Saturday, April 01, 2017

2017 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism - Applications open

Applications are now open for the 2017 Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass in Science Fiction Criticism. The 2017 Masterclass, the Eleventh, will take place from Friday 30 June to Sunday 2 July. We are delighted to have once again secured at the Royal Observatory Greenwich as a venue.
The 2017 Class Leaders are:
Nick Hubble (Brunel University)
John J. Johnston (Egypt Exploration Society)
Stephanie Saulter (author of Gemsigns and sequels)
Price: £225; £175 for registered postgraduate students.
To apply please send a short (no more than 3,000 words) piece of critical writing (a blog entry, review, essay, or other piece), and a one page curriculum vitae, to
Applications received by 24 April 2017 will be considered by an Applications Committee. Applications received after 24 April may be considered if places are still available, on a strictly first-come first served basis.
Past Masterclass students are encouraged to apply again (though we will prioritise applications from those who have not been previous students).
Information on past Masterclasses can be found at Please direct any enquiries to
Tony Keen, SFF Masterclass Administrator

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A National Gallery tour

[This is a post I originally put on my OU blog on 25 August 2010. I'm reposting it here so non-OU students and colleagues of mine can see it (back then I didn't have such things). Obviously, some of the paintings not on display then now are, and vice versa. And these days my route would be slightly different, including Bronzino's An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, and Lastmann's Juno discovering Jupiter with Io.]
At the beginning of this month I took my last group of students round the National Gallery in London as a post-exam treat. I've been doing this for a long time, and I hope that students appreciate it. The intention was to have a look at some paintings related to the Classical world, with one eye on A330 Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds. [These were students who had done the module on Exploring the Classical World, and might be tempted to the follow-on module.]
Anyway, the tour went as follows:
I began chronologically at the end, with Room 34: Great Britain 1750-1850. I began here simply because it seemed to make most sense in terms of the Gallery's layout, from the main entrance. I had come here for J.M.W. Turner's Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus - Homer's Odyssey. Turner didn't do a lot of Classical landscapes, but this one always appeals to me. I'm never quite sure if the Cyclops can be seen in this painting (is he the dark shape above the ship? or are those just rocks?), but there's lots of details you can point out, such as the almost-invisible horses of the sun, or the Trojan War depicted on the ship's flag (I nearly got in trouble from the attendants for getting too close when pointing that out). It's nicely placed next to The Fighting Temeraire.
We passed swiftly through Room 33: France 1700-1800, pausing only briefly for Psyche showing her Sisters her Gifts from Cupid. We paused only slightly longer in Room 32: Italy. There we looked at Dido receiving Aeneas and Cupid disguised as Ascanius and, on the opposite wall, Perseus turning Phineas and his Followers to Stone. With regard to the latter, I talked about how many of the mythological scenes depicted in post-Renaissance painting are derived from Ovid's Metamorphoses. In that context, I should really have discussed The Fall of Phaeton, but I didn't.
In Room 30: Spain, we stopped at The Toilet of Venus. Here we talked about how, in this commission for the Marqués del Carpio, Diego Velázquez was able to use the cloak of making the painting mythological essentially to allow him to depict a real naked woman, in a manner that would otherwise be unacceptable - if not for the addition of wings to the boy, this would have been considered wholly immoral. Even then, it was probably not displayed publicly. And it has remained controversial, as shown when a suffragette slashed it in 1914. I also find it interesting that when Manet, to all intents and purposes, showed us the other side of this image in Olympia, whilst he stripped away much of the mythological associations, he left her with a Classical name.
