Monday, March 28, 2011

yeah i think it (the neo-medieval fantasy genre as per Game of Thrones and also modernised-Medieval tripe-with-tits like Camelot, forthcoming) has something to do with how this kind of omnifantasy genre (Potter is part of it too) has displaced "proper" science fiction, by supplying some of the needs (for otherness, adventure, escape) that s.f. supplied but without the critical edge

my idea of Proper S.F. comes from being a lapsed and then partially reactivated fan whose fandom was determined almost entirely by the New Wave of s.f. (and then later a bit of cyberpunk)... i loathe fantasy and space opera... my idea of what s.f. should be is speculative fiction, scenarios based on a projection from current trends and knowledge (or alternative history, which is the same kind of methodology applied to the past -- or to put that another way, s.f. in its proper speculative form is a form of future history, the historical method projected forward)...

oh i enjoyed Tolkien as a wee lad (read Lord of the Rings age seven, and several more times before the age of 12) but generally speaking have minimal tolerance for the epic, the heroic romance, etc.... i find Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy pretty unwatchable, all those shining eyes-y fare-thee-wells and arms-clasped partings of the way... this kind of literature/TV/films is for wee lads and wee lasses... as Alan Kirby puts it, it's "children's entertainment", a world without the two key aspects of adulthood: work and sex. Which means that it is a world without class or psychology; Marx or Freud. A reversion to the clear-cut universe of allegory, sans duality, contradictions or internal conflict. It's also a world completely without humour.

The unstoppable rise of fantasy (including a whole genre of masquerading-as-s.f TV -- Lost/Battlestar Galactica/Caprica) really seems to relate to a general culture-wide inability to envision the future... instead we get the Middle Ages projected onto the future, or into outer space, or into a sort of postmodernly scrambled pick'n'mix pseudo-past, e.g. from Joy's piece: "Although Martin has done much historical research, “Thrones” is not shackled to any specific reality. According to [TV writer] Benioff, “It’s built on a vaguely Western medieval skeleton, but he’s pulling from the Mongols, native Americans, India, all these elements get woven together into this new tapestry..."


  1. The unstoppable rise of fantasy (including a whole genre of masquerading-as-s.f TV -- Lost/Battlestar Galactica/Caprica)

    However imperfectly, BSG/Caprica frequently engaged with hard SF/speculative ideas. And while it's true they used a "scrambled pick'n'mix" approach to creating their shared universe, it enabled them to comment on politics, religion and real-world issues from a different angle: look at BSG's New Caprica arc.

    BSG may have gotten bogged down by its increasingly convoluted mythology (always a hazard with this kind of serialized storytelling), but it was always about NOW, not some neo-medieval tomfoolery.

  2. I don't buy this critique of Game of Thrones. Stick to the music, Simon. Seriously, Game of Thrones has sex and work in it, so it is an adult drama. The strength of a fantasy setting, by taking people out of a contemporary or historical settings, it becomes easier to examine imagined essentials of human character but more importantly play the game of scripted narrative – building and then confounding/fulfilling audiences expectation. The magic and creatures do lend a sense of wonder to the proceedings, but I think they’re a Trojan horse, to get people into the depth and complexity of the human drama. The sex also functions in this way. It is titillating, but it seems to go with the territory in HBO dramas. I was joking with someone the other day that Band of Brothers was originally going to feature naked lady Nazis and be called Band of Boobies. All the silly foll-de-roy of fantasy is part of its charm. I suppose I am an ex D&D player so I don’t mind it. But I have no time for Narnia and Potter. LOTR is saccharin in places, but it is best compared with the original Star Wars trilogy, it is very well made, epic children’s fare. (BTW I was always way more into Star Wars than the dry-wank of Star Trek as a kid. Better battles, cooler characters, better design, music, effects, and emotions, rather than Kirk/Picard beaming down and being greeted by an alien saying “We are the Metaphoricons from the Planet Issueoftheweek”.)

    So the question is, why imbue fantasy with depth, traditionally a genre that patronises audiences with morally simplistic polarities. I think that’s its brilliance. Before the Sopranos came along, I remember thinking, “not the mafia again, we’ve done this” and likewise with Deadwood and westerns. GoT shouldn't work but it is extremely good, because of plain old highly skilled screenwriting. What twists are revealed, how they are revealed, what the audience knows versus what the characters know. The spinning of plates. Like The Shield, or more like the mighty Breaking Bad. Also the disrespectful abandon with which it dispatches very central characters makes it hugely compelling. You literally don't know who will die next. And there is moral ambiguity, nuance and texture in every character.

    The best of BSG only tickled at this with the excellently played Gaius Balthar, but ultimately the faults of BSG lay with it's West Wing in space mawkish deification of US politics and a hand-wringing post 9/11 self pity. The enduring myth that the US likes to feed to itself that it is somehow the victim. BSG wore it's real world parallels on its sleeve with almost Star Trek levels of crassness - one man's terrorist is another man's yada yada, etc. Also the fundamental question of BSG in SF terms seemed to be the old Philosophers Axe - it looks like a person, therefore it is a person. This is a very played out SF cliche. Personally I would love an SF show that was as ambitious and as nuanced as GoT. My only reservations with GoT is the occasional haminess particularly in the Dothraki scenes which are all a bit central casting 'otherness'. And the thespiness of the Khalissi's right hand man - "The Dothraki have no word for Pop Tart/Xbox/swimming-hat/synth-guitar" etc. being a favourite catch phrase in our house.

