New Tricks: Prodigal Sons


                     Never say no to a nice photo of Tamzin Outhwaite

A bit of an odd episode this. For a start, the underlying theme was associated with cricket, but we didn’t get any cliched jokes – though, of course, we weren’t on ITV, were we, where the only thing ever associated with the greatest game on Earth was rain.

The case was a nicely intricate one. The re-examination of a crap pathologists’s cases leads to UCOS being brought in to look over the death of highly skilled professional cricket, A J de Silva, whose proud father had always maintained had been murdered, not committed suicide a decade ago, just as England were celebrating the 2005 Ashes win.

It turned out that everyone had hated A.J., who was a self-centred, self-indulgent git, thus setting up motives by the score, but no evidence whatsoever of murder. What was eventually uncovered was that several of the team, including and at the direction of the captain – now a management bullshit consultant using cricketing terms – were engaged in match-fixing, and A.J.’s refusal to countenance this, his intention to go to the authorities, got him killed.

For most of the way, the procedural part of the story was going nowhere, but as usual it’s Danny Griffin who sees the vital clue, sparked off by a chance remark on a different subject.

It was a curiously uninvolving crime, for all that it hung around the edges of cricket, and it did not approach any emotional depth until the final, almost unimportant detail was explained. A.J. came as a package with his younger, much less talented brother, Sanjit, who’d acted as his minder, clearing up his messes and ensuring their doting father – doting on A.J., that is – never cottoned on.

Sanjit had been the one to find his brother dead, dead and left to be humiliated. He had changed the crime scene in order to preserve his brother’s dignity at the last, an act of love to which the appropriate blind eye was turned.

Apart from that, the episode was buttressed up with a few personal notes. Sasha, back to full fitness with surprising speed, enrols the team in a forthcoming dinner-dance with a notorious reputation for breaking up relationships. Danny and Fiona’s relationship is getting closer (I really like the dry, intelligent way it’s being presented, with a minimal overt romanticism pointing cleverly to the genuine depth between this pair) but Danny needs to explain things to his wife, Sarah, who, as we recall, is committed to a mental institution. Sarah’s approval is needed, and from the way the vital scene is omitted, I suspect it hasn’t been forthcoming, though Danny claims this is so.

Steve’s financial problems are uncovered by Danny, who organises him and sets him a budget, but whether Steve’s sticking to it…

And last, but not least, Ted turns up at the dinner-dance with his other half, Pat. Or Patrick, if we’re being formal…

A good but not great episode, and definitely an improvement on last week. It may even contain a bit of foreshadowing, as Sasha thanks Ted for staying on after Gerry, as that could have been the excuse the Met has been looking for to shut UCOS down. After all, they’re the awkward squad, and Strickland has to fight for them nearly every day.

Sounds like a plot to me.

Homicide: Life in Season Five


Season 5 cast

Homicide‘s fifth season began with immediate changes, as NBC insisted upon a completely revised credit sequence, in which the cast members actually appeared in association with the actors’ names.
As was beginning to become familiar, there were cast changes from the preceding season. Isabella Hofman had moved on, having become pregnant by Daniel Baldwin, although the main reason for her being dropped was that, after her rollercoaster rise and descent of the promotion ladder, the production team had very little they could credibly do with her character anymore.
Directly replacing her was Max Perlich, promoted from recurring to star cast as Brodie, though misbehaviour on the actor’s part would make that elevation short-lived. In addition, the team decided to ring the changes by bringing in another new cast member in mid-season, or rather five episodes in: Michelle Forbes, at that time best known for her recurring role as Ensign Ro on Star Trek – The Next Generation, agreed to her first cast role as Dr Julianna Cox, the new Medical Examiner.
Dr Cox was introduced as another attempt to broaden the basis of the show: her character’s intent on creating closer links between Homicide and the ME’s department, was intended to give an even wider perspective on death in Baltimore, but the production team have gone on record as regretting that decision. Cox was an outsider who often had to be inserted by contrivance, or through her relationship with Kellerman, and the team later bemoaned the waste of a good actress through not making her another detective.