Room 29: Peter Paul Rubens, has paintings that we could have looked at, including two versions of The Judgement of Paris. Instead, we headed for Room 12: Titian and Venice 1500-1530 [this has now moved to Room 2]. The key piece here is Bacchus and Ariadne. I really liked talking about this painting, because there is so much one can get out of it. It crystallizes the moment that Ariadne ceases to care about Theseus, who has abandoned her (Theseus was, frankly, a bit of a [four letter word], at least in this instance). This is symbolized by making his ship very small, and placing it on the opposite side of Ariadne from where she is looking. But there is so much more: Ariadne's crown set in the sky as stars, the chariot of Bacchus in the form of a sarcophagus, thus symbolizing resurrection, the sly nod to the Sistine chapel in Bacchus' arm. (I'm grateful to Chris Wilson for pointing that out in a previous National Gallery trip that he led, and which he is repeating for the London Region Arts Club on Sunday October 17.)
We also went across the intersection to Room 10: Venice 1530–1600 [now Room 6], for Titian's unfinished The Death of Actaeon. Here, once again, one can see the influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Though the transformation into a stag is in the earliest versions of the myth, there are other versions (in vase painting, etc.) in which the transformation appears not to take place, and it is Ovid's terrifying description in Metamorphoses 3.138-255 of Actaeon being torn apart by his own hounds, unable to communicate with them, has become the dominant version. Unfortunately, Titian's companion piece to this painting, Diana and Actaeon, is not currently on display - it's jointly owned with the National Galleries of Scotland, and spends five years at each institution, so at the moment it's in Edinburgh. [It is now, of course, in London.] (Charles Martindale has an interesting discussion of Titian and Ovid, including these paintings, in Redeeming the Text, pp. 60-64.)
From there it was off to Room 19: Nicholas Poussin, principally for two treatments of essentially the same subject, A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term of 1632-1633, and The Triumph of Pan, from 1636. We compared the two paintings, and also compared them with the same artist's The Adoration of the Golden Calf, and Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne. I feel that the revel in the earlier painting looks like mostly harmless fun, whilst that in the later one has the air of an event about to get out of control.
From there, it was into the Sainsbury Wing for the mediaeval paintings. Actually, there was only one room we were interested in, Room 58: Paintings for Florentine Palaces. When we arrived, another tour group was already there, so we listened to their guide talk about A Satyr Mourning Over A Nymph. When they departed, we went to look at Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Apollo and Daphne [the National Gallery now attributes this to his brother, Piero], which depicts the climax of the Daphne myth (scroll down), the point where the nymph Daphne is being transformed into a laurel bush to save her from the god Apollo's amorous intentions. The Penguin translation of the Metamorphoses, which is a set book for A330, has on its cover Bernini's sculpture of the same moment, in which Daphne is being transformed from arms downwards, as in this painting, but also from her legs upwards. The Bernini is probably a better encapsulation of frustrated desire, but it's interesting to compare this to the earlier (by about 150 years) painting (which, incidentally, is used - though for some reason reversed - as the cover for the Penguin edition of Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation, which Penguin has in print as a classic of English literature).
Unfortunately, the painting that I would have like to conclude with, Botticelli's Venus and Mars, is not currently on display in this room, being shown in the exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, next to a painting that was bought together with Venus and Mars in 1874, and considered at the time to be another Botticelli, though it patently isn't. What I like about Venus and Mars is the contrast between Mars and Venus. The former is asleep, clearly exhausted after a bout of lovemaking. Venus, on the other hand, is wide awake, with a rather inscrutable look on her face. I wonder if she is going through the experience of women through the ages, the post-coital thought, "was that it?"
This, of course, doesn't get close to covering all the paintings in the National Gallery's collection that have mythological subjects, or even all the ones on display (I tried and failed to spot Claude's Landscape with Aeneas at Delos as we passed). The Gallery used to publish a useful Pocket Guide on Myths and Legends. This covers some of the most significant mythological paintings in the collection, including some, though not all, of the ones I mention above. It no longer appears available through their online ship, but you can get it at Amazon, though their stock is almost exhausted. [Now it's via Amazon Marketplace.]

Monday, January 02, 2017

Sherlock, 'The Six Thatchers'

(It's impossible to talk about 'The Six Thatchers' without including spoilers. Hence, there are spoilers here, eventually.)

