Saturday ScandiCrime: Trapped – Parts 3 & 4

An old friend and a new

As if proof were needed after the first two episodes, a second week establishes that Trapped is more than worthy to follow in the footsteps of The Killing and The Bridge. Like the former, this Icelandic series is as much concerned with the consequences of crime, the often long-standing consequences on the survivors. Though it wouldn’t surprise me to see it ultimately rolled into the overarching plot that you can just feel is rising to the surface, Dagny’s death in the fish factory fire seven years ago is still playing itself out across a lot of the characters, including Andri, the Chief of Police in the snow-bound port of Sigjusfjordur.

To begin with, episode 3 very quickly wraps up the dangling threads of last week. The girls (Andri’s daughters) find Maggi, the little boy, in the snowstorm. Agnes (Andri’s estranged wife) finds them. Andri finds them all and brings them in out of the cold. Come the morning – and that place is stunning to look at in daylight – he and Hinrika release Aesgir from the police cell and go looking for the missing Lithuanian tracker, who has crashed the stolen police car and broken his fool neck.

This is a very handy bit of deck-clearing  for a cool, quiet Sunday-set episode, which gently shifts the plot forward in a couple of gentle directions. First, Aesgir – who is now set up as Sigjusfjordur’s resident Police geek – identifies the photos of the stolen torso as having been uploaded from Hjortur’s phone: you know, Hjortur, Dagny’s partner in sex, drugs, but not death.

Hjortur is immediately brought in, which the entire town seems to regard as only to be expected, and which Eirikur, Dagny’s Dad, Andri’s father-in-law and the one member of the familiy who is still unable to live with her loss, sees as justice. His anger towards Hjortur, a part of which washes towards eldest granddaughter, Johanna, who has spoken kindly to and of Hjortur, disrupts the family’s otherwise still Sunday.

Whilst Eirikur is fulminating about Hjortur, Andri is questioning him over the photos, including those of Johanna. Now it’s become personal. Andri persists in talking to Hjortur, even after he’s ordered to keep his beard out of things by Reykjavik, whilst Hjortur’s sullenness and inability to explain even to himself why he has taken them slowly grows into an admission of deep loss. He was badly burned trying to save Dagny, was dragged outside by some unknown person. He thinks of her every day, believes he should have died with her. Seeing Johanna makes him feel as if Dagny is still alive.

It’s slow, but it’s painful, but brilliantly played as it is, it’s nothing to the scene in episode 4 when Andri brings Eirikur to Hjortur’s room. Eirikur has never spoken to the boy before, never forgiven, not even for one second, but he begins his own healing by talking of his baby girl. Hjortur, though silent, struggles to keep his self-control, reliving Dagny’s existence in Eirikur’s every word about her, as the two come to some sort of understanding without words that both have suffered crippling losses.

It’s flawlessly written, and made all the more heartfelt by the two actors, old and young, and I wish that I thought for one second that British TV could produce something this raw and real, but then I watched the utterly ridiculous Fortitude, didn’t I, so I know we can’t. Yeuch. Bitter taste at even the mention, let’s not profane Trapped by bringing it up again.

Back at the overt plot, the frustrated Andri may not be able to question anyone but he can start a search of the shoreline. The torso may have been pilfered, but there are at least five other sections of the poor victim out there somewhere, and hopefully discoverable.

So Hinrika’s cheerfully dope-smoking hubby goes out on his boat into the fjord, with a diver and comes back with one of those bits. It’s an arm, with part of a jacket, or maybe jeans in the binliner with it. Unfortunately, there’s a bar receipt dated three days ago, before the Ferry arrived: he victim wasn’t on the boat after all.

And neither was the murderer.

The investigation swings into another direction in episode 4, with Trausti in Reykjavik grudgingly allowing Andri to keep plodding on until Forensics can finally get there. The plot, like a rich soup, thickens. Thanks to the all-talented sketch artist Aesgir, the stranded MP Fridrik (who’d drunk the other Bloody Mary on the bar receipt) helps the local team to identify the victim as a local bad boy, not known to have been back in town, whose file has unaccountably disappeared. And Mayor Harfn, ex-Police Chief, is being very dismissive about that fact.

It’s all getting very wierd. Hafrn’s still all for the port scheme, and pressing harbour master Sigurdur to press his recalcitrant Dad to sell up and make everybody rich. Agnes, who’s a Reykjavik lawyer when she’s not trapped in town seems to be asking some awkward questions about how this will actually work out in practice that Hafrn isn’t (he’s to busy insulting, beating and at least semi-raping his wife because she hasn’t got a hot dinner on the table for him).

Sigurdur’s dad hasn’t got much time for his rather weasel-like son (who’s own wife is enthusiastically shagging a toy boy whilst the tourists sheltering at the school are either asleep or playing video games). Apart from his cheerful refusal to countenance change, Gotmundur’s main concerns are skinning, beheading and gutting a dead reindeer onscreen, with no thought had for dubious tummies, not to mention the prospect of an avalanche burying the town once it all warms up a bit.

The Press coerce the victim’s name out of Trausti’s sidekick. On the Ferry, Captain Carlsen (I knew he looked familiar, it’s the superb Bjarne Henriksen, Theis Birk Larsen from The Killing 1, hurrah!) The Captain’s all set to leave now they’re obviously cleared, but his dodgy sidekick is having none of it: not without their cargo of hot Nigerian girls they’re not.

Add in Hinrika’s finding the Lithuanian’s phone and discovering the only two Icelandic numbers he’s called are cheap pay as you go phones. One was bought by the Hotel owner, though he’s denying it flatly (and he’s straight onto his proper phone the moment Hinrika leaves). The other is the old man with the beard and the telescope (and a wheelchair as we also discover this week) who’s spying on Hinrika’s house where Bardur is laughing with the elder Nigerian girl).

