Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Strange


The Drugs better work cos the Voice doesn’t.

From the moment the first reports leaking from filming got anywhere that I could read them, there’s been  a good vibe about the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest offering, the introduction of Magic in Phase 3, Benedict Cumberbatch’s first – but definitely not last – outing as Doctor Stephen Strange.

And the good vibes kept mounting, up to the reviews of recent days, which have been universally favourable, except, that is, for the one coming from a comics-oriented site, which did not like it, and which slated Cumberbatch as the worst possible choice for the good Doctor.

Which did concern me a little, given that it was the only one from the comic book insider’s perception and you know that, preference for DC or not, that’s my standpoint. Was it only going to go down well with the audience that didn’t know what it was talking about? I am old enough to have encountered Doctor Strange when all was fresh and new, and very very Steve Ditko.

Rest assured however that, after this afternoon’s visit to Grand Central, Stockport, you will indeed enjoy this latest expansion of the MCU, that Benedict Cumberbatch is indeed very fitting as Stephen Strange, arrogant neurosurgeon and potential Sorceror Supreme, and if you are old enough, you too will find yourself playing air guitar in your seat as the introduction to Pink Floyd’s ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ booms onto the soundtrack.

Yes, psychedelic is the way.

Whilst it isn’t free from some tampering with the original story, Doctor Strange is a pretty comprehensive and pretty faithful effort. We have the classic story, updated into the Twenty-First Century, of Stephen Strange, gifted surgeon and all-round selfish arsehole, losing the ability to operate after damaging his hands in a car crash, unable to repair the damage by western, scientific medicine and heading east for a miracle cure that he doesn’t believe in but which has been proven effective.

We have Katmandu, and The Ancient One – controversially not the aged Tibetan of the series but instead Tilda Swinton with a shaved head, who gets referred to once, fleetingly, as a Celt and that’s it – and Wong, the Eye of Agamotto, Dormammu and Mordo. In one form or another, we get practically everything bar the Crimson Bands of Cytorrak, and not the least mention (that I could hear) of Hoggoth, let alone its Hoary Hordes.

You would expect Mordo to be the bad guy, but not so. Instead, the film has called up the obscure sorceror and minion of Baron Mordo, Kaecilius, playing a very Mordo-esque role as chief antagonist under the aegis of Dormammu, whilst the film’s Mordo, a Master not a Baron, is a trusted aide to The Ancient One. On the other hand, he did turn his back in disgust with everybody at the end, for breaking the Laws of Nature to ensure Earth wasn’t subsumed into the Dark Dimension under Dormammu’s rule for ever. Apparently, it’s not enough to save the world, you’ve got to do it in a regulation manner, so expect Mordo to be up for it as a Baddie in Doctor Strange 2.

(Which is planned,Cumberbatch having signed up for at least one more, but has no schedule, which is good because, despite being keen on seeing another film like this, I am even more keen on seeing Sherlock series 4).

These departures from the original were part of the process of de-racial-stereotyping the Doctor Strange set-up, and they were carefully and well-handled throughout. To be honest, what gave me more problems was Cumberbatch’s accent as Doctor Strange. I am no expert on English actors doing American accents but, no matter how accurate he may have been, it will take longer than this film lasted before I look at Benedict Cumberbatch and not expect to hear Sherlock Holmes.

I have to say that, for once, the CGI was one of the best things about this movie. I don’t usually go in for giving the SFX that much credit, and I subscribe to the opinion that any film that lets its CGI play a bigger part than its actors is doing the wrong job, but the opening scene, where The as-yet-unidentified Ancient One pursues Kercilius and his henches to London and starts rolling up the buildings, turning gravity on its side and interlocking old-fashioned and ornate frontages into themselves had my eyes popping out, but when it came to New York, later in the film, London got off easily.

I’m sorry not to be so energetic and articulate as I usually am at such things, not being at my best just now, but trust me on this one, Doctor Strange is well worth your time. Choose the 3D option, seriously, and if the cinema don’t do 3D screens, go to one that does.

And play yourself some Pink Floyd in advance. The early stuff, the Syd Barratt stuff. Get yourself in the mood. Groovy baby.

The Magic Words: Azzarello, Risso, Buy


In these latter days, given my ever-growing distance from what purports to be modern entertainment, and exacerbated by my current issues with depression, it’s very hard to find new things to be interested in.

This applies especially to my lifelong love of comics, which for some time has left me with only one monthly title, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, supplemented with the occasional Graphic Novel, and those mostly when they supplant a bunch of the original comics.

But there are certain magic words, the effective of which is to add up to a mathematical formula: Brian Azzarello + Eduardo Risso = Buy.

In the middle of the week, I learned of the forthcoming publication of Moonshine 2, from the much-derided but increasingly influential Image Comics. It’s written by Azarello, and both drawn and coloured by Risso: the 100 Bullets crew back together, and even though I didn’t have a clue what Moonshine is about, and whether it’s an ongoing series or a limited one, and if so, how many issues it’s planned to run, these were matters that didn’t matter. Did we wait to find out who starred in the new Pratchett, what was its theme, how many pages before we bought it? No, we did not. And when Azz and Eduardo get together I ask no such questions, I just buy it and put the series on my pull-list at Forbidden Planet in Manchester.

That was this afternoon, the furthest I’ve been outside in the last couple of weeks: Planet and Pizza Hut and home again.

So what is Moonshine, and is it any good? The two answers are: I’ve no idea yet and of course it fucking is.

Moonshine is set in 1929, and Risso’s art is perfect for the era. The story’s hero appears to be one Lou Pirlo, a tough customer looking to make a name and a position for himself under Joe ‘The Boss’ Masserio, a bootlegger. Masserio has found a supply of illegal hooch being made up in the mountains of West Virginia by a hillbilly named Hiram Holt. It’s good hooch, in fact it’s the best, and Masserio wants it for his organisation.

