Friday 25 April 2014

Coming soon: Bout of Books 10

Hi all. For one reason or another it's been a bit quiet around here lately, and I realise that although I've been reading a lot, I haven't had much to say about the books - or anything else, really. I also owe a review of the eight Star Trek film, First Contact, which was excellent, if a little spoilery, as its plot is strongly influenced by events I haven't reached in the series. That's what you get for being impatient and jumping ahead to the films, I guess.

I gave up buying books for Lent this year, as an attempt to get the to-read piles under control - although library visits were still allowed and indulged. But, for now, I have now got only one pile of books waiting to be read, if a rather wobbly, precarious pile.

Bout of Books

The tenth Bout of Books readathon approaches, and I'm very much looking forward to having a week dedicated to reading and blogging about books (and I must make sure to stock up on snacks to keep me company.)
The Bout of Books read-a-thon is organized by Amanda @ On a Book Bender and Kelly @ Reading the Paranormal. It is a week long read-a-thon that begins 12:01am Monday, May 12th and runs through Sunday, May 18th in whatever time zone you are in. Bout of Books is low-pressure, and the only reading competition is between you and your usual number of books read in a week. There are challenges, giveaways, and a grand prize, but all of these are completely optional. For all Bout of Books 10 information and updates, be sure to visit the Bout of Books blog. - From the Bout of Books team 
If you can't wait to get stuck into a big pile of books, Dewey's 24-hour readathon takes place this weekend, starting at 1PM on Saturday if you're in the UK. Sadly, I'll be working both Saturday and Sunday this week and will be unable to take part, though I'm sure I'll be stalking visiting and cheering on participants in the evening.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6

Contains Spoilers

After the emotional turmoil of season five, with the mystery of Dawn's existence, the illness and death of Joyce Summers, the unbeatable villain, and finally Buffy's own death, I thought that season six would be a relief. Buffy would come back, and yes, I had been spoiled on the fact that she "came back wrong," so maybe she'd be a little bit out of control, maybe a bit slay-happy like Faith. I WAS SO WRONG!

I've been observing for seasons that Willow has been getting in too deep with the magic pretty much since she started dabbling in it, and her desperation to bring back her friend gets her doing some very dark spells indeed. The ritual which brings Buffy back to life is horrifying, and is interrupted, leaving us wondering how far it's worked. (And they manage to bring her back to life but are chased away from her grave leaving her to dig herself out - UGH NO!)

No wonder Buffy is traumatised! Who wouldn't be, after her experiences? But as much as Willow wants her friend back, she wants reassurance that she's done the right thing, and Buffy does not give it, because little does Willow know that Buffy had been happy where she was. She had fought a hard battle in the last season, and had found peace, only to be dragged back to a difficult, violent world by those who loved her best. And she can't tell them why she's not okay with being alive again, because the truth would destroy them.

It's not only Buffy who is keeping secrets in season six, and here's where the famous musical episode "Once More With Feeling" comes in. Oh, I have been hearing about this episode ever since it first aired; the one that set the standard for every other series and sitcom. It was all everyone talked about at school the next day, and at Christmas I saw a couple of clips on one of those rubbishy "top ten musicals" countdown shows, which must have been made about ten years ago. The bits I remembered being shown did not do the episode justice AT ALL, bits of songs like "I've got a theory," (fun, but that's it) "What can't we face when we're together?" (which makes it sound all mushy and completely missells the tone of the episode) and "Where do we go from here?" (which is a lot less poignant without context.) There is an amazing mixture of musical styles, each suiting the characters. Buffy gets the big musical numbers, Tara sings a romantic ballad, Spike gets an angry rocky number and Giles performs a very Gilesish acoustic ballad, while Xander and his fiancee Anya have a comic duet with some troubling lyrics. I had expected a cheesy, fun, gimmicky episode, to lighten the mood and take a break from the main season's plotlines, but instead "Once More With Feeling" is the catalyst for all the cats to be let out of the bags. Tara discovers the extent of Willow's magic, Anya and Xander discover each other's reservations about their forthcoming marriage, and everyone learns what really happened to Buffy after she died. Giles decides that he's getting in the way of Buffy learning to stand on her feet again, and flies back to England. Also Spike and Buffy kiss for the first time.

