19 August 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Half the internet has been talking about this, but generally politely enough not to be spoilery in public places. I shall try and keep to this admirable trend and will put a spoiler warning before revealing anything outside the trailer.

Like most of people I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy and thought that Marvel and Sean Gunn did an excellent job introducing a little-known ensemble to the Cinematic Universe and broadening it's cosmic side. It also feels like this would be a good starting point for people who have not watched the rest of the Marvel films, as the bulk of it is entirely new.

The film is a lot of fun and uses humour well, mostly creating funny dialogue and moments through character interactions and situations, rather than laughing at them or mocking them. There were other emotional beats that worked very well and had impact without feeling as though the film was purposefully playing with your emotions. Initially I wondered whether the film might not have a bit too much background detail with different groups and their agendas being introduced, but actually after the set-up it works well and you're pulled along for the ride.


The central characters all work well together, becoming a team and friends almost in spite of themselves. Groot is both terrifying and adorable (even before the bit at the end), and I kinda want to see him fight the Hulk. Rocket is excellent, the humour not being because he's a talking racoon, but because he's a cynical, sarcastic person. And it makes sense that's he's that way when he's the only creature of his kind in existence. Gamora's background could have been fleshed out more as it relates to the central conflict, but she gets some really good scenes and lines and I didn't notice her being used specifically as eye candy.

Drax wasn't put in the trailers much, probably because most of his lines are hilarious but only in context. Having a literal character be everyone's straight man works well. I did feel it was a bit bad when he called Gamora a whore. I see how the joke worked there, but since he doesn't understand metaphor it doesn't make sense he'd call her that (bitch would've made sense, or y'know a non gendered insult). Other than that brief moment though he worked really well, his motivation was pretty standard but he fit well into the weird group dynamic.

Star Lord's backstory is kinda sad and he's grown up as a bit of a space rogue while somehow maintaining a strong vein of childish naivete. He steals and runs with smugglers, but he also believes he can save the day and loyally looks out for his friends. I think my favourite moment was Ronan's face when Star Lord started dancing at him.
Also, although his grandfather was only on screen very briefly, I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. That actor normally plays unsympathetic rich guys in things I've seen, but here he seems to be a good normal man. He obviously stood by his daughter, who got pregnant and claimed an alien did it (in the late 70s - early 80s). The loss of her and his young grandson in the same night must have been terrible. If Star Lord ever returns to Earth I hope we see him again. It's a small detail but one that stuck with me.

The soundtrack was good, even though I wasn't familiar with all the songs. I really liked that the soundtrack had such a link to the story and was more than just incidental music. I also loved that the build up to the big battle and the start of the fighting was to Cherrybomb.

The main link with the rest of the MCU is Thanos, the baddie revealed in the after-credits scene of Avengers. There's also the Collector, who appears in the after-credits scene of Thor the Dark World. This shows that all the cosmic craziness is linked to Asgard (the most mythic/magic of all the Marvel franchises), even if it doesn't seem to be part of the Nine Realms. Thanos mostly appears as a terrifying force in the background, his role stepped up from that of Loki's mysterious backer in Avengers. The real antagonist Ronan is not fleshed out much, he has little more backstory than Christopher Eccleston's angry dark elf* in Thor the Dark World, he wants to destroy all the things, for reasons. The trailers and publicity suggested that the main baddie would be Nebula, however she is not particularly well-used in the film and mostly has the role of chief minion. It might have been interesting to explore more about her relationship with adopted-sister Gamora and their messed up family.

The scenes with the Collector signal a bit about where the wider MCU arc is going. My husband has been mentioning Infinity Gems and the Infinity Gauntlet to me since the tesseract appeared in Captain America, here we actually get told outright that these things are linked and that someone at some point is going to have a very powerful shiny glove. 

The only bit that wasn't great was probably the after-credit scene. As this is a franchise starter and separated from the other bits of the MCU it makes sense they didn't drop hints about another franchise (at least I hope they didn't). Still, I think there's sufficient dislike/ignorance of Howard the Duck that including him at the end did them no favours. Bit disappointed by it if I'm honest, I'm used to being amused or intrigued by the after-credit scenes and this one didn't do that.

* Eccleston's Dark Elf King was really just a version of his two dimensional Rider character in The Dark Is Rising (a terrible adaptation of a good fantasy book) except with more makeup and a spaceship instead of a horse.

