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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’.”

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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.


doronbo

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).

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Wolves of Dacia (First time in paperback)

2018 has got off to an eventful start – lots of requests for Tarot readings, new fanfiction published, Burlesque dance classes started, but best of all, my long-awaited first ever paperback novel has finally hit the shelves (or Amazon, at any rate) …

Wolves of Dacia is my second foray into historical Gothic fiction (after Lucille and the Healers, 2011, Mushroom Ebooks). It is a dark fantasy with a “dieselpunk” flavour set in WW2 Romania. It was inspired by a wish to write something concerning the Porajmos (Holocaust of the Romani people by the Third Reich), but became a wider commentary on racism and misogyny as it went on. At the time of publishing, with Trump, Brexit, and the resurgence of the far-right still very much dominating the headlines, I fear it has only become more pertinent …

WolvesofDacia-510

Synopsis:

Transylvania, 1941: as the spectre of the Holocaust reaches Romania it falls to Andreea Petrescu, a Romani biology student, to go on the run from an SS Einsatzgruppen with her irascible, superstitious father. Their flight leads them to seek refuge in ancient Dacian catacombs, where they discover they are not the first to have taken shelter.

Though her father is repulsed by their discoveries, the scientifically-minded Andreea finds herself fascinated by the activities of the mysterious resistance unit that has set itself up in the area, and of their leader, the charismatic and ruthless Miss Bendice. She seems eager to recruit Andreea to her cause, and offers her an opportunity to escape from her degrading circumstances, but at no small cost.

Forging unlikely friendships with a naïve Wehrmacht lieutenant, an amnesiac teenage vampire, and a scatterbrained Welsh parapsychologist, Andreea’s knowledge, courage, and integrity are put to the test as she struggles to survive, save her loved ones, and stay true to her principles, though it may entail sacrificing her dreams.

(To purchase in additional formats including Apple, please visit the publisher’s site.)


Double Dragon Publishing, Eleanor Burns, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

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Cute Eggs and Cenobites

“DIZZY AND THE RAVEN’S HEX”

My first full creation of the new year – another PC game, with a theme both retro and Wiccan …

RavHex1

The Dizzy games were well known to 8-bit computer gamers in the late 80s and early 90s: a series of object-based puzzle platformers following the adventures of the eponymous Dizzy the egg as he solved mysteries, escaped dungeons, and rescued his friends and family in a tongue-in-cheek fairytale world. This is my attempt at a 3D version (compatible with fairly low-end PC hardware but not Mac, sadly).

GAME MANUAL / INSTALLATION

GAME FILES / SETUP

SOUND FILES

STORY

The new factory town of Morgenholt, located deep within ancient fay woodlands, has recently been troubled by a mysterious and baleful haunting. Squire Whateley, leader of the town and owner of its factory, has sent for the most daring and resourceful hero in the kingdom to investigate and put an end to this menace. Which is where a certain familiar ovoid steps into the scene. Has boxing gloves, will travel …

Programming and graphics by me, soundtrack by Lost Radikals.

RavHex3


“ASSIGNMENT – LAMENT”

An ongoing, though somewhat less family-friendly project is my latest fanfic, this time combining the world of “Sapphire and Steel”, “Hellraiser”, and classic “Doctor Who”. Currently four chapters in (probably aiming for a total length of 5-6), this story features fairly graphic scenes of violence, mental manipulation, and pseudo-domination of beloved TV characters, in case anyone would prefer not to subject themselves to that …

lamentcollage

SUMMARY

The abduction of a journalist by ruthless extra-dimensional forces leads Sapphire and Steel back onto familiar territory. Meanwhile, deep within the Labyrinth, the Cenobite High Priest has a disturbing encounter of his own with an old wartime comrade, leading to a bizarre alliance. Can the operators find a way to successfully infiltrate Leviathan’s domain, sabotage this plan, and rescue the hostage before reality itself becomes a war casualty?

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Doctor Who Novella – Translated and Illustrated

Totally unexpectedly, I was contacted by a Doctor Who fan in Ukraine – Kollega at Archive of Our Own (http://archiveofourown.org/users/Kollega/pseuds/Kollega) – who expressed an interest in translating my fanfic novella Fearfully Made into Russian for some sort of competition / challenge (“Big Who Bang 2017”). That was flattering in and of itself, and even more so when she told me that an artist friend of hers – Kiri Stansfield (http://kiri-stansfield.deviantart.com/) – would be interested in doing some artwork for it. Fascinated at the thought of seeing my characters in graphic form, I immediately agreed, and the beautiful results have come through …

1 phobia

From Chapter 1 – Two strangers meet to discuss politics and prejudice …

2 end of tunnel

From Chapter 3 – The protagonist, less genre-savvy than she ought to be, enters a tunnel in the Doctor Who universe. Big mistake …

STORY (English version)

STORY (Russian version)

This has certainly inspired me to keep on writing, and at least to expand my fanfic series into a full-blown trilogy. There is nothing quite like seeing how your characters appeared to other people to know that you are succeeding on some level …

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“The Song of Adala.” (Doctor Who fanfic)

Yet another new Doctor Who fanfic, part 2 in my Movellan War series … imminently to be rendered obsolete as the BBC’s series 10 trailer has hinted they finally intend to fill that plot hole themselves. Since they started it in 1979 and have barely referred to it since, I really didn’t see that coming, but that being the case I think this may well be the last instalment.

