pair of eyes that of a sudden seemed ablaze glared at his companion; then the lids drooped until those eyes became two narrow slits—cat-like and cunning—and again he laughed.

Yep. That afforded me much pleasure in reading it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

robin hood and stuff vol. i (spoilers)

Okay, yes, it’s Richard Armitage’s fault. First he has to be in Spooks so that I watch the show and get addicted, then I start looking up YouTube videos of BBC’s Robin Hood and eventually decide I have to watch the show again, even though I remember when it was on in 2006 and I found it both enjoyable and silly. Like King Arthur and Camelot, another English legend/myth, Robin Hood can (and has) been reinvented to suit the values and audience of the moment. I remember watching the Disney cartoon as a kid (yes, the one where Robin Hood is, quite literally, a fox). Two books I very much liked were Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood and Michael Morpurgo’s Robin of Sherwood. I stayed up late watching Robin of Sherwood (ITV, I believe) with my mom on PBS—much as we did with Doctor Who. At the age of fifteen I decided to do my own take, a book called Rhiannon of the Rose, which we’ll talk more about later. So it’s safe to say we have a history.

The BBC show was created, I believe, to fill those Saturday nights when Doctor Who wasn’t on (and while both shows are taking a break, Merlin comes to fill that gap). It’s supposed to be rousing family entertainment, and like those two shows I just mentioned, it has a decidedly British flavor. As the co-creators of the show just said on the DVD extras, it’s supposed to be “layered, complicated, and modern” (because, of course nothing that isn’t modern can be layered). If Robin’s supposed to resemble “a Vietnam vet” and Marian a “modern” woman who likes the perks of chivalry but “doesn’t like being left behind when everyone else is going out,” why set it in 1192 anyway? I think RH does modern well, but starts to push its luck when it gets too modern. It’s facetious of me to just call it a silly show, though of course there’s no comparison between it and Doctor Who, but particularly the first episode is quite well-done. There are definitely diamonds in the rough in the show.

The costumes designed by Frances Tempest rouse bafflement, ire, and grudging admiration from me. Marian’s costumes, obviously, wouldn’t cut it in the real 1192. True enough, the general shape is somewhat period—but the materials are usually textures and colors that wouldn’t exist (surely what Tempest was going for?). Of course I just throw my hands up when she’s shown wearing trousers. Speaking of trousers, quite a lot of the merry men wear them, though they didn’t really exist as such. Interestingly many of the characters wear variations on slops and hose (medieval underwear) which looks almost correct. However, that’s negated when, in “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?” a bunch of the characters wear wife beaters and shorts! Much and Roy wear pantyhose on their heads, everyone wears cravats (see my post-Gladiator rant on this, and Merlin has inherited it), and waistcoats abound. Little John and Guy wear big leather coats whose cut didn’t exist yet either. Still, you have to admire some of the audacity—Robin’s green jerkin is tied with all manner of leather twine and ribbons, and some of Marian’s creations wouldn’t be out of place in Excalibur. I love her Night Watchman costume. Funnily enough, the peasants’ costumes are all basically accurate—though undoubtedly that’s because extras’ costumes are better bought in bulk.

I quite like the first episode, “Will You Tolerate This?” We hit the ground running when Allan a Dale is rescued by Robin and Much (the whole point of Allan was he was a minstrel, but that’s not “cool” enough for today’s audience). When RH borrows from well-worn sources it usually does pretty well; with Robin and Much returning from the Holy Land it’s not a far stretch to compare them to Ivanhoe and Gurth. When we later learn more about Guy it’s similarly not far-fetched to see a bit of Sir Brian du Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe in him. I like the portrayal of Robin (as mercurial as time has permitted) very much in this show. He must have been very young indeed when he went to the Crusades, and in some ways he is the most boyish Robin ever—unable to take things seriously and a bit of a ladies’ man. His outrage at injustice and compassion for the weak (very Doctor-ish qualities) are on slow-boil throughout the first episode. As Marian points out, if he cared so much about his villagers why did he go on a Crusade and leave them to the mercy of people like the Sheriff? (I suspect it’s for the reasons that sent Ivanhoe away.) Upon his return he has a scimitar, a “Saracen bow,” (I wondered about the historical accuracy of this, since it’s always been a Welsh longbow that made him such a good archer), speaks Arabic, and makes Much, his bondsman, a free man.