Before that conversation can get even more creepy than it already is, an explosion occurs. It’s Godmundur, blowing up a part of the snowscape to stop it enveloping the town. Andri and Sigurdur are trying to stop him but Godmundur knows what he’s doing. Like a firebreak, his artificial avalanche will fall away from the town. He knows what he’s doing. He gets it right. Until another large chunk of snow gets loose, right above Godmundur, Sigurdur and our bear-like hero Andri…

So while we wait for next Saturday night, here’s a shout-out to the principal cast, Olafur Darri Olafsson as Andri, Ilmur Kristjansdottir as Hinrika and Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson as Aesgir. not to mention many fine others too numerous to copy slowly and carefully. Roll on Saturday next.

Theatre Nights: possibility of repeats

During the nearly five year experiment with the New 52, which looks to be coming to an end with the forthcoming not-another-reboot Rebirth, DC Comics have pretty much cancelled Graphic Novel collections of stories from their old Universe(s). However, that might be about to exchange.

I’ve recently found out that the short-lived 1992 Justice Society of America series, cancelled in controversial circumstances after ten issues, is being collected, but the best news of all is that on 30 June, Sandman Mystery Theatre is being re-collected. And this time Volume 1 collects the first three performances: 12 issues under the same covers.

I have already pre-ordered it.

It’s very early days yet, but if fingers are crossed long enough, we may yet see the remaining uncollected stories made available in GN form. If this is the format of choice, it needs only five more volumes to bring everything together, including Sandman Midnight Theatre.

And maybe we might finally see the seventh and last Crisis on Multiple Earths GN appear. I have an incomplete series just waiting for the chance to get my hands on the last three team-ups.

Incidentally, having just bought the first two Madame Xanadu GNs, I’d like to draw to your attention the appearance our our favourite pair of New York socialites, Dian Belmont and Wesley Dodds in the second of these, ‘Dark Exodus’. It’s a good book in its own right, but spiced with a flavouring of the Golden Age Sandman…

You should know better

What about him?

There’s a charmlessly naive puff-piece in the Guardian today, by someone who should know better. Damien Walter, a writer of SF and other speculative fiction, has used his regular ‘Weird Things’ column to suggest that ex-Marvel editor and writer Stan Lee is the greatest storyteller in history.

This is a response to the newly-published Graphic Novel biography about Lee, written by Peter Davod and drawn by Colleen Doran. Walter waffles on in awe about Lee, giving him sole credit for creation of all Marvel’s major characters who inhabit film and TV today. Here are a couple of quotes:

“For the best part of two decades, through the 1960s and 70s, Lee conceived and scripted the pantheon of superheroes that has made Marvel arguably the most significant shared universe in today’s entertainment landscape.”

“Spider-Man, the X-­Men, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, SHIELD, Daredevil: all of them were created by Stan Lee.”

For the best part of two decades, eh? Through the 70s, eh? Are we talking about the Stan Lee who stood down from the Marvel editorship in 1972 and ceased writing any of its titles? Through the 70s? I mean, don’t get me wrong, Stan Lee was writing for more than two decades, it’s just that to get that, you have to include the entire 50s, in which Stan Lee did not write a single story that anyone remembers.

As for that list of creations, well, let me make a petty quibble first. The X-Men of the movie franchise, indeed the X-Me that have been colossally successful since the late Seventies, are primarily composed of characters with whom Stan Lee had no contact. Cyclops, Professor X, and Jean Grey here and there, yes, these were members of the original X-Men, but the rest? Storm? Wolverine? No.

But this is, as I say, a petty quibble. Stan Lee was indeed writer of the original X-Men, and indeed all of the others on Walter’s list, and many more besides. Where Walter goes wrong, badly wrong, and where someone of Walter’s background would certainly know better than to say, is that Lee was co-creator. With artist Steve Ditko in the case of Spider-Man, and with artist Jack Kirby in the case of everyone else (even Daredevil, though that should more properly be co-credited to artist Bill Everett).

There are some – and Stan Lee is among them – who would dispute the artist’s part in creation. But this is comics: if writers could draw, they wouldn’t have artists drawing their stories, and the situation is further blurred by Lee developing the practice of giving artists a basic plot, more or less an outline, that they would draw, and which he would script, in accordance with the artwork produced.

This is not the place to argue which of Lee-Kirby or Lee-Ditko was the true creator. That’s too complex an argument. However, it is clear beyond all measure that Lee was not solely responsible for the creation of so many characters. There are many stories about the physical creation of stories at Marvel in the 60s that make plain just how often Lee would script a story that had been drawn without him ever having been involved in its creation before receiving the art.

The point is that Walter must know this, yet he has gone ahead and blown smoke up Stan Lee’s ass, in the way Marvel has done for decades, wiping out the contributions of creators such as Kirby and Ditko, when he should know better. If this came from a Guardian journalist without any interest in comics, it would still be ignorant, insulting and stupid, but from Walter it’s disgusting. Shame on him.

Stan Lee was the co-creator of all these characters. He deserves honouring for that. He has reaped the fruits of presenting himself as the sole creator for decades, whilst his colleagues have struggled and suffered. The Big Lie is perpetuated to this day.

Alfred Bester – a Driver of Tigers: Psychoshop (with Roger Zelazny)

