A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘The Devil in a Forest’


The Devil in a Forest was first published in Britain as part of the wave of enthusiasm for all Gene Wolfe’s books that followed hard on the appearance of The Book of the New Sun quartet. I first read it as a successor to that defining tetraology, not realising that it was a predecessor, and a book of radically different scope and ambition.
This is neither SF nor Fantasy, the consummate mingling of which is one of the many marks of the New Sun series. It’s a historical adventure and, like the later Pandora by Holly Hollander, is best regarded as a ‘juvenile’, seemingly aimed at a younger audience than those usually devoted to our Master of Trickery.
Needless to say, I was vastly disappointed.
I remember reading it on a Sunday coach journey, an office weekend down south somewhere, pegged around a Staff vs Partners cricket match at the Senior Partner’s cricket club, and a marquee buffet/disco in the evening. A somewhat mangled Manchester office bleared onto the coach, and I curled up with headphones on, cassette tapes and this ‘new’ Gene Wolfe. It was not the best of circumstances in which to concentrate, and I did not keep the book all that long. I was much older, and much more practiced in reading Wolfe, before I bought it again, in the Orb series of reissues.
The Devil in a Forest is as simple and straightforward a work as Gene Wolfe has ever produced, with no apparent understory to be teased out by careful reading. It is set in medieval times, in what would, many centuries later, become Czechoslovakia, in an unnamed village not far from St Agnes Fountain, of ‘Good King Wencleslas’ fame.
Mark, an orphan aged somewhere between fourteen and fifteen, is apprenticed to Gloin, the weaver. The village is plagued by a footpad, a wild, dangerous raider named Wat, who begins the story by putting an arrow through the neck of a pedlar, whose body is discovered outside the village.
The Abbe of the village tries to raise a militia to challenge Wat, in the naive hope that, if confronted by a show of force, he will leave the area. The calibre of the villagers being lined up for this militia makes this a highly unlikely plan, even before the initial meeting, in the Inn, takes place with two interlopers, one a charcoal burner named Gil, who is an old friend and ally of Wat, and the other the local witch, Mother Cloot.
Though it is not established until later in the story, one of the villagers, Paul the Sexton, has already been killed. Mark will be blamed for the death, and there is little enthusiasm for process of law or anything, accusation (by Mother Cloot) being sufficient for everybody’s needs.
Wolfe establishes very early on the condition of life for everyone. The village has no prosperity. Pilgrims to the shrine have dropped away since its heyday, and the presence of Wat diminishes any chance of this changing. Mark is permanently scraping for food, for scraps of food, as there is not at the webstery where he lives since Gloin has taken him in.
It gets him into the trouble the book works through. He goes out at night to the inn, where the innkeeper’s daughter, plump, redheaded fourteen year old daughter, Josellen, Mark’s sweetheart (and the only other ‘child’ in the village or even unmarried woman) may have scraps for him. The two go walking into the woods, they meet Mother Clot, they help her back to her squalid hut, and they encounter her guest: Wat.
Wat is an arrogant man, and an evil man, the two aspects being born of one another. Not without reason, he considers himself better than the villagers, who are of peasant stock, low and mean. To him, they are sheep, and he the wolf and by this status entitled to do anything he can to them, whenever he feels like it.
Mother Cloot is also evil, but of a different order. She is mean and malicious, and a witch, though Wolfe never allows us any evidence as to whether she has any ‘powers’ beyond those lent her by superstition and fear. She is simply a foul person, who delights in cruelty for its own sake, and knows of no other way to treat people: when she has power over them, she is highly dangerous, and when she has not, she is cutting and vile.
Now Mark is in Wat’s hands, he finds himself to be a puppet. Wat wants to corrupt him, partly because Mark is clearly quick-witted, and a different cut to the villagers, but as much if not more because Wat simply wants to corrupt him. And not just Mark: as a counter-offer to the unthreatening militia, Wat proposes the villagers ‘buy’ him off, by helping him raid a party of rich pilgrims.
But the pilgrims don’t exist: Wat intends to use his new and greedy ‘allies’ to raid the home of Philip, the cobbler, and steal his hoard. It is far too easy to persuade those villagers who have gone with him to turn against one of their own.
Mark is ever conscious of his own position. At heart, he doesn’t want to get involved with Wat, yet his weakness as a boy leaves him unable to flee or refuse, and if he goes too far with Wat, he will be tainted forever. His position is under risk already: he finds Paul’s dead body, which has been buried and exhumed, and attempts to sink it in the river, but when he returns to the village, after speaking to Old Susan, Paul’s wife and the Abbe’s housekeeper, he’s accused of being the murderer by Mother Cloot, who wants to torture the ‘truth’ out of him.
A point that Wolfe makes, subtly, is that there is no Law to deal with this situation. Authority is incredibly distant, both physically and mentally. The Abbe has requested soldiers to deal with Wat, though the villagers don’t welcome the idea since they will have to billet and feed the soldiery when they can barely sustain themselves, and when the soldiers arrive, under the dual command of a Sergeant whom Mark nicknames the Boar, from his overlapping tooth and the absent Forester, Sieur Ganelon, they are a disaster for the village, beating, destroying, burning and undoubtedly raping if Josellen isn’t put into hiding.
Because the soldiers don’t care about the Villagers. They are beneath notice, beneath contempt, just as much as is Wat. Everyone is guilty and will be treated as such. Slowly, the villagers are killed, even those who are arrested. Mark dodges from situation to situation, whilst the Abbe tries to unravel knots.
This is a foretaste of a very Wolfian trope: the analytical man, who gathers together disparate threads and discerns the pattern beneath, the model of what the reader must do.
Only, not in this book. Unless I am missing one hell of a lot, the closest we come to that in The Devil in a Forest is when Sieur Ganelon finally comes on stage. Mark recognises him instantly, with fear. Not until the final chapter is the connection admitted, but then it’s not like we have much by way of options: Ganelon is and can only be Wat, playing a double role.
His fate is left unsettled. Wat/Ganelon is captured, Mark survives, to plan to marry Josellen and take over the Inn, left to do so by the man who, at the end, sorts out the mess, a man who is neither named nor his station defined, but who is the ordering factor. If we are meant to deduce his identity in a public figure, then the question is beyond me.
Because Gene Wolfe is who he is and writes what he does, this novel is still lazily presented as fantasy, but Wolfe has described the impetus for it as coming from a verse of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ and an attempt to imagine into clarity the life of a mediaeval peasant. I think of it as an historical level, and on that level it is utterly convincing, and if it’s slight, and far more straightforward than anything else Wolfe has written, it is still valuable in those terms.
And I have a certain suspicion about a concealed detail. There is a brief epilogue, in the present day, a dialogue between husband and wife, discussing a plaque commemorating the Fountain, and making deliberately ignorant comments about this past in a part of Europe from where their ancestors came. I can’t believe in the ignorance, but I can believe in Gene and Rosemary Wolfe…

