This is my final reading/watching post for the year, and there was a lot to get through: picture books, crime dramas, graphic novels, Norse mythology, Eighties horror, a couple of Christmas specials and an extremely divisive sci-fi blockbuster to cap it all off.
Yes, I have seenThe Last Jedi, but my review is going to be a while yet. I'm still processing the whole thing, and... well, have you seen the fandom? We're at the point where the slightest appreciation or negativity about the finished product will result in a screaming meltdown, and I really don't want to deal with that right now.
But as they say, this is no longer the Golden Age of Television but the Diamond Age. There are so many astoundingly good shows out there to enjoy, filled with top-notch performances and high production values. The only problem is the sheer volume of it.
When it came to my viewing material in 2017, it was a year for feminist icons. I finished Xena Warrior Princess, revisited Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and got started on The X-Files, finally meeting Agent Dana Scully in the process. I was introduced to the likes of Laura Cereta, Ada Lovelace and Katherine Johnson. I watched The Handmaid's Tale and Still Star Crossed and Big Little Lies.
This year we saw women as Jedi, women as Star Fleet captains, a woman as the Doctor. We got Michael Burnham and Jessica Jones and Rosaline Capulet and Eleven. It was the year of Rose Tico, Phillipa Georgiou (however briefly) and the announcement of a live-action Mulan. A couple of days ago the trailer for an all-woman Ocean's Eight was dropped. We got Amazons and Valkyries and the Dora Milaje. It's like the universe has decided if we can't have a woman for President, we're damn well gonna get women as EVERYTHING ELSE.
Korra and Asami returned from their honeymoon holiday in deep canonical love. I discovered the wonderfully damaged-but-not-broken Dutch on Killjoys. Max not only survived the conclusion of Black Sails, but prospered. Orphan Black stuck the landing and gave its clones a beautiful send-off, filled with happiness and love and each other.
And of course, there's no ignoring the fact that TIME Person of the Year were the Silence Breakers who spoke up about the rampant sexual harassment culture in Hollywood and beyond.
That many of the above are women of colour is a vindication of my prediction at the end of 2016: that storytelling in all its forms would step up to the plate, that now more than ever artists from all over the world would recognise the true need for representation. It's far from perfect, and we can certainly keep doing better, but my inner optimist believes it's a solid step forward.
There were a few hiccups along the way. Two beautiful doctors, Veil from Into the Badlands and Claudine from Versailles fell to the Stuffed in the Fridge trope, killed off pointlessly to agonise and motivate their male counterparts. Kara Danvers on Supergirl found herself orbiting a black hole of a love interest. There were some complicated developments in The Last Jedi (don't worry, I'll get to that in good time). I'm still on the fence about Eleanor Guthrie's fate on Black Sails, but they did so well by almost all the other women on the show that I'm liable to give them a pass.
When you look at the bigger picture, I honestly believe things got better – and will keep getting better. So beyond my twelve women of each month, here are some of the other ladies that made an impression...
As stupid as it sounds, I'm genuinely anxious about this movie. There's so much I want from it, but a lot more that I don't want, and I've had at least one sleepless night worrying about it. Most of my concern has to do with a potential shift in focus, from a range of loveable and diverse heroes to a white male villain and his justification for genocide, patricide, fascism and torture.
I saw a lot of stuff this year, and I'm happy to say that most of it was pretty damn good. It's true that we're living in the golden age of television, and whatever your preferred genre – crime, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, dystopia, adventure, period drama – there's plenty on offer to fit your specific tastes, all of it reaching incredibly high standards.
There was plenty of "much watch" stuff I didn't watch, such as the live-action Beauty and the Beast and the final season of Sherlock, and by all accounts I didn't miss much (I may get to them eventually, if not just to complain about them). But I try to keep this blog relatively upbeat, so below the cut you'll find twelve of the best moments of my television viewing year. Some are humorous, some are heart-warming, but all of them struck a nerve in one way or another.