10 August 2014

A Matter of Perspective

Episode: s3, ep14

What Happens
Picard is in an art class, Data gives his painting a bad critique. The Enterprise goes to pick Geordi and Riker up from aspace station where they were visiting a scientist who was working on a new energy source for the Federation. Geordi returns alone and says the scientist wanted a word with Riker, he seems kinda awkward about it. When Riker tries to beam back there's a problem, then the space station explodes. Riker is safely beamed aboard and says the scientist was the only person on the station when it blew up. He's in a bad mood and is reluctant to tell Picard what happened.
An investigator from the nearby planet beams aboard and tries to arrest Riker for the scientist's murder. Picard negotiates with the investigator. Riker can only be extradited to face local justice if Picard allows it. The Captain insists that the investigation is carried out on the Enterprise so he can examine the evidence and make an objective judgement. The witness testimonies are viewed in a modified holodeck. Riker says the scientist's wife tried to seduce him, he refused but the scientist walked in at a bad moment and got angry. The scientist's wife claims Riker tried to force himself on her and was angry when her husband came in and stopped him. The scientist told his assistant that he walked in on Riker and his wife kissing, then Riker threatened him. The investigator has evidence that as he was beaming away Riker fired a phaser at the lab equipment, blowing up the station. Riker denies the allegations against him. Picard doesn't believe the accusations, but cannot use personal feeling in his decision and fears there's little evidence that Riker is innocent.
Meanwhile unknown radiation burns small holes in bits of the ship. Data, Geordi and Wesley investigate. They think it has something to do with the scientist's work and his generator on the planet. When they figure it out they can prove Riker's innocence. Picard takes on a defense role and uses bits of the different holo-testimonies to show that the scientist was unhappy about the visit and wanted to make profit from his work. Geordi suspects he was trying to weaponise the energy so he could sell it and feared the Federation were suspicious. The energy (which has been reacting with the holodeck and burning holes) is used to demonstrate that the scientist tried to kill Riker while he was beaming away -to make it look like a transporter accident. The energy bounced off the transporter beam, hit the equipment, and exploded, which is why it looked like Riker had fired a phaser. Geordi also proves it with numbers, or something. The investigator accepts this, apologises to Riker, and leaves.

Oh Captain, My Captain
Picard is in an art class painting a nude model. Possibly to balance John de Lancie's mid-air nudity in the previous episode, this lady is also clearly naked and we see that from more angles, though it's an art class so I guess it's more tasteful. Data delivers a message and Picard suggests the android examine the paintings. The Captain isn't happy about Data's opinion of his "haphazard melange of clashing styles."
The episode puts Picard in a judge role deciding Riker's fate based on evidence rather than personal feeling. As ever Picard's ethics and commitment to duty are at the fore He's careful to be very appropriate in his role, not talking privately to Riker and enlisting Troi to help him. Picard acknowledges that despite knowing Riker would never do what he's accused of he may have to send his first officer into a situation he cannot escape.
When crew investigations reveal proof of Riker's innocence Picard is able to take on a defense role as he did in The Measure of a Man. He uses the holodeck evidence, bits of all the previously seen testimonies -as well as his speeching powers- to suggest what really happened in the space between the conflicting versions of events.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle manager
Riker is surprised and angry when first accused, but once he's accepted the situation he is brave and dignified Shades of Gray. He's mostly able to remain calm and serious, but loses his composure when he feels he's being slandered, most notably when the scientist's wife accuses him of trying to force himself on her. He's furious at being accused of attempted rape, and it's notable that he's the only one to call it that. From what we've seen of Riker his treatment of women is always respectful (he's the only ladies' man TV character I have no issue with in this area) and so his shock and anger make sense. There are other issues with this scenario, which I'll get into, but Riker handles it fairly well considering.
in the face of a possible murder trial. It mirrors his bravery in

Does Not Compute
Data compares the paintings of the 2 random crew members in art class to other artists/styles. He seems aware that his analysis of Picard's painting is not complimentary as he hesitates, only giving his analysis after Picard has specifically asked for it. Perhaps this is a sign of Data learning more tact? Then again after Picard has irritably told him to stop Data offers help in that entirely guileless, oblivious way of his, so maybe not. Data is often used for comedic moments, but those moments don't always tie into his character development.

It's Not Easy Being Troi
Troi can't tell that the scientist's wife is lying, even though she knows Riker would never do what he's
accused of doing. This is because the woman is telling the truth as she remembers it. This may be a glimpse into the problems that Troi faces when using her powers - problems which I had dismissed up until now. I assume that this is what Troi means when she says things are confusing or muddled. Troi can apparently sense deception, but if someone fully believes what they are saying then she's of no help in determining objective truth. Though the message of this episode seems to be that objective truth is a slippery thing indeed, even where it exists.

A Matter of Perspective?
The focus of this episode is how different people's versions of events can vary drastically. It's an interesting idea and one well suited to TV storytelling, I've seen it used effectively on various shows. The point is that there's no such thing as a reliable narrator, every story is filtered through someone's perceptions - especially our own.
I'm concerned by how different Riker's account is from the scientist's wife's story. Not just the differing details of who said what or who closed the door -our memories can be bad at accurately storing that kind of info- but the whole tone. In one version a bored wife actively seduces a guest. In another an imposing guest tries to force himself on his hostess. Obviously we are meant to believe Riker's story, though I wouldn't be surprised if he had looked at her more than he consciously realised. But if we believe Riker's version we are immediately assuming that this woman remembered her failed seduction as an attempted assault, that is what the show tells us. I find this problematic, if only because women are so often not believed when it comes to stuff like this. They're told they've imagined things when men invade their personal space, made to doubt themselves and second guess their experience. Surprisingly little weight is given to what Riker supposedly tried to do, he seems to take it more seriously than anyone else. I think the episode didn't want to get bogged down in that when the murder of the scientist was the focal point. Still if someone's going to mention attempted rape it seems like that should be worth addressing.

Staff Meetings: 0
When Picard asks about what happened on the station Riker doesn't want to talk about it. When the investigator comes aboard Picard suggests Riker tell him what happened before their guest arrives at the Bridge. The scene cuts away, so we don't know if Riker said anything to Picard, but it seems like he didn't. After the investigator has gone Riker asks for a private word with the Captain, but Picard has to refuse because at that point it wouldn't be inappropriate. Too late, Riker.