The Eagle Has Landed


It serves me right, really. I ought to be celebrating, achieving the implausible, the last Eagle, bought and sent and collected and opened and read.

And incomplete.

Yes, that’s right. I swallowed my ethical objections and bought the vastly over-priced missing one. And the centrespread is missing.

No cutaway drawing.

No Riders of the Range.

No Luck of the Legion.

No Jack O’Lantern.

No enjoyment of the achievement. Just one sheet of paper and half the regular serials gone, just like that. As completely not mentioned in the eBay item.

As the seller is a PowerBuyer, I cannot leave anything but Positive Feedback for seven days, to enable the seller to placate me in some way. I have vented my feelings in a message that makes it plain I have no intention of returning this for a refund. So, what reply will I get? And will it keep me from a Negative (the horror! the horror!) review?

Gee, what a way to complete a collection.

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e08 – Honor thy Brother


I remember Tales of the Gold Monkey more for its set-up and atmosphere rather than its specific stories, but ‘Honor thy Brother’ is one of only a couple of exceptions (the one in which Bonne Chance Louie is put on trial for something I don’t recall is the other).

I recognised it immediately from the open, and its foreshadowing scenes, and confirmed my recollection from the opening scene, another flashback to Jake’s (bogus) time in the Flying Tigers. This was a dogfight scene: Jake, cigar firmly clenched in teeth, was stooging around on patrol when he was ambushed by two ‘Zekes’, Japanese Zeros (another deliberate error: these were never used against the AVG). The planes are piloted by two brothers, the younger on his first mission. Jake shoots both planes down though, unknowingly, the elder brother survives, and, by rite of hontu nagiri (sp?) determines to kill Jake in revenge.

Back at the base, everyone’s playing it cool around Jake, until Gandy Dancer (a welcome if brief return for  William Lucking) starts a celebration that mainly consists of pouring beer over Jake’s head. His two Zekes take him to five ‘kills’ and he joins Gandy as an ‘Ace’.

Cut to a year later, in the Maravellas, and Jake’s seeing a Japanese bomber that the Tigers nick-name a ‘Betty’ for the third time, only he’s the only one who sees it and no-one believes him, not even Jack. This leads us into an oddly disjointed story that doesn’t feel as if it hangs together, and yet was still perfectly enjoyable.

A bunch of German sailors are getting drunk in the bar and planning to put to shame Mapuhe’s exceedingly pretty daughter (not that she seems to be objecting). Mapuhe, a Polynesian patriarch and an obvious wheeler-dealer, explains to Corky that he needs 100 francs to mend his net: no net, no fish, no food. A horribly embarrassed Corky lends him the money to spare the poor child the ordeal (yeah, right), incurring the ire of the boorish, square-headed Kraut. There’s just one complication: the sailor has got Jack’s eye.

Jake’s entirely reasonable attempts to peacably negotiate for the purchase of the eye lead to the inevitable: a massive brawl that demolishes the bar, and for which Louie blames him, even though Jake didn’t start it. Sarah’s prepared to believe he was responsible, even as she applies the iodine, and to get very stroppy until she hears about the ‘Betty’ – until Jake explains he’s talking about bombers, whereupon the spy in Sarah rises to the fore.

Meanwhile, Jake has stolen back his eye which Jake refuses to fit until it’s been sterilised, putting the dog into an even bigger huff than usual.

Meanwhile, someone’s setting traps to kill Jake – a cobra in his bedroom, a crossbow in the woods – except that they’re gimmicked to fail whilst demonstrating how easily they could have succeeded.