It’s incredible how much of Patrick, Sam Troughton’s grandfather, you can see in him. It’s a wonderful role, suffused with traces of Phillipe in Ladyhawke and his monologues with God as well as the obvious parallel, Sam to Robin’s Frodo. Much, like Sam, is the everyman with whom we identify: he thinks with his stomach, he’s a bit of a priss, quite jealous-minded, and a bit silly at times. But his unflinching loyalty, which leads him to walk to Nottingham on his own to rescue his master in “Sheriff Got Your Tongue?”, is paramount. Marian and Robin appear to have been childhood sweethearts (à la Ivanhoe and Rowena), and she and her father urge Robin to work in the system, “consolidate your position quietly.” On one hand, you wonder if Marian’s character is presented, morally speaking, so opposed to Robin’s just to create conflict and good writing! On the other, surely her constant objections and criticisms of his methods do make sense.

I remember seeing Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in the cinema (I must have been eight or so) and that Robin came home to a destroyed Locksley Manor and a blinded man servant. This Robin comes home to a frightened but fit enough Manor and peasants; Guy of Gisborne has been holding his land, clearly with the intent of stealing it away à la Prince John taking over for King Richard. When the two noblemen meet, they take an instant mutual dislike to each other, both seeking to remain in power over land and title. Of course the audience knows that these two have to be bitter enemies, but I really like how the writers have set them up. Guy accuses Robin of loving war, as he went to the Crusades—he’s seen him fighting, but cannot recall where, an Important Plot Point—and then when Robin says he has lost his taste for blood and questions the motives--“Is it Pope Gregory’s war?”—Guy accuses him of newfound cowardice. We can assume, from later conversations about Guy’s title being little more than that, that jealousy and feelings of inadequacy fuel this scorn. Hey, it’s a lot more interesting than him just being bad with no motive!

The Sheriff of Nottingham, some man called Vasey, tells Robin as Earl of Huntingdon that “hungry men are virtuous.” He must just be pulling this out of his butt, because I can’t think of a single situation where this is true! Finding himself running out of options, Robin makes a very spur-of-the-moment, do-or-die decision to become an outlaw—very different to, say, Bruce Wayne’s decision to become Batman. This is interesting and somewhat more believable for a young man who must now pay the price by not being able to take care of his people directly as their lord. I must say, since the writers/producers want The Bourne Supremacy with horses, the final battle at the gallows is quite impressive. There is certainly a superhero quality with Robin’s archery abilities, but since they can film it with that level of precision, why not? I have to admit the cheery music and Robin’s cheeky, reckless flourish to Marian as he fled quite entertained me.

“Sheriff Got Your Tongue?” has two purposes as I see it. The first is to meld Robin’s allies (Much, Allan a Dale, and Will Scarlett) with the existing band of outlaws subsisting in the forest. The only man of legend in this group is Little John, but very important to this show is the invented Roy. “Sheriff ...?” combines very humorous moments with the sheer grotesquerie of the Sheriff cutting out Locksley Manor’s peasants’ tongues with scissors (I was going to complain that scissors had not yet been invented, but I was wrong). When Robin gives himself up, the merry men have to band together to save his life, thus solidifying the “crew.” I should mention, by the way, Harry Lloyd. I freely admit when I sent in my DWM 2007 survey, my vote for best actor went to Harry Lloyd because he made such an impression as Baines, and I have since heard Steven Moffat was also impressed. In any case, I’ve always had a soft spot for Will Scarlett (see later) and find myself staring at his brilliant green eyes almost as much as at Richard Armitage’s grey-blue ones.

The other purpose of this episode is to establish the relationship between Robin and the Sheriff. The role of the Sheriff has traditionally been a camp one, I guess because there has to be some lightness to outweigh the sheer evil the character has traditionally inherited. I remembered watching the first season before and being rather overwhelmed by the silliness of Keith Allen (and my friend Katie says he is very short) but in these first episodes it hasn’t gotten quite so out of hand. (His costumes are terrible, however. He looks ridiculous when wearing period furs and even worse in his Elton John-inspired robes and flip flops!) While Guy’s role to this point has principally included sneering, eye-rolling, and shouting VERY LOUDLY, the Sheriff seems half motivated by greed and half by utter sadism. When given chance after chance to kill the Sheriff, Robin cannot seem to do it. “I will not change,” announces the Sheriff, and we have the dilemma of all good hero vs villain fights: why doesn’t one just kill the other? Robin’s threat that he may one day kill the Sheriff seems rather pitiful against the Sheriff’s arguments, but at least the writers are acknowledging that Robin Hood’s saga has always been rather episodic and thus lends itself well to TV.

