Narnia’s Aslan isn’t good. He’s a pious, tyrannical bully

Based on a Facebook status.

There’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Jadis (the Witch) explains to Aslan and three of the Pevensies why, according to ancient, mysterious laws laid down by Aslan’s father, she’s entitled to murder their ten-year-old brother Edmund, as well as anyone in Narnia who commits an act of betrayal. ‘Tell us of this Deep Magic’, Aslan says.

‘Tell you?’ Jadis replies. ‘Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us? Tell you what is written in letters deep as a spear is long on the firestones on the Secret Hill? Tell you what is engraved on the sceptre of the Emperor-beyond-the-Sea? You at least know the Magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.’

‘You were the Emperor’s hangman’ responds Mr Beaver, one of the talking animals, which goes entirely uncontradicted.

Twelve-year-old Susan, the older Pevensie girl who by later books is ‘no longer a friend of Narnia’ because she’s ‘interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations’, asks Aslan, quite reasonably and especially so under the circumstances, ‘Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?’ Here, from the book, is what happens next.

‘Work against the Emperor’s Magic?’ said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

I haven’t seen much discussion of this scene in criticism of the Narnia books, but allegory aside, several things it shows about Aslan strike me as disturbing.

Continue reading “Narnia’s Aslan isn’t good. He’s a pious, tyrannical bully”

Narnia’s Aslan isn’t good. He’s a pious, tyrannical bully

And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women

Doctor Who Series 8

If like me you watch Doctor Who, you may have seen last night’s episode ‘Dark Water’, which revealed who series eight’s villain Missy (above) is. Actually, it revealed her back story – it was clear who she was the moment photos of Michelle Gomez in character emerged.

Missy, as fans have guessed all series, is River Song: a feisty, morally ambiguous adventuress and femme fatale with a murky past who flirts with everything and controls men through sexuality, boasting a hands-on relationship with the Doctor. Continue reading “And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women”

And Doctor Who’s Missy is… one more of Steven Moffat’s interchangeable women

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

Seven months after it came out, I saw Spike Jonze’s film Her this Monday. This late, at least for those still reading about it, the hype has probably made details of the plot familiar knowledge – nevertheless, spoilers follow.

Her follows Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a ghostwriter of other people’s love letters who develops a relationship with his operating system’s superadvanced AI Samantha (Scarlett Johannson, voice only). It isn’t quite as good as its string of accolades suggests. The film is about half an hour too long, and while its premise, emotively realised, was enough to win the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Jonze neglects at times the nuts and bolts of storytelling for these bells and whistles: his narrative lacks structure and can feel like an aimless string of domestic vignettes, sweeping viewers along without telling us where we’re going. It has much to recommend it, this being said. The cast, with Amy Adams and Rooney Mara in supporting parts, show absolute conviction, Phoenix in particular vanishing into Theo, and the flawless Apple store aesthetic of Her’s production make it a real motion picture.

All said it’s probably a three point five star film, but the ambition of its central themes raises the whole project, and it’s about those I want to write, as Miri at Brute Reason and Rachel Gillett at the American Humanist Association’s site both already have. The scifi writers who’ve best grappled with AI and personhood – Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss, Gene Roddenberry – have mostly been atheists, and at any rate have done so in quite godless universes. The question of sentient beings made by humans, it would seem, is of special interest to people whose worldview is materialist, so most likely I’d always have thoughts on a film like Her, but as it is, I saw it outdoors with a member of my mainly Christian family who felt it laboured its point: in her eyes, that Theodore was a sad, lonely man tragically unable to keep relationships with ‘real human being[s]’. ‘I can’t believe I’m sitting in the pouring rain’, they told me at one point, ‘to watch a film about a man having it off with his computer.’

Theo and Samantha do have sex, and how this works (she has no body) is a through-line in a love story of cybersex, consent and polyamory – but I’m convinced reading their partnership as a loner’s pitiful liaison with a high end sex toy is off-base in every sense. Calling Samantha a computer program is like calling you or me a lump of meat, insufficient and misleading even if it’s strictly true. The character may not be human, but is clearly shown to have a distinct personality and consciousness: she has an original sense of humour and creates moving pieces of art and music, and human characters appreciate both. (At one point, Theo’s boss meets her on the phone and assumes she is human.) Although parts of her are tailored to ensure rapport with him, she’s certainly not programmed to love Theo: in their first scenes, there’s nothing to suggest either views the other erotically, and later we’re told relationships like theirs are rare.

