In Praise of Pratchett: The Science of Discworld III – Darwin’s Watch

And here we are again.
The third Science of Discworld is absolutely in the tradition of the first two: chapters of Terry Pratchett’s novella, Darwin’s Watch alternate with (substantially longer) chapters of science explained by Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen.
As I fervently hope will be obvious to you, the theme for this third book is Evolution, and Messrs Stewart and Cohen fill up many pages with their explanation of the history, theories and evidence surrounding this still controversial topic. The story of Darwin’s Watch, which as usual is geared to set up the various points the scientists wish/need to make, is the spoonful of sugar to assist the medicine, although by now it’s probably some natural sweetener that in no way contributes to the issues of obesity and diabetes to which sugar contributes so terribly.
The story itself is in many ways a re-run of The Globe in The Science of Discworld II: Wizards notice that once again the plucky inhabitants of Earth, inside Roundworld, do not lever themselves off the planet before their cycle of existence reaches its disastrous end, a fate that has been engineered by interference from a third party force, requiring the Wizards to once more tinker with Roundworld’s history to procure the necessary individual to be the round peg in the requisite round hole.
For the Elves, substitute the Auditors of Reality, for William Shakespeare, substitute who else but Charles Darwin.
There is a catch, however, or rather a twist, Pratchett being too good an author to repeat himself quite so slavishly. This time the task is not to guard the Bard into existence in place of a quite hopeless alternate dramatist, but the rather more pernickety one of getting Master Darwin to write the right book.
For it appears that, instead of The Origin of Species, the influential Darwin has instead written The Ology of Species a sort of Evolution-for-Creationists text book that posits God and Intelligent Design as the centre of creation. The real Origin of Species is eventually written (by none other than the Reverend Richard Dawkins) but far too late to get humanity off the planet.
And when it comes to guiding the course of history through all the hoops requisite to ensuring Darwin writes the book we know, the influence of the Auditors means that the number of possible histories in which this happens is no longer infinite but infinitely small. The Wizards have an awful lot of interfering to do if it’s all going to work…
Pratchett has a good deal of fun with the sheer volume of tiny things that have to be acted upon to keep young Charles on the straight course, but the very complexity of this side of the story, not to mention the (necessarily) perfunctory nature of most of the solutions does tend to deprive Darwin’s Watch of the buoyancy and drive of The Globe. And in its climactic pages, with Darwin having been accidentally sucked into Discworld and the Wizards having to deal with him directly, Pratchett attempts the introduction of a numinous aspect to the conclusion that, for me at least, does not come off as it should.
The epic nature of Darwin’s achievements, and the vision of mind needed to pursue these is told, rather than being shown.
Since we’re only discussing the story side of the book, I’ve got to say that to make the novella work, Pratchett rather has to shut his eye to the historical existence of Darwin’s ‘rival’, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was working on the same theories as Darwin, and who jointly presented his own paper on the subject together with the Great Naturalist. But to have accommodated Wallace simultaneously with Darwin would have been to diffuse the storyline and to make the plot unworkable.
It still remains one of the drawbacks of working with historical personalities in that lives are simply not as simple as legends.
Nevertheless, Darwin’s Watch is still a major cut above the first Science of Discworld, whatever else we may say about it. But the series was, after three bites at the same cherry, starting to run a little stale.

The Infinite Jukebox: Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’

I don’t remember hearing this for the first time. I hope I was impressed but I suspect I wasn’t. I’d only just begun to listen to music properly, seriously, enthusiastically, and I think this song, this perfect blend of simplicity and sophistication, went over my head.

I remember the stir it caused, the universal applause it received, a rare but deserved one-mindedness about a song. These were the days when DJs had theme songs, topping and tailing their shows, and Dave Cash, whose Radio Programme saw out Radio 1’s time-constrained afternoon broadcasting, immediately switched his theme for this song, just so he could play it twice a day, every day. He was barred from doing so once the single reached Number 1.

What have I to add to the millions of words already written and spoken about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’? This was the song that, effectively, broke up Simon and Garfunkel, and it’s entirely understandable.

Where do you go from here? What have you left, what can you do after a song and an arrangement that will still be playing a thousand years from now? And how can you write and arrange a song like this, even without Paul Simon’s ego, and stand at the side of the stage every night watching Art Garfunkel sing it, and take all the applause?

