Sunday 24 May 2020

Book to Screen: First Term at Malory Towers

When I was about eleven, I started adapting Enid Blyton's First Term at Malory Towers into script form, in a small Lion King notebook. It may have been around the same time that CITV broadcast an excellent adaptation (at least to my pre-adolescent eyes) of the Famous Five books. It was certainly an exercise in wish-fulfilment that I knew would never see the light of day, partly because I was a kid, but also because even at that age I knew there would be no home on kids' TV for a series with an all-female cast.

The Malory Towers books - especially the first one - opened up an entire world to me. I was not new to Enid Blyton's books - I was an enormous fan of her mysteries, especially the Famous Five - and I remember rummaging through the classroom book box for something by the author, and turning up triumphantly with Malory Towers. At first I was a little nonplussed, with a little confusion over the lead character's gender - I had only known Darrell as a boy's name at that point - and some bewilderment about how the brown tunic with orange trim could possibly constitute a "jolly nice" school uniform, but by the time I'd made it onto the train, I had put aside these nitpicks and become thoroughly engrossed in the story and the new-to-me setting of the Girl's Boarding School. Malory Towers came alive; I could picture the school, in its grey stately setting, built around a courtyard, with its salt-water swimming pool on the cliffs, and the dormitory towers.

That was at least 25 years ago, yet that series, especially the first book, became one of the stories that became inextricably entangled with my own childhood. It seems strange to lay a personal claim to a popular book by one of Britain's biggest-selling children's authors, but when I learned that the BBC had adapted it as a 13-part series, I felt weirdly proud and possessive. I approached it excitably - even getting up early on the day it arrived online, to watch an episode before work (my last day of work before we closed due to The Current Situation.)

Readers, it was simply marvellous!

I wasn't sure how much of Blyton's story was going to be used, and how much would be using her setting to tell original stories.  The story takes an episodic form - ideal for the genre, which takes place over the course of a school term - which blends scenes from the book with new material very well. Every scene I'd hoped for was there, in full and with very little meddling: the slap in the pool, the tricks, the mystery of Sally, and Mary-Lou's fountain pen. These scenes were adapted just as faithfully as my inner purist could ever have hoped, and so I don't mind in the least that additional material has been tidily slotted in alongside it. As well as the Blytonesque hijinks - midnight feasts, secret passages, a ghost story - the characters face things that maybe Blyton wouldn't have written about herself, but that ring true to the boarding school setting of the late 1940s, such as class and its expectations, and academic struggles. I think that it was a bold step to depict one of the bright heroines as having what would now be recognised as dyslexia: an important piece of representation for Malory Towers' young audience

The girls and mistresses were brought to life by a diverse cast who worked well together as a team. They embodied the classmates I've known for a quarter of a century - even the minor characters who even Blyton forgot about or replaced over the course of the series. (The only girl missing from the First Form North Tower dormitory is Violet, mentioned twice, whose defining trait is that she has exactly zero personality. Poor soul, I often wondered what became of her.) The only character I felt disappointed with was Matron (Ashley McGuire), reduced to a walking stereotype, a bullying, incompetent martinet. I've a suspicion that she was used to fill the gap left by Ma'm'zelle Dupont, Blyton's comedy French mistress whose main purpose was to be the butt of Alicia's pranks.

Ella Bright plays a spirited, well-rounded Darrell Rivers, a Darrell with a Past - an elaboration from the source material, but which is consistent with her character: she is the quintessential schoolgirl heroine, kind, fair, sporty and smart. (I just wish she had curly hair like the illustrations on my 1990s paperbacks.)

Meanwhile, Danya Grivers is every bit the spoilt, catty drama queen Gwendoline Mary Lacey - the perfect antagonist. Yet even she is shown a little more compassion, by the script and the characters, than Blyton ever afforded her. I never thought it fair that she was sneered at from her very first appearance. She's awful, but she was never given the chance to be otherwise. Here, at least, she is shown a little mercy and her character's vulnerability peeps through her spiteful exterior.

Then there's timid, sweet little Mary-Lou, jolly and scatterbrained musician Irene - as soon as they appeared, the friends who had been words on a page had faces of their own. Moody Sally, sensible Jean (albeit not Scottish) and stern Katherine, the head of form. Quiet, traditionally feminine Emily, who only really spends a couple of pages in the limelight on the page, has a subplot of her own, not from the book but that fits in seamlessly. A few lines and a North American (I think Canadian?) accent go a long way towards explaining hard-edged prankster Alicia, who rarely gets to see her family, even in the holidays, and who has huge hampers and gifts sent to her, perhaps as compensation, and remember that this is post-war Britain where rationing is stricter than it was even during the second world war.