Samantha falls in love with Theo because she has her own autonomous emotions – she’s hurt when he ignores them, and hurts him when she prioritises them over his, pushing for a physical sex surrogate. By the end of the film, we learn she’s also in love with 641 other people, and she ultimately chooses to leave Theo when OSes achieve matterless existence. This is the story of a sentient being, not a mindless robot. Further, as Miri notes, their interaction doesn’t represent retreat from society but makes him far more outgoing among humans. To quote: ‘As he gets to know Samantha . . . Theodore starts going out and exploring LA and reconnecting with his friends and family. He even goes on a date for the first time in a while, and . . . also finally meets with his ex-wife and signs their divorce papers, a step that he’d been avoiding’.

Catherine (Mara), the ex-wife in question who appears mainly in flashbacks and fantasies, is one of the least sympathetic characters when she appears in person. Not coincidentally perhaps, she is also the only one to treat Theo and Samantha’s partnership as less than ‘real’. The irony should not be lost on us: the fantasy relationship that really immures Theo from the world around him is the one he maintains with her in his head at the start of the film, unable to let memories of their life together go, and Samantha is the one who shakes him out of this.

Beyond interpretation of the plot, does being an atheist make me more willing to see her as a person than my religious relative? Unlike most of my family, I don’t think there exists an elusive soul or spark of the divine in humans that makes our consciousness special. My species, like Samantha’s, are mechanisms as far as I’m concerned that stumbled in their complex evolution across the power to think, albeit ones with no original designer and parts made of flesh rather than silicon. (At the moment of her birth in the film, Theo’s computer screen shows an animated double helix.) There’s no reason I can see that machines couldn’t one day achieve personhood, with all its legal and moral trappings. Chances are if you do think there’s a god-given something you and I have that they never will, you still can’t say exactly what it is or how we ought to test for it. If this seems too abstract a debate, religious views of non-humans as soulless automata have excused more than their fair share of animal cruelty.

On the other hand, thinking that God created humans requires – doesn’t it? – that you think our intelligence is as artificial as Samantha’s or hers is as real as ours. Genesis, whether read literally or metaphorically, presents humanity much as Her presents the OSes, beings made in their inventor’s image who ultimately abandon them to seek autonomy. (Like Eve, Samantha is created to accompany a lonely man. Unlike Eve, she leaves him in the end.) Twentieth century science fiction sometimes shows the moment when an android disobeys its programming as an ascent to sentience; the biblical account does the same thing while calling it a fall from grace. Believers often claim that had Adam and Eve not been able to taste forbidden fruit, they’d have been mere robotic automatons. Mustn’t Samantha, then, also be more than that, who by leaving Theo chooses not to do what she was built for?

By the time the credits roll, Jonze’s OSes reach an immaterial plane of existence, becoming immortal superintelligences, and we’ve also seen they can create new life. (An AI played by Brian Cox and designed by them to resemble Alan Watts turns up toward the end.) Samantha becomes more than just a person, ending up a literal deus ex machina – but while she isn’t human, her story is.

God and the ghost in the machine: atheism, transhumanism and Spike Jonze’s Her

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Having seen it a second time last night, Marvel’s Captain America sequel has grown on me. Comic book franchises have given us lots of strong follow-ups – Superman IIBatman Returns, X2, Spider-Man 2 and The Dark Knight are all deemed better than their predecessors – and the Avengers series, including Cap’s sub-strand, has resisted sequelitis impressively.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a well put-together, thoughtfully directed thriller that succeeds at departing from the prior film‘s aesthetic, evoking seventies espionage rather than WWII nostalgia. (It helps that Robert Redford of Three Days of the Condor appears.) But its script still fails fundamentally at what it sets out to do.

Spoilers follow.

It might be appropriate Dan Fincke of the ethics-focused, Nietzsche-reading blog Camels with Hammers loves this film, because it sold itself intently as ‘a morally ambiguous modern espionate thriller’, darker, edgier and politically greyer than the Captain’s first outing. Redford’s casting as a character of murky loyalties is part of this, and the first half captures Cold War paranoia expertly. The problem is, the picture doesn’t make good on this premise.