The third episode, “Who Shot the Sheriff?”, is the first one I watched back in 2006, and I remember being excited because it was written by Paul Cornell. Well, I didn’t think at the time it was that great, and in retrospect I don’t think it was that great either. I fear one problem is that the character who shot, or tried to shoot, the Sheriff has been introduced too late in the game for full suspension of belief. Nevertheless, it’s our first introduction to Marian’s moonlighting as the Night Watchman, and an acknowledgment that Robin does enjoy the adulation that comes from being he who robs the rich to feed the poor. It’s not bad at all, just not as superb as I was expecting.

I quite like “Parent Hood” by Mark Wadlow despite the atrocious title for its many various strands. I can just see the pitch at the script meetings: Robin finds a baby in the forest and has to take care of it. But this story is carefully plotted and has many different things going on. I might just have a quick word about ambiguity here—with Much constantly telling Robin how much he loves him, Guy apparently helping the Sheriff paint his toenails, not to mention the smile Guy gives the gang in the teaser of this story, I shudder to go on to see what slash pairings fan girls have come up with. Marian’s attempts to help the downtrodden are severely curtained as the Sheriff derides “how many years now and still a maiden?” He also has her hair cut short as an act of humiliation.

The DVD packaging describes Guy as a “bully,” and that is a fairly accurate description—he seems to let the soldiers do all the dirty work and he just condones everything the Sheriff orders. I’ve tried hard to justify his actions in this story and find it difficult to dredge up any sympathy. “He has another side,” Annie, a castle serving maid, tells the imprisoned Roy. Annie has had Guy’s baby but apparently he left it to die in the woods! Now, this begs the question: did he have good intentions to take the baby to the Abbey like he promised and then had second thoughts, or did he mean to kill the baby and faltered at the last moment? Am I grasping at straws?

I do believe, however, I’ve uncovered a predisposition for feeling about this character the way that I do. Back to Rhiannon of the Rose. The whole handwritten manuscript is sitting in a box in my house, minus one chapter I could never get onto paper. I’ve just never had time to type it up, though it would make a decent young adult novel, with an overhaul—it is heavily modelled on Catherine, Called Birdy and Ivanhoe. Anyway, the title character loves and is loved by Will Scarlett. But, he being an outlaw and she being a lady in a manor house, she is given in marriage to Guy of Gisborne. Now, being me, naturally I illustrated much of RotR as I wrote it. There’s one illustration of Rhiannon and Guy, and the scary thing is, he looks like just like Richard Armitage—down to the eyeliner he may or may not have been wearing (“Guyliner” as I’ve heard it dubbed). This was 1999—can you explain this??

Back to the episode. It’s ever-so-daring for this episode to kill off Roy, who’s only been in three stories. For Robin to quote the Qu’ran is also daring but believable (however, did he read it in Greek, for who would have translated it into English?). There are some wonderfully written scenes between Robin and Marian, not least of which is when she has to dress his wound and when everyone thinks the baby is theirs. (Dressing a wound is a classic device to get someone to take off his shirt—nevertheless, Marian uses it as an excuse to wound, as Robin has wounded her by asking why she hasn’t married.)

This will sound stupid and possibly offensive, but “Turk Flu” really seems like it was written by a woman. Indeed, it was written by Debbie Oates, and while parts of it make me cringe, parts of it also make me squirm in delight. One thing RH hasn’t been too keen on is following the legend at face value—so far no Prince John, Friar Tuck, or stave battle with Little John at the ford. The Sheriff’s Fair and the archery tournament to win the silver arrow at last brings thing into context, but on screen, what a sad little affair it is. Meanwhile Guy is being a jerk and killing miners—just a prelude to surprising the Night Watchman and wounding “him.” It’s nice to see that Marian kicks his ass before fleeing. The next twist is something I love—Marian has barely had a chance to get home when the very man who wounded her comes to invite her to the Fair. My first question was: is he blind?! My second question is: is he schizophrenic? Because he’s charming and awkward and sweet. When she hesitates, he says, “You’re ashamed of your hair. I’ve already thought of that.” He gives her a present (though as far as I can tell she doesn’t wear it later). Her dad, meanwhile, has figured out her secret identity. “I don’t know you at all.”

