Wednesday, March 9, 2016

There's Another Way: Throw Away Your Guns (The Family of Blood)

Harry Lloyd watches the Red Wedding episode and realizes
Viserys got off easy.
The Eruditorum Press version of this got corrupted and I can't fix it, so I'm whacking up a temporary version of it here.

I’ll Explain Later

Human Nature is possibly the New Adventure needing the least introduction: it’s the book from which Paul Cornell’s two-parter in Series Three is adapted. As one might expect, it’s somewhat acclaimed. At the time, Craig Hinton called it “the finest Doctor Who book to date.” Lars Pearson calls it “a must-not-be-missed bold experiment.” It’s at number one in Sullivan’s rankings with an eighty-eight percent rating. And, you know, it’s good enough that they made a TV story out of it. DWRG summary. Whoniverse Discontinuity Guide entryOriginal post.
——

It’s May of 26th1995 2007. Rihanna and Jay-Z Oasis debuts at number one with “Some Might Say Umbrella.” They remain get knocked out a week later by Livin’ Joy, who also enter the charts at number one with “Dreamer,” a rerelease of their 1994 single. They’re unseated a week later by Robson and Jerome, making a debut at number one with “Unchained Melody/White Cliffs of Dover.” Unlike the previous two songs to enter at number one, they actually stay there for more than a week all story. Bjork, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Maroon 5, Akon, Snow Patrol, and the Manchester United 1995 Football Squad Booty Luv also chart. 

In the news, the Cutty Sark caught fire while under repairs in Greenwich, in what was believed (but not proven) to be an act of arson. The Crown Prosecution Service decides to charge Andrei Lugovoi for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. AC Milan defeat Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final. The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives approves a bill funding the Iraq Jacques Chirac is elected president of France. The Dalai Lama picks a fight by naming the eleventh Panchen Lama. Three days later the six-year-old boy, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, is detained by the Chinese authorities, and Afghanistan wars, with progressives failing to get a timetable for withdrawal included, while the Supreme Court issues its ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which declares that one cannot sue for discriminatory pay disparity if the initial decision was made more than 180 days ago. Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissenting, makes the rare decision to read her dissent from the bench, and the Court’s holding is consciously reversed in 2009 by Congress. A has not been seen in public since. A year later the People’s Republic of China names their own Panchen Lama. Christopher Reeve is paralyzed from the neck down in a horseriding accident. Japanese police arrest Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo sect, over the sarin gas attacks in March. attempt to lift the commercial moratorium on whaling fails, not that this stops them from whaling, since they just claim that it’s “scientific research.” And Scotland Yard determines that Bob Woolmer died of a heart attack and was not, as some suspected, murdered.

While in books on television, Human Nature/The Family of Blood. Ah. A big one. The book is better than the movie. Let’s get that out of the way, and then, perhaps more importantly, let’s leave it there. We’ll be back to this story eventually, and we can talk about comparison then. But since I know better than to think I can leave it entirely, the book is better than the movie. So let’s just talk about the book. by which I mean focus on it for a bit. First of all, let us note that saying that the book is better than the television version is not, as such, a criticism of the television version. This is an extraordinary story, through and through. Indeed, the basic question of why one is better is largely one of personal taste, having to do with the fundamental differences between the two. 

For now let’s look at the question of authorship. Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out is that it would be difficult for a story with this sort of authorship not to be fantastic. The original book was Paul Cornell, working from a plot he hashed out with Kate Orman, with a tiny but significant assist from Steven Moffat (who plotted John Smith’s children’s fantasy book). The density of quality around the book was staggering even before Russell T Davies shows up to start rewriting bits, which he did, at great length. On top of that you have the authorship of twelve years of history, such that we have a second Paul Cornell involving himself in the authorship. So in total we have a story written by two Paul Cornells, Kate Orman, Steven Moffat, and Russell T Davies. 

Except Davies’s authorship is also complicated - Davies has said that his rewrites involve imitating the original author, while Cornell has said that Davies pushed him to hew closer to the original book than he’d intended. So we have another author that is a strange hybrid of Cornell and Davies. And this is before we start dealing with the authors who are not writers; David Tennant, for instance, whose Doctor is fundamentally different both from Sylvester McCoy’s and from the Virgin Books iteration of McCoy’s Doctor, itself an alteration of McCoy’s television work. 

To start, it’s good. Better than good. Back with Warlock we played at the idea that the New Adventures could compete with serious literary science fiction, but the ruse was see-through. Andrew Cartmel doesn’t have the prose style for it, though he’s not dreadful by any stretch of the imagination. But go ahead. Put Human Nature up against The Diamond Age. It can hold its own and then some. Are there enough different ways to calmly explain that this novel is an absolute triumph? Perhaps not.

