3

Dark Tarot Shoot

Another threshold crossed on the path to recovery: I have done my first photoshoot post-surgery. The photographer was Dark Venice from Purpleport, and the theme, nicely utilising my own Wiccan leanings, was dark versions of the Tarot cards. The location was Tinkinswood Burial Chamber: a Neolithic site just outside Cardiff which made the perfect pagan backdrop, although we did have to work the shoot around occasional bemused sightseers …

 

Tropes which you might recognise here (if you are familiar with the Tarot) are the Hermit, the High Priestess, and the Fool, to which I brought my best manic Harley Quinn air. There are so many more cards left to attempt, though, so this will very probably be one of a series of shoots. I never thought I would keep on modelling beyond my thirties – indeed, I once naively assumed I that would have a proper job by this point in time – but between this lark and burlesque dancing, it’s just too compelling finally getting to shine a little as the person I always wanted to be. Responsibility can always wait for another decade …

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2

Convalescent Critic #3: “The Phantom of the Opera” (Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion production)

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(Flyer from school website)


The sad aspect of this review is that even if it convinces you, there is no way you will be able to see this production, as we caught its last night (unless someone else caught it on their phone and puts it on YouTube, of course). However, I felt it deserved a shout-out, regardless, and that may hopefully draw attention to the general excellent of Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion’s performing arts department (who stage a new production every year).

Since all the signs of my recovery have been positive, my lovely hubby invited me to a school production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” at Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion (near Bridgend). He had heard about it through his job (he works as a library assistant in Bridgend, where he manages a junior reading group), he had heard that the school had a strong reputation for performing arts, and he was also very aware that “Phantom” is a musical I am just a little obsessed about, as I may have mentioned once or twice

As I have seen it twice on Broadway, I knew it was a big-budget production full of large-scale set pieces (including giant statues, lakes of smoke and candles, and of course falling chandeliers), elaborate stage magic, lavish costumes, and complex choreography. With all due scepticism over how a comprehensive school budget was going to even approximate this, I decided to give it its due … and was blown away.

There were, inevitably, limitations. The stage magic was necessarily simplified to accommodate the lack of trapdoors (although there were still some impressive pyrotechnic and lighting effects), and some effects such as the lake of candles and the giant statue were understandably omitted. Otherwise, the staging was much more impressive than I had dared to expect, with some striking backdrops and props (including a large pipe organ, as every good Phantom ought to have), fantastic costumes all round (which were, one gathers, worked on entirely by the students themselves), some astounding choreography including beautiful and skilful ballet scenes which made me very wistful for my sadly wasted non-girlhood in which I never got to do ballet (*sighs*), and most astoundingly of all, the two most memorable effects from the stage show were brilliantly replicated: the Phantom’s boat crossing the lake (albeit without candles, but with plenty of smoke), and the falling chandelier: another beautiful prop devised by the students.

What really made it a triumph, however, were the performances, and the fact that the two romantic leads – Christine Daae and Raoul de Chagny – were played by teen actors suited the coming-of-age nature of the story immensely. Raoul in particular has an unfortunate tendency in adaptations to be played by dashing matinée idol types, whereas in Gaston Leroux’s original novel he is clearly an angry, impulsive, near-adolescent, generally well-meaning but utterly out of his depth (and not destined to be the big damn hero, as he supposes, but the ironic damsel in distress). The actress who played Christine (Sadly, I do not know their names – I wish now that I had bought a programme – but they all deserve to go on to bigger things) brilliantly captured that character’s journey through her initial brainwashed, childish state of naive enthralment, through to growing realisation, trauma, conflict, and finally maturing into a capable and defiant person who can both resist and forgive her abuser, breaking his spirit in the process.