Somehow I have trouble believing Nottingham is going to go to the trouble of importing slaves from the Holy Land, and I just don’t know if what Much says about Christians not being able to enslave other Christians holds water. But it gives the writer the excuse to bring in Djaq, whose costume is the nadir. While I’m happy to have her around (God knows we needed another woman in the cast), is everybody blind? Is Will walking in on her in a Mulan moment really necessary? Admittedly, I don’t know much about medieval Palestine, but would her fellow prisoners have really endured an unveiled woman dressed as a boy? I find it very peculiar that she’s played by an Bangalora actress. Nevertheless, there’s precedent—of a sort. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’ comrade-in-arms was Morgan Freeman as the Moor Azeem.

Back at the Fair, Marian manages to prevent Guy putting the moves on her and getting killed by a misguided, vengeful boy. Not a bad day.

One of the extras on this disc was Hood Academy, where the actors got sent off to special camp in Hungary to learn to fight and ride. When it’s a bunch of good-looking, virile men doing aerobics and archery how could I not enjoy it?! I was surprised that so many of them were worried about the horseback riding. Since I’ve been fortunate enough to ride since I was five or so, I don’t consider it with any trepidation (though no poncy English-style riding for me, bah! Western-style!). On the other hand, though, I’m rubbish at archery and I can imagine that while a Lord of the Rings-like camaraderie must have developed among the actors, no doubt there must have been some friendly competition as well. I feel disturbingly titillated by watching them all try to hit a target! I feel a bit bad for Lucy Griffiths—on one hand it might be nice to have all that male attention, but on the other, it would be a bit intimidating to have to be as good as the blokes.

That’s part one of series one. If I write this much about all the stories this is going to take forever. Probably until January when series three comes on. I’m sorry, I’m entertained by this!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

batman: under the hood, vol. 2

The haphazard way I read the comics gives me more variety but also no doubt increases my confusion on a number of storylines. It would certainly have been better to read Batman: Under the Hood vol. 1 before trying vol.2 but I didn’t have that luxury. In the beginning, however, they helpfully explain that Batman has just exposed the identity of the Red Hood as that of ex-Robin Jason Todd (Robin number two if you’re counting) who was supposed to be dead. There’s a lot in this revelation, as Red Hood was the Joker’s original identity before (in DC Comics-verse) he fell into the Ace Chemicals vat and became the Joker. What fascinates me is that the DC readership were given the choice back when the storyline was current to kill off Jason or keep him alive. They obviously chose to kill him, and the only explanation I can come up with this perversity is that they wanted to see how Batman dealt with the death. (A bit like Adric dying in “Earthshock” I wonder?) This seems to be a different universe than Frank Miller’s, as in his version Jason Todd became a second Joker, though the object was the same for both versions: confound Batman.

The stories, taken from the pages of Batman comic, is less than two years old, so it’s fairly current. Judd Winick is the writer, lending continuity to the array of pencillers and inkers. Of these, I prefer Doug Mahke’s pencilling skills—simple, character-driven, nice chiaroscuro, excellent composition and arrangement of different-sized panels. Besides the Batman/Red Hood/Jason Todd dynamic, there is at least one more story to give urgency to the proceedings. This is the story of Black Mask, who has been slowly gaining momentum in other collections like “Face the Face.” It’s a bit hard for me to take Black Mask at, er, face-value, as his face has been burnt off in a fight with Batman, leaving him honestly looking like Erik the Phantom would. How he can be alive with no skin is another matter. Fortunately the writer compensates for this otherworldliness by giving him a sarcastic, no-nonsense, irascible personality that, despite myself, I find amusing. When told that Captain Nazi and Hyena (!) are the supervillains who are going to help rid him of Red Hood, he goes ballistic. Later he admits, “Hyena kind of looks like a girl from the back.” The third loony toon is Count Vertigo, and along with their version of Ras al Ghul who show up later, I feel a distinct finger of Marvel on this adventure . . .

As in “Face the Face,” the structure works really well, introducing us to the situation, giving us some action, then going into back story, then ending with the villain (Two-Face in that, Jason Todd in this) and what led him up to this point. Having gotten the attention of Black Mask and Batman, Jason blows up Gotham’s sister city of Blüdhaven where Nightwing (the original Robin, Dick Grayson) is assumed to be. (This Jason Todd guy, in all incarnations, seems to have a bitter streak of jealousy running through him!) He manipulates Black Mask into killing all his own men—for it’s been Red Hood’s raison d’être to get rid of criminals and crime-fighters in Gotham as he sees fit. And he’s got the Joker, the man who “killed” him, and what nettles him most is that Batman has still let everyone’s favorite psychopathic clown live.