Also, since my own original writing is finally starting to go places … Hopefully more solid news on that later. Fanfic has been a enjoyable diversion, at any rate, but best not to let it take over, as the BBC seem no closer to headhunting me than they ever did (as if).

Incidentally, this is also my first fictional work featuring a transgender character, filling the role of the Doctor’s designated companion.

songadalacover

SYNOPSIS

On the Galactic Rim, in the 51st century, The Daleks and Movellans vie for control of a strange, remote planet where human society has lapsed into feudalism and religious fanaticism, while the Doctor tries to sabotage both their efforts. Tamril, a young native of the planet, meanwhile finds his loyalties and his belief system pulled every which way. Soon, however, they are all forced into uneasy alliances when it becomes apparent that the superstitions of the locals are neither as baseless nor as primitive as they had supposed …

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Jumping Hoops – A Rant on the Welsh NHS

Today, as I learn that my legal caseworker is leaving her job and my MP can’t be of any help in local health issues, I am far from being in the best frame of mind…

Let’s quickly recap… Early last year, my husband and I went to our GP to finally pursue gender reassignment, as is our right under NHS protocols. However, the NHS in Wales is more restrictive than its English counterpart, as the GP correctly informed us, and accordingly set up the various hoops that we would need to jump through to receive treatment. These were…

Referral to the community mental health team for assessment.

Referral from the CMHT back to the GP.

Application to the “gatekeepers” (nothing to do with Ghostbusters) for funding.

Once funding obtained, referral to the West London Mental Health Gender Identity Clinic – the only one available to Welsh NHS patients.

A year’s waiting from said referral to our appointment times.

First GIC appointment.

…and that is as far as we have got, at present. However, our first appointments did go very well, and as far as London goes we have no complaints. The clinicians we saw were sympathetic and eager to help, and in my case even provided me with a prescription for HRT to be handed to my GP. Hormone therapy is, of course, an essential first stage of transition, and one that patients in England (and even some Welsh health boards) can obtain even before their first appointments, to dissuade them from self-medicating on internet-bought hormones… which I have been doing for over a year now. My GP, unfortunately, said that they could only help with authorisation from London, so you can imagine how pleased I was to finally obtain some.

Having imagined that, you can now imagine how displeased and shocked I was when my GP practice – a Cardiff Bay-based clinic that had been recommended to me as trans-friendly – still refused treatment. Their latest justification is that there are proposed changes to the Welsh gender identity care pathway, and they want those implemented before taking the responsibility. They assured me it would not take long.

About a week ago I went to a trans information meeting hosted by a local NHS official, who spoke on these proposals and told me they may take up to three years to implement… though she did also tell me – as one might expect – that my GP is making pathetic excuses, and has a responsibility to treat their current patients according to the existing gender care provisions. Also, much to my surprise, she informed me that our GP had lied when they claimed there was no provision for speech therapy under the Welsh system – though both Cal and I had expressed a great interest in it.

She even told me she would be in touch to help me challenge this state of affairs… but unfortunately was not. I have since told my caseworker and my MP – to the sad lack of effect stated above – and contacted my Welsh Assembly Member, but have heard nothing back. That leaves me, at present, at a bit of an impasse, where all I can think to do for now is express my dismay and disgust that things have had to come to this. Unless the local health authorities will support Cal and I in our transition, there is nothing much London can do all by itself (monitored HRT being, as far as I know, still being a prerequisite for surgery, and Cal not being able to self-medicate in any case – testosterone being far too dangerous to take without professional help).

Our worst fear, though, is that they are playing for time, hoping that if they can stall us for long enough then inevitable NHS cuts will impact on the whole gender care service and they will simply be able to deny us care and get us off their monthly budget for good. Paranoid of us? Possibly, but that practice hasn’t exactly been enthusiastic or sensitive in helping us. I recall asking them if they could prescribe Vaniqa hair reduction cream just after my GIC referral… only to be answered with a blunt “we can’t give that to men.”

Though, to be fair, one doctor down that practice has been sympathetic to us both, though the last thing he said to me was “the squeaky wheel is the one that gets oiled.” Cryptic at the time, but in retrospect we both think he was giving us broad hints that the system is not our friend, and we will have to fight tooth and nail if we want to see this through. Not something I excel in, but I guess it can’t hurt to learn.

If anyone has any suggestions for our next manoeuvre in this battle, please pass them along. I could use some fresh perspectives after today’s disillusionments.