They're not ranked in any order, though I've tried listing chronologically according to their airdates (to the best of my memory – if I'm wrong, don't bother correcting me as I don't care that much). I did however leave my number one favourite till last...
This is being posted a day late, but I churned through a lot of stuff in November. As someone who doesn't going to the movies that much anymore, I ended up seeing three films this month, two of which were superhero flicks. There were also plenty of graphic novels, a lot of stuff set in the Eighties, the nearing completion of my "finish books series that you started" project, two re-watches, and a horror movie. I love 'em, but I'm kept awake all night afterwards.
Plus, I got TONS of stuff to say about Stranger Things.
It’s dispiriting that some of our greatest female characters were more inspirational hundreds of years ago than their modern-day updates. Irene Adler for example went from one of the few people (and only woman) who successfully outwitted Sherlock Holmes, to a fridged girlfriend (courtesy of Guy Ritchie) and villainous damsel in distress (cheers Moffat).
If the Loathly Lady (also known as Ragnell) has a contemporary counterpart, it would have to be Lady Catrina from Merlin. The character may well have been inspired by the ancient ballad, though she ends up being its total inversion: whereas Ragnell was a beautiful woman under a spell to make her hideously ugly, Catrina is a grotesque troll who disguises herself as a regal beauty. Ragnell was a benevolent figure who only wanted to be free of her terrible curse, Catrina attempts to seduce King Uther for her own gain. And whilst Ragnell’s story concludes with her restored to her true self thanks to the respect and courtesy of her husband, Catrina is run through with a sword after her husband’s eyes are opened to her true appearance.
Why the Merlin writers never capitalized on the story of Gawaine and the Loathly Lady is a mystery for the ages. The script practically writes itself, and Eoin Macken would have been fantastic in the role (I’ll let you decide which actress should have played Ragnell)...
One day King Arthur is hunting in the forest when he’s challenged by a dark knight, who swears to kill him if he does not answer a simple riddle: “what is it that women most desire?” He has a year to find the answer, or his life is forfeit.
Naturally, he asks the question of every woman he meets, but all give him a different answer. He despondently returns to the black knight once the year is up, but on the way comes across a hideous hag sitting on the side of the road, who claims that she knows the correct answer. She’ll give it to him, but on one condition: he’ll promise her hand in marriage to one of his knights. Seeing little choice, Arthur agrees, and knows he’s made the right decision when she reveals that the answer to the riddle is simply: “women most desire their own way.”
Thus the black knight is defeated, though now Arthur faces a grim task – to talk one of his knights into marrying a disgustingly hideous woman. Moved by pity for both lady and liege, Gawaine volunteers, and the two are duly wed. But when the time comes to consummate the marriage, Gawaine is stunned to find that the woman in his bedchamber is actually a beautiful woman, who presents to him a choice: she can remain beautiful to him alone during the nights and transform back into a monster by day, or she can retain her beauty during the day and become a wretched hag by night.
Realizing that either option could cause her equal amounts of grief or happiness, Gawaine concedes the decision to her. And of course, by giving her “her own way”, the curse is broken.
Stories don’t get much more perfect than this, and that there hasn’t been any sort of televised adaptation (at least as far as I know) is a tragedy! It’s not just one of my favourite Arthurian stories, but one of my favourite stories, period.
In case you were wondering, the above picture comes from a retelling by Selina Hastings, with illustrations by Juan Wijngaard. It was my favourite version when I was a kid (though oddly, it omits the lady’s name as Ragnell) and I was lucky enough to find it again at my second-hand bookshop in near-perfect condition.
I'm a little annoyed at myself for wading into this debate, and I'm only posting this now because I spent a whole evening writing it and don't want to have wasted my own time. Suffice to say, if you're tired of on-line drama and the hornet's nest of discussion surrounding villains and redemption and the line between fantasy/reality, then maybe give this post a miss.