So now we get the other Steven Moffat series that's been off the screens for exactly a year. How did this one fare? Well, it was probably better than Doctor Who; as the first episode of a new season, it is perforce more substantial than the throwaways that Doctor Who Christmas episodes seem to be now. And it was certainly better than the self-indulgent mess that was last year's 'The Abominable Bride'.

Indeed, there are quite a few moments in 'The Six Thatchers' that remind us of why we became fans of Sherlock in the first place. If Mark Gatiss' script tends to assume that the audience likes the characters, rather than giving them reasons for doing so, it nevertheless has a number of good jokes and quite a lot of clever dialogue. Some scenes definitely had me smiling. There's a neat twist on the original 'Adventure of the Six Napoleons', though one might feel Margaret Thatcher is still perhaps too divisive a character to be used in this role - many will relish the smashing up of her image, others will be offended by it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is very much back on form. Other performances, however, with one exception, are a bit muted. There are some other problems - there's an opening scene, largely designed to get the writers out of a hole they shouldn't have got into in the first place, in which Sherlock appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Peter Capaldi's Twelfth Doctor. And, given the reliance of the show on the John Le Carré international espionage aesthetic for a number of sequences, it's unfortunate, if beyond the showrunners' control, that television audiences have in 2016 been exposed to real Le Carré in the form of The Night Manager, which does this sort of thing so much better. (Incidentally, the 2016 edition of Le Carré's novel includes a fascinating afterword on the experience of seeing his book filmed.)

But overall, 'The Six Thatchers' was doing okay. And then it fell at the final hurdle. And here come the spoilers.

The other first rate performance in this episode is, of course, that of Amanda Abbington. Finally, she gets to convince the viewers that Mary Watson really is a superspy and international woman of mystery. But she's only given this leeway because it's her last opportunity.

That Sherlock would eventually fridge Mary was not exactly unexpected, not least because Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his own Mary. I was quite surprised that she made it through Season 3. The moment that the contents of the last Thatcher turns out to be an AGRA data stick rather than the expected pearl, it's clear that she won't be alive by the end of the episode.

But, as with the death of Osgood in the Doctor Who episode 'Death in Heaven', the creators seemed to feel that they had to kill the character off, but couldn't work out how to do it properly. In this case, Mary's death is pretty contrived. I was expecting the villain Norbury instead of shooting Sherlock to shoot the tank in the aquarium, which would have been a surprising, if unrealistic scene - but this was probably beyond the show's budget. More seriously, Mary seems to need some sort of super-speed to actually get in front of the bullet fired at Sherlock, given that she doesn't respond until it's already left the pistol barrel.

The disappointment here is that there was an opportunity here to subvert genre tropes, but instead the creators chose to lazily follow them. They probably take the view that Sherlock is ultimately about the relationship between men, and women get in the way of that (an inherent drawback of a 130-year old franchise, that can be overcome, but only if creators make an effort). And so we will get at least ninety minutes of John Watson's manpain.

Sherlock, 'The Abominable Bride'

[Another review from the archives, of last New Year's Sherlock.]

When I saw the trailer for 'The Abominable Bride', I wondered if this might actually be Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes for once. Of course, that doesn't happen - instead we get the usual much less likeable, much more arrogant and often bullying version that we've seen for three seasons of Sherlock.

Nor do Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss go the whole hog and do an actual Victorian Alternate Universe version of the show - instead, this is all going on in Sherlock's mind, and is therefore of no real consequence. It takes place in the immediate follow-up to the end of Season 3, where Sherlock had committed murder largely because Moffat and Gatiss could find no other way out of the plot corner they had written themselves into, and then used the return of Jim 'Thighs' Moriarty, whom they seem to have turned into a supervillain, as a deus ex machina so that they could continue to make episodes. To be honest, I'd have preferred the AU.