Picard asks Data about using the holodeck so the investigator can conduct his enquiries on the ship. Data says it will require extensive modifications, but can be done. Just over 18 hours later not only can the holodeck exactly replicate the interior of an exploded space station, it's also able to display visual versions of several people's testimonies, all with a 8.7% margin of error. That's impressive, but it is that future I suppose.
Then it turns out that -due to technobabble I didn't understand containing numbers for added veracity- the holodeck version of the scientist's lab performs the exact same function as the lab itself. That's right, the computer generated version of a thing performs the exact same function as the thing itself. Meaning you don't even need an actual lab, just an image of one - that is enough for science to happen. The holodeck uses the power from the generator on the planet to burn holes in the bits of the ship. It's lucky that they happened to have the lab-scene running at those particular points, otherwise Riker might never have been proved innocent. At the end real energy from the planet interacts with the fake holo-lab equipment to create a phaser-like beam that somehow still bounces off an image of Riker transporting and then blows up the entire simulation (except the furniture people are using). but doesn't burn a hole in the holodeck wall. When Riker points out that the holodeck can't create things that are dangerous (oh Riker, really?) Geordi says the equipment was basically a complex set of tubes and mirrors, which apparently answers Riker's point. If they're doing it with mirrors then I think that means it was all a magic trick.

It occurred to me that whenever they have holodecks in Star Trek what we're seeing is a built set that is meant to represent a computer generated image. Of course nowadays what we often see is computer generated images used instead of built sets. It's an interesting reversal.

The End
Picard is cheerful and asks Riker to get them under way. Riker gets to say engage.

1 August 2014

Merchant of Dreams

Merchant of Dreams
Anne Lyle

Mal Catlyn can't stay in the English court much, having made enemies in his previous adventures, so he's been living on his family's estates in France. With him is his trusty valet Coby Hendricks, in actuality a young woman who has been secretly living as a man. Mal's life is complicated by his connection to the skraylings who have come to Europe from the New World, he and his twin brother share the soul of one of these ancient and mysterious people. This connection leads Mal to Venice, where he an his companions must figure out how to undertake their covert work in a foreign city.

As with The Alchemist of Souls this is an entertaining and well-written historical fantasy. The action moves from London to Venice - and various places in between - and the setting is well-researched and varied, expanding the Elizabethan backdrop of the first book to a wider European setting. There also is development of the skraylings, an interesting invention of the author that are unlike other non-human races I've encounter in fantasy. With Mal's brother now reunited with the people of his soul (if not his current body) we learn more about Skrayling culture and also the various factions within that group. 

The characters feel realistic, even when they're going through unlikely things, and we're able to empathise with most of them even when they are at odds with each other. Mal is still the hero, but though he displays bravery and compassion he also does things I did not approve of. Coby's complex relationship with her gender is explored, as she ends up having to try and be female after years of living her male disguise. She also comes into a fuller understanding of her feelings for Mal, but is able to keep to her principles and beliefs even when these are not important to those around her. Ned and Gabe's relationship has deepened between books, but both still have their jealousies and insecurities, and Ned in particular has an attitude that refuses to be cowed.

I'm never quite sure what to expect from this series, and again the story took twists and turns I hadn't seen coming. The pace of the story worked well, and the various complications experienced by the characters all made sense even if I did not see them coming. The setting is familiar, but the premise is different to Elizabethan fantasies I've read before and so my expectations and preconceptions are limited. I think I have a greater understanding of how Skrayling rebirth works, and some of the wider story elements that will appear in the final book, but there's still plenty of room for Anne Lyle to surprise me.

22 July 2014

Deja Q

Episode: s3, ep 13

The Enterprise is helping a planet that is endangered by its falling moon. Geordi says there's slim chance they can do anything, but Riker wants to try. Problem solving discussion is interrupted by Q appearing in midair then falling to the floor of the Bridge. The crew assume that Q is responsible for the moon problem. Q says he doesn't know anything about it. He's angry about being given grey clothing, about being there, and about being human. He's been punished by the Q-continuum for being chaotic and was forced to chose a mortal shape for himself. Q asks for sanctuary. Data and Troi believe him, but no one else does.
A bright light enters the Enterprise and scans the ship. Picard interrogates Q, who tried sleep and finds it scary. Q maintains he had nothing to do with the falling moon, but offers to lend his vast expertise to the problem. He doesn't have powers anymore, but he still knows a lot. Data is assigned to be Q's chaperone and they discuss becoming human. Geordi outlines his plan for the moon, Q doesn't think it'll work and suggests they just redefine universal gravity, he used to do. Q is in pain and Dr Crusher diagnoses back spasms. Thinking about it Geordi reckons he can try to make the moon lighter.
In 10 Forward Q and Data discuss eating. Guinan is super amused by Q's situation. A cloud appears and surrounds Q. Geordi adjusts the sheilds to block it. Q falls to the floor and cries for help. The alien cloud has a grudge against Q because of his past cruelty. The senior officers discuss what to do. Q asks to join the crew, Picard is hesitant, but tells him to help Geordi with the moon. When Geordi lowers the shields to try moving the moon the cloud returns and surrounds Q again. Data saves Q, and gets damaged. Everyone but Q is worried about Data. Q visits Picard and confesses that he didn't understand what Data did for him and he's terrified of everything without his powers. Data recovers. Q leaves the ship in a shuttle. He truly hates being human and figures his death will be better for everyone.
When Picard realises what Q is doing he hesitantly orders for the shuttle to be returned, but they can't move it. Q awaits death when some guy comes in through the wall, it's another Q. They've been watching him and wonder if this is truly self-sacrifice. Other-Q doesn't understand why the humans are still trying to help him. Q doesn't get it either, but it seems he's learned a lesson, so his powers are returned. Just as Picard thinks Q has been destroyed he appears with a mariachi band, celebrating the return of his powers. He offers Data a gift, allowing him to laugh uncontrollably for a moment. Q leaves. The planet hails the Enterprise and thanks them for returning the moon to its rightful place, saving them all. It must have been Q.