                                       Guest-starring a future Hobbit

There was no return for either Stan Bolander or Beau Felton. The Big Man would be written out as having resigned, but there was simply no word of Felton. Until much later.
After Pembleton’s dramatic collapse in the final episode of Season 4, the question of whether he would regain all his old skills was meant to be an underlying theme of the series in general. Certainly, it was what Andre Braugher wanted to explore.
The series began with Pembleton’s first day back in Homicide after his stroke. Everybody, except Munch, welcomes him effusively,  whilst simultaneously condescending to his slower perceptions. Munch’s refusal to make allowances is based upon a surer understanding of Pembleton, who hates being treated as a slower child.
C4 refused to broadcast the first two episodes of the series, which dealt with a hostage situation at a high school: it was only a matter of weeks since the shootings of children at Dunblane, and the subject matter was insensitive.
It was an interesting cat-and-mouse game, and whilst Braugher does a superb job of incarnating a different Pembleton, who not only talks more slowly, checking his words before saying them, but is also slower and more hesitant in his gait. He’s clearly not fit to be a detective again yet, but he refuses to accept that. Giardello’s pulled in every marker, exhausted every favour in even getting Pembleton back to Homicide, in the face of Barnfather and Gaffney’s, opposition, in fear of a lawsuit if another stroke happens.
But Pembleton isn’t grateful. If anything, he’s contemptuous of the fact that he can’t go out on the street again until he passes his firearms test – the least useful component of his role. By the end of episode 2, he’s already quit his medicine to try to sharpen himself.
But audiences – and especially NBC! – did not want to see a near-crippled Pembleton. Andre Braugher was the acknowledged star of this show without stars, and the viewers wanted him back to normal: by the end of episode 9, Tom Fontana had been forced to bring Pembleton back in full strength. It’s a welcome move too: the stroke-affected Pembleton is a one-note, whiny, self-entitled and self-pitying mess.
This isn’t going to be a happy season. The fourth episode sees the return of Luther Mahoney (Eric Todd Dellums is just so good in the part), setting the tone for a recurring feud that involves not merely Lewis and Kellerman but also Narcotics Squad Detective Terri Stivers (Toni Lewis, starting a three season long involvement with the show that, despite her moving into the Homicide Division halfway through season 6, doesn’t see her added to the cast until season 7).
It also introduces another running subplot, as Kellerman is sidelined, like Pembleton, into administration duties, when he is accused of taking graft during his time at Arson. More so even than Pembleton, Mike ends up self-pitying and whiny, combined with a resentment at the fact that he isn’t getting a free pass just because of who he is: for weeks on end, Kellerman bristles at anything that isn’t a whole-hearted endorsement.

The feud

Whilst the Pembleton story-line doesn’t go on long enough for a realistic portrayal of recovery from stroke, Kellerman’s strop is dragged out entirely too long, well beyond the point it continues to be interesting, and to the detriment of the show in depriving it of detectives able to take an active role in investigations.
But both stories, whatever their episode-by-episode limitations, continue to underpin the whole series. Pembleton’s return to form, to his old arrogance, causes problems with the two most important relationships in his life. His wife, Mary, too-long sidelined by Frank’s devotion to his job, leaves him in the back half of the season, an unforeseen step that is a massive blow to the detective.
It’s made worse by the fact that, already, he and Tim have not simply returned to the super-efficient Pembleton/Bayliss team of season 4. Pembleton’s certainly gone back to being Pembleton at his worst, and this is seen especially when Bayliss pulls another case – his third – of child abuse and murder. Once again, it fails to go down, but this time it leads to Tim’s confession as to why such cases affect him so much, because he too was abused, as a young boy, by his Uncle George, and because his Dad refused to believe him. Tim doesn’t want to partner with Frank any more.
At first, Pembleton acts like Pembleton; he’s free of the partner he never wanted, free to return to being the loner he was first introduced as being. But this doesn’t even last an episode: Frank wants his partner back, and it’s like a game as he tries to tempt Tim into working with him again. But Bayliss stays at a distance, until Mary pleads with him, by which time it’s all but too late for Pembleton and his marriage.
The move also affects Bayliss. Something Frank says in relation to a case they’re working, partnering, but not as partners, leads him to confront his past, confront his Uncle George. The idea of revenge dissipates in the reality of  what George now is, old, broken, fragile, with nothing to be taken away. Bayliss becomes his carer, taming his demons by that route. It’s a rite of passage that will lead the naïve, straight-arrow detective much further on in remaining seasons.
As for Pembleton, he and Mary, pregnant with their second child, reconcile in the last episode, as Frank restates just what truly is most important to him.
Kellerman is not in line for any such redemption. He is released from his ordeal in somewhat contrived circumstances, a last minute, defiant offer to the DA to testify and throw away the only career he wants improbably leads her to abruptly drove Kellerman from the case. Mikey can go back on the streets.
But though he may be cleared, Kellerman hasn’t been vindicated. He’s only not Guilty, not Not Guilty. Gaffney, the shitheap that walks like a man, taunts him in the squadroom. Street scumbags look on him with disgust. And Kellerman can’t get past the fact that none of his colleagues gave him a whole-hearted, unequivocal pass before he was cleared. There’s no going back from what has happened, no way to restore the unblemished existence he had. Things that were starting to go well with Julianna Cox now turn lumpy (by the end of the series, the pair’s relationship will be poisoned beyond recovery by the increasing amounts of booze they each consume).

                                              A very vulnerable Police
It comes to what might have been an early head when Lewis, going in search of his partner, finds Kellerman obsessively cleaning his boat, with his service revolver in plain sight. Lewis, who has already had one partner commit suicide on him, jumps to the correct conclusion, and succeeds in pulling Kellerman back (though the scene itself is overlong, and is spinning its wheels for several minutes before reaching its inevitable end).
And almost immediately, the partners are confronted with the murder of a Korean grocer for trying to shift drugs-sellers from in front of his store. Only the sellers are working for Luther Mahoney…
Both detectives take yet another defeat deeply to heart, as does Stivers, but it is Kellerman who is the most angry.
Before going any further, although this is a season in which underlying currents flow through most of the stories, Homicide continued to fulfil its promise to NBC that there would always be one story complete in each episode. There are crimes in each episode, but as usual, there are also individual episodes of great strength. These come mostly in the first half of the season, as plots are being wound out, and their consequences are as yet far from fruition.
As early as the third episode, the squad are called to investigate the death of two inmates at the State Penitentiary, an episodes that reintroduces killers caught in previous seasons, lets us see them as they have become in prison. It’s a very thoughtful experience.
But not as much as is the seventh episode, ‘The Heart of Saturday Night’ (taken from an early Tom Waits song). A therapy group meets, victims who have all lost family members – husband, wife, daughter – to random, inexplicable death. Their discussion of their feelings, of loss, hurt, anger, misery and more, are interwoven with the investigation of the crimes by the Homicide Squad, the feel of these segments being completely different, these being past cases, completed, names in black. Late in the episode, the missing member of the group arrives, apologising for being held up: she is the relatively new ME, Julianna Cox, who returned to Baltimore to be nearer the father who we saw died in her first episode: only now do we learn that he was a victim of crime.
It’s a patient, thoughtful episode whose nerve-endings are exposed, for it is the families, the ones left behind, who are the focus here, the other, too often barely seen victims of homicide.