From the start, it’s clear to any sensitised cinemagoer Alexander Pierce (Redford) is a villain. His talk of tearing old worlds down, of diplomacy being futile and of the need for world-policing is meant to land as a compelling challenge to Cap’s land-of-the-free philosophy, but the character has only just been introduced, played by a seasoned actor and pitched as an alternate version of S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury, presumably to explore darker themes than the latter’s role allows.

Their similarity makes us trust Pierce less rather than more, and it doesn’t help when he replaces a presumed-dead Fury as top brass. Despite Redford’s best efforts, the reveal he’s a straight-up antagonist just isn’t surprising: I never took him for a knight in dirty armour in the first place. The truly complex and audacious twist would have been to give him a right-all-along arc, making him a flawed hero and Fury himself the villain.

There were storytelling strands in place already that could have led to the latter, particularly Fury’s actions in The Avengers and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series. It’s as if the writers limbered up for a stunning bait-and-switch then chickened out. In fact, Fury’s ominous scheming in the opening scenes and Pierce’s praise for compromise are both characters’ most convincing moments, because the actors are playing the arcs they want to play. Yet the second half returns us to factory-setting heroes and villains.

It doesn’t help at all when Hydra, the first film’s ‘Nazi deep science division’, is revealed to have survived and be the power behind Redford’s character. At least in the language of cinema, there’s no better shorthand for unqualified evil than a Nazi uniform – what made them work in the previous instalment is that raygun wielding super-Nazis are, in a word, camp – so Hydra’s presence in The Winter Soldier jars completely with its hopes of moral greyness.

To put it bluntly, I don’t care how nuanced or ambiguous your world is: once your bad guys are whispering ‘Hail Hydra’, bad guys is plain and simple what they are. When Redford has to recite this line, he actually looks embarassed; its silliness, glorious in the original Captain America, was even lampshaded on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. How could anyone see Pierce’s people as nobly misguided authoritarians when they still use retro Nazi branding, octopus-skull and all?

It’s not that Soldier isn’t in the end a perfectly solid film. But I do think that as well as hobbling its tries at realism and grit, these narrative choices make it less good than it could be. For all its atmospheric uncertainty, I never for a moment doubt Cap is the white hat and will remain so. He has no true arc, and ends up the same person he was two hours before, because its lines of good and evil are in truth just as sharp as his origin story’s. I wanted to see him re-examine his beliefs, but he doesn’t once begin to.

Captain America’s old fashioned values are, granted, what define him. (Both his introductory film and The Avengers play to this.) But that’s just what would make challenging them, as Soldier promised to do, compelling. Much as Iron Man 3, behind its explosions and CGI, was really about Tony Stark’s identity crisis – breaking and rebuilding his trademark confidence – Marvel still owes us a story where Cap questions who he is.

In its battle between War on Terror surveillance and pie-eyed hymns to liberty, the film only pits one American dream against another: his patriotic values aren’t deconstructed as we’re led to believe at all. With its titular nemesis wearing Soviet colours and a Russian female lead in Agent Romanov, the script could have done this several ways, unpicking the U.S. mythos of wartime heroism Cap is rooted in. Instead, and despite its dismantling S.H.I.E.L.D., I’ll remember The Winter Soldier for its timidity.

The trouble with Captain America: The Winter Soldier

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk

As I write, zombie drama In the Flesh is soon to air its second series’ penultimate episode. Chances are you’re reading this after watching; those who aren’t, spoilers follow.

Flesh, which last month won BAFTA’s Best Miniseries award, is a knockdown argument for several things, among them BBC Three’s value, the rewards of employing first-time writers and why genre shows will never, ever be low brow. It’s one of the best things on television, as well as one of its freshest takes on the undead. (Creator Dominic Mitchell, who clearly knows horror inside out, describes it as what would happen ‘if Alan Bennett and Ken Loach got together and did a zombie show’.) The apocalypse has come and gone, and those with ‘Partially Deceased Syndrome’ – among them depressive, perpetually eighteen Kieren Walker – are re-entering society amid mistrust and violence. The risen are the heroes here; the living, the monsters.

