Category: Reviews

The Legend of Korra: Book 4 – Balance

Both Korra and her titular TV show have been looking for purpose in the previous three seasons of the show. Themes are picked up and put down, plot lines changed for unclear reasons that can’t even really be called twists (Unalaq’s layers of villainy for example).

Book 3 introduced a new antagonist, Zaheer, who is uncharacteristically self-balanced. While he uses deceit, he’s presented as single-minded, cruel but also unconflicted.  Korra almost fails to stop him and only succeeds with the aid of the new Air Nomads and the metal-benders led Suyin Beifong. Briefly introduced near the end of Book 3 is Suyin’s head of security, Kuvira.

The aftermath of her fight with Zaheer leaves Korra seriously hurt. Book Four skips ahead three years. Korra, having initially gone home to the Southern Water Tribe to recover has gone missing. In reality, she has abandoned her role as Avatar and is making a meagre living fighting cage matches (and losing), while struggling with PTSD, flashbacks to her final fight with Zaheer and the remnants of the poison she was inflicted with by Red Lotus.

With Korra effectively out of the main storyline initially, the show manages to set up a more complex political situation. It has been trying in each season to create a fantasy story with a modernist (i.e. industrial/post-industrial) setting with a realistic political conflict. Both Book 1 and Book 2 relied on villains whose apparent politics were simply covered for a more basic super-villain motivation. Book 3 had Zaheer’s anarchic extremism but aside from toppling all rulers and some sort of inner balance, Zaheer’s ideology was both unclear and also not intended to reflect a mass movement. Book 4 finally manages something more plausible.

After Zaheer in Book 3 murders the Earth Queen, the largest kingdom in the world of Avatar falls into chaos (implied rather than shown). The metal bender Kuvira emerges as a classic military ‘strongman’ style political leader for the Earth Kingdom. Making use of superior technology and a decisive approach, Kuvira is a genuinely nuanced attempt to portray a species of fascism. At no point, until her own plans spiral out of control, is Kuvira portrayed as ‘mad’ or motivated by a dark secret. Like Zaheer, she uses deception pragmatically but her hidden agendas are largely clear. She succeeds in obscuring her main objective (uniting the Earth Kingdom and making it a hegemonic power) primarily by the people around her (and Republic City) deceiving themselves.

Bolin, in particular, is positioned as a sympathiser for Kuvira, working for her directly and actively supporting her cause. Bolin’s role has varied in the series between comic relief and as an ‘everyman’ character. Having him work for Kuvira neatly serves as a way of establishing how she garners support and how people fool themselves about what she is becoming.

The dual track of supporting characters shifting into positions of opposition to Kuvira and Korra’s attempts to regain her role of Avatar give this final season a more interesting structure than the previous three. While Kuvira’s ambitions eventually do push her into a more overt super-villain scheme (a giant mecha to crush Republic City and spirit-based superweapon), the steps on the path don’t require any sudden reveals or psychic manipulation. Kuvira wants to control and Korra seeks balance, eventually enlisting the help of Zaheer to better understand herself.

An unfortunate clip-episode aside, the final half of the season pulls all the strands together into an epic fight that resolves most of the hanging threads of all the characters.

The ending has been much remarked upon. The love triangle between Korra & Mako and Mako & Asami is largely ignored in this season. The dynamic between Korra and Asami prior to the final episode had largely been either in terms of Mako or in terms of them all being part of ‘Team Avatar’ (although at one point in Book 4 Asami does reveal she was corresponding with Korra during some of the time Korra was ‘missing’). What is shown, is consistent with this: Korra and Asami are two people who know each other and have been through a lot together and decide to take a holiday together. The possible romantic connection is about as understated as it can be — partly out of deniability on Nickelodeon’s part but also because the show hasn’t really ever focused on Korra & Asami in any terms other than Mako. Looking back is it more than tokenism? Yes, I think so. Essentially having the two of them metaphorically walk off together into the sunset (or rather accidental new spirit portal created by a superweapon) resolves both a plot line from Book One and states that a romantic relationship between the two characters is a possibility. It is still pretty weak as an example of representing relationships other than heterosexual ones (even more so now that Princess Bubblegum and Marcelline get to kiss in the final episode of Adventure Time) but it is still an important one.