The Joker’s written quite well here. He’s such a bastard but he has his trademark wit. JOKER: “Didn’t I kill you?” JASON: “We’ve been over this.” JOKER: “I know, but I like talking about it.” Unfortunately I really don’t like the way Shane Davis has drawn him. What this story is really tackling is, as the Joker says, the “$24,000 question,” one that was raised, ever-so-briefly, in The Dark Knight. Why won’t anyone kill the Joker? In a superb confrontation with Batman, we get to the bottom of it: JASON: “Bruce, I forgive you for not saving me . . . but why is he still alive?” BATMAN: “For years a day hasn’t gone by where I haven’t envisioned taking him and spending an entire month putting him through the most horrendous, mind-boggling forms of torture. All of it, building to an end, with him broken, butchered and maimed . . . pleading—screaming—in the worst kind of agony as he careens into a monstrous death.” JOKER: “Aw, y’see, I’ve thought about that too ...” BATMAN: “I want him dead—maybe more than I’ve ever wanted anything. But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place ... I’ll never come back.” Jason, however, has no such qualms and makes Batman choose who he’d rather have dead.

Under the Hood vol.2 makes the Joker mad north by northwest and Batman and Jason Daedalus and Icarus. As someone who’s been turned off by the Robin naff quality in the past, I have to admit Red Hood looks really bad-@$$. The leather biker jacket and the penchant for explosives plus a big jagged knife makes for a pretty solid anti-hero. In “The Return of Jason Todd” at the end of the collection, we finally find out how Jason managed not to die. Batman installed alarms on the coffin, he examined it and found no damage whatsoever, could find no evidence to support that Red Hood could be Jason. The explanation is sadly lacking in reality—it’s Superman’s intervention that brings him back to life. He next has to claw his way out of a coffin with bare hands, live on the streets for three years before Thalia, Ras al Ghul’s daughter, makes him her protégé and throws him into the Lazarus Pits, bribe the coffin maker, get the whole thing hushed up (similar to Grace’s boss destroying the Doctor’s x-rays in the TV movie).

Under the Hood vol. 2 has some good art, but mostly it’s the strong writing that makes it enjoyable.

Friday, November 7, 2008

on the tube x 3

Since I watch too much TV.

We’re onto episode 5 of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but again, I don’t feel like giving a full review until the season is finished.

Paul Merton’s India has just finished. He is finally venturing south to where my friends are from. He spent the train ride to Chennai having his portrait drawn and succumbing to fast food. In Hyderabad (apparently it has a reputation of having nothing to see—Adi was shocked!) he went to a motoring museum that had the world’s largest tricycle—indeed intimidating! He also followed Snake Rescue around. I absolutely loved this section because it showed a man who had lost two fingers to snakebites but was still committed to rescuing and releasing snakes rather than having house-owners kill them out of habit. Paul Merton watched in horror as Raj, his Hyderabad guide, caught a cobra with great nonchalance. It also happened that Merton wanted to experience having a huge constrictor draped around his neck, much as I did as a child since I was not (am not) scared of snakes and in fact loved handling them. He also visited Snow World which, like a faux airplane ride complete with crash-landing glimpsed further west in Shillong I think, fabricated an environment much too expensive for the ordinary Indian. Earlier he visited a temple to rats and despite his squeamishness helped feed the rats who were feasting on milk and crumbs. He also visited Bangalore Prison because the local Hare Krishnas make the prison food so tasty, prisoners are breaking back in. It’s great fun to watch this and Stephen Fry in America and compare and contrast the two.

Somewhat different in approach was Unreported World in Kerala, tackling the “god-men” who swindle the devout out of money and sometimes sexually abuse those entrusted to their care. As I explained, we still have cults like this in the States.

Heroes continues to get better and better. Wednesday nights are sacred as I must have my weekly Heroes dosage. Full report to follow.

Stephen Fry in America is slowly winding its way about the country. Through the South he went coal mining in West Virginia (being slightly claustrophobic), got teased at a bluegrass festival in Tennessee, and met a really hot guy in Kentucky. He had bourbon and proved himself a wimp when it comes to American torrential downpours. Very often this show teaches me stuff about my own country that I don’t know, including the “Body Farm” in Tennessee where students study bodies in states of decomposition in order to find killers—Stephen saw his first dead body. He went ballooning over North Carolina and had a very traditional Thanksgiving in Georgia. He hates Florida, visiting with “snowbirds” the “living embodiment of hell.” In Alabama he attended a college football game and somehow that made me homesick.