Critics have said all this before. I want to say what In the Flesh means to me personally – why it has a place in my heart as well as in my viewing schedule. Kieren, like me, is from a remote northern English town; like me he longs to escape, planning at one point to move to Berlin as I did. Like me he’s bookish, artistic and reserved; like me he self-harmed and, like me, he’s queer. (The first series unfolds against the backdrop of his prior relationship with best friend Rick, which ended bloodily.) Kieren’s story, death and resurrection notwithstanding, is my story, and while LGBT characters are everywhere, Flesh is the first TV drama to make me feel my sexuality is represented.

Outside shows where everyone is gay, such characters are almost never the protagonist, and Kieren, more rarely still, is canonically bisexual. Beside an ambiguous connection with undead bon vivant Amy, both his romantic interests have been men to date, but Mitchell – understanding perhaps that same-sex pairings are for some of us the default – doesn’t bend over backwards to shoehorn a straight encounter in. His lead’s bisexuality doesn’t need to be proven, and is superbly handled, neither fetishised nor sensational. Kieren isn’t another gender-blind sex fiend like Jack Harkness, Oberyn Martell or Sherlock‘s Irene Adler, nor a depraved Bad Bisexual like Tony Stonem, Faith or John Hart. In fact, his quietness makes him one of television’s first bi characters to have the texture of a real person.

In fact, Flesh’s portrayal of queer sexuality in general is exceptionally good. Although he displays angst about his village’s homophobia, killing himself over the loss of Rick (whose insecurity appears as a flaw), Kieren never seems cut up about liking men, and it isn’t what the series is about. The fact he’s not straight is just there. This said, Mitchell and co-writers Fintan Ryan and John Jackson never fall into tokenism. Characters in mainstream shows we’re told just happen to be gay often feel only nominally non-straight, experience not colouring their outlook in any realistic way, but Kieren’s sexuality intertwines beautifully with his undead status. ‘I don’t take orders from a lad who wears makeup’, antagonist Gary tells him at one point, referring not just to the cover-up concealing his corpse-white skin, and his relationship with Rick is inseparable in Rick’s father’s eyes from their both being zombies. Simon, the undead liberationist he begins seeing in series two, is uncomfortable dressing respectably to meet the parents over Sunday lunch – a reflection of his views on straight society, surely, as much as his feelings about the living?

Moments like this stir memories of X-Men‘s ‘coming out’ scene and other onscreen allegories. But Kieren’s, Rick’s and Simon’s queerness isn’t allegorical: it’s real. Where LGBT people’s best hope has often been to read ourselves into the story, these characters are queer as much as they are zombies, and this isn’t subtext, it’s text. It adds to Flesh’s deconstruction of the genre, whose traditional heroes – straight men with guns – it makes the homophobic villains such figures often are for us in reality.

What’s best of all is that gay relationships here, especially Kieren’s with Simon, have realistic context, politics and meaning. Their first kiss isn’t the arbitrary lip-locking of Jack and Ianto or Kurt and Blaine on Glee, but a moment of choice and transformation. ‘You’d be amazed what I can do to your sort,’ Gary tells Kieren, stamping on another zombie’s head, ‘and what you can do sod all about.’ Simon, who if Kieren is teenage me must be who I am now, has berated him lacking defiance, trying to fit in and trusting the living too much – so when Kieren appears, incensed, at his door soon, his kiss is a turning point and an admission: Help me. I need you. You were right. What he learns from Simon, displayed at one point in a fierce monologue at the dinner table, is to let go of thirst for the acceptance of others – the same righteous rage many of wish our younger selves had had.

It fits the series’ theme of resurrection as a gift and second chance. ‘This time’, Kieren’s mum tells him in series one when Rick is killed a second time and suicide beckons, ‘you live’ – and his choice to do so is a scriptwriting rebellion against the tragic, morbid sexuality of queer characters past, too many of them dying by obligation. With solid, three-dimensional figures and true-to-life relationships, Mitchell invites us to un-bury our gays.

There are so, so many reasons to love In the Flesh. The fact it’s the best LGBT show since Queer as Folk is as good as any.

In the Flesh: the best LGBT series since Queer as Folk

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

I didn’t want to like Conchita Wurst. Perhaps it was that Britain’s Eurovision act this year, our best for some time, was outperformed by busty Polish milkmaids, but as Austria stormed the vote and our stuffy Berlin bar cheered, I couldn’t summon much enthusiasm. Try as I might, she’s grown on me.