And yet so what we have is, on the surface, uninspiring a mess. A text with so many authors that determining the actual process of its construction is nearly impossible. And that’s before we get into the messy question of how to treat the different versions as events within Doctor Who. On the one hand, Human Nature/The Family of Blood is used as an explanation for why Human Nature is non-canonical. This is unnecessary in many ways - there are enough differences that the two can exist without contradiction. They take place in different years, at different schools. On the other hand, there is something The plot isn’t just ripped off from Death Takes a Holiday (clearly something in the air, as three years later the movie was remade execrably as Meet Joe Black), it’s unapologetic about it, even still including the Grim Reaper within it. It’s one of those terribly clever awkward about the idea of the Doctor having such a similar adventure twice. Equally, however, there’s something bizarre about deciding that because the New Adventures were so massively influential that one of them was directly adapted to screen that they are therefore not canon. 

But the two versions themselves seem to push us in different directions. The first is largely about novels, and its plot seems to mostly be a canvas stretched out so that Paul Cornell can scrawl his usual enthused claims about the virtues of mundane everyday life and , mixed freely, in this case, with stern lessons about the horrors of war, that are using particularly World War I, the single easiest war of the twentieth century to demonstrate the horrors of, to make their point. The premise is clever, but almost inevitable: the most obvious novel Paul Cornell could possibly have written at this point. So what is it about this book that sparks so gloriously?. The second, however, is far more ambivalent about war. In the book, Timothy is a Red Cross volunteer and conscientious objector in World War I, and in the wartime section he saves Hadleman, a character with no equivalent in the television version. In the television version he not only fights in the war, he explicitly rejects Martha’s claim that “you don’t have to fight,” saying, “I think we do.” And he saves Hutchinson, the thuggish (though less thuggish than in the book) and posh schoolboy, who, in the book, is explicitly killed in the same shelling that Hadleman survives. This is not the only place in which the televised version actively softens the anti-violence of the book. Both book and televised version contain scenes in which Hutchinson demands permission to beat Timothy. In the book this leads to a lovely scene in which John Smith at first attempts to get out of having to punish Timothy, and then pulls a fluffy pink slipper out of his bag, happily proclaiming that it shouldn’t hurt, leading Hutchinson to abandon the idea of punishing Timothy. In the televised version, Smith pauses, then grants Hutchinson permission to administer a beating, and that’s the end of it. 

[Perhaps the most obvious thing to point out is that it would be difficult for a story with this sort of authorship not to be fantastic. This is Paul Cornell, working from a plot he hashed out with Kate Orman, with a tiny but significant assist from Steven Moffat (who plotted John Smith’s children’s fantasy book). The density of quality around this book is staggering even before Russell T Davies shows up to start and his rewritinges bits. And while it may be an obvious Paul Cornell book it’s worth pointing out that Cornell has never had the freedom to write one of those before. His previous three books were all Big Plot Event books - two wrapping up long-running story arcs and a third doing Ace’s departure. This is actually the first time he’s actually had the freedom to just write a Doctor Who story like he wants to write it without any distractions to speak of. are a complicated business. I manifestly do not mean this ethically. The fact that his rewrites are simply part of the television business is clear. Note that the list of writers he doesn’t touch is clearly not based on quality, but on professional courtesy; he doesn’t rewrite people who have been in charge of their own shows. Davies is on fine ground here - writers like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon also do rewrites on scripts. Davies, unlike, say, Sorkin, generally does not take a writer’s credit, and his regard for the original authors’ vision is clear. Furthermore, the moments where it feels most objectionable - where he’s talked publicly about it - are almost all from A Writer’s Tale, a remarkable book that works precisely because of its candid and uncensored nature, and because it reveals more than is normally revealed about process. It would indeed be awful if Davies routinely vocally took credit for the writing on every story, but he doesn’t. He talks openly about his process in one very specifically tailored book.]

This is part of a much larger set of differences between the two. Perhaps most tellingly, Human Nature/The Family of Blood has a second title, and one that is perhaps more apt. This is not a story entirely about human nature; it focuses on its monsters in a particular way. The idea that Paul Cornell’s novel could ever be called The Family of Blood, as if it were about monsters as such, is ludicrous. But on television The Family of Blood becomes its own second version of Human Nature

In this regard, Like much of the Tennant era,  any Paul Cornell book, Human Nature The Family of Blood is in part a reaction against the Pertwee era Davies-era Doctor Who at large. There is a line of dialogue in it where Hutchinson accuses Timothy of being a coward, and Timothy replies, “oh yes, sir. Every time.” This line, of course, evokes the Ninth Doctor’s declaration to the Daleks in The Parting of the Ways. And yet while Timothy may adopt that position initially, by the end of the episode he has, as we’ve seen, reversed his position, seemingly inspired by the Doctor, such that The Family of Blood serves as a reiteration of the fact that, in the eyes of the series, the Doctor fails in The Parting of the Ways, and it is only Rose who saves him. 