Meanwhile, again (you can see what I mean about disjointed), Corky has discovered that his 100 francs loan to Mapuhe has been accepted in payment for Mapuhe’s daughter’s hand (and all the rest of her) in marriage. Only it’s not the pretty one, it’s the eldest daughter, and wouldn’t you know it? She’s the fat one, who’s constantly eating, constantly giggling and constantly wailing every second that Corky expresses less than perfect enthusiasm for giving her lots and lots of babies (mind you, she’s got child-bearing hips).

Last week, I discussed the show’s flaws, and this is another one. It’s a demeaning cultural stereotype, both of the Polynesian primitives and the the fat girl no-one in their right mind would want to marry, let alone, you know, well, yeuch. There’s no justifying it, even if it is characteristic of the Saturday Morning Cinema experience.

So Jake, whilst being pursued to his death, has to get Corky out of a hole again (you know, you have a filthy mind at times). By a curious coincidence, Mapuhe’s island of Keneroo happens to be practically next door to the Japanese island of Torihado, where there’s a secret airbase of fighter planes, everybody knows that. Sarah’s along for the ride, having reported everything to Washington (except Jake’s name…).

And then everything comes awkwardly together as Mapuhe happily accepts Tafara back, except there’s a guy in a Japanese pilot’s uniform waiting, with a white headband decorated with the Rising Sun on his forehead, and guys with machetes up around Corky and Sarah’s necks, because Kenji, who has been pursuing honju nagiri, has arranged all this, including Corky’s ‘marriage’ to draw Jake to the island (see how it all fits together now?). They must duel to the death.

Jake has choice of weapons. Thinking he’s clever, he selects fighter planes. Kenji however is clever. He knew what Jake would choose and has already familiarised himself with how to slip past the Torihado security and steal two Zekes…

Despite the overall silliness, and the unconvincing way this has been built up, it’s all been good fun so far, but I remember the dogfight being perfunctory and Jake winning far too quickly and far too easily, and so it was. Kenji crash dives into the ocean, Jake bales out with parachute but no lifejacket. Of course, a rescue could be made, if only Mapuhe had something of value to make it worth the risk. And who’s eye is an emerald…?

So we’re back to square one (no notion of exactly how Jake and co managed to get away from there without any consequences for stealing and destroying two Imperial Japanese Airforce fighter planes with nobody suffering any loss of face). Jack has got his patch back on, Mapuhe’s rowed off, Washington is very pleased with their Agent Sarah Stickney White and still ignorant of the name of Jake Cutter. And they’d still like pictures…

It’s an interesting example of how a show made up of pieces that don’t fit alongside each other, and in one case are extremely insulting, can nevertheless be enjoyable, though the brevity of the ending after all that build up is disappointing. Nostalgia to some extent, and the show’s unselfconscious commitment to delivering a fun experience disarms a lot of the valid criticism, but I would like something a bit stronger next week.

Deep Space Nine: s05 e04 – …Nor the Battle to the Strong


You don’t get redemption that easily

A most curious episode, full of good writing, strong and important themes and some courageous character development, yet one that I personally felt almost entirely missed the mark.

It’s some time since we had a Jake Sisko-oriented episode. Captain Sisko’s baby boy is now eighteen, and Cirroc Lofton has shot up until he’s clearly taller than Doctor Bashir, and he’s gangly and spider-like with it. He’s followed the Doctor to a medical conference in order to write a magazine profile about him, but finds the specialist aspect too specialised, incomprehensible and lacking in any point for his presumed reader. This is when their Runabout receives a distress call, summoning all doctors to Ajilon Prime, where a Klingon attack is piling on the casualties. Bashir demurs because he has his Commanding Officer’s untrained, unskilled, un-anything son with him, but Jake sensing something hot topic to write about, convinces him he’ll be alright.

Immediately, we know much of what will follow. This is to be a test-of-character story, and Jake’s immediate assumption that he can handle things will be shown to be naive and foolish, and he will Learn a Lesson.

So it proves to be, but once again the episode’s biggest flaw is its inbuilt refusal, or rather inability, to follow through. Modern era television really has spoiled us, with the cumulative effect of stories replacing the old self-contained series: consequences carry forward, change stays, and we no longer start each new episode with the slate wiped clean and previous lessons learned scrubbed from the curriculum.

Because what Jake undergoes – the exposure first hand to death, wounding, bombs and the fear of imminent death – is less test-of-character than test-to-destruction, and his illusions about his competence and his character and his courage are swiftly exploded.

At first, he seems to adapt successfully: lacking any medical skills, he’s pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer, and develops quickly. He encounters, and is disgusted by, a Starfleet ensign who’s cracked, and given himself a self-inflicted would to get out of combat. But this seeming calmness is abruptly exposed when Bashir makes a black joke about a lateral incision in his leg of lamb, and Jake’s stomach starts chucking out everything in it.

Jake can’t take it. That’s all there is to it. When he and Bashir head out to the Runabout to collect its portable generator, the shells start flying and Jake cracks, runs away, scared as anything. He thinks he can redeem himself by saving a wounded soldier, but the guy is dying, and he sees through Jake, and tells him so before expiring. Meanwhile, offscreen, Bashir has been the perfect hero, brought the generator back alone, suffered wounds and is torturing himself over his responsibility for Jake’s seeming death.