As Dan Hartland observes, in a piece that's well worth reading in full, 'The Abominable Bride' is primarily an exercise in self-referentiality. It's oh-so-clever, down to the final scene that is meant to have you wondering whether it's the 2010s or 1890s Sherlock who is real. This is the same trick that Moffat pulls at the end of the Doctor Who episode 'Last Christmas', where a final tangerine implies that the Doctor and Clara Oswald are still dreaming (which may be a great get-out from the succeeding two years of continuity). The device was frankly old when Buffy the Vampire Slayer did it in 'Normal Again'. These days, I am past caring.

Neither do I care for the overly blokish 'look, we're feminists too' pronouncements with which the episode is littered, about as convincing as David Cameron saying that he really is on the side of the poor (though, as has been pointed out to me, if this is all in Sherlock's head, then the feminism is a priori going to be caricatured). But the biggest problem is that what there is not in this episode is much in the way of story, and what there is is pretty confused.

There are good performances, of course. In particular, Rupert Graves' slightly confused Inspector Lestrade works much more effectively in the Victorian context than in the twenty-first century, where one feels he would be rapidly sidelined from any real work. Martin Freeman as John Watson does well with a set of lines that seem designed to make him look as stupid as possible, the error made by the otherwise admirable Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce versions of Holmes and Watson. If this is what Sherlock actually thinks John Watson is like, and the words are not Watson's but Sherlock's imaginings of Watson's, then it's hard to see how their friendship survives.

But these performances are not enough. In short, 'The Abominable Bride' is a mess. A very pretty and professionally made mess, but, as with recent Doctor Who (though it is better than that), arguably evidence that the showrunners are out of ideas, and continuing to do the show merely out of habit.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Me in Journey Planet 30

There's a new Journey Planet out, edited by James Bacon and Christopher J Garcia, all about the First World War, I have a short piece in it, recommending a couple of books on the War.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Doctor Who, 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio'

Round my place, watching the Doctor Who Christmas Special and then saying 'Oh dear' has become as much a tradition of Christmas as sprouts and arguing over Trivial Pursuit. Truth to tell, last year I wasn't able to engage in that quite as much as previously. And this year, I have to say I did this even less. Hell, 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' is okay - arguably Peter Capaldi's best special. But does that mean it's actually any good?

There are definitely good things about it. Capaldi's performance is becoming progressively more appealing. Steven Moffat's ability to write excellent dialogue, well-remembered from Coupling, but something that has got a bit obscured at times on Who, is particularly on display here - the words positively crackle at times, and some bits are laugh-out-loud funny. There are some great bits, especially the scene with Mr Huffle, played well by Capaldi and Charity Wakefield. Matt Lucas, despite essentially portraying Matt Lucas, works quite well as a foil for the Doctor, loosened from the shackles of Clara Oswald - and also demonstrates that the Doctor did care about the fate of those cannibalized into the Hydroflax (one assumes he restored Ramone as well). It will be nice to see more of him, though one assumes that he will depart fairly soon after the arrival of new female companion Bill (who seems very much in the mould of RTD companions such as Rose Tyler and Donna Noble rather than that of Amy Pond or Clara). And 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' is certainly a story that's not opaque to anyone who hasn't seen the last three years of the show, thus enabling it to act as an entry point for new viewers.