                                                 The new title caption
In total contrast, ‘The Documentary’ (episode eleven, midpoint of the season) is primarily comic, even as it is deadly serious. It’s New Year’s Eve, the squad are on the graveyard shift but, just as in ‘Night of the Dead Living’, so long ago in season 1, the phones aren’t ringing. So Brodie pulls out his video-tape, and shows the squad the documentary he has made of them, warts and all. Working, talking, arguing. Quoting David Simon directly in his advice from the book as to why you shouldn’t waive your right to silence.
It’s funny, its fearsome, it’s deeply disturbing to all assembled, especially Gee, who confiscates the tape, only to learn that it’s not the master: Brodie has already sold that to PBS, for broadcast.
The two best moments come when Brodie reveals the identity of the infamous Lunchtime Bandit, thief of hundreds of lunches from the Squadroom refrigerator, and who else could it be but Gaffney? (The aural commentary to this episode praises actor Walt McPherson as being the absolute opposite of his walking offense character, as one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet).
And, in the grand Homicide tradition of taking events directly from real-life, there’s a scene where Lewis and Kellerman, in hot pursuit, chase a runaway into the arms of uniformed Police – a location shot for an episode of a TV series called Homicide, directed by Barry Levinson himself: it’s a steal from an incident where Baltimore Police chased a felon onto a Homicide: Life on the Street shoot, with the runaway giving himself up to John Munch/Richard Belzer.
But let’s now turn or attention to the end of the series. Homicide: Life on the Street had the security of a 44 episode order, a two season renewal. The security this gave enabled them to take more risks than before, gave them the freedom to do things that were irrevocable.
Episode 19 returned to the running war with Luther Mahoney. By sheer luck, an angle opens up. A dead body in a motel turns out to be a carrier for Mahoney: his stomach is full of 77 condoms packed with pure heroin (the 78th burst, which killed him). The decision is taken to replace the package with baking soda, deliver it, and hope that the fall-out will give them a lead. It works almost perfectly. A no-longer cool, smooth, detached Luther calls a meet in the open, in the park, for himself, the lieutenant who let this get by him and the Nigerian suppliers. Everyone’s denying responsibility. Luther blames his lieutenant, who tries to walk away, but Luther takes a gun for his bodyguard and guns him down: a third shot misses the already dead man and kills a woman playing ball with her young son.
It’s suddenly a freaking disaster. Luther’s running. Lewis is tearing after him, Kellerman and Stivers in a third car. Lewis catches Mahoney at his penthouse, interrupting his flight, but before taking the drugs lord in, Lewis is going to administer a beat-down. For Mahoney’s arrogance. For the unnecessary deaths. It’s a brutal, thuggish, one-sided kicking, until Mahoney snatches Lewis’s gun and points it at him.
Which is when Kellerman and Stivers, guns trained on Mahoney, arrive, telling him to drop the gun. The beaten, bloody, dishevelled Luther, half-crazy with anger, looks still ready to shoot, but, recovering his poise, he lowers the gun until it points at the floor, turns to Kellerman and sneers, “What are you going to do, detective? Read me my rights?” He’s already laughing, he’s beaten so many raps before, and Lewis’s assault will no doubt see him through this one, he’s already convinced. He’s Luther Mahoney.
“You have the right to remain silent,” Kellerman says. And shoots him, once, through the heart.
“Anyone have a problem?” he asks. Lewis has none. Stivers, shocked by what she’s seen, eventually agrees.
It’s a moment that is both shocking, yet inevitable. And it’s a moment that, having taken place, will have to be pushed aside. Very intelligently, episode 20 is about something else entirely, a one-ff episode, written by Yaphet Kotto, beautifully played, all the better for being totally out of line with what’s preceded it, except for one very short scene in which it appears that Stivers is having problems, despite the fact that everything has been wrapped up. Their stories have been accepted. The Mahoney shooting has been written up as good. There’s an abyss, yawning, beneath our feet, but for now we will step around it, pretend nothing is wrong, pretend nothing has changed.
And this is further emphasised by the season-ending two-parter. It begins simply enough, comically enough, a conversation between Pembleton and Brodie en route to a dead body, a clear suicide, a man whose face has been blown off by a shotgun. Clean, simple, an obvious dunker. Except, it’s Beau Felton.
All hell breaks loose. Auto-Squad Detective Paul Falsone (Jon Seda) angrily accuses Felton of having been dirty: his team has been chasing a car-theft ring for two years now, but someone kept tipping Cantwell off. And Beau Felton was working for Cantwell since he left the Police.
Everyone has memories of Beau, none more so than Kay Howard, who defends him doggedly. Even more so after Julianna Cox is able to prove the suicide was faked, that Felton was murdered. This is enough to bring Russert back from Paris (dressed for that city, not Baltimore), to help the investigation.
And there’s another twist, as the investigation is briefly put on hold by the arrival of IID (Internal Investigations Division) in the form of Detective Stu Gharty (Peter Gerety). Felton was not dirty. He was working undercover, for IID, trying to identify the real dirty cop. And yes, that is Gharty, the overweight patrolman whom Russert charged with neglect of duty in season 4, the one who failed to intervene to stop two kids killing each other. No-one likes him, no-one trusts him.
But in the end it will be Gharty and Falsone, who share the same stoolie, unbeknownst to either, who bring the case home. The stoolie betrayed Felton to Cantwell, who executed him. The stoolie goes down, Cantwell is raided, but everybody and everything has gone. Felton’s case will forever remain red.
The season was over. Change would, once again, be in the air. A stupid, drug-fuelled and very public incident with Max Perlich meant that his contract wasn’t being renewed, and nor was that of Melissa Leo, officially because the team decided that, as Sergeant, she was an anomaly that no longer worked, unofficially because she too had suffered bad publicity, indirectly, linked to a national scandal over a custody case affecting her partner. Jon Seda and Peter Gerety were presented in the season closer as a backdoor introduction to characters who would join the cast in season 6.
And the vehicle for such change was introduced in an unnecessarily melodramatic manner right at the end. Echoing the real-life step taken by Baltimore PD, Gee announces that the brass have introduced a policy of rotation: some detectives will be rotated into other divisions for three months spells (three months being the length of time the series would be off the air).
“In three months time,” Gee intoned, “We none of us may be here.”