  3. So I disagree that dealing with NOW is the magic key to great drama. There are plenty of terrible dramas that weave in contemporary ISSUES. I'm a scriptwriter for UK and US TV and film and I always find it annoying when particularly the BBC try to score points by making things relevant. Commissioners constantly ask "why now?" about any project. The answer being "because you have nothing like this and it's really good" never seems to satisfy their small minds. Sadly the UK sensibility in serious drama is the unpeeling of character as the end point of drama – ‘people are a mystery, what makes them tick?’ This causal approach to character and narrative is a dead end that doesn’t interest me. There was a good drama over here recently about the repugnant serial killers Fred and Rose West with The Wire’s Dominic West. It looked like it was going to try to pull that “what makes these people tick?” trick. But thankfully it concluded that these people, like all people are opaque and their motives are unknowable.

    In conclusion, story not character makes good drama. The characters are a vehicle that people have to get on board to ride the story. The setting is virtually irrelevant, as long as it gives enough opportunity for beautifully crafted thrills and moments of tension/release. Sadly I’ve just lost this very argument with channel 4 over here. I gave them a UK version of Breaking Bad with a thrilling twisty-turny plot, and what they want is a knockabout minder type thing.

    In response to Simon’s initial point that Game of Thrones is somehow symptomatic of the cultural malaise and lack of interest it the future, I think it’s pinning the blame on the wrong culprit. I think formal innovation is redolently apparent in GoT, It has the shock of the new, in the way that it approaches childish fighting-fantasy with the sophistication of the great US cable dramas of the past decade. Camelot on the other hand is fucking shit.

    Music is undoubtedly moribund, but US TV drama is certainly not, despite being now in a Silver Age, following the dazzling Golden Age of The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, Deadwood. And this is where the argument falls down with GoT. It looks back, or sideways to an imagined neverwas. But so did the Beatles and psychedelia. They played in the nursery, but they created a whole new world of artistic sophistication. So there’s nothing wrong with fantasy as a genre, it just hasn’t been done very well up to now. Which is all the more reason to do it well now.

    Bemoaning the lack of good screen sci-fi is fair enough. District 9 is an obvious exception, but the last classic futurist SF offering was the Matrix. Avatar was bold but flawed, talk about a childish fantasy. There have been more post apocalyptic dystopias of late – The Road, I Am Legend, Book of Eli. And horror seems to be taking the place of SF in TV – True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Walking Dead. None of them that good. Personally I’ve never been that into Doctor Who, same as Star Trek with even less good action – you can go anywhere in space/time and you choose present day Earth over and over again. The lack of budget hamstrung it. And its just badly written light, knockabout bullshit now.

    Must crack on now. I have to cut the balls off this drama proposal for the end of the week.

  4. actually when i did watch a bit of Games of Thrones i had to concede it's several cuts above the norm -- characters well drawn.. indication of some inner depths, complexer motives than with your usual Epic 1-dimensionality... very entertaining... there's a bit, just a bit, of work (but not much -- mostly it's warrior stuff or Ruling or Intrigue at Court conniving advisers etc Tudors/Rome with an invented-history... and some soft-core sex, sure (same as Rome/Tudors)

    BUT, but, I think you actually put your finger, without intending it, on what annoys me about this new style of Epic-Allegory-Medievalism-Fantasy... which is precisely the element of realism and modern psychology/interiority that it is sluiced through ... so for instance Lost is typical in this respect -- you have really good acting, really well drawn characters, dialogue etc, put in service to, and glommed around, a plot that is verily the ripest of cobblers... not just pure hokum but in the (alan kirby digimodernism as onwardness and endlessness new narrativity, which is actually a reversion to medieval narrativity -- the saga) a plot that endlessly proliferates and unspools new levels of mysteriosity... one facade of hokum drops away revealing another level of hokum but then there's yet another one to come... make it up as you go long etc

    so there's a dissonance between naturalism (top quality modern-style thespianism, well-written etc) and the fantastical cobblers-ness of the storyline/scenario-upon-scenario

    i think with GoT the naturalistic mode helps make it more palatable to someone like me, and it is very well done on a pure entertainment/visuals sense

    (you are dead right about the Dothraki bits being a slide back into outright fantasy/sword 'n'sorcery, there's definitely a sense of slipping into a more regressive mode)

    but when i watch something like that i'm never sure really what i'm getting, nutritionally speaking, beyond being diverted.. there's an eternalisation of human nature in all those programmes, whether they're set 1000s years in the future or edge of galaxy or in an invented myth-past

    mind you when i watched The Social Network i thought that it was psychologically on the same level as Rome ... the motivations were status, glory, power... and sex. women in TSN are in every scene but only as decoration, or as the prize

  5. so what i meant re Lost, is that you get pulled into the story through the real-ness of the characterisation and its rendering by the excellent actors, and start to care about the outcomes... and they pulled along this plotline that is ludicrous

    this kind of twist-within-twist, plot-itis seems to be drifting out of fantasy and even into things like the Hours which would have been much more interesting without the silly espionage/skullduggery plot