Guest Star
John de Lancie returns as Q. I just saw the episode of the West Wing he's in. He plays a pollster who thinks the President will get reelected if he comes down on flag burning. It's a less amusing role.

"This is getting on my nerves, now that I have them."

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard is doing his famous facepalm as Q says he's the closest thing he has to a friend. Lucky Picard.
It takes Picard a while to understand that Q isn't lying. He's determined to brush off all Q's attempts at familiarity or eliciting sympathy, even while he defends the human capacity for compassion and empathy. Then again Q is openly mocking that same capacity while relying on it for his survival. It's only when Q goes to end his existence that Picard believes and he's rather grudging about trying to save Q. At the end when Q returns, triumphant in his reinstated powers, Picard is grim and unamused.

Riker: lover, adventurer, middle-management
Riker is suspicious of Q throughout. Whatever bond they may have had (or Q may have imagined) before is clearly gone. At the end Q wants to give people gifts and makes two scantily-clad human women appear either side of Riker.

Riker: I don't need your fantasy women.
Q: Oh, you're so stolid. You weren't like that before the beard.

Q may have a point. Back when he granted Riker the Q-powers in Hide and Q (before the beard) Riker tried to gift Worf with a fantasy Klingon woman, which just freaked Worf out. Then again the point of that episode was that Riker had gone mad with power (as much as a Star Fleet officer is allowed to do so in Trek). Here Riker doesn't really look at the girls pawing him, he just looks offended, which is a cool reaction. Riker is often painted as a ladies man, and he is, but he's rarely sleazy or disrespectful of women. In fact at times when he's offered sex on unequal terms he rejects it, both here and in The Vengeance Factor. It's characterisation I can get behind.

Does Not Compute
"An irony. .. You have achieved in disgrace what I have always aspired to be."
Q and Data discuss humanity as outsiders with very different perspectives on the species. Q asks Data about eating, Data eats something that sounds like specialised motor oil. Data observes that Troi eats chocolate when she's in a bad mood, Q feels dreadful and orders 10 chocolate sundaes.
Data lectures Q on interpersonal skills and how he will need to develop some if he's going to stay. Q claims that omnipotent beings do not work well with others, makes you wonder why his people threw him out?
After Data recovers from saving Q the former-immortal praises him for the wonder that he already is, but also says that Data is a better human than he is.
At the end Q offers Data a gift. Data refuses and offer to be remade as a human (just as he did from Riker in Hide and Q). Q says he would never give Data such a curse. Instead Q gives Data a few moments of uncontrollable laughter. It's great to see the initial confusion on his face give way to utter hysterical laughter. Then it fades back into Data's customary expression.

Klingon Warrior
Worf and Q's mutual antagonism is amusing. Worf suggests Q can prove his humanity by dying and Q asks if Worf has eaten any good books lately. Q contemplates the many minor irritations of humanity, Worf doesn't care. Then Q suggests that he should have chosen to be Klingon, tries to get Worf to speak to Picard on his behalf, but continues insulting Worf, presumably from force of habit. Worf is stoically amused by Q's predicament.

"How the mighty have fallen."
Guinan's Hat: Red-brown and glittery
Guinan is grimly amused by Q's situation, he was not looking forward to seeing her. When Data says many of the crew do not believe Q she stabs him in the hand with a fork "Seems human enough to me." It's very funny, I suggest you google it.
Q is scared of her and tries to talk tough, but backs away from her and calls her dangerous. She points out that Q is defenseless and he's made a lot of enemies in his considerable time. She advises he listens to Data, because Q is a pitiful excuse for a human and he's only going to survive by relying on others.

Staff Meetings: 3
1. Picard and Riker discuss the Q situation. They're both convinced he is behind the moon problem and it's all one of his jokes. Though Picard is willing to accept the possibility that he's telling the truth.
2. After he is attacked by a cloud that holds a grudge Q is questioned by Picard and Riker. The Captain realises Q has purposely come to them so they will protect him from his many enemies. He doesn't want to spend his time dealing with Q's problems. Q says he can help and be useful. Data point out that Q as been useful to Geordi so far. Data is to chaperone Q while he helps in Engineering.
3. Q visits Picard, admits that he's entirely selfish and -in his flippant way- says he cannot continue like this. Picard points out that he's not Q's confessor and does not want to deal with his issues.

The End
After Picard has shut down the mariachi party, Q's left, and Data's had his first real laugh, the planet hails the ship. Their moon has returned to it's old, steady orbit, they thank the Enterprise for saving them. Picard is confused. After checking the moon presents no further danger Picard grudgingly concedes that perhaps there is still some humanity in Q. A smoking cigar appears in Picard's hand and Q appears in the smoke, "Don't bet on it, Picard."

12 July 2014

New Job

At the end of this month I'll be leaving my current job to work in support/admin role a local university. It is exciting and also a bit nerve-wracking.

