Monthly Archives: November 2017

So, About that Top 5

The other day my friend and fellow writer Brandon Crilly and I were hanging out and, perhaps inevitably, got to talking about writing we’ve enjoyed, and that got us to talking about TV shows we’ve both enjoyed, and we both mentioned shows that ‘would be in our Top 5’. That of course got me thinking about what my actual Top 5 would be, and I didn’t have a topic for the blog this week, so here we go.

My main criteria for picking anything here was that I couldn’t pick and choose parts of a series. So, for example, much as I love the first few seasons of X-Files, it was never going to make this list because it really dies hard in the later seasons.

Bear in mind that I haven’t actually seen every show ever, so if your favourite isn’t here, that may well be why.

Bear in mind that you can also just fight me.

I think these are in order? Maybe. I guess there may be spoilers.

Battlestar Galactica (2004 Series)

Right out of the gate we’re probably in trouble. I know a lot of people didn’t like where this series ended up, but I thought it was perfect. Yes, even the last episode. I can’t really think of another series that gave me so many characters that I genuinely cared about, did character development as believably and well as this did, and went to some dark and difficult places without ever quite turning the light out entirely. None of the characters were two-dimensional. Starbuck is still my favourite.

Person of Interest

I wrote about this series once before, so I’ll just briefly reiterate – this seemed as though it was going to be the most procedural procedural that ever procedured. It wasn’t. Person of Interest turned out to be really thoughtful SF about AI and a surveillance society, and the ethics of both. It also had really, really good characters, and really, really good performances again. Michael Emerson is good in everything I see him in.


I came into this show thinking, as I think a lot of people did, that it was basically going to be an X-Files knockoff. For a couple episodes it kind of was an X-Files knockoff. Then it took a huuuuge left turn and never looked back. It ended up being nothing like any other show on TV. It was hilarious, it was disgusting, it was genuinely disturbing, and like BSG, it made you care. It had tremendous sustained performances from Anna Torv and John Noble. Even crunching the timeline of the series down by several seasons, it told its story well and ended it on just the right note. Absent everything else, ‘White Tulip’ is a fantastic SFF story. Fringe did not get nearly the attention it deserved, and it was some of the best SFF television we’ve had.

Orphan Black

I didn’t even really know what this show was going to be about, I just kept hearing ‘man you’ve gotta watch Orphan Black‘. I finally did. Holy crap this show was good. So much of it hinged on the amazing performances of Tatiana Maslany in pulling off portraying all of the various Leda clones, but the story being told was genuinely original and genuinely very well done. Again, they gave us amazing characters that you couldn’t help but get invested in. The transformation of Helena from an almost Michael Myers like threat into a beloved ally was beautifully done. The writers introduced a cold, manipulative villainess in Rachel, got you to care about her, and then got you to buy her as a villain again. Orphan Black wobbled just a little in its last season, but it was still so so good.

Doctor Who

Ok this one was a little tricky to leave on the list, because honestly, if you look at the whole immense size of the series, you’ve gotta say that the quality is more than a little uneven. There are, I will admit, some truly awful episodes in there. I’ve talked before about how sometimes the special effects, well, they reflect the budget the show had at the time. ‘Continuity’ is a very vague sort of concept for the show at all, by this point.

And yet. When I think about the TV show that probably has more to do with me being a fan of SFF today, and someone who writes fantastic stories, it’s Doctor Who and it isn’t close. I was never that into Star Trek (sorry), and my Star Wars fandom came a little bit later. I started out watching shows from before I was born on PBS Sunday afternoons, and just got terribly, terribly hooked. Tom Baker will always be ‘my’ Doctor, but I truly like them all and I like all the various eras the show has gone through. It wins huge points for longevity and for continuing to find new stories to tell about an itinerant busybody alien and the people who wander around time and space with them. I forgive it its misses because among the hits are things like ‘the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alters their views to fit the facts, they alter the facts to fit the views’, which is really very good. And also ‘You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner”.

Doctor Who is good.

Missed the Cut:

The Americans: This was very, very, very close. I love this show and I love the writing on this show. Partly I cut it because this is otherwise an SFF list and I like that, because ‘genre TV’ tends not to get the same critical respect as other shows do. Also though, as much as I adore the main storyline, in the last couple seasons there have been some plotlines I am not spellbound by. Watch The Americans, though.