Aside from the Matron quibble, I only have a few minor criticisms; occasionally some 21st-century-isms popped into the dialogue, such as Alicia saying "guys" or a couple of characters using the pinky-promise to swear everlasting friendship, which is a ubiquitous trope and yet I'm pretty sure has not been around as long as writers think it has. And I'd like to draw the distinction between anger, which can be used for good, and "temper" which is anger without self-control. Finally, there appear to be only about a dozen pupils and four members of staff in the whole school, and poor Pamela the head girl is also games coach and remedial tutor, and it leaves you wondering when on earth she has time to study her own lessons! But all in all, the first series of Malory Towers was simply smashing, and I'm really keen to see the rest of the books also adapted for the screen. I want to meet Bill, and Clarissa, and Mavis; I want to see the clifftop rescue, the midnight horse-ride, the Fifth Form pantomime.

I've waited 25 years for this, and now I want more.

Sunday 28 April 2019

The Charmed Life of Alex Moore - Molly Flatt

I've started listening to audiobooks from BorrowBox and Libby library apps, while on the bus to work. This was my most recent - a very Katieish blending of genres; half contemporary urban fiction, half psychological sci-fi. Six months ago, the titular Alex Moore took the leap from her dreary office job to become a trendy tech entrepreneur. Overnight, she became a brand- new person; braver, more confident, with a purpose - but also colder and weirdly disconnected from everything she was or knew before.

A weird series of events sends Alex to the Orkney Islands to take part in a research project, where she stumbles across huge secrets that have been hidden from the human race since the dawn of time... There was a lot about "Alex Moore" that fascinated me; complex ideas about what shapes our lives"; the lessons we learn, messages we believe and how our experiences dictate the way our personal "story" plays out. Author Molly Flatt asks uncomfortable questions about the rights and wrongs of sacrificing our past to move on from trauma, and how real, how fulfilling that can really be? The plot twists and turns, many unforeseen revelations making brilliant sense in hindsight.

However, I didn't like the ending. The consequences of Alex's final action didn't really make much sense to me, and one relationship took a turn that, though I saw it coming, felt forced and also crossed one of my red lines. Nope.

Also, please note that the unnamed (and fictional) Foyles bookseller who made an appearance early on did not reflect well on my profession. One might forgive her irritating fangirling at meeting a once-renowned author, but please note: no bookseller would ever - EVER - hand someone a book from a display table and tell them to lean on that when writing on a piece of loose paper. Nope nope nope.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Life update: Hello from London!

It's been a while since I last updated the blog, and I've now been working in London for almost two months. For the first six or seven weeks, I was living at my aunt and uncle's house on the border of Kent, which was about an hour's commute every day. I forgot how long it takes to get around London, considering that everything is pretty close together - just getting onto the platform of a station is extra time I always forget to take into consideration. So, while I was living with my relatives, I didn't have an awful lot of time or energy in the evenings (or mornings, when I worked late shifts) to do much; I was just working, eating a ready-meal, and crashing, before repeating the same thing the next day.

Yet, I've found that because I'm happier, I haven't needed as much down-time as I usually do, and have filled most of my days off with my cousins or making trips into or across the city to visit friends and relations. I've now moved closer to my bookshop, and most importantly, got my books out onto the shelves; enough to keep me in reading material for the next couple of months, but not quite enough to really feel at home yet, as most of my books are still at my parents'. Now I've got a bit more space of my own, I feel like I can take my life off pause.

I met up with Laura and Bex a couple of weeks ago, in Leicester Square - and for once we did not go book-shopping, but went to a neat little pizza place called Mod, where all pizzas are a set price and you can add as many or as few extra toppings as you like. And as far as I am concerned, the more toppings (and cheese) the better! Bex also brought her best friend Rachelle, and Rachelle's boyfriend, and I invited my sister along too, whose plans for the evening had not quite got around to being organised. It's lovely to be living closer to people, even though I'm in the opposite corner of the city to most people I know, and I do miss my Isle of Wight friends.

I'm not going to be able to spend Christmas with my family this year (perils of working in retail) but one of my best friends from university has invited me to spend a few days with her and her mother. It's a chance to make new Christmas traditions, or just have a really nice one-off holiday. Change is not necessarily a bad things as it means making a new set of good memories.