I've been working in the contact centre for a year and three months now. There's a great team of people there and they're supportive. I've learned a lot and done well while I've been there. Also I've proven to myself that not only can I get a new job, but I can thrive in different environment and rise to meet challenges. It's been a good time for my confidence and has helped me develop a thicker skin. I wasn't actively job hunting this time, I applied because I saw the job advertised and it caught my interest.

I'm quite looking forward to working at the university. It's where I studied so I know the area, the campus is a nice environment. From a practical point of view it's closer to where I live, which will cut down my commute dramatically. Also I think the work will be something I'll enjoy more than my current role, it'll involve more responsibility. Plus the university, by the nature of the kind of institution it is, has a lot of good facilities. The facilities include a large library, which I'm sure will encourage me to read more non-fiction.

It took a bit of decision-making to make the change. I had solid prospects with my current employer and felt comfortable there. However I'm pretty certain I've made the right decision. It's good to have a new challenge.

As a weird coincidence the job offer came just a few days after I'd completed the novel first draft, which has a main character who works in a support role at an education/research institution. So now I'm thinking maybe the next novel should be about someone who unexpectedly comes into a fortune. :)

29 June 2014

First Draft

On Friday I finally completed a first draft of a long form story. A little over 60,000 words covering a beginning, middle and end. I've been working on this particular draft since September, though I have had some breaks for other things in that time.

Completing a first draft is something I've tried to do for years. I've tried with other stories, and though I've written more words in the past they haven't added up to a full story before.

I know that the draft I've written is full of bad writing and some scenes aren't complete. I have no intention of letting anyone see it, but it's a starting place and I can build from it. I've already had some ideas about what to add and what to improve. I expect the next draft will be longer. However I'm going to wait a while, get some distance from the story before I try rewriting. I'll spend the time working on projects, perhaps getting back into short stories.

21 June 2014

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I really enjoyed Marvels Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (despite how hard it is to type the full name correctly) and I'd like to talk about why. Given its place within the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) there are spoilers for this and other works, but I have taken care to separate these so that folk can read on a little spoiler-free.

Spoiler-free section
The programme started pretty lightweight and... not fluffy, because properly bad stuff went down, but perhaps somewhat frothy. It was soon clear that it was not all superheroes all the time, or even mostly superpowers. Agents of Shield was largely a light-hearted spy show, which threw in the tech, powers and alien-magic that existed, but was not explored, in the cinematic universe. I get that some people were expecting different things from content or tone and gave up early. It's unfortunate that the rocky start to it means people have missed out, but nowadays there are many options to catch up if you receive a good recommendation. I hope some of you will consider this that recommendation. After all events in Agents of Shield are tied to a wider universe, so the pacing has to work around the films. It's better reason for a slow start than other series have.

The early episodes were mostly standalone and set up themes/arcs/mysteries for later. There was a thread running through several episodes, but it didn't always take centre stage. They also introduced the main characters, focusing on who they were and what they could do. The team were put into situations where their knowledge and skills could be used for what they were told was the greater good. Some main characters were more likeable/interesting than others, and there were usually guest characters who were similarly variable.

The series started to join up with the films after Thor: the Dark World, although the connections were not strong there was a sense of being part of a bigger universe. Episode quality improved. There were more arc plots involving the main characters and certain of their back stories. Plus allies and enemies reoccurred, and we learned more about SHIELD as an organisation (it is what they are agents of after all). The peril grew, the stakes raised and mysteries deepened. There was a sense of greater things coming as the series built towards something, and I was intrigued.
Then Captain America: The Winter Soldier happened and changed the game. Episodes after that were amazing, full of suspense and intrigue and great character moments. The tone became darker and more serious, but still not gritty and with some great comedy moments in the mix. The characters I was less keen on became more interesting, and the ones I'd always liked became great. The new elements introduced were real game-changers and set the show on a whole new path that's only just started. I can't wait to see what series 2 brings.

Spoilers for Agents of Shield and Captain America: the Winter Soldier (vague spoiler for Iron Man 3 and one spoiler for Thor: the Dark World)

My favourite characters are Simmons, May and Coulson. I mostly like Fitz, though his attitude to Simmons towards the end of series seemed unnecessary. Skye is fine I suppose, but I rather suspect her backstory will prove to be more interesting than she is. It's not that there's anything wrong with her, but I think it could be that Skye is meant to be our gateway character and I don't feel as though I identify with her. I never liked Ward, and after Turn Turn Turn I felt pretty vindicated. Ward was never likeable or interesting, though I now wonder how much of that was because he was basically a facade all along.

It's interesting to see how the various types of 'power' from the films are used here. It's balancing act that Avengers was a bit too busy to deal with. The fact that the mystery baddie was called the Clairvoyant, and no one knew if that was an accurate description of what they could do, tells you the kind of stuff this team are dealing with.
The extremis tech/science from Iron Man 3 is misued as part of the Centipede project. Centipede initially looks like it'll be the big bad, but of course it's only a tiny part of what's going on. It's cool how many of the antagonists seemed separate but are linked in ways even they don't know (many heads of the Hydra), all building to the reveal we didn't know was coming. The Asgardians on Earth provide the magic and mythology (yes, yes, I know its supposed to be very advanced alien tech really, but it looks like magic and I say it's sufficiently advanced so therefore indistinguishable). They're more separate from the Hydra stuff, coming from another world as they do. I really liked the episode when Sif showed up, she didn't get enough space in Thor 2. The antagonist's power over men could have been explored more (Does her power work on gay men? Lesbians? Is it to do with desire or a Y-chromosome? Why didn't they just send all the men far away?) and is a bit of a dodgy trope. I now realise that the episode may have been foreshadowing the danger Ward becomes later. Plus Sif mentions that she was sent by Odin to retrieve prisoners after the Asgardian jail break. Having seen the end of Thor 2 I really want to know about what "Odin" is doing.