Dan Dare: The Mushroom


The baddy who always comes back

Those who feared for the Mekon’s safety in All Treens Must Die! did not have long to wait, for Ol’ Greenbean was back as dastardly mastermind on the opening page of the succeeding story, The Mushroom.
It seems an odd thing to do, and featuring Dan Dare’s arch-enemy in successive stories had never been tried before. Shoving the Mekon up front, when he’s not actually active in the story, is a dramatic waste of that revelatory moment. On the other hand, that bit’s been done, over and again, and as memory of the Tyrant of Venus hasn’t had time to fade – there is a hiatus of eight panels – you could say that this kind of classic scene is redundant on this occasion.
And given that treens are introduced on the cover of the next issue, it is rather pointless to propound mysteries. Especially in a story that will only run sixteen weeks, all told.
The plot of The Mushroom is very simple. The Mekon begins a terrorist campaign, using a satellite to project a fiery ‘seed’ into the heart of London. This ‘grows’ into a thrusting, metallic mushroom-shaped tower that sucks the life and the heat out of all the surrounding ground and area. Londoners are forced to flee their homes. The Mekon gives an ultimatum, that he be restored to rule on Venus, or his Mushroom will destroy London and others will be used against other capital cities.
By taking his attack directly to the people, the Mekon expects their panicky, narrow-visioned response to force the Earth Government to act in his favour. He’s wrong, of course, because nobody in Government is stupid enough to think for one second that Appeasement will work (shades of Hampson’s original identification of the Treens with the Nazis again), but this is still early days, and one city only. If the situation escalates, and the public’s fears along with it, who knows where this might go?
(Let me point out the continuity disjunction between this story and Reign of the Robots and the Treen Holocaust. I make no comment. At the time, boys not that much younger than me had not been alive to read Reign of the Robots and we were none of us aware of it. Just mentioning it, that’s all).
That the situation doesn’t escalate is, naturally, down to Dan and Co. He and Digby, in Anastasia,  trace the radiation beam that feeds energy to the Mushroom back to the satellite and confront the Mekon and impossible odds. But it’s Wilf Banger who saves the day, on Earth. Brought in as the scientific specialist, good old Wilf has only one scientific thought in his head from the moment he appears, and that is to blow the Mushroom into pieces small enough to be fried with bacon and eggs, and perform scientific tests on what’s left on the side of the plate.
The Mushroom is impervious to every assault, that is, until Banger has his men tunnel underground, pack explosives round the Mushroom’s base, and knock the whole thing over. With no focus any longer, the energy of the Mekon’s beam reverses back to the Satellite and blows it up. Dan and Digby are rescued, and for once there’s no particular attempt to suggest that the Mekon might have gone down with his ship: a green ‘meteorite’ streaks away in a controlled fashion, making it pretty damned clear that it’ll all happen all over again.
Indeed, the Mekon would again be back in the very next story, The Moonsleepers, though not as the principal villain.
In short, its not a complex story. Indeed, it comes close to a couple of the longer stories of Motton and Watson’s Monochrome Year, though it’s more compact and pursues a tighter plot-line. The sixteen week length is awkward: too short for substance, too long for flimsiness, but it’s real failure lies in coming directly after All Treens Must Die! The fall in scope, in ambition on the Mekon’s plans is bathetic, and The Mushroom just cannot get over that hurdle.
Again, it’s beautifully drawn and glowingly coloured, though I do want to take a little time to expand on that claim, because I’m very much aware that there are many Dan Dare fans who deride certain aspects of Keith Watson’s work.
I’m not an artist, and I lack an artist’s vocabulary to either criticise or commend. I’m biassed in favour of Watson because his is the Dan Dare I grew up on, but I still find his art immensely satisfying as an adult. His version of the Hampson style lacks some of the detail, the lushness that Hampson pioneered, but there’s a reassuring solidity to it, and something of a cragginess to his figures. He’s not as graceful as Hampson, and his figurework can sometimes be stiff, and static, but his technical art is superb. His work carries an extra degree of stylisation over Hampson’s resolutely naturalistic approach, but there’s a more modern, appealingly workaday aspect to it that befits the fact that the series, and Dan, has been at this for a long time. The lack of idealisation is much more appropriate to the times.
That said, I am aware that most criticism of Watson lies around his ability to draw faces, or rather Dan Dare’s face in particular. Given Hampson’s original design, it’s a difficult face to draw, especially the lantern jaw, and there have been several instances in past stories where head-shots of Colonel Dan from the wrong angle have looked disproportionate and clunky.
But the biggest difficulty is the head-on, full-face shot and there are a couple of real stinkers in The Mushroom. Watson cannot make Dan’s face look convincing (and there’s another example with Wilf Banger in there). Head-on, Watson’s faces flatten out and drop towards the cartoonish. Deprived of assistance by the colouring, he has to go to excess on closely inked lines, attempting to set up shadow and form, but these fail to cohere. He also makes an awful mess of Banger’s mouth in his close-up.
It’s a weakness, yet he can draw convincing faces from other angles, so the flaw is in allowing himself to be cornered into that particular composition, and not finding another method of presenting the shot that doesn’t betray him to his worst flaw.
Which pre-supposes that he had that kind of freedom to depart from David Motton’s scripts, about which subject I know nothing whatsoever, save that the two only rarely met, and that this was a scripter’s world in the post-Hampson mid-Sixties.
Those who are familiar with The Mushroom will have been wondering why I’ve not yet spoken of the story’s most famous aspect. I’ve chosen to leave that till last.
Watson had done a magnificent job of shoring up Dan Dare. He’d seen the series back into colour, to extended story-lines, supporting cast, the return of the Mekon, Anastasia and, in the previous story, Sondar. Now, on the second page of the opening episode, a lanky, bespectacled Texan Pilot-Captain, swinging a baseball bat, sends a home run through a window. Venturing inside to retrieve his ball, he becomes the first person on Earth to see the nascent Mushroom and its Treen attendants. It’s Hank Hogan, seen for the first time since The Solid-space Mystery, but to all Dan’s oldest fans a symbol of the truly early days, at the beginning.
So Dan and Digby go to meet Hank, and it’s a proper reunion of friends, none of this business call on O’Malley stuff. And, in a supercharge of nostalgia, Hank has a scrapbook, and it’s got everyone in it, all the old gang.
Pierre Lafayette – Principal of the Lake Chad Rockery College, enjoying piloting, fishing and French food. Lex O’Malley – supervising a Sea-Harvesting Project in the Indian Ocean. Sir Hubert Guest – retired and about to publish his memoirs.
There’s a glaring omission, for there is no mention of former Astral College Cadet Spry, though the young Flamer was seen in All Treens Must Die!‘s montage, capering as he did when Sir Hubert authorised his presence on the Cryptos Mission. But the question all the old fans want answered is “And Miss Peabody – the Professor I mean,?”
Oh, my. What emotions might underlie that enquiry? Are there regrets, expectations, hopes? But Hank, with blythe cheerfulness, pronounces the doom: “You mean Mrs Jack Gurk?” (in the Sixties, though thankfully for not too much longer, a woman’s married name submerged her not only underneath her Lord and master’s surname, but also his first name). Jocelyn has married a Mining Engineer, and moved with him to Mars.
How does Dan react to that news? It’s what everyone wants to know, and upon which everyone projects their own pet hopes. But it’s not even Dan who asks, but Digby. Does Dan care at all? The romantics want him to, but the truth is that, since their return from the Terra Nova Mission, he has apparently neither spoken to or of our favourite redhead. Given his seeming penchant for taking burly sailors and fourteen year old boys off into space, perhaps we should not get our hopes up too high.
But at least Hank is back, and a door opened, although once he’s produced his scrapbook, though he hangs around for the rest of the story, he plays no active part in it. But his little half-page steals all the glory in The Mushroom: it’s the only thing the fans ever remember.