Stranger Things: You know I love this show. It didn’t quite make it because I feel like I need to see more of the story the Duffers are creating to really evaluate it yet. Season 1 was damn near perfect, but now they’re working on a bigger vision that we haven’t had fully revealed yet. Maybe this one gets shuffled up in a few years.

Both Jericho and Deadwood were series that I thought had very nearly perfect first seasons, but didn’t maintain that quality throughout. Lost was a series I thought was awesome out of the gate and then by the end was watching out of spite. I’m still kind of bitter. I thought the writers of Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles were trying to do some genuinely bold and interesting stuff, but they had some really heavy misses and then the show got cancelled. One day I’d like to pick the writers’ brains about what they would have done. Before you ask, I haven’t had a chance to see Westworld yet. I hear it’s very good. I also haven’t seen The Wire.

Brandon tells me these blog entries are too long. I’m stopping. Thanks for reading. Come fight me in the comments if you want.

More importantly, go check out Brandon’s blog and work here.

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Can of Ants

This week I want to write a little about what I felt was a really skillful piece of storytelling on the TV series Mindhunter. Some of this is a little spoiler-y so if you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll suggest you go do so (it’s really well done, although not SFF) and then maybe read this afterwards. Or maybe you don’t care about spoilers. Onwards.

Mindhunter is loosely based on the real story of the growth of ‘profiling’ as a tool the FBI used (uses?) to try to catch serial killers. One of the characters is Dr. Wendy Carr, a psychologist who gets recruited to help the two FBI agents who are the primary focus of the show, in their work. At the beginning of this relationship, you can tell she’s quite excited. She’s expecting to do work of serious scientific and academic merit, to be working with colleagues who respect her, they get an unexpectedly huge budget. She moves close to Quantico and it even seems that in her new building, there’s a stray cat that lives near her laundry room that she can charm with cans of tuna. Everything looks more or less perfect.

It all comes apart. The other agents refuse to use her methodology, and quickly change from coveting her approval to dismissing her opinions. The director starts making her do his dirty work in riding herd on the behaviour of the FBI agents. Beyond that, the actual work they’re doing seems to her to lack validity and to frequently be unethical. And then in the end, instead of a new adorable kitty friend, she ends up with a tuna can full of disgusting ants. I haven’t explained this as well as I might have (summarizing is hard) but the main point is that none of this is addressed directly.

Dr. Carr never says ‘man, this isn’t what I thought I was getting in for’. Her conversations with the FBI agents get less collegial, more curt, and more argumentative, but she never actually says ‘hey you guys are treating me like junk’. (Arguably, maybe she *should*, but that’s like a whole separate thing) And overall her optimism about the new life she things she’s getting is nicely represented by a few scenes with an off-screen cat, some cans of tuna, and some ants. You get it, but it’s never really explicit on the screen. You just come to understand that this is what’s going on. It’s really good.

Broadly I guess this falls under the umbrella of ‘show, don’t tell’, perhaps the most cliched of writing advice. Like many things pertaining to writing I think this is situationally valid. Dongwon Song put it really well on Twitter one time, basically saying that you’re a storyteller, and that if you ‘told’ rather than ‘showed’ something and readers didn’t like it the real problem is that you didn’t tell it very well – not entertainingly enough or with enough impact.

What I think is especially good about the thread from Mindhunter isn’t so much that it was show-don’t-tell but that it was done with such a precise touch. They gave you just enough to pick up on what the character was going through and really get it, but not so much that it was clumsy or overwhelmed other parts of the story. I think in general good writing is about finding that balance a lot of the time; giving your reader enough to know your characters, visualize your scenes, and follow your plot, without giving them so much that it becomes confusing, dull, or hard to follow.

I think Mindhunter did that really well, not only with the Wendy Carr character but with all the various threads of the story they wanted to tell. I should also say that none of this would work without the performances of the actors, and Anna Torv was, I thought, very good in this role. I really enjoyed her work on Fringe and it was nice to see her again. She’s very good at conveying understated details in her performances, I think. There’s a scene late in Mindhunter where she’s riding down in an elevator and doesn’t actually say anything but you can just feel the anger boiling off her.