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Review: STET Sarah Gailey (Short Story, Fireside)

I’ll confess that I’m easily won over by stories that play with form and structure. I’m also love texts that use the conventions of one form of writing to speak in a different voice outside of that convention. I’m also lazy, so stories that are also very short have an advantage with me. Even conceding these personal biases, I do think ‘STET’ by Sarah Gailey is remarkable.

The core of the text is a single paragraph but within and surrounding that paragraph are footnotes and editorial comments. Together they piece to together a portrait of a character, their emotions and a tragedy that precedes the piece.

It’s not long on plot, hence why I call it a portrait – there’s a sense of a snapshot in time and then a backstory to that snapshot. However, it manages to cover some deep themes about the ethics of algorithims, grief and some darkly funny references and book titles.

The overall design of the text is excellent as well (apparently differently fomatted for web, ebook and print but I’ve only seen the web version) cleverly suggestive of a text under review as well as deliniating the voice of a second character commenting on both the text and the well being of the narrator.

Well worth a read. It’s available here: https://firesidefiction.com/stet

Explaining Custard Creams

At the end of Episode 2 of Season 11 of Doctor Who, the TARDIS rewards the Doctor with a cookie or rather a BISCUIT. Yes, this is somewhat condescending of the TARDIS but all things considered there are few beings who have more right to be condescending to the Doctor.

Viewing on my phone on a bumpy commuter train, I couldn’t quite make out what she ate but on a proper telly it was clearly a custard cream. For non-British viewers this may require a little elaboration. Firstly I didn’t want to write this without first aces retaining whether Custard Creams are a thing in Australia. Australia is sort of a parallel universe of English things due to patterns of colonialism and immigration and not everything carries across (e.g. you can’t get Shredded Wheat here and Weetabix is Weet-Bix).

So firstly here is an Australian Custard Cream:

Now, I haven’t eaten one in awhile but I think the canonical British version are more oblong. However, the other features are correct, including the swirly embossed pattern and a rhombus (again I think less square in the UK).

In construction (but not flavour) not unlike an Oreo. The biscuit has three parts, two quite firm biscuits which form a sandwich with a sweet icing in the centre. For a custard cream that centre is yellow and vanilla flavoured.

Here you can see the Custard Cream in-situ:

(Arnotts are the big biscuit company in Australia – almost monopolistic. They do a lot of classic ‘British’ biscuits but I can’t recommend their Ginger Nuts which are way too brittle rather than crunchy. Luckily you can get McVities chocolate digestives in Australia. )

As a food item they fit a pattern with occasional other Doctor Who food stuffs, specifically:

  • Jelly Babies (Tom Baker)
  • Fish Fingers and Custard (Matt Smith)

The common feature is mass produced, child friendly, nostalgic post-war foods that are sort of a treat but also a bit mundane. The fish fingers for the Matt Smith era also playing on the association of Doctor Who with ‘tea-time’ in the sense of an early-evening meal and al,so the original Saturday evening time slot for Doctor Who. The show was (and to some extent still is) intended to be a transitional program between parts of the BBC’s programming

So several things going on:

  • A call back to Matt Smith and custard,
  • British junk food nostalgia,
  • Tea-time reference,
  • The Doctor has a secret biscuit stash,
  • The TARDIS is the Doctor’s adopted mum.

Also, now I have a secret stash of Custard Creams at work!

Review: Doctor Who – The Ghost Monument (no spoilers)

Episode 2 brings another story that makes no great effort to push story boundaries but makes good use of most of the cast to create a very likeable episode. I won’t recount the plot as it hasn’t aired on broadcast TV in Australia yet (ABC streams the episodes on Monday morning here, so I can watch Doctor Who on the morning train!)

The main problem with the episode is two under used actors. Yas (Mandip Gill) doesn’t get to do very much other than point out relevant plot events (e.g. locations of killer robots) and guest star Art Malik does very little other than slot into vaguely middle-eastern stereotype rich bad guy in a tent in a desert. That’s a shame because everybody else (including the other two guest stars) get some snappy dialogue and as much depth as can be managed in 40 minutes.