The episode where they break into the mysterious mountain to save Skye, and Coulson sees what saved him had me on the edge of my seat. The mystery of Coulson's return to life is a good one - though I don't understand why my DVD of Avengers Assemble took out the tip of the spear from Coulson's death scene, the show agrees that he was impaled.
I also liked the episode in the SHIELD Academy (if Simmons is science-Hermione then the Academy is science-Hogwarts). It's the only institution in the MCU that could have a similar to feel the Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, which of course Marvel can't use on screen. I hope they made it through the rise of Hydra.
Speaking of which, how good was Turn Turn Turn? I didn't know who was on which side for about half an hour (even with my husband telling me what alignment some characters had in the comics), and it was great. The introduction of Koenig was good, and his death saddening. The end of the series was excellent and I liked how there was comedy amongst the darker stuff.

Simmons would want the TARDIS on a desert island, best answer ever! I love her.

"This is just me being honest, Phil"
"No John, this is you being a psychopath."

Those symbols Garrett drew after he went even more crazy, and that Phil started drawing too (in his sleep?) have appeared before. Ward sees them on a blackboard when he breaks into that facility in Eye Spy. Also something that looks a bit like them appears in Coulson's weird flashback. This is clearly being positioned as an ongoing myserty for next series, as is Skye's parentage. It's long been clear that Skye is some kind of dangerous McGuffin, or was treated as such as a baby, and I suspect she may not be fully human. What that makes her I have no idea. Still it'd be cool to have someone with powers on the team. Then there's the appearance of the Koenig twins? Clones? Doubles? I expect we'll find more about that fairly quickly.

Great costumes, plus extra geek-glasses

18 June 2014

Dangerous Waters

Dangerous Waters
Juliet E. McKenna

I've been meaning to read this book for a while. My husband kindly got a copy signed for me from a convention over a year ago, but my TBR pile wasn't too organised then*. Plus I wanted to finish the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution (reviewed here previously) first. It was good that I did finish that first, as an early part of Dangerous Waters features a character who dies in the previous series (though I half forgot that as I was reading) showing that there is some definite overlap in time. It's clear that McKenna is always building upon events in her world with each book, and so the events of one series have consequences for things that happen later. Some of the action of this book takes place in the southern archipelago, which was introduced back in Swordsman's Oath and is the setting of the Aldabreshin Compass quartet (of which I've only read the first book). Not that you have to read each series in order, the author takes care to give you the relevant information without infodumping.

As I have come to expect with Juliet E McKenna's books this is a story which deals with people's lives and how changing situations, decisions and external forces affect them. Lady Zurenne is the widow of a noble with modest resources, after her husband's death she was held captive in her own home by a sadistic man and is desperate not to be ruled by any man again. However her society is one which clearly has no time for women's voices and Zurenne is a product of this. Despite her inner turmoil and growing resolution she is not daring or bold enough to ask for what she wants or challenge authority set before her, so she ends up making poor decisions in order to quietly get into a better situation. Her eldest daughter shows a little more spirit, probably because of her youth and what she's been through, but I cannot blame Zurenne for being what she was always expected and trained to be. Soldier Corrain served Zurenne's husband and was captured by southern slavers after his master was betrayed. His grim determination to escape and seek vengeance carries him through the first part of the book. Corrain is a very flawed character, driven by his loyalty, he's also misanthropic and apparently unable to see value in other methods of doing things. Quick to dismiss the foreign, even when seeking help from other lands. His fellow captive, a youth called Hosh, is able to adapt to their situation, where Corrain doesn't even try. His story is one of relentlessly seeking his goals, a questing figure with none of the romance that word implies. He shows no flexibility in his viewpoint and has little else in his life besides revenge. Much like Zurenne he is a certain way due to his upbringing and life experiences and seems unable (or perhaps unwilling) to break from the role he has imagined for himself.

The other main group of characters are the wizards. Hadrumal is the hidden island of the elemental mages, and so in a series called the Hadrumal Crisis you expect them to play a big part. Magewoman Jilseth works for the Archmage to protect the name of wizardry on the mainland. After her actions in the Lescari Chronciles she is trying to clear up the mess left by a renegade mage. In opposition to Zurenne Jilseth does not consider her gender a setback and is confident in her own abilities. The two women do not get on, but Jilseth must stay with Zurenne for a while as part of her work. In Hadrumal the debate about whether mages should get involved in mainland politics and conflicts rages on, with each side stating their opinions, and tensions rising, though not yet spilling over. There's a group of mages, Jilseth and her friends, that support the Archmage's policy, and then there's a group of mages who hold a different view. Neither side is painted as bad, and there much debate and argument with reasoning set out in conversation. Hadrumal has a collegial atmosphere and while there are rivalries and personal disagreements everyone conducts themselves in a mature way. However when an unexpected magic user appears from the west, not bound by any of the decrees or rules of the Archmage or Hadrumal, and suddenly the future and reputation of magecraft look far from certain. I'm glad that though there are disagreements in the wizards' community everyone behaves like adults even when they aren't happy about the situation. I also liked that the book explores the repercussions of wizards not getting involved, not just through discussion, but through the actual events of book. There's also stark demonstration of how magic can change the outcome of any encounter, and why that's sometimes necessary and often dangerous.

