Friday, 19 September 2014

Things I want to like - RWBY, Pt. 2

The Magical School

From the moment Ruby rocks up at Beacon Academy it is clear that we are dealing with a magical school drama. The narrative job is this setting is to create both a magical and mysterious world routed soundly in a relateable coming-of-age story. We get an idealised high school experience to live out like a childhood we never had, and a magical world to explore.

The eponymous example, of course, is Harry Potter, and one of the weirder things that I took away from RWBY is just how many things that JK Rowling did well. Let me break it down for you:
  • Visually, both Beacon Academy and the surrounding area are bland. Compare to Hogwarts:

  • In connection, with the last point Beacon Academy more generally lacks character in other ways. Whilst Hogwarts makes it clear what the structure of the school is, Beacon Academy is way fuzzier.
    • Hogwarts has a house system and each class is dedicated to different parts of wizarding as a practise or the wizarding society. There are older years and lots of different pupils and a sense of scale. It feels like it has proper structure. It's a place where people could function like normal human beings, but it's also steeped in all the things that make it a fantastical and mysterious place to us.
    • Beacon Academy suffers somewhat for the lack of structure of the world around them - as discussed earlier, the world outside of Beacon lacks definition and the relationship it has with Dust and Hunters are is very ambiguous. The internal culture of Beacon is similarly lacking. 
  • School, surely, equals coming of age drama. This further reinforces what was said in part one.


If there’s one crime of narrative that really needlessly makes a story or character boring, it’s poorly chosen en-media-res. For many of the most important character points in RWBY, we only learn about character flaws or conflicts when their particular storylines are ready to be resolved.

It’s based on the idea that you can pull the rug from under the audience’s feet, the idea that a revelation can force you to re-evaluate a character that you had already made an opinion about. This is done with a little more consideration, as will be discussed in the next section, with Jaune, but it’s also used in the final storyline with both Blake and Weiss.

The problem is most specifically demonstrated with Blake – before the “revelation” – was that she was ostensensibly a one note character. She was withdrawn and quiet. That was more or less all we had seen of her so far, a minor conflict with the very loud and outgoing Yang aside. When the series finale rolls around, it is revealed that Blake has links to the evil terrorist group – she is, in fact, the same species that the terrorist group is standing up for.

(Whether or not this was a twist is unclear – it’s played off like one, but at the same time it is something that I had already assumed was the case. Were we meant to know to begin with? It’s unclear.)

Blake’s quietness is more interesting in the context of a tragic backstory – and as such it weakens her character for us not to know this from the start. She has no conflict, she’s not going anywhere characterisation-wise: if the twist itself really has no impact as a twist (it only really has impact if it somehow contradicts our impression pre-twist) all that has been achieved is that the story has been hidden from us really.

Character conflict solved offscreen

In the finale, the major conflict between Weiss and Blake is resolved because Weiss thought about it whilst not on-screen. Not really sure I need to say anything else about that really.

Jaune: the Actual Protagonist

Jaune is the main male presence in the series, and a counterpoint to Ruby. What makes him such a destabilising presence for the series at large is the fact that he matches the bildungsroman structure so well. He's the only character with flaws, and he's surrounded by women like he's in a harem anime. He's appointed a leader without heroic qualities, yet that actually becomes the one decent point of character conflict in series one.

The crux of his development comes later on in the series, when it is revealed that Jaune failed his test to get into the school. He really isn't there on merit, but rather he has to earn his merit through team work and effort. This is a character arc, and this is good characterisation. What's more, Jaune's secret is revealed to a bully who then forces him to act in a manner that forces him to work against his friends.

In the end Jaune overcomes those difficulties and ends up rising above what the bully did to him - his development comes a bit early, maybe, but it is far more than any of the other characters get. And, to be honest, it feels weird that we're talking about a show advertised to be about women kicking ass, yet it is the one major male character who really ends up feeling like the real character.

Format Limitations

The short length of each episode does to a certain extent hamstring the narrative - on this point I have to sympathise with the writers - so they have to communicate characterisation, conflict and resolution in as economical a way as possible. The writers themselves seem to recognise and structure their episodes accordingly - necessary, but ultimately maybe suggests that the episodic and multi-char focus really isn't suitable for what the series is trying to achieve. Starting with a smaller cast (maybe of four?) and making one series a continuous story line might have made more sense.

Pedantry Really

Why do they pronounce Weiss, a German name, with a soft ‘w’? It should be more akin to ‘v’. This just doesn’t stop bothering me. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Dr Who - Into the Dalek

Do you guys remember Dalek? That one with Ecclestone and the lone Dalek taken prisoner? Apparently, the Who guys remember it too, and in a move that sort of harkens back to it have decided to construct a sort of Capaldi-era version of it.