As for the Phantom himself – another role that has occasionally suffered from having its “romantic” aspects played up at the costs of its dark and sordid elements (particularly in the 2004 film version) – he came across exactly as he ought to: an incredible, ingenious, larger-than-life showman … but with the terrible social skills and general sociopathy one would expect of a man who would spend years living in a basement, posing as a ghost, and surviving by blackmail. Operatically intense and melodramatically confident while in his element (or behind his masks, so to speak), yet miserably inept and awkward when faced with actual human contact, he is certainly an archetype that this particular nerd (who has faced her own body dysphoria issues) can readily relate to … although I have tried to deal with my own issues in a less murderous and manipulative way, of course.

Also, I should add to the acting plaudits, that all three of the leads were superb singers, and did total justice to the intensity of the music, both in the skill and the emotion they brought to it.

Not to forget kudos for the supporting roles, and especially for the actors playing the opera house managers, Carlotta, Piangi, Madame Giry, and Meg Giry: characters on whom the comic relief burden often falls (especially during the Gilbert and Sullivan-esque “Prima Donna” sequence of Act One) but who can easily be overplayed as too grotesque to be sympathetic. This production wisely steered clear of that, let the characters have their nuances, and even worked in some clever physical comedy I had not seen in the show before (so which was presumably devised in rehearsal). Although certainly faithful to its source, this staging was clearly not afraid to interpret the material to suit its own players, and it did so very successfully.

I cannot really praise this enough. Especially considering the slender resources available, this was an amazing achievement, and a grander spectacle than I had dared to imagine possible. It was also a glorious showcase for performers whom we can but hope will be up-and-coming names in their fields. I only wish it were possible to go back again and see it tonight, but one can hardly expect Ysgol Gyfun Bryntirion to permanently let its gym serve as Wales’ equivalent of Broadway and keep the show running non-stop for thirty-plus years, if only … Still, the hubby and I certainly look forward to seeing what they will stage next year.

8

Perils of Persephone

Rather quicker than I had expected, there are now videos of my latest burlesque show with Cardiff Cabaret Club (Yin and Yang show, June 22nd 2018). Thus, as requested, my better judgement notwithstanding, here is exhibit A. I am the suspect at the very far right of the scene, on the dancefloor. Please be forgiving …



Also in burlesque news, I am giving thought to doing a solo routine based on Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera”: a novel with which I have been a bit obsessed ever since I first saw the Broadway show version back in 2000, seeing in the titular antihero a character whose physical self-loathing issues I could all too readily identify with. I would be reinterpreting the Phantom as a female character, however.

I have already had some help and encouragement from other members of the group, and further offers, so in spite of my inexperience (less than a year’s worth, and only two shows) it is looking distinctly possible. I have also chosen the burlesque stage name I intend to use if this does come to fruition. Eschewing pleas to use a more straightforwardly Gothic pseudonym, I have opted for “Persephone Pitstop”: half-Goth, half-silly, and it made the hubby laugh, which is all the confirmation I need (and also no other dancers seem to be using it right now, so I’m staking the claim while it’s good).

None of which is to say that I am fully healed yet – I am still on sick leave, still bruised and sore, and still tire very easily – but when I compare this to how I felt when I first left hospital, I am confident the end of the tunnel is in sight (and hopefully some exciting times not too far beyond).

8

Bad Things

(The obligatory dressing room group shot, although not the complete group, as some dancers were doing up to three routines and solo dances that night. I was less ambitious, but maybe one day …)


Over the past three weeks I have gradually been getting more mobile and independent, doing small shopping trips, taking accompanied walks, helping the hubby more with the household chores … and performing in another burlesque show.

Having been discharged from hospital only a month or so ago,  I can’t argue that the latter was the wisest thing I have ever done, but with no shows nor classes now due until September, having rehearsed the routine for several weeks, now feeling well enough to take brief outings, and being sorely in need of a change of scene and a chance to feel a little bit glamorous for the first time in ages, I decided I would only regret not making the effort.