Knowing he’s a coward, but that everyone else thinks he’s just like them, unable to stand their morbid, M.A.S.H.-style humour, Jake sinks deeper into his self-loathing. The compound is attacked, everybody evacuates, and the by now so-desperate-he-should-be-shitting-himself Jake becomes an inadvertent hero when his panicked firing off of a plasma rifle at random brings down the ceiling and seals the entrance against the Klingons.

Jake has been tested and has been shattered. The episode is powerful but innately pointless, because this is a life-changing experience. Jake has had his self-image undermined at the very core. He will not be, cannot be the same again. Will that be reflected next time we see him? You know the answer to that.

To his credit, though it’s overplayed into an artificial and unconvincing happy ending, Jake comes clean in his article, concluding that “the line between courage and cowardice is a lot thinner than most people believe.” That’s his great insight? I can’t decide whether to describe it as flat, trite or banal, though I’m leaning towards the last of these.

Oddly enough, probably the most thematically strong scene in the episode was the result of a mistake. As shot, the episode wound up three minutes short, so the time was made up by a hastily-written second encounter between Jake and the ensign who shot himself in the foot. Jake is no longer contemptuous of him, but sympathetic, but the ensign is so bitterly ashamed of himself for his failure that he wishes he had shot himself ‘higher’. His sense of shame is unbearable: the fatal flaw of this episode is that Jake’s only lasts until his father says he’s proud of him for confessing to his fears.

Just imagine how good this could have been, which is why it’s so disappointing.

 

A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing – Gene Wolfe’s ‘Peace’


There is as great a contrast between Gene Wolfe’s third novel, Peace and The Fifth Head of Cerberus as there was between that book and its predecessor. This is nothing to do with the writing in this instance, which is as careful, organised and controlled as that of Cerberus, but instead the subject matter.
At a first glance, Peace appears to be, and on a superficial reading is, a mainstream novel, reflecting the distant memories of Alden Dennis Weer, a lifelong resident of the midwestern town of Cassionsville, successful businessman and apparent sufferer of a stroke. But superficial readings of Wolfe are not merely inherently limited, but also exceedingly dangerous.
Den, as he seems to be called, is reaching out through his memories to Doctors who have tended him in the past, who he wants to treat his infirmity, but dredging up a lot of memories from his childhood. Even those who want to treat this as a purely mainstream recollection will notice very quickly and Den’s reminiscences are constantly discursive, every memory arousing a digression, often lengthy, of no direct relevance, creating a dream-like feel to the logic of the story, and that both in Den’s own recollections but more especially in the stories adults tell from time to time, there are no answers, no endings. There is much more story in Peace than is there to be read, there are unexplained things, lacunae, unfinished tales aplenty. As always with Wolfe, the reader’s challenge is to read what is not there, to determine what they are not being told.
Of which there is much. One should take particular note of the several deaths that occur, none of which are explained and one of which is buried so deep in implication that it is not even acknowledged as having taken place.
Take heed of the opening line of the book, referring to the uprooting of a tree by lightning. It is a key to understanding that this book is really a horror story, about a family that is every bit as hellish as that of Maitre and Number Five in Cerberus: a widely read person aware of the origins of names, will find multifold clues linking the Weer family to the Devil, and Alden Dennis Weer is not merely a devil in himself, but he is dead, and this seemingly rambling story is being told by his ghost.
Wolfe divides the book into five long chapters, each of which deals with a different phase of Den’s life, and with a different figure in his history. Much of the story deals with his formative years when, as with Number Five’s account, what we see is filtered through the perceptions of a child focussed upon its own interests. But this is the adult Weer, a man in his sixties, speaking, and he makes no attempt to impose his adult understanding, or any future knowledge, upon the narrative he’s constructing.
The result is a partially seen picture. Weer alludes to the Bobby Black incident, which takes place somewhere in the year he is five, or maybe six. What it is is never spelt out, though I have a clear idea of what Wolfe conceals, what comes of it are spinal injuries, a childhood death, bad blood between families and the embarrassed fleeing of Den’s parents on a protracted European tour, one that we infer lasts years, leaving little Den – who might be seen to be the culprit – behind in the care of his Aunt Olivia.
And this undescribed incident is the fundamental event for Weer’s life, though only afterwards can the pattern be seen. Aunt Vi has three suitors, but marries a fourth, who is never presented as a suitor. Weer describes this man, Julius Smart, as the true central character of this book, though his presence on the page is limited until he almost becomes a peripheral figure. And Smart sets up the successful Cassionsville business that Weer ultimately inherits and runs.
The closer one looks into this story, the more obscure it becomes. Wolfe avoids any clear chronology, providing little with which to judge the year/years in which events take place, leaving the reader to intuit the time-frame from the atmosphere of Cassionsville. Time is used to indicate certain relationships between events, but even these create different effects. One carefully researched article on the timeline is forced to conclude that Aunt Vi’s death – about which no detail is given, nor context set, save that she was nocked down by a motor car driven by one of her ex-suitors – can only be placed within a five year span.
Aunt Vi’s death is another example of the indeterminacy of the novel. Not only is it presented with the absolute minimum of data – the account I’ve given above is the complete set of facts – but there is not a word about the outcome.
Except in one detail. Julius Smart, who has given young Den the job that sets him up to be the future President of the company, refuses to speak to him again for the rest of his life. Wolfe cannily gives us this is isolation, leaving us to debate internally the extent to which Weer may have been responsible for his Aunt’s death.
Or is that a complete illusion, a fantasy derived solely from an over-active imagination, seeing shadows and horror where none exists? Is Peace what it appears to be, the stumbling recollections of a stroke victim, trying to order his past? Is the horror unjustified?
You must make your own judgements. Gene Wolfe does not tell you what to think or how to react. His books contain endless puzzles, and there are no solutions, upside down, at the back. Be careful where, and how you tread, and know this: when you walk this way a second time, everything will have changed even as the words remain the same. What peace is that?