Ryan and Graham make for an interesting pair. It’s an unusual set up for a SF show – a relationship between two men that isn’t friendship, romantic, professional and not exactly family. Grace’s death last episode can reasonably be called a ‘fridging’ in that it is used as a plot device to hang the emotions of men on. However, there’s more going on here than just stereotyped man-pain.

Graham is still a bit annoying but much less so than the last episode and Ryan gets to have some fun moments. His dyspraxia is being represented mainly by him having a thing about ladders (bad news for Ryan as Doctor Who episodes tend to have a lot of ladders).

The science is pleasantly non-sensical as always and purists will be delighted by the amount of running down corridors there is this week.

Whittaker brings another great performance. There’s a few glimpses of the Doctor’s callousness early on but this primarily a more empathetic Doctor than Capaldi. There are similarities with Peter Davidson’s Doctor (another Doctor with a crowded TARDIS) as well as Matt Smith’s more manic energy. There are a few shout outs to past Doctor’s as well as some forward continuity which I won’t discuss yet.

Filmed in South Africa, the visuals are excellent. The mysterious alien planet has hints of a classic planet-that’s-actually-a-quarry-in-Kent but with panoramic views. Nobody says “I guess we’re not in Yorkshire anymore.”

I really enjoyed this. It felt fresh but also reminiscent of the Ecclestone Doctor, in that it feels unencumbered by the success that followed and episodes were less loaded with significance.

Oh, and we get to see the new opening titles which are nicely symmetrically swishy abstract. The revised version of the theme music has already been accepted by my brain as how the theme music usually sounds and by next episode I’ll have forgotten that its changed.

Next week Doctor Who gets embroiled in the US Civil Rights movement and meets Rosa Parks. I can imagine far too many ways in which that episode might go horribly wrong so lets hope for the best…

Review: Doctor Who – The Woman Who Fell To Earth

Doctor Who has to live in a cleverly ambiguous spot between anarchic children’s television and serious drama. Often co-opting aspects of horror while deliberately undermining that drama with a central character who is essentially immune to the monstrous, the latest season/reboot places itself in this crossroads. Tentacles, a face full of teeth, dark things on a train make up the furniture for a story centred on a silly person that’s fallen out of their ride home.

The sci-fi plot is essentially a Torchwood episode transported from Cardiff to Sheffield and that’s fine. I like Sheffield, it’s one of my favourite cities and certainly deserves defending from alien invasion by the Doctor. Rising up above the science-fiction elements is the four human characters who become embroiled in the alien plot. Bringing in a broader range of companions is a promising move for the new series.

Jodie Whittaker is placed in that unenviable position of having to play the Doctor more as an impression of previous Doctors but she does it with a comic flair that is convincing and charming in equal measure. It’ always a mistake to judge what a given Doctor will be like from their first story but Whittaker grabs the role with a lot of confidence. She’s aided here with this new season being a stronger reboot of the veteran TV show than the last regeneration. She’s clearly enjoying the role

There’s other stuff that I’m still unpacking but overall it was an entertaining hour of television. Not a particularly remarkable Doctor Who story when separated from its role introducing a new cast of characters but easily as strong as Ecclestone’s, Smith’s and Capaldi’s first stories. Now I’m off to read other reviews that I’d been avoiding!

Infomocracy versus Too Like the Lightning

In the near future technology and social change has largely brought an end to the nation-state. Instead, new groupings via for loyalty among people (some based on corporations, some based on ideals) while individuals shop around for systems of laws that suit their lifestyle. Amid this world where people hop easily between continents, shadowy elements are seeking to upset this new order in a bid to bring back to the world the spectre of war.

The underlying set up for Malka Older’s Infomocracy and Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, are fascinatingly similar. However, the actual stories both in style and plot are so utterly different that the books are not easily comparable. Infomocracy is a taught and often economical thriller that makes clever use of cyberpunk conventions. Too Like the Lightning uses the lens of Enlightenment-era France to examine broader political and cultural change. In particular, Palmer’s narrator is such an unusual character and has an overtly archaic view of the world (and manner of speech) that the futuristic setting is partly obscured. It’s not that the actual world in  Too Like the Lightning is deeply different than Infomocracy but that we don’t get to see it the way its inhabitants do.