So Lou is sent out to Spine Ridge to do a deal with Holt. The figures ain’t entirely to Holt’s advantage, but this is Joe Masserio we’re talking about, and this is the bootlegging business. Unfortunately, Holt isn’t interested in playing – Pirlo is shown a still, and three mutilated bodies, three G-Men, hunting down the illicit still in the opening sequence, finding it, and also finding hillbillies with axes: oh yes, this is Azz and Eduardo – and is sent back with a message: Holt doesn’t take to having others mess with his business.

Halfway down the mountain road, Lou’s car pops a tyre. He hears music, follows iit to a negro camp, watches the singing, a girl dancing. When he enters the firelight, they stop to watch him. When one of them asks what he wants, he replies, “A drink.” Looking at the girl, he adds, “For starters.”

And that’s issue 1. Not much going on, mostly passive, mostly a beginning of a set-up. No massive surprises. Yet.

But this is Azzarello and Risso, and they don’t ever lay all their cards on the table, not at once, and sometimes you don’t get to see the hand even after they’ve won it. I just know that the magic words were magic again and I’m in, and I’ll be at the table for as many months as Moonshine lasts.

And if they want to keep this one going as long as 100 Bullets, I’m in. Pass the hooch.

Spies, Sleuths and Sorcerors – An Inadequate Defence


That from whence it came… for me

The BBC are currently in the middle of a short series, written, presented and conceived by Andrew Marr, about genre fiction: espionage, crime and fantasy. It’s a potentially interesting subject, since genre fiction is usually derided critically by all who don’t share an interest in it, and serious attention to books that don’t constitute ‘literature’  is rare.

The series is pretty obviously Marr’s baby, and he’s looking at genres with which he’s clearly familiar, and which he enjoys, not to mention that he’s an intelligent man. But that didn’t stop the episode on Fantasy fiction this week from being a condescending and superficial review that undermined any attempts at serious treatment by its arch manner, and its format, supposedly condensing Fantasy into eleven Rules, or should we say formulas?

That was the episode’s single biggest failing. Some of the ‘Rules’ were key characteristics, such as Rule No. 1 – Build a World. The overall effect, however, since some of the later ‘Rules’ were far from universally applicable, was to construct a limited and rigid structure, whereas true fantasy, the best there can be, is inherently variable, springing from its own sources and creating its own shape.

Marr began by pointing out that this once more or less reviled genre has in recent years become overwhelmingly popular, citing the obvious leader, Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice and George R R Martin. He pointed out that series’ roots in British history, and its exploration of power and brutality.

Next, he turned to, equally obviously, Tolkien (who appeared in some archive footage), and shortly thereafter, C. S. Lewis. It was interesting to note that Marr focused on the deep and specific Christian underpinning of the latter’s Narnia books (what else is there to focus on?) but ignored the fact that Tolkien’s work was just as fundamentally religious in aspect, in fac,t in many ways, more so.

Instead, Marr emphasised the current critical thinking about The Lord of the Rings, centring upon it as a response to Tolkien’s experiences in the Great War, and upon it being written, to a large extent, during World War Two. The English at war, with the hobbits standing in for the English, was his overriding analysis, after which he could then humourously boggle over the take-up of Tolkien by the American counter-culture in the Sixties, in which the Ring becomes the Bomb.

This allowed him to turn next to Ursula Le Guin, who he openly stated he loved, but only in terms of the Earthsea books. These were defined as the anti-Tolkien, the deliberate subversion of his world. On one level, they are, but reading Le Guin’s work on one level only is a fatal mistake, and to key her approach into Californian counter-culture, with its air of cheesecloth, was seriously limiting. And to talk of Ged’s going to Wizard school being Harry Potter-like when J.K. Rowling was over thirty years later set me growling.

Incidentally, Rowling, though clearly central to the current fantasy boom, got rather short shrift. We twice saw the same clip of people in Hogwarts costumes lugging racks of books around at a publication party, we got one line about the books and that was it. Clearly, Joanna Rowling had declined the chance to appear and her work got side-lined as a consequence when, despite its manifest flaws, its massive influence demanded similar attention to that given Game of Thrones (which was generous with the clips).

The episode did improve once it got to writers who’d agreed to be interviewed talking about their approach to Fantasy, its themes and importance. Alan Garner got short shrift, a few gnomic lines about folk-lore and myth being “high-octane fuel” and a cover shot of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen with Marr pronouncing the last word in a way I’ve never heard before.

Neil Gaiman didn’t fare much better, though he is a practiced speaker and got more substance into his few seconds (American Gods got slightly more time than Gaiman himself) whilst Frances Hardinge, of whom I’d never heard before, who writes for and about children (the area on which Marr quizzed her) got more time than both.

I mean no insult to Hardinge, who affected a black hat the way Terry Pratchett did for fedora’s, and who has a good reputation. I found it interesting that this review of Fantasy fiction almost exclusively focused upon writers with whom I was familiar: in my twenties and thirties I read little but Fantasy/SF, but have gotten completely out of touch with the field since, yet the episode included only Hardinge, and Joe Abercrombie, with whom I wasn’t familiar.

Of course, the Blessed Pratchett was the last heavyweight to be featured. He isn’t here to speak for himself now, but his long-term assistant Rob Wilkins featured, and he and Marr made one point that resonated directly with my thinking, that it was Mort where Discworld really started to become Discworld, to become the mirror to us and ourselves that Discworld was so successfully for so many (but still not enough) years.