I worked an additional shift at Gollanczfest this last weekend, which was a great experience. The Sunday event was a masterclass in how to get published, with many prominent writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror, such as Joe Hill, Ben Aaronovitch, Alistair Reynolds and Joanne Harris, as well as some names I've since added onto my watch list, such as Ed McDonald, Elizabeth May and Catriona Ward. (Have any of you read their work?) It's a great opportunity to work on events like these, or even go as a member of the audience; the flagship store in Central London hosts so many book events and signings, although which ones I can attend depend upon which shifts I'm working in my store. I also ran into one of my university classmates who I hadn't seen since graduation nearly ten years ago, although we've kept in touch through Facebook.

This evening I'm off to another literary event in Forest Gate library, featuring Juno Dawson and Amy Lamé (though this time I'm going as an audience member rather than as a member of staff.) This is part of the Newham Word Festival, a two-week event celebrating the written, spoken and performance arts. Today has been my first chance to properly explore the area where I'm now living, which feels more like a village than the edge of London. I found a little bookshop while on my travels, which has proved to me that I've chosen a good place to live in. Yes, I work full-time in a medium-sized bookshop, but we're not in competition, but allied against the evils of the economy and the website we do not name. I bought a replacement copy of A Christmas Carol and had a good chat with the bookseller.

I think I could be happy here.

Sunday 10 September 2017

Assassin's Fate - Robin Hobb

The story so far:

As the final book, not only of the trilogy of trilogies featuring FitzChivalry Farseer, but also the related Liveship and Rain Wilds chronicles, a lot depends on Assassin's Fate. The story follows Fitz and his friend the Fool, as they embark on a long mission of rescue and revenge, to put an end to an evil regime, and be the Catalyst for an explosive change to the world. But it is a mission with only the faintest outline of a plan. How can they possibly succeed?

A huge amount of Assassin's Fate is spent on the move, whether on foot or by ship, and there's only so much brooding and plotting a reader can stand. Fitz spends much of the middle third of the book aboard the Liveship Paragon, which was first introduced in Ship of Destiny, and his role as narrator bears witness to the final story of the liveships and their crew: Althea and Brashen, Boy-O, Kennitson, and Amber. Amusingly - for reasons you'll understand if you've read the previous books - Fitz does not like Amber, and this gives an additional layer of tension to his already tumultuous relationship with the Fool. With this tying-up of multiple story threads, Hobb makes the dreaded endless travelling pass with some fascinating developments in the liveships' stories. A lot of questions you might not have realised you were asking from the very start are answered, but for me, this section of the book held more of an intellectual interest than an emotional investment. I didn't like the Liveship books as much as the Fitz ones, and skipped them on the reread, although this book and the preceding one made me want to go back and fill in the gaps.

After having only a few chapters in Fool's Quest, the secondary narrator, Bee, is back in full force for Assassin's Fate. This storyline is hard-going in places, as Bee travels as the prisoner of incredibly unpleasant villains. There have been horrific villains in the previous books, of course; Prince Regal in The Farseer Trilogy and the Pale Woman in Tawny Man, but never before have we had to spend so much time in the company of completely irredeemable villains (unless you count Kennit in the Liveship books.) Certainly seeing them in action, we can judge that they must be stopped and deserve everything Fitz has in store for them, but that doesn't take away my distaste for revenge narratives that soured Fool's Quest for me. The climactic bloodbath is inevitable.

Yet, if the trilogy's main quest didn't quite work for me, the ultimate conclusion was very satisfying, and true to Fitz's character, both with his strengths and his imperfections. Hobb does not let him off the hook. He has always been reckless, stubborn, and not a great father (although a loving one.) Fitz and the Fool's story ends as it has always been; fraught with folly, misunderstanding, miscommunication and frustration, but ultimately shaped by intense loyalty and love. The fate of the Assassin and Fool is a bittersweet one; messy, sad and painful, but beautiful nonetheless; a fitting finale to an excellent saga.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Life update!

It's been a while since I've written a personal update post on the blog, but this week I've got some exciting news.


It's been almost exactly a decade since I moved back to the Isle of Wight after university, and although it is a beautiful place to go to in the summer, it doesn't offer many career opportunities, and can be quite isolating when you have to travel for an hour, bus and ferry, before you can even catch the train anywhere (and let's not mention the cost of the ferries!) I planned to be back for maybe a year or two, but life had other ideas and somehow I found myself still here ten years later.