Now, because a lot of what they did in the show was fairly understated and especially because there wasn’t a lot of repetition, you did have to pay close attention to what was happening or you’d miss important stuff. A lot of my favorite writers are that way as well – John Le Carre and William Gibson both get so much out of all their words that you really need to focus on the writing or you won’t really get what they’re trying to convey.

There’s no conclusion to all this except to say that as much as I enjoyed the plot and the performances in Mindhunter, I also did enjoy it on an entirely separate area of admiring the artistry of the writing. Sometimes, for me, that’s just as entertaining as the plot itself. Anyway, those are my thoughts for this week. Thanks for reading.

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Thoughts for a Cooling November

This past weekend I was sick and so I spent a lot of time lying down and thinking, which is sometimes good and sometimes bad. One of the comforts whenever I’m sick is that one or both of my cats usually spends most of the day with me. It’s always good to have a warm presence when I’m not feeling well.

For whatever reason this time it really came across very clearly that one of them is getting old. He can make the jump up onto the bed if he must, but it’s also clearly not something he wants to do. Usually he’ll wait around for me to give him a lift. I remember a leap he used to make, from the floor up to the arm of my oversized armchair, that he doesn’t attempt at all any longer. He’s getting on in years.

So am I. I get sick in ways I didn’t use to when I was younger, I get injured more easily and it takes longer for me to heal. I trained this spring for a 10k and honestly thought that I hit a new PB, but then when I pulled up my race history (because of course there’s a website that tracks all these things), in fact there was this other, faster time from 8 years ago that I’m not sure I can imagine getting back to now. Father Time, as they say, is undefeated.

So, in recent weeks I have, for whatever reason, really had the understanding that I am, on the balance of probability, closer to the day of my death than the day of my birth, sloshing around among the Mind Gears and lubricating them in unusual directions.¬† It’s a touch sobering, if also more than a bit of a clich√©, I guess.

The cat, I hasten to point out, is far from finished being a cat. He still wrassles with his brother and explores the yard and savages his corduroy mouse. He still has most of his usual cat duties to attend to, he just attends to them a little more sedately than he used to, and with rather more naps. I suppose I try to be similar – I know I’m getting older but I don’t especially mind (which is probably just as well), it’s just a thing that I have increasing amounts of evidence is happening. I still have things to do and things I want to do, my writing foremost among those, now.

I’ve worked hard in academia and on being a teacher, and in a lot of ways I’ve done rather well. I’ve studied overseas and delved in centuries-old archives. I’ve taught at universities and helped some students start their own scholarly careers. I’ve enjoyed it all, and still do. I also think (as I consider the passing years) that I may have gone about as far with it as I’m likely to, which is its own kind of somewhat-sobering realization. Again it’s not bad, I enjoy teaching and interacting with my students, but it is another increasingly apparent Thing.

Writing, on the other hand, is something where I feel I can really stretch myself and I’ve been excited with how much I have been able to learn and grow in that field over the past 4 years or so. I have a lot of work to do, but I feel like if academia turned out to be a leap that was slightly out of my reach, this might perhaps be one that I can eventually make successfully. I’m certainly enjoying trying.

It’s November, and here in Ottawa it has finally really started to get cold. We’ve had several frosts and I should probably think about using my winter coat instead of my jacket. Without realizing it at the time, I’ve almost certainly taken my last outdoor run of the season, and I need to get the winter tires on the car. Time rolls on. That’s going to be my excuse for the perhaps gloomy rambly tone of all the above. I think I’ll put a stop to it here.

I should do some writing, and pet the cat.


On a completely different tack, I see that Amazon has just decided to throw a bunch of money at a new series based on Lord of the Rings. In a lot of ways providers like Netflix and Amazon have been great for SFF ‘television’ (if that’s really what to call it at this point). I’m don’t know enough about the industry to completely understand why, but it’s clear that amazing new programming like Stranger Things and American Gods is increasingly finding a home in these types of places rather than on conventional TV. If nothing else, it’s wonderful for both fans and creators of fantastic stories to have another potential home for their work.

I really can’t say I understand the decision to do another LOTR thing though. There’s so many excellent fantasy (and SF, and horror) stories that have never been adapted at all that would be really fresh material for audiences to enjoy. I get that anything based on Tolkien is (theoretically) an easy sell, but I also wonder how much his fans are really dying for more when his most popular stuff has had still-pretty-recent and highly acclaimed movies done of it. There’s also the point that Tolkien’s work isn’t exactly starved for exposure, while there’s a lot of excellent writers out there who could both use and deserve a boost.