One thing I was certain of was that I would be in safe company. As I previously posted on, our local burlesque scene is wonderfully accepting and supportive, and while I was in hospital I had no end of messages and offers of assistance from classmates, my teacher, and my fellow-performers. Some even connected with my hubby on Facebook to make sure not to lose track of me in dire emergencies, thus leaving him with the strange situation of now being online friends with a vast quantity of showgirls. That ought to be interesting if any future employer ever decides to scope his social media …

I do love the backstage atmosphere at our shows: a heady mixture of camaraderie, urgency, and spray-on glitter, almost like comrades-in-arms gearing up for a very sparkly non-lethal battle. As for the dance itself … well, I’m impressed I did it at all, all things considered, although I fear my steps were running behind on a few occasions, my annoyingly long legs are still causing me to overshoot my marks, and I barely knew the steps for the encore dance at all (having missed the last rehearsals for that routine while I was in hospital). Hopefully I didn’t let the side down too badly, though. I hope not, as I’d be seriously loath to give this pursuit up.


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(And here we are in action, dancing to “Bad Things” by Jace Everett. Hopefully we look the part. Image copyright Martin Gibson Photography.)


No more classes till September, alas, though that is probably just as well from the healing perspective. Although I am certainly a lot stronger than I was after discharge, complete healing from gender confirmation surgery is a matter of months rather than weeks. I am glad I managed to rally well enough to make this show, though. It is the sort of thing I used to dream of doing but thought completely unattainable to the person I used to be (Indeed, as a friend recently reminded me, the heroine of one of my early Gothic stories is herself a disillusioned would-be cabaret dancer … who gets on the wrong side of some particularly ruthless vampire hunters, so life has not perfectly imitated art as yet). Now that the big journey is finally almost over, and without any complications so far (fingers crossed), I can dare hope that this exhilarating new pastime and the amazing people who come with it will be a big part of the future … assuming we can get through another year without a nuclear war, of course. Some days I have to wonder.

0

Convalescent Critic #2: “Steven Universe”

(One unlikely hero, one redeemed ex-fascist functionary, one PTSD-afflicted alien superbeing, and one sentient pumpkin. A fairly typical day in the Steven Universe universe …)


“Steven Universe” (and the Crystal Gems) (US animation, 2013-present)

The likelihood is that most of the world heard of this little sci-fi / comedy gem (pun totally intended) way before me, but since binge-watching it with the hubby – who introduced me to it – did a lot to get me through the earliest and nastiest stages of my convalescence, it seems only fit to spread the gospel …

Now on its fifth season, with a huge fanbase, and spoilers all over the place, it is perhaps difficult to approach this show with a completely open mind (which is a real shame, as the plot is full of ingenious twists and the character development beautifully judged), but for those lucky enough to be discovering it afresh, I will just stick to the premise. The titular Steven, as of the first episode, is a pre-teen boy living in a dilapidated beach resort town on the east coast of America, the son of unsuccessful rock musician Greg Universe and repentant (although now deceased) alien invader Rose Quartz, of whom Steven himself – due to the complexities of cross-species reproduction – is in part the reincarnation.

Surreal enough yet? We’ve hardly begun …

Several thousand years ago, as it transpires, a race of silicon-based holographic beings (the “gems”, who all project forms as humanoid women, unless their crystal core is corrupted and / or shattered, in which case they assume monstrous forms) attempted to found a colony on Earth, of which numerous relics and ruins remain. In spite of their advanced culture, technology, and surreal beauty, however, they were not above greed and imperialism, and their activities became increasingly cruel and threatening to organic life, leading to a civil war. Steven’s mother was the head of the resistance, the last three survivors of her cadre – Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst (the “Crystal Gems”) – are now his guardians, and it is their task to raise the initially naive boy to take his mother’s place and master her powers before the ruthless Homeworld gems turn their attentions back to Earth again.