In Praise of Pratchett: Maskerade


I’ve managed to get several of my Discworld books signed, with a variety of messages (especially the time the whole family attended and we got a bunch of books signed in one go, there being five of us). Maskerade holds something of a pride of place among such books as it was bought as a present for my fortieth birthday (even if I had to buy it myself), and Sir Terry signed it to me with a Happy 40th Birthday wish (and a quick sketch of Death’s scythe).
It’s another book about the Three Witches or, as Pratchett takes quick pains to establish with a parodic gesture to the opening of Wyrd Sisters, the Two Witches. Magrat Garlick is now busy being Queen and, five months after the wedding, presumably no longer qualifies for the Maiden part of the traditional Maiden, Mother,… Other One line-up. But, wet hen that she was, Magrat was right about one thing: the basic unit of witches might well be one, but the correct number for a coven is three, and that means there’s one missing.
Granny Weatherwax is getting nervous, and that is making Nanny Ogg worried. Granny’s bored. There’s nothing in Lancre to challenge her, and without that her mind may be prone to Wandering. Nanny reckons that her friend needs a distraction, such as training up a new Third Witch. Fortunately, there’s an ideal candidate in the village, with the touch of the craft already, ideally suited to be the Maiden’s role.
This is Agnes Nitt, she who was wont to call herself Perdita in Lords and Ladies. There’s just one little problem. Agnes has enough of the craft already to see where her future lies and she’s not in the least bit keen to spend it running around at the beck and call of two old ladies, who don’t actually do any magic at all, just this stupid headology and coloured water. So Agnes – or rather, since she can re-invent herself, Perdita – has run away to seek her fortune, in Ankh-Morpork.
Now Granny’s certainly not going to stoop to run after Agnes, not even when Nanny paints a picture of a naive young Lancre girl, on her own in the city, in need of protection, but fortunately there’s another factor that satisfies Granny’s pride. For Nanny Ogg has become an author.
Yes, Nanny has sent a bunch of recipes to a printer in Ankh-Morpork with two dollars to cover the cost of printing them up. Being Nanny, all the recipes have one common effect, an effect that has led to the book being entitled The Joye of Snacks and selling like, er, hot cakes. So much so that the printers have generously returned Nanny’s two dollars with an additional three, that she’s holding onto very tightly in case they realise their mistake.
The book has been published as by ‘A Lancre Witch’, which raises Granny’s hackles, despite Nanny’s fine distinction that Esmerelda Weatherwax is in fact THE Lancre witch. And Granny has a harder-headed attitude to publishing than Nanny, to the extent of calculating that her friend has something like three thousand dollars due to her. And whilst she won’t go chasing after Agnes, she has to see that Lancre Witches aren’t being disrespected, whether Gytha Ogg likes it or not. And if they bump into Alice in passing, they can help her out as well.
Speaking of Agnes, after the usual embarrassing mistake about the Guild of Seamstresses, she’s ended up taking her one undeniable talent to the obvious place: Perdita has joined the Opera. Not quite in the manner she would have liked, since her appearance is against her when it comes to the business of stepping out on stage and getting the plaudits due her, but her voice – and the control she can exercise over it – is superb, so she can’t be excluded.
At least, not physically. Since the true *star* role is reserved for Christeen, who can no more keep a tune than she can keep a thought in that pretty head of hers, but is both skinny and blonde, Agnes is allowed to sing though Christeen. It’s both embarrassing and insulting, but Agnes accepts it because she is endowed with a wonderful personality. As for the insults, well, everybody does this, openly to her face.
Pratchett has great fun with the Opera, its tensions, pressures and craziness, its complete divorcement from reason and rationality, and there’s plenty to laugh about, though the only ‘truth’ he extracts in demonstrating what Opera truly consists of is that it spends its entire time surfing the edge of the catastrophe curve of Impermanence. No wonder that everybody is so incredibly tense when any day, every day, could be the last. The last day that those finely trained talents which make up one’s life are the perfection your being, Opera itself, demands. The first sign of a crack isn’t simply the beginning of the end, of transition: it is the end, and everybody lives on on the blade of forcing that not to happen, not now, not today.
The story, as in the plot, comes from the inevitable existence of a Phantom.
Here, he is the Opera Ghost, and in suitable fashion there are actually two of him, one benign and caring only for the music, the other cynical and homicidal. Agnes finds herself trying to unravel the mystery of the Opera Ghost, and indeed successfully identifies him with the person who is such an unlikely figure for the role, only to fall foul of her own senses. It takes Granny and Nanny, the former posing as an extremely rich Opera patroness with the latter’s royalties, to see through the extremely simple fact about masks.