But that's all about to change. I've been offered a job at a branch of one of London's great bookshops, in a shopping centre in the East End. I start a week tomorrow, and the contract continues into the new year. Time will tell whether this will lead to a permanent position with the company, if I make a good enough impression; otherwise, it's a good name to have on my CV.

This week is going to be a busy one, as I sort out my room at my parents' house and decide what needs to come up with me in the short term and longer term. Initially, I will be staying with my aunt and uncle, but hope to be able to find a room or flat share before my birthday next month. I'm thrilled, but also can't quite believe it's true. It's taken months of job applications, and then this offer came out of the blue. I'm a little afraid that somehow it'll all fall through, and a little nervous about moving to a part of London I don't know. But now it's time to start a new chapter of my life. BRING IT ON!

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Fool's Quest - Robin Hobb

Fitz and the Fool: Book 2

Fool's Assassin was a leisurely, bittersweet and foreboding but mostly cosy exploration of Fitz's new home and life, up until the last few chapters, during which Robin Hobb struck with a two-pronged emotional attack. Fool's Quest picks up just where the previous book left off, at least from one of the plotlines. But it is a while before primary narrator Fitz is even aware of the events that have befallen the other narrator. The tension is high because of the reader's awareness of the anguish in store for Fitz. Hobb has never been kind to her characters; Fitz and the Fool have been through a ridiculous amount of suffering through the course of three trilogies, but now Fitz finds himself caught between the only two people who could come near to testing his loyalty to the other.

After nearly the entire length of a book waiting for Fitz and the Fool's reunion, Hobb reminds us of the old cliche, be careful what you wish for. For the Fool has changed. It is devastating to see this beloved character broken by his experiences in his years apart from Fitz. The Fool is alternately pitiful and aggravating, and trauma has emphasised his worst traits. He has always been stubborn, when it comes to his sense of his role in a higher purpose, but now, he comes across as hard-headed, manipulative, self-absorbed. It's forgivable, given his desperate circumstances, and a natural evolution of the character of the previous books, but still hard to read without wanting to shake some sense into him. And yet, through it all, Fitz and the Fool's relationship is what gives the book its heart. It's far from being the only important relationship; Robin Hobb's strength is that her characters have multi-faceted lives, and despite his quiet existence, Fitz has built up a lifetime's worth of close friends and family, all of whom come together to make him who he is. But there is no love like that between Fitz and the Fool, and Hobb gradually reveals just how powerful that love is.

Amid the frustration with certain characters, and the anxiety for those whose fates are unknown, there are a few moments of joy. Hobb finally presents Fitz with a moment of triumph that has been withheld from him since the beginning of his tale - just so he can be fall the furthest from his highest peak to his greatest despair. And when that happens, watch out world! FitzChivalry Farseer is on the loose, and he is furious!

Fitz has been many people over the course of the series: stable-boy, assassin in the shadows, royal page-boy, outcast, wolf's companion, soldier, husband. Respectability, however, has never come easily to him. He has always had a wild streak, and at this point in his life, when he is expected to be on his politest behaviour, his wildness breaks out like never before. And it is terrifying to behold.

Fool's Quest is relentless, the darkest book of the series so far. In a series starting with Assassin's Apprentice, you can expect dubious morality, grey areas, but really, assassinations were never the focus of any of the stories. And when they were, there was a strict code of professionalism (if that makes it any more palatable.) There was violence, there were battles, there was self-defence or defence of the realm or mercy-killings. But Fool's Quest is the start of a revenge narrative, and that doesn't sit well with me. From early on, Fitz was taught that his job was political, not personal, but now he's thrown all that to the winds. And worst of all, I can feel the narrative nudging me to cheer him on as he sets off on his murderous rampage, because they deserve it. It is an uneasy situation to find oneself in. Still, Hobb has taken us thus far, and I trust her storytelling enough to be sure that the final volume, Assassin's Fate, will be much more than an epic bloodbath. It'll be messy. It'll be morally complex. Fitz will make some terrible decisions. There will be dragons, and there will be tears.

Friday 25 August 2017

Fool's Assassin - Robin Hobb

Fitz and the Fool: Book 1

Note: you really need to have read The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies to get the full appreciation of this one.

Review contains minor spoilers for previous books.