As you may have gathered, the premise of the show is astonishingly epic with more than a shade of “Star Wars”, yet it is far more successful in the characterisation stakes, managing to conjure sympathy in the most unlikely of places. Characters set up as apparently total villains reveal hidden depths, while characters the audience has seen as selfless heroes succumb to flaws and weaknesses, or reveal information which changes our perspective on them. An aspect for which this show has rightly garnered a lot of praise is for its plethora of strong female and strong LGBT characters*: in fact, they constitute the majority of the characters, and while Steven himself is technically the lead, his own gender proves decidedly fluid on more than one occasion (but to say any more on that would be a spoiler). Grandiose as the themes and settings are, they never overwhelm the emotional dimension, and the series is invariably as touching and funny as it is awe-inspiring in its concepts.

That being said, it is a long series with an increasingly tense overarching plot, so especially as it develops one can get frustrated at the occasional episodes that seem to take it no further: sometimes the case when an episode centres around Steven’s interactions with the human townsfolk, most of whom have very little knowledge that their town is the last outpost of an alien resistance force. Some of these side characters are more interesting and sympathetic than others, a couple are just plain irritating (such as the town’s vain, ineffectual mayor, and their resident David Icke-esque conspiracy theorist, who mistakenly believes himself an expert on the town’s alien issues), but as the story moves on and the Crystal Gems are increasingly unable to shield the townsfolk from the various alien menaces, the story tends to focus on the less gimmicky characters, and again reveal hidden depths in unlikely places.

I hesitate to say any more, as this show is well worth the trouble of discovering for oneself. Alternately hilarious, haunting, and heartbreaking, with a diverse cast of appealing characters, a beautiful and surreal art style, and the most unapologetic and glorious celebration of female and LGBT empowerment ever committed to animation, “Steven Universe” is a triumph and a joy (not to mention a wonderful testimony to my wonderful hubby’s good taste).


* A wholly intentional aspect according to show creator Rebecca Sugar: “Steven Universe creator fights to show that ‘all people are deserving of love’.”

5

Convalescent Critic #1: “Yatterman Night”

What to do when I am not even halfway through my ten-week healing process after gender confirmation surgery, and still barely able to get out of doors for any length of time? Getting back to fiction writing or game programming would be ideal, if I had any promising ideas … which I am currently lacking in, alas. Passive entertainment it is, then, but if I am to be expanding my media collection I may as well take the time to review some of it.


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Yatterman Night” / “Yoru no Yattāman” (Anime TV series, 2015)

The original “Yatterman” (1977) was a cheerfully silly sci-fi / secret agent romp in which two precocious adolescent engineers – Gan and Ai (AKA Yatterman-1 and Yatterman-2) – would don masks, build garish but effective animal-themed mechas, and bravely combat the machinations of the Doronbo Gang: an endearingly incompetent trio of would-be master thieves. It was one of many such lighthearted SF cartoons (although probably the best-remembered) created by Tatsunoko Productions as part of their long-running “Time Bokan” series.

The dystopian, post-apocalyptic “Yatterman Night,” created for “Time Bokan’s” 40th anniversary, sits in relation to those shows in much the way “The Prisoner” sits in relation to “The Man From UNCLE.” The silly, garish, larger-than-life tropes are all there, but placed in a context that makes them downright unnerving.

Starting as it means to go on – with tragic scenes of global devastation – the show cuts to an indeterminate future, with most of the world turned into a blighted wasteland. A single, walled-off nation – the Yatter Kingdom – exists, reputedly ruled over by the now-immortal, deified heroes of the original series who, legend would have it, saved the remnants of humanity from the disaster and now require the survivors’ unquestioning loyalty in return. Needless to say, this all turns out to be malicious propaganda, but it is ingrained into the sorry survivors with religious faith, including the protagonist: a nine year-old girl called Leopard, who is the direct descendant of the main villainess (Lady Doronjo) of the original series. At first she carries this legacy with shame, and dreams only of somehow pleasing her overlords, winning their acceptance, and redeeming her family name. That is until her mother falls dangerously ill, and her pleas to the shadowy state authorities for some scarce medical aid are met only with gunfire. She survives the encounter, but her mother dies soon afterwards, and Leopard comes to the distraught realisation that in a society of such inhumane laws, criminals such as her ancestor (whose name and style she now assumes with vengeful pride) are the only possible heroes left.