Infomocracy’s scope is more limited than Too Like the Lightning and that enables a tighter plot and also a clearer focus on the issues raised. The focus on manipulation and control of information within electoral processes as a proxy for warfare is particularly timely. The motives of the antagonists in Infomocracy are simple but hidden and the individuals are secondary to the various groupings they belong too. The political ideas of the Heritage and Liberty factions are not explored in depth but there is a sufficient sketch of their approach to getting a sense of what these factions represent.

Intentionally, Too Like the Lightning is concerned with a ‘great men’ perspective of history. Broad social change, shaped by economic and technological change is occurring but our narrator is a man obsessed with how powerful individuals shape the world around them, whether by political power or by divine intervention. The world seems much weirder and exotic in Too Like the Lightning even though it is really not very different than the world of Infomocracy. The overtly fantastical elements (specifically Bridger) also make the novel feel quite different from its nominally near future setting but coupled with a potentially unreliable narrator (in lots of ways) it is hard to know what the world is like for non-Mycroft people.

I certainly wouldn’t suggest one is better than the other as the pair are so different in style and focus as to make a simple comparison ridiculous. Having said that Too Like the Lightning is essentially an incomplete story and needs to be read with its sequel, whereas Infomocracy is more self-contained. Both stories offer a vision of a way forward for our fractured world without endorsing or condemning the alternative offered. The mechanics of Infomocracy‘s micro-democracy which combines local government and global politics is more clearly articulated than Hive system of Too Like the Lightning. However, the Hives have a more detailed backstory and history that makes it easier to see how and why nation-states gave up their grip on political power. Yet of the two, it is Infomocracy that has a stronger sense of realism and air of plausibility.

Too Like the Lightning is the more fantastical work — it answers more questions but those answers require more active suspension of disbelief. Infomocracy skates past the history that might have brought its political system into place but in doing so keep the world plausible and focused.

Review: The Dragon Prince (Netflix)

A review by Aidan Moher of Netflix’s new cartoon The Dragon Prince persuaded me to go and watch it. The relevant hook being that the show is a new animated series from one of the writers of Avatar, Aaron Ehasz.

If on the strength of that connection, you are hoping for something with the complexity or subtly of worldbuilding as Avatar, The Dragon Prince might disappoint. The setting is a more conventional epic fantasy world complete with dragons, elves and castles. A heavy info-dump at the start of episode 1 explains the magic system (shades of Avatar there in that it is elemental) and the surrounding history. The world (or at least a continent) is split between a human half and a magical elvish half. The humans are attempting to exploit “dark magic” (that’s not going to end well) and the border between the elves and humans is guarded by dragons. Just prior to the story starting, troops of a human king killed the top dragon and destroyed the dragon’s egg: the egg being the “Dragon Prince” of the title.

Episodes 1 to 3 are primarily focused on setting up the premise and dynamics of the series and it is really only by episode 4 that the show hits its stride. Two princes (step brothers) one still a child and one a teenager on a quest to try and heal the divisions in the world with the help from a young elf who is an assassin who doesn’t want to kill people. At this point, the kind of relationship dynamics, humour and stories begin to pull you in.

The initial episodes throw a lot at the viewer but it is interesting what is explained (sometimes clumsily) and what isn’t. We know very little by the end of the nine episodes about the prince’s mother and nothing about Prince Callum’s father (the older prince is not the son of the current king). I don’t think that is a flaw in the storytelling, the writers clearly trust viewers to cope with not having all the details yet. However, that trust didn’t extend to the more general set up. Compared with Avatar which managed to do the key info-dump of worldbuilding in the title sequence and then let us discover the world more organically, The Dragon Prince felt in more of a hurry to establish how the overt fantasy elements work even though the world depicted is a more conventional setting.

A stronger element to the show is almost all of the antagonists are sympathetic characters. The story settles into a heroes-on-a-quest being pursued but they are being chased by brother and sister duo Claudia and Soren, both of whom are depicted as basically good people. Characters also are somewhat varied in terms of ethnicity (both the King and the younger of the two princes are black in an otherwise faux-medieval-Europe setting). The prince’s aunt, General Amaya, is deaf and signs — her signing is usually interpreted by her deputy but at least one sequence trusts the audience enough to let her signing go untranslated.

Nine episodes are only just enough to get a feel for the show. Its primary strength (and similarity to Avatar) is the strength and likability of the characters.