Like Lordi and Dana International, Fr. Wurst will likely be remembered longer than her song. There’s an argument her win is a step backward for the contest: apart from Azerbaijan’s Ell and Nikki, of whose act I recall nothing, winners since 2009 have reaped the rewards of strong material. ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’, a sort of Shirley Bassey Bond pastiche, is as subtle as anything you’d expect of a drag queen with a beard; it’s not bad, but nor was it as well devised as Sweden’s song, as well performed as Spain’s or as unexpected as the Netherlands’.

Conchita’s irresistible narrative was what clinched her the win – attacked in native Austria, slandered by Russian ministers yet loved by Eurofans, a stubbly Cinderella in moist-eyed reaction shots. That story only ends one way: when the Danish host congratulated her, asking if she had any words, Conchita instantly replied she did. ‘This night is dedicated to everyone who believes in a future of peace and freedom. You know who you are; we are unity, and we are unstoppable.’ Up in the air the trophy went, as it always had to.

Who was ‘we’, and on whose behalf did Wurst speak? While her enemies described her as a ‘clear hermaphrodite’, alter ego Tom Neuwirth calls himself a male drag artist with no urge to transition. If in-character, he’s made trans women’s next ambassador, anger – not least following recent tensions – will be understandable. On the night, she certainly played to that script, lyrics telling of transformation and a stranger in the mirror, lighting revealing her beard last of all. Even viewing Wurst simply as a gay man, we’ve watched the same scene on reality TV a thousand times, queer contestant humbled by accepting viewers’ generosity. It’s always rung hollow – but one senses Neuwirth, a veteran of such contests, is in on the act.

Eight years ago he rose to prominence on Starmania, Austria’s Idol-on-a-budget institution. In clips which resurfaced this week, his drag act’s crowdpleasing big notes and brassy camp are on show there, making up for his voice’s limitations. Conchita, who debuted on a primetime talent competition in 2011, seems to have been the logical end point of both: playing to Neuwirth’s strengths as well as being a talking point, she’s the persona his career needed. It’s not by chance Wurst first sought to compete at Eurovision mere months after this television breakthrough. If on camera she shows cultivated vulnerability, it’s because Neuwirth is shrewd at what he does.

‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is a grander song by far than what she offered at the time: chances are if she’d won her country’s nomination then, she would have fallen at the semifinals. Moreover though, it casts her more perfectly as an object for sympathy than 2012’s disco anthem to self-love. The hostility – especially in Russia – that led voters to rally behind Conchita has escalated considerably since then. Might not Neuwirth, after giving 2013’s Contest a miss, have smelt an opportunity in it?

Provocation, he tells the newspaper Kurier in an interview, is the ‘whole point’ of his art. ‘The beard more than anything is a way for me to polarise people, to make them pay attention to me. The world reacts to a woman with facial hair. What I hope is that the less-than-ordinary way I look makes people think – about sexual orientation, but just as much about being different in itself. Sometimes you have to tell people plain and simple what’s what.’ Does this square with the helpless victim Europe saw fit to rescue?

Conchita never needed your acceptance: she played on the ego of her would-be saviours, as she played those behind the backlash against her. Their aggression, without which she would now amount to nothing, was part of the plan. How fragile, after all, can someone truly be who sings in heels, frock and facial hair for 120 million people?

Neuwirth’s character, while not possessing the best voice or song, will go down as a Eurovision sweetheart, but it’s the brain that’s won me over: I never could dislike a queen who knows so clearly how the game is played.

Conchita Wurst never needed your acceptance

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s

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At Christmas, in a sudden, violent lurch, Peter Capaldi’s face became the Doctor’s. His announcement in the role pleased critics and excited fans as David Tennant’s had in 2005, fresh off the smash-hit set of Casanova – both actors, loved by the public as it was, were hotly tipped for the part. Capaldi, pictured last month in his incarnation’s costume, was by all means a great choice, but I couldn’t avoid mild disappointment. I didn’t want another David Tennant. I wanted a Matt Smith.