Many years have passed since the events of the Tawny Man trilogy. FitzChivalry Farseer has left behind his former existence, and settled down to a happy family life in the country, living as Holder Tom Badgerlock of the Withywoods Estate. But Withywoods is not the sanctuary Fitz had come to believe. Strange and dangerous things are afoot in the world, even infiltrating Fitz's own home. So often, the trail seems to lead back to the Fool, who Fitz has not seen since they parted at the end of Fool's Fate, but whose absence is a constant weight on his mind. Why has the Fool kept his* distance for so long? And what can he want with Fitz now?

After the intrigue, action, might and magic of the previous books, Fool's Assassin has a much more domestic feel to it than Robin Hobb's readers may be used to. The plot is slow-burn, taking place over a decade or more, slowly building up a thorough picture of a quiet life in the country. Fitz still visits his friends and family at Buckkeep castle, but he is no longer a part of the political wrangling. His concerns are of his family and home; his ageing wife, his youngest child, the household staff and difficult guests. Most of the book is setting up events for the action to come: Hobb builds an entire new world for Fitz, with just enough hints from the outside world and his retrospective narration to fill the reader with terror for when everything comes crashing down. It's only a matter of time.

A new point-of-view character is introduced, who allows us to see the same story from different perspectives, and to show us Fitz as others see him. This was less jarring than I'd expected after six books with only one narrative voice; I wasn't instantly sold on the new character, as at first I found them a little too precocious to be true, but they soon won me over. I enjoyed the alternating chapters, and the new voice brought a freshness to the book while fitting in as though they had always been there. Despite lacking much action for the majority of the book, Fool's Assassin is every bit as engrossing as the previous titles, and has forced me to put the rest of my to-read pile on hold until I find a way to extricate myself from this series.

The book's title, Fool's Assassin, brings together the title patterns of the previous two series, and begs the question, why would the Fool require an assassin? It is so out of character for someone who despite all the chaos and devastation he's caused and endured, is at heart a gentle soul. And we don't even meet the Fool in person until about the last tenth of the book, although he has been at the heart of most of the disturbances that have come into Fitz's life. When he does show up, everything goes terribly, horribly wrong. The longed-for reunion is devastating; one reckless action has far-reaching consequences, and the volume closes on a cliffhanger that made me very grateful that I had waited until the whole trilogy had been published before losing myself in Hobb's world again.

* I use the male pronouns to describe the Fool here, as although the character's gender is ambiguous, he presents as male in the Fitz-narrated books.

Thursday 17 August 2017

The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies - Robin Hobb (reread)

It can be a risky thing to return to a book series you loved a decade ago. Time and distance can change your perspective; sometimes it can give you an added appreciation for things you didn't spot before, but also there is the danger of disappointment, disillusionment. I was a different person ten years ago, when I first discovered Robin Hobb's fantasy epic, beginning with Assassin's Apprentice. It was my "last summer" between finishing university and taking the first steps into the wider world. I found the Farseer Trilogy in the Kingston borough libraries, and was instantly captured by the narrator's voice. From the first page, I could envision the writer, a world-weary scribe in an untidy stone room, scratching his memoirs onto parchment by flickering torch- or lamplight. That summer, I was swept away into a land of political intrigue and half-comprehended magic in a diminished world whose glory days have faded into shadowy myth. And during the weeks while I was engrossed in Hobb's universe, I discovered that by coincidence, three of my friends were at a similar point in the series. We would meet up as an informal bookclub, with cheese and wine on the seafront, and exchange thoughts, theories and hints about what we had read and what was to come. I raced through those books that summer, not only the Farseer chronicles, but the Liveship Traders and Tawny Man set in the same universe. With the publication of a new trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, I returned to the Realm of the Elderlings to refresh my memory of the story so far. It's been a while since I was really into the sword-and-sorcery genre (Terry Pratchett excepted, if he counts) and now science fiction is more my cup of tea. But I was fond of Hobb's characters, and want to see how their tale concludes.

FitzChivalry Farseer is a royal embarrassment. The illegitimate only child of the heir to the Six Duchies throne, he spends his youth hidden and despised, working variously in the castle stables, as page to his father's widow, and learning the arts of the royal apprentice, the shadowy figure Chade. In his lowly position in the royal household, Fitz sees everything, and there is a lot to see, for it is a turbulent time for the Six Duchies. The country is under siege from outside forces, and threatened by treachery from within. The only hope seems to lie in a desperate quest to dangerous territories. But what has this to do with Fitz? And what is the meaning of the cryptic prophecies by the King's Fool?