Overall, and granted that an hour is hardly long enough to give anything remotely like a broad picture, the episode was welcome but still unforgivably superficial. Marr may well know and love Fantasy fiction, but he didn’t show much of that. Overall, he presented the show with an air of defensive humourness, secretly reassuring the audience that it’s all rather a bit silly, and I know it as much as you, and you can’t really take Dungeons, Wizards and Dragons seriously, the way these people do.

That was encapsulated in one of the later Rules, that Fantasy was always, always, about the Dying of the Light, that it always used to be better, that the good stuff – the magic, you know – is always going and it’ll never be as good as it was, sigh.

No, in the end, despite its purported attempt to define and, in some way, dignify Fantasy fiction as worth reading, the episode lacked the courage of its convictions and undercut itself at every turn. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Fantasy may be in, now, and its popularity sufficiently high to keep it from sinking back into mere specialist genre, but it is far from earning respect (and a bloody great chunk of it doesn’t and never will deserve it).

We can but hope that the next one will be a bit more confident in its aims and can reject the urge to treat its subject with disdain.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e14 – Heart of Stone


Ferengees bearing gifts
Ferengees bearing gifts

This is likely to end up being a perfunctory review, not out of any failings on the episode’s part but rather because I am going through some stuff at present, and I found one of the two stories in this latest episode hard to warm to. Unfortunately, it was the A-story.

‘Heart of Stone’ was another of those slightly formulaic twin-story episodes, where two different situations alternate for screen-time. The A-story featured Major Kira and Odo, returning from inspecting a far-flung Bajoran colony and distracted into chasing an apparent Maquis ship that had unsuccessfully attacked a freighter.

This led them to an unstable, seismic moon off a gas giant, whose over-ionised atmosphere basically buggered up all the Starfleet kit: tricorders, communicators, teleporter, the works. Major Kira falls into a trap where she steps into some kind of indestructible expanding crystal which, progressively, surrounds more and more of her body, whilst Odo desperately works to try to free her.

I was concerned about the Major’s attitude to begin with, given the loss of her love, Vedek Bariel, only last week. Sure, there was a fleeting reference to the Cardassians and the new treaty, but Kira hadn’t turned a hair over her lover’s death.

The story had Kira and Odo in a prolonged conversation. We already knew, from the recent Lwaxana Troi episode, that the Constable harbours an unrequited passion for the Major, and the escalating danger to the latter’s life forced a confession of this when Odo refused a direct order to abandon her and save herself.

Which drew, in return, a confession of love from the Major. After last week, I was all set to start breathing fire and brimstone, but the episode was a million times better than that. This reciprocal claim was the key to Odo working the whole thing out, the revelation that the Major, and the crystal that had by now all but swallowed her, was a lie from start to finish. It was the Changeling woman, the Founder from the Dominion, testing Odo over his ties to the ‘solids’, still confident that he will eventually break with them and return to his people.

What broke the spell for Odo was that he knew incontrovertibly that, despite her friendship, her concern and her affection for him being very real, Kira Nerys does not love him and never will.

It was used as the closing line. Kira was quizzing Odo as to what gave it away and he told her that the Founder had said something she never would. When Kira pressed him for details, Odo said it wasn’t important. Just a slip of the tongue.

Nothing wrong with the story. Probably well-made, written acted. Just not something my head could get into.

I had better luck with the B-story, the supposed comic relief with a heart of gold element. It was all very simple: Nog wants to join Starfleet, to be the first Feringee in Starfleet, and chose Sisko as his apprentice-master. All Sisko needed to do was write a letter of recommendation for Nog to join Starfleet Acadeny. Nobody took Nog seriously, despite his putting the hard lines in. Even Jake thought it was a trick being played on his Dad.

But Nog was deadly  serious. His father, Rom, is a mechanical genius but he is not a good Ferengee: he has no instinct for prophet. Neither does Nog. But he has his father’s aptitude, he is determined to work hard, if he is given the chance he can make for himself a life that won’t lead him to where his father stands, in thrall to his overbearing brother. Sisko agrees to write the letter.

Overall, I can’t really rate this episode on any kind of scale, it would be unfair to the series, let alone the episode if I were to try. We’ll see where I am a week from now: I may need to take a sabbatical.

Rick Geary – The True Story of the Lincoln County War – Kickstarter


The author - a self portrait
The author – a self portrait

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to once again promote a Rick Geary Kickstarter, The True Story of the Lincoln County War follows in the footsteps of Rick’s Kickstarter book on Billy the Kid.

This is a brand new project, so new that I am actually the fourth person to pledge. The target is $7,000, there are thirty days to go, and this is the link.

This is Rick’s fifth graphic novel to be funded as a Kickstarter. He has a 100% record of success. Pledge now and read this book in April 2017. I can confirm that you won’t regret it.

Steve Dillon R.I.P.


There are currently two months and nine days left of this lousy year that has taken so many good people from us, whilst leaving Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage untouched, to name but three bastards who deserve never to have drawn breath on this Earth at all.

That impossibly long list now has added to it the name of Steve Dillon, English comic book artist, aged 54.

He’s not likely to mean much to anyone outside of those interested in comics, but those who enjoyed this summer’s TV adaptation of Preacher should have seen his name in the credits, because he co-created the comic with Garth Ennis, and drew every regular issue of the series.

I’m not going to pretend Steve Dillon was a favourite of mine. He didn’t draw in any kind of ornate manner, nor did he fill panels with detail, or create innovative layouts. Instead, he drew with a crisp, clean line, creating clear, concise imagery that conveyed the story without fuss, bother, or anything that spoke of ‘hey, isn’t Steve Dillon so fucking clever then?’ Compared to a lot of artists, that is fucking clever indeed.

