Hugo watching 2018: Best Dramatic Presentation

We’ve already seen both the Good Place episodes, and I’m planning to come back to them after reviewing the rest of this category to see how they work out of context.  So instead, we started with Star Trek Discovery: “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”.  This was great!  My total previous exposure to Star Trek was The Trouble with Tribbles, and one of the movies back in the 1990s sometime, plus sometimes being in the room when Andrew was watching the new series, so I came to this with very few preconceptions.

This episode is kind of a problem-solving, time travel-ish, race-against-the-clock episode.  The villain of the piece, Mudd, is trying to take over the spaceship and get revenge on the captain, and he does this by putting it in a timeloop, so that each time round, he gets to learn a little more about how the ship works, and, as a bonus, gets to kill everyone multiple times.  But one of the crew, Paul, is actually linked to the ship in some way, so he remembers each loop, and starts trying to find ways to communicate what he knows to the other characters fast enough for them to come up with a strategy to stop the villain.  This… is tricky, because first he has to get them to believe him, and then he has to get enough of the crew on-side to actually work together on this.  Also, seeing his crewmates die repeatedly takes a terrible toll on him.

This episode also has a nice little romantic plot between Michael and Ash, who have clearly been dancing awkwardly around each other for some time and now have to actually talk to each other and work together in order to save everyone.  This was done very sweetly and touchingly.

The resolution was satisfying, though I do find it hard to believe that the half hour timeloop was enough time in which to get THAT MUCH plot set up, given that everyone but Paul was starting from a place of ‘everything’s normal and Paul acts weird sometimes’, but I’m willing to give it a pass, because it was a fun, well-paced story which worked on its own terms.

This one is going to score well with me, I think.

Doctor Who: “Twice Upon a Time” was… fine.  I’m not a Doctor Who fan, and this was clearly a very fanservicey episode, with a return of the first Doctor (or an actor playing him, and doing a very fine job of it), lots of historic footage, visits from former companions, and a namecheck for another well-known recurring character.  There were Daleks, there was a nice, old-fashioned plot involving time travel and creatures that are somehow harvesting something from people in the moments before they die, and there was angst.  And some schmaltz.

OK, I enjoyed it more than this makes it sound, but I did have some issues with it.  The biggest is that it doesn’t pass the standalone test.  I had no idea who the vicious slug-crab-like creatures who hated the Doctor were until Andrew told me.  I didn’t know the significance of the gift given to the Doctor at the end.  I did know about the recurring character (and they did a good job of finding/making-up someone who could very plausibly be the parent of that character), but that’s less irritating.  I think the writing relied a little too heavily on us already having emotional connections to various characters and plot elements, and didn’t work hard enough at creating these connections for everyone else.  Also, if you are going to have the sentimental Christmas ending, you shouldn’t also have the sentimental Last Words of the Doctor soliloquies.  It’s too much.  I’d been enjoying it up until that point, but that made me squirm.

On the positive side, I did like the poor old army captain at the centre of it.  He was an interesting character, and he was played very well.  I liked the running joke about the current Doctor wincing at things the first Doctor said – I gather that the first Doctor wasn’t *quite* that bad, but it was a nice nod to the fact that, yes, we have all moved on in fifty-odd years, and there are scripts written then that would not be written now.

And the reveal at the end… I knew it was coming and what it was, and I don’t care about Doctor Who at all, but somehow, the delighted grin on Doctor’s face when she looks in the mirror and says “Oh, brilliant!” brought tears to my eyes.  I don’t know why.  Something about the feeling of a whole new world opening up before her?  So yeah, I really liked that bit.

I don’t think this was as good as the Star Trek, but it was a perfectly good Doctor Who episode if you like Doctor Who.  We’ll see where it lands once I’ve had a chance to watch the rest.

Black Mirror: “USS Callister”, written by William Bridges and Charlie Brooker, is… horrible.  It does what it is trying to do very well, and what it is trying to do happens to be something I find nightmarish and unwatchable.   I gather the general idea of Black Mirror is that it does standalone science fiction stories, using futuristic technology to reflect on current events.

This review is spoilerish, so I’m putting it in yellow – you will need to highlight it to read it.

In this particular episode, Robert Daly is the creator of a multiplayer, virtual reality game, called Infinity, but he has also created his own, customised version of this game, set on the USS Callister, which is a Star-Trek-ish universe and feel, in which he gets to act out his own power fantasies on digital clones of his colleagues.  Which he creates using their DNA, so the digital versions are aware of who they are and where they are, but unable to do escape.  This gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies.  In many ways, it’s an extended rape metaphor.  What makes it particularly hard to watch, for me, is that the episode took quite a while to tell us what was happening, so I spent a long time going, eergh, white male power fantasy, yes I know this guy is being mocked by his coworkers, but this is still NOT OK.   And we also have lots of that sort of embarrassment humour that makes me squirm in the first half of the show, too.