Following the Mississippi, Fry attended Mardi Gras in New Orleans, visited a voodoo priestess and got the tour of Angola State Prison. In Mississippi he passed through Clarksdale; he breezed through Arkansas on a course in river craft. He stayed at the “St Louis Riverfront Hilton,” a slum. St. Louis is one of the few Eastern cities I’ve actually visited, so while I can say it has its attractions, it has a weird, deserted, decrepit feeling to it—malls are empty and aimless, there are definite bad areas, and it’s freezing in winter. Frankly it reminded me a bit of Nolan!verse Gotham! Fry sure knows how to pick ‘em—instead of doing something with dairies or driving a school bus like my cousin, in Iowa he visited a center of transcendental meditation. In Michigan it was Detroit and Motown. Sadly for Indiana, all he did was ride in a fire truck. Sadly for Ohio, all he did was go on at length about Kent State! I’m happy to say, Evan, he relished his time in Chicago, watching the Second City perform, eating a Chicago dog, seeing an Oscar statuette being made, and visiting Sears Tower. At last in Wisconsin he tackled the Amish (not directly of course) and opined that American cheese, aside from Wisconsin ewe cheese, is crap. In Minnesota he went ice fishing! I believe there are still three episodes left.

I don’t know anything about Doctors, but Jamie gave me the heads up that Sylvester McCoy was appearing on it as a washed-up actor who used to be an iconic alien in a kids’ program. Sound familiar? Fortunately McCoy isn’t washed up, otherwise he wouldn’t be playing the part with such grace and humor. And it was funny. First of all, the character got mistaken for Jon Pertwee. Second of all, he was complaining to his wife about recording “DVD cemeteries.” There were also some great publicity shots in the actor’s home. It was really sweet.

I caught a bit of Dawn Porter going to Japan to train to be a geisha. She seemed to be such a stuck-up cow about the whole thing—I guess she was in agony wearing the tiny geisha shoes, not being able to sleep on her hair, and feeling very out of her depth when a client wanted to go on a rickshaw ride with her. She did find out that geisha life is not at all what the Western stereotype depicts.

I saw two episodes of Imagine, and the first one is by far the most important. It detailed the dance/drama efforts between Juliette Binoche and Akbar as they decided to create a fusion genre and put it on in London. It was interesting to watch them work. By telling Adi about it, he immediately rushed off and bought tickets for the last week of the show and ended up meeting Juliette, his idol! The second episode I saw had to do with love and the psychology of it. While it was interesting—now there are, in Western culture, few barriers to love, ergo the love story is dead—I watched it right after I wrote if i don’t believe in love, so maybe not the best time.

Jamie recommended Have I Got News For You? based on how much I like Mock the Week and Paul Merton’s India. While I think it is somewhat amusing, it’s not laugh out loud funny for me like Mock the Week, perhaps because there are fewer contestants, and maybe better tempered-ones. It takes the news a biiit more seriously than Mock the Week. Anyway, I did really enjoy Tom Baker guest-hosting the program. If you’ve ever seen him play Xoanon, you know exactly what he was like as host. OMG.

I’m just going to briefly mention that there is a touring version of Whose Line Is it Anyway? on Dave, and it included an episode in London which was possibly the funniest of the show I’ve ever seen.

Adi and I both benefited equally from Miss Marple with Geraldine McEwan because I enjoyed watching Paul McGann and he enjoyed watching Dawn French (their characters were married, by the way). Also I got to lord over the beautiful Sophia Myles that she’s not David Tennant’s girlfriend anymore, nyeh nyeh.

The weekend before Halloween I was alternating scared and baffled by Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Horror Moments. I might not have been scared at all if I hadn’t had to walk home in the dark and cold from Sketty by myself afterward. I was very surprised that Jaws and The Shining were in the top ten, though obvious choices like The Exorcist and The Omen were up there. I’m not actually much of a horror movie buff so I didn’t really recognize much except by reputation. The Wizard of Oz made it onto the list.