At its the heart of its this engagement with the Davies era is an engagement with Human Nature itself, which has an alternate different verision of the question of what the Doctor coming to Earth and living among people would be. Instead of a stand-offish patrician defined heavily by how he separates himself from the world and by his inadequate performance of humanity we get, at last, the alternative: a man who loves being human. Nature is about A man who is, if anything, too good at being human, who does not put himself above the world but allows himself to be pulled into it. And being mid-90s Paul Cornell, that is not a matter of falling to earth. Far from it, in Human Nature the Doctor finds himself rising to earth. 

But in The Family of Blood the Doctor most certainly does fall to Earth. In Human Nature, the Doctor becomes human to better understand Benny. In The Family of Blood he does it to avoid a bunch of monsters, as a quickly cobbled together ruse. In Human Nature The parallels to the Pertwee era are instructive, simply because they are so numerous. Not just in the “becoming human” aspect of it, but in a larger set of inversions and parallels. Spearhead From Space is, of course, where the Doctor acquires his second heart, becoming less human than he’d ever been. In Human Nature he sheds it, undoing that mistake. Human Nature reveals itself to have had a Time Lord monitoring the entire situation, turning its events symbolically into a response to The War Games in that it is another test for the Doctor to prove himself in. And, of course, The War Games is heavily concerned with the nature of war, and specifically with the first World War. Instead of landing in early 70s Britain the Doctor this time lands in the lead-up to the same war. If The War Games punished the Doctor for his inability to help the lost soldiers of World War I who were caught up in a mismanaged and disastrous parody of war, Human Nature finally thrusts him in their midst and demands that he find a way to help them. The climax of the book, in which John Smith makes the decision to sacrifice himself, even harkensing back to Troughton’s fateful declaration in The Moonbase about monsters, saying that “there are monsters out there, yes. Terrible things. But you don’t have to become one in order to defeat them.” But in The Family of Blood Smith is (like Eccleston’s Doctor) too much the coward to change back, requiring Joan to push him towards it. And the ending, with the Doctor’s horrific punishments of the Family, makes it clear that in fact you do have to become a monster to defeat them, or, at least, that he does.


And if this comes perilously close to calling PertweeTennant’s Doctor a monster, focusing heavily on his we can at least accept this in the strictest etymological sense. Monster shares a root with “demonstrate,” both deriving from the Latin, and meaning “to show.” Monstrosity is thus primarily a factor of exhibition: of being seen. (This is why the phenomenon of monsters lurking in the shadows is powerful: because the monster must necessarily exit from the shadows and be seen in order to be monstrous, creating tension.) Monstrosity is a visible and spectacular otherness. As a television episode, much of the point of The Family of Blood is simply to show off David Tennant’s acting chops. Tennant is credited in the first episode as playing John Smith, and this is apparently how he introduced himself at the read-through when it came time to announce his name and what part he was playing. It is difficult to say that this is a bad thing as such; Tennant is a very good actor. Indeed, in many ways his presence is what justifies the story. Much as I love Sylvester McCoy, this story wouldn’t actually have worked on television with him. He doesn’t have the flexibility to pull it off. Even though the novel trades gorgeously on the fact that John Smith is not a straightforwardly beautiful leading man, but is instead a weird and unsettling figure, McCoy himself could never do what Tennant does in the closing scenes, successfully playing the Doctor impersonating John Smith and having it be distinct from either the Doctor or John Smith. Few actors could - it’s hard to imagine this story working with Eccleston, or even with Matt Smith. The only other actor the series has ever had that could pull a script like this off got one in the form of The Enemy of the World

But there’s a narcissism to it - a degree to which this story is simply a matter of showing off. It knows full well that it’s going to pull on the heartstrings, and it engages in a relentlessly methodical quest to get the audience to cry. Yes, it managed handily, but it’s also visibly aware of its inevitable success, so much so that at times it feels like it’s just calmly patting itself on the back for how very, very good it’s being. Again, this isn’t a criticism - it’s actually every bit as good as it thinks. But it also fetishizes its own exhibition in an almost monstrous way.

And that, at least, does describe the Pertwee era, both in terms of Pertwee’s glammed up Doctor and in terms of the era’s conceptual dissonance with the rest of Doctor Who.