I first learned of Steve Dillon when he was still a teenager, drawing the Steve Moore-written ‘Laser Eraser and Pressbutton’ series in the seminal magazine, Warrior. I have all copies of that run, with Dillon’s signature in red ink against his opening page in one issue. I met him at one of the Eighties’ UKCAC’s I attended, a quiet man with dark curly hair, cut short on his neck, wearing a long, dark grey coat. He was seven years younger than me, born the same year as my sister.

It is terribly wrong for someone like him to have died before me. He should have had far longer, should have been free to draw many more pages. Preacher will be his monument, and there is a new onus on its makers to make it even better, so as to stand as a memorial deserving of standing beside the comic he drew.

It should not have to be what we will remember of him. He should have had more time to produce more things that would force to think long and hard before we chose one above the others.

 

The Flashman Papers 1842-1845: Flashman’s Lady


With Flashman’s Lady, the Sixth Packet of The Flashman Papers, George MacDonald Fraser sprung a couple of changes on the series. The first, and more important of these was to break the strict chronological sequence of the Packets to date, by going back to fill in part of one of those two substantial gaps left in Harry Flashman’s career to date, and the second, via the mediation of the Packet’s first editor, Elspeth Flashman’s sister Grizel de Rothschild, to introduce a running commentary in the form of excerpts from Lady Flashman’s own diaries.
The first of these changes overlaps with the first part of Royal Flash but goes on to extend Flashman’s career as far as 1845 (up until the beginning of his service in the First Sikh War) by taking him far away from England, Elspeth at his side (at least metaphorically) all the way.
Once again, Fraser (or Flashman) is presenting two ‘heroic’ adventures into one story which, together with the long and gently enjoyable introduction to Flashy’s unexpected sporting career, breaks the story down into three phases and environments.
The first of these leads us into the long-gone world of early-Victorian cricket, in which Flashman briefly but brightly shines. We’re back in 1842, with the ‘Ero of Jooloolabad enjoying life on Morrison’s money, or such of it as can be distributed via Elspeth. This leads one day to a chance encounter with a tall, well-set-up brown-haired stranger who recognises Flashy even as our favourite cad has no idea who he is.
Appropriately, given the end of the previous adventure, this strapping young man is none other than Tom Brown, full of Christian admiration and forgiveness towards Flashy the hero, and complete with invitation to play for a Rugby Old Boys against Kent. Flashman’s about to turn it down with disdain until he learns the match is to be played at Lords’.
On the great day, Flashy finds himself frozen out (after all, he did tell Brown he was going to do his training down the Haymarket, among the hem-hem ladies) but the crowd recognises the great hero and after some uncricket-like chanting, Flashy’s given an over.
This is not cricket as we know it now. Overs consist of four balls, and round-arm bowling has not long since come in. Flashy bowls fast, seriously fast, seemingly unscientifically. But in amongst his abiding cynicism towards the world, Flashy genuinely loves the game, and off the second ball of his second over, putting his heart and mind into it, he bowls Felix, one of the legendary batsmen of the era.
Felix was skill but, the very next ball, luck enables Flashy to dismiss Fuller Pilch, another giant of a batsman, caught and bowled. Which leads Flashy facing Alfie Mynn, a third legend. And Flashy duly completes the first recorded instance of a hat trick (and it’s both a hat and a trick) by appealing for LBW against a ball going well-wide, whilst leaping across the Umpire’s view!
Nevertheless, it does gain Flashy invitations to play the following summer, and he does secure two very respectable sets of figures against two highly respectable teams.
That’s where Flashman’s problems start. The lovely Elspeth has accompanied him but when Flashy wants to share his triumph with her, she’s nowhere to be found. Eventually, he locates her in the archery alleys, being shown how to draw a bow by a rather dark-skinned gentleman who has his arms round her. All very innocently of course.
The newcomer is Don Solomon Haslam, a very wealthy merchant from out East, who is also a cricket fan and devastated to have missed Flashy’s feat. On the other hand, he’s more than somewhat infatuated with the golden-haired Elspeth.
Haslam’s about all winter, hosting with generosity, always in with the news, enough so to impress old Morrison. The Flashman’s become especial favourites of his, though Harry’s got a very keen eye open for reasons why.
Things come to a head in the early summer of 1843. Having offended both Lola Montez and Otto Bismarck, as we already know, Flashy’s happy to be out of London at a Cricket week, by Alfie Mynn’s invitation. He and Elspeth are guests of Haslam. Meanwhile, Uncle Bindley (who has definitely travelled to the Paget side of the family) is arranging a substantial and prestigious position at Horse Guards. All is sunny.
Of course, there’s the minor matter of the London bookie whose money Flashy has very unwisely taken, and Mrs Leo Lade, mistress to some elderly Duke who Haslam catches Flashy shagging in the dressing room. And Haslam’s got to go back east to check his estate and he’s got this brilliant idea about taking Elspeth with him (with Morrison as chaperone) for a jolly sunny cruise.
Elspeth’s ecstatic, if her brave Hector approves, which he very firmly doesn’t. So Haslam inveigles Flashy into a game of single wicket, with £2,000 if Flashy wins, and Elspeth in her sunbathing corsets if he loses or ties.
It ought to be a doddle. Except that The bookie, Tighe, wants Flashy to throw the match, seeing as how he’s red-hot favourite and all the betting’s going that way. It’s a tremendous pickle, with social devastation and Tighe’s bully-boys on one hand and his wife disappearing for a year or so with some damned n****r (Flashman-speak), and with some vigorous cheating on both sides, given the number of stools, it’s no wonder Flashman falls between all of them. There’s only one solution: Harry’s going East as well.
Neither Flashman nor Frasier do travelling, which is just as well, so several months elapse whilst the happy couple, and her miserable (in both senses) Scots father sail east under Haslam’s command, and a deuced dodgy-looking lot they are, with never an English voice nor a white face amongst them. And Haslam’s growing more native by the nautical mile.
Still, there is nothing but the coward’s paranoia to concern our boy Harry, until the party reaches Hong Kong, and there finally exists an opportunity for vicious living. It’s not to be found amongst the merchant class which, despite sporting eccentrics such as the sherry-sipping Chinese, Whampoa, and the excitable Jew, Catchick Moses, considers cards after seven to be dangerously racy. Indeed, Flashy needs Haslam himself to point him across the tracks, into the Chinese section, where ladies in tight dresses that can nevertheless be removed by an expert may be found.
As can ninjas.
Fraser doesn’t name them as such, though by this time Bruce Lee films had been all the rage for a few years, but it’s pretty damned obvious who the assassins Flashman is desperately fleeing from are meant to be. And as usual, it would be all up with Flashy if not for that significant moment of luck that comes to his rescue at such times.
For a group of Englishmen, some naval, some civilians, some native bearers, but all very handy, happen up the scene, and pull Flashy’s chestnuts out of the fire. He hears names that mean nothing to him, that mean nothing to readers that are not students of British Nineteenth Century history to the degree of George MacDonald Fraser even before he began these books. Because the leader is one James Brooke, or  J.B. And he is one of the strangest and most unbelievable real-life characters Flashman has ever or will ever meet.
