Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Television’ Category

Writing on the Precipice: On Literature and Climate Change

lightning-378069_1920.jpg

“Late last year, in the dying days of the American presidential campaign, the World Wildlife Fund published its most recent Living Planet Report. Published biennially, these reports have long made sobering reading, but 2016’s took that to a new level, declaring that between 1970 and 2012 close to 60 per cent of the world’s wildlife had disappeared, and that without concerted action that figure was projected to reach 67 per cent by 2020. In other words, humans were close to having wiped out more than two thirds of the world’s wildlife in just half a century.

“As somebody who has spent most of their adult life thinking and writing about animals and the environment, I found this story physically distressing. As with last summer’s bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef it felt like a tipping point, a moment when it had become clear we could not continue down the path we are on, a moment when things would have to change.

“In fact the world’s media greeted the story with a collective shrug. A few articles here and there mentioned it — and then it was gone, swamped by the drama of Donald Trump’s terrifying rise to power.

“It is difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. The climatologist James Hansen once said being a climate scientist was like screaming at people from behind a soundproof glass wall: being a writer concerned with these questions often feels frighteningly similar. Because although it is difficult to understand how one could not be writing about these questions, the ethical urgency one feels is tempered by a sense of the futility of the gesture in the face of such enormity, a feeling one’s tools are not fit for purpose. What is the point of stories in such a moment, one wants to ask. How can one poem or one song or one novel make a difference?” Read more at Sydney Review of Books

On Dexter and how not to end a show

DexterIt’s been interesting comparing the final seasons of Breaking Bad and Dexter. The first has been an object lesson in how to finish a television show (or novel, or film or anything, really): understand the fundamental dynamic or contradiction that drives the story, home in on it, isolate it, push it to breaking point and see what happens. The second has been a meaningless pile of blah, in which the writers seem to have decided to abandon the central dramatic tension and head off on a pointless and emotionally dishonest tangent.

At one level it’s not fair to compare the two, of course: after all, Breaking Bad is clearly one of the great television shows. But there is something sort of extraordinary about the total mess of Dexter’s final season, not least since it’s always been clear the endpoint of the show has been the moment when Dexter’s secret life can no longer be kept secret, and even an amateur can see what the results of that will be. How can he protect Deb from what she’s done to help him? Is he prepared to kill Vince or Batista to stop the truth about his secret life being uncovered? How can he protect Harrison from the truth? Can he find a way to live a different life?

And instead we got a season that not only didn’t do this story, but made things worse by introducing characters we’ve never seen before and expecting us to care about them, expecting us to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, rewriting the back-story and then, even once they’d made the fundamental mistake of deciding not to do the one story that needed telling, crafting a season so cack-handed and muddled it didn’t even work on its own terms.

Part of the problem, of course, lies in the show itself. Dexter was always a funny mix of elements: the schlocky Ryan Murphy Nip/Tuck aesthetic, the obvious contrivance of so much of the plotting, Michael C. Hall’s carefully controlled movement between opacity and tics of fury (I’ve always thought one of the interesting things about Dexter is that he is, in many ways, the same character as David in Six Feet Under), none of which ever quite meshed. To an extent this was unavoidable, since the show could only work as entertainment if it carefully avoided examining the tension at its centre (if you don’t believe me, try to imagine the show without Dexter’s voiceover, and think about how terrifying it would be watching the creepy serial killer playing with Cody and Astor on the couch. or check out Allan Cubitt’s excellent new drama, The Fall, which chillingly captures the evolution of a serial killer, and the toxic way that infects his family life).

But even within those constraints the final season is inexplicably awful. Why, for instance, were we expected to care about Dexter’s relationship with Hannah, which made no sense the first time around, and less the second? (It’s interesting to contrast the Hannah plot with the season about Julia Stiles’ Lumen, a series I still think is one of the show’s best, largely because the story at the heart of it, about a group of men raping and killing women, felt real in a way little else in Dexter ever has, and Lumen’s combination of anger and pain meshed so well with Dexter’s own). Why introduce the idea of Dexter having a protege (especially since he already has a son in Harrison), and then abandon it so casually? Why give us the romantic triangles of Deb/Quinn/Elway and Quinn/Deb/Jamie and then forget about the first halfway through? Why did they think we’d care about Saxon, or his relationship with Vogel, when they’d given us almost no reason to care about Vogel? And despite the way they kept harping on it, why was Argentina, which was always Hannah’s fantasy, supposed to make any emotional sense for Dexter?

It was a mess that collided with spectacularly awful results in the blahness of the final episode, which failed to even offer some kind of emotional resolution (you can say a lot of things about the end of Lost, but even if they accept the story won’t make sense they do pay out the audience’s emotional investment in the characters). In the interests of avoiding spoilers (although why you’d care I don’t know) I won’t go into detail about what happened, or didn’t, but it was, frankly, one of the worst television finales I’ve ever seen.

Except – and again I’m going to be careful about what I say – there was one image that was very clever and deserves praise, and that was the one that blurred the iconography of the wedding and the funeral, which was clever and powerful and had a fascinating narrative and symbolic logic to it. I won’t say more, but if you’ve seen it you’ll know the one I mean.

And on the subject of Breaking Bad here are a couple of thoughts about Walt’s character and the use of violence as dramatic release from a few years back.