This hinges, of course, on something that was invisible to the Pertwee era itself. Following on a mere six years of history, two radically different Doctors and a show that had already wildly and dramatically transformed itself from a broad anthology to a focused weekly roll of Man vs. Monsters, the Pertwee era could throw it all out and reinvent itself. Shows did that. The Avengers, in its first season, had almost nothing to do with the show it became. It’s in hindsight, there’s a that we see the weird dissonance symmetry between this and of it and the way in which an earthbound Doctor was a blind alley that didn’t last two seasons. But the Pertwee era didn’t have the ability to realize that it was, in the larger context of Doctor Who, a narrative collapse. This context is emboited within the story in the form of the Journal of Impossible Things, itself a reworking of Steven Moffat’s contribution to the original novel. It’s telling that the Journal is a fundamentally messy document. It is a Cornell knows it going in. He’s not about to hand Andy Lane a human Doctor who doesn’t travel in space and time and lives in the World War I era. The premise of this book in which is doomed. Everything about it serves to wreck Doctor Who has been as a concept. And since Cornell knows it he’s able to outright invert it. Instead of threatening a narratively collapsed, its textual primacy challenged. The book is full of crossed out passages and chaotic writing, resembling nothing so much as the manuscript for William Blake’s great unfinished work The Four Zoas, which, after abandoning, he and averting it at the end, Paul Cornell just collapses the narrative at the start and spends the entire book threatening to rebuild it. Much as the Doctor rises to earth here, the narrative does not collapse but reassembled into his last great prophetic book, Jerusalem. And yet within it is the history of Doctor Who. Tellingly, within it we get our first proper glimpse of the wilderness years from which Human Nature originated, with all possibility that Paul McGann doesn’t count officially rejected on screen. Except that the book is cobbled together such that we might as well have seen Richard E. Grant. The book is the truth of Doctor Who, but it’s only  finding the path by which the Doctor can build himself out of the tattered remnants of his own the show’s identity. This is echoed in other odd and coincidental ways - John Smith’s costume, for instance, is in many ways a dead ringer for Matt Smith’s, while in Human Nature one of the villains’ plans is to impersonate a future incarnation of the Doctor - specifically the Tenth. Entertainingly, Benny sees through the ruse because the supposed future Doctor is not a vegetarian, which, of course, Tennant’s Doctor isn’t either. The story, in other words, is drenched in the iconography of a disassembled and collapsed Doctor.

Put another way, the question that The Family of Blood asks is “who is the Doctor.” In Human Nature, this is answered The key moment comes two thirds of the way through the book, after one of John Smith’s students has just been violently killed by the attacking aliens. Smith considers grabbing a gun and attacking the aliens, but hesitates, realizing that this simply isn’t who he is, no matter who he is. He asks Benny what the Doctor would do, and she answers, “he’d find a way to turn this all around… He’d make the villains fall into their own traps, and trick the monsters, and outwit the men with guns. He’d save everybody’s life and find a way to win.” And Smith considers, then turns to his students and declares, “There’s another way. Throw away your guns.” It’s striking to compare this to the account of who the Doctor is given in The Family of Blood: “He's like fire and ice and rage. He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and he can see the turn of the universe. And he’s wonderful.” What’s interesting is that so much of this is more accurate as a description of Human Nature’s Doctor - that is, the New Adventures version of the McCoy Doctor. 

This is not So, the unusual for Cornell,: who delights in Gaiman-esque tell-don’t-show statements that triumphantly explain the basic nature of the Doctor. One of his best, of course, harkens from Love and War, where he adapts Terrance Dicks’s “never cruel nor cowardly" . phrase as the Doctor’s self-description. This, of course, has implication for The Family of Blood, where Timothy invokes Eccleston’s previous renunciation of that description.

[And typical of Cornell, he goes with the employs Gaiman-esque imagery at a key moment, using a strategy of tell-don’t-show, giving the Doctor  through a nice, proper monologue about how this is the Doctor punishes the Family, imprisoning one in chains forged in the core of a dwarf star, and another in “every mirror,” which is an image nicked directly from Gaiman, who in Sandman locates Despair’s realm as lying behind every mirror. who he is, as either Smith or the Doctor, and how he doesn’t want to give that up. It works beautifully, as ever. It’s all the sort of unapologetic frockery that defines Paul Cornell. The book even has a joke about it, as Benny, upon reading the Doctor’s instructions on what’s going on, stomps off for the wardrobe room, proclaiming that “this adventure was going to require a serious frock.”

It’s a good phrase, and an important one, as it gets at an easy thing to miss about But what’s really telling about this is how it shows the fundamental thematic differences between Human Nature and The Family of BloodHuman Nature is ultimately about the old frock/gun debate that raged during the wilderness years. Cornell was always an unrepentent advocate of the , which is that it’s equivalent to the comedy/drama division, or even the serious/unserious division. Which should be obvious, as nobody would have come up with a whole new distinction just to do comedy/drama. I’ve used the phrase “serious drama” more than a few times, but in general as a sort of mocking phrase that implicates a particular type of drama that is deeply invested in its own self-seriousness. In its most extreme form “serious drama” becomes borderline unwatchable - the sort of thing one watches purely because it’s “serious drama” and thus one has some sort of moral obligation to do so. This was the crux of my ambivalence over Sanctuary - that it was trying for “serious drama.” And more to the point, that Doctor Who just isn’t all that good at that.