Do you know the name? I didn’t. Even now, almost forty years later, I cannot recall ever hearing of Brooke outside the pages of this novel, unless I have deliberately searched for his name and his history. Who is he? Wait a moment longer, because this is where the roof falls in on Harry Flashman. Don Solomon Haslam’s boat has sailed. It has Elspeth aboard but not John Morrison. Haslam has, during the past week, very quietly sold up all his holdings. His departure, and his taking of Elspeth Flashman, is deliberate. It is worked out that his true name is Sulemain Usman, and that he is a notorious Borneo Pirate. And he has kidnapped Flashman’s wife.
At that point, J.B. takes over the operation to rescue Mrs Flashman, with his men about him and, given Flashman’s reputation, assuming his enthusiastic participation. It is a romantic task, made the more pointed by Brooke’s excited, often florid and in Flashy’s eyes, decidedly schoolboyish responses, and it’s not until he queries why J.B. is getting himself so worked up that the others’ incredulity at his ignorance leads to his being told that James Brooke is who he is because he is the White Rajah of Sarawak, one of the two principal states of Borneo. He governs as absolute ruler.
Brooke has to be read to be believed. Flashman finds it difficult to credit that Brooke and his rule, colonial and paternal to a fault, really exists, and despite our respect for Fraser and his meticulous accuracy that has carried us through five and a half books thus far, I cannot be alone in finding Brooke to be so difficult to accept. He is so much the archetype of the least-convincing and most swash-buckling of Victorian schoolboy Empire fiction that the very idea that there could be a real avatar is so hard to swallow.
Part of it is a generational thing. Fraser was thirty years older than me, born and brought up under an Empire upon which the sun never set, and taught to believe in this as a good thing. I am a child of the mid-Fifties, when the Empire had already gone a long way towards extinction, in fact if not mind, and my education, my upbringing, all the liberal instincts by which I live lead me to an automatic rejection of the notion of Empire.
Both of us are too intelligent to believe that either extreme is the sole truth, even though I am far less well read than the late author. For Fraser, the chance to introduce Brooke, to illuminate his story in a manner that acknowledges the implausibility of it yet reflects its actuality, is probably the major reason for this book, and the middle section, in which Flashy joins Brooke’s actual expedition against the river pirates, is the longest part of the story of three tales.
Fraser instinctively applauds – as does Sarawak history and the country’s memories, for Brooke began a dynasty that ruled until 1946 and which Sarawak looks back on his favour – and I instinctively shudder with embarrassment at the cultural imperialism. That was directed at eradicating brutality, exploitation, murder and torture. There are no easy answers.
Ultimately, the river expedition achieves partial success. The pirates are beaten but not broken, and Harry is reunited with Elspeth. Unfortunately, this happens to be on Usman’s ship, steaming away from Borneo at a rate of knots, with Flashy recovering from a gash in the ribs that Elspeth’s unfettered joy in being with her paladin again threatens to tear open once more.
Where do we go from here? Usman still loves and venerates Elspeth and loathes Harry as an unclean beast, unfit to worship his golden vision, let alone roger her senseless, but once he has allowed Elspeth to know her beloved is alive and there, he has removed his own power to kill Flashy. Nevertheless, they are still his prisoners, with no sign of release unless Harry does something about it.
Which, when the ship strikes harbour, on an island of black subjects, he does, breaking free, swimming ashore and demanding to be taken to the British Consul. Usman is panicked off his head at this development, but not for the reasons you’d think. Despite Flashy’s assumptions, this is not the British possession, Mauritius, but the independent island Kingdom of Madagascar.
Where Britains – where whites – have no status, no authority, no rights. They are slaves. They are Lost.
Madagascar is ruled by the mad Queen Ranavalona, who Fraser portrays in accordance with contemporary opinion and historical conclusion that was only just beginning to be reinterpreted, as a literal madwoman, and a homicidal maniac whose only apparent interest in her rule is the opportunity presented to her for an ongoing wave of mass murder in brutal terms. Flashy becomes her salve, a indeed are all the very few Europeans in the country which, in his case, means becoming Sergeant-General of her Army (a gloriously over-promoted Drill Instructor) and her lover.
Though this latter really is a case of the biter bit since Ranavalona’s regard for Flashy’s, er, staff is no more profound or personal than his for a prime pair of bumpers, heh?
If you are a trifle uncomfortable about this same story containing both Brooke and Ranavalona, with no other connection between them than that Harry Flashman serves under both in a most contrived manner of succession, then you may care to reflect that this strange pair of historical mysteries are ironic shadows of one another in the contrast between how they treat their respective subjects.
Or you may as well accept that one of the names of the game that Fraser plays over this sequence of novels is that Harry Flashman’s long career involves him getting involved in most, if not all, of the significant trouble-spots of the middle-to-late Nineteenth Century, no matter how remote one is from another and especially how utterly unbelievable it is that any one man should have even a tenth of them in common.
It is a mark of Fraser’s skill that he is able to make so many of such transitions not just believable but plausible. Sometimes, however, the contrivance has to become a little bit too obvious for the good of the story. There is no true way to place the White Rajah and the Mad Queen side by side. This is just something that we shall have to grin and bear. After all, Flashman at the Charge did something similar, if a lot less hard to swallow, in its cramming together of the Crimea and Russia’s forgotten expansionist wars in Central Asia.
So far as Madagascar is concerned, the Queen’s rule is not welcomed by all. Both Britain and, especially, France had Empirical designs upon the island and its resources, and they had designs towards putting Ranavalona’s much nicer, and considerably more pliable son, Rakota, on the throne in her place. Rakota, incidentally, is keeping Elspeth safe from his mother’s knowledge, and Elspeth is, of course, completely oblivious to any of the Madagascar her petrified husband is facing.
Needless to say, the terrified Flashy is going to be a key component of the plot to get Ranavalona’s army away from her whilst she is deposed. And almost equally needless to say, the plot fails and, in order to ‘prove’ his innocence, our hero has to undergo the infamous, and weirdly creepy tanguin test, involving poison, throwing up and chicken skin.
Flashy survives, but it’s now on the knife edge, and, knowing an English ship to be out there, off the coast, he grabs Elspeth and runs. And this is, to me, quite the finest part of the whole novel. It’s called Flashman’s Lady because she is the springboard for everything that happens, and her naïve observations decorate the story.
But this is Elspeth as wife to, and companion to, a soldier. Not a very good soldier, not in the least. But he is her soldier and whilst her eyes are tinted even more rosy than her absurd ‘diary’, Harry does what any good soldier, any good husband does: he protects her, he rescues her. He is worthy of her, and what makes this last section quietly brilliant is that, in the face of everything we have heard Flashman say about Elspeth, she is worthy of him. When it matters, when it becomes serious, Elspeth proves her fitness, and even the cynical Harry sees that, and values that, and comes closer than ever before, or ever since, to shame in the face of it.
That’s what makes this book into Flashman’s Lady: Elspeth’s courage, her calmness, her grace that shows her as much more than a Glasgow grocer’s daughter, her determination not to let down her true knight, touches the ending of this rather clunky and awkward story with a peculiarly private glory.
Of course it can’t end like that. It’s barely 1845, and Elspeth’s final extract shows a most unwilling Harry being hauled off to the First Sikh War, where we already know he attains more military glory, though we will have to wait until the opening of the Ninth Packet before we can find out just how he does it this time…