Becoming Queen traced the early years of Victoria’s life, basically to her ascension and marriage to Albert with some reconstructions, some fancy-schmancy graphics, and lots of narration from the historian who was supposed to be sexy (Adi didn’t think so). Still it’s a good story, often neglected, since Victoria’s mother wanted all the power for herself, and Victoria showed, even at a young age, the wilfulness that would make her such a successful future ruler of England.

Hotel Inspector was quite relevant to me since I work in a hotel. It was mildly entertaining but mostly you are embarrassed for the hotel owners.

I confess I quite liked watching Gok Wang’s How to Look Good Naked two years ago. I thought sometimes I might like to be on the show! Anyway, Miss Naked Beauty is his new project. He’s gathered a bunch of pretty girls in sizes larger than 0 (and in some cases smaller); tall women, short women, big women, little women, blondes, brunettes, Black women, white women (though no Asians, unless they were already eliminated). I was quite amused at their task: wearing no makeup themselves, they had to convince as many Essex girls as they could not to enter a night club with makeup on. A formidable task, and one I heartily approve of, for obvious reasons. While I think the program has a good heart, its message is somewhat diminished by being surrounded by ads for hair dye and skin cream.

By now, I hope, everyone knows the bombshell dropped at the National TV Awards—other than the erruurrrgh factor of giving Simon Cowell a special award. Excuse me while I vomit. That was the strange thing about National TV Awards—of course they’re not the BAFTAs, but I guess I was expecting something more akin to the Emmys rather than the MTV Awards. I couldn’t be bothered to get up any excitement over soaps, Ant and Dec, or Strictly Come Dancing usurping X Factor’s crown. Paris Hilton?!? What made up for it: a) Doctor Who wins and Elisabeth Sladen is there to pick up the award with giant RTD; b) David Tennant wins; c) Zachary Quinto presents the award; d) David looks smokin’ hot. I’m sorry, I have to go on about this because I was just flipping through channels and idly kept watching once I remembered David and Catherine Tate were both nominated. Then they showed a certain scene from season 4 which about melted me. And then I got really melted again by the Prince of Denmark. Okay, I’m done.

Oh-ho, except we’ve come to Richard Armitage! Anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that one reason I finally watched Spooks was because of Richard Armitage joining the cast, but the other two reasons have to do with Radio Times’ rave reviews of this show, and also because James Moran said in his blog he’s writing for the show. Okay, let’s get the easy part out of the way—shirt off? Yes, okay. Check. Now, as to the drama. The first episode was extremely nationalistic because, granted, it was set around Remembrance Day, and Richard Armitage’s character has just been recovered from the Russians after 8 years (!) in prison. I knew vaguely that Spooks was about spies, but I had no idea what it was really about. It’s kind of like a slightly more believable Torchwood. The slickness, the really cool people who dress well, the fight against terrorism as well as in-house corruption, etc . . . that seems to ring a bell. I don’t know if there is an American equivalent to the show—we have the CIA but somehow MI5 and MI6 have that association with Bond and coolness that I don’t associate with the CIA. (I just saw Casino Royale, by the way, which is the only Bond film I’ve ever really liked.) Anyway, while the first episode was good, each subsequent one gets better and better. I do admit to just liking the Armitage factor (not just the eye candy, kids, but he does act you know) but the other characters are interesting as well, it’s very clever, and I’m growing quite fond of Peter Firth. I’m addicted to the show now and may go through the back catalogue.

Finally, the entire cast of Doctor Who seems to be in Little Dorrit, the massive Andrew Davies mini-series of one of Dickens’ most neglected tomes, probably because it’s boring. I actually love the mini-series, I think it’s extremely well-done, and because it’s presented in half-hour episodes, it’s kept up the pacing brilliantly. I think Matthew Macfayden is a much better Arthur Clennam than he was a Darcy. Freema’s acting—I’m really not sure—perhaps it’s just the unbalanced nature of the character. Russell Tovey is certainly appealing but I wouldn’t want him to be the next Doctor. Ron Cook, Eve Myles, it’s just full of luminaries. Also surely the costumes and the staging, sets, etc, should get a mention as it’s brilliantly convincing of the period. There is nothing of the old BBC circumspection—this is Dickens’ world at its grittiest. I may as well tell you now (since you’ll find out in TTZ should it ever be published) that Simon Guerrier is really gunning for Andy Serkis to be the next Doctor, based on his performance here and elsewhere. Little Dorrit is like a sweet addiction. Entirely different in mood than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but they’re both so high quality they make my teeth hurt.