But implicit in this critique of “serious drama” is the idea that “serious” and “drama” are in some way inherent allies, or that “unserious drama” or “serious comedy” are non-sensical things that are obviously inferior. And this is at the heart of the gun/frock debate: ultimately both sides are shooting for drama. Even the most comedic of the frocks, which is probably Gareth Roberts, consistently grounds his stories in human drama and experience and tries to tell genuinely moving stories. And this also gets at the ways in which the “gun” side is almost completely outflanked in this debate. The frock perspective, which allows itself a Terrance Dicks-style ambivalence that recognizes that the dramatic and the over-the-top romantic are not only not antagonistic but actively complimentary. In Human Nature, in fact, Cornell openly mocks Whereas the gun perspective, by deciding that drama comes out of gravitas, leaves itself wide-open to critique. A critique, it should be noted, that Cornell gives voice to, having a character muse about “how close masculinity is to melodrama.” Which, well, yes. Yes it is. And that’s the problem with the gun side - it so rarely realizes just how silly it is.

The problem is that Human Nature was such a wild success that it basically killed the gun/frock debate off. The frocks won, much like Xena: Warrior Princess, know exactly how silly they are, but decline to accept that this in some way imposes a limitation on what they can do. And this book is Paul Cornell going ahead and demonstrating just how far frockery can go and just how dramatic and effective it can be. Nobody who watches the new series can seriously doubt that A story that is unabashedly sentimental, full of humor and warmth, and can nevertheless be genuinely and unapologetically dramatic. But this, in turn, makes the This also makes sense of the somewhat over-obvious World War I setting strangely unnecessary. In the Because this isn’t a book that’s retreading the ground explored by Blackadder Goes Forth about the horrors of war. It’s a book, World War I is needed to show about how a man who is never cruel or cowardly can stand up to ithose horrors. It needuses World War I not as an easy crutch to make a statement about how horrible war is, but as the single most horrific moment of war available to it, so that it can show the Doctor as up to the task of outshining it. 

But by the time of The Family of Blood this isn’t necessary in the same way, and so World War I becomes a scene of tragic honor, a point hammered home by the episode ending with the Doctor and Martha paying an elderly Timothy one last visit. Which is, in many ways, the central problem with The Family of BloodAnd, of course, the real point is that this sort of drama can only happen from Cornell’s approach. A serious-minded dramatic approach could never come close to the emotional impact of Human Nature comes specifically from the context of 1995. It comes from the fact that Paul Cornell is at once a hopeless romantic and an heir to the social justice-minded approach of the Cartmel era - that he has one foot in the angry punk world and one in a more optimistic one. It’s a book by a twenty-eight-year-old who still entertains the possibility that blowing up the world might be a good idea, whereas this is television by an older and wiser forty-year-old. In the end, I’m more sympathetic to the twenty-eight-year-old, but then again, as a thirty-one-year-old, one imagines I would be. But the result is that what was originally a book about righteously making a case for a particular vision of what Doctor Who could be becomes a television story about confidently telling the story of a doomed love affair. Human Nature worked because it had the possibility of controversy. In a The book only works because it openly invites the reader to be an unrepentant romantic about things. It’s not just that this works dramatically, it’s that its sense of levity and joy is the reason it works. This is Cornell killing the gun/frock debate off. And fair enough. Well done. Aesthetically speaking, debate over, frocks win. This is the future: an aesthetic that where everyone recognizes that irony, camp, and outright silliness are not only wholly compatible with drama, they make it is somewhat less better and more effective. 

But so much of this comes down to how titanically good the original was. In a better world we’d be able to jump ahead here. Not that there aren’t some marvelous books to come in the next decade of Doctor Who, but let’s be honest, because hindsight lets us be ruthlessly accurate here: this is a good enough Doctor Who story to be made for television in the modern era. It was good enough to get a Hugo nomination a decade later, and for a version of itself that wasn’t even as good as this book. In the original post I a better world wished we could just skip the intervening decade and bring Doctor Who back now while by frantically waving this book around and saying “Look! Look! See how good it can be!” We caouldn’t. We didn’t. And This is the nasty consequence is that when the circumstances arose and the series could come back, some vital part of the book’s fire had drained away. The original book burns with a passionate vision of what of that whole gap we discussed about Sliders. Too many people think that Doctor Who could be is just like, even as it runs into the agonizing frustration that it cannot be that, at least not as a piece of mass culture, and that were it to come back, it would in practice end up as a cut-rate SlidersThe Family of Blood honors the book’s success, as well it should. This is the last time we’ll talk about Paul Cornell on the blog, and there are few better ways he could go out. That the series was able to acknowledge the debt it owes to his 90s work, and to admit that he provides the missing link between the Cartmel and Davies eras is as good a thing as the fact that Terrance Dicks got to write a Tenth Doctor novel. And the episode is On a good. It’s better than good, really - it’s day it’s just like The X-Files, which is at least a halfway decent show, but is still little more than as well-done as cult a television can be done. version Human Nature can possibly be. 