History and Memories
This little section follows each blog. It focuses on those moments in each book where Flashman’s reminiscences touch upon periods of his career not directly related in The Flashman Papers, and those moments when Flashman’s memory lets him down and contradicts his ‘official’ record.
P23. Flashman compares his feelings for Elspeth to those for several of his (then-) future lovers. The list includes two women we have yet to meet. Takes-Away-Clouds-Woman will be explained in the next packet, but though Flashman will mention her name again in future, we regrettably never become acquainted with his liaison with the famous Lily Langtry.
P114. Flashman experiences a rare nightmare in Singapore on the eve of Elspeth’s kidnapping, leading him to reminisce about how his worst nightmares usually occur in prison. After referring to those from Fort Raim (Flashman at the Charge) and Gwalior (Flashman in the Great Game), he names the worst one as occurring in Mexico during ‘the Juarez business’. Flashman does have a prominent role in at least the latter stages of the French invasion of Mexico, which took place whilst the United States was distracted from the Monroe Doctrine by its Civil War. This adventure is also hinted at in later packets, but the closest we will come to it is the opening pages of the Twelfth and final Packet, as Flashman leaves the country, escorting the body of the deceased Emperor Maximilian
P161. James Brooke, planning the river expedition to recover Elspeth, reminds Flashman of other charismatic mad-men who could sweep a crowd along with them. We have seen Yakub Beg in action, and will see something but not the charisma of ‘Chinese Gordon’ in the Eighth Packet, but J.E.B. Stuart and George Custer belong to the American Civil War adventure that everyone but Fraser himself wanted to see.
P191. Flashman refers to passing through the river village of Patusan ‘a few years ago’. Flashman experts relate this to Flashman’s known presence in Pekin during the Boxer Rebellion (another unwritten adventure) as part of  a deservedly leisurely – and peaceful – return voyage.
P265. Flashman compares Ranavalona’s improbable personal secretary, Mr Fankanonikaka, to other eccentrics he has met in his lifetime. The Oxford Don commanding a slave ship is John Charity Spring, but the Professor of Greek skinning mules on the Sacramento trail actually fails to appear in the Seventh Packet and the Welshman in a top hat leading a Zulu Impi does not come into the limited account of that War given in the papers comprising the Eleventh Packet.
P273. Flashman lists several unusual roles he has played in his lifetime., only one of which gives any difficulty in identifying, that of gambling-hell proprietor. There is a reference elsewhere to Flashy running a Gambling Establishment in the Philippines, another lacuna in the Chronology, but the first half of the Seventh Packet lays another claim to this recollection.