World War Z and the River of the Dead

World War Z

The other night I watched World War Z (which I didn’t hate, although that’s another story) and in the course of watching it I was struck by a couple of things. The first is the fact that the fast zombies actually aren’t as scary as the slow, shuffling ones on The Walking Dead, which is interesting, because it suggests to me that as with John Wyndham’s triffids, the scariness of zombies is more about their inexorability than their savagery (although even as I say that I’m reminded of how scary the fast zombies are in 28 Days Later and of the fact that some the scariest moments in The Walking Dead are those in which we glimpse walkers which seem to retain some intelligence).

But I was also very struck by the two scenes in which the zombies pass around people in the streets of Jerusalem, parting, as Brad Pitt’s character puts it in a moment of surprising poetry, like a stream about a stone. We’re meant to notice it because it’s a plot point, but it’s a powerful image, and interestingly one that’s reiterated in the film’s use of aerial shots to capture the cataracts of zombies pouring through the streets of Manhattan and Jerusalem. Think, for instance, of the scenes of the great tide of walkers gathering and moving along the roads in the final episodes of Season 3 of The Walking Dead, or more potently, the way the motifs of rivers, oceans and tides recur in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book which continues to haunt me, two years later), not just in the final, very moving descriptions of the dead flowing through the streets of New York, but in what remains for me the book’s most ineradicable moments, that of the stream of the dead moving along the road below the window of the toy shop in which two of the characters are holed up.

There is, I suspect, something significant in the way these images of water, of flows and tides and streams recur, because they’re all images that emphasise the way becoming one of the dead is to be submerged, subsumed, one’s individuality, history, volition washed away.

Exactly why it’s such a potent image is a complex question. On his blog a while back M. John Harrison argued that the appeal of zombies lies in their blank otherness, the fact that we can kill them without compunction. I think he’s partly right (let’s not lose sight of the fact The Walking Dead is basically a Western), but I’d suggest the appeal of them lies less in the fact we can kill them than in the way they speak to our own anxieties about loss, about being swept away. I’ve written before about the way our fantasies of apocalypse recur and mutate, but when you get down to it the real power of zombie films isn’t in the visceral charge of the chasing and the biting, or even in the way they speak to survivalist fantasies, but in their evocation of an empty Earth, the same image that underpins science fiction from Wells’ The Time Machine to George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy (the final instalment of which I reviewed recently and keep meaning to write more about). They’re not about fantasies of power but fantasies of powerlessness and anxieties of decline (as I’ve suggested before, I suspect they’re also about the anxieties of empire, but that’s a story for another day).

Nor, I suspect, is it coincidental that they speak to the other ways water pervades our cultural imagination. Isn’t the image of water parting, of the way it washes us clean, also what we seek to access when we wash for prayer, when we wash away our sins in baptism? How can we see people stand inviolate amidst a river of death and not be struck by the way their survival invokes that idea in strangely altered form? Or by the fact that the river lies at the heart of our culture’s conception of time, and therefore the passing away of things? Or that these streams of the dead are themselves echoes of the River Lethe? For in all we feel the way time bears us up and on, sweeping everything before it.

Perth Writers’ Festival and the Stellas

3262_8415-width=620&height=385&scale_mode=c_PWF-Base-imageThis is a little late in the day (although it’s been that kind of month), but if you’re in Perth and heading to the Writers’ Festival over the weekend I’m doing a few sessions you might want to check out.

The first two are on Friday: ‘Critical Thinking’ with Stephen Romei, Geordie Williamson and John Freeman at 12:30pm in the Juliet Tent and ‘The Problem With Beauty’ with Ali Alizadeh and Dennis Haskell at 5:00pm in the Woolnough Lecture Theatre. They’re followed by ‘HBO and the Rise of the TV Novel’ with Sue Masters, David Petrarca and Rosemary Neill on Saturday at 11:00am in the Octagon Theatre, ‘To the Point’, with Susan Midalia, Zane Lovitt and Julienne van Loon at the somewhat brutal hour of 9:30 on Sunday morning, and my final session, ‘Inside the Imagination of China Miéville’ at 12:30pm on Sunday in the Octagon Theatre (although I’m only asking the questions in that one). They all look like fascinating sessions and I’m really excited to be a part of them and the Festival more generally (the line-up this year, which includes Margaret Atwood, David Marr and James Meek is really impressive and the programming is thoughtful and provocative).

You can also catch my partner, Mardi McConnochie at ‘Love Story’ in the Juliet Tent at 11:00 on Friday, ‘Is Happy a Dirty Word?’ in the Dolphin Theatre at 12:30pm on Saturday and ‘Of the Time’ in the Woolnough Lecture Theatre at 11:00am on Sunday. She’s also one of the guests at the Stella Prize Trivia Night in the Sunken Garden on Saturday at 6:30pm.

And while we’re on the subject of the Stellas it was great to see the release of the inaugural longlist for the award. It’s a really interesting and diverse collection of books that span fiction, non-fiction and memoir. Big congratulations both to everybody on the list and to all the people who have worked so hard to make the award happen.

Dalek Relaxation Tape

I’m still laughing …

Doctor Who Season 7 Teaser Trailer

“Give me a Dalek any day …”

Game of Thrones Season 2 Trailer