I mean I know there’s a lot of meat on the bone with Tolkien, and I do understand the marketing thing, and I’m sure it’s way way easier to get a million-dollar budget for a fantasy epic when you can throw that name on it rather than someone the execs have never heard of. I’m sure that in the end I’ll check it out and I hope it’s really good. We can always use more good fantasy. I guess I just think that Amazon might have been able to look a little farther afield and still produced an awesome epic fantasy series, if that’s what they wanted to do.

November. Melancholy and grumpy. I’ll have something in the way of tonal shift for you next week. Thanks for reading.

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Stranger Things 2

I have finished watching the second season of Stranger Things, and so I am once again proud to be nearly the last sentient creature inhabiting the planet to bring forth my thoughts on a thing. This is probably going to be more than a little spoiler-y, so if you haven’t seen it yet, maybe go finish and then come back and read this week’s blog in a bit. Because I do recommend that you see it.

I think second seasons, and second parts in general, are difficult. One of the strengths of the first season of Stranger Things was that it was super tightly focused on basically two ideas: 1) Will Byers is missing and 2) Elle has escaped. Everything else that happened was connected to one, or both, of those things, and it made for a story that basically didn’t have any dead weight to it. There were lots of other reasons why the series was good, but that certainly helped it. I imagine that in part, it was written that way because the Duffer Brothers didn’t know if they would get any more seasons than that one, so they made a story that was nicely self-contained within the limits of what they knew they had to work with.

You can’t do that as easily with a second season, because the cast of characters you introduced now all need to be developed if they’re going to continue to be interesting (and I suspect there’s a certain amount of keeping the actors happy with their roles here too). So you have to broaden the scope of the story you’re going to tell and include a lot more threads. Probably knowing that they have several seasons to work with, the Duffers now also feel that they can spend more time setting up long-term things that won’t immediately pay off but get us ready for what we’ll see in the years to come.

All of which is basically to say that while I enjoyed this season a lot, it did feel a lot more uneven than the first one. There were parts of it that dragged for me, and parts of it that I didn’t really understand what they were for. (I’m not at all sure what the purpose of Billy’s character was. He set up a little bit of misdirection early on with dialogue that suggested that there was something odd about his situation with Max, but that didn’t go anywhere. Maybe they need him down the line.) The overall story that was told was good, but it had some weak points where Season 1 was very nearly seamless in its quality.

Still, I already want to see Season 3. I’m interested in the story that’s being told about Hawkins and this group of kids. I thought Season 2 veered more into horror territory than the first one; certainly the body count was a lot higher, we had a lot more gore, and a lot of frankly dark moments like Will’s brutal suffering under the control of the Mind Flayer. I’m not sure how much of this was a conscious tonal shift – the situation is getting worse – or how much of it can be attributed to the temptation to constantly up the ante in second parts: gotta be bigger, louder, more crowded.

From the quality of the writing to this point, I trust that the Duffers have a solid plan for where they’re taking this story and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold. Presumably we can’t have another 2-3 seasons of Will being the victim of the threat from the Upside Down, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with him as a more active character going forward. Elle’s growing powers present a substantial writing challenge as well – how to create a threat that she can’t just immediately fix, and how to write a story

In a lot of ways you could argue that Stranger Things to this point has been Elle’s story: she’s the one with the cool powers, she ultimately defeats our baddie in both seasons, and most of the key relationships revolve around her. This is more than fine – she’s a compelling protagonist. (You could argue that it has also been Will’s story, but he’s been necessarily so much more passive that it doesn’t really work. People are trying to save Will, or help Will, and the story has been about that, but it isn’t about what Will does, not yet anyway) If it stays that way, then most of our other characters will necessarily have to remain more peripheral; Elle is basically a superhero and (this is one of the strengths of the show, in my opinion) everyone else is intensely ordinary. If the focus stays on her, Mike and Hopper and the rest are going to be Elle’s backup. That’s maybe the obvious way to go, to me. Shifting the story off of her would be tricky, and it’s hard to immediately think of what challenge you could create that wouldn’t have Elle as its best solution.

I guess we’ll see. I’m very much looking forward to finding out.

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