In a quest to fix a broken Dalek and discover what kind of man the Doctor is now, Clara and the new 1st (do we call him that now?) go inside a Dalek that has been captured by besieged soldiers.


Before that, however, we got to meet our secondary companion for the episode - a minor character who would, like many before, end up as failures in their attempts to be companions. We first meet her as she screams at her clearly dead shipmate not to die, whilst being chased by a Dalek craft. As the Daleks seem to have her dead, she is saved at the last minute by the Doctor.

As we get a little look at the Doctor and her first little interaction - and, again it all seems kind of awkward. The woman screams about how she has lost her brother and tries to hijack the TARDIS - unsuccessfully of course.

This first meeting really demonstrates well why her character plain doesn't work - why almost all of the character beats of this episode, in fact, do not work. We're told to sympathise with her, we're told about her character through dialogue. It's on a hiding to nothing, since we never really saw her with her dead brother and was never given a reason to care about their relationship. Yet we're meant to care, because she has went through loss and she's showing her qualities as a character by being generally shouty and dislikeable. Worse, her portrayal never particularly improves either, so we end up not really caring when the Doctor eventually knocks her back.

Really, all of the side characters are badly handled here. Rusty, our intrepid broken dalek and the closest the story gets, is mainly characterised through an extended monologue whilst the characters all stand around listening. Again, we should care because the dialogue tells us we should, not because the characters actions or the context of the plot makes us engage with them in any real way.

Thematic Throughline

The two main characters, Clara and Big Ol' Caps, have something of a better defined character journey through the episode. Of course, they have a better base to build from, but it's still appreciated.

Unfortunately, this whole show/tell problem is just as evident here. At the start of the episode the Doctor sits Clara down, turns to her and asks her "Am I a good man?" It's a bit too explicit. It's way too explicit. What's worse, is that how explicit it is seems to be used in place of actually using the plot to demonstrate it much of the time. There's a lot of talk about experiences and memories in the latter part, in the connection with the dalek's mind and the Doctor's. At the end, we seem to get an answer to the question - but instead of being demonstrated by the plot, it relies on a flimsy paralleling.

Worse than Clara's though. At the key moment realisation, when the Doctor needs to learn something, she wades in. "I'm a teacher," she says, "I teach." As if trying to convince herself that was her character arc all along. I'm pretty sure even she isn't convinced, although efforts to make her relevant to proceedings, no matter how late, are welcome.

The key to the Doctor's arc, the question asked at the beginning, is the dalek. The not-good dalek, the broken dalek. When asked what a good dalek, Rusty replies "you're a good dalek." Because that's the point of the episode - characterising the Doctor by drawing parallels between him and his most hate enemy, the daleks. Just like the episode Dalek.

Shades of Dalek

The problem with this very obvious similarity is that it sets up the episode to be compared very directly to Dalek. Both have the same thematic throughline, and both look to take on a raw, somewhat edgy Doctor and confront them with an uncomfortable truth about themselves. Such are the parallels between both episodes that it feel like it was probably on purpose.

The problem is that Dalek is a far superior episode to Into the Dalek. Okay the dialogue isn't as sharp, it doesn't look as good and it's not as inventive, but the core story is told just so much better. The lone dalek's actions and Nine's actions both speak for themselves during the episode, the ideas are much better communicated and have more substance. There's a real sense of tragedy to proceedings, and the switch up that happens is all the more shocking for it. The dalek, although not given a cheeky nickname, feels like it has much more character and power. As such, watching the new episode, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we've seen this done better elsewhere.

Still, wasn't all bad.

What I liked

This was a good looking, ambitious episode, well directed and creative. It had ideas in it, and on paper was quite an interesting premise. Never be let it said that I don't appreciate a story that gives me a lot to chew on, even if it doesn't quite manage to convey those ideas well.

The best thing, and the thing I always like when Doctor Who rarely does it, is that it felt a bit like a quest. This was a physical journey as well as an emotional one, where we got to see new places and characters overcome obstacles that stopped them getting to a goal - always a solid way of creating conflict, which tends to be hard to get wrong. Some of my favourite stories (The Impossible Planet, Asylum of the Daleks, etc) feel like quests, and this episode definitely benefited from a similar vibe.

The dialogue sparkled. A lot of the interchanges between Clara and the Doctor was funny, sharp and conveyed a great rapport. Whatever else the episode was, it was eminently quotable.

Also, as a part of the continuous dalek lore that New Who has been building up, I felt that this is a pretty decent addition on that front - the idea that a "good" dalek is just one who is broken was good, although the memory bank bit doesn't quite fit as a part of the make-up of daleks with me for some reason.