* It's not much more organised now, but it is mostly one pile rather than books spread across the house.

12 June 2014

The High Ground

Episode: s3, ep12

What Happens
The Enterprise brings medical supplies to a non-Federation planet with a trading relationship. There's civil unrest and internal terrorism from separatists, so away teams are armed. Crusher, Worf and Data are on the planet when a bomb goes off. Crusher helps the wounded and refuses to beam away though Data and Picard want her to. A separatist appears, grabs Crusher and disappears. Data later explains that Crusher wasn't beamed away so they can't trace her. Picard won't let Wesley go to the planet, but asks him to help figure out how the kidnapper jumped away. Riker visits the local Police Chief, she tells him the terrorists have been translocating without trace for two months.
Crusher is in a cave and initially refuses to communicate. Her captor wants a Federation doctor to help his people. He claims the Federation have taken sides by bringing supplies to the government, Crusher refutes this. She's given stolen Federation medical supplies and shown a room of sick people. She tries to help them, but they're dying from warped DNA. The separatist leader says it was caused by their dimension-shifting device, but they won't stop using it. Riker is shocked by the police crackdowns on suspected separatist-sympathisers, the Chief says it was worse before she started. Data, Geordi and Wesley examine a terrorist device and realise it's a harmful transporter-alternative. They may be able to track it, but need more info.
Riker tells a sympathiser in custody that the Federation will negotiate for Crusher's return, which annoys the Chief. Crusher argues with her captor about his methods. Picard and Data discuss the moral issues of using violence for political change. Riker's message is passed to Leader, who says Star Fleet are working with the police and organising mass arrests. He tells Crusher that they'll strike against the Enterprise, and he isn't sympathetic to her motherly concern, his son died in a cell at 13. Separatists jump onto Enterprise, they can't be stopped by forcefields or bombs. They kill an engineer and put a bomb on the engine. Worf is shot in the leg and Picard is snatched. Geordi removes the bomb just in time.
Picard and Crusher are reunited and argue about whether she should have beamed away at the start. The cave has no exits, you can only beam or jump to it. Crusher has some sympathy for her captors, but Picard disagrees. The leader again accuses Federation of taking sides, Picard won't cooperate. Leader delivers an ultimatum to Troi, in 12 hours they'll harm the hostages unless the Federation enforces a trade embargo. Wesley tracks the jump to the cave, and Riker and Chief plan a raid/rescue mission. Leader tells Crusher he may kill Picard, this angers her. Picard tells Crusher to use Leader's regard for her to help them escape. The police and away team beam into the cave and start arresting people. Chief shoots Leader just as he's about to shoot Picard. A separatist kid pulls a weapon on them, but Crusher convinces him to let them go.

Oh Captain My Captain
Picard wants Crusher to beam back immediately, but she won't let him order her back. Picard understands and respects her motives, even though it causes him a problem, and I expect that is why he doesn't have her beamed back, though the option is discussed. Even later when they are both hostages Picard says he should have beamed her back and they argue about following orders and what are reasonable orders.
Picard is pretty untactful when telling Wesley his mother's been kidnapped. He even refers to her as a potential bargaining chip. I know it's something he has to think about, but maybe don't speculate like this in front of Wesley. He sensibly doesn't let Wes go to the planet (what would the kid do there?) but he does use Wesley's skills to aid the rescue attempt.
When the Bridge is invaded by terrorists Picard fights the leader until he's jumped away.

Riker: adventurer, lover, middle-management
Riker's discussions with the Police Chief present a counter-argument to Crusher's interactions with the terrorist leader. He objects to some of the oppressive police methods, but the Chief tells him that she's improved things, under her predecessors suspects often didn't survive their time in custody. She clearly has a deep hatred for the separatists, and this has developed since she was posted there and seen the atrocities they've committed. She was more moderate when she was elsewhere, but now she just wants to return to a more peaceful life. She's become hard, suspicious and worn down, and knows this, but that's what she had to do in the situation. She suggests that Federation tech would help them with the problem, but knows Riker's answer must be no. This demonstrates that the Federation are holding themselves aloof from the conflict specifically.
Riker is told that the terrorist organisation itself is small, but there are many sympathisers in the area. Riker, impatient and annoyed with the police methods, tells a sympathiser that the Federation will negotiate to get their doctor back and has him report that to his people. This angers the Chief, but she has little choice as she knows the Federation are only interested in getting their crew back.
At the end when the child who was going to shoot her is taken away the Chief observes that a new generation will just take the place of those they've stopped. Riker has more hope and points of that the kid put his gun down and that's how change starts.