The Last Eagle


People, I have an ethical and economic dilemma to consider this weekend.

My long quest for a completion collection of the Eagle (until they stopped doing original Dan Dare adventures) is almost at an end. I have one to go, one issue. True, some of my collection is in poor condition, and some are incomplete, with the centrespread and the famous cutaway drawings of L. Ashwell Wood removed, and I will keep an eye open for upgrades, but I’m down to the last Eagle.

And there’s one on e-Bay.

Technically, there’s two. One seller is offering the individual issue, whilst another is offering the complete volume, a full year’s worth.

On the surface, this is a no-brainer to beat all no-brainers. Buy the comic, dum-dum, and cease wasting our time. For what possible reason would you want to pay more money to buy several dozen comics you already have?

But things are more complex than they seem. I have long been aware of the availability of this issue. It has been offered for sale at a Buy It Now price over and over again over the two years I have been consistently combing eBay. This seller has dozens of Eagles for sale, and they circulate over and over, never, or at least rarely selling, because each and every copy they are offering are vastly over-inflated in price.

We are talking £23, £27, £30, even £50 for individual issues, each and every one one of which (except one) I’ve been able to buy for a fraction of those prices. The most I’ve had to pay for one of those issues on offer was only six weeks or so ago, when an auction copy came up and I secured it for £12.50, over a tenner cheaper, and that was far more than I’d had to pay for any of the others. Hell’s bells, I’ve bought complete volumes for as little as the prices this seller is asking for single issues. On auction.

So, I have a violent antipathy towards this seller, and towards rewarding them for this unrealistic and horrendous charge.

On the other hand, the full volume that includes my missing issue is currently under Buy It Now or Best Offer at over twice the price of the individual issue. A much higher outlay, a near year’s worth of copies I don’t need (my duplicates pile, which I’m trying to dispose of through eBay, is already about 250 issues strong, and I don’t need to add to it), the cons list is powerful.

On another other hand, this set may be in better condition than my existing copies. It may represent a partial or even complete upgrade. If I have any incomplete copies in this volume, or pages where coupons have been cut out, I may have an instant remedy. And I won’t be funding that rip-off merchant.

Before I take a decision, I’ll have a look through my existing volume, see whether there’s a substantial case for buying the bundle for upgrades, as opposed to cutting off my nose to spite my face. Either way, I’m nearly at the end of the road that, for literal decades, I never even imagined I could set foot upon, and before too long I will have laid my hands upon the last Eagle.

Postscript

A half day later, an inspection of the relevant volume confirms that there are no centrespreads missing, and only four issues from which coupons have been clipped. I’ve made a note of them for replacement but they don’t amount to enough to shift the balance. So, unless a third copy suddenly appears in the next few days, I think the decision has been made for me.

 

Tales of the Gold Monkey: e07 – Once a Tiger…


These two only appear in the credits again

When you wake up tired on a Thursday morning, a good, bracing episode of Tales of the Gold Monkey is ideal medicine.

This week’s episode, which gives us a little more insight into Jake and Corky’s background, as well as a rather more serious storyline overall, is the perfect point to bring up a couple of criticisms of the series. So far, I’ve been reveling in the innocent fun of it all, and the way the show steers well clear of showing contempt for its unpretentious origins whilst gently acknowledging their lack of sophistication (ritual invocation of the Sixties Batman TV show as an exemplar of the opposite).

But it must be acknowledged that whilst Gold Monkey does everything it can to immerse itself in the (deliberately) cliched feel of 1938, it is still a thing of its time, 1982, and is flawed to the extent of that era’s underlying presumptions.

‘Once a Tiger…’ starts with two pilots, Randall McGraw and Kramer (guests Lance LeGault and W.K. Stratton respectively) flying an aircraft across the South Pacific during an electrical storm. One engine fails. Kramer broadcasts a mayday signal before baling out, McGraw lands the plane in jungle.

I’d noticed last week, for the first time, that Jake’s flying cap has a prominent hole in its peak, suggesting something ripped out. Our flyers have the same caps, but with badges there, and on their jackets, indicating that they’re Flying Tigers. Jake was a Flying Tiger…

The problem with this is, and I’ve alluded to this before, is that the Flying Tigers, or American Volunteer Group, didn’t fly in China until December 1941. Jake’s backstory is an anachronism, and given Donald Bellisario’s military background, obviously a deliberate one.

Because of the kind of show it is, being pure entertainment without feeling the need to be any more, I’ve accepted this. It provides Jake with a perfect background to his being where, and who, he is, as well as being a source of stories when, as with Gandy Dancer, figures from his past can drop in.