Deep Space Nine: s03 e13 – ‘Life Support’


As it must...
As it must…

One day, I’d like to unreservedly praise an episode of DS9, without caveat or disappointment. That could have been today, because two-thirds of this latest episode was good, very good indeed: strong of purpose, important of theme and wonderfully acted.

Unfortunately, the producers and writers of this episode chose to include an unrelated B-story, to spin out the time, to counteract the atmosphere created by the A-story. A change of pace and style can often be very effective, but I question the mindset of anyone who thought that these stories belonged within a million miles of each other.

Let’s dispense with the shitty and unworthy comic relief B-story. Jake Sisko is approached by a young, attractive (and short) girl named Leanna, who basically asks him out of a date. It clashes with a domjock game with Nog, who happily gives that up, assuming Jake has organised a double-date. Leanne brings a friend but the whole thing is an utter disaster because Nog acts like a Ferenghi towards women. The pair fall out, but by getting Odo to throw them into the same cell on a specious charge, Jake gets to repair their friendship. It’s as trivial as it is unfunny. Forget it.

Of a much greater order is the main story. A Bajoran ship is damaged by an accident and brings casualties to DS9. It is carrying Kai Wynn and Vedek Bariel to secret peace negotiations with Cardassia. These are primarily of Bariel’s doing: he has devoted the last five months towards setting up an accord. Unfortunately, he has sustained the worst injuries, crippled by radiation. So much so that he dies.

It’s a tremendous loss to both Major Kira and the the Kai. Nerys has lost her love and her lover. Kai Wynn has lost the hope of peace, for the benefit of all Bajor, and her own place in history.

And then it happens. Doctor Bashir is about to perform an autopsy on Bariel when electrical activity is seen in the brain. Using an experimental combination of drugs and electrostimulation (for once explained with clarity and plausibility, without gubbins), Bashir brings Bariel back to life. It is amazing.

It is not the end of the story though. Bariel’s body has been badly damaged and a side-effect of the treatment that has restored him is to constrict the blood-flow through his body. He is still dying, and Bashir wants to put him into stasis so that there may be a chance that his condition can be treated.

But the Kai desperately wants  Bariel for his advice during the Peace Talks. He is, literally, irreplaceable, the one man who knows everything. Bashir is angry, accusing her of coldness, of being prepared to sacrifice Bariel in order to preserve her place in history.It’s all very plausible, though Louise Fletcher played Wynn utterly straight, to the extent that I thought throughout that she was sacrificing Bariel not for herself, but for Bajor.

The thing was, Bariel wanted to do this. He had placed the Peace Talks above himself, thinking only of the role the Prophets had called upon him to play. Against his wishes, Bashir strove to keep Bariel alive for long enough.

It was difficult. An experimental drug helped Bariel focus, but it began to attack his internal organs. These were replaced by artificial devices, but the radiation effects reached Bariel’s brain. He demanded Bashir replace the damaged part with a positronic mesh, which kept him going but at the expense of almost all human feeling.

In the end, the Talks worked and an Accord was signed. Everybody, but Bashir, celebrated. And then it came: the rest of Bariel’s brain was affected. The Kai, who of course no longer needed him, accepted the inevitable. Kira, losing her man, raged against it, pleaded with Bashir to fit another positronic mesh. This he would not do. Bariel’s body might live, but he would no longer be Bariel.

So it came to an end. Kira spent the final few hours with her love, saying the things that had never been said, the things that there would have been time for in another world, simple, almost banal, but the words that come to a heart in times like this, when words can no longer matter even if they could have been heard.

Once again, Philip Anglim and Louise Fletcher were superb in their guest roles. It was a moving and serious story, one that deserved to be watched in isolation without the stupid, ill-chosen B-story to keep taking you away from what really mattered.

Maybe next time.

 