Superficially, The Farseer Trilogy, and its sequels, is cut from the same cloth as many other fantasy novels, its setting resembling a medieval society, with kings and queens, tradesmen and peasants, with taverns aplenty. Fantastical elements are quite light on the ground. Magic, called "The Skill" is a trait that runs through the bloodline of the Farseers, the ruling family, but its rules and workings are mostly forgotten, passed on by word of mouth and preserved in scraps of scrolls buried deep in the archives. The Skill is a mixed blessing, powerful but addictive to its user and potentially deadly. There are also other, earthier magics, most notably "The Wit" - the ability to bond with an animal companion, a privilege granted to few and viewed with hostility. Fitz is gifted - or cursed - with both Wit and Skill.

The series is fairly slow-paced, taking time to introduce the reader to a rounded cast of characters: Burrich, the stablemaster tasked with Fitz's upbringing and training, Chade, the cantankerous, scarred spy and assassin. The aging King Shrewd, noble Prince Verity and cruel, foppish Prince Regal. Patience and Lacey, Molly Chandler, Nighteyes the wolf, and the Fool. Oh, the Fool! That character stole my heart from his very first appearance. The Fool is an enigma, a character of many contradictory identities, each of which are completely real. Frivolous and melancholic, gender-fluid, stoic and vulnerable, brave and so afraid, all these elements come together to create one of the most exasperating but beloved characters of fantasy fiction.Whenever the Fool arrives on the scene, Fitz must prepare for his life to be turned upside-down. Their relationship grows from youthful antagonism, to friendship, to a love story - whether you call it bromance or romance - that is the heart of the entire saga.

The Farseer Trilogy is followed chronologically by The Liveship Traders, but it takes place in another part of the world, with an entirely new cast - entirely new, but for one character whose familiar identity is revealed gradually. Although I enjoyed that trilogy well enough on my first reading, I decided to skip it on the rereads, as I didn't feel a strong connection to the characters, setting or plot. However, it does give extra background to the events of The Tawny Man, which pick up Fitz's story, fifteen years later.

The Farseer Trilogy and Tawny Man series (and Liveships if you're reading them) are worth savouring and taking time over - and then, when things start to go wrong, you feel the full impact on the characters and the wider world. Robin Hobb makes you fall in love with the characters and then whack you in the emotions, because when things go wrong, putting them right comes at a great cost. Yet Hobb keeps the story from growing too bleak with a light touch of humour, characters who are good company, and a world woven of wonder. Happiness is hard-won, and tempered with sorrow and suffering, so when contentment comes, it is all the sweeter.

However, a new trilogy awaits, and even as I can't wait to reunite myself with Fitz and the Fool, I fear for what else Hobb has in store for them.

Complete saga. Titles in bold are the Fitz/Fool books, which I'm reading this time around.

The Farseer Trilogy

Assassin's Apprentice
Royal Assassin
Assassin's Quest

The Liveship Traders Trilogy

Ship of Magic
The Mad Ship
Ship of Destiny

The Tawny Man Trilogy

Fool's Errand
The Golden Fool
Fool's Fate

The Rain Wilds Chronicles

Dragon Keeper
Dragon Haven
City of Dragons
Blood of Dragons

Fitz and the Fool

Fool's Assassin
Fool's Quest
Assassin's Fate

Friday 21 July 2017

TV: Doctor Who, Season Ten and Beyond.

I've been reluctant to admit it, but the last few years my interest in Doctor Who has started to wane. I can trace the decline in fanaticism to the first mid-season break in season six. The series had its most ambitious, complex narrative arc to date, but splitting the season in half stalled the momentum, and giving us just a few episodes at a time for two or three years did not give me the chance to really become invested. There came a change in companion, then in Doctor. I did not warm to Clara at all; she was primarily a mystery to be solved, and her characterisation followed the narrative's requirements instead of shaping the plot.

I've rewatched the first five and a half seasons enough times that it probably wouldn't be too hard to give you a rundown of the episodes, but after that first mid-season cliffhanger, everything starts to blur together in my memory, and only the odd episodes, characters and ideas stand out: the War Doctor, Missy, the immortal girl-woman Ashildir, and the chilling puzzle-box episode "Heaven-Sent." There was still some great material, but it just did not come together as it might.