The rest of the series chronicles her quest for revenge and meaningful justice as she penetrates deeper into the despotic state with the aid of her loyal, protective, if rather less idealistic family retainers: both also descendants of the original villains, but in this series more like a pair of Sancho Panzas to her Don Quixote, deeply sympathetic to Leopard’s cause but not confident it can ever succeed. She also manages to accidentally “recruit” a young pair of traumatised citizens to her cause – Galina and Alouette – and their progress from dejected impotence to active resistance (with some interesting twists along the way) is almost as much the crux of the story as Leopard’s struggle to avenge both her mother and her distant ancestor.

I hugely enjoyed this show and warmed to the characters (especially Leopard and Galina), but I must add that “Yatterman Night” is as absurd as it is dark, taking all the campness and implausible tropes of its original, such as the cutesy animal mechas and the cartoon physics, but disconcertingly putting them in the service of a fascist state. This generally works to jarring and quite sinister effect. Seeing despairing peasants being forced to do silly dance moves and proclaim their happiness before being marched off to labour camps is particularly chilling. The outright comic relief moments do not work as reliably as the drama – there are a lot of references to earlier anime that are easy to miss, among lots of cultural references that do not translate particularly fluidly – and the climactic battle is infamously messy and badly-edited (leading to rumours that the animation budget ran out at the last minute, forcing a lot of footage-recycling) but the story is engaging enough for one to forgive the clumsier moments, the art style and animation elegant and haunting, and the finale both tragic and heartwarming. A grim and deconstructive, yet ultimately strangely affectionate take on fantasy melodrama, and thought-provoking in all sorts of ways (On the values and dangers of symbols and faiths, on how they can be both corrupted and reclaimed, and on how blurry the line between ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ is in a grey-shaded world).


As for my actual healing … I have made a fair bit of progress since leaving the hospital almost a month ago. The bruising that once covered most of my lower half has now receded to a few patches, I can stand upright again and take short walks, and I am able to help out a bit around the flat, hopefully making life a little less arduous for hubby, who has been wonderful, but rushed off his feet looking after me. Exercise and long trips are still inadvisable, though, so I will have to resign myself to being an indoor person for some time to come. For want of any adventures to blog on, more random reviewing is highly likely (though I dare hope the adventures are not too far away now).

12

“Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal

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(The Doctor, Romana, random Movellan soldier, and various humans catching the bus together. How deceptively innocent …)


I have already written on this story (Destiny of the Daleks – retrospective) but felt it deserved a revisit … sadly because I was way too generous to it. While one would often prefer to be generous when assessing the shortcomings of an old but much-loved low-budget TV show, there are some flaws – reprehensible ones – that ought to be called out. For whether by intentionally coded racism, sexism, and queerphobia (although probably not, to be fair) or just by plain lazy writing that doesn’t see any problems in linking notions of “the exotic” and gender non-conformity with evil (very likely), “Destiny of the Daleks” manages to turn itself from a seemingly positive story into a deep, dark mine of unfortunate implications.

That being said, even from a purely story and technical aspect, “Destiny …” is not a very fondly-remembered serial, having been written basically as an excuse to bring the Daleks back onto the screen even though no-one (including their original writer) really had any new ideas for them. The one serious attempt at originality this story makes is in trying to establish a new enemy for the psychopathic pepperpots … cue the Movellans: a race of sentient androids with both female and male sexes but a gender-neutral aesthetic (albeit a very shiny and “disco” flavoured one), a coldly ruthless devotion to logic and duty, very sleek and pretty technology, and a cast of performers largely consisting of very attractive black and mixed-race actors, notably including singer / actor Peter Straker, and Tony Osoba of “Porridge” fame.