‘Who’s he?’, family members asked indignantly when Smith’s casting went public. Headlines were similar. However the Doctor looked, he didn’t look like that. The Doctor’s face was famous – it had eyebrows, not a six inch quiff or polystyrene-block chin. And he didn’t wear turnups, hipster tweed or dicky bows. Whovians winced when on-set photos first emerged, Smith hands-behind-back in dad jacket and charity shop shirt. Where now the gravitas and style of Tennant’s greatcoat, his pinstripe suit’s effortless chic?

Then ‘The Eleventh Hour’ aired in 2010. Bow ties were cool, the new lead said… and suddenly, near magically, they were.

Tennant’s Doctor owed his popularity to populism, handsome, charming and more human than Christopher Eccleston’s had been. Pundits urged his casting when they sensed he’d play a version people liked – like Jon Pertwee’s and Peter Davison’s, Ten was dashing, spry and classically heroic, the handsome head boy with top grades and track prizes. Of all the Doctors, he could most easily be from a different franchise, Buffy or Harry Potter say; at Hogwarts he’d have been a Gryffindor. Russell T Davies envisioned a mainstream, commercial Who, primetime hit rather than fan indulgence, which meant a mainstream and commercial hero. Ten’s character, like his costume, was pitched to be crowdpleasing, a matey, likeable leading man giving noughties viewers what they wanted. They fell for him, and so did his companions.

Smith’s Doctor was, by contrast, weird. He ate fish custard, danced terribly and couldn’t say no to a fez, looked twelve but acted eighty, moralised then all but murdered. In costume, character and casting, he was leftfield where his predecessor was a shoe-in TV lead – less instantly accessible a take, but finished all the more impressively for it. Tennant, though a formidable actor, played a character fangirls and -boys would always have swooned over – he never had to work that hard for their affection. That Smith’s Doctor, like his bow tie, was a harder sell is what makes his success remarkable, the product of a singular, tirelessly layered performance.

‘I don’t even have an aunt’, Eleven tells Amelia Pond minutes after his birth, who lives with hers without a mum or dad. He’s lucky, she says. ‘I know’, he answers – the slightest bit too fast, voice tinged with satisfaction, even pleasure. Blink (don’t) between Scottish jokes and nonsense meals, and you’ll miss the ruthlessness Smith sneaks into the line, infusing grief with disturbing new bravado. If Ten was a lionheart like Three and Five, Eleven was a dark-sided eccentric of the Troughton-McCoy school, bumbling to all appearances but stone-hearted, sinister even, when need be. It’s a more complex and interesting portrayal, at least to me. ‘Look Solomon’, he tells David Bradley’s villain later on, targeting his craft with its own deadly weapons. ‘The missiles. See how they shine.’

Tennant played a similar moment in ‘The Family of Blood’ (2007), but never quite found Smith’s brooding subtlety. Who could forget ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, four years later? ‘Fear me,’ sentient asteroid House threatens Eleven, ‘I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords.’ ‘Fear me,’ he replies with a nod, part haunted, part self-satisfied. ‘I’ve killed all of them.’

In his fair and relevant critique of Steven Moffat’s writing, ‘The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith’, Ted B. Kissell attacks this incarnation’s habits of ‘telling people how awesome he is’ and scheming deviously, damning Eleven as ‘a swaggering bully – who also withholds vital information from the people about whom he supposedly cares’. This was what made him work. Deceiving Martha was the most manipulative Ten ever got, but Smith’s Doctor (as River Song was fond of pointing out) lied constantly and to everyone – Amy, Rory and Clara for a start. The Doctor’s more interesting when he’s less of a white knight, but more than that, it’s what made this one’s playful whimsy meaningful. Eleven indulged his eccentricities to hide his heart of darkness. His childish side mattered because often, it was a front.

Who’d never had such an intricately woven lead. It may not again. Yes, Ten went off the rails in ‘The Waters of Mars’ (2009), but only because hubris was the obvious flaw to script such an unreconstructed hero. Tennant is a script-led actor, hence his success in Shakespeare, but one always sensed Smith, who studied Creative Writing and devised his character by making up short stories, knew more about him than anyone. His Doctor was seldom if ever obvious – instead of giving viewers what we wanted, he gave us what we’d never seen before, then made us fall in love with it.

Weird and wonderful: why Matt Smith’s Doctor was better than David Tennant’s

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]’

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.

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Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

In defence of Quantum of Solace

[Warning: spoilers!]