Given that the story involves murders, and is set in Ankh-Morpork, we see the first instance of what Pratchett later identified as a bit of a problem: if the story comes to the Big Wahoonie, how do you keep the City Watch out? That side of things is dealt with here by restricting the Watch’s overt presence to such obvious characters as Colon, Nobbs and Detritus, but Pratchett provides a far-from-overt Watch presence in the form of Andre, the organ-player at the Opera, who will turn out to be a member of the Cable Street Particulars, the Watch’s new undercover branch (secret policemen for secret crimes, as the off-stage Vimes puts it).
That’s an interesting, and fully logical development, though Pratchett undercuts it by having Andre implicitly distracted away at the end to become a full-time musician. The Cable Street Particulars is a revival of an old name in Ankh-Morpork history, whose true provenance won’t be encountered until Night Watch, and other than a passing mention in the next book, the new version drops out of sight, never to be used again. Then again, the developing City Watch strand does rest heavily on the public performance of Justice, making the Particulars an anomaly.
Mentioning the Opera Organ, which is a Bloody Stupid Johnson, reminds me that the Librarian also pops into the story, but even though we’re in Ankh-Morpork, home to Unseen University, neither Mustrum Ridcully nor the Faculty appear, having featured in six of the last eight books.
One thing that’s struck me most forcefully on this re-reading, to an extent I’d never fully appreciated before, is how savage Pratchett is with Agnes, and just how much that has to do with her size and weight. The key characteristic with Agnes, indeed the only thing anyone can think of whenever they so much as think of her, is that she is fat. Of course she was always going to be fat: Magrat Garlick was resolutely skinny, with stringy, uncontrollable hair, so Agnes would naturally have to be fat, albeit with good hair.
But Agnes isn’t merely fat. Though Pratchett never directly says it, even through the mouth of the most nasty person in the book, Agnes is beyond ‘fat’. She’s hideously, discomfortingly, unhealthily fat, fat as an object of scorn. It’s plain beyond measure that Agnes is perfectly suited to be the Maiden because, let’s face it, no bloke will ever want to shag that, even in a darkened room.
And everybody keeps saying it, even when they’re being at their nicest, to Agnes’ face, over and over: you’re fat, you’re fat, you’re fat fat fat.
I wouldn’t mention this if it wasn’t so emphatic, so unending, and it’s carried on to an extreme which is extraordinarily unusual, in fact wholly uncharacteristic of Pratchett, whose anger and disgust is usually reserved for those who deserve it, and not someone who’s supposed to be a heroine. But there’s no denying it, on a level he may not have consciously understood, Pratchett is disgusted with Agnes, and nowhere is that more drastically demonstrated than in a tiny piece of offhand cruelty near the very end.
Agnes has tried to make a life of her own, and the prospect of it is there. She has her voice, she has talent oozing out of it, though her fatness is a barrier to its proper deployment. Agnes will only ever be the voice for someone more photogenic, like Christeen, a life for which Granny has a disinterested scorn.
So Agnes is beaten, and has to return to Lancre to take up the life ordained for her, but before she can do this she has to not merely be beaten, but broken, defeated absolutely, crushed. Granny and Nanny travel back to Lancre in the comfort and dryness of a coach. Agnes has to walk, drenched to the skin in incessant rain – yes, go on, make the fat girl walk, get some of that pork off her – and when the coach passes her, it passes her. Agnes defied Granny, and has to be made to pay.
And given that Agnes only ever appears in one more book, the cruelty is all the more blatant for having no ultimate purpose.
To end on a brighter note, returning to the Opera aspect, Pratchett, as I said, has great fun satirising its foolishnesses and foibles, especially the outlandish and implausible plots. By the end, though, the real Opera Ghost has found an antidote to Opera, in the form of the invention of musicals, which Pratchett, half-seriously, presents as Opera That People Enjoy And Which Sells.
If you’re going to riff off The Phantom of the Opera, I suppose you’ve got to expect a bit of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, even when, over here, a bit of Lloyd-Webber is way too much. This may be another generational thing, but whilst I don’t like Opera, that’s because it operates on a musical level high above my tastes, and I wasn’t sympathetic to the diss of suggesting that Lloyd-Webberesque stuff is better somehow.
My, I’ve got all creaky about this book, haven’t I? And yet it’s another Pratchett stormer. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
Though I’m obviously not as large as Agnes Nitt…