Psychoshop was the very last work of Alfred Bester to be published, almost a dozen years after his death in 1987.
Among his effects was found a manuscript, not entirely complete, of approximately 90 pages, of an intended novel titled Psycho Hock Shop (the US equivalent of a pawnbroker). Roger Zelazny was invited to complete the manuscript and did so, although the completed book was not published until three years after Zelazny’s own death in 1995.
This is not the kind of backstory that fills the reader with any confidence about a book.
Psychoshop was issued with a laudatory introduction by modern hard SF writer, Greg Bear, a clearly very intelligent man but not the automatic choice to sing the praises of either Bester or Zelazny. Bear speaks of them as jazz masters, blowing hot and cold riffs, as if the writing styles of the pair had ever been comparable, and he claims that their merger is almost seamless.
So far as he is speaking to any changes, amendments or fills that Zelazny provides to Bester’s extant manuscript, I’d agree, but the moment Zelazny takes over with a free hand to develop the nascent tale, it’s obvious from the first paragraph (Zelazny uses the word ‘knaves’, a typically Zelazny term but not a word Bester would employ) that we have switched hands and from there on, Zelazny makes no pretence that he is aping Bester’s style or approach in any way. It’s a switch, from hot to cool, and the fault line is too obvious.
But what of the story? It’s in the first person again, the first person in this case being Alfred Noir, feature writer for ‘Rigadoon’ magazine, being sent on assignment to Rome. Actually, we are never formally told Alf’s surname, which is extremely unfortunate, given that Bester’s readers know him to have been, for many years, a feature writer for ‘Holiday’ magazine. By the time Alf’s real surname is introduced, back-handedly, at least one reader cannot escape think of the narrator as being Bester in person.
Reference to ‘the story’ however clearly implies a narrative, perhaps even a plot, and in Bester’s stretch of the book, it’s pushing it to say that there is one. Alf is sent to Italy to investigate The Black Place of the Soul-Changer, being run by a mysterious individual known only as Adam Maser.  This enigma is so hard to find that Alf accomplishes it in a seven-line paragraph on the second page of the story.
(I cannot resist referencing this paragraph, which begins by arrogantly dividing the world into a 1% elite and 99% citizens, whom Bester holds in contempt as being terminally uncool, unlike himself. This, in the mid-Eighties, from a writer unable to accept that his own ‘cool’ belonged entirely to the Fifties. Pfui!)
The Black Place, or Luogo Nero, or Buoco Nero as in Black Hole – nebular kind, not Calcuttan – is the Psycho Hock Shop, where people go to lose and acquire personality traits. Adam, whose name is short for Magfaser, but who is also referred to, erratically, as Macavity, the Mystery Cat (T. S. Eliot and, regrettably, Andrew Lloyd-Webber).
Adam is, apparently, from the distant future, but has gone back in time to operate the Black Place from at least medieval times (not that Time has any actual meaning in the Psychoshop) for reasons that never become entirely clear, except that he is the Kaleidolon, a kind of semi-synthetic multi-talented being, under observation to see how he performs.
He and Alf take to each other with unconvincing ease, especially Alf, who doesn’t query a word of any of this. Once at the Black Place, Alf meets Glory, Adam’s companion, nursemaid, minder, employee etc. Glory is a snake-woman, who regular sheds her skin: she and Alf are soon in bed together, enjoying interminable sex.
Such as there is a plot in Bester’s manuscript, it comes when the current Count Cagliostro commissions Adam to build the perfect android, complete with a perfect balance of attributes and abilities. Adam dubs it an Iddroid, and so delights in the pursuit of this project that he refuses payment. Alf, brought into the business, and Glory, start collecting what’s needed.
And on page 69, at the end of chapter 3, Alfred Bester ended his writing career. What he left for Roger Zelazny to pick up on is debatable. Bester used to outline furiously, in great detail. What has been said of his later career, the alcoholism, the physical difficulty of writing with his eye problems, leads me to infer that there was little, or perhaps nothing. That certainly is how the rest of the book feels.
Roger Zelanzy. I first discovered him in 1974, shortly after I first read The Lord of the Rings and very early in my enthusiasm for SF and Fantasy. He was a great favourite of mine for at least twenty years, and I had everything he’d published, up to and including Eye of Cat. But times and interests change, and now I no longer have even the two ‘Amber‘ series. But it makes him a writer I know very well, well enough to be suspicious of his taking over a Bester project. And it makes me very conscious that the remaining two-thirds of Psychoshop are poor, very poor. Dull, stylised, lacking energy, riddled with Zelaznian cliché, every bit a reminder of why I divested myself of all his work.
The first thing Zelazny does is to get rid of Adam for what feels like a very long time. Left to themselves, Alf and Glory talk a lot, have sex a lot, and occasionally open the shop for short spells (on the page) during which they go through multiple cases all tagged with implausible names, rather like Dr Watson referring to untold Sherlock Holmes stories. The talk is speculative and would-be hip but, after she reveals to Alf that there are seven different bodies all identical to him hung up in a back room, tends to the repetitive: she thinks he’s actually an enemy operating under false memories, he assures her he’s a friend without ulterior motive, she doesn’t believe it (of course, it turns out she’s right).
As for the sex, it’s an endless and quickly tedious round of sophomoric euphemisms for what they’re about to do, leaping instantly to contented exhaustion after they’ve done it, and none of it has any point,
There are also a great many references to plans and schemes and futures and stuff that Adam and Glory are going to reveal to Alf, when the time is right, only the time is never right and he’s just too damned accepting of what is a pretty obvious runaround. There’s also a lot of frankly incomprehensible to follow stuff about the far future, in which humanity has interbred so much (as has everybody else) that there are pretty few purebred humans left, better known as Colosodians, who are like super bounty hunters, trackers and killers.
And Alf – no, it isn’t his real name and he is programmed with fake memories only it turns out to be by himself – is a Colosodian, which gives Zelazny plenty of scope for his trademark kick-by-blow accounts of hand to hand combat that are so plain that it’s impossible to visualise what the hell is going on.
In what little vestige of story that can be gleaned from this mess, two things stand out. Orion (formerly Alf Noir) is here to shut down Adam and the Black Place. Why this should be so, apart from the fact that it is shut down round about now according to history, does not appear to be explained and, since Alf then helps Adam and Glory start up again in secret, does not appear to matter.
But back to the Iddroid, or so Dominoid as Cagliostro (and Zelazny rename it), which those with acute memories will remember as being the probable point of Bester’s story, a very long time ago. It seems that the Dominoid has been created to be the perfect thing to survive the Big Crunch at the end of this Universe and emerge from the Big Bang at the start of the next to become its God – with Cagliostro’s personality imprinted upon it.
Who saw that coming, eh, in amongst Alf and Glory’s monotonous fucking?
But don’t worry about the next universe having an unsuitable God, Urtch, a broken down wino who happens to be this Universe’s God, asserts himself to oversee the next universe too.
At which point I’m tempted to reverse myself into religious faith again, just so that I can scream something along the lines of, “Jesus Christ, this is fucking awful!!!!!”
What makes this unholy and incomprehensible mess all the more degrading is that there are glimpses of a genuine story in there, especially in the notion of the surreptitious creation of an ideal creature to survive the transition between Universes, and to put itself in a position to be the next God. But it needs far better than Bester’s hokey Psycho Hock Shop to set it up and it needs far better than Zelazny’s mewlings, an utterly broken shadow of his former ability, to establish and deal with it.
It was the whimsical purchase of Psychoshop, the cheap curiosity that I satisfied in late 2015 that has led to this brief series on Bester. The book was a curiosity first time round, a disaster second time and I have no intention of reading it for a third. Rarely has a book so bad been published, and the fact that they waited until both writers had died speaks truthfully.
Bester is worth reading but, with the exception of my beloved Extro, do not read anything after 1970. Trust me on this one, there are far better things to do with your limited time.