It begins with a piano, alone, a single player somewhere in an empty space. Sure-handed, composed, developing a musical theme, a serene melody until, in a moment of resolution, a space for thinking, it is joined by Garfunkel’s voice, equally alone: light, unafraid, pure, almost weightless. When you’re weary, he sings, feeling small. When tears are in your eyes, I’ll dry them all.

This is a love song, but it’s nothing like any other love song. It’s not a sexual love, the way it always is now, nor even a romantic love, as would be expected then. We do not yet understand it, but the words have already introduced us that this is different, that what Garfunkel is singing of is love, pure love, agape: love of soul, of the whole.

I’m on your side. Four simple words, undramatic, committed. We all want that all need that, someone to be on our side. No matter what.

When you’re down and out, when you’re on the street. For a moment, we flash back to the poor boy of ‘The Boxer’, pocket full of mumbles, but this is no boy. Whatever else, whoever else Garfunkel is singing to, is making promises to, it is a woman. And his singing is getting stronger, and richer, and the pianist’s sound is growing, his hands heavier on the keys, to match the growing strength of the song, of the promise. Like a Bridge over Troubled water, I will lay me down. And Garfunkel’s voice has grown, and now it fills all this space into which it came, sweet, soft, alone.

And the chords mount, the music builds. Simon has held back so long, a choice of the greatest musical daring, trusting on that piano, and on his partner’s voice, to hold everything together, so still, so brave. But the cymbals clash, strings begin to hum, soft yet piercing, a single bass note plucks in the deepness, and again.

This is a love song about having someone’s back, about being there for them, about smoothing their way. It could be condescending, looking after the little woman who’s out of her depth, it could be a father or mother to a child, looking after them. But the glory of this song is that it is not. The singer has faith. Not just faith, belief, knowledge. Sail on Silver Girl, sail all night. Your time has come to shine. This is your time, this is you, all the things that you are and can be and will be, you have it in you to be all of that. I’m on your side. I will watch, and I will glory in you and what you will do.

And I will be there, sailing right behind. In those times of darkness and despair, when everything feels as if it is against you, I will be ready, I will support you, I will be what you need to make your way. I will be a Bridge over Troubled Water. I will lay me down.

And the music soars and swoops. Paul Simon draws in for a few lines of steely, austere, harmonies, reminding her of how her dreams, her future shines, but this is Art Garfunkel’s song and whatever it meant to their partnership, Paul Simon’s artistic soul saw it right, understood that it was Art’s voice that was key to this, that his was the right voice, the only voice, to do justice to this spiraling, towering, cathedral of sound, this immense, lifelong, soul-deep assurance. I will lay me down.

It’s not hard to see why many will call this a deeply religious song, will see God as the voice and the promise, not just to a young woman making her world for herself on the very cusp of feminism. I will comfort you. But to me, to arrogate this song, this promise, to a deity is to diminish it. This is an intensely human song, an incarnation of what we are and can be, of everything we contain within us that so rarely we display.

We can be like this. We are like this. This is in each of us. Paul Simon’s gift lay in finding a way of saying that, and finding a music that says it in complete harmony with the words. Like a Bridge over Troubled Water. How much I need one.

Saturday SkandiCrime: The Bridge 3 – episodes 3 & 4

Sonja Richter

To be honest, I am not having a good time of it at the moment, for reasons I don’t propose to go into, and I mention this only to explain why the two hours of Saturday night that are devoted to The Bridge 3 are the two most important of the week, because they are the two hours that I am furthest away from myself, immersed completely in this series, that is developing tracks and lines and branches almost beyond my ability to keep up.

For instance, a quarter hour into episode 4 and Saga and Henrik have captured the killer, which turns out to be creepy Rikard, the tarantula keeper, necklace-borrower and altogether creepy guy who’s obsessed with the lovely Lisa  (as who wouldn’t be if you threw a brown paper bag over her extreme right-wing principles). It’s far too soon for a solution, which is why a large part of episode 3 had already been used to set up another curious situation that I’ll get to in a moment.

But Rikard, who’s refused lawyers and responses to questions, turns out to be a red herring. Oh, he’s killed Father Christiansen and tried to get Helle Anker’s wife, Natalie, but he’s not responsible for Helle herself, nor Hans (recovered, strung up in the Ghost Train in a deserted funfair, minus right hand, currently in coma), and the new third victim, Lars, a 72 year old Swede, retired PE Teacher, whose missing bit appears to be his meat’n’veg.