But I know I ought to be objecting to this deliberate distortion of history which, in a more realistic story, I would be excoriating. An episode like ‘Once a Tiger…’, which couldn’t exist in any shape without the Tigers to call on, only emphasizes this confusion.

Anyway, the shape of this story is that, several days later, whilst Jake and Corky queue for a visit from the Island Dentist (extractions on the beach with the use of a cycle-powered generator), Kramer’s badly-sunburned, weak and strained body is brought to Bora Gora. Jake immediately identifies him as a Flying Tiger, albeit a recent recruit, and once Kramer recovers, and identifies McGraw as his co-pilot, both are determined to help a fellow Tiger – even such a son of a… blue-faced booby as McGraw.

In her capacity as the in-house spy, Sarah has already tried her most seductive routine to get Jake to fly her out there. Jake’s enjoying the attention until he realises he’s being played (‘why do I always fall for this?’) but Sarah is miffed to find that whilst she can’t vamp Jake into doing what she wants, the prospect of rescuing a Tiger, not to mention the cargo of experimental gunsights bound for the AVG, which will make their job less dangerous, has Jake signing up instantly.

I’ll be coming to my second point in a moment, but to stay with the chronology, we next get some of Jake’s background, from one of Stephen Collins’ sparely-placed monologues. Why did Jake leave the Tigers? Why is he knocking around the Maravellas? It turns out Jake was badly wounded (at the end, we learn that he was saving McGraw’s ass, not that the son of a blue-faced booby will ever acknowledhe it) and nearly lost his leg.

Even so, General Chennault confirmed it would take a year for Jake to recover combat fitness, and sent him back to America to recuperate, only for Jake to get stuck in the French Maravellas…

Kramer, determined to go on the rescue mission despite his weakness, takes one look at Sarah and decides he knows why, though we know from the Pilot that Jake and Corky were plying their trade with the Goose before our favourite red-headed spy headed this way (lust for adventure, obviously: no true Saturday morning cinema hero would ever go back and convalesce when he could have rip-snorting adventures instead).

Which brings us back to the fair Sarah. She’s an American spy of some reasonable seniority having regard to her age. She’s treated with respect by her superiors and those American forces with whom she liaises. But this is American TV, in 1982, only a dozen years from the beginning of ‘Women’s Lib’ and despite setting her up as a strong, independent woman, the show can’t treat her with respect, because she’s a woman.

Sarah is undercut at every turn, in little things. Her seductress performance, convincing though it is, stands out against the usual relationship between her and Jake so that we already know she’s out to get something by the most cliched route (woman = sex). On the island, it is Sarah, not any of the men, whose foot goes through the weakened floor of the plane, Sarah, not Jake or Corky, who nearly screams when the natives appear, and Sarah who reacts most hysterically when the gang are pinned down by cross-fire.

It’s a terrible shame, because Caitlin O’Heaney is more than equal to playing the role Sarah’s supposed to be, and of suggesting that the ‘just a woman (rolls eyes)’ aspect is a performance that reinforces her cover, just as the traditional Bruce Wayne portrayal maintains an implausibility distance to Batman.

Yet there’s still some good things to Sarah’s portrayal here. The weakened Kramer has been installed in Jake’s bedroom, so he’s going off to sleep in the Goose. Sarah is disappointed for him, and comes very close to offering him the comfort of her bed for the night. There’s a clear distinction between the ploy and her genuine attraction to/feelings for Jake, but he is gentleman enough to allow her to think things through, and her clearly reluctant withdrawal strongly roots the story in its 1938 setting, whilst maintaining the traditional ‘will they/won’t they’ dichotomy (actually, I was more along the lines of ‘you mean they haven’t yet?’ even back in 1982).

Fortunately for all, McGraw has managed to land the plane on an island in international waters, so the Goose can’t officially be shot down, but even so, everyone’s got to sneak in under cover of dark because the Imperial Japanese Navy is searching for those gunsights, and the Army is on the island and not too far behind Jake’s gang.

Which leads to another somewhat dodgy territory the show occupies. The plane has been found by the primitive natives, who have stripped it of ‘gifts from the god’, the god in question being the wounded McGraw. Jake references the ‘cargo cult’ tradition without any patronising creeping in, but the series as a whole does trade in the condescending atmosphere of primitive, simple-hearted natives, who don’t understand the marvels of us so-advanced Caucasians.

The tribe has the gunsights and McGraw. He’s still a miserable, dry, lacomic, cutting son of a blue-faced booby who’s pretty shitty towards Corky (Sarah admirably takes against him instantly because she’s protective of her friends), and Lance LeGault gets a lot out of a short and calmly under-performed role. But the natives have failed to strip the plane of its smoke-markers, and these magic-like things frighten the crowd, letting everyone escape.

Kramer? We’ve already discovered that he’s working for the Japanese, broadcasting the Mayday at the top of the show on their frequency, not the International Distress frequency. With poetic justice in operation, his failed attempt to stop the gang fleeing is ended by the Japanese troops shooting him and his falling into a lagoon occupied by something underwater that looks like two exceedingly long lianas. Exit traitor, and good riddance.

All that remains is a brief coda where Corky ends up with his tooth extracted and McGraw promising to give Jake credit to General Chennault for ‘helping’ him get the gunsights through.