Lucifer: the four episode test

This one.

Most of the regular TV I watch nowadays comes from American series that, with the still-enjoyable exception of The Big Bang Theory, are based on comics I have read and enjoyed at one time or another. To keep track of these, I use When it comes to new series, the site operates on the principle of giving them four episodes before assessing them. By that time, you should know what the show’s about, how well the cast are performing, whether the writers have a clear idea of what they’re aiming for, and generally, whether it’s worth your time.
This week, Lucifer, based on the DC/Vertigo Comics version of the Morningstar as framed in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and gloriously realised by Mike Carey in his own series, broadcast its fourth episode. I am assessing it in the manner of My instincts suggest that every foot of film shot so far should be digitally erased, every writer, producer, director and actor even peripherally involved with the project be sacked and then either do a radically different version of the show or, better yet, forget the whole thing completely. Use hypnotism if you have to.
The basic problem for me is that, from the moment the TV series was first announced, I have known that it would be impossible to translate the elements that made the comics series so great onto television. I’m not talking effects and budgets, I’m talking about the storylines, the essence of Lucifer Morningstar, first and proudest of Angels. I’m talking about themes that stretch deeply into religious areas, into issues of Free Will versus Predestination, and ultimately about a rejection of God so deep that no TV network in any at least nominally Christian country could ever broadcast.
Carey’s Lucifer is a genuine subversive figure. You couldn’t put him on the screen.
So I knew, from the outset, that the TV Lucifer couldn’t even remotely resemble the Lucifer that impressed me so, and even before I learned that the TV Lucifer was to be a Police Procedural, case-of-the-week, amateur-shows-up-the-cops of the kind that we have seen dozens of times over, no different in concept than, say, Castle, where the Police rely, week-in, week-out, on a crime fiction novelist.
Ho hum.
I did, at least, hope that they could capture something of Lucifer’s voice, something of his effortless arrogance, his disdain, his irony and his unbending superiority. At least that would have given us dialogue that cut, that would sharpen itself on other people’s pretensions and foibles. Alas, no.
The TV series does draw, very superficially, on the comics for its setting. Lucifer, though he already existed within DC continuity, was first used by Neil Gaiman in Sandman 4, when Dream, visiting Hell to retrieve his stolen helm of office, aroused Lucifer’s enmity, causing the Morningstar to swear to destroy him.
This set up the later ‘Season of Mists’ storyline, when Dream returns to Hell to free a prisoner he had unjustly condemned. He expects reprisals from Lucifer, but is stunned to learn that the Morningstar has used Dream’s visit as a pretext to close Hell, to send away the dead, the damned and the demons, and to end his reign. His revenge is to give the key to Hell to Dream, making him responsible for what next happens to it (what an unbelievably evil idea!). Lucifer has had enough.
Mike Carey would make even more of this, and it would be the underlying theme of his entire series. Lucifer had, after millennia of rule in Hell, long since recognised that even in rebellion, he was fulfilling the role created for him by his father, God. Dream’s approach was the catalyst for Lucifer rejecting the manipulation that had governed his entire existence.
Having renounced his part in the Divine plan, after Hell had passed under direct Angelic control that subtly altered the nature of the domain, making it worse, Lucifer retired to run a nightclub in LA, called Lux (Light). His series was set in motion by the visit of his brother, the Angel Amenadiel, bearing a commission from God, seeking Lucifer’s aid in a task. In return, Lucifer would be given a Gateway, out of creation.
This is the only thing Lucifer would accept. He itches under the fact that he has been created, that he is beholden to another. This time, he is seeking the ultimate rebellion, the complete escape beyond all reach of God, of his Father. Lucifer is self-willed, arrogant, puissant beyond belief, insistent upon his independence from all but his own will. He faces vast and powerful forces seeking to exploit a time of great change, forces that, in the end, will destroy all creation, Heaven, the Silver City and the Primum Mobile, despite all the efforts of Lucifer and his demiurgic brother Gabriel.
You can see why TV can not only do that justice, it can’t do it at all.
What has TV actually done with this idea?
The short answer is that it has cheapened and trivialised it out of all recognition. Lucifer has not closed Hell, he has not resigned his post, Hell has not been changed at all. He’s just taking a vacation. Lucifer simply got bored, that’s all.
He’s brought with him Mazikeen (who, until this week, has simply been referred to as Maze). In the comics, she is a complex character with a long history, who has a massive role to play both as an adherent to Lucifer and independently. On TV, she’s a demon with no apparent reason to have accompanied Lucifer, and who wants him to go back to his day job. That’s all Amenadiel wants, too.
And what does Lucifer want to Do On His Holidays? He wants to have sex. That’s all, basically. A quick shag here, a quick fuck there, the Prince of Hell can have any woman he wants, but in  the cheapest of nasty traditions, he doesn’t want more than sex. Once you’ve had someone, they cease to beat al interesting.
(The same goes for Maze, it appears, at least in the pilot, though she seems to prefer tongue to cock. Women, huh.)
Actually, episode 4 is a very good illustration of the hollowness of all this, in more ways than the showrunners intended. Crime of the week is the disappearance of shy, sweet, hayseed girl Lyndsay, probably murdered after attending a party thrown by Cameron Cruz, proponent of the lifestyle of a ‘Player’, the worst kind of arsehole male chauvinist shag-’em-and-leave-’em git (whilst watching, I had this insight: leaving out the pathetic aspect, is there any kind of life more boring?).
In an entirely foreseeable twist, it turns out that Cameron is in actual love with Lyndsay but she’s scamming him with a fake kidnap scheme. All to which is beside the point when the show has Lucifer stand up during Cameron’s presentation, querying the Rules and pointing out how pathetic he and everyone else is, since Lucifer doesn’t need these rules to be ever better at pulling birds than all of them put together. The lack of self-understanding is enormous, but the show drops itself badly in it in a little scene shorty before this.
Lucifer is trying to deflect a security guard from throwing out Lyndsay’s brother. He pulls the usual stunt of directing the man’s attention to all the gorgeous, scantily-clad women wandering around, and asks him what his desire is. The guard, who is gay, replies that it’s Lucifer. Oh boy does the show give itself away here. Lucifer, the sexual magnet, the one who can have anyone, visibly recoils. Sex, it appears, is only for heterosexuals, no gays need apply. Even though Tom Ellis plays the Morningstar as an absolute collection of outmoded gay stereotypes in his nervous, fluffy, innuendo-dripping, giggling manner.
But what of Ellis’s co-star, Lauren Graham, who plays Lucifer’s unwilling side-kick, Detective Chloe Decker, struggling to make her way in a Homicide Division which includes her ex-husband, the surprisingly sympathetic Dan. Chloe is an attractive woman, but suffers from the handicap that she is a) the daughter of a famous actress and b) has briefly acted herself, primarily in a cheap Hot-tub comedy in which she took her top off. Needless to say, Detective Chloe has credibility issues.
She is introduced in episode 4, musing about all the weird things that have happened around Lucifer since the pilot (Chloe, being an atheist as well as a cop) does not believe in the Devil, despite Lucifer’s openness about who he is, to everyone he meets.
Needless to say, Chloe is doing this musing, in slow motion, under the shower, where she is perforce naked. This is no hardship, given that Lauren Graham is, unsurprisingly, an attractive woman, nor do we see anything that Network Standards & Practice won’t allow (if you were to believe network TV, no woman, no matter how long married she has been, has ever removed her bra to have sex).
However, Chloe is disturbed by noises off, and goes to investigate in just a loosely-wrapped towel and a police revolver. Of course, it’s only Lucifer, breaking in to make breakfast, and no sooner does Chloe find him in her kitchen than the towel falls to the ground (like any good cop, she is far more concerned about keeping hold of her gun). Lucifer gets an eyeful, so cue comments about how she’s kept herself in shape since the Hot Tub film that a fourteen year old boy would find embarrassingly juvenile.
To Lucifer’s great surprise, Chloe wants him out (even before Dan and seven year old daughter Trixie unexpectedly return and Dan jumps to the obviously erroneous conclusion). So Lucifer nips off to his psychiatrist.
Yes, the Morningstar is seeing a psychiatrist. She’s a cuddly, peroxide-blonde, older woman with the hots for Lucifer, who is paying her with cock (the show skates around this, turning it into yet another cheap sex-gag, but lets be straight about things). And she’s being seriously analytical about ol’ Lucy here, suggesting that he is being defensive, displacing his issues with snappy patter, because he’s changing. That he’s turning good.
Lucifer, naturally runs away from this idea, fixating on his belief that he will learn to understand, and therefore promptly forget, the enigmatic Chloe by,what else, fucking her. That Chloe doesn’t want to fuck him, not now, not ever, is irrelevant to anything except the overall arc of the series.
The whole mish-mash winds up with a climactic scene in which Chloe, from offscreen, somehow shoots Cameron’s gun out of his hand without the special effect of the gunshot being added to the soundtrack. Lucifer then confronts her, inviting her to shoot him, since it won’t kill him, will just being a light tap. Pressured, she fires, hitting him in the thigh. It hurts. It actually hurts. In fact, Lucifer bleeds.
What the (small h)ell is happening?
There are nine more episodes to go. I shall probably watch them, even though I can’t separate the two Lucifers in my head, and Tom Ellis’s version is so painfully inadequate. But if I decided not to bother, as I did last year with Constantine, for roughly similar reasons (at least that wasn’t so adolescently sex-obsessed), I won’t lose any sleep over wondering what’s going on.