But in between these two versions, in the space between vision and revision, made up of fragments of the two is the true Human Nature. The one that properly demonstrates the inexpressibly When in fact Doctor Who is like this - something more remarkable and weird and beautiful than any of those. But there’s nothing close to this in the vocabulary of television yet. Right now the closest thing on television to a working model for Doctor Who is Xena: Warrior Princess, and it’s utterly, comically limited compared to this. So instead of a twenty-eight-year-old cutting away to victory we get ten years of Doctor Who second-guessing itself and stumbling around messily while television tries to finally catch up to Paul Cornell. Alas. Hooray.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Coming Soon: The Super Nintendo Project

Hello all five of you who still inexplicably read this. :)

Just wanted to give you a heads up that in five weeks time, on April 20th, I will be kicking off The Super Nintendo Project, a close cousin to The Nintendo Project. That'll happen over on my main blog philipsandifer.com, and will run for five weeks or so before taking a hiatus and coming back for more later in the year. (It's rotating in and out with some other projects, including a Game of Thrones blog) It'll be a more limited run thing - I'm doing a curated selection of games, in release order, so there's a definite starting and ending point, and everything in between is actually manageable. It should be a really interesting project - certainly I'm very excited about it.

If you think this is a cool thing you would like to support, I'm doing a Patreon for this and other blogging projects, so please consider backing that.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Minus World

Since this blog is pretty much officially a relic, stuck as it is in a sort of unending Minus World, I figured I'd waste some time with a postmortem of and introduction to it.

In the summer of 2009 my father had a massive stroke and my wife left me. Over the course of 48 hours. It was bad. In the wake of that I started a writing project, inspired by, of all things, the Julie/Julia Project. The idea was that I would play every NES game ever and blog about them.

The blog tapered off over the last year of my PhD, then restarted in a slightly more esoteric form as I faced partial employment and an awful lot of Alan Moore that I was reading. This marked the "actually pretty good" period of the blog - summer and fall of 2010 is particularly prime material. In that period I developed some techniques of criticism and prose, write some neat essays, and in a real sense started my career as a professional writer.

Unfortunately, good as some of the material is the underlying project was fatally flawed. There are just too many Nintendo games, and the band of history they cover is too narrow to do enough interesting with. The idea of reckless completism was marvelous, as was the style, but the project just wasn't shaped right. And eventually I abandoned it, unfinished, and went on to work on other projects, most of which are linked somewhere from my main site.

Still, I'm proud of what I have here - as abandoned first writing projects go, it's quite good. The ideas it developed - of treating cultural detritus as a big, mythic system, of psychochronography as an alternative to psychogeography, and of trying to blog full time - are ones that influenced my later work tremendously.

So enjoy the little historical moment. I certainly did.

Update: FreezingInferno, madman that he is, has picked up the torch and is continuing the Nintendo Project here. I wish him the best of luck.

Monday, January 2, 2012

This Blog is now in the Public Domain

Happy New Year, everyone. No, we're not back, and the odds of coming back in the short or medium term are low.

So in an non-sequitur, I watched the first episode of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's new series of Sherlock last night. Fantastic stuff. And I did a big reread of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen a few months ago. Also great stuff. A third great thing people talk about sometimes is Hamlet. Remember it? Good play.

Do you know what all of those works have in common? All of them were adaptations of existing texts that didn't get permission from the original author. So think about that when you read this blog post, and consider how much poorer the culture is from the 1976 Copyright Act.

So as a late Christmas present, all entries of the Nintendo Project up to this point save for this one (which I did not write and which is thus not mine to release) are hereby released into the public domain. You can't have Lord of the Rings, Night of the Hunter, or Folsom Prison Blues to do whatever the heck you want with. But you can at least have my weird-ass discontinued blog about Nintendo games.

Merry Christmas, global intellectual culture.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Insert Coin to Continue

I've mulled this for a bit, and imagined various degrees of apologia in how to present it before ultimately deciding against the absurd narcissism of thinking it matters.

