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).

“Destiny of the Daleks” – reappraisal

movellanbus

(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.

“Atonement of the Movellans” (Doctor Who fanfic)

I decided to make a trilogy of it after all, since although Series 10 did briefly revisit the Dalek-Movellan war (in the episode “The Pilot“) it did nothing to really fill in any of the plot gaps left by the classic series. This concludes my own efforts at so doing, and is in fact my first fiction set roughly in the area in which I live, albeit a screwed-up dystopian future version of it …

atonementcovertext

SYNOPSIS

South Wales, the early 51st century. In a hat trick of misfortunes, the Doctor discovers that Earth has been conquered by the Movellans, by whom he is promptly arrested and placed on trial for his alleged crimes against sentient artificial intelligence. It is definitely not the best of times for his steps to also be haunted by an ancient force of evil, but misfortunes seem to arrive like buses …

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 …

“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 …

Steampunk Spam Time…

This is one thing I truly hate doing, and I can assure you have only succeeded in doing through quite considerable amounts of motivational talk on the part of friends. However, I have a novel now up for a competition – with the hope of eventually finding a willing publisher – and it rather badly needs some love.

As far as sales pitches goes… and bearing in mind the time I worked in marketing was one of the shortest and least successful of my “professional” life… it’s completely free to download, fully proofread, very steampunky, and loosely inspired by The Phantom of the Opera (though no particular version. As some of you may recall the story in general rests among my pet obsessions).

If any of you or your friends feel it might be your sort of thing, please do take a look at the site, or share this around.

Gloriana’s Masque

Red Airship
https://uk.pinterest.com/susancvineyard/air-ships/ Artist unknown

The Republic of Lucinia was once a kingdom founded on feudalism, magic, and tyranny. Following the revolution, it is now founded on technology, propaganda, and more efficient tyranny. Magic, though practised by a few, is seen as quaint bordering on laughable. The Alvere – a magic-using fay culture – have been totally subjugated by Lucinian science. Some Alvere have been assimilated as lowly citizens, while others have been isolated in the puppet state of Alvenheim.

A mysterious, disfigured rebel Alvere calling herself “Gloriana” invades Alvenheim with an army of mercenaries, equipped with advanced weapons of her design, and sets herself up as queen. The Republic sends an envoy: the reformer Secretary Kasimir, sympathetic to the plight of the Alvere. He is charged to secure peace, but failing that he has orders to liquidate Gloriana. Reluctant though he is to follow them, he also distrusts the queen’s ambitions.

Her ambitions, however, prove to be far loftier than he could have imagined. Gloriana has discovered the truth about their world and the forces that govern it, and believes that she can manipulate these forces to the benefit of all humanity. She is, alas, disastrously wrong…

Gothic Dieselpunk

oldcomp
Manchester Mk1 Computer, late 1940s

…and if that isn’t a mouthful of a name for a genre, I don’t know what would be.

I am conscious this has recently turned into a blog for my weird artistic pursuits rather than for anything directly related to my transition, but so be it. Since my fiction has for many years been a channel (or a coping strategy) for my gender dysphoria, it may as well have its due as long as there is no more obviously relevant news, and real-life news has been pretty scarce for both the hubby and I of late.

This novel I am currently working on is now in the 90% region of completion, so I will fairly soon be pleading for readers… For the present, however, I would just appreciate opinions on this synopsis. I will be using this, or something like it, to pitch the finished story to potential publishers and / or agents, so please tell me if it fails to grab, or share any advice you may have for improving it (and be as harsh as you please).


Wolves of Dacia (Synopsis)

Berlin, 1933: Andreea Petrescu, a Romani gypsy biology student, is expelled from university by the Third Reich. She returns home to Transylvania, to face a grim future of poverty, misogyny, and the stigma of having associated with outsiders: a fact her insular community regards with distrust. Just before she returns, her mother – a gifted medium – strikes a terrible deal in order to protect her.

Eight years later, Andreea’s circumstances have only worsened: her mother is dead, her father is unsupportive, her community is as estranged from her as ever, and fascism has spread to Romania. The Nazi-allied government takes measures to deport gypsies to concentration camps, forcing Andreea and her father to go on the run from the SS. Their flight leads them to seek refuge in ancient catacombs, where they soon discover that they are not the first to have taken shelter.

Though her superstitious father is repulsed by their discoveries, the scientifically-minded Andreea finds herself fascinated, and drawn into 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 the brilliant young fugitive to her cause, and offers Andreea a unique opportunity to escape from her degrading circumstances, but at no insignificant cost.

As Miss Bendice’s hubristic plans escalate to a world-threatening climax, and as the SS death squad closes in, Andreea finds herself caught in the vice. Forging unlikely friendships with a naïve Wehrmacht lieutenant, an amnesiac teenage vampire, and a scatterbrained Welsh parapsychologist, she finds her knowledge, her courage, and her integrity put to the test as she struggles to survive, save her loved ones, and stay true to her principles, though it may entail sacrificing everything she has dreamed of.

© Eleanor Burns, 2016.


HammerDracula
Christopher Lee as Dracula – just because nobody else ever looked that good or ever will look that good as a vampire…

Call for readers

Red Airship
https://uk.pinterest.com/susancvineyard/air-ships/ Artist unknown

Again, this has sod all to do with trans life or trans issues, but would anyone be interested in reading a steampunk fantasy novel? It is high time I decided what to do with this one I finished last year, and have been sitting on ever since, before I forget about it entirely. If I get enough positive feedback, I might dare to self-publish, but if not it will be useful for me to know where I went wrong.

If anyone is interested, please contact me privately (via the contact form on this site) and I will send you the manuscript via email. The short blurb follows…


Gloriana’s Masque

The Republic of Lucinia, one of the three global super-states, was until recently a kingdom founded on feudalism, magic, and tyranny. Having since gone through both an industrial revolution and a violent political revolution, it is now founded on technology, propaganda, and much more efficient tyranny. Magic, though it is still practised by a few, is generally regarded as quaint bordering on laughable.

This is particularly bad news for the Alvere – a magic-using near-human race whose once-dominant culture has proven to be no match for Lucinian science. Some Alvere have been assimilated as lowly citizens of the Republic, while others have been sequestered in the puppet “protectorate” of Alvenheim: a hostile mountainous realm which is all that remains of their ancient kingdom.

This changes overnight, as the mysterious, highly accomplished, disfigured, and deeply vengeful “Gloriana” arrives in Alvenheim at the head of an army of mercenaries, equipped with bizarre new weapons of mass destruction. Lucinia’s puppet regime is destroyed, and Gloriana sets herself up as queen. The Republic sends a peace envoy: Secretary Kasimir, who has built a reputation as a sympathiser and a reformer for the Alvere citizens of Lucinia. Much to his chagrin and guilt, the peace mission is a sham: his real orders are to discover any information he can about Gloriana’s weapons, so that Lucinia can retain its superiority in the arms race. Failing that, he has orders to liquidate her. Deeply reluctant though he is to follow them, he also distrusts Gloriana’s intentions and ambitions.

Her ambitions, however, prove to be far loftier and deadlier than he could ever have imagined. For the Alvere queen has discovered the truth about their world and the forces that govern it, and she believes that she can manipulate these forces not only to her own advantage, but to the benefit of all humanity. She is disastrously wrong…

© Eleanor Burns, 2016

 

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