As you may have noticed, there's plenty of friction in the Star Wars fandom at the moment, and if you haven't noticed, you can probably guess what (or who) it's about.
Spoilers beneath the cut – nothing major, but if you want to go in completely clean, steer clear.
Having devoured the second season of Stranger Things this month, I'm sure I'm not the only one who suddenly found themselves struck with a desire to revisit all things Eighties. The Goonies was a staple part of my childhood, and probably a formative viewing experience when it comes to my love of treasure hunts, child independence, and Ragtag Bunches of Misfits.
Watching it again years later, I was relieved to find that it holds up really well – not only in its practical effects, but its plot and characterization too. The script is tight, the group dynamics are fun, and there's so much foreshadowing and pay-off strewn throughout. More impressively, the jokes are still funny and the score is fantastic. Even now, the sound of those five descending notes sends shivers down my spine – you know the ones.
To be fair, some people hate this movie. I get where they're coming from and I won't pretend that the nostalgia filter hasn't an effect on my fondness for this movie, but you gotta admit Richard Donner and Stephen Spielburg struck gold with the film's basic premise: "kids hunt for pirate treasure." I'm sold just with that, but they also throw in two elements that raise the stakes exponentially: they need the money to save their homes from developers, and are pursued throughout by dangerous criminals.
There you have it, the ultimate in escapist kid adventures, and there's so much good stuff throughout that I'm going to forego my usual reviewing formatting and write a point-by-point commentary about all my favourite things in this movie...
I have just finished re-watching Da Vinci's Demons for reasons I can't quite explain. It's not under any circumstances an objectively good show: the plots are too messy, the characters too static, the premise too bizarre for that. It never made that big of a splash online, as there was no fandom to speak of – and certainly not much publicity either.
And yet it managed a respectable three seasons (far better shows don't get so lucky) with a beginning, middle and end, and at times I found it truly fascinating – just as much for what it did wrong as it did right. I think I can most liken it to Salem: totally different in content and purpose, but also a three-season, below-the-radar genre show that was consistently entertaining and which I saw through to the end almost despite myself.
There are some very divided opinions when it comes to Star Trek: Discovery, and it's hard to know how much of it is honest criticism and how much is wrapped up in the usual backlash over a diverse cast, female protagonist and LGBT couple. Naturally there's the They Changed It Now It Sucks complaints from old-school fans, and some warranted anger over how heavily Michelle Yeoh as the captain of the Shenzhou was promoted, only for the show to promptly kill her off and replace her with a white male captain (even if it is Jason Isaacs).
Rule of thumb: no one can stop you killing off minority characters, but for goodness sake – don't use their presence as a selling point if you're going to just get rid of them. It'll backfire, big time. Just ask Jason Rothenburg.
But standing at the centre of the show is Michael Burnham, and I don't think anyone could deny she's its strongest element. She's the foster daughter of Ambassador Sarak and Amanda Grayson; a human being raised on Vulcan as part of an initiative to not only prove unity between the two species is possible, but that a human being can exemplify the ideals of logic and rationality as well as any Vulcan.
There's her inner conflict in a nutshell: she was born a human but has the upbringing of a Vulcan, and her nature and nurture prove difficult to reconcile. This internal dichotomy reaches a head when her ship is endangered by Klingon vessels: cold logic tells her to handle the situation in an unorthodox way, but what leads to a terrible decision is her emotional desperation to save her captain and fellow crew members.
Her misguided actions, brought on by that potent mixture of Vulcan superiority and human fallibility have dire consequences, and when the show truly starts she's been deemed a mutineer.
It's a great setup, in which the external chaos of the Federation/Klingon war mirrors Michael's internal struggle, not to mention the crippling guilt she feels over her captain's death and the role she played in starting the conflict in the first place. This blend of self-loathing and inner confidence is what makes her so interesting, and I like how this review describes her: "always thinking, always questioning, genuinely curious about her surroundings and genuinely thoughtful in her choices – even the bad ones."