The Archers – A Matter of Film and Glory: no 4 – Black Narcissus

This short series is a consideration of my personal Top 5 films by The Archers, being the film production company composed of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, active from 1939 to 1957. It has nothing to do with the BBC’s long-running radio serial about simple farming folk.

Black Narcissus is the latest of the films in this short list, filmed and released in 1947, although based – very faithfully in storyline and dialogue – upon a 1939 novel by Rumer Godden. It stars Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Kathleen Byrom and Sabu. The film is a psychological and erotic thriller about a group of nuns attempting to set up a school and hospital in a remote village, high in the Himalayas.
Before I go any further, I should clear up any misapprehensions about the use of the terms ‘nuns’ and ‘erotic’. There is no sex in this film (well, there is, but it’s a long way off-screen and it only involves ‘native’ characters). The nuns do not bare anything. Indeed, save for poor, mad Sister Ruth, who leaves the Order late in the film, they are at all times dressed in the most comprehensive and swaddling of white habits, only their faces, pale and colourless, exposed.
Yet the film’s intensity, without even the slightest of touches, is subtle but deep, and the story is lit by it from start to finish.
The film begins with approval for the nuns’ project to bring Christianity to the peasants high in the valley. The Old General has offered the use of a Palace (it is the Palace of Women, which formerly housed his harem) to the nuns and this has been accepted. Against the wishes of the Mother Superior in Darjeeling, Sister Clodagh (Kerr) has been appointed Sister Superior: Clodagh will be the youngest Sister Superior in the Order, and the Mother Superior thinks her to be too young.
Four nuns are appointed to go with her: Sister Briony (a medical specialist), Sister Phillipa (a gardener), Sister Blanche, usually known as Sister Honey (a sweet-natured woman who will teach) and Sister Ruth (Byrom). We don’t see Sister Ruth on this occasion, but we are told that she is difficult, self-important, often ill. Sister Ruth is rather being wished upon Sister Clodagh, a somewhat unChristian case of passing the buck.
Once ensconced in their new quarters, the nuns – or rather Sister Clodagh, who is in charge, and very much in charge is she – have to deal not with the Old General but rather his Agent, an Englishman, Mr Dean (Farrar). Dean is a practical but cynical man, and no respecter of the nuns’ sensibilities. They have been preceded by an Order of Monks, who lasted five months: Dean openly gives the nuns until the Rains break.
Dean is also a disruption of another kind: tall, dark, lean, very masculine, he is handsome in a unconscious, louche manner, and usually rides around (on a tiny pony) bare-legged in shorts that are very brief for the period. In short, he’s sex on legs, and this is a very bad thing for Sister Ruth.
Once she is onscreen, we immediately see her for a good old-fashioned hysteric, anxious, paranoid abut her standing among the nuns, ill-suited for the life – indeed the temperament – of a nun. We also immediately recognise her as being awash with sexual tension. There is a moment, a seemingly insignificant but ultimately fatal moment, when Sister Ruth, her white robes spattered with blood spots, invades Sister Clodagh’s office whilst Dean is present. She is half-panicky, half-proud and wholly desperate for praise for having applied a tourniquet to a mother who was bleeding.
Instead of the congratulations she seeks, Sister Clodagh delivers a cold lecture in how Ruth has endangered the woman’s life by not being sensible and getting Sister Briony, the expert to do it. As Sister Ruth prepares to flee in shame, Dean deliberately intercepts her at the door, opening it for her out of courtesy, and thanking her for saving the life of one of his workers.
It’s as much made of anger at the callousness of Sister Clodagh as sympathy for the deflated Sister Ruth, and it’s a far better moment of man-management than Clodagh will achieve in the whole film, and essentially it’s meaningless to Dean, but it will have tragic consequences.
The problem, as Dean has already identified it, even before the nuns arrive, is that this is no place for them. The Palace is 9,000′ up, on a shelf on the mountainside, serving a valley of peasants who Dean describes, patronisingly but accurately, as children. It comes with Angu Ayah, an ageing and disparagingly contemptuous serving woman (played to the glorious hilt by May Hallatt) and a Holy Man, a silent, contemplative yogi who is of far greater importance to the villagers than Jesus Christ will ever be. The wind blows incessantly, the air is clear as crystal, the vast mountains surround. The school and the hospital are instantly popular, but only because they are being paid to do so by the Old General.
And that’s before the near-simultaneous arrivals of Kanchi and the Young General.
Kanchi (Simmons)is a teenage native girl, an orphan. She doesn’t have any lines and she doesn’t need any. She is driven solely by sexual urges – Dean dumps her on the nuns somewhat callously because he’s fed up with finding her outside his quarters every night, trying to get him to bed her – and she takes an immediate liking for the Young General, who is the Old General’s son: a handsome, upright, naïve, good-hearted teenager, eager for learning, expecting far more nuns with educational specialities than are humanly possible.
Against their purpose, and their instincts, the nuns agree to add him to their classes, feeling beholden to the Old General.
Kanchi and the Young General are merely outward symbols of how the nuns are gradually sliding away from their vocations. More and more, though, this becomes apparent. Sister Philippa has planted flowers, beautiful flowers, rather than the planned, and needed, vegetables. Sister Honey gets altogether too caught up in the little children and will precipitate a crisis that undermines everything they have done. Sister Briony, chosen for her strength, maintains her purpose. And Sister Clodagh?
Sister Clodagh has begun to remember, to remember her life in Ireland, before she joined the Order. She’s repressed the memories but now the atmosphere surrounding the Palace of Women is bringing them back, even when she is in Chapel, praying, leading Services.
She’s the only one of the nuns who’s background we learn, and it is a conventional one: a happy, carefree life in a beautiful part of rural Ireland (though Kerr’s accent is cut-glass English throughout), of fishing, carol-singing and hunting, all in the company of Con, a local land-owner. All through her life, Clodagh has assumed she will marry Con, live here, raise children, but Con feels the constraints of rural Ireland too fiercely, and he emigrates to America, without her.
Though she remains externally cold, indeed angry at the disrespectful Mr Dean, there’s a clear sense that she too is not unaware of his sexual magnetism, and it’s clear to see that if her stay should extend long enough, there will be a conflict between her vows and her long-suppressed, and still inactive desires.