The long and short is this - I'm putting this blog on hiatus. There are a number of reasons - waning interest in writing it, frustration at what I perceive as a lack of quality in recent entries (Your mileage may vary, but it turns out that as nobody is paying me to do this and I'm my own editor, my opinion of my own writing really does matter more than anyone else's), and a need to free some time in my week for other projects including ones that might actually make me some money.

The official position is that we'll resume again someday and make it through the rest of the alphabet, but let's be honest, that position should probably be filed along with those "under construction" banners of 1990s Geocities pages and the idea that Half Life 2: Episode Three is ever coming out. Then again, Duke Nukem Forever and Chinese Democracy eventually got releases, so you never know. But if we're being honest, we should admit that this is an indefinite hiatus, that Rover has not actually gone to a farm where he can run so much as been euthanized, and that Mommy and Daddy are probably never coming home.

What it comes down to is that I still love the idea of this blog, but feel like I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about NES games right now and I'm not enjoying saying things I don't find very interesting. When and if that changes, we'll be back. Until then, I am still blogging three times a week over at TARDIS Eruditorum, and other writing projects are actively being worked on.

See you around.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Persistence of Mercury (Harlem Globetrotters, Hatris)

The Harlem Globetrotters make an odd subject for a video game, given the degree to which their history consisted of kayfabe basketball. Not that there is anything wrong with this history. The Harlem Globetrotters were, by any reasonable measure, a celebration of numerous aspects of African American culture. But they were not basketball as such. Rather, they were a simulation of basketball designed to focus on the moments of maximum fun and trim out the others.

In other words, the Harlem Globetrotters are themselves basically a video game. That is, after all, what basketball video games are about. Trimming the boring bits and getting to the fun bits. It's basketball without tedium, at the frankly fairly low cost of also being without point. But given that sports are already kind of inherently pointless, this just isn't that massive a problem.

The process involved here, alchemically speaking, is one that we would associate with Hermes, also known as Mercury. His name is also given to a planet and metal. Or, rather, all three of these things share the same name because, for a period of thought during which quite a few linguistic roots developed, they were the same thing. The metal, god, and planet were all simply manifestations of a larger concept.

This concept, broadly speaking, was change, but change in a very specific sense. Mercury is not the change of the passage of time. Rather, mercury is change in the sense of creation. Mercury was viewed, classically, as essentially the stem cell of metals - the inchoate chaos from which anything can form, along with, crucially, the process of that formation. Mercury, in other words, is the act of creation itself.

We cannot survive in a world of pure mercury. Some system is needed. Neal Stephenson, among the most brilliant living writers in English, wrote an entire trilogy that ends up with this observation as its main conclusion. But we equally cannot survive in a world that is fixed. There must be mercury - inchoate moments of unfathomable creation. There must be sparks. This is what the various dunks and stunts of the Harlem Globetrotters are - the moments of inspiration and passion and beauty that make basketball worthwhile. They are pure mercury. But they are not the world.

Still, a video game based on it turns out to be kinda dumb. It turns out not to be possible to take something that is already a distilled simulation of an object and create a distilled simulation of it. All you get is a generic basketball game with a lone "stunt" that you can pull to get an automatic basket. There is nothing to it. All is fixed and determined, and there is no room for chaos.

There is not enough mercury in the world, however. Case in point, Hatris. From the creator of Tetris, Hatris is another falling objects game in which you try to stack sets of five identical hats with six columns to maneuver in and hats falling in pairs. It demonstrates a key facet of game design, which is that just because you came up with one brilliant concept it doesn't mean you can do it again. Hatris isn't bad, but it lacks all of the spark of Tetris.

Ironically, of course, hats themselves lack that vital spark of mercury they once had. For some time mercury was a vital ingredient in manufacturing felt hats, leading to lots of toxic vapors and the phrase "mad as a hatter." Broadly speaking, mercury in general is something we lack today. Where once it was something everyone encountered, whether in thermometers or toys, now the fact that it's horribly dangerous and toxic is used as a pretense to remove it from as many things as possible. The resulting lack of brain damage and death is, admittedly, nice.

But something is, as we can see in Hatris, lost in the conversion. There is no spark to the game. Which is a problem. The falling objects genre, after all, depends on the dynamic of the game slowly but surely spiraling out of control until you die. This requires mercury - a formless chaos to which you descend. This is the problem with Hatris. Death may be inevitable in it, but there is no sense of things getting out of control. Usually you die because there aren't enough slots for the hats - six slots and six varieties of hat means that it is basically certain that you will be unable to maintain a stack for each hat type. But this dynamic never feels like spiraling out of control. It just feels like bad resource management.

Tetris, as we'll talk about in the Ts, avoided this. The dynamic that kills you in Tetris is subtle. You don't quite know why you always die. Thus there is a sense of chaos. In Hatris, you know why you're dying, and get no opportunity to be driven mad by it.