I think I left the room just after the halfway mark (so about 40 minutes in), and kind of half-listened to it from the study, popping my head in occasionally to see if it was safe yet.  It wasn’t.  The ending is satisfying, but it takes a long time to get there, and really, the vast majority of the episode is things getting worse and worse and more upsetting to watch.

It certainly did a fine job of pressing my buttons.

I’m not sure how to rank something that probably is very good and succeeds at what it is trying to do, but that I can’t finish and really dislike.  I want to put it last because it was just HORRIBLE, but I’m not sure if that’s fair.

We finished our Hugo viewing with the two Good Place episodes.  Michael’s Gambit is the final episode of Season One, and the episode with the big reveal.  It’s a magnificent episode, and there is some brilliant acting – the way the face of one particular character changes at the moment when the reveal happens is absolutely masterful, and suddenly you can see, retrospectively, that expression behind all the other things that character has done on the show.  I’m being very cagey here, because if you haven’t seen The Good Place, you really should, and this is the episode above all that must not be spoiled for you.

Having said that, I can’t give it a high place on the Hugo Ballot, because as much as I love it, it relies on the rest of the season to make sense – I don’t think it can stand alone at all well.

The second episode is The Trolley Problem, which is a total delight, and works much better on its own.  The basic premise of The Good Place is that it’s a version of heaven, to which Eleanor was sent by accident (she was supposed to go to the Bad Place).  But she is matched up with an ethics professor as her soul mate, and so he is trying to teach her ethics so that she can learn how to be good, and thus be able to stay without destroying the entire place.

This may sound boring, the show does a great job of teaching ethical systems and dilemmas while being very, very funny. This is a classic ‘ethics problem of the week’ episode, in which Chidi, the ethics professor, is trying to teach the four other characters about ethics, using the trolley problem as an example.  But one of these characters is basically a demon, so he’s not great at ethics, or at remembering why he is meant to be learning them.  It’s very funny, and you certainly come away with a good understanding of the ethical implications of the Trolley Problem.  And a lot of images of how that works out in reality that maybe you didn’t want in your head.  There is a romantic subplot which is less self-contained, but I think that’s OK, as you can still enjoy the episode as it stands.

I think I’m going to put The Trolley Problem first, since I want to reward the entire show, and this is a good example of what it does well.  In second place, I’ve been hesitating a bit, but I think I want to put The Deep there, because I can’t get it out of my head, so it’s clearly doing something right.  Star Trek Discovery is coming third, because that was a clever and delightful episode.  I think I sort of have to put Black Mirror next, even though I want to put it last, because it is a fine story, just one I wish I’d never watched.  Then Michael’s Gambit and Doctor Who, because while they are perfectly good episodes – and Michael’s Gambit really is brilliant in my view – neither of them really works as a standalone.

Hugo listening 2018: The Deep, by Clipping

OK, next up on the list is a song, “The Deep” by Clipping. Bemusingly, you can watch it in mp4 form, but the only visual is a picture of the CD itself. And that’s not the only bemusing thing about this piece. Actually, bemusing has just become my favourite descriptive word for it.

Let’s see. It’s a 5.5 minute piece of music (song isn’t really the right word) which is probably the foundational work in the genre Angry Merman Memorial Rap. With, I think, submarine voiceovers. The music is watery sound effects, watery keyboard playing, and occasional chimes. And sort of possibly underwater machinery or explosion noises.

I like the chimes?

I think I sort of like the idea of this one, but I have no idea how to compare it to the others. It’s definitely interesting and innovative and science fictional. I think it is achieving what it set out to do. But I don’t actually understand what that was, quite.

Also, a special vote of thanks to my computer for deciding that the appropriate thing to do with the mp3 of this song was to segue directly into ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’, from the Messiah. Evidently, my Mac didn’t think that The Deep was surreal enough on its own.

I’m just going to sit here and feel weird for a while.

Hugo watching 2016: Best Dramatic Presentation

Part 1:

OK, this one is fun, because I don’t actually watch any of these shows in real life.  I have seen some Dr Who – because I live with Andrew, mostly, but also voluntarily – but I actually have very little idea what any of the other series are about.

So I’m going to judge these on whether they stand alone as a story in their own right, and whether they make me want to watch more of the series. 

Grimm: “Headache” written by Jim Kouf and David Greenwalt, directed by Jim Kouf – Oh lord.  So, I guessed the plot and whodunnit in the first five minutes, and it was all downhill from there.  After a while, I just started counting instances of violence against women, because I was finding the whole thing excessively boring and annoying, and watching it through an Angry Feminist hermaneutic at least gave it some sort of purpose.  Sort of.  Seriously, the women in this were just awful – when they weren’t victims, they were randomly evil or very clearly the weakest link.  Also, I really feel that the ‘possessed by Jack the Ripper’ is a plot idea that can be retired now.  Not least because it seems to be an excuse for killing off more women, but mostly because it’s boring and everyone else has done it already.  I am not remotely surprised to learn that this was a Puppy pick.  Andrew tells me that there are some decent episodes in this show, but agrees that this isn’t one of them.  No Award for me – I lost interest after about ten minutes and just counted (female) corpses.