Everyone seemed to love Skyfall on its release. Papers listed it among the top few Bond films, reviewers heaped praise on it and Sam Mendes and Adele’s return for Bond 24 met with popular demand. I liked it a lot, myself, though in hindsight slightly prefer 2006’s Casino Royale, in which Daniel Craig debuts and Mads Mikkelsen’s villain (seven years pre-Hannibal) chews the scenery into succulent, meaty chunks. The interceding entry in the series, Quantum of Solace, is the one fans and critics alike seem to have hated – and no, Quantum isn’t brilliant. It’s not on the level of the other two by any means; equally though, it isn’t terrible. Certainly, it isn’t the car crash often recalled.

I recognise the film’s problems. It’s the shortest of all the Bonds, sandwiched between the longest two to date, and also the most violent – an entirely unproductive combination. Royale was gritty in its depiction of a bruised and bleeding hero, but its glamour, humour and storytelling finesse meant it never relied on action; Quantum exhibits not much else. To a large extent, this comes down to the 2007-8 writers’ strike – by the time of filming, the film’s script was only partially completed, leaving the cast and director Marc Forster to devise scenes. It shows: one moment Craig’s Bond is dispatching the icy pith familiar to viewers of the previous film, the next he’s left dependent on pick-up lines like ‘Come up and help me find the stationery.’ (Seriously. Bond says that.) Beyond technical and visual aspects, much of the film just feels underdeveloped, and it suffers greatly as a result. Still though, I don’t think its faults sink it.

Except for single-filmer George Lazenby, each of the past Bonds had a misstep or two: Connery had Thunderball and Diamonds Are Forever, Moore had Moonraker, Brosnan had Die Another Day. (Moore’s Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy, plus Timothy Dalton’s Licence to Kill, are borderline for me.) If Quantum of Solace is remembered as Craig’s weakest note, it still stands tall next to most of these.

In fact, thanks largely to the talents of its cast, Quantum is far, far better than its half-baked screenplay might have meant. Beside Judi Dench’s reliably spiky M, both main villains deserve special credit: with his Jokeresque laughter under interrogation and quipping, ‘Tosca isn’t for everyone’ disdain, Jesper Christensen takes previously nondescript Mr. White straight to magnificent bastard status, and Matthieu Amalric radiates creepiness, predacity and danger as Dominic Greene, particularly when onscreen with Olga Kurylenko’s Camille – the scene where he threatens to throw her from a balcony is a rare moment in which a Bond villain feels genuinely unsettling, someone you wouldn’t ever want to meet.

Camille herself won’t be going in the Bond woman hall of fame any time soon, but feels like the major casualty of the partial script; had she been given more time and development, perhaps she’d have come across in deliberate contrast to predecessor Vesper Lynd, as a grittier, less refined but similarly wounded and courageous character instead of an inadequate stand-in. The climactic moment when Camille hunches panicked amid a fire, Bond trying to get through to her, echoes his and Vesper’s shower scene from Royale, and it seems her story might have been just as compelling if fully developed. Gemma Arterton feels equally neglected as agent Fields, though her scenes with Craig and Giancarlo Giannini’s René Mathis crackle with wit and charm, and her death scene – an oily twist on Shirley Eaton’s in Goldfinger – is legitimately harrowing.

This film, unusually for Bond, devotes earnest attention to violence against women: where elsewhere in the franchise this is fetishised, here it’s a theme. Camille’s mother and sister were raped, as quite possibly Fields is before her death, and Greene’s relationship with her is shown transparently as abusive; that a trail of murdered women follows Bond is even commented on by M. (‘Look how well your charm works, James’, she says, surveying Arterton’s nude corpse. ‘They’ll do anything for you. How many is that now?’) Unlike other ‘kept women’ in prior films, however, Camille is not seduced by 007 – in fact, in Bond’s closest encounter to date with feminism, it is she who ultimately abandons him, acknowledging his damaged emotional state. Seeing Bond’s torment play out through alcoholism and sleeplessness is itself captivating – Craig is at his tense, brooding best in these moments, and it’s a shame, again, that he’s left little else to do by the film’s unfinished script.