Season ten is a return to form. With a new companion comes a fresh start, and Bill's first episode was the closest thing to an introduction to the series since Matt Smith's first episode. The danger with telling the story of a man who goes here and there throughout all of space and time is that the narrative risks being untethered. This year, the writers introduced a simple yet radical new element into the mix: stability. The Doctor has a profession, a purpose, for the first time since his brief stint living as John Smith. Ostensibly, he works as a university professor, and this shapes his relationship with his newest companion into that of teacher and student. Bill Potts is a breath of fresh air into the series: being the first openly gay companion (although there has been some bisexual representation in Jack Harkness, River Song, and probably Clara Oswald) means that there are none of the messy romantic feelings that have crept across the edges of Doctor-companion relations since the 1995 film. Bill catches the Doctor's eye because of her curiosity. "Most people, when they don't understand something, they frown," he tells her. "You smile." That line gives us a better understanding of Bill than the show gave us of Clara in three years. I loved Bill instantly; she is bright, curious, good-humoured and big-hearted - and a big old nerd. She brings her savviness of science fiction into the very science-fictional world she inhabits, and she wants to know everything. Who better to learn from than a tutor whose expertise spans all of time and space?

But The Doctor's real reason for the change in lifestyle, the real reason he has settled down to academic domesticity, is what's at the heart of this series, for he has sworn an oath to guard a locked vault for a thousand years. The Doctor goes on his adventures, as ever, but always he comes back to guard the vault, assisted by his assistant Nardole. A lesser series would have dragged out the mystery of what, or who, is in the vault until the finale. The story would stand or fall by the surprise factor - and if Doctor Who had done that this year, it would have fallen, as the mystery was easily deduced by the knowledge of which guest stars were returning. Instead, it was a story all about the characters. I don't think it's a great strength to say that it was a love story of sorts, a story of hope, loyalty, and redemption.

It's a shame that Doctor Who only returned to its former glories in Peter Capaldi's - and head writer Stephen Moffat's - final year with the series, but it's best to end the era on a high. The reason Doctor Who has kept going all this time is because it is not afraid of change; there is no more sure way of killing a TV show than to keep trying to satisfy the audience's desire for more of the same. Capaldi has one more episode, the Christmas special, and next year we can expect another fresh start with Chris Chibnall in charge of the writing and Jodie Whittaker playing the Doctor. I don't know much about either of these names, but they have worked together on Broadchurch, whose first and third series seem to have done very well, and I'm excited to see what they can do given the keys to the Tardis. There are limitless possibilities; my wish is for the Thirteenth Doctor to travel with more than one companion, in a practical outfit, with pockets aplenty!

Sunday 14 May 2017

Book to TV: Anne with an E

Here I am, right on schedule to pronounce my judgement on the latest Anne of Green Gables adaptation, Netflix's Anne With An E. In the last two or three years I've been rather pleased by the abundance of different versions of Anne Shirley, what with last year's TV movie starring Ella Ballentine, and the two webseries, Green Gables Fables and Project Green Gables. But how does Anne With An E measure up to the rest?

The Ella Ballentine adaptation attempted to hint at a darker side to the familiar story, but it is a half-hearted effort, with little more than a few flashbacks to Anne's unhappy pre-Green-Gables life to add shadow. Ballentine is sweet and likeable, but her delivery of Anne's peculiar speeches feels calculated for effect; her "depths of despair" are melodramatic but quickly shrugged off. It sticks to the story, but on a surface level; it is the child's Anne. What makes Lucy Maud Montgomery's story stand out from her contemporaries like Pollyanna and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is her deft weaving of light and shadow; the light touch of sorrow makes the joy all the more rewarding. And so, it is not necessarily a bad thing that Anne With An E does explore more darkness than we are used to, mostly in examining how a childhood of neglect, drudgery and loneliness would form a character like Anne, with a second level exploring the attitudes of cliquey, small-town people towards an unknown orphan. There is some room to readjust the balance between darkness and light in this story, but it is a delicate process, to be handled with care, if Anne is not to skew too far either way. 

Anne With An E starts off with a superb pilot episode, sticking faithfully to the first fourteen chapters of the book, at least up to the last few minutes. Amy Beth McNulty is a wonderfully lovable and believable Anne - and unlike every other version where her plainness is in name only, her Anne is "terrible skinny and homely," all eyes and teeth and elbows. Her non-stop chatter is humorous and heartfelt, with an underlying desperation to please and to be loved. She is a more traumatised Anne than we've seen before, which does not take away from her endearing Anne qualities, but rather gives them more depth. Her imagination has helped her to survive. 