But it doesn’t come to that. The Sisters are unusual in that their Order requires yearly renewals of Vows: they are volunteers in the truest sense. Sister Philippa has asked to be transferred. Sister Ruth does not renew her Vows and sends away for a shockingly red, sensual dress. Sister Briony refuses to treat a dying baby that she cannot save, but Sister Honey, soft-heartedly, gives the mother castor oil. The baby dies, and the peasants blame the nuns. Dean – banned from the Palace after disrupting the Xmas Service by turning up drink and singing carols in a loud, but pleasant tenor voice – is summoned for advice. Ultimately the nuns – the women – cannot help themselves.
Dean advises the nuns to stay inside the Palace. Sister Ruth, surreptitiously, watches him talk with Sister Clodagh, sees him grab her by the arms. He’s only angry at her, and her stiff-necked obsession with her responsibility for things going disastrously, though she appears to be ready to accept his advice to return to Darjeeling.
But poor obsessed Ruth sees it differently. She changes into her dress, her sexy dress. She is no longer under Sister Clodagh’s authority, although the Sister Superior sees the danger ahead and tries to save Ruth. Sister Clodagh might, unwillingly, recognise Ruth’s sexual tension, but she is massively under-equipped to confront it.
Ruth, having slowly applied rich, blood-red lipstick, slips away, forces herself into Dean’s quarters. He tells her she has to return to the Palace: when she gasps out that she loves him, he refuses her feelings, treats them as hysteria. He’s even louder in protestations when she accuses him of loving Sister Clodagh. Ruth (literally) sees red and faints. When she comes to, Dean is solicitous but mildly condescending, treating her feelings like a schoolgirl crush, something to be forgotten immediately, an embarrassment.
This is exactly the wrong approach. Ruth runs away, back to the Palace where all is still and tense. She is pale of face, her hair bedraggled, her eyes burning. It is almost six o’clock, when the Palace bell is rung, which has been Ruth’s duty. In the midst of all her tensions and fears, Sister Clodagh does this. The bell is situated on the edge of a vertiginous drop. Approaching from behind, Ruth tries to push Sister Clodagh over. She clings to the bell-rope as Ruth tries to pry her fingers off it and Clodagh struggles to get  foot back onto the ledge. As she does, Ruth turns for better leverage  to kick her away, but loses her balance, and falls with a scream.
It’s the end. The nuns pack to leave. Dean rides out to see them go, talks with Sister Clodagh about her future. The tension between them is gone. The Sister Superior has failed and for now at least she is putting a brave face on it, knowing that she will not be accorded responsibility again, perhaps not ever. She remains convinced that the Order is her life. She asks Dean for a favour, though he won’t like it. No, it’s not the kiss that Wendy Hiller asked of Roger Livesey in I Know Where I’m Going, it’s much more poignant: she asks him to look after the grave.
She also reminds him that he gave them until the Rains broke, and he, in the only outward sign he gives of his feelings, tells her that the Rains haven’t broken yet. But as the ponies leave down the valley, the Rains begin, at first spattering a few plants, but quickly turning into a storm, whose visibility closes off the last sight of the nuns, retreating.
Originally, there was to be one further scene, which was scripted and shot, but no evidence has ever come to light to indicate that it was printed. This was back in Darjeeling, in the Mother Superior’s office, the rain smearing the light, where Sister Clodagh came to report her failure, before bursting into tears. The last word went to the Mother Superior: “It is the first time I’m pleased with you my child. I seem to find a new Clodagh, one whom I had long prayed to meet.” But instead, recognising the beauty of the Rains, Powell and Pressburger chose to end the film there.
In its story, and in the collective playing of a superbly chosen cast, Black Narcissus is a great film, though modern audiences may no longer respond to its cool approach to its subject. Nothing is done in haste, tempers are mainly kept, meaning that the film’s tragic ending is all the more shocking for being the violent release of a bubble of tension that has so carefully been held in place for so long.
But the film’s prowess and reputation were recognised for its filming, with an Oscar going to cinematographer Jack Cardiff for a stunning approach to the colour of the film. It’s not merely the colour coding of the cast – the nuns in overwhelming, almost alien white, spotless, the important Indians in ornate, rich, colourful costumes,the peasants in drab browns and olive – but in the very filming. Cardiff’s use of Technicolour turns the film into a riot of vibrant colour, giving a richness to everything that it  almost beyond real.
And herein lies one of the film’s greatest aspects. The film is set in the Himalayas. The mountain perspectives are brilliant, there’s a freshness and clarity of vision, the film is a dream to watch. Everything convinces that you are there. Yet, with the exception of a handful of scenes shot in Surrey, in the grounds of a home surrounded by Indian plants, the whole thing was filmed at Pinewood, which has a shortage of 25,000’+ mountains on the lot.
True, our ever-increasing exposure to High Definition digital film and CGI makes it easier for us to recognise that the mountain scenes are (superbly) painted on glass, though it is still difficult to spot the diagonal line between set and painting when the camera films the drop next to the bell. But considering the era in which Black Narcissus was made, the effectiveness of the shooting remains astonishing even now.
However, reference to ‘the era’ leads us to a subject that cannot be ignored. This is a film ostensibly set in India, dominated by a white, English cast. To an extent, that is appropriate: the film does, after all, examine the ability of the nuns to survive in an alien environment. The peasants are dismissed as ‘peasants’ and ‘children’: not unsympathetically but certainly patronisingly. But there are five named Indian roles in the film, three of whom are played by English actors ‘blacked up’.
This cultural appropriation was inevitable, given the times, but seventy years on, we do rather wince in embarrassment at actors with distinctly European faces in major roles, covered in dark make-up.
The main exception is, of course, Sabu, a young Indian actor who had enjoyed a substantial career in British films pre-World War 2, most notably as the lead in The Thief of Baghdad. Sabu had become an American citizen and served during the war, but found it hard to get parts of substance in Hollywood. Black Narcissus was his last part of any note, by which time he was 23, and despite being in tremendous health, he would die of a massive heart-attack, aged 39. In the film, he plays an upright, very Anglicised Indian Prince, naïve and good, despite his having an off-screen encounter with the sex-rife Kanchi. It was a minor role, but an effective one.
Despite such post-Colonial considerations – the film was released only a few months before the British withdrew from India, and at least one critic has discussed the nuns’ retreat from the valley as a metaphor for the withdrawal of Britain from a place it did not understand and should never have been – this is a magnificent film, a treat for the eyes, a brilliantly subdued erotic story, and perhaps one of the best films ever made about failure.