To add to the various trails by now crossing the viewers’ path, if not yet the Police’s, Morton Anker, he of the bushy beard and PTSD, who didn’t even get in to last week’s review, is shot dead at the start of episode 3 by three closely grouped bullets to the upper left chest. Morton manages to declare that he was shot by his ‘brother’ though clearly not a biological one, since the only qualifier in that category is four years old.

Morton’s ‘brother’ is likely to be his brother in arms, Lukas Swendstrup, now the only survivor of the trio accused of army rape. Lukas has turned himself into a self-made social worker on the surface and a local gangster underneath. There’s a very intricate bit of business with a stupid little sod who’s gotten himself into 78,000 kroners worth of gambling debt with Lukas, whose fat is pulled out of the fire by his heavily-to-the-point-of-waters-breaking-any-moment pregant girlfriend Jeanette.

Jeanette has to drive to Sweden, collect a very heavy bag and bring it back. Unfortunately, it is stolen for her in very professional manner, examined by two complete strangers, and pronounced unneeded. Jeanette returns empty-handed , having lost the bag, only for Lukas to wipe the debt and tell her and her idiot boyfriend to piss off. His assistant then produces the bag.

Then there’s the new CEO of Ekdahl Homes, a family house-building business just expanding into Denmark. In the midst of all this elevation and expansion, she’s finding time to shag the balls off the teenage son of her best friend. Except that episode 4 ends with her indiscretions being exposed, with photos, across the Danish press.

Episode 4 also introduces the inspirational lecturer and bookwriter whose father is dying in hospital. Compassionately, but effectively, he sticks his fingers up Daddy’s nose and suffocates him before going off to his next lecture. He’s being stalked pretty obviously by the vivacious but somewhat creepy Annika, a funeral director, who then turns up at his hotel that night to tout for business – after she’s slaked what will no doubt turn out to be a very small portion of her lust on his lily-white body.

Where all of this is leading and how it all connects is utterly unfathomable this far, but I am hanging on every instant.

Sex is definitely in the air (especially every time Sonja Richter’s on screen: she did go out and get those leather pants, you know). There’s creepy Henrik still (the adjective creepy is applicable to a lot of people in this series). It’s weird how he denies being married to John the computer bod, yet he’s got his lovely dark-haired wife and two golden-haired daughters at home. There’s an early clue in the way he switches off the TV whilst the girls are watching it, which is done so casually it’s barely noticeable. And lovely wife is pestering him to approach Saga with this case he’s worrying about.

But yet again he’s off to the singles group, this time at the local trotting stadium. Episode 1’s dark-haired lady gives him the cold shoulder but look who’s here? None other than Saga Noren, needing to relax with some sex (strictly in accordance with her strictures) and reasoning that Henrik’s singles group is an easy way to get some complication-free fucking.

You know it’s a mistake, it’s a serious mistake, and nothing good is going to come of this, but yes, they do. Saga, having never had sex with a colleague before, asks Henrik if they announce it at work and thankfully he says no. Fur hilven!

I’ve refrained from commenting upon Saga until now because she is simply the most compelling part of these two episodes. As much as I miss Martin, I’m not missing Martin, if you know what I mean, because Saga is carrying this series single-handedly. She’s missing the hell out of Hans, and even she’s beginning to become aware of it, but she’s coming under serious pressure from two angles now, and I’m starting to get seriously worried about where this is going to go.

The first is her mother. Mama Noren is invading Saga’s life more and more, inviting herself into the squadroom, contacting Hans’ substitute, the overly-serious Linn. Papa has died, but that’s entirely secondary to Mama trying to get Saga to admit she was wrong over Mama hurting both Saga and her sister with her Munchausens by Proxy. Mama’s calm, almost smug insistence on Saga changing her mind is creepy and controlling and she seems to have taken in Linn, who is pressing Saga to behave, well, normally, and giving entirely too much credence to Mama. To the point of leading Saga directly to Papa’s Memorial Service which Linn is convinced she must attend. Saga drives away, but that’s not going to do her any good with the uncomprehending Linn.

There’s one more thing. Henrik does ask Saga to give a fresh perspective on his case. It’s a Missing Persons file from 2009, pretty thick too. Not Henrik’s case. Then we see Henrik back at home. His wife, dresses in a silver nightie, looks in on him. A second later, she’s not there. Between that and the TV earlier… But my intuition comes only just before the punch.