Supernatural
: “Just My Imagination” written by Jenny Klein, directed by Richard Speight Jr.  This was good fun, if a little higher in blood/bodycount than I prefer my media (this is why I rarely watch TV).  The story was nicely self-contained, the dialogue was whimsical, and I enjoyed the story, and the interactions between the characters.  Astonishingly, this one is also a puppy pick – I can’t imagine why, because it was definitely all about the feelings and the heartwarmingness, and even the villain was quite sympathetic.  I expect this to do well on my ballot.

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: “The Cutie Map” Parts 1 and 2 written by Scott Sonneborn, M.A. Larson, and Meghan McCarthy, directed by Jayson Thiessen and Jim Miller.  This is the other Puppy pick, and honestly, it was a real disappointment.  A lot of our friends are into My Little Pony, and I haven’t seen any previous episodes, so I was hoping for something fun.  Alas, it’s pretty unsubtle and trying to do a bit of a 1984 thing.  I’m pretty sure the Puppies put it on the ballot because they think the Evil SJWs are just like the pony who is trying to make all the other ponies march in lockstep and be identically mediocre.

That’s enough TV for one evening, I think.  My brain is trying to do Chuck Tingle / My Little Pony crossovers (I’m pretty sure the Ponies want everyone to know that love is REAL), and this is a sure sign that I need to go to bed.  And try not to think about Chuck Tingle or My Little Pony, ew.

Next up will be the two non-puppy choices, Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay and Jessica Jones: “AKA Smile” written by Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, and Jamie King, directed by Michael Rymer.

I’m honestly not sure if I’m going to be able to do the rest of the Hugo ballot.  I’m finding this process unutterably depressing – I’ve never spent quite so much concentrated time reading and watching things that I really don’t like, except possibly in Year 12 English, and even that was over the space of a year.  So far, while there have been several *good* stories in the mix, the only ones I’ve actively enjoyed were the Cat Pictures one and Penric, and parts of Supernatural and File 770.  This is not a good hit rate.

I think I need to read something fun as a palate cleanser.  And finish writing about my sentient sewer balls, since my shoulder is rather better.  And then I’ll think about whether I am really morally obliged to read the rest of the puppy picks on the ballot, or whether I can just skip those and read the things I think I might enjoy.

Part 2:

Jessica Jones: “AKA Smile” written by Scott Reynolds, Melissa Rosenberg, and Jamie King, directed by Michael Rymer. This was pretty good, and is competing for first place on my ballot with Supernatural at this point.  I really loved the nurse and Patsy – and quite liked Jessica, but I really found the normal people who were just coping with all the weird more interesting.  Nice dialogue.  Stood alone quite well – I had no idea of the premise of this show going in, and it still worked.  More bloodthirsty than I prefer, but that seems to be the case with everything on this ballot except My Little Pony.  The main issues I had with this episode were the ridiculous soliloquy by the villain, which bounced me right out of the story into a fit of absolute irritation at the cliché of ‘I’ll make her love me, and then reject her.’ Seriously, couldn’t he have a more interesting motivation / revenge fantasy than that.  And there were a few sections which I felt were rather slow and didn’t seem to advance much of anything.  Probably not an issue in the context of the whole series, but it did throw off the pacing when viewed as a standalone.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” written by Steven Moffat, directed by Rachel Talalay. Meh.  It works as a standalone, and Capaldi does an excellent job of carrying the entire episode alone.  He should get credit for that.  And I quite liked the puzzle, though the bit about the hybrid was obvious from the first time it was mentioned.  The bird part took me longer, and that was clever.  But oh lord, it felt like it was never going to end – and while this was partly the point, I really got very bored and had to start singing little songs to keep myself entertained.  I’d have enjoyed this as a short story, I think.  I’m not sure if the problem is that I just don’t much like Dr Who, even when played by Peter Capaldi, or if I’m just too shallow for this sort of slow-moving entertainment, or if I’m maybe jaded by the entire business.  Thinking about it, I’ve found every single episode in this category slow-moving in places, so perhaps the problem is simply that I don’t really like watching TV all that much and tend to lose interest?

My final ballot is going to be

1. Supernatural
2. Jessica Jones
3. Doctor Who
4. No Award – the other two were just not for me.

I might swap 1 and 2.  I might not.

I’m still in two minds on whether I’m going to bother with the rest of the ballot.  I’d sort of like to read the novels, but knowing that Seveneves is 900 pages long is pretty daunting, especially as reviews I’ve read suggest that best case scenario for me is that I will find it good, but not actually enjoyable to read.  Which means I will feel obliged to finish it.  And that’s a week of my life I’ll never get back.  I will probably take a look at the films, since I’ve actually seen two of them already and quite liked them, so it might be nice to see the others for comparison, especially if I can find others who want to watch them with us.