I think it was inevitable that Spike and Buffy would get together at some point, but I didn't want to see it. I loved the chemistry he had with Buffy, and enjoyed their scenes together, but a relationship, if you can call what happens between them that, was never going to work out. This season shows a very damaged dynamic between the characters, and one I found very difficult to watch. This is a relationship of desperation, one that is unbalanced, violent and loveless. I think what Spike calls "love" is more like obsession. I've liked Spike as a villain, a frustrated would-be monster, and then as a lovesick puppy. I love a morally ambiguous character, a villain with a soft side or an anti-hero, but the ambiguity is dashed away after he assaults Buffy in her bathroom. It was a horrible conclusion to a nasty relationship, and I couldn't care about Spike's story after that. He crossed the line and I can't see how there is any coming back from that. I didn't think the story was handled very well: the writers dwelled more on how the attack affected the perpetrator than the victim, and Buffy's story galloped away from the incident without a backward glance. In a world of vampires, robot girlfriends, invisibility rays and beer that turns its drinkers into cavepeople, the only time I've really said "nope, this would never ever happen" was when Buffy decided to entrust her little sister to the care of her would-be rapist. A serious misstep there, I felt.

In season six, Willow really does get in too deep with her magic. It's been hinted at for seasons, and I guessed that sooner or later she would turn to the dark side. I anticipated Evil Willow, but what I got instead was Mean Willow, whose magic became an addiction, and she turned on everyone who tried to help her to see she was in trouble. Willow is my favourite character, but for about half a season I started to dislike her immensely: she kept making the same mistakes over and over, not learning from them, and crying when she had to deal with the consequences of getting caught. It took endangering Dawn's life to get her to realise the error of her ways, and even when she turned her back on witchcraft, I suspected it was only suppressed, not gone for good.

The Scooby gang have come up against all sorts of Big Bads in the past five seasons: vampires, of course, a Frankenstein's Monster, and in the last season even a god, but in season six their "" are a trio of nerdy students: Warren (creator of the Buffybot) Jonathan (he of "Superstar" fame) and... some other guy. They fancy themselves as comic-book supervillains, the Sunnydale branch of the Evil League of Evil, but basically they are just clueless jerks, stereotypes of geeks. I viewed them with contempt, and they grew more repulsive with each episode - especially Warren, who represented a purely human form of evil. Still I did not expect him to be a serious threat... until the words "he won't be much good without his friends," were spoken, after Jonathan and The Other Guy were carted off to jail. Oh dear. You mustn't say things like that. A couple of minutes before the end of an episode, that line had a ring of Famous Last Words to it, but I didn't realise quite how "last" those words were, before Warren shows up with a gun...

I have been grumbling for a couple of seasons that Willow's girlfriend Tara never showed up in the opening credits montage, but was always relegated to "guest star," the only member of the Scooby gang to fill that role. Finally, after making up with Willow, she is welcomed back into the fold, with an appearance of her own in the credits, and I celebrated. For forty minutes. 


It came from nowhere. Warren appeared, fired a gun in the direction of Xander and Buffy who ducked out of the way. I thought for a moment that Xander would be hurt, or killed. Buffy was wounded. Then cut to Willow, upstairs, with a spray of blood splattered across her clean white shirt... and Tara falls down, dead. I stared at the screen in horror and made several incoherent wounded animal noises. I should have been prepared for this. It is Joss Whedon, after all. How does he manage to get me every time?

Oh Tara! You were not a forceful character, but you were so lovely and sweet and rounded and human, and gradually weasled your way into my affections until without my realising it, you became my favourite character. What will Buffy be without you?

Well, the last three episodes give a pretty dark indication of that, and in the aftermath of her girlfriend's death, we get to see the real Big Bad of season six: Evil Willow. THIS was kind of where I expected her magic storyline to go, though I never dreamed it would be triggered by such an awful, senseless, tragedy. Welcome, Evil Willow, an awesome villain, in a very disturbing way. Willow is ordinarily so sweet, but we've seen glimpses of her inner darkness, and now it takes over as she goes on a rampage of revenge after Warren. Awesome fades to horrifying, after she reprises the line of her vampire doppelganger of many seasons ago: "Bored now," and dispatches Warren in the most gruesome way imaginable.

It seems that no one can stop Willow now.

Hurrah, Giles is back! The first bit of light in several episodes, and it made me very happy. We get to see another side to Giles, the side that can take on Evil Willow, although it seems to be at great cost. I feared for his life at one point, and after Tara, I didn't trust anything - though I thought it was traditionally the series finale in which Joss Whedon kills off his beloved supporting characters. But for Giles to be killed as a direct result of Willow's actions would be taking Buffy into darker territory than any we've seen so far in a series filled with anguish and despair. It'll be hard enough for the character and show to come back from her (well-deserved) murder of Warren. If she killed a good friend, I think there could be no return. It was predicted that no supernatural power could rescue Willow from her magical self. Good thing there is still some good old-fashioned humanity left, then, and she is saved by Xander. Xander has never been my favourite character. I grew out of disliking him after a couple of seasons, but he's not been at his best in season six. But his friendship for Willow is pure, and it is his love and forgiveness that brings her back to her old self, as he declares, even if she destroys the world, he still loves her, and would rather die by her side than anywhere else. Yes, it was corny, but it was what was needed after this remarkably bleak season.

Episodes with the most impact: (This section is getting more and more difficult to describe accurately.)

1-2: Bargaining. Setting up the tone for the entire season, Willow and the Scoobies resurrect Buffy from the dead. But it is not pretty.
7. Once More With Feeling. The Musical Episode! But if, like me, you expect a nice, lighthearted break from the main plot, then you are very mistaken. The musical format advances the plot in powerful ways.
8. Tabula Rasa. Because I was already familiar with this title, I expected it to be emotionally devastating, but it is quite fun. Thanks to Willow's magical meddling, the group lose their memories and have to come to their own conclusions about who they are and how they relate to each other. Introducing Joan the Vampire Slayer and Giles' new family: son Randy (who you know as Spike) and fiancee Anya. THIS is the light-hearted break from the main plot... until the last five minutes which will require tissues.
9-10. Smashed/Wrecked. Willow's magic gets out of control. Buffy and Spike start fighting and end up... not fighting.
11. Gone. A relatively lighthearted episode, involving an invisibility ray.
15. As You Were. Riley returns, with a wife. The last scene between him and Buffy made me cry for personal reasons - I want to get back in touch with my ex before he moves abroad, but can't bear him knowing that my life hasn't changed in the slightest in the years since we've been apart. And yes, I do want reassurance that just because my life can be disappointing, I'm not a complete failure.
16. Hell's Bells. Xander and Anya's wedding day. Xander, afraid of becoming like his awful father, chickens out and jilts Anya at the altar. JOSS WHEDON IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.
17. Normal Again: Is all of Buffy just a delusion of a very sick girl in a mental hospital?
19. Seeing Red: I don't know what to make of this episode, in which Spike assaults Buffy; it is very difficult to watch, and I'm not sure if that necessarily means it's good. And this is the episode that ends with Tara's death. Again: it is powerful and shocking but...
20. Villains: Willow goes over to the Dark Side and becomes very scary indeed.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Star Trek: Generations (VII)

Contains spoilers

After finishing off the Star Trek films with the original cast at the end of last year, I have slowly been working my way through the Next Generation series, when I haven't been watching Buffy. I've only watched the first two seasons (of seven!) so far, but am growing to know and like the new crew of the Enterprise-D: the stern but kindly Captain Picard, his first officer William Riker, and crew including the Klingon Worf, android Data, and Data's good friend Geordi LaForge. I've also come to roll my eyes in exasperation every time Counsellor Troi senses that someone is feeling an emotion, and shout "SHUT UP WESLEY" at each appearance of the precocious teenager Wesley Crusher.

The Next Generation takes place a good century after the original Star Trek, and much has changed in Starfleet. Perhaps the biggest invention is the holodeck, which simulates any setting or environment for training exercises or leisure, and is a useful tool for sending the crew to a historical setting without the contrivance of "Oh look, here is a planet whose society is exactly like the Old West," that you might find in the original series. I'm not a huge fan of the holodeck stories; I think there is something missing in a story when the conflict and drama has been created by the characters and ship's computer out of nothing. But it adds variety. Also, in the 24th century, the crew's families live aboard the Enterprise with them - a bit risky considering how much danger the show puts the ship into every week, and most unprofessional to have the kids running up and down the corridors and getting under the captain's feet. Also, see the aforementioned Wesley: a teenager who has earned himself an honorary position on the bridge because he's just that special. (I bet the lower-ranked Enterprise crew love him!) No doubt Wesley was a character put in to the series for the benefit of child trekkies, a character they could identify with, who was constantly overlooked because he was a child, but would save the day; who could ask personal questions and get away with it because of his big serious eyes... it's not cheek, it's just Wesley Crusher!

I had long been looking forward to watching Star Trek: Generations which brought together the casts of both Star Trek series so far. Or so I had been led to believe. After spending most of my Star Trek time in recent months aboard Captain Picard's Enterprise, it gave me a lovely warm feeling to see the old-style Starfleet uniforms - the red uniforms of the movies from Khan onwards, not the really old uniforms. But here there is no Spock, no McCoy, and only cameo roles from Scotty and Chekov. Captain Kirk was his old self, and I found myself chuckling during a very tense scene thanks to William Shatner's classic face-acting. But it's my opinion that Captain Kirk's strongest characteristics are those shown in relation to Spock and McCoy.

After the glorious send-off in The Undiscovered Country, it is quite awful to realise that as far as his old friends are concerned, Captain Kirk's final fate is the most depressing "missing, presumed killed" on the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B. Of course, this is not the end for James T. Kirk, but no one knows this for nearly eighty years. Poor Spock!

As the seventh movie in the franchise, I'm sorry to say that Generations lives up to the reputation of the odd-numbered films being less than wonderful. It's not as cringe-inducing as The Final Frontier, but Data gives "row, row, row your boat" a run for its money in the "You think this is funny but it's really rather sad" category, when he has an emotion-chip implanted as an attempt to become more human. It is unnerving, when not just embarrassing, to watch him discover laughter, fear and remorse, but, rather like the Vulcan Spock, I find Data evokes far more emotion when he's not expressing any. (His episode "The Measure of a Man," in which he is at the centre of a tribunal to determine his status as property or person, is one of the greatest episodes of the franchise so far.) I love Data - along with Worf, he is my favourite Next Generation character - but I spent most of his screen time in Generations just begging him to stop.

Generations' main plot is pretty thin, revolving around a timey-wimey phenomenon called the Nexus, which seems to double as a natural holodeck and a time-portal, and here Captain Picard comes face-to-face with his pedecessor. Captain Kirk is living in a simulation of his retirement home, a nice country lodge, where he chops wood and goes horseback riding, and lives with the latest love of his life, Antonia (who we have never heard of before, nor see except as a distant figure on the horizon.) As Kirk potters around his kitchen, barely responding to Captain Picard, I found myself thinking this was all wrong. What's happened to Captain Kirk, to make him so reluctant to face adventure. Retirement doesn't suit Kirk; he's lost without his Enterprise. To be fair, he must be in his late sixties, and he's earned his happy-ever-after, but it's kind of sad to watch. I'd rather have finished watching him about to retire, than see him living a nice, normal life. Of course he joins forces with Picard eventually, and in a race against time, Kirk saves a solar system at the cost of his own life, on (and under) a rickety old bridge. Yes, they literally dropped a bridge on him! Kirk's death scene was moving and well-acted, a heroic sacrifice helping out a fellow-captain of the USS Enterprise, but I still found it a rather disappointing end for such a long-running and well-beloved character. There is no grand funeral, no ceremony, (no bagpipes!) just a lonely grave on an abandoned planet.

Then again, remember The Final Frontier? Kirk always knew he'd die alone.

And again: Poor Spock.
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