The Missing Person case involves three people. One lovely dark-haired woman. And two golden-haired daughters…

In Praise of Pratchett: Going Postal

At a very late stage in the Discworld saga, Terry Pratchett could still surprise us with a new recurring character, though the name Moist von Lipwig has always struck me as being considerable less ‘real’ than the other denizens of the Disc. And Pratchett also established a strange new approach for this latest of his books, which furthered once more the development of Ankh-Morpork as a modern city environment.
The first thing we notice about Going Postal are the words Chapter 1. Chapter? This is not Pratchett, this is not his way, Terry Pratchett does not write in chapters because life does not come in chapters. Yet here we have it, and chapters headed with brief notes that summarise (in a properly oblique manner, reminiscent of Peter Tinniswood’s page headings) what are to come in these chapters.
And then there’s the… well, how do we describe it? This is a very detailed book, yet, in another way, it’s curiously undetailed. It takes place in Ankh-Morpork, and it features half a dozen or so of the familiar characters we expect to see in Ankh-Morpork, and yet they’re not entirely there, not in the depth we normally expect of them.
Take Sam Vimes, who is the most extreme example of this curious distance. Sam’s there in one scene, close to the climax, when the chance – created by Moist von Lipwig – falls to the Patrician to step in and have exposed the machinations of those who own, and who have exploited the Grand Trunk, the clacks system. Sam is there, but he is not in the scene. Lord Vetinari orders that Commander Vimes arrest the Directors and take them to the cells.
And that’s it. Vimes neither speaks nor is referred to as taking action. He is a ghost conjured up by Lord Vetinari’s words, but he does not ‘exist’ as the Sam Vimes we know.
It creates a two-fold effect. Firstly, it introduces an atmosphere not that far removed from the Young Adult books, in that whilst we may be in Ankh-Morpork, we are not necessarily of it. There are no descriptions, no solidity. The other is to give us an impressionistic introduction to the world of Moist von Lipwig.
Moist is a con-man, a crook. He lives to fool people, to get things out of them, to exploit their gullibility and the unpracticed greed in their souls. In a way, he’s like a walking, talking version of the National Lottery, only with less chance of hitting the jackpot. Ankh-Morpork and the familiar characters  we meet lose several degrees of their reality because that’s how they are to Moist. He’s partly a psychopath, though a strictly non-violent kind of psychopath, because other people aren’t really real to him, and this goes for the consequences of his actions, too.
When we meet him, he’s going to die. He’s been caught, tried, sentenced to hang, and this time there are no clever schemes to con his way out. So he dies. But Moist is being hung as Albert Spangler, and it’s Albert Spangler who dies, because Lord Vetinari has decided that someone with as complex a mind as Moist von Lipwig is the right person to reactivate, re-open and re-animate the Post Office.
And, despite his natural reluctance, despite his conviction that it’s impossible, Moist slowly discovers that the Patrician was, as usual, dead right.
Moist knows that he’s a tool, but what he doesn’t appreciate immediately is to what extent he’s a tool. Many of the later Discworld books show the Patrician as, in one way or another, encouraging the development of Ankh-Morpork (and by natural progression, the whole of Discworld) into a modern city, culminating, of course, in the arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Raising Steam, another Moist von Lipwig book. But Lord Vetinari is not interested in the Post Office as such, but rather as an alternative to the Grand Trunk, and a weapon with which to face its Chairman, Reacher Gilt.
Which is where Going Postal goes heavily, angrily and very effectively political.
The clacks towers appeared out of nowhere in the background to The Fifth Element. Nowadays, we think of them as the Discworld equivalent to e-mail, which signals just how fast Time has breezed by us, because to begin with, as the rhyme of the name indicates, they were Discworld’s version of the fax machine.
Either way, at a stroke, the Discworld has been brought together. The clacks towers were the cause of the Borogravia/Zenobia war in Monstrous Regiment. They’re an instrument, the instrument of change. And the Grand Trunk has a monopoly…
Pratchett is both clinical and savage as he tears capitalism apart during the course of this book. The Grand Trunk was conceived, built, created by the Dearheart family, especially Robert Dearheart, the father. It was put together by dedicated men, inspired men, geniuses in their specialised area, and it was run properly by them. They understood their business, they knew what was required to do it right, they prioritised doing it right, for the benefit of everybody.