Doctor Doctor
Crusher's immediate instinct is to run into danger to help others, because she's amazing. She won't allow Picard to order her back to the ship, and though she later regrets that she still argues with him about whether she should follow his orders if they're unreasonable. Beverly can get away with this kind of thing because she and Picard are old friends and they respect each others viewpoints even when they don't agree.
Crusher initially refuses to communicate with her captor or take food, and though this changes by necessity he doesn't find out her name until Picard shows up and blurts it out. She's in a scary situation, but courageously doesn't allow her fear to affect her. She follows her instinct to heal every time, but still holds herself apart. Her discussions with the leader explore her disgust for his actions, and his justification. He has researched Earth history (for some reason) and compares himself to George Washington, doing what he has to in order to oppose tyranny. There are times when he is presented as a sympathetic figure, his talent for drawing and obvious respect for Beverley aid this. However at other times he is ruthless and extreme. He kills and is unrepentant about what he does, putting himself and his people in danger by using the device that is killing them. He tells Beverly he'll destroy her ship (and son) and shows no concern about it. However he points out that her arguments come from a utopian viewpoint and he doesn't have that option. He's a complex and changeable character, probably to present several different faces of a complicated argument.
Picard suggests that Beverly can use her position in their captor's esteem to aid their escape. The leader draws pictures of her, though I'm not sure whether that's meant to represent romantic feelings/attraction, or something more complex. Certainly Crusher isn't sure how to react to it, but her reactions to him flip-flop as she sees different sides to him.
As she's rescued Crusher convinces a child from trying to shoot the Chief, which would lead to his death.

Blind Engineering
Geordi avoids being shot when terrorists arrive in Engineering. He has trouble removing the bomb from the engine. It can't be detected by the transporters because of the terrorist's tech, but Geordi gets around this by attaching his comm badge to the bomb and telling the transporter room to lock onto that and fling it into space.

Staff Meetings: 1
Data briefs senior crew on Crusher's abduction. Mostly the meeting is to make clear that we're dealing with something besides transporters

Security Breach
Should there be security personnel in Engineering? Seem worth considering, because this is the fourth time Engineering has been invaded. I don't even know how much security there is, or what they usually do. 

Future History
When Data is talking to Picard about terrorism he cites how often it works. His list includes the Irish Unification of 2024. It will be no coincidence that Ireland came up, when this episode was created the IRA had been planting bombs in Britain for a long time. Possibly the writers thought that was something that would keep happening? Before the 'War on Terror' post-9/11 attitude to terrorism, it wasn't something that the US seemed that concerned about, probably because they weren't really experiencing it. I wonder whether a similar episode written in 2000s could have presented so many points of view? I mean having a terrorist compare himself to George Washington, it surprised me.

Death By Space Misadventure
We are told that 3 crew are dead and 4 are injured in the attack. We see one engineer shot in the attack.

The End
Returned to the Enterprise, Beverly hugs Wesley and says she hears he helped with the rescue. Wesley says it was a team effort. Picard orders the ship away. It's an upbeat ending, but not jokey. There's nothing about what's happening on the planet now.

6 June 2014


Heide Goody & Iain Grant

The Devil gets the sack and is sent to retirement in Birmingham. Taking on the name of Jeremy Clovenhoof the confused former-Prince of Lies tries to navigate life on Earth, discovering a liking for lambrini, a talent for heavy metal, the trials of finding a suitable job and eventually that things aren't quite right in both Heaven and Hell. Joining Clovenhoof are his unfortunate neighbours, introverted Ben and calculating Nerys. In a book that features spying angels, heavenly bureaucracy, cannibalism, murder and a lot of booze, no one is quite what they seem.

Clovenhoof is set very firmly in the city I live in, which I've known from the start, but is still a little odd to me.* I was lucky enough to buy a paperback copy from a local writing event last year. Most of the action takes place in the north of the city (Boldmere and Sutton Coldfield, for those who're interested), an area I'm not familiar with. However there is a heavy metal show in the Town Hall, which I do know and so I amused at the idea of the Devil booking it and just blithely handing out tickets. Local interest aside Clovenhoof is a pacy and witty read, as long as you're a fan of dark comedy. Clovenhoof starts as a strange, slightly tragic, figure who is forced to live a life he never expected and knows nothing about. Despite his selfishness and anger he is very amusing and certainly makes things interesting, and you even start to feel sympathy for him at times, even though he does things that would be inexcusable for most characters.

The other main characters are Clovenhoof's neighbours. Ben is a stereotypical geeky character, who is bad with people but good with books and wargaming miniatures. Clovenhoof certainly livens up Ben's life, though it's reveal that Ben had a strange dark side even before the Devil came to live next door. Nerys, who lives in the flat above with her old aunt, is a somewhat calculating young women, always trying to plan her life, especially her lovelife, with lists and charts. She seems a bit shallow at first, but proves to having a caring side, even if it can be hard to see. Then there's the Archangel Michael, who keeps an eye on Clovenhoof and manages to get him out of trouble at first. Michael is calm, considerate, moral and turns out to be a bit of a smug git. The supporting cast includes a satanist man-child, a pair of suspect old women, a perceptive bartender, Joan of Arc, a female vicar, St Francis, and an obsequious assistant.

The premise of the book is silly, and that holds up throughout due to the light tone and quick pace. The characters' flaws and oddities add to the tone and create a strange comedy within a setting that is real. The odd events on Earth are interspersed with Heavenly committee meetings, showing that there's something rotten in the Kingdom of God, and flashbacks to Satan's time in Hell and how he was manoeuvred out of his position. There are occasional reflective moments in the book, but they are unusual and madcap adventures are the main staple of the story.

Clovenhoof is available as an ebook on Amazon and is published by Pigeon Park Press.

* Birmingham is the second city of the UK, and the most underrepresented city in UK media. It does not often feature in books, especially not SF ones.