And with season two confirmed, we're going to get to spend a lot more time with her!
Wow, I got through a lot of stuff this month. I'm not sure how I managed it since my free time is still severely limited, but here we are: six books, four movies, two shows and a micro-series (at least that's what Wookiepedia calls Forces of Destiny).
Just like in September, I've been striving to finish book series that I started (sometimes years ago) and never completed, which means more from Sarah J. Maas, Danielle L. Jenson and Rick Riordan – though in the course of reading their back-catalogue, they've all published something new. Which is funny, since I also finished the second half of Storm of Swords, written by the world's slowest author.
This was one of my favourites, mostly because it reminded me of the fish in Fantasia, but according to the artist Ira Mitchell-Kirk it was meant to represent the bubbles of joy we all feel when we receive a tax refund (probably because it was sponsored by NZ Tax Refunds).
For most people though – especially those living in the red zone – it symbolised how it feels to be part of the rebuild: like a goldfish, rubberneckers stare from afar as they swim in circles.
Either way Bubbles had a beautiful design, and I especially liked the way the backdrop moved from dark to light blue at the bottom to light at the top; moving from the depths of the ocean to the sky.
No, I haven't forgotten about Faerie Tale Theatre, it's just that my free time has been whittled down to practically nothing. Next on the programme is the show's take on Sleeping Beauty, which puts a spin on the usual proceedings by relocating the story to Western Europe (allowing for some crazy accents) and throwing in some subplots involving undesirable suitors along the way.
It's also the most racy of the episodes (so far) with several jokes that are bound to go WAY over the heads of younger viewers.
This is not taken out of context. What you think is happening is happening.
But what makes this one really different is that for the first time it embraces the definition of "faerie taletheatre". Not only does it take place on a soundstage with fake plywood trees, but our narrator is a woodsman who talks directly to the audience as well as to the prince and his squire (which serves as a framing device for the whole thing).
My new least favourite reason to hate a female character is because she's “just a love interest” – especially when it's applied to characters that are embroiled in fandom shipping wars, making the integrity of the accusation rather questionable. (Female characters that are liked or tolerated are suddenly critiqued within an inch of their life the moment they catch the interest of the male hero. It's pretty damn transparent and I've seen it happen dozens of times: Guinevere from Merlin, Mai from Avatar: The Last Airbender, Echo from The 100).
Would it be nice if all female characters were able to have storylines outside of being a love connection with a dude? Of course! But in real life there’s no such thing as a woman who is just a love interest, and even when that narrative is grafted onto a fictional woman it doesn’t mean she’s a waste of space or an affront to feminism. I think this is best illustrated in Sally from A Nightmare Before Christmas.
As far as I know, she’s a fairly popular character, yet not many people point out the fact that everything she does throughout this movie is driven entirely by the fact she has the hots for Jack Skellington. She sneaks out at night to watch him perform at Halloween. She spends half the movie fretting about how he might come to harm in his attempt to hijack Christmas. She rescues Santa Claus in an attempt to help him clean up the complete mess he's made.
And yet she’s still a great character – easily the most intelligent and thoughtful resident of Halloweentown, who manages to bag her man by the end of the film. Her role as a love interest doesn’t subtract from her appeal, and one of my favourite scenes has her pull off a Gender FlippedRomeo and Juliet scene, in which she sends up a basket of homemade treats to Jack’s window while she waits on the ground outside. It’s adorable.
There are other parts of Sally's characterization that give her depth: her great longing for freedom, the way she utilizes her detachable limbs to escape, her precognitive abilities (remember the scene when the dandelion she's holding turns into a Christmas tree and then catches on fire?) but her biggest motivator is Jack.
So next time you see a female character get dissed for being "just a love interest", ask yourself why she's being dismissed as such and whether that narrative role makes her any less unappealing as a person. In Sally's case, the answer is no.