And yet. And yet, at the risk of sounding like a grinch in the face of good reviews in the press and a Facebook feed full of friends saying how much they enjoyed this, concerns remain. Concerns that the alien invasion plot, part Spearhead from Space, part 'Partners in Crime' and part Independence Day, is a bit hackneyed, really. Concerns about the callous way the Doctor doesn't even attempt to save Brock, or feel bad about not being able to do so. Concerns that there are good ideas here, but they're often poorly executed. That things happen solely for a quick effect (e.g. Grant calling someone he's known since childhood by her married name, for no other reason than to surprise the audience once we see who she is; and why does the Ghost need to take the picnic basket into the stratosphere when it's destine for no further away than the roof of the building he lives in?). That the central romance is a bit stalkery, in the way of all good Hollywood romances. That even by the 1960s superhero stories had mostly given up pretending that you can bring a spaceship to an instantaneous stop without turning it and its contents to mush. That this sort of playful but respectful updating of the superhero genre is better done in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies (to which 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' plays explicit homage) or, more recently, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And is just okay good enough anyway? Aside from the Doctor's cameo in Class, this is the first Doctor Who in over a year. It really needs to come back firing on all cylinders. There are hints that there is a growing faction within the BBC that, as in the 1980s, sees Doctor Who as something forced upon them rather than something that they want to make. Depending on which rumours you believe, these forces may be demanding that Capaldi goes after the next series. As it happens, I expect Capaldi to go anyway* - there are precedents for coinciding a new producer with a new Doctor - not just Moffat and Matt Smith, but (more-or-less) Barrie Letts and Jon Pertwee, and Philip Hinchcliffe and Tom Baker. In any case, by the end of 2017 Capaldi will have done three series over four years, the same period in the role as David Tennant or Matt Smith. Perhaps firmer evidence for internal BBC hostility, if still anecdotal, is that I don't recall seeing a single trailer for 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio', whereas trailers for Sherlock are inescapable. In that context, Doctor Who really needs to assert its place in television's schedules, and I'm not sure 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' does that.

So, the best special of the Moffat era, probably. But I can't see 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio' carving out a place for itself amongst the greats of the show.

(For a far more sympathetic response to the episode, read Matthew Kilburn here.)

* But then I never expected him to be cast in the first place, so what do I know?

Monday, December 26, 2016

Doctor Who, 'The Husbands of River Song'

[This is another old Doctor Who Christmas special review. It includes spoilers.]

Though I haven't talked much about it of late, it's no particular secret amongst my friends that I am not a great fan of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who, especially not the last few years. I didn't really care for the first Peter Capaldi series, and whilst the second has been better, I still wouldn't follow some of my friends in declaring it the best series since Who returned. It's certainly the best series involving Clara, but that's quite a low bar.

On the positive side, Capaldi is settling into the role quite nicely, in contrast to the first series, where he was as patronising as Jon Pertwee's Doctor and as manipulative as Sylvester McCoy's, but lacked the charm of either. And the Doctor and Clara Oswald are at least no longer lying to each other, which is pleasing. But the series veered from moments that were actually quite clever (some of the stuff with Davros, and the misdirection achieved through the use of the word 'me') to moments that were so arch that you just wanted to slap everyone involved (e.g. every moment that involved a guitar). And Moffat's writing has become the equivalent of Murray Gold's music - it beats you around the head with the emotion that you are supposed to be feeling, and just in case you didn't get the message, it does it again. (The most egregious example of this is the Eternal Death Scene of Clara Oswald.)

Nor have I been much of a fan of the Christmas specials. In contrast to the 1970s, when BBC Christmas specials meant pulling out all the stops and topping anything that had been done in the rest of the year, nowadays the idea seems to be that, as the audience will be half-cut and sleeping off Christmas dinner, it isn't necessary to try too hard. This has resulted in a number of 'specials' that have been incredibly lazy ('The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe'; see The Terrible Zodin, issue 13, pp. 80-82), or at worst utterly incoherent ('The Time of the Doctor').

So I approached 'The Husbands of River Song' with some trepidation; my inner response to Moffat's question 'what could be more special than the return of Alex Kingston as Professor River Song?' was 'hang on, I'll get you a list.' But actually, there were moments in this where I actually smiled, and was enjoying the interplay between Capaldi and Alex Kingston. There were also moments when I was thinking "oh, get on with it", of course. And it's quite true, as Matthew Kilburn notes, that this episode had a lighter tone that was out of kilter with the rest of this season. As I only just finished catching up with the previous episodes just before Christmas, this tonal shift towards comedy, emphasized by the casting (and slight wasting) of comic actors, was particularly notable. But overall, this was okay. I'm certainly prepared to agree with those who say that it was the best Christmas special for a while - though that is a pretty low bar. And however much I enjoyed it, there is still a nagging feeling that this is a series preoccupied by glitz and flash over story, presided over by a showrunner running out of ideas, who really ought to move on.