So. I can see these things in Tales of the Gold Monkey, yet although I know I ought to be slating them it remains that the level the show is pitching for, and the fact that it is still such boisterous fun thirty-five years later without having to rely on twitching my nostalgia-glands still has me happily-disposed towards it. I can’t get angry towards it as some would say I should. I can certainly get exasperated towards the silly attitude towards Sarah, and I would be much more scathing towards anything showing these attitudes in 2017. But Tales of the Gold Monkey is over and done and unchangeable, and they’ll never make anything like this again, and I have always been able to separate good from bad in my mind, and where the balance lies.

See you next Thursday, Monkey maniacs!

The Infinite Jukebox: Mama Cass’s ‘It’s Getting Better’


The other night, I watched a YouTube video about ’10 Songs that always make you smile’. Like all such things, I had mixed opinions about the choices, though it’s hard to argue against a top 3 of ‘ California Girls’, ‘Here comes the Sun’ and ‘My Girl’. The video itself commented that it was hard to beat the Sixties for happy songs, sunny songs, positive songs, and that’s the same point I’ve made myself: the Sixties was the last great age of optimism, a time when we looked at ourselves saw changes being made that opened things up, broadened things, extended the range of possibilities wider than they’d ever been before. And we believed, naively but honestly, that this condition was eternal, that we had broken on through to the other side, and that it not only was getting better, but it would always get better. It’s in the music at a bedrock basis: hope, belief, wonder, enthusiasm, innocence.

This song could and probably should have been put in that list. It’s not a political song, or a social song, or any kind of symbolic song, though its title and its chorus strips the atmosphere of 1969 down to its minimalist essence. It’s just a love song, by a young lady with her life and her music in front of her, unaware how little longer she would with here to make her own kind of music.

Cass Elliott went (unwillingly) by the name Mama Cass, signalling her association with The Mamas and the Papas. Her solo career left behind the folk-pop of the band, with its roots in the clubs, choosing a more direct pop approach, with lazy, gentle ballads like ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’, mixed with the rousing, uptempo declaration of independence of ‘Make your own kind of music’.

I’ve known ‘It’s getting better’ for a long time. It was Mama Cass’s second top 10 hit over here, a beautifully balanced piece of mid-tempo jangly-pop alleviated with cleverly restrained, but still buoyant horn riffs, leading into a chorus that sucks you into joining in, singing your heart out.

Cass opens with a confession. Once I believed, she sings, that when love came to me, it would come with rockets, bells and poetry. Rockets, bells and poetry: to a lonely, naive, repressed teenager, this was manna to the expectation, though the embittered old man I am now knows that finding rockets, bells and poetry was blazing luck.

But that’s not what it’s about, not at all. Cass expected rockets, bells and poetry, but didn’t get them. Instead, what she got was infinitely quieter, calmer, and yet so much more satisfying. But with me and you, she proclaims, because you can’t keep such feelings in, it just started quietly and grew.

And it’s getting better. Getting better every day.

There’s an uplift to those words, that chorus, a powerful dignity shot through with absolute confidence that just isn’t possible in music today, because the singer cannot be that pure. Too much has happened to allow songs like this to be made today and have any credibility.

But Cass is still singing about how great things are, how natural and right it feels just to be with her man, for the two of them just to be together, and do things together, because the together elevates everything, no matter how small or banal, into a moment of grace and love.

And, best of all, it’s not hard to see that this isn’t half of what it’s gonna turn out to be.

And with those words, Mama Cass reminds us of just how much we have lost that we can no longer say that, or think it or believe it. It isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse and for many of us we will never see it become better, but for three glorious minutes we can travel back in time, and tell ourselves that we don’t mind waiting, no matter how long it takes. Because it’s getting better. Growing stronger. Warmer, wilder. It’s getting better every day.

And that’s why I have an Infinite Jukebox in my head.

When to stop: Goodbye Preacher


Bugger off, you bore me

When it first appeared, last summer, I thought the TV version of Preacher had got it right. It captured the insanity, brutality and sheer cockamie absurd and black humour of the original comic. And in Joe Gilgun as Cassidy, it had an insanely good star.

The first series lasted ten episodes. It started in a blaze of fire and glory and gradually lost steam. By about episode six, the pace had dropped to a crawl and it just had less and less energy from that point on, lifting its head every now and then to bludgeon you into crazed laughter and then slumping once again.

Still, season 1 was, effectively, a Prelude. Things would get a lot more serious once our terrible trio of Jesse Custer, Tulip O’Hare and Cassidy got on the road. And for a little bit, in the first couple of episodes of season 2, it looked like it.

Then they turned the gas off. The third episode dragged and the fourth was even worse. My interest levels dropped between the opening scene and the closing credits. nothing was happening and it was happening painfully slowly.

Maybe it’s me being jaded. I’m finding quite a few things of late to be so slow-moving I wonder what anyone bothered. Unfortunately, Preacher is a TV series, not a movie. And I’ve now baled out.

If you’re just not enjoying something, it is actually ok to stop. When the Fall comes around, I’m baling on Supergirl and Arrow is on double-secret probation. You don’t have to stick with something just to find out what the end is. Endings only matter is you give the proverbial rat’s ass for them. Sorry, Preacher, you don’t interest me any more.