Clara and Danny

Slowing down the pace of the episode, and cluttering up the time line, we also had our introduction to Danny Pink. It was just about as literally tacked on as you could get. Tonally it was nice, and it sold the characters far better than the rest of the episode, but it just felt so peripheral to the actual thing that it kinda felt a bit boring. Plus the romance seems a bit forced - it's not given any time to grow before it is already being toyed with. Still, look forward to Mr Pink being actually involved in an episode.

Does feel like the tone, especially set in the between-adventure segments with Clara are an interesting counterpoint to the childish, fairy tale tone of Eleven's days. There's definitely a slightly older tone going on, a young adult to the childishness of Eleven.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Doctor Who: Big Finish's Jubilee

Big Finish Audio are a company that do audio-dramas, most noticeably Doctor Who audio dramas. They are responsible for keeping many of the older Doctors adventuring away, long after their on-screen incarnations died - and I mean a long time, what with all of them still going strong. The actors from the show are retained, with the former Doctors reprising their roles, and this, more than anything, is what makes the adventures feel like true additions to the Who mythos. Jubilee sees Colin Baker's 6th incarnation of The Doctor take on the daleks again, same old story, right?

In the first series of New Who, one of the stand out stories was a little gem called Dalek. Dalek, written by the writer of Jubilee Robert Shearman, was actually a screen adaptation of the audio play. And Dalek was no typical Doctor vs daleks story and, as it was to turn out, it was a bit of a shadow of it's source material.

The 6th and his companion Evelyn land in London, as they have done so many times. But something's amiss. Things don't, exactly, make sense. This is Edwardian London - they are quickly able to figure out exactly where they are. But their surroundings are not quite...right. Also the TARDIS decides it is going to pop off on a mission of it's own, which, aside from a little delirium fuelled mumbling, he does not seem to worried about.

It is an insane and brutal world that they have entered. Daleks are the mascot of the world, their image becoming a powerful tool of merchandisation. There are rules about women and language, and a horrible disdain for the lesser parts of the empire, like the US. The President of the English Empire is a tyrant and they have a prisoner, a dangerous prisoner, that they torture regularly.

The characters and the world they exist possess an insanity of Gormenghastian intensity, but never lose at the expense of depth. Both the President and his wife are characters that continue to surprise and challenge audience's expectations, while the soldiers Faro and, surprisingly, Lam have their own part to play in the drama that fleshes them out as more interesting people. Evelyn, a companion I have to confess ignorance of, was heavily involved here, more so than the Doctor. She serves, more than anyone else, as our main character in this play.

Jubilee is packed with ideas. There is horror here, but there also twists of dark comedy. Thematically, the story is about many things, about obedience and power and history, about the futility of hatred. Through the setting and characters, Shearman is able to convey a plethora of ideas, all explored but never answered, As well as themes, it is also a lot of great science fiction ideas, and stands as probably most complicated and interesting alternate universe Doctor Who story I have come across.

Shearman is always one step ahead - the story always has at least one card up it's sleeve, and one hell of a poker face. There are twists hidden everywhere, and surprises hidden in places where they really shouldn't be. It's a rare feat of storytelling, to be so far ahead of the audience, constantly springing surprises that makes sense in context and feel like they have real weight to them.

Jubilee is superb, shocking, perversely funny and rich with ideas hidden beneath the surface. It's a great story, and possibly one of the biggest influence of RTD's new Who (as well as Dalek, Journey's End also shows influence from Jubilee). Not given it a listen? You're missing out.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Comic Relief: What Pacific Rim does right

Wacky, wise-cracking sidekicks are dangerous things. Loud, obnoxious and full of jokes that are entirely predictable. We don't care about them as characters and in turn the humour is, more often than not, extremely poor. Even when the comedy somewhat works, they can find themselves becoming audience hate figures. Transformers is perhaps the most egregious example of this, wherein pretty much the entire non-robot cast are turned into cartoonishly obnoxious caricatures.

In Pacific Rim, a movie I'm sure I'll review soon, we are introduced to a pair of feuding scientists, Newton and Hermann - Newton, specifically, becomes our designated comic relief. They are loud and obnoxious, they barely give their shtick a rest when they are on screen and their characters are built around stereotypes and cliches. They have all the ingredients of being non-stop annoyances.

And yet they aren't. Despite being in many ways definition of the tropes exemplified by annoying comic relief, they aren't annoying and both end up sympathetic. Why?

They have distinct skills

Newton and Hermann aren't a pair of wacky everymen who have fallen haphazardly in over their heads - they are two professionals. There's a reason they work for the Jaeger program: they offer something specific that the others do not. Without them, the plot cannot actually continue - they serve roles which make them pivotal characters in the story.