Mercury will kill you, sure enough. But so will life. In the end, the cause of death is always inevitability. Better to live in a world where that fact remains strange.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Widening (Gyruss)

I've been down on video games lately. Admittedly, I've been down on life lately. But I'd be lying if I said I enjoy this blog as much as I used to. Much of this may be down to the fact that I've been pretty hostile to video games lately. Some of this may in turn be down to the fact that NES games are largely a bit lackluster. But in any case, this blog is feeling like a chore, and I dislike that.

So let's take my own advice.

One of the things that I've been contemplating as I teach the handful of sections of courses I can get is the fact that we've really done an awfully cynical job of teaching people to read. Not necessarily a bad one - actually my students are very good at following plot and comprehending the reading. Apparently we've gotten that down. No, where we fall flat is that we've somehow created an army of cynical readers who go looking to dislike things.

It's our own fault. The unfortunate downside of the wave of "ist" and "X studies" approaches. Not that these have been by and large negative - the work they did in opening up how we think about art and power is invaluable. But so much of the work that all of them - feminist theory, queer theory, disability studies, post-colonialist theory, the lot of them - was to show us the seedy and uncomfortable underbelly of "classic" texts. The problem is that now we know to use this approach, and it becomes increasingly difficult to actually enjoy anything.

The actual ists and Xes have long since sailed past this problem into new territory with their approach of finding marginalized literature worthy of more attention than it's been given. This does not mean the "liking the bad thing ironically" approach of hipsters, which is really just what we've been calling "camp" for decades now, only with more cynicism and patchoulli. Rather, it means finding literature that gives voice to people the classics often ignore.

But there's another tactic I've been thinking about lately. What I call redemptive readings. It hit me while watching Love and Other Drugs, a film that is neither particularly good nor particularly bad. But watching it, I found that I could watch the film and enjoy it by focusing on a narrow, somewhat idiosyncratic, but largely valid reading of it in which the film is about playing Anne Hathaway's bland starlet characteristics off the fact that she actually can act and provide a compelling portrait of someone with a fatal illness, and how it makes it very difficult to support a for-profit medical industry in the context of the film. Whatever its myriad flaws, that bit seems good.

I call this redemptive reading. Going into something with the active goal of liking it, and trying to find a reading that makes it work. Ideally this shouldn't mean ignoring any obvious flaws, but it should mean trying to find reasons to like something. The appeal of it is that it's charmingly subversive. People are going to watch television. Television, by its nature, is never going to actively give voice to oppressed and silenced minorities, because it's a corporate-controlled broadcast medium. Finding good things in it is, more often than not, going to involve taking something that might not actually be good and thwapping it upside the head until it behaves.

So let's try that with NES games. Here, most of the time, we don't have terribly large racial issues, we have very standardized and entrenched gender issues, and the class issues are... well, OK, that's where we're going to need to be working.

Thankfully, for our purposes, Gyruss is not half bad to begin with. It's a rotational shooter. By which I mean that it basically functions in the shooter mould that I'm running out of things to say about, except instead of constantly scrolling forwards you move in a circle around the playfield. Enemies come in along the Z-axis, and cluster at the center of the screen for you to destroy them.

The gameplay is pleasantly pacey, the controls are at a nice midpoint between intuitive and frustrating, and almost every time I died I felt like I deserved it. The minimum threshold is thus cleared. But, for once, there's more than that!

I mean, one thing I am increasingly coming to believe is that the interesting parts of video games are the play mechanics. This does not mean I am becoming a hardline ludologist, as I still believe play mechanics can tell a story, but, for instance, if we take my favorite game in recent memory - Braid - the story extends from the gameplay. It's a story about the passage of time, memory, and regret, but all of the aspects of the story are simply thematic meditations on things about the gameplay. When the game introduces time-locked objects, the story introduces the idea of mistakes that cannot be undone. When it introduces the ability to have a shadow Tim carry out one set of actions while Tim carries out another, it introduces the idea of regret for lives unlived.

The thing about Braid that I think a lot of people miss, despite it probably being the most important thing about the game, is that it is one of an increasing number of games to operate in a lyrical mode as opposed to an epic mode. Implicit in this, of course, is the idea that the nearest textual medium to video games is poetry. And so Braid, instead of telling a narrative story about rescuing a princess, instead offers an extended poem in which video game mechanics, growing up, the apocalypse, and love are all intertwined into a... well... braid.

It is impossible to port this approach directly to Gyruss, simply because there's not enough formal complexity to have the multiple moving parts that so enliven Braid. And yet all the same, there is something to it. These endless loops and circles that stretch the solar system as an infinite tunnel straight through the back of my television. The spinning about in giddy circles, dodging and destroying wildly as all the cosmos lifts off my screen and through me. This is what games are for.