But such people don’t have the money. They’re dreamers and practical men combined, but they’re not businessmen, so they need businessmen to run things for them, until they look up and find that the businessmen actually own everything, and they own nothing, they run nothing, they control nothing. Their only options are to watch what they’ve built fall to pieces, or to walk away.
Because the only thing the businessmen know about is money, and the only thing they care about is more money. There are always ways to make more money today, corners to be cut, expenditure to be cut, ‘efficiencies’ to be made all in the pursuit of bringing in the next five years’ income this year. That they’re destroying the actuality of the business, to the point where it won’t be there in the second year, is something they neither understand nor care about. If the worst comes to the worst and it all crashes, they’ll simply form another company, buy the old business at a knock-down price and carry on.
The people who understand, who know how things work, who take pride in a job well done have either left in disgust or else been sacked as unnecessary: I’m sorry, actually they’ve been down-sized.
Pratchett picks all this apart with forensic delight, contrasting it with those who can and do understand how things work. He puts Moist on one side, the showman, the flash man, who slowly grows up, and he emphasises things by putting Moist’s equivalent, indeed superior, in charge of the Grand Trunk.
Reacher Gilt is a pirate, he acts like a pirate, he dresses like a pirate. Reacher Gilt is Free Enterprise, overtly opposed to Government Intervention, to Public Ownership, which is an Intolerable Burden on Taxes. Reacher Gilt is Margaret Thatcher. But, in one of the wisest lines Terry Pratchett ever wrote, when Gilt talks of Freedom, it is freedom for himself and no-one else.
Gilt is capitalism rampant. His very name spells it out. Moist, who is the Patrician’s tool to ratchet open a chance to bring Gilt down, recognises an artiste in his own game, but at the same time finds that of his own accord he has to take the honest route, so as not to be Reacher Gilt. Some of that impulse is because of Spike, his pet name for Miss Adora Belle Dearheart, daughter of the cheated and broken Robert, sister of John, who died when he tried to challenge the Grand Trunk with newer and better ideas: Spike, who was a victim of one of Moist’s ‘victimless’ crimes.
Moist has to learn how to live up to the permanently angry Spike, which adds impetus to his determination not to be Reacher Gilt, but the most important part of his transformation is simply not being the man for whom nothing matters but himself, the man who doesn’t hide what he is, only his utter contempt for those who refuse to see, whilst Moist delights in the con because it’s what brings him most alive.
And it is Moist who wins because he knows and understands words and what effect they can have above and beyond truth, the words that don’t need to be legally provable because they go to the heart of what people want to believe. Once they’re spoken, then the Patrician’s form of Forensic Accounting can go in and unravel everything.
And Lord Vetinari can make a similar offer to Reacher Gilt. The Royal Mint needs looking after, transforming, re-animating. Gilt can do for that what Moist has done for the Post Office. He can do great good for others. But Gilt is Free Enterprise, he is Thatcherism incarnate, and the only freedom to be had is freedom for oneself, even if the only thing that can be done with that freedom is to refuse angels and take the other choice.
I’ve left a lot of Going Postal out of this review: most of the ingenuity, nearly all of the comedy. Neither of these are negligible. This is a very clever, very funny book. But it’s also very angry, it’s where the anger lies closest to the surface, and it’s a book that is prescient. Reading it in 2015 holds a different meaning to reading it when it was first published in 2004, before the financial crash that has twisted all our lives out of true and which the Gilts of this world have seized upon to extricate as much of everything as they can for themselves. There are lines which were funny once yet now hold a grim significance.
Pratchett could interweave deep, whole-hearted comedy into that, make it a seamless whole, but I’m nowhere near good enough to do that in a review. I like Moist von Lipwig, and Spike, and rapidly promoted Junior Postman Tolliver Groat, and Stanley, whose un-given surname surely has to be Gibbons. But I respond to Pratchett’s denunciation of those who know the value of money and of nothing else, and I share his rage.