For Valentine’s Day

If we were never going to die, I might
Not hug you quite as often or as tight,
Or say goodbye to you as carefully
If I were certain you’d come back to me.
Perhaps I wouldn’t value every day,
Every act of kindness, every laugh
As much, if I knew you and I could stay
For ever as each other’s other half.
We may not have too many years before
One disappears to the eternal yonder
And I can’t hug or touch you any more.
Yes, of course that knowledge makes us fonder.
Would I want to change things, if I could,
And make us both immortal? Love, I would.

(c) Wendy Cope

“To My Husband”

Saturday SkandiCrime: Trapped – Parts 1 & 2

BBC4’s fascination with Scandinavian crime dramas continues unabated, and I’m more than willing to encourage it. Even those that slip beneath the plimsoll line of quality (I’m looking at you, Crimes of Passion, and you, Arne Dahl) are still interesting for what they reveal to us of another country, and another culture. The latest series to hit Saturday night at 9.00pm, with that chunky double-bill, is Trapped, which is our first exposure to Icelandic television.

Trapped is set in a small fishing port, set around a natural bay, on the Icelandic coast, north of Reykjavik. It’s remote, it’s wintry, it’s surrounded by mountains draped in snow, it’s impossible to look at this and not think of Fortitude. Thankfully, it’s also impossible to look at this and not think how great it is that they’re not trying to sell some fucking stupid story in the middle of all this treacherous beauty, because Trapped had me on that first tracking shot of the motorbike with the two teenagers, racing through will terrain, down into town, and on into each other’s naked arms.