Homicide: Life Everlasting


Officially, it’s Homicide: the Movie but for those of us who were there to hear that it was being done, eighteen months after the end of the series, and those of us who took advantage of the opportunity to download the shooting script, it was and always will be Homicide: Life Everlasting. After all, this was the ultimate end, the point beyond which things could go no further.
It’s not unknown for a long-running TV series to get a TV movie, a ‘Return to…’, though these usually come years later, and tend to be incapable of capturing anything that made the series memorable in any way. To my knowledge, Homicide: Life on the Street, is unique in being given such a follow-up to deal with loose ends, so soon in its own wake.
The very idea intrigues, especially after it was confirmed that the Movie would feature everyone. Everyone who had, in one series or another, been members of the cast of the show. Everyone, including Jon Polito and Daniel Baldwin, whose characters were, let us remember, dead. Were there going to be flashbacks? No, there weren’t.
I have mixed feelings about Homicide: the Movie. Sometimes, when I watch it, I find much of it unsatisfying, and not a fitting end to the overall series. It runs for just under 90 minutes, of which the first hour doesn’t reach the heights the series achieved, although the final thirty minutes is excellent.
And other times, like now, I absorb it all and enjoy it for what it is, a final chance to spend time with old favourites, a meshing of people whose times and stories overlapped and diverged and never came near each other before.
The story is relatively simple, as well it might be, given the need to provide a self-contained crime. Lt Al Giardello has resigned from the Police to run for Mayor: a week before the election, he is the overwhelming favourite, when he is shot at an early morning Press rally. The news spreads and all of Gee’s old detectives gather spontaneously to help track down his would-be killer.
The major logistical problem for the film as a whole is how to cope with seventeen leads (it’s actually 18: Zelcko Ivanek, never a cast member but Homicide’s most frequent regular, is fittingly promoted). Something has to be found for everyone to do, and something has to give: some detectives are short-changed, working as they do on dead ends. Not so Bayliss and Pembleton: they get the lion’s share of the spotlight, working in defiance of Pembleton’s ejection by Gaffney (obnoxious to the last) and, inevitably, solvinghe crime.
The tone of the film is uneven to begin with. It makes a good start by reinstating the old, black and white credits, and the full-length theme music, but much of the film takes place under bright sun and in upmarket areas of Baltimore that just don’t look like our familiar Fell’s Point backgrounds. And it’s too damned bright.
Comparing film with script reveals hosts of cuts. Few of these are significant, but each cuts detail that thickened the story, supported the characters rather than the relatively minimal plot. In particular, the scene where Pembleton boasts of his new found wealth as a teacher should have been retained.
Two cuts are significant. Megan Russert’s entrance simply vanishes, and Stan Bolander’s half of the conversation with her is shifted to later in the movie, and with Munch, costing one of Homicide‘s traditional in-jokes. Instead, Megan is simply there at the hospital, with no sense of her arriving, and without an introduction to the viewer. It undermines her.
The other comes in one of Pembleton and Bayliss’s conversations, when Pembleton ruminates on why he resigned: a line is struck out which prefigures the final, and rather more dramatic, conversation between these old partners, to the detriment of the latter.
The show recognises the gap in time since the final episode of season 7. Gharty has been promoted to Lieutenant after Giardello, but he is a weakling, a put-upon stooge for Gaffney and Barnfather, playing his part from fear that being on the street will kill him. Lewis, Falsone, Ballard, Stivers and Sheppard are still in Homicide but new names on the Board are Detectives Hall and Overton. The latter is no more than a name but Hall plays a part: Giardello’s shooting is his case but he’s a rough, crude, stupid, fist-wielding thug, played with great glee by Jason Priestly, happy to wallow in his stereotype for a chance to work on the show.
Munch, we know, is a Detective in New York now, who told his new colleagues on Day 1 of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that he was never setting foot in Charm City again after Billie Lou ran off with one of his colleagues. Homicide takes great delight in overturning this as a lie (and it sure as hell wasn’t Gharty).
Mike Giardello gets a fair amount of time. He’s a beat cop now, looking to win his Detective’s shield, but he spends most of his time in impotent rage at how the hospital won’t tell him anything, put in splendid perspective by a cameo guest role from Ed Begley Jr (playing but not credited as his St Elsewhere role, Victor Erlich).
But it’s that last half hour that puts the film into its real stride. Bayliss and Pembleton finally locate the clue that leads them to the killer, a cameraman who was filming the rally for a local TV station, and who had a gun strapped to his camera. He is a father who, three months earlier, lost his son to a drugs overdose and, slightly unhinged, wanted to prevent Gee from carrying forward his proposals to legalise drugs, and open the door for other kids to die and leave parents bereft. That he’s unhinged by grief is plain, and his nervous energy is infectious, but it brings Bayliss to a point he’s been edging around all the way since Frank turned up.
Season 7 left the issue of whether Bayliss had executed Luke Ryland, the Internet Killer, in the air, but long before his confession that he did indeed execute, it is obvious that he is responsible and that it is preying at his conscience. Bayliss sees his actions mirrored by those of the cameraman. He has been waiting for Frank, his partner, his friend, the person who means more to him than anyone else, to confess.
Pembleton is aghast. He doesn’t want to hear it, let alone believe it, and he keeps trying to find ways to explain it that avoid having to accept that Bayliss,, a cop, has committed a stone-cold murder. When he finally gcannot squirm away, his reaction is of betrayal: “You son of a bitch!”
Frank isn’t a cop anymore. He’s a lecturer at a Jesuit college. He doesn’t want to bring anyone else in. But Bayliss is by now too deeply enwrapped in himself. He refuses to allow Pembleton to escape from being a cop. He’s got to bring Bayliss in, save his life. He threatens to commit suicide if he is not taken in.
Even here, Homicide‘ s traditional refusal to wrap things up clearly is apparent: a white hand erases Ryland’s name in red and rewrites it in blue: a solved murder from an earlier year. Does Pembleton take Bayliss in? Is it Bayliss, filling in a detail before going on to eat his gun? Or has he confessed to someone else? No answers are given. In a very short time, when all this has ceased to be our concern, Pembleton mumbles, bitterly, about catching a couple of big ones today, but we don’t know what hhe means by that.
From here, we move swiftly towards the end. Gee survived the surgery, the killer has been caught, everyone’s together again, even Kellerman is accepted in the Waterfront, until Brodie arrives. Gee has survived the surgery, but but he has died, of an aneurysm. It’s a hammer blow for everyone.
Inside the squadroom, Mike is hanging a rosarie on his father’s photograph. Pembleton introduces himself, commiserates. They talk for a moment or two then leave together in silence. As they reach the exit, Giardello walks in, between them, in full health and vigour. He does not see them: they do not see him.
Instead, he sees a ghost environment, peopled by those who, in some manner, are fixed here. Police who died, victims: though we know it is coming, there is still a considerable frisson, as a happy, 10 year old black girl skips down the hall and round Gee: we don’t need his stunned breathing of her first name to tell us that this is Adena Watson.
She skip round him and into the coffee-room. Standing, grinning, at the machine, looking not a bit changed, is Steve Crosetti, hailing the Lieutenant, calling him in. Four chairs are set at a table, a game of cards is in hand, Beau Felton sits at the table. Fans speculate that the empty chair means a place set for a soon-to-arrive Bayliss: Gee is afraid for Mike.
Nothing matters any more. This is where they go. The concerns of life are just that, the concerns of Life and this is not Life. In the shooting script, Crosetti explains that nothing is fixed: had Gee overslept by five minutes that morning, he’d have wound up half an hour late and the shooter would have succumbed to his nerves and left before then.
Gee takes a card, puts his money down. The poker game resumes. In a strange way, we are consoled.