New Tricks: The Wolf of Wallbrook


Bit more of the one on the left needed

After the praise I’ve been heaping on New Tricks, this episode was a disappointing reversion to the staple fare of many seasons. There was a cold case to solve, which was completed successfully, some (but not many) personal issues among the cast, and that was that. Of the moral ambiguity that has been so successful in the past series or so, there was little or no trace, and what there was of it – a fundamental element in the commission of the crime – was stapled on in an utterly unconvincing manner.

Or unconvincing to me, perhaps, but then I was certainly biassed.

The cold case went back to 1989, and to the wide-boy, loadsamoney traders in the City, Thatcher-worshippers to a man and the occasional woman: selfish greedheads, ugly bastards, monsters of self-entitlement. Charlie Wheeler had apparently been very good at his trade, until he was discovered as having lost half a million pounds and nose-dived off the roof of his brokerage’s very high, penis-extension of a building. Suicide, of course.

But in an unlooked-for and certainly left-field manner, evidence appears that Charlie was pushed, which brings the case into UCOS’s purview. After which, it was the usual interviewing of people, uncovering of things not revealed at the inquest, and the gradual narrowing of suspects down to the one who appears early and who seems to be completely clear of everything until it winds up being him. That much, at least, is a New Tricks formula, though I’ve seen it handled far better, on cases where the ultimate culprit was a lot further from the frame at first.

But the people involved, and the time, could spark no sympathy from me. They were all of a type I loathe, sons of Maggie, celebrating her for the freedom she gave them to slash, burn and destroy to the exclusion of human feelings. Along the way, the alpha male of these alpha males rather pathetically gave himself away for a long ago, unreported rape, but there was something unreal about it, as if it were a gesture on the part of a scripter, far too late to be of meaning.

And a similar gesture was invested in Charlie, as if to humanise him. You see, Charlie, whose marriage was failing (and whose ex-wife, and the consequences for her, another victim, were kept well away from both investigation and story), had a Chinese waitress for a girlfriend, who was pregnant by him. And this was 1989, a year which we who lived through it still remember most vividly: Tiananman to Timisoara.