Hjortur (forget the accents) provides Dagny with a high degree of oral pleasure before excusing himself to go down two lights of stairs, using a cigarette lighter for illumination, in order to take a piss. Unfortunately, the building turns out to be on fire, and Dagny, sleeping it off, doesn’t wake in time to get out.

The show then jumps seven years into the future and to a completely different set of characters. Well, not entirely. This is the family home of Dagny’s parents, which they share with one of Dagny’s sisters, not to mention Andri and his two daughters. Andri, a rotund, bearded bear of a bloke, but a gentle placid man, is the local Chief of Police. His separated wife, Agnes, another of Dagny’s sisters, is coming to stay for the weekend, to see the two daughters. Andri does not yet know that she’s bringing her new man, Sigvaldi, with her.

But that’s the least of Andri’s problems. The ferry is due in, and when I say ferry, I mean cruise ship size: this is coming from Copenhagen. Unfortunately, as the ferry honks its way towards the dock, its wash washes something into the nets of a fishing boat. It is a dead body. At least, we hope it’s dead, given that it has neither a head, nor arms, nor legs: identification is not going to be easy.

We will see a lot of that body, indeed we virtually get a tour of every severed point, though the camera chastely stays away from what I assume must be very shrivelled genitals.

It’s a murder, which small places like this port don’t get. It’s also Raykjavik’s case, in the form of Detective Trausti and his Forensics team, ordering Andri to keep everybody on board the ferry, stop it from leaving before they get there, but otherwise keep his big fat face out of it. There is some as yet unexplained reason why Andri and Trausti get on like oil and water, which  adds spice to the fact that the Ferry Captain is being coldly and deliberately uncooperative (he turns off the heating and shoves the passengers onto the docking ramp, intent on causing a chaos that lets our prime suspect – a Lithuanian Mafia man trafficking two Nigerian sisters into Iceland and raping the elder one – get onto the island).

But the major problem, and the key to the series, is that a snowstorm is blowing up. And it’s a real storm, with acres of snow blowing (either that or special effects have just taken a leap into the uncanny). The port’s cut off. Trausti and his Forensic team can’t get here. Which means Andri is going to have to do this one alone, with the assistance of three uninspiring assistants.

The Fortitude connection is deepened by the fact that there’s a big scheme going on to develop the town and make everybody rich, in these times of economic collapse, by developing the port into a world-class affair to be sold to a Chinese Corporation. Yes, I know it sounds daft, but it appears that Iceland is halfway between America and China, via the Arctic route (which, thanks to global warming, is a lot less ice-choked these days).

Oh dear, spectacular, town-rescuing commercial venture at delicate stage, sudden appearance of dead body, Mayor getting involved, everyone can see a low-flying cliche coming in to land but, in a delightful touch, the Mayor turns out to be ex-Police and wants the job done properly, without the use of any carpets and brushes.

So far, after two episodes, the plot hasn’t developed very far. The body has probably been identified, the Lithuanian is probably the killer, but big bear Andri is, again refreshingly, confessing to almost everyone that he doesn’t know. Worse is to come. Hjortur’s back in town, acting all mysterious, after seven years away and he seems to have had a fight with a Swiss passenger, who is the suspect body.

And he’s certainly acting suspicious, and that’s before he breaks into the fish factory where the headless torso is being preserved in the freezer. Not long after, photos of the torso from multiple angles are uploaded onto the internet and when Andri and Hinrika get to the factory, the torso’s been stolen. Meanwhile, the handcuffed Lithuanian has beaten up Aesgir, locked him in the police cell, and buggered off into the snow.

But this is not the cliffhanger on which part 2 ends, no, that is rather more domestic. We have already seen, in part 1, Andri’s sweet, bouncy daughters being vicious, malicious bullies to little Maggi (Magnusson?), a cute but forlorn redheaded little boy at school who they’re taunting over not having a father. For some reason, in part 2 Maggi is brought round to Andri’s house to play with eight-year old Perla, who promptly behaves utterly shittily to him. Maggi gets up and walks out of the room. when Perla follows, she finds the door to outside, and the rising snowstorm, is open. Unable to tell any grown-ups because she’s not prepared to admit her responsibility, she gets her twelve-year old sister, Thorhildur, to go out into the snow to hunt for Maggi.

This is no weather for children to be out in, white-out conditions with wind and snow blowing. It’s no weather for adults to be out in and there’s four of them desperately hunting for the kids, plus Andri abandoning the missing torso. unfortunately, it looks like the adult who might have found them is going to be Lithuanian…

This is more than good enough for me for now, and I’d stick around for the mountains and the snow and the storm, even if the story was naff. Until I find out differently, I’m going to assume Trapped will run for the traditional Scandinavian ten episodes, two each Saturday, so I’ll see you here for the next month, alright?


A Semblance of Normality

It’s nearly five years since I started my current job, after a period of upheavals that marked a definitive breach between my old life and my present one. Among the things I gave up, in return for such things as money to pay for food and rent, was the traditional working week. Since that time, days of leave and holidays excepting, I have worked every other weekend, Saturday and Sunday.

As of yesterday, however, I have moved on to new shifts. As it happened, Friday’s new shift was identical to that on my old shift, so today’s the first day I’ve noticed the difference. Henceforth, I will not be working Saturday/Sunday weekends. Every fourth week, I will work Sunday instead of Thursday, which is really not an imposition.

It feels terribly strange to have gone back to the working week, to look forward and know that I shalln’t have to do mental arithmetic on Saturday events any more, and reluctantly turn things down because I’ll be on the phones that weekend.

Of course, what I’ve gained on the swings, I’ve paid back on the roundabouts, as my new shifts will see me working 1.00pm to 9.00pm Monday to Friday, which isn’t fun. On the other hand, my shifts are now all eight hours in length: no more ten, ten-and-a-half and especially eleven hour shifts. On Monday, I will not be working from 10.00am to 9.00pm on my seventh working day in eight. Today, I did not have to be logged on at 9.00am, having only logged off last night at 9.00pm.

So here’s to me, and to a more balanced life, and more time to relax and recover. Maybe the standard of writing on here will improve? That way, we all benefit, right?