The Fall Season: The Man in the High Castle

Yes, I know it’s nearly the end of November, and over here in the UK that makes it very late to still keep calling it the Fall, especially after the weather we’ve been putting up with this month. But it’s too early for the Mid-Season shows, so let’s stick with the title and look at a late addition.

The Man in the High Castle is an Amazon show, which means that the whole series, all ten episodes of it, was released, Netflix-fashion, in one fell swoop. But you still can’t watch it any more than one episode at a time and, in Thanksgiving week, when half my weekly American shows have been pre-empted, I have down-loaded the first couple of episodes and just come off the Pilot.

The series is based upon the legendary Philip K. Dick 1962 novel of the same name. I read the novel many years ago. Dick is not among my favourite writers and I remember little of the story save its basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War 2 and occupied America between them. Nor have I been back to remind myself of any other details from the book.

The pilot episode is superb, rich in detail and atmosphere. Wisely, it hasn’t been updated, meaning that the two regimes have been in control of the USA for almost two decades, but that a significant part of the population is old enough the remember defeat, and the world before that. The Nazis occupy all of America east of the Rockies as a Greater Reich, the Japanese hold west of the Rockies as the Japanese Pacific States, and there’s a neutral zone between, a buffer between seeming allies in conquest.

Enter our two main characters (though has one of them as merely ‘recurring’ and a thus far supporting character as the other star. In New York City, Joe Blake, seemingly in honour of a commitment to his (deceased?) father, joins the Resistance and is tasked with driving a truck to Canon City in the Neutral Zone, where someone will contact him – if it’s safe. En route, he checks out what e is secretly transporting: a reel of film.

Meanwhile, on the other coast, in San Francisco, Juliana Crane stumbles inadvertently into the western Resistance when her half-sister Trudy is shot dead on the street, seconds after handing her a bag. The bag contains a reel of film, film that in our world is authentic, well-known newsreel footage about the Allies’ victory, but which in this world can only be fake: or is it?

Juliana watches it over and over, in delight. Her live-in boyfriend, repressed artist Frank Frick (the other ‘star’) knows it comes from some mysterious individual known only as The Man in the High Castle, and that possession of the same is treason. He wants Juliane to turn it in, explain it away, but instead she runs, taking Trudy’s place, heading for a meeting in a Diner in the Neutral Zone. In Canon City.

Much of the pilot is taken up in establishing this situation and moving Joe and Juliana – who come off mainly as cyphers so far – towards their meeting in the episode’s closing minutes: Juliana as damsel-in-distress, robbed of bag and money, unable to pay 2 Marks for her diner meal, Joe the White Knight, a friend-in-need with obvious interest in the fair Juliana’s warm and fair body.

There are two other significant strains started in this episode. In one, we learn that the white-haired Hitler is seriously ill, with six months left to live. There is a power-struggle going on over the succession, but all three candidates plan to begin their term as Fuhrer by bombing the Japanese Pacific States…

And back on the East Coast is the fanatical Resistance-breaker, Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith. To whom, his cover safely established, Joe Blake reports at episode end.

What impresses most about this first episode is the sheer detail, the volume of it. Familiar American scenes have not merely been recreated in their form of 1962 with stunning authenticity, but they have been twisted into the world of the series. New York is littered with swastikas, San Francisco with rising suns, to an extent far too intense to take in at once. Money has not been spared in creating this visual scene, nor in creating a sombre, slightly darkened colour palate that mutes the eye. It feels real: hopelessly, inescapably reel.

I shall be here for the duration.

Two last things on which to comment. I haven’t yet mentioned the seemingly minor role of Japanese Pacific State Trade Minister Mr Nobosuke Tagomi (beautifully and gravely etched by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) who is one of the central characters in the book.

And there was one moment, midway, that had me shuddering: Joe blows out a tyre and needs help from the local law, a war veteran with a swastika armband. As they finish, ash starts to descend from the sky. Don’t worry, the sheriff says, it’s the Hospital. Every Tuesday they haul in the deranged and the old and dispose of them. The mental image goes off like a bomb. But it’s the sheriff’s casual approval, not just acceptance, that scares the bejasus out of you.

10 August 2017

The above date is the publication of a novel in paperback. It is unknown to me whether a hardback edition will appear prior to that, though based on three factors, I anticipate it will. Those three factors are that the book has been written, finished, and delivered to its publishers in August 2015, that the author’s previous, brilliant novel was first published in hardback, not long before Xmas 2013, and that I can’t believe, and I really really don’t want to have to wait twenty-one months before getting to read Christopher Priest’s The Gradual.