Deep Space Nine: s05 e03 – Looking for par’Mach in all the wrong places


Grilka

For once, I’m not entirely sure what I want to say about a DS9 episode, let alone how I want to say it.

‘Looking for par’Mach in all the wrong places’ (apparently the longest title for a DS9 episode and the second longest for any Star Trek series) was a purely character-driven episode. It was directed by Andrew J. (Garak) Robinson, though he doesn’t appear in the episode, it was, at the suggestion of Michael Dorn, based on the famous French play, Cyrano de Bergerac, and it initiates the relationship of Worf and Dax as a couple.

It also heavily features Quark and, surprisingly, is actually bearable.

This episode also has a B story which, in standard DS9 fashion, is introduced first in the open, with Doctor Bashir eavesdropping on a seeming row between the O’Briens, which turns out to be a row between the Chief and the Major, their live-in guest whilst Kira is carrying Miles’ baby.

This switches to our A-story, with Dax and Worf present to see a tall, bold, long-striding Klingon woman arrive on the station. Worf falls for her instantly, like the proverbial ton of bricks, though his romantic ideals are shattered when he follows her to Quark’s, and sees her enthusiastically embrace the proprietor. For this is Grilka, and Mary Kay Adams for a second and final time, and she is Quark’s ex-wife, as anyone who recalls ‘The house of Quark’, exactly two seasons ago, will remember (I didn’t).

So, Worf is smitten, and Dax displays considerable equanimity in listening to his moon-struck babblings about how glorious Grilka is. Worf even makes a start on traditional Klingon wooing, only to be told, not unkindly, by her aged Counsellor, Tumek, that as a dishonoured traitor to the Empire, it’s no chance whatsoever, and as a Klingon brought up by humans, Worf wouldn’t know how to woo a Klingon woman anyway.

This is like a red rag to a bull, and this is where the Cyrano bit comes in, because when Quark asks for help in wooing the statuesque Grilka, Worf takes over as his mentor, wooing by remote control, and getting a hell of a long way with it.

Unfortunately, the remote control bit has to become a little more direct. Quark’s filthy and demeaning attentions prove to be too much for Grilka’s bodyguard, Thopok, who demands satisfaction, with bat’leths.

Dax quickly cooks up a device that enable Worf to see through Quarks eyes and control his movements and effectively fight his duel for him without even being in the same holo-suite. Apparently, everybody seems to be incredibly fussed about the way nobody explains just how this little transmitter/receiver device work, and the decision not to explain because that would just bog the story down in unnecessary detail, and I don’t get why all the fuss: this is the twenty-fourth century, I don’t need an explanation for how a scientifically advanced device works and yer dern tooting it would have killed the momentum in its tracks.

Anyway, lots a by-play later, the Quark-puppet wins his duel, spares Thopok’s life and has Grilka jump his bones with true Klingon aggression. Worf, who has proved his point without anyone but Dax knowing, who has won his woman only for her to go off shagging Quark, gets an undeniable touch of the melancholies, from which a by-now frustrated Dax, tired of trying to make him see there’s a randy Trill under his nose, starts a bat’leth fight which draws both into a pyre of lust that ends wiith them shagging (tastefully offscreen, of course).

Both couples wind up in the Infirmary with cuts, bruises, dinged ribs, strains (I will reject all advances from Klingon women if this is what it leads to), causing Bashir to mentally wince so much, he probably pulls a mental hamstring himself.

For all this is an overtly sexual storyline, its ironic that the only female flesh we get to see is in the B story. No, not Rosalind Chao, though it was noticable to the unreconstructed among us just how clingy was that top she was wearing at the start, but Nana Visitor, clad in but a light, and short purple slip, having a massage from Chief O’Brien that started at her pregnancy-swollen ankles and got a long way up her unclad thighs.

If the A-story was about a love triangle, the same went for the B-story, as Miles and Nerys found themselves developing an unexpected – and unwanted – attraction for each other based on their close proximity, that was clearly capable of going beyond the purely sexual.

Everybody seemed to see there was something at least potentially going on except, naturally, Keiko. This was an interesting story, and an interesting twist on human relationships, with Miles and Nerys trying to distance themselves from each other to avoid nearing the point of lost control, whilst not letting the oblivious Keiko see that there was anything to back away from.

Matters came to a head when Kira abruptly decided to take several days leave in solitude on Bajor, only for a horrified Keiko to insist the Chief go with her, to look after her. The problem was, this was a gorgeous place in the most romantic of settings…

The drawback with this story was that its treatment was too light, and it was concluded without an ending. Miles and Nerys recognise that they daren’t go off together, and that there is too much of a potential affair that neither wants. So Kira shoots off for some no-doubt pregnant nookie with Shakaar, and O’Brien heads home to (unseen) lie to Keiko about some miscommunication meaning she’d jetted off without him, which wasn’t going to work for a second, or change any of the genuine fears that prompted Keiko to send her husband off with his baby-mother, or actually resolve anything, and I bet we don’t hear of this storyline again.

Basically, this was a lightweight script, with some comic elements that worked mildly successfully, a deliberate contrast that would perhaps have worked better if it were not thrown in so early in the season, when there was so little to contrast it to. But Quark, despite having a major role, was perfectly bearable, because he was playing against his usual, money-grubbing Ferengi self.

At least we’ve now hurdled into the Worf/Dax relationship.