They are proactive

As the major character of the two, this rests mainly on Newton's shoulders. Newton's actions throughout the movie are useful and self-driven. We see below a gibbering exterior is a resourceful and actually very brave character. He goes against authority and risks his life, then travels into the heart of Hong Kong in order to track down a dangerous criminal - Hannibal Chau.

Their relationship

Threatens to be one note but, really, it's very far from that. There's a fine balance struck between Newton and Hermann of rivalry and respect. They are simultaneously enemies and friends - their relationship is nuanced, carrying both elements of conflict and fondness to them. It also develops as the story goes along, making them engaging as characters in their own right.


Essentially it all comes down to being good characters and active members of the plot - if the audience understands their position in the narrative beyond dumb laughs, it makes them engaging to the audience. Newton and Hermann are great examples of this.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Doctor Who - Deep Breath

Capaldi cometh - a new show, a new direction. What to make of his long awaited debut?

"Dinosaur's aren't that big, I've seen the bones."

Vastra and co' emerge onto the banks of the Themes, among a crowd of confused onlookers. There's a dinosaur in town and, rather understandably, the denizens of Victorian London are rather taken by this sight. The dinosaur spits out of the TARDIS, Vastra seals off the area and they go down to check it out.

Our first scene where we get acquainted to the new doctor is something of an uneven one to be honest - it's not clear whether or not the tyrannosaurus should be a threat and there was a sense of just being unsure. We were kind of too familiar and not really being introduced to Capaldi, but also kind of being introduced. The opening of the episode started as a storm of ambivalence - peppered with great dialogue and genuinely funny lines to be fair.

I found this to be one of the main things I took away from the early stages of the episode. The episode didn't really know where it was going, and it struck an uneasy balance between being too familiar and not familiar enough. It was nicely directed, and the characters all struck an easy rapoir with each other, but for a while the episode just meandered, feeling safe enough to lean on clever banter and too-obvious thematic statements.

"Give me your coat."

Then the dinosaur burns and the Doctor disappeared into the Themes, searching for the killer. When he next pops up, he's looking rather raggedy and chatting to a nearby homeless person, his manner half-awake and confused.

This, really, is our time alone with The Doctor. His mad ramblings, his gargoyle-countenance. He comes across lost but also more than a little bit rough around the edges. His aggressive demands that the homeless man hand over his coat managed to be genuinely disturbing, helped in no small part by just how well Capaldi plays threatening.

Throughout the episode his characterisation is adeptly handled, addled by post-regeneration confusion and a genuine sense that this new Doctor is untrustworthy. He's played close enough to the Doctor we all know to allow for continuity, but with enough to have us asking questions. Speaking of which...


Post-Tennant regeneration, there was a strong backlash from many of Tennant's most loyal fans. One of the main criticisms I heard was that the change was just too jarring. Everything was new - new tone, new TARDIS, new assistant, new Doctor. It was too much, some argued.

The continuity between the latter half of series seven and this episode makes it seem as if they have taken these particular criticisms on board. The tone is closer and the new TARDIS is only slightly different. We get an old baddy, in slightly new form, Vastra and co. and, of course, the same companion from Smith's latter years.


One of the more interesting decisions made in the episode was the decision to make it more about Clara than it really was about The Doctor. The main thrust of the episode was Clara's journey. Her learning to trust the Doctor and getting used to his new appearance, as well as proving her own worth as a companion.

Her attempts to adjust to the new Doctor do two things as well as being a natural character arc for a companion who has witnessed a regeneration. It serves to resolve the half-baked probably-misdirection that was Clara and Eleven's will-they-or-won't-they - the answer being, rather obviously, they won't.

The other, and more interesting strand, was the way that the whole arc seemed to function as a real message to those fangirls who were less than kind about the appearance of Capaldi. In this, Clara's conversation with Vastra and her later conversation on the phone with an old friend serve to be important. This is still the same Doctor, this is still the same sense of adventure, and if that isn't enough then you weren't really a fan in the first place is the message.

The attempts to justify Clara as a companion in her own right often went over the show line, straight into tell, and as such this episode worked more as a mission statement for how Moff is going to try and establish Clara as a better companion rather than an actual showcase for why she is a better companion than we've seen so far (at least, this iteration of her). Still, the episode improved as it went on, and this followed that trend - by the climax, it look as if the earlier mission statement was being followed up on.


The directing was very nice, although faltered during action scenes, and the script was fantastically full of ideas. Although flawed, this episode really picks up speed later on. When the antagonist becomes a major player, suddenly everything gets much more purposeful and feels a lot more engaging. The cleverness, the humour, the characterisation all really slots into place and works. By the end, it feels like we've really been given a proper introduction, as well as seen a very good episode.