Doctor Who, 'The Time of the Doctor'

[This is an old review from 2013 from another platform that I'm putting up here to provide some background to my forthcoming review of 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio'. You will see my prediction at the end turned out to be correct. Oh, and spoilers, of course.]

Though I didn't blog about it at the time, I really enjoyed 'The Day of the Doctor', the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special. It was far from flawless, but it pulled me in, and worked its emotional magic. However, I also remembered that most of the Steven Moffat Christmas specials had been pretty un-special (you can read what I thought of the 2011 one in The Terrible Zodin, issue 13, pp. 80-82), so I wasn't holding out any hopes for this one. I was right to take that position, for 'The Time of the Doctor' vies with 'Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS' for being the worst Doctor Who of the Moffat era.

Penny Goodman  sums up the problem well. She writes:
Moffat pretty much just put up on screen all the notes he's been keeping about how the time crack, the Silence, the question hiding in plain sight, Trenzalore and the Lore of the Twelve Regenerations should be resolved, without troubling to knit them into a coherent story or to give them any emotional weight.
Exactly. This was presumably intended by Moffat to be the great culmination of the arcs he has been developing ever since 'The Eleventh Hour'; instead, it seems like he's gathered together a series of plot ideas he'd got bored with and not finished off properly, and resolved them all in such a way that the viewer is left thinking 'is that all there is to the Silence/TARDIS destroying the universe/crack in time/etc.?' All this in what is not so much a story as a series of vignettes knotted together, that leave one constantly asking 'What's going on? Who are they? Why are people doing this?' (As an aside, I note that Moffat's previous Christmas specials relied on other people's stories - Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and the original Patrick Troughton Yeti tales. Here it's all Moffat, and there isn't anything there.)

It may be that Moffat was instructed to resolve a load of hanging plot threads. But I'd argue that if that was part of the problem, then he brought that on himself through leaving big plot threads unresolved. The big question at the end of Series 5 was who blew up the TARDIS - this gets quickly forgotten in Series 6, as we switch to the whole Impossible Astronaut story. And did we ever actually find out why Amy Pond can't remember the Daleks?

I think this is actually the downside of the legacy of Joss Whedon. Few people have been as good as him at balancing the arc plot and standalone episodes - yet everyone feels compelled to try.

The Matt Smith regeneration scene also seemed like an anti-climax. Moffat seemed to be trying for the emotional weight of the David Tennant regeneration (some aspects of which I didn't like), but falls well short. Oh, and the joke about the Doctor and Clara Oswald being naked is as ill-judged and unnecessary as the fellatio gag in 'Love and Monsters'.

I taught a 1968 Who story as part of my course on 'London in the Literature of the Fantastic' at the University of Notre Dame this past semester, and that sparked a very interesting conversation with those students who were fans of modern Who about the lack of entry points these days, episodes you can tell people to watch without having to say 'Well, to understand this episode, you need to know this, this and this ...' A Christmas special, which will get viewers other episodes won't get,  should be an entry point - instead, this episode was incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't seen every episode of the last four years (I have, and I still didn't know what was happening half the time).

The problem remains, I think, that Moffat is over-committed. 'The Day of the Doctor' is really good. I have little doubt that the same will be true of the first episode of Season 3 of Sherlock. But in between, he seems to have decided 'oh, this'll do' for Christmas, and it really won't. I think the time has come for Moffat to move on from Who, and hope he will by the end of the next Series. But we'll probably get Chris Chibnall instead ... Chibnall's a bit variable. The Chibnall responsible for Broadchurch might do an interesting job - that who made Torchwood or Camelot can please go away.