So master market reader, genius money-maker Charlie, who’d won the cutthroat battle to take-over, sits down in a side-office and watches the tanks go into Tiananman Square, watches the brutal crushing of the people off whom he’s been making all this luvvly money, and undergoes a Damascene conversion. He’s going to pull out, leave, take his money, ruin everybody else’s fun. So off the roof he goes.

And is any of this remotely convincing? Is it fuck. Is it also sickening to use such a monumental weight upon history as a clue in a TV script? Oh,  but it is.

As for the ongoing elements of the series, this episode featured the return to duty of Sasha Miller, though not until twenty minutes in, by which time I was growing very suspicious of the shift in dynamics. Even then, immobilised as she was in a wheelchair, Sasha could not make herself an active participant, a fact emphasised by having all the men always standing whenever she was in a scene, minimising her physical presence.

Even starting by politely throwing Ted Case out of her office didn’t restore Sasha to her position, nor did her invitation to Ted to stay on as part of the team, Gerry Standing’s successor, elevate her back to being boss. I’m not making any anti-feminism accusations, although they can easily be read in, we’ll see how things are next week. Though this is something not to develop, if you get my meaning.

Another element which seemed cooked up solely for the theme of this episode was Steve McAndrew’s sudden financial penury, represented in credit cards being declined and dropping two grand on a course in how to play the markets, being run by the one unsuccessful broker of the period (those who can, do, those who can’t…)

Not a bad episode as such, just a perfunctory one: insubstantial airfill, as I described the series when I first wrote about it. A produce-in-your-sleep job.

Though there one was one good moment. Steve went to pick up the ultimate culprit and found him packing rapidly. Actually, Wolf (of course he’s called wolf, these guys were wolves, get it?) has packed two bags, and the other is full of wads of twenty pound notes, crisp and clean. It’s a solution Wolf believes is infallible, like always: he turns his back, counts to five and when he looks back he can’t see the bag, nor Steve.

So Wolf starts counting, and we start anticipating the look on his face when he turns back and Steve’s still there. Only he’s not, he’s gone. And so too has the bag.

Wolf completes his packing and leaves. And he sees Steve again. And the bag. And two uniformed officers standing by a patrol car.

Nice, and neat, though given the utter implausibility of Steve actually taking the money, no matter how desperate he is, a touch banal. Unless that is an element that they do intend to develop over the remainder of the series. I could just about see that as a way towards an ultimate end, a real, dramatic end to UCOS.

Because do the BBC plan an actual ending, or is it just going to be a petering out, a leaving for a never-to-be-made series 13? Interesting question.

Alone, and in silence (except for the coughs)


I’ve been feeling a bit rough the past few days. It’s nothing complicated, just a cold, and I’m used to coping with those, but this is the kind of cold that doesn’t fit in very well with my everyday life in a call centre. The feeling of being washed out I can handle, I’ve done that before, and as long as I can just stick to sitting at my desk, the occasional bout of light-headedness is also manageable.

Unfortunately, this one has got me in the throat. Since late Friday, I’ve been suffering one of those dry, barking coughs that are extremely annoying. I used to be more vulnerable to these little throat bugs than I seem to be now, when they used to manifest themselves rather as dry and sore throats, kept at bay by chainsucking Cherry Tunes.

But Tunes disappeared a couple of years ago, leaving me dependent at such times on Hall’s Soothers, of which the cherry tastes unpleasant so I have to rely on the blackcurrant flavour.

Not that that is making more than temporary headway against my throat, nor are the Wild Berry and Rose Lem-Sips – also not the world’s most edifying taste, I can assure you. It made for rather a restricted weekend, since the whole thing was doing nothing for my powers of concentration, I can tell you.

Unfortunately, I was back at work yesterday, logging in for a ten hour shift, uncertain as to whether or not this was a good idea. It took about forty-five minutes to conclusively prove that it was not a good idea, during which I had spoken to five people and had to apologise for coughing down the ears of all of them, and it was only getting worse. Talking only exacerbates the cough, and that only happens to be the core of my job.

So here I am at home, for a second day. The cough is showing signs of diminishing, at times, but it keeps on coming back,and it’s now reached the point where the cough has been so persistent that it’s painful to more than just the throat: my ribs ache from the battering every time it gets the better of me.

And this is without me talking to anyone. Which is the rub: how do I know when I’m properly over this nasty little throat-thing? I’m not keen on the idea of reporting for work tomorrow and being driven home after less than an hour again: that’s a bit too farcical.

On the other hand, like all employers these days, the people who pay my wages don’t like sickness absence, of any kind. I’ve already been asked if I’ve been to see the doctor, which is a bit laughable when you can only get appointments on a fortnight’s notice, so if you’ve got a three-to-five day illness, you know not to bother: it’s their equivalent of the excess on a car insurance policy.

So, in the absence of medical advice, I’ve invested in a cough syrup, and that truly is vile, and it’s not having any noticeable effect yet.

So I don’t like being off sick at any time, but this one is going to be tricky to judge: how can I know when I’m going to be fit to go back and talk to people all day when I live alone and talk to no-one?

Around here, I live without the sound of the human voice. Except for the coughing, of course.