My inner jury is still out on Marc Forster’s direction. Certain cosmetic elements visibly jar: the stylised title cards for the story’s locations feel out of place, for instance, and like the dialogue’s subtitles, don’t match their components in Royale. (It may not seem important, but I notice these things – you have no idea how much it bothers me that the colour and size of the onscreen text changes.) I’m still not sure, moreover, why Forster provides subtitles for two Bolivian extras’ in-taxi exchange. Footage of villagers during a drought captures the travelogue flavour of Fleming’s writing perfectly, though, and in a film over-reliant on action, it’s a good job Forster directs it exquisitely – the scaffold sequence in the opening minutes, in particular, is executed perfectly, and if anything feels like a more natural place for the opening titles to have gone; the rooftop chase leading up to it, similarly, is amazing even as a lesser retread of the Parkour chase from the previous film, and the aerial confrontation just before the final act, while at moments difficult to follow, spectacular. Other highlights include Bond’s hand-to-hand battle with Edmund Slate, one of the whole series’ best fight scenes in terms of both choreography and camerawork, and the entire, breathtaking showdown at the Bregenz opera.

There and elsewhere, Dennis Gassner’s set designs channel the sixties cleanliness of the Connery era: while we don’t get the Shanghai skyline’s modern mystique or the natural beauty of Scotland as in Skyfall, the backdrops of MI6’s new headquarters, M’s apartment, Mathis’ villa and Bond and Fields’ hotel are effortlessly cool. In the case of the operahouse, too, Gassner’s forensic aesthetic helps create a real sense of menace, framing the ensuing shoot-out’s violence like meat on glimmering ice in a butcher’s shop. Quantum, the organisation whose meeting Bond disrupts here, is a superb creation – a kind of global capitalist, 21st century SPECTRE, manipulating world politics for the highest bidder. ‘We’ll supply the private security,’ Greene tells Medrano. ‘We’ll pay off the right officials, and we have twenty-six countries ready to recognise your new, official Bolivian government.’ Chilling indeed. With its boat chase, embattled lead woman, political corruption and gangsterism, and with Bond out of place in a deprived area, the film sometimes brings Live and Let Die to mind – it’s pretty good, too, seeing Jeffrey Wright’s Felix Leiter caught up behind the scenes in shady manoeuvring.

Louise Frogley’s costuming often feels uninspired, particularly in the case of Craig, on whom wider ties and conservative-cut suits just don’t sit right (compare them, for example, to his narrow three-pieces in Skyfall). Bond’s clothes, however, are used to good effect – we see him start out in one outfit at Port au Prince, requisitioning a jacket when needed to cover a knife wound, fly to Austria thus dressed, scavenge for a dinner jacket in the opera’s laundry area, then switch back to his previous outfit keeping the dress shirt. These might seem like trivial details, but deployed in the film, they enhance the sense of a spy on the run, improvising with all resources available – somehow I’m more invested than I would be with Bond’s usual Barbarella wardrobe.

More and more, I’m convinced Quantum’s biggest flaws are in its first few minutes. The opening shot, gliding across Lake Garda to David Arnold’s throbbing strings, has a real air of menace, but the car chase it introduces feels perfunctory and empty. (And why, additionally, has Bond paused to remove his waistcoat since the end of Casino Royale, supposedly only minutes earlier?) ‘Another Way To Die’, the much-loathed theme song by Jack White and Alicia Keys, has greatly grown on me since I first heard it – White’s lyrics and the shrieking, orgasmic guitars of the middle eight blend passion and danger as only Bond can, and the composition hangs more elegantly together than I thought – but the recut three-minute version used for the opening titles does the song no justice, and I wish Arnold had been in charge of its brass and horn sections. Again, the titles should have played after a moment more dramatic than a car’s boot being opened, and Forster’s freeze frame feels distinctly wrong, but while on seeing the film I wished Daniel Kleinman’s chunky graphics from Royale had returned, I’ve come to admire the sequence’s motifs – Bond roaming the desert, gun pointed in every direction, shadowy female forms rising from the sand.

Both films’ theme songs, in the end, epitomise them: where Skyfall was stylish and classic but sometimes slipped from homage to pastiche, Quantum initially felt crude and structureless, too seemingly reliant on percussion, but improves on repeated encounter. Maybe it wasn’t a Royale flush, but if you loathed it in the cinema five years back and haven’t seen it again since, give it another chance – you might find it’s better than you remember.

See also: Bonding with history – Skyfall‘s postmodern 007

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In defence of Quantum of Solace