Especially not if it’s set, once more, in the Dream Archipelago…

Deep Space 9: s1e08 – Dax

A Trill for all Seasons

The title of this episode makes it clear that we are going to focus on Lieutenant Jardzia Dax, the Trill, the symbiote host, whose previous incarnation, as Curzon Dax, was both friend and mentor to Commander Sisko. It’s due as well: we’re eight episodes in and we’ve really not seen Dax (nor Bashir, nor Quark) as anything other than superficial characters, although Terry Farrell is part of the cast.

‘Dax’ made for a very interesting episode, which had me concentrating quite closely, but which, at the same time, had underlying weaknesses of which I was very conscious. But let’s set up the story first.

We begin with an old-fashioned Captain’s Log Stardate Gobbledygook entry, just to tell us that Chief O’Brien isn’t in this week’s episode. Then we cut to the ever-naive, puppydog Doctor Bashir still trying to get somewhere with calm, unflappable, uninterested Jardzia. Then the good lieutenant is set upon and kidnapped by assailants under the command of guest star Gregory Itzin – baddy yes, but still light years from his slimy, creepy President Logan in 24 – only for the well-laid plan to be foiled by the rest of the cast.

Only then is it revealed that Ilan Tandro holds a perfectly valid, Federation-respected warrant to arrest Dax for crimes of murder and treason thirty years previously as Curzon.

Since Bajor doesn’t have a treaty with Kleasron IV, Sisko holds things up with an extradition hearing, which forms the body of the episode (and in which guest star Annee Haney, as the waspish, 100 year old, no-nonsense Bajoran arbiter steals the show effortlessly).

Yes, courtroom drama, turning on the moral and philosophical point as to whether a symbiont lifeform remains responsible for crimes committed when joined to a previous host, when the punishment – the death penalty – would fall upon a host body not merely innocent of such crimes but not even alive at their commission.

The arguments are fascinating, with both sides bringing up compelling points. Dax is accused, in his role as a Federation Mediator, of betraying General Ilandro (Gregory’s daddy) to the Government forces, who killed him. Ilandro became a martyr to the rebel cause, inspired it to overthrow the Government, and remains a public legend to this day, so the crime is a heavy one.

Ultimately it will be found that Dax was not guilty of the transmission that betrayed General Ilandro to the Government, because he was shagging the General’s wife at that very moment (suppresses sarcastic and lewd thought). Indeed, in a throwaway line that is exceedingly disappointing in its perfunctoriness (reflecting the fact that no-one involved in the story cared about who actually shopped the General as anything more than a MacGuffin), Mrs Widow General lets slip it was Ilandro himself, planning to betray the rebellion. Choke, how ironic.

That’s a very poor ending, but then so far on this series I’ve not been over-impressed with the closing scenes, which are given far too little time to be at all effective. However, good as it is, the episode has, as I said, two major flaws.

The first is structural, and goes to the nature of the form. Courtroom dramas like this can’t work without some fundamental information being withheld: the Courtroom in drama is used as an investigation (think Perry Mason and all its heirs) in pursuit of the truth, which has to start concealed. When it’s used in a series with an established cast, and an accusation against a cast member, the structure falls apart if the accused doesn’t spend at least half the show refusing to defend themselves and generally keeping their mouths shut. As does Dax here, except that ninety percent of the time, this refusal to defend oneself comes over exactly as it does in this episode, as a clumsy contrivance to enable the story to be told, and completely out of character. Why won’t you tell us what really happened? Because if I did the story would end after fifteen minute and we’d have to busk until the end.

So the episode ends up being about, but around Jardzia Dax. She becomes the hollow centre of things and, rather than learn about her as we need to, we learn about Trills in the abstract, we get a xenobiology lesson, not a character portrait, an insight.

And that’s down to the other underlying weakness of the episode, which is that, at this stage in her career, Terry Farrell simply isn’t a good enough actress to play Dax as something more than a quiet, emotionally restricted, flat character. What lines she does speak carry little weight. When you try to imagine her at the centre of a trial, defending herself, you quickly see that Farrell hasn’t got the range to convince in a deeper role for more than thirty seconds, if that.

That’s one of the reasons, I suspect, that we’re going to see Bashir pursue for some time longer. It’s a comedy sub-plot that, with a better actress on Dax’s side, would see her put him out of his misery pretty damned quickly, but until Farrell grows in her performance, she just couldn’t put any of that across.

So, a very good episode in spite of its flaws. But the series needs to do something about those closes. At least sixty seconds more airtime would help.