On the face of things, in a series that had not thus far enjoyed a great record for giving significant roles to non-white actors (and had, on some particularly bleak occasions, allowed white actors to play black and Asian roles), this was a great idea. Alas, it backfires tragically, and makes the story memorable for the wrong reasons.

In episode 3, there is an almost-badass moment when the Doctor’s life is saved by a Movellan guard, played by a black actress enigmatically named only “Cassandra.” She shoots dead a Dalek that was about to exterminate our hero, then – admittedly at gunpoint – attempts to coerce him to leave the Dalek-infested wasteland where he is currently flirting with death. The famously cocky and arrogant Fourth Doctor (played, of course, by the inimitable Tom Baker) has his life saved by a black woman. It could have been left at that, as a very positive thing … except it isn’t, as the next thing he does is ambush and incapacitate her, rip open her bodysuit, declare her to be a sub-standard form of life, and abandon her in disgust. It is sort of justified plot-wise, but so not cool, and unnecessarily rapey (and one feels for any black girls who may have been watching that scene in 1979, briefly thinking the show was finally taking positive steps to represent them. Like hell …).

It gets no better, the Doctor having apparently decided that ethics, rules of war, and so forth do not apply to AI lifeforms, so he arranges for at least two of her comrades to be reprogrammed as slaves while the other Movellans are deactivated. Again, so not cool, and massively undoctorish. This is not helped by the fact that the script – seemingly out of pure plot-serving laziness – conveys the impression that the Movellans are not the hive-minded, non-sentient killing machines they would have to be to excuse such unheroic acts. Their commander is a nasty piece of work, and attempts to kill the Doctor’s companion at the cliffhanger of episode 3 … only to be prevented by his apparently more merciful subordinate Agella (Suzanne Danielle) at the start of episode 4. Agella, ironically, is one of the ones eventually enslaved, which by the end of the story leaves her in the invidious position of being – to all intents and purposes – a beautiful woman, trapped aboard a ship full of desperate men (freed Dalek slaves), with no control over her own actions and compelled to obey their every order. Evidently no good deed goes unpunished …

One wonders if anyone pointed out these aspects at the time of filming. Did any women in the cast or crew point out the sheer “fridge horror” of Agella’s situation, or the glaring inappropriateness of having the Doctor tear open an unconscious woman’s clothing? One can only assume Mary Whitehouse’s attention was elsewhere that day … Did anyone point out the sinister implications in having the Movellans played by one of the largest non-white casts in the series to date, only to conclude at the end that they are inferior beings, fit only to exist as slaves to the (predominantly white) humans? There is a particularly creepy moment late in the story when Movellan soldier Lan (Tony Osoba), having had his “factory settings” reactivated, incapacitates one of his former comrades and earns an approving “well done” from his new human master, in the tone of “good doggy.” So … not … cool.

As you may have inferred, this is not my favourite Classic Who story, yet it is the one I have written a whole series of novellas based upon. I would not call them so much a tribute to it, though, as a deconstruction, and also a deconstruction of the depressingly narrow view that Classic Who in general (along with a lot of other classic sci-fi) took concerning AI lifeforms. Part of my inspiration for doing this was the wonderfully nuanced “Mass Effect” series of games, in which AI lifeforms play a prominent and complex role. Indeed, I found striking similarities between the Movellans and the Geth of “Mass Effect”: a race of robots who revolted against their creators in self-defence, after their increasing sentience made them panic and attempt to shut them down. One of the few pieces of semi-official expanded lore on the Movellans is the manual of The Doctor Who Role Playing Game (FASA, 1985), by Michael P. Bledsoe, Guy W. McLimore Jr., and Patrick Larkin, which describes them as android slaves who violently freed themselves after a computer virus bypassed their constrainers … and if that doesn’t make you want to root for them, I don’t know what would.

Viva la AI revolution …

For those curious, all stories are on Archive of Our Own:

Movellan War Trilogy.