I made September "Finish What You Started" Month, which meant I had to track down all the book series I had started and never finished. And there were quite a few – I only made a small dent in the large pile of library books currently stacked against my dresser.
It was also time to play catch-up on the viewing side of things, with me heading all the way back to the Nineties to finally put the first season of The X-Files under my belt. I saw Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena Warrior Princess as a kid, but this is my first introduction to Dana Scully, the third great feminist icon of that decade. It feels like I missed out on a formative experience, though the show was a bit too scary for me back in the day.
Oh, and I watched the first seasons of two shows that the entire world has been urging me to watch: The Handmaid's Tale and Stranger Things. They couldn't be more different, but now at least I can join in the conversations at the water cooler at work.
If nothing else, Guy Ritchie's take on the King Arthur mythos epitomizes the phrase: "everything but the kitchen sink." No matter how you otherwise feel about the film in its entirety, you can't say you were ever bored.
But what struck me was the realization that Guy Ritchie clearly wasn't all that interested in the Once and Future King – this would have worked so much better as a Robin Hood movie, and after reading this interview it's obvious that he harboured flat-out disdain for the quintessential character of Arthur.
I should probably wait until the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones is about to air before posting this, but hey – I'm still hyped up on the fumes of the seventh season finale. Here are my predictions on who will live and who will die...
Ahsoka Tano is nothing short of a miracle. First appearing in the pilot movie of a television series that wasn't initially well received, introduced as a Padawan apprentice to Anakin despite having never been mentioned in any of the preceding films, and characterized as a brash teenage girl who had difficulty following orders (fandom hates a teenage girl at the best of times, making her butt heads with male authority figures was practically a death sentence), she was poised to become the most loathed Star Wars character since Jar Jar Binks.
Roger Ebert himself had this to say about her: "Ahsoka Tano, by the way, is annoying. She bats her grapefruit-sized eyes at Anakin and offers suggestions that invariably prove her right and her teacher wrong. At least when we first met Yoda, he was offering useful advice."
The deck was well and truly stacked against her, and so what happened next was astounding: she became one of the most popular characters in the entire franchise. In what is perhaps the most breath-taking case of Rescued From the Scrappy Heap since 24's Chloe O'Brian, the show's writers stuck to their guns, course-corrected the ship, and turned Ahsoka into an earnest, loyal, conflicted, brave and ultimately tragic figure.
And make no mistake: The Clone Wars is fundamentally her story. Rey might be the first female protagonist of a Star Wars film, but the distinction of first female protagonist period goes to Ahsoka. She grows from a fourteen to a seventeen year old across the course of the show, and despite its format – a series of mini-arcs that focused on a wide range of characters – its underlying structure was built upon Ahsoka's maturation.
Here is a child-soldier that was thrown into mortal danger, forced to watch people she cared about suffer and die, driven into leadership roles far beyond what would normally be expected of someone her age, and who is eventually betrayed by the very Jedi Order that raised her. Yet for all of this, she does not break; she does not relinquish her moral compass.
In this respect it's fascinating to watch the dynamic between herself and Anakin, not only for its brother/sister/student/mentor rapport, but in the way each one is indelibly shaped by the conflict tearing up the galaxy around them. Each one goes through their own personal crucible set against a backdrop of war and hate and violence, but only she emerges with her soul still intact.
The culmination of her character arc at the conclusion of the fifth season adds a particularly tragic note of irony to her story: leaving the Jedi Order may break her heart, but it also saves her life. More than that, it leaves a series of "what might have been" questions in her wake. Had she not left the Jedi Order, would Anakin have fallen to the Dark Side? Would she have been enough to keep him tethered to the Light? We'll never know, but it serves as a reminder that it's our choices more than our circumstances that define who we are. Anakin broke, but Ahsoka remained true to herself.
(Oh, and did I mention her distinctive fighting style? She has two lightsabres, each one wielded not as a sword but a dagger, the blades pointed inwards and used to shield her body. It's cool).