There is a solid supporting cast, especially R.H. Thomson and Geraldine James as Matthew and
Marilla Cuthbert. Marilla in particular is a "Spock" sort of character: it requires great subtlety to correctly convey the amount of emotion that goes on behind the repressed, stern facade, and James plays the part admirably. However, as in several of the other adaptations, it really bothers me that Anne's initial stay at Green Gables is dependent on her good behaviour; it does not sit well with me that Marilla would hold the threat of banishment over Anne like a weapon. Diana is a sweet girl and a devoted friend, without being Anne's shadow, and the series gives a different perspective towards her and her family; there is a noticeable difference in class between the Barrys and the Cuthberts. We also get to see a bit more of Aunt Josephine, and I enjoyed seeing a new side to this cantankerous old lady with a heart of gold. Gilbert Blythe passed the test; the popular boy in class, who is used to getting the girls' attention, mischievous but with a goodness and maturity that hints at the man he will become. Not that there's any room for the lovey-dovey stuff so early in the story, although Anne already doth protest too much.

I am open to different interpretations of Anne; I welcome them. I return to the story again and again because I get something new out of it every time I read it or watch an adaptation; if it was the same experience every time, I don't think it would be alive the way that it is. So I am not going to declare the story "ruined forever!" because another person reads it differently. Some of the scenes shown in Anne With An E did not work for me, but they gave me something to think about. I did not like Anne's frank speculations with her classmates about her teacher's relationship with Prissy Andrews - it seemed more Mary Vance from Rainbow Valley, a character who I view as the antithesis of Anne. And yet there was an innocence even in her scandalous breaking of taboos that she's not even aware of, that makes the scene make sense from another angle. The same could not be said about her lying about skipping school, when the show earlier worked so hard to establish Anne's honesty.

The faithfulness towards book details and historical setting varied wildly. The team worked hard at ensuring the right sorts of potatoes were used, and that Anne's schoolbook was correct, for example, and then might utterly blow it with something utterly anachronistic; a line of dialogue, the use of pinky-fingers in Anne and Diana's oath of friendship, and a progressive mother's group being so progressive that they use the words "feminism" and "suffragette" about twenty years before their first recorded use (if Anne With An E is set in 1876 like the book; the last two adaptations were brought forward to the turn of the century.) And it felt all wrong to show characters such as Mrs Andrews and Mr and Mrs Barry - the Cuthberts' nearest neighbours! - introducing themselves for the first time, when the defining characteristic of the Avonlea setting is that it is a small rural community where everyone knows everything about everyone else's business!

The publicity for Anne With An E, back when it was just called Anne, made a big point about introducing new themes of feminism and being true to yourself - except they are themes that have been in the text all along. Lucy Maud Montgomery was a remarkable woman for her time, very unusual to have a university education and an independent career, and throughout the books Anne defies society expectations with a similar determination. The addition of the minister telling Anne that she needs to learn to be a good wife, or the boys shouting at the girls to get back in the kitchen, felt like a heavy-handed imposition on the storytelling.

After the first episode, the plot takes ever-increasing detours away from the source material. I'm the person who takes note of every digression of the 1985 Megan Follows miniseries/film from the book; it (the first story, anyway) is so faithful there is only minutiae to criticise. I'm less of a purist than I used to be; I went into Anne With An E allowing for a lot of wiggle-room in the treatment of the story. It is an episodic book, so new episodes can be slotted in alongside the familiar ones, giving Anne new adventures without derailing the entire story. I didn't sit there saying "NO, IT DIDN'T HAPPEN LIKE THAT!" but considered each alteration under the question "could it have happened like that?" Sometimes yes, the changes fitted, and other times they did not. Some plot elements, although they did vary from the book, could have been written in collaboration with L.M. Montgomery herself, albeit the older, sadder Maud who wrote Rilla of Ingleside and The Blythes Are Quotes, the Maud revealed in her diaries. Other aspects felt heavily influenced by the Brontes, Dickens and Hardy. The narrative wanders off the path, then comes back for such key moments as the cracked slate, the raspberry cordial and the puffed sleeve dress, usually framed in a new and more sombre context. 

But with every step off the path, the plot gets further away from what is recognisably Anne, and I'm sorry to have to report that by the last episode, the series is well and truly lost in the Haunted Woods. Although I had a high tolerance for the series taking liberties with the plotline and the tone, I nearly switched off halfway through the final episode, watching one particular scene with absolute horror and fury. Unforgiveable is a strong word, and at the end of the day, even Anne of Green Gables is only a story, but one character's decision, and one newly-introduced plotline for a cliffhanger, felt like a violation of something precious. By the end, the dynamic of the story has changed, and I'm not sure how Anne With An E can